Music History*: Notes (both Major and Minor) from my childhood

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always liked comic books. When I was growing up, there were always comics around- old tales of the Green Lantern Corps, silver-age Superman stories with Jimmy Olsen, and even some Legion of Superheroes stories with Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad, and Saturn Girl.  The Greatest American Hero hit television when I was eight years old, and it was a foregone conclusion that I’d love it.  With my nascent love of music already running strong,  I also loved the theme song by Joey Scarbury.  I remember sitting on the end of my mom’s bed, singing along to the song on the radio.  Mom was super amused that I knew all the words.


Along with my love of superheroes, I have a long-standing fondness for all things Disney.  One of my earliest Disney Music loves was the Main Street Electrical Parade.  This goes beyond mere Disneyana. I used to have a tape of a 1983 album by Michael Iceberg, the composer of the theme, with all kinds of neat stuff like a Robot Revolt theme.  One year, Michael Iceberg brought his pyramid-shaped synthesizer cubicle, the Amazing Iceberg Machine, to the South Florida Fair.  I got to meet the man after the show, and I remember someone commenting that he was spectacularly drunk at the time.  In any case, the original parade is long gone from Disney, but the music lives on as an amazingly persistent earworm. Mua ha ha!


Speaking of all things Disney, let’s talk about EPCOT.   When I was ten, my dad drove both of us up to Orlando one weekend to go to the theme park for the first time.   I brought back two souvenirs from that trip. The first was a brochure book about the park, detailing all of the pavilions, including the still unopened Horizons (coming soon!) and also detailing the planned but never built World Showcase pavilions for Israel, Spain, and Equatorial Africa.

The second souvenir from that trip was The Official Album of Walt Disney World EPCOT Center.  On vinyl.  I listened to that thing so much it’s a wonder the grooves didn’t flatten out.  I can still sing large swaths of the original music from memory, and the vocals in the American Pavilion song “Golden Dream” are directly responsible for an ill-fated and poorly considered audition for the Voices of Liberty that I may or may not have attempted in the early 1990s.

Some of the album is very, very dated – “The Computer Song” specifically comes to mind- but I will always love it anyway.  “Makin’ Memories” is another long-time favorite, left over from the early days of EPCOT when the pavilions were all sponsored by corporations.  See if you can guess which mega-corporation sponsored this one:

As an aside-  anyone who has ever gone on Journey Into Imagination with me can attest that I will always-and-forever sing the ORIGINAL version of Dreamfinder and Figment’s song, very very loudly, over the current iteration.


I’m skipping around my personal timeline a little bit, but I wanted to talk about 8-track recordings.  When I was a wee lad, cleaning day was a family affair.   We had an 8-track player in the living room, and we got those Columbia House shipments of new titles every so often.  On family house cleaning days, we’d fire up the stereo, throw a tape into the 8-track player, and everyone in the family would pitch in to clean the house.

I suspect that a hefty percentage of my readers have probably never heard an 8-track tape, so you may not know that an 8-track splits the album up into four sections. Our player had no fast-forward or rewind, but you could switch between the four tracks, and the music would loop.   If you let it play all the way through, our player would automatically switch from track to track in sequence.   It’s because of the 8-track of the original Star Wars soundtrack that I whenever I hear The Cantina Band theme by John Williams, I expect to hear a fade-out, track change, and fade-in at roughly the middle of the song.  That’s what it did on the 8-track.  You can hear the fade-out at one minute and 40 seconds in the video below.

Here are samples of other artists that twisted the mind of proto-Steven from cleaning day 8-tracks- The Lettermen (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), Neil Diamond (America, September Morn), and John Denver (Country Roads, Thank God I’m A Country Boy).

(I just know I’m gonna get flack for the John Denver tunes.)

What music do you remember listening to with your family?

8/52

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*This post is the second in a series on music throughout my life.  Part one is here.

Music History: Firsts

I love music.

This may be the most understated thing I will say all year.   Long-time readers of this blog probably figured out a long time ago that most of my non-work trips start with me going, “Ooh, a concert I want to see!”    I’ve talked a great deal about music on this blog already- I’ve talked about They Might Be Giants, and Leonard Cohen, and Eurovision.   I ‘ve posted about musicals in general, and about Starlight Express and A Chorus Line in particular.   I’ve also talked about my first ever concert (New Edition), and about my memories of the Ghostbusters soundtrack in that glorious red plastic Arista case back in 1984.

