There is no true escape, I’m watching all the time

Judas_Priest_-_Screaming_For_Vengeance-front

Chicago has its annual Pride parade tomorrow, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to go. When I lived in the part of Chicago where the parade takes place, it was always a highlight of the summer. I’m sure that it still is, too, but since I don’t live in Boystown anymore, it’s not the same as it was for me. I have a feeling that the Supreme Court’s decision this week to strike down DOMA will add a little bit extra to this year’s festivities, too.

I’ve come a long way on gays in my lifetime, as many people have. And one of the markers on this is Judas Priest. I remember listening to Screaming for Vengeance my freshman year in high school, back in the early 1980s, but never suspecting that frontman Rob Halford was gay. All I knew was that the leather and studs look he introduced into the heavy metal genre was not the way I would ever dress, but it looked sufficiently badass and was therefore cool. The title of this post is taken from a line in the song Electric Eye, which seemed to be about 30 years ahead of the NSA curve.

When Rob Halford came out in the 1990s, I realized that the leather and all of that was not quite what I thought it was. But he had the same amazing voice, and the same kickass songs that I listened to as an angry and confused teenager. Nothing was any different, except that he told the world about who he was.

The social pressures that once prevented Elton John from coming out, and kept Freddie Mercury and George Michael and Johnny Ray and who knows how many others in the closet–or worse, forced them to present themselves as ladies’ men–have greatly changed through the years. And this is a good thing, because great music is great music, no matter who makes it.

Happy Pride to everyone reading this, in June of 2013 and every month after that as well.

Re-imagining the 80s

Last night I accompanied my daughters and a friend of theirs to a concert by a band called Big Time Rush. The show seemed to be fun for them, but as I went to the top of the lawn, looking for as much solitude as I could find in a sea of screaming young girls, I started thinking about the recent movie “Rock of Ages“. It occurred to me that I never really wrote anything about it in this space, and this is as good a time as I am likely to get to discuss it, so here goes:

The movie itself is based on a Broadway show, which I haven’t seen and am not likely to. Musicals seem to lose something, artistically speaking, when they transition from Broadway to Hollywood. The shows were written for the stage, and grafting them onto another format typically doesn’t work too well. I enjoyed RENT a lot when I saw it on stage, but I couldn’t make it through to the end of the movie version. Mamma Mia was the same thing: the musical was entertaining, but the film version, not so much.

With that in mind, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and a number of other Hollywood actors took a shot at turning the musical “Rock of Ages” into a movie. I’m a child of the 80s, and I’ve written about the music from that decade many times here. So it was fun to hear some of these songs in a movie, even though I didn’t much care for the two leads at the center of the obligatory romance story (Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta). The Glee-style mashups of “Juke Box Hero/I Love Rock and Roll” and “We Built this City/We’re not Gonna Take it” seemed unnecessary to me, too. They’re songs that can, and should, stand alone by themselves, at least in my mind. I realize that makes me somewhat old-fashioned, or at least a purist, but so be it. I’ve been called worse things.

The gay subplot between Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand’s characters was certainly funny, but gay issues themselves weren’t really visible in the 1980s. I have no doubt that closeted romances like that existed, but consider what happened to Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford. Before he came out in 1998, he had left the band in 1992, and they continued on with with a singer from a Judas Priest tribute band in his place. Halford says that the music scene today is different than it was back in the 1980s, but it wasn’t the way that Rock of Ages suggests, either. The Baldwin and Brand characters would have had to keep things on the down low, to use a more modern phrase.

But the biggest disappointment was Tom Cruise’s channeling of Axl Rose, singing Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive“. He mangled the songs, in my mind, and I’ll hope that anyone who hears them in the movie also buys the original source material on iTunes. It can’t be that the Tom Cruise version of these songs is the only version that a person gets to hear.

My daughter liked the part in the movie about the boy band, named “Z Guyeezz”  who were clearly a shot at New Kids on the Block. The rockers in the movie show their disdain for this record-company concocted act, but it does have an element of truth to it, I suppose. These bands are created in a lab, so to speak, in order to fill a perceived need in the marketplace, without regard to whether or not they’re any good, musically.

