Friday, September 18, 2015

Friday songs: "Johnny 99" by Bruce Springsteen

     I was never all that big on Nebraska as a kid. Despite being spoon-fed Springsteen with my Gerber, it was an album that rarely left the shelf. My dad was never a big fan [1]. and it just wasn't for me. The record, conveyed beautifully by the album cover, was so cold and stark. There were no harmonies, no anthems. No Big Man. Just a guy and his guitar. Mostly, I think I just found it depressing.

      Later, when I became old enough to search out music that didn't make me want to shout along to or dance around like a spaz, I rediscovered Nebraska and it had a much greater impact on me. Springsteen channeling Suicide, stripping the songs of their instrumentation and forcing you to pay attention to the lyrics, which were less wry and stripped of their swagger [2]. The characters lost their cute names but kept their hardscrabble lives. The tales became bleaker. The back-alley salvations turned to the chronicling of American promise dying on the vine. I think for years it was my go to album for porch wine [3].

      The song that stood out to me almost immediately, though, is "Johnny 99." for one thing, it's probably the closest thing to a rock song on the album. It has a shuffling beat that damn near borders on rockabilly [4] , and he starts it (after a weird little studio hiccup) with a falsetto Orbison yowl before launching into the lyrics:
Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late last month

      Right out of a gate, this is a Springsteen song. Referencing New Jersey, cars, and the oxidation of America's blue collar middle class. 
Ralph went out lookin' for a job but he couldn't find none 
He came home too drunk from mixin' Tanqueray and wine
     There's something about this detail that just kills me. I can't even tell if it's good songwriting or just weirdness, not even counting that who in their right mind would mix those things?
He got a gun shot a night clerk now they call 'm Johnny 99
     I still don't get where the 99 part comes in. Is he called Johnny 99 because that's what the judge sentences him to later in the song, or is it vice versa? Both Springsteen's timeline and phrasing in this song are amazing and sort of an anomaly. I can't think of another one from this era where he works so hard to make the words fit. That line is also the entirety of the attention paid to the initial crime in this song. Such a weird pace.
     It's also worth noting that Springsteen refers to Ralph as "Jawnny" throughout the song while the judge is clearly pronounced "mean John Brown." I don't know if this is some sort of commentary or class indication, but I never felt like it was an accident. But maybe it's just the nascent stages of Bruce's weird dust bowl accent that began manifesting itself around this time.
Down in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don't stop
     Despite almost never doing it, I'm a big fan of karaoke. I love to sing and I have no problem listening to a  song 200 times until I can sing it without prompts [5]. But this song has probably given me more trouble than anything else of Springsteen's. The phrasing is so stilted and difficult to get out that it turns into something of a challenge. It's a great image, mind you, but the phrasing always kills me.
     This line is where my singing goes starts to go off the rails every time. There's a few other lines that just trip me up even more, but this is where it always begins.
Johnny's wavin' his gun around and threatenin' to blow his top
When an off-duty cop snuck up on him from behind
Out in front of the Club Tip-Top they slapped the cuffs on Johnny 99
     Again, it's the details here. It's about naming the streets, it's about which dive bar in the shitty part of town was Ralph arrested in front of.  Also, the Club Tip-Top is is both a plausible and sort of quaint name for a place people get shot in front of.
Well the city supplied a public defender but the judge was Mean John Brown
He came into the courtroom and stared poor Johnny down
Well the evidence is clear gonna let the sentence son fit the crime
     It's here that he picks up the curious practice of having one character address the other one in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes, this can be completely organic [6] within a conversation, but here the "son" is in such an unusual place that I'm baffled by the songwriting process. It's almost impossible to have it as "sentence is clear son sentence gonna", but "Well son the evidence is clear" works. As does dropping the "son" altogether. Springsteen must've felt pretty strongly about having it in there, but it seems like a lot of tortuous re-working just to add some folksy syntax to the song. 
Prison for 98 and a year and we'll call it even Johnny 99
     It's here that the harmonica solo that comes in. As the only instrument in this song aside from the guitar, it's quite prominent but like most of Bruce's harmonica playing, it's unusual. His harmonica style is makes prominent use of the sort of twangy note-bending [7]. , so much so that the rest of the notes mostly just feel like setup for them. In all. it sounds slightly off until every 8 notes or so when he drops in a note that ties the whole thing together like a rug. Also, how is 99 "even"? Compared to 98.4 I guess?
A fistfight broke out in the courtroom they had to drag Johnny's girl away
His mama stood up and shouted "judge don't take my boy this way"
"Well son you got a statement you'd like to make
Before the bailiff comes to forever take you away"
     The sense of chaos that Springsteen conveys here is amazing. It just needs someone fainting and maybe the clerk's family cheering. By now the title character is no longer an unstable murderer, but a "poor" guy whose live is on the line. The narrator at this point is at least sympathetic to Ralph if he already hadn't been the whole time.
"Now judge I got debts no honest man could pay
     A line from "Atlantic City" makes an appearance. It's a good line and I could see why he'd want to get the most out of it. But it's also such a conspicuously good line that there's no chance that even a casual listener would miss it.
The bank was holdin' my mortgage and they was takin' my house away
Now I ain't sayin' that makes me an innocent man
But it was more 'n all this that put that gun in my hand"
     ...and now we're at the meat of the song. I'd bet that Springsteen started with this concept and worked backwards to write the rest of it.
"Well your honor I do believe I'd be better off dead
And if you can take a man's life for the thoughts that's in his head
Then won't you sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time
     This line right here has killed probably every single attempt I've ever made at singing this song. It is so weird and stilted and I can't even imagine speaking like that let alone singing [8].  "Think it over judge one more time" sort of makes sense when spoken, but singing it is just brutal.
And let 'em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line"
     and then such a downturn at the end. This is nothing unusual for this album, and at best Springsteen's songs have a "life is fine at least until I go to bed tonight" sort of ending. But this one is just straight up a plea for death. It's practically Eminemian. 

