Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Hello, a brief post to make it clear I am neither dead not maimed, but I have been working on a few other non-blog writing assignments of late I should plug here.

Did you know that yours truly was a 13-year-old American lad during the summer of 1985, the same time that the new season of “Stranger Things” is set in? Head on over to Radio New Zealand to read my take on “Stranger Things 3” and what it was really like in the far-off mystical ’80s. 

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Also over at the excellent website The Spinoff, I’ve crafted a somewhat expanded and possibly even improved version of my piece on the end of Mad magazine, and how it influenced the culture that’s all around us – even here in little ol’ New Zealand.

Go forth and read my extracurricular wordage, and new content shall appear here in another day or so!

MAD magazine: RIP to the biggest wise guy in the room

257What, me sorry? The rumours are flying fast and furious that MAD magazine, warping young minds ever since 1952, is closing up shop soon and ending its 67-year run. It’s reportedly going to switch to just reprint material to fulfil its subscription responsibilities and then end publication entirely soon.

While MAD has been past its peak for a while, it’s still truly the end of something great. MAD was once a cultural milestone that’s hard to put into context now. Pre-meme culture, pre-internet snark, hell, even pre-Seinfeld age of irony, MAD was a dissenting voice of doubt and disdain of prevailing institutions. It cracked the 1950s wide open and in some ways the world never looked back. It was never strident about it, but instead it was the voice of the wiseacre kid perched in the back of class interrupting the teacher’s lectures. Without MAD, there’d be no Bart Simpson. 

I first became “aware” of MAD in the early ‘80s toward the end of its heyday. I picked it up for the classic Mort Drucker-drawn movie parodies of stuff like “Rocky III” and “Superman II,” and stayed for the crazed cartooning and wit it was packed with – Sergio Aragones’ teeny-tiny toons, Dave Berger’s exploration of the creepy suburban underbelly in “The Lighter Side Of”, the kinetic “Spy Vs. Spy,” and much more. 

DIG007378_1._SX360_QL80_TTD_Soon I also discovered “classic” MAD, the Harvey Kurtzman-edited comic book that the magazine originally began as in 1952. It remained the last gasp of EC Comics itself after the great comics-will-warp-you scare of the ‘50s shut the rest of the line down. I got a massive volume collecting #1-6 of the series, packed with Kurtzman wit, Will Elder’s insanely detailed art, Wally Wood’s gorgeous spacemen and girls, and much more. I still have that somewhat battered gorgeous big volume of MAD’s first 6 issues, along with several other volumes collecting the original series, plus scattered around the house a battered stack of issues dating back to the ‘70s, all well-read and mangled as they should properly be. 

MAD carried on, and had a good run. One of the great joys of parenthood for me was my son discovering a huge stack of old MADs out at our beach house and becoming addicted to them. There’s nothing like seeing the next generation discover the pleasures of Don Martin’s FLAPPPS and THWITZZIPPTS, of Sergio Aragones’ amazing doodles, of the mysterious intricate pleasures of Al Jaffee’s fold-ins. I’d pick up the occasional “newer” MADs for the boy, too, and while I personally never found them quite as fresh or funny, I also knew that at 40-something I wasn’t quite the audience anymore. Unfortunately, people like me not buying MAD and younger folks not even knowing about it probably spelled the end a while ago. 

768711._SX360_QL80_TTD_MAD ended its 550-issue run and “relaunched” like pretty much every other long-running comic book publication about a year ago, and the writing was on the wall then. But to be honest, in the age of Trump, isn’t everything feeling a little satirical? When Trump himself made fun of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg by saying he ‘looked like Alfred E. Neuman,” nobody under 40 really seemed to get the the joke, including the candidate himself. 

For its 60 years of poking fun at sacred cows, of mocking everything from Star Wars to Nixon to John Travolta to Trump with an unblinking eye, MAD deserves a salute. I’m sad about its imminent end, but I also know the spirit of mockery – all the good and bad things about it – is still alive and scattered all over the internet and today’s pop culture. Alfred E. Neuman will never die. 

Movies I’ve Never Seen #2: The Exorcist

the-exorcist-2What is it: The world’s most famous demonic possession story, the 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist” was a global smash, a taboo-breaking story that also ended up nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. 

