Vanished world: The immortal journalism of Joseph Mitchell

Life comes at you fast. Somehow, I’ve been a working, paid journalist for 30 years now, and the industry is almost an entirely different animal than it was back in 1992 when I started getting my first bylines in the college newspaper. 

I came in just as the digital world started to change everything. The town newspaper I first worked at professionally in small-town Mississippi still had dusty trays of hot type slugs tucked under the composing table. While chunky early Macs were being used to lay out the pages by then, the final layouts were still painstakingly pasted up from print-outs before being walked over to the press room. These days, much of my journalism work is in mediums I wouldn’t have even quite comprehended in 1992. 

The appeal of journalism for many newcomers is a fundamentally romantic one. The big scoop! The breaking news! It’s never exactly as you imagined it, of course, and there’s plenty of dull moments, like there are in any job. In recent months, I’ve been revisiting the work of one of the patron saints of long-form journalism to spark inspiration and to remember that at its heart, before counting clicks and hot takes and fighting misinformation, it’s all about telling a story.

Few people told a story better than Joseph Mitchell, who walked the streets of New York for a variety of long-gone papers nearly a century ago, before going on to become one of the best-loved New Yorker writers of all time.  

Mitchell was the bard of cheap dives and eccentrics, finding stories to tell far away from the ivory towers. “I believe the most interesting human beings, as far as talk is concerned, are anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes, psychiatrists, and an occasional bartender,” he’d write.

His most famous work, Joe Gould’s Secret, memorably explored a bohemian “blithe and emaciated man” who claimed to be writing the longest book in history – or maybe he wasn’t. 

But Mitchell wasn’t just about the oddballs – his “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is a gorgeous, sensitive look at an elderly Black man at the end of his days, while “Up In The Old Hotel” is a captivating read about mysteries hidden in Manhattan’s old buildings. “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon” evokes every beer stain and cigar stub at the oldest Irish bar in New York and its impossibly stern manager, who served only one kind of ale and would close up if the bar got too crowded with “too much confounded trade.” 

Mitchell is all meat, no fat in his writing, and many of us journalists today could learn from his economic, indelible descriptions – a man whose “profanity was so vigorous I expected it to leave cavities in his teeth,” or former President Herbert Hoover, who had “the face of a fat baby troubled by gas pains.” But clarity is the guiding light – he’d note, “A newspaper can have no bigger nuisance than a reporter who is always trying to write literature.”

“The best talk is artless,” Mitchell would write. “The talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun, grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels.” 

Decades after his death, it’s worth mentioning there is some controversy over how Mitchell may have blurred the line between fact and fiction in some of his later work. It’s a fuzzy line that probably shouldn’t have been crossed, although times were different then, and the essential core of his storytelling remains based on fact. 

Leaving the desk and hitting the streets to find your story has gotten less and less common as journalism has changed, as stories are put together via scraping social media posts or quick emails to the same talking heads over and over. I’m as guilty as anyone else of this tactic, but have to admit that over my 30 years now in the industry the stories I remember most are the ones where I went out and talked to another human being face to face, listening to their ‘artless talk’ and their stories. Mitchell’s world is long gone, but his writing remains a touchstone for me. 

Joe Mitchell’s best is collected in the essential collections Up In The Old Hotel and My Ears Are Bent. Decades after he scribbled his bylines, it’s all still mandatory reading for anyone who wonders what journalism and telling people’s stories should be about. 

Back on the big screen: New Zealand International Film Festival

Life isn’t entirely normal yet, and may not be for a while, but at least I can go to film festivals again.

During the strictest of New Zealand’s lockdowns, cinemas were all shut down, and one big casualty the last few Covid-addled years has been the New Zealand International Film Festival, which suffered from cancellations, postponements and management problems in 2020 and 2021.

