Yesterday, Tom Finn–one of the founding members of the band The Left Banke–announced that Michael Brown from the band had passed away. While the songwriting chores in the band were more shared than has been traditionally mentioned, I think it’s no stretch to say that Michael Brown was the main creative songwriting force in the group. He was also very unwell, mentally and physically, for what seems like a large portion of his life.
A year and a half ago, I wrote a bunch of words about the Left Banke for Bill Harris at Dubious Quality. I’m reprinting here as something of an in memoriam. That’s what follows here.
I think it’s only natural that many music lovers harbor something of a soft spot for one-hit wonders. There’s something alluring about the idea that anyone with one good idea for a song might be one turn of public whim from chart immortality. What I’ve all too frequently discovered whenever I try to dig deeper on a one-hit wonder is that the one hit is usually an extraordinary accident of happenstance, and the rest of that artist’s recording output tends towards dreck. You don’t want to go exploring the back catalogue of the Starland Vocal Band, for instance.
The Left Banke are the exception to that rule. They almost certainly qualify as one hit wonders thanks to the song “Walk Away Renee”, but unlike most artists who fit that description, the Left Banke actually left behind a rather interesting and worthwhile catalogue of songs, as well as a fairly interesting story behind their creation and multiple dissolutions.
Listening to the lush, fully orchestrated strings of “Walk Away Renee”, you’d likely never guess that the group’s origins lie in New York City with a couple of guys who sang in street busking doo wop groups. Tom Finn and George Cameron were both thinking about growing out their greased-back hair and giving up on their street corner doo wop hobby when they met at a teen talent show, where both fellows discovered a shared fascination with the then-brand new British Invasion. After that first meeting, they remained friends, but Cameron decided to spend his time cultivating a stylish image as a teen scenester in Greenwich Village. Finn on the other hand managed to get himself into a band of sorts.
It seems that Tom Finn had a buddy who’d secured something of an open-ended recording contract from a medium-sized downtown studio called World United. The studio was run by a respected professional session violinist and producer named Harry Lookofsky. Although Lookofsky had made a name for himself playing on some very high profile classical records, he was also a pragmatic guy and was on the lookout for talented kids who could play the new style of ‘60s rock and roll making waves on the radio. Finn found himself playing on two songs for an ad hoc group that was dubbed The Magic Plants. Their name was the best thing about them–the songs themselves are pretty forgettable.
Finn had caught the bug though, and wanted to put his own band together. He remembered Cameron, and decided having a guy who not only could sing and harmonize well (not to mention had something of a loyal coterie of hipster friends) in his new group was probably a good idea. Just as Cameron and Finn were firming up ideas for their band, they chanced to meet another kid their age named Carmelo Esteban Martin Caro.
Caro’s parents were from Spain, but he had been born in New York. Cameron and Finn quickly discovered that their new friend possessed a gorgeous and evocative tenor voice. Considering his handsome good looks would make him a natural at helping to attract girls, they quickly enlisted him in the band. Caro–perhaps feeling a bit self-conscious about the prejudices of the time–allowed that he’d be known as Steve Martin from that point onwards. He became the lead singer of the band that was coming together.
Cameron, Finn, and Martin hit it off well and immediately formed a songwriting partnership and started working up a few original numbers. Finn remembered the Magic Plants sessions at World United Studios. The three of them (with a drummer in tow) played a couple of songs for Harry Lookofsky, but the studio manager was unimpressed. He tried to give them some encouragement, at least. It’s easy to see how they failed to register on that first audition. Cameron was just learning guitar, Finn had just switched to playing bass, and their songs were very much works in progress.
While the boys were auditioning, they noticed that Harry Lookofsky’s geeky teenaged son was spending an inordinate amount of time hanging out. Although Michael Lookofsky was painfully shy and awkward, he let it be known to the three that he played piano and keyboards. The guys weren’t impressed. They were the coolest cats in Greenwich Village…and this gawky nerd was not the kind of person to easily add to their social circle. Lookofsky tried again, this time letting it be known that he had the keys to his father’s studio.
