Heather Thomas and the Suburbanite Redemption


I went through my posters while prepping for a move, and somehow that got me to thinking about all the posters I’ve ever owned. Nowadays they tend to have some connection to me personally, whether they be advertisement for things I’ve worked on or events I’ve attended. They’re more mementos than self-extensions. Gone are the Italian horror movie promos, Zappa on the shitter, and spliff-lidded Marley swathed in smoke. Pushpin pricks are history, smoothed and flattened by glass.

Then SHE came to me, a memory on the prowl. Heather fucking Thomas. Man. Crawling from a hot tub, thumb hooked into a pink-bikini bottom, flashing a hint of hip. She was my generation’s Farrah Fawcett, since Farrah was older than my mom, ew. Heather had maybe a decade on me (maybe more), a blonde goddess beyond the awkward teenage stage. Yet for the life of me I couldn’t understand what she was doing on my bedroom wall.

Who bought me that poster? I don’t think I asked for it. It seemed to just appear one day. Previously my walls were all about “Theatre of Pain”-garbed (manly pinks and purples) Motley Crue, their fists outstretched in metal unity, or a raygun-wielding Eddie advising me not to waste my time always searching for those wasted years. I also had a large “Rocky Horror Picture Show” checklist, should I find myself in simultaneous possession of fishnet stockings and toast.

And then there was Heather. I couldn’t get a girl in my Bioscience class to return my calls, and I once overheard a classmate describe me as “cute but weird,” but Heather, that SoCal beach-girl blueprint, wore everpresent adoration. She smiled beatifically while I read Mad magazine, unlocking Dick DeBartolo’s comic rhythms. She worked her sweet-naughty shtick as I tapped out novellas to “Red Barchetta.” I shared a room with the type of girl who did not, could not, would never, ever register in my universe.

Truthfully, I think what happens is that once you reach the age of 12, if you don’t have a girly poster on your wall, your parents freak out — even the mother who had to hide that rented copy of “Purple Rain,” lest you come home early from school to review the parts you “missed.” It’s unnatural. Relatives begin to worry: “Vickie, I passed your son’s bedroom and saw no sign of a supermodel in a porkpie hat and a clinging white shirt unbuttoned to her navel.” City councils debate your internal wiring. At some point the president gets involved. A letter arrives at your house with a check for ten dollars and instructions. “Iron Maiden’s cool and all, but what your boy needs is spank material,” it reads. “Kind regards, Ronald Reagan.”

And then suddenly, Heather, bronzed, gleaming Heather. The following year: swimsuit calendar. Someone named Kathy Smith entered my life — her I didn’t mind because she seemed so serious about exercise. Then: a model of undetermined age — she could have been 40, she could have been 25, a runaway from the House of Judith Light — kneeling in the Pacific Ocean, luring suckers to their watery dooms with Tecate. By the time you’re 15, you’re swimming in bursting décolletage, wondering what happened to that poster of the “Synchronicity”-era Police, before your life became the loneliest Bud Light commercial of all time.

It’s strange, in retrospect, to consider that space a canvas upon which to build the young You. Hey, I’m not just a pussy who cries when the once-blind flower girl recognizes the Tramp at the end of “City Lights”; I’m also a confident 13-year-old beer-swilling fuck machine. It felt so weird. Not that I minded being surrounded by gorgeous women frozen into semi-provocative positions, smiling nowhere forever. I just never felt like the kind of kid who lined creation with semi-centerfolds. Was it some peculiar subconscious need to broadcast my heterosexuality, to assure friends and family I was all right: “Oh, thank God he appreciates a killer set of tits”? That’s about as meaningful as me being left-handed, you know: how nice, ho hum, who cares. Or maybe I could assure myself I was less “weird” —more grown-up, maybe — for having cosmetically shunned the passions I felt made me inaccessible: the Mad magazines, the devotion to writing, the cartooning, the encyclopedias, the love for old or fucked-up flicks. Boys with girly posters can’t be all bad, right? Boys with girly posters were normal.

I’m proud to admit I’ve long since re-embraced the me that made me “me.” If Heather Thomas exists within reach of this piece, I hope she understands, and I hope she’s as happy as she seemed in that sauna.



Gimme the Prize: Reflections on the RNC

RNC Cleveland

“I am the one, the only one,

I am the god of Kingdom Come

Gimme the prize!

Just gimme the prize!”

— Queen

Who wants to talk about the Republican National Convention? I wanna talk about the Republican National Convention. But I don’t wanna talk about the Republican National Convention, because to talk about the Republican National Convention is to acknowledge that the Republican National Convention actually happened: four days of preschool bugout, each vituperative highlight scribbled and shot for embarrassing posterity. It was like a high school reunion where everyone grew up to be, uh, embittered Republicans mired in midlife crises: This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife! Well, how did we get here?!

