Thursday, March 29, 2012

Belinda Becomes Obsessed With Charles Manson

Ah, to be a 12-year-old Valley Girl. There's nothing like that magical time when you first begin discovering boys, clothes, music, and ... Charles Manson.
I couldn't get enough of Manson and his so-called family. I was fascinated when I learned about Manson's foray into pop music: that his evil had been inspired by the Beatles song "Helter Skelter," and his life had also intersected with Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. I got out my copy of Pet Sounds and looked at Wilson, wondering how he could have gotten involved with Manson.
Later, I learned he had picked up two girls who were hitchhiking, and they turned out to be members of Manson's family. Soon Manson and a bunch of girls were living in Wilson's house. He introduced Manson to the Beach Boys Producer Terry Melcher, who rented his home to Polanski, and that was where the murders took place.

It was weird, creepy, scary, terrible, and about the most interesting stuff I had ever come across. My mom scolded me when she saw me reading the stories in the paper. She didn't approve of my fascination with Manson. She probably feared I was being brainwashed when I stared at his picture. His gaze was powerful; those eyes certainly did cast a spell, and I can understand now how he was able to lure weak-minded women under his influence.
So, just to clarify. This woman ...

... was obsessed with this man:

Just wanted to get that straight.
I especially got into the trial of Susan Adkins, a dark-haired flower child who was convicted of participating in eight of the murders. My mom forbade me to follow her story. She said it was too much for a child. But I snuck the paper into my room at night and read all the articles about her.
Yes, Belinda. It was clear, from the very beginning, that the life of a typical Valley Girl was not going to be for you.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Eddie Rabbitt and Juice Newton Sing A Song From A Soap Opera

If you were an avid follower of Days Of Our Lives (I mean who wasn't?), then you would have heard a song performed on the show called "Friends And Lovers." When recorded by two of the show's actors, Gloria Loring and Carl Anderson, the song became a #2 hit in 1986.

Eddie Rabbitt and Juice Newton must have looked at each other and said, "Let's do that!" "You And I" had already been utilized on All My Children as a couple's "love theme." Rabbitt probably figured, "Hey, why wait for my hit duets to become soap opera songs when I could just ... turn soap opera songs ... into hit duets?"

That stroke of genius could have been enough to sustain lesser careers. But sadly, it wasn't quite enough for Rabbitt and Newton, who promptly proceeded to disappear from the cultural consciousness. Soap operas, however, have remained with us.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

'80s Country Gets Juicy

OK, first of all, her name's Juice. Imagine listening to the terrific music of Sauce Parton, or Soda Rogers. Newton could also give Joni Mitchell a run for her money in the lanky, gaunt female singer sweepstakes.

Juice Newton had two huge pop crossover hits in 1981. I'm not sure if people realized that they were both fairly straightforward cover versions of other peoples' songs. Listeners in the '80s were probably not that picky.

"Angel Of The Morning," a depiction of a one-night stand cloaked in memorable metaphor, was originally a hit for Merrilee Rush in 1968.

Since then, I'm fairly sure that every single female singer under the sun has attempted a cover of "Angel Of The Morning": Olivia Newton-John, Dusty Springfield, ABBA, The Pretenders, Nina Simone, Bonnie Tyler ... at one point I think they were giving away covers of "Angel Of The Morning" with people's breakfast cereal. But none of those other versions quite have that special Juice Newton "power ballad" magic.

"Queen Of Hearts" was a 1979 hit for rockabilly revivalist (and frequent Nick Lowe buddy) Dave Edmunds in the UK.

Newton might as well have just erased the vocal track from Edmunds' version, because she barely changed a thing.

So, fine, Juice Newton wasn't the most blindingly original singer. But she picked good material and she didn't fuck it up. Easier said than done. Besides, her name was Juice. Apparently it's better for your career than being called "The Juice." I wonder if she named any of her children Isaac, or Fig. Fig would have been good.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Eddie Rabbitt And The World's Longest Hairdo Sing A Duet

If length of hair equaled singing talent, then Crystal Gayle would be the greatest singer of all time. Her hair is longer than her body. Her hair is so long, it should have its own Social Security Number.

Crystal Gayle is actually '60s country legend and self-proclaimed "Coal Miner's Daughter" Loretta Lynn's younger sister. But Gayle is such a distinctive singer in her own right, and her success has been so sustained, most people tend to forget this fact, if they're even aware of it to begin with.

Although she frequently topped the county charts in the '80s, she had her biggest crossover hit, "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," in 1978. Should have really seen an optometrist for that.