     The rest of the song is just an outro, as Bruce strums as forcefully as he can within the confines of the song and yelps over the chords. Those yelps are almost feral, like they had a bobcat wrestling a dog or something in the studio next to him while he's singing. They're ferocious and muted and close down the song in such a beautiful way you almost forget about the end of the story he just told.

[1] My dad's primary interests in Springsteen involved jogging and/or dancing. It should not be a surprise that this album didn't appeal to him, nor did The Ghost of Tom Joad 13 years later, although by that point, I was coming around on it. Once, in high school, I was cutting class and I remember hearing Pierre Robert on WMMR announce that they'd be playing a rare early Springsteen set later in the day. I immediately decided to cut the rest of day and go home so that I could record it. I sat there glued to my old box (is that a term that will ever be even usable again?) waiting for them to play, and when they finally did, i was treated to a set from April 4, 1974 at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, PA. I remember presenting this tape to him like I'd narrowly escaped a Mayan temple with it (of course omitting that I'd spent a day cutting school to get it). He was grateful, but never really listened to it much, despite it containing maybe the greatest versions of "Wild Billy's Circus Story", "Tokyo" and "Thundercrack" ever committed to tape. I've since found it 5 or 6 times over, but I'd love to have that original tape again. For all I know it might still be in a box in my mom's attic, slowly succumbing to the humidity of Maryland summers. Note: This story has nothing to do with anything. I think I might've already told it here years ago, too.

[2]The irony of course is that these sessions produced the most misunderstood lyrics in Springsteen's catalogue, and maybe rock music in general.

[3] Porch wine dates back to Pittsburgh, maybe? More or less a more intimate version of stoop drinking. Porch wine songs are usually accoustic and rarely swing. Neil Young and Will Oldham have some pretty great porch wine songs. Iron & Wine, however, is way too sleepy. It's a fine line.

