Friday, September 18, 2009

Sorry Haters

Jahnke’s Record Collection will return soon but this week, I’d like to turn the blog over to more serious issues. Namely, language. I recently read an article that stated that thanks to social networking, email, blogging and what-not, people are reading and writing more than ever. This is wonderful news indeed. However, much of what is posted online is written in haste. This means that once a phrase enters the collective consciousness, it quickly gets repeated ad nauseam until you never, ever want to see or hear it again. At least that’s the case with me. Your mileage may vary. (See? Aren’t you sick of that?)

There are five of these language-killers that especially annoy me. Every time I see them, it’s like a tooth-ache that you can’t help sticking your tongue in to make it hurt a little more. I can’t stand these things and so, in the vain hope of making you equally tired of them, I spotlight them this week. With your help, we can make the internet a better place.


This one really drives me nuts. Anytime someone feels the need to defend something they like, whether it’s a movie, singer, president or their own blog, the quickest way to end all discussion is by describing everyone who feels differently as a hater. First off, nobody’s asking you to defend yourself. We’re not all going to enjoy the same things. If you like Britney Spears, isn’t it enough for you to just enjoy her music without trying to convince the rest of us to do likewise? I also hate the term “guilty pleasure” for similar reasons. If you like Xanadu, like Xanadu! Don’t be ashamed about it. I sure don’t.

What’s troubling about “haters”, though, is that it implies that people who dislike whatever you’re defending do so irrationally. You have essentially refused the possibility that there may be some very good reasons why people don’t like the movie, singer, president or blog in question. And in so doing, you have just become as closed-minded as the people you’re against are supposed to be. Nice work, Mr. or Ms. Hardcore Fan! You’ve just discovered the topsy-turvy world of the paradox. Hope you enjoy your stay.


OK, time for English class. “Fail” is a verb, not a noun. Something CAN fail but it can only BE a failure. You can’t have an epic fail or a pile of steaming fail and you can’t load a dumptruck full of fail.


Americans have a terrible habit of picking and choosing whatever British slang they find amusing and trying to use it themselves. When they do, they always sound stupid and vaguely pretentious. Here’s a test. Unless you naturally and without thinking tell people to “shut their gob” as opposed to “shut the fuck up”, you have not earned the right to use the term “gobsmacked”.


James Gunn pointed this out awhile back on Facebook and it drives me just as crazy as it seems to him. “Frak” equals “fuck”. We all know that. So just say “fuck”. The same thing with self-censoring words by putting asterisks or other symbols in them. We all know what you mean when you say “sh*t” or “@$$hole” and just because you’ve lamely disguised it, doesn’t make it any less offensive to people who are going to be offended. So either just use the words themselves or, if you’re worried about breaking a commandment, don’t use them at all.


I’ve hated this for years now, so I know I’ve lost this battle and the word is here to stay. That doesn’t mean I’ve got to be happy about it. If someone is handing you a drink and you say “cheers” instead of “thanks”, that’s just fine. No problem. But now it’s everywhere! People use it at the end of emails or to say goodbye. What the fuck are you talking about? Frankly, I don’t think you even know yourself any more. “Cheers” has been used for so long to mean so many different things, it no longer means much of anything. We may as well get rid of it altogether and replace it with a nonsense word that can mean whatever you want, like “geef” or “zoon” or “qwerty”. That’s a good one. It’s easy to type and is fun to say. Go into your email signature right now and replace “Cheers!” with “Qwerty!” The world will be a happier place in no time.

OK, I feel much better now. More music next time out. Until then, pay attention to what you type. Your readers will thank you for it.



Friday, September 11, 2009

Jahnke's Record Collection: Whitney Houston

Usually with these blogs, I can jump right in and pinpoint when the album in question entered my life, what it meant to me at the time, how my relationship to the music changed over the years, and other such burning questions. But occasionally, we’ll have an album like this one: Whitney Houston’s 1985 self-titled debut. In a case like this, there’s really just one question to answer right off the bat.

Why the hell do you have a copy of this in the first place?

Please believe me when I say that in this instance, I really don’t remember. I can justify owning all sorts of weird crap. Say it was a present or I was interested in exploring a specific musical style at the time or whatever. This was not a gift. I bought it my own damn self in ’85 and, if I’m to be completely honest, this back cover probably had a lot to do with my purchase.

