So: I was thinking about the 80s yesterday because I’d watched some of an early 80s sort-of horror / thriller, “Murder by Phone.” People are murdered. By phones. They pick it up, their brain melts, and they’re thrown across the room. Starring John Houseman! Really. He was the go-to guy for corrupted gravitas, playing against his “Paper Chase” and brokerage firm ads; if you saw him as a figure of authority, there was an excellent chance he’d turn out to be a bad guy in league with the Forces of Corporate Darkness. Perhaps this pleased him to no end; if I recall correctly he was as pink as the toothbrush of a gum-disease sufferer, but that’s only because of the involvement with the “Cradle Will Rock” WPA business –
Okay, that requires googling . . . can’t tell. Doesn’t matter. A fascinating and productive life. Seeing him in “Murder by Phone,” mentoring the very hairy Richard Chamberlain, is a bit of a shock, but that was the era. And it’s not that bad a film. Better than it should be.
While watching it, I heard a bell. One bell. A doorbell. That meant the back door; the front door chimes twice. It was around 9:40, dark out, and I figured my wife had brushed against it while coming inside. When I went downstairs I found wife and daughter in a state of confusion: did kids ring the garage doorbell?
Don’t know if it works. Went down, checked: no. Good. There’s no reason to have a garage doorbell. Went back up the steps, checked the gates; everything was closed. Was it possible someone came in and pushed the backdoor bell? While my wife was standing at the table on the phone, with her back to the door?
Walked around the house to see if there was anyone around, and hello: walking up the street, alone, a middle-aged man, passing right under a streetlight.
I got a gooood look. Watched him walk up the street. Not a neighbor – and if you walk the dog for ten years, you know who is, and who isn’t. He had a peculiar stomping gait. There aren’t many people walking around here at night alone, unless it’s a guy walking the dog and stealing a smoke. Mostly teens in the summer. Sometimes an odd shambling figure emerges from the woods by the creek. But this guy was heading somewhere. He had a strange angry purpose. I watched him walk up to the corner, cross the street, head north – then he stopped, retraced his steps, and headed in another direction. Unfamiliar ground.
So I got in my car and prowled around. Saw some kids running on a side street; pulled up, rolled down the window, and asked if they’d seen a strange guy. And by the way, you’re not ringing doorbells, are you? I don’t care if you did, just tell me, because it means the strange guy is probably just passing through. They swore they had nothing to do with it – and I recognized them, and believed them. I could see them ringing a front-door bell, but going into someone’s backyard would be a different level of audacity, and who assumes the back door has a doorbell?
I hit the main artery, went down five blocks, up another five. No sign. No one at the bus stops. He had melted away. So yes, I called 911. We have signs up for the neighborhood watch program, and they say the same thing: if I don’t call the police, my neighbor will.
Only saw him for a few seconds under the streetlight, but I’d recognize him in a second. The hair. Grey, profuse, collar-length.
In case you’re thinking I’m paranoid, no, I don’t call the cops when strange people walk through the neighborhood. When the back door bell rings, and a strange man appears a minute later walking away? Sure. Tell me why I shouldn’t.
Earlier in the day I was in the backyard playing catch with my daughter – a whiffleball tossed, and caught, with these plastic scoops. I don’t know what it’s called. Our new game. Jasper Dog came out and barked at us, as he does when people are Doing Things and he finds it annoying, or different, or just wants to contribute. I tossed the ball at him – he tried to bite it, then batted it with his paws. Ran over to me and barked and did a dance. He wanted to play.
He’s 16. He wanted to play. So I got down and gave him the tussle, the keep-away, the hand-over-the-neck, the chest-bump, the play-dead, all the boisterous things you do with puppies. I ran. He chased me. I repeat: he’s 16. He chased me. Turned on a dime, stopped, held his ground, bolted when I ran again. My wife came outside, wondering what the commotion was about. Why I declare in tarnation, what’s the ruckus -
“Mom, look!” Gnat said.
Me, running. Jasper, chasing.
And he stopped, and looked at each of us, and barked: what? Run! C’mon! Go!