Ah, but we know how that happened, don’t we? The GOP’s pretended to wear such personae for years. It’s the ultimate conservative fantasy: the angry populist magnate. All Trump did was swipe the template and crank it to a Nigel Tufnel 11. He’s faking it, too, but resonating with the rabble.

His party’s only pandered to that base; Trump, however, empowered it. His central message: “Cluelessness is conviction. Believe what you want, for belief is superior to truth.” And he continues to be its living embodiment. Fact-checkers dog him — in fact, they tore his convention harangue to pieces — but his apostles care not, because his statistics sound right. And besides, they might luck out and get to shoot somebody.

As a spectacle of lunacy, the RNC barely registered as a sideshow. It was more of a toilet-sale blowout at an El Segundo junkyard. Commandeering the dais was a ceaseless procession of “Murder, She Wrote” guest stars, quacking imbeciles, sports-world zeroes, cover bands, one-shtick jabronis, ring-kissers, ankle-suckers, withered emperors, jowly groupies and future Brutuses.

This is your Republican party, folks, flown in from a 1970 Grayline bus to Reno, spiffed in newer, toothsome Solo-cup-soccer-mom skin and christened, in homage to apprentice saint Nixon, the Silent Majority. (Though if you spend any time online, you know they’re anything but silent.)

But it’s a lost, divided party, as evidenced by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who formally endorsed Trump for the nomination in words that must have tasted like an ancient Zima crawling back up his throat. During his speech, party chairman Reince Preibus spat the usual sawdust, but his eyes seemed to beg for a Flavor-Aid dunk tank.

Momentary hero Ted Cruz performed his equivalent of Sid Vicious’ “My Way” by refusing to acknowledge his ex-tormentor as future king. Unfortunately, it was just a premature salvo in his 2020 bid and not a principled stance, although he managed to steal the night’s momentum from Trump’s official benediction and up-yer-bummed it back to the cheap seats, where he’ll continue to live forever.

So the convention was less a celebration of unity than a dysfunctional family reunion, where everyone hates Uncle Donnie, but he’s rich and mean and might cut them from his will. So they endured a lot over four useless days.

Its only relief was Ivanka Trump, given the on-deck spot that final night and for once countering the convention’s madness with love. Hopefully, she escapes her father’s shadow. The candidate was less benevolent with his third wife, Melania, banishing her to Night 1 with a cribbed Michelle Obama speech and throwing her to the press. (His other kids were sprayed haphazardly into the lineup.)

Trump also invoked the wrath of Queen for swaggering out to “We Are the Champions” when “Gimme the Prize” would have been more appropriate to the event’s tenor, followed by a group singalong to “Who Wants to Live Forever,” led by the ghosts of Abraham Lincoln and John Kasich, as the Quicken Loans Arena fainted toward the Cuyahoga. It may as well have done just that after Trump’s concluding Thursday night speech: a botched litany of apocalyptic booga-booga that gave liberals hives, fact-checkers whiplash and Orwell a cheap thrill.

And then, for once, I felt for the Republican party. Because like me, all it could do for now was watch. Bye, Jumbo.

The Beginning of the End (Seattle, 1990)

Whirlwind staff box, 1989-90.

Whirlwind staff box, 1989-90.

I’ve told this story before: It takes place in a metropolitan neutrality called SeaTac, shortly before spring break 1990. I was a high school senior with a quietly mischievous keystroke and a travel bag plump with cassettes and clothes.

We’d left Friday morning by activity bus from the West Albany High School parking lot. Street lamps yielded to daylight as we crossed from Queen to Pacific, slashed by waves of telephone lines. Depeche Mode had released “Violator” that week, and I cracked open the case, absorbed that minty new-album bouquet, and packed the tape into my Walkman, watching the town shrink beneath Dave Gahan’s lugubrious nocturne: Let me take you on a trip / around the world and back / and you won’t have to move / you just sit still …

If you knew me then, music and writing were my raison d’etre. I was the dude that found your tastes pedestrian and actively sought to refine them, stopping by your locker with unsolicited mixtapes, you’re welcome. You could also read me in the school paper, The Whirlwind, where I served that year as self-appointed critic, waxing preciously on everything from Bonham’s “The Disregard of Timekeeping” and the “Born on the Fourth of July” soundtrack to “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop” and the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Groovies’ Greatest Grooves,” the latter of which I highly recommend even today (the others, not so much).

