28 February 2011

Legends of the Dark Knight: "Gothic" and "Venom"

The night before last, I read "Gothic" and last night--in between fretting over whether or not a tornado was, in fact, headed our way at 4:30 in the morning--I read "Venom."  I figured a joint review was perfectly fine for a pair of 20 year old stories.

Um, Bats? Bad place to get comfy.
Gothic: A Romance in Five Volumes
By Grant Morrison and Klaus Janson
Colored by Steve Buccelato
Lettered by John Costanza
Andrew Helfer, Editor
Kevin Dooley, Assistant Editor
Originally published in Legends of the Dark Knight #6-10 (April-August 1990)

In movie terms, "Gothic" starts off as M and becomes Ghostbusters 2.  Someone has begun killing prominent Gotham gangsters.  As we find out, this is a guy those gangsters killed twenty years ago...and who has a connection to Bruce Wayne's childhood.  I'm generally not a big fan of supernatural stories--especially those with a religious slant--but "Gothic" works surprisingly well.  This is a perfect example of the kind of story that Legends of the Dark Knight presented best: those off-beat, more daring stories that really would have been out of place in either Batman or Detective Comics.

That's more like it!
Story: Denny O'Neil
Layouts: Trevor Von Eeden
Pencils: Russell Braun
Inks: Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez
Willie Schubert: Letters
Steve Oliff: Colors
Dooley & Helfer: Editors
Originally published in Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20 (March-July 1991)

"Venom" emerged as significant in Bat-lore a few years later when the character Bane was invented and revealed to be a Venom user.  The premise here is that, despondent after failing to rescue a child, Batman begins taking a performance enhancing designer drug created by the child's scientist father.  Before long, Batman has become little more than another steroid junkie with 'roid rage to boot.  He is also now a pawn in a scheme concocted by his drug dealing master and a former army general.  O'Neil tests the limits of Bruce Wayne's determination--obsession, some would say--and it's the psychological aspect that makes "Venom" so fascinating.  There are some standard superhero story elements here that feel somewhat contrived (including Alfred being kidnapped).  "Venom" was only the fourth story arc of Legends of the Dark Knight and one wonders how O'Neil might have crafted it later, once the series had really established itself as a forum for more mature and daring storytelling.

Both stories were later published in collected editions.  I'd waited a very long time to read "Venom."  I missed it when it was initially published and for one reason or another never remembered to buy the back issues.  Then, when Bane became a key character and DC published the "KnightFall" storyline, "Venom" issues became in higher demand and fetched $5-10 apiece, which wasn't terrible but still outside my comfort zone for issues.  Why I never bought the trade paperback, I can't say.  In any event, I'm thrilled to have found these ten issues on the cheap at Half Price Books recently.  It's been a blast reading 21 year old issues, including their letters columns and the ads; two key elements of any comic book reading experience that are omitted from collected editions.

12 February 2011

1996 - 15th Anniversary

It may seem strange to celebrate the 15th anniversary of 1996, but it was an important year for me.  I entered the year a junior in high school and finished it a senior.  Just prior to summer vacation--my last before graduating--we moved from my childhood home.  I got the basement, and a roommate: our collie, Chancey whom I took to calling, "Dog."  We got along fabulously.  It was the first full year of operation for the Oldham 8 theater, meaning it was the first entire year I was able to go to movies on a regular basis.  In October, the Yankees/Braves World Series was so great it resurrected my love of baseball which had died five years earlier after my Cincinnati Reds practically dismantled their 1990 championship team.  And Star Wars was back in vogue, with novels and comic books being published with increasing regularity and action figures had just begun to appear on shelves in 1995 after a decade of absence.  It was a good time to be a geek.

