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Monday, January 1, 2525

about florilegium444

Some mornings it just doesn't seem worth it to gnaw through the leather straps. -Emo Philips-

Humor - Short prose humor, humorous verse and lists.
Music - Nonfiction writings about music.
Mystery Fiction - Nonfiction writings about mystery fiction.
Mystery Film & TV - Nonfiction writings about mystery movies and TV.
Shakespeare - Act by act reviews of a number of Shakespeare's plays.
SFF, Horror and Arthuriana - Nonfiction writings about sff, horror and Arthuriana.
Short Stories - Flash fiction and other stories.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

(Now Hear This) Jethro Tull - Songs From the Wood

(Now Hear This)
Jethro Tull
Songs From the Wood
1977

Songs From the Wood, in particular, is an album that, for all the band members, was a reaffirmation of our Britishness. (Ian Anderson)

Praise be to the distant sister sun. (Ring Out, Solstice Bells)

Quick - name two popular hard rock bands that incorporated the flute as an integral part of their sound. If you're like me you probably got as far as Jethro Tull and gave up. Maybe I'm missing an obvious one.

Jethro Tull became something of a punchline for a while after the 1989 Grammys, when their Crest of a Knave album beat Metallica's ...And Justice for All in the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance category. It was a ridiculous development that surprised the members of both bands and anyone else who had a notion of what heavy metal actually was. None of which should overshadow the achievements of a band that gave the world such rock milestones as Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play, and of course, Aqualung.

By 1989, I had already moved on and my Jethro Tull years were about a decade past. I remembered Songs From the Wood as being a pretty good album and one that I listened to quite often back when. But until recently I hadn't sat down and listened to it after a gap of nearly forty years. Like so many things that seemed nifty keen back when I figured it wouldn't hold up. So it came as something of a surprise as the album unspooled (on YouTube on a Kindle Fire - my well-worn vinyl copy parked on the shelf about three feet away) and I realized that it was much, much, much better than I had remembered it. So good that it might even merit a fourth "much". A Rolling Stone reviewer once remarked that this "may well have been the group's best record ever". I haven't heard all of the band's albums but I can't imagine one that might top this one.

Jethro Tull was no stranger to concept albums, having already turned out several by this time. Songs From the Wood wasn't quite a concept album, in the sense that it told one coherent story from start to finish. But the songs therein were all focused on a specific theme, which you could boil down to English country life, with the emphasis on folklore and mythology. It was the England of solstice celebrations, standing stones, May Day parades, wicker men, druids, fertility rites, and whatnot.

There's not really a dud in the bunch but side one (for those of us who grew up listening to those vinyl copies) is probably the better of the two, by a hair. Songs From the Wood kicks things off in fine fashion with a sometimes heavyish and other times folkish approach and topnotch harmonies. Jack-in-the-Green is mostly guitar and flute, with a slightly darker and more acoustic feel and is a keen little snippet of song, while Cup of Wonder hearkens back more closely to the title track. Hunting Girl is the odd song out here being a heavier tune about a wealthy woman who veers from a hunting party to consort with the hired help. Ring Out, Solstice Bells closes out side one with a very catchy paean to the solstice.

Side two kicks off with Velvet Green, which alternates between a lyrical and somewhat darker tone, with subject matter that hearkens back to Hunting Girl. Casual Jethro Tull fans are probably most likely to have heard The Whistler out of all the songs here. Of the few singles that were released from the album it’s the one that seems to have been the most successful. Up next is the longest and perhaps the heaviest song on the album - Pibroch (Cap In Hand). Pibroch being a type of traditional Scottish music and consequently Martin Barre's guitar is made to resemble bagpipes (well, sort of). The proceedings conclude with the quietest song of the bunch, with the aptly reflective title of Fire at Midnight.

