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The Monkees: Good Times! Review

In the novel Glimpses by Lewis Shiner, the protagonist develops the power of time travel, but a very specific sort of time travel:  he is able to travel back in rock ‘n’ roll history, and he tries to help artists like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and The Doors complete works that were left unfinished in the real-world timeline.  Our hero’s crowning achievement is shepherding Brian Wilson through the completion of The Beach Boys’ unrealized 1967 masterpiece Smile; returning back from ’67 to the novel’s present-day setting, the now-completed Smile is released, and is embraced by fans worldwide as an unexpected, enduring source of pure joy and happiness.

Don’t worry:  no one’s going to compare Good Times!, the new 50th anniversary reunion album by The Monkees, to the mythical 1967 Smile, nor even to Brian Wilson’s 21st-century version.  But the above scenario is pertinent to today’s discussion, for one simple reason:  just as Smile caused pop fans in the novel to rejoice, The Monkees’ new album likewise inspires a delighted grin, a smile that grows wider and wider upon repeated listening.   Good Times!  Never has an album been more aptly named.

It’s a gift we may not have really anticipated.

Many of us know this story by heart:  The Monkees were formed in the mid-’60s by neophyte TV producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who cast singin’ actors Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones alongside singin’ musicians Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork as the titular struggling rock ‘n’ roll combo in a new weekly television series; the series debuted September 12, 1966 on NBC.  Music mogul Don Kirshner was brought in to make Monkee music, bringing with him songwriters and session players, and directing the TV show’s four young stars to sing, Monkees, sing!  The records sold.  And sold.  And how!  A # 1 single, “Last Train To Clarksville.”  A # 1 album, The Monkees. Another # 1 single, “I’m A Believer.”  Another # 1 album, More Of The Monkees. Buoyed by success, but chafing under Kirshner’s control, The Monkees sought a more active role in their musical efforts, and were allowed to play on their recordings, and given a (somewhat) larger say in their fortunes.  More great and even greater records followed, but the TV show ran its course; after the dismal box office failure of The Monkees’ bitter, brilliant feature film Head, The Monkees’ pop success faded.  Tork left.  Nesmith left.  In 1970, Dolenz and Jones killed the lights on their way out, too.  The TV show’s two seasons were rerun again and again, across the course of generations.  There was a partial reunion (without Nesmith) in the late ’80s, and all four regrouped in 1996 for a new album, TV special, and a brief UK tour; both reunions ended in a flurry of bickering.  Dolenz, Jones, and Tork returned for an acclaimed 2011 tour that embraced The Monkees’ vast recorded legacy as never before.  Jones passed away in 2012.  To the surprise of…well, everyone, Nesmith rejoined Dolenz and Tork for a fantastic reunion tour in 2012-13.  Nesmith eventually withdrew from touring again, leaving Dolenz and Tork as The Last Monkees Standing (and Touring).

This was the state of Monkee affairs when word of a 50th anniversary reunion album leaked in February of 2016.  The questions came unbidden:  Would Nesmith participate?  Hell, would Tork?  Would it be a glorified Micky Dolenz solo album?  Would it be any damned good at all?  And how could these blasphemers presume to do this without the late Davy Jones?!

The answers arrived in a slow-cooked stew of guerilla hype and sly rumors let slip.  By the time of its release, we knew that Good Times! would be prepared under the auspices of Monkees superfan Andrew Sandoval and producer Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains Of Wayne and That Thing You Do! fame).  The album would be a mix of new recordings–including songs written by each of the surviving Monkees, as well as songwriting submissions from XTC’s Andy Partridge, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Hibbard, and the Britpop Modgasm pairing of Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller–with unfinished (and now finished!) ’60s stuff from the vaults.  Micky, Peter, and Michael were involved; Davy would be represented by a remixed 1967 recording, with new backing vocals from Micky and Peter.

This could have been a recipe for a big ol’ mess.  Instead, Good Times! has a good shot at being the best pop album of 2016.

Good Times! starts and ends with explicit exhortations of good times to be had and good times to be remembered.  The album opens with a title track written by the late Harry Nilsson; the track is actually Nilsson’s 1968 demo of the song, with Nilsson’s 1968 voice dueting with present-day Dolenz, a potentially scary prospect that avoids being ghoulish by just being so much freewheeling fun. You can feel Dolenz’s affection for his departed friend in every loose ‘n’ swingin’ hoot and holler.  The album closer, “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had A Good Time),” co-written by Dolenz and Schlesinger (based on Dolenz’s oft-told anecdote of being at a bacchanalia with The Beatles), likewise swaggers with satisfied pride in all the gusto grabbed along the way.  It’s not strictly essential, but it’s not a throwaway, either.  Perhaps that’s the nature of good times.

And in between those two tracks?  Oh Lordy–Good Times! is just magic.

Micky Dolenz–one of the most underrated pop singers of the rock ‘n’ roll era–is given three brand-new pop confections, all made with real sugar, and they’re irresistible.  Andy Partridge’s “You Bring The Summer,” Rivers Cuomo’s “She Makes Me Laugh,” and Adam Schlesinger’s “Our Own World” are light and sunshiney in all the right ways, as if More Of The Monkees had been made in 2016, and someone found a way to beam its tracks directly into the radio that plays inside your head.  “Radio-ready” is one of this blog’s favorite phrases, describing perfect pop music that is so pure as to be undeniable, the stuff you wish you were listening to right now on a car radio turned up way too loud. Man, pop tunes don’t come any more radio-ready than these.  Speaking of More Of The Monkees, Dolenz also gets to sing two songs that date back to that 1967 album:  the Jeff Barry/Joey Levine “Gotta Give It Time” is a sturdy garage-pop nugget, its backing track completed in 1967 by the Kirshner hit machine, now with newly-added vocals by Dolenz (and uncredited backing vocals by Nesmith); Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s “Whatever’s Right” was also submitted for The Monkees in ’67, but this is an all-new recording (with Hart himself joining in on vocals).  At 71, Dolenz can still bend a pop tune to his will like no other can, and all five of these tracks (plus the two “Good Times” celebrations) give him ample opportunity to do so.

Peter Tork was never The Monkees’ key singer, but he acquits himself quite well on his two tracks. The first is “Little Girl,” a song Tork originally wrote as a follow-up to “I Wanna Be Free,” a popular Davy Jones-sung ballad from The Monkees’ eponymous debut in 1966. While Jones never quite got around to recording a version of “Little Girl,” Tork’s all-new rendition is amiable and likable.  But Tork’s lead on the Carole King/Gerry Goffin “Wasn’t Born To Follow”–a track begun in the studio in 1968, with added vocal by Tork in 2016–is an understated triumph, one of the best performances that Tork has ever given on record.

Still, it’s Michael Nesmith who ultimately puts Good Times! over the top.  His own song “I Know What I Know” is disarming, quietly mesmerizing, uncluttered, and fascinating–yet it’s still somehow the least among the three tracks with Nesmith lead vocals.  Ben Gibbard’s “Me & Magdalena,” with harmony and counterpoint vocals from Dolenz, isfull of hope and/or heartbreak–one is never quite sure which–but the song just aches with love’s promise and life’s compromise; regardless of whether the song reflects the heart’s ongoing victory or an imminent, devastating loss, it is unforgettable.  The album’s tour de force is the Noel Gallagher/Paul Weller “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster,” where Nesmith’s co-lead vocals are again complemented by Mr. Mick.  This track certainly calls to mind Gallagher’s old band Oasis, but it sounds equally like THE Great Lost Monkees track.  It would have fit in well on 1968’s The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees album; it would have fit in well on the soundtrack of Head.   It’s a freakin’ psychedelic pop masterpiece, and it may be one of the all-time greatest tracks to ever bear The Monkees’ brand name.  Make no mistake:  if Good Times! had been completed without this track, it would still be a terrific album, maybe a great one; the inclusion of “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster” tosses that “maybe” away, and ensures that yes, Virginia (and Sandra, and Mary, and Valleri, and Fern), The Monkees have indeed made a great album in 2016.

The late Davy Jones is represented on Good Times! by Neil Diamond’s superb pop song “Love To Love,”  which was recorded in 1967 but unreleased until the ’80s.  Its inclusion here is curious; it’s certainly a wonderful track, one of Jones’ best, but it’s hardly a rarity.  Although this is its first appearance on a proper Monkees album, the track has been on compilations and repackages galore.  It is slightly remixed for Good Times!, with Davy’s original double-tracked lead vocal stripped to a single track, and with new Micky and Peter backing vocals on the chorus.  So yeah, an odd choice. Still, a great song’s a great song. “Love To Love” had a circuitous path to get here, but it’s a nice remix, and none should complain about it finally taking its rightful place on an actual Monkees album.

