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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Make Your Own Kind of Music...

A few months ago, I became a late convert to the great show, Lost, which recently finished its run. One of the show's many themes is that of time travel. In one particularly moving episode from season 3, "Flashes Before Your Eyes," Desmond travels back to 1996, where he attempts in vain to salvage his relationship with Penny Widmore. The episode is incredibly haunting, as Desmond is tantalized by the surreal sense that he can change his own destiny, and the cruel realization he must live with his past mistakes.

Time travel makes for great romance, and also serves as a solid premise for contemplating a character's "what ifs." It's an alluring concept that has provided the background for some fantastic novels and movies: "Slaughterhouse Five," "The Watchmen," "Somewhere in Time," just to name a few. But when it comes down to it, most people brush aside time travel as a science fiction plot device - a fun gimmick that has little to do with reality.

The older I get, however, the more I start to think that maybe there's more to this time travel business than we may think. Most of us are so firmly entrenched in what we believe to be true about the world around us that we stop paying attention to our senses. 

As I sit here now, typing, I'm listening to Bruce Springsteen live on New Year's Eve, 1980, at the Nassau Coliseum. The piano rings with a remarkable clarity; Bruce's voice sounds young, energetic, hungry. As the band launches into Hungry Heart, I'm suddenly back in sixth grade. I'm listening to Bruce on the transistor that I carried around next to my ear all through the late 70's and early 80's, battling static and the whims of the AM radio deejays to get whatever auditory glimpses I could of "the Boss"...

The I-Tunes shuffle function serves up its next offering: Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street." It's the summer of 1978, and I can just about taste the orange soda. My brother and I are playing in the Fishers' yard, right behind our house. We've been playing baseball and tag all day, and we stop to rest on the front stoop that overlooks the huge expanse of grass, flanked by three great pine trees, that is our childhood playground. The bristly carpet on the brick steps needles the backs of my calves, and I enjoy the feeling of sweat trickling down my back. My mom calls out from the kitchen window, and I hear her through the trees - it's dinner time...

In the movie, "High Fidelity," Rob (played by John Cusack) arranges his record correction not alphabetically, not chronologically by release, but autobiographically - the order in which he experienced the music. Next up on my iTunes is Tom Petty's "Here Comes My Girl." This one was recorded in 1979, but the tension in this song's opening chords sends me, personally,  back to late 1994. I'm in my third year as a teacher, and am living at home with my parents for a few months to save up for my wedding. It's a cold October night, and my high school buddies, Ted and Shawn, have invited me over to "jam." I haven't picked up my guitar in a few years, as my new status as an English teacher and responsible adult has taken priority; I've forgotten the thrill of rocking out in the basement, and when we launch into the song, it's magic...

The striking thing about these "time travels" is that they are more than just memories. I can feel the sensations, smell the smells, see the sights. These sudden "unstickings in time" are so unexpected and powerful that they might as well be accompanied by the violent flashes of white light that transported Sawyer, Juliet, and Jin on their wild journey through the ages.

What's even more remarkable, though, is that music can conjure memories that didn't actually happen.  Last fall,  I finally realized a lifelong dream of seeing Bruce Springsteen live. Near the end of the evening, the band surprised the crowd by playing "Sandy," a song whose tempo and feel differed from the overall feel of the show up to that point. As the haunting accordion strains danced around Bruce's tale of love, loss, change, and acceptance, I closed my eyes. The gentle October breeze felt as if it was carrying a light ocean spray, and the smell of hotdogs and beer contributed to the illusion that I was on the beach. I felt the pain of the song's protagonist as if it were my own; I saw the cops busting Madame Marie, and and experienced the story as if it were the story of my own life. And as if I had lived it hundreds of times before.

