I was sad to hear that Olivia Newton-John had passed away on August 8th. I can’t say I was a huge fan of Newton-John, but I recognize that she was a very talented singer & actress. And my father is definitely a fan of her movies Grease (1978) and Xanadu (1980). When I was growing up he was watching them on television & home video all the time, so I guess I absorbed something of an interest in them, and Newton-John, by osmosis.
Actually, I was surprised to learn that Newton-John was 73 years old when she passed on. I really thought she was younger. I suppose that’s due to the fact she portrayed high school senior Sandy Olsson in Grease. Newton-John was actually 29 years old when the movie was made, which astonishes me. She really didn’t look all that much older than the 17 year old character she was playing.
I haven’t seen Xanadu in many years. All these decades later all I can recall about it was that it was a very strange movie featuring the Greek Muses and a roller disco and song & dance legend Gene Kelly. Xanadu was a box office bomb, but the soundtrack was a huge success, getting certified double platinum, with the song “Magic” becoming a number one hit for Newton-John. And, really, it IS a good song, as is the title track “Xanadu” which Newton-John recorded with Electric Light Orchestra. That one was also very successful, peaking at number eight on the US Billboard Hot 100.
So here’s “Magic” written & produced by John Farrar and performed by Olivia Newton-John. If you haven’t heard it before then definitely give it a listen.
Olivia Newton-John was an incredible singer with a career that stretched over five and a half decades, from the mid 1960s right up until her passing. She will definitely be missed by her many fans.
Longtime fantasy artist Ken Kelly passed away on June 3rd. He was 76 years old. During a career that lasted half a century, Kelly became renowned for his incredible paintings of fiercely heroic warriors, stunningly sexy women and hideously awful monsters. Kelly was also acclaimed for his work illustrating album covers for rock bands.
Kelly was born in New London, Connecticut on May 19, 1946. He had always liked to draw & paint and so, after four years overseas serving in the Marines, in 1968 Kelly returned to the States and decided to pursue a career as an illustrator. Kelly’s uncle by marriage was Frank Frazetta, and he studied under the acclaimed illustrator for the next few years.
Kelly’s first professional sale was the cover painting for Vampirella #6 from Warren Publishing, which was released in July 1970. Kelly would regularly contribute covers to Vampirella, Creepy and Eerie throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s, when Warren finally shut down. The work was low-paying, but as Kelly would explain in a 2018 interview, the experience got him used to producing quality work while hitting deadlines:
“Warren was publishing magazines every couple of weeks, so the turnaround [for covers] had to be very fast. You had to come up with a concept, paint it, deliver it, and then you were on to the next one.”
After several years of toiling at Warren, Kelly’s life & career was literally changed almost overnight when he was hired to paint the cover artwork for “Destroyer,” the fourth studio album from hard rock band Kiss. “Destroyer” was released on March 15, 1976 and over the next several months became a hit record. Kelly’s cover painting for the album put him on the map, making him a very much in-demand artist from that point onward.
I certainly cannot say that I’m a huge Kiss fan, but even so I’ll readily acknowledge that Kelly’s dynamic cover painting for “Destroyer” is one of the most iconic images featuring the band.
Kelly was subsequently hired to paint the cover for Kiss’s six studio album “Love Gun” (1977), as well as the Rainbow album “Rising” (1976) and half a dozen album covers for Manowar between 1987 and 2007, among others.
The cover to “Destroyer” also brought Kelly’s work to the attention of paperback publishers, and from the mid 1970s onwards he was regularly hired to paint heroic fantasy covers. Among the authors whose work Kelly was most associated with was the late Robert E. Howard, creator of the barbarian anti-hero Conan.
It was through Howard’s writings that I first became acquainted with Kelly’s artwork. In the mid 1990s Baen Books published seven paperback volumes of The Robert E. Howard Library. Up until that point in time Howard’s Conan stories had been widely released, but much of his other fiction had never been properly collected together. One of the Baen volumes was the first complete collection of Howard’s stories featuring the grim swashbuckling Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane. I’d heard of Kane in the past, and been intrigued by him, so when Baen released that collection in late 1995 I eagerly snatched it up.
That book had a gorgeous painted cover featuring the climax of REH’s story “The Moon of Skulls.” Looking at the copyright page, there was a credit that read “Cover art by C.W. Kelly.” Well, I had no idea who this C.W Kelly was, but he certainly seemed like a talented artist.
“C.W. Kelly”would provide the other lushly illustrated painted covers for The Robert E. Howard Library. I bought several of those volumes, although in the intervening years, having moved half a dozen times, I misplaced a couple. I still have the Solomon Kane collection as well as a couple others from the series.
I was fortunate enough to meet Kelly on a few occasions, at the Chiller Theatre conventions held in New Jersey in 2007 and 2008, and at one of the I-CON sci-fi conventions held at Stony Brook University on Long Island.
Kelly came across as a genuinely decent guy. The first time I met him I purchased a copy of his oversized art book Ken Kelly: Escape. It was a gorgeous collection of his paintings & illustrations. Looking through it I saw several familiar pieces, and I finally realized that the “C.W. Kelly” who had painted those covers for Baen Books was Ken Kelly.
Even though he was best known for his paintings, Kelly also worked in pencil and pen & ink, and when he was at conventions he would sell these types of illustrations, as well as do fairly basic convention sketches, for quite reasonable prices. I thought that was a nice gesture, as he obviously understood that a lot of his fans who would like to own a piece of his art would not be able to afford his paintings.
