I was a guest at the first Pensacon. Steve Wise and company did an excellent job organizing this event. On the first night I had dinner with the charming and erudite Joe and Karen Lansdale. Joe's book Cold in July is now a movie and director Bill Paxton will direct Joe's novel The Bottoms.
There was a massive police and security presence in and around the Bay Center, as if they were expecting riots. I sat next to David Micheline and Dan Mishkin in a hall that circles the main area, used for hockey games. Behind us in the meeting rooms were celebrities: Walter Koenig, Peter Mayhew, The Barber, actors from Power Rangers, Under the Dome, Battlestar Galactica, many obscure and beloved cult classics.
Friday evening had dinner with Dan Mishkin, Barry Gregory and Steven Butler, who is drawing new Badger material. Saturday was a mob. Attendance topped ten thousand, over twice as many as anticipated.
Saturday saw a huge surge in attendance, which was over ten thousand. As people crammed the choked hallway like Chris Christie's colon, the inexorable young mother with two children in a double-wide kiddie tram lowered her shoulders, screamed "RAMMING SPEED!" and plowed straight ahead, leaving the dead and dying in her wake. A chap appeared towing some kind of industrial dolly with every Punisher I ever wrote and then some. I signed every comic. These guys who charge for their signatures. I don't get it. They didn't attract an audience signing their name.
Local Tim Dohms took me on a brief walking tour downtown. As I sat waiting for Tim outside the back door of a club, people began showing me their driver's licenses.
Sunday saw a steady trickle of attendees including a 200 lb. Sailor Moon and a pot-bellied Spider-Man. Had dinner with Nathan Massengill and his lovely fiance Lynn, and artist Kevin Stokes at a barbecue joint, The Stuffed Pig, a couple blocks from the hotel. The Stuffed Pig was first rate.
THE CURSE OF WILLY
Willy dated my sister Ellen Jo in high school. Willy served in Vietnam as a medic and when he returned he became an RN. Willy is very tight with my best friend Tom, with whom I grew up in Mitchell, SD. They are bikers. They have ridden to the tip of the Baja Peninsula many times and to Alaska once. I have ridden with Tom and Willy around Wyoming and Montana and Willy has been more than generous in sharing space in his permanently benched mobile home in Hot Springs.
Willy suffers from Obnoxious Personality Disorder. With the face and demeanor of a belligerent woodchuck, he is a contrarian par excellence. If you declare the sky is blue Willy will immediately answer, "No it's not." Whenever Tom came to visit Willy would invite himself along.
The last time Tom came out he unexpectedly brought Willy. The trip was short. The wife was short. Life is short. Tom sensed the tension and cut the trip short. We conspired to have a visit without Willy. I could have driven to Iowa but I'm not much of a driver and Tom is. He thinks nothing of riding or driving a thousand miles a day. So we made plans.
Last night my phone rang. It said "Willy" on the faceplate so I didn't pick up. I waited until he left a message to which I listen. "Willy here. I'm inviting myself over to your place so expect me Wendesday." Ann heard me cursing and asked what was wrong so I told her. Willy's coming.
"NO HE'S NOT! YOU CALL WILLY UP RIGHT NOW AND TELL HIM HE'S NOT COMING!"
But 'twas not I who spilled the beans so I called Tom. "How the FUCK did he now you were coming?" I said.
"He called yesterday and asked to borrow a tool. I told him I wasn't going to be home. I'll take care of it."
I should point out that Tom lives 800 miles from Willy. We will know tonight.
BIKES THEN AND NOW
When I was a wee tyke growing up in Mitchell, SD, I fell in love with motorcycles. My first ride was on a mini-bike, which I procured from Charles Roberts as he rode past. I hope Charles has forgiven me for knocking him off that bike. My first bike was a Honda Super 90. The speed! The styling! You could pick it up and carry it around. Sold it when we moved to Wisconsin. My next bike was a Honda 400 which I bought when I moved back to Madison from Boston. The addition of a flat bar transformed the little road burner from a tiddler to a serious bike.
