Rank the Rekkids: The Ghost of Tom Joad

In college, I came up with this sorta-BS distinction to explain some of my musical tastes: There was stuff I liked, and stuff I respected, and stuff that got both, and stuff that got neither. The concept made for scintillating imaginary conversation with all my imaginary girlfriends in imaginary coffee shops and record stores.

Sometimes, it still works. I respect The Ghost of Tom Joad album, but I don’t like it very much.

It’s not that I hate the acoustic Springsteen, either, although I do think he’s always made his best music with the E Street Band. It’s more that the Joad record specifically is starchy and sterile, like he’s trying so painfully to affect a Guthrie troubadour pose that he suppresses the fire that has always made his music special, whether folk or rock.

The other day, a cut from a Joad tour show came up on shuffle, a version of “Johnny 99” that blew me away. Springsteen was shredding his instrument, part percussion and part rhythm guitar, and it was full of fire. Contrast that with the reserved, staid performances on the actual Joad album, all quiet plunking and mumbled lyrics. You can even hear Springsteen’s voice affected by his Guthrie-esque phrasing on the few contemporaneous full-band recordings that are out there–“Blood Brothers” from the Greatest Hits disc sounds like almost another singer.

Nebraska, Devils and Dust, even We Shall Overcome–these are acoustic records with deep passion. You can hear the fire on every cut. Listen to any of the tracks on Nebraska and then listen to any of the tracks from Joad–take away the sense of fear, the raw production, the foreboding darkness of the Nebraska album, and you get the Joad album. 

I don’t doubt that The Ghost of Tom Joad was a passion project for Springsteen; he doesn’t know how to make music any other way. For me, there’s just not enough of that passion on the record itself.

Rank the Rekkids: Bruce Springsteen 

18. Human Touch
17. The Ghost of Tom Joad
16.
15.
14.
13.
12.
11.
10.
9.
8.
7.
6.
5.
4.
3.
2.
1.

 

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Bats and Legends: Gothic

In college, I did a senior year thesis on Frank Miller, Klaus Janson & Lynn Varney’s The Dark Knight Returns. Because I was a hotshot snot-nosed kid, I thought I could do Scott McCloud one better than Understanding Comics.

He explores a topic in that book that he calls “closure,” which is the reader’s effort to fill in the narrative or movement “blanks” between panels. It’s the imaginative leap that makes comics work.

I “added” a concept called “emphasis,” which is the creator’s choice of what to depict in any given panel. In retrospect, it’s an embarrassingly obvious notion. It probably adds nothing to any conversation about comics.

And yet…I return to the idea often, because while the choice of emphasis by an artist seems obvious when a panel simply conveys story information, it’s just as often used to set mood and meaning. That was the crux of my thesis–a close read of the sequence in Dark Knight where Bruce Wayne recalls the death of his parents. We see closeups of Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace caught by the arm of her attacker; as the attacker pulls his arm away, the necklace is pulled apart. We see the necklace stretch and the pearls separate in excruciating detail. More than just suspense, this sequence builds an excruciating tension because of Miller’s emphasis in key panels on the pearls versus any number of other images he could have used to convey the same information.

Anyway. Klaus Janson’s work on “Gothic” has me thinking about emphasis again, because as a penciler, he has a stylized, unique approach to it.

Action sequences are another place where emphasis plays a huge role–the choice of what positions to depict for the participants can help convey a sense of motion, or if they appear too posed, give the sequence a halting, motionless feeling.

Klaus Janson chooses some weird poses to capture in his art.

Batman_Legends_of_the_Dark_Knight_006_1990This is Batman rousting a thug, pencils and inks by Janson.

In a sense, it’s similar to any number of familiar images of Batman–the dark knight falling from above with menace in his eyes, his arms outstretched, cape furling in the wind.

Except that’s not quite what we get here. There’s nothing that establishes Batman as being above the ground prior to this page, so it’s not clear of he’s dropping down from a height or maybe standing from a crouch. His arms aren’t outstretched, holding his inky black cape aloft; they’re in mid-motion, either extending the cape or bringing it in.