As a 50th anniversary celebration, Good Times! was specifically designed to include key figures from The Monkees’ history.  There are The Monkees themselves, of course (including Davy), plus songwriters Boyce & Hart, King & Goffin, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, and “I’m A Believer” producer Jeff Barry, the late “Fast” Eddie Hoh (drummer on much of The Monkees’ best album, 1967’s Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.), and even Don Kirshner is sorta represented by the 1967 studio musicians performing on “Love To Love” and “Gotta Give It Time.”  Notable MIAs would be songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (who wrote “Shades Of Gray” and “Love Is Only Sleeping”), and especially Chip Douglas, who produced both of The Monkees’ best ’60s albums, Headquarters and Pisces, and played on them as well. Douglas played an enormous role in The Monkees’ emancipation in ’67, and it would have been a kick to see him involved in here somehow.

Reunion albums are tricky, especially if it’s a reunion of a group you loved a long, long time ago.  There have been a handful of interesting reunion records by ’60s groups–The Animals’ 1977 album Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted comes to mind, as well as The Beau Brummels in ’75, and The Beach Boys’ more recent That’s Why God Made The Radio–but you’d be hard-pressed to find many reunion albums that could truly stand shoulder-to-shoulder among any group’s best-loved work. Hell, until now, you’d be hard-pressed to find one.  But Good Times! pulls it off–unexpectedly, miraculously, and convincingly–and can be considered right alongside the much-loved records The Monkees made in the ’60s.  Even its sequencing evokes the arc of The Monkees’ original recording career, from the prefab, peerless pop of the earliest tracks, skipping the self-contained hey-hey-we’re a-rock-band of Headquarters, but running full-force into a contemporary PiscesBirds & Bees, and Head, even subtly suggesting a post-1968 version of The Monkees if Tork had stayed in the fold.

With its mix of studio hotshots (particularly Schlesinger, guitarist Mike Viola, and drummer Brian Young on the new Dolenz-sung tracks) and bona fide contributions from The Monkees themselves, the album’s approach recalls the heyday of the Pisces record, mixed with a bit of the ol’ Golden-Eared Kirshner More Of The Monkees method on Dolenz’s sugarpop tracks.  “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster” then builds a bridge to the psychedelic heights of Head, and the whole damned thing should just make you gleefully, willfully giddy.  If this is The Monkees’ swan song, they’ll go out on top.  If they do more in the future…well, that would be welcome, welcome news.  Good times?  GREAT times.

Oh, and next stop?  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  What on God’s green earth is there still left for The Monkees to prove?  We’re believers, anyway.

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Boppin'

10 Songs

10 Songs is a weekly list of ten songs that happen to be on my mind at the moment. Given my intention to usually write these on Mondays, the lists are often dominated by songs played on the previous night’s edition of This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl. The idea was inspired by Don Valentine of the essential blog I Don’t Hear A Single.

The Beatles / No Reply

I wrote a piece some time back asking the rhetorical question “Is Beatles VI Really My All-Time Favorite Album?” And it is, especially if we could combine it as a two-in-one with its predecessor Beatles ’65, creating a compilation of two American record company cash-grabs. Beatles ’65 and Beatles VI were Capitol Records hatchet jobs, scarfing up tracks from the British Beatles For Sale along with scattered single sides, mods, rockers, and mockers. But they were glorious hatchet jobs, and they were how I (like most Americans at the time) came to know and cherish this material. Pretty much everything The Beatles released from 1964 through 1966 forms my collective touchstone of what pop music can be. That is not likely to change, ever. And I was introduced to all of it via Capitol’s Philistine patchworks.

From Beatles ’65, or from Beatles For Sale if you must, “No Reply” is staggering, just irresistible in its majesty and mastery of pop form. It’s one of my 25 favorite Beatles tracks, and its middle eight may be the single best bridge ever accomplished by anyone. Its main competition for that title is also by The Beatles: “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party,” from Beatles VI (or from Beatles For Sale, if you must). I will never tire of hearing this stuff. Even sitting here just thinking about this music, with the stereo off, makes me smile. I saw the light. I saw that light a long, long time ago. It shines for me still.

Culture Club / Church Of The Poison Mind

Culture Club may seem one of the odder entries in my concert-goin’ ticket-stub gallery, but my then-fiancee Brenda and I did indeed see Boy George and his cohorts in 1984 at the Aud in Buffalo. My most distinctive memory of the show is the young girls going batty over the members of the group, as one such female fan squealed with delight, Oh my God, she touched him…! I thought that sequence of events was amusing, but not in a condescending or (worse) hipper-than-thou way; I was in favor of pop mania, from The Beatles to, I dunno, Duran Duran, so I approved of such teen idolatry. 

Why were we there? Why not? We couldn’t afford to go to many concerts, but this must have come along at the right moment, we liked Culture Club’s radio hits, so yeah, why the hell not? Maybe I wouldn’t have gone for it just on the basis of “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” or “Time (Clock Of The Heart),” or even “Karma Chameleon.” “Church Of The Poison Mind” was a different story. 

“Church Of The Poison Mind” was one of my favorite songs on the radio in ’83. I’m not sure if I heard it first on the AM Top 40 station 14 Rock or on the engagingly eclectic WUWU-FM, but I found the song pleasingly reminiscent of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and I adored it. 

Dirty Looks / Let Go

Statement of intent. This Staten Island trio’s eponymous debut LP was released on the Stiff America label in 1980, and “Let Go” was an immediate fave rave on 97 Power Rock, a Sunday night alternative-rock showcase aired on Buffalo’s 97 Rock FM. Hmmm. A Sunday night rock ‘n’ roll radio show? I may have made note of that particular notion for possible future use. “Let Go” is a perfect post-punk radio pop song, fueled by new wave rock energy, rooted in catchy 1960s radio fare, and dead certain that The RamonesThe WhoJoe Jackson, and Paul Revere and the Raiders are Heaven-sent inspirations. It’s not easy to write a song about rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not. Too many attempts at rock anthems feel forced, or overly earnest, pompous, clueless, heavy-handed, and…blechh. With “Let Go,” Dirty Looks pull it off with style, and they make it seem like a cinch. Don’t you know that rock ‘n’ roll is still the best drug? The drumming is hyperactive, the bass pushy (in a good way), the guitar simple and authoritative, the vocals and harmonies steadfast, reflecting the confidence of a group secure in the knowledge that it has God on its side. All you gotta do, let go, let go, let GO! GO! GO! GO! Belief is infectious. And godDAMN, this sounds so exhilarating on the radio. It always has.

The Grip Weeds / For Pete’s Sake (Stay At Home)

The Grip Weeds are a great, great band. They’re a superb live band, they make fantastic records, they’re a bunch of nice folks, and we like ’em a lot. They’ve allowed us to use two of their tracks on TIRnRR compilation albums, and this is part of what I wrote about them when their “Strange Bird” appeared on This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, Volume 4:

...The chronology of my rapid and total indoctrination into the blissful Grip of Weedsmania blurs. I may have become more interested via the group’s connection with The Rooks, another of the great pop bands of the ’90s. Rooks guitarist Kristin Pinell was (and is) also in The Grip Weeds. Kristin’s husband Kurt Reil was (and is) the drummer and lead singer for The Grip Weeds, and he played with The Rooks, too. I don’t know whether or not guitarist Rick Reil also served any Rooks time, but either way: The Grip Weeds seemed like a band I oughtta know.

And getting to know The Grip Weeds was its own sweet reward…

…The Grips Weeds are a treasure. They kick ass live, too; Dana and I had a chance to see ’em in Rochester on the How I Won The War tour (with special guest Ray Paul), and The Grip Weeds deliver, man. If you’ve never heard them, we firmly recommend you gather everything they’ve ever released directly from the band, and beg their forgiveness for taking so long to get hip. But it’s okay. Music has no expiration date. I discovered Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly in the early ’70s, and that music was as fresh to me then (and now) as it woulda been if I’d been spinning 45s in the fabulous ’50s. We always say: right now is the best time ever to be a rockin’ pop fan, because you have everything that came before, everything in the moment, and everything yet to come. Turn it up. That’s what it’s there for.

And right now–in this generation, in this loving time–The Grip Weeds have a brand new cover of The Monkees‘ shoulda-been-a-hit “For Pete’s Sake,” the song that used to close second-season episodes of The Monkees’ television series. We used The Grip Weeds’ version to open this week’s radio show. With its title altered slightly to “For Pete’s Sake (Stay At Home!)” for our quarantined times, there’s a fab YouTube video of the song, and the track may or may not find its way into the next Grip Weeds album. This is something we all need.

Mandy Moore / I Could Break Your Heart Any Day Of The Week

I don’t remember who it was that hipped me to “I Could Break Your Heart Any Day Of The Week,” an absolutely ace 2009 single by Mandy Moore. I may have read about it on a blog, but wherever I discovered it, I loved it at once.

