Musical Biography or Archaeology?

The cover I made for "Past Lives and Long-Lost Friends," which I originally burned onto two CDs.  The idea for the cover came from a  timeline feature in my high school yearbooks.

The cover I made for “Past Lives and Long-Lost Friends,” which I originally burned onto two CDs. The idea for the cover came from a timeline feature in my high school yearbooks.

I don’t know if I realized it at the time, but following up a song by The Weepies called “Can’t Go Back Now” with “Summer, Highland Falls” is kind of a definite statement.  The latter’s first lines are, “They say these are not the best of times/they’re the only times I’ve ever known.”  While I can’t confirm this, I am pretty sure I wrote that in a friend’s yearbook at the end of my senior year (or at least I was thinking of it).  It has always been one of my favorite songs and at the time I graduated high school, it fully encapsulated what I was feeling.

I’m pretty sure that is why it wound up on a playlist I made back in 2010 called “Past Lives and Long Lost Friends.”  Silly as it sounds, I put it together because at the time, I was fifteen years away from that day in late June of 1995 and the mix tape, at the time I was a teenager, was my preferred form of artistic expression.  if you were a girl I was dating (or a friend on whom I was crushing), you more than likely wound up with a 120-minute Maxell normal bias cassette that may or may not have had a custom label created using Arts & Letters, an ancient Windows 3.0 graphic design program.  Now, I’m not sure how many of those girls kept my tapes.  My wife did, but I think that’s because she never emptied them out of her car (a car, by the way, that I now drive to work every day).  But the old girlfriend whose relationship with me ended in utter disaster?  She probably torched them all the moment after I gave her one final goodbye over the phone (not my idea, mind you; she forced my hand).  And some of those other girls?  Part of me hopes that a copy of “The Last Worthless Mix Tape” is floating out there, playing in the old tape deck of someone who is feeling sentimental.

Which brings me to this five-year-old playlist that’s still on my iPod.  Like I said, I was hitting the fifteen-year mark and was feeling sentimental, so I began dragging and dropping songs into a playlist.  The phrase “long-lost friend” had been bouncing around my head for a while as had the idea of my having led a past life, or everyone I know having led a past life.  Because when you think about it, the people you are around on a daily basis have stories that are bigger than the one they have with you.  Or maybe I just notice this because it’s the curse of the writer’s mentality.  But the idea that everyone is interesting in a way, that there is always something to find out about them, is fascinating.

It seems completely pretentious to me try and encapsulate that in a mix, and looking at the song list, it probably could be at least five songs shorter.  It still would fit on a 120-minute cassette, but there are too many anthemic songs of youthful defiance (“We’ll Inherit The Earth,” “Death or Glory”) or aging punk anthems (“Scattered,” “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”) and the middle drags on through some very slow and soft folk pieces that don’t hold up (“See You Later, See You Soon,” “This is Me”).  But it was good enough to earn “permanent playlist” status.  Either that, or I was just too lazy to delete it, which is probably the more likely explanation as to why it has spent five years on my iPod.

Mix tapes seem to be this thing that is a part of my youth, whereas playlists are something you throw together because you want to listen to a variety of songs, often with the same rhythm or tone.  I make workout playlists (admittedly, I probably should start working out more often), Christmas music playlists, dinner music playlists, and even a breakfast playlist that is filled with French jazz and other brunchy music.  It’s all very adult because it serves a practical purpose, an extension of the tapes called “Tom’s Crap” that I used to make so that I had something to listen to on my Walkman or in my car.  Part of me shrugs at this, but part of me is saddened.

There was a point in my life where everything had meaning.  If I gave you a tape, it was because I wanted to say something or introduce you to something.  And no matter how crappy that tape was–and trust me, some of those tapes were crappy–I thought it was important.  “Past Lives and Long Lost Friends” was an attempt at making something important like that and also an attempt to hold on to the self-importance that comes with “meaning,” as if I am attempting to dispute the statement that Ally Sheedy so boldly makes in The Breakfast Club: “When you grow up, your heart dies.”

At seventeen, I believed her; at 37, I’ve come to realize she’s wrong.  You simply turn your focus elsewhere.  Adulthood is priorities and responsibility.  It’s not that I don’t want to sit and contemplate an entire album for an hour; it’s just that I don’t always have the time.  My geeking out happens amidst a flurry of multitasking and when I do get those moments to contemplate, I usually fall asleep in front of the television.

