Laughing Matters — Mr. Show, “Druggachusettes”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

My weariness overtook me before I could translate ideas into coherent strings of words. In seeking a way to describe my haziness, this particular offering from the brilliant Mr. Show came to mind.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

From the Archive — Five for Friday, Guinness for Strength edition


Well, we should come up with something appropriate to the day, shouldn’t we? Once again, I raid my former online home, specifically traipsing through the two hundred installments of weekly exercises in crowdsourced music lists. Below is the prompt I provided to my far-more-brilliant-than-I cohorts on March 17th, 2006. My quintet is included below, and the responses of others have been used to fill out a YouTube playlist to accompany cheery pint-hoisting, if you’re so inclined. Spoiler alert: There are a lot of Pogues songs on there.

Five Songs for St. Patrick’s Day

1. The Pogues, “Lorelei.” “You told me tales of love and glory/Same old sad songs, same old story/The sirens sing no lullaby/and no one knows but Lorelei.” One of the rare instances pre-Hell’s Ditch that finds Shane MacGowan off lead vocal duties, its a lovely ballad about lost love and deep sadness where his grand gargle would indeed have been a distraction. That doesn’t mean we’re talking about some lilting, soft thing you might find on a rummage sale album of Irish favorites. It absolutely has it’s own fullness and drive, marking it a distinct product of the Pogues.

2. The Drovers, “Insulated Man.” The only place you can find this song is on the soundtrack to the film Blink, which weirdly casts Madeleine Stowe as the violin player for the Chicago band The Drovers. I never fully connected with the Irish bar rock of the Drovers, but I love this song. It’s one of those that builds and builds and builds. It’s the perfect song to play as the tavern is burning down around you.

3. The Saints, “Grain of Sand.” Get it? Get it? The Saints…St. Patrick’s Day…Ahhh, wocka wocka! The Australian band started in 1977 cranking out little bursts of punk greatness and eventually evolved into just a simple, strong rock band. This is a big, energizing song about feeling insignificant, but until I check the lyrics right before posting this, I never realized that “My tongue was covered in fur/So I shoved it in my pocket” was among the things Chris Bailey sang on the song.

4. Too Much Joy, “Drunk and In Love.” It was handy in college to have a much-loved smart-mouthed band that also sang a lot about beer. While “King of Beers” (“I am invincible/I have no fear!”) is the one that tends to get dragged out for celebratory drinking excursions, this song nicely covers the feelings that just might overtake you if you’re still in the bar about two or three hours later. The lyrics perfectly captures a guy rambling endlessly about the woman he’s in love with (“She’s asleep in some other time zone/I’m with a friend who wonders where I’ve been/I wanna tell her why she’s so amazing/She’s not here, so I’ll just tell him”) as he considers indulging in the dreaded drunken dial. One of the last songs the band recorded before they finally gave up playing Don Quixote to the music industry’s windmill.

5. Iggy Pop, “Lust For Life.” Because before Trainspotting made it ubiquitous, finding this song on the jukebox was a sign you’d found the right bar. And, for whatever reason, it was usually an Irish bar where we found it (come to think of it, that may have more to do with the fact that we sought out the Irish bars). But more to the point, on St. Patty’s day you have to raise a pint to a bonny Irish lass, so here’s to Trainspotting’s Kelly Macdonald. For today, we’ll ignore the fact that she’s actually Scottish.

Playing Catch-Up — Clouds of Sils Maria; 13 Rue Madeleine; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington


Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014). In this wryly funny and wise rumination on aging and celebrity, the grand Juliette Binoche plays Maria, a movie star who is coaxed into a production of the play that made her a star, albeit now playing the older role while her former ingenue part is giving to a credibility-seeking starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz). As Maria goes through oscillating moods on the way to the production, she confides in her ever-present assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Assayas indulges in some arthouse pretension here and there, but Clouds of Sils Maria is mostly a set of straightforward character studies, each a gift to the performer. Predictably, Binoche is strongest, working little marvels in every scene.


