We Were Only Freshmen

thevervepipe-thefreshmanFor the life of me, I cannot remember why I ever liked “The Freshmen.”

Okay, that’s not true.  I just needed a way to start this post and thought I would try to be clever.  Obviously, that doesn’t always work.

Anyway, I have been on a Nineties music kick lately and in my listening came across The Verve Pipe’s only hit, a song my nostalgia for probably bears explaining.

Originally recorded in 1992 but rerecorded and released as a single in January 1997, “The Freshmen” peaked at number five on the Billboard Hot 100 in June of the same year and was a complete anomaly in the Top 40, which featured “Mmmm Bop” by Hanson and at least one song by The Spice Girls.  This was not the morose grunge-dominated early 1990s, this was the happy, dawn-of-The-Millennials late-1990s and there were few straightforward rock acts making any dent.  Even I had abandoned most of rock and roll for punk and ska at this point in my life and spent the better part of a summer annoying my girlfriend with The Mighty Mighty BossTones before moving on to a full-blown 1980s pop nostalgia trip.  But I happened to be headed to Charlottesville from Baltimore during spring break in March of ’97 and heard “The Freshmen” on WHFS and thought “This is a song that I need to listen to.”  In fact, I’m pretty sure that I went to The Wall in the Barracks Road shopping center that weekend and the paid full $2.99 or $3.99 for the cassette single.  That is how much I felt I needed “The Freshmen.”

If you’re unfamiliar with it, the song is basically a four-and-a-half-minute-long lament sung by the band’s lead singer, Brian Vander Ark, who wrote the lyrics.  In the song, he hints that something terrible has happened and he feels guilty, although he seems conflicted about whether or not he should be held responsible, especially since everyone involved was so young.  At least that’s what I understood in 1997 when I was playing the song in my Hyundai Excel’s tape deck and the video was being played and replayed on VH-1 as well as on the radio at work that summer where I remember one day we tried for the better part of an hour to figure out what the lyrics meant.  I seem to recall my boss, Joe, thinking that the song literally was about someone falling through ice on a lake and dying.  My guess was not as exact but I was pretty sure someone was dead.

Thanks to the Internet, I now know that Vander Ark wrote the song about feeling guilty over his ex-girlfriend’s suicide.  The lyrics also contain something fictional about an abortion, and listening to it nearly two decades later (I lost the cassette single years ago, however), I hear that.  I also hear why I liked it so much at the time–in 1997, it was a throwback to the bands I had been listening to when I was in high school, like Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots.  Granted, The Verve Pipe was probably more on the level of Candlebox, but that’s how my mind worked.

Anyway, “The Freshmen” also reminds me of a time when I took myself way too seriously as a writer because I thought that is what writers did.  In fact, I don’t think I fully realized that angst just isn’t my style until after I graduated college because at the time the song was popular, I was still trying to write serious fiction … and was doing that pretty badly.  I mean, we’re talking attempts at drama from someone who had one of the most drama-free and “non-dark” lives in history.

But writing class will do that to you.  You are someone who loves to write and don’t have much to worry about in life, and the sappy crap you wrote about your pookie got old during freshman year (as well as extremely embarrassing), and everyone else in your workshop group has an eating disorder, an alcoholic parent, a dead friend, or an inspirational story about finding God.  Smart-assed commentary about Star Wars or short stories that were inspired by John Hughes movies just didn’t seem to hold up in my mind.

Which is kind of a shame, when you think about it, because that means I found my strengths in writing by demonstrating my weaknesses in writing class–thankfully, I was writing a column in the student newspaper at the time, so I could build on those strengths.  But when you think of it, I shouldn’t look fondly on a time when I wasn’t very good at something.  Then again, there’s something about that time in my life when I tried to be deep on purpose and nothing says that more than the forced earnestness of “The Freshmen.”

The Most Earnest Song of the Nineties

I was in my English 1o advanced class last week watching the pilot episode of My So-Called Life.  Toward the very end of the show, Angela gets home from Let’s Bolt (courtesy of a police officer) and as she’s talking to Brian Krakow, she spots her father, who was supposed to be shooting pool with his brother, talking to another woman.  It’s a gut punch of a moment and as she stumbles toward her house, “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. begins to play.

