Author Archives: Jim "Dr. Dim" Fitzsimons

Daa-aaaaa-aad!!

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Michael Noble returns this week with a guest blog. Last month he related a story of an odd school experiment he was part of as a kid. This time he relates an odd thought experiment he did on his kids. The story is from about eight years ago and he swears this conversation really did happen…

“So how was school?” I asked the younger of my two daughters.

“Okay,” she responded.

“Do you have a lot of homework today?”

“Yeah…”

“Tough stuff? Or is it pretty easy?”

“It’s not that big of a deal. But I need some colored markers to do a project. I have to color in some things for a history assignment.”

“We have plenty of crayons…”

“No. I need markers. Colored ones.”

“Oh. Well, there are colored pens you can use. I saw them in a drawer just the other day.”

“I can’t use those. I need markers. The big ones. And they need to be colored.”

“Why do they need to be colored?”

“For my project.”

“Did your teacher tell you this project needed to be colored?”

“No. That’s just the way I want to do it.”

By this point, my older daughter was intently listening to our conversation.

“Do you have money to purchase markers?” I continued.

“No. It’s your responsibility as the adult to buy them for me.”

“No, it’s not! My parents never bought me markers. I never needed to color anything for a project. Matter’a fact, we didn’t have markers with colors back when I was in school. We only had crayons if we wanted to color anything. And they were pretty expensive at the time, if memory serves. A lot of us couldn’t afford them. And those who couldn’t, like me, managed by creating our own primary colors.”

“Really? How did you do that?”

“Well, it was interesting and creative. We picked our noses and used the boogers for the color green. We poked our fingers with stick pins ’til they bled for the color red. And we peed to get the color yellow. Green, red and yellow. Primary as primary colors get.”

Boogers.

“Need more green!”

Dad… !!!” exclaimed my daughters in unison.

“Wow, that trumps the walking two miles uphill to and from school story,” the elder one noted.

“Hey, waitaminnit!” my younger daughter interjected. “Green isn’t a primary color! The primary colors are blue, red and yellow!”

“Well, that just goes to show you how old I am. When I was a kid, the color blue didn’t exist. Green was one of the original primary colors. When blue was invented it took over for green…”

Dad… !!!” they exclaimed in unison once again.

“I know!” I responded. “I was rather impressed people were willing to do that. Come to think of it, green was a very popular color back then.”

Thank you, Michael. And eeewwww. You can read more of his writing at hotchka.com.

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Grant Hart (1961-2017)

The mid80s were my time. I’m stuck there. I was in art school. I was young. And I found the music that became so very important to me. There was The Who, of course. They pretty much opened my eyes to what I considered more important music than what Top 40 radio had to offer.

The mid80s were also the Twin Cities’ (sure, mostly Minneapolis) time when it came to that important music. There were so many great local bands then. And there was the greatest concert venue First Avenue & the 7th Street Entry. First Avenue was the stage for those great local acts as well as national and international artists producing that important music.

3574812918_996a569d07_bHusker Du (from St. Paul) was one head of the three-headed Minneapolis Sound monster. The other two were The Replacements and Prince. I was a mild fan of Prince, a big fan of The Replacements, but Husker Du was my favorite. I used to say I liked The ‘Mats’ albums (slightly) better than Husker Du’s, but I liked Husker Du more when seeing them play live. Their shows were consistently more intense and fun. Husker Du still feels more like my band than The Replacements. I like them both, but somehow I always felt more connected to the Huskers.

Sometime in 1985, they played an in-store show at the record store just a couple blocks away from where I lived. I went to that store every week. One weekend, I walked in just as they were finishing putting away their equipment. Marty, one of the fellows working at the store, said, “Oh, Jim! You just missed it! You should have gotten here earlier.”

Up to that point, I had only heard of Husker Du. I didn’t know any of their music, but I didn’t want to look uncool, so I feigned disappointment.

It was about a week later when a friend bought Zen Arcade. We listened to it and loved it. That’s when I felt the disappointment.

Grant Hart, co-lead singer, co-songwriter, and drummer of Husker Du, died earlier today at age 56.

Hart was the one local musician I would see regularly hanging out at First Avenue. I remember the first time I spotted him there.  He was wearing a gold lame shirt and was in the area back by the pool tables, playing pinball. I nudged my friend and pointed out that a local musical giant was in our presence. I think my friend told me to settle down and be cool.

