Thursday, August 25, 2011

So it goes...

I went to see Nick Lowe at the Country Music Hall of Fame last weekend. The show was part of the “Songwriter’s Session” series – which consists of a short interview followed by an acoustic performance. Nick was smart, funny, and very entertaining – a great show.

The first place I heard of Nick Lowe was when the song “Cruel to Be Kind,” off his second solo album Labour of Lust, hit the American charts in 1979. But at that time, musical geekdom had not over taken me – I was still pretty much just devoted to science fiction, comic books and old horror and comedy films.  So even when a hit single would grab my attention I pretty much stuck with buying the single, and I didn’t pursue the artist any further. (The same thing would happen with the first Bruce Springsteen song that came to my attention, “Hungry Heart” the next year. There’s a long story that goes with this, but I’ll get to that one eventually.)

Young Nick - Pop Star (with a great jacket!)

Of course that would all change in the fall of 1981. My first semester of college was when I added full-fledged music geekdom to my portfolio of manias. From the moment I started college I was suddenly bombarded with all manner of rock’n’roll that I had missed out on growing up in Muhlenberg County with my head stuck deeply into sci-fi paperbacks. During the period of September to December of 1981 I either had my first exposure to, or bought my first LPs by The Clash, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, R.E.M., Wreckless Eric, Warren Zevon and many others including, or course, Nick Lowe and Rockpile.

Even though Lowe’s first two solo albums, Jesus of Cool and Labour of Lust were acknowledged classics, the rest of the eighties saw him releasing a variety of albums that slid up and down the critical scale. As typical for artists who are the critic’s darlings for their first couple of records, Lowe’s albums from this period are really better than they were usually given credit for at the time. But despite the sometimes poor reviews, I remained a Nick Lowe fan all through the eighties, only losing track of him as the nineties dawned and my interest turned more to exploring older music.

Around 2001 I found Lowe again through his album, The Convincer. Although all the building blocks of Lowe’s music – the wit, the country and blues influences, the clever turn of a phrase – was there, Lowe had dramatically reinvented himself, dropping the intellectual court-jester of rock he had been and instead emerging as a deeply introspective and savy songwriter who still understood the basic absurdity of human life and love.

In his interview last weekend, he talked about going through the process of reinventing himself.  How he had realized one day that his days as a “pop star” were gone, and that he was faced with the choice of fooling himself into thinking that he could recapture the past or to move on and find a new voice that could appeal to an audience of both young and old music fans that appreciated music beyond the “hot new thing.”

This self-awareness about his talents and the fickleness of his chosen career is something that has always impressed me about Lowe. It was right there on his first album, Jesus of Cool, in several of his songs, including “Marie Provost” – a pop ditty about the sad fate of the eponymous former silent movie screen star. But it’s one thing to be able to say our successes in life are fleeting, but quite another thing to grapple with the fact directly and know when it’s time to move on to the next chapter.

Old Nick - Songwriter Sage (with great hair!)

This is something I’ve thought a lot about this last year.  After 12 years at one career, to suddenly have it all end and your future be uncertain can be a pretty heavy blow. But even after nine months I continue to be excited every day about what the future will bring me. I may still be in the period of sorting out the next chapter of life, but whatever it may be I’m looking forward to it, and in fact, really enjoying it. As I’ve said many times, “Other than the fact that I don’t have a steady paycheck right now, I’m happier and enjoying myself more than I have in years.”

Looking back there have been definite periods where the course of my life has changed  -- when I was nine and discovered comic books, that first semester of college when I discovered my mania and passion for music and many other interests, and other times since then. But uncertainty about the future is not really bad thing. It’s when we can’t let go of the past – that’s the real destroyer – that unwillingness to turn the page. Because hanging on to the past is the act of trying to cling to something that no longer exists.

A couple of years ago I ran into an old friend from college that I hadn’t seen for 20 years.  It didn’t take me long to realize that although he might be married, and have a daughter he was still pretty much the exact same person that I knew in college. He still read the same type of books, watched the same type of movies, played the same role-playing games and still thought about and looked at the world the exact same way he did when he was 21. While living in a state where nothing ever changes may offer security of a type, for me at least, it seems a terribly boring way to live, and furthermore how does one cope when the inevitable big change does come along?

