I’m Gen-X, and all my rock heroes are dying

Somewhere in the last few years, my music collection began to contain more dead people than live people.

It’s been a grim decade for my tastes. Bowie. Prince. Cohen. Tom Petty. Aretha. The Fall’s Mark E. Smith. Lou Reed. Scott Walker. Just in the past few weeks alone, Daniel Johnston, Eddie Money and Ric Ocasek all took the last train from the station. 

When both The Cars’ Ric Ocasek and Eddie Money died within a few days of each other recently, it felt like another thudding harsh reminder that my cassette-filled, Atari-drenched ‘80s childhood was in fact more than 35 years ago now. That the towering pop stars of my youth were now becoming old men. 

Eddie Money, portrait of an ’80s rock schlub.

Eddie Money’s delightfully overwrought 1986 hit “Take Me Home Tonight” is the sound of your 14-year-old author, jittering with hormones and intensity, in unrequited love with a girl with spray-gelled hair dancing with her friends on the other side of the junior high school gym. I’ve never actually owned an Eddie Money album, but Eddie Money was part of the ‘80s DNA, in that same endearingly awkward rock crowd that included Billy Joel and Huey Lewis. You absorbed their hits, maybe you hated them, maybe you loved them, but 35 years on, they’re the sound of your youth.

And The Cars were always cool and gawky, all at the same time, which is the best possible way to be. Ric Ocasek did not look like David Lee Roth; he looked like a guy in the shadows at the coffee shop reading a beat-up William Burroughs book. The Cars crafted perfect little new wave power pop gems that always sounded vaguely spooked by something far outside their control. 

I know they say rock ’n’ roll is a young man’s game, for young people by young people, but for some reason most of the musicians I’ve dug have always been older than me. Being a Gen-X music fan often meant digging artists a decade or more older than you were. Bowie was already in his 30s when he became a superstar in the “Let’s Dance” era. Someone like Bruce Springsteen or Phil Collins always seemed like an adult. Morrissey, The Clash, The Cure – they were all at least 10 years older than teens in the 1980s. 

All the rock stars who defined the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s are entering their 60s and 70s now. We’ll continue to see a slow drip of rock star deaths for years to come, and every one of them will make some of us feel a bit more mortal ourselves. 

One morbid thing about living in New Zealand is that if a “legacy” act comes here, you jump on it, because it might be the last time they ever come down this way. I saw Mick Jagger strut like a golden god with the Stones in 2014, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I didn’t get to what turned out to be Leonard Cohen’s last concert, ever, anywhere, right here in Auckland in 2013, and I’m kicking myself forever. 

Watching the stars who peopled your teenage dreams grow old and fade away is a striking reminder that it’s happening to you, too. I’m afraid my musical tastes have become even more calcified with age, and I’m far more likely to listen to a Ramones album or the Kinks than I am a Tekashi 6ix9ine. 

On disc or stream or vinyl, they’re all still young. They’re still there, forever young, no matter how many years pass or obits roll. To quote The Cars, “Uh oh, it’s magic, when I’m with you.” 

MAD magazine: RIP to the biggest wise guy in the room

257What, me sorry? The rumours are flying fast and furious that MAD magazine, warping young minds ever since 1952, is closing up shop soon and ending its 67-year run. It’s reportedly going to switch to just reprint material to fulfil its subscription responsibilities and then end publication entirely soon.

While MAD has been past its peak for a while, it’s still truly the end of something great. MAD was once a cultural milestone that’s hard to put into context now. Pre-meme culture, pre-internet snark, hell, even pre-Seinfeld age of irony, MAD was a dissenting voice of doubt and disdain of prevailing institutions. It cracked the 1950s wide open and in some ways the world never looked back. It was never strident about it, but instead it was the voice of the wiseacre kid perched in the back of class interrupting the teacher’s lectures. Without MAD, there’d be no Bart Simpson. 

I first became “aware” of MAD in the early ‘80s toward the end of its heyday. I picked it up for the classic Mort Drucker-drawn movie parodies of stuff like “Rocky III” and “Superman II,” and stayed for the crazed cartooning and wit it was packed with – Sergio Aragones’ teeny-tiny toons, Dave Berger’s exploration of the creepy suburban underbelly in “The Lighter Side Of”, the kinetic “Spy Vs. Spy,” and much more. 

