Celluloid Heroes Part II: Judgement Day

[This is Part 2 in a series called “Celluloid Heroes”] in which I take a look at the movies that inspired me to become a storyteller. Part 1, about Back to the Future can be found here.

Working on the Mixtape pilot has more or less been my full-time gig this year. We’ve penned I don’t know how many drafts of the pilot, we’ve had weekly story conferences, we’ve discussed everything from music rights to marketing. We’ve even brought in some fresh young voices into the mix because we – the 40-spomething creators of a TV series largely about teenagers – felt it would be wise to incorporate the voices of writers and artists who graduated high school in this century.

And one of the questions we, the makers, have been pondering through the year plus we’ve bene working on Mixtape: The TV Series is this;

When did the 1990s begin?

Not chronologically, but culturally. What was That Moment where the 80s, and all that had come before, ended? What was the demarcation point?

There are theories. Music historian and radio personality Alan Cross pinpoints November 9th, 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall as the demarcation point that changed the world enough to mark the end of the 80s and the Cold War, with this “pocket decade” between wars, ending with 9-11-01 and the War on Terror. There are some say that the decade really began with the videotaped beating of Rodney King by the LAPD on March 3, 1991. The first ever viral video that changed the discussion about the police forever being on the side of law and order. You can pretty much draw a straight line from Rodney King to the endless stream of viral videos we watch on our phones or computers to this day.

I myself have a different theory.

My theory is that the 90s officially began on May 25, 1991. That was the date that record stores began utilizing a new technology called SoundScan. For the first time in history, record stores could report accurate, real-time sales figures for every piece of music purchased. Up until that point reports were self-submitted, meaning record stores and record companies could gin up numbers and push the artists they wanted to see hit big, at the expense of smaller acts. SoundScan eliminated that guesswork and told the record companies, the record stores, MTV and Much Music, and the artists themselves, how many units were being sold.

The results of these were surprising to say the least.

The first album to benefit, by debuting at number 1?

For contrast, “Nevermind” debuted at #170 when it was released a few months later

Another beneficiary was this album, released by N.W.A.

Remember that up until this point, Hip-Hop was regarded as a niche and a fad. SoundScan burst that bubble and made record companies go “hmmm, maybe there’s more to Hip-Hop than we thought”. Because the brilliance of SoundScan was that not only did it tell you how many units of an album were being sold, but more importantly where they were being sold. And NWA wasn’t just selling in South Central Los Angeles or The Bronx; they were selling in the suburbs, to largely white middle-class suburban kids.

Another beneficiary? Alternative Rock. Those weird indie bands and niche artists like Depeche Mode, the Pixies, The Jesus and Mary Chain were selling better than previously thought. And it got record companies to likewise go “hmmm, maybe we should send some A&R people to the markets where this music is selling and source out some local bands. Places like Boston, and Austin, and, oh, I guess Seattle? There’s some music coming out of there, right?”

SoundScan was the first shot across the bow of the old order, soon to be aided and abetted by the rise of the internet. SoundScan technology soon made its way to the video store, the bookstore, and today we see it in viral videos, and the numbers of followers a writer or artist has on social media. Don’t believe me? When publishing Magicians Impossible I had to fill out a questionnaire and list my social media profiles, and numbers of followers, along with the number of “unique” monthly visits to this website.

Even now, within the first week of publishing a bookseller will know how many copies of a book has sold and can project with reasonable certainty how many it will sell in a month, six months, a year out. That’s why those first week sales and pre-orders of any piece of media are so important. It’s why a studio and the theater chain will know by first weekend ticket sales if a movie is going to be a hit or a flop.

Our lives today are guided by algorithms and sales dates. And we have SoundScan to thank for it. The true “Judgement Day” – the day the machines took over..

That is why I would likewise argue that culturally speaking, the 1990s began with this film:

Buckle up

But to talk about Terminator 2, we first need to talk about James Cameron.

So Avatar 2 hits theaters this December; the sequel to the biggest box office moneymaker of all time. A movie that, if you believe the popular discourse, left no lasting cultural impact despite the fact everybody and their uncle knows what Avatar is (hint: it is not The Last Airbender, sorry Anime nerds).

I’ll admit I was wary of an Avatar sequel; I feel the first film did an adequate job of telling a single contained narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. There’s no Avatar Cinematic Universe, there are no TV and video game tie-in that expand the scope of the story and the world. Avatar has been gone from the public consciousness enough that relaunching the franchise (another sequel has been filmed, and there’s two more on the boards). It’s as huge a gamble as the 2009 film was; something scoffed at and derided by the press and film fans in general until it actually hit theaters. Then they all learned the lesson us older genre fans had known since roughly 1984.

So that was my opinion. Until I saw the trailer for AVATAR: The Way of Water

And then I remembered:

Never. Underestimate. James Cameron.

