All Over The World

[This is Part 3 of my look on my favorite Album of all time, and the effect it’s had on my life and work.  For those just joining us, check out Part 1 and Part 2]

Looking back, the peak years of my love for music, particularly what was labeled Alternative, really spanned 1990-1995, from age 17 to around 23, roughly corresponding with my college years.  The fact the 1992 MTV Music Video Awards boasted performances from Pearl Jam and Nirvana, while the 1991 installment had the then biggest band out of Seattle – Queensryche – is as good an indicator as any of this quantum shift in music culture.  Being unleashed upon a major city with its vibrant live music scene was like giving matches to a pyromaniac; I saw more bands than I can remember – but they included Beat Happening, Mudhoney, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, Sonic Youth, Rollins Band, Ministry and who knows what else.  But even as early as 1993, music was finding a tough competitor in film.  I was at Film School after all and with no discernable musical talent, it became apparent I needed to focus.  And so, a slow, steady erosion began.

That wasn’t the only thing that eroded.  When I moved, it was alongside a good half dozen close friends from my old town.  One went to the same school I did and we saw each other regularly, the rest at a school across town, and for the first year or so they remained my closest friends.  It was like High School all over again, only we had the whole city at our doorstep, no curfews, and we were all legal drinking age.

My love for music gradually turned into a love of movies (a love that’s been lifelong I should add), and music suffered as a result.  Part of that had to do with the alternative scene imploding around 94-95, but a lot for me had to do with money (and the lack of it).  I couldn’t download tracks – I wanted an album, I had to buy it.  Concerts became too expensive for someone blowing what little spending cash he had on movie tickets and film for his class projects.  By 1995 I’d pretty much stopped buying music which, not so coincidentally, was the same time I lost touch with the friends I thought I’d be friends with for a lifetime.  That lifetime ended up being 5 years.

The Pixies split in 1993, and I counted myself among the fortunate to see them twice in concert – once when they were touring Trompe Le Monde in November 1991, then again in March 1992 when they opened for U2 on the Zoo TV tour.  They still remained in my playlist over the following years, on regular rotation as they say.  When they reunited for a tour in 2004 I was not going to miss them for any reason, so I found myself on a frigid November evening waiting for the band to hit the stage.  I looked over the large crowd and realized then that:

  1. It had been 13 years almost to the day I first saw them, and that;
  2. It was a strong possibility that many of the people I saw them with back then were probably somewhere in that crowd.  And with that in mind;
  3. There were a lot of people in this audience who were born sometime after Bossanova.

As the Pixies hit the stage for two subsequent hours of musical bliss, I found my mind drifting on the waves of sound and found myself wondering what had happened to those music obsessed teenagers I knew, and I once was.  What had happened to me?  Does “growing up” and “becoming an adult” mean letting go of that thrill music gave you when you were younger?  I thought about how much had changed in the years that had passed since the Pixies last stood on a stage before me.  I thought about how much I had changed, but more than anything else, I wondered why people move in and out of your life with alarming frequency.  I wondered how common that experience was, and realized it was common to everybody.

I thought about that and more a lot in the years that followed that reunion show, and it reached a pitch in summer of 2008 as I sat in my basement, sorting through old boxes in preparation of my move.  One of the things unearthed was my old portable stereo; another was a series of boxes and containers holding my old collection of cassette tapes.  I found Soundgarden and Nirvana, Teenage Fanclub and Pearl Jam … and mixtapes.  Lots and lots of mixtapes.  Ones I made myself.  Ones made by friends.  I hooked up the tape deck and rewound the mixtapes, and pressed play.  I listened to the songs, their selection, the order they were laid down in, and I wondered; who made that tape?  What was on their mind at the time?  What were they trying to say with the playlist?  Were they trying to say anything?  It was like stepping back into time as I listened – I unearthed a box full of old copies of Rolling Stone and Spin and other music mags and found myself spending hours there, listening to music and reading (and not packing).