When I heard snide remarks from some people in the class, including, “I can’t take this song seriously,” I had to stop myself from blurting out what I was thinking–“Uh, you think making stupid noises is hilarious.  It’s kind of hard to take you seriously as well”–and eventually made the comment that very few things are more early ’90s than “Everybody Hurts” playing at the end of an episode of My So-Called Life.  And honestly, that fits Angela Chase and that moment because the song itself is incredibly earnest.  In fact, there’s probably no pop song more earnest than “Everybody Hurts.”  It hit at the right time and the right part of the decade and holds up way more than the bombastic seriousness of later Nineties acts such as Live, who got tired incredibly quickly.

I’m going to give my class a little more credit here, however, because there were a number of students who seemed to really enjoy the episode and understood what the scene was trying to convey, an “everything is just now way too real” moment where you, as a person, cannot possibly process everything and yet finding yourself having to figure out what’s going on and somehow react.  The song is there to reassure Angela, and probably the audience, and by the time we see Angela on Monday morning, she’s happier, and can even admit that … “We did.  We had a time.”

Now, if this were the only time anyone in the Nineties ever heard “Everybody Hurts” in any context, I could write a more thorough examination of this scene (Claire Danes’ reaction to seeing her father in the scene is perfect–she’s stunned in a way that is so real that it’s almost uncomfortable.  Later episodes would follow up on this moment), but by the time MSCL premiered in August 1994, R.E.M.’s song had already been a top 40 hit and took its place in the pantheon of 1990s songs, especially with its video that, won four awards at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards and featured an almost surreal traffic jam*.

Subtle, the video is not.  But then again, subtlety was never the point of the song, either.  In fact, Peter Buck said of the lyrics, “the reason the lyrics are so atypically straightforward is because it was aimed at teenagers,” which is odd for a song that in 1993 was almost an anomaly on the pop charts.  In fact, a look at the Billboard Hot 100 for November 6, 1993 (the week it peaked at number 29) shows the top 40 full of R&B acts with a few exceptions such as “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” which stood at number one and is nothing like this simple mid-tempo piece from an album that is filled with similar pieces (and is easily one of the best albums of the decade).

Then again, what was on the Billboard Hot 100 or playing on Top 40 radio was never exactly the measurement of what I liked when I was in high school, or what any of the cool kids liked, either.  Oh, people I went to school with surely had their nights listening to Z-100 but to my knowledge little or nothing by Nine Inch Nails was charting at the time and the guys I hung around definitely weren’t hearing “Master of Puppets” on the radio.  It was an age of discovering the difference between what was popular and what you liked, and that led me in a much more interesting path than listening to Ace of Base on repeat (I could have, btw … my sister had the CD).

r-e-m-_-_everybody_hurtsI will take a moment to admit here that I wasn’t really listening to R.E.M. that often in 1993.  I didn’t own any of the albums and while I may have checked the CD out of the library at one point, I wasn’t what you could call a huge fan.  I honestly have no reasonable explanation for this except that my musical tastes were way too geared toward what my friends were listening to at that moment and I already took enough shit for listening to Queen that I didn’t want to attract anymore negative attention (I’m serious–I was very insecure in my musical likes).  College wound up being different and in time, I compiled a small collection of R.E.M. songs, including “Everybody Hurts.”

I suppose a number of fans of “Everybody Hurts” would be offended by the student who said he couldn’t take the song seriously, but despite my snarky thoughts when I gave his comment more consideration I remember that I probably thought the same way at one point because the song serves as a reminder of how cool I wanted to be back then. There’s something about being a teenage boy and thinking that being cynical and sarcastic and acting as if you’re above it all comes off as mature when it really comes off as obnoxious.  Being earnest is not intelligent and is definitely weak.

10,000 Maniacs’ Our Time in Eden would be the album that helped change me in that particular way (and that is another story for another post), but I came to appreciate all of Automatic for the People and “Everybody Hurts” stands, at the moment, as a beautiful piece of nostalgia and a reminder of those moments of my teenage years when I was a raw nerve who had no idea where he was going or what he was doing.  Because when the strings swell at the end and Michael Stipe starts singing “Hold on,” I honestly can’t help but smile.