[4] Despite my liking almost every adjacent musical genre, rockabilly still bores the shit out of me. I think I blame the dumb 90s revival for this. I realize the 

[5] Much of this probably stems from my only experience ever singing in front of a live band and I forgot like 2/3 of the words to the song. NEVER AGAIN, I cried!

[6] As it is later in the song when Ralph says "Now judge I got debts...

  [7] It's almost sort of punk rock, Bruce's harmonica style. He knows just enough to get by and he relies on that twang so much you'd think it'd get old after 2 songs. But between this song, "Thunder Road", and "The Promised Land" alone, he's gotten way more mileage out of that thing than you would've thought possible.

[8] You can even hear Johnny Cash tripping over it in his cover of the song!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

I wish we didn't live somewhere so new

Note: If you're interested in this movie at all, go read Vice’s feature on the movie, in which they interviewed much of the cast and filmmakers and describe a lot of the production. It’s a pretty in-depth look at the movie with commentary from cast and crew. If you want to know what my particular feelings on the movie are, keep reading.

A few weeks ago, I saw that Cinefamily was airing a 35mm print of Over the Edge and I was ecstatic for about eleven seconds before I remembered that my chances of being able to find a babysitter so that I can go see a midnight movie 45 minutes way were pretty much nil. It was kind of a bummer, but it also sparked me to go out and rent it. It’d felt like ages since I’d seen it last, and I thought it might be a fun thing to write about here.

So far, it hasn’t been. Not due to the film itself or anything, but more due to the countless reviews (both from when it opened and more recently) and features I’ve read about it in the last week. So many people have tied this movie to so many issues, and it has sort of blurred my perception of the film and what I’ve always loved about it. My first attempt at writing this up turned into a whole screed about city planning and the shift in parenting ideals over the past 30 years. It was as boring as it sounds. My second attempt turned into a whole thing about Kurt Cobain1. My third attempt came after way too much research into juvenile crime trends. But since making the mistake of announcing my intentions here, I will continue to clatter away until I get something usable.

On its face, Over the Edge is a movie about teenagers in the newly constructed prefab town of New Granada. Tired of having little to do and being pushed out of sight by their parents, the kids revolt. The filmmakers based it on a growing trend in the mid-70s of juvenile crime spiraling out of control in planned communities, mostly on the West Coast2. The text that opens the movie states as much:

In 1978 110,000 kids under 18 were arrested for crimes of vandalism in the United States.

This story is based on true incidents occurring during the 70s in a planned suburban community of condominiums and townhomes where city planners ignored the fact that a quarter of the population was 15 years old or younger.

This is slightly misleading, since while there was certainly a spike in juvenile crime in the mid-70s, it was on par with the rest of the country3. What is prompted concern was mostly the fact that these communities were suburban and largely white. Furthermore, while many of the city planners were shortsighted in failing to consider the youth populations of the towns they were creating, these kids at least had nominal parents4, right?

In spite of the dated clothing5 and soundtrack6, the film holds up incredibly well as one of the best snapshots of adolescence ever put to film. As a quasi-juvenile delinquent who was somewhat of a latchkey kid growing up about a decade later, a lot of this film resonates with me, as I’m sure it does with many who see it. I can’t think of another movie that identifies the struggles of being a teenager so succinctly7. Much of it is in the bravado you see these kids8 carry themselves with, especially when there are no parents around. It’s in the drunken swagger of the kid hosting a party while his parents are in Reno, aping I don’t know, the Festrunk Brothers? It’s in Matt Dillon’s character saying, for the second time in the movie, “a kid who rats is a dead kid” to a squealing drug dealer before throwing him into a pond (and not killing him)9. It’s the bullshit posturing that shows a kid standing defiantly on a cop car just minutes after you see him riding around on a bike that literally bears a flag with his name on it.

They also do a fantastic job of reminding the adult viewer just how dramatic and insane teenage love is. When the protagonist Carl sees the girl he likes making out with another guy and he stares daggers at her before leaving the party in an exaggerated huff. That feeling of being hopelessly in love and over-reading every little smile and gesture. It’s the same thing that shows up later when the two spend a clumsy night together and you know that they aren’t even considering that they won’t spend the rest of their lives together.

