Tuesday, June 27, 2017

An Appreciation: Patty Smyth and Scandal

History is littered with great bands and musicians that are left behind in the always charging stampede to move on to the next red-hot thing. Because of my age and musical proclivities, I'm thinking especially of acts from my youth like the Cars the Go-Gos, Boston, or the Bangles. Sure, their hits are still played religiously on classic rock radio, but it's doubtful any of them will be receiving serious critical reappraisals any time soon. It's almost as if they've been relegated to the dust bin of history now (which is what rock radio has become), dismissed as nothing more than catchy corporate rock from the era that defined catchy corporate rock. Maybe they'll never be hip, but bands like that left behind some great music.

Scandal—and especially their spark-plug firecracker of a lead singer, Patty Smyth—are one of those bands that I'd love to see receive a little more love. They had some hits, but two in particular that positively rocked my young life, "The Warrior" and "Goodbye To You." I hadn't listened to them in ages, but when the recent Netflix series GLOW scored the opening of its pilot episode with "The Warrior" I had one of those "Holy fuck, this song!!" moments. If you don't want to dance around the room and sing along at full volume to Patty Smyth and Scandal, then I'm not sure we can be friends.

Patty Smyth is one hell of a rock vocalist and deserves to be remembered as such. The '80s had some killer rock front-women, each oozing wit, charm, and intelligence, including Blondie's Debbie Harry, Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, Divinyls' Chrissy Amphlett, and the B-52s' Kate Pierson, to name just a few. Even though her output with Scandal was limited by comparison, Smyth should still be included when any list of great '80s rock singers is being compiled. In her prime, she was an explosive talent with a powerful voice and undeniable charisma. Just watch "Goodbye To You," where she's like a new wave Linda Ronstadt, energetically bouncing and dancing around the room, playing with the audience and her male bandmates like a cat with its prey. She's in total command; the boys are just there to lay down the groove and the occasional blistering keyboard solo—it was the '80s, after all.

"The Warrior" is ludicrous and thrilling and romantic and funny, all of it delivered by Smyth with absolute gusto. She belts it out with ferocious conviction. The video is pure '80s cheese; it's as if the crew were allowed to borrow the sets and costumes from Cats for the weekend if they promised to be quick about it. Smyth revels in the silliness, but also manages to rise above it. She looks fabulously badass in her fringed post-apocalyptic costume while singing the hell out of the song.

Smyth didn't write either of these hits but it didn't matter then and doesn't matter now—she sang them as if she'd lived them. The farther afield we get from the wars over authenticity vs. corporate rock in music, a conflict that was waged relentlessly by rockists through from the '70s through the '90s, the less any of it seems to matter anymore. "Goodbye To You" is a rollicking blast of new wave, pop goodness, while "The Warrior" is a bombastic '80s romp through the battlefields of love. Both are insanely catchy and still pack a wallop today, thanks mainly to Smyth's crackling star power: she could be full of slyly insouciant charm one minute and erupting like a volcano the next. She had the looks and the lungs to be a star, and she was, at least briefly.

Some people will only admit to loving "Goodbye To You" or "The Warrior" if they couch their affection under the guise of a "guilty pleasure." I don't believe in guilty pleasures. Instead, I prefer to unabashedly love music that strikes the right chord with me, like the kind Smyth and Scandal made in the '80s. Back then, when I was just a young kid who wasn't yet hardened by age or irony, music like this made me want to move, smile, and sing along at the top of my lungs. Today, it manages to pierce straight through my cynical exterior and hit me right in the heart.

Shooting at the walls of heart ache. Bang bang.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Blondie Unseen 1976-1980, by Roberta Bayley

Heart of Glass: Debbie Harry

Blondie holds a special place in rock music history, but also in my life. I've been under their sonic spell for as long as I can remember. Musically, Blondie blend elements of several different styles—new wave, punk, girl group, disco, reggae, rap, pop—into a sound truly their own. They were also one of the first visually memorable bands in my life—thanks in large part to lead singer and cultural icon Debbie Harry's amazing cheekbones and avant-garde style. They're unlike any other band before or since.

Harry enthusiastically embraces and playfully subverts the blonde bombshell archetype at every turn. Just listen to her subtle shifts in phrasing and delivery on songs like "Call Me", "One Way or Another", or "Hangin' on the Telephone." She smoothly segues from a sweet purr to a frisky growl in a heartbeat. Harry also understands the importance of visuals in rock music, and few performers have ever been more aesthetically stylish or cutting edge. She is, without question, one of the most captivating lead singers in all of music. She's a photographer's dream. With Blondie Unseen: 1976-1980, photographer Roberta Bayley manages to capture Debbie's and the band's magic on the page. Backstage or on stage, on tour or just hanging around the seedy '70s NYC streets, Blondie never fail to mesmerize.

