be somebody: tom ripley & the electronic persona

 "I'd rather be a fake somebody, than a real nobody."

-Matt Damon as Tom Ripley
The Talented Mr. Ripley

"I don't care for BS. I don't care to hear it, I don't care to speak it."

-Philip Baker Hall as Alvin MacCarron
The Talented Mr. Ripley

 Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.
-Proverbs 22:29

In 1955, American author Patricia Highsmith, living abroad in Switzerland, published The Talented Mr. Ripley, a novel of death, assumed identities, and American expatriates living a martini-fueled, sun-soaked existence in Italy. It's all swimming along until Tom Ripley, the awkward, slightly murderous, slightly insane American hits the beaches of Mongibello and wreaks havoc.

The film and the novel raise the ages-old question of identity, and Tom Ripley’s obsession with being “a fake somebody” rather than “a real nobody” is now at play 60 years later within the tendons of online society in the Facebook Era. 

As a smallish nobody figure of American literature, Tom Ripley was a hapless piano tuner, small-time grifter and tax-frauder, who in the dank recesses of a Manhattan bar meets the successful Herbert Greenleaf, who hires Tom to travel to Italy, to convince his prodigal son—Dickie—to return to New York.

Booking Cunard passage to the Mediterranean, he at last feels as if he's on his way. He arrives in Italy, ready to meet Dickie, a 'friend' he has never met but has made-believe he knew at Princeton, a school he never attended. In his stateroom, he begins his meticulous assembly of his new existence.

And of course, it all goes south. Dickie has no desire to return to America. Tom’s vague homosexual attraction to Dickie, along with his warped sense of rightful destiny, drives Tom to kill Dickie in a boat off the coast of San Remo. Further, after dumping Dickie's body in the sea, Tom assumes his identity and absorbs his passport, sport shirts, and pinkie rings. Tom Ripley becomes Dickie Greenleaf—he changes his voice, his posture, and his hair. Even his own inner thoughts become those of Dickie’s. He fashions an identity after watching Dickie closely, and Tom Ripley fades into memory. Tom is now a “fake somebody” and begins the good life he never had as a “real nobody” slumming it in rented rooms and busking small-time schemes in New York.

Spoiler Alert: he gets away with it. Nobody is really the wiser, which begs the question, who made Tom Ripley? How did he become who he became? The ingredients of Tom Ripley are the same things that make all bad men go from bad to monstrous—broken homes, damaged childhoods, abuse, and unfulfilled potential.

Maybe this is why we secretly root for Tom Ripley.

Many of the prime users of the Facebook Era are the children and offspring of the Divorce Age—Generations X, Y, Millennials and later—whose identities were torn asunder after the fabric of their family lives disappeared, starting in the 1960's-70's. Tom Ripley was the same. Orphaned, and raised by an aunt who deemed him 'a sissy,' he embarked upon a young adulthood in which he would fashion for himself an armor, a persona, a mask with which to deal with the pain—the pain of abandonment, of dissolution, of a life without affection. This identity allowed him to become a leech, an ingenuine, a killer, while ever believing he belonged to another class, another strata, another society. He deserved something better. He deserved to be somebody, even if it meant artifice and deception to become that somebody.

 The postmodern, post-industrial world has taught us that we’re all ‘somebody,’ that we all have the chance, the right even, to make a splash in the world. Advertising, luxuries, and Western thinking have cemented this for us. Andy Warhol confirmed that we would make waves, even if the ripples smoothed out after 15 minutes.

 Enter Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. We have the chance, however contrived, for each man (with internet access) to make his splash. Our audience is willing, and cheering for us. They are ‘friends’ mostly, and have an interest in us, but is it friendship, or the parceling out of digestible daily entertainment units? Our online life represents neat pieces of diversion for our followers (i.e. ‘he usually posts something funny, what will he say today?). Similarly, Dickie asks Tom to move in with him in Mongibello because he’s a daily diversion—he’s strange, he’s tidy, and he’s somebody that can fix drinks. Like a good coffee table book, Tom Ripley is a curio, a conversation-starter. Tom and Dickie are ‘friends’ whose friendship is built on a contrivance, yet they both seem okay with it.

 We seem okay with it too.

Yet, what have our online identities afforded us? The idea that our regular homespun lives are infused with wisdom, wit, and excitement? The possibility that we are not just at a dinner party, but that at said party is an audience of 100, 200, even 600 'friends' who are in rapt desire over how our beef was prepared?

 What are our online personas, our electronic alter-egos? While they may not be the outward embodiments of our ideals and dreams, nor Tom Ripley-level deviance, they are toned-down, rated PG modules of the yearning things that lie within. What else would drive a person to photograph their dinner plate as if it's newsworthy?

With Social Media we have at last found a way to make our lives more interesting than they actually are. Further, the beauty of our ‘new’ lives is that they are the same lives we always had, but they’ve been dressed up and made pretty, and been stuck up online for all to see. The theatrics of this process have become addictive to us as a society, and rather than examine the true inner content of our lives and the lives of our friends, we examine the delivery, the packaging, the click-moment, the assumed identity. We see the pinkie ring, not the man.

Are we not, in the electronic age, repeating the weirdness of Tom Ripley—the call of the everyman that longs, just for once, to be thought of as important, classy, valued, and loved?

 "Lying sideways atop crumpled sheets and no covers
he decides to dream...
dream up a new self,
for himself"

"I'm Open"
Pearl Jam

poem for steve joh

thank you underpants, for your elasticity

thank you zinfandel, for your velvety mouthfeel

thank you calvin klein, for your sheets, jeans, fashion separates, and tablecloths

is there anything you can't make?

cars, probably.

anyway where was i?

thank you tivo for your magic-box ghost voodoo

thank you bicycle for making that stripe on my butt when it's rainy out

thank you Camry trunk for holding basketball, soccer shoes, mandolin, postmodern theology books, and food
thank you Camry accelerator for not failing and killing me

thank you bacon for being bacon, obviously.

meeting mickey

meeting mickey

I’m not sure how many people remember their preschool years the way Rye and I can. Maybe it’s a bit unhealthy, this clinging to the past, this attachment to things that happened in life not long after we had learned to properly use a toilet. Nobody really talks anymore about what a wicked collection of Hot Wheels they had. Nobody talks about what it felt like to find a really awesome stick on the ground, one that you could drag along a fence all day long making that perfect, percussive da-da-da sound.

It’s sad, really. In many ways I felt more on top of things between the ages of two and six, than I ever have since. Probably because life was so impossibly immense, that you knew your place in it; stay close to you parents (they have the money, food, car, toys, etc.), stay away from dark areas (closets, mysterious cars), and try to find a good stick.

It was simple. Eat the crust of the sandwich, don’t touch electrical stuff, don’t use bad words, don’t go on the roof, and don’t mess up the pillows on the nice couch in the living room. There was little space for illusion. We were so very small, the thought of even surviving to live as long as our parents was an absurd assumption. Not because we were living in wartime or something, quite the opposite in suburban Silicon Valley (what was it called before the silicon?). It was just that life was so very big, and we were so diminutive, how could it last? Rye and I used to be absolutely certain we would be beaten up by big kids, run over by trains / cars, electrocuted, drowned, or just left somewhere accidentally before we were sixteen. Sounds morbid, but it was just kid-logic; we are small, and there are a great many large and dangerous objects around that we don’t stand a chance against.

Keep out of harm’s way, don’t fight with your sister, try to find a good stick. 

Oh, and listen to The Monkees as much as you can, because they are absolutely the greatest band to ever walk the earth.

meeting mickey

Every kid needs a soundtrack. Most kids are capable of creating their own, but a little inspiration never hurt. The Monkees were the perfect band for a kid—the tunes were catchy, the themes were innocent, and the guys in the band were likeable. For Rye and I they were the entirety of our rock and roll world in the preschool universe, and there was nothing better. An aunt had left The Monkees’ first two LPs (The Monkees, and the aptly titled More of the Monkees) over at my house and from that point on nothing but Monkee-rock ruled the soundtrack of our lives.

