Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Craig's Contract with his Audience

Only a few days remain until "The Late Late Show" is no longer hosted by Craig Ferguson. It's been a great ride. I've written posts that contain some of my favorite things from the show. What I want to point out today isn't the bust your gut funny moments, but those moments he made it real. That's one of the things that made Craig's tenure with the show so very special. Perhaps it was the main thing because it enabled because it enabled Craig to connect with his audience on a deeper level using his own feelings on a national or personal tragedy. It was cathartic for both host and audience.

Again, in no particular order, are ten examples.

This is the first monologue that I saw that Craig opened up about something troubling and it turned out to be a fantastic mix of humor and social slapdown. It's when I truly realized how special this show was with him at the helm.

David Letterman's production company, World Wide Pants, is the company that produces "The Late Late Show" which follows his own "The Late Show with David Letterman" every night. In 2009 news broke of Letterman's affairs with various female staffers over the years. As Craig himself says, this left him in a very difficult position since it was his job to comment on the news of the day.

This is just for fun. Apparently there was a power outage during the taping of his show. What do you do when a power outage occurs during the taping of your monologue? You take a few nips at the hand that barely feeds you.

Craig shared a lot with his audience. A lot.

I mean, a lot!

Five years after 9/11, an immigrant, two years shy of his U.S. citizenship, shared his memories of that horrible day. 

On July 20, 2012, a man went into a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. and shot 82 people, killing 12 of them. Two years ago an some change, we were still horrified by such an event (sadly I fear we've become a bit too accustomed to it now). A pre-recorded show of "The Late Late Show," including jokes about "The Dark Knight" (The film being shown when the event occurred) was scheduled to run, leaving Craig and his staff in a dilemma. So he decided to tape a new opening to the show that would address the shooting (and in fact his dilemma). It's the sort of sincerity that made his show so special.

And in a companion piece: On April 15, 2013 two pressure cooker bombs went off during the Boston Marathon. It was a horrific and cowardly act that left everyone shaken. Craig presents that confusion and anger perfectly.

Craig's mother and father had been on his show, his mother partaking in a particularly charming bit in which she went shopping with RZA of Wu Tan Clan. When his mother died, as he so often does, Craig shared his feelings with his audience. And he almost made it through without breaking.

Of course two years prior to the send off for his mother, fresh from the funeral, he spoke about his father's death. (The show that night actually became a wake for his father).

And of course honorable, and sad, mention belongs to his announcement that Craig would be giving up the reigns of "The Late Late Show."

Whether it was joy, frustration or grief, what you got with Craig Ferguson was an honesty and wit that couldn't be contained on a cue card. It was indeed his contract with the audience.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Let's Get This Party Started

I'm not quite sure when the puppet cold openings on The Late Late Show morphed into the spectacular lip synching numbers but I suppose it was inevitable in an ever evolving show. As I showed in the previous post the lip synching seemed to start with the puppets. A yodaling monkey, an acid rock wolf, a dinosaur and shark singing "Rain Drops Keep Fallin' On My Head." It was ridiculous and fantastic all at the same time. Eventually, with the help of a talented and playful staff, Craig Ferguson transformed this show opening featuring puppets into musical numbers that helped pump up the audience even more.

The numbers are remarkably notable when you consider the space in which they had to stage them. Some have quite a lot of choreography to them.

Again, in no particular order, here are ten of my favorite musical openings from The Late Late Show.

"Fireball XL5" was a children's show created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson of Supermarionation fame which Ferguson very likely grew up watching in Scotland ("Fireball XL5" actually did run on NBC on Saturday mornings in the U.S. from 1963-65). It had a curiously poppy closing song considering its science fiction theme that lends itself perfectly to a bit on the Late Late Show.

The Village People's "In the Navy" is a song screaming out for a good lip synching and Craig and his crew are just the folk to provide it.


"Look Out There's a Monster Coming" is a catchy little tune that can be found on the album 1967 "Gorilla" by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (one of its members, Neil Innes, would go on to write the fantastic songs to be found in the Beatles-parody band The Rutles). And it's nice to see Geoff Peterson get in on the act.

The Late Late Show's take on "White Lines" (covered by Duran Duran) is one of those numbers that definitely cemented the party aspect of the cold openings.

I think "Wonderful Night" was the first lip synching bit that I saw and it only increased my affection for this show.


It's only fitting that when Craig took the show to Scotland, his country of birth, the opening would need to be big. Add an awesome TARDIS effect and you have a rockin' cold opening.

And when in France:

"Over At The Frankenstein Place" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was one of the more elaborate cold opens and it works excellently.

This next one is one of my favorites featuring a cover of "Istanbul" by one of my favorite bands, They Might Be Giants.

As a "Doctor Who" fan like Craig himself, this last one is probably the penultimate cold open for me. It didn't, however, actually open the show when it was broadcast since at the last minute it was discovered that they couldn't get the rights to the "Doctor Who" theme music. What was filmed was a practice run-through that Craig, none the less, winkingly encouraged should somehow make its way onto YouTube. And so it did. Brightening the lives of every Whovian out there.

These are the things that made The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, despite the late hour, such a joy to tune in. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Craig Ferguson's Puppets

In my last post, I told you about my sadness at Craig Ferguson's imminent departure from the Late Late Show. Tuning into the show every night was like stumbling on an open house party at a neighbor's house, and late night will sorely miss that energy.

I would like to illustrate why I love this show with a few Top Ten lists (borrowing, of course, a concept from another show).

Borrowing a concept from another show, I would like to illustrate why I love this show so much using a few Top Ten Lists (although the the entries are in no particular order). To begin with here, are ten of my favorite cold openings featuring Craig's cast of hand puppets (a cast that seemed to grow as the concept went on):

So one night I tune into The Late Late Show and opening the show, I see a white rabbit puppet talking to the camera in squeaky cockney, an empty set behind him. I think that's when I officially realized that the party had begun. As much as I enjoyed the sketches written for the show (a particular favorite was Michael Caine at Hogwarts), there was something so audacious about a host opening his network show with only a white rabbit hand puppet talking to the audience (Craig doing the puppet's cartoon voice) that I was spellbound. And when he did it again and again (with a monkey, or a unicorn, or a puppet he referred to as a crocodile/alligator) I was a goner. 

Kronos, King of the Monkey People, is another puppet that has made a number of appearances on the show. With his firm, booming voice he professes to being on the verge of taking over the planet. The adorable elevator operator outfit (or is he a bellhop) he wears, however, makes it hard to believe that he'll succeed in these plans.

Kronos made an appearance in a rare multi-puppet opening bit featuring a dinosaur and a shark singing "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" before they started a toothy make-out session. 

I mean, come on!! What other show offered that?