Well now. That was something after all. Cameron, Finn, and Martin discovered that Mike Lookofsky had been classically trained and possessed perfect pitch. If they hummed a melody line, he knew what notes were being hummed and could play it back on piano. He began tinkering a bit with a few of the songs that Cameron and Martin had written, most notably adding a bridge to a tune called “Something On My Mind”.
At some point early on, Harry Lookofsky discovered his son and the rest of the band–now calling themselves The Left Banke after a fellow Village denizen suggested the name–banging away at practicing songs in the studio after hours. He became furious with them until the group played “Something On My Mind” for him, assuaging Lookofsky somewhat. He called Finn a few days later with a proposal: he’d offer the Left Banke a contract, provided the band made his son Michael a fulltime member.
Given that choice, the original three members of the group decided to put worries about their hipster credibility aside and took Lookofsky up on his offer. For his part, young Michael Lookofsky decided that if one member of the band could change his name, so could he, and from that point onward he was Michael Brown. The nascent Left Banke spent the next few months rehearsing during studio off-hours while also managing to record their first two songs, “Something On My Mind” and “I Haven’t Got The Nerve”.
During this time, tensions were already building that would afflict the Left Banke throughout their brief career. Simply put, lead singer Steve Martin and keyboardist Michael Brown absolutely hated one another. Brown’s gift for melody was terrific, but he lacked any knowledge or experience in translating that to a rock idiom. Thus, while the band was trying to write, Cameron and Finn would (more or less) patiently work with Brown to transform his melodies into rock and roll songs. Martin, on the other hand would simply become abusive to the 16-year old on the keys. Martin and Brown would then yell at one another and things would fall apart. At various times, both guys had to be literally coaxed into not walking away from the band. It was clear that if history didn’t intervene, the Left Banke was going to be gone before they’d put out a song. As it turns out, history did indeed intervene.
One day while the band was rehearsing, Tom Finn showed up with his new girlfriend in tow. She was a stunning blonde named Renee Fladen. You can imagine the rest of the band trying to play things cool here, but 16-year-old Michael Brown was poleaxed. According to everyone present, he simply couldn’t stop staring at Miss Fladen, and at one point his hands were shaking so badly in her presence that he couldn’t play piano at all. A firm believer of writing what he knew, Brown began work on a song about her.
(The estimable Miss Fladen, the subject of at least three Left Banke songs)
The original melody for “Walk Away Renee” would sound fairly familiar to us today, but it had an almost metronomic quality to it–there was almost no flow whatsoever to the song. Martin, Cameron, and Finn worked the song over with Brown to make dramatic improvements to the way the melody flowed. Additionally–and in a move that would become familiar to them–the guys in the band turned to their connections in The Village for lyric help. A fellow named Tony Sansone came in and notably punched up the lyrics enough to receive a songwriting credit.
Harry Lookofsky heard the band working out the song and realized he was hearing a hit. Enlisting the help of string-playing friends and session musicians willing to work for cheap, Michael Brown (on harpsichord) is the only band member to play an instrument on the track. Just as Martin, Cameron and Finn were preparing to lay down the famously gorgeous vocals for the song, it was discovered that for not the last time the band was on the verge of splintering. Having decided he’d had his fill of Steve Martin after a notable dust up, Michael Brown had persuaded the Left Banke’s drummer, Warren David-Schierhorst to fly out to California with him to start a new band. One problem: Brown was 16 years old still. Harry Lookofsky had the authorities put his son on a plane back to New York immediately upon landing in Los Angeles…and then calmly directed the vocal session for “Walk Away Renee”.
Sadly, Brown’s instability would become a familiar pattern with the Left Banke and haunt the gifted musician the rest of his life. Brown’s mental state veered wildly between an almost patronizing superiority complex over the other members of the band…frequently chased by an almost debilitating sense of inadequacy and inferiority. No doubt his constant fights with Steve Martin did little to improve his mental state.
