Friday, May 28, 2010

Glengarry Gary Coleman

Though not inclined to believe Gary Coleman had much impact, I can say I remember the first time I saw him.

He appeared on an episode of Good Times. I believe he played a friend of Janet Jackson's character. Memory is a tricky thing, but I'd swear he wore a suit, as in suit-and-tie. [See update below.] Here he came busting in the door with the puffiest cheeks in child-star history, seemingly ageless in that he was as cute as any top-tier child actor but also strangely old, for his face had an elasticity found only in vaudeville veterans, and in people with multiple personality disorder.

Whatever he did in the Evans' apartment electrified me, and I daresay it electrified many. I can recall the neighborhood kids still in shock the next day as we rehashed the episode. Who was that kid? we asked. We repeated all his words, laughed again and again.

I mean, look, he killed. Maybe you had to be eight to appreciate it. But his appearance was so awesome it may have provoked such gales of honest audience laughter that the editors kept their finger off the sweetening button. There was frowning. Cheek puffing. Crossing of the arms. Even the cast members seemed in awe of the comedic hurricane in their midst.

Alas, Coleman hit his artistic peak at that moment. After some guest roles and a failed pilot or two, he became the franchise on Diff'rent Strokes, the first in the extremely-white-people-adopt-black-kid sub-genre of sitcoms. People compared his timing to that of Jack Benny and Richard Pryor. And, amazingly, this was not hyperbole. He was a natural. Norman Lear had put him on $1000/month retainer until he figured out what to do with him.

Like millions of kids I watched the Strokes. As was the case with much of the TV of my youth, I was numbed and hypnotized rather than actually entertained by the show.

It had about all you could ask from a network comedy, though: a catch phrase (even better than "Heyyyy" or Arnold Horshack's ejaculations), one funny actor, untalented but inoffensive other kid stars, and yet another of the single fathers that in TV land (and in TV land alone of all human cultures) dominate the single-parent household demographic.*

The mainstream adulterated Coleman, as it does all. His five minutes on Good Times was funnier than anything in the entire multi-season run of Diff'rent Strokes, was funnier than all the laughs on the latter show put together. What followed doomed him. He became beloved, and then tied to a show that as time went on flailed through every sitcom cliche (marriage of single father, introduction of even younger kid, the horror that was the Very Special Episode).

Thus, by the time Diff'rent Strokes ended, Coleman had worn out his welcome. There was no hope of a second act. A decade's worth of pop culture pablum had buried his five minutes of Good Times genius for good. Coleman went on to flashes of tabloid notoriety and life as a punch-line. The Broadway blockbuster Avenue Q even decided to humiliate him on a nightly basis, for reasons known only to those who find puppets entertaining.

But how could it be otherwise? Coleman's life was a study in the grotesque thing that is American celebrity. And that being the case he, like so many others, proved you can never fall so far that some clever asshole won't kick you again.

* That the dad was the former neighbor on Maude confused me, by the way. The last time I had watched that show, Rue McClanahan had greeted Mr. Drummond at the door wearing nothing but plastic wrap. I had trouble reconciling that image to the man interacting with Arnold and Willis.

UPDATE: I wasn't kidding about memory. Thanks to the YouTube Wayback Machine, I now see Coleman was not playing a friend of Janet Jackson's OR wearing a suit-and-tie. Still funny, though. Regarding the threads, I was not far off in recalling the sweater/suit coat combination he wore during his Jeffersons appearance. I even remembered the color.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Chipmunks to the sea

In the world of zoology, rodent experts speak of the strange cycle of population crashes. Every so often, a rodent species will run wild with its breeding. Then, bang, there is a die-off. The phenomenon influenced the legend that lemmings decide every years to march to the sea and drown themselves en masse, presumably after selecting a Lemming Adam and a Lemming Eve to stay in the burrow to carry on the species.