When I thought about it later, I felt kind of silly, getting all emotional over Sandy and the 4th of July at Asbury Park. After all, I didn't even know anyone named Sandy. And I'd never been on the beach at Asbury Park. But what happened to me (and I'm sure many others) that night at Giants Stadium is what author Stephen Dobyns refers to as "the authenticating act of memory": the idea that you can "remember" anything you've ever imagined, since your unconscious mind doesn't make a distinction between reality and imagination. The more times you hear a song, then, the more real its story seems, and the stronger the memory of having experienced it. And, because your unconscious mind, which deals in imagery rather than words, doesn't know the difference between what is real and what is imagined, a musical flashback is, for all intents and purposes, real time travel.

Music also feels timeless because of its ability to give the artist eternal life. Shakespeare's sonnets focus on the idea that, by creating some form of art - writing, painting, music, or even life itself through childbirth - you gain a measure of immortality. And this is true - we speak of Shakespeare in the present tense, and when we listen to recordings of Jimi Hendrix, he is alive enough to move us - physically and spiritually. Unless you were a personal friend or family member of Hendrix, he is as alive to you today as he ever was.

My wife always says, and I agree, that time, and time travel, are just a matter of perception. Maybe it's just a matter of closing your eyes, opening up your ears, and letting the music take you where (and when) it will...

* Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns. Palgrave Macmillian, New York, 1996. Probably my favorite theoretical writing book.

Great videos on the 4th dimension (time):
Carl Sagan Explains the 4th Dimension
Imagining the 10th Dimension

Monday, February 18, 2013

In the Garage

On some level, each of us feels that our childhood is unique. At least, that is, while we are children. Even though we ultimately venture out into the world beyond our front lawn, enter the homes of our friends, and discover strange and wonderful worlds via our televisions (and even stranger and more wonderful worlds through our radios and i-pads), during our early years we are necessarily self-centered. This leads to a persistent feeling that the particulars of our upbringing are a one-of-a-kind combination.

Periodically, though, we are jarred out of this illusion when we encounter someone else's experience that mirrors our own with chilling precision. Recently, I was reading Josh Wilker's terrific memoir, Cardboard Gods, and came across this description of the author's room:

"As I write this, decades later, almost all the things that made that room my room are long gone...The poster of Ace Frehley, his silver-painted eyes clamped shut, using his guitar as a .... conduit for the infinite wonder of the cosmos. The magazine cutout of Cheryl Tiegs... All the various lint-covered objects made of Nerf.  All the piles of hand-scrawled solitaire Strat-O-Matic scorecards. The only thing that remains is the heart of the room, the box containing all the baseball cards I ever brought home. The box I've carried with me through my life."
This hit so close to memories of my own childhood bedroom that I almost felt as if I had been "found out," as if someone had been spying on me as I, too, created my own secret Strat-O-Matic baseball world with only KISS and Farrah Fawcett looking on. But this sudden rush of vulnerability is also the thrill of shared connection, of realizing that I was not alone in my most treasured memories and "geeky" interests.
Somehow, I'm always surprised by these moments, and how excited I get about them, but I shouldn't be. After all, isn't that the true allure of literature and pop culture - the sense of being part of something bigger?

Sometimes, this goes beyond mere connection - and becomes vindication -  when famous people admit to engaging in some of the more embarrassing pastimes of my childhood. When I was in 7th grade, there wasn't anything less "cool" than Dungeons and Dragons.  My brother and I would play for hours on end. I loved being the dungeon master, because it was my first real chance to let my imagination run free in the process of creating something that felt real, that was real when we played the game. Sometimes, other kids in the neighborhood would come over and play, and we'd have a great time. Yet, there was almost this unspoken code: "Ixnay on the Agonsdray" - we'd never, ever refer to our gaming outside the confines of my basement.

