Everybody has his or her must-see list of Christmas specials and movies. Following are the ones I try to see every year, and my favorite moments in each."Scrooge"
is the 1951 black-and-white British classic starring the great Alastair Sim as a seemingly unredeemable Ebenezer Scrooge. Favorite moment: When Scrooge, freshly redeemed, hesitates before entering his nephew's Christmas party. He looks to the young maid for encouragement, which she gives with a wordless nod. He then nods and smiles. Pass the tissues."How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"
is the 1966 Dr. Seuss adaptation by Chuck Jones, narrated by "Frankenstein" star Boris Karloff. Favorite moment: When the Grinch steals the long, thin candy canes from the sleeping Who children. It's a brain-twistingly evil moment."A Charlie Brown Christmas"
is the 1965 special based on Charles M. Schulz's comic-strip phenomenon "Peanuts." Favorite moment: Of course, how can it be anything other than when the "Peanuts" gang suddenly launches into a peculiar, albeit heartwarming, "Loo loo loo" version of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"? "Santa Claus"
is the 1959 Mexican Christmas flick made by the same people behind the Mexican vampire and wrestling flicks. Favorite moment: The amazing moral tug-of-war between little Lupita and the evil doll who tempts her to steal. Our Lupita holds her ground: "Stealing is evil! I don't want to be evil!""Santa Claus Conquers the Martians"
is the 1966 low-budget color flick in which green-skinned Martians kidnap Santa in a bid to cheer up their morose (and likewise green-skinned) children, a group that includes young Pia Zadora. Favorite moment: The rockin' theme song: "S-A-N-T-A, C-L-A-U-S, hooray for Santy Claus!" It sounds like a song from a Frankie-and-Annette "beach party" flick."Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
is Rankin-Bass' 1964 puppet-animation adaptation of the Gene Autry song. Favorite moment: It's a subtle moment, one you'd have to keep a sharp lookout for. It's when Hermey the Elf (and would-be dentist) says, "It's all settled," and abruptly turns out the bedroom light. Why is that my favorite? Watch it and see if you don't agree that Hermey has not
been listening to Rudolph. He's off in his own, little, bicuspid-yanking world.
And now, as "Lois Lane" and "Captain Marvel" artist Kurt Schaffenberger used to say every year around this time, "I see the holidays have us by the throat again."
LAST POST UNTIL 11/19
(Program note: This will be my last post until Nov. 19.)
My final thoughts about the Mad Jack/Scream gig last weekend:
Going in, I had a feeling it was not going to be a perfect night, but for different reasons.
Mad Jack had been practicing for two months, but the added songs still weren't sounding like "water off a duck's back." Some band members couldn't be counted on to remember song parts, transitions and/or changes. (I always tell the young people: "Stay in school, don't do drugs, and always use protection.")
Mind you, we only added a lousy seven songs to our show. (We retained what we called "the original 18" -- the 18 songs we played onstage during our previous two gigs.) And of those seven, six were "dust-offs" (songs we played previously in our 31 years as a band.) So only one song -- albeit, a complicated epic -- was new to us: The Outlaws' "Green Grass and High Tides."
At the VERY LAST REHEARSAL before the gig, we had two song-stopping moments -- we screwed up so badly, the songs actually came to a crashing halt. This is NOT a good omen one week before a gig. But I'd long since gotten the feeling that no matter how many more rehearsals Mad Jack had, these problems would not go away. Sadly, I fear we've "maxed out" this band's memory.
This close to the gig, though, you can't let that bother you. So your attitude becomes: Yes, we're gonna screw up here and there, but we're gonna have the time of our lives.
I was cool with that.
But then the gig came, and with it the Technical Difficulty Hell I described in recent posts. So the problem became something else. We had to rock the house with an hour-late start time and non-existent monitors. It became a "fasten your seatbelts" night.
We pulled together.
We made the blunders, sure. (Yours Truly made the first of the evening -- one my brother later called a "doozy.") But those 31 years together counted for something. We faced the dragon, and slayed it.
And after that, we went out for spinach-and-feta omlettes.
GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS
More gig memories:
I had more of those moments when girls would dance and/or rub up against me during the show. I'm 49, graying and thick around the middle, so I'm guessing a few Long Island Iced Teas must come into play here. Or is it my eyeliner and black fingernail polish?
This occurred three times on Friday. Don't ask me why, but it always seems to happen right in front of my work buddies. I can't pretend I'm not grateful for the eyewitnesses.
