Friday, May 30, 2014

My blog is tanking. Help me figure out why.

This capsizing ship makes an unfortunately apt metaphor for my blog.

This is a distress call. 

Relax. It's nothing important. My blog is just in poor health, and I have no idea why. I'm very proud of the work I've done on Dead 2 Rights, and I think that some of the best articles in the blog's history have appeared here within the last year. I don't post nearly as often as I used to, but that's because most of the pieces I do for D2R these days are longer and require more research. An ungodly amount of time and effort has gone into Ed Wood Wednesdays, for instance. 

The actual, depressing stats for my blog. Note the steep decline at the right.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I love writing and researching, and this blog gives me a forum in which I can delve into topics which I find interesting. I'm concerned, though, about my readership numbers, which have spiraled downward rapidly and alarmingly in 2014. New articles generate very little traffic, and older ones just aren't attracting page views the way they once did. 

Sometimes, it seems like everything I post here dies a miserable, lonely death. This blog has become the equivalent of a tree falling in the forest when no one is around to hear it. Many times, I've decided against writing something for D2R because I know that virtually no one will read it. It's a downer to spend hours on something, only to be rewarded with a dozen or so page views. Folks, I really want to turn this around. I already promote this blog on every kind of social media known to civilized man, and I feel intensely guilty about that. I hate bothering people and jamming up their news feeds. That's what you have to do to get eyeballs in 2014. 

But apparently, I'm still doing something wrong. Heck if I know what. If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them. Rest assured, I'm going to keep writing this blog either way. It would be nice to have an actual audience, though.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 40: "The Secret Testimony of Miserable Souls"

American Airlines pilot Jeff Trent: "I can't say a word. I'm muzzled by Army brass!"

Prefatory note: For the fortieth entry in this series, I have decided to do an article that is entirely self-indulgent. Rather than a review of a movie or book related to Ed Wood, it is a piece of original fiction inspired by his work. This idea goes back to November 2011 when I made a pitiful, abortive attempt to turn it into a full-length novel for NaNoWriMo, only to run smack dab into a nasty case of writer's block. But the idea never quite left me, so I thought I could turn it into a short story. Here, then, is that short story. It's written in sort of an exaggerated pulp style. This is more for myself than it is for you, but I hope you will enjoy it anyway.

"We'd like to know a little bit about you for our files.
We'd like to help you learn to help yourself.
Look around you. All you see are sympathetic eyes.
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home."
-Simon and Garfunkel, "Mrs. Robinson" (1968)

"Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed:
 blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed."
-John 20:29 KJV

Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop.

Jeff knew that sound too well. That heavy, horsey stride was etched in his memory. Pretty soon, Old Nursey, with her bulletproof hair and battleship body, would enter his room, brandishing a metal serving tray with the usual contents: a pleated paper cup with three pills, two pink and one blue; a squat little glass of orange juice; one tangerine; a small plate with exactly three limp, triangular pieces of toast; and a copy of that day's San Fernando Gazette, folded neatly along its equator and then into thirds.

Jeff sat up in bed, awaiting her imminent arrival. Never a show of weakness, Jeff. Not for a second. She was just doing her job, he supposed, but Jeff disliked her anyway.  As he saw it, she was another obstacle standing between him and everything he wanted: Paula, his home, his job, his life.

A moment before Old Nursey even showed her face, Jeff could already detect that cloying, fruity perfume of hers, which intermingled uneasily with the sour, nostril-stinging smells of the hospital. And now here she was herself in the overgenerous flesh.

"Good morning, Mister Trent!" she said in that damnable sing-song voice of hers.

"That's Captain Trent," Jeff replied, testily.

 "My apologies, Captain." She smiled broadly but without warmth. Her eyes looked glassy and dead.

"Hmm," said Jeff by way of reply. It was important to be noncommittal with these  people.

If Old Nursey took umbrage at this, she didn't show it. With the precision of a true professional, she rested the tray on a dresser and went about her morning ministrations, checking this and that—first adjusting items around the room, then performing little tests on Jeff himself. She measured his pulse, took his blood pressure, and put the back of her hand to his forehead to see if he felt feverish. This little ritual had become automatic for both of them, so much so that they could carry on a conversation all the while.

"We missed you at breakfast this morning, Captain. We were very much hoping you would join the other pa... er, guests in the Common Room."

She'd slipped up and almost said what she really meant instead of what she was supposed to say. The word "guest" implied someone who dropped by the place of his own free will and could leave whenever he chose. Jeff was no more a "guest" here than Hess was at Spandau.

"I'll continue to take my meals in my room, thanks." His voice was measured and firm.

"If that's what you prefer."

"It is."

"But you do realize that for the sake of your long-term treatment here, it would be best to..."

"I know! Play the game! Follow the rules! Go along to get along! Is that the idea? That I should run around on the big wheel like an obedient little hamster?"

This time, Jeff had slipped up. That attitude didn't cut it in a place like this. Old Nursey—he now remembered her name was Violet —looked stricken. The miniature tirade hadn't gained him an inch of ground.

"Listen," he continued after pausing and noticeably softening his tone, "why don't you attend to the other... uh, guests, and I'll be along later for Remedial Finger Painting 101 or whatever it is they have planned for us later today. And I promise to play nice. Scout's honor." He made the Boy Scout salute he still remembered from his youth and gave Old Nursey the sly, flirtatious smile that had once won him Paula.

"We still have a little business to attend to," said the now-blushing Violet. Snapping back into her cheerfully professional default mode, the nurse brought the metal serving tray over from the dresser and set it upon the nightstand next to Jeff's bed. This task completed, she stood over her patient and watched him expectantly. Jeff knew the routine from here on out. He picked up the pleated paper cup and emptied its contents into his mouth. He then chased that with a slug of orange juice.

"Ahhhhhh!" exclaimed Jeff in the satisfied manner of a man who'd just quenched a nagging thirst after, say, mowing the lawn on a hot summer day. Old Nursey looked pleased. Wonder how pleased she'd be, thought Jeff, if she knew her precious patient had secreted the pills between his lower lip and gums?

