Thursday, April 30, 2015
NEW YORK, NY—Don McLean’s handwritten lyrics for “American Pie,” in which the folk troubadour famously sings about “the day the music died,” have sold at auction for $1.2 million. This falls far short of the $2 million realized in June of last year by the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s equally iconic “Like a Rolling Stone,” but it’s nevertheless a pretty good chunk of change for a few pieces of paper scrawled on in pencil, plus typed drafts for the song.
Of course, the anonymous bidder who won the lyrics to “American Pie” bought much more than simple manuscript pages. He or she purchased a piece of history—the genesis, realization, and thought process that went behind penning the Vietnam-era, post-Altamont epic that helped define a generation “lost in space.” In some respects, “American Pie,” written in 1970 and ’71 and reaching #1 on the Billboard charts in 1972, reflects the innocence of the 1950s, the ideals and turbulence of the ’60s, and the birth of 1970s cynicism.
On the surface and at its core, “American Pie” was inspired by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, who were victims of a bad-weather plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959—the day the music died—during the “Winter Dance Party” tour of the Midwest. Pilot Roger Peterson, who reportedly wasn’t certified for an instrument-guided flight, was also killed.
Holly, famous for such songs as “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day,” was only 22 when he died but is widely regarded as one of the most influential rockers of all time. Because of logistical frustrations with the tour (broken heaters on busses, lack of clothes laundering services), he chartered the plane for himself, guitarist Tommy Allsup, and bassist (and future country legend) Waylon Jennings. As fate would have it, Allsup lost his spot on the plane via a flip of the coin with Valens while Jennings gave up his seat to The Big Bopper, who had the flu.
Up until the sale of the lyrics, which was hosted by Christie’s on April 7, McLean has been reluctant to talk about the meaning of “American Pie,” beyond the fact that it was inspired by the plane crash. “People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity,” he said years ago. “Of course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time. They're beyond analysis. They're poetry.”
And, when in a comical mood, he has frequently said, “It means I never have to work again.”
Now, as promised, McLean has come clean about the ubiquitous song, which references everyone from Karl Marx to James Dean to the Rolling Stones to Charles Manson to the “widowed bride,” Jackie Kennedy. “Basically in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” he told Christie’s. “It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.”
McLean continued: “For more than 40 years I have rambled around every state of the union and many, many countries of the world. My primary interests in life have been America, singing, songwriting, and the English language. I love the English language as much as anything in life and words really do mean something. I thought it would be interesting as I reach age 70 to release this work product on the song ‘American Pie’ so that anyone who might be interested will learn that this song was not a parlor game. It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music and then was fortunate enough through the help of others to make a successful recording.”
At the eight-and-a-half-minutes, “American Pie,” which is the first track on the album of the same name, is the longest song to ever hit #1 in America. In 2001, it was voted #5 on the list of “Songs of the Century,” an educational project hosted by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the National Endowment for the Arts, and Scholastic Inc.
Today, “American Pie” remains a beloved staple of classic rock radio.
As music critic Douglas Brinkley states, “When ‘American Pie’ suddenly is played on a jukebox or radio it’s almost impossible to not sing along…After all these years later ‘American Pie’ still makes me feel empowered and yet filled with a sense of loss. The song is alive and joyful, yet fretful about a world gone wrong. It is a song that will never die. A reverie for the ages.”
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
I wrote this review back in 1999, when the game first came out and I was writing for the late, lamented All Game Guide. The company would mail me games, and I would play them and review them. After a couple of weeks, I would have to send the games back. It was a fun job while it lasted.Yars’ Revenge
Game Boy Color
The retro-gaming trend continues as Yars' Revenge, the Atari 2600 classic from 1982, makes its way to the Game Boy Color. In both games you maneuver (in all directions) a mutant space fly named Yars around the screen.
Your primary objective is to break a path through a Shield on the right side of the playfield and destroy the Qotile therein. Each Shield is made up of cells; you can destroy these cells by firing at them with Energy Missiles or by devouring them on direct contact. The Shields come in two shapes: arches and shifting rectangles.
