The Night Stalker

October 30, 2010

As much as I love old horror and sci-fi flicks, Halloween is a holiday to which I’ve been surprisingly indifferent.

It might be because I’ve always gotten a bit wigged by attention – good or bad – and few things demand a reaction like dressing up for Halloween. The entire object is attention.

And candy.

Candy is something to which I’m also surprisingly indifferent.

As kids, candy was not as forbidden to us as it was to Tim Burton’s Willie Wonka, but it wasn’t the building blocks of the food pyramid as it was for some of my friends growing up.

Candy procured on Halloween was doled out by our mom like rations to POWs. After a few weeks things either went stale or we lost interest, distracted by the impending Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.

If I’d truly been edgy and hip, in 1974 I would have gone out for Halloween as Carl Kolchak, but I didn’t since, well, I was six and decidedly not edgy and unhip.

If you were a kid and watching television in the mid-’70s, you likely knew Kolchak, as portrayed by the great Darren McGavin, to be the rumpled Chicago reporter investigating the paramormal on Friday nights in Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Kolchak was always wandering dark alleys or dimly-lit tunnels, pursuing that week’s vampire, voodoo legend or clan of reanimated prehistoric primates.

Compelling stuff to a kid.

(one of those kids being Chris Carter who amassed a small fortune with The X-Files two decades later)

By the following spring The Night Stalker had ended its lone season on the air. It would be the early ’80s before I’d come across Cark Kolchak again and, then, it was for a period of time that one of the networks showed reruns well after midnight.

In the years since, I’ve only seen the rare episode here and there. Though the effects – just good enough to help me suspend imagination at six – now seem rather shoddy, The Night Stalker definitely had a vibe that still works.

And Darren McGavin was perfect as Kolchak.

Of course, the late actor would become a holiday institution as The Old Man in A Christmas Story.

But, it’s Halloween. So, here are four songs, chosen randomly, that might make the cut if it was possible for me to send a mixtape back through time for Kolchak…

The Replacements – Rock ‘n’ Roll Ghost
from Don’t Tell A Soul

The Replacements got a lot of flack when Don’t Tell A Soul was released in ’89, with more than a few fans/critics/hipsters accusing the band of selling out. Maybe I have a soft spot for the album – it was the first album I’d owned by the group – but, though it is more polished than past releases, I dug it.

Though The Replacements earned much attention for drunken antics and raucous rackets of songs, there was a quieter, melancholic side of them that was equally as impressive.

Poe – Haunted
from Haunted

Paloma and I spent a lot of time listening to Poe’s 1995 debut Hello. I don’t think that she was nearly as fond of it as I was.

The music was a supple fusion of alternative rock and folk elements with atmospheric and hypnotic electronics. I thought that Poe was going to be a superstar.

She didn’t reach such heights and, though Hello got some notice, I thought that the album got lost in the glut of female artists at the time.

The dense, swirling Haunted is the title track of her second and, thus far, last album which came out a decade ago. It was a worthy successor to Hello, but it caused barely a ripple.

Apparently Poe spent ten years feuding with her record label, attempting to extricate herself from them, which is unfortunate.

David Gilmour – Murder
from About Face

I was on the cusp of a Pink Floyd phase when About Face came out and the album further stoked my burgeoning interest in the band.

(a year after the quartet’s iconic line-up released their final album)

I seem to recall Pink Floyd guitar great David Gilmour’ second solo album getting mixed reviews at the time, but me and my friends dug it and Murder sounded stellar on the radio.

Voice Of The Beehive – Monsters And Angels
from Honey Lingers

I’m not sure if I could picture Kolchak racing through the streets of Chicago in his convertible with Monsters And Angels blaring from the stereo, but it’s a delightful song.

Formed in London by two sisters from California who were the daughters of Four Preps singer Bruce Belland, Voice Of The Beehive was a college rock favorite with their ’86 debut Let It Bee.

I was out of college when the follow-up, Honey Lingers, was released and working at a record label where my boss – who was usually quite prescient in such matters – predicted that Monsters And Angels would be their mainstream breakthrough.

