It’s a measure of my fairly hectic schedule (hectic schedules are a good thing, by the way) that I’ve been remiss in mentioning that the 30-day tour of horror movies I’d talked about has been underway since October 1st. The best hub for catching up (if my tweeting about it a bit has missed you) can be found here:
That page updates with each review as they’re posted. Right now, you’ve mostly missed what Tom calls “Grampa Movies”, although there have been a few gems, too. I enjoyed the 1960 film Peeping Tom a whole lot, for instance. Don’t watch Psycho again..watch that instead. Tom did some amazing writing in our review of Rosemary’s Baby. We both had fun tearing up The Texas Chainsaw Massacre yesterday. In just a bit we both gush about Jaws.
Stop by, check ‘em out, and feel free to watch something and let us know whether you agree or disagree in the comments!
Confession time: at some point over the next five weeks, I’m going to watch the movie Halloween, the 1978 classic from John Carpenter that also made Jamie Lee Curtis a star. It’s part of the movie project thing I’m working on for QuarterToThree.com. I’m really, really looking forward to it, not only because of the excellent reputation of the movie itself, but for a more personal reason as well.
I’ve never actually seen it.
In fact, I’ve never seen any of the Halloween movies, or the Friday The Thirteenth movies, or any of the seemingly endless slasher films of that era. Movies that were a major part of the cultural lexicon for my peer group weren’t in my vocabulary.
This is the part where I tell why that is.
In the summer of 1979, things were pretty great for me as a kid. I was 12 years old, my widowed mother had recently remarried a wonderful guy who was an amazing father to me. My mom and my stepdad had been married for less than a year, and I guess they wanted to go out with friends and do stuff like dinner parties and whatnot as a couple to make up for lost time–which was always fine with me (as the youngest of four brothers by 13 years, I was basically something of an only child, and had always valued my “alone time” to read, watch tv, or listen to music). The problem was, my Mom was a meticulous housekeeper and I guess at some point she told my stepdad that she simply couldn’t do the active social life thing and maintain the house the way she’d like it kept. They quickly arrived at a compromise solution: Mom would hire a housekeeper to come in once a week and vacuum, dust, mop the floors in the kitchen and bathrooms and stuff like that.
They hired a girl named Mary to do that.
Mary was amazing. It was the summer before her senior year in high school, which made her five years older than I was; it might as well have been 20 years, though. She was stunningly beautiful, and that’s not my mind’s eye playing tricks on me. My friends in the neighborhood got in the habit of calling me later that summer to find out if Mary was going to be over to work. If she was, they’d just happen to coincidentally drop by to play Atari. We were 12. We were idiots.
Actually, in reality I should note that I was painfully shy. Still am, sometimes. In this case, I didn’t even feel like I was the same species as Mary. I was a scrawny doofus and she was this gorgeous girl, five years older than me who obviously had it going on in every way imaginable.
At the start of that summer, Mary would come by, usually dropped off by a friend or family member and she’d work. I’d hide out in my bedroom until it was time to dust and vacuum there, and then I’d scuttle off to somewhere else in the house where she wasn’t. Like I said, awkwardly shy.
That didn’t last long. Mary would have none of that. Maybe she felt obligated, maybe she was bored, but I like to think that it was because she was incredibly kind–on top of her other winning attributes–that Mary would seek me out. She’d corner me and ask pointed conversational questions and make me answer her. It turns out we’d attended the same grade school when I was in first grade (and she in sixth), which made me think that both our fortunes had improved some since then. (That school, Powell Terrace Elementary, was in a pretty hardscrabble neighborhood.) Eventually Mary and I got to the point where we were chatty, and before long I’d wait until she’d finished with the vacuum sweeper and then follow her around while she dusted and we’d just talk one another’s ears off. It was in this way that I learned that Mary was very funny, very smart, and sometimes painfully direct.
For instance, one afternoon, we had this conversation:
“I noticed you have Queen records next to the stereo. They yours?”
Me, feeling cool: “Yeah.”
“You know they’re gay, right?”
Me, feeling…weird and putting puzzle pieces together in my mind about pictures of Freddie Mercury I’d seen: “No they’re not!”
“Hey, I just read it in a magazine that they were, that’s all. Maybe they’re not.”
Silence. Picture me confused.
“Are you gay?”
