Killer On The Rampage…Somewhere

February 23, 2013

(rebroadcast from February, 2010, now with added calcium)

I read the news most days.

But, unlike my parents and their generation, I don’t make a point to watch a news broadcast each day, merely pausing on the news channels if something catches my attention.

The other night, as I was watching some basketball, there was a commercial for the local news. It was some perky chick yammering about a murder suspect possibly being loose – or, in the parlance of our legal system, on the lam – in the “mid-state area.”

Details, she assured me, would be provided at ten.

A killer? In our relatively calm, safe, usually unhomicidal neighborhood?

At ten, I actually went into a holding pattern with the remote. Perhaps this was news that I might need.

(of course, if it had been truly vital information, shouldn’t they have told me twenty minutes earlier?)

It ended up being a murder that seems to have resulted from a domestic disturbance. I’m not even sure if the town where the crime had taken place is even in the station’s broadcast area.

Hardly clear and present danger.

Dodgy attempts to attract viewers aside, this station lost any credibility with Paloma and me long ago. One evening, we happened to be watching and there was a report on a murder at a restaurant in the wee hours earlier that morning.

And the visual accompanying the words was of someone dropping a couple of slices of pizza onto a restaurant’s kitchen floor. The camera was focused on the prone pie pieces as the broadcast moved on to Rudy with sports.

We turned to each other and stared. To borrow from the late, great Bill Hicks – our expressions were like two dogs that had been shown a card trick.

Here is a quartet of songs inspired by real-life murderers…

The Boomtown Rats – I Don’t Like Mondays
from The Fine Art Of Surfacing (1979)

San Diego teenager Brenda Spencer shot two adults, killing them, and wounded eight children from her bedroom window in 1979. Her explanation for her deeds was “I don’t like Mondays.”

For The Boomtown Rats, the song was on its way to becoming their American breakthrough when the Spencer family threatened legal action and the label stopped promoting the song.

Thirty years later, the wickedly dark and totally catchy almost hit is rightfully regarded to be a classic from the period.

Die Toten Hosen – Gary Gilmore’s Eyes
from Learning English, Lesson One (1991)

The Dead Pants – that’s the English translation of German punk band Die Toten Hosen’s name.

That was enough to make me snag a promo copy of Learning English, Lesson One one day at work. I was glad I did as it was more fun than killin’ strangers.

Killin’ strangers is what led to Giilmore being executed in a well-publicized affair in the mid-’70s. He requested that his eyes be donated for transplant.

Gary Gilmore’s Eyes is a cover of The Adverts’ original from the late ’70s.

Concrete Blonde – Jonestown
from Mexican Moon (1992)

I was in junior high when the Jonestown massacre occured and over 900 people, at the urging of Jim Jones, drank cyanide-laced Kool Aid. I remember the vivid images in Newsweek magazine and the television mini-series that had me and my friends tripping the next day at school.

I think it was one of my first what-the-@#$%! (international division) moments in my life.

As for Concrete Blonde, I always mentally shortlist them as one of the acts of the late ’80s/early ’90s that deserved a bigger audience.

Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska
from Nebraska (1982)

In 1982, I mostly knew Bruce Springsteen for the user-friendly The River from two years earlier. I was bumfoozled when I heard the stark Nebraska.

I was in college when Springsteen released the mammoth Live/1975–85. If you weren’t there, I assure you that the hype surrounding the five-album set was considerable.

Hearing some of the songs live prompted me to really spend some time with Nebraska.

(I quickly understood the praise heaped on it over the years)

Nebraska‘s title song was inspired by the two-month killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in the ’50s.

Those events also inspired the 1973 movie Badlands starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. I remember Badlands airing on prime-time television with those parental warnings that only served to make the movie a must-see event to a kid.

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Hey Hey Hey, It’s Bill Cosby

October 27, 2012

Paloma has wandered into the living room a few weeks weeks ago and noted the show on the television.

The Cosby Show?”

She quickly attributed the interest to Lisa Bonet.

Sure, Ms. Bonet was a fetching beauty, duly noted by myself and most of my buddies when The Cosby Show debuted in 1984.

