Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison obituaries tend to run the same way: stories about the author’s “Harlan story” 1, perhaps with a nod to the fact that he was a serial groper and generally awful, interpersonally, in the inappropriate sexuality sense, to many women, and then a list of stories he wrote that were important to the person who wrote the article.

There’s not a lot of easy ways to wrestle with Harlan Ellison’s thing, see. He was a phenomenal writer, especially early on. I mean that literally – he wrote stories in the first decade or so of his career that were a phenomenon – almost anything from “Repent Harlequin, Said the Tick Tock Man”, through “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World” and culminating in probably my favorite short-story ever written, “Jeffty is Five” . There was work after this point (“The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore,” “Paladin of the Lost Hour”) that was also great, and perhaps even the equal of the early stuff, but it’s that first ten years that contains the work that was an absolute godhead for a lot of sf fans.

He also admitted to committing sexual assault at least once (in 1962), was rumored to be horrifyingly inappropriate to many women for several decades later, often and with much gusto, and grabbed Connie Willis’s breast onstage at the Hugo awards in 2006 2.

Beyond all of that, he made life deeply unpleasant for a lot of people, albeit usually deserving people. He was extremely litigious, suing anyone who he thought maybe might have thought about his work too hard while they were coming up with their own. He was an outspoken vigilante, and it’s not hard to find stories of him taking “revenge” on people 3 via some inconvenience. He was a tireless activist, and wrote often about the way that it was, in fact, better and necessary to be a tireless activist. For a period of time he would refuse to go to conventions or other such events in states that hadn’t ratified the ERA, but he would agree to go to those places to stump for NOW, so there are several stories about seeing Harlan Ellison give a speech supporting the National Organization for Women. 4

He was also a vocal advocate for the writers and artists he appreciated. I myself would be less likely to have known who, say, Paul Chadwick (Concrete) was if Harlan hadn’t written so passionately about him. He would bend over backwards for people he felt deserved it, and would defend the dignity and rights of his fellow writers as fiercely as he defended his own. He would write endlessly about the things that he felt needed more public attention. His famed anthology series Dangerous Visions, more-or-less essential reading for a certain strain of sf fan, contained introductions that were often better than the stories themselves 5.

Nevertheless, his attitude – his vigilante taste for prankish “retribution”, his haranguing, his sarcastic dismissals, his impatient dealings with people he felt weren’t behaving in a manner he felt was deserving his time or their station – always seemed to stem from his respect for and obsession with working hard, and respecting the work of creatives – especially writers, but not only writers – as actual work, as something created that is worthy of time and respect rather than as something that was ephemeral or unimportant or inconsiderable. He was certainly willing to work very hard at things when he decided to.

Except, of course, that The Last Dangerous Visions never came out. He solicited stories from people, promising them the moon, promising them royalty payments beyond their wildest dreams, promising them fame and exposure and really great sex, and then….they sat, gathering dust in his office, as he didn’t fulfill his end of the bargain 6. The non-publishing of the work that he had gotten from people that he counted as friends, that he sat on rather than release into the world, did yield several excuses from Ellison, and eventually became the hoariest of science fiction fan jokes.

Put together 7, it seems to be the case that Harlan Ellison was a tremendously principled firebomb, who was completely unable to apply those principles to his own actions. This isn’t uncommon: writing, especially coming up the way Ellison did, is a matter of believing in yourself to such a huge and superhuman degree that no matter how many people tell you “no”, you not only keep taking your work to other people, but you keep taking that same work to other people. It requires, essentially, that one forget that other people might have valid thoughts about you. It betrays a mindset that isn’t particularly permeable to the criticism of others.

Without going too far down this rabbit hole (and straying as far as possible under the circumstances from inappropriate armchair-psychology), it seems easy to me to see how someone goes from that kind of impermeable unsinkability to, having achieved the success one believed bone-deep was coming to them, just being done examining one’s behavior, and believing that one was special enough to get away with whatever it was he wanted to do. The problem is when you are cruel to women, his actions say, not when I do it. When I do it there’s a reason.

He was a unique genius, the sort of person that creates a schism in the field: there are works before Harlan, and there are works after. He did as much as anyone to invent a sort of science fiction-derived horror (c.f. “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” “Croatoan”, probably the two scariest stories I read as an adolescent). When he wanted to, he could be as good and helpful and inspiring as anyone – he, for example, did a lot to impel Octavia Butler into her own career, and that alone is worth several Good Place points.

And, y’know, in a sort of points-based scoring system, I bet he comes out ahead. I bet he did enough good, generally and specifically, to generally come out ahead as an ok guy in the balance. It’s up to each person if they decide they want to evaluate things that way, I suppose, and I don’t know that I’m one of them. 

Harlan succeeded big and failed big. He was a lot of things, he was probably actually a genius, and he was definitely, definitively himself, and that’s what he was, and that’s admirable in its way. If he was both better and worse than other people, then that’s how that happened. He couldn’t have been anyone else and he didn’t try. Is that an honor in and of itself? Not really. But it’s what he did, and if you can’t be anything else, you can at least be honest.

I want to say that a lot of this is probably equivocation. Harlan Ellison’s work spoke to me (and to a lot of other people – I am tremendously far from unique in this regard) on such a fundamental, personal level that it became a part of my personality. There is a deeply-entrenched strain of taking ideas from Ellison, not only about how to read or how to write, but about how to be 8. I am less likely, then, to throw it all out.

