Pop Culture Gadabout
Monday, April 07, 2003
      ( 4/07/2003 09:35:00 AM ) Bill S.  

RIDIN’ THAT MONEY TRAIN – Two of basic cable’s short-run teleseries finished their second seasons over the last week. Haven’t seen The Dead Zone outing yet (though, from the previews, it appears to somewhat mirror the book and movie), but I did get to view The Shield’s season finish.

It strikes me that the finale’s big moment – the successful completion of the money train heist by anti-cop Vic Mackey and his boys – is meant to crystallize the moment that these “different kinds of cops” switch over to the dark side. Every action that they’ve taken in the past was either reactive (Vic’s murder of the undercover cop) or “justifiable” as a shortcut around repressive bureaucratic procedure. The money train robbery was first and foremost initiated out of a desire for personal gain.

I’m anticipating a Sierra Madre-style falling out within Vic’s crew in Season Three. . .
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Sunday, April 06, 2003
      ( 4/06/2003 10:23:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“YOU’VE GOTTA LIVE YOUR LIFE AS THOUGH YOU’RE NUMBER ONE” – Spring can be a season of sudden profound changes, and this week – with temps dropping into snow coldness and flashes of chilling rain making it unclear if the clothes you put on in the a.m. will still by apt by evening – let’s visit my third personal spring disc, Lou Reed’s Transformer.

His second solo release since the break-up of the Velvet Underground, it is also the most thoroughly pop album that Lou would ever release – thanks in part to producer David Bowie, smack dab in his Ziggy Stardust persona. Purists may grouse at the results (even Reed himself has sniped about the recording experience over the years,) but in the end the release has held up better than many of his more serious works. It also, of course, yielded Lou's big pop hit, “Walk On The Wild Side.”

I first heard Transformer when I was in grad school, back in ’72. One of my buddies was a big Velvets fan, and though he’d proselytizingly played ‘em for me, I wouldn’t really get into the group until Transformer provided me a gateway. To a Midwestern liberal arts collegian in his early twenties, Reed’s record echoed everything I thought I knew about the big bad city – and taught me quite a few things I didn’t know. I immediately honed into this album, initially thanks to Mick Ronson’s guitar. Listening to him slash through album opener “Vicious,” I was ready to follow Lou into even the darkest of lyrical territories. The rest of the disc isn’t as sonically edgy, but the sounds and settings that Bowie & Ronson worked up for each are strikingly appropriate.

In addition to its opener and the much-heard hit, Transformer contains other beautiful rock tunes: mournful “Perfect Day” (well-covered by Kirsty Macoll & Evan Dando in the nineties,) which sounds lush and romantic ‘til you realize that the song’s about a lover being brutalized by his partner; “Wild Side” counterpart “Hangin’ Round,” which serves up another cast of street types (“Jeanie was a spoiled young brat/She thought she had it all/She smoked mentholated cigarettes/And had sex in the hall,”) only this time from the POV of someone who’s given it all up; “Satellite of Love,” with its sparkling background vocal flourishes and hints of Bowie-esque space odditude; “Wagon Wheel,” which breaks its rockin’ flow with a solemn lyrical bridge that anticipates the grimmer sounds and themes of Reed’s Berlin; plus the anthemic “I’m So Free.”

And then there’s “Wild Side.” Reed himself has said that the song’s hit status was a fluke, but it’s a just fluke. Building from a riff on the Staple Singers’ soul hit, “I’ll Take You There,” the song captures the feel of outsider hope and promise better than anything to come out of the early seventies. It may’ve been a novelty hit (you can almost hear singles buyers giggling at their bravery over the song’s chorus ref to “colored girls,”) but it also captures one of Reed’s great strengths: his reportorial skills in the midst of a colorfully chaotic milieu. (Which show up full flower in 1989’s exemplary New York.) Herbie Flowers’ jazzy arrangement (love that fading sax at the end) is inextricably bound to the song; catch two notes of the opening bass-line and you immediately recognize “Wild Side.”

Transformer is by no means a pristine album (for that you’d probably have to go back to the Velvets and Loaded). Some of the lyrics can be clunkier than usual for this notoriously discursive songwriter, while there are some cuts where you wish Bowie’d cracked the whip harder on Reed the Vocalist (those half-hearted “whoos” on “Andy’s Chest,” for instance). And that harrumphing tuba in half-serious gay pride song “Make Up” is just too camp to work as more than a fleeting joke. Per the period, Reed sometimes plays dress-up (the back cover features photos of our man both in drag and rough trade pose), but he can’t quite refrain from winking at the audience as he does it. For all his skills as a musical monologist, Reed doesn’t commit to his roles in this disc as strongly as, say, Bowie does in Ziggy Stardust. It may undermine his effects, but it also adds a sparkle to Transformer that Bowie can’t capture in his sludgier dramatic moments.