Then he had a long walk, and took his time getting up the steps. Old bones and sore sinews, but they don’t think I’m old.
They are what they are and that’s that. Until they’re not, and that’s that, too.
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Now, pop culture nerdity.
As noted in the comments, the banners have been changing. Here’s the sequence, from the movie “The Brothers Rico,” a well-made minor 50s mob-flick.
The title of yesterday’s post was indeed a reference to a Godley & Creme song off the album “Ismism,” and I don’t know what made me listen to it. Checking the 80s playlist, maybe. The album was a disappointment to me, but I keep coming back to a few tunes. Those guys were so talented, and so determined to work outside the “system” and experiment; you can only lament the perfect pop they would have turned out by the yard if they’d deigned to condescend to the market. The first song on “Ismism” was “Snack Attack,” a song about junk food, and I found it so uninteresting I always skipped it. Which meant I missed the big joke of the album. Which someone noted in the YouTube comments.
It’s the same damned song at different speeds.
Riding on Joey’s Camel. But how did you escape? Riding on Joey’s Camel. The refrain is a loop, as is the story. And then there’s this. The Party. I have no idea what convinced them to think it would be a great idea to describe how LA parties were full of mincing phonies, but whoa: this is their version of “Answered Prayers,” a kiss-off to their social support system. To return to the 80s theme: one of the conversations has someone telling them to dump the videos, commiserating with their commercial decline. (At the time they’d moved into music video directing, including that unnerving Herbie Hancock “Rock It” video – pure, distilled, charcoal-filtered nightmare fuel ) Around 2:15 they started rhyming such and much, and it kept going – I prefer a gentler melodic touch but the kids today have got thier ears in a crutch, if it’s not robots singing in Dutch it’s Adam and the Ants and Starsky and Hutch.
The lyrics are all private messages aimed at people they hate. There’s no bridge, no key change, and it ends with the singer hurling in the bathroom. I’m listening to it now, and remembering how I thought: seriously. Guys. W. T. F. But now I’m laughing. If there’s a better song about a horrible party, name it.
And then on the same album, they’d toss off this. Could have a billion-seller hit, but they did what they could to keep that from happening. I love those guys.
Oh, okay. As long as I’m in the mood. I just found a video for “An Englishman in New York,” which just made my jaw drop. Had no idea it existed. And, of course, it’s horribly unnerving. I’ve known this song for decades, always loved the hammering xylophone mixed WAY up front, the melody line that’s like the vanishing point of a Hopper painting; it’s there, but you can’t quite fix it, and there’s something unsettling about it. And then, being the masterful tunesmiths that they are, they drop in pure unadulterated Queen harmonies around 1:36 in a bouncy minor key. At 2:15, another melody, this little scrap of beauty like a scarf in the wind – then back to the hammering xylophones as we’re pitched back to Times Square. It goes on too long, but prog rock usually did.
The problem with these guys: I don’t know if this was heartfelt, or just a knock-off. But Lord, it’s a beautiful thing. It sobs, and it soars.
The ending always seemed to suggest they didn’t take it seriously; they seemed to do everything possible to undercut the emotions their work produced. I first heard about them when my next door neighbor asked if I’d heard this album called Freeze Frame. It had some lines he liked: “eggheads in a huddle.” “Going down like a thermos flask thrown from a train.” I bought the album, loved every track. It sounded familiar, though. Then I put it together.
Who would hang a picture of someone they really didn’t like just to hide a crack in the wall? Who’d insist over and over he wasn’t in love? So . . . that junior high-school tune we couldn’t quite figure out, it was all the opposite of the lyrics. The singer was in love. That’s the point. You make the point by saying the opposite.
Which means this may have been crafted with an almost gleeful sense of contempt. You want a hit? Here. Have this. And when the label was happy, they smiled and bit their tongues and thought: you don’t get the joke, do you? Walks in the rain? The handclaps? This is a bloody joke, mate.
You can almost imagine them cooking this up: let’s make a perfect pop song no one could ever cover without sounding like an arse. Like I said: I love these guys.
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