Friday, January 30, 2009

And in the end...

Somebody at named JBev has a lot more time on his hands than I do.

He actually rated all 185 original compositions performed by The Beatles as a group and posted them on the site, with an explanation for each that goes far beyond “cool” or “sucks.”

The list stretches for 20 web pages, and will be excruciating reading for many (although it doesn’t seem half as long as watching the movie Across The Universe), but a delight for some Beatles fans. If you don’t really care about the nuances of “Tell Me Why” or “The Night Before,” you may want to skip to the summary on the last page.

I dug it, of course.

As with all such lists, there are bound to be arguments. Perhaps the least controversial entry is the first—“Revolution 9” at number 185. As groundbreaking as John Lennon thought it was, it just didn’t work (although I still prefer it to Celine Dion’s best song).

My first “Aw, come on!’ moment came a stride out of the gate with “Honey Pie” at number 184. Maybe it’s because I used to dance around the house with a cane and an old sport coat singing the song when I was seven. But it’s not a bad song. Among Paul’s “granny” songs, I would rank it behind “When I’m Sixty-Four” and in front of “Your Mother Should Know.”

That’s one problem with the list. Maybe I’m a blind fan, but I submit that The Beatles never made a bad song. (Their solo efforts don’t count for these purposes. Neither does Yoko.) Some were just more significant than others. JBev is more attuned to the Fab Four’s subtleties, as those songs near the bottom represent some of their extremes—the most upbeat (“Good Day Sunshine”) and downbeat (“Yer Blues”) songs in their catalog, as well as their attempts to be headbangers (“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”) and lounge lizards (“Ask Me Why”).

There are arguments along the way, as there are bound to be. Not much love for “Day Tripper” or “Julia,” way too much for “I Am The Walrus” (number two?) and “Dear Prudence” (the highest-rated White Album track at number 11?), and cheers for the lofty placement of some underrated gems such as “Yes It Is” or "If I Fell."

After showing so much guts along the way, JBev gives us the most predictable number one—“A Day in the Life.” It’s certainly a pop music landmark, and it’s the correct left-brained choice, but is it the song that any Beatles fan really enjoys the most?

Two more interesting possibilities for the top spot came in at numbers four and five. Number four is “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” (rated as one song here). The Beatles had done everything thought possible in pop music, and more, and they couldn’t have gone out more eloquently than they did on that Abbey Road medley. Number five is “Hey Jude”—their biggest hit and certainly one of the most uplifting songs ever, ending with the best vamp (no, not the kind Cher used to sing about on her TV show) in pop music history.

There are other reasons to pick a favorite. “Something”—number nine on the list—has gained a special place in my heart in recent years. My wife and I danced to it on the weekend we met, and it was the first song we danced to at our wedding. It seems heretical to put a George Harrison song at the top of the list, but it now has a spot that goes beyond any list.

The ‘60s are over, and new generations have held The Beatles’ music up to a scrutiny that wasn’t possible during the full fervor of Beatlemania. The band’s legacy has proven that the music is strong enough to withstand that scrutiny.

P.S. You might also want to check out the comments at the bottom of the page. As I write this, the last comment appears to be from Julian Lennon.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dementions and dementites...

Imagine getting the chance to meet Michael Jordan, Paul McCartney, or someone else who was your hero when you were young.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster willing, I will get that opportunity in July.

It started a few months ago when plans were being made for the 2009 Annual Gathering of American Mensa, which will be held in Pittsburgh 4th of July weekend. The theme is “AM-FM, About Mensans, For Mensans.” Since the AG is the year’s biggest Mensa event, there’s a dinner with a keynote speaker. I started thinking about the theme, and one speaker leaped out at me, so I made the suggestion to the AG speaker chair, Brea Ludwigson.

Earlier this week, I learned that the plans are on.

Dr. Demento is coming to the 2009 AG.

It’s more than an honor to finally meet the man who provided the soundtrack for my Wonder Years.

Thanks to someone desperately in need of a life, I can pinpoint the night—actually, the moment—when I first heard The Dr. Demento Show.

I was 12 at the time, and my tastes in music—and just about everything else—were starting to set me apart from my peers. I already preferred The Beatles to The Bee Gees, Chicago to Boston, and Al Stewart to Rod Stewart (although I should note that, at the time, Rod was slogging through dreck like “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”). I watched every British comedy that Channel 34 showed (we all know about Monty Python, but how many Americans remember “Dave Allen at Large”? Or “No, Honestly”?). And I actually—gasp!—read for fun. And I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t have a date for the eighth grade dinner dance?

So, one night (apparently, Oct. 22, 1978), I was flipping through the FM stations trying to find a rabbit hole to crawl in before I went to sleep and came across Q-FM-96, which, like most album-rock stations in the late ‘70s, played “Stairway to Heaven” and “Free Bird” on a continuous loop. I was not expecting to hear Cheech and Chong singing the theme from Up in Smoke. This was followed by “There’s a New Sound”—which was “the sound that’s made by worms.” Don’t ask.

Within weeks, Dr. Demento had replaced "American Top 40" as my required Sunday radio listening. Not only was I taping the show to play during the week, I was writing the lyrics to Funny 5 favorites in a notebook. There was “Fish Heads,” “Dead Puppies,” “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” and the demented oeuvres of Allan Sherman, Tom Lehrer, Shel Silverstein, and, of course, Frank Zappa.