He’s the guy on the left

I discovered James Cameron in 1984 (technically 1985 when I first saw The Terminator on home video). It blew me away.  The Terminator, along with later action-centered films like Predator, Die Hard, and Robocop, shifted the sci-fi fantasy landscape away from Jedi and ET’s to killer robots, alien hunters, and cyborg police officers. These movies were loud, violent, and profane; catnip to a teenager. This was next level shit for an 80s kid; from Luke Skywalker to Indiana Jones to Sarah Connor. A maturing of SFF cinema, pushing the envelope of blood and gore and mature storytelling. After The Terminator everything changed.

What’s remarkable about that first Terminator movie is that it, unlike its many sequels, is more of a horror movie than a sci-fi or action. Seriously, this is one frightening movie, with its visions of a post-nuclear holocaust, its unstoppable merciless killer prowling the streets of Los Angeles (filmed at and released during The Night Stalker’s reign of terror). While your mileage on the Terminator sequels will vary, I think all will agree that none of them captured that feeling of nightmarish dread the first did so well.

[As an add to that, I don’t think anyone born post-1990 will ever know the existential dread of nuclear war that us 80s kids grew up against. Most of us were convinced we’d never see adulthood; that our lives, the lives of our families, the world as we knew it, gone in a flash of radioactive hellfire. The Terminator tapped into that fear hard and boy did it work.]

The Terminator put James Cameron on the map. Then in 1986 he unleashed Aliens on an unsuspecting world. I’ve written elsewhere about the first Alien being a seminal movie-going experience in my life, so Aliens was one of the first movies I remember really looking forward to. First was an article in Starlog Magazine. Then came this trailer that I believe ran before Top Gun:

So even before I finally got to see Aliens in the theater sometime in August of that year I knew the story. I knew what happened. I knew who lived and who didn’t.  That prior knowledge did not in any way detract from the experience of Aliens on the big screen. That is how you know you’re in the hands of a master storyteller; like in Cameron’s own Titanic you knew how the story ended but were still along from the ride. I was a Cameron fan; even more so when, in response to a flurry of fan letters to Starlog magazine critiquing Aliens, Cameron himself penned a lengthy response that Starlog published where he addressed every writer’s questions and concerns. It was the first real glimpse into the mind of a film director I believe I ever received; an audio commentary before audio commentaries existed. 

So I was on the Cameron train. Waiting eagerly for the next film. And in 1989 we got:

Let me state this upfront: I LOVE The Abyss. It’s in many ways the “forgotten” Jim Cameron film (along with True Lies; we won’t talk about Piranha 2: The Spawning); one of those movies that when you say the name Jim Cameron you tend not to think of. Of all of Jim Cameron’s films I think it’s easily the Jim Cameron-iest. The one with the themes of love under pressure, of nuclear Armageddon, of the fantastic intruding on the everyday all coalesce in a film whose reach may have exceeded its grasp but remains a film well worth your time (the Extended Edition I mean, NOT the theatrical).

But the Abyss is regarded as Cameron’s first misstep; unfairly so. Released during the legendary summer of 1989 its competition included Ghostbusters 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, and a little movie you may have heard about called Batman. A lone original summer movie in a sea of franchise-starters and sequels stood little chance. The Abyss performed respectably but not well-enough to recoup its costs. Jim Cameron’s star had faded, his reputation tarnished. Following The Abyss’ performance at the box office, Jim was in trouble. The career trajectory he’d enjoyed with The Terminator and Aliens had hit a wall. He needed to prove himself again.

And boy did he.

This movie needs no introduction. I think everybody has seen it. If The Terminator announced Jim to the world, T2 became a cultural phenomenon and a still-relevant cultural touchstone. “Hasta la vista baby”, liquid metal’, ‘Judgement Day’. But to me, then as in now, T2 is as potent a metaphor as anything for the massive cultural shift about to take place.

See, the summer of 1991 was notable for one other cannonball into the pop-culture swimming pool:

It’s hard to believe now, but Lollapalooza 1991 wasn’t terribly popular. It did well, but in some cities they actually had trouble giving tickets away. The lineup was certainly more eclectic than the norm. To know even half these bands put you on the fringes of the mainstream. The “alternative” to the popular artists of the day, if you will.

But for an idea of how swiftly things did change, here was 1992’s lineup:

That’s where SoundScan ties in. Because a year later Alternative Rock was no longer Alternative, but the mainstream.

How this ties into T2 is forever fascinating to me. Back then as now (but not so much) movies liked to try and piggyback onto what songs and artists of the day were popular, to release hopefully a tie-in video to promote the film on MTV and Much Music. Si in T2’s case the big promo song was by none other than Guns N’ Roses; then the biggest band in the world. The video featured clips from T2, Arnie made a cameo with the band. Heck, you can check it out right here;

The  two Use Your Illusion albums were expected to be THE big rock event of fall 1991. And they were both big sellers. Anticipation was even higher for Michael Jackson’s new album, and U2 was making their comeback with a strangely titled album called Achtung Baby, and an even stranger first single called The Fly. 

