Thursday, August 26, 2010


For me, television during the summer is akin to a vast desert, littered with reruns, brain-dead reality shows, and sporting events that I couldn't care less about. But fortunately, since early June, there have been a handful of oases of worthwhile televised product to be found among the seemingly endless sea of dreck.

These are the shows that I'm making it a point to watch until the Fall season begins:

True Blood, Season 3 (HBO)

The True Blood cast vamping it up

I've been following this series since its first episode and it's been fun to watch it grow and evolve and explore new directions and ideas with each season. I have to admit, I was wary of True Blood at first-I'm something of a vampire purist and I really dislike it when the Undead are portrayed primarily as youthful, gorgeous, courtly fops and cover girls who, aside from having fangs and some cool super-powers, seem every bit as human as they were when they were alive. There's a little bit of that in True Blood, but it doesn't apply to every vampire and it works in the context of the show and from a character standpoint. There's nice variety in the way each vampire is portrayed in True Blood, real individuality, and that's part of the reason why I got hooked on it. The cast is uniformly great, the writing is crisp, witty (sometimes it's downright hilarious), often disturbing, and always intriguing. There's plenty of sex and gore to keep jaded viewers like me satisfied, and I'm always eager to see what will happen next. The first season was good, the second season was better, and this third season is shaping up to be the best one yet.

Hung, Season 2 (HBO)

Thomas Jane and Jane Adams

As far as HBO comedies go, this will never be on the same level as The Larry Sanders Show or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Not even close. For one thing, Hung is supposed to be a comedy, but it's not particularly funny. In fact, I don't think I've so much as chuckled from it since midway through the first season. There were actually episodes of Oz that were funnier than this show. In that respect, it's a wonder that I'm still watching it. But I can't deny that the cast is good, particularly Thomas Jane, Jane Adams, and—I can't believe I'm writing this—Anne Heche. And most of the characters are likable (or at least interesting) enough that I want to see where the mildly compelling stories will take them. But you'd think there would be a lot more laughs to be gotten from the premise of a hunky, financially strapped Detroit high school gym teacher with an extraordinarily huge schwinger, who moonlights as a male prostitute for a geeky, insecure female pimp who aspires to be a successful poet.

Rubicon, Season 1 (AMC)

Arliss Howard (left) with James Badge Dale

This is kind of like a more mature, more analytical version of 24, but without any of the high-octane action or nail-biting suspense. It's certainly taking its time in terms of laying out its story. As of this writing, the show has aired five episodes and I'm still not sure what the stakes are or what the overall plot is. There's no clear villain as of yet, and other than lead character Will Travers, an intelligence analyst for the U.S. government (played by James Badge Dale, who actually co-starred in the third season of 24 but is much better here), it's hard to figure out exactly who are the good guys and bad guys—although that may be precisely the point. But I don't know. I do have some problems with the plotting—there's a subplot involving a wealthy widow played by Miranda Richardson that, so far, has been mostly off on its own, with little connection to the main plot. Every time the focus shifts to her and her storyline, my attention starts to wander. The writers really need to integrate her and her story in with the rest of the show, and quickly, because right now, her scenes have the same effect as a Keith Richards solo set at a Rolling Stones concert: they signal that you can now go for your bathroom break. The show does, however, succeed in creating a sense of unease and impending danger. And Will's immediate supervisor, Kale Ingram (played by Arliss Howard), is nearly as mysterious, creepy, and intriguing as Michael Emerson's character Benjamin Linus was on Lost. Of particular note is Ingram's boss, Truxton Spangler (played by Michael Cristofer), who is one of the most eccentric, awkward, socially inept, and downright odd characters I've seen on TV in a while, yet he's also thoroughly believable as a human being. A bravura portrayal by Cristofer. I guess I'm sticking with this show till the end of the season, but so far, it hasn't impressed me enough to make me say that I'd want to see anything beyond that.

Louie, Season 1 (FX)

Louis C.K.