At any rate, with “Walk Away Renee”, Lookofsky knew he had a hit on his hands and quickly pressed the single (with one of Cameron/Martin’s first songs, “I Haven’t Got The Nerve” as the B-side) and shopped the record to every label in New York. Shockingly, the big labels turned him down. Finally, a smaller company called Smash Records agreed to put the song out. It didn’t take long until “Walk Away Renee” was zooming up the pop charts.
The band’s record label was eager for the Left Banke to strike while the iron was hot and pressed them to record another single and work up an entire album. For his part, Harry Lookofsky–now managing the group–wanted to get them on the road. Somehow the Left Banke managed to accomplish both of these things in an incredibly compressed period of time. Despite playing gigs (which even the band admits today were terrible owing to bad equipment and not being able to even hear themselves sing) across the northeast, somehow they were able to complete an album’s worth of material. This was due in no small measure to Michael Brown’s composition gifts, although he was certainly assisted by the rest of the band, too.
One key element to getting an album finished was enlisting a lyricist with no small amount of skill in the form of a fellow named Tom Feher. As good as Brown (and Martin and Cameron and Finn) were with melody, none were particularly adept with lyrics. Feher, a poet from the Village, could turn a rhymed phrase quite well. With Feher’s assistance, Michael Brown recalled his muse, Renee Fladen, and issued two more singles with her in mind, “Pretty Ballerina” and the stunningly confessional “She May Call You Up Tonight”. (By this point, Miss Fladen was utterly freaked out by the weird fixating, longing looks from Michael Brown and moved out of state.) The former song peaked at #15 on the charts. The latter somehow didn’t make a dent. On both of those songs, as with the rest of the album being worked up, the musical tracks were almost entirely played by session musicians. Studio time was rare and expensive and Lookofsky still held a (probably deserved) low opinion of the musical abilities of anyone in the band save for his own son.
The Left Banke’s debut album–featuring the top 10 smash “Walk Away Renee” as well as “Ballerina” and 11 other winning tracks is actually pretty fantastic. In addition to all the songs mentioned so far, “Shadows Breaking Over My Head” and “Evening Gown” are fantastic. Depending on your feelings about the 1970’s recorded output of prog rock bands, you can likely lay some of the credit or blame at the feet of the song “Barterers And Their Wives” as an early prime example of cape-rock. Most notably–and here’s some foreshadowing–on the winning “Let Go Of You Girl”, the members of the band play their own instruments…and it sounds just fine. Nothing falls apart.
NEXT: Everything falls apart, super secret guest stars, and an unsung hero.
With apologies to George Winston and John Fahey and Booker T. & The MGs, there are really three truly great pop, rock, or soul albums ever released in the modern era. One is the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack album for the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” TV special. Another is the “A Christmas Gift For You” album from Phil Spector’s stable of stars. You’ve heard both of those records and all the songs off of them dozens of times.
There’s a third record that belongs in that pantheon. Sadly, this record was refused by the label it was recorded for and was available only for a few years on cassette in Japan. That same record got a limited re-release in 2002 on a label that went under shortly after the only CD pressing sold out. Copies of that CD in the shrinkwrap go for $300 on Ebay. (There’s a happy ending Christmas Miracle about its availability coming up, I promise.)
It’s rather stunning, actually, that this record is so criminally unknown. In a just world, it should be blasting from every restaurant speaker and mall PA system from Black Friday onwards through Christmas day. The name of the record is Lost Winter’s Dream. It was originally recorded in 1990 or so by Los Angeles music scenester Lisa Mychols when she was a kid. And, of course, there’s a back story so improbable and wonderful about this record that it deserves to be told again and again. But first, give these two songs a listen if you’re in a festive mood.
Yeah. The first thing you’ll notice is the amazing production on this. You’d never in a million years guess that it was the debut recording by a bunch of folks making their first record together. There’s all that Spectorian awesomeness sprinkled on it like sugar on a spritz cookie. More than that, though, there’s a wide-eyed, heartbreakingly pure sincerity to it all. There are reasons for all that.