What I couldn’t have known then was how this role would define me for the next quarter-century, damn near trap and choke me. This was still the beginning. I was 17 years old, with a security one only knows in youth. I’d already plotted my course: After graduation, I’d move on, forgoing college for Rolling Stone, then a flurry of bestselling books, perhaps write for “Saturday Night Live” or work in radio. Nail a primo beachhouse in Southern California and hang with my buds on the lanai, drinks in hand, toasting the fortune that had blessed our lives. Journalism and Albany were never part of the equation; both were larks, stepping stones, necessary springboards into the prolific adventure of Me.

And here I was, on a pill-colored bus, headed with the Whirlwind staff to our Waterloo: a two-day national journalism conference at the Red Lion Inn between Seattle and Tacoma. It was an honor to be invited. Apparently. We arrived to swarms of school colors and clashing conversations, marveling at the scope of the event. The organizers booked some marquee talent, too: According to the program, CBS’ Harry Smith was the keynote speaker; we helpfully scribbled some hair onto his bald pate and skimmed a list of seminars none of us planned to attend. Then Harry himself, sans Bic-wig, commandeered a podium, lavished us with hosannas, yammered a spell, and became as one with the cream-colored walls. I don’t think we ever saw him again, and we didn’t care. We were THIS CLOSE to SEATTLE!

But before our carousals, we checked into our rooms: boys on one side, girls on the other, though we never stayed put for long. The Whirlwind’s editor and I introduced ourselves to the girl upstairs by grabbing the tanned legs she’d dangled over the balcony and yanking them until she began screaming. The stems then disappeared and a blonde head peeked over. “Who are YOU?” it asked with a smile. Although she didn’t join our tour of the city, she’d call our room to say hello and, later, goodbye. (Only in high school is such behavior endearing.)

Now, Seattle 1990 is a far cry from Seattle ’15. At some point during that stretch, God took a hose to the place, gutted whole blocks and swapped its more colorful denizens for guerrilla theater troupes. That night, for the very first time, I watched steam seep from sewer lids (a phenomenon I didn’t know existed beyond the “Night Court” opening credits) and saw two tall cops with batons, walking, and tapping the occasional foot: “Hey. Wake up.” We devoured these experiences, hopping over bodies onto buses and connecting with sad-eyed commuters, some of whom lit up quite expectantly at the sight of teenage girls. Seats were jammed with them, fresh, young faces from all over the country. I happened to sit behind two who were subsequently joined by a pair of curious older men. “Where’re YOU from? Wyoming? Hell, me and my buddy here were just thinking about going to Wyoming this summer. What are your names? How old are you?” Others were just pleased to have a captive audience: “You’re too young to know this, see, but it’s all politics, and the game is rigged.”

Our journey ended at the Seattle Fun Center, then a Jurassic shadow of an amusement park whose showcase was “Flight to Mars,” a combination horror/space-themed ride that was the thrill o’ ’62 but an ancient-if-popular curio by 1990. We tooled around that a bit, yelping at the rusted freaks, but my favorite remains the roller coaster.

While standing in line, I confided to my colleague and dear friend Katina Rothleutner that I hated roller coasters. I’d hated them since the betrayal of ’77, when my parents conned me onto Disneyland’s Space Mountain by connecting it to “Star Wars.” “You’ll see Darth Vader at the end,” my evil mother promised. Of course, I saw nothing but the end of days while physics throttled my guts. All that dipping, twisting and spinning made me sick. I didn’t throw up, but I wanted nothing more than to spackle my makers in buckets of evacuation. Katina — sainted Katina — listened sympathetically, then beamed under sparkling eyes and said, “I’m riding with YOU!” She grabbed my arm and maneuvered us to a car, and I’ll take the malevolence on her face to my grave. “Throw up that way,” she advised, pointing to my left.

So there we were, guy and girl, one working overtime to keep his cool as the beast moaned to life and our car began to stir. I could feel Katina watching me, but I couldn’t turn to look; instead I studied the protective bar that would surely impale us later. Then we lurched forward. “Uhhh,” I implored. Silence from my right as we began climbing, to “touch the face of God,” as former president Ronald Reagan said of the Challenger crew. At the top I felt a hand clutch my arm and my eyes instantly fused shut as the track ceased clicking beneath us, holding us momentarily, curiously, as if contemplating our fate. My knuckles flashed white and threatened to explode. I sucked all the air in Seattle past my gritted teeth. The grip on arm pressed tighter at the last possible second when we were pushed, shoved, kicked, coaxed, propelled into oblivion, no longer in control, at the hellish mercy of masochists long dead, banged, punched, thrashed at corners then pulled free, whipped toward impossible turns, yanked into pits then booted to the stars, Katina still hanging on and screaming with delight as the rest of me burned like a thousand needles exploding in my bones, and oh, my God, did I feel ALIVE.

