Friday, October 20, 2017

That Beatles Parody You Didn't Know You Needed

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 22
Eric Idle (writer/director), The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Nine
The Rutles, The Rutles

Sometime in the early 1960s, a mop-topped quartet of British musicians took the world by storm. No, not that one. This quartet gained international fame almost overnight, fame for which they proved supremely unprepared. The Rutles, so-named because they began as a one-off sketch on Eric Idle’s show Rutland Television Weekend, hit so close to the Beatles’ actual history that Paul and Ringo supposedly couldn’t watch the finished show.

Eric Idle has a history of weak, uninspiring choices following his Monty Python years. But this one choice probably rescued his name from premature anonymity. Teaming with Neil Innes, who wrote some of Monty Python’s funniest musical segments; Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels; and a selection of top-quality British session musicians, Idle managed to create a band that both honored the Beatles, and challenged Beatlemania’s continuing cult-like adoration.

Emerging from the Cavern Rutland, the band found an unlikely champion in a middle-aged tradesman who didn’t understand music at all. A series of ham-handed business arrangements makes the Rutles a lucrative proposition for record producers, merchandisers, and filmmakers—but the Rutles themselves get ripped off, seeing tiny percentages of the money made off their names. It doesn’t take long before drugs and infighting threaten to overtake the band.

The parallels with the actual Beatles are more than slight. The sudden rise, global popularity, and massive flame-out mirror the Beatles’ trajectory point-for-point. Ringo Starr reported having difficulty watching the finished mockumentary, which hit too close to home, and Paul McCartney had a frosty response. John Lennon, however, called it hilarious, and George Harrison contributed to the production, even appearing onscreen. (The next year, Harrison co-produced Life of Brian.)

Neil Innes’ compositions, most supposedly written during a two-week hot streak in 1977, sound so close to the Beatles, they scarcely count as parody. Early tracks like “Goose-Step Mama” and “Hold My Hand,” mimic the Beatles’ early, American-influenced rock-and-rollers. Later tracks venture into nostalgia with “Doubleback Alley,” psychedelia on “Piggy in the Middle,” and rootless anger on “Get Up and Go.” The soundtrack plays like an unironic Beatles retrospective.

This earnest, ambitious musical texture, available as a separate album for those who appreciate its artistry, contrasts with Idle’s glib tone tone. Idle, who plays both a Rutle and the video host, guides viewers through the Rutles’ tumultuous arc, which we watch with pained awareness of where everything will end. Though Christopher Guest’s Spinal Tap is often credited with starting the “mockumentary” fad, Idle pioneered the format five years prior.

Idle’s characters show glib self-awareness, often speaking directly into the camera: they know they’re in a documentary, and probably know where they’re headed. Interviews with the Rutles’ purported contemporaries, including Mick Jagger and Paul Simon, indicate a deep appreciation of the band’s art, but also an awareness that the group was ultimately doomed. With a “knew-it-all-along” shrug, witnesses describe a ship setting sail with its decks already on fire.

The Rutles, from left: Neil Innes, Ricky Fataar, Eric Idle, and John Halsey

Of the actors playing the Rutles, only Idle (who lip-synchs his vocals) and Innes have significant speaking lines. The other band members, bassist Ricky Fataar and drummer John Halsey, speak little; they were hired primarily as musicians. Fataar cut two albums and toured extensively with the Beach Boys, while Halsey was a regular session musician for Lou Reed, Joe Cocker, and Joan Armatrading. Their musical bona fides are unimpeachable.

As stated above, the audience already understands where the Rutles’ trajectory is headed. While happy lyrics and playfully inventive composition keeps Rutlemania fans distracted, the band’s internal dissensions become increasingly visible. As they work less closely, the band’s art starts suffering, and they begin displaying embarrassing, sprawling pseudo-creativity. It becomes clear the band members need one another, but can’t stand each other.

Eventually, we already know, the band splinters. Some members return to the anonymity from which they originated, while others keep trying to produce art, but remain haunted by their past. Asked directly whether the Rutles will ever get back together, Mick Jagger, looking like a man caught with his pants around his ankles, gasps: “I hope not.” So do we, because they’re worth more as a memory than a living force.

Idle and Innes, plus part-time contributors George Harrison and Michael Palin, infuse the Rutles story with fast, Python-esque humor. But it’s the comedy of a perfectly choreographed train wreck. We almost feel guilty taking pleasure in watching the Rutles self-destruct. Yet the Rutles’ tragedy is so woven into our cultural consciousness, we need that laughter, just to understand the depths of our own pain.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

We're All Just Szechuan Sauce Now

Before the Great Szechuan Sauce Meltdown of 2017, I hadn’t thought about Cartoon Network’s breakout hit Rick and Morty for over a year. Having witnessed the Internet sensation around the series, I wanted to understand the fervor it engendered. So I watched two episodes, concluded this series wasn’t for me, and didn’t think about it again. Clearly I overlooked something important, because the Szechuan Sauce debacle chills my bones.

For those playing the home game, the third-season Rick and Morty opener included an extended gag pleading for McDonald's to bring back “Szechuan”-flavored McNugget dipping sauce, a short-lived promotional item from 1998. McDonald’s, without consulting the production house, went along with a one-day gimmick resurrection. But they didn’t plan appropriately, distributed sauce haphazardly, and fans were disappointed. Worse, many were outraged. Some fan protests turned into mini-riots.

We could calibrate how imbecilic this debacle really is. Multiple sources have published open-source sauce recipes, which have mostly been around since the sauce first gained admirers nineteen years ago. But for fans, the sauce as comestible doesn’t really matter; geek culture is clearly about shared experiences—and the experience of getting Rick Sanchez’s favorite dipping sauce from his favorite restaurant matters to show fans more than the food.

Never mind that audiences understand Rich Sanchez is supposed to be an obnoxious human being. Never mind that, in pursuit of his appetites, he broke up his daughter’s marriage in that episode, and prior episodes have included murder and implications of incest. The series anti-hero wanted a specific experience, and fans wanted to share that experience. And McDonald’s failed to anticipate the zeal fans bring to having sharing their goals.

Unfortunately, McDonald’s apparently doesn’t understand new manifestations of fan culture. Until this week, McDonald’s, like me, thought fan culture still revolves around small handfuls of geeks wearing Star Trek uniforms or Jedi robes, hand-distributing mimeographed fanzines which only a handful of friends would probably ever see. I've personally excused revolting fan behavior in the past, largely because my belief in fan culture hadn’t much evolved since 1991.

But those days are gone.The Internet now permits fans to organize without regard for geography. No more do fans need to organize conventions in hotel ballrooms in hopes of meeting fellow Trekkers beyond those they attended high school with; I could meet Trekkers in London, Sydney, Trinidad, and the Ross Ice Shelf by logging on. The capacity for unified fan action has never been greater… which is awesome, for essentially benign fandoms.

But we’re not talking about Star Trek, or its uplifting humanist values, anymore. The spread of organized fan culture has coincided with some pretty terrible fan objects. Some of fandom’s most influential properties, like Mad Men, Arrested Development, and Game of Thrones, star characters who exist specifically to be revolting, amoral throwbacks. But fans don’t make that distinction. So we get nerdboys deliberately mimicking Rick Sanchez.

Rick and Morty’s creators have tried to distance themselves from their fandom, especially as the primarily male base has reacted violently to hiring women writers for Season Three. But that’s too little, too late. The entire show exists to spotlight a sociopath whose sense of entitlement overwhelms things like family, common decency, and human life. And it’s attracted a fandom which, to a shocking degree, shares these values.