Ever since I moved here in 2006, NZIFF has been a highlight of the calendar year, a time when Auckland gets to pretend it’s the centre of the cinematic universe for a week or so and enjoy the buzziest hits from Cannes, amazing revival classics and hidden gems that change your brain. I’ve watched dozens and dozens of NZIFF movies over the last 16 years, and I missed it dearly in these Covid days. 

This year’s festival isn’t quite up to full speed compared with the before times – it is shorter and smaller – but I still managed to catch several great films this week mostly at Auckland’s legendarily awesome Civic Theatre, the best place in New Zealand to watch a movie. 

I love my Marvel cinematic universe and all that jazz, but a well-curated film fest is a whole different vibe, one that engages new parts of the brain. It celebrates the communal joys of art, too – at a time when doing anything as a community feels a bit fraught, it’s good to be reminded there are benefits to it. 

I would’ve liked to fit more in my schedule, but only four movies made the cut for me this year. I watched an intimate and witty documentary on the late great author, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time; South Korean icon Park Chan-Wook’s exquisitely crafted twisty romantic detective thriller Decision To Leave; the harrowing and weirdly life-affirming documentary about two married volcanologists Fire Of Love, and this year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner, the scabrously funny, filthy Swedish satire Triangle of Sadness. 

Triangle of Sadness is a divisive movie among the critics but in a packed gorgeous old cinema, this barbed attack on influencer culture and the privilege of the wealthy felt like a perfect film festival experience. A story of two young and vapid gorgeous people who end up on a cruise ship that turns into a Lord of the Flies-esque fiasco complete with plentiful vomiting and even worse, it’s not subtle. It’s not a deep satire, and it might be a little long. Yet its outraged, shouty and impotent tone somehow seems to mirror the weirdness that is life in 2022. It’s the movie for the moment, as we’re all a little bit stuck in our own personal cruise ship voyages from hell. In the end, you have to laugh about how absurd everything is, don’t you?

Without a film festival to gather up all the visions of the world, from South Korean noir to Swedish ennui, it’d be a bit harder to see these things, these perspectives. To be in a crowded cinema (mostly mask-wearing, thankfully) and laughing and gasping over the world together seems a bit naughty, a bit daring these days.

I missed that vibe, and even if the crises roiling the world are hardly over, it feels good to laugh together, for a moment, at a film festival. 

What’s up, doc? Why Looney Tunes never get old

Like any child in the pre-internet era, I spent an awful lot of time watching cartoons. I watched the good, the bad and the ugly.

I’d watch Flintstones and Jetsons, Woody Woodpecker and G.I. Joe, Super Friends and Yogi Bear. A lot of the worst featured sub-par animation where only characters’ mouths moved jerkily, or backgrounds that appeared to be made on a rusty photocopier. 

Always in the top tier, of course, were Disney and Warner Brothers. Disney made some ground-breaking, amazing animation, and set the standard. But when it comes to the best – the toons that make you feel glad to be on this planet, the ones you’d watch again and again – I’m a Looney Tunes man through and through.

Even as a kid, I knew that the half-hour or so of vintage Looney Tunes cartoons that played weekday afternoons were something special.

As I limp my way into mid-middle age, I still find comfort in binging a handful of Warner Bros’ seven-minute gems, still as hilarious and free-wheeling as they were decades ago. Time has rubbed some of that rebellious edge off the Looney Tunes – I know there have been cartoons starring them since the original run ended in 1969, but watching Bugs play basketball with NBA stars just ain’t the same to me as having him run rings around Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck in the “rabbit season” trilogy. The originals remain the peak of the animation form and a showcase for sheer mad creativity.

Bugs is always funny, Daffy is reliably explosive, Porky amiably daft, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner Shakespearean in their eternal struggle, and even Foghorn Leghorn’s blowhard act raises a chuckle from me. (Let’s not talk too much about Speedy Gonzales or Pepe Le Pew, though.) There’s a lot of formula and a few bucketloads of caffeinated frenzy over the 900 or so Looney Tunes, of course, and I heartily recommend only watching a half-dozen or so in one sitting lest all the ACME equipment and carrot-chewing permanently liquify your brain. 

