Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Happy 70th birthday, Bob Dylan - and 10 of my favorites

The beautiful thing about Bob Dylan for me is that you never quite get to the bottom of him. After a casual Dylan fandom for years, I dove whole-heartedly into the world of Dylan obsessiveness about five years ago. I haven't quite come up for air yet. Today, the man turns 70.

So in honor of Mr. Dylan's 70th, here's a list. Of the hundreds of Dylan's songs that are out there, my favorites are constantly changing. Here's what my 10 top Bob Dylan songs are today. Tomorrow, they could be entirely different. That's kind of the beauty of Bob; everybody's Dylan is a different one. Happy birthday, Mr Zimmerman!

Blowin' in the Wind: This was probably my first exposure to Bob Dylan; I remember singing it in class in third or fourth grade during music lessons. It stuck in your head, instantly. I think I'd assumed it was some 100-year-old standard, not knowing it was written less than 10 years before I was born. Some of Dylan's songs kind of seem like they always existed, excavated from the earth at just the right time.

Not Dark Yet: Is this 1997 song from "Time Out Of Mind" the most depressing one Dylan ever wrote? Perhaps, but there's something so beautiful about this mournful ode to the end of love and the end of one person's world, it's like a particularly stunning tombstone. Hushed and elegaic, this song is proof rock stars can grow old with superb dignity.
Maggie's Farm (live at the Newport Folk Festival, July 1965): It seems hard to imagine these days that Dylan going "electric" stirred up so much fuss once. But listen to this raw molten blast of sound from the Newport Folk Festival where Dylan blew a crowd of Peter, Paul and Mary fans to bits. I love the song, but I love this particular performance of it found on the "No Direction Home" soundtrack even more -- it's a giant middle finger by Dylan, who sings the lines "I AIN'T gonna work on Maggie's farm no more" like his life depended on it. Maybe it did.
Tombstone Blues: Off all Dylan's madcap surrealistic lyrics, this is the one I've always loved the most -- from "Highway 61 Revisited," a rollicking, quite funny tour of whimsy and tragedy. I couldn't begin to tell you what it's actually about, but the way young Bob reels off lines like "The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone / Causes Galileo's math book to get thrown" is just vastly entertaining, like a drunken carny rattling off his spiel to anyone who'll listen.
Subterranean Homesick Blues: Did Bob Dylan invent rap? Honestly, if you listen to this classic, you have to at least give him a few nods in that general direction. Free-wheeling and hip, it's a mash-up of Beat poetry and talking blues that pretty much invented a handful of genres of music. And let's not forget that classic film clip of Dylan flipping cue cards to the tune from "Don't Look Back" -- a giant step towards MTV and the video revolution, too.
Lay Lady Lay: One of Dylan's cheesiest songs, perhaps, from the "Nashville Skyline" era where his voice suddenly took on a surprisingly silky crooner's tone. And "Nashville Skyline" is a rather slight album compared to the masterworks that came before it, but I love it all the same - a simple homage to hearth and home, gorgeously produced and one of his biggest hits. Sure, it ain't political or surreal, but it's just a mighty pretty song, and Dylan's written plenty of those for the ages, too.
Idiot Wind: From love to heartbreak -- from "Blood On The Tracks," this is a blistering trip into the eye of the storm of a relationship crumbling to bits. There's a breathtakingly honest anger and plain meanness to this song, which is almost like reading someone's secret diary. It's so intimate it's uncomfortable, as Dylan spits out lines like "One day you'll be in the ditch / flies buzzing around your eyes." But it's a powerhouse because it feels so true.
You Ain't Goin' Nowhere: I have a specific memory attached to this song, of a favorite restaurant/hangout back in Oxford, Mississippi, and the night it closed its doors. A ton of local musicians, including members of the band Wilco, sung the night away to bid the cafe farewell, and a shining highlight was a merry singalong of this Dylan tune. It's hardly one of the deepest of Dylan's catalogue, but it's a song that seems to celebrate being alive, getting out of scrapes and surviving to sing the night away.
Hurricane: For my money, the best Dylan "protest song," although there have been many great ones. An older Dylan takes the raw talent of his youthful songs and adds the indignant outrage that comes with age and experience as he takes on the case of convicted murderer, boxer Rubin Carter. Did "Hurricane" Carter do it? Even if you think he did, by the time the 8 roaringly angry minutes of this song go by you might well have changed your mind. That's what a truly great protest song can do.

