Thursday, January 21, 2010

The End of the Eighties, Track 02

“From the Flagstones”
Cocteau Twins

The Pink Opaque


Two tracks into this thing and already my recall proves faulty. I was certain the Cocteau Twins’ The Pink Opaque collection was something I pulled from the import case at Digital Daze back in the day, but the internet is telling me otherwise. The compilation album was designed to introduce the Cocteau Twins to the US market as their first domestic release, so clearly my memory is wrong. But regardless of whether the disc was an import or not, my love of the contents within remains secure.

There were plenty of options for a Cocteau Twins inclusion on the playlist, but I ultimately went with my favorite ’80s Cocteau Twins song: “From the Flagstones”. As gorgeous as songs like “Millimillenary”, “Wax and Wane”, and “Carolyn’s Fingers” are (and I used to love losing myself in Elizabeth Fraser’s floating, indiscernible enunciation), I guess because I am a writer I was always drawn to “From the Flagstones”, if only because there was a hint of maybe being able to figure out the lyrics.

With acts like Cocteau Twins, Clan of Xymox, and the label super-group, This Mortal Coil, 4AD made a name for itself in the ’80s with a stable of artists that tread ethereal ground. Among the shoegazers-before-the-genre-was-invented bands, Cocteau Twins is required listening. Fraser’s unique delivery owes as much to her Scottish accent as it does her placing emphasis within words and phrases in unexpected places. Pair her vocals with Robin Guthrie’s guitar and bass work and the compositions shimmer.

More than the bizarro ramblings of Throwing Muses (actual lyrics: “Pushing a ribcage makes it hard to breathe”), more than the folk-influenced approach of Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins’ incomprehensible lyrics and lush composition were always my favorite. They required an altered state (not necessarily chemically altered, so much as just a refocusing). You don’t listen to the Cocteau Twins, a counterbalance to the angst-y force of a Ministry or Nine Inch Nails, before heading out to the bars in college. It’s more “settling in for a night of writing reflective poetry and journal scribblings.” That’s pretty much where I was as a 19 year-old creative writing major at the time, and “From the Flagstones” fit perfectly in that soundtrack.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Marvel Unbound - Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Color Series

I am a Marvel guy at my core, but since returning to the comic book hobby as an adult, I read most anything that strikes my fancy, regardless of publisher. That includes taking in some Batman stories: Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, Frank Miller’s Absolute Dark Knight, and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween and Haunted Knight.

I’m not reading the Red Hulk books and am not a fan of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, so those Batman stories and the Fallen Son mini-series after the death of Captain America are really my only exposure to Loeb. I enjoyed what I’ve read well-enough, so I’m not sure where all the Loeb hate comes from. No writer can satisfy every reader, and I have never heard a co
nvincing argument for the extreme dislike. It all strikes me as knee-jerk fanboy posturing.

Regardless, I figured if I enjoyed the Loeb-Sale team-up on Batman so much, I wanted to see what they’d do in the Marvel sandbox. I picked up the first-edition hardcovers of Daredevil: Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue, and Hulk: Gray cheap on eBay late last year and have finally worked my way through all three of them.

The concept here is a creative take on key moments in each titular character’s life. Not reimaging so much as fleshing out events that formerly took place
off-page or providing a different point of view of what was originally presented.

I read them in the order in which they were released, which almost proved a misfire because I really didn’t care for Daredevil: Yellow. Sale’s art is a sight to behold, and every page in these six collected issues is a layered, shadowed experience. But the story really left me feeling kinda “meh.” I love Daredevil, but this was very much a Karen Page story. And I’m clearly not as good a student of that particular part of the Daredevil’s history as I needed to be in order to fully enjoy Daredevil: Yellow.

Thematically, I loved the way the series titles each played off Murdock’s f
ather’s boxing career: “The Championship Season”, “The Measure of a Man”, “Stepping Into the Ring”, “Never Lead With Your Left”, “Against the Ropes”, and “The Final Bell”. And the covers of the original single issues reveal the evolution of Matt Murdock, with a larger-than-life Daredevil in the background, watching over his alter-ego. Beautiful work by Sale, but this was the first time a Loeb story fell short of my expectations and had problems holding my interest.