McDonald’s learned to ignore fan dynamics at their peril. Entitled fans screamed abuse at minimum-wage workers, disrupted business, and demanded their wants be treated as sacrosanct. I could understand such disruptions for noble ends, for instance, protesting that a corporation which claims billions of dollars’ profit every quarter claims it can’t afford giving front-line workers a modest raise. But this was idiot man-children throwing a tantrum over a cartoon.

This isn’t a McDonald’s problem, friends. Recent accusations of sociopathic behavior from superstars like Harvey Weinstein and Ben Affleck have gotten papered over to keep money rolling in, while controversies haven’t stuck to Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Because hey, the fan base prints money. And this same appeal to sociopathy has given powerful, culture-defining careers to Roger Ailes, Bill “Falafel” O’Reilly, and Donald Trump.

McDonald’s will shrug this controversy off. As the only ready source of cheap, ready-to-eat food in many poor neighborhoods and overbuilt suburbs, its principal customers can’t afford a meaningful boycott. But the images of screaming, entitled fans will remain an American shame for years. Because this fandom didn’t happen; it was cultivated for profit. And fandoms like it will arise as long as there’re man-babies with money.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Maybe the Problem Is Just Men Having Power

Harvey Weinstein
Hollywood greasebag Harvey Weinstein’s descent into pariah status has happened with haste I never expected. It took months for Bill Cosby’s rape accusations to gain sticking power, and he even headlined a successful tour while accusations kept dribbling out. How people feel about Bill Clinton, even after DNA evidence, still largely breaks along party lines. Malcolm Forbes and Jimmy Savile didn’t even get seriously accused until they were dead.

This happens so consistently, though, that we should contemplate the moral. We keep discovering powerful men with their trousers around their ankles. This may mean literally, as with former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, or figuratively, like JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. Either way, we face a discomforting reality: men with egos big enough to pursue and achieve global power, have egos big enough to consider themselves immune from consequences.

Weinstein’s described behavior should sound familiar to people who follow these issues. Like Malcolm Forbes, he greeted targets wearing only a bathrobe, or less, and when his targets refused his advances, he’d masturbate, or otherwise gratify himself, in front of them. Like James Woods, he evidently approached very young women with grandiose offers in exchange for favors. Like Joss Whedon, he did this while publicly ballyhooing his progressive credentials.

In fact, the described behavior is so similar that, like medieval witch hunts, I’d almost believe the accusers were jumping on public hysteria and repeating claims they’d already heard from others. Except that we keep seeing the same behavior emerge from their mouths. They, or a handful of paid shills, deny the accusations and disparage the accusers. They throw themselves on the mercy of the courts. Then, they get convicted.

02102We’re still so early in the Weinstein scandal that we’re just seeing the “non-denial denial” stage. That’s when the accused insist they… something. At this stage, Bill Cosby simply went quiet, refusing to confirm or deny anything. Donald Trump issued a statement insisting that his recorded boasts don’t really reflect his identity. Bill Clinton took the unusual step of out-and-out lying. The effect is identical, however: “It’s not my fault!”

There’s also the attempt to paint oneself as the victim. Weinstein has issued a statement complaining that his wife and children left him, while his board fired him from the company bearing his name. Sob. Donald Trump mustered several of Bill Clinton’s accusers to redirect his story onto “crooked Hillary.” Roman Polanski fled the country and made several award-winning films to distract Americans from his rape confession.

Often, but not always, the accused gets found guilty. After DNA proved the stain on Monica’s dress really came from Bill Clinton’s peter, Clinton admitted his lies, but evaded impeachment, retired at the peak of his poll numbers, and made a cushy bankroll on corporate speaking engagements. Marv Albert pled to a lesser charge to avoid a trial. Mike Tyson did three years on a six-year sentence.

But too often, the accused skate. Sometimes they should; accusations against Tucker Carlson, Jerry Lawler, and Kobe Bryant were deemed baseless. But Michael Jackson stood trial twice without a conviction, and R. Kelly pushed procedural options so far that his ultimate trial became tragicomic, with a pre-written conclusion. And Woody Allen, Errol Flynn, and Al Gore? Hell, they just skated. It’s hard to prove sexual crimes, especially against famous people.

Any individual accused of sex crimes, of course, represents only himself. There’s no magic individual who represents the entire male population, even that male subset comprising the famous, wealthy, and powerful. No stink of sexual impropriety ever clung to Barack Obama or George W. Bush. And the occasional woman has been accused (Britney Spears). So it’s wrong to draw hasty conclusions, or assume all rich, powerful men are guilty.

However, after enough accusations, the pattern becomes visible. Men who grow accustomed to thinking of themselves as bigger than the general rabble, who believe their impulses more worthy of satisfaction, will eventually believe themselves bulletproof. Harvey Weinstein has been in the media production business for forty-eight years, and evidently considered himself a kingmaker. Maybe he started to believe that “divine right of kings” bullshit.

Plato wrote, over two millennia ago, that those most eager to achieve power, deserve it least. This applies in politics, finance, or pop culture. The young, hungry Harvey Weinstein may have produced decades of culture-defining hits; but accusations of impropriety now go back two decades, to when he became an institution. Maybe we need a statute of limitations on power. Maybe we need more women.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Little Pieces of America All Around Us

Yeah? What America is that?
(click to enlarge)
I really, really like Creedence Clearwater Revival. But the reason why is pretty embarrassing: when, at sixteen, I rebelled against my parents’ popular culture, as sixteen-year-olds do, I wasn’t ready to embrace Nirvana and Pearl Jam like my peers. I feared getting into anything “new,” and getting left behind, like my friends who’d previously enjoyed Nu Shooz or Duran Duran. Novelty was risky; old stuff came pre-screened. So I started listening to the oldies station.

As half-hearted rebellions go, mine probably seems mild. Given the recent popularity of steampunk, crypto-fascism, and hipsters dressed as Canadian loggers, digging the rock’n’roll of a prior generation isn’t that bad. Except, I’ve increasingly realized, I didn’t really embrace that generation’s vision. Any listen through Casey Kasem’s back catalog reveals that American Top Forty radio has long been dominated by tedious music, driven by labels and producers who manipulate, rather than listen to, the market.

So yeah, I understand the impulse driving people made uncomfortable by today’s cultural divides. I witness friends, people I like and trust, embracing the “Make America Great Again” motto, creating excuses for everyone from Bill Cosby to Peter Cvjetanovic, and calling anything that doesn’t support their power structure “fake news.” Meanwhile, the political party that represents organized progressives offered voters a choice, in the last presidential primary, between nostalgia for the 1990s or the 1950s.

This massive aversion to risk comes at a time when America’s structure is already changing. Our demographics are in motion, as immigration from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East give this country an increasingly brown complexion. Our range of media options continues to increase as the carrying capacity of TV and Internet sources improves, and we’re drowning in new ideas. Even commerce has become chaotic, with the hectic panoply of chains and online retailers.

Naturally, a large fraction of Americans retreat into what’s comfortable. Whether that means pining for a sunlit Norman Rockwell townscape, or voting for the candidate who promises to restore what we consider our glory days, or listening to “Bad Moon Rising” with the volume at eleven, we’re seeing the same motivation. People intimidated by change, which happens faster now that we can (or choose to) manage, naturally retreat into their favorite version of the past.

I understand this impulse, but I fear it, too. Back in the 1980s, when I began paying attention to social issues, I remember people already complaining that suburban sprawl, with its lack of shared common spaces like parks and downtowns, created vast “communities” bound together only by geographical proximity. Residents sorted themselves into real communities by their workplaces, churches, watering holes, and their children’s schools. Ideas, like people, became unofficially segregated in our diverse America.