Top Tracks
It's tough to narrow it down to a few favorites but if I had to, I'd go with (a near photo-finish) Ring Out, Solstice Bells, very closely followed by Cup of Wonder.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

My Articles At Black Gate

If you're not familiar with Black Gate and the words Adventures in Fantasy Literature work for you then you should certainly make your way to their site and check things out. Once upon a time Black Gate was a quarterly print publication but has now moved their operations online. They focus on all manner of fantasy and science fiction these days, with a smidgen of mystery and assorted other stuff thrown in for good effect. The site is updated frequently, thanks to the efforts of tireless publisher and editor, John O'Neill. It's good stuff and I'd be reading it even if I didn't write for them.

I've been contributing to the site for a while and trying to post updates to this site whenever a new article comes out. Unfortunately, I've fallen behind and from now on have decided just to link to my search page over there. I'm in the midst of a Star Trek Movie Rewatch right now and as time permits have also been looking at the short fiction of Algernon Blackwood and SF anthologies of yesteryear - mostly from the Sixties and Seventies. And whatever other assorted and sundry topics might have captured my wandering attention. It's all right here, most recent stuff first.

Monday, January 18, 2016

10 "Other" Ramones Songs


When I bought my first Ramones album - Ramones Leave Home - way back in 1977 no one wanted to know about it, including the heavy metal kids I associated with. Never mind that it's arguably one of their heaviest albums. Didn't matter. It was a relatively small circle of Ramones fans back then - or so it seemed. But as time passed the world caught up and came to recognize their innate greatness. For the Ramones it was too little, too late, and of course all of the original members are gone now.

If one were to program a playlist of songs from this other Fab Four (Spin is said to have ranked them 2nd, after the Beatles, on a list of best bands) it would probably consist of many of the usual suspects. Let us review. There's Blitzkrieg Bop, Rockaway Beach, Sheena Is a Punk Rocker, I Wanna Be Sedated, Teenage Lobotomy, Rock 'n' Roll High School and Pet Semetary. These are among the band's best known songs. For good reason, for the most part, though I could do without the last one.

Of course, there are many more Ramones songs that are worth a listen. I've listed some below. Or you could just go with the first three albums, in their entirety. I'd add End of the Century to that list but that may be the minority opinion.

Ramones(1976)
Beat on the Brat
Keep it simple, stupid. About as simple as it gets and yet strangely alluring.

I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement
Horror movies meet punk rock and not for the last time.

Leave Home (1977)
Glad to See You Go
The first Ramones song I ever heard. Love at first listen.

Commando
One of the heaviest efforts in the Ramones songbook.

Rocket to Russia (1977)
I Wanna Be Well
You could compile an album (or more) of Ramones songs about mental health. One of the best.

Surfin' Bird
Many have tried (and failed) to capture something of majesty of this song, first recorded by The Trashmen, in 1963. The Ramones were one of the few to pull it off.

End of the Century (1980)
Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?
For their fifth studio album the group teamed up with the legendary and legendarily eccentric producer, Phil Spector. By all accounts it didn't go well. The reception to the album was mixed, but I mostly give it a thumbs up. The song that kicks it off is very Spectoresque and is about as catchy as they come. I rank in my top two of Ramones songs, along with Blitzkrieg Bop.

Danny Says
Because when you think of the Ramones the first thing that springs to mind is a ballad. A catchy one about the rigors of touring, from a foursome who knew that very well.

Pleasant Dreams (1981)
The KKK Took My Baby Away
Not much to recommend from this lackluster album but I'd rank this song in my top three.

Too Tough to Die (1984)
Wart Hog
The excitement of confronting a new Ramones album had dwindled by the time of their eighth studio album. But it was a decent effort and featured this song, a silly take on thrashing hardcore punk.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories, by Algernon Blackwood

The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories
by Algernon Blackwood
1906

Of the many things Algernon Blackwood did in his lifetime the most notable is producing a substantial body of horror and weird fiction. He tends to be overshadowed by some other writers of yesteryear, but one of the best known of those writers, H.P. Lovecraft, offered high praise for his abilities:

Of the quality of Mr. Blackwood’s genius there can be no dispute; for no one has even approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences, or the preternatural insight with which he builds up detail by detail the complete sensations and perceptions leading from reality into supernormal life or vision. Without notable command of the poetic witchery of mere words, he is the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere; and can evoke what amounts almost to a story from a simple fragment of humourless psychological description. Above all others he understands how fully some sensitive minds dwell forever on the borderland of dream, and how relatively slight is the distinction betwixt those images formed from actual objects and those excited by the play of the imagination.

