Born on this day in 1897, in Brooklyn, New York, comedian, Moses Harry Horwitz. Better known as Moe Howard, who, with his brothers Shemp Howard, Curly Howard and Larry Fine, were The Three Stooges. They would become Columbia Pictures‘ most successful performers, starring in some 200+ shorts.
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.
Phonograph Record Magazine figures into my first exposure to British punks The Damned, but a larger role in that introduction was ultimately played by a green-eyed girl named Mary Ellen. We’ll get to her in just a sec, but we’ll start with PRM. Phonograph Record Magazine‘s coverage of this exotic, scary, mysteriously intoxicating music called punk captivated me as a senior in high school, 1976-77. I didn’t know what any of it sounded like, but I was aching to find out.
I was intrigued by so many of these bands that PRM name-checked so casually in its tabloid pages. The Ramones! Blondie! The Sex Pistols! Eddie and the Hot Rods! Chris Spedding and the Vibrators! It was a long, long list of acts I’d never heard of before, from The New York Dolls, The Dictators, and Milk ‘n Cookies through Cheap Trick, Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and Yesterday and Today (later shortened to Y & T). I was desperate to learn more.
Even if you’re my age or older, it may be difficult to remember just how different the world was just four decades ago. Today, if you encounter a reference to some new musical act, the great ‘n’ powerful internet can put that act’s complete c.v. at your disposal instantly. YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and a bunch of other cloud-borne resources that would have been the stuff of science fiction during the Bicentennial are now humdrum, banal fixtures of everyday living. Hell, a YouTube video was likely your introduction to this new act in the first place. The thrill of the hunt has long since been replaced by the smug, jaded smirk of entitlement.
Heh. I’m a curmudgeon at 58.
With that all said, I have to admit I enjoy the convenience of easily-accessible information. But there was something intangibly thrilling about the sheer mystique and wonder conjured in a young man’s mind by the hype and glory of fevered ramblin’ in the pages of mid-’70s rock rags like PRM. You couldn’t hear the music; you could only imagine how amazing it must sound.
The Damned were among the many loud and angry punks mentioned in the pages of Phonograph Record Magazine. I don’t recall the group necessarily getting a lot of ink in the few PRMs I was fortunate enough to grab, but I do remember Flo & Eddie discussing (and dismissing) one of The Damned’s singles–either “New Rose” or “Neat Neat Neat”–in their Blind Date column. Flo & Eddie were not impressed with British punk on first exposure.
In the fall of ’76, I met Mary Ellen at the ESSPA (Empire State School Press Association) Convention in Syracuse. I was there with a cadre of my fellow North Syracuse High School literary insurgents–Dan Bacich, Tim Schueler, and Sue Caldwell–representing our school literary magazine, The NorthCaster. At the banquet and awards ceremony, we shared a table with a group representing a magazine from a Rochester area high school, and Mary Ellen was part of that group. I think their magazine was called Brown Bag, and I’m pretty sure they won top honors at ESSPA that year.
Our two groups hit it off pretty well, and it turned out that Mary Ellen was a big rock ‘n’ roll fan. She was especially fond of The Who; I’d remembered reading ads for some Who bootlegs (probably in The Buyer’s Guide For Comics Fandom). I said I’d send her the information, and we exchanged addresses.
She wound up writing to me first, saying she was listening to Montrose and slipping into the terra incognita, a favorite phrase of hers. Starry-eyed teen that I was–I was kinda like Davy Joneson any random episode of The Monkees, except usually without reciprocation–I immediately began to imagine True Love. I was–what’s the word?–an idiot. On a January bus ride from Cleveland to Syracuse, traveling back home solo after visiting my sister, I daydreamed about Mary Ellen, about singing Beatles songs together and maybe exchanging a playful kiss.
But this was all just fancy on my part. I wrote her a long, presumably witty letter, devoid of any attempt at romantic content–I wasn’t quite that much of an idiot–and she responded with delight. Further correspondence revealed that we would be switching neighborhoods in the fall; I would be starting college in Brockport, a mere 19 miles from Rochester, while she would be attending Syracuse University. She sent me her phone number at SU.
One fall evening in Brockport, I called Mary Ellen, and we spoke on the phone for about an hour. It was a breezy, banter-filled conversation. I remember mentioning The Raspberries (whom she didn’t know all that well) and The Bay City Rollers (which horrified her, since she saw them as not far removed from the dreaded “D-I-S-C-O!”). We had both discovered punk. I don’t know how The Damned came up in the conversation, but she asked me if I’d heard them yet; I hadn’t, so she cranked up the stereo in her dorm room and played The Damned’s LP track “Stab Yor Back” for me. So that was my true, lo-fi introduction to the music of The Damned.