Gayle probably has more street cred than her country peers, particularly due to her collaboration with Tom Waits on the soundtrack to One From The Heart, Francis Ford Coppola's infamous post-Apocalypse Now flop (which takes place in Las Vegas but was constructed entirely on a bizarre studio set - hard to explain). Although the movie still divides critics, the soundtrack generally does not. You're probably thinking, "Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle? There's no way that could work." Oh, there's a way.

But when Gayle paired up with the distinctly less adventurous Eddie Rabbitt for "You and I," she found her way straight into the hearts of Adult Contemporary radio stations everywhere. On my '80s Tape, at the end of the song, a DJ came on and said, "Aww ... gut-wrenching tune, ain't it?" before being cut off by the opening strains of "Yah Mo B There." On one level, I don't relate to the sentiments in "You and I" whatsoever. But the melody is so sweeping, the orchestration is so soaring, and Gayle's voice in particular is so plaintive, I'm afraid I'm going to have to agree with that anonymous 1984 DJ on this one.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Belinda And The Alcoholic Stepfather

So you're thinking, "The new stepfather couldn't be any worse than the birth father, right?"

Think again.
Given how fearful she was of my dad, I can see why my mom was drawn to Walt. He was about five-eleven, well built, very strong, and kind of rugged looking from all the time he spent working outdoors ... I know two versions of Walt. There's the man who got sober after I left home and turned into one of the most remarkable, loving men I have ever met. Then there's the Walt with whom I grew up.

That Walt was impossibly bad when he drank, and he drank a lot. The booze lit up the demons in him, and he turned them against us. He went out drinking most nights after work. As he squandered money on himself that could have helped the entire family, we ate oatmeal and Bac-O-Bit sandwiches for dinner while trying to ignore the empty place my mom had set for him at the table.
But at least there were the camping trips:
We would pile into the camper of my dad's truck, all of us kids crammed together, and we would go on weekend camping trips to Santa Barbara and San Diego. We enjoyed both the beach and the forests.

It was always a relief to be away from home and setting up a tent in the outdoors. My dad was usually sober, and I loved having space of my own, something that was in short supply in our small, crowded home ... It felt good to exhale, and I swear to this day I have tasted few things as delicious as the bologna sandwiches my mom made on Wonder bread smeared with French's mustard.
Ah, gourmet white trash cuisine. Belinda's description of the place that camping trips had in her childhood reminds me of why I liked the Boy Scouts so much: it was a great way to get out of the house.

Because then you would come home to this:
He was of the old-fashioned school that believed in spanking children, and not only that, he seemed to think children should be spanked regularly.

Butch and I made light of the beatings we received by comparing the red marks on our skin or the number of lashes. It was our way of surviving ... Butch came into my room one night with red, puffy eyes and a crooked smile on his face. He sniffled.

"Twenty-seven," he said.

"I don't believe it," I said.

"Yeah. He hit me twenty-seven times - a new record!"
Hmm. No wonder why Belinda never developed any crippling personal problems.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Zrbo's Favorite Small Games of 2011

Yes, I realize it's already March, but I still haven't gotten around to talking about my favorite games of 2011. Since there's so many good ones I want to talk about I've decided to split my favorites into two groups: the small games (usually by an 'indie' developer) and the big AAA titles (usually by large gaming studios). The following are my favorite small games of 2011.

Terraria (Re-Logic game studio)
This is a fantastic little game I bought during a Steam sale for $2.50, and it was well worth 10x that much. Have you heard of Minecraft? Well, Terraria is like a 2-D version of Minecraft, though that doesn't quite do it enough justice. Terraria is part of this new movement of crafting games, basically games in which you are given a large world to run around in in which you create (or craft, if you will) items, weapons, and buildings out of various materials found in the world. You start off in a randomly generated world with only an axe for chopping wood and a pickaxe for mining brick, and from there, well, you can do anything you want. You probably want to begin by chopping down trees to build a house so you can survive the denizens which come out during the night. From there you'll want to start mining underground to get materials to upgrade your pickaxe, and then explore a little bit further to find some new items, then explore a little bit farther to see what's over that nearby hill, then return and make your house bigger, then talk to that NPC who moved into your house, then start spelunking into the depths below... and around this time you realize you've become addicted to this little gem of a game.

For a solid month I was addicted to my little Terraria world. What makes it work are the mild RPG elements they've added in, so there's always some newer, better armor or weapon that you can find or craft if you play just a little longer. The art style, with it's retro-16 bit sprite characters, combined with the quirky music, really makes the game shine. It's really amazing to look around online to see some of the structures people have built, which must have taken days, if not weeks, to complete (after spending hours just to construct my rinky-dink house I realize how much incredible effort must go into these). Check out some of these creations here. A great little game all around.

