29 March 2016

The Song Remains The Same

This past weekend, my friend Rodney got to see his favorite band (The Who) in concert, and he had a great time (and you can read all about it here!). While reading his review of/love letter to the show, it dawned on me just how many of the songs I know, but by other artists.

To be right up front, I've never been the biggest fan of The Who. I have no problem with them - they're great musicians, and they obviously write great songs (which is the point of my writing here). It's just that, honestly, they're not of my generation.

Ironic, ain't it?

I grew up listening to country music - as in: George Jones, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Pride. We lived out in the country, no cable, and watched "Hee-Haw" every weekend.

Once we moved into town, my music vocabulary started expanding in huge ways. A couple of neighborhood friends (Jamie and Rocky are mostly to blame) introduced me to the joy of rock n' roll. KISS and Iron Maiden were two that caught my attention early and held on, with others - W.A.S.P., for one - coming into the picture later.

And that circles back to what I was thinking about today. In Rodney's post about The Who, he made a passing reference to the song "The Real Me." I absolutely love this song. It's got a great guitar riff, but more than that, it's got a terrific bass line in that is one of the earliest things I recall noticing a bass line. It's almost like a separate lead guitar part, but it's definitely doing its own thing.

But the kicker is, I didn't know it was a song from The Who. I know it as a W.A.S.P. song, with Johnny Rod playing the part that I now know was created by John Entwistle. It was the song I first recall understanding that bass is something more than just rhythm-keeping, that it can be a part of the song, too. When I started hearing Billy Sheehan playing with David Lee Roth, I knew it was something special, but at the time, I thought it was just something DLR had put together to try and climb out of Van Halen's shadow. But "The Real Me" introduced me to the concept of bass as its own voice, rather than just a piece of the background. (Before all my drummer-buddies start yelling at me, I did learn the same thing about drums from other songs, like "Dangerous Toys" by the band of the same name, in particular the song "Ten Boots.)

I've known the song since W.A.S.P. released it in 1989, but - embarrassingly - I didn't even realize it was a cover until a few years back (7, 8 years now, I guess). As a yout', I didn't have the benefit of the internet, and as a not-yout', I had never really thought to look it up. I just really enjoyed the song.

Now, having learned it was a cover, I found The Who's version. And it's great! It really does rock, heavier than I would have expected (at that time; I've learned way more about The Who since then), with amazing vocals and that gorgeous bass in it. But it's not my version of the song.

So, while dwelling on all this, it made me realize there are a lot of songs that I musically "grew up" on cover versions. To me, those are the "real" versions, even if they're not the original. Thought I'd share a few, so the three people that ever read this can get a look into my own music-fan history.


The Who's "The Real Me" - Covered by W.A.S.P.

Another from The Who "My Generation" as covered by Gorky Park
This one, I knew was a cover, but this is the version that caught me at just the right moment in my music development. I really like this band, and I'm bummed they didn't make it bigger

"Mony Mony" by Tommy James and the Shondells, famously covered (and banned from school functions) by Billy Idol (this is the live version with Steve Stevens on guitar; this version of the song, coincidentally, bumped off another Tommy James cover - Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now" - from the #1 spot)

The King, Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" - Covered by another legendary band making a come-back in their career at the time, Cheap Trick. Just as a personal note, as a 12, 13 year old kid watching the video for the Cheap Trick version, it was incredibly cool to see an electric base on a monopod stand being played as an upright bass.

Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" recreated as an early, popular rap song by Run DMC. This one might be a bit of a cheat, because Aerosmith is part of it. But - like Cheap Trick - this new version of the song brought Aerosmith back from the edge of obscurity to continue their legendary career.


That's just a few notable songs. I'm not trying to say any of these covers are better than the originals. Just that these are the way I first heard these songs.

And the songs are the same. The music is there. If the songs weren't great in the first place, they wouldn't have been covered, and they certainly couldn't have been covered so well! It's just proof that good music transcends generations. Good music is good music, even when it's tweaked and twisted and "made new." At its core, good music lasts forever.

But what do I know.

