Jim Kirkwood, An Extraordinary Mentor to Many

WRITER’S NOTE: I wrote this article exactly ten years ago in the year 2010.

It was just another day at the office for me, staring at a computer and taking calls, when I got a message from my good friend Shane whom I hadn’t seen for a while. He informed me our acting mentor from Diablo Valley College, Jim Kirkwood, had passed away at 5 a.m. this morning. For the past year or so, Jim had been fighting cancer and had to endure an operation to remove a tumor which lasted several hours. Hearing this news was a blow to me and everyone else who had the unique privilege of having taken an acting class taught by him.

Right now, my heart feels so heavy and I am wondering why tears are not coming out of my eyes. I want to feel this loss fully for Jim had such a profound effect on my life and so many others in Northern California. For many years he was an acting teacher at Diablo Valley College, and I enrolled in several of his classes during my time there before I transferred to the University of California at Irvine. Much had been said about him and how hard it was to get into his classes, and that he had studied with some of the greatest acting teachers including Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. For those truly serious about acting, you could not pass up any course he taught.

When it came to my first class with Jim, I was nervous to say the least. The man was treated like a legend in the area, and it felt incredibly intimidating to be in his presence. Giving out grades was never a priority for him, and his one rule which stood out among others was if you missed three of his classes without informing him as to why, you were out. This was back in the day when those strict guidelines actually unnerved me.

Anyway, I came to this new place of learning straight out of high school where I did many plays and considered myself a really good actor. Of course, the whole thing about acting back then is that when you’re onstage and you have nothing to say, get off. That first day with Jim, he immediately gave you a sense of what acting was really about. It was about living in the moment, acting with purpose and having an objective in mind. You could not think too much about the outcome of the scene you’re in because it would just take away from the thing you are fighting for. Every character has something to go for, and this is what empowers the actor through the entire show. Even when you are onstage and have nothing to say, he made you see listening is a big part of performing as well.

Among the lessons I remember the most from his classes was when he explained you did not need to have preconceived ideas of how to play a scene or say a line. It was never about pushing for some grand emotion which spelled out award-winning to the audience; it was about letting the emotion come to you while you pursue your objective. To just deliver a line in a preconceived way would just kill the moment. You would just come across as lifeless and vacant, and your scene partner would suffer as a result.

Jim demonstrated the danger of preconceiving what you will do beforehand by giving different readings of the line “get the hell out of here!” The first one was angry, the next was dismissive, the one after that had him laughing like he was talking to a friend, I think he made it look like he was crying in another and so on. By the end, everyone in the class including myself were laughing because he made it all look ridiculous, and it was. By getting stuck in this way of acting, you were never really connected to the scene or those you are working with onstage.

Sooner or later, we came to see that we get our performance from the other actor in the scene. While this became more abundantly clear to me years later while I was a student at Second City, this lesson really originated in Jim’s classes. There was no “me, me, me, me, me, me” in his class because we were all put on the same level. No one was necessarily better than the other, so no prima donnas were ever present (thank goodness for that by the way).

For those new to Jim’s classes, his regimen was to break us down and get rid of all those high school emoting habits many of us had been stuck with for far too long. He could be brutally honest with you, but it was never in a Simon Cowell kind of way (I would have dropped out of his class were it the case). He wanted you to see what you did wrong and how you could improve on it for next time. Feelings did get hurt from time to time and our self-confidence took several direct hits at what seemed like point blank range, but it was never done out of spite or cold-heartedness. Simply put, we had a lot to learn and the road we were on was designed to be a long one and for good reason.

Of couse, he was quoted one time as saying the following, “Getting talent out of this person is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!”

Another great lesson he taught us which has never left my mind was when he did the “pick up the pen” bit. With this, he went back to when he was an acting student himself and being taught by Lee Strasberg. Now Lee instructed him to pick up a pen which was laying there on the stage. Since he did not tell Jim how he should pick it up, Jim just walked up on stage like he was doing a happy skip across the park and just stumbled upon the pen. We were all laughing hysterically as he looked at the pen with a giddy look on his face, playing up the emotion of the scene as he picked it up.

Lee, however, was not impressed, and Jim said he was made to put it back up on the stage and pick it up again. This time he moved stealthily around and looked like he was about to steal the pen. In this moment, he made it look like he was waiting for the perfect moment and then found it by absconding with the pen just like Indiana Jones took off with the golden idol in the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Lee again shook his head and told Jim he was still doing it wrong and to do it again.

Now Jim came onto the stage as if his leg were broken, and he was limping over to the pen. At this point, he tried, and failed, to make it look realistic when he was struggling to reach for the pen despite the injury he was faking miserably. Once again, he got the pen and went offstage. It was at this point that Lee was really losing his patience with him:

“Jim, did you hear anything of what I just said?!”

“Yeah, but what am I doing wrong?”

“I told you to pick up the pen!”

“I DID!”

“Well I didn’t tell you to go all over the place doing this big act around it, did I?”

“So, what do you want me to do?”

“JIM, JUST PICK UP THE PEN!!!”

“Fine!”

So, Jim just walked straight up to the pen and picked it up, and then he walked off the stage as quickly as he got on it. After that, the audience of his fellow students, one of whom was James Dean, applauded him loudly. Jim said he did not understand what the big deal was, and Lee, who also applauded, explained it to him:

“You followed through with the objective. You didn’t think about it, you just did it and with the same level of energy. You didn’t need to put on a big show, you just needed to just pick up the pen. In that moment, that was your only objective. This is the difference between a good performer and a great actor.”

This last sentence has stayed with me to this very day. It is easy to get up and put up a big act just to get laughs from all your friends, but it is another thing to be the character instead of just playing one. You never play the emotion, you play the action, and the emotion will come to you.

I went through a rollercoaster of emotions throughout my time in his classes. Back then I was trying to get all my general education courses out of the way so that, when I transferred to a four-year university, I could concentrate solely on my major. As a result, I did not always give his classes my full-on attention, and it did lead to me having a nervous breakdown one day. It felt like I was failing the class and myself, and while my fellow classmates were there to console me, I was a complete wreck. Jim took pity on me though, gave me a hug, and he always had everyone give their scene partners a hug before and after a scene, and urged me to not be so hard on myself.

But in the end, through all that emotional agony, we each came into our own and got to have that one moment where all the training and character work we did paid off. We had gotten to where we had studied the scene and memorized our lines so many times, we were no longer thinking about what we were doing. All that mattered was we went after our objective. Nothing else mattered. Getting a compliment from Jim was not always easy, but when you got it, you knew you damn well earned it. When we each got that moment, it wasn’t just a victory for us, but for the class as well. Each of us wanted the other person to succeed.

On the last day of Jim’s Advanced Acting class, we all chipped in and got him a plaque thanking him for all he had done for us. He looked at it and immediately burst into tears. It meant so much that we did this for him, and it was a symbol of the kind of people we were becoming thanks in large part to the time we spent with him. Everyone in the class came around to give him a hug, not wanting him to cry. Another guy, I can’t remember his name, offered him a bottle of scotch but then realized he had already drunk it.

In the end, Jim’s classes were never about becoming a star or a celebrity. His classes were about how an actor must live life to the fullest and be serious about their art and their individual craft. It was about getting better and taking on new challenges throughout our lifetimes, and to never be complacent as artists. The life of an artist, be it an actor or director, is never meant to be an easy one. But then again, how else could you learn and grow? It’s like what my brother keeps telling me, “If life were easy, no one would bother showing up.”

I loved how I got to make Jim laugh. I was in his directing class and did this one scene where I used magazine covers with gorgeous women on them as stand ins for a couple of characters. He got a kick out of the fact one of them was an issue of Playboy Magazine with Pamela Anderson, and he jokingly asked me if he could borrow it. Being the embarrassingly literal-minded person I was back then, I thought he was being serious and handed it to him earnestly. Along with the class, he was in utter hysterics.

Then there was another time where we were working on scenes and voicing out what was going through our minds in order to keep us in the moment. Be it if you didn’t know your line or were frustrated and had to vent it somehow, we needed to be there fully and not let all these distractions cloud our ultimate goals. For me, my chief distraction involved a comedy album I bought a few days earlier from a nearby record store. It got to where I could no longer resist it:

“DAMN IT!! I GOT STEVE MARTIN’S NATIVE AMERICAN SINGING GOING THROUGH MY HEAD!!!!”

Jim got a kick out of that and would never let me forget it. It’s nice to have such memories of him this way.

Now Jim is gone, and this loss is deeply felt by all those who were lucky to be in his presence. I write this with a heavy heart, and it will still take some time to accept the fact I won’t get to see or talk with him ever again. It didn’t matter how old he was, he left us way too soon. The last time I saw him was at a Christmas party with friends from his class, and he dropped by and was endlessly interested in what we were all up to. His words of kindness meant a lot to me and I will never forget them.