Gardening and general anal-retentiveness keep me aware of the local rodent population here at the Satellite of Love. And right now, there isn't much of a population for me to resent. I've had one group of pots or another out for about three weeks now, and all of them out for about a week. This includes an herb garden of nine cubic feet (on wheels, but that's another story).

Knock wood, not a single plant has been damaged by rodents. This is unprecendented. I would have thought it impossible.

Granted, I have leaned toward smellier plants than in the past, in part to drive away animals. Fragrant herbs, cayenne pepper, garlic, and onions have rooted all around the place. But the flowers—often victims in the past—are as abundant as always. Yet, no damage.

In addition, I've added a crop of sunflowers this year, and we all know how the creatures of the earth, and in the case of the squirrel of the tree, love to dig up tasty sunflower seeds.

Again, no damage.

I can say—based on admittedly anecdotal observation—that I do not see many squirrels or chipmunks. Not only in my yard but during my grudging attempts at exercise. Whereas last year the squirrels in particular seemed to swarm the yards, the parks, everywhere. I see squirrels, and chipmunks, too, but only as solo foragers, and not nearly every time I look out the window.

My budget doesn't allow me to subscribe to rodent-oriented journals, so I have no idea if the scientific community has noticed what's happened, or if a crash has happened at all. Still, I'm curious.

Of course I'm not complaining. I like owning a small animal trap but I'm glad I don't need it. The lack of a large rodent population, however, has changed the entire character of the spring. No angst. Less swearing (short of the onset of muteness I'll never be 100% non-profane). No reseeding ravished pots. Larger-than-usual pre-plantings for this time of year, and more of them succeeding.

If only I hadn't left all the basil out in that thunderstorm. It's not nearly as satisfying to swear at myself.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I was never able to make the commitment to Lost so the big finale had no real effect on my life. But from a creative standpoint I'm interested in whether or not the show satisfied its fans, and a few friends tell me the Lost crew did at least an okay job in wrapping up things.

That so seldom happens with serial TV dramas. Kind of odd, as the last ten years have been the golden age of serial TV drama.

But I'm sympathetic to the difficulty of the task. At some point these shows must become impossible to conclude. Clearly the writers/producers made up large parts of the storylines as they went along over a period of years. Characters conceived as minor became major. Actors left or died. Plotlines took on a life of their own.

Chaos, then, inevitably ensues. So unless a head writer/show runner/producer went in knowing where it all was headed—and then had the discipline to hold to that for five or six or seven years—it just seems that dramatic closure is, at best, only semi-possible (i.e., a few characters and threads get it, and everything else dangles or blows up).

Such a conundrum, for example, afflicted Battlestar Galactica in its final season. And I think BG followed a pattern commonly seen when a serialized series ends. Some of the finale worked, some of it didn't but was at least moving, some of it was undercooked or outright stunk, and some of it was just left alone because (I'm guessing) there was no time for the staff to work it out.

I will say one thing about Lost: I caught a few episodes over the years (always reruns late at night), and admired how they always went to a commercial with maximum dramatic tension. Always. And it was sharp every time. I'm sure I just haven't seen the episodes where it was strained or dumb, but I'm guessing—from purely anecdotal evidence and the show's popularity—that the batting average was fairly high. That is hard to do even when you have alternate realities and time travel to work with.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Diver down

Fate gave Ronnie James Dio an operatic voice perfect for heavy metal, yet took back a bit of that gift by forcing him to pay dues, and keep paying them even through his success.

His recording career began in the late 1950s. After knocking around and learning the craft, he helped put together what came to be Elf, a blues-based rock outfit that found its way into a regular opening gig for then-hard rock gods Deep Purple. Just making that step took Dio about ten years. He entered his thirties (!) as a respectable opening act, but an opening act nonetheless.

