ShaneHalbach.com

Hero Worship

Queen

Like so many young men of my generation, I was introduced to Queen via Wayne’s World and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Wayne’s World came out in 1992. Back around that time I bought a lot of cassette tape singles. I used to hang out at NRM music in the mall, and I think the tape singles were $4 apiece (you whippersnappers and your $0.99 instant downloads). I bought the single of Bohemian Rhapsody and I remember telling my mom she had to hear this amazing, cutting edge band known as Queen.

“Yeah,” she said, “I’ve heard it. How did you hear it? These guys have been around for a long time.”
“No way,” I said. “This song just came out.”
“Shane, this song was out when I was a kid.”

I didn’t believe her, couldn’t believe her. This song was cool! No WAY my mom could have heard it before.

I remember that, after a heated argument, my mom finally did somehow convince me that Queen had been around for awhile. “Well then, they were ahead of their time!” I declared, stomping out of the room. Of course, Bohemian Rhapsody came out in 1975, and Freddie Mercury was dead by the time *I* ever heard that song, but we didn’t have smart phones back then to look that kind of thing up.

(Side note, the reverse side of that tape was The Show Must Go On, which is probably now my favorite Queen song, so you whippersnappers don’t know what you’re missing with your “only buy the song you want” nonsense!)

There is just something about a Queen song that, when you hear it, just makes you start pumping your fist in the air and bobbing your head (and maybe there is something to that, since Another One Bites the Dust is literally the rhythm of your heart).

Could there be a more perfect stadium rock song than We Will Rock You / We Are the Champions? Who hasn’t rocked out to Another One Bites the Dust? Who hasn’t harmonized to Fat Bottomed Girls? For my money, no tv theme song will ever top Princes of the Universe (“I am immortal! I have inside me blood of kings, YEAH!”).

Queen was ahead of their time, man. That front man, that stage show, that sound. So many hits. Their sound is still unique. The show may go on, but we’ll never have another one like Queen, my friend.

I make my kids listen to Queen. I don’t care that their hits are 40 years old. I want to ride my bicycle, and I want to ride it where I like, thank you very much.


Mystery Science Theater 3000

Oh, my friends. Let me tell you about one of the greatest shows every produced in the history of mankind: Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The MST3K planet logo

“Mystery Science Theater 3000″ is a mouthful, so it’s often shortened to mst3k, or even “misty” due to the fact that even mst3k is a bit of a mouthful, and misty is what it sounds like when you say “m-s-t” really fast.

The premise of the show was simple (and spelled out right there in the theme song):

In the not-too-distant future — Next Sunday A.D. –
There was a guy named Joel, Not too different from you or me.
He worked at Gizmonic Institute, Just another face in a red jumpsuit.
He did a good job cleaning up the place,
But his bosses didn’t like him, so they shot him into space.

We’ll send him cheesy movies, The worst we can find (la-la-la).
He’ll have to sit and watch them all, And we’ll monitor his mind (la-la-la).
Now keep in mind Joel can’t control Where the movies begin or end (la-la-la)
Because he used those special parts To make his robot friends.

Makes, perfect sense, right?

So Joel and the robots were forced to watch terrible movies (mostly science fiction) and in order to keep their sanity, spent the entire time making fun of them. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you may have run across the iconic image of the guys sitting in their movie seats in front of the screen:

As is the case with writing about any of the things I love, I just don’t know how to convey how much I loved mst3k. I’d have to explain how funny the show is, or how I would practically prop my eyes open with toothpicks to try and stay up until the episode started at midnight, or how much I loved my mst3k tee shirt in college, or how devastated I was when Joel left the show, vowing I would never like Mike no matter what, only to later like Mike so much that I had trouble deciding which host I preferred, or how my and Sara’s first date involved watching Manos: The Hands of Fate. Eleven years and 197 episodes, not to mention how many times I’ve watched the ones I have on DVD (and even more that I can’t watch anymore because they’re on VHS!)

Long story short, it was a great show and I’m feeling all sad and nostalgic just thinking about it.