It’s a lived-in, real version of an image that’s existed before, and will exist countless times again. Janson’s own inks give the moment (and many others throughout the book) a kinetic charge that almost brings to mind some of the more disconcerting shots in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. It’s as close to a jump cut as you’ll see in comics.

But there is a firmness, a solidity in the image, and it’s in Batman’s face. That half-smile. It leaps out from the page. His full frame isn’t quite as menacing as his expression. And he dominates the rest of the page–not just because his reveal fills the top two-thirds but because he and his cape are in the foreground of almost every other panel.

It’s that preference for emphasizing unconventional moments and his disciplined control (or intentional lack thereof) of his line work that make Janson one of the all-time greats.

Next: Moench/Gulacy/Austin on Prey

**

A brief postscript–I wanted to try something different by focusing on art with this write-up rather than my usual comfort zone of X number of graphs about the story and writing, followed by a cursory nod to the contributions of the artist.

Fortunately, a far better writer than I has already tackled this story, and that’s comics blogger and all-around exceptional writer Tegan O’Neil. In fact, she toyed with doing her own story-by-story write-up of Legends of the Dark Knight in 2015. I’ll be linking to the pieces she completed as I finish my own write-ups, so by all means, visit her take to get a more Morrison-centric look at “Gothic.” And here’s her piece on the previous storyline, “Shaman.”

 

Bats and Legends: Shaman

As any Bat-fan worth their salt already knows, 1989 was a seismic year in the history of Batman, due primarily to the release of Tim Burton’s film in June.

With that movie’s explosive popularity came any number of attempts to cash in, from T-shirts and toys to trading cards and (I would assume) toilet paper. As the publisher of Batman comic books for fifty years, DC Comics was uniquely positioned to reap the benefits of a hit Batman movie.

7293149_origAnd so it came to pass that in November, they launched Legends of the Dark Knight, which they billed as “the first new solo Batman title since 1940!” This was a ham-handed attempt at infusing the launch with more gravitas than it deserved; it may have been technically true, but everyone knew that there had been countless Batman series launched and relaunched in the decades since Batman #1 hit the stands.

Still, it was the late eighties, the start of a heady period in comics publishing, when anything that could be An Event became An Event. So Legends #1 was a Big Deal with five separate covers…actually, five separate cover wraps, which is absolutely cheating. The cover itself was the same, but a separate piece in five garish neon pastels was attached to the book, forcing completists and speculators alike to track down all five colors for their collections and/or future college funds.

This series lasted until 2007. It spanned four additional Batman movies, four animated series, and some OnStar commercials. It told the kind of stories that the “real” Batman books could never tell–stand-alone tales, often just loosely in continuity, and many times focusing on the early years in Batman’s career.

I’ve loved Batman since I was a kid in Underoos and I read and collected many of the issues of Legends as it was published. I’m going to try to read and write about every storyline in the series, as an exploration of the character and his world, and an examination of how a wide range of different writers and artists approached the character. I will probably give up at some point out of sheer exhaustion–there are probably upwards of 100 different stories told over the 215 issues of the original series, plus 10 annuals and specials–but we’ll see how it goes.

legendsofthedarkknight-shaman8

“Shaman” is the storyline that kicks off Legends, stretching across issues 1-5. The issues are written by Dennis O’Neil, aka Denny, who also edited the entire line of Batman comics for DC from 1986 to 2000; art duties are covered by penciler Ed Hannigan and inker George Pratt.

O’Neil is a towering figure in the history of Batman; as an editor, by 1989 he’d already had a hand in perhaps the two foundational stories of modern Batman, both written by Frank Miller–Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. Those two stories were themselves influenced by O’Neil’s foundational work with Neal Adams on Batman in the 1970’s, widely credited with returning the Bat to a more grounded, gritty tone after the camp explosion of the sixties.

Year One and Dark Knight Returns effectively bookend Batman’s fictional career–the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents has been covered enough since the 1940s, but Miller used these two stories to expose the psychological underpinnings of that seminal event. It didn’t change Bruce Wayne as much as it transformed him, destroyed him; if there was ever a question before, it was clear from 1986 on that Bruce Wayne was the mask, and Batman was the reality.

