About Me

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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the three THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

THE EVERLASTING FIRST, Part 7: My First Exposures To Some Singers And Superheroes


Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock 'n' roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it's the subsequent visits--the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time--that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

TODAY'S LETTER IS G:


 

THE GO-GO'S

In the early '80s, I had a co-worker at McDonald's of Brockport who called herself Ramona. It wasn't her real name, but she wanted to be a punk, so Ramona became her preferred nom du bop. Ramona had an odd habit of walking up to me at work and giving me a kiss on the cheek. I don't know if she was interested in me or just trying to see what reaction she could provoke, but since I reacted each time with the neutral equivalent of a shrug, nothing ever threatened to progress beyond those chaste little pecks. I already had a girlfriend, and I was serious about that.

Sweet, sweet little Ramona. Illustration by John Holmstrom, from The Ramones' Rocket To Russia LP
Thinking back to my introduction to The Go-Go's makes me think of Ramona, even though she had nothing whatsoever to do with me becoming a Go-Go's fan. In fact, Ramona didn't care for The Go-Go's at all--The Go-Go's image was nowhere near as hard-edged as the punk persona Ramona was trying to develop and project--but Ramona and The Go-Gos are still linked in my memory.

Oh, and my nickname at work was "Sid"--I was the only Sex Pistols fan anyone there had met circa 1981.

Like Ramona, I was a self-professed punk; unlike her, though, I was also an avowed pop fan, equally happy listening to The Clash or The Rubinoos. And The Go-Go's' chosen image--early '60s girl-group filtered through new wave--was both welcome and already familiar to me. The Go-Go's looked and sounded an awful lot like one of my late, lamented Syracuse Fave Raves, The Poptarts.

It's not The Go-Go's, but an incredible inspiration: The Poptarts!
We've already covered The Poptarts in several previous installments of Boppin' (Like The Hip Folks Do) (notably this Poptarts review and this interview with Poptarts guitarist Cathy VanPatten). In the late '70s, The Poptarts created a working prototype for the approach The Go-Go's would take to the Top Of The Pops in the early '80s: a self-contained all-female quintet, dressed in bright colors, cute but not pandering or overtly sexy, playing mostly original tunes, influenced by pre-Beatles girl groups, but also by everyone from The Turtles to The Ramones. The Poptarts broke up in obscurity, undiscovered; The Go-Go's had hit records (four Top 20 singles, and a # 1 album with their debut LP, Beauty And The Beat). I mourned (and still mourn) the lost opportunity of The Poptarts, but I still loved The Go-Go's immediately.



I can't recall the specific circumstances, but I'm certain the first Go-Go's track I ever heard was some version of "We Got The Beat," a version predating the hit version on Beauty And The Beat. A Buffalo FM-rock station called 97 Rock (which could be heard in Brockport) had a Sunday night program called Power Rock, devoted to tracks that were (in theory) edgier than the station's usual AOR fare. I may have heard The Go's-Go's original Stiff Records single of "We Got The Beat" on Power Rock. I most definitely heard a live version of "We Got The Beat" on the soundtrack album Urgh! A Music War, a double-LP set that also included live tracks from The Fleshtones, XTC, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cramps, and a host of other left-of-the-dial superstars (before "left of the dial" was even a thing). I played that Urgh record a lot, and "We Got The Beat" was my favorite among favorites.




I bought Beauty And The Beat upon its release, and I also picked up the "Our Lips Are Sealed" 45, specifically to get its non-LP B-side ("Surfing And Spying," a song The Go-Go's wrote for The Ventures). "We Got The Beat" sounded different without the backing vocals ("they're walkin' in time") I knew from Urgh and (maybe) the Stiff single, but I still adored it anyway. I developed a quick crush on bassist Kathy Valentine, and really fell hard for the music itself. This was such a terrific album, just loaded with unforgettable, hook-filled pop tunes and unconscious rock 'n' roll swagger; it was far and away my favorite album of 1981. (At least it was at the time; I didn't discover Tell America by Fools Face or Drop Out With The Barracudas until a year or two later.)

