Paul Gilbert : The Everyman’s Guitar Hero

It’s been close to 30 years so my memory may not serve me correctly, but somewhere in the vicinity of the spring of 1989 I got to see and meet Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert. Why do you care? “Paul who? The Mr. Big dude? Yeah, so what?” Will you please let me finish? Thank you. So in the spring of 1989 my guitar teacher heard that Paul Gilbert was doing a guitar clinic at the now defunct Music Spectrum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Spectrum was the who’s who or what’s what of local music stores. Neal Peart got kits from this place(check some of the late 70s/early 80s Rush albums for the liner notes “thank yous” to MS.) Gilbert was touring the country doing clinics at various music stores for Ibanez, and my guitar teacher Tim Bushong had the forethought to load a few of his in-training guitar slingers into his car and drive us 50 minutes to see Gilbert do some shredding. My older brother at the time was taking lessons from Tim as well, so it turned into a big brother/little brother bonding experience.

Photo courtesy of Paradise Artists

So to give you a little history into Paul Gilbert. Gilbert was from a small suburb outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was born in 1966, and by the time he was 15 years old he’d sent a tape to Shrapnel Records owner Mike Varney about auditioning for Ozzy Osbourne. Varney was blown away by the 15 year old from Pennsylvania. Gilbert moved to Los Angeles and attended GIT(Guitar Institute of Technology) and by the time he was 19 he was an instructor there. Soon after he joined the metal band Racer X and put out some premier shred albums. But in 1989 he left Racer X and formed Mr. Big with Billy Sheehan, Eric Martin, and Pat Torpey.

I owned one Racer X cassette. Second Heat was the one Gilbert album in my collection, and to be honest it was just okay. His playing was out of this world good, but musically it just wasn’t my thing. It was too heavy for its own good, in my opinion. Most of the Shrapnel Records roster was like that. Guys that grew up on Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, and most of the AOR-ready rock we hear on classic rock stations now, but in order to show off the speed and neoclassical riffs the band pumped up the metal. When I’d read that Gilbert was in a new band with David Lee Roth’s bassist Billy Sheehan I was pretty excited to hear what they would do.

So on a Thursday evening my brother and I headed to Fort Wayne with our guitar teacher, along with a couple other students, to Music Spectrum to see Paul Gilbert in the flesh and hear some virtuosic guitar playing and mentoring. We arrived and the place was packed. There wasn’t any open carpet anywhere in the place. Mulleted teens and men alike(even a few guitar-slinging chicks if I remember correctly) filled the place to its capacity. Gilbert had a stool set up in the front, along with a 4-track cassette recorder and some PA speakers.  I didn’t know what to expect from the guy, really. I guessed by the looks of him he was maybe my brother’s age(he’s actually a year older than my brother, born in 1966), but I’d never seen any interviews with him. After an introduction and some energetic clapping Gilbert walked to the front with his Ibanez guitar and so began the clinic.

Now I can’t remember specifics, so I’ll hit some highlights:

Gilbert played some pretty eye-popping licks for us all to guffaw at. There was a portion of “Name That Tune” where Paul displayed his array of music history knowledge. During this part my brother yelled out and correctly guessed The Beatles’ “Martha My Dear”, to which Gilbert was impressed. Gilbert also previewed a track from the debut Mr. Big album which hadn’t been released yet. With the 4-track cassette player, he played the backing tracks to “Addicted To That Rush” and perfectly followed along with the rest of the band trapped in the confines of the multi-track recorder. I believe there was a Q&A as well, but I can’t quite recall(a lot has happened in 30 years.) It ended with everyone getting in line so they could personally meet Gilbert and get his autograph. I brought along that copy of Second Heat and Paul kindly signed it. One of Tim’s other students brought his Ibanez guitar and Gilbert signed the back of the guitar neck. I thought that was kind of ridiculous, but whatever.

I walked away from that guitar clinic a fan of not only Paul Gilbert’s guitar playing, but of Paul Gilbert the dude. He came across like someone my brother might’ve hung out with and brought over to the house to listen to tunes with. The guy was as relaxed sitting in a room playing and chatting in front of a room full of hungry wanna-be guitar heroes as he would’ve been had he been chatting in a living room with a couple friends, strumming on his six-string. There was no pretentious, “I’m better than you” attitude coming from this guy at all, yet he’d earned it by being one of the best guitarists in the world at the time.