I can see in retrospect things I should have done differently (I really should have made more of an effort to learn to drive, but I honestly just never cared for the task).  Still, it was a great year for me on the whole.  My friends and I spent many a Friday night gallivanting around not just our own county, but some of the neighboring ones as well.  A typical night would see us taking in the last showing of a movie at the Oldham 8 before 6:00 (that way we still only had to pay matinée ticket price), then we'd walk across town.  Sometimes we'd hoof it up to Main Street and grab a bite at Champion Barbecue (their pork BBQ sandwiches were awesome).  Other times, we'd swing into McDonald's, which was on our way from the theater toward my neighborhood.  And often, we'd forgo eating altogether.  Typically, we'd wind up stopping at Movie Warehouse where we'd rent three movies.  We liked to pick a different theme each week, often (but not always) built around a single person.  For Val Kilmer Night, as an example, we rented Tombstone, Thunderheart and The Ghost and the Darkness.

We didn't necessarily all pay the same amount of attention to the movies at hand.  Sometimes someone would hole up in a folding chair with a stack of comics.  Many times, we'd pull out my Star Trek action figure collection and spend hours (yes, hours, in its plural form) posing them in elaborate, juvenile arrangements.  Sometimes it would be a twelve figure conga line, weaving around drunken, passed out Scotty.  One of our favorites was the 1992 Commander Riker figure, who was molded in a particularly awkward stance with one hand held palm forward and fingers spread.  We called him, "Sex Offender Riker."  You'd be surprised what that hand fit against.  We wanted to try with the Star Wars figures, but Playmates Toys made it much easier for us than did Hasbro; most Trek figures had a lot of articulation, and a ton of accessories.  Just our luck, several of those accessories were bottles and other phallic shaped items.  I should probably take time to apologize to Marina Sirtis and Terry Farrell, whose likenesses weren't always treated with respect.  And Wil Wheaton, while I'm being honest.

These are all inane activities, of course, and nothing terribly significant.  It wasn't the activities themselves that really mattered, though.  Rather, it was that year in which my friends and I really began to spend a lot of time together.  It was our first true taste of freedom and independence.  I don't even really recall being asked what we were planning for a Friday night, or where we'd been.  It was nice, just screwing off with other like-minded people.  God knows it made the school week tolerable, as I rarely saw much of my friends there and was acutely aware how poorly I fit in with everyone else.  Then again, maybe the rest of my classmates would have gotten just as big a kick out of Val Kilmer Night and Sex Offender Riker.

11 February 2011

Playlist: Waylon in the 90s

Why the 90s?  Waylon's artistic and commerical heyday was the 70s, right?  Here's the thing: That era is already well covered in hits compilations galore.  Waylon's pre-Outlaw era is less well covered, but a lot of that material still hasn't found its way to disc and my vinyl library is woefully incomplete.  So, I thought I'd take a look at his 90s recordings.  Waylon started the decade with a brand new deal at Sony and recorded three albums (two solo releases and the fourth and final collaboration with Willie Nelson, If I Can Find a Clean Shirt).

Sony would be his last major label.  Waymore's Blues (Part II) was eventually released by RCA in 1994, but it was recorded without Waylon having a label contract at all.  RCA went on in 1996 to release a 20th anniversary edition of the immortal compilation, Wanted! The Outlaws featuring a newly recorded duet with Willie of Steve Earle's "Nowhere Man," and a 20-track compilation, The Essential Waylon Jennings featuring a previously unreleased track from the Waymore's Blues (Part II) sessions.  Justice Records released 1996's Right for the Time, and Ark 21 released Waylon's final studio album Closing In on the Fire in 1998--by which point RCA's catalog imprint, Buddha Records, had begun to revive Waylon's catalog in a series of remastered re-issues.

Waylon also participated in two supergroups during the decade.  In addition to his solo album, The Eagle, 1990 brought Highwayman 2, with Willie, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson; their third and final collaboration as "The Highwaymen" came in 1995.  In 1998 he teamed up with Bobby Bare, Jerry Reed and Mel Tillis as the "Old Dogs" for a live recording of Shel Silverstein compositions.  Throughout the decade, Waylon guested on numerous artists's albums including Travis Tritt's "Outlaws Like Us" (also featuring Hank Williams, Jr.), a duet with Mark Chesnutt of Waylon's "Rainy Day Woman" and even a Neil Diamond recording of "One Good Love."

