Friday, June 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: Running in the Family and "It's Over"

March 1987 was all about U2; April 1987 gave us Prince; May 1987 brought Suzanne Vega. For late June of 1987, I toast the 30-year-old memory of that minor masterpiece, Running in the Family, by the fantastic (and too often forgotten) English funk-jazz-pop outfit, Level 42.

I'm cheating with this release in at least two ways. First, I've almost certainly missed it's U.S. release date; the album hit in March of 1987 in the U.K., and while it wasn't released simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic, I doubt it was this late. But hey--so much good stuff came out in the spring of that year that something had to be pushed back if I was going to keep myself to just one a month.

Second, I didn't listen to this album in 1987. I knew the radio hits--"Lessons in Love," most obviously--but I didn't have any real appreciation of this band, much less this album, until a mission companion of mine in South Korea a couple of years taught me something about funk and R&B music (which, as my entry on Prince a couple of months ago made clear, was far from thorough at the time!), and that inspired me to pick up Level 42's Level Best as an interesting example of what can be done with the style. That compilation album became one of my scriptures in the months that followed, and I couldn't wait to get back home and find out all the other tunes of theirs that I missed out on. Which I did--and now, 27 years later, while this doesn't have my absolute favorite Level 42 numbers on it (that would probably be "Heaven in my Hands" and "Tracie" from the following year's Staring at the Sun), it's an overall delight, one which never fails to take me back to memories both soulfully old and brassily kick-butt.

Which track to celebrate? How about this version of "It's Over," which is synth-heavy, but which also shows the way Level 42, and bandleader Mark King in particular, could very nearly create an authentic slow jam/quiet storm feel, when they wanted to.

Monday, June 26, 2017

15 Favorite Memories from My 20 (Well, Actually, A Little Less than 18) Years of Harry Potter

Twenty years ago today, June 26, 1997, the very first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was published in the United Kingdom, thus beginning a fantasy phenomenon that has not only changed the book industry forever, but also one that defined our family for years, and which has lived in my imagination in a way no other geek property--not Tolkien, not Star Trek, not comic books, nothing--ever has, and almost certainly ever will. So, on this occasion, 20 memories and moments of fun to commemorate:

1) Actually, it's not 20 years; more like 17 years and 10 months. The first Harry Potter famously did not make a big splash in the UK--except among a few thankfully well-placed book-sellers and reviewers who championed it, and made sure Joanne Rowling's vision didn't die a premature death. The re-titled first book didn't make it to America until September 1998, and I certainly knew nothing about it. It wasn't until the summer of 1999, which our young family spent in Germany while I worked on my Ph.D., that we first heard the name "Harry Potter"; some Canadian grad-school friends of ours wrote us, telling my book-loving wife about this new children's book series they'd discovered. Returning to the states, attending a book club at a local children's bookstore in Alexandria, VA, my wife discovered the excitement which those in the know were feeling about the third Harry Potter book, which had come out in the UK at the beginning of the summer (Rowling cranked out a book a year from 1997 through 2000), and had developed enough of a following in America for Scholastic to manage to publish it just a few months later. And that was our start.

2) Though, again, actually MY start came even later. Through 1999 and 2000, Melissa read the first three books: Sorcerer's Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Prisoner of Azkaban. I didn't. But Pottermania was building; references were showing up in all sorts of media, and there was all sorts of buzz about a film adaptation of the series in the works. Melissa wanted the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which was published in July of that year--the series by then having become a big enough deal that a trans-Atlantic release date were coordinated--for her September birthday, so I bought it for her...but then read it before wrapping it and giving it to her. So I read the fourth book first, more than three years after the rest of the world had started to figure out what amazing thing Rowling had released on the world.

3) Finally Reading the First Three Books, and Truly Catching the Potter Bug. If we didn't have such a bookworm first daughter, I don't know when I would have gotten around to reading them, or if I ever would have. Maybe I would have continued to let time go by, and I would have become one of those grumpy folks who proudly insists they don't have time for all that Harry Potter crap. But fortunately, Megan demanded, and we responded, and the Fox household descended into a Pottermania that, in some senses, we've never recovered from (thankfully!). 

4) - 11) Less History, More Internet! The Harry Potter phenomenon was, and still is, inextricable from the way in which the internet absolutely transformed all our lives, how we shared information, how fan theories were assembled, we associated with fellow geeks, and more. The number of websites, blogs, e-mail lists, e-zines, and more dedicated to Harry Potter is probably incalculable. I certainly never perused anything like a 100th of them, even at the height of my fan addiction. Still, even just reading or watching or laughing or being thrown into nostalgic thought only 1% of this stuff is more than enough to allow judgments to form. So herewith, some favorites, many of which I suspect a fair number of anyone who actually reads this will already be familiar with:

Fan Fiction: "Interlude." Have I read a lot of Harry Potter fan fiction? Indeed I have. Did I ever actually write any? No comment. But seriously, read "Interlude," which is the best Rowling-compliant, tone-appropriate, world-building contribution to the huge "what happened to Harry, Ron, and Hermione next?!?" genre that I've ever read. (Also very good: "Roger and Lisa: A Romance," a wonderfully imaginative story created out of two barely-even-there characters from the Harry Potter canon; and "The Test of Time," a fic written back during the three-year gap between Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which I didn't read until years after the series was completed and found to be a cool look into what the real hard-core fans were imagining long before Rowling let her biggest secrets out of the bag. Plus, anything written by little0bird and Northrumbrian is worth checking out.)