Hell it was like 1991 all over again really.  And it got me thinking.

Being a writer means you’re constantly asking yourself if there’s a story in everything you see or hear or experience.  Ideas will occur to me in the strangest places at the strangest times.  My wife can attest to that when at home, I’ll often wordlessly go to my desk and scribble something down on a post-it note, and return equally wordlessly.  And when I sat and listened to those old mixtapes, and read through those old magazines (and unearthed old photo albums), I realized there was a story here; about that period in your life when you transition from your teen years to adulthood, and the friends and music who gradually disappear from your life.  About that period we all experience.  In fact, it’s probably the most universal story out there – it’s one we all experience, no matter the music or the people.  But what to do with it?  I could have outlined a TV series … maybe a movie script, maybe a novel?  But none of those possibilities stirred me creatively. Of course the answer was right in front of me, sealed in Mylar bags and packed into long-boxes.

In advance of my move, I had determined to properly archive the hundreds of comic books I’d collected over the last 25 years, which meant trekking to the local comic shop to buy bags, boards and boxes to store them for their move.  Like music, I had stopped buying comic books for the longest while, and when shopping for storage materials, found myself perusing the shelves, and I found a lot of material to catch my eye; DMZ, The Walking Dead, Fables, Y: The Last Man, and indie books like Local and Black Hole, and Box Office Poison.  And thus, I started buying comics again, sticking with trade editions over single issues … and as I got back into music, and back into comic books at the same time, the solution was obvious.

And that is the response to the question I’m always asked; “where do you get your ideas from?”  They come from my heart and my experience, and in this case, the project is called MIXTAPE, a comic book/graphic novel about love and life in the early 1990s, set to a blistering Alt Rock Soundtrack.  It’s a story about a group of small town high school friends who bond over a shared love of the music that becomes the soundtrack of their lives, and how they come to grow apart, from that music and from each other.  Because you never really forget that music and those people.  As I type this, it has been 20 years from that day I decided on Bossanova over Abbey Road at that record store.  Music is now as important to me as it was back then, and those friends … have re-entered my life in many surprising ways.

You’re going to be hearing more about Mixtape in the coming months.  I’ll be giving it a push at the New York Comic Con, and there may even be an opportunity for you to play an active role in it. But for now, you can look at some of the completed artwork below, throw on a favorite album or even a mix tape, and remember a time when music meant everything to you.

Digging For Fire

[NOTE: this is part 2 of a longer piece.  For part 1, click here]

When you’re seventeen, it’s no stretch to say that at that age, music is as important as it will ever be in your life, and that the friendships you have will also be the most important.  Your friends become your life at that age, if not sooner, and they become your family.  I think it’s because at that age every experience is so intense to you; you fall in love and fall out of it with the gusto of a tragic Shakespearean character, and every good or bad thing that hits you is either the best thing or the worst thing ever.  And when some band is singing to you (yes, to you – not anyone else), it’s like God’s finger shooting a lightning bolt right between your eyes.  When you look back at that time in your life, you hear music, and years later when you hear that music, you remember that time in your life; you cannot avoid it.  You remember driving your town’s streets with friends, you remember basements at friends homes.  You remember parties at the homes of people you’ve forgotten. Every memory, and every life, has its own soundtrack.

Yet another truism holds that the friends you have at 17 are probably not the friends you have at 21 or 22.  Yes, we live in an age of social networking so it’s easy to keep “in touch” – lord knows I’ve kept in touch and reconnected with older friends through Facebook.  But back in the olden days before the internet and cell-phones, if you wanted to be friends with someone you had to make effort to do so.  You had to call them on the telephone – a telephone that may have been a rotary one (and if your sister was yapping on that phone – the only phone in your house … well, good luck with that).  Lots of people didn’t even have answering machines so if nobody answered you had to call back.  You saw friends at school and after school and on weekends, but only face-to face; you didn’t Tweet or tag each other in photos and videos, and you didn’t sleep with your cell or iPhone or Blackberry on to be kept in the loop twentyfourseven.

