The Sunday Magazine: Africa by Weezer…….and Toto

There are quite a few songs which have over 1,000 plays on my ITunes list. There are fewer that are above 2,500 plays. I have noticed many of those song are ones I enjoy singing along to and playing accompanying air instruments. I am particularly partial to the imaginary drums, as my car steering wheel will attest to. Which means I have pounded out the drum fill from verse to chorus in the 1982 song “Africa” by Toto a lot because it is one of those 2,500+ songs. The song has had a rebirth for a new generation just in time for the summer of 2018 by the band Weezer. The origins of the song and the reason it has been reborn are both interesting.

I remember seeing one of the members of the band on MTV mention that the song is from the perspective of watching documentaries about Africa. The band members David Paich and Jeff Porcaro wrote a song full of the kind of inaccuracies which exist from that. None better exemplifies that as the line, “as sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti”. Both are in Tanzania but are separated by enough distance the lyric makes no sense. It does make sense if the songwriter is looking at a World Atlas and thinks it might be true. I don’t enjoy the song for the accuracy of its lyrics it is the rhythm and the synthesizer produced kalimba along with it. It would hit #1 on the charts in 1983.

For some unexplained reason thirty-five years later a young fan of the band Weezer began a campaign to have the band cover “Africa”. Using all of the tools of social media she began her campaign in December 2017. By May 2018 it looked like she was going to receive a kind of half response as a cover of another Toto hit “Rosanna” appeared. I thought that was it. Then two weeks ago I noticed that “Africa” by Weezer was trending. When I hit the link, there it was, Weezer playing a mostly faithful cover of “Africa”. I found myself enjoying this version as much as the original. The members of Toto have tweeted their appreciation of the new version. New fans are learning about African geographical improbabilities. Even more are probably adding a new song to their air percussion playlist.

I know the new version and the original version will be played a lot throughout the summer. As I search for Kilimanjaro from my driver’s seat.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain

I had a lot of other things I wanted to write about today but after the announcement of Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide on Friday I couldn’t. It was also because three days earlier another artist I admired also took her life, Kate Spade. Both were originals in their respective fields. I don’t want to get too caught up in their similarities instead I want to take a moment to remember why I care that they are no longer here.

I was fortunate enough to have a window into the backstage world of the fashion industry in New York. As an outsider I could often stand back unnoticed watching the shows come together. One of the things which made me smile is if I looked over at the spot where the handbags were stored there was a similarity to many of them; a tag on the outside which said Kate Spade. Ms. Spade predicted the need for an accessory brand which catered to those who wanted to be wealthy. Using simple design techniques, she dominated this market. I knew if she ever branched out into men’s accessories I’d be adding something. My first iPad case was a Kate Spade. The current power pack on my cell phone is a Kate Spade. Her simple no-bullshit aesthetic was what appealed to me. I was so interested to see what her new brand, Frances Valentine, had to show me. I felt like she had already identified another niche to dominate.

Anthony Bourdain was the cultural successor to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. I know he would probably hate to be described that way, but his words carried the same visceral authenticity as Mr. Thompson. I remember reading his first book “Kitchen Confidential” and I leant it out with this recommendation, “it could be called Fear and Loathing in the Kitchen”. In a world where there are so many who assiduously polish an image Mr. Bourdain sought to take us along with him. We shared the same travel desire to stay away from the places where tourists gathered and find the places where the real food of an area was made. Because of him some of my favorite travel memories are in a neighborhood restaurant where the locals delighted in watching the silly American read from his phrasebook. All the while feeding me unforgettable food. Mr. Bourdain challenged me to look underneath the surface,

Which is one of the reasons their deaths sadden me. Because there was clearly something underneath the surface they had become skilled at masking. I miss both of their perspectives.

