On Memorial Day

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I struggle over what to post on holidays. Except for a few instances in which I’ve settled into a comfortable, easy pattern — a silly animated gif on Thanksgiving, a Calvin and Hobbes comic on Christmas Eve — I find I come to the most significant individual days on the U.S. calendar with a measure of uncertainty. I have no wistful memories to offer up, no strident calls to value the meaning of the day within me. Usually, I punt, tapping out some bit of simple nonsense in a minimum number of words, confident no one is much likely to read it anyone, distracted as they surely are with barbecues and family gatherings.

Today, the challenge has been a little different. Memorial Day has left me wishing I had something more to say, some set of mildly profound words that express the depths of appreciation I feel for those who have laid down their lives for an enduring ideal.

I am lucky. Although I have friends and loved one who have served in the military — and seen combat — I know of no lost relative carved into a wall, a gold star by their name. I have no grave to visit.

More than ever before, the meaning on this particular holiday weighs on me. I suspect it has something to do with the cavalier buffoons who currently stand in control of the setting the global agenda of the U.S. military, blithely committed to the dangerous bluster of sending men and women headlong into harm with no plan, strategy, or sympathy as a sign of commendable strength. As if the bravery of those in uniform is so easily transferred to those soft-handed imbeciles who see their travails in superficiality as somehow akin to the terrors of the battlefield. I grieve for the lives that will be lost due to the haphazard decisions of callous men.

Simultaneously, I marvel at the courage that exists in the everyday. Make no mistake, Ricky John Best, twenty-three veteran of the U.S. Army, may have taken his last breath within the borders of a major U.S. city rather than on foreign soil, but he died defending his country.

Even now, I believe my words are feeble, my grappling insufficient. So I will concede my shortcomings by offering digital passageway to an article posted today on CNN’s website. Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling writes of his own personal remembrances, sparked by the collection he keeps of, as he puts it, “the photographs of 253 soldiers, sailors, airmen, allies and civilians who served and made the ultimate sacrifice under my command in combat.”

My words today were earnest and inadequate. I am aware of that. Hertling’s words? Those matter.

 

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 40 – 38

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40. The English Beat, “Save It for Later”

Since this is a chart for U.S. college radio that we’re tracking through, we are obligated to refer to the band featuring both Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger among the ranks by the vulgar and pedantic moniker the English Beat. In their native U.K., there was no need for the geographic qualifier, of course. The original name for the group preserved truth in advertising since the ska-singed beat delivered didn’t necessarily call to mind the British Isles. The Beat were already a force on the U.K. charts by the time they released their third album, Special Beat Service, in 1982. As it happened, the track that served as the album’s lead single had its beginnings back when hit songs were little more than a fanciful dream for singer and guitarist Dave Wakeling. As he explained it, “Save It for Later” was a piece of advice to himself. “I wrote it when I was a teenager,” explained Wakeling. “I wrote it before the Beat started. And it was about turning from a teenager to someone in their twenties and realizing that the effortless promise for your teenage years was not necessarily going to show that life was so simple as you started to grow up. So it was about being lost, about not really knowing your role in the world, trying to find your place in the world.” Although adults were quick to offer advice, Wakeling determined, they didn’t really have life figured out either. Under those circumstances, it was acceptable to decide to wait until the answers came along on their own.

 

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39. Go-Go’s, “Our Lips are Sealed”

Astute music fans may notice that Terry Hall, lead singer of the Specials, is credited with co-writing “Out Lips are Sealed,” the debut U.S. single and first major hit for the Go-Go’s. The genesis of the song is a little more complicated than the usual collaboration, though. Hall was in Los Angeles with his bandmates, and several of them saw Go-Go’s play a show at, appropriately, the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip. The visitors were bedazzled enough to offer the Go-Go’s a spot as opening act on their upcoming tour. As sometimes happens, a road romance bubbled up. The songwriting credit is the only clue needed to determine the other half of the couple: Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin. “Jane had gotten involved with the Specials’ lead singer, Terry Hall, when we’d been in London,” Go-Go’s lead singer, Belinda Carlisle, wrote in her memoir. “After we left, he sent Jane a letter about their complicated situation. She set some of the lines from that letter to music, added some lyrics of her own (she’s a genius), and, voila, she had ‘Our Lips are Sealed.'” Carlisle claimed she knew the song was a hit from the moment she first heard it. Wiedlin wasn’t so confident. “We’d been together about two years when I wrote that,” she recounted. “Some of the songs from the very beginning were songs that ended up part of our repertoire. Others fell by the wayside. I remember when I wrote it, I was really afraid to show it to the band in case they didn’t like it and all this stuff. But luckily they did like it.” A lot of people liked it. Released as the first single from the band’s smash hit 1981 debut album, Beauty and the Beat, the song made it into the Billboard Top 40. Surprisingly, its peak at a relatively modest #20 officially makes the pop radio mainstay one of the weaker-charting efforts of the band’s five Top 40 hits, outpacing only the largely-forgotten “Turn to You.”