Why I never saw it: I love horror movies, but I’m more of a monster-movie dude rather than slasher-horror or Satanic possessions kinda guy. I actually read the novel of “The Exorcist” yeaaarrrrrs ago (younger than I probably shoulda) and I think I built up in my head that the movie was far too creepy for a gentle fella like me. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Definitely. It’s hard watching ‘classics’ sometimes where they’ve been so influential on other movies that what were originally groundbreaking, influential moments can seem almost like a parody when you finally get around to seeing the original source. But “The Exorcist” is creepy and filled with a sense of pensive dread, highlighted by Linda Blair’s remarkable performance. The movie builds up slowly (like most older movies do when viewed from the vantage point of today), but it works because it convinces us of how normal the relationship between Regan and her mother is.

levitating-above-bed-740x400@2xIt makes what follows later that much more profane and shocking. And the movie’s most iconic moments – the possession of Regan and her gruesome actions – are still truly horrifying today. Every parent of a teenager has that moment of disconnection when your child suddenly seems like an alien to you, and “The Exorcist” dramatises that perfectly to terrible extremes. 

How was it different than I thought? Like I said, a bit slower to start, but that actually works to the picture’s benefit. I also expected Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin to be more of a main character and didn’t realise Father Karras would be more of a focus. It was definitely as gruesome and harrowing as I imagined, and unlike some horror movies viewed years later, you definitely didn’t want to laugh at the scary bits. 

Worth seeing? Absolutely. Just maybe leave the lights on. 

When Bob Dylan was the greatest rock star in America

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I’ve seen Bob Dylan four or five times, but it’s mostly been when he’s been in his 60s and 70s. 

Dylan can be inconsistent as a live performer – at one show every lyric sounded like “muzza muzza BUZZA muzza” and on another, he was an elegant elder statesman who even SMILED at one point. 

But there was a point where Dylan was a blazing fireball on stage, during his mid-1970s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. It’s the subject of a new documentary by Martin Scorsese, and it’s must watching for anyone who thinks Dylan couldn’t sizzle live on stage. The man was fierce. 

In 1975, Dylan hadn’t really toured since his late ‘60s motorcycle accident. He put together a kind of travelling show featuring guests like Joan Baez, Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn, Allen Ginsberg and more to play smaller, intimate venues. The Rolling Thunder Revue had a theatrical bent – Dylan painted his face white, like a kabuki performer, and added touches like a dazzling electric violinist to his songs. There was a freewheeling electricity to the atmosphere. 

He’s performed thousands of shows over more than 50 years, but I’d argue that for the 50 or so shows of Rolling Thunder, Dylan was never better. Scorsese’s documentary shows him commanding the stage, stalking, staring and singing like his life depends on it. There’s no mumbling here.  He spits every syllable of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” with a power that makes this account of a racist murder a harrowing listen. Chestnuts like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” or “Blowin’ In The Wind” seem revitalised. Then-current songs like “Isis” and “Hurricane” rage when he performs them. 

Clear-eyed and potent, there’s a fierceness to Dylan’s presence that’s remarkable to watch. Sparks fly off him when he enters a room, not in a showy David Bowie or Mick Jagger way, but in a concentrated, smouldering focus. He combines the intensity of young folkie Dylan with the more grizzled maturity of someone in their mid-thirties, and it lends his songs new power. 

“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” is a great movie, and fitting with Dylan’s mystique there’s a bit of flirting with fiction and masks (let’s just say some of the people interviewed are not what they seem). But in the end it’s a celebration of one of Dylan’s most fertile periods and a reminder that one of the greatest songwriters of all time could throw down with the best of them when he wanted. 

Batman mania revisited, 30 years on

2008_CSK_05425_0129_000()Thirty years ago today, I was standing in a line. A bunch of us were all queued up for what was then the biggest comic book movie of all time, Tim Burton’s Batman. Nobody quite knew what to expect.

There’s a lot of thinkpieces lately about what an event Batman was. You couldn’t escape that symbol, on T-shirts and lunchboxes and gum wrappers. It was the first superhero movie marketing event (the original Superman movies were a lot less pimped out by industry, to be honest). We’ve grown pretty used to that in the years since, but at the time it was dazzling. Good or bad, you HAD to see this movie.

As a kid who’d already been reading comic books for years before “Batman” hit the screen, I was hopeful. I remember painstakingly clipping out newspaper articles about the casting in the months before release – Jack Nicholson as the Joker, well, everybody knew that was perfect, but Michael Keaton as Batman was a bigger question mark. If there was an internet back then, casting “Mr Mom” as Bats would’ve cracked it in half. 

s3-BatmanWaikiki3It’s hard to explain to fans of today’s slick, streamlined and gorgeous Marvel Universe movies that seeing a comic book movie in the ‘80s and ‘90s was mostly a matter of lowering expectations, of accepting flaws and looking for the bits that worked.

Sure, Superman IV was godawful, but hey, the scene where Christopher Reeve tells the UN he’s taking away the world’s nukes was cool. Yeah, Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey shred the screen as the most overacting villains of all time in Batman Forever, but I kinda dug Val Kilmer. OK, Howard The Duck might not have quite worked, but… well…. the puppet was interesting….