I thank him for all those lessons on character development, understanding a script and the character’s place in it fully, and of the passion he brought out of all of us. We did not just come out of his class as better actors; we came out as better people. Much of what he taught still comes back to me every once in a while, so I know I am still growing as an artist.

I miss you Jim. Why did you have to leave us now? Leonard Cohen was right; this is no way to say goodbye. But what you taught will live on through all of us for you touched so many lives, and everything you taught will be passed on to future generations. You will live on with us always.

I still wish you were here though. It feels very empty here without you.

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ – 60 Years Later and Shower Curtain Sales Have Still Not Recovered

I did not become aware of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” until its first sequel, “Psycho II,” was released back in 1983, 23 years after the original. Of course, I didn’t watch this sequel at the time as I was just a kid, but I do remember its movie trailers and the title cracking up on the big screen as it played before the feature presentation of “Return of the Jedi.” This image really freaked me out, and it was just as well I didn’t see the classic film which inspired it until many years later. When I rented and watched it on VHS with my older brother, we did not  see what the big deal was as we had long since been spoiled by the “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies with all the blood and gore a hormonal teenager could ever want or endure.

Well, it turns out watching it once was not nearly enough. Whether or not you think “Psycho” is Hitchcock’s best movie ever, it is often the one he is remembered best for making. After 60 years, it remains a great study of how a director can maintain suspense throughout the entire running time of a movie, and of a master playing the audience all the way up to the last frame. This becomes even more apparent when you watch it for a second and third time. Hitchcock puts you into the mindset of Marion Crane as she drives out of town after embezzling some money, and then he completely changes the dynamic of the story once Norman Bates arrives.

With “Psycho” now at its 60th Anniversary, we have another chance to go behind the scenes to see how this horror classic was made. It also represents another opportunity for Universal Pictures to release a new digital edition of the movie so they can fleece a few more dollars from our wallets. There has already been a Blu-ray release which made it look exquisite, and there has got to be a 4K Ultra HD version at some point. Anyway, looking back at the history of this classic proved to be one of the most interesting research projects I have taken on in years as there is much to be said about what went on behind the scenes.

“Psycho” originated as a novel written by Robert Bloch which itself was based on Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, a man whose horrific exploits would inspire many horror movies to come. Hitchcock acquired the film rights through his agent for $9,000, and he chose to film it after two projects he was working on for Paramount Pictures, “Flamingo Feather” and “No Bail for The Judge,” fell through. But Paramount did not want to help Hitchcock out on this one either as they were quoted as saying they found Bloch’s novel “too repulsive” and “impossible for films.” The executives refused to finance the production, and they even went as far as telling Hitchcock their soundstages were unavailable because they were being used for other projects. Of course, this proved to be a bold-faced lie as their production schedule was already in a slump at the time.

Undaunted, Hitchcock was still determined to bring “Psycho” to the silver screen, and he even offered to defer his normal director’s fee of $250,000 in exchange for 60% ownership of the movie’s negative. Still, executives would not grant him the financing he desired, so he continued to go through several different cost-cutting measures before getting a budget of no more than $1 million to make the movie his own way. Hitchcock had planned to make the film fast and cheap anyway, and he employed the crew members of his television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” who were already skilled at doing the same. He also succeeded in casting proven stars Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins at a quarter of their usual salaries.

Bringing down the budget also meant shooting the film in black and white, but this was fine with Hitchcock as he wanted to film it that way as to make the shower scene come across as less gory, and he was also a big fan of “Les Diabolique” which was also shot in black and white.

Like “Psycho,” “Les Diabolique” was remade many years later. Unlike the originals, both were filmed in color. Even more unlike the originals, they received mercilessly scathing reviews upon their separate releases.

In filming “Psycho,” Hitchcock started off by making it as objective an experience as possible, and we feel what Marion goes through as the voices in her head fill her with guilt and doubt over what she has done. To help emphasize this effect, Hitchcock shot much of the movie with 50 mm lenses on 35 mm cameras. By doing this, the camera was said to mimic normal human vision. As a result, you are not just watching the movie, you are experiencing it. This even goes on after Marion has gone and the story turns its focus to Norman Bates. When he pushes her car into a nearby swamp, you share in his anxiety when it does not completely sink. That’s the thing; like Norman, you want the car to sink, and it makes one feel like a voyeur just as Hitchcock intended.

Then, of course, you have the famous shower scene, and after all these years it remains one of the most talked about and heavily dissected moments in cinema history. I am sure you all know the details regarding it: it was shot over six days from 77 different camera angles, and the scene features around 50 cuts in the three minutes which it lasts. Not much is shown as you never see the knife penetrating Marion’s flesh, and there is no gore other than the blood (chocolate syrup was used) going down the drain along with the water. Indeed, it is what you do not see which makes the scene feel so violent. Like Spielberg later did with “Jaws,” Hitchcock dared the audience to use their imagination in regards to what they thought they saw here. This is one of many reasons why this scene has stood the test of time, and it was also the first time a director killed off his leading lady in the middle of a movie. Back in 1960, audience members could not help but wonder where things could possibly go from there, and shower curtain sales have never been the same since.

I also cannot go on without mentioning the infamous score composed by the great Bernard Herrmann, and it remains one of the scariest pieces of music ever applied to a motion picture. Throughout his career, Hermann proved brilliant in composing film scores which really captured the psychology of the characters. This proves to be as true about “Psycho’s” score as it was with Hermann’s work on “Cape Fear” and “Taxi Driver.” It was a surprise to learn how this score almost didn’t come about as Herrmann balked at Hitchcock’s request to take the job on a reduced salary. Somehow though, Herrmann agreed to the terms and ended up writing music for a string orchestra as opposed to a full symphony which would have included brass and woodwind instruments. This is now clearly seen as a masterstroke on his part as the screeching of violins captures the sheer terror which overtakes Marion and the audience during the infamous shower scene.

Although “Psycho” is now recognized today as a classic, it actually received mixed reviews upon its release. Some admired the buildup of tension, but others questioned the psychological elements as being less effective. It even made one critic, C. A. Lejeune, so offended to where she walked out of the movie before it was even over, and she soon after resigned from her position as film critic for The Observer. Looks like Norman’s mother did not just claim victims onscreen!

When you look at the history of cinema, it is important to keep in mind how movies we see these days as classic were not necessarily treated this way upon their original release. It is over the passing of time where movies get re-evaluated or seen in a different light, and none can ever truly be perfect (although some do come very close to it). “Psycho” was a game changer as it came about during the Motion Picture Production Code which was heavy in its censorship of violence and sex in American films. With “Psycho,” Hitchcock flirted with showing nudity as well as gore, and this later opened up doors for filmmakers to exploit these elements with far more detail. Without “Psycho,” there may never have been a “Halloween” which by itself inadvertently sparked a whole wave of slasher movies. And without “Halloween,” there certainly would not have been a “Friday the 13th” as Jason Voorhees, like Norman Bates, also had serious mommy issues.

The cultural impact of “Psycho” lasts on to this very day. There are only so many movies which could have a sequel made to it several decades later. “Psycho III” followed a few years later, and a prequel came about because some just thought it would be a good idea to show how Norman Bates got to be the shy psycho we know him to be. There was even a failed television pilot called “Bates Motel” which starred Bud Cort as Alex West, an asylum inmate who befriends Norman and later inherits the motel and the house where mother lived (Anthony Perkins wanted nothing to do with that one). It also inspired a shot-for-shot remake by Gus Van Sant which seemed almost every bit as odd as Norman himself. The only purpose of it seemed to be proof of how remakes will never be able to recapture what made the original so good. But if they make money, the studios will clearly not mind the critical bashing even if it proves to be justified.

Television would later take another shot at the “Psycho” franchise with another version of “Bates Motel,” and this one starred Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga as his mother. This version ended up lasting five seasons and proved to be very compelling as our fascination with the dark side of human nature is always stronger than we ever bother to realize. While some may have said enough already with “Psycho,” this show proved there was more life to it than we cared to initially realized.

Even today, you cannot hear screeching violins and not think of “Psycho.” Filmmakers reference it today like Wes Craven did in “Scream,” and there are dozens of movies out there which have done the same. That shower scene has been spoofed lord only knows how many times, my favorite being on “The Simpsons” where Maggie ended up attacking Homer with a mallet after watching one Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. Another great one came about during one of Billy Crystal’s Oscar montages where he was in the shower and ends up getting accosted by Kevin Spacey who plays his “American Beauty” character of Lester Burnham. Turns out it was not the same shower Marion got stabbed in, but instead the one where Lester often experienced the highlight of his day.