After the orange juice had disappeared down his gullet, he deftly used his tongue to transfer the capsules to the hollow of his left cheek, where they would stay until Jeff, alone at last, found a toilet in which to dispose of them discreetly. This was a routine he had worked out over a number of weeks. It helped that Old Nursey, who wasn't really that old but just seemed that way because of her frumpy personality, was not terribly observant, anesthetized to her surroundings as she was. Flying on autopilot, Jeff thought, flashing back to his not-so-long-ago days working for American Airlines. Would he ever make it back there?

"I'll be back for your tray later," said Violet. "Don't forget, you have a consultation with Dr. Fineman scheduled for eleven o'clock. That's..." And here she checked the improbably dainty watch on her thick linebacker's wrist. "...Forty-five minutes. Let's try to be on time."

"Oh, I will be... Mother," Jeff retorted, punctuating the remark with a jovial chuckle to indicate that this was merely a conversational witticism and not a swipe. But it didn't matter either way. Old Nursey had already started clip-clopping her way out of the room and down the hall.

Jeff noticed, and not for the first time, that she hadn't so much glanced at the room's only other occupant. She never did.

This poor devil, who was likely in his sixties but looked at least 90, reminded Jeff of the old prospectors he'd seen in history books. A miner forty-niner, like in the song. He had a long, gaunt face accented by wildly bushy eyebrows and a scraggly, salt-and-pepper beard. His eyes, seemingly open all the time, were ringed with faint, purplish-grey circles. He looked liked he'd seen something awful and never gotten over it. Jeff had nicknamed him "Fred C. Dobbs," after the Bogart character. Fred didn't take his meals in the Common Room, nor did he participate in egg-decorating or basket-weaving alongside his fellow captives.

As near as the younger man could tell, Fred received nutrients through one tube and refunded the waste through another. Fred's preferred -- and, in fact, only -- activity in life was to lie on his side, his back facing his younger cohabitant, and stare at the room's featureless, sea-green plaster wall for hours at a stretch. The old man's standard expression was like that of a luckless pet owner who had once witnessed his poodle being run over by a moving truck and never recovered from the trauma. Once or twice, Jeff was sure that Fred had died, but the man would very occasionally moan or utter something that nearly sounded like an intelligible word. These vocalizations were both rare and doleful.

Old Nursey's duty roster did not include Fred. If there were maintenance to be performed on the forsaken man, Jeff noticed, it was carried out by several uniformed male orderlies, who were in and out of the room with the efficiency of a top-flight pit crew. Once or twice during Jeff's stay, he noticed that a couple of these fellows would wheel poor Fred away on a gurney, and he would be gone for a few hours. This was always, without fail, in the middle of the night, and Fred would be back in his rightful place -- if that nicety could be applied to this rotten situation -- by the time Jeff awoke a few hours later.

In all, the pilot was quite pleased with his elderly roommate. You could scarcely ask for someone quieter or better behaved. What's more, Fred was an ideal audience. When he was sure they were both quite alone, Jeff would tell him the whole, impossible-sounding story -- the flying saucers, the aliens, the ghouls. And never was there a hint of protest from Fred. No incredulity. No scoffing. No condescending remarks about how this was all in his head and that he should get over it and get on with his life. All in my head, my foot! thought Jeff, ruefully. He'd been there that night. He'd seen it all with his own two, perfectly-functional eyes. So had plenty of others. But where had they all gone? Why had they abandoned him?

Crimson? Crawdad?
Jeff picked up the newspaper and scanned it with his usual, methodical seriousness. This was a privilege for which he had fought and won, but now he wondered why he had even bothered. The Gazette was a sleepy, small-town rag that never contained anything the least bit useful, certainly nothing related to the events of that fateful evening in '57, the very things Jeff had witnessed first-hand.

Narrowing his eyes to slits, he inspected each column of text, looking for tell-tale phrases like "from outer space" or "risen from the grave." But they were absent from the paper today, just as they'd been absent every previous day and would be absent every succeeding day. If you wanted to read about how San Fernando's mayor had cut the ribbon at a newly-constructed bank or how local hurler "Sharpie" Kennicott had pitched a no-hitter for the local triple-A ball club, then the paper was just fine. Otherwise, it was a waste of printer's ink and a poor use of the typesetter's art.

The closest thing to an "expose" about the flying saucer affair that had appeared in the paper was some mumbo-jumbo from that gooney-bird psychic with the syndicated column. Jeff couldn't quite remember his name. It was Crimson or Crawdad or something like that. The fella had a platinum pompadour with a kiss curl in the middle of his forehead that looked like an upside-down question mark. Anyway, since his nonsense appeared in the same section of the newspaper where you could catch up on the latest adventures of Walt and Skeezix in Gasoline Alley, no one paid him much mind. Funnily, that old kook had gotten closer to the truth than anyone else in the mass media. Even a stopped watch is right twice a day, thought Jeff. Who else could have gotten away with saying that aliens had visited Earth and had even resurrected the dead, just to put a scare into us, and it was all a bid to prevent the human race from destroying the universe with our weapons technology? No reputable reporter could get that past an editor. Never in a million years. But this gooney-bird could say it.

How could such fantastic, history-changing events be covered up? Well, Uncle Sam could sure slather on the whitewash when he needed to. Jeff had been on the ship itself. Hell, he'd even punched one of those uninvited visitors right in the jaw. And he hadn't been alone that night either! That Army colonel and that police lieutenant had been right there with him. Both had since recanted their stories. Across the board, the military and law enforcement communities denied that any such alien invasion had ever taken place. The order had come from on high, and it applied to all, from the top brass to the rank-and-file.

