Archive for August, 2011

Elvis, MTV, & the Future of Rock ‘N Roll

Posted: August 25, 2011 by Bill Gauthier in Music
Tags: , , , , ,

August 16th marked the 34th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. His death is a milestone for me because in a strange way: I was born eight days later. I suppose those who were born on the actual date and all of us born the week or so preceding and succeeding his death are all in the same boat on this, especially if their parents were fans. My father, born in 1941, was an Elvis fan. He wasn’t a fan in the sense that he owned every album or went to concerts or read books about the man, but when an Elvis song came on the radio, he’d listen. He liked Presley’s voice. My mother, born in 1950, did own some of Elvis’s music, but she was more of a Beatles girl than an Elvis girl. By the time she was a teenager, Elvis was already past his craze period and the British Invasion was in full swing. Still, she loved music (and still does) and to dance, and Elvis was a part of the legacy of rock ‘n roll and she knew it. The news of his death shocked them as much as it did the rest of the world. Dad went out and bought magazines, newspapers (mostly National Enquirers) in the days and weeks following Elvis’s death. (I recently received many of these papers).

The local newspaper for August 17, 1977.

I don’t know why I disregarded Elvis for so long, and am still not much of a fan. Perhaps it was natural, being part of being part of The Next Generation and all. You always think that the preceding generation’s idols are old and not worthy of your adoration. Maybe it was the history of the King of Rock ‘N Roll and his descent into (seeming) madness, wearing capes, visiting Presidents, etc., that made me disregard Elvis. Maybe it’s just that I don’t dig him. Whatever it was, I realized this past week (I’m writing the first draft of this on August 19th) that I’ve never really given Elvis a chance. The generational thing only stood up until my teenage years, when I “discovered” The Beatles and have since made many other such “discoveries,” from The Rolling Stones (Mom isn’t a fan) to the power of Motown to Billy Joel, Elton John, and (you were waiting for this) Bruce Springsteen. So that leaves the other two reasons (excuses?) on why I’ve resisted Elvis so long. So this week when I really put the subconscious to work on this (yes, I consciously put the subconscious to work) the closest to an answer I have came: I’ve grown up in the shadow of Elvis’s death and I don’t like it.

I’ve always known Elvis was dead and that he died right before my birthday. I knew that even before I knew my birthname was William! (For the first three or four years of my life, I was called Billy almost exclusively). My mother would often say, “Maybe you’re the reincarnation of Elvis.” This was silly because she doesn’t believe in reincarnation. It became even sillier because I have no musical ability whatsoever.

Alfred Wertheimer's classic photo "Going Home", 1956.

When I was sixteen or seventeen, I saw an Elvis calendar at the bookstore I worked at and the cover captured me. It was Young Elvis, and presumably taken while on the road. He’s sitting and looking at the camera. He was a good looking young man, and was young enough to still have that hungry look that people so respond to in artists. But there was something in the eyes that moved me. It was as though, on the road, maybe in the height of Elvis-mania, as he was knocking down walls of music, taking Black music and bringing it into the living rooms (and, even worse to the old folk, the bedrooms) of White teenagers of the 1950s, he knew what would happen. His eyes almost say to me that he knows his life will never be the same, for better or worse, but most likely worse.

That still didn’t get me to listen to him. To be honest, I’m really listening to him for the first time right now. I have Elvis Radio playing on my SiriusXM Internet Radio. Now, that’s not to say that I have never heard Elvis music, or even like it. I love “Jailhouse Rock.” “Hound Dog” isn’t too bad, either. I like “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “I Can’t Help Falling In Love with You” and “Blue Christmas.” I know “Blue Suede Shoes.” Yeah, that’s probably about it. I’m finding I like his rockabilly songs.

The talk of the anniversary of Elvis’s death came from my subconscious this morning dragging with it the dying beast that is MTV. Even though I’d heard plenty of music before we got cable (like I said, my mother loves music–there was always music on in the house) the first music to turn me on was from the pop heyday of MTV.