Another toothy denizen of the Late Late Show puppet brigade is Wavy the crocodile/alligator. Fresh from the bayou, he apparently has an English cousin whose longer torso is perfect for High Def.

Wavy not only has an English cousin, but also has an English girlfriend, who he introduced to the audience. She seems a shy, retiring type, though I suppose one would be when dating a crocodile/alligator. (This is one of my favorite bits)

In what seemed like a shark week of his very own, Craig was having relationship problems with his shark. Breaking up is hard to do, especially with a shark.

But it turns out, that the shark has quite a personality.

The lip synching to songs became more elaborate as time went on and began to incorporate staffmembers, but there's something so right about puppets "lip" synching.

And speaking of elaborate, here's a little unicorn joined by friends to sing "The Lonely Goatherd."

Not to be outdone, however, is Kronos, King of the Monkey People, a monkey of many talents.

As an honorable mention, it seems only fair that Craig should have a puppet all his own.

There are any number of other puppet bits floating around out there on YouTube and I highly recommend an hour of surfing.

My next post will discuss the more elaborate cold open lip synching.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Craig Ferguson's Party

Craig and Secretariat bust some moves

Recently The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson released the guest line up for Craig's final shows and it reminded me of how bitter/sweet the next several weeks will be.

James Corden

Ferguson's last show will be Dec. 19 and frankly I don't want him to go. Oh he'll probably move on to something else (at the moment he's got some game show thing that he's hosting on another station) and the next host (James Corden) of The Late Late Show will probably do a good job, but this show with Ferguson has been magical since he took over in 2005.

I remember early on in Craig's (I call him Craig cause he makes me feel that I can) tenure trying to tell a coworker about the show. I had a hard time explaining the show because it was so atypical of talk shows. What you normally see is rote: Host is introduced, host does monologue, host does wacky banter with sidekick/bandleader (of course hard for Craig to do since he's had neither for some time. Technology solved that problem eventually). After the break the first guest comes out, there's a bit, then the next guest, then maybe a musical act, then end of show. It stays that way for years.

The Dreamboyz
Maybe it was Craig's punk sensibilities left over from a misspent youth that led him to break that format. (During the 80s he played in a band called the Bastards of Hell, later renamed Dreamboyz, which also featured current Doctor Who Peter Capaldi). Sensibilities which apparently also flavored his life some years after. Not only did he depart from standard talk show format with his television show, Craig often departed from the formats that he himself would establish for his own show. 

An early sketch featuring Ewan McGregor

It was like watching one big comedy bit being tried, tested, tailored and trimmed to offer a tighter result.

The show was constantly evolving and it was brilliant to see what he and his staff came up with.

Consider the evolution of Geoff Peterson, gay robot skeleton sidekick. The lack of a sidekick had never hurt the show or Craig's performance. In fact, he seems to have the mutant ability to be entertaining without sake of sidekick, cue cards, band or other late night paraphernalia (which he often joked were lacking due to the cheapness of CBS). Deciding at some point it might be fun to have a sidekick, he took Mythbuster's Grant Imahara up on his offer to create a sidekick. In the beginning, Peterson's vocabulary consisted of seven pre-recorded phrases (one of them the often played "balls"). Craig would interact with the robot using the buttons at his desk which set off the phrases. Later, writers handled Peterson's dialogue using an iPad to control it offstage.

Over time, Peterson's vocal abilities were tweaked as were his motor skills (somewhat) and now voiced by Josh Robert Thomas, he's become an integral part of the show. With comedy and improv skills as sharp as Craig's, Thomas is able to keep up in whatever direction the host goes.

What could have been a prop for a bit lasting a few months evolved into a favorite part of the show for many viewers. But comedy evolution is exactly what the show has been about. Quick, pre-opening bits with puppets turned into puppet lip synching songs which turned into elaborate, choreographed lip synching performances featuring puppets, Craig and members of his staff. I think that's when the show really became a party. There was a sort of "oh well, what the hell, let's try it" attitude not seen since Letterman started the Late Show in the 1980s and went on fast food road trips with Zsa Zsa Gabor or tossed stuff off the top of buildings.

Only Craig takes the attitude to the next level, encouraging the audience to stick with him by sheer force of his enthusiasm for life. Every sketch and monologue is an invitation to join the party. It's clear right from the theme song.

It could be his enthusiasm for life that leads him to share so much of his personal life with the audience. Craig has led a life, and come close to death, and as with most people recovering from something he's almost evangelic with his openness.

When Britney Spears was going through some issues, Craig stood apart from the crowd capitalizing on it with "Britney is so messed up" jokes by delivering a monologue in which he encouraged people to cut her some slack. Using his own, misspent youth as an example he encouraged everyone to just let her work it out. And he was able to deliver the lecture in his usual, funny, disarming way.

On Feb. 1, 2008 Craig became an extremely proud citizen of the U.S. and later showed clips of himself taking the test and his swearing in. 

We met the members of the Ferguson family when he had on his show his nephew, his sister, and his parents. He even arranged a filmed outting for his mother and RZA of Wu Tang Clan and the two actually corresponded afterward. When his father died, followed later by his mother, he opened respective shows with eulogies for them both.

It was instances such as this that helped Craig achieve an intimacy with the audience whether in the studio or at home. It's perhaps that intimacy combined with his comedic inventiveness that will be missed the most.

He addresses all his guests with an easy familiarity as if they are old friends just hanging for a chat. In most cases this easy familiarity is able to loosen up even the stiffest of guests. By the end of the interview they are willing to choose between ending on an awkward pause, playing the mouth organ, a moment of meditation or one of the other interview-enders Craig and his staff has come up with.

But even during the interview he seems genuinely interested in the guest and most times he probably is. If he uses the sort of guest question cheat sheet found on the desk of other talk show hosts you wouldn't know it. His is a very stream-of-consciousness style of interviewing which helps make the interview more enjoyable for the guest, the audience and more than likely himself as well.

So, I'm going to miss my friend, TV's Craig Ferguson. Late night won't be quite the same without him. Though I look forward to what he has in store for his next incarnation. I'm sure it'll be a party.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Martian

When I was a kid I saw a movie on TV called "Marooned." In it, James Franciscus, Gene Hackman and Richard Crenna play astronauts whose mission goes horrible wrong and strands them in space. NASA works on the problem of rescue before their oxygen is gone, but this isn't exactly like sending a boat out into the lake (or even the ocean) to rescue some sailors.

One scene that stayed with me has Richard Crenna's character going out to make repairs only to accidentally rip his space suit. Leaking oxygen, he floats off into the black recess of space where he will eventually die, his body floating forever. I cannot fathom the helpless of such a situation. Even those sailors stranded at sea have some shred of hope that a ship will pass by or a plane fly overhead or they'll drift to land.