Today’s media landscape sees that segregation happening even more quickly. We watch Fox News or MSNBC and have our favorite prejudices ratified by well-coiffed pundits, and equally importantly, we see our ideological challengers reduced to manageable caricatures. We choose our radio stations to ensure we hear only what we know we already enjoy, and, as Gretchen Rubin writes, streaming services like Pandora and Spotify actually narrow our exposure. We’ve improved innovation exposure to a science.

Nor am I immune to this. After resisting new culture for decades, I embraced indie rock when I was pushing forty. But at a recent concert, I realized: this audience is almost as white as the Charlottesville Nazi rally. I could excuse even that as the natural self-sorting nature of crowds, except that I’d driven over 320 miles to see this concert, which I’d heard advertized on an out-of-town radio station I listen to online.

Sadly, I have no ready solutions. I see how aversion to novelty reduces me to a stereotype, the middle-aged white “kid” listening to indie with other honkies. But the alternative is switching my listening habits to locally available radio, which not only bores me, but is overwhelmingly owned by out-of-town corporations famously unresponsive to local needs. I could complain that corporations shattered my community… but I’d have to admit they did it with my assistance.

If America is shattered, as the nostalgia vendors claim, then we have broken it, you and I. We could, as many do, pin responsibility on corporations, or government, or millennials. But that’s just punting the issue down the field. We elect a government, but we lack leaders. We join social networks, but we don’t organize. We look at the little pieces of America all around us and, like good little passive citizens, we do… nothing.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

One Million Ways To Die in the Star Wars Universe

Greg Stones, 99 Stormtroopers Join the Empire

One stormtrooper fails to shoot first.
One stormtrooper doesn’t let the Wookie win.
One stormtrooper fails Lord Vader for the last time.

Back in 1963, macabre cartoonist Edward Gorey published a storybook for grown-ups called The Gashlycrumb Tinies, in which twenty-six children meet horrible ends. Did you ever wonder how that would look if nerds rewrote it for their favorite franchise? Yeah, me neither. But Greg Stones, author of Zombies Hate Stuff and Sock Monkeys Have Issues, apparently did. And boy am I glad, because this book is funny.

Stones imagines different ways stormtroopers die grisly deaths. Stomped by AT-AT Walkers; frozen in carbonite; fed to the Sarlacc; stationed on Alderaan. The deaths incorporate images from all eight live-action movies, though mostly the original trilogy. Some deaths probably refer to ancillary material I haven’t read yet. All are hilarious in the deadpan delivery of frankly gruesome content that the characters probably hated.

click to enlarge

As with Gorey, however, the real life comes from Stones’ illustrations. His flat, cartoonish look contrasts with the three-dimensional, computer-generated style favored in so many picture books these days, a deliberate nod to his adult audience’s nostalgia for their childhood reading. The approach is playful, with oversaturated colors and not-quite realistic proportions (nobody casts a shadow). The stormtroopers are drawn wearing armor from the original trilogy.

Stones’ poker-faced prose, never more than one sentence per page, and childlike folk illustrations, give the gruesome content its ironic comedy. There’s always something hilarious about stating awful things like you’re discussing the weather, especially when you know it’s fiction. Stones’ understatement of the truly awful gives his storybook a Gary Larson-ish tone of gallows hilarity. Who doesn’t love laughing in the face of certain death?

This book is, undoubtedly, part of a marketing push to make Star Wars timely with Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm. Funny enough, I’m okay with that.  Despite the cynical marketing edge, if publishers can release books that bring happiness into customers’ lives, I say let them. Stones’ playfully grim take on Imperial incompetence will give nostalgic grown-ups the boost they need while awaiting the next movie release.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

On the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

Craig Harline, A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation

According to tradition, October 31st, 1517, marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On that day, Brother Martin Luther, Augustinian, nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the parish church door in Wittenberg, Saxony. Except, Craig Harline warns, it might’ve happened differently: the university beadle often did the actual nailing. Or the nailing might’ve been purely metaphorical, and Luther simply published his theses. Or he might've only mailed them—the supposed nailing wasn't attested until decades later.

Harline, a BYU historian specializing in Renaissance European religious history, assembles a brief, plain-English history of the five years most readily associated with the German Reformation. Though he includes details of Luther’s life and works before this time window, he mainly covers the period from 1517 to 1522. During these years, Luther’s Theses, presented as routine academic disputation, generated unprecedented controversy in Catholic Europe. Luther’s critics turned him into something he never meant to become.

Even many people unfamiliar with Protestant theology know the history: Luther questioned plenary indulgences, writs sold by the Vatican which excused purchasers from earthly punishment for their sins. Except, in 1517, Vatican emissaries were selling indulgences on the claim that they excused buyers from Purgatory. Luther, who’d lived a flagellant life of self-recrimination until he discovered the Apostle Paul’s injunction that “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17), claimed this misses the point altogether.

But Harline reveals something even most Lutherans probably don’t realize (I hadn’t): the 1517 indulgence was already deeply unpopular. It didn’t make the money its sponsor, Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, had expected, because German churches were already oversaturated with divine orders and magic tokens. Germany lost interest in Vatican witchcraft before 1517. Luther inherited a church already discouraged with Italian power-mongering; his gift wasn’t in creating dissension, but in channeling dissension toward theologically sound ends.

Brother Martin Luther, painted
by Lucas Cranach the Elder
By 1517, monarchs in Britain, France, and Spain had already softened Roman authority inside their kingdoms. Rome depended upon German loyalty to finance increasingly grandiose building schemes, and subsidize that great sybarite, Pope Leo X. Luther seized a moment, which could’ve portended international anarchy, and provided philosophical backbone to popular grumblings. Faith, Luther said, makes all people free. However, at the beginning, he had no intention to create a new church or break with Rome.

From there, Harline describes how Luther’s challengers forced him to revise his theology. His disputes with Johann Eck and Cardinal Cajetan, in particular, forced Luther to explore the ramifications of his scriptural exegesis. Challenging papal indulgences, these learned churchmen believed, inevitably challenged the papacy itself. Luther didn’t want this conclusion, but the longer he disputed, the more he realized the inevitable: popes, however sanctified, cannot bring salvation. That lies between God and individual Christians alone.

Unfortunately, then as now, powerful people misinterpreted theology to their own ends. When Luther promised freedom to believers living by faith, some people assumed that meant ealthly freedom from rules and expectations. Aristocrats began picking fights with bishops, while citizens began disregarding the law. Radical reformers like Thomas Müntzer encouraged the faithful to rebel against human authority. Luther started events in motion, then struggled to keep them under control, sometimes less successfully than other times.

Throughout Harline’s history, one recurrent image dominates: the importance of pamphlets. Many previous theologians had challenged Vatican primacy—the name Jan Hus looms large—but most lacked sufficient reach to carry the discussion. Luther enjoyed the advantages of political turmoil, benevolent patrons, and a conveniently corrupt Pope, certainly; but he couldn’t have parlayed that into a Reformation without the invention of moveable-type printing. The Reformation testifies to the importance of literacy and the portable word.

Harline writes this history with the panache of a novelist, paying particular attention to keeping both the sequences of coinciding events, and history’s inevitable cast of thousands, comprehensible enough for general readers. This includes supplementing the text with historic portraits of the major players and images of the relevant cities, mostly etchings and woodcuts. When the story covers this much territory, and involves this many characters, having authentic period images anchors everything in our minds.