We mentioned earlier how much easier it is nowadays to find out about something or anything. You wanna know what else has changed since 1977? The cost of long-distance phone calls. My 60-minute call to Mary Ellen cost a whompin’, stompin’ fifty dollars, which is an awful lot of money to spend for a few seconds of The Damned. My parents weren’t real happy about paying that bill for me, so that was my Christmas present that year; they threw in a copy of the Alive II album by KISS, because they were really great parents.
But that phone call (and, I think, one subsequent shorter one) were my last positive communications with Mary Ellen. I tried to get in touch with her the next time we were both in Syracuse, but she’d figured out by now that I mighta possibly had hearts in my eyes, and she didn’t need that at all. And honestly, I can’t blame her. In any case, I was soon involved with Sharon, a girl I met in Brockport, and then also with Theresa (another girl I met in Brockport), and significant complications loomed on my immediate horizon.
It was more than a year until I would be in the same room as a Damned song playing on a damned stereo near me. In the Spring of ’78, a friend at school loaned me a compilation album called New Wave. New Wave included The Damned’s debut single “New Rose,” and I liked it a lot. It turned out that there would be a number of songs by The Damned that I like a lot, especially “Wait For The Blackout” on the group’s 1980 LP The Black Album. I’ll have to try listening to that over a $50 phone call some day.
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Released as a single in September of 1987, The Promise, by When In Rome. From their self-titled Lp, it would quickly become an international hit, charting in the US, Europe and Australia.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an artist almost as much as I wanted to be a writer. I kept writing, and I got better at it; I didn’t really stick with the art to the extent that would have been necessary, so those skills never improved.
I think that Hero, my 1976 attempt at dark ‘n’ gritty superhero storytelling, slightly predates Agent 690: Man Of Action!, the over-the-top action hero comedy detailed in this spot last time. Both were done for Mr. DeAngelo’s art class when I was 16, in my junior year at North Syracuse Central High School. They may have even been related assignments, like, “Do something serious, then do something funny.” Maybe not. That specific memory is not gonna repair itself, so we’re stuck with guessing. Whatever path its origin tripped over, let’s have a look at my oh-so-dramatic, tortured superhero called…um, Hero.
Looking back, I am reasonably certain that no one working at Marvel or DC was worried about competition from me. Actually, this would have been around the time DC rejected a Batman script I had submitted, a tone-deaf story called “Nightmare Resurrection.” “Nightmare Resurrection” was an inept attempt to slap together–the word “craft” would be inappropriate here–a tense and mature take on The Batman, and the attempt failed miserably. It was self-conscious, it was violent, and it–what’s the word?–sucked. I am not being too hard on myself in this assessment. Seriously, I’m a big fan of me. I’ve done a lot of work that’s pretty good, and I’m not shy about putting that stuff out there. But “Nightmare Resurrection” wasn’t good, and DC was right to reject it.
Hero was perhaps similarly misguided, but I think it kinda works as a one-off art project. I don’t think I ever had any intent or interest in expanding it into a complete story; it was meant to be a conceptual snapshot, a snippet of a tale already in progress, no beginning, no end. I like it in that limited context.
That said, Hero was obviously created by someone whose talent did not match his vision. That’s okay; I was 16, and trying things out is how you improve. The writing is stiff and pretentious, but I think it shows promise. The artwork is even stiffer, clunkier, but I view it now without shame. Well, other than the clumsy application of Wite-Out. That’s a little embarrassing.
And sure, the faults are glaring: no backgrounds, not even an attempt at creating a scene for the characters to frolic and fight within; the tacit admission that backgrounds and scenes were well beyond my ability to execute; no evidence of a working knowledge of anatomy; shaky use of panel structure, inhibiting the flow of visual storytelling; the sloppiness of a would-be artist lacking any discernible finesse. But the effort’s there, the experiments with lighting and shading, the attempt to vary perspective. It was all mine. I wish I’d thrown in some swipes to make it look better, but if I did this work in the classroom, I probably wouldn’t have gotten away with propping open a comic book so I could try to copy some Neal Adams figures, nor an anatomy book so I could try to get some plausible feel for how human beings should look in various poses and positions.
But again: it was mine.