We were one of the last people I knew who got MTV because we just didn’t have the money for cable. When we finally got it, the two channels neither Mom nor I could wait to dig into were MTV and HBO. I was about six years old. This was the time that Michael Jackson released Thriller, and in the immediate years following, MTV introduced me to Hall & Oates, Madonna, Huey Lewis and the News, Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, The Cars, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Billy Idol, The Go-Go’s, Prince, “Weird Al” Yankovich, and others that I’ll remember after I post this. But goddamn! did MTV change things for me. All of a sudden, my mother was buying music (45s and then cassettes) that sort of interested me because I’d seen it on TV. And there was an attitude to the videos that were so…rock ‘n roll. In the post-punk early 1980s, there was a feeling that every artist on MTV, and the VJs, and whatever guests they had on (did I mention Van Halen above? No. Well, now I have) was giving a big ol’ “Fuck you!” to The Man, whomever that may be at the time.

For me, being six years old and seeing Twisted Sister yelling into the camera that they weren’t gonna take, no, they weren’t gonna take it, they weren’t gonna take it anymoooorrrre was amazing, especially since I was always in trouble at that time. Always. I was my neighborhood’s Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson, and though my love of movies was the center of everything, the attitude that came from MTV orbited and fed me. Who needed Elvis when you had MTV?

Of course, I wasn’t aware that I was witnessing the death of rock ‘n roll radio. I wasn’t aware that I was witnessing the homogenization of music into something that only the beautiful people could do, that the radio–which was already broadcasting more and more stations with less and less programming–would begin to base their format on the slickness of MTV so it could sell more advertising. I wasn’t aware that Michael Jackson’s success would take that brand of pop music–big shows, giant dance numbers, strange costumes–and dominate popular music even nearly-thirty years later with acts like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.

The modern pop concert includes singing, dancing, and shiny costumes.

It took a while but eventually success did to MTV what it did to Elvis. MTV had a good fifteen years where it did what it set itself up to do: play new music and introduce different forms of music. Maybe I’m giving it a gift of those last five years of the fifteen, because the introduction of the game shows and series on MTV began as early as the late-1980s, but I don’t think so. Yo! MTV Raps was instrumental in the rise of rap music and brought names like Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Naughty By Nature, and–most importantly–Public Enemy into the living rooms of kids like me, who found something in the music that spoke to them, just as MTV helped the hair bands of the mid-80s, the metal bands that grew from there, and the grunge movement. The video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is actually better than the song and it helped propel what became known as alternative music (which is a bullshit name, I say. Alternative to what, precisely? It may smell like Teen Spirit, but it sounds like rock ‘n roll to me).

Of course, while video killed the radio star (c’mon, you’ve been waiting for me to fit that in since I began writing about MTV), even the monolithic power of TV couldn’t withstand the power of the next technology that would turn the media on its head and the populace further into lemmings content with whomever is spouting nonsense the loudest. With the internet not only becoming popular, but becoming more accessible with each passing moment, the way people got music changed.

But you know this. You know the power of the internet because you’re reading this.

I just replaced my old, deadish iPod with a fancy new iPod Touch. Part of the future of music.

Which leads me, finally, to the future of rock ‘n roll. My definition of rock ‘n roll is pretty similar to that of the classic Billy Joel song: It’s [all] rock ‘n roll to me. As has been the case with everything since just before 2000, the chasms between different music genres are growing. In the same way that people who like one genre of literature, one political viewpoint, one social idea, one religious belief can block out any opposing or different idea or viewpoint because in the this age of 300+ channels on TV, access to the internet, various periodicals that only deal with a single topic, lovers of a specific musical genre, or a single musician, never has to deal with The Other Stuff if they don’t want to. Terrestrial radio is so concerned about making money from ad revenue, that you essentially have pop, classic rock, R&B, hip-hop, oldies, and talk radio–which is predominantly right wing propaganda and nutcases. And commercials. So many commercials. NPR is primarily the luxury of big cities. Of course, internet radio and satellite radio are better choices for diversity. Being a subscriber to SiriusXM, I can attest to how much I love it. There are so many ways for me to hear new music in a variety of genres just by switching stations. Still, wanna know what my favorite station is? E Street Radio. Which means I listen, predominantly to Bruce Springsteen, just like I would on iTunes or my iPod (which has the SiriusXM app on it). Still, I have been adventurous and tried out other stations, like Little Steven’s Underground Garage, which could be called Rock ‘N Roll 101. It is very diverse and I’ve heard a lot of great music from that station. The Spectrum is another great station. I played the Real Jazz station the other day, too. (Since I’m dealing with music, I won’t mention the non-music stations I listen to, but I’m sure you can figure it out).