And of course there’s a page on this blog that I keep updating to show the artists that I’ve seen play live.

I’ll say it again:  I love music. I need music.  If I don’t listen to music for a while, I can get downright cranky.  It’s as vital to me as breathing, and I go to concert after concert after concert for the love of music, even though I hate crowds and I have a fair amount of travel anxiety.  I can’t not go. (FOMAC, or Fear of Missing a Concert, is an entirely different blog post that I may come back to later.  Shut up, it’s a real thing!)

With that introduction in mind, I want to talk about music throughout various parts of my life.  I’ll start at the very beginning.

My earliest memory of music, any music, was all the way back in 1978.  I was five years old, and I remember being in some sort of a school or daycare center or something along those lines- it wasn’t a usual place for me.  I was waiting near some other kids while we picked up one of my siblings. The kids I was hanging out near were playing with original first-generation Star Wars action figures. I remember they made me be C3PO. While we played with the Star Wars toys, there was a radio on.

There were two songs in heavy rotation on the radio at that time, and they were the first songs to ever penetrate my tiny little head.  Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana,” and John Paul Young’s “Love Is In The Air.”

Those two songs played back to back. I can’t remember ever hearing music before that day. I’m sure I did, but I don’t remember it.

I also recall the very first album that I ever owned.  When I was ten years old, there were advertisements in the back of comic books that said that if you sell stuff from their crappy catalog, you could win prizes.  This company sent an army of tiny Willy Lomans (Lomen?) door to door to sell magazine subscriptions, Christmas cards, pecan turtles, and wrapping paper.  With enough sales, you could get yourself a tent, a bicycle, or any number of other “fabulous prizes.”  It took a hell of a lot of sales to get anything substantial, but in 1983, I used my hard-earned prize bucks to get a voucher for a cassette tape from one of those music places like Columbia House or BMG, only not quite as obnoxious. That first album?  I was grooving to “Future Shock” by Herbie Hancock.

I had seen the video for Rockit, of course, and the kicking-pants robots made me want to dance.  Or something.  The entire album turned out to be really phenomenal, but I didn’t appreciate it nearly as much in 1983 as I do now.

My mom got me the second album I ever owned- we were in a Richway, which was sort of like the larval form of the retail chain now known as Target.  Richway’s parent company sold all of their stores to Dayton-Hudon Corporation around 1988, and that company closed all the stores, stripped them for parts, and then reopened most of them as Target stores.  The specific Richway from this story is actually some other non-Target store, according to Wikipedia.

But I digress.   We were in Richway, in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1984.  It was an amazing day for eleven-year-old Steven because not only did I get my first transforming toy there, a red Gobot sports-car named Turbo, but  Mom also bought me a cassette of Rockwell’s first album.   Again, I was familiar only with the first single released, a popular song called “Somebody’s Watching Me,” which had Michael Jackson on backup vocals. The rest of the album was a lot of fun, though, and I still listen to it sometimes.  “Obscene Phone Caller” was always one of my favorites songs, even though it would be years before I actually understood how pervy the song really is.

What was your first album?  Your first concert?  The first song you remember hearing?

5/52

What I learned from the Labyrinth

Labyrinth-poster2Labyrinth, the musical fantasy epic from Jim Henson and Brian Froud, has long been one of my favorite movies.  I loved it the first time I saw it in 1986, and I love it now.  A few months ago, Fathom Events brought Labyrinth back to movie theaters for a few days.  While I was enjoying a new viewing on the big screen, I started thinking about the life lessons encoded in Henson’s Bowie-filled masterpiece.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, here’s the basic premise for the start of the movie-  Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is a teenage girl who clings to the fantasy life and toys of her childhood.  As the film opens, she is late to babysit her brother Toby, and she’s a whiny brat about it.  She complains about having to babysit to her Stepmother and father, “It’s not fair!”  Once they go out, she is frustrated by Toby’s constant crying, and she super dramatically wishes for the Goblin King to take the baby away from her.   Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie) appears, and takes the baby as she requested.

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I need a portable fan for dramatic entrances.

When she says that she wants him back, he gives her thirteen hours to get through the Labyrinth to the castle beyond the Goblin City.    This is where the story really kicks in- and the lessons.

Pretty isn’t always good, and monstrous isn’t always bad.