I went on to buy that first Mr. Big album and thought it was a great mix of superior pop hooks, prodigious playing, and pristine metal-lite that could be played loudly in one’s bedroom or on a family trip in the car without any strange looks from the parental units. The guitar/bass combo of Gilbert and Sheehan was a force to be reckoned with. Pat Torpey was a great drummer in his own right, while singer Eric Martin had the perfect mix of sweet and gruff in his voice as to pull off both great pop melodies and the come hither swagger needed to be a proper late-80s rock outfit. I bought their 1991 follow up Lean Into It as well and that one topped the debut. It had the acoustic singalong “To Be With You” on it, but the highlights were “Green Tinted Sixties Mind” and the hefty “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy(The Electric Drill Song). That album made Mr. Big a household name(sort of), and I played that album for the most of junior and senior year.

And then that was it…for me, at least.

Seattle took over and I discovered The Kinks, Procol Harum, and Brit pop. The urge to be a guitar slinger was tampered by the urge to be a songwriter. The Shrapnel Records cassettes I’d amassed were designated to an old shoe box, along with those late-80s hard rock cassettes. CDs were in and so was a new era of music for me.

But I never forgot about Paul Gilbert. Despite changing tastes over the years, I’ve always liked Gilbert and his playing. I’d look into what he was doing every once in a while, but it wasn’t until last year that I’d really starting digging into my guitar slinger past and found a treasure trove of Paul Gilbert videos on Youtube. For the past 30 years Paul Gilbert has never stopped making music or doing guitar clinics. In the many that I’ve watched, these videos show a guy that’s never stopped loving playing for people. He seems to still be that 17-year old kid from the suburbs of Pittsburgh playing UFO covers in his room, or excitedly playing his guitar with an electric drill. He still has that urge to share and show others what he’s learned. He still comes across as a dude coming by the house to listen to records and jam in the basement. I love that.

I think one of my favorite videos that I’ve discovered is of Gilbert on a Japanese game show where guitarists name a band and another guitarist has to name the guitar player in that band and then play a portion of one of their songs in that guitarist’s style. It was Paul Gilbert, Marty Friedman, and a Japanese guitar player. Gilbert pretty much ruled the game. To me it shows just how much Paul Gilbert loves music in general.

I won’t be on a buying spree for Mr. Big and Paul Gilbert albums(at least not yet.) But it’s great I can jump into the wayback machine while watching his instructional videos or live performances and be reminded once again how much I like the guy. And you should check out his most recent album, Stone Pushing Uphill Man. It’s mostly instrumental cover versions of some of his favorite songs. It’s pretty great. His cover of The Police’s “Murder By Numbers” is particularly awesome.


Friday Rentals

All this talk of classic horror films from when I was a boy in short pants has me reminiscing about Friday nights of my youth. The Friday night video rental, to be exact. It was a semi-regular thing for my parents and I to go out after my dad got home from work and go grab a pizza at Pizza Hut, stuff ourselves, and then head to Video World and rent some movies for the weekend. Of course, I’d head straight to the back room(not THAT backroom, you perv) and start perusing the horror and sci fi. Video World had a back room dedicated to nothing but horror, sci fi, music docs, and weird odds and ends. That’s where I spent a good portion of my time. This was my formal education into the world of the undead, vampires, alien creatures, soulless slashers, and general weirdos that I’d carry around in my memories for years to come. At first it was an appreciation for being scared, but then it changed. It was the whole aesthetic that I loved: the effects, the music, the set designs, and yes even the stories that were attempted. Some were better than others(much better at times), but each movie carried with it something endearing, no matter how horrible the film was. If it was really bad it would sometimes transcend into something even greater than scares. The horror film that tried so hard but missed the mark would become something else: parody. Something so bad that it became a completely different genre. Even a lousy movie could make for fun viewing.

This Friday night ritual continued on through high school. One of my best friends and I would crash at either my place or his, grab a Tombstone pepperoni pizza from the store along with a bag of Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles, hit Video World for the newest horror film(by this time we’d rent from either Video World or Video Plus), and spend Friday night distorting our minds(and our intestinal tract with that Tombstone Pizza.) Oh, and if you hadn’t guessed, we weren’t the partying types. Were we dorks? Nerds? I don’t think so. But we definitely weren’t “popular kid” material. Listening to Rush and Joe Satriani and pining over Daphne Zuniga didn’t win us any cool points, but we were cool with that.