But watching some of these cartoons for the 10th or 20th time in my life, I’m struck the most these days by the sheer hand-hewn artistry of them all. Pixar and its computer-generated toon spawn have entertained and delighted us all too, but there is something tangible and awe-inspiring about watching the OG toons, where every single line was drawn by a probably chain-smoking, squinting human being. 

Animation is a form where innovation led to an explosion of energy, Reid Mitenbuler writes in his highly entertaining recent history of the early years of the form, Wild Minds.

Walt Disney became the biggest household name, but the likes of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Mel Blanc, Frank Tashlin and many more shaped the anarchic spirit of animation and shook up Disney’s tendency for stuffiness. The Looney Tunes may have been repetitive – coyote chases road runner, hunter chases duck, cat chases bird – but it was the ceaseless creative invention around the margins of these blueprints that still amuses today.

To get a real feeling for the artistry of these gents, watch some of a Looney Tunes cartoon some time frame by frame. (You can pull one up on YouTube and pause it, then press the “.” key to do just that.) 

It’s astonishing to watch the carefully hand-drawn antic life in these drawings, more than 50 years on. No short-cuts, none of that partial animation that made my childhood “Super Friends” toons seem so static. In motion, these moments sometimes pass so quickly they’re as zippy as the Tasmanian Devil. 

That didn’t stop the geniuses from labouring over every single line and contorted facial expression. Frozen in time, you see the craft that went into it all. That’s what makes them art. 

Four-panel biographies – A short-lived experiment

Life has been hectic of late, so in the absence of new posts, here’s a trip in the wayback machine to 2014. I attempted to get back into drawing comics by experimenting for a few months with a few eccentric sketchbook comics, including these “Four-panel biographies.” It’d take a global pandemic for me to find the passion again a few years later by returning to my comic strip Amoeba Adventures again!

Still, I do like the concept of telling a life in a mere four panels… maybe I’ll get around to doing a few more some day… For now, here’s the Four-Panel Biographies of Franklin Pierce and Roy Orbison!

Farewell tours: The show must go on – until it doesn’t

When your musical tastes lean toward the retro, as mine tend to, you find yourself attending a lot of farewell tours. You don’t always know it will be the last/only time to see a band. But as someone who loves an awful lot of bands that were at their peak in the ‘70s or ‘80s, you never know what fate and time will bring. 

Performers in their 70s or even older aren’t always at their best, but sometimes they’re amazing. You sometimes find well-honed machines who may not be quite as fast on their guitar solos as they once were, but who make up for that with the breezy skill that only comes from playing the same song thousands of times over. 

The announcement that 75-year-old Elton John is coming back to New Zealand for his long, long Covid-postponed farewell tour in early 2023 and that Billy Joel, 73, is coming here for the first time in decades reminded me that many of my favourite older acts who make it all the way down to Aotearoa probably aren’t going to be coming back again. I’m undecided on seeing Elton just yet, but I’m already down for Midnight Oil’s farewell tour in September, pandemic willing. 

I managed to see Brian Wilson deliver a surprisingly affecting tribute to the Beach Boys and Pet Sounds a few years back. He was seated for most of the show and did sometimes seem a bit off in the clouds, but still delivered some of those dazzling harmonies on “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” beautifully. Younger band members handled the high notes, and yeah, it was an audience of gray hairs, but as reunions go, it was more sweet than bittersweet. I’m glad I went. 

The Monkees, 2016

And then there was getting to see The Monkees twice before the deaths of Peter Tork in 2019 and Michael Nesmith last year. Head cheerleader Mickey Dolenz led the charge at both shows, making up for some of the slack energy of the clearly fading Tork or Nesmith, and while it was most definitely a valedictory lap, there was a charge of energy at hearing the old frothy pop songs by the original band one last time. Because now, all but one of those Monkees are gone.