But the album release that fall nobody saw coming? That’s the one that forever changed the metric;

T2 blew the box-office to smithereens, becoming one of the biggest moneymakers of all-time, becoming one of the all-time great action epics. It showed that the best Jim Cameron was the Jim Cameron with his back against the wall and something to prove; a success he repeated in 1997 with Titanic and 2009 with Avatar. Say what you will about those films now in our jaded, pre-packaged/focus-grouped to death corporate movie world, to deny the financial and cultural impact of both is to prove yourself a liar.

Nevermind happened. The alternative rock revolution had begun. Soon artists like Guns N Roses and Michael Jackson were considered old-hat. Passé. Bands with names like Hole, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Teenage Fanclub, and Soundgarden captured the imaginations of suburban and urban kids everywhere.

The culture had changed. By 1992 nobody outside the metal heads cared about GNR. Their moment in the sun had come and gone; the kids were following the grunge movement, not the metal movement (though I would argue that there’s a good 12-15 songs on the combined Use Your Illusion albums to comprise one really great GNR record).

The 90s had begun, and Terminator 2 was the cannon blast across the water. Not Nevermind, not Lollapalooza. It wasn’t quite as underground a hit as Nevermind became but it was the film that, like Nevermind, launched a thousand imitators. There’s a clear line from the T-1000 of T2 to the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, to Jar-Jar Binks, Gollum, Iron Man, Groot, and the host of all-digital creations we take for granted in 2022. the fact that realistic CGI dragons can be created for television is because of T2 and Jim Cameron. And when I take my kid to the playground and glimpse some jade pre-teens in Nirvana and Pixies T-shirts, I see the reach that pivotal year of 1991 still touches.

I began my final year of HS that fall. A year later I was firmly ensconced in FS; a journey that began in 1986 with Aliens. Because if a guy from Chippewa Ontario could go onto Hollywood success, it meant every Canadian kid with celluloid dreams could too, or at least try. As I met and befriended the people in film school who would become lifelong friends and collaborators the one bit of common ground we all seemed to share was that while we were definitely the children of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, it was James Cameron who made us want to be filmmakers. 

As for me, I’m really looking forward to The Way of Water, simply because I have no idea what to expect. With the plethora of comic-book movies approaching, I know what I’m going to get because with those movies expectations must always be met. Same with the never-ending churn of Marvel and DC and Star Wars content we’re getting; all seemingly designed to be more about I.P. management than creating anything memorable or lasting. That’s why in the year 2022, a sequel to Avatar, still the biggest grosser of all time, feels like a revolutionary act. Something James Cameron has done over and over again.

Never. Underestimate. James. Cameron.

Next up, is a trip back in time to 1986, and the third (and final, for now) part of this series.

And no, I’m not going to be talking about Aliens.

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.


Moving In Stereo

It’s happening. Sort of.

If I’ve been a little silent as of late it isn’t without good reason. I’ve been up to my neck in work on a new project closely related to my comic book series Mixtape.

I’ll be brief and to the point; I’ve partnered with Little Engine Entertainment to develop Mixtape as a half-hour comedy-drama TV series. That’s right, the further adventures of Jim, Noel, Siobhan, Lorelei, and Terry are (hopefully) coming to the small screen. We (Little Engine and I) are currently in the development phase of the sales pitch that we hope to start taking to broadcasters and production partners this fall, with an eye to rolling into production (again, hopefully) sometime in 2022.

Hope is not a business strategy, and we recognize that. But it seems the age of 80s nostalgia is moving off and the 90s are back “in” again (except to people like me, where the 90s apparently never left). But with some BIG musical anniversaries this year (Lollapalooza, Nevermind, Badmotorfinger, Ten, Use Your Illusion 1 & 2, Screamadelica, Out of Time, Blood Sugar Sex Magick, Trompe Le Monde, Bandwagonesque*) now is probably the best shot we have at grabbing the attention of the people we want to grab.

*Seriously, Google “1991 Albums” and prepare to drop your jaw. 1991 might have been THE year the 90s officially began, culturally anyway.

It’s a long road ahead, and one that might never reach its destination, but we all believe in the project and think it has a better chance of moving forward now than it ever did.

So, that’s where you’re going to find me over the coming months; here, working on Mixtape again. It feels good, if a little strange

To be clear this series is NOT an adaptation of the comic; think of it more as a companion piece to those stories. Each issue of Mixtape captures a small moment in the life of its particular main character, but there’s a lot more story to tell that until now has lurked largely in the margins. new characters, new situations, new music. It’s all there. The pictured title page is actually the first completely “new” Mixtape story I’ve written since completing Volume 1 of the series. My hope is that with a series moving forward I’ll be able to return to the comic book world of Mixtape and complete Volume/Side 2.

But that’s all some time from now. Until then I hope you all have a great summer and I’ll see you in September!