Mark Lanegan, grunge, and the gone generation

Photo Steve Gullick

Mark Lanegan was not a household name. But when I think of grunge – that Seattle sound, that briefly hip ‘90s trend – I often think first of Lanegan’s husky baritone with the Screaming Trees, and all the ache and strength it conveyed.

Lanegan died suddenly at 57 this week, and for a certain brand of music lover, it was a painful blow to lose this troubled, damaged yet powerful figure.

Lanegan showed a way out of just being a grunge star. The bands that are left intact are mostly ones like Pearl Jam or Mudhoney, who’ve settled into amiable patterns where their music isn’t a heck of a lot different in 2022 than it was in 1992.

When Kurt Cobain died, half my lifetime ago, the thing that struck me hardest was that we’d never know what he might have done next, never follow up on the intriguing directions things like In Utero and MTV Unplugged hinted at. Lanegan, more than any other musician in the grunge era, picked up his longtime friend Cobain’s challenge and continued exploring and innovating until the day he died. 

I loved Screaming Trees, who bubbled under the superstar level of bands like Nirvana. Their single “Nearly Lost You” was their biggest popular hit, but the band – all towering, lumberjack like characters who seemed as ominious as their cartoony threat of a name – were a powerful machine that were driven by Lanegan’s urge to be more than just a screamer. Like TAD, another band a bit too raw to make it big, they felt like whispers and ghosts of the Northwest backwoods, sasquatch with guitars. 

The Trees combusted, and Lanegan was different when he branched out into underrated, heavily diverse solo work. Always a looming, dangerous figure, haunted by addictions and violence he wrote compellingly about in recent memoirs, Lanegan’s very voice let you know he had seen the darkness and stared deep. Many obituaries focused on how with the punishment he inflicted on himself, Lanegan should’ve been dead years ago.

As he aged, he became a kind of Seattle fusion of Nick Cave and Johnny Cash, charged with Old Testament authority and willing to experiment, collaborate and cast his sound far outside a narrow grunge template. He swerved from the dusty country-fried songwriting of Whiskey For The Holy Ghost to the sweet-and-sour collaborations with Isobel Campbell, the ‘70s hard rock stomp of his work with Queens Of The Stone Age, to dabbling in dark synth-pop in Blues Funeral. His final album, Straight Songs of Sorrow, seemed to amalgamate all of his interests to craft a dark, autobiographical mini-masterpiece. 

It was also reminded me of how so many of the great voices of his peers have left far too early, turning grunge – a term many couldn’t stand, but it’s stuck like glue – into kind of a lost generation. There will be no big the-whole-band-gets-back-together reunion tours for Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains or Screaming Trees. 

The list is long – Kurt Cobain, of course (suicide, 27), Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland (drugs, 48), Chris Cornell (suicide, 52), pre-grunge/glam act Mother Love Bone’s singer Andrew Patrick Wood (heroin, just 24), Gits singer Mia Zapata (murdered, 27); Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley (heroin/cocaine, 34) and Mike Starr (prescription overdose, 44), Hole’s Kristin Pfaff (overdose, 27); poppier act Blind Melon’s lead singer Shannon Hoon (cocaine, 28). 

Music and young death are no strangers, of course, and there’s been “lost generations” before, from the deaths of Janis, Jimi and Jim (you don’t even need to say their last names, do you?) to the rap slayings of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. to the present, in the deaths of those like XXXTentacion and Lil Peep. 

But grunge was my soundtrack to an age where you listen to music more obsessively than other, and nobody wants to watch their own generation slowly be washed away.

I lived a boring, drama-free 1990s compared to the antics of Lanegan, Cobain and their peers – rare binges of tequila and vodka were my peak indulgence – but the appeal of grunge to me was that the yearning of singers like Lanegan felt universal. We all ache in different ways. We all have addictions. I realised a long time ago that I’d easily get hooked on some of the temptations of the world given half a chance. I was an amateur at addiction, but something in me responded to Lanegan’s deep, groaning voice. 

Friend Bob got to see him in his elemental power a few years back, and I’m very jealous. Lanegan overcame his demons and was clean for years, but a bout with COVID-19 last year nearly killed him and I wouldn’t surprised if it led directly to his early death. 