Prior to that single, I didn’t know all that much about Moore. Other than her capable covers of some XTC and Joan Armatrading material (from her 2003 all-covers album Coverage, which John Borack had recommended), I don’t remember hearing any of Moore’s earlier records. I must have heard her on Radio Disney when my daughter was young, but I have no recollection of that. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of her movies; I do remember seeing her brief guest tenure on the TV sitcom Scrubs. I’ve never seen This Is Us or A Walk To Remember. I know who Mandy Moore is, but my awareness of her work doesn’t even rise to the level of perfunctory.

But this song, man. This song…!

“I Could Break Your Heart Any Day Of The Week” was co-written by Moore with Mike Viola of The Candy Butchers (and the voice of The Wonders‘ “That Thing You Do!”). It’s from her album Amanda Leigh, and while I’ve owned the digital single for more than a decade, I’ve just picked up a copy of the CD. It’s time I learned more about Mandy Moore. But meanwhile: this song, man. Any day of the week.

The Mynah Birds / It’s My Time

The Mynah Birds‘ story is one of pop music’s most intriguing almost/what-ifs. The group included both Rick James and Neil Young, and they were set to release a single of “It’s My Time”/”Go On And Cry” on Motown in 1966. We can debate genre labels, but I think The Mynah Birds would have been Motown’s first rock group. Instead, the single’s release was cancelled when James was arrested for being AWOL from the Navy. The Mynah Birds ended, Young and fellow group member Bruce Palmer wound up joining Buffalo Springfield, and Rick James went on to craft ’70s and ’80s punk funk of his own after leaving the hoosegow.

What might have been? “It’s My Time” is a strong pop single, and while there’s no guarantee it would have been a hit even if it had been released, one wonders how things could have played out differently. The handful of Mynah Birds tracks that surfaced decades after the fact are intriguing, and I wish we could have been enjoying those tracks, along with more that were never made, over all these years that have passed. I wouldn’t want to sacrifice Buffalo Springfield. But The Mynah Birds coulda been something.

The Partridge Family / I Woke Up In Love This Morning

I don’t care.

I don’t care that this is supposed to be teenybopper pop music, created as a TV sitcom soundtrack, marketed to a puppy-eyed Teen Beat demographic of adolescent girls staring with undefined intent at their David Cassidy pinup. I don’t care if it was created in a boardroom, a stockholders’ meeting, a business planning session, or on the island of Dr. Moreau. I don’t care if anyone thinks it’s uncool, because anyone who does think that way is wrong, period. This record rocks. That’s all I care about.

Like The Monkees before them, the music of The Partridge Family didn’t have to be good; it just had to be commercial. The fictional Partridges didn’t reach the effervescent zenith of the less-fictional Monkees, nor of the Partridges’ real-life inspiration The Cowsills, but their machinery was likewise well-constructed, and with Cassidy’s accomplished lead vocals backed by the studio magic of The Wrecking Crew, The Partridge Family were occasionally able to transcend their test-tube genesis. Unlike The Monkees or The Cowsills, The Partridge Family never existed. But their records did. Some of those records were actually pretty damned good, with debut LP tracks “Somebody Wants To Love You” and “Singing My Song” particularly worthy of a fresh and appreciative listen.

“I Woke Up In Love This Morning” is the truest gem. Drummer Hal Blaine is just a monster on this track, and David Cassidy once again proves he was so much more than just a face, with a voice so perfectly suited to deliver on the promise of pop music. The little girls understood. Maybe we should pay attention, too.

A token picture of Partridge Family actress Susan Dey, who had nothing whatsoever to do with “I Woke Up In Love This Morning.”

Prince / I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man

We’d been playing Prince‘s “When Doves Cry” on This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio a bit throughout the first few months of 2016, and I betcha it would have made our year-end countdown even if Prince had remained one of our greatest living rock stars into 2017. His death in April sealed the case for that year’s ongoing infamy, prompting me to post, “2016 is fired.”

“I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” was never a song I thought much about before–if I were going to play Prince, I’d be more likely to go with “When Doves Cry” or “When You Were Mine”–but a request for the song from TIRnRR listener Joel Tinnel prompted us to play it on the show the week after Prince died. And it just clicked with me, suddenly but unerringly. I’ve been playing it ever since.

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton / Hound Dog

From this song’s chapter in my book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1):

Where and when did rock ‘n’ roll start? There are a few key records that one could name as possibilities for the first rock ‘n’ roll record. “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brentson and his Delta Cats (1951, and really Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm) is the closest we have to a consensus choice, though some would point to “The Fat Man” by Fats Domino (1950). I would at least add Amos Milburn‘s “Down The Road Apiece” (1947) to the discussion, and no less an authority than Lenny and Squiggy (on TV’s Laverne And Shirley) spoke on behalf of “Call The Police,” a 1941 single Nat King Cole made with The King Cole Trio. There are other progenitors and trailblazers from across the heady mingling of jump blues, R & B, country, and swing that birthed this bastard child we call rock ‘n’ roll. What was the daddy of them all? Not even a blood test is going to make that determination…
…Most of us know “Hound Dog” best from Elvis Presley‘s incredible 1956 hit rendition. But as much of a legitimate threat as King Elvis I represented to the straight-laced status quo in the ’50s, his version of “Hound Dog” is an agreeably goofy novelty tune, patterned after a sanitized 1955 cover by Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys rather than Big Mama Thornton‘s rude and salacious kiss-off. Elvis’ version is still great–it’s freakin’ Elvis in his prime, for cryin’ out loud–but not even the King could touch the sheer orneriness of Thornton kicking that ol’ hound dog out the door….

Among songs closely associated with Elvis, there aren’t very many that I would concede the heresy that someone else did it better than the King did. Wanda Jackson‘s “Let’s Have A Party” may be one exception. Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” definitely is another.

The Tweakers / Super Secret Bonus Track

I would like to tell you all about this track: its mysterious origin, the players hidden in the shadows, the mythic circumstances that sparked its creation. But I can’t. It’s not just a secret; it’s a super secret, just like its title insists. Rumor has it that the song was written and originally recorded by a left-handed bass player from England–Sir Prize, or Sir Plus, something along those lines–and that eventual TIRnRR singin’ star Rich Firestone is connected to it in some way. It’s currently only available on the digital download version of This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, Volume 3. I can say no more. Shhhh. It’s a secret.

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Categories
Comics

The Everlasting First: Quick Takes For “S,” Comics Edition

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.

The Sandman

My first Sandman was the 1940s DC hero, his gas-masked face first shown to me on the cover of Justice League Of America # 47. That was also the first issue of JLA I had ever seen, spied on the spinner rack at a grocery store in Aurora, Missouri during the summer of 1966. The summer of BATMAN! As a six-year-old on vacation, I was allowed to pick one twelve-cent four-color treasure off the rack to have for my very own. I was torn between this, the latest Batman, and an issue of Marvel’s Tales To Astonish. Mom said to buy the Batman and be done with it. Thus was my introduction to The Sandman deferred.

That issue was, of course, one of the annual summer team-ups of the Justice League and their alternate Earth counterparts The Justice Society of America. I followed the JLA/JSA crossovers with religious devotion from 1967 on. The Sandman made a cameo appearance in the first part of the 1968 crossover (JLA # 64), which must have been the first time I saw the character. Even though he wasn’t used all that much, The Sandman quickly became one my favorite JSA heroes, and I immediately wished that I could see more of him.

(And, although I preferred The Sandman in his original Green Hornet-inspired wardrobe of green business suit and a gas mask [plus cape], I did very much enjoy reprints of the Joe SimonJack Kirby version, decked out in traditional skintight superhero costume, proudly presented in early ’70s issues of The Forever People.)

The Seven Soldiers Of Victory

In the late ’60s, DC Comics published a series of text pages called “Fact Files.” These pieces told the back stories of various DC characters from the ’40s, and they were my introductions to Sargon the SorcererTarantula, and The Seven Soldiers of Victory. The Fact File for The Seven Soldiers of Victory stirred an interest beyond any of the others: a super team I didn’t know! Of its members, I was familiar with Green Arrow and Speedy, of course, but the others–The VigilanteThe Shining KnightThe Star-Spangled Kid and StripesyThe Crimson Avenger, and unofficial eighth Soldier Wing–were all new to me. A gorgeous Murphy Anderson pinup page of these Law’s Legionnaires (published in the giant-sized Justice League Of America # 76 in 1969) served to further whet my appetite to read the adventures of The Seven Soldiers of Victory.

The Silver Surfer

House ads in 1960s comic books were both a treat and a tease, enticing me with tempting images of far, far more comic books than I was ever going to be able to own as a kid. I don’t remember seeing Fantastic Four # 55 in any stores in 1966, but I remember seeing its cover in a Marvel Comics house ad, and thinking a six-year-old’s equivalent of COOL! I don’t think I saw The Silver Surfer in an actual comic book until he got his own title in 1968.

