Big Fish*

May 8, 2011

How far is it from a relatively obscure, failed ‘70s feature film by an Oscar-winning director to a thirty-foot, fiberglass catfish?

Thirty-five miles.

Paloma and I have taken advantage of the fact that, here in the 21st century, people will deliver movies to your doorstep because we enjoy movies and…well…going to a theater requires leaving the couch and venturing into an often rude, zombie wasteland.

I’ve been delving into grainy movie memories from my childhood (several of which I’ve mentioned of late). One which I wanted to check out was Sorcerer, a 1977 film directed by William Friedkin (of The Exorcist fame) and starring Roy Scheider, who was fresh off the boat from his fishing excursion in Jaws.

I’d been fascinated by the poster for Sorcerer as a kid and the viewer comments on The Internet Movie Database touted it as an underappreciated gem.

The story revolved around four dodgy characters from various locales around the globe that end up hiding out in some South American village. Through a chain of events, they become mercenaries, driving two trucks laden with nitroglycerin through the jungle at great peril.

(Paloma was intrigued by this concept as a potential career opportunity)

Inspired by the viewing of Sorcerer, I decided that we should take a trek of our own, sans nitroglycerin, to a small town in the middle of nowhere where a restaurant boasted their catfish to be the finest in the state.

Paloma, ever supportive of my random whims – and won over by my assertion that such a place would certainly have pie – agreed to the venture, so long as I knew where we were going.

(leading to my assessment, halfway somewhere, that “we should be going west…or maybe south.”)

Thirty-five miles from our front door, there it was, a giant fiberglass catfish, perched majestically atop the roof of a roadside shack, proclaiming to all passers-by, here be catfish!

In the end, the catfish was serviceable, the Mississippi mud pie was, in the words of Paloma, “divine,” the thirty-foot catfish sign was the most life-like thirty-foot catfish sign I’ve ever seen, and Sorcerer was gritty, suspenseful, slightly surreal and well worth the walk to the mailbox.

There’s a lot of stuff under the sea. Here are four songs titled after some of the things that might be found in the briny deep…

The Other Two – Tasty Fish
from The Other Two & You

New Order were college radio darlings when I was in school and a lot of my friends loved the band. I was much more a casual listener.

In 1993, Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris – half of New Order – released an album as The Other Two. I liked it enough to file it away, but I couldn’t have named a song by the duo until Tasty Fish popped up.

It’s totally charming electro-pop, a pulsating, shimmering three minutes or so that would have been enough for me to hold onto the album to be rediscovered one day.

The B-52’s – Rock Lobster
from The B-52’s

I know that I wasn’t familiar with Rock Lobster in ’79. I can’t imagine that I heard the song until 97X went on the air four years later.

Then, Rock Lobster was a staple for the station and a burst of fun from the radio when it would come up.

Hooverphonic – Tuna
from Blue Wonder Power Milk

Like a lot of people, I was mesmerized the first time I heard A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular by the electronica/trip hop of the Belgian band Hooverphonic. It was a hypnotic listening experience.

Unfortunately, that album as well as Blue Wonder Power Milk and The Magnificent Tree didn’t make the transfer from harddrive to iPos explaining why I hadn’t heard the band in awhile.

Chilly, stately, and dreamy, Tuna, like most of Hooverphonic’s oeuvre, is perfect music to drift away to while listening on headphones.

Heart – Barracuda
from Greatest Hits

Though Heart might have had a lull in the early ’80s, the band remained popular on radio stations in our part of the Midwest. Then, the band notched a string of massive hits and platinum-selling albums in the mid-’80s that took the band to new heights.

I quite liked some of those latter ’80s hits, but I preferred Heart’s less-varnished ’70s stuff. The ubiquitousness of that later period made it easy to forget how much raw energy the band possessed.

Barracuda – driven by Ann Wilson’s piercing banshee wail – was as fierce as a band could hope to be.

The Incredible Shrinking Town

November 28, 2010

As the love of my life and my partner in crime, Paloma got to to spend twelve hours in the car journeying to my hometown for Thanksgiving.

(as always, she was a trooper, possessing a grace that the wife of a head of state on a junket to a foreign land would be hard pressed to match)

The foreign land in this case being a small town in Indiana and, yes, growing up there in the ‘80s was indeed like being in a John Cougar song.