 

*A footnote here because I couldn’t find anywhere to put it into the main text, but there is a moment on an episode of Daria entitled “Road Worriers” that parodies the “Everybody Hurts” video perfectly.  I tried to find a YouTube clip but couldn’t.

Comics Prehistory: Return of the Jedi

ROTJ1In my previous post, I wrote about the first comic I technically owned, although I only remember finding it years after I actually had “bought” it as a kid and it wound up feeling way more important later on, especially when I became an avid Batman collector and a fan of DC continuity, especially the continuity that centered around or was associated with Crisis on Infinite Earths.  Here, looking at the second set of comics, is something that was purchased because it was associated with the most important thing in my life when I was six years old and that was Star Wars.

To this day, Return of the Jedi remains the Star Wars film I saw the most in theaters and is the only film from the original trilogy that I saw upon its original release.  My father took me and my friend Chris to see the film at the Patchogue Indoor/Outdoor drive-in theater (the one that eventually became the UA Patchogue 13, which I wrote about in 2010: “Let’s Go to the Movies”) in 1983, would take me again to see it at the Sayville triplex when it was rereleased in 1985, and Amanda and I would go and see the special edition during spring break in 1997.  I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the film because of it being the one I saw in the theater (as opposed to Star Wars, which was on television and video and I had watched numerous times before seeing Jedi; or The Empire Strikes Back, which I saw via bootleg copy before it finally came out on video in 1984), and also because of how its merchandising shaped that part of my childhood.

Return of the Jedi StorybookYou could not escape Return of the Jedi in 1983 and 1984.  You may have not gone and seen the film (although I don’t know that many people my age who hadn’t seen it), but that didn’t matter because no matter what store you walked into, it seemed that there was something with a return of the Jedi logo on it.  Lucasfilm licensed Jedi to the hilt and when I was a the height of my kid fandom, I had a ton of merchandise that went beyond the toys:  sheets; cookies;  Dixie cups; a calendar; and my most prized non-toy possessions, which were the records, tapes and books that told the story of the film.  For myself and a number of other kids my age, owning these pieces of merchandise allowed me to relive the movie for at least a few years before I saw it again or owned my own copy on VHS (a copy I still actually have).

Star Wars merchandise

A two-page spread of Star Wars merchandise, most of it from Jedi, as featured in “George Lucas: The Creative Impulse” by Charles Champlin

The comics, however, I have to admit, were not really a part of that.  My comic book buying as a little kid was incredibly sporadic–if I saw something I liked and my dad had enough pocket change, I would buy it, but there were rarely return trips to the store to get the next issue or anything like that.  But I did own the entire Marvel Comics film adaptation and that is because of something that is an integral part of the 1980s childhood nostalgia, which is the comic book multipack.

Return of the Jedi ComicsIf you’re unfamiliar with comic book multipacks, these were polybagged packs of three or four comic books that were stocked on the shelves of K-Mart, Toys R Us, and similar stores (for those local to Long Island, you’ll recognize the name TSS).  Sometimes they were entire collections of limited series, such as this, but other times they were three comics featuring the same character or characters.  I remember a number of times where  I would pick one of the multipacks off the shelf and try to see what the middle book was because you only could see the full covers of two of them.  Most of the comics multipacks were from Marvel, although DC produced them as well, and at some point in late 1983 or early 1984, the company bagged the entire four-issue series and put it on the shelves for the low, low price of $2.29, which was an 11-cent discount.

I really don’t need to get that much into the plot of the series because if you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with the events of Return of the Jedi, and unlike, say, Marvel’s adaptation of Star Wars back in 1977, there aren’t major discrepancies between the comic and the movie such as deleted scenes left in or lines of dialogue significantly changed.  In fact, the thing that does make the Return of the Jedi adaptation unique is that it’s a separate miniseries from the then-ongoing Star Wars title that Marvel was publishing and it is only four issues long instead of the six that were given to tell the stories of Star Wars and Empire.  The creative team was the same as Empire‘s six-issue story arc, with Archie Goodwin handling the writing and Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon doing the art (the team on Star Wars back in 1977 had been Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin).

