Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Simpsons - Songs In The Key Of Springfield

Phil Hartman (1948 - 1998) died fifteen years ago today.

I remember in detail when and where I first heard about his death.  I was working for a financial services corporation in Irving, Texas, doing a stint in the collections department after being part of the corporate staff, doing work on the commercial lending side, for my first year with the firm.  The collections group was located about two miles from the main headquarters building where I used to work, in a location close by Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport.  Most of the folks there had worked there together a long time and were a pretty tight-knit group, so there was a lot of grumbling and resentment when I, the young hotshot from Corporate, arrived there to assume a job that at least half a dozen people there felt they deserved more.  Needless to say, my first couple of weeks there were not fun. 

But gradually, most of the people there began to warm up to me.  An important tool that worked in my favor was that, as a former corporate exec, I had been granted and was allowed to keep my unlimited Internet access.  Back in those days, I guess the company's thought was that if everyone had Internet access, all that employees would do was spend all workday screwing around surfing the Web (heh - that never happens nowadays, does it?).  So Web privileges were parsed out only to a fortunate few, mostly senior executives - and, for some reason, me.  This came in handy in my new position that March, during the annual NCAA basketball tournament, when I was able to provide up-to-the-minute scores of tourney games to the multitude of hoops fanatics (and office pool participants) there.  And I wasn't stingy about occasionally letting someone into my office to use Yahoo!  It's always little gestures like that, I've found, that turn people around.

I was sitting in my office on that early morning in late May, taking a break and checking out the news, when I came across the initial headline: "Phil Hartman Dead", with no further details offered at that time.  It was such an unlikely, unexpected, out-of-the-blue story that my mind initially dismissed it as one of those wild, unsubstantiated rumors that used to pop up as "news" in the early days of web reporting.  It was when the second headline popped up a few minutes later with the news of his death that I began to take it more seriously.  It took a while for the details to emerge; as in all murder cases, the circumstances were not pretty:

Apparently he and his wife Brynn had been having marital difficulties, a lot of which stemmed from Brynn's seething jealousy over her husband's success in light of her own failed acting career (well, that along with her rampant booze and drug problems - it seemed that she had a long-standing reputation in the industry and community as a total whack-job).  After another of their many domestic spats that evening, Phil's wife went out and remained out into the wee hours, slamming tequila shooters and snorting coke at a nearby bar.  She came back home at around 3 a.m., and without ceremony shot her husband to death point-blank while he slept in their bed.  Brynn then fled to a friend's house (leaving behind her two small children, who were asleep in the home during this entire incident), telling him about the shooting and promptly falling asleep on the guy's couch.  Initially, her friend didn't believe her story, but after finding the gun in her purse, he began to have second thoughts.  Brynn woke up about three hours later and dragged the guy over to her house, were he found Phil's body and immediately called 911.  By the time the cops arrived, Brynn had locked herself in the bedroom with her husband's corpse.  Before they could break the door down, she had shot herself in the head with a second gun.

It was shocking news - so much so that I got up and left my office in a daze, and stumbled over to the first person I could find to tell them the news.  They were just as shocked.  It just didn't seem possible that something like this could happen to a star of his caliber.  At that point in 1998, Hartman's career was reaching a peak.  He was about to begin his fifth season as the lead on the NBC sitcom NewsRadio.  And through the late '90's he starred in a series of films, including Houseguest, Sgt. Bilko and Jingle All The Way, most of which were poorly received critically but financial successes at the box office.

But, of course, Hartman's greatest success during the 1990s came from his many guest appearances on The Simpsons, and the list of classic characters he left behind - Lyle Lanley (one of the greatest musical performances in Simpsons history - the "Monorail Song"):

Incompetent attorney Lionel Hutz (this is a weird color-free video, but still good):

