Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.
This was originally posted as part of a longer piece covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.
In the ’80s, a writer named Mike Tiefenbacher was working on some funny animal comics for DC. Tiefenbacher was using a pair of supporting characters he’d named Sacco and Vanzetti, but his editor objected, pointing out that kids wouldn’t get any reference to Sacco and Vanzetti, the anarchists convicted and executed (perhaps wrongly) in the 1920s. Tiefenbacheer agreed that, of course the kids wouldn’t get the reference, but that the names were inherently distinctive and funny in context, and that the kids would respond to that. (The editor won the argument. Editors always win arguments.)
But Tiefenbacher was right. Kids do respond to what seems funny, to what strikes them as delightfully silly, regardless of whether or not they understand the motivation, the relevance, or the back story. They just think it’s funny; they just know it makes them laugh.
I was seven years old when DC published Inferior Five # 1 in 1967. It was loaded with references I didn’t get, including direct parodies of the TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a show I knew about but didn’t really know. None of that mattered. Inferior Five was silly, busy, energetic, frantic fun. It was funny. It made me laugh; I understood that fact just fine.
The Inferior Five’s name was a take-off of Marvel‘s Fantastic Four, but that was where the similarities ended. The I5 was created by writer E. Nelson Bridwell, a DC staffer who’d been basically the first comic book fan to break into the comic book industry in the ’60s. The team had made three previous appearances in DC’s try-out book Showcase before debuting in its own title. I didn’t see any of the Showcase appearances until years later, but those issues revealed the back story that the earnest but inept members of The Inferior Five were all legacy heroes, the sons and daughter of various members of a Justice League doppelganger called The Freedom Brigade: the 97-pound (and still losing weight) weakling Merryman, the powerful but clumsy Awkwardman, the cowardly archer White Feather, the corpulent, slow-flying Blimp, and the beautiful, super-strong but dim-witted Dumb Bunny.
When I first met this intrepid quintet in Inferior Five # 1, the I5 was summoned by good guy spy outfit C.O.U.S.I.N. F.R.E.D. (Competent Organization Utilizing Scientific Investigation for National Fiend, Ruffian and Evildoer Defense)–it was the ’60s, and super-secret acronyms were everywhere–to thwart the evil machinations of H.U.R.R.I.C.A.N.E. (Heinous, Unscrupulous Rats and Rogues Initiating Criminal Anarchy and Nefarious Evil). By page 10, The Inferior Five (along with Merryman’s grandfather, the elderly Green Hornet counterpart Yellowjacket) were being debriefed by characters lampooning The Man From U.N.C.L.E.‘s Mr. Waverly, Napolean Solo, and Illya Kuryakin (Mr. Ivanhoe, Caesar Single, and Kwitcha Belliakin).
Did I understand all of this when I was seven years old? No. Did I find it amusing? Oh God, yes! Action! Chills! Spills! Thrills! Plus, I learned what the word “indolent” meant! My favorite line in the whole damned thing was when the evil “Tabby” Katz, seeking to avoid a beat-down from Dumb Bunny, held up an artificial plastic baby and implored, “You wouldn’t hit a woman with a baby, would you?” “No,” Dumb Bunny replied, “I’d hit her with a grown man!” And. She. DID!
I next caught up with the inept avengers in Inferior Five # 3 (guest-starring a Tarzan clone called Darwin of the Apes), and again from Inferior Five # 7 through its tenth and final issue in 1968. I absorbed the I5’s encounters with seemingly familiar characters like Cobweb Kid, Allergy Queen, The Kookie Quartet, Sub-Moron, and Iron Pants, plus Superman, Groucho Marx, and Norton from The Honeymooners. In the ’70s, I went back and completed my Inferior Five collection. And, with or without pastiches of other characters, I loved the individual heroes of The Inferior Five.
Um…especially Dumb Bunny. Even at the age of seven, a couple of years before sneaking my first look at Playboy, I understood the appeal of a beautiful woman wearing rabbit ears on her head and a cotton tail on her curvy derriere. See, kids understand more than ya might think.
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An infinite number of songs can each be THEgreatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is
THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!JOHNNY NASH: I Can See Clearly Now
Written by Johnny Nash
Produced by Johnny Nash
Single, Epic Records, 1972
The 1970s began with such promise. Not for everyone, sure, but I was in fourth grade when the calendar’s page turned to its first glimpse of 1970. I was nine, soon to be ten years old, and I had already spent a short lifetime as a misfit. I was the weird kid who sang to himself and others, who drew cartoons, who read too much, who didn’t play sports, and didn’t fit in.