So if you happened to interview Officer So-and-So or Private Such-and-Such, you'd always get the same answer... or the same set of non-answers, more accurately. Those strange floating objects spotted on both coasts? A mix of weather balloons and experimental military aircraft. Reports of bodies missing from graves? An unfortunate case of vandalism. And what about that small California border town, Loma Rosa, which had been all but wiped off the map in the course of just a few hours? A natural disaster, most likely the result of subterranean volcanic activity. Rest assured, citizens, that our best men were looking into the matter, and a full report would be forthcoming. In other words: Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. The whole thing turned Jeff's stomach.

The last year had been a tough one, he had to admit. It wasn't easy being the one domino who refused to topple over. But, then again, a formidable stubbornness was part of Jeff's character, informed both by his strict Southern Baptist upbringing and his experience in the military. For him to change his story now would be as contrary to nature as Newton getting that apple of his to fall upward. This was no longer a mere battle of wills. This was a test of a man's integrity. He had served four years in the Marine Corps during the "good war" and had seen some action in the Pacific Theater. The experience changed him permanently. When you shoot a Jap soldier right in his Jap guts and look him square in the eye as he bleeds to death right in front of you... well, that's the kind of thing that makes a man take inventory of his deeply-held beliefs. You take whichever ones you have left and put them in a strongbox where nobody can get at them. And when somebody tries to jimmy open that strongbox and monkey around with what's inside, you damned sure better give 'em hell.

The folks in charge of the military industrial complex said there were no such things as flying saucers or men from other worlds, and they were making Jeff sit in the corner with a dunce cap on his head like a misbehaving schoolboy until he was ready to say he was sorry in front of the whole class. But he hadn't done it yet. He held out for the sake of the 179,323,175 Americans who deserved to know the truth. Because of that, he was here in this strange and awful place. And it wasn't just the big things, like being away from Paula, which made it so bad. It was the little things, too. Like the food, for instance. Jeff thought back to the previous night's repast. He reckoned it was boiled fiberglass with a side order of sewer rat, with a glass of bilge water to wash it all down. Even hard-headed Jeff  was starting to see that the immovable object that was his heart would eventually succumb to the irresistible force of the pressure being placed upon him by the Powers that Be.

He sure could have used some support, but none was available to him. Most of the witnesses who'd spotted the UFOs had been drunk, elderly, or hopelessly confused. Poor Paula—who had seen plenty —fainted on the terrible night that she had encountered the deceased-yet-somehow-ambulatory Inspector Daniel Clay in the cemetery. She had come to after the worst of it had ended, but she wasn't very communicative -- partly from shell-shock and partly because she had few, if any, pertinent memories of the events. She was living with her mother in Sausalito now, and Jeff honestly didn't know if she would ever again be the feisty little gal he'd met at a USO dance. He affectionately called her "kid," another verbal tic he'd picked up from Bogart.

That seemed so long ago now. It hadn't helped that her husband, the big strong airplane pilot, had been shipped off to the happy home to live among the fruits and nuts because he just couldn't or wouldn't stop babbling about little green men from Mars. But the visitors had not been little or green or from Mars; they had barbershop haircuts and Oxford accents and looked like anybody you might see on the street -- apart from those queer uniforms of theirs. Jeff strained to remember the details. Their shirts, he thought, were shiny and kind of billowy, almost blouse-like, with high collars and a strange little insignia over the heart -- a jagged lightning bolt inside a semi-circle. Strange how the mind files away little tidbits like that.

The strange insignia.

Jeff had replayed that momentous evening a thousand and one times in his head. The male spaceman -- there had been two of them, a man and a woman -- talked quite a bit. He had a name that sounded something like "Eros," and his snooty, fussbudget personality reminded Jeff of a particularly disagreeable English teacher who had given him a lot of grief back in his middle school days. But that wasn't the reason he had socked ol' Eros in the jaw. No, that was an act born of pure animal instinct. At that moment, a familiar feeling of savagery—Jeff called it "The Beast"—had risen up within him and taken possession of his entire body. "The Beast" had also been with him on that blood-spattered day when he'd shot the Jap on that flyspeck of an island in the Central Pacific.

In retrospect, punching Eros had been the turning point in the whole evening, but at the time there hadn't been any real strategy behind it. Had he not done it, he, the colonel, and the police lieutenant might never have gotten off that ship alive. But, in the long run, had he truly done the right thing? Since then, Jeff had had ample opportunity to consider the words that Eros had spoken, focusing on their meaning rather than the uppity way in which he'd said them. Maybe that unwelcome wayfarer had been on to something. Maybe the human race really was on a collision course with complete annihilation. It was a cinch that Earth hadn't heard the last of this. They'd be back, those aliens... eventually. And who knows? Maybe they wouldn't make their presence known the next time around. For all Jeff knew, those things might just press a button on a console and, just like that, we'd be wiped out -- erased from the cosmic map like writing on a chalkboard.

Oh, but what was the use of dwelling on things like this? Even if he could assemble any tangible evidence or persuade any witnesses to speak out on his behalf, this wasn't a story that America was ready to hear, let alone the world. And, besides, how much longer could he hold out? If he stayed here much longer, he would wind up like those miserable souls he saw in the Common Room, staring gape-jawed at Romper Room, with its chirpy little anthem about what we viewers should and shouldn't do: "Do be a plate cleaner! Don't be a food fussy! Do be a car sitter! Don't be a car stander!" Jeff was in no hurry to join the plate cleaners and the car sitters of the world. Those bastards in the Common Room looked like wax dummies that had melted a little, and their brains had long since turned to oatmeal. Thanks but no thanks, brother.

What Captain Jeff Trent really wanted was to rejoin the world. Hold Paula in his arms. Breathe the air outside the walls of this terrible place. Truly live again. Maybe he could even get his old job back. It sure would be nice seeing Dan and Eadie again. If the universe was going to come to an end, so be it. That wasn't his department. He just wanted to get the most out of whatever time he had left on this crazy blue marble called Earth.

So that was it. He'd just have to recant his story. Repent. Not all at once, though. That would seem suspicious. They'd never buy it. They'd figure it for a ploy... and they'd be right. No, he'd have to start building this thing slowly and carefully over the course of a few weeks. And he'd begin with his consultation with Dr. Fineman at eleven. He glanced at the clock. Jesus, that was only ten minutes away. He'd better start thinking up what to say. "Say, doc, I've thought a lot about what you've been telling me, and..."


