Thursday, July 26, 2007

Why WKRP In Cincinnati and Bootlegs Rule

When I first heard that WKRP In Cincinnati was coming out on DVD, I was pretty excited about it, especially since the initial reports claimed that it was going to have most of the original music intact. The first season came out, I bought it on sight, and after watching a few episodes realized that something wasn't right. The music that was featured prominently in each episode (and there was a lot of it -- it's a show about a radio station, after all) seemed generic, unrecognizable, sterile, and out of the time period.

It didn't take too much internet surfing to find comments from enraged fans concerning the generic music tracks that had been substituted for almost every real song that originally appeared in the episodes. Worse yet, when there was a part that had the characters speaking over the music tracks, different voices were dubbed over those of the original actors because the dialogue and songs couldn't be separated. Even worse than that, when a scene couldn't be salvaged because putting a new song over the old one would render the scene incomprehensible, the producers of the DVD decided to just eliminate the scene completely.

Once again, music copyright issues have almost destroyed a very worthwhile TV show for its release on DVD.

So as an ardent fan of both older TV shows and Rock and Roll, I had no choice but to do a quick internet search and order a bootleg version of the series. Ok, if you want to get technical, it's actually a pirate copy, taped off of TV years ago and burned onto DVDs by a genius or group of geniuses that will remain anonymous. This set is about 20 discs long and it's the entire series, with all of the original music intact. It also cost me only about as much as the commercial release of season one did. Thank God for the internet, I say!

Now for the nitpicky section: the bootleg (I like that word better than pirate, unless we're talking about actual pirates, you know, with peg legs and eye patches and whiskey dick - I mean whiskey breath - and parrots and shit - those pirates are cool), while containing the original music, is from a syndicated run (probably in the 80's), meaning each episode has a few minutes cut that were in the original run. The official version of Season 1 is uncut except for the scenes edited out because of the music issue stated above, but, of course, has the shitty generic music and overdubbed voices.

Well, I can deal with a few minutes missing from each episode on my bootleg because the show is so damn good. I remember watching it as a kid and being entertained by it, but I had no idea how good it really was. The main thing that strikes me is how they were able to balance funny and serious moments in the show and not make it seem like a "very special episode" like they always did in Family Ties and other shows. The writing and acting was good enough to skillfully navigate between these two genres to make the show much greater than the average sitcom.

Before I give any examples, I'll give you a quick idea of what the show is about if you've never seen it: As the series begins, new program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) arrives at the Cincinnati easy-listening radio station WKRP to find it a poorly run shambles of a business. He immediately changes the format to rock and roll (which pleases on-the-run rock DJ Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) and infuriates sleazy adman Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner)), hires soulful nighttime DJ Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), and tries to turn the station into a money-making venture after nearly being run into the ground by inept station manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump). Added to this mess is nerdy, neurotic newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders); nerdy, shy, broadcasting school graduate Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers); and hot receptionist Jennifer Marloe (Loni Anderson). This wide array of characters really provided the writers with a lot of material that made the show consistently good throughout most of its run.

Now about the blending of funny and serious stuff: in one first season episode, Venus gets bent out of shape when the others try to get a picture of him taken for promotional purposes. Come to find out, Venus is a deserter from the Vietnam War and is wanted by the authorities. Amid all of the laughs of the episode there is a scene where Venus is describing the horrors of the war that caused him to walk away. It is a riveting monologue that gave me a tiny sick feeling in the pit of my stomach - in a prime time sitcom from the late 70's.

I know that WKRP wasn't the first to do such things and certainly won't be the last, but I haven't seen any other show that is primarily a comedy tackle serious issues in such a natural-seeming matter.

How many TV shows dealt with a major character being an alcoholic and treated it in a sensitive and funny manner? Another example is the one that I just watched where WKRP is put under pressure by a powerful minister to censor its play lists so as to not offend the "good Christians" of Cincinnati. Sounds serious, right? Yeah, but funny too.

Alright, I think I've made my point. WKRP is much more than a funny show from over 20 years ago; it's also smart, well-written, well-acted and it makes you think. So go out and get that bootleg - or at least the official first season if the music thing doesn't bother you and the moral thing does. But think about this if you're having a moral dilemma: by not buying the bootleg you'll be giving money to the people that are more concerned about money than the integrity of a piece of art.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Nothing Beats Humiliation

There's nothing like a good, sludgy, dirge to clear out the cobwebs during these sticky, groggy, uncomfortably hot summer days and nights. Perhaps to counterbalance my recent descent back into the world of Elvis Presley, I've been spending my non-Elvis moments listening to the confrontational and mostly uncomfortable sounds of early Swans.