Bastion (Supergiant Games)

Bastion is the main reason this post got held up, I picked it up over Christmas but just recently got around to finishing it. The first game from Supergiant Games studio (developed by my old favorite Gamespot editor-in-chief Greg Kasavin), Bastion has already walked away with a slew of game awards, and it's easy to see why.

The game tells the story of 'the Kid' who wanders a sort of post-cataclysmic world looking for meaning. There are three aspects which make the game shine: the outstanding art design, the music, and most importantly, the narrator. The entire game is narrated, every action you do, every thing you see, it's all being narrated as if this were a story being told, and the narrator is brilliant. He sounds like an aging black man from Louisiana, speaking with a mild drawl. Combined with the hand drawn world and the way the land "rises up" as you walk around, Supergiant Games created something really special here. The best way to describe it is to show it, so watch the trailer here and some gameplay here to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

I mentioned the music, which is also worth checking out. The musical score itself is neat, with many of the tunes combining twangy acoustic guitars with electro-clash (there's a great article here with some snippets worth listening to), but what really takes the cake are the songs "Build that Wall (Zia's theme)", "Mother, I'm Here (Zulf's theme)", and "Setting Sail (Coming Home)" which is a fantastic mashup of those first two songs and which even brought a tear to my eye as it played over the final credits. This is a must play game (and like Terraria is also available on Steam for those PC players out there).

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (Namco Bandai)

Could the best small game of 2011 be a successor to a thirty-plus year old ur-videogame? It just may be. Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, a follow up to 2007's Pac-Man Championship Edition, is truly a marvel, a perfect example of how to update an aging concept and make it completely fresh. In this version of the iconic franchise, Pac-Man roams the board gobbling pellets as usual, but this time there are many, many ghosts on the board, and they're all asleep. As Pac-Man goes by each sleeping ghost, those ghosts wake up and begin pursuing Pac-Man. You can keep accruing a following of ghosts, I've had more than a hundred at once, before eating the big yellow pellet and turning around and eating all those delicious purple ghosts. It's so terribly satisfying.

What makes the game work is the way the board keeps changing. Whenever you've cleared one side of the board (left or right) a bit of fruit appears on the other side. Eating this fruit causes the cleared side to 'warp' and change into a new configuration, complete with new ghosts and pellets. Each successive transformation causes the speed to ratchet up a notch, which can eventually lead to Pac-Man moving faster than you've ever seen him move before (at top speed it's ludicrously fast). To top if off, they've given Pac-Man some electro/club music accompaniment which gives the whole game a terrific sense of style. Combined with a flashy Tron-like color saturation and it feels like you're playing Pac-Man in some exclusive nightclub.

As with Bastion, the best way to highlight how the game works is to watch some gameplay video (skip to late in the video to see how stupidly fast it gets). The game gives you a smorgasbord of different levels/maps to play on and a ton of different game types, all or which are constantly being doled out to the player as they complete levels, thus giving the game a nearly endless amount of replayability. While the game technically came out in 2010 I didn't have the chance to play it until last summer. Regardless, it just may be my favorite small game of 2011 (though Bastion is a very close second).

That's it! Stay tuned as I'll be putting up my list of favorite big games sometime soon.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Fluffiness Of Eddie Rabbitt

With a name like Eddie Rabbitt, you know you're in for some excitement. If by "excitement," you mean "early '80s MOR country."

Rabbitt first achieved prominence as a songwriter, when two of his tunes were recorded by Elvis Presley during the King's legendary 1969 "comeback" sessions. "Kentucky Rain" was the hit single, but I'm actually more partial to "Inherit The Wind":

Rabbitt's own success was confined to the country charts until he opened for Kenny Rogers, and then opened for ... wait for it ... Dolly Parton. Suddenly Rabbitt was singing hit theme songs for Clint Eastwood/ orangutan movies:

Even all the '90s "hat" acts like Garth Brooks and Clint Black and Alan Jackson, if they didn't sound like genuine classic country music, at least recognizably sounded like '90s imitation country music. Eddie Rabbitt did not sound, in any obvious way, like a country singer. He didn't sound not country, either. I don't know what he sounded like.

Just a week after Dolly topped the pop charts with "9 to 5," Rabbitt did the same with "I Love A Rainy Night." According to Wikipedia, this was "the last time, to date, that the pop chart featured back-to-back country singles in the number one position." When future historians pinpoint the precise moment when American civilization crested, this may be the moment they name.