By 1522, with Luther formally excommunicated and Germany splitting along sectarian lines, Luther’s Wittenberg descended into chaos, an outbreak history calls Karlstadt’s Rebellion. Luther returned from exile and, without institutional authority, resumed his pulpit, essentially beginning the native German church. Harline ends there, with a world transformed, and power devolved to regions. This isn’t a full Luther biography, just five years of rapid, world-shattering transformation. Harline delivers a punch as concise as his time frame.

Monday, October 2, 2017

SuperSuit: a Business History of a Non-Linear Business

Reed Tucker, Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC

At a party recently, two fellas got into a heated tangle over Marvel vs. DC. Marvel, one insisted, has grown too snooty living atop the comics sales heap for decades. The other insisted DC was stuck in World War II and hadn’t had a good idea since Eisenhower without pirating it from Marvel. As somebody with no corner to back, I found the conflict confusing. But watching two guys kept my focus narrow.

Freelance journalist and sometime radio sidekick Reed Tucker takes a wider view. Spanning the period from Marvel’s launch to the present, he describes the parallel development of two industry titans who latch onto the wonder inside readers, and speak to beliefs in justice. Launched in 1961, by 1972 Marvel dominated the market, and has ever since. Tucker gets the business right, but something feels missing from his analysis.

After a very brief introduction to DC’s history, Tucker dives into Marvel’s launch and its industry impacts. Marvel started so shoestring that it relied upon DC to distribute its titles. But heroes like the Fantastic Four, who fought among themselves, or Spider-Man, who often couldn’t pay his bills, touched a nerve for teenage readers. DC assumed audiences stopped reading comics around age 12; Marvel caught older kids longing for something meatier.

Marvel’s heroes had complex inner lives that touched Baby Boom readers, while DC’s heroes remained patriotic pin-up characters from a prior generation. Marvel encouraged pathbreaking artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, while DC maintained a house style so generic, literally anyone could draw any hero. Marvel took risks during an era when risk-taking paid handsomely, while DC conservatively clung to a portfolio worth more in licensing than publication.

Thereafter, Marvel led while DC followed. DC’s Carmine Infantino plundered Jack Kirby, Frank Miller, and other Marvel talent, but shackled them, and their talents sputtered. Marvel pioneered event crossovers, in-universe continuity, and other now-vital aspects of graphic storytelling. DC copied. Even when DC pioneered one domain, live-action cinema, they failed to parley that into marketing success.

Tucker takes the relatively unusual tack of focusing on business and production, spending little time on stories and art. He acknowledges that early Marvel comics had a nuanced depth of characterization that DC, stuck in post-WWII kiddie schlock, didn’t match. But he doesn’t explicate why, as DC matured and Marvel became a factory, Marvel kept outselling. Especially since around 1986, DC’s stories have competed with Marvel’s for psychological complexity.

This is especially perplexing considering how many personalities, like Jack Kirby, Jim Shooter, and Frank Miller, crossed between publishers. DC literally had the ingredients for Marvel-style revolution, but couldn’t translate them into more-than-mediocre sales. Tucker limply says that DC’s in-house management style couldn’t unleash such talent. But that sounds unconvincing when talent moved between the houses throughout the 1980s. Something deeper is at work, and Tucker keeps focus elsewhere.

Tucker offers mere glimpses into even large story developments, like Secret Wars or the Death of Superman, mostly superficial descriptions which anyone who read the actual comics already knows. If Marvel really succeeds from psychological depth and complexity, why not pause on important points? Almost as weird as what Tucker includes is what he omits. Influential writers like Alan Moore, and non-Madison Avenue publishers like Malibu Comics and Dark Horse, get only salutary mentions.

On a personal level, the period Tucker identifies as the high-water mark for printed comic sales, the early to middle 1990s, is actually the period I stopped following comics. Stories became too intricate, universes too massive, and keeping abreast became a full-time job—one I didn’t want because, with young adulthood upon me, I had a literal full-time job. The qualities that drove record sales drove me away.

That being the case, I’d have prefered more attention to stories and art. The business is fascinating, particularly to fans, but sales figures and market dominance follow audience interest, not lead it. Myself, the comics I’ve most enjoyed recently have come from DC, but tellingly, have generally been non-canon graphic novels like Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum. Stories that don’t require decades-long immersion in character backstories and universes.

Speaking of Grant Morrison, a book already exists which addresses the psychology Tucker mostly overlooks. Morrison’s Supergods mixes Jungian analysis with Morrison’s own autobiography of comics experience to plumb how each generation’s new superheroes addresses their time’s unique needs. Maybe fans should read Morrison and Tucker together. By itself, Tucker’s MBA analytics are interesting but anemic, lacking clear insight into what drives readers and their loyalties.

Friday, September 29, 2017

What Protest Would You Consider Acceptable?

Colin Kaepernick
I realize what I’m about to say could sound sarcastic, and I have a history of mouthing off on this blog. So please understand, I ask the following question because I sincerely want to know, because many people whom I really like, whose opinions I trust, have given me what I could charitably describe as contradictory answers. I ask with an open heart, and hope you will respond likewise:

What form of protest would you consider acceptable?

Over the past two weeks, we’ve witnessed athletes kneeling during the national anthem becoming a virtual national security crisis. Private citizens have taken sides, while the President has spent more public time excoriating kneeling football players than engaging in public diplomacy about North Korea. Not since Miley Cyrus twerked on MTV has a story with no import for Americans’ lives dominated the news cycle so thoroughly.

And repeatedly, the question arises: is it acceptable for professional athletes, mostly black, mostly paid significantly above the national mean, to fail to stand at attention during displays of for-profit patriotism?

In 2015, when African Americans in Baltimore rioted against the acquittal of police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, news reports flooded in calling rioters mean-spirited thugs and demanding they protest nonviolently. These reports, often in the form of Facebook and Twitter memes, included orphan quotes from Dr. King, reminding us that he espoused nonviolent means to achieve political ends. Why, they asked, couldn’t protesters be quiet and respectful like Dr. King?

This interpretation overlooks several important facts. First, Dr. King was hardly quiet. I’ll permit more informed scholars, like Michael Eric Dyson, to explain how politically canny King’s strategies really were. However, if you think mass marches on seats of government didn’t jolt and inconvenience the power structure; if you think lunch counter sit-ins didn’t disrupt private enterprise; if you think bus boycotts didn’t threaten the structure of the city, then you haven’t thought through the implications.

That said, in decrying street violence following the Freddie Gray injustice, people, including many of my best friends, at least recognized that violence wouldn’t improve civil society. When the powerless rise up in arms against the powerful, they occasionally win great victories; in practice, rebels from Thomas Müntzer to the Tiananmen Square martyrs, generally get crushed. Dr. King’s nonviolence was strategic as much as ideological.

Colin Kaepernick answered this top-level violence, often committed under color of authority, by… assuming the posture of prayer. Doing it during the national anthem, on consideration, makes great sense. Anthems, standing in unison, the hand-on-heart salute—these are all acts of Christian liturgy. Performing the national anthem before sporting events serves the purposes of America’s national religion. What better time than during liturgy to pray for justice?

Yet even this, apparently, is too much for Americans who enjoy the protections of our contemporary power structure. (I’ll avoid saying “white,” since the breakdown isn’t strictly racial these days, but certain tendencies survive.) We’ve heard outraged claims about disrespecting the flag, from people who wrap flag bandannas around their heads. I’m not the first to comment upon the inconsistency.

Most important, we have a breakdown of what constitutes objectionable behavior. I’ve heard, from people I otherwise consider significantly well-informed, that the Charlottesville marchers, who waved Nazi flags, chanted racist slogans, and surrounded a Black church while waving torches, were simply exercising free speech. I’m baffled to comprehend how that’s acceptable, but kneeling during the anthem merits outraged vulgarity from America’s highest elected office.