Once upon a time, I would’ve said that making it to 57 was a decent run. But it doesn’t seem that way when you get close to it. Mark Lanegan was a guide through some of the darkness of life, wrapped heavily in all its shadows himself. He might have been the last lingering reminder of the power of grunge behind the hype and sadness, and that generation is gone and never coming back. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #14/15: What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973)

What they are: We’ve lost quite a few silver screen legends lately, but behind the camera, one of the biggest curators and creators of cinema history also left us last month – director Peter Bogdanovich. His death may have been overlooked a bit in the never-ending 24-hour news cycle, but for a certain breed of movie hound, at a certain period of time, Bogdanovich was the great hope for the Future of Cinema. His breakthrough movie, 1971’s ode to a vanished idea of small town Texas life, The Last Picture Show, was nominated for eight Oscars and won several. Bogdanovich followed that drama up with two big genre swerves – the goofy comedy What’s Up, Doc? with Barbra Streisand and con-man comedy/drama Paper Moon, which saw Tatum O’Neal become the still-youngest competitive Oscar winner by nabbing Best Supporting Actress at just 10 years old. When Bogdanovich died last month, I realised I needed to finally get around to watching Doc and Moon and fill in some big gaps in my film knowledge. 

Why I never saw them. The theme of many of his obituaries was that Bogdanovich came into movies like a comet, burning brightly and then flaming out. He loved classic Hollywood, and his best movies are all homages to the 1930s and 1940s. His debut, 1968’s Targets, is a fond love letter to horror icon Boris Karloff combined with a still-shocking look at a mass shooting. The Last Picture Show is one of my favourites, a monochrome gem of nostalgia and bittersweet romance that manages to both romanticise and demonise the American dream, with an utterly luminous young Cybill Shepherd and Jeff Bridges. Next, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon were both popular and critical hits.

But then Bogdanovich steered Shepherd into two notorious flops, Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love, and his career for the rest of his life alternated between moderate successes and mild failure, as well as grim personal tragedy. A keeper of the flame for cinema history, he wrote some excellent books on the many classic Hollywood stars and directors he befriended over the years (he was notably close to the great Orson Welles, and his final film was a documentary on Buster Keaton), but when he died, many of the Bogdanovich obituaries cast him as a kind of example of lost potential. I don’t quite think that’s a fair way to measure a life. 

Do they measure up to their rep: Let’s take each film separately. What’s Up, Doc? is essentially a colourful homage to screwball comedies of the 1930s, with Streisand and Ryan O’Neal filling the Katherine Hepburn and Cary Gran-type roles. Streisand is someone I’ve never always warmed to, but she’s a fiery, wisecracking delight here, a predecessor of the oft-maligned “manic pixie dream girl” archetype. She splashes into O’Neal’s stiff academic’s life almost at random and upsets the dull order of his world. In one light, her character’s stalking of O’Neal and his intense fiancee (a great Madeline Kahn) may be annoying, but if you ride with Doc’s giddy vibe, you’ll get caught up in Barbra’s freewheeling spirit. While I don’t think it quite beats the heights of Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, Bogdanovich’s homage is a light and hilarious ride. 

Paper Moon isn’t quite so loose and frivolous, although it’s also very funny. Bogdanovich went back to a gorgeous black-and-white for this caper starring real-life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. Ryan is a con man who shows up at the funeral of 9-year-old Addie’s mother. He might be Addie’s father, or he might not. O’Neal agrees to take Addie on a road trip to the rest of her family, but along the way also drags her into his complicated cons, scheming his way across Depression America. Bogdanovich expertly balances Paper Moon between comic and tugging the heartstrings, but is just cynical enough not to make this feel like a Disney movie. He’s helped by Tatum O’Neal, who’s utterly amazing as Addie – her character develops and expands throughout the movie and manages the almost impossible task of feeling like a real, chaotic and somewhat unpredictable child instead of just an actor.  

Ryan O’Neal anchors both these movies, although he’s upstaged by his female co-stars. He’s an interesting case of an actor who was a big star but also tends to blend into the scenery, I find. As a slippery con man in Paper Moon and a stuttering geek in Doc, he never entirely convinces, but he’s also oddly enjoyable to watch playing off the stunning Streisand and the remarkable Tatum. But both of these movies are far more about the women than they are the ostensible main character. Bogdanovich was a spectacular director for women – Cloris Leachman’s Oscar-winning turn in The Last Picture Show is a perfect example – and whatever the ups and downs of his career, he created some of the most indelible roles for women of the 1970s. 

Worth seeing? Viewed 50 years on, Bogdanovich’s great trilogy of films is about his love for the history and form of cinema itself, and that great American theme of the desire to better oneself, whether in money, love or location. The Last Picture Show is stark and sharp as a knife, while What’s Up, Doc? is a silly blast nearly as manic as the Bugs Bunny cartoons it got its name from, and Paper Moon combines elements of both of them to create a satirical yet heartfelt tale of a con man’s mild redemption.

