[50/50] Song #14: “I Ran”

Friday, April 11th, 2014

Song #14: “I Ran (So Far Away)” — Flock of Seagulls (1982)

DebutSeagullsI’ve really enjoyed the rise of Future Islands, a Baltimore-by-way-of-North Carolina band that recently hit critical mass — if for no other reason than I always feel like I’m back in college when I hear them. The time I first saw them, I jokingly described them as A Flock of Seagulls… if Tom Waits had been the lead singer. While Future Islands’ style has since become distinctively their own, they still sound like a they just came through a wormhole from the 1980s.

Hopefully they will avoid the fate of A Flock of Seagulls, better remembered (and mocked) now for their hair than the droll synthpop of their New Wave hits. “Space Age Love Song” and “Wishing (I had a photograph of you)” ensured they wouldn’t be one-hit wonders, but so what — it is “I Ran” that will be played again and again (as it was just about every hour on MTV in 1982). My freshman year at IUP the local automated radio station played it so religiously you could set your clocks by it, and there wasn’t a dorm you could walk through without hearing it echo down the hallway.

As with Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” I could listen to the bionic reverb that makes up the backbone of the song on an infinite loop. Forget about the hypnotically-bad haircut; “I Ran” is mesmerizing all by itself.

Bonus North Carolina connection: After their last hit in 1984, A Flock of Seagulls went into a slow spiral over the next decade or so. The breakup, when it came, was painful, and created a rift between the two brothers at the core of the group. They reportedly didn’t talk to each other for years. It turned out that Alister Score, the drummer, now lives just north of here, one county over. When lead singer Mike Score formed a new version of the band for an ’80s oldies tour in 2008 with Naked Eyes and Human League (cripes it hurt to type that line), and played at nearby Koka Booth, he invited his brother to sit in and play the drums for “I Ran.” Awwww.

“Road to Ritter”

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

0707S_029I first met Mike Ritter in 1999, on the rooftop patio of this great little bar in Chattanooga. Directly across the street from the daily newspaper, it was where all the reporters went to drink after deadline (or, maybe, before), so we cartoonists felt right at home. Mike was going on and on about the classic ‘Road to …’ comedies of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, which, as I would soon discover, were not just his favorite movies, but quite possibly his favorite anything. I remember thinking at the time, ‘no one can talk about Dorothy Lamour’s outfits for 20 minutes and not be gay.’ So, got that right….

Others have recounted his incredible talent, wicked wit, and sense of humor. All true. Mike’s passion and insight were keenly refreshing. He once described the AAEC convention as a necessary way station to recharge his inspiration every year, always giving him just enough of a kick to make it through to the next year’s convention. ‘It’s like one of those turbo boosters on a Hot Wheels track, launching the car around for another lap.’ There isn’t a cartoonist gathering I’ve gone to since where I haven’t thought about that.

I loved Mike’s drawing style and warped perspective — both literally and figuratively. As energetic as his line could be, his work often had a dark tinge to it, full of shadows and inky blackness. My all-time favorite cartoon by him was one on a national frenzy over a huge lottery jackpot, after people had reportedly spent their savings on tickets. A forlorn figure hunches over a pile of shredded lottery tickets in the middle of a vast, empty apartment. The small child sitting on the floor looks up at the figure and asks, “Did we win?” It is heartbreaking.

(I couldn't find the lottery cartoon, but here's an appropriate one.)

(I couldn’t find the lottery cartoon, but here’s an appropriate one.)

Looking back now, I realize it’s been almost 10 years since Mike and I talked, twice as long as the handful of years we were friends. We worked together when he was President of the AAEC, but even then it was clear he was starting to pull away. Mike got harder and harder to get ahold of and, as happened to so many of us, stopped returning my calls altogether. I was happy to hear he had resurfaced in Atlanta a few years ago, apparently successful in rebooting his life.

It sounds as if Mike had begun to reach out to old associates recently. We had friended each other on facebook and traded a few chats, but his untimely demise ended that chance to get drinks and catch up.

You know, I believe “Road to Morocco” might cheer me up. I know Mike would enthusiastically agree.

I survived Three Mile Island

Friday, March 28th, 2014

TMI-credit-Joe-Ulrich-216x300

— An excerpt from my Indy article on TMI:

That night my friend Monty called. They were going to see The China Syndrome, which had opened the week before. My mother objected, but, now that I think about it, her reluctance probably had more to do with the fact that Monty had just gotten his driver’s license than anything else. “We have to go,” I told her. “This is historic! Besides, if there’s a meltdown and evacuation who knows when we’ll see our friends again!” She relented.