I was left with a very similar feeling while reading The Martian by Andy Weir. Well, perhaps I shouldn't state "reading" but rather "listening" since I experienced the tale by listening to the book on CD expertly read by R.C. Bray. I was completely engrossed in the story. Which is funny since it contains the sort of minutia that the tale of a man stranded on Mars would have to have (well now that decades of probes to Mars has given us a clue as to what being stranded on Mars would actually be like) but which might make a plot drag. In this case, it didn't.

Mark Watney is a botanist on a six member expedition to Mars. A massive dust storm forces the team to evacuate the landing site, but on the way to the ship Whatney is hit by debris. Unable to detect life signs from the computer in Watney's suit, the team believes him to be dead and must leave the site immediately or be trapped themselves.

But Watney is not dead. He awakens later, completely alone on a planet hostile to our sort of life. He makes it back to the habitat where he can take off his suit and assess his situation which is pretty dire. He's been left on a planet that offers no food, no water, no oxygen or even a livable environment and even if a rescue mission was launched, it could take months to get to him. His only slight hope is to wait it out until the next mission arrives--four years later.

He does have some things working in his favor. When the crew left they left the supplies that were supposed to hold six people for a specified amount of time. Not enough to last one person for four years but enough to at least give him time to think.

And it's as Mark enters survival mode that we're introduced to the minutia of what that survival would entail. There is a lot of calculating that goes on mainly because he's going to need to ration his supplies to buy himself as much time as possible. Food, for example. Watney decides to grow food to extend the prepackaged food supply. He decides upon potatoes (since the crew were left several potatoes to enjoy as a Thanksgiving feast) because, as he explains, he can supplement lower ratios of nutrients with vitamins, but he will still need to meet a certain caloric level and "taters" (as he refers to them) will give him a the necessary calories to still be able to function. How do you grow potatoes with dead Martian soil? You enliven it with microbes? How do you obtain said microbes? Well, it isn't pretty (it involves human waste), but Watney's impromptu farming in the habitat (or Hab) involves a lot of calculation starting with how much farmable "land" he'll need to create for the optimal yield. He calculates soil depth, water requirements (his and the soil), even how many potatoes he should put aside from the first harvest to act as "seed" for the next crop.

This is what I mean about minutia. to balance on the knife edge of survival, Watney has to calculate everything and considering his situation he finds himself having to improvise a lot too. If something breaks on Mars, there aren't any fix-it shops to help. That's not to say that is a dry book. In fact, there were moments where I laughed out loud. The beginning of the book is told through Watney's log entries and along with his cleverness, a sense of humor helps keep him going. And there were moments when I burst out laughing. Usually at little asides that helped diffuse the tension of listening to a man trying to stay alive a bit longer.

Later the narrative alternates between Watney's log entries and a mix of log entries and straight third person accounts from the folks at NASA trying to figure out how to rescue him once they discover (through probe photos of Mars) that Watney's still alive. It's not only the cost of such an expedition. The main question, considering long it takes to build these rockets, is, can one be sent up and reach him before his supplies run out?

This is where the talent of the reader, R.C. Bray, really shines as he takes on the personas of a myriad of characters involved in the rescue operation. Male, female, a variety of accents are all performed effortlessly and draw you further into the story, the fears and concerns of the characters matching that of the reader's.

Ultimately though it's the story of one man trying to survive against all odds that holds you. Mars throws a lot at Watney as he works on his plan to reach rescue and you can't help but wonder, "Has he at last met the problem he can't solve? The one that will finally destroy him?"

Take a listen and find out.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Goodbye to the People's Poet

As usual, I'm late to the party on this. Or perhaps I should say wake. On June 9, 2014 Rik Mayall died of a heart attack at the age of 56. It was depressing news. I've always enjoyed Mayall's work and he was young. Six years older than me when he died. That sometimes makes you think. I wanted to post something about this sooner, but this is the soonest I was able.

I'm not really sure how I discovered the television show "The Young Ones." It could have been through a friend, could have been my seeing a video of it. For a while MTV was showing the episodes in the mid-80s. However it was, at some point I saw the show and was blown away by it. Comedic anarchy it was a force to be reckoned with.

I've been a fan of British comedy from the days of watching Sunday night "Monty Python" episodes shown on our local public television station. "The Young Ones" brought the absurdest sensibility of Python to extremes. Sometimes violent extremes. For all intents and purposes it was a sitcom. Four students of diverse personalities living under one roof and trying not to kill each other. Well, perhaps not really trying that hard. It broke all the rules.

Rick Mayall, one of the writers along with Lise Mayer and Ben Elton (who would go on to write The Blackadder series) cited his own years at university, and running into these groups of divergent personalities, as an inspiration for the show. Curiously, the television show "The Monkees" also served to inspire the creative minds behind "The Young Ones" who used similar techniques like jump cuts, montages and breaking the fourth wall. The show was a sort of a Punk Monkees (which may have been a band name in the 80s. If it wasn't, it should have been).

There was even music in the show as every week they somehow managed to sew into the plot a musical performance by a popular band such as Madness, Motorhead and Dexy's Midnight Runners. This was done primarily for budget purposes since the producers discovered that by adding musical acts they could classify the show as a variety show and the BBC would offer it a larger budget than it would offer a sitcom.

Rik Mayall played Rik, the "People's Poet" a would be anarchist whose anarchy only went so far as to cause no inconvenience to Rik. His character was always fighting some sort of injustice even if it was only imagined.

Ade Edmondson played Vyvyan the punk, the one who did everything he could (and usually violently) to piss the People's Poet off. Vyv's philosophy was "why walk through a door when you could crash through a wall?"

Nigel Planer was Neil the hippie. But not a happy hippie. Rather a decidedly unmellow hippie who went through life waiting for the other shoe to drop and probably shouldn't have been living with other three guys, most certainly not these guys.

Christopher Ryan played Mike the cool person, the unofficial leader of the group. Mike was an operator who always had an angle, even if the angle rarely played out. He was a legend in his own mind.

Mayall was part of the alternative comedy scene that began blooming in the 80s. Infused with a sort of punk mentality these alternative comedians offered comedy less formulaic, more free flowing than that which preceded them. Names like Alexi Sayle, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, produced comedy that was edgy, unpredictable and often laced with political commentary.

Of course some of it was just purely ridiculous--or violently ridiculous as in the case of The Dangerous Brothers, one of my favorite bits that Mayall did. Teamed with Ade Edmondson, Mayall was one half of a brother duo whose act consisted of death defying stunts, most of which usually went terribly wrong. It's pure slapstick, utterly ridiculous and completely hilarious.

