1987: Rebel Without A Pause

PublicEnemy2.jpg

Rebel Without A Pause was the first single released from Public Enemy’s sophomore album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. I actually remember where I was: boot camp. A place where there is no music. After that? Infantry school. Some music, but not much. After that? An overseas duty station in the United Kingdom. All this happened in less than a year. It was in England that I first heard Public Enemy. Their innovative sound had been tearing its way from New York and across the nation, skipping from city to city, a wave of something new in hip-hop that was going to signal an expansion in the genre. Where hip-hop production and sampling were, at the time, The Bomb Squad were going to exponentially blow that up. But I was mostly unaware that it was happening, having been removed from the city and my old neighborhood for the better part of a year.

Yes - the rhythm, the rebel
Without a pause - I'm lowering my level
The hard rhymer - where you never been I'm in
You want styling - you know it's time again
D the enemy - telling you to hear it
They praised the music - this time they play the lyrics
Some say no to the album, the show
Bum Rush The Sound - I made a year ago1
I guess you know - you guess I'm just a radical
Not on sabbatical - yes to make it critical
The only part your body should be parting to
Panther power on the hour from the rebel to you

My first duty station, near an out-of-the-way, seaside resort town in Cornwall, England, was part of the U.S.M.C. Security Forces. We guarded a munitions depot attached to an R.A.F. base surrounded by green fields and flocks of sheep. The direction of the wind determined whether or not standing guard was a pleasant day in the English countryside or an olfactory hell. It was a small duty station, only a company of Marines, but on my arrival, I was only one of two brown-skinned personnel. That would change in the coming months.

Radio - suckers never play me
On the mix - just O.K. me
Now known and grown when they're clocking my zone it's known
Snakin' and takin' everything that a brother owns
Hard - my calling card
Recorded and ordered - supporter of Chesimard2
Loud and proud kickin' live next poet supreme
Loop a troop, bazooka, the scheme
Flavor - a rebel in his own mind
Supporter of my rhyme
Designed to scatter a line of suckers who claim I do crime

Within a year, there were a significant amount of black men serving at the duty station. Enough so that there was the occasional friction between more urban or southern black men and more suburban or middle-American white men. Sometimes. But we were all Marines and it generally always boiled down to that. And we all learned from each other, taking some steps towards breaking down the cultural barriers that had been built up over the previous few-hundred years. The point is, these young men brought with them something important: cassettes of hip-hop music from America.

From a rebel it's final on black vinyl
Soul, rock and roll comin' like a rhino
Tables turn - suckers burn to learn
They can't dis-able the power of my label
Def Jam - tells you who I am
The enemy's public - they really give a damn
Strong Island - where I got 'em wild and
That's the reason they're claimin' that I'm violent
Never silent - no dope gettin' dumb nope
Claimin' where we get our rhythm from
Number one - we hit ya and we give ya some
No gun - and still never on the run
You wanna be an S1 - Griff will tell you when
And then you'll come - you'll know what time it is
Impeach the president - pullin' out the ray-gun
Zap the next one - I could be you're Sho-gun
Suckers - don't last a minute
Soft and smooth - I ain't with it
Hardcore - raw bone like a razor
I'm like a laser - I just won't graze ya
Old enough to raise ya - so this will faze ya
Get it right boy and maybe I will praise ya
Playin' the role I got soul too
Voice my opinion with volume
Smooth - know what I am

The most distinctive sound on that first single—that warbling squeal repeated and laid over a rumbling, syrupy beat—raised the hairs on my arms. It was mesmerizing, it blew my brains. I recognized the squeal as a saxophone, and it sounded familiar, to boot. I’d re-learn its origin later, digging up old James Brown and affiliates records because it was about one half of the alto saxophone, glissando opening of “The Grunt,” by the JBs. This track was a deafening debut, a bombastic proclamation of Public Enemy’s signature sound. An aggressive, thundering wall of combative, rhythmic…noise. There was plenty of parallel with aggro music across other genres, but none in hip-hop, at the time. That insistent squeal, the rumble of the beat, and Chuck D’s distinctive and clear voice meant that track could be heard even when you were blocks away.