I’ve heard Billy Joel explain the meaning of “Summer, Highland Falls” as hitting that point in his life where he was starting to see the world for what its complexities.  Much of that playlist, if you look at several of the songs, is a similar contemplation but I don’t know if I was contemplating graduating high school as much as I was coming to terms with the onset of middle age.  At seventeen, I would have never put “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne on a mix tape (granted, I’m pretty sure that “Running on Empty” and “Somebody’s Baby” were the only Jackson Browne songs I knew), nor would I have considered Paul Simon essential listening.  If I was being contemplative or sentimental, I would have chosen 10,000 Maniacs, but mostly I would have gone for the bombast of Queen.

To be honest, I have thought about making a Twenty Years On mix.  I can’t decide if I would go for nostalgia or reflection, though.  Twenty years kind of dictates that I should throw together a collection of the Pearl Jam, Green Day, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Joel that I listened to in a Big Chill soundtrack sort of way.  Being reflective would be more of what I did five years ago, which might be belaboring the point.

“Summer, Highland Falls” ends with a few lines that have always stuck with me:

How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies
Perhaps we don’t fulfill each other’s fantasies
And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives
With our respective similarities
It’s either sadness or euphoria

It’s a final statement worth a close examination.  If it is, as he says, the a moment of realizing that you’re getting older, it’s a perfect expression of that realization.  There’s no violent anger here, just acceptance and resignation.  Perhaps, even, there’s a bit of maturity.  Place this in the larger context of, say, looking at one’s own adulthood or having a moment of forced nostalgia like the anniversary of graduating high school, and the same ambiguity exists.  The bloom comes off the rose pretty easily when you really start thinking about all of it; thankfully, there are mix tapes, CDs, and playlists to help guide the way.

Pop Culture Affidavit, Episode 49: The Waiting Place

Episode 49 Website CoverIn 1997, Sean McKeever self-published his very first work, The Waiting Place, a story about the ennui that comes with being a young adult trapped in a town that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It was soon picked up by Slave Labor Graphics and McKeever along with Brendon and Brian Fraim and then Mike Norton finished the entire saga of the town of Northern Plains and its denizens in three volumes plus an epilogue.

I spend this episode taking a complete look at The Waiting Place, which has been one of my favorite comics coming-of-age stories since I bought the volume one trade in 2001. This includes a full synopsis as well as a review.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

If you’re interested in buying a copy of The Waiting Place, it’s available at Amazon.com.  Here’s the link

As a bonus, here are the covers to all three trades put out by Slave Labor Graphics as well as the IDW “Definitive Edition”:

Waiting Place Book One

Waiting Place Cover

Waiting Place Book Three

Waiting Place Definitive

In case you’re curious as to what music I used in this episode, here are some YouTube clips:

Tori Amos, “Pretty Good Year”

Nine Inch Nails, “Something I Can Never Have”

R.E.M., “You Are The Everything”

The Sundays, “Here’s Where the Story Ends”

Roxy Music, “More Than This”

Fast Times that really weren’t

It here’s a Newton’s Law of Moviemaking, it has to be: “For every great movie, there is a much lesser sequel, spin-off, or knock-off.”  In the case of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it’s the second in the form of a blink-and-you’ll miss-it sitcom from 1986 called Fast Times.

Prior to my episode about the movie, I had only known of Fast Times as a piece of trivia that accompanied articles about the film or the television series’ stars (usually Courtney Thorne-Smith), and it never saw life in reruns or on video.  In fact, if not for the grace of YouTube, the seven-episode run of Fast Times would have remained that way, lost to television trivia history forever.  But as I wound up doing my research about the movie, I found the pilot episode (which has 23,000 views).

With Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli reprising their roles as Mr. Hand and Mr. Vargas, respectively, Fast Times attempted and failed to re-create the “slice of life in high school” the movie had given us in 1982.  I don’t know why the producers waited until 1986 to option this and put it on the air, but int he very least, it was at a time when teen flicks were big at the box office and shows like Fame had proven that you could take a teen movie and spin it off to a television show.