That's why one of my all-time favorite songs from the grunge era is Weezer's "In the Garage." This one also speaks directly to my childhood experience, and in the chorus even gives a nod to the underground nature of the fun we had:

"I've got the Dungeon Master's Guide
I've got a 12-sided die
I've got Kitty Pryde
And Nightcrawler too
Waiting there for me
Yes I do, I do

I've got posters on the wall,
My favorite rock group Kiss,
I've got Ace Frehley
and I've got Peter Criss,
Waiting there for me
Yes I do, I do

In the garage
I feel safe
No one cares about my ways
In the garage where I belong
No one hears me sing this song

Notice, also, the Kiss poster connection. Posters like this one were as ubiquitous as I-pods back in the late 70's and early 80's,  and a huge banner like this one hung on the cinder block walls of the basement where my brother and I spent some of our greatest times as kids. It was only a dank, musty, 10X10 cellar, but with a little imagination it became a hockey rink, a bowling alley, and even a WWF ring, as we converted the arms of a moth-eaten couch into head-rammable turnbuckles. We'd labor for days on model cars and ships, the dizzying aroma of Testors plastic cement hanging in the humid summer air as we listened to the limited rotation in our slowly growing record collection. Alive, Alive II, Billy Joel's Glass Houses and Chipmunk Punk spun endlessly on our Mickey Mouse turntable, each scratch and hiccup becoming permanently recorded in our mental soundtracks.

It was amazing, innocent, all-encompassing joy. And sure, we were geeky. But it's nice to know that Rivers Cuomo was, too.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Glockenspiel - The Secret Weapon of the E-Street Band

Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Sometimes I wonder if there's something wrong with me. I'm 42 years old, and I can't listen to this without getting chills. Every time.

I grew up listening to (and sometimes living through) Bruce Springsteen. I loved The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, Born to Run, and the huge live triple-album that came out in 1986. I also always loved Prove it All Night and Badlands, but for a long time I largely dismissed Darkness as too slow, too serious, and not as much fun as Born to Run. And Darkness is a more difficult album in terms of its tone and subject matter. I'm pretty sure it was rock critic Dave Marsh who once wrote that "Born to Run represents the dream; Darkness on the Edge of Town represents the reality." As a 16-year old just discovering the Boss' music, the energy of the early albums perfectly reflected my naive, idealistic exuberance. I just wasn't ready to recognize that Darkness captures, better than any other record I can name, captures the delicate tension between despair and hope that characterizes life in modern America.

And yet, for all that has been written and said about this masterpiece, I've really never heard anyone address what I feel is the album's most significant musical paradox - innocence vs. adulthood. Lyrically, the songs chronicle characters who struggle from day to day, struggle to survive, struggle to find hope in a bleak existence. These characters are adults who face adult problems and adult disappointments.

Musically, however, almost all of the songs ("Adam Raised a Cain" stands as a notable exception) on the record feature an almost childlike, magical quality. The crystalline piano tones and shimmering glockenspiel chimes dust songs like "Something in Night." "Badlands" and "Candy's Room" with a layer of exuberant, youthful optimism that threatens to burst through the thick tension sitting just above it. The lyrics may set the songs in the dry, dusty, heat of August in the Utah desert. But the record sounds exactly like Christmas-time - no matter what the weather outside, I can smell the crisp December air, see the light snowflakes floating downward, and best of all, feel the excitement and anticipation in my gut. It's a visceral reaction that can cut through moods, disrupt reality.

Another key element on the record, of course, is Clarence Clemons' playing - on this album, he does some of his most memorable work - the solos are anthemic. I recently watched "The Promise," and was astounded to discover that Clarence only plays for a minute or two on the entire album. I guess, on some level, I had known that, but his presence is so tremendous on his songs that he leaves a giant-sized imprint on the experience. Take "The Promised Land" - a song about struggle and the fear that dreams will never come true - but Clarence arrives on the scene, just in time, with a mighty voice that lifts the listener right out of the struggle and toward transcendence. It's the massive contrast between sound and subject matter that create this sense of liberation. Check out this live performance of the song, and I'm sure you'll hear (and feel) what I mean: 1980 - Capitol Centre - Promised Land.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Back to School

When I was growing up, Labor Day was "The Day the Earth Stood Still." It wasn't so much because Labor Day signaled the start of the new school year, but because for one day, the Jerry Lewis telethon monopolized the airwaves. No Gilligan's Island, no Brady Bunch, no Little Rascals or I Love Lucy - just Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin yukking it up and singing show tunes.

