Tuesday, December 18, 2018

TEN LUMPS OF COAL: A List of Christmas Things That Bring Out the Pre-Epiphany Grinch in Me

First off, it must be stated: I love Christmas. As soon as the Halloween decorations come down, I’m ready for the holly leaves, twinkling lights, and jingle bells to go up in their place. Thanksgiving? Pfft. That’s for gluttons and fans of terrible parades. Bring on Santa, Baby! This time of year, I become a mushy, festive mixture of Clark Griswold, Charlie Brown, and Scrooge’s nephew (actually, that kind of describes me most of the time, for better or worse).

But I don’t love everything about the season. I mean, really, aside from Buddy the Elf and Ed Grimley, who does? I’ll admit that there are a handful of aspects of Christmas that turn me into Nick the Bartender railing against atmosphere-givin’ characters ordering a mulled wine (heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves)! Herewith, counting down my mistletoe miseries from 10 to 1:

To me, part of the warmth of the holidays comes from letting those humans who make your life worth living know so. That means a gift that’s a genuine expression of said affection, not a tool with which to roast their chestnuts. I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of gag gifts in ANY context, but I can deal with them on a birthday or retirement party or some other event that’s less reverent. But for Christmas? Nah. Gotta be from the heart (even… or maybe especially if it’s a normally crusty one). 

There is no war on Christmas. Get over it, Fox News pundits. A Starbucks cup doesn’t have to depict The Three Wise Men to reflect the season. Saying “Happy Holidays” is not an insult, rather, ‘tis a pleasant greeting of well-wishing to be received gratefully. Kwanzaa is not a threat. Keeping a nativity scene off of any state run organization’s lawn is not taking myrrh from the Baby Jesus’s mouth (or wherever the heck you put myrrh). Inclusivity is not a bad thing (and to ALL a good night!).

Ugh. First of all, it’s not a “con.” “Con” infers tables of geeky merchandise for sale and panel discussions with fervent diehards (speaking of… see next lump) and nerdy acolytes. Call it what it is: “Holiday Costume Bar Crawl for Douchebags.” What makes this ersatz St. Paddy’s Day debauchery even more risible is (a) kids should never see any Santa other than Billy Bob Thornton getting into a fistfight, and (b) it gives holiday overindulgence a bad name. On the plus side, the puke puddles over which we must leap at the end of the night are laden with pretty sparkles.

If this is a Christmas movie, then so is Iron Man 3. And it ain't.
Don’t get me wrong; I love Die Hard. I think it’s the quintessential action flick. And while I enjoy the holiday angle of the film, the bottom line is, just because it takes place at Christmas time DOESN’T MEAN IT’S A CHRISTMAS MOVIE. Is it ABOUT Christmas? No. Does John McClane deliver presents to girls and boys? You know, besides bullets to bad guys? No. Does Karl dance to “The Nutcracker Suite?” No. Does Hans Gruber have an epiphany at the end of the film and see the folly of his ways and have his band of thieves join the party, pal? No. Die Hard is many things. It’s fun, exciting, funny, and yes, even a bit moving at times. But it ain’t a Christmas movie. SO STOP TELLING ME THAT IT IS. ‘TIS A TIRESOME AND ERRONEOUS CLAIM.

Decorating your house and lawn for Christmas is one of the (arguably) handful of upsides of suburban living. Ain’t nothin’ purtier than colored lights hung outside on a snowy evening. But as with everything, editing is crucial. First, please, I’m begging you… never, ever use those godawful blow-up figures of Santa, Rudolph, Jesus, Frosty, et al… they evoke the kind of puffy, poorly rendered characters you see on the covers of budget holiday books and DVDs in the cheapo bins at Costco. Equally distracting / annoying are those houses that fill every last square foot with lights and decorations. The resultant sensory overload is as muddy and headache inducing as your electric bill must be. Plus, I hate how you people gobble up every last set of discounted leftover lights on December 26th  before I can even grab one box! 