God. That question. Someday maybe it won’t be a big deal for anyone, but I imagine it’s still a big deal now. It certainly was a taboo, big deal in 1979. If you were a scrawny kid like me, with hair too long and a voice too squeaky, you got that question–or more likely an accusation–long before knowing better that it shouldn’t even be something that is anyone’s business or any source of shame.
“No!” (Talk about awkward; I think I remember wanting to blurt out that I actually liked her in particular…but didn’t.)
“Hey, it’s cool. I mean, it’d be ok if you were. You could say so and I won’t tell.”
“Fine, sorry. I just mean though, if you have stuff you want to tell, you can trust me. Everyone needs someone they can tell stuff to.”
She actually said that last part, and I remember it verbatim. I’d learn years later that Mary probably had a tough start to life, but it got better. She was the youngest in a huge family, and likely she had older brothers and sisters she could trust and tell her secrets to. Maybe she felt like I didn’t have that, living by myself with just my parents. I’ve always thought that. I knew Mary didn’t have a father who was much in the picture. I think she knew my father had died. Maybe she wanted to see if I needed to commiserate. I wish I’d asked.
That fall my mom was thrilled to find out that Mary’s senior year class schedule allowed her get out early enough to still come over once per week and clean. I’d get home from school by 4:30 or so and Mary would usually be just finishing up, and then most times she’d have to wait for her ride to come pick her up. We’d hang out and watch TV and talk. It was amazing that dorky me was talking to this funny, smart, popular, girl who looked like a model and was a senior in high school. This was a huge deal for a seventh grader. Huge.
One afternoon I know we talked about horror movies. I had these plastic model kits that a company called Aurora made that depicted famous movie monsters. They glowed in the dark. I had Frankenstein’s monster, the wolfman, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. If you’ve seen the movie Super 8, the kid in that film has the same models in his bedroom. Maybe Mary had noticed them from doing the dusting. I think that’s what started the conversation. She asked if I like scary movies.
For me at that point, a scary movie was whatever they were showing on Channel 11 or Channel 30 at the time, on late night creature features. So yeah, I liked scary movies as far as I knew, and told her. She told me that she liked some of them but didn’t seem like a big fan. She said she’d seen The Exorcist and that had really bothered her. She’d snuck to the drive-in to see Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She didn’t think it was very scary.
Two movies she’d seen the past year made an impression on her. She’d seen Last House On The Left with a carful of friends at the Plaza Drive In (which apparently replayed that awful movie a few times per year), and had been terrified watching it. She sternly informed me that I was not to see it. She’d also gotten into St. Andrews Cinema (which I gather was near her home) with some friends to see Halloween, which she also thought was scary. That latter film I remember her telling me was a pretty good movie though, just that it got to her. She was telling me about the action of the latter film, and I remember her saying, very clearly, “I can’t think of any worse way to die than being cut up with a knife.”
Damn me for remembering that.
Eventually I think Mary’s schedule started to tighten up some, as you’d expect from a popular girl in her senior year in high school. She’d recommended a friend who took her place more and more with the housekeeping. Still, once a month Mary would find some time to come by to do the work, and I was always happy to see her. Even as a hormone-addled 13-year old in the winter and spring of 1980, I’d stopped thinking of Mary as this beautiful creature to desire, and rather more as this cool girl who I could talk to and who would listen and who didn’t make me feel like a dork. I thought of her as a friend.
That summer of 1980 her schedule got even tighter. I think she got a new job, and by May or June she had to finally tell my mom she wouldn’t be able to come by to clean anymore. Mom was bummed, and I remember us running through two or three housekeepers that summer, trying to find someone who worked as conscientiously as Mary did.
Late that same summer, I went off on my first scout camp–my first time a week away from home without other family around. It was kind of scary, and kind of exciting too. I’m not sure what, exactly, I was doing at 11:00 am on Friday, July 25th. Probably working on my canoeing merit badge. I was a terrible canoeist.
