Mini Movie Review: ‘Blinded by the Light’

One of many reasons I’ve always felt like an alien living amongst human beings: my love for Bruce Springsteen’s music. Yes, he is one of the most popular rock stars on the planet today, but it always seemed to me that most of my generation didn’t care much for him after the Born in the USA period ended. Because of this, it was awesome watching a movie about a teenager in the late ’80s embracing Springsteen’s music even though it marked him as incredibly uncool — a sentiment I understood intimately. It needs to be noted though that, Javed, the lead character in Blinded by the Light, loved Springsteen even more than I ever did — I didn’t pay close attention to Springsteen’s lyrics the way he did until I was in my mid 20s. Nonetheless, identifying with the son of Pakistani immigrants to the UK in the same way he identified with a Baby Boomer rock and roller from New Jersey certainly felt like movie magic.

The Increasingly Inaccurately Named “Song a Week,” #4

“Just take those old records off the shelf
I’ll sit and listen to ’em by myself
Today’s music ain’t got the same soul
I like that old time rock ‘n’ roll”

— Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, “Old Time Rock & Roll”

“Don’t leave me this way, no
I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive without your love
Baby, don’t leave me this way”

— Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”

There’s an old hoary chestnut about how you become more conservative as you age. The kernel of truth behind that adage doesn’t necessarily apply to political views; in fact, one can become more liberal with age even if they started out solidly liberal. The truly proper way to interpret the belief is to acknowledge that our preferences, tastes, and inclinations calcify with age — our desire to try new things withers and we become more risk adverse. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t find new ways to enjoy the things that have always given us pleasure.

Music is a wonderful example. Every generation thinks the music their children enjoy is awful. In the ‘50s, parents hated the emerging rock & roll their teens listened to. Then, when their kids were teenagers, they didn’t care for rap and the other forms of music emerging during the ‘80s. Now those former teenagers, such as myself, are themselves three decades years older and find it difficult to appreciate the artistic merit in the autotuned, overly-produced sounds of what passes for most current pop music. Yet, each generation of parents who still loves listening to music continues to seeks out new material to enjoy.

For this particular dad, the search predominantly takes two forms. Outside of the new (to me) artists I’ve encountered on various NPR programs, it’s easiest to simply follow already beloved artists and listen to their output, no matter how entrenched they may be with their sound and style. Unfortunately, no matter how hard musicians try, the overwhelming majority of them have well-delineated range they simply work best within. They all typically mine this zone for everything it’s worth. The ones that don’t simply stay within their comfort zone then typically work out from the margins while simultaneously reworking/reinterpreting old themes and even rearranging old favorites. Springsteen fans, for example, can tell you all about the many songs he has reimagined using new arrangements. Those artists that attempt anything radically different, more often than not, frequently encounter indifference from the long-time fans that can become, in worst case scenarios like Metallica, utterly hostility. A few truly good artists successfully manage to expand their repertoire, but they are rare

The other option: explore the back catalog. Admittedly, this wasn’t easy before today’s era of streaming music. Because the current rock/pop paradigm literally began in the ‘50s, a teenager from that time already knew a good amount of what already existed when faced with changes in the direction of pop/rock of their children. However, for this ‘80s teenager, and those that came later, there was three decades or more of music that hadn’t appeared on the current cultural radar for some time — at least not on the radio stations that predominantly focused on new music, regardless of musical genre. Yes, the cultural stepping stones, such as The Beatles and songs such as “Hotel California” become timeless standards. However, there remains plenty of good, older music that younger listeners need to actively seek out. 

Personal case in point: Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. Despite spending a significant portion of my childhood and early adult years living in the greater Philadelphia area, their hometown, until recently this band was a great unknown. Knowing that Teddy Pendergrass was a R&B singer of note did not equate to awareness that he was the lead singer of The Blue Notes during the early ‘70s, the period in which they had many of their greatest hits. Even worse: the Blue Notes song I knew best was a cover version of their original.