13 rue

13 Rue Madeleine (Henry Hathaway, 1947). An espionage drama produced while the memories of World War II were still mighty fresh, 13 Rue Madeleine is about a group of agents developed under a new U.S. military initiative. As it happens, one of the trainees is an undercover German spy, and an European mission gone awry forces instructor Ray Sharkey (James Cagney) to dispatch himself to solve it. Henry Hathaway brings an admirable sturdiness to his direction, striking the right balance between stern seriousness and pulpy glee. Cagney brings his trademark intertwining of deft and brutish qualities to the lead role, giving the proceedings a grand boost. And the ending, in its rare and peculiar celebratory grimness, feels like it’s straight out of the Cagney guidebook, too.



Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939). Frank Capra’s film about a regular gentleman appointed to the U.S. Senate with the mistaken expectation that he won’t disrupt the order of slippery ethics in the U.S. capitol building is often tagged as an exercise in aw-shucks patriotism. The actual mechanics of the narrative are far trickier than that, especially in a tone that slaloms into earnestness, bustling comedy, and half-hearted romanticism. James Stewart is in his comfort zone as the titular character, especially when it comes time for the famed filibuster scene, which Capra plays out with impressive patience. The best performance, though, belongs to Jean Arthur, playing Smith’s office manager who’s grown jaded with Washington until she gets a dose of her new boss’s brand of sterling integrity. She strikes the exact right balance, showing how sardonic appraisals of the world can still leave room for glimmers of hope that can transform an outlook. The film’s trajectory can easily stir skepticism, but she makes it believable. And she has a great drunk scene, too, itself a minor master class in crafty comedic acting.

My Writers — Gillian Flynn


Appropriately, I think, Gillian Flynn locked me in for good when I started reading one of her books in a drug store. I was waiting on a prescription, and I wandered over the the dispiritingly sparse selection of paperbacks. A copy of Dark Places, Flynn’s second novel was there, so I picked it up and started reading. Quickly rapt, I felt a pang of regret when my name was read over the business’s loudspeaker, beckoning me to the back to retrieve my pharmaceuticals. That, my friends, is the sign of a good writer.

Dark Places wasn’t my first experience with Flynn. I’d read Gone Girl when it was the novel of the moment. Although I loved it, especially admiring her brilliantly deployed mid-novel twist, it somehow felt easy for me to preemptively disregard her other works of fiction. Maybe it was due to some of the more churlish critics, quick to dismiss Gone Girl as a fluke, even when delivering generally favorable assessments. It could have been attributable to my own biases, since I’d read plenty of Flynn’s words when she toiled for Entertainment Weekly, mostly as the second-string TV writer, and I didn’t recall thinking she delivered anything all that special. I should have known better. Television reviews and darkly comic crime novels are wildly different beasts. I believe I could write a pretty dang good essay on the bygone TV drama Life on Mars, but I more confident I don’t have a Gone Girl in me.

I’ve read all three of Flynn’s novels, and I’ve had the same experience with each. I appreciate the caustic comic elements and the ruthless plumbing of the darker corners of human nature. More uncommonly, there’s always a point, around midway through the book, when my need to barrel through to the end becomes almost compulsive. I’m not necessarily caught up in the mysteries she ticks through or hooked by Flynn’s chapter-ending cliffhangers (though she’s exceptionally good at those). Instead, I simply have an intellectual hunger to consume the totality of it in a way I’ve rarely experienced since high school, when I was inclined to decide that nourishing sleep on a school night was less important than finding out how The Dead Zone ends.

Within that swelling obsession lies my satisfaction in the drug store as ground zero for my zeal for Flynn’s writing. She provides a fiercely modern version of the dime store novels from decades ago, the pulpy adventures that were bourbon-laced cotton candy for the mind. There’s no slight there. Flynn exhibits the same ferocity, fearlessness, wit, and bracing economy of language that makes the acknowledged masters of the once-disreputable form considered some of the worthier residents in the pantheon of U.S. literature. Like the efforts of those predecessors, Flynn’s work lands with a sharp, satisfying smack.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

The Art of the Sell — Marvel subscriptions

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

When I first started buying superhero comics, in the early nineteen-eighties, there were a couple ads that were sure to be found among the fabulous four-color adventures. Sea-monkeys, plastic military men, and sugar-infested foodstuff (often featuring its own odd super story) were all likely to be peddled. No product offering was more compelling to me, though, than the one that most closely corresponded to the periodical held in my hands.

