October’s a few days away, but it’s not too early for me to start talking about scary movies yet, is it? No? Good.
A few days ago I found (more or less by chance) the opening titles from Ernest: Scared Stupid which, if you haven’t seen it, is not a good movie. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was an Ernest fan as a kid, mostly because I discovered him through his single-season Saturday morning show, Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! during its original run. I was eight years old, and I had outgrown the character by the time I was in fourth grade and we watched Ernest Goes to Camp in class. That was more than a year before Ernest: Scared Stupid came out, by which time I was no longer interested. I must have been in high school by the time I watched it, and I remember being in that weird, pre-streaming video mood where there’s nothing to watch, but you don’t really feel like doing anything else. Also, I remember it being after midnight, which probably means I could have spent my time better by going to bed.
None of this is the point of the story.
The point is, this is an amazing title sequence. The music is perfectly cheesy/spooky* and catchy, the clips from old, public domain movies are beautifully chosen and inserted, and Ernest’s mugging… doesn’t interfere too much.
I recognize most of the archive footage they used, but there are one or two shots that don’t look familiar, so I did a search and found an interview at Art of the Title with Barbara Laszewski, who designed the titles. Worth looking into. The interview, I mean, probably not the movie. In spite of the paragraphs above, I think I’ve come full-circle on my appreciation for Ernest P. Worrell, but I’m not sure I can recommend the movie to adults unless you know what you’re getting into.
* The internet has a word for this: spoopy. This is probably the only place you’re ever going to see me use the “word” spoopy.
Today my phone popped up a reminder that it’s John Henry Day, the 24th anniversary of the release of the album John Henry by They Might Be Giants. Some years ago at the suggestion of another fan, I entered all of their album release dates into my calendar, but this blog post is the closest I’ve ever come to celebrating.
Like a lot of people my age, my familiarity with the band They Might Be Giants started in the early ’90s when an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures parodied MTV. Scattered among animated music videos for other, older songs (namely “Respect” and “Money (That’s What I Want)”) were Tiny Toons’ interpretations of “Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”. I found them pretty amusing, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought until the summer of 1993. One of my parents’ friends had generously loaned me tapes of his Beatles collection; he had purchased original, vinyl pressings of the albums in England, and preserved them by copying them onto cassettes. I was flipping through his albums when I found myself face to face with Flood by They Might Be Giants. Remembering the name and the songs, I asked to borrow it. “Oh,” he said, “I don’t remember why I bought that.” I went home with a 90-minute tape that had Flood on both sides.
It took me awhile to warm up to Flood. At the time, I was most interested in the two songs I knew, but eventually I came around to the other songs, though maybe not the ones you’d expect. I remember being initially lukewarm to “Birdhouse in Your Soul” until learning that it had been a top-10 hit in Britain, a tidbit from the unofficial They Might Be Giants FAQ. Around this same time I remember getting my first taste of Internet access, and realizing that They Might Be Giants had a pretty substantial and rabid fanbase.
Gradually, I got more and more into TMBG, which required more active work in the ’90s than it does now. My parents had no specific interest in contemporary music and for some reason at that age I needed to hear a song several times before I liked it. I hadn’t figured that out yet so I assumed that none of the music on the radio was any good. TMBG caused me to work out how to interface with modern music and with pop culture in general. TMBG were not hugely popular enough to be in your face all the time, so I approached my fandom as a research project. I got their 1992 album Apollo 18 through interlibrary loan, and learned to use a microfiche reader in order to consume reviews and interviews in People Magazine and Stereo Review. One by one I collected the albums, and eventually sent a letter (never responded to) to the TMBG Info Club. This must have been in the early months of 1994, and I would have been thirteen years old.
That summer, I received my first issue of the Info Club’s magazine: a cheap, blue pamphlet containing answers to fan-submitted questions, an essay or two by the band members themselves, and the announcement that their fifth album, John Henry, would be released in September of 1994. After 12 years as a duo, John Henry would be TMBG’s first album with a six-piece band, including a horn section. The title, they explained, was a reference to the legendary black railroad builder and represented TMBG’s triumph over the tyranny of their drum machine. The announcement included a list of the songs on the album and (for some reason) each song’s tempo. At the time, I imagined that the beats per minute might be useful information to savvier music fans than myself. Now I wonder if one of the band members thought it would be funny.