I got a couple of sketches from Kelly. Due to his aptitude for depicting heroic fantasy, I asked him to do a Thor drawing in my Avengers Assemble theme sketchbook. The next time I saw him I had him draw Boba Fett in my Star Wars theme book. He did nice work on both.
Kelly painted literally hundreds of beautiful, striking pieces during his five decade career. There’s no way for me to adequately present an overview of his work within the confines of this blog. So, instead, I’ll merely present a few of my favorite pieces by him.
First we have the dark fantasy armored figure of “Death’s End” which Kelly described as “one of my most popular paintings.” Kelly utilized the central armored figure for the cover to his Escape collection. A limited edition 20” tall resin statue sculpted by Tony Cipriano was later issued.
The beautiful, sensuous “Anastacia’s Lair” appears to have been one of Kelly’s personal favorites. In the Escape collection he described it thus:
“This is a personal concept I wanted to pursue, focusing on an interior setting. It’s always interesting to paint cats to I included one as her protector and pet. I am at any given time working on five or more of these types of paintings, it’s very relaxing for me.”
Stepping outside of the sword & sorcery genre, Kelly produced “Snowtrap” in 1997. As he explained it:
“Scenes like this are most liberating for me. There’s no alternative universe to create, no debating whether the weaponry matches the era or architecture, or whether the plausibility of the creatures detracts from the scene. This is simply a female mammoth desperately struggling to keep her calf from the jaws of death.”
That’s the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to Kelly’s artwork. I highly recommend visiting his official website to see a wide selection of his paintings.
Kelly was apparently active as an artist up until almost the end of his life. One of his most recent pieces was sci-fi swordmaiden Taarna for the cover of Heavy Metal #308, which was released last year.
Ken Kelly was a very talented artist who had an incredible career, impacting comic books, fantasy and American hard rock. He will definitely be missed by his many fans.
“I’ve been called over the top. How silly. If you don’t go over the top, you can’t see what’s on the other side.” – Jim Steinman
Acclaimed composer, lyricist, record producer, and playwright Jim Steinman passed away on April 19th. He was 73 years old.
Steinman was known for his epic musical compositions. Some might call them operatic, while others would probably prefer to describe them as melodramatic. Myself, being someone with a fondness for the epic, grand soundscapes, really enjoyed his work.
Steinman’s career began in the late 1960s, but he first gained widespread recognition when he composed Bat Out of Hell, the 1977 debut album of Meat Loaf. Bat Out of Hell became one of the best-selling albums of all time. I have to confess, Bat Out of Hell initially escaped my attention for one very good reason: I was all of one year old when it came out, so I was obviously a bit too young to be able to appreciate Steinman’s lyrics & compositions and Meat Loaf’s vocals.
However, by the time their long-awaited follow-up, Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell was released in September 1993, I was absolutely the perfect age to listen. This was right at the beginning of my senior year in high school, and “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” was being blasted across the airwaves. Meat Loaf belted out these incredible, soulful vocals. The duet at the end between Meat Loaf and Lorraine Crosby aka “Mrs. Loud” topped off the dramatic, atmospheric ballad.
The epic music video for “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” directed by Michael Bay, with its eerie, Gothic romance imagery, was in heavy rotation on MTV in late 1993. Yes, kids, this was back in the bygone days when MTV actually played music videos!
I bought Bat Out of Hell II soon after it came out, and I totally played that album to death! Seriously, it was one of those albums I would listen to from start to finish, not skipping any tracks. Steinman and Meat Loaf really seemed to catch lightning in a bottle with this one, with nary a dud on the track list. Even track 7, “Wasted Youth,” a bizarre monologue spoken by Steinman himself, was weirdly entertaining.
Steinman also worked with Air Supply, Barry Manilow, Bonnie Tyler, Celine Dion, and The Sisters of Mercy, writing some incredibly stirring songs for those artists. Many of those songs became huge hits.
Growing up in the 1980s, the Bonnie Tyler song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (1983) was a regular presence on “light FM” radio stations. I always liked it, although it wasn’t until a decade later that I learned Steinman had written & produced it. Of course, as soon as I found out, I could immediately see his lyrical and acoustical signatures all over it. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was later covered as an electronic dance track by Nicki French in 1995, again becoming a hit.
The video for “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” was directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Russell. Steinman wrote the script for the video, and he drew inspiration from Russell’s own recent work on the “Nessun Dorma” segment from the 1987 compilation opera movie Aria. Russell’s video for “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” could be described as an apocalyptic S&M orgy, with leather-clad demons and angels fighting over the soul of a woman (portrayed by Caswell) who hovers between life and death after a fiery motorcycle crash in a graveyard.
The video for Dion’s cover of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” was directed by Nigel Dick. It was much more in the line of traditional Gothic romance than the Pandora’s Box version had been, but it was certainly no less grandiose. Set in a sprawling mansion, the music video was shot on location in the 200 year old Ploskovice summer palace of the Austrian Emperors, and at Barandov Studios in Prague, Czech Republic.
“It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” was later covered again in 2006. This time it was performed as a duet by Meat Loaf and Marion Raven. The producer on this version was Desmond Child rather than Steinman.
