#709: The Stuff

GETTING MORE TALE #709: The Stuff

October 17 2018 was a day like any other day.  I got up, showered, went to work, worked, ate lunch, worked some more, and came home.  You might have had a similar day yourself.

I drove home with Cheap Trick in my ears (“If You Want My Love”, great pop rock) and it was a regular commute, just like any other.  Uneventful is good.  I exited the car into the cold air.  The chill has come, but as I walked towards the building, there was something new.  I smelled the Stuff.

The Stuff is legal in Canada now.  Cannabis, also known as marijuana, ganja, reefer, weed, pot, the electric lettuce…add your own to this list.  Where was I?  Legalisation.  The Justin Trudeau Liberals actually lived up to its campaign promise and the Stuff is now legal.  You can smoke it, you can grow it, and there are rules and regulations to go with it.  In the province of Ontario you can’t just walk into a store and buy it.  You have to order it online.  I heard they’re already sold out.  But it’s legal, is the point I’m making.  Somebody upstairs in the building was celebrating, and that’s fine.

My main point:  like many things, the world didn’t shift today.  I read worried nay-sayers asking questions like “Have they considered all the stoned pot heads driving during the winter while on the Stuff?”  Yes, that’s been considered.  Anybody stupid enough to drive while stoned was already doing it.  What’s one law when you can break two, I guess.  Life in Canada has gone on pretty much normally.  The mail came again.  It was all junk, again.  Gas is pretty much the same price as yesterday.  Same with milk.  Donald Trump tweeted stupid things.  Just a normal day in 2018.

There was one other minor difference today.  There was a mass email at work reminding everyone of the drug & liquor policies.  They haven’t changed though, it’s still basically “Don’t come to work drunk or stoned.”  Same as the day before.

Moving on, I like to think of all the songs I heard as a kid, loaded with references to the Stuff that I completely missed.  I was a pretty naive teenager, I guess, and I really didn’t have a clue!  “Sweet Leaf” by Black Sabbath?  I thought it was about a girl named Leaf.  Leaf isn’t a common name, but it’s a name.  “I love you Sweet Leaf, though you can’t hear.”  Hey, maybe she’s too far away to hear.  I didn’t know!  I swear to Christ almighty, believe me or not, I thought “Sweet Leaf” was about a girl.  Don’t forget Black Sabbath cassettes didn’t come with lyric sheets, so I was guessing at most of the words.  Same with “Flying High Again”.  No clue.

Early 1990, I was working at the grocery store at the mall with a guy named Scott Gunning.  I was obsessed with “Sweet Leaf” that spring.  I just got Sabbath’s We Sold Our Soul for Rock and Roll tape.  “Sweet Leaf” was one of many favourites, but I really loved that riff.  I thought the cough at the start was just an unrelated joke.  Scott, who was older and knew Black Sabbath, must have thought I was a complete stoner, how much I was talking about this song!  Meanwhile I wouldn’t have known the Stuff if it bit me on the nose!

As kids, we always preferred anti-drug songs to ones about getting high.  We were young, and we could relate to the “cleaner” lyrics of a band like Kiss.  “I don’t need to get wasted, it only brings me down.”  Clear cut and easy to understand.  Gene Simmons would be happy that his lyrics had a positive resonance with kids.

Here’s the irony:  Gene Simmons, who has always boasted that he’s only been high in a dentist’s chair, is now investing in Canadian weed companies.

Legalization is a good thing.  A lot of money is going to go right into the economy.  Hell, Mrs. LeBrain has had a prescription for a year and a half now.  Another irony:  she doesn’t take her meds.  She doesn’t like it.  And that’s another factor that people are forgetting.  There are going to be plenty of people who are going to legally try it for the first time, and they’re going to hate it.  They won’t like how it makes them paranoid, or lazy, or hungry, or whatever their reaction will be.  It’s won’t be like the nation will go pot-mad.

Even if it did, I’d rather be living here than down south.

 

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GUEST REVIEW: Fastway – Trick or Treat (1986 Soundtrack)

 

Guest review by Holen MaGroin

It’s not about the candy!  It’s Halloween Wednesday again, so here’s HOLEN MaGROIN with the next in his series of Halloween themed reviews. 

Oct 3:  Soundgarden – Screaming Life/Fopp EPs
Oct 10:  Batman / Batman Returns movie reviews

 

FASTWAY – Trick or Treat Original Music Score (1986 Columbia)

Some albums excel by being excellent; Trick or Treat is not one of those albums. It excels because of its banality. There’s nothing on this album that you’ve never heard before, but the band sells it with such conviction that you buy into about as much as the band itself does. This is the soundtrack to the best forgotten 1986 film starring no one worth remembering, with a couple of cameos from Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne. The film was such a dud that once it was released on DVD, they changed the cover to feature the faces of Simmons and Osbourne despite the two of them being in the film for a collective total of about five minutes.  The journey I went through listening to this album impacted me in such a way that I feel obligated to elaborate on it here, and that journey will essentially act as the review. I didn’t intentionally go anywhere while listening to this album; the music was such a powerful agent that it literally shattered the very fabric of space and time. The film is not as strong.

However, this review isn’t about that film. This is about the Fastway soundtrack to the film. You’d think a band taking on a film as gloriously moronic as this one would whip up some tracks that were appropriately tongue in cheek, but nope. Fastway plays it 100% straight, which actually makes it funnier than if they’d been going for laughs. The songs that follow are a complete artistic tour de force that will leave your soul shaken by the depth and insightful words of automatic poetry.