Who had said that? Jeff looked around the room, his eyes darting wildly to every corner in search of the voice that had disrupted him so suddenly. Jeff was so disoriented that he accidentally swallowed the three pills he'd been hiding in his mouth, and he had to cough a little to catch his breath. Once he regained his composure, he looked up and stared across the room. To his surprise and utter disbelief, he saw Fred C. Dobbs sitting bolt upright in bed, looking right at him. The two men locked eyes, and there was a tense moment of silence between them. The pilot was unnerved. It was all he could do to keep "the Beast" at bay.

Nothing like this had ever occurred before. Jeff had never once heard Fred utter a coherent thought, nor move of his own volition. The old man hadn't ever acknowledged his roommate's existence in any demonstrable way. Jeff assumed that the duffer was completely oblivious to him. Obviously, that wasn't the case. This was like seeing Lazarus rise from the tomb or Pinocchio become a real live boy. All sorts of thoughts raced through Jeff's head. Had the old man heard everything he'd said? And if so, what did he think of Jeff? Was this a dream? What was going on here?

Fred spoke again, this time in a calmer, more soothing manner: "You are confused, I see. I will explain. My name is Erebus."

The old man pulled his hospital gown down a little on the left side so that his shoulder was exposed. On it was branded a symbol: a semi-circle with a lightning bolt in the middle.

"You have already met my late countrymen, Eros and Tana," Jeff's roommate continued. "They were part of an unsuccessful initiative designated Plan 9. I, however, am here as part of Plan 4, which involved infiltrating Earth society and finding out just how much your people know about our activities. As I have learned, the individuals your society has deemed 'mentally ill' are unusually receptive to our presence. Your government has known this for some time and has, therefore, made a concerted effort to round them up, institutionalize them, and drug them into a vegetative state. My job is to monitor them, and the best way to do that was to become one of them."

Jeff was thunderstruck. He grasped for words: "B-but... how do I fit into all of this?"

"You believe in us, Captain, because you have seen us with your own two eyes. You possess no special sensitivity to extraterrestrial life. You were just, as your people say, in the right place at the right time. But your government deems you a threat because you know of us and are unwilling to deny our existence. That is why you are here."'

"So... what do I do?"

"Simply put: stay the course, Captain. You have great courage and emotional strength. These will be vital weapons in our ongoing campaign to change the public's mind and avoid further unnecessary violence. Sometimes, though, you underestimate yourself. A moment ago, for instance, you were considering surrender."

"How could you possibly...?"

"We have mental capabilities far beyond those of your species. You are not particularly difficult to read. There's no need for envy. Eventually, the human race will evolve to have this ability. It may take a few eons."

"Great," Jeff snorted. "What am I supposed to do in the meantime? I can't very well make much of a difference if I'm cooped up in this place."

"Relax, Captain Trent. The Ruler is aware of your situation and is devising a stratagem to assist you, even as we speak. Plan 10, he calls it. It should be ready any..."

Suddenly, the old man went as limp as a rag doll and collapsed back on his bed. Jeff was puzzled. It was as if his battery had died. Then, he looked up and saw Old Nursey standing in the doorway. She was making a show of pointing to her undersized wristwatch. Erebus must have sensed her arrival. That was why he was playing possum now.

"Captain Trent," the nurse said in that contemptible, saccharine tone, "it's eleven oh-two. And we mustn't keep Dr. Fineman waiting."

"No," said Jeff glumly, "we certainly mustn't."

Jeff hauled himself out of bed and checked himself in the mirror to make sure he looked even halfway presentable. Naturally, his roommate's words were still spinning 'round and 'round in his head. The pilot knew he had a long and difficult path ahead of him. He understood that now. For whatever reason, Sweet Lady Destiny had chosen him to save the universe. When he thought about the situation in its totality, it was overwhelming. Best to take these things one day at a time. Break it down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Step one: develop a taste for boiled fiberglass and sewer rat. Maybe a little ketchup would help.


An excerpt from a hand-written draft of this story. Most of my articles are written on a computer. 

In two weeks: There is a man named Rick Tell, my friends, and he has a dream. He wants to stage a full-length musical about the life of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Warts and all! The ups, the downs, the sweaters and skirts, the monsters, and the booze. Crazy, you say? Impossible, you say? Then you've never met Rick Tell. Actually, I've never met him either. But I have been communicating with him by e-mail, and he seems really enthusiastic and sincere about this eccentric, improbable project of his. In a lot of ways, that's emblematic of the spirit of Ed Wood. So, as you might imagine, it is my sworn duty to give my readers the lowdown about all of this, providing both the relevant facts and my thoughts thereupon, so that you can make an informed judgment of your own. Sound like a plan? Then be back here in 14 days as I explore Ed Wood: The Musical!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

'Taxi Driver' predicted Elliot Rodger before Seth Rogen was even born

"God's lonely man": Robert De Niro as cab driver turned vigilante/assassin Travis Bickle.

In case you haven't been following along, it turns out that the blame for Elliot Rodger's misogynistic killing spree in Santa Barbara, CA, can all be laid at the feet of Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow and their movies about schlubby guys scoring with beautiful women. Thanks for sorting that out for us, Ann Hornaday. I trust that the proper authorities, once they read your Washington Post op-ed piece, will put out a warrant for the arrests of Mr. Rogen and Mr. Apatow immediately and that these two men will be in custody soon. As sad as this information is, it's at least good to know that we've gotten to the bottom of this whole thing. And so quickly, too! Ms. Hornaday has certainly earned her Crime Stoppers Badge of Honor this week. 

How curious, though, that the movies of Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow have not inspired similar massacres in the dozens of other countries around the world where they've been released. It's almost as if Rodger's actions were guided by circumstances, both personal and social, infinitely more powerful than any fictional movie comedies.

