Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Endless Black Ribbon: Truck Driving Music from Beyond the Grave



Truck driving music is something I grew to love early on, and still retain that love today. When I was a kid, country music infused the world around me. My mother and father were both from deep in Appalachia, and the twangy strains of honky-tonk and jangling rush of bluegrass the main soundtrack of their lives. Bluegrass had a primal feel to it, its narrative deeply rooted in a hardscrabble culture. This was a genre of music that rose out from the coal mines, thickly-wooded mountains, and farmlands, carrying the laments and prayers and humor of that people out across the hills and hollers. The truck driver subgenre shares a lot of its family tree with bluegrass, and bluegrass is, or at least was, notoriously fatalistic. Both genres paint a bleak picture of life. The truck driver sub-genre is interesting because it deals with a very specific career, something not often done with an entire type of music. It's a music about unending hard work, and the danger inherent in that work.
Even the most humorous songs depicted life as a ceaseless struggle. In Give Me Forty Acres by the Willis Brothers, simply trying to maneuver through a big city, in this case Boston, becomes an Odyssey:
In Nitro Express by Red Simpson, the lonely, unheralded, and Herculean effort to avoid disaster that often confronts drivers is played almost for laughs.
Overloaded Diesel by Jimmy Griggs demonstrates another kind of danger; this time in truck stop hook-ups.
The trucks themselves became characters, as companions, partners, occasionally antagonists, and, ultimately, avatars of the truck driving life. Sometimes it's expressed in a rollickingly funny way, as in I'm a Truck by Red Simpson:
Or it's expressed in a melancholy, "high lonesome" way, the ceaseless errantry of the truck driver an effort to outrun heartache, with the uncomplaining truck a reliable companion, as in Eighteen Wheels Hummin' Home Sweet Home by Mac Wiseman

And, of course, Phantom 309, by Red Sovine, where the faithful truck follows the driver into the afterlife.
Probably the most common theme in truck driver music is the passage of time and, ultimately, the futility of life, exemplified by Six Days on the Road by Dave Dudley:
Looking at the World Through a Windshield by Del Reeves puts it into a slightly more light-hearted perspective:

The ultimate, in my opinion, is White Line Fever by Merle Haggard, always a troubador for the working man:

The truck driving genre is pretty much dead. Long dead, really. Sometime in the early '80s, country music in general began to move away from this type of music. Certainly roots-oriented country music, including bluegrass, still exists and is being created everyday, but it has lost its prominence as far as influencing mainstream country. But it still has a power, a mystique, that wafts in like a memory of long ago, an audio artifact of a culture that is slowly fading away and being supplanted by another. Still, though, the trucks keep roaring along the highways, the endless black ribbon stretching forever into the distance.
 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Halloween on the Highway, or Unending Roads

The open highway has a mystique to it. It fascinates me to think that the humble road outside my door can ultimately lead me anywhere. The vast network of roads and highways can seem to have a life of its own, humming silently with potential. It also carries life, allowing the movement of commerce which is the lifeblood of any society.

When I was a teen, I can recall my friends and I hanging out beside the road near one of their houses. A streetlight, a dry, grassy, shallow ditch, and warm summer nights became our world. This was when where I lived was more rural, and traffic was rare. Yet I could almost believe I heard the faint roaring of tires on a highway emanating from this quiet stretch of asphalt in a backwater Ohio town. We discussed dreams of our future there, the road looming within our souls, ready to take us somewhere far away, someplace we imagined to be our destiny.

As time flowed along, roads and highways became less and less the enabler of hopes, and more a simple tool by which we carried out our daily tasks. Still, on certain days or nights, when thoughts would rise up from the depths of memory, the road would again become a pathway into dreams. Roads are strange things when you think of it; they are permanent structures, unmoving, yet they feel as if they move beneath us as we travel along. They seem to stay the same as the lands around change. At night, the Moon paces us, stationary as the land slides and undulates below it. At those times, the highway is at its most mysterious, carrying us as we hurtle forward into a nightscape.

Tales from the highway are particularly engrossing. Just as roads carry us through the temporal world, it's captivating to think they may also somehow reach into another dimension. Time and space often seem to change and morph as we drive along the temporal world, and it's easy to believe that, perhaps, we can breach the barriers between worlds, between the lands of the living and the lands of the dead. It's a spooky thought, especially when traveling at dusk or at night. Or at Halloween.