And of course, the immortal washed-up actor Troy McClure:
Saturday Night Live, the show that made him famous, did a tribute show in his honor that aired on June 13th, 1998, a couple of weeks after his death, showing clips from Hartman's six-year residency on the program.  They replayed some of his classics:  Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, The Anal Retentive Chef, Bill Clinton at McDonalds, etc.  One of the last things they played on that show was the following clip, "Love Is A Dream", directed by Tom Schiller.  Jan Hooks, Phil's co-star in this short, presented the piece, and couldn't stop crying as she did so.  After watching it, neither could I - in light of his passing, it is a perfect tribute, but it is devastating:
In a lot of ways, Phil Hartman's comedic work was sort of smarmy and overly broad, but it still had widespread appeal.  While he was never a big favorite with the critics, Hartman had fans of all ages, and to a man, everyone who knew of him was genuinely shocked and saddened by his death.  His friends in the industry knew him as a hard-working, 'normal' guy, seemingly unaffected by his fame and the trappings associated with it, and they were just as stunned as the rest of the public.  As Dan Snierson of Entertainment Weekly magazine wrote, in a column soon after the news broke, Hartman was "the last person you'd expect to read about in lurid headlines in your morning paper . . . a decidedly regular guy, beloved by everyone he worked with." The Simpsons was still going somewhat strong in the spring of 1998, the end of the show's eighth season.  And there were plenty of good and excellent individual episodes to come in the program's future seasons.  But I think that if you had to select the single point in time where The Simpsons moved from being classic, 'must-see' TV and started becoming standard, run-of-the-mill fare (or even worse), the loss of Phil Hartman's voice and characterizations is as good a place as any to mark the beginning of the decline. A year earlier, Rhino released Songs In The Key of Springfield, a compilation of some of the best musical bits from the show's first seven years.  There's some great stuff on here:  the entire "Oh, Streetcar!" musical episode (including the song ripping New Orleans that angered residents of that city); Tito Puente's outstanding (and authentic) mambo number "Senor Burns"; Beverly D'Angelo (as Lurleen Lumpkin) and her superb country number "Your Wife Don't Understand You".  But my favorite part of this disc is from the "A Fish Called Selma" episode, with the now-classic Troy McClure musical version of Planet Of The Apes:
Frankly, as good as the selections are on this album, there's not enough Phil Hartman on it.  And the public seemed to agree - this disc only made it to #103 on the Billboard Hot 200, significantly below its predecessor, the multi-platinum Top 5 smash The Simpsons Sing The Blues.  Still, this is an excellent overview of some of the great music that went into the show during the early part of its history. So, here it is for you to hear for yourself - Songs In The Key Of Springfield, released by Rhino Records on March 18th, 1997.  Enjoy, and while you listen, recall all of the great and hilarious Simpsons moments brought to you by the late, lamented Phil Hartman.  And, as always, let me know what you think. Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link ASAP: Send Email

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The B-52's - Mesopotamia ("David Byrne Mixes")

“When someone reaches middle age, people he knows begin to get put in charge of things, and knowing what he knows about the people who are being put in charge of things scares the hell out of him.”    
― Calvin Trillin, With All Disrespect
I've been watching the current Senate campaign in nearby Massachusetts (for the seat of former Senator and current Secretary of State John Kerry) with more than my usual bit of interest in all things political. I actually have a personal connection to this contest - I know the Republican candidate, Gabriel Gomez. He was my classmate at the Naval Academy, and in the same company with many of my old Annapolis friends. I can't say that I know him well, but we're familiar enough to recognize and call one another by name in a crowd of people. It's sort of strange, seeing a guy who you knew in your younger days, the same sort of hell-raisin', hard-drinkin', tom-cattin' partier you once were, now presenting himself as a solid citizen and vying for high elective office. Although I can't say that I support his cause or agree with most of his positions, I wish him well in his endeavors.

I don't know how many of you out there are familiar with the works of Calvin Trillin, the writer and humorist, but if you haven't checked him out, I heartily suggest you do. He has a very dry, witty, gentle, self-depreciating sense of humor . I heard him in a radio interview last year, discussing his then-latest book Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff (a book that went on to win last year's coveted Thurber Prize for American Humor). During the interview, Trillin brought up the topic I've quoted above, about the people we know and have grown up with now reaching the age where they're being put in charge of things, and how weird that seems. It was a pretty funny bit, with Trillin making reference to the kids he grew up with, known for eating worms or wetting their pants in elementary school, now serving as college presidents, elected officials and other respected authorities.

