Celluloid Heroes Part I: The Power of Love

(This is the first in a series I’m calling “Celluloid Heroes” (HT: Ray Davies) in which I take a look at the movies that made me, or at least had a very outsized influence on me growing up. This installment will be followed by two more, running through this summer, and I hope to continue the series through the years ahead.)

So without further ado, “when this baby hits 88 mph you’re going to see some serious shit.”

Iconic

You could argue that of all the movies of the 1980s, the one that stands above all others is this one. Back to the Future. Released on July 3, 1985, easily the most 80s year of the decade, it was a massive commercial and critical hit. It stayed in theaters for months, making money hand over fist. 

I also think it holds the crown for movies most about the decade they’re actually set in and BTTF is 100% 80s. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, as if you didn’t already know) wants to get back to his year, 1985, the year of the film which automatically dates it, as though a “dated” film is a bad thing when few films released are remembered a year after release, let alone thirty-eight (it’s true; look it up. Also, sorry). 

But what makes Back to the Future the 80s movie? Why not Ghostbusters or Gremlins, why not Robocop or E.T. or Die Hard?

Let’s break it all down;

1. It’s a Teen Comedy

While teen-centered movies had existed before the 1980s it wasn’t until the 80s that they became a genre. Films made for and marketed to the prosperous children of the prosperous Baby Boom generation. The kids now called “Generation X”. Films like Fast Times At Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Valley Girl and all their offspring.

Also iconic

So looking at Back to the Future through that lens as a teen movie, it works. It’s a cool teen with problems who goes to experience life as a teenager in his parents’ era when they were teenagers. One of the reasons I recommend George Gipe’s Back to the Future novelization (copies are easily attainable and affordable in the secondary market) is that it really delved into the differences between 80s kids and 50s kids, which is quite the trip to read in 2022, where the 80s are as far removed from us as the 50s were to the 80s. If Back to the Future were made today Marty would time-trip back to the distant year of 1992 (again, sorry).

2. It’s a Spielbergian fantasy

You can’t talk 80s cinema without talking Steven Spielberg. The guy was and remains a master filmmaker, but it was his aesthetic, the “Amblin feel” of so many classic 80s films – Poltergeist, Explorers, Gremlins, Goonies, Back to the Future – that suburban living could lead to adventure, that the fantastical could drop on your doorstep, that became a genre unto itself. Even today, with Netflix’ Stranger Things series, the Spielbergian influence is front and center.

NOT iconic, but man is that beautiful

The biggest genre films of the decade – the Indy trilogy, E.T., these films he produced – sparked wave after wave or imitators and homages. And Back to the Future, despite being a Zemeckis-Gale joint, has Spielberg’s fingerprints all over it, right from that look of awe on Marty’s face when he sees the DeLorean for the first time. Those somber, reflective moments like when Marty pens a letter to Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) warning him of his future murder. Seeing his parents kiss for the first time. Little touches that humanize the fantastical are all Spielberg and it’s no small surprise many mistakenly believe Back to the Future is a Spielberg film.

3. It’s Boomer nostalgia 

Starting in 1985 the baby boomers all started turning 40. And you could see it in the culture of the day. Whereas the first half of the decade was dominated by MTV, New Wave, new Romantics and “youth” culture, starting in 1985 the boomers took their revenge. The big waves of 50s and 60s nostalgia (present in some form from Happy Days, Grease, and Sha-Na-Na in the 70s) really took hold in the 80s. It was that turning 40 where those greaser and hippy kids started looking back at their lives, and the culture followed. Paul Simon, Bob Seeger, the Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, the Beatles all saw a resurgence in popularity (in fact the following year’s Ferris Bueller’s use of The Beatles’ cover of Twist And Shout launched the Beatles back into the popular culture). 

I can still hear the music

Back to the Future really leans into the boomer nostalgia, filtered through the gaze of a 17 year old played by a then 24 year old and written by a couple of late 30/early 40-somethings. It may be Marty’s POV – he’s virtually in every scene of the movie – but it’s George (Crispin Glover) and Lorraine’s (Lea Thompson) story. Their world. Their era.