The theater was packed. At one point in the movie a character talks about the devastation that will be caused by a nuclear meltdown. “It would destroy an area the size of Pennsylvania!” the character says. The audience went wild. As we left the theater there was a TV news camera crew in the parking lot interviewing people about seeing a movie on a meltdown in the midst of a meltdown.

Read the whole thing here: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/i-survived-three-mile-island/Content?oid=1215163

Photo via WITF

[50/50] Album #14: “The Cars”

Friday, March 28th, 2014

[50/50] Album #14: “The Cars” — The Cars (1978).

The_Cars_-_The_CarsEven when you try and leave the past behind, it has a way of chasing after you. For the last few weeks I’ve been followed around by 1978 and 1979 like a pair of imprinted geese, honking with joy at every rediscovery. Today is the 35th anniversary of Three Mile Island, for instance, and I’ve already seen a half-dozen posts about it from friends on facebook. I heard recently that the boy’s basketball team from my old high school went to the state finals, just like they did in March of ’79. No doubt the school took bus loads of students to see the championship game, just like they did for us 35 years ago, and there’s a good chance a kid like me met a cute girl on the ride out to arena, and got to make out with her on the way back. Considering the finals were held in Pittsburgh, four hours away, that makes it one of the Best. Roadtrips. Ever.

And a short time ago when I was back for a visit to central Pennsylvania, poking around in my parent’s attic looking for something for my brother, I stumbled upon the motherload, the grand prize, The Holy Grail: a box of Super8 movies that has been missing for decades. Most of the reels were animated shorts Brent and I made in 1978 and 1979, and haven’t seen since. I was so excited, I made a detour through Baltimore on my way home to North Carolina to drop off the box at his place, where he planned to inspect and digitalize the aging film.

When I walked in the house, he already had one of our old vinyl records on a restored turntable, and my trip to the past was complete:

While the Cars’ first album peaked on Billboard in March, 1979, it stayed on the charts for the next two years, and spawn numerous singles that are still, no doubt, in heavy rotation somewhere. (It also gets points for having the greatest sampled snippet in a movie soundtrack.)

Anyway, here’s the whole album. “The Cars” by  The Cars:

[50/50] Sci-Fi/Fantasy Book #15: “Gateway”

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Science Fiction or Fantasy Book #15: “Gateway”—Frederick Pohl (1977)

gatewaynovelIn Good News/Bad News news this week, it was announced that “Gateway,” Frederick Pohl’s bleak ’70s masterpiece, has been optioned for development as a TV series. Considering how dark and full of existential dread television has gotten in the last decade, Pohl’s novel of desperate humans on an abandoned alien starbase will fit right in. On the flip side, the production team that snagged the rights is one half De Laurentiis and one half the people who brought us the awful wild west mess “Hell on Wheels.”

Which is a shame. If any novel is well suited to episodic TV, it would be “Gateway” — but only if it was done right. Set years after the discovery of an asteroid full of alien ships is found orbiting the sun, the book chronicles the horrible living conditions humans endure on Gateway, all in the slim hope they might strike it rich. Unable to control, dismantle or decipher the pre-programmed ships, people gamble their lives by climbing in the alien vehicles and hitting the launch button. Most of the time the ships never return, and when they do the crew is frequently dead — on rare occasions, however, someone returns with an alien artifact or other great discovery, one that sets them up for life. Crossing a gold rush with Russian Roulette, the novel is, according to this reviewer, “coated in dread.”

While the core of the book is the unpacking of the mystery of what happened to the protagonist — and the slow unraveling of his post-traumatic stress — the most powerful parts of “Gateway” are the one-page ephemera that divide chapters. Official mission reports that detail the fates of random prospectors, made all the more horrific by the memo’s cold and bureaucratic language, bolstered by snippets of classifieds from Gateway’s newspaper of people reaching out for a connection — any connection — in an uncaring universe.

[50/50] Album #15: “Watermark”

Friday, February 14th, 2014

Album #15: “Watermark” — Enya (1988)

Enya-1988-WatermarkIf all goes according to plan, I’ll be catching Julianna Barwick tonight at the Carrack. Moody and ethereal, her music has been described as Enya for the Indie crowd.

Enya herself has been an ambient darling since her breakthru album “Watermark” in 1988. It’s understandable people might be wary of the record, thanks to the overexposure of its big hit, the overwrought “Orinoco Flow,” but this would be a mistake, like avoiding Led Zep IV because of “Stairway to Heaven.” From the beautiful and haunting opening title track to the Irish lament “Na Laetha Geal M’óige” (Days of My Youth) that closes out the record, this is a perfect album for the dead of winter. “Watermark” is all the more impressive because Enya plays all the instruments and sings all the tracks herself, looping vocals to create a chorus of backup singers from her solitary voice.

