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Greg, Paul, The Devil, & Mickey

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“A Year at The Top” is a 1977 sitcom about two musicians who sell their souls to the Devil. It only ran for five episodes but its history is pretty wacky so you know I had to write about it. Become a JG2LAND PREMIUM subscriber for just $2 a month to unlock this piece as well as the rest of my bonus content.

A Convenient Parallel Dimension Sold Out In The UK Already

My new book A Convenient Parallel Dimension: How Ghostbusters Slimed Us Forever was only released in the UK eleven days ago but already it’s sold out. It may have actually sold out well before the release date, as I’ve heard from people who preordered months ago and still haven’t received their copy. What can I say but thanks, UK! More books will wash up on your shores next month. I’m sorry they can’t get there sooner. Apparently the publisher sends them on a boat. Too heavy for a plane, I guess. At any rate, I appreciate your patience and hope it’s worth whatever wait you must endure.

Would you like to hear me talk about A Convenient Parallel Dimension on yet another podcast? You’re in luck. I was recently a guest on the Ghostbusters fandom podcast Extraplasm. Click here to listen to my chat with show host Jim Maritato. We chop it up about all sorts of stuff. And unless he cut it out, you can hear me rant about how John Landis should be in prison.

In a related story, I wasn’t expecting a single mention of Ghostbusters when I started Punk Paradox, the memoir by Bad Religion singer Greg Graffin, but that’s my fault for not remembering Bad Religion’s emblem (a black cross in a red circle with a slash through it). Graffin spends a few pages in the book discussing the creation of that emblem in 1980 and how prevalent the red negation symbol became thanks in part to Ghostbusters.

“It’s likely that our fortuitous association with this friendly red circle backslash helped to pave the way for our band’s logo over the years,” he surmises. “In America at least, I’m sure that the Ghostbusters symbol and the ‘No Parking’ graphic image helped to diffuse any possible antagonism from religious groups. We were never antagonizers — we were simply the antithesis of the symbol we were slashing: you won’t find religion in this house.”

I’m halfway through Punk Paradox and it’s tough to put down. I’ve been into Bad Religion since I was a teenager in the Freaking 1990s but I never took the time to learn very much about their history as underdogs in an underdog genre. I always assumed Graffin was more or less a good egg — thoughtful, principled, compassionate. His book confirms that. And he calls out bullshit when he sees it. Case in point: he really tears into Youth Brigade for all the baloney they put in their famous documentary Another State of Mind.

Another cool memoir I read recently is Bob Odenkirk’s Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama. Nothing about Ghostbusters in there that I can remember but plenty about how miserable he was writing for “Saturday Night Live.” Has anyone ever had a good time working on “SNL?” Anyone besides Kenan Thompson and Don Pardo?

Before I sign off, let me remind you that if you enjoy my writing and want to support me in a tiny, recurring way you can sign up for JG2LAND PREMIUM, the paid tier of this blog. A mere $2 a month unlocks super elite bonus posts (and helps support all the stuff I post for free). The most recent paid content was a piece I wrote about Wolfen. Click here, lay it down, and check it out. Then check out all the other bonus stuff, like the long thing I wrote about the KISS tribute album or my review of every “Faerie Tale Theatre” episode.

Thanks for your consideration. I love you all.

A Pure Crystal

Can anything prepare you for a first time listen of The Transformed Man? As a forty-something already familiar with the rest of William Shatner’s career in kitsch and irony before giving this a spin, I will say no. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard his embittered take on “Rocket Man” or that logic-defying run through of “Common People.” Hearing 1968’s The Transformed Man after all that is like picking up the first Ramones album after Ramones Mania, which was absolutely my experience in high school. You have this kind of cutesy framework that’s obliterated by the raw element. Like, God, this might really be from another planet.