DIG007378_1._SX360_QL80_TTD_Soon I also discovered “classic” MAD, the Harvey Kurtzman-edited comic book that the magazine originally began as in 1952. It remained the last gasp of EC Comics itself after the great comics-will-warp-you scare of the ‘50s shut the rest of the line down. I got a massive volume collecting #1-6 of the series, packed with Kurtzman wit, Will Elder’s insanely detailed art, Wally Wood’s gorgeous spacemen and girls, and much more. I still have that somewhat battered gorgeous big volume of MAD’s first 6 issues, along with several other volumes collecting the original series, plus scattered around the house a battered stack of issues dating back to the ‘70s, all well-read and mangled as they should properly be. 

MAD carried on, and had a good run. One of the great joys of parenthood for me was my son discovering a huge stack of old MADs out at our beach house and becoming addicted to them. There’s nothing like seeing the next generation discover the pleasures of Don Martin’s FLAPPPS and THWITZZIPPTS, of Sergio Aragones’ amazing doodles, of the mysterious intricate pleasures of Al Jaffee’s fold-ins. I’d pick up the occasional “newer” MADs for the boy, too, and while I personally never found them quite as fresh or funny, I also knew that at 40-something I wasn’t quite the audience anymore. Unfortunately, people like me not buying MAD and younger folks not even knowing about it probably spelled the end a while ago. 

768711._SX360_QL80_TTD_MAD ended its 550-issue run and “relaunched” like pretty much every other long-running comic book publication about a year ago, and the writing was on the wall then. But to be honest, in the age of Trump, isn’t everything feeling a little satirical? When Trump himself made fun of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg by saying he ‘looked like Alfred E. Neuman,” nobody under 40 really seemed to get the the joke, including the candidate himself. 

For its 60 years of poking fun at sacred cows, of mocking everything from Star Wars to Nixon to John Travolta to Trump with an unblinking eye, MAD deserves a salute. I’m sad about its imminent end, but I also know the spirit of mockery – all the good and bad things about it – is still alive and scattered all over the internet and today’s pop culture. Alfred E. Neuman will never die. 

Scott Walker and the art of mutation

VARIOUSThe artists I admire the most are the chameleons, the mutators and innovators, the ones who never stand still. That’s why the Beatles will always trump the Rolling Stones, David Bowie will always beat Elton John to me.

And the king of chameleons was the late Scott Walker, who flew so far ahead of the farthest stars in his strange career. 

Walker died this week at 76, and it’s been heartening to see this cult artist’s cult artist applauded and recognised from so many corners. The twists of his career outstripped almost every other pop star. “Imagine Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen,” wrote a Guardian writer a while back, and that sums it up nicely. 

Born in Ohio, Walker began as a swinging ‘60s teen pop icon with the Walker Brothers (who weren’t actually brothers), belting out classics like “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”, Scott’s uniquely evocative baritone frequently rising above the banality of their early material. 

But it’s with Walker’s solo career that he really began to find his own voice, moving to the UK and creating increasingly baroque, lonesome pop anthems in a run of four amazing albums from Scott to Scott 4. Then after a few disappointing albums, he sort of vanished. He resurfaced briefly in the late 1970s with Bowie-esque, broody gems like “The Electrician” and then vanished again, releasing only two proper albums between 1978 and 2006. Each time he came back, it was as a different being. 

Scott-Walker-4AD-press-shot-web-optimised-1000-CREDIT-Jamie-HawkesworthBy 2006’s The Drift, Walker had exploded into full-on experimental surrealism, with terrifying drones and waves of sound and a voice that now sounded like the heavens shaking themselves awake. There were no pop anthems here. Legendarily, he hunted for just the right percussion sound on “The Drift” by punching hunks of raw meat. It wasn’t for everyone – indeed, you’ve really got to be in the proper frame of mind for late Scott Walker – but it was a gloriously creative twilight zone he was exploring in. His lyrics became twisted and strange Joycean rambles, his songs willfully avoiding traditional structures.

Imagine William S. Burroughs if he’d been a composer to fully get the clattering, obscure and layered effect of works like The Drift or 2012’s Bish Bosch. Yet there was always a hint of the yearning heartbroken pop singer of his earliest work there in the shadows too, the through line of a career so wilfully independent that a novice would be hard pressed to recognise the work of 1967 Scott Walker and 2016 Scott Walker as being by the same creative, haunting voice. 

Here are four songs to remember him by, each showing a different facet of his yearning sound: (1. The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, orchestral pop given a strange, epic sheen by his young yet ancient voice:

(2. His debauched and ecstatic cover of Jacques Brel’s Jacky, as subversive as all get out. Glam rock starts here. 