Note that I have excluded from this list 1992's Ol' Waylon Sings Ol' Hank, which was re-issued in 2006, because the recordings themselves were made in 1985 and I intend to include selections from that collection when I work on a Waylon in the 80s playlist.  I have also excluded 1993's children's album, Cowboys, Sisters, Rascals and Dirt for the simple reason I don't have it in my library (I know, I know!).  Which reminds me: you may run into trouble looking for the original albums as several of them are out of print.  I suggest you actually go to your local record shop.  They may just have what you're looking for and they could use the business.

Here, then, are what I feel are the gems of Waylon's often overlooked 90s output.  Given the numerous labels involved, I suspect we'll never see an official compilation released that will survey this decade and that's a shame.  Waylon sounded just as good then as he ever did.  And give the man credit for one important thing: he was still writing and recording original material even at what would prove the end of his career.  It's rare for artists to still be working at all at that point, and many of those who do find themselves re-recording the songs that made them famous, or even going back and exploring the Great American Songbook.  But then, surely no one expected the trailblazer who fought Nashville to be content covering familiar ground?

"Closing In on the Fire" from Closing In on the Fire (1998) - The sound of this song is unlike anything else; it's clear from the opening notes that this is Waylon as you haven't heard him before and his deep vocals growl through this raw, sexual song written by Tony Joe White.

"The Eagle" from The Eagle (1990) - A top 5 hit written about Desert Storm.  Waylon didn't bang the war drum often and he typically shied away from politics in his music, but here he manages to do something that a lot of today's artists could learn from: he wrote thoughtful lyrics such as, "Just because I've been idle/don't mean I don't care."

"Wild Ones" from Waymore's Blues (Part II) (1994) - Looking back is a theme often explored by older artists, and Waylon was no exception.  This is one of the stronger reminisces from this period.

"If I Can Find a Clean Shirt" (duet with Willie Nelson) from If I Can Find a Clean Shirt (1991) - Waylon and Willie, goading each other into "going down on the border tonight/drinkin' tequila, taking chances on our lives."  The music video to this was sheer fun.

"What Bothers Me Most" from The Eagle - Waylon cuts to the bone here, languishing over an already cold relationship.

"Her Man" from The Eagle - Country fans are probably more familiar with Gary Allan's cover of this, but Waylon did it first.  It's up to you to decide who did it better, but I'll tell you this: when Waylon tells me "I've had misadventures/I've even got pictures," I believe him.

"I Don't Do It No More" (with Bobby Bare, Jerry Reed and Mel Tillis) from Old Dogs - Maybe going to Mexico with Willie finally caught up to Waylon.  On this Shel Silverstein track, the Old Dogs recognize their limitations.

"I Know About Me, I Don't Know About You" (duet with Travis Tritt) from Closing In on the Fire - Few of the new guard of artists who were part of the 90s country boom were as unabashed about their admiration for the older artists than Tritt.  The clashing of old honky tonk steel and new rock guitar as the two trade off here is a microcosm of that symbiosis.  (How's that for showin' off my vocabulary?)

"Wrong" from The Eagle - A humorous song about a relationship failing to meet grand expectations, set against a breezy steel drum.  The single hit #5, and there was even a fairly entertaining video for this one.

"Angels Love Bad Men" (with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson) from Highwayman 2 - I picked this because it was the only song from that album written by Waylon.

"Smokey on Your Front Door" from Too Dumb for New York City, Too Ugly for L.A. - Just a fun little romp of a song, and one of the livelier tracks from what I'm sorry to say is a rather weak album.

"Old Timer (The Song)" from Waymore's Blues (Part II) - A story song about a love that never was.  This one reminded me of Dorothy M. Johnson's Western stories.

"The Boxer" from Right for the Time - Waylon covering Paul Simon?  Yes.  And he kills it.

"The Devil's Right Hand" (with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson) from The Road Goes On Forever - Waylon loved this Steve Earle song so much he recorded it by himself for his 1986 album, Will the Wolf Survive.  I love the energy here, and Earle's thoughtful, weary lyrics are done justice by the foursome.