“Batman 1989” isn’t perfect either, but seen decades on, it’s still a remarkably intense, dynamic vision, one that shaped the portrayal of Batman in the comics for years to come. The late Anton Furst’s designs of a haunted, impressionist Gotham City are still remarkable – while the Marvel movies are pretty great, they’ve rarely created as bold a sense of place as Burton’s Gotham is. It’s a WEIRD town, explored further in the sequels, where gangs dress like clowns and oppressive architecture overwhelms humanity at every turn. 

Jack Nicholson’s Joker, which received the lion’s share of press going in, has dated a lot worse than Keaton’s Batman. It’s never a bad performance, but it’s hard not to just see it as “Jack doing his Jack thing”. Recently I’ve been rewatching a few of Nicholson’s classic ‘70s films like “The Last Detail” and “Five Easy Pieces,” where you see what a fiery talent he was, and compared to those years, his “Batman” role is more reminiscent of when actors like Vincent Price would appear on the old ‘60s Batman TV show – amusing, yet not all that deep. 

84-ogBut Keaton’s Batman has only grown in strength over the years. He never quite has the classic physical profile – seen in a tuxedo in an early scene, his Bruce Wayne’s shoulders would barely fill half the Bat-suit – but acting is often concentrated in the eyes, and Keaton’s eyes hold a balance of resolve and regret. His Bruce Wayne seems closer to the edge than some – look at the scene where he takes on the Joker in his civilian clothes: “You want nuts? Let’s get nuts!” In contrast, his Batman is more of a blank, grim slate, a mask that wipes out Wayne’s humanity and focuses his mission. 

I’d argue that Christian Bale and even Val Kilmer (who I think is kinda underrated in the Bat-acting pantheon) better represent the Batman character from the comics, but Keaton’s Batman still has a mysterious haunted power that makes him unforgettable. 

Standing in that line outside the theatre 30 years ago, I never would’ve imagined as a middle-aged dude I’d still be lining up for movies featuring characters like Ant-Man, Aquaman and Dr. Strange, but I’m glad I am. There’s a lot of movies given credit as ‘ground zero’ for the current superhero explosion, from “X-Men” to “Blade,” but as a phenomenon, there’s still no touching the craziness that Batman inspired three decades ago. 

Movies I’ve Never Seen #1: ‘Head’, or how the Monkees blew themselves up

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It took me a little while to warm up to The Monkees. 

They were the pre-fab, ‘reality TV’ Beatles, or so I thought. But eventually, I cottoned on to their easygoing talents, the goofy charms of the TV show, and some of the most ingratiating pop nuggets of all time. 

I’ve seen what’s left of The Monkees twice in the past few years – in 2016, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork did a terrific Monkees revue here in Auckland, and last weekend, Dolenz and the only other surviving Monkee Mike Nesmith took one last turn through town for another nostalgic blast. (Peter Tork died this past February, sadly.) The 2019 show was good fun, although hampered by muddy sound and the ageing limitations of the surviving band (the 2016 show was a lot more energetic, to be honest). I was still really glad to see Nesmith, 76, who’s been in ailing health, because he’s one of the great unsung songwriters of our time. 

movie-poster-for-the-film-head-starring-the-monkeesI’ve seen three of the Monkees live now, and I’m happy to have done so. But there was one last Monkee fan hurdle for me to cross: Their mysterious, controversial 1968 movie “Head,” which is either their finest moment or their nadir, depending on who you ask. 

I’d never seen it until this week. I expected a dated hippie mess. I had no idea it was a dazzling comic horror movie that would fill me with existential dread. 

“Head” is a strange, groundbreaking film that assumes you know who the madcap Monkees are, and then proceeds to tear the ground out from under you. There’s not much of a plot – the movie apes the surreal skit humour of the TV series, but with a jarringly nasty edge. You know you’re not in kiddieville anymore when a song featuring shots of screaming female fans cross-cuts into the infamous images from the execution of a Viet Cong officer – it’s like a Backstreet Boys video suddenly morphing into a Marilyn Manson joint. 

I’ve generally a low tolerance for psychedelic storytelling, which tends to really only work if you’re stoned yourself, but the Jack Nicholson script (yes – THAT Jack Nicholson) to “Head” never gets too completely up its own navel to become incoherent. Despite its scattershot approach, “Head” is about a fictional famous band who are trapped on a treadmill of fame in a world they can’t escape. “Head” frequently breaks the fourth wall to show the sets and cameras the Monkees are forced to perform on, but it never gives us the possibility of escape. It’s “meta” before anyone really even knew what that meant. The movie even rewrites the famous theme song:

maxresdefaultHey, hey, we are The Monkees / You know we love to please / A manufactured image / With no philosophies. 

