21 August, 2011

A Night at the Osprey

The Osprey was a minor character in a minor issue of Fantastic Four by the Lee and Kirby imitators at Marvel in the early 70's. The FF's arch-enemies had long since banded together as the Frightful Four. In this issue, they had taken over the FF's headquarters and was holding the foursome prisoner despite (or because of?) the villains numbering only three. To protect their branding, the Wizard, the Sandman and the Trapster advertised in the Daily Bugle for a fourth member.

Most of them were cameos to set up for future issues (the Impossible Man) or for reasons of continuity. [I still remember the Texas Twister departing with an editorial note where he would next appear]. Then there was the Osprey.

He had a costume with wings on it, but he couldn't fly, not really. Not at all actually. In fact, if one of the FF (the bad ones) could do something about that, he'd really appreciate it. The Wizard slapped an anti-gravity disc on him and the last we saw of the Osprey, he was sailing out into the wild blue yonder screaming 'heeeeeeeellllpppppp!' Even Wikipedia doesn't have a page on him. They've got one on the Texas Twister!

But the Osprey had his two or three minutes on stage. He gave it a shot.

Last night my Dad and I went to see the Grand Ole Opry. Neither of us are country music fans - I'm certainly not anyway - but he had come to visit and we needed a tourist trap in Nashville. He got tickets for a night nobody I'd heard of was playing (although Vince Gill turned out to be the final host for the night, so I must have missed his name earlier).

I have to say there was something intrinsically Southern about the experience. It seemed like a normal public gathering in a high school auditorium in seats that resembled church pews. Most ages were represented, although I didn't see too many kids who wouldn't have preferred a baby-sitter and video games. Just little ones, and a few on stage.

Notable Virginians aside, the South did not produce the people who founded our nation, they were the people who first moved on, and applied to their new land what the founding Americans had created. Tennessee was one of the first new states to join the US and Nashville as a long history (I assume).

The Opry says it made country music popular, and there's probably a good case for that. They certainly gave it a national forum in 1925 when the weekly radio broadcast went national. Sponsors changed, locations changed, they added a television broadcast. One week Elvis Presley stood at the back of the room along with all the other hopefuls for his chance. They told him he had no future in country music and the following Monday he was back at work as a truck driver.

This was when the modern nationwide media truly came into its own. An illiterate southern redneck like Hank Wiliams could sell records across the country instead of the regional markets as he'd been doing. With the glitter of an Opry appearance, he and other touring musicians could bill themselves as Opry musicians and promote themselves as such. However the Opry had to protect its brand name and charged fees for its use. The musicians were also cut into for touring, simply because they couldn't afford to get too far from Nashville and miss a scheduled appearance. The records could travel, the NBC weekly show could travel, but those who stood in the circle couldn't get too far if they wanted to come back.

Again, this is why the experience seemed so intrisically Southern. The opening act was the most... I don't even know how to describe her. I have no idea how one gets the job of warming up the crowd, much less how the Opry makes the selection. Her act was very calculated to look utterly simple and foolish. Heavy drawling, regular references to likin' the fellers, a sales tag hanging from her hat, an appearance and delivery that was so plain, just so... Almost literally a form of entertainment that could not exist above the Mason-Dixon line (wherever that is), this was delighfully off-putting, like something you know you should turn your nose up at in disdain, but there's something so charming about it.

Some of the performances were quite nice. Standing in the wings, you could see where all the other people on the show that night were milling about. A few other people were present, people who were probably the producer, the director, the sponsor, a girl moving sheet music around. The house singers stayed behind baffles except for their featured spot of the night. The house band was swapped out once for one woman's set. One of the better performers was making his debut appearance and promoting his new single available at Old Country Stores, another regional market that people who aren't from the South would scratch their heads about, but Southerners probably know as a regular part of life. [Or at least it seems that way, who knows how *those people* actually live?]

