The Sunday Magazine: Do They Know It’s Christmas? by Band Aid

I remember the Holiday season of 1984 for many reasons. It was the first Holiday where I had a job. I was able to have a giant Christmas tree because my townhouse had a cathedral ceiling. The other thing I remember was hearing on the radio that something had happened over in England on Thanksgiving weekend that was unheard of musically. That thing has been the foundation for much of the giving back to society that popular music has been responsible for since.

I remember being out getting that giant Christmas tree. On my way back I heard on the radio that some of the most popular English musicians were getting together to do a song. Pushed by Bob Geldof, the lead singer of the band Boomtown Rats, it was something to generate funds to battle famine in Ethiopia. Mr. Geldof used his clout, at the time, to enlist every famous musician in the country to join his group Band Aid. One of his criteria for asking someone to participate was the level of their fame. He wanted this to be a huge event of the most popular musicians of the day. One of the great stories is to get Boy George of Culture Club they had to fly him, via Concorde, back to the UK because the band was on a US tour.

It came together very quickly as Mr. Geldof only had the use of the recording studio for 24 hours. He had already written the lyrics and Midge Ure of Ultravox had added the music while also producing. Over the course of November 25 the studio filled with the A-list musicians. It was reported on the network news here, an ocean away. The song was then released as a single on December 3, 1984. I made my friend in NYC wait as I stood in line at the Astor Place Tower Records to purchase a copy.

The song itself, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has become a Holiday staple on the radio. It has a permanent place on my Holiday playlist on iTunes. It is a simple song yet when they hit the final all-star choir singing “Feed the World/ Let them know it’s Christmas time again” I’m as happy to sing that as I am to bellow “Jingle Bells”.

It was a turning point in the concept of philanthropic musical efforts. In the thirty-five years since, music has found its standing as a societal influence much more surely. Every Holiday season I am reminded that back in 1984 the idea of making a song in a day to feed starving children is exactly what the Season should be about.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: CBS’ Evil

If you have been reading this column for awhile you have probably surmised; I like entertainment which scares me. I like all of it. I don’t have a favorite. I just like that moment when a chill runs down my spine in a good version. I do admire those who can scare me without resorting to tricks. If you can do it with smart writing that is something even better. There is a new example of this type on broadcast television in CBS’ show “Evil”.

Over the last four or five years the horror genre has migrated to the streaming services or premium cable. It is because they can get away with more than over the air. When “Evil” was announced I was interested enough because of the writers; spouses, Robert & Michelle King. I have enjoyed the King’s writing style ever since I discovered their earlier series “The Good Wife”. They were as much the reason I picked up the CBS All Access service so I could watch “The Good Fight”. Three years ago they tried to make an experimental show work on broadcast TV with “BrainDead”. That show pushed in too many directions at once. I think that has helped them refine their approach when it came to “Evil”. They are still pushing but mostly in one direction; the scary kind.

The premise of Evil is a man who is training to be a priest David Acosta is partnered with a psychologist Dr. Kristen Bouchard. They are employed by the Catholic church to confirm or debunk the supernatural. When you read that you might think “X-Files” and there is a similarity starting with the give and take between believer and skeptic. Actors Mike Colter and Katja Herbers play David and Kristen with that dynamic in front. Each week the show has a “case of the week” along with the way these investigations impact the two detectives in their private life.

The cases have been well-executed twists on classic themes. Including a nod to the poster of The Exorcist. Except in the movie ad it was the priest being silhouetted in the streetlight. Here it is a psychologist arriving to stop the ritual.

There is an overarching plot which ties the cases together and that has become more obvious in these later episodes. The villain is played by Michael Emerson who provides many of the tension-filled moments. He is back to his creepy best as it was when he was on “Lost”.

All together this has turned into an hour of television which has provided those chills I look forward to at least a couple times every episode. There are a couple of very brave writing choices which makes “Evil” the darkest show on broadcast television. At some point there will be a great story on how the Kings convinced CBS to stick with their vision.