Hot-cha-cha! Hey, I was 16. Teenagers, both boys and girls, are allowed to make musical decisions based purely on hormones. How else can you explain the career of David Cassidy?

Anyway, I was obviously aware of the fact that this alluring package included a record album and Ms. Houston’s music was pretty good for its type. “Saving All My Love For You” was and is a perfectly enjoyable radio-friendly tune. “How Will I Know” is dopey fun. In fact, of all the big hits on the album, the only one that I never liked was probably the biggest. “The Greatest Love Of All” does absolutely nothing for me…never has and never will.

This is not a style of music that necessarily appeals to me but what I enjoyed about this album, and what has been all but forgotten thanks to Whitney’s very public downward spiral into crazytown, was her voice. Unlike so many other pop stars past and present, there has never been any question that Whitney Houston can sing. She has a remarkable voice and typically uses it to good effect. “You Give Good Love” shows her at her best. The song itself is kind of a forgettable mid-tempo ballad. But Houston sings the hell out of it. Significantly, she’s in control of her instrument. This doesn’t have the kind of show-offy vocal acrobatics she’d later have in hits like “I Will Always Love You”.

I never bought another Whitney Houston album, although she’d continue to churn out well-crafted, very listenable hits for the next several years. But they were all very similar to each other and I felt this one album was the one example of her work I really needed.

Whitney’s on the comeback trail now, older, wiser and cleaned up, but even with Oprah on her side, I doubt she’ll ever hit the levels of cross-pop-cultural phenomenon she once did. This is no slight against her. I don’t think Michael Jackson would have either had he needed to rely on new music. He had to die to become the biggest star in the world again and I think we can all agree that Whitney is better off than MJ in that respect. Rather than trying to reach out to all audiences, I’d like to see the new, mature Whitney Houston try to reconnect with her original fans by continuing to record the slick, slow ballads that defined her debut, maybe get back into movies eventually. Her career’s second act could mirror that of Barbra Streisand. She might not win a lot of new fans but, as Barbra will tell you, catering to your core fan base can be very, very lucrative.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Jahnke's Record Collection: Best Of The J. Geils Band

This one’s for Matt, since he asked.

In the early 80s, my mother moved to New York to pursue her lifelong ambition of becoming a professional actress. I know, I know…her and about a million other people, right? Unlike some of those others, however, my mom had some reason to be confident. She had just received her graduate degree from the University of Michigan and was by all accounts an extraordinarily talented performer. Of course I’m going to say that, being her son and all. But I’m just repeating what I’ve been told. I only saw her act a handful of times.

Anyway, to pay the bills she took a job working for a guy named Ken Kragen. Kragen was (and still is, as far as I know) a music manager. He’s apparently one of the folks who helped put together the roster of talent on the USA For Africa song “We Are The World”. I’ve no idea what my mom’s job actually was. Kids in their early teens don’t often trouble themselves with details like that. I assume she was an assistant or something like that.

She was never particularly happy working this gig, which should surprise absolutely no one. I think it’s written in the Struggling Artist Bylaws that you must despise your soulless day job, no matter what it is, how much it pays or how much freedom it allows you to pursue your own dreams. But for me, living thousands of miles away with my father in Montana, it was the coolest job ever. For one thing, she was in New York City, which may as well have been Mars to me at the time. Even more important, I got free records out of the deal. Lots and lots of free records.

A lot of these freebies were 45s, promotional singles sent out by record companies to radio stations and apparently everybody else who worked in the music industry. It seemed like I’d get a new batch of 45s every couple weeks. I hoarded them at first but when I realized how many I was getting, I started a new routine. I’d listen to each new batch and separate them into two piles. The ones I liked, I kept. The ones I hated became target practice. If you want to feel like Hunter S. Thompson, go into your backyard and play skeet with a stack of crappy REO Speedwagon singles.

I also got free albums from acts that Kragen represented. At the time, these included the likes of Kenny Rogers, Naked Eyes and…The J. Geils Band. The J. Geils Band was at the height of their commercial popularity when my mother worked for Kragen. The album Freeze-Frame came out and the single “Centerfold” was inescapable. Mom sent me a copy of Freeze-Frame and I must have mentioned that I liked it because the next thing I knew, a large box arrived with about half a dozen catalog albums on vinyl and cassette.