Part of why, to me, the two sequels aren’t nearly as effective or good (sorry but it’s also true) is because their settings – 1885 and the then far-away world of 2015 – are divorced from any world we, the viewer, knew. They’re perfectly fun time-wasters but they lack the emotional resonance of the first film. They’re movies about Back to the Future; not movies about a teenager time-traveling to meet his parents as teens. 

Back to the Future also made me conscious of the fact that my parents were teenagers once. That they had a lot of the same hopes and fears as I did. It got me more interested in their music, their movies, their TV. The sense that they’d grown up in a period predating my birth; that they’d lived a fair bit of life before becoming parents.

4. It’s a Gen X Film

Generation X as a term to describe that cohort of people born between 1965-1977 or thereabouts wasn’t actually coined until 1991 by author Douglas Coupland, in his book titled, well Generation X. But now, Marty McFly, those John Hughes Kids, those Kids of Degrassi Street and the like are all labelled Gen X. It was a label assigned after the fact. Unlike Gen Y, unlike Millennials, Gen X typically had to wait until the dust had settled to get a name, which it didn’t receive until:

As an aside, there’s definitely merit to an argument going around that it’s GenX who’s at fault for the endless sequels and reboots of classic 70s-90s film series as we’re the 40-50 somethings clinging to the nostalgia of our youth. But the missing component to that argument lies in the fact that the main demographic companies/networks/studios want to reach are 18-34, not 35-54. GenX is also, demographically, a small cohort sandwiched between two larger ones, the Boomers and the Millennials. I would argue more to the plethora of sequels, reboots, remakes as just being more evidence of that tepid corporate mindset that it’s a safer bet to repackage an existing property than to attempt something new. You couldn’t make Back to the Future today without a plan and a promise for a film series. The numbers bear that out; the two biggest movies in recent terms financially have been a new Batman movie (of which there’ve been 10 since 1989), a Spider-Man sequel, the 9th Spider-Film in the last 20 year span, and a sequel to Top Gun, 36 years after the original. It’s interesting to ponder how the landscape might have been were there only 3 Star Wars movies, 3 Indiana Jones movies, 6 Star Trek movies, 1 Ghostbusters, 1 Back to the Future. Would they be as beloved today or would they sit somewhere closer to a 1-and-done success like E.T. the Extra-terrestrial? That is rightly regarded as a classic film, but it certainly doesn’t have the fandom that those other franchises have (because in the end, all that matters to studios is the merchandise – the T-shirts, the video games, the toys, that keep the money flowing). But I digress.

But let’s look at Back to the Future in that context; Marty, the youngest child, sees his older siblings and parents crushed by the grind of life. Dad is a nerd pushover, mom an overweight alcoholic with a jailbird brother. Marty’s brother works in fast food, his sister is likewise in a dead-end job. George’s high school bully, Biff, is still tormenting him. He’s facing a future of diminished expectations which is why he has so much riding on that battle of the bands; his ticket out of the decaying California town of Hill Valley. He is of a generation that can expect to climb nowhere near as high as the generation preceding it. That’s the GenX-perience. That we were never going to have the success of our parents. And poor Marty’s family … are failures. Whatever dreams they once had (like George’s ambition to be a sci-fi author) never came to fruition.

So why is Back to the Future so important to me? 

In 1985 I moved to Greensboro North Carolina. School, culture, were not a good fit. Quite simply, I hated it. So there was an enormous appeal in Marty McFly’s story. I wished I too could time-travel with Doc Brown back to, well, maybe 1984 and just inhabit the pre-NC years on an endless loop. But I knew in my heart that was silly and doomed; to be perpetually aging while I relived the same events. Going from ten to eleven to twelve running in place. So while the fantasy was appealing I knew the only way to survive NC was to go through it.

[I did get through it, though the two years we were expected to spend in NC were truncated by an at-the-time fortuitous circumstance that eventually would have consequences for the whole family.]

I wish I could say things in NC turned around but they never did and when I left NC later in 1986 it was without any looking back. I haven’t been back there since and don’t intend to. Unlike all the many other places I’ve lived I have zero nostalgia for that time in my life. In point of fact to this day I posses a strong, very unfair dislike of the southern USA because of my North Carolina experience.