The first time I heard the opening song and title track, I pooped my pants.* The song’s unparalleled emotion and tenacity penetrated the very depths of my being, and left me quivering unequivocally with raw radiant emotion. The spiritual rebirth was enough to temporarily reset my bowels back to their earliest stages, causing a stinky disturbance. Joy mixed with sorrow as the cool tears streamed down my face like a river from the ice caves of the indigenous population of Mars. The deep prose of the chorus commanded deeper attention, as Dave King eloquently belted out the most imaginative lines in all of rock. “Rock and roll! Rockin’ on at midnight, steal your soul!” So much can be determined from the hermetic intangibility of this expertly crafted piece of macaroni and songwriting. Never before has a rock vocalist journeyed to such spiritual and internal truths. This has elevated to a level beyond art, beyond comprehension, beyond all human understanding! It has encompassed all the ostentatious pretension and grandeur of the art world, while maintaining a close link to the blue collar worker! This is a work of God!

By the time the song is over, my hands are bloody from the sheer force with which I was gripping my security blanket. My nails dug through the blanket into my fist. My material possessions (except the stereo and the blanket) had burned up in the intensity, as music so self-aware could only be absorbed by living tissue. I feel so weak that I can barely discern the ends of the blanket from my fragile body. I press pause on my CD player, and I begin to cry. After a healthy drink of water, I decide to venture on to the next potential masterpiece, and continue on with my expedition into the brilliantly alluring tapestry of the Fastway facade. The opening chords of “After Midnight” burst out of my speakers directly into my chest, and they blow me into another dimension.

I awoke in an alternate reality where candy was made of fish, and fish were made of candy in the chocolate river of wind city sticks. A man dressed like a woman and a woman dressed like a woman approached me and gifted me a dishwasher. A balding wildflower called my name and I decided to investigate his store front. He was selling music, but only two albums. Those two albums were a copy of Steve Vai’s Flex-Able, and Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy. Considering the fact that it was Fastway that knocked me into another dimension, it was weird getting this musical inception to other artists’ records. The orange label on the Vai album began to swallow me, and my spirit was floating above my unconscious body as I returned to my room, hovering over my body as Fastway played. My spirit re-entered my body as I discovered I had soiled myself again. What high art!

After a quick attire substitution, and a breeze through the mediocrity of the song “Don’t Stop the Fight”, “Stand Up” began to emanate from the speakers. The ceiling shattered as I was abducted by alien people that looked like Jon Bon Jovi and Sam Kinison fused their DNA together. They drank wine like classy sophisticates. Fastway is the only music good enough to satisfy their cultural needs, and they intended to harvest my Fastway collection, but I was able to fight them off by comparing their acting skills to Rob Lowe’s. As they nursed their bruised egos, I leapt out of the spaceship and slid down the rainbow from the clouds of snow and weather pulses.

I went on a series of comparable journeys throughout the process of listening to the album, with tribal incantations and aristocratic meat loaf simulators, but nothing could prepare me for the climatic showdown induced by the closing track masterpiece “If You Could See”. Apparently, the reason that Fastway was able to lift itself to such scholarly levels of uncompromising respectability is because the band wasn’t a band at all. Fastway was a hype mind suffering from malignant narcissism due to a computer virus uploaded into the mainframe by a ghost bearing a striking resemblance to Herbert Marcuse. The hype mind was designed to make the greatest music imaginable that would only reveal itself to the chosen one. I guess I was the chosen one. Luckily the hype mind was printing dot matrix still, and was running on a Pentium processor from the ‘90s. I was able to overload it by switching the computer date to 2000. Y2K! Escaping the area would manage to be the greatest magic trick I was able to conjure upon the underpopulated document absence of consequential thought and sound devised by the penultimate direct access line to the semi permeable ancestors of the Pagan worship center of healthcare management fiscal responsibility drones. To combat the territorial dipping sauce from the entrée dessert filibuster mustard, swans arose from the pie crust to entrench the moon beams of reflective solar glares in Jimmy Stewart fashion. And that’s how I escaped!

So in the end the album was only a half-baked set of ideas that didn’t quite measure up to the level of the first two Fastway albums, but easily left the third album in the dust. I trust you were able to ascertain that from my last paragraph, but I may as well summarize for clarity’s sake. There are enough inspired moments on this release to merit owning it as a good enough novelty Halloween disc, but if it didn’t have the gimmick of being attached the holiday there would be little reason to own this. It’s pretty generic ‘80s rock, with Dave King sounding like a hybrid between Jack Russell of Great White and Kevin DuBrow of Quiet Riot. However, sometimes generic can hit the spot if you’re not sure what specific flavor you want, and the holiday connections make it go down with a little less guilt. “Hold on to the Night” knocks off half a point for being maddeningly repetitive, but it gains that half point back for not sucking as much as the movie it’s featured in.

Score: 3/5 (Smashing?) Pumpkins

* There is no shame in that.

#708: The Perfect Roll

Expanded from a segment in Part 18:  Klassic Kwotes III

GETTING MORE TALE #708: The Perfect Roll

I once read a quote from Keith Richards in the late 80s about the state of rock and roll.  “I hear a lot of rock,” he said, “but not much roll anymore.”