But back then, for me, television was tightly wound into the fabric of summertime. In the days before playdates and rubberized playgrounds, we (the neighborhood "gang") would spend sunny days roaming free, walking through the woods, playing baseball and tag, drinking Kool-Aid and playing Payday on the neighbors' deck. Rainy days,  we spent as captives of the television, devouring the daytime and early evening lineup on non-network New York stations - WNEW and WPIX.

So it was a particularly cruel irony that, on the precious final day of every summer break, my favorite shows were ripped away from me to make way for the monotony of the telethon. I remember complaining to my parents that I had to go back to school, and arguing that I could learn just as much by watching television.

So, this year, as school approaches, I thought it might be fun to take a look at what would have happened if my wish had come true, and I had been able to attend "TV Land Academy." Here's a sample from the TV Land Academy Course Directory. I've provided YouTube links, when available, for those of you unfamiliar with these classic scenes

Latin 101. Instructor: Mike Brady taught us, Caveat Emptor - let the buyer beware. Mr. Brady dispensed this priceless piece of Latin wisdom when Greg went to buy his first car. The eldest Brady boy (and lead singer of the Banana Convention) was so bent on picking up a new set of "wheels" that he allowed fast-talking Eddie that the screeching engine sound is "the idle, man -- it's the idle." When Greg gets home, though, Mike sets him straight, pointing out that the car sounds like "a flock of geese heading south."

Introduction to Shakespeare. Instructor: Harold Hecuba. When the "famous director" lands on Gilligan's Island, the Castaways decide to stage a musical production of Hamlet. It always amazed me how, on this tiny island with only 7 characters, elaborate costumes, a proscenium stage, and musical accompaniment could simply materialize out of nowhere. Nonetheless, this was certainly my first introduction to Shakespeare, and I often wound up with this musical version stuck in my head while studying "Hamlet" in high school and college.

Advanced Cryptology. Instructors: Batman and Robin. No other show in history would even dare to attempt to plug canyon-size plotholes the way that this series did, usually with uncanny mental acrobatics from the Dynamic Duo and their bungalo-sized computer. My all-time favorite was episode in which the pair figure out that they are looking for a caviar factory, based on the obscure clue, "Ghoti Oeufs". "Gh" as in "rough", Batman coolly reasons; "o" as in "women", and "ti" as in "motion." Put it together and you get "fish oeufs" - fish eggs, or caviar. Holy Deus Ex Machina, Batman!

Health. Instructor: Lucy Ricardo - Lucy's Vitameatavegamin commercial is commonly recognized as one of the top 10 TV comedy moments of all time. It also was the first time that I had ever seen a "drunk" person. Do "health drinks" still contain 23% alcohol?

Driver Education. Instructor: Marcia Brady. Marcia manages to fail her initial drivers' exam by mistaking the ignition key for the windshield wiper control, but she rebounds nicely, thanks to some advice from the usually neurotic Jan, to show older brother Greg a thing or two about chauvinism. Only the Bradys would set up an actual driving obstacle course to settle such a score; I also love how they always put up chores as a wager.

Biology. Instructor: Potsie Weber.  Back in the mid-late '70's, ABC provided two of my favorite things on television: Happy Days and Schoolhouse Rock.One particular episode of the sitcom combined them into perfect package. Potsie, branded a failure by his biology professor (was that Larry King?), makes up the corny but catchy "P-P-P--Pumps Your Blood" to help him learn how the circulatory system functions. By this time, the middle-aged Fonz was having trouble pulling off the James Dean act, and Richie's "Bucko" insult had definitely lost what little "Gee Whiz" shock value it may have packed.

