Beers I Have Known — Highland Brewing Cold Mountain

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

cold mountain

I’m now two years removed from residency in the picturesque mountain burg of Asheville, North Carolina. The span of time gives me enough data points to state with confidence that I never feel quite so homesick for Beer City U.S.A. as during Cold Mountain season.

Cold Mountain is a spiced winter ale offered by Highland Brewing, the pioneering craft brewer in a city that has now exploded with modest, innovative competitors. The beer typically made its yearly bow in mid-November, lasting in various venues across the area for a good couple of months. It is so coveted that impromptu online tools emerge just to track its availability. Once, at a time of particular scarcity during the season, one of those feeds alerted us to the opening of a Cold Mountain tap line at a dive bar we usually didn’t frequent (mostly because of their tenuous grasp of what items should be burned to generate heat). We wound up enjoying the the most perfectly chilled glass of the ale we ever had.

These days, I don’t crave Cold Mountain. If I were to make a list of North Carolina beers I wish I could make magically appear in my fridge, Cold Mountain likely wouldn’t even crack the top ten. Even so, the beer represents a certain time and place for me, stirring up the warmest of memories. It’s one of the beers that feels like home, or at least one of my homes.

From the Archive — Blue Velvet

blue velvet

The major dust-up on Film Twitter this week centered on the question of whether or not Twin Peaks: The Return can reasonably be considered a film instead of a television series. (By the way, the correct answer is “No,” and I testily made the same argument against last year’s documentary feature Academy Award-winner O.J: Made in America.) That skirmish in semantics came in the wake of several movie critics making room in their year-end top ten lists for David Lynch’s eighteen episode reunion with the twisty denizens of a certain Washington town. In commemoration of the new argument, I’ll dust off my own contrarian, complicated response to the cinematic offering that I suspect is still considered by many to be Lynch’s signature masterwork. This piece was originally published at my former online home as a part of the “Flashback Fridays” feature, hence the header that specifically notes the date of the film’s release. 

1986: Blue Velvet is released

When you come out the theatre after seeing David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” you certainly know that you’ve seen something. You wouldn’t mistake frames from “Blue Velvet” for frames from any other movie.
–Pauline Kael in The New Yorker

David Lynch’s fourth feature film was released in mid-September, a month or so after debuting at the Montreal World Film Festival and about a month after playing the Toronto International Film Festival. The reactions to it were, to put it mildly, pronounced. The film’s willful descent into warped degradations inspired revulsion in some and reverence in others. Tepid reactions were few and far between, perhaps nonexistent. It’s hard to imagine anyone emerging from a viewing back in 1986 and terming the movie “okay” or “pretty good” or “not so great.” It still looks edgy, challenging, frightening, fearsome, and twisted today, but its almost inconceivable how different it looked back then. To provide some context, the week after Blue Velvet opened, ‘Crocodile’ Dundee began a nine-week reign on top of the box office charts. Even Lynch’s immediate precursors weren’t suitable preparation for what he unleashed onscreen this time out. Yes, he’d made Eraserhead, but his most recent efforts were a generally disliked adaptation of a classic science fiction novel and an elegant drama about a 19th century outcast that’s notable for its restraint. If Lynch is something of a brand by now, then Blue Velvet was the launch.

For those with the temerity to follow it anywhere, “Blue Velvet” is as fascinating as it is freakish. It confirms Mr. Lynch’s stature as an innovator, a superb technician, and someone best not encountered in a dark alley.”
–Janet Maslin in The New York Times

I didn’t see Blue Velvet when it was released, with outings to the movie theater difficult to come by and my reliance on others to get me there making it that much more unlikely. I was a year too young to get in anyway. Even though the home video revolution was well underway, I’m not sure I ever saw the movie in any of the humble stores in our backwater town. Despite the acclaim the film received — including a Best Director Oscar nomination for Lynch, even though the film received recognition in no other categories, an odd feat that Lynch would achieve again fifteen years later — it was still a fairly controversial title. Besides, most of my video rental patronage involved securing movies to watch with my buddies on Friday night or with my family on Saturday night, neither crowd likely to respond favorably to Blue Velvet. And so I waited some more and waited some more, until it seemed the chance to watch it had passed me by. How could I recapture the shock of a film like Blue Velvet after viewing Lynch’s follow-ups and imitators? Maybe more damaging, how could I find my way to its wild heart after spending time around drunk college girls joyfully shouting out Frank Booth’s lines of dialogue the same way my pals quoted The Blues Brothers for an easy laugh? The world unknowingly conspired to tame it.

