Take Cover

Newsgroup post, March 4, 2005:

So I’m messin’ around with iTunes, which I downloaded ages ago but have yet to actually buy anything from, and I start poking through the Yardbirds’ catalog, and play a sample from “Train Kept a’Rollin’.”

The Aerosmith cover is way better.

Which got me thinking about how often a cover version is better than the original. Not that often, certainly — most covers suck — but when it happens it can be pretty cool.

Aerosmith’s version of “Train Kept a’Rollin’ kicks ass, for example. Or consider Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” which is vastly superior to the original.

And then there are the covers that are so different that you can’t really compare them, like the Cardigans’ version of the Black Sabbath song “Iron Man.”

But there are borderline cases, too. Is Pat Benatar’s cover of “Wuthering Heights” as good as the Kate Bush original? What about the remixed Bush version?

Bands that deserved better than they got

Again from an old newsgroup post, dated November 7, 2004. I went through a period of mild obsession with this subject — bands that I thought produced great music that nobody else seemed to have heard of. I wanted other people to name unknown bands they loved, so I could check them out and maybe add them to my own collection.

Nobody did, except the late Bud Webster, who provided too long a list for me to deal with; this was my response:

Okay, that didn’t work. Bud dumped a whole list on us (and he may be right about every single one of them, since I’ve never heard any of them), and no one else said much of anything. Let’s try it again, with rules.

You can only name bands that had at least one album released on a major label.

You cannot name bands that had an album go platinum — the Knack is not eligible, for example. (And they cut their own throats with their inept second album, anyway — they didn’t deserve better.)

You cannot name more than three bands, so choose carefully.

Any band listed must not merely have been neglected, but must have been good enough to deserve national fame and fortune; as an arbitrary cut-off, they must be unquestionably superior to Green Day in musical ability.

And a band that only had one or two good songs doesn’t count, no matter how good those one or two are — call this the Romeo Void rule.

So, again — I’m starting off with Grace Pool, a stupendously good alternative band that put out two albums before finally breaking up in 1992. They had the misfortune to come from the same town as 10,000 Maniacs and to have a female lead singer, so they were seen, completely incorrectly, as a Maniacs imitator. They were, in my humble opinion, far superior to 10,000 Maniacs.

And there’s Divinyls, considered a one-hit wonder in the U.S. even though “I Touch Myself” is just an average cut for them. I’m told they did make it big in Australia.

So what have you got?

And the category is…

More from my old newsgroup, May 29, 2004:

Thinking about burning some themed CDs (which I guess would be playlists now):

I don’t think I need to explain what the theme was here, do I?
“She-Bop,” Cyndi Lauper
“I Touch Myself,” diVinyls
“Turning Japanese,” the Vapors
“Rattlesnake Shake,” Aerosmith

Still looking for more of those.

And Kiri and I came up with the theme of radio songs:
“Mexican Radio,” Wall of Voodoo
“Video Killed the Radio Star,” the Buggles
“The Radio Song,” REM
“This Is Radio Clash,” the Clash
“On the Radio,” Donna Summer
“Radioland,” Nicolette Larson

Any more?

Strong Signals

Jack and Miracle GirlEvery so often I find a book or series that I really like that nobody else seems to have ever heard of. Here’s one example: Blake Michael Nelson’s “Signalverse” superhero novels.

These aren’t great literature, but they’re fun. I really enjoy them. They’re straightforward superhero adventure, of a sort that’s rather scarce in comic books these days, written in straightforward prose.

There are four so far:

The Adventures of Jack and Miracle Girl: Volume One

The Adventures of Jack and Miracle Girl: Volume Two
Jack and Miracle Girl Vol. 2
Orchid

Disreputable Persons

(The links are to the paperbacks, but there are also Kindle ebooks of all of them.)

OrchidThese stories all take place in Signal City, a city that’s home to dozens of superheroes and supervillains. Prose superhero stories (which aren’t all that numerous to begin with, though they’re multiplying now) are often either grim ‘n’ gritty or silly parody; these are neither. They’re light adventure, with a little humor, a little romance, some suspense, etc. They’re not trying to deconstruct anything, they’re not terribly long or complex, but I find them a really good way to brighten an afternoon.
Disreputable Persons
Check ’em out.

Oops.

So I’m reading a mystery novel, and the heroes are talking to the medical examiner about what she’s learned from the as-yet-unidentified murder victim.