If you like scary stories and thought they couldn’t do that over the air anymore try watching the first four episodes of “Evil”. I think you will be surprised at what can still be done to scare you in the dark.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Turnstiles by Billy Joel

I have had satellite radio in my car for over ten years. One of the things I particularly enjoy about SiriusXM is when they have an artist specific channel for a month or two. Recently I’ve been listening to the one dedicated to Billy Joel. What attracts me to it is they usually edit in interview clips about songs as well as a show called “BJ the DJ” where Mr. Joel will talk about the artists that influenced his music. It can be really entertaining when he shows you the similarity in tempo change between the Beatles “Day in the Life” and his own “Goodnight Saigon”. Listening over the past few weeks I have come to appreciate again the album which I think I like the most, “Turnstiles”.

“Turnstiles” was released in 1976 as his third album. It was just before his star would really ascend with the release of “The Stranger” a year later. One of the things I have realized re-listening to Mr. Joel talk about it and to the music is how this album defines the breadth of the material to come. “Turnstiles” was recorded after Mr. Joel decided to return to New York after his time in LA.

That is represented in the first song “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” where he bids a lyrical farewell to a city he never really liked. His affection for his home would come in three songs inspired by New York; “Summer, Highland Falls”, “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go out on Broadway)”, and “New York State of Mind”. That last song has become one of Mr. Joel’s signature songs as well as a musical representative of New York City. Re-recorded by many who also love NYC. I like it better than the other NYC song “New York, New York”.

Another interesting aspect of listening to the Billy Joel Channel is he talks about his playing techniques. I remember seeing him playing “Angry Young Man” in concert. It stars with him using his thumb and forefinger pressed together to attack the piano keyboard in a ferocious staccato. It is one of my favorite intros. In one of the recorded bits it was inspired by the drum solo from the song “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris. Once I heard him say that while both songs were played back-to-back it was impossible not to see it. There is another technique I enjoyed that seemed to especially show up in many of Mr. Joel’s early songs. He had a way of rolling his fingers into a glissando effect on “Turnstiles” you hear it on “Summer, Highland Falls”. He calls it “banjo fingers” because he is trying to emulate the strumming of a banjo on the piano.

If you have access to satellite radio and enjoy Mr. Joel take some time to switch over and listen to one of the great rock musicians talk about his music. It made me go back and spend time outside of the car with it; especially “Turnstiles”.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Best Wine for Thanksgiving

Because I’m a wine snob my friends always ask me one question every year, “What wine should I serve for Thanksgiving?” Of all the things I get asked this is close to the easiest answer I give, “American Zinfandels”. They are the ideal partner to a stuffed turkey dinner.

For all that we know of the more popular grape varieties out of California, zinfandel were the first grapes to produce wine in the early part of the 20th century. It was almost the entirety of the grape crop prior to Prohibition. Once temperance became law almost all the vineyards uprooted their vines and switched to other crops. There were a few stubborn outliers who were able to make a living off selling wine to churches. For sacramental purposes only, of course. For the most part when you see the phrase “old vines” on a California Zinfandel it is one of these obstinate winery owner’s crops you’re drinking.

One of the reasons zinfandel was popular from a grower’s perspective is it is a sturdy grape. Not as affected by the whims of too much sun or too little rain and vice versa. That is one of its best selling points as a wine I recommend a lot. There are years which are better than others but there have been hardly any terrible years. I can just tell you to go find a zinfandel from California, Washington, or Oregon with assurance it will be a good bottle of wine.

What makes it the right wine for Holiday turkey dinners is it falls right in between the lighter pinot noirs and the heavier cabernet sauvignons. The former tends to get bulldozed by the spices in a typical Thanksgiving dinner. The latter do the bulldozing with their strong tannic profile overwhelming the food. Zinfandels fit right in providing a nice complement to the typical fall spices, even pumpkin spice. It also provides a rich counterbalance to the turkey whether you like white or dark meat.

The final piece to the equation is most zinfandels sit in the magic price zone of $10-20 per bottle. You can spend a touch more and if you are a regular wine drinker appreciate the added nuance you get. For most those zinfandels which sit in the more moderate price range will perform at the large family dinner just as well.

If you want a wine for Thanksgiving go find a nice zinfandel. Its as easy as that.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Stephen King

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In the summer of 1980 I discovered an author who I have spent the last nearly four decades alone in my head. I picked up a copy of “Salem’s Lot” by Stephen King beginning the relationship where he writes books and I read them.