I don’t think much has changed for me(except I make my own pizza nowadays.) The video store has turned into renting movies off of Amazon, and Fridays are also shared equally by watching movies and spinning records. If I’m going to waste time, I might as well waste on things I love to do, right? I do miss the video store, though. The strange cast of characters that haunted the aisles: whether it was parents and their kids looking for something to watch together, teens looking for something they shouldn’t watch, or the creepers disappearing into the “other” back room. And of course the folks working behind the counter, renting to the folks hungry for entertainment on a Friday evening. Spending their weekend making ours a little more interesting. I had much admiration for them. I was one of them, as I started working at Video World when I was 18 and worked their for nearly a year. A great year it was, too.

So here’s to Friday rentals and making the most of those little moments.

Lost My Shape, Trying To Act Casual

Last week we had my parents over on Valentine’s Day to share a massive pizza and some cake with. It was a nice evening of chit chat and laughter(it usually is with them.) After we ate we were in the living room talking when the conversation went to my childhood. My dad made the comment “You could be peculiar at times. You always got upset when we weren’t acting “normal”. When things were out of place it really bothered you.” At first I laughed, then I realized he was right. What shocked me was that my dad remembered this about me. I’d always known this to be true, that if things were off or my parents weren’t acting like my parents that I’d panic. But I never realized they noticed my (erratic)behavior. I guess parents notice more than you think, kids.

I can remember being 5 or 6 and trying to wake my mom up. She was on the couch and had fallen asleep. It was close to 11pm and I’d woken up from a bad dream. I’d gone out and found her on the couch with TV on in the dark. She was snoring(family trait) and I tried waking her up. My mom was a heavy sleeper and was prone to talking in her sleep. She slowing opened her eyes and seemed to be talking nonsense, which made my already nervous state even worse. I was half crying telling her to wake up when I think she was awake and looking at me like I was insane. I turned around and my dad was up and getting ready for work(he worked third shift at the time.) They both looked at each other like “WTF??”

I suppose this is something you don’t forget as an adult.

There were other instances. Complaining in a restaurant about a pizza not having enough meat on it(valid complaint, but in my 8 year old brain I thought “What if people look at us?”). On a pontoon with my parents and grandparents and we run out of gas in the middle of Lake Manitou. They were all a little on the intoxicated side and my dad started yelling “Help me! Help me!” in between bouts of laughter(we made it to shore unscathed.) I was horrified. And there were the late night games of Monopoly and UNO that would go on till midnight, on a school night. My brother and I had to finish the game regardless. “Finish what you started, guys.”

My parents didn’t seem like my parents in those moments. They just seemed like these people I resembled physically. They weren’t the loving couple that helped me with my homework, took my brother and I to amusement parks in the summer, fed us, clothed us, loved us, and generally made our lives pretty amazing.

They were just these people. People acting like other people than my parents.

I can remember having nightmares when I was really young that my parents were taken over by strange entities. I’m sure a lot of that came from watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers and V as a kid. One dream I remember was being at a construction site and I was inside a house that was just framed out. I was lost and couldn’t find my mom and dad. These people show up and they were outlined like two adults that could’ve been my mom and dad, except that the shapes were filled with television static. Outlines of two bodies walking towards me, but within the outlines was just analog static with occasional sparks of lightning inside. They spoke but it was in these buzzing tones. They were supposed to be my parents, but obviously they weren’t. It was terrifying to my pre-science fiction-loving mind. I’d had another dream around the same time where I’d woken up in the middle of the night and walked out to the kitchen and found my dad making coffee. I immediately ran into my parents bedroom and my dad was also in their bathroom shaving. Two dads, identical, in two different rooms of the house. Which one was the real dad? Who do I ask for a glass of water?

Now, being 43 years old and having read more than my share of psychology books I can see that it was a fear of change and a fear of losing my parents. I think its a pretty normal thing for kids, it just manifests itself differently with different people. And I can also look back and see that in those moments when my parents weren’t acting “normal”, they were just being themselves. At that young of an age I only knew mom and dad. I didn’t know them as individuals. I didn’t want to see them “having fun” or “goofing off”, or as just people(or not paying attention to me, dammit.) That’s confusing! But now that I’m in those shoes I can completely understand. You can’t lose sight of who you are. Sure you’re mom and dad, but sometimes mom and dad need to be individuals. You lose sight of who you are deep down, or who you once were and things get a little complicated. Maybe you’ll start resenting yourself and what you’ve become.

Hell, I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist.

So yes, I was a peculiar child. When things weren’t as they should’ve been I’d kind of freak out. I might be that way a little still, but at least the nightmares stopped(all but those back in high school nightmares.) And strangely enough I’m relieved that my parents saw how peculiar I could be, and yet they still seem to think I’m okay. Same with my family.