Or take an 80-year-old Mavis Staples, who was fierce, fiery and loud in a delightful show a couple years back that showed one of the great gospel singers could still bring the house down. Or Nick Lowe, who might’ve been white-haired and hardly the young power pop star of the 1970s, but who put on a great show. 

On the other hand, I’m glad I decided not to fork out for one of the octogenarian B.B. King’s final shows here in Auckland back in 2011, which sounded like it was a pretty grim affair with the 85-year-old King basically propped up on stage far beyond the point where he could really live up to his legend. A show where the artist is barely able to perform is kind of grotesque. 

Sometimes you don’t know how lucky you are. Seeing a dazzling Prince a mere two months before he died will always be one of my live music highlights, and The Rolling Stones were everything they could have been in a packed stadium in 2014 before Charlie Watts passed away. I’ve crammed in three Bob Dylan shows in the 15+ years I’ve been in New Zealand and am grateful for every note I got to hear.

Bob Dylan takes a bow, 2018

Because sometimes, you miss out. I’ve still got enormous regrets over missing the late Leonard Cohen on what turned out to be his final show anywhere in the world in Auckland in 2013, and having a trip overseas conflict with what probably is Sir Paul McCartney’s final trip down under back in 2017 still stings. 

I do still listen to some music by people under 40, don’t get me wrong. But when it comes to a chance to see a legend, I’ll probably take a punt on seeing them while I can. Every tour has an ending date, and you never quite know when the final curtain call might come, do you? 

Movies I Have Never Seen #18: Foxy Brown (1974)

What is it: Foxy Brown is one of a series of blaxsploitation films starring Pam Grier in the early 1970s, which directly inspired her being cast as the star in Quentin Tarantino’s excellent noir, 1997’s Jackie Brown. Grier is Foxy, who’s got a cop boyfriend and a drug dealer brother. When the brother snitches out her boyfriend to the gangs, Foxy sets out for revenge in top blaxsploitation style. Foxy goes undercover with a prostitution ring (!) to avenge her losses, but things go south and she’s captured and brutalised. But when Foxy makes her move to escape, things get very bloody very quickly as the bodies pile up. 

Why I never saw it: Blaxsploitation is a tricky genre to watch in 2022. You either roll with it, enjoy some of the camp/kitsch value and accept it as a portrait of the times, or you’re kind of horrified by the casual racism, sexism and violence. I do love a gritty, sleazy ‘70s crime movie, though, and where blaxsploitation stood out from more mainstream fare like The French Connection is in casting Black actors in the leading roles, making stars out of previously marginalised figures like Shaft’s Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson or Jim Brown. Grier was the star of several of several major movies of the era, and Tarantino himself called her cinema’s first female action star. On the other hand, I’m a middle-aged American-born white guy, so it’s not quite my place to wade too deeply into the ambiguities of what blaxsploitation meant. It provided some strong Black heroic figures on screen, but also saddled them in crime- and drug-drenched movies that wallowed in a lot of stereotypes. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Grier’s Foxy is a typical Death Wish-styled exploitation movie archetype – the gentle person who turns into a murderous killer. Unfortunately, that means in Foxy Brown the lead suffers some horrendous abuse, including being injected with heroin and raped by thugs. The queasy hardcore intensity of those scenes viewed in modern times linger and make it a bit harder to enjoy when Foxy tears loose and has her revenge. And trust me – she gets her revenge, notably in a remarkably gory bit of retribution upon the leading white male villain at the climax. You don’t see this kind of revenge in Tom Cruise movies! 