But in Greensboro, we lived a short walk from the nearby strip mall which included a nice bookstore, great Chinese restaurant, a Toy City, and movie theater. This was a second run theater, one of two in town, and when movies came there on their way to home video they played for a while. Tickets were a buck, popcorn and soda or candy was another buck. When Back to the Future finally made its way there I went almost once a week. When another movie like Young Sherlock Holmes or Weird Science arrived I alternated but the end result of that is I’ve probably seen Back to the Future in the theater more times than any any other movie before or since.

It’s also why I bought myself this …

Back to the Future is my movie comfort food. SO much so that this past father’s Day I chose it to be my movie for the day. And almost 40 years on it remains as fun, as sweet, as charming as it ever was. Watching BTTF now is akin to traveling back in time to 1985, to 1955 and back again to 1985. Over those many years past Marty McFly became a friend, then he became me; a teenager out of place, desperate to return to the place he belonged. His home. His time. It took a little longer for me but I made it home eventually.

That story will be told in the third installment of this series.

But first we need to take a leap forward to the year 1991 and this bad boy.

I’ll be back

See you 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.

1991

Thirty years. How can it have been thirty years?

There are milestone years in your life. The years that stand out above all the others. I’ve lived many years, and could pick a good half-dozen or so that stand out. But near the top of that list, 1991 remains that year for me. Musically. Culturally. Personally. It was a time when it felt like I and my generation – Generation X – were coming into our own. Where the movie and music creators we discovered and came to admire were borne of the same age as we were. The same experiences. It wasn’t 1960s or 1970s pop culture redux. It was our culture, our identity. It was U2, Guns n’ Roses, Metallica, Depeche Mode, The Stone Roses, The Pixies, and a bunch of new bands from Seattle called Pearl Jam and Nirvana (we already knew Soundgarden, but bands like Mudhoney, Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream and more were discovered at the same time). I’d been dipping my toe in the college and alternative rock pool since 1987 but 1991 was the year I plunged in.

Ask anyone at all connected with the music and culture of Generation X but 1991 remains THE year for all of that. It truly felt like the flood gates had opened. Don’t believe me? The Pixies’ Trompe le Monde, Nirvana’s Nevermind, The Cult’s Sanctuary, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magic were all released on the same day. Seven days earlier, Guns N’ Roses released Use Your Illusion I and II, and Hole released Pretty on the Inside. Both Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger were already in stores, and the autumn would see the releases of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and U2’s Achtung Baby.

Oh, and Michael Jackson released an album that, while it outsold pretty much all of the above, felt like a relic from a different era. The 80s effectively ended the summer of 1991. Generation X was moving to the forefront, the culture was moving on, and if you were in your teens and early 20s, you were riding that wave.

Very few of my teenage years were memorable, or happy for that matter. Frankly the 90s weren’t all that great either – 1990-1994 were pretty good overall. 1995 through 1998 were shit, and 1999 was great professionally, lousy personally. While my career did eventually take flight, it was amidst a great deal of personal turmoil of the type that really prevented me from enjoying my life even when “great things” were happening. But I feel if I could hop into the Wayback Machine, or hit 88 mph in my DeLorean and travel back in time to relive just one year of my younger life, it would probably be 1991. It was the year that felt different even then. It felt like things were changing, and that the future looked a lot brighter than the past (remember that feeling? Pepperidge Farm remembers). That feeling was 30 years ago.

What both fascinates and troubles me is that 1991’s memories remain fresh, a lot more so than ones from 2011 or 2001 for that matter (outside of 9/11 what does any of us really remember from 2001 anyway?). I remember the Carribean Cruise I went on in March of 1991. I remember my summer job at our small-town local newspaper, of volunteering at the local cable access station to burnish my reel, I remember the first Lollapalooza tour, and seeing so many great bands in their prime. I remember helping my still best buddy move into his college apartment an hour’s drive from my town. I remember beginning my final year of high school. I remember My Own Private Idaho, The Commitments, The Fisher King, The Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, JFK and Cape Fear.

This wasn’t one of them. Seriously. The Commitments is awesome.

The thing they don’t tell you about aging is that generally you feel like the same person inside that you were when you were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Older and wiser, hopefully, but not so different. So much of my teenage years remains on immediate recall, largely thanks to the music I still listen to. While I do keep up with some contemporary artists – Coldplay, Haim, The Kills, The Weeknd – my heart belongs to the past, and to the music I grew up with. It’s not just music though; it’s a salve that helps me weather the present. If I close my eyes and listen to “In Bloom” and “Alive” and even “Blaze of Glory” , for a brief moment I’m back in the 80s and 90s. Even music from artists I never much cared for – I’m looking at you Richard Marx, Pseudo Echo and Icehouse – I still have fond memories accompanying.