And I was stunned that so few people seemed to agree with me. A writer in Circus magazine--and yeah, I shoulda known better than to read Circus--dismissed the absurd notion that The Go-Go's could possibly be considered among the best of anything, and everyone seemed to think they were a novelty act. Ramona certainly didn't see their appeal, as she sang along sarcastically when "Vacation," the title tune from their second album, came on the radio at our company picnic in '82. Ah, silly Carl and his pop music....



Screw it. I was used to being outside the mainstream--even the alternative mainstream--so why should things change now? I'd been a fan of The Monkees in the '70s and early '80s, and I'd already learned not to back down from my convictions. I'd put up my Bay City Rollers poster in my dorm, right alongside my Sex Pistols, and KISS, and Suzi Quatro (and, um, Suzanne Somers in a swimsuit) as an act of defiance; I'd argued with a Deadhead on behalf of Shaun Cassidy; I'd preached the virtues of The Ramones while everyone wanted to listen to The Eagles. I knew I was right about all of these (with the possible exception of Suzanne Somers). And I knew I was right about The Go-Go's.
Don't give up on me, Carl!
"We Got The Beat" and "Vacation" have remained among my all-time favorite tracks ever since their release. I do still prefer the Stiff single version of the former, but any version's great. The Go-Go's did one more album--1984's Talk Show--before splitting, acrimoniously. They've reunited on several subsequent occasions, usually just for live appearances, but they did a very nice new album called God Bless The Go-Go's in 2001. They are, I believe, currently on a farewell tour, albeit without my girl Kathy Valentine. I regret I never had a chance to see them live. I still play the recordings, though.



I haven't seen or heard from Ramona in over thirty-four years. In spite of her repeated kisses on my cheek, and her stated interest in collaborating with me to start a new, arty girlie mag she wanted to call McErotica, I still don't think she had any physical designs on li'l ol' me. I think she saw me as a friendly foil, someone to bounce off of and riff with about stuff she thought would be too cool for the crowd. She hated The Bongos; I loved The Bongos. We both liked The B-52's. And she wanted to keep that dynamic going, even though I was technically one of her bosses. Each time her lips brushed the side of my face, she wasn't making a pass, but reminding me that You could never push me around, Mr. Boss-Man, sir; I wore the tie, and she wore the uniform, but we were both just young punks, and I'd best not forget that. The last time I saw her, we were both on a bus heading out of town; she was going out for a night at a Rochester punk club, and my girlfriend and I were leaving Brockport for good, intent on starting a new life in Buffalo. We exchanged greetings, but didn't speak otherwise. After all that, our lips were sealed.

THE GREEN HORNET & KATO

 

Another challenge for The Green Hornet, his aide Kato, and their rolling arsenal, The Black Beauty! On police records a wanted criminal, The Green Hornet is really Britt Reid, owner-publisher of The Daily Sentinel, his dual identity known only to his secretary and to the District Attorney. And now, to protect the rights and lives of decent citizens, rides The Green Hornet!



Oh yes--the 1966 TV series was absolutely my introduction to The Green Hornet and Kato. But first, a little background information is in order.

The Green Hornet was originally one of the most successful radio heroes of the 1930s. Created as a contemporary follow-up to the success of The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet's modus operandi was to make everyone--the public, the authorities, the underworld itself--believe he was the biggest, baddest supercriminal of them all. The Green Hornet and Kato would move in on some crook's evil scheme, ostensibly to cut the Hornet in on a piece of the ill-gotten profits, but really to work secretly in smashing that scheme and bringing the crook to justice. The parallels between The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet were many: just as The Lone Ranger was often mistaken for an outlaw because he wore a friggin' mask, fercryinoutloud, The Green Hornet posed as an outlaw to accomplish his crimefighting goals; each had an ethnic assistant--The Lone Ranger's faithful Indian companion Tonto and The Green Hornet's Asian chauffeur Kato--but neither was really played as the comic relief or stereotype that could have been expected in Depression-era pulp entertainment (Tonto's broken English speech patterns notwithstanding); both had distinctive modes of transportation--The Lone Ranger's fiery horse Silver and The Green Hornet's supercar The Black Beauty; both eschewed killing, obeying a strict moral code, even when dealing with a murderous criminal element; and both had telltale signature weapons (The Lone Ranger's silver bullets and The Green Hornet's nonlethal gas gun). It was even revealed that the two characters were blood relatives: John (The Lone Ranger) Reid's nephew Dan, who appeared in some of The Lone Ranger's adventures, would grow up to be the father of Britt (The Green Hornet) Reid.



