Burt Reynolds

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Now, why would anyone write about Burt Reynolds? Quite an absurd idea, really. However, for fans nostalgic for 1970s American pop culture, a selection of his oeuvre is worth revisiting, as a peek inside the cultural currents a-swirl in that sprawling decade (I know, I know: you never–ever–imagined you’d read about Burt Reynolds and oeuvres on the same day, let alone in the same sentence–but bare with me). Reynolds, if you’ll recall, was a major Hollywood star in the 1970s. Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, The Longest Yard. He was one of the most bankable stars during the latter half of the 70s especially, the first Smokey film making sales of the Chevrolet Camaro jump 500% — never mind that in the film he drove a Pontiac Firebird. That film made over $50 million in box office. Think about that. That’s a lot of money in 1977 movie prices. His films seem so representative of the 70s, somehow. Maybe it’s because his career quickly fizzled once the 70s ended that his films acquired such a “time capsule” feel to them. As he recently pointed out, while talking about his fans: “First of all, it’s usually a sea of blue hair and I’m grateful and thankful that they’re still alive and around.” The point can’t be overlooked: as silly as it sounds, to understand American culture in the 70s, Burt Reynolds is a figure representing a certain cultural current–well, a draft at the very least.

Many films were made for him, enabling him to show off his easy Southern charm, clearly a man with a monster ego but able to laugh at himself too, which isn’t bad. Also, he has to get marks for being able to pull off a mustache–that’s not easy. He transitioned from roles as Indians in 60s westerns, through hardboiled cops, to easy-going, laid-back Southern good ol’ boys in breezy feel good all-American comedies by the end of the Me decade. Coming as many of them did after Vietnam, Reynolds most popular films were pure candy, providing a comforting release from the jitteriness of the crises of the 70s: in addition to that war’s continual aftershocks, there were the national axieties over the oil shortage, airline hijacking, Watergate reverberations, and a deepening cold war (among other things).

The Smokey films, not to mention the Cannonball series, also tapped into the NASCAR demographic, one that had been developing strongly by then, but not yet so full blown as today. The first Smokey came on the heels of a few Ron Howard race/chase car films, not to mention Mark Hamill’s first post-Star Wars vehicle, Corvett Summer. The first Smokey was just the breakthrough of that genre, with the right mix of star power and chemistry. And chemistry’s the thing. It’s the oft-overlooked strength of Reynolds’ best films. (There are sometimes products of popular culture that get overlooked or, worse, dismissed, because of their popularity and/or seeming lack of substance. I’ve said many times that popular culture actually impacts people’s lives, in ways the Establishment usually miss entirely, thinking as they do that things like economics and politics are somehow of a more noble and important topic for attention and study. I would argue that a book like The Lord of the Rings, say, or a Spiderman comic, actually matters way more to people than the day’s stock market results. But I digress–back to Burt.) The success of his good ol’ boys road movies opened the door for the likes of The Dukes of Hazzard, for instance. (Not his fault–he got paid a lot of money for playing Smokey, and had a good time doing it.) So he’s a part of a popular and important lifestyle segment in American culture, one large enough to have millions upon millions of dollars spent on films catering to it, not to mention similar sums spent on catering to their vote.

In short order, Burt Reynolds films came to represent easy, empty caloric fun, the kind that reflected the carefree attitude so many were looking for in that decade. The tagline for his 1978 film Hooper nicely summed up this feel good, fast food quality of a Reynolds film: “It just ain’t summer without Burt!” Indeed, it was the feeling that the cast and crew of a Reynolds film were having a party, with the cameras rolling for a laugh, an afterthought. Sort of like the imagined charm of a Rat Pack film. And it was that feeling and enjoyment of being a part of the party that made these films so popular and entertaining.