There’s a groovy aesthetic to Foxy Brown I can’t help but dig, from the James Bond-style opening credits to the way Grier shifts from demure girlfriend to striking leather-clad figure of vengeance, dazzling along the way with some very hip ‘70s fashion. Remember, in 1974, a Black woman fighting back on screen and taking vengeance against white men (at one point, mocking the genital size of a slimy white authority figure she entraps!) was a novelty. Grier dominates, but she’s helped by a cast including Antonio Fargas as her jittery backstabbing brother and a weirdly so-bad-its-good over-the-top turn by Kathryn Loder as the preening, sadistic leader of the drug syndicate. Foxy Brown is the better-remembered of Grier’s movies today, but it’s actually a quasi-sequel to a slightly less exploitive and rapey film, 1973’s Coffy

Worth seeing? Remembering this almost-50-year-old movie is utterly an artefact of its time, sure. It’ll offend some viewers coming to it cold but it’s hard to imagine anyone not finishing this being a little bit impressed by Grier’s kick-ass warrior, even if you’re put off by the sleazier side of the storytelling. Coffy is the better movie, but perhaps Foxy Brown better sums up the messy, yet empowering allure of blaxsploitation even now – with Grier’s powerhouse performance, despite all the violence, rape and sexism, it’s still at its heart a movie about standing up for yourself in a crappy world and sticking it to the man – whoever and whatever that may be. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Time for an update for some of my paying writing! I have been writing some book reviews recently for the great New Zealand Listener magazine, including in this week’s issue, a look at Anthony Horowitz‘s new James Bond novel With A Mind To Kill, the latest in the never-ending series of authorised 007 adventures and a pretty cracking read.

Plus, I also recently reviewed a nifty new revisionist biography of explorer Ferdinand Magellan, Straits: Beyond The Myth of Magellan by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in the June 18 issue!

Unfortunately the reviews aren’t online, but hey, if you’re in New Zealand do pick up a nice shiny print copy of the latest issue if you like!

I’m also continuing to help debunk the never-ending flow of misinformation out here on the internets (I mean, seriously. It never, ever ends) through my writing for AAP FactCheck. It’s not all Covid misinfo these days, and some recent factchecks I’ve worked on include:

For the answers to these and other exciting questions, do check out AAP FactCheck‘s home page and help us fight back against the plague of falsehoods!

Hercules, the demigod who got Thor to loosen up

Look, I’m a New Zealander and a comics geek, so you better believe I’m excited to see homegrown talent Taika Waititi’s new Thor: Love And Thunder come out this week. And it looks set to expand the Marvel pantheon to the Greek gods, with Russell Crowe’s Zeus prominent in the trailers. 

Where Zeus goes, will Hercules follow? Marvel Comics’ version of Hercules has always been simmering somewhere around the B-list, and while the demigod Hercules has been around for eons as mythology and heroic TV and movie character, the Marvel-fied version of him has yet to debut in the MCU. 

I always kind of dug Marvel’s Hercules, who was a lot more relatable than Thor in the comics. He was a hard-drinking brawler who loved to share “the gift” (of combat!) with everyone he met. 

It’s easy to forget now with Chris Hemsworth’s winningly loose performance as the God of Thunder, but Thor was a lot less bro-tastic in the comics at first. When he debuted, Thor spoke a lofty, faux-Shakespearean prose, and even had a secret identity of sorts, a human named Don Blake he was cursed to transform into regularly. Thor began to loosen up in the comics after decades, but for years he was kind of a dull stiff. I’ve grown to appreciate the epic scope of those early Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Thor adventures more, but when I first came to comics, Thor often seemed a boring straight man. It took the energy of creators like Walt Simonson, Dan Jurgens and Jason Aaron to give him some much-needed life. 

To be honest, the MCU’s Thor owes a lot more of his character to Marvel’s Hercules. Thor’s stiffness was once a counterpoint to Hercules’ looseness, but if you squint now the characters are pretty similar. 

Now, Hercules – he was a slightly dopey bro-god from the start, impulsive and always with a flagon of ale nearby, right from his first appearance wrestling with Thor. But there’s only so many roles for god/superhero characters even somewhere as big as the Marvel universe, so Hercules was mostly related to supporting turns in Thor as a frenemy pal, some memorable runs in The Avengers and even the awesomely odd mix of characters in the short-lived 1970s Champions superteam. He’s had a few brief solo series of his own, including an excellent relatively recent run by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lante.