I was terribly excited for the upcoming release of John Henry. In fact, I can’t remember having been excited about the release of a media property prior to that time, other than maybe an upcoming movie. In the interim, I remember placing my first call to They Might Be Giants’ Dial-A-Song Service (“Twenty five hours a day, six days a week, free when you call from work!”) and hearing a low-fidelity version of the song “Subliminal”, after which I went to the dictionary to look up the word subliminal.
The release date came and went because none of the stores in town carried something as exotic (read: unpopular) as the new They Might Be Giants album. A couple of weeks later, I picked it up while running errands with my parents. I remember reading the liner notes in the car and trying to guess based on the lyrics how the songs would sound.
At last, we got home and I went up to my room to listen to John Henry through headphones. It was not what I was expecting. TMBG albums had previously been loaded with a large number of short songs which wasted no time on instrumental breaks or long intros. By contrast, John Henry put musical virtuosity in the spotlight, and featured longer, jammier songs that rocked harder than their previous output. Predictably, it took me a few listens to like John Henry, during which time I started actually thinking about and appreciating the lyrics, which I had previously failed to do. I kept listening, the weather got colder, and I started growing up.
In my mind, John Henry represents the nexus point of several different influences on my life, and a clear break with the past. It was the beginning of my freshman year of high school. I began several long-term friendships during the fall of 1994, and a lot of my current interests firmly solidified at that time. My maternal grandfather, whom I’d been close with passed away.
I also think of John Henry as the official division between early-period TMBG and late-period TMBG. That’s not actually true but it seems that way because those neurons fired so many times in my young mind. TMBG was formed in the summer of 1982, which means that as of today John Henry came out at almost exactly a third of the way through their career (a fact which I’m using to justify this arbitrary 24th Anniversary post, rather than waiting until next year). I couldn’t see that at the time, though. In fact, it felt like the beginning of the end. The reviews I read at the time were good, but it didn’t chart very long or terribly well. Behind the scenes, Elektra Records was going through some management changes and dropped most of their support for TMBG. The album received one music video (the visually disappointing “Snail Shell”) where previous albums had several. The marketing budget for their next album, 1996’s Factory Showroom, was too small to accommodate a music video. At that point, TMBG parted ways with Elektra. Without the backing of a label to make them visible and in light of the constant personnel changes, it felt like TMBG were slowly sinking during the latter half of the ’90s.
In retrospect, it was exactly the opposite but I couldn’t see it at the time. The immediacy of the Internet made it possible for TMBG to increase the amount of material they were releasing, and the speed at which they were releasing it. By the year 2000, They’d released the first MP3-only album (1999’s Long Tall Weekend), and contributed the theme song “Boss of Me” to Malcolm in the Middle which probably earned them more exposure than any other single part of Their career. If anything, John Henry was the moment where Their momentum took over. If They Might Be Giants were a hobbyist’s experimental aircraft, John Henry would be the moment in the movie where the music swells as the wheels leave the ground and the craft stays up. The protagonist’s doubting assistant would take off his cap, wipe his brow and say “by God, it will fly.”
Anyway, TMBG have generously uploaded all of their albums to YouTube, including John Henry, which you can listen to below.
Last week “back to the salt mines!” (a favorite phrase of my grandfather’s) popped into my mind in conjunction with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants. I’ve been trying to figure out what the connection was until this morning when I had the good sense to Google it and found this feature from 2008 in which various New Yorkers briefly detail how they’ve spent their summer. Here’s how I would answer that question:
One of the nice things about working in downtown Madison, Wisconsin is that the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center is a short walk from my office. The convention center, which overlooks Lake Monona, opened in 1997 and I had the pleasure of singing at the Grand Opening with one of the choral groups to which I belonged in high school. I had no intention of including that fact in this post, but I just remembered it as I was typing this. I can’t remember what we sang, and I’m not 100% sure which group it was—either the Madrigal Singers or the Men’s Ensemble.
Anyway, I’ve only been inside Monona Terrace a couple of times, but I spend as many lunchbreaks there as I can during the temperate months of the year. The rooftop has a large seating area and a promenade facing the lake. I usually eschew the tables and chairs for the little garden area on the west end of the roof where I sit DIRECTLY ON THE GRASS to the horror of out-of-towners who have come to look out across the lake and snap pictures that they will never look at again. I’m not the only person who does this, and it’s extremely annoying when I round the corner only to find somebody else doing reading or doing yoga or just sprawled out on the grass sleeping. How dare they!