Steinman later wrote Bat Out of Hell: The Musical, which featured a number of his iconic compositions. The show opened in February 2017 at the Manchester Opera House. It subsequently was staged in London, Toronto and New York City. Tours in the United States, Australia and the UK were planned, but postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Jim Steinman career has been described as “wholly unique” by Rolling Stone. He leaves behind a rich musical legacy of incredibly dramatic, iconic songs.
Several of my fellow bloggers have been suggesting music to listen to during the Halloween season (check out The Telltale Mind all month for 31 creepy Song of the Day entries) so I thought I would chime in with a few of my own. Here are seven spooky songs for your eerie entertainment…
The Last Dance – Dead Man’s Party
Dark wave band The Last Dance did an excellent cover of Oingo Boingo’s 1986 song “Dead Man’s Party.” Released on their 2003 album Whispers in Rage, The Last Dance took the song, which I felt originally had a sort of playful quality, and gave it more of an edgy tone.
Fun fact: “Dead Man’s Party” contains the following lyrics:
“We like cinema and we like to create special [atmospheres] with our music. In a way, ‘Memphisto’ is our homage to that esoteric cinema.”
In an April 1993 interview Depeche Mode guitarist & keyboardist Martin Gore revealed the origin of the song’s title:
“It was the name of a make believe film I invented about Elvis as the devil.”
Misfits – Dig Up Her Bones
The punk rock band Misfits have been heavily influenced by horror movies, and the group has released numerous genre-themed songs. “Dig Up Her Bones” is from American Psycho, the 1997 album recorded by a new line-up assembled by bassist Jerry Only and guitarist Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein. The vocals on “Dig Up Her Bones” are by Michael Graves. The video for “Dig Up Her Bones” utilized clips from the 1935 horror movie Bride of Frankenstein.
The album cover for American Psycho featured band mascot the Crimson Ghost painted by Basil Gogos, the artist who created numerous striking covers for the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland for Warren Publishing. Jerry Only was a childhood fan of Gogos’ work and commissioned him to do several paintings for the band.
Paralysed Age – Bloodsucker
Gothic rock band Paralysed Age’s song“Bloodsucker” was first released in Germany on their 1992 debut album Christened Child. It was subsequently re-released in the United States on the album Empire of the Vampire. This uptempo song is an ode to the mythic vampires of Central European folklore and 19th Century gothic horror literature.
John Carpenter – Assault on Precinct 13 main theme
Assault on Precinct 13 is, strictly speaking, not a horror movie. However, I have always found it pretty damn scary. Writer / director John Carpenter has described his 1976 movie as having been inspired by the Howard Hawks’ classic Western film Rio Bravo. Myself, I’ve always felt that Assault on Precinct 13 was sort of the equivalent of Night of the Living Dead with a street gang substituted for the zombies.
Whatever the case, the opening theme of the movie, composed by Carpenter himself, is a genuinely atmospheric piece that effectively sets the tone for the next hour and a half of cinema.
Switchblade Symphony – Witches (Temple Of Rain Mix)
Gothic / dark wave band Switchblade Symphony were only together for a little over a decade, from 1989 to 1999, but nevertheless managed to make a lasting impression, and are well-remembered. The original studio cut of “Witches” was on their 1997 album Bread and Jam for Frances. This version is contained on the 2001 disk Sinister Nostalgia, a collection of remixes.
Iron Maiden – Dance of Death
“Dance of Death,” taken from the 2003 album from heavy metal band Iron Maiden of the same name, was inspired by the final scene of Ingmar Bergman’s iconic 1957 film The Seventh Seal. Written by guitarist Janick Gers and bassist / keyboardist Steve Harris, this eight and a half minute long “Dance of Death” is a moody song that demonstrates Iron Maiden’s musical versatility.
I hope you enjoyed all of these. Feel free to share your own suggestions for Halloween music.
I was both shocked and saddened by the news that musician David Bowie had died on January 10th at the age of 69 from cancer. While I would not say that I was a huge fan of his, I definitely enjoyed listening to his music.
“Visionary” is a word that gets thrown around with great frequency; “unique” is another. But in the case of David Bowie those two descriptions very much applied. He wrote and performed numerous amazing songs over a career that spanned nearly half a century. Bowie also devised so many incredible, bizarre, innovative looks for himself throughout the years. He was undoubtedly one of a kind.
For me, on Monday my thoughts kept returning to Bowie’s awesome 1995 song “Hallo Spaceboy,” the lyrics and tune playing in my head. Co-written by fellow music pioneer Brian Eno, the song features a collaboration between Bowie and the duo of Neil Tenant & Chris Lowe, aka the Pet Shop Boys. I cannot recall if I’ve mentioned it here before, but the Pet Shop Boys are one of my all time favorite music groups. So it was a genuine thrill to hear them performing with Bowie, a bona fide rock god.
Of course, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention another collaboration of Bowie’s, namely “Under Pressure” which he recorded with Queen in 1981. Bowie and Freddie Mercury singing together was magnificent.
A good example of the massive cultural impact that David Bowie had can be seen in the Doctor Who universe, of all places. Last year in the comic book series The Eleventh Doctor, writers Al Ewing & Rob Williams and artist Simon Fraser introduced a character who was very much an homage to Bowie.
