Saturday, September 27, 2014

Breaking Free From All The Spells Chained To My Head

Surely, every fantasy reader knows about the case of the dead villain who doesn't let it stop him. Possibly the best-known example is Sauron and his One Ring. Pouring his power into it to control the other rings - the Three of the Elves (they saw what Sauron did there), the Seven of the Dwarves, and the Nine of the Kings of Men - it was later taken from him and lost. If it fell into the wrong hands, Sauron could rise to his full power again.

Harry Potter fans know a similar attempt by series villain Voldemort; J.K. Rowling coined the term Horcrux to define such an item. But it's in the webcomic Order Of The Stick, a long-running story operating under the Dungeons & Dragons rules, that we get a serious name for these objects; big bad lich Xykon has an amulet that will regenerate his undead body in case of emergency. His second-in-command, the goblin cleric Redcloak, refers to it as a phylactery. And Wikipedia does indeed define the word as "an amulet or charm, worn for its supernatural power." The site also mentions that the phylactery is common as an item in fantasy games. I took a peek at the 'lich' entry in my D&D 1st edition Monster Manual, and it does indeed make mention of the item, but does not give any details about the phylactery in particular.

It is neat to learn that some of the things in fiction I enjoy have real-world inspirations and precedents.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Flip-Out Skip-Out Trip-Out And Make Your Stand

I officially have the most worn-out copy of 'Green Tambourine' by The Lemon Pipers. No, seriously. I swear you can hear the wear of a thousand hippies toking to the vibes, man. And that's AFTER cleaning the marijuana smoke from the grooves. The B-side, 'No Help From Me', is not bad, but not as classic as 'Green Tambourine'.

And my copy of 'Mellow Yellow' is just as trashed. Donovan never sounded more scratchy, not in his worst case of the flu. That's the trouble with buying loose 45s; they're often the worst-treated records you can find. But for 50 cents, what do you really expect? That said, even a scratchy copy of 'Sunny South Kensington', the B-side, is totes worth it for the price when you discover how neat a piece of 60's pop it is.

So glad 'Susie-Q Part 1' is in much better shape. I'm guessing that my buddy Matt probably has a near-mint copy; he's the biggest Creedence Clearwater Revival fan I know. However - Matt, have you heard the B-side, 'Susie-Q Part 2'? It's an instrumental workout in another key; and damn, John Fogerty can shred! (Matt says yes he has.)

One of my favorite records of all time, the instrumental 'Red River Rock' by Johnny & The Hurricanes, released on the Warwick label in 1958, holds a special place for me as it was one of the first songs I taught myself to play on guitar. Finding a copy on that very original label in the Mill Hall Goodwill, with my very good friend Roi was a real treat. This nostalgia-laden (for me, anyway) disc has a B-side called 'Buckeye' that's also good. Sadly, that side of my copy has a patch of white noise that makes it almost impossible to listen to.

A fair copy of The Status Quo's 'Pictures Of Matchstick Men' can be found in my collection. I remember hearing this psychedelic classic on the oft-mourned Channel 97. Sometimes a DJ would bring it out for something different, or it'd get played on their A to Z Playback when every one-hit wonder and also-ran got their moment in the sun. Less psychedelic and more poppy, but just as interesting, is 'Gentlemen Joe's Sidewalk Cafe' on the flip side. A tale of lost love, it's another side of 60's pop and rock that I wish we could hear more of these days. I think this one came from a visit to Half-Price Books.

Despite some clicks and pops, Wilbert Harrison's 'Kansas City' on the original Fury record label is probably one of my all-time favorite R&B discs. The easy delivery of Harrison, and his smooth voice - combined with one of the most easygoing blues beats - make this a true classic. The flip side is a doo-wop number called 'Listen, My Darling'; unfortunately my copy has a very off-center pressing of this track and at times you can hear the effective speed change.

Another classic early rock instrumental, Lonnie Mack's cover of the Chuck Berry hit 'Memphis' is in better condition than I'd hoped, thankfully. Recorded in 1961, the disc boasts a B-side called 'Down In The Dumps' which easily could've been a hit in its own right. If anyone has a copy of Mack's other claim to fame, 'Wham!' they're willing to part with, would you let me know?

How about a little country to round things out? Dave Dudley rose to fame with this single, released on the Golden Wing label - the truck driver anthem 'Six Days On The Road'. I never noticed that he started his sojourn on this slice of wax in Pittsburgh. Thanks for the shout-out, Dave. I hate to say it about one of my favorite country records, but the B-side is an empty return; 'I Feel A Cry Coming On' is a pretty standard country tale of lost love. Dudley sounds great, but the song isn't much special.

