Monday, April 30, 2012

The War for Late Night

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The War for Late Night (Viking, 2010).

I retain a fascination with late-night talk shows, despite not actually really liking late-night talk shows, but my interest only emerges when there's drama, or when somebody mentions something particularly funny that happened, almost invariably on Letterman or Craig Ferguson. Nobody else seems to ever do or say anything worth comment, except during that ugly period of 2009-2010 when there was lotsa drama and Jimmy Kimmel took Jay Leno out behind the woodshed and whipped the tar out of him, helping make Conan O'Brien a hero and martyr in the eyes of everybody under the age of, say, 47, even those of us with no affection for Conan O'Brien. Boy, that was good TV. Thank heaven for YouTube, otherwise I'd never have seen a minute of it.

See, other than Letterman and Ferguson, I've never liked any of these guys. I've only suffered through their labored, rushed comedy to see a musical guest, and drummed my fingers impatiently or lost focus and opened a book far more times than I've ever laughed. Even at Carson. When I discovered David Letterman in high school, I was amazed that there was actually anything funny on TV that late, because Carson never made me laugh. I have read the tributes and praise for his Tonight Show for years, from writers and essayists and critics and wondered what the hell I must have been watching that was so dull, mediocre and back-slapping instead of this comic genius that they all praise. I mean, I read Mark Evanier, whose taste and opinions I agree with more than just about anybody, speak of Carson so reverently and sadly wish that I could have seen that guy on TV instead of the dull old man that I always saw in middle and high school.

For example: the first time that I encountered this rotten tradition of banishing the musical guest to the final minutes of the program came during a 1990 Tonight Show. I tuned in to see Maria McKee, hoping to get two songs and a couple of minutes of banter between them. Instead, Carson had Alan King on, for no particular reason whatever. King had nothing to promote, nothing to sell, and, critically, nothing to say. It was agonizing, watching these two old men tell anecdotes and war stories without context or reason, and pat each other on the back being insufferable and smug. Then again, I never saw the point of Alan King, either. It was the least funny hour of television ever, and four minutes from the end, Maria did a solo version of "To Miss Someone" and then I went to bed.

So the battle for Carson's seat between the inventive, clever and very funny Letterman and the painfully, painfully unfunny Leno made no sense to me whatever. I only would watch Letterman for a good musical guest, but I could be assured of some amusing TV waiting for the act. Having him on at 11.35 would be nice, as I could get to bed earlier. I still don't know what the hell NBC was thinking, giving Leno that job, but then again, I still don't understand why each man was so in awe of Carson. The incident, reported by Bill Carter in 1992's The Late Shift, makes for amazing reading.

And then everything went to hell again. Leno, despite not being funny to anybody under fifty-five, spent about a dozen years stinking up TV until NBC finally gave him a five-year notice, and let O'Brien know that he'd change timeslots and get The Tonight Show in 2009. It is very, very hard to muster any sympathy for the only people in the United States who get five-year notices, and the only people on television who can be assured of having a show on the air in five years' time.

But there's a moral side to that argument, which I think that Bill Carter addresses very well in The War for Late Night. Sure, O'Brien got to walk away with a $30+ million severance package, but he got screwed out of a dream all the same, and screwed by a network that has not made a sensible, comprehensible programming decision since about 1999. This is a network that rewards the consistent mediocrity of people like Jay Leno and wonders how they can stop being in fourth place behind a rival network that packages seven fewer hours a week than them.

Carter's book is, like the earlier one, rife with stories from "staffers" who declined to give their names to their accounts, and the result seems a little more third-hand than would be ideal, but it's still a breezy and very fun read. He covers, in good detail, all of the memorable and amazing moments of the stupid business of Jay Leno moving to a nightly 10 pm slot. Writers and critics will be torpedoing that idiotic move for decades. We'll remember it as fondly as that time Tim Conway was the guest star on the one-and-only broadcast of the derivative variety show Turn-On in the late sixties, the first time a show had ever been canceled after a single episode. NBC's Jeff Zucker, who somehow came up with this brainless move and all of the attendant dominoes that went down after it, such as the ongoing destruction of the network's ability to package a 10 pm drama, tries to pass himself off as a victim of circumstance who desperately wanted to avoid losing Leno to ABC. Instead, he is shown as relentlessly incompetent, and with good reason. My small audience for my Bookshelf blog may only be a hundred or so people, but every man jack one of you could do a better job programming for NBC than Zucker. This is the man who should have canceled Jay Leno, and not rewarded his 10 pm failure by losing O'Brien.