A group of kids were another act, their main attraction being the smallest and cutest one on the banjo. Quite impressive for what they were, a group of brothers who are doing now what their peers will do in high school, form a band that sounds pretty good. But it's where popular entertainment meets grade school talent show, predating "American Idol" by several generations.

And it still works, those kids will always know they got to stand on that stage with Little Jimmy Dickens, 90 years old with jokes even older. "I take my wife everywhere. She keeps finding her way back" was funny because it was so lame. "I ask my wife if she's cheating on me, she says who else is she going to cheat on" was funnier. His performance included a song from his latest album, released thirty years ago.

The sexy young girls who were really dressed up might have been there for Vince Gill, or because they were going clubbing afterwards and the rest was entirely family-friendly. Just enough off-color innuendo to give the adults a different set of laughs from the kids and enough diversity of entertainment that everybody could find something. The band played professionally, the banjo players did some good pickin', there were a few religious songs, a few love songs. There were regular exhortations of how wonderful the Opry is and interruptions by Hosanna, the Life Insurance company sponsoring this segment, who wanted us to know their name and that they were sponsoring this segment. The other sponsors did the same, whoever they were.

There was a reminder of tradition. The segment's host began moving to commercial at one point, but it had slipped his mind and he had to be reminded that it was Saturday night, which meant it was time for the square-dancers segment. He didn't usually work Saturdays, but the dancers sure did. If you want to know what square-dancing looks like when performed by highly-trained athletes, look no further. Wow. And girls in amazing purple outfits too!

Earlier in the day we had gone to downtown Nashville for the Country Music Hall of Fame. That was fun, although it did help illustrate why museums aren't a good place for music. There's nothing to show. The plaques are nice, with modifications when the honoree becomes posthumous. RCA is heavily represented, Studio B is one of the main exhibits (earning its own tour which we did not go on) and you can at least see the patch of ground where so many people passed over the years to do their turn before the microphone. They had to stay within the circle for maximum audio quality.

Hank Williams Jr. is undoubtedly one of the prime movers of the CMHoF, having found a repository for his father's written legacy as well as his own. And Hank III if the kid straightens up. Hank Sr. was banned from the Opry for drunkenness and a few months later, showed up dead to a concert in West Virginia after a snowstorm in Nashville delayed him. He didn't record at Studio B because it hadn't been built yet, but luckily made a couple of recordings in the period where he could no longer bill himself as an Opry performer. That's probably why he was looking for a few thousand dollar payday in West Virginia, he was getting divorced at the time.

Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill and Taylor Swift are all prominent. It's a good investment from the part of their record companies. Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, the Judds all made good career moves by endorsing the institutions. Amy Grant had hits on the Christian chart and one bonafide pop hit "Baby Baby" in my teenage years. Her song was enjoyable like any other on MTV then, and I still have the issue of "Dr. Strange" that her management threatened Marvel Comics over, because cover artist Jackson Guice copied her image and they didn't want her to be associated with satanism.

[Don't you love the way all this stuff works back into comic books sooner or later?]

Anyway, Amy Grant, past her hit-making years but presumably still a talented singer has an album of Christmas duets with her husband whatsisname coming out. The crossover market works.

THAT'S Southern too. It's something the rest of America doesn't have, the historical memory of foreign soldiers coming in, shooting a few hundred thousand of your people and burning down your homes. Blah blah blah, American Indians, it took the Union four years to tear down the South, for American to kill American.

Lemme tellya, those hills in Nashville are tough. The hills where I live are tough. There's some hardy breeds able to thrive there where us flatlanders are wary.

The South is more than Nashville of course. There's Old Virginia, there's the colonial melting pots of Louisiana and Florida. Texas is eternally Texas (the dumb bastards). Beyond the vastness of Texas, it spreads out into the Southwest which is another region of the country. Above Texas it fades into the farmlands of the midwest and arcs towards St. Louis, bounded by rivers until it reaches our nations' historical spine, the Appalachins. Then the South meets the North in DC, and the ocean becomes the borderline.