(he’ll always be John Cougar to me – actually, he’ll always be Johnny Hoosier, the moniker which my buddy Bosco affixed to the budding local hero as he reached critical commercial mass in 1982 with the album American Fool)

This is the third time that we have made the trip. The first time – two years ago – I was greeted by the news of the terrorist strikes in India the moment that i switched on the television in our hotel room.

(I suspect that most guys – upon entering a hotel room – drop the bags, flop onto the bed, and instinctually channel surf)

These three trips in as many years is a reversal from the prior decade and a half when circumstances, lack of funds, and/or lack of transportation meant that the holiday trek was hardly an annual pilgrimage.

The first time Paloma accompanied me, I noticed that things weren’t exactly where I’d left them.

Things, obviously, continue to be less as they once were, but this time I was more struck by the realization that the town is now shrinking.

It’s strange because the town now actually spreads out much farther than it did thirty years ago. There are industrial and manufacturing buildings where there had once been farmland, broken only by isolated farm houses along the narrow, country roads.

Many of those roads are now better paved as there must be far more traffic than the occasional car, pick-up or tractor that posed obstacles when my friends and I would spend summer days biking out to these areas.

(the first two were much more of a threat – especially as drivers sped on the oft empty roads – than a slow-moving tractor)

We had never ventured so far without supervision.

It was no more than five or six miles from our homes, but it seemed to be a fantastic journey.

In the years since, I’ve been ten thousand plus miles from home. The two miles or so from school in the center of town to my buddy Beej’s house on the edge of town now barely registers.

Paloma and I spent the drive home surfing the radio dial and it was virtually wall to wall Christmas music – something JB over at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ addressed several days ago.

I’m with him that it’s a bit early in the season for such a single-minded aural onslaught, so, instead, here are four “road” songs from the large number available in the files…

Dire Straits – Telegraph Road
from Love Over Gold

It seems that Dire Straits was never cool (at least from what I’ve read), but a high school friend turned me onto the band several years before Brothers In Arms when they were being mostly ignored in the States.

I took to them and, despite its fourteen-minute length, the epic Telegraph Road was a favorite not only for the reflective lyrics but for the ferocity of Mark Knopfler’s guitar work at the song’s crescendo.

Catatonia – Road Rage
from International Velvet

The Welsh alternapop band Catatonia was reaching stardom with songs like I Am The Mob and The X-Files-inspired Mulder And Scully the first time I visited the UK in early ’98.

One of the friends I was with bought a cassette of International Velvet which we played relentlessly as we drove through England, Scotland, and Wales. Road Rage, though endearing and infectious, was, fortunately, not a case of life imitating art during that two-week trek.

Catatonia made little more than a ripple in the States, released a couple more albums, and split up. Lead singer Cerys Matthews has continued her career as a solo act.

Lindsey Buckingham – Holiday Road
from Words & Music: A Retrospective

I can’t hear Holiday Road and not want to cruise through a desert in the American Southwest in a station wagon with a dead aunt strapped to the roof on the way to a theme park thousands of miles from home.

Roger Miller – King Of The Road
from Love & A .45 soundtrack

If asked, there’s nothing I could tell you about Roger Miller. I’m not sure if I know other hits of his like Dang Me and England Swings.

I do know the genial King Of The Road, though. It makes me think of attending school in Southeast Asia in the late ’80s. The lone pop station played the song regularly, so I’d hear it almost daily lodged between then-current hits by acts like Skid Row, Roxette, and Richard Marx.

The Road To Rose-Hulman

May 1, 2010

At the risk of tempting the weather gods, this spring has actually been a relatively orderly, pleasant shuffle into the summer months instead of the luge ride into the sun – winter to summer – we often get.

The past few days have been perfect and it was a perfect Friday when I set out for Terre Haute with my friends Streuss and Smart. I’ve mentioned Streuss, a high school friend who turned me onto music like Robyn Hitchcock, The Cocteau Twins, and The Cure, numerous times.

Smart, like Streuss, was a twin. His identical twin brother was Dumb.

Actually, both of them were quite intelligent, but Smart was the twin that was a bit more responsible and slightly less carefree, so…

(of course, it was Smart who, on occasion, could be found sleeping in the bushes outside their house after a night of drinking)

Smart hadn’t decided on a college, yet, and was considering Rose-Hulman in Terre Haute, near the Indiana/Illinois border.