The Spider

Nostalgia was big in the ’70s, and this boom in the art of looking back gave me all manner of opportunities to discover superheroes and adventurers from the ’30s and the ’40s. I fell hard for 1930s pulp heroes, especially Doc Savage and The Shadow. I believe I first read about The Spider in Steranko‘s amazing two-volume reminiscence The Steranko History Of Comics. Since Marvel and DC had respectively licensed Doc Savage and The Shadow for new comic books, I hoped one or the other would also see fit to revive The Spider. But it was not to be.

Spy Smasher

Ah, Spy Smasher was a hero to me long before I ever had a chance to see him in any sort of adventure. Like The Spider (but earlier in my timeline), my interest in Spy Smasher was ignited by the comics histories I was absorbing in the ’70s. My first glimpse (and probably first awareness) of Spy Smasher was in the book All In Color For A Dime, and its full-color reproduction of the cover of Spy Smasher # 1 from 1941.I saw the book on the shelf at World Of Books in North Syracuse some time in the early ’70s, flipped through its pages, and I was hooked on all of these heroes of the past.

My interest in Spy Smasher was subsequently reinforced when I learned that–like his comrade the original Captain Marvel–he’d starred in his own movie serial in the ’40s. More comics histories (especially the Steranko books) continued to feed this interest. Other than his part in the 1976 JLA/JSA crossover (JLA # 135-137) and the reprint of his first appearance in DC’s tabloid reproduction of Whiz Comics # 2, I didn’t get to read an actual Spy Smasher comic book until years later, nor see his serial until decades later. But I was and remain a fan. It all started with All In Color For A Dime.

Star Wars

To paraphrase both Josie & the Pussycats and TV ads for Virginia Slims cigarettes: we’ve come a long way, baby. In these days of summer movie blockbuster events, it seems a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away that such things didn’t exist. In the ’70s, my friends and I all saw lots of movies in the summer, but the idea of any individual popcorn flick becoming a pop culture flashpoint was…well, fantasy. 

Until Star Wars rewrote the rules in 1977. I can’t tell you objectively if the movie holds up now, but when I was 17, freshly graduated from high school? Star Wars was unlike anything any of us had ever seen. I knew comic books and science fiction, from the most basic space opera through attempts at more intelligent and mature storytelling, Buck Rogers to Harlan Ellison. I’d seen the first Flash Gordon movie serial, doted on TV reruns of Star Trek, ogled Valerie Perrine in the film version of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, turned my nose up at Space: 1999. I wanted more. I wanted serious science fiction and high adventure.

Star Wars was definitely not serious science-fiction, but it was the full-screen realization of every pulp, serial, and superhero fantasy up to that point. Good versus evil, confident in its cosmic skin, with none of the self-consciously campy ooze that characterized so much of ’70s genre films (lookin’ at youDoc Savage: Man Of Bronze). It was fun, it was fascinating, and everyone I knew saw it several times. The dawn of the era of the summer blockbuster was upon us.

But the film was not my introduction to Star Wars. I had picked up the first issue of Marvel’s licensed Star Wars comic book, written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Howie Chaykin. The first issue was cover dated July 1977, but it was on the stands months before that, and I believe several issues had been published before the film’s opening scroll promising CHAPTER IV: A NEW HOPE appeared on any theater screen. I don’t think I was quite blown away by the comic book, but it was interesting enough that I stuck with it for a little while. And when a bunch of us made plans at Faith Berkheimer’s graduation party to see that new sci-fi movie opening the following week, I was the only one of my pals to already know a thing or two about Luke Skywalker and company.

And still, I had no idea how big Star Wars would be. I’ve yet to see any of director George Lucas‘s prequel movies, and I’ve only seen one of the latter-day Star Wars efforts (The Force Awakens, which I did enjoy). But those first three Star Wars movies were events, the precursor to the Marvel movies of today. Pass the popcorn. May the Force be with you.

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THE BANDS THAT WOULD BE KINKS! Vicarious Introductions To Various Songs By The Kinks

While I was driving home from work the other day, my iPod shuffled its way to “I Need You” by The Kinks. “I Need You” was the lesser-known third entry of the early Kinks’ triumvirate of powerhouse riffs, following the big 1964 hits “You Really Got Me” and “All Day And All Of The Night.” Unlike those first two, “I Need You” wasn’t a hit; it was, in fact, merely the B-side of the ’65 single “Set Me Free.” Though more obscure than its big brudders, “I Need You” nearly equals the hypnotic ferocity of its predecessors.

But my introduction to the headbanging splendor of “I Need You” did not come via The Kinks. I first heard the song when The Flashcubes included it in their live sets in 1978. Love at first power chord!

It occurred to me that there were several Kinks songs which I discovered vicariously. Among my all-time favorite rock ‘n’ roll acts, The Kinks are the only one where my initial exposure to a number of their classic songs came when somebody else covered ’em. That’s certainly not true of any songs by The Flashcubes, The Ramones, or The Monkees. The only Beatles songs I remember first hearing second-hand were Anne Murray‘s “You Won’t See Me” and Rain‘s “Helter Skelter” (from the TV mini-series about Charles Manson). I knew Cliff Richard‘s “Blue Turns To Grey” before I knew The Rolling Stones‘ original. I heard Syracuse chanteuse Nanci Hammond‘s rendition of “In My Room” long before I even realized it was a Beach Boys song (which was odd, because we had the Surfer Girl LP in the family collection when I was a kid, but I didn’t notice it). Hell, it wasn’t until the 90s that I discovered The Hollies wrote and recorded the original “Have You Ever Loved Somebody,” which had been one of my Fave Raves by The Searchers. See, I never learn…!

The Kinks were a different story, and I don’t know why. Ultimately, I’m grateful for whatever twisting path brought me to Muswell Hill’s finest. I did become a Kinks fan before I heard any of these Kinks covers, but these well-respected men and women helped to enhance the journey.

THE FLASHCUBES

As noted, Syracuse’s own power pop powerhouse The Flashcubes introduced me to The Kinks’ “I Need You.” It wasn’t the only Kinks song I heard the ‘Cubes do, but I knew “You Really Got Me,” “Where Have All The Good Times Gone” and “This Man He Weeps Tonight” well before I heard The Flashcubes cover them live. (Among other songs the ‘Cubes taught me were Big Star‘s “September Gurls,” The Jam‘s “In The City,” Eddie & the Hot Rods‘ “Do Anything You Wanna Do,” The New York Dolls‘ “Personality Crisis,” Chris Spedding‘s “Boogie City” and “Hey Miss Betty,” April Wine‘s “Tonight Is A Wonderful Time,” and Eddie Cochran‘s “Somethin’ Else.” I love The Flashcubes.) After hearing the ‘Cubes perform “I Need You,” I really wanted to hear The Kinks! However, The Kinks’ Kinkdom LP was outta print at the time, and a used copy at Desert Shore Records in Syracuse was stickered with a higher price than this po’ college student could afford. Finally snagged it on a budget compilation in the mid ’80s.

HOLLY GOLIGHTLY

By far the most recent example on this list. When my nephew Tim co-hosted This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio a few years back, his playlist included Holly Golightly’s covers of two Ray Davies songs, “Tell Me Now So I’ll Know” and “Time Will Tell,” both from her 2003 album Truly She Is None Other. I wasn’t immediately familiar with either song–The Kinks’ version of “Time Will Tell” was an unreleased demo track at the time–but they got my attention. Holly Golightly’s magnificent rendition of “Time Will Tell” is one of but three Kinks covers out there that I prefer to the original version.

HERMAN’S HERMITS

I’m pretty sure I heard Herman’s Hermits’ hit cover of “Dandy” well before I heard The Kinks’ original. It may have been close, though; I don’t remember “Dandy” on the radio at all, not even on oldies shows, so I may not have heard it until I bought a used copy of the Hermits’ “Dandy” single in the late ’70s.

LYRES

I once wrote in Goldmine that the great Boston group Lyres didn’t want to be like the early Kinks, they wanted to be the early Kinks. I meant it as a compliment, and Lyres’ On Fyre remains one of my very favorite albums of the ’80s. On Fyre includes a cover of The Kinks’ “Tired Of Waiting For You,” and I certainly knew that one already. But I didn’t know “Love Me Till The Sun Shines,” a Dave Davies song, and Lyres’ version just floored me. Another one of the three Kinks covers I prefer to the original.

THE PRETENDERS

Yeah, The Pretenders’ “Stop Your Sobbing” is the third of the three Kinks covers I prefer to the original. Whatta record! The Pretenders also introduced me to another obscure Kinks song, “I Go To Sleep” (also covered by Peggy Lee), but “Stop Your Sobbing” was the kingpin.

THE RECORDS

The Records’ 1979 eponymous debut album originally came with a 7″ EP of covers. Of the four EP songs, the only original I knew beforehand was The Rolling Stones’ “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby (Standing In The Shadows).” I don’t think I knew Spirit‘s “1984.” I definitely did not know Blue Ash‘s power pop classic “Abracadabra (Have You Seen Her).” Nor did I know The Kinks’ wonderful “See My Friends,” which is now one of my many favorite Kinks tracks, but which was introduced to me via a cover by The Records. Thanks, lads!