When I sold my first comic, I bought a Kawasaki Gpz 550. This was a whole new order of speed, a four cylinder that I rode all over SW Wisconsin and garnered a few speeding tickets. In '90 I bought a Honda Hawk 650. The little V-twin moaned and howled. I wish I hadn't sold it. Then I got a Shadow 750 which I am currently riding.
I began collecting motorcycle brochures in '77. I have kept every brochure and every now and then I pull them out and marvel at the stupefying variety of machines over the years. Who remembers the Yamaha Vision, a water-cooled 500 twin? Or the Honda CB-1, a water-cooled 400 four? That was one sweet bike. I wish I had one. I love small multis. Mike Martens gave me his Honda 500 V-4 when I got married and I gave it to my best man and life-long friend Tom Delaney, who has a bike shop in Iowa. Alas, Tom was unable to get parts for the little whizzer, and has gifted me with a CB650 in return. All I have to do is go to Iowa and ride it home.
Only God Forgives and Lone Survivor
loved Drive and I love martial arts so naturally I was happy to learn
Ryan Gosling and his Drive director, Nicolas Winding "Effin'" Refn were doing a story set in the seamy Bangkok underground fighting circuit. Only God Forgives is as mannered and stylized as a Jim Jarmusch movie and about as entertaining--which is to say not very much. Gosling plays the owner of a seedy Thai kickboxing club that holds illegal fights. His worthless brother rapes and kills a girl, and is in turn bludgeoned to death by the girl's father. Gosling's mother, played with mantis-like hilarity by Kristin Scott Thomas, travels to Bangkok to enact revenge. It's all shot at a glacial pace and lit with lurid purple neon like some student art project. The characters are too enigmatic to be sympathetic, particularly the self-righteous cop played by Vithaya Pansringarm who sings karaoke in between enacting Old Testament vengeance.
When the big fight finally comes Gosling can't lay a finger on the diminutive Pansringarm who beats him to a pulp. There are some small pleasures to be gleaned by Thomas' foul-mouthed mother but otherwise the movie is too distant, mannered, and off-putting to engage much audience involvement. Nevertheless good friends whom I respect have declared it a masterpiece so I will keep it around.
Lone Survivor is exactly the opposite--a visceral look at men in combat that takes its time getting to know the protagonists so that we care what happens to them. Covering the events in a simple search and destroy mission, Lone Survivor is as close as you're likely to come to actual combat. There is nothing jingoistic about it.
Red II presents an epic cinematic encounter which has failed to garner much notice. It is the meeting between the two actors who played Hannibal Lecter, Brian Cox (Manhunter) and Anthony Hopkins. Red II is good fun thanks to its cheeky sense of humor and not its creaky plot.
OUT OF THE FURNACE
A grim tale of vengeance set in a run-down Pennsylvania steel town where you can practically taste the despair. A throwback to gritty urban thrillers of the seventies like The French Connection or Rolling Thunder. Christian Bale plays an ex-con factory worker with a good heart whose crazy veteran brother, played by Casey Affleck, gets mixed up in bare-knuckle fights under the aegis of crazed meth freak Woody Harrelson. This is riveting right up until the very end. Also stars Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, and Forrest Whitaker. This is about as far as you can get from standard Hollywood entertainment.
DOG BITES THEN AND NOW
When I first moved to Fort Collins my late wife and I took our dog Lucy to a dog park near the foothills. A rottweiler ran up and bit me in the hand. The rott's owner swiftly decamped lest she be held responsible. I was too freaked out to run after her and get her info. I got my first tetanus shot in years and that was a good thing.
About a month ago I took my dogs to the local dog park and some kind of little foo-foo dog ran up behind me and bit me in the calf. I used no profanity in speaking with the owner but was too freaked out to get her information. She swiftly decamped lest she be held responisble. Thus I found out I was due for another tetanus shot!
Thank God for these dog bites!