Without a doubt, this is one of the darkest comedies ever produced for television. Even Curb Your Enthusiasm doesn't have as bleak an outlook on life as this show. It's gritty, realistic, and uncomfortable—too much so at times—but it still manages to be funny. Written and directed by standup comedian Louis C.K. (who recently appeared on several episodes of Parks and Recreation as Amy Poehler's cop boyfriend), this show will make you feel that your life is pretty much over once you've reached your 40s, and that by and large, people are absolute shit. But if you can get past that, you'll find some pretty brilliant humor. The storytelling is unique—and defies expectations—in that not every episode tells one story that encompasses the entire half hour. In most cases, each episode is comprised of several self-contained stories separated by commercial breaks—which is a very good way to avoid stretching out a premise that works best as a sketch.

Aftermath With William Shatner, Season 1 (Biography)

The new Odd Couple: Goetz and Shatner

Talk about a surreal viewing experience. A series of straight, serious interviews with notable and/or notorious newsmakers of the past: New York City subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz; Mary Kay LeTourneau, the pretty schoolteacher who had an affair with one of her 14-year-old students and bore two of his children—and then married him once she completed her 7-year prison sentence; former U.S. Army soldier Jessica Lynch, who was captured by Iraqi soldiers in 2003, eventually rescued by American troops, and then used as a propaganda tool by the Bush administration; and convicted killer Lee Malvo, who was one of the so-called "D.C. Snipers." All of them being interviewed by... WILLIAM SHATNER. Huh?!? Captain James T.J. Hooker Crane?!? You really have to see this to believe it. I still can't decide which is weirder: Bernhard Goetz, or Bernhard Goetz being interviewed by WILLIAM SHATNER. There's one particularly strange moment in the LeTourneau episode—and not strange in a good way: The Shat actually tells LeTourneau, now 48, and her husband, Vili Fualaau, now 27, "Your story is a beautiful story... I love your story." Really, Bill? You love a case of statutory rape? You know, there's a famous film director who would probably jump at the chance to hang out with you. I hear he spends a lot of time in France and Switzerland. (I'd like to think Shatner was really just trying to butter up Mary Kay and Vili, in order to make them feel comfortable so that they would speak candidly. But still, it was a stupid thing to say.)

I won't say these shows will one day be remembered as among the very best that television has ever offered, but, hey, when you're wandering through a desert, you have to accept any oasis you stumble upon.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


A few weeks ago, my good friend, former Marvel colleague, former roommate, and fellow blogger Steve Bunche threw down the gauntlet and challenged me to list my 25 favorite songs, the ones I simply could not live without. (You can see Bunche’s list here.) Well, it’s taken me that long to put together my list. I put in a lot of thought and soul-searching—probably TOO much, since I don’t get paid a dime for writing this blog. But I can pretty much say with confidence that these are, at least at the current time, my all-time favorite songs, compiled (more or less) in order. As far as I’m concerned, the world would be a worse place had these songs not been written and recorded.

Just so you know upfront: You’re going to see a few names popping up a number of times throughout this list. Those of you who know me well will not be surprised by that, nor will you be particularly surprised by those names. I make no apologies. But there are instances where I do deviate from the predictable and show some faint signs of actually having eclectic musical tastes.

So, without further ado…

THE SACRED 25! (In some semblance of order, as of July, 2010
—click on the title of each song to hear it at YouTube.)

1. “Bargain” – The Who (1971)

Despite the fact that the Beatles are my favorite band, this song takes the top spot. It comes from the classic Who’s Next album, and I fell in love with it the first time I heard it, back in my freshman year of college, 1987/88. This song, along with “The Kids Are Alright” and a couple of others, helped kick start my passion for the Who, which has continued unabated for nearly 23 years.

2. “In My Life” – The Beatles (1965)

From the landmark Rubber Soul album, a beautiful, heartfelt collaboration between Lennon and McCartney that functions both as a nostalgic look back at one’s life and an expression of true love for another person. This was the song that my wife and I danced to at our wedding. (I picked it, of course.)

3. “Substitute” – The Who (1966)

One of the other songs that ignited my love for the Who. Upon discovering it during my freshman year at SUNY at Stony Brook, I played it incessantly—much to the chagrin of the guys who lived on my hall, no doubt.

4. “Heroes and Villains” – The Beach Boys (1967)

From the aborted SMiLE album, though it was eventually released on the album that replaced it, the extremely idiosyncratic Smiley Smile. I discovered this song circa 2002, while watching a TV documentary about the Beach Boys, and I became fairly obsessed with it. Hearing this song made me realize that the Beach Boys were much more than just a surf music group—that they had evolved quite a bit from their early sound and went in some very creative and interesting directions after the early 1960s. This is another one that I played incessantly—and as a result, my wife can’t stand it now.