Nothing against Thelma Houston’s disco cover “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” It’s a solid dance version of the song. However, the full impact of the lyrics get lost in the translation: in comparison, Houston barely implies the emotional urgency and anguish Pendergrass evokes. Hell, it feels like Houston will stay alive without her lover by dancing night away. Pendergrass, on the other hand, sounds he absolutely won’t survive being left that way; he sounds distraught — especially during his various exclamations and pleads during the fade out.

It seems odd that Houston’s cover, and not the original, is the one enshrined in the cultural metaconsciousnes. Yes, it was a bigger hit, but once you’ve heard Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ original recording, it feels somewhat milquetoast — though nowhere near as much as 52EACCAA-FE75-42CC-81FA-10EDCC3DD5F9the original recording of “Try a Little Tenderness” sounds when compared to Otis Redding’s definitive reinterpretation. Though I’ll happily listen to her Houston’s dance version in the right circumstances, I’ll be thinking about Pendergrass’s whenever I do so.

Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes
”Don’t Leave Me This Way”
Wake Up Everybody
1975

Hall of Songs: 2019 Inductee

Song a Week, #3

“While Mr. Kim, by virtue of his youth and naiveté, has fallen prey to the inexplicable need for human contact, let me step in and assure you that my research will go on uninterrupted, and that social relationships will continue to baffle and repulse me.”

— Dr. Sheldon Cooper, “The Jerusalem Duality,” The Big Bang Theory

“If I had a mind to,
I wouldn’t want to be like you.
And, if I had time to,
I wouldn’t want to talk to you.”

— Alan Parsons Project, “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You”

I spent a significant portion of my teens and early twenties devouring copious amounts of Isaac Asimov’s fiction. Thankfully, his decades of prolific output meant it was an enjoyable Herculean task. However, the short stories and novels that focused on his Three Laws of Robotics, and the way those laws interacted and clashed with each another, proved to be more than a source of great entertainment. In addition to being logic puzzles, they provided great insight into humanity and how we as species interact with each other.

In particular, stories structured upon The Three Laws can be seen as an analogous examination of American rights and liberties. Much like those rules governing robotic interaction, various individual rights come into conflict with those of other individuals and with society as a whole. That’s one of the primary drivers for our laws and legal system: peacefully resolving and codifying the solutions to conflicts that inevitably result from differing sets of rights and liberties. Unfortunately, people often vehemently assert their personal rights, staking an absolutist stance for them and implying that everyone else’s rights, as well as society’s as a whole, are irrelevant.

Near religious fervor for certain rights demonstrates how easily such rigidity tramples upon the rights of others. First Amendment absolutists turn a blind eye to the fact that proponents of extreme hate speech take advantage of that freedom in ways that purposefully and deliberately undermine civil public discourse. Second Amendment absolutists refuse to acknowledge that obnoxiously embracing open carry laws creates fear amongst law-abiding citizens who understandably view anyone openly carrying a gun as a lethal threat. Fourth Amendment absolutists think that police brutally take liberties with the leeway our court system has provided them in regards to warrantless searches, thus trampling over legal protections supposedly guaranteed to Americans in other parts of the Constitution.

Actually, they have a point. We need more Fourth Amendment absolutists.

The refusal to acknowledge or even care that mindlessly asserting one’s own rights delegitimizes the rights of others is a symptom of the fact that our species is selfish, shortsighted, tribal, and disconcerting adept at dehumanizing others. Yes, we are capable of creating breathtaking beauty and overcoming our worst base instincts. However, it’s far too easy to wax rhapsodically about the long arc of history bending towards justice. Despite 6,000 years of work on improving civilization, far too many of those negative traits continue to plague us, as shown by the inauguration of Trump and the subsequent behavior of both his administration and supporters. Emboldened religious rights extremists currently claim the right to legally treat others, specifically the LGBTQ community, as subhuman. Similarly, events in Charlottesville in 2017 made it blindingly obvious that racism never really went away. It simply changed its clothes, devised new dog whistles, created new secret handshakes, and hid in the dark alleys until it felt safe to come out again.