I’m not averse to seasonal cinematic schmaltz. I freely admit to getting misty at Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life and that episode of Happy Days where Richie invites a lonely Fonzie to spend Christmas Eve with the Cunninghams. But the tears that I shed for the seemingly endless stream of cloying mush known as the Hallmark Channel Christmas movies are not joyful, but rather reflective of the death of culture (I hesitate to even post this link, but you gotta check some of this shit out). I used to think these sparkly rom coms (with names like, I kid you not, A Shoe Addict’s Christmas) were written using a Christmas Mad Libs and a bottle box of White Zinfandel, but I’m guessing it’s more likely an icy cold computer algorithm. 
(Full disclosure: I have never seen a single one of these movies in their entirety, but I have sampled enough to know what the hell I’m talking about)

4. DECEMBER 26th
I call it PXMD, as in Post-Christmas Depression. Remember when you were a kid, and it felt like Christmas took FOR-EVVVV-ERRRR to get here? The agony of waiting for December 24, and the traditions and goodies that were about to unfold over the following glorious two days? Okay, maybe your experience varied, but you probably know what I mean. Now, if you’re in the middle aged portion of your life (as I am… firmly), you know that Einstein was a smart mother-effer and that with age, time now FLIES by, and before you can even finish everything you wanted to get done for Christmas, it’s over. Just like that (it’s one of the reasons I don’t mind starting the season right after Halloween). And yes, I try to stay in the holiday spirit after “the big day,” keeping my decorations up well into January, listening to the music until it just doesn’t feel right anymore, but… there’s always something about waking up on the day after Christmas (or, Boxing Day, as some weirdos call it) that forever bums me out. Sigh. Where’s the nog? 

© Jeff Stahler
Someday, not too many years from now, a young child will hear an old Christmas carol and ask their parent, “Mommy, I don’t understand ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’… why are they singing about it snowing at Christmas? It only ever snows around Valentine’s Day!” And the mother will question why she ever thought it was a good idea to bring a child into a world that is doomed to become barely habitable in their lifetime. And Christmas will be ruined. Me, I just miss snow in December (and yes, it used to happen fairly often, kids).

Granting a subjective prejudice, to my ears, the chasm that gapes its maw between good and bad Christmas music is as deep and vast as to make the Grand Canyon look like a crack in the sidewalk. When done right (Julie Andrews & AndrĂ© Previn, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Les Brown [no relation], The Ventures, Brenda Lee, Vince Guaraldi, Frank Sinatra, Andre Kostelanetz, and SOME Johnny Mathis, to name but a few), Christmas music is a transformative aspect of the season. A finely crafted carol can put you in the spirit as well as a dozen strings of lights and a gallon of egg nog with two gallons of rum in it. But done WRONG (no links to follow, sorry / not sorry)… (Mariah Carey, Kenny G, Mannheim Steamroller, Mitch Miller [and his “gang”], Celine Dion, almost any modern country or R&B artist, and the aural pestilence known as Pentatonix, again to name just a few), these cheesy, overproduced, saccharine cash grabs exemplify the kind of hollow, crass commercialism that drove Charlie Brown to pick that sad little tree (and Charlie Brown knows what he’s talking about). The fact that this crap dominates holiday playlists kills me every time it pierces my eardrums and stabs my brain. Most people hate Christmas music because pap like “The Christmas Shoes” is what they think of when the genre is mentioned. 


Then again, some people just hate Christmas; All aspects of it, from the music and the ugly sweaters to the forced frivolity and gift giving. I’m not exaggerating to say that these people… well, they break my heart. Look, I fully understand and agree that the holidays can be stressful and expensive and aggravating and unrelenting and exhausting. All o' that stuff. But that doesn’t have to define the season. Because (unlike with every other major holiday) here’s the best thing about Christmas: It’s a la carte. You can pick and choose whatever aspects (of the literally dozens) suit your own wants and needs. Don’t believe in God? That’s cool (I don’t!)… most of the fun stuff about the holiday—feasting, gift giving, decorating, general winter revelry— existed as rituals in pagan celebrations long before the Catholic Church appropriated them in the 4th century AD when they shifted Jesus’ birth to December and decided to put the Christ in Christmas. Don’t like shopping for gifts? Cool, make something (like cookies or art or frame a favorite photo) or donate to a charity in the name of the person you got in the family pull. Hate Home Alone? I don’t blame you, that movie’s no fun at all. Watch any of the many great versions of A Christmas Carol instead (I’m partial to the 1984 TV movie starring George C. Scott, myself). There’s gotta be SOMETHING about the season that you can enjoy, even if it’s just pretty lights or a little spice in your stout (mmm, Christmas beer). Don’t close yourself off to the whole shebang just because most of it seems like shit. Don’t forget, Dr. Seuss and Charles Dickens were trying to make a point. People tend to think of the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge in their pre-epiphany states, when they hated the holiday. But in the end, they both realized that, in fact… Christmas is pretty damn great.