The Doctor takes his companion Alice back in time to London 1962 to see the debut performance of John Jones, a legendary rock star. Much to Alice’s dismay, Jones turns out to have zero stage presence and even less charisma. However the drab wannabe-musician ends up accidentally joining the Doctor and Alice in the TARDIS. As the year-long story arc progresses, Jones is majorly influenced by all of the strange, otherworldly places he visits with the Doctor and Alice. By the time he returns back to 1962, Jones is ready to embark on a revolutionary music career.
Of course, in real life David Bowie was even cooler than that. He didn’t need to travel through all of time & space in order to come up with his amazing music and cutting-edge looks.
Despite his illness, Bowie was active right up until the very end. Blackstar, his twenty-fifth and final studio album, was released on January 8th, his birthday, a mere two days before his death.
Bowie’s passing has gotten me thinking. At 69 years he wasn’t exactly young, but neither was he very old. It’s a sobering reminder that you never know how much time you will actually have.
For a few months I’ve already been considering devoting my energies towards writing fiction. I dabbled in it when I was in my early 20s. Over the last three years I’ve been working out an idea for a novel in my head. Maybe now is the time to finally commit. After all, I’m going to be 40 years old in June. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea to keep procrastinating at this point. I’ll still keep this blog going, perhaps switching between it and my fiction on alternate weekends. I just don’t want to put off my dream until it’s too late.
In any case, my thanks go out to David Bowie for all of the wonderful music he created. He will definitely be missed.
Happy Halloween! Today I’m taking a brief look at the horror comedy musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which made its cinematic debut 40 years ago in 1975.
The movie was an adaptation of The Rocky Horror Show stage musical written by Richard O’Brien and directed by Jim Sharman which was first performed in 1973. It was an homage to / parody of the science fiction and horror movies from the previous decades. Although the movie initially bombed in theaters, 20th Century Fox ad executive Tim Deegan came up with the idea of moving Rocky Horror to midnight screenings. In this new venue in various cities, via world of mouth, the movie became a tremendous cult classic. Since then, for decades avid fans have shown up to either act out the movie and / or heckle at it.
I can’t recall exactly when I first saw Rocky Horror. It was probably in the early 1990s when VH1 was airing it. I realize now that a lot of the movie’s impact was diluted by all the commercials. But once some friends got it on home video I had an opportunity to watch it uninterrupted.
Back then Rocky Horror struck me as a very bizarre, nonsensical movie. Even so, I definitely enjoyed the amazing music by O’Brien. As with other things, as I got older I gradually developed more of an appreciation for it. A couple of weeks ago Michele bought it on DVD, and we’ve watched it a few times. It’s a humorous mix of geeky genre elements and campy hyper-sexuality.
The standout performance of the movie is undoubtedly the amazing Tim Curry as the bi-sexual cross-dressing alien mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter. This was one of Curry’s earliest roles, and watching it you can definitely see why he went on to have such a long & prolific career.
When Curry is on screen as Furter, he just totally owns it. You really need to have a genuine confidence to successfully pull off such a crazy, over-the-top role like this one, and Curry absolutely possesses that quality. His performance is so amazing that even though Furter is a dangerous nutjob, he’s nevertheless compellingly charismatic. Michele is correct when she states “Tim Curry totally makes the movie.”
It’s understandable that for many years Curry was reluctant to discuss Rocky Horror. Furter is such a larger-than-life character, and the movie has such a fanatical following, that it is just the sort of role that could easily threaten to overshadow subsequent work. Perhaps to a degree that did occur, as throughout his career Curry has often played creepy oddballs. Nevertheless there’s certainly enough diversity on display in his resume that it is apparent he was able to at least partially dodge the typecasting bullet.
As I mentioned, I love the music. O’Brien’s lyrics are clever and funny. I’ve had the soundtrack on CD for years now. “The Time Warp” is the one everyone knows. Myself, I’ve always had a real fondness for “Science Fiction Double Feature,” “There’s A Light” and “Don’t Dream It, Be It.” But they’re all good.
O’Brien also plays the creepy handyman Riff Raff. He’s another actor who grabs your attention when he’s on the screen, albeit in a much more understated, sinister manner. It’s not at all surprising that based on his performance here director Alex Proyas later cast O’Brien in the brilliant, criminally underrated science fiction noir movie Dark City.
O’Brien has good chemistry with actress Patricia Quinn, who plays his sister Magenta. The two of them have such a weird vibe going on between them. You’re really left wondering if they’ve been getting up to stuff that they shouldn’t!
Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon play the young couple Brad and Janet. O’Brien’s script is an interesting subversion of the tropes of mid-20th Century sci-fi and horror movies. Brad is the clean-cut type and Janet a virginal innocent. If this were played straight (so to speak) Brad would be the hero who saves Janet from the freaky, demented aliens.
Instead Brad is kind of an asshole (at screenings of the movie the audience frequently shouts that out at him) who is overprotective of and condescending to Janet. As for Janet, instead of playing a chaste, passive role, she discovers that she is attracted to both Furter and his artificial man, the muscular blonde Rocky. Furter ends up seducing first Janet and then Brad, and afterwards Janet has sex with Rocky. At the end the couple is reduced to mere spectators of Furter’s bizarre machinations. It is Riff Raff & Magenta who step in to wrap things up.
The costume designs for Rocky Horror were by Sue Blane. Her work is very striking. It’s not surprising that it would influence fashion and the punk aesthetic of the late 1970s.