In an interview about ten years ago, Mychols talked a bit about the recording of Lost Winter’s Dream. Apparently a couple of things precipitated this album. For one thing, Mychols had grown up in love with the classic sounds the 1960s and the kind of production flourishes one heard from folks like Phil Spector or on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. She taught herself to play bass by plunking along on it while watching videos on the recently-launched MTV. One fall, still a teen, she’d struck up a conversation with scene-making SoCal hipster record label Bomp. By now, Mychols had also taught herself how to play guitar and to write songs. Bomp was interested in putting out a single on a 7″ if she’d record something. She was interested…
…and, by her account, was also undergoing the first heartbreak of her life, the end of her first longterm romantic relationship. She’d come up with a few songs, actually, and determined that–given the fall into winter season–she’d write songs in the vein of that classic Phil Spector Christmas album. Eventually, all the songs she was working on ended up being more or less of that theme. Maybe the “single” would be more than just one song.
The soon-to-be-record had one other thing going for it. Mychols had struck up a fast friendship with two like-minded souls, a couple of guys named Darian Sahanaja and Nick Waluska. They loved the same records and sounds she did. They could fill in gaps on instruments she couldn’t. They also had some studio experience themselves. The single that Mychols had promised to Bomp took on a life of its own, at some point becoming a full album. Mychols–the principal songwriter–poured out her broken heart into every song, filling them not just with heartbreak and longing, but also with hope, nostalgia, joy and desire. Her songs were the kind of things you can’t fake. Real emotions, real young adult first relationship angst.
I’ve kvetched before about bad Christmas songs. It’s so damn easy to just toss off a couple of seasonal words in near non-sequiturs, add some sleigh bells, and call it Christmas music. Too many artists who ought to know better make music aimed at opening holiday wallets without ever seeming to care one whit about what they’re doing, and the end result sounds fake and crass and commercial. There is nothing–not one tiny word–that Lisa Mychols writes or sings on Lost Winter’s Dream that doesn’t feel as if she isn’t singing from the depths of her soul. Lost Winter’s Dream doesn’t sound like a record that someone wanted to make. It sounds like a record Lisa Mychols HAD to make–like some volcanic eruption of emotions and nostalgia and wistfulness that had to come bursting out of her…all tied up in a bow.
Amazingly, Darian Sahanaja and Nick Waluska matched the gorgeous and pure and beautiful songs that Mychols wrote with production chops that belied their limited experience and means. They, too, poured it all out. That they were working under a tight deadline with the holiday season pretty much already arriving only added to how remarkable the end results were. Nothing about what the three ended up with sounds rushed or half-baked.
There was a punchline though. After somehow managing to get everything finished, the weekend that Bomp had set as a deadline for the finished results was a weekend that Mychols found herself grounded. There was no way for her to deliver the master recordings or artwork. Bomp told her maybe next year. Deadlines are deadlines. Talk about teen angst. The next year, Bomp had changed its focus to be strictly aimed at garage rock of the loud and noisy variety. They were no longer interested in Lost Winter’s Dream. Since no one else knew or much cared who Lisa Mychols, Darian Sahanaja, or Nick Waluska were in 1991, Lost Winter’s Dream found no suitors. Finally, a Japanese label picked it up and put it out on cassette in Asia.
Mychols went on to front a string of well-respected Los Angeles guitar pop bands of which The Masticators were probably the most well-known. She still makes great music on her own as the Lisa Mychols 3, or as a member of bands like Nushu. Sahanaja and Waluska formed a group called the Wondermints. They ended up as Brian Wilson’s (yes, that Brian Wilson) backing band starting in 1999 and have been there ever since as his touring band and studio musicians. It was some amazing happy accident, then, that all three of these incredibly talented folks ended up recording an album together at the start of their respective careers.
Based on the relative prominence of the various members in the intervening years, Lost Winter’s Dream got a proper US release on boutique label Rev-Ola in 2002. Unfortunately, Rev-Ola’s parent group, Cherry Red Records, discontinued the label and put Lost Winter’s Dream out of print after a single pressing.