Twenty-five years later, it’s my favorite memory of journalism. I have favorite STORIES, absolutely. But it’s the people around me who’ve mattered. The stolen moments beyond the office that made me feel less alone.

I ain’t a smart dude. You wouldn’t ask me to plan a party or fix your sink. I became a writer because I had no choice. The desire, then as now, was too overwhelming, too vital to my existence. Without writing, I’d have no voice whatsoever. And that’s the thing: For many of us, this was never a career. I wouldn’t even be so pretentious as to call it a “calling.” It was just nature. If you’re a writer, you go where the writers are.

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with journalism. As a practice, I didn’t like it much. I never understood the point of churning guff for immediate publication, pile after pile in manic rolls, feeding something insatiable and hateful, though I always admired it as a talent. Three stories a week were enough for me. Since I became an editor, that output’s dropped to an even more insignificant number. Cutlines, headlines and dropheads are my primary currency, a miserable fate for a word guy. I’ve produced a single story over the last year, and after emerging from under an avalanche of research, it took me about that long to write.

It can be a thankless job. We strive for audience connection, yet it’s hard to imagine a relationship more adversarial. You think we’re arrogant, with our audacity to determine what constitutes “news” and our delusions of self-importance. We think you’re stuck-up, too, with your revenge-porn theories regarding our struggles and your unflagging belief in your own perfection, or, at the very least, your linguistic, intellectual and cultural superiority to anyone with a byline. Dig the futility: You’re trying to please people who will always hate you.

One of the first cruel lessons you learn in this biz is the Inconsistency of Humankind. An audience will tell us what it wants, but its actual reading habits, which we can measure, tell us it’s LYING. An audience will accuse you of sensationalism, yet never acknowledge its own complicity and appetite for same. It’ll demand compassion for acquaintances, yet deny it of strangers in similar straits. The general public, of which we’re all a part, can be nakedly duplicitous, and we all have to pretend it isn’t.

So as journalists, we develop both a thick skin — gallows humor — and an equally dense layer of bitterness. Socially, I dance past questions about my job, because when people find out, they tend to get hostile. At last they can tell off a much-loathed institution by berating a stranger. It’s about as civil as dragging the Domino’s guy out of his car, kicking him to the ground and shouting, “Your pizzas are shit, and fuck you for contributing to obesity and heart disease.”

But sometimes even I need a break from this highly narcotic anger. So I return to that weekend, when youth ran wild in brief resistance to adulthood, when two kids shared a thrill on the exhilarating ride of a lifetime. It’s a reminder that things were good. Pure and new. Before passion became an albatross. Before aspiration became a career. Before a career became a sentence with an execution date, all but assuring that your life’s work becomes yellowed newsprint growing cold from neglect. And everyone will say you deserved it, by succeeding at something you loved until it stopped loving you back.

I was a writer then. By the graces of whatever, I’m a writer now. That kid is still here, hungry and hopeful. Maybe it’s time we met again.

See? It really happened!

See? It really happened!

Selected Excerpts from Ken Burns’ 7-Part “KISS Army”

MICHAEL GAMBON (VO): “If I should fall in the heat of war, bury me not in the cold, grey earth. Let me go, rock and roll.” — Lieut. Francis L. Scurvy, KISS Army, 1979

KISS (1975 recording): “Baby gets tired, everybody knows / Your mother has to tell you, baby has to show / Yeah, yeah / Let me go…”

MARK STRONG (narrator): The Wabash River covers 490 square miles, carving a vein from Fort Recovery, Ohio, to Shawneetown, Illinois. Nestled between those points is Terre Haute — or “Higher Ground” — Indiana, so christened by 18th century French explorers for the way the land crested above yet simultaneously embraced the tributary. Their geological synchronicity was once both legendary and picturesque; authors and composers have quaffed of its inspiration. Gripped by the memory of a childhood along its flow, 40-year-old songwriter Paul Dresser, in October of 1897, published a paean, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” from the more bustling climes of New York’s Tin Pan Alley.

JOSH GROBAN (singing): “Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash / From the fields there comes the breadth of new-mown hay / Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming / On the banks of the Wabash, far away…”

MARK STRONG (narrator): In January of 1975, music and culture would clash anew, just as water once caressed soil then joined the rush toward history. It was here in Terre Haute, long after Paul Dresser’s beloved sycamores were razed for empires of industry and suburbia, where young William Starkey and Jay Evans launched a tiny voice that would one day speak for many.

BILL MOYERS (journalist): It’s difficult to comprehend now, but in 1975, nobody who mattered knew KISS. Radio stations didn’t play them — wouldn’t play them, in fact — and only a small but dedicated fan base bought their albums. They’d had only two up to that point, anyway: KISS and Hotter Than Hell, which had come out the previous October and made barely an ripple on what Billboard calls the “Hot 100.” One can imagine the frustration these boys felt that their heroes were being ignored.