22 March 2016

"Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice" - My take

Thanks to the generous folks at Warner Bros, AMC, WGEM/CW, and County Market stores, I got to see an early screening of this film tonight, two days before the 'preview' showings on Thursday, and three before the official release date on Friday.

I'm going to write up my thoughts on it, and I'm not going to avoid any spoilers. The majority of this text will be hidden, so you'll have to swipe over it if you want to read it.

For those who care about my opinion (and why would you?), here's the non-spoiler take on it: It was pretty much what I expected, and less than I would have hoped for. How's that?

Okay, spoiler-filled text below. You've been warned!

"God versus man. Day versus night! Son of Krypton...versus Bat of Gotham!" -Lex Luthor

This is the fight comic fans have been wanting on the big screen for years. Before comic book movies really took off, back to 1978, when we believed "a man can fly." It's taken a long time, and several different incarnations of both characters to finally get them face to face. And now, here we are.

I would have rather waited long. Back around the time Nolan was making Batman films and Superman returned to find out he had a kid, Marvel snuck up on the world with "Iron Man" and changed the way comic book movies could be made. Bright, colourful costumes, Light-hearted banter blended with high-intensity action. They made comic books come to life. They followed that up with other heroes before assembling a team worthy of the four-coloured books from which they were spawned.

And WB/DC saw this, and they were awed. DC vs Marvel is as big of a fight as the title bout this movie offers. And I will openly admit I've always been more of a Marvel guy. But I also love the DC properties. In 1989, Tim Burton's "Batman" was the first movie I ever went to multiple times. I pre-ordered that movie on VHS from my local video store (Frese Video, in the old location at the corner of 12th & Lind, for anyone reading this from Quincy!). I loved (and still love) that movie. It's been downhill from there, though.

DC and their parent-company Warner Bros saw the success Marvel was building with their Avengers films, and realized wanted to cash in on those dollars. Nolan had finished telling his story, and Superman was on life-support. Before "The Dark Knight Rises" was even cold in the ground, word was out that Batman would be rebooted again, bringing him into the same movie universe as Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel." Fans were instantly psyched, because they knew the legendary fight was coming.

There's the history lesson (or my spin on history, anyway). After a few delays and schedule bounces, "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" is upon us. And I wish I could be happier with it. I really like Henry Cavill's turn as Clark Kent/Superman, and I REALLY like Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne and Batman. They both really fit the roles, but the material they're given to work with lets them down.

The story is really convoluted here. Lex Luthor sets up an elaborate trap to make it look like Superman slaughtered a bunch of people - mostly terrorists - so that he can convince the US government to let him have control of the wrecked ship from "Man of Steel". His goal is ostensibly to develop a counter-measure to Superman.

In the meantime, Bruce Wayne is stewing over having one of his skyscrapers destroyed in the climax of the previous movie (which we get to see from his POV in an extended opening flashback). He's also trying to track down a super-weapon that he thinks is coming into Gotham, which he eventually tracks back to Lex Luthor.

Things carry on for a good long while, though nothing really happens until Lex sets things up to blow up a hearing in the Senate at which Superman is testifying. This leads the populace to think that Superman saw it coming but didn't care enough to stop it, turning popular opinion against him. Lex also - somehow, though I'm not clear how - convinces Bruce Wayne (not Batman; apparently Lex knows they're one and the same) that Superman's indifference reflects on Bruce "letting" his building and employees get destroyed. So then Luthor kidnaps Martha Kent (a criminally wasted return of Diane Lane!) to blackmail Superman into killing Bruce for him.

That brings us to the Big Show, the top of the card, the fight we all came to see. And it's a beautiful video game. There shouldn't have been any concern about Ben Affleck playing Batman because the fight is all CGI anyway. You get a few close-ups, but even those seem digitally enhanced. For all of Bruce Wayne's pathos about people getting killed and hurt from buildings being pummeled in Metropolis, he has no problem (once he gets the upper hand) in tossing Supes through buildings like they're paper mache.