I spoke to Grant Hart only once. It was just before their final LP, Warehouse: Songs And Stories, was to be released. Word was that the album was going to be two disks. I was drying my hands in the restroom, when Hart walked by. I stopped him and said, “I hear the new record is going to be a double album.”

“That’s what they tell me,” was his answer and he walked on.

I’m sorry I don’t have anything more exciting to say of my experience with Grant Hart. I wasn’t an insider of the scene.

I was just a fan.

Packing Peanuts!

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Warning! This Great Cover Might Make Some People Feel Queasy

Those of my readers who suffer from trypophobia, fear of holes, will want to skip this week’s blog. It’s OK. I understand that this month’s great comic book cover, Harvey Comics’ Little Dot #160 (August, 1975), might be difficult to look at. You are excused. The rest of you – read on!

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There’s not a lot of information I can give about this cover. I can say I think it’s a great example of Pop Art, but I don’t know who illustrated it. I can say the person who inked it is obviously one of those old hands at using the brush. Those artists with that kind of inking skill always impress me. So precise and so flowing. It looks simple, but the skill level has to be way up there.

Look at how simply Little Dot’s mouth is done. And her hands. I’m certain the artist also worked quickly. He or she cranked this whole cover out in the time it would take me to ink a few of the dots on the page. Very few. Dang, those artists were good.

Harvey titles were never anything I was interested in. I always thought it was kids’ stuff. Not like the sophisticated super men and women in tights fighting the bad guys comics I was collecting. I never cared about Richie Rich, Little Dot, Little Lotta, Hot Stuff, Spooky, or dead Richie Rich. What was he called? Oh, right. Casper. But I do appreciate the skills of Harvey’s artists. They had to work fast, that’s just how comic books had to be made, and, at Harvey, the artists had to conform to a certain look. That may have changed in more recent years, but back in the day when different artists worked on Little Dot, Little Dot still had to look exactly like Little Dot. No variation! It’s not easy shedding one’s own personal style. At Marvel or DC, the artists could express their own style. At Harvey, they had to follow the template. Those were the rules.

Harvey also didn’t do much to identify their artists. So many worked in anonymity. That’s a shame, because I’d really like to give credit to the artist who created this great cover.

Update: I’ve been informed that it is likely that the artist for the cover is Warren Kremer. He worked for Harvey for many, many years. So, excellent work, Mr. Kremer!

Packing Peanuts!

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Some Nitpicks Of ‘To Serve Man’

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Warning! There will be spoilers!

Of course, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone was groundbreaking television. And, of course, it is universally loved and respected. As it should be! The show cleverly addressed sensitive social issues without much of the audience even realizing it. Science fiction is sneaky and very useful that way. And it was also pretty darned entertaining. Most of the shows still hold up today.

There were plenty of memorable episodes that commonly get rated among the best of the series. There was the one with William Shatner being the sole passenger to see the creature damaging the wing of the plane. There was that episode in which a misanthrope and book-lover, played by Burgess Meredith, survived a nuclear attack and was left alone with all those books. Finally, able to read as much as he wanted and not be disturbed by the nuisance of people, he stumbled and broke his glasses, rendering him unable to read with no one around to fix them. And the show with the beautiful Donna Douglas playing a woman who didn’t match society’s view of physical attractiveness. Oh! And who can forget that nasty kid (Billy Mumy) who wished people into the cornfield?

Classics all.

I think what is probably the most memorable show, however, is To Serve Man, written by Serling, originally airing March 2, 1962. It is the story of the arrival of a super-intelligent and seemingly benevolent extraterrestrial race. These rather large aliens, played by the rather large Richard Kiel and voiced by Joseph Ruskin, have come to Earth to end disease and famine. And to save us from ourselves by making it possible to end war. They bring us peace, safety, and prosperity. They also offer the wonderful opportunity to visit their home world.

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When their representative addressed the United Nations, the alien was told that delegates from “most of the important countries” were present. Really? I wonder how that made the “unimportant countries” feel. And just which ones are unimportant? Canada? Belize? France?

Well, yeah, France. But still!

(Incidentally, the UN Secretary General, in his address to the assembly, mentions that the first alien spacecraft to land on Earth landed outside of Newark, New Jersey. I’m certain that was Serling’s nod to Orson Wells’ infamous 1938 radio broadcast, War of the Worlds. In that show, the first spaceship landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. A small, rural town near Princeton University, not far from Newark. Eh? See what he did there?)

