April 15, 2014

Jack Oleck and Wally Wood's "Has-Been"

Originally published in EC Comics' Incredible Science Fiction #31 (September-October 1955), Wally Wood masterfully illustrates Jack Oleck's fantastic tale of rockets, alien invasions, and the fleeting dreams of youth. This is the Gemstone reprint, from Incredible Science-Fiction #9 (November 1994). If you're a comic fan on a budget, all Russ Cochran's reprints are highly recommended. Comic scans are just fine, but I've found it doesn't compare to holding the actual comic in your hands! Or at least a reprint of the actual comic.

April 7, 2014

It's Just A Phase I'm Going Through, Again!

For a while, I've mostly been out of the comic scene, concentrating on other hobbies and happiness pursuits. Recently, I even sold the bulk of my current collection to a fellow comic collector. I felt there was too much filler in that collection, and I wanted to start over. I ended up with three boxes of comics 1980-Present. Two boxes of those are going on Craigslist soon.

Looking at the books I kept, it really struck me how much I have always loved the more esoteric stuff. I could never part with my complete run of Captain Carrot & His Amazing Zoo Crew!, the first series I went nuts over all those years ago. Also in the "keeper" box: Groo The Wanderer, Hate, Eightball, Ambush Bug, Cerebus, Flaming Carrot, some Dell/Gold Key, some Bongo, even a few Harveys. 

The culling process really helped me to get me excited about collecting again, and it also helped me identify what I would like to collect and why. There are certain creators whose work seldom fails to satisfy or inspire me. Here's the shortlist, in no particular order:

John Stanley, Walt Kelly, Will Elder, Jack Kirby, Peter Bagge, Scott Shaw!, Will Eisner, Harvey Pekar, Don Martin, Lynda Barry, Carl Barks, Mark Evanier, Steve Ditko, Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, Robert Crumb, Basil Wolverton, Al Williamson, John Severin, Drew Friedman, Skip Williamson, Bill Griffith, Wally Wood, Sergio Aragones, Joe Kubert, Bob Burden, Dan DeCarlo, Howie Post, Alex Toth, Sheldon Mayer, Jack Cole, C.C. Beck, Mac Raboy, Dick Briefer, Joe Kubert, Marie Severin, Los Bros Hernandez, Gahan Wilson, Frank Frazetta, Roy Thomas, Jack Davis, et al.

A list rife with omissions, but I think it conveys a general sense (to people familiar with these names, at least) of what I look for in a comic book: the well-honed skills of highly imaginative individuals. I know there are hardly any modern day creators on this list, but I am open to suggestions. I definitely love Tales Designed To Thrizzle by Michael Kupperman. 

For my birthday, I placed an order with Mile High from their eBay store. Here's what I picked up:

Alter Ego's Special 3-D Issue makes me wish my eyes worked better!

 I've been meaning to dive into this series for a long time...

 A nice hardcover reprinting the best of the early Archie stories.

 Scott Saavedra's homage to the inherent wackiness of old comics.

 The beginning of Gladstone's 80's run of these two Disney titles.

 Two magazine size reprints from the EC Classics series published by Russ Cochran. Can you tell I am partial to reprints?

 Biting fumetti-style comic insider commentary from Jim Engel and Chuck Fiala, with a special appearance by Scott Shaw! as Bob's Big Boy. A laugh riot!

 Just a random issue of one of my favorite surrealistic strips...

NatLamp's best stuff appeared in the 70's, but there are some gems to be found in some of the issues from the late 80's/early 90's.

 As much as I love the original Mad comics, I can't believe I've only read a few issues of Mad's "only authorized imitation." The Dick Tracy parody in #5 is classic Will "Chicken Fat" Elder!

Arf! Arf! 'Nuff Said.

Scott Shaw! 'Nuff Said.

Another odd strip I like.

First issue of the Steve Canyon magazine, from Kitchen Sink.

Another Kitchen Sink publication. I know I remember seeing some Steven strips somewhere...

 A reprinting of The Tick #1.

Short-lived magazine focusing on classic and then-current animation. I had another copy of this previously, but it mysteriously disappeared.

Cosmic Coincidences: Mickey Rooney Edition

Tributes are abounding in the wake of the passing of legendary actor Mickey Rooney. However, there is one interesting detail that most of the obituaries have failed to mention, a stunning coincidence that is as poetic as it is unlikely.

In San Francisco, there is an organization called The National Film Preservation Fund. By their estimate, about 80% of all films made in the first few decades of the motion picture industry have been lost, at least in the United States. Overseas, some of these "lost" films have survived in highly flammable nitrate distribution prints, thanks to the passionate efforts of collectors.