The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories was the first of Blackwood’s many story collections. It first saw publication in 1906. The edition reviewed here was published in 1916.

Read more at Black Gate.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Hercule Poirot's Christmas, by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot's Christmas
by Agatha Christie
1939

"Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?"

Is there a reason why Agatha Christie is said to be the best-selling author of all time? I'd be willing to bet that there are a few. But more than anything I guess it has a lot to do with the fact that she was really good at what she did and she did it a lot, turning out about eighty works of detective fiction in her lifetime. I'm no expert on Christie and I'd wager that there must be some duds in the bunch, but I have yet to run across them.

Hercule Poirot's Christmas, which was also published under various other titles (Murder for Christmas, A Holiday for Murder), is, for my money, a great example of Christie's mastery. The premise is a fairly standard one for the genre. A wealthy old man who's not particularly likable gathers his dysfunctional family members around him, along with a few others. Not long after he berates them for their perceived failings and threatens to re-write his will, he is found locked in his room with his throat cut.

I'm also no expert on locked room mysteries though I've vowed to read more of them. What I would say about the ones I've read is the word "farfetched" often seems to apply. There's the tiniest bit of that quality to this one but overall I think Christie handles this aspect of the book quite nicely.

Along with everything else, for that matter. By this time in her career, Christie had already turned out about two dozen books and it shows in the relaxed and concise manner in which she introduces the various characters, sets the stage for what's to come, sprinkles clues and red herrings all about and turns Poirot loose to pull everything together. About the only minor quibble I had with the book (a very mild spoiler cometh) is that the identity of the killer seemed to come from out of left field. Aside from that I'd give this one a very enthusiastic recommendation.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Trek Movie Rewatch: The Motion Picture

My peak Star Trek watching years came in the seventies. Those of us who were too young to catch the show when it first aired in the mid-sixties could gorge ourselves on seemingly endless reruns of three seasons worth of shows. It was a far cry from Netflix and calling up any episode any time but we made do.

As the seventies wound down my interest in Star Trek waned and I wasn’t really cognizant of what came along later — four more TV series and a heap of movies. I sought to rectify this in the early years of the new century, watching as many TV episodes as possible and some of the movies, but my intake of the latter was sporadic.

Read more at Black Gate.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

5 Tales from Tomorrow, T. E. Dikty

5 Tales from Tomorrow
Edited by T. E. Dikty
Crest Books (176 pages, $0.35, December 1957)
Cover by Richard Powers

T.E. Dikty edited a bunch of SF anthologies, mostly throughout the Fifties and many in collaboration with Everett F. Bleiler. Aside from Clifford Simak and perhaps one-hit wonder Tom Godwin, the names in this volume are not quite the SF A-list, but the results are mostly not bad.

Read more at Black Gate.

Christmas is Murder, by C.S. Challinor

Christmas is Murder
By C.S. Challinor
2008

"Do you think Henry might have choked on his dentures? He said they were always coming loose."

I read and reviewed one of Challinor's Rex Graves mysteries a while back. I hadn't planned on reading another one so soon but the premise of Christmas is Murder reached out and grabbed me. I have to admit to a special fondness for those mysteries in which the author strands his/her characters in some remote location and turns a murderer loose in their midst.

Challinor does this to great effect in what is actually the first mystery to star barrister Rex Graves. A motley crew is stranded by a blizzard at a remote Scottish hotel and one of the unfortunate characters goes down for the final count before graves even arrives. He won't be the last, unfortunately. There's a fairly sizable body count before it's all over.