I think I’ve made my normal self as the dad that listens to vinyl, drinks micro-brews, reads comics, makes music in the basement, and loves science fiction. My kids would worry if I started reading the paper daily, watching football, drinking light beer, and going to church. Over the last few years I’ve made a concerted effort to “be me” in all aspects. Maybe that’s the difference between me and my parents. Parenting was more of a role 30, 40 years ago, as opposed to who a person was. I was used to the roles and not the individuals. Hopefully my kids know me as dad and that guy spinning records.

Or just the neurotic guy that sits in the living room often typing on a Chromebook.


Taking It All Too Hard

I can remember for a good portion of my childhood (at least that portion that didn’t include a cassette player in my bedroom or in the car) that radio was my friendly companion. From driving from our home to my grandma’s house 30 miles away to just driving into town to get groceries or my mom plopping me down near the window at the women’s clothing store to play with the hand-me-down toys while she tried on clothes. Radio was the voice that kept me company. From the time I was 4 or 5 years old to when I’d turned 10 the radio provided me with sounds, songs, and melodies that would, for better or worse, stay with me my whole life.

Now I’m sure everyone feels this way, but pop music in my childhood seems so much better than the pop radio of “now”. Sure, there were plenty of pop artists in the early 80s that were nothing more than a shell regurgitating tunes a slew of songwriters wrote for them, but there were also a lot of artists writing their own songs AND performing them. Real artists. Maybe you didn’t dig the neon sheen and overuse of synthesizers, well that’s a matter of taste. Point is, you had some pretty interesting bands invading the top 40. I don’t think it’s quite the same these days. That’s a matter of my taste.

One of those bands that soundtracked my childhood was Genesis. Songs like “Misunderstanding”, “Turn It On Again”, “No Reply At All”, “Mama”, “That’s All”, “Home By The Sea”, “Illegal Alien”, “Taking It All Too Hard”, “Just A Job To Do”, “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”, “Land Of Confusion”, “In Too Deep”, and “Throwing It All Away” were all huge hits and played ad nauseum on the local pop and rock stations. There were plenty of songs that played ad nauseum that caused my pre-teen heart to turn black each time I heard them, but for some reason I never wanted the station turned when “Misunderstanding” or “That’s All” or “No Reply At All” came through the car radio. Dare I say I got a little agitated if the station got turned in the middle of the song.

There was something kind of comforting about the Collins/Banks/Rutherford trio to an awkward kid like me. They weren’t donning the cover of Teen Beat or Circus Magazine. Their songs weren’t cookie cutter stuff, in that you couldn’t just sit down with an acoustic guitar and muddle through. Despite being radio fodder it was still very progressive. Unlike so many other bands in the 80s Genesis didn’t seem to take themselves all that seriously(unlike their earlier incarnation.) I could see them playing Knebworth and I could also just as easily picture them on The Benny Hill Show running around, sped up and being chased by Hill and that little bald fellow. They were a ballads band, for sure. But their ballads enthralled me as a kid, as opposed to making me run in the opposite direction like most ballads did. There was a middle-aged malaise to their sad sack songs that connected with me, even at 8-years old. Sure, hearing Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” on Miami Vice certainly caused me to appreciate the guy. But their video for “Land Of Confusion” did more to solidify my childhood love for these three progressive rock survivors.

So let’s jump in the time machine and travel from 1983 to 2017. I recently streamed Genesis’ Genesis from 1983 and I was pretty taken aback by just how much I loved that album. It’s pretty much jam packed with great songs. Catchy, earworm tunes that take me back to car rides, Sunday mornings listening to the top 40 countdown, and late Friday nights watching Friday Night Videos on mom and dad’s Zenith 25″. Yes, nostalgia does play a big role in my affinity for the album and band, but there’s no denying their songwriting prowess here. This led to revisting Abacab and Duke. Both are exquisite chunks of pop radio confection with a nice mix of progressive musicianship throughout. I perused Invisible Touch as well. This came out in 1986 when I’d hit middle school, guitar lessons, AC/DC, and a newfound affinity for the opposite sex, so tracks like “Invisible Touch” and “In Too Deep” weren’t what I wanted running through my brain(though, I can neither confirm or deny a few melancholy bus rides home from school a little heartbroken while “Throwing It All Away” played from the school bus radio.) While Touch was a little too digital and synsonic-sounding for my tastes, it hit some nerves as well.