ROTJ2In trying to remember how I got these comics, I seem to recall getting them from Toys R Us in Bay Shore, and it was one of those rare times when my parents took Nancy and I to the store and allowed us to pick something out because we didn’t get toys or anything like that at random very often–they were usually saved for Christmas or our birthdays.  Why we were at Toys R Us to begin with is beyond me, but I’m going to assume that either one of us was there to spend Christmas or birthday money or we were there to buy a gift for someone else, perhaps someone whose birthday party we were attending.  The comics and coloring books were all located on a newsstand rack that was at the end of the board games aisle at the back of the store (and honestly, the old-school Toys R Us layout is probably worth its own blog post, especially if I can find pictures), and what probably happened is that I saw the comics multipack, asked my parents to buy it for me, and since it was roughly the same price as an action figure (my usual go-to “can you buy me this” item because it was cheap and they knew it wouldn’t go to waste), they said yes.

I’d like to say that I read the covers off of the series, but quite honestly, I only remember one time where I read it in the car on the way to my grandmother’s house and what probably happened after that was that I shoved the comics in the desk where I kept all of my coloring books.  The storybook, which had bonafide photographs from the film was more important to me anyway.  And what that means was that I had vague memories of it beyond the covers–which, to be honest, are different characters striking simple poses in a way that can best be described as “serviceable” and nowhere near as dynamic as the adaptations of the other two films–so when I read the adaptation as part of the “A Long Time Ago …” Volume 4 omnibus that Dark Horse Comics released, I didn’t have any serious emotional attachment.

ROTJ3Still, I have to say that it is quite a disappointment.  Having to condense the entire movie into four issues means that Goodwin and Williamson are almost doing a retread of the photographic storybook, as it’s heavy on narration boxes and the panels look more like stills than dynamic depictions of action.  Granted, I know the story and knew the story when I first read it, so I didn’t and don’t need that feeling of “What’s going to happen next,” but this during an era of the Marvel Star Wars comics where David Micheline and Jo Duffy were writing some excellent stories and the work by artists such as Walt Simonson, Ron Frenz, and Tom Palmer was top-notch.  That’s not saying that Goodwin and Williamson were bad at their jobs, but reading Jedi as part of that omnibus package had me wondering what the series would have been like if those creators had taken on the task of adapting the film.

Instead, what we have is probably the very definition of a “disposable” comic book.  I mean, there are quite a number of comics out there that are ephemeral, but for something that had such a big impact on popular culture and the comics industry (especially Marvel) as Star Wars, the adaptation of Jedi reads as if it were to be consumed in the moment and then tossed aside to be put on a pile of coloring books, storybooks, and other things that would eventually make their way into a trash can at some point during a huge spring cleaning a few years later.

Coming next month:  Star Wars #81

Pop Culture Affidavit Presents: 80 Years of DC Comics Episode 15 — Christmas

80 Years Episode 15 Website LogoWell, it’s been a month since Christmas and you’ve all finally listened to all of the holiday-themed episodes that everyone else on the TTF network put out … so why not one more? That’s right, folks–we’ve kept the lights up and drinking egg nog way past its expiration date to bring you a look at FOUR Christmas-themed DC Comics. First up is a treasury-sized Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer read by yours truly and Brett, complete with running commentary. I follow that up with Stella who discussed a Golden Age Batman story live at our local Starbucks. Then, it’s time to check in with the boy of steel and the Legion of Super-Heroes in a classic story that I reviewed with Michael Bailey. And finally, I fly solo for Team Titans #6. It’s festive! It’s jolly! It’s a month overdue!

Here’s where to listen:

iTunes: Two True Freaks Presents Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Two True Freaks Presents: Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

In Country: Marvel Comics’ “The ‘Nam” –Episode 64

IC 64 Website Cover“The Death of Joe Hallen” hits its penultimate chapter with “Burned” from The ‘Nam #57. Joe and his Marine unit finish their covert mission for a CIA agent and try to find their way back to more friendly territory, but things don’t exactly turn out as planned. It’s brought to us by Chuck Dixon, Wayne Vansant, and Tony DeZuniga. Plus, I’ll take a look at the historical context for October 1970.