It’s in the satellite and internet radio where I think the future of rock ‘n roll lies. That and social media sites. MySpace was once good at discovering new music. Now Facebook and Twitter are pretty good. But let’s face it, the way music is listened to, and the way musicians are going to get the brass ring, are going to be different than they used to be. Record/CD sales are at an all-time low and every artist who is asked about how sales are will tell you that their income comes from performing live, rather than sales of their music.

Which makes me wonder, will there ever be another Elvis Presley? Could there be?

Not to be a Negative Nancy, but I don’t think so. I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine a family sitting and listening to the same music on the radio, watching the same new star on TV, and having the way music is presented change because of that one person. We’re living in the future now, a future that seems to be paved by the plastic and silicon of technology, and I don’t know that any one person can warm that cold, artificial terrain.

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Let’s Play!

Posted: August 18, 2011 by Bill Gauthier in Childhood, Toys
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Summer is winding down. In some parts of the country, kids are already back in school, I’ll be returning to my teaching day job in less than two weeks, and other local kids go back to school the week after that. Though those dark days are a-coming, I’m still in summer-mode enjoying my vacation (or as much of a vacation as a writer gets, anyway) but I can’t help but get a little nostalgic. Maybe it’s that my birthday is next week, and I always get a little soft around that time. While I know that turning 34 is a joke to anyone over the age of 34, it is still making me remember childhood with rose-colored glasses. What can I say? The sunshine outside and my birthday does that. Now, I’m not thinking about summer in terms of Stephen King’s great novella The Body, which most of you know as Rob Reiner’s greatest film, Stand By Me, me and a group of friends going on an adventure (though there is a summer I may write about like that at some point) but of the thing I spent the majority of my childhood doing: playing.

What better way to spend the summer is there than looking for a dead body?

I loved to play. Big whoop, right? All kids love to play. Maybe. But in my experience, I’ve never seen a kid play quite like I did, except for my daughter, but even she was different in many ways (at least in front of me). Not only did I love to play, but I loved to play alone. My favorite thing to play–mostly indoors–was with my action figures. Being born in 1977, I was at the exact right time for the Birth of the Action Figure. Well, maybe not the birth, since G.I. Joe existed as early as the mid-1960s, and the company Mego was making action figures of superheroes before I was born, but I was basically on time for the birth of the 3 ¾” action figure. Up until the late 1970s, you see, most action figures were larger. G.I. Joe was the boy response to Barbie. By the mid-70s, the action figures that were coming out were smaller than Barbie, but bigger than the 3 ¾” that were beginning to come out. I may be wrong, but the event that tipped the scales of where the action figure would go was Star Wars.

Because of Star Wars, my Mego figures ended up in a yard sale.

The story goes that George Lucas, who had maintained not only sequel rights to the original Star Wars (now known as Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope) but also maintained the merchandising rights. He figured that 20th Century Fox would not give Star Wars the promotion he wanted so he could license out imagery for posters, tee shirts, mugs, comic books, and toys. Of all the toy companies that pitched to Lucasfilm, the license went to Kenner, who had already wanted to put out a line of science fiction 3 ¾” action figures. Well, the unforeseen success of Star Wars made the action figures a huge hit. Other toy companies responded.

Star Wars came out on May 25th, 1977. I was born on August 24th, 1977. Is there any surprise action figures were my favorite toy?

Well, growing up, it sure as hell felt that way. On the block I grew up on, there were handful of kids and less than that who were my age. But there were the brothers Scott and Eric, the former a year older and the latter a year younger. In terms of playing, I’d play with Scott and Eric a lot, but there were some major differences between them and me. Well, one major difference: imagination. I had one. That’s not entirely fair, they had imaginations, too, but as their mother once told my mother, “You know, Billy has an overactive imagination and that might be bad for him as he gets older.”