I'm Not There: From the legendary "Basement Tapes," most of which have never seen official release, this haunting number was released on the soundtrack of the Dylan homage movie of the same name a few years back. It's Dylan at his spookiest Weird America best, hushed and sounding like he's singing from a million miles and years away.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Nik's Unheralded Albums #5: "The Lost Boys" Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

When a soundtrack is at its peak, it evokes a movie but also kind of surpasses it -- you listen to the crashing cadences of Strauss for "2001: A Space Odyssey" or the jangly retro hits of the "Rushmore" soundtrack, and you find yourself reliving your favorite bits of the movie, but you also kind of create an idealized version of it in your head. It turns out "Top Gun" is actually a kind of terrible movie if you watch it today without the affections of nostalgia, but man, whenever I hear Kenny Loggins sing "Danger Zone," I'm 15 again and feel a spontaneous quiver of excitement, as a movie that's way better than the actual "Top Gun" ever was unspools in my brain.

Which brings me to "The Lost Boys," the 1987 teen vampire movie that chews up "Twilight" and spits it out in gory little pieces. An early work by "Batman & Robin" auteur Joel Schumacher, it's all smoke machines, hair-spray fashion and pouty angst, but it's still actually a heck of a lot of fun. And the soundtrack is a tasty slab of vintage '80s bombast and cheese, one I have a rather unaccountable affection for. Unlike a lot of the big '80s movie soundtracks it doesn't boast wall-to-wall hits like "Footloose" or "Dirty Dancing" did, and your biggest stars are INXS and Echo and the Bunnymen. (If they'd paid better, you'd have thought they could've gotten Depeche Mode and Sisters of Mercy to sing on this thing.)

But "The Lost Boys" soundtrack in its sunglasses-at-night sweep perfectly captures the glossy feel of the movie, which was Goth without the gloom, sexy without being nasty about it. Jason Patric, an evil pre-Jack Bauer Kiefer Sutherland and Jami Gertz brood a lot and the two Coreys provide comic relief. Bill from "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" plays a vampire. It features one of the great cinematic closing lines. But it's glossy trash, of course.

Lou Gramm's screeching anthem "Lost in the Shadows" pops up several times in the movie -- I particularly like the breathy urgency he puts in as he sings against the beat. Gerald McCann's theme song "Cry Little Sister" is melodramatic and gaspy Harlequin romance Goth. The marvelous cover of The Doors' tune "People are Strange" by Echo and the Bunnymen nicely captures the movie's tone of parody mixed with menace. Another cover tune I've always liked here is Roger Daltrey's take on Elton John's "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me." (A song tailor-made for vampire flicks.)

Bodybuilder/sax man Thomas Capello's bizarre scene singing "I Still Believe" is so insanely homoerotic and over-the-top in the flick that it spawned a "Saturday Night Live" parody decades after the movie. (Seriously, why didn't someone tell the guy to put a shirt on at least during the filming of this scene?) But while you can't watch that scene without giggling, the actual song itself isn't terrible, in a Huey Lewis if he were a bodybuilder kind of way.

But sometimes a big slab of cheesy music from your youth is what you need. I haul out the Journey's "Greatest Hits" disc sometimes and still feel my blood start pumping when Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" theme music from "Rocky III" rings out. "The Lost Boys" soundtrack sold less copies than "Top Gun" and "Flashdance" did but in some way I'd call it the perfect '80s movie soundtrack -- very little irony, lots of bombast, and hooks that may leave you feeling a bit of guilty pleasure but still won't quite stop echoing around your brain.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Superheroes I love #9: The West Coast Avengers

This time out, rather than one particular hero, let's look at a whole team of them that I always had a thing for.
Who: The West Coast Avengers were the '80s "spin-off" Avengers comic, based in California and led by one of my favorite Avengers, loudmouthed but goodhearted archer Hawkeye. The team also included at its start Hawk's wife Mockingbird, Iron Man, Wonder Man and Tigra, all set up in a former Hollywood star's mansion and fighting crime on the West Coast -- which seemed quite a novelty at a time when 99% of comic book superheroes seem to live in Manhattan. Being a Californian myself, the WCA, as they were known, felt like "my" team. 
Why I dig: The West Coast Avengers were the underdogs of the Avengers franchise, lacking the big heroes (except for Iron Man, but his involvement seemed half-hearted) but scrappy and amiable. They'd battle bizarrely goofy villains like Master Pandemonium, whose limbs popped off at will; Razorfist, a guy whose fists were both replaced by large knives (which would seem to make daily life outside superhero battles rather unpleasant), or Cactus, who was, yes, a sentient walking cactus. Not exactly Dr. Doom.