Whereas Daredevil: Yellow’s conceit was a written letter from Matt Murdock to his lost love Karen Page, Spider-Man: Blue is framed by Peter Parker tape-recording a letter to the love of his life, the Green Goblin-murdered Gwen Stacy, on Valentine’s Day.

Like with the first book, Sale’s artwork is striking. His reimaging of Peter, Gwen, and Mary Jane Watson is retro sexy and perfectly stylized. But unlike Daredevil: Yellow, the
characterizations Loeb unfolds quietly across these six issues is nuanced and restrained. Loeb and Sale used iconic moments in Peter’s life as touchstones for filling in perspective. We see Spider-Man saving Norman Osborn’s life, we meet Anna Watson’s niece for the first time along with Peter, and we witness the organic beginning of Peter and Gwen’s romance.

I don’t know how true to the characters of Peter and MJ they are, but I really loved the last three pages of Spider-Man: Blue. They capture a soft moment between husband and wife, yet it feels so important, even cinematic. There was a satisfying sense of closure to the book that I really felt was missing with the first one.

Whereas Daredevil: Yellow and Spider-Man: Blue are essentially love stories, Hulk: Gray explores relationships more broadly: the influence of General Ross’ dead wife on his relationship with his daughter Betty, Betty’s love for Bruce Banner, Hulk’s love for Betty, and General Ross’ hatred for Hulk.

The framing device here is Bruce turning to his old friend Doc Sampson in the present day, looking back at those crucial hours immediately after the Hulk was “born” in the gamma bomb accident. I thought Loeb took a lot of liberty (maybe too much?) retconning an encounter with Tony Stark’s Iron Man into this origin expansion, but the story was compelling from start to finish. It’s amazing how much emotion a character like the Hulk can convey.

Until I watched the DVD extras for the 2008 Incredible Hulk film, I had no idea director Louis Leterrier used Hulk: Gray as his primary influence. I don’t think knowing that or having seen the movie first really colored my reading of the Loeb-Sale book in any way, but I can now fully appreciate book and movie’s connection.

There was supposed to be a fourth title in the Loeb and Sale color series, Captain America: White, but it has only gotten as far as an issue #0 book. The prologue story was released back in September 2008, but seems to have been canceled after that. I don’t have that issue, so I can’t say what it’s about or how it would fare against the other three completed series, but it would have been nice to have the creator’s complete vision to judge as a whole.

In all, I enjoyed two-thirds of the color series. As a Daredevil fan and a fan of Loeb and Sale’s Batman collaboration, I’m glad I read Daredevil: Yellow, but it didn’t live up to my expectations. After stepping away from the series for a few months and tempering those expectations, I thoroughly enjoyed Spider-Man: Blue and Hulk: Gray, both of which presented nuanced, emotionally charged stories and gorgeous art.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The End of the Eighties, Track 01

“Bela Lugosi’s Dead”
Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape

“Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is the granddaddy of ’em all. Clichéd, bloated, completely lacking a sense of humor, and perfect in every way, this is where Goth begins and ends. It’s also the only logical jumping off point for The End of the Eighties playlist.

Originally holding the track one, disc one slot on the BGSU / Fall 1989-Spring 1990 mix, this is the first song I associate with Bowling Green State University.

Shortly after John and I got settled into our BGSU dorm room, we became close friends with Jen and Erin. As I recall, I met Erin during a campus visit sometime between early July and late August before classes started. I know this because I remember the first time I saw her she had on a black and white PiL concert t-shirt and these bright aqua blue shorts. I went up to her and asked her if she attended the show at Blossom (she had) and our friendship took off from there.

I seem to think I met Jen at a freshman orientation mixer kind of thing out on the lawn. I don’t think John and I introduced Jen and Erin to each other, though we might have. I do know that the first time Jen and Erin came back to our dorm room, we all hung out and listened to music, and I played Bauhaus’ Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape live album with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” on it.