Bogdanovich might have been a comet in that he never really bettered these three films in his career, but he certainly left a lot of great work behind and was one of the last men who knew and worked with the golden stars of Hollywood’s peak years, and worked to keep their names alive. That’s not a bad legacy to have at all. 

RIP to Entertainment Weekly, my pop-culture guide to the 1990s and beyond

I knew the patient was in critical condition for some time, but it’s still hard to say goodbye. The patient wasn’t a person, but a cultural moment, a blip of journalistic history – a magazine that has finally breathed its last.

Entertainment Weekly, a magazine that I read from its very first issue 32 years ago, is folding its print edition, it was announced this week in another one of those ice-cold corporate downsizing memos so familiar to journalism.

The world is too big and fractured now for a general-interest entertainment magazine now I guess, but I’ll still miss it. (It will continue as digital only, but honestly, that’s not the same at all.)

It’s a death among many in the media world and one I knew was coming ever since a couple of years ago when the magazine switched from weekly to monthly publication (and yet bizarrely, kept the name Entertainment Weekly). In a world of digital bits and unending social media outrages and whines, I miss the fading humble magazine. I still subscribe to some of the best – The New Yorker, The Atlantic, NZ’s Listener and North & South – but it’s a battle for eyeballs in a world filled with scrolling distractions.

I guess I’m a bit sad about Entertainment Weekly because I was there from the very, very start in 1990, and carried on my subscription for a good 20 years or so until moving to New Zealand made the cost unfeasible. I was a “charter subscriber” because I saw an advert somewhere and got the first few issues free. I bought my final issue on my trip back to the US just a few weeks ago of the now “Monthly Weekly,” their year-end issue with a seemingly immortal Keanu Reeves on the cover flogging the latest Matrix movie. 

In between, I read thousands of the damn things. Back in the 1990s, as a twenty-something in the pre-internet world, magazines like EW were my guide to the wider shared universe. It was never too fringe or counter-cultural, but for much of its time EW was still pretty egalitarian in its coverage. I learned about movies, books, music and more I’d never heard of, some I came to love. In a pre-Google world, magazines like EW, Spin, Rolling Stone and Premiere were my pop culture tutors. I held on to many of the 1990s issues forever – Brad and Jen forever! – but eventually, they went off to the recycler.  

But I’ve still got a decent pile of old ones in our musty basement decades on – I kept pretty much every “Year In Review” issue with its top ten lists of bests and worsts from 1990 through the mid-2010s or so. I’ve still got their encyclopaedic issues devoted to “Seinfeld” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and they’re still pretty cool. As glossy time capsules do, you could do worse.

I’ve still got the somewhat battered very first issue of Entertainment Weekly, somehow, decades on – dated almost exactly 32 years ago, February 16, 1990, with k.d. lang and Neneh Cherry on the cover (hello, 1990s!). It’s a marvellous little time capsule of that vanished world, with cigarette advertisements galore and an offer to get the ENTIRE James Bond series on shiny VHS tapes from Time-Life Video. (Pay a mere $1 for the first tape and others will follow about one every month.) 

In his opening-issue editorial, Jeff Jarvis sets out a manifesto – entertaining, but honest, no “long, pompous articles,” but also “a voice for quality in a business that needs one.” I wouldn’t argue that EW was high culture, but it introduced me to an awful lot of it along the way.

That first issue touches all the early 1990s icons – Murphy Brown, Fox’s Married With Children, how to install a newfangled car CD changer, or the latest album by some colourful rapper named M.C. Hammer (which gets an “A-,” and “tells important truths,” according to the review).

But it’s also got a lot of strong, in-depth coverage – several pages devoted to thoughtful book reviews, or a look at how the then-recent fall of the Berlin Wall was helped along by repressed artists. EW always balanced on the wire between fluff and substance, but it was a hell of a smarter read than things like People or Us magazine were. There were frequent long, deep reads into pop culture history that made up for the gossipy stuff. 

Like many things, it declined, though, pivoting an awful lot to try and figure out how to beat the internet. In 1990, a weekly magazine was fresh and current. In 2022, a now-monthly magazine was endlessly behind the pop culture beat. 