If you don't know, Swans were a New York band that existed from approximately 1982 to 1997 and covered much sonic territory during that time. The early albums feature Michael Gira on searing howls of pain, with other musicians pummeling their drums and guitars in a syrupy, decadent grind that sticks into the little crevices of your brain and creates thousands of tiny hammers hell-bent on destroying you from the inside.

On the first track of their debut album, Filth, Gira invites you into the bleak world of Swans with the following words: "Be strong! Be hard! Resist temptation! Stick your hand in your eye! Close your fist! Resist! Flex your muscles!" Remember that these words of encouragement are being yelled over an ultra-fuzzed electric bass and guitar plonk guided by a fidgety, metallic drum pattern complete with what sounds like large sheets of metal and bells being struck with demonic hell hammers.

It's not only as good as that description sounds, it's a whole lot fuckin' better.

I imagine many people wouldn't be able to make it through the first song, let alone an entire 40-some minute album of this rage. Well, I've been listening to three albums of this holy noise over the last few days and I must admit that I feel pretty relaxed. I know, it probably seems a bit strange that lyrics such as "Stupid snake, big strong boss. Break my back. Blood runs black. Cut my throat. Kill me, snake. Do what I say. You're the boss" can have a calming effect on me, but then again, I've somehow been able to fall asleep to Lou's Metal Machine Music more than a few times -- I swear I'm not crazy.

Swans have produced some really great music and albums, and I urge you whole-heartedly to seek all of them out. If the brutality of this early stuff sounds like it would be a bit much for you, just know that the band greatly began to expand their sound with the addition of vocalist and songwriter Jarboe in 1985. The albums from that point on begin to get a little more gentle in delivery but sacrifice none of the intensity or lyrical self-repulsion. For example, some of the best Swans lyrics appear on 1987's Children of God: "The sex in your soul will damn you to hell / Damn you to hell / I will be there, when he calls my number / I'll be there / Let the light come in, damn you to hell / Save your soul, damn you to hell."

Jarboe's voice and lyrics helped transform the band from a dirty, cantankerous, big ol' ball of hate into a more droney, majestic, beautiful slide into hell, if you will. Listen to their albums. Let your mind soak it all in. Most of all, don't get depressed with all of the darkness, because if you submerge your big toe into the big black pool every once in a while, it will allow you to appreciate the good stuff happening all around you that you probably take for granted every day.

Then again, my mind could just be numbed from having listened to so much of this. Ah, whatever. Swans music is great. Swans music is right. Cut off your ears. Stick your headphones in your ears. Nothing beats being raped by Swans. Nothing beats being pummeled by Swans. Nothing bea

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Wiki Wiki!!!

An Elvis enthusiast has a lot of entertainment to choose from these days, from multiple versions of songs and live shows to various live performances on DVD (as well as which of E's flicks one can watch without feeling more than a little ashamed).

Then, when you decide which live performance you want to watch, you have to choose which version you want to spend your time with. Case in point: the two disc special edition DVD of "Aloha From Hawaii" that came out a few years ago. Not only can you watch the TV special as it originally appeared on NBC in April of 1973 (with four extra songs taped after the show with no audience present and shots of Hawaii shown behing Elvis), but you can watch a new edit of the complete concert (without a lot of the "dated" effects (as the liner notes call them) and the extra songs) with souped up sound and video. Then, there's the so-called "Alternate Aloha" rehearsal show that was taped the night before (with an audience in attendance) that some say is actually better than the main concert. Also, you can see 17 minutes of The King's arrival in Hawaii, and the extra, post-show songs in their entirety (complete with false starts and screwed up takes).

That's a lot to choose from.

Since I watched the original TV version when I got this set a year or so ago (I personally like the "dated" visuals -- perhaps it's my intense nostalgia for an era that I wasn't even alive in), I decided to watch the new edit version of Aloha from Hawaii. It rocked.

When I first saw the Aloha concert about a year ago, I had just come off of watching "That's The Way It Is" a bunch of times. In that 1970 concert film, Elvis hadn't been doing Vegas that much and his performance is excellent - he's slim, full of energy, and creates some great music. Most importantly, he moves around a lot.