Mego's Pocket Heroes. I had all these, including the cars, except for the Green Goblin. I even had this Batcave. Somewhere, I still have Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and the Batmobile. Robin is buried in my parents' backyard.

While Eric proved to be a great playmate when I was around eight, nine, and ten, and Scott and I played the world’s most boring games of teacher (we were both teachers for the same school, and the day went…well, like we imagined teachers’ days were) and detective (lots of desk work because Real Life wasn’t like the movies) when I was around 10 and 11, neither one figured much in my “real” play. First, they didn’t have many action figures. They had very few Star Wars figures, and while they had a decent amount of G.I. Joe figures (by now, the G.I. Joe: Real American Hero 3 ¾” line), I always preferred to play with my action figures alone because I was better able to manipulate the story.

That’s right. Manipulate the story. See, even as a child, I was telling stories to entertain myself. Those action figures were my creative outlet, even more so than drawing, something I was pretty good at back then (and if I’d studied art or had worked harder to refine my abilities, I think I’d be a decent illustrator even now; when I get the chance to write a comic book, I won’t have any problem giving the real artist sketches if I think it’ll help bring the story to life). I was able to make up stories and often had subplots, though I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I was just copying Star Wars and TV shows I watched.

Two TV shows I watched as a kid and whose action figures I owned.

Even when I role-played, actual physical play outside, I would tell a story. It often meant playing alone, because other kids broke character or hurt the story. I remember a parent calling me bossy once. Maybe I was, but I tried to explain to her that her son was breaking character, that a farmer wouldn’t all of a sudden do whatever it was her son (who wasn’t the brightest person I’d ever known, even at that time–I was eight or nine) insisted on doing. I was directing.

Not mine, but one I found on the 'net. Mine is in a closet and hard to get to.

I began to fall in love with movies around the age of nine, and my action figure play began to change. I stopped using Star Wars and G.I. Joe figures for just those kinds of stories, but rather began casting the action figures for my “movies.” I’d then time the stories. I knew that after an hour had passed, I’d better start moving toward the climax of the story. My favorite Star Wars figure became Han Solo in Bespin Outfit. I could use him as Indiana Jones (I didn’t own my first Indiana Jones figure until sometime in the last 10 years; one I got from eBay that was a Disney World exclusive, the other Indy Jones figure I have is from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Those figures disappeared before I could get the Raiders one). I could use him as a detective in a suit or undercover a lá Axel Foley. Hell, I could use Lando Calrissian as Axel Foley! Sometimes I used my action figures to play other media-related stories. That Han Solo figure was sometimes Bruce Wayne, sometimes Clark Kent, but most of the time, he and my other action figures were characters of my own creation. I remember telling Eric about this and he was shocked. The next day he came over excited and told me that he used his Darth Vader figure as Batman, which was a stretch even for me.

I spent hours playing with my action figures or role-playing, running around the neighborhood with toy guns or swords or capes, lost in my imagination, lost in my stories.

So when I was twelve, and some kids I’d buddied around with in junior high came over and saw my action figures set up in mid-story, and then went to school the next day and made fun of me (in front of my crush, no less), things had to change. The action figures moved from their Tupperware containers and into shoeboxes and went under the bed. I felt lost, though, having to secretly do my playing, tell my stories. Until I bought The Shining on my 13th birthday (1990), and I decided I would start writing.

An action figure I bought just this past weekend.

Twenty-one years later (next week), and I still buy action figures. You see, something has happened. All those other mutants out there, the kids like me who loved their action figures, grew up and got jobs at toy companies or created their own companies and some of the best action figures ever known to humankind have begun being produces. I buy some of them and I keep them out as reminders. Also, they’re really good for letting off steam. If I’m in the middle of a scene that seems to be going nowhere, I can reach over and grab Batman, Superman, or one of the Freddy Kruegers I have (I just got one this past weekend), or I can go grab Indy Jones or Luke Skywalker, and pose them, fool around with them, study the sculpts, and then I put them back and find I have the answer I need for my scene. Because while I was being nerdy and goofing around with my toys, the subconscious was conversing with the muse, and goddamn if it didn’t do the work that needed doing.

