Saturday, February 28, 2015

Leonard Nimoy - RIP

During my first week of officer training, our flight commander asked everybody an unusual question - who is your favorite fictional character in either books, movies, or television?  One of the guys (who ended up being my roommate) responded 'Captain Kirk!' He gave a lot of reasons but it all boiled down to the Star Trek ethos of 'boldly going where no man has gone before.' He also cited that when all looked lost, Captain Kirk was always there to save the day.  Then it was my turn.  I said it was a toss-up between Sherlock Holmes and Spock.  To the guy who loved Captain Kirk, I reminded him that if it wasn't for Spock, Kirk would have a much tougher time saving anything.  He didn't argue with me.  How could he?  While Jim Kirk the Galactic Penis was galavanting all over space, Spock was the calm, cool, collected guy who had all the answers, even before the questions were asked.  I wanted to be the guy with all the answers, but I didn't have Spock's temperament (still don't).

A piece of my childhood died yesterday.  I found out about it right after I dropped off the rental car at BWI on my voyage home.  Leonard Nimoy was Spock.  I have been a Trekkie (not a 'Trekker' - there is a difference) since the very beginning.  I remember Star Trek before it went into reruns.  My dad didn't like me watching it because it was on at dinner time.  But I got to watch anyway.  It went into reruns and I watched every day after school.  Of all the characters, the guy with the pointy ears was by far the most interesting.  Or as he would say with one eyebrow arched, "fascinating."  He had the mind meld, and the nerve pinch.  For a young teenager, the nerve pinch was the coolest thing.  When Spock went through the Pan Phar, I saw him beat a computer screen to a pulp.  That was pretty cool too.

Spock was so iconic, even in the early days, that Leonard Nimoy wrote a book called "I Am Not Spock".  He didn't want to be typecast; he wanted to be known for other things besides Mr. Spock.  He was the guy who did the voice for "In Search Of..."  I saw him a few times on Mission: Impossible.  But alas, despite those other things he wanted to do, Leonard Nimoy would always be Spock to me.  For a long time during the 1970s there was talk of a Star Trek movie.  There was also talk Leonard Nimoy didn't want to do it.  Then from out of nowhere came a movie called Star Wars.  Now that sci-fi was big box office, and there was a built-in audience practically begging for a Star Trek movie, he got the call from Paramount and he said yes. 

 The Spock in Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a bit of a mystic.  He was going through a ritual that was to purge all emotion from him, as if he was trying to suppress his human side forever.  But at the crutial moment he hesitated.  He sensed the 'cloud' that was heading toward Earth had the 'answers' he was seeking.  This Spock was even more cold and calculating than the TV Spock.  The film did OK but didn't really meet expectations.  However, there was to be a second Star Trek film.  They threw him a bone which he couldn't turn down - would you like to die in this movie?  His death scene after he saved the Enterprise was a heart-ripper.  But you just had to know that Spock wouldn't stay dead.  After all, anything goes in science fiction, and Spock was resurrected for the third movie.  Leonard Nimoy got to direct that movie and the fourth, which completed the story arc started in the second movie.  He didn't direct the fifth movie, and I think it showed. 

After the sixth movie, I thought he was done with Star Trek.  Imagine my surprise when he appeared in two episodes of The Next Generation as well as the two latest movies in the "re-boot." It seemed to me that as Spock aged, he seemed more human.  But as we have seen, even Vulcans get older and slower, and even Spock can be "emotionally compromised."  As Leonard Nimoy got older, he learned to embrace his iconic character.  He wrote another book - "I Am Spock."

Leonard Nimoy played one more character on a show I liked.  The show was Fringe, and his character (seldom seen but always present) was William Bell.  He was the founder of a company called Massive Dynamic, which was at the center of everything fringe-ish.  He was the only character that was as brilliant as Walter Bishop.  Walter always talked about all the weird stuff that he and William Bell came up with, and there was a lot of it.  In the original Star Trek series there was one episode that imagined a parallel universe.  It was called "Mirror, Mirror" (it was the one where Spock had a beard).  Speaking of beards, there was a band not too long ago that called itself 'Spock's Beard.' But I digress... Fringe devoted most of its entire storyline to the existence of a parallel universe. I thought it appropriate that Leonard Nimoy was the guy "on the other side."

So now the guy who was one of my favorite fictional characters is gone.  First Deforest Kelly, the James Doohan, now Leonard Nimoy.  Zachary Quinto is a good Spock for people new to Star Trek, but for those who have been there since the beginning, Leonard Nimoy will always and forever be Spock.  He lived long and he most definitely prospered.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tony's Music Rules

Hello, my name is Tony Howard, and I’m a music snob… Yes, it’s true. I have very particular tastes. When I hear something I really like I’ll rave about it. And as an opinionated Scorpio, if I hear something that offends my sense of hearing, you might to hear about it, too. Over the years I’ve been collecting “music rules.” You might think of them as “music rants” and you would be right. This list is by all means incomplete, grumpy music guy that I am. Some of these “rules” are observations, most are opinions based in the belief that what I listen to rules. And I am a musically snobbish asshole - that's my wife's opinion... :-)

Tony`s Music Rule #1: The quality of the music is inversely proportional to the number of any dancers on-stage. If you have to have a lot of dancers on your stage to present your music in a live environment, chances are your music is crap. Good music stands on its own without having to divert the audience’s attention elsewhere. Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, et al – this means you.