(it wasn’t)

Though it does suffer from some of the glossy production of the time, the song is candy. The song shimmers and has a towering chorus with a girl group vibe for a modern age.

The Walkman Is Dead

October 27, 2010

I’ve come across several articles over the past few days announcing the end of Sony’s Walkman. The final batch was shipped to stores in Japan.

The groundbreaking portable cassette player hit the shores of the States in 1979 as a fifth grader deep in the heart of nowhere was just beginning to warm to music. I hadn’t even committed to buying music at the time much less feel a need to have the stuff at my beck and call at all times.

And, at that time, even if I’d wanted a Walkman, the cost would have made having one a pipe dream.

By the summer of ’82, I had the radio on as often as possible and had begun to buy cassettes. My buddy Beej was always ahead of the curve in electronic gadgetry and he was the first among my friends to snag a Walkman. He brought it home from his annual summer visit to see his dad in Arizona.

Months later, a portable cassette player was part of my take for Christmas.

I think it was a Panasonic.

It didn’t matter to me as the mere ability to block out the world and be lost in music anywhere, at any time, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and an oft-needed refuge.

It must have been the next Christmas that I received my first Walkman. The following summer I didn’t remove the Walkman’s headphones once during our family’s two week trip to Florida.

(I was sixteen, sullen, and adhering to teenage protocol)

It’s odd that I don’t remember the details of my first Walkman. That part of my brain might have been blown out in the ’90s

Or, maybe it’s because I had a number of portable cassette players of different brands over a two decade period. The prices dropped making them more economical to replace and replace them I did as, though I did treat mine with care, I put them through an excessive workload.

The last time I remember having a Sony was toward the end of high school. It was one of the first to reduce the size of the device down to just slightly larger than the size of the cassette being played.

It ended up heading to college with me, served me well, and is likely now in some anonymous landfill.

Time and techology marches on.

I remained true to the concept of the portable cassette player until the first few years of the 21st century when I bought an mp3 player. Now, it’s hard to imagine not having tens of thousands of songs at my fingertips.

Here are four random songs courtesy of the iPod…

Robert Palmer – Every Kinda People
from Very Best Of Robert Palmer

I knew only a sliver of the work of the suave Robert Palmer prior to the doubleshot of his solo album Riptide and the debut by The Power Station in 1985/1986. Then, he was inescapable on radio and video.

But, I’ve come to appreciate the earlier records by the late singer especially since Paloma and I started buying vinyl. Every Kinda Of People has a breezy feel and, though the song – which echoes the legendary Marvin Gaye – has a serious message, it’s uplifting as its theme of acceptance is delivered with a soulful vocal by Palmer that soars.

Duran Duran – Save A Prayer
from Electric Barbarella

I really liked the first couple albums by Duran Duran after the group hit the US shores in late ’82.

(I had to discover their self-titled debut after Rio hit)

The shimmering ballad Save A Prayer was a favorite.

Manic Street Preachers – Suicide Is Painless (Theme from M*A*S*H)
from Forever Delayed

I know that even as a small child, I immediately recognized the heaviness of the theme song from M*A*S*H even before I became a viewer of the show. Later, I was surprised to learn that the teenaged son of director Robert Altman had written the lyrics.

(I had to wonder if he was truly miserable or merely able to conjure up such despair)

For quite awhile, this anthemic cover wasn’t the easiest song to find for Manics fans in the States.

The Smashing Pumpkins – You’re All I’ve Got Tonight
from The Aeroplane Flies High

Paloma and I loved The Smashing Pumpkins and I can still picture the toy ray gun that she wore in her hair when we saw them live on their tour for Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. I wouldn’t hesitate to name them as one of the best bands of the ’90s.

The prolific band released a number of cover songs including this one by The Cars. Toward the end of the Pumpkins run with the original line-up, I saw them again. I told Billy Corgan that I had dug the solo record he had produced for The Cars’ Rik Ocasek.