And then, suddenly, I did fit in. Fourth grade. Somehow, I belonged. That had never happened before. In with the in crowd!
I even started digging baseball (a lot), and some of my friends shared my interest in superheroes. I was–could it be?!–popular. The euphoria was fleeting, and over before I even had a chance to realize it had happened.
Because of my reading skills, September 1970 found me in sixth grade at a new school, bypassing fifth grade with my peers back at the old elementary school. From fourth grade directly to sixth grade? Unnatural. That’s how I felt. That’s what I was. Unnatural. There would be no further quaint notion of ever again fitting in.
I still had my dreams. I still had my comic books. And I for damned sure still had my radio.
In eighth grade, I came as close as I ever would to rejoining the mainstream. Sixth grade was awful. Seventh grade was worse. But eighth grade…! Eighth grade was an opportunity. I could see it so clearly.
In the early to mid ’70s, I had no idea what reggae music was. None. I think I first encountered the word “reggae” in high school, either when John Lennon mentioned it to Tom Snyder on the Tomorrow TV show, or when a classmate and I were trying to figure out what the hell Stevie Wonder was singing about in “Boogie On, Reggae Woman.” I recall wondering if reggae might be the same as raga, which I’d seen referenced in (believe it or not) a Teen Titans comic book. It was not, but what did I know?
My rudimentary understanding of reggae didn’t begin at all until college (Peter Tosh singing with noted reggae star Mick Jagger on Saturday Night Live, and name-checks of Toots and the Maytals in Playboy), and post-college on adventurous Buffalo radio stations that played Dillinger, Yellowman, and Steel Pulse. I have no recollection of when or where I first heard Bob Marley and the Wailers, at least not directly. I knew Eric Clapton‘s cover of Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff,” and before that, I knew a cover of Marley’s “Stir It Up,” the latter courtesy of a singer named Johnny Nash.
Johnny Nash, of course, was already familiar to me because of his previous hit, “I Can See Clearly Now.” “I Can See Clearly Now” entered Billboard‘s Hot 100 in September of 1972, the same month I entered eighth grade. I would much, much later come to understand that the chunky and irresistible rhythm of “I Can See Clearly Now” was derived from reggae, albeit a very pop-friendly, mainstream American derivation of reggae. Not knowing any better–not knowing
anything, really–I was fascinated, captured by its inviting sound, its comforting sway. I think I can make it now, the pain is gone. Maybe eighth grade could be okay, too.
Johnny Nash was not exactly a rookie singer in ’72. Nash had been making records since the ’50s, mostly with limited success. But he did have a smash hit with “Hold Me Tight” in 1968. “I Can See Clearly Now” was my introduction to his work.
I’ve often described the period of 1976 to 1977 as my musical crucible, a time when my discoveries of punk rock and FM radio and my increasing awareness of oldies forged the durable nature of my expanded rockin’ pop tastes. 1972 to ’73 was just as important. With my radio by my side, I thought maybe–maybe–I could make it now. Just like the song said.
I started trying to write. I kept on trying to draw, and spent a lot of time in art class working on a superhero comic strip I called Jack Mystery. I started a comic book club at school. I had some friends; I still felt picked on, bullied, but there were moments of light. I even talked to girls. Sometimes.
(I also got my ass kicked because I had a smart mouth, and I often refused to back down from a fight, even though I had no chance of winning it. It took me decades to understand how much I contributed to my own malaise. I guess I couldn’t see as clearly as I thought I could.)
The radio was my truest friend. The radio played pop music both old and new, The Beatles and The Raspberries, Chuck Berry and Slade, Stealers Wheel, The O’Jays, The Hollies, The Kinks, Elton John, The Temptations, Sweet.
Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” seemed the song most emblematic of my hopes, my cautious optimism, my musical equivalent of an eye on the prize. The prize was elusive; I could indeed see all obstacles in my way, and all of the bad feelings didn’t disappear, in spite of the song’s promise. But I still believed in its blue skies. A bright sunshiny day? Why the hell not? Begone, dark clouds; I’m looking straight ahead.
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Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1)will contain 165 essays about 165 tracks, each one of ’em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).
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Born on this day in 1887, in Surrey, England, actor Boris Karloff. Karloff is known for his classic turns in Universal Studios’ monster films, include The Mummy and Frankenstein. He also supplied the voice of The Grinch, in the 1966 animated special, How The Grinch Stole Christmas.