Around the time I discovered "The Young Ones" (which led to The Dangerous Brothers) I came upon a more subdued and thoughtful (if that's the right word) character of Mayall's. Kevin Turvey was an investigative reporter who, from a chair in a darkened studio, delivered earnest commentary on issues that really seemed to only concern him. Mayall completely invests himself into the character and I was completely fascinated by it.

After "The Young Ones" he starred in a series called "The New Statesman," a wicked take on the wickedness of power. Mayall plays Alan B'Stard, a Thatcherite MP prepared to do anything to satisfy his ambitions. Think of it as a comedic "House of Cards." The character is much more subdued then Mayall played in the past, much more diabolical. It's a perfect take of the creepiness infesting the government in Thatcher's England.

Perhaps my favorite project was another teaming with Ade Edmondson called "Bottom", a sitcom in which two middle age losers share a flat. It's almost as if they asked, "What would Rick and Viv from the Young One's be like ten years later." Mayall and Edmondson came up with the idea while appearing in the play 'Waiting for Godot." It's frenetic, often times raunchy, and boasts one of the catchiest closing themes of any show.

A curious change of pace showed him capable of carrying dramatic roles too. A friend turned me on to "Claire de Lune" an episode featured in a larger series called "Rik Mayall Presents" in which Mayall plays a single dad who juggles his parental duties with driving a cab and going to school. Along the way, he helps a damsel in distress and gets more than he bargained for. It's an interesting story and it reveals an acting range that might surprise people who think of Mayall only as the crazy energy comedian. His performance is sincere and subtle.

Of course that crazy energy he could dial up came in handy for the children's show "Grim Tales," in which he told popular children's stories. His to ability channel his inner child is perfect for the show and he's thoroughly engaging.

And speaking of inner child, I liked "Drop Dead Fred." It delivered what it intended to deliver (at a time when every movie didn't have to be a blockbuster filled with explosions). It was a simple story, at times quite touching, about a woman trying to reconnect with that inner child in an attempt to learn how not to be a doormat. Mayall was perfect as Drop Dead Fred, the imaginary friend of the character played by Phoebe Cates who retained a child's lack of impulse control. It was a movie about finding a balance in life between humor and responsibility.

In April 1998 Mayall was seriously injured in a quad bike accident. As he lie a coma for five days, doctors weren't certain if he'd survive. He did, but it left him with epilepsy for which he had to take medication. Often times he joked, however, that he beat Jesus' record, rising after five days dead as opposed to Christ's three. He moved on with his career starting up again with voice overs then moving on to guest starring roles and even live shows of "Bottom" and "The New Statesman."

There are a few people I'd like to have met to tell them what a profound effect their work had on me. I was introduced to Rik Mayall's work during a time when I desperately needed to laugh and laugh often and watching the shows of Mayall and his contemporaries helped me through that time. I would have liked to have told him that.

Perhaps one day I'll get the chance.

In the meantime, I'll enjoy him in one of his most famous cameos: Lord Flashheart in "Black Adder the Second"

Monday, May 26, 2014

Godzilla (2014) Review

As I mentioned in my last post, news that America was going to try again with Godzilla left me excited and concerned. Excited because of what the advances in CGI could bring to the table. Concerned because...well "Godzilla 1998". Trailers for the recent one that I saw as the release date neared, while compelling, didn't quite my concern. Heavy on the human story with just the barest glimpse of Godzilla. Which is okay for a trailer. My concern was that the teasing would go on throughout the film with very little payoff. In some ways I was right to be concerned.

In the review I may divulge some spoilers (though really, there wasn't anything that spoilerific in the film). So let me say briefly here that the movie was okay. It left me conflicted. The human story was much better handled than I expected but in the end the film didn't deliver completely what I wanted.

Now, allow me to elaborate and be forewarned, from here on in, there be spoilers.

I went into the film worried that the storyline concerning the Bryan Cranston story would severely bog down the movie. In it, Cranston plays a scientist in Japan who lost his wife to a mysterious disaster at a nuclear power plant and years later becomes obsessed with finding the reason for that disaster. I was going to see a Godzilla movie and I didn't want precious minutes that could be devoted to Godzilla wasted instead on a bad storyline,

Indeed while precious monster moments were diverted to the Cranston character of Joe Brody and later that of his son Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) I was pleasantly surprised at how well done the storyline turned out to be. I believe that's a testament not only to the writers Max Borenstein and David Callaham but also to director Gareth Edwards. He moved the narrative at a really good clip and I found myself actually engrossed in a storyline I was certain would bore me. I also found Taylor-Johnson did a really good job portraying the adult Ford Brody who lost his mother as a boy in that explosion and lost his dad to the grief after. The role could have gone so sour (either overly whining or overly testosterone-ladened) but he played it very even. In fact, everyone in the cast did a really good job. I especially liked Ken Wattanabe as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (his name an homage to the Serizawa character from the 1954 "Gojiro") and his partner Dr. Vivienne Graham played by Sally Hawkins. They had the duty of exposition, which can be a difficult task, but they played their roles with a sincerity that helped move the plot along.

The FX was also fantastic. Aside from Godzilla's stumpy little feet, he and the other two monsters, when you get a chance to see them, look amazing.

Wook at his stumpy wittle footsie!
I think it's because of these incredibly positive points to the film that my disappointment at other points became sharper.

The film first breaks down in credibility. I know, it's a giant monster movie. But still. If you're going to try to explain him, at least have it try to make sense. Much has been written about the creators' desire to hark back to the spirit of the 1954 movie "Gojiro." In that movie Godzilla is a force of nature (albeit a destructive force, more like a consequence). So the heavy implication in this film, made over and over, is that Godzilla is a force of nature.

The movie actually involved three monsters. Godzilla, who we're told is an apex predator from eons ago who feeds on the radiation from the Earth's core. In fact, during the 1950s, the nuclear bombs going off in the Pacific weren't actually tests, but rather attempts by the military to kill Godzilla who Wattanabe's Serizawa says could be coming back, drawn to the area by two MUTOs (or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism): giant parasitic creatures who are now free and looking for a comfy place to lay their eggs and tasty radiation they can suck on. Godzilla, apparently sensing them, is on the way to destroy them and restore the balance.

A couple of questions here. Godzilla is the size of a small skyscraper. How did the Earth support apex predators of this size (the scene with the two scientists in the cave in 1999 implies that there were more than one Godzilla-like creature)? And can he really be called a predator if he hangs out at the Earth's core and sucks up energy?

The MUTOs grow nearly as large and have lots of eggs when they breed. Again, how was this sustainable? The balance of life is often brought up in this movie but it's hard to imagine much balance being achieved with these things flying or running around.