I thought I knew what he meant.  You heard a lot of rocking, but not a lot of that Stones-y jangle.  None of the rhythm & blues.  None of the subtlety.  That’s what I read his quote to mean.

Then I heard something else a decade later that made me wonder if “roll” meant something else.

 

WHAT IS “ROLL”?

A knowledgeable rock guy named Neil was working that day.  The Verve were still popular, and for good reason.  1997’s Urban Hymns was a phenomenon brought on by “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, which has since become a classic.  The song even has a Stones connection.  The famed string section is a sampled from Andrew Loog Oldham’s cover of the Stones’ “The Last Time”.  The lawyers had a field day with that one.

On this afternoon, a guy came in and started asking lots of questions (including “Do you believe in Jesus?” but I digress). One thing we always hated was when customers would ask to listen to music on the store system even though we had six listening stations. (Granted, only four worked at any given time, but again, I digress.) This guy asked to listen to The Verve.

Because we tried to be nice and not dicks, we put The Verve on the store system and skipped through the tracks for the guy.  He told us, “There’s rock and roll, and then there’s rock, and then there’s roll. This CD supposedly has the first ‘roll’ performed since the 1960s!” That’s what he was listening for.

We went back and forth through a few tracks. Then he burst out, “Did you hear that? Did you hear that! That was a perfect roll! The first roll performed since the 60s!”

To this day I have no idea what he was talking about.

Rock and roll is an amalgam of different influences, including gospel and R&B.  None of those influences have gone extinct since the birth of rock.  Whatever it was that this guy heard, something that hadn’t been performed since the 60s, I still cannot figure out.

Oh! And the “roll” guy? He didn’t buy anything!

REVIEW: The Darkness – Live at Hammersmith (2018)

THE DARKNESS – Live at Hammersmith (2018 Canary Dwarf)

“Gimme a D!  Gimme an arkness!”  It’s long overdue, but the world is now the better for it:  the first live album by The Darkness!  Including a few quality B-sides, The Darkness had enough strong songs for a live album back in 2006.  Time waits for no band, but now they’ve got an even hotter selection of hits and deep cuts to draw from, and Live at Hammersmith boasts 19 of ’em on a single CD.  Sorry Japan, no bonus tracks for you.

All five Darkness albums and some classic non-LP singles are sourced, and what a collection it is.  A lot of the newer material on stage consist of the heaviest songs:  “Buccaneers of Hispaniola”, “Southern Trains” and “Barbarian” are like lead, but propelled at the speed of sound!  The oldies span all shades of Darkness, from the hardest cut stones (“Black Shuck”) to the cushioning of a ballad (“Love is Only a Feeling”).

It seems to be, by and large, all the best stuff.  “Givin’ Up”, “Growing On Me”, “One Way Ticket”, “Friday Night”, and the two big hits “Get Your Hands off My Woman” and “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” are present and accounted for.  The last three albums are also represented, and as good as they are, it’s the old stuff that thrills most.

That includes “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)” from this seasonal Hammersmith gig.  Maybe it’s those giant dual guitars, but this one has always seemed to work all year ’round.  It’s just a glorified Thin Lizzy riff with a high-pitched singer, and that works winter, spring, summer and fall.

Speaking of the singer, Justin Hawkins has maintained his one-of-a-kind voice and range over all these years, unlike virtually every other homo sapiens on the planet.  Let’s start a conspiracy theory right here that he is an alien, because the voice is just inhuman.

Would have loved “Last of Our Kind”, though that’s a minor complaint.

Hammersmith fell to the Darkness that night.  Now you can relive it in your headphones, or home theatre, as it were.

4.5/5 stars

 

Sunday Chuckle: Big Apple

The photo below is from a visit with Jen’s cousins.  Little Roman was a whirlwind of energy.  He really liked my Transformers books — throwing them, that is!  He was also excited that the hotel had free apples for everyone.

Needless to say, a child like that cannot be monitored at every second.  It was no surprise when I found an apple with one tiny child-sized bite out of it hidden in our hotel room!

REVIEW: Styx – Caught in the Act – Live (1984)

For Deke’s review at Arena Rock, click here!

 

STYX – Caught in the Act – Live (1984 A&M, 2018 BGO reissue)

“Hey everybody it’s Music Time!”

Sorta, anyway!  Styx were just about toast after “Mr. Roboto“, and Tommy Shaw didn’t want to sing any more songs about androids.  (Mars, however, was fine.)  He departed to check out some Girls With Guns, but not before Styx put out one more product before hiatus.  That would be the traditional double live album, which was actually Styx’s first.

Styx have lots of live albums now, but only two with Dennis DeYoung.  Caught in the Act is essential for a few key reasons.  It sounds great although there are clearly overdubs in places.  It is the only one with the classic lineup of DeYoung/Shaw/James “JY” Young/Chuck Panozzo/John Panozzo.  And it has plenty of classic Styx songs that still shake the radio waves today.

Like many live albums, Caught in the Act contained one new song.  Dennis DeYoung wrote the uppity “Music Time”, a very New Wave single without much of the punch of old Styx.  Shaw was so nauseated that he barely participated in the music video.  “Music Time” isn’t one of Styx’s finest songs.  It’s passable but clearly a misstep.  No wonder it was a final straw of sorts for Tommy Shaw.