And Leno? If anybody would ever like to tell me a story where the guy doesn't come across as a desperate-to-please buffoon, I don't think I'll bother reading it. I have seen more than enough of his inoffensive, dated, playing-for-Peoria style of gentle aw-shucks comedy, watched enough of his antics when he got The Tonight Show and when he acted so immoral and so greedy when his damn show should have ended. Anybody looking for an account that contradicts my reading of the record won't find it here. Carter's book is so closely in line with my own feelings that it's entirely possible that he wrote it to my specifications.

One conclusion that Carter makes, however, is one that I had not considered. None of these newsmaking shenanigans or daily revelations or input from Letterman or Kimmel into the trainwreck at NBC ever resulted in a real Nielsen rise for the shows. Certainly, everybody with an ear for the dirt learned that, the night before, something amazing had happened on Kimmel's show, but nobody then tuned in to see whether there might be more fireworks on ABC that evening. Rather, we all read the news and looked at the accompanying YouTube clip, laughed our tails off at Leno's expense, and went onto other things and hit the sack safe in the knowledge that if something unmissable did happen, it would be in our inbox the next morning. In a world where even drama this spectacular and popcorn-ready will not change our TV habits, it's increasingly apparent that there simply isn't a need for high-salaried programming this late. Of course Nielsen ratings are going to keep plummeting no matter who's on TV that late, because we want to go to sleep and we have YouTube. It's even harder to muster sympathy for O'Brien's $30+ million payout when you know that NBC shoveled all that cash to get rid of him in favor of a future where nobody carrying on Carson's legacy is going to compete with, basically, advertising-free highlights on YouTube.

That's where I catch all the musical guests that I want to see, anyway. Look up Company of Thieves playing "Oscar Wilde" on Carson Daly sometime; it's mighty good. The book's recommended. Have YouTube handy to see the events detailed, especially Kimmel destroying Leno on the foolish man's "Ten for Ten" segment, for even more fun.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Cynicalman (Thunder Bass, 1987).

Matt Feazell's sort of like the Velvet Underground of comics. He may not have sold millions of his minicomics, but everybody who bought one from him has made their own. Heaven knows I did; even accepting that none of my comics were very good, the minis that I made in the late '80s really were a mess. However, fueled by Gary Larson, Jack Ziegler and Gahan Wilson, and inspired by Feazell's insistence that anybody can do this, many late-night runs to Kinko's in the pre-counter days came off the back of Cynicalman and the rest of the cast of Not Available Comics.

After several years of selling his photocopied comics, Feazell compiled most of them into a paperback edition. It was released by a company called Thunder Baas Press, and it doesn't seem to have been around very long. They released six issues of a comic book called The 39 Screams and this book, but nothing more that I could find. The collection's no-frills design almost makes sense, considering the DIY comics inside, but it really does look like a release from some vanity publisher more than anything else.

Perhaps surprisingly, this material has aged really well. It helps that, unconsciously, I ended up picking up some of Feazell's vocabulary and language. To me, cars simply go "ERT" when they brake. They just do. The stories are light little parodies of superhero tomfoolery, with Cynicalman grumpily pressed into battle with either Dr. Pweent or Antisocialman at the behest of either a fickle populace or some bureaucracy that demands his time.

It's actually a great little time capsule of Reagan's America; one strip shows Cynicalman flying a kid around the country to show the disparity between farmers who don't grow anything and children living in poverty, each simple little gut-punch punctuated by our hero shouting, "Scary, huh?" They're straw men and not discussed with nuance, but when we learned about social injustices such as these at the impressionable time in high school around 1986-87, nuance like this wasn't what we wanted.

The book devotes about half of its space to Cynicalman's adventures. Other characters, presented in conjunction with other writers and artists like Karen Majewski and Randy Carpenter, pop in, cross over and keep things surreal and silly. From Cutegirl's obsessions with beach parties and nice skirts to Plainman's conflicts with boys raised by ants, it is an unpredictable and odd set of comics.

This edition has been out of print for twenty-five years, but I found a copy in surprisingly good and sturdy shape at McKay in Chattanooga. Certainly recommended if you run across one.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Turn! Turn! Turn! / Eight Miles High

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Turn! Turn! Turn! and Eight Miles High (Backbeat, 2002).