Before I finish this, I want to once again mention Project Semicolon. Founded on April 16, 2013 every year on that date you will see some of your friends or acquaintances wear a drawn semicolon on their wrist. It symbolizes this: “a semicolon represents a sentence the author could’ve ended but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.” Making the choice to use a semicolon over a period is not simple but Project Semicolon provides a visible way for those deciding on their own punctuation choice. A way of not feeling alone. In that can be found the first moments of deciding to use a semicolon. I made a donation this week in the names of Ms. Spade and Mr. Bourdain because I hope the awareness of their plight can also help others who need to see a different choice.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Solo A Star Wars Story

Sometimes a little mystery is a good thing. It might even be a better thing when it comes to prequels in the Star Wars series of movies. As I covered in last week’s column the prequel itself saps any tension about the fate of anyone we’ve seen later in the time line. Solo A Star Wars Story particularly suffers from that. We know Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian all live to come together at the end of “The Empire Strikes Back”. Which means every time they are in danger; well they’re not. Because Solo is at heart a story about a crew of criminals in a galaxy far, far away robbing people that isn’t a fatal flaw. I thought the two heists pulled off in the film were executed well except everyone but Han, Chewie and Lando were cannon fodder. If life would be lost it wasn’t going to be them.

No if there was a fatal flaw it was the movie was made for me and other hardcore fans. One thing I didn’t cover in last week’s prequel column is these movies sometimes labor to answer questions I don’t care about. It was charming when Han Solo introduces himself to Obi-Wan and Luke as the pilot of the Millennium Falcon the only ship which “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.” It has always been one of those anomalies where the writers got tripped up in their tech speak and substituted a measurement of distance for one of speed. Sure enough, Solo spends a plodding set-up explaining it; leading to something I noted because I am a fan. Mrs. C has seen all the Star Wars movies and enjoys them a lot. I asked her about it after the movie and she never caught it. She is the majority of Star Wars fans not the ones like me, which means the movie wasted time, dialogue, and effects explaining something that passes over the head of almost everyone in the theatre. Even in my theatre on opening night packed with those eager to see Solo there was only scattered laughter when the payoff line comes.

This is where Solo fails. It answers questions about our favorite rogue that only a die-hard fan cares about. Mrs. C did not catch the significance of a single inside joke. I spent the entire drive home explaining different ones because there are a lot of them. So many that Solo is a heist movie with inside jokes stuffed in between.

If there is going to be a continuation of these standalone movies they have to follow the template of Rogue One from two years ago. Characters we have never met fighting the good fight in a corner of the galaxy far away from where the Skywalker clan is doing their thing. There has been talk of future standalones featuring Obi-Wan or Boba Fett after seeing Solo I am not excited by either of those. I am excited to follow someone new as they strike out in a new direction. Like whoever survives next year’s Episode IX. Star Wars need to move forward and let go of mining the past it is not what they do well.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Problem with Prequels

Coming home from the new Star Wars film “Solo” I realized why I enjoyed it yet there was something missing. Took me a minute but it is something that has been missing from most movies or television shows which go back to before we met the main characters. What it means is there is no chance of anything drastic happening to them before they get to that place where we met them. In “Solo” it isn’t really a problem because at heart it is a heist movie and those don’t usually have mortal consequences for any of the main characters either. Where it becomes an issue is in large sprawling sagas where there is so much ingrained history that the story is straitjacketed into a very narrow space.

A perfect example has been the two attempts at Star Trek television series designed as prequels to the original series. Star Trek: Enterprise showed the first voyages into deep space by Earth. If the writers had been content to leave it at that the show might have been better. Instead as happens all too often they begin to introduce things way before they are supposed to be known. This happened with so many things in Star Trek: Enterprise it became irrelevant. The latest series Star Trek: Discovery is doing the same thing by introducing a new character into one of the iconic characters’ family who should have been mentioned somewhere prior. This becomes especially egregious when this person plays pivotal parts of at least three key moments in Starfleet history; in the first season.

It isn’t just Star Trek; Gotham also struggles with the Batman story. Every villain ever is infesting Gotham City all while Bruce Wayne is a teenager. It is like “Teen Batman” but in typical DC fashion made gritty so it is PG-13 rated “Teen Batman”. There is zero dramatic tension between any of these characters. Why? Because we know every single one of them becomes older to bedevil Batman/Bruce Wayne at a later date. It doesn’t matter how dire the situation I know nothing permanent is happening to any of these characters no matter how it may seem.

Which really leads to the real problem. All of these are made for the particular fan base not for the general public. It is fan fiction done by professionals. They survive by filling themselves with inside jokes only a dedicated fan gets. So yeah am I interested to see something actually happen which was only explained in dialogue in the original? Turns out it is like visiting a museum exhibit. It can be fun, but it feels old.

