Tuesday, August 16, 2011

COLLECTOR'S EDITION excerpt #4: Found a Job

In the late 1960s, magazines such as EERIE, CREEPY and FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND featured advertisements for “200 feet 8mm HOME MOVIES” of old horror and science fiction films like I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, THE BLOB and a particular Saturday afternoon monster movie favorite of mine, WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST. Also available was the clunky 1943 BATMAN movie serial, its twelve chapters edited into six 8mm reels. The full-page ad—replete with then-contemporary BIFF! BAM! POW! embellishments—erroneously touted the low budget, unintentionally campy series (unseen for decades) as “spine-tingling,” but neglected to mention that the edited reels did not contain any audio!

To facilitate viewing, you could also order, for a mere $9.98 (plus $3.00 shipping and handling) a portable 8mm movie projector, with accompanying screen. In those ancient pre-VHS days, this was the only way a collector could build a library of movies (unless, of course, he owned a motion picture studio).

When VCRs hit the market in the 1970s, compiling a home video collection was still pretty much inconceivable due to the high cost of commercial videotapes. Since the home video industry was initially focused on the rental market, the studios would charge an average of about $75-100 per cassette, knowing that Blockbuster Video was going to make many times that on rentals of each unit. Once VHS recorders became ubiquitous, the average list price lowered to make videotapes more affordable to the general public.

But even after VHS became the standard format, building a library of TV shows was next to impossible. The few shows that were available on videotape were either samplers of “best” episodes or merely the pilot and maybe one or two subsequent shows. Which meant that we pop-obsessives had to make them ourselves.

I began collecting movies and TV shows in the late 1970s, but in the beginning, it wasn’t on video.

When I was 13 years old, my father bought me a portable Panasonic tape recorder, the kind with the little built-in speaker and the row of control buttons on the front. My younger brother had received one for his birthday a month earlier and I was stealing it from him and using it so much that I had to be given my own (much to Ken’s disgust).

I recorded some songs off the radio, made some “comedy” tapes (look for the CD reissue of my Three Mile Island and Superman interviews sometime soon), but mostly, I taped stuff off of TV. At first I just recorded random things like theme songs, commercials that I liked, favorite Warner Bros. cartoons and stand-up performances from THE TONIGHT SHOW. But soon, I started recording full television shows.

I’d set the tape recorder on a stool right in front of the TV’s speaker and kneel before it—call if genuflection if you will—manning the Record/Pause buttons to edit out the commercials. Timing was crucial, I had to make sure I got the very beginning of the show and every bit of the broadcast right through the end theme. If anyone walked into the room while the tape was recording, I’d make the “shushing” motion with my finger at my lips. However, if it was a show that displayed the name of the episode at the beginning, I would speak the title aloud into the mic, in as dramatic a timbre as my changing voice could muster. Aside from that, the only acceptable background noise was laughter during comedies (my own laugh track enhancement, I guess). But any questions about what was going on (my Dad was always one of those “Who’s that? What did he do? Did that guy kill that other guy? Where is this?” viewers) were angrily ignored. Yep, I was one annoying little dork.

The first show I recorded regularly was CBS’ misfit radio station sitcom, WKRP IN CINCINNATI . 60-minute cassette tapes (bought at Lafayette Electronics in three packs with no clamshell cases) holding one episode per side began filling my desk drawers. Every episode was given a title—which I had to make up in those pre-IMDb days—and labeled with volume numbers. I started recording WKRP around the time that the first 1978-79 season went into reruns, so I didn’t have a complete chronological archive in order, but that didn’t matter. Hey, I’m anal-retentive, not insane .

With WKRP, there was added pressure to get the entirety of the end credits theme song, a rockin’ number with some really hard to decipher lyrics. While most of the time, the song would be interrupted by a voiceover of a CBS announcer telling us what hijinks were coming up next on ONE DAY AT A TIME, there were a few instances where the song played in full . I would listen to the tape over and over again, trying to figure out what the hell that guy was singing. It sounded like he was telling a bartender that he was going, going, going like mad, aw-haw.

While singing karaoke to the end theme wasn’t in the cards, I listened to those tapes frequently enough that, to this day, there are whole episodes of WKRP I could perform as a one-man show (such as the one where the staff crafts a bouncy jingle for the Ferryman Funeral Home and the amazingly prescient episode where the horny, leisure-suited salesman Herb Tarlek and his family enter reality TV hell by appearing on a show called “Real Families”).

The next show that I regularly recorded premiered in 1980 and took up twice as much tape as WKRP, being an hour-long drama about a former navy intelligence officer who lived for free on a wealthy novelist’s estate (to the perpetual annoyance of its major domo) while eking out a living as a private investigator, often employing the begrudging assistance of two friends with whom he fought in Viet Nam.

That’s right. I audiotaped MAGNUM, P.I. For years. And listened to it. A lot.