In the film’s climax, the kids finally get what they want (thanks largely to Carl’s plan): total freedom. Kids are quite literally running amok and wreaking all sorts of havoc. Carl looks around and quickly realizes that, as the scene rapidly spirals out of control, that he wanted something else. He decides to leave soon after.

I could write about this movie for days. I sort of already have. But there in this movie to inspect in detail, both literally and thematically. There are facial cues, and a physicality. There’s the dirtbike scene! I didn’t even get to the fact that the main character has a black eye through most of the movie! Or that all of the kids have New York accents!

In spite of my numerous lengthy footnotes, there’s so much more I could go into about the effects of suburban sprawl or parenting trends or whatever, but the fact is I don’t think I could go into that rabbit hole of research right now and still finish this thing before October.

Instead I will remind you that this is a simple teen movie, about kids that feel like a town’s afterthought. And their parents, who try everything but having an honest discussion with their kids. And about the America of almost 40 years ago. In spite of the film’s shortcomings, and there are many, I can link my own adolescence directly to several specific moments of this movie (excepting much of the third act, of course). It’s a story wrought with exaggeration and melodrama, but it is a movie that can show me a group of adolescents and forcibly remind me exactly what it was like to be that age. After all, what defines the teenage years more than exaggeration and melodrama?
Yeah, it’s just a teen movie, but it might be the best one ever made.

  [1] It would seem that Cobain frequently cited this movie as one of his favorites, and claimed to have identified with the Claude character in particular. None of this surprises me in the slightest, but I’ve never really liked Nirvana all that much and tend to loathe Cobain’s status as the John Lennon of my generation (whatever that means). While hyperbolic angst and self-loathing are certainly notions that I have held, it’s just a little too much for me most of the time.

[2] They based it specifically on an article from the San Francisco Examiner called “Mousepacks: Kids on a Crime Spree” that has seemingly been scrubbed completely from the internet.

[3] The scary thing here is that it wasn’t so much as a spike as it was the beginning of a plateau. On a national level, juvenile crime held pretty steadfast from the mid-70s to the early 90s. Within that window, property and drug crimes seem to taper off, however the scary trend of juvenile murder (and violent crime) begins to soar. I got much of this information browsing the Uniform Crime Report, as well as articles like and this, this/

[4] Which is another contributing factor. The 70s featured that special form of post-hippie parenting, which relied on parents allowing kids unprecedented freedom while still expecting them to remain kids. In hindsight, this is a spectacularly flawed logic.

[5] Aside from Matt Dillon’s half-tees, the coonskin cap, and maybe Johnny's sunglasses, most of the clothing in this movie seems pretty tame. Even the girls are dressed sensibly. I can’t help but wonder if this was most of the cast were actual teenagers or if the studio requested it. In any case, it’s notable that the person who shows the most skin in this movie by far is Matt Dillon.

[6] The soundtrack for this movie is a straight up coup. It’s aged incredibly and while it seems out of place, the Hendrix song makes sense within the context of the movie. The only outlier here is the closing number, Valerie Carter’s “Ooh Child”. Reportedly, the producers wanted to use the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” with it’s “teenage wasteland” theme, but it was too expensive and/or depressing. In any case, in spite of the overexposure, in spite of the lyrical content, these songs still feel to me like the battle hymns of a forgotten struggle documented only in things like this movie, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Freaks and Geeks. It’s music for the teenagers circa 1980 whose parents didn’t get it at all. It’s the music of the neglected or misunderstood. Of course, now most of these songs are entering grandparent country and all the kids listen to Skirlix.

[7] That isn’t to say there aren’t any. Fast Times in particular did a great job. But it’s far from the norm.

[8] and there is no mistaking the bulk of this cast for actors masquerading as teenagers. They were straight-up kids. This ads such a huge weight to the movie. The difference between watching a stubbly 26 year0old brag about taking speed in school and a scrawny 13 year-old doing the same is both palpable and terrifying.

