Retro Review


*Author’s note: Click on the words in green throughout this article for links to related video and audio clips.

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by Bob Langham
 
As you can tell if you have read more than one post on this blog, music is a big part of my life. Since I wasn’t, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “born with the gift of a golden voice,” and I have yet to learn how to play an instrument (even though I gave the guitar a try as a teenager), I have had to enjoy it from the sidelines, but I’m okay with that. I listened to records and the radio from an early age, because back then we didn’t have the opiate of cable television to conquer our imagination and steal our creativity. Personal home computers were years away and the Internet, like flying cars and time travel was a science fiction dream.
I was nervous and anxious by nature as a child and there was some turmoil in our family, which added to this. Besides being a chronic nail biter, I was, like most young kids, also afraid to go to bed in the darkness of my room by myself. Each night I would try to get to sleep, but every sound would be magnified in my mind as something that was after me – vampire, monster, burglar, kidnapper, alien, you name it, in my mind it was either under my bed or lurking just outside my bedroom window.
In the early ‘70s for Christmas, I got a pea green, box-shaped portable radio as a gift. It plugged into the wall, and it had two dials on its ridged face – one for volume and one for tuning. I was able to find a local FM station that was either a top 40 or top however many they had back then for radio formats of the time, and that is where the dial stayed. That radio became my audio night light. It shouted down all of those scary sounds and noises that had taunted my childhood imagination from the dark crevices of my room, and beyond the intimidating panes of my bedroom window. One song that really made an impression on me and shaped my musical taste as I lay in the darkness of my bedroom, most likely the only person still awake in my house, if not the entire neighborhood was Whole Lotta Love  by Led Zeppelin; especially, the part of the song at about 4 minutes in when that blood curdling voice came groaning out of my tiny green innocuous box of a radio in a howling scream:
Way down inside… Woman you need me…angry guitar and drums, then a long scream without musical accompaniment as if the singer, (who I assumed at my naive age was a woman, because only a woman would have such a high-pitched scream) was falling into a dark bottomless chasm, and finally the voice was answered with more hostile guitar and drums.
There was something about that song and the environment in which I first heard it, that scared me, but also excited and enticed me at the same time. It introduced me to the power and pull a good song can have on the listener. I had a visceral reaction to that song as a child. This is why it is hard for anyone to say with any certainty what makes a good song. There is no cookie cutter formula, despite the marketing strategy of some of the record companies and radio stations today. Lyrics play a big part, but so does the music, how it is arranged, and how either the lyrics or music, or both touch you on an emotional level. Your life experience and situation when you first hear a song also contribute to how you receive the song, so everyone has a different reaction. Had I first been exposed to Whole Lotta Love in the light of day, surrounded by other people, my reaction to it would have been different. Naturally, someone else may hate a song that you think is the best one ever released because their life experience and situation is not the same. This may be why people, seem to choose and defend their music, like they choose and defend their religion. They don’t know why they are right about either one, but they know they are, so everyone else must be wrong.
To take the religious metaphor a step further, the musical equivalent of the church, the commercial radio stations, at some point became just that – too commercial, both in too many commercials and the deejays (the musical equivalent of the clergy) playing songs with commercial appeal over lyrical or musical quality. The same songs are played over and over again across multiple stations with no effort to push the creative envelope or expand the artistic landscape. It has gotten to the point that you can tell time by what song is being played. Classic rock stations are notorious for clinging to a handful of songs by an artist or band and not venturing away from this list. This is true even for bands that have extensive, quality discographies. For example, at least on the classic rock stations in Houston, if the deejay goes into a commercial break and says we will be right back with some classic Pink Floyd, you can pretty much count on it being Run Like Hell, or if they promise classic U2, it will most likely be Pride in the Name of Love ,or Where the Streets Have No Name. There is nothing really wrong with any of these songs, at least not the first 3,000 times they played them, but how about a little creative ambition and initiative? Try playing, something else from these artists’ vast libraries, like The Final Cut, or The Gunner’s Dream by Pink Floyd, or Running to Stand Still or Bad by U2.
Sometimes, the classic rock stations give the illusion they are playing some rarity with a feature they give a fancy title like, Deep Cut where they play a song from “deep in their musical vault” that isn’t necessarily rare, but may just get less of a rotation, so the audience may have only heard it 1,500 times before instead of 3,000. However, sometimes one sneaks through, (maybe the deejay was in a rush to get back after a long bathroom break and snatched up the wrong album/disc and played it before he realized what he had done).
Whatever the reason, I was recently introduced to Black Cloud by Trapeze from 1975 (complete with cowbells that would make Bruce Dickinson [Christopher Walken] salivate) during one of these Deep Cuts features. I have logged many hours listening to classic rock stations all of my life, and I had never heard this song before. Could that be possible in a city whose radio stations’ musical offerings in various musical formats have less variety than my iPod? At the moment, I only have a little under 2,000 songs on my iPod, but I can play a better selection of music on my hour long commute to work, than all of the radio stations in this city combined. But as sad as this is, it was on one of these stations where I first heard Black Cloud, so I guess I have to at least credit them with that whether it was a fluke or not. This song, like Whole Lotta Love, is not a lyrical masterpiece, but it is one of those songs that I had a visceral reaction to. However, instead of hearing it for the first time in the darkness of my childhood bedroom, I heard it after a long day at work on my frustrating commute home. I was probably cranky because it wasn’t Friday yet and I knew I had to be back again the next day to tackle a pile of unfinished work. I was expecting the next song to be one of the same old classic rock songs that inexplicably get entirely too much airplay. Instead, Black Cloud car jacked my soul at a traffic light that day, and continues to linger there as a reminder of how music can help you deal with life’s black clouds whether they be imaginary childhood monsters lurking in your bedroom or real adult monsters lurking in the cubicles at work.

