Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pump Up the Volume

"Do you ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked up?"

And like that, I was hooked. In the very first line, a movie had caught my attention and would not let go for the next 100 minutes. All the angst of a teenager who somehow felt that life in this blessed country of ours was severely off track began here and rampaged all through Pump Up the Volume. It was like Paul Simon's "American Tune," only more graphic, more punk, and updated for the life of the alienated 1990s teenager, rather than the merely discontented 1970s young adult. Oh yeah, and it was a full film instead of a pretty four minute-long folk song. Never mind that it was a suburbanite's view of alienation, rebellion, and just generally acting out. I was a suburbanite. And a fairly alienated, rebellious, and disturbed one, as they come. So it hit me like a sucker punch to the gut, as if someone had read my mind and transferred its contents, goo and all, to celluloid.

It's hard to say exactly where my adoration should start. Mark Hunter/Hard Harry (a very cute Christian Slater) was my alter ego, a high school kid hiding his literary talents by day behind painful shyness and by night behind voice distortion over his freeform makeshift radio station. He'd utter random, meaningless thoughts on the air like "Eat your cereal with a fork, and do your homework in the dark," but I lapped it up like honey because it sounded so gleefully subversive, and man, what if you did exactly those things? What would people think? How fun would it be to screw with their minds? It wasn't a stretch for me to go from there to considering super-gluing all the pots and pans to the kitchen ceiling, just to see how the parental units would respond. (For the record: I never did, but man, some days I wish I had. Would have explained a lot more of my impulses nowadays.)

But then Hard Harry would swing from the gleeful to the deathly serious (at least for young kids like me): "Sometimes being young is less fun than being dead." Yeah. Tell that to the kid who's dealing with potential rejection far beyond what his 15 years on this planet has prepared him for. Say that to a kid who often becomes morbidly depressed for reasons he really can't fathom. He'll be listening. And he'll still be listening when Hard Harry says, "We're all worried, we're all in pain...Being a teenager sucks, but surviving it is the whole point. Quitting is not going to make you stronger, living will. So just hang on and hang in there." It was lines like these that kept me going when really, nothing else would.

But it was the realm between the absurd and the serious where Pump Up the Volume really came together. Hard Harry was able to take the deepest depths of teenage angst and give it meaning, give it momentum, and give it a target. Soon after Hard Harry began his radio show, a fan of his wrote in threatening suicide, and after a disturbingly blunt phone conversation, he tragically followed up on his threat. Hard Harry showed appropriate remorse afterward, but then began to rally himself – and purely by proxy, his other fans – against the forces that brought one of them down. He rightly took aim at his suburban chockablock surroundings - physical and otherwise - that created artificial walls and separated people from the compassion that everyone needs. "We're all disturbed. And if we're not, why not? Doesn't this blend of blindness and blandness want to make you do something crazy? Then why not do something crazy?" After hearing this call to arms, I wanted to yell out, "Hallelujah!" Except he had already beaten me to it, about 30 minutes before that. That's how onto my game Hard Harry was.

Oh, and since we’re talking about teenage drama, we can’t ignore hormones. How uncomfortable did Hard Harry make moviegoers when he faked a sexual act – jacking off – on the air that billions of men engage in every day? It was that unabashedness – again, behind a smokescreen of voice distortion – that was so compelling to all teenagers. To the guys? Wow…that guy has balls to be able to just admit to doing something like that…but actually jack off? And on the air? Damn. I can only imagine what women thought. Honestly, I had (and still have) no idea. But perhaps more compelling was Hard Harry’s insecurity about opening himself up to sexual attraction with someone else, expressed so dramatically during his scenes with an utterly compelling Samantha Mathis. (I had a bit of a girlcrush on her for a bit, quite similar to the one I had on Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice.) Gay, straight, at that point, it didn’t matter…being supremely awkward and uncomfortable, yet aching to connect with someone on a profoundly profound level was universal.

Pump Up the Volume, to be honest, doesn’t have much of a plot, much like its brilliant kindred spirit Dazed and Confused. Okay, so Hard Harry starts his own renegade radio show, eventually gets in trouble with the feds, and is arrested. Saw that one coming from miles away. But just like good Greek drama (my God, am I actually comparing this to Greek drama?), the story is not in what happens, but how it happens. Everyone knew Oedipus was going to kill his father and marry his mother and gouge his eyes out; how would it transpire on stage, though? Similarly, we all know Hard Harry’s going to jail for his (supposed) crimes, but how much can he get away with before the plug is pulled? Obviously, if he’s raising the hackles of the FCC, he goes much further than giving a (very powerful) voice to teen disillusionment. Heck, even what he accomplishes (bringing the corrupt administration of his high school down) pales in comparison to the voice he gives to his alienated peers.

Incidentally, I never did get this soundtrack, which is a bummer. But I’ve heard the original versions of at least half the songs, including Sonic Youth’s searing “Titanium Exposé” and a supremely awesome surf guitar version the Pixies did of their own “Wave of Mutilation.” Definitely worth a listen. And even though Concrete Blonde will never cease being cool in this guy’s eyes, Leonard Cohen’s original version of “Everybody Knows” is simply unbeatable. Download it posthaste.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Daria on YouTube...and DVD?