fullsizerender-4But Genesis, to me, is the quintessential 80s hit record. Sure, and then there was three, but man could those three make some great songs. I think they realized they weren’t going to hold onto the grizzled, hardcore progressive rock fans of albums like Trespass, Selling England By The Pound, Foxtrot, and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. The missing combo of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett was just too much to keep up the concept album facade. It was time to start thinking bigger. Radio hits and securing a second wind of a music career. It started with Duke and continued with Abacab, with their full powers coming to fruition on Genesis. Invisible Touch and We Can’t Dance gave them even more radio hits and success, but it also spelled overexposure and burn out. Plus, the progressive tendencies had pretty much been washed out of the sound. Gone were songs like “That’s All”, “No Reply At All”, and “Home By The Sea”.

Also gone were actual “bands” that were musicians as well as songwriters showing up on the radio. Boy bands, boxed R&B, and the oncoming train wreck called alternative 90s had been filling up the charts with schmaltz and over-produced songs written by small armies of songwriters. There were no more bands like Genesis; middle-aged veterans with musician and songwriting chops going into a studio and bashing out records. Everything became machinated in the music industry. No wiggle room to screw up. Sometimes those screw-ups gave us the best stuff.

img_2775Oh well, enough old man whining. I found a NM used copy of Genesis at my local record store earlier this week. I brought it home after getting groceries and threw it on the turntable. Damn. It still hit all the buttons for me. My wife came home and said “I thought this sounded like Phil Collins.” I replied “Yeah, I bought this for $4 at Karma Records today. I never realized how much I loved early 80s Genesis.” After about 30 minutes and a second run through my wife was singing along to “That’s All”, after which she said “I guess I never realized how much I loved Genesis, too.”

Oh, mama.



Bullies, Bruises, and Other Things That Keep Me Up At Night

I suppose I consider myself pretty lucky never having to deal with a school bully. Sure, there were the macho jocks, greasy punks, and wannabe gangstas that took runs at me over the years. Those were mostly isolated incidences(kid screams in my face in the hallway in middle school and laughs it up with his slime ball friends; another kid, stoned, thinks he may want to fight me at the arcade one night after we got out of the movies…turns out I wasn’t who he thought I was; another kid whacks me in the head with a kickball from 50 feet away, yucking it up.) There was one kid in the 2nd or 3rd grade that kept pushing me on the playground and I’d just had enough and I went at him. We rolled on the ground in the most underwhelming display of brute force ever. We both got in trouble even though he started it. Joe Grapf was his name. There were troubles with the law later in life. Rumors of him torturing kittens flew around the playground after he left the school for good one day. Supposedly he ran away from home, lived in the woods, and was raised by raccoons.

Well, maybe not raccoons.

Point is, in my 43 years years I’ve been pretty lucky when it came to bullies. Maybe it was my ability to blend into the scenery. I don’t come off so much a vulnerable human as I do an inanimate object. I was like a lamp that seems to have faint facial features; a boy in Husky jeans that seems to have no personality or spirit to crush. Maybe it was because I could get along with mostly anyone. I wasn’t one to start up conversations, but I could give the impression that I belonged even though I didn’t.

I was the child equivalent of a Replicant.

It seemed as if I was supposed to be there, which threw attention onto the smaller classmates(poor, poor, Charles Gigous. I’m sorry, guy.) I was also what they called “big-boned”. I think only your mom calls you big-boned, while the rest of the world just says you’re fat. I wasn’t a fat kid, otherwise I’m sure I’d a fallen prey to the bullies. I was just big enough to keep the predators away. My quiet disposition, along with being “big-boned” made me seem like more of a threat than I really was. My Husky jeans, tousled hair, and soulless blank stare kept the cretins away from me(still do, except there’s not much hair left to tousle.)

When you grow up and have children of your own there’s a Pandora’s Box of fears you develop. You worry about one thing then a million more things pop up. Are they eating right? Are they developing at the right pace? Am I ruining them on some existential level? Are they reading enough? Are they reading too much? Should I let them read that? At what age should I expose them to Star Wars? What if they prefer Star Trek? What if I find they’re reading Nicholas Sparks novels? What happens if they prefer the Dave Clark Five to the Beatles? So many things to consider when you become a parent.