With that out of the way, on with the show.  Styx opened the set with “Mr. Roboto”, a mega hit that got a bad rap over the years until nostalgia made it OK to like it again.  Fortunately only two songs from Kilroy Was Here were included, the ballad “Don’t Let It End” being the other.  Live, “Roboto” pulses with energy, far more than you would expect.  The disco-like synthetic beats complement the techno-themed lyrics.  Every hook is delivered with precision.  With the human factor that comes out in a live recording, “Roboto” could be one of those songs that is actually better live.

Styx have always been a diverse act, and this album demonstrates a few sides of the band.  Shaw and Young tended to write rockers, and “Too Much Time On My Hands”, “Miss America”, “Snowblind”, “Rockin’ the Paradise” and especially “Blue Collar Man” are prime examples of the best kind.  Long nights, impossible odds…yet a killer set of rock tunes.  Then there are the ballads.  “Babe” is a slow dancing classic, and “The Best of Times” is even better.  Finally, the tunes that verge on progressive epics: “Suite Madame Blue”, “Crystal Ball” and “Come Sail Away” have the pompous complexity that punk rockers hated so much.  This album is a shining live recreation of some of rock’s most beloved music.

The 2018 CD reissue on BGO Records sounds brilliant with depth, and has a nice outer slipcase.  You’ll also get a nice thick full colour booklet with photos and an essay that goes right up to 2017’s The Mission.  BGO is a well known, respected label.  This reissue is a must.

4.5/5 stars

 

 

#707: Alice Cooper…Live!

GETTING MORE TALE #707: Alice Cooper…Live!

I’ve seen Alice Cooper twice.  Unfortunately, I didn’t write a review either time.  I certainly should have.  Both shows were special and perhaps unique in unexpected ways.  I have a couple stories to tell you.

The first time I witnessed the Alice Cooper show was on his Rock N’ Roll Carnival tour (no opening act), August 28 1998.  We were lucky enough to get the lineup with Reb Beach (Winger) and Eric Singer (Kiss), who had recently rejoined the band.  It was the now legendary Lulu’s Roadhouse featuring the world’s longest bar.  Thanks to the internet, we know the entire setlist.

  • Hello Hooray
  • Sideshow
  • Billion Dollar Babies
  • No More Mr. Nice Guy
  • Public Animal #9
  • Be My Lover
  • Lost in America
  • I’m Eighteen
  • From the Inside
  • Only Women Bleed
  • Steven
  • Halo of Flies
  • Nothing’s Free
  • Cleansed by Fire
  • Poison
  • Cold Ethyl
  • Unfinished Sweet
  • School’s Out

Encore:

  • Jailhouse Rock
  • Under My Wheels

I went with Lyne (one of our store managers) and her husband. A little while later Lyne was bullied right out of the organisation and went to work for HMV instead.  (I used to call her “Lynie Lynie Boing Boing” for some reason.)  We had an amazing time and I remember being impressed that Alice was still playing material from 1994’s The Last Temptation.  “Sideshow”, “Nothing’s Free” and “Cleansed By Fire” were unexpected treats.  It was also a pleasure to hear so many Nightmare-era songs.

At the end, as per usual, Alice introduced his band, and then himself.  He tore open the front of his jacket to reveal a T-shirt that said “Alice Spice”.  Yes, 1998 was the time of Girl Power and Spice Girls were the biggest thing in the world.  It got the required laughs.

One weird memory stands out.  A few tables ahead of us was a girl who was missing an arm below the elbow.  But that didn’t stop her from getting into the show, air guitar and all.  The missing arm was her strumming arm and she was just pumping it and going for it.  It was an unusual thing to see but she had a great time and that’s all that matters.  An unforgettable night.

The thing about the late 90s period of Alice Cooper:  It was a remarkably unproductive time as far as new material.  From 1994’s The Last Temptation to 1999’s A Fistful of Alice (a live album), there was nothing new.  In 2000, Alice cranked the machine again for a rapid-fire series of new albums starting with Brutal Planet.  The live setlist had changed dramatically too.  When I saw Cooper in 2006 with my new girlfriend (now known as Mrs. LeBrain), we got a very different show.

My mom had early access to tickets at the Center in the Square and surprised us with second row seats. On May 9, Alice rolled into town with his new band and new show. On drums once more: Eric Singer of Kiss. Opening act: Helix! Another favourite of mine in a hometown setting! Alice’s latest album was the excellent Dirty Diamonds and we got to hear the title track plus “Woman of Mass Distraction”.  In addition Alice rolled out a few forgotten oldies like “You Drive Me Nervous”, and “Wish I Were Born in Beverly Hills” which was dedicated to Paris Hilton.

  • Department of Youth
  • No More Mr. Nice Guy
  • Dirty Diamonds
  • Billion Dollar Babies
  • Be My Lover
  • Lost in America
  • I Never Cry
  • Woman of Mass Distraction
  • I’m Eighteen
  • You Drive Me Nervous
  • Is It My Body
  • Go to Hell
  • Black Widow Jam
  • Feed My Frankenstein
  • Welcome to My Nightmare

Medley:

  • The Awakening
  • Steven
  • Only Women Bleed (with Steven reprise)
  • Ballad of Dwight Fry
  • Killer
  • I Love the Dead
  • School’s Out

Encore:

  • Poison
  • Wish I Were Born in Beverly Hills
  • Under My Wheels

There’s no record of Helix’s setlist, but they were able to play a number of songs including a brand new one: “Get Up“.  I was sad to see that a few people in the front row didn’t bother coming early enough to see Helix, but that made it easier for Brian Vollmer to see me in the second.  I pumped my first and sang along to every song — including the new one, once I got the hang of the chorus.  Vollmer obviously noticed the one guy singing every song, and came down to shake my hand.  Vollmer is one of the most fan-friendly artists in rock, bar none.   This was only the first of several times he’d shake my hand.