True, Reynolds made a lot of bad movies. His career was probably killed by doing too many road movie comedies, getting stuck in a genre and dismissed as a lightweight by the critics. To his credit, he often used this topic as an opportunity for a self-deprecating joke, once saying “My films were the kind they only show in prisons and in airplanes, because nobody can leave.” But before the early 80s, and before his hit comedies of the later 70s, he starred in a few action/adventure films that showed he could play with some depth a certain kind of American archetype as hero, a cynical Southern cop. And of course there was Deliverance, a film trying to capture the adventure spirit thought dead by 1970s America. So he wasn’t without his genuine talents.

But in the end, Reynolds’ films spoke to the more innocent aspects of American mythology, striking a chord with the public who wanted popcorn and some laughs, as well as some comforting, familiar themes to distract them from the horrors of the day. The all-American sport in The Longest Yard, truckers and cars in Smokey, Hollywood antics in Hooper, and the harmless rebellious spirit in all three: Reynolds’ touched on innocent themes that resonated with the way Americans saw (or wanted to see) themselves in a decade that was forcing them to confront a changing social landscape and an ominous future.

Would the popularity of innocent, simple films in the face of complex times explain the films we’re being fed today?

Memories of SARStock

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As we turn towards the darker and colder months of our yearly cycle, I find myself reminiscing of warm and bright days past. One of the hottest, out in the sun all day, was at the all-day rock festival known as SARStock…. 

Toronto, Summer ’03. Half a million deep sea of souls. Former airfield.  11 hours. Scorching sun. Rolling Stones, AC/DC, et al. Me & S skipping a day of grad school to mingle with the masses.

People everywhere, never ending, many of them with an a-feared look on their faces, worried they might not survive sharing a space with half a million people. Doesn’t happen every day. 

But wanting to enjoy it, tossing your cameras up to firefighters on top of towers taking pics for you of the masses stretching on the horizon forever.

Vast fields of Port-a-potties layed out according to current urban sprawl designs.

Beer gardens: lots and lots and lots of really drunk people. Once you’ve waited to get in, you lost your place if you left to, say, relieve yourself. So, women peeing under the plastic tables for privacy, a man peeing against the side of a car, thinking he was hidden, not realising that S and I were lounging in the field in plain view 30 yards behind him, too drunk to remember to look behind himself when scouting out a “hidden” spot to relieve himself.

S reflecting on how great it is to be living in a country, Canada, where half a million people can come to an event like this and still be peaceful. Meanwhile, I’m watching as, about 40 yards behind her, two guys brawling like the drunken bozos they were, one finally kicking the crap out of the other, lying on the ground, too drunk to really notice or care.

A woman who had made her way to the top of a hosing station, about twelve feet off the ground, getting into the festivities with her own brand of stardom: eliciting drunken, lascivious howls from the masses around her as she stipteased them, before finally taking it all off to the whooping delight of all (males) around.

One of the entry points to the concert site, replete with turnstyles and minimum wage help checking every napsack coming in, resulting in thousands of would be spectators/participants standing in full sun for hours to get in, even though the show had long since started. Newsflash for organizers: it’s an all-day event during summertime in Toronto–ie, the fans would of course come with a day’s supplies in napsacks on what would predictably be very, very hot. Needless to say, the thousands of people standing for a few hours in the full July sun waiting “in line” (it was chaos) to get in were kept waiting as every bag was checked for…what? After way too long, some sensible supervisor made his/her way over to this portion of the festival site and, performing good damage control, made the right call to stop with the baggage checks and just let people through. In very short order, all made it into the show, albeit having missed a few acts while getting sunburnt and, presumably for some, peeing in their pants while waiting in the midst of hordes standing cheek by jowl in a field.

Lining up for water bottles (did I mention it was hot that day?) – Long line ups of people with empty bottles lining up for great lengths to get a chance at refilling their bottles with water out of a spigot of sorts protruding out of a huge water tanker/truck thingy. S & I innocently strolling by as a woman reached out for our bottles, offering to fill them for us. We quickly assessed the situation, passed over our bottles, and she, in some form of solidarity with us as fellow members of the sea of people, kindly filled them up and we were on our way with full replenishment of water. As we kept walking, we saw that we had just unwittingly jumped the queue, which kept getting longer the farther we walked. The line went on and on, unlucky, trusting folks just waiting for their fair turn to come, not moving, unaware that all sorts of people were jumping the line in the free-for-all that was taking place up at the hose/spout at the front of the line.