While The Lone Ranger's success survived the demise of the golden age of radio, leading to a classic TV series (and a pair of feature films) in the late '40s and '50s, The Green Hornet could not duplicate that success in other media. Both characters appeared in movie serials, and both appeared in licensed comic book series, but The Green Hornet was really long gone from the spotlight by the time he returned in 1966.

The Green Hornet's return was prompted by the success of Batman, the campy, twice-weekly ABC TV show that had been the breakout hit of '66.  Batman producer William Dozier wanted to return to the four-color well, hoping for another comics-related hit. He shot an unsold pilot for Dick Tracy. He shot test footage for a legendarily awful sitcom approach to Wonder Woman. And he sold The Green Hornet series to ABC.

Actor Van Williams was cast as crusading publisher Britt Reid and his alter ego, The Green Hornet. A then-unknown Chinese-American actor named Bruce Lee became Kato. And they were both just outstanding in their roles. We all know of Lee's subsequent fame and acclaim as a martial arts expert and movie star in the early '70s, and much of his raw talent and charisma was already evident here. But one shouldn't ignore Williams' easygoing charm and believable authority as the titular hero; this show wouldn't have worked without the talents of both Williams and Lee.

Unlike Batman, The Green Hornet was played relatively straight; there were few truly outlandish villains, very little campy humor, and a sense of action and adventure that was never really present in the exploits of our Caped Crusaders over in Gotham City. It was a crime drama, a detective show, where the leads happened to have secret identities and high-tech crimefighting gear. Even when the shows crossed over, as The Green Hornet and Kato tangled with Batman and Robin on a two-part episode of Batman, Williams and Lee still seemed to play things straight amidst all that campy silliness (versus the exaggerated, comedic "straight" required of Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin).

Where Batman was a colorful, incandescent explosion of self-conscious pop-art exuberance, The Green Hornet was cool. Taking a partial cue from Peter Gunn, each episode was propelled by jazzy, uptempo music, with Al Hirt's "Green Hornet Theme" (itself a jazzed-up version of "Flight Of The Bumblebee") setting the tempo at the beginning of each show. Lee's impressive skill with gung fu was simply dazzling, and the show delivered tight-lipped thrills with panache and style.

It was doomed from the start.

Batman's mass popular appeal had been as a self-aware joke. The American viewing public was not in the mood for super-heroics played straight, and The Green Hornet lasted but one season. After Bruce Lee's death, as anything he'd done became a potential box-office bonanza, three episodes of The Green Hornet were badly stitched together, fattened up with extraneous and nonsensical Bruce Lee fight scenes from other, unrelated episodes of the show, and released to movie theaters as a feature film in 1974. The film has been variously referred to as The Green Hornet and as Kato And The Green Hornet. I saw it (as Kato And The Green Hornet) at The Biograph Theater in downtown Syracuse, an old-time movie house (originally called The Eckel) that was in its death throes, and would be a parking lot before long. A DVD version of Kato And The Green Hornet remains the only legitimate home-video release of anything from The Green Hornet TV series.




     


During the show's original run, there were a handful of tie-in products. Gold Key Comics published three issues of a Green Hornet comic book, the hero's first comics appearances since a one-shot in 1953.  There was a set of Green Hornet playing cards, a paperback novel called The Infernal Light, a Green Hornet Halloween costume (which my Dad tried to get me to choose, insisting it would be more distinctive than the Batman costume I went with instead), a Green Hornet costume for the Captain Action action figure, and a Green Hornet Better Little Book. Al Hirt released an LP of (mostly) TV theme songs, The Horn Meets "The Hornet," with a proud cover of Hirt standing next to Van Williams, in costume and in character.