Two years later, I was in college and it increasingly seemed to me that she was trying too hard to establish her bohemian bona fides.

No, I just dig Bill Cosby. The man is a comforting presence, the macaroni and cheese of childhood celebrities.

My earliest recollections of Bill Cosby was as the host of Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids in the early ’70s. As I recall, it was usually the anchor show, closing out that Saturday morning’s cartoons

(attention was then focused on lunch as the midday television options would be bowling, b-movies or hunting shows)

And Bill Cosby continued to be a presence through the decade and into the early ’80s when I’d hear tracks from his comedy albums on The Dr. Demento Show.

Then The Cosby Show hit and the man and his television family was a cultural phenomenon.

I was sixteen when The Bill Cosby Show debuted and in college when the show was at the height of heights. I was at an age that I was gaining freedom from parental control and there were far more interesting things to do than watch television.

Of course, the show was a pop culture juggernaut with higher Nielsen ratings than God, so if I was in front of a television on Thursday night – at home or a friend or girlfriend’s place – it was undoubtedly tuned to NBC and The Cosby Show.

Though the show might have had cultural and social significance, I was watching because I had grown up with Bill Cosby. He had been an older brother in Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids and had become the patriarch of the Huxtable clan.

Each week, if I tuned in, I knew that I could expect Bill to be wearing zany sweaters, mugging for the camera and dispensing life lessons through amusing anecdotes and tales.

In retrospect, memories of catching The Cosby Show during those years meant that I was likely taking the night off – off from studying, off from going out, off from the hassles of the day – and spending it in an ideal world where things rarely got too heavy and all was resolved in half an hour.

(nearly three decades later, the show still fulfills such a purpose)

Twenty-five years ago, as Halloween was arriving and Thanksgiving break (and mid-term finals) were looming, The Cosby Show was the most-viewed show in the country. I had recently started working at a record store, leaving the show with one fewer viewer most Thursday nights.

Here are four songs I was hearing at the time…

Sinéad O’Connor – Mandinka
from The Lion And The Cobra (1987)

I dug Sinéad O’Connor from the moment she appeared on the tiny black & white television in my dorm room. Sinéad had just released her debut, The Lion And The Cobra, and suddenly this striking girl with a shaved head was wailing like a banshee in the video for the driving rocker Mandinka.

At the time, O’Connor was a critical darling and a cult favorite in the music world. There was no way that we were ever going to hear the Irish lass alongside the likes of Tiffany and Debbie Gibson.

Eurythmics – Beethoven (I Love To Listen To)
from Savage (1987)

Despite going in a more conventional pop/rock direction with 1986′ Revenge set, Eurythmics were losing commercial momentum in America which they would never regain. Savage found the duo of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart harkening back to a more electronic, synthesized sound that had helped them breakthrough with Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This).

Though Savage wouldn’t reclaim a larger audience for the duo, the staff in our record store was fond of the album, especially the fierce I Need A Man and the trippy, pulsating Beethoven (I Love To Listen To).

Swing Out Sister – Breakout
from It’s Better To Travel (1987)

Top 40 music was mostly off my radar by ’87, but one gem from that autumn was the irresistible Breakout by the British trio Swing Out Sister. The sophisticated pop song was breezy, sunny and the perfect anitidote to the chill in the air as winter approached.

(and singer Corinne Drewery, with her jet-black pixie haircut, was rather fetching, too)

Bruce Springsteen – Tougher Than The Rest
from Tunnel Of Love (1987)

That autumn, Bruce Springsteen was issuing his first new album since Born In The USA had arrived three years earlier and established The Boss and band as pop culture titans of the mid-’80s (even for Republicans and the simpleminded for whom knee-jerk jingoism trumped lyrical comprehension).

Though critically lauded, it was impossible for the more pensive and less bombastic Tunnel Of Love to replicate the sales and hullabaloo of its predecessor. Much of the album was focused on the pitfalls of love and the unflinching Tougher Than The Rest is no different, though it addresses those perils with purposeful determination.