No matter what the name - we're all the same
Pieces in one big chess game
Yeah - the voice of power
Is in the house - go take a shower boy
P.E. a group, a crew - not singular
We were black Wranglers
We're rap stranglers
You can't angle us - I know you're listenin'
I caught you pissin' in you're pants
You're scared of us dissin' us
The crowd is missin' us
We're on a mission boy

My nascent Public Enemy fan story doesn’t end there, of course. Over a year into my tour of duty, a friend decided to marry one of the natives. (These things happen. A lot.) The ceremony was to occur in Birmingham, well north of Cornwall. All of us invitees (and the groom) piled onto a chartered bus for the ill-fated “Jack Daniels” tour. I do remember stopping for steak and mushrooms, just before dark, for dinner. I do remember arriving at the hotel, signing in, and going—with some assistance—to my room. And later becoming reacquainted with the steak and mushrooms I’d had earlier. (They were delicious the first time.) I woke up around midnight. Alone. Which is difficult when you’ve spent the last two years always having at least twenty guys at your back. Birmingham, at the time, was a sleepy city. Retail and other services had closed well before I got downstairs to the lobby. Even the hotel’s lobby was closed, glass doors drawn shut. Outside the glass doors, one of my comrades stood perplexed at being locked out. I opened up for him and, as he led me to the rest of the crew, we bumped into yet another Jarhead. The three of us continued and, sure enough, heard that squeal and the thunderous beat somewhere ahead. We followed the sound for about two blocks and—I should mention this to best explain the impact of what was to come: Even though there were several more non-white Marines at the duty station, we were still part of a notable minority. I’d spent nearly the last two years in the whitest white people country that is arguably the original source of the white world’s white-most-whitey-whiteness, whiteyouverymuch. So… We followed the sound to an old brick building with smoky windows. The music came from the basement. Without hesitation—because that’s the kind of boldness engendered by routinely having twenty guys at your back—we opened the door. At the bottom of the stairs began a sea of black flesh, wall to wall people dancing to the booming sounds of Public Enemy. We waded in, forgetting about the rest of our squad. Thirty years later, it remains one of the few albums I’ve never stopped listening to, and an artist I’ve continued to follow.

Attitude - when I'm on fire
Juice on the loose - electric wire
Simple and plain - give me the lane
I'll throw it down your throat like Barkley
See the car keys - you'll never get these
They belong to the 98 posse3
You want some more son - you wanna get some
Rush the door on a store - pick up the album
You know the rhythm, the rhyme plus the beat is designed
So I can enter your mind - Boys
Bring the noise - my time
Step aside for the flex - Terminator X

  1. Bum Rush The Show, Public Enemy’s first album only features some of their signature sound. Made a few years before their second LP, it still bore the taint of hip-hop’s past when it’s release was delayed. Though it was fairly well received, the sound wasn’t anything very special.
  2. Chesimard is the married surname of Assata Olugbala Shakur, a member of the Black Liberation Army. She is a notorious figure in America’s modern history, and well worth looking up.
  3. Chuck had a thing for the '98 Oldsmobile. No idea why…

Just read: "Down. Set. Fight!"

Written by Chuck Bowers and Chris Sims, illustrated by Scott Kowalchuk, and begging to be a go-for-it grindhouse movie adaptation. This graphic novel follows the life and career of Chuck "Fearless" Fairlane, a football prodigy trained beyond his limits by a congenital gambler of a father. Chuck finds himself in hot water after a post-game, on-field, rage-out brawl precipitated by dear ol' dad where he manages to punch anyone who dares take the field. Fast forward fifteen years later and Chuck is a high school football coach with an interesting professional football asterisk in his past. Until mascots start targeting him. Fun, fast-paced, whacky. Fight!

Just read: The Blue Blazes and The Hellsblood Bride by Chuck Wendig

Wendig’s words wind and whip, while wounding with wonder! Kidding. There’s no alliteration in the story, but, man, the word-play at Wendig’s fingertips is incredibly entertaining. The story features lifelong thug, Mookie Pearl, and the fate of the criminal organization he works for. An organization called…The Organization. The heart of the matter, however, is Mookie’s estranged relationship with is wife and obstreperous daughter. That’s what provides the central emotional tension. The situation is specially tense since Pearl’s daughter is stirring up the underworld both above and below the New York after putting a bullet in Pearl’s partner’s hip. The mix of supernatural criminals from Hell and the humans that stand between them and us regular folk are painted with a brutal brush that’s a welcome addition to the urban fantasy genre. Precious few characters aren’t grizzled and spent, their lives an unending grind that doesn’t let up.

There’s a healthy dose of noir here as Pearl, a Neanderthalic and preternaturally large human being, lumbers through his life as an enforcer for the order that keeps the supernatural from spilling into the daylight. By Wendig’s description, Pearl resembles “The Goon.” (And if you haven’t read the The Goon, byIt’s a wonder he was with a woman long enough to get married and have a daughter. But the that was a long time ago. Nowadays, he works with the hybrid goat-man Werth, breaking knees for The Organization where most others fear to tread: in the Down Below. Complicating matters is the existence of Cerulean, a drug called the “blue” amongst those in the know. Blue allows the user to see through the glamour underworld denizens—of which there are many—use to mask their true appearance. Central to Mookies problems are Gobbos (Goblins), seemingly mindless marauders, and Ernesto Candlefly, a mysterious associate of The Organization’s boss. Everything seems to go right and wrong at the same time with Pearl and that’s the very broken heart of noir.