But five years down the road?  Chances are you’ve already lost touch with those people.  You’ve moved on and so have they.  Really, it’s because you’re in a different place than they are.  There’s rarely a “falling out” – you lose touch, you don’t return phone calls or emails and you gradually drift apart; it’s erosion, not an earthquake, and it continues throughout your life.  It happens when you graduate, it happens when you marry, it happens when you start a family.  Life continues and you realize that a great number of these friendships you thought would last forever only last a fraction of your lifetime.

So let’s jump back two decades, to September 1990.  I had 20 bucks burning a hole in my pocket, and I decided to zip down to the local record shop to see what was in the offering.   I cruised the rock section.  Now by “Rock” we’re talking about AC/DC, The Who, The Stones, Bon Jovi – your standard top 40 and certainly nothing “hip” or “new” or “cool.”  I perused the racks – the cassette racks, since I had a walkman, not a portable CD player, and found myself flipping through the Beatles catalog.  I was and remain a fan of the Beatles – as I said in the previous installment, good music is good music – and I found myself with a copy of Abbey Road in hand – surely one of the greatest rock albums of all time, loaded with classic late era Beatles songs.  I kept the copy with me and worked my way down the aisle, past Foghat, past Kiss, past the Pixies –

Wait, the Pixies?  There’s a Pixies album here?  In this store?

I don’t know how my friend Elliott heard about the Pixies – all I know is he swung over to my place earlier that summer with a copy of Doolittle because he, myself and other friend Mark were driving to Kingston to see Robocop 2 (a double irony, given that exactly 10 years later production wrapped on Robocop Prime Directives – my first produced work – the villain of which was a character named Bone Machine, a name lifted from the lead track of the Pixies Surfer Rosa album).  We listened to Doolittle on the way there and, in the words of a Pixies song on a different album, were Blown Away.  It was loud and primal and melodic and for that summer, the Pixies were the soundtrack of my life.  I had no idea who they were or where they were from, but by listening to Doolittle over and over and over again, I pictured some long haired demonic beings unleashed upon my eardrums.  I learned their names – David Lovering on drums, Joey Santiago on lead guitar, the ethereal Kim Deal on bass (who ushered many teenage of fantasies about cool bands with hot female bass players named Kim), and the man with the voice that could go from melodic to a growl within the same verse was the enigmatic Black Francis.

The Pixies began to mark a shift in my listening – like many my age I was into my share of Zeppelin and The Doors and The Beatles, but had begun to move into a larger world.  I still like the old guard – face it, a great song is a great song – but there was something about “discovering” music that few others were into – music that put you in a rarefied category.  Music that marked you as an individual, nor part of a crowd.

I pulled the lone cassette from the slot, assuming it would be Doolittle, but the red tinged cover told me this was something else.

This was something different.

This was something new.

This was

A quick scan of the back cover pegged Bossanova as a 1990 release.  It was brand new, unheard, and in my grasp.  Thoughts crashed through my brain.  What was it doing here?  Had someone ordered it weeks ago and not claimed it, prompting the store owner to put it on the shelves?  I had NEVER seen a Pixies album for sale in this store ever, and believe me I looked – I tried to order copies of Surfer Rosa and Come on Pilgrim and after flipping through his big catalog, the store owner couldn’t find it, meaning I was SOL. But here it was, in my hand, and I had the money for it.

I looked at Abbey Road in one hand.  The Beatles.  A classic.

I looked at Bossanova in the other.  The Pixies.  A new album.

