Saturday, July 28, 2012

Between X and Y: Part I

A number of things led me to write this entry.  A few months ago Slate published an article entitled "The Catalano Generation" (a reference to the Claire Danes TV series My So Called Life) that looked specifically at the generation born during the Carter presidency (1977-1981), which includes myself.  Something about it hit home, since those of us born during that time seem to lack a distinct generational identity because we're sandwiched between angst-ridden Gen X and the super-confidant millennials (see Ben Stiller's rant in Greenberg). Recently, I've been staying with my sister's family and spending more time with my 18-month year old niece.  She is starting to become aware of television and responding to images coming across the screen.  Now I haven't watched children's cartoons in a long time, but it did get me thinking about the significant role media played in my formative years.

Let's start with Levar Burton.  Fans of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon will recall his hilarious psychedelic version of the Reading Rainbow theme song with him doing a pitch perfect imitation of Jim Morrison.  In the 80s and 90s, TV shows like Reading Rainbow championed reading for kids my age.  Levar made going to the library seem pretty cool!  The show's format usually began with Levar introducing a topic. Sometimes shows dealt with fascinating careers like working behind the scenes on on a movie or being a marine biologist. Others were about the fun of a museum visit or the simple amusement of staying home and making a pizza (just make sure it fits in the oven!).  Every episode featured a children's book narrated by a celebrity and book endorsements from kids.  Each show ended with Levar's joyful catchphrase, "We'll See You Next Time."

Today it's hard to comprehend all the media that's thrown upon children at such a young age.   Most households now have an excess of over 100 channels and that's not even going into the travails of the "information super-highway" (that's what people called the internet back in the day).  My niece enjoys cartoons on Nickelodeon and the old stand by Sesame Street on Public television, but now there is so much on at any given time of the day that is not suitable for kids. My parents didn't get cable until I was a teenager, so our household only had about 10 channels!  Good old network television.  I still remember being frightened by some of the programming like the mini-series V, about alien invaders disguised as reptiles that still gives me chills.  Even movies which I later loved like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi scared me when I first saw them.  But now, at almost anytime in the day, there are images on television that could really scare a child. 

But back to the in-between nature of my generation.  Star Wars is one example. I'm barely old enough to remember the release of Return of the Jedi, but later watched the films a countless number of times on VHS.  I could only imagine the day when more Star Wars films would come out.  When it finally happened in 1999 (I was out of High School at that point) the purists who saw the film in 1977 immediately trounced on George Lucas for allegedly destroying their beloved saga that carried them through their childhoods.  Meanwhile, the new generation that was unfamiliar with the original trilogy loved The Phantom Menace - even that insufferable Jar Jar Binks!   But for those in my age group, who discovered Star Wars on television and VHS, we were just damn glad to finally have some new Star Wars movies.  Ok, the prequels don't quite measure up to the originals, but that's a tired debate for another day and time.

Most of my childhood was spent in the 1980s and I admit to feeling some nostalgia for the decade.  Some icons from the time are longer with us and some are still around. Ronald Reagan was president and Johnny Carson still ruled late night television.  On some nights it was a treat to stay up really late and catch Late Night with David Letterman, who came on at 12:30. Dave always cracked me up with his silly shenanigans like dropping random things from buildings or impersonating a McDonald's employee.  Michael Jackson ruled music in a way no one has or perhaps ever will again.  MTV was the coolest thing going around and totally changed the music industry.  Every week the top ten video countdown featured Madonna, Prince, Cindy Lauper, Whitney Houston, Sting, Phil Collins, The Cars, Weird Al, to just name a few.  Yes, you had to actually wait to see your favorite video and not bring it up on youtube.

Video games from the era are primitive by today's standards like Atari and Intellivision.  Today if you ask anyone born before 1985 about Intellivision, they will likely give you a blank look, but it was a great system put out by Matell.  At the time, Intellivision was really popular with games like Burger Time and Pitfall to just name a few.Mattell also introduced the "voicer," which allowed certain games to talk back at you. Atari was pretty old school with its joysticks and some really cheesy games, for example one sponsored by the band Journey.  Even those games were great to pass the time with.