Now, though, time for that happy ending for music lovers. The pop music goldminers at Futureman records acquired digital distribution rights to Lost Winter’s Dream in 2012. For a measly $7, you can finally own the best Christmas record you’ve never heard. Even better, you can listen to the entire album for free before you buy it. Seriously, that’s an awesome deal. The version that the Futureman folks have up is the “expanded edition”, too. Apparently the original Japanese release appended the seasonal tunes with four cover versions: “To Sir With Love”, “Sign Of The Times”, “The End Of The World”, and “Sixteen Reasons”. They also added some demo versions and a few other oddities from the same period.
Every year when I do a holiday-themed music mix, I always give it a working title, just for my own mental reference: “Wassail” or “Xmas Cool” or something like that. This year I quickly gave this collection of tunes the working title “Peace On Earth”. Obviously, that’s from the wonderful MattPondPA cover of George Harrison’s immortal “Give Me Love” that kicks off this year’s mix. I’d always eventually meant to change it to something snappier. Funnier. Something goofy. But then over the past few weeks the news has just been bleak. People keep getting killed for incomprehensible reasons, and even more incomprehensibly, idiotic shouters want to blame every person besides the killers for events that happened. Much like the moronic inanity of the “War On Christmas”, it’s pseudo-rage meant to push buttons. Media outlets of every stripe and political leaning figured out years ago that ginned up outrage equals ratings and page clicks and money.
And so “Peace On Earth” ended up being a title I kept. It felt sadly appropriate, obviously. I don’t worry about it being “too topical” or too rooted in 2014, either. If we know history well enough, we know that sadly “Peace On Earth” will always be a quixotic wish with applicable currency for any year.
But….not just every year will have this lineup of holiday tunes. It’s not all wistful solemnity! There’s that chiming “Getting Better All The Time” guitar nick that the wonderful Pugwash use on “Tinsel And Marzipan” for instance, that sets my heart a-flutter every time. There’s Dutch indie rockers Clean Pete and Niek from the band Afterpartees doing a take on Kirsty McColl and Shane MacGowan that seems a little too rip-offy…and then the chorus dips into that minor fifth outta nowhere and I swoon. Maybe most improbably, I discovered this year that two bands do songs called “My Beerdrunk Soul Is Sadder Than All The Dead Christmas Trees In The World”. Turns out its a quote from Charles Bukowski, so that probably explains it. There’s a Joy Formidable B-side with that title, but it sounds icy and distant. A Scottish band called Broken Records also do a completely different song with that title, and theirs sounds like an amazing, drunken raveup. Guess which one I used? I hate that I’ve not even mentioned an awesome Francopop tune from Canada’s Chic Gamine or The Raveonettes or Los Campesinos. Shoot, there’s even some K-Pop, a genre which I figured there’d be no way I’d ever put on a mix, but when you hear a song like “An Eighties Christmas Song”, you just gotta. I mean, c’mon. We got yr cool Yule right here, mac.
This year there’s also more Lisa Mychols (who, you know, get used to seeing in these mixes for a good long while, and if her Christmas album recorded with the Wondermints ever comes back in print, you should but immediately–right now it’ll run you about $100 used) who’ll pluck your heartstrings with “Pure And Simple”. There’s London indieboys Tellison making a good case for telling a few lies over the holidays. There’s some classics too for chilling and grooving.
And of course, there’s me putting this out there to wish you the happiest, most joyful, and hopefully peaceful of holidays and new years. I know that “Peace on earth” is a cliche and a humbug and thoroughly impossible thing, but I don’t think I’m going to stop wishing for it, just the same. Merry Christmas!
2. “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)” MattPondPA
3. “You’re Just Like Christmas” The Crookes
4. “Tinsel and Marzipan” Pugwash
5. “Favorite Things” The Supremes
6. “Noel (Au Coin de Portage et Main)” Chic Gamine
7. “Let It Snow” Frank Sinatra
8. “Make It To Christmas” Clean Pete featuring Niek
9. “Snow Song” I Was A King
10.”Don’t Tell The Truth This Christmas” Tellison
11.”Winter Wonderland” Ray Charles
12.”Winter Now” Broadcast
13.”An Eighties Christmas Song” Tramgirl Karaoke Club
14.”Pure and Simple” Lisa Mychols
15.”My Beerdrunk Soul Is Sadder Than All The Dead Christmas Trees In The World” Broken Records
16.”When Christmas Comes” Los Campesinos!