For me, and Nick Lowe apparently, jumping in and struggling with that next big step and figuring out that next change of direction is the only choice.  For winners or not, we’re all destined to eventually become the doggie’s dinner, but it’s the choices we make and the different paths we travel before we face that “hungry little dachshund” that make all the difference.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Of Werewolves and War...

It’s very interesting to see how memories from our childhood get so intertwined with current events of the time and the strange bedfellows these connections create. Here’s a good example, a couple of weeks ago I was in McKay’s Books here in Nashville -- the local supermarket/dumping ground of used and no-longer-loved books. Now while the majority of what shows up at McKay’s is of recent vintage, some really oddball items can turn up at times, and so it was with this little gem that I found on the shelf for a mere six bucks.

The Book of Werewolves – Being an Account of a Terrible Superstition by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould is a collection of European folklore and legends concerning werewolves (well, duh…) that was originally published in 1865. This edition, a facsimile reprint of the first edition, was published in 1973 by Causeway Books, a small press out of New York who’s other publications included (according to the back of the dustjacket) such titles as Your Psychic Powers and How to Develop Them, The Book of Vampires, and Oragenitalism: Oral Techniques in Genital Excitation – all the fun stuff in other words.

Although Causeway Books were not carried on the spinner paperback racks of the drugstores I frequented as a kid, I did see this particular book for the first time around the start of 1975 when we would shop in Bowling Green or some other city that had an actual bookstore with a remainder/discount books section.

I was, of course, immediately drawn to the book, both by its title and the spectacularly creepy illustration featured on the dustjacket. Plus the 19th Century text contained within made it look just like a book that Carl Kolchak might have consulted on Kolchak: The Night Stalker, my favorite TV show, which was then limping toward the end of its first and only season. After all, what would I do if a werewolf showed up in Dunmor, Kentucky? I needed to have knowledge and be prepared!

But despite these rock-solid reasons for purchasing the book, the creepiness that attracted me also worked against me, and the price tag, probably a whopping $2.99 or so after the markdown, also held me at bay. So even though I saw it on more than one occasion I continued to pass it by. However, fate had other plans…

In April of 1975, we left Kentucky for week’s trip to Connecticut to visit my dad’s brother and his family. When we got there I was to stay with the youngest  of Uncle’s kids, Andy, who was already a teenager and a horror fan. Andy had a collection of Warren Comics magazines Vampirella, Creepy, and Eerie, and for me, being just a few weeks away from turning 12, staying in his room in the basement was awesome indeed. But best of all, Andy also had a certain yellow and black book – The Book of Werewolves.

So here was my chance to read this intimidating tome with absolutely no cash outlay. Over the three or four days we were there I spent time in the mornings and evenings plowing through as many pages as I could.
"You mean the movie lied?"
The first thing I discovered was that traditional werewolf legends were quite a bit different from the “facts” as presented by the spinning, neon Universal globe. There were no tortured souls, cursed to become ravening wolves when the autumn moon is bright. Instead the stories I read dealt with no-goodniks who donned the skin of wolves for transformations or wanton females who rubbed their naked bodies (hot-cha!) with magic wolf grease before their murderous rampages – with their main victims being, more often than not, babies(!).

But while I devoured the tales of lycanthropy, real world tragedies were about to intrude upon me. I can distinctly remember sitting in my cousin’s bedroom the morning of the last day we were there and reading about werewolves with the radio on. When the radio cut to a newsbreak the main story of the day was the end of the war in Vietnam and the fall of Saigon -- forever cementing in my mind a link between the end of the Vietnam War and tales of bestial and murderous transformations.

Of course there’s probably a great metaphor here about the transformation of the American psyche in the wake of Vietnam. Or perhaps the shattering of illusions about Hollywood werewolf lore and the American self-image of righteousness,  but for right now I think I’ll just settle down with the good Reverend for tales of wolfish horror and baby-eating and finish reading the book I started over 36 years ago.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

In Praise of "Uncle" Gardner!