In “Shaman,” O’Neil picks up on that dichotomy and explores it as it began, weaving in key moments from Year One and squarely placing this particular murder investigation between the panels of that previous storyline. O’Neil’s intellectual curiosity bleeds through in much of his work, and here it’s an effort to connect bits of Native American mythology to the Batman mythos. Honestly, based on my Google-fu, it’s a little unclear whether the central parable O’Neil relates is an invention or drawn from his research, but either way, it’s an overt tie to the more mystical aspects of Native American history.

There’s definitely something of the Magical Native American trope at play; at the same time, Hannigan’s pencils give these characters a lived-in reality, and he uses a clever stylistic shift to illustrate the actual bat-related parable that lies at the center of the tale.

“Shaman” is not a great Batman story; it suffers from a frequent weakness of stories with long-running characters, where the author feels the need to relate what’s happening to some other landmark event in the character’s history. Here O’Neil stretches a bit too far to suggest that the famous bat crashing through Bruce Wayne’s window was somehow related to the mystical healing efforts of a Native American in Alaska.

2570861-batman_lodk_shaman_3But in “Shaman,” Batman is pretty great. O’Neil nails the tense, passive-aggressive banter between Batman and Alfred, and isn’t shy about throwing in some well-choreographed fight scenes. Hannigan’s Batman is all business, lean and powerful, and there are a few classic Batman breathtakers in here that showcase the Dark Knight in all his nocturnal glory.

I think what I like most about O’Neil’s writing is that he’s so well versed in the simple rhythm and style of crime fiction. He writes a great Batman but he also crafts great thugs and cops. His work on the character, especially in the post-Year One era, feels like Batman wandering into a James Cain novel. It instantly grounds the action and provides a helpful context for the activities of a nutty genius running around in a bat costume.

Next: Grant Morrison’s first take on Batman

The Crushed Metal of Your Little Flying Machine

“You’ll Be Coming Down” is a song about winning the world and losing your soul. It’s a portrait of a pop idol who wants everything, and maybe she gets it…but she can’t hang onto it for long. It’s a vision of the world as a hollow parade of sparkly baubles that may be easy to grab, but can only disintegrate in your hands.

I’ve always wondered why “You’ll Be Coming Down” wasn’t a staple of the Magic tour shows. It’s one of my favorite songs from that record. I’ve heard lots of complains about Brendan O’Brien’s production, but the flatter, loud mix isn’t a bad thing to my ears. There’s a hot treble on this record that demands a certain volume and frequent play in automobiles with the windows cranked down. I have no trouble picking out the instruments; there’s space there, but bleed too.

It’s a bit of a detour for an album like Magic, which seems preoccupied with social and political concerns…but of course, Springsteen’s always been masterful at finding ways to connect disparate stories and themes together into a unified whole. The Magic album deals with illusions of all kinds, and consequently, the search for truth. Sleight of hand is “easy street, a quick buck and true lies,” whether it’s in politics, love, or pop music.

Does the subject of Springsteen’s scorn earn this level of disdain? It’s hard to say. There’s moments of casual cruelty here that suggest the song has a personal dimension. You have to imagine he’s injecting some of his own experiences into it; the character’s never explicitly defined as a woman, although the “pretty face” bit seems to suggest that she is. He could just as easily be talking about himself, and the obstacles he faces as a journeyman rocker who’s had plenty of success but isn’t quite riding the top of the charts as he once did.

Actually, the “pop idol” bit is a leap in itself; it’s just as easy to imagine this character as one of the vapid, unprincipled politicians who’ve marched their way through Washington over the past few decades. Is there idealism in the opening verse? Or is it just naked ambition? Turn on the TV news any night of the week, and you’re sure to see plenty of “smiles as thin as those dusky blue skies.”

Whether he’s indicting the empty theater of modern politics or the empty pageant of modern pop music, Springsteen sings the song, and so he gets the ending he wants; the character gets her comeuppance. Her cinnamon sky goes candy-apple green. It all falls apart with no warning.