Bayley's photos serve as beautifully evocative time capsules of Blondie's trajectory from underground darlings to mainstream superstars. These are the years that forged the band's reputation moving forward, and Bayley was there, documenting it all, one photo at a time. For fans of Blondie or the '70s NYC punk scene, the book is invaluable. It certainly holds a treasured spot on my shelves and in my heart.

Rapture: Debbie, on stage.

Fade Away and Radiate: Debbie, backstage.

Union City Blue: Debbie, David Johansen, Joey Ramone.

Atomic: Debbie and Joey.

One Way or Another: Blondie in 1970s NYC.

Dreaming: Debbie, zonked out after another energetic performance.

I'm Gonna Love You Too: Debbie and Chris Stein.

Picture This: Debbie and Roberta Bayley.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Desperate for Divinyls: "Siren (Never Let You Go)"

Image credit: Tony Mott

This 1984 performance of "Siren (Never Let You Go)" by Divinyls is pure electricity, an audio-visual blast of kinetic energy straight to the heart. Play it loud and I bet it could revive the dead. Chrissy Amphlett is a dynamo here, stalking the stage, dumping a pitcher of water over her head, attacking the mic stand with a wild ferocity, shouting and spitting out the lyrics with frightening intensity. It's cliche to say this, but it fits: she's a force of nature, a tornado ripping across the stage and about to level the entire building. Pure charisma. Raw power.

The studio version of the song is itself enormously powerful, but in a live setting like this, it reaches even greater heights, providing one crescendo after another, until you're completely drained by song's end but loving every bit of that exhaustion. Chrissy and the band have absolutely pummeled you with their supersonic barrage, from the first note to the last.

While Bjarne Ohlin sings the opening verse, Chrissy prowls the stage, seemingly psyching herself up for battle, her power and radiance building to near-explosive levels. Then, after dousing herself, she drops the pitcher and bolts for the mic, tearing into the song, all in one quick burst of fluid motion. She proclaims that she could not forget you—you did it with your voodoo!—and declaring, even threatening, that she's never letting you go. She's dialed up to eleven, her performance never losing any heat or potency as she propels the song forward through sheer force of will.

If you ever find yourself tasked with explaining to someone exactly why Chrissy was such a remarkable talent, truly a once-in-a-lifetime performer, show them this live footage. Let "Siren" educate the uninitiated and usher them into lifelong fandom. There's no doubt that it will do just that; you simply cannot watch and listen to this song and walk away from it anything less than altered for life. It's the power of music, fully unleashed, captured in one electrified, propulsive three-minute blast of frenzied rock fury. And Chrissy is the engine making it all go. She strangles both the mic and the song to within an inch of each's life. She sings of voodoo, of never letting you go, and of never forgetting you. In reality it's her voodoo working its magic on you, and you most certainly will never let go of or forget her. Never. Can't forget her.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Barely Making a Dent: June 2017 Books

In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.

If you think it's been a while since the last post in this series, you're correct. During that stretch, I finished Stephen King's It. I'm a longtime King lover, so I'm an easy mark for this one, yet so far I'm not ranking it in my top five King books. I'm fine with the excessive length (1,100 pages) if it's warranted, but at times it felt like needless meandering. Still, a terrific book, at times also terrifying and at others heartbreaking. And, um, that ending? I finished the book several weeks ago and I'm still not sure how to discuss it. You can read about the scene I'm referring to here. To say it yanked me right out of the book is an understatement. I'm no prude, but even I was disturbed by it. It's not only distasteful but also feels like a narrative leap that comes out of nowhere. It's ludicrous and just plain nonsensical, really. I have a feeling that King wouldn't write the scene in the same way if he were to write the book today. All in all, though. It was a solid King story, but a notch below some of his best work, which includes The Shining, 'Salem's Lot, The Stand, and the Dark Tower series. Really glad I finally read it because it's felt like a huge hole in my personal reading list for decades.

Somehow I've managed to read the following while reading It and since reading It.

Recently read

Blondie Unseen 1976-1980, photos by Roberta Bayley. Simply stunning photographs, on stage and off, of Debbie Harry and Blondie at their absolute peak. It proves what I've always known: Harry simply does not take a bad picture, ever. Hoping to write more about this one soon; stay tuned.

South and West, by Joan Didion. After the mammoth It, it was nice to kick back with a small, 120+ page collection of Didion's notes on her home state of California and her travels through the south in 1970. Didion is a personal favorite, so I cherish any chance I find to read her work, even her unfinished notes from four decades ago. They may be raw but they still manage to create an impressively cohesive book. Didion is one of our finest chroniclers of this increasingly strange late-twentieth/early-twenty-first century American experience, and all of the emotional turmoil inherent in that. Here's an example of how she drills right down to the heart of things, finding ways to express feelings so many of us continue to feel today, in 2017:
“It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?”
The Many Lives of Catwoman, by Tim Hanley. This was a review copy and I'm currently working on an interview with the author for Sequart; stay tuned.

