Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, October 12, 2002
      ( 10/12/2002 09:20:00 AM ) Bill S.  

ELEPHANT? WHAT ELEPHANT? – A chortle-packed moment from last night’s middlin’ Monk: Adrian has entered the bus of guest-star Willie Nelson (playing himself) and his acute olfactory senses immediately start to workin’. “What’s that smell?” he asks out loud. You don’t smell anything, beloved pot-head Nelson winkingly coaxes, so our hero goes along with the gag. Not a bit you would’ve seen on Murder, She Wrote.
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      ( 10/12/2002 09:16:00 AM ) Bill S.  

STREETS OF PHILADLEPHIA – Michael Olshansky is a cabbie, the likes of which you only see in old movies. Played by David Morse, he of the perpetual hangdog expression, “O” (any similarities to the high school Othello are purely accidental) is a canned Philly cop with a penchant for helping passengers in trouble. This irritates his Chechnyan dispatcher because he’ll frequently cruise all night and not bring in any fares; he irritates his ex-cop partner Marcellus Washington (Andre Braugher, who radiates more intelligence than the rest of the cast combined – but if he’s so smart, what is he doing here?) because he plays fast ‘n’ loose with his former street training. Face, the guy’s just irritating.

Hack is the creation of screenwriter David (Jurassic Park II, Spider-Man) Koepp, and if you’re familiar with the man’s movie work, you know what to expect: characters who act one way to meet the demands of plot, then switch in a different direction just to surprise the viewer. Last night’s ep concerned a woman fleeing her allegedly abusive police-husband with her daughter. Our hero, empathizing with the woman but also putting himself in the position of the max-stressed cop, is torn. First he helps the woman find shelter, and then he tries to turn her into his ex-partner. When the woman flees the state with her daughter, he pursues her in his cab, desperate to keep her from being slapped with a kidnapping charge.

The whole time, we’re not supposed to be sure who is telling the truth in this marriage, and after a while we stop caring. What would’ve passed for one of four stories in a night of N.Y.P.D. Blue has been stretched into tedium. More than once we see our hero just stand there and admit that he doesn’t know what to do next. (Quick! Somebody else do something to get the plot moving!) He’s reactive, but when you need a street-smart quasi-vigilante, who needs reactive? More concerned with his own failings as a disgraced cop and divorced father, "O" can barely keep his mind on the task at hand. The guy’s just too self-absorbed and mopey – which plays to Morse’s strengths as an actor but hardly makes for a compelling series lead. One night of Hack, and I found myself wishing Ed Woodward’s take-charge Equalizer was still in business.

Back to watching John Doe . . .
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Friday, October 11, 2002
      ( 10/11/2002 10:15:00 AM ) Bill S.  

ROCKIN’ ROBOT – Strollin’ through the Right/Left/ Right/Left blog discussion of our imminent war with Iraq, I stumbled upon the Robot Rock Critic: a pretty funny device for any of us who’ve dabbled with daydreams of becoming the next Lester Christgau. (Its creators have also composed a Robot Warblogger, too, but I was more interested in playing with the critic ‘bot.) I did not, I hasten to add, use this device for my Apples in Stereo review.
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      ( 10/11/2002 09:24:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“IF I HAD MY DAY” – The title of the new Apples in Stereo disc, Velocity of Sound (Spinart), sets the ground rules from the hey-ho-get-go. This is gonna be a collection of speedy rock: pop punk that could’ve come out in the 80’s from the likes of the Undertones, Rezillos or (let’s buy American) Shoes. More songs about ice cream and girls from a songwriter with a definite knack for the velocitous hook.

More focused in its sound than the band’s last full release (The Discovery Of A World Inside The Moone), the disc is a barrage of bracin’ guitar fuzz chords adorned by frontguy Robert Schneider’s poppy wimpvoice (reminiscent of new wave singer/producer Mitch Easter) and the occasional Bangle-y vocal turn by straightahead drummer/wife Hilarie Sidney. Velocity is a compact collection (less than 29 minutes – Schneider is like Harry Nilsson in his desire to get in quickly, state all he’s got and then leave) of sharp pop sentiments. If more bands in the 80’s had possessed Schneider’s sense of economy and songwriting chops, the short-lived Power Pop blitz wouldn’t have zipped so quickly into irrelevancy.

I first came into contact with the band via Kid Rhino’s Powerpuff Girls collection (Heroes and Villains, which also featured an appearance by Dressy Bessy, a group that’s also featured Schneider’s guitarwork). Its kid-friendly contrib to that project isn’t as punchy as the new stuff, but it does show the group’s way with a strongly tuneful pop ditty. Got me looking into the Apples’ own releases, at least.