Goddamn Your Confusion

I feel like “Pretty Persuasion” might be the Platonic ideal of an R.E.M. song.

Apparently this is not a new observation, as the Wikipedia page for the song informs me:

According to R.E.M. biographer Tony Fletcher, it is often regarded as “the ‘archetypal’ R.E.M. anthem”.

It’s got the jangly guitars, Peter Buck’s trademark arpeggio style. It’s got Mike Mills’ clean droning backup vocals. It’s got Michael Stipe at his most oblique. And Bill Berry does what he does, which is to serve the song and squeeze in the tightest of drum fills.

It’s also got mystery, in spades. You can find lyrics online and you can read the aforementioned Wikipedia page to get a hot take on what the song means. At this stage of their career, R.E.M.’s songs didn’t mean anything specific–they meant whatever the listener heard. I think that was intentional, and while late-era R.E.M. cleaned up Stipe’s vocals and even gave us printed lyric sheets, there was still the mystery of meaning itself. Stipe’s a poet; what did his words conjure in your brain? Where did they take you? What did they mean?

“Pretty Persuasion” is a deep bright hole of meaning; you bring only what you carry and you find only what you seek. That’s what I love about R.E.M., especially their earliest work. We shouldn’t even bother discussing what any of their songs are “about” because they’re not about any one thing. They’re about anything. You decide.

You Can’t Touch Me Now

Fathers loom large in Bruce Springsteen’s songs, and in his own personal mythology. Rosalita’s father is blowing his last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance. A father puts his boy up on his lap behind the steering wheel and says, “Son, take a good look around…this is your hometown.” And nearly twenty-five years later, in “Long Walk Home,” the singer’s father says,

Son, you’re lucky in this town
It’s a beautiful place to be born
It just wraps its arms around you
Nobody crowds you
Nobody goes it alone

If those lines effectively encapsulated Springsteen’s vision for what our American society should strive toward, they also say something about what Springsteen needed from his own father–an unconditional love with the distance and wisdom to let Bruce make his own mistakes.

Instead, the two seemed ever at odds, especially as chronicled in Springsteen’s two great songs about fathers, 1978’s “Adam Raised a Cain” and 1981’s “Independence Day.” Throughout that legendary era from Darkness on to Born in the USA, fathers played a starring or supporting role in several lyrics, from “Mansion on the Hill” to “Factory.” But “Adam” and “Independence” seem to function almost as bookends, the starting point and destination of a journey from rage to pity, from confusion to understanding.

It’s a striking, impenetrable image: The son and the father, facing off, one inside and one out, “with that same hot blood burning in our veins.” The distance is insurmountable; the barriers too strong. It’s never over; “it’s relentless as the rain.” Echoes of the closing lines of “Factory”: “You just better believe it, somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight.” And yet, they’re not just prisoners of circumstance, or the working class; they’re “prisoners of love, a love in chains.” Love can liberate, it can empower, it can free you…but it can shackle two men together who may never find a common ground. Like a father and a son.

For me, the musical journey Springsteen explores with regard to fathers comes to some kind of resolution in “Independence Day,” with the line, “Papa, now I know the things you wanted that you could not say.” It’s a moment of understanding and mercy; one can only imagine that Springsteen himself internalized the rage that filled his own home, and through working beyond that rage, came to realize what may have motivated it. Springsteen’s own ambition pushed him out of his home and into the world from a fairly young age, and in running down his own dream, he must have at some moment realized what his own father sacrificed to build his family and provide.

I don’t know if there’s forgiveness in this song, or even anywhere in Springsteen’s music, for the fathers that fail their sons. But that understanding is something. And it’s an understanding that cuts both ways; “we chose the words…we drew the lines.” It was a relationship built on a darkness that could not be easily overcome by two emotionally immature men. It’s also a rare moment of liberation for a Springsteen narrator, even if that freedom from his home ultimately leads him to walking a dark and dusty highway, all alone.