5. “Here, There, and Everywhere” – The Beatles (1966)

From Revolver, this is one of the greatest love songs ever written, as far as I’m concerned. The sound was influenced heavily by the Beach Boys, as evidenced by the lush, beautiful backing vocals. McCartney cites it as probably his favorite of all the songs he’s ever written, and Lennon declared it one of his favorite songs of the Beatles. I couldn’t agree with them more.

6. “God Only Knows” – The Beach Boys (1966)

From the legendary Pet Sounds album. I’d never paid it much mind until I read that Paul McCartney declared it one of the greatest songs ever written. Upon close examination, I understood what McCartney loved so much about it. It’s very odd to begin a love song with “I may not always love you”—is this about a troubled relationship, one that’s headed for a breakup? But the lyrics that immediately follow reveal the true message: “But long as there are stars above you, you never need to doubt it, I’ll make you so sure about it, God only knows what I’d be without you.” Wow. This song has come to mean a lot to me over the last few years—and I know I’m not alone. I saw Brian Wilson perform a beautiful version of it in concert at the Beacon Theater in 2006, and we gave him a standing ovation that lasted for what felt like five minutes. Wilson was taken aback by the response, and made a point to thank us for it later in the show. No, Brian—thank you.

7. “Everybody Loves You Now” (Live Version) – Billy Joel (1981)

The live version, off of Songs in the Attic, is FAR superior to the studio recording on Cold Spring Harbor. I consider this one of the greatest breakup songs of all time. It captures perfectly the anger, anguish, and bitterness that a guy feels in the aftermath of a relationship torn asunder. Let me put it this way: I listened to this song A LOT (to put it mildly) during the fall of 1991 and the early months of 1992. Nowadays, I have a lot of fun performing it with my friends Clive, Keith, and Paroo, in our little band, Clive’s Rocking Attic Party (C.R.A.P. for short).

8. “Hey Jude” – The Beatles (1968)

One of the Beatles’ masterpieces. ‘Nuff said.

9. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” – Crosby, Stills, and Nash (1969)

I’ve loved this song since I was a wee lad. I remember being 12 years old, going with my older sister to my very first rock concert in 1982, and hoping that the band would play it. Unfortunately, the band we had gone to see was the Doobie Brothers, who had absolutely nothing to do with this song. (What did I know? I was 12 years old!)

10. “Fire and Rain” – James Taylor (1970)

This took on even greater significance for me when James Taylor performed it at the Concert for New York in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but it’s a song that I’ve always loved to listen to.

11. “Handle With Care” – The Traveling Wilburys (1988)

I just love this song. I love to listen to it, and to perform it with C.R.A.P.—which I hope it doesn’t sound like when we do it.

12. “Surf’s Up” – The Beach Boys (1971)

One of Brian Wilson’s true masterpieces, written with lyricist Van Dyke Parks in 1966 for the aborted SMiLE album. It was resurrected and completed—despite Brian’s strong protests—for the Beach Boys’ 1971 album of the same name. This is an instance where I’m glad the rest of the band vetoed Brian’s wishes. It would have been downright wrong to forever deprive the world of this, one of the best, most majestic songs in the Beach Boys’ catalog. The lyrics are both clever and tantalizingly oblique, and the music is just beautiful.

13. “Junior’s Farm” – Paul McCartney and Wings (1974)

I discovered this in high school and since then, it’s been my favorite song of McCartney’s post-Beatles career. A great example of how the man can rock when he really wants to.

14. “Darlin’” – The Beach Boys (1967)

This comes from the Wild Honey album and an era during which the Beach Boys were still exploring different areas of music and trying out new sounds. With Carl Wilson’s triumphant lead vocals, this is an exuberant song that makes me smile every time I hear it.

15. “You Make Me Feel So Young” – Frank Sinatra

My mom would be so pleased to see Francis Albert included in this list. And this is my absolute favorite Sinatra song. I love the way he performed it live, especially in the mid-1960s.

16. “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” – Dean Martin

There are certain songs on which Dino sounds like he was having the time of life during the recording sessions. This is one of them. Other examples: “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” This is my favorite—I like the arrangement, Dean’s vocals are top-notch, and the lyrics are clever.

