Saturday, December 24, 2016

i am finally one with the force

No, I'm not telling you whether Alan Tudyk dies.
No, I'm not telling you whether Alan Tudyk dies.
Star Wars fans finally have the Star Wars movies they deserved all along.

The justly-reviled prequel trilogy brought into sharp relief what had actually been true about the entire series: The movies really were never that good.
George Lucas' hare-brained, ham-fisted mishmash of Joseph Campbell musings, bastardized Kurosawa, half-assed space Muppets, and Saturday matinee serials was saved from a fate as future MST3K fodder only by Harrison Ford's charisma and ad-libs, and special effects twelve parsecs beyond what any of us had seen before. Otherwise, it held true to the serial-defined limits of George Lucas' imagination - clunky dialogue, wooden acting, and jaw-droppingly awful character names.
But here's what happened: People loved it.
And this love made the series transcendent. Never mind that this love was showered upon movies that, with the qualified exception of The Empire Strikes Back (tellingly, the one with which Lucas was the least involved), were wholly unworthy of that level of devotion. Star Wars engaged the imagination not just of the preteens of 1977, but of each generation after that.
And it is that engagement with its audience that made the series more than a dumb western in space. Children imagining themselves as Luke, Han, Leia, or even Darth Vader, fighting their own lightsaber duels, and most importantly, making up their own stories, this was the true transubstantiation that turned purloined pulp into bread and wine.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

my adrian belew story

Same Adrian Belew, different hat
I'm ashamed that I haven't posted a darn thing to my blog in 2013. But I shall remedy that at the 11th hour, with a story that has nothing to do with New Year's at all.

In fact, these events happened on October 5th, 1999. My now-ex-wife and I were going to attend a Richard Thompson show that evening, at a now-discontinued series of outdoor shows in Nashville called the "Uptown Mix." We decided to simplify our evening by also getting dinner in the Vanderbilt/21st Avenue Area, and we decided to eat at South Street.

Once we parked and walked to the restaurant, I went inside and put our name on the list. Then, because it was a pleasant early autumn evening, we plopped down on a bench outside for the promised 30-45 minute wait. Almost as soon as we sat down, I noticed someone oddly familiar walking our way.

A moment later, I realized who it was: not someone I knew personally, but King Crimson guitarist extraordinaire Adrian Belew. I had never even seen him in concert, but I knew he had moved to nearby Mount Juliet, Tennessee, a few years before. (We apparently traded Peter Frampton to Cincinnati for him.) He was wearing a hat and holding the hand of a little girl, presumably his daughter, and, yes, it was unmistakably him, probably doing the same thing we were - grabbing a bite to eat before seeing Richard Thompson.

And... he was walking this way! In fact, he and the kid were headed directly toward us, and I hurriedly whispered to my wife, "that's Adrian Belew!"

Belew and child stepped onto the South Street porch, but then Adrian grimaced, turned around, and headed back onto the street. As they were walking away at a brisk pace, I heard him mutter sotto voce to the child, "They recognized us."

I figured he had to be referring to me. I really, really thought I hadn't been obvious about recognizing him. Sure, I did whisper about it to my wife, but I deliberately wasn't staring at him, was not going to make any attempt to intrude on his evening in any way, wasn't about to hop up and gladhand him, etc. etc.

But I still felt bad about it. I figured there was something in my expression or deportment that had made him think that I was going to hassle him, and as a consequence, he had to change his plans for the evening. I wouldn't have wanted to inconvenience the man who played the world-rending solo on Talking Heads' "Crosseyed and Painless," for gosh sakes, and somehow I'd given him the impression that I was about to throw my arm around him and tell him about how only I could understand the secret messages you hear when you play "Elephant Talk" backwards.

Several years later, among a group of friends, I was telling this story - and not telling it for the first time during these several years, mind you. I got to the part where Belew says "they recognized us," and my wife interrupted.

"It was me."

I was baffled. "What was you?"

"It wasn't you he was saying that about. It was me."


"Why? I thought you didn't recognize him."