A few authors have explored this mysterious aspect of roads and highways.

Haunted Route 66 by Richard Southall

 It's appropriate, given the time of year and the mood I'm in as I write this post, to start off discussing a book about the ghost of a road. For decades, Route 66, the "Mother Road," connected one side of the US to the other. One of the early parts of the interstate highway system, it was finally decommissioned in 1984 with the advent of larger and more efficient highways. Yet it can still be traced, wending its way from Chicago to Santa Monica, a few gaps here and there, and with many of the towns that it sustained gone or much reduced. While a book using the defunct highway as its subject could have been written as a continuous narrative, author Southall chooses to chronicle in a matter-of-fact way the haunted locations that 66 passed through or near. Where history is known, it is recounted, along with the common accounts of what form the hauntings take. This is less a book to be read late on a Halloween evening and more a travel planner. Good, solid info, and occasionally a bit of spookiness comes through in the descriptions of the locations.

Haunted Highways by Tom Ogden

This book is something of an opposite of the previous volume. The author takes oft-told tales and urban legends and writes them as coherent stories rather than the often disjointed and context-free accounts that are heard third-hand and beyond. Phantom hitchhikers, ghostly horse-drawn hearses, and helpful motorists from beyond the grave all get their turns, and famous names like the Hawaiian goddess Pele, abolitionist John Brown, and even Telly Savalas check in. Roads from Colonial Boston to the teeming streets of modern Tokyo offer up their ghostly travelers for the reader's perusal.

Trucker Ghost Stories by Annie Wilder

This is my favorite of the bunch here. I was a kid during the CB radio craze of the mid-1970s, and was endlessly intrigued by the truck-driving culture. Barreling from coast to coast seemed like the life for 10-year-old me. I wore out the few truck driving music tapes I managed to get hold of. I even bought sets of stickers with CB radio lingo illustrated on them. Driving a truck was my aspiration back then. And I get why even today; the highway still calls to me occasionally. Seeing new people and places, exploring roads little-traveled by others...it's a quest to simply know more about the world, and while the internet can take us places we could never go otherwise, there's still a certain satisfaction in going and seeing and experiencing in person far-off places.

Many of the stories in this book have an immediacy to them, reading like dispatches from the road. Brief moments of high strangeness are illuminated like highway signs that catch the beams of headlights. A number of them seem to be transcribed almost directly from email or message board posts, with flawed grammar and misspellings lending them authenticity. So much of this book comes directly from those who make the road their homes most of the year, and that underlays it all with a kind of excitement that is akin to that felt listening to busy CB radio channels way back when. The book strays from its mission statement a bit too often, with stories by actual truckers becoming too few later in the book. Yet, as the subtitle on the cover says, it contains tales of haunted highways, weird encounters, and legends of the road. And that is good enough for me.

With Halloween just about upon us as I write this, I can't let the opportunity slip by to post the ultimate in ghostly truck driver songs (and yes, there was virtually a subgenre of dead trucker songs at one time). Take a listen to Red Sovine's signature song, Phantom 309.


Happy Halloween!

Halloween Hocus-Pocus: Fear in Four Colors

I have a special fondness for Halloween-themed comic books. In recent years, fewer and fewer have made it to the racks of bookstores and comic shops, perhaps because horror has become such a constant in pop culture. After all, weekly zombie and ghost hunting television shows can tend to sap the impact of the once-a-year allure of Halloween. Still, there is a certain atmosphere that arrives with the advent of October, one that is apart from the grisly splatter horror that dominates most of the rest of the year.