Back when comic shops were a rarity — and pull lists were practically nonexistent — it always took aggressive hunting and bit of luck to make sure that each and every issue of my preferred Marvel mags wound up in my modest collection. If the local grocery store only got a couple copies of Daredevil and other patron snapped them up before me, it was tough luck, kid. But, it was promised, I could get a subscription, which would not only get me a reduced price, but also every last issue delivered straight to my mailbox. All titles were mailed flat, I was assured.

Did I ever break down and fill out the slip, assuring snappy new issues of Fantastic Four and Uncanny X-Men were guaranteed to come my way? You bet I did, true believer.


College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #968 to #965

jorma king

968. Jorma Kaukonen, Barbecue King (1981)

Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen was carrying a sturdy rock legacy with him when he recorded the album Barbecue King. He was also toying with that storied reputation, which might very well have been the album’s undoing as a commercial effort. Following the dismal performance on the charts of this release, Kaukonen’s third as a solo artist, he was dropped by RCA Records and spent the rest of the nineteen-eighties in a sort of music industry limbo.

A veteran of both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna (which he co-founded with fellow Airplane escapee Jack Casady), Kaukonen spent the tail end of the seventies adopting some of the stylings of the punk rock movement, which was still insurgent and evolving. Just enough of that influence filtered into his music that it confused the fans who were simply looking for more blues riffs repurposed into classic rock workouts. Further denting Kaukonen’s prospects for success, the punk attitude was mostly pilfered from fellow rock veterans like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, who came by it genuinely because they’d helped invent it, but a copy of their efforts was doomed to sound tepid to the kids jabbing safety pins through their own flesh. “Man for All Seasons,” for instance, strives for Reed’s street poet authenticity (“Just a junkie on angel dust/ Looking for a man to trust”), but has a tourist detachment.

Despite the tentative attempts at branching out, much of Barbecue King sounds like precisely the sort of album Kaukonen could have delivered at practically any point in his career. The records opens with a squall of guitars which quickly segues into the deeply fundamental rock song “Runnin’ With the Fast Crowd.” “Roads and Roads &” (a reworked song from Kaukonen’s previous album, Jorma) features the sort of intricate guitar work that seems deliberately made for sorting out stems and seeds on the inside of a gatefold album cover, and a passable cover of “Milkcow Blues Boogie” is practically designed to give comfort to those who listeners who grew up on the murky gospel of nineteen-seventies FM radio.

There album arguably peaks on the easy charm of “Rockabilly Shuffle” (“You know I love you ’cause I told you so”), which could pass for a White Stripes B-side, if it were toughened up a bit, and bottoms out on the title cut, a lame-o blues riff gag that feels like it takes forever. Barbecue King is slightly out of step for the era, but it’s solid enough that the commercial flop is a little puzzling. There was far more dire music from Jefferson Airplane alumni being released in early 1981.


wilde teases

967. Kim Wilde, Teases & Dares (1984)

I will someday go to my neo-mortality quasi-sleep stasis fervently insisting that Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” is one of the all-time great pop singles. Largely categorized as a one-hit wonder in the U.S. (by those who fail to realize “Kids in America” was only a modest hit at the time of its release and that Wilde actually topped the Billboard chart around six years later with a cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”). At home in the U.K., Wilde had a much longer and more robust career, charting seven Top 10 hits (and many more that made the Top 40) during the nineteen-eighties.