For me, Wendig’s story shines when he’s mixing supernatural elements with what we consider reality. Fast-paced and brutal, Mookie’s ham-handed antics are a pleasure as this man-mountain past his prime attempts to save the world—after he patches things up with his daughter. But Mookie’s not much of a thinker, he’s a doer, in his own words, and these problems require him to come up with solutions more nuanced than stomping someone’s head into the ground.

Just read: "Our Lady of Vengeance" by Thomas Pluck

These are certainly "13 dishes served cold." Pluck is a master of hardboiled, two-fisted noir. And I love stories about revenge. Win-win. He excels at shifting gears and producing stories that can be lyrical, brisk, emotional or all three. He applies his singular technique in this themed collection to settings ranging from feudal Japan to the deep south to the heartbreaking cities of the East Coast. I really can't say enough about this crime writer, he successfully takes chances with storylines and characters, pushing boundaries and entertaining the whole way. For anyone who hasn't read Pluck's work, this is a fine introduction and, I hope, a gateway drug for the rest of his catalog.

Just read: "Blood Cult of the Booby Farmers" by Peter N. Dudar

I… This book… The, uh… Let's start with what the note the author attached to the book:

This book is an homage to Grindhouse films of the 70s.  The story contains material that is graphic in nature and not suitable for persons under 17 years old, pregnant women, literary and academic types, clergy members or fellow parishioners, people who are politically correct or easily offended, animal lovers, people whose parents are blood-related, parents of children that go to school with my child, or fellow family members.  But if you love dark, upsetting horror stories, I’d love for you to check it out.  I think you will like it.  I know I do.  - PND

Okay, well…I liked it. Really. From the title and the cover, it's difficult to know what to expect. Bizarre, bloody, and at times gross and disturbing, there's a solid story here that plummets forward with abandon. I think, with books like this, context is very, very valuable. For fans of the lesser-known horror films--the kind of films that just went for it--like The Hills Have Eyes, The Beast Within, or The Incredible Melting Man; this book just goes for it!

Just read: "The White People" by Arthur Machen

Mysterious, atmospheric, a bit creepy and a bit long in the telling, Machen's "The White People" is one of the earliest weird stories and much praised by HP Lovecraft himself. It also serves as an early example of the reason I don't much like early weird stories. Published in Horlick's Magazine in 1909, the image above is from Aklo in 1988. I guess the story got re-published in that publication or something.

The end.

Just read: "Tin Men" by Christopher Golden

I don't know what's up with this super-cool art by Mike Bryan, but it's super-cool and I wish it were on the cover of the book I got my hands on. Imagine facing this thing on the battlefield or anywhere, it'd be terrifying. Read a little bit about it here.

I don't know what's up with this super-cool art by Mike Bryan, but it's super-cool and I wish it were on the cover of the book I got my hands on. Imagine facing this thing on the battlefield or anywhere, it'd be terrifying. Read a little bit about it here.

In truth, I read this book a few months ago, but I'm just getting around to blogging about it. Most important: I enjoyed the hell out of the story. Christopher Golden is a rather prolific and experienced, multi-genre writer, and I've read a few of his books and short stories. This one's holding a fav spot for me. I'm a fan of brisk, military sci-fi and this novel delivers on that in proverbial spades. Golden keeps the plot moving with enough world-building, action, and character development to tease the possibility of a sequel. This under-appreciated book deserves a spot on a grander stage, such as the Science Fiction Book Club. The premise is a near-future where America has developed robotic drone tech that allows a soldier to pilot a super-soldier anywhere in the world to promote peace or else. It frankly extrapolates the disastrous idea of America as the world's police force and how some of the nations that have been "helped" to peace might react. Oh, and those robot drones? There's more to them than expected.

Just heard: Shawn James & The Shapeshifters

Near as I can tell, this art was commissioned for the RPG "Werewolf: The Apocalypse" by White Wolf Publishing. And I think it's just swell.

Near as I can tell, this art was commissioned for the RPG "Werewolf: The Apocalypse" by White Wolf Publishing. And I think it's just swell.

Soulful, gritty, funky and blues fire. A good friend of mine passed the single "Hellhound" under my nose and it convinced me that I want to compile a "soundtrack" for the Alexander Smith trilogy of books I'm writing. Shawn James of Texas would have to be the artist that anchored the album. Check out this stripped down version of "Hellhound" on YouTube. If you've read "Blood for the Sun," you'll definitely get the connection. (If you're wondering about the sequel, chapter one is right on this here site.)