The Green Hornet largely faded from pop culture after that. There have been sporadic attempts to license the character for comic-book revivals, and there was a simply horrible feature film version starring Seth Rogen a few years back. I'm thankful that didn't catch on! I've heard some of the original radio episodes, and I've watched the first movie serial from the '30s, and enjoyed them. But my Green Hornet remains Van Williams, with Bruce Lee at his side, charging forth in The Black Beauty with gas guns, Hornet's sting, and gung fu, set to kick the bad guys' asses and elude the police while jazz plays in the background and foreground. Another challenge for The Green Hornet? Yes, please.
Quick Takes For G:




GENERATION X: Bomp! magazine's epic power pop issue in early 1978 was the first I ever heard of this British punk (sorta) group. I may or may not have heard them on campus that Spring--there was a Punk Night at our on-campus bar The Rathskeller, and occasional punk/new wave records played on our radio station, WBSU, and either of those sources could have served up some Generation X--but I can say with certainty that I bought two Generation X import 45s by the end of that summer. The singles were "Ready, Steady, Go" and "Your Generation," and I loved both of those loud 'n' vibrant records beyond rational description. "Your Generation" was also included on an album called Geef Voor New Wave, a freakin' fantastic compilation that no home should be without. But I never got around to owning any Generation X albums. I bought one more single, "Dancing With Myself" (billed under the truncated name "Gen X"), and remained resolutely unmoved by lead singer Billy Idol's subsequent solo success. Local faves The Dead Ducks used to cover Generation X's "King Rocker" in their live set, and just recently opened their 2016 set at Bright Lights! The Syracuse New Wave Rock 'n' Roll Reunion with a rendition of "Ready, Steady, Go." And while I never got any Generation X LPs, I do have the Perfect Hits best-of CD. And I want it fabulous!



GHOST RIDER:  Some time in the early '70s, I received a grocery bag full of fairly recent comic books. I have no recollection of who gave them to me, but I think it was probably a friend of someone in my family, just passing on a bunch of funnybooks they had and didn't want. These contained a number of Marvel Comics titles, including some outside the superhero genre that was my main interest. So this was a great opportunity to try out a bunch of titles I might not have seen otherwise. I remember an Amazing Adventures starring The Beast (whom I'd previously known in his original, less-furry form in The X-Men), an issue of Sub-Mariner (featuring some of the last work from the character's creator, Bill Everett, and inspiring my immediate affection for Subby's nubile young cousin Namorita), and an issue of Marvel Spotlight, introducing a new character called Ghost Rider. (I was..what? 12 or 13? Forgive me that Namorita made a more lasting impression than Johnny Blaze, his motorcycle and blazing skull notwithstanding.)

 

THE GRASS ROOTS: Sometimes I find that my vivid memories of discovering specific pop songs don't jibe with any real-world chronology. I remember listening to "Sooner Or Later" by The Grass Roots on the radio when it was a hit in 1971. I also recall their hits "Midnight Confessions" and "Temptation Eyes" later being cherished staples of my AM radio heyday...but both of those predate "Sooner Or Later." Looking back, I can only presume WOLF or WNDR was still mixing those latter tracks into their hits lineup well after the fact, and I was too stupid to realize they weren't current hits.



GREEN ARROW: It's possible that I saw Green Arrow's young sidekick Speedy guest-starring in an issue of Teen Titans before I ever saw The Emerald Archer himself. My first G.A. sighting was near the end of Justice League Of America # 55 in 1967, where he was one of a quartet of JLA members (along with Superman, The Flash, and Green Lantern) brought in to meet a crisis. Those four made the cover of the next issue (pictured above). Green Arrow and Speedy had been created in the 1940s as a copy of Batman and Robin; by '67, Green Arrow was the only JLA member without his own ongoing solo series--even The Martian Manhunter had a back-up series in House Of Mystery, but G.A. was a free agent. Green Arrow was also featured prominently in the next issue ("Man, Thy Name Is--Brother!" in JLA # 57), and was the center of attention in "Operation: Jail The Justice League!" in JLA # 61, my favorite issue of JLA for a good long time after that. Green Arrow was given new life with a costume redesign by Neal Adams in a Batman team-up in The Brave And The Bold in 1969, and given a lasting shake-up in the early '70s by Adams and writer Dennis O'Neil in their headline-making series Green Lantern/Green Arrow.




WHEN THE EVERLASTING FIRST RETURNS: H is for