While Shield cells can be destroyed with simple Energy Missiles, of which you have an unlimited supply, the destruction of a Qotile base requires the use of the Zorlon Cannon. To gain access to this incredibly powerful incendiary device, you must eat five Shield cells or fly over the Qotile to activate the cannon, then fly to the left edge of the playfield to load the cannon.
Once loaded, the weapon appears on the left side of the screen and moves in a direct (vertical) line with Yars. To use the Zorlon Cannon, aim it at the Qotile, fire and fly out of the way. If your shot makes contact with the Qotile, you score points and advance to the next screen.
While you are flying around the screen trying to destroy the enemy, Destroyer Missiles, which appear one at a time, will pester you. Avoid them or be destroyed. Periodically the Qotile will assume the shape of a Swirl and come after you. You can destroy this Swirl with the Zorlon Cannon by hitting it either in its base location or in mid-air. Or, you can try to avoid the Swirl altogether.
Running vertically along the center of the playfield is a colorful and glittering pathway called a Neutral Zone. While in the Neutral Zone, you cannot operate fire commands or be harmed by Destroyer Missiles. However, you can still be destroyed by a Swirl.
The Game Boy Color version of Yars' Revenge features enhanced, updated graphics. Other additions to this version include more than 250 levels with password codes, bonus rounds involving a high-speed chase through an asteroid field and new enemies, such as Shield Builders and Zone Guardians.
At a time when the PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast make the Atari 2600 look like some strange relic from a distant past, along comes Yars' Revenge for the Game Boy Color, programmed by Mike Mika. Perfectly suited for older games that are smaller in scale than their futuristic cousins, the Game Boy Color is home to numerous Arcade and console classics. Count Yars' Revenge as one of the system's best.
The first question most retro-gamers have upon hearing of an old favorite being converted to a modern system is this: is it faithful to the original? With Yars Revenge, the answer is an unqualified YES! While there are a few differences between the original and the new game, they are nothing for purists to fret over. In fact, most of the additions to the new game add to the fun -- most notably, the level progression and new enemies.
Being able to save your progress via password and advance through a whopping 250+ levels gives you reason to take your Game Boy Color wherever you go and try to get further and further into the game, whether you are playing for an hour or two or in small chunks of time; trying to get past a tricky level in Yars' Revenge while standing in line at the bank will make you wish there were more people in front of you.
The new enemies are certainly a welcome addition to the Yars' Revenge formula. After advancing 30 or so levels, you will want additional challenges. Instead of inserting generic characters into the game that would simply kill Yars on contact, the designers were clever enough to give the new enemies specific tasks: rebuilding the Shields and stunning your character and robbing him of his stored energy.
The biggest structural difference between Yars' Revenge for the Game Boy Color and the original is that the new game has a partially scrolling playfield. This helps compensate for the small screen size of the handheld system. Some may find this distracting, but it is a necessity. Luckily, the designers had the foresight to insert a moving arrow along the right side of the screen. This helps you aim your Zorlon Cannon when you are trying to shoot the Qotile.
Another unique aspect of this version of Yars' Revenge is the high-speed chases through the asteroid fields. This is handy for gaining extra lives, but the missions themselves are boring. Perhaps some shooting action similar to that found in Asteroids would've helped. This is just a small gripe, though, and is insignificant in the scheme of the game's more than 250 levels.
I was pleased but not surprised when I found out that Yars' Revenge was being released for the Game Boy Color. Of the hundreds of games that were available for the Atari 2600, Yars' Revenge is one people still (as of 1999) talk about. There are many reasons for this: the annoying (in a good way) Destroyer Missiles that keep you from sitting in one place and mindlessly firing; excellent controls that keep the game fluid and untarnished by age; an ingenious weapons system that requires you to perform several steps prior to firing your mighty Zorlon Cannon; and strategic (but not overly so) gameplay that requires you to be proficient in aiming, shooting and flying.
Luckily for Game Boy Color owners with a fondness for the classics, this updated edition of Yars' Revenge keeps everything that made the original great while adding just a dash of modern flavor.