Howlin’ at the moon
My blood runs hot and outta tune
Been at it all night long
My prey the buzz now long gone

On and on
On and on
On and on
On and on

Hellhounds at my heels
Sharpen my wit, a raw deal
Don't matter anyhow
My pace just wears them down

On and on
On and on
On and on
On and on

Don't you get me wrong
I know I don't belong
I'm just howlin’ at the moon
My curse will carry through

On and on
On and on
On and on
On and on

Just ate: The Perfect Steak

Nothing left but a couple bits of gristle and a strip of fat.

Nothing left but a couple bits of gristle and a strip of fat.

This is a post about tragedy and irony. And why there's a photo of an empty plate up there instead of a lovely meal.

Over twelve years ago, my wife wasn't a fan of beef. I love beef. My mother would make roast beef, burgers, short ribs et al. And I enjoy steaks and hamburgers and beef ribs and hot dogs and pastrami and—you get the picture. My wife, again, not so much. It tended to bother her stomach and that situation only got worse with time.

(That was the tragic part.)

During her pregnancy, my wife began to crave beef.  Hamburgers and pastrami, to be specific, and not at the same time. Sometimes pastrami, but most often hamburgers. During her first pregnancy, when she'd ask, "Do you mind if we have hamburgers again?" I'd "struggle" with the decision and we'd happily head to some place like Miracle of Science, in Cambridge, and enjoy a hamburger dinner. Eventually, I became quite handy with making burgers (eating out gets expensive, folks) and we could have them at home more often than out at restaurants. I even won a hamburger contest at Five Napkin Burger. But that's another story. I worried that my wife would stop enjoying beef so much after she gave birth. She did and she didn't. Hamburgers and pastrami are still favorites, but none of the beefier treats—especially steak—were on her radar.

(That was the ironic part. What follows is more tragedy.)

Because of several food sensitivities, our household cut way back on beef. My daughter was not at all interested in hamburgers or steak or beef ribs or roast beef or anything but ground or chopped beef in stir fry. As much as I'd like to just cook meals for myself, I have a family to feed—we have a family to feed. That means cooking meals that everyone can eat. Our second daughter enjoys hamburgers, but again, none of the other beef treats. Not really.

After years of beef shortages in my stomach, I get the rare occasion (see what I did there?) to make some beef for myself. It's usually a lonely celebration of meat. Tonight was one of those moments. I'd been waiting over two weeks to have meal time to myself where I could cook this one and a half pound sirloin steak I'd been gifted with. Again, a rare occasion. (Oops, I did it again!) And here's what happened to create the perfect steak. It's so simple it should be illegal.

  • 1.5 pound, thick-cut sirloin steak
  • Kosher salt
  • Fresh cracked black pepper
  • 1–2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • Butter
  • Parsley

Get your cast-iron skillet. If you don't have one, get one. Now. Before you leave to get it, dry your steak with paper towels and coat your steak with the salt and pepper—really push it in there and let the steak come to room temp over an hour or so. If you don't, the steak won't cook evenly. Set your oven to 400º Fahrenheit. Bring the cast-iron skillet up to hot-as-hell-oh-my-god-the-oil-is-smoking and set your steak in there. Let it sear for about 4 minutes. Turn, sear the other side. Put it in the oven for 5–6 minutes for medium-rare. Use a meat thermometer, you philistine, you don't want to overcook that steak!

Get the damn thing out of the oven because—holy crap—hot beef keeps cooking when you remove it from heat. There should be lovely, brown juices in that pan—don't discard them. Remove the steak to a plate, put the butter and parsley on top, tent with foil, and let it rest and be juicy for several minutes. In the meantime, in order to keep yourself from freaking out with anticipation, scrape up the fried bits in the skillet and mix with the juices. Pour yourself a glass of red wine. I had a lovely 2007 Viña Eguía from Spain. When you're ready to eat, pour some of the juices on top AND TRY NOT TO EAT THE ENTIRE DAMN THING. I ate about half because I have tremendous will power. And my wife was watching. Don't waste time taking a photo of it, just eat and enjoy. Like I did. (You'll thank me later.)

Just thought: What now?

The 2016 election has hit a great deal of people very hard. Hard enough to cause all sorts of distress—both physical and mental. My ultimate concern is the underbelly of society that’s been swirled up from the bottom of the American petri dish. The backbone of this great experiment in democracy was built during the height of the Peculiar Institution. The remnants of that and the baser aspects of a toxic, male-dominated, European-sourced culture continue to ripple today. It seems that about twenty-five percent of the U.S. population is okay with a candidate who has no clue about what he brings in his wake. I care. I care because if the shit hits the fan, it's not them the racists and bigots are going to target. It's me. It's my family and some of my friends. 