Geez, that didn’t end as you expected, did it? I promise a list of stuff I loathe about the holiday and it ends up being a gushy ode. Well, whattya want from me? I warned you at the beginning that I love it! And so, MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go make some more cookies…. 

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Albums That Made an Impact.

As I've said once or twice on this thing, one of the sad side effects of social media is that it has seriously maimed blogging as an expressive outlet. Rather than take the time to craft an extended piece about any given topic, most people (myself included) are far more likely to just dash off a quick rant on Twitter or their Facebook page, have it be seen by whomever happens to have them in their algorithm for a day or so, and then move on with their life. As with everything else in this digital age, even the most passionate post becomes merely ephemeral, disappearing until perhaps the person re-posts it when it pops up in their Facebook Memories. 

And while those who do still take the time to write full pieces—whether for their own blog or some other outlet—will of course promote them on social media, it's rare the the opposite occurs; Why not cut and paste a good Facebook post into a blog so it doesn't quickly disappear? GOOD IDEA, ME!

While I normally take a hard pass on social media hot potatoes ("List every single place you've ever been and tag seventy people in it!"), I recently relented and took up the "Albums That Made an Impact" challenge. I found the particular criteria (literally impactful, rather than simply favorite) to be an interesting exercise. Some of the records that made it only my list are ones that I don't particularly love (either anymore or ever!), but they are all touchstones to one extent or another. And since I am an old, wordy, and opinionated bastard, I went well beyond the traditional ten, first by adding runners-up for each record, and then by adding a couple extra after I thought I was done.

AND SO, for the benefit of perhaps nobody other than myself so I can recall spending all the time doing this little bit of musical onanism... My Most Impactful Albums (in mostly chronological order)....

I'm starting with one of the first LPs I ever owned, a not-original-cast recording of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, released by Pickwick Records. I listened to this thing so much that I still know it by heart, and so to me, THIS is the original recording, not the actual MGM Records soundtrack... And yes, I still have it, the original scratchy, beloved vinyl.

RUNNER UP: This album may surprise those to whom I've voiced my extreme loathing for the Walt Disney Reich, but Walt Disney's Happiest Songs was another of my first records, and thus has a strong nostalgic pull for me.

2 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: KISS, The Originals. Technically, the band's first three albums packaged together with a plethora of bonus goodies, this set represents the first band I truly loved. Oh, I'd listened to glorious '70s FM radio, and owned a few pop albums and 45s prior to this (see first comment below), but heading into junior high, I was behind the curve when it came to rock and roll (I partly blame being the youngest kid in my class as well as a lack of elder mentoring). But due largely to the comic book aspect of the Metal-Lite quartet from Noo Yawk, KISS became my first favorite band, even though it would only be a few years until I discovered the music that would TRULY change my life, and I'd hand over all my KISS records to my kid brother...

RUNNER-UP: I was originally planning on posting the first "rock" LP I ever owned, but The Originals set was actually far more impactful than... ahem.... Captain and Tennille's Song of Joy, which prompted my grandfather to disgustedly comment, "Ugh, don't tell me you're listening to ROCK AND ROLL," to which I replied, "Hey, at least it's not PUNK ROCK!"

3 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: Steve Martin, Let's Get Small. I was not the only smartass in school who was able to recite this album beginning to end, but it taught me so much about the power of language and timing and how you could be smart and absurd at the same time. I still love it (and his next two records) to death. 

RUNNER-UP for #3 isn't a comedy album, but it's the soundtrack that I've now repurchased five times in different formats and reissue versions, and that I ABSOLUTELY know by heart to the point where I can tell you where each second of music fits into the film. It's (duh) John Williams' soundtrack to Superman.