The ME gives a quick rundown of the useless information she’s gathered so far, including the detail that the deceased “flossed conscientiously.”

I did not fling the book across the room, but I winced. You see, the reason they hadn’t yet identified the body was that the head was missing. I’d like to know how you can tell someone flossed regularly from looking at her headless corpse.

I can’t believe nobody caught that. What was the copy editor thinking?

Trailer Park

Seven trailers with “Age of Ultron”; apparently the last couple of movies we saw were flukes in having fewer.

“Ant Man” looks like a lot of fun. I’d seen much of what’s in the trailer somewhere before, probably an ad or “sneak peek” on TV, but there was some new-to-me material, and it all looked pretty good. I’m pretty amazed at Marvel’s track record this century.

“Tomorrowland” — this was a new trailer, not the one I saw in January and March. That earlier one I think was what they call a “teaser trailer” on DVDs, while this was a full trailer, and it took a very different slant. George Clooney wasn’t even in the other trailer, but he’s the focus of this one. This one is also much more action-oriented, which is probably going to draw a larger audience, but honestly, I liked the mystery & wonder feel of the first one better. Where my reaction to the first was, “I think I want to see this,” the new one elicits, “Let’s see what people I trust think of it.”

“Fantastic Four” — another relaunch. One thing I like about the mainline/Avengers cinematic Marvel universe is that so far it’s all of a piece, no reboots or major retcons, while the folks with the rights to Spider-Man and the FF keep starting over. Going by this trailer they’ve got a few things right — changing the origin trip to an interdimensional one instead of a space shot makes sense, and the way the four powers are shown looks great (especially the Thing), but I have serious reservations about Sue and Johnny not being blood siblings, and Sue’s father still being alive*. Where previous versions looked a bit cheap, this one doesn’t, but… I dunno. I’m wary.

“San Andreas” — why was this made? Is there any reason we need another earthquake disaster movie? The footage of collapsing cities was all stuff we saw in Emmerich’s “2012.” And one line in the trailer pissed me off, where someone says that this quake is a “global” disaster. No, it isn’t. The San Andreas Fault isn’t going to do any damage beyond the Pacific Rim no matter how completely it goes. I’d rather watch “Sharknado 3” than this.

“Jurassic World” — is this a sequel to the previous three Jurassic Park movies, or a reboot? Because if it’s a sequel, do these people never learn from their mistakes? If it’s a reboot — why bother? It does look better than “San Andreas,” and I’d probably pick it over “Sharknado 3,” but that’s a pretty low bar. I mean, I bought the Jurassic Park trilogy on Blu-Ray months ago, and still haven’t bothered to watch 2 or 3, so I’m not about to pay to see this new one. The first one covered all the ground I cared about.

“Pixels” — I’d seen this somewhere before, but maybe it was just an ad on TV. Or maybe I forgot it in a previous post here, and it accompanied another movie. It has a ridiculous premise — alien beings who resemble old video game creatures have come to Earth seeking revenge for all their kin we’ve slaughtered in arcades and on consoles — that could be lots of fun. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like they’ve managed to bring out that fun. It mostly looks dumb. The bits in the trailer that are clearly intended to be comic highlights did not elicit laughter, but only a wry smile. Not promising.

“Self/Less” appears to be playing on SF themes that have been kicking around for decades — as in, Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil, or horror treatments in EC comics or before. I’m not particularly interested in seeing a feature film about it.

To sum up: I think I want to see “Ant Man” and “Tomorrowland,” while the other five evoke varying levels of disinterest.

* I was informed after posting this elsewhere that Franklin Storm showed up alive in FF #31 (and then died in #32). I had completely misremembered that, but it does render my objection to his presence in the trailer inappropriate.

Movies That Don’t Suck: The Avengers: Age of Ultron

We went to see “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

I have some issues with it — the color palette tends toward grays, the fight scenes are sometimes hard to follow, some of it feels a bit rushed, and I really wanted at least a glimpse of Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts — but all in all, it was a good movie and lots of fun.

I liked this version of the Maximoff twins; Pietro came across as more likeable than his comic book incarnation while still being a bit of a jerk, and Wanda had a great mix of vulnerability and self-confidence.

And the Vision was excellent, if somewhat ill-defined (see above, re: rushed).

This Ultron was as psychotic as the comic book version, but in a different way. I liked that.