"Nobody Knows" from Waymore's Blues (Part II) - A silly novelty song in which Waylon informs us that he's really Elvis.  This could easily have been a dud, but the energy level is high from start to finish and Waylon's clearly having fun with it.

"Whatever Happened to the Blues" from The Essential Waylon Jennings - Waylon had an affinity for the blues, which he demonstrated on numerous recordings throughout his career.  This might be the best of them, and anyone who thinks Waylon could only have been a country singer need look no further than this recording to see he could have just as easily made it as a Southern blues singer.

"Nowhere Road" (duet with Willie Nelson) from Wanted! The Outlaws - 20th Anniversary Edition - Another Steve Earle song.  Waylon and Willie, in their final studio recording together.  Fans should buy the album just for Earle's liner notes.  Seriously.

"I Do Believe (Live)" from Outlaw Country: Live in Austin TX - Something of a cheat here.  This is from a 1996 episode of Austin City Limits featuring Waylon, Kris, Willie, Billy Joe Shaver and Kimmie Rhodes in a guitar pull.  Waylon performed three songs, but this in particular I wanted to highlight.  Waylon rarely covered religion in his music, which makes this song detailing his theological philosophy unique in his discography.  What's more is that the only other recording he did of the song was with the Highwaymen, making this the only existing recording of Waylon singing the song entirely by himself.  Kristofferson selected it for his contribution to a 2003 tribute to Waylon.

"Rainy Day Woman" (duet with Mark Chesnutt) from What a Way to Live - Chesnutt named his next born son for Waylon after Hoss agreed to contribute to this cover of his old song.  There's an additional verse that, to my knowledge, only appears in this duet version of the song.

"I Ain't Song (Acoustic Demo)" from The Road Goes On Forever - 10th Anniversary Edition - Waylon performs the song about the then-current state of country music for his fellow Highwayman, much to their amusement.  A studio version was included on Right for the Time with the title, "Living Legends (Part II)."  I favor this version just to hear Kristofferson's reaction at the end.

"Shine on Me" (duet with Andy Griggs) from You Won't Ever Be Lonely - Waylon co-wrote this with Beth Nielsen Chapman.  I can't be sure, but based on my research this duet version with Griggs--on his debut album--appears to be the only recording of the song by Waylon.  How's that for generosity?

"I Never Cared for You" from Twisted Willie: A Tribute to Willie Nelson - Waylon and Cash were the only country artists to contribute to this alternative rock tribute to their friend.  Waylon's vocals here are haunting.

"Kissing You Goodbye" from Right for the Time - Waylon finds the humor in breaking up.  I selected it as the final track here to embrace a sense of optimism rather than weary finality as we conclude our survey of Waylon's final decade as a studio recording artist.

09 February 2011

Giving: The Butterfly Effect

Early last summer, I read Bill Clinton's Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World in which the former president makes the case for the donation of time, money and energy on behalf of our fellow man.  (I could have sworn I reviewed it in this blog, but it turns out I only dashed off a brief review for Goodreads.)  It was in that book that I was introduced to the concept of micro-loans.  The premise is simple enough.  You put up a fraction of a loan, taken by a recipient somewhere in the world who is trying to improve his or her lot--and more often than not, his or her community in the process.  You're not out much money; the standard is $25.00.  If something goes awry at least it's not a terribly great sum.  In most cases, though, the loans are repaid and you can choose to re-circulate your money by making another micro-loan or you can get your money back.  It's simple, reasonably low-risk and has the potential to make an impact in the lives of other people.  In short, it's charity for the 21st Century.

So I got to talking about this concept with some friends about this after I finished the book, more or less because one of them has a background in economics and business affairs and I was hoping to get a better sense of how this all worked.  Apparently, I planted quite the seed because today's mail brought an envelop from that friend containing two $25 gift cards to Kiva, the organization that facilitates micro-loans.  I handed one to my wife and then I promptly began searching for my first micro-loan recipient.  It took a while; there are a lot of people with modest ambitions in very needy parts of the world.