1991 has been on my mind a lot, lately, thanks to the rebirth of Mixtape as a TV series I’m developing with Little Engine TV. We’re still in the early stages but there have been some encouraging developments as of late. Nothing I can reveal right now obviously. The general concensus we’ve been getting overall has been that we’re in the right time to start looking back at the 90s, those celebrated but largely forgotten early years of the decade when it seemed the world was changing for the better, an upward climb out of the morass of the 80s. That time in your life when everything good and just seems within reach.

But what is it about 1991 that holds on to me? I had better years. 1992 was right around the corner; an even more pivitol year for me. If there’s one 1991 memory I carry with me, it may be this. November 29, 1991; that was when me and a bunch of HS friends trekked to the local-ish university to see a little band from Boston play on what would be their then final tour.

The Pixies were, and remain my favorite band. Long-time readers of this blog will know that. 1990’s Bossanova remains my favorite album of all time, not because it’s the best Pixies album but because it was the right album at the right time for me. Seeing them in concert was a life goa, and in late 1991 I got my chance.

Anyway, the show. It was tight, hot, raucous. And loud. Boy was it loud. There’s something about live music that reaches deeper than recorded or video. A concert is a gathering of members of the same tribe. Everybody who travels to a concert from whatever location is joining a temporary movement. All united by a love of a band and their music. our case was no different. This concert was about an hour’s drive from our small-town yet we all made that trek. We mingled with people who had driven further, and some who lived nearby (said concert was at one of the local universities). The show was, of course, amazing. But at one point near the end we were all gathered in a group watching the band and I tore my gaze away from the stage to just look at the people I was at the concertwith. Janet, Ana, Charles, Matt, Anthony, Andy, Nathalie, Elliott, Moira, Esme, Katja. All of them. And I reflected even then that in a little less than a year those faces would be memories and nothing more. They had their lives, I had mine, and our paths would likely never cross again. For the most part that held true, even in this connected world of ours. I’m one of a seemingly few people not on Facebook so I have no idea what became of most of them. There’s a couple I keep up with now but the rest are just more memories; faces in a dusty yearbook, if that.

And it makes me think of a similar concert that fell nearly 13 years later to the day – November 24, 2004 to be exact – on the Pixies’ first of many reunion tours. A decade older, playing the “hits” despite never really having a “hit” when they were together in the first place (which should give us all pause to consider what makes a “hit” anyway). I went with a friend, just the two of us, and we had a great time. The band was on point, the crowd raucous. But standing there in that cavernous hall I wondered if any of the people I saw them with in 1991 were there too. I wondered how their lives were going, how they’d turned out. Were they happy? Were they in a good place. Did they remember me?

I never got an answer; if any were there our paths did not cross. After the show we all cleared out back to our cars and began the journey back to the present, back to our 2004 lives. Back to home. But that question, unanswered as it was in 2004, did find one in 2008, when I first got the idea for a comic book series called Mixtape. Mixtape changed my life; I stopped telling stories for others and started telling them for myself. Mixtape opened doors I didn’t realize were even there. It led to Magicians Impossible and all the other successes to follow. And those successes, right to the present with the Mixtape series, all can trace their lineage back to that special year.

The fact 1991 was 30 years ago reminds me that the once far-away year of 2050 is closer than 1991. Where will I be 29 years from now? Will I even be here? Will I even be here next year? I don’t know. None of us does. The last 30 years has taken away friends and family, teachers, classmates and colleagues. Nothing is guaranteed to us; not even tomorrow. I think that’s what makes the past the past, and why our thoughts return to days of yore; because it’s safe, because it’s known. Yet, through the things we loved – the movies, the music, the memories – those days still there. We know how the past ends. The future is frightening because none of us knows what the next day will bring. Looking at the state of the world today, the prognosis is not terribly positive. Sometimes in my darker moments I ponder whether or not I want to see another day, given the road ahead looks pretty dire.