I was partial to “Mary, Mary” and “Sometime in the Morning,” and Rye preferred the harder edge of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” and “Last Train To Clarksville.” We both, of course adored “Gonna Buy Me a Dog” and would roll around on the carpet in hysterics at the sheer comic brilliance of it. I’m not sure we were the target demographic for The Monkees, but the art cut deep to our souls.

Rye and I spent our time running wild about the neighborhood, humming Monkees tunes, looking for good sticks, smooth rocks, and the occasional lizard, none the wiser to the fact The Monkees shows we watched on television were reruns, and The Monkees, if they had ever been a real band, had splintered years earlier. We didn’t have the concept of ‘break-up’ in our understanding yet. Why would a band as totally awesome as The Monkees ever break up? They all lived together, rode motorcycles, had a firepole inside their house, got into all manner of hijinks from week to week, and also just happened to be the most kick-ass rock supergroup in the world. How could it go wrong? We hoped we could be so lucky as to grow up and live exactly like them.

I once sent a handwritten letter to the fan club address on the back of the record in an effort to join. When the letter came back, I thought they must have moved to a bigger office.

My favorite Monkee was Mickey. Like every young boy, I was partial to the drums, and I loved the way Mickey’s voice sounded, so smooth and thick, like there where two of him. On the show he was clearly the leader, the frontman, and also the funniest. He was zany in a charming way. The girls loved Davey Jones but his songs were crap. We always picked up the needle and tried to skip over ‘On the Day We Fall in Love’ and ‘I Wanna Be Free.’ Even at the age of six, we could identify these offenses as sentimentalist pap aimed at young girls. Mickey’s songs had edge, verve, swagger. Willingly or not, I sported a bowl-cut hairdo just like him. Then again, every kid in the 70’s sported a bowl-cut like Mickey Dolenz.

Rye was partial to Peter Tork, mostly because there was a shot of him riding a motorcycle indoors during the opening of the show. Rye had a big green plastic motorcycle that we could ride (only outdoors, much to our chagrin), so whoever was on it while we were ‘playing Monkees’ was obviously Peter.

We both liked Mike Nesmith. With his skullcap and southern twang, he was a likeable Monkee, but lacked the mysterious allure of Peter, or the command of Mickey. I think it was the hat. Nobody can be taken completely seriously living in LA wearing a ski hat at all hours. When we tried out for a talent show lip synching to ‘I’m A Believer,’ our friend Ray wore his toque and played mike Nesmith. We weren’t asked to be part of the show.

meeting mickey

Our days were spent in play. In our neighborhood in the late seventies, we roamed the streets, parks, and sidewalks without care, worry, or fear. Well, there was always the fear of mean dogs who had gotten out, and big kids on threatening skateboards and bmx bikes who were always (we thought) looking for someone to beat on.

It was idyllic. Our adventures were simple, yet the world seemed so grand that finding a new tree to climb, at the top of which you could see a faraway building, or highway 280, was a revelation.

We played Hot Wheels in the dirt. We made bike jumps in the dirt. We collected rocks. We walked the municipal creek behind Murdock Park and found pieces of bottles that had been smoothed over by the water (we called them ‘sea glass’ – ‘creek glass’ just didn’t sound sexy enough). We rode our bikes everywhere. We ghost-rode our bikes down hills and made them crash into each other. We played hot lava tag at the big park. We played tackle football and were smeared with grass stains and the smells of earth. We were on a constant mission of the outdoors—pools, backyards, parks, streets, neighborhoods, trees, bushes, blacktops, and open spaces—these were our domain. All this was done to the sounds and songs of The Monkees swirling in our heads and through the 4-inch speakers on our Zenith television sets. We didn’t think we’d survive to get our driver’s licenses, but our lives were rich. I think we must have known it then. The only burning question we asked was to call each other up and ask,            

“Can you play?”

meeting mickey

Then, one day, it happened.

Rye’s next door neighbor was Gavin, a high school kid who used to babysit both of us, and our sisters. He had a gap-toothed smile, a loud laugh, manic hair, and was probably a little too young and a little too wild to have been babysitting anyone, but we worshipped him nonetheless. He had a pachinko ball machine in his room, zebra-striped sheets on his bed, and drove a lowered Datsun 510 around the neighborhood at breakneck speed. He was the embodiment of cool, of age, of wisdom, of everything we thought we were too little to reach.

Gavin’s parents had a yellow speedboat in their driveway that Rye and I would play on, even though it was forbidden territory. Upon clambering around the vessel in our underwear playing superheroes (because superheroes wore their underwear around in public), we were always swiftly reprimanded by Rye’s mom.

On this particular day we were messing around on or about the boat in the driveway and Gavin sauntered out in bare feet, running shorts, and no shirt, his gold chain swinging lazily around his neck. We exchanged our usual pleasantries and asked him what ultra-cool stuff he had been up to.

“The usual, dudes. You know, Matt and I were riding dirt bikes yesterday at his mom’s place up off of Skyline.”

Dirt Bikes. Our imaginations swooned at what it must have been like to live even a mere moment in the World Of Gavin. When he asked us what we were up to, we told him the truth—we hadn’t been riding dirt bikes, cruising for girls, or playing with chemistry sets. We had been digging in the dirt with sticks, playing on his parents’ boat, and listening to The Monkees.

“You guys are always listening to The Monkees. How old are you now?”

We were six. Rye and I were born a week apart.

“Okay, you’re old enough now. Come upstairs.”

Gavin turned and walked toward the house. To be welcomed into the inner sanctum of Gavin’s Room was a holy occasion. Gavin was not only mega-cool, his room was an absolute wonderland. He was into building models, and his room was filled with the work he’d done—‘57 Chevy’s, Corvette Stingrays, WWII battle scenes, even displays of two model cars crashing into one another and melting. Very boss.

We weren’t sure what the crux of this particular visit would be. We would often just play pachinko for a while until Gavin had to get in his Datsun and tear away on the next errand of coolness. This time though, he sat down on the zebra-bed and said simply,

“I know The Monkees are your favorite band, and they’re a good band, but you guys need to start listening to The Beatles.”

“The What?” I asked. I loved Gavin, but he was impinging on a pretty sacred milieu.

“The Beatles, man! Haven’t you guys ever heard of The Beatles?”

“You mean like bugs?” Rye asked.

Gavin sighed and turned his attention to the stereo, which, like everything in his room, was big, shiny, adult, and awesome. He popped in a cassette and hit play. The speakers hissed as he cranked the big chrome volume knob to the right. What came out was a noise that transformed Gavin’s room to a symphonic hall, full of wild sounds, color, and people. Then the drums came on with an earth-moving shudder, and the walls of the house seemed to move in and out with the cones of the speakers.

It was the intro of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I was six.

Gavin laughed, wide-eyed, air-drumming and bouncing on the zebra-bed as he watched our minds split open. “It was twenty-years ago today…”

“The Beatles, man!” He laughed louder.

The sound was frightening to me. The power and clarity of the drums was overwhelming. You could hear everything. Maybe most of that was attributed to the sheer volume of Gavin’s hi-fi, but on most Monkees albums you had to strain to hear anything but the singing. On certain songs, they had neglected or simply forgotten to record certain instruments like the bass guitar. The Beatles not only had bass guitar, they had about 65,000 other sounds I couldn’t name. The music seemed so wide, so spacious, so echoey, my little brain didn’t know what to do with it. The pachinko balls in the tray of the machine rattled and danced with the vibration of the music.

“Gavin!”

Gavin’s dad roared through the doorway letting him know that a friend had swung by to pick him up. Gavin leapt up, turned the stereo off with a click, and left two preschoolers standing there with their perceptions altered forever.