And so it was last night, as I waited for Big Time Rush to take the stage after a couple of lightweight opening acts. When they finally went on, and the teen screaming began in full force, I posted on my Facebook page that the current version of “Z Guyeezz” had just gone onstage. My daughter indicated that this annoyed her, probably because it hit a bit too close to the bone. We both laughed at the ridiculous boy band in the movie, but not even two months later, there she was in the crowd at just such a show, with me along to serve as her driver, and to pad the show’s gate receipts.

I love my 80s hair metal, and I always will, so Tom Cruise and the others can sing it if they want to. I’m sure that REO Speedwagon and Night Ranger and Foreigner and all of the others featured in the movie are getting a nice income boost as a result. But as far as the movie-from a Broadway play-about the years I was growing up is concerned, I’ll keep the actual period in mind, and let Broadway and Hollywood off with a polite, yet firm rock and roll salute. And not the two-finger variety that Tom Cruise gives in the picture above, either.

I know this much is true

At the end of a long day at work today, I faced the prospect of a long commute to get home. It always seems like getting to work takes 15 minutes in the morning, and getting home takes an hour in the evening. Some of that is psychological–does anybody look forward to work more than home?–and some is because I don’t take the tollway on the way home. When the tolls are doubled, as they were here some time ago, it makes taking the tollway each way seem like an extravagance.

To pass the time on the way home today, I had a CD filled with hits from the 80s. Songs that, whether I loved or hated them back in the 80s themselves, are now a treasured part of my past. It’s very bizarre to think of Billy Squier as being a treasure, but two minutes of FM hit radio in 2012 is enough to make me start singing “Everybody Wants You.”

At one point, about five or six songs into the CD, a song started to skip, and I wasn’t able to listen to it. What surprised me today, and probably would have disgusted the  teenager I once was, was that I was disappointed when I couldn’t hear Spandau Ballet’s “True.”

Back in the 1980s, I listened to Def Leppard, Judas Priest, the Scorpions, Quiet Riot, Night Ranger, and pretty much any other “hair metal” band that was on the radio or on MTV. I listened to some other things too, like Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and Run-DMC. So I wasn’t locked into just one type of music, but I did have my preferences. And Spandau Ballet wasn’t among them.

But things changed over time. I was once a simmering cauldron of confusion, anxiety, frustration, insecurities, bravado, and stupidity, with a thick outer layer of smart-ass holding it all together. I was waiting for my life to start back then, oblivious to the fact that I was already living it, and once those teen-aged days were gone, they weren’t coming back again. I actually wanted that to happen back then, but now I wish I had found some way to enjoy the moment a bit more than I actually did.

So the me that once hated Spandau Ballet, because they didn’t have long hair and guitar solos, is gone. In his place is someone who’s lived enough to know more about how the world is, and how people are, and how things turn out the way they’re supposed to, whether you see them coming or you don’t. Someone who can appreciate a catchy melody and a nice sentiment in the lyrics. And someone who is a lot more comfortable in his own skin than that kid from three decades ago.

The next song played without a hitch (“She’s a Beauty” by the Tubes), and before too long I was back at home, living a life that the teen-aged me might find interesting, or boring, or perhaps someplace in between. But at least there’s now room in it for a song by Spandau Ballet.

Are you happy, Rock Hall?

Word of Axl Rose dissing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, just days before the induction ceremony, struck me as vindication for what I wrote last year about the band not being suitable for induction. I stated, at that time, that Appetite for Destruction was worthy of Hall of Fame induction, and the “November Rain” video was, as well. Both are achievements that I’d be hard-pressed to find a parallel to.

With that being said, the band itself has been a dysfunctional mess for almost 20 years. Or at least the lineup that produced those great achievements is a mess. Without Slash’s guitar, there is no Guns n’ Roses. As far as Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan, Steven Adler, and Matt Sorum are concerned, it would be nice to have at least some of them involved in the induction, too. But the head member, the one who apparently owns the band’s name all to himself, is the one I can do without.