You can download the episode via iTunes or listen directly at the Two True Freaks website

Two True Freaks Presents: In Country iTunes feed

In Country Episode 64 direct link

Nam 57

Pop Culture Affidavit, Episode 57: You’re So Money!

Episode 57 Website CoverIt’s the first episode of 2016 and I’m back from Vegas, baby, so I’ve decided to take a look at one of the biggest independent film success stories of the mid-1990s, Swingers.  Directed by Doug Liman and starring Jon Favreau (who also wrote the screenplay) and Vince Vaughn, the film is a comedy about guys, Hollywood, and attempts at romance in their twenties.

iTunes: Two True Freaks Presents Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download

Two True Freaks Presents: Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

swingers-movie-poster-1020259619

And extras for the sake of extras, here’s three of my favorite scenes from the film …

Mike leaves a message:

Playing Hockey:

Go Daddy-O:

Comics Prehistory: The Brave and the Bold #182

Scan0001I suppose it’s kind of funny to say that comic #1 in your collection (read: the first comic you purchased and still have) is only #1 on a technicality.  I own a copy of The Brave and the Bold #182 and have owned this comic since 1981; however, I honestly do not remember buying it.

My hometown’s local comic shop, Amazing Comics, opened in 1984 and the first comic book I ever bought there was an issue of Superman: The Secret Years.  But a few years later, probably around 1988 or 1989, my parents were cleaning out the attic and my friend Tom and I were helping them clean off some old stuff that they were going to give to a local church.  Most of these items were pretty typical–clothes and old toys, for instance.  In fact, several of the old toys were Fisher-Price Little People sets that nowadays would fetch about $40-$50 on eBay if my parents had the foresight to put those back in the attic.

Anyway, among those old toys was an American Tourister luggage set that my parents probably had owned since they were married in 1971, a pea-green hard-cased set that was actually pretty cumbersome to store and had been replaced with the type of suitcases that can be placed inside one another.  Tom and I were asked to open each of them up, dust them, vacuum them, and leave them on the back deck to air out before we put them in the car.  We did so, taking a break from actually playing with the Little People (because even though we were 11 or 12, it was toys we hadn’t seen and that’s what you do whenever you see toys), and when I opened up what used to be the toiletries and cosmetics suitcase, which is what I used to pack when I was very little and would spend nights at my grandmother’s, I found The Brave and the Bold #182.

Scan0002

In the splash page, Batman gets a frightening surprise and Jim Aparo gives us some great cape.

It was obviously my comic book and I had obviously brought it with me when staying at my grandmother’s one night, but I cannot say when I actually bought it.  The cover date was January 1982 and the publication date, according to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics, was October 22, 1981, so the comic predated the opening of the comic book store and that meant that my father probably bought it for me when he took me to Greaves Stationary on Main Street because he was buying cigarettes and while he chatted up the people behind the counter, I perused the comics and picked this one out.  The fact that I hadn’t lost it–I remember owning at least one issue of The New Adventures of Superboy as well as one or two issues of The Amazing Spider-Man but what issues they were and when I got them is lost to time–is only by the grace of my forgetting it in a suitcase.

Scan0003

Robin reminds Batman that he’s all grown up.

The Brave and the Bold, most comics fans will remember, started as an adventure anthology book and then became a superhero team-up book, eventually evolving into a Batman team-up book that ended with issue #200 and was “replaced” by Batman and the Outsiders.  The team-up in this issue is with “Robin, The Ex-Boy Wonder” and is called “Interlude on Earth-Two.”  Written by Alan Brennert with art by Jim Aparo, the story begins on Earth-2 with the adult Dick Grayson, aka Robin, teaming up with Starman Ted Kord to figure out how Hugo Strange, a man long thought to be dead, is creating crazy storms around Gotham City.  Meanwhile, back on Earth-1, Batman finds himself in a graveyard in a similar storm and after dodging a lighting strike sees is own grave.  Only it’s not his own grave; it’s the grave of the Batman of Earth-2, who had died a few years earlier in an issue of Adventure Comics.