Just last week, an announcement was made by the NFPF, in partnership with the EYE Filmmuseum of Amsterdam, that dozens of these lost films had been unearthed and were scheduled for restoration. One of the rarest finds? A 1927 short, Mickey's Circus, featuring a six year old youngster named Mickey Rooney...in his very first starring role!

Talk about coming full circle!

April 6, 2014

Songwriting By Word Of Mouth

Recently, I sat down at the piano at home and began doodling, practicing scales, working out some new riffs, rehearsing some of my original compositions. I decided I would write a new song. Not for fame or fortune. Just for my own enjoyment. Some songwriters only write songs because they are hoping to get it on a chart and earn royalties. I do not disapprove of that notion, but I can't write with financial success as my primary goal, because the end result to me always sounds like a compromise. It's a bridge too far.

When I write, my goal is to be creative without being convoluted. I want to perform musical alchemy, distilling decades of disparate influences into something new. I want to express my love and admiration for my musical heroes. Lyrically, I want to tell stories that reflect the way that I and others experience life, and I want to do it in a literate way, never pandering, avoiding cliches as much as possible.

I've heard it said by great songwriters that when they are writing a song, they feel that they are receiving it, like a radio transmission from an unknown source. I have felt that feeling many times, and it is bliss, one I would honestly liken to being touched by God. When I get that feeling, ideas about making a bundle of money or caring very much about negative critical reaction just don't seem that relevant. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Brian Wilson is an actual angel. God only knows.

I, on the other hand, am most definitely a mere mortal, flawed but well-meaning, full of contradictions, trying to create something that might possibly be greater than the sum of my parts. I have dreamed up hundreds of songs, but I have not successfully translated the signals in a satisfactory way. The transmission is garbled, but I am building a new antenna.

Here's a brief rundown of my songwriting process, perhaps of some interest to fellow tunesmiths.

My new song began with a bass riff, simple but strident, B flat minor, midtempo blues with a bounce. I started the mixing and matching chords for the verse. The music always comes before the lyric for me. After much trial and error, I had the music for my verse. Nothing earthshaking yet, just interesting enough to keep the process going. The bridge came very quickly. I was starting to get that feeling, you know the one I mean.

The bridge was only two bars, it comes and goes in the space of five seconds. The brevity compelled me to add another half measure, a drum fill would set up a major change in the chorus. I enjoy key modulation ( changing from one key to another ) so much, that I consciously try not to overuse it, but in this scenario, a modulation seemed natural. For you musicians, the bridge basically plays out like this, each event a half measure long:

F  >  B flat minor  >  B flat  > E flat minor >  drum fill

At this point, the bridge seemed to take me right into a brick wall. I needed a release from the tension created by the minor key and the abrupt bridge. With a bridge this short, there would be no time for a pivot chord to get me to the new key. My right hand furiously searched for the key I needed. E flat minor to this? No. E flat minor to that? No! Just as I thought I had painted myself into a corner, my hands struck a D Major chord and I was off and running! Almost immediately, I followed with an A Major chord with a G in the bass. The chorus practically wrote itself until the last few bars, which required some strategy. After all, now I had to get from the key of D Major back to the key of B flat minor. I won't go into detail about how I did that, but I think Donald Fagen would not disapprove.

I had my music, so I kept playing the entire song repeatedly. I did this about 5 or 6 times, tweaking a chord or too here, adding an inversion there. I'm 90% self taught, so it's taken me a while to really get to the point of playing those complex all-fingers-down chords that add that extra dimension. Honestly, I could tell you the name of some of those chords, if I sat down with a chord book for a few hours.

The song I had produced was a kind of folk-blues, and I started singing some nonsense syllables to maybe get me to an actual word of a lyric. Two words came, at the beginning of the bridge. Illinois Central. Huh? Where had I heard that before? Illinois Central...what does it mean? Trains. Something about a train.

I darted to the desktop and googled "Illinois Central" and "train." Have you guessed it? It's from the amazing folk song by Steve Goodman called "The City Of New Orleans," made famous by Arlo Guthrie. I didn't set out to write a train song. There are possibly enough train songs in the world. Oh, what the hell. Why not just one more?

After doing much research, I have a complete lyric for my modulating folk-blues shuffle. It is a snapshot in the life of a man on his way from Chicago to St. Louis, riding on the Green Diamond in the spring of 1938. As soon as my home studio is properly set up, I will record it and share it.