Fan Film: "The Battle of Hogwarts" (Documentary). Be sure to watch all five episodes!

Fan Reading: "Wizard People, Dear Reader." Yeah, I really don't know any other way to describe this.

Fan Puppetry: "The Mysterious Ticking Noise." The first, the best.

Fan Music: "Cold, Wild Yonder." I never got into Wizard Rock as much as some, but Oliver Boyd and the Remembralls were really quite good.

Fan Musical: "A Very Potter Musical." All three of Starkid's Harry Potter parodies are worth watching, but there was an innocence, a hilarious "can-we-get-away-with-this?" joy to this first production, before these college kids all graduated and became YouTube sensations and went to Hollywood (or tried).

Fan Music Video: "Dark Lord Funk." Really good, but as my old online friend David Salmanson commented, "needs more Hermione."

Fan Feminist Criticism: "Hermione Granger and the Goddamn Patriarchy." Speaking of Hermione, there was this.

12) Reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I picked up my copy of Half-Blood Prince at a midnight release event in Jonesboro, AR, where we lived at the time, and by the following afternoon, I was stoked. I had back through the previous two novels in preparation, and I was sure that this book was going to be where Rowling really kicked out the jams and let this fantasy adventure she'd been developing take flight. I thought that her way of keeping her story in the realm of children's literature was just a delaying tactic; that something in the stories of Harry, Ron, and Hermione just had to explode, sooner or later. I went through most of Half-Blood Prince therefore slightly frustrated...until: BOOM! The Horcurxes! The death of Dumbledore! The betrayal of Snape! It was, and remains to this day, one of my great reading memories; I was just so excited by what was on the page!

13) Getting into the Fandom. As the link above shows, my response to Half-Blood Prince touched a nerve with some, and suddenly I was part of a broad--actually world-wide, if you look at my blog's stats--argument about Rowling's agenda, about Harry, about Snape, about the whole Harry Potter phenomenon. The two years between Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was really the closest I ever came, in all my years of blogging, of breaking away from the great anonymous pack of online scribblers and becoming someone who was known and read. I put up a bunch of predictions I worked out in my own head for the final book, and it unleashed a torrent. And it was great fun....even though it turned out I was basically wrong about pretty much everything.

14) Getting to the Ending. But who cares about bring wrong? When I finished Deathly Hallows, around 10am after having read straight through since picking up the book at another midnight release party, as much as there was stuff I felt Rowling hadn't done as well as she could have, or hadn't done at all, I was nonetheless exhausted and delighted. I rode the story all the way to its conclusion, arguing all the way, and that was a memory to treasure.

 15) Making it Part of the Family. Through all these years, and in the years since, through the movies and a trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, I read the books to our daughters: to Megan (whose passion for Harry Potter has continued all the way up through her Honors graduation at KU--her thesis title: "Reading a Gender Binary into the Magic of Harry Potter: The Case of Neville Longbottom"), to Caitlyn (though less to her than the others), to Alison, and most recently to Kristen. It became something we all shared, a language, a way of thinking and laughing, and in that way became more than a series of novels. It because part of our collective consciousness--and what more can you say about a work of literature than that? So thank you, Jo Rowling: you've given our family something we can never repay. 20 years is just the start of it, I think.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sheffield (and me) Dreaming the Beatles

I wasn't a Beatles kid--except in the sense, as Rob Sheffield wonderfully invokes in his terrific new book, Dreaming the Beatles, every American (and maybe every modern Western person on Earth) who lived in the second half of the 20th century both was and is. We all heard the songs, either directly or as reflected in the songs of others, and they got into our heads. For myself, my earliest memories of the Big Important Bands of Pop Music were a function of the rock music I got off AM radio back in the 1970s--the Rolling Stones, the Who, Boston, etc. The Beatles--either as a band or John, Paul, George, and Ringo's solo stuff--was surely mixed in there, but it wasn't until a good 10 or 15 years later that I really started to excavate those memories, to listen to those Big Important Bands and get a better sense of who these rock and roll and pop artists and bands were and what they'd accomplished. And what did I find, over the years of listening, exhaustively, to the songs of the Beatles? That Sheffield's basic thesis is correct: the music and style and legacy of the Beatles quickly became and still remains a near-omnipresent cultural force, one that so many of us (even--and maybe especially--those who insist otherwise) cannot help but creatively realize or just outright recognize in near every pop song we ever listen to. We might as well dream the Beatles, because we're hearing them just about everywhere we turn, anyway.