Yet even in that final January 2022 issue I picked up, there was still plenty worth reading in Entertainment ‘Weekly.’ A solid oral history of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders sits next to an interview with a Booker Prize-winning author and lists of the year’s best movies (Licorice Pizza and Power of The Dog, yes please). It was struggling, but there were still glimpses of its glory days. 

We’re in a world now where a magazine like Entertainment Weekly, with a name that no longer even fit, couldn’t help but seem dated within days of its release. I find that kind of sad, and while I’m still a nut for pop culture and always looking for good books to read, movies to see and music to hear, I tip my cap to the magazine that guided me through so much of the 1990s. We won’t see anything like it again. 

Remembering Anne Rice, who brought death to life

If you could live forever, would you want to? And what would it be like?

That question is at the heart of the legacy of Anne Rice, who died at 80 last month. I grew up reading many of her Vampire Chronicles, and — a bit belatedly due to Christmas and weather chaos — I wanted to think about why her work meant so much to young Nik.

Nobody was more influential in vampire fiction since Bram Stoker dragged Dracula out of the coffin back in the 1890s. Rice’s vision of blood-suckers can be seen in the DNA of everything from The Vampire Diaries to True Blood to Buffy to Twilight — some good, some not.

When we think of vampires today, you’re likely thinking of them less as Bela Lugosi and more as passionate, creepy and eternally conflicted lovers, a template Anne Rice built up more than anyone.

Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire and The Vampire Lestat were passed-around, beloved talismans of my wayward youth. The glittering paperbacks with their gothic lettering were read, and re-read.

It was The Vampire Lestat that particularly grabbed me, with Lestat narrating the centuries of his life in first person. He was bratty, impetuous, cruel and, sometimes, kind. He may have been hundreds of years old, but Lestat kind of felt like a teenager.

Evocative and passionate, gothy as any Cure song, filled with blood and lust and long lonely meditations on what it’s all about, they were perfect reading for confused teenagers trying to figure out the world. She quietly was a progressive voice for gay equality in the ’80s, and later depicted trans characters and gender fluidity in a way that seemed groundbreaking and yet completely unforced. In her world, love is love.

Rice created a sprawling narrative filled with rich characters, many of whom went on to star in their own books after debuting in the original trilogy, and she was deft at bringing her historic settings to life. Her strength was not so much in plot or her almost Victorian prose, but in character. She made you feel the weight of immortality and what that might actually be like. Her vampires – dour Louis, insecure Armand, bold Marius or terrifying Akasha – were far more complex than the spooky boogeymen of Stoker’s Dracula. Dead, they still carried with them all the baggage of their living lives. Her vampires talked, and talked, and talked, sometimes to the point of self-parody, but in their lengthy soliloquies were all about digging into what makes us human – or inhuman.

The Vampire Chronicles did become a case of diminishing returns as it sprawled on to more than a dozen books, and Rice’s later work never quite surpassed the original books, but I’d argue everything up until Memnoch the Devil is pretty golden. As the series goes along, Lestat becomes a bit too powerful and loses some of the charming rogue vibe he has in the earlier books, and the constant adoration other characters always seem to have for him gets a bit much.

Yet there’s still a lot to like in later volumes if you’re not turned off by Rice’s endless expansion of her shared universe to include witches, Atlantis, demons and more. But in the end, the stories always circle back to Lestat, her greatest character and always, always the centre of attention.

In Lestat, Rice created a monster who constantly tries not to be one, often failing. Rice wrote other books, of course – erotic fiction, meditations on the life of Christ and more – but ultimately, it’s the vampires that make her immortal.

Chadwick Boseman, and the stories left to tell

The death of Chadwick Boseman at just 43 from cancer hurts, coming as it does in a year when there’s been so much hurt already. 

Just over two years ago, he was the star of the biggest superhero movie ever at the time, the first nominated for Best Picture. But he was eye-catching and charismatic in everything he appeared in during his too-short starring film career, which spanned just seven years. To most of the world’s shock and dismay, we learned that he was fighting colon cancer for much of the time he was starring in some of the biggest movies on the planet. Unimaginable. 

He’s going to always be remembered for Black Panther, but he starred in several wonderful films, carving out a bit of a niche career as a chameleon portraying famous inspirational Black figures. Legendary baseball star Jackie Robinson. Soul star James Brown. The first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice. He was very different, dazzling in each role and was much more than just T’Challa, the Black Panther. He leaves us these stories. 

I always loved the Black Panther as a kid. He was mysterious and cool, and back in the 1980s, he didn’t actually appear all that often in comics. And Chadwick Boseman brought him to life wonderfully on screen, capturing the Shakespearean tumult of a Prince-turned-King wrestling with his own power. I would’ve loved to see what he did in future films. 