Teases & Dares, Wilde’s fourth studio album, represented a significant transition. It was the performer’s first for RCA Records, and it expanded her family-affair approach to making music. Her brother, Ricky Wilde, had long served as her producer, and he was now joined by their father, Marty Wilde (who had previously co-written most of Kim’s songs with Ricky). Kim Wilde was also shoehorned into a glammed-up, fluffed -hair version of pop futurism, presumably designed to help her fit in on the increasingly influential music television platforms across the globe. As if emphasizing the science fiction vibe, the album even includes a track called “Bladerunner,” supposedly inspired by Ridley Scott’s film.  Unfortunately, it’s the drabbest appropriation of influential 1982 cinema to pop music this side of Neil Diamond’s “Heartlight.”

In general, the album operates at a sleepy simmer. The surprisingly wan “Is It Over?” is fully indicative, dressed up in studio glitter than coheres into a dull mass. “Rage to Love” washes its corners with a weird watered-down version of Prince’s Purple Rain funk (released about six months earlier) and “Shangri-La” couples Frankie Goes to Hollywood styled dance floor thump to really dopey lyrics (“She’s still looking for her Shangri-La/ But she wouldn’t know it/ If it hit her in the face”).

“Fit In,” one of two songs credited to Kim as a songwriter (Teases & Dares features her first instances of sole songwriting credits), has indications of the novel in the off-tempo burbling that opens the track, but it quickly settles into the same old dull fluff   (“I’m spending nights just dreaming/ And playing the music loud”). Wheels spin and Wilde, despite all the markers of change, stays in precisely the same spot on the pop freeway.


scruffy high

966. Scruffy the Cat, High Octane Revival (1986)

Scruffy the Cat started with a move away from Iowa. Singer Charlie Chesterman and bassist MacPaul Stanfield knew they wanted to form a band, but figured the clubs of the  Hawkeye State weren’t likely to vault them onto the national scene. At the time, Boston was one of the more fruitful American cities for the performers’ preferred style of roots rock turbo-charged with punk verve. There, the duo connected with a guitarist (Stephen Fredette), a drummer (Randall Lee Gibson IV) and a banjo player (Stona Fitch). Within a couple years, they were signed to Relativity Records and High Octane Revival, the debut EP as Scruffy the Cat, was released.

While only hinting at some of the hooky brilliance to come from the band, High Octane Revival is a well-named introduction. Showing little interest in ballads or any other tempo that could be described as anything less than headlong, the band romps through a half-dozen blazing charmers, bringing a rip-roaring assurance to the traditional swoons and romantic woe that gave most pop songs their spines. “40 Days and 40 Nights” borrows from the story of Noah and his ark to express lovelorn challenges in heightened bluesy fashion, and “Land of 1,000 Girls” puts an earnest, extremely-mid-eighties heartland guitar sound to a melancholy tale of retreating from heartache to the overstocked schools of others swimming in the dating pool.

“Life is Fun” could be drawn straight from the Young Fresh Fellows songbook (there was some intermingling of personnel of the two bands in their respective prehistories), thanks to its shrugging wit. And then there’s the endearing directness of “Buy a Car” (“Think I’ll buy a car again/ Like the one that I had when we were friends/ Think I’ll buy a car”), which eventually reveals that there’s a little more weight to its offhand wistful nostalgia.

There’s not much to High Octane Revival — it’s over in less than twenty minutes — but it serves as a fine introduction to the band and an accurate encapsulation of a certain sound that was all but guaranteed to get airplay in college radio in the mid-eighties. And it’s good enough to demonstrate why that automatic attention was an entirely reasonable strategy.



martin street

965. Moon Martin, Street Fever (1980)

John David Martin was hardly the first or only rock ‘n’ roll songwriter to regularly reference the moon in his lyrics, but he apparently did it often enough that it impacted his onstage billing. Moon Martin had his greatest success writing songs for others, most notably “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor),” which surely would have stood as Robert Palmer’s signature hit had music video director Terence Donovan never alit on the idea of dead-eyed model musicians in tight dresses.

Martin released several albums under his own name. Street Fever was the fourth, and it likely arrived with some modest but real expectations of commercial success, spurred by his excursion into the Billboard Top 40 the prior year, with the single “Rolene.” Much of Street Fever mines the same vein from which Martin extracted that hit for Palmer, but with fewer causes to cry, “Eureka!”