17.”Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer Mambo” Billy May
18.”The Christmas Song” The Raveonettes
19.”Christmas Stars” Dwight Twilley
20.”Taking Down The Tree” Low
21.”I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” Wizzard
22.Fairytales, New York, and the Boys of the NYPD Choir
(click the header or picture and the music should happen.)
Got hepped to something on Saturday morning that sounded funny to use in future years. Decided Saturday afternoon that it incorporated such a neat part of 2014 that I wanted to stick it into this year’s mix.
Making a few audio adjustments for posterity today.
Bleah. In my heart of hearts, I’d meant to have a Christmas mix done and posted for general consumption on Monday. However, a couple of regular accounts I work with were desperate to get some things done before the holidays, and were willing to make it worth my while to help them out. So…self-imposed deadlines for Wednesday and Friday have come and gone. Yikes!
I sorta feel like Scrooge a bit, because I’ve been working lots and not doing that whole “keeping Christmas well” thing. At least not as well as I’d have liked to. Let’s go with that.
It isn’t just that, though. I’ve either become extraordinarily picky about what songs I’ll consider for a Christmas mix, or the awful crap to good stuff ratio for the Christmas tunes I’ve been listening to is way out of whack in favor of the former category.
The other thing is, if I wanted to have something done right now, it’d be done. I’ve learned from experience that this is no way to do a holiday music mix, though. Rushing and cutting corners leads to bad stuff. There are at least two mixes from the last 10 years that I just cannot listen to at all, because I know I rushed them, and I know there are gaping errors in content and placement in both of them. A Christmas music mix is kinda forever for me, for each year I do it. No backsies.
At any rate, I’m at the quality-control stage here, and I have to have it done for a little holiday shindig tomorrow. So. I’ll finish it up tonight. Post it tomorrow, and maybe throw a reminder up for those of you who only surf the internet on weekdays at work on Monday. You know who you are.<a
The first time I can remember encountering Tom Chick, it was in a UseNet group about 15 years ago. It was a thread about some real-time strategy (RTS, to those who play them) computer game. I think it might’ve been Age Of Kings. I can’t even remember whether I liked the game or not, or what I said, but Tom vaguely disagreed with my comments. I do remember how I felt when he took issue, however: “Who the hell is this Tom Chick jerk?” It got under my skin a little. When Tom challenged me those many years ago, he didn’t get personal, but he got into my head, if that makes sense. It’s easy to deal with if some internet toolbag gets personal. You fire off a snide remark back, or you ignore it.
The way Tom got under my skin was to ask me why I felt the way I did about whatever game it was. He didn’t say “You’re wrong.” He didn’t tell me I was an idiot. He wasn’t dismissive of my opinion. He simply wanted to know why I felt the way I felt about the game, and explained why he had a differing opinion of its quality. Think for a minute about how having someone seriously (and with genuine curiosity) ask you why you like or dislike something, how that can get inside you. The person who asks you “why?” is asking you to examine the complex ways in which you experience things and then wants you to try to externalize it in a way that makes sense. When someone with a differing opinion does that to you, if it catches you in just the right frame of mind it can put you back on your heels a bit. I remember that such was the case here.