In that summer of 1980 my friends and I had discovered the horror genre of novel. At that point Mr. King was already at the top of the heap. As I started to back fill from “Salem’s Lot” I would find two novels which rank among my all-time favorites; “The Shining” and “The Stand”. I would finish reading “The Shining” a couple days before the movie adaptation by Stanley Kubrick was released. When we went to see it on opening night, I was that cranky moviegoer with “the book was way better” on my lips. It took me a decade to appreciate the movie for what it is.

Stephen King

Which is something that is not common for most of Mr. King’s books. I always felt drawn to his stories while thinking this would make a great movie. So many of them have, that the thought is proven over and over.

I think it is something that is never appreciated fully. When any artist can create content which connects with a large audience it is met with suspicion instead of support. Mr. King was always so genial about his place in the literary firmament. He would speak about his writing with humility.

What I found very interesting was even he was curious if he had become a brand or was he talented. He would write books under the pseudonym Richard Bachmann from 1977 to 1984. Without any fanfare or publicity he still found an audience. I laughed after the ruse was exposed. My local bookstore had recommended this new book “Thinner” by Richard Bachmann because I was such a fan of Mr. King.

There seems to be a turning point in Mr. King’s personal life which has impacted his writing since 1999. In June of that year he would be struck by a car while walking near his home in Maine. Since his recovery there has seemed to be a pleasure in writing that was enhanced. He was able to complete his “The Dark Tower” series. A set of seven books which are among the very best fantasy series ever written.

Somewhere along the line of doing that he has begun to connect the rest of his novels to the world revealed within “The Dark Tower”. Sometimes subtle sometimes overt each time there is another connection I smile as it comes off the page.

He has produced a “crime novel” trilogy which has also become one of my favorites of all that I have read by him.

Unlike in 1980 I am looking forward to the movie adaptation of his sequel to “The Shining”, “Doctor Sleep”. This time after the movie I will still probably say “the book was way better” but it will be tempered by the time I have spent reading Mr. King for all these years.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Cinema or Movie?

If you’ve been keeping up with pop culture lately you will know that directors Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola leveled some criticism of the current state of moviemaking. In separate interviews in France Mr. Scorcese said, “That’s not cinema.” Referencing the Marvel movies specifically. Mr. Coppola would amplify that remark by saying, “Martin was being kind when he said it wasn’t cinema. He didn’t say it was despicable, which is what I say.” While I could attack the messengers, their thesis has merit; I will ask one simple question. Are your compatriots Steven Spielberg and George Lucas directors of “not cinema” and “despicable”? I feel pretty certain the two directors responsible for creating the blockbuster movie culture in the 1970’s is not thought of by Mr. Scorcese or Mr. Coppola in those terms. They are seen as their peers in cinema.

What all good thought processes should start with is a provocative statement. Over the last week I’ve been thinking is there a difference in the terms “cinema” or “movie”. It seems the crux of the argument being proffered is stories of depth (cinema) are being supplanted by spectacle on celluloid (movie).

Cinema or Movie Theatre?

I spent the early years of owning a VCR catching up on the classics of “cinema”. Hitchcock, Fellini, Kurosawa, Ford, Truffaut, etc. opened a whole world of storytelling to me. At the same time I was going to the theatre to see “Star Wars” and Raiders of the Lost Ark”. To me every example of a great story thrilled me. I sat in the darkness of my living room or the theatre and when it was great, I was elevated and transported. That’s the “Magic of Movies”. That is the Oscars motto every year; one I believe in. the answer to the question posed at the beginning is right there they are all movies.

Are there movies which aim for loftier themes? There are. Should that give them a different name? For me it doesn’t matter. Having a director tell me a story that is heartfelt is all I care about. That is as true for “Apocalypse Now” or “Taxi Driver” as it is for Peter Jackson’s interpretation of “Lord of the Rings”, James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”, or Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther”. All these movies represent the reason I love the process.

If part of the thesis from Mr. Scorcese and Mr. Coppola is the best young filmmakers are being enticed to the “despicable” “not cinema” world forswearing the ability to produce something different. I would point to two recent releases which contradict that. Taika Waititi directed “Thor: Ragnarok” and his latest “Jojo Rabbit” is a whirling dervish madhouse. If you pay attention the same sense of vision in a Marvel movie extends to the not-Marvel movie. The other example is what director Todd Philips did with “Joker”. This director of comedies like “Old School” and “The Hangover” completely transformed the story of a well-known comic book character into a story which carries weight. If the concern is a young filmmaker can’t create their own space in the world of comic book movies “Joker” eradicates that argument.