Our teen characters are the same as they were in the film but the actors are different, which makes sense considering that many of the stars of Fast Times at Ridgemont High were enjoying successful movie careers in 1986 (Judge Reinhold had already appeared in Beverly Hills Cop, Phoebe Cates had been in Gremlins, and Sean Penn had married Madonna) and were probably too old to play teenagers anymore (although that never stopped Gabrielle Cartheris).  Stacey (Jennifer Jason Leigh in the film) is played by a pre-Summer School Courtney Thorne-Smith, and Claudia Wells (who still had the smolder from her role as Jennifer in Back to the Future) stepped into Phoebe Cates’s role as Linda.  Brad was played by James Nardini; Rat, who is reduced to a couple of “walking through the mall” scenes is played by Wally Ward; Damone, who Robert Romanus embodied so well in the film, is played by Patrick Dempsey; and Dean Cameron (“Chainsaw” from Summer School) plays Jeff Spicoli.

The 26-minute pilot episode begins with a cold open shot from the point of view of Mr. Hand, who is making his way through the halls of the school and then walks into his class.  Spicoli skaeboards in to say he’s on time but is dismayed that someone is in his seat


Mr. Hand then points out to Spicoli that his class was last period and Spicoli says, “That’s cool, you can just mark me early for tomorrow.”


We then get a very late 1980s animated title sequence and a song by Oingo Boingo followed by an opening mall montage that should look familiar because it is recycled footage from the film (in fact it’s the opening of the film where “We Got the Beat” played over several mall scenes).  The movie footage is of such better quality that it seems completely out of place with everything else.

The episode, by the way, is directed by Amy Heckerling herself (who was also credited as a “supervising producer”), so I don’t know if she had a hand in this or was called in on a favor.  We pick up with our characters as we see Damone walking and talking with Rat and giving him typical Damone dating advice.


They approach Stacy and Linda, who are cuddling puppies outside a pet store and flirt with them, although at one point Damone stops talking and starts staring at Stacy’s breasts.  Linda tells him that “They don’t speak English” and the girls walk off.


We then switch to Cattle Burger, which is in the mall and which I guess was a way to have Stacy and Brad work in the same general area so that there could be interaction at times (All-American Burger in the film was a free-standing fast food joint away from the mall, where Stacy worked at Perry’s Pizza) and Brad wonders aloud if Linda would ever go out for him.  Brad’s boss (who is played by Paul Wilson, who would be a semi-regular on the later seasons of Cheers) reassures him that she definitely would and later on, we see him talking to Stacy about it in her room.


School starts the next day (set to the same “Be Cruel to your School” song by Twisted Sister that was used in One Crazy Summer).  The teachers commiserate in the faculty lounge.  Leslie (Kit McDonough), who teaches a life skills class, seems to believe in Jeff Spicoli, which directly contrasts Mr. Hand’s assertions that Spicoli is a complete waste of space.  Hand bets Leslie that Spicoli won’t pull through on his presentation later in the week and it seems he may be right when Jeff bursts into the faculty lounge and says, “They didn’t move the bathroom in here.”

Brad, meanwhile, wants Stacy to work on Linda for him and Stacy does, telling Linda that Brad likes her.  Linda says she would  consider dating Brad but she is engaged to a guy in Chicago, after all.  But you can tell that she is more than just considering this when her face lights up at the thought of Brad liking her.

The Spicoli-Hand storyline gets the other majority of the plot, as there is a scene in the cafeteria (set to “Kids Wanna Rock” by Bryan Adams) that showcases his cafeteria food creation skills, and Hand is his usual stickler self, lecturing students on behavior and almost reveling in Spicoli’s inevitable failure.

In Home Ec (whose teacher is played by Twink Caplan, who is a regular in Heckerling’s films and most famously plays Miss Geist in Clueless), Linda agrees to a date as long as nobody knows about it.  Of course, as Brad walks through the mall later that day, he’s congratulated by everyone.

Leslie goes to the beach to talk to Spicoli, who is out surfing and asks if he’s ready for his presentation.  He gives some metaphor about waves but is all, “Sure.  But you can fail me if I suck.” She says she wants him to do a good job for her.

