Celluloid Heroes Part III: Different Seasons

Welcome to the third and final* installment of Celluloid Heroes; my look back at the movies and moviemakers that inspired me to become a storyteller. Parts 1 and 2 can be read by clicking the links. In this case I actually do recommend reading in order. Got it? Good. 

As a writer I get asked a lot of writer questions. About my work, about my process. But sometimes I get asked more personal things. Who’s my favorite author, for example.

Living would be Joe R. Lansdale.

Deceased? Harlan Ellison.

Favorite short story is Miss Gentilbelle by Charles Beaumont, with Godzilla’s Twelve-Step Program by Joe Lansdale a close second.

Favorite novel is Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, with JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit a runner up.

Favorite comic book series? That would be Larry Hama’s original run of GI Joe: A Real American Hero. Favorite comics miniseries is Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell.

Looking at the above you’ll see I skew towards the genre side of things. Genre fiction over literary. That’s just my preference.*

*and before someone chimes in with “that’s very fine and well, Brad, but were there really no women authors who inspired you” I owe an unpayable debt to the works of Judy Blume and Beverley Cleary; two genuine titans of literature who wrote the first books I truly, truly loved at a time I began to love reading. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without them.

Which brings us to Stephen King.

King is a genre to himself and I always make sure to read whatever he puts out. His latest, Fairy Tale, will, I’m sure, be no exception. I’ve read most if not all he’s written, though I confess I’ve always struggled to get through his Dark Tower series. The first King novel I ever read was The Dead Zone. That was followed by It, Needful Things, Misery, and the four short novels contained within The Bachman Books (“Rage” and “The Long Walk” being my favorites from that collection). I actually didn’t get to his “best” books until much later, when during a summer spent working in Niagara Falls in the 1990s I made regular trips to a local used bookstore to grab The Stand, Pet Semetery, ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining

Yet there’s one King story I keep revisiting, the one I’ve probably re-read more than any of the others:

Which became the basis for this movie:

The reasons for both is something of an origin story.

My origin story.

As close to an autobiography as I’m ever to pen.

It’s 1986. I’ve just turned 13 years old. We’ve been living in North Carolina and it hasn’t been a great experience. Probably the worst year and a bit of my life. To this day I dislike the Southern USA precisely because of that year in the Tarheel State, despite some of the warmest, friendliest, all around nicest people I’ve ever known being from the south. I just wasn’t a good fit. In my previous home and neighborhood, I did fit. I had friends, I was happy. Content. I could have remained there forever, or at least until I graduated high school. And, to be honest, when we were told by my dad we were moving to North Carolina I was looking forward to it. We’d been told this was to be a two-year “loan” assignment from my dad’s company to another company that was a subsidiary of it. We didn’t even sell our house; the plan was to live in North Carolina for two years then move back to the same house, the same street, the same neighborhood on the suburbs of Toronto to resume life (spoiler alert: never happened).  

So North Carolina was not a good fit. If you want that background before we continue I’d rather you click here and read that than make me reiterate the reasons why here.
The one rare bright spot of being friendless in Greensboro was that in Greensboro I really became a movie fan. More like an obsessive. I must have seen a new movie every week. New release, second-run repeats, and weekly trips to the video store. I did a lot of movie watching at home, thanks to the whole “not having friends” thing. I also re-watched these movies, and began to notice things like motifs and symbolism and themes. That movies could be about more than just “plot” and “story” was a divine secret learned at the foot of our VCR which was actually, yes, a Betamax. 

So the short version of North Carolina; I survived. And I got a boost when my dad announced we were returning to Canada a year early, though unfortunately not to our old neighborhood, for him to take a big promotion. I almost didn’t care; I just wanted to get the hell out of Greensboro. We moved back to Canada in August of 1986, a couple of weeks before I was due to start school. In those two weeks we got our feet wet in our new town, and that included a trip to the local cinema (we only had two in 1986, soon to become only one 2-screen theater).

That movie was Stand by Me.

Now at the time I didn’t know it was based on a Stephen King story. At that time I hadn’t read Stephen King. I only knew him as the guy who’s name was mentioned in the TV commercials for Christine, Cat’s Eye, Firestarter, Cujo, and, yes, the 1986 stinker Maximum Overdrive (filmed in, you guessed it, North Carolina). So, when “based on the novella by Stephen King” appeared at the end I, like most in the audience, was surprised. Stephen King was a horror writer. He wrote scary books about possessed cars, possessed dogs, girls who set things on fire with her mind (a mind possibly possessed). And here he’d written a story about four twelve-going-on-thirteen years-old boys that felt real and genuine. They felt like real kids. It felt like me and my old friends in Toronto, having an adventure, wandering the woods and fields, smoking cigarettes and bragging about non-existent sexual conquests. Stand By Me almost made me wish I could go searching for a dead body with my friends.

As soon as I was able I trekked to the local used bookstore in town, searched for, and grabbed their worn copy of Different Seasons, the collection that contains “The Body” along with other notable King shorts Apt Pupil and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. I read The Body first, and must say to really get to the dark heart of the story you really need to read the novella. As grim as Stand by Me can be at times, it’s a bright and sunny fairy tale compared to the novel, which carries a much darker, much more mournful tone. The Gordie (Wil Wheaton) of the movie is a troubled, sad kid whose friends become his lifeline and his family. There’s tragedy in the future death of best pal Chris (played by the equally tragic River Phoenix), and a gradual drifting apart with Teddy (Corey Feldman) and Vern (Jerry O’Connell), but the movie ends sweetly, with the adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss, who also narrates) fulfilling a promise to his twelve-year old son to take him and a friend swimming. The child of 1959 now an adult in 1986, striving to be a better parent to his son than his parents were to him.