The author really lays it on thick all the way throughout with clues and red herrings. Perhaps I'm not so good at sorting these things out because I had to admit that even as the end was nigh I wasn't quite sure what was up. My only minor quibble with the whole affair is that the motivations of the killer seemed a bit shaky. Aside from this point, I give this book high marks.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Underrated Rock Guitarists - Snakefinger

A rather obscure "rock" guitarist, Snakefinger, aka Philip Charles Lithman, was probably best known for his work with The Residents, who have provided the world with a seemingly inexhaustible fount of sonic weirdness for about four decades. He was so closely associated with the eyeball head guys until his untimely death in 1987 that the two entities almost seemed to blend together. While his Residential work, not surprisingly, was decidedly quirky, Snakefinger was arguably less offbeat than his pals and his 1984 live album was devoted solely to blues covers. For an introduction to his work, try the Residents albums on which he appeared or the quartet of solo albums he released on Ralph Records from 1979 to 1983.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Underrated Rock Guitarists - Bruce Anderson

One of the more obscure underrated rock guitarists, Anderson played with MX-80 Sound, once described as "either the most Heavy Metal Art Band or the most Arty Heavy Metal Band". Out of the Tunnel, their 1980 release on Ralph Records, is enough to justify Anderson's inclusion in the annals of the underrated.

The group's second full length album, it delights throughout with Anderson wielding a guitar that sounds like a fistful of barbed wire being raked over the strings. Highlights include the bouncy, loopy Gary and Priscilla, which is catchy and annoying at the same time and which finds Anderson almost at his finest. He peaks on Someday You'll Be King, a mix of avant-weird-power-punk-bubble-gum-whatever, complete with an honest to goodness hook and angular punkish guitar freakouts that still stick in my head decades later.

Scritchy, man.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

How to Deep Fry a Turkey

To deep fry a turkey.
Procure a turkey in the usual manner.
Such as casually approaching one on a street corner
Or in a senior citizen's home
While appearing to gaze at your wristwatch
And then pouncing on it
And stuffing it into a satchel
Or a carpetbag.
Or set a very large mousetrap
In an area frequented by turkeys.
For best results,
The turkey should be dead.
If the turkey is not dead,
Just be patient,
For pity's sake.
Turkeys are not immortal.
Or you can drop the hammer on that little devil,
In a literal or figurative sense.
It's really up to you.
Dynamite is not considered sporting
As a method for snuffing out
The life of a turkey.
And beating a turkey to death with a shoe
May be frowned upon
In some quarters.
But suffocating a turkey with a pillow
Is considered relatively humane.
It is no small feat to sneak up on a turkey.
And please reflect on the irony
Of smothering a turkey with a feather pillow.
Next, dress the turkey.
No one seems to be sure what this means.
But a nice pinafore is considered stylish
In the turkey community
Or a seersucker suit.
Whatever that is.
Never attempt to put a wig on a turkey.
It will only aggravate the turkey
And you won't feel very good about yourself.
Now place the turkey
Into some type of turkey deep frying device
And fry it
In the customary manner.
If the turkey is not quite dead
You'll know it.
For further instructions
See Appendix 2C,
How to Deep Fry a Turkey

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Werewolves, Haunted Castles, and Scottish Legends: Terror By Night by R. Chetwynd-Hayes

Terror By Night
By R. Chetwynd-Hayes
Tandem (186 pages, $1, June 1974)

I’m reasonably familiar with the horror and SF genres, but I have to admit that the name R. Chetwynd-Hayes didn’t ring any bells. But the kind of tacky cover — and the fact that this collection dated from 1974, before the great horror boom of the Eighties kicked in — was enough for me to take this one out for a spin. Chetwynd-Hayes wrote about ten novels and many more collections during his long career, most of them in the horror genre but some leaning more toward SF.

Read more at Black Gate

Children Of The Candy Corn

Old man Burke’s house was off the beaten path, but Jimmy always stopped by each Halloween for a tiny bag of candy corn. It was always tied so nice and neat, with a red ribbon.

This year Burke had replaced the standard kernels with tiny waxy figures. Their sugary bodies had white flesh, yellow clothing and ragged orange hair.

Jimmy eagerly untied the ribbon. The candies were so good. He couldn’t hear the agonized screams or the crunching of bones as he chewed, but Burke could. The old man smiled.