Knowing that Aloha is one of the fans' most coveted performances, I was ready to be blown away. Instead, when I saw a slightly pudgy, plastic, sluggish Elvis looking kinda stoned and barely moving around on stage, I got really sad. His eyes were closed most of the time he was singing and it seemed like he was having to focus all of his energy on just singing the songs right. It was my first real experience with seeing Elvis's decline and it kinda bummed me out.

Sure, I'd read Peter Guralnick's great bio Careless Love a couple of times before that, and while depressing, I still couldn't really see the effects of his self-abuse with my own eyes. Six or seven years ago (when I was first getting into Elvis and didn't know really anything) I rented a video of This Is Elvis, the 1980 documentary (of sorts), which is the only officially-released video with footage from the 1977 In Concert film, and seeing him fat and out of it didn't depress me like watching Aloha did.

Anyway, after seeing Blue Hawaii last night at the public library (in their Friday night series of Elvis movies throughout the month of July) I thought I'd give Aloha another try. I didn't expect much, and maybe that's why I found myself really enjoying the performance and not being bummed out.

Sure the King looks a little out of it at first, but he does snap out of it part way through the show. He still gives some passionate performances and jokes a little with the crowd. Sure, it's not up to the level of his concerts from just a few years before, but considering that he had just gotten divorced form Priscilla and was really starting to unravel, it's not that bad.

So these are the questions I pose to myself after writing this rather long, rambling series of thoughts on Aloha From Hawaii: am I getting to the point in my love for Elvis that I am able to forgive his mediocre moments? Is my love for Elvis making me blind to the crap that some of it really is? Is the image towering over his artistic achievement in my mind?

Does it matter?

Probably not. Long live The King.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

I Love Paul Stanley #2

T-Shirts and Tight Blue Jeans

Don't You Ever Get Hungry?

Kris Kristofferson as a cop who has just gotten out of prison for pluggin' a guy out of the line of duty. Keith Carradine as a country bumpkin who goes to the big city and begins to look more and more like Billy Idol as he sinks into a life of petty crime. Lori Singer as the bumpkin's wife who longs for a better life and apparently a bearded ex-cop's hot love. Genevieve Bujold as a diner owner with a Laurie Anderson haircut and a sick love for the crazy cop. Then to top it all off, Divine (not in drag) as a sadistic crime boss who doesn't like competition from other scumbags. Shake all of this together and you get Trouble In Mind, a 1986 slightly futuristic and majorly anachronistic film by director Alan Rudolph that is surprisingly not available on DVD.

How in the hell did I come across this one? A friend found the video tape on the dollar clearance rack at Half Price Books and told me I might dig it. I know that the separate parts might seem like they wouldn't add up to an enjoyable whole, but I'm here to tell you that they do.

Former cop "Hawk" (Kristofferson) gets out of jail and goes back to his old neighborhood, where lifelong friend Wanda (Bujold) gives him a room but gets mad when he gets some lovin' from her. Coop (Carradine) and his lady Georgia (Singer) have relocated from the boonies to the scummy, depressing city in search of work. All Coop finds is a life of crime and new a new hairstyle when he meets up with a crazy, babbling criminal named Solo (Joe Morton). Meanwhile, Georgia finds Hawk wanting to get in her pants (oh, and save her from her dipshit boyfriend) and nothing but kindness from Wanda.

As Coop gets led into bigger and more dangerous crime jobs by Solo, the two become wanted men by the city's big crime boss, Hilly Blue (played by Glen Milstead, better known to fans of cinematic sickness as motherfuckin' Divine). Hawk also finds himself mixed up with Hilly, who wants to employ the ex cop cause I guess he's a badass (Oh yeah, he must be a badass because at one point he kicks the collective asses of Coop and Solo and wears black all the time).

Well, I won't give any more away in case you want to watch this thing and be surprised (which I wholeheartedly suggest you do, if you can find it), but let's just say that it gets tense by the end. I think. Mostly the movie's just kinda weird. Not weird in a David Lynch deformed-reptile-baby-vomiting-oatmeal kind of way, but in a fairly-odd-for-a-movie-starring-Kris Kristofferson kind of way. Does that make any sense? It's just got a nice atmosphere and I couldn't tell what was going to happen as the movie went along. I'll leave it at that.