Now I liked Freeze-Frame just fine but it wasn’t as if these guys were my new favorite band, so I didn’t dig into the records immediately. But my mom kept asking if I’d listened to any of it during our weekly phone calls. This was unusual. She hadn’t cared one way or another if I listened to any of the Kenny Rogers albums she’d sent me. I figured I’d better give it a shot and decided the best place to start was a greatest hits compilation, 1979’s Best Of The J. Geils Band.

As soon as the needle hit the vinyl, I was taken aback. It was unquestionably the same band that I was familiar with. Certainly Peter Wolf’s distinctive growl of a voice was instantly recognizable, albeit even growlier. But the 80s pop sheen of “Centerfold” was gone. This was grungier, looser and steeped in R&B and the blues. My ears perked up from the first track, “Southside Shuffle”, but I stopped whatever else I was doing and really paid attention when “Give It To Me” came on. It starts as a perfectly enjoyable pop-rock song, then shifts gears midway through to become a fierce, funky band free-for-all. From then on, I was hooked.

In retrospect, Best Of The J. Geils Band is kind of an awkward and clumsy compilation. There’s virtually no flow to the track sequencing and live cuts appear with no warning next to studio tracks. But the album still holds a special place in my heart. This is where I first heard great songs like “(Ain’t Nothin’ But A) House Party”, “I Do” and “Musta Got Lost”. It also showcases some of the best harmonica work ever, courtesy of Magic Dick. One listen to Dick’s virtuoso performance on “Whammer Jammer” will make you forget everything you think you know about the harmonica.

After the success of Freeze-Frame, Peter Wolf left the band and Seth Justman took control for their follow-up album, You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Odd (more on that curiosity in a future installment of Jahnke’s Record Collection). After that, the band broke up, unfortunately before I had a chance to see them live. However, there is hope. The full band, including Wolf, has recently reformed to play a few gigs, mostly out east. It sounds as if they’re enjoying being back together and, more importantly, their live performances are just as powerful as ever. My fingers are crossed for a more extensive reunion tour. If they come out to LA, you can bet I’ll be in the audience, getting down with “Detroit Breakdown” and thoughts of my mother dancing in my head.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Jahnke's Record Collection: Metallica - Ride The Lightning

This may come as a shock, considering my well-known reputation as the hardest of hardcore bad-asses, but I was never much into heavy metal growing up. I liked some of it but I was mainly interested in bands with monster connections: KISS, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, that kind of thing. I dismissed most of the 80s hair bands out of hand and only tuned into MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball when I was more than usually bored.

Metallica didn’t enter my life until I started dating a young woman named Tisha in the early 90s. Tisha was, and is, a bona fide hardcore bad-ass. She grew up on metal and Metallica was her favorite band. She was such a devoted fan that, in high school, she had a personalized license plate with the band’s name. For most bands, I’d think that was a really stupid thing to do. But somehow, with Metallica it’s beyond cool. I even thought so at the time when I didn’t really know much about the band.

The first Metallica album I heard was their self-titled 1991 blockbuster, known familiarly as The Black Album. The success of that album made it kind of difficult to avoid if you were listening to any popular music at the time. Still, I was impressed. I’d unfairly dismissed most heavy metal as an impregnable wall of noise and Metallica was definitely not that. This was a controlled, precision aural attack. I liked it.

I worked backward from there, familiarizing myself with the band’s earlier albums and generally found that I enjoyed them even more. Naturally, I soon gravitated toward the band’s 1984 album Ride The Lightning. I looked at the track listing, saw the album closed with a tune called “The Call Of Ktulu”, and my monster-lovin’ brain got all excited. As it turned out, the song is an epic instrumental and I may have dug it all the more for that. I could shut my eyes and easily envision Lovecraft’s Elder Gods being summoned to spread hell across the planet.

I continued to be impressed by the seriousness of Metallica’s lyrics. While other metal bands I was familiar with tended to sing about the most primal urges in the most idiotic way possible, these guys wrote songs about suicide, war and capital punishment. Sure, it didn’t have the literary aspirations of Nick Cave but compared to most of what was out there, it was downright poetic.