I was taking a walk in the crowd with my wireless microphone while singing "Bonie Maroney," when a smokin' late-20's/early '30s brunette in a push-up began dancing with me. I was in "entertainer" mode, so I fell to the floor, calypso-style. She took my cue, bless her smokin' heart, and briefly straddled me for a mock lap-dance. A work buddy was right behind her, trying his best to capture the moment on his digital camera. The shot came out too dark, or else I'd have a new screen-saver at the office. (For a year now, my screen-saver has been a shot of me playing my guitar between "Tube Top's" legs, back when Mad Jack played Lindenwold.)
Later in Friday's show, Mad Jack did a planned bit where we invited female audience members to come onstage to sing backing vocals on "Twist and Shout." We were hoping for a little pandemonium, and we got it. When the song ended and the girls -- some real lookers -- departed the stage, a couple of guys in the audience yelled: "Encore!" I said into the mike: "Believe me, fellas, we'd ALL like an encore."
Two work buddies disappeared for a while, and I didn't wonder where. They went next-door to check out the go-go bar. When they got back, I asked them: "How are the girls?" One buddy shook his head, and the other said: "Something's wrong over there." I said: "You mean Gloucester City's finest aren't fine?" He said: "The girls are hotter HERE."
P.S.: My apologies for not sanitizing the above anecdotes a bit more. But aren't blogs supposed to tell it like it is?
BILLY THE SWEDE
A gig memory:
Nephew came for the gig from New York City with two college friends: talented cinematographer-in-the-making "Hattie," and a fine-artist-in-the-making from Sweden we call "Billy the Swede." (Brinie, ever the thoughtful guy, gave Billy a box of Swedish Fish to make him feel at home.)
Billy's actual given name IS "Billy" -- not William. He said his father was infatuated with John Wayne and Hollywood Westerns, so Billy was named after Billy the Kid. He added that his brother was named Jesse and his sister was named Dolly. I said: "Dolly? I can't think of a cowgirl named Dolly." He said: "Dolly Parton."
At the gig, Hattie worked a video camera while Billy worked a couple of girls. Billy is very personable, with long blond hair and a charming accent. Nephew says whenever Billy is talking to a girl he just met, his accent mysteriously gets thicker.
There's a go-go bar next to the nightclub. A couple of the girls who work there noticed all the cars at the nightclub, and they bopped over to see what the fuss was about. One of them took a liking to Billy. She was of American-Indian descent; her stage name was "Dakota."
Mad Jack closed Set Two with the Outlaws' barn-stormer "Green Grass and High Tides," a song Brinie and I have wanted to play onstage all our lives. For the occasion, I put on a black cowboy hat. I wanted to FEEL it.
Billy later said: "I can't wait to tell my dad that I spoke with an Indian and saw a band with a guy wearing a cowboy hat."
"I INHERITED THE SNAKE," PART 3 (OF 3)
The gig went great. We really had 'em at times. But before I get to the fun stuff, I still have to rag about our stretch in Technical Difficulty Hell.
The monitors were taking up precious floor space -- this nightclub has a wide, but not deep, stage -- though I was hearing precious little coming OUT of them. Actually, I couldn't hear a damned thing.
Therefore, Karch and The Kid couldn't hear Brinie and Me, and vice-versa. I couldn't hear my vocals except for the wispy bit I caught coming back at me from the room. And the only way I could hear THAT was by what we call "eating the mike" -- that is, singing with your mouth practically ON the microphone. It's a bad situation for a singer. You're actually kind of shouting, just to hear yourself. You're not crooning. You're not massaging the vowels. You're in danger of going off-key more often than you normally would. The audience doesn't know this, because the room swallows up a lot of imperfections. But God help you if you're listening to a board mix the next day.
Halfway into Set One came my "Wa-a-ay down inside" vocal solo in "Whole Lotta Love." I was looking forward to that "delay" sound effect I told you about earlier. No such luck. My vocal was as dry as Im-Ho-Tep.
Two thirds into Set One, we had a guest singer on the Ozzy Osbourne song "Crazy Train" -- "Tom Terrific" from the band Snafu -- so I had the opportunity to go into the crowd and listen to the mix. The Kid was all over his guitar neck, playing all of this great Randy Rhoads stuff, but you'd never know it. I hoped he would at least be turned up for the solo. No such luck. His solo was quieter than two high-school kids necking in the family room.
OK, I'm done raggin'. Now for the fun stuff . . .