Home Economics. Instructors: Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz. When "the Boys" attempt to prepare dinner, they reveal a complete inability to read the side of the box, and create a Blob-like rice monster that fills the kitchen. Bobby Brady committed a very similar error while washing his clothes after rescuing Pandora, the cat, on the refreshingly innovative Brady Bunch.

Project Adventure. Instructor: John Locke. No, "Lost" wasn't on television when I was a kid. At least not in this life. But the show (especially season 1) captures the spirit of what it was like to grow up in the '70's - running, exploring, chasing, and even fighting, with minimal intervention from established authority. At least in contrast to the structured, sterile upbringing of today's kids, my generation's childhood was tinted by a degree of "Lord of the Flies." The season one incarnation of Locke is a superhero of the natural and supernatural - a man who seems to know the solution to every problem. Don't tell him what he can't do!

Do you have any suggested "instructors" for additional courses? Please join in the discussion and share via the comments!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Friday - A Tipping Point?

You've heard it. I've heard it. We've all (unfortunately) heard it. Rebecca Black's assembly-line abomination "Friday" has swept the nation over the past week with a ferocious, wildfire intensity. In case you haven't yet discovered it, it's the most ill-conceived, nonsensical, juvenile piece of fast-food pop "music" ever created. It also represents all that is wrong with society today. And, most painfully, despite all of that, I find myself like Odyseuss tied to the mast, unable to resist listening to this piece of garbage time and again.

But I have no intention of writing a lengthy rant against this affront to our senses and sensibility. Plenty of others have already assumed that mantle on Twitter, blogs, and YouTube. The video has received a proportionately overwhelming number of "dislikes" on YouTube, and the song has been called the "worst of all-time" by many. The "artist" herself has also been the object of many hateful attacks. And while I in no way endorse such bullying, I am fascinated by the intensity of the reaction, and what it represents.

It is my belief - and my desperate hope - that this incredible backlash represents a tipping point - the final straw for intelligent music fans who have finally had enough, for those who refuse to accept the insulting idea that this soulless trash can be passed off as music. If my theory is correct, we have crested the wave set in motion by the Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana, and are about to be rewarded with several years of a return to great music.

Before you dismiss this theory as foolish optimism, realize that there is a precedent for such a revolution. In the late 1980's, kid-bands such as New Kids on the Block and slick, high-production/low substance acts like Milli Vanilli had taken over the music world. For me, the low-point of this era was January 28, 1991 - the night that Vanilla Ice was given an American Music Award for "Best New Artist." I remember watching the awards and feeling sick to my stomach; was I the only one who could see that Vanilla Ice was neither a musician nor an artist?

Luckily, redemption was only a few months away, and arrived in the form of an auditory shotgun blast known as Nirvana's "Nevermind." The album's lead track, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," ripped its way across MTV and radio stations with tidal wave force, and by the end of 1991 a full-scale musical revolt had taken place. Record stores at the time reported record numbers of returns following the holiday season; kids were returning Michael Jackson's "Dangerous," which they'd received for Christmas, and exchanging it for the raw, Seattle grunge of Nirvana. The King of Pop had been supplanted by a "new" form of music that represented a return to the dark, heavy, gritty sound of early "heavy metal" (early Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Motorhead.)

Of course, this wasn't the first (and wouldn't be the last) time that music made a sonic retreat two decades into the past. In fact, this is a general trend that has repeated itself time and again. After the electric, psychedelic explosion of the late '60's, early '70's pop featured lush harmonies and singer-songwriters (James Taylor, the Carpenters, BJ Thomas, the Partridge Family) that recalled the doo-wop and Brill Building sounds of the late '50s and early '60's. The mid 1980's saw a brief return to late 1960's sounds and fashion (tie-dyed T-Shirts became stylish, the "Monkees" TV show was shown in heavy rotation on MTV, and Prince presented himself as a Hendrix re-invention). Early 90's grunge was a return to the sounds of 1970's guitar rock, and the 2000's of course gave us an overdose of boy bands and divas combined with an over-produced sound that emphasized machine over human - much like the late 80's.