He smiled as soon as I mentioned the little-heard (but truly groovy) album.

The Headless Maiden*

October 23, 2010

moonGrowing up, there was no house in my hometown that the kids passed warily, whispering amongst themselves as they eyed the dilapidated structure and weed-riddled, overgrown yard reined in by nothing more than a decaying wrought iron fence.

However, I know from the television and movies I’ve consumed over my life, that everyone else had such a landmark in their life.

In fact, I can think of nothing in my small hometown that had a paranormal bent to it – no legends, no lore, no creatures lurking in the woods. There was simply no sinister goings on and never had been.

(perhaps the townsfolk lacked imagination)

The closest thing to the macabre I recall was one grave.

On the southwest edge of town, one street led to a small, non-descript bridge which sped travellers into a vast stretch of sparsely populated farmland. There were fewer homes as you approached the bridge, even though it was no more than a twenty-minute walk from the center of town.

It was dark out that way at night.

A classmate lived in a large two-story house which was one of the last homes before reaching the bridge. Running past their home, off that main street, was a tree-lined lane which led to,a half-mile or so from the street, a cemetary.

The trees grew more dense as you walked deeper into the grounds, culminating in a woods, separated from the cemetary by a small ravine. There, under a canopy of thick trees, was a rectangular, stone slab, with weather-worn scripture quotes and no name.

At one end of the slab was a small stone lamb with no head.

The story our classmate had told us was that, a hundred years or more earlier, the property had been owned by a vicious racist. One day, as he was hunting in those woods, he spotted a young Native American girl on the far side of the ravine.

Then, like Roland did to Van Owen in Warren Zevon’s Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, the racist land owner raised his gun and blew off the Native American girl’s head. I remember our classmate saying, “Her head popped off and rolled into the ravine.”

It was the Native American girl supposedly buried beneath that slab.

It would make the tale more eerie I suppose if I could tell you that townsfolk had claimed to have seen a headless spirit or heard mournful wails from those woods. But, as far as I know, there no such stories.

There was little reason to go back there. There were a number of places for the high school kids to escape from supervision, so that cemetary wasn’t even a gathering place where minors might smoke or drink.

I might have to trek back there the next time I visit.

Curve – Horror Head
from Doppelganger

Curve caught my attention when Doppelganger arrived in our record store at the time and a few of us played the hell out of it. The British duo’s music was dense and cacophonous, but there was also melody underpinning the towering layers of guitars and swirling electronics and Toni Halliday’s vocals were provocative and sensual.

Queen – Don’t Lose Your Head
from A Kind Of Magic

My friends and I remained devoted to Queen throughout high school, even though their popularity in the States cratered following the massively successful The Game and that album was released while we were still in junior high school. A Kind Of Magic hit stores just weeks after we graduated and we were stoked to check it out as it featured a number of songs from the movie Highlander which we had seen months before.

For the most part, I was disappointed in the album, but the dance rock workout Don’t Lose Your Head was one track I did dig. And, the song features a cameo by singer/songwriter Joan Armatrading that’s always struck me as anu unusual union.

Rage Against The Machine – Bullet In The Head
from Rage Against The Machine

I didn’t immediately gravitate to Rage Against The Machine. I thought their politics to be somewhat half-baked. However, seeing them live, opening for U2 – a band against whom the same accusation could be made regarding politics – made me a fan of the sheer sonic force of Rage’s music.

Concrete Blonde – Your Haunted Head
from Concrete Blonde

I didn’t truly fall for Concrete Blonde until their third album Bloodletting, but I quickly went back and grabbed their two previous albums. Both Bloodletting and the trio’s eponymous debut were staples in college and the band was also much beloved on alternative radio.

Though Concrete Blonde was quite adept at producing quasi-gothic tracks with crooned vocals, there were also songs in their catalog like Your Haunted Head that brought the grit and the snarl with equal aplomb and harkened to the band’s punk roots.

*reposted – with some alterations – from Halloween ’09