But I keep at it. I keep plugging awy at work and at life, though as written about elsewhere the hard truth remains that while I still enjoy writing I don’t really enjoy being a “writer” and all that being a writer entails; promotion, appearances, the public side of it. So henceforth I am giving up on being a writer and focusing instead on writing. On showing up and doing the work. On being there for my family and for myself. That’s the big takeaway from 1991. That those years pass you by so fast and suddenly you’ve lived a lifetime without realizing it. It makes you want to cherish the days yet to come, because some day they’ll all be done.

Walking Distance

I was a weird kid.

I mean, all kids are weird because they’re just trying to figure things out. But I was weird with a capital W because while other kids wanted to be astronauts and football players and – in one case – a NHL superstar, I wanted to grow up to be someone who was dead by the time I was old enough to say “when I grow up I want to be …”

Growing up I wanted to be Rod Serling, and I’m glad that never happened.

In Rod We Trust …

Rod was the classic case of the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. He will forever be known as the creator of the Twilight Zone, which to this day remains my all-time favorite TV series. He was the face of the show. He wrote the majority of the episodes. The influence that show had can’t be measured, but you could argue that the fantastical movies and TV we have now are a direct line back to TZ (and that’s not including the latest reboot). Deeper Serling cuts would include his Playhouse 90 work; live-to-air plays like Requiem for a Heavyweight and Patterns. Of course there’s also Night Gallery and the original Planet of the Apes, but even Rod would admit his connections to both was tangential compared to the finished project (though the infamous Statue of Liberty ending of Apes was Serling’s idea).

You maniacs!

My favorite episode of The Twilight Zone is called “Walking Distance”. It tells the story of Martin Sloan, a 36-year-old ad man tired of his life, who finds himself transported to the hometown of his boyhood. There he not only basks in the remembered pleasures of carousel rides and chocolate sodas with three scoops, but also encounters himself as a child (played notably by Ron Howard) and his long-dead parents, who understandably question his sanity. Martin thinks he can live out his life again in that safe, confined, cloistered world, but as this is The Twilight Zone, it’s not going to be that easy. I won’t spoil Walking Distance if you haven’t seen it, but the truth revealed to Martin and to us, is that the past can’t be revisited, that the dead are truly gone, and the only way through life is by going forward, into the uncertain future, and hope that the lessons of the past have given you enough strength to weather what lies ahead.

Man, I’m going to watch this again today it’s so good …

The fact Serling wrote Walking Distance at the height of his career speaks a great deal to how he felt about his fame and success. It was truly double-edged. It gave him everything he ever wanted, except happiness.

As a young writer in my 20s, Serling was my benchmark. I wanted to write great works and create lasting TV. I lived, breathed, and ate writing. I lived in a succession of shitty apartments, scratching out a living 9-5 then packing in an additional 3-4 hours of writing every day. And despite the considerable odds against everyone who takes up the pen and tries to make a living with it, I actually did it. I became a working writer. 

Pictured: me at the start of all this

But somewhere along the way I got lost. The words, while flowing fairly regularly, didn’t instill the same joy they used to. Looking back at the preceding decade of work I see a couple things I’m still proud of (both begin with the letter “M” by the way) and a whole lot more that, frankly, I am not. Not so coincidentally the “not-so-proud” are the things you watch rather than read. Those are things that were produced, that I was paid for, that I receive royalties for. I’m proud of the work I did on those things, I put my everything into them, and they were well-received for the most part. But looking at them I don’t see anything of myself in them. I was a hired gun, I did my job, I collected my pay, I moved on. That’s probably why I still don’t own any copies of my film and TV work. Not one DVD or Blu-Ray or digital copy. 

My dream of being the next Rod Serling was becoming increasingly remote.

Now it’s pretty much gone.

And I’m okay with that. 

Here’s a fact about Rod Serling you may not know; he died at age 50.

All those years of never-ending work, of struggle, of stress (not to mention a four-packs-a-day cigarette habit) burned Rod out by the mid-1960s. After TZ ended, he couldn’t find work beyond hired-gun jobs like Seven Days in May and Planet of the Apes

They don’t call them coffin nails for nothing, Rod.