“Guys,” he chuckled. “Welcome to The Beatles. I’ll make you some tapes.”

He patted us on the shoulders and flew out of the room.

meeting mickey

“So, what do you think?” I asked Rye later before he went into his house for dinner.

“I think we’re having spaghetti.”

“No, what do you think about The Beatles?” I clarified.

“They are good,” Rye said. “At least I think so. They sound weird, but I think they’re good. I think I like it. If Gavin likes it, it must be good.”

I paused, probably looking down, developing my shyness even there with my best friend.

“Do you think they’re better than The Monkees?” I asked.

And there it was—the question that hung over the precipice, seeming to dismantle the small, relatively ordered world we’d come to know. The answer threatened to push our understanding and life into a different paradigm. The doors of perception were creaking open.

“No WAY,” said Rye, and for a moment I was relieved. “Nobody beats The Monkees.”

I walked home. Rye didn’t seem as shaken as I was, but even the houses I’d passed a thousand times on Ora Street now looked bigger and more brightly colored. I had gone over to Rye’s earlier that day with an understanding of things; we would mess around, play with cars, have lunch (eat the crust), play on Gavin’s boat even though it was dangerous, and maybe watch some TV. Our parents loved us, we should look out of for cars when crossing the street, and The Monkees were the best band in the world.

Now, the big, unknown, dangerous world that lurked somewhere beyond the known borders of our neighborhood loomed a little larger, a bit gloomier, and in that knowledge a little boy began to slowly creep toward the fears and weirdness of school, reality, and life. There was a world-weary wisdom in The Beatles’ music that suggested what awaited when we got older. There was, and I still feel this way, an immense darkness to The Beatles—a heaviness that seemed to brim with the reality of life. The Monkees were a celebration of ignorance in the face of the realities of life, thus they were safe.

Did a young boy realize all this walking home for dinner in 1977? Of course not, but even after that two-minute sample in Gavin’s room, something inside me revealed that not only were The Beatles better than The Monkees, but I was awakening to what most of the world already knew, and cared not—The Monkees were a joke.

Consequentially, part of what I understood music to be—a safe, happy, rocking place of joy and silliness, was actually something more real, more spacious, more grown. I was scared. If this was what real music was, what was real life like? We knew it was threatening. Every 16mm public-service film we had watched in school said as much; don’t get in cars with / accept candy from strangers, don’t eat the apples you get on Halloween, don’t watch too much TV or you’ll go blind. Once, a big kid told me if I ate too much sugar and candy I would die. While that is, I suppose, empirically true, I believed him until I was in the sixth grade and tried to limit my candy intake accordingly, something a well-meaning kid should never do. The world was opening up, and as the crevice widened, it made the pneumatic sound of sucking childhood and innocence away. 

meeting mickey

 True to his word, Gavin made tapes for us. They were white cassettes from PayLess—60 cents for a pack of three, and they were basically ‘Gavin’s Greatest Hits of the Beatles.’ It was a mix of all the different periods of the band, which was confusing to me. There was even some Paul McCartney / Wings stuff thrown in there, which of course complicated things even further. From song to song they almost sounded like completely different bands altogether. One track would be a jaunting, bubbling pop affair sounding remarkably like The Monkees. Next, the singer would sound like he had sucked on a helium balloon and had summoned a chamber orchestra and bagpipe group to backup the band. Sometimes the music sounded incredibly old, like something coming through a 40’s radio. Sometimes it sounded like something from The Muppet Show, or India.

It was all so weird and exciting—so much so that it felt dangerous. Something within me resisted telling my parents that Gavin had given Rye and I a couple of tapes and I was now listening to The Beatles. We were turned on. Listening to The Monkees was always a recreation, something to pass time while we waited for the next adventure, the next trip to the store with our moms, or the next friend with a swimming pool to call. The Beatles were academic and scary—the stuff of fast cars, cigarettes, and the wild fog that gathered at the borders of our safe, kind neighborhood. We would throw The Monkees on anytime; while we were playing Lego, Hot Wheels, or just hanging around in the living room, watching the dust drift in and out of the beams of light from the windows. The Beatles we would put on and just lay on the floor and dig it.

Rye almost immediately turned against The Monkees, stating aloud that the Beatles had clearly surpassed them and trampled upon their polite corner of the art world.

I protested.

The Monkees remained my favorite band. I knew The Beatles were riskier, but I held a spot for The Monkees because what if, at the end of if all, listening to The Beatles turned out to be bad for you? We were always hearing that good things, when taken too far, became bad. It was part of what made the world so ominous—swimming pools were heaven, yet you could drown in them. Candy was another slice of the celestial, but it rotted your teeth and might, according to big-kid logic, kill you dead. If we weren’t careful, we might drift into something we couldn’t get out of, like a Johnny Quest villain caught in the quicksand.

Further, I wasn’t ready to yield the throne that The Monkees sat upon to this new band who had obviously stolen many of their best musical ideas. They must have been a flash in the pan that would flame out and disappear. The Monkees had been around forever, at least for the six years we had been around. They were like old friends. The were practically like our parents.

Rye thought The Beatles were from San Francisco. Our neighborhood-based world would allow for the fact that San Francisco was the closest big city, and in fact the only big city we had been to and for sure knew existed (my grandmother used to take us up to The Franciscan to watch the fishing boats ease in and out of the wharf, while introducing us to the weird pleasures of seafood). Logic followed that The Beatles must have been from ‘Frisco, the capital of ‘out there.’

It wasn’t until a few years later that I began to adjust to the truths about The Beatles. They had basically invented pop music and set the template for all rock and roll bands. Not only had they existed before The Monkees, but the Monkees were a blatant, relatively lame marketing attempt to cash in on the sound, look, and attitude of The Beatles, going so far as to hire young actors who weren’t even musicians (at least initially) to play the roles of the four American mop-tops. Both The Beatles and The Monkees were defunct long before I was even born, and I wondered how many Monkees fan club requests had been ‘returned to sender’ just like mine (probably not many). Finally The Beatles were of course from England, a place I’d never really heard of or expected to go to, because someone had told me it was further away than Hawaii.

It wasn’t until many years later that I would make a certain peace with the two bands that had shaped my childhood musical landscape, and in turn became my two main musical influences. It wasn’t until years later that I began playing music, singing in bands, and generally becoming a music person. It wasn’t until years later that I would have the chance to meet Mickey Dolenz, lead singer of The Monkees, in person.

meeting mickey

In my early twenties I got a job at a tiny video production studio where we made short films for churches. It was a strange job and an emerging business, and since we fancied ourselves ‘in the film industry’ even from our tiny office in northern California, 400 miles from ‘the film industry,’ we decided to go to Sundance one year.

It was beyond freezing.

Having grown up in California, I thought the phrase ‘Sundance Film Festival’ somehow meant that even though it took place in Park City, Utah, there would be some pocket of warmth brought over from LA. It was not to be. It was so cold even my nose hairs were retreating to parts unseen / unsmelled. I went with three friends—Travis, the guy I worked with at the studio, and Wendell and Jay, who were sometime actors in the videos we made. We drank whiskey openly in the street to keep warm, like we were in a western or something.

On top of the cold, we couldn’t get tickets to anything except a documentary called ‘El Valley Centro’ which was a succession of fixed-camera shots of tractors, crossroads, and fruit trees, which lasted two hours. At one point, Wendell, who was never afraid of speaking his mind at inappropriate moments, addressed the screen, and the entire theater, directly when he asked, “What is this? I don’t even understand what this is! Why are we even watching this?”

We weren’t exactly the players of Sundance—we were out of our league and had crashed the party.