The disc opens with a controlled blast (“Please”), a pleading song about trying to reach the unreachable, then follows with “Rainfall” (one of Hilarie’s two numbers), a distaff turn on the same basic theme. From there, Schneider grabs the persona of a defensive teen “fool” for several tracks and plays it for all it’s worth (“If I had my day/I’d burn down the factories/They sicken me/And make the weather grey!”) It’d all come off condescendingly if the guy wasn’t so damn catchy. Good popzip will mask a multitude of sins.

In the meantime, for us older-than-teen fools, there’s the band slipping a hint of “Gloria” in its street-livin’ loner song (“Where We Meet”), pulling in the ghost of early Kinks for “Better Days” (the title of one of Ray Davies’ better later era songs, come to think of it), then sneaking in an atonal organ flourish at song’s end. They’ll call a song “Baroque,” open it with chords from the Road to Ruin songbook, then add a bababa chorus like Spanky McFarlane has just entered the studio. As a North American bonus track, Schneider and friends end w./ a Beach Boys slam against a duplicitous teengirl (“She’s a little girl who works at Dairy Queen/She’s talking to the kids when they get ice cream.”) Much more fun – to my ears at least – than all those retro bands spewing out secondhand garage screech. But I tend to replay my old Shoes albums more than I do the Standells, anyway . . .
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Thursday, October 10, 2002
      ( 10/10/2002 09:47:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MAY THE BIRDS OF PREY FLY UP YER NOSE – We missed the premiere of WB’s new Birds of Prey last night: it probably says something that neither I nor my wife went out of our way to get it recorded. (Recording while watching something else in our house involves beaucoup coaxial reconfiguring.) But I’m expecting the pilot’ll get rerun within the next month. The minor nets, in particular, seem to fall back on that strategy when they’re pushing a series that has lots of marketing potential . . .
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Wednesday, October 09, 2002
      ( 10/09/2002 08:10:00 AM ) Bill S.  

GOSPEL ATHEISM – A great Virginia Vitzthum appreciation of the Mekons (praised by yrs trly a couple of weeks back) has just been posted on Salon. Does a better job capturing the appeal of these middle-aged musical contrarians than my short piece could've.
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      ( 10/09/2002 05:17:00 AM ) Bill S.  

BEST BUDS – For all the revisionism that the writers of TV’s Smallville indulge in, the show went for something traditional last night: Clark Kent buddy Pete Ross learned his friend’s secret. Unlike the Silver Age Superboy series, this discovery was initiated by Clark, after Pete discovers the space ship that had delivered the baby Kal-El to Earth. Always thought that it’d be harder hiding stuff in a small town than in a big burg like Metropolis.

Per the show’s greater emphasis on kid angst, the news isn’t as easily processed by Pete as it was by his progenitor. (The comic book Pete Ross even kept his knowledge a secret for a time from Superboy – talk about bein’ able to keep things close to the chest!) This makes more dramatic sense since the existence of a Kryptonian super-guy isn’t common knowledge on the show (all the antagonists who learn about Clark conveniently die or are otherwise mentally incapacitated by ep’s end). Pete feels wounded that his pal hasn’t previously let him in on the Big Secret – at least he does ‘til he gets kidnapped by a maddened bad-guy ready to torture him – but in the end all is forgiven. And the world of Smallville has edged just a little closer to paralleling the one that comic fans have known for decades.

Still, they also killed off Dr. Emil Hamilton (an uncharacteristically frenetic Joe Morton) on this ep. So it's clear they're not feeling totally beholden to the comic book universe . . .

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Tuesday, October 08, 2002
      ( 10/08/2002 07:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“FOR EVERYONE EXCEPT SPIDER-MAN!” – Thanks to the box office numbers of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, we’ve been getting a raft of good reprint collections devoted to the character: none so great as the recent “Marvel Masterworks” re-issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Volume Two. Spent the weekend re-reading the stories in this book for the first time in decades. I was delighted to see that they almost worked as well for a geezerly adult as they did the nerdy adolescent reading ‘em for the first time.

A hardbound collection of the second ten issues of Amazing Spider-Man (circa 1963-4), the book shows the character’s original creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko as they really start to hit their stride. Having already exhaustively ballyhooed Spidey as a Different Kind of Superhero, Lee & Ditko were now in the position of actually having to prove how different he was. This they did: by upping the soap opera elements with their now-established cast (frail Aunt May, blustery editor J. Jonah Jameson, perpetually forlorn secretary Betty Brant and the chorus of high schoolers led by Flash Thompson) and by bringing in two of the series’ best long-running antagonists (Green Goblin and Kraven the Hunter).

The Spider template had already been established in the first ten issues: nerdy science guy who blossoms into a smart-ass once he puts a mask over his face (you always had the sense that his wisecracks had festered in the back of his brainy mind for years – and that the supervillains he battled were surrogates for the bullies he’d known all his life); guilt-ridden kid whose best intentions were regularly misunderstood by a fickle outside world. All that was left was to put poor Peter Parker through his paces.