At that same time and date back home in St. Charles, Mary found herself at her home, alone except for a stranger who shouldn’t have been there named Anthony Joe LaRette. LaRette was an ex-con and sex offender. No one knew it at the time, but he was also a serial killer who may have had as many as 30 victims. That morning, he later told the cops, he’d snuck into Mary’s apartment to steal some stuff, and she’d surprised him by coming home. What actually probably happened was that Mary stayed home from work with a bad migraine, hiked up to the grocery store nearby, and LaRette spied her there. He likely followed her home, and then entered the house. He very likely tried to rape her, and Mary fought back. Larette pulled out a knife, and stabbed at her repeatedly, hitting her in the chest and all over her hands and arms as she tried to defend herself. Eventually, he likely got her still enough to cut her throat from ear to ear. He probably thought she was dead, lying in a pool of her blood on her floor, and got distracted. Summoning up all her strength, Mary jumped up, ran out her back door and across the street, trying to scream. A neighbor called 911. The ambulance and cops got there in minutes. It didn’t matter. Mary bled out and died on the neighbor’s porch.
I got back from Scout camp that Sunday. My mom knew how much I liked Mary, and so immediately sat me down and told what had happened. Her killer hadn’t yet been found, and the story was all over the news. They showed a picture of her on TV–a senior picture maybe–where she looked pretty, but the photo didn’t really do her justice. You had to see her and talk to her to get an idea of just what a stunningly beautiful force of nature Mary was.
They found her killer in a month or so. By 1982 he was on Missouri’s death row, and confessing to dozens of other murders. He was executed in 1995.
Mary was the first person I’d ever known who died at the hands of another person. I remember feeling incredibly sad at the time. I didn’t really understand it. I know I internalized a lot of it. In 1982, one of those lurid “True Detective” style magazines–the ones you used to see on certain newsstands with scantily-clad women depicted in all sorts of unsettling, garish, bondage scenes–did a full feature story on Mary. I wouldn’t have known, but someone at my mom’s office had a copy and xeroxed the article and gave it to my mother, and she screened it before passing it along for me to read. It was surprisingly thoughtful and un-embellished, mostly. I read things I already knew–that Mary was something of a jock, that Mary was one of the popular kids, that pretty much everyone who knew her shared my high opinion of her. I also read the details of her final day and death, of her flight across the street in St. Charles, streaming blood, mortally wounded. I thought about those details a lot in the years to come. I could picture it in my mind, like a movie. I would constantly think about how terrified she must have been and how awful her final moments were.
And so it was that I couldn’t help but think of Mary every time I saw a trailer on TV for a film like Happy Birthday To Me, or The Slumber Party Massacre or similar dreck. As I went through high school, friends would eagerly take in the latest Jason movie, but I’d beg off. It was too soon for me. The thoughts of my friend and the means of her passing were too vivid and real. I couldn’t handle that kind of sickening end being made light of as a plot device. While everyone else could keep the “It’s only a movie” mantra going, I’m not sure I could. It would all feel too real.
Plus, to a certain extent, it sort of felt like betrayal. I remember Mary kind of giving an involuntary shiver when she scolded me that I was not to see Last House On The Left. In fact, somehow I built up in my mind that all slasher films were that graphic and brutal and depraved. (They’re not, or so I’m led to believe.) I can remember at least once or twice I felt like I would be going against her warning to me if I went to see Sleepaway Camp or Silent Night, Deadly Night. I should also be clear–I was fine (more or less) with gore. I saw both Re-Animator and From Beyond at the theater. That same era I managed to see four David Cronenberg movies, including two of the most squirmy, uncomfortable films I’ve ever watched in Shivers and Dead Ringers.
It wasn’t the blood. It was the vividness of what Roger Ebert called “dead teenager movies” and the knives and the slashing and the screaming.
That being said, it’s been decades since I thought of that overtly. I started writing this when I realized with a shock that I hadn’t ever seen Halloween…or Friday The Thirteenth…or any other films from one of the biggest box office genres of my teenage years. I wondered why that was, and then remembered. I think that it’s likely that you avoid something for a valid reason at some point in your life when you’re young, and then you keep on avoiding it out of habit, and pretty soon it becomes an aversion where you plug other pieces of sound logic into the matrix and it’s a reflex where you may have forgotten the original trigger. That’s me and slasher films, I think. I had a valid reason to begin with, and then slasher movies continued to get more and more awful, and it got easier and easier to miss them because they were terrible movies in a terrible sub-genre. Then they gradually stopped making them, and slasher movies gave way to torture porn, and it’s the 21st century and nothing’s shocking anymore and time has done what time will do to soothe the soul.