Ripples only last so long, however, so my immediate concerns are mitigated by time. My penultimate concern is this: 

  1. Voting Eligible Population Ballots: 131,741,500 (56.8 percent)        
  2. Voter Eligible Population That Didn’t Vote: 99,815,122 (43.2 percent)
  3. Voter Eligible Population Total: 231,556,622

I know democracy is messy, that it’s messy by design, that it forces various people to engage in many different ways often. But it’s not supposed to be this messy, where roughly half the population is deciding who goes into the highest office in the land. And the numbers are just as bad the further down the chain you go. It’s pathetic. It’s apathetic. It makes America—again, the great experiment of a nation—look like total losers compared to other democratic nations. The rest of the voting world is running voter turnout numbers in percentages of eighties and higher. We suck. Which is total bullshit. We really are a garbage heap fire of our own making, no one forced this on us. 

And it has to stop.

Which brings me to ‘what now?’ And here’s my answer, this is what I’m going to do: the same damn things I’ve been doing for most of my life, from the twentieth century into the twenty-first.

Write.

Draw.

Design.

Read.

Love.

Vote.

Just heard: 6am by Kutiman

Ophir Kutiel, more popularly known as Kutiman, is a phenomenal creative. Period, full stop. A skilled musician and composer, he’s also an animator and director. Which explains the first time I became aware of his work via the YouTUBE video mixtape titled ThruYou. (And its sequel: ThruYouToo.) On it, he cobbled together video/sound clips to create a genre-bending mega-mix composed of disparate video uploads to the platform. Long story short, Kutiman is a full-bore creative engine, a musician who puts everything he has into creating music. And that music tends to sound like a funk sandwich of the last several decades. This guy is working in video, with orchestras, as a multi-instrumentalist, creating mix projects around the world with various artists established on the streets or in studios. This is a next-generation approach to making music and well worth a listen.

6am is a “proper” album in that it’s a cohesive collection of music in multiple tracks, a mix of vocals and instrumentals, it appears to be Kutiman’s first attempt at putting together a more conventional package. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a winner, along with the rest of his oeuvre. Get it here, get it now.

Kutiman's music blows me away. Every. Time.

Just read: Stranded by Bracken MacLeod

This book is about life, death, and the desperation in between that we all hope is infrequent or nonexistent. The crew of the resupply ship “Arctic Promise,” headed into the Antarctic to deliver goods to a drilling platform, have the stakes raised beyond the hostile environment they’re already suffering. Between the cold, the sea, and the fractured relationships between some of the crew, it’s a wonder they’ve gotten this far. Once they’ve found themselves stuck in thick ice, matters only get worse. 

Despite MacLeod’s declaration as a “secular” horror writer, he’s now produced three heart-pounding thrillers, by my estimation. Sure, there are always horrific elements, but what we have here is a volatile stew of suspense and all-too-human mistakes. Whatever the mysterious (and thrilling) circumstances that bring the crew into a nightmare involving freezing temperatures, a progressively debilitating illness amongst the crew, and deteriorating relationships; it never ventures into declared supernatural territory, never gives excuses or explanations where none are needed. I’m loathe to compare authors, but this reminded me of Stephen King’s hallmark technique of creating an insurmountable, inexplicable situation to explore the human condition. It’s a technique that I think works best when the ending doesn’t spell out the “why” of the precipitating event. 

What happens in this story is a study in survival. The kind of perseverance required to survive one of the nastiest environments on Earth as well as some of the nastiest environments within human minds—all without being prepared for it. From the moment the story opens, to all of the crew’s subsequent decisions, the reader discovers more at every turn. The true nature of the situation is a breadcrumb trail sprinkled throughout the interpersonal chaos of the crew. What I think is especially well done is how the characterization has been smeared across the entire book along with the fallout of the event. It’s right into the final chapters that we learn about these people, treated with depth and care by MacLeod. There aren’t many quiet moments, but there are certainly many unexpected twists and turns and the scenes beyond the safety and relative warmth of the ship are terrifying.