4 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact, and while I'm doing these (mostly) chronologically, this was the biggest wallop: The Clash's self-titled debut (US version). I was a freshman in high school, and one morning on the bus, I happened to mention to my pal Kevin Fleck that I was really starting to like some of this new wave stuff I was hearing. Kevin insisted I come over after school so he could play a couple of records for me. He put this on, skipping straight to "Career Opportunities," and said, "Listen to how ANGRY he sounds!" ...And as Joe Strummer snarled, "Do ya wanna make tea at the BBC, do ya wanna be, do ya really wanna be a CAAAAAAHP?!" my eyes widened, my brain exploded, and my life changed in an instant. Kevin loaned me The Clash and one other record (see honorable mention, below), which I spent the entire weekend listening to repeatedly. For the first time in my life, music truly spoke to me, connected with me on such a primal, personal level that I finally felt like I belonged somewhere (besides the Comic Store, I mean). The Clash went on to become my all-time favorite band, and while London Calling may be my favorite album of theirs (and, in fact, my favorite rock album of all time), this is the one that altered my reality. Thanks again, Kevin.

RUNNER-UP: The other album that Kevin loaned me: The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks. As brilliant and incendiary and exciting today as the day it was released.

5 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: Blondie, Parallel Lines. The Clash and the Pistols may have sounded the clarion that awakened me, but being a not-quite downtrodden middle class white kid in suburban Pennsylvania, I never felt comfortable being identified as a "punk" (or, as the normies called my friends and me, a "fucking punker"). I may have loved punk, but I was more of a new wave kid. And this record, one of the first "cool" albums I bought on my own, turned Blondie into my next favorite band.
Postscript: Decades later, drummer Clem Burke was performing at Maxwell's, and when he came to the bar, I said, "I gotta tell ya, Parallel Lines changed my life," to which he replied, "Hey, mine too!"

RUNNER-UP: The B-52's self-titled debut, purchased the Monday after their mind-blowing appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1980. Talk about polarizing, that morning in school, my punk / new wave friends and I were all gushing about how amazing they were while the jocks and the preps were talking about how much this weird band sucked. Their derision and rejection (which wouldn't last through my senior year) was a badge of honor.

6 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: This is a weird one because it's an album that I no longer own, and never really liked all that much: The various artists original soundtrack to Pretty in Pink. This rather tepid collection of mostly danceable new wave included a completely ill-advised up-tempo re-recording of the title track by the Psychedelic Furs and represents everything I hate about John Hughes films.

So why is it on this list? Because it was the very first promo (meaning free record) I received. I was working at Sam Goody in the Park City Mall in Lancaster, PA, and an A&M rep brought in a box of freebies (something we usually didn't get at the chain store) because she had a crush on our singles buyer, Dann DeWitt (poor girl didn't know she didn't have a chance with Dann, being a female and all). Dann was kind enough to share the goodness with the staff and I chose this. I couldn't believe my luck. A FREE RECORD! What I didn't know at the time was that this would be only the first in a mountain of literally thousands and thousands of free records, CDs, tapes, videos, and more swag that would flow my way in the next two decades in the music biz.

But you never forget your first.

RUNNER-UP: Honorable Mention goes to a far better album that came out a few years earlier that got squeezed out of the list by the epochal nature of the above promo: The Replacements, Let it Be.

7 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: R.E.M., Green. I had just taken over as manager of BBC Records in Lancaster as Warner Bros. was gearing up to release R.E.M.'s major label debut, and I was receiving tons of promos (including a clear orange vinyl 12" of "Orange Crush," a "meadow in a can," a hardcover digipack CD, and more) from Julie Panebianco, my WB Altmktg rep (a job I would later inherit from Mary Marcus when I moved to Hoboken in '96).

The album's promotion was tied into the 1988 Presidential Election, and when George Bush handily beat Michael Dukakis, I drunkenly made my way the five blocks from my apartment to the record store I now ran, unlocked the door, threw Green on the stereo, cranked it up, and passed out on the floor. This record is cemented in my mind as an icon of the beginning of the best job I ever had, the start of my relationship with the record label at which I would eventually work, and catharsis in a political defeat that wasn't the first, and wouldn't be the last.

RUNNER-UP: Throwing Muses, self-titled 4AD debut. This was the first expensive import CD I bought (at BBC Records while I was still working at Sam Goody), and I was openly mocked by Paul Pendyck for purchasing it, giving me my first taste of the High Fidelity brand of music retailing (a tack I would perfect myself).