But as pain fades, and as people forgive, and the work remains (because in this case the work is as good as anybody’s, and probably isn’t going anywhere), then it’s probably not the worst thing to add an asterisk for the way the author behaved. In “Prince Myshkin and Hold the Relish,” Ellison allows for his treatise on dealing with authors that are bad people. Here’s a YouTube video of Ellison himself reading it. This, too, forms a part of how I deal with people who are problematic. I do think that failing to confront Ellison’s failings head-on, no matter if he thought they were failings or not, is also something that I learned to do from Ellison.

So go read something, y’know? If you can’t get past Ellison’s faults (and I would never discourage someone from avoiding things that were not at a high enough standard – the standards should always be higher. Always.), read some Octavia Butler (like, say, The Parable of the Talents or Xenogenesis 9), or his friend Robert Silverberg (The Book of Skulls), or Connie Willis (Doomsday Book is my favorite, but To Say Nothing of the Dog also won a Hugo, and I think under the circumstances, if you’re going to read a book at Harlan Ellison it oughta be one of her Hugo-winners), or hell, I’m sure Kameron Hurley or Claire North or Kij Johnson wouldn’t mind either.

My personal favorite tribute to Harlan would be to watch the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”, but to praise the rewriting that Roddenberry did to Ellison’s screenplay, because if I had to put up with his bullshit, he should have to put up with mine.

But I’m not going to do any of that, honestly. I’m too soft, and I’m all talk. What I’m actually going to do is I’m going to go read “Jeffty is Five” again. And I’m going to cry (like I always do when I read “Jeffty is Five”). And then I’m going to read “The Paladin of the Lost Hour” and probably “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Tick-Tock Man,” and then some other things. And I’m going to annoy people by reading them things out loud, and generally being enthusiastically, evangellically obsessive about it.

Because Harlan Ellison taught me that it’s important to try to fill the world with good things as much as possible, and that sometimes good things come from shitheads. Sorry you were a shithead, Harlan. I wish you hadn’t been.


  1.  I don’t have a Harlan story 
  2.  and, thereafter, issued a terrible apology, followed by saying several things after the terrible apology that signified that he didn’t even mean the terrible apology. 
  3.  my favorite of which is a story about him mailing a couple of hundred bricks to his publisher in regards to a contract dispute, which you can look up for more and better information. 
  4.  after which he, in all likelihood, treated some woman very, very poorly. 
  5.  his introduction to Ursula K. LeGuin is the best introduction she ever received in print. 
  6.  I suppose he’s lucky nobody mailed him a couple of hundred bricks. 
  7.  a thing that’s easier to do with the publication of Nat Sefaloff’s A Lit Fuse, the occasion of which publication caused me to say to someone (I don’t remember who), “oh, he’s dying. This wouldn’t come out if he thought there wasn’t any more of the story of his life to tell”. 
  8.  these things range from a disdain from the term “sci-fi”, which I don’t use, to a refusal to capitalize “tv”, to the notion that if you just treat everyone like a person who is equal to you then you’ve covered a lot of your bases (a thing that Harlan failed at more than any other idea he ever gave out), to the idea that good work – good writing, good art – can come from anywhere, and that disqualifying anything for its form or medium is only going to result in your loss. This last is perhaps the most reverberant of all of these things, as it’s a big part of the reason I’m in this space in the first place. 
  9.  a novel which happens to share its title with a remarkable Harlan Ellison essay about the effects of toxic fandom on sf, a thing that we’re still trying to deal with, and a thing that was enabled by, well, attitudes like his about whether or not their principles apply to themselves. 

A Considered Look at Every Inductee Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Part 6

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a place that I find, as an institution, vexing. The actual, physical hall of fame – the pyramidal building on the lake in Cleveland – is pretty cool, but it is spoken and thought of often as an intangible – as a sort of arbitrating body on the worthiness of the body of rock musicians. My thought, for many years upon surveying lists 1  and the like was to think that they have about a fifty percent success rate for getting it anything like right.

But what if it doesn’t? Previously I listened to and considered each of the best-selling albums of all time, and learned that they were considerably more of a mixed bag than I had thought 2. So what if the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are the same sort of deal?

And so it’s time to dive in and take a look at what the nominees and their enshrinement actually are.

Click the links for Part 1,Part 2,  Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 of this series.

Class of 1994

The Animals

WHO THEY ARE:Vietnam-era British song interpreters, performers of a few songs that seemingly everyone breathing air with even a passing knowledge of rock music in the knows.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They’d probably have a fighting chance for even just “House of the Rising Sun” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, but I would argue that their finest contribution is one that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would be unlikely to actually honor – they were a performing-only band, and wrote very few of their own songs, and still managed to be a great band with a great body of work. Rock music is a performance-based enterprise, and it’s noteworthy to be good enough at it that you can re-shape, say, a standard like “House of the Rising Sun” around yourselves so effectively that it’s hard to think of it many other ways.

AND…?: Oh I like the Animals a lot. Hard not to, really. I’m sure I would have liked them more had I heard them through their mien and not just absorbed their music osmotically, but they’re still plenty good.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

The Band

WHO THEY ARE: Canada’s finest gift to Americana 3. They were great on their own, they were great backing Bob Dylan, and they were great (allegedly) as the band The Barbarians on that band’s hit “Moulty” 4

WHY THEY’RE HERE: If nothing else, they backed Bob Dylan and were the subject of a fantastic Martin Scorsese movie 5. But also, during their initial run, they made a handful of very good records on their own, and their first two records are as good an opening salvo as one could hope for.