There are so many good episodes (about 197 of them, give or take), but off the top of my head I would have to list my favorites in this order:

  1. The Final Sacrifice
  2. Pod People
  3. Manos: The Hands of Fate
  4. Space Mutiny

I know the guys are still out there doing RiffTrax (you buy the mp3 of their commentary and sync it to the movie as you watch it), but I’ve never tried it out. Anybody want to make it a movie night? And if not, I’ve got plenty of old misty episodes lying around…


Stephen King vs. H.P. Lovecraft

Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft (most famously known for the cthulhu mythos) are two of my all time favorite authors. They are similar in the sense that they are both extremely famous horror writers who are widely acknowledged as masters of their craft and legends in the horror genre. However, it occurred to me the other day that the similarity ends there. Within the horror genre, they are at absolute opposite ends of the spectrum.

Mr. King’s genius is in capturing the “every man”. He is so good at capturing a slice of life, painting a picture that is so ordinary, that you’re absolutely sure it could be you. The horror is that it could happen, really honest to god could happen, and close to home too. When you read a Stephen King story, you kind of feel like the story was written by a nice guy, a friend of yours, to whom you can relate.

H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft is the opposite. Somehow he’s able to capture something so awesome and alien that your mind shudders to comprehend it. Lovecraft’s horror relies on a sense of majesty, a sense of wonder. The horror is that it’s so big and alien that there’s absolutely nothing you could do about it. In fact, there’s nothing anyone could do. Lovecraft doesn’t disrupt suburban “every man” utopia by bringing the story into your home, he destroys your home, the world, and everything in it. When you read an H.P. Lovecraft story, you kind of feel like the story was written by an alien in human skin, or, best case scenario, a strangely lucid lunatic.

King’s heroes are every men as well, the duty usually falling to kids, housewives, or middle-aged, small town sheriffs. Lovecraft has no heroes. In a Lovecraft story, you’re the hero if you survive, period (with or without sanity intact). That’s really the best you can hope for.

So both are frightening for their own, very different reasons and I wonder if anybody enjoys both ends of the spectrum as much as I do?

I guess the take away is that the horror genre is as wide and deep as the tentacle of great H’chtelegoth himself.


The Tick

me_tick

Ah, my friends. Let me tell you about the greatest show in the history of the universe: The Tick.

(Just to be quite clear, I’m talking about the original cartoon from the early ’90’s, not the live action television show from 2001. The live action show had moments of brilliance, but nowhere near the level of the cartoon.)

What to say about The Tick? I love it so much that I don’t even know where to start. I feel like any words I put down here are not going to really capture the essence of the show. Of all the times that I’ve tried to tell someone about the show, or explain a particularly funny scene, it just always seems to fall flat. But you could say that about a lot of things I try to write about, so once more unto the breach as it were.

I guess I’ll just start with this picture of me in my Tick costume from 2002:

I have enjoyed a lot of shows over the years, but none more than The Tick. It only lasted 3 seasons, and it has been off the air for almost 16 years now, but I can still recall nearly every episode. Basically, they all went like this: some ridiculous super villain shows up, the tick bumbles his way through, relying on exuberance more than intelligence, until his semi-reluctant sidekick Arthur comes up with a legitimate plan to save the day, with or without the help of a ridiculous cast of super heroes that inhabit “The City”, after which The Tick wrapped up (?) the whole episode with an absurd and strangely worded “moral lesson”, like the ending to some kind of surreal episode of Full House.

Something like, “When a nice clean brain tumbles into the dirty street to lay among the discarded wrappers and spat-out gum wads of wickedness, you can’t just pick it up and wash it off with soap and water; you have to think it clean from the inside out.” Or “Let your journey into hugeness teach us all a lesson. Absolute power is a sticky wicket. And, Arthur, chum, you were the stickiest. Don’t you get it, good friend? Some of the best things come in small packages. But large things can’t. Unless they’re inflatable, or require some assembly, or unless they’re hearts. Yes, giant, juicy, loving hearts. As big as the moon, but much, much warmer. “

The Tick was a parody of superheros and comic books, two things which I love. The best thing about it were the characters. They weren’t anything like the prototypical comic book heroes and villains we knew and loved. They were weak, they were stupid, they were arrogant, they were cowardly. Their powers were lame and their schemes and plans were even lamer. The heroes often did more harm to The City than the villains (such as the Tick, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, breaking off chunks of stone and decorative moldings with his clumsy bulk).