So I return to my original question: what form of protest would you consider acceptable? Since neither armed uprising, nor a single silent gesture, are considered acceptable anymore, what’s left? I doubt whether any protest which doesn’t inconvenience the powerful of the nation, can even be considered a protest, so don’t say protests shouldn’t offend your sensibilities. If the protesters believe your sensibilities are the problem, then saying your feelings are hurt only emboldens their protest.

Perhaps you’d prefer a protest that doesn’t impinge on the public sphere. I answer: the Freedom Riders didn’t start a letter-writing campaign. Protests that happen privately, and quietly, seldom make any difference. In order to change deeply rooted social injustice, protesters must first make that injustice visible. If they took their protest from your view, you could continue believing nothing’s wrong, as indeed many people have. Your anger is a sign that problems really do exist, and need addressed.

Because these problems exist. And they’re not going away simply because saying so hurts your feelings.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Grown-Ups Deserve Some Playtime, Too

Steve McDonald, Fantastic Machines: a Coloring Book of Amazing Devices Real and Imagined
Cate Anevski, Invisible Cat Activities: a Complete-the-Drawing Book
Tim Leong, Star Wars Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Dude, why the hate for adult coloring books? We know coloring helps children improve manual dexterity, spatial recognition, and tri-dimensional vision. Coloring increases the chance your kid will become an engineer, doctor, or other highly qualified professional, besides being just fun. Do we think adults don’t deserve such educational play? Or have we become so strangled by social roles that we cannot allow ourselves to breathe freely for five minutes?

Despite the title, line artist Steve McDonald’s coloring book mostly spotlights real (or realistic) machines: a souped-up funny-car engine. The International Space Station. An ore extractor. A pump-bellows pipe organ. His one-tone illustrations, which look like they were done with a simple lining pen and basic drafting tools, are massively complex, inviting children and adults to apply colors and make the pictures look as realistic as what he’s already begun.

But he does more than that. By inviting participants to color the components of, say the Mars Rover, or a Victorian diving bell, he encourages users to understand the relationships between the components. A London city bus is even more complicated than McDonald’s drawings, and most people don’t contemplate how dependent we are daily on thousands of moving parts. McDonald encourages us to think about things we take for granted.

One of McDonald’s inventions is purely fantastical: a jet-powered flying ice cream truck. It’s pure Jetsons escapism. Yet McDonald renders even this d with intense attention, not only to the device, but the cityscape behind it. That’s why adults should color: because this seemingly escapist gewgaw actually jibes with something more complicated and profound. It makes us think. It encourages us to see the moving parts beneath the surface.

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Cate Anevski goes a different direction. Inspired by those “invisible” cat memes, she presents minimalist illustrations of cats caught mid-motion, and asks us to fill in the missing background: monkey bars. Duelling pianos. Volleyball. Where coloring books encourage users to imbue life into somebody else’s drawings, Anevski wants us to create new drawings around highly expressive cats doing, y’know, cat-ish things. Because who wouldn’t love that?

The back-cover synopsis shows simple line drawings around Anevski’s cats. But the pages themselves are wide-open beyond the cats, which Anevski depicts as simple line drawings with sepia-toned accents. So be as ambitious, or as simple, as your imagination moves you. When Anevski calls for the invisible beach ball, give her the entire beach: swimmers, partiers, waves, and Jaws. That’s the point: you control the final outcome.

Like coloring, this activity book works for children or adults. It encourages imagination, but sets limits for audiences to work against. It disguises practising complex motor function and brain exercise as simple play. And the pages I’ve tried are simply fun. It requires more personal motivation than coloring books’ pre-established lines, but it works similar parts of the brain, with similar rewards in both mental practice and grown-up playtime.

Click to enlarge

Tim Leong, chief graphic designer for Entertainment Weekly, sadly disappoints with his attempt to create graphic representations of themes running through Star Wars. Not because it isn’t colorful, or packed with content, but because there isn’t much to do. Though beautifully designed, this paragon of licensed merchandising has little content per page. There’s little to hold my attention, and nothing I, the audience, can contribute.

Leong’s brightly colored illustrations sometimes are just cute pictures, like Chewbacca or C-3P0, with colors supposedly representing something informative: how often C-3P0 says “We’re doomed,” for instance. Others are actual statistical graphs, like how much of certain characters have been replaced by cybernetic parts, or who saved whom how many times. Sadly, with little text, readers will flip past Leong’s quite good designs quickly, in less time than most dinners.

And unfortunately, anybody considering this for Christmas presents will be sorely disappointed. By then, Episode VIII will have premiered, and this volume will already be out-of-date. What good is a gift book that’s destined to be obsolete before gift-giving season? This book offers no participation, little complexity, and minimal content. I like the idea, but Leong, a designer, needs a writer to give his content heft.

Click to enlarge

In conclusion. I’m a new convert to coloring and activity books for grown-ups. We adults deserve both the sensory pleasure and the mental complexity that completing the picture provides. But a pretty picture isn’t enough; we need something we can contribute to creating the finished product. Audience members who consider themselves too cool for coloring, only deny themselves the pleasure and education that finishing the picture can provide.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Steve Earle, Road Warrior

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 21
Amos Poe, Steve Earle: Just an American Boy

Back in early 2002, after American politics took a hard nationalist turn, Steve Earle’s producers at Artemis Records challenged him to write a political album. Earle’s politics have always skewed further leftward than his Nashville singer-songwriter would imply, making him a polarizing figure in country music. But when dared to make an explicitly political album, he found himself in a surprisingly optimistic place. The product, Jerusalem, starts bleak, but maps a journey back to hope.

Earle invited punk filmmaker Amos Poe to follow his subsequent tour. Having already directed Earle’s “Transcendental Blues” video, the two had a level of creative trust that permitted The product, a fly-on-the-wall documentary reminiscent of DA Pennebaker’s classic Don't Look Back, shows Earle on a massive creative kick, mixing live performances and in-studio interviews with moments of candid insight. It shows Earle fighting the system, but it also shows his deep, fundamentally traditional Texas heart.

The documentary basically follows the trajectory of Earle’s album, without being yoked to it. Like the album, Poe begins with Earle performing “Ashes to Ashes,” Jerusalem’s opening track. A dark, backbeat-driven take on social Darwinism, it depicts history’s winners reveling in a social structure that is simultaneously both godless and foreordained, and whose eventual collapse provides the world justice, while denying it meaning. Earle clearly intends listeners to realize this describes an imminently collapsing edifice.

In interviews, Earle describes the thought processes bringing Jerusalem together. He describes growing up politically engaged and progressive in a Texas already hewn to increasingly right-wing principles. He recounts his rapid run up Nashville’s singer-songwriter hierarchy in the middle 1980s, a run harshly interrupted by an arrest for drug and gun charges. This arrest transformed his previously nascent political leanings, mainly background noise from childhood, into commitment to a whole host of social reform movements.

Steve Earle
This transformation hasn’t been entirely peaceful. He has a history of run-ins with police, sometimes justified (his headstrong ways haven’t smoothed with age), sometimes pure harassment. In one telling moment, Earle expresses terror to be in the passenger seat while a bandmate speeds along crowded commercial roads. You don’t want to get stopped in Nashville, he warns, headquarters of the Fraternal Order of Police, with a celebrity convict and anti-death penalty activist in the car.

Earle growls into the microphone at one point: y’know that saying about just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t watching you? Well, he reminds a stadium full of fans, paranoia is an irrational, unfounded fear of being watched. And while the system might not be watching you, they’re certainly watching me. Earle possesses a well-honed fear of social hierarchies, one earned by hard time, but also probably tweaked by his experience with hard drugs.