For me, one of those fears is that my kids will become victim to a bully. I know how sweet, kind, polite, and loving they all are and the thought of someone physically and mentally terrorizing my children just kills me. Right before Christmas break my wife was tipped off by someone at my son’s school that he had been picked on by a couple of kids in his math class. There were no details other than who the two were that did it and that the teacher was taking care of it. Our son hadn’t said anything to us, nor was he acting differently either. I still felt like I needed to at least bring it up to him. I’ve always told the kids that they can come to us for anything, about anything. Especially if someone’s giving them trouble at school; be it bullies, teachers, friends, Jehova’s Witnesses, or whoever.

So I brought it up to my son about him being picked on at school and he just gave me a puzzled look. I’ve got that parenting sixth sense that I know when there’s a problem. Not every parent has this ability, but I do(thanks, mom.) I could tell he honestly didn’t know what I was talking about. Maybe the school informant misunderstood, or maybe they were saying something behind my son’s back and he didn’t know. Either way, I wasn’t going to push it. I just told him that if there were ever any problems at school with anyone to please just let me know. I’d handle it…I’d handle it. Yeah, what does that mean? In my head I’m already going through the revenge fantasies. Me walking into the classroom dressed as T-800 from T2:Judgement Day. “Hasta la vista, baby”, I would say as I douse the punk in Silly Spray. In another I show up at the kid’s house to talk it out with his dad, only to have the dad get lippy and I go Steven Seagal on him. As I snap his arm, I shout “You should’ve tried those Baby Einstein videos with that son of yours!!!”

I mean, who really deserves the punishment in that case? Sure, the kid did the deed. He picked on someone he felt was weaker than him. Felt he wasn’t a threat. But you learn that behavior at home. Unless the bully is a straight up sociopath, mom and dad ruined their child and turned them into the monster. That’s how I see it, anyways. More than likely the parents of a bully are a bully themselves. Or are just too flippant to teach their kids right from wrong. They don’t have time to discipline the little people they brought into the world. Here’s an electronic device, son. I don’t know how to tell you “no”, so just play this video game for hours while I slip into an alcohol-fueled daze.

Either way, I think that dad deserves some Steven Seagal justice.

I guess for the time being I won’t worry about bullies. My son’s got some good pals at school, and I know he’ll tell me if he’s having problems. He knows I’ve got his back. He also knows we come from a long line of hot heads that will keep their cool until they can’t. Then look out. My paternal instinct is to work it out rationally. Think things through and find a reasonable solution. Then, if that doesn’t work I break out the spiked ball bat and I hash out it in Thunderdome.

I think that’s reasonable.

When there’s no more room in Hell…

It’s 11:35 pm on a Thursday night and I’m writing whilst listening to Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon. Normally I’d be fast asleep thanks to some Melantonin and general exhaustion but I’m currently on fall break holiday. Not that it’s a work holiday or anything, but the kids are off the last half of the week for fall break and I figured it’d be a good time to burn up some vacation days. Besides, the wife is in Pennsylvania for work-related reasons and it seemed to be a good idea to be home to make sure the kids don’t burn the place down while I’m hard at work…at work.

Today was the boy and I’s annual viewing of one of my all-time favorite movies, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It’s been a tradition since 2011 for us to sit and watch Romero’s classic zombie flick. Sure the make up is dated and the acting is spotty at times and characters sometimes do ridiculously stupid things, but none of those things really matter. You see, Romero captured something in his Pennsylvania-shot horror epic. You get the vibe that you could’ve known these people. You feel their angst as the beginning shots show a newsroom in chaos. Medical experts argue on air with local authorities about the situation as the camera crew, engineers, and producers scream at each other, chain smoke, and gobble down cup after cup of coffee. Racial tensions between cops and tenants at a housing project show race divisions are still alive and well, 10 years after the original Night of the Living Dead arrived. Our four main characters, a helicopter pilot, his pregnant news producer girlfriend, and two S.W.A.T. officers make it out of the crumbling Pittsburgh and find their way to “one of those indoor malls”. Inside they find the dead walking among the empty clothing stores, shoes stores, and candy shoppes. Despite death taking their ability to reason and think, they still shuffle along inside the indoor Monroeville Mall as if they were there to buy some shoes.