The Body is not the same story. The skeleton is the same, but the flesh and muscle is bruised, battered and scarred. I won’t spoil things for those of you who haven’t read it, but the tragedies in The Body; about growing up, growing older, of death, area lot more cutting. Friends die; old bullies and tormenters live on. It was as if King had channeled the early teenage experience, identified why “he never had the friends like he did when he was twelve”, but also acknowledged that those friendships inevitably faded with time. People grow up. They move on. They move away. And they die too young.

I think of Stand By Me a lot these days as I get closer to my fifties. As a father to a young child, a son with the same wanderlust I had and still do. As an adult who’s faced the untimely passing of several high school era friends and acquaintances in recent years. But I also think of my father, who really loved Stand By Me and recommended it others constantly. He may have loved it more than any movie I’d ever seen him love. I think in part because of the era but also the timing. He was born in 1947 so he would have been the same age as Gordon, Chris, Ted, and Vern in that year 1959. Stand By Me he saw at age 39, then father to a child the same age – 12 going on 13 – as the kids in screen, the same age he was that summer. I think he came to be more introspective about his youth back then. The friends he had. The ones he’d lost touch with. The ones he’d lost along the way. 

Both the book and movie really lean into that line about the friends you had when you were twelve, and when I did begin school that fall and found I made friends – a lot of them, actually – quite easily, a part of me knew that those friendships wouldn’t last the test of time, but in that case I was wrong. While in NC I was friendless (and really doubt if anyone I attended that one year of school with even remember my name), but the Brockville years would introduce me to new faces, some of whom I’m still friends with to this day. Heading into the back third of my life I find myself thinking about those years more and more. Especially with Mixtape, which is firmly set in and about those years where a teenager becomes an adult and learns that growing up frequently means saying goodbye. 

TV series is coming along, thanks for asking …

I think Stand By Me and The Body were really what sparked my interest in becoming a storyteller. More so than Star Wars and Indiana Jones, more than Back to the Future and Terminator 2 and the big genre movies of my youth that I still unabashedly love. Both that novella and that adaptation of it showed me that my seemingly normal, mundane, everyday life possessed moments of grace, of beauty, of joy. That being “normal” and “average” was not a death sentence. That my life mattered.

That last statement – my life and the moments within mattering – forms the crux of this Celluloid Heroes series. I realize a lot of this is Generation X philosophizing, casting fond golden hued looks back at a period in life that seems a lot more sunny than it probably was. I recognize my nostalgic gaze isn’t so dissimilar to my parents’ generation looking back on their youth, the same way millennials now likely look back on the early 2000s with the same wistfulness. Everybody does it, and the ones currently complaining about it likely do the same when the doors are closed. I would argue that looking at where you came from is important to find the best way forward, for who are we but the sum of our experiences and memories?

The music of my parents’ generation is beginning to fade. Take a spin around terrestrial radio and you’re unlikely to hear Buddy Holly (unless it’s the Weezer song from 1994). Give it another ten years and fifties culture will largely be forgotten, glimpsed only in the movies of the 80s that people still remember. And even then I know that the cultural touchstones of my youth will not outlive me by very much either. Everything passes in the end. Everything, as Kink himself wrote, is eventual.

They say that among a lot of artistic types it’s a fundamental unhappiness that drives a lot of creation; like we’re all trying to rewrite the unhappier parts of our childhoods, where we can be the cool kids, the quick wits, the people everybody likes. While I certainly have grappled with my own moments of dreary darkness, I feel that my life and the experiences I’ve had – the good and the terrible – all shaped me into the writer I’ve become. One whose work still grapples with the overall theme of my life; looking for a place to call home. 

Fortunately for me I found a place where I belong. And it was these movies – these three Celluloid Heroes in particular – that helped me find that way home.

*I’ve enjoyed writing this series and a whole lot of you have enjoyed reading it too so I think this is one I will revisit in the future.

NEXT MONTH:

Wonderboy

“Writing is an occupation in which you must continuously prove your talent to people who have none.” – Jules Renard

I admit it’s strange to say you miss a person you never met, that you never knew, but if like me you were a fan of his work I think we all felt like we knew Harlan Ellison. Some people I know actually did know him so I suppose in the grand scheme of things I could say Harlan and I were two degrees removed (top THAT, Kevin Bacon, who I’m only four degrees from).

Here was a writer who put himself front and center, to the point that in some circles he was better known for his personality than his writing.

A writer who never hesitated to make noise for himself in an industry where writers are expected to shut up and type and let someone else get the glory.

While I loved his fiction – “A Boy And His Dog”, “The Deathbird”, “Shatterday”, “Paladin of the Lost Hour”, “Mephisto In Onyx” rank among my favorites – I was a greater fan of his non-fiction; his essays on film, on television, on the art of writing, of his own life experience. Harlan laid it all out there and became the first writer as rock star, a figure known in some circles more for being Harlan Ellison, period. Louder and larger than life. He wrote about his father (“My Father”), his mother (“My Mother”), he wrote about the loss of a beloved pet, (“Abhu”). He wrote one of the best unproduced screenplays I ever read (his adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s “I Robot”). His book “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” collecting years of essays and reviews on film has been a constant companion for more than 25 years.

So if it wasn’t clear, I was and remain an Ellison fan.

He was haunted by the murder of Kitty Genovese (“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”), he marched through the segregationist south with MLK (“From Alabamy, with Hate”), he was a fierce, fierce advocate for the rights of the working writer, and was unafraid to call out assholes where he saw them. In the movie business and the book biz, they’re plentiful, believe me.

