Bloody Red Baron
Essays

ROCK AND ROLL MOVIES

 

            There are many good rock and roll movies. I'm not talking documentaries like Hail, Hail Rock and Roll!, The Last Waltz, or Stop Making Sense, I'm referring to rock and roll fictions. Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock is the grandaddy of them all but rock movies didn't really take off until the eighties.

            American Hot Wax appeared in 1978. It's the story of the first great rock and roll show hosted by Alan Freed, played by Tim McIntyre. Inexplicably, this masterpiece has never been issued on DVD. It's the only movie in which Jay Leno doesn't play himself, unlike triumphant appearances by Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

            Absolute Beginners is another overlooked masterpiece, this one about the birth of rock and roll in fifties England. Released in '86, directed by Julien Temple, Absolute begins with the mother of all tracking shots putting A Touch of Evil to shame. It follows teen phographer Colin as he tracks the nascent movement and feature performances by Ray Davies, David Bowie, Sade, and the music of Charles Mingus.

            Mark Wahlberg's Rock Star is another excellent movie recounting the story of how the lead singer of a tribute band devoted to Steel Dragon actually becomes Steel Dragon's lead singer. It is loosely inspired by the real-life story of Tim "Ripper" Owens, singer in a Judas Priest tribute band who was chosen to replace singer Rob Halford when he left the band. You will never forget the scene where Wahlberg debuts with Steel Dragon.

            Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do perfectly captures the innocence and exuberance of the birth of rock and roll in America in 1964 as it follows the fortunes the hilariously misnamed "The Oneders," whom, it turns out, are one-hit wonders. Stars Hanks look-alike Tom Everett Scott. 

            Still Crazy is my favorite. It follows the adventures of the heavy metal band Strange Fruit who fell apart at a rock festival in 1970, only to find them reforming twenty years later. Everyone is brilliant, particularly Billy Nighy as the pretentious lead singer and Billy Connelly as their stage crew/manager. We follow their hapless tour through Europe but a funny thing happens on the road. They keep getting better. And rock movies don't get much better than this.

            Some compare Still Crazy to Spinal Tap, but there's a huge dif. Still Crazy takes its characters seriously. Spinal Tap remains the king of mockumentaries.


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STORIES AND SONGS           

            A good story is like a good pop song -- it's got a rhythm, a theme, a bridge and a hook. You know what a hook is. It's that dynamic change in chords that creates tension, crying out for a third chord to resolve that tension. All you have to do is listen to any Beatles song. On TV, the hooks are the little cliffhangers they always throw in just before the commercial. A guy shows up with a gun. The doctor cries, "He's going into cardiac arrest!" In exceptional shows like Breaking Bad or True Detective, the hooks, or cliffhangers arise naturally from the rhythms of the story -- which mostly derive from the characters' personalities.

            If you make your characters real enough they write the story. Obviously, an active character will write more story, and more interesting story than a passive character. The only place you find passive protagonists is in mopey, navel-gazing dystopian fiction.

            I've always patterned characters after people I know. Sometimes they are friends or acquaintances, sometimes they are just people in the news. In his novel I, Sniper, Stephen Hunter models the bad guy after Ted Turner. He's not subtle about it. In his novel Primary Colors, Joe Klein modeled his protagonist after Bill Clinton.  If you don't have a firm grasp on your character, mark down those characteristics that make him who he is. White, heterosexual, hard-charging Alpha male. Black lesbian poet. Make them specific. It's the little details that bring a character to life, their manner of speaking, their beliefs, their lifestyle.

            Sometimes it helps to clip pictures, people whom you'd like to cast in your book, put them on a bulletin board and use note cards to list their characteristics. 

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What Achieving Second Degree Means to Me

By Mike Baron

            I started in karate at the Ja Shin Do Academy in Brighton, Massachusetts, in 1975.  Andy Baumann, Joe Demusz, and Jane West were the instructors.  I’d always been curious about karate.  I had no natural athletic ability.  Zero, zilch, zippo.  Nada.  Every physical contest was a chore to me, from tossing a ball to running.  I was as coordinated as a tornado.  I could barely lift my leg above my knee in front of me.