VAN HALEN

Nope. Just kidding. And once again: why do I love The Kinks? Because they’re The Kinks. And God save The Kinks.

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Justice Society Of America: The Movie (a random notion)

Some years back, I had a vague notion of a major motion picture starring comics’ original super-team The Justice Society of America. It was just a series of passing fancies, not something I would have wasted time trying to plot out or conceptualize to any degree. If someone ever attempts to make a JSA movie, there is no plausible chance that I would have any involvement whatsoever. (I mean, y’know, beyond buying a ticket.)

But back to the fantasy. My ideal JSA movie would be set around 1940 or so, prior to America’s official entry into World War II, but with much of the rest of the world already engulfed in that conflagration overseas. The villains would be Axis, because I like adventure stories that involve punching Nazis.


Practical considerations (a factor even in fantasy) would preclude the use of characters like SupermanBatman, or Wonder Woman, plus the original Captain Marvel. We would probably steer clear of some Golden Age characters that share a name with modern heroes–specifically The Flash and Green Lantern–but would be free to use Hawkman or The Atom if we wish.

My vision of this story is slightly more down-to-earth, so I wouldn’t really want to use the most powerful characters. I might or might not want to use Hawkman, but I would use the 1940s Atom, who was a short guy with a penchant for fightin’ but no super powers.

My most integral JSA member is an unlikely one: Ma Hunkel, The Red Tornado (often derisively nicknamed “The Red Tomato”). Yeah, I know she was just comic relief (a brawny homemaker who put on an ad hoc costume to bop bad guys in her working class urban neighborhood), and that she wasn’t really a member of the Society anyway.  But Ma Hunkel is essential to me, more so than any other character we could use; I just like the idea of a headstrong, stubborn Jewish tenement scrapper takin’ on Adolf’s boys and unceremoniously kicking their collective ass. Repeatedly.

(Brief aside: I’ve written elsewhere of my introduction to The Red Tornado, and it’s worth repeating this passage describing what I would do if I were given a chance to write a Justice League/Justice Society crossover: “Although Ma Hunkel never appeared in any of the old JLA/JSA meetings, I would have definitely wanted to include her if I’d had an opportunity to write such a story. I picture a scene of a group of non-powered JLA and JSA members, huddled in hiding while surveying an enemy army, Batman urging caution as he comes up with a plan of attack, only to see ol’ Red Tomato break ranks and dive-bomb headfirst into battle. Green Arrow joins the fight, saying ‘I like this dame!,’ and Wildcat replying, ‘Told ya so!'” Yeah, that’s the Red Tornado I wanna see in a JSA movie.)

Hey, speaking of Wildcat, he would also be an essential JSA member for this film. Another scrapper–specifically a champion heavyweight boxer–I see Ted “Wildcat” Grant as a character connected to his own working class upbringing, possibly from the same general neighborhood as Ma Hunkel. We may as well call it Suicide Slum, and potentially bring in Simon & Kirby‘s hero The Guardian and his kid gang The Newsboy Legion.

I would also ignore comics chronology and bring in The Black Canary as a founding JSA member, the blind hero Dr. Mid-Nite, and possibly The Vigilante, too. Ol’ Vig was never in the JSA–he was in The Seven Soldiers Of Victory and The All-Star Squadron–but the idea of a singing radio cowboy by day/masked crimefighter by night is irresistible to me, and it carries out my long-standing belief that any adventure story can be improved instantly just by adding a cowboy. 

So: The Red Tornado, The Atom, Wildcat, Black Canary, and maybe Dr. Mid-Nite, The Vigilante, or The Sandman (DC’s answer to The Green Hornet). Or maybe wealthy overachiever Mr. Terrific, to ultimately fund our fledgling supergroup, former Fawcett Comics hero Spy Smasher to help combat the Fifth Columnists, and/or Air Wave to rally the public via radio. Let’s add Hourman and Starman (two heroes enhanced by science, the former with chemically-induced strength and the latter with hi-tech weaponry), and reserve some real cosmic heavy-hitter for the film’s climax. Either the dormant ancient Egyptian power of Hawkman or the mystic might of Dr. Fate could be inadvertently resurrected by the Nazis as their evil plan literally blows up in their goose-stepping kissers. And a Society of Justice is formed to defend America and fight for justice. A swell bunch of guys and gals!

I could also see bringing in folks like the aviator Blackhawk or Green Lantern’s cabbie buddy Doiby Dickles as supporting characters. I’m tempted to include the JSA’s comic relief member Johnny Thunder, but his magic genie Thunderbolt would feel out of place, so best to skip Mr. Thunder entirely. Potential sequels could have any Golden Age DC/Fawcett/Quality hero we want, from Midnight to Liberty Belle to Bulletman and Bulletgirl to Merry, Girl of 1000 Gimmicks. And Ibis the Invincible. I’d love to bring Captain Marvel and the power of SHAZAM into the mix, but even flights of fancy require some slight tether to the real world.

And yeah: no script, no plot, no outline here, no grand idea of a superhero movie that needs to be made. And it’s not the Justice Society of the comics, so purists would cry foul. It’s just a notion, and an ill-defined one at that.

But wouldn’t it be cool? Keep ’em flying, JSA!

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The Other Side Of The Hit (B-Side Appreciation) “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss”

YOKO ONO: “Kiss Kiss Kiss”
Geffen, 1980; A-Side: JOHN LENNON: “(Just Like) Starting Over”
Some called her a Dragon Lady. To John Lennon, she was probably the one true love of his life.

A lot of rock ‘n’ rollers never understood Yoko Ono, and likely never will. I don’t exempt myself from that; I’m not a fan of her music, either with John or the material she made after his murder. But I don’t think I ever fell into the trap of demonizing her, or wishing she were out of John’s life, or blaming her for The Beatles’ breakup. Honestly, I think Yoko saved John’s life; I have a hard time believing that the rudderless Lennon of the mid ’60s could have survived into the ’70s had he not met Ono. His 18-month “lost weekend” without her in 1973-75 could serve as evidence for or against that idea; he looked back on that time with regret, and he clearly drank and partied too much, but he also seemed happy in the moment with girlfriend May Pang, and he worked prolifically as a recording artist (three albums in that short span o’ months), producer, and musical collaborator. Still, ultimately John needed Yoko. The separation didn’t work out.

My respect for Yoko One as a person need not have any bearing on my appreciation of her work. In general, her music just isn’t for me. There was, however, one instance where I preferred Yoko’s music to a contemporaneous song by John. That was Yoko’s “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” the B-side of John’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” in 1980.

For me, the summer of 1980 marked three years since I’d first heard The Sex Pistols and The Ramones. I graduated from college in May of ’80, moved into an apartment with my girlfriend, and became a professional burger-flipper at the mighty Golden Arches. I still loved The Beatles, but felt punk and new wave pulling me away from most post-’67 Beatles–no power on Earth could ever hope to separate me from Beatles ’62-’66–and I was increasingly disinterested in contemporary releases by former Beatles. I thought George Harrison and Ringo Starr had become boring. I liked some of Paul McCartney‘s recent stuff, particularly “Coming Up” and 1979’s “Getting Closer,” but found him unreliable, and I actively disliked “Arrow Through Me” and “Goodnight Tonight.”

And John? John was MIA. After his lost weekend ran its course in ’75, he realized he needed to be with Yoko. Yoko wasn’t so sure. But when Lennon appeared as Elton John‘s special guest, singing a few songs with The Elton John Band at the conclusion of their 1975 Madison Square Garden show, Yoko met John backstage, and the reconciliation commenced. One wonders if John thought of the lyrics to the song he’d just performed–a song he introduced as “by an old estranged fiancé of mine called Paul,” a Beatles oldie John had never sung before, and the last song that John Lennon would ever sing in concert:

Well my heart went boom
When I crossed that room
And I held her hand in mine
Oh, we danced through the night
And we held each other tight
And before too long
I fell in love with her
Now I’ll never dance with another
Oh, when I saw her standing there
That’s the legend, anyway. Real life, real love, isn’t quite as simple or uncomplicated, but the end result was the same: John & Yoko. Together, man. They had a son, Sean, and John became a devoted father, retiring from public life for five years. He baked bread. He was Daddy. He was there.

I don’t remember how much of this I knew at the time. On the one hand, I saw a photo of Lennon in Rolling Stone, and he looked…old. On the other hand, in my punk-fueled mind, John had been the rocker in The Beatles, the fast ‘n’ loud balance to Paul’s silly love songs. It was a fiction I believed. As disconcerted as I was by the image of a grandfatherly ex-Beatle, I was convinced that Lennon could still return and show ’em all how it was s’posed to be done.