He had a lot of experience in Hollywood, mostly in Television with episodes of shows like Burke’s Law, The Flying Nun (!) and Route 66. His most in famous work though would be the two episodes he wrote for The Outer Limits – “Demon With A Glass Hand” and “Soldier” (both of which became the un-sanctioned inspiration for James Cameron’s The Terminator. Ellison sued, and won both credit on the film and a cash payout).

And his most famous? That would be this one:

Widely regarded as the best episode of the original Star Trek, and source of an infamous rift between Ellison and Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, detailed in Ellison’s book:

Harlan kept all the receipts.

When Harlan passed in 2018, I didn’t mourn, but I did reacquaint myself, pulling my 1012-page softcover of The Essential Ellison off my shelf and spending the next six or so weeks re-reading it cover-to-cover. That was my eulogy, my memorial to a writer who definitely had an influence on me. occasionally his name would pop up on the radar post-mortem, but I figured that was it. He’d specified in his will that all unpublished work be destroyed, leaving his wife Susan to manage his copyright and his estate (sadly Susan followed Harlan two years later). More on that further down.

So it was, back in February, that I attended my first in-person Boskone since early 2020 because, well, reasons. A guest on several panels, I made my customary sweep through the dealer’s room, where to my surprise, I saw my old pal Harlan. He was at the NESFA table; sci-fi and fantasy hardcovers and softcovers on sale to raise money for the New England Science Fiction Association, the fine organization that helps run the Boskone event. Naturally, I couldn’t leave without grabbing the last of two remaining copies of A Lit Fuse. It took a few weeks to get to it – I was immersed in a biography of Buster Keaton at the time- but after cracking A Lit Fuse open I dove back into a world I’d largely forgotten. 

On my first big trip to LA as a full-time working writer I made sure one of my stops was the late, sorely missed Dangerous Visons bookstore on Ventura Boulevard. I went because it was a bookstore, but also because it was Harlan’s bookstore. He lived a short drive away, and the name itself was taken from the legendary Dangerous Visions anthology he edited in the 1960s, that sparked a revolution in sci-fi-fantasy writing, breaking it free from the shadows of the pulp and the obscure and made it vital for a new generation of reader. 

Naturally I bought a couple of Ellison books; the first two volumes of The Essential Ellison (as well as a now extremely rare signed, slipcase copy of the late Richard Matheson’s Twilight Zone scripts). Given the ridiculous Canada-US exchange rate at the time I estimate I dropped two hundred dollars on books that day, and spent the next month eating Ramen noodles and mac & cheese (ah, the life of a screenwriter just starting out).

Pictured: A screenwriter just starting out

Harlan making himself, warts and all, very public was a bold move, a brave one, and an oddly prescient one. Because today writers are expected to be public. We’re expected to be online, Tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming our daily lives. We’re supposed to attend workshops and conferences and readings, we’re supposed to campaign for awards, to play the role our industry expects of us.

It’s almost enough to make you want to chuck in the towel.

Because if there is one thing I’ve come to discover about myself it’s that while I still enjoy the act of writing I don’t much enjoy being “a writer”. Certainly not as much as I used to. I enjoy the work, the rewards less so. A blank page does not terrify me the way it does others. I’ve heard writers say again and again that the writing is the least pleasant part of the process, preferring the adulation, the applause of the audience, the commendations that follow publication or production.

Dorothy Parker herself famously said “I don’t enjoy writing; I enjoy having written”. Well, that’s where Dorothy and I part ways. I enjoy writing, and when I’m done writing I write something else.

Clearly I’m the exception. And I’m not in any way blaming other writers for embracing what’s supposed to be fun. The victory lap is important especially for those very talented writers, the men and women for whom writing is therapy and exercising the demons that drive them. Writers and creators who come from traumatic backgrounds, hard upbringings, alcoholic and abusive families, ones who genuinely struggle from PTSD.

Reading Segaloff’s biography of Ellison I found myself remembering the writer I wanted to be. There’s very little of the mid to late-nineties I recall with much nostalgia. It was a depressing time in my life I wouldn’t ever want to repeat. And yet Harlan Ellison, the man, the writer, his stories and non-fiction I do recall in much fonder terms.

I’m definitely closer to the end of my life than I am to the beginning. Harlan once said life should end around age 70 (he lived to see 84). A debilitating stroke incapacitated Harlan some years before his passing; the worst torture for a writer now physically unable to write. Keeling over at my desk seems the best possible retirement for me. I’d hate to spend my remaining years sitting and doing nothing useful with them.

What is most surprising (and a little tragic) to me is that Harlan and his works are slowly being forgotten four years later. Without Susan to manage his estate his books are starting to go out of print. I don’t believe his writings will disappear entirely, but the day will come when some publisher that does retain rights will look at sales figures and decide it’s not worth the cost to a multi-million dollar corporation to keep a deceased author with a dwindling fan-base in print. Food for thought for all the writers out there concerned with their “legacy” and “creating works that outlast me”. I hate to break it to them/us but the likelihood anyone remembers us or our work after we’re gone is slim to none.

There’s a lyric from Canadian band Metric’s gorgeous song “Breathing Underwater” that sort of encapsulates where my head is at the present. It goes; “I can see the end but it hasn’t happened yet”. That’s where I am in my life. I can see the end. It’s (hopefully) a long way off, but it’s undeniably closer now than it used to be. I still have time and plan to make the most of it, but I know I’m nearer to the end of the road than the beginning. There’s still some great scenery, great moments to come, but that end is coming. 

To be clear, I don’t see that as a bad thing. We all make the mistake of believing our lives are infinite. If there’s any regret I have it’s the years I wasted, and the time others wasted for me. Knowing what I do now I would have walked away from people and situations a lot sooner than I did. I won’t make that mistake with the time left to me. 