Two things Daria-related have recently made my universe much brighter. First off, there is a YouTube channel that has recently been updated (actually, inundated) with many episodes of Daria, after a few-month hiatus. Including my personal fave episode. Enjoy, kiddos. (If you're wondering what the big deal is about Daria, check this out.)

But perhaps the bigger news (and hopefully this isn't just another rumor), is that Daria may well be officially released on DVD next year!

No snarky, witty, or otherwise Daria-worthy comments right now...our hero is too involved with the physical labors of moving to a new home to engage his brain in a coherent manner. But I will keep you, my one or two regular readers, updated.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Frank's Wild Years - Tom Waits

Tom Waits is a genius sui generis. (Go look that one up, kids.) He spent the first phase of his career (in the 1970s) doing the semi-sensitive songwriter gig, with some twists that made you realize he had maybe a few screws loose. But his heart was always in the right place. And for the most part, he held onto his sanity fairly well.

Until Swordfishtrombones. I mean, the title alone should tell you something. Tom suddenly begins grunting, slithering, squawking, and belching out his songs, exorcising some mighty hepcat demons and channeling his Beat Generation forebears. Not that he was all crazy...he still painted some gorgeous, almost impressionistic ballads, like the sentimental "Johnsburg, Illinois." But some of those songs were juxtaposed with music so nearly hallucinatory and random that the serious, unironic stuff was like hitting a brick wall after careening down an alley in a car without brakes. Swordfishtrombones is brilliant in large part for its fearless leap into primitive, absurd territory, the likes of which had probably not been imagined for at least 10 years. It's doubly triumphant for having been released in 1983, a year rife with synthesizers and hair mousse. Saying that this album ignored the trends of its time implies far too much of a relationship. Swordfishtrombones simply existed in its own universe.

"Frank's Wild Years," a hilarious short monologue performed like a poetry reading complete with groovy organ in the background, just has to be heard. I mean, any piece that starts this way is an instant classic, no matter what follows: "Frank settled down out in the Valley, and he hung his wild years on a nail that he drove through his wife's forehead." And the humor continues. Frank lives a suburban life with a wife who's derided as a "spent piece of used jet-trash." (Thankfully, she "kept her mouth shut most of the time.") Their little chihuahua Carlos "had some kind of skin disease and was totally blind" - an automatic shoo-in for the World's Ugliest Dog Championships. Tom Waits deadpans his way through the monologue as deftly as Steven Wright, with an abrupt ending it would be unfair to reveal. (Apparently, "Frank's Wild Years" struck Waits so much, he decided to expand on the song, creating an album by the same name four years later.)

Can't say much else except to repeat: Tom Waits is hidden treasure, a quixotic angelheaded hipster that deserves a wide audience. Swordfishtrombones may be a bit too eccentric an album to start out with for most people, but if you wanna dive in, "Frank's Wild Years" is among the best and most accessible of the songs here.

(Also recommended: "Johnsburg, Illinois," "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six," "Down, Down, Down," "Soldier's Things")

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Jucy Lucy

First off: No, that is not misspelled. Well, yes it is, but it's intentional. Sic. To spell it correctly is to get the Jucy Lucy all wrong.

Second, the picture just doesn't do this hummer justice. People, listen up. There's cheeseburgers. And then there's cheeseburgers. But this? Hot DAMN, the Jucy Lucy reigns supreme o'er all. A cheeseburger with the cheese (American or Velveeta, of course!) placed in the center of the burger. Then cooked until the cheese is liquefied and the temperature of the earth's core.

Somehow, during my six years of tenure in Minnesota from 1993-1999, I evaded the gravitational pull of the Jucy Lucy. Seems like hotdish, wild rice soup, and the belly-busting fare at the Minnesota State Fair (a demimonde all unto itself), may have kept me in check. My loss. Years later (like 2004, I think), I finally found my way to Matt's Bar at 3500 Cedar Ave S in south Minneapolis, home of the original Jucy Lucy. And began doing penance for my decade-long sin of omission.

When you go to Matt's, there will be a wait. At least 15 minutes, more like a half hour. The whole restaurant is the size of an old 1950s style icebox. Sardines is the word you're looking for. As for the decor, it's all vinyl seats, wood paneling, and laminate table tops. Lowbrow kitsch seldom gets better than this. Once you jimmy yourself into your seat, order a pop. Only don't expect a glass. If a can's good enough for Matt's, it's good enough for you.

Now, when I said I did penance, here's how it happened: I received my Jucy Lucy, grabbed it, and immediately took my first bite. And squirted molten lava all over my hands and into my mouth, cauterizing most of my taste buds in the process. Lesson learned: No matter how hungry you are, you do NOT eat a Jucy Lucy when it first arrives. You'll look like a rube. Stuff down the fries that arrived in the basket. (Oh yeah, no plates here, either...they don't need no stinkin' plates.) Look around and enjoy the people-watching. Take your time. The cooks sure did, didn't they? But it just takes that long to make the perfect Jucy Lucy. And if you can evade the tongue-searing effects of the liquid cheese, then you'll taste a Midwestern carnivore's idea of heaven.