Rod Serling’s Night Gallery may have bore his name and his face, but what it didn’t carry was his writing. He became a TV personality and an ad pitch-man simply to pay the bills. He kept smoking, right up to his first heart attack. Then his second. He had his third and final while in the middle of open heart surgery. Doctors tried to remove a vein from his leg for a bypass. The vein crumbled. They were the veins of an 80 year-old.

Rod was 40 when TZ ended. By 50 he was gone.

One really wonders how different the landscape would be if Rod had lived another twenty years. The Twilight Zone experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 1980s, as storytellers and filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg professed their love of the dusty old series. It’s quite possible we could have seen a Serling renaissance, produced by Spielberg or Lucas How many more stories would he have been able to tell?

I think that having the life you dreamt of having when your younger would be a depressing experience. Because what would it feel like to stand atop the summit of Everest and say “so this is it?” I often wonder of the life I might have had if I made different decisions. If I’d taken that series gig in LA when it was in the offering back in the early 2000s. Would I have been more successful?

Well, if by “success” you mean “money” then most definitely; I would have made bank. But would I have been happy? Doubtful. We go through our lives saying “if only” and “wouldn’t it be great if …” and cry disappointment that the Thing that would have Fixed Everything didn’t happen. But I think those things, those promises of “this could be you if …” just set you up for failure and disappointment because they never would be that salve you wanted them to be. You’d sit there, award in one hand, big bag of money in the other and say “so this is it?”

You certainly can mourn the life you thought you’d have. But you can’t let what never was haunt what is. I think that’s the reason there’s so many unhappy people out in the world; they’re emotionally punishing themselves for not having the life they dreamt of. They’re blaming themselves for not reaching that goal. I was one of them, for the longest time. I dreamt of being a film director. I ended up a stay-at-home dad, a writer of novels and comics some movies and TV. There remains a competition in me, and I do think that’s healthy; that drive to create. But I no longer let work be the center of my life. I certainly work and work hard, but I don’t let that define me. I let myself be defined by the people I love, and who love me in return.

This is not the life I envisioned but it’s still a good life. I love my wife, I love my son, and they love me. I wouldn’t give any of that up for “success”. We’re constantly changing, we’re constantly evolving; our bodies, our thoughts, our ideas. We’re not the same people we were ten years ago, or ten years prior to that. I’m certainly not the man I was when I began this career. And that’s a good thing too; I would hate to be That Guy. That Guy was not happy even when he was successful. 

If there’s a mantra I’ve repeated to myself and expressed to others a great deal over the past few years it’s that “the things you think will make you happy will not if you aren’t already happy yourself“. It’s like wanting that one Christmas gift more than anything else, and when you unwrap it under the tree you rejoice; but a month, a year later? Not the same thing.

People still remember Rod Serling, 45 years after his death. It’s doubtful anyone outside of my immediate and extended family will remember me 5 years, let alone 45, after I’m gone. And I’m okay with that. I’m closer to 50 now than I was when I started this profession. Work is more sporadic, more tiring. I still write, I still create, and having decided to focus more on comics and novels, I’m much happier a person. The things I write now are 100% mine.

But more than writing, I’m a father. And being a father and a husband has the joy my life as a writer had been lacking. All those years of being the young, hungry scribe were, in hindsight, my unhappiest years. It took the discovery of what it felt like to actually enjoy your life, to realize how miserable you used to be. I’m not one to toot my own horn, but I do believe I’m a better writer now than I ever was. I’m certainly a happier one.  

I may still die at 50, like Rod Serling. But I hope not. Because sometimes getting everything you want is the worst thing that can happen to you. It took my failing to reach that dream of being the next Rod Serling to give me the life I always wanted.  

An Open Letter To Generation X

Twenty nine years ago this day some friends and I packed into my battered, four-cylinder 1983 Toyota Camry and drove three hours to attend the first Lollapalooza Festival.

The lineup was eclectic. The Rollins Band. Butthole Surfers. Ice-T and Body Count. Nine Inch Nails. Living Color. Siouxie and the Banshees, and headliners Jane’s Addiction. It was the beginning of a new decade, and our generation, Generation X, was at the forefront.

We didn’t realize at the time but the world – our world – was about to change. Because later that month an unknown band named Pearl Jam released their first album, “Ten”. A little over a month later another band from the same rain-soaked corner of the Pacifi Northwest, Nirvana, released their major label debut. Neither album was expected to do much business.