(Back) Brent “Ned” Niemi, Alice Cooper, Brian Vollmer, Rainer Wiechmann
(Front) Jim Lawson, Jeff “Stan” Fountain, Cindy Wiechmann – May 9 2006

From Planet Helix

 

As good as Helix were that night, nobody puts on a show like Alice Cooper.  Kitchener was no exception.  Mrs. LeBrain found herself swooning over guitarist Damon Johnson.  (I thought bassist Chuck Garric would be more her style, based on a previous Tommy Lee crush.)  Guitarist Eric Dover and the aforementioned Eric Singer rounded out the band, with Alice’s daughter Calico playing numerous roles as stage dancer!  (“Put some clothes on!” said her dad after introducing her.)

I remember two things about the show very clearly.  At one point, right in the middle of a song, a woman walked up to the front of the stage and held up a CD for Alice to sign.  I didn’t get it…you expect him to sign your CD while he’s performing?  While he’s in character as Alice Cooper?  Who did she think she was?

Alice ignored her until he was obviously fed up.  Swinging his cane in the air, he smashed the CD out of her hands.  The sour looking woman returned to her seat dejected.  You don’t interrupt Alice when he’s doing his show.  “What a self-centered idiot,” was all I could think.

Alice’s action with the autograph seeker was made all the more noteworthy later in the show.  Contrasting his attitude towards the previous woman, Alice paid special attention to a young girl in the front row.  Wearing proper ear protection, the young girl was with her dad, possibly seeing her first ever rock concert.  Recognising this, Alice personally handed her some of the fake Alice money lying on stage after “Billion Dollar Babies”, and some of the plastic pearls from “Dirty Diamonds”.  The little girl was the only person in the audience who got special attention from the performer.  Cooper, the consummate showman, plays for everyone not just the front row.  That girl will never forget Alice Cooper as long as she lives, and he made sure of it.  I couldn’t help but think Alice was also making a statement.  “Treat my show with respect and this kind of stuff happens.  Don’t interrupt me mid-song for an autograph.”

Whether I’m right or not, that’s one outsider’s impression of the events of the night.

Whatever I happen to think, there would be no argument that Alice Cooper puts on some of the best concerts in rock, and you should try to see him.  Make it a bucket list goal.  The lineups change, and the setlists evolve.  You’ll always get “School’s Out” but chances are you will also hear a smattering of special classics that don’t get rolled out very often.

Go see Cooper and come back with your own stories to tell.

 

GUEST MOVIE REVIEWS: Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992)

Guest review by Holen MaGroin

It may be considered a childish holiday, but it’s not about candy!  Here’s HOLEN MaGROIN with the next in his series of Halloween themed reviews.  For the last, Soundgarden’s Screaming Life/Fopp EPs, click here.

 

BATMAN (1989 Warner Bros.)
BATMAN RETURNS (1992 Warner Bros.)

Directed by Tim Burton

Given the influx of homogenized yet generally consistent MCU movies, and the equally homogenized yet generally inconsistent DCU movies, it’s almost hard to remember a time when superhero films were not guaranteed billion dollar investments, or when they had a shred of character and individuality. The first film that truly hinted at the superhero genre’s potential to be taken seriously was Richard Donner’s Superman. It was a huge financial and critical success, with Gene Hackman giving the movie a professional actor that legitimized the comic book superhero film as an art form, and not just a niche market for children. However, DC was unable to sustain the quality of the Superman franchise, and it slowly fizzled out until crashing and burning with the critically mauled fourth installment The Quest for Peace. The future of comic book movies looked grim. That is until Warner Bros. handed the keys to the Batmobile over to the artsy and dark visionary Tim Burton, who created two acclaimed and commercially successful Gothic Batman films that work great as Halloween viewing.

At this point in his career, Tim Burton had only made two films, the eccentric road comedy Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and the twisted paranormal comedy Beetlejuice. It’s not evident what Warner Bros. saw in those two comedic movies to make them think Tim Burton would be the proper choice to direct a Batman movie, but choosing him to helm the franchise would turn out to be one of the least controversial moves. The much more derided decision would be the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman, an actor primarily known for his comedies. Because of his credentials, physique, and height, many believed that Keaton was the wrong choice to portray the Dark Knight. Thankfully, these fears were unfounded as Keaton would go on to become one of the most beloved actors to don the cape and cowl. Fears were also alleviated by the casting of Jack Nicholson as the Joker, a man who does what Gene Hackman did for Superman in granting the movie a certain ethos just by being present.