The book had two key runs -- a colourful, high-action era written by Steve Englehart and drawn mostly by Al Milgrom, and a more modern, grim 'n' gritty take by John Byrne for a dozen issues or so. I also really love the original miniseries written by Roger Stern which introduces the team and is probably the best single story the book ever had; a team of novice and insecure Avengers move to California and end up fighting one of the world's strongest villains.
The ongoing book had its bumpy road, and charms  often mired in kitsch -- Wonder Man's almost uniformly horrible costumes, Tigra's bimbo supreme troubles, Hawkeye's hearty temper tantrums, the one-note approach to much of the characteristation. (The West Coast Avengers were generally a whiny lot.) Englehart is going for a very silver age tone, which makes the book look almost childish sometimes. The arguable highlight of Englehart's run is the twisting 7-part "Lost in Time" saga, which splits up the entire team over time and ends up juggling several different story threads at once in a fun tour of Marvel Comics history. The team expanded to include other interesting members or quasi-members like Thing, Firebird and Moon Knight.
John Byrne came along after the book had been puttering along for a few years and promised to do his patented "reimagining" and revitalize it. Now, I loved Byrne's work on the book at the time -- his art, bold and dynamic, was a huge improvement -- but read today, it's got problems. He relied on shock over sensible plotting -- the entire "Vision Quest" arc which systematically destroyed the long-running happy Vision and Scarlet Witch marriage, for instance, has left both once-beloved characters pretty much screwed up to this day. There's a lot of changes over his short run, and it's still exciting stuff to read, but Byrne failed to really follow through with any of it, with many subplots just trailing off. The shortened nature of his run over an editorial dispute on the book leaves it lacking. Yet a lot of the changes still echo more than 20 years later -- turning Scarlet Witch into a raving nutter, for instance, or the goofy fun Great Lakes Avengers.
I didn't really follow the WCA after Byrne left -- the few issues I've read after that were almost uniformly terrible. The book ended with #102 in 1994 and was replaced by the "This is why 1990s comics sucked" poster child book Force Works. But for a little while, West Coast Avengers was a fun superhero team book, not one that changed the world by any means, but its easygoing camaraderie and sense of fun make it memorable. And how can you not love a B-level superhero team who inspire an entire groovy rap album?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Movie review: Thor

It's strange for a 30-year comic book geek to admit, but I never really much cared for Thor. When I was in my younger avid collecting days there were only a few characters whose books I never bought, and one of 'em was Thor. The long hair, the bare arms, the high-faluting fancy talk? It all seemed too lame to me.

But yet Thor is a compelling character, which took me a while to realize -- a god who walks among men, caught between two worlds, and now that I'm less of a nerdy fanboy I've found some very good Thor comics such as the legendary ones by Walt Simonson and the sturdy originals by Lee and Kirby. The highly entertaining new movie "Thor" reminds me a lot of "Iron Man" -- it takes a B-grade hero who's been in far more mediocre comics than truly great ones over his 50-year history and distills it down to its essence.

"Thor" combines culture clash with smashing action and adventure and feels like something rather new among the current glut of comic movies. It's not a story of some humble nerdy type who learns to become a hero. It's got equal elements of Lord of the Rings-style fantasy and superhero action. It's a tale of a god who learns humility, wrapped up in lots of family drama dynamics and good old frost giant-smashing. It's got a good solid sense of humor and whimsy which you kind of need when dealing with Norse gods throwing giant hammers about, yet it knows when to pile on the serious as well.

What I liked:
I wasn't sure about casting relative unknown Chris Hemsworth as Thor, but he pretty much knocks it out of the park in a starmaking performance -- rather than having the character speak the typical mangled Elizabethan style that the comic did for years, he adopts a more general formal tone. The scenes where Thor is stranded, powerless, in a small New Mexico town are great culture clash fun.