AND…?: They were decidedly their own thing the whole time also, even though from the vantage of 2018 what they’re doing sounds considerably more conventional. They blended together a lot of things that weren’t that commonly found in the same band at the time and, if you listen closely, really still aren’t. And all of this is written and until this moment I didn’t mention “The Weight,” which is one of rock music’s finest hours no matter how slice it.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Duane Eddy

WHO HE IS: Well, he played guitar on a bunch of songs associated with Lee Hazelwood 6, but people still pretty much think of either the theme from “Peter Gunn” or just, like, twang in general.

WHY HE’S HERE: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame loves a guitar player, and he sure was one of those. He’s instantly recognizable, and I suppose if you want to include someone for their ability to play through spring reverb then he’s the one.

AND…?: Oh, I like Duane Eddy just fine, but come on.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No.

Grateful Dead

WHO THEY ARE: The progenitors of the jam-band, the leaders of the idea that music is to be enjoyed with only the parts that you would normally request be specifically kept out of your music, and the band responsible for one of the most inexplicably-rabid fanbases of all time.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were around in the sixties San Francisco scene that is oft-feted in the traditional rock historical narrative. People went crazy for them. They seem like nice enough guys, I guess.

AND…?: They are basically the apotheosis of “you had to be there” thinking. You have to have seen them live, and if you did and didn’t enjoy it then there was something else you were doing wrong, and on and on and on. This is my official opinion on the matter 7: if something only works in its own time and milieu, then it doesn’t belong in a hall of fame, the idea of which is enshrinement forever. If it doesn’t work forever, then it doesn’t go in. If you “had to be there” then why would future folk who want some idea about the shape of rock and roll care about it? I applaud that they managed to be super-extra famous without actually having, y’know, hits or record sales 8, but stop short of praising them, because they did so on the back of a bunch of dumb drug associations and godawful music.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No.

Elton John

WHO HE IS: The guy from The Lion King.

WHY HE’S HERE: Elton John sold ten bajillion records, wrote a bunch of songs that are all over the radio or whatever, and basically carried on in the Little Richard vein for several decades 9, only, y’know, whiter. He was tremendously popular and successful, and surely somebody set out to do things like Elton John, right?

AND…?: I have a hard time with this one. Elton John’s music is tremendously not my thing. He’s a good enough singer, and there’s plenty going on with his music that is good, but it’s largely by-the-numbers, and I can’t think of any real musical impact he had on music beyond his own sales impacts. I don’t know, folks.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I don’t actually think so.

John Lennon

WHO HE IS: The first Beatle to die.

WHY HE’S HERE: He was a Beatle, for starters. But also John Lennon did manage to construct a career in which he was responsible for some fantastic, direct raw-singer/songwriter stuff 10 and still managing to explore some deeply out-there furthest-corners experimental stuff 11, and was pretty good at all of it.

AND…?: He made some really tremendous music on both sides of the normal/abnormal coin. The fact that he also made some tremendously awful music in both areas is beside the point: his good stuff is so very good, and even when he failed, he failed full-on and honestly.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Bob Marley

WHO HE IS: The one reggae guy everyone can name.

WHY HE’S HERE: Even though reggae has very little do with rock music, Bob Marley did manage to have a pretty big influence on it anyway. He was an incredible singer and songwriter, who largely conducted his career at a high degree of integrity 12. He wrote great songs that have often been covered by rock dudes.

AND…?: It is fairly rare that the person who is agreed upon by consensus as being the best at something is actually the best 13, and Bob Marley is one of them. He was great.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, why not.  

Rod Stewart

WHO HE IS: Former singer for the Faces, he was removed from school by Maggie May, who then turned out to be old. Quelle horreur.

WHY HE’S HERE: He had a tonne of hits, and was a fantastic singer. The Faces were a legitimately great rock band, and he had moments of brilliance in his later career, almost none of which were giant radio hits.

AND…?: The person he is most similar to that I have discussed here is Elton John: his talent and popularity are unquestionable. He’s a satisfying song-interpreter who wrote (probably) too many of his own songs 14. Since he, himself, is a sort of simulacrum of his own influences, it’s hard to call out where he is having influence on others directly, or where it just sort of happened to coincide.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I don’t think so, no.

Willie Dixon

WHO HE IS: A blues guy most famous 15 for suing Led Zeppelin for songwriting credit, and receiving it in the eighties.

WHY HE’S HERE: Well, the Led Zeppelin thing probably. He was, however, also an extremely prodigious songwriter and an excellent singer.

AND…?: Sometimes he sang and played the upright bass at the same time, which is pretty cool. Beyond that, I don’t much care for it, but, y’know. He was clearly an early influence – Led Zeppelin stole his songs 16, and then a bunch of other people stole their songs.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, it’s in the early influence category, and that seems reasonable to me.

Johnny Otis

WHO HE IS: “The Godfather of R&B”

WHY HE’S HERE: He had an enormous influence on R&B, which in turn had an enormous influence on rock and roll, but of course in the R&RHOF, R&B is rock and roll, which is annoying, so he’s an architect thereof.

AND…?: He’s here as a nonperformer, which is even more confusing, since he had a bunch of hits as a bandleader and stuff. I don’t know, man.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I guess?

Class of 1995

The Allman Brothers Band

WHO THEY ARE: The archetypal southern rock band, complete with the archetypal rock tragedies and everything.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Southern rock was a going concern for awhile in the seventies – after The Band and CCR made the connections they made, the Allman Brothers reified it into the commercial juggernaut it would become. They also pioneered the “the best album is the live album” existence that many great bands would go on to be a part of. Oh and they had two drummers. I don’t know if that’s good or bad on balance, but they did.