But, on our final night, the guy we were staying with, who we barely knew through Jay, said he could get us into ‘the party’ when he got off work. It escapes me now who was actually throwing this party, but it was at the resort hotel owned by Robert Redford, and the guest list was exclusive. Needless to say, ‘four guys from California freezing their asses off sharing the same bottle of Knob Creek’ were not on the guest list. We snuck in through the kitchen.

Techno music blared. Everyone was hip, looking at these five guys with red noses and wet hair who had just spilled out of the kitchen. Jay found the best looking girl in the place and instantly locked her in conversation. I recognized Michael Stipe from R.E.M. on the dancefloor immediately. He was dancing kind of like a dork, and he really didn’t seem to mind, because let’s face it, he’s Michael Stipe, rock and roll singer. He looked small, as famous people often do in ‘real life,’ and I noted he was dancing with a woman who looked like she might have been related to him.

I boogied a little bit on the floor, really just to get a closer look at Michael Stipe, rock and roll singer, and to confirm that yes, he did in fact have a tattoo of a brick on his hand. I boogied toward the bathroom and blew my nose twenty times and came out and that’s when I saw Mickey Dolenz, my childhood hero.

Travis came up beside me with two drinks and handed me one.

“I can’t believe it, that’s Mickey Dolenz,” I said, staring at him in wonder from across the room.

“The Monkees guy?” Travis asked. He was a few years older than me. Usually if I mentioned one of The Monkees by name I had to explain myself. Travis knew the drill, and also a little about my Monkee-obsession.

“You have to go talk to him,” he said, laughing.

“I can’t not talk to him,” I said. “I practically worshipped the guy when I was a kid.”

Mickey was talking to a woman. He still had that boyish smile, the quality that probably landed him the gig on the show. He wore a white shirt and sipped a drink and smiled politely. His hair was long, thin, and curly, He looked older in the face—puffier yet more gaunt, and his temples made giant, deep crows feet when he smiled. He shook hands with the woman and she disappeared into the party. Mickey Dolenz stood there alone, sipping his drink and casing the room; The man who fronted the greatest band in the world. The man whose albums had outsold even The Beatles in 1967; Mickey Dolenz, lead singer of The Monkees.

“Nobody’s talking to him,” Travis said.

“I know,” I said. “It’s kind of weird, and sad. Why aren’t people mobbing him? He was the damn lead singer of The Monkees!” I was getting butterflies.

“Dude, go talk to him now.” Travis gave me a gentle shove.

“Mickey!” I called from twenty feet away. I decided to go in big.

He looked around and up and down in a comedic way, almost like it was 1966 and he was rehearsing a bit for the show. I walked over.

“Hi Mickey, I’m Kevin Marks. It really, truly is an honor to meet you.”

“Hi, nice to meet you,” Mickey Dolenz said.

We shook hands. He was cordial.

“You’ve been a huge influence on my life. This is really weird that we’re here talking now,” I said, searching for the words to describe all that had gone before.

He smiled and nodded like he’d heard it thousands of times.

“I’ve gone on to play a bit of music myself, and you are big reason for that,” I said.

“Well thank you very much,” he said. Behind his crows feet there was probably a brain thinking, “Here we go again. Where is that girl I was talking to?”

In order to try and pinpoint my appreciation, I tried to describe my preschool years with Rye.

“When I was six, my best friend and I loved you guys. Then an older kid turned us on to The Beatles. My friend liked them almost immediately, but you guys remained my favorite band. I stayed true. I loved The Monkees!”

He smiled politely, nodded, and raised his eyebrows. The subtext of what I had said was a subliminal drama he had probably danced around at every party since he was 22. Here was Mickey Dolenz, lead singer of The Monkees, a band that had gone from being a worldwide smash, to a joke, then on to occupy a certain esteemed place as an important artifact of pop culture as the first manufactured band created for a TV show that went on to become a real band and won an understated piece of musical real estate in people’s hearts and minds. I was trying to tell him that to me, as a kid, they were bigger than The Beatles, and as my first love, they still were, but it was coming out wrong. He said nothing, probably because he couldn’t have begun to describe the pain and weirdness of such a strange, exultant, yet embarrassing public life as his, just like I couldn’t explain the momentousness of that moment. The big world was trying to collide with the ideals of a child, and it wasn’t working.

I tried to change the subject, sort of.

“So what are you up to now, are you making any music? I think I read that you were producing or something,” I offered, trying to show I wasn’t a fair-weather fan.

“Films. I make films now,” he said, as if trying to close the door on The Monkees forever in one sentence.

“Fantastic! So do I!” I offered. It was coming out all wrong. I had tried to communicate that I liked his band better than the Beatles, yet we both knew that the Beatles were clearly better than his band. Now I was simply trying to identify with him, and let him know that I was into film as well, but it felt like I was tearing down his achievements and poking fun. I felt like the Johnny Quest villain hovering over the sinkhole.

I suppose it was fitting. In front of my childhood hero, here I was acting like a child. I thought for a moment that only if I was six I could truly communicate the true scope of his drumming, his hair, his art.

Instead, we talked about his film, the details of which escape me now. It might have been a coming-of-age drama, it might have been a documentary. We talked about how it was doing in the festival, and what his plans were if the film got picked up for distribution. He reiterated that he would go on to make more movies, as that was the world he was embroiled in now.

We never talked about music again. We never talked about The Monkees again. We shook hands and I told him again how big an influence he was on me. He was polite and kind and smiled, and when I left him there wasn’t another fan waiting to talk to him.

meeting mickey

I never stopped listening to The Monkees. I sort of rediscovered them in college, when I happened upon a yellowing cassette of their debut album in a used record shop in Los Angeles. Putting that tape in my car stereo was visceral. I could smell the woodsy must of my old house, hear the lazy sound of the expressway beyond our back fence, and feel the bigness of the world as Rye and I laid on the shag carpet with nothing to do, just passing the time, digging The Monkees.

I found that my eyes were welling up. I realized that, without knowing it, I had crossed over. I was now part of the giant outside world, I was out amidst the scariness beyond the neighborhood. Like the mysterious city of San Francisco, I passed through a world that the childhood me never thought he’d see—driver’s licenses, girlfriends, paying for your own haircut, and a host of other adult concerns.

Now I have a son. On my 37th birthday I put on the two-disc reissue of The Monkees’ debut album after picking it up on my annual solo birthday trip to the record store. Even though he was a year and half, I tried to explain to him everything I have here; about how The Monkees were my favorite band when I was a boy, and how Rye and I would lip synch to them with tennis rackets for guitars, and how I met Mickey Dolenz before I met his mom. I didn’t tell him that I always found it kind of sad to meet Mickey, and that there was really no way to have such an interaction with Mickey Dolenz and not sense at least a little regret. If he had been really gung ho and proud of his tenure in The Monkees, it would have felt sad and worn, too.

I didn’t talk about the big world outside, about where life takes you, about how frightening and exhilarating it all is, and how on some days it would be nice to just be a young kid looking for a good stick. 

I just put the music on loud and we laughed and danced together in a circle around the room.

cigarettes & wine

cigarettes & wine

 

Back in 1997, when Radiohead released OK Computer, a friend of mine said something about it that I've never forgotten. This happened during a period when everybody who played three chords on a guitar, everybody in the music press, and everybody who wasn't into the Spice Girls was blowing a collectively toxic cloud of sunshine up Radiohead's arse. It was well-deserved. Ok Computer has gone on to become the reigning album work of art of the last ten years. 

Anyway, I ran into this friend of mine at a show, circa 1997 when everyone's mind was in the process of being blown by Thom Yorke and Co., and he said of their magnum opus;

"It makes me believe in music again."

Since then, I've gone back to this phrase over and over, to test an approve what is noble, what is righteous, what is holy in rock and roll. Does it make me believe in music again? Obviously the answer is usually 'no it surely does not.' 