Curiously, neither Neighbors nor Knocked Up came immediately to mind as I sifted through the horrifying news updates coming from California and tried to make sense of the twisted, tragically-misguided rhetoric of Rodger's so-called "manifesto." Instead, I was thinking about Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), an unnerving urban fable about a profoundly alienated, deeply unbalanced cab driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) who becomes a merciless vigilante and a would-be political assassin after he is rejected by a beautiful campaign worker, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), with whom he has become romantically infatuated. 

Throughout the film, we are made privy to Bickle's warped thought process through his chilling yet strangely poetic voice-over narration. These passages, which supposedly derive from a journal or diary which Bickle is keeping of his activities, are remarkably similar to Elliot Rodger's ravings. In particular, while reading the manifesto, I was reminded of a scene from Taxi Driver in which Travis arrives, unwanted, at Betsy's workplace, and she has him thrown out. Travis' parting words to Betsy are: "You're in a hell, and you're gonna die in a hell like the rest of them!" As if to clarify this vaguely-worded threat, we then hear a strikingly prescient quote from Travis' narration:
"I realize now how much she's just like the others. Cold and distant. And many people are like that. Women for sure. They're like a union."
This line could have come word-for-word from Rodger's manifesto, with its sullen, self-pitying paranoia and horrendous misconceptions about women. And it comes from a movie which was released six years before Seth Rogen was even born. Perhaps Martin Scorsese and his screenwriter, Paul Schrader, were giving us a warning with Taxi Driver, one we utterly failed to heed.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Must... not... kill... family!

The product of utter boredom.

I love my family. Really I do. But they can be a major pain in the ass, if you dig what I'm burying. I'm writing this post on a Kindle from a sad, grungy motel somewhere in Indiana. Why? Because it's a holiday, that's why. 

What? Your family doesn't get together for Memorial Day because it's not something anybody does? Well, please tell that to my family. Instead of going home on Friday and enjoying some much-needed R&R, I got on an Amtrak train to Nowheresville, Indiana. It's not where I grew up, mind you. It's just where my sister and her family happen to live. 

For reasons I'll never quite grasp, my physical presence is expected on pretty much all major and minor holidays, not just Christmas and Thanksgiving. This is mainly due to my elderly father, who makes me feel incredibly guilty if I skip a holiday. As much as I enjoy seeing my family (for a few hours, anyway), I've come to sort of dread holidays in general. These trips are expensive, uncomfortable, inconvenient, and boring. The train trip is about four hours, starting from Chicago, but it feels like a small eternity. And then, once I get here, there's never anything to do. This goddamned room doesn't  even have a working TV set! 

And I don't typically go to bed at 8:00 on a Saturday night. That misshapen sketch up there, which I think started as a portrait of Neil Young before mutating into a monstrous old cowboy, should give you some indication of my degree of boredom. I'd write more, but typing on a Kindle is a stone drag. Bottom line: pray for my deliverance... and maybe ask your congressman if we can't get rid of a few holidays.
UPDATE: I  wrote the paragraph above when I was in a pretty crummy mood. In truth, it can be fun seeing the family. But I still think we get together too often. And there really is nothing to do in Indiana. The TV's still busted, in case you were wondering. Going home tomorrow... just in time for the holiday weekend to be over.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Winning the Internet, one comment at a time

An image from a once-wholesome, now-horrifying Wendy's commercial.

My latest Comment of the Week triumph!
I think I've been posting stuff to the Internet for about 20 years now. Yep. If I haven't had my two-decade online anniversary yet, then it's definitely creeping up on me. Of course, I haven't kept meticulous records of these things, but I became an official "Netizen" (I still hate that term) only a year or so after graduating high school, so that puts the date somewhere in the mid-1990s. Jeez Louise! That was two or three Presidents ago!

In the early days, I confined myself to text-only Usenet message boards. That wasn't by choice. That was simply all I could manage with a 2400 bps modem. Then I went through a whole America Online phrase, during which I went by the handle "DelVarmint." Yeah, I know. It was the '90s. That's what we did back then. People actually used to use the word "cyberspace" without irony in those days. Ah, memories.

Of course, the Internet is about fifty blajillion times better now than it was when I started traversing the virtual seas. If there's something I miss about those early days, it's that it was so much easier to get people's attention and find an audience back then. All you really had to do was post original content of -- no exaggeration -- any kind. It just had to be something that people hadn't seen elsewhere. That was the basic requirement.

I know this from first-hand experience, because one of my original successes was a script I wrote called The Rocky & Bullwinkle Horror Picture Show. I posted it to a few Rocky Horror message boards, and it became what we'd now call a "viral" hit of sorts. Nowadays, there are people posting professional-caliber content to sites like YouTube every hour of every day. A clunky, homemade creation like Bullwinkle Horror (which was just a script and had no accompanying video or pictures) would have zero chance of becoming an online success in 2014.

But have I given up? I have not. I'm both an attention whore and a recluse, so the internet is pretty much the perfect venue for me. And I have a whole bunch of ideas and opinions that I desperately want to share with the public, if only so the rest of the world will acknowledge that I exist. It's my way of saying, "I WAS HERE, GODDAMNIT!" How do I do that? Well, I still have this blog, naturally, and I use every form of social media I can find to promote it. (Here's a shout out to literally everyone on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google Plus, and Bloglovin!)

And when the mountain won't come to Muhammad, then Muhammad is going to bloody well schlep his ass to that mountain. In other words, if my site isn't generating enough traffic (and it usually isn't), I'll go to places which already have established readership bases and see if I can't stir up some shit there instead. Like this:

  • Once again, I've won the coveted Comment of the Week at Josh Fruhlinger's Comics Curmudgeon Blog. Now, that might not mean a heck of a lot to you, but (to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson): "In some circles, the Comment of the Week is a far, far better thing than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals all rolled into one."

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 39: "The Worst!" (1994)

Eddie "pulls the strings" in this detail from Drew Friedman's cover art for his brother Josh's album, The Worst!