TO BE CONTINUED
"I INHERITED THE SNAKE," PART 2 (OF 3)
It's Gig Night.
I put on my eyeliner and black fingernail polish. We all head to the nightclub. The parking lot is bursting. A good omen. Walking in, Me 'n' Titanic spot an impressive deposit of vomit splattered between two cars -- a good bucket's worth, resembling canned Cheddar Cheese Soup With Hamburger Bits. A bad omen?
We push our way in, start to unpack and tune our instruments, when I hear my brother, bassist Brinie, utter the three words I hate to hear him say minutes before a gig: "We've got problems."
The "snake" is faulty, and the sound man, "Wilbur," has to drive to a (hopefully open) music store to buy a new one. No, I'm not quite sure what a snake is, but if someone held a gun to my head and asked me to guess, I'd say it has something to do with electricity and musical equipment. "I inherited the snake," Wilbur said repeatedly by way of an excuse.
My brother reckoned replacing the snake would delay our start time by at least an hour. This is a disaster. We planned a 9 p.m. start time. The house is already packed and people have been waiting for the band.
Brian said that without the snake, we wouldn't have any monitors. I said: "(Expletive) the monitors. Let's play without 'em." That's when Brinie told me we hadn't even been "miked" yet. (That is, the sound guys hadn't positioned microphones in front of our amplifiers yet, in order to mix us.) And in fact, I see the sound man's assistant, "Chumley," rolling out what looked like miles of black linguini.
As time passed agonizingly, we tried to keep our spirits up. My brother visited the men's room, where an older gentleman said, "Are you guys gonna play or keep fartin' around?"
FINALLY, we got a soundcheck. When drummer Fro starting pounding on his kick drum to get a sound level, people began to applaud -- a tension-breaking moment, though it would still be a long while before showtime. Unfortunately, the sound man never got a level on at least two "floor toms" (the larger drums that are positioned on the floor rather than mounted to the bass drum). Therefore, some of Fro's and Jazzy's performances would surely be compromised.
Amp levels were checked. That's when the sound guys realized they never miked MY amp. Another delay.
Adding to this comedy of errors was that during every delay -- just when you thought the band might start playing soon -- "house" music would suddenly be turned on at a comically loud volume. The house music couldn't be less appropriate. I can't name the artists heard, but if someone held a gun to my head and asked me to guess, I'd say it was Haddaway or the Spice Girls or Rick Astley. Me 'n' Fro vamped to the music, pretending we were playing and having the time of our lives. I FELT LIKE AN IDIOT.
The "light show" was quickly installed. It was two towers of spotlights (one red, one blue) at either end of the stage. We call these "French fry" lights. They make the stage feel like a sauna; they burn our retinas; and they do nothing but illuminate us -- no flashing or highlighting of show moments. (We have our own light show, which has sound-triggered flashing, but we were instructed not to bring it.)
Showtime was finally imminent. My brother told me I should apologize for the delay and thank the folks for their patience. I said I'd come up with something. (I always do a little joke before hitting the first chord of our first song, Foghat's "I Just Want to Make Love to You.") Then we got the OK from Wilbur.
"Welcome to Gloucester City," I said into the mike. "We hope you enjoyed our soundcheck. Please come back tomorrow for the REAL show."
Then we let it rip . . .
TO BE CONTINUED
"I INHERITED THE SNAKE," PART 1 (OF 3)
My bands Mad Jack and Scream pulled off another one on Friday night -- we packed the house and rocked the house.
BUT -- this was a night in Technical Difficulty Hell.
It all started the week of the gig, when my brother, bassist Brinie, suddenly and unexpectedly learned that the nightclub had hired a new "house" sound man. We're wary of strangers this late in the game; we prefer to have a solid relationship with our sound man, or, at the least, a solid reference.
But Brinie talked to "Wilbur" on the phone and liked what he heard. The guy sounded experienced and accommodating. He didn't balk at our planned 9 p.m. start time, as other sound men tend to do. (Most bands go on at 10.) Plus, his equipment was apparently superior to that of the previous gentleman.
OK -- so far, so good.
As is our preferred custom the night before the gig, we piled our equipment into our vehicles, slogged to the venue and set up. It was me; Brinie; guitarist Titanic (who flew to New Jersey from California just for the gig); guitarist Karch; guitarist The Kid; and drummer Jazzy. We set up our equipment on the stage (leaving room along the front edge, where the monitors would go) and did our own pre-soundcheck soundcheck.