(3. Nite Flights, sinuous Bowie-esque glamour incarnate from the 1978 Walker Brothers reunion:

(4. Finally, Epizootics!, to give you a taste of just how out-there late-period Walker circa 2012’s Bish Bosch had gotten – stick with it, it’s got a groove that hypnotizes you and this video is like David Lynch’s nightmares unfolding. It’ll either grab you right in the spleen or repulse you deep in places you might not even know you had. How could these four songs be by the same man? It’s a fitting coda to Walker’s career for me – taking you places nobody else could. 

RIP Julie Adams, the Creature’s one true love

DyiRW9YV4AArB-y.jpg-largeJulie Adams wasn’t a household name, but she was legendary in her own way as one of the last surviving “scream queens” of the classic Universal Monster movies of the 1930s-1950s. Adams died at 92 this weekend, and horror geeks like me are mourning her today. 

She had a lengthy and impressive career, but it was as the damsel in distress in 1954’s “Creature From The Black Lagoon” that Adams swam through our dreams. 

She was probably one of the very first celebrities I ever got a crush on, when I saw “Creature” on TV sometime in the early ‘80s. On the page, Adams’ part is nothing too special – the standard “scientist’s girlfriend” seen in a hundred other movies of the era, who has a monster fall in love with her. Yet there’s something so iconic about Adams in the film, with her white swimsuit and wide-eyed charm. 

The scene where she swims idyllically in the lagoon while underneath, the misshapen Creature stalks and pines over her, is the blueprint for a thousand other sequences like it (you wouldn’t have the famous opening of Spielberg’s “Jaws” without this scene).

“Creature” itself will always be in my top 10 movies – elegant, simple and yet pulsing with unexplained mysteries and thanks to Adams’ unforgettable performance, a primal sensuality. Sixty-five years on, it still simmers and entertains.

I can take or leave the Oscars a lot of years, but when Guillermo Del Toro’s superb, dreamy “The Shape of Water” won Best Picture and Best Director last year, I cheered. More than anything Del Toro’s masterpiece is a loving homage to the mystery and magic of classic horror movies, “Creature” in particular, and I couldn’t help but feel it was almost as if the Gill-Man himself was getting a belated honour from the Academy. Del Toro himself wrote yesterday, “I mourn Julie Adams passing.  It hurts in a place deep in me, where monsters swim.”

Creature

The only remaining star of note from “Creature” left is none other than the Gill-Man himself, Ricou Browning, 88, who played the monster in the swimming scenes. When he’s gone, the final curtain will draw at last on the Universal Classic Monster series. But they’ll continue to haunt the dreams of movie-loving fans forever. 

President George H.W. Bush and me

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One of my weird hobbies is a US presidential history fixation. I keep it separate from my politics, which like most things seems a lot harder to do in 2018 than it once was. What I’m interested in is the personalities, the stories and the things that drove the men (so far) who’ve lived in the White House. 

So the death of a President for a prez-nerd like me is a kinda big deal. George H.W. Bush wasn’t my favourite President, nor my least favourite, but he seemed significant to me. 

He’s the first President I ever voted against, and his 1992 and 1988 campaigns were the first ones I really paid attention to. I turned 18 a year too late to vote in the 1988 election, but I was an unashamed Dukakis fan who was set up for the first of many electoral heartbreaks. My high school friends and I were what the kids today might’ve called “woke” and actually cared about the election; I remember some organising a day for everyone to wear black after Bush, the uncool candidate, won the ’88 race easily. #Occupymyhighschool!

BUSH DUKAKIS DEBATE 1988

In ’92, I voted for President for the first time, with Bush, Clinton and wayfaring stranger from another planet Ross Perot battling it out. On Election Night a dozen or so friends gathered at my apartment to watch the results, pretty evenly divided between Bush, Clinton and Perot supporters, a combination of partisan friends which seems harder to imagine happening today. 

It’s been 12 years since a President died and America went through all its elaborate mourning rituals. I remember clearly where I was when each President in my lifetime died – Richard Nixon, in 1994, I was in New Orleans visiting the family of a short-lived girlfriend. In a bizarre cosmic coincidence I met Hunter S. Thompson there the day after his nemesis Nixon had died. 

In 2004 I was working the weekend shift running a newspaper in Oregon and splashed Ronald Reagan’s death on the front page; in 2006 when Gerald Ford died I was at our beach house and didn’t find out about it for days. When George H.W. Bush died I’d spent the rainy Saturday watching Spielberg’s Lincoln movie with my son and also reading some of the massive history of President Ulysses S Grant I’ve been working on for weeks now. It was a very Presidential day. 