Harlan Ellison has said, “Success is achieving, in adult terms, that which you longed for as a child.” All I wanted to do when I was a kid was play. Between writing and teaching, I get to play and people pay me for it. Not bad, eh?

You'd better agree, or the superheroes will get you.

***

What were your favorite toys as a child? How did you play? Are you like me, an adult who still loves those windows that look back on childhood? Leave a comment below and hip your friends to MediaBio!

Let’s Go To The Movies

Posted: August 4, 2011 by Bill Gauthier in Movies

When I was a kid growing up in a lower-middle class neighborhood in New Bedford, Massachusetts, there was no greater thrill for me than Going To The Movies. I think that’s how I thought of it, too, without knowing it at the time, caps on every word. It was a big deal. I wasn’t a kid who was into sports, and while I loved the library, it never really gave me a huge thrill. But The Movies? Ho-lee mackerel! Did I love me The Movies! It was like television, only better. Much better.

Even now, Going to The Movies is more than just a night out, or a diversion, for me. I can’t help it. There have been times, only recently, where it’s been more casual but usually it’s still a big deal to me. And being the nerdy (and somewhat sensitive) person I am, I even have rules that I lay down to friends before going to The Movies:

  1. We must arrive to the theater before the previews start. There have been a few occasions when I’ve let this rule slip, but usually I stand by it. I have skipped seeing a 1:00 show for a 4:00 one, or have even driven an extra half hour to a 1:45 show at a different theater, to abide by this rule. There are several reasons for this: a) It’s dark once the previews begin and I hate having to try to find a seat in the dark; b) I like the previews (though I dislike commenting on the previews; I don’t care if you or the person in front of me or behind me or three rows down wants to see this movie when it comes out). I like to see a really good trailer that gets me jazzed to see a movie and to know what’s happening; c) It’s part of the ritual.
  2. There is to be little-or-no-talking to me during the movie. I was raised that Thou shalt not speak during the movie and, goddamnit, I intend to abide by that rule! Every now and then something happens that calls out for a comment, and usually it’s okay, but read the situation. If I look enthralled, please, leave me be.
  3. I stay through the credits, or at least most of the credits. Again, I have several reasons for this: a) I don’t like crowds. If it’s a busy movie with a lot of people, I don’t want to be stuck with the schmucks around me. I don’t trust them, I don’t like them. They’re sticky and gross. We can wait; b) Respect for the craftspersons who made the movie. They devoted who knows how much time to provide the entertainment that I just sat through, the least I can do is wait for their names to pass; c) I don’t want to hear what those other sticky and gross people have to say about the movie I have just seen on their way out. I don’t want to hear “That was great!” or “That sucked” or any other comment. It can upset me and, really, I just don’t care. I care about your opinion, because we’re friends and we just saw a movie together, but:
  4. Do not talk to me about the movie we have just seen until I bring it up. This is probably the strangest rule I have, and it connects the last item on the above rule. I hate overhearing other people talking about the movie on the way out of the theater. It’s an oddity with me. Some of it is probably ego, some of it is antisocial, but it’s one of those things. If a movie is really good and I’m really jazzed by it, the rule may be tossed out. I never know what movie will do that. Both of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies were exempt from this rule. The horror movie Identity was exempt. The first Iron Man, I believe, was exempt. Mostly, though, I need time to process it. Also, I don’t want others who I don’t care about to hear what I have to say until I’m ready for them to, via a blog or status update or Tweet.

Seriously. Shut the fuck up.

I know, those are strange, and you can see why I purposely never went on first (or second, or third…) dates to the movies. Movies are something I go to only if I’m comfortable with a person. Going to The Movies is almost a holy experience for me, and I treat it as such.

I don’t remember my first movie, though I know it was a Disney cartoon rerelease and was probably around 1980. This was before VCRs were everywhere and movies would often take tours around the country. I know I saw Cinderella, Bambi, Peter Pan, and I may have seen a few others. I went with my mother and the woman down the street and her kids. Mom didn’t drive but her friend did, and her friend had two boys, one a year older than me and the other a year younger. My mother also loved movies (she still does) and hated being embarrassed in public, so the rule was simple: No talking during the movie. Done. End of story. Like I said before, I still live by that rule.

Nope. This won't screw a kid up.