Usually I go to read. Sometimes I grab a coffee or a sandwich, or if it’s Wednesday I’ll spend too much money on cheese curds at the farmer’s market. I’m pretty happy with my reading progress over the summer; I’ve probably read an average number of books, but I’m trying to get through my backlog of physical books as opposed to reading them on my Kindle (which is what I usually do). The act of finishing one volume and starting another feels productive. It takes me too long to read novels because I only typically read during my ten-minute commute and on my lunchbreaks, and I’m sure that I actually read faster when I can see the end of the book approaching. It’s certainly more satisfying than gauging it as a percentage. Here’s an incomplete list of my summer reading, in the order I consumed them:
That Darn Squid God by Nick Pollotta and James Clay — I feel like I should have enjoyed this one more. A couple of Very British explorers keep a stiff upper lip in the face of world-ending madness. Might’ve been better in a shorter form.
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole — Been planning to read this one for agrees, just because it felt like something I should have done by now. Otranto is the original Gothic novel and commits all the sins of the genre, but it helps to remember that they originated here. Notable in that it begins with a young Prince being crushed to death by a giant helmet which falls unexpectedly out of the sky, a bit like the 16-ton weights in all those Monty Python sketches.
Madwand by Roger Zelazny — This is actually the second book in Zelazny’s Wizardworld series, but that wasn’t immediately apparent from the edition I was reading, which is probably why new editions list the title as “Madwand: The Sequel to Changeling”. I dunno, I like Zelazny and I enjoyed this book, though I don’t think I could summarize it for you.
Changeling by Roger Zelazny — I was not, however, taken by Changeling, probably because the main points of the novel are either summarized or implied by Madwand. It’s probably better if you read them in the right order. Annoyingly, this was intended to be a trilogy, and the final chapter never happened.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier — After Otranto, I decided I should tackle another classic. I bought this one secondhand after having seen the Alfred Hitchcock film years ago, and should have read it sooner. An engaging, modern Gothic classic! Had a hard time recommending it to my coworkers who thought it was a romance novel. Well, it is, kind of, but it’s also a suspenseful thriller. I think I described it as “Jane Eyre but with more emotional abuse.”
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge — I won this book in an online contest more than a year ago, and feel bad about letting it sit for so long. What if H.P. Lovecraft was gay? No wait, what if he wasn’t gay, but one of his friends forged a diary to make it look like he was? No wait, what if… and so on. I don’t usually like HPL as a fictional character because authors like to turn him into an action hero. In this case it’s a different kind of action and work about a fifth of the novel to go, I gave no idea where its headed. I expect to finish it tomorrow and will be recommending it to everybody.
…and various short stories because I read a lot more short fiction than novels. I tend to bounce back and forth between several anthologies at any given time, but in particular I’ve been crawling for months through Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe which have been surprisingly unsettling.
Honorable mention: Vathek by William Beckford is another one of the original Gothic novels, and I made an abortive attempt to read it (my second, actually) because I have it in the same volume as The Castle of Otranto. I get bogged down in the fact that the edition I have is probably 60% footnotes. One day I will just read the damn thing and ignore the footnotes, and I may miss some important context but I think that’s the only way I’ll get through it.
Sooner or later Monona Terrace will close for the fall and winter months during which time I will read less and less because sitting in the break room always makes me feel like I should be working.
* * *
“Are you done?” my editor would say
“I asked you for a paragraph of text, not an autobiography.”
“You know what? It’s fine. I’m an editor. This is what I do. ‘I wasted all summer reading books at Monona Terrace.’ Good enough.”
“Hey, look at this amazing thing I found! More people need to see this!”
That was the philosophy behind Science Fiction Double Feature, a moderately successful B-movie podcast I released in 2006 and 2007. Each episode presented summaries of two thematically-connected movies, along with production history, trivia, and my own commentary.
I decided against the conversational multi-host format employed by most movie podcasts in favor of a more scripted, documentary style (I was working through This American Life’s back catalog at the time, and the main movie podcast I was listening to regularly released 3-hour episodes with maybe 40 minutes worth of material). After a couple of movies were chosen, I’d watch them each again in order to write a summary and choose soundbites. If the DVD had special features, I’d comb through those for interesting trivia. I aimed for half hour episodes, and the scripts usually came in around 10-12 pages. The process of recording and editing would usually eat up an entire evening after work. The episodes were hosted on Odeo, a now-defunct podcasting platform, and garnered a few hundred listens each. I should have set it up on iTunes, but never got around to it. The snazzy logo you see above was designed by my friend Matt Anderson who was riffing on the old RKO logo.