According to the text on the back cover, The Transformed Man came about because Shatner was enamored with a couple poems by Frank Davenport and wanted to bring them to life. Davenport’s work came to Shatner via a co-worker on “Star Trek,” Cliff Ralke. Ralke’s father Don, a music industry figure best known for helping launch Ed “Kookie” Burns, wound up producing The Transformed Man. Having an actor recite poetry and Shakespeare and even some pop music lyrics over an orchestra isn’t that bizarre conceptually, even for 1968. Of course, it’s not the material, it’s the delivery, and Shatner floors it the entire time. You know you’re in for the ride for your life from the get-go; the LP opens with a white-knuckle reading from Henry V that suggests Shatner was there to help the English seize Harfleur.

When Shatner does a whimsical dance through Cyrano, I laugh. When he is tormented by Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” my jaw is on the floor. This is just the first 12 minutes of The Transformed Man. Make it to the conclusive title track and you’ll be rewarded with one final dose of crazed conviction as Shatner recounts a baptism through nature.

“I became as a pure crystal submerged in a translucent sea and I knew that I had been awakened…I had touched the face of God!” Those final words are barked like a mongrel, and it’s interesting to juxtapose that against Shatner’s recent trip to stars. Did he touch the face of God? Did he even see God?

“All I saw was death,” he said of space’s infinite vacuum.

Ass My Kiss

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The lore behind the 1994 KISS tribute album Kiss My Ass: Classic Kiss Regrooved is pretty wild. $2 a month gets you access to this important KISStory lesson plus all my other exclusive content! Wow, cool deal!

She’s So Unusual

This review was originally published via The Classical Mess, a Substack I was doing a few years ago before I found out they gave money to bigots.

“By the way, if you listen to the very end of ‘She Bop,’ you’ll hear that Michael Jackson took the bass line and wrote ‘Bad’ from it. Right before he went in to record ‘Bad’ he sat behind me on an airplane with Emmanuel Lewis and he was listening to ‘She Bop.’ Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’m very flattered by even the thought of that.”

This snippet from Cyndi Lauper’s eponymous 2012 memoir arrives in the midst of a lengthy passage about touring Romania in the early 21st Century. It’s not an isolated incident of narrative interruption. Turns out you can take the girl out of Queens but you can’t take the unpredictable tangent out of the New York storyteller. When Lauper mentions her home in Connecticut she confirms that it’s in the same area where that lady had her face ripped off by a chimp and she meditates on that for a few beats.

Michael Jackson isn’t the only superstar Lauper accuses of plagiarism in Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir. According to her, Bruce Springsteen lifted the template of her song “Sally’s Pigeons” for his Oscar and Grammy-winning effort “Streets of Philadelphia.” Lauper was less enthused with this theft and she has another Bruce anecdote where he acted coldly towards her at a party. Let’s get these two on “WTF” so they can hash it out.

Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir presents a familiar trajectory — hard scrabble upbringing, a years long “overnight” success, lonely times at the top, listening to 50 Cent while you drive your son to hockey practice. Lauper endured her share of abuse on the journey through celebrity, underscoring a real tenacity, and she’s candid regarding her own mistakes. The example springing to mind per the latter is, for lack of a better term, fucking insane: Lauper once referred to herself using the n word (with a hard “r”) during a record company meeting early in her career.

Lauper says she was referencing Yoko Ono’s controversial quote about women that employs the epithet and claims she “wasn’t sensitive” at that age to the “long history of abuse and slavery and horror” sewn into those six letters. I don’t buy the second half of this 70-year-old white woman’s defense but at least she’s not pretending she didn’t say the n word. And at no point does she use the “some of my best friends” crutch.

Did you know Cyndi Lauper had a recurring role on 1990s sitcom “Mad About You?” I didn’t. Lauper praises Paul Reiser as one of Hollywood’s true nice guys but says Helen Hunt was a little crazy with power. Specific examples are not provided, so the “Mad About You” historians have their work cut out for them.

The great Jancee Dunn co-authored Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir but, as noted, it doesn’t feel like much editorial work was applied. In addition to all the bizarre tributaries, the tone is inconsistent. Sometimes Lauper writes like a normal person and sometimes she lapses into the phonetic quack of a Bowery Boy. The latter is cute, though occasionally it obscures Lauper’s thesis on a given topic.

Was there friction between Lauper and Dunn? The copy of Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir I own is autographed by Lauper and when I received it the jacket was bent in such a way that Dunn’s photo was not visible. Let the conspiracy theories flow.