"Success is a great deodorant. It takes away all your past smells."
-Elizabeth Taylor

Before embarking upon this series of articles, I had only a marginal interest in the posthumous, often parodic Ed Wood "tribute" projects that seemed to spring up like toadstools in the 1990s. Maybe I was never fully comfortable with the smugness inherent in them or their self-congratulatory tone. Sure, Ed Wood makes for an easy, inviting target. His movies are cheap and often silly. But what had his parodists ever accomplished that gave them the right to sit in judgment over a man who wasn't even around to defend himself?

I wonder what Eddie would have made of the nihilistic 1990s had he magically awoken, Rip Van Winkle-style, after a 15-year slumber. He probably would have found little solace in this new, unfamiliar decade. "Irony" was not in Eddie's vocabulary, let alone his wheelhouse. A staunch conservative despite his unorthodox lifestyle, he would have likely sneered at the feel-good "inclusive" politics of the Clinton Administration. Culturally, Eddie would have been adrift. He was out of touch with American youth even in his heyday,

Ed would have had no comprehension whatsoever of the so-called "alternative" or "grunge" scenes, though the riot grrrls might well have piqued his interest, evoking as they did the tough girl gangs who had once populated his screenplays and novels of the 1950s and 1960s. Without doubt, the jaundiced, unsentimental comedy of the era, typified by Seinfeld, Beavis and Butt-head, and The Onion, would have held little to no appeal for an old school softie like Ed.

Little Shop: A curious milestone.
What might have flummoxed Ed Wood the most about the '80s and '90s, the decades he never lived to see, was the rise of what I will call sardonic nostalgia. Eddie fully understood regular nostalgia. After all, the cowboy flicks and Gothic horror films he'd seen as a child in Poughkeepsie in the 1930s were still rattling around in his brain and leaving their mark on his work in the 1950s and beyond, perhaps until the end of his life.

It would not have occurred to Ed Wood, though, to dredge up or evoke the past -- especially the lowbrow, ephemeral stuff -- for the purpose of mocking it or making some satirical point. A troupe of hip young improv comics reenacting old Brady Bunch episodes onstage? That kind of thing would have sailed over Eddie's Brylcreemed head. No, when Edward D. Wood, Jr. raided America's junk drawer for inspiration, he did so with guileless, whole-grain sincerity.

Having inconveniently died in 1978, Eddie sadly would have missed the 1982 Off-Off Broadway debut of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's Little Shop of Horrors, a stage musical based on a low-budget 1960 movie directed by Roger Corman. That show, while not precisely the first of its species, nevertheless marked a significant milestone in the history of pop culture recycling.

The theatrical world had looked to the silver screen for inspiration before Little Shop of Horrors. Debuting way back in 1966, Sweet Charity had descended from Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabria (1957). A mere seven years later, Stephen Sondheim turned Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) into A Little Night Music. But Little Shop was something different. This wasn't Fellini. This wasn't Bergman. This was Roger Corman, the Cheapskate King himself. Ashman and Menken's motives in writing their show weren't entirely, or even chiefly, malicious. They obviously had some affection for the source material and wanted those in the audience to care about the characters in their adaptation of it.

But along with the nostalgia, there was also some new-school irony inherent in taking an absurd, cheapjack B-movie about a talking killer plant and "elevating" it to the stage. Here were real New York actors singing their hearts out in tribute to an obscure flick that had played on the bottom half of double bills on the drive-in circuit. Sort of like serving a Big Mac on a silver platter, if you get my meaning. And thus, I would argue, Ashman and Menken had (inadvertently?) begun the era of sardonic nostalgia.

In their wake would follow a slew of writers, singers, and artists who scavenged through America's dumpsters in hopes of turning yesterday's trash into today's treasure. However much they appreciated the source material, these newbies always began their work, rightly or wrongly, with the assumption that they were a little smarter and a lot less naive than the schmucks whose work they were adapting, remixing, or simply ridiculing. Although rarely articulated, that underlying feeling of superiority was always a given in such endeavors. Were these newbies justified in feeling superior to their elders? Sometimes.

This week, I am focusing my attention on one such nostalgic/sardonic project: a strange, Ed Wood-themed concept album recorded twenty years ago. What was its purpose? Veneration? Degradation? Both? Let's find out.


Alternate titles: The album's full title is The Worst! A New Musical by Josh Alan Based on the Life of Ed Wood, the Worst Director of All Time. Its creator is far better known as Josh Alan Friedman.

Availability: Oh, brother, is this thing available! Name your poison. Compact disc? Download? You got it. Try CD Baby, iTunes, or Amazon. Expect to pay about $9 to $10 for the MP3 version or $13 to $19 for the CD.

The Friedman boys: writer Josh (left) and artist Drew.
The backstory: There are few more eccentric or charming showbiz dynasties than the one founded by Bronx-born humorist Bruce Jay Friedman (1930-2020), the writer whose most famous creations include the nonfiction volume The Lonely Guy's Book of Life (1978), the play Steambath (1970), at least eight novels, and more than a half-dozen collections of short fiction, not to mention his contributions to the screenplays of such films as Stir Crazy (1980), Doctor Detroit (1983), and Splash (1984).

Yep, Bruce was one of those go-to funnymen of the '70s and '80s, never quite in the same league of stratospheric popularity as Woody Allen or Steve Martin but well-known enough to be mentioned in their company. In fact, Martin starred in the Friedman-derived film The Lonely Guy in 1984, while Allen cast Friedman in his 1988 film Another Woman. All four of Friedman's children -- three from his first marriage, one from his second -- pursued creative careers, and each has acquired some level of success and acclaim. But we are concerned today with Bruce's two oldest sons, musician-writer Josh Alan Friedman (b. 1956) and artist Drew Friedman (b. 1958).