To say that Batman was a success would be an understatement; it was a cultural phenomenon. People were getting the bat logo shaved into their head, before anyone had even seen the movie. It became the highest grossing movie of the year in North America in 1989, being beat out internationally by the third Indiana Jones picture.*

The film opens at night as a family of three leaves the theatre, and I’m pretty sure anyone seeing this movie for the first time assumed that they were the Wayne family. No, the movie was playing a trick on you. It’s just a normal family in the present time being mugged, with Batman running to apprehend the criminals as they make their way up to a rooftop to count their loot. As one criminal discusses his fear of being on the roof because of mysterious bat rumors, the other tells him that it’s all hogwash and that he needs to shut his mouth. That’s when Batman glides in behind them, ready to strike. The two criminals look up at a creature that they can’t fully identify. One opens fire and they see the bat creature fall to the ground. The fear reignites in their eyes as they see it menacingly rise off of the ground, presumably from the dead. After incapacitating one of them with a kick to the chest, he grabs the other and holds him above a ledge, as the bat creature asks him to tell all his criminal friends about him, and to be very afraid. “What are you?!” the criminal asks. The creature simply replies, “I’m Batman.” He sees Batman walk off the building, and the criminal scrambles to look over the ledge to see the Batman nowhere in sight.

This opening scene sets the tone for the film, and illustrates the brilliance of Michael Keaton’s Batman. This is a far cry from the campy ‘60s movie. While Adam West was a public servant, and Christian Bale was a ninja, Keaton is a creature that no criminal understands. No one even knows if he’s human, and by allowing himself to get shot, he creates the illusion that he can’t be killed when he rises from the ground. This iteration of Batman is fully committed to theatricality and mystery. Keaton’s portrayal is very effective at representing the tortured soul of Batman, how he feels completely obligated to fight crime because no one else can. He feels the need to avenge his parents, and his dedication to fighting crime has left him lonely and obsessive over his one goal. His motives had never been clearer, and the film also makes the wise call of making Bruce Wayne more of a recluse in this film than a playboy. While it is ridiculous writing that a man as famous as Wayne does not even have a picture on file at the newspaper for reporters to find, the idea of Wayne’s isolation as a character makes perfect sense in this movie. He is a man driven to fight crime no matter the personal sacrifice or threat to his own mental health, which happens to be pretty unstable throughout the movie.

More unstable is main villain Jack Napier, a nasty gangster that is sold out by mob boss Carl Grissom after Grissom learns that Napier is boning his girlfriend. Grissom sends Napier to clean out a front company, and then calls a Lieutenant that happens to be on his payroll to kill Jack. However, Batman turns up and ruins the operation. Napier opens fire at the Batman, who deflects the bullet sending it straight through Napier’s face. Napier then stumbles over a rail above a vat of chemicals. Batman extends his hand in an attempt to save him. In this scene you see a close up of Batman’s eyes. This creates ambiguity. It’s almost as if he recognizes the man that killed his parents, leaving the audience to decide whether he lost his grip or intentionally let the man go as Napier takes the plunge into the chemicals that will turn him from Jack to Joker. This is another point in which Keaton’s acting deserves praise. He’s able to convey so much emotion with only his eyes visible, something that he’d carry over to the next film.**

The film proceeds with a dark atmosphere, reminiscent of a noir story from the 1940s based on the clothing and set design. Gotham City is a very repressive setting because of all the Gothic architecture. The movie is grim. Napier transforms from a nasty gangster into a full on “homicidal artist”. Nicholson sells the material with great conviction, and manages to be simultaneously hilarious and absolutely terrifying. He strikes this crucial balance arguably better than even the late Heath Ledger, a tribute to the ethos Nicholson lends the picture. We see the Joker proceed with his plans of anarchy and death as the world’s greatest detective does all he can to stop him, culminating in a final steeple confrontation.

Since the Batman creates the Joker in this film, and Burton decides to make the flimsy and misguided creative decision to make the Joker the murderer of Wayne’s parents, a fundamental aspect of the movie is how these two characters are connected. They are two sides of the coin as Ace Frehley would say. They’re both highly motivated and highly intelligent characters set on achieving their own goals without any regard for the law, and they’re both a little crazy. Even after all Joker has done to him, after Batman knocks him off the bell tower, he still tries to save him by looking over the ledge, only to be surprised by the Joker and put into a precarious situation. While Joker does end up getting killed, it’s more of his own fault for not telling his chopper to land on the roof so he could detach the rope from his leg.

By no means is it a perfect film, there are some pacing issues with the third act dragging on too long, the Prince songs don’t work particularly well,*** the issue of Batman killing in this movie, and the fact that the cops don’t just arrest the Joker when he held the bicentennial in the streets after he announced it. Main love interest Vicki Vale is also completely disposable, as is proven by her absence in the second film with only a few sentences explaining where she went. Many of the secondary characters in this movie aren’t needed or even interesting, something remedied in the second film. The main draw of these pictures is the adversarial relationship between Batman and the Joker, good and evil. The first two Nolan Batman movies are ultimately better, but this movie has a 1980s charm and a personal directing style that makes it feel uniquely enjoyable, and it still holds up remarkably well today.

The film itself is highly stylized thanks to Tim Burton’s direction. It also has a camp factor that would disappear from superhero movies altogether after Sam Raimi’s very personal and excellent Spider-Man trilogy.  Camp isn’t necessarily bad, it’s actually very pleasing to see a movie acknowledge its own ridiculousness, and bask in it. Relish the goofiness in order to make a more entertaining picture. This actually feels like a Tim Burton movie, whereas many superhero movies today are devoid of any style or originality. They take themselves way too seriously, and sacrifice being fun. This movie manages to blend serious story telling while still acknowledging the inherent silliness of a man that fights crime dressed up like a bat.