Leigh never looked at taking showers the same way again, and it would be ages before she ever took one. Perkins would forever be typecast in roles similar to Norman Bates, but he said he would still have done “Psycho” even if he knew this would be the case. Many filmmakers (Brian DePalma especially) have tried to use the tricks Hitchcock employed in this and his other films to varying degrees of success. Still, there is no topping what Hitchcock did with this classic 1960 movie, and it remains the one so many other suspense and horror movies are judged by. Hitchcock’s powers of manipulation remain very hard to duplicate after all these years, and this illustrates what he meant when he was quoted as saying, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.”

Cla

Chester Farrow, a Titan Among the East Bay School Teachers

Photo courtesy of Jose Carlos Fajardo/Contra Costa Times

Looking back at time as a student at Monte Vista High School in Danville, California, it felt more like a prison sentence than anything else. Nevertheless, many years have passed (to count how many is terrifying) since I went there, and I somehow find myself becoming nostalgic for certain things about it. Considering how I could not wait to graduate from there, this is almost surprising until I am reminded of one of my favorite teachers from this institution which was once considered one of California’s Most Distinguished Schools: Chester Farrow.

Chester, or Chet as his students liked to call him, taught many classes at Monte Vista High School including TV Productions and electronics for 32 years until he retired in 1999. In addition to teaching, he was also the scoreboard operator for the Oakland Athletics (a.k.a. the Oakland A’s) for even longer. On top of that, he was a well-known concert promoter who succeeded in bringing such music acts like Journey, Greg Kihn and Huey Lewis and the News to the Al Gentile Theatre on the Monte Vista campus. With the money he made from those concerts, he and his students built a production studio which came to be known as Rainbow Studios, and it became a place of refuge for many students including myself. Looking at this, you have to wonder how Chet found the time to do all of this. While most teachers need a second job to get by financially, much of what he did was out of a love for music, baseball and hanging out with teenagers who were desperately trying to find their way in a harsh adolescent landscape.

Chester Farrow died Sunday morning, May 24, 2020 at the age of 77 after a long battle with cancer. This was not a big surprise as many of us knew of his terminal diagnosis for some time, and he was determined to spend his final days at his home in Walnut Creek. His longtime girlfriend, Wendi Leyba, organized a fundraiser on GoFundMe.com to help pay for his part time health care which was said to be very expensive and not covered by his insurance. The fundraising goal was $10,000, but more than two months later, the total reached $31,150. If this does not describe the strong loyalty Chet’s students had for him, what will?

Like I said, the news of Chet’s death was not very surprising, but the void his passing has left is what really hit me hard. Chet was a titan in the Easy Bay of Northern California, and his influence on the lives and careers of many of his students is utterly profound to say the least. Those who knew him best have made it clear he will never be replaced, and I imagine Monte Vista is still on the lookout for a teacher like him ever since he retired back in 1999.

I was a student of Chet’s TV Productions class during my junior and senior year, and I became eager to enroll in this class after watching the cable access show “Just for You” which he produced at Rainbow Studios. Chet had produced this show for many years and, having just discovered a deep love for acting and performing, I was eager to become a part of it.

During my first year in Chet’s class, I found him to be a very intimidating presence, and I know I was not the only one. When we filmed an episode of “Just For You,” we initially did it live, and he demanded a level of professionalism we had no reason not to give him. Granted, this resulted in many stressful moments for him and his students as not everything came together in a perfect way. If he had problems with something you had written for the show, he would tell you straight out. There was always a no bullshit attitude about him, and he never hesitated to tell you what you needed to hear. Sometimes it hurt to hear his thoughts on your work, but the kind of honesty he gave us was hard to find elsewhere.

The second year, my view of Chet evolved as my classmates and I came to really respect his way of doing business. As time went on, he had a warm presence about him, and it became clear he liked talking to us instead of down to us like other teachers did. By this time, we were already working on Monte Vista’s annual video yearbook, and a couple of students neglected to film a lunch the freshman students were having at Oak Hill Park. To put it mildly, he was pissed.

“Okay people, there was a freshman lunch today which students in this class were assigned to film for the video yearbook, and they didn’t bother doing so. If this happens again, FUCK YOU, OUT OF THE CLASS! Now folks, I am not a happy pup…”

At the end of Chet’s rant, we all applauded him. Whereas these rants seemed frightening at times, we came to appreciate them because, hey, we were given a task to complete. If we didn’t get the job done, he had every right to get super fucking pissed at us. If you put in the hard work, it did eventually get recognized by him and he would point out your strengths to the rest of the class.

As I am sure you can tell by now, Chet did use a lot of profanity in the classroom. He never seemed to be ashamed of it, and he always felt free to express his opinions the way he wanted. Granted, this upset many parents who could not appreciate his unorthodox teaching methods or him going against the conservative grain most high school teachers were expected to work under. For the record, my dad was on the school board during this time, and he told me many of his colleagues wanted to see Chet get fired. My dad, however, liked Chet for the same reasons they did not as he felt every high school needed someone like him to shake things up, and I agree with my dad wholeheartedly on this.

Among other things, Chet taught us the power of promotion and of getting the word out about something you wanted to sell. This came about when he talked to us about putting the idea of the video yearbook into everyone’s head at Monte Vista. You always had to be talking about wherever you went:

“Hey, what are you doing out of class? Video yearbook. Say, do you know classroom the music department is at? Video yearbook. Hey, what are you doing smoking cigarettes by your car? Video yearbook…”

There was also the time when of his most prized students, Ian Williamson, was going through Chet’s old collection of tapes and discovered one in which he did a commercial about rock concerts which had, shall I say, a highly subliminal quality as a voice was droning in the background saying, “see you at the concert, see you at the concert, see you at the concert, see you at the concert…” Listening to it years later, were rolling on the floor with laughter, but I bet you it got a lot of people to attend those shows.

Granted, there were many times where he didn’t teach us but talked instead about things on his mind and of lessons we needed to learn sooner rather than later. After a time, it felt like we were in the presence of a wonderfully profane stand-up comedian who was polishing up his act with us. I will never forget when he took his kids to Disneyland, “the happiest place on Earth,” and the blank expression on his face perfectly illustrated the typical tourist who arrived there only to find things are more profit driven than magical. Then there was the time he was fixing a fellow teacher’s VCR, and once he figured out what was wrong with it, he quickly started doing the moonwalk while singing the chorus from the Beatles song “Come Together.” More often than not, he had us in hysterics, and you could usually count on him to put a smile on your face.

While Chet could be hard on his students, he loved hanging out with us and was always interested to hear about what we were up to. I came back to his classroom many times after I graduated, and he was always quick to tell me, “You are always welcome here Ben.”

Here are some testimonials from students of his:

Trevor Boelter: “Chet – I want to thank you for the philosophy of E.T.C — I think about that day working late in Rainbow Studios, cleaning the heads of the tape machines and having a private audience with you as you shared this piece of wisdom. I have always thought about this and have shared it with many people over the years. I wish I could embody this daily, but some days, I do and it always makes things better. If I have no EXPECTATIONS, due to not having CONTROL, my TEMPERAMENT will always be COOL. It was/is/always will be profound.”

Ian Williamson: “It’s important to me to say that Chester was an incredible person who over the years influenced so many people, including myself. He not only put me on the path my life has gone, but he was absolutely instrumental with the start of my career and the successes and happiness I’ve found along the way.  I don’t think there has ever been anyone who believed in me as much as he did. To me he was an absolute giant among men, and more to my heart, he was like a father to me.”

Kenneth Hunter: “Hands down the best and most influential teacher I ever had the pleasure of knowing. What a great man he was! Love you long time Chester Farrow! You were not only a friend, a teacher, a mentor, but you were part of my family. Thank you for being such a great influence in my life.”

Laura Lamson: “I’ll always remember the Bammies! You were like a father figure to me. Even when I looked like I was down, you knew just what to say to brighten my day! I’ll always love you for that! I will miss you. You will always be in my heart!”

Michael Coats: “He and I had a 48-year relationship starting in 1974 at Monte Vista High School in Danville. Chester was the hippest, the best teacher many had. He will be missed. We love and thank you buddy, and may fair winds and following seas carry you on.”

Michele Goodrich General: “I loved him so much as a teacher. If it’s wasn’t for him, our lives would be so different.”