I had picked up the disc while I worked at Digital Daze (now long gone) in Akron. I actually had all of Beggars Banquet’s Bauhaus reissues with the extra tracks and similar packaging. Those imports were crazy-expensive, but I loved them, often going weeks without seeing an actual paycheck because I poured my money right back into the store.

By the time John, Jen, Erin, and I were listening to it on that hot August afternoon, the song itself was already ten years old and considered the first Goth song released (as a single on the Small Wonder label in August ’79). For only having 15 or so lines of lyrics, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is a sprawling blueprint for Goth. Clocking in at nine-and-a-half minutes, the song fills the space between with heavy bass, a metronome drum beat, and winding dub guitar work. An “alternative night” staple in clubs, the song doesn’t unfold so much as it broods its way across the musical landscape. Atmosphere is everything here.

Back in the day, we would watch beat up second- and third-hand videocassette copies of Shadow of Light and Tony Scott’s The Hunger to see “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in its glory. (And how delicious the irony of Peter Murphy, who has unabashedly worshiped at the altar of Bowie, on screen with his idol in those opening moments of the film?) And I guess that’s as close to seeing the song live as I’m gonna get, because I've only seen them live once and they didn’t play it.

There are Bauhaus songs I like better than “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (and four more Bauhaus songs will show up on this playlist before I’m finished), but this one is where friendships began and the ’80s end for me.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The End of the Eighties: 70 Songs About 24 Months

Somewhere around the turn of the millennium, The Cure released Bloodflowers, I moved back to Northeast Ohio after ten years away, and the milestone of turning 30 was upon me. That throat-knotting mixture of nostalgia and aging (and realizing your heroes were aging too) resulted in a need to reset the compass. In dealing with this mini-crisis, I turned to the music of my youth, the music that had the greatest impact on shaping who I am and provided a soundtrack for the most formative time in my life, and attempted to capture the amazing two-year arc between late 1988 and late 1990.

The collection of songs began life as a series of mix CDs. Two discs covered the music of my freshman year at Bowling Green State University. Another two discs were devoted to the music I associated with Thursday’s, the punk bar on Exchange Street across from the University of Akron.

The BGSU collection was for all those in our tight circle of college freshman friends, though I think I only ever gave copies to John and Jeff. John and I have been in each others’ lives since sixth grade or so, but we met Jeff at college and then lost touch. When Tracy and I moved back north, Jeff and I reconnected and our wives became friends, and we have kept that friendship going ever since. The BGSU mix was a (hopefully) thoughtful collection of many of the songs that were so important to me (us) during those two semesters of chaos and emotion and laughter.

The Thursday’s collection was for Tracy and me. Tracy and I grew up Northeast Ohio and ran in the same Akron punk circles and knew many of the same people, but didn’t meet until we were both living in Florida. We’re certain our paths must have crossed at some point in the late ’80s when we were both frequenting Thursday’s regularly and attending the same shows at the same clubs, but neither of us remember actually meeting back in the day. I wanted to put together a songlist that captured that soundtrack I (and presumably, she would also) remember from Thursday’s.

The mixes might have begun life as mix CDs, but they now exist as mix playlists in iTunes. The original 60 songs spread across those four discs ballooned to 70 once I went digital and shed the constraints of physical media running time capacities (but still tried to keep things reasonable). Originally called BGSU / Fall 1989-Spring 1990 and Thursday’s Mix, they now commingle under the single playlist named “The End of the Eighties.”

Inspired by the conversation John and I have been having over the last few weeks (both publicly via our blogs and privately in email and in personal exchanges), I’ve decided to go back and revisit these combined playlists and capture some thoughts on each of the songs. I’m not really sure how this is going to unfold over the course of the next few weeks and months (and year?!). Blog entries could be a semi-coherent paragraph about some long-ago personal reference, or it might be something in the larger context of alternative music and the zeitgeist, but I’ll do my best to hopefully make this little nostalgia trip entertaining.

And, at the end of this little writing experiment, hopefully you’ll be rewarded with the blueprint to a killer mix playlist.