Linda wants to back out of the date, wondering what they’re going to do now that everyone knows, and Stacy says she’ll figure it out.  Figure it out, she does, taking Brad to the one event nobody at Ridgemont will be going to:


They also head to Burger Chalet, where the guy working the drive-thru recognizes Brad and Linda simply has Brad take her home.  She expresses her frustration over everyone knowing about the date and even goes as far as to insult Brad’s cruising vessel.  When she tries to end the date there, Brad gets upset that she insulted the car and asks her to apologize, which she does and then spends a few minutes listening to Bryan Adams’ “Straight From the Heart” on the radio.  Does this lead to them kissing?  We’re not sure, because the screen fades to black.


Back in school, Hand and Leslie wait for Spicoli, who shows up late and then gives a presentation about how teenage boys are scary, starring his younger brother Curtis (played by Jason Hervey).


Spicoli aces the presentation, and even Mr. Hand has to admit that it was good, paying up on his bet.

Now, if there’s a spiritual successor to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it’s probably the Sara Jessica Parker sitcom Square Pegs (something that is worth its own episode) and not this.  Had this show not used the same characters as the film, it actually might have had more of a shot, but being such a fan of the film, it seems so lesser.  

I give Ray Walston credit for trying to reprise his role as Mr. Hand the way he does.  I can tell that on some level, he wants to give him a little more depth and make him a little less harsh than he was in the movie (where he was a one-note character), but he doesn’t have the same chemistry with Dean Cameron as he had with Sean Penn.  Then again, Dean Cameron–who is absolutely awesome a year later in Summer School–has incredibly big shoes to fill and does what he can with it, although sometimes it seems like he’s doing a bad impersonation.  Dempsey, on the other hand, doesn’t even attempt Robert Romanus’ Jersey accent and plays Damone the same way he would play Ronnie Miller at the height of his popularity in Can’t Buy Me Love.  I’ll give Claudia Wells credit, though.  She’s always been one of those gorgeous 1980s actresses you wish you could have seen more of (see also: Mia Sara, Amanda Peterson), and she makes Linda very likeable.

Brad and Stacy, though, are just badly mischaracterized.  I like Courtney Thorne-Smith, mind you, but Jennifer Jason Leigh portrayed Stacy in a way that embodied the “Fast Times” of the film’s title, and Thorne-Smith is just a little too innocent.  Plus, the two of them didn’t have a very close relationship in the film.  Yes, Brad picks up Stacy after the abortion, but as I mentioned in the podcast episode, that’s a big brother move.  Otherwise, they were always separate, intersecting when it was necessary, which is something that two siblings of those ages would definitely do (I speak from experience).  Brad hanging out in his little sister’s room asking her for flirting advice?  Sorry, no.

I said at the beginning of this post that Fast Times is a little piece of trivia associated with the movie and that’s pretty much accurate.  You’re not going to fall in love with this sitcom and wish it had a longer life.  It’s not horrible by any means; instead, it’s simply forgettable and you’re better off renting the film.

Some clips are available on YouTube from time to time along with partial or full episodes.  Unfortunately, the pilot is not.  But here is the opening credits sequence:

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 48: It’s Awesome, Totally Awesome!

Episode 48 Website CoverIt’s time for another look back at a classic teen movie and this time I’ve pulled out all the stops for one of the quintessential 1980s teen flicks, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  I’m joined by Todd Liebenow of The Forgotten Filmcast to talk about the film, and its influence.  We cover all the bases, including an iconic performance by Sean Penn and an iconic moment that comes courtesy of Phoebe Cates.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

You can find Todd’s blog and podcast here: Forgotten Films

And for your viewing pleasure, here’s the trailer to Fast Times at Ridgemont High:

Fast Times Poster

A New Start

I may have neglected to mention the last time that I covered anything regarding Degrassi, which was about a year and a half ago, that I initially missed the finale of Degrassi Junior High.  For years, I knew that in the final episode of that season–“Bye Bye Junior High”–the school caught on fire during a dance, but I never actually saw the episode until someone sent me a video tape full of Degrassi episodes sometime in the early 2000s.  So back in 1990, I had no idea what happened and really no sense of the show’s continuity.  Sure, I knew who the characters were, but if a random DJH episode came on, I really couldn’t tell you what season it was from.