As a fan these prequels are mostly enjoyable, but they really will never come close to the originals they are trying to fill in the backstory for.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: American Idol 2.0

I am not sure about the health of broadcast television. Based on the announcements of the new shows for next fall it seems like the current attitude is if it got big ratings in the past exhume it and put it back on the air. The cynic in me knows that if you can strum some nostalgic chords in even an older audience those are good enough ratings in this current television landscape. As much as it feels creatively bankrupt I admit I’ve watched with more enjoyment than not.

In a case where the absence was hardly long enough to miss it American Idol returned just two years after it was over. I planned on watching the first few episodes then leaving it alone until maybe the finale. Turns out the producers know a good formula and how to remind me of what it was I enjoyed about this singing competition.

For this revival the show changed networks from Fox to ABC. You might not see that as something worth noting except ABC is part of the Disney entertainment family. That means there were going to be no missed synergies throughout the season. In many ways American Idol is a reality version of the Disney theme “When You Wish Upon A Star”. Which leads to the other change; talent paired with heartwarming stories were accentuated in the audition rounds. There were the very occasional trolls and clueless divas but they were overwhelmed by the people who could sing. Which then made the second phase of the competition more fun to watch.

Because they allowed us as an audience to get to know more of the contestants when the Hollywood Week part where they cut down to a Top 24 I had rooting interests. This meant I felt sad when some of them succumbed to the pressure. It also gave me stronger attachments to the one who made it through.

(l. to r.) Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, Ryan Seacrest, and Luke Bryan

I want to talk about this year’s judging panel; Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie, and Katy Perry. They did a great job of finding a group of singers who filled all styles. They provided America an opportunity to vote for who and what style they liked best. They managed to also do this without becoming the focus of the show. That is my biggest problem with “The Voice” the panel are the stars not the singers. American Idol gets the balance right.

One final piece of my enjoyment of this year’s installment was the advancement of contestants who could sing. That meant a drag queen named Ada Vox made the Top 10. A young lesbian wife of a servicewoman made Top 7. The show was unafraid to put these out to America and allow them to decide if that was what their American Idol looked like.

Going into tomorrow’s final America wasn’t quite ready for that much change but the three contestants remaining have been among my favorites from the first weeks. I am going to have a difficult choice to see who gets my vote based on their performance.

Maybe bringing back the old isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

It gets hard to know when the hype has something behind it. Most of the time it is exactly what that word indicates, overblown expectations for something quite ordinary. I have boxes of hyped debut novels which are from authors never heard of again. Then there are the extremely rare occasions where the book exceeds expectations. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is one of those.

The plot of this new book is set in the West-African country of Orisha. Our entry into the world is through the eyes of Zelie who has the white hair which designates her a maji; a wielder of magic. The King of Orisha wants to eradicate magic; mostly by killing the maji. Zelie’s mother was one of the casualties. This sets her on the classic heroine’s path to restore her legacy against the oppression of the King.

Tomi Adeyemi

What sets this apart is we meet the children of that King; Princess Amari and Prince Inan. As the Marvel movies have done so well lately, their perspective provides a reason behind the brutality visited upon the maji. This is what makes a great story when the evil is not just cackling garden variety kind but one with a goal that is rooted in a flawed reason. The Prince and Princess cross paths with Zelie and the story takes off across Orisha leading to an epic cliffhanger.

 I know little about Ms. Adeyemi, but I was impressed at the level of detail in her magic system. This is sometimes a throwaway part of a fantasy series and it can set my teeth on edge when it is. Not here. From the first pages to the last the rules are adhered to. Magic McGuffins don’t appear to save the day.

Just as Black Panther did in comic books and movies; Ms. Adeyemi opens new avenues of myth to be mined for story by turning to Africa. As I read through the book I could feel the pride of Ms. Adeyemi for these myths being transformed into something new. These are completely new perspectives for me to delve into which make this a joy to read because I am learning as I go.

If you need a beach read for the upcoming summer add Children of Blood and Bone to your list.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Avengers: Infinity War

I usually hold off writing about the new movies until they have been out for a few weeks because I want to talk about plot points freely. With Avengers: Infinity War I realized talking about the plot points at any time would ruin the movie. So, I’m not going to do that. There will be mentions of things shown in the trailers and tv ads as to who is doing things in the movie with who but not the plot itself. I just haven’t been able to think of anything else for the last week since seeing this for the first time.