At that meeting with the UN, the alien left behind a book. A book written in their language, which was turned over to code-breaker named Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner), and his team to see if it could be translated to English. Midway through the episode, after the world had become peaceful and relaxed, we learn that the title of the book had been translated as “To Serve Man.”

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Um. Hang on. How did they translate it? As was pointed out in the book The Twilight Zone Companion, they weren’t breaking a code. This was a completely alien language. Without any kind of a guide, a Rosetta Stone, there would be no way anyone could translate that book, let alone its title. It simply would be impossible.

Well, never mind. Translate the title they did. And the title just reinforced the good feelings everyone had about these nice, accommodating beings from another planet. Still the challenge of finishing the translation was too hard to resist for the code-breaker’s assistant, played by Susan Cummings. Just as Chambers was to board the alien spacecraft for his trip to another world, she came to warn him not to go.

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She desperately called out to him that the book was… a cookbook! Dun dun duuuhhhh!

Classic Rod Serling twist!

Here’s where I scratch my head, though. Why would these super-intelligent beings come here with the intention of surreptitiously wrangling people to take back to their planet as food, give us a book detailing how they would cook (or serve) us? That don’t make no sense.

Packing Peanuts!

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Who Was That Masked… Kid?

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Photo: Paul Moore/Getty Images/Hemera

Warehouse Find welcomes back guest blogger Michael Noble. Just in time for back-to-school, he relates the unusual tale of a strange (and would never be done today) experiment he was asked to take part in by the officials at his new school. Those were the days.

It was the mid-1970s. My family and I had recently relocated from the Los Angeles County suburb of Covina, California south by some dozen miles to the more upscale city of Hacienda Heights. It was summertime and we were at the tail end of a move, still in the middle of adjusting to a new home and excited about the the promise of a pool being dug into our new backyard. Soon my sister and I would be starting out in brand new schools. A rather exciting, somewhat anxious time.

The weeks went by, the pool was completed (we could hardly wait to make new friends at school and invite them over to swim!) and it was finally the first day of the new school year. I was entering the 8th grade at Mesa Robles, a mere couple blocks distant. My mother, sister, and I walked to school that morning.

My first day was something I’ll never forget, something you’ll never believe, something you’ll never hear word of ever again. Because in today’s day and age there is no possible way something like what I’m about to tell could ever take place again in the public school system.

Arriving at school with my mother, it was discussed with the principal, my new teacher and a few other adults I was to be the protagonist in a little school experiment, if I was willing. I was told I would don a hat, put a bandana across my face and brandish a toy pistol that shot caps. Dressed and brandishing these items I would run through my classroom firing the gun along the way from one end right on through to the exit opposite the room. The reason for this little display was to see how much of the excitement the students in the classroom could retain when a pop quiz was offered right after the stunt. What was I wearing? Did I say anything? How many times did I fire the gun?

I was positioned just outside the room and burst through the door five minutes after class had begun. Flinging open the door I yelled out “Nobody move!” and ran my way from one side to the other, continuously firing my pistol in the air. The time of completion for this little display couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen seconds tops. Outside the other door was an assistant who ushered me to another room while the surprised students were given their quiz by the teacher.

Later, I was escorted back so everyone could see what I was wearing (one of the questions) and who I was. I was introduced as a new student and told to take a seat. I remember I was slightly embarrassed after all was said and done. But I’d made an impression to be sure.

Now … can you imagine such a scenario played out today? Not in the least. Such an event would be absolutely verboten. It was forty years ago I was made to participate in that little exercise, something that will never be done ever again.

School in the ’70s was a simpler, more innocent affair, devoid of cell phones and internet, where drama played out as above was an event to be shared when you got home over dinner with your family.

I rather miss those days …

Thank you, Michael. You can read more of his work at hotchka.com.

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You know what’s a really good subway train hijack movie?

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I know there aren’t many subway train hijack movies from which to choose. There’s one from 1974 and its remake from 2009. I am unaware of any others. This week I’m writing about the former. It’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and I think it’s pretty darn good.

Like The French Connection (1971) and Midnight Cowboy (1969), Pelham really puts across that gritty, dirty feeling of New York City. I don’t know if it was the film stock or the directing techniques, probably a combination of the two. Or maybe it was just that the Big Apple was that way in the ’60s and ’70s: Gritty, dirty, overcrowded, cynical, sarcastic. Maybe that’s what happens in really big cities. In Pelham, many of the characters are so jaded by big city life that when a potentially deadly situation occurs they react by getting angry about how it’s messing up their day, getting in the way of their work. “I’m trying to run a railroad!” was one of the complaints.