We tend to trudge through pop music, by and large. We accept what we hear. The machine spits it out, and we listen. Some of it is OK. Most of it is well-intended garbage. Every now and then, something rises to the surface, like green foam on a municipal creek, that makes us believe again.

Not to get all Disney on you, but I've come across a song that will make you believe again; "Cigarettes and Wine" by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. I don't mean 'believe' in the Bono-sense, like "We can change the world! Everybody out of their seats! Get your phone out and text your congressman! Rise up!" Don't get me wrong, there is a place for that, but in the quiet, contemplative moments, we need songs, we need music that lights us up, that reconnects us to our brothers and sisters. We need songs like "Cigarettes and Wine."

First a word about Jason Isbell. He used to be in a group called Drive-By Truckers. This is a group that will make you believe. Explore. Now. Go.

Okay, you're back. Un-snap your Western shirt and go take a shower.

Okay, you're back again. You see what I mean. Drive-By Truckers is/was a group with, count 'em, three amazing singer-songwriters in Jason Isbell, Patterson Hood, and Mike Cooley. These guys are the real deal. They are musicians, and there is no back-up plan. There is no community college degree, no landscaping business back home, no wives with money. They sing, play guitars, grow beards, and drink Jack Daniels on stage. They are southern rock people with frightening talents.

Surprise surprise, they didn't all make it. You can guess why, although I don't know the official reason. Imagine what it's like to be in a band with three Stings, all drinking absurd amounts of whiskey every night, and living in bunk beds on a motor coach. Do the southern rock math. It couldn't have lasted. At least they didn't splinter in an air crash like you-know-who.

Jason Isbell left Drive-By Truckers, but he soldiers on. He released a serviceable solo album in 2007, Sirens Of The Ditch. It's not bad; very polished, lots of auto-tune on the vocals  (don't ask me why anyone would want to clean up a voice as beautifully damaged as his). This year, with a new band, brings us to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. 

This is a darker, more subdued record, but four songs in, oh hold onto your seats my friends. Get ready to believe again. "Cigarettes and Wine" is the stuff of legend. A countrified monster that at first glance is a harmless love-and-loss ballad, but on repeated listens just gets its hooks in you and won't release until you feel yourself singing the high harmony part at full voice in the car.

cigarettes & wine

 

Let me say this, if you're one of those people who say 'I don't like country.' I feel you. Believe me. 'Country music' has been abused and roasted on a spit. Americans have betrayed a truly American art form by turning it into a pop monster that came out of Nashville, ate our brains and confused us with things like Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks. This is one of the art-tragedies of our age and we stood around, watched and did nothing. When Johnny (Cash) died, a friend of mine gave me a black t-shirt that simply reads, in white text, 'Country music is dead.' You wouldn't believe how many perfect strangers stop me on the street to disagree. The heart of country music burns in the heart and conscience of American people. I'm not talking about white people and Ford F150's here, I'm talking about anyone who lives in America. Country music is OUR story. Everyone's. The Mexican-American's, the Lebanese-American's, the Korean-American's, the African-American's, etc. etc. and on and on. This is folk art, and we are the folks, if you know what I mean.

Listen to Marty Robbins. Listen Jim Ed Brown. Listen to Bob Wills. Listen to the Sundowners and the  archival stuff on Bloodshot Records. Listen to Johnny Cash. Hell, even listen to Ryan Adams or Centro-Matic. I'm getting off the mark here. Listen to Jason Isbell! Listen to "Cigarettes and Wine." People, believe!

A final note. Don't give this a passing listen and go "oh, that's a country song, I'm not into that." Get yourself a good set of headphones. Not the stupid white iPod earbuds. Throw those in the trash now. Spend some money on something that goes over your ears and doesn't make you look like a silly middle school student with their first iPod Shuffle. You are an adult and you are serious about music, so get a nice pair of headphones. Do it now.

Okay, you're back. Wait 'til everyone in the house is asleep or watching Dancing With the Stars. Put on "Cigarettes and Wine." Absorb the story. Hear how the players hold back until it's their turn. Feel how the song inhales and exhales with the verses and chorus. Hear Jason's voice, subtle but accenting all the consonants clearly so you can get the full picture. Close your eyes and see the characters; Screwed-up people like you and me. It's country music, so you might also see The Boar's Nest from The Dukes of Hazzard.  That's okay. Keep listening. Keep hoping. Keep believing.

 

Saw her in Roosevelt Spring
where time doesn't touch anything
She never did say she could sing
But I figured it was so

I needed some company then
Not sisters or children or men
That's a hell of a spot to be in
But she put me in tow

Money and liqueur and lust
have taken my heart and my trust
I could see ashes and dust
headed my way

She tended bar in the town
her alto settled me down
so i started hanging around
didn't need much to say

She smelled like cigarettes and wine
She kept me happy all the time
I know that ain't much of a wife
But it's the God's own truth

She lives down inside of me still
Rolled up like a twenty dollar bill
She left me alone with these pills
And the last of my youth

Wings on her shoulders and feet
The bar on Gethsemane Street
I took time to plan my retreat
and backed out the door

I must be attracted to those
Who've witnessed a man in the throes
of life that ain't grindstone to nose
but pedal to floor

She smelled like cigarettes and wine
She kept me happy all the time
I know that ain't much of a wife
But it's the god's own truth

She lives down inside of me still
Rolled up like a twenty dollar bill
She left me alone with these pills
And the last of my youth

Lost on the dry side of town
My memory slowing me down
She shook me and I came around
I came back to life

With nary a mother or dad
She showed me what I never had
A princess of leaves, she gets sad
'cause I won't take a wife

She smelled like cigarettes and wine
She kept me happy all the time
I know that ain't much of a wife
But it's the god's own truth

She lives down inside of me still
Rolled up like a twenty dollar bill
She left me alone with these pills
And my smoldering youth

She left me alone with these pills
And the last of my youth

shock / horror / call / response

It is indeed a time of great hope and promise in the west; new voices heard, new possibilities afoot, and change waiting in the wings (maybe). President-elect Obama's campaign catchphrase is a powerful collective cry whatever your affiliation; 'yes, we can.'

Election years are always bubbling pots of divisive accusation mixed with hand-holding multi-partisan feel-goodery. The phrase 'yes, we can' could be a rallying cry that could send waves of justice throughout the land, or it could be an empty marketing slogan, disappearing into the night air the moment the lights went out in Grant Park.

Put aside, for a moment, your thoughts of the holiday retail attack, General Motors, and the weird zoot suit / 20's gangster outfit Matt Lauer was wearing on the Today show this morning, and consider this; there are more slaves in the world today than at any point in human history.

Musician and filmmaker Justin Dillon (formerly of one of the most underrated roots rock groups of all time, Dime Store Prophets, and more recently of epic pop group Tremolo) has orchestrated a documentary film of great courage and intensity unearthing the hidden death culture that is modern day human trafficking and sex slavery; Call & Response (www.callandresponse.com).

This is a film that uses music to tell the story of the 27 million people whose voices can't be heard from the brothels, factories, and homegrown militia camps that imprison them. The sheer gore and scope of the subject matter is enough to leave you haunted for days, but the righteous anger it awakens is a fire guaranteed to warm your holiday spirit if that rum toddy isn't doing the trick.

Civil War-era slaver was abolished without any of the technology and interconnectivity we enjoy today. The charge is simple; resist the temptation to digest the rampant fearmongering we're subject to and become an advocate for real change, an antidote for real problems, real pain, and real hurt.

Retail will survive. The ten-year old girl raped daily in a dank brothel in Mumbai may not.

Call & Response will make you ashamed to be a part of the human species, but this film and the issues it raises are proof that the problem is fixable. It requires a shift in orientation in our spending decisions in the west, as well as the ever-necessary reassessment of human value . Slavery and trafficking could be eradicated with the money and resources Americans spend on Valentine's Day in one season. We hear stats like this all the time, but where do we start?