SCARFACE VS. CARLITO'S WAY
What living actor has made more great gangster films than Al Pacino? Scarface and Carlito's Way are two of his best and they could not be more different although they are both directed by Brian DePalma. Scarface benefits from a young Oliver Stone's sublime screenplay. Is there a more quotable movie? Has Stone ever again approached this type of story-telling perfection? As Cuban gangster Tony Montana Pacino sports a bowl haircut and a flawless Cuban accent in a story of a young thug on the make, an honorable tradition stretching back to the original Scarface starring Paul Muni, through The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond to The Godfather himself.
Some feel that Scarface is not as good as Carlito's Way because Tony Montana remains an unrepentant thug throughout with no redeeming social qualities. But it is Tony's refusal to assassinate a journalist's entire family, including his children, that leads to his downfall. This single act of compassion stands out in an otherwise brutal portrayal. Instead of killing the kids Tony shoots Shadow (Mark Margolis who also played Tio Salamanca on Breaking Bad.)
The movie bursts with iconic moments: Tony falling face first into a pile of cocaine, the chainsaw in the bathroom, "Say 'allo to my leetle fran!" You can watch it again and again.
Carlito's Way also stands up to repeated viewings but it is a completely different movie. Carlito is basically decent. He just wants to leave his past behind and get with his girl Gail played by Penelope Ann Miller. But the past keeps intruding--like that scene in Godfather III: "Just when I thought I was out they pull me back in." Carlito does his nephew a favor accompanying him to a drug purchase that turns out to be a set-up.
But Carlito's bigger mistake is in trying to help his lawyer pal Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) who's in trouble with a gangster client whom he has defrauded. Penn is great as the coke-crazy lawyer who thinks he's a gangster and Pacino is even better: soulful, likeable, tough when necessary, tender with his girl. The difference between Scarface and Carlito's Way is that in the former, we can't wait for the Grand Guignol finale. Nobody will miss Tony Montana. But everybody will miss Carlito.
STUFF I READ
Got about 2/3ds of the way through NOS4A2 and put it down. Didn't care. Didn't care about the characters, didn't believe the story. And I loved Horns. I love Locke & Key. I don't know why this one didn't resonate for me, it just didn't. Hanging fire on Dr. Sleep to hear what others say.
Conn Iggulden's Genghis Kahn saga is unputdownable. Anybody who has seen me at a recent con saw my face buried in Wolves of the Plain or Lords of the Bow, the best historical fiction I"ve ever read. Iggulden lived in Mongolia for a time visiting the plains, mountains and cities where Genghis conquered. Just amazing.
Could not finish Stephen Hunter's The Third Bullet. I'm a huge Hunter fan and have read everything he's written. But this action mystery about the death of JFK was too long on wonk and way short on action. Every now and then Hunter would contrive a shoot-out for his Vietnam-era hero, who is now retirement age. I recommend Pale Horse Coming, Dirty White Boys, and the 47th Samurai.
Read Michael Connelly's The Scarecrow. Best Connelly I've read. I think Connely gets bogged down in detail and that while his story-telling is strong it never generates any juice. That is, it doesn't get you going, make your pulse race, drag you by the esophagus through the narrative. The Scarecrow, about a serial killer, is never less than compelling.
Ron Faust: Jackstraw. An excellent thriller from an under-rated writer. Faust's In the Jungle of the Night is what Hemingway might have written if he wrote thrillers. Jackstraw is about a shady operative for the CIA who turns rogue, has an affair with a Presidential candidate, and is forced to run for his life through wildnerness in a story reminiscent of Geoffrey Household.
Currently reading Preston & Child's Gideon's Corpse. I've read all their books and thought they jumped the shark with Two Graves, the last Pendergast series, but this series starring Gideon Crew moves along at freight-train speed.