All that said, I thought I'd exhume a few choice comic volumes to share. Ironically, none of them are specifically Halloween-themed, but they clearly occupy a shadowland that exists apart from most modern horror. Let's dive in with some of the most innocuous entries in my cobwebbed longboxes:

Spooky, the Tuff Little Ghost 

Spooky, May 1972


Spooky Haunted House, February 1973
Casper's belligerent cousin Spooky is a derby-wearing, pseudo-Brooklyn-accented ghost who takes delight in scaring the living. Or other ghosts, too, when he can get away with it. Obviously, this being Harvey Comics, his efforts are generally limited to yelling "BOO!" and letting others know that he is, indeed, a ghost. Spooky's world - and, by extension, the world of Casper - is a gentle dreamscape, populated by other ghosts, fairies, and not-very-monstrous monsters. Here, ghosts are distanced from their downbeat origins, existing in a world where they can apparently exist without anyone actually dying. It's a bright, sunny world, with the only concessions to horror being dilapidated houses and an instinctual fear of ghosts by most of the inhabitants. And the latter doesn't hold true universally.
That second panel, from Spooky Haunted House, may be my single favorite thing in Harvey Comics.

Most stories in Spooky's books are short, often single-page gags. Here is one that actually lasts a few pages, and is "continued" later on in the same book. Weirdo scientists subject Spooky to some creepily bizarre tests, including being photographed.
"We're NOT movie producers and STOP ASKING QUESTIONS!" did make my skin crawl when I read it, though.

Turns out, these geniuses are wanting data to build a ghost robot. Yeah, I know.
Seriously, these scientists didn't even think to become defense contractors?
And that gives an idea about Spooky and his (mis)adventures. There are cameos by Casper, Wendy the Good Little Witch, and even that ghost horse that hangs around for some reason. Quick, silly stories for kids that tread only on the far outskirts of Halloween.

Supernatural Thrillers Featuring the Headless Horseman

Supernatural Thrillers #6, November 1973
Over at Marvel at roughly the same time as the Spooky comics above were being published, the House of Ideas was beginning to get its horror comics up into full steam. The gruesome comics of the early 1950s that had brought about the Comics Code Authority and the attendant self-censorship of the comic book industry were receding into memory, and horror was starting to come back into comics. Here we see a definite Halloween connection, as one of the holiday's most iconic tales is mined for plot ideas. But, it's a tenuous connection, as the story is mostly about the machinations of mobsters. It's not a particularly spooky story, and much of it is development for characters that never appear again (as far as I know).
You get the idea.
Still, it's a cool cover, right? Marvel's move back into horror throughout the '70s would become less tentative fairly soon. DC would also make forays into horror in the '70s, but by 1986, most of the horror comics of Marvel and its Distinguished Competition would be gone, or at least in decline. Still, an up-and-coming pop culture phenomenon who would hold closer and closer ties to Halloween would show up to attempt to breathe new life into at least one title.

Elvira's House of Mystery

Elvira's House of Mystery #1, January 1986; Halloween makes the cover!

The venerable House of Mystery series finally gave up the ghost in 1983, after surviving for decades in one form or the other. Then it was revived in 1986 to showcase the titular (heh) character. Gone was former "host" of the comic, Cain, though not really; Elvira would search for him in her wrap-around framing story, as well as try to find her way out of peril by piecing together clues from the various stories in the book. It's a grab bag, including a story of people playing a game based on Dungeons & Dragons, but with a magical twist, as well as the usual guilt-ridden killers and bullied kids who get their revenge. Oddly, the longest story is a folk-tale-like story of ancient Asia, with aged sorcerers and demons, and a plot centered on two young but doomed lovers. It's not a bad anthology, though some of the stories seemed rather unfinished to me, but it often felt like the stories were left over from the old run of House of Mystery, and didn't really fit with Elvira's quip-tossing brand of "hosting." Still, Elvira is a treat in most formats.
Well, maybe more like eleven issues, El.

Haunted Horror

Haunted Horror #11, June 2014; originally the cover for Mister Mystery volume 6 #3, December 1946; art by Warren Kremer
What else is there to say? Look at that cover.

Haunted Horror collects choice stories from the early horror comics of the 1940s and '50s, and they sure know how to pick them over there. That's the most spectacular cover to a horror comic I've ever seen. It tells a story on its own, which is good, since it doesn't reflect any of the stories in the book. And, really, no story could measure up to that cover, anyway. But the book itself is crammed with content; these comics are from an era dense with dialogue, so it takes considerably more time to read a given tale in them than modern comics. And they're often rife with grue that would comfortably fit into an episode or more of The Walking Dead. The no-holds-barred approach to gore and evil (though they were quite chaste when it came to sex) would cause a crackdown on horror comics in general, until publishers like Marvel and DC began to push back (see the issue of Supernatural Thrillers above). But even at their most blood-soaked, few of the more modern comics could compete with these old comics for outright lunacy.
Peripatetic noggins, for example.