And so here we are. I actually can’t wait to see Halloween. I know the story and know the tropes by heart already, just by being fairly culturally aware. I know I’ve missed out on the film proper, though, and that I can’t wait to watch. I’m pretty confident I’ll enjoy it a lot. I know I’ll be a sucker for the nostalgia of midwest suburbia in the late 1970′s that the movie will evoke. I’ll probably think about Mary once or twice, too…but I think having exorcised this demon by writing about it, they won’t be bad memories. Instead, I think I’ll imagine her and some random boyfriend watching it at St. Andrews Cinema, munching popcorn and having a scary good time.
I think she’d like that.
(By the way, it turns out Mary’s eldest brother, Dennis, is a writer. He wrote a very moving memoir about his kid sister that’s by turns heartbreaking, angry, and quite moving. I bought it a few days ago and it was a great read. You can find it here )
Sorry for the absence, but I did want to stop by to report on some big doings with regards to my plan to watch a bunch of scary movies and write about them. Thanks to some interest in the project by my internet friend Tom Chick at Quarter To Three, some things have changed here.
For the better!
First of all, it’s going to be 30 movies, each one written about in a piece published daily in October. The years, as mentioned before, will be 1957-1987. Keep reading and I’ll get to the list of movies.
Second thing, these pieces won’t be published here. Instead, the plan is to currently write them up and publish them at Tom’s site, Quartertothree.com. I’ve written some pieces there about gaming, but I’m excited to write about movies there. I hope I’m not out of my element. If you’re unfamiliar with Qt3, as we abbreviate it, it’s a worthwhile place to visit. Mostly, the site is focused around video gaming. Stop rolling your eyes. The guy who runs it, Tom Chick, is (in my opinion, not his) the Roger Ebert of games journalism. He’s a reviewer, a moralist, and a thinker. He puts together amazing sentences. He takes iconoclastic views of game reviewing tropes and scores in such a way that it frequently shoves him into conflict with publishers, fanboys, and developers alike.
Tom’s also a big time movie buff and critic. The Quarter To Three Movie Podcast is one of the most lively, funny, and consistently interesting pieces of media you’ll find regarding film. Tom sees a lot of movies, writes about a lot of them, and has a definite love for horror movies (it was Tom and the Qt3 movie podcast that hepped me to the wonderful Lake Mungo a few years ago). If all that weren’t enough, Time Magazine named Quarter To Three one of the 50 Best Sites On The Internet last year.
So yeah, when Tom offered me the chance to write all this up for his site where the number of eyeballs seeing the work will be powers of 100 greater than they’ll be here, I was honored to take that on. I then was able to one-up even that good news. The plan now is for Tom and I to co-blog each movie. We’ll basically bounce ideas off one another and refute one another and call each other names. Should be a lot of fun! I’ve always wanted to co-write a piece with another person and this is just a great, interesting, fun opportunity.
Let’s recap, and then an invitation. In October, we’ll publish a mini blog piece about 30 different movies watched during the month. 30 Days Of 30 Years Of Horror or something like that, and it’ll be at Quartertothree.com. I’ll try to provide daily links here, just in case.
The invite? I’d love for anyone reading this right now to join us. Qt3 has a lively comments section, and we’d love to have folks watch the movies and contribute their own thoughts and tell us both we’re full of it. You can even agree with us, if that’s your thing.
In order to watch along with us, though, you’re going to need to know which movies we’re watching. (Here’s some more behind the scenes stuff–we’re not waiting for October; I’m already about 6 movies into this list, and writing notes up them already.)
Join us then? Here’s what we’re going to be watching and writing about:
1. Curse of Frankenstein 1957
2. Horror of Dracula 1958
3.Peeping Tom 1960
4. Black Sunday 1960
5. Tomb Of Ligeia 1964
6. Plague Of The Zombies 1966
7.Night Of The Living Dead/Dawn Of The Dead 1967 + 1978
8. Witchfinder General 1968
9.Rosemary’s Baby 1968
10.Let’s Scare Jessica To Death 1971
11.From Beyond The Grave 1972
12.Don’t Look Now 1973
13.Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark 1973
14.The Exorcist 1973
15.The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974
17.The Omen 1976
18.The Haunting Of Julia 1977
20. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers ‘78 + ‘56
22.Salem’s Lot 1979
23.The Shining 1980
23.The Changeling 1980
25.American Werewolf In London 1981
26.Q, The Winged Serpent 1982
27.The Thing 1982
29.Angel Heart 1987
30.Near Dark 1987
It’s nearly autumn, a season that has been my favorite of all seasons since childhood. Autumn means baseball AND football. It means piling up leaves. It means soccer practice. It means Halloween.