Just heard: and the Anonymous Nobody by De La Soul

I came across an article recently where the hook was nostalgia's effect on the music industry. It featured several groups and De La Soul. Hip hop is as odd a duck as any musical genre. It got its start in the late 70s along with punk and metal, but didn’t really pick up a broader audience until the mid 1980s or so. Since I was bussed a little over 20 miles to school every morning, via Boston’s METCO program, I was blessed with seeing an entirely different audience discover music that I’d been aware of for several years. I remember one kid breathlessly asking me if I’d ever heard of “Rapper’s Delight” in 1984. The track was the Sugar Hill Gang’s biggest hit, released in 1979, but finally starting to see widespread release beyond “black” neighborhoods and radio. (I had a similar experience with George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.”) Regardless, hip hop has been around a while and there are precious few acts from hip hop’s nascent decade from 1980–1990 that are still recording and releasing albums to any acclaim. De La Soul is one of those groups even though it’s been nearly a decade since their last album. They’ve been releasing music in one form or another from the beginning. 

They’re known for both their quirky wordplay and their quirky sampling choices. In fact, it’s sampling that brings us this album. De La Soul have taken a revolutionary step forward in hip hop by hiring jam session musicians to go at it for a few hundred hours in order to build a royalty-free sampling library for the hip hop group. There have been plenty of acts who are as much a band as a rap group—The Roots comes to mind—but I can’t think of any who’ve done this. It’s sampling that makes it difficult to re-release rap albums with other labels.

With this album, De La Soul has freed themselves from relying on previously released artistry and, in so many ways, legitimized sampling. At the very least, they’ve established a new method of producing hip-hop music. And made a great album. It is, by turns, funky, discordant, and challenging.

Just read: "A Taste of Honey" by Jabari Asim

At one time, I’m sure there was only one genre of books because no one was the wiser when it came to whether or not a story was fiction. Then came the fantastic and, lo, we had two genres. It’s only gotten worse since then with all kinds of divisions. One of the biggest is “literary”—which I call “fiction.” And I don’t read very much of it, but when I do, it’s on recommendation.

This book came highly recommended and…it broke my heart. It made me laugh. It made me cry. I felt nostalgic and melancholy and it made me thoughtful and it rearranged some molecules in my brain when I finished. I one-hundred percent believe that this is what people who read fiction are looking for. They want a story that’s a roller-coaster of emotion that feels real, that provides insight into the human condition. The book is a collection of interrelated short fiction featuring a cast of characters interacting in one neighborhood. It’s period, 1968, and features a primarily African-American characters who provide particular insight into the layers of a culture that perhaps should never have existed and preservers in many ways to this day.

Read it and see for yourself.

Just saw: "The Little Prince" (2015 movie adaptation)

I love animation, comics, cartoons, and all the fantastical bits we come to know in our childhood. I can’t let them go and I never want to. This movie hit all my sweet spots when it comes to the medium. It was structured well, gorgeous to look at, had great voice work, appropriate music, and an overall design that enhanced the message mightily. It’s not a straight adaptation of the book, but rather a story within a story. The main narrative involves a young girl named Violet (Mackenzie Foy) and her hyper-focused and business-like mother (Rachel McAdams). In order to get into the “right” school, they move into a new neighborhood next to a house that clearly violates the norms of the neighborhood. The entire world, in fact, reflects the regimented sensibilities of adults.

All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

The occupant of the home next door turns out to be the Aviator (Jeff Bridges) from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’spopular novella, “The Little Prince.” Through him, in a series of what begin as flashbacks, we get a rendering of the original work (featuring the voices of James Franco, Marion Cotillard, Benicio del Toro, Paul Giamatti, Bud Court, Ricky Gervais, and Albert Brooks). All the more striking is the transition from the highly polished computer-animation to artistic and imaginative stop-motion animation during the Aviator’s narrative. Through him, the eponymous Little Prince is seen as a sort of young, cosmic, wandering being who provides both optimism and child-like curiosity, as well as sharp and insightful philosophy, transforming the Aviator’s life who, in turn, transforms his unnamed young neighbor’s life over the summer before school starts.

For me, the movie’s overall narrative embodied my overall personal struggle against the expectations of culture and society to maintain the interests and wonder of childhood. So many of the philosophical points of this film echo thoughts and sentiments of my own that the narrative moment where the girl has an adult situation forced on her, when all appears to be broken, I nearly couldn’t take it. Fortunately, the resolution of the film satisfied in a transformative and reasonable manner, very much to my liking. The elevation of imagination, embracing change without sacrificing childhood wonder, and bravery in facing the world with those memories, that experience. Very. Satisfying.

That this movie is the most successful, French animated film to date with profits over $30 million of its budget couldn’t find solid distribution in the United States is damning support of its particular narrative. It’s well done enough that any company wanting to make a dent in Disney and Pixar’s near-stranglehold on wonderful, animated movies should have picked this up and distributed it with vigor.

I remembered the fox. One runs the risk of crying a bit if one allows oneself to be tamed.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Thank the Sweet Mother Donut that Netflix took over the distribution and began airing it on August 5, just in time for me and my family to settle in and watch a brilliant movie.