I am not one of the film’s admirers. Or perhaps I should say, I admire its craftsmanship but am not one of its defenders. I believe Lynch is a talented director, and that in “Blue Velvet” he has used his talent in an unworthy way. The movie is powerful, challenging and made with great skill, and yet it made me feel pity for the actors who worked in it and anger at the director for taking liberties with them.
–Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun-Times

Yesterday I finished tracking through the Top Fifty Films of the 90s and next week I’ll continue the conceit by looking to the prior ten year span, tallying up the best of those years. I acknowledge my shortcomings in this endeavor and have been making ongoing efforts to see some of the movies that reside in my own personal blind spot. So I knew I needed to finally see Blue Velvet. As I reported at the time, my worries were proven apt. It didn’t move me or rattle me the way it was supposed to, the way I think Lynch intended. To be fair and completely truthful, I’ve usually been more inclined towards Lynch when he applies his dark poetry to material that doesn’t start out warped, far preferring The Straight Story to Lost Highway. Still, I had the inescapable sense of looking at a museum piece that’s suffered from the erosion of its revolution. It was perfect, even necessary, for a certain time and place, and while I was there, I also wasn’t. I missed my chance, so I can only understand Blue Velvet, I don’t really feel it.

Laughing Matters — Conan Babies

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.

When Late Night with Conan O’Brien made its debut, in the fall of 1993, I was probably at the peak of my devotion to comedy television that aired around midnight. As a fierce fan of David Letterman, I watched with rooting interest as NBC engaged in the longstanding tradition of botched the transition of Tonight Show hosts. (When Bill Carter’s book on the turbulent situation, The Late Shift, was published the following year, I purchased it as soon as I could and devoured it with vigor.) So I was well aware of the perplexing choice of Letterman’s successor on Late Night (after the future Kennedy Center honoree, denied the post he’d long coveted, jumped to CBS to launch The Late Show), a comedy writer alum of Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons who’d spent barely any time at all on the other side of the camera. Even the commercials promoting the introduction of Conan O’Brien as a late night joked about his amateur status. “He’s new at this,” they sheepishly admitted.

A recent college graduate, I had a lot of spare time on my hands when Late Night with Conan O’Brien was added to the NBC programming grid, and I watched from the beginning. While it wasn’t as bad as the most scathing reviews insisted, it wasn’t exactly good, either. But then, with remarkable speed, it evolved to become something downright fantastic, as innovative in its spirited absurdity and genially serrated satire as Letterman was in his showbiz-deflating irony.

Still toiling away among the tumbleweeds of basic cable, O’Brien was recently termed by The New York Times as “The Most Riveting Host in Late Night (and the Most Overlooked).” Realistically, that assessment could have been fairly applied to him from the moment he first got his sea legs on Late Night. I’m not sure if ever viewer had a comedy bit they could readily identify as the one that fully won them over to O’Brien’s Late Night, but the choice is obvious for me: “Conan Babies.”

 

My Misspent Youth — Moon Knight by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I started collecting superhero comics, I adored first issues. There was probably some speculator instinct I picked up by osmosis, since this was the beginning of the era when comic books were occasionally positioned as a potential boon for nerdy investors by an aghast and amused mainstream press. Mostly, though, I loved the idea of being with a character from the very beginning of their existence. The true Marvel heyday of spectacular character debuts coming at a rapid pace was nearly twenty years before I started seriously scrutinizing the offerings propped up in the spinner rack, and I was envious of my ancestors in the pastime of feverishly consuming comics.

Although I didn’t really know it at the time, the boldly announced PREMIERE ISSUE of Moon Knight didn’t actually contain the first appearance of the title character. Moon Knight was introduced roughly five years earlier, tangling with Werewolf by Night. He then romped through some tryout adventures in Marvel Spotlight and the back pages of The Hulk!, a full-size magazine starring Marvel’s resident green goliath. Hoping to grab a more mature audience than the kids who usually read their monthly mags (you might not know it from inspecting the average clientele in a comics shop these days, but there was a time in the not-so-distant past when the periodicals were primarily aimed at and read by individuals too young to get a driver’s license), the magazine tried to deliver slightly racier and artistically-refined content. That motivation undoubtedly helped direct the choice of artist Bill Sienkiewicz to join writer Doug Moench.

The team of Moench and Sienkiewicz obviously made an impression with the fans, allowing Moon Knight to graduate to his own comic series. It was the first issue of that ongoing title that I eagerly grabbed off the stands. Maybe it wasn’t the true debut of Moon Knight, but, in mighty Marvel fashion, it absolutely played that way, presenting the superhero’s origin story.

moon knight 1

The short version is that Marc Spector was a mercenary on assignment in Egypt when a villainous African in the same line of work beats Spector and leaves him for dead. Spector’s heart does stop at one point, but he awakens fully alive in front of a statue of the Egyptian moon god Khonshu. Naturally, that prompts Spector to dress up in a costume and fight crime. Because, you know, comics.