There were heroes such as Bi-Polar Bear (“This looks like a job for Bi-Polar Bear… but I just cant seem to get out of bed.”), the Caped Chameleon (“Can’t…do….plaid”), Baby Boomerangutuang (A combination baby boomer / boomerang throwing orangutan), or Sarcastro (a Castro look-alike who fights crime with the “razor sharp sting of sarcasm”) who engaged in battles with villains like the Deadly Bulb (a.k.a. “pigleg”, who happens to have a pig for a leg, so he became a super villain to keep people from noticing that), Stalingrad (he’s not actually evil, just a graduate student who happens to look like Joseph Stalin, which is enough to qualify him as a villain) and, my all time favorite, The Evil Midnight Bomber (What Bombs at Midnight!)

The Tick himself was a fantastic character. He was stone stupid, but had an endless enthusiasm that kept him going when all the other heroes fell by the wayside. Stupidity and child-like exuberance are a great recipe for a character, a la Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin.

I could throw great quotes at you, or episode synopses, but none of those could make you love The Tick the way you aught to. Do yourself a favor and spend some time on youtube watching some clips. Or start with the quick compilation below:


Ben Folds

Just to finish off the week of “things we’ve been doing lately”, two weeks ago today Sara and I actually got a babysitter (*gasp*) to go see the man, the myth, the legend: Mr. Ben Folds.

I have been a fan of Ben Folds for such a ridiculously long period of time (though not quite as long as Sara, who claims I “stole” Ben Folds from her, despite the fact that I had a couple of pirated mp3s before I met her!) that it’s almost hard to remember a music landscape without him. Actually, I just remembered that “Whatever and Ever Amen” was the first thing I ever bought off this crazy new website called eBay. Sara and I danced to “The Luckiest” at our wedding. My mom liked the song so much, that years later she danced to “The Luckiest” at her wedding.

Previous to this concert, I’ve seen Ben Folds four times, and each one was unique and totally awesome. I sat in the front row of the balcony at the University of Illinois in a venue so small that I probably could have sweat on him. I saw him at a true college show at Purdue as part of my bachelor party, where he was hilarious in between songs. He was very chatty, telling all kinds of stories about growing up when we saw him in his home state of North Carolina. And finally, we had the truly unique concert experience when we saw him with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Still, through all of that, I had never actually seen Ben Folds Five together in concert (Sara saw them once in the ’90’s). So when our friend Dabu informed us they were coming to Chicago for the “World’s Largest Block Party”, we knew we had to go. It was every bit as awesome as I could have hoped it would be. They played all the best old stuff, and I heard every song that I hoped I would hear.

(They don’t look this young anymore)

I believe we have 16 Ben Folds or Ben Folds Five CDs (technically four of them are just EPs, and one is a DVD), and every one of them is awesome, start to finish. I love the old, ironic nerd rock, Ben Folds Five stuff. I love the slightly more serious solo Ben Folds stuff. Even the very newest stuff is good, the last new album “Lonely Avenue” is one of my favorites. And the new retrospective “The Best Imitation of Myself” is probably the best compilation I have ever heard from any artist. I even loved Mr. Folds on the now-defunct acapella show The Sing Off.

You know the old saying, you have to know the rules to break them? I think Ben Folds’ deep understanding (intuition?) of music is what allows him to get away with the things he does. Like writing a beautiful song about something ugly, or an upbeat song about something sad, or to have a harmony-driven-piano-centric-with-no-guitars pop band, or to call three musicians “Ben Folds’ Five”.

I don’t know what it is exactly about the music, but the best I can say is that it’s just beautiful. It’s beautiful when it’s about the human condition, but it’s also beautiful when it’s talking about Americans over-consuming. It’s beautiful when it’s talking about love, but it’s also beautiful when it’s talking about breakups, or relationships gone wrong, or abortion, or a bad acid trip, or people who wear fanny packs. It’s just always, unceasingly, heartrendingly beautiful.

Ben Folds Five is preparing to release a new album, and you can pre-order it here. In fact, if you do, you instantly become a “Vice President of Promotion”, which you should go ahead an do, so we can be co-Vice Presidents together. It will be very nice working with you.


The Dave Matthews Band

Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a band. Specifically, the Dave Matthews Band.