When the time came for a follow up picture, Burton was initially not interested. He felt he had done all he could with Batman, until the studio offered him total creative control, something that he hadn’t had the first time around. If the first movie felt like a Tim Burton film, this one ups the ante by a factor of 100. This was an improvement in some areas, and a detriment in others. Tim Burton has never been overly concerned about a coherent plot, or the quality of the plot, tending to focus more on characterization and style. Batman Returns is arguably the most polarizing film in the Batman cannon, and it’s really easy to see why. Burton has little regard for the comic book origins of the characters, and decides to make the film in his own way more so than the first one. Because of this fact, both Michael Keaton and Tim Burton have expressed their preference for this sequel over the original.

A creative move like this would never be allowed today. There is no way that a studio would agree to a film so warped, dark and sexually charged. It takes place at Christmas time, to provide an interesting contrast to all the dark mayhem. Burton loves monsters, and his love of freaks is the engine of this second film. Danny DeVito plays the penguin, who is not the sleek slimy opportunist of the comics, but an actual deformed baby with flippers abandoned by his parents and raised by penguins in the sewers under Gotham City.  Now, if that sounds absolutely ridiculous it’s because it is. The suspension of disbelief in this movie is very high. As a matter of fact, to enjoy this movie you have to give in and let it all happen. The movie is absolutely absurd, but the imagination and the character development that went into making it is breathtaking and deserves appreciation.

The plot of the movie is ridiculous, and a little dumb. Cobblepot runs for mayor at the suggestion of corporate tycoon Max Shreck (played by Christopher Walken) because Shreck knows he can control the Cobblepot in order to get his power plant built, that will ultimately suck power from Gotham so he can store it and sell it for a higher price. The citizens of Gotham line up behind the Penguin as a serious candidate after his gang creates chaos to make the current mayor look bad. He becomes a heartwarming story around Christmas time as he creates a public image of goodness by forgiving his deceased parents for abandoning him. Batman reveals Cobblepot for the sleazebag he is in public, and the city immediately turns on him. He responds by trying to kidnap their first born sons as he feels betrayed by his fellow humans and has abandonment issues from his parents. This movie isn’t really about the plot; few Tim Burton movies actually are. This movie succeeds in its own way because of the strength of the characters, and the affection with which Burton treats them. Penguin elicits great sympathy despite being an absolutely grotesque monster, because he was never given a chance. Businessman Shreck is the true monster, as the movie makes the point that not all monsters are disfigured, ugly, or even hated by their fellow man. As the Penguin himself puts it to Shreck “We’re both monsters, but you’re a well respected monster, and I am to date…not.” Shreck is the real monster, it is impossible to feel sympathy for him at all. The first time I saw this movie, I disliked it because of the outrageous plot and the high campiness factor despite being an even darker and more Gothic film that its predecessor. However, on subsequent viewings it became clear to me that the story in this movie is really just sandbox for the characters to play in, and they’re the main reason to watch the movie because they’re so damaged and complex. The movie is like a fairytale, ungrounded and not obeying the normal laws that govern reality. While the first Batman movie seemed to be a studio compromise with Burton’s vision, for better and worse Batman Returns is a true Burton piece of work.

Michelle Pfeiffer plays Catwoman, who is licked back to life by alley cats (just go with it) after sifting through confidential files by her boss Max Shreck. There really is no competition, Pfeiffer is the definitive live action Catwoman, and the movie should have focused on her character more in the movie. Her suit in this movie is intimidating, and at the same time strangely alluring. Her antagonistic relationship with Batman is one of the most interesting parts of the movie, and her life as Selina Kyle with Bruce Wayne represents how uncomfortable the two are as themselves. Before becoming Catwoman, Kyle was a ditzy, timid, awkward secretary. Bruce Wayne, when not being Batman, looks uncomfortable in his own skin and the two together seem to sense there’s more to each other than a lonely secretary and a reclusive billionaire. This tension in the relationship comes to a head in the scene where they both show up to a costume party being the only two people seemingly not wearing costumes, because their day personas are their costumes. They both feel more comfortable as Batman and Catwoman than as Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. You can see it in Keaton’s face as he stumbles around as Bruce Wayne, but looks right at home in the Batcave. It’s apparent in Pfeiffer when Batman implores her to spare Shreck’s life at the end in order to come and live with him. He rips off his cowl and tries to appeal to Selina Kyle as Bruce Wayne to live a normal life, but Kyle ultimately decides that she has to be Catwoman and “couldn’t live with myself” if she settled down again as the pushover Selina Kyle. The Penguin’s attempts to fit in and be accepted as mayor under his Cobblepot name are also thwarted, and he ultimately only reacts in anger because of the rejection, crying “I am not a human being, I am an animal!” This statement could be equally true for any of them. The three characters find different ways to handle their isolation, and they are all essentially animals that cannot be tamed. Catwoman knows that both she and Batman could never be content living together as Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne.

Possibly one of the best aspects of this movie I have yet to mention is the score. Danny Elfman brought his absolute best to the first movie, creating the definitive Batman theme and a fantastic score. He ups his game even more for this sequel, creating the perfectly dark and enchanting soundtrack to match the movie that elevates each scene to that surreal fairytale level that Burton seems to be operating on throughout the movie. The soundtrack is absolutely perfect, especially the sections that deal with the Penguin. They generate actual sympathy, and the theme that connects to him is melancholic. It achieves Burton’s goal of making you sympathize with the monster, because even as he commits all these egregious acts of violence and hate, the theme calls back to early in the movie where he was ostracized by his own parents at birth near Christmas time. The theme of the movie seems to be that people can only act in their own nature, and that society’s view of monsters is only skin deep. That is why Penguin can never truly be accepted, and Max Shreck can.