Not content to operate with a single secret identity, Spector takes on a whole portfolio of alter egos.

moon knight 2

The concept behind Moon Knight seemed to be: What if Batman was actually crazy? Moench’s writing played up the idea that the character sometimes struggled with maintaining understanding of the realities of the separate personae he’d cooked up for himself. And then there was the looming Egyptian god statue that held sway over his confidence.

The moody, inky art of Sienkiewicz melded perfectly with Moench’s inclination to send Moon Knight into the seedier corners of Marvel’s Manhattan. Moon Knight was a kindred spirit to the original Daredevil run crafted by Frank Miller, which held my imagination tight.

moon knight 3

Where Miller pitted Daredevil against mobsters and ninjas, Moench took Moon Knight into far more bizarre territory. Before long, the cowled crusader was doing battle with all sorts of supernatural forces. It was a bizarre contrast to the more conventional villain-of-the-month fare that shared space in the Marvel publishing line. At times, I could barely wrap my growing brain around the material dished up by Moench and Sienkiewicz. That only made me appreciate it more.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Playing Catch-Up — Beggars of Life; The Crazies; Brillo Box (3¢ Off)

beggars

Beggars of Life (William A. Wellman, 1928). Released one year after William A. Wellman directed Wings to the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture, this drama sticks close to a pair of thrown together traveling companions (Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen) as they ride the rails with hopes of reaching Canada, in part because the woman committed a murder in self-defense. Their journey is complicated by an encounter with thuggish hoboes, led by a man named Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery). While certainly of the era, Beggars of Life is reasonably raw in its depiction of the dangers on the dusty byways of the U.S., especially faced by the young woman as she crosses into the sights of lascivious men. Brooks and Arlen skillfully walk the line of between expressiveness and over-emoting that was the key acrobatic feat of silent film actors. Beery is a memorable presence, but he does largely get by on scrunching up his face and rubbing his scrubby head of hair. The plot doesn’t exactly fall apart at the end, but it does noticeably sway on its foundation.

 

crazies

The Crazies (George A. Romero, 1973). Director George A. Romero’s adeptness at incorporating sly social satire in to his horror films is most commonly cited when discussing his various dances with zombies, but this cynical gem is arguably a better demonstration of the feat. With only the bare essentials of backstory and explanation, the plot roars to life. A biochemical weapon developed by the U.S. military infiltrated the water supply of small town, leading the afflicted to descend into jabbering madness on the way to a fatal outcome. A typical gang of plucky survivors tries to escape while the authorities do the convoluted best to cover up the outbreak and develop an antidote, in that order of priority. The performances sometimes veer too close to amateurish, but I found nothing but delight in watching Richard France chomp through his turn as a scientist forcibly (and somewhat randomly) recruited to fight the virus. Romero clearly revels in the mayhem he sets loose, making pointed arguments about the bogged ineffectualness of the military and civic leaders in general.

 

brillo

Brillo Box (3¢ off) (Lisanne Skyler, 2016). In a breezy forty minutes, documentarian Lisanne Skyler mines her own family history for a meditation on art collecting, as hobby and as an act of financial speculation. In the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, Skyler’s parents were casual but prolific art collectors, filling their New York apartment with pieces from emerging artists who would shortly become known as the masters of their day. Among the pieces that artworks that they briefly claimed was on of Andy Warhol’s yellow Brillo boxes, which they inadvertently conferred extra longterm value upon it by insisting the artist sign in. (According to the documentary, the signed yellow Brillo box is one of only three of its kind.) In a tragicomic turn, Skyler’s father traded the piece away well before it skyrocketed in value. He bought it for $1000. Four decades later, it sold for millions. With a remarkably good-natured tone, Skyler’s traces the piece’s long history, with brisk, informative diversions into Warhol’s career, the terrain of modern art, and her own family’s shared biography. Without resorting to overt jokiness or sacrificing a mission to educate, Skyler crafts a brightly entertaining film.

The Art of the Sell — The Flintstones and Winstons

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

Even as I roll my eyes and grit my teeth as transparent shilling for products infiltrates ever deeper into U.S. media offerings, I must admit to an abiding affection for the way the early days of television were filled with overt sponsor pitches, often baked right into the programs. There’s something charming about the way everything stopped so characters could expound on the virtues of soap flakes or breakfast cereals.