Years later, in “Living Proof,” Springsteen would sing of his own experience encountering fatherhood for the first time. There’s little recrimination, or acknowledgement of his own father haunting the hallways of his soul. Instead, having a son is transformative for him personally, forcing him out of himself and into a relationship with another person that can never be denied. And if Douglas Springsteen was rattling around Bruce’s head as he lived those moments, or wrote those words, we’ll never know–but it certainly seems as though Springsteen’s escape down life’s highway has left him free to embrace the fullness of his own life.

“WOW!!! I LOVE THIS!!!”

As I was filling in the “About” page for this site, I started thinking about when I first went “online.”

In high school, I know we had internet access via AOL at home at some point. I recall goofing off in chat rooms (nothing sordid, I promise).

But it was arriving at college in the fall of 1994 that really plugged me in, so to speak. Actually, it literally plugged me in; I was lucky enough to have my own computer in my room, and it was a simple matter of connecting the back of that trusty ancient Windows tower to the fresh Ethernet ports in my dorm room.

This meant lots and lots of e-mail; back then, it was a total mindblower to send and receive e-mail. I remember friends actually popping by my room just to check their e-mail, like it was an event, or hanging out at the computer lab. Notes flew fast and furiously between myself and any high school friend I could track down. Real letters, too, not just one-liners; there was a window of time where e-mail was real correspondence and I remember spending hours on replies to my friends.

But it was Usenet where I really took my first step into the internet as a boundless source of human connection through inhuman means. Being…well, let’s cut to the chase here…a NERD, I have always sought out groups of like-minded people. In grade school, it was the Nintendo Players Club I founded with my friends; in high school, it was theater and speech and Star Trek conventions.

On Usenet, I quickly discovered that I could instantly join any number of thriving communities dedicated to my every obsession. I would visit the David Letterman Top Ten Lists newsgroup and literally print out archives of every top ten list ever read on the program. I wrote comic book and movie reviews. I spent more hours replying in detail to anyone who would engage with me, those little arrows noting excerpts from the posts of others, into which I would type my own thought-by-thought responses.

As far as I can figure, all of this–Usenet through web publishing through message boards through MySpace through Facebook and Twitter–started on September 15, 1994. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the day I stepped into the world wide web. It was a post to rec.arts.theatre.musicals.

Subj: Matt’s Top Ten Songs From Shows

My Top Ten:
—————————————-
10. “Gethsemane,” Jesus Christ Superstar
9. “Sue Me,” Guys and Dolls
8. “Prepare Ye (the Way of the Lord),” Godspell
7. “Somewhere,” West Side Story
6. “Reviewing the Situation,” Oliver
5. “A Hymn to Him,” My Fair Lady
4. “Pity the Child,” Chess
3. “You’re the Top,” Anything Goes
2. “Easy to Love,” Anything Goes
and the number one song…(drumroll, please)
1. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” My Fair Lady

Thoughts? Comments?  Let me know…

And thus, an obsession was born–not with musicals, although fair play, I was pretty obsessed with those at the time. No, this was an obsession with whatever was out there in the ether of the internet at any given moment in time, a constant urge to reach out and connect via any means at my disposal. Because in real life, friends were sometimes disagreeable and words often failed, but online, you could find your precise tribe and be exactly who you thought you were.

Maybe I’ll share more some time; it’s a pretty deep hole, because I was very lonely at points during college, and so I spent a great deal of time on Usenet. The title of today’s post is taken from my first blabber about Star Wars online, on October 16, 1994:

Subj: WOW!!! I LOVE THIS!!!

I just got in here about an hour ago, and spent the last hour
gleefully scanning the articles, esp. those rumors about the new
films and toys.  What fun!  It’s such a blast.  I say keep the
rumors coming; even speculation is better than nothing at all.
Also, any new info on the toys this Christmas?  If Santa left me
a new Star Wars figure in my stocking, I’d die!
And where did “Just an average guy” go?  He claimed to have solid
info about a week ago, but then he stopped posting.  If you’re out
there, please continue!
Thank you all so much for this!  I’m forever grateful!!

I still LOVE THIS, and I’m still pretty damned grateful.