(longer pause)

"I didn't. I had been staring at him because he was wearing a terrible hat."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

appalachian refugees (2001 wayback edition)

[My interview with ex-V-Roy Scott Miller originally ran in the online magazine Toast in 2001. Since Toast has long ago lived up to its name, I'm giving it a permanent home here at my blog. I'm still enormously proud of this piece. Enjoy!]

Scott Miller is in the passenger seat of my car as we take a left from Broadway to Fifth Avenue North in downtown Nashville. The Staunton, Virginia, native has made the drive from his adopted home city of Knoxville to Music City on this balmy Friday afternoon in May to wrap up preparations for the first tour in support of his debut solo album, Thus Always To Tyrants, due in stores in mid-June from Sugar Hill Records.

As we drive past the cathedral of country music’s past, the Ryman Auditorium, we run head-on into a disturbing reminder of country music’s present: the baleful, Damien-like stare of preteen "One Voice" phenomenon Billy Gilman, his visage looming from an enormous billboard that threatens to dwarf the Ryman. Miller exclaims, "Look at him! He’s one of the goddamn Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, I swear!" and I realize that I’m not the only person in the car whose soul feels the touch of icy fingers.

If anyone has the ability to stave off the Gilman-induced apocalypse, it’s Miller. As a member of the V-Roys and now as a solo artist, Miller has demonstrated a command of the fundamentals of country and bluegrass music. But rather than rendering his music with museum-piece formalism or, as per the current country radio trend, as power ballads in fiddle-and-Stetson disguise, Miller’s songs are supercharged with a white-hot emotional core. Whether the emotion manifests itself in wild-eyed rock guitar fury or in the quiet heartbreak of an exquisite ballad, Miller fully inhabits his creations in a way that’s compelling and captivating, providing his music with two qualities almost wholly missing from Music Row’s modern-day creations: genuine roots and genuine passion. In "Virginia Way" (from the V-Roys’ second and final album, All About Town), when he sings

This is where Grandaddy sat
In a big straw hat and a cigarette
This is where his daddy sat
In a big straw hat and a cigarette
Blue Ridge on the east side to protect me from the rain
And Appalachia’s loving arms to welcome me again

There’s something in the intonation of the vocals and the sound of his guitar picking behind them that goes beyond the words themselves, telling you everything about who he is, where he’s from, and what he’s about.

In fact, Miller originally conceived Thus Always To Tyrants as a song cycle with passages from "Virginia Way" woven throughout the record, and he performed the songs that way during his live shows in 1999 and the first half of 2000. "That was kinda my goal for [the album], to make it like a ‘phases and stages of the Redheaded Stranger.’ As I got in there, I knew it was gonna be tricky, because something like that can get really precious and heavy. It can get really precious if you really try to shove something like that down people’s throats. Do you have Quadrophenia, do you enjoy Quadrophenia? Sometimes a concept can get in the way. My plan was to use that ‘Virginia Way’ theme [he sings the melody of the verse] to lead in and out of songs." Miller ended up opting for a more subtle inclusion of "Virginia Way," reworking a few instrumental passages at the beginning and end of songs to include "Virginia Way"’s bluegrass-tinged melody. "I snuck it in different songs, and you can hear it" in "Across the Line," "Highland County Boy," and "Room on the Cross."

It’s the concerns of "Virginia Way" – identity, place, and, above all, responsibility – that are at the heart of Thus Always To Tyrants. From the protagonist of "Across the Line," who’s attempting to start over even though he knows "you take your troubles with you," to the Civil War soldiers facing obligation and mortality in "Dear Sarah" and "Highland County Boy," to the hellbound drunk driver of "Absolution," Miller’s characters are struggling with defining their roles as adults and being accountable for their actions.

Monday, December 3, 2012

you can't beat it

Pete Townshend last night. Photo by Karen Kraft
Before last night, I had not only never seen the Who live, but had never seen any member of the Who in any configuration. It turns out that somehow the Who had never played here in Nashville before last night, which partially explains why I haven't seen them during the 24 years that I've lived in Music City.