Of course, they did and then some.

You couldn’t give tickets to Lollapalooza 1991 away back then. But come 1992 you couldn’t find them anywhere because Alternative Rock had become mainstream. The weirdos became the force to be reckoned with. That carried over into film; 1992 saw Reservoir Dogs and El Mariachi and Gas, Food, Lodging. The lunatics had taken over the asylum.

I’ve been writing about music and the 90s and the alternative era pretty much since this website began back in 2009. I created a comic book series about those years; one currently on hiatus that I really hope to jump back on soon. I had planned on kick-starting the next phase of Mixtape this year but COVID-19 had other plans.

When researching what was to become Mixtape, I spent a lot of time watching old concerts and old music videos on YouTube, rereading old books. Some were videos of concerts I myself attended. I saw lots of kids my age back then; the kids with day-glow pink and orange and white hair. The kids with dreadlocks. The guys with long hair, sideburns, and goatees. The girls with shaved heads and nose rings. I would watch these videos and wonder what became of those kids? What became of them as they moved from their teens and twenties into their thirties and now forties.

What are they doing now?

Well GEN X? What the fuck are you doing these days, and why?

I’m looking at you, Karen, you old riot grrl, calling the police on a black or Latino man just trying to get into his apartment. I’m looking at you, Ken, who attended every Ministry show they could, throwing a Trumper-tantrum because the Starbucks barista making minimum wage asked you to please wear a mask when entering the shop to pick up your triple vente with extra whipped cream.

Come ON guys and girls! You used to slam-dance and skateboard, you lined up for Pixies and Depeche Mode tickets. You made mixtapes to profess your love, you plastered a Reservoir Dogs poster to your dorm wall and blasted NWA while doing it. You moshed in the pit, you head-bopped to Hip-Hop. You were the end result of a childhood of roaming around and exploring your neighborhood un-tethered. You made your own fun. You hung out at the arcade, you worked at McDonalds. You bought Batman on VHS, you saw all the Indiana Jones moves in the theater. You had MTV, Much Music, Friday Night Videos, and Top of the Pops. You had Star Wars and G.I. Joe, Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony.

Now look at you. Yelling at kids to get off your lawn. Asking to see the manager, yelling and cursing people out on Twitter and sharing racist memes and fake news on Facebook.

You are disappointing the shit out of me.

What happened to you between then and now, between Nevermind and “never mind that, I’d like to speak to your manager” ? What changed? You used to Rock The Vote and boast you were Born to Choose. Now, you’re aligning yourself with the people and ideologies you would have turned your nose up at. The asshole establishment types. These guys:

Don’t tell me you’ve “matured”, that you’re not some “snot-nosed teenager who doesn’t know how the world works.” You’re complaining that U2, a band that has never shied away from politics is now “too political”. Newsflash: they didn’t change – you did.

You call it “growing up”, but still you act like a bunch of spoiled toddlers throwing tantrums.

You’re suffering from Paul Ryan Syndrome; where you claim Rage Against The Machine is your favorite band, while voting to defund social security. You’ve become The Machine, Paul, and your favorite band thinks you suck because of it.

Look, I get it; people change. I mean, look at Morrissey. I can barely listen to The Queen is Dead or Strangeways Here We Come and not reflect on what a bitter, racist prick he’s become (as opposed to the earnest vegan prick he was back in the 80s). Change is the natural way of things. Change is good. But the change you claim to embrace stops when it comes to creating a more equitable society. Your freedom ends when you would deny that same freedom to someone else.

Face it; you’re not the heroic nerds anymore. You aren’t the cool misfits either. You’ve become the villains in those teen movies you used to watch and adore. You’ve become the slime-ball preppy golf and country club assholes you used to rail against and cheer when they got their comeuppance.

Pathetic.