Monday, April 20, 2015
Thursday, April 16, 2015
A writer for the very popular website, Boing Boing, has given high marks to my latest book,The 100 Greatest Console Video Games: 1977-1987. After the review appeared, the book took off on Amazon, so that was nice. You can check out the review, which includes a link to sample pages, HERE.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
During the video game craze of the early 1980s, game reviews began showing up in non-gaming magazines, such as Omni, Starlog, and various comic book publications. In Amazing Heroes #30, Sept. 1 1983, Randi Hacker, the managing editor for Electronic Fun Magazine, took a look at Superman and Spider-Man for the Atari 2600. For most gamers of my era, these were the first two super-hero video games we played. I enjoy reading vintage reviews; I hope you do as well.
CLICK ON THE PAGES FOR A CLOSER LOOK
Monday, April 13, 2015
For the past five decades, the Academy of Country Music has recognized the top performers in the industry, culminating in the star-studded 50th Annual ACM Awards, coming to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas this Sunday.
To gear up for the golden anniversary event, kick off your boots, set a spell in your easy chair and check out what the silver screen has had to offer country music fans along the same timeline.
Many country music movies, both good and bad, have been released over the past 50 years, but don’t worry—I’ve separated the wheat from the chaff and hand-selected the 10 best for your viewing pleasure, listed in order of greatness.
Walk the Line (2005)
Exaggerated at times for dramatic effect, Walk the Line is essentially The Doors of country music movies. As with Oliver Stone’s rock masterpiece, in which Val Kilmer embodied the spirit (or at least the myth) of Doors frontman Jim Morrison, James Mangold’s tribute (of sorts) to The Man in Black virtually transformed its lead actor into a musical icon. As Johnny Cash, Joaquin Phoenix absolutely nailed the outlaw singer-songwriter’s onstage attitude, look and, most importantly, his voice. Equally great was Reese Witherspoon, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress as Johnny’s second wife, June Carter Cash. (Phoenix was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Capote’s Philip Seymour Hoffman.) Rosanne Cash and other family members have dismissed Walk the Line as unrealistic, but as pure theater, it packs a powerful punch.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
Based on Loretta Lynn’s autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter stars Sissy Spacek as the title character, a rags-to-riches phenom who grew up a dirt-poor Kentucky girl strumming a pawnshop guitar and skyrocketing to success as the Queen of Country Music. An incredibly versatile actress and a fine singer to boot, Spacek is as adept at playing Lynn as a young teen as she is at taking the stage—big hair and all—and singing her hit songs. The always reliable Tommy Lee Jones plays Loretta’s husband, Dolittle “Mooney” Lynn, who takes her on a tour through the South, stopping at every country radio station they could find to promote her music. Other cool casting decisions for the film include Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline and The Band’s late, great drummer and singer, Levon Helm, as Loretta’s father. A must-watch for fans of classic country music.
The most challenging and complex film on this list, Robert Altman’s Nashville follows 24 self-absorbed characters (including Lily Tomlin as an adulterous gospel singer and Keith Carradine as a rock star) for five days in the Country Music Capital of the World, leading up to a political rally for populist candidate Hal Phillip Walker of the upstart Replacement Party. Altman and screen writer Joan Tewkesbury, creating the film in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, tell “interlocking stories of love and sex, of hearts broken and mended…a wicked satire of American smarminess…a political parable…a tender poem to the wounded and the sad” (Roger Ebert). Lest the average country fan be turned off by such a lofty description, the film does contain more than an hour of music, including many songs that were written by the actors who sing them.
Tender Mercies (1983)
In Tender Mercies, Robert Duvall won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Mac Sledge, a down-and-out country singer who used to be famous but is now working at a motel in a small Texas town. Said motel is run by Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), a widow who, of course, helps Sledge get back on his feet. Naturally, he marries Lee and forms a bond with her son. The quiet, low key story is far from original, but it works as a stirring tale of redemption and hope, thanks in large part to Duvall’s excellent performance. Duvall even wrote two of the songs that he sings in the film: “Fool's Waltz” and “I’ve Decided to Leave Here Forever.”