“Five Days of Fever” has a guitar line that recalls Heart’s “Barracuda” (Martin really liked building songs with a racing pulse), but a leaden delivery, and the otherwise solid “Signal for Help”  is nearly undone by limp lyrics (“Little girl, you’re all mixed up/ You oughta know by now/ L.A. dreams have no cure/ They got you cryin'”). It’s worse when Martin tries to stretch much beyond the early rock ‘n’ roll that clearly inspires him. In particular, “Love Gone Bad” is the sort of gruesomely lush ballad that helped invent adult contemporary radio.

In its better moments, though, Street Fever approaches the high bar set by Martin’s classicist contemporaries Marshall Crenshaw or Dave Edmunds. “No Dice” even has the sound and cadence of a nifty Rockpile knock off, complete with briskly delivered, amusing lyrics (“Only a voodoo pin/ Could account for the shape I’m in”).  There’s a real sense of anxiety in “Bad News,” both in the popping guitar line and Martin’s trilling vocals, and “Rollin’ in My Rolls” nearly captures the easy, mischievous spirit of the Chuck Berry songs it ably apes. Again, it’s the lyrics that could have used another pass. They’re about as dumb as the song title implies.


To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

From the Archive — Hellboy II: The Golden Army

hellboy 2

As means of congratulating the highly deserving winner of this year’s Best Directing Academy Award, I will excavate one this review of an old Guillermo del Toro film, which I believe stands as the final such writerly relic that can be transferred over to this digital space.

It would be misguided and hypocritical of me to issue a blanket statement about the benefit of letting directors follow their creative instincts without reservations. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that I watched a full day of work from a director who is routinely allowed such unchecked leeway and the phrase “subjected myself to” is central to any description of that experience. So allow me to be more precise. Letting Guillermo del Toro fully loose on a film, his imagination untethered, his vision washing across the screen like spilled juices or flung blood…this is a good thing.

In between helming the first film depiction of Mike Mignola‘s cult favorite comic book character and this sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, del Toro ushered the splendid Pan’s Labyrinth into the world, and the dark artistry of that grim fairy tale informs this new work. Del Toro is still delivering a story that feels like it comes from a corner of the superhero-jammed film-verse that increasingly anchors national multiplexes. The difference is the readily apparent glee taken in filling the screen with wonderful warped monsters and all manner of tactile gruesomeness. There is still action, there are still set pieces that feel well-constructed enough to please those who insist summer movie fare quickens their pulse with rigid regularity. The flavor of them, however, is unmistakably shaped by del Toro’s bump-in-the-night sensibilities more thoroughly than any of his previous outings that involved hefty studio budgets and commensurate box office expectations. After the surprising (and gratifying) success of Labyrinth, there’s a welcome willingness to let del Toro take this franchise material wherever he pleases.

And why not? After all, this devil-hued do-gooder is enough of a known commodity by now that purchasing a ticket is tantamount to a unwavering commitment to suspending disbelief. If you can accept a big, thick, demonic crusader with forehead horns tamed and flattened by a belt sander and a conveniently misproportioned right hand made of punch-friendly stone, then a plant creature several stories tall or a battalion of Barbie doll sized nasty beasties with a taste for human bicuspids should be equally easy to swallow. It’s hard to fathom what would finally cause a Hellboy II attendee to lean back, cross their arms and say, “Oh, now, that’s too much.”

The plot feels extremely familiar, the characters are put through flatly delineated paces rather then given the chance to develop (to such a point that a move of personal defiance at the close of the film has only the most tangential connection to anything that’s come before), and the thudding wit tends towards the unnecessarily juvenile. But none of that prevents the film from being very fun. The director is clearly having the time of his life, finally able to play with every toy he con conjure up in his slightly skewed noggin, and that rumbling joy is mighty hard to resist. In many ways, del Toro has crafted a movie that properly captures what traditional comic books are supposed to be: audaciously inventive with a soaring, intoxicating disregard for the physical constraints that make our normal earthbound adventures look less colorful in comparison.