So I was delighted to hear that John Lennon was working on a new album in 1980. Early hype was encouraging; John & Yoko were working with producer Jack Douglas, and recording with a little help from new friends Cheap Trick, the one band–really, the only band–that every rock ‘n’ roll fan seemed to like at the end of the ’70s. The album was Double Fantasy, and its cover depicted John & Yoko sharing an affectionate little kiss. John had shaved his scraggly grandfather beard, and cut his hair to a properly fab mid ’60s love-me ‘do. The first single, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” was released ahead of the LP, and I eagerly traded cash for vinyl at Brockport’s Main Street Records to own a copy of that 45.

And I was so disappointed with it.

My expectations were unfair. I wanted Revolver and Rocket To Russia and power pop and punk and new wave and jangle and buzz and harmonies and Rickenbackers and drums and yeah-yeah-YEAH! That wasn’t gonna happen, even if Cheap Trick had been involved; as it was, most of the Trick’s contributions were omitted from the official version of Double Fantasy. There was certainly no audible evidence of them on this single. Instead, “(Just Like) Starting Over” fell somewhere between pre-Beatles pop and Electric Light Orchestra, and I wasn’t at all impressed. It was…okay. That’s all. Okay.

John had the A-side; Yoko had the B-side. I surprised myself by liking “Kiss Kiss Kiss” immediately. It seemed an edgier track, its herky-jerky riddum reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull‘s Broken English, its vocal styling similar to what I heard on records by Public Image, Ltd. and avowed Yoko Ono acolytes The B-52’s. Plus, like, it sounded like the Lennons were shakin’ the sheets at the end of the song. “Kiss Kiss Kiss” popped for me in a way the A-Side couldn’t. Although I gradually developed some level of fondness for “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Kiss Kiss Kiss” was the side I played, and I played it often.

I held off on getting Double Fantasy. I heard another song or two on the radio, definitely the Beatley “Woman” (which I thought nicked its riff from Argent‘s “Hold Your Head Up,” but which I liked nonetheless), and probably “Watching The Wheels,” Lennon’s statement of defiant domesticity. On December 8th of 1980, a nobody with a gun decided his pitiful craving for attention was more important than John Lennon’s right to live, Yoko’s right to a husband, Sean’s right to a father. The killer’s name will never be mentioned in anything I write.

The events that followed the album’s release made it impossible to assess Double Fantasy on its own merit. I still can’t. There was a rumor (and I betcha it’s true) that Rolling Stone had a negative review of Double Fantasy all set to run, but pulled at the last minute in the wake of Lennon’s murder, with a glowing and reflective review run in its place. I can’t say if that was the right thing to do. Probably. Maybe. I kinda doubt that I would have ever really embraced the album, but who knows? I sure don’t know. I can’t separate the album from that lingering memory of how bad I felt on the evening of December 8th.

We can grieve for people we’ve never met, losses that may not seem personal to onlookers, but losses that hurt, that ache, as if a vital part of our lives has been ripped from us. We shouldn’t commit the sin of comparing our feelings in the wake of John Lennon’s murder to what Yoko felt, what Sean felt, to the anguish of older son Julian, ex-wife Cynthia, Aunt Mimi, or Paul, George, and Ringo, or May Pang. It’s not the same, not even close. Still hurts anyway, though.

On the evening of the murder, John and Yoko had been in the studio, working on a new Yoko single, “Walking On Thin Ice.” Can’t separate that one from its circumstances either, and I’ve never been able to enjoy it. An album called Milk And Honey was eventually assembled from unused Double Fantasy sessions, and I wound up digging its focus tracks “Nobody Told Me” and “Living On Borrowed Time” more than I liked most of Double Fantasy. Different circumstances. Different expectations.

Nowadays, I don’t often listen to “Kiss Kiss Kiss.” Among solo Beatles, I’m generally more likely to spin some McCartney than a Lennon, Harrison, or Starr record. I never listen to Yoko Ono at all. Yet I’m still fond of “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” and I still recall with vivid immediacy the rush of realizing I liked the Yoko track better than I liked the John track. Honestly, I think John Lennon would have forgiven me. Yoko saved his life, for a while anyway. She was the one true love of his life. He just wanted us to appreciate her, too.

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Remote Control

I no longer want my MTV.

I didn’t have MTV in the early ’80s. When I graduated college and moved into my first apartment in 1980, I couldn’t afford cable, and didn’t even own a working TV for a year or so somewhere in the early part of that time frame. But I saw MTV when I visited my parents in Syracuse, and I was in favor of the concept. All rock videos all the time? Yeah! Sure, I wished there was greater (or, y’know, some) representation of The Ramones or British Invasion or The Monkees instead of so much Billy Squier and Pat Benatar, but I would nonetheless watch MTV into the wee hours on the rare opportunities I had to do so.

Plus Martha Quinn was just as cute as a button, man.

I missed a chance to see my Syracuse pop heroes Screen Test compete on MTV’s Basement Tapes in 1983; my fiancée Brenda and I wandered from bar to bar in our Buffalo neighborhood, trying to find a drinking (or any) establishment willing to let us watch a half-hour’s worth of MTV, but to no avail. In 1986, MTV started playing reruns of The Monkees. That was, in a way, the network’s first step away from its original raison d’être, although The Monkees’ romps were at least still music-related. No MTV for me yet, but my upstairs neighbor Cheryl invited me to join her for occasional Monkees viewings, so I got my random Micky-Davy-Peter-Michael fix that way. By the the time I could finally budget cable into my monthly expenditures in late ’86, The Monkees were nearing the end of their MTV honeymoon; an unpleasant divorce from the network followed in 1987, as The Monkees were banished from MTV and relegated to the kids’ network Nickelodeon instead.


It took a long time for MTV to evolve (if that’s the word) from music programming. Most would trace the beginning of that path away from music videos to the 1992 debut of the reality series The Real World, and run through subsequent programs like Beavis And Butthead and the current plethora of trash-TV that’s as palatable to me as Kryptonite is to Kal-El. But I have to admit that MTV’s very first venture into non-music programming was, in fact, a show I enjoyed quite a bit. It was a game show called MTV’s Remote Control, which debuted in December of 1987. Somewhere around 1989 or ’90, I tried to become a contestant on Remote Control.

Do you remember Remote Control? I tell ya, the show was kind of a hoot, a too-cool-for-school game show that didn’t allow its own self-awareness to succumb to detachment or to (hardly) ever get in the way of its sense of goofy fun. Its high-concept foundation was that host Ken Ober had always wanted to be a TV game show host when he was (theoretically) growing up. Now, he’d made his dream come true by setting up his own game show in the basement of his parents’ house at 72 Whooping Cough Lane. Let hijinks ensue! The show’s theme song laid it out:

Kenny wasn’t like the other kids
REMOTE CONTROL!
TV mattered, nothing else did
REMOTE CONTROL!
Girls said yes, but he said no
REMOTE CONTROL!
Now he’s got his own game show
REMOTE CONTROL!
With images from classic game shows–George Fenneman and Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life, the logo from Truth Or ConsequencesMonty Hall on Let’s Make A Deal–flickering on a TV screen as Ken grows from boy to man, the intro gives way to the show’s announcer, comic Colin Quinn:

And now it’s his basement, it’s his rules, it’s his game show. The quizmaster of 72 Whooping Cough Lane, KEN OBER!
Ober was a stand-up comic, so Remote Control‘s vibe was willfully snarky. Three young contestants were strapped into La-Z-Boy chairs, given TV remotes, and directed to compete in TV trivia. Each channel on Ken’s old Zenith offered a different TV trivia category. Six Feet UnderCelebrity FleshBabes And AssassinsPrivate DicksBrady PhysicsDead Or Canadian. Ober asked the questions, and his on-screen comrades–Quinn, musician Steve Treccase, and a hostess (originally Marisol Massey)–participated when appropriate. Channels such as Shakespeare TV required Colin Quinn to ask the question in the form of a comic performance; similar channels called for recurring characters played by Adam SandlerDenis Leary, and John Ten Eyck. After the first two rounds, the contestant with the lowest score was eliminated, with his/her recliner physically ejected from the set, the luckless player still strapped to it.

Goofy. And fun. I wanted to be a part of this!

I’ve been trying to remember precisely when I auditioned for Remote Control. I was just this side of too-old to compete; the show’s rules said all contestants had to be under 30, or maybe under 31. If the latter, my try-out was in 1990, some time after my thirtieth birthday. It’s a young man’s (or woman’s) game, sure. But I was gonna try my hand nonetheless. I spied a notice that an open audition would take place on campus at Syracuse University. I arranged for a day off from work, and I was there. REMOTE CONTROL!
Brenda had zero interest in appearing in a game show, but she accompanied me to offer moral support and for the experience itself. I wish I could remember exactly where on campus the audition took place. Both Brenda and I recall it as a lecture hall, though I don’t think it was a particularly large room. Upon arrival, we were informed that there could be no guests, that only potential contestants would be allowed entry. Brenda shrugged and agreed to try out.