I have written in the past on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has found the secret ingredient for success; optimism. Leading up to watching Infinity War I watched a few of the movies I thought were the right appetizers. That sense of fighting for what each hero believes is right often at personal cost is written large across the MCU but particularly Infinity War. Our heroes believe in something. They don’t all necessarily believe in the same path to that something. That has allowed for some conflict. One of the things that the MCU has done so well is not to throw away what has happened in the past with a funny one-liner and press the reset button. In Infinity War the stress lines which have existed over the last two years of movies remain and are used for story purposes. Ten years of dangling plot threads are being picked up by the directing team of The Russo Brothers and used as jumping off points for Infinity War in the first act.

One of the thing The Russos do on a magnificent scale is to make each part of the movie as we move around feel like it is that set of characters’ movie. An example is when the Guardians of the Galaxy arrive on screen it feels like a Guardians movie. When we get to Wakanda it feels like Black Panther has continued. The other part of this is that into each of these settings we add in a few of the other characters. That they mesh so well again speaks volumes about the vitality of the MCU. What I can say is the character who spends the most amount of time with the Guardians needs to be in Vol. 3 because they fit right in as each Guardian interacts with them.

Finally, I am going to end on the villain Thanos. This is the second MCU movie in a row where the villain’s motives are more fully fleshed out on screen. Like Killmonger in Black Panther, Thanos also has a deep personal motivation for seeking out the Infinity Stones. In a movie full of heroes we want to see, that the time is taken to not make Thanos just something in their way is important. It is why when we reach the final act of the movie the stakes are definitively laid out. The audience knows the consequences and why each side is motivated to win.

Infinity War is a fitting culmination of ten years of movie storytelling every beat in the movie is spun from the past decade. The next year is going to be a long one to see how what is left at the end of Infinity War is handled. Based on this movie I have no doubt it will be amazing.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Late-Night Talk Shows circa 2018

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One of the things I was looking forward to writing about in this column, when I started Colognoisseur, was the late-night television shows on the major networks. As I’ve recounted in those previous columns these shows have provided me companionship while staying up way too late. They have been a part of my life for over forty years now.

When I was writing about them in the first two years we were entering what I expected to be the next great era of this genre. CBS had Stephen Colbert and James Corden, NBC had Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, and ABC had Jimmy Kimmel. One of the reasons I watch is because in those five shows there was a dose of levity mined from a specific perspective which allowed me to turn the light off with a smile. There was a distinct variety to choose from.

For most of 2016 it was all that I desired as I could watch Mr. Kimmel for prankish humor along with the occasional Matt Damon skit. Mr. Fallon’s Box of Lies is still one of my favorite late-night bits. Mr. Colbert was showing his pop culture chops with brilliant cold opens with big stars. Mr. Meyers was the most topical as he gave his version of “Weekday Update”. Mr. Corden’s love of music lead to Carpool Karaoke and Crosswalk Musicals. Then in November 2016 something happened; the US had an election.

In the past the current President of the US was always a part of the nightly monologues but it was just that; a part. Over the past few months it has turned out that jokes about the President are not part of the monologue; it is the monologue. Instead of competing for original comedic material spanning many things I have been disappointed to find them spending too much time on one thing. They have thrown out variety for who can have the best President joke on the night.

I’m not saying that the President should be excepted from being the butt of jokes. That has been a part of late-night television for as long as I watched. Almost every night I know I’ve heard one joke at the expense of whoever was the current resident of the White House. It just feels unbalanced right now.

Over the past week I watched with this in mind. All five shows focused on the same Presidential events. All the shows spent up to half their monologue or pre-taped skits depended on them. Many of the jokes were variants of the others.

I understand the soul of a monologue should be current events but it doesn’t have to be all-politics and the President. I miss the days when they spent the same amount of time mining the latest silly YouTube viral video for laughs.