For a moment I did consider making The Safe Choice, but as I moved ever so slightly to put Bossanova back, I felt my grip tighten on it.  I’d made my decision, shoved Abbey Road back where it belonged and took Bossanova to the counter.  It was a decision that changed my life, though I didn’t realize it at the time.  It marked a shift away from the classic rock, the safe rock, and deeper into the world of Alternative Nation.  It was the first big step into a bigger world.  In fact, after that day in September 1990, nothing would ever be the same for me.

“The Pixies” said the clerk as he glanced at the cover and entered the price into the register.  “Sounds kinda faggy” he continued.  “Need a bag?”

I handed over my money and shook my head “no.”  I was going to pop this sucker into the tapedeck of my car the moment I got into it.  I returned to my trusty old Toyota Camry, popped it into the deck and soon enough the melodic sound of guitar filled the air.  I cruised town, not heading home until Bossanova was finished, to the haunting final chords.  Once home, I popped it into my tape deck in my room and listened to it again, this time looking at the liner notes and finally got to see what these guys looked like.  David Lovering looked like a banker; Joey Santiago looked – well, pretty much like I imagined; a gunslinger.  Kim Deal was brunette, not blonde as I imagined, and looked like someone I’d see hanging around my town. And Black Francis, he of the loud quiet loud and howl?  He looked like – Christ he looked like me (and still does to a degree).

Popular consensus is that Bossanova is the Pixies weakest album.  By this point the rift had been growing between Black Francis and Kim Deal – her side-project, The Breeders would, in a few short years, eclipse The Pixies as far as taking the mainstream – who can remember the summer of 1993 and not think of “Cannonball?”   Yet it’s my favourite Pixies album.  It doesn’t rock as hard as Doolittle or Surfer Rosa, it’s not as “out there” as their swan song Trompe Le Monde, but Bossanova doesn’t sound like any other Pixies album, and for that reason it stands above the pack. It’s my Sgt. Pepper, my Nevermind the Bollocks, and my Nevermind.  Even now, listening to it 20 years later (and I never really stopped listening to it in that 20 years), it transports me back to that moment in my car, letting its sonic beauty swirl around me.   The Beatles and The Who and The Doors went to the back of the collection and I was seeking out music found left of the dial.  It blasted nitrous oxide through my being and propelled me to new heights and a new world of music; to a planet of sound.

Life went on, and I lost touch with a lot of people, but not with the music we all loved.  People pass in and out of your life with alarming frequency, but music remains with you long after they’ve gone, and as I would discover fifteen years later, both the music you love and the friends who love it with you have a surprising way of returning to your life.

Rock Music

[And so begins the epic story behind my number one album as written about in the 15 Albums post]

When you reach a certain age, you realize how malleable time is.  In 1987 when I was 14, I caught a documentary marking the 20 year anniversary of the Summer of Love, and specifically the Beatles landmark Sgt.  Pepper album.  Now to a 14 year old, 20 years is mind-boggling – it’s something your mind can scarcely comprehend.  It might as well be 50 years.  But when you’re in your late 30s, 20 years is time enough to realize how quickly they can pass.  1990 was also a landmark in my personal life, as it marked the release of an album that, at least for me, is a landmark on the level of Sgt. Pepper.

I “came of age” in the loosest sense of the word in a small town on the St. Lawrence. By small, I mean SMALL – population circa 1990 was about 21,000 – same it was in 1986, same it was in 1996.  For someone who had become used to big cities, it was about as exciting and glamorous as a salt mine somewhere north of Siberia.

In 1990 we didn’t have Amazon.com or iTunes, or the internet, or a lot of the stuff that’s become commonplace now.  If we wanted to hear music, there was the radio station, and the record store.  Those were both fine if you were into top 40 and classic rock, less fine if you were into more esoteric work.  The best conduit to discovering new music was usually through a single reliable source; your friends.  And the instrument we used to communicate that music, was the ubiquitous mix tape.