I’d like to see the rumored 3.5-hour director’s cut; I hope they do a Blu-Ray release of it.

Trailer Park

There were five trailers with “Cinderella,” starting with “Tomorrowland.” It’s a pretty good trailer for a film that looks moderately intriguing — which I hope is the movie they actually made. Sometimes the trailer is utterly misleading. Anyway, I may want to see this one.

It appears, by the way, to have much less to do with the Tomorrowland area at Disneyland than “Pirates of the Caribbean” had to do with the ride.

Next was “Inside Out,” the new Pixar feature. I’ve seen stuff about this film before, and thought it might be Pixar’s first outright flop, because the premise is pretty outre, and the central characters are by definition one-dimensional. The trailer, though, has me reconsidering — it looks interesting, and they’re clever with those one-dimensional characters. Still not sure it’ll work, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Pixar.

“Pan,” on the other hand, is a prequel to “Peter Pan,” and it did not look like a good idea to me. Unless it gets amazing buzz, I’ll pass. (I recently re-watched Disney’s 1952 “Peter Pan,” by the way, and would be willing to comment on it if anyone’s interested.)

“Hotel Transylvania 2” — okay, I didn’t see the first one. Ads and trailers, yes, but not the actual movie. This probably means I’m not the target audience. Besides, I’ve never really liked the notion that all the classic movie monsters are pals, and in general I prefer my traditional monsters to be monsters, not just weird-looking nice guys.

That said, the trailer is a single complete episode — don’t know whether it’s even in the actual movie, or it’s like the trailers for “The Incredibles” that were new footage that conveyed the mood and concept without using real scenes from the movie. Either way, the trailer does manage to be fairly clever and moderately funny; some of the comic timing is just perfect. But I still don’t plan to see the movie.

And finally, “Minions” — jeez, where do I even start? Gru’s entire world in the “Despicable Me” movies is just so utterly bizarre, and here we have Gru’s minions looking for a master before Gru is even born — i.e., 1968 — and winding up at a villains convention in Florida…

And at least in the trailer, they use music that’s actually from 1968, by the Doors and Jimi Hendrix.

If you loved Gru’s minions, here’s an entire movie about them. What more could you want? I suspect they work better as supporting characters, but who knows? I will say they got a lot of stuff right. Since Julie didn’t like “Despicable Me” anywhere near as much as I did we never saw the second one, and probably won’t see this, but I admit a sneaking wistfulness about that.

We’ve been to two movies so far this year; one had four trailers and the other five, where for the past several years six or even seven was the norm. Are the theaters cutting back?

Movies That Don’t Suck: Cinderella

Julie decided we should go see Disney’s live-action “Cinderella” — apparently it was getting good buzz at her office.

So we went and we saw it, and it was pleasant — a good movie, but not a great one. Very well cast, and the production design was good, but don’t try to pin down the historical setting, as it’s simply seething with anachronisms. Clothing and architecture ranges from (I am not exaggerating) the 15th century to the late 1920s. I’d say the preponderance of the evidence puts it late in the first half of the 19th century.

I’ve seen several versions of the Cinderella story recently, for one reason or another, and I’d have to say this was one of the better ones, but it never really surprised me. There were several good bits, but no “wow” moments, though the Fairy Godmother’s magic was some impressive CGI.

There are several nods to the animated version, but this really is not the same. Nor is it exactly Perrault’s version, though the credits list both his story and the earlier Disney as sources.

There are CGI mice with the same names as the mice in the animated film, and when they first appeared I thought, “Oh, dear — it’s a straight remake with CGI instead of ink and paint.” But it’s not. The mice and Lucifer, the stepmother’s cat, are there, but they aren’t involved in anything like the same ways. The stepmother and stepsisters are not the same characters — similar, of course, but not the same. Helena Bonham Carter is a very different fairy godmother.

Most of the human characters are given significantly more depth than in the animated film. I suppose that’s easier to do with real actors.

Anyway, it’s a successful adaptation, but not the sort of masterpiece that would make future versions pointless.

On the other hand, it came with a cartoon before the feature, and I loved the cartoon. “Frozen Fever” is a sequel to “Frozen,” apparently set not more than a couple of months after the end of the film, and I thought it was lots of fun. I laughed out loud a couple of times, and grinned pretty much all through it.