February, Enya and looping go back a quarter century for me as well. At the time, I had one of those boom boxes that would continuously play a cassette tape, flipping from one side to the other automatically when it reached the end. If you didn’t hit stop, an album would repeat forever. I was in my first apartment, soon after my roommate had left to move in with his girlfriend. I’d also recently heard from my ex-girlfriend, which put me right back in the metaphysical crater where she’d left me. Alone, broke, and feeling a wee bit sorry for myself one bitterly cold evening, I put on “Watermark” and plopped down on the couch to read. I lost track, but sometime after hearing the click of the cassette flipping over for probably the dozenth time, I finally found the energy to get up and eject the tape. By then, Enya and her moody, ethereal voice were forever burned into my head.

[50/50] Movie #15: Rollerball

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Favorite Movie #15: Rollerball (1975)

rollerball2Forget the Superbowl. The ultimate championship takes place at the end of Rollerball: “No substitutions; no penalties; and no time limit.” The resulting devastation brings to a head the showdown between the corporate masters of a dystopian future and a global superstar. The 1975 sci-fi cult hit is still probably the best of the bleak “dark future” films of the 1970s. (It has certainly aged better than its contemporary harbingers of doom: “Soylent Green” and “Silent Running.”)

I’ve written before about Rollerball. A lot. Hell, I even designed a board game around it. The title game is that exceedingly rare creation: a fictional sport that is believable as a sport. This is thanks, in great part, to the cast of stuntmen hired for the movie’s action scenes. Between filming they reportedly kept playing, coming up with their own set of rules for the game, and even rewriting their own lines. By the time the film made it thru editing (and an enthusiastic marketing dept., who actually released the official rules as part of the movie’s promotional packet), a completely new game had been invented.

While that isn’t the point of the film — it is a cautionary tale of ceding too much control to corporations — the violence of the game helps drive home the heavy-handed message. Of course the great irony is that the director, Norman Jewison, originally set out make a movie with an anti-violent message; yet if Rollerball is remembered at all today, it is for the three amazing action scenes that showcase this fictional future sport.

Snooze Button Poetry III

Friday, January 31st, 2014

Leaving gay marriage advocates to press
….additional lawsuits
Here’s at least where four people were killed
….in a small blast in the the city
Every winter the Dept. of Housing picks a night in January
Under the ‘makeup the difference’ of extreme insurance policies
It is however a reality that alters daily life
We’ll find out what cities can learn
….from the first mass transit super bowl

—late January 2014

Snooze button poetry returns!

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

A certain amount of persistence
. ..and working hard and getting along with people
A prophesy that a left-handed gap-toothed man
. ..will rule Sudan
—eruption! More than 20,000 people
They say some of the district redesigns
. ..are unfair
Rocket-propelled grenades introduced them to
When a chemical leaked into the Elk River
The American Dream is on its way

— January 2014

[50/50] Game #15: Twixt (1962)

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Tabletop Game #15: Twixt (1962)

twixt_2_lgFor board games, the 1960s were a golden age — literally. While commercial games had been popular since the late 19th century, and Monopoly a runaway best seller since the Depression, America’s burgeoning middle-class had card tables and suburban rec rooms to fill coming out of the ’50s. Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers and Ideal all saw explosive growth thanks to TV show tie-ins and national ad campaigns. Less than a decade old, Avalon Hill found nothing but success with its line of complex, elaborate wargames. Everybody was making money publishing games — or so it seemed — so it made sort of sense when 3M decided to get into the game.

Yes, that 3M: the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company, home to, among other things, sandpaper, Scotch tape and Post-it Notes. In 1962, 3M released the first of what would become three dozen titles in its Bookshelf Games series. Aimed at adults, they had an air of sophistication about them: each came in a faux-leather slip case (with gold lettering!), the better to sit next to all those leather bound classics on the bookshelves of one’s den, and bold illustrated covers that wouldn’t have been out of place in the pages of Playboy or Esquire. The result, says blogger Codex99, “was a rather elegant and sophisticated house style that has really not been seen since.”

twixt_lgM took advantage of its expertise in manufacturing and design, delivering products with plastic boards and metal playing pieces. They put out financial sims (Stocks & Bonds, Acquire), party and trivia games, and a slew of sports titles, but 3M is best remembered for their efforts to try and create “the new chess” and invent an original abstract strategy game for modern times. They came closest with Twixt, a connect the dots title that still has a following today. Twixt is a deceptively simple game, with two players taking turns placing pegs on a grid. If the pegs are close enough, they can be connected with links; the first player to build a bridge across the board wins. As with chess, patterns quickly emerge. Specific tactics have been developed for every situation, but simply reacting to your opponent will get you crushed; this is a game that rewards thinking ahead.

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