AND…?: A lot of Southern Rock takes the most obvious elements from the Allman Brothers and runs with it, which is, I guess, fair, but one of the things that the Allman Brothers did is occasionally get really weird, especially Duane. Part of the reason that their live albums are the best surviving documents of the band’s work are because that’s when the band would stretch out and abandoned their usual approach, resulting in some pretty interesting stuff. Unfortunately, nobody takes on that part of it.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Oh sure.

Al Green

WHO HE IS: The Reverend himself, the second-greatest singer in popular music history 17

WHY HE’S HERE: He had a bunch of great songs, and he sang them extraordinarily well. A whole lot of R&B folks took off from his vocal style, perhaps more than anyone else’s (even Sam Cooke’s). He might be second only to Marvin Gaye in “dudes from the seventies whose vocal stylings were widely copied.”

AND…?: Al Green was a great singer and an occasionally-great songwriter, with considerable influence, and while I don’t know how much of that influence was actually on rock music, that is, again, not the thing we’re arguing about here anymore I suppose.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure

Janis Joplin

WHO SHE IS: Perhaps the only person that rivals the Grateful Dead in terms of being the avatar of the Woodstock-type sixties musician.

WHY SHE’S HERE: Well, she’s also sort of the dictionary definition of “nonstandard vocal approach that is nevertheless effective,” which is something that rock music deals pretty heavily in. She also died tragically and young, which is another thing that seems to wonders for your legacy.

AND…?: Her band was an unbelievable snore 18. I will say that if there’s anything endemic to this mid-nineties batch of inductees, it’s that we are the in “extremely competent at a thing, but not much more than that” era. The era of the specialist, as it were. Janis Joplin was an ok interpreter and a real banshee wailer of a singer (in a good way), and as a result her music is effective when she is effective, and pretty much a sodden mess the rest of the time.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I suppose since she’s inducted without her band, it probably stands to reason that she does belong here. So yes.

Led Zeppelin

WHO THEY ARE: The world’s premiere and foremost hard rock band. Basically the Beatles of being really loud.

WHY THEY ARE HERE: Because they were basically the Beatles of being really loud. Because the four of them were as good at doing what they did as any assemblage of players ever has been, and at least three of them invented new ways of doing their thing. They had an absolutely bulletproof run of albums, and even when their consistency died off their records still had moments of absolutely transcendent greatness.

AND…?: Oh I think Led Zeppelin are just the best. Even when they were preposterous and ridiculous, they were still pretty great. And on the rare occasions they were awful, they were awful genuinely, for their own reasons.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Without a doubt.

Martha and the Vandellas

WHO THEY ARE: A Motown girl-group most famous either for having a heat wave or dancing in the streets, depending on who you ask.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: I guess because everyone who ever recorded a note of music for Motown was under consideration, and someone was really plugging for every single Motown act to be inducted? I have no idea, here

AND…?: I mean, they’re good enough. I certainly like them. Their songs were welcome on the Hitsville: USA box set, which I suppose shows my age. I just don’t see what they’ve done that elevates them uniquely among other such folk.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No.

Neil Young

WHO HE IS: He’s one of the only genuine actual bona-fide certifiable geniuses in the whole building.

WHY HE’S HERE: He’s a phenomenal songwriter, it’s true, but he’s an absolutely inhuman guitar player. Unlike a bunch of other guitar players here, he pretty much destroys whatever he’s playing ever time he plays it. His consistency is way high. He’s also managed to make interesting music 19 over the course of six decades of working. He’s only ever done what he wanted, and every single iteration of doing it has yielded devotees that have copied it. He’s sold a bajillion records, he’s influenced a bajillion bands, he’s done everything you could want. If he’s made some bizarre business decisions over the years, well, that’s not his music.

AND…?: I like Neil Young. He was great. I have very little else to say about it.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Absolutely

Frank Zappa

WHO HE IS: Guitar-wielding smart-ass and general progenitor of a lot of “comedy”-based rock music.

WHY HE’S HERE: He did a lot to be conceptual and weird while never actually being prog 20. He was also a tireless supporter of popular music’s right to be vulgar, testifying before congress about it and everything. He did have a lot of technical skill at the guitar, and he did bring a classically-trained musicians eye to his rock music, which is something, I guess, and which a lot of people took off from for their own careers. So he had considerable influence.

AND…?: You know, I wouldn’t have juxtaposed them like this, but I believe that Frank Zappa has gotten the reputation that Neil Young rightfully deserves. Frank Zappa made intermittently brilliant music, but wasn’t half the guitar player he gets credit for being, and generally wasn’t as clever as he thought he was. Still and all, there’s little denying his considerable influence, and in the field of dudes I’m ambivalent toward, there’s a lot worse.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: A soft yes.

The Orioles

WHO THEY WERE: Yet another forties R&B group.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: I think it’s probably fair to say that they are the Martha and the Vandellas of the forties: they did have some hits, and somebody clearly had a real hard-on for getting them in there.

AND…?: Oh they were fine. I mean, again, it’s not that they were bad, it’s that I don’t understand why they were special, and I damn sure don’t think they had very much influence over rock and roll.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No

Paul Ackerman

WHO HE IS: A journalist who edited Billboard magazine for thirty years.

WHY HE’S HERE: I suppose since popularity is clearly part of the metric here, the folks that make the charts are a part of that.

AND…?: I actually have no opinion here. I know basically nothing about Paul Ackerman.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I guess?