Between these political diatribes, Earle wedges in plenty of time for music. This includes not only his politically oriented New-Millennium recordings, like “John Walker’s Blues” or “Christmas in Washington,” but also classics like “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road.” Earle proves himself a master performer, throwing himself wholly into his songs, hair lank with sweat as he pushes himself to give the audience the concert they deserve. He dials it up or down with graceful ease.

>As filmmaker, Poe possibly suffers from excessive intimacy with his subject. His camera lingers much closer to Earle than Bob Dylan ever let DA Pennebaker get, sometimes so close that, in one telling moment, Earle has to adjust his microphone during a live radio interview to accommodate both in his personal space. Where Pennebaker paints Dylan as a dynamic but angry, sometimes untrustworthy, character, Poe’s treatment is undisguisedly heroic. It takes some getting used to.

Some critics dislike Poe’s sludgy, handheld camera work. We accept such limitations with Pennebaker, who shot directly to film with technology from around 1965, but Poe, working with broadcast-quality video, nevertheless gets lost in crowded, low-angle, poorly lit shots. Yet I find myself willing to accept this, because it resembles the atmosphere you’d get in a jostling performance venue. This isn’t a controlled Hollywood production. Poe drops us into a performing musician’s real, unprettified life.

Like the album, this movie ends with Earle’s song “Jerusalem.” Rather than a stage performance, Poe directs a serious video, one which combines new and found footage to embody Earle’s transition to hope. This video also makes explicit Poe’s debt to Pennebaker, implicit throughout the rest of the film. Like the album, it charts one artist’s journey from despair to optimism. In so doing, it gives us reason to hope for progress in reactionary times.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Best Comics Artist You've Never Heard Of

John Higgins, Beyond Watchmen and Judge Dredd: the Art of John Higgins

As the title suggests, Liverpool-born comics artist John Higgins is best known as colorist (“colourist”) on Alan Moore’s Watchmen novel, and elaborate handpainted watercolor strips in Britain’s Judge Dredd series. He doesn’t have name recognition like Frank Miller or Jack Kirby. Yet this book makes a persuasive case that we should know him: he’s collaborated on Batman, Doctor Who, the Terminator, Star Trek, and more.

Now Liverpool UP collates a massive selection of Higgins’ portfolio for an oversized book that’s half coffee-table art spectacle, half autobiography. The assortment ranges from his early days, paying dues on medical illustrations and line art for children’s game books, through prestige work on the best-known comics titles, for every major publishing house. The story of how he became John Higgins is as engaging as the visuals with which he peppers his memoir.

A school-leaver (what Americans call a high-school dropout) who joined the military to find discipline and guidance, Higgins found himself naturally using available time to draw. Eventually he completed his education at a prestigious British art college. But good-paying art jobs aren’t plentiful, not even in the 1970s, when ambitious young upstarts could schlep their portfolios directly to publishers’ doors. So he spent years paying industry dues.

Before the comics which became his mainstay, Higgins did multiple freelance jobs to develop cachet. He spends an entire chapter on his children’s line art, a style my generation will recognize from our family-friendly horror novels and game books. He shares a selection of cover art he did for science fiction novels. This selection includes full-page spreads at the end of most chapters, allowing readers to revel in the majesty of Higgins’ elaborately detailed art.

A recent watercolor of Judge Dredd in Higgins' distinctive, hyperrealistic style

This diligence eventually paid off. Artist Dave Gibbons discovered Higgins by reputation, then eventually met him face-to-face. So when Gibbons and writer Alan Moore created Watchmen, Gibbons knew exactly who to contact for colourist work. The trio collaborated to a degree seldom seen in the 1980s, a time when comics creators were salaried work-for-hire, and colourists about equal to pack mules. This collaboration helped start a new trend.

Higgins deconstructs the comics coloring process for untrained eyes. Though famous for his intricate watercolors, Higgins was forced to compromise for the industry standard in pre-digital comics, CMYK dot printing. As he demonstrates this involved some anonymous color separator, working for pennies per page, probably at a kitchen table in Illinois, literally distributing Doctor Manhattan’s eerie blue glow across the page with the corner of one thumb.

Over thirty years later, it’s easy to forget how innovative Higgins’ pathbreaking color work really was. Though he minimized bright primary colors for Watchmen, favoring muted tones and secondary hues, he lit scenes cinematically, bathing characters in one another’s castoff glow. But he took the exact opposite tack in The Killing Joke, oversaturating colors so everything appeared painfully bright, trapping readers in the Joker’s carnivalesque mindscape.

At times, Higgins was strictly a hired man. His art for cross-marketed properties like Carmageddon and BattleTanx, video games that needed the heft a printed comic provided, showcase his style, but only in serving another’s vision. Later, Higgins graduated to having greater creative control. His title Razorjack never found its commercial stride, but that’s probably an effect of media saturation; the art reproduced here is stunning.

Higgins’ survey of comics technology mingles with his life experiences, though he’s sparing in sharing his personal life. He laughs about finding his three-year-old daughter “helping” complete an early line drawing, with a green permanent marker. Nearly forty years on, he remembers the scene with good humor, though since he describes looming deadlines, I suspect it wasn’t comical back then. Such details, rare but apropos, give Higgins’ professional memoir a poignant touch.

And the art is spectacular. By his own admission, Higgins is best-known for images of monsters and carnage, from orcs and zombies in kids’ books, through the horror boom of the 1990s, and the noir pervasion of Razorjack. Here, his early-career work doing illustrations for medical journals shines: looking at a shuffling corpse, or a cyborg offering a child a flower, one can clearly imagine the bones and musculature necessary for that moment to happen.

It’s possible to read Higgins as only a memoirist of the industry. His autobiography, supplemented by powerful artwork, allows such casual consumption. But there’s something greater happening here, an investigation of how the medium’s capabilities change within one career. Though not famous, Higgins demonstrates why audiences love comics, by pushing the capabilities of the visual form.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Whose Career Is It Anyway?

Bob Kulhan with Chuck Crisafulli, Getting To “Yes And”: the Art of Business Improv

Back in the late-1990s through late-2000s, when improvisational comedy ruled America’s nightclubs and Whose Line secured constant ratings, certain big-city improv troupes invented an idea for increased income. They rented themselves out to corporations for team-building workshops and executive activities. These events possibly encouraged group unity and mutual trust, maybe. But improv performer and management consultant Bob Kulhan questions whether they actually improved bottom-line corporate outcomes.

Kulhan, a Second City graduate, still moonlights in improv, while running his consultancy and adjuncting at Duke University’s business school, a genuine triple threat. He brings his interdisciplinary approach to asking: does improv actually teach anything useful for business? Yes, Kulhan says, but only with modifications that full-time actors probably don’t realize they need. Arguably, though, Kulhan doesn’t realize he’s resurrecting improv’s original purpose.

Improv instructors have an activity called “Yes And.” Two (or more) performers construct a scene by agreeing with one another. One posits some statement—“Well, here we are in Egypt”—and the other agrees, while adding something further—“Yes, and destined to discover King Hatsupbashet’s lost tomb!” Ideally, the performers hear one another clearly enough to build something profound, without contradicting or opposing one another.

This, Kulhan insists, represents how business professionals ought to communicate. Rather than battling for terrain or engaging in one-upmanship, the twin banes of loners seeking individual reward, business people should collaborate, listening intently in the moment without preplanning rejoinders or seeking ways to torpedo colleagues. MBA teachers will say this freely, of course, but actual professionals, desperate to make themselves immune to automation, often squabble for insignificant territory.