The food “section”–it was a runway lined with vendors–dominated by stalls selling all manner of beef products, the Albertan government jumping on the woe-is-me bandwagon (the whole SARStock spectacle was conceived by some self-serving Toronto-area politicians as a promotional, “support Toronto” event intending to diminish concern/fear from would-be tourists to the area about the recent spate of SARS deaths in the city, and drumming up a few feel-good votes in the process). The Canadian cattle industry, primarily located in Alberta, was being hit hard by cattle embargoes over Mad-Cow concerns in their main market, the US. So Alberta Premier Ralphy-babes Kline saw an opportunity to tag along with his own sorry story of wretchedness, and came flogging pulled-beef lunches to the masses, showing it was safe both to eat Alberta beef, and to do it in Toronto. A mile of beef food product stalls. Not a hot dog in sight (pork).

The music was mostly routine for us, as the real show that day was sharing life with 500,000 people. Except for the last two acts, AC/DC and the Stones. It was AC/DC’s day hands-down, in terms of a battle-of-the-bands point of view. They had the immense benefit of coming on just as the sun was setting, thus a) performing as the day was starting to cool, removing the oppression the sun had been contributing to the scene all day, and b) being able to be seen on the many huge screens which in daylight were impossible to view, so were just in the way. The lead singer Brian Johnson grinning ear to ear, his eyes bulging out of his head, having an absolute blast being there, performing in front of so many people, his utter delight and enthusiasm infectious for all to feel. And the heartbeat of the band, Angus Young, one of the most dominant stage presences in rock, doing his own striptease thing, finally removing his pants to show half a million gleeful Canadians his underwear sporting the Canadian flag.

And then it was the Stones. They were fine, which translates to being really good because, after all, it’s the Stones, man! They were clearly enjoying themselves too, though trying really hard not to show it, as is their style. At one point, Justin Timberlake (who earlier in the day during his own set had been roundly booed) came on to do a bit of a duet with Mick, highlighting the decades-long gap in performing experience between the two. Keef clearly out of it, at one point taking an opportunity to mumble unintelligibly except to remind us of “why we’re here: for those that took the hit.” Thanks, Keith. Classic. Ronnie had some fun too, which is always nice. Charlie grimaced. All in all, watching the Stones play a set is a nice way to end a day-long sunburn fest sharing a space with a half million people.

On our way out of the fields and runways at the end of the night, our feet crunching down on a carpet of empty plastic water bottles. A crunch with literally every step, the ground riddled with them so that you couldn’t avoid stepping on one, going on for about a mile. No point waiting to get on the subway, would be waiting for hours, so S & I walked the few miles, along with thousands of other people, merriment the whole way, walking off those multiple pulled-beef sandwiches, a day well spent, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Thank god for self-agrandising politicians.

Mountain Biking in the BC Rain Forest: A Day in the Life on the Coast

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Making the preparations. Getting clad in your raingear, your armour against the hostile elements, the wind & rain torrents been thumping the islands remorselessly for a couple of days now. Fleece skull cap for warmth under the helmet, clear-lensed glasses against the downpour, weather-protecting pants and jacket, neoprene kayak gloves for the cold, shoes, well, they’ll just have to get wet. Water to replenish in the field. Mount up, click into your peddles, you’re set: bring on the mud, puddles, creeks that weren’t there yesterday, slippery roots, slick moss, and slimy rocks. A solo spiritual journey, making common cause with the elements.

At first, the slow ascent up the mountain causing you to reconsider the wisdom of your choice of activities today. You’re unpleasantly reminded that you own lungs, thinking you didn’t need that dual-suspension after all: too much added weight, too much money. So you distract yourself, drinking in the wet woods alive all around you: lush lime moss carpeting the forest floor, trees growing out of fallen ones, recycling life and habitat. You hear the watery calls of the resident ravens and eagles from somewhere within the canopy around and above. …and life! Rain pouring down on a fresh forest of fir and cedar—you’re in an eco-system now, baby!