And then there were the incorporated spots that now look wonderfully absurd, such as a couple of modern Stone Age buddies enjoying a smoke together. Although The Flintstones have long since been relegated to the kid-friendly parts of the cable dial, when the program originally aired, in the nineteen-sixties, it wasn’t really viewed as family fare. It was just another sitcom, The Honeymooners reimagined with caveman jokes. So why wouldn’t Winston cigarettes sign up as a sponsor? And then meant a couple cartoon characters would got to sample the tobacco company’s wares on national television.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 40 Cuts, March 16, 1990 — 16 – 13

creatures

16. The Creatures, “Standing There”

Siouxsie Sioux was never one to recede from pointed commentary, particularly when it came to sexist attitudes that have long been rife in society. For the first single from the Creatures album Boomerang, she and her fellow Siouxsie and the Banshees moonlighter, Budgie, delivered a fierce musical and lyrically pummeling of the sort of cads who loiter around the public square, gawking at women and hurling vile come-on commentary their way. No words are minced: “Ignoring your calling, ignoring your taunting/ Ignoring your feelings of self hate and loathing/ How empty and pointless your life must seem.” The wrecking swings are destructive gender roles extended to the music video, which included biblical imagery with a tart reversal. It’s the male who offers up the Garden of Eden’s forbidden apple.

This cut was down from 9 on the previous chart.

 

house of love

15. The House of Love, “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”

The House of Love stand as quite the cautionary tale. An up-and-coming modern rock band from the U.K., the House of Love notched a couple small-but-beloved hits with singles as the late-nineteen-eighties encroached. Then they were the beneficiaries of a thickly generous contract from Fontana Records, which provided loads of pricey studio time and all the uncompromising expectations of commercial successful and executive micromanagement that came with it. Their second full-length — officially untitled, as was their debut — credited at least four different producers and boasted a big, polished sound that the band reportedly detested. Although, it’s difficult to say how vigorously they protested since most accounts agree that many of the key band members spent the recording process giving their most dedication attention to prodigious drug usage. Years later, lead singer Guy Chadwick characterized signing up with the label as “a dreadful mistake.” There may be missteps galore across the resulting album, but I maintain “I Don’t Know Why I Love You,” the release’s second single, is a fantastic single.

This cut was making its debut on the chart.

 

penn

14. Michael Penn, “No Myth”

In 1989, when Michael Penn’s album March was released, the best means to stir interest in the freshly introduced performer was to invoke his family tree. Part of the same Hollywood household that produced actors Sean and Chris Penn, Michael was the one who holed up in his bedroom with a guitar and a notepad. In the case of “No Myth,” the album’s lead single, Penn specifically noted it was written in his parents’ garage, shortly after the dissolution of his band Doll Congress. Following the sturdiest pop song template, “No Myth” was inspired by heartache, “It had to do with a serious relationship in my life that broke up, and I was just trying to figure out, ‘What the fuck was that?,’” Penn later reported. “So this song was the beginning of me trying to actually figure that shit out in song.” The track a somewhat unlikely hit, peaking in the Billboard Top 20 and — perhaps most surprisingly — helping Penn to best Bell Biv DeVoe, Jane Child, the Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz, Alannah Myles, and Lisa Stansfield in the competition for Best New Artist at the 1990 Video Music Awards.

This cut was down from 10 on the previous chart.

 

metropolis

13. The Church, “Metropolis”

Arista Records were certain the Church were set to become regular hitmakers. The Australian band had scored a fairly unlikely Top 40 hit with “Under the Milky Way,” the lead single from the 1988 album Starfish. (“Under the Milky Way” peaked at #24 on the main Billboard chart, spending that week nestled between decidedly non-kindred singles by Richard Marx and Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine.) After the Church made overtures to former Led Zeppelin member John Paul Jones, who was developing a reputation as a skilled producer, the label insisted they reunite with Waddy Wachtel, who’d presided over Starfish, figuring the breakthrough would be built upon. Starting from that point of agitation, the band spent much of the sessions that would become the 1990 album Gold Afternoon Fix feeling angry and unappreciated. They were also dealing with the mounting drug abuse problem of drummer Richard Ploog, which led to his departure from the band. According to Arista, though, it was all sunshine and light. At least that’s how they presented the situation in the press release accompanying the arrival of Gold Afternoon Fix. Cohesion was emphasized.”I think what’s happened is that everone’s got their things off their chest,” bassist and vocalist Steve Kilbey said in the release. “No one’s got an axe to grind, coming on and saying, ‘I’ve written this song I want to do. Now it’s more like everyone’s got their own stuff done, everyone wants to interact more.'” The ascension to greater stardom so coveted by the label never manifested, but the album’s lead single, the splendid “Metropolis,” was a significant winner on the college charts.

This cut was making it’s debut on the chart and was the highest debut of the week.

 

I wrote about the chart we’re tracking through at the beginning of this particular Countdown. Previous entries can be found at the relevant tag.

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.