Batman, after scaring a random couple who think they’re seeing a ghost, heads to the headquarters of  the JSA where he’s accosted by Robin, who thinks he’s breaking in before he realizes who he’s looking at.  The two recap who Hugo Strange is and then find themselves being attacked by relics from the Batcave:  Catwoman’s Pantherjet, and an old Batmobile, for instance.  Someone else joins their team as the old Batmobile attacks them and that is Kathy Kane, aka Batwoman, who Bruce remembers died years ago on his earth but is semi-retired on Earth-2.

Realizing that the artifacts that are attacking them are real, the Bat-team deduces that the only possible place that Hugo Strange could be attacking them from is the Batcave and they head there, which is where they have to fight the T-Rex that’s so famous as well as a Batman android.  Eventually an old and decrepit Hugo Strange shows himself, holding Starman’s cosmic rod (it had disappeared at the beginning of the issue), which he’d been using to control everything he’d been throwing at the heroes.   He tells Batman, Robin, and Batwoman how he had survived the fall that everyone thought had killed him back in Detective Comics #46 (and thanks to The Original Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes Vol 1 for that info) and then Batman attacks him, telling Strange that it’s not that he wants to destroy Gotham, it’s that he wants to die.  Batman tells him that he doesn’t have the guts to kill himself and eventually Strange admits it and uses the cosmic rod to turn himself to ash.  The story ends with Starman, who is nursing a broken arm, using the cosmic rod to send Batman back to his earth.

Scan0004

Hugo Strange sends a Batman robot after our heroes and Robin has to “kill” his mentor.

By the way, there’s a Nemesis story in this comic but: a) I never read that as a kid, and b) I covered it back on episode 3 of 80 Years of DC Comics: Action-Adventure, so you can learn all about it there.

Alan Brennert is one of Rob Kelly’s favorite comic book writers and it wasn’t until recently that I realized that he wrote three of my all-time favorite Batman stories, including this one.  I’ve heard this covered on a couple of podcasts before and the two things that always come up are that the version of the Earth-2 Robin costume with the yellow pants and the green mask that covers most of his face are not everyone’s favorite and that through most of the story, Robin is resentful that the Earth-1 Batman is there and acts like kind of a prick.

Scan0005

At the end of the story, Hugo Strange meets his end. Batman is kind of responsible, but we’re going to gloss over that.

When I was a kid reading this story, Robin’s resentment didn’t necessarily register with me and re-reading it now, I actually like the resentment.  Batman of Earth-2 died in Adventure Comics #462, which only came out three years prior to this, so in comic book time it’s very possible that not much time had passed between the death of the Earth-2 Batman and this particular adventure, although there were two JLA/JSA crossovers between now and then, so this is not the first time that the Dick Grayson of Earth-2 is encountering the Bruce Wayne of Earth-1.  However, while I don’t know if I’m being entirely accurate, this is probably the first time in a long time that the Robin of Earth-2 has been part of a Batman and Robin team.  Furthermore, Batman does boss him around quite a bit like a junior partner, and it actually is a nice bit of foretelling of how the Dynamic Duo of Earth-1 will have their tension boil over in the pages of The New Teen Titans and Batman of the Outsiders just prior to Dick becoming Nightwing.  Plus, I’ve always liked this version of the Earth-2 Robin’s costume.  I can’t explain why, because it would never really work if it were used in a movie or anything.  Maybe it’s the way it’s drawn by Jim Aparo because his artwork is amazing throughout the story and a reminder of why for years his Batman was “my” Batman.

As for the story, I love it because Brennert’s writing is really tight and he makes several callbacks to storylines way in the past (as evidenced by my having to use a comic book encyclopedia for reference) but doesn’t overwhelm things with contrivance or continuity.  In fact, he gives what could be a very heavy story about dealing with one’s grief, or having to unexpectedly confront feelings that you thought you’d worked through.  Plus, he plays the angle of the old, decrepit villain trying for one last victory very well, even if Batman kind of goads Hugo Strange into offing himself (it’s kind of “suicide by cop” if you break it down.

I would spend much of the early part of my comic collecting career loving alternate earths stories like Crisis on Infinite Earths. and I think this comic book is responsible.  I’m also happy at how well it holds up, especially when I’m pretty sure that a number of comics I’ll be reviewing for this series won’t.

Coming Next Month:  The Marvel Comics adaptation of Return of the Jedi