A Child And His Lawnmower

I got into Dead Kennedys when I was a teenager in the late ’90s. They had a couple songs on Burning Ambitions, these awesome punk rock compilations recommended to me by Dave, my local record store guru. Around the same time my pal Joe dubbed a bunch of their stuff onto a cassette for me. Even for punk, Dead Kennedys were warped. They played this dark, inward style of surf music where the guitar sounded like it was dripping with acid. The singer’s insane helium voice had to be a put on. Who sounds like that? Tiny Tim? Mickey Mouse on crack? It was demented, but I loved it. And the songs were these caustic, astute, invigorating, and often very funny diatribes railing against everything wrong with society — wealth disparity, suburban sprawl, nationalism, the military industrial complex, pollution, corporations, religion.

Thank god someone is saying all this shit out loud!

Cut to 2001. I was struggling to finish college. The struggle got even harder when I was struck by the calling to write a book about Dead Kennedys. Part of it came from reading Our Band Could Be Your Life, which was published that year. Each chapter in Our Band is devoted to a different underground group of the ’80s. Dead Kennedys are referenced often throughout the text but they didn’t receive their own chapter. That seemed insane. Man, when are these guys gonna get their due? A scrapbook was floating around back then called Dead Kennedys: The Unauthorized Version; it has a lot of cool pictures and quotes but that’s it. Someone’s gotta write a real book about these guys, one that really gets into how important they are. Why not me?

A good answer would have been, “Because you have zero experience.” I’d never written anything professionally. My career consisted of a Geocities website where I posted pea-brained opinions on records and movies. Hey, everybody has to start somewhere, and I liked to dream big. So suddenly I was pushing everything aside to figure out a Dead Kennedys book. I sat in my classes furiously scribbling in notebooks, working under the assumption that I could just bribe my professors into giving me passing grades.

I didn’t want to write this book without the help of every Dead Kennedy, so I wrote them all letters asking if they’d like to participate. This is probably the craziest part of the story — since I couldn’t find exact addresses for most of the band members, I just wrote their names and “San Francisco, CA” on the envelopes. Like I was writing to Santa Claus. One small caveat: I had to fax my letter to singer Jello Biafra. An associate explained that he preferred to receive correspondence that way. Okay, sure, you got it.

By this point, it was no secret that Dead Kennedys had fractured into two very embittered camps. A lawsuit over royalties and catalog control shattered any illusions about brotherhood. Let’s see how succinctly I can explain this fight. Dead Kennedys started their own record label in 1979 called Alternative Tentacles. After the band broke up in 1986, Jello was granted sole ownership of Alternative Tentacles. Ten years after that, the label’s GM discovered that the other Dead Kennedys — guitarist East Bay Ray, bassist Klaus Flouride, and drummer D.H. Peligro — had been stiffed on royalties to the tune of six figures. The instrumentalists claimed the GM blew the whistle on a coverup where Jello was going to disguise the missing royalties as brand new profit. Jello said he and the other Dead Kennedys were trying to solve everything amicably until they got mad that he wouldn’t agree to license their song “Holiday in Cambodia” to a Levi’s commercial.

Ray, Klaus, and D.H. sued Jello for fraud. The case went to trial in 2000; Jello was found guilty. As a fan, I didn’t know what to think. Who was telling the truth? All I knew is it would make a compelling portion of my book. So I sent my letters off, assuming they’d come right back or get lost in the mail. This was in August of 2001, I think. Then I caught some news that made me wish I’d never sent Dead Kennedys any letters in the first place. Ray, Klaus, and D.H. were reforming the band with a new singer for a national tour. What a crass, capitalistic thing to do — exactly the type of thing this band was always against. Who could replace Jello? No one. I was so pissed off I peeled the Dead Kennedys stickers off my car.

I was trying to forget about all this when an e-mail from Klaus Flouride hit my inbox in February 2002. It said something like, “Hi James, we got your letters. We’re playing in Jacksonville soon. Isn’t that close to where you are? Let’s meet up.” I spent a few minutes staring at this e-mail, trying to find any sign that it might be a prank. Eventually I realized it wasn’t. Hmmm. Well, I guess I’ll write a Dead Kennedys book after all. Honestly, I was shitting my pants. I still loved every Dead Kennedys record and this felt like an incredible break. Not that I was in any way prepared for it, or deserving of it.