New York pop for a naively jaded audience: spring’s not just about the bloomin' flowers, you know.
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      ( 4/06/2003 10:19:00 AM ) Bill S.  

A FEW WORDS FROM MOXY FRUVOUS – Don’t usually do the reprint song lyrics thing, but this a.m. I was playing an old disc by Canadian folk-rock songsters Moxy Fruvous (Bargainville), and I rediscovered this germane song from 1993:
Gulf War Song

We got a call to write a song about the war in the Gulf
But we shouldn't hurt anyone's feelings
So we tried, then gave up, 'cause there was no such song
But the trying was very revealing
What makes a person so poisonous righteous
That they'd think less of anyone who just disagreed?
She's just a pacifist, he's just a patriot
If I said you were crazy, would you have to fight me?

Fighters for liberty, fighters for power
Fighters for longer turns in the shower
Don't tell me I can't fight, 'cause I'll punch out your lights
And history seems to agree that I would fight you for me

So we read and we watched all the specially selected news
And we learned so much more 'bout the good guys
Won't you stand by the flag? Was the question unasked
Won't you join in and fight with the allies?
What could we say...we're only 25 years old?
With 25 sweet summers, and hot fires in the cold
This kind of life makes that violence unthinkable
We'd like to play hockey, have kids and grow old

Fighters for Texaco, fighters for power
Fighters for longer turns in the shower
Don't tell me I can't fight 'cause I'll punch out your lights
And history seems to agree that I would fight you for me
That us would fight them for we

He's just a peacenik and she's just a warhawk
That's where the beach was, that's where the sea
What could we say...we're only 25 years old?
And history seems to agree
that I would fight you for me
That us would fight them for we

Is that how it always will be?
Copyright © 1993 Warner Music Canada Ltd and pasted from the Moxy Fruvous web page.
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Saturday, April 05, 2003
      ( 4/05/2003 09:44:00 PM ) Bill S.  

FOR ALL WHO REMEMBER GEORGE LAZENBY (AND DAVID NIVEN) – Took the print Entertainment Weekly’s Great American Pop Culture Quiz today (April 11 issue) and – thanx to some high point bonus questions – scored a 94. According to the test, this makes me a “pop culture savant.” Biggest problem areas for Mister Test Anxiety? Rap music and teevee soaps. . .
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      ( 4/05/2003 09:37:00 PM ) Bill S.  

I KNOW THE ANSWER GUS’D GIVE – Writing the preceding posting, I also found myself pondering. Is Marvel’s seeming inability to put out even a kids’ funnybook without connecting it to the line’s established characters:
a.) reflective of the current regime’s lockstep merchandizing mindset?

b.) symptomatic of creators’ reluctance to produce anything too new for Marvel lest they give it away via Work-for-Hire contracts? or

c.) proof positive that Marvel superheroes are just the most awesome ever?!?
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      ( 4/05/2003 09:28:00 PM ) Bill S.  

FACE FRONT, TRUE BELIEVERS! – Reading Gail Simone & Jason Lethcoe’s sweetly silly kid books, Marvelous Adventures of Gus Beezer this week, I was sent into one of those meta-universe revelries that only a lifetime of exposure to superhero comics can induce. A series of humor comics centered on a jug-eared pre-teen Marvel fanatic, Beezer features cameos by the Hulk, Spider-Man and X-Men. The Beezerverse is a world where Marvel characters co-exist alongside the comics documenting their exploits, a conceit that hearkens back to the very earliest Stan Lee collabs with Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. In an early Fantastic Four, for instance, we saw the supergroup visiting Marvel Comics’ office to confab with Stan and Jack.

Gus (who also shows off his own homemade superhero comics) is such a Marvelhead that he speaks in the narrative cadences of vintage chatty Stan (“This is the most senses-shattering taste-tempting loaf of meat you’ve ever made, Mom!”) Which got me wondering: how had pre-teen Gus internalized a writing style that is no longer used in real-world Marvel Comics? Could it be that in the Beezerverse Stan Lee is still writing Marvels? And Jack Kirby still alive and drawing ‘em?

It’s pretty to think so.
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      ( 4/05/2003 04:19:00 PM ) Bill S.  

WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, BUDDY COLE? – Favorite Google referral of the week: “blowsy babes,” a phrase used in my review of From Hell, though I bet that wasn’t what my Googler was lookin’ for. . .
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      ( 4/05/2003 08:56:00 AM ) Bill S.  

NO VOLUME ONE-AND-A-HALF? – In follow-up to my “Comics Catch-up” review of Marvel’s recent hardback Daredevil books, I should note that Volume One of the “Marvel Knights” reprints has since been released. (For some reason – perhaps the more recent material was easier to cobble together? – the company rushed Volume Two out alongside the movie release last February.) Book One features Daredevil #1 – 11 and 13 – 15: Kevin Smith & Joe Quesada’s “Guardian Devil” storyline and David Mack & Quesada’s “Parts Of A Hole.” In addition to that solitary stand-alone issue (#12) it also leaves out close to a year’s worth of issues that occurred before the Brian Michael Bendis/Alex Maleev books repped in Volume Two. Which I guess bodes ill for their chances at showing up in hardback any time soon.
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      ( 4/05/2003 07:51:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SCARY IF TRUE DEPT. – I don’t read a ton of political writing. But among the political websites I do regularly visit, the one that seems to connect best with me both politically and personally is Joshua Marshall’s Talking Points Memo. This week Marshall links to a Washington Monthly column of his that does the best job I’ve seen laying out the neo-conservative agenda behind our administration’s war in Iraq. It’s a talking point I’ve read elsewhere (the basic idea being that Iraq is only the first step in a strategic campaign of “Democratic Imperialism”), and it’s hard to pooh-pooh when you’ve already got admin voices like Rumsfeld test driving threats against countries like Syria. But to work, the strategy requires a series of lies and deceptions so profound it makes conservative bete noir Bill Clinton look like a kid caught stealing candy in comparison.

Reading stuff like this, I find myself hoping that the writer is being partisan and alarmist even when the ongoing evidence seems to be bearing ‘em out.
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Friday, April 04, 2003
      ( 4/04/2003 01:33:00 PM ) Bill S.  

GOBLIN TOSSES SPIDEY GIRLFRIEND OFF BRIDGE! FILM AT ELEVEN! – Of all the moments in the Amazing Spider-Man’s four-decade career, two have proven the most problematic among longtime readers. First was the notorious Spider Clone Saga of the nineties (where it was revealed that the character we’d long believed to be Peter Parker was, in fact, his clone), a stroke of disbelief assault on par with the moment Bobby Ewing stepped out of that Dallas shower. Second was the death of Spidey girlfriend Gwen Stacy back in 1971 at the hands of longtime nemesis Norman “Green Goblin” Osborne.

The latter event has been so long a part of the character’s mythology (at least once a year some spider scribe devotes a sequence to our hero mourning and remembering her – most recently in Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale’s Spider-Man: Blue) that more recent readers may not know what a misstep it appeared at the time. By offing Gwen, writer Gerry Conway had totally skewed the series’ long-standing gimme. The central moment in Peter Parker’s life, after all, was when his egocentric inaction led to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. Yet here we had a hero committed to altruistic action whose girlfriend died anyway, despite his strenuous attempt to save her. To many readers it appeared that Conway – striving for shock and pseudo-realism – had needlessly violated the superhero’s basic reason for being. The move clearly changed the way readers would view the character.

I thought of that earlier reader reaction while reading volume two of the new Ultimate Spider-Man hardback. I’ve expressed my reservations about Marvel’s Ultimate books in the past, but I can understand their appeal to a writer wishing to correct some of the inevitable dubious decisions that can take place when a single character is treated by so many Divers Hands over the years. In volume two, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mark Bagley “return” to the top of the bridge where Gwen was tossed to her death – and change both the heroine and the outcome.

For those unfamiliar with it, Ultimate Spider-Man is the flagship title in the Marvel line’s alterna-series: a re-telling of the webspinner’s teen years set in modern times and revamped to accommodate more contempo sensibilities and sci-fi conventions (so where, for instance, our original hero was bitten by a radioactive spider in his Stan Lee/Steve Ditko incarnation, the Ultimate Spidey is transformed by a biochemically altered spider during a class tour of Osborne Industries research facilities – mere radioactivity being insufficient these days to do the job.) The brainchild of garrulous company president Bill Jemas, Ultimate Spider-Man was designed to return the character to his adolescent roots.

Theoretically, this was worked to grab those readers uninterested in the more adult edition currently swingin’ through Marvel’s established Amazing Spider-Man title (currently handled by J. Michael Straczynski & John Romita Jr.), though in practice it appears as if the two books remain neck-in-neck when it comes to comic shop pre-orders. (Straczynski has been clearly enjoying his run on the title and built his own cluster of loyalists in the process.) Be that as it may, Ultimate Spider-Man remains one of the struggling comic line’s better sellers, which means we’ve got plenty years of teen angst ahead of us in the Ultimate Universe.