Harlan was once asked what he wanted his epitaph to be, and he replied; “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time I mattered.” I think that sums up the human experience as succinctly as anything he wrote. Our lives are brief, and over far too soon, but to our loved ones and to the people we touched through what we created, they matter. Writers like Harlan, like myself, try and snatch a little bit of immortality by producing work we hope will outlive us.

But as the years go on, everything fades.

Even words on a page.  

ADDENDUM: I will be back next month with part one of a 3-part series I’m calling “Celluloid Heroes”, in which I take a deep dive look at three movies that changed the course of my life, inspired me, or otherwise made their mark. Following that summer series will be a little treat marking the 5th anniversary of my book MAGICIANS IMPOSSIBLE, so make sure you’re here for that. October will feature a piece on another writer with a great influence on my life, the legendary Ray Bradbury, and I may have a few more surprises in store. Stay tuned. Same Brad-time, same Brad-channel.

This Time Tomorrow

As long-time readers of this blog will testify, I’m a guy who likes music. I write about it, I wrote a comic book about it, and I’m currently writing a TV series based on that comic book that will naturally feature much of the music of my youth.

Coming to TV screens everywhere in 2023. Hopefully

The challenge with all of this is listening to that music. The music I grew up with. There are so many memories tied to those songs and bands and albums that forging new memories to accompany those soundtracks proves to be more difficult the older I get. I’ll always think of a lengthy bus ride to Stratford, Ontario anytime I spin The Pixies’ Bossanova album. I’ll always think of a particularly messy breakup anytime I hear U2’s “So Cruel” off their Achtung Baby album (actually, my entire senior year of high school could be soundtracked by AB). Even later albums and experiences have a soundtrack. I can’t listen to Coldplay’s Viva La Vida album without flashing back to my first years residing in New York City. Point is, there’s only so much room in the memory bank before you have to start deleting and dumping old files. That’s why it’s important to allow new music into your life, or at least music that’s new to you.

Currently I’m a fan of contemporary artists like Jack White, The Kills, The Weeknd, Metric and – possibly my favorite new artist – the three-piece sister act Haim out of Los Angeles.

My favorite album of 2020. And 2021 for that matter.

But if there’s one “new” band that towers over all the above, it would be this one, formed in 1963, and splitting in 1996. Four scruffy lads from the Muswell Hill area of North London.

The klassic line-up (L-R) Ray Davies, Mick Avory, Dave Davies, Pete Quaife

I of course am talking about The Kinks.

Buckle up.

PART I: Picture Book

The first Kinks song I ever heard, or became aware of, would have been “Come Dancing”, which was a staple of rock radio and MTV back in the 80s. I think I heard it on the car radio and when the DJ mentioned them my dad, who was driving said “The Kinks. They were big when I was a teenager. They’re still around?” A lot of “Boomer Rock” was making a comeback in the 1980s but The Kinks never really went away. Theirs was a prolific output of practically an album a year from 1964 well into the 80s. With popular and current bands routinely taking 3-4 years between releases, that’s an impressive feat.

The Kinks were never big. They were considered “second tier” British Invasion artists. Through the years the occasional Kinks song made it through the radio barrier. You Really Got Me, All Day and All of the Night, Lola. But again, they were never BIG in the way The Beatles, The Stones, and The Who were and remain. And I think that fact was key to my (re)discovery of them in 2019.

It was on a visit to my local library. My son was at a “toddler time” story and sing-along event, and I took a stroll through the building, finding myself on the media floor, browsing their enormous CD collection. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but when I got to the “K” section and found The Essential Kinks just staring at me I went “why not” and grabbed it to take home for a listen.

I popped it into my computer’s CD tray, opened iTunes and listened while I worked. And the amazing thing was that I found I knew a lot more Kinks songs than I realized. Songs I never even knew were Kinks songs but had heard on the radio, in movies, on TV. Dedicated Follower of Fashion, A Well-Respected Man, Sunny Afternoon, Death of a Clown, and, of course their epic Waterloo Sunset. But I also found myself falling immediately in love with “new to me” songs like Shangri-La, Victoria, Celluloid Heroes, Life Goes On, Sleepwalker, Better Things, Living on a Thin Line, and Do It Again.

By the end of my listen, I was a Kinks fan. I wanted more. And more is what I got.

PART II: 20th CENTURY MAN

As stated, what was most surprising about my listen was how many Kinks songs I actually knew; I just never knew they were Kinks songs. Of course there were many movie-centered tracks like This Time Tomorrow, Strangers, and Powerman (from Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited), and The Village Green Preservation Society and Village Green (featured in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, and continuing into Starstruck‘s appearance in his 2021 thriller Last Night in Soho). Even a tune like Lola – the drunken sing-along song in any bar, party, concert – took on new meaning on repeated lessons when I finally realized the titular “Lola” isn’t a, well, give it a listen and really pay attention to the lyrics;

Lo-Lo-Lo-Lo-Lola

Lyrically The Kinks run circles around their better known contemporaries like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (I would rank The Kinks’ 1967 album Something Else well above The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Rolling Stones’ Between the Buttons). Credit Ray Davies’ brilliance for that – this is the man who managed to make “vernacular” and “Dracula” rhyme after all – but also his younger brother Dave Davies (The Kinks’ secret weapon and inventor of the power chord that inspired every punk, grunge, and heavy metal band that followed). The legendary animosity between the Davies siblings aside, that personal and creative friction spawned so many of The Kinks’ greatest songs, albums, and performances.

So after returning The Essential Kinks to the library, I did some digging and found their copy of The Kink Kronikles, another “Best of” which filled in some gaps not covered by The Essential Kinks. For my money (and I say this because I now own it on Vinyl) it’s the better collection of songs and a better snapshot of The Kinks in that late 60s/early 70s era than any other collection before or since.