A relentlessly scenery-chewing Anthony Hopkins makes for a logical Odin, while Tom Hiddleston does a very good turn as slippery Loki, although the script fails him sometimes with muddled motivations and character turns. Natalie Portman brings nice charm to Thor's earthly love interest Jane Foster, while director Kenneth Branagh ably balances big-action moments with smaller character beats that make this feel a bit less disposable than it might have.

And it's a pleasure to see a superhero movie that really embraces the cosmic scale -- one failing of, say, "Iron Man 2," is climactic battles that kind of disappoint. Here, we see giant armies of frost giants, a Thor/Loki throwdown that's quite epic, and the extraordinary Jack Kirby creation the Destroyer brought to vivid life.

What I didn't like:
Well as usual, the "3D" edition of the movie is a gimmick and not worth paying extra for -- I'm actively avoiding 3D versions of most movies when I find them, as the 3D films tend to be projected too dark, rarely utilize the format well and generally just a big hype.

The one thing about "Thor" that sticks with me is the general look of Asgard and the Asgardians -- I'm not quite sold on it, yet I'm not quite sure how I would've done it. They're all very shiny-armored and colourful, but I wonder if it would seem more "real" if Asgard looked a bit more lived in rather than like a lot of plastic models. Yet it is a god's realm, and who really knows how that's meant to look? As I've said before, it's a fine line between making Asgard look cool and having it look like a bad rock video. It's also a shame to see Rene Russo relatively wasted as Thor's mother, but so it goes.

Despite all the very solid acting talent and one of my favorite creators Joss Whedon at the helm of next year's giant "Avengers" movie, I'm still rather uncertain about it. Frankly the weakest parts of "Iron Man 2" and "Thor" are those where they try to awkwardly shove in a "shared universe" and twee cameos. (Although seeing ace archer and "Avengers" co-star Hawkeye, briefly, in "Thor" is pretty sweet, actually. Guess I'm still a comics geek after all.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

All the news that's fit to tweet

I've worked in journalism for 15+ years now, but rarely have I enjoyed the kind of immediacy I do with my new online job, where all it takes to disseminate your story to the world is a click of the button. This week has been a non-stop onslaught of breaking news -- the royal wedding, some Osama character you might've heard about, and an extraordinarily rare fatal tornado right here in Auckland yesterday.
For both the big global news stories of the last week I've been tasked with running a kind of NZ-centric Storify feed on the website of "vox populi," filtering Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and more into a giant mass o' opinion that runs concurrently with the more hard-news stories. This sort of aggregation is a kind of reporting that would've been hard to imagine 10 years ago -- there's a massive, ever-sprawling pool now of rants and raves and viewpoints online, and it never ever stops. As I "live tweeted" the royal wedding I found it fascinating -- the flow of information is so fast on the Twitter/Facebook feeds that you literally have to just grab and run -- and it was also kind of dizzying, too. After 6 hours straight of reading the world's Tweets on Wills and Kate your brain does kind of turn into mush.
And then the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, met his logical end Monday and it was a whole other set of tweets and comments to gather up. This story was very different from the royal wedding and tended to arouse all kind of firm views. As a fence-straddler, I found myself kind of turned off both by the bloodthirsty patriotism and the sanctimonious moralizing from both extremes.

I agree, people who live in America have no idea how utterly awful the mobs shouting "USA! USA!" looks from overseas, but I also think that at this point in its history, America desperately needed a "win." It seems like dozens of my US Facebook friends are unemployed now, there's a cynicism in US society that never quite goes away, and this long-desired news gave the country something to celebrate, as tacky as some of the cheering may have seemed from afar. 
Both stories were strange to watch as an American living in New Zealand -- one dealt with the British monarchy and the possible future king of New Zealand, while one offered a very US-centric kind of catharsis that I don't imagine as many New Zealanders might have felt.

The Twitter/Facebook beast is something wholly new in journalism -- a never-ceasing flow of quotes without having to pick up a notebook. During President Obama's speech on Monday 4,000 tweets came per second. This quoteflow is the sort of thing that has newspapers and journalists questioning their relevance -- although I fall on the side of good journalism still being firmly necessary, as a way to filter through the impossibly dense voice of humanity online these days. By night's end I had 15,000+ hits on the Osama Storify feed -- a kind of instant gratification journalists rarely get.

Once upon a time the question used to be, how do I get the information? It's then moved on to how fast can I get the information? But maybe as the world continues to change every millisecond, the new question might be, where does the information stop?