 No time to stop, keep on movin’
The whole world is to see
No time to think of things that I am missing
Wherever I go
Black cloud’s following me

Each and every town
I’m father’s last relation
Doing what I can just to eat
Never ‘wanna settle down
I ain’t got the patience
Wherever I go
Black cloud’s following me

I’m a citizen of no where
The sky’s above my head
I wonder where the grass grows
Looking through the sunshine
‘Til my judgment day, my judgment day

Wherever I go
Black cloud’s following me, yeah
Oh, it’s following me around
Don’t leave me be

No time to think of the things that I am missing
I’ve got to keep on moving along, babe

You know I can’t settle down, or I’d be dead
Come, come, come here

No time to stop, keep on movin’
‘Cause all the world is to see
No time to think
The thing that I am missing
Wherever I go
The black cloud’s following me

I’m a citizen of nowhere
The sky’s above my head
I wonder where the grass grows

Looking through the sunshine
‘Til my judgment day, my judgment day

Wherever I go
Black cloud’s following me
You know it’s following, following, following me
Never let me go

Keep on moving

We have got to make it
We are going to take it, yeah

We are going to take it I am not ‘gonna make it
Never talk to a rich man, yeah

Black Cloud, Trapeze

 

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I am introducing what will be a running feature called Retro Review, where I will discuss some piece of pop culture – film, music, literature, etc. from the ‘70s and ‘80s – two decades close to my heart.  I may dip into the ‘60s and the ‘90s because I was alive and kicking during those eras also and I would be lying if I said the pop culture and events during all of these decades did not contribute to the person I have become.

Author’s note: Click on the words in green throughout this article for links to related video clips and supporting articles

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Over the fence and under the lawn to Ben’s House we go… 

Warning: Some of the supporting links in this post contain profanity and mature content.

 

I enjoy movies like everyone else. However, I try to shy away from the mainstream fare with their formulaic plots, digitally enhanced effects and stunts, cardboard characters that read dialogue that doesn’t ring true, and gratuitous sex scenes tacked on for an R rating. Don’t get me wrong. I like the sex scenes as much, if not more than the next person, but I expect them to be believable, and not to be in the film because some Hollywood suit says it is necessary to get a certain demographic in the theater.

 

My strict criteria for what makes a movie enjoyable was met and I was completely drawn in the first time I saw Blue Velvet directed by David Lynch. What Lynch does so well in this movie is to give us a peek beneath the surface of small town America and suburbia at the underbelly that most of us either are unaware or choose to ignore by staying on the “right” side of town so that it does not infringe on our pristine existence.

 

Lynch had me at the opening sequence where he paints an exaggerated, too good to be true cinematic picture of small town America/suburbia, where the fences are white picket, the lawns are green, the flowers bloom bright and enthusiastically, firemen wave happily at citizens as they ride by in their shiny red trucks, and crossing guards protect well-behaved children as they cross the street. Lynch quickly jerks the green lawn out from under our feet to show us what lurks beneath this Norman Rockwell wet dream.

 

The father of the main character of the film, Jeffrey Beaumont, is watering his perfect lawn when a kink (foreshadowing of the dark behavior of some of the characters Jeffrey will meet as well as a dark side he discovers within himself) forms in the garden hose.  As he struggles to untangle it, he suffers a stroke/seizure and falls to the lawn still holding the hose as it sprays into the air from his clenched hand. His dog jumps on his chest and barks and plays with the spray, oblivious to the condition of his owner. The camera tracks toward the green lawn and digs below the surface of the thick, green grass revealing this underworld to be populated by hostile, noisy insects. The camera focuses on two beetles involved in a battle to the death.