  1.  also the centerpiece of the museum itself, for those that have never been there, is a very long video encapsulating each inducted class, with clips of performances by most of them and things like that, and is generally a pretty cool thing to behold. 
  2.  although they did, as you can read here and going back from there, skew toward “pretty bad” 
  3.  at least until The Sadies, I suppose. 
  4.  more accurately, they were (allegedly) the backing band for the vocal performance by the regular Barbarians’ actual drummer, Moulty.  
  5.  possibly the greatest concert film ever made. 
  6.  I’ve never thought to be ticked off about it, but Lee Hazelwood is also not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That’s pretty dumb. He should be. Especially since Duane Eddy is.  
  7.  which I may actually be restating, I can’t remember. 
  8.  that’s not fair, they had “A Touch of Grey”. And occasionally one must sit through “Casey Jones” or “Truckin’,” but you see what I mean. 
  9.  while, in fact, Little Richard was also carrying on in the Little Richard vein. 
  10.  See the John Lennon Plastic Ono Band 
  11.  See the Yoko Ono version of Plastic Ono Band 
  12.  his personal life somewhat less so, but that’s about par for the course for HOF inductees at this point. 
  13.  Willie Nelson, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and John Bonham are the other ones that come straight to mind, I could maybe come up with one more if I thought real hard about it. 
  14.  I mean, for all that I don’t care for it, at least Elton John knew he needed help with the lyrics. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your limitations, guys. 
  15.  justly or unjustly 
  16.  My actual opinion on the matter is to take Led Zeppelin at their word: they were taking off from blues songs the way that other blues musicians were doing – blues people would bite bits of songs (much like rock musicians still do to this day) all the time, and it was just part of the blues economy. That Led Zeppelin didn’t think their thing was contextually different is a position that could be argued with, but I believe they were acting in good faith, and they never missed an opportunity to champion any of the blues music they took their influence from anyway. 
  17.  behind Sam Cooke 
  18.  it is worth noting that I used to believe the opposite, and as of this writing, I have no idea what I was hearing. 
  19.  albeit not every time – his songwriting isn’t nearly as consistent as his guitar player, is what I’m saying here. 
  20.  the R&R HOF hates progressive rock 

The 2018 MTV Movie and TV Awards

The MTV Movie and Television Awards remain the most mercurial of all awards shows. The categories change annually – for example while last year we had “Best Fight Against the System” and “Best American Story”, this year we have “Best On-Screen Team” and “Most Scaredest” or whatever it’s called 1 – but this is perhaps because the movies themselves don’t actually change that much from year to year.

It is perennially the same assemblage of high-dollar summer action movies 2, college-friendly studio comedies, and the occasional very serious drama, but now some of those classifications have stretched to include television shows. So, naturally, the vagaries of which aspect of the thing is awarded have changed, so that the whole thing doesn’t seem quite so samey.

Or at least so I presume. For all I know there’s some battle royale going on in the MTV offices whereby categories are fighting it out to be chosen, and nobody ever defeats “Best Kiss”. I’d believe it either way.

Best Fight

The Marvel fights here are all fun – especially the Thor: Ragnarok one – but this one comes down to two very different ideas. The fight between Charlize Theron and the sniper dudes in Atomic Blonde was realistic, kinetic and well-choreographed. It was a real technical achievement. On the other hand, a large part of the power of superheroes is the iconography 3, and Wonder Woman‘s fight across no-man’s land delivers on that. While the New Critics would have us analyze every text based only on the elements present therein, it’s hard to not feel something about the image of Wonder Woman, a much-loved character who finally got her own movie, the first female-led superhero movie, no less, rising up out of the trench in her full Wonder Woman costume and dispatching a bunch of soldiers. It’s a remarkably effective scene, and it definitely deserves whatever awards it can get.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Gal Gadot vs. German Soldiers, Wonder Woman

Best Music Documentary

Sean Combs’s rise to success certainly makes for good corporate speech, life-coach style storytelling, but there is very little of it that’s suited to a documentary. Jay-Z’s Footnotes for 4:44 is an interesting companion to a very good record, but it’s also not really elevated above that. Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated is the sort of bog-standard music documentary that used to clog deep cable before it started being produced by (and therefore clogging) YouTube.  Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s The Defiant Ones is similarly dull, and has the added benefit of eliding what would be the interesting part of either man’s story. Gaga: Five Foot Two is fine and at least has some traction and a reason to exist, which elevates it somewhat. 

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Gaga: Five Foot Two

Best On-Screen Team

I liked Jumanji more than I thought I would. I liked the second season of Stranger Things less than I thought I would. Ready Player One is pretty far beneath consideration 4. I think that the Black Panther folks were a better team than the It folks.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Durira and Letitia Wright, Black Panther

Scene Stealer

It’s true that Letitia Wright and Taika Watiti both walked off with their parts of their respective movies (Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok), and it’s true that Dacre Montgomery and Madelaine Petsch are….people that exist on television, but only one of these people stole scenes in a movie so hard that she is, in fact, the host of this awards show based largely thereupon.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip

Best Reality Series/Franchise

Whatever else you may say about how far RuPaul’s Drag Race has dragged itself away from its initial burst of funny creativity, it’s still a better show on its worst day than anything else in this godforsaken category.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: RuPaul’s Drag Race

Most Frightened Performance

This is most frightened not most frightening, so I’m going to assume we’re either meant to judge whether the person involved does the best job of convincing me they’re in the scariest situation possible, or the best job of conveying that they are the most scared in the first place. I don’t like it when I have to work to figure out what the category is expecting me to evaluate, so I’m going to assume that it’s Cristin Millioti. Her head is 85% eyeballs by volume 5, so she’s probably the best at looking real scared. If I weren’t allergic to Black Mirror I’d probably have more to say about it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cristin Millioti

Best Kiss

Let me explain: I hate it for the same reasons I hate it every year. It’s dumb, it’s the bad kind of pandering, and I hate it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: No one, ever. No one is ever the rightful winner of this category.