And what of this notion of going back to the spirit of the 1954 "Gojiro?" In that movie, Godzilla and his rampage is the consequence humans must face for using (i.e. testing) the nuclear weapons. According to the mythology of the 2014 movie, in 1954 the military started whipping around this new, untested weapons technology at this mountain-sized dinosaur floating around the Pacific (a mountain-sized dinosaur that apparently none of the islanders of the Pacific noticed). And apparently, their attempts to whack him with the bombs didn't work. So I'm not completely sure why the 2014 military bigwigs thought it would be a good course of action to lure all three monsters into the sea with a boat carrying a nuclear warhead and detonate it when they were far enough out for the blast to not damage the mainland. What did they hope would be accomplished?

What they lobbed nukes at in the hopes of destroying
Edwards does make some interesting and wise choices, giving each of the main characters a single purpose. Bryan Cranston's Joe Brody devotes the rest of his life to finding the answers behind what happened at the nuclear power plant the day his wife died. He does this at the expense of a relationship with his son and his son's new family.

Ford Brody has a single minded purpose to get home to his wife and child after all hell breaks loose. This was particularly interesting in as far as a lesser director might have had him heroically leading the charge to battle the monsters and save the Earth. Indeed Ford does become embroiled in the military response to deliver a nuclear warhead to San Francisco but that's mainly because he wants to use the transport to get back to his family who are conveniently located in the area where the military is trying to lure all the monsters.

And of course each monster has a single minded purpose as well. It isn't to destroy humans who, to them, are what ants are to us. The MUTOs are trying to get together to breed, Godzilla is trying to kill the MUTOs (and again, restore balance). That human habitation may get in their way makes no difference to them.

In some respects all three represent three elements converging on a single point. The force of nature (Godzilla), the representation of nature out of balance (the MUTOs) and the creatures caught up in the melee (humans or more specifically Ford).

That is actually a neat concept to put in a big blockbuster monster movie. And if you can strike a balance it works effectively. Edwards manages to strike that balance initially, through a series of clever story telling techniques. With these techniques he was able to tease the story along without the FX being full in your face for two hours.

For example, when the male MUTO comes to life, we're treated to glimpses of him as he breaks free from his egg. The only time we see the full creature during this sequence is when we're given a view of him as he looms over Ford who for some reason decided to don a gas mask. The view is from Ford's perspective as he looks through the filmy lens of the gas mask. It works cause it's early in the movie and we're still patient. And again, Edwards is so skilled at using these devices that the story flows briskly.

This visual is sort of par for the course throughout the movie
From the moment the first monster breaks loose, the story focus shifts from Cranston's character to that of his son and it becomes the story of Ford trying to get home. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't a movie titled "Godzilla." Unfortunately with this movie, the namesake of the movie ends up as basically a guest star. 

Godzilla's official arrival, on Waikiki as he's making his way toward the mainland, is heralded, for some reason, by a tsunami. I can only guess that it was to hammer home the whole "force of nature" concept. And yes, he is a big boy, but it makes no sense for his rising out of the sea to cause the sort of tsunami that it does (especially when at the end, his going back into the sea barely causes a ripple. Nor does he create a tsunami when he enters San Francisco Bay). It's an incredible effect. Looks great. But when Godzilla (who isn't seen at this point) at last makes his entrance on screen, in a stand off with one of the MUTOs, the camera pans up, he roars, and then the scene cuts to something else. 

Which goes back to my gradual irritation with Edwards' constant teasing through POV direction. After enough times of catching glimpses of the monsters through fog, or filmy bus windows or television monitors, I wanted at last to see the monsters in all their glory. And not just for a few seconds. 

I was willing to put up with the teasing because I knew at some point the monsters would have a throw down. Surely when that happens, I thought, we'll be treated to more than glimpses. Edwards, however, never really gives us the pay off he's been teasing at.

For example, when the monsters meet in San Francisco, from the POV of the people on the ground we see Godzilla's arrival. It's a great moment of him facing off with the MUTO like a couple of old Western gunslingers. And it lasts seconds before the people are ushered into the shelter and the doors are closed as we see the MUTO flying at Godzilla's head.

No damnit! Don't close the doors I want to see this!
Then it's back to Ford, still journeying home.

The irony is that one of the best lines in the film (which I'm sure the fans went crazy for) spoken by Serizawa, "Let them fight," borders on a joke considering how we rarely get the chance to actually see them fight.

One particularly frustrating scene involves a great shot of Godzilla and one of the MUTOs battling and hopes rise, but seconds later, the combat disappears in a haze of smoke and the camera pans down to the soldiers who've been sent to dig through the rubble for the nuclear warhead that one of the MUTOs dropped. 

Again, this would have been fine if we got at least one really good, really clear fight scene that lasted more than a few moments. Almost as if he's afraid to overwhelm us with too much monster action, Edwards ends up underwhelming instead.

By the time Godzilla vanquishes the MUTOs (with an admittedly cool use of his nuclear breath) it barely registers because we've barely seen enough of the struggle to really appreciate the victory. 

So worn out from the battle is he, we're led to believe, Godzilla collapses to the ground unconscious (which I'm guessing would be like a chunk of steel the size of a skyscraper falling forward, but the street seems none the worse for wear nor does any sort of ground tremor follow. Rising from the sea he causes a tsunami. Falling to the ground, there's barely a shudder).

I think what bothered me about the film is that while it succeeded so well at some elements it failed so miserably at one of the key if not the key elements of a Godzilla film: allowing us to get to know Godzilla whether as destroyer as he was in "Gojiro" and "Godzilla Returns" or as savior as he was in this film (and many other films in the Japanese series). Even at the end when the victorious lizard wakes up the next day and heads out to the sea, the director seems to have a hard time sticking with the image long enough for us to appreciate it. 

Say what you will about the FX of the Japanese films (not to mention the over-earnestness of the message) there was something majestic about watching him walk back into the sea (usually seen off by the films human stars who were both happy that he killed that film's monster and grateful that he didn't turn and stomp on them). The FX couldn't compare to the FX of the 2014 Godzilla, but the directors weren't afraid to show it full on.

One of my favorite endings from "Godzilla vs. Destroyah"

So as someone who was waiting to see another "Godzilla" on the big screen, I appreciate the effort. And perhaps there are those fans who were far more patient than I, but in the long run this wasn't the movie I was hoping to see. Perhaps if Edwards gets the chance to direct a sequel, he'll feel more confident about letting us get to know the monsters better. Or at least, letting us see them.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Godzilla: The Unstoppable

I, like many fans of the big guy, fell in love with Godzilla when I was a kid and saw the original movie on Creature Features for the first time. I suppose I should clarify that it was the 1956 version. Known in Japan as "Gojiro," a combination of the Japanese words for "gorilla" and "whale", the 1954 film was re-titled "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" when it arrived in the U.S. in 1956. It was also re-edited, most notably using the American actor of Raymond Burr, to help sell it to Americans. When I was a kid, that was the version shown on TV in the 60s and 70s. Of course America had made its share of rampaging giant monster movies but never before was anything like this seen. This was a beast of absolute destruction, appearing as if from no where and leveling cities in a single attack.