            I could only get better and so I did, but every stage was a struggle.  I had little confidence in my self-defense abilities.  After a year training, I was in excellent shape.  I can’t believe what we did in that class, in terms of sheer physical effort.  For example, “Thousand Kick Night” was a regular feature.  There’s no way I could keep up with that regimen today.  If anything, Andy has become even more fanatical about rigorous physical training—you can check him out at baumansextremetraining.com. 

            In ’77 I moved back to Madison, Wisconsin and began writing for Isthmus, the alternative weekly.  I introduced myself to publisher and editor Vince O’Hern, who had been training with Jim Henry at Choi’s Karate on West Washington in the Fess Hotel, which also housed Rod’s Place, Madison’s premier gay club.  I got as far as high red when Choi’s closed its doors and Jim left for sunnier climes. 

            I worked out sporadically with Vince, Bob Dodd, and Al Reichenberger at the University Natatorium.  Then I broke my hip. I’d designed and built my own house, and one of my clever innovations was to put a trap door in the floor of the bedroom closet. One opened the door and there was a little ladder going into the basement.  One night under the influence of alcohol and cocaine, I stepped into the closet intending to grab a jacket, forgetting that I had left it open to impress my date.  I fell through the opening and broke my hip.  My date was duly impressed.

            My comics were selling and everybody wanted me.  I was hot for fifteen minutes, but I didn’t know what I had, or how to keep it.  My writing lacked discipline.  I would snort coke to write.  I tricked myself into thinking this made writing easier, but it didn’t.  It just robbed me of judgment.  

            The hip injury put me on my back for six weeks.  When I once again began to walk I realized I was seriously out of shape, so I turned again to martial arts, although I had very little ability and was now hampered by a gimp leg.  I have a titanium brace screwed into my right femur, and a metal ball in the hip socket.  My calves have always resembled boneless chicken wings.  I wouldn’t be caught dead in shorts.  My stretching had improved, however.  I began training with John Fehling and his kali/escrima boys in the basement of the Vilas Neighborhood Community Center.  John is extremely knowledgeable about Filipino martial arts. We trained with sticks and lock-flow.  Unfortunately, after a year, John decided Thai boxing was the way to go and he stopped teaching everything but how to hit and kick. 

            I had married.  As my career nosedived, Madeline’s health began to deteriorate.  Nasal infections lasted for months.  One snowy winter night she had an accident on the Beltline and damaged her neck.  She suffered from fibromyalgia, a form of arthritis. One day she said, “I can’t take another winter here.  I’ll die.”  Okay, I said.  We took a massive road trip throughout the southwest, and settled on Fort Collins as the most suitable.  My sister Jill and brother-in-law Dennis live here.  Dennis and Lee Casuto urged me to spend more time at Karate West.

            Things were bad at home.  Madeline was in constant pain, which sent her to every pain specialist on the front range.  There were other problems.  She was fired from her job for failing to show up and lost her health insurance.  She suffered from depression.  I suffered from depression.  Once, back in Madison, I came very close to killing myself.  And again, after we moved to Fort Collins, I fell into the Marianas Trench.  (William Styron’s Darkness Visible was a hopeful guide map to these dark times.)

            Karate was the only regular feature in my life.  I looked forward to it every day because when I was on the floor, I was not aware of my home situation.  I’ve discussed this with other students and we agree that one of karate’s benefits is that it requires such attention as to preclude dwelling on your troubles.  Although I’d been granted a black belt by Joe Demusz, one of my original instructors, the performance gap between me and the standard Karate West black belt was instantly apparent. 

            I just put my head down and kept coming.  While the rest of my world was in free fall, there was karate, noon every day, Monday through Thursday.  Then a funny thing happened.  I began to improve under the eagle-eyed tutelage of those sadistic bastards Lee Casuto and Brad Suinn.  In fact, every higher belt with whom I’ve come in contact has gone out of their way to help me, particularly Mike Martin and Wayne from Budweiser. 