Best Villain

Now this is a category I can get behind. Two of the Disney properties here – Avengers: Infinity War’s Thanos and Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s Kylo Ren are well-humanized without being glorified, which is nice, and makes for a better villain. Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) is the vessel for one my favorite comic-book villains of all time (spoiler alert, I guess?), which is pretty cool, but not quite in the same league. This one comes down to a villain that’s just a literal inhuman cosmic monster (Bill Skarsgard in It) and a villain that’s tremendously human (Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther). I don’t want to say Michael B. Jordan is the Best Everything Ever, but, well…

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther

Best Hero

I think I said more-or-less everything I have to say about Wonder Woman, so if you go read the fight category that’s pretty much how I feel about it. I like Black Panther and Rey just fine in their movies, but they sort of come up short by comparison.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman

Best Comedic Performance

So anything from I Feel Pretty and Schitt’s Creek are right the heck out. Kate McKinnon was as good as she could be on Saturday Night Live, but since this is for the most recent season, and the most recent season was about as poorly-written a season as I can remember, I think maybe she wasn’t enough to save it. Tiffany Haddish deserves all of her praise for the year she became a star, but I find her occasionally to be exhausting to watch, so I guess I have to go with Jack Black here, for Jumanji.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jack Black, Jumanji

Best Performance in a Show

This is the time where, annually, I praise the MTV Movie Awards for not separating the men and women into different acting categories. In addition to it (the segregation, I mean) being an absolutely ridiculous practice that only serves to enforce existing gendered casting 6, it also becomes extra-silly when most of the shows (all but one, in fact, although see below) are driven by women. Anyway, having said that, I think the best job done here was by Darren Criss who brought a real human element to someone who was, by all available evidence, not very easy to humanize, and who did so by transforming himself into something nigh-unrecognizable.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Darren Criss, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story

Best Performance in a Movie

Boy, people sure did go extra-crazy for Timothee Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name. They also went crazy for him in Lady Bird, which Saoirse Ronan is representing here. Daisy Ridley continues to be quite good as Rey, but, y’know. Ansel Elgort is playing less a “character” than an “archetype,” which is cool and which I’m generally in favor of, but Chadwick Boseman is doing him one better in that regard.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther

Best Show

Well….huh. I mean, it’s not that I don’t see why these are the choices here, but somehow I still ended up somewhat blindsided by it. Go figure, I guess. I’m not a part of the theoretical audience for 13 Reasons Why, and also it is boring. I am definitely in the theoretical audience for Game of Thrones, but you can fill a soap opera with boobs and fire and I will still just think it’s a soap opera, and therefore boring. I think if Riverdale would have been more focused on bright colors and puns (like its source material) I would like it more, but as it is it’s boring. Stranger Things squandered a lot of promise on being….you guessed it…..boring. So I guess it’s Grown-ish, which at least has jokes.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Grown-ish

Best Movie

All of these movies are good. It and Wonder Woman’s problems come when they hew to closely to their parent genre (i.e. they both trip and fall at the ending). Girls Trip is a fine comedy. Avengers: Infinity War loses considerable points (as great as it is) for requiring at least a passing knowledge of a couple of dozen other movies to get the full experience. That leaves us with Black Panther, which happens to be fine with me.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Black Panther

 


  1.  and yet “Best Kiss” is here every time, because we live in the darkest timeline. 
  2.  leaving aside that the categorization of “summer” and “action” are shifting due to there being tent-pole movies year-round – Black Panther is nominated here a bunch, and came out in February, formerly a film-release graveyard. 
  3.  this is a contributing factor to how the DCU continues to get it so wrong – they throw away the Superman-ness or Batman-ness of the characters in favor of subverting them, which sometime smakes for good comic book storytelling, but rarely actually works in movies. For all their much-discussed darkness, the Christopher Nolan Batman movies were still, fundamentally, optimistic and heroic. They also (and I like them quite a lot) don’t exactly function as classic Batman stories, and are movies first and foremost, but trade in on the iconography, which is, of course, what I’m talking about in the first place. 
  4.  in many ways, I am very easy to pander to. This is not one of those ways. 
  5.  please note that I mean she has the regular human complement of two eyeballs, but they’re very large, not that she’s, like, a beholder or something. 
  6.  that is to say, when you separate men and women as actors from each other, it becomes easiest to see the differences when the roles themselves are gendered more clearly – compare this category here to any half-dozen nominees for, say, the Golden Globes, even in comedy, and you’ll quickly see that the things that men and women are traditionally awarded for at more “serious” awards shows is pretty ridiculous. This is why it’s hard for me to take any awards show actually seriously, guys. Especially the ones about acting. 

Who the Fuck Listens to This: Jet – Get Born

Rock music used to be big business. Oh, there’s still plenty of sales, and even the most cursory look around at whatever the place you live is will yield a probably-thriving situation with lots of rock music around and available with very little effort. Hell, even if you live in  place that has no indigenous rock music, you can certainly head over to bandcamp, or spotify, or google, or what have you and, by giving up minimal information, be connected with as much rock music that is to your taste as you could ever want it to be 1. But it used to have a place on the pop charts. One of the last gasps of that time is the debut album from Australian also-rans Jet.