That changed when I tuned into watch Degrassi one day and saw a new title sequence, one for Degrassi High.  The characters were the same (for the most part) but they were older and at a new school.  The whole thing would end just like DJH had–with a dance after everyone learned the school was about to close–but that’s a few years off.  The episode that started DH was a two-parter, “A New Start.”

One of the things that can be the most heavy-handed part of old episodes of Degrassi is its educational aspects.  There was, to some degree, a mandate that the show had to teach and sometimes that issue was handled in an “issue of the day” sort of way.  That kind of happens in “A New Start,” even though the episode does its best to toe the line between a solid piece of teen drama and a very special episode.

While the cast is forced to adjust to its new surroundings and we get some great subplots, involving Joey, Wheels, and Snake getting hazed by older students, including Duane (who would become a key character later in the show’s run) as well as the introduction of new characters like Claude (more about him in future episodes), this one revolved around the twins:  Heather and Erica.  It seems that over the summer, they held the time-honored teen jobs of camp counselors and while working at the camp, Erica met and lost her virginity to one of the other counselors, a guy named Jason.  It wasn’t out of character completely–Erica was always more boy-crazy than Heather–but the complication that arose was that by the end of the first part of “A New Start,” Erica discovers that she’s pregnant.

So begins a story that even today would be considered controversial:  Erica gets an abortion.  Most of the second part is devoted to her contemplating the abortion, seeking counseling, and arguing with her sister, and it ends with the two of them walking either up to or into the abortion clinic, depending on what version you saw.  It’s a tough topic to approach and the writers do this deftly, as do the actresses.

One of the most important things to point out about Heather and Erica, which is highlighted in a pretty forced class discussion about abortion, is that the girls are a part of a very conservative Christian family, so when Erica brings up the topic as a way of working through her feelings (like I said, it comes off as a little forced) and gets a discussion going that  properly highlights multiple sides of the issue.  When Erica openly wonders if it could be the right choice for someone, Heather gets visibly upset and talks about how babies die every day in the “killing centers.”

Looking back at it, twenty-five years later with the perspective of someone who now has well-established views on the issue, this discussion and some of what Heather says comes off as almost satirical; however, when I was thirteen years old, I really didn’t know what an abortion was aside from it being an issue I heard about on the news.  “A New Start” made an attempt at presenting abortion in a way that was straightforward, and Heather’s inner conflict is well done, too.  Erica wants her support and Heather is so anti-abortion that she doesn’t know if she will give it, but eventually she puts her love for her sister above her political ideals and walks with her when she goes to the clinic.

The original ending freeze frame to “A New Start, Part Two.” This was only aired in Canada. The U.S. version, shown on PBS, ended a few moments earlier.

That last scene, by the way, caused a controversy, at least among those who were aware of it back in 1990.  The episode originally ends with Heather and Erica making their way through a crowd of anti-abortion protesters and freeze frames on a woman holding a figurine of a fetus as they walk in the door.  This was too much for PBS, who truncated the American version of the episodes by a few seconds and ended with a freeze-frame of their faces.  The episode still aired, though, which is more than I can say for a similar episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation which aired in Canada but was initially not shown in the U.S. by the cable network The N (incidentally, neither was “A New Start” or a later episode that referenced the abortion).

I don’t know if this opener was a way for Degrassi High to make a statement that they weren’t going to shy away from heavier topics now that characters were older, but it certainly gripped me and up until the show seemed to vanish from my television, I never missed an episode.

Both episodes can be found on YouTube …

Part One:

Part Two:

Pop Culture Affidavit, Episode 34 — We Had a Time!

Episode 34 CoverMy MSCL two-parter concludes with an extra-sized celebration through conversations with longtime fans of the show.  Join me, Sarah Bunting (of TWoP and Previously.tv fame), Cory, Mark, Andrea, and chelle as we talk about MSCL, its impact on our lives, our history as fans, and the show’s legacy twenty years later.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Pop Culture Affidavit, Episode 33 — There Was This TV Show …

Episode 33 CoverTwenty years ago, a television show premiered that, while it lasted only one season, had a clear impact on its devoted fans.  The show was My So-Called Life.  In honor of its twentieth anniversary and its place in 1994: The Most Important Year of the Nineties, here’s the first of two episodes.  In this one, I give my so-called origin story and take a look at each episode.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page