            One day I went to karate and when I came home Madeline was dead.  I tried mouth to mouth.  I heard the air rattle through her bronchial tubes but there was no response.  I called 911.  I was numb.  My friend Pete accompanied me to the police station for the interview.  Another friend spent the night at my house to keep an eye on me.  The next day I didn’t know what to do.  I couldn’t write.  So I went to karate.  It helped me deal with overwhelming grief.  My psychiatrist urged me to keep going.  “Tell the truth, Mike,” he said.  “Aren’t you a little bit relieved?”

            Gradually, my grief began to subside.  It was as if I were coming to the end of a long tunnel.  I believe I’m a basically optimistic person, and my natural optimism, so long buried beneath an age of crisis and despair, surfaced.

            The Karate West mottoes are keys to successful living.  Attitude determines whether you see the glass as half full or half empty.  Those who see the glass as half empty are in danger of slipping down the drain.  Without something outside themselves to pull them forward they fill their time with the pursuit of pleasure or wallowing in self-pity.  They have stopped growing.  Why bother?  Those who see the glass as half full see possibilities, a reason for living.  They have enthusiasm, which is the keystone of a good attitude.  Karate is a bridge toward something bigger than the self. 

            These days I look forward to karate with the enthusiasm I used to reserve for New Comics Day.  Achieving second degree seems premature to me.  I’ve only been at it thirty years.  

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THIS WRITIN’ LIFE

by Mike Baron

 

 

I remember the moment I decided to become a writer.  Thirteen years old, standing on Main Street in Mitchell, South Dakota, outside Chappy’s, a bar that had two spin racks of new paperbacks in the window.  I was holding John D. MacDonald’s second Travis McGee novel.  It wasn’t the first, because I remember looking for his name.  I liked the way the guy wrote.  There was his name on the cover.  Obviously he wasn’t doing this for free.  MacDonald was writing for a living and I was buying his stuff.  That’s what I wanted to do.  It would be years before I picked up a pen.

Two Main Street pharmacies had comic racks.  It was 1962, and not much was happening, except for Uncle Scrooge.  Uncle Scrooge’s intelligence shone from the comic rack like a Harley’s headlight coming through the rain.  Carl Barks’ Scrooge stories dealing with the nature of supply and demand are probably more truthful and instructive than what modern teachers call “economics.”  Scrooge teaches that the accumulation of wealth is the result of hard work, intelligence, self initiative, ethics, and luck.  All elected law makers should be required to read the complete Scrooge, or at least spend some time in the private sector before running for office.

My parents encouraged me to read.  There were incidents, like the time I was caught with a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn in Study Hall.  The principal told me, “Mike, I don’t mind if you read this stuff on your own time.  But please don’t bring it to school.”

Between my junior and senior year we moved to Madison, Wisconsin.  I worked that summer as a dishwasher at Camp Indianola, and was in the old bunkhouse the night a tornado took off one wing.  This was the second time in my life I had been in a building while a tornado turned the other half into kindling.

I wrote for the high school paper at West High, on Regent Street in Madison.  I began writing as a direct result of typing class.  The instructor was a dour individual.  He expressed disapproval by snapping his fingers at you, and cutting off his words as if you weren’t worth the breath.  Many students wished him harm.

Not me.  I took to typing like a porpoise to warm waters. If you want to write, you must learn to type.  Even if you just want to sell stuff on eBay, you must learn to type.  I wrote shit.  What else do you expect from a seventeen-year-old, which brings us to Mike’s Rules of Writing Number One: Each would-be writer has a million words of shit clogging up his system, and it behooves him to get it out as soon as possible.  In other words, if a writer you would be, start writing.  (For further instruction, go to www.thehud.com and click on “Writing.”)

There are exceptions to this rule, and I would like to wring their necks.  Neil Gaiman is one.  If Neil ever wrote badly, it’s well hidden.