There was, I’m sure, some disappointment among the assembled hopefuls that none of the show’s on-air talent was present at the audition. Orange Nation did not have the chance to welcome Ken Ober, Colin Quinn, or Steve Treccase to the ‘Cuse. Nor did we get to see Kari Wuhrer, the pretty young actress who had replaced Marisol as Remote Control hostess. My pesky memory insists that the woman in charge that day was Shannon Fitzgerald, who would go on to become a pretty big-deal producer and executive; I can’t find anything online to specifically connect Fitzgerald with Remote Control, so I can’t state for the record that my pesky memory hasn’t been drinking. But Fitzgerald’s name sticks in my recollection, right or wrong.

(Kari Wuhrer, with whom much of the male portion of Remote Control‘s fanbase was duly smitten, left the show following its third season. Whenever my audition was, we did not yet know that Kari was gone, or if in fact she was gone at the time. Fitzgerald–and let’s presume it was Shannon Fitzgerald runnin’ the show at SU that day–made some kind of comment about Wuhrer, but I can’t pinpoint the specifics in my mind.)

The auditions were held in three parts. The first part was a written test, a series of TV trivia questions, with no multiple choice. I wish I could remember some of the questions, but I do remember that they seemed easy enough. I aced the written. Brenda didn’t, but no one was asked to leave. The folks in charge needed an audience for phase two: the live audition.

The live audition was crucial, a test to see if Shannon and company felt we were sufficiently bubbly and effervescent to appear on TV. No, not just TV–MTV!! I want my MTV! Can’t just fold up like a dyin’ Pac-Man here. You want a TV personality, an MTV personality? Awright. I could do that.

No, really. I could.

I can be shy in real life. I don’t always know what to say, or how to act. But on stage, or in front of a microphone? Yeah, not a problem. Years later, I would often tell my daughter that you need never be afraid of an audience; the audience should be afraid of you. This mundane planet is one thing. Performing is quite another. Show business! With the few minutes before my name was called for my live audition, my mind worked out what I had to do.

Carl Cafarelli!
Hey, that’s me! I strolled to the front of the little lecture hall, smiling and waiving at the assembled hopefuls. Yep, I was definitely the oldest guy there. I could work that. I was given, I think, two minutes to dazzle and impress. I wouldn’t need that long. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but here’s a reasonable approximation:

Hey, how’s everyone doin’? Good? My name’s Carl Cafarelli, I’m from right here in Syracuse, NY, the town so nice they named it. A giggle from somewhere. Good. And I tell ya–this thing today is my LAST SHOT. Really! That’s it, man. I’m 30 years old. I am just shy of bein’ put out to pasture. MTV don’t want no thirty-one-year olds. MTV looks at 31 like it’s in dog years. “Jeez, this guy’s like two hundred and ten years old? Can’t we just get him some moss for his north side?” A couple more laughs. But I wanted to quit while I was ahead. I get it. It’s a young person’s world. I’ll go coffin shopping tomorrow. I’m just glad I had this chance to see you all here. I wanted to close by singing, like, my all-time favorite TV show theme song, “The Batman Theme.” Yeah! But I can’t remember the words. Can you help me out?

Quietly but immediately, a few kids in the small crowd began to sing, Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na…. I whooped my own approval, That’s it! More joined in, and the whole damned crowd was singing, Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na BATMAN! I pumped my fist in the air, That’s it! Thanks! Thanks so much everyone! I walked back to my seat to the sound of applause. Like The Beatles before me, I had passed the audition.

The third and final part of the try-out was a practice game of Remote Control. The remaining hopefuls were divided into groups of three to compete with each other in abbreviated Remote Control contests. I had a buzz of confidence, anticipation…

…And that’s where I crashed.

In that long-ago, prehistoric, low-tech world, back when future Vice President Al Gore was still workin’ the kinks out of that Internet thing he’d invented, mock game shows in Syracuse University lecture halls didn’t have a Remote Control set with La-Z-Boys and remote controls to play with. No, we had classroom desk-and-chair combos; if we wanted to be the first to try to answer a question, we were instructed to slap the tops of our desks to ring in (as it were) in the absence of actuals buzzers to use. Surely this ain’t how Ken Jennings started!

It wouldn’t have mattered anyway; at 30, I was the oldest guy in the game. Regardless of whether I was armed with a buzzer to buzz in or a hand to slap on a desk, my reflexes were already slower than those of my college-age competitors. When I couldn’t slap fast enough to answer a Monkees question–A MONKEES QUESTION!–I knew I was toast. (Oh, for the record, the question was: “The Monkees gave good movie in this, their only feature film.” The Monkees’ Head is one of my favorite movies, and I’m still kicking myself for being too slow to answer that one.)

I swallowed my disappointment and went home with Brenda. It’s a young person’s game.

So I never got to be on MTV. I’ve never appeared on a game show, and I likely never will. I continued to watch MTV’s Remote Control. Kari Wuhrer was replaced by Alicia Coppola, who was herself replaced by Susan Ashley. The show ran for a total of five seasons, and Al Gore’s brainchild informs me there was also a syndicated version. The final original episode aired in late 1990 (calling into question the timeline I’ve detailed for my audition. Maybe I was only 29? Jeez, you’d think my reflexes woulda been faster at 29…!)

Colin Quinn went on to join the cast of Saturday Night Live, and so did Adam Sandler. Still, the only time I ever liked Sandler was…well, no, I didn’t like him on Remote Control either, but his movie The Wedding Singer was surprisingly charming. Denis Leary also found fame, and Kari Wuhrer actually had a ton of acting roles, many of which called for her to remove her shirt. Alicia Coppola also has a long string of TV acting credits, but neither Marisol Massey nor Susan Ashley managed to score more than a handful of roles (at least according to IMdB). Ken Ober, the heart of MTV’s Remote Control, had a few more hosting gigs (on MTV, USAESPN, and Comedy Central), some radio, and worked as a producer on the CBS sitcom The New Adventures Of Old Christine. Ober passed away in 2009. He was 52 years old.

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THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE: THAT THING YOU DO!

An infinite number of songs can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, THIS is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!

HE WONDERS: That Thing You Do!
Written by Adam Schlesinger (possibly with Mike Viola)
Produced by Adam Schlesinger and Mike Viola
From the soundtrack album That Thing You Do!, Play-Tone/Epic Records, 1996

Singer, songwriter, musician, and producer Adam Schlesinger was born on October 31st of 1967. He was too young to really remember the 1960s, on the scene too late to experience Beatlemania, the British Invasion, the debut of The Monkees, the effervescent zeitgeist of a pop music revolution that encompassed MotownThe Dave Clark FivePaul Revere and the RaidersLesley GoreThe Knickerbockers, girl groups, surf groups, and James Brown on The TAMI Show. He did not grow up watching Shindig! and Hullabaloo on TV, he would have only seen Batman and Star Trek in syndicated reruns. He wasn’t yet two years old when Neil Armstrong declared one small step for a man was one giant leap for mankind. He lived the first years of his life in the ’60s, but he could not possibly have retained any substantive memories of that defining decade.

And yet….

Somehow, Adam Schlesinger served the best pop legacies of the ’60s with greater grace and verve than anyone else you could name. He did it the only way a creative soul knows how to do it: instinctively, intuitively. Artfully. He didn’t experience the wonders of the ’60s first-hand. But when one of his projects called for it, he could conjure an effective flash of period verisimilitude untainted by mere nostalgia or bloodless hucksterism. It was just that thing he did.

All of the above kinda side-steps what most would consider Schlesinger’s greater body of work, with his groups Ivy and Fountains Of Wayne, and also the bulk of his voluminous film and television songwriting and production credits, from There’s Something About Mary through Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I can’t even apologize for my tunnel-vision in that regard. Because Schlesinger was essential to two ’60s-related gems that have meant the world to me. In 2016, he produced The Monkees’ triumphant Good Times! album, a highlight in an otherwise-miserable year. a year that robbed us of Prince and David Bowie (among others) and exchanged them all for the awful reality of a President-Elect Trump. And in 1996, he channeled everything I loved about the ’60s into a magic, frothy concoction that served as the title theme for my favorite movie, That Thing You Do!

Well I have heard your record, Guy, and I like it. I like it a lot. “That Thing You Do!” You know, it’s…snappy!
Actor Tom Hanks made his directorial debut with this light-hearted little romantic comedy about The Wonders (formerly The One-ders), an unknown Erie, PA rock ‘n’ roll group that manages to score a big hit single in 1964. These fictional one-hit Wonders are a quartet of archetypes–the talent, the fool, the smart one, and the bass player–but the film executes the difficult task of making them seem plausible, real. There’s a scene when the members of The Wonders all hear their song “That Thing You Do!” on the radio for the first time, and that scene precisely nails the giddy rush of rockin’ pop music better than any other slip of celluloid I’ve ever seen. Yeah yeah yeah, even better than the entirety of A Hard Day’s Night, which had been my all-time favorite film right up until that night at a movie theater in Cicero, NY in 1996, when my eyes and ears opened wide with glee at Hollywood’s best-ever love letter to rock ‘n’ roll music.