mallI’ve seen this movie several times in my life. You’d think once or twice would be enough, but I could watch it two or three times a year I think. It’s one of those films that not only has several layers of meaning to me, but it takes me back to when I first saw it over 30 years ago. I’d been at my aunt’s house for a week. It was fun going to my aunt Brenda’s house, as she had a son that was just a year younger than me so we had a blast playing together. They had a big two-story home in a neighborhood in Plymouth, Indiana, so there was plenty of room for us to get into trouble. But they were also very religious, so by the time I’d get to go back home I was ready to get back to my sinful ways of watching scary movies, listening to my hard rock, and just enjoying the general laid back attitude my parents had when it came to parenting. When my mom and I got back from her picking me up I stepped into the house and saw some videos from Video World on the kitchen counter. One of them was Dawn of the Dead. My dad had heard about the movie and picked it up before he came home. I remember we watched it after dinner that night and I was blown away. My dad rewound two or three scenes laughing out loud at the part where the zombie stood up onto the wood crates and the top of his head was sliced off by the copter blades(I think we even slow motioned that part.) We laughed at the blue-tinted Hare Krishna, the shirtless fat zombie, and the old man stumbling zombie that was on the escalator. The goofy mall music, the sales announcements(“Sales-a-poppin!”), and the store fronts; as well as the arcade, ice skating rink, and photobooth all went to create this timeless feeling for me.

glenbrookSeeing that mall our protagonists were trapped in reminded me of my own mall. It looked just like the Glenbrook Mall where my mom would take me clothes shopping for school. It was set up just like the mall in Dawn of the Dead, complete with fountain and ice skating rink. Every time I’d go there after seeing Romero’s film I’d look at the expressionless faces I’d pass and think these people weren’t far off from being undead themselves. Going through the motions, mindlessly performing the act of supporting the economy by spending money they had(and in some cases didn’t have.) Stalking through the mall was like this involuntary muscle movement. We knew it so well we didn’t really have to be there in our heads. We just shuffled along, dumping money at the Foot Locker, Musicland, and Chess King. Instead of dining on the flesh of the living we’d dine on hot pretzels and a cold drink from Hot Sam. We’d go blind at the arcade, thoughtlessly dropping quarter after quarter into arcade games like Asteroids, Frogger, and Tron.

Where there’s no more room in Hell, the dead shall walk the mall.

goldmineI don’t know if George Romero knew what he was creating when he made Dawn of the Dead. While he went on to make many more films(some good, some not-so good), I don’t think he ever hit all the right buttons again like he did with Dawn. It was a mix of social commentary, horror/gore, dark humor, and nostalgia. It wasn’t nostalgia at the time the film was made, but given that most of those indoor malls have gone by the wayside and have been closed, in lieu of more trendy outdoor malls and the more convenient online shopping, Dawn of the Dead is showing something that most millenials these days probably wouldn’t understand. Even though I can’t stand going to the mall, there’s still a part of me that misses those days of walking the halls of Glenbrook as a teenager with my pals and gawking at girls I never had the nerve to talk to in person, or dropping coins at the Gold Mine arcade. Buying a slice of pizza in the food court and reading Fangoria zines at Waldenbooks. The mall was a rite of passage for the 80s American youth. It was ingrained in us. So much so that even in death we were searching for some great deals, an Orange Julius, and maybe a cute girl to take to the movies.

Or maybe we were just looking for some living flesh to devour. Either way, bring lots of coins.


Snorting Pumpkin Spice(and other not-so good ideas for Fall)

It’s finally here. That time of year when hoodies and jeans are a staple of the Midwest fashion diet. Sure, there’s some that try to hurry that fashion trend into regular rotation at the beginning of September, but they’re the ones sweating walking from their car to the grocery because they saw dew on the grass at 8am. Listen, just because it’s September and you’ve seen a few leaves on the ground doesn’t mean you can break out the fleece and your comfy jeans just yet. Don’t be the sweaty fool at the check-out line freaking out the cashier as she assumes you’re slowly dying underneath that Nike hoodie and baggie Silvertab jeans. Bring it back a bit. Keep the shorts and flip flops handy Captain Autumn, summer’s not done with you just yet.

As I was saying, we’ve surpassed the summer grind and October is upon us. We’ve made it to October 7th. Today’s high temp is going to be 74 degrees. Tomorrow the high will only be 62 degrees(yes, get out the hoodie now.) This really is my favorite time of year. You can keep your balmy, sun-drenched days of yore. And as far as winter goes it can go to Hell. I’m done with frigid temps, too. Nah, fall is when I feel most alive; when everything around me is dying.