I can relate to that already, looking back not just on the recent Senate candidate acquaintance, but also on the lives of many of my old elementary and secondary school friends. Back in high school, one of my best buddies and I had an ongoing (and definitely non-PC) gag that poked fun at the mentally disabled. So what is his profession now? He's a senior administrator for residential communities that provide care and independence to people with Down's Syndrome and other developmental disabilities, a cause that he's devoted his life to. In another case, I went to school in California with two brothers who did such crazy, dangerous stuff to and with one another (jumping off of roofs into pools, crashing bikes head on, etc.) that I seriously thought they were congenitally insane. Today, one is a respected corporate attorney in the Bay Area, while the other is a renowned chemical engineer. So, it just goes to show you that the attitudes and actions on display in someone's early life are no harbinger of things to come.

All of which brings me to a phone call I received a few weeks ago, from my old friend Camob . . .

I've mentioned him a couple of times here in this blog. He lives way out on the West Coast, in San Diego, so we don't get together very much - I think the last time I actually saw him was in 2009. But we've always kept in contact through phone conversations and emails, maintaining a friendship and connection that goes back more than thirty years, all the way back to when we were young pups living next door to one another in a dingy old dormitory in Newport, Rhode Island.

He's a lot like me, in that most of his musical loves and sensibilities were formed back when we were in prep school and college. Camob was well into the New Wave long before he came to Newport, and was a champion of bands of that ilk that hailed from his home state of California. For instance, I remember when L.A. natives The Go-Go's dropped their hit debut LP Beauty and The Beat in the summer of 1981; you would have thought that Camob owned stock in I.R.S. Records, the way he talked up that band and that disc to anyone who would listen! He knew a lot about SoCal bands like Sparks and the Surf Punks, groups that I had only a passing acquaintance with. But as I mentioned in a previous post, the thing that made us instant friends early on was the discovery that we were both huge Devo fanatics. During off hours, we would sometimes hang out in his room, listening to his cassette copy of New Traditionalists (released the month after the Go-Go's album, in August 1981) . . . or more often than not, he and I would march up and down the halls with our parade rifles, mock-serious, as "Devo Corporate Anthem" (off of Duty Now For The Future) blasted out of his room and James, his older, more worldly roommate, looked on at us with an air of bemusement (ah, the things we did when we were young!).

I was the one who turned Camob on to The B-52's, my favorite band at the time. I was stunned that he was unfamiliar with their music up to that point . . . but he was a fast learner. By Christmas of 1981, he was a full-fledged fan - leading up to our epic journey to Providence that winter to catch them live at the Performing Arts Center (click that link above for the full story).

Although decades have now passed and we are much older, Camob remains a committed fan of both Devo and more especially The B-52's.  He never misses an opportunity to see them play when they are in his area, which is fairly often. I've seen the Bee-Fives about 7 or 8 times in my life; I figure that, over the years, Camob has paid to see them at least 25 times all told, and has been to no less than a score of Spudboy concerts. Just before the holidays last year, during one of our phone conversations, he suggested that I keep an eye on the mails, as he was sending a package my way. I thought that was a bit odd, since he and I are not in the habit of sending each other Christmas gifts every year. I tried to pry out of him what it could be, without luck. But after a day or two, I sort of forgot about it. A few days later, however, a box with my name on it arrived at my door. I recalled that it was from him, but I had no idea what it could be. I tore the box open, and laughed hysterically as I found this inside:

A joke gift, but one from the heart, and a reminder and acknowledgement of our old days together.

A couple of years ago, I was browsing around the Web, and came across a site describing a recently remixed version of The B-52's song "Mesopotamia". So I started looking around for it, but instead stumbled upon a site that had what was purported to be the "original mix" of the Mesopotamia EP - the mix reportedly done by David Byrne that was mostly shelved after he and the band had disagreements regarding the album project (which was why Mesopotamia was released as a 6-song mini-album, instead of The B-52's third full-fledged studio album). From what I read, this "Byrne mix" was included only on early copies of the EP released in England, which were immediately pulled in favor of the version that most people are familiar with. But a couple of the English copies remained at large, and the guy running the site got his hands on one of them.