Spider-Man artist Ditko was the not-so-secret factor in the series’ success. No one then or since has shown the same straight-faced ability to depict adolescent doubt and self-pity as this uniquely clunky great. One of Ditko’s standard images – it crops up repeatedly in these stories – was of hero Peter hunched over, solitary, oppressed by the shadow of his spider role. As Ditko drew it, it works every time. Even when our hero is victorious, he remains a friendless figure: swinging in the distance over the NYC skyline, watching a ship steam off and fantasizing about escaping on it. If great power brings responsibility, it also brings loneliness. Particularly for a bookish boy in Forrest Hills in the 60’s.

These days, with computer art and color embellishing today’s comics, Ditko’s plain and sometimes unpretty linework can be distancing for modern readers. Like watching an urban drama from the early talkie era, the technological simplicity can initially be off-putting. But read two or three of these full-color reprints in a row, and you’re sucked in. Like the great early sound directors (Fritz Lang, for instance, whose influence can be seen in Ditko’s art – particularly in the mob scenes), the artist has a purity of focus that pulls you through even the hokiest moments.

Scripter Lee provided his share of hokey bits, too. Take the first story in Volume Two, “Turning Point.” Featuring the return of regular Spidey bad-guy, Dr. Octopus (equipped w./ a set of large mechanical tentacles, which Ditko delights in posing via menacing swirls around the villain’s head), the prime plot involves Betty Brant’s brother, who is into the mob for money. You know he's gonna redeem himself with a final ennobling gesture in the end.

Or consider the issue introducing Green Goblin (#14, “Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin”), which revolves around the mysterious villain’s desire to lure Spider-Man into a trap. (Why? We don’t know: the villain’s motivation and identity were kept secret for several years. For that matter, neither Norman Osborne nor his son Harry have been introduced yet.) Our hero’s lured out into the desert with the promise of a role in a movie by the director of The Nameless Thing from the Black Lagoon in the Murky Swamp (an “Oscar-winning” film, we’re told), little knowing that the Goblin has brought a trio of hired thugs named the Enforcers on set to battle Spidey for real. Lee had already used the movie-as-trap plot in the first year of Fantastic Four, and it was just as strained the second time.

Such genre goofiness notwithstanding, the Lee & Ditko Spider-Man lived up to its billing. A three-issue series (#17-19) shows the team at its peak: forced once more into a confrontation with the Green Goblin – this time at a charity country club dance – our hero ducks out mid-battle when he learns Aunt May has just been sent to the hospital with her first heart attack. Branded a coward and agonizing over his responsibility for his incapacitated mother figure, Peter Parker spends a whole issue hiding from confrontations that are waiting for him around every corner. (Though it’s since become commonplace, this has to be one of the first times a superhero comic devoted a full ish to character issues over physical confrontation.) Our guy snaps back to take on a slew of baddies in the subsequent issue, but I’ve gotta tell ya – as an early adolescent reading that series when it came out, for a month there I know the core readership had its doubts.

An even more compact sample of coolness can be found in issue #12’s “Unmasked By Dr. Octopus.” In this ‘un, the mechanical cephalopodist pulls off a series of crimes through the country just to taunt our hero. Frustrated by Spidey’s no-show (he doesn’t realize that since Peter is just a teenager, he can’t just up and fly across country), he returns to New York to kidnap Betty Brant. Peter, meanwhile, is battling a 24-hour virus that makes him woozy even as he swings off to rescue Betty at the seasonally closed Coney Island. In this incapacitated state, he’s easily defeated by Doc Ock – who unmasks his foe in front of Betty and Peter’s editor J. Jonah Jameson.

Fortunately for Spider-Man, everyone thinks Peter has just been impersonating the super-hero in a foolhardy attempt to rescue his girl. (“Take your puny hero,” the villain sneers as he tosses the passed-out Parker into a policeman. “It’s the real Spider-Man I’m after!”) Feeling humiliated at the hands of a “mere teenager,” Dr. Octopus decides to escalate the conflict by freeing zoo animals onto the city. What follows gives Ditko the chance to render amuck animals and a climactic battle between hero and antagonist in a deserted sculptor’s studio filled with giant statues that look like they could’ve appeared in the Babylon sequence of Intolerance.

Does any of it make sense? Not really. Spider-Man’s best villains primarily exist to torment Spider-Man. They’re part of the penance he must serve for failing to protect his own family. What Lee and Ditko captured in Spider-Man was the trying ambiguity of “typical” teenhood: the swings from elation to self-loathing, the fear of impending adulthood, the release that comes with stepping up and showing what you can accomplish. If the writer and artist regularly stacked the deck against our hero: well, that’s what we wanted to see. Too many other super-guys had it easy.