SHIA LaBEOUF (VO): “Gentlemen: It has come to our attention that your station, WVTS-FM, has yet to feature KISS in its rotation. We ask that you address this oversight at your earliest convenience.” — William Starkey, Jay Evans, 1975

FRANK LANGELLA (VO): “Kind sirs: Thank you for your recent letter. I hope that my reply finds you both in good health. However, we have no plans to add KISS at this time, for it is felt among our staff that these ‘musicians,’ such as they are, fail to meet our exacting standards as regards rock and roll.” — Rich Dickerson, program director, WVTS-FM

SHIA LaBEOUF (VO): “Gentlemen: We are disheartened by your refusal to honor our request, for we do not ask much. Admittedly, we are young, still clutched in idealism’s thrall, and perhaps men of your experience find our passions trivial and banal. However, we assure you that our dedication to this cause wavers not, and our ranks number far more than ourselves. We are, in fact, an army — a KISS Army, if you like — and through sheer stubborn strength and will, we shall prevail.” — William Starkey, Jay Evans

JACK BLACK (VO): “The first shot is fired. The first blood is drawn. A brainchild is sired: a new dawn is born. This summer is bound to be hotter than hell.” — Henry Oliphant, Poet Laureate, KISS Army, 1975

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN (historian; reading from her diary): “On denim-bound binder, in fine ball-point, Doris etches the names of giants. Her devotion is such that she even knows their birth names. Chaim Witz. Stanley Eisen. Paul Daniel Frehley. George Peter John Criscuola. Their phantoms invade her chamber at night, a hot swarm of tongues, glitter, and tangles of hair. She imagines her Jiminy Cricket flashlight is the blinding supernova of a Polaroid Instamatic. ‘Take me, Space Ace,’ she gasps. ‘Enter my feminine galaxy. Baby wants it fast, baby wants a blast. She wants a rocket ride. She wants a rocket ride.’ ” Oh, my land and the infant Jesus, stop the camera…OHHHH

MARK STRONG (narrator): The tale of KISS is widely known, from Kabuki rise to Kabuki fall to Kabuki rebirth and triumph. To relay it even in passing is unnecessary. What of those legions in the dark, their numbers vast, their faith steadfast? This is the story of the not-so-silent millions, who would follow four men across four decades over all four corners of the earth.


KISS (1976 recording): “You’ve got something aboutcha / You got something I need / Daughter of Aphrodite / Hear my words and take heed / I was born on Olympus / To my father a son / I was raised by the demons / Trained to reign as the one / God of thunder / and rock ’n’ roll / The spell you’re under / will slowly rob you of your virgin soul…”

STEPHEN AMBROSE (historian): You’ve got to understand: 1975 was a very fraught period in American history. Vietnam was just ending. Patty Hearst was on the loose. At least two people tried to kill Gerald Ford, and they couldn’t do it. Gas and oil were sky high. Looming over all of this is the specter of the ’60s. Woodstock. Altamont. Cynicism. Then Nixon. Watergate. Darkness. The hippie dream had failed, and its carcass was beginning to smell. America was months from her Bicentennial, the celebration of a garish, tarnished lie. It was time to medicate. It was time for KISS.

KISS (1976 recording): “I feel uptight on a Saturday night / Nine o’clock, the radio’s the only light / I hear my song and it pulls me through / Comes on strong, tells me what I got to do / I got to / Get up / Everybody’s gonna move their feet / Get down / Everybody’s gonna leave their seat / You gotta lose your mind in Detroit Rock City…”

JACK WHITE (narrator): It was in the city of Cadillac, Michigan, that KISS’ propensity for publicity reached full flourish. For one week in October of 1975, this quiet community of 10,000, located 179 miles from the cacophonous nerve center of Detroit, became the universe’s envied pulse, besieged by press, overwhelmed by madness, drowned in rock ’n’ roll.

JON HAMM (VO): “Dear Sir: As you know, we here at Cadillac High School have been big fans of KISS for a long time. Last year our football team’s defensive unit was nicknamed the ‘KISS Defense,’ and we went on to finish with a seven and two record. Since that time KISS has been the rock group in Cadillac. … I can assure you that we will do everything in our power to make a KISS visit a worthwhile experience for you. … Hopefully, we can work together and make these plans a reality. Our Homecoming will be ‘super’ just because of the KISS theme. KISS in person would make it an extravaganza.” — Jim Neff, teacher-coach, Cadillac High School, 1975

PERRY SUSKIND (Cadillac High School historian): The Vikings carried the KISS defense into the 1975-76 season and ended with a 6-3 record. The highlight that year, of course, was when KISS came to visit. They completely took over the whole city from Oct. 8-10, 1975, beginning with an Oct. 7 telephone interview for WATT-AM and ending that Friday with a helicopter departure from the football field. It was nothing short of spectacular: kids in KISS makeup, city officials in KISS makeup — I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t a cat or two dressed to look like Peter Criss. The fellows received a silver key to the city and showered it in fliers: “Cadillac High — KISS Loves You!” Historic, just historic.