I practically levitated out of my seat as I read this. Mesopotamia has long been one of my favorite B-52's albums, but to this day it holds a mixed reputation among the band's aficionados. The EP marked a substantial change in the musical direction of the band. On this record, The B-52's moved away from the more 'basic', good-time, straight-ahead party rock sound of their first two albums (The B-52's and Wild Planet) into something somewhat darker, denser, more polyrhythmic and layered. Many fans and critics were horrified by this shift - I can recall one savage review from back then that contained the line "The B-52's tried to take the 'p' out of 'party', and failed." As a result, Mesopotamia peaked on the U.S. Billboard charts significantly lower than its predecessor, the Top 20 hit Wild Planet. This EP definitely put the brakes on The B-52's momentum, and it took them years to recover.

The full story behind the aborted Mesopotamia sessions has never been fully told.  From what I understand, the disagreements between David Byrne and the Bee-Fives stemmed from two things.  First, it was the sound itself, which was a radical departure from what the band was known for; the B-52's (and the label) were understandably nervous about so drastic a move away from what by then was considered a 'signature' sound for the group.  It seemed to them that Byrne was trying to act like a bush-league Brian Eno, and mold the band into a hybrid afro-worldbeat version of what Talking Heads had been doing under Eno's production during that time (Fear Of Music/Remain In Light/Speaking In Tongues).

In addition, Byrne was producing his first full-scale solo work, the musical score for the Twyla Tharp Broadway dance project, The Catherine Wheel. He was working full-bore on that during the day and producing/mixing the B-52's stuff at night (again, trying to be a little Eno). But unlike his mentor, Byrne obviously couldn't handle the stress/effort involved in helming two big projects at once, and one of them began to suffer. Guess which one? So between the changed sound and Byrne's inattention, they collectively decided to part ways, and scrap the full album sessions.

The problem the label had with aborting the album was that it screwed up their release plans; there was supposed to be a full-blown B-52s album on the shelves in 1981. So Warner Bros. quickly slapped together the Party Mix! remix EP for release in July 1981, buying time for themselves and the band while they tried to figure out what to do with the unfinished songs and mixes left by Byrne.

The result was chaos. Island, Warner's distributor in the UK, rushed the pressing of the overseas Mesopotamia discs for release in January 1982 - somehow including unfinished, unedited demos of some tracks, instead of the fully produced songs. So, you see - the heralded so-called "David Byrne original EP mixes" are actually nothing more than a music label's huge fuckup.

Even with all of that, they're still interesting. Three of the songs on this "Mesopotamia - David Byrne Mix" (screw it - for the sake of simplicity, let's just keep calling it that) - "Deep Sleep", the title cut, and "Nip It In The Bud" are essentially identical to what I'd heard for all these years. But there were significant differences in the other three songs/demos:
  • "Loveland" - the 'David Byrne mix' is 8:24 minutes long, almost a full three and a half minutes longer than the "regular" version. It's also much 'dryer' than the familiar version; that is, there is no reverb or echo added to Kate's voice in this version of the song. Still, it's pretty good.
  • "Throw That Beat In The Garbage Can" - This alternate version is a full minute and a half longer than the familiar version. I'd always sort-of liked the 'regular' version, but I always felt that, like "Nip It In The Bud", it could have been improved on. I discovered that, in this case, I was wrong. The 'David Byrne version', while longer, simply has too much going on within it - a lot of annoying sound effects and horn fanfares that intrude upon and ultimately diminish the song. I frankly prefer the version I've always listened to all these years to this one.
  • "Cake" - The hands-down highlight of the 'Byrne mixes'. This version is two minutes longer than the familiar version. In this one, the song is slightly sped up from the 'norm', and overall it's a LOT funkier (in a cool Bootsy Collins, Speaking In Tongues-era Talking Heads fashion) and better put together than the released version. You don't notice the extended length of it; it's THAT good, and should have been the one to have gone on the official EP.
All in all, it was pretty exciting hearing these alternate versions. Despite its critics, I'd always liked Mesopotamia - regardless of the fact that, even at its debut, it had a sort of unfinished, half-assed feel to it. And I knew from my conversations with Camob that he liked the EP as well. So I quickly forwarded him a copy, and soon afterwards received the following response:
"Really appreciate you sending this along. As we have discussed before, I always loved Mesopotamia like you did and I always felt it got shorted by everyone but the true fans. I was never a big fan of "Throw That Beat........" or "Deep Sleep", Loved "Mesopotamia", "Cake", really liked "Nip it in the Bud" and "Loveland". And you are right on with your comments, this version of "Cake" should have been the one they included on the EP."
That's my boy Camob - always on my wavelength!