Added for emphasis.
Jilted lovers, restless corpses, crazed killers, unexpected twists that you'll expect, vengeful sun gods, and even the Devil himself show up in these stories.

I always imagined Ol' Scratch as a bit more suave, but OK...
Direct narrative connections to Halloween are few, but the vibe is very much akin to that of the holiday.
Seriously!
Certainly those old comics have few peers amongst today's offerings when it comes to pure atmosphere, but there are some who tower among the greats even today.

Hellboy: The Crooked Man and Others

Mike Mignola's signature character delves into the shadowy realm of horror quite often. And that's to be expected; after all, we're talking about a character who is half-devil and was born in Hell. Mignola's art, with inky shading and a certain sketchiness that conjures a spooky feel, is masterful. But, though the cover above is by Mignola, and the story I want to point out was written by him, it has art by one of the modern masters of illustration: Richard Corben.
Even the grotesque has a certain beauty at the hands of Corben.
I've been a fan of Richard Corben since the '70s. His cover for Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell is a quintessential image of that decade. His work on magazines like Heavy Metal opened up a world that was both lush and bizarre, with outrageously voluptuous women and improbably endowed men traveling in nightmare worlds. Here, Mignola's strong writing provides a framework for Corben to clothe, both of them creating a hellish Appalachia that is familiar to someone like me who has family history there.
Few artists know how to balance shadow and light, and detail and blank space, like Corben.
And Corben has the ability to render insanity and evil in the faces of his characters in ways that unsettle me deeply.
I think I've run the gamut here, or at least A gamut, of spooky and eerie comics that suit the Halloween season. All of them have their place, from the sunlit afterlife of Spooky to the harrowing evil lingering in backwoods hollers my grandmother would have recognized.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Late Night Ruminations: Frazetta and the Dark Dimension

Jongor Fights Back, Frank Frazetta, 1967

Deep into the quiet nights of my youth in the '70s, before the endless murmuring of the electronic ether, I would sit and read and reread all the books and magazines and comics I had at hand. The silence focused my attention on the images and words, with them evoking, in turn, images and emotions beyond what was on the pages before me. Eventually, gradually, I began to grasp that some of these works, the ones that most deeply stirred me, were by certain writers and artists. Among the first artists I began to appreciate for what their talent could conjure within me was Frank Frazetta.

Frazetta's universe is dark and whirling. Each image is a lightning-flashed frozen moment, a glimpse into a dark dimension. So much of his work is of a lone protagonist fighting for his life, sometimes the life of another, but the battles are often lonely. Empty stone halls, twilight-lit wilderness, dank swamps, and frozen mountains are often the stages upon which these tableaus play out to their grim conclusions.

There is no implied glory here; these struggles are personal. Some might argue this is not heroism, but simply survival. But I have often thought that in Frazetta's universe these battles are, indeed, heroic, with the protagonist's demon-grappling a fight to shrug off their own shadow, to bring a hero forth from within that can make the world a better place, or at least a bit less dark.

In Frazetta's universe, the antagonist is often unseen or a force of nature. It is more about what the protagonist is doing, how he prepares for and prosecutes battle. In that universe, readiness for war is always a virtue.

The image accompanying this post may seem like a strange choice. Yet, it is quintessential Frazetta. The title, Jongor Fights Back, while unnecessary, is perfect. We already know everything we need just from the image. Somewhere in Frazetta's endless dark dimension, a warrior defends himself and his companion, awkwardly perched on a reptilian mount, with threatening aerial creatures in a gyre above and about them. The spare background adds to the dreamy feel of the picture, a timeless moment that is a reflection of eternity. The action is the real protagonist here, as in so many Frazetta works.

I bought a print of the above painting. Its presence is a portal into that dark dimension to which my thoughts are so often drawn, even now, so long after they were first lured there.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas Time's A-Comin'

Seems like Halloween, all shadows and scattered leaves, was just here, doesn't it? But Halloween cast its spell over October, and it was dispelled when November crept in soft and quiet. As much as I love Halloween, it can't last forever; otherwise, it would lose its power, becoming commonplace. It will pad back around on black cat feet again, cloaked in dour gray skies, once September's new-school-year bustle and excitement wear off.