I have found myself turning off the television lately because my old friends have begun speaking in the same voice. What seemed like a Renaissance in late-night is starting to feel monotonous and mediocre. I am hoping that this will change because it worries me that what was fantastic is on the verge of being lost.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Once Upon A Time

One of my favorite cartoons when I was a child was a segment on the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show called “Fractured Fairy Tales”. In these vignettes the well-known fairy tales were twisted to tell a different story. All of them narrated by Edward Everett Horton it was like having an out-of-town uncle tell you the story you thought you knew in a different way. The current version of “Fractured Fairy Tales” has been unspooling for the last seven years under the name of “Once Upon A Time” on ABC.

The show was created by two of the writers from the show “Lost”; Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis. Their idea of the show antedated their time on “Lost” but they found no one was interested in a show about twisted fairy tales. Once “Lost” ended they pitched it to ABC again and this time their concept was picked up.

The story in the beginning was about a small town in Maine called Storybrooke where The Evil Queen had ripped all the classic fairy tale characters to the very not enchanted present day America. Only three characters were aware that they were under a curse; The Evil Queen, Rumpelstiltskin, and the Evil Queen’s son Henry. Henry comes to realize he is the son of a woman named Emma Swan who he needs to make believe that there is such a thing as magic. Henry tricks Emma to come to Storybrooke so she can live up to her role as The Savior.

For six seasons we watched as an extended cast of fairy tale characters would deal with present day dilemmas paralleled with flashbacks to their time in the Enchanted Forest. As it was with “Lost” those flashbacks provided the audience understanding into the basic nature of a character even when they didn’t remember who they were. Prince Charming and Snow White always tried to be the positive solution even when they thought they were David and Mary Margaret. At the end of last season many of our character arcs found their “happily ever after”. This final season has been very interesting as the original villains; The Evil Queen and Rumpelstiltskin are trying to find theirs. It is a testament to Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Kitsis that I am very much hoping for that result to two characters I loved to hate in the early years of the series.  

On May 18 the last page of “Once Upon A Time” will be turned. I am hoping it will be a grand send-off where even the darkest villains can change to find their happiness.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Return of “Roseanne”

I remember when “All in the Family” premiered on television it was so different. That it premiered later in the evening on the same night, Tuesday January 12, 1971; it had been preceded by “Green Acres” and “The Lucy Show” it really stood out. At a time when the Vietnam War was dividing the country along generational lines here was a comedy which laid out all the emotion with laugh out loud one-liners. What I remember most about “All in the Family” was it began discussions around the dinner table the next night. It was a valuable catalyst through which understanding might take place. The recent reboot of “Roseanne” has me thinking it might be the return of a sitcom which can also create a chance for understanding.

Roseanne cast in 1988

Roseanne Barr brought the original “Roseanne” to television in 1988. It portrayed a poor working-class family, the Conners, in Lanford. Illinois. It was an off-shoot of Ms. Barr’s stand-up comedy routine about her life as a “domestic goddess”. Just like “All in the Family” before it “Roseanne” portrayed the blue-collar life in America. There were not often easy answers yet always a sense of humor was found. For eight seasons this formula worked. Then in Season 9 they decided to have Roseanne win a lottery and all of a sudden the easy answers did show up. In a twist at the end, the show tried to make it the way Roseanne coped with her life by imagining an alternate reality. The show lost viewers and it was ended.

Roseanne cast in 2018

There has been a lot of nostalgia posing as creativity in television comedy as some of the most successful shows of the past are being reincarnated. The thing is none of those have interested me as it was rare that I wondered what happened to the characters on a sitcom after it ended. When I heard “Roseanne” was returning with the original cast I wasn’t sure if I would watch. I did sit down when it premiered and was instantly reminded of “All in the Family” as this felt like another show for a time when America has divided itself along fault lines.

The original kids have grown up and some of them have kids. Nobody has moved away from their blue-collar upbringing. The show opens with an open discussion of the Red-Blue political divide as Roseanne has not talked to her sister Jackie since the 2016 presidential election. Each voted differently and couldn’t let it go. Through the first thirty-minute episode they finally found an opportunity to talk without either giving up their beliefs while making me laugh. This is what most strongly reminds me of “All in the Family” as people who love each other can disagree while still loving each other. It also is a show which can allow for discussion to grow out of it, too.

Halfway through the first season back “Roseanne” has been full of laughs, a couple of tears, and the fostering of acceptance. If you haven’t caught on I highly recommend it.

Mark Behnke