Start by going to see Call & Response. If it's not playing near you, dig into the website and see how the new abolitionist movement is taking shape. Also, check out the partial soundtrack album on iTunes. Buy buy buy! No studio or distributor was involved in the making of Call & Response, so all proceeds go back into the movement.

This Christmas, make the change. Move the movement. Resist the machine. Respond.

dark knight of the soul

dark knight of the soul

"The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness." 

-Joseph Conrad

Batman on film has come a long way since the ill-fitting tights and beer gut of Adam West. The Batman franchise has been dragged into the piazza of public consumption numerous times over the past  70 years or so. In live-action, The Batman has enjoyed a recent and memorable renaissance, since Tim Burton's Batman of 1989. But, leave it to Hollywood to beat a good idea into near-death. 

Here's a quick recap for those of you who haven't attended a summer blockbuster in the past 20 years:

Batman: Directed by Tim Burton, starring the unlikely Michael Keaton as our hero, and the very likely (at the time) Kim Bassinger as the love interest. Oh, and Jack Nicholson as The Joker.

Batman Returns: Clever title, Tim Burton again, Michael Keaton again. Michelle Pfieffer as Catwoman, and inexplicably, Danny DeVito as something.

Batman Forever: Ah, the Val Kilmer era begins. Jim Carrey, and his green jammies, as The Riddler. Directed by Joel Schumacher.

Batman & Robin: Ah-ha, the George Clooney era begins, before he went all 'art.' Featuring California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as 'Mr. Freeze.'

(then, a well-deserved eight year break from Batman on film, which brings us to...)

Batman Begins: Now, the Christian Bale era - a pretty solid film which is actually a martial arts movie in the first act. Then, there is a scarecrow guy who blows hallucinogenic bad breath...

(and finally....)

The Dark Knight: More Christian Bale, more Morgan Freeman, the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, and a Batman motorcycle with really really fat tires. 

So who cares, right? Since 1978's Superman: The Movie, American films have returned often to mine the deep vein that is the superhero genre. The themes are often the same (good vs. evil), the budgets large, and the audiences ripe for pickpocketing. The Dark Knight, should have been just another summer blockbuster and done what big superhero movies do; sucked in a bunch of cash, cross-marketed some plastic crap at Taco Bell, and disappeared from memory entirely, like Halle Berry's performance in Catwoman.

What's startling, however, is that The Dark Knight is ultimately a film about absolute evil, much like 2007's No Country For Old Men which happened to win the Oscar for best picture. Perhaps not startling in itself, but let's consider how many people went to see The Dark Knight.

To date, the film has made $949 million in returns. For those of you keeping score at home, that's almost A BILLION DOLLARS. Let me unleash my junior college math skills on you now. Let's assume that most people payed $10 to see Christian Bale and Michael Caine rap about absolute evil and which Kevlar suit to wear to best beat up on it. That means that nearly 100 million people worldwide have watched The Dark Knight. It's success, more so than with usual summer blockbusters since this was not 'a kids' movie' and wasn't rammed down the throats of parents via the usual kid marketing channels, was based largely on word of mouth and person to person recommendations. So, filmgoers en masse saw this rather disturbing film about evil and then mentioned to their friends that they should check it out.

NOTE: The Dark Knight  is still about $100 million shy of Titanic, which represents a problem with the arguments here, but I digress...

So, usually I hate it when people talk about box office returns for films. Nobody did this before Jaws and Star Wars, but now we seem to be addicted to what a film makes, especially on the ever-sacred 'opening weekend.' Who really really really gives a crap? What are we supposed to do with this information? Jump up and down for the lead actor who got two points on the gross? Art should never be quantified by money, but it often is, especially since the films that make it to your local multiplex take millions of dollars to get there.

Yet, let's look at the storyline of The Dark Knight. Our hero, Bruce Wayne, who's parents were murdered at gunpoint when he was a boy, inherits his father's fortune, and avenges the depraved city of Gotham at night wearing a complex battle suit outfitted with bulletproof alloys, rubber ears, smart weapons, and a radiation-resistant codpiece. Yes, Batman started as a comic book in 1938, but this is not your grandfather's Bruce Wayne. This one has studied tae kwon do with Liam Neeson upon the far eastern tundra. This one plays the stock market and enacts multilateral international business to finance his nocturnal ass-kicking. This one drops into parties via helicopter with TWO women.

The real star of the film is, of course, The Joker. Here we have the ultimate figure of evil, who as a result (we think) of a scarred childhood (literal and figurative) is a true anarchist, sycophant, and psychopath, gleefully adept at unleashing terror of every variety and unprejudiced malice and injury upon anyone in striking distance. Why? Just because, that's why. He blows up hospitals, he kills members of his own gang, and implants cell phone bombs in the torsos of unlucky simpletons. The real question, put to Bruce Wayne in a heart to heart with Arthur, his butler / tailor / valet / grandfather / obi-wan figure, is how to march out against an evil that has no motivation other than to enact evil. How to beat the devil at the very game he invented?

The answer given in the film is incomplete, because there is always next summer; the sequel, but Arthur suggests to burn down the forest where the devil lays his head at night, because for some men, a sinister motivation doesn't satisfy their hunger, it only creates a desire for more evil and violence. The answer for Bruce Wayne is to become the monster that so easily kills without prejudice. Batman, a creature of the night anyway, becomes now 'the dark knight,' assuming the blame for the evil unleashed upon Gotham by The Joker, in order that faith be restored, and the fear that grips those who walk home in the dark can at least be alleviated by knowing that the police are back in power, and are now chasing the bizarro Batman / savior figure for his crime of turning against those he had sworn to protect. 

On the one hand this is very basic superhero plot logic of good and evil duking it out in the streets. On the other hand, the villain, in the most subtle, brilliant moment of the film, actually begs to put out of his misery by Batman--a moment perhaps missed by most viewers due to the skidding presence of the very-radical-bat-motorcycle. The Joker, having a shred of a soul, has nary a shred of hope, and thus nothing to lose--the most desperate of men, the most dangerous of villains. We've all seen the movie where the bad guy has a gun to the head of the love interest, and counts to three, or she's dead. The Dark Knight asks, why bother counting to three? If you have the capacity to kill, then be done with it. This is the new bad guy, a new villain for a new millennium. There is no weakness, there is no mercy, no soft, smooth underbelly, like the whimpering Vader with his helmet off in Return Of The Jedi, looking like someone's balding uncle Frank who just fell down the stairs.

This is the biggest film of the summer, then. This is the film that has grossed nearly a billion dollars. This is the film friends are telling friends to go see. Have you met anyone who hasn't said The Dark Knight  was 'awesome?' Why are we gravitated to it? Why does a largely unresolved story of evil and the largely unsuccessful attempt to stop it resonate with us, and with mass culture? How is it that this very serious, very adult subject matter crept into what is usually the most vapid, dumbed-down season of film in the country? What does it say about our times, living amidst banking collapse, ongoing war, energy crisis, and the Bush doctrine that we suddenly identify, en masse, with the idea that there may be a force of evil among us bigger than the monster under the bed? Are we coming to grips that our collective achievement has made us no safer from calamity?

Don't answer yet, first let's rewind to last year's Coen brothers adaptation of No Country For Old Men.

dark knight of the soul
 

No Country is Cormac McCarthy's most accessible novel by a long shot. On the surface a rather straightforward tale of a drug deal gone wrong, a regular joe stumbling upon the bloodbath, and the psychotic hitman sniffing his trail. Enter the ailing sheriff Ed Tom Bell, nearly retired, who (like Batman) marches out against supreme unmitigated evil armed with not much more than his polyester police slacks and a 1980's Ford Crown Victoria.