My wife Ann's friend Jana is the aunt of one Eddie Barbash, saxophone prodigy. So when Eddie's group Jon Batiste and Stay Human played the Lincoln Center we were there. Jon Batiste is a young, rapier-thin charismatic New Orelans piano player and his six piece group marched frequently into the audience. Two massive drum kits framed the band which began with a fresh take on the classic "St. James Infirmary." The band made frequent and excellent use of space, coming to abrupt halts then plunging back in, with hilarious and fitting atonal excursions and bridges. Batiste punctuates his music with silences and ear-shattering blasts, perfectly timed. Barbash plays alto with subtlety frequently taking it way down, but never below your threshhold. Likewise bone player Ibanda Rhumbika, who played a lot of tuba marching through the audience, knows how to speak low.
They played "My Favorite Things" marching through the audience, Batiste on harmonabord, a keyed instrument into which you blow. His piano playing ranged from barrelhouse to the type of New Wave pioneered by Herbie Hancock, with frequent quotes ranging from "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to "Killing Me Softly." Drummer Joe Saylor worked a single kettle drum from every side but inside, purposefully breaking a stick to emphasize a point. The ninety minute set flew by in the twinkling of an eye. This jazz could wake the dead. At times the double horns of Barbash and trombonist Ruhmbika reminded me of Dreams. At other times the band suggested Earth, Wind and Fire. However they kept their own identity, one foot firmly planted in New Orleans, ending with a traditional funeral march which segued into "Just A Closer Walk With Thee."
A BRIEF HISTORY OF JAZZ ROCK
Why a book on jazz rock? The first Blood, Sweat and Tears album, the one by Al Kooper captured my imagination like a bonfire. I fell in love with those bluesy horn charts and the R&B vibe. In rapid succession, Chicago Transit Authority, Edgar Winter, Dreams, and the Butterfield Blues Band emerged. The late sixties, early seventies were they heyday of jazz rock. Epic in particular loved those guys and so did I.
One of the first concerts I saw at the U. of Wisconsin was B.B. King at the Union Theater. B.B. brought a horn section and somewhere during the first set I found myself transported from my seat to in front of the stage along with half the audience.
I was lucky enough to see Dreams, Butterfield and Chase, little realizing that they represented an anamoly. They thrived briefly and then faded. Why? Nobody knows. Certainly no one is producing the kind of horn-centered rock they had back then. There are countless bands following in the footsteps of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds. Led Zeppelin tribute bands, tribute bands of every stripe and persuasion. But no one today is advancing rock with horns.
Encouraged by impresario Bruce Brodeen, founder of Not Lame Records at popgeekheaven.com, I wrote a chronological history of the movement incorporating my own experiences, extensive musical analysis and interviews with many of the principles. I've talked to Al Kooper, Elvin Bishop, Bill Champlin and many others.
Today few jazz rock bands remain. Malo and Tower of Power not only remain but continue to make vital music. Although TOP has had many personnel changes over the years, the core group of Emilio Castillo and Doc Kupka remain. Malo has almost completely changed its personnel, and with no need to play top ten hits, this may be one reason they remain so vital.
THE FOREIGN FILMS
My friends, as most of you know I'm a big pop fan. I say it every year and every year it's true: this has been one of the greatest years in pop music ever, but you'd never know it from Rolling Stone, Spin, Billboard, the Grammies, and the rest of the dinosaur media. They are clueless. Most of these groundbreaking popsters are operating without benefit of a big music machine to hype their product. They are not marketing. They are creating art. We follow their activity at Pop Geek Heaven.In 2007 Bill Majoros released the 22-song two disc Distant Star under the name The Foreign Films. This was a thermonuclear explosion on the order of Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper, traces of which can be heard throughout the shockingly original music. Distant Star is a musical and emotional tour-de-force that belongs in every collection.
It has been a long dry stretch during which Majoros played on and produced records for many friends but the wait is over. Bill has released a twelve minute songcycle "Fall of the Summer Heart" that will blow you away, containing traces and undercurrents of every great pop stylist of the last forty years. You can hear it at their website of The Foreign Films
Speaking of Music Dinosaurs, Ann and I are both big fans of NBC's Nashville, a sudsy soaper that takes place in the world of country music. What took them so long? Soap and country music? The actors do all their own singing and they sing well. T-Bone Burnett is the Musical Director.