Okay, so maybe the Hawaii-based detective show wasn’t exactly Mamet, but I found the banter of Magnum, Higgins, Rick and T.C. (and sometimes Robin Masters, voiced by Orson Welles, which I knew was a big deal even at the age of 15) highly entertaining, and I still hold the opinion that the first two seasons of that show were some really well-written little dramas (it got spotty after that). Besides, the show’s score (including both themes, the initial jazzy one by Ian Freebairn-Smith that was replaced with the more iconic Mike Post anthem in the tenth episode) was sometimes as good as a James Bond soundtrack as far as I was concerned.

Again, there are some bits of dialogue that remain forever lodged in my brain, popping out of my cake hole in Pavlovian response to the proper stimulus. Any time someone orders a boilermaker at the bar where I tend, I pull out a line from the first season episode “All Roads Lead to Floyd” explaining that “a beer and a shot—that’s one drink.”

I audiotaped all Steve Martin’s NBC comedy specials of the late 1970s, and made compilations of skits from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, SCTV (for my money, the greatest ensemble sketch comedy show of all time), and LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN. The nice thing about recording those shows was that if a sketch, monologue or interview wasn’t worth keeping, I would stop recording, rewind to the end of the last good bit, then start again with the next segment. Depending upon when I decided to kill the bit could cause some stress, however, as I had to make sure to get to just the right spot before the next recording could start. There was a lot of frantic FF and REW button pushing.

As far as movies went, the only time I audiotaped a film off of televison was when ABC aired an extended cut of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE in 1982. The full 182 minutes took up three cassettes, but it was worth it. It would be almost two decades before some of the added scenes would make it onto home video, and to this day, a scene where Otis “feeds the babies” (meaning some offscreen lions or tigers) has somehow remained absent from any deluxe reissue.

Random bits recorded off of television fell under a catch-all umbrella series called FOUND A JOB, named after a song about a television-writing couple from Talking Heads’ second album, MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD. FOUND A JOB was also the destination for the rare times when punk or new wave groups that I loved would appear on TV.

When DEVO’s single, “Whip It” became an unexpected hit, the band made an incongruous appearance on THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW. When Merv—manifesting his usual awkwardness when interviewing anyone outside of the mainstream—remarked to Mark Mothersbaugh, “And it must be a THRILL to have a big commercial hit!,” the bemused flower-pot-helmeted lead singer countered dryly, “Oh, it is a thrill, Merv.” Merv cracked up, but I really don’t think he got the joke. It didn’t matter; I did.
_________________________________________________________________________________________
from the forthcoming book, COLLECTOR'S EDITION: Confessions of a Pop Culture Obsessive-Compulsive
by and © Karl Heitmueller Jr.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Frattoo-Pop!

As much as I despise jam bands (and oh, do I despise jam bands), I think my most visceral rock hatred is reserved for the much-and-justly maligned genre known as Emo. The merger of introspective lyrics with loud and fast guitars, whiny vocals and hardcore imagery that broke big in the early aughts with horrible bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy sounds more painful to my ears than a thousand covers of “Box of Rain.”

Now, I grant you, this music is not for me. I am, as they say, Old. And if you’re an angsty teenager, then I shall let the baby have his or her bottle. Copy those New Found Glory lyrics onto your Facebook page and swoon over those Dashboard Confessional heartthrobs to your wee heart’s content. Someday you will grow out of this phase and realize this music is poop. Hopefully, anyway.

But what galls me the most about Emo is the self-denial, the fact that barely anyone who plays or listens to it acknowledges that they are, in fact, Emo. For some reason, these deluded souls seem to think they’re part of some scene that has something to do with what we used to call punk rock. And aside from fuzzy, fast guitars and a visual look that’s only punk as Hot Topic defines it, I don’t see it. The melodies under the fuzz are usually as light and poppy as a Bieber song (they even used to have the same hair… and even Justin fucking Bieber finally ditched that stupid ‘do!).

There’s a kind of frat boy mentality to many (not all, but many) of the practitioners and fans of this music that pisses me off in the same way I can’t stand it when jocks sing along to “London Calling” on the jukebox (even if they only know the line “I live by the river!”). I hear them using terms like “aggro” and “chillin’” and talking more—way more—about their tattoos than politics, or even music. Image is paramount with these bands, moreso than any musical genre this side of hip hop.

I recently bore witness to the lead singer of an Emo band actually boasting about his punk rock cred onstage, decrying singers who use “fake rock star voices” right before launching into another song that sounded like it was straight out of the American Emo Idol Songbook in that patented, clich├ęd whining squeal that they all use. When he later said something to crowd about not being afraid to sing along because it was “a punk rock show,” I could only mutter to myself, “No. No, it’s not.”

I understand how these bands want to shy away from a term that’s so derided. After all, Mudhoney and Tad hated the term, “Grunge.” It’s a blanket with Small Pox. So I propose a new tag to replace the word “Emo,” one that I think sums up the music far better anyway: FRATTOO-POP! Frat boys with tattoos who play pop music! And it rolls of the tongue like a brand new lip piercing!

Just please, for the love of ThereIsNoGod…. Please stop calling yourself Punk. And your earlobe plug looks stupid.