The American version of "Gojiro".
I suppose it isn't unusual that 69 years after A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese film makers would personify (so to speak) that kind of horror in the form of a giant monster rising from the sea.

Of course I'm sure the subtext was lost on me in my first viewing of this film. I just liked dinosaurs and here was the mother of all dinosaurs, charging through Japan. Learning more about Hiroshima and Nagasaki as I got older made those shots of the wounded after the attack in "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" even more striking because they mirrored those scenes of the wounded in documentaries of the two leveled cities. 

Godzilla personified the consequences of using science for destruction. The creature even had radioactive breath that enabled it to destroy with a concentrated blast of radiated power. He was a force of nature throwing that destruction back in our faces. 

The 1954 movie became a huge hit in its home country and abroad (especially in America in 1956 though the message of nuclear destruction was lost for the most part on the U.S., a country deeply devoted to the nuclear arms race). It was the first of many such films (popularly known as "kaiju") and spawned an incredibly successful Godzilla series.

Godzilla's later films in the 60s and 70s generally lacked the message and majesty of the original. In fact they seemed to be more excuses to dream up new monsters for Godzilla to fight. He was no longer payback for human arrogance but rather a friend to humans, helping us when other giant monsters rose up to bully us. He lived on Monster Island with his son and other monster pals.

The trailer for "Son of Godzilla"
Some of the movies through the 60s and 70s were clever, some scary, some ridiculous, others well done. But they definitely followed a formula, plot, dialogue and direction leading up to the big monster throw down, and as time went on the patches in the Godzilla suit began to wear thin. 

In 1984, Japan released an attempt to reboot the series with the movie known as "The Return of Godzilla" and while it failed in America, possibly in large part to a poorly edited version, it was a reasonable success in Japan. As if the movies of the 60s and 70s never happened, this is a return to the rampaging Godzilla of the 1954 movie. In this movie, he's come to shore seeking nuclear power, which he feeds on, and thanks to people ignoring the warnings of the previous thirty years, there is plenty to be had.

Godzilla marches into the 80s.
It was a good movie, giving the character more bite then it was having as the friend to Earth. A series of movies followed through 1995 and slowly Godzilla became the hero again, but by default. He retained that element of danger even in the redesign of the suit which boasted more muscle on the body and a more vicious set of teeth. So desperate was mankind to rid the world of Godzilla that they often resorted to backing other monsters to fight him. And once these monsters turned on humans, it was up to Godzilla to save the day (though, once the monster was dealt with, the likelihood remained that Godzilla would start stomping on Tokyo again).

Godzilla's origins had always remained speculation until 1991's "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" offered the explanation that he was at one time a creature know as a Godzillasaurus that had the misfortune of living on Lagos Island in the South Pacific when the US was testing a hydrogen bomb. The radiation mutated the creature into what we know today as Godzilla. 

Godzillasaurus saves a group of Japanese soldiers.
That series ended with the brilliant "Godzilla vs. Destroyah" which brought back the oxygen destroyer that Dr. Serizawa created in the 1954 movie. In "Gojiro" Dr. Serizawa balked at allowing the military to use his weapon for he feared it was too dangerous for humans to control. Eventually, he was convinced. True to form, a colony of microorganisms mutated by the original weapon arrive on the scene and continue mutating into the monster "Destroyah". And in the "when it rains it pours" category, Godzilla's heart, which is like a nuclear reactor, is apparently at last starting to meltdown, which could be disastrous for the world once it occurs. The end of this movie is one of my all time favorite moments.

The death of Godzilla...or is it?
This series, aside from the 1954 movie, perhaps best honored the notion of Godzilla as a force of nature. He was something to hold in awe, something perhaps even to root for, but also something that could turn on us in an instant. The more we tried to control him, the less control we had. 

Then, in 1998, something terrible happened. Well, terrible in the eyes of most Godzilla fans. 

In 1998, America tried its hand at a Godzilla film and broke the hearts of fans world wide. The buzz was positive. This movie was being handled by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, guys who had a little experience with making blockbusters. The FX was more sophisticated (after "Jurassic Park" showed what could be done with CGI). The budget was certainly there. 

I took the day off of work specifically to see this thing. It started out suitably ominous. I was concerned by the opening credits implying that Godzilla was created by A-bomb testing in the Pacific and was, essentially a mutated iguana, but I was willing to give it a chance. I became more hopeful as the story continued. When at last Godzilla entered New York it was one of the best sequences I'd seen. And it all went down hill from there. The producers tried too hard to be clever, went way too crazy with the special effects, relied on wild leaps of credulity (a creature the size of Godzilla able to live in the sewers?) and tried to interest us in the human characters who weren't at all interesting. Poor Matthew Broderick: when this movie is brought up his name is often linked with "That Matthew Broderick piece of crap." It wasn't his fault. It was the fault of the production team who didn't really seem to care about the whole Godzilla mythos that at this point is as strong as the creature itself. They turned a giant dinosaur into a giant walking iguana. They forgot completely that he breathed radioactive fire. When they went "Jurassic Park raptors" on the movie and created thousands of eggs that hatched into little, human-sized versions of Godzilla, that was it.

I'm sorry, you don't chase Godzilla; he chases you.

As if to take back their own, in 1999 Toho released "Godzilla 2000." Say what you will about guys in monster suits stomping around toy buildings, this movie is head and shoulders above Hollywood's attempt (at a fraction of the budget). The movie gave Godzilla back his power, pitting him against a mysterious alien space craft that turns into a monster. It kicked off what's known as the Millennium Series that ended with the less then spectacular "Godzilla: Final Wars."

One of the coolest versions of his nuclear breath.
All in all, there is something about this monster that has kept him relevant decades after he first stomped across the screen. When on his home soil, the Godzilla tale stood a better chance of being told right. When America gets a  hold of it, it doesn't turn out very well.

So when I heard that America was going to have another bash at it, I was both excited and worried. As I discovered when I got the chance to see 2014's "Godzilla", I was wise to be both. But that's for the next installment.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Music While Writing

One of the questions I've been asked a few times in interviews for To Touch the Sun is "What music do you listen to while writing?" It's funny cause I never gave it a thought before. I listen to music frequently but I never really popped anything on to inspire me in the writing process.Well, actually years ago I was working on a novel about a psychic and at the same time had picked up the album "Gold Afternoon Fix" by The Church. On it is a song 6:07 song called Grind which is haunting and melodic and I completely fell in love with. The mood was perfect for the mood of the psychic. So I was often listening to this album and that song in particular while writing this novel (a novel I never got around to finishing).

