Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Jack Chick, RIP

You probably remember where you were when you read your first Jack Chick pamphlet.
Pfft - EC comics are for babies!
I was in Madge Lake, Saskatchewan, at an extended family gathering/camporee. I would have been nine or ten years old. My younger cousin was reading them. She'd brought a few over from our grandfather's church. This Was Your Life! was one; Somebody Loves Me was another.

I remember because reading those pamphlets was like leafing through that magazine the neighbourhood boys had found in a ditch -- it attacked the brain-stem and sent electrical jolts that ran right down to the ends of my fingers and toes.

Many years later when I gave myself permission to watch The Exorcist and The Omen the biggest shock was discovering just how ho-hum I found it all. Chick and his nuclear redundancy tactics had got to me first, and reduced my capacity for emotional response to that of an insensate cockroach.*

Purgatory was one of many Catholic peculiarities that threw him into a frothing fit. Musing over the hot, writhing horror that grips the heart of Chick's message I have to wonder if this wasn't because Purgatory suggested a happier environment than the one Chick surveyed while trapped within his mortal coil.

Here's a terrific animation of Chick's Somebody Goofed. Trigger warnings galore apply to the content, as its fidelity to the source material is absolute.

*Not so, Rosemary's Baby. Jack Chick and Roman Polanski were on the exact same page.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Stewing over MSM coverage of my childhood hometown

Considering it was founded some 200 years ago by Mennonites hoping to quietly live on their own religious terms, the town of my childhood — Steinbach, Manitoba — has endured a surprising amount of "outside" scrutiny.
Does this windmill make my town look fat?
That our literati have a COMPLICATED (haw!) relationship with the place is hardly news. They place the little city in a fictive locale and give it a fictive name, then slag the bejeezus out of it. Deep wounds produce deep work, is the theory, and it seems to have manifested itself in these former neighbours from my past. The unfortunate corollary is that others who experienced their fellow citizens as compassionate but imperfect nurturers who sincerely did their best generally do not go on to write books that garner international notice.

But the town also remains a staple focal point for our cultural minders at the CBC. For years our national broadcaster marveled at the town's obstinately "dry" status, until they could triumphantly report on the recent rezoning that finally brought in a liquor store and one or two charming pubs with patio/sidewalk seating.

Most recently, Steinbach hosted its first Pride Parade, amid contentious local politics. I wasn't in attendance, but friends tell me the overall vibe was stratospherically positive. Lots of folks marching in public support of their LGBTQ family and neighbours, including several congregations whose position on a hot-button topic like gay marriage might still be considered oppositional.

It's some months after the fact, but coverage on the matter continues to peeve me. I've worked in the press, I know what a story-hunter has to do to make a buck. The easiest, laziest way to frame and sell a story is to pit one party against another, and "clarify" the issue by presenting its polar extremes (it's the temptation our literati face as well, not always successfully). Writers have their biases, and they don't often favour (language warning for the link ahead) "backwards" rural white folk of a socially cautious disposition. Consequently, we heard a pile of David and Goliath stories where everybody, including the slob at the laptop, thinks they're a David.

So no links to those ink-stained wretches who made a quick buck off the perceived spectacle. If you haven't read that stuff, you can find it in a heartbeat.

Instead, here is Josiah Neufeld, writing for The Walrus, doing an exceedingly decent job of giving you the inside scoop. It gets my highest recommendation. (Tip-o-the-hat to my aunt for bringing it to my attention.)

Friday, October 14, 2016

"Something is happening, and you don't know what it is ... do you, Mr. Jones?"

The freakin' Nobel Prize -- seriously?

"What a year ..."
Needless to say, my admiration for Dylan is of the decidedly guarded variety.

Really, there are only two other options on the spectrum -- the unguarded variety, or lifelong dislike. I'm not in the latter camp -- but those unguarded types (like the ones who gave the award), man, I dunno. They're a little unhinged, a little . . .

"JUST the Nobel?! Why, he deserves ... uh, is there something bigger?"

. . . well, let's be frank: one wonders if they're entirely trustworthy.

A little like the object of their devotion.

Good luck trying to capture what makes the man The Man, but I'd say a worthy start is reviewing the 1992 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in Madison Square Gardens.

That was one weird stew. Sinead O'Connor got booed off the stage, while Johnny Cash and June Carter bounced all over it like a couple of teenagers. Lou Reed sullenly crammed Dylan's 7/8 meter into a 4/4 rendering. Johnny Winter was so cranked it took him less than five minutes to rip through the entirety of Highway 61 -- twice. There were plenty of entrants that weren't nearly so jarring, of course. But the overall effect of the affair? Unsettling.

The proceedings gave all the adulation a big fat question mark, really, until The Man finally picked up his guitar, slouched over to the mic and sang, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)."

Now that seems at least somewhat definitive. The music without the man is, almost always, a wannabe effort.

And the words without the music are this close to nonsense.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Flying Saucers Are Real!

Cory Doctorow provokes me to cogitate, as is his wont, this time with his enthusiastic (I didn't really need to type that, did I?) blurb for Jack Womack's Flying Saucers Are Real!

The Flying Saucer meme of the '50s to late-'70s was, sez Doctorow, "once a major piece of the public imagination, but has subsequently sunk, almost without a trace."

The assertion is kinda-sorta true, so far as it goes. UFOs do not occupy public discussion to nearly the same degree they did when I was a kid. My theory: The X-Files, followed by the George W. Bush years, pretty much put that meme to bed for a very long nap.

The Truth is in here.
Chris Carter's massive TV success was built on a self-perpetuating suggestion: what if there exists a labyrinthine cover-up of global -- nay, interstellar! -- proportions, which our most dogged citizens can only scratch the surface of?