So, what's next? With any luck, we'll see a horde of new bands trying to sound like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Rage Against the Machine. That will be music to my ears - as long as they can lay off of the auto-tune!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Very Brady Surprise

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have always been a fanatical Brady fan. In college, I took great pride in impressing my floormates with the most obscure Brady trivia, and took any possible opportunity to convey the extent of my all-consuming Brady obsession. I can't look at applesauce without blurting out "Porkchops and Applesauce" in the voice of Peter as Humphrey Bogart, and I can't count the times I've admonished my oldest son: "mom always said don't play ball in the house!"

 I may have been an expert on Brady minutiae, but I certainly was not unusual in my cult-like worship of the program. The Brady Bunch was one of the first prime-time network shows to be syndicated nationally during after-school hours. During the mid-late 1970's, almost every elementary schoolkid in America came home every day to watch an hour of the Bunch. The show's warm, fuzzy vibe and innocuous plots combined with the relief of being released from the drudgery of spelling tests and dittoes (remember them) to create an hour of daily utopia. I've read many accounts of kids who grew up in troubled homes, and wishing they could live at 4222 Clinton Way. And even for those of us with happy childhoods, it was easy to get caught up in the fantasy world of silly problems that were solved in 20 minutes.

But over the years, I started to lose touch with the show. In the rear-view mirror of my memory, the show began to appear corny - a colorful, dated relic of the "groovy," "far-out" early 70s. In the cynical 90's and 2000s, it became easier and more fashionable to make fun of the show, laughing at it rather than with it. 1995's "The Brady Bunch Movie," while really funny and terrific in its own right, reminded all of us just how out of touch with reality the Bradys - and by extension, their die-hard fans - were.

Just a few months ago, I admitted to a friend that the Partridge Family was actually superior to the Brady Bunch - it was edgier, funnier, and more sophisticated went my argument. But during the week after Christmas this year, Walmart was running a special sale on Brady Bunch DVD's. For just over 5$ a season, I thought it would be worth reliving some of the childhood nostalgia, although my expectations weren't too high. I figured they'd be good for a viewing or two, and for a few laughs at the show's expense.

Two months later, though, I'm still watching the DVDs every day! My family and I have been through the entire series several times now. Not only has the show retained every bit of its after-school charm, but I was actually amazed to discover that it's also a good show. Sure, the plots are a little bit silly - but those kids can act! Or maybe it's not that they are even acting; maybe they were just very well-cast kids being themselves and having fun in the process. But whatever the case, somehow the Brady Bunch, against all reasonable odds, gets you to suspend belief for twenty-four minutes, and to accept that patchwork family as real.

Here are a few things that surprised me the most upon re-visiting the series:

1) The kids weren't perfectly behaved. Bobby acts like a real brat when he realizes he's the only one who didn't win a trophy. Marcia screams and throws tantrums, most notably when she's kicked out of the school production of Romeo and Juliet, and when she's mistakenly blamed for creating insulting drawing of her teacher ("Mrs. Denton, or a Hippopotamus?") Bobby, Jan, and Marcia all sneak out in the middle of the night. Peter wears a fake mustache to impress an older woman. Greg smokes, drives recklessly on the freeway, and brings the FBI to the house with his UFO fakery...

2) Alice was genuinely funny. Ann B. Davis made some terrific faces. It's like watching a skilled vaudevillian actress - every facial muscle is constantly acting and reacting. Sure, here jokes are hokey, but they fit the character, and Davis' hard work and artistry help to turn the corn into actual humor.

3) The soundtrack music was like an extra character on the show. There seemed to exist dozens of variations on the main theme...clunky, slunky, mischievous, serene, bright, groovy! On the DVD pilot commentary, Sherwood Schwartz mentioned that music director Frank DeVol could "make the music do anything." Watch just one or two episodes, and you'll see that he's absolutely right.