I largely wasted my college education (if absorbing life can be considered waste) studying political science.  I also took some writing courses, one with Joel Gersman, founder and director of Madison’s Broom Street Theater, and another with Jerry McNeely, head writer for television’s Marcus Welby, M.D. Professor McNeely said, “You make ‘em laugh a little bit, you make ‘em cry a little bit, you SCARE THE HELL OUT OF THEM, and that’s entertainment.”

One day I visited the offices of TakeOver, a left-wing rag, in a shotgun apartment down by the rails.  Mark Knopf was the editor and publisher.  He was awash in free records.

Where’d you get all these records?”

The record companies keep sending them.  Want some?  All you have to do is write something about them.”

I staggered out of there with as many as I could carry.  One of them was Edgar Winter’s Entrance, which remains a favorite to this day. More importantly, I learned a lesson.  Free records if you write about them.

In spring of my senior year, I decided to write a paperback novel and make some fast bucks. Thirty years later, I succeeded in publishing my first novel, WITCHBLADE: DEMONS, based on Top Cow’s comic.  Think about that.  Between the time I decided to become a novelist, and got my first novel published, three decades.  This doesn’t mean the intervening thirty years were a wash.  Far from it.  But it does attest to both my determination, and the abysmal quality of my writing.  I must have written thirty novels over the years, or one a year.  When I look back on that material, I want to crawl into a hole and curl up like a carpet worm.

However, when I look back on recent material, not so bad.  So there is hope.  The English writer John Braine, author of Room At The Top, advises would-be novelists in his book How To Write A Novel, not to attempt the deed before the age of forty.  You simply lack the life experience.  For the most part, Braine is correct, although there are again obnoxious exceptions such as Richard Price, whose brilliant first novels, The Wanderers and Ladies’ Man were published while he was in his twenties.

On the other hand, anyone who has tried to read Clockers can see that Price has written himself right out of the entertainment biz.  I love his film scripts, though, especially Mad Dog And Glory.

My writing these days veers in several directions.  First, comic books.  I like it, I’m good at it, and I see no reason why I shouldn’t be writing more comics. Got some announcements coming up.

Second, there is technical and business writing, which I do intermittently for credit unions.

Third are novels, which take two forms.  I have two franchise novels out, courtesy of Byron Preiss and ibooks.  The first is Witchblade: Demons, a decent little police procedural with a fresh twist on the character, and Green Lantern: Sleepers, based on a plot by Christopher Priest.

My agent trudges up and down Fifth Avenue pushing a shopping cart full of manuscripts wearing six layers of clothing, mismatched shoes, a nylon cap pulled down to just above her eyes, and fingerless cloth gloves.  If you see her, make her an offer.  She’s partial to muscatel.  She’s peddling two novels: Combustion, and Mordecai Rath.  Combustion is a science fiction thriller about spontaneous human combustion, and Mordecai Rath is a kung fu Western.

I can no longer claim that my sole influences are Carl Barks and Philip Jose Farmer.  My major writing influence these days is a Western novelist named Pete Brandvold who lives up the street.  Pete shoots from the hip and asks questions later.  Check out his works at peterbrandvold.com.


ORDEAL

 

Every year my friend Tom creates a new ordeal that he considers fun.  The worst was when he packed six of us into a thirty-two foot sloop and set out to sea for a week.  Shades of B. Traven.  Well he did it again.  Somehow he tricked me into riding during bike week. 

Wednesday--left Fort Collins eight-thirty, rode to Hot Springs , South Dakota , 350 miles, one hundred degrees, grueling and hellacious.  Thousands of bikers streaming toward the Black Hills . Arrived Willy's place to meet the boyz, Tom, Willy, Willy's son Adam, got smashed, solved world's problems.

