Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Charlie Louvin and Tragic Songs of Life

Two small bits of bidniz…

First, I want to send a Deadly Mantis-size thank you to my good buddy Norm Partridge for being so kind to plug A Schmuck with an Underwood, in his great blog American Frankenstein. If you’re not familiar with Norm’s writing, buy, beg, borrow or steal a copy of his novel Dark Harvest right away. Or for that matter any of his books. It will be well worth any prison time you may have to serve as the result of the acquisition.  Trust me on this…

My personal goal is to get a new bog entry up every week, but a really good freelance opportunity came through for me two weeks ago with a very short deadline, which is why there was no new entry for last week. (And rest assured I will be shamelessly plugging the magazine when the stories I wrote appear in print!) While I’m working on this week’s entry, and it should be up no later than Friday, I wanted to go ahead and get something posted about Charlie Louvin, hence today’s entry.

I just found out this morning that Charlie Louvin passed away. If you don’t know who Charlie Louvin was you really need to get yourself educated. As one half of the Louvin Brothers (with his older brother Ira) Charlie was one of the biggest country music stars of the 1950s. The Louvins were, and still are, one the most successful and most influential duo acts in country music.

Over the years the perception has grown up that Ira was the “wild-ass” of the two brothers – hard-drinkin’, mercurial, onry, and a ladies man.  The truth was hardly that simple. Charlie could be just as mercurial, onry, and a ladies man (at least as far as harmless flirting was concerned) – just without the drinkin’ and a whole lot more common sense. After the brothers split in 1963, Charlie went on to a successful solo career with thirty chart hits between 1964 and 1973. However, through the seventies and the eighties, the Louvin Brothers and Charlie seemed to slip from the consciousness of country music.

I first heard of the Louvin Brothers in early nineties when I was engaged in a full speed, whole-hog emersion into the history of country née hillbilly music. I don’t even recall where I read about their album Tragic Songs of Life, but I knew I had to find a copy. I finally did, granted a copy of the Rounder Records late-eighties reissue which had one of the ugliest covers you’ve ever seen, but the music, oh my!  It was of those defining moments where you hear music and you mind cannot comprehend how it could be that you have lived as long as you have without knowing about this!

I first met Charlie at the opening ceremonies for the new Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.  We were in the VIP section, but there was a red carpet ceremony for all living Hall of Fame members, which astonishingly, did not include Charlie. I spent some time talking to Charlie who was friendly, but something was obviously bothering him.  As the ceremony began I said, “You should be walking down that red carpet, Charlie.”

“Damn right I should be,” he said without skipping a beat.

Fortunately, the powers at be did induct the Louvins into the Hall of Fame in the very next year, and the last ten years has seen a major revival for Charlie as a solo artist and for recognition of the Louvin Brothers.  But the best way to remember Charlie is with the music he did so well…

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Communal Deadly Mantis, or “Movie, good! Piano, bad!”

Now kids, put down yer I-Phones and stop yer textin’ cause yer ol’ Uncle is gonna tell you a story…

Once upon a time in a far distant land known as Kentucky there was a little boy named Randy. Now this boy would be known today as geek or possibly a nerd, but in that ancient time those words weren’t common usage yet – at least not in Muhlenberg County

And one of the biggest weekly thrills was the arrival of the TV Guide. Sure the arrival of the mail was major event every day (and that’s a topic for a future blog – see how easy this stuff is?), but the TV Guide came every week, on the same day, and from the second I pulled it out of the mailbox, I was scouring the listings like a hellhound on the trail of Robert Johnson.

In Dunmor, Kentucky our main television connection was with Nashville. There was Channel 2 (ABC) which we could barely get, and was often quite snowy and unwatchable, Channel 4 (NBC) which was always slightly snowy but still very watchable, Channel 5 (CBS) which was almost always clear, Channel 8 (PBS), usually snowy but still watchable, and Channel 13 (ABC) out of Bowling Green, Kentucky which was always clear (and consequently the main source for ABC programming).

There was also Kentucky Educational Television (PBS) on Channel 53 out of Bowling Green and Channel 7 (ABC) and Channel 9 (PBS) out of Evansville, Indiana (which always struck me as transmissions from a parallel Earth.)  And, on very rare occasions, a fleeting ghost of Channel 3 from far away Louisville would drift on to the set.

And that, was it – no HBO, no TCM, no Encore, no SyFy, no nothing. It all had three letters and ended it either a “C” or “S.” And it was wonderful.

But back to the TV Guide… Every issue not only brought a short listing of the network series episodes and movies of the week, but more importantly there were the listings of what would be playing in all the various local station movie slots. For Channel 5, WLAC in Nashville they had The Big Show every afternoon. And checking those weekly listing were better that than waiting for a $40 million Powerball drawing. Would it be a week of boring dramas or perhaps a week of monster movies?

But with the gigantic mirths there were also equally gigantic melancholies to be suffered.  There was nothing more crushing than finding a listing for a movie that you HAD to see only to be followed by the desperate realization that it was scheduled for a time where you would be separated from the TV set.