But then along came 9/11, followed by W's response -- followed by a market collapse generated by what must surely be the planet's craftiest collective brain trust -- and we witnessed precisely just how capable the world's most powerful governing entities are when it comes to "covering up" actual conspiracies. If you want to nudge that into interstellar proportions, the off-world participants won't just have to do the heavy lifting -- they'll have to do all the lifting, period.

I don't think the phenomena have disappeared -- people still see and experience all sorts of strange stuff. But the business of exploring "what it all means" has certainly been pushed to the extreme fringes of public discourse. Doctorow and Womack and William Gibson all seem a bit wistful in the wake of this societal shift -- as am I.

I bristle at the tone to some of this wistfulness, however: "A tour guide to a place lost in history" (Doctorow); "The only physical evidence of the advent of the UFO meme" (Gibson). I'm open to correction on this, but I sense something juuuuust a little self-congratulatory about these declarations, akin to Fukuyama's "The End Of History!!!" hooey: Praise be to Ganesha, today we are all (well, most of us, anyway) beyond such pedestrian but eminently fascinating silliness!

Mm, oooookay. If you dudes say so, it must be true. Here is the book; also, Neo-Gnostic Erik Davis interviews Womack for Expanding Mind.

Endnote: in the late '70s, at my adolescent urging, my pop indulged me to a UFOlogist's lecture at the University of Winnipeg. The lecturer worked for the planetarium at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature and was pretty much the embodiment of a very particular type: an energetically open-minded skeptic. He had logged an unfathomable number of miles checking out claims and interviewing claimants. Most of these "encounters" had logical/natural explanations, but there were also those exceedingly rare instances which he lived for: the claims that absolutely stymied him. The Falcon Lake UFO (in Manitoba!) was one such.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Ratted Out?

One of the more peculiar fetishes my generation* developed was a brief enthusiasm for the lounge acts of yore, embodied chiefly (but not exclusively) by The Rat Pack.
"Yeah, I quit smoking. Also drinking and singing. That a big deal?"
Some of this retro-resurgence was ironic. What other option was there? The older sibs had clearly exhausted all venues of shock and awe with their hippie-cum-punk antics. If "today's noise is tomorrow's hootenanny" why not just make yesterday's hootenanny today's noise?

It turned out that yesterday's hootenanny had undeniable flashes of astonishing insight and depth. Throw in the whole business of devoting time, energy and $$$ to putting yourself together for a swell night on the scene, and the intended ironies silently dissipated like a puff of unfiltered cigarette smoke beneath the city's neon lights.

It helped that the Chairman was the only survivor of the pack by the time we "discovered" them. He could oblige the noobs with another album or two of duets -- no-nonsense "that's a wrap" studio sessions that the listener couldn't help but suspect were finagled for bragging rights, not just for hungry up-and-comers, but for the fading legend himself.

It also helped that we were too young and blinkered to notice the moment these guys took a nosedive from being the Reigning Kings of Cool to residing for decades in TV's dumpster bin of mockable celebrity has-beens. Sinatra himself was a seemingly inexhaustible font of reliable cheap laughs for the comic talents of none other than Joe Piscopo.

I still listen to some Sinatra, if the mood strikes -- selections from the Capitol years, the entirety of In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning. Any given playlist I cobble together inevitably has one or two surprise entries from Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. And while I sure don't mind putting on a suit, you're more likely to find me wearing shorts until the snow starts to fall -- something Dino might appreciate, as he reportedly preferred blue-jeans to tuxes.

All this is brought to mind after reading Donald Liebenson's Vanity Fair account of When Jerry Met Dean -- Again, On Live Television. I can take or leave Liebenson's breathless account of a moment that amounts to little more than a well-played showbiz prank. But watching the footage of it (40 years ago; I was 11, the only Dino I knew was a barking dinosaur) was a revelation. Here it is:
Suddenly, Piscopo makes sense. The more Lewis recovers from the surprise, the more we see a listless reflex to Borscht Belt entertainment tropes taking over, all of it strictly Squaresville. Clean up the language a bit and dress these chummy goofs in felt, and you've got The Muppet Show. (And good Lord -- was there ever a lazier entertainer in Hollywood than Dean Martin?) Give the people what they want, of course -- by this time both the entertainers and the people in attendance were used to being called "square."

Nor, I imagine, were they much bothered by the denigration. If you brought the Boomers into this world, you basically shrugged this sort of thing off, and traded in kind -- or a lot worse. Hence the constant ribbing amongst the boys -- "It shoulda been a Jew" "You're not going Jewish on me" "Am I black? I didn't think I was dark," etc. Your hippie kids huff and roll their eyes at these exchanges, but what do they know?

Now that I think of it, these guys and their audience had all experienced military service -- if not directly, then indirectly. And the military mode -- still** -- is to point out potential personal distinctives in The Other, then, in ridicule, exaggerate them to such heightened levels of absurdity that the canard "truth in every jest" no longer applies.

Needless to say, this is not a mode we encourage as general public discourse in this day and age. There are reasons for that, some of them surely quite valid (it very quickly gets tiresome, for one thing). Still, I can't help but wonder if this rote sort of ribbing didn't deflate some of the very real tensions it simultaneously acknowledged and played with.

Final observation: the physical contact amongst these dudes! Long, tender hugs! Kisses! Soft touches to the other's cheek! My gen is so riveted to the Spectrum, it's all we can do to look up from our shoes and make fleeting eye contact.

One wants to exercise some caution when extolling the virtues of earlier generations. But still and all, a little extolling and, dare I suggest, judicious emulation might not be a bad thing right about now.

*Gen X, for those keeping score.
** Generation Kill, HBO's Iraq War drama, is a tutorial in the method, and makes this on-stage banter look like a Sunday School flannelgraph drama.