Bob Kulhan
Good improv teaches students to listen closely, without preplanning, but with gazes turned toward whatever will produce a unified scene. Self-seeking behavior and stardom undermine the product; improvisors learn to succeed by lifting the whole company, sometimes at individual expense. Likewise, successful business professionals can improve their outcomes by centering their efforts on the project, team, or company, whether that means sacrificing their glamorous personal promotions.

Kulhan delves into particular ramifications, like idea generation, team-building in time-sensitive environments, and generating enthusiasm even when individuals are fatigued. He doesn’t waste busy professionals’ time with stage games like Freeze Tag or Word Ball, which hone performance skills but have questionable offstage outcomes. Instead, he side-coaches readers on productive conversations where they strive to advance others’ ideas and build team momentum, without seeking the next response or personal reward.

Having done improv in college, and having seen the disastrous outcomes of self-seeking teammates in working life, I applaud Kulhan’s enthusiasm. I’d love the opportunity to employ the principles he describes in my workplace, and perhaps someday, if circumstances break my way, I will. That said, I wonder if he realizes he isn’t actually adding anything new to the discussion. Though the original purpose has gotten lost, the ideas Kulhan describes are why modern improv was first invented.

Viola Spolin used her WPA grant to create numerous improv games, some original to her, others reclaimed from Italian commedia dell'arte tradition. She taught these games in Chicago-area schools and community centers, believing that poor children didn’t learn at home the critical listening skills common to children of the wealthy and upwardly mobile. Her son, Paul Sills, carried these games into theatre, when he co-founded Second City in 1959.

Despite his Second City roots, Kulhan never mentions Spolin in the text or index. She gets one fleeting citation in the endnotes, so transitory that I suspect he doesn’t realize how close he’s stumbled to gold. Rather than creating something new, he’s recaptured the reason Spolin invented improvisation, a reason lost behind a richly decorated history of unscripted theatre. This gives Kulhan’s message a certain poignancy, one which I suspect he doesn’t even realize he’s uncovered.

Honestly, I did improve in college, even staging a successful team performance, without ever discovering this history. I didn’t know Viola Spolin had non-theatrical ends in mind until after graduate school, when I stumbled upon the information accidentally. I presume Kulhan similarly never knew improv’s history as professional skills development, or he’d cite more sources from Spolin and her peers. Like me, Kulhan probably doesn’t know the full lost history.

So, though Kulhan doesn’t say anything necessarily new, he says something much-needed. In a business milieu long clouded by individualists seeking their rewards while fearing the eternal spectre of automation, improv skills offer the uniquely human opportunity of innovation through team unity. Viola Spolin knew this around 1940, but the information got lost. Bob Kulhan brings it back.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Avett Brothers: Rocking That Old Indie Hillbilly Sound

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Seven
The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You

Country music became mainstream in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as “rock” music increasingly favored power chords and screaming vocals. Audiences who loved melody and tunefulness found country appealing, especially as the FCC opened new FM frequencies, and country became available in cities, in lifelike stereophonic sound. But like any field suddenly flush with success, country paid a price, audible whenever programmers flood our ears with slick, urbanized “bro country” and formulaic drinkin’ songs.

The Avett Brothers famously began as a revisionist bluegrass outfit, but drifted into acoustic indie folk rock. They even highlight their transition in the first two tracks on this, their major-label debut album. After the ascending piano-driven title track launches the disc, the banjo lick on the second song, “January Wedding,” sounds old but not tired. Probably influenced by the millennial bluegrass revival, and the O Brother soundtrack, the Avetts lovingly burnish restored antique sounds.

But the lyrics further this theme. The alienation from self, the leaving home, in “I and Love and You,” contrasts with the ironic love lyrics in “January Wedding,” where the narrator laments that when he met his girl, she was “sick like Audrey Hepburn.” Ooh, harsh. This album turns on themes of alienation, loss, and disappointment. The self-flagellating lyrics remind listeners how much the narrator, who may or may not be alternating vocalists Seth and Scott Avett, hates himself.

On “Tin Man,” the singer calls himself “warm as a stone” and sings about how much he misses “the feelin’ of feelin’.” That message of feeling dead inside has country resonances going back to Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells. Yet the mildly twangy instrumentation seems to parody the sound of today’s egregiously self-serious Kontemporary Kountry, suggesting the message is actually ironic, a secret joke we get because we don’t just receive music passively, we’re active, thoughtful listeners.

The Avett Brothers' core lineup, from left: Seth Avett,
Joe Kwon, Bob Crawford, and Scott Avett

I grew up enjoying artists like Gordon Lightfoot and Carole King, musicians who disregarded advertizing niches and made music that sounded good, regardless of marketability. The Avett Brothers signal their continuity with that tradition, sometimes blatantly, as in songs like “Ten Thousand Words,” which launches with an intro so reminiscent of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” that, when another song starts, it brutally grabs your attention.

Their ecumenical musical influence increases in the McCartney-ish shuffle of “And It Spread” or the Motown backbeat in “Kick Drum Heart,” though it never overwhelms the band’s distinct musical identity. Heritage, for this band, represents a buffet, from which they sample omnivorously. Country audiences, familiar with how their genre currently appropriates influences from hard rock and hip-hop, may find this approach comforting… or possibly disorienting. Depending on whether you resist the sudden shifts, or accept them.

That same faux-country sound recurs on “It Goes On and On” and “Laundry Room,” suggesting the Avetts recognize their own hillbilly roots, while standing outside that heritage. Use of instruments like kazoo and musical saw play with this duality. But simultaneously, they play with—and subvert—indie rock conventions throughout this album. This continues a tradition much beloved in the “alternative” community, a sly awareness that the featured artist both relies upon, and resists, the record label.

The Avetts accomplish this, partly, by crafting arrangements that radio programmers will never smoothly incorporate into any genre playlist. “Ill With Want” and “The Perfect Space” both feature austere piano-and-string-bass arrangements that complement their lonely, isolated themes. But the latter track features jarring hard rock transitions, ensuring we can’t rest in their sound like a hammock, or phase them out like elevator music. It also ribs an industry dependent on (and hamstrung by) convenient marketing labels.

Finally, the album concludes with the song “Incomplete and Insecure,” where the singer laments that “I haven't finished a thing since I started my life, don't feel much like starting now.” In fact, he laments this over and over, like a Jesuit wailing “mea maxima culpa.” Yet from award-winning artists known for their musicianship and their stage presence, we know it’s fake, a lampshaded display of irony. By closing on this, they declare their position, both inside and outside the music establishment.

The Avett Brothers demand an attentive, engaged audience, and music buyers have happily given them that. They’ve parleyed the momentum from this album into three further major-label releases, several mass media subsidiary sales, and three Grammy nominations. Well, that’s mainstream success; clearly the establishment tweaks them back. The circle of life continues. And because we love their albums, but mock insidership, that means we’re Avett Brothers, too.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Folksinger's Guide to a Better, Smarter Hometown

Dar Williams, What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician's Guide to Rebuilding America's Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, & Open-Mike Night at a Time

As a touring musician, Dar Williams has witnessed the ways certain cities have evolved over the last quarter century. Some small to medium-sized American communities emerged from the malaise of the middle 1990s stronger, smarter, and prepared to face the tech-savvy new generation, while others didn’t. What makes the difference? Williams, a part-time university instructor, dons her researcher hat to understand.

She starts with an insight revealed by a friend: Proximity. Our closest friends aren’t the people with whom we share the most values and interests, but with whom she share the most time. Successful communities provide opportunities for what Williams calls Positive Proximity, which briefly means, putting the right people together in the right places to cultivate a growing heart. Some aspects of Positive Proximity are easier than others.