8 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: Frank Sinatra, The Capitol Years. I've written about this epiphany numerous times, but here 'tis again. In the late '80s, while I had begun to listen to vintage big band and pop vocal sides, I was still inexplicably averse to (or at least ambivalent about) Frank Sinatra. But when Capitol released this three disc set in late 1990, my BBC cohort, Rex Litwin ordered one and I asked if I could borrow it. I took it home, along with a 100-minute blank cassette on which I would record the songs I liked, thinking that would be sufficient. But sitting on the floor in front of the stereo, by the time I got to "I've Got You Under My Skin," I was enraptured, feeling the kind of musical connection I hadn't felt since Kev' played "Career Opportunities" for me in 1979. True, this music was not of my time, but that didn't matter. Then again, that's one of the things I quickly came to realize about Sinatra... he's timeless. I now own almost everything the man ever recorded, and probably a day doesn't go by where I don't listen to at least a few songs by who I consider the greatest singer of the 20th Century.

RUNNER-UP: The record that got me into this kinda stuff in the first place: The soundtrack to Woody Allen's 1987 nostalgia-fest, Radio Days.

9 of 10 Albums That Made an Impact: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. It was a short step from listening to Frank, Ella, and Billie to digging on jazz, and this utterly perfect 1959 album (with perhaps the most killer lineup ever) was the gateway. My interest in jazz exploded to the extent that Steve Murray graciously allowed me to expand BBC Records' specialty from just alternative to alt and JAZZ (never a big seller at music retail, but we made it work).

RUNNER-UP: The Yin to Kind of Blue's Yang: The Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out. It wasn't uncommon for some of our rock customers at the store to decide to dip a toe into jazz (usually because of instore play), and we would always recommend one of these two records as the perfect starting point.

10 of 10 (or so) Albums That Made an Impact: Built to Spill, Perfect from Now on. There was a bit of culture shock going from running a tiny indie record store to working at one of the biggest labels on the planet, but I was never an anti-major label elitist. After all, most of my favorite albums were released by the majors. So when Joe McEwen handed me an advance cassette of the label debut by Idaho's Built to Spill, I excitedly took it to my office and cranked it up. And holy shit. Of all the records I worked in my brief time at Warner Bros. Records, this one was perhaps the greatest evidence that my corporate labors had some merit. Of course, I was there as Warner's legendary reputation of being artist-friendly and taking time to let careers develop was ebbing away, but in the moment, there were some true musical highlights, none brighter than this...

SUPER CLOSE RUNNER-UP: Wilco, Being There. Their best record, if ya ask me, and I have an incredibly deep emotional attachment to memories of working this one. To say the least.

Oh, Yeah, Here's Another Album That Made an Impact, Day 11: Various Artists, A Very Merry Christmas volume 1. No single record in my collection is more iconic to me than this department store compilation produced by Columbia Special Products in 1967. This is the record I remember Alice Heitmueller (I call her "Mom") spinning on the old giant Magnavox stereo more than any other, This is the record that I begged her to replay (Jimmy Dean's version of "Jingle Bells," precisely), This is the record that served as my first (of MANY) soundtrack to Christmas. 50 years later, I acknowledge that some of the songs herein are ripe cheese (that I will always love and devour), but some of it still rings in my ears as being among the most beautiful music ever recorded.

12 of Fine, I Need More Than 10 Albums That Made an Impact: Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Armed Forces. Snarky, smart, sardonic, hooky, perfect. And it came with a bonus live 7" single, to boot! I got this for Christmas 1979 (along with The Cars' Candy-O, which I was accused of wanting only for the cover). Two utterly perfect records that still have an impact to this day.
13 of Just a Few More of These, I Promise: X, Under the Big Black Sun. It was the summer of 1982 and some friends and I were record shopping in Philly when I spotted this striking cover (encased in a loose shrink wrap, which stuck with me) on a new release rack. While the band's first two albums had somehow slipped through the cracks with me, I bought this record and their utterly unique sound (a melding of punk, country, roots, and a touch of '60s psych) combined with some of the most beautifully distinctive imagery in the history of rock soon made X one of my all-time favorite bands (to this day).