For a brief four years or so, the fumbling Bush dominated the culture, much like Trump does today. Dana Carvey mocked him on SNL, he beat up Homer Simpson, his wife wrote a book about their dog and apparently people actually bought it. I rather like Maureen Dowd’s reminiscences about Bush in The New York Times, which captures something of the man’s goofy embarrassing uncle vibe and the kernel of compassion which kept me from ever truly hating him. bush-56a9b7835f9b58b7d0fe5472

I didn’t love him and he made a lot of mistakes – being in a gung-ho conservative Southern college when the Gulf War broke out in 1990 and having people in my dorm cheer about “killing rag heads” in “Bush’s war” was one of those moments when I realised what side in life I wanted to be on. But I didn’t loathe him quite like I’ve come to loathe some who’ve followed him (as the writer Peter David puts it, “every president who passes away from this point on will have to face one question: Was he better than Trump?”). I sneered at Bush a lot in his life, but yet, I wouldn’t have balked at shaking his hand. 

There’s something strange and evocative to me about when a President dies. It pulls a firm curtain on whatever era they stood for, reminds us that no matter how big a deal someone gets to be they all face the same end. A lot of people are talking about how Bush was the last President who wasn’t loathed by a massive percentage of Americans, the last Cold War president, last World War II veteran president and maybe the last of what he called a “kinder, gentler nation” too. 

I may not have voted for President Bush, but he was a part of history for better or worse, and it’s worth taking a moment to think about what all that meant. 

RIP Stan Lee – 1922-2018

Stan Lee was probably the first writer I remember knowing by name as a kid. Even in the late 1970s, when he wasn’t writing Marvel Comics any more, his name was a talisman on everything they published. “STAN LEE PRESENTS” felt like a stamp of Mighty Marvel authenticity, like a key to a secret clubhouse. 

If Stan was presenting it, it had to be fun, right? 

He was 95, he was in ill health, but still, it’s hard to believe Stan Lee is gone now. He’s been there for my entire reading lifetime. With the death of Steve Ditko earlier this year, it feels like a curtain has been drawn over Marvel Comics’ greatest age.

Marvel_Tales_Vol_2_137My first real deep dive into Stan Lee’s own writing came when Marvel Tales, a reprint mag, began running the original Lee/Steve Ditko issues of Amazing Spider-Man from the beginning in 1982. I’d never read them before, and while my pre-teen eyes took a while to get used to Ditko’s more primitive-feeling artwork, I was sucked in to the stories as Spider-Man fought Dr. Doom! Met the Lizard! Battled Doctor Octopus and the Living Brain! Reading these marvellous tales, I realised what all the fuss about “Stan Lee Presents” was really about. 

There’ll be a lot of hot takes about Stan’s legacy in coming days, some of which will probably write him off as an overrated wordsmith. But as much as I love Jack Kirby and Ditko, all you have to do is consider their later work without Stan’s touch added – Kirby, fantastic and imaginative yet rarely tethered to earth, or Ditko, surreal and stark yet emotionally ice cold. Combined together, Lee and his collaborators during Marvel’s golden age of the 1960s launched entire cosmologies and a million dreams. 

IMG_4095If you want to really examine the seismic effect Stan Lee had on comic book storytelling, read one of DC Comics’ musty early Justice League of America issues from around the same time the Fantastic Four launched. While they’re charming enough, the stiff, military-precise characters are interchangeable and conflict is nonexistent. They fight crime with a smile and brisk efficiency. 

Compare that to the Fantastic Four, who in their very first issue are transformed by cosmic rays into superheroes – and immediately start brawling and beating the heck out of each other. They felt alive, in a way that the smiling Justice League didn’t quite seem to be in those days.IMG_4094

Each of the Marvel heroes was flawed in some crucial way – Spider-Man, hobbled by guilt; Hulk, a man turned monster; Iron Man, literally heart-broken thanks to an injury; Captain America, trapped out of time; the mutant X-Men, hunted by humanity.

Lee had already spent decades working in comics before the great creative flowering of 1961 led to the Fantastic Four and so many others. He often said he felt this was his last chance in comics, and so he wrote the stories he wanted to see. He loosened up something crucial in comics storytelling that was rapidly aped by everyone else in the industry. 

He was also a huckster, a pitchman PT Barnum would be proud of, a grinning mustached ambassador for comics right till the end, appearing in cheeseball cameos in multimillion-dollar movies forged out of his works. That alchemy propelled Marvel to dominate the comics world starting in the 1970s and really, right until this day – Lee sold himself shamelessly, sometimes embarrassingly, and his final days were marked by an unpleasant feeling that he was being sorely taken advantage of. 

But a salesman can still be an artist. Thanks Stan, for everything. 

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