I was not a particularly good art student. Mr. DeAngelo didn’t discourage me, but I clearly lacked the motivation, dedication, and work ethic to hone whatever skill I may have had. Although I’ve never stopped drawing, I realized in high school that art could never be my primary creative endeavor. I could write, and I could improve as a writer. That possibility was potentially within my reach. I could never be great as an artist.
The package I submitted to DC also included art samples by my friend Mike DeAngelo, Mr. DeAngelo’s son, who was a far more accomplished art student than I ever was. Alas, those few pages weren’t sufficient to catch an editor’s interest, and they were rejected right along with the mistake I called “Nightmare Resurrection.”
As noted in our previous chapter, Mike and I worked together on a few comic strips for the high school literary magazine The NorthCaster. I wrote, Mike drew. I think the depiction of The Shadow shown above was the only artwork I ever did for The NorthCaster. The Cafarelli-DeAngelo collaborations were all humor; I don’t think we ever tried to do any adventure or science-fiction for The NorthCaster. The closest we came was a one-page pirate story called “The Jolly Roger,” about a masked pirate who plundered other pirates, but it all built to a gag ending. It was also the impetus for Mike and I being kicked off the paper in ’75, when a dirty word made its clandestine way to the bottom of the published page. It was a stupid stunt, and I regretted it immediately. The editor wouldn’t even speak to me again after that, and I don’t blame her. Karmen, wherever you are, I am sorry. I was sorry then, and I still am. You were right to be pissed at me.
We were allowed to return to The NorthCaster the following year, chastened and humbled. We did a little more work together, but the new editor definitely preferred for me to concentrate on prose humor rather than comics. Mike graduated in ’76, and I did the same in ’77. We remained friends, though our paths eventually diverged, as paths tend to do. Those paths did merge a time or two in subsequent decades. That’s a story for another day. I have great fondness for the DeAngelo family, for Mr. and Mrs. DeAngelo, for Mike, for his sister Lissa (who became one of my closest friends after Mike graduated), and for their younger brother Mark, whom I barely knew, and who left this world at an ungodly young age. That’s a story I’m not qualified to tell. Its memory saddens me anyway. I caught up a bit with Lissa at Mr. DeAngelo’s wake in 2007, and Mike was one of the dedicated caregivers helping my Dad in hospice at the VA in 2012. Mike and I had a short conversation via Facebook just yesterday. The connection remains.
As years went by, as I wrote more and drew less, I continued to doodle, usually pictures of Batman. Go figure, and that still hasn’t changed. In the ’80s, I bought myself a sketch book. We’ll talk about that sketch book when He THOUGHT He Was An Artist! returns.
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Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 134 essays about 134 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).
Distant Dream (JAM Records 2021)
It is always a thrill when our favorite musicians stage a collaboration. Distant Dream is a such a project, which features the pairing of illustrious solo artist Jeremy Morris – and frontman of The Jeremy Band and member of The Lemon Clocks – and Ken Stringfellow, whose shining credits include The Posies, the reformed Big Star, REM and The Minus 5, as well as a solo career. Here on this excellent album, Jeremy takes care of vocals, guitars and songwriting duties, while Ken handles vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards and production chores.
By sharing the same work ethic and musical values, Jeremy and Ken boast an instant rapport. An affinity for sixties and seventies pop rock spurred the guys into parenting their own visionary creations that have been wowing consumers and critics since the late eighties. Although Jeremy and Ken travel in similar circles, Distant Dream marks the first time they have joined forces.
The title track of the album is a dazzling beauty, amplified by waves of atmospheric drafts, intertwined with potent keyboard and guitar arrangements. A gorgeous glow further costumes You’re Amazing, which contains an arresting blend of blinking piano chords, vibrant melodies and a feathery chorus.
Ignited by a static beat and twitchy hooks, Alone Together gradually gives way to a wash of electrifying guitar strokes. The clingy tune effectively communicates the boredom and loss encountered during the lockdown, where ringing rhythms mirrored by a harmonious folk pop tenor define Joy Comes In The Morning, which also references the virus crisis, but ensures the situation is only temporary and better days are ahead.
A needling groove and a scolding tone dictate This Story’s Ended that shoots dagger-dappled lyrics at an abusive, offensive and rude individual, and the duly branded Stay Positive steps in as a lively lick of encouragement. The sole non-original number on the album is an inspired cover of Big Star’s Thirteen, a brittle ballad greased with teen romance.
Free of fuss and focusing on tightly-laced songs tempered by power and precision, Distant Dream is every pop rock fan’s passport to paradise. Jeremy and Ken make a great team, so let’s keep our fingers crossed that they continue their partnership.