That last one–Halloween–might be my favorite part of it.
Back in October of 2011, my internet friend Tom Chick undertook to watch and write about a different horror movie every day. I loved that. Tom’s tastes run a bit grislier than mine, but I still discovered a ton of under-the-radar scare flicks that way. Last year I thought it would be cool to try to watch a horror movie daily my own self to get into the ghoulish spirit of the season…but then I got caught up in watching election coverage nightly and that was that.
I still wanted to try it, though. This year then, I sort of put out a call to friends on facebook and elsewhere to suggest great horror films. I was deluged, and realized that trying to pare down the list of worthy movies, I’d need to set some parameters.
I know me pretty well, and I know that when it comes to movies with a fantastical element–fantasy, sci-fi, horror, whatever–I’m what gamers call a graphics whore. Basically, I love me some special effects, and in this modern age of CGI and computer animation, I’m like a fat kid in a candy store. However, I’m also well aware that such visual effects wizardry is a new development. Directors and effects departments used to have to work without that kind of stuff, and I sure remember being scared by a lot of movies in my formative years. That set me to wondering: do those movies I remember from my childhood and teenaged years still hold up?
And with that question, I had my thesis statement and way to narrow things down. I decided that I’d watch films from the “modern” era of horror, but no films that came out after 1987.
For me that feels like when the modern era of horror films were born. The genre was kind of asleep at that point in time. I get the feeling that most folks had had their fill of horror in real life after World War II. The emerging Cold War seemed to bring more science fiction into the mix.
Two things woke the sleeping horror monster. Neither caught much interest at the time.
The first thing was a little English production company attached to Bray Studios just across the Thames from London in Berkshire decided to abandon it’s film noir roots and try to stretch out some into even darker territory. Thus, Hammer Films was born, along with their first international smash hit The Curse Of Frankenstein. That same year, French director Jacques Tourneur adapted a wonderfully gothic M. R. James ghost story into a film called Curse Of The Demon (US title, it was “Night of the Demon in the UK”). The latter film is a surprisingly modern take on devils and demons and such, and features one of the more famous special effects of the 1950′s.
And why 1987? Kind of an arbitrary pick, but it was over Christmas break in 1987 that I happened to watch The Shining for the first time, and it scared the absolute crap outta me. It also feels like in the late 1980′s, we started seeing the start of CGI for scare purposes become commonplace in horror films, and so it felt like a good year to stop.
I also am trying to build up some better writing habits, as in scribbling something down at least once per day.
What I’m envisioning here then is maybe writing 300-400 words each day on the movie I watched the night before. I’ll mention why I picked it, in some cases pointing out why I picked a certain film versus another movie of the same genre/time period. I’ll maybe describe a couple of standout scenes that make the film either great or not so much. Finally, I’ll answer the thesis question: is the movie still scary? I’ll also try to list the easiest way to find some of the more obscure stuff I’m watching, in case something I write piques interest.
This should be fun!
I feel like this year the blog has been a bit more morose than I intend. It’s been a fairly unkind year for folks I’ve hoisted on a pedestal of being super-fond of, no doubt. First Stan Musial passes (not unexpected), then Roger Ebert, then Scott Miller. In between all that my mother mercifully finally went to a better place after a 13-year fight with Alzheimer’s Disease.
So yeah, 2013. Thanks for all that, but can you sort of knock it off for a bit now? Thanks!
In the meantime, I’d planned to post back in April all about the Leisure Society, who are my current favorite going concern of a band. They’ve got a new record out in the UK and Europe called Alone Aboard The Ark. Amazon originally listed it for a US release on April 9th. I was going to fill the blog with all sorts of Leisure Society nonsense to try to convince everyone of their inherent wonderfulness…and then just before the 9th arrived, the record label (Full Time Hobby) moved the release date here in the States back to July.
I’m hoping that was done to coincide with the Leisures first ever tour of North America, or at least am dreaming as much.
Even so, I feel like we need to take the black silks off and open the curtains, so to speak. Time to get a little air and light and happy on tiny speck of the internet.