Rock bands have tended to operate on the opposite principle. Journey somehow soldiers on without Steve Perry. Boston is going on tour without the late Brad Delp. Judas Priest got by for a decade without Rob Halford. And Queen without Freddie Mercury is about to become a reality, too. There is lots of precedent for this sort of thing.

But Guns n’ Roses  (i.e., Axl Rose) has turned that on its head. You and I could be in Guns n’ Roses, if that’s what Axl wanted. And Slash and the others can play together, as they have in Velvet Revolver, but they can’t use the name that Axl controls. So you have the mess that now exists: Axl wants Guns n’ Roses to be thought of as the band he leads, while if they tried to show up and play at the induction ceremony, nobody there would know who any of them were (besides Axl, that is).

If the Velvet Revolver contingent showed up at the induction ceremony and played “Paradise City,” with Kid Rock or anyone else on vocals, Axl would feel pretty stupid (if he can even feel this way at all. I have my doubts). His letter states that he doesn’t want to be inducted in absentia. But for this one moment, he doesn’t have control over what Guns n’ Roses is. He could have issued this statement months ago, and the people who are planning to be in Cleveland to see them perform on Saturday night may or may not have gone ahead and booked the flights, reserved the hotel rooms, and made other necessary arrangements.

Would the ceremony still be sold out, as the website claims it is, if Axl’s intentions were made known last winter? We can’t know that for certain. But just as Axl routinely disrespects fans by starting concerts hours later than they’re supposed to start, he also disrespected, I have to believe, the fans who were planning a trip to Cleveland this weekend. I’m hoping that Slash and the others who once made up Guns n’ Roses show up instead, to deliver a pointed message to Axl. He sure has left himself open to getting one, in my view.

I’ve written about how the ongoing exclusion of KISS from the Rock Hall is wrong, in my view. They wrote the rock anthem that everyone knows, judging from the reception they received on Dancing With the Stars this week. That song is Hall-worthy all by itself, but it’s looking like KISS might not ever get in. RUSH is worthy of getting in, too, but they’re also on the outside looking in.

The Rock Hall people–apparently not embarrassed enough by the spectacle of Van Halen’s induction without any actual Van Halens being present–have upped the ante with Guns n’ Roses this year. We’ll see how it all plays out, I suppose, but there will be lots and lots of awkwardness in Cleveland on Saturday night. Welcome to the Jungle, Jann Wenner.

RIP, Don Cornelius

For my two young daughters, rap is one of those things that has probably always existed, like water and color television and the internet. But I wanted to take a few moments here to describe my personal experiences with rap, and to tie them in with today’s shocking news about Don Cornelius.

The first time I ever heard “rap” in any form was on Blondie’s song “Rapture.” I remember Debbie Harry doing something that wasn’t quite singing, and was more uptempo than anything I had heard ever before. It seemed to take a lot of vocal dexterity to tell about the Man from Mars who shot you dead and then ate your head. The play on words in the title was also lost on me, since I was just a dopey kid at the time. But it left an impression on me, that was for sure.

What really got me into rap music was watching Run-DMC perform “Rock Box” on Soul Train back in 1984. It was literally the Saturday after my 16th birthday, in the very short window before I started working and driving and thinking about life beyond my parents’ house. I was far from the person I would become in just a few years, and light years away from what I am today.

I was changing the channels, probably looking for a ball game to watch, when I saw these guys dressed in black and wearing hats. They had a loud, rock-driven beat behind them, and their verbal interplay was beyond all description. I sat transfixed for a minute or two, and when they had finished, I thought to myself that it was totally unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was a moment that, almost thirty years later, I still can’t think of any  parallel to.

When Dan Cornelius came over to interview them after the song, I realized that I had been watching Soul Train. I knew what the show was, but didn’t really make it a point to watch it, either. But at that moment, something I had seen on Soul Train blew me away like nothing else has, before or since.

I wish I could find an online video of the performance itself. The song was called “Rock Box,” and had they picked another song on the album to perform on the air, I may not have watched it so intently. I even think that “Hard Times” and “It’s Like That”  from their first album may be better songs than “Rock Box.” But for a kid who was listening to Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne and Def Leppard (and, I hasten to add, wasn’t smoking pot), the rock beat was necessary to get my attention and reel me in. And that’s just what happened.