When Sarah first meets Hoggle outside the Labyrinth, he’s cheerfully killing faeries with a pump-spray filled with of some sort of pesticide. She picks one up, thinking it’s a poor abused thing, and it promptly bites her.  Later, she first encounters Ludo suspended upside-down and being tormented by goblins with biting-sticks. Ludo looks and sounds like a ferocious beast at first, but it’s an illusion.  Once he’s right side up, his fierce expression turns out to be sweet and friendly.

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The idea that pretty things can be dangerous and that helpful or good-natured things might be hiding behind ferocity is repeated throughout the Labyrinth, and that leads us to…

Take nothing for granted.

Early in the film, Sarah is following an outer track of the maze but she struggles to find an entrance to the Labyrinth.  When she slumps against the wall in frustration, she meets an adorable worm who invites her in for a cup of tea, and to meet the missus.

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How does he tie that tiny scarf?  He’s a worm, he’s got no hands!

Sarah is too preoccupied with getting through the maze to stop, and she says as much to the worm.  He tells her not to take anything for granted, and points her to a place that looks like solid wall.   She realizes after a moment that it’s an illusion, and that there are openings all over, and rushes off.

Don’t be in such a rush that you miss the important things.

The worm isn’t done with the lessons there, either.  At the end of their exchange, the worm tells her not to go in the first direction she chose.   She doesn’t question it, thanks him, and races off in the other direction.  Once she’s out of earshot, the worm says, “If she’d have kept on goin’ down that way she’d have gone straight to that castle.”

If she hadn’t been in such a rush, she would have gotten to the castle much faster. and the movie would have been considerably shorter.

Life isn’t always fair.

Throughout the movie, Jareth sends obstacles to keep Sarah from reaching the castle to reclaim her brother.  When he speeds up the clock and changes the conditions of her challenge, she impetuously complains that  it isn’t fair.  Jareth’s dry retort is one of my favorite lines in any movie: “You say that so often, I wonder what your basis for comparison is.”

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Goblin King Sass!

It’s important to have perspective about the problems in your life-  fairness rarely enters into it.  Whining about how things haven’t been fair to you will accomplish nothing at all.

You can get used to any bullshit if you spend too much time around it.

When our intrepid heroes reach the Bog of Eternal Stench, they meet Sir Didymus, the stalwart defender of… a tiny rickety bridge across the bog.  While we never find out why Sir Didymus has pledged himself to defend this bridge, we do realize that he must have been in the Bog for quite some time.  Everyone else in the group is recoiling with disgust at the stench, but Sir Didymus doesn’t notice at all.  Think of it as the olfactory equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome.

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This is also true in real life- if you have a terrible job or a bad relationship or a friendship that is withering on the vine, it’s easy to get used to it.  Inertia is sometimes difficult to break through and we often let a less-than-ideal situation go on for far longer than we should because it’s what we’re used to.

Sometimes you just need a new quest to get out of the Bog.

Your stuff is just stuff.

During the requisite drugged-peach hallucinatory trip segment of the movie,  Sarah finds herself in a junkyard with no memory of what she was doing.  She encounters a Junk Lady with all of her possessions on her back.  There’s a moment where Sarah returns to what she thinks is her room, surrounded by all the things she loves – her old games and books and toys and stuffed animals.

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The Junk Lady starts to hand her the things she loves, and begins stacking them up on her back-  after a moment, Sarah starts to have an improbable stack of her things resting above her shoulders, just like the Junk Lady.   She realizes after a few minutes that her things are all just junk- the belongings aren’t that important, and she quickly resumes her quest to reach Toby before the clock runs out.

This is a recurring theme in many of my favorite movies- the things you own often wind up owning you.  They can pull you down, and weigh heavily on you.  And at the end of the journey, it’s really all just junk-  the important thing is the people you meet along the way.

Love can be a subtle control.

In one of the most subtly nasty moments in the entire film, Jareth says a thing which summarizes the tricky control of many a psychologically abusive relationship.  Gaslighting, in a nutshell:   “I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.”

In a way, this is the same lesson as most of the others-  you can get used to any situation, no matter how bad.  The things you love can control you.  Pretty things are often bad for you.

The way out is to remember your own strength, as Sarah did when she stopped playing  Jareth’s Goblin games at the end of the movie:  “You have no power over me.”

What lessons did you learn from Labyrinth?

Movie Ratings In Germany

Last week, I went to see the remake of RoboCop.   The movie itself wasn’t bad, as remakes go, and I think it was a pretty fun flick.  That’s not what this post is about.