Thus, this is a treat. It’s a very professionally made, full-concert video of The Leisure Society performing a pre-release show in France back in February (I think). It shows off their newest, more streamlined lineup. Will Calderbank seems to have departed for Mumford & Sons on a permanent basis, but but the rest of the group–multi-instrumental genius Mike Siddell, flautist/keyboardist Helen Whitaker, Sebastian Hankins on drums–is there with Nick Hemming and Christian Hardy and new bassist Jon Cox. This performance is absolutely splendid and mesmerizing, featuring many tracks from the new record but also plenty from their first two discs as well.
I love this band. This concert is why:
If 10 minutes of that doesn’t have you smiling, you’re reading the wrong blog.
Making my own fun on Derby Day, mostly because I’m buried under an avalanche of work right now, but still. In a few hours I’ll be pouring a Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year, I’ll be checking my wagers, and I’ll be all about the 139th Kentucky Derby.
Meanwhile, to pass the hours until post time, I’ve got four music mixes to share at you, made by folks who are all about the ponies, all about great music artfully mixed, and all about having a wonderful Saturday in May!
You want to hear these. Trust me. We’re talking “free music mixes, made by folks who are either professional DJs or who could/should be if that kind of work paid the rent/mortgage.”
In the order I received them, and recommended listening order today!
Beth Clauss breaks first from the gate:
The stallion lucky enough to run alongside her, Tim Clauss, stalks her pace through the backstretch:
Flying on the outside as they come to the top of the stretch, it’s Chris “Dyno” Whitey:
(You racing fans will know what happened there…)
Finally, flying down the stretch, moving like a tremendous machine, it’s Dan and Marc’s always much-beloved annual Derby Mix:
I vouch for none of the child-friendliness of any of these musical creations, but can say that Tim’s mix definitely isn’t kid-safe, and Whitey’s mix could induce…uncomfortable…questions.
Still, great tunes, making my work fly by here. These can be streamed or downloaded or both at your leisure.
Oh, and I’m saying Itsmyluckyday or Goldencents…but I’ll be using Overanalyze underneath about 4 horses in an exacta part wheel.
Good luck to all, and happy Derby Day!
(I have started and stopped this post over a dozen times in the last week. Writing it has left me in tears more often than I care to admit. There are many things I want to say about Scott Miller’s art–his music–but right now does not feel like an appropriate time to say them. Instead, I would like to give a final homage to Scott Miller, the man.)
Years ago my friend Mike speculated on how odd it must be to be Scott Miller. Imagine that you’re Scott, a normal guy doing normal guy stuff. You’ve got a job, family, a home, and you do stuff that guys with jobs, families, and homes do 99.99% of the time. But…there’s always that one time for you where you’re having a coffee, or waiting in line at the DMV or eating dinner in a restaurant when someone recognizes you and that someone swarms over you with the kind of adulation normally reserved for people who are a lot less unassuming than Scott Miller was.
That would be the crazy part of being him: the recognition. Because the thing is, people who would recognize Scott Miller don’t just “recognize” the guy. No, if you’re able to pick him out of a lineup, you’re likely a fan, and if you’re a fan of Scott Miller’s music, there’s not a whole lot of middle ground there. As such, Mike wondered about the awkwardness of Scott standing at a urinal stall or browsing in the cereal aisle at the grocery and suddenly getting accosted by one of us over-eager fans desperate to tell an idol how awesome he was.
Don’t laugh. That’s the kind of personal relationship Scott seems to have inspired in so many of his fans. Something about his music seems to speak personally to those of us who get hooked by it. The joys and pains and happinesses and hurts of life are usually far more multifaceted than we’re easily able to express; Scott Miller’s genius was to embrace the complexity in those emotions and expound upon them eloquently, perhaps too much so to ever capture a mass audience…but for those willing to combine a nerd-ish frame of cultural obsession with a need for introspection, Miller hit like a ton of bricks.
You See The World Just As I Do
My own Scott Miller testimony goes like this. From my senior year in high school into my freshman year in college I’d begun to articulate past the classic rock of my early days to see how folks like REM or the Replacements sort of could trace a connection back to artists and records I was more familiar with. Through the Replacements and an interview in Creem or something, I learned of the existence of Big Star, and paid too much money for a double-length cassette (The People’s Format plays a starring role in this tale of mid-80′s self-discovery) of those first two Big Star albums shortly thereafter. About the same time I’d picked up a copy of Ira Robbins’ Trouser Press Record Guide (1985 version), and somehow decided that based on glowing reviews from the book, I really would like the music of Agent Orange and Plan 9, if only given the actual opportunity of hearing said music. (Yes kids, before the internet you’d buy music based upon critical description of it in words, rather than actually hearing it.) One aimless afternoon at the MusicVision store in Cave Springs, Missouri in that summer of 1987, I found a cassette called The Enigma Variations 2–basically a label comp for Enigma Records bands. Jackpot. It had not only two songs each from Agent Orange and Plan 9, but also one from Mojo & Skid.