Thanksgiving here in the States kicks off almost a month-and-a-half of the holiday season. Some resent the length of that season, but I don't. The world can be a rough place, and if we can collectively agree to maintain a holiday spirit, even if only nominally at times, the longer the better, I say. I dig the excitement that is in the air when Thanksgiving rolls around. Yeah, I know, a good bit of it is in anticipation of Black Friday sales, but so what? Sure, we've all seen the news stories of folk taking the sales too seriously and trampling each other or fist-fighting over dwindling stocks of the latest toy or tech item. But in my experience, there is a festive air out there. Overhead on the days and nights before Thanksgiving, the sky is filled with planes going every direction of the compass with travelers heading home for Turkey Day. New arrivals are happy with the rush of seeing loved ones too long apart. The Christmas decorations that began to show up in stores as early - too early! the Halloween fan in me gripes - as August begin to gain context.

I can find a lot of inspiration for cultivating and maintaining a Halloween spirit. It's almost too easy, really, and one needs to be - well, should be - discerning in one's Halloween-evoking. I'm more the haunted-house-on-a-hill, black-cat-with-raised-back-and-spitting-maw, Headless-Horseman, friendly-ghost type of Halloween enthusiast. But Christmas is different. It's about cultivating love and joy and peace, and in the world of today, or any era, really, that's tough to generate and maintain. It's easier to brace oneself for a zombie apocalypse or a vampire winging its way across a night sky than to wholly embrace the possibility of a bright and festive time when dreams are granted and promises made and kept. Halloween and its horror is often predicated on being alone and (often playfully) helpless, whether it's in a corn maze or a purpose-built haunted house. That's why I like the thronging crowds of Christmas shoppers, the ubiquity of Christmas music and decorations, the reassurance of the religious message; it's helpful to see evidence that others are making that same effort at holiday cheer, that the world may actually have a light for good in it.

So here we are, Christmas rushing upon us. My shopping is done, the month is on track for being one of the warmest on record here, and nary a hint of the snow from last year is in the offing. It's looking like a good Christmas is about to arrive, and I hope that's true for you, too. Merry Christmas. Let's take a listen to something from my Appalachian roots, with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys:




Wednesday, October 28, 2015

From the Grave It Arises: This is Halloween: The Spectral Tide: True Ghost Stories of the U.S. Navy


Life sails on, erratic in its course, riding the currents of time. The ocean of centuries stretches out in all directions, unchanging. The tide of night rolls in for us all, eventually, pulling us over the horizon in our allotted time. Time's earthly manifestation, the encircling seas, reminds us of the vast temporal gulfs that surround us. Perhaps in some small way we leave our marks, memories of deeds adrift upon the darkling waters, that can heave into view unexpectedly, like derelict ships upon the sea lanes.

Spectral Tide: True Ghost Stories of the U.S. Navy, by Eric Mills, isn't the kind of book I expect to see from the Naval Institute Press. Staid and reputable, the NIP puts forth volumes of lore, history, and instruction, giving context to the Navy and its eternal vigilant patrol. But, I remind myself, haven't tales of the supernatural been intrinsically part of the experience of any and all who've put to sea? Are not stories of ghostly mariners and mystery ships among the most-related of ocean stories? So I should not have been so surprised to see this book.

Slender yet meticulously sourced, this book brings a dignity to the genre of ghost stories not often seen. The full weight of the long, glorious history of the U.S. Navy is put to good effect here, drawn on to bring an air of legitimacy rarely available to any study of the paranormal. The tales stretch across the centuries, from the War of 1812 to the Vietnam War, from icons of the Navy like John Paul Jones and Stephen Decatur still lurking about the U.S. Naval Academy and its environs, to supercarrier deckhands still performing ghostly flight operations on ships long since converted to museums.