Count Dracula's Commencement Address to the Graduating Class of the Lord Charles D. Razar School for Hemophiliacs

The ageless Count cuts a dashing figure as he walks to the podium, elegant and refined - yes, almost regal. His dark, magnetic eyes scan the room. He clears his throat and speaks. His diction is precise and his thick accent, rather than detracting from his message, only serves to lend it an air of authority.

He speaks eloquently of opportunity and the future and of the patchwork of life that is even now unrolling in front of them like an expensive Persian rug, crisscrossed with an intricate latticework representing an infinite number of possibilities.

They hang on his every word, rapt. There is a minor commotion in front, but most of them are so caught up by his words that they do not notice.

One of the students has lost a small brooch - a family heirloom. She and another student are bent over looking for it. She straightens up - triumphantly clutching the brooch. As she does, she whacks her fellow seeker in the lip with her elbow.

A trickle of blood flows from the split lip. The Count is distracted by the commotion. He spots the blood and falters slightly. He catches himself and continues.

The young man presses the lip with a handkerchief, but of course it keeps bleeding. The handkerchief is soon stained a deep shade of red and the boy's chin is smeared with blood. He excuses himself and slips from the hall, but it is too late.

The Count has become increasingly befuddled and distracted. He stammers and stumbles over his words, mumbling and tugging at his shirt collar. As the boy stands up to leave, he completely loses his train of thought. He stares blankly into the hall, a vacant look on his face. His tongue whisks across his lips. A murmur passes through the audience.

The Count is visibly relieved when the boy leaves. The magic spell he has woven with his words has been shattered, but he manages to gather his thoughts with great difficulty and carries on, just as a thin rivulet of blood trickles from the nose of a girl in the second row.

That does it. The Count slams his palm on the podium, mumbles a halfhearted excuse and stalks offstage, mopping his brow with his sleeve. The crowd murmurs. It is over.

The Werewolf’s Delicate Condition

His father was a mighty wolfman.
And his forefathers before him.
Expectations are high.
When the change comes he can’t wait.
Chases down a rabbit and tears it apart.
And finds himself floored by dizziness and nausea.
It happens every time.
Now he works at the library.
Sees a therapist twice a month and meditates daily.
Adheres to a vegan diet (with plenty of protein and B-12 supplements).
Rarely answers his mother’s calls.
It’s not so bad.
He tells himself.

Remembering When Frankenstein’s Monster Stopped by the Torch and Pitchfork Store

Why would he do such a thing?
He was just asking for trouble.
You’re saying to yourself.
And you have a point.
As you sit there and picture him, lumbering stiffly through the sliding doors, boots clunking heavily on the polished floor.
And that moment of realization as he looks around eagerly, taking in the incredible array of merchandise.
And it slowly begins to sink in.
He freezes and breaks out in a cold sweat.
Yes, he does have working sweat glands.
And it’s all he can do to get out of there before panic overcomes him.
Here’s the thing.
Only then did he realize that Torch and Pitchfork was to be taken literally.
Not a cutesy yuppie store names like Crate and Barrel.

From the Zombie Owners Manual

Bringing a zombie into your home takes a lot of dedication and commitment. But the love you receive will be well worth your time and effort. A zombie may not be easy to love at first, but they are relatively easy to care for. With proper care, you can maintain the health and well-being of your zombie throughout its lifetime (figuratively speaking). Here are a few tips on caring for zombies.

Zombies are surprisingly playful and will love being bounced on your knee, tossed in the air, or playing peek-a-boo.

Never burn any part of a zombie in a wood stove or fireplace.

When first introduced into your home a zombie should be kept in a playpen or crib. Be sure to make your home zombie-proof. One devilish little zombie can make a whole lot of mischief.

Drill a hole in the base of a zombie's skull to release demons.

Only use distilled water to wash your zombie. Use a mild non-allergenic soap. Soaps with perfumes or oils may leave a film on the zombie. To dry your zombie use a soft clean towel. Do not use a hair dryer, as zombies can sometimes be skittish.

Everyone poops - even zombies. Keep their litter box clean and stock up on air freshener.