In a world where “Love Island,” “Married At First Sight” and their ilk have overwhelmed commercial TV, it’s still a cutting little blade of a film. It’s a movie that begins with Micky Dolenz’s apparent suicide and ends with the screaming Monkees being stuffed into a featureless black box and driving away into unknown horrors, forced to perform endlessly in a never-ending hell, a scene that is as dark as any ending from a David Lynch film. (Twin Peaks, meet The Monkees!) I can’t imagine how a teenybopper fan of the band would’ve reacted to it in 1968. 

“Head” is weird, funny and fragmented, but it’s also a stunning little rebuttal to the goofy hijinks of the Monkees TV series and a warped meditation on the fame machine. It’s a miracle it ever got made, and it’s no surprise it sank like a stone at the box office, who expected “A Hard Day’s Night” and got something like a Monkees Apocalypse Now. More than 50 years on, it’s a stone cold trip. 

On seeing Prince, two months before he died

1*SOvl-KNc5_L7sZWZiDB7QwPrince would’ve turned 61 today. I saw him for the first and only time just two months before he died in 2016. I wrote this back then, the morning Prince died, mostly for myself:

Dig if you will, a picture.

Prince. The first time I heard him I was 13 or so and he sounded like an alien. “When Doves Cry” slithered out of the FM radio like nothing else out there, the words “animals they strike curious poses” unlocking something deep in my brain.

Thirty years later he played maybe 10 metres in front of me, and he didn’t seem to have aged a day. Prince would live forever.

He took the stage at Auckland’s ASB Theatre for the early show on that balmy February night with a showman’s swagger, orchestral music swelling up and swelling up for long minutes before, with a crash and a flash of light, Prince’s distinctive afro-topped silhouette popped up before the crowd, twice as tall as the real man.

Two months later he’d be gone, and that doesn’t seem possible, surely some kind of stunt like that time he changed his name into a spaghetti-like symbol.

I’m still not over Bowie. I’m weirdly numb about Prince today. He can’t be gone because two months ago I saw him hold 2,000 people in the palm of his hand, and a force like that can’t die in an elevator at Paisley Park at only 57, can it?

You look now for signs, but there weren’t any. At 57, he was lean and sculpted, poised at the piano and eyes twinkling with amusement. Unlike the elaborate hairdos of his heyday, he’d reverted back to a natural afro, which towered over his head. He was a small man, but he was big. A wiggle of his finger or a tiny curve of a smile and 2,000 people at ASB Theatre sat riveted.

1*hwwPz7avqqQB6TKfKAvS9AWhen I heard the Auckland show was Prince solo with a piano and a microphone I was a bit worried – none of those screeching, thunderous guitar solos, no dynamic interplay with the backing band. An “unplugged” Prince conjured up worrying images of a Las Vegas-style revue with the Purple One sipping on sparkling water and turning every song into a Liberace number.

I was wrong. Prince showed us the skeletons and muscle behind the songs, reminding us that while he was flamboyant and eccentric, he was also one of the greatest songwriters of the past 50 years.

They were his first and only New Zealand shows, two tightly planned gigs executed with tremendous precision. Tickets flew out the door in seconds no matter the cost. I dithered for five minutes too long and missed out, spent the next week or so in FOMO funk. Yeah, it was a lot of money, but PRINCE, man. There’s no regrets like those born from chickening out at the last second.

Then the day before the concert, there was a flurry on Twitter over a few last-minute ticket releases for the show. No hesitation. I Would Die 4 U. Click. Ninth row. Nine rows from Prince. Forget the cost.

At ASB theatre, he cracked right in to the distinctive riff of “I Would Die 4 U,” and summed up his appeal for all of us: “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.” Is it hyperbole to say it felt like we were in the presence of genius? But it feels true.

12734006_10208888189304572_9185663524839450730_nThe Prince on stage at Aotea Centre was at the top of his game, a master at playing the crowd. But he was having FUN as well, something that’s hard to find at that lofty level of fame. He threw a dash of “Charlie Brown” theme music into “Little Red Corvette,” and it was like watching a master painter at work, scribbling tiny doodles in the margins. He recast all the classics, turning “Purple Rain” into a gospel revival, “Kiss” into a funky dance party. More than 30 years into his career, it felt like a victory lap.

“Can I stay for a bit?” he purred at the end of one of several encores. He could do this all night, he was letting us know, but could we handle it?

He’d played Sydney and Melbourne just a day or two before, and the very next day he was off to bloody Perth on the other side of Australia. Then he was going to Oakland, California, right after that. This Prince would play forever!

The crowd stood on its feet for minutes. He basked in applause, raised a hand, waved, and spun, turned, and dashed off the stage in a disarmingly childlike, awkward manner – and that was our last sight of Prince, sliding off into the shadows, his music still ringing in our ears. How could he just leave us standing, alone in a world so cold?