From the start of my comic book obsession in 1972 I was almost equally fascinated by the history and creators of funny books as I was with the four-color creations themselves. At that time my favorite comic book was the Justice League of America. Also, DC Comics was reprinting tons of comic book stories from the “Golden Age” of the 1940s right up through the “Silver Age” of the 1960s. (In many ways it was the “Golden Age of Reprints,” but that’s a topic for a future essay.) So even though Gardner F. Fox had left the employ of DC Comics in 1968 (over a dispute about him and other long-time creators wanting DC to pay for health benefits –thank you, greedy corporate bastards…) I pretty quickly became familiar with his name and work.

Of course I would notice his last name, since it was the same as mine, and I couldn’t help speculating at times if perhaps there was a relation between us.  Perhaps he could even be a distant Uncle, how cool would that be! (But, as far as I know, there is no relation…)

Gardner F. Fox by Gil Kane

As for his work, Gardner Fox was definitely one of the most prolific writers to ever work in comics.  Some historians have estimated that he wrote over 4,000 comic book stories. In addition to the sheer numbers he was also a co-creator of the original Flash; Hawkman; the original Sandman; Starman; Dr. Fate; Zatanna; the first super-team, The Justice Society of America; its successor, the Justice League of America (for which he wrote the first 65 issues); one the greatest science fiction series in comic books, Adam Strange; and the list goes on and on.

Fox’s best stories were tightly plotted little gems, often with puzzles to be solved by his main characters that involved some scientific fact or esoteric knowledge. But although his writing may have been “old school comic pulp” that didn’t engage in the soap opera histrionics that Stan Lee and others employed at Marvel Comics, the comic book stories that Fox was writing for editor Julie Schwartz in the 1960s displayed a far more subtle and solid characterization than they are usually given credit for.

Yes, the characters in his Justice League stories could be rather interchangeable since the plot was king in that book, but on the solo series that Fox wrote – The Atom, Hawkman, and most of all, Adam Strange, he would drop little bits of character into stories that over time would build a really strong picture of his protagonists’ personalities. John Broome, the main writer on The Flash and Green Lantern during the sixties followed this same pattern, and it’s interesting to note that when Fox would script the occasional issue of those two series (usually the ones that would introduce BIG science fiction concepts) you would see no “personality writing” in the stories. Like he was holding back on purpose so as not to “mess with” Broome’s characters. (And it's also interesting how jarring the occasional fill-in by Robert Kanigher on The Flash would be since he would ignore and often contradict all the characterization that Broome had constructed.)

But in addition to all those funny book stories, Fox was also cranking out paperback novels. Between 1944 and 1982, he wrote at least one novel a year, sometimes more, in the genres of historical adventure, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, spy fiction and more -- under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms.  A few years ago I started picking up novels by Fox when I find them in decent condition, and all the ones that I have read so far have been well-written, entertaining and imaginative.
Frank Frazetta on the left, Gray Morrow on the right, what's not to like?
Right now I’m finishing up the two books in Fox’s Llarn series, a neat little planetary fantasy series that is of course, a John Carter of Mars imitator, or perhaps you could say Adam Strange with more sword fights and no worry about being whisked back to Earth when the time comes for the hero to get down with his space sweetie.

Reading these books and seeing the disappointing (though still fun on some levels) Green Lantern movie got me to thinking about Gardner Fox so I naturally looked him up on Wikipedia and also this really fine bio on the Hawkworld website. The result is that I found out two interesting facts. One is that 2011 is the 100th anniversary of his birth, something I’ve seen no mention of on the Internets, and two is that his birthday is one day after mine, May 20th! So a belated Happy Birthday to my “Uncle” Gardner and thanks for all the great adventures!

"Essentially a story should be entertaining. It should lift you out of the fact that you're sitting on a brownstone stoop, as I was when I read The Gods of Mars for the first time. Or the subway; the subway should disappear, and you're living in the world of the story. That is the ideal of the story." -- Gardner F. Fox