17. “Come Dancing” – The Kinks (1983)

What a great song! Loved it as a kid. Many years later, I was on one of my first dates with the gal who became my wife. We were at the Abbey Tavern in NYC (now long gone, unfortunately), and this song started playing on the jukebox. Much to my delight, I discovered that she liked it too and knew all the lyrics. So we sang it together at the bar. Good time.

18. “Voices Carry” – ‘Til Tuesday (1985)

Loved this song in high school and rediscovered it a few years ago. It’s been a fixture on my iPod almost since the day I got it.

19. “I Am an Animal” – Pete Townshend (1980)

One of the lesser known songs from Townshend’s fantastic solo album Empty Glass, but it’s a real gem, and one that I simply can’t get out of my head. It doesn’t bother me at all that I only THINK I know what it’s about. (Unfortunately, the album version of the song doesn’t seem to be available on YouTube. Just take my word for it—it’s great.)

20. “The Door Into Summer” – The Monkees (1967)

My favorite Monkees song. This is on their album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., and features great vocals from Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz. I loved the Monkees’ TV show when I was a little kid in the mid-1970s, but then I discovered the Beatles and, as a result, I left “the Pre-Fab Four” in the dust. But I started listening to their music again around 1992, and this song really stood out. When I hear it nowadays, it usually brings back fond memories of my early days at Marvel Comics. I’d be working in the office of my boss, Executive Editor Bob Budiansky, and listening to this song on my Walkman as I sat at Bob’s computer and typed in text for the “Marvel Masterpieces” trading cards set...

21. “Slip On Through” – The Beach Boys (1970)

Written (and with lead vocals) by Dennis Wilson, this was the first song on the Beach Boys’ criminally underrated Sunflower album. Funky, progressive, and just plain cool. Hearing it for the first time, I was thunderstruck: “This is the Beach Boys?! Whoa!” I just love it, and I recently learned how to play it on guitar.

22. “The Other End of the Telescope” – Elvis Costello (1996)

I’m a bit put off by his politics of late, but I still consider myself an Elvis Costello fan, and this song, more than any other, is the one that I keep coming back to. Co-written with Aimee Mann, it was first recorded by ‘Til Tuesday in 1988 (with Costello providing backup vocals). But I prefer Costello’s version, which was released on his album All This Useless Beauty. I’ve even performed it a few times with C.R.A.P. Fortunately, no recordings exist of these performances. (But UNfortunately, the Costello version doesn’t seem to be available on YouTube.)

23. “The Song Is Over” – The Who (1971)

Another gem from Who’s Next, which is an album full of gems. It’s a “sister song” to “Pure and Easy,” the next entry on this list. Both songs were originally intended for the concept album that ultimately became Who’s Next. The connection between the two songs survived, however, as “The Song Is Over” ends with lyrics from “Pure and Easy.” Great lead vocals from both Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, and strong piano work by Nicky Hopkins. In college, I used to jot down some of the lyrics to this song in my notebook, when I got bored in class and struggled to stay awake.

24. “Pure and Easy” – Pete Townshend (1972)

I fell in love with this song upon hearing it for the first time, during the summer of 1988. I discovered it just as I was starting to get into the Who and learned that Townshend had put out a number of solo albums. This comes from his first solo project, Who Came First. It’s actually a fully realized demo that Townshend recorded on his own, for the Who album that ultimately became Who’s Next. The Who recorded two different versions of the song in the early 1970s, with Daltrey on lead vocals. One version was released on the band’s 1974 Odds and Sods album (a collection of rarities, outtakes, and leftovers), while another didn’t get an official release until 1995, when it was included as a bonus track on a CD reissue of Who’s Next. Both of the Who’s versions are fine, but the Townshend solo version is downright spectacular. Townshend’s sweet, youthful, earnest voice has a sense of innocence and wonder that suits the song perfectly, and that Daltrey could never quite capture.

25. “My Old School” – Steely Dan (1973)

I have to thank my college buddy Ken Strauss for introducing me to this song. He played Steely Dan all the time in his dorm room, and as I was always hanging out in there, I got to hear a lot of their stuff. This is the one that really “spoke” to me, though, and it has since become an all-time favorite of mine. Listening to it nowadays always takes me back to that time, and triggers some great memories.

I suspect this list will be different a year from now--maybe even six months from now. But not by much!