Crazy Heart (2009)
Based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, Crazy Heart is indeed a movie with heart. Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a tired old country singer who bears more than a passing resemblance to Kris Kristofferson. He’s banged up and bruised from too much booze, a series of failed marriages and a life spent on the road. He now plays bowling alleys instead of arenas. As a song he wrote says, “I used to be somebody, but now I'm somebody else.” Things improve when he hooks up with a cute young newspaper reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal), but he still must battle the bottle and his ego, the latter of which is put the test when he opens for a man he used to mentor. What makes the film work is Bridges’ seasoned singing voice and his overall believability in the role.
Urban Cowboy (1980)
In Urban Cowboy, John Travolta ditches the disco ball and white three-piece suit of Saturday Night Fever (1977) in favor of a mechanical bull and black Stetson. The former Sweathog plays West Texas country boy Bud, who moves to Houston to work with his Uncle Bob (Barry Corbin) on an oil rig. Rowdy night life takes center stage, however, as Bud hangs out at Gilley’s honky-tonk, where he looks sharp in his fancy duds, dances and drinks the night away, and meets and marries the fiercely independent Sissy (Debra Winger), who asks the immortal line, “You a real cowboy?” Although Urban Cowboy is dated in some respects (modern viewers will cringe at the way Sissy gets slapped around), the redneck melodrama throughout the film is highly entertaining. Appearances by Mickey Gilley, Bonny Raitt, and the Charlie Daniels Band add to the fun.
Pure Country (1992)
While no one will mistake Pure Country for The Maltese Falcon, George Strait fans will surely enjoy this straight-ahead, farm-fed yarn. Strait, in his acting debut, plays Wyatt “Dusty” Chandler, a hot country music star who believes that elaborate stage gimmicks—smoke, lasers, exploding bombs—are taking center stage over what truly matters: the music. As such, Dusty shaves his beard, cuts off his trendy (for 1992) ponytail and traipses off for greener—or at least grittier—pastures, namely the small farm town where he grew up. There he takes a job as a hired ranch hand and falls in love with a little filly (Isabel Glasser). Despite its aw-shucks charms, Pure Country bombed at the box office, but Strait himself laughed all the way to the bank as the movie’s soundtrack became (and remains) his best-selling studio album. Followed by: Pure Country 2: The Gift (2010).
Payday follows 36 hours in the life of pill-popping, Wild Turkey guzzling, honky-tonk haunting Maury Dann, a country singer who sleeps with his fans in the back of his chauffeured Cadillac limo. Played by Rip Torn, who does his own singing, Dann is clearly out of control, as a line from the movie’s theatrical trailer suggests: “If he can’t smoke it, drink it, spend it or love it, forget it.” Torn’s wild and wooly character isn’t exactly sympathetic, but it’s fun to watch him descend into the inevitable abyss that excesses of this type inevitably lead. The low-budget road picture had a limited theatrical release, meaning many filmgoers of the era missed out on the movie’s humor and voyeuristic pleasures. Luckily, it is now readily available on DVD.
Sweet Dreams (1985)
One of the terrible tragedies of popular music, the great Patsy Cline, who helped define the Nashville sound of the early 1960s, died in a plane crash on March 5, 1963, when she was just 30 years old. She left an indelible legacy, however, with such hits as “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Sweet Dreams,” where, obviously, this film got its name. Jessica Lange, looking ravishing in the role, portrays the famed contralto-voiced diva, but elected not to try and sing herself. Rather, she lip-synched along to the original songs, which works well thanks to Cline’s strong voice and Lange’s impassioned performance. Ed Harris holds his own as Cline’s second husband, Charlie Dick, a charming but alcoholic print operator who grows jealous of her success. Sweet Dreams is far from the greatest biopic ever made, but Cline’s music and Lange’s beauty and grace make it well worth watching.
No country music list of any kind would be complete without Texas icon Willie Nelson, who is also a very good actor. In Songwriter, he plays Doc Jenkins, who teams with his old buddy Blackie Buck, played by Kris Kristofferson. The dynamite duo aim to get the upper hand on Rodeo Rocky (Richard Sarafian), who has signed Doc to a wretched recording deal that nowhere near compensates Doc for his titanic talents. While not as well-known as Honeysuckle Rose (1980), which also starred Nelson, Songwriter is a better, more substantive film (though both are good fun). Especially entertaining are the musical performances by Nelson and Kristofferson, both solo and together.