More important than the words, I was learning to listen to the music. Songs like “Fight Fire With Fire” and “Fade To Black” still had the sonic overload I was familiar with. But a closer listen showed method to the madness. Everything was tight, precise and done with purpose. The music was primal yet sophisticated, hitting a part of the brain that had gone untouched for too long.

My appreciation for metal has continued to grow to this day, although once a band gets too close to sheer noise I tune out. As for Tisha, she eventually became my wife, then amicably my ex-wife. Learning to appreciate Metallica is probably the least of the valuable life lessons I learned from her but I thank her for it nevertheless. I still go back to these early Metallica albums, turning the volume up as loud as I dare. Of course, a real fan would turn it up as loud as they could and never mind the neighbors. I guess I’m just more of a soft-spoken, considerate bad-ass. I hold the door for chicks at the biker bar and if I have to shove a broken bottle into somebody’s face, I always ask before I grab yours.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Jahnke's Record Collection

There is no “Frequently Asked Questions” section on the Electric Theatre website for the simple reason that I am not asked questions very frequently. However, one that has come up on more than a few occasions is, “Why don’t you write music reviews more often?”

The question always surprises me since, if you’ve actually read any of the few music reviews I’ve done for my buddy Matt Rowe’s MusicTAP site, I would think it’s fairly obvious why I don’t do more of them. I’m not very good at it. Don’t get me wrong. I love music with a passion. All kinds, from classical to country to rock to the hippity-hop that’s so popular with the kids these days. I recently did an iPod purge. I tend to listen to the thing on shuffle, so I got rid of hours worth of music that didn’t really work in that style. That still left me with over 5,000 songs.

I feel as though I know a little bit about music. I’ve co-written a few songs, there are a couple of instruments I can pick up and make sound like something (although I’d never say that I know how to play them), and I’ve immersed myself in a relatively diverse range of music over the years. In other words, I know just enough about music to realize that I don’t really know shit.

Movies are a different story. I can review a film and explain why I liked or disliked it. If someone asks how I’d improve it, I can come up with an idea or two. I can’t do that with music nearly as well. If someone asked me how I’d make a song that I didn’t like better, I’d just shrug my shoulders. I can do fairly well if the topic is someone whose work I admire. I could explain why Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town is a better album than Lucky Town, for instance. But I’m not sure that I could tell you why I think Lucky Town is a better album than Garth Brooks’ No Fences, other than to say I like Bruce Springsteen and hate Garth Brooks. Why do I hate Garth Brooks? I dunno. I just think he sucks, that’s all. That’s not exactly an insightful critique.

Recently, I’ve wanted to experiment with more music reviews. Sure, part of the reason is because I like getting free CDs. But the bigger reason is it’s a challenge and gets me out of my writing comfort zone. Since I clearly haven’t been able to come up with a better use for this blog, this seemed like the best place to do it. But these aren’t going to be your ordinary music reviews.

Jahnke’s Record Collection is meant to be a magical mystery tour through all of the recorded music I’ve accumulated over the past few decades. Every so often (ideally once a week but we’ll see how that goes), I’ll pull an album at random off the shelf and give it a listen. Occasionally I’ll be talking about the music but primarily, I want to explore why I have this crap and what it means to me. I’m fascinated by how our relationship to music changes over time. An album can require repeated listenings before it begins to grow on us. Contrarily, a record that was once a favorite can suddenly turn into utter garbage. I have a tendency to hold on to stuff for…oh, pretty much ever, so I’m sure there’s going to be some truly embarrassing gems in here.

One more thing. Most of my collection is on CD but some of it is still on vinyl and cassette (I used to have some 8-tracks but regrettably got rid of them years ago). Regardless of the format, I’m still calling this Jahnke’s Record Collection. As far as I’m concerned, the word “record” is simply an abbreviation of “recording”. So yes, CDs are records too. Go split hairs someplace else.