Two years later, I was in college and playing their debut album and the King of Rock  for my dormmates, who were getting into them because of Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way” remake. It was one of those rare times in life that I felt like I was ahead of the musical curve.

The news that Don Cornelius died, and apparently by his own hand, was very shocking to me. Even if I never watched Soul Train again–and I honestly can’t remember if I did so or not–the fact that he helped to break Run-DMC to a larger audience means a lot to me.

How many other acts did he give exposure to, and how many lives were impacted as a result? We’ll never know the full answer to that, but it had to be very significant, as the show ran for more than thirty seasons on the air. Whatever caused Don Cornelius to take his own life isn’t my business, but I hope that he knew all the good that he and his show did over the years.

From one Chicagoan to another, thanks.

Bridging the gaps

Think back to high school for a moment. Either it was a pleasant time of your life, or it wasn’t. But you’ll only have to do it for a couple of minutes. Just trust me on this.

First I want you to picture the valedictorian of your graduating class. Anthony Michael Hall’s character in The Breakfast Club.  The one who gave the address to the class about the future and what it holds, while you just wanted to collect the proof that you were finished, and then hit the graduation parties as soon as possible. Or at least, that was my experience once upon a time.

Now I want you to picture the star athlete of your high school class. Emilio Estevez’ character in The Breakfast Club. A football player, in all likelihood, and a basketball player, too. Perhaps even baseball in the spring, because this person only understood life when competing against someone else. The one who had every girl in the class hoping he would ask her out next. That guy.

The two people I just had you picture in your mind were quite different people, weren’t they? Each had their thing, and made sure to stay as far away from the other as possible. They may or may not have disliked each other, but I’ll bet that neither one wanted the other to get into his proverbial space.

Now imagine that those two people– the jock and the scholar–were actually one and the same. Whoa! Hold on a second. One person who gets better grades than everyone else, and is also the best athlete? Where would anyone find the time to pull that one off? A fair question, indeed.

Billy Bean was such a person in high school. Before going any futher, I have to point out that this is NOT the person who Brad Pitt portrays in Moneyball. That Billy Beane has an “e” at the end of his name, and this Billy Bean spells his last name like Jellybean or Mr. Bean. Same name, different people. Remember that.

Billy Bean, the star athlete and valedictorian of his high school class, was a two-time All-American outfielder in college, was drafted shortly after graduation, and arrived in the major leagues during the 1987 season. The card shown above is his rookie card, at a time when nobody considered that to be an important or valuable thing. You make it to the majors, you get your picture on a card. Simple as that.

Billy Bean played in the majors and the minors, and even played briefly in Japan, from the time this card appeared until 1995. After leaving the game, a story in the New York Times in 1999 “outed” him as a gay man, and after acknowledging this fact he has written a book, served as a motivational speaker, and built a successful real estate business in Florida.

The only other professional athlete of any major team sport–sorry, Martina Navratilova–to publicy acknowledge being gay was the late Glenn Burke, who I wrote about here. It would seem that gay athletes aren’t comfortable with revealing this to other players or to the general public. Society has come a long way on gay rights in my lifetime, including open service in the military and in Judas Priest, but the sporting world appears to be behind the curve in this sense.

I wonder who the first athlete to publicly come out during their playing career will be. Whoever it is will need to be very strong, in order to upset the apple cart that has always existed in professional sports. Former teammate Brad Ausmus has publicly signaled his acceptance of Billy Bean, but there’s no indication that others would do so with one of their own teammates. The fact that no professional athlete has yet taken this step during his or her playing career suggests that Ausmus is the exception, instead of the rule.

As a society, we’ve never had to reconcile a professional athlete with someone who’s open about being gay, at least not while that person is still playing the game. And that’s unfortunate. I hope that changes someday soon. And Billy Bean–who has successfully bridged the gaps between star athlete and valedictorian, and between pro athlete and openly gay man–will deserve a special mention when it does.