Archive for the ‘50/50’ Category

[50/50] intermission

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Crowded House is back in rotation, after I found their CD while clearing out our abandoned volvo. I always liked Neil Finn’s second band, especially “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” their first moody hit that adeptly encapsulates my first few years after college. (I think it’s the line “Now I’m towing my car/there’s a hole in the roof” that cements it.) Of course it’s “Hole in the River,” a song I’d forgotten about, that has come home for me this week.

[50/50] Song #26: “Reach Out”

Monday, September 9th, 2013

Song #26: “Reach Out” — Cheap Trick (1981)

I ran one marathon in my life. It is one of the few things I’ve ever finished (4:12 in case you were wondering). While I was training, I looped a tape of Cheap Trick’s “Reach Out” and played it over and over. The day of the race, this played in my head for all 26 miles — see? OCD is good for something.

“Reach Out” appeared on the soundtrack album for the “Heavy Metal” movie and was released as a single, but has the distinction of not being on any of Cheap Trick’s albums. This is unfortunate, as it — along with the b-side tune “I Must Be Dreamin‘” — were two of the best things the band ever released. (It is doubly unfortunate because the songs were pretty much wasted in the movie.) HEVYMETL-CTIT-3Of course, maybe it’s appropriate it was a single. Except for their best-selling smash “Live at Budokan,” Cheap Trick wasn’t exactly known as an album band — and even the live album was them playing their singles, which then became hits. As tenacious as the group has been (hell, they’re playing Durham next week as part of their 40th anniversary tour), Cheap Trick was always hit or miss: their songs either rocked or sucked. (Even they hate ‘The Flame’).

* * *

It’s also appropriate that this song marks the half-way point of the 50/50 countdown. Writing this list of favorites is a marathon of another sort, and one that’s taken more time than I expected. Given recent events, and more important things in the persistent now that require my attention, I’m unsure I’ll be able to finish this stroll through the past. I might finished the race, but it will have to be with shorter blurbs and faster research. Stay tuned.

[50/50] Computer Game #11: “Myst”

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Computer Game #11: “Myst” (1993)

MystCoverOne of Steve Jobs biggest mistakes was downplaying games on the Macintosh. He and Apple wanted the Mac to be a “serious” machine, and because games were for kids, they poo-pooed add-ons like joysticks, or aggressive support for game programmers. Mac’s superior graphics were supposed to be for important things like art & business, not silly games.

Of course games, as it turned out, would become one of THE biggest businesses, and the driving force for PC hardware and software development. That was driven home when Myst — originally a Mac-only release — became the biggest selling computer game of its time. CD-ROMs had been available for computers for years, but high prices and slow speeds made them unappealing to consumers; “Myst” actually helped drive sales of CD readers and became the ‘killer app’ the industry had been looking for.

On top of that, it truly was a new genre of game — the interactive puzzle mystery. It’s ambiance and logistical challenges could pull you in for hours, as you are given a strange book that can transport you to any time or age — but only if you first solve the mystery of the abandoned island you find yourself on. There are no missions, no levels, no blowing anything up: exploring the island and figuring out how everything works (and what happened to the people there) was the whole game.

Myst is so popular it outlived the CD-ROM (and the compact disc!) and is now available for smart phones and tablets. There are even animated 3-D updates of the original, but part of the charm is the (now) simple yet beautifully rendered graphics. And no matter which version or platform you choose, be sure to wear headphones while playing — the moody sounds and music that surround you are key to getting lost in this imaginary realm.

“Myst” really is all that, and 20 years after its release, it is still an almost mystical experience worth pursuing.

[50/50] Album #20: “Last Splash”

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

Album #20: “Last Splash” — The Breeders (1993)

220px-TheBreedersLastSplash(I’m jumping ahead here because, if all goes according to plan, I will be listening to the Breeders play their album “Last Splash” in its entirety at Hopscotch tonight.) The love child of the Pixies and Throwing Muses, the Breeders put out several albums of scrungey idiosyncratic indie rock in 1990s. Thanks to the radio break thru of the eclectic single “Cannonball”, “Last Splash” became their best selling album, but even before that they were inspiring Kurt Cobain and a whole generation of musicians. Listen to the whole thing and you’ll see why.