The fight ends with Batman about to impale Superman with a kryptonite spear, but Superman says he needs to save Martha, causing Bruce to try and figure out what he means, why he said that name. It was at this point that I felt the need to surrender my geek-credential ID card, because it never clicked in my head that Bruce's mom and Clark's adopted mom shared the name. The DC offices in 1938 must have been hard up to figure out an "old woman" name.

So after Martha is saved (this is the warehouse scene they showed in the last trailer) and Superman let's Luthor know he's lost, Luthor unleashed his secret weapon - a hybrid clone created from Zod's DNA combined with.......Lex Luthor's DNA? Somehow this cocktail becomes Doomsday, the Kryptonian killing machine.

After the US fires a nuke to the edge of space trying to kill the monster as it's locked in combat with Superman, nearly killing Superman, Doomsday falls to Earth and confronts Batman. Luckily Wonder Woman picks this moment to show up and save Bruce's bacon. I want to note here, throughout the roughly 2.5 hour run-time, in a packed house filled mostly with geeks and fans, the appearance of Wonder Woman was the only moment the crowd cheered and applauded. The ONLY time.

So they all team up, fight the big monster, and win the day with Superman seeming to sacrifice himself. They show two funerals - one for Superman in Metropolis, and one for Clark in Smallville. Bruce and Diana talk, deciding they're going to find the others like her - meta-humans that Lex had files on (Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman). The last shot of the film is the handful of dirt that Lois tossed on Clark's casket starting to float.

That's the big shocker. WB "fooled" us into thinking one of their "Big Three" was actually dead while they're planning a Justice League movie and a direct sequel to "Man of Steel." So, to quote Iago the parrot from "Aladdin" - "I think I'm going to die from not-surprise."

Everything in this movie seems rushed, and forced. Super-detective Bruce Wayne is so easily manipulated it's embarrassing. He doesn't bother trying to talk to Clark, but just starts in on the fighting. To be fair, Clark doesn't try all that hard to say "we're being set up here!" There's really no organic story-reason for them to be fighting at all other than that's what the audience wanted to see.

Affleck has a pretty cool training montage, showing how much work he put in to get into Bat-shape for the film. As good as this scene is, it makes the use of CGI in the fights that much more criminal.

The fights are really just a rehash of what we saw in "Man of Steel" - people pounding on each other, tossing one another through walls and buildings. We get a moment of exposition when Anderson Copper is reporting on the fight and makes an off-hand comment about it being after business hours, so the buildings are mostly empty. This is obviously a preemptive strike against the same complaints that "Man of Steel" suffered from - the wanton destruction.

So, I've told ya pretty much the whole story of the movie here. I would apologize, but all of this is pretty well spelled out in the trailers. I think the only plot-point I didn't know from commercials and such was the kidnapping of Martha Kent. So, as I said in the non-spoilery part WAY back at the beginning, it was everything I expected, and so much less than I hoped for.

Now we just have to wait and see if paying audiences agree with me.

16 March 2016

Election fallout, or voter let-down?

The social media world related to Quincy and Adams County is bursting at the seams today. And it's actually pretty tragic.

There were plenty of problems with the election yesterday. Not enough ballots on both sides of the aisle is the root cause, but not the only problem. That issue is being addressed everywhere, so let's ignore it for a moment.

Today on Facebook, I've seen complaints that people pulled one party's ballot, and then couldn't figure out why a specific race wasn't on the ballot. And it's because the race they were looking for was on the other party's ballot. This has been a problem for me with the IL primaries for as long as I've been voting, and why I generally don't vote in primaries. If I want to vote for a Democrat in a Congressional primary, but a Republican for Senate, I have to choose which one is more important to me. That's absurd to me.

But more absurd is how many people don't understand how this works. This isn't new, it wasn't unique to this election. And yet people are up in arms that it wasn't "explained" to them, they weren't "educated" about the process.

I guess on that last point, I heartily agree: They weren't educated. But that's not the fault of election officials. Voting shouldn't require a test to do it, but it also shouldn't be a spur-of-the-moment, spontaneous decision. You should think about the issues, the candidates, and you should know what the process is before you walk into the polling place.