Tony`s Music Rule #2: the terms "rap" and "music" are mutually exclusive. What is understood need not be discussed.

Tony’s Music Rule #3: “Progressive rock” is a euphemism for long-winded, pompous music without guitars. The worst offender is Yes’ Tales of Topographic Oceans [1974]. This is four sides [one song per side] dedicated to Hindu musings found in Autobiography of a Yogi. Zzzzz…. But King Crimson rules!

Tony’s Music Rule #4: If you go by a single name [Beyoncé, Madonna, Cher], chances are your music is crap. Refer to Rule #1 for these people.

Tony’s Music Rule #5: There are four exceptions to Rule #4 – Elvis, Prince, Adele and Sting.

Tony’s Music Rule #6: Steve Jobs and Apple did not kill the album – “artists” killed the album. The Beatles made the album an art form. They created lots of “deep tracks” that were good enough to be singles, but were not. Led Zeppelin did the same thing. Pink Floyd and The Who started telling stories that would take four album sides to tell. Today’s “artists” [and I use that term loosely] are lucky if they have 3-4 good songs on an album – the rest is filler. Would you want to spend $15 for an album that has only four good songs out of fourteen? No wonder people jumped at the chance to buy one song at a time [for $1 each] when Apple came out with iTunes. I can pay $4 for the songs I like instead of $15 for the ten songs I don’t like.

Tony’s Music Rule #7: If you shot to instant stardom on shows like American Idol, The Voice, or The X-Factor, chances are you are here today, gone tomorrow. There are exceptions [Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson], but can you remember who won those competitions last year? Didn’t think so… If you had to go look it up, you just proved my point.

Tony’s Music Rule #8: The term “soft rock” is an oxymoron. Pete Townshend once said that rock and roll can’t solve your problems, but it can let you dance all over them. Rock and roll is supposed to be boisterous, it’s supposed to be rebellious, it’s supposed to be fun, not boring. “Soft rock” is boring. If you’re gonna rock out, don’t be boring.

Tony’s Music Rule #9: “Turn me on, dead man…” If you’re hardcore into the Beatles, you know exactly what this means.

Tony’s Music Rule #10: To quote The Dude, “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles!” See Rule #8.

Tony’s Music Rule #11: It’s ok to fuck up when you’re playing live. That way, people know you’re real.

Tony’s Music Rule #12: Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Tom Waits can’t sing. And I don’t care…

Tony’s Music Rule #13: You can learn a lot about rock and roll from Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner. Trust me on this one.

Tony’s Music Rule #14: Today’s country music all sounds the same [unless your name is Zac Brown]. Back in the day, you had disparate country folk like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Charlie Pride, Waylon Jennings, and Glen Campbell, just to name a few [and that’s just the guys]. There was variety in the sound, yet still “country.” The “bro-country” of today – trucks, old dirt roads, wanted girls to get in their trucks, girls wearing tight jeans, etc. Ok, I stole that but relax – I have the same complaint about 80s hair metal, expect the bro-country guys don’t look like the use excessive amounts of hairspray. And like "hair metal", Bro country needs a Nirvana moment.

Tony’s Music Rule #15: Jazz. Sometimes it’s melodic.

Tony’s Music Rule #16: I used to think “every time I hear the Beach Boys, I thank God for the Beatles.” Then I heard Pet Sounds

Tony’s Music Rule #17: Stax is better than Motown…and I think Motown [up until about 1975] is great. That tells you what I think of Stax.

Tony’s Music Rule #18: Even though the Allman Brothers Band broke up last year, they’re still the best damn band in the land.

Tony’s Music Rule #19: Bruce Springsteen’s last great album was Darkness on the Edge of Town [1978].

Tony’s Music Rule #20: Despite there being a band recording and touring under the name “Lynyrd Skynyrd” [only one original guy left in the band], the real Skynyrd died when the Freebird went down. The Rossington-Collins Band is more “Skynyrd” than the current guys will ever be.

Tony’s Music Rule #21: Billy Gibbons describes guitar players he likes as “true Martians.” Jeff Beck is from Mars. Listen to his guitar playing and you’ll hear why.

Tony’s Music Rule #22: Bob Mould [the old Hüsker Dü guy] rocks out harder than any “punks” who dare use the name “punk.” You might have seen him on Letterman a couple of weeks ago. He literally rattled the rafters and shook loose some dust that had been there since the Beatles first played on Ed Sullivan in 1964.