What that means is: Rather painstakingly, we fine-tuned our stage volume so that every guitar was of equal volume, but only loud enough for Jazzy to hear while playing the drums. This makes it easier for a good sound man to mix us; no one's amp is cranked to a ridiculous level, so that all the sound man has to do is turn up Guitarist A or Guitarist B during their respective solos.
To that end, I typed up and printed out a "head's up" sheet for the sound man, which alerts him as to who is taking a solo during which songs (our set-list order is pretty much etched in stone), and any special requests we may have. For instance, I asked for a "delay" (a repeating sound effect) on my voice during the "Wa-a-a-ay down inside" vocal solo in Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love."
Rather than type up and print out those instructions, I might as well have spent that hour scratching my privates.
TO BE CONTINUED
A REAL TRACK, PART 3 (OF 4)
Luck was with us that afternoon.
After getting good drum and bass tracks, it was time for me to put on four guitars. I started with acoustic, which I played on the first verse and all of the choruses. Then I played electric rhythm, which we recorded twice to make it feel "bigger." Finally, I added an electric "riffs" track -- pieces that weren't solos per se, but made little statements at certain points such as bridges or to punctuate a vocal line that I already had in my head. Shades suggested I play one of the riffs slightly differently, but I told him I knew exactly how it would fit with the rest of the parts. (I'm a bit of an if-you-want-it-done-right dude, which is why I always write, edit, photo-edit and design my Friday and Sunday pages in the Press.) Surprisingly for me, I layed all these tracks down in one take each.
Next, Brinie and I cut the backing vocals. I wanted to cut the backing "vocs" first, so that I'd have them to play off of when I cut the master. My brother and I stood at one microphone. Brinie stood back a little further because he was singing louder than me. (We could tell this via our headphones.) I only wanted the two voices, but Shades talked me into doubling it up (again, for "bigness"), so we sang it again.
Next came the pivotal moment for me: the master vocal. I didn't plan on cutting it that first afternoon. After singing for three hours the night before and a couple of hours that morning, I didn't think I'd have the vocal elasticity -- especially since I was supposed to give the greatest vocal performance of my life thus far (this being a Real Track and all). But I was feeling strong, and a little lucky, that afternoon.
Shades set me up in front of the mike. He positioned two round, black screens in front of it (to prevent unwanted noise from, say, hard consonants). I told him the vocals are a bit hushed at the beginning, leading to some barnstorming stuff. He instructed me as to the distances I should keep from the mike at the appropriate times. I put my headphones on; he closed the soundproofed doors; he took his place in front of the mixer; and played the song.
I recognized immediately that I had entered The Zone. I'd never before heard my own vocals sound like they did in the headphones, and I played to it. I lived dangerously and sang the song without a "cheat sheet." But there were no lyrical flubs. It was a usable performance throughout. I got it in one take.
Shades came back in. He asked me: "Good?" I said: "I didn't like the way I pronounced one word, but I think I'll live with it."
TO BE CONTINUED
A REAL TRACK, PART 2 (OF 4)
We arrived at the studio, striving to hold onto the arrangement in our heads.
The studio, founded around 1980, was charmingly old-school. Shades, the owner/operator, is staunchly an analog guy, though he’s just now in the process of updating to ProTools. The digital equipment was all there waiting to be installed; Shades was finishing up a spot of remodeling to accommodate it. He plans to offer both analog and digital, simultaneously, to his clients. His theory of recording is that he wants the finished song to sound like “an enhanced live track,” not something that's been manipulated and overdubbed into computerized perfection. No one will deny that analog has a warmer sound -- nor will analog purists deny being tempted by the unlimited tracks and seductive editing capabilities of digital recording.
But for this project, I was thrilled to go analog. Well, you know what a traditionalist I am.
The studio had a palpable aura of tranquility. It was darkly lit, but in a way that you could see everything you needed to see. Indian rugs decorated the walls. Clutter was at a minimum. You just felt comfortable here. Shades sat in front of a mixer behind glass; we were led to a main room; the network of doors were soundproofed; little rooms outside the main room housed amplifiers that were permanently "miked."
Shades gathered bassist Brinie, drummer Jazzy and myself into the main room, where he had a drum kit set up. Jazzy made some adjustments on the kit to suit his own comfort while Shades tuned up the drum heads. He gave us all headphones. On Shades' OK, Brinie and I then played the track with Jazzy, but only Jazzy could be heard in this room. My guitar and Brinie's bass were being recorded in the separate rooms, while the three of us received the feed through our headphones. This way, Shades had each instrument on different tracks for total separation; no instrument was "bleeding through" another instrument's track. Do you follow?