Another problem that I saw happen was a flaw in a new process for giving information to the public. The county clerk's office used a new, third-party vendor for updating results to a website. Somewhere along the line, some of the information got messed up. All of the candidates' information was right, and all of the vote-totals were right, but the numbers were posted to the opposite candidate. For hours, local media was running result numbers based on this mistake, showing one candidate winning handily, when it was actually the other candidate winning.

Since this was after the polls closed, it's not a huge issue; it likely didn't affect people locked in the polls waiting to vote. But it's another strike against the process and how it was handled. It's embarrassing.

It will be interesting to watch whatever fallout comes from this whole adventure. Hopefully rational heads prevail and the damage is minimal. I've heard lots of speculation on what will happen. At this point, they're all just rumors.

Between now and November, I believe these problems will be mitigated, though. I would like to believe that voters will make more efforts to educate themselves on the process along the way, but the cynical side of me thinks that's highly unlikely, unfortunately. This was definitely a weird primary cycle.

And holding the election on the ides of March probably didn't help.

09 March 2016

When does a band become an act?

So, of course, there's lots of talk about the big news from hard rock this week. Due to medical issues and the potential for permanent and complete hearing loss of singer Brian Johnson, AC/DC has postponed the last 10 shows of their current tour (and, rumor has it, their last 10 shows in the US ever). The band has announced that fans can get a refund, or hold their tickets for make-up shows likely to feature fill-in singers.

Much ado is being made about the replacement singer part. The arguments tend to fall into two camps: "Well, if it's not Brian Johnson singing, then it's just a cover band at this point!" vs "Johnson was a replacement singer himself, so what's the big deal?"

Yes, Brian Johnson was a replacement following the death of Bon Scott. Scott didn't quit over contract issues, didn't run out and form "Bon Scott's AC/DC" to compete against the 'real' band. He passed away. The current band line-up had been together about 5 years at that point. But now the lead singer has been Johnson for 35 years. Pretty sure it's safe to stop calling him a replacement.

But it brings up an interesting point: When does a band stop being a band and become an act, more like a Broadway show, where the parts are the same, but the actors are different?

KISS is a band that had divided their fandom on this issue. They made the very conscious decision to put new players - Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer - into the original characters created by Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, respectively. Now there is talk that Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons may be looking for replacements to fill their own platform boots so that the show - the act - can keep going.

Foreigner was formed by Mick Jones, Ian McDonald, Lou Gramm, Ed Gagliardi, Dennis Elliott, and Al Greenwood. In their 40+ years as a band, only Mick Jones remains. So are they still rightfully the same band?

The Who is another big one. This is a band that has legendary names associated with it: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, One of the biggest names - Keith Moon - was the band's second drummer. Townshend and Daltrey are still there, though, and touring with different faces joining them on stage.

Even AC/DC itself - they've had drummers come and go like they're Spinal Tap! They lost one of the two founding members to health issues when Malcolm Young had to step aside. The two longest-serving members - Angus Young and Cliff Williams - will be the only two left on stage with this replacement-singer plan being put forward. Does that make them less of a band than The Who?

So where is the line drawn? How do you tell the difference between a reformed band and a cover act that has a really cool long-term cameo from an original member? Is the upcoming Guns N Roses tour REALLY a reunion when there will still be "new" players in the band (who have been there longer than the original members)?

And when did it start to matter? I seem to recall days long past when a band was 4, 5, 6 guys and that line-up stayed pretty constant. But nowadays, I think bands trade members around more the Major League Baseball on deadline-day. Guys play for so many different bands, it's hard to know who they "belong" to in a given moment.

I have no idea what my point here is, other than to say that, yes, if AC/DC - or more specifically, Angus Young - decides to keep playing, the band will still be called AC/DC if that's what he wants. It's his band, regardless of who's out front. Will it be weird? Sure, but I guarantee the guy in the funny hat seemed bizarre to the Bon Scott fans in 1980.

The only question that really matters is 'Will the tickets still sell?' I know they're still still for "The Who Hits 50!" tour, so I guess that answer that question....

....or does it?