I finally indulged in a little of my inner hippie and read Richie Unterberger's mammoth two-volume chronicle of the folk-rock sound of the sixties, from Newport to Woodstock, during which time David Crosby morphed from chubby-cheeked cherub into Santa Walrus. It is dense, quite scholarly in tone and incredibly detailed in its research. Sometimes, there are issues trying to decipher this, as the author seems hell-bent on including far more material than the subject honestly needs. There seem to be, for instance, several hundred eyewitness accounts of "Bobby" Dylan's electric set at that game-changing Newport Folk Festival. After pages and pages and pages about it, I started to think that Unterberger planned to excerpt from every one of them.

It's absolutely sweeping in its scope, which is definitely going to mean that anybody tackling it is going to find an eye-glazingly dull patch for every one that entrances, and the uniform, uncritical tone doesn't allow projects to stand out as essential listening. I followed along with YouTube when I could, and, honestly, didn't enjoy as much of the music as I thought that I might. This was the music that I loved in high school before I discovered the Cure. All of that band's records have aged tremendously well; Jefferson Airplane's have not. Neither have Buffalo Springfield's.

To be honest, outside of the Beatles, who have always been on my playlist, the music from the period and the genre that I really do enjoy right now is music that I discovered quite some time after my teenage immersion in it: Dylan, the Byrds and, especially, Love, whose Forever Changes remains my favorite album of the sixties. I didn't listen to any of their music in high school, preferring other folkie hippies - add Simon & Garfunkel and The Mamas and the Papas to the names above - whose tunes I just don't care for at all anymore, and haven't for years. I wonder why that is. Anyway, Love doesn't get a very detailed mention, but the Byrds, through their first five albums anyway, form the backbone of the narrative.

This is how it should be; those first five Byrds LPs are really, really good, and I definitely recommend following video of the group so that listeners who find the Byrds' original recording of "Triad," before it was given to the Airplane, a little disturbing on account of the frightening concept of a threesome with Santa Walrus. He was a good-looking fellow, once! And Jim - slash - Roger McGuinn, with those blue granny glasses and piercing stare. I don't know that there was a cooler white man in the sixties.

But the books throw curve balls. Readers will be deeply in California, listening to some sunshiney pop played with a twelve-string, and suddenly Unterberger goes off on a tangent and the next thing you know, you're eleven pages into some treacle about Fairport Convention. Bloody hippies. Recommended anyway.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Vworp Vworp # 2

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Vworp Vworp # 2 (self-published, 2011).

I was starting to despair that I wasn't going to see this magazine! I intended to order it, lost track of things, got busy and when I finally got around to ordering it, it was sold out! I drummed my fingers and waited for a second print run. I waited like a refugee in Casablanca for an entry visa to the USA. A couple of months went by before it was finally made available for order again. Do not make this mistake. If you enjoy Doctor Who, order this today!

Vworp Vworp is a fanzine about fandom, basically. It's a celebration of Doctor Who Magazine and its often terrific comic strip. The zine is professionally laid-out and designed, absolutely packed with information, and is, overall, a far larger package than can be absorbed in one sitting. Some of the interview material is really dense and detailed, and it strides a thrilling line between unchecked enthusiasm and scholarly, academic distance. Colin Brockhurst, Gareth Kavanagh and the various writers are taking their subject seriously, but also having a blast.

One of the major focus points in this issue is Abslom Daak, a supporting character in some back-up comic strips from the early eighties. Written by Steve Moore and illustrated by Steve Dillon and by David Lloyd, the character was retired after a few well-remembered adventures. Moore reveals details on how much backstory went into his creation and an abandoned expansion of the idea. One of the trademarked Who-universe members of the cast was due to be killed off in the next episode, which is visualized in a newly-commissioned full comic treatment of Moore's old script; it's one of two new comics in the magazine. Interestingly, Daak's creators daydreamed about moving the character into a separate Marvel series without any Who ties, should the license ever be lost. This could have, in some fantasy world, resulted in an American TV series starring Gil Gerard or a BBC-TV series starring Ian MacShane. Much fun is had visualizing such programs and their attendant early-80s merchandising.

There are lots of other terrific interviews, including with Mick McMahon, artist of the legendary "Junkyard Demon," a pile of former editors including the always entertaining Dez Skinn and the seldom-interviewed Cefn Ridout, and Gareth Roberts, who adapted his hilarious Tenth Doctor comic "The Lodger" into a not-quite-as-hilarious Eleventh Doctor television episode.

The magazine shines with affection and good humor, and anybody reading this will be taken with how lucky the creators are to get to play in a sandbox with so many toys, and how much fun they're having sharing their hobby. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Nuts (Fantagraphics, 2011).