So that was going to be it. I had all the major Kinks hits covered, I was content to just leave it there. Then I visited my local comic book shop and I got hooked again.

Let me tell you about The Outer Limits in Waltham MA. It’s one of those great old-school comic book stores that has pretty much anything anyone could want. Old paperbacks and pulp novels, old toys and games, model kits, magazines, comic books – you name it. Seriously, walking there with twenty bucks you’re guaranteed to walk out with something.

But what really grabbed me on this particular day was the store’s collection of affordable and varied vintage vinyl records. If none of the written material appealed to me I’d flip through the selection and grab a couple for the home turntable. So naturally, when I again got to the “K” section I was rewarded with a selection of Kinks albums I didn’t own. Sleepwalker, One for the Road, Low Budget, Give The People What They Want, Muswell Hillbillies.

I pretty much cleaned them out.

Preservation Act 1 & 2 soon followed, along with Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace; all from the band’s much reviled theatrical period (though I love Soap Opera and, while Preservation Act 1 & 2 I’m so-so-on, the live versions are amazing – check out the Live at the Hippodrome 1974 recording at Archive.org if you don’t believe me).

But they returned to straightforward rock and roll with Sleepwalker, Misfits, and Low Budget; a renaissance that carried them well through the 1980s, and landed them the popular MTV staple Come Dancing in the midst.  

It’s only natural …

So they were hot, then not, then hot again. Today they’re regarded as the unsung heroes of the British Invasion, the godfathers of punk, Britpop, and Alternative Rock. And that I think that career arc gets to the core of what the Kinks mean to me.

Because, like them, my career began with a lot of interest, a lot of promise. Then some bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances sidelined me. I went through lengthy stretches of nobody caring about my work. Hell, I went through some periods of not caring about my work either. How could something I knew I was actually good at fill me with nothing but irritation? For a time I came to hate writing and everything about it. 

Because The Kinks couldn’t tour the US at the height of their popularity (thanks to a touring ban instigated by their on-stage antics and the oft-claimed rumor that Dave Davies slugged a stage-hand who insulted him and the band), they had to look inward, which prompted Ray and Dave to pen some of their most British albums. Something Else, Village Green, Arthur, Lola, Muswell Hillbillies. They also avoided, in my humble opinion, the burnout that would have likely fallen in the wake of US touring success, consigning them to the dustbin of also-ran 60s one-hit-wonders. Had the ban not happened we might not even have been gifted the “veddy British” songs that put them in the rock pantheon.

For my part, frequent rejections, general indifference from agents, from development executives, from producers younger and less experienced than I was led me to turn inward, and start writing for myself, not for the marketplace, not for them. The result? Mixtape, for one. Magicians Impossible for another. Those two projects probably brought me more renown, more of a genuine audience than any of the stuff I did for SyFy Channel. It wasn’t until I started creating and writing projects I cared about that I actually became a good writer.

My favorite Kinks era is that “middle” period (1966’s Face to Face through 1970’s Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Part 1) where they produced some of their lowest-selling yet most beloved works – albums, I might add, regarded as stone-cold classics by an establishment press that once dismissed them outright. That run contains my two favorite Kinks albums; The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur, or The Decline And Fall of the British Empire. My copy of Arthur on Vinyl is an original pressing and still sounds great. I bought those five album on CD solely so I could listen to them in my car (and yes, my six year-old is being raised on a steady audio diet of The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones).    

Arthur is his fave …

PART III: Days

“Discovering” The Kinks at this later stage in my life has been revelatory. With so many of my favorite bands, songs, and music being heavily guitar influenced discovering The Kinks has been like discovering the source of the Nile River; the source from which those waters flow to the sea. The Ramones. U2. the Pixies. Nirvana. The Clash. The Jam. Blur. Oasis. The White Stripes. Van Halen. Metallica. Motley Crue. Guns ‘N Roses. How different might the last fifty years of popular music have been without the brothers Davies, Pete Quaife, Mick Avory, John Gosling, John Dalton, Andy Pyle and so many more who contributed to that Kinks? there’s a joke question that goes around; “Are you a Beatles fan or a Stones fan? Wrong; The Kinks.” Or, “Who was the greatest British Invasion act and why was it The Kinks?” I think in the end Ray Davies is probably delighted that his band, the fourth or fifth tier of British acts back in the day are now regarded as one of the best acts of all time.

Moreover I increasingly find The Kinks providing the soundtrack to my life. I feel like that isolation (it’s lonely here in New England and that was even before the pandemic), that inward looking and looking back at a career that’s seen some ups and downs speaks to me in a way modern music does not. Music definitely changes as you get older, and changes you in ways it didn’t before. I do miss how it used to be; music is never as good, as exciting, as it is when you’re seventeen or eighteen. A time when you’re looking forward not backward. I’m doing much more of the latter than the former. I see fewer years ahead of me than there are behind me. 

I recently connected with an old friend from high school; someone I hadn’t spoken to in twenty years and seen in nearly thirty. We talked about the old days, we talked about where we are now. We both have our own lives, our own histories. Neither of us, I think, ended up where we thought or hoped we would back when we were teenagers. But in my case I feel like I ended up winning the jackpot anyway. My life isn’t what I thought it would be but when I look at all I do have I wouldn’t give any of it up. Turning back the clock, making different decisions might have propelled me to the heights of success, but I’d have to lose all I have now – my wife, my son, my life – and I could never do that. 

So years from now when I’m as old as Ray and Dave Davies are now, I’ll probably look back on these years and find the memories – the good, the bad – accompanied by The Kinks. 

What can I say? They really got me. 

