Archive for the ‘Pittsburgh’ Tag

[50/50] Book #14: Watchmen (1986)

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Favorite Book #14: Watchmen (1986)

1338201233_watchmen-12-of-12Had a strange conversation with an older friend the other day who said he’d finally sat down and read Watchmen recently — and didn’t get what all the fuss was about. This is a guy well-versed in pop culture, history and comic books (heck, his father-in-law apparently created ‘Archie’  wife’s late father was a writer for ‘Archie’ for decades), so it kinda surprised me: 1) that he hadn’t read it in the nearly 3 decades since it came out as a graphic novel, and 2) that he didn’t think it was the brilliant literary work that most readers think it is — including Time magazine, which put it in the top 100 novels of the 20th century.

It is true that much of the tension of the world-on-the-edge-of-Apocalypse that permeates the book was far more palpable when it was released at the pinnacle of the Cold War. It is also true that what made so much of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s dark and gritty deconstruction of the superhero genre so original has since been fully absorbed by the rest of pop culture — to the point where dark and gritty is a cliche to now be avoided.

“Watchmen,” however, is a layered work that rewards careful and multiple readings, that reveals character as much through design and layout as it does text, and, in the end, is a masterwork of stark existentialism. Zack Snyder’s 2009 big screen adaptation of the book, while polished and well executed, comes close but still fails to capture the emotional resonance of the original comic book — something, strangely enough, the second trailer for the movie actually achieves.


A thumbnail of the plot doesn’t do the book justice either, but it is a good selling point. Set in a slightly alternative universe (where Richard Nixon is still in office!), Alan Moore imagines what would happen if costumed crime-fighters a la Batman were real; if superheroes had to deal with getting old, with fame, with PTSD; and if such a group of people could make a difference in a world where the US and the USSR are about to launch a nuclear war. What good is being a hero if you can’t save the world?

2522519-watchman_When I was going to art school in Pittsburgh, Eides was THE place: half punk record store, half comic book shop, and the place where all my discretionary income went. It was where I first saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 and first heard Agent Orange, Black Flag and countless other bands. It was also where one of the guys behind the counter told me about “Watchmen” — and he said the store would buy back your copy if you didn’t think it was the best comic book you ever read. As far as I know, it was the only time they ever made this offer … and I suspect no one ever took them up on it.


[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] Album #43: “Heartbeat City”

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Album #43: “Heartbeat City” — The Cars (1984)

heartbeatcityDue to MTV and their videos, The Cars hit their zenith in 1984 with their biggest commercial success, “Heartbeat City.” It was thanks to those videos that lead singer Ric Ocasek met future wife, model Paulina Porizkiva, (who starred in the video for “Drive”and who, one wag famously put, ruined it for all the models out there because now every grotesque geek thought they had a shot with a supermodel). It would also mark the start of the decline of the band, as long-simmering personality conflicts would end the group after their next album, the forgettable Door to Door.

There was nothing forgettable about Heartbeat City, however. Thanks to it’s five Top 40 hits — with one video directed by Timothy Hutton (the aforementioned “Drive”) and another by Andy Warhol (the cheestastic “Hello Again“) — they were a constant and pervasive presence in 1984.

Magic,” the music video with Ocasek walking on water across a swimming pool, neatly summed up both the band’s creativity and the source of it’s creative tensions in one smooth metaphor. That song was forever cemented in my mind as we got drunk around my friend Rusty’s pool one perfect summer evening before going to see The Cars on tour. So too “Drive,” which, while it got played waaaay too often after my college girlfriend broke up with me that spring, reminds me more of Pittsburgh. “Drive” hit the charts just as I transferred to the Art Institute that fall, and even now I can’t play it without seeing the mercury-lit glow of the Pittsburgh skyline in all it’s Blade-Runneresque glory as we drove about after the clubs closed looking for Primanti Bros. I put this album on and I feel 20 again — and hungry.

[50/50] Album #47: “Change No Change”

Monday, February 11th, 2013

Album #47: “Change No Change” — Elliot Easton (1985)

change_hiWhile Ric Ocasek took much of the credit for The Cars, their sound and success was clearly a group effort — as is evidenced by Ocasek’s many (failed) efforts to break out as a hit solo artist. Guitarist Elliot Easton also went the solo route, once, and the result, while not a big commercial hit, did make a splash. It’s certainly one of my favorites.

I picked up this record when Easton came through Pittsburgh on tour in 1985. My girlfriend Cayce Barch and I saw him play in a literal hole–in–the-wall, some club down in McKee’s Rocks that was built in a cave in the side of the hill over looking the Ohio. The sound was terrible, but the songs were such that I had to have the album immediately. “Change No Change” is a jangly, sweet blast, and makes it abundantly clear Ric Ocasek wasn’t the only talented guy in the bunch. (It doesn’t hurt that it Easton’s album was also produced by the same guy who did the first four Cars records, giving it much the same energy).

“Change No Change” probably would’ve remained an nostalgic artifact of my year at the Art Institute and my time with Cayce if I hadn’t rediscovered it a few years ago. It has been re-released a number of times and has aged beautifully, in part because it reached into Easton’s love of early rock ‘n’ roll as a starting influence, added in some ’80s guitar wailing and projected forward into the jangle pop that would become popular over the next 20 years. Elliot Easton shows he would have been at home anywhere from 1950 to 2000.

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