The nineties, however, were different.  Things got more complicated. The decade began with the Soviet Union vanishing and politicians talking about a "New World Order", whatever that meant. New music like "Grunge" was embraced by gen X and seemed to foreshadow darker times ahead.  By the mid 90s, the internet hit the scene and really changed everything.  I first discovered it in the latter part of High School.  I can't imagine what it's like for kids today with social networking and texting. The internet is another key dividing point because I tend to find it a little unsettling at how comfortable millenials feel with technology.  It has always been a part of their life, but not mine.  What does all this mean?  Further entries will continue with this question and continue to look backward and forward at the course of culture in the past 30 years.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: The Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974-1982 By Nicholas Rombes

 The 1970s is remembered mostly for its incoherence, best expressed through punk music. The 70s are a bridge between the Madmen/JFK/Counterculture of the 1960s and the happy Reagan era of the 1980s. Nicholas Rombes, English professor at Detroit Mercy University makes his case in his truly iconoclastic history book, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974-1982.  

How fast were times changing in late 20th century America? In 1968, youth all over the world were challenging the status quo and considering how to bring revolutionary change to their societies.  Of course these movements were divided on the proper means to facilitate such change, an ambivalence best illustrated with the Beatles 1968 release, "Revolution."

John Lennon's song is not a call for Revolution and actually seems a little . . .  uncertain. It expressed a sympathy with need for change in the world and yet is hesitant on how best to get there with lyrics like:

say you'll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it's the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead

In the final verse John specifically references the ultra-violent cultural revolution in China with "If you're carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You're not gonna make with anyone, anyhow."  The song is, if anything, a plea for non-violence and self-empowerment. The gritty guitar sound of the single version is also a precursor to punk.  "Revolution" signals that drift into an age of incoherence.  There's a real ambivalence in it about achieving the hopes of the counterculture.  But one can change their internal world.  To exemplify how punk built on this idea and took it further and darker, one should look no further than The Buzzcocks 1976 punk anthem, "Boredom."

 By 1976, with western economies in paralysis, the new generation turned against any hope of changing the system and took the angst of the 1960s to a more existential level with lyrics like "I've taken this extravagant journey so it seems to me/I just came from nowhere and I'm going straight back there."

It is no coincidence that punk music emerged out of cities  like Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, and New York where the future seemed rather bleak.  In the Cultural Dictionary, Rombes chronicles every facet of this transition in a non-linear way.

 One of the overarching narratives of punk is its hostility to the whole idea of the 1960s counterculture.  The "Punk" generation had to stand by and watch as all the icons from the previous decade (without naming names) lived comfortably and basked in all their past glory.  By 1976, post-Sixties generation asked a pertinent questions of just like - what sort of change did flower power produce anyway?  The cities were crumbling.  The political order had no leg to stand on.  Small towns were falling apart.  If there is one common link that connects punk in all its incarnations it is a strong feeling about reality being controlled by all sorts of nefarious forces - you name it (government, Madison avenue, the culture industry, television).  Paranoia was a part of the scene that spawned an entire genre of films like The Conversation and Marathon Man and also in literature, most notably, Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow.  Punk reveled in self-destruction and the creative need to destroy in order to create something new. But, what did it create?  The hardcore scene that arose in the early 1980s in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. was like a final outburst of anger that almost cried for a father figure to restore law and order. That is exactly what they got.  Rombes writes of Reagan as like a "mythic figure out of some Utopian or dystopian fantasy."  

Riches of cultural history appear in the Cultural Dictionary that span music, literature, film, and art. In the midst of all this are some original political and sociological insights of that time.  For example, Jimmy Carter's presidency (1977-1981) epitomizes the punk era.  For starters he was an outsider who spoke the plain truth (which ended up hurting him in the end).  And, at least at first, seemed the perfect antidote for post-Watergate America.  Carter's everyman image suited him up to a fault as a candidate, but he pleased few as a commander and chief.  And his own gloominess about contemporary America oddly tied him to the punks.  On July 15, 1979 President Carter delivered an extraordinary national address that is known as the "malaise speech" (Carter actually never used that word) which challenged Americans to unite and solve problems despite a future that prmoised more pollution, gross consumerism, and a growing loss of faith in all institutions.  What makes the speech so astounding is its mixture of nostalgia, despair, pop psych motivational rhetoric, and its brutal honesty.  Reagan's folksy humor proved far more successful with voters.

Punk music reflected the "crisis of confidence" and made some great art out of that existential angst.  For example on the Ramones song "I wanna be well" each verse with ends with "my future's bleak/ain't it neat" taps into that joy of watching everything fall apart.  Despair is turned into a euphoria.  That is punk.