I live in a place where everything I watch are movies I don’t care about cinema. Just tell me a story from your soul. That’s what makes movies great, now and forever.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Watchmen by Alan Moore

In the fall of 1986 I remember going to my local comic store to pick up that week’s new issues. Stuck in my bag was an issue I hadn’t requested. It had a picture of a smiley face button with blood spatter on it. I looked at the owner and he said, “I think it is going to change the way comics are seen.” I remember snorting a bit at that. At that time reading comic books was seen as my being unable to let go of my adolescence. What that issue would begin was a difference in the way comic books would even be called. From that point on there would be graphic novels. The story which began that was Watchmen by writer Alan Moore.

The story tells of a world where superheroes exist, and they aren’t necessarily admired. Set against the backdrop of Cold War politics and an America where Richard Nixon is serving his fifth consecutive term as President. The story begins with the death of Edward Blake. Unknown to the general public he was also the costumed hero The Comedian. One of his compatriots believes someone knows the other heroes’ identities and is beginning to try and kill them. The story moves forward as it alternates origin stories of each hero with issues which move the current mystery forward.

Besides the normal pages of panels which told the story in art and word bubbles each issue of Watchmen also had supplemental material. Mr. Moore would add in reproductions of letters or dossiers all adding depth to the story. The best of these was a story told entirely in text called “Tales of the Black Freighter” It was a macabre pirate story with a twist at the end which was a mirror to the characters in the main story. As a reader the question I always had was which character mapped to which one in the pirate tale. Mr. Moore made it ambiguous enough it was only in hindsight that it would become clear.

As much as I am laudatory towards the story, artist Dave Gibbons was the final ingredient to why this was so different. The most widely cited example of this is issue #5 entitled Fearful Symmetry. Mr. Gibbons laid out the pages so they would be roughly analogous reflections of each other so first page mirrored last page and so on. It is only made clear this is happening when you reach the middle of the issue and see the symmetry on either side of the stapled spine.

That my comic book seller was prescient has been the way Watchmen has been praised. It is called a graphic novel because it is included on lists of the best novels written. It deserves every bit of praise. It is the reason I have so much interesting reading thirty-three years later as it has spawned the current age of graphic novels.

I wanted to write about this as HBO is about to release a new version of Watchmen extrapolating from the end of the graphic novel. I will definitely be writing about it once it has finished. I wish them luck. I will be watching and wondering if this creative team can live up to the legacy they are continuing.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Fear The Walking Dead, In Memoriam

The life cycle of any television show is unique. As they age, they change. Nothing surprising about that. A recent show which has started mediocre, risen, only to completely fall apart is “Fear the Walking Dead”.

“Fear The Walking Dead” is a spin-off of the original The Walking Dead. Therein laid its potential and its pitfalls. The writers got to create something totally new within the zombie apocalypse world of The Walking Dead. In its first season it showed us how the whole zombie apocalypse started in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a great start, but it created a set of characters I was curious enough to follow into a new season. The next two seasons were great. The show dealt with how the early survivors relied on different internal compasses of faith. Especially season three, both seasons, were the best of what The Walking Dead can be. Then it all went off the rails,

Over the last two seasons the storytelling has become exceedingly lazy. It is the worst of genre tropes every week. They don’t have enough fuel one week leading them into risking themselves to get it. The very next week they’re off on extended joyrides without a mention of conserving gas. Its just carelessness by the writers. The other crime these writers have committed is they have made all the characters stupid, until they need to be brilliant.

This character assassination killed every great original character. It even destroyed two characters who joined the cast from the original series. This past season was so poorly written I have removed the show from my DVR list.

On the recap show “The Talking Dead” they have a segment called “In Memoriam” where they recap all who died in that night’s episode. At the end of season five they should add the show to the list. These guys killed a promising show.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Hex Life- Wicked New Tales of Witchery

One of the great things about the world we live in now is the algorithm that knows what you have read and then recommends new releases for you. Last weekend I was alerted to the release of a new collection of urban fantasy short stories called “Hex Life” edited by Christopher Golden and Rachel Autumn Deering.