This kind of thinking and behavior bewilders me. All those hours spent reading stories about The Three Laws, as well as countless works by other authors, greatly shaped an empathetic, humanist worldview. It instilled an innate sense of understanding that there needs to balance — nothing is absolute. As Asimov showed in many of those stories, erroneous interpretation of and emphasis in regards to the interpretation of those laws can cause great harm. In fact, over three decades after he formulated them, Asimov realized the need for a Zeroeth Law, one that stated that all the other laws relied first and foremost upon what was best for humanity. In other words, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.

As much those stories helped to nurture a sense of empathy, the odd thing is that it also helped me realize how much I feel like an outsider amongst my own kind. One of my favorite self-descriptors is “misanthropic secular humanist.” I acknowledge the long arc of history and am awed by what humanity is like when at its best. However, the tribalism, selfish, short-sightedness continues to appall and repulse. It almost seems like those who embrace those traits are robotically eschewing empathy and care for the common good.

I don’t want to be anything like them. 

Yet, Asimov wrote plenty about making robots more human. Not surprising given that pop culture is filled with the robots who yearn to be human — Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation being a notable example. But, does this necessarily follow? The Alan Parsons Project’s second album, I Robot, loosely based on Asimov’s first collection of robot stories, I, Robot, suggests otherwise. “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You,” the album’s second track, displays the disdain I Robotthat one robot feels towards human beings. Any rational being wouldn’t want to be around those who are antagonist and/or hurtfully indifferent towards others, much less become them. I don’t blame it one bit.

The Alan Parsons Project
“I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You”
I Robot
1977

Hall of Songs: under consideration for 2019 inclusion

Song a Week, #2

“We are building a religion.
We are building it bigger.
We are widening the corridors,
and adding more lanes” 

— CAKE, “Comfort Eagle”

As this series unfolds, many threads/themes will undoubtedly become prominent. Some will sprout organically from previous song entries in unanticipated ways. Others, such as subjects, beliefs, ideas and themes that have molded or flat-out determined (not to be confused with fated) who I am and the life I lead, are, well… the word is “inevitable”. Of those, religion is the Grand Poobah of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes; or, the Cthulhu, if you will.

The subject of religion and faith could easily encompass a series all its own. Hell, for years I’ve toyed with various notions of writing a book titled The Gospel According to Matthew, the Agnostic. Opinion and feature pieces from the college newspaper, entries on the old LiveJournal page, thoughts of varying lengths composed and saved into Word documents, throwaway two-to-three sentence posts on Facebook… there is plenty of source material to draw from, with plenty more only thought but not properly put into words.

Yet, by no means do I fancy myself some kind of armchair theologian. I’ve probably read more than the average reader on this subject. However, the time, temperament, or interest to dive deeply into great thinkers’ works on this subject just isn’t there. It certainly didn’t help that Thomas Aquinas’s great defense of the existence of God seemed to rest too much on faith and not enough on actual logic or reason.

Despite a shallow grounding in such treatises, personal experience has provided plenty of opportunity to reflect on these matters. My dad provided an unusual childhood (by American standards) where most of my religious instruction flowed from the tenets of the somewhat obscure Japanese sect of Buddhism he practiced. The other side of the family nominally attempted to raise a Catholic (I can still recite The Lord’s Prayer from rote memory), but the ridiculously small number of church sermons attended didn’t even qualify for the “Chreaster” label.

Without getting into the details here — plenty of future opportunity certainly exists — a disillusionment with Buddhism set in during high school. Later, a college girlfriend inspired a two-year attempt to embrace a right-wing, evangelical form of born again Christianity. Despite best intentions and fervent efforts, a thorough lack of ecclesiastical Wite-Out (to borrow a phrase from Dennis Miller, back when he was funny) ultimately undermined and doomed every single attempt at a successful leap of faith.