When I was in high school, I really reaped the benefits of whomever had been there before me and encouraged the librarians to stock the humor shelves with some great cartoons and comics. Not only did I discover Jack Ziegler then, but also Gahan Wilson, through the old paperback collection of Nuts. This was a monthly black-and-white strip, usually a single page, that appeared in National Lampoon.

The author's bio on that book led me back to my father's Playboy collection. I won't deny that for three or four years, I'd been reading his girlie magazines, but, unsurprisingly, I was just going from pictorial to centerfold pictorial to the third pictorial and then to the mostly-not-funny Playboy Funnies and then Little Annie Fanny. I'd long ago established that the other single-page comics in Playboy weren't worth my time, but I had never noticed Wilson's monthly page. I suppose that the next evening my folks were out, I probably went down to the basement and found the Wilson page in every one of about seven years' worth of magazines, and went back upstairs knowing that I had another fifteen years' more to find. Whenever it was I got that chance, I remember roaring with laughter over Wilson's iconoclastic, rule-breaking, macabre comedy. It made me a fan for life.

(The process of reading Oh! Wicked Wanda in Penthouse, which I still contend was one of the best comics of the '70s and badly needs to be reprinted was similar, except that Dad had a far smaller run of that magazine, and, unlike Playboy, the skanky pictorials in its pages prompted me to flip past them as quickly as possible. Point being, between Wanda and Wilson and PMOY 1981 Terri Welles, I'm not sure which I enjoyed the most even at age fourteen.)

But Nuts was just this really weird thing. I couldn't tell where it came from, since I only knew the name National Lampoon as appearing as part of the title of R-rated comedies on HBO, and had no idea then that there was a magazine. Logically, I figured that it had to come from somewhere, but even the reference within the author's bio in that book just made me think that Wilson had done some production work for Animal House or something. It was a terrific strip, even though I did not make the connection between it and Peanuts for years and years. As Schulz's strip was an idealized reflection of suburban, small town youth, Wilson's is a really more honest look back at childhood, full of complicated disappointments and the inability to understand grown-ups, illnesses, death, or cities. "The Kid," who mostly keeps his green hat on, is lost inside layers of jackets and coats, and buried under word balloons, insulated from the world as much as a child can try for.

It's certainly a very good strip, although, truly, it doesn't quite captivate me as much today as it did when I discovered it, and it was this completely left-field life event, showing a style of comics I'd never seen before. Other than the sex comics in Dad's magazines, the only other real comics-for-older-readers that I'd seen were probably The Freak Brothers, which had troubled my just-say-no self quite badly, so I didn't know what the heck this was. Nuts can't carry the shock of the new, in other words, now that I recognize it as both a reaction to Peanuts and heavily influenced by Robert Crumb.

And sometimes it is very frustrating. Working in his small grid of panels, Wilson's lettering really does overwhelm his art. Reading Fantagraphics' new hardback collection, which is said to reprint every one of the strips, I began resenting the standard text-only first panel of each comic, as it never really adds much to the story. In time, I caught myself skipping past it.

The dialogue is always important - the profanity-laden episode in which The Kid attempts to become an escape artist absolutely had me roaring with the accuracy of how children really think when they are frantic and very angry - but it becomes irritating when Wilson comes to a panel with just a hint of artwork escaping from underneath a balloon. That's a fair complaint, I think, because his artwork is so incredibly evocative and perfect when he gives it room to shine. There are several unforgettable, perfect panels with The Kid's face bunched up in jealous fury, the lines so small and tight and controlled that, even if it's a close-up on his face, or if there's room beneath the balloon for nothing more than the face, you can still see The Kid's fists somewhere out of the frame and your sight line, clenched in impotent rage, tiny little lines bringing to life every pulsing vein.

I bought a copy of the paperback a few years ago, but only thumbed through it once. I've owned a few thousands of books in my time, and I've never actually seen one where the binding has deteriorated quite like this one has, with the spine's glue disintegrating and transmogrifying into something like sawdust. Afraid of what I might do to it, or what air might do to it, I bagged and filed it, so I'm glad that Fantagraphics has brought this new edition out. Today, I fear that it's my dissatisfaction that might keep Nuts on the shelf, but I'm sure I'll rediscover it in time. The book looks just great, even if I would quibble with the designer's very odd choice to call this a "graphic novel" on the front cover, and while something about it honestly lacks the genuine, timeless brilliance of Wilson's decades of Playboy comics, this is still an important and very readable collection. After all, I'd never have gone looking for the Playboy comics in the first place if it weren't for Nuts! Recommended.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Rip it Up and Start Again

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Rip it Up and Start Again (Faber and Faber, 2005).