If you have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, well, all this must sound really freaky and twisted. I will be the first to acknowledge that the movie is an acquired taste. Heck, I really like it, but I doubt that I’ll be going to the theater anytime soon in costume to toss toilet paper at the screen.
Having said that, it is always wonderful when people can find something to be passionate about, that speaks to them on a genuinely personal level. Interviewed on The Today Show about the movie’s 40th anniversary, Sarandon stated…
“I’ve had so many people come up to me and say that film helped them through a dark time.”
Also interviewed, Curry offered his thoughts on the movie…
“The thing that resonated for me more than anything was, ‘Don’t dream it, be it,’ which was a really good idea. Really good slogan.”
Here’s to the little movie that could. If you have the opportunity, go see it at the late night double feature picture show.
Michele and I are both fans of Paul Williams. He is an amazing songwriter and singer. I am not ashamed to say that, yes, I do have a fondness for sappy, sad, wistful love songs. Williams has penned many memorable tunes of that sort. I always seem to get at least a little misty-eyed whenever I hear Kermit the Frog singing “The Rainbow Connection,” co-written by Williams and Kenneth Ascher, for which they deservedly earned Ocsar nominations. More recently, Williams collaborated with Daft Punk on their Grammy-winning album Random Access Memories.
Williams also starred in, and wrote the music for, the superb cult classic movie Phantom of the Paradise which I’ve blogged about previously (here’s a link). Among his other acting credits that I’ve enjoyed were his portrayal of Virgil the scientist/philosopher orangutan from Battle for the Planet of the Apes, appearing as himself on The Odd Couple and The Muppet Show, voicing The Penguin on Batman: The Animated Series, and playing an animated version of himself on Dexter’s Laboratory. I’m probably forgetting a few other good ones.
For a number of years Williams struggled with alcohol & drug addiction. He has been sober since March 15, 1990. Since then, he has been active in the recovery movement, working as a Certified Drug Rehabilitation Counselor.
Author Tracey Jackson is, on the other hand, not an addict, at least as far as substances such as booze or pills are concerned. But for many years she found herself trapped in a pattern of repeating a variety of self-destructive behaviors to compensate for and avoid dealing with her unhappiness.
I enjoyed hearing Williams and Jackson reading from Gratitude & Trust, and listening to their Q & A. I had a great deal of identification with both of them, and I felt they offered very helpful suggestions for people who are in recovery.
It is true that you do not have to abuse alcohol or drugs to be an addict. And once you put down those substances you can still end up not having a sober mindset if you merely substitute your addition to those for other things. Even if you do not have a problem with mind-altering substances, there is so much out there to become addicted to: food, money, shopping, sex, work, gambling, fame, anger, the Internet, etc. And, yes, that includes comic books and caffeine, I acknowledge with a definite self-awareness!
I do not know if it is a quality of Western society or of humanity in general, but we often cope with unhappiness and dissatisfaction via outside remedies or distractions. We seek material possessions and the validation of others over addressing the defects of character that lie within us. Instead of addressing our flaws and working to put behind us the traumas of our pasts, we look for ways to get out of our heads. It is actually understandable, because it is far easier, at least in the short term, to grab hold of something that will give us momentary satisfaction, than to commence at the hard, unflinchingly honest work that is necessary to address our underlying unhappiness.
Perhaps there is also that impetus of self-reliance, the myth of pulling yourself up by your boot-straps, at play, upon which much of Western society is rooted. We are more likely to try to solve problems on our own than to turn to others for assistance, seeing that as a sign of weakness. But often there are tasks and struggles we cannot overcome without the help or advice of others.
And then there is the issue of God. I can definitely understand why many people recoil at that word, and at the thought of praying to some nebulous deity for strength & assistance. There are so many examples of organized religions acting in an imperious, oppressive manner throughout the world, movements and organizations rife with hypocrisy & corruption, so much so that we often wish to slam the door on God. But it is a fact that some people do find great comfort in their faith. I am a firm believer in the vital importance of individual spirituality. What works for me may not work for you. Each person should be free to work on developing their relationship with the Higher Power of their understanding.
Williams and Jackson definitely address these concepts within Gratitude & Trust. The book is their attempt to take the principals of recovery that have been utilized by alcoholics & drug addicts over the decades and demonstrate how these can also be utilized by others to improve their lives, to find serenity and peace of mind. I certainly applaud their efforts. I’m looking forward to reading their book. Hopefully I’ll be able to put these suggestions into practice into my own life.
So, yes, it was definitely very cool meeting Paul Williams at Barnes & Noble. I’m afraid that I was terribly nervous, and I forgot to tell him how much I was a fan of his acting & music throughout the decades. But I did let him know that I appreciated that he and Tracey Jackson penned this volume. I hope he heard me, since I was probably mumbling a bit!
Anyway, I think that Gratitude & Trust is worth a look. Considering how many of us attempt to look for relief in a bottle of whiskey or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or a shopping spree at Macy’s or whatever your particular vice is, this book offers a more constructive alternative to the very difficult task of living life on life’s terms.
I recently saw the 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise when it aired on the Sundance Channel. I had first seen it quite a number years ago on television, and I remember being struck by how incredibly weird and eerie it was. Re-watching it now in 2013, I definitely developed a real fondness for it, as well as realizing just how on-the-money writer/director Brian De Palma was in his dark satire of the music industry. In certain respects, the film was ahead of its time.