What initially attracts me to these books are new stories from authors I already read. What always happens after finishing is, I have a new list of authors who I start reading. These books are the literary equivalents of movie trailers. They give me a sense of the style of the author’s storytelling while making me want more. Hex Life introduced me to two authors I want more of.

The first is author Angela Slatter. Her contribution to Hex Life is the short story “Widows’ Walk”. In the narrative we meet the three witches, aka The Widows, of the town of Mercy’s Brook. The town knows they are witches, but we are told they are accepted if not wholeheartedly. One of the Widows finds it amusing when townsfolk cross the street when they see her coming. They capture a young child trying to steal milk off their porch. Once the Widows have the child inside, we realize they know much about her home life. Ms. Slatter tells a classic short story of supernatural karma. I enjoyed it so much I have the three books in her Verity Fassbinder trilogy queued up.

The other new discovery was author Hilary Monahan. Her story is called “Bless Your Heart”. The witch mother of a gay son takes the matter of her child’s bullying to the PTO meeting of the school. Ms. Monahan also weaves a witchy tale of karmic balance with a large helping of humor. The ending is perfect. I am looking forward to reading her book “Snake Eyes”.

These are my favorite stories, but my hat is off to Mr. Golden and Ms. Deering they have overseen a collection of witch stories just in time for Halloween.

Disclosure: I purchased this book.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Fall TV 2019 Preview

I have always enjoyed the first week of the new television season. Ever since I was a kid, I would hustle to the grocery store to pick up an issue of the oversized TV Guide Fall TV Preview. I would read about every new show coming and decide which ones sounded interesting. Of course in those days I had to make a real choice if there were two on in the same time slot. No way to time shift then. As much as I miss that TV Guide issue I adore not having to make choices. Which means after the first week of the new season I have sampled the new shows and here are my impressions after one episode.

Bob Hearts Abishola (Mon CBS)- I like everyone involved with this sitcom from the producer Chuck Lorre to the actors. The previews had me interested as I saw them all summer. After the first episode I was underwhelmed. The leads weren’t as dynamic together as I’d hoped. I’ll be watching another few episodes, but this was my biggest disappointment of premiere week.

Bluff City Law (Mon. NBC)- I am a sucker for Jimmy Smits playing a lawyer. He was a favorite on LA Law and this feels a bit like the same character transplanted to Memphis. He is the head of a famous law firm who convinces his daughter to return home to practice even though there are unresolved personal issues. A show like this succeeds on the strength of its characters and its cases. The latter was a suit against a pesticide company as well as one which feels like this show’s version of “The Making of a Murderer” as it looks to be a case which unspools over multiple episodes. This was the biggest surprise of premiere week for me.

Emergence (Tue. ABC)- I don’t know I think I’m just burned out on weird conspiracy theory shows. The first episode was nice enough but it all felt like been there done that. I don’t think I’ll be back for episode two.

Stumptown (Wed. ABC)- Based on a great indie comic by Greg Rucka I was worried this was going to get dumbed down for television. The first episode alleviated my concerns as Cobie Smulders plays Dex Parios perfectly. The show will not be hemmed in by the comic material because there are only a few issues. I do hope they incorporate most of what is in those issues over the season. The first episode was as much fun as the comic.  

The Unicorn (Thur. CBS)- This was another one which had my hopes elevated because of the actors involved. In this case they delivered a snappily written half hour of comedy. This is getting a season pass on the DVR

Perfect Harmony (Thur. NBC)- This was the surprise because of how much I liked it even though it draws on such obvious beats. Southern church choir picks up a new director, Ivy League trained, and they learn from each other. You’ve seen it a million times. When the actors involved commit it doesn’t matter. I was completely into the final act even though I knew how it was going to come out. On at the same time as The Unicorn, thank heaven for DVR.

Evil (Thur. CBS)- Another obvious concept carried off by the two stars and the writing team behind them. A priest seeks out the help of a scientist to help him determine if miracles, possessions, etc. are real. Like The X-Files prior to this the early fun is the banter between the skeptic and the believer. Also like The X-files there seems to be a larger conspiracy behind the scenes. If that conspiracy can be kept to the background for a long time while the core concept remains primary, I’ll like this show more. After one episode I want to see more.

Mark Behnke