Laura Lamson also took the time to email the current principal of Monte Vista High School about Chet’s passing, and this was the principal’s response:

“Ms. Lamson,

I am very sad to hear of Mr. Farrow’s passing. While he was at MV long before I arrived, I have heard quite a few stories about his time at Monte Vista. He was definitely an amazing teacher who truly cared about his students and his colleagues. . . and from reading your email, they loved him back. I have shared the news with our staff and will follow up with another announcement at tomorrow’s staff meeting.

Take care.”

Dr. Kevin Ahern

Principal

Monte Vista High School

Dr. Ahem also included the following quote in his email:

“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” – Charles Bukowski

Chet, as much as I do not want to relive my high school years during which I was afflicted with psychological disorders which were not yet diagnosed, anxiety and depression, your classes made going to Monte Vista worth the trouble. The first day of school always had me on the verge of tears as I wondered if I could endure another year of adolescent bullshit, but then I arrived at Rainbow Studios and found myself with a smile on my face. I remember when I was a senior and you made your entrance for the TV Productions class. Everyone there was quick to applaud your entrance, and few other teachers at Monte Vista could ever elicit such a response.

I thank you for laughing when I said “yo” instead of “here” when you actually took the time to take attendance. I used to say this or some variation of it like “yes man” or “here dude,” and while other teachers were annoyed with my choice of words, you were quick to laugh before my fellow classmates did.

Thanks for encouraging me to bring props for my “Just A Thought” segments on “Just For You.” Thanks for your at times brutal honesty because you always told us what we needed to hear. More importantly, thanks for being there for us when we were down and for relating to our struggles. Thanks for giving us reasons to rise above our miserable lives and giving us compliments when we flat out deserved them. Thanks for giving us a solid path to travel down which came to define our lives in a very positive way.

Godspeed Chet. You will be missed.

Here are some articles about Chester Farrow worth checking out:

Chester Farrow, longtime Oakland A’s scorekeeper, dies from cancer

A Hard Act to Follow / Teacher says goodbye with a little help from his famous friends

Back story: Oakland A’s scorekeeper Chester Farrow

Chet took the time to upload many Rainbow Studio videos which include episodes of “Just for You,” several volumes of the Video Yearbook, concerts and rock and roll recitals. Click here to check these videos out.

Before his passing, he took the time to write a memoir entitled “Chester: No Limit! – From Educator to Oakland A’s Scoreboard Operator. A Trip Down Memory Lane.” Click here to find out how you can purchase a copy.

A Sad Farewell to Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard

Yes, this day was coming, but I did not think it would come this soon. Back in 2015, Amoeba Music sold its Hollywood location on the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga to developer GPI Companies for a reported $34 million, and it is set to be turned into yet another high-rise building in Los Angeles. I read the store would be open through the end of 2020. But then we were all hit by the global pandemic known as Coronavirus/COVID-19, and “non-essential” businesses like Amoeba were forced to close the doors temporarily. There was hope Amoeba’s Hollywood location would re-open again soon, but then co-owner Jim Henderson made the following statement:

“The massive impact from the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the closure of our iconic Hollywood location at 6400 Sunset Blvd. With no reasonably foreseeable opportunity to re-open in our current location, we are instead focusing on hopefully opening in the fall in our previously announced new home at 6200 Hollywood Blvd. This situation has been forced on all of us, and we feel this decision is the most responsible and practical one.

“This is heartbreaking for us. We never envisioned not being able to give the store the send-off it deserves, to give you all a chance to say goodbye. We had so many events planned to celebrate our history at 6400 Sunset, but we are facing too many mitigating circumstances that simply won’t allow for it.”

Having read this, I understand and respect Amoeba’s decision not to re-open its Hollywood location. All the same, this is a real heart breaker for me as I looked forward to visiting this store again at least a few times before it closed, but now this will not happen. Like the Second City theatre, Amoeba Music was like a second home to me in Los Angeles which I visited frequently. Walking out of there empty-handed could feel criminal, but I could always find a certain CD, DVD, Blu-ray, cassette tape or vinyl record worth adding to my terrifyingly enormous collection (my dad says I have more CDs and DVDs than God).  

Having grown up in in Northern California, I often visited the Amoeba stores in Berkeley and San Francisco quite often, and this was back in a time where downloading music digitally was far from ever becoming a reality. Upon learning they were going to being opening a store in Hollywood, I became infinitely excited at what it would have to offer. Anyone familiar with the average Amoeba Music store knows they are far bigger than the normal record store. In fact, they are like warehouses which look to contain anything and everything you could ever hope to find. I was lucky enough to attend this store’s opening night back in November of 2001 and was in awe of just how big it was. If you were unable to find what you were looking for there, you had to wonder what was wrong with the world.

One of my biggest thrills in recent years was introducing my parents to this particular Amoeba Music store when they visited me in Los Angeles. They were flabbergasted at just how big this particular store was, and they were quick to grab their hands-on stuff like a Monterey Blues Festival t-shirt. This was also around the time of my birthday, and they got me Shout Factory’s special edition of “Creepshow” on Blu-ray, and that’s even though my dad was horrified at the price on it, and the soundtrack to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” While I was unable to introduce my parents to New Beverly Cinema during their recent trip, I am ever so glad they got to check out this particular Amoeba store while it was still operating.

The following are some of my most memorable purchases I made at this particular Amoeba Music store.

Killing Zoe

I was lucky enough to visit this store on the day it opened back in 2001, and the DVD to “Killing Zoe” was the first thing I ever purchased there. Written and directed by Roger Avary, it stars Eric Stoltz as a safecracker named Zed who joins up with his longtime friend Eric (Jean-Hugues Anglade) in Paris to rob a bank on Bastille Day. I had just discovered this movie on IFC and was absolutely enthralled by it. The acting all around was terrific, and Anglade in particular was phenomenal as a man fully determined to go out with a bang. I also really dug the film score composed and performed by Tomandandy which proved to be as hypnotic as it was propulsive, and I have since become a big fan of their work.

But yes, “Killing Zoe” is especially worth watching for the gorgeous and beguiling Julie Delpy who wows us fright rom her first appearance as Zoe. Whether she is in bed with Stoltz or wielding a heavy-duty machine gun, you cannot take your eyes off of her for a second.

Because this was the first thing I ever bought at this particular store, I assure you I will never get rid of it.

The Best of Siouxsie and the Banshees

One time while I shopped here, this compilation album was playing on the store’s speaker system. I was already aware of Siouxsie and the Banshees thanks to their wonderfully bizarre song “Peek-a-Boo” which has an equally bizarre music video, and also “Face to Face” which proved to be a fantastic addition to the “Batman Returns” soundtrack. As this album played, I started to wonder why I didn’t give this British rock band more of my attention years ago as I suddenly became entranced by their songs “Cities in Dust,” “Dizzy” and “Kiss Them for Me.” to where I soon went over to the front counter to see what specific album was being played. I walked out with several items that day, but “The Best of Siouxsie and the Banshees” is the one I find myself still playing quite often.

“We Are Night Sky” by Deadboy & the Elephantmen

As with any other Amoeba Music store, the Sunset Boulevard location played host to many singers and bands who performed there in support of their latest releases. I was fortunate enough to be at the store when Deadboy & the Elephantmen performed in support of their second album, “We Are Night Sky.” Led by singer and guitarist Dax Riggs who was accompanied on bass and drums by Tess Brunet, the band was often compared to The White Stripes, but they really stood out on their own. As they played songs like “Stop, I’m Already Dead” and “Blood Music” with sheer abandon, I quickly became a fan and bought the CD. Other great tracks on this album are “How Long the Night Was” and “Misadventures of Dope.”

What a shame it was that this band came to a permanent end just one year later.

“Send Your Love to Me” – a P.J. Harvey live bootleg CD

The lady at the register warned me the sound quality on this disc was not great and that it sounded like someone recorded this show from the audience. I appreciated the warning as it prepared me for a recording which was clearly not done on a professional level. Still, I found it interesting to hear Harvey’s music from this vantage point, and at one point you can even hear one audience member tell another how she is going to be playing herself in the next “Batman” movie (I’m guessing he meant “Batman Forever”). Having seen Harvey perform live years ago at The Wiltern, listening to this bootleg made me feel like I was right back there again as songs like “Meet Ze Monsta” and “Down by the Water” are so invigorating to take in with an audience of fellow fans.

“Sorcerer” soundtrack by Tangerine Dream

At my previous day job, a friend of mine named Richard shared my love of film scores and movie soundtracks. One his big favorites was Tangerine Dream’s score to William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer,” and he complained about how he could never find it at any record store in Los Angeles or any other city. Sure enough, I did find a copy of it at Amoeba on Sunset. Surprisingly, it was not in the soundtrack section, but instead in the New Age section where all the other Tangerine Dream CDs could be found. You should have seen Richard’s face when I showed him the CD. Seriously, he looked like Donald Sutherland at the end of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as he was completely stunned to be holding any copy of this particular soundtrack. I also agree with him about how this is one of the most unique film scores ever composed, and it opened up doors for Tangerine Dream in Hollywood as they went on to create more unforgettable scores for films like “Risky Business,” “Firestarter,” “Near Dark” and “Thief.”