[50/50] Genre Movie #11: “Die Hard”

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Genre Movie #11: “Die Hard” (1988)

bruce-willis-as-john-mcclane-in-die-hardIs “Die Hard” the best action movie ever made? I’ll let critic Matt Zoller Seitz make the argument:

It restored a measure of human vulnerability to the high-tech shoot-’em-up… Audiences dug the flesh-and-blood struggles of NYPD cop John McClane (Willis), trudging on glass-slashed feet to save his wife from terrorists, just as they dug the middle-aged bickering of the main characters in another 1988 action film, “Midnight Run.”

“Midnight Run” is another great, funny action movie that’s held up extremely well, not the least of which because Tom McCleister, one of our Durham friends and neighbors, co-stars in it. But back to “Die Hard.”

Even when the film is cross-cutting between multiple lines of action in several locations, and killing people off by the bushel, you’re never confused about what’s happening, where you are, who you’re looking at, or what’s at stake. It is as respectfully classical an action film as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Aliens“—a rare Hollywood popcorn picture with a deep sense of film history, and one that can be endlessly re-watched, always revealing new things.

Zoller Seitz doesn’t just think its the best action movie, but one of the best movies ever.

The expanded cast of characters is so well-drawn and seems such a part of a community, however makeshift, that parts of “Die Hard” remind me of “Casablanca,” a film with no dead spots and no uninteresting characters, only wit, heart, action and suspense.

I could go on with the clips, or you could read the whole thing here: “Die Hard in a Building: An Action Classic Turns 25

[50/50] Book #11: “The Forever War”

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Book #11: “The Forever War” — Joe Haldeman (1974)

(I’m going to cheat a little here and just post my review of the novel from “What our writers are reading” in the 12/23/09 issue of Indy Week.)

the_forever_warWhen Joe Haldeman returned from the Vietnam War, having experienced combat first-hand, he felt compelled to offer a “reply” to Robert Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers.

Set over thousands of years, The Forever War follows a soldier fighting against the first aliens encountered by humans. Due to the relativistic speeds of space travel, his unit returns from every battle to discover that centuries have passed on Earth, with their families and the generals who ordered them into combat long dead.

Haldeman struggled to find a publisher for his anti-war book, as it was deemed too controversial, too close for comfort in the early ’70s. The Forever War eventually went on to win the Hugo and the Nebula, science fiction’s highest awards, and is now considered a masterpiece of both sci-fi and anti-war novels such as Catch 22. (It should also not be confused with the book of the same title—recently issued in paperback—by New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins, which is about a different “forever war.”)

Earlier this year, Haldeman released his definitive version of the book, restoring a center section that was originally considered “too downbeat.” Interestingly, he left in several anachronisms (the book opens in 1997, and we are already colonizing other planets) because he realized it doesn’t matter when the story is set or whether the analogy is of Vietnam—or Iraq and Afghanistan. The effect of war on soldiers is still the same.

[50/50] Album #26: “Let It Be”

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

[50/50] Album #26: “Let It Be” — The Replacements (1984)

Sorry, Kev, not the one from The Beatles.

letibeI think half the reason I like this record is because of its cover. While the AV Club goes into loving detail about Let It Be’s iconic cover and its (non) symbolism here, for me its because I lived in a place almost exactly like that. For six months in 1988, Paul Rogers and I lived in the top of a house in New Cumberland, with a fire escape running along the side, and a roof on which I once found myself waking up after one of the big parties Paul threw. The place was within crawling distance of half a dozen bars. Paul showed me how to play pool and play the ponies. We filled the uninsulated attic with army surplus parachutes and a table tennis table and played incredibly violent games of ping pong. We both thought we were going to be great writers. One day I was typing away on the tiny back porch, working on the manuscript for Truckin’ Turtles, when Paul came bounding up the stairs. “What’s up,” I asked. “My car caught fire,” he said as he ran inside. “Everything ok?” I inquired as he flew back out a few seconds later. “Yeah, we’re good.”

It was a great six months.

Of course, the other reason to love this record is because of the music. My editor at the Indy said she played “Let It Be” so much, she wore through two copies. Listen to it sometime and you’ll see why.

[50/50] Song #27: “Fools Fall in Love”

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Song #27: “Fools Fall in Love” — Queen Bee & the Blue Hornet Band


Pennsylvania isn’t exactly known for being a musical hotbed, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. While the number of local bands that broke thru to national attention can be counted on two hands, let’s not forget Philadelphia was the birthplace of American Bandstand. It was also home for the labels that launched the Philly Soul sound, with such acts as Hall & Oats, MFSB, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and Boys II Men. (Philly also had punk mainstays The Dead Milkmen, so fuck you.) Pittsburgh’s heavy hitters included Tommy James and the Shondels and Rusted Root, and western PA can lay claim to being the birthplace of both Stephen Foster and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor — how’s that for an alpha and omega of pop music?