Also, during the 1996 presidential campaign, Bob Dole harbored hopes of using an Eddie Rabbitt song. Rabbitt, a registered Republican, granted Dole permission "with pleasure." Well Bob Dole, at least you had Eddie Rabbitt's vote!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Monday, March 5, 2012

Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, and ... The Bee Gees?

By 1979, the Bee Gees had become so overexposed, and had become so synonymous with the rapidly fading and soon-to-be-reviled disco movement, even they knew it. They realized that they couldn't even release songs under their own name. So the Brothers Gibb went into stealth mode.

First, there was Barbra Streisand's "Woman In Love":

Then there was Dionne Warwick's "Heartbreaker":

But their most impressive feat of all may have been Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's "Islands In The Stream."

The Bee Gees go country? Surely you jest. Ah, but upon closer inspection, this stylistic shift is not so ludicrous. Take a good listen to "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart," or especially "Don't Forget To Remember" (an obscurity in the U.S., but a big hit in England in 1969). Let this be a lesson to you: the Bee Gees can do anything.

I remember listening to this song while it was playing on the '80s Tape in my family's car, and I used to think the lyrics were "Islands In The Street." You know, like those little concrete divides with bushes in them that separate the traffic lanes? Kind of a strange metaphor to symbolize the strength of their love, but who was I to judge?

I can't put my finger on it, but it's funny how all these songs, despite having been sung by others, still sound like "Bee Gees songs." If I were a songwriter, I could tell you why. Maybe the Brothers Gibb just have a fondness for certain kinds of chord changes and harmonic tricks. What's also funny is that, despite the early '80s public derision of the Bee Gees, all these songs were huge hits. Basically, people still wanted to listen to the Bee Gees; they just didn't want to "listen to the Bee Gees." Sometimes, image is everything.

But you see, the Bee Gees were so amazing, they could write hits for artists years into the future. In 1998, "Islands In The Stream" found new life as "Ghetto Superstar (That Is What You Are)," a solo hit by Pras (featuring Mya, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and the production assistance of fellow Fugee Wyclef). By this time, it was OK, or even encouraged, to like disco again. It's safe Bee Gees! You can come out now!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Dolly Parton Sings About This Strange, Mysterious Thing They Used To Call A "Job"

Unlike Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton has pretty much always been Dolly Parton. She's always had that long blond hair. She's always had that freaky-looking make-up. She's always had those big, bouncing boobs. And although her catalog is certainly eclectic, she's always been perceived by the public as a country singer.

As a kid, I just assumed that Dolly Parton was some sort of ample-chested novelty act. Big mistake. Not only can she play the banjo, fiddle, guitar, autoharp, dulcimer, piano, and flute (!), but she's also a gifted songwriter. You know that song called "I Will Always Love You" that was a big gigantic hit for Whitney Houston and they've been playing it every five seconds since she died? Dolly Parton wrote that. Dolly Parton actually had a hit with that. Twice. But nope, all anybody will ever think about when they hear that song is poor, poor Whitney Houston.

Elvis loved "I Will Always Love You," and wanted to sing it. But Colonel Tom Parker would only let Elvis record it if Colonel Tom Parker could buy the rights to the song from Dolly. Dolly refused. Later on, Whitney Houston had the world's largest ever hit with it, and Dolly made lots of money. Sure, it would have been nice if Elvis had sung her song. On the other hand, it was probably nice to have all that money.

Although she's always been a well-known celebrity, Dolly didn't actually have too much official crossover success. In fact, she only had one major solo pop hit in the '80s. But it was a big one.

Thanks to that prominent horn section, "9 to 5" almost sounds more R&B than country - maybe with a touch of Dixieland jazz. But somehow I can't get too worked up over Billboard considering it a "country" song. Is that just because I'm so used to hearing Dolly's voice and knowing that it's the embodiment of pure Southern sass? I'd hate to be on the other end of these pointed, and even mildly feminist, lyrics:
Workin' 9 to 5,
What a way to make a livin'
Barely gettin' by
It's all takin' and no givin'
They just use your mind
And they never give you credit
It's enough to drive you
Crazy if you let it

9 to 5
For service and devotion
You would think that I
Would deserve a fair promotion
Want to move ahead
But the boss won't seem to let me
I swear sometimes that man is out to get me
Yes, Dolly, the boss man is out to get you. Even though, in reality, you oversee a vast media empire that, in addition to the songwriting catalog, includes a film and television production company, a signature line of Revlon wigs, and a Tennessee amusement park named Dollywood.

I wonder if her employees ever mutter this song under their breath. It takes a special kind of talent to sound like you're poor when you're actually rich. See: Springsteen, Bruce.