And a few things that weren't so surprising:

1) The show takes a laughably generic approach to pop/rock music! Greg is all bummed out when he gets grounded and can't take Rachel to "the rock concert." Whenever the kids listen to "groovy music" on their huge AM radios, you can hear what sounds like the Dating Game theme blasting out. When Greg becomes Johnny Bravo, his agent works for "Big Hit Management Company." And Davy Jones is portrayed by Bobby and Peter as a guitar-wielding rock god.

2)  The Brady's all live a charmed life. When Marcia loses her diary, Desi Arnaz jr. (the subject of many of her diary entries) shows up to return it. Greg's math teacher, Linda, just so happens to be dating Dodgers' first baseman, Wes Parker, who just so happens to stop by after school when Greg is getting extra help for math. Davy Jones honors a form-letter promise and sings at Marcia's prom. Alice has an identical cousin. And Joe Namath stops by to pay Bobby a deathbed visit, but agrees to play football in the yard after he finds out Bobby's faking...

Most importantly, though, I came to realize that there was no need to view my childhood love of the Brady's as a guilty pleasure. Maybe it's because, amidst the backdrop of the current recession and political turmoil, we all need something happy and safe, like the Brady Bunch. Maybe it's because I'm too old to care about what's cool. Or maybe it's because we Brady fans really had great taste all this time...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Media usually works on us in subtle, gradual ways. We hear a jingle so many times that it gets stuck in our head, and over time we become convinced that Oscar Mayer wieners are a superior brand. We watch 100 episodes of "Friends" and, after a while, start to actually believe that our lives should also be that easy and frivolous. Ultimately,  the things we see and hear on TV can affect how we feel about ourselves, our goals, our lives -but it happens so slowly and imperceptibly that we usually don't recognize it.

But, there are also those media moments that transform us instantly. Many people around my age talk about this happening when they saw Star Wars for the first time, as young children. The world, after they left the theater, somehow looked different, more exciting and more alive, and full of more potential, than when they had walked in.

And in the movie, Almost Famous, there's a terrific scene near the beginning of the film, just after young William's sister leaves home. She tells him to check for something she's left him under the bed, and he finds a satchel full of her vinyl record albums. He sits, awed and open-mouthed, running his fingers over Led Zeppelin II, Wheels of Fire, and Axis Bold as Love as if they are holy relics. She also leaves him a note scribbled on a slip of notebook paper: "Listen to 'Tommy' with a candle burning and you'll see your entire future." And there's no question that young William's life will never be the same.

My "Almost Famous" moment happened in 1983, courtesy of MTV - back when MTV actually used to play music! Now, I had, of course, heard of Bruce Springsteen before. I'd heard "Born to Run" and "Hungry Heart" on the radio, but at the time I kind of lumped Bruce into the same category as other radio-friendly bands, like the Cars and REO Speedwagon (as embarrassing as that is to admit). Anyhow, one afternoon Martha Quinn introduced a "new" (actually recorded in 1978, on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour) Bruce Springsteen video. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and hearing. The music, the performance, the audience frenzy, the girls mobbing Bruce onstage, were so over the top, so thrilling, that I couldn't  keep my mind on anything else. For weeks, I'd camp next to the television, waiting for the next time they'd play Rosalita.

Not only is Rosalita a fantastic song, but this performance also captures, absolutely, everything that makes Springsteen great. Springsteen is unabashedly melodramatic, beyond the point of corniness, yet at the same time completely cool. The only way he pulls this off is by being 100% committed to his music, his performance, and the spirit that inspired it. And in indulging so completely himself, it gives the rest of us permission to lose ourselves in the music, as well.