After the movie, I had a discussion with a bunch of people about the movie, and one of them asked about the rating-  apparently some of my friends hold the viewpoint that RoboCop with a PG-13 rating instead of 1987’s R rating just isn’t acceptable.  Never mind that the things you can do with a PG-13 in 2014 would make an R from 1987 toss its cookies.  That’s not what this post is about either.

The exact question posed was, “Was the rating over there the same as here?”  This, I immediately realized, would be an excellent topic for a blog post.

In the US, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has been giving films those familiar ratings since 1968: G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17.   In Germany, there’s a similar organization, the Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft, or FSK.  The FSK classifies films under the following categories for both movie theaters and television broadcast:

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  • Ohne Altersbeschränkung (FSK 0): This means no age restriction.  This is pretty much the same as a G rating in the US.
  • Freigegeben ab 6 Jahren (FSK 6): No children younger than 6 years admitted.   This is similar to the PG rating in the US.
  • Freigegeben ab 12 Jahren (FSK 12): Children 12 or older admitted, and children between 6 and 11 only when accompanied by parent or a legal guardian.   Films in this category can generally be broadcast on TV all day. This is similar to our PG-13 rating.
  • Freigegeben ab 16 Jahren (FSK 16): Children 16 or older admitted, and nobody under this age is admitted.  This rating can be broadcast on TV only after 10 PM unless approved by special permit or re-edited to secure an FSK12 rating.  This is similar to our R rating.
  • Keine Jugendfreigabe (FSK 18): “No youth admitted”, only adults.  This is the local equivalent of the NC-17 rating in the US.   Movies with this rating can be broadcast on TV after 11 PM. However, nudity isn’t all that unusual on broadcast television here, especially later at night.

All the above ratings also contain the phrase “gemäß §14 JuSchG” (in accordance with §14 of the Youth Protection Law), which means that they are legally binding.  This differs wildly from the MPAA’s ratings, which are merely recommendations and are not actually legally binding.

Oh, and RoboCop has an FSK12 rating here, in case you were curious.

If you were a movie, what would your rating be?

Halloween In Germany

Halloween isn’t really a traditional German celebration, but it has become more popular in recent years, especially with children.  Most people seem to think this is partially from seeing it depicted in American television and movies, and I suspect that’s a big factor.  Here, costumes are more commonly seen around Fasching.

German youngsters only go trick-or-treating (“Süßes oder Saures!”) in certain areas.  Yesterday, I saw only three children running around with pillowcases, and that might not have been for candy-  they might have just been running around with pillowcases.

I did find that there are a few traditions that are similar to Halloween’s origins in Europe, without being exactly Halloween.

  • In the regions of Bavaria and Austria in Southern Germany, Catholics celebrate the entire period between October 30 and November 8 as Seleenwoche or All Souls’ Week.
  • November 1st is Allerheiligen, or All Saints’ Day. Catholics attend church services in honor of the saints, the martyrs and those who have died for the Catholic faith. People may also visit their family’s graves to beautify them with wreaths and small lanterns. Sometimes a mass is said at the gravesite and the grave sprinkled with holy water.
  • In some areas, November 2 is observed as All Souls’ Day. Catholics attend a special Requiem masses, where they remember those who may be close to them that have died. Prayers for the dead are said and votive candles are lit to honor their memory.
  • In Austria, there’s an entire pumpkin (Kürbis) festival in late October, Kürbisfest.
  • Jack O’Lantern decorations have become more common in Austria and Germany in late October.

Meanwhile, those of us who grew up with Halloween look for places to observe the holiday, and most of those places turn out to be bars and pubs.

Last night, I visited two in particular.  Murphy’s Law, the better of Regensburg’s two Irish pubs, was having a Halloween event.  The Piratenhöhle (Pirate’s Cave) was having a Zombie Halloween party.

In both locations, I saw lots of vampires, zombies, and pirates.  There were a few people dressed as Warcraft characters, one amazing Peter Jackson styled Orc, and more people with random fake bloodstains than I can shake a stick at.

My costume was not as well known as I expected-  roughly 90% of the Germans I ran into had no idea what I was dressed as.  Amusingly enough, only Americans and Canadians call him Waldo.  In the rest of the world, he’s Walter or Wally.  I also learned last night that I can walk around the Altstadt in powder blue pants, and nobody will bat an eye.  Oh, Germany, you make me laugh.

A few people I passed exclaimed “Hab dich gefunden!” (Found you!) as I walked past, so that was gratifying.  And kind of hilarious.