One day, I might figure out a way to write a "review" of something that doesn't have me expressing a quibble at such length that it overpowers and overwhelms my explanation that a book is otherwise good fun and you should read it. That said, Simon Reynolds either doesn't like the Cure - clearly one of the biggest and most influential of the postpunk acts that emerged during the period of 1978-1984 covered in his book Rip it Up and Start Again - or he figures they've been thoroughly covered at enough length by other writers and he didn't need to give 'em much mention here. I went into Rip it Up rather expecting them to be pretty key players, but they get about half a page in a pretty dismissive chapter about goth. He goes on for pages, and I mean pages, about The Pop Group, a band I had never in my life heard of, before mentioning that some of their members turned up in Rip Rig and Panic, a band that I've only ever known as those guys who were on that one episode of The Young Ones singing a song with incoherent lyrics. This isn't, clearly, a book to go into with expectations, because Reynolds is out to defy them.

Even while subverting expectations with every chapter, there is a lot of material here to absorb. England in the late seventies was an incredibly interesting place for new music. John Lydon's Public Image Limited bookends the first half of the narrative, with Malcolm McLaren's various weird and controversial projects weaving through. As kids throughout Great Britain became interested in reggae and dub, Tony Wilson started promoting Warsaw - slash - Joy Division, and synthesizers became inexpensive enough for every third twenty year-old in Sheffield to purchase one, record labels throughout the country - Virgin, Postcard, Factory - were releasing some really fun music.

Tasked with putting all of this into one flowing narrative, Reynolds somehow pulls it off. It seems like he's tied together dozens of disparate styles and movements from all around the country into a genuine and exciting theme of young musicians really trying something new, the desire for innovation in their individual schools being the theme that ties together acts that don't otherwise have anything in common. This feels like a really remarkable achievement when you consider that the American version, which I read, is something like 200 pages shorter than the original edition. Somebody pruned the absolute bejesus out of this book before issuing it here. I had no idea until I went searching for the link on Amazon and saw the outraged reviews.

(In one instance, it's to the book's benefit as far as I'm concerned. Lost to the American scissors is apparently a lengthy chapter on SST Records and industrial acts like Foetus and Test Department. Since I absolutely loathe that stuff, I find it no loss whatever. Errr, that is, I'm incredibly outraged on Reynolds' behalf. Yes. The American cover is depicted above, but clicking it takes you to an Amazon page where the UK edition is offered by sellers at a reasonable price.)

As the story winds its way throughout the day's new music - YouTube providing a fantastic soundtrack to groups unfamiliar or forgotten - it reaches a very surprising climax and conclusion with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, of all bands, wrapping up the story. Reynolds gets to Frankie by way of connections that would impress even James Burke, through McLaren, through The Lexicon of Love, through the Art of Noise and finally to that amazing, mountainous, world-changing, game-changing sound of "Relax." Recommended over my quibbles.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth (Feral House, 2001).

I've got a lot of time for bubblegum pop from the sixties and seventies, even if I did not know much of anything about its backstory before reading this very fun collection of essays. There's a lot worse out there than the Monkees and the Banana Splits, that's for sure.

Still, since the Rolling Stone-dominated American media has valued "authenticity" over fun, learning about this music has often required a little work, and Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth does assume a level of understanding about its subject that was sometimes beyond me. I think that I counted three references to the songwriter-producer team of Kasenetz and Katz before any of the writers identified who the heck they were. Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz are only just the people who supposedly coined the term and were behind the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the Ohio Express. Among devotees, this would be similar to reading a book about the Ronettes and the Crystals and not knowing who Phil Spector was when you sat down.

I've been reading a lot of music history books lately - more to come in these pages! - and using YouTube to provide the appropriate soundtrack and fill in the gaps. I really liked this book's approach, using multiple writers and interviews to tell dozens of stories from multiple angles, even if some of the writers' enthusiasm overwhelms their material. A contributor called Metal Mike Saunders could really have tuned it down a notch or twelve, but that's just the dry and boring academic in me talking.

The book goes right up to the end of the 20th Century, even with bubblegum's heyday long behind it. Comic artist Peter Bagge brings the subject to the modern day with an illustrated essay about the Spice Girls and their clones and imitators (B*Witched, Billie Piper), correctly assigning credit and praise to Mel C, who surely deserves it. Did you hear her single "Think About It," by chance? It was only one of the two or three best singles of 2011. Truth, that. Recommended.