This dilemma resulted in me never seeing the classic Bride of Frankenstein until I was an adult. Oh, it was shown, sure enough.  Each fall The Big Show would have a “Frankenstein Week” that would feature five of the Universal Frankenstein movies. But since Bride always fell on a Tuesday, and that was the afternoon for my piano lessons, well, let’s just say I never figured out a successful way to fake broken fingers for one week.

With the only access to older movies being the limited number of spots of network and local TV (the closest we ever got to a “revival house” theater might be a re-release of Smokey and the Bandit…) my generation was the last to view the ability to see older movies as a valuable and demanding privilege.  In just a few short years the introduction of consumer VCRs and the spread of cable TV would change everything.

And though I wouldn’t trade my bloated library of DVDs and the ability to instantly access just about anything in a short time, there was a special sweetness to knowledge that if you missed that 4:00 pm showing of The Angry Red Planet, Wednesday, on Channel 5, you might NEVER get to see it(!), or, at best, it might be YEEEARS before you did(!!!)

But it wasn’t just the rarity of viewing that made it special. Movies were a communal activity. This was true since the beginning of motion pictures when they burst forth onto big screens, and it had continued on through their transition to the cathode ray tube.  When I plopped down in front of the TV to watch the CBS Movie of the Week showing of The Planet of the Apes (and you better believe I won the fight to make that the viewing for the evening!) there were millions of boys all over America doing so at the exact same time. And at school, or church, or wherever kids gathered it was never “I saw a movie last night…” it was “DID YOU SEE!?!?”

One of my favorite memories of childhood was winning the argument with my parents to be able to stay up until 2:00 am on a Friday night for The Deadly Mantis.  Not only was I treated to the sights of a big bug munchin’ down on New York City, but I had achieved something truly special. And in retrospect, I can’t help but wonder how many other kids in the Middle Tennessee/Southern Kentucky viewing area had won the same prize that night as our monster lovin’ souls mingled in the ether and pushed the big ugly critter on in its reign of devastation -- at least until the credits rolled or we passed out on the couch.

Monday, January 3, 2011

American Pop Culture is Dead! Long Live Its Zombiefied Corpse!

A blog, oh my god!!!  Yes, it is true I have finally dove into the blog waters (and yes, I fully realize how disgusting that sounds.)  As for what this blog is about, well, it’s about things I’m interested in, and if you know me, that is a lot of various and sundries. If you don’t know me, welcome, and hang on because you’ll find out…

Things Fall Apart

One topic that I will writing about a lot on this blog is the period of 1972 to 1976, with a particular emphasis on the simply magical, and totally screwed-up and scary year of 1973.

Now, I’m sure a big part of my recent fascination with this time period is because I’ve reached the point where I can’t forestall “middle age” any longer, and that ole debbil mortality is starting to peek over the horizon at me.  But as I’ve been digging into some personal archeology, I’ve made the discovery that a tremendous number of my best memories, and my first exposure to the pop culture that would shape my attitudes and tastes for the rest of my life hit in 1972 to 1974 with a major epicenter being the autumn of 1973.

Looking back from the first tenth of the 21st Century one can see an uninterrupted lineage of American pop culture that began around the time of World War I and extends into the late seventies – and then everything began to change.  Part of the change was technology, part of if was in the psychological make-up of how America viewed itself, part of it was how the world had changed, but whatever the reasons, the old internal combustion engine of 20th Century American Pop Culture began to sputter and miss and would never run the same again.

Now don’t mistake what I’m saying here. I’m not saying that what came next wasn’t as good, (although I may feel that way sometimes…) but it was different. Through the Eighties everything was in transition – music, movies, fiction, comics, art, design.  At the time there was a feeling that we were on the edge of something. We didn’t know what, but we could feel that something was about to change.

I think The Replacements captured that moment perfectly in their 1985 tribute to Eighties “alternative” rock and college radio, “Left of the Dial.” The excitement, the spark, is there. Not in the lyrics necessarily, but in the whole feeling of the song.  If you were there at the moment I’m talking about it’s a feeling you know well.

But along with the excitement there was a bit of foreboding. Seen through the rearview mirror of the last twenty-five years, part of that excitement was the undercurrent of “This is our last chance to get it right.”  Now again, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.  I’m not declaring that everything went to crap with the dawn of the Nineties (although I may feel that way sometimes…)  What we were really sensing was the final winding down of the 20th Century American Pop Culture machine. Once Nirvana went to number one and REM became millionaires, once there was a Star Trek TV series that not only managed to stay on the air but become a success with “mundanes,” once movies became accessible any time you wanted to watch them, once Watchmen made comic books into “novels,” there was no going back.

As the Nineties began with remakes and “retro” what we were really seeing was the birth of 21st Century Pop Culture.  And the first thing this petulant progeny did was devour its parent whole. Nothing can now be made without the knowledge and awareness of what came preceded it. Sure this happened before. The pulps of the 1920s and 1930s had devoured and regurgitated the newspaper serials and dime novels of the 19th Century.  Early country and “race” music had its roots in tin pan alley and minstrel shows of the 19th Century.  But unlike before, the threads, roots, and illicit liaisons and conceptions are all fully on display.  Pop culture has become self-aware.

So, how did I get so far away from 1973?  It was a magic time for me because I was ten years old, but it was a weird and magic time for many other reasons too.  But that is for subsequent blogs…