Williams identifies three broad categories communities use to build Positive Proximity. She calls these Places, Identity Building, and Translation—that last a subtle concept which she explains somewhat vaguely. We’ll return to that. The first, Places, is pretty self-explanatory. Coffee shops, music venues, and other man-made spaces bring people together to talk. Natural environment makes communities unique. And hybrids of natural and man-made space, like waterfronts, meld the best virtues.

Identity Building emerges from the interactions which begin in Places. These are the activities that give individual communities their distinct flavor: not every town could cultivate a successful food tourism identity, like Williams describes in New York’s Finger Lakes region. (I live in corn country, so believe me, the pumpkin patch market gets saturated quickly.) But successful communities have something, history or industry or land or something, to establish an identity.

Dar Williams
Translation is the process of turning Place and Identity into action. The bridges between economic and social classes, for instance, or between a town and its most lucrative industries. I struggle to encapsulate Williams’ description of this concept, possibly because she struggles too. Though important in turning principles into product, it’s also pretty vague and shapeless. One suspects maybe it’s something we discover by doing.

Williams acknowledges these transitions are often time-consuming and difficult. Some communities may rely upon individual personalities to make such transitions. She describes one innovator in Ithaca, New York, who helped cultivate the town’s identity outside its university, but he died unexpectedly. Ithaca had others ready to step into his shoes, though, and develop the momentum he created. Town councils and real-estate developers often lack the long-term vision real community demands.

She also concedes that her principles can have deleterious consequences. One of the social justice movement’s recent bugaboos, gentrification, often follows rapid community development. People want to live in creative, interconnected towns, and long-term residents quickly get priced out of their hometowns. But that consequence isn’t inevitable. Communities which have plans to manage rapid development often avoid gentrification’s risks, or other perils like crime, in ways Williams describes.

Planning looms large in Williams’ vision for American community. Important, economically lucrative community renewals, like the refurbishment of Wilmington, Delaware’s waterfront district, or Middletown, Connecticut’s recent restoration of ties between Wesleyan University and the city, have concrete, long-term plans, often public/private partnerships. Something Williams says around page 65 really sticks with me: “I always thought love was the answer. And it’s not. … love is an outcome, not a plan.”

Living in Middle America, I’ve witnessed Williams’ principles in action. Many farming towns’ economic plans basically consist of waiting for the Eisenhower Era to return. But cities which plan their development, like Denver’s LoDo neighborhood, or which preserve a unified community vision, like Lawrence, Kansas, just do better in the long run. Williams simply codifies the cultural principles that successful, growing communities under mass media radar consistently share.

Some advance reviewers have complained that Williams voices some left-wing opinions between these covers. This apparently surprises them from a folk singer. Well, compared to her lyrics, this book is refreshingly apolitical; she simply starts from the opinion that people are more likely to love their neighbors (and organize accordingly) if they first know their neighbors. She also speaks warmly of more conservative-leaning towns and organizers. Her insights aren’t exclusive.

Williams emerged from the same generation of singer-songwriter goddesses that gave us Ani DiFranco and Shawn Colvin. A working musician’s life has given her numerous homes away from home, and a distinctive perspective on important  Seeing American cities and towns from an outsider’s viewpoint, she’s witnessed some towns grow exponentially, while others suffer, and some buy on credit what they cannot repay later. The distinction is often subtle.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Keystone Kops and Wrascally Wrobbers

Mike Cooper, The Downside

Finn only steals big stuff: industrial equipment, boxcars, mineral ore. But seven years in prison leaves him wanting a normal, quiet life… until he realizes the Great Recession swallowed the savings he’d squirreled away. Against his better judgement, he accepts a commission from a billionaire who possibly sold him out before. Soon, Finn’s getting the band back together, preparing for a massive payday, if they don’t kill each other first.

I think Mike Cooper wants to recreate those popular post-WWII heist capers, the kind generally made into movies starring Alec Guinness or Michael Caine. He arguably succeeds; this novel has a similar dryly humorous tone, driven by the Rube Goldberg plot and absurd characters. But it’s over-written, slow, and beholden to its outline. It reads like a Hollywood screen treatment, which perhaps Cooper would’ve been happier writing.

Chapter One begins with Finn newly released from a New Mexico prison, where, broke and alone, he finds a beautiful woman offering him dodgy work. That’s stolen from hundreds of big-screen crime capers; my mind immediately revisits Bruce Willis’s megaton bomb Hudson Hawk. As crime capers require, Finn first refuses the job. But when he discovers his last money reserves gone, and his skills unmarketable in commerce, he reconsiders.

Seems Wes, a Manhattan sybarite who combines the worst of Richard Branson and Hugh Hefner, needs rescued. Finn doesn’t trust Wes, who commissioned the robbery that got him arrested, and maybe sold him out, too. But the payday is good. Seems Wes purchased fifty million dollars’ worth of rhodium, a metal more precious than gold, but got bilked, buying rhodium-painted lead. Now Wes wants Finn to steal his “rhodium” before the market finds out.

Mike Cooper
That’s my first problem with this story: an experienced billionaire makes an eight-figure buy without bringing a metallurgist along? (Okay, my second problem. The Prologue commences with Finn robbing a train, like Butch and Sundance, to nab molybdenite ore. Seriously? You can’t fence ore! These numbskulls deserve to get nabbed.) What moron would rather hire criminals to steal his reserves, than perform due diligence?

Wes shows Finn his “vault,” an impregnable fortress surrounded by skilled security. Finn sez no problem, and sets off cross-country to reconnect his scattered crew. Very Blues Brothers. It takes until page 100, of a less-than-300-page book, to reassemble the team. And, surprisingly, that isn’t even the slow part. Finn’s hatched an elaborate plan to burgle the unbreakable safe, a plan we see executed in agonizing detail.

I mean that literally. Cooper’s acknowledgements page credits six technical consultants by name. And he makes the common undergraduate mistake of assuming that, if he researched it, it belongs in the manuscript. We get lengthy scenes of Finn’s henchmen operating equipment and performing elaborate mechanical tasks, while Finn is off romancing Wes’s beautiful, possibly corrupt personal assistant. Meanwhile I’m checking my watch, fearing it has stopped.

Cooper’s chapters run short, averaging barely five pages. This means expository conversations can require two or three chapters to complete. And believe me, that’s what Finn’s dates are, exposition. In movies—erm, books like this, “Tell me about yourself” is an invitation to spill backstory, which you’d better believe will matter later in the plot. Not that these characters need much prompting to spill; they do love talking about themselves.

Nearly every chapter, even the hammock chapters mid-conversation, ends on some revelation, plot twist, or comedic note. It happens so consistently, before very long, you’ll swear you see the camera cuts in your mind’s eye, and hear the soundtrack orchestra. It’s impossible to discuss this book without citing movies it resembles, because Cooper’s prose repeatedly pinches tropes filmmakers use as shorthand cues. This isn’t a novel, it’s a master scene.

I like movies. I recognize the visual boilerplates Cooper recycles because, presumably, he and I watched the same movies growing up. That’s probably why I perceive the different demands which different media place upon writers. Book readers, as James Michener realized three generations ago, want something weightier than film can provide. Screenplays as literature are mostly interesting only to film school students and other screenwriters.

Who knows when, exactly, I lost interest in this story. I know it became transparent around pate 75 that Cooper’s characters were entirely subject to his outline, and wouldn’t change the story particularly. And around page 130, when I realized which Rat Pack members Cooper mentally pre-cast in which roles. All I know is, around page 175, I set this book down, and forgot to pick it up again.