ED HARRIS (VO): “For years we have been trying to unite the student body and the faculty … KISS accomplished this in one night.” — John Laurent, principal, Cadillac High School, 1975

JACK WHITE (narrator): The growing KISS Army was on the march.

KISS (1977 recording): “I remember the day that we met / I needed someone, you needed someone too, yeah / Spent time takin’ all you could get / Givin’ yourself was one thing you never could do / You played with my heart, played with my head / I’ve got to laugh when I think of the things you said / ’Cause I stole your love / stole your love / Ain’t never gonna let you go…”

CASEY AFFLECK (VO): “Dearest Helena: My will to live is gone, my darling. The winter has been most brutal upon my body and conscience. I cannot bear its savagery much longer. The others are freezing, huddled against its cruelty. Morale has evaporated, along with what remains of our hopes. The size of our desires, I fear, shall not bear fruit when the time has come. I was plagued last night by visions of the inevitable, that this godforsaken line is for naught: that Cobo Hall has, indeed, sold out.” — Pvt. Steven Guernin, KISS Army, July 7, 1977

NATALIE PORTMAN (VO): “Dearest: I discovered your letter this morning. Although your woe pains me to my soul, I am confident that you will return to me, tickets in hand to a kick-ass show. And even if it’s not meant to be, we can take comfort, you and I, in life’s little pleasures: your Mustang, my lucky hat, our records, and a sofa built for two. Bear up, my love. This too shall pass. Remember to buy cigarettes and bubblegum on your way home.” — Nancy LaRose, July 7, 1977

KISS (1976 recording): “Beth, I know you’re lonely / And I hope you’ll be all right / ’Cause me and the boys will be playin’ / all night…”

Ten Karaoke Numbers Performed in Beer-Soaked Esprit

U2, "In a Little While"

1. Al Green, “Let’s Stay Together” (with and without handkerchief)
2. Georgia Satellites, “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”
3. Bobby Darin, “Beyond the Sea” (bonus points: performed on an actual cruise ship)
4. The Rolling Stones, “Emotional Rescue”
5. Queen, “Fat Bottomed Girls”
6. Stories, “Brother Louie” (pre-Louie)
7. Undisputed Truth, “Smiling Faces Sometimes”
8. The Temptations, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”
9. Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (as a duo with an OSU football player)
10. Benny Mardones, “Into the Night” (mullet optional)

Review: Billy Joel, “The Hits”

Billy Joel
The Hits

Nov. 16, 2010

In “I Go to Extremes,” a sorta grown-up “You May Be Right” and his last real track of significance, Billy Joel proclaimed, “I feel like I’m in the prime of my life.” But it wasn’t true: he was about to say goodbye. Just four years later he sounded drained, dispirited, admitting to fatigue on “The River of Dreams.” “I’m tired,” he sighed over a gospel-glazed doo-wop lope dragged through Paul Simon’s Graceland, “and I don’t want to walk anymore.”

That was back in ’93, and we’ve heard nary a pop peep since. At some point he’d become disillusioned with the whole damn milieu. Stripped of a stream of music to slag, the press, never exactly sympathetic, began picking at the tawdry morsels of his life. His only real new recording has been the 2001 classical excursion Fantasies & Delusions, a double-whammy of whim indulgence and fuck-you to the machine. Everything else has been a calculated run of hits jobs, the latest of which, er, The Hits, launches a 40-year-anniversary reissue campaign of the Joel repertoire, fattened with the usual non-LP singles and vault effluvia.

For an artist whose output over the last 20 years could barely congest a baby, is yet another retrospective necessary? To an ailing music industry, the answer is yes. Why not give a man of Joel’s stature one last bells-and-whistles parade before dispatching it all as vapor to The Cloud? For the rest of us living in an accelerated culture, where even nostalgia’s a passing blur, the answer is, “What was the question again?”

The Hits is your basic, damn-near automated tour of the Joel mausoleum. It democratically culls up to two tracks apiece from each record, which makes it, of course, woefully undernourished. Joel hit a prodigious groove in the late ’70s that carried him through the ’80s with multiple charting singles on every release. So for every “Only the Good Die Young,” there’s no “Just the Way You Are” or “She’s Always a Woman.” “Tell Her About It” represents the smash-addled An Innocent Man (1983), but “Uptown Girl” didn’t make the cut. That a package called The Hits would be missing one of Joel’s biggest — only “Tell Her…,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” charted higher, all at #1 — calls into question said title’s veracity.