(In case you were wondering, central PA’s contribution is pretty much Live, songwriter Dan Hartman, and, uh, Poison.)

Among my personal picks are three local favorites that definitely fall in the “almost famous” category. Philly’s Robert Hazard & the Heroes shot for new wave stardom in the early days of MTV and landed as a one-hit wonder:

Harrisburg’s Kix followed Poison to LA in search of superstardom but lost what made them unique and interesting in the first place and became just another hair-metal band. Their power ballad made them technically a one-hit wonder, and they continue to play locally to this day, but nothing ever matched the spazzy verve of their first album:

Finally, there was Pittsburgh’s Donny Iris, the musician who came closest to “making it.” Still a favorite son with a strong local fanbase, Iris’s first band, The Jaggerz, had a ’50s retro hit in 1970 with “The Rapper,” and went on to have a string of songs in heavy rotation on MTV. Alas, whether he was too ugly for pop, or the industry decided they already had one Buddy Holly lookalike with Elvis Costello, Iris was cast back into the pitt of western Pennsylvania to play arts festivals.

* * *

However, if one’s favorite band is determined by how many times you’ve seen that group live, then my all-time favorite band would have to be Queen Bee & the Blue Hornets. I lost track of how often I saw them play over the years, after friends at Penn State introduced me to them at the Rathskeller one weekend in State College. (Question: is there a law somewhere that every college town have a drinking establishment named the Rathskeller?) Queen Bee would play this tiny room in the back of the basement, as sweaty students packed in so close around the stage — actually a rectangle marked off with gaffer’s tape — you would have to duck when the bassist or trombonist would swing their instrument about. For a deposit, the ‘skeller would “rent” cases of 7 oz. Rolling Rock ponies in hard, ancient cardboard boxes so you wouldn’t have to keep returning to the bar. This was perfect for us, as Rusty’s girlfriend at the time was rather short; she would stand on the sturdy box to see the band and distribute drinks whenever we needed beer.

freighttrainA staple in the nightclubs of Pennsylvania in the late ’80s and ’90s, Queen Bee and the Blue Hornet Band were a workaday blues act with an extraordinary lead singer in Tonya Browne. Her voice was mesmerizing, and if we heard Queen Bee was playing anywhere, we’d make the trip. Usually it was to the Chameleon Club in Lancaster, but Maura, Chick DeFebo and I once drove the whole way to Allentown when we heard they were opening for Gilbert Godfrey (yes, you read that correctly). When they finally played the Midtown Tavern for the first time, it was the first time there was ever a line out the door. (It was also at the Midtown that lead guitarist and band founder Mark Ross interrupted a set to announce his wife had gone into labor. “My wife’s havin’ our first baby!” he shouted, and ran out of the bar to cheers from the crowd. Tonya and the rest of the band finished up the evening.)

They were always best as a live act, and Queen Bee’s three records don’t do the band or Browne’s voice justice. As one reporter said, “You kinda had to be there.” I don’t remember the last time we saw them, but the Blue Hornet Band broke up in 1999 when Tonya Browne moved to New York City to launch a solo career. Her untimely death two years later ended that dream and silenced a stellar voice. She was 36.

[50/50] Computer Game #12: SimCity

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

Computer Game #12: SimCity (1989)

250px-SimCity_Classic_cover_artMy own roof leaks, I hate mowing the lawn, and I can’t balance a checkbook, yet somehow I was the successful mayor of “Margaritaville” for over a century. OK, ‘successful’ is a relative term. I could never keep those ungrateful ingrates happy, even when I gave them the stadium they wanted, and the original downtown was always too dirty thanks to coal burning electric plant next door to the city park. We built a new downtown, but that got trashed by Godzilla. It also had a tendency to catch fire. But my simulated metropolis lasted for well over 100 years. And while software designer Will Wright went on to build a real-world empire with SimCity, with numerous sequels and updates so graphically detailed you can look in the windows on the denizens of your City (don’t even get me started on the insanity of The Sims), there is still something charming about the bitmapped simplicity of the original city simulator.


[50/50] Song #9: “September”

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

Song #9: “September” — Earth Wind & Fire (1978)