Thursday--rode through Custer State Park , Black Hills, across eastern Wyoming --more hot grueling high desert--more bikers heading every which way, through Ranchester, up into the mountains.  At a gas stop, a Viet vet biker noticed Willy’s Vietnam Veteran patch, “ Vietnam , 1965 – 1971,” came over, stuck out his hand.  “Put ‘er there, brother.”  I felt proud to know Willy.  Stayed at Bear Lodge, typical big-ass log cabin western resort.  Moose antler chandeliers.  Live bait in the lobby.  Service was lousy.  I lay on the floor as if I had passed out from hunger.  A table of eight Japanese stared at me in horror.  “This is what you do if you get bad service in America ,” I told them.  They smiled, nodded, and thanked me.  One of them took my picture.  They applauded when my meal came.  Our cabin was rustic.   

Friday--left Bear Lodge via unpaved forest road, approx 8000 feet elevation, to notorious sheep cairn in the middle of nowhere.  Stopped at the sheep cairn, added a stone.  No sign of civilization as far as the eye can see, save the gravel road.  Headed north toward Montana through endless forest.  Moose passed in front of Tom and me.  Big.  Willy and Adam both dropped their bikes in the gravel. Adam fashioned a shifter out of a tree branch.  Rode into Cody, founded by Buffalo Bill, where Adam bought a new shifter from a custom bike shop. The local Harley shop did not sell bikes.  They sold only T-shirts. Thousands of bikers.  Ate at the Irma, Bill's restaurant.  Very good.  Then...and then...up the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway , switchback after switchback into the mountains, surrounded by towering buttes. Spectacular.  Then the Bear Tooth Highway, extending through Bear Tooth Pass at 11,000 feet, switchback after switchback, every time you looked down another arctic lake, endless vistas, endless buttes.  Many bikers. Arrived Red Lodge, Montana .  A wild town.  Drank at Salt Creek Tavern where a lone boogiemeister was putting on a show on guitar with backing tapes, and two dykes started jitterbugging right in front of us--they were good!  Loops, dips, twirls.

Saturday.  Back up the Bear Tooth Highway , back down Chief Joseph, through the Wind River Canyon --a fucking rainstorm!  In August.  I was horrified.  Spent night in Riverton.  About one am a wild drunken brawl broke out just outside our motel window--we backed up against a pack of hillbillies or something. Wild melee--screaming, fighting, throwing things, finally cops arrived and quieted things down.

Sunday.  Home through Walden and down Poudre Canyon .  1200 miles. 


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MY NEW RIDE

            When Ann and I were married five years ago Mike Martin gave me the Magnum 500 that had been sitting in his garage untouched for years.  A Magnum 500 is a 500 cc V-4 motorcycle.  I have always wanted a tiny V-4.  My oldest friend Tom Delaney came from Iowa for the wedding.  Tom is a physician but also owns a bike shop and is a terrific wrench.  He said he would try to restore the bike.  A couple months later he called.

            "Hoss, this thing is so old and shot there's no way to make it run again without the cost of a new bike.  But I will find something for youj in the shop with which to replace it."

            A year ago he called.  "Got a nice CB650 for you but you gotta come out here and ride it home."  I told Kim, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer at Karate West where I've been training since I arrived in Fort Collins lo these many years ago.  Kim was more excited about the bike than me and kept making plans to go out and bring it back.

            Last week Tom delivered the bike in the back of his Ford 150.  As he backed the bike down the ramp he fell over and sprawled ignminiously on the lawn breaking one of the laughable plastic rear turn signals.

            The bike is a beast, very cold-blooded, with stiff controls.  What do you expect from a 35 year old bike?  But it is in excellent condition, runs well and pulls like a freight train.  I love the looks.  Today's 600 fours all look alike.  If it weren't for color you couldn't tell the Hondas from the Suzukis from the Yamahas from the Kawasakis.  It weighs about 500 pounds and takes all my strength to get it up on the center stand.  I love center stands!  The front disc brake is a half-inch thick manhole cover of solid steel.  The rear is a drum. 

            I will get it licensed next week and then come the changes.  First I'll swap out those ridiculous turn signals for something smaller and neater.  Then I'll go to work on the brakes--don't know what it would cost to replace that front brake but we'll see.  Maybe add some braided steel cable covers.  I considered repainting the tank and side covers but they're in such good shape and look so iconic I think I'll keep them.

 

 

 

 

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