I remember the excitement about Going To The Movies at that young age. We’re talking about three years old. The excitement of going into this room with all those seats and a huge TV, although I was a little scared that the TV–called a screen, I learned–might come crashing down on me. It was an entry point to another world, one that was magical to a young child with an already-growing imagination. If I could see the adventures of superheroes or the Fonz or the Muppets at home, the promise of the movie theater was simply amazing.

Still, I hardly remember the Disney movies. Though it was during the previews for Bambi (I think) that I saw the only preview I remember from that time. It was a preview for a rerelease of Star Wars. Based on my research, this must have been 1982, but may have been 1981. A little boy from Argentina name Sebastian lived next door to me at the time and had Star Wars action figures that I thought were super cool, yet I had no idea what they were. Seeing the trailer for Star Wars, and being a precocious four-year-old, I realized the characters I saw on the screen were the toys that Sebastian had. I told my mother, breaking the 1st Law Of Movies, that I wanted to see it. What was Bambi compared to that?

One night after supper, my kid sister (who turned 30 this past March!) was still in her high chair, my father told me to get my shoes and jacket on, we were going out. Now this was A Big Deal. First off, with the exception of when my mother was in the hospital having my sister, my father and I hardly ever went out places just the two of us at that time. Second, we never went out after supper. Or at least we hardly ever went out anywhere after supper. So off we went. We pulled into the parking lot of one of the local movie theaters that were in the Greater New Bedford area at the time (or at least the two I know of from back then), Cinema 140. I remember that there were teenagers in the lobby with 3D glasses, which was weird. Dad bought me popcorn and a soda. Popcorn was a major part of the ritual for most of my life. We went into the theater. I don’t remember the previews, but I remember the opening of Star Wars, recognizing the yellow letters from the trailer. I remember the introductory crawl, though I’m sure Dad had to read it to me. And, of course, I remember the Imperial Star Destroyer chasing the Rebel Blockade Runner. It was so massive and it went on for miles and miles. I had never seen anything like it.

I was hooked. Not only to stories from that galaxy from a long time ago and far, far away, but also to the ritual of Going To The Movies.

In 1992, after seeing Batman Returns for the first time, I kept the movie stub. Nothing special, just put it in a Tupperware bowl I kept spare change in. As time passed and I saw movies–never as often as I’d like–I’d just toss the stub in that bowl. Sometime around 1995, while cleaning, I realized I had a ticket stub for every movie I’d seen since Batman Returns. This was when I began to consciously “collect” my stubs. Sometime around 2000, I bought some business card holder sheets and began keeping my ticket stubs in a binder. The few that were lost along the way I have scrap paper to remind me. On the back of the stubs I write the name of the movie, the date I saw it, and whom I saw it with. The first two are usually printed on the stubs, but I’ve noticed that many stubs fade over time.

Here is my movie ticket stub book. TOY STORY 2 is the 1st movie I took my daughter to. PAN'S LABYRINTH is the 1st movie I saw with my wife, Pamela. You see can see my notation on the back.

I still love the movies though the experience in recent years has changed. I know others have complained about this, too. A sign of the times, I guess. It probably started with my generation, the first generation raised entirely with TV in our lives. The ability to talk in front of the TV have made another generation of people who will often talk throughout a movie. And cell phones and smart phones have made the movie experience even worse. There are many people who can’t leave the devices in their pockets or purses through the movie and it’s annoying as hell. Not to mention that the quality of the experience has been corrupted by the various ads and “bonus” features that come before the previews now. And on a personal note, I can’t really eat popcorn anymore. It fucks with my acid reflux and can make for an unpleasant moviegoing experience.

Oh, you cruel, cruel temptress.

Despite those negatives, Going To The Movies still is an important ritual for me. I love the pre-show excitement I feel. I love the walk to the theater with all the movie posters and standees and other assorted gimmicks to get you interested in a movie coming up down the road. A good movie can still bring tears to my eyes just by being good. When I realize that I am totally engulfed by the movie, I can’t help but become emotional. That is what being a storyteller is about, and it reminds me of why I now tell stories as an adult.

This time, I AM interested in what you have to say. Please leave a comment and let me know about YOUR movie rules, experiences, and such.