Phantom of the Paradise is the story of Winslow Leech (William Finley), an ambitious composer who has written a lengthy, epic cantata based on the legend of Faust. He is overheard performing part of it by mega-successful record producer Swan (Paul Williams) and his lackey Philbin (George Memmoli). Swan immediately decides that he wants Winslow’s music for the opening of his high-profile concert hall the Paradise; he doesn’t, however, want Winslow himself. Philbin gets Winslow to give him the only copy of the cantata, promising that Swan is going to look it over and get right back to him. A month passes, and Winslow finally realizes he’s been tricked. He sneaks into Swan’s mansion, where auditions are being held for the opening of the Paradise. Overhearing dozens of would-be songstresses slaughtering his music, one voice captures Winslow’s attention: the beautiful Phoenix (Jessica Harper). Coming up to her, Winslow begins singing with her, and he realizes that Phoenix is the perfect voice for his cantata. There is also an instant attraction between the two. However, when Winslow attempts to speak with Swan, the producer has his thugs beat up the composer, and arranges for the cops to frame him for drug possession, landing him a life sentence in, appropriately enough, Sing Sing.
Six months later, Winslow breaks out of prison. During an attempt to destroy Swan’s Death Records manufacturing plant, Winslow’s head is caught in a record press. Horribly scarred, Winslow makes his way to the Paradise and, donning a cape & mask, begins to terrorize the concert hall. When he tries to attack Swan, though, the icy producer is unperturbed. Swan convinces a reluctant, wary Winslow to work with him in completing the cantata, promising that Phoenix will sing it. Swan, though, later decides to replace Phoenix with a glam rock singer named Beef (Gerrit Graham) and once the cantata is completed has his men brick up the entrance to Winslow’s room. In a superhuman rage, the composer breaks out. Winslow threatens Beef in the shower, attacking him with a toilet plunger. Beef tries to back out of the show, but Philbin strong-arms him into going on. During the subsequent performance of Faust, Winslow hides in the rafters and hurtles a neon lightning bolt at Beef, spectacularly electrocuting him on stage. Philbin realizes that Winslow is loose and, to prevent any more deaths, brings Phoenix on stage to perform the unedited version of the music. The crowd immediately falls in love with her, and Swan promises to make her a star.
Winslow is horrified that Phoenix is falling under Swan’s spell. He drags her to the rooftop of the Paradise and tries to convince her that Swan will destroy her, but she won’t listen; she’s already enthralled by the lure of the audience worshiping her. Following Swan and Phoenix back to the producer’s mansion, Winslow spies on the two having sex. Utterly distraught, he plunges a knife into his heart. Soon after, Swan comes up and approaches Winslow’s body. Plucking the knife from it, he informs the still-living Winslow that as long as he is under contract to Swan he cannot die. Winslow attempts to murder Swan, and is shocked when the knife won’t penetrate his body. Swan enigmatically comments “I’m under contract too.”
Sometime later, as Phoenix’s Faust tour is winding down, Swan proposes that the two of them get married in a lavish ceremony on live television. While Swan is busy arranging this, Winslow breaks into his mansion. He discovers a film recording from twenty years ago made by Swan himself. The producer was despondent at the thought of growing old and losing his good looks, and was ready to slit his wrists in the bathtub. However, via Swan’s reflection in the bathroom mirror, the Devil offered to keep him eternally young in exchange for his soul. As long as the recording exists, Swan will not age a day. Winslow then discovers that Swan is planning to have Phoenix killed by a sniper during the wedding. In a rage, Winslow sets fire to Swan’s entire file room of contracts. He then arrives at the Paradise in time to deflect the gunman’s aim so that Philbin is shot instead. Fighting through the frenzied crowd, Winslow stabs the now-mortal Swan, killing him. In turn, his own wound re-opens. As Winslow lies dying, his mask falls off. A shocked, saddened Phoenix at lasts recognizes him, and she cradles his lifeless body.
As I said, when I first saw Phantom of the Paradise many years ago, I was almost overwhelmed at how bizarre and freaky it was. As I recall, the flashback scene where Swan makes his deal with the Devil via his own reflection was especially unsettling. The film still very much possesses that distinctive atmosphere for me, with its strange characters & unusual visuals. And it was certainly a judicious move by De Palma to have Rod Serling voice the opening narration, which perfectly sets the tone for the entire story.
Re-watching Phantom of the Paradise now, I also see what an incredibly prescient quality there is to it. Yes, back in the early 1970s, the music industry was already very commercialized. But it has become infinitely worse since then, with record labels, radio, and television all churning out & promoting generic crap from pretty-looking but talentless hacks, appealing to the lowest common denominator. At the same time, you have American Idol and its countless imitators, where publicity-hungry people flock on to television making fools of themselves in their efforts to seize their fifteen minutes of fame.
In planning Phoenix’s murder, Swan comments “An assassination live on television coast to coast? That’s entertainment!” I don’t know how that line came across to audiences four decades ago, but nowadays it sounds frighteningly plausible. The audience erupting into hysterical applause at Beef’s on-stage death also seems like it could really happen. There is so much insane, degrading material broadcast on both the 24 hour news cycle and so-called “reality television” in order to generate massive ratings. No actual contract murders that I can think of, but at least a few hundred hellacious catfights and drunken blow-ups have graced TV screens in recent years. Kim Kardashian may not have arranged to have Kris Humphries killed on television, but her 72 day marriage to him apparently netted her several million dollars. And after it was all over, I bet there was a part of Humphries that wishes he had just been shot dead at the altar.