 

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38. U2, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”

On January 30, 1972, a group of citizens were marching in the streets of Derry, a city in Northern Ireland. They were protesting the internment of hundreds of Irish people under the British government’s Operation Demetrius, an initiative against the Irish Republican Army. Although the protesters were peaceful, British soldiers opened fire on the crowd, hitting 28 unarmed people, 14 of whom died as a result. While this might not automatically seem like prime material for a rock ‘n’ roll song, U2 had no aversion to weighty topics. Still, the band members knew that they needed to be thoughtful in their approach. “We all had a hand in that song, because it’s probably the heaviest thing we’ve ever done, lyrically,” guitarist the Edge noted. “It’s hard for us to justify a title like ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ and we are all aware of that. We realize the potential for division in a song like that, so all we can say is that we’re trying to confront the subject rather than sweep it under the carpet.” According to the Edge, the mindfulness extended to a pledge to the audience when U2 debuted it live in Belfast. Bono promised a condemnation from the crowd would ensure that they never played it again. Instead, it has reverberated from the stage well over eight hundred times, to date. Not only did U2 band have no cause to strike it from their set lists, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” served as the lead track on War, the band’s third album, released in 1983. It was also issued as a single, though it — perhaps pointedly — was the only single from the album that failed to chart in their Irish homeland.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Five for Friday, Hot Fun in the Summertime edition

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I dragged over an old “Five for Friday” just a couple weeks ago, but I knew this timely topic was somewhere amidst the two hundred editions of my former recurring exercise in participatory listing. Offering it as a rerun today was simple too tempting. As was the case last time, I created a YouTube playlist with (almost) all of the songs that I and my far-more-inspired commenters listed. It’s perfect accompaniment for your holiday weekend grilling.

Five Great Summer Songs

1. First Class, “Beach Baby.” It’s from 1974 and boy oh boy is it crammed with cheesy, from the piercing, poppy horns to the soaring “ahhhhhhh”s in the background. Name checking Chevrolet, the high school hop, soda pop and both the girl and the boy next door (“suntan crewcut All-American male”) within the first 45 seconds, the song is nostalgia-swirl ice cream with a sound as bright as the endless sun it covets. “Surfin’ was fun/We’d be out in the sun every day.”

2. Material Issue, “International Pop Overthrow.” There’s any number of power pop songs from the fabulous debut album by Chicago’s Material Issue that would suit this list. But this one opens with the lyrics “I was ridin’ around/with the radio up and the windows down” and that’s a trump card today.

3. Neneh Cherry, “Buffalo Stance.” “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce the highhat.” Remember how everyone was flipping out over that Lauryn Hill record a couple years ago? I maintain there’s nothing she did there that Neneh Cherry didn’t pull off, and better, years earlier. The first single is as bold, fresh and astonishing now as it was over fifteen years ago (my god, can that be right?)–a statement of personal power and defiance wrapped in the most incredible rhythms. Made for car stereos and overheated street corners.

4. The Primitives, “Secrets.” Maybe it would make more sense to go with the more familiar “Crash” off their debut album, since it’s certainly a great “windows down shout along” song. But then this does tell us “Throw your troubles to the wind/Summertime is happening” and include the simple statement of pride “We walk in the sun” prominently in the chorus. It’s typical Primitives, quick, airy and built around a killer hook. Besides, picking a track from the second album allows me to make the controversial statment that I think lead singer Tracy Tracy is way more attractive with red hair than with the bottle blonde look she had for the first album. This may raise the ire of some fellow former 90FM music directors, but I’m feeling brave.

5. All Girl Summer Fun Band, “Down South, 10 Hours, I-5.” Come on, the answer to today’s riddle is right there in the name of the band. Zippy pop songs about road trips are an absolutely necessity during the summer. “Gettin’ there in style, just a few more miles, it’s a rock’n’roll weekend,” is as good of a battle cry as any.

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One for Friday: The Mr. T Experience, “So Long, Sucker”

Like a lot of my cohorts in college radio, I saw music as serious stuff. I adamantly clung to the notion that the songs we played on our end of the dial were revolutionary, transformative, and deeply important as compared to the frivolous nonsense all the other stations were playing. Even when one of our favored artists indulged in comparative silliness about, say, mass transit smooching, we knew deep down that it really represented a deep expression of existential agony. Bubble gum fun was for the helpless sheep, lulled into complacency by the repetitiveness of Top 40 radio and MTV.

Even so, I couldn’t wholly resist a punchy band that didn’t set aside a sense of humor when they strapped on their guitars. In addition to the band I’ve written about to near exhaustion in various digital pages, I regularly interrupted the stern but tuneful lectures of my playlists with the sonic handiwork of the Berkeley band that served as the main creative outlet for “Dr. Frank” Portman: The Mr. T Experience.