A week later, there I was, face to face with Klaus Flouride in a Jacksonville parking lot. He had a kindly, measured demeanor, like that of a trusted uncle or neighbor. “Another writer recently contacted us about doing a book,” Klaus told me. “But you sent us actual letters, and that impressed us.” I still couldn’t believe the letters didn’t wind up in the trash. Klaus took me into the club to meet Ray, whose light blue button down shirt tucked into khakis was a more conservative look than I was expecting. We engaged in some polite, friendly small talk. Then, suddenly, Ray took a firm tone. “Could you go back outside? As I’m sure you know, anything I say can and will be used against me.” Okay, so this guy’s a little paranoid. Back in the parking lot, D.H. Peligro was doing pull ups on a portable workout rig. He did more pull ups in two minutes than I’d ever done in my life. “So, you’re the author?” he inquired with a sly grin.

Later on I re-entered the club to watch soundcheck. For the first couple of minutes, Ray, Klaus, and D.H. didn’t really have it together. They sounded like high schoolers picking their instruments up for the first time. Then they went into “Life Sentence” and it was like bam, that classic Dead Kennedys sound. Just like the record. Afterwards, Ray’s guitar tech invited me and my traveling companion Chris (also a massive Dead Kennedys fan) to dinner. It was fascinating watching the guys who recorded Plastic Surgery Disasters wander around downtown Jacksonville on a Sunday night, tying to figure out where to eat. We ended up at a Firehouse Subs. They had “Futurama” on a television inside the Firehouse. I will never forget laughing like a hyena at something Bender the Robot said and Klaus Flouride whipping his head around like he’d heard a car crash.

Brandon Cruz, the singer substituting for Jello, was pleasant but we didn’t talk very much. It was definitely strange watching him onstage with the rest of the band. As I recall, the original plan for this iteration of Dead Kennedys was to play one surprise concert to celebrate their legal victory against Jello. They started rehearsing with different singers but word got out. It didn’t take long for crowds to start forming outside their rehearsal space. So they decided to book a tour. And they hired Cruz, a former child actor who more recently sang for Dr. Know.

I had this idea that after they played I’d spend a little time interviewing each Dead Kennedy but I only got to speak at length with Klaus that night. We sat down at the bar and he immediately opened up about all this strife he’d had with his father. Not in an intense way. He was just telling it like it was. That conversation wrapped up and the evening ended with a semi-circle in the parking lot. The Dead Kennedys and I agreed we were gonna do this book. They gave me their phone numbers. I apologized to them if I had been too intrusive at all during our visit.

“Well, you followed us to dinner,” Ray said. “That was weird.”

“Your guitar tech invited me.”

“Oh.”

Insecurity started to get the better of me so I offered another apology. This one was kind of rambling. Ray and Klaus looked uncomfortable. Suddenly D.H. let out a huge cackle. “Oh my god, James! Don’t worry! It’s all good!” He stepped forward to give me the hand clasp half hug that men give each other to emphasize that it is, in fact, all good.

So I went home. And I spent the next five or six months interviewing Dead Kennedys for my book.

I had standing dates every week (every other week?) to call Ray and Klaus and chat for an hour or so. Communication with D.H. was more sporadic. I’m not sure if he was just busy or if he changed his mind about getting involved with the book. Klaus also put me in touch with a handful of shadowy figures from the band’s history, like their first drummer Bruce Slesinger (a.k.a. Ted). Bruce was fired after the first album because his relentless teasing drove Jello nuts, leading to “either he goes or I go.” It was kind of refreshing how divorced Bruce was from this chapter of his life. He seemed to view Dead Kennedys like a high school science project.

“Well, I guess I can help you,” he finally sighed into the phone. “I just don’t know who would really care at this point.”