But the first exposure I ever had to Marvel’s Hercules was Bob Layton’s superb 1982 miniseries, an offbeat comic odyssey that wasn’t quite like anything else Marvel was putting out at the time. Hercules: Prince of Power took place in the distant future, where a still-carousing Hercules is once again banished from Olympus by his angry father Zeus, and ends up heading to the stars and having galactic adventures. Liberated from the bonds of regular continuity, Hercules could have universe-changing escapades and there was a goofy freedom to it all. Palling around with robots and Skrulls, Herc showed that being a god was kind of fun

Hercules: The Prince of Power was side-splittingly funny (name another comic that features Galactus getting drunk), but it also treated the demigod seriously. Perpetually immature, Hercules is still burdened by the weight of the years and his feats. In several sequel miniseries and graphic novels, Bob Layton proved one of Hercules’ finest chroniclers. At its heart the Hercules miniseries by Layton addressed the central question of godhood – what would it really be like to live forever? Would you learn anything or keep making the same mistakes over and over?

Marvel’s Hercules may or may not get a shot at wide cinematic universe fame at some point – hell, when She-Hulk, Rocket Raccoon and Ant-Man have all become household names, who knows? But I’d like to think he’s already had his impact, behind the scenes, by inspiring Thor to loosen the hell up. 

Baz Luhrmann’s frantic Elvis shows why the King got his crown

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is a delirious, caffeinated roller-coaster of a music biopic, taking the essence of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and shaking it up like a jug of Mountain Dew. It isn’t entirely true, nor does it try to be, but for much of its epic 159-minute running time, it’s vastly entertaining. 

Like the director’s Moulin Rouge and Great Gatsby, Elvis is all about style and razzle-dazzle. It’s bold, loud and occasionally bad but it captures the kinetic shock of Elvis’ impact on pop culture better than any other biopic of the man has done. It’s about Elvis as legend, really, a fable imagining the life of the boy from Tupelo. 

Luhrmann does cast an eye over the scope of Elvis’ brief 42 years on Earth, but in a fragmented, kaleidoscopic fashion. Like his Gatsby, Baz mixes in modern hip-hop and rock sounds to attempt to show a through-line from Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” to Doja Cat and Diplo. We flash back to Elvis’ impoverished boyhood, his love for Black music and his devil’s bargain with Colonel Tom Parker, the man who would guide – and some say crush the creativity out of – his career. We’ve seen Elvis slowly get reclaimed from the land of fat jokes the past decade or two, and Baz takes him seriously.

Elvis, a god-fearing mama’s boy, was also a precursor of punk rock – shaking up the system and terrifying the powers that be with his hip-shaking, lip-curling presence. Austin Butler at first seems a bit too pretty and polished to be Elvis, but he really grows on you, especially when he hits the stage for some utterly dynamic numbers. From his first appearances on the Louisiana Hayride to his comeback special to his final sad, dazed shows in Vegas, Luhrmann delivers astonishingly visceral recreations. There are moments when Butler’s on stage miming the King that I honestly couldn’t tell him and Presley apart. 

Tom Hanks’s scenery-chewing Colonel is a love-it or hate-it creation, speaking in a strange whispery, sing-songy carny barker’s tone and draped in a distracting fat suit. And yet, I liked Hanks, because he understands that to play this character you’ve got to go campy and broad, to embrace the Mephistophelean hold that Parker had on Elvis. Whispering promises and lies like an Iago to Elvis’ Othello, in real life Parker was actually a Dutch native who fled to America under a cloud of scandal and reinvented himself as a huckster. (The excellent biography The Colonel by Alanna Nash goes far more into depth about who Parker really was, which the movie only really alludes to.) 