At the top of the mountain, the view. Maybe sharing the lofty perch with some eagles. Seen between the moist mists floating by are the islands, ocean, ocean life: seals, sea lions, gulls, though no fishing boats or ferries on a stormy day like today, the weather claiming the sea back from human activities. You recover your breath. Love your water, even if it does taste of plastic from the bottle. Aaahhh, life’s good on the Coast. Reinvigorated, reënergized.

Now, the fun. Downhill, with the trails pretty much to yourself on such an ugly day. You might be the only person on the mountain.

So you climb back aboard, start wheeling down the trail you love so well, disappearing into the forest’s embrace, swallowed whole. Downhill is fast and soggy. You’ve forgotten all about your lungs, now loving your dual suspension, designed just for this west coast downhill riding, gliding smoothly over all sodden stumps and bumps. So what if your brake pads are too wet to work? You’re out there! Your face getting freckled with speckles of soaked earth strewn at you by your front wheel whizzing, your face caked if you spill. These trails are second nature to you by now. You’re at ease, even though you’re rushing through the winding wet single-track, a few shifts of elevation in the terrain adding further spice. Trying not to scare the wildlife. Sometimes splatters of mud making home in your teeth. Fun! Going fast, nearly losing it a few times, could’ve broken a neck. Quickly and suddenly, you find yourself at the bottom of the mountain, alive and well, another exhilarating excursion under your wing, getting better with every outing.

By this point of your ride, your toes long since sloshing about in the swamp that is now your socks, your scrotum floating luxuriantly in the cold pool now residing in your flooded skin-tight spandex pants. Now, it’s the ride home, the endorphins encouraging, fueling you home. Then a hose-down (of the bike), finding a safe place to deposit the assorted pieces of your waterlogged shell. Looking forward to the hot shower, dry relaxed attire. And warm food, maybe something Mexican tinged.

Aaaah, surf music

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Yes, surf music. One of the best ways to immerse oneself in an isolated, sheltered world when we just need a little respite from the big bad real world is to listen to music from a bygone era, one that invokes a simpler, gentler, more innocent era that never really existed in the first place. Easy fun in the sun, carefree beach life in SoCal or Hawaii.

Surf music, with its bar chords sliding up and down the guitars was, to my mind, really the original modern day garage band incarnation. Suburban postwar American youth with the spending money to buy mass produced electric guitars giving voice and attitude to their manana approach to life–nothing wrong with that.

In fact, it’s on grey and drizzly days like today when I feel that urge to brush the dustballs off my floral shirts, put on dark shades even though I’m inside, turn up the volume on the computer, and draw the blinds on the office window, imagining I’m at that most excellent beach, and…recline..

Some good places to start for surf tunes: http://www.live365.com/cgi-bin/directory.cgi?genre=surf. Number 2’s a good mix of classics as well as tunes hanging on the fringes of the genre.

Dave & Eddie Back Together Again: Best News All Decade Or Too Little Too Late?

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The almost original Van Halen back together again.Too late or too cool?I see where Van Halen is finally getting back together (for the most part–if you haven’t heard yet, original basist Mike Anthony wasn’t invited on this tour, to be replace with Eddie’s teenaged son, Wolfgang). It seems fitting to me that my first post concern Van Halen. I grew up with them, as a soundtrack to my misspent youth. (Just to be clear here: I’m talking about the original, the real, Van Halen, not the decade-long misfire of the Sammy Hagar iteration, or worse–heaven forbid–the very misguided, and frankly disturbing, “Van Halen III” debacle (no point going into it). I give Sammy marks for the good ol’ college try, but his interpretation of the lead singer role reduced a once-legendary band to a hollow imitation of the original VH’s imitators. Not good. By the mid-90s, Van Halen the band was nothing short of a joke. Such a long way to fall.

