Sunday, September 28, 2008

The New Christy Minstrels and Gimme a "K"


The New Christy Minstrels (L–R): Eddie Boggs, Buffalo Bill Boycott, Becky Jo Benson, Randy Sparks, Jackie Miller Davidson, Dolan Ellis, Clarence Treat

Back in the early 60s, The New Christy Minstrels were essentially my introduction to music. I didn't know folk music from classical, or rock n' roll from jazz, but I knew I loved the stuff on those New Christy Minstrels albums. Over the years, I've never lost an ounce of my appreciation for them, and if anything, I enjoy that music now more than I ever did. I still have all the original 33-1/3 LPs that my parents owned, and I also have the relatively recent CD issues of most of their albums. Off and on over the years, I've mucked about playing guitar and singing, and the one group whose music I could pretty much nail (insofar as an individual could do so) was the New Christy Minstrels.

In the early 60s, as music made fairly radical new strides with the British rock invasion, for many, it was easy to forget the significant contributions of contemporary folk groups, such as the New Christies, the Brothers Four, the Kingston Trio, the Journeymen (co-founded by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas), and more. Of them, the New Christies had the biggest following and the most longevity — and they launched musical careers for the likes of Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes, and others. And who can forget Barry McGuire's "The Eve of Destruction," which was one of those songs that trespassed into that weird netherland between brilliance and unlistenable claptrap?

Dozens and dozens of individuals came and went during the history of the New Christy Minstrels, all under the direction of their mastermind, Randy Sparks. But for their first several albums, there was a core group of musicians and singers that gave them an unmistakable identity, and that was the group that I fell in love with as a kid, and that I'm still in love with today. Besides Randy Sparks and Barry McGuire, they included Gayle Caldwell, Dolan Ellis, Barry Kane, Jackie Miller, Art Podell, Larry Ramos, Clarence Treat, and Nick Woods.

Despite their longevity, the New Christies, as far as I knew, had all retired at some point during the past couple of decades, and I know a number of them have passed on. So imagine my delight when I discovered, a few short years ago, that several of the founding members had gotten back together and occasionally played at various venues around the country. In fact, if you had ample house space and could guarantee a number of attendees, they'd come and stay at your place and play and sing in your living room.

And now they're touring again.

So last night, Mrs. Death and I packed up our GPSrs and went down to Albemarle, just a ways south of here, and went to see The New Christy Minstrels play a three-hour show at the Stanley County Agri-Civic Center. We left plenty early and went geocaching all the way down, snagging several finds at some very neat and scenic locations (see the haunted house below). We had a good dinner at a little seafood restaurant, and then arrived at the civic center. I had expected maybe a medium-sized crowd, composed largely of people a bit older than I; well, most of the attendees were a bit older than I, but there was a fairly massive number of them. The parking lot was full, and the auditorium was packed, but Mrs. Death and I were lucky enough to get seats right in the center, in the ninth row, which was damn near a perfect spot. Four of the original members (Randy Sparks, Jackie Miller Davidson, Dolan Ellis, and Clarence Treat), were joined by relative newcomers Eddie Boggs, Buffalo Bill Boycott, and Becky Jo Benson, all of whom showed that Randy Sparks can still grab some of the finest musical talent there is to grab. They played mostly my old favorites, and they sounded as good as they ever did. No creaky, groaning bodies and voices here — just as much vigor and enthusiasm as I would have expected from a troupe of thirty-year-olds. At the opening and between songs, Randy Sparks proved himself an all-around entertainer, relating all kinds of anecdotes about the musicians, the group's history, and the times whence they sprang.

After the show, much to my excitement, we got to meet the group, as they came out to the lobby to sign autographs and chat. Those folks have no idea how much the experience meant to me. Or maybe they do. I'm sure that, especially among people in my age group, my appreciation of the New Christies is not unique.

When Mrs. Death and I hit the road again, we made short work of about a dozen geocaches in Albemarle, most of which were named "Gimme a [insert letter of the alphabet here]." About the time we finished up (around 1:00 AM), a thick, blinding fog enveloped everything, and driving back to Greensboro, we felt like we were right in the middle of The Mist. Hell, for all I know, we were surrounded by monstrous critters all the way home, but we were fortunate enough not to be accosted. We pulled in our driveway about 2:30 AM, exhausted but still kind of giddy.

I haven't blogged much lately, or posted any writing news, because there have been some outside issues that have consumed virtually all of my attention for some time now. Not the kind of thing I care to blog about. But last night, the world was good; the show was exhilarating, and the caching got my blood fired up.