It's not going to sell. It's not very commercial. It probably won't be remembered and it might even get insulted. The song has nothing to say about sex, or bling, or being sexy, or being sexy while wearing bling, or even about gettin' drunk and falling off your horse on a Saturday night. It's just a train song about America, and The Great Depression, and fresh starts around the bend for weary travelers.

More to come...

February 11, 2014

Music Of The Mind #1

It's been a hectic few weeks around here at Stonehenge. Sadly, my wife Heather's father, Ray, passed away last week at the age of 81. We are also gearing up to move to another apartment this week. My oldest daughter, Josie, is about to turn 8, the forecast calls for snow, Valentine's Day...etc.

Time to head for the eye of the storm, so today I'm sharing some acoustic favorites, some relaxing, some captivating, some both. First up, a song by The Move, a band criminally ignored in America, known for the eccentric antics of it's genius frontman Roy Wood, and regarded as being the incubator for ELO, a more commercially successful unit.

Next up, a gathering of icons. Everly Brothers harmonies and Chet Atkins guitar add another dimension to Mark Knopfler's "Why Worry."

Upping the tempo a bit, the Spanish flavored Love classic with the tongue twister title. It's..."Maybe The People Would Be The Times or Between Clark & Hilldale."

With more snow and ice coming to North Carolina, I'm happy to announce that I'm not freaking out. I have purchased no bread. I do not have a surplus of milk. However, I think I have the perfect song. Here's 10,000 Maniacs with "Like The Weather."

Now, a radical departure into jazz territory with Cal Tjader. From the Verve album Soul Burst, here is a percolating tune called "Oran."

Finally today, here's Taj Mahal's version of "Take A Giant Step," a song written by Carole King and made popular by the Monkees. Time to get some coffee brewing. Later!

January 20, 2014

Mondays and Moonbeams

An Incredible True Story From The Adventures of Captain Beefheart...

From Wikipedia...

Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams
In 1974, immediately after the recording of Unconditionally Guaranteed, which markedly continued the trend towards a more commercial sound heard on some of the Clear Spot tracks, the Magic Band's original members departed. Disgruntled and past members worked together for a period, gigging at Blue Lake and putting together their own ideas and demos, with John French earmarked as the vocalist. These concepts eventually coalesced around the core of Art Tripp III, Harkleroad and Boston, with the formation of Mallard, helped by finance and UK recording facilities from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson. Some of French's compositions were used in the band's work, but the group's singer was Sam Galpin and the role of keyboardist was eventually taken by John Thomas, who had shared a house with French in Eureka at the time. At this time Vliet attempted to recruit both French and Harkleroad as producers for his next album, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Andy Di Martino produced both of these Virgin label albums.

Vliet was forced to quickly form a new Magic Band to complete support-tour dates, with musicians who had no experience with his music and in fact had never heard it. Having no knowledge of the previous Magic Band style, they simply improvised what they thought would go with each song, playing much slicker versions that have been described as "bar band" versions of Beefheart songs. A review described this incarnation of the Magic Band as the "Tragic Band," a term that has stuck over the years. Mike Barnes said that the description of the new band "grooving along pleasantly," was "...an appropriately banal description of the music of a man who only a few years ago composed with the expressed intent of shaking listeners out of their torpor." The one album they recorded, Bluejeans & Moonbeams (1974) has, like its predecessor, a completely different, almost soft rock sound from any other Beefheart record. Neither was well received; drummer Art Tripp recalled that when he and the original Magic Band listened to Unconditionally Guaranteed, they "...were horrified. As we listened, it was as though each song was worse than the one which preceded it." Beefheart later disowned both albums, calling them "horrible and vulgar," asking that they not be considered part of his musical output and urging fans who bought them to "take copies back for a refund.

And yet... there is something oddly poignant about the song "Bluejeans and Moonbeams," which I just heard for the first time today. The soft rock backing, paired with Beefheart's world weary vocal, is like a soothing washcloth on a fevered brow. Maybe there's a reason Van Vliet chose this as the title track...