So, for the period of the first six albums, from 1978 through 1984, with flair, guitar razzle-dazzle, football jock fashion chic, and, frankly, good tunes, Van Halen contributed significantly to the pantheon of great rock’n’roll, transitioning the great classic rock of Led Zep, the Stones et al into the 80s, and standing as one of the lone legitimate rock alternatives in a pop industry that was quickly moving away from songwriting performers to embrace the Madonnas and Culture Clubs of the world. I’ve always said that when, in 1984, lead singer David Lee Roth left the band to pursue a solo career on the strength of his mini 4-song solo album Crazy from the Heat as well as his desire to leave the other, slacking members of the band (who didn’t want to go back into the studio anytime too soon), Van Halen was but an album away from being in the same stratosphere as the Rolling Stones, at least in North America (I acknowledge that they were hardly recognizable in, say, Europe, where, inexplicably, AC/DC ruled–better them than Iron Maiden, I suppose…).

But, yes, Van Halen was that popular and influential. Album sales figures alone don’t tell the tale (six releases, six straight multiple platinum albums). Eddie’s guitar crunch (what he later called his “brown” sound) alone changed the voice of Hollywood and TV advertising soundtracks for decades. (It still goes on. Heavy, distorted electric guitar is still the default soundtrack on just about everything. It wasn’t always that way: check out some pre-1980s Hollywood movies, if you don’t believe me. You’ll find classical, jazz, folk, all kinds–but not distorted electric guitar.) The VH boys spawned an interminable list of truly pathetic imitators (Ratt, Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, etc.), which is nothing to be proud of, I know, but it is an indication of VH’s popularity and success that everyone was trying to squeeze into spandex and try their hands at double-tapping guitar techniques. In the original Van Halen, and hopefully in this latest edition, too, they could genuinely boast the best front man going in rock ‘n’ roll and the best guitarist. Not bad for one band.

And here’s the thing: David Lee Roth made Van Halen. Taking absolutely nothing away from Eddie Van Halen’s brilliant guitar work; it’s just that it was Dave’s penchant and particular skill for self-promotion that resulted in the world being introduced to EVH as the next guitar god. Dave was the one who pushed that image on the world. He was the mouth piece of the band, the conscience, the vision, the political awareness (if that’s not pushing it too far…). In short, he was the sensibility of the band, the ringmaster who made sure we were entertained. And as ringmaster, he promoted. He promoted Eddie as the hottest young guitar player alive (even though there were many arguments at the time to be made for other candidates–Clapton, Page, etc. and, later, Vai).

In fact, it was Dave’s idea in the first place to even call the band Van Halen. The previous name, when he joined up with the Van Halen bros., was Mammoth (not an altogether bad name, mind, but no chart topper). As Dave always explained his preference for the name Van Halen, it sounded “classy.” The point is, Van Halen being all about Eddie was not always the case; it’s only been since the Sammy years of darkness and mourning that the world, and most importantly Eddie, saw Van Halen the band as a superstructure built upon Eddie the guitar player. During the original vintage of the band, it was considered by fans to be named after both Van Halen brothers (drummer Alex being the other). But, even then, not exactly, because the most prominent figure in the band, the singer, wasn’t one of the brothers. In fact, in the early pre-fame days of the LA clubs, bar owners would give Dave the band’s gig payment, saying “Good show, Van. Here’s your pay.” This weird permutation just seemed to add a certain depth to the band, one that distinguished it from other bands of the day, one that went missing the day Dave left. The band Dave created carried on without him, cause it still had the name and the guitar player, but it got more embarrassing to listen to and think about with every passing year.

Which brings me finally to this reunion. It’s getting rave reviews so far, unanimously so, as far as I can tell. I have to still wonder, though: is this get-together too late to be meaningful to rock ‘n’ roll? Ten or twelve years ago Dave & Eddie probably could’ve picked up it up where they had left it back in the 80s and performed a legitimate second act, perhaps like Aerosmith (who became much more popular and successful in their comeback of original members). But now? In 2007? I worry for them. But, again, they’re getting the reviews, so, who knows? Maybe they can pull it off.

Good to see Dave back in the fold, where he belongs. Welcome home.