pumpkin-smashing-heroMy love for Autumn and October started as a kid growing up in Northeast Indiana. The house I grew up in was situated in a forest of pine trees. It was a newly minted housing addition called, wait for it, the Pines. The pines were a single row of homes along to intersecting county roads that lined the edge of this pine forest. When fall rolled around pine needles would fall, turning from vibrant green to fading brown. This wasn’t like having a couple maple trees in the yard and raking those up. No, pine needles embedded into the grass. You couldn’t easily rake or blow them into a pile. It took work. Backbreaking, time-consuming work. Fortunately for my mom and dad they had two aloof sons they could barter with in order to get the raking work done. A couple Mad Magazines, some packs of baseball cards, and maybe throw in a couple Star Wars action figures and the work would be done. My brother and I would make a game out of the work. We’d rake lanes in the back yard for miniature golf. We’d create trenches where I could land the Millennium Falcon, Snow Speeder, and X-Wing Fighter. We’d make a trail for the dog to walk along(which he never did.) Raking isn’t the reason I love fall, but it was an activity that my older brother and I did together. One of the few things we both disliked doing but made something fun out of.

Another reason for my adoration of the falling of the leaves, as it were, was the woods I lived in. Back then it was a dark and ominous place to be in around dusk. This was prior to any development of the land behind my parent’s house, so it was just a vast forest that felt like it went on forever. Being a pre-teen growing up on horror films the forest was the ultimate spot for bloody mayhem. Heading back into the woods on a Friday night or Saturday evening the imagination of an overly bored 9 year old would kick into overdrive. Movies like Friday The 13th, Lon Chaney Jr’s The Wolfman, The Fog, and Sleepaway Camp tossed and toiled in my brain and I’d eventually end up freaking myself out enough that I’d end up running like my ass was on fire back to our house as if Jason, Wolfie, or a psychotic she-man was chasing me through the brush of the pine forest. It was horrifying and exhilarating. I’d call this self-horrified cardio. The woods behind my house was a vast wonderland of shadows, broken trees, thick brush, and ample pockets of unknown that pushed my “what if?” button almost constantly.

Caramel apples. Need I say more??

Of course, this was all just mere foreplay that led up to the big kahuna. The amber-colored main event known as Halloween. The day when every kid in thecooper neighborhood got to pick out a flimsy cardboard box at Kmart, 3D, or Harveys department store that was filled with a plastic surgical smock in the colors of C3PO, Strawberry Shortcake, or He-Man; as well as a painful, molded face that might resemble that character. You’d put the smock on and your mom would tie the back for you like it was hospital gown, you’d put on said painful mask, grab a brown grocery bag, and head out for the goods. Where I grew up I was pretty lucky because there were plenty of houses along our road to hit up, as well as the adjoining Lake Forest addition that was just down the road. Traffic was minimal and the upper middle class Reagan-ites were happy to dole out sweet, mass-produced confections. I was a shy kid, so I always liked trick-or-treating with a friend. But if no friend was available my mom would walk up to the house with me(I eventually grew out of that and mom didn’t have to walk up with me anymore. I think I was 30.) There was still an air of creepiness, even in the housing addition. It was in a forest, so not much light back there with the exception of the front porch lights and a few random street lights. I can remember one year not wanting to go up to a house because they had a sign on their front porch that read “No Peddlers”. My mom tried to convince me that I wasn’t peddling, that I was trick-or-treating. I wouldn’t have any of it. Even the owner of the house was on his front porch with a bowl of candy telling me it was okay. No way. Couldn’t do it. Me and my vampire mask kept walking. I think my mom ended up grabbing some candy for me out of embarrassment; both for me and the poor guy that couldn’t give away candy to a midget-sized bloodsucker.

Now, being a responsible adult, husband, and father of 3 the fall still holds that magic for me. I probably only have a couple more years left of the trick-or-treating before the kids are too old and too cool to go to homes of strangers and ask them to smell their feet in exchange for bite size Hershey bars. That thought makes me a little sad. As a parent, one of the advantages is you get a front row seat to revisiting some of your own great childhood memories(and maybe a few childhood traumas, too…but that’s for another day.) The thrill of a birthday party and opening gifts, Christmas morning, spending the night with grandma and grandpa, your first scary movie, and the thrill of Halloween night through the eyes of your children are all pretty great things. When those go, you’re kind of losing those memories all over again.

It is what it is. Enjoy the autumn stroll, no matter how many times you’ve walked the same path. Eat the lousy candy your kids give you because they don’t like it(and neither do you.) You may be tired, but stay up and watch that stupid movie with ’em anyways. Sooner or later they’ll hole up in their bedroom and you won’t see ’em again until you’re moving them into a dorm room. Make some trails in the pine needles, just for the hell of it.

And when all else fails, snort some pumpkin spice. Or don’t.

mmm....caramel apples.
mmm….caramel apples.