Drew's name is one that should be familiar to anyone who has even halfway followed the comics world over the last few decades. And even if you don't recognize the moniker, it's a cinch you've seen Drew's work adorning movie posters, album covers, and magazine articles. He has an incredibly distinctive style: meticulously detailed and photo-realistic, yet somehow heightened and surreal at the same time. In the early days of his career, Drew had a painstaking pointillist technique, creating his pictures from lots of tiny little dots like the ones that make up photos in a newspaper. He's long since dropped the dots, but his artwork retains its trademark trompe l'oeil, real-yet-unreal appearance.

As a creator of comics, Drew has often displayed a morbid, often tasteless sense of humor along with a keen interest in the weirder, darker aspects of show business history. Originally, his work only appeared in "edgy," provocative publications like RAW, Weirdo, and Heavy Metal. Eventually, though, he started earning mainstream acceptance, and his work has since been collected into a series of widely-available books, including Old Jewish Comedians (Fantagraphics, 2006). He also has a lucrative career as a commercial illustrator, which has brought his work to an incalculably larger audience. Intentionally or not, you've seen Drew Friedman's work.

Tor as he appeared in the Friedmans' book.
Drew's older brother, Josh Alan Friedman, has had a multifaceted, multimedia career of his own as a journalist, novelist, editor, guitarist, songwriter, and all-purpose pop cultural maven whose busy curriculum vitae looks like a crazy quilt of mismatched scraps. Josh has worked for such diverse and well-known publications as High Times, Screw, and National Lampoon. He's edited the works of famous American satirist Terry Southern. He helped the late, notorious pornographer Al Goldstein (founder of the proudly-offensive Screw) cobble together an autobiography.

And following his move to Dallas in 1987, Friedman has earnestly pursued a career in music under the name Josh Alan, performing live in venues large and small, releasing several well-reviewed albums, and collaborating with pretty much everyone in the city's burgeoning "bohemian" scene. Josh also shares his younger brother's interest in "old weird showbiz" and co-wrote some of Drew's pop culture-themed comics. 

It seems inevitable that two boys like the Friedmans would eventually stumble onto the legend of Ed Wood, and stumble they did. One member of Eddie's repertory company, the bald-headed 400-pound Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, became a particular favorite of Josh and Drew and reappeared in multiple comics created by them in the 1980s. These strips, along with other Friedman comics of the era, were eventually anthologized in a book called Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental (Fantagraphics, 1985; reprinted 2012).

It is fair to say that Josh Alan and Drew Friedman are two of the more prominent combatants in the decades-long battle over Ed Wood's legacy. In 1994, a few months before Tim Burton's Ed Wood was released nationwide but two years after Rudolph Grey's oral history Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. was published, Josh Alan Friedman released an Ed Wood-themed concept album called The Worst! with cover art by his brother, Drew. Guests on the album included Sara Hickman, Jennifer Griffin, Kim Pendleton, Randy Erwin, and an eccentric musical ensemble called Cafe Noir.

I can find no record of The Worst! ever having been staged as a full-fledged musical with sets and costumes. It exists today, twenty years later, as a half-hour-long album. This promotional blurb is interesting, though, as it suggests the complicity of Ed Wood's estate:
Drew Friedman's cover art
Though he's been living in Dallas for some time, and thrown a lock on Best Acoustic Act in the Dallas Observer poll, the slide guitar virtuoso was, in a previous incarnation, Josh Alan Friedman, author of three books, one tellingly entitled Tales of Times Square. . . Of all the albums I've received and reviewed, this, the soundtrack to a musical based on the life and career of Ed Wood, the worst director of all time, immortal creator of such legendary trash as Plan 9 From Outer Space, Jail Bait and Glen or Glenda is the only one that can truly be called epic. 
Based round Wood himself, Bela Lugosi, Vampira, Tor Johnson, sundry starlets and strippers and, most significantly, Dreckula, the Jayne Mansfield lookalike Goddess of Crap, who haunts Wood's typewriter, it features Dallas gypsy jazz group Cafe Noir, [Sara Hickman, Phoebe Legere], and a whole slew of others. With music and libretto that draw on the acidic tradition of Rodgers & Hart and Brecht & Weill, the highlight showstopper is the finale title sequence, following Lugosi's death midway through the filming of Plan 9, which includes Danse of the Flying Hubcaps, Cardboard Graveyard Waltz and Wood's actors (for want of a better word), singing "The worst is yet to come." Authorized by Wood's estate, this tour de force is a must for aficionados off the Shakespeare of schlock. . ."

The listening experience: Concise but entertaining enough to warrant a purchase. Though marketed as a "Broadway-style musical," this is a surprisingly humble, nonchalant affair. The Worst! clocks in at a mere 36 minutes, and none of the album's 16 tracks ventures too far past the four-minute mark. The briefest track lasts only 28 seconds.

There is only the vaguest sort of chronological narrative here. The first real song (track #2, "Kodak City Special") does focus on Eddie's childhood, while the last song (track #15, "The Worst!") has the director pondering his legacy. In between, there are loosely interconnected but standalone, self-contained songs devoted to various motifs (e.g. transvestism, low-budget filmmaking) and characters (e.g. Bela Lugosi, Vampira) in Ed Wood's life.

All the prominent male "roles" are portrayed by Josh Alan Friedman himself, who sings in a husky, conversational voice. Friedman makes no attempt whatsoever to imitate the accents or speech cadences of these people. So Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, and Criswell all end up sounding exactly the same.

Musically, although there are brief hints of Broadway bombast on display, The Worst! feels more like a clever concept album by a singer-songwriter than it does an original cast soundtrack. West Side Story this ain't. Friedman's comfort zone seems to be a low-key brand of ambling country-folk, though a few tracks could be described as excursions into swing and cocktail lounge jazz. Fortunately, the album is brief enough that I can discuss each track individually. So that's what I'll do.

1. "Intro" (0:28)  A brassy, Broadway-style fanfare punctuated by the clicking and clacking of a typewriter. This positively reeks of old showbiz. You can all but smell the greasepaint and see the Klieg lights.