Please don’t laugh. It was 1987.
Somewhere on that tape–probably after the lame SSQ song–this revelatory thing happened. It was called “Erica’s Word” by a band called Game Theory, writing credit to one S. Miller, the band’s frontman. I think I rewound the tape and played it over and over again, and then seeing a song called “Shark Pretty” by the same band on the other side of the tape, I listened to that over as well. Later that same day I was back at MusicVision buying Big Shot Chronicles. I was hooked completely, immediately grabbing onto the connection with and influence of Alex Chilton and Big Star. It likely helped that this same summer the girl I had been dating for 2 years brought the sky down on my head and caused me my first real relationship heartbreak. To say I was ready for the sentiment of “Erica’s Word” or “Make Any Vows” or “Too Closely” at that moment was an understatement.
When I got back to Mizzou in early August of that year (some buddies and I had taken off-campus housing), I happened to hear “Waltz The Halls Always” on KCOU, the campus station I didn’t yet work for but soon would. This was revelatory. I hadn’t yet been able to track down the EP with “Shark Pretty” on it, so I’d assumed it was very rare (it was in the midwest) and guessed that all Game Theory stuff to be similarly hard to come by. “Waltz” was a totally new song to me, and it amazed me, and thus later that day I was delighted to discover Real Nighttime at Streetside Records on Broadway. Still remember that Robb Moore rang up the sale and said “This is a great record,” and made sure that I already had BSC.
(A brief interlude: I cannot believe I have thus far failed to mention that for the time being, every Game Theory album can be snagged and downloaded for free here: http://www.loudfamily.com/ If you don’t have them, you need them. Start with “Erica’s Word” like I did.)
That fall before Lolita Nation came out, I wrote a fan letter–something I absolutely never had done before or since. In fact, I didn’t think of it as a fan letter. Although there was a fan club address on the cover of Big Shot Chronicles that I had to address the letter to, I think I had the pretension to say something snotty to the effect of “Hey, this is for Scott, really don’t much do the fan club thing, thanks.” Basically, I wrote Scott and told him I was a big fan, told him how much his music meant to me, how much it helped me get through blah blah blah. Typical stuff, I’m sure. I was stunned a few weeks later when Scott wrote back, and wrote a longer letter than I’d sent. He thanked me profusely for taking the time to write, mentioned that he hoped they’d get to Columbia on their next tour (they’d missed my college town on their most recent). I’d mentioned I had family in the San Francisco area in my letter. Scott’s letter ended with him saying that if I had free time on a visit to give him a call to maybe hang out.
Seriously. It said that. Still have it.
Perhaps that doesn’t make an impact, so let me try to couch it in ways that can help makes sense for how that hit me: imagine writing to Leonardo Da Vinci to tell him how much you admire his art, and Leo messages you back with “Thanks! We should have a beer together sometime if you’re ever in Milan.”
When Game Theory did get to Columbia for their final major tour after the release of 2 Steps From The Middle Ages, I was stunned when Scott seemed to almost recognize me before I introduced myself. I wouldn’t see him again until 1993 on the first Loud Family tour. That time he walked right up to me in the basement at Cicero’s and said “Hi…Chris, right?” That’s how things continued. Saw the Loud Family play two shows in St. Louis, saw them twice in Chicago after I moved there, had a water or coffee or beer with Scott at a few of those shows and just sort of chatted about whatever.