All this resulted in my evolving into an “agnostic atheist who has made his peace with God.” Though agnostic, I have no problem with religion in the abstract. It provides many benefits. Unfortunately, lots of horrible behavior is often justified by religion. Gandhi’s apocryphal statement regarding Jesus and Christians can easily be applied to just about any other religious figure and the faithful who follow them. Believe whatever you want, but the second you try to codify your beliefs into law or use them as an excuse to treat others as second class citizens/human beings, then I have a serious problem with your religion/belief system.

Along those same lines, it’s unsettling to think that supposedly God-loving people need the threat of hell and the reward of heaven in an afterlife as motivations to do good in this one. Yeah, yeah, yeah… original sin. Not buying it. Without either of those concepts as motivation, I’ve somehow managed to avoid stealing, murdering, or treating LBGTQ individuals as detestable second-class citizens simply because they want buy flowers and cakes for their wedding ceremony.

All this is why the Flying Spaghetti Monster may possibly be the best religious idea ever. He’s a benevolent god who simply wants everyone to do the things that make them happy, while simultaneously being kind and civil to one another. Furthermore, His Noodliness doesn’t want to use threats and punishments to make humankind behave — we already know how to work this out for ourselves. Okay, that might be asking a lot for many, but it’s not rocket science.  

In fact, it’s simply another variation of The Golden Rule, which is really the primary premise upon which most of the world’s great religions are built. For good reason — it’s a wonderful premise that should be the core of everyone’s lives. However, there is no threat of punishment or promise of reward from the FSM. We’re just supposed to do the right thing, and if someone appears weird by doing something different we’re not accustomed to, but it’s harming no one else, then we just CAKEneed to be more accepting. 

Just widen the corridors and add more lanes. It really is that easy.

CAKE
“Comfort Eagle”
Comfort Eagle
2002

Hall of Songs: 2013 Inductee, Inner Circle

The Original 2013 Hall of Songs

Seeing as posts about just 43 songs from the original Hall of Songs actually made it online back in 2013, it seems only proper at this point to post that list in its entirety — especially since the very first post in the Song a Week series was also the first 2019 inductee.* Just to give a quick explanation for the structure of the original Hall of Songs, there is no real attempt to numerically rank them. Rather, they were grouped into three categories. The first, The Immortals, represented the all-time favorites; 30 songs that be absolutely need to be considered for a single CD of my all-time favorite songs (obviously, they wouldn’t all make it.) This was followed by The Inner Circle: 40 beloved songs almost certain to remain favorites, but not quite in the same category as The Immortals. The final group, The Outer Circle represented those songs that, given enough time, might not remain in the list of 120 all-time favorites. Given the original intent to revisit and revise the list in 2018 (rather than add to it), this was an attempt at recognizing the songs that stood the greatest chance of being replaced.

With that bit of explanation out of the way, on to the original 2013 Hall of Songs.

* This is not an indicator of the strength of the song relative to those that will also be added to the Hall of Songs as the series of posts continues.

The Immortals

“Brian Wilson,” Barenaked Ladies
“Overkill,” Colin Hay
“Don’t Answer Me,” The Alan Parsons Project
“Enjoy the Silence,” Depeche Mode
“Landed (Strings Version),” Ben Folds
“Crazy,” Alanis Morissette
“Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen
“Til I Hear It From You,” Gin Blossoms
“Beautiful Girl,” Pete Droge & The Sinners
“Dracula from Houston,” Butthole Surfers
“Turn the Page,” Metallica
“I-95,” Fountains of Wayne
“Everlong (acoustic),” Foo Fighters
“One Man Wrecking Machine,” Guster
“The Boys of Summer,” Don Henley
“You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” Barry White
“I’m Your Moon,” Jonathan Coulton
“Code Monkey,” Jonathan Coulton
“Galileo,” Indigo Girls
“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” The 5th Dimension
“Taken In,” Mike + The Mechanics
“Somewhere Only We Know,” Keane
“No Such Thing,” John Mayer
“Devil’s Arcade,” Bruce Springsteen
“Life in a Northern Town,” The Dream Academy
“Kiss From a Rose,” Seal
“Crazy,” Gnarls Barkley
“Heroes,” The Wallflowers
“Sloop John B,” The Beach Boys
“Solsbury Hill,” Peter Gabriel