As an awkward 9th grader struggling with my image, this video suddenly opened my eyes to my own potential possibilities. Bruce Springsteen was cool and I wasn't, but listening to (and vicariously living) his music made me instantly feel more worldly, more adult, more hip. My friends had regular names like Mike, Ted, and Cathy. Springsteen's characters were much more colorful: Jack the Rabbit, Weak-kneed Willy, and Big Bones Billy. Even the people in his real-life band were larger than life - the Professor, the Mighty Max, and of course, the Big Man. I longed for the boldness and wit to have sidekicks with such monikers.

More specifically, this video set in motion the chain of events that led me to start playing the guitar. Socially, I was too awkward to express myself in words. Rock music and the guitar gave me a way to do so with much more confidence and assurance, and helped me to find my real personality as an adult. Over the years, I've taken one very important cue from Rosalita - to put every ounce of energy into every performance, to get lost in the music and the message, and to forget about how I was perceived. That's a tough lesson to learn, but Rosalita was a great teacher.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Fonz's Ravioli (AKA "15 Great Things About "Lost" - Thing #2")

When I was in elementary school, Happy Days was my favorite prime-time show. With its then-unusual teaming of "nerdy" characters like Ralph and Potsie with the "all-American" Richie and the almighty Fonz (as corny as his character may seem in retrospect, he was very edgy and cool at the time), the show in its early years offered plenty potential for brilliant comedic situations. When you tuned into the show, you expected to laugh, and to be entertained in a very lighthearted, easy manner.

But there's one classic Christmas episode that stands out as one of the greatest Happy Days moments of all because it unexpectedly breaks from its established tonal pattern. The show begins with the Cunninghams celebrating Christmas Eve by decorating the tree in their living room. Mr. C grumbles that he just wants to have a quiet holiday at home with his family and no outsiders. But when the mechanical Santa on their front lawn goes on the fritz, Richie and his dad drive out to Fonz's garage, and see the "greaser" sitting alone in the dark, eating cold ravioli from a can. Contrasting with the show's dominant comedic tone and the Fonz's ultra-cool demeanor, this scene immediately establishes itself as a classic - touching, poignant, and real.

So, what does this all have to do with "Lost"? In my last post, I discussed the importance of ambiguity in the series, and in art in general. If ambiguity is an element that appeals to us intellectually; a story's ability to shift quickly and abruptly between moods and tones is its emotional analogue. Happy Days pulled off a remarkable moment with "Guess Who's Coming to Christmas," but "Lost" regularly navigates similar emotional extremes with shocking abruptness.

One of my personal favorite episodes is season 5's "Some Like it Hoth,"  which combines so many things I love: time travel, the 1970's, Star Wars. While driving around in the Dharma van, Hurley presses Miles about his relationship with his father; Miles insists that his dad was no good - he didn't care about him, and basically abandoned his family. Hurley, who is in the process of "pre-writing" "The Empire Strikes Back" (with a few improvements), lightens the mood by joking about how Miles should take advantage of time travel to "experience changing his own diaper." Suddenly, against this backdrop of light banter and camaraderie, the show drops one of its emotional bombs: while walking through Dharmaville to deliver a "package," Miles peers through the window of the house where he was born, and witnesses his father joyfully reading a storybook to his infant incarnation. I remember the first time I watched this episode: the moment was so touching, so unexpected, and contrasted so startlingly with the previously established mood, that I felt emotionally exposed. Damn "Lost," I thought - they got me again.

And that wouldn't be the last time that the show would surprise me. The funeral of the actual John Locke was a heartbreaking moment - some even saw it as evidence that Locke's faith had amounted to nothing - and Ben's surprisingly honest confession added to the poignancy of the scene. I'll admit that I got choked up at this point - and seconds later laughing out loud at Lapidus' "This is the weirdest damn funeral I've ever been to" comment. And the moment after that, I paused the DVD to take a moment and appreciate just what an incredible show "Lost" is because of these emotional mousetraps it springs on the audience.

One thing is for sure about "Lost" - you never knew what you would experience next. I'm still waiting for the deleted scene where Jim La Fleur watches the Fonz eating ravioli on his Dharmaville TV set...