Just read: "X's for Eyes" by Laird Barron

X's for Eyes, at its heart, is a pulp adventure. A kind of sci-fi-spy mashup with a slathering of bizarro across the whole thing. I think the author, Laird Barron, describes it nicely:

Set in the 1950s, X’s for Eyes follows the pulp-cosmic horror misadventures of Macbeth (14) and Drederick Tooms (12), scions of a Machiavellian corporate family.
— Laird Barron

The narrative itself is beautifully written and the entire story only suffers, if at all, from an avalanche of cheekiness. You'll hardly believe the two brothers, Mac and Dred, are as young as described, considering their proclivities. Or when they're emotionally distraught. When the reader needed to grasp the emotional hook for dramatic tension, it was sometimes hard to tell when the protagonists cared most or felt real loss. Perhaps it's been their lifelong training to inherit the villainous family empire that keeps them cool or the ruthless detachment of their family, in general. As protagonists, their primary attachment seems to be to each other and no one else because no one else can be trusted. Regardless, the entire read is a wild adventure lanced through with bizarre super-science and ruthless operators. I strongly recommend reading this novella in one sitting—something I'll have to do in the future—in order to get a comfortable grasp on the various opposing families and their alliances.

Musical Orbits: Teena Marie (1956–2010)

Teena Marie, "Emerald City"

Teena Marie, "Emerald City"

Prince was a massive talent, no doubt. That he was producing and selling music somewhere in the range of forty years or so, makes his presence on the scene both formidable and legendary. Just like millions of other fans, I’ll miss his music, but his death has me reflecting on others with similar work ethic and, occasionally, producing songs that somehow channel the spirit of Prince.

Today we take a look at singer and multi-instrumentalist Teena Marie (vocals, guitar, bass, piano, percussion). Not her entire body of work—worthy of your listening pleasure—but her seventh album, 1986’s Emerald City. Marie’s musical arch came by way of R&B, Jazz, and Rick James. Because Marie’s first album didn’t feature a portrait and it spawned a #8 single on the “black singles chart,” everyone assumed she was a black woman for the earliest parts of her career. It was a point of fascination in my neighborhood to wonder how a “white” woman could sound like that. At the time, there weren’t any others and plenty of folks grudgingly supported Marie’s work. (Once again, I know this is historically ignorant and limited thinking, but these are but some of the cultural shackles that need breaking.)

Overall, my race hasn’t been a problem. I’m a black artist with white skin. At the end of the day, you have to sing what’s in your own soul.
— Teena Marie

She was as commonly known as “Lady T” (the title of her second studio album) as her given name and sometimes referred to as the “Ivory Queen of Soul.” By her third album, she was producing all of her own work and by her fourth, found herself in a heated battle with her label over contracts and releasing material. Sound familiar, Prince fans? At the time, for a woman in her position, it was a rare thing indeed to be writing, producing, and singing all of her music. Her lawsuit agains Motown resulted in new law which made it illegal for record companies to hold an artist under contract without releasing new music.

Marie released Emerald City during the time Prince’s 1999 double album warped the R&B landscape. Considered controversial by her usual fans (again: sound familiar?), the album didn’t do as well as previous efforts. Regardless, she was in good company, at the time, with other acts riding the new music wave being defined by Prince. It’s not just the music that reflects Prince’s influence, at the time, but in both the lyrics and the concepts on some of the songs. Here’s a sample from opening lines of the title track:

It was the kind of sex you read about in storybooks/
where everybody showed but no one cared
And every time I looked into the monster of your face/
it seemed that I was gonna change the names

The second track continues the musical and lyrical trend, full of staccato or bright rhythm guitars, alternating high and low keyboards and bass. The entire album careens from big beat, electro-keyboard driven dance mixes to modern Jazz and back with Rock influences in the guitar solos, all with Marie’s signature classic R&B torch singing.

If you’re a fan of Prince, this record is well worth checking out.

Musical orbits: Beck

Prince was a massive talent, no doubt. That he was producing and selling music somewhere in the range of forty years or so, makes his presence on the scene both formidable and legendary. Just like millions of other fans, I’ll miss his music, but his death has me reflecting on others with similar work ethic and, occasionally, producing songs that somehow channel the spirit of Prince.