In the end I abandoned the show, not on purpose but because I found myself with less and less time to devote to such a project. I’m really not as fond of unscripted conversational podcasts, but I now see the appeal of working that way. I have a small child now and I have to watch movies in increments; SFDF wasn’t that time consuming to create, but I think I’d have to make some significant format changes if I were ever to relaunch it.
Anyway, I’ve been hoping to relaunch the show for… well, forever, really. Maybe one day. In the meantime, here are the original nine episodes for your consideration:
My wife is a teacher, and returns to school tomorrow when classes resume. We’re in southern Wisconsin where the weather has been alternately rainy with flooding, cold yet humid, or intensely hot and muggy. I can only imagine that the kids returning to school are miserable.
Anyway, I was reflecting on the weather and my own childhood when Giant-Size Mini Comics #2 suddenly popped into my head.
I liked the daily comic strips as a kid (particularly Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side, which pretty much goes without saying for people around my age), but I was never much into comic books because I didn’t care for superheroes. Sometime in middle school I made a deliberate effort to get into comics, but the stores in town that sold new books really only carried the big names (i.e., the ones ending in -Man), so I got my fix from used bookstores. Somebody in town was buying, reading, and donating a lot of weird stuff on a consistent basis, and I tended to gravitate to books from the smaller publishers, particularly Aircel and Eclipse.
A lot of this stuff was completely inappropriate for an eleven-year-old; lots of violence, more sex than my parents would have approved of (but not as much as I’d have liked), and a level of defiant cynicism that made South Park seem trite when it premiered a few years later. I developed an early appreciation for the works of R. Crumb and his creative descendants (particularly John Pound, whose book Ground Pound is out of print but definitely (in the opinion of both present-day and early-1990s me) worth your while to track down).
And then there was Giant-Sized Mini Comics, which introduced me to the concept and format of minicomics: eight Xeroxed pages drawn on a single sheet of paper folded into quarters, then stapled and cut to make a book. Each issue of G-SMC collected a sampling of minicomics in an attempt to bring them to a much larger audience than they’d otherwise reach. I grabbed a copy of G-SMC #2 sometime during (I think) the summer between seventh and eighth grade, and was fascinated by the idea of self-publishing on a micro basis, which struck me as the sweet spot between the artwork your mom hangs on the fridge and the kind of Serious Professional Publishing that Demands Capital Letters.
I made a handful of minicomics my pre-college years. I doubt that any still survive, and if they do they’re probably not worthy of even the humblest blog post (also, they’re probably embarrassing as hell).
I wanted very badly to complete my collection of G-SMC, and eventually I did come across the other three issues (there were, as far as I can tell, only four issues), and it’s amazing: the one issue I found is the only one whose contents really appeal to me. It’s not that the rest of them are without merit, but I’d have glanced over them in the shop and moved on to something else.
I bring all of this up because today I remembered a two-page spread from G-SMC #2, a mediatation on water of the running and falling varieties which bored me at the time. It’s an issue of Walking Man Comics, and I probably haven’t thought about it in more than a decade, and I find that I like it better now.
Enjoy (at least until someone sends me a cease and desist). And click the images to expand them, obviously.
Well, this seems as good a time as any for this post. September first has always seemed a significant date; summer is over, school is right around the corner, the days are shorter and the nights are a little colder.
At least, that’s what it feels like. It’s still summer for the better part of the month, school starts at some ungodly early date in late August (at least, it did during my childhood), and the nights are warm enough that you can’t fall asleep without the fan on, but you have to creep across the frozen bedroom at 2:00 am to turn it off.
I had a point, but I can’t remember what it was.
At any rate, I’ve been planning the conversion of this website to WordPress for a long time (like, a long time; I installed it years ago, and haven’t really used it until now). Prior to that, it went through several different configurations, losing content each time. If you can believe it, SacredPotato.com used to be a well-maintained and frequently-updated site with regular features and a constant stream of new, downloadable music. At some point Real Life got in the way and I began updating less and less. So, I’m starting over and giving it another go, this time with WordPress because really, who does all their web design manually in a text editor anymore?
Anyway, welcome back. I promise there’ll be more content and regular updates. At the very least I should have replaced the bog-standard WordPress aesthetics by the time you see this (because trust me, nobody is going to notice this post when it first goes up).