Jet were, at the time, the kind of manufactured bit of business that never really works anymore – they made an EP themselves, it somehow got into the hands of someone at NME, which in turn gave them the press acclaim necessary to get the attention of someone at Elektra. Said contract, and the ensuing full-court-press of their intial single, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” was sufficient to get the attention of someone in the Rolling Stones camp, and thus they opened for the Rolling Stones as a band that was less than a year old. They jumped straight to the top of the line, and became very famous without there being any intercedent actual fan presence and/or “buzz.” This is not possible anymore.

Oh, and they were terrible. “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” was a shameless rip-off 2 , and the rest of the record is a slightly-less shameless rip-off. There were three other singles. The piano ballad “Look What You’ve Done” was the best of them, and was listenable in a kind of “this is going to be played six times an hour on the radio anyway, so it could be worse” sort of way. “Cold Hard Bitch” was like someone took all the cleverness out of “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” (there was not a great deal of cleverness to remove, as you can probably surmise). Their nadir was “Rollover DJ” 3, perhaps the only song whose lyrical approach can be called “rockist”, and which manages to attack DJ-culture for containing zero ideas, as the fourth single for an album that is, itself, made up of songs that sound like copyright-dodging library-music rewrites of AC/DC songs. They sold a bajillion records, and got positive reviews in the British music press and in Rolling Stone 4, and there was a good couple of years there where people seemed to be convinced that they liked this band. And hey, maybe they did!

If they did, however, they didn’t for very long. They made two more records that never really captured the same amount of public attention that Get Born had. This is, to be blunt, a problem that the “force-market a band into the public eye” approach often bears out – there’s a way to get people to think something is interesting enough to spend money on once, but once the trick has been performed, there’s basically no reason to buy it again. Their second album, Shine On, sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/10 what Get Born sold (the former went platinum, the latter sold 137,000 copies), and their third album 5, Shaka Rock (this is the real, actual title of the album) sold about half of what Shine On had. Then the band fizzled out, having done what they, apparently, set out to do, until just now, when they are making their attempt to cash in on that lucrative reunion money with, of all things, a live album featuring the songs from the one of their albums anyone remembers, Get Born.

2003, however, was a long time ago! I was a different person, etc. We are fourteen years in the future, and I am a kinder, gentler sort. I like lots more radio music than I did at the time 6, and I’m more comfortable being into straight-up braindead rock music. On top of that, the record they’re releasing to remind you how much you liked them at the time isn’t just a retread or whatever, but a live album of the same material 7. Many great bands – Mission of Burma, Cheap Trick, Swans, the Who, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Sam Cooke – were able to make live albums that were better than their studio albums. Rock music is, after all, for all the posturing otherwise from oldsters and stereo enthusiasts, a live music form – any rock band that’s good enough to elicit a genuine response in the first place is almost certainly at their best when they’re playing their instruments in the same place at the same time in front of an audience. So maybe I’ll enjoy Get Born Live, and answer the titular question of this feature with someone positive for a change.

Besides, the primary gripe about them, at least in terms of what you can find still-extant on the internet anyway, is that they’re deeply derivative. I think that’s kind of a bum criticisms. There are plenty of reasons to praise originality – it’s, y’know, more interesting, for starters – but I think even a band that takes heavy influence from other bands can, by assembling the pieces through their own limbs/voice/experience, come out with something original by the end. I like Cloud Nothings even though I like The Wipers. I like Lightning Bolt even though I like Ruins. I like Teenage Fanclub even though I like Big Star. I think that there’s something undeniably lesser about giving over your whole sound to a sort of cover-band aesthetic the way that Jet did it, but I don’t think that, on paper, I should necessarily be opposed to the music.

Opposed or not, however, it’s a live album released 15 years after their initial splash which is, in and of itself, baffling. For starters, fifteen isn’t exactly a memorable anniversary. Additionally, I can’t remember the last time a live album in the last, let’s say, twenty years that actually managed to sell any real copies (of course, having typed those words, I’m immediately going to remember that there’s some giant exception that I’m just not remembering right now well after I hit “publish” on this piece). Furthermore, aforementioned contractual/label reasons aside, nobody was clamoring for this, right? I mean, it’s recorded in 2004, so it was at least the band at the height of whatever their powers were, but was there material to be mined out of getting people to pay for this particular document of this particular show? It’s so baffling that it almost comes back around: if they’re releasing this particular thing, it must at leat be fun, right?

It is not fun, guys. The problem with Jet, then, is not that they’re derivative, but that their music is the wrong kind of dumb. It seems insulting, even. There’s a sort of “by the numbers” approach that betrays that they probably don’t even think about what they might be ripping off, because they’re doing all the “right” stuff to signify “rock band” and, therefore, they’re worthy of the attention. It’s like listening to a band assembled out of the worst bits about Oasis 8. If “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” isn’t actually an Iggy Pop rip-off, then “Get What You Need” definitely makes up for it by stealing the riff from “No Fun” 9, and then going absolutely nowhere with it. The aforementioned “Rollover DJ” is done no favors by the setting, and the main riff for that one, a song about making up original music because you’re better than somebody who makes music on computers, is taken directly and completely from “Takin’ Care of Business.” If there’s anyone keeping score, I’ll take a million records made by computers over any given BTO riff.