Within my first year or so at the campus radio station, an EP with the deliberately devilish title Big Black Bugs Bleed Blue Blood landed in the new music rotation. It boasted a tremendous cover of the Sesame Street standard “Up and Down.” Realistically, that was already enough to win my long-term devotion, but the Mr. T Experience only strengthened that admiration with the title to the full-length that followed a few months later: Making Things with Light, which, of course referenced the slogan of one of the iconic toys of the nineteen-seventies.

The whole album was great, served as a spiked tonic in the midst of any radio show. Or maybe even at the end, where a song like “So Long, Sucker” was ideally placed. This wasn’t the sort of record deployed to prove a point. I wasn’t going to get into late night, beer-soaked conversations about what each song meant, like really meant. Dang, it was fun, though.

Listen or download –> The Mr. T Experience, “So Long, Sucker”

(Disclaimer: The Mr. T Experience has been around for a long time and put out a lot of records, as recently as last year. I can’t claim I’ve heard everything, but I can say that everything I’ve heard is raucously entertaining. So I share this track not to prevent others from spending money on the band’s music, but indeed to encourage them to do so, preferably at a favorite local, independently-owned record store. Even though I mean no harm, I do know the rules, and I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Jesus can swing, Jesus has skills, go on and try it if you don’t believe he will

Sixty-sixth in a series….

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Laughing Matters: Eddie Izzard, “Cake or Death?”

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..

As I recall it, the first time I ever encountered Eddie Izzard’s name was in a piece at the online magazine Salon, when online magazines were still the height of novelty. The comedy performances touted in the article were still devilishly hard to come by, so I simply filed the name away, deeply intrigued by the excited celebration of a comic mind that approached the world in a decidedly different way. And that was even without any consideration of Izzard’s self-identification as an “executive transvestite,” terminology still wildly foreign in the wilds of the late nineteen-nineties.

As is the cast with many, I suspect, my first true exposure to Izzard came in the special dubbed Dress to Kill, as perfect of an introduction as any performer could hope to have. I’ve now seen several Izzard performances — including, on a splendid night, a live show in Chicago — and I’m confident Dress to Kill is a grand comic mind at its most inspired.

Izzard has a loose style that recalls the improvisational sparking of Robin Williams, but there’s a deep, inquisitive intellect at play. That quality is rarely more evident than in the stretches in which Izzard — unlike practically any other person who makes a reasonable living standing on a stage and making people laugh — mines the strangeness of global history for his material.

There have been other bits that have made me laugh louder and harder — Darth Vader in the Death Star canteen comes to mind — but nothing exemplifies to me the unique brilliance of Izzard than when he finds a way to pose a deceptively simple question; “Cake or death?”

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

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Now Playing — Alien: Covenant

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In space, it is said, no one can hear you scream. While I watched Alien: Covenant, I started to wonder if it was possible to hear aggressive eye-rolling into the middle of a booming movie theater.

The latest attempt to wring a few more dollars out of enduring nostalgia for the 1979 sci-fi/horror film — or, more likely, the inferior 1986 sci-fi/action sequel — returns Ridley Scott to the director’s chair, continuing the eradication of goodwill that he began with PrometheusThat prequel effort to the franchise Scott inadvertently launched a lifetime ago trafficked in pretentious, exploratory mumbo jumbo and disconnected kinetic clatter, all of it rendered with a sputtering disregard for logic or consistency. If Scott was trying to rescue the legacy of one of his strongest cinematic efforts from the dire sequels it spawned, he mostly delivered an argument that the whole endeavor should have ended once and for with the last survivor of the Nostromo signing off, all those years ago.

Alien: Covenant is set approximately ten to fifteen years after the events of Prometheus and still a decent stretch of time before Alien. A crew of space explorers are guiding the ship Covenant to a distant corner of the galaxy, intending to terraform a planet, populating it with humans settled into cryosleep in the cargo hold and a whole batch of “second generation” settlers (embryos arranged in drawers like prized curios in an especially strange collection). When the crew is roused from their own deep-space slumber by a cosmic event, they discover a strange audio message in space that leads them to another planet which just might be habitable.

Of course, this promising orb is not just workable for Earthlings. The ravenous critters H.R. Giger sketched out around forty years back also find the landscape accommodating, especially when the human hors d’oeuvres comes stumbling around, making ill-advised decisions at every turn. The screenplay — co-credited to John Logan and Dante Harper, with a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green — is completely scattershot. It introduces concepts — such as the role of faith in a time of scientific marvels and the defining components of humanity — only to drop them almost immediately, with nothing more than barest level of curiosity in evidence. Characters make choices according to the needs of the narrative’s twists rather than any internal honesty in the fiction. The actors are left as stranded as the shipwrecked space travelers they depict.

Amazingly, Scott offers this clacking indifference as the follow-up to The Martian, maybe the strongest film of his career. It’s not that it’s perplexing that Scott would bound from an cinematic high to an ugly low — he’s certainly pulled off that unfortunate artistic whiplash before — but The Martian is a science fiction film that smartly avoids every flaw that mars Alien: Covenant. Scott learned no lessons from his own accomplishment. With Alien: Covenant, it isn’t just screaming that’s pointless.

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May 2017
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