There's hillbillies and moonshine, there's church songs and rummage sales, they all have that weird accent, but their money's usually good which is better than some folks I could mention. Except when the people down here congregate in such large numbers, it's done like this, just the same as anybody else.

[As a writer, the potential for story material is amazing, whether it's a sexy Vince Gill groupie or a blue-collar lament to God or motherhood. Or a secret agent on a deadly mission moving through the crowd, there's just so many stories that could be told and I genuinely don't see that reflected in other public crowds, fairs, concerts, bar bands, clubs, etc. Political rallies and churches have their reason for existing and could easily be folded into the mix.

Here's Johnny Cash singing the one song of the night I'd ever heard before, "Lonesome Me".

"My wife looks in the mirror and says she's old and fat and ugly and even the slightest compliment would cheer her up right now, so I say her eyesight is perfect."

17 August, 2011

Meanwhile, in another part of town...

The Republican primaries are becoming a popular ticket, with a Texas newcomer following Obama's bus tour. This one may burn out like previous new favorites.

It's coming down to Betty and Veronica. Bachman is on the 'inside', going along with the system and wowing everybody, Palin is the 'outside' but with a key constituency. Between the two of them, they'll pick an Archie and I would hope that all the candidates are collaborating in making sure any of the others can use their assets.

The veep slot is another unknown card. In theory, male Republican primary winner could pick one or the other for veep and guarantee enough votes period. However, if two males make it across the finish line (as it were) they might risk the 'chick vote'. If they're collaborating, I'd assume it includes the agreement to time everything in accordance with the plans, whatever those are. Everybody involved will be expected to endorse the eventual ticket against Obama.

The biggest upset would be Palin declaring herself a write-in candidate at the last moment, which would probably give him four more years. If matters get to that point, than no one can foresee conditions on the ground right now, so just go with everybody endorsing the plan. "If we don't hang together..." as someone once said.

Bachman or Donald Trump or Matt Damon or somebody could probably declare a last-minute write-in candidacy with enough votes to matter somewhere. Unless he completely chokes doing the "I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message" recordings, there won't be any challenge for the Democratic candidacy.

I still think Biden might be switched out. My guess is John Kerry will take over, giving his junior Senator colleague a little help in the executive wing. Or some really surprising candidate like Joe Lieberman. Hillary has been mentioned but probably more out of reflex than anything.

Obama has the black vote. How much of it remains to be seen, and I don't have any evidence one way or the other. [Then again, aren't votes confidential? How do they know in the first place?] The 'let's vote for a chick' vote might outweigh that. Or not.

I'm slowly getting the book into production. I have started editing what I would like to do as a follow-up, another book of roughly equal size. Another single, basically.

This book will have "Life and Polonia", the book I wrote last fall in a seven week period, and in a music industry analogy, the flip side will be an edited version of all the other material I wrote in same period of time. One's the A-side and one's the B-side.

So, carrying that idea to the follow-up single, I've printed out all of my essays about pop culture. Comics, movies, tv shows, music, cartoons, etc. I'm even going to go through my Facebook posts and include every Star Wars joke I've ever made, just because.

The flip side will be a series of short stories I wrote at the end of Basic Training through the next few months, as well as a couple more stories featuring the same characters. The main characters are a rock band and the stories take place at various points in their history. They work as a 'side' to this single.

A third book is in the planning stages. That is, I have a print-out of most of the material and it's ready for editing to make a second draft. This would focus on history, the war, poliics, religion. I haven't decided what the flip side to that book would be, but considering I have a ton of pre-enlistment material and several hundred pages of Facebook one-liners (minus the Star Wars jokes) to choose from, I don't think it will be a problem.

I could see a fourth book, compiling the best of what's left into various word pictures from a journal. I already have a few months of backlog that could be edited for a flip side there, and that's assuming I don't complete another lengthy work of prose any time soon.