The haunted house was an extra freebie.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS


As I mentioned a wee while back, Toho's 1966 WWE extravaganza, War of the Gargantuas, is now available domestically on DVD, paired with 1957's Rodan (yeah, my namesake; make something of it!). It seems something of an odd combo, since the movies were originally released quite a few years apart, by different distributing companies; but since Classic Media owns the rights, and they're putting out the package—which features the U.S. and Japanese versions of both—for the price of a single movie, I have absolutely no complaints.

I haven't looked at Rodan yet, so I'll reserve comments on it for later. I did watch both versions of Gargantuas back-to-back, though, so you'll have to bear with me if I suddenly excuse myself to go smash a few buildings and chow on a few hapless bystanders.

Originally titled The Frankenstein Brothers: Sanda vs. Gaira, the film is a sequel to 1965's Frankenstein Conquers the World (released on DVD last year by Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock). The Japanese version makes the connection clear, though the English dialogue is altered to remove any references to Toho's Frankenstein. It's of little consequence, as the creatures are both "offshoots" of the monster in the preceding movie.

Over the years, the terms most often used by reviewers to describe War of the Gargantuas are "cheesy," "tedious," "insipid," "goofy," and so forth, though genre fans often rate the movie relatively high on the daikaiju scale. Me, I put it right at the top of the daikaiju scale, and I'll unabashedly state that it's one of my all-time favorite monster movies. I would be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half or so.

It's a rare situation indeed in which the U.S. release of a Toho movie is superior to the original Japanese version, but War of the Gargantuas is one of them. Its running time is slightly longer; the editing job of the original work print is arguably more skillful; and, of all things, the alteration of Akira Ifukube's original score—usually one of the worst things a domestic releasing firm can do—mostly works to the film's benefit. While I am a diehard fan of Akira Ifukube's music—both his film scores and classical compositions—I just can't abide the monotonous military march that rambles on and on endlessly behind the action scenes throughout the original version. The generic music that replaces it may be nothing to write home about, but at least it punctuates the action in much more satisfying fashion. And the best of Ifukube's music—the eerie, theramin-based main theme and the re-orchestrated motifs from Frankenstein Conquers the World—are thankfully left intact. In some places, cues from Monster Zero have also been effectively inserted. My understanding is that Henry Saperstein, the U.S. producer (and Toho's co-financier), had no love for Ifukube's martial themes either and felt no shame in "fixing" them. Can't fault him for that!

For a Toho daikaiju pic, War of the Gargantuas is unique in several ways, one of the foremost being that Gaira, the green one, is shown devouring humans. In fact, the whole reason for his rampage is to find food. There's something far more menacing about a monstrous critter with an appetite for human flesh than one that comes to town because it likes to dine on fissionable materials. Secondly, the anthropomorphic monsters act and interact with distinct intelligence, unlike the reptilian monsters that generally attack like some impersonal force of nature. Relative to this point, the monster suits are constructed so that we see the actors' actual eyes, rather than painted Ping Pong balls; as such, the Gargantuas' faces are more than customarily expressive, and Gaira's face in particular can be quite horrifying. In numerous scenes, the lighting and camera angles imbue him with a demonic look, reminiscent of Linda Blair's makeup in The Exorcist. Let me tell you, if I were out geocaching one day and saw Gaira pounding through the forest toward me, my drawers would be shitting themselves.

At the movie's time, Eiji Tsuburaya's special effect work was at its pinnacle, and he and his crew outdid themselves for this one, particularly during Gaira's rampage through the mountainous countryside and the subsequent military attack. I find the well-staged, tactically sound counterattack on the monster(s) highly engaging, especially the all-out laser and maser-cannon assault on Gaira, just before Sanda's appearance (which, again, is better staged in the American version). It's one of those rare moments in Toho's monster history when the human forces very nearly come out on top, and the monsters suffer and express physical pain.

Toho's cast of regulars, including Kenji Sahara, Kumi Mizuno, Jun Tazaki, Yoshifumi Tajima, and others, are joined by Russ Tamblyn, who undeniably sleepwalked through his role as Dr. Stewart. However, he's perfectly acceptable in the part; he looks and sounds just like one of the physicians I knew back in my old hometown at the time. If anything, Dr. Southworth might have been less animated....

At any rate, this release of War of the Gargantuas actually had me excited about a giant monster movie again. That's certainly been a long time coming. There's not much in the way of Classic Media's customary extras in the package (though there is an hour-long documentary called "Shrinking Godzilla Down to Size," produced by Steve Ryfle and my friend Ed Godziszewski), but for two versions of two very worthwhile movies, it's damn near a steal. Today, I am a happy boy.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What Mystery!


I just watched Goldfinger for about the hundredth time because, with Quantum of Solace coming up in the not-to-distant future, I got a 007 hankering. And—the horror!—I just discovered that, before Oddjob knocks out Bond in the hotel suite, there are six bottles in the door of the refrigerator. When Bond wakes up, there are seven bottles. (The one he was holding when Oddjob knocked him out is still lying on the floor.)