When bathing your zombie, never leave it unattended. If you leave the bathroom, wrap the zombie in a towel and take it along.

Flesh and intestines are the cornerstones of a healthy diet, but zombies sure do love their treats. Many zombies enjoy toenails, but they are hard to digest and should be given sparingly. Other treats your zombie might enjoy are upholstery, loganberries, drywall paste, cupcakes, mincemeat crepes, and hair.

Zombies sometimes swallow air while feeding, which may make them fussy. Be sure to burp your zombie regularly.

Monitor your zombie for freshness. If it smells "off" or "putrid" or "just plain godawful," remove it from the house.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Defending Children of Dune

When it comes to Dune and the media universe it spawned, it seems there’s not much middle ground. This is more of a perception than a carefully reasoned position with evidence to back it up. But I gather that people like Dune a lot, or they just don’t get what the fuss is about.

I’d put myself in the former camp. I read a great deal of SF in my early years, before drifting away. Somewhere in there I discovered Dune and I read the original trilogy (yes Virginia, Dune was once a paltry trilogy) several times. Near the end of my SF reading days God Emperor of Dune came out and I read it a few times.

Read more at Black Gate

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Essential Sweet Jane I - V.U. & Lou Reed

You could argue that "Sweet Jane" is one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time. I would. Never mind that Rolling Stone, in their infinite lack of wisdom, ranked it at 342 on their list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Which puts it one just behind such timeless efforts as Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" and a few notches down from Queen's "We Will Rock You".

In any event, your humble author has travelled to the ends of the Earth (well, YouTube) to find some of the most noteworthy versions of the song written by Lou Reed and popularized by the Velvet Underground. This first installment presents versions by the Velvet Underground and selections from Lou Reed's 40-odd years as a solo artist. Installment two will be devoted to notable cover versions. Stay tuned.

It's all subjective, mind you. If you'd like to nominate a version of Sweet Jane to be added to the list, feel free to leave a comment.

(Dates listed are the dates of performances/recordings, not release dates. )

Lou Reed Lectures on Sweet Jane (2008)
You’d think that 40 years after the fact Lou Reed would had gotten tired of playing "Sweet Jane", something he must have done at least hundreds of times. But even later in life he still found the time to explain to Elvis Costello and the audience of Costello’s short-lived TV show, Spectacle: Elvis Costello with..., how the song was structured, while demonstrating his points on an acoustic guitar.




1969: The Velvet Underground Live (1969)
The genesis of "Sweet Jane" is not completely clear but it began appearing in the Velvet Underground’s live shows as early as late 1969. Which is when the version immortalized on 1969: The Velvet Underground Live was recorded. Although the album itself didn’t see the light of day until a half decade later. It's a downright laconic version of the song that contains the infamous bridge that fell by the wayside in many later versions. Cowboy Junkies fans will find it all quite familiar.




The Velvet Underground - Loaded (1970)
Founding Velvet member John Cale had moved on by the time of Loaded, the group's fourth album, but three-fourths of the group were still on board, including Lou Reed, who proceeded to give the world a song called "Sweet Jane". The version contained here, the first to be loosed on the world at large, is considerably more lively than the hypnotic version from 1969: The Velvet Underground Live.




Lou Reed - Rock and Roll Animal (1973)
This version was recorded in late 1973 and released the following year on Rock and Roll Animal, the first of a pair of live albums that rolled out during Lou Reed's RCA years. The album opens with a heavy guitar duet by Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, who work their way through a lengthy instrumental piece that gives way to a radically reconstructed version of "Sweet Jane".




Lou Reed - Live in Paris (1974)
A half a year later or so and "Sweet Jane" had undergone another transformation, though perhaps not as radical as some others. A few members of the Rock and Roll Animal band were on hand for this version but Hunter and Wagner had moved on. It's less heavy than Rock and Roll Animal and even waxes a bit funky at times, with emphasis on the organ in parts. Watch for the moves from the bleached-blonde Lou Reed, who looks like he's about to break into some James Brown at any moment.