The Inner Circle

“(Nothing but) Flowers,” Talking Heads
“Free As a Bird,” The Beatles
“The Night Is Still Young,” Billy Joel
“Fearless,” The Bravery
“Comfort Eagle,” CAKE
“I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” Daryl Hall & John Oates
“(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding,” Elvis Costello & The Attractions
“AM Radio,” Everclear
“Midlife Crisis,” Faith No More
“The Chain,” Fleetwood Mac
“The Pretender,” Foo Fighters
“The Summer Place,” Fountains of Wayne
“How to Save a Life,” The Fray
“November Rain,” Guns N’ Roses
“Welcome to the Jungle,” Guns N’ Roses
“Center of Attention,” Guster
“Upside Down,” Jack Johnson
“I’m Yours (Original Demo),” Jason Mraz
“The Future Soon,” Jonathan Coulton
“Skullcrusher Mountain,” Jonathan Coulton
“Don’t Stop Believin’,” Journey
“Something About You,” Level 42
“Happiness,” Matthew Sweet
“Home Sweet Home,” Mötley Crüe
“The Cave,” Mumford & Sons
“Sister Christian,” Night Ranger
“Blinded By Rainbows,” The Rolling Stones
“Paint It Black,” The Rolling Stones
“Come Sail Away,” Styx
“Crush Story,” Too Much Joy
“Happiness Is,” The Verve Pipe
“Five O’Clock World,” The Vogues
“Pork and Beans,” Weezer
“Eye in the Sky,” The Alan Parsons Project
“Dear God,” XTC
“Rough Boy,” ZZ Top
“Hotel California,” Eagles
“Africa,” Toto
“Not Ready to Make Nice,” Dixie Chicks
“Forever Young,” Alphaville

The Outer Circle

“Hazy Shade of Winter,” Bangles
“You Run Away,” Barenaked Ladies
“Bull in a China Shop,” Barenaked Ladies
“Pinch Me,” Barenaked Ladies
“Intergalactic,” Beastie Boys
“Sabotage,” Beastie Boys
“If I Fell,” The Beatles
“In My Life,” The Beatles
“Still Fighting It,” Ben Folds
“A Murder of One,” Counting Crows
“Please Don’t Ask,” Crash Vegas
“Sunset Grill,” Don Henley
“September,” Earth, Wind & Fire
“Fantasy,” Earth, Wind & Fire
“Worms and Angels,” Echobelly
“100 Years,” Five for Fighting
“Statues,” Foo Fighters
“Walk,” Foo Fighters
“Action Hero,” Fountains of Wayne
“Hackensack,” Fountains of Wayne
“Who Loves You,” Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
“Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” Green Day
“Hold on Hope,” Guided By Voices
“On the Ocean,” Guster
“Happier,” Guster
“The Rainbow Connection,” Kermit the Frog
“Broken Wings,” Mr. Mister
“Little Lion Man,” Mumford & Sons
“When in Rome,” Nickel Creek
“Shattered (Turn the Car Around),” O.A.R.
“It’s a Sin,” Pet Shop Boys
“The Book of Love,” Peter Gabriel
“Under Pressure,” Queen & David Bowie
“Happy Ending,” Randy Newman
“Don’t You (Forget About Me),” Simple Minds
“Everything Else Disappears,” Sister Hazel
“1979,” The Smashing Pumpkins
“Misery,” Soul Asylum
“A Different Sort of Solitude,” Steven Page
“Cinnamon,” The Storys
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Tears for Fears
“Birdhouse in Your Soul,” They Might Be Giants
“You Got Lucky,” Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
“Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song),” Warren Zevon
“My Ride’s Here,” Warren Zevon
“Chains of Love,” Erasure
“Best of You,” Foo Fighters
“The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Bruce Springsteen
“Superman,” Lazlo Bane
“Am I Wrong (marching band remix),” Love Spit Love