I Swear, Last Day of Albums That Made an Impact: Matt Pond PA, Emblems. While music never ceased to be important to me, by the time I was slinging the drinks at Maxwell's, I'd lost the kind of passion for finding new bands that defined my younger days. And then one evening, as I was setting up the back bar, this band I hadn't heard of was sound checking and I had to stop working and just go stand on the floor and watch them. Through that, and their subsequent set, I was mesmerized. I bought their new record, and for months, it was practically all I could listen to. Matt Pond PA became probably the last "new favorite band" that I'd ever have.

Then again.... "Tell me there's going to be time left /
Tell me I'm stupid and I don't have to worry"

One last runner-up: Screaming Females, Castle Talk. The other time when I was just completely knocked out by a band. Marissa Paternoster is as big a rock star as anyone who's ever picked up a guitar.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Cantaloupe-Colored Mea Culpa

I realize that the last thing the world needs is yet another piece by a terrified, angry liberal screaming into the void / preaching to the choir about Donald Trump, but I have to make a public mea culpa. See, I thought… and often loudly opined… that he’d be gone by now.

Since the day Donald Trump was elected the President of the United States (you all remember that, right? Shortly after Halloween, couple’a years back?), my prediction was that he wouldn’t fulfill even half of his term. My window for his departure (whether through resignation or impeachment) was 15-18 months. 

Well, it’s now August 2018, and as the perpetual pit in my stomach confirms, Boss Tweet is still firmly and flabbily ensconced in the Oval Office (or, more likely, one of his golf clubs). 

In the beginning, my theory was that enough impeachable dirt would be rather quickly uncovered that would make it difficult for him to stay in office, and that he’d resign, but spin it as “finishing the job early,” so he could move on to creating his new media outlet, or just go back to slapping his name on crap, or whatever. Because while I never bought the theory that he didn’t want to win (he ALWAYS wants to win, even if his primary motivation for running was spite), it’s a given that he never wanted to do the actual hard work. Doing work is not his thing, man

Well, certainly, dirt has been uncovered. And his behavior in office continues to bring disgrace to the entire country on practically a daily basis. He has said and done things that would’ve been political suicide for anyone else in any of the branches of government. 

But there are three things on which I didn’t count. One, that none of this would matter to his intractable base, the true wall that he has built around the country, one made out of flesh and ignorance. Two, that Congress would turn out to be cowardly toadies who make excuses for Trump rather than hold him to his oath of office. And three, that the POSPOTUS himself would become hopelessly addicted to the power and sycophantic glory his position engenders. 

And while I still think there’s a wee bit of a chance he doesn’t make it to the end of his term, if he does evade being ousted from the post for which he is so brutally unqualified… I think it’s more likely than not that we’re in for another four years (or more, if he has his way). But even if Donald Trump ceased to be President tomorrow, enough damage has been done that I don't think it'll be fixed in my lifetime, if ever. Maybe we are now living in the Idiocracy that Mike Judge predicted (only we got there 490 years earlier than the movie's timeframe. Isn't that cute?). 

I was not one of those optimists who felt that Trump didn’t stand a chance in 2016. I’m cynical enough that I believed the country's  heapin' helpin' of gullibility, hate, and misogyny left a decent chance that he could beat Hillary Clinton (who, without getting into pointless rehashing, was in my opinion, the worst possible candidate to go up against him). 

So I was not shocked on November 9, 2016, when I awoke to the confirmation that the Captain Bonespurs had beaten his cocky and  entitled opponent. Horrified, numb, depressed as fuck, sure. But not shocked. 

As I rode the train to work that morning, I got a taste of the divisive environment that was about to ripen in America. Sitting across and down the car from me was a young African-American man reading the newspaper, and when I locked eyes with him, he scowled, shook his head in disgust, and went back to reading. I thought maybe I was being paranoid, but as I stood and crossed to the door as the train pulled into the station, I glanced over at him, and he repeated his repulsed reaction. I wanted to try to explain that I wasn’t the enemy, that I was as mortified and disgusted as he, but I decided to let him have his resentment. He deserved it. 