I discovered pretty quickly that this Tom Chick jerk reviewed games for a living. (I was also sort of flabbergasted to find out that he played Reporter Gordon on The West Wing, and had a brief stint as Oscar’s boyfriend on The Office.) I’d see reviews he’d write in magazines or online sites. I discovered he and another games journalist were starting up a website. I started reading there a lot. Eventually, a music discussion on whether it was possible for rock and roll musicians to create great music while under the influence of drugs (someone was arguing vehemently against it) created enough nerd rage to cause me to register and start posting on the forums. Tom and I crossed paths there. Occasionally we cracked one another up. We played a few games together. (Want to be humbled? Play Tom Chick in an RTS game where he knows secret hotkeys, like Rise Of Nations. You’re frantically trying to herd your on-screen guys like cats at a tuna cannery, while he’s calmly doing this ALT-right-click hotkey voodoo thing and mopping the floor with you.) We got to be that most modern of characters of the information age. We became internet friends.
I’ve always marveled at how effortlessly (seemingly) Tom writes things in a unique style and voice, like this piece that came out as our troops on the ground in Iraq began to come under regular fire. Tom also writes his share of controversial reviews. He’s infamous as the guy who hated Deus Ex. When he gave a game from the popular Killzone franchise a negative review while running a gaming blog for NBC’s SyFy online presence a few years ago, the deluge of angry commenters nearly crashed the host’s server. Chick actively campaigns against the evils of the 7-9 scale (that scale is the tendency of game reviewers to simply bunch up reviews between 7 and 9 on a 10-point scale to satisfy publisher PR departments and continue to get review copies and free dinners at conventions). His reviews–now exclusively on Quarter To Three–stick to a 5-star system. When Tom gives a game three stars out of five, he means that the game is good, but flawed in some way. When Metacritic adds it into their aggregator, it’s a 60%. That’s associated with a failing grade in our consciousness. Tom doesn’t apologize for it. Metacritic is happy with it. And so it goes.
What’s even more interesting to me as I rediscover a love of movies is that Tom is a skillful reviewer and commentator on films. You can see plenty of his reviews online at Quarter To Three. For the last five years he’s been the host of the QT3 Movie podcast. Now, you may think that doing a weekly podcast is an easy thing. I’m here to tell you it’s tough. Doing one, and doing one well is almost impossible. Listening to Tom on a podcast is like watching 1970s Johnny Carson, a maestro at work. He says interesting things that are amusing, yes. More importantly though, is that he asks really interesting questions. I guess he’s scripted some of the points to discuss, but he’s willing to go far down intriguing rabbit hole tangents with his cohorts on the podcast (Christien Murawski and Kelly Wand, who are excellent co-conspirators to the most entertaining movie podcast on the internet) that it seems that most of what’s going on is unscripted. It’s kind of cool seeing a mind that works in interesting ways, giving us a peek into how that curiosity works.
For my own self, I like to write criticism and essays occasionally. I try to learn and imitate from folks I admire who do it better. For decades, what I’ve consciously borrowed, emulated, or blatantly stolen from other writers was style. Maybe a little Ira Robbins here, perhaps a smidge of Nik Cohn there, a turn of phrase from Greil Marcus, etc. I’m not ashamed to say that any ability I have with words is derived mostly from reading a lot and appropriating style elements I like. What I realize now is that a lot of the time I was sounding the notes, but not really playing the song, so to speak. What’s been most valuable to me in the 15 years that I’ve known Tom Chick is that from him I’ve learned–finally, after years of teachers and professors trying to drill it into my head through high school and college–how to truly think critically. I try to imitate some of what Tom does, whether reviewing a movie or a game or a TV show or whatever. He has an approach in which he simply articulates “Here’s how I felt about this, and here’s why it clicked with me–or didn’t.” It sounds simple. I don’t think it is. Roger Ebert wrote the same way. There aren’t a whole lot of Tom Chicks or Roger Eberts around, as far as I can tell.
Last year, Tom and I co-wrote movie impressions covering 30 years of horror movies. It was both great fun and daunting challenge. As a writer, I thought I’d do OK. As a thinker with interesting things to say, though, I knew I’d have to step up my game. I had my moments, I had some whiffs. It was also an amazing learning experience to see a first-rate critical thinker go through his process of coherently explaining why something was or was not worth seeing. Because of all that, and because I enjoy scaring the crap outta myself around Halloween, I wanted to give writing about horror films another go this October. I contacted Tom earlier in the summer, and he said he was all in on doing it again. I began to get things set up for the project, including an arduous task of getting a list of almost a hundred movies down to 31.