“Heartland” by Client

While searching in the electronic music section for the latest CD by Hybrid or Juno Reactor, I came across a sign which said, “If you like Goldfrapp, then check this band out!” The band this sign was referring to was called Client, an English electronic music group from London which had just released its latest CD, “Heartland.” Would I have bought this CD in any other store? Well, it seems a bit unlikely as other places may not have been as quick to promote a band or artist Americans were not the least bit familiar with. Thanks to this sign, I got to check out this album which contains such terrific songs like “Lights Go Out,” “Zerox Machine” and “Someone to Hurt,” and these are songs I still never get sick of listening to.

“Adventures in Babysitting” t-shirt

As soon as I saw this t-shirt which featured Elisabeth Shue’s famous line of dialogue from the 1987 teen comedy film, I knew I had to have it. However, there was one slight problem: where could I possibly where it? Any shirt which says “don’t fuck with the babysitter” is not exactly the kind you can wear it if you live near an elementary school. But with all the social distancing currently going on, perhaps I can get away with wearing it as it can be hard to make out certain words when others are six feet away from you. At the very least, it will give some a reason to laugh during a time where it feels like the world is bordering on Armageddon.

Goodbye Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard. While I look forward to the opening of its newest location, to see this one shut down sooner rather than later really breaks my heart. So much of my money was spent here, and I have long since lost track of all the CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays I managed to trade in there for store credit.

Hopefully the new store will have a bigger parking lot.

The founders of Amoeba Music, Dave Prinz and Marc Weinstein, have since created a fundraising page on Go Fund Me to help offset the costs associated with the COVID-19 shutdown. With all Amoeba’s locations currently closed, they are struggling to survive and are doing what they can to pay their bills and take care of their employees’ health insurance. Their fundraising goal is $400,000, and to date they have raised over $230,000.

Click here to learn how you can make a donation.

How Taxi Driver Forever Changed The Way I View Movies

While “Goodfellas” introduced me to the filmmaking brilliance of Martin Scorsese and became my all-time favorite movie, it was “Taxi Driver” which really shaped the way I view movies today. Before seeing it, I always tried to avoid those movies which would make me sad or were too dark. This was a result of my parents having to carry me out of “Star Trek II” and “E.T.,” both of which I cried so hard over to where others wondered if I was okay. I promised myself I would never put my family through such embarrassing situations ever again, and this was especially the case with my brother who was constantly annoyed at my emotional outbursts.

Unlike “Goodfellas” which was immensely entertaining and had great comedic moments, “Taxi Driver” is dark, dark, dark. There is nothing the least bit glamorous to see here as we watch the main character of Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) get continually sucked into a corrupted environment he deeply despises. I kept hoping for him to achieve sort of redemption and maybe, just maybe, have another chance with Cybil Shepherd’s character of Betsy whom he had a memorable first date with. But as we reach the movie’s bloody conclusion, I realized there was nowhere for Travis to go but down. While the reaction to his actions may have been surprising, we all know the truth about Travis and realize something will set him off again before we know it.

Once the end credits went up, my dad asked me what I thought about “Taxi Driver.” My initial reaction was it was not exactly enjoyable. My dad’s response to this has always stayed with me, “Not all movies are meant to be enjoyed. Some are meant to be experienced.”

Looking back, I see what he meant. Look, there are a lot of reasons to not make a movie about someone like Travis Bickle; he’s seriously nuts, not a good date if you want to go to the movies, and watching him lose his mind is painful. But the thing about “Taxi Driver” is people like Travis exist, and turning a blind eye to their existence does us no good. We need to understand why people do the things they do. It’s like what Roger Ebert said in his review of the film:

“Scorsese wanted to look away from Travis’s rejection; we almost want to look away from his life. But he’s there, all right, and he’s suffering.”

With “Taxi Driver,” I came to see how you need these kinds of movies just as much as you need the average escapist entertainment. Some movies need to shine a light on the darker parts of human nature to remind us we need to acknowledge we have a dark side and realize we have more in common with Travis Bickle than we would ever care to think or admit.

Since watching “Taxi Driver,” I have become completely open to movies which disturb me or take me on a journey I would not necessarily want to endure in real life. I can’t stand to watch films in a passive manner. I want to be moved by what I see, be disturbed and shaken, and even weep. Movies are too powerful an art form to be made just for the sake of entertainment. There are so many things about the human existence which deserve to be captured on celluloid, and I believe audiences crave these kind of cinematic experiences as they do the next Marvel movie.

“Taxi Driver” is my second favorite movie of all time, right behind “Goodfellas.” It is a movie I admire above so many others, and I still watch it from time to time. There are many I get sick of watching, but this is one I will never tire of sitting through.

Katy Perry, How You Get Censored on Sesame Street?

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2010 when this controversy occurred. I am publishing it here because I loved writing it, and I thought I had lost this article forever until recently.

This past week, the producers at “Sesame Street” decided to cut out Katy Perry’s scene with Elmo where she sang a version of her song “Hot N Cold” which was easily more family friendly than the original. However, it appears a number of parents spent more time looking at Katy’s cleavage than they did looking at her playing sweet with Elmo. As a result, they thought their kids would be staring at her breasts for far too long as well, and they demanded Katy be censored for the show.

Now I did take the time to watch the “Sesame Street” clip with Katy and Elmo on YouTube where it has found an even wider audience than it would have on PBS. By taking the segment out, it got more attention than it would have received had it stayed in. Parents may think they are protecting their kids, but I honestly think they are overreacting to this. Their demands to have Ms. Perry censored on “Sesame Street” has them pouring gasoline on an already raging fire without even realizing it. It was a sweet moment and a tolerable one for those who can stand Katy Perry’s music.

What she wore in her scene with Elmo was nowhere as risqué as some of the stuff she wore for her Rolling Stone photo shoot. Now those photos were very hot, and I enjoyed those in ways I’d rather not get too in depth about here.

When I was four or five years old watching “Sesame Street” and reveling in the antics of Kermit the Frog along with Ernie and Bert among others, I was never really focused on women’s’ breasts. I mean, if you ever saw a female celebrity making out with Kermit or perhaps Big Bird at that age, you would be saying, “EEEEEWWWWWWW!!!!!!!” Not only that, you would be saying it way too loudly.

It would take a lot to corrupt our fragile little minds back then. In our preschool days, kissing was just gross! We were not in a hurry to discover the opposite sex, and we stayed away from them and hung out with our own gender. No woman with breasts the size of basketballs was going to fill us with thoughts of sex back then. We all had to wait for puberty for that to take effect, and by then we weren’t even watching “Sesame Street!”

Seriously, this could have been much worse; Katy could have been wearing more than a bra and panties while chasing after Elmo. She could have taught this red creature who likes to be tickled endlessly the joys of masturbation, but no one involved with one of Jim Henson’s many creations would have dared to allow such a thing to happen. Last I checked, they went to Katy instead of her fiancé Russell Brand of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to The Greek” fame. How horrifying would it have been to watch Russell teaching Elmo, or perhaps Grover or Cookie Monster, how to shoot heroin into their veins? Granted, they are hand puppets, but even they could get some rubber tubing to wrap around their furry little arms!

What did parents really think Elmo would do with Katy Perry? Did they think she would teach Elmo the joys of breast feeding?! Can you imagine that high pitched voiced character singing a slightly altered version of the song we all heard from Kelis?

“Oh, Elmo loves Katy’s milkshake!

Damn right, it’s better than Ernie’s!

Damn right, it’s better than Bert’s!

Damn right, it’s better than Big Bird’s!

I could teach you, but…”

Even if Elmo loves his milkshake as much as he loves being tickled, I somehow doubt he will be sharing this with your children. Was anyone ever making complaints when Dolly Parton appeared on “Sesame Street?”

So far, Perry has taken this all-in stride as she has tweeted on Twitter how she can “totally tell you how to get to Sesame Street,” and she knows no one can deny that she and Elmo did hang out in front of television cameras. Of course, she made light of the moment on the season premiere of “Saturday Night Live” when she appeared on the “Bronx Beat” sketch with Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph while wearing a very tight shirt with Elmo’s face on it which made her breasts all the more noticeable. Somewhere, Mr. Roger’s is indulging in a good dose of black humor he could never practice on PBS by asking his audience:

“Can you say double-D? I knew you could!”