Rombes's non-linear approach serves this history book well.  Anytime you read a dictionary with consecutive entries on Nirvana, Richard Nixon (who shared the punk's disdain for the hippies), and Henry Rollins's Hardcore outit No Policy - it feels like a kaleidoscopic look back at the past.  Rombes also makes the book interactive for the reader.  For instance, ever heard of the Electric Eels?  They are a mostly forgotten band from Cleveland that recorded some truly anarchic music that sounds unlike anything before or after.  While listening to "Jaguar Ride" it feels as if there is something amazing happening between the lines of the glorious display electronic noise.  Can you imagine if this was played on FM radio today?

Another fun aspect is the continuity that comes out of Rombes's non-linear approach.  Like a novel there are recurring characters; some well known, some not.  There were some amazing personalities like Patti Smith, The Clash, and rock critics/musicians Lester Bangs and Peter Laughner  Bangs is more well known, who was memorably portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe's film, Almost Famous.  His writings on the music scene from 1969-1982 were groundbreaking.  Bangs had a "beat" sensibility and an ironic touch.  Laughner is little remembered due to his untimely death at age 24.  He championed the rock scene in Cleveland as a critic and later recorded music on his own.  Although his style isn't punk per se, it is more in the tradition of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. But what remains is pretty good. His recording of "Amphetamine" is a truly epic rock song.

All good things must end.  Rombes argues that as economic prosperity returned under the Reagan/Thatcher regimes of the 1980s, punk quickly faded.  It was over.  Even those in the punk scene were aware of it limitations like Patti Smith and The Clash and allowed their music to evolve.  But during its high point it punk stands as a stirring example of how music was a response to its own time, influenced the course of its own time, and helps us understand our own.  Plus, the book is much more than I just tried to describe - besides writing about punk seems so unpunk anyway.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Review: Stephen King's Danse Macabre

Originally published in 1981, Stephen King's Danse Macabre was his first work of non-fiction. He takes his readers through his influences and offers his own insights into all aspects of the horror genre.  By book's end it feels like you just shared more than a few beers with the master of horror while discussing trends in American pop culture in the decades after 1945.

Dance Macabre's thesis is simple: horror serves as a filter for anxiety.  And boy there is sure enough to go around the past several decades! Therefore, as times get more frighting, horror tends to flourish.  Although King spends some time on the origins of the modern horror story, penning it down to three novels from the nineteenth century: Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula.  As anyone knows who's ever taken a course on Gothic Literature, Horace Walpole's ghastly novel The Castle of Otranto is credited for inventing the modern ghost story.  Gothic literature deals with the supernatural and the irrational side of humanity, largely in response to the French Revolution. And a prudent one at that after Europe witnessed an idealistic revolution descend into the chaos of the reign of terror (yet another age of anxiety)  Gothic literature paved the way for the Romantic movement.  King did his homework.

As a cold war kid, young Stephen seemed to consume all that pop culture had to offer in the 1950s and 1960s - horror comics, b-movies, and all the great popular writers of fantastic fiction - Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury to mention a few (remember this was a time when the government tried to ban comics).  Writers like them paved the way for the new generation that reached adulthood in the 1970s.  All this stuff makes for fun reading with extended analysis of films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf or episodes of The Outer Limits.  Pop culture studies are now taken seriously in academia so Danse Macabre is oddly enough a pioneering work in the field.

Sizable sections of the book provide a survey and analysis of the horror film and literature.  It is fun reading about films like Night of the Living Dead (the ultimate horror film), Rosemary's Baby, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and many others because they are still relevant.  While it is worthwhile to go into sociological critiques of horror films, as King does, he also argues that a good story is essential for any film or novel to work.

Despite the sometimes sloppy and repetitive prose, there are some great sections on storytelling and some insights into King's own creative process, including the origins of his epic work, The Stand.  One notable undercurrent in Danse Macabre is anti-intellectual strain running through it.  No opportunity is spared in taking jabs at literary critics.  I have no intention of getting into the whole question of whether popular fiction is literature, but King gets more respect these days. Although I have not read his latest foray into historical fiction 11/22/63, it has received a fair share of favorable reviews.  It appears King is getting the last laugh.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Album Review: Glass Houses

By 1980 Billy Joel's recording career had attained a respectable degree of commercial and some critical success (never popular with rock critics).  The release of Glass Houses still stands as one of his best LP's with its "New Wave" vibe.  A few tracks became longtime staples of FM radio like "You May be Right," "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me," and "Don't Ask Me Why."  They are balanced against some excellent deep tracks from Joel's catalogue like "All For Leyna" and "Through the Long Night."  Over the years, Joel has stated that Glass Houses was his attempt to make a perfectly constructed album.  While Glass Houses is not perfect it has its own unique kind of fun.