 Bluejeans and Moonbeams
Don Van Vliet 

 I been hopin' on Mondays 
Some hows and Moondays 
Sundays and Some days
 Never seeing some days
 I'm tryin' in all ways 
And learnin' in between

Blue jeans and Moonbeams
Blue jeans and Moonbeams

I been working up in lovin'
Underneath the moonstone sky
I know there's many things I've never seen

Blue jeans and Moonbeams
Mondays and Moonbeams
Blue jeans and Moonbeams
Blue jeans and Moonbeams

I been hopin' on Mondays
Some hows and Moondays
Sundays and Some days
Never seeing some days
I'm tryin' in all ways
And learnin' in between

Blue jeans and Moonbeams
Blue jeans and Moonbeams

I been working up in lovin'
Underneath the moonstone sky
I know there's many things I've never seen

Blue jeans and Moonbeams
Mondays and Moonbeams
Blue jeans and Moonbeams
Mondays and Moonbeams

January 17, 2014

Frontier Cabin: "That's No Way To Run A Railroad!"

Last summer, I decided to begin recording some of my original music and to share it publicly. My ambitious goal was to record a double album's worth of songs, generate a buzz through social media and indie radio stations, and maybe sell a few copies on CDBaby. This undertaking brought me much insight and has helped me to see further down the road that stretches out before me.

The most important thing I learned is that the quality of the production is at least as important as the song itself. I've been hearing this for years, but I've stubbornly refused to believe it. Sending my songs out into the world badly produced now feels to me a little like sending my children off to school wearing potato sacks.

My current home studio set-up is, in a word, laughable. I have Magix Music Maker software. It's not the first name in music software, but it actually is not that bad, except when it crashes. My keyboard is a Yamaha-P200. It has some nice piano and electric piano sounds, but it does require some maintenance. I've taken keys from the top end to replace broken or sticky keys in the bottom and middle. The action is not what it used to be, but it's not ready for the dump by any means.

My recording methods, on the other hand, have been pretty shabby. To properly record my keyboards and vocals, what I should have done was run my keyboards and microphone through something like this, the first item on my "Building A Better Studio ( On a Budget)" shopping list :

This is the Tascam US144MKII, an audio interface that retails for about $120. It will enable me to patch my mic and keyboard directly into my pc for optimal sound quality and zero latency (hopefully).

Instead of using this handy dandy gizmo, I was recording my vocals and keyboards using a standard run-of-the-mill pc mic. Not even a good pc mic. Instead, I should have been using a dynamic vocal mic like the one I use four night a week, singing for a living. I was too intimidated by my lack of knowledge about audio interfaces, so I opted for the easy plug and play pc mic, and the headaches of latency and unwanted distortion. Along with a decent mic, I'll also need a pop filter, like this one:

Aside from cables, there is one more thing I need to make more beautiful music. A wider range of instruments. Time for some Virtual Studio Technology, or VST. As I understand it, with certain software, I'll be able to play many different sounds through my keyboard, which will act as a midi controller. Just the word "midi" scares me, as I'm sure you realize by now that I am not very technically inclined. However, I must jump over that hurdle to reach my goals. I've looked at several VST packs. This one intrigues me a lot:

This is Fab Four, a collection of instrument sounds made popular by, you guessed it, The Beatles. The possibility of recording my music using Hofner and Rickenbacker basses, Fender Stratocasters, and maybe even a well-placed Mellotron is simply too tantalizing to pass up. Over the past few years, my style has become increasingly more baroque, and I think these instruments would complement my ideas very well. VSTs are not cheap however. I haven't seen this for less than $250, and my piggy bank is empty right now.

It looks like $700 will complete my basic setup. The only other challenge is the fact that I live in an apartment. I find it easy to sing other people's songs in a live venue, but I feel a little stifled singing my own songs with other people living so close. I'm afraid this has led my vocals to not sound as good as I'd like them to sound. I probably will have to invest in some soundproofing so that I can sing with confidence and still maintain my "good neighbor" status.

My wife and I are moving to another apartment complex next month, so the plan is to get moved in, and hopefully have the home studio funds saved by March or April.  I might set up a PayPal donation button in case anyone out there would like to lend a hand.

In the meantime, I will be writing more songs, finishing lyrics to other songs, rehearsing completed songs, and continuing to perfect my engineering abilities. I have quite a few odds and ends to share, too. Song sketches, instrumental tracks, production exercises, that sort of thing.

In December, as a production exercise, I assembled two songs using only premade loops and samples. One of them is called "Papagayo." The name popped in my head and when I looked it up to see if it was actually a word, I found that it was! In Spanish, papagayo is a word used meaning either "parrot" or "kite." I "borrowed" some kite footage from YouTube and made a video to complement the music. It's my New Year's present to you!

As a reminder, Frontier Cabin has a Facebook page. Some things will only be shared there. A "like" would be very much appreciated! If I get 100 likes, I'll share my infamous "Waffle House Willie" song. Well, it's not infamous. But it should be.