If I need to find a replacement for this Motown classic, I'm sure it won't be hard; 'You Keep Me Hanging On' by The Supremes. I realize I've been ignoring my Sixties soul stacks - I've got a small collection of The Supremes and The Temptations, among others, but just haven't made time to spin them. That's an error I aim to rectify. 'Remove This Doubt' on the flip side is a hidden gem I know I've never heard before.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nine Riders, Hunting Souls

At last! Undeniable proof that Gondor of old once resided within the Allegheny Mountains!

Also, 'Warriors Mark' is a pretty badass name for a town. 

(I swear I'll blog about something other than Lord Of The Rings soon.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

(Hum Beethoven's Fifth Symphony While You Read This)

Who else has seen The Longest Day? Possibly my favorite movie set in the Second World War, it tells the improbable tale of the Allied landings on the Normandy beaches, beginning the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe.

One of the plot elements of the movie, and which was a real operation by the Allies through the BBC, was the broadcasting of secret messages to French Resistance groups behind the lines. The messages were nonsense in and of themselves, but to the Resistance fighters, they were the go signal for prearranged operations against the German occupiers.

Even today, it is suspected that the so-called 'numbers stations' heard around the world on odd frequencies and seemingly broadcasting nonsense or otherwise incomprehensible content are actually a way for governments to broadcast instructions to spies and other operatives around the world.

Last week's City Paper (you know, the one they can't give away) featured a cover story on Dock Ellis, the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who, reputedly and infamously, threw a no-hitter against San Diego while under the influence of LSD. But it also contained a regular horoscope feature, and this is a selection from the Leo entry (my sign, of course, he said in a leonine fashion... and nobody was amused).
"...I surmise that you are now in a position to launch a project that could follow a similar arc. It would be more modest, of course. I don't foresee you ultimately becoming an international corporation worth billions of dollars. But the success would be bigger than I think you can imagine."
First off, no (stereotypical) Leo would have much of an ear for being told that the chance to be kinda-sorta neato, in a small way is not to be passed up - the sign is named for the traditional king of beasts, after all. But also, who, me? Maybe it's just me not paying attention, but nothing's coming to me as far as project ideas. And even though the past few weeks has seen readership on the blog mysteriously explode, this would be a project already started. I don't understand what this is telling me. Surely there's someone else who could capitalize on this surely timely advice.

Maybe, though, that's the key. Maybe the arcane advice of a daily horoscope is somehow akin to the signals broadcast to alert the patriots of France that their liberation was about to begin; there are messages being sent to everyone, but only the right people will react to them - in the right time, and in the right way.

It makes sense to me.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Thousand Miles Away From Home, Waiting For A Train

Something for my railfan readers.

This video is a wonderful color record of some impressive steam-era scenes. The list of roadnames is pretty impressive, actually. There's a couple of rare shots of streamlined steam on New Haven and Southern Pacific, a great look into what the freight cars of the 1940's looked like, and more than a few streamlined passenger cars behind non-streamlined steam. Possibly the best treat is the decidedly rare footage (I have heard of none aside from this film) of a Bessemer & Lake Erie 2-10-4 working on the north end of the railroad. I'm certain one scene takes place on the Hogback - the steep grade away from the Lake Erie shores.

Also, just for the hell of it, is the Delaware & Hudson's ALCo PA's on a passenger train. Thanks to Russ Monroe Jr. for this footage. 

Okay, what the heck. Here's a compilation of early Conrail scenes shot on Horseshoe Curve. 

All right, one more. Here's an audial guide to the whistles of the East Broad Top's locomotives. Watch out for #17! 

(Also, when I get my smartphone, #17 will be my unique ringtone for Ray.)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

I'm Packing My Bags For The Misty Mountains

As of late I've been obsessively re-reading The Hobbit, The Lord of The Rings, and The Silmarillion. While beginning The Fellowship Of The Ring, I noticed a line that seemed out of place for Tolkien. It occurs during Bilbo's birthday party, in describing one of Gandalf's fireworks:
"Out flew a red-golden dragon - not life-size, but terribly life-like: fire came from his jaws, his eyes glared down; there was a roar, and he whizzed three times over the heads of the crowd. They all ducked, and many fell flat on their faces. The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion."
As far as I can recall, this is the only simile Tolkien uses of an anachronistic nature. Whenever I read the line, it draws me out of the story ever so slightly, but it's not that big a quibble.