The Caped Crusade, by Glen Weldon. I reviewed this one a few weeks back. I can't gush enough about Weldon's work so I'll just say this: if you're a nerd, buy this book. If you're a Batman nerd, rush right out this instant and buy this book. It's one of the most insightful examinations of nerd culture ever written. Plus Weldon is hilarious, so the book is always a rollicking good time. And with Adam West's recent passing, it also serves as a fine remembrance of what made his particular take on Batman so lasting for fans.
Quintessential Chaykin: guns, femme fatales, and action

Currently reading

A whole lot of Wonder Woman comics. You might have heard there's this little movie out now that's doing gangbusters with critics and fans alike. My daughter is turning into an enormous Wonder Woman fan, which is only ratcheting up my already-strong appreciation for the character. I know this post is about books, but I implore you to go see the movie, and if you're already seen it, see it again. I've seen it twice and my admiration has only grown for what Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot, and crew did with this film.

Howard Chaykin: Conversations, edited by Brannon Costello. Another review copy, but one that I've had for a while now. Just getting around to it. Chaykin is a fascinating writer/artist whose work has been both innovative and controversial for decades, including a recent example of the latter. He's also an absurdly honest interview subject who doesn't shy away from any subject, especially when offering opinions on fellow artists, writers, editors, and the commercial art/comic book industries as a whole.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

An Appreciation: Heather Langenkamp in Wes Craven's New Nightmare

"There was no movie...there was only...her life."

All Heather wanted was to raise her son in peace and work in television. Instead, she has to confront that sick bastard Freddy. Again. Only this time outside of the safe confines of playing Nancy on a film set, and instead in the all-too vivid Hellscapes of both her dream state and her waking life. Blame it all on Wes Craven. After all, he had to purge those new nightmares—featuring everyone's favorite burnt, razor-gloved serial killer—out on the page. Dude was right though: Heather/Nancy is the key. She's the constant. She's our hero, a fierce mamma bear battling Freddy tooth and nail every step of the way for her little cub's life. Throughout, she's battered, bruised, cut, sliced, repeatedly prank-called, widowed, leered at by a creep limo driver, demeaned by an arrogant doctor, hit by a car, and repeatedly accused of being an unfit mother. Rarely has an actress faced more unrelenting horror than Heather does in Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Nevertheless, she barrels her way through it all to save her boy. A shock of grey hair suddenly appears late in the film, a constant reminder moving forward of the trauma she's endured.

Long Live Heather.

It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: no one in horror cinema has better hair than Ms. Langenkamp. It's lush and glorious and positively mesmerizing, practically a character unto itself. And it invites you to gaze upon the exquisite beauty of the face that it frames. She may be stunning, with hair that any Pantene model would kill for, but Heather/Nancy deserves to be celebrated as one of slasher cinema's smartest and most tenacious Final Girls. In fact, she's one of the very best. She's no victim. She's a survivor.

I repeat: Long Live Heather.

Also, when I was a young boy there were certain absolutes in life. One such truth, which I believed in with full certainty, was that Heather would make the perfect Kitty Pryde should Chris Claremont's Uncanny X-Men ever make it to film. They eventually made it to the movies, but that was years later. It's too bad Heather never got the chance to bring Kitty to life. At least we have this kick-butt performance from New Nightmare to revisit whenever we need a reminder of her greatness.

You know the drill by now: Long Live Heather.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Wonder Woman Week

Art by Nicola Scott.
With the new film is in theaters now, the internet has reached peak frenzy concerning all things Wonder Woman. And I kind of love it. I'm as giddy as Gal Gadot here in the GIF of the week.

Sequart has devoted this entire week's coverage to the character, with a series of articles exploring different facets of what makes her such an enduring icon. My contribution ran on Wednesday and can be read here. I tried to put into words why Diana represents hope for a countless number of fans; how she isn't defined by her powers or her skills in battle (although she's no slouch in either department), but instead by her endless capacity for compassion, kindness, empathy, and, ultimately, her ability to offer hope. My thesis was that she's a unique character within the world of superheroes in this regard. Honestly, I can't think of any other that comes close.

It's exciting to see the world celebrate Wonder Woman on the occasion of her first feature film. Please take some time to read all of the articles about her at Sequart this week. They're well worth your time.

Otherwise, go to your local comic book shop this weekend and celebrate the first Wonder Woman Day. Buy some of her comics and graphic novels, go see the movie. My daughter is quickly growing into a big fan, so I'm most excited to take her to the LCS so she can snag a free tiara and some other swag. The look on her face will show me all I need to know about Wonder Woman's impact on her legions of fans. It'll remind me of what I already knew, that Wonder Woman is Hope. She'll help my daughter to dream big and to find the courage to make her dreams a reality. What more could I want for her than that?