Author Mills goes to great lengths to give the reader context for all his stories. Quick yet evocative biographical sketches bring to life figures from history who are long since dead, yet restless in their slumber. The dashing Stephen Decatur, the very manifestation of what became Naval ideals, is, perhaps, the most memorable of the figures discussed in this book. Brave, colorful, endlessly energetic, the Decatur Mills depicts will surprise no reader in his ability to transcend death itself. Even ships come to life, from the blockade runner Dash confounding the British during the War of 1812, to the mighty U.S.S. Texas slugging its way across the Atlantic to help clear the shores for Patton and Operation Torch. Such vibrant subjects seem only too likely to leave a spiritual imprint upon the world.

Mills's style is pitch-perfect here. Weighty, slightly florid, a touch archaic, yet with a hint of good humor, the prose evokes the right kind of mood for the subject. The tales are all the more spooky for the history that Mills goes to pains to detail without overwhelming the reader. The history runs across a spectrum of the human experience, from anger and jealousy to glory, honor, and duty. In the end, though, there is an air of sadness and tragedy to all of them; without some troubling emotion, what would hold a spirit to the world of the living?

From the Grave It Arises: This is Halloween - Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House.


Long before the internet allowed us to find in no time at all an ocean of Halloween-themed music and stories, Disney released this memorable oddity.


It's the kind of record that's been around for a while. Perhaps it was the power of Disney, a juggernaut even in 1964 when this album was first produced, that caused it to become so pervasive during the Halloween season. The version I had was the 1973 edition of it, so I was still in single digits, age-wise, when I first got it.

The evocative cover image set the mood: simple, but spooky. Listening to it recently for the first time in years, I'm struck by how odd and disjointed it is. The first side presents brief narrated vignettes that attempt to put a scary context around non-scary sounds. Look at this track list:



1.
"The Haunted House"  
3:00
2.
"The Very Long Fuse"  
1:28
3.
"The Dogs"  
1:13
4.
"Timber"  
1:45
5.
"Your Pet Cat"  
0:49
6.
"Shipwreck"  
1:39
7.
"The Unsafe Bridge"  
1:21
8.
"Chinese Water Torture"  
2:02
9.
"The Birds"  
0:46
10.
"The Martian Monster"  
1:41


It starts out strong, at least as strong as a Disney record of this vintage can be. "The Haunted House" is a tour-de-force, combining many of the sound effects found on the album - and some that aren't - into an effective, old-fashioned haunted house aural landscape. But the going gets rough from then on.

"The Very Long Fuse," "The Unsafe Bridge," and the anachronistic "Chinese Water Torture" tracks don't have much of an impact. It's damned tough to make dripping water sinister. "The Martian Monster" is a silly bit of fluff. I mean, it just is, even if the crunching and munching is grating.

There is some eeriness in "The Dogs," with a lonely, far-off hound baying in a presumably darkened landscape building into a huge pack in full pursuit by track's end. But for someone like me who has grown up around dogs, the dread just never really manifests. The most successful track of the first side, besides "The Haunted House," is "Your Pet Cat." Yes, the narration takes up two-thirds of it, but that screeching is nerve-wracking to me.

The second side is where this record really lights up, and I recall endless replays of it by my eight-year-old self.

1. "Screams and Groans"   0:57
2. "Thunder, Lightning and Rain"   2:01
3. "Cat Fight"   0:37
4. "Dogs"   0:48
5. "A Collection Of Creaks"   1:54
6. "Fuses and Explosions"   1:11
7. "A Collection Of Crashes"   0:45
8. "Birds"   0:33
9. "Drips and Splashes"   1:18
10. "Things In Space"   0:53

Devoid of any context, the narration of the first side absent here on the second, my mind would create its own horrific scenes. "Cat Fight" sounds brutal. "Thunder, Lightning, and Rain," regardless of its canned sound, evokes the storms of old movies. "Things In Space" is a nicely mysterious track of what I would have imagined a flying saucer or other alien craft would sound like...despite the fact "Things In Space" wouldn't, y'know, make any sounds.

But the track that is solid gold here, not just on this side but on the entire record, is "Screams and Groans." It's worth the price of admission alone. I don't know who these actors are, or were, but Holy Toledo do they go above and beyond to cut loose with some unsettling shrieks.

The second side is a nice collection of sound effects for...well, just for listening in a darkened room with friends, or even a budget-rate haunted house. Sure, you can find recordings that are technically better from a technological standpoint, but few have the vintage sheen of this one.