Tony’s Music Rule #23: Steely Dan bores the hell out of me.

Tony's Music Rule #24: Opera. Some people like it.

Tony's Music Rule #25: Tony Iommi is a living god. \m/

To be continued...

Monday, February 16, 2015

Iron Maiden - Dance of Death

I had just started to get into Bruce Dickinson’s solo work, especially the albums Accident of Birth and The Chemical Wedding, when I heard he and Adrian Smith were re-joining Iron Maiden.  For the first time they were going to have a three-guitar lineup [Adrian Smith, Dave Murray, and Janick Gers].  I wondered how things would work out on that end, but when they released Brave New World in 2000, any fears I had of the band being an unlistenable mess were put aside.  Three years later, the band released the follow-up, Dance of Death.  Brave New World was a solid album for the band to reclaim their greatness, but Dance of Death is even better.

The last Iron Maiden album I wrote about [Seventh Son of a Seventh Son] was a first for Iron Maiden – a concept album.  Dance of Death isn’t a concept album per se, but it does have the underlying theme of death, destruction, war and pestilence running through some of the songs [Montségur. Dance of Death, Paschendale, and Face in the Sand].  For the first time, Maiden incorporated string arrangements into some of their songs.  They did that quite well.  Other bands should take lessons on how to incorporate orchestras into metal music, because Maiden got it right on this album.  Another first for Iron Maiden is an all-acoustic song.  Again, other metal bands should take notes – Maiden got this right as well.

Wildest Dreams – The opening track is Steve Harris’s exhortation to himself to get off his ass, “hit the open road” and quit moping around at home.  This is a very good rocker from Adrian Smith.  It’s a quick shot of adrenaline to start off the album.  I never tire of hearing it.

Rainmaker – I’m not sure if the lyrics are to be taken literally or if they are a metaphor for something else.  This is another short one, this time from Dave Murray.

No More Lies – Steve Harris said this one has a lot to do with The Last Supper.  I’ll take his word for it.  Plenty of guitar solos from the Three Amigos, and lots of “No More Lies” [27 of them…].

Montségur – Blood and gore in Southern France at the time of the Crusades.  The Cathars were a Christian sect that controlled a small slice of land between Spain and France.  The Cathars were seen as heretics by the Catholic Church.  And as heretics, the church and the King of France wanted them eliminated.  The Knights Templar did the deed.  As for the lyrics, the chorus is overly repetitive.

Dance of Death – Janick Gers wrote this one with Steve Harris.  He said this was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal (1957).  Max Von Sydow is a Swedish knight who has returned home from the Crusades, only to find out Sweden has been ravaged by the Black Death.  When he arrives in Sweden, he encounters the personification of Death, whom he challenges to a game of chess.  The knight figures as long as he keeps playing, he’ll stay alive.  At the end of the movie, Bergman cuts away to three guys silhouetted on a hill.  They’re dancing a jig – the Dance of Death.

Gates of Tomorrow – Janick Gers’ beginning riff reminds me of something I heard on The X Factor, but I can’t put my finger on it.  As for the lyrics, they’re impenetrable.  Is the Internet the “gate of tomorrow”?  This is my ‘skip’ track on the album. 

New Frontier – A first in the Maiden canon – a songwriting credit for drummer Nicko McBrain.  A born-again Christian, the prospects of human cloning bothered Nicko, hence this song.  This is a pretty fast one – I like it!  Steve Harris is slacking here because he doesn’t have a writing credit for this song [he does for the rest…].  For a first song from Nicko, it’s a damn good one.

Paschendale – Blood and gore in the Third Battle of Ypres in World War I (31 July – 10 November 1917, approximately 310,000 British casualties, 260,000 German casualties), where there was much fighting and dying for little ground gained.  It’s similar in scope to the Battle of the Somme (1 July – 18 November 1916 – approximately 640,000 Allied casualties, 465,000 German casualties).  The song is as epic as the battle.  Note to Metallica and Judas Priest – this is how you incorporate strings into metal music.  This one is definitely in my Maiden Top 10.

Face in the Sand – The album was being recorded as our country was getting ready to invade Iraq [blood and gore in the desert].  Bruce Dickinson had this in mind when he wrote the lyrics to this:

Everybody's waiting for something to happen
Everybody's waiting for something to see
Lunatics waiting for bigger disasters
Everyone's waiting for news on TV

Winding lives at the end of the spiral

Waiting dictators with their next big thrill
Everyone's looking but no one is listening
Everybody wants to be in at the kill

Age of Innocence – Steve Harris is plenty pissed off at the state of Britain’s criminal justice system.

Journeyman – The only all-acoustic song in the Maiden canon is a damn good one.  If any song says “carpe diem,” it’s this one.  There’s an electric version but I haven’t heard it.  I don’t need to – this one is fine the way it is.The chorus is as good an explanation of the free spirit as one will ever hear:

I know what I want
I’ll say what I want
And no one can take it away…