Brad’s Top Ten Kinks Albums:

10. The Kinks BBC Sessions 1964-1977 (you haven’t heard them ’til you’ve heard them live)
9. Low Budget (The Kinks do hard rock and spark their comeback)
8. Muswell Hillbillies (a country-inspired album that’s much better than you’d think)
7. Face To Face (the first “true” Kinks album)
6. Sleepwalker (severely underrated pre-comeback album)
5. The Kink Kronikles (the best compilation album)
4. Something Else by The Kinks (Waterloo Sunset. That is all.)
3. Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Part I (Lola. Lo-lo-lo-lo-Lola)
2. The Kinks Are The Village Green Society (tied for #1 with …)
1. Arthur Or The Decline And Fall of the British Empire (their masterpiece)

Brad’s Top Ten Kinks Songs:

I don’t think I could narrow it down to ten, so here’s seventy Kinks Klassics for your listening pleasure.

ADDENDUM:

So this update/post/whatever kind of blew up when I shared it to my various social media platforms. And I had one person message me directly to ask why I was still using Spotify as a music streaming platform. Apparently – and this is all news to me because while I’m forced to use social media I refuse to involve myself in online discourse – people have been boycotting Spotify because of their association with podcaster Joe Rogan. Apparently Neil Young and Joni Mitchell led the charge over Rogan’s platforming of anti-vax, right-wing luminaries and had their music removed, sparking others to cancel their subscriptions. Rather than respond to this reader directly I’m posting my response here;

I believe everyone must make their own principled stand whenever they feel they must. If that includes boycotting or dropping Spotify as a service, Godspeed to you. BUT if the reason is for them giving Joe Rogan a platform then I believe you have to delete Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Discord and TikTok and every social media platform as well because they to give a platform and a voice to Rogan and his ilk. Deleting Spotify and none of these other “bad apples” is just performative.

I’ve never listened to Joe Rogan. I never will listen to him. In a world where the collected works of Sam Cooke, The Guess Who, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, The Jam, Johnny Cash (god, there’s an upcoming music/blog entry for you), and, yes, The Kinks are available to listen to at the click of a button, why people would waste their valuable ear-time listening to some opinionated meatball is one of those mysteries of human existence I will never ever understand.

Just Can’t Get Enough

2022 is looking like 2012 again, though you still need to wear a mask and get vaccinated if you haven’t already. I have, and I have to say this 5G reception is great!

So what’s up with the above image? What’s up with Mixtape?

Well thereby hangs a tale. But, I’ll let Maria Kennedy of Little Engine TV spill the beans, as she did on Little Engine’s Instagram page;

“Two weeks into 2022, and Little Engine is dreaming big, aging up and going back in time to the 1990s with MIXTAPE, our first teen drama TV series in pre-development with the Canadian Media Fund and CBC Gem! Mixtape is based on writer Brad Abraham and artist Jok’s acclaimed indie rock comic book series.

The year is 1990. Every life has a soundtrack. This is yours.”

So there you have it. Mixtape is being developed for TV, with yours truly co-creating (with Ben Mazzotta of Little Engine) and writing, with an eye to shooting a trailer/sizzle reel later this spring/early summer. That means it won’t be long before we get to put flesh-and-blood actors into the roles of Jim, Lorelei, Terry, Siobhan, Noel, Adrienne … and Jenny, Beth, Steve, Marco, Benny, Professor Bowie, Trash-Can Matt, Dan “Stillborn” Silborne and …

Oh, right. This isn’t the same story as the comic. It’s not going to be the comic.

It’s going to be a different beast and, I hope, a much better suited to TV one.

But don’t worry about the comic, or a Mixtape TV series invalidating that story. For you see, those stories and that comic are going to be part of the show in some surprising ways you probably won’t expect.

Stay tuned for more. Mixtape is going to be my main 2022 project so expect more frequent updates on it, including a hopeful ETA on when you can expect to see more issues of the series.

Achtung Birthday

[So this is a little different update-wise, as what follows is a revised and updated version of  a two-part piece I first wrote back in 2010. Nobody in their right mind will want to delve back 11 years into the past to find them, so what we have below is a combined and revised piece about one of my favorite albums of all time, which turned 30 this past week.]

30 years ago this very week (November 18th for those keeping count) I ducked out of school on my lunch break, drove to the local record store, and bought this:

I have a confession to make – I am a U2 fan. I realize that’s an un-cool statement to make, given that U2 are not cool by the normal standard. The only thing cool about U2 is to viscerally hate their pompous, earnest stadium rock (the same grief Coldplay gets – and another band I quite like, so there). Somehow, Radiohead gets a pass because they’re all arty and serious, but their fans are the biggest shitheads around and worse than people who constantly berate you for buying a Mac instead of a PC, because these things supposedly matter. But I am a U2 fan; I have all their albums, saw them in concert several times, and even liked Songs of Innocence, the free album they released in 2014 that everyone else seems to hate despite it being a pretty solid collection of songs.

This all has to do, I realize, with the age I discovered them.

I discovered them in 1987 when The Joshua Tree was released and you couldn’t walk the street without tripping over “With or Without You.”  For an impressionable early teenager, the great thing about U2 was that they weren’t what was clogging the airwaves at the time – Bon Jovi and Warrant and “Unskinny Bop” – they were serious, they had a conscience, they were all about Amnesty International and Greenpeace.