 

The movie is not even at the four-minute mark yet, and suddenly it is obvious that this is going to be a very different experience. And that is what I am looking for when I watch a movie. Anything less is insulting. 

 

If the opening sequence isn’t enough, Lynch veers a little farther off the Hollywood beaten path when Jeffrey Beaumont, walking home from visiting his ailing father in the hospital, discovers a severed human ear in a field and picks it up and bring it to the police.  I am going to go out on a limb and say, any movie in which the plot is set in motion when the main character discovers a severed human ear, has got my attention right away.

 

Shortly after this discovery, as the ear sits on the coroner’s table, Lynch burrows even deeper beneath the surface of postcard perfect suburbia, as the camera zooms in on the ear and descends deep inside the ear canal into its darkness, metaphorically beginning the descent that the film narrative and Jeffrey himself will take as he tries to solve the mystery of his find, and discovers the seamy, evil and dangerous underbelly of his home town that he did not know existed.

 

The most powerful and horrifying scene in this movie or any movie as far as I am concerned is the joyride scene (the entire scene runs from about 1 hour and 10 minutes through 1 hour and 26 minutes and must be viewed in its entirety for the full emotional effect) which occurs when Jeffrey gets in over his head on the wrong side of town as he tries to unravel the mystery of this human ear. He is confronted and taken against his will on a journey into the human equivalent of the hostile insects and warring beetles under the green façade of his dad’s lawn.

 

Frank Booth, played flawlessly by Dennis Hopper (who you actually believe is a soulless killer, and his sociopath posse take Jeffrey on a “joyride” to “Ben’s” place where he comes face to face with a dark side of life that is frightening and mesmerizing at the same time.

 

 

Scarier even than Frank Booth is Ben, played chillingly “suave” by Dean Stockwell, who has a penchant for wearing makeup, lip singing to Roy Orbison, and taking pleasure in inflicting pain on others, for the amusement of himself and Frank and his posse.

 

 

This scene had a profound impact on me the first time I saw it and even now as I watch it years later. Any criticism the film may have gotten when it was first released about Frank Booth and his posse and Ben being exaggerated caricatures of evil for cinematic effect is unwarranted.  As a child and a youth, like many others, I dealt with the wrath of bullies that usually ran in packs like Frank Booth and his posse and they had that same blank soulless look in their eyes and seemed to experience genuine amusement and gratification by hurting and demeaning others. These bullies had to grow up and become adults, and they did not change into kind people overnight. If you need any evidence of this, look no further than George W, Bush (who tortured animals, bullied his siblings and tortured classmates both as a child and as an adult) and then grew up and along with many current and former members in his administration have shown a morbid desire for homoerotic torture to coerce confessions of innocent people, including children to wield the power of fear over their own perceived enemies and even their own citizens. If this is not convincing enough, try going to a 24 hour Walmart after midnight and look at some of the unsavory characters trolling around there. It is like a David Lynch film casting call.

 

Another reason this movie had such an emotional impact on me was because I was a good law-abiding kid as well as an adult, never touching alcohol or drugs and trying not to hang with people who seemed to be trouble. However, even I came to find out there is a thin line you walk sometimes between your normal everyday green lawn suburban life and stepping into the abyss and becoming mixed up with the warring beetles beneath the surface where, before you know it, you are in over your head.

 

As careful as I was, I found myself in situations more than once that could have easily been similar to, but not as extreme as Jeffrey’s fictional “joyride.”  It might have been something as simple as going out with college or high school acquaintances and being the passenger in a car with no control over the destination. Then, realizing too late that the journey had taken a turn for the worse, while powerlessly watching it begin to spiral out of control like a dream or a movie in front of my eyes, where my only options were to jump out of a moving car to get out of the situation and hope to survive to limp back to the safety of my normal world, or ride it out and hope for the best. I have often wondered if this is the situation an innocent passenger finds himself in right before he falls victim to a drunk or dangerous driver with whom he has gotten into a car and surrendered control.

 

Lynch is at the top of his game with Blue Velvet and does a superb job in this pivotal scene, and in the film overall of exposing the dark, evil underbelly of suburban life, that we all know exists in this world, whether we want to accept it or not, and tapping into the terrifying reality of how it is much closer than we like to believe. If you think it you are safely insulated from what lies below the gift wrapped façade in your little corner of the world, you only need to look as far as the most recent religious figure or politician caught for pedophilia, or anti-gay rights politician or reverend caught in a gay sex sting, or political pundit or reporter close to the White House with a questionable past, or even the last road rage incident or random work place shooting. This underbelly is more prevalent than you think. The evidence is there, you just have to look past the white picket fences and beneath the well-manicured lawns.

 

– B

 

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