Once all the 2019 inductees are decided, the list will be resorted, with 40 Immortals, 70 in the Inner Circle, and 90 in the Outer Circle. At least, that’s the plan. We all already know how often these projects get seen all the way to completion.

Song a Week, #1

“I liked pop. I liked soul. I liked rock, but I never liked disco.”
— Everclear, “AM Radio”

“Who the hell are we fooling? This isn’t really what we do. We had to borrow these keyboards. We only listen to Mötley Crüe.”

— Bowling for Soup, “A Really Cool Dance Song”

It took a long time to admit liking any dance music at all. Despite being a teenager who claimed to fervently embrace individuality, acknowledging enjoyment in any kind of song expressly recorded to make your body move seemed like a form of moral failure. The thought that anyone might discover I enjoyed any kind of dance music resulted in feeling a foreboding sense of dread. Bruce Springsteen, ZZ Top, The Beatles, Prince, Sting, Van Halen… these were the artists that mattered. Huey Lewis and the News and “Weird” Al also mattered, but the less that’s said about that, the better.

In retrospect, this is absurd. Aside from the logical inconsistency of being a proud individual who didn’t want anyone thinking he liked certain musical genres, a significant number of the songs I enjoyed also appeared on the dance charts. In fact, many of the acceptable artists and pop hits in the ‘80s also appeared in the dance charts. The fact that one could actually shake their rump to Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” or Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” was simply an unacknowledged coincidence. It was kind of like a don’t ask, don’t tell situation — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

This reticence to accept the truth was certainly reinforced by the terror induced by the thought of actually dancing. Like a significant number of teenage boys, every single attempt at rhythmically my body to the beat resulted in motions similar to those of a robot’s spastic movements whilst experiencing widespread system failure. I recall one friend valiantly attempting to teach me how to dance in junior year of high school. All her efforts were doomed from the start by my absolute inability to overcome any feelings of self-consciousness engendered by even the slightest attempt to move shoulders or hips to the beat.

Alas, it’s three decades later, and I still don’t dance. I know… As Annie Savoy said in Bull Durham, “How sad.” Many women, including my wife, have managed to drag this poor boy onto a dance floor only to barely escape accidental injury. No one can determine whether the blood alcohol content in each of those instances was a mitigating or aggravating influence.

Despite those ill-advised attempts at shaking my groove thing, the teenage stubbornness regarding dance music faded. It’s now easy to openly enjoy the dance songs that sound appealing. Oh, they are the minority when it comes to the types of genres and songs that typically receive airplay, but there’s no attempt to hide or downplay how much I enjoy them. Yet, songs that are parodies or tongue-in-cheek renditions of dance songs bring a special enjoyment of their own. 

That’s the area “A Really Cool Dance Song” falls into. It’s kinda-sorta a dance song, and the whether or not the lyrics are accurate portray Bowling for Soup’s musical taste, it is by far the closest they’ve come to writing a dance song — even though it’s abundantly clear that they are treating the exercise as a well-intentioned joke. Unfortunately, Bowling for Soup is one of those bands that have an exceedingly narrow range, and by the time they released this track, they had mined their musical talent for every song it was worth. Oh, but what a great job did they of getting maximum value out it.

This song almost makes me want to go up and dance. Sorry for Partyin'

Almost.

Bowling for Soup
“A Really Cool Dance Song”
Sorry for Partyin’
2009

Hall of Songs: 2019 inductee