About a month ago, Tom contacted me back again. He was unsure he’d be able to go for the movie thing. He said he’d just been diagnosed with cancer, stage 4, in his pharynx. I think he said something about wondering if I would still do the project. I think I said I would. Those emails were exchanged in a daze; how do you respond coherently to news like that? It took nearly a week for Tom to casually mention that he had good healthcare, and that despite the dire news, his doctors felt he had a good chance of being rid of the cancer through aggressive treatment (maybe lead with that, huh?) He’d be losing his voice during treatment and recovery, and that meant he’d have to leave his podcasts for a while. He expressed that while he still planned to write, he’d need to do it on his own pace and wasn’t sure he was up to the grueling schedule of watching a movie a day and then generating interesting thoughts about them. This month-long marathon of horror movies isn’t easy, fun though it can be. It requires a time commitment (I really am watching–and in some cases rewatching–movies and taking notes daily), and then a mental sharpness to crank out content that isn’t crashingly dull. Daily deadlines can be incredibly taxing to be honest, and something I wouldn’t do if I wasn’t in love with doing it. As it is, I’m barely suited for the task, and I don’t have chemotherapy and radiation treatments to deal with.
Thankfully, I was able to find some amazing volunteers who are excellent writers, horror aficionados, and importantly, internet friends. They agreed to step in and give me excellent writing partners for the task ahead. And so tomorrow we’ll start writing about horror films, just like last October. We’ll have a lot of things to say, and if you’re reading this here, we’d love for you to join us there in discussion in the comments. I’m sad that Tom won’t be participating, but overjoyed that the reason for that is him getting better and beating a disease he’s got a puncher’s chance at having completely purged from his system. And if Tom isn’t present there in the words themselves, I know it’ll be apparent that his obvious influence will be visible in everything we write.
A GoFundMe page to help Tom deal with expenses while undergoing treatment and recovery is right here. Go give a little.
“Wanna see something really scary?” (Dan Aykroyd, The Twilight Zone)
I know I do, especially at this time of year. In fact, last year I spent October buried in horror films. Over at Quarter To Three, Tom Chick and I dual-blogged our impressions of 30 selected horror movies covering 30 years, from 1957-1987. It was a blast.
This year, I’m going to be doing something similar, but with a modified theme. For 2014’s horror movies in October, we’re going to cover the best 31 horror movies of the last 15 years. The premise–and I don’t want to spoil too much just now–is that the last 15 years for horror film have been a golden age in the genre, covering a wide variety of sub-genres. We’ve got found footage, fake documentaries, creature features, psycho killers, ghost stalkers and even a good ol’ fashioned werewolf or vampire, too. Oh yeah–we also got zombies. Boy howdy, do we have zombies!
I think we’ll be up again at Qt3, and so each day a friend and I will write about a new movie over there, and I’d love for you to show up and offer your own opinions in the frequently lively discussions that ensue. Consider this your invitation to join in!
On the movies chosen: I crowd-sourced it with some of the horror aficionados at Quarter To Three over the last few weeks. We started with nearly 100 films to fill 31 spaces. We wanted to get culturally significant movies in, we wanted a representative cross section of films, we wanted to give a leg up to artistically interesting movies, etc. etc. I can’t tell you how bummed I was to have to leave great flicks like Zombieland or Trollhunter off the list, but that’s just how strong the last 15 years have been. If your favorite movie isn’t covered, well…maybe we’ll get to it some other time? In the meantime, here are the 31 movies we’ll talk about in October, in the order we’ll discuss them.
The Blair Witch Project
The Ring (US)
28 days/Weeks Later (A two-fer!)
A Tale of Two Sisters
Shaun Of The Dead
Call Of Cthulhu
Let The Right One In
Cabin In The Woods
House Of The Devil
Berberian Sound Studio
The Last Will and Testament Of Rosalind Leigh
The Banshee Chapter
Trick R Treat