UNITED KINGDOM – MARCH 16: Photo of U2; L-R: The Edge, Bono (waving flag), Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jnr performing live on The Tube TV Show (Photo by Erica Echenberg/Redferns)

Another reason I responded to them was, by this point, I was still the “new kid” at my school and at my new hometown. We’d moved in August 1986 and while I made friends, I still felt like something of an outsider. And as so much of The Joshua Tree is about alienation, and fear, and desire, it was like handing a glass of ice water to a man dying of thirst. So I dug U2, but not in a huge way. I didn’t get The Joshua Tree until Christmas 1987 (on Vinyl), and had to make a cassette copy to listen to on my walkman. Of course, the U2 steamroller had just got going when they dropped Rattle and Hum – the album and the movie, and went from “cool, serious band” to “overexposed” in a heartbeat. I saw Rattle and Hum in the theater, and as it was my first exposure to the band in something of a live setting, my appreciation for them deepened. The only concerts I’d been to by that point were Jan and Dean, Donny and Marie Osmond, and a pre-Private Dancer Tina Turner, so seeing Bono’s ego projected larger than life was a sight to behold. But more important, the theater sound system was the best stereo one could imagine – the walls were shaking. Needless to say after the experience I was a full-on fan, no longer just a casual one. I bought up their back catalog and nearly wore the cassettes out. The fact that R&H is not a good album by U2 (or anyone else’s) standards is beside the point – it was the right album, and the right movie, at the right time. I was a fan now, and I anxiously awaited their next album.

And waited. And waited. And waited …

B0W1XG Iconic graffiti on Berlin Wall at East Side Gallery

1988 became 1989, which became 1990 and then 1991 and there was no sign of a new album. Unlike this internet age where you have that information at your fingertips (true or rumored), in the early 1990s you either read about it in Rolling Stone or Spin, or you heard nothing. One advantage of the wait was I filled the gap by discovering other bands who would become as important to me as U2 – Midnight Oil, INXS, REM, The Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, and many more. Summer 1991 saw the first Lollapalooza festival, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and by September the Pixies released Trompe Le Monde, and Nirvana released Nevermind.

Think of that: 1987 was The Joshua Tree, Bon Jovi, Warrant and Unskinny Bop; 4 years later was Pearl Jam, Lollapalooza and Nirvana. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union was on the way out, and still nothing new from U2. A lot can change in four years, but an even bigger change was coming.

In late September of 1991 I picked up the newest issue of Rolling Stone (with Guns n’ Roses on the cover – remember Use Your Illusion?). And in the news section there was a small blurb about U2’s new studio album being readied for release. The title was Achtung Baby, with the first single “The Fly” set for release in October.

I thought it was a joke. Really? They’re calling it Achtung Baby? They’re releasing a song called The Fly? This, from the band behind the painfully earnest Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum? It had to be a misprint. They couldn’t be serious.

Could they?

I began to wonder … by now I was well into the left of the dial music that was slowly sweeping across the land. By the time AB dropped on November 19, 1991, would I even be interested? Would I even care? This was not a new phenomenon; in years since I’ve fallen in love and then out of love with lots of bands. Some were just brief affairs of an album or two, some lasted years before fizzling entirely. Some I still listen to and buy their new releases, but it still feels like a sense of duty more than something I genuinely want to hear.

Late October, “The Fly” was released. I didn’t so much hear it as see the tail end of the video on Much Music when I got home from school. It was a good 30 seconds before I realized it was even U2. Bono was wearing these goofy wrap-around shades; The Edge was wearing his soon to be ubiquitous knit cap and (gasp) bell bottoms. This wasn’t the U2 of The Joshua Tree, and the music wasn’t like anything U2 had done before. I was intrigued, but after the low-fi sonic assault of Nevermind, this slick, studio stuff seemed more self-indulgent than anything else.

There was still a month before releaseon a trip to the record store to grab Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden, I happened upon a cassette single (a.k.a. “cassingle”) for The Fly.

I picked it up too and on the way home gave The Fly a listen.  I listened to it several times, along with an included remix, and an instrumental track they did for a Royal Shakespeare Co. production of A Clockwork Orange.  It was all very … different, but as is the case with anything, the more you listen, the more it tends to grow on you. So everything was in flux come November 21 when I left school at lunch to hit the record store. You see, this was THE DAY Achtung Baby hit shelves. To risk restating the experience of buying it, click HERE if you haven’t already. Done? Good.

When I walked into the record store, the owner was playing what I would later learn was “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” but I was all eyes at that point, and not ears. I looked for the new release rack and finally found what I was looking for. It took me a minute, because the first thing you notice about Achtung Baby is its cover.

It was off-putting, coming from a band who had up to that point selected a single image for their cover art:

So right away it didn’t look like U2, but that didn’t discourage me, obviously, because I threw down for the cassette copy, as I didn’t own a CD player at this point, yet had a Walkman, a boom box and a car stereo with tape deck. I paid for it, declined the bag, and ripped the cellophane off the case on the way back to my car. I slid behind the wheel, fired it up and popped in Achtung Baby. The test signal rolled first and I set levels, and then, music …

ZOO STATION

When it started, it sounded like my stereo speakers were broken, and it wasn’t until Bono started singing that I realized that was the entire point. Given the last U2 song released was the melodic All I Want Is You (well, that and a cover of Cole Porter’s Night and Day” from the Red Hot + Blue compilation), it was music from a different planet, but still very much U2. I really wasn’t crazy about it to be honest, but now I can’t imagine the album without it.

EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING

Now this was more like the U2 I knew – a sweeping rock anthem, blending the old and the new. The “rhythm and blues” influence of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum was gone, and it harkened back to The Unforgettable Fire in its “European feel” but by this point it was clear that AB was a totally different beast.

ONE

Here we go. Some songs take several listens to “get” but “One” was one I got the moment I heard it, and is probably their best known, best loved song. It’s apparently a popular song at weddings too, which blows my mind because if you listen to the lyrics, you realize pretty damn quickly it’s not a love song. With lyrics like “You ask me to enter/ but then you make me crawl/ and I can’t keep holding on / when all you got is hurt,” it is ironic their most popular song is also their most misunderstood. It’s hard to think of this era in music and with U2 to be “Classic Rock” but One is a classic and now recognized in roch circles as one of thegreatest songs ever written. Even people who hate U2 will couple that hatred with the admission that “One” is pretty good.

UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD

It’s about Judas, and his betrayal of Jesus, told from Iscariot’s perspective, but for me, it seemed to speak to what I was going through at that time in my life; an on-again-off-again relationship with a girl who was much more into me than I was into her, being stupidly into someone else who I had no chance with. And by the time I realized I had made a big mistake it was too late. She’d moved on, and told me it would be the end of the world before she reconsidered.

WHO’S GONNA RIDE YOUR WILD HORSES

A nice salve after the bitterness of the previous tunes, it’s one of the lesser tunes on the album, at least for me. I think it is for U2 also, given how the fact it was a single, it really isn’t remembered. It’s the closest to a Joshua Tree-era tune on the album and stands out for it.

SO CRUEL

For some strange reason, the song that becomes before the side break on pretty much every U2 album becomes my favorite on that album, and So Cruel fits that bill. It’s simple and melodic, and sets up the two songs that follow. One of the things we lost with the rise of the CD is that “act break,” the song that holds its spell on you as you flip the cassette or album over; something to linger while you wait for the next track. So Cruel still does that.

THE FLY

If you hear any U2 on the radio these days, The Fly is going to be one of them. No 90s compilation or playlist is complete with this roaring beast of distorted guitars and distorted voice. It was U2’s firs new music in three years and it sounded unlike anything they’d ever done. I didn’t realize at the time how this song and that video would be the blueprint for what was to follow. U2 had long wanted to “redefine” the concert experience and what the subsequently pulled off did just that and that influence can be seen and felt to this very day.

MYSTERIOUS WAYS

The first time I listened to Mysterious Ways, I didn’t like it. It was too “dance” too “House”, and as a self-import and, self-involved 18 year old, those things were just wrong. Now, it’s my favorite song on the album after So Cruel, and best played loud. Go figure.

TRYING TO THROW YOUR ARMS AROUND THE WORLD

To this day, every time I hear it, I think of a very particular scene; me, driving the streets of my town after dark. It’s winter, the ground is covered with snow and every street feels abandoned. There are no people out and fewer cars, but the music coming from the stereo is warm and soothing.

ULTRAVIOLET (LIGHT MY WAY)

There’s a scene in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly where Jean-Dominique Bauby, paralyzed by a stroke, is remembering a trip he took with a mistress, and as we segue into the flashback, the first strings of Ultraviolet can be heard, before BLASTING into the big intro. The image, of the mistress from behind as she sits in the passenger seat of a convertible, her hair whipping in the wind, is now forever associated with this song, but it remains one of my favorite tracks on the album. U2 resurrected it from limbo for U2 360 tour as an encore, as a throw to their fans, who by all accounts were thrilled to see some lesser-known known songs make the playlist.

ACROBAT

Its refrain of “don’t let the bastards grind you down” has become my personal mantra. They try their best, and sometimes it looks like they’ll win, but I always bounce back and am still here when so many of them have gone.

LOVE IS BLINDNESS

The somber closing to a joyous and yet bitter collection of songs. A downbeat song they closed shows on their tour with and didn’t diminish the high everyone felt coming out of it.

So despite Nirvana and Pearl Jam, RHCP, Ministry, Soundgarden and countless others occupying the sonic landscape of 1991 – surely the last great year in music we’ve seen – AB remained lodged in my tape deck for months, it seems, and remains my favorite “winter album” — yes Achtung Baby makes me think of snow and chilly air. A lot of stuff happened in those remaining weeks of 1991 and AB was the soundtrack to it. Hell, when I started college the following fall it was still out there, still playing in record stores, still blasting from dorm rooms – albums had a longevity then that they don’t have now. In fact, in the 30 years since then I don’t think I ever stopped listening to it.

In March 1992 I got to realize a dream of the previous five years and saw U2 on their now legendary Zoo TV tour. I cut afternoon classes and drove the three hours with three friends, spent a good part of the day wandering the city near the venue, and got to see The Pixies (my still-favorite band, and people behind what was and remains my all-time favorite album, 1990s’ Bossanova) open for U2.

I was at this show, though sadly not this close to stage.

It was, of course, an amazing show and an amazing experience – but I realized much later that seeing U2 live represented the climactic moment of my love for that band. I’m still a fan, and will be until I die, even though they’re not the pinnacle of my musical taste like they were. Seeing Zoo TV was the conclusion of that period of my life, which was changing quickly. I graduated High School three months later, I moved away to College five months after that (and ended up living down the street from where I saw U2 barely half a year before). I saw them again in August of that year, and then thirteen years passed before I saw them once more, on their Vertigo Tour, general admission, right up front. That was the last time I them perform, live, because nothing could top that experience outside of being their personal guest or something.

People change and music changes, and 30 years can seem like 30 years, and can also seem like just last week or last year. The agonizing wait for an album is gone – music gets leaked, officially or unofficially – in the case of Songs of Innocence it can appear, wanted or not, in your iTunes downloads.

I’m a U2 fan, but will probably never be as into U2 as I was in 1988-1992 and probably will never be into any band that much again. Music obsession is a young man’s game and it has to be, because that music will be with you for the rest of your  life. When Generation X hits retirement age, rest homes across the world will have Grunge nights, and arguments will break out in the lunch room over the merits of Nirvana over Pearl Jam, just like High School with more wrinkles, more grey hair and less of it. The rec room will be filled with the music of Ministry and Nine Inch nails, and especially U2. I’Il still listen to Achtung Baby regularly, like Doolittle, like Nevermind, like so many other albums that stood the test of time. And, like every memory I have of that year and time of my life, I’ll never stop listening to it.