[9]This spurs my favorite line in the whole movie, when the drug dealer exclaims that he can’t swim, Matt Dillon’s character tells him to “grow fins, turkey.” This, and his exchange with the police officer in the first five minutes of the movie NEVER fail to make me laugh.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Comics: A reflection (a review that got away from me very early on)

I just picked up a comic book hardcover that I've been putting off for awhile and that's been part of a very conscious effort.

For one thing, I really don't buy many superhero comics anymore. It's a genre that works in cycles, which is what I both love and loathe about them. These are, after all, characters that have endured in some cases 8 decades, and have of course been written and drawn by scores of people. Each one of these characters has been retold, rebuilt, retooled and rebooted over and over again. The character is constantly being shaped according to the story that the creators has in mind, and that's fantastic. It means that I can read one book where Batman is wacky (like the great Batman '66, based on  the 60s TV series) and another where is a complete lunatic (see, Miller, Frank with mixed results).
This has become more and more prevalent in recent years, as each new creative team is asked to provide an origin story or even as the publisher decides to start over completely (as both Marvel and DC have done in the past few years). Traditionally, re-telling origin stories was strictly for back matter reprints or the flashback that occurred in almost every issue to bring the reader up to speed. Publishers have even begun to eschew the traditional numbering sequences 1in favor of the rebooting, or in some cases treating the run as a group of miniseries.
I'm fine with that. It means that I don't feel like I have to read everything. It also allows me to hop around and follow the creators I like more than the characters I like. It also means that I'll end up picking up books I never would have imagined picking up based on the creative team. Which is great because I'd rather have a variety of titles than feel obligated to buy every single issue of a book that I feel varies too much in quality to enjoy.

Crap where was I?

Oh right. Another reason why I've put this book off is because I have a kid now. And although I certainly don't plan on foisting comic books on her, I have taken to buying titles that a) I feel that she might actually enjoy and b) provide well-rounded positive female characters. It's not like I'm buying these books for her, but if struggling to decide between two books I like, I will pick the one she might like more. This is a LOT easier than it was even a decade ago. The era of the spandex-clad superheroine with an absurdly proportioned body is sliding to a close. The evolution of comics (superhero or otherwise) has expanded to include a host of incredibly well-written and powerful female characters and storytellers. I could get into a whole thing right now telling you more about them, and I hope to someday soon.

For now, though, I want to talk about superhero comics. It's not the best way to start this hopefully recurring feature (although neither is going on about issue numbering) since I hope to mostly talk about other stories (or at least ones that aren't published by the big 2 publishers). But there are a few reasons I chose this book to start this. For one thing, starting with a superhero comic can set the tone for what I want to accomplish here. I love comics, I have since I was 12 and I spent weeks at summer camp trying to learn about the difference between the green and grey Hulks, or who Forge was2. But I also hate most of the baggage that comes with the culture of comics3. I have no desire to sit around arguing which Marvel character could beat up which DC character or whatever. I love stories. I love that comics (for better or worse) represent a contemporary mythology paralleled only perhaps by Star Wars4.

But there's also a duality within the genre of superhero comics that is difficult to reconcile. For each supremely talented storyteller or ingenious take on a popular character, there are three garbage books about female subjugation or dumb vengeance or violence as a plot device. As a result, anyone who enjoys comics has to be prepared to dispel the notion that yes, they read comic books and no, not all of them are written for 8th graders or just about tits and gore. Comics are an art form like any other. When done correctly, they can carry the pathos of literature, the gravity of fine art, and the passion of film. Or they can just show useless pandering to sociopaths.

Like any art form, there is a spectrum here in regard to quality.

and so I, as a reader of these books, owe it to myself to possess a bit of self-awareness as I read these books and talk about them. I'm hardly an expert, trust me. But I want to present my view of these works not only as someone who loves to read comic books, but also as someone who eschews the subculture that is built up around them, and superhero comics in particular.