Boseman’s pivotal place in Black film history is not my story to tell. But his starring as the Black Panther – telling millions of Black kids and adults that yes, a superhero could look like anybody – changed the parameters. He made the world bigger, and broader.

Some of us mourn actors and musicians because we see the storytellers they are, and when one of them dies suddenly or too young all you can see are the stories yet untold. Chadwick Boseman should’ve had a career stretching for decades, and it’s unfair. The last sudden film star death that hit me like this was Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I felt much the same thing – I wanted to see more. I felt cheated. 

Two scenes from Boseman’s turn as the Black Panther keep ringing in my head, neither one of them your typical superhero punch-ups. One is the quiet moment at the very end of Black Panther between T’Challa and his vanquished foe Killmonger, which achieves a kind of graceful sadness. The other came at the very end of Captain America: Civil War, where T’Challa confronts Baron Zemo, the villain who assassinated his father. 

Both scenes are notable for the calm centeredness of Boseman. At the end of Civil War, T’Challa decides not to kill the man he’s been hunting the entire film, and stops him from killing himself. 

He tells Zemo, “The living are not done with you yet.” Yes, it’s a line by a superhero to a murderous villain, yet somehow it echoes to me so much as I think about Chadwick Boseman today. 

He is free from pain now, but the living were not done with you yet.

There were so many stories left to tell. 

RIP Kirk Douglas, the last man standing

“They’re cheering more than a man tonight. … They’re cheering the story of a boy who rose from the depths of poverty to become Champion of the World!”Champion, 1949, Kirk Douglas’ breakthrough film.

The death of Kirk Douglas isn’t a surprise, I suppose. The man who was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky 103 years ago lived a long, remarkable life, and was the last giant standing from Hollywood’s golden age. He was also always one of my favourites, a reliable jut-jawed, iron-eyed rock who stood tall in many of Hollywood’s greatest – and often quietly subversive – films. 

It’s the end of the line for a pantheon of actors most people only ever saw in black and white, of the stars of the 1940s and ‘50s who dominated Hollywood years before I was even born. There’s a couple others still kicking, but I wouldn’t argue that Olivia de Havilland (also 103!) is quite the icon Douglas became. He was truly the last of the line. He starred with Lauren Bacall and Robert Mitchum and Lana Turner and Laurence Olivier, and they’re all gone now. 

There’ll be a lot of people saying now that “they don’t make them like Kirk Douglas anymore,” but it’s a cliche because it’s true. He was an alpha male from a bygone age, and while times have thankfully changed and a lot of the more odious sexism and racism of that golden age is gone, Kirk Douglas always embraced his swaggering manhood with an edge to it. All impossibly-angled chin and fanatic’s eyes, Douglas chewed the scenery hard, a lot of time, but he never choked on it. 

We’d call it irony, now, but when you look at the martyr Spartacus, the doomed soldier in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory, the lost and confused Vincent Van Gogh of Lust For Life, the cowboy left behind by modern life in Lonely Are The Brave, a cruel film producer in The Bad And The Beautiful, you don’t quite see heroes. You see men with flaws, unafraid to break a little. (John Wayne, who thought irony was what you did to clean clothes, once supposedly told Kirk, “We got to play strong, tough characters, not these weak queers.”)

More than Bogart or Cary Grant or Brando, Douglas seemed most comfortable skirting the edge of villainy. I loved Kirk Douglas because his characters were always flawed rogues. No movie shows this better than my favourite of his films, Billy Wilder’s 1951 Ace In The Hole, a pitch-black satire of media madness that still stings 70 years on. Douglas is Chuck Tatum, a cynical reporter who rides a tragedy as his ticket back to fame, but loses his soul in the process. There is perhaps no better movie that sums up the Douglas mystique than this bitter pill, a movie that only seems more prescient in 2020. In real life, Douglas was often a supporter of liberal causes, including breaking the Hollywood blacklist of the ’50s.

Kirk Douglas lived his fair share of years, and it’s hard to feel gutted at the death of someone who made it to 103. But the fading black-and-white world he represented, the clatter of cowboys on horses and wisecracking cynics in shadowy rooms and a world that seems a million years ago rather than just 60 or 70 years … Yeah, I’ll miss that Hollywood. I can call it up on a screen anytime I want to, I know, but with the death of Kirk Douglas, I know it’s never coming back. 

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.