Winston Smith, the artist who created all the imagey for Dead Kennedys’ albums, was much more enthusiastic. He wrote me novel length e-mails about what life was like way back when, detailing all sorts of funny stories. I was still living with my parents when all this was going on and I remember Winston calling my house once when I wasn’t home. My mom answered and they apparently had a long, lovely conversation about god knows what. My mother raved about it. “What a charming man!”

As I was working on my book about Dead Kennedys I spent almost no time wondering why this legendary punk band agreed to get on board with me, a no name writer. Maybe they figured I was going to write the book regardless so they might as well have their say. Maybe they thought an amateur drip like me could easily be swayed to only tell their side of the story. In all the hours I spent interviewing these guys, I never felt like they were trying to manipulate me. That said, I was 23 years old, this all took place two decades ago, and I haven’t listened to the interviews since I taped them. Ray had a persistent hacking cough for a while when we were talking, and it crossed my mind that he might be dying. Oh god, what if that’s the reason all this is happening? Is that why he’s weird and cranky about certain stuff?

Even though Ray and Klaus won their lawsuit the wounds had yet to heal. They would only refer to Jello by his last name, and it seemed to physically hurt them every time they said it. Clearly some of that went back to the glory days. Jello was never the chummiest guy, they explained, and he completely walled himself off emotionally after his wife left him in the mid-’80s. I’m not sure when that happened in relation to the obscenity trial they went through with 1985’s Frankenchrist but those are the events that exacted the final toll. I was interested to learn Ray was the first to announce he was quitting Dead Kennedys. That was right before they recorded their swan song, Bedtime For Democracy. “When we were making that album, Biafra would only address me as ‘the bass player,'” Klaus said.

I should force myself to listen to the interviews because I’ve forgotten more than I remember. Still, there are a handful of anecdotes from this project that remain indelible. If you have Give Me Convenience or Give Me Deat you’ve heard the recording of Dead Kennedys at the 1980 Bay Area Music Awards playing their anti-industry screed “Pull My Strings.” I asked Klaus why they didn’t get the plug pulled during all that; he said nobody in charge of sound that night was paying attention to content. ‘They were just getting high and watching the the levels, like, [imitates hitting a joint] ‘The kick drum sounds a little hot!'” The story with their rhythm guitarist Carlos (alias 6025) wasn’t as funny. Carlos did brilliant work for the band but he was also struggling with mental illness. He’d try to describe concepts the rest of the group couldn’t understand, and the disconnect set off his frightening temper. Carlos left Dead Kennedys around the same time as Bruce.

In July 2002, I finally heard back from Jello Biafra. He sent me a handwritten reply. “Dear James, Thank you for your offer, but as far as I am concerned, the last thing the world needs is a book about Dead Kennedys. Why not let the music speak for itself? Plus I have no interest in rehashing all the ugly gossip surrounding the other 3 ex-DKs’ vicious ugly lawsuit. I am sorry I can’t be more helpful, but I don’t really have the time for this anyway, let along the interest. Sincerely, Jello Biafra.”

I called Ray after receiving Jello’s letter. “Are you still gonna write the book?” he asked. “Of course,” I lied.

A year later, Jello Biafra showed up to do a spoken word event at my college. I went to it because part of me felt like I had to show myself or “confront” him or something ridiculous like that, but when he made himself available before the show to meet fans I just stood there. I couldn’t approach him. What do I think I’m gonna say here? The whole thing’s over. The most memorable part of Jello’s lecture happened when someone’s cell phone went off. Immediately his body recoiled like he’d stepped barefoot in dog shit. Then he started shouting, “OKAY, who’s the CELL PHONY?”

I fell out of touch with Ray, Klaus, and everyone else, and I don’t remember hearing from any of them after I wrote an abbreviated version of this story for Crawdaddy! that was published near the end of 2008. I bet they were on tour. Improbably, Dead Kennedys remained a fixture on the reunion circuit. They were also on their fourth singer. Brandon Cruz quit in 2003. Then they hired Jeff Penalty, who did it for six years before things went sour. Jeff published a memorable resignation letter citing “arguments about splitting money equally, arguments about how the band should be run, arguments about the wisdom of hiring a band manager whose other star client was a Christian folk artist, arguments about whether we should or shouldn’t go on MTV, and arguments about many other wretched things.” Dead Kennedys hired Skip Greer from the Winona Ryders to replace Jeff. He’s been with them ever since.