As I'm still typing this (and banging my head against the wall trying to figure out how to create a better footnote system than the multi-asterisk hell that I've been using), I realize that this post is already WAY too long and that nobody in their right mind is still reading. Also that I have very little time left before I want to get this thing published and move on to the next feature. So I'm going to stop typing in a minute and just throw this thing up there and maybe hope my dumb little footnotes have worked out in the end. If not, I'll be doing some editing over the weekend.
Sorry I didn't get to the actual comic I wanted to discuss. I can to that later, but it seems cruel to squeeze it in at the end of a lengthy post like this, especially when I'm not all that sure how much I have to say about the book in question. It is a gorgeous book, though, and hopefully I'll get to it in a few days. As always, my ambition outstrips my abilities. I'm working on it, though. In the meantime, I got some irons in the fire.

P.S. My dusting off of html skills should convince you how seriously I want to start this thing up again. Or at least convince you how much I hate using those asterisks. It's just like how I can't use italics in twitter and it drives me NUTSO.

1. the reasons for this are twofold. For one thing, people are far more likely to start reading at issue 1 than at issue 660 (about where Captain America is about now). This is compounded by new readers brought in by the insanely popular movies. Another reason for the renumbering is because number 1 issues ALWAYS sell more. This isn't just because of new readers, but also because of the idea that they tend to be worth more on a collector's market later on. I don't know if that's true or not because I don't really collect comics, but the collector's market is massive and still drives a lot of publisher decisions.

2. At the time, Forge was the dumbest X-Man. Now, I'm not even sure he'd break the top 20.

3. This is an issue with almost every interest of mine. For nearly every one of my interests, there's a bullshit subculture that I can't stand and go out of my way not to be associated with. This is probably why I don't get out much.

4. It is not lost on me that both Marvel and Star Wars are owned by Disney, increasing exponentially the notion that in 100 years we might have SEVERAL corporate-owned religions. Laugh now... but watch how serious this May 4th shit gets next year.

Luke v Hud

I can't stop looking at this and thinking "holy shit this is almost 50 years ago".
I know we are less apathetic now. I know that most of us are more politically active than ever before.

But when you look at what has guided this discourse: ideological mimicry, misinformation, distrust, special interests... is that any better? Is it possible to have a politically active and well-informed population?

 It's like we've decided to be more politically active (thanks in large part to the internet), but only in the basest sense possible. As usual, technology has provided us with unparalleled convenience while eradicating nuance and the responsibility of participation.

 Now we just shout insults and non-facts at one another, a revival of 19th century politicking in the truest sense.

 Sometimes I miss apathy.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Hack sweat cough cry

It's not that I'm already blowing this off. Well, I kinda blew it off for the holiday weekend.

The fact is that I've been sick for about a week and it's also been disgustingly hot here. I literally woke up with a stuffed, mucousy head at 4:45 this morning and it was already 84°F. That's enough to get me out of doing pretty much anything, so there's that.

But I have been working on some stuff. There's a discussion of the 1979 movie Over the Edge that I started in 2006 and then completely forgot about. There's also some HOT TAKES that I'll be able to get to in a week or two.

I still have a Friday series planned, although my wife will no longer have band practice on those nights, which is good for me but bad for you, since that's when I'd get the time to write those. I'm in the process of figuring out a new schedule for that.

In the meantime, though, I have a post about THOR: God of Thunder that I should have completed by tomorrow afternoon. And then another quickie about Springsteen's "Johnny 99" that I'm shooting to have done by Monday at the latest (although that one is almost already completely finished, I just need to actually write it). So yeah, stuff's on its way. Whether it's any good or not is yet to be seen.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

"Albatross at Midway Atoll Refuge (8080507529)" by Chris Jordan (via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters) 

because of the proliferation of floating trash by 2050, birds of almost every ocean-foraging species may be eating plastic.

     This is the sort of thing that -when I see this first thing in the morning- I pretty much spend the day knowing that we're all doomed.