And none of it would have or could have worked without the perfect song.

Mike Viola & Adam Schlesinger

Adam Schlesinger provided that perfect song. Mike Viola of The Candy Butchers co-produced and sang lead; some say Viola also co-wrote the song, but declined to take a songwriting credit. The combined talents of Schlesinger and Viola crafted a stunning confection that steers clear of the quagmire of pastiche or parody, and captures the essence of fab and gear radio-ready 1964. 

Schlesinger’s legacy is greater than one perfect song he built for a movie, and more than a fantastic album he made with the surviving members of The Monkees. I’ll let my many eloquent friends in the pop music community speak on behalf of Fountains Of Wayne, of Ivy, of Tinted Windows, and I’ve already heard testimonials to Schlesinger from many who met him, many who worked with him, many who feel this sudden loss as we all hear and try to process the awful news that Schlesinger has passed from complications related to goddamned COVID-19. Adam Schlesinger was 52 years old, too young to have remembered the ’60s. Too young to be eulogized. Too young, for God’s sake. Too young. 

Our sense of loss as fans pales beside the losses of his family and friends, his children. We can only reflect upon what his music meant to us, and mourn from afar.

I mourn with something snappy, something I heard in a movie more than two decades ago, a movie which took place within a cherished era three decades before that. Adam Schlesinger couldn’t have remembered that era. But he captured it. And I’ll always remember him for that thing he did. Rest in peace, Spartacus.

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Coffee


“I enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning more than I have ever enjoyed a beer at night.”

The above observation has become one of my oft-cited go-to mottoes, right up there with “Radio’s job is to sell records.” But I was a relative latecomer to the specific joy of java addiction. I didn’t start drinking coffee until I was 26 years old–specifically, on October 1, 1986. Before that? No. The very idea of drinking coffee was anathema to me.

I did like a cup of tea now and again. That interest began when I was just a kid in the ’60s, as I sipped the occasional cup of hot tea with milk and sugar–heavenly.  I liked sweetened ice tea, too, particularly sun tea, which I baked in a pitcher perched atop our picnic table in the back yard, the solar rays transmogrifying water and tea bags into something special and refreshing. Ah, sweet alchemy. Delicious!

Coffee did not interest me at all. I had sampled it, disliked its taste, and discarded the notion of ever drinking the stuff.

This disdain for the bracing nectar of the coffee bean continued as I went to college, and beyond. If I needed a light stimulant to help propel me through late-night study or writing sessions, I’d sip my tea and soldier on. In the early ’80s, when I was a college graduate with a beer in my hand and a song in my heart, I was openly scornful of the “coffee achievers” TV advertising campaign, which utilized pitchfolk like David BowieKurt Vonnegut Jr., and Heart‘s Ann and Nancy Wilson to tout the supposedly beneficial buzz of a cup o’ joe to goose one’s productivity. In 1985, when I was working a full-time day job in a record store at a downtown Buffalo shopping mall and a part-time night job at McDonald’s, I fortified my AM vigor with a balanced breakfast of a pizza pretzel and a large, caffeine-rich serving of Mountain Dew, courtesy of the Hot Sam stand located directly across from the record store’s entrance. Healthy? Possibly not. Rock ‘n’ roll? Yeah, we’ll go with that.

For dramatic purposes, the role of a 1985 Hot Sam clerk shall be played by Vanity. I’m alert now.

But in the fall of ’86, I was starting a new job, and its first shifts involved work in a warehouse setting, unloading trucks and attending training sessions. It was cold, it was early, and there was free coffee. October 1st, 1986. I started drinking coffee right then and there.

Although my consumption of coffee was driven by circumstance, I developed a taste for it. I preferred it sweet, though I dabbled in drinking black coffee for a year or two in the late ’80s. I eventually decided that I enjoyed my coffee too much to be willing to compromise on how I drank it: cream or creamer, and Sweet’N Low. That specific taste is what I have each and every morning.

I’m otherwise not terribly fussy about my coffee. I’m not a fan of Starbucks. I love Paul deLima, but rarely have the opportunity to drink it. I buy Chock Full O’ Nuts as my preferred brand to make at home in the morning, that choice inspired by writers Billy Miller and Miriam Linna in Kicks magazine, because why not? I used to grab an afternoon cup at a convenience store on work days, but now I’m usually a one-cup-a-day guy (though my cup is really a 20-ounce mug). 

And my morning mug of Chock Full O’ Nuts is one of the highlights of my day. There are times when I go to bed looking forward to the morning treat of my coffee. I still enjoy a beer at night, when I’m in the mood for it. But I enjoy my coffee even more.

Close up white coffee cup with heart shape latte art on wood table at cafe.

Read more by Carl Cafarelli @ https://carlcafarelli.blogspot.com/

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Michael & Micky

Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz should make a new album.

The two surviving members of The Monkees (Davy Jones died in 2012, and Peter Tork passed in early 2019) recently announced plans for another tour, and for release of a live album, The Mike & Micky Show Live, due out in April. That is welcome news, even though they’re still not coming anywhere near Syracuse. The mix of hits and deep cuts in the duo’s concert repertoire is intriguing, and they’ve assembled an absolutely crack combo to accompany them. It’s wonderful to hear that’s being preserved in official form; it’s further encouraging (and somewhat surprising) to learn that collaboration will continue for at least a little bit longer.

But man–they really should record a new studio album with their live band.

Why? Honestly, this particular combination of talents simply deserves an opportunity to do something more. The goal of a pop concert embraces familiar material, and rightly so; the audience may or may not be receptive to something new (a discussion for another time), but they for damned sure expect to hear some of the songs that made them fans, songs that made them wanna buy a ticket and throng to venues near and far. A live album documents that experience, both for those who were there and those who wish they could have been.

But an album of new material can expand our appreciation, and give us more songs to love. The Mike & Micky Show’s setlist includes “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster” and “Me & Magdalena,” two gems from The Monkees’ triumphant 2016 album Good Times! The presence of those songs amidst your “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and your “Listen To The Band” demonstrate the truth that great songs don’t care what year it is. 

So why not add to that motherlode? Why not continue to create?

The pool of talent is there, and it starts at the top. As the once-common dismissals of The Monkees as a mere prefab pop product recede into the realm of a grumbling, myopic minority (probably otherwise occupied with yelling at kids to get off of their damned lawn), more and more enlightened fans and pundits recognize the gift and artistry the individual Monkees invested in their work. Dolenz remains a soulful, accomplished singer, Nesmith retains his well-earned aura of gravitas, and the two of ’em sound magnificent together. They always have.

But the magic of this combo goes deeper than that. Their live band is just killer, propelled in large part by Michael’s son Christian Nesmith. The younger Nesmith is a rockin’ pop force of nature, his guitar and vocals fueling the group’s driving, irresistible sound. Christian’s wife Circe Link–a well-respected talent in her own right–and Micky’s sister Coco Dolenz add heart and harmony to this family affair, and all of the players–all of ’em–know exactly what they’re doing and how to do it. The Mike & Micky Show band can kick any ass that needs kickin’.

And I would so love to hear what they all could do on a new studio album.

I don’t want them to do remakes. I don’t want them to do a tribute to Monkees songwriters like Carole King or Neil Diamond or Boyce & Hart. I’m sure they could pull off a few well-chosen covers for flavor–I’m particularly fond of the idea of Micky singing Gary Frenay‘s unrecognized pop classic “Make Something Happen”–but come on! Don’t you think the members of this band could come up with some great songs you haven’t heard yet, songs that no one has heard yet? For cryin’ out loud, Circe Link & Christian Nesmith’s “I’m On Your Side” was our most-played song on This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio in 2017, and I already know there’s more fantastic stuff where that came from. I wanna hear it, in the studio, with Mike and Micky. I bet you’d wanna hear it, too.

If such an album were ever made, I think I’d prefer that it not be billed as a Monkees record. While these two last surviving members of the group do have every right to call themselves The Monkees, the idea of a new Monkees album invites the idea of including recordings by the late Peter Tork and Davy Jones; many fans would want that, some would insist upon it, and I do not want that at all. We mourn those we have lost. We acknowledge our loss, and pay tribute when it’s appropriate. But we can’t live our lives trying to bring theirs back.

I know this is all a remote possibility. It’s a bit more plausible than my previously-posted fantasy of Micky Dolenz making an album with The Flashcubes. Frankly, I’m not even sure Nesmith or Dolenz would have the merest interest in doing something like this. But I’m still a believer, and I would very, very much like to listen to this band.

Wouldn’t you?