Dues paid, Dio entered the orbit of Ritchie Blackmore, one of rock's greatest abuser of musicians, a man who fired seemingly hundreds of players over the years, and had a role in chasing away so many members of Deep Purple the band kept a revolving door on the tour jet. Blackmore had gone so far as to slag his own band's most recent album and drafted Elf (minus the lead guitarist) to create the subtly-named Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow.

Dio was the only person to survive Blackmore's attrition process. For three albums Dio did his best to make Rainbow a legit ass-kicking act. But creeping pop ambitions entered the scene. Members of Rainbow (whoever they were that week) no doubt put on cowls and gathered in the studio to ask Satan to save them from lameness.

Satan, alas for them, was having none of it. Blackmore announced his intentions to grab the pop-metal Big Money. Dio left...

...and landed in Black Sabbath, then in the process of firing metal legend and dribbling substance abuser Ozzy Osbourne from the coven.

Dio then proceeded to pull off a breathtaking perfecta.

First, he achieved the impossible by being a credible replacement for a deified vocalist in a deified band.

Second, he did it while simultaneously fronting a very successful side project, Dio.

Having conquered as brand name and solo bandleader, Dio embarked upon a steady transformation into metal elder statesman. In later years, he managed to share Sabbath with the occasionally sentient Osbourne. Oz performed under the Black Sabbath name; Dio teamed with Sabbath's musicians as Heaven and Hell.

Now he no doubt enjoys an afterlife of leisure and occasionally offers advice to Satan. "Let's give Tipper Gore an itchy rash," you can hear him saying. Lucifer replies, "Done," and leaves him to watch the Yankees game in peace.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

45s: Red, dwight, and blue

"Nikita," by Elton John (1985)
Written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin

Cold War pop was a genre, and Elton John, having turned musical omnivore to keep his career alive, delved into it and made "Nikita" his contribution toward world peace. Though it baldly lays out a gay crush, and further telegraphs its intentions by using (then-closeted) George Michael on background vocals, "Nikita" was transformed by the popular hive mind into a straight love story (no doubt helped by the video) despite the use of an obviously male first name. The popular hive mind has immense powers of denial when it wants to enjoy a song.

"Nikita," like a lot of the songs Reg wrote with Taupin, goes on and on, clocking in at just short of five minutes—lengthy even in an Eighties pop milieu that foisted many a bloated 45 on the world. Major annoyances include a bridge that lasts forever and said bridge's faux-ethereal vocals. Always the pro, however, John softens up the listener with the kind of expert emotional build he and Taupin had perfected years earlier.

Despite its success, however, "Nikita" in a sense brought the Elton John timeline to an end. Afterward he became an institution, albeit one who tirelessly used that position to benefit good causes.

John had, like many of his peers, sputtered in the late 1970s. Not only was the disco phenomenon laying waste to careers and popular taste, but he suffered through various personal apocalypses related to substances, finances, and emotions. That could distract anyone, of course, and for the first couple of years of the 1980s John had little luck getting airtime in the U.S.

Alas, his weakness for elegial balladry started his career rolling again. His Lennon tribute "Empty Garden" tapped into the always-massive Nostalgic Sap demographic. Then he worked a similar maudlin vibe with "Blue Eyes," and from there he was off like a running and be-wigged marlin. The biggies: "I'm Still Standing" and "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" and part of "That's What Friends Are For," the last proof that the road to listening hell is paved with good intentions.

"Nikita," however, basically marked the end of Elton John's career recording original hit singles.

He still got on the radio, of course. But after "Nikita" he started to mine the old back catalog, with a live reprise of "Candle in the Wind" recored with an orchestra. In the future he would split his time between more such repurposings and superstar duets with the likes of George Michael and Aretha Franklin. By the dawn of the new century, he had survived a decade as a Disney cash factory and one of the British press's fave celebrity grotesques. But nothing stopped him. After a detour through Broadway he landed in Vegas—talk about inevitable, he had the costumes down in 1973—and continues to spend his summers propping up Billy Joel at stadia near you.