However, I'm not so excited about seeing the final installment of the Hobbit movies as the above may indicate. I was by and large pleased with An Unexpected Journey. At the time, my opinion on the changes made to the story were largely favorable.

One change in the overall story made this chapter for me: the flashback to the battle with Azog before the gates of Moria and the origin of Thorin's surname of Oakenshield. It's not in The Hobbit; rather, it's additional material included in the appendices to Lord Of The Rings, which are included after the conclusion in Return Of The King. Scenes of Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel debating their courses of action against The Necromancer - they make up the 'White Council' mentioned in Rings - helped give some sense of the epic scope of Tolkien's legendarium and linked the two trilogies. Bilbo's riddle game with Gollum was well and truly done. There was one pair of riddles exchanged that wasn't in the movie, but the omission seems to have harmed the movie little if at all.

I'll admit that the appearance of Radagast in both movies was a little bit on the goofy side, even though his introduction is also a setup for The Necromancer and the perils of Mirkwood. I guess I was also mostly comfortable with the addition of Azog as an additional antagonist pursuing Thorin and his companions, and I had figured that The Desolation Of Smaug would treat the story just as well. I wasn't as impressed.

One of the things that I missed was the introduction of the dwarves (as well as the wizard and hobbit) to Beorn. I liked how, in the original novel, Gandalf uses a clever tactic to open Beorn up to aiding the party. Instead of introducing everyone at once, Gandalf and Bilbo begin the introductions; and they continue with the dwarves coming two at a time, intentionally interrupting Gandalf's tale of their journey so far. This effectively keeps Beorn on the edge of his seat, and gradually opens up the idea of helping out so many of them. It also demonstrates Gandalf's wits to complement his wizardry, and that's why it's one of my own favorite events in the tale. That said, I was impressed with Gandalf's investigation into the return of Sauron, right until the reveal - and the somewhat cheesy Eye manifestation. Cutting that down to just a foreboding flash would have been less annoying and a bit more startling.

Also, one of my obsessive re-readings of Return Of The King took me into the appendices again. I was reminded that at the end of the battle before Moria, when Azog was defeated, he was beheaded by Dain Ironfoot - the same character that leads the dwarves in the Battle Of Five Armies - and his head placed on a pike before the gates. To a purist fan, the addition of Azog to the story involves an act of narrative necromancy (ironically enough) and would likely end up grating. I'm kind of unhappy with it myself. Since Bolg, alleged son of Azog, is the orc captain in the climactic battle, the writers could have used him instead. Revenge would not be an unreasonable motive for the crooked goblins of Middle-Earth.

I was interested by the glimpse we get of Bard - a well-rounded family man - and I was intrigued by the reinterpretation of the 'black arrow' as a bow-fired artillery dart instead of a typical arrow. That said, one of the most important parts of the climax, ostensibly to be seen in The Battle Of The Five Armies, is Bard's downing of Smaug. The plot thread of the hole in Smaug's gold-encrusted underbelly,  Bilbo's discovery of this fatal weakness, and the eavesdropping thrush passing the information to Bard at his last stand is supposed to be a key part of it. I guess this isn't necessary, with the apparent change to one loose scale in his hide as Smaug's weak point. The idea of a dragon who is wise to his one weakness - his soft underbelly - and does something about it - lying on the hoard so that the treasure embeds itself into his skin - is such a fantastical element and a treat for the imagination. I cannot fathom why nothing was made of it at all.

The two gripes I have that stick the hardest are the subplots concerning the elves and the social unrest in Esgaroth, and the overblown 'battle' between the dwarves and Smaug. To me, the subplots are unnecessary and therefore distracting. While I had expected a likely appearance by Legolas to visually connect the two trilogies, I wasn't enthralled by the Legolas-Tauriel-Kili love triangle. It simply felt like it didn't belong. Just a glimpse into Thranduil's realm would have been enough. That's all we get in the book. And we didn't need to see the spectre of class envy dragged into Esgaroth. It was all unnecessary talk, and added nothing to the core story, the one I paid nine bucks to see. The 'battle' was too implausible, even for a fantasy story; and it dragged on, no pun intended.

None of these additions came from Tolkien-authored source material, as far as I know. And Tolkien's story is what I'm missing. Somehow, Peter Jackson forgot how he made The Lord Of The Rings, and it shows in the prequel trilogy. I would have been happy with two movies, with truer additions and interpretations, and less fanfiction. So, yeah, maybe when this winter comes and the last movie comes out, I'll stay home and read the book instead. I'm sorely tempted to do so.