Sheffield's book isn't a history of the band--though he synthesizes a huge number of histories that have been written of the band, and repackages their insights into a couple of dozen vaguely chronological chapters which become brilliant snapshots of the Beatles and their Meaning For Us All. Mostly, the book is a 1001 miniature essays and aperçus, wonderful fan-boy observations and geek-outs and occasional (sometimes genuinely harsh, but never not loving) snarks. He won my love with his song chapters: one on the underappreciated gem "Dear Prudence," another which actually found something new to say about the exhaustively documented "Strawberry Fields Forever," and one which made a case for a mostly ignored favorite of mine, "It's All Too Much." He won my respect for his several chapters on the individual Beatles, which were never contrarian for the sake of it but which nonetheless leaned into dominant Beatles myths in important ways (as someone who has for years called George my favorite Beatle, Sheffield's unapologetic consideration of Harrison's inconsistency and half-heartedness, his occasional desire to have it both ways, to benefit from but nonetheless not be of the Beatles, and how that is reflected in his solo recordings, gave me real food for thought). Above all, he captivated with his breezy yet sharp sociological survey of the roots and consequences his Beatles world, which is also my own.

Sheffield is about three years older than me, and the way his deeply religious (Roman Catholic, specifically) youth became part and parcel of how he thought about the pop music he loved and the world of sex and friendship and geekery and art that it opened up to him was something I could instantly relate to. His take on what the legacy of The Rolling Stones meant versus the legacy of The Beatles for us Generation X kids is really kind of profound. And his take on how our collective memory of that Beatles legacy shifted over time is even more so. He hones in how that memory was marketed and sold to succeeding waves of young people; he makes a good case for seeing the 70s Beatles legacy (trashy yet massive selling collections like Rock 'n' Roll Music and Love Songs, along with the slightly more respectable Red and Blue collections, which were the holy texts that I discovered in South Korea on my mission) as differing markedly from the 80s Beatles legacy (the whole Baby Boomer re-appropriation of The Beatles, what with 20th anniversary re-releases of the original albums and a host of "you-had-to-be-there" declamations all over television and the movies), and both of them being very different yet from the legacy of the Beatles in the 1990s and beyond (including everything from Live at the BBC to the Anthology albums and more). The book is more than just a wonderful re-telling of a hundred fascinating parts of the Beatles' story; it's a manifesto for making the Beatles our (my) story as well.

Anyway, if I haven't sold you on it yet, there's this: Sheffield is fine and funny writer, and there were a dozen points in this delightful read where I was barking out loud with laughter. Your mileage my vary, of course, but let me throw out some of my favorite passages here to encourage you:

When talking about the recording of "Dear Prudence," which John had written while they were in India, and was worked out in the studio during a two-week period when Ringo was on break from the band:

"John, Paul, and George mesh beautifully, as if they're smoothing over the conflict, or looking for the sun beyond it....They might be trying to remind themselves of why this used to be fun. John hiccups like Buddy Holly, as if this is the song Buddy would have written in 1968 if he'd given up his seat on that plane, lived into the Sixties, and tagged along with them to Rishikesh instead of that dweeb Mike Love" (pp. 24-25)

Keith Richards, talking about the "sheer sexual exhaustion" which the Beatles faced with having to deal with screaming fangirls all the time:

"'Three thousand screaming chicks could just wail you out of the whole place'....All those years of screamers took their toll--especially since the Beatles were way ahead of the Stones when it came to on-the-road girlie action. 'They talk about us, but the Beatles, those chicks wore those guys out. They stopped touring in 1966--they were done already. They were ready to do to India and shit.' Well argued, Keith" (p. 163).

Talking about the, at the time, terminally uncool Paul, taking of the usual step of an actual political stand, in which he angrily denouncing Margaret Thatcher and her cuts to support for health workers in the National Health Service in a personal telegram:

"McCartney warned, 'What the miners did to Ted Heath, the nurses will do to you'....[T]he telegram was a major U.K. scandal, with Tory politicians denouncing him....Many rock stars talked shit about Maggie--Elvis Costello, Morrissey, Paul Weller--but Paul was the one more famous than she was. He had something to lose by hitting send on this, and nothing to gain. What, you think he was trying for coolness points? This is Paul McCartney, remember? He was in the middle of making Give My Regards to Broad Street. He could have clawed Thatcher's still-beating heart out of her rib cage, impaled it on his Hofner on live TV, and everybody would have said, 'Yea, but "Silly Love Songs," though'" (p. 255).

Anyway, it's a great book, and everyone should read it. And, just because I've been listening to the Beatles all while writing this blog post, here's a quick alphabetic Top Ten, ten Beatles tunes that, if I had to choose right at this moment, I'd insist be on the desert island mix-tape to keep me sane if I had to do without all the rest. I purposely tried to hit as broad a range of albums as possible--and looking it over now, I realize I've left anything from Revolver off my list. Which, of course, is unacceptable. But that's why coming up with only ten Beatles songs will always be unacceptable. They're too much with us--or, at least, too much with me.

"A Day in the Life"
"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite"
"I'll Be Back"
"I'll Follow the Sun"
"It's All Too Much"
"Maxwell's Silver Hammer"
"Penny Lane"
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"
"You Won't See Me"
"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"