If Elvis peaks during the astounding recreations of his musical numbers, it falters a bit during sappy family drama, and despite its length it tends to zip through the life story, dispatching his time in the Army and movie career in about five minutes. Nobody other than Elvis and the Colonel is given much depth in the movie (Priscilla Presley suffers particularly) and for all the gloss the rise-and-fall-and-rise drama of Elvis apes a million other cinematic biographies. 

And this is a fable, make no mistake – Elvis painted as a victim and the less savoury parts of his character brushed aside. The movie leans into his appreciation and inspirations from Black music (which he did have, although the movie exaggerates that a little too much) and ignores questioning the questions that raises about authenticity. It acts as if he wasn’t also a huge fan of white country and gospel artists. I don’t think Elvis was a fierce racist as some do, but he was also very much a product of his time, dirt-poor Mississippi. 

There’s a lot of fun-house distortion of history here, but I don’t think this film is trying to ape, say, the thoroughness of the definitive Elvis biography by Peter Guralnick. It’s all about the spectacle in the end, and that’s where Elvis truly delivers. I wouldn’t point this movie at anyone who wants a high-fidelity biography of the man, but if you want to imagine the impact he had, the seismic force of those wiggles and moans on stage almost 70 years ago now and why it still matters today, it’s not a bad place to start. 

The sweet, sentimental sounds of Orthodontist Office Music

I spent an awful lot of my early teenage years stuck in a chair, staring at the ceiling, while an orthodontist laboured mightily to straighten out my cursed teeth.

Soft rock music piped through on the office stereo as my bicuspids were shifted and molars manipulated at great cost to my parents, and the greatest inoffensive hits of the early 1980s drifted through my brain. 

Some of it was blandly saccharine – Christopher Cross, Air Supply, Toto – some of it was grand pop – Hall and Oates, Sade, Phil Collins. I was just a wee young lad who listened obsessively to FM102 in the glory days of Prince, Madonna and Jacko, who was only beginning to figure out his own musical tastes. So as anodyne as Orthodontist Music was, it still left an impression in my sponge-like ears. 

I never particularly cared for Cross’ so-soft-rock-it’s-liquid hit “Sailing,” but it’s permanently tattooed on my brain because of Orthodontist Music. A comics nerd even then, I got a nerdy kick out of whenever Joey Scarbury’s inspirational “Believe It Or Not” theme song to The Greatest American Hero came on in rotation. I heard it all, again and again, from Spandau Ballet’s “True” to Starship’s “Sara.” 

Nothing too manic or antic on this forgotten radio station, lest the dentists’ tools slip. Even the soaring drum kicks of Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” were a bit too fist-pumping.

I wore braces or headgear or some awful contraption for a good 5-6 years of the early 1980s, and even as my tastes matured into slightly edgier Depeche Mode and Peter Gabriel, every time I went back to the orthodontist I got a good dose of the soft, sweet stuff.  

I pat myself on the back for my omnivorous musical taste now, but I’ll admit years of Orthodontist Music at such an impressionable age left its mark. The quavering tones of Peter Cetera evoke the ‘80s gloss of pre-teen first love, I’ve got a soft spot for a little bit of Journey’s power balladry, and look – I bow in my unironic love for ‘80s Phil Collins to nobody, no matter how much time I might listen to Can and Captain Beefheart and The Fall now. 

Decades later, my teeth are more or less straight, but every time I hear one of these damned songs, I’m right back there in the chair. It’s not the worst place to be – rarely painful, the endless orthodontist visits were just boring and tedious, and I sort of entered a zen state of calm staring at the same ceiling over and over. Even now, I close my eyes, and far in the distance I hear Christopher Cross, on a ship somewhere, crooning… “Saaaaaaaaailing / Takes me aaaaaaway to where I’ve always heard it could be / Just a dream and the wind to carry me / And soon I will be free.”

And I know, I will never be free of Orthodontist Music.