Beck is up first. He’s been in the public eye since the release of his first album, Odelay, in 1999. (Appropriate year, no?) Beck is a multi-instrumentalist and musical chameleon with influences all over the map. Despite those beneficial similarities to Prince, and the worthiness of checking out Beck’s oeuvre, I want to focus on the one album of Beck’s that stunned me as a sort of artistic homage to Prince: Midnight Vultures. Beck considers his fourth album to be more R&B than anything else, based on some interviews I’ve read. As far as I’m concerned, it may as well be a Prince album produced by Beck. Track after track match the offbeat R&B that Prince performed so well—even the falsetto vocals. Except it’s all filtered through the Becktionary, a cultural mash-up machine he uses as a brain. Since Beck’s background starts about twenty years removed from Prince and on the west coast, he has incorporated hip-hop and Latin stylings from the region into his repertoire. If you haven’t yet heard the album and you’re a fan of Prince, you won’t be disappointed. Check it out.

http://amzn.to/1YrxYdn

Beck, Midnight Vultures

Beck, Midnight Vultures

Next time, we visit Emerald City. ;-)

Prince, 1958–2016

My last post on this blog was in March. I didn’t intend it to be that way. Life got hard, as it does, and Prince died. Life ≠ Prince, but Prince's music was a significant part of my life. Rather than lament life’s twists and turns, I’ll just tell my Prince story and get on with doing the creative things as often as possible.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when music became a serious interest. I’d have to guess I was around thirteen, just getting used to the idea of high school, completely ignorant of the oncoming problem of after high school. Up until that moment, I’d been using my mom’s cassette-tape recorder, pressed up against an old radio (on top of my grandmother’s old black and white television, in my room, naturally) to record songs I liked. It was the kind of recorder that lays flat and you had to push two buttons for it to record.

Like this thing, but so much cooler.

Like this thing, but so much cooler.

This was during a time when there were multiple radio stations playing songs by people who were actually musicians rather than this handful of corporations who own radio stations all over the country. It was a bit tricky to hear the songs you wanted because there was so much on the radio and not nearly as much repetition as there is today. I don’t recall recording any Prince tunes, but I do remember begging my dad for a record player. It was a Yorx turntable with external speakers from Lechmere or Sears. Silver motif, smoked cover, it’d be considered “vintage” today. It was crap. I loved it.

My Yorx was something like this low-grade beast. I didn't have an eight-track player in mine, however.

My Yorx was something like this low-grade beast. I didn't have an eight-track player in mine, however.

My next task was to beg for cash so that I could buy an album. This, of course, led to Prince. The very first album I ever bought was his double-LP, 1999. (The second was Vanity 6, but that’s another story.) I played that album to death, wore grooves into it with my cheap needle and heavy turntable arm. That made it difficult for any other turntable to play it. Which was fine, because everyone had their own copy.

The title track for 1999 tore up radio stations in Boston, whether they were pop or R&B. Based on that single alone, expectations for the album were set, and anyone who’d been aware of Prince to-date was in for a surprise. 1999 feels like a logical progression from Controversy, which followed Dirty Mind. His first two albums, Prince and For You, are cut from a different cloth entirely. And the experience of a Prince album is always a mixed and ever-evolving bag. One minute it’s a funky, danceable, big beat and radio-friendly track like “1999.” The next is something like “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” or “All The Critics Love U In New York.” Like a new friend, every Prince album took time to understand, to enjoy, to relax with. And since I was an aspiring artist, it led to stuff like this.

Prince, circa 1984. Anyone who was cool looked like this. So, no one was cool. (Except Prince, he was cool.)

Prince, circa 1984. Anyone who was cool looked like this. So, no one was cool. (Except Prince, he was cool.)

Like all the other kids in my neighborhood, I was steeped in R&B, Funk, and Hip-Hop. That meant Rock, New Wave, Punk and other genres of music went unheard or—to our detriment—culturally scorned. I remember a phase of life where everyone seemed to be of the mind that any music featuring guitar was “white” music and being associated with anything “white” was a capital offense. Absurd and historically ignorant. Prince wandered into the musical corner we’d somehow painted ourselves into and swung that guitar like Thor’s hammer, scattered people all over the musical map, forcing an exploration to understand this sound that he was developing in plain sight. Prince was a musical genius, no doubt, and delving into his influences is a bridge too far for me. But I am going to take a crack at those influenced by Prince, musicians who come from the same circles or have, in some ways, adopted the musical journeyman ethic that Prince embodied. 

Stay tuned…

Primitive Art

Since opening the tee shirt shop online, I've been poking around my hard drive looking for past dalliances that I might repurpose for tee shirt artwork. I started flipping through my daughters' artwork that I'd scanned for safekeeping when I came across this one. (My eldest really enjoys art.) They were studying "primitive art" in her fourth grade art class and she painted this postcard-sized, black and white design which I have since colored and touched up. Primitive is now available in the tee shop, I am quite proud to announce. The first of several upcoming collaborations with my daughter, I hope!