Chigurth, the hitman, the embodiment of evil in No Country, kills not without prejudice, but rather because he possesses a perverted logic of evil that drives his every move. Again, taking the bad guy that counts to three to task, Chigurth vows to not only kill the man that crosses him, but extends that vengeance to family, wives, pets, employers, even mothers-in-law. Why? This is the central question for 'the good guys,' who in this movie happen to be aging country cops and vietnam vets living in trailer parks in rural Texas. Who will win? Here's a hint; not the guys on horseback.

No Country For Old Men  is surely McCarthy's tale of his own displacement as an aging white male, watching the growing weirdness rise in the east, wondering how any coming generation will be able to stomach, much less survive, the growing tide of perversion and evil that seems to bubble to the surface with each passing homicide and newspaper article. The Coen brothers have always had a healthy respect for the logic of violence, and how it translates not only into engrossing drama, but how it serves as a signpost to what filmgoers are comfortable with at any given time in their cultural context. The human foot sticking out of the woodchipper in Fargo had an incredulous, overdone black humor to it. In No Country for Old Men, no one is laughing.

Evil as theme in film is of course nothing new. Evil as summer blockbuster is not even new. Griffith's 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation, arguably the first-ever Hollywood blockbuster, focused on the Lincoln assassination and portrayed the Ku Klux Klan in a positive light. Try turning that into a kids' cheese-wrap-sodium-log Whopper meal at Burger King.

This summer, though, the good guys aren't winning, and the lines between what's good and what's a weirdo in a jeans jacket killing everyone in sight with a cattle plunger, are blurring. These are, without irony, desperate times. Javier Bardem's haircut is perhaps all the proof we need. Evil, in all it's perplexing costumes, is a theme we now wrestle with in the culture at large, and like our real lives after the explosions have died down, there is no easy answer, no deus ex machina, no miracle weapon to march out into the forest with. There is only next summer.

One billion dollars and counting. No Happy Meal, no Happy Ending in sight.

one step beyond: the replacements live

one step beyond: the replacements live

Since I'm on about The Replacements at the moment, I thought it would be fitting to talk about the night I touched the hem of the garment, and saw them live back in 1989... 

In the liner notes for the reissue of Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, Dave Ayers describes The Replacements live as 'art in the raw.' I'd have to say that, having been fortunate enough to see them live, I agree. Or perhaps more accurately, The Replacements live were like 'art in the nude.'

I was first introduced to them around 1985, just after Let It Be came out, via a cassette my best friend made for me; Let It Be was on one side, and The Smiths' ubiquitous Meat Is Murder on the other. I liked the first song, "I Will Dare" instantly. The singer's voice was pleasantly raspy, the guitars jangly yet crunchy, the drums tight, the playing precise.

Yet, the second song 'Favorite Thing' was a whirlwind. What happened to the nice, subdued, ordered rock and roll, the clearly-defined separation of instruments, the mandolin? My adolescent mind couldn't file it. The shouting. The disorder. The mess. What in the world was it? It was punk. I was 13.

Granted, finding your way to punk via The Replacements is like stumbling onto Christianity through Jesus Christ Superstar, but while The 'Mats were not the originators nor the perfecters of punk, they were successful and acceptable purveyors of its wares. Even Amy Ray, the rocky, punky half of Indigo Girls (who's solo work is brilliant, I'm not even kidding) has said, "When I heard The Replacements, everything changed."

I think I could say the same. I got through side A and turned the tape over (as we did in the days before 'auto-reverse' - only rich kids had that) to enter the trebly world of The Smiths. It was probably some sort of divine act that a young mind was opened to The Replacements and The Smiths in one cassette tape. I'm lucky I survived. I suppose I was boring enough to not be sucked too far into the overcoat wearing clans at school that worshipped The Smiths (I grew to worship them in other ways in following years). Yet, to favor The Mats left no clear path. There was no wardrobe, no patches you could have your mom sew on your jacket, no stickers (you could, of course, scrawl their moniker on your backpack in whiteout, an honor i reserved for Camper Van Beethoven). I didn't know anyone else, beside my friend who made the tape, and a couple of hip older sisters, who liked The Replacements. They were an anomaly.

Fast forward a few years to 1989. I'm a senior in high school. I can drive. I've been buying The Replacements' albums ever since fully digesting Let It Be. I'm a fan. They've had their major label moment in the sun, and Don't Tell A Soul has just come out--by all accounts really the last 'Mats record. Even in my young age I sense the end is near. Somehow, years before the internet, cell phones, and text messaging, this 17-year kid finds out that The Replacements are coming to Santa Clara, California.

I'll go into this in more detail later, but from 1985 to 1990 there was a club in Santa Clara called One Step Beyond, owned, I think, by a displaced Englishman named Stan Kent. The bands that came through One Step Beyond, and an utterly forgotten suburb of San Francisco, were unreal. How Stan Kent got Sonic Youth, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Ramones, The Untouchables, Fishbone, Jane's Addiction, PIL, and, er...Wang Chung to come to Santa Clara is beyond me, but all I can say is a heartfelt thanks. Most, if not all of the shows were all-ages, and on this particular night afforded my first and last chance to see The Replacements live.

Me and two friends got in my 1972 Chevy Vega (oh yes), and drove to a nondescript strip mall in an industrial area of Santa Clara. I can't remember what time of year it was, but in those days I had taken to wearing wool sweaters and turtlenecks, and was adorned as such that night. With no fake ID and no money even for a coke, we stood around, waiting. Whoever the opener was, they were missed entirely or forgotten immediately.

Then, the stage lights dim, and out walk four of the most shopworn people I'd ever seen. They looked like they'd just had a 'band meeting' and all was not good in the family. Plus, they were drunk already. I was shocked at their appearance. Since The Replacements were huge in my world, I figured they had been taken care of financially, bathed regularly, and fed at least a couple of times a day. They looked gaunt and tired, like they'd been performing in crappy rooms like this for the last 8 years. Westerberg's hair looked like a home for doves and other dumb birds, and his round sunglasses suggested John Lennon gone wrong.

And off we went.

The music was insane. The Who always claimed they were the 'loudest band on earth' or whatever. I've seen The Who twice (okay, I've seen three people who were in The Who...), and they were nowhere near as loud as The Replacements. In an instant, the room turned into a whirlpool of spinning, punching, slamming, jumping, falling, and trampling. Bodies were everywhere. My friend Ricky grabbed my sweater with both hands, as if hanging on for his life, and looked at me with eyes like saucers. He said something, probably 'O my God!' 

We had never seen anything like it.

one step beyond: the replacements live

Naturally, fearing neither our lives nor our hearing at 17, we jumped into the fray. It was all limbs, sweat, and bones knocking together. A half hour in, my wool sweater was soaked with sweat and had shrunk to a size fit for a dachshund. We were pushed to the front. A stage dive was out of the question for me that evening, as I had lost one of my Birkenstocks running to the front door, but I saw both of my friends have a go, leaping from within The Replacements like flying lunatics. It was so loud there was a shrieking sound beyond the music, like an alien frequency screeching from within the brain, like something from a Star Trek episode.

I was so dehydrated I tried to lick my own eyeballs for moisture. Onstage, The Replacements were tearing through their material, and several perspiring bottles that I assumed contained ice cold beer. I was jealous of their talent, verve, and their refreshments. Paul, out of boredom, or some deep punk aesthetic, had begun to shout / scream the songs rather than sing them. This was emo ten years early, a primal bloodletting in art that could only be described as earthshaking by its sheer ferocity and frank dumbness.

By the end of the show, the members of the band were visibly making fun of each other onstage. During 'They're Blind,' the rhythm section was aping their now-sincere frontman--a guy singing soul-searching songs of angst from the point of view of outcast women, who used to write songs called 'Get On The Stick' or 'Gary's Got A Boner.' It was all unraveling. As the lights came on, Paul let his Gibson Melody Maker fall, ever so slightly, to the floor. The Replacements left the stage, and our lives, with a sad shuffle.