You see, back then, we couldn’t preview a track, or Google the band.  We read about it, usually in Rolling Stone or Spin magazines.  Much Music (Canada’s MTV, which we could pull in on our dish from our home upstate) had a show called City Limits that aired midnights Friday and played what they called “Alternative music” – music that would break into the mainstream a year later. I would tape City Limits (on Beta, no less), so on Saturdays when I finished up work for the day, I could watch it, pen and paper in hand, and write down the names of bands and songs I liked, and I liked a lot of it.   But in 1990 this was music a kid in a small town had to go to lengths to hear.  We only had one record store, and it was stocked with the usual top 40 classic rock. Yes, you could get other music, but it usually involved the store owner thumbing through a big catalog to see if the album was available, and then it would be a 3-6 week wait.  So any time you’d travel to a bigger city you made sure to bring money and hit the record stores and load up on music like a fatty on a binge at the candy shop.

So, in September 1990, armed with 20 bucks in my pocket, I journeyed to the local record store to pick up something to listen to on the six hour bus trip.  What followed was proof that the right band, with the right album, at the right time in one’s life, can change your world forever.

[More to come]

Memory

If you’re of a certain age, and of a certain era, this will be familiar to you:

It’s the first page of the first story in a project I’ve been working on for a while now.  I’ll post more in the coming weeks, and *hope* to be able to make an announcement as to what it is and its current status.

X/Y

For someone best known as Film & TV writer, I’m doing a lot of writing about non-film, non-TV things on this website, arent I?  Have no fear — I do plan to resolve that shortly with more industry related stuff, but first, do me a quick favor and look at this photo.

Examine it closely.  What do you notice about it?  What do you see?  What don’t you?  What, aside from the watermarked date on the bottom right corner, tells you it was taken 18 years ago?

The first would have to be clothing.  Look at the band on stage, look at the people watching, and check out the people walking by in the background.  You see flannel and combat boots and ripped shorts.    Also, note the hair – not since the late 60s did you see such long hair on guys, and in the early 90s that was complicated by the fact so many girls wore their hair short.  You see ball caps and sideburns and high-top sneakers, and there’s grain and grit to the photo, captured on actual film too, and you didn’t know if the photo turned out at all until you got it back from the lab days or weeks later.  Yes, friends, 1992 is as alien to 2010 is, as 1974 was to 1992.  1992 belongs to the ages now; kids born in 1992 started College this month – the average age of the kids in this photo was – yep, 18 years old also.  They’re all largely married with kids now, and in one tragic case, a member of that band passed away last week at only 35.  Old photographs like this fascinate me – especially ones of people going about their day. In the case of photos from the late 80s to mid 90s, I really wonder.  Those kids with the Doc Martens and cut-off cargo pants, the nose rings and Day Glo hair and dreads – where are they now?  A lot of them now are Soccer Moms and their banker husbands with the paunch and pattern baldness, the strollers and 2.5 kids, the nice suburban home.  But they had to come from somewhere, and that somewhere was probably a mosh pit.  They’ve become what they vowed they never would; they became adults

You know what else tells me it’s an old photo?  Do you see any cell-phones clutched in hand?  Do you see people texting?  Of course you don’t.  If this show happened in June of 2010 there’d be hundreds of photos posted on Flickr, videos uploaded to Youtube and the band’s official website, where you could also watch music videos they put together themselves, along with a stream of their album and free downloads.  All of this could be accomplished without a record label’s involvement.  It’s a different world, and a new generation taking its reigns.  And that’s the big problem.

I think I noticed how much things have changed at a Metric show in NYC last year.  I was up on the balcony above the crowd and the band, and all I could not help but notice the sea of LED screens blinking on like stars in the night sky.  People were listening to the band, I guess, but they were also texting and messaging, Tweeting (I guess) – and I realized that was the big difference; that “furnishing proof I was at the Metric show” was more important than “watching the band I paid 30 bucks to see perform.”  It was less about “the band” and more about “me watching the band.”  Whatever happened to simply enjoying a show?  Does the art of performance somehow lose its legitimacy if you, the audience, can’t stake your little claim to having been there, to making it about you?