I have ideas for another work of fiction. I'd like to do a "Back to the Future" rip-off, where the time travel becomes really complicated as its main gimmick, but it works. Basically taking the cool parts of the trilogy (minus the McFly family) and jam them into one plot-intensive book, roughly as long as "Life and Polonia". If it works, I could see a trilogy (of, well, trilogies).

The "Seth DeSignor" strips are still a source of joy, as are some of the other comics I've made with Microsoft Paint. I could do more with those. It'll end whenever Seth DiSignor himself shows up and a funny in-joke will be complete. I have a few other comic ideas, and have even surprised myself by cranking out a few short short superhero stories on a notepad.

In another part of my brain, the urge to record another album of music is growing. I'd need to replace my recording gear and instruments, but maybe I can find some dumbed-down way of using digital technology. Frank Zappa bought the synclavier and it sat around for a couple years because he had no idea how to make it work. He hired someone to read all the manuals and give Frank basic answers. "How do I make this note?" "You push these buttons." "How do I change them in such-and-such a way?" You push those buttons." That's why most of Zappa's compositions in his final years were on synclavier.

If I have to go back to a cheap 8-track recorder from Amazon, I will, but isn't there a better option?

But as you can see, I have quite a few creative irons in the fire, and too few hours in the day as it is. That's not counting my job, sleeping or anything else. And I'm only a few pages into the second draft of the second book, still beginning the printing process for the first. And I'm lazy.

06 August, 2011

What if Obama ran for...

Vice-President? If Joe Biden (or Hillary Clinton, or Al Gore) is the Democrats preference for the top slot, could that be done? If Obama sits out the next four or eight years, he can watch someone else do the job and try again. How about Ralph Nader or Joe Lieberman? Both of them were credible candidates for the top two slots once upon a time. Nader would provide a long track record of unabashed liberalism to finally prove to the American people that progressive policies work when the right people do them, people unattached to corporate influences or profit-motives of any kind. Lieberman still votes with Democrats on pretty much everything and he was more qualified for Vice-President than Sarah Palin (not that that’s any major accomplishment, right? She’s an ignorant twat.) He also showed up at the Republican Party convention and said ‘don’t vote for my party, vote for the other party’s candidate’ so it’s unqualified bi-partisanship from a long-time committed Democrat.

I’ve never heard of Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi mentioned or President ever, but if you’re looking for senior level Democrats who could sensibly take the top slot, win an election *and* let Obama learn in office for four years, they’d be on anybody’s top ten list. Hillary’s a long shot, just because she looks like she’s ready to claw her eyeballs out if that will release her from the insane hell she’s caged in. I can’t stand the woman and will applaud the way she’s performed under unbelievable pressures for these three years. You can’t govern as Secretary of State, and it’s the closest thing Obama has to a positive role model right now. If she’s up for another go around, she and Bill have earned the chance to try again.

Al Gore seems much happier as a private citizen so I doubt he’s interested. John Kerry’s still fairly young. He spent 30 years as the Junior Senator from Massachusetts, he might have earned another. This way Obama hasn’t wasted the only time he’ll ever get to be President again and prevented the Democrats from winning a popular majority in ’12.

It would keep Obama’s mojo alive and spare the Party from an embarrassing Nader-esque candidacy. Because at this point, as far as the voters are concerned, why not have Matt Damon run for office? He could call himself a Democrat or run as a third-party candidate, either way he’d probably pick up at least 5% of the vote on general principles, By picking Obama for the bottom slot, Democrats would keep his voting base, and conspicuously reprimand someone for failing to meet basic standards that yes, even Republicans consistently meet. GWB kept an AAA rating and the Senate got bills passed under his tenure. These are good things and Democrats only set themselves up for failure by denying it, who’s going to be the first to say it?

The sooner Democrats realize this, the sooner they can salvage something from Obama’s four years in office and go into November ’12 with a candidate people will want to vote for without having to run against Obama specifically. The alternative is surrendering the Oval Office to Republicans who will have a much more pliant Congress in regardless of how the public votes.