I hate to say it, but I shied away from a lot of the Muslim candidates because their faces were frequently blurred.  I realize it's a petty thing, but I like to at least see the face of the person I'm told wants my money.  Maybe all the photos were staged and it's just a big scam, but somehow I feel better seeing an actual face.  I'm funny that way.
This guy asked for $650.  I ponied up $25 of it.
Eventually, I settled on Herbart Mwesigwa.  Here's his Kiva bio:

Herbart Mwesigwa is 30 years old and lives in the town of Kitintale in the Kampala central region of Uganda. He is married and has one child, who is not currently in school. Herbart has a medical clinic business, which he has run for two years. 
To help expand his business, Herbart has requested a loan of 1,500,000 UGX from Kiva partner, BRAC Uganda. The loan will be used to purchase more medicine for resale. With the help of his loan from BRAC, Herbart hopes to generate greater profits and buy food for his family. In the future, he hopes to expand his medical clinic further.

It was the only loan request for something health related, and by the time I found Mr. (Dr.?) Mwesigwa's profile he was a scant $50 away from raising his $650.00 US loan.  By the time I completed the process of contributing to his loan pool, someone else had done the same.  Now he'll have the money to get some medicine, and he's expected to have this loan repaid by March next year.  I don't know how soon I can personally expect to see my investment repaid, but even if it's not until next March at least I'll have progress updates and eventually I should have the $25 back to re-circulate.

In conclusion, then, Bill Clinton wrote a book that I bought at Half Price Books, that inspired a conversation, that led to a generous Christmas gift from a friend of mine, that led to $25 being loaned to a guy in Uganda so he can build up a medical clinic.  Somewhere, Ian Malcolm is smiling.

06 February 2011

Legends of the Gipper: Late Reading

Ronald Wilson Reagan,
40th President of the United States of America

Regardless of what you think of President Ronald Reagan and his policies, there's no denying that there is a plethora of colorful anecdotes surrounding "The Gipper."  In celebration of his centennial, I'll periodically post some of my favorites.  This first anecdote comes to us by way of David Gergen's Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton, pages 151-152:

Midway through the [G-7] summit, Reagan had a particularly rugged day ahead...For each meeting, the staff of the National Security Council, the scheduling office, and others prepared lengthy background papers for the President to study the night before. Because there were such a large number of meetings, the briefing book looked like a telephone directory.
Here was the dilemma: when he was in Hollywood, Reagan made a practice of committing what he read to memory--he had a steel-trap mind for such things--but as a result, he also read very slowly. We had learned, just as his aides did when he was governor of California, not to give him too much to read at night because he would stay up late. The next morning he would be exhausted--and worse, Nancy would be on the warpath. On the other hand, this summit would put him on display before the world. Surely, he had to walk into every single meeting stuffed to the gills with details. How could we not give him this monstrous briefing book?
With some trepidation, as I recall, chief of staff Jim Baker gave him the book: "Mr. President, try to go over this material quickly. Please, please don't stay up late reading it."
At our 7:30 A.M. staff breakfast the next day, Reagan walked in late and looked as if he had been run over by a Mack truck. His eyes were puffy, his gait slow. "My God," I thought to myself, "he stayed up half the night with that damn briefing book. Where is Nancy? This is going to be a horrible day."
About twenty minutes into his eggs, Reagan gave us that aw-shucks look and said, "Fellas, I've got a confession to make. Last night, I sat down with your briefing book, which was good. But around nine o'clock I turned on the TV, and The Sound of Music was playing. Well, that's one of my favorite movies, so I watched. It went on pretty late, and I'm sorry I never got through the briefing papers."
Julie Andrews is a clear and present danger.
Of course, Mr. Reagan breezed through the meetings with aplomb and was no worse for having foregone his requisite reading.  Still, it's amusing in retrospect to think that the tenuous nature of our international relations may well have once been jeopardized because the President loved The Sound of Music.  I would wholeheartedly recommend Gergen's Eyewitness to Power, in which the former speech writer walks us through the four presidencies (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Clinton) in which he served, taking from each significant lessons about leadership that can be applied to all manner of professions and relationships.