I got my first DMB CD (Under the Table and Dreaming) when I was in high school, sight unseen (unheard?) based on the recommendation of my best friend. Who knew that it would spark a love affair that would last for more than a decade?

Everybody was a DMB fan back then, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that I lived, breathed, ate, and slept in their music. Most of the time, literally. Certainly there are super-fans who had more “cred” to their name, but I did alright. I have something like 20 DMB CDs. I had shirts, hats and stickers. I saw them in concert more times than I can count, including one magical tour when I saw them three consecutive nights in a row. I listened to CDs in the car, in my room, and on my discman in between classes (that’s right you youngsters, a discman). I learned how to play the guitar because of Dave Matthews. It seems ridiculous now, but I used to wear a hemp necklace. A hemp necklace people!

Considering all of this, I felt like I must have tons and tons of old blog entries about the Dave Matthews Band, but surprisingly I didn’t. However, I did find a pretty good excerpt from a blog post as recent as February 2008 that sums things up quickly:

One final note, Live at Radio City Music Hall by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds is really good!  Dave and I used to have a pretty good relationship.  We hit a rocky patch during the whole Lillywhite Sessions debacle, but Busted Stuff and Some Devil were better than a dozen roses.  Still, the endless live compilations began to wear on me (see Live Trax vols 1 – 10).  How many CDs can I own with the same songs on them?  Finally, Stand Up did our relationship in.  But here comes Live at Radio City to make me remember all those romantic weekends at Deer Creek.  Of course it is good!  Did we forget that Live at Luther College inspired me to learn how to play the guitar?  And that Tim Reynolds still can play the hell out of a guitar.  Dave’s voice is a little more raspy, the song selection is decidedly spiritual and I’ve never heard acoustic guitar sound so…sinister.  They really work that low E!  But it certainly brings back memories and I’ve spent more than a few trips in the car singing my lungs out.

Although I rarely listen to DMB these days, there’s no denying that a large portion of my life is inexorably tied to that music. It was the unceasing soundtrack of my life for a large, important chuck of time, spanning from high school, throughout college, throughout my time in Philadelphia, and into my life in Chicago.

Which is probably why, when I pulled out some old DMB CDs for a road trip a couple of weeks ago, I startled Sara by weeping openly several times.

It would be impossible to hear a DMB song that didn’t have some associated memory with it. I know them all by heart, but it’s like they know *me* by heart as well. I can’t hear Under the Table without thinking about driving around Fort Wayne in Chris’ red S10. I can’t hear Crash or Recently without thinking about playing Magic the Gathering in Casey’s basement. Live at Luther College reminds me of the guys that lived in my hallway at the dorm my freshman year. Before These Crowded Streets reminds me of playing guitar in Hillenbrand with Casey and Jeremy. Rody and I listed to Live at Red Rocks in the car on the way Deer Creek for concerts (ha, I just remembered, Rody won DMB tickets once by calling in to a radio show and singing Ants Marching!). Reid and Casey performed #41 at an open mike in the basement of the Union. I think about ex-girlfriends, friends half way around the world, and now I think about the DMB songs I sang to my kids when they were babies and wouldn’t go to sleep (and still occasionally now).

Everybody has a particular band or particular style of music that really defines them, or reminds them of their childhood. For me, that is and always will be the Dave Matthews Band.


I miss Mr. Rogers

If you haven’t seen this popping up everywhere already (including my own Facebook and G+ streams), you will soon.

Somehow, in addition to making an awesome song, these quick clips totally captured the essence of Fred Rogers. It only takes about five seconds of video to see his absolute love of children, his absolute love of his job. He wasn’t delivering lines, he was saying something he absolutely believed in, all the way down to his toes (which were no doubt stuffed in some comfortable yet tasteful indoor shoes).

A friend on Facebook said, “Wow, maybe it’s because I’m a child of the early 80’s, but I really loved this. It makes me feel like I can be an astronaut, or the queen, or the president, or a ballerina!”

It’s true. Seeing this video not only brought back my memories of the show, but it specifically brought back my memories of how the show made me feel. Not like I was being entertained, but like anything was possible. Like the world was right outside my door, waiting for me to come out and claim it. Like Mr. Rogers believed in me. Like imagination and a love of learning were all anyone needed.

“Did you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind? You can grow ideas.” – Mr. Rogers.


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