Streuss and I had known for months where we were headed.

It was our senior year, we were about a month from graduation, and we had already checked out. So, when Smart asked us if we wanted to go on a college visit one Friday morning, there was no hesitation.

Seniors were allowed so many absences for college visits, but they had to be with a parent, so, I’m not sure how we worked around that requirement – we likely didn’t care.

Dumb had missed something like thirty or forty days of school. Smart and the rest of us weren’t so accomplished, but we had spent a lot of time that school year everywhere but school.

So, the three of us set out in the late ’60s, light blue Ford Fairlaine which the twins shared and drove as though they were in pursuit of Mad Max in the Australian outback.

(oddly enough, one of our friends, Curt The Pyro, had been gifted the same car – same year and color – by his older brother Jailbait)

Terre Haute was two hours or so from our hometown. It was more than enough time on that beautiful spring morning – seventy-two degrees, blue skies with a few clouds for contrast – for Streuss and myself to convince Smart that he had to be deranged to even think of attending Rose-Hulman.

Now, Smart’s intention was to major in engineering and Rose-Hulman was regarded as on of the best engineering schools on the planet, but there were extenuating circumstances prompting Streuss and I to offer such contrary council.

Rose-Hulman was an all-male university.

We cruised down the highway at ridiculously high speeds and sorted out Smart’s future. As the song from a year or so later would declare – the future was so bright, we had to wear shades.

Actually, the future was the last thing on our minds that day. It was a beautiful day and we were hanging out while the rest of our friends – including Dumb and Curt The Pyro – were stuck in class.

And we had music.

There were new albums that spring from some of the staples of rock radio in our corner of the world. Bob Seger’s Like A Rock album was out and none of us could have known how sick NFL fans would be of the title song twenty-five years later.

The Stones’ version of Harlem Shuffle was on the radio and its parent album, Dirty Work, would prove to be fairly uninspired.

Van Halen’s first song with Sammy Hagar was on every station. David Lee Roth’s swagger, brains, humor, and sleaze was the soul of Van Halen, but I liked some of the Hagar-era stuff and Why Can’t This Be Love sounded great on the radio.

And Journey.

Journey would release Raised On Radio that spring. Sure, I bought a copy, but things had changed since Escape had been a soundtrack for the passage from junior high to high school.

But Raised On Radio didn’t resonate four years later.

(that’s twenty-eight years for any dogs that might be reading)

We also had a tape deck and we knew how to use it.

Here are four songs from some of the tapes I’m sure we played that day…

The Cure – Close To Me
from The Head On The Door

Streuss had discovered The Cure with The Head On The Door, most likely via the memorable video for the perky – at least musically – Close To Me. He was soon catching up on their earlier albums especially Pornography, which was my favorite.

Big Audio Dynamite – Medicine Show
from This Is Big Audio Dynamite

Though thought of, first and foremost, as a punk band, The Clash incorporated reggae, ska, dub, funk, rap, dance and rockabilly into their sound. When Mick Jones was sacked following Combat Rock, he put together Big Audio Dynamite and continued to draw from diverse musical styles adding samples to the equation.

We immediately took to BAD’s intoxicating brew which took the experimental bent of The Clash to a new level. Though commonplace now, the band’s musical stew was strkingly original at the time and, acknowledged or not, served as a template for many of the modern rock acts that found success in the early ’90s.

The Cult – She Sells Sanctuary
from Love

The recorded output of The Cult is a bit uneven to me and, despite its success, I thought the Rick Rubin-produced Electric was an unredeemable disaster aside from the wonderful Love Removal Machine.

However, Love, Electric‘s predecessor, is a classic from the period.

The sleek, supersonic She Sells Sanctuary was perhaps the high point of Love, a near perfect fusion of Billy Duffy’s pyrotechnic guitar work and lead singer Ian Astbury’s otherworldly howl.

The Outfield – Your Love
from Play Deep

Both Smart and Dumb were mental for The Outfield who, at the time, were breaking in the States with the irresistible single Your Love. Urgent and catchy, the song was all over radio that spring.

The British trio would manage to produce a handful of engaging singles over the remainder of the ’80s, but Your Love remains pinned to that spring, that trip, and the twins for me.