Roger Daltrey played the Ryman a few years ago. During the bit of onstage banter and baiting between Daltrey and Pete Townshend that followed the Quadrophenia portion of the evening's entertainment, Daltrey referenced that show as the best of his career. Pete tartly replied that it couldn't have been that great "because I fucking wasn't there!"

Both of those gentlemen were very much in the hizzouse that is the cavernous, clangorous Bridgestone Arena last night, and they did their legacy proud. They served up their ambitious 1973 double-LP Quadrophenia in its entirety, followed it with The Only Five Who Songs You Hear on the Radio These Days, and then it concluded with the group's sole survivors, Pete and Roger, alone onstage for a little-known acoustic number.

For me, the drawing card besides getting to see the Who at all was that they were playing all of my favorite album. While I'm very sympathetic to the argument that the group's best period was their 1966-67 The Who Sell Out / A Quick One pinnacle of Who poppiness, for me, their crowning achievement was Quadrophenia. This concept album tried to combine the story of Mods vs. Rockers in the mid-'60s England of the group members' adolescence with a powerful subcurrent about Pete Townshend's own misgivings about his group's rise from the same mean streets as main character Jimmy (in "The Punk and the Godfather," the group even blows off Jimmy when he tries to greet them at the stage door!). And there's stuff about mortality and the ocean and drowning, because it's Pete Townshend, and that's just what he does, dammit.

Monday, September 17, 2012

bring me the head of euell gibbons

My maternal grandfather, Berry Hester Miles, was a breakfast-eatin' kind of guy.

He liked my granmother's staple breakfast of bacon or Gunnoe's sausage, accompanied by eggs however you'd like them, with a side of toast, the latter buttered and broiled on the top rack of the oven. He also liked her pancake breakfast. My grandmother was a great scratch cook, but for pancakes, she always used Aunt Jemima's mix, and the finished product was eaten with plenty of butter and Karo pancake syrup.

He'd also sometimes whip up his own breakfast. In season, he'd gather the fallen crabapples from the apple tree in our backyard - the apple tree had a fork in the middle that made for easy climbing to a certain height even for a height-averse non-climbing kid like me, and it also served as first or third base during my solo baseball games, depending on whether I was hitting plastic balls toward or away from the house. Anyway, he'd pick up the small, lumpy, green apples right off the ground, discarding the ones that had rotten spots and avoiding the ones that already attracted the attention of bees. Then he'd take them into the house, peel them, and fry them up in a skillet.

He'd go to the Smoky Mountains twice a year, once with the whole family in the summer, and again in the fall during the Crafts Fair, but making the latter trip just with my grandmother. (We thought it was cute that they still liked to be alone together as a couple.) Every time, he'd go to the Old Mill in Pigeon Forge and buy a five-pound bag of buckwheat flour. When he got home, he'd have my grandmother make him buckwheat pancakes for weeks on end. None of the rest of us could stand the taste, but he was all about it.

And he also loved Grape Nuts. This fiber-rich breakfast cereal was the mainstream natural-foods health-conscious breakfast champion of the '70s, before there was Kashi or Colon Blow. Hell, it had been around since 1898.

But in the America of the 1970s, the face of Grape Nuts was Euell Gibbons. I only knew him from the Grape Nuts commercials, but apparently his 1960s books on natural foods happened to hit the best-seller list a minute ahead of the counterculture, and that movement's interest in all things organic and non-processed helped make Gibbons into a minor celebrity, despite him not only being over 30 but over 50. Today, Gibbons would almost certainly host TV shows on both the Food Network and the National Geographic Channel.

"It Gets You Back To Nature" was the most well-known Grape Nuts slogan of the '70s, as seen in this commercial featuring said Euell Gibbons:

Anyway, one fateful morning, my grandfather ate not one, not two, but three bowls of Grape Nuts.

At one sitting. Voluntarily.

This was highly unusual - he loved food but was not a glutton by nature. Plus it's hard work to eat even one bowl of Grape Nuts, much less three.