Look folks, Katy Perry has a pair of breasts just like all other women. Stop trying to hide it because your kids have gotten to experience what they offer not too long after they appeared out of the womb. Whether or not they remember if they were breast fed or not is a whole other story. There are so many other things you could worry about instead of this. What about Newt Gingrich coming on “The Muppet Show” to tell Sam the American Eagle of how important the Bush Tax Cuts are, especially for the wealthy? Do you think you would ever see Marilyn Manson singing his version of “Rubber Ducky” or “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” to Ernie or Oscar the Grouch? How about Nine Inch Nails singing “Closer” with Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus? Kids are too busy learning the alphabet than in observing what Katy wore, so stop worrying, okay?! Elmo wants her back on the show, and are you going to deny him the chance to laugh happily with Ms. Perry the way he does when you tickle him mercilessly?

In Defense of Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’ Movies

The two “Halloween” movies written and directed by Rob Zombie were eviscerated not just by critics but by the fans as well. Some critics, like James Berardinelli of Reel Views, said they did not even feel like “Halloween” movies. Fans were vocal in how characters like Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis were unforgivably degraded compared to how they were portrayed in John Carpenter’s original. Others simply said Zombie’s take on Michael Myers just wasn’t that scary.

Well, I say phooey to all this nonsense! Zombie’s “Halloween” movies may not be as scary as the one which started off this never-ending franchise, but for me this was pretty much a given. There is no way you could recapture what Carpenter thrilled us with years ago. Zombie was aware of how Michael Myers, like other horror icons such as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, had pretty much worn out their usefulness. His respect for Carpenter’s slasher opus was strong, and after making a true grindhouse classic with “The Devil’s Rejects,” I knew he would take this story and these characters and make them his own.

What makes Zombie’s “Halloween” stand out from what came before it is how he treats the backstory of Michael Myers. Granted, this threatens to take away from what made him so scary in the first place. Carpenter’s original was an unrelentingly visceral experience mainly because we were not sure what to make of “The Shape” as he became less than human throughout. But here we get a strong idea of how young Michael went bad as he dealt with an uncaring sister, a busy mother, and an abusive lout of a stepfather. Seeing all he had to deal with made it understandable, if not forgivable, as to why he went psycho in the first place.

Now whereas Zombie’s “Halloween” was about Michael, his “Halloween II” was all about Laurie Strode, Dr. Loomis and of how the horrific events they went through forever destroyed them. It is here we come to realize what Zombie has accomplished with these movies: They are character studies instead of the average slasher movie we have come to expect. This is made even clearer on the “Halloween II” director’s cut which is available on DVD and Blu-ray as it proves to be infinitely superior to the theatrical version.

Fans hated how Laurie Strode and Dr. Loomis were so different from how they were portrayed in Carpenter’s original film, but they forgot how Zombie’s films were a meant to be a reimagining of the franchise and not business as usual. Strode’s extreme emotional reactions might make her unlikable, but they soon become understandable as no one involved in what she went through can ever walk away from it unscathed. Both Scout-Taylor Compton and Malcolm McDowell deserve credit for not being constrained by what Jaime Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence created before them. In Zombie’s incarnation, these two actors inhabit their characters more than they play them.

In a time of remakes which are as endless as they are unnecessary, you have to give Zombie points for taking this long-running franchise in a different direction. It may not have been what diehard fans wanted or expected, but whereas most remakes repeat the formulas of movies they originated from with negative success, there is something to be said for a filmmaker who willfully goes against expectations. Seriously, this says a lot in a time when originality in cinema is largely frowned upon.

‘The Black Album’ by Metallica – Welcome to the 1990’s!

Metallica Black Album cover

For many including myself, the 1990’s seemed like the beginning of the end. What was once fun and vibrant in the 80’s had quickly become corrupted and forever broken at the dawn of a new decade. The innocence we felt from the 80’s faded before we even knew it, and we were stuck in a world which reeked of corruption, was full of people I did not want to be around, and I found myself constantly wanting to escape my surroundings and doing so with no real success. In other words, I was in high school back then. The 90’s began with me graduating from junior high, and my journey from there continued on into the adolescent hellhole known as high school. The world became much darker at that point, and so did my taste in music.

Somewhere in my brooding alienation, I came to discover Metallica. I had heard of the band, but their self-titled 1991 release, better known today as “The Black Album,” represented their breakthrough into the mainstream, and it gave them an even bigger audience than they had already. Some called them sell outs for taking this route, as they previously eschewed filming music videos for playing concerts instead. Regardless, “The Black Album” was a thunderous heavy metal masterpiece which laid waste to all the rock and roll albums released at the time. While they may have rocked even harder on “Kill ‘Em All” and “Masters of Puppets,” you could hardly call this a soft record as the band was not about to lose its thunderous power. With producer Bob Rock, they put more structure into their music, and they didn’t just let songs spiral out of control the way they did on “And Justice for All.”

For me, listening to “The Black Album” gave me a much-needed outlet for the bottled-up aggression I felt through the earlier part of the 90’s. It’s funny because back then I used to dislike heavy metal music because all the kids who picked on me listened to it all the time, and I figured it was the music which turned them into thoughtless pricks. When I listened to the CD for the first time, it actually scared me as the music was darker than the kind I typically listened to. I started to wonder if I had made a mistake buying it and if it would warp my fragile little mind. But the truth is the world around me, my realization of how things truly worked, and my endless frustration of feeling like I was never fitting into anything at my high school was doing this already. My dad, god bless him, was very impressed by the album, and he offered to buy it from me if I found I didn’t like it. Fortunately, I came to my senses as my friends were digging this album and talking about it endlessly. It was nowhere as harmful as the prudes of America would try to make it out to be.

Before you knew it, I was listening to this album all the time and reveled in its heavy rhythms balanced by its deathly solemn music. I became a Metallica fan instantly, and I still look forward to every album they make.

The album gets off to a perfect start with “Enter Sandman” which is about all the frightening things that go bump in the night. It was about preparing yourself as a child for all the horrible nightmares we expected to have, and of the monsters hiding in dark places. The song also served to define the tone of the album and what the rest of it would sound like; dark, ominous, and full of thrashing guitar riffs which would excite you to no end. With “Enter Sandman,” we were indeed off to never, never land.

I do have to tell you, however, that the music video almost kept me from buying this album. Seeing all those snakes slithering around the kid while he slept in bed brought back one of my most horrible dreams involving those slithery creatures. It says a lot about “The Black Album” that I still bought it despite the horrified reaction I had from witnessing the music video, and of things in it I did not see coming.

From there, we get “Sad but True,” which I originally thought was about an abusive relationship, and of the man who lays down the law in the worst way possible. I still think it is the most disturbing song on the album, but it grew on me quickly as you can look at it in different ways. Perhaps it is about that voice in our heads which we so desperately wanted to go away, but we ended up surrendering to it eventually. Either way, the lyrics James Hetfield wrote were more than backed up by the relentless guitar playing from him, Kirk Hammett and Jason Newsted. It’s a song which reaches into the dark side of your psyche, and it awakens you to the things we need to keep an eye on.

“Holier Than Thou” is classic Metallica as it represents the kind of speed metal they were are well known for. Lars Ulrich’s drum playing was matched by the relentless onslaught of the guitars dominating the song. If die-hard fans thought Metallica had somehow gone soft on them, this song showed how untrue this perception was. It sure gets my adrenaline pumping whenever I listen to it.

Then there is “The Unforgiven,” a deeply solemn song about how one man is beaten down both physically and mentally to where his spirit has all but disappeared. This same man spends the rest of his days trying to appeal to those he had such intense bitterness towards. I kind of look at this song as illustrative of the boiling pot I had in my high school, years which was all about fitting in and being seen as one of the cool people on campus. No one ever wants to be the geek or the one everyone picks on every single day. In the process of assimilating yourself into a crowd who you may not actually want to hang out with, we threaten to kill off those parts of ourselves which make us truly unique. When we realize what we have done to ourselves in order to be seen as “popular,” we may end up hating ourselves forever because of it. I may be going off on a tangent here, but this is what “The Unforgiven” means to me, and I bet it is one of Hetfield’s most introspective songs. It’s a tragic song about a life wasted, and none of us wants see our own life as a waste.

“Nothing Else Matters” was Metallica’s first attempt at a ballad, and it is one of their most successful. Most ballads from other heavy metal/rock & roll bands can come off as incredibly cheesy and so out of place in comparison to the kind of music we expect from them. But “Nothing Else Matters” is played from the heart, and there is nothing cheesy about it at all, thank goodness. It also reveals a part of the band and its lead singer which we had not seen before, and there is something brave about that.