Volume two reprints from issues #14-27, and it introduces us to several rehauled versions of established cast members: macho wilderness man Kraven the Hunter (now a slightly comical Animal Planet type), multi-armed Doctor Octopus (now a vengeance-driven madman) plus Gwen Stacy (punkrock grrl this time out.) But – more to the point – it also brings back Norman Osborne’s Green Goblin, briefly seen in volume one as a Hulkish monster, now somewhat more articulate. And it takes us to the Queensboro Bridge: with the Goblin (aware of Spider-Man’s Peter Parker identity) kidnapping Parker girlfriend Mary Jane Watson and throwing her off that bridge. This time, our hero’s rescue efforts are more in keeping with those of the movie Spider-Man.

Not that Bendis and Bagley don’t mess around with our expectations, of course. They stage the scene much the same way Conway and artist Gil Kane did in Amazing Spider-Man #121, down to giving us a full-page shot of our hero tearfully holding the limp body of his beloved. But unlike the original series, MJ has been established as Peter’s girlfriend early (originally, the character was an unseen standing joke for several years, not showing her face ‘til issue #42), even being made privy to his secret identity. The ground rules have changed, so why not the outcome? To this reader, at least, this one revision of Spidey history is more satisfying.

As a comics scripter, Bendis is primarily known for wordy, character-driven noirish hero comics (Powers, Alias, and the current Daredevil). With Ultimate Spider-Man, he adopts a much less dense writing style, leaving room for multi-page battle scenes and lots of knowing glances between PP and MJ. In general, the approach works, though at times when delving into the high school milieu, there’s an unmistakable whiff of After-School Special to the whole proceedings. And though Bendis raves about him in the book’s intro, to these normal-sized peepers, Bagley’s big-eyed drawing style frequently sacrifices slick competence for expressiveness.

Those caveats aside, Ultimate Spider-Man: Volume Two still tallies up as a strong example of professionally produced superhero comics. Which in the end is all that matters, Original or Ultimate Universe bedamned. We’ve crossed the Ultimate bridge and made it to the other side intact: if we can keep away from the Spider Clones, we should be set.
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      ( 4/04/2003 06:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“THE ANNOYING VIRGIN HAS A POINT!” – fx just concluded its first replay of last season’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and after re-watching a good number of the eps in order, a couple of thoughts occur. Thought one: that for all the fannish plaints about how dark and directionless the season was, there were plenty of great goofy eps, too (e.g., the one where a misdirected Willow spell has everyone forgetting who they are and the one where Buffy gets stuck in a time loop at The Magic Box – plus the musical, of course). Connected thought two: that from the season premiere (where Willow kills a deer to bring Buffy back from the dead), our fave Wiccan’s trajectory into Big Baditude is carefully and convincingly crafted throughout the entire season. Watching it all with viewer hindsight, the whole thing comes off tighter than I would’ve guessed based on simple memory.
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Thursday, April 03, 2003
      ( 4/03/2003 06:19:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE RETURN OF SKIP – Heading on the road today, so I’ve only got time to direct your attention to Elayne Riggs’ bashing of the current Angel plotline. I think she’s being harsher on the show than necessary (slamming one character’s assertion that everything which has happened on the series to date was pre-ordained, for instance, requires that you take a lying demon’s words as absolute truth – which I’m not inclined to do), but I suspect she’s not the only viewer with this perspective. I also have less trouble with son Connor’s irrational adolescent behavior when I remind myself that this kid has had minimal parenting (kidnapped and reared in a hell dimension by a lunatic demon hunter is not what I’d call being nurtured!) Which is why the appearance of vampire mother Darla’s ghost(?) last night played such an important part in the story.

I continue to be amused by the fact that the demons on Angel (and Buffy TVS) frequently get some of the funniest, most jaundiced lines. There’s an undertone of outsider humor to characters like Lorne or Skip that’s deftly used to enhance the action without breaking it apart. It’s one of those elements that keeps me coming back to Mutant Enemy productions even when its writers seem to’ve led their stories into a cul-de-sac.