Afterwards, my granmother asked him, "Berry, why did you eat three bowls?"

His answer: "Because it tasted good."

Anyway, after he ate the three bowls of Grape Nuts, a short time passed. Then we heard him move swiftly into the bathroom, hurriedly close the door, then turn on the bathroom fan.

And he didn't come out of the bathroom for an hour and a half.

When he did finally emerge from his toilet sojourn, he saw us looking at him quizzically.

He said, "Well, that really got me back to nature!"

Then he walked back through the hallway toward his bedroom, chuckling all the way.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

how do you work this thing?

my inadvertent birds-and-bees talk
I didn't find out about sex from "the talk" with a parent. Or from the other kids at school.

Nope, I learned about it from The People's Almanac.

I actually got The People's Almanac 2 first, as a gift in 1978. Sadly, it was a paperback, and paperback editions of anything with that enormous of a page size (1,500+ pages) don't wear well. But I repeatedly put the book's wobbly spine to the test and incessantly devoured all those fascinating bite-size nuggets of information and entertainment that Irving Wallace, David Wallechinsky, and their team of anonymous fact-finders had compiled. In the pre-Internet era, these books (and the related Book of Lists series) were crack for knowledge addicts.

Sometime in 1979, my mother gave me the original The People's Almanac, and in a hardcover, no less. It was every bit as fascinating to me as the second volume. Between the two, I learned about "People Who Had Become Words," like the Rev. Spooner (that section will put me in stitches to this very day). I learned about Charlie Starkweather, well before I'd see Badlands or Springsteen would write the title track of Nebraska. I learned that Timbuktu was the hottest city on Earth. I learned about Burma-Shave signs. One of the Almanacs had a perpetual calendar that listed every possible configuration of calendars; I made use of that for years, before it became even easier to look up any given year's calendar on the Internet.

And, at twelve years old, I learned how sex actually worked.

Both People's Almanacs (I know there was a third one, but I can't remember if I had it, much less what was in it) had a section called "The Best in Books," which excerpted some of the editors' favorite then-contemporary books. In the original 1975 volume, alongside Our Bodies Ourselves, a Karl Marx bio, a "health food" recipe book, and many more, was this entry:
"Where Did I Come From?": The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and With Illustrations. By Peter Mayle, illustrated by Arthur Robins. Secaucus, N.J.: Paul Walter Lyle Stuart Inc., 1973.
While my mother was always very protective of me and would have felt very uncomfortable talking to me about sex, to her credit, she never kept it a secret from me that babies grew inside their mothers - no "stork" or "cabbage leaf" nonsense. And this idea made sense to me, since I loved my mother very much and it felt safe and natural being around her; it made perfect sense that I had come from inside her. I also knew that a "daddy" had to be involved, and, I supposed, some physical affection. But precisely what happened to make the baby was beyond my knowledge.

And until this juncture in 1979, I probably hadn't been curious about the details, but puberty was starting to take its course, and girls had begun to transition for me from silly things wearing their stupid baby-blue Leif Garrett t-shirts to mysterious beings of intrigue. But I knew that asking my mother or grandparents about these feelings would only lead to rebuke and disastrous inquiries ("Why do you want to know about those kinds of dirty things? Has someone been talking to you at school? You better not have a girlfriend until you're 21!"). So I kept these thoughts and whatever questions were arising in my mind to myself.