As for the character of Swan, he is just plain creepy, a total immoral bastard. According to a few sources, Swan was based on infamous music svengali Phil Spector. I’m not sure how much of Spector’s dark side, such as his abusive & controlling behavior towards his wife Ronnie, was known to the public at the time that Phantom of the Paradise was made. But in later years Spector definitely took a total dive off the deep end, culminating in him shooting actress Lana Clarkson in 2003, and his conviction for her murder several years later. Talk about life imitating art.
In any case, Paul Williams gives a really sinister, memorable performance as Swan. Williams also wrote the music & lyrics for the film. Phantom of the Paradise may have been a dud at the box office, but at least Williams received a well-deserved Oscan nomination for his music.
Another thing that I picked up on is that Phantom of the Paradise has an almost Objectivist aspect to it, albeit one that seems to be a send-up of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Winslow Leach possesses certain parallels with Howard Roark, the architect from The Fountainhead. Both men are passionately concerned with maintaining the purity of their artistic vision, and adamantly refuse to compromise their ideals. Roark dynamites the building he designed after it was altered without his permission. So too does Winslow attempts to use dynamite to demolish Swan’s Death Records plant, and he later successfully blows up the Beach Bums, the bubblegum pop band that Swan initially wanted to perform Faust at the Paradise. He also commits several subsequent murders.
Of course, there is a real difference between the depictions of the two men. Rand very much regarded Roark as a flawless, noble hero. In contrast, even at the start of the movie, Winslow comes across as both overzealous and naïve. By the time he assumes the identity of the Phantom, it is very clear that Winslow is quite insane. In his efforts to destroy Swan, Winslow kills a lot of other people. Yes, Beef was a prima donna egotist, and the Beach Bums were cheesy hacks, but did they all deserve to die? And Winslow’s relationship with Phoenix is also problematic. I do not think he truly loved her. It seems much more a case of obsession, driven by Winslow’s belief that only she could ever properly sing his music.
Yes, Swan seems very much to be one of the “parasites” that Rand so despised. He is a monster who steals Winslow’s work and utterly destroys his life. Yet by embarking upon his mission of vengeance, Winslow himself becomes a sort of monster as well, bringing to mind Nietzsche’s warning concerning those who fight monsters. I think that the Howard Roarks of the world may start out as romantic idealists, but their unyielding convictions might very well lead them to the same fate as those who have exploited them.
Analysis aside, Phantom of the Paradise is a great movie. Brian De Palma directs the hell out of it, with some truly amazing, dynamic shots. As I said before, the music by Paul Williams is fantastic. It’s unfortunate but, in retrospect, not surprising that Phantom of the Paradise initially failed in the theaters. It is a very difficult movie to classify, simultaneously horror, comedy and musical. But it often seems like these sort of offbeat films are the ones that stand the test of time, and nowadays it is considered a cult classic.
I went to the signing at Forbidden Planet in Manhattan this past Wednesday. At the store were Jerry Only, Dez Cadena, and Eric “Chupacabra” Acre, the current line-up of the punk rock band the Misfits. Also at the signing was John Cafiero, frontman of the anime-inspired punk group Osaka Popstar. I hadn’t actually heard of Osaka Popstar before, but of course I knew of the Misfits, even though I’ve only really gotten into listening to them in the last few years (my girlfriend, on the other hand, has been a fan since high school).
It was pretty darn cool meeting Jerry Only. I have to say, I was surprised to see so many fans who were in their teens and early twenties. Nice to know that there are still younger people out there listening to real music, rather than that all of that Auto-Tune crap. (Not that I’m really old or anything… I’m only 36!) Yeah, you can argue that the Misfits are past their prime and that almost all the original band is gone (Jerry Only is the last founding member currently still in the group). But at least they still play their own instruments, write their own music, etc. I’ll gladly take the Misfits in their current incarnation over most of the new pop “singers” clogging the airwaves.
Jerry Only seemed like a really cool, friendly guy. He appeared to be enjoying himself, and made a real effort to talk to all of the fans. Certainly wasn’t playing the role of aloof, famous rock star, or anything like that. I’m sure part of the reason he was in a good mood was because all these cute twenty year old punk and goth girls were lining up to see him! But, hey, he made time for everyone. When I mentioned that my girlfriend wasn’t able to make it because she had the flu, Only gave me a free Misfits mask autographed by himself, Cadena and Acre as a gift for her. I think he knew that she was a true fan because I brought along her limited edition Jerry Only doll to get autographed. He was thrilled to see that.
Only, Cadena, and Acre were signing copies of the new Misfits album Dead Alive (or, if you prefer, DEA.D. ALIVE!) which is a recording of their Halloween 2011 show at BB Kings in Times Square. I gave the CD a listen yesterday. It isn’t the greatest live album that I’ve ever heard, by any means. But it’s certainly a fun, enjoyable collection of cool sci-fi / horror inspired tunes, which is what has always been the appeal of the Misfits for me. If you’re already a Misfits fan, you’ll probably like it.
Going by Dead Alive, you could argue that Jerry Only is a better bass player than front man, that perhaps he does not quite have the spark of either Glenn Danzig or Michael Graves. That said, Only is obviously passionate about keeping the Misfits going. You have to give him credit for keeping at it in the era of lip synching “artists” who cannot even play their own instruments.