Lou Reed - Live in New York (1977)
Probably my favorite of all the non-cover versions. It was recorded at New York's Bottom Line about a year before the version that's next on the list, the one that made onto an actual live bonafide album release. Heavy, heavy and heavy, but in a slightly different manner than Rock and Roll Animal, and there's even some judicious use of a saxophone.




Lou Reed - Live: Take No Prisoners (1978)
Lou Reed's double live album from his Arista years is something of a mixed bag. The band is great and so are the performances, mostly of classic Lou Reed songs and a few newer ones. The downside is his tendency to derail several of the songs with lengthy spoken asides that are somewhere between monologue and standup comedy. Which is the case with the version of "Sweet Jane" immortalized therein. If it weren't for those asides - which are quite witty, it should be said - it could have been one of the greatest versions of the song ever.




Lou Reed - Acoustic Version on Spanish TV (1998?)
"I do Lou Reed better than anyone" -Lou Reed


Sunday, September 13, 2015

King Arthur - 2004

King Arthur
Starring Clive Owen, Keira Knightley
2004

For epic portrayals of the Arthurian legend it's going to be pretty hard to outdo King Arthur, a 2004 movie that may have outdone what's arguably its most epic predecessor - John Boorman's monumental 1982 movie, Excalibur. For me King Arthur hasn't lost anything even though this was at least the fourth or fifth time I've seen it.

The notion of taking Arthur's story and turning it on its ear is hardly a new idea. One of my favorites is a series of about a half dozen or so books by Jack Whyte in which he strips out all of the magical and fantastic elements and leaves the reader with a perfectly serviceable version of the legend. Which is essentially what King Arthur attempts to do.

After a brief opening scene with a young Lancelot leaving home to fight for Rome, we jump forward about fifteen years. The Knights of the Round Table, those that are left, are all Sarmatian (from the region that's now Iran) warriors who are required to spend fifteen years in service to the Romans. If you do the math then you'll realize that it's time for them to fly the coop. But there's a twist, as a bishop Germanus explains to their commander - a Roman named Arthur.

As the Romans are pulling out of Britain, a great Saxon horde is massing to come down out of the north and lay the land to waste. The scenes of the Saxons on the move are pretty ominous stuff, with their war drums, thousands of marching feet (or so it would seem) and eerie chanting. Turns out there's a prominent Roman family living near Hadrian's wall that needs to be rescued. The weaselly bishop informs Arthur that his men cannot have their walking papers until they complete the mission. Though they carp and moan and know that it's nearly a suicide mission, they are a band of brothers, after all, and grudgingly agree to this one last foray. Any resemblance to The Dirty Dozen or The Wild Bunch may or may not have been intentional.

The knights arrive at the Roman outpost not long before the Saxons and make haste in evacuating it, including a number of people found in a grim dungeon of sorts, one of whom is a Woad named Guinevere. Woads in this movie are just another name for the real-world Picts, a painted warrior people who lived north of the wall and wasted no opportunity to harass their neighbors to the south.

As the Saxons move southward it becomes obvious to Arthur that he should put aside his feelings about the woads and accept their offer of an alliance. But not before the small band of knights must face off against a splinter force of Saxons on a frozen lake in a scene that might remind some viewers of the battle of Thermopylae. It's strictly over the top action movie stuff, this scene, but it does keep you clinging to the edge of your seat.

Against all odds, the crew makes it back from their mission almost intact and are given their walking papers after all. They start walking but when they see that their old leader Arthur is apparently going to try to take on the Saxons singlehandedly, they naturally have to rally round him one last time. And I'll say right here that battle scenes in this type of movie have a tendency to be rather dull, but this one was the rare exception. You can almost guess how it turns out but getting to that point's a lot more gripping that in most action flicks.

Given that it's essentially just an epic buddy movie, King Arthur relies pretty heavy on this small band of warriors. There are six of them, plus their leader and they are a fairly diverse group. I have to say I didn't care much for Clive Owen's Arthur, who's prone to speaking in great oratorical flourishes throughout and not much else. As for Lancelot, he just seems to be bewildered most of the time. Gawain and Galahad just don't seem to get all that much to do.