But there, on page 68 of The People's Almanac, was the answer to one of the biggest of those possibly rebuke-inducing questions. For this was the fateful excerpt Wallace and Wallechinsky or a committee of underlings had chosen from "Where Did I Come From?":
MAKING LOVE -- This is a very nice feeling for both the man and the woman. He likes being inside her, and she likes him being inside her. It's called making love because it all starts with the man and the woman loving each other. It's a difficult feeling to describe, but if you can imagine a gentle tingly sort of tickle that starts in your stomach and spreads all over, that will give you some idea of what it's like. And, as you know, when you're feeling tickly you wriggle about a bit. It's just the same here, except it's a special kind of wriggling. It's easier to understand when you realize that the parts that tickle most are the man's penis and the woman's vagina. So most of the wriggling happens down there. The man pushes his penis up and down inside the woman's vagina, so that both the tickly parts are being rubbed against each other. It's like scratching an itch, but a lot nicer. This usually starts slowly, and gets quicker and quicker as the tingly feeling gets stronger and stronger.
Why does the tickling stop? Now you may be thinking: If it's so nice, why don't people do it all the time? There are 2 reasons. First, it's very tiring. More than playing football, or running, or skipping, or climbing trees or almost anything. Good as it is, you can't just do it all day long. And the 2nd reason is that something really wonderful happens which puts an end to the tickly feeling, and at the same time starts the making of the baby. When the man and the woman have been wriggling so hard you think they're both going to pop, they nearly do just that. All the rubbing up and down that's been going on ends in a tremendous big lovely shiver for both of them. (Again, it's not easy to tell you what this feels like. But you know how it is when you have a tickle in your nose for a long time, and then you have a really big sneeze. It's a little like that.) At the same time, a spurt of quite thick, sticky stuff comes from the end of the man's penis, and this goes into the woman's vagina.

For me, this was the "so, that's how this actually works! That's what those parts are for!" moment. Made complete sense. And from there on out, I knew.

I really don't think my mother knew that this was in the book, and I lived in terror that she'd leaf through The People's Almanac someday, stumble upon this passage, and take the book away, but that never happened. And both of my People's Almanacs had "Love and Sexuality" sections - which introduced me to Kinsey, homosexuality beyond "whatever that thing is Anita Bryant is against," definitions of various acts and parts, and a lot more - so she may have thought it was OK for me to start getting this info.

In fact, my mother never took any book away from me, and as it turned out, despite the annual conference between her and my grandmother on whether I should be allowed to have the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition (she allowed me to subscribe to SI, so it showed up in the mailbox every February like dynamite with a lit fuse), I always ended up being allowed to have that staple of of semi-prurient Americana. And I'm grateful beyond words to her for allowing me the freedom to read as I wished and explore most any intellectual interest.

However, I do think that she wasn't completely sure that I had this particular info, because a few years later - I think I was 14 or 15 - she gave me a book about sex and sexual health geared for teenagers. So even if she couldn't bring herself to have "the talk" with me, she wanted to make sure that I had the knowledge I needed. And even if I'd learned it already from a book that I'm fairly sure she had no idea contained it, I'm still thankful for that gift - and for all the others that she's given me throughout my whole life.

But anyway, perhaps appropriately, I learned "the facts of life" from the premiere factbook of the 1970s. Far out, man.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

my depeche mode story

One day in the early 2000s, my now ex-wife and I were visiting our relatives in southern West Virginia. During this visit, my then-brother-in-law told us this story:

Said ex-brother-in-law worked at an electrical manufacturing shop in Bland County, Virginia, that makes things like large electrical generator parts for factories. All the employees at the shop except for one were white, which is very reflective of Bland County's lily-white demographics.

But that one exception, a middle-aged African-American janitor, continually sported a Depeche Mode baseball cap.

While one doesn't wish to generalize based on race, age, or location, the probability that an African-American male in his 50s or 60s in Bland County, Virginia, would be wearing any item of Depeche Mode clothing seems fairly low.

My ex-brother-in-law was understandably curious, and one day he asked the guy about the cap.

The man's response? "My son is Martin Gore."

My ex and I were completely "whaaaaaaaaa?" This sounded like crazy talk.

But on the other hand, it seemed like such an improbable thing for this guy to have decided to invent - not "my son's Jerry Rice" or "my daughter is Halle Berry," but "my son is this pale guy from this English synth-pop group that no one would think I've ever heard about and most of the people around me wouldn't even know."

Well, it turns out that it's completely true. The guy was a GI stationed in England in 1960-61, and he was indeed the biological father of Martin L. Gore.

So this humble African-American janitor in rural Bland County, Virginia, begat one of the titans of '80s synth-pop. Who'd'a thunk it?