Hey, maybe I’m wrong; maybe deep down you always were an asshole. A latch key generation sandwiched between BAD BABY BOOMERS and FECKLESS GEN Y. Maybe you did what you had to to survive a harsh world. Maybe the world broke you down. Maybe we did it to ourselves. We were always told we’d never earn as much, live as long, have as much success as our parents generation, and maybe we embraced that too much. Maybe we believed it so much it became self-fulfilling. We set our sights low because we knew we’d at least hit that mark. We got mortgages and credit card debt, we watched our dreams slowly die and, as punk-rock sage Henry Rollins (who I first saw at that Lollapalooza and to this date 29 years later remains THE artist I’ve seen in concert and in his spoken-word shows more than anyone else) sang/bellowed in “Low Self Opinion”;

You sleep alone at night
You never wonder why
All this bitterness wells up inside you
You always victimize
So you can criticize yourself
And all those around you

Thing is, GenX, I see a lot of the latter; not so much of the former. No self-reflection, no introspection, no “wait a second, I’m in a Starbucks raging about wearing a fucking mask; maybe I’m the asshole” thoughts. No, you’re blundering through life so convinced you’re right and the world is wrong, that you’re becoming what Raylan Givens from Justified also wisely said;

“You run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. You run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

Raylan Givens was never wrong about anything. Not even Boyd Crowder.

Let’s circle back to something Henry also said/sang/yelled in the same song;

If you could see the you that I see
When I see you seeing me
You’d see yourself so differently
Believe me

Well GenX – I see you. I see men and woman looking at their shitty world, their miserable failed lives, and see disappointment. Not that life dealt you a hard hand, but because it did and you accepted it rather than smack it away. You became the person who complains to the manager, who calls the cops on a neighbor’s barbecue, who literally yells at people to get off your lawn because you work in a bank or sell cars or perform office drone work when you once dreamt of being a musician, a filmmaker, a sports star.

Your dreams crumbled and died, and rather than find the grace that comes with a life of kindness, and fairness, and neighborly cares for the people around you, you sit at home, watching TV, not talking to your wife or husband, not paying any meaningful attention to your children.

I’m disappointed. That a generation raised on Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood could grow to become adults possessing no kindness, no want for making the world a better place just by being an active part of it. The generation raised on John Hughes and Steven Spielberg movies. Every generation wants to change the world, and every one does, but not always for the better.

People ask me; “Brad, as a writer, what is the most important tool in your toolbox? The one thing you feel every writer, every artist needs?” And I reply; “Empathy. Empathy is the most important thing an artist can have. You can be outraged by the behavior of a character, but if you can’t see that sad, scared child that awful teenager or adult once was, you’re losing a little piece of yourself. You’re not being honest. You’re not looking inward.”

But GenX, I’m telling you it’s not too late. You can still change your bitter, disappointing life.

How to start?

Well, you could always try listening to music again. Trust me; all the “classic rock” stations out there are playing the music you listened to in high school and college. The music you grew up with. The music of today that’s influenced by that era where music meant everything. So I implore you, stop listening to talk radio, stop watching Fucks News; in fact, stop tuning in to AM radio entirely. You can also ditch that Facebook account of yours – a technology meant to “bring the world together” but has only driven people apart. A place that thrives on your anger, and your outrage. Remember there’s a reason you lost touch with those high school and college assholes, and that because that relative of yours posts racist shit on their feed, their Thanksgiving invitation must be rescinded until they see the error of their ways and smarten the fuck up, and be that person you used to look up to again.

Seriously. You’ll be glad you did.

If you frequent news websites, get a good comment blocker for your web browser (I recommend “Shut Up”) and use it. Don’t waste your time going down the rabbit hole of uneducated shitheads with too much time on their hands and too many opinions to spew. You miss absolutely nothing by refusing to engage with these 21st century baubles designed to waste time that is becoming more and more precious with each minute, each day, each year we have left, just so some tech billionaire can make even more money. Remember; every problem we face in the world today can be directly attributed to rich assholes who decided they need to make even more money than they already have.

Want a good substitute for all the doom scrolling? Here’s one: it’s called picking up a book. Preferably one on paper, but digital will do ya just fine. Did you know roughly a quarter of Americans claim to have not opened let alone read a book within the past year? Of course you do! Look who’s president if you don’t believe me. Do you want to be associated with those people? If you’re still that cool, hip Gen X-er you think you are then you know the answer. Read. More. Books.

I recommend this one.

My main recommendation in moving forward is to try and channel that person you were, ripped jeans and nose rings and all. The person who’d look at the adult you’ve become and ask “what the hell happened”? Become the person that 20 year-old version of you aspired to become. Be your best self.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll change the world for the better.

Play us off, Henry …