They run through their retreads, clearly marking time 10 to get to the big pile-up at the end, which starts after a stage-clearing, palate-resetting run through the ballads, including “Look What You Done,” which two paragraphs ago I said was the song I didn’t hate, but does not survive the job done to it on this travesty of a record. “Hey Kids” leads into “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” which is arranged structurally to show that it is literally one ninety-second song repeated twice. The structural change they make is to shout “WELL C’MOOOOOOOOOON I SAID ARE YOU GONNA BE MY GIRL”. Twice. The dude does this stupid thing twice. Like, he stops the song and does a second time in the middle of the song. And then there’s a brain-dead smash-fingered guitar solo. Then, of course, it’s on to the single they were then developing, the incredibly-awful “Cold Hard Bitch,” except, to create tension, they play the pre-riff for about a minute before allowing the song to start. The song, on the record, starts with an admittedly-impressive “YEEEEAH” that goes on for some time. On the live record, it does not, it receives as perfunctory a “YEAH” as you can imagine having under the circumstances 11. It ends, mercifully, and then there’s a few more songs, including an overlong cover of “That’s Alright Mama” that features a really long guitar solo by the guy from The Living End. It’s bad.

But I repeat myself. So the question here posed is: who the fuck listens to this? And this, as much as anything I’ve done in a long time, is a question I do not know how to answer. People that remember Get Born faintly and/or fondly are going to call up Get Born and listen to that. People that are die-hard Jet fans probably do not need to hear the violence done to the material that this godawful live setting provides. People that have, I guess, heard about this band and wonder what the hype is about will be actively repulsed by how lazy and ridiculous this all is. So your guess is as good as mine.


  1.  I mean, I suppose if the answer is “none,” then you probably don’t have to read the rest of this paragraph. Or the preceding part but, well, I didn’t have the chance to tell you that at the beginning of the paragraph, see. 
  2.  it was, to most folks with ears, a rip-off of “Lust for Life,” but according to Wikipedia they insisted they were ripping off the Motown sound, and (again according to Wikipedia – I avoided the seemingly-endless press they got at the time fairly successfully, so most of this is through secondhand sources) Iggy Pop agreed. So fine, it’s a rip off of “Can’t Hurry Love”, not “Lust for Life.” Fair. 
  3.  a song that some informal polling reveals most people do not remember at all, which means it’s stuck in my head alongside “Bartender” by Rehab and “FreaXXX” by BrokenCYDE as songs that I am the only person to remember, and in all three cases it’s because a part of me literally died when I heard each one, and each song diminished my capacity to feel joy forever. 
  4.  it was also, at the height of Pitchfork’s influence, the recipient of perhaps their funniest ever record review. 
  5.  which, prior to writing this piece, I was not aware existed at all. 
  6.  biographically, 2003 would have been about as insufferable about things as I ever got, actually, so Jet was always going to be in my crosshairs. 
  7.  I’m assuming the reason for this is some kind of label strife or whatever, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for it anyway. 
  8.  or, for that matter, the worst parts of their erstwhile tourmates The Rolling Stones. 
  9.  not a problem: it’s a great riff, and the best riff on the record. 
  10.  seriously – the first half of this record is the equivalent of that shit you do when you clock in for the day where you futz with your coffee cup and read emails and look at the weather and maybe write out a little list or whatever. It literally does nothing for the songs, nothing for the band and, I presume, nothing for the audience. 
  11.  it is outdone, for example, by every Plane Break that Comedy Bang! Bang! took in the early days, which used that song as its accompaniment. 

Shamelessly Punting: An Ordinal Ranking of Things

Hey guys! There are things in the pipeline, I swear, they just didn’t happen this week for whatever reason (one of them took a lot more time than I thought it would, and I didn’t have time to course-correct to get another one out before it went pear-shaped). So, as is my tradition, here are some lists that take the place of a regular weekly post. Please to enjoy.

 

The Months, ranked:

  1. October
  2. May
  3. June
  4. September
  5. December
  6. January
  7. November
  8. March
  9. July
  10. April
  11. August
  12. February

 

Days of the week, ranked:

  1. Saturday
  2. Friday
  3. Monday
  4. Sunday
  5. Thursday
  6. Wednesday
  7. Tuesday

 

Hours of the Day, ranked:

  1. 11:00 am
  2. 8:00 pm
  3. 9:00 pm
  4. 12:00 pm
  5. 6:00 pm
  6. 10:00 am
  7. 1:00 pm
  8. 10:00 pm
  9. 4:00 pm
  10. 11:00 pm
  11. 9:00 am
  12. 7:00 pm
  13. 12:00 am
  14. 8:00 am
  15. 5:00 pm
  16. 1:00 am
  17. 2:00 am
  18. 7:00 am
  19. 6:00 am
  20. 2:00 pm
  21. 5:00 am
  22. 3:00 am
  23. 4:00 am
  24. 3:00 pm

The Best Records of May 2018

The Body – I Have Fought Against it But Can’t Any Longer (while it’s true that it may seem counterintuitive for The Body – a band who built their early catalog out of their ferocious singing and playing – to make what might actually be their best record yet by sampling themselves and letting other excellent vocalists take over the mic, it happened anyway, and I can’t stop listening to it. A genuinely perfect album.)

Trampled by Turtles – Life is Good on the Open Road (if it had not come out at the beginning of summer, it might not sound like the idyllic bluegrass heaven that it does, but it did, and Trampled by Turtles are all geniuses.)

Carla Bozulich – Quieter (A trunk album – a vault-clearing set of songs with a variegated set of collaborators, including Sarah Lipstate and Marc Ribot – from Carla Bozulich is still better than most other albums by most other people.)

La Luz – Floating Features (what can I say, I love saddo surf music, and I don’t think there’s nearly enough of it in the world.)

Gnod – Chapel Perilous (I also love grinding noise-metal, but that comes as no surprise at this point. Seriously, though, this record would have made it even if it were only “Donovan’s Daughters.)