“Boy,” our hero reflects in a telling moment, “when I used to read comic mag adventures of super heroes, I always dreamed of how great it would be if I could become one! . . . It’s great alright – for everyone except Spider-Man! Aw nuts!”

Sorry, Peter, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Monday, October 07, 2002
      ( 10/07/2002 08:33:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HEADS, YOU LOSE! – Some quick thoughts in follow-up to last night’s premiere of Angel:
  • If one of the show’s regular themes is redemption, looks like the lens’ll be on betraying boy Connor (who’s definitely taken the punk teen baton away from Dawn Summers) this season.
  • Scruffy facial hair for both Wesley and Gunn (yawn) – but how long do we think ol’ rogue demon hunter Wes’ll be able to pull off the bad-ass pose? And what does it say about me that I cheered the sight of a bound woman in Wesley’s closet?
  • Based on their bickersome interactions in the premiere, I’ve gotta wonder about the lifespan of the Fred/Gunn romance. And what does it say about me that I cheered the sight of Fred zapping Connor with a taser?
  • By ep’s end, we finally get to see Cordy floating aimlessly in the aether. Apparently the Powers-That-Be don’t do any kind of on-the-job training.
  • I want Lorne back.
  • As for our title hero, well, he spends more time helplessly underwater than anything else: his extended family-focused hallucinations had a certain dark piquancy, though.
A decent season opening: particularly loved the power meeting at Wolfram & Hart.
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      ( 10/07/2002 04:20:00 AM ) Bill S.  

IN-JOKE OF THE WEEK – From the season premiere of Angel: Wolfram & Hart honcho John Rubenstein brags to legal bitch Lilah during an office confrontation that she’s in his “corner of the sky.” That’s the introductory song from Rubenstein’s break-out role as the titular hero of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin. Musical lover Joss Whedon must be quietly proud . . .
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Sunday, October 06, 2002
      ( 10/06/2002 08:57:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SWITCHIN’ BACK & FORTH – After running eps of USA’s Monk several weeks after their basic cable debuts, ABC is now returning the favor by letting USA show Robbery Homicide Division a week later on Saturday late-nite. These days we’d rather watch Tom Sizemore browbeat a crooked cop suspect than sit through the first half hour of SNL anyhow . . .

Never Mind Dept.: As an awake reader notes in the comments section below, Sizemore's new series is on CBS and not ABC (hey, I knew that in the review I wrote thirteen posts ago!) So much for my momentary vision of happy give-&-take between the nets. . .
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      ( 10/06/2002 07:26:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“DREW A BULL CALLED ORIGINAL SIN” – Out in Central Illinois, Delbert McClinton is an ol’ friend: regular fixture in the music bars (High Dive in Champaign, Lafayette Club in Bloomington), favored among the area rhythm-and-blues FM deejays. I’m not a Delbert junkie, but I have friends who are: the kind of guys who think that rhythm-and-blues can be fully framed between the last few Clapton/B.B. releases – with an occasional John Lee Hooker cut thrown in for "rootsy" authenticity.

Borrowed McClinton’s latest, Room to Breathe (New West Records), from one of ‘em the other day to and get a handle on this hard-working barroom belter. Found myself listening to a slick set of country-tinged middle-aged-crazy r-&-b. As ritual as the Hives and just as satisfying, I bet, to fans looking for its particular generic comforts.

The disc opens with “Same Kind of Crazy,” a slice of country funk with oozing electric guitar and B3 fourishes that pretty much sets up the rules. When Delbert sings about “crazy,” the prime image you get is of Bruce Dern frolicking in a hot tub w./ Ann-Margaret (not a bad vision, I must admit). Nobody’s burying their mother in the back yard here: just gettin’ drunk and occasionally feeling sorry for themselves, giving unfaithful girls the kiss-off (best of these: “Won’t Be Me,” which catalogs everything the singer won’t do for his ex-) and winding in shady deals that inevitably fall apart.

Rest of the disc pulls from seventies r-&-b, Ray Charles countrypolitan, Jerry Lee and guit-fiddle country. “Lone Star Blues” is the obligatory pull-in-a-lotta-country-names-for-the-chorus number; “Don’t Want to Love You” is the inevitable stringed ballad. Through it all, there’s Delbert’s mild/gruff voice. You always get the feeling that he knows and has seen more than he’s willing to show you, but that’s okay.

Case in point: the disc’s concluding song “New York City.” In a year where everybody else writes post-9-11 mourn, here comes Delbert and the band, doing a proto-swing paean to the city that never sleeps (“Late nite skyline, that’s when it hit me/Well, I’ve got to have me some of that New York City!”) How typical, how restrained – and how middle-age cool.
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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