When answering the question, it doesn't help that I can be so indecisive. Answering a question regarding a favorite anything is impossible because...well I love too much. My tastes are too varied and while I may be obsessed with something one day that doesn't mean it won't be put aside the next for something else.

I have a vast collection of CDs. I'm sure there are those whose collections are larger but mine is large enough for the CDs to be squirreld away in various spots in my apartment.

Blade stands guard over some of my collection
My CD collection increased dramatically when the Chicago Sun-Times closed the suburban offices of Pioneer Press where I worked as an editorial assistant, and moved the operation downtown. The Diversions Department which included the Entertainment section of the newspapers, in cleaning for the movie, put out for people to take hundreds of CDs that had been sent to them over the years. Most were promotional, sent out in the hopes of a favorable write up in the paper. Others were more professional. Most had collected in the desks and drawers of the editors and reporters who would not have the same amount of room for storage in the Sun-Times building downtown.

Across from the piano

Music for a little kitchen dancing
Music for the ride home
I took those that I thought seemed interesting and spent several days test driving them to see if I was right in my guess. Some did not appeal to me but I had a feeling they might appeal to the tastes of some of my friends so I started making little piles of CS that I hoped to dispense among my friends.

A few were played on the way home from work and never made it out of my car. One in particular by a band called Late of the Pier I listened to constantly for weeks whenever I drove. It's particularly good in summer.

That's another thing I do. If I come across a CD that I love I'll listen to it for weeks. Currently I'm on a Sia jag. I first saw her when she was a musical guest on The Late Show with David Letterman and was blown away by the melody of the song and the power of her voice.

I obtained a copy of her album "Some People Have Real Problems" and played it whenever I could. Recently I obtained her album "We Are Born" and it's equally as brilliant. So I play it quite frequently, writing or not.

It was the same way when I heard Sean Lennon's "Friendly Fire" (another album I was turned on to by the star's appearance on Letterman's show).

When I sit down to write though and I decide to pop on some music, I guess I do have a few regular staples I reach for. Elvis Costello can do no wrong in my ears. Midnight Oil, Madness (I like a lot of 80s bands). Sometimes I revisit my youth with the Best of ELO. Maybe some David Bowie or Blondie. Of course my problem is that often when I listen to music I find myself either singing along with the CD or dancing. I'm a firm believer in the fine art of kitchen dancing. It's a little hard to write if I'm bouncing around the kitchen like an idiot.

I'm generally not much into soundtracks but over the holidays I found myself listening repeatedly to a couple of soundtracks. "Shaft" by Issac Hayes and Curtis Mayfields' "Superfly." A particular favorite I remember listening to when I was a kid with a transistor radio tuned to WCFL in Chicago was the song "Freddie's Dead" off "Superfly."

Some of my favorite soundtracks are those of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns. I have a two-disc set of The Ennio Morricone Anthology which is a particular favorite of mine. I remember watching "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and "A Fistful of Dollars" and the like on tv years after their theatrical release and being blown away just as much by the music as by the images presented by Sergio Leone. Morricone, who scored non-Westerns with equally fantastic compositions, is very much like John Williams in that his score becomes just as much a star of the film as the actors themselves. Consider the scene in "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" in which Morricone's "Ecstasy of Gold" washes over the scene where Eli Wallach hunts through a cemetery for the right name on a headstone. The music puts across the desperation of Eli Wallach's character as much as the cinematography and the actor himself.

This CD set opened me up to the variety of Morricone's work. He didn't just score westerns but rather a whole host of movies. One particular favorite is the end theme to the 1987 movie "The Untouchables." When they describe a piece as stirring, it's this:

It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard.

So more than a little frequently I'll bliss out to this anthology.

And of course there's so much more. Which is why it's hard for me to do a list of favorites. Cause there's so much more.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some kitchen dancing to do.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

To Touch the Sun

It's finally here. The day To Touch the Sun, my vampire novel set in Chicago is released on Amazon. As you can imagine I'm very excited.

And now I'm officially on YouTube. My editor posted my reading of the prologue for the book today too. So since this is a blog about listening as well as looking, I thought I'd post my humble reading effort on here. Hope you enjoy it.

I might work on more audio to promote the book, whether it be reading a few more excerpts or just talking about the book. It's all as time permits. The book is available in paperback and Kindle format at Amazon.

And if you'd like to know a little more about the series or what went into writing the novel, you can check out my Sentient/Feral Vampire Series blog.

I hope the novel is as enjoyable for people to read as it was for me to write.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

On Feb. 25 there will be a Facebook launch for the release of my novel To Touch the Sun, my vampire novel set in Chicago. I'm pretty excited about this. It took me many years to find a publisher for this novel but I finally found Dagda Publishers who've been great to work with. And the novel has been getting some good advance reviews on Goodreads.

Stop in at the Facebook launch and say "hi." There's a free book up for grabs to people who attend. The novel will be available beginning Feb. 25 on Amazon for Kindle and paperback format.

In honor of this release, I thought I'd post one of my favorite bits from Eddie Izzard regarding movie vampires. Eddie Izzard is one of the best comedians out there. He has an almost rhythmic quality to his stand up, which touches on a variety of topics from culture to politics to entertainment. I first "met" him when I picked up a VHS (yes, that long ago) of "Dress to Kill" on a whim. Kill he did in this concert and I was an instant fan. Enjoying later concerts like "Glorious", "The Definite Article" and "Circle" to name a few. He's a comic I can listen to over and over and never get tired.

In his bit on horror movies he addresses the points we all consider when we're watching them at whatever a.m. in the morning. Hope you enjoy it. And I hope to see you at the Facebook launch of To Touch the Sun Tuesday. Just click on the link above.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Beatlemania: Fifty Years and Going Strong

Let the record show that I arrived in Chicago five months and two days before the Beatles did. During their North American tour, they arrived at Midway Airport at 4:30 in the afternoon Sept. 5 greeted by 5,000 screaming girls. Well, 5K screaming girls, probably some jealous boyfriends, some perplexed parents and a smattering of bemused reporters who know doubt wrote clever stories about this musical "flash in the pan" descending on the town. I mean, no one had seen anything like it, so how could it be anything legitimate or lasting? A year later, who would even remember there were a Beatles?