Despite the blatant disregard for the source material, I find both of Burton’s Batman pictures to be thoroughly enjoyable entertainment that contain enough thought provoking content to merit repeated viewings. Some people say that these movies are all style and no substance because of the stunning atmosphere yet underdeveloped plots, but those people fail to realize that the substance in these movies aren’t found in the plot, they lie in the complex characters, their motivations, and the superb acting that goes into portraying them. While I consider the first Batman to be the superior film in a traditional sense, Batman Returns is more enchanting, captivating, visually stunning, personal, and unrestrained. They both have their own merits that make ranking them a tough call. If I’m being objective I’d say…

Batman 3.5/5 stars

Batman Returns  3.25/5 stars

If I was to state my personal feelings and attachments to the movies…

Batman 4/5 stars

Batman Returns 3.75/5 stars

 

 

The Last Crusade, which ironically LeBrain reviewed for his Grade 11 Film Class essay, comparing and contrasting it with Steven Speilberg’s first film Duel.  And I lost a mark for using the word “picture” instead of “film”, which is why I applaud Holen MaGroin for describing it as a “picture”.

** Holen MaGroin has convinced LeBrain to watch these again soon, to pick up on all these things I apparently missed when I was a kid.

*** Before Prince fans get all medieval on Holen, let me point out:  he’s right.  Every time a Prince song comes on, it causes a mental “skip” in the brain.  Like, “Hey, it’s one of those Prince songs from the album.”

#706: Additional Complaint

GETTING MORE TALE #706: Additional Complaint

I used to tell the store owner and his second-in-command, “We are only using about 10% of what these computers are capable of doing.”  They were great for inventory and point of sale.  We eventually started using them to print out header cards for CDs.  It seemed like the owner and those beneath him weren’t interested in getting the most out of our computers.  I think they saw potential abuse as “toys” — gaming and chatting etc.

That wasn’t what I was driving at.  I used to have to maintain a sales log.  It was a big blue book full of pages for bookkeeping.  It was handy because the boss could open it up and have a quick look at what sales were last night, last week, last year, and so on.  We kept track of our purchases and free CD giveaways in the log book.  At various points in time, I was maintaining multiple log books.  I had one when I was in charge of the store website.  Whenever there was a staffing issue, and I had to cover at another branch for an extended period, there was another log book.

It always irked me that we were not permitted to use Microsoft Excel instead of (or even in addition to) the sales log.  There is one thing I have always sucked at, and continue to suck at:  adding up a large column of numbers.  The reasons for this are two:

  1. My big stupid fingers are always mashing the wrong buttons on a calculator, and
  2. When I stare at numbers too long they all start to jump around.  2112 looks like 2121, and so on.

My suggestions to use Excel for the log book were always shot down.  For all I know, 12 years later they could still be using the big blue log books exclusively.  We did use Excel to calculate the values of our inventory, so I didn’t get what the big deal was.

It really pissed me off one afternoon in the store, when I was struggling to add up the numbers for month end.  The weekly totals were off, so I had to find where.  I had a system for finding these kinds of problems and part of it was manually adding up all the days’ sales.  Every time you start adding a large series of numbers and the phone rings or someone asks a question, I tended to lose my place.  So it took a while.  And every time I added the numbers, I was getting different results.  I’d been at it forever and couldn’t figure it out.

They’d just given me another staffer who would be helping in the afternoons when I used to be alone.  I asked him if he wouldn’t mind checking the sum, to see what total he would get.  He did and that’s exactly when the Store Bully walked in.

“Mike, why are you getting Dave to do the books for you?!” she yelled.  Of course, out of context, it probably looked that way.  But she wouldn’t even let me finish a sentence, and when I finally did, she said my story was “bull”.  She made her comment that the new guy wasn’t to be my personal servant.  Is that what she thought of me?  And of course this went on my annual review.  I protested it again, but she didn’t want to listen.

Dave didn’t get to finish adding that column, so I never found out what total he would have got.  Imagine how easy it would have been if it was just Microsoft Excel.

Some of the people at the Record Store who were in positions of power were, unfortunately, troglodytes.  They didn’t use computers regularly and were closed to ideas that didn’t come from preferential personnel.  It was a rock and a hard place for me.  They didn’t want to use computers to do the books, but I got “caught” getting someone to check my math.  As if it’s highschool.

Actually, it was a lot like a highschool.  And I wasn’t in the popular clique.

Sunday Chuckle: It’s not what you say, but who hears it

It’s funny.  You can know someone your whole life, and still find new stories about them.  Such is the case with Mrs. LeBrain and her mom.

“Mum”, also known as Debbie, passed away last month but one of the joys has been the journey of discovery.  One of Debbie’s best friends sent us a newspaper clipping from the Toronto Star, June 16 1994.  The article was called “Say what?  Words to cringe by”.  It had a story about her mom that we’ve never heard before.  It’s hilarious and it reminds us so much of the way she was.  These are exactly the kind of things she would say!