Now then, let’s begin with one of the worst albums by one of my favorite artists…

Bruce Springsteen - Human Touch

I’ve been a die-hard Bruce Springsteen fan since my early teens. Even so, the early 90s was a tough time to remain among the faithful. Bruce had broken up the E Street Band, moved to Los Angeles, and hadn’t released an album since Tunnel Of Love back in ’87. So in 1992, when it was announced that he was releasing not one but two albums of new material, I was understandably excited. Sure, he was using session musicians instead of the venerable E Streeters but it was Bruce! How could it be anything less than awesome?

As it turns out, it could be considerably less than awesome in quite a number of ways. I was never one of those fans who thought Springsteen was incapable of writing a bad song. But up ‘til now, he hadn’t recorded anything quite so…bland. Human Touch committed the worst sin an album could make: it was forgettable.

Which isn’t to say I hated the whole thing (or its companion, the aforementioned Lucky Town). Between the two of them, you could put together a reasonably decent album. No classic, by any definition, but at least something you could listen to and enjoy. But far too much of Human Touch was taken up by mediocre songs that barely resonated in your ear even as you were playing them.

At the time of the album’s release, I was about to get married. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that songs like the title track and “Cross My Heart” appealed to me quite a bit. They still do, truth be told, even if they now seem a little bit more boring than they once did. And Springsteen does offer up at least two keepers here: the truly sad and painful “I Wish I Were Blind” and “The Long Goodbye”, a strong rock song with lyrics that are almost shockingly bleak.

But by and large, Human Touch is dominated by some of the most boring songs Springsteen ever committed to tape. Tracks like “Soul Driver” and “With Every Wish” are just about as dull as music can get before it turns into white noise. And then there’s “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”. “Weird Al” has written better songs on this subject before. No slam against Mr. Yankovic, whom I admire quite a bit, but when Bruce Springsteen can’t out-do “Weird Al”, something’s out of whack with the musical universe. To be fair, Little Steven did the best he could with his remix of this song and he joined Bruce for a blistering live version on Saturday Night Live. It’s the only performance of this song I’ve ever enjoyed.

Human Touch was still an important album in my musical development in that it was one of the most disappointing records I’d ever heard up to that point. It and Lucky Town were released on the same day but I was so underwhelmed by what I heard here that I didn’t bother to pick up the other one until months later. The album made me consider perhaps for the first time what it was that I responded to in Springsteen’s music in an attempt to figure out what was lacking here. The fundamental element was passion. For the first time, I was hearing Bruce Springsteen simply go through the motions. It would happen again. I’m still a fan and have found much to enjoy in later albums like The Rising and Working On A Dream. But I’m still waiting for another album of all-original songs that blows my mind the way Darkness On The Edge Of Town or Born To Run did. It may never happen but that’s part of being a fan. The hope that it might.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Classics Illustrated

You may be familiar with the urban legend that Orson Welles had planned on making a Batman movie back in the 1940s. If not, learn all about it at Brian Cronin’s excellent Comic Book Legends Revealed site, a weekly must-read for yours truly. Yeah, the story is a hoax but it’s a good one that sets any movie and/or comic book fanboy’s imagination on hyperdrive. The story popped to mind recently as I was reflecting on the mind-boggling number of superhero movies that will be racing to a theatre near you over the next few years. Just ten years ago, the idea of Kenneth Branagh directing Thor would have been dismissed as ridiculous but it’s on its way.

The whole thing got me to thinking. What if some of the greatest directors of all time suddenly found themselves resurrected in Hollywood today? And what if the only thing they could get a studio to agree to finance was a superhero movie? What would they do? Nobody can say for sure, obviously, but I’ve come up with a few ideas that make a weird kind of sense. If nothing else, they’d make for good companions to Welles’ Batman.

The Defenders directed by Robert Altman

It stands to reason that Altman, director of such ensemble classics as MASH and Nashville, would be attracted to a team comic. But his contrarian nature would prevent him from warming up to titles like Justice League of America or The Avengers. Enter Marvel’s non-team from the 1970s, the mighty Defenders! The Defenders was a rotating group of heroes (and anti-heroes) who occasionally banded together to combat a common threat but more often were looking out for themselves. The “core” group, such as it was, consisted of Dr. Strange, the Sub-Mariner, the Hulk and the Silver Surfer, four guys generally known for not playing well with others. Altman most likely would have cast Elliot Gould as Dr. Strange, Donald Sutherland as the Silver Surfer, Keith Carradine as the Sub-Mariner and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Hulk. Altman’s Defenders would be alternately praised as a masterpiece and dismissed as unwatchable garbage, mainly because there would be virtually no action sequences and lengthy scenes featuring all of the heroes talking over each other.