As a quick side note, while I held my nose and pulled the lever for Clinton, I can’t side with those who blame voters who chose Gary Johnson or Jill Stein or any other third party candidate for the results of the election. Nobody should be vilified for voting their conscience, for refusing to choose “the lesser of two evils,” regardless of the ramifications. If fingers must be pointed (an ironically pointless exercise), aim them at those who actually voted for Trump, or the 40-some percent of the eligible voters who abstained altogether, whether out of apathy, laziness, or whatever other lame excuse they mustered. 

18 months in, my own grief has turned to anger and dismay. Not to put too fine a black point on it, but I truly think we’re doomed. What we’ve witnessed as this presidency has edged closer to dystopia is the triumph of narcissism, anti-intellectualism, and willful, arrogant ignorance. His followers not only don’t want to hear any of your fancy “facts,” they are proud of their aversion to (gag) “FAKE NEWS,” that Pavlovian, unbreakable, catch-all rejoinder that carries about as much intellectual heft as a surly teen’s “Whatever.” You can (and we do) have concise, carefully corroborated, and non-partisan laundry lists of malfeasance and lies perpetrated by their Great Orange Leader, and they reject it without even taking a nanosecond to consider ANY of it might be true. None of these people have ever typed Snopes into their browsers.

Even when, at one of his seemingly ceaseless rallies (which are not held for the benefit of the attendees, but rather for the fluffing of his own perpetually needy ego), Trump spouts some nonsense that has NOTHING to do with the audience—like, say, implying that they have better houses and boats than the so-called elites—they scream and froth and lap it up like melted Velveeta… because WHAT he says matters less than HOW he says it. His anger and hatred and dismissiveness reflect their own and they feel validated, even empowered. “I can be a dick to people because the leader of the free world is a dick!” This is why old white men think it’s okay to accost a young brown woman for daring to wear a Puerto Rico tee-shirt in America. It’s why hate groups have not merely proliferated under this administration (up 20% since 2014), they’ve felt emboldened to come out in the open and proudly fly their flags. 

So, if facts have completely ceased to matter (after all, truth is not truth), how can the left appeal to the 2016 fence-straddlers who ultimately jumped onto Trump’s side, and then drank deep from the well? Aye, there’s the rub: I don’t think we can. Setting aside the ballooning deficit, unless the economy stops improving (a trend that began before Trump took office, but for which he naturally takes full credit), nothing’s going to make the Trumpsters turn against their Great and Powerful leader. And maybe not even that. Aside from some who are beginning to see the downsides of Trump’s tariffs, most of his followers don’t seem to care how much he’s worked against their own self-interest (particularly if they have kids who are going to have to live with the environment —both literal and cultural—he’s curating). At this point, their love for him is a matter of personal pride, even if he could not give one flying fuck about any single one of them. 

Because this is the thing that I truly don’t get: How anyone, regardless of politics or social status or any sociological dividing line you wanna draw, cannot see that the ONLY thing he cares about is his own ego stroking. That’s it. The beginning, middle, and end. Much as I loathed some of the Presidents that preceded this one, I still believe that every one of them felt that they were doing what was best for the country (Okay, maybe not Nixon, but I was too young to have had issues with him at the time). Not this guy. This guy doesn’t give a shit about you. Unless you happen to be Ivanka reading this thing right now, in which case, THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOUR FATHER WANTS TO BANG YOU, GET THE HELL AWAY FROM HIM! 

So. Sigh. Here we are. We’re stuck with him. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the Mueller investigation, no matter what we hear on any more audiotapes, no matter what he tweets or says or does, he has succeeded in relentlessly bludgeoning the republic into a state of numbness. Nothing matters anymore. The United States of America is Trumpland now. Paint the White House gold and slap his name on the outside. He’s here to stay. 

Ghad, I hate being wrong.