Which leaves it to the other three to carry most of the group scenes. There's Ray Winston as Bors, the hard-drinking, hard-loving family man who says exactly what's on his mind. There's Ray Stevenson as Dagonet, a fierce burly fighter who turns out to have something of a heart of gold and who saves the day in the frozen lake scene. And then there's Meds Mikkelsen as Tristan, the silent, mystical type with a trained raven and a decidedly offbeat way of looking at the world.

Also worthy of note, Keira Knightley as the kick-ass Woad warrior woman - though it's a bit of a stretch to imagine someone so slight whupping big beefy Saxons in hand to hand combat. There's little or no magic or supernatural stuff to speak of here, though Merlin, the Woad leader, is said to be a magician, of sorts. Also worthy of a considerable accolade is Stella SkarsgÄrd as Cerdic, the muttering leader of the Saxons, who, though he's starting to get up there in years, doesn't take any mess from anyone.

Which is about all I've got to say for this one, except for an enthusiastic two thumbs up.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Little Green Men, Couriers of Chaos, and Miners on Uranus

Things
Edited by Ivan Howard
Belmont (157 pages, $0.50, February 1964)

Belmont Books, publisher of this anthology, apparently thrived throughout the Sixties. Early on it looks like many of their books leaned toward horror, with SF being sprinkled into the mix more as time went on. Things presents itself more as horror (the subtitle is Stories of Terror and Shock by six SCIENCE-FICTION greats) but there’s not much horror content. It’s a short volume that collects six fairly uninspired novelettes and short stories first published in SF magazines in the early Fifties.

Read more at Black Gate.

A Brief Guide to Space Race Documentaries, Part II

I’ve written two articles at this site about movies and documentaries that deal primarily with the Space Race years, which I define as 1957 (Sputnik) to 1969 (first Moon landing):

I thought I’d exhausted the supply of space race documentaries worth mentioning, but alas, I recently ran across two more.

Both are worth noting for the simple fact that they solve two problems I often see with this type of documentary. One is the tendency to cram too much into too little time, which means it’s hard to go into any kind of depth in one specific area. The other is the tendency to rely on footage that’s rather familiar.

Read more at Black Gate.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Sitcoms Worth Rewatching - Fawlty Towers


I discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the Seventies, when it was still a fairly obscure TV show that aired late on Sunday nights on a local PBS affiliate. I soon became one of those idiots who quote long excerpts from various skits. Fortunately I got over it.

It was a pretty strong ensemble, I thought, without any weak links. But it always seemed that one of the members stood out a bit – that being John Cleese. When the circus left town he went on to co-create, write and star in Fawlty Towers, a British sitcom that was closer to a mini-series in terms of length, airing just six episodes each in 1975 and 1979.

The premise of Fawlty Towers is a very simple one. It pits hotel owner Basil Fawlty against the people who irritate him. Which is pretty much everyone on Earth. Basil is clearly the star of the show but is aided by an able supporting cast who portray the hotel’s staff and guests and his wife Sybil , who is perhaps the biggest thorn in his side.

Some of the key facets of Basil’s personality are his intolerance of just about everyone, whom he feels are beneath him, and the need to ingratiate himself with those few members of the upper crust that he feels are deserving of his respect. Which serve as his motivations and drive most of the plots, which typically start out as calm as a lazy summer afternoon and steadily build to a hurricane of slapstick and silliness.

Most of the 12 episodes are worth a look, although there are a few lesser ones and some really great ones. If you’ve never had the pleasure then you might as well start with The Germans.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Nebula Award Stories 3, edited by Roger Zelazny

It looks like there were 16 works of shorter fiction nominated for the 1968 Nebula awards. Seven of them appear in this collection. Although the Ballard story included doesn’t appear on the ballots I found listed at various reference sites.

In any event, there are some holes in my reading history represented here. I’ve read lots of Ellison over the years and a fair amount of Ballard. As for Leiber, Moorcock, McCaffrey and Delany, not so much. But there’s some great stuff here, by my reckoning, and a few good ones and one that was not so much.

Read more at Black Gate.