The potentially deadly situation is the hijacking of a subway train: Pelham 123. Four heavily armed men take control of one of the cars of that train (they cut loose all the others) and its 18 passengers. The hijackers disguise themselves with mustaches, glasses, and the rather mundane clothes of the average middle-aged man of the 1970s. They go by code names based on colors: Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman), Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), and Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw).

No, Mr. Pink? Oh, right, that’s a different movie.

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Mr. Blue is the leader of the group. He means business. He’s cold and uncaring. He issues the demand of $1 million to be paid for the release of the hostages. He gives city officials one hour to put the money in his hands or, for every minute past the deadline, he will kill a passenger. Shaw is excellent as Mr. Blue, a former mercenary soldier with no qualms about killing.

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Mr. Green is a former motorman for the New York subway system. He’s angry at his former bosses for firing him on what he thinks was a bum rap. He brings the knowledge of the subway system, on how to drive the train, and he’s instrumental in the hijackers’ getaway plan. After all, they can’t exactly fly the train to Cuba. The two other hijackers are crowd control. One, Mr. Grey, is a little unhinged.

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All these actors, along with the actors playing the hostages, do a fine job. In fact, the hostages aren’t cliches, although they could easily have been. But the man who makes the movie is its star: Walter Matthau. Matthau is one of those actors who makes a movie better by just being in it. He’s great as Lt. Garber, a Transit Authority cop. He has the task of communicating with Mr. Blue, trying to buy time to meet his demands and then trying to out-think him to prevent the hijackers’ escape.

Matthau plays his character so well. He has that world-weary jaded side, but he brings humor to the role. He also brings a feeling of dire seriousness when his tolerance of his bull-headed colleague, who is more concerned about running a railroad than saving lives, gets stretched to the breaking point. It’s a satisfying moment for me as I was getting more than a little annoyed with that fellow. I’m sure that’s what director, Joseph Sargent, intended.

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The interplay of all the main characters works very well. Especially between Lt. Garber and Mr. Blue. I also like the play between Mr. Blue and Mr. Green, who might be a little too soft for this job.

There is humor throughout the film that works most of the time. It gets a little cartoonish when we meet the Mayor (Lee Wallace). He seems to be a send-up of Mayor Ed Koch, however this Mayor is very unpopular with the voters. He’s timid and indecisive. He’s weak as a leader. In fact, it’s his Deputy Mayor (Tony Roberts) who seems to be running the city. As if these flaws in the Mayor’s character weren’t bad enough, he also has the flu and everyone has to know it. The sequences with the Mayor are a little weak, but are necessary to establish how the city decides to pay the ransom and to lead up to a joke, delivered by the Mayor’s wife (Doris Roberts), about his chances at getting votes.

There’s also a joke paid off late in the film. The joke stems from Garber learning one of the hostages is an undercover cop. The name of this cop is unknown. Also unknown is whether the cop is a man or a woman. That’s the set up of the joke. And just so the audience doesn’t forget, Garber states three times throughout the movie the fact that the undercover cop’s gender is unknown. It seems odd that he keeps mentioning it, until the joke comes. Then it makes sense. It is a lot of build up though.

Those minor criticisms aside, the movie moves along at a good pace with excellent performances and (mostly) believable characters. And the final shot is pure Walter Matthau greatness!

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Oh! And the soundtrack is awesome!

Packing Peanuts!

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And finally, 1984’s 10 great alternative albums

It had to happen eventually. I mean, it was inevitable that I would run out of years from which to compile a list of ten great alternative albums. Most people tend to be like me, I think. We have a window of time when we pay close attention to the new and exciting music, but then we get older and our attention gets pulled in other directions. Oh, sure, there are a few people out there who are able to keep their fingers on the pulse. I’m not one of them. My window began to close in the late 80s.

Looking back over the lists I have done in this series (1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, and the combined years of 1986-1989), I can see that I have my favorite artists. XTC, Husker Du, The Church, Buzzcocks, and The Replacements all have multiple entries. What can I say? I like what I like. I also like jangly guitars as this list will attest.

I might do a list of 10 albums from the 90s, but I’m certain I won’t be able to muster this sort of list for any more individual years. So, here are my choices for the ten greatest alternative albums from 1984.

It’s my list, your results may vary.