POSTSCRIPT, August 23, 2018: I posted this yesterday morning, having no idea (of course) that later that afternoon, two of the biggest bombshells in the ongoing investigations into Trump would be dropped: Paul Manafort's guilty verdicts on 8 of the charges against him, and Michael Cohen's guilty plea for campaign finance violations, incriminating "a candidate for federal office." While the news media went into overdrive pontificating what these two events meant for Trump, I remain convinced that the answer is, ultimately, nothing. 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Pops Gallery: Hey!! Kids!!! Comics!!!! Part V: Celebrities Reading Comics

Time for another gallery of old photos of comic books in context! This time, I've dug up 39 pictures of celebrities (who, as I think David Letterman once pointed out, are our betters) reading comic books, in real life as well as in character in film and on television. Some of these are studio promotional photos, some are candids, some are screencaps. MAD Magazine in particular regularly featured pictures of its satirical targets reading the issue in which they were lampooned (a few of which are included here). At the end of the gallery are two bonus photos with no accompanying detail: Another shot of Elvis reading Betty & Veronica and Welsh singer Shirley Bassey (singer of not one, but TWO great James Bond themes!! Also, "Moonraker." Not great.) perusing a UK edition of the comic book, True-to-Life Romances, for which I could NOT find a cover online. Anyone? Little help?

Also, please note the absence of any still from THE BIG BANG THEORY. Ghad, I loathe that thing.

John Lennon in The Beatles' second film, HELP!, 1965
Paul McCartney reads Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #75, c. 1964
Ringo Starr reads Amazing Stories of Suspense (UK), c. 1965

Bob Hope reads his "adventures" to a young girl with polio, 1950

Richard Gere in the 1983 US remake of Breathless.

Another cap from Breathless. Gere's character, Jesse, identified with the Silver Surfer (and somehow managed to find vintage comics on newsstand racks!).

Clayton "Bud" Collyer, the voice of Superman in radio and animation, reads DC Comics, 1946

Lon Chaney, Tor Johnson, John Carradine, and Bela Lugosi read a horror comic, c. 1956

Christopher Reeve reads Action Comics #506 on The Muppet Show, 1980.

Danielle Spencer as Dee on What's Happening!! reads Daredevil #139, c. 1976

David Crosby reads The Avengers #22, c. 1965

David Bowie reads VIZ (UK) #40, c. 1990

Drew Barrymore is corrupted by a Russ Cochran reprint of Tales From the Crypt, c.1985

Dwight Schulz as Murdock on The A-Team reads Fantastic Four #253, c. 1983

Elizabeth Montgomery reads her comic book, Bewitched #2, 1965

Elvis Presley with a stack of Archies, including Jughead #37, 1956

Even tough guys love comics! Humphrey Bogart reads Blue Circle Comics #3, c. 1944

Chicks dig guys who read comics! If they're Jack Nicholson, that is. Reading MAD #145, 1971.

James Brown grooves on Marvel's Werewolf by Night #23, c. 1974

Jeff Goldblum bones up on an old issue of The Mighty Thor to prep for Ragnarok!

The Clash's Joe Strummer reads The Savage Sword of Conan (UK) #4, c. 1977

Kirk Alyn reads Superman #51, c. 1948

Laurel and Hardy read Spy Smasher #7, c. 1942

Australia's Men at Work read some old comics on the picture sleeve for their single, "Overkill," 1983

Mickey Rooney reads Master Comics #3, c. 1940

Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith of The Monkees are more DC guys than Marvel, c. 1966

Muhammad Ali reads of his second greatest victory, 1978

Peter Cushing reads Vampirella #7, c. 1970

Alice Faye disapproves of Phil Harris' reading Whiz Comics #96, c. 1948
Polly Holiday as Flo on Alice reads World's Finest #265, c. 1980
Reb Brown, TV's Captain America, checks out Cap #214, 1977
Robin Williams as Mork studies another alien in Superman #312 on Mork & Mindy, c. 1977
British actress Samantha Robinson reads a reprint collection of EC Comics' Shock SuspenStories, c. 1995
William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy read MAD #119 on the set of Star Trek, 1967
The Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious brushes up on American politics in MAD #197, 1978
Saints preserve us! Stafford "Chief O'Hara" Repp reads the Batman parody in MAD #105, 1966
Tobey Maguire reads Fantastic Four #141 (from 1973) in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1997)
Yogi Berra checks out the hot new fad of 3D Comics, 1953
Yvonne Craig reads Batgirl's comic book debut in Detective Comics #359 (1967) and shares with Adam "Batman" West

BONUS PHOTO: Elvis (on the same trip as above) reads an unidentified issue of Betty & Veronica, 1956

Shirley Bassey reads the comic, True-to-Life Romances, c. 1955