In 2019 I interviewed Jeff Penalty for Hard Noise. I thought maybe enough time had passed and he’d be willing to get into the details about his exit from Dead Kennedys. I was wrong. Jeff didn’t want to go on record about any of that stuff, but he did tell some interesting stories about how he wound up in the band in the first place and how he approached this endeavor artistically.

There still hasn’t been a book dedicated to telling the entire story of Dead Kennedys. Maybe one day, right?

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Warhol, Wrestling, Muppets

This review was originally published a few years ago in The Classical Mess, a newsletter I was doing on Substack until I discovered they were giving money to very bad people.

Debbie Harry has always seemed remarkably well-adjusted considering her global renown. This image is not shattered by her 2019 memoir Face It. Harry unfolds the road map of her life and nothing, it seems, has driven her off sanity’s edge. Not sour business or lost love or discovering that world famous drummer Buddy Rich was one of the two 40-something creeps who followed her home at the age of 12 after making their intentions clear at a nearby lobster shack.

Harry writes about that mortifying episode and several other very traumatic incidents like they’re just wacky family stories to be told after a few drinks around the holidays. Is she too well-adjusted? Millions of people cope this way — downplaying visceral horror with a laugh or wry comment. Maybe she is truly unaffected. Either way, it doesn’t prevent Harry from coming across as a relatable, endearing human in Face It. Often it feels like the only thing separating us from her is we don’t own paintings of ourselves by Andy Warhol.

What are Face It’s revelations for the casual Deb head? Harry “made it” once with David Johansen back in the day. She admits she “was never a Muppet fan” and only went on “The Muppet Show” because Dizzy Gillespie had been a guest (Harry offers praise for Jim Henson, though, whom she labels “a big pervert, in the best possible way”). Also, Debbie Harry once enjoyed an Edgar Winter concert.

Then you have this fascinating aside about Lydia Lunch, that high priestess of the underground, and her devotion to Bret “The Hitman” Hart. Lunch, Harry, and Harry’s longtime beau Chris Stein were all wrestling fans and used to attend matches together. “Lydia Lunch was hot for Bret big time,” Harry writes, noting that “heads turned [and] eyes stared” when Lunch began screaming in her “earth-shatteringly loud” voice for Bret when he was on the card. I wonder if Bret Hart ever heard Teenage Jesus.

The back half of Face It starts to feel like a sprint to cram in every notable event from Harry’s life during the 21st Century. Now maybe you understand why Richard Hell halted his life story I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp around 1984. Harry’s work is more humane, though, and more human, so we bounce along, happily adjusting.

Gord

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about legendary Canadian punk band Teenage Head is the guitar playing of Gord Lewis. I love to hear him blaring like a siren during the opening moments of “Tearin’ Me Apart.” I love the romantic growl of his power chords across their debut LP. Everybody in Teenage Head played their asses off and the material couldn’t be written any better, but there was crazy magic in Gord’s style.

It was very upsetting to learn this week not just that Lewis had died but that he was apparently murdered by his own son Jonathan. Sounds like those in the know assumed something like this was going to happen. Gord’s brother Brian has spoken of mounting tensions between the father and son in recent weeks and that they were both “dealing with their own demons.”

Rest in peace, Gord. Thanks for the music. I crank the Head your honor.

Talking About Heads

This article debuted in January on The Classical Mess, a newsletter I was creating on Substack until I found out they were doing bad stuff.

The offstage rancor between David Byrne and the rest of Talking Heads has become just as legendary and captivating as their music. I cannot tell you what reverberates through my mind more often — the brilliant quirk of “Once in a Lifetime” or bassist Tina Weymouth pushing the rumor that lead singer Byrne once killed a child “using voodoo.” Drummer Chris Frantz, also Weymouth’s husband of many decades, doesn’t address witchcraft in his 2020 memoir Remain in Love but he does swat at Byrne more often than he praises him. Reading between the lines, I see a guy who is hurting for a warmth and a friendship from Byrne that will never come. Maybe his wife hasn’t told him about the voodoo yet.