It wasn’t all songs about dead dogs and seafood detritus, though. Some of the show’s best parts came when Dr. D got deep into music history. He could go on about what ASCAP and BMI were and how they came to be, or how “Yes! We Have No Bananas” became a big hit in the 1920s. I was just as likely to hear Al Jolson on the show as Weird Al Yankovic.

It was during these years that Weird Al first gained airplay with “My Bologna” on his way to mainstream fame. He was interviewed “under the smogberry trees,” as were Zappa and demented music makers ranging from Lenny and Squiggy to Barnes and Barnes. While a Funny 5 favorite occasionally received mainstream airplay, nobody else that I knew really cared about this music. It was, as far as I knew, my own, private musical world. And, apparently, it was, as the Q stopped carrying the show in 1982 due to low ratings (although it has resurfaced on that station on Sunday mornings).

It was not until I started going to RGs regularly in my 30s that I learned that I was, indeed, not alone. There are many people in Mensa who are, to paraphrase The great Luke Ski, true “D” fans—who own every Weird Al CD, once drove three hours to see DaVinci’s Notebook, and can recite “Earache My Eye” from memory (not just the song, but the father-son tirade as well).

And so it was, when I found out that the AG would have a radio theme, I could think of only one choice for a keynote speaker.

As Wayne and Garth would have said, WE’RE NOT WORTHY!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

It really is the economy, stupid

I saw Roger and Me last night, best known as the film that made Michael Moore the left-wing icon he is today. While some things about the film haven’t aged well—the hairdos are hilarious—the theme is no less relevant today.

As the film begins, Moore shows us home movies of his childhood in Flint, Mich., when General Motors was king. His dad worked for GM, and the images of dancing spark plugs and Pat Boone crooning for Chevy paint a picture of the American Dream.

Fast forward to the ‘80s as GM closes 11 auto plants across the country in favor of the sunny climes and slave wages of Mexico, even though GM was making record profits. Flint, a one-industry town, is devastated.

The film documents Flint’s descent into poverty as celebrities visit to give empty motivational speeches, local PR wonks make lame attempts to wrap shit in a pretty package, and Moore makes repeated attempts to interview GM CEO Roger Smith.

The first time I heard Smith’s name was in college (roughly about the time that Roger and Me was taking place). I had an economics class with Young Koo, a Korean professor who talked about “suppry and demand.” Lee Iacocca’s name was a household word at the time, but Koo pointed out that he wasn’t the highest paid auto executive. Who was? Roger Smith.

How strange that I saw Smith as a hero back then instead of the real-life Mr. Burns that this film reveals him to be.

Roger and Me shows the human toll behind the headlines. We follow a deputy sheriff evicting people in the most civil way he can. We hear from a man who had a panic attack on the way home from the plant after learning he lost his job. In the film’s most controversial scene, we see a woman killing and skinning a rabbit to help pay the rent (of course, more people made a fuss about a rabbit than the 30,000 people laid off). We see a parade (it literally is a parade at one point) of Middle American icons—Miss America, Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, Robert Schuller—offering uplifting, but empty, words of encouragement. But the most stunning images are the journeys through block after block of abandoned houses and businesses in Flint. Add “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to the list of songs I’ll never think of in the same way again.

Economics was a bit of a bore for me in college. It was one of those classes that I took because I heard it would help me get a job, even though I would rather have been reading Shakespeare. And it was pretty dull, but it didn’t have to be.

For behind all the dry statistics (I’m still trying to figure out just what the kinked demand curve was supposed to represent), there are people. Since Roger and Me came out, we’ve had the dot-com boom, the dot-com bust, housing foreclosures, corporate bankruptcies, scandals, you name it. And behind each economic shift, people are affected.

Economics is more than just a boring subject in school. In a big way, it is life.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


It's Troy Polamalu's number. It's Darren Sproles' number, and he had a pretty good game last night. It was Richard Petty's number, and NASCAR fans still call him "The King." Channel 43 in Cleveland showed a lot of old TV shows on cable when I was little. And as of today, it's my age.

Birthdays don't mean much as you get older. You can get into R-rated movies at 17, you can vote at 18, you can drink at 21--but what does being 43 enable you to do? Not much.

People make a big deal out of turning 30. It seems to symbolize that a big part of your life is now over, that life is no fun anymore. I don't know why our culture is so geared toward youth. I remember a song by Blink 182 a few years ago which contained the line "Nobody loves you when you're 23." Twenty-three is over the hill. Incredible. What are we--a bunch of Neanderthals who don't live past 30?

I think the main reason that youth is jammed down our throats 24/7 by the media is because young people have a lot of money to blow on crap. People my age don't have the disposable income to blow on clothes, CDs and the latest electronic doo-dad. But once you've got adult responsibilities and Madison Avenue can't wheedle any more money out of you, well, then you suck.

It's the age-old question: would you do it all over if you could? I think there's a lot of psychodrama that comes with being a young adult that I would not want to relive, but I often think of all the opportunities I had that I didn't take advantage of.

So, in a way, 43 is fine. But then I start thinking about the future. I reached the point a few years ago where cemeteries started to creep me out. Then early last year, I had this really bad freakout at the prospect of not existing someday. I still hate the idea of death. It is so...out of your control. The idea of total powerlessness--who can stand that? Not many people, which is why religion is so popular, and why churches are filled with people over 60.

And it begs the question of why most of us are here. To work some meaningless job and have a little fun--what's the point? When you're gone, has your life impacted anything or anybody in any significant way?

And on that cheery note, I will let you go back to the viral video or reality show of your choice.