A Nice Guy As Minor Celebrities Go
I tell all that not to paint myself as an insider or blow my own horn. Hardly could be any less true. The reason I tell that story is because there are perhaps 200-300 folks across the country who Scott Miller treated the same way. People who this unbelievably talented artist made to feel like a friend, made to feel important in our own ways. 200-300 people who likely have pretty much the exact same Scott Miller story of their own to tell. I’ve heard stories of fans who were 18 and not allowed into a club where Game Theory was playing, and Scott resourcefully having that person carry a guitar into the club and informing the staff there in all seriousness that said teenager was an essential member of the band’s road crew, thus allowing that person to stay for the show. One memorable story I read was from a fan who informed Miller after a Game Theory show that she was bummed the band didn’t do “Together Now Very Minor”. Scott put that person on a guest list for the next show up the road, and told her to get there for soundcheck if possible. When she arrived the rest of the band had already split to grab a pre-show meal and she found Scott the only person still hanging around the club. Miller dutifully pulled out a guitar and played “Together Now” solo in an empty club for one person’s enjoyment.
Scott Miller also never just signed his name on an autograph. His signatures always conveyed a sense of whimsy and artful amusement, like so (clicking the images embiggens; I am reliably informed that the bottom image is exceedingly funny for folks who know their Star Trek):
She’ll Be A Verb When You’re A Noun
Although reading interviews with Miller over the years reveals a thoughtful, humble and deep thinker, none of that prepared me for the brilliance of Scott Miller’s music criticism. Published as a book a few years ago, Music: What Happened? is almost absurdly good. The premise is simple: Miller had kept notebooks listing his favorite songs of every year in order, chronologically from 1957. The book allowed him to present songs from those lists as a sort of written-down mix-tape, with amazingly spot-on, funny, and sometimes moving commentary about each song and artist. One of my favorite pieces touches on a completely counter-intuitive premise, but one the author defends brilliantly:
“The nineties were better than the eighties, and one key reason was that there was less originality. Originality is unmusical. The urge to do music is an admiring emulation of music one loves; the urge toward orginality happens under threat that the music that sounds good to you somehow isn’t good enough. In the nineties, bands pretty much all had a single thought: we want to be the next Nirvana. Bands had the least fear in years that following their hearts and doing straight fuzz-guitar pop-rock was somehow old-fashioned. There were a lot of good songs. Life was simple.”
The book is full of similarly smart, thoughtful, and well-argued points that will make you go diving into your record collection to hear songs you know by heart in new ways. Perhaps even better, it sends you down paths of exploration into new music happily and willingly. That’s a tough trick to turn for a music writer.
DEFMACROS / HOWSOMETH /INGDOTIME /
In the most recent post to this you can find the link to donate to the education fund for Scott Miller’s two daughters. Perhaps most heartbreaking things for me to read over the last week were comments there from folks who likely had no idea that they were working alongside a beloved musician–Scott’s co-workers at the tech company where he was an engineer. They perhaps didn’t know Miller as the guy who wrote the soundtrack of the uncomfortable post-collegiate years of so many others. No, they knew Scott as the warm and funny and interesting and helpful co-worker. It always rather boggled my mind that a guy who wrote such agile, gorgeous melodies and who clearly had such mastery of pop culture and literature had earned an engineering degree from UC-Davis. I know engineers. As a matter of fact, I know plenty of them. Engineers just…well, they sure don’t know (or care) who Eliot or Joyce were, that’s dead certain. At least not usually.
Always The Eyes, Never The View
It is also worth noting that Scott Miller was very much into visual artistry. Looking back at Game Theory covers and then on into the Loud Family, Miller’s infatuation with elements of graphic design and typography are obvious and on display. What I never realized was the gift he had for drawing. Scott’s lovely wife Kristine (who has frankly been a marvel in the last week, managing to somehow through her own grief share remembrances and nuances of Miller with fans) posted these sketches of her and the family that Scott had done fairly recently:
These were sketched from original family portraits. As Mrs. Miller tells it, Scott would likely dismiss any compliments on the work because he’d just been drawing from photographs, but even so…the likenesses are stunning and accurate and perhaps capture even more than the photos they’re based on can convey. So yeah. Dude could draw too. Kind of amazing.
Go Ahead And Scare Me With The End
I realize that at this point I’m mostly rambling about the death of a guy I knew only in passing. I guess what I really wanted to convey is maybe a fraction of why those of us who are so sad and grief-stricken and bewildered right now feel that way. The world is a messed up, arbitrary, frequently angry and ugly place. It needs people in it like Scott Miller to shine the light on the beautiful and worth-living parts of it. One of those lights has dimmed now, and that’s why I am so sad. Scott Miller was one of the most unique and interesting and charming and humble and talented and beautiful human beings I have ever had the pleasure to have known, and I will miss the light he brought into the world terribly.