The Beatles beat my arrival in America by less than a month. I was still cooking when they played that historic Ed Sullivan show on Feb. 9. I later asked my mom what she thought of them as she watched the telecast, and she said she really liked them (I wonder if some of those good endorphins the show produced in my mom made their way to me). One of my regrets in life is that I never talked to my mom about some things, music being one of them. She was quite a good singer and claimed, though I'm not sure how true this was, that she had been asked to go on tour with a big band. Whether it was because these topics didn't come up, or because of the various bouts of nastiness going on in my household forced me to simply wish to tune it all out, there are things now that I wish I had asked both my parents about. The Beatles arriving in America would have been on the list of lighter topics I wish I could talk to them about. 

Bottom line: The Beatles and Laura L. Enright arrived in America the same year, 1964, though I suspect that the Beatles had more of an impact. Of course, you never know. The day is young. I can say that my arrival had quite an impact on my family since when my mom went into labor with me, my dad had a heart attack. 

Maybe when it comes to impacts I should give myself more credit.

Anyroad, my sister recently reminded me of the connection of time that the Beatles and I shared suggesting that it could be why I'm such a huge fan of the group. In terms of age I generally don't think of it. I think that's one reason why hitting the milestones never really fazed me. Thirty, forty. Actually, I had a rough time of it in my teens and twenties so my thirties and forties, at least emotionally and in terms of confidence, were a treat. What my fifties will bring, is anyone's guess. I remain hopeful. 

But my sister may truly be on to something here, though if I was bitten by Beatlemania during that golden year of 1964, it took ten years to incubate. I became conscious of music close enough to the group's music being played in normal radio rotation to gain an appreciation for it. And I seem to remember a yearly viewing of Yellow Submarine shown around Easter. I loved that movie, though I'm sure, at the time, a lot of subtext was lost on me.

No, I can't remember what age exactly, it may have been when I was 11, but it wasn't till about a decade later that I was overcome by full blown Beatlemania. WGN Channel 9 had an afternoon showing of "A Hard Day's Night." I think at this point I had already fallen in love with various British things like Monty Python, Doctor Who, etc. It was the first time, however, that I saw this movie and it blew me away. 


Okay, the music was fantastic. The dialogue wonderful. And even though for much of it, acting wasn't necessary (the movie was specifically meant to be a "day in the life" sort of look at the group's life after all), they were incredibly natural with sharp comic timing. 

It's pretty impressive when you think about it. Here are these four young men, recently having entered this maelstrom of fame, and not only are they fantastic musicians, they're naturals on the big screen. Just one example of why the Beatles are so compelling even 50 years later.


You see, when I really discovered them, I was the age I should have been when they first arrived in America. It was bound to happen, it was just delayed a bit. So there and then I was overcome by Beatlemania. All the collecting I would have been doing in the 60s, I did in the 70s. Records, books, magazines. The thing about the Beatles is, they broke up in 1970 but they continue to be a force to be reckoned with. Listening to their music still lightens my way a bit. That's why you have a big celebration in the U.S. fifty years after their first visit here. There's something about them and their music that keeps them relevant and exciting.

My first Beatleish album was a compilation titled Rock and Roll Music. It had some of their earliest music on including, much to my surprise, "Got To Get You Into My Life," which I had only heard performed by Earth Wind and Fire (one of the bands able to adequately cover a Beatles tune). This Beatles version was completely different. I liked it. The album also featured several covers the Beatles did of other songs that illustrated how versatile this band was and cemented my belief that they could take any song and make it their own.

My first Beatles album was The White Album. This could be why it might be my favorite album of the group even though it was a clear indication of the members themselves moving off in their own direction. The White Album showed the full range of what the individual members were capable and it was quite varied. McCartney, author of "I Will" and "Ob-La-Di Ob-La Da" also penned "Back in the U.S.S.R." and "Helter Skelter" for heaven's sake. John went from "Dear Prudence" to "Sexy Sadie" to "Yer Blues" And Let's not forget "Revolution #9" which, say what you will, has a musical charm all its own. George's contributions are equally interesting. "Savoy Truffle" "Long Long Long" "Piggies" and the exquisite "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Ringo never was much of a songwriter, but the songs he performs "Don't Pass me By" and "Good Night" remain favorites.

I was so blown away by the album that I insisted my older sister listen to it while my younger brother and I were off on vacation with our parents (she was old enough to stay at home). When I got home I quizzed her on it. "Wasn't this song great!" "Wasn't that song great!" And she dutifully nodded and enthused over songs that I now know she probably never listened to cause she wasn't a fan of them. 

Well from there it was just a matter of collecting the other albums, and being impressed at how much their style changed in so short a time. The band was only together for ten years, but it's stunning to think about the work that was produced in so short a time especially when you consider how young they were. George Harrison was only 17 years old when they started cutting their teeth on live performance in seedy Hamburg clubs (these gigs being one reason they were so incredibly tight when playing live). In fact he was deported from Germany for being underage. They were musical, but never studied music. Paul, whose father played trumpet and piano in his own band, was perhaps the closest to a trained musician. None could read music. Paul and John lost their moms at young ages. John and Ringo were both fatherless. Ringo spent a good deal of his childhood battling one illness or another. 

Despite all this, they had a drive for music that couldn't be denied. I love this part of the story because considering where they came from, it makes it all the more amazing to think of what these guys accomplished. They wrote their own songs at a time when that was unusual. They made albums with songs that were all equally good (not just a couple of singles and the rest filler, as was often the case at the time). It would have been very easy for them to stick with the sound that had given them such success and milk it for all they could. They themselves didn't know how long it would all last and they were very open about this in early interviews. Rather than stagnate, they chose to grow. Their willingness to experiment was one of their greatest strengths and it encouraged others to follow suit.

Of course all that growth eventually led them to grow apart. Even though I read them long after the fact, that's the part of the bios that always made me misty: That part where the Beatles called it quits. It's tough even for a little Beatlemaniac late to the game.

In 1976 Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live, took a moment on the show to offer the Beatles $3,000 to reunite on the show. According to Paul McCartney, a week later, while he was visiting Lennon, they were watching SNL and debating making a surprise visit to the show (it was a live show) just for fun. One of those, "Yeah that would be great! Ah, never mind" moments.

Four years later, John would be dead, shot outside his apartment building by an obsessed fan.

The three remaining Beatles got together for the Beatles Anthology project and even produced a couple of new songs using vocals John had recorded years before for his own songs. The documentary was shown in 1995.

George Harrison died in 2001 of cancer.

Today, fifty years after their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles will be feted, the two surviving Beatles on hand for the accolades. Interestingly, the two remaining Beatles are the two who seemed to have an easier time of coming to terms with their Beatle history. It's hard not to consider the "what if" though. What if Lennon had not died so young and the four Beatles did come together again to make music? At least for a short while. Not to fulfill any contracts. Just for themselves. I'm not sure whether or not it would have been great, but I bet it would have been fun.