I’d be worried about a third-party candidate, a serious Ross Perot-level wacky person with his own money to throw around. [Jack Nicholson instead of Matt Damon, for instance. Or Rob Reiner. Or Carl Reiner. Now I’m just being funny.]

So, in the interest of Democratic Party victory, what odds would there be in moving Obama to the back because of merit? The Presidency is not a learn-on-the-job sort of thing. Ok, now he’s going to take some time to grow, as a person, and the powder is still dry. In a bloody re-election campaign, someone might snap from the pressure and release his college grades. If he doesn’t run as Veep or get installed as a czar by the next Democratic President, he takes a step down, maybe runs for Senator of Illinois again. Does a reality show with MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, I dunno.

Or maybe the President goes into private business. He builds a big temple to himself, signs contracts committing to a four-year demonstration of ability, and then sells whatever he’s got to sell. A model private citizen, someone who fervently believes in the government’s right to do as he demonstrated in office will now show how the government does it right.

He says he doesn’t need the income he makes from his books, now he can look at Sasha and Mahlia every day and determine how much they are not entitled to from the government. They’ll need new clothes. They’ll still need food. Obama’s half-brother lives on, what, one American dollar a day? Fidel Castro found a use for his brother, the most powerful man on Earth hasn’t given this guy a job yet? Ok, let him create a job, his own (President of the Company) and his half-brother’s (selling what the former President of the United States produces for the world’s benefit). He will abide by all government restrictions no matter how unfair and he will pay any taxes no matter how socially-unjust they are towards the rich. He will support his fine upstanding wife and raise their daughters to be proud Americans and four or eight years later, he will try again to be President.

In this next election, the Republicans will be unstoppable. The US just lost its AAA++ grade from mucky-mucks in the measuring economics department. As the superpower, our economics grades start at the highest level and number two is measured from there. China and India and Japan and Russia and others are measured according to the standards America sets. All the teachers can look at Obama and tell him how brilliant he is for another four years, maybe that’ll be enough votes to win, but it’ll just give everyone else four years without having to be distracted by events or decisions that turn out completely wrong. Even David Lee Roth gets off-stage once in a while. Surely the President would like to take a long nap.

A victory here for Obama might mean this decade in history is remembered like Ulysses S. Grant was in charge. Great general, drank a lot. Lousy President. Oversaw the end of Reconstruction. Stick with the pre-Presidential track record. ‘As God is my witness, the South shall vote Democratic again!’ as it were.

Life is getting in the way, but inshallah I am tidying up the final ends on having an actual book as soon as my check clears. I do have a timeline and hope the resulting books are sturdy enough to travel. A notion to splurge on myself and see Sammy Hagar play in a far-off city got dashed quickly and easily. Now I'm casting about for another creative project although I haven't yet finished this one.

Music is tempting again. I have a job where I can sing again and I can relate to that kind of 'performance'. I'm actually a bit nostalgic for when I sat down and recorded stuff and some of my vocal takes impress me more than I remembered. Even some of the stuff that flat-out sucks has a fun quirkiness to it, but some of it doesn't suck. I mean, I can't play an instrument to save my life, there's an attitude that compensates. As performance art there's some pretty good snapshots there.

The problem with performance art is that there's no record for virtually any of it. It also leaves no time to practice. I made music for years and showed hardly an improvement as a technical player. Dancing, acting, magic tricks, stand-up comedy, live theater, these are all fields that are primarily performance art, where it's all about what happens in the moment. Singing is generally in that area, but with recorded music in the last century, it becomes more of a production matter. You can make Paul McCartney sing "Let It Be" 100 times in a row at any decibel level by programming the CD player, just like you can watch Mark Hamill blow up the Death Star on a big-screen tv. Books are ideas translated into words and about as far from performance art as you can get.

Tired now. Need sleep. Here's Weird Al's not-quite-Steinman but otherwise a great song. Send it to everyone you know.