I know, I know, I sound like one of those “get off my lawn” types, but whatever happened to just “watching the band” and appreciating the music?  Perhaps one of the rudest displays I’ve ever witnessed was at a record release party for a performer managed by a friend of mine, where she was performing a short acoustic set and people were too busy texting and talking LOUDLY to the point where you could barely hear her.  At least the majority of the crowd was as annoyed as the performer was, but it made me have to ask what the fuck these idiots were doing here if not to see and hear the performance?

Maybe it’s because music is occupying less of a special place for people, particularly teens and twenty-something’s than it used to.  We can blame them obviously for their narcissism, but the fact is we created this monster.  Music driven culture has been dying a slow death for the last decade, as the main lifelines – Much Music, MTV, VH1, commercial radio, have moved away from music programming and into “reality programming.” Generation X – my generation, would be (and were aghast) at the mainstream’s attempt to co-opt them through Grunge Fashion on the runways at Milan, and pre-fab TV like The Heights.  Generation Y seems to demand it, and is insulted when it’s not pitched and promoted and sold to.  Sure we had The Real World, but look at the series’ early run and compare it to the here and now; now you have a generation raised on reality, or what is dubbed reality by marketing.  A generation who takes Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” (a statement that dripped bitter irony I might add) to heard and not only expects it but demands it of them.  Generation Y are the polar opposite of the preceding one; they constantly live in public.  Never out of touch for more than five minutes, because “not being in the network” is akin to death.  But what happens when nobody is watching you anymore?

The movie business – my business – is just as culpable in this.  They’re peddling the fantasy of life, not the reality (and by “reality” I don’t mean grim Hubert Selby reality anymore than I mean the plastic artifice of reality TV featuring vapid celebrity wannabes); the reality of just trying to get through your day, through school, and through life, with your head down and your sanity and dignity intact.  Both my wife and a good friend separately asked me a few weeks back why Hollywood doesn’t make movies about “average” and real people – it’s all million dollar McMansions and swimming pools and kids who stepped off a fashion magazine – it’s the life so many in this age group want and never get.  I never would have imagined that John Hughes movies would look like gritty documentaries compared to the teen oriented product squeezed out today (and that includes Weird Science), but it does.

What are the great stories of the now generation?  The Jazz Age had The Great Gatsby.  The 50s had On The Road and Rebel Without a Cause.  The 60s?  Too many to mention.  The 70s, and the 80s recognized teens and embraced them in the films of John Hughes, in movies like River’s Edge and Heathers, and gave them their own network with MTV.  The 90s had Douglas Coupland, Slacker and Lollapalooza … but The 2000’s?  We’re still waiting, unless you think Jersey Shore and The Hills are the apex of creativity.  It burns me, because I know there are great stories out there trying to be told.  I do think that music is as strong now as it has been since the early 90s – Arcade Fire, MGMT, The Dead Weather, Metric – but it’s as if the young and bold voices have either been locked out of the store, or aren’t interested in getting inside.

In his review of the Daria TV series (you know; when MTV was good) at Chud.com, Troy Anderson asked a question that articulates the point quite well;

Does individuality still matter in such a conformist age? Will we always be locked in this Us vs. Them attitude or can we ever escape it?  As an adolescent, adversity helps to define who we are as people. Hopefully, we’ve grown up since then. It’s time for a new generation to endure the struggle.

I still have hope though that things will change as they inevitably do.  That pendulum always swings back and as much as Generation X was a response to the shallow vapidity of the generation that preceded it, the generation that follows the Milennials could very well be our salvation.  Just as long as they keep their eye on the ball, and their eyes AND ears on the band on stage before them

ADDENDUM: Not two weeks after penning this, the Wall Street Journal printed a story about the “cell phone cameras at concerts phenomenon” and the growing backlash against it.  Sorry, WSJ, I said it first.