“Don’t Tread on Me” seems to many like a pro-war song, and this made critics consider it the worst part of the album. Granted, a very good case could be made for that, but our initial impressions can often be deceiving. I prefer to see the song as an empowerment of the spirit we have, and of not letting others take you down for being who you are. In a way, it is the antithesis of “The Unforgiven.” It’s a song strongly embedded with undying pride, and it is one of my most favorite songs on “The Black Album.”

“Through the Never” and “Of Wolf and Man” are two great songs where the power of the music and lyrics is not held back or bottled up in any way. Both have a structure where you can easily see the beginning, middle and end, but there is still an unbridled fury which doesn’t stop when the songs come to their respective ends. I loved listening to these ones just before I ran at cross country events, and they kept me going as I was running long distance through 80 to 90-degree weather with the sun bearing down on me and no trees to give me shade to where I kept thinking about the cold water waiting for me at the finish line.

Two other songs which didn’t initially appeal to me as much were “The God That Failed” and “My Friend of Misery.” Looking at them now, the music is great in both, but they are more powerful on a lyrical level. With “The God That Failed,” Hetfield looks at his loss of faith and his anger at feeling betrayed and lied to about so many things. If people paid more attention to the lyrics in these songs, they would see themes they can relate to. Even to this day, with the economy in this country still burrowing down into a deep dark hole, many question their faith and of what they felt they were led to believe in.

“My Friend of Misery” captures, even in the title itself, the life of a teenager. How we can be so miserable and upset to the point where we fall in love with our depressive state of mind. I imagine many adults feel this way as well, but I doubt that these feelings could feel anywhere as intense as they do between the ages of 13 and 19. Falling out of love with misery can seem impossible, but I guess it does help to look at the bright side of once in a while.

The album concludes on the propulsive notes of “The Struggle Within,” a fantastic finish to one of the best albums of the 90’s. The driving rhythms of the guitars and drums add fuel to the fire of the lyrics which practically yell out at the listener to take control of their life and to not get swallowed up in apathy. In an album that deals with the dark sides of life, this one lifts it up just enough out of the darkness to where you are not as down as you were a moment ago. The scariest thing about life sometimes is how we come to realize how way too complacent we have been in our lives when we should have done more to make things better for ourselves.

The band members of Metallica have a rather flippant reaction to what people think of their music and what it means to them. The way they see it, they are not trying to make any big points or statements, they are just writing songs. With their music, how one sees it is different for each individual listener. For me, the album was a dark journey which gave me an outlet for my frustrations through what felt like the worst of times, and it gave me a grand introduction to this band whose other records I would soon get a hold of.

Hetfield, Ulrich, Newsted and Hammett succeeded in giving us one of the most definitive albums of the 1990’s, and I would put it alongside Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Pearl Jam’s “Ten” as the ones which truly defined this dark decade. It remains one of my favorite albums to this day, and listening to it again many years after its release makes me remember how it had a power few other albums of the time could match.

To close out this review, I wanted to include this quote from Marilyn Manson which came out of the documentary “Bowling for Columbine:”

“When I was a kid growing up, music was the escape. That’s the only thing that had no judgments. You can put on a record and it’s not gonna yell at you for dressing the way you do. It’s gonna make you feel better about it.”

What he said sums up what Metallica’s “Black Album’ means to me. It was an escape which was much needed when it felt like the whole world was coming down on me, and there was something empowering about it that kept me going even in my terminally depressive state. It’s albums like these which make me believe in the power of music.

‘Private Eyes’ by Hall & Oates – My First Vinyl Album

Private Eyes album cover

Hall & Oates’ 1981 album “Private Eyes” was actually the first vinyl record I ever got which I could call my own. Years ago, my mother offered to buy me and my brother one vinyl record each, and we were both really excited at the prospect of having one of our own since our parents owned several dozens of them, many of them by Fleetwood Mac and The Beatles (they have great taste in music). I don’t remember exactly why my mom did this. Maybe we were well behaved or something (a rarity for the two of us as kids).

Anyway, my brother got this KTEL album (remember those?) called “Radioactive‘ which featured popular songs of the moment from Devo (their cover of “Working in a Coalmine” is one of my favorites), REO Speedwagon, Rick Springfield and Blondie among others. “Radioactive” was the equivalent of those “Now That’s Music” CD’s which get released every other month, but the music on this particular album was excellent and never groan inducing, and it was a good selection by my older brother.

But for me, my choice was clear from the start, and it represents one of my most decisive decisions at a video or music store.

I first got exposed to “Private Eyes” when I was in Kindergarten thanks to my friend Matthew who lived down the street from me in Marietta, Georgia. Matthew had the album on cassette and we kept listening to the title track endlessly, and when those claps came into play, I made it look like I was punching myself. This made the two of us laugh hysterically, and we didn’t listen to much else on the album at the time. That one song seemed to be enough for the two of us.

But later, we started to listen to “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” which I had heard on the radio, but I didn’t realize right away it was also on the “Private Eyes” album. Cool, I thought, this tape must have a lot of good songs on it. Sure enough, it did! Just before I got the album on vinyl, “Did It in A Minute” became Hall & Oates’ latest hit song. Getting “Private Eyes” at that point seemed like a do or die mission in retrospect. Come to think of it, it was!

I still have a lot of memories from listening to this definitive Hall & Oates album after all these years. My brother and I were dancing without a care to these songs, especially to “Did It in a Minute.” This was back before we both became saddled with those inhibitions which more or less came to define the adults we are today. Sometime later, my family moved from Marietta, Georgia to Thousand Oaks, California, and “Your Imagination” started playing on KIIS FM, back when Rick Dees was the morning disc jockey. I thought it was a very cool song, and I later realized it was also on the “Private Eyes” album as well. For me, this album now seemed so magical because it had so many great songs on it, and if there was a song I heard on the radio which I liked, it had to be from this album!

“Private Eyes” was just an infinitely fun album to listen to, and this is still the case more than 30 years after its release. It is one of several records from the 1980’s I can never get sick of listening to, and it always brightens my mood whenever I put it on. Hall & Oates went on to become a dominant musical duo during the 80’s with this album as well as “H2O” and “Big Bam Boom,” but neither of those albums, despite having some awesome tracks, could hold up as well as “Private Eyes” did.

Of all the songs here, I still think the best one is “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).” While the other songs might seem stylistically dated, this one feels timeless and could fit in with the music of today. For a time, it was the ring tone on my cell phone, and when went off in the office I used to work in, a fellow colleague remarked about how Hall & Oates once auditioned for Smokey Robinson. Robinson ended up not hiring the duo, and he later admitted it was one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

Of course, I don’t want to leave out other songs like “Did It in a Minute” which ends the first side of the record. A great up-tempo song, it was one which got me really excited about life when I listened to it (I was 5 or 6 at the time, so what did I know?). Going onto the second side, we have “Head Above the Water” which proves to be an appropriate selection to listen to during aerobic exercises. Lesser known songs like “Tell Me What You Want” and “Some Men” resonated strongly for me even when I didn’t understand the lyrics. Then again, it took me a long, long, long time after the first grade to really pay attention to a song’s lyrics. The music itself was all that mattered to me at the time.

I always kept wondering about John Oates though. Daryl Hall was always the most prominent of the duo, and John seemed to be there mostly as backup. I wonder if Mr. Oates ever got seriously resentful of Mr. Hall in a “Fatal Attraction” kind of way. But they are still together, so I guess it never got quite that bad. John, however, proved he is every bit as good a singer on songs like “Mano a Mano” and “Friday Let Me Down,” a song title which would have a depressing significance on me during my adolescent years. It didn’t even matter how I had no idea what “Mano a Mano” meant (it would be several years before I took my first Spanish class) because the song itself has a catchy rhythm which every decent 80’s song needed to have.

It should also be noted how Hall & Oates were a big hit on the R&B charts with their music back then, and this was a rare feat displayed by what some would call a “white act.” While many of us today may laugh at white people doing what others simply saw as “black music,” this musical duo was never seen as a joke, and they were respectful of the influences which inspired their musical choices. The song “Looking for a Good Sign” was actually dedicated to the original lineup of The Temptations, a huge influence on their work. The duo would later perform with two of the vocalists from The Temptations on the “Live at The Apollo” album.

“Private Eyes” is not an album with any big theme to hold all these songs together. It is not a concept album like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” an album which took me many years to fully appreciate. In the end, “Private Eyes” is still an endlessly entertaining album which can never be construed as boring, and it holds up really well. I still love listening to this album to this very day, and it remains one of my favorite albums of all time. Considering how it was my first vinyl record, it will forever hold a special place in my heart.