Dr. Strange directed by Luis Bunuel

A Doc Strange solo flick, on the other hand, could only be directed by someone who understands the power of image over dialogue. Enter the master of surrealism, Luis Bunuel. The movie would be even better if Bunuel dragged his old partner-in-crime, Salvador Dali, back from the dead along with him. But even without Dali, Bunuel would come up with a mind-bending Dr. Strange flick like none other. I’ll bet he could even take such nonsensical terms as the Orb of Agamotto, the Dread Dormammu and the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak and turn them into a weird kind of poetic dialogue. Interestingly enough, back in the 80s Repo Man director Alex Cox was working on a Dr. Strange movie that obviously never came to pass. Now THAT would have been a superhero movie worth getting excited about!

Wonder Woman directed by Federico Fellini

Off-hand, I can’t think of another director who appreciated women in all their forms more than Fellini. Pick pretty much any random movie from his filmography and you’ll be treated to some of the strongest, most complex women portrayed on film. Fellini’s Wonder Woman would probably be the sexiest superhero movie of all time. The only difficulty would be convincing him that at least some of the movie should take place outside of the Amazons’ Paradise Island home.

Captain America directed by John Ford

One of the quintessentially American filmmakers tackling the quintessential American superhero? Kind of a no-brainer, don’t ya think? Ford made some great war movies like The Long Voyage Home and They Were Expendable in addition to countless classic westerns. I envision Ford’s Captain America as a cross between those war pictures and the Technicolor splendor of movies like The Searchers. Sure, John Wayne would probably want to play Cap but I’ll bet Ford would have had the good sense to go for Henry Fonda instead.

The Phantom Stranger directed by Alfred Hitchcock

It’s hard to come up with a superhero concept that would interest Hitchcock since he seemed to have little use for supernatural stories when he was alive. The farthest he ever veered from reality was The Birds and even then, he had absolutely no interest in explaining why the feathered little creeps went bonkers. So how about the Phantom Stranger? His origins and even his agenda are vague. He turns up wherever strange forces lurk, sometimes debunks them as hoaxes and sometimes has to call upon his mysterious powers to defeat a truly occult threat. But most likely, Hitchcock would realize that The Phantom Stranger already sounds like the title of one of his movies, keep that, ditch the rest and come up with something that has absolutely nothing to do with the original concept. Hey, Hitch did what he wanted. Who are you to argue?

Superman directed by Leni Riefenstahl

Why is everybody always so eager to turn Superman into an all-American, boy scout next door type? I say let’s bring him back to his Nietzschean ideal by recruiting the director of Triumph Of The Will and Olympia to craft his next screen adventure! In Riefenstahl’s hands, we’d see just how super Superman really is, with soaring flight sequences and statuesque images of his physique. Hell, if she could convince the German people that Hitler was basically a demigod, making us believe a man can fly should be a piece of cake.

Spider-Man directed by Francois Truffaut

One of the things that makes Spidey so unique and so beloved is that he’s matured a bit as the character has grown older. He’s gone from high school nerd to college geek to married man (and back again, thanks to Marvel), all the while wrestling with the great power and great responsibility of being Spider-Man. Sam Raimi’s done a pretty decent job with the character but imagine if Truffaut were around to apply some of his 400 Blows magic to the web-slinger. Picture a five-film cycle like The Adventures Of Antoine Doinel, following Peter Parker from high school to middle-age. Heady stuff for a superhero franchise perhaps, but Spider-Man at his best lent himself to this kind of treatment.

Man-Thing directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Best superhero movie ever. Think about it! Ed’s got experience with swamp creatures (see Lugosi vs. the octopus in Bride Of The Monster). He’d milk the screams of those who know fear (and therefore burn at the Man-Thing’s touch) for all they’re worth. He’d wrap it up on time and under budget. And we’d get dialogue like this, delivered without a trace of irony or double entendre:

“What was it? That scared you. There in the swamp.”

“It was…a giant-size man-thing! It was hideous!”

‘Nuff said!