But nitpicked chestnuts ain’t Billy’s problem. He chucked that jive years ago; all that’s left is routine canon maintenance for sales bumps. Out come the ancient Polaroids of the young saloon key-slinger with Dylan-esque dreams, a last-call troubadour who turned his piano around to comment on the sad-souled rummies searching for shelter in familiar songs. “Everybody Loves You Now” (not a hit) and “The Entertainer” spoke to the pitfalls of fame, one the pianist had yet to experience on a level he’d one day know too well, thanks in part to the Top 40 “Piano Man” in 1973. Part anthem, part albatross, it was an earnest plod of piano and harmonica, two of the loneliest weapons known to man.

He graduated to “The Entertainer” the following year, a Billboard interloper with the wherewithal to execute the ambition of his wildest hair. Pianos shared space with prog-rock whimsy — kitchen-sink sonics, anything to be heard. The plaintive serenades were now delivered by a wary icon. “But I know the game, they’ll forget my name,” he sighed, “and I won’t be here in another year if I don’t stay on the charts.” He’d unwittingly become a character in one of his own tales; everybody loves you now, for real.

Billy Joel’s was a pugilist’s spirit, a necessary defense for someone whose heart bled in buckets. Critics waxed their knuckles on his schmaltz, stabbed his discography with indifference. His nostalgia stuck in their tastemaker craw, no matter how he dressed it in contemporary threads. There was no ignoring the greaser libido panting through “Only the Good Die Young’s” verbal swerves toward honeypot paydirt (Catholic girls, those challenging figures responsible for 86 percent of pop’s hormonal ache) and a randy sax solo whisked in via Studebaker from a ’61-model senior prom. Beatles-esque harmonies descended into the otherwise Me Generation-friendly “My Life,” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” rode Phil Spector’s “Be My Baby” thump so hard it resurrected the Ronettes as a droop-lidded white boy from the Bronx. For anyone questioning his sentimental fusion of the hoary and new, Billy had a ready response: “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” complete with rockabilly strut and more of that Sockhop Sax.

He’d plenty more in stock too. An Innocent Man marked the perfection of the formula, adeptly melding scrapbook rhythms to early-middle-age scenarios. “The Longest Time” combined the moonlit kiss of street-corner doo-wop with the flush of a brand new, yet firmly adult love. “Tell Her About It” painted in tones of whitewashed Motown, and “Uptown Girl” — poor, absent “Uptown Girl” — was the perfect Frankie Valli vehicle with a true-life storyline torn from a Four Seasons song: untouchable socialite takes up with a neighborhood runt. That the reality couldn’t match the up-tempo ebullience was indicative of the Valli after-effect: Did love as gushed in teenage declarations ever survive the cosmic three-minute mark? Sometimes they veered into confusion and doubt, as voiced in “A Matter of Trust,” which was driven not by keys but by the toothsome charge of longtime Joel guitarist Russell Javors.

Billy’s wistfulness, nostalgia, and fear eventually gelled into the runaway ’89 smash, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a sing-song time capsule condensing four decades into five minutes of Baby Boomer helplessness. His was a generation of cultural spectators, observing Chubby Checker and Beatlemania giving way to Reagan, AIDS, and crack cocaine. We’ve sunk deeper in the 20 years since, but Billy now prefers to grouse in everyday language. “This country’s going to hell in a handcart,” he harrumphed in 2008. “This country’s been hijacked.” True, it lacks the zest of “Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law / Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore,” but the sentiment’s about the same.

But those days are long behind us in our journey with Billy Joel. All we have left are ivory ghosts, strategically resuscitated every few years to move units, maybe add another wing to the bunker or keep the bloodsuckers fed. Meanwhile, the Piano Man is content to deliver comfort food to priced-out arenas of sad-eyed souls. With its patched-together sequence of rancid leftovers, The Hits reminds us not of Billy Joel’s everlasting artistry, but of a career that stalled, leaving what the Bronx Bard himself would call the cold remains of what began with a passionate start.

Life’s Soundtrack: John Lennon, “Woman”

For the other half of the sky…

This song was once an affront to me. I was in my teens then —world-weary pose, sick of what little It All I’d seen — and nothing disgusted me more than lovey-dovey pitter-pat platitudes from the man responsible for the far more provocative “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” which culminated in the razor-throated yelp-wallop “We make her paint her face and dance” — a real wowser to the adolescent mind already prone to “blown.” To hear the same voice a decade later cooing to his wubbie was like watching a jaguar yank its teeth to happily subsist on lollipops. A militant chest-thumper, I, obsessively preoccupied with such trivial crimes as selling out and sentimentality. Those were John Lennon’s weaknesses, not mine. I was a stone real motherfucker, kicking that hard-core shit.