It’s probably disheartening to have such a fruitful creative connection with a person who simultaneously cannot or refuses to connect on a more human level. The flip side of Frantz’s Talking Heads coin is the cosmic bond he’s shared with Weymouth, a union that has clearly helped him cope with whatever traumas life has delivered. Weymouth and Frantz don’t need Byrne, personally or professionally. When this wife and husband debuted their side project Tom Tom Club in 1982 it actually eclipsed Talking Heads in popularity (Tom Tom’s upbeat single “Genius of Love” earned gold sales and a Rich Little parody, two things Talking Heads had yet to achieve).

Crusty “Saturday Night Live” heads like myself might be wondering if Remain in Love mentions early ‘80s cast member Charles Rocket at all. Yes, Frantz talks about Rocket, whom he knew during his college years at RISD. There’s a palpable affection when the author writes about his late friend Charlie and the performances he gave as singer for a group called the Fabulous Motels. The Motels did a spoof of “Sweet Soul Music” where the refrain was “Do you like big men, y’all? Big strong men, y’all?”

Rocket’s music career extended to include a guest shot on Mesopotamia by the B-52’s. Frantz briefly touches on this release in the text but only to imply that David Byrne’s production made it one of that group’s worst performing discs. No shot at Byrne is too obscure or petty. Frantz even takes a swipe at some drawings a young David made that Byrne’s parents had hanging up in their home. I’m sorry he hurt you, Chris.

Byrne will most likely do his best to ignore the fact that Remain in Love even exists. I think he should film himself reading the entire book in real time and release it as his next art installation. That would be fascinating. Would he agree that it was a mistake to end his relationship with Twyla Tharp?

Another Age?

This article debuted last year on The Classical Mess, a newsletter I was creating on Substack until I found out they were doing bad stuff.

Anyone with a heart and a brain can tell you America is a land of disillusion, a land of embitterment, a land of anguish. There are systematic problems we refuse to address, even when the fix is simple, because we’re indoctrinated to be racist, selfish, and lazy. So the American experience involves grim acceptance. We try to ease our hopelessness with irony. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

You can hear all this on the 1969 Phil Ochs LP Rehearsals For Retirement, the acclaimed folk singer’s response to the dark tumult we stumbled through in 1968. The revolution was over, Ochs felt, a point driven home by the picture of his own grave on Retirement’s cover. Here’s a man resigned to an acrid fate of racial injustice, state violence, foreign wars, and toxic masculinity. Ochs doesn’t let that destroy his beautiful, compelling voice, though, and he hasn’t given up entirely.

“So I pledge allegiance against the flag and the fall for which it stands,” he declares amidst the simmer of “Another Age.” “I’ll raze it if I can.”

Phil Ochs had already drifted away from pure folk by this point. In fact, Rehearsals For Retirement was his third foray into standard pop and rock arrangements with producer Larry Marks (better known as the original singer of the “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” theme). What the pair accomplish on Retirement is masterful, from the delicate piano lilt of “The Doll House” to the hammy brass that accents “The World Began in Eden and Ended in Los Angeles.” There simply isn’t a false move.

Unfortunately, a fourth collaboration between Ochs and Marks wasn’t in the cards. Rehearsals For Retirement tanked and Ochs moved on to the bizarre final stage of his career. He began emulating the rock n’ roll stars of the 1950s in an attempt to, as he put it, “[get] Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.” Fans felt bemused or betrayed by the singer’s glitzier attire and Buddy Holly throwbacks. Ochs watched his career evaporate as personal problems seized his life. He hanged himself in April 1976.

The tragedy of this concluding chapter makes Rehearsals For Retirement’s emotionally raw title track all the more heartbreaking. “The days grow longer for smaller prizes, I feel a stranger to all surprises,” Ochs quietly laments. “You can have them, I don’t want them…I wear a different kind of garment in my rehearsals for retirement.”

It’s a true indictment of our nation that the social and political themes of Rehearsals For Retirement continue to be relevant 50 years after its release. Maybe in 100 years we’ll have evolved. I’m not holding my breath.