I enjoyed the Osaka Popstar CD I picked up somewhat more, at least. Rock’Em O-Sock’Em Live is a really cool collection live punk music, including covers of a few Ramones songs. It was recorded back during Fiend Fest ’06. John Cafiero is on vocals. Backing him up are Dez Cadena & Ivan Julian on guitars, Jerry Only on bass, and Markey Ramone on drums. The CD is topped off by a cool cover illustrated by Garbage Pail Kids artist John Pound. That really brought back memories!
Osaka Popstar just released a new single, “Super Hero.” I didn’t have a chance to get a copy of that at Forbidden Planet, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for it.
Anyway, even though I was pretty lukewarm about Dead Alive, I would still like to see the Misfits live one of these days. I’m sure it would be a fun show. And hopefully I’ll also have a chance to catch Osaka Popstar. Judging by Rock’Em O-Sock’Em Live, John Cafiero is a heck of a good performer.
I’ve had this blog for a few months now, and I realized that I haven’t written anything about music. I actually do listen to a lot of music. It’s just that I find it a difficult subject to speak about. If you’ve read my comic book reviews, you may have noticed that I focus on plot and characterization, but not nearly as much on artwork. I sometimes find it a struggle to intelligently write about the elements of illustration and storytelling. Likewise, along those lines, it’s very difficult for me to explain precisely why I like or don’t like certain music. So don’t expect to see too many music reviews here!
Anyway, this summer there’s been the 34th annual Seaside Summer Concert Series going on at Coney Island. Usually the shows are held on a Thursday night, which is a bit of a problem for me, because it takes a long time to travel to Coney Island from where I live. So if I have work the next day, it’s not a great thing for me to have to try to make my way home from there after the show, and then be at the job a few hours later. I just seem to need more sleep than most people. So I hadn’t gone to any of the concerts this year.
Last week, for some reason, the concert was on a Friday night instead of a Thursday. Since I didn’t have work the next day and could sleep in, my girlfriend pestered me into going. I have to admit, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the line-up: Squeeze and The Romantics. I knew a couple of songs by each band, but I would definitely not classify myself as a fan.
When we got there, I wasn’t too impressed. It had been raining most of the day, and now the weather was very overcast & breezy. Hardly any people were there. Row upon row up empty chairs sat before the stage, looking quite forlorn. If I had been in either of the bands, I might have taken one look at that scene, gotten back in my trailer, and hit the road. Yeah, it was that bad. It was like something out of This Is Spinal Tap, when the band hits rock bottom, and ends up playing to a crowd of a dozen people at an amusement park.
But apparently the show must go on. The Romantics came on first, and did a decent set. The only two songs I knew were “Talking in Your Sleep” and “What I Like About You.” But I enjoyed it. Like I said, though, I felt bad for the band having to play to a nearly-deserted venue. People started to slowly trickle in while The Romantics were playing, and even more came during the intermission.
I was half-expecting these new arrivals to be scared off by Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, who took to the stage to talk incessantly, rattling off all sorts of nonsense in between name-checking every single corporate sponsor. That’s politicians for you; they love the sound of their own voice. But people stuck around, and by the time Squeeze took to the stage, there was actually a halfway-decent crowd. Still lots of empty seats, but nowhere near as bad as before.
Okay, I was really impressed by Squeeze. The thing is, I thought that I only knew a couple of their songs, namely “Black Coffee in Bed” and “Tempted.” Those are two decent tunes, although “Tempted” has unfortunately become one of those horribly overplayed numbers, so I didn’t think that I’d even want to hear it. But the band did a really great live version of it. And, surprisingly, it turned out I knew more of their songs than I thought.
Back in the mid-1990s, I used to hear “Pulling Muscles (From the Shell)” on the radio all the time. I thought it was by some alternative band whose name I could never find out. I had no idea that it was actually a 15 year old song by Squeeze. Even more surprising was when the band launched into “Cool for Cats.” That was a jaw-dropper. I love that song. I had no clue that Squeeze sang it. My exchange with my girlfriend during the show went something like this:
“Wait, Squeeze did this song?”
“Yes. You never knew that?”
“No, I thought that it was by some British band.”
“Squeeze is from England, Ben.”
“Oh! I thought they were from the South or Midwest or something.”
*Ahem!* Shows how much I know. Anyway, as I said, I really enjoyed the Squeeze set. They did a fantastic job, and I’m sorry that they ended up performing to such a sparse audience. Not sure they were happy about fireworks going off at the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball stadium next door, either! Hope this whole experience doesn’t dissuade them from returning to New York in the future. I’d like to see them again. (I’m actually listening to their greatest hits CD as I type up this blog entry.)
Looking over the concert line-up for the rest of the summer, I saw that there were a couple of other shows I’d like to catch. But they’re on the regular Thursday dates, though. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts I saw in Central Park several years ago. So, if I miss them, at least I was able to catch them in the past. No, the one that really bummed me out was that next Thursday at Coney Island they’re going to have Dennis DeYoung from Styx, Lou Gramm from Foreigner, and Bobby Kimball from Toto, all on one stage. When I saw that, I disappointedly cried out “Awwwww, man!” I would really like to catch that show, but I have work the next day. What a bummer.
That said, if the Pet Shop Boys ever end up playing at Coney Island, I don’t care what day of the week it is, I am so there!