A Waste Of Gunpowder And Sky*

July 4, 2012

Today’s the Fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town I just think
What a waste of gunpowder and sky

– Aimee Mann

I’m not sure when it happened. It was probably some time in my teens when my cadre of friends included one with pyromaniacal inclinations to such a degree that he and another friend brought home dynamite purchased in Tijuana during spring break.

Things exploding accompanied by colorful flashes, once an annual treat of controlled carnage for the senses, was reduced to a common weekend occurence.

Instead of fireworks being the focal point, the Fourth Of July had become a day of overt demonstrations of patriotism and weathermen assuring viewers that it won’t rain no matter which way the wind was actually blowing.

A friend once accused me of hating America and I can’t say that I’ve ever felt truly patriotic, at least not in some palpable fashion akin to someone who’s had an indescribable religious experience.

I explained that I believed there to be a difference between the concept of America and the execution, a distinction that some self-declared patriots seem to have difficulty in making.

The concept is brilliant, but the execution has become a bit muddled and held hostage by portions of the population with their own agendas.

The patriotism I often observe seems to be underpinned by some zero-sum logic – “you’re either with us or against us.”

To hear some people speak, one would almost believe that the people outside our borders are begrimed and oppressed, shackled and yolked with every breath taken under the ever-watching eyes of the nefarious and the godless.

(some certainly are)

But, I’ve traveled a bit and, surprisingly, there’s an awful lot of people out there in other lands who go about there lives much as we do here in the States.

They shop.

They get drunk and suffer hangovers.

They enjoy their sports.

They sing and dance.

They do good things and they do bad.

They bitch about their government and they bitch about the weather.

They love their children.

They’re not much different from us aside from sometimes wearing unusual hats.

My grandparents emmigrated here from Italy and, at least on one side, I suspect they might have been asked to leave.

If great-grandfather hadn’t been a dodgy character, perhaps I’d be an olive rancher right now, wearing a large, floppy hat and fretting over this year’s crop. I’d be nursing the wounds caused by Italy’s recent failure to win the Euro Cup. These words, written in English, might make no sense to me.

Would my life be better or worse?

It likely would be nothing more than different. I suspect, though, that I’d still believe in the concept behind America. It would merely be accompanied by more pasta and more wine.

It’s the Fourth Of July. Americans will celebrate with fireworks and shows of patriotism that, without ackowledgment of the concept behind the country, will be mostly just gunpowder and sky.

It’s the concept, though, that the true patriots have fought to defend, not a flag (or a flag pin) or the fanfare or even a geographic point on a map – the promise held by a concept that many people in many countries strive to fulfill in ways that might be slightly different but not truly that different at all.

Here are four songs for the day…

Aimee Mann – 4th Of July
from Whatever (1993)

I actually had the opportunity to hear this song several years before it was released on Mann’s solo debut Whatever. An acquaintence had demos of most the album and this track, along with the equally somber Stupid Thing, was a highlight of that record.

Bruce Springsteen – 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
from Live/1975–85 (1986)

Possibly more than any other song in the E Street Band’s catelog, 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) is closely associated with the late Danny Federici, who played accordion on the wistful song.

X – 4th Of July
from See How We Are (1987)

For all of their acclaim and status as punk pioneers, I’ve never enjoyed X as much as I’ve thought I should.

(does everyone have acts that fall into that category?)

However, I’ve always loved 4th Of July, a sketch of urban life from See How We Are.

U2 – 4th Of July
from The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

Having adopted U2 as my band following War and Under A Blood Red Sky, I was eagerly anticipating The Unforgettable Fire in the autumn of 1984. When Pride (In The Name Of Love) hit radio, my anticipation multiplied exponentially.

And then, I purchased the album the week of release and was confused.

Who was this Daniel Lanois and what had he done to my band? Much of the muscle and jagged edges had been replaced by moody, watercolor soundscapes and experiments like 4th Of July.

I was unimpressed.

However, by The Joshua Tree, this evolution made sense and I grew to fully appreciate The Unforgettable Fire. It is the one album in U2′s catalog that sounds better to me now than it did upon its release.