But I'm not through talking about the flick. The acting by Kristofferson and Carradine isn't the best, but perhaps both actor's styles are an acquired taste. Kris is good as the slightly cliched mysterious man who has a dark side but really holds within him a heart of gold. His raspy voice fits the character well. Carradine is kind of a weirdo anyway (as are all the other actor Carradines) and to see him near the end of the movie with new-wave eyeshadow and Adam Curry hair (ok, maybe it's not that bad) is a real hoot. His acting, though, leaves a little to be desired but somehow works well in the movie. Maybe Kris balances him out.

Now I'm sure you all remember Lori Singer as Kevin Bacon's main squeeze in Footloose, but I don't remember her being that hot. Yup, she looks pretty good, even while holding a baby and pretending to be a redneck. Also looking pretty good is Coma's Genevieve Bujold, especially with the aforementioned Laurie Anderson hairdo. Her acting is pretty good as well, even with the French accent poking its nasty head out every now and then. She does justice to the brand of woman-with-a-tough-exterior-but-a-soft-marshmellow-and-unicorn-interior that these such movies usually have.

But the real kicker is seeing Divine looking like a man and trying to be butch... sort of. As far as acting goes, he does about the same job delivering his lines as he did in Female Trouble or Pink Flamingos, but just a teeny-weeny bit toned down. But not really. Granted, he's not saying things like "Kill everyone now!" or "OH MY GOD ALMIGHTY, SOMEONE HAS SENT ME A BOWEL MOVEMENT!!!" (or "Oh Mary!", for that matter), but he's still pretty damned Divine. And yeah, it's pretty damned fantastic.

Well, that pretty much sums up the movie for me. It has this strange noir-film feeling to it while also seeming like it's taking place a little bit in the future, and that's pretty neato in my book. Also, the cast makes it really bitchin'. What else can I say? Try to find it for a buck and you may consider yourself lucky. Maybe they'll put it out on DVD so that five people can buy it. I'd be number 4.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

He Sings A Song About A Jelly Roll

My girlfriend and I recently saw a free showing of Elvis's 1958 feature "King Creole" at the public library as part of their Elvis film series throughout the month of July. I knew it was gonna rock when we walked into the auditorium and were greeted with a sea of white haired people munching on popcorn. We were easily the youngest people there until some parents showed up with their annoying kids, and while it was kinda nice to have more of an age balance in the room, it was a drag to have to keep moving my legs every five minutes so the little nippers could go to the bathroom or whatever the hell they kept getting up for. Well, it still ended up being an interesting way to watch the King on the (sort of) big screen.

Old people sure have a funny way of looking at things. For those of you who have never seen what is probably Elvis's best screen performance (and much more of a "real" movie than the brainless hokum of Harem Scarem, for example), let me tell you that King Creole is a fairly depressing movie. E plays a high school kid who flunks his senior year twice, has to work before and after school to support his sister and messed up father (who lost it after their mom died), gets involved with hoodlems who talk him into participating in petty crimes, and soon becomes the object of a power struggle between two nightclub owners when they find out the boy can sing. There's psychological abuse, sexual slavery, battery, hospitalizations, stabbings, shootings, shame, and lecherous behavior in this movie.

And let me tell you, people, those gramps and grannies were laughing!!!

Sure, there are some funny lines and clever phrases that might elicit a giggle or a slight guffaw during the picture, but for the most part, the flick is sorta depressing. You see, I think that the old people were laughing at things in the movie that seem quaint now (like prices of things and over-dramatic 50's acting styles), meaning that they thought the movie was kinda corny. My girlfriend and I are fairly young and we watched the movie with the understanding that it was made almost 50 years ago and, yeah, things were different back then. I've been watching old movies all my life, so that kind of acting and melodrama don't seem weird to me; that's just how those movies are. You have to take that into consideration when watching classic films or you'll spend the whole time looking at your friends and exclaiming "That's dumb!"

My girlfriend, on the other hand, thinks that the old people just thought the movie was funny. That would mean that they're all dumb, and I'd like to give my fellow human beings a little more credit than that.

Well, it's possible that we are just too serious about all of this. Maybe "King Creole" is goofy and the past should be laughed at because in these more advanced times we know so much more about the world.

Naw, I don't think so. I just think those old people are weird and didn't get the movie.

Then again, maybe when you're at that age you need to laugh at as much stuff as possible to keep your sanity. The world can be a rough place, and getting old in it could be a real drag. I guess the only people that really know are those white-haired folks who were yuckin' it up as Ronnie lay dying, blood dripping from her mouth at the end of the movie.

Next time, we'll take a look at the horrible threat of the Hell's Grannies.