So, evidently, someone placed an extra bottle in the refrigerator door while Bond was unconscious. What mystery!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Torture

There are those who believe that there is never justification for torture. I'm not so sure. In fact, I would not be deeply bothered if certain responsible parties were condemned to a lifetime of having to actually make use of that which they have wrought.

For instance, the designers of the runners on the doors to my garden shed. Suffice it to say that, on occasion, when I open the shed doors to remove the lawn mower, one of the doors falls off. Now I'm not Bob Vila, but I can deal with your average mechanical device without stumbling. When you look at how the doors hang on the runners, I don't see how the damned door falls off at all. Then it requires a small act of God to actually get it back together. I allotted just over an hour today for the usual mowing and trim work; I ended up spending half the day, mostly trying to get that damned shed back together. Oh, kyrie eleison.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Smashing


The compulsion to watch giant monsters trample Japan is, in my life, a chronic malady that I've long since learned to live with. From the day I first saw Godzilla, King of the Monsters, somewhere around age four, I've been hooked, and while my enthusiasm for daikaiju movies waxes and wanes somewhat, it never wanes very far. Thanks be to ye godz, the majority of Toho's monster flicks are available domestically on DVD—both English and Japanese versions—so these past few weeks, it has been necessary to plug in some of them. Last night, I even broke down and watched Gamera's first outing, Gammera, the Invincible (the American version, starring Brian Donlevy, Albert Dekker, and Dick O'Neill, just to be different).

One of the best bits of news I've recently received is that my all-time favorite, non-Godzilla daikaiju movie, War of the Gargantuas, is scheduled for DVD release by Classic Media next month—on a double-feature with the original Rodan. The DVD is supposed to include both the original Japanese and U.S. release versions, which in the case of Rodan is most welcome, since the original Japanese version is markedly superior to the 1957 King Brothers U.S. release. War of the Gargantuas is one of the rare cases in which the U.S. release trumps the original Japanese, the main reason being that it contains additional special effects scenes (including the infamous scene of Gaira, the green one, spitting out the clothes of the woman he just et at Haneda airport, which was excised from the Japanese version). While some might disagree, I also find Akira Ifukube's battle march, which plays endlessly during the military's attack on Gaira, monotonous to the point of tedium. The U.S. version replaces it with some stock action music (which actually works well) and a few passages from Ifukube's superior score to Destroy All Monsters.

It's no exaggeration to say that my first viewing of War of the Gargantuas, which came to town on a double-bill with Monster Zero, in 1970, was one of the pivotal moments of my youth. A good DVD release has been a long time coming, and I kinda can't wait.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Witness to One of Nature's Monumental Struggles...

It seemed like just the kind of afternoon to go on a three-mile hike on the Reedy Fork Trail when I got off of work, so that's what I did. Snagged a couple of caches and got in some good exercise. While on my way back, I heard the distinctive sound of a cicada chirping, as well as some furious disturbance in the nearby leaves. Going to check it out, I saw what appeared to be a strange, massive insect thrashing about wildly; turns out, however, it was two fairly massive insects engaged in a violent life-or-death struggle. One was the cicada I had heard; the other was a giant hornet, its legs wrapped around its prey, its stinger frantically trying to pierce the other's carapace.

Generally, my policy in such matters of nature is nonintervention. I have no fondness for insects of any variety, that I can tell you. However, in this case, it sounded for all the world like that cicada was screaming in agony. So, figuring what the hell, I gave one deft jab of my bamboo whacky stick, and the hornet fell away in two twitching pieces. The cicada continued to thrash for a few moments, then it shook itself like an annoyed, wet dog, and...for a second...it cocked its body as if it were looking at me and saying, "Dude, thanks." Then it wandered on off, seemingly little the worse for wear.

Of course, that poke of my whacky stick stood an equal chance of killing either or both. It was a the luck of the draw that spared the cicada. Frankly, I figured he was already a goner. After my recent experience with flying critters of the stinging variety, though, I'm kind of glad it went the way it did.

I reckon now the cicada has gone off to eat somebody's trees.

Little bastard.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Nostalgia

Back in the good old dark ages of my youth (the orange and green plaid 70s), there was a sign by the nearby lake that said "No Dumping." So my friend Steve and I took some poster board, painted an "H" the same size and style as the type on the sign, laminated it, and attached it to the sign with with Super Glue so it read "No Humping." This was quality craftsmanship, and innocent passersby would never know without close examination that the sign had been cleverly altered. For most of the rest of the 20th Century, that sign remained in that state. In fact, it came down only a few years ago.

Now, on a nearby regulatory sign, someone has carved in crude letters, "No Fucking."

Mon dieu. Oh, but for the good old days of putting thought and care into your work.