The opening track "You May Be Right" is Billy's attempt to sound like a wounded 1950s James Dean/Brando type sets the nostalgic tone. There's a joyful juvenile spirit to it and it became a monster hit.  This is countered by the more seriously wounded narrator in "All For Leyna" that gets to the dark side of romantic infatuation.  While in "Sometimes a Fantasy" Joel goes into a new wave rumination on solitude. And then, "I Don't Want to be Alone Anymore," -- you get the point.

Despite all this apparent sadness the album has a certain good time vibe to it.  It matches Billy's knack for writing quality pop songs with lyrics that do not take themselves too seriously.  For example, "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" was usually song I'd skip when it came on the radio, but in the context of this album it works.  If you take the lyrics seriously you will hate this song, if not you will have fun with it. In 1980 punk was morphing into New Wave, Disco was fading, Dylan was immersed in Christianity, MTV was a few years away, and the fragmentation of music was starting.  Glass Houses seems to mark that point in time with its pseudo-cool nostalgia.

Stephen King's The Shining

 The Shining, King's third published novel has an iconic status largely due to Stanley Kubrick's film. It is impossible to separate the novel from Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film - and the resulting acrimony about the adaptation. As a novel it marks a turning point in King's career who was perceived as a writer of, in the words of Pauline Kael, "unassuming potboilers" to one capable of writing a character study of a family facing some serious demons. The primary themes in the novel such as alcoholism, unfulfilled ambition, and past trauma engage the reader in a truly terrifying way. It is a haunted house story firmly within the Gothic tradition that has a modern twist with real characters with problems based on reality.

The plot is fairly simple and has a small number of characters.  Jack Torrence, an aspiring writer and teacher, agrees to act as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel Resort in the Colorado Rockies after losing a teaching job after an altercation with a student.  Although Jack has shown promise as a writer he also struggles with drinking.  His wife Wendy is generally supportive, but rightly concerned about living in isolation with their their son Danny, who has a "gift" his parents are unable to understand.  Danny has an ability that allows him to use the "shining" to read the minds of others.  The novel opens with Jack landing a job as the Overlook's caretaker from September to May.  On the surface it is the perfect time to regain his footing as a writer and heal his family.  Lurking behind this invitation to family bliss is the Overlook's dark history.

Over the years, King has stated that he wrote Jack as a sympathetic character and a version of himself.  At the time King, although a much more successful writer that his fictional creation, had his own drinking problem.  Jack dreams of becoming a major American writer and truly wants the best for his family.  Jack's own history with abuse is told in terrifying flashbacks as well as an alcohol driven incident with Danny. Early on it is clear the story will not have a cheery conclusion.

Like much of King's fiction the novel is overlong.  Jack's descent into madness is a slow buildup and downright tedious at times.  By the time Jack is pushed over the edge the novel has some of its energy.  Other characters are less drawn out, especially Wendy, who seems supportive yet suspicious of her husband.  The tone of The Shining is overtly serious and labors hard to compel the reader to emphasize with Jack in his struggle to rebuild his family.   But the hotel's supernatural power make the struggle seem predestined and anti-climatic.  Family conflict in a haunted house can make for deep tragedy or satire - the route that Kubrick took the material.

This is not to say that the book isn't frighting. It is in a way the film is not.  A good portion of the story is told from Danny's point of view and King has an almost Salingeresque ability to capture childhood.  What is more terrifying that observing evil spirits from child's perspective?  This formed a template King's later novel It.

It remains a mystery what attracted Stanley Kubrick to the novel.  Film scholars have latched upon the political and historical context in the film and see it as a metaphor of the cruelty of Western civilization.  Interestingly enough, in the novel Jack plans to write a history of the Overlook Hotel to "reveal the soul of post-war America."  It is like all the dirty laundry of recent American history is stored away at the Overlook and god help anyone than stumbles upon it!  There is an interesting connection that may explain Kubrick's decision to buy the rights.

The novel and film version of The Shining continue to capture the public's imagination.  The film is one of my favorites for its creepy look, outstanding performances, and strange interplay of satire and tragedy.  One of the ongoing points of interest is King's negative response to Kubrick's vision (King played no role in pre-production).  He has compared the film to a beautifully made custom made car with no engine.  Perhaps his dismay came from Kubrick decision to parody his own personal story. In 1997 King did write a forgettable TV version.  In 2011 King announced he was writing a sequel to The Shining, that follows Danny as an adult.  Too bad Kubrick is not available direct the sequel.