NOTE: For some reason Elayne's archive shortcut links don't work when I set 'em up above. (So I'm not the only one who's been having difficulties with the furshlugginer Blogger archives.) The germane post is "Yankees 3, Angel 0."
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Wednesday, April 02, 2003
      ( 4/02/2003 09:55:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WHEN BEING A COLLECTOR CAN BE REALLY HARD I see from Newsarama that after repeated haphazard attempts at doing a hardback archival series of its early superhero titles, Marvel is planning to put out a new run this year on a more consistent schedule. Good news for those fans frustrated by the last round of Marvel Masterworks reissues – which included such dubious decisions as the issuance of two volumes devoted to runs of Fantastic Four that were years apart from each other – but it has to be frustrating to those who already shelled out good money ($35 - 50) for even earlier archival sets. Reportedly, the new books'll correct the wonky coloring that characterized many of the line’s first run of reissues.

Me, I only have a limited number of the Masterworks books, so I’m not feeling too discommoded. Still, this is very reminiscent of moments I’ve experienced in CD collecting: like when my sets of Elvis Costello and Ramones discs suddenly became overshadowed by their superior Rhino re-packagings. As a fannish collector, you’re faced with the question, “How much do I wanna pay for something that I already kind of have?”

(Thanks to Neilalien for the link.)
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      ( 4/02/2003 07:57:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MORE FUN WITH JACK & KIM – Now that the big ol’ newcular device threatening L.A. on Fox's 24 has been detonated over the desert, the show’s clearly floundering to main its initial intensity level. As last night’s ep emphasized, the current Damoclean sword is whether hero Jack Bauer can prevent the president from being suckered into a Middle Eastern war. Considering we’re already in a Middle Eastern war, this plotline just can’t have the same dramatic urgency as the atomic destruction of the Entertainment Capital of the World. At least Bauer daughter Kim (trapped in a gas station hostage situation) managed to get through the night without doing something phenomenally stoopid.

Also nice to see professional smarmy guy Gregg (Body Double) Henry adding a touch of sleaze to the proceedings . . .
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Tuesday, April 01, 2003
      ( 4/01/2003 08:29:00 PM ) Bill S.  

OUR FIRST REVIEW FOR APRIL – Not since Linda and Richard Thompson drove their marriage into the wall of death has there been a folk-rock duo disc as compelling as Lynne and Dick Cheney’s Shoot Out the Rights (RyteconDisc). A prime collection of socially Darwinistic ditties, Shoot shows the pair playin’ to their press-established strengths: Dick’s crotchety “I’m-right-and-you-pissant-punks-can’t-tell-me-different” lyrics melded to Lynne’s supportive background vocals, a musical and philosophical range that runs from A and back again, the best sidemen that stock options can buy. It all comes to together for these elder statesfolk of Old School Capitalist Acousticity.

Some nay-sayers may contend that Dick has been coasting on his rep for hard-nosed competence, that when you actually listen to the songs the whole thing falls apart. As a lead, Cheney may come across as a constipated incontinent ethically bankrupt toad with decaying testicles and a predilection for dry humping illegal aliens – but in these times of musical tribulation, who can afford to be too critical? Like most pop critics, I only pay attention to the lyrics, anyway, so I haven’t really bothered to put the disc on my CD player. I have glanced at the words in the booklet, though, and, well, they speak for themselves. Take these lines from “A Man On The Right”:
All them writers
Misapprehend me;
All my cohorts
Try to befriend me;
But they can shove it,
‘Cause I’m above it.
No leftie websites
Will rear end me!”
There’s more, of course. “The Wall Street Slide,” “Two Right Feet,” “Hocus Pocus (The Warhawk Song),” “Privatize Me In The Dark,” and a surprising recitation entitled “Screw Salman Rushdie – Let’s Have A Fatwah On Neal Pollack!” Lots of simple homespun folk to sing around the country club or bunker campfire and hum to yourself when yer doin' an all-nighter shreddin’ documents.

And, oh yeah, the li’l woman looks pretty hot on the back photo’s tribute to another hep singin’ couple, too. Who’d have thought these two could’ve pulled off a remake of the cover to Two Virgins?
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      ( 4/01/2003 07:59:00 AM ) Bill S.  

NICE CLOSING, JIMMY! – Hard to pick which was the more interesting element on last night’s The Practice: the sight of Smallville’s Pete Ross (Sam Jones III) as a young career criminal charged with murder or the episode’s explicit condemnation of the Ashcroft Regime’s attempts to force the death penalty on states like Massachusetts that don’t have it. (Remember the days when political conservatives were in favor of state’s rights?) Perhaps the show’s writer(s) should venture into politics more often: aside from a rote subplot about Bobby and Lindsey’s Marriage In Trouble, this was one of the best eps this show’s run in the last two years. . .
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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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