A Little Chit-Chat: Two Topics

First: Writing

I’ve been working seriously on five different novels lately — Ishta’s Companion (an Ethshar novel that’s been in the works under various titles for more than twenty years), The Innkeeper’s Daughter (a fantasy with romantic elements I started on a whim last year), On A Field Sable (third in the Bound Lands series, after A Young Man Without Magic and Above His Proper Station), Stone Unturned (a big complicated Ethshar story), and Graveyard Girl (a young adult novel about a girl with a specialized psychic power). That’s not counting assorted revisions, proofs, editing, etc. People have asked me how I can do that, work on five at once — how can I keep them all straight? Why don’t I focus on one?

The answer is, I don’t know how I do it, or even really why. I learned to work on two novels at once back in the late 1980s, so if I hit a slow patch on one I could switch to the other for awhile and refresh myself; I did that fairly often, though not all the time. Typically one would be Ethshar, and one would be something else. I once tried working on three simultaneously, and back then it didn’t work, I’d lose track of things and get confused — so why is it working now? I dunno. Practice, maybe. I know that not only am I now able to juggle five, I could actually handle more — I deliberately cut the number down to five awhile back because I was working on so many at once that none of them was making much headway. I counted eighteen at one point that were nominally active works in progress, though I wasn’t actually getting much of anywhere on several of them.

How can I do that? No idea. It just happens. Sometimes when I switch from one to the next I need to re-read a little to remind myself where I was, but the voice and storyline are all there in my head, ready to go.

Why am I doing it? Well, mostly, I think, because I don’t have a reliable major market at present. For most of my thirty-five years of writing novels professionally, I’ve had books under contract to a publisher, so I worked on those. When I didn’t actually have a contract, I still knew more or less what the market wanted. After Tor cut me loose by rejecting On A Field Sable, though, I didn’t know what would or wouldn’t sell, so I’ve been trying lots of different things, and so far most of them haven’t worked. No major publisher was interested in One-Eyed Jack or Vika’s Avenger. Tom Derringer and the Aluminum Airship is still out there, but the prospects don’t look good. My agent had ideas about what he could sell for me, but they mostly didn’t mesh with what I wanted to write. (Graveyard Girl is the exception, but I’ve been working on that for three years now and it still isn’t finished because I ran into plot problems and it’s hard for a guy in his fifties to write from the point of view of a contemporary fifteen-year-old girl, especially when the story’s all about coming to terms with death.)

So I’ve been jumping around, looking for something that would reconnect with the market. Why I haven’t focused on one project at a time I couldn’t really tell you.

At this point, I’d really like to get some of these done, and off the list — partly so I can get back to others I put aside when I cut the list from eighteen to five. I’d like to work on The Dragon’s Price, for example, or Earthright, but am resisting until I finish one of the five.

Second: Travel

On a whim, we spent last weekend in Rhode Island — mostly Newport, looking at the “summer cottages” of the rich and famous of a century ago, but with a couple of stops in Providence, as well. Toured five mansions in Newport — the Elms, the Breakers, Chateau-sur-Mer, Rosecliff, and Marble House.

The variety was interesting. Rosecliff was designed entirely to throw lavish parties in — the whole house is built around the magnificent ballroom. The “marble” facade is fake — it’s terra cotta. There have been some major movies that used Rosecliff when they needed a lush 1920s ballroom. The original owner, a silver heiress named Theresa Fair Oelrichs, intended to establish herself in high society simply by throwing the best parties, and seems to have succeeded — though when the Gilded Age passed and such entertainments were no longer the thing, she went a bit dotty and died relatively young.

Marble House was built entirely to show off — the people who grew up in it hated it and found it depressing, because it wasn’t really meant to be lived in, it was meant to impress people. Each room was a recreation of a particular era in French design, all of them overblown. Alva Vanderbilt, who built Marble House, may have been important in the women’s suffrage movement, but she was apparently a pretty horrible person.

The other three were all actual homes; yes, they were meant to impress people, but they were also meant to be comfortable places to live in and raise kids. The Breakers, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, is the best of them. The people who grew up summering there, or at the Elms, remember them very fondly.

Chateau-sur-Mer, the oldest of them, was the only one meant for year-round living; the others were just for the summer.

It was an entertaining trip — and since I’m currently writing scenes set in huge upper-class estates in On A Field Sable, the whole thing is legitimate research and therefore tax deductible!