Step 1 was to get a (more or less) perfect take of the song for drums and bass. It was important to Shades that the rhythm section actually play live together, in order to get that "live" feel. My guitar was to be a "scratch" guitar -- I played it just to get us through the take -- but it would not be used on the finished song.
The question now was: How many times would we have to play the song before we got a usable take? The palms began to dampen a might, in anticipation of a potentially long and frustrating afternoon.
Amazingly, we nailed it on the second take! We got a sweet bassline from Brinie and a terrific performance from Jazzy.
So now, all we had to do was add four electric guitars, one acoustic guitar, a clap track, a tambourine, Hammond organ, piano, a master vocal and backing vocals.
Piece of cake.
TO BE CONTINUED
A REAL TRACK, PART 1 (OF 4)
For the first time in my 49 years, I cut a real track in a real studio.
Call it an opportunity or an impossible dream, but due to circumstances I won't bore you with, me 'n' the guys accepted a challenge: to record a track during two Saturday sessions one week apart -- one long, one short -- with precious little time for preparation.
The song was a cover. I cooked up the arrangement over a two-week period. But the window of time between when I could show it to the guys and when we would record it was a matter of HOURS. It was a take-it-or-leave-it situation. We took it. (Mind you, this was in the midst of rehearsals for our Nov. 2 Mad Jack/Scream double-bill.)
The lineup to play on the track was me (vocals, guitars); brother Brinie (bass, backing vocals); The Kid (guitar solo); Jazzy (drums); plus, the producer (I'll call him "Shades") offered to add Hammond organ and piano.
The big weekend finally came. The schedule was brutal.
On Friday night, we had a Mad Jack practice (three and a half hours); then me 'n' Brinie cut a demo of my arrangement in his basement studio; then he and I worked on his bassline until 3 a.m. (I fell asleep while playing guitar ... I actually kept playing in my sleep); then at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, we had a Scream practice (two hours); then me, Brinie, Jazzy and The Kid learned the arrangement.
Jazzy was the key. This guy has played hundreds of shows over the past 30 years, so he's quick on the uptake. He's very innovative. He will matter-of-factly insert a snare roll that purrs like a cat. Jazzy and I first played together when we were sophomores in high school, but only in the past couple of years have we been reunited musically. When I ask Jazzy for something, he knows what I want.
For the sake of expediency, we actually named the parts of the arrangement. There was the "Van Morrison," the "James Brown," the "Mott riffs," the climb, the accelerated climb, the descend, the "Redbone riff," the "Roxy riff," the acoustic verse, the "Come Together" verse, the "Dobie Gray."
Once we felt the slightest bit confident, we jumped into our vehicles and high-tailed it to the studio in South Jersey. But our collective grasp on the arrangement was tenuous. Our hope was to get to the studio before the arrangement leaked out of our ears and into the wind.
TO BE CONTINUED
For tomorrow's PAGE X, I put together an easy-on-the-eyes, reads-like-silk (if I say so myself) package about the DVD boxed set "Vincent Price: MGM Scream Legends Collection."
Watching those Price movies back-to-back made me reflect on this guy who took over the horror-film mantle from Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr., et el. I mean, Price LITERALLY took it over. He made movie after movie with the aforementioned horror stars, so the passing-of-the-torch was a mutually agreeable process. The old-timers got one more day in the sun (in such films as "The Raven," "The Haunted Palace," "The Comedy of Terrors" and "Tales of Terror"), and Price headlined a most distinguished ensemble for much of the 1960s.
Nobody really took Price's place when he died. (Robert Englund? Please.)
Nephew recently asked me to name my favorite Vincent Price flick. I was at a loss. For Karloff, I could name 10 off the top of my head. But I realized that Price's contribution to film is cumulative. Not many of his movies are what you'd call "great." The best of the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe movies is probably "Masque of the Red Death." But unlike the '30s and '40s Universal classics, I could not quote chapter and verse from that movie. (Although, since Nephew asked me that, I did finally pick a favorite: "Witchfinder General," which is on the boxed set.)
With Price, you think of moments. Drowning in wine in "Tower of London." The magic duel with Karloff in "The Raven." The wine-tasting duel with Lorre in "Tales of Terror." His sweet, touching farewell in "Edward Scissorhands."
I miss Vincent Price. He was erudite, witty and he never, ever denigrated the maligned genre we dearly love.