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10) Stop Making Sense – Talking Heads I haven’t listed a live album before on any of these lists, but this one, along with the film, is so good. I never did get to see Talked Heads live, so having this album and the video made for a decent substitute. Once In A Lifetime, Psycho Killer, and Burning Down The House are standout versions of those classic songs. However, my favorite track is a from a David Byrne solo project, The Catherine Wheel, with a new arrangement for Talking Heads.

Favorite track: What A Day That Was

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9) The Smiths – The Smiths There’s loads of melancholy and moaning Morrissey on this debut album by the quintessential 80s UK alternative band, The Smiths. There’s also plenty of excellent guitar work (some of it jangly) by the fantastic Johnny Marr. The darkness of Morrissey’s lyrics is nicely balanced by Marr’s light touch on the guitar. OK, Miserable Lie does tend to get on my nerves as the second half of the song has Morrissey wailing all falsetto to the point of making me say, “Next song!”

Favorite track: What Difference Does It Make?

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8) The Big Express – XTC This album is a little bit of a miss from my number two most favoritest band. I think that’s mostly due to the production. The album is filled with that big, big, BIG 80s drum sound and it’s a little distracting. However, there is plenty of good stuff on here, including You’re The Wish You Are I Had, I Remember The Sun, and the Police-like (and relevant again given today’s political climate) This World Over.

Favorite track: Wake Up

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7) Like This – The dBs A little power pop, a little country. The dB’s had that jangly guitar sound I like so much. There’s some good lyrics, too. Especially on my favorite track, a macabre but catchy tune about suicide. Love Is For Lovers is an excellent opening track for an album filled with excellent songs.

Favorite track: Amplifier

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6) Mirror Moves – The Psychedelic Furs This album demonstrates just how open a friend and I were to new music in 1984. I don’t recall if my friend had heard anything about the band before we bought tickets to see them in concert. I do remember we’d never heard any of their music. We really liked the band name, so we took a chance. Just after buying the tickets, my friend picked up this album. When we listened to it we knew we made the right concert-going decision. It is a terrific album.

Favorite track: The Ghost In You

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5) Zen Arcade – Husker Du This is the magnum opus for these originators of alternative rock from Minnesota. It’s hardcore, but it’s more than that. This is a big record (released as a double album) with the loose concept of following a kid heading out on his own into the big, bad world. It’s brilliant. Half of the songs come in at two minutes or less, but still pack a wallop. The final track, however, is an instrumental that lasts more than 15 minutes.

Favorite track: Newest Industry

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4) Learning To Crawl – The Pretenders This is the album that saw The Pretenders truly break into the mainstream, but their strong sense of independence kept their alternative cred alive. They continued their tough (I Hurt You, My City Was Gone) and tender (Thin Line Between Love And Hate, Show Me) song pattern and scored a couple radio hits (Middle Of The Road and my jangly guitar-laden favorite track). It’s a solid album by a band learning to crawl after the deaths of two of its original members.

Favorite track: Back On The Chain Gang

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3) Remote Luxury – The Church Shortly after signing with Warner Bros. in the US, their new label compiled the songs from two EPs released in their home country Australia, retaining the title of one of them, for this album release in the States. There’s more of a synth pop sound combined with the jangly guitars (I really like those) than on their previous efforts. And it works for the most part. Maybe These Boys is a little much and wasn’t a favorite of the band. Oh, and it took more than 30 years for me to realize the pun title of my favorite track. How embarrassing.

Favorite track: Constant In Opal

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2) Reckoning – REM Depending on when you ask me, this is usually the one I name when I’m asked which is my favorite REM album. And I’m asked constantly. It’s getting a little weird, actually. Anyway, this sophomore effort is crammed with jangly guitars. Have I mentioned I like jangly guitars? Because I really like jangly guitars. Standout tracks include: Pretty Persuasion, Harborcoat, So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry), and Second Guessing.

Favorite track: (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville

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1) Let It Be – The Replacements This is the critic’s darlings from Minneapolis’ last release on the independent label Twin/Tone before going to the major leagues and it just might be their best. The songwriting of Paul Westerberg had become even stronger, clearer, and more heartfelt. He was cooking with gas! Great songs such as Sixteen Blue, Answering Machine, and Unsatisfied showed that Westerberg was a major songwriting talent. Still the band retained its sense of humor and irreverence with a cover of Kiss’ Black Diamond, Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out and Gary’s Got A Boner. Peter Buck of REM appears to lend a little jangly guitar (how I love it so) to my favorite track. And what a great photo on the album cover!

Favorite track: I Will Dare

Packing Peanuts!

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