Camob graduated from Annapolis a year ahead of me, and spent all of his active duty Navy time in the Pacific Fleet. He left active duty back in the mid-90s and found a niche in the professional placement field, eventually opening up his own successful business. But he maintained his Navy connection and continued his military advancement as a reserve naval officer; as a reservist, it seemed that he was more 'active' than he was when he was actually in the regular Navy, with regular deployments to hot spots around the world.

So back to that phone call . . .

Camob called to tell me some outstanding news that he's just received - he had been selected for flag rank - my boy was going to be made an Admiral! I couldn't believe it!

. . . And yet, I could believe it. People who don't know him well might dismiss him - but Camob has worked his ass off all his life to achieve success, both in business and in the military, and has never let adversity or naysayers deter him from where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do on this planet. I have been lucky enough to see all of his facets throughout his life - from the beer-bong wielding, concert-attending, poker playing boon compadre and dependable wingman, to the dedicated family man, savvy business professional and 'watertight' military commander. He's not just one or another of those things - all those experiences and attitudes from across the years are what molded him into the man he is today.

So I don't expect him to change much, now that he's got gold stars on his lapels. He'll probably still chuckle over our email exchanges (some of the funniest things I've ever written and read have come through the banter and correspondence Camob and I have engaged in, off and on, for over thirty years now). He will undoubtedly be the first Flag Officer in U.S. history who's once owned (and worn) a plastic Devo "New Traditionalist Pomp" hairdo . . . one who's served more hours of disciplinary marching and room restriction at USNA than perhaps any other admiral . . . one who knows and appreciates who Lene Lovich, Jane Wiedlin and Susan Dallion are . . . a man who never missed an episode of The Facts Of Life when it was on, and who once nursed a years-long crush on one of the TV show's girls (I'll let you guess
which one) . . . and one who spent much more time laughing and having fun in school and in life than in sweating over things, politicking and glad-handing his way to high rank. I'm afraid to say that there are more than a few top officers out there who greased their way along with that sort of "brownnoser" attitude (and I can personally name more than one . . .) - Camob is NOT one of those officers.

As such . . . well, with my buddy making Admiral, I sort of feel like Henry Hill and Jimmy "The Gent" Conway felt in Goodfellas, when they heard that Tommy DeVito was going to be a 'made man' in the Mafia - "With Tommy being made, it was like we were all being made." With Camob, it's like, finally, the right man, one of our own, a guy I've known and liked for forever and can relate to, made it. And I couldn't be happier.
(of course, in Goodfellas, this happened . . .

. . . so maybe that's not such the best analogy to use in this case . . . but I digress . . .)
So, with all of this, I have to say that in this instance I can't agree with Trillin's assessment of 'friends in high places". Knowing that Camob is now one of the folks "in charge of things" doesn't scare the hell out of me; quite the opposite - it makes me smile, knowing that, at least in this case, justice prevailed, things are in the right hands, and all is good and proper in the world. Congratulations to my old and dear friend!

So, in honor of the new RADM (USNR) Camob, here's The B-52's Mesopotamia EP, containing the alternate demo versions, released erroneously by Island Records in the United Kingdom on January 27th, 1982. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.  

Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link(s) ASAP:  

Send Email