Years later, I did purchase the remastered CD of “Private Eyes, but I do still have the original vinyl record in my possession. Believe me, I will never get rid of it. Ever.

 

Finishing the 2019 Los Angeles Marathon in One Piece

2019 LA Marathon half runners

So, the time had come again. The day of the Los Angeles Marathon had arrived, an event which brings the city of angels together in a way which is beautiful. Strangers cheer you on no matter who you are, and volunteers of all kinds are on hand to give you all the water, Gatorade, oranges, bananas and, yes, beer you could ever possibly want as you pound the pavement for 26.2 miles. We’ve trained for this endurance event for months, and now all we can do is hope it pays off as we pound the pavement for what those who do not run openly think is an insane distance to travel on foot. Of course, many of those same people keep telling me they cannot even run a mile, so their bewilderment at such an event is understandable.

This is the ninth year in a row I have participated in the LA Marathon, but things were different this time around. After running the full 26.2 miles for the past eight years, I decided the time had come to run the half marathon instead as it was harder to find time to train, and I was unable to complete certain runs either because my knees were hurting more than usual, or because I stupidly lost my cell phone and had to go searching for it. Seriously, hell hath no fury like a human being who has lost their cell phone.

2019 LA Marathon Ben running gear

In a time where I find myself oversleeping for far too often, I actually woke up about a half hour or so before the alarm on my cell phone was set to go off (4:45 a.m. to be exact). Since I was running the half marathon, I didn’t need to be in Santa Monica until about 6:00 a.m., so I took it easy as I got my running gear on and made sure to apply generous amounts of Body Glide and suntan lotion to my far too pale body. As I drove out to Santa Monica, I played music from the “American Flyers” soundtrack to pump myself up. I usually go with that or Queen’s extended version of “One Vision” as the key is to get myself all psyched up for a day in which I travel all parts of Los Angeles while saving gas money in the process. And, as I always like to tell people, I have to get back to my car somehow, and taking an Uber or a Lyft is out of the question. It’s not like any of the drivers can deal with all those road closures in a sane fashion anyway.

I drove over expecting traffic to be backed up to a crawl but I was astonished to see things weren’t that bad as getting into Santa Monica proved to be a piece of cake. Since the full marathoners had long since arrived, parked and made their way via bus to Dodger Stadium, the half marathoners were the only ones left. I parked in a lot off of Ocean Avenue, the cheap seats of LA Marathon parking, and made my way over to where the buses were waiting. Of course, unlike when parking at the Civic Center off of Main Street, the path to the buses was not a straight line like it once was. I realized this when I found myself approaching the Santa Monica Pier and began wondering where the hell I was.

As I made my way up, people were already gathering around as the last touches were being put on the finish line, and I was already getting congratulations from strangers for participating. I was in a hurry so I didn’t have time to tell anyone I had not actually started the marathon yet. Still, no one questioned why a guy like me who is carrying a little more luggage on his belly than he cared to admit could have finished running the LA Marathon so quickly. As much as I would like to believe I am faster than speeding bullet, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest otherwise.

My biggest fear was of getting on the wrong bus and ending up at Dodger Stadium. I was told there would be buses which would take us to Beverly Hills where the half-marathon starting point was, and that they would be leaving between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. I had to double check with the traffic cop on duty to make sure I wasn’t about to make the dumbest mistake possible. It would have been catastrophic had I gone on one heading to Dodger Stadium as I could easily see myself going into full on self-flagellation mode. Heaven forbid I take it easy on myself, huh?

2019 LA Marathon full runners

Anyway, I did get on the right bus which led me to the corner of Fairfax and Orange Grove. As I arrived, I had the good fortune to run into several of my fellow Pablove runners who were all set to run 13.1 miles from Beverly Hills to Santa Monica. To my surprise, there were more Pablove runners taking on the half-marathon than I originally realized. Like me, they decided to do the half as they were unable to devote the time they needed to training. But on the upside, we got to avoid running up those steep hills in Downtown Los Angeles as well as having to endure all those religious people who keep yelling into their bullhorns about how we have to give ourselves to Jesus. Methinks those people take the word of the Bible far too literally.

The day turned out to be warmer than I expected. This was a surprise after experiencing the coldest winter Southern California has had in lord only knows how long. For a while, I figured we might be greeted by cold weather this marathon hasn’t seen since 2012. But no, it was warmer than many would have preferred. Still, it wasn’t a scorcher like it was a few years ago.

At Dodger Stadium, the runners have to count the number of times Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” is played before they cross the starting line. From where we were, we were not subjected to that undying anthem. Instead, we got a school band performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for us which we proudly stood for. But yeah, in retrospect I should have kneeled.

We had to wait a bit to start as the elite marathon runners, those who are Kenyan or anyone else determined to finish it in 2 or 3 hours, passed by. Once they came and went, we were led out in waves onto Sunset Boulevard. I decided to run this marathon at a 2:2 pace which means I ran for two minutes and then walked for another two. It didn’t take long for me to lose my fellow Pablove runners as they took off with no signs of stopping for any walk break, and once again I was “all by myself.” But was I? After all, thousands upon thousands of people were participating in this event, so I had little reason to ever feel lonely.

It is an exhilarating thing to run this particular marathon as it brings the citizens of Los Angeles together in a way I want them to be brought together on a daily basis. I don’t know the religions of everyone who volunteered, but they were definitely on display whether or not it called for its most loyal followers to wear a turban . I have to tell you, the endless supply of bananas came in handy as they gave me the extra burst of energy I desperately needed. In retrospect, however, I should have taken more of those orange slices as the juice was much needed on a day where Southern California returned to its unseasonably warm temperatures after going through one of its coldest winters ever.

Another joy I have in running this particular marathon is in seeing the signs spectators feel free to put on display. Among them was one which stated how we run better than the government, but then again, who doesn’t these days. One of my favorites came from someone eager to address the current controversy involving celebrities helping their kids cheat their way into top-rated universities.

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Not once did I ever feel the need to take one or two extra strength Tylenol caplets. If I ran 26.2 miles, I would have taken at least one by the time I reached mile 13. My feet can only get abused so much before they start to complain as if to say, “why have you forsaken us?” Trust me, I have run this marathon before without taking any pain relievers, and I came out of it wondering why I could be so cruel to myself.

The sun did shine a lot brighter than I thought it would, but there was a cool breeze blowing in our direction as we approached Ocean Avenue. Of course, we had to suffer through San Vicente Boulevard before we got there, and this street feels never ending. It’s like a dolly zoom in a movie in that you are making progress, but the visual ahead suddenly looks a lot further away than you thought. Remember the moment in “Jaws” where Chief Brody slowly realizes that kid on the yellow raft is being attacked by a shark? That’s what I’m talking about.

I came into this year’s LA Marathon a bit depressed as I fell backwards in terms of training and ended up realizing I would be better off running the half. I had to accept the fact that my body is not the well-oiled machine it once was, and this involved acknowledging to myself of how I am not as young as I look. Regardless, this day was still a triumphant one, and I felt a sense of pride as I crossed the finish line while holding nine fingers up in the air to indicate how many times I have participated in this particular endurance event.

We still had to keep walking upon crossing the finish line as to suddenly stop would not be in our best interest. We were greeted with medals, and the LA Marathon always has the best ones, as well as servings of bananas, bagels (no cream cheese, damn it), water and Muscle Milk (which was not cold enough). Coach Kerry, who ran the half marathon with us, said he tried to wait for us, but security kept moving the runners along so they could make room for all the runners who had yet to finish.

So I walked slowly back to my car, put on deodorant, changed my shirt, got in and drove home. Although I only ran 13.1 miles, I was still wiped out and discovered a significant of sunburn on my back. I did put suntan lotion on, but my arms can only reach so far to cover everything.

As I walked home after parking my car, strangers noticed what was around my neck and were quick to say congratulations. Like I said, this event is the kind of thing which brings the citizens of this crazy city together in a beautiful way.

There are certain visuals from this marathon I will keep with me always. Among them is watching a physically disabled man slowly making his way to the finish line with a walker while still being in a lot of time. I also saw a young female runner being loaded onto a medical vehicle even as she screamed over the pain from her leg. I hope she’s doing better now.

I want to thank Coaches Kerry, Joaquin and Lourdes for all their help this past season and to congratulate my fellow Pablove runners for crossing the finish line. It has been an honor running in support of The Pablove Foundation which continues its fight against childhood cancer. These group of runners succeeded in raising over $50,000 for the organization, $1,000 of which was raised by me. Last I checked, my fundraising page is still up and running, so please feel free to make a tax-deductible donation to a great non-profit.

CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT HOW YOU CAN MAKE A DONATION TO THE PABLOVE FOUNDATION.

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