Sadly, I knew of Lennon only in retrospect. I was eight years old when he died, and back then I had no idea who he was or what he’d meant. In fact, I’m trying to remember what I thought, exactly, if indeed I felt anything. The Beatles existed for me as ghostly voices and tattered LPs. That they were, in fact, four separate people with separate personalities, names, and lives had never occurred to me. But I knew Lennon must have been important by the insistence of his presence in the days following his murder, and on all days thereafter. He stared from every newsstand, sang from every speaker.

I vaguely recall my parents’ reaction. It was nothing like the funereal embrace depicted in Mr. Holland’s Opus. There was no wailing of “Our generation’s voice has been silenced,” no lost cries of “What will we do?” The furthest my dad went was dropping a needle on what I’d later recognize as the first Plastic Ono Band album and lying between a pair of speakers, eyes closed, mind elsewhere. I do remember the somber gatherings on television, the wavering harmonies of a mass engaged in “Imagine.” It was impressive that one man could inspire so many.

I finally discovered John Lennon in my teens, and I’ve been rediscovering him ever since. Back then I was trying to find my own voice, and borrowing Lennon’s persona seemed like a helluva plan. I, too, threw two sticks at the world. Why couldn’t there be peace? Was universal love not possible? Why was everything structured around stupidity and social poison? I growled j’accuses through reams of bad poetry, found me a swell pair of granny glasses — with clear glass, as my vision was just fine — and even picked up a set with peace-symbol holograms implanted in the lens. So attired, I became a right solid insufferable turd, though my taste in music was all right. “Instant Karma!.” “Power to the People.” “Give Peace a Chance.” “Imagine.” “Cold Turkey.” “Mind Games.” Lennon’s Shaved Fish compilation was my Bible. When I first heard him sniff, “I don’t believe in Beatles,” I found that a far more powerful kiss-off than “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” That John Lennon, man. He was something else.

I’d definitely been aware of the Double Fantasy album in its time. It was, after all, the one he’d released before he was killed. The disc dotted windows all over town. Its sleeve shot of the Lennon/Ono lip-lock devoured magazines. Everyone in my parents’ circle owned a copy; that Christmas 1980, we visited a couple they knew, and there was Double Fantasy, prominent on a shelf.

All the disappointment that greeted its release — more was expected from Lennon’s first recording in five years — had long since evaporated. It became his final testament, a vital window into his midlife head space. As a kid, I found his perspective repulsive. He wasn’t fighting the good fight at the end; instead he was saying, “I found mine, you find yours; maybe I’ll see ya ’round.” What the fuck? (What I didn’t realize until years later was that this was a less exasperated version of the message he’d sent on “God.”)

The whole thing was a damn embarrassment. “Beautiful Boy,” “darling Sean,” Jesus Christ. “(Just Like) Starting Over”? Yes, please, and stop when you get to 1974. “Watching the Wheels” was OK. But “Woman” was the limpest, gushiest, fruitiest, most godawful melodo-swill to ever crawl nutless and simpering onto magnetic tape. The real tragedy, I’d decided, was that Lennon died with his heart in hand, that he’d never return to proper anti-universe screeds again. Such a shame.

Kids, huh?

Love, age, and perspective have a way of softening even your most bull-headed stance. Age, especially, if you’re blessed with the honor. I returned to “Woman” in my early 20s, right after falling in, well, “adult” love, I guess you could say. When she moved away, that was the song that buoyed my spirits, stated everything so simply and perfectly. I’d assemble mixtapes like a long-distance kiss, speaking to her through song, and I’d end them all with “Woman,” but with what I thought (incorrectly) was a clever sonic swerve: I’d clip the song just before “I love you” and send it skidding into the vacant grooves of an anonymous record. Even at full pine I couldn’t hack the bald-faced reality of my devotion. “Doo doo doo doo dooooooo” was acceptable; “I love you,” too scary. By the time I’d summoned the cajones to speak the words myself, it was too late. Turned out “I love you” was bolder than “Woman is the nigger of the world.” It’s a naked admission of all that you feel.

I listen to the whole record now, Yoko tunes and all (admit it: “Hard Times Are Over” is great, though, tragically, untrue), with no more hang-ups, no desperate stumbles to cowl myself in cool. That John Lennon was a brave man to the end, admitting to the universe that he was happy. What I’d once heard as generational defeatism was, perhaps, in fact, just honest. On “Woman,” man, he sings like he means every word. And it’s hard to be hokey when you speak from the heart.

I love you. Now and forever.