We made our way back to the Vega, probably legally deaf, and soaked through with sweat and the fluids of other people, now freezing in the night air. I started up the car and could tell by vibration alone that the ignition had caught. The ringing in my head was uncanny--an aircraft-grade puncturing of the eardrums reserved 'til that night for fighter pilots, astronauts, and MIchigan fans. When I tried to ask my friends if they wanted to stop at 7-Eleven for a Big Gulp, it sounded like a deaf person talking outside the car. They didn't hear a thing.

I had to watch the RPM gage to know when to shift gears, because I couldn't hear the engine. In 7-Eleven, I put my Big Gulp on the counter and asked the cashier how much. His lips moved, but it sounded like Hellen Keller with a bag over her head. The place was a silent film, the only noise pulsing from my brain, from 90 minutes of 'art in the nude.'

I was old enough, at 17, to know how music had shaped me, and how it would shape me in years to come. Lovers of music will go to many shows in their lifetime, but it always seems that the shows we hold closest to our hearts are the ones where we feel privileged to have been in the room. We never speak of the ticket price again. We're grateful for the hearing loss, the cuts, the torn clothing, and the beer that cost $8.00. For in those moments, we've witnessed history, and the opportunity costs are forgotten. To see The Mats in the 80's was to sidle up to the table of history and take a small piece of the pie, with a side dish of wit, sarcasm, punk, and mess.

The Replacements will always be 'the little engine that didn't quite' of rock and roll. Perhaps it's just as well. LIke a shrunken wool sweater and a Brikenstock sandal missing its mate, some things are best remembered with a tinge of regret.

aching to be: the replacements and revisionist history

aching to be: the replacements and revisionist history

It was inevitable. The tide of commercial appeal has finally lapped at the shores of The Replacements.

It only took just shy of thirty years; we should have seen it coming.

With the re-release of their four original Twin-Tone albums, and the necessary reunion gossip / subliminal marketing / magazine articles, the nagging question always comes up;

The Replacements were the perfect band, why didn't they destroy the world?

Now the truth can be told. They were indeed the perfect band. Their failure at world destruction only makes them more powerful. Yes, like Obi-Wan, their lack of chart-destroying superiority only makes them more perfect, more true, more at one with the force, glowing in the forests of Dagobah.

This is all, of course, an oversimplification of what drives what we now know of as 'alternative music' or 'indie rock.' People who care much too deeply about these things (like me, and you, Young Skywalker) find a band they like. They glob onto this band. They inch their black glasses up on their nose, scratch their chest from outside of their line-art tour t-shirt, and secretly hope that "The _______s" will rise to power in a totalitarian ball of telecaster fire and and annihilate everything that pop culture stands for, finally bringing order and balance to the galaxy.

Yet, there is a point, where The ________s get popular, get on a couple of TV shows, do a thing on Morning Becomes Eclectic, and they inch closer. They play the bigger theater in town, then, that guy at work four cubicles over, who also likes Coldplay, likes them now. They do a weird thing about fashion in a magazine. It makes us feel funny. It makes us feel uneasy. It makes us feel like we are dancing with someone's mom.

LIke reading The Catcher In The Rye  for the first time, getting 'into' a band makes us feel like the band was made just for us, and no one could possibly understand how deep this new river flows, like the teenager who's found new love telling his friends "THIS is different." 

"You, are LAME," his friends say. But this is why we listen to music. 

Let me be frank, transparent, and honest and give a few recent examples

The Killers came out a few years back. It was nice to hear a bit of the 80's rock influence, and I thought we might have another cultural period in which it was okay and even expected to write songs about breaking up with girls in the rain, on verandas, and 'in the city.' They made a serviceable debut album. I saw them live in a tiny club. They played for about 70 minutes because that was about all the songs they had. Then, you know the rest. They opened for U2 and make a sophomore album on which they sport mustaches and cowboy clothes...

A great guitar band called Editors comes out of England. I am a sucker for English guitar bands. Great singer, once again, great 80's thing happening: dancey, dark, subtle. I see them at a small theater. They are brilliant. They cover 'Road To Nowhere,' which was on the first cassette i ever paid money for. I am in love. Then, second album. Lyrics are bad. Lyrics are very bad. A magazine does a story on them, but it's not really about them. It's about their jeans...

Okay just one more. Even longer ago, an English band called Coldplay emerges. Their debut is a largely acoustic, almost folky affair, with some spacey electric guitar. Tasteful falsetto, not too long, extremely promising. We expect great things. Upon second album, Coldplay somehow inexplicably eclipses Radiohead who were next in line for the job of GIgantic Meaningful Band, and half of humanity falls in love with Coldplay. The other half of humanity throws up in their mouths simultaneously.

aching to be: the replacements and revisionist history

The point is this; everybody laments the fact that The Replacements never got huge, but in reaching so high and not making it, they cemented their place in rock perfection. They made it to the majors, then imploded. They stayed little, but not too little. If your favorite band doesn't progress, at least a tiny bit, that's no good either. It reminds you a bit too much about the dead-end job you work at, or the same person you've been dating for years. We crave change. We want advancement. The Replacements hit the sweet spot. They were gross, messy, loud, punk, and drunk. Also, brilliant. They advanced, they progressed, and stayed the same, while their art became more sophisticated, and never lost its sheen. (okay, All Shook Down was kind of weak...)

Their adolescent nearsightedness made them poetic. I think my sister said it best after seeing them on Saturday Night Live in 1986; "They are weird."

Of course they were. They always will be. With the re-releases and the surrounding hoopla, much will be written about how The Replacements have finally come into their own, and history has been made right, critically and professionally. Well, history is already right. I know Paul Westerberg is sitting somewhere saying,"Yes, but i have a mortgage and a car payment..." 

So, they will probably tour, without Chris Mars and obviously without Bob Stinson. Everyone will say that now, here, finally, The Replacements have triumphed. They are appreciated, they are at one with the force. Yet, the band with the most perfect career arc need not redraw the lines of their influence. History has already felt the impact from The Replacements' boot, and we will never be kicked in the ass like that again.

welcome to open cities

Welcome to the last thing the world ever needed. These are my important thoughts. Aren't they important? Aren't they interesting? Don't I sound smart? Welcome to my brain. Mind the gap and pack your trash please.

The first film class I took back in college was the ubiquitous 'History of Film.' This 10-week night class, with its heaving syllabus of twenty films that have gone on to be the most popular films shown in college at night, began a relatively polite love affair with Italian film, and my first exposure to Rosellini and company's Rome: Open City.

It's as bleak as you'd expect--a black and white world of post-war mayhem and confusion. Shot in 1945, it really was post-war. The Germans had left Rome a mere handful of months before the script was completed and photography began. Anderson Cooper would have been proud.

Like the film, the term 'open city' is a couplet of words i've never forgotten. Dictionary.com describes it this way; "a city that, during a war, is offically declared demilitarized and open to occupation, and that will consequently not be defended, in order to spare it, under international law, from bombardment or other military attack."

There were, lots, of commas, in that particular, definition, but the basic idea is that an open city is a city of chaos. Not simply in the sense of war, but in all senses. It represents a throwing up of the hands of the system that had sought to define the city. Normal city functions like streets, lampposts, trade, and currency cease to matter or even exist in the classic sense. It's an inbetween time, a gap between past and future. A time beyond anarchy where fear is rampant and contageous, but possibilty is endless...or not.

We live in open cities. Here at the beginning of the 21st century, the norm is up for grabs, ready to be siezed by the conquering army of ideals, or by the hollywood chat show with the most insider goo. We are inbetween what we knew to be life and living, and hoping our worst fears won't come true. Will the planet sizzle? Will the internet make it so i don't have to pee so much at night? Will Will Smith make another movie? Will anyone ever read what I write here?

Welcome to Open Cities.