2. "Kodak City Special" (2:14)  Almost immediately, Friedman confounds the listener's expectations with this wistful, acoustic-guitar-based folk tune, which has a mild bossa nova underpinning and a gentle coffeehouse vibe. Not your typical Broadway opener. Lyrically, the song is sung from Ed Wood's point of view. He's just gotten his first movie camera and is already dreaming of being a great director, brandishing a megaphone and outdoing Cecil B. DeMille. This would be roughly 1935, so Eddie would be about 11 years old. In real life, it was Ed's dad who gave him this precious, life-changing gift. But Friedman fiddles with history a bit and has Ed's mother, Lillian Wood, give him the camera instead. This is an understandable switch, since one way to view Ed Wood's life is through the prism of the Oedipus myth. A reference to Orson Welles is a little dubious, however, since Citizen Kane would still have been a few years down the road. Unless little Eddie Wood had been really tuned into the world of theater, it's doubtful he would have known who Welles was at the time.

Sample lyric: (possibly inspired by a famous Crest toothpaste slogan) "Look at me, Ma! I've gotta camera!"

3. "Let Me Die in Angora" (2:27)  If you're writing an Ed Wood musical, how long do you go before mentioning his transvestism? For Josh Alan Friedman, the answer was about two songs. "Let Me Die in Angora," its title a takeoff on Ed's 1967 novel Let Me Die in Drag (aka Death of a Transvestite), is an overtly comic, almost Vaudevillian number that plays off the easy irony of a macho, combat-hungry Marine wearing women's underwear beneath his fatigues. The song's rather gimmicky premise is that Ed Wood treats these items of feminine underclothing as if they were human and capable of returning his affection. Very much unlike his real-world counterpart, the Ed Wood in this song has no interest in flesh-and-blood women. All he wants is their unmentionables. Guest vocalist Sara Hickman plays one of his gullible would-be paramours, who doesn't quite get what's going on with Ed.

Sample lyric: "I would wine and dine your bra."

4. "Bela Lugosi" (3:09)  Clearly one of the album's highlights and its arguable centerpiece, this melancholy number portrays the Hungarian actor as a tragic figure along the lines of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" -- a showbiz lifer who finds himself, at the end of a long career, consigned to the dustbin of history, largely forgotten and struggling with substance abuse issues. While Mr. Bojangles couldn't stay out of the county jail because of his persistent drinking problem, Bela requires morphine in order to play Count Dracula for the umpteenth time. The arrangement is evocative. A trilling, angelic female chorus cooing Bela's name and some sighing strings give this song added poignancy. "Bela Lugosi" is a bummer, but it gives The Worst! some added weight and keeps the album from feeling like a silly novelty.

Sample lyric: "The only part they'll hire me for is to play this old vampire whore evermore."

5. "Trash!" (2:40)  Friedman once again changes the entire mood of the album in a heartbeat. "Trash!" is a loud, brash duet between Ed Wood and his typewriter, as portrayed by Jennifer Griffin in the first of her several guest appearances in The Worst! Yes, the typewriter itself has been given a human voice and personality, something like a brassy, sassy, flirtatious cocktail waitress. The typewriter acts as a muse and a siren to Ed as he hammers away it its keyboard, churning out the low-rent sleaze for which he is known. This is quite appropriate, since Eddie spent more time at his writing desk than he ever did behind a camera. The lyrics of the song are not specific about what Ed is writing. Newcomers will assume -- possibly correctly -- that he's typing up screenplays. Diligent Wood-ologists, however, may deduce that "Trash!" is about Eddie's shadowy career as the author of pornographic novels and short stories.

Sample lyric (sung by the typewriter): "Pack me full of cliches, honey! I like men who write real crummy!"

Cowboy Randy Erwin
6."Yodel-Lady" (1:57)  My pick for the oddest song on the album. This is a country number, complete with authentic yodeling by cowboy entertainer Randy Erwin. I guess the prairie motif here is meant to pay tribute to Ed Wood's longtime fixation on cowboy movies and stories. Remember, he tried to break into the B-Western market several times and hired a few veterans of such films (including Johnny Carpenter, Tom Keene, Bud Osborne, and Kenne Duncan) to appear in his own productions, regardless of whether they were appropriate for the roles he was giving them. Lyrically, "Yodel-Lady" covers the exact same ground as "Let Me Die in Angora." On the outside, Ed is a man's man who fought in WWII. But he has a strong feminine side as well, one that manifests itself through cross-dressing. As in Glen or Glenda?, Ed is perhaps too eager to remind us that he is heterosexual, possibly because he is overcompensating for a perceived lack of machismo.

Sample lyric: "Don't ya get the wrong ideer. Guaranteed I ain't no queer."

7. "Exploitation Men" (1:31)  Another highlight of The Worst!, this is a 1950s-style a cappella number performed by a male chorus, snapping their fingers and crooning in close harmony. Not truly specific to the Ed Wood story yet still highly applicable to it, this is a song about the unscrupulous, greedy scumbags that one might encounter in the smut racket. These guys are obviously in it for the money, but they take a little devilish glee in corrupting the morals of the public. Their formula for happiness? "Put on a raincoat, lie to your wife." For you younger or more naive listeners, raincoats were frequently worn by the patrons of pornographic movie theaters because these garments allowed them to masturbate in public without exposing themselves. Like "Trash!" just two tracks ago, this song is vague enough that it could be about either filmmaking or publishing. The sentiments apply to either industry.

Sample lyric: "Narcotics sold by Boy Scout troops turn Girl Scouts into prostitutes."

8. "Bad Dreams" (2:30)  Though she only appeared in one of his movies, Vampira is forever associated with Ed Wood. So if you're going to write a Wood-based musical, you'll need a token Vampira number in there somewhere. That's what "Bad Dreams" is. The famed '50s TV icon, who potently combined sex and death, is portrayed by Jennifer Griffin. Though not nearly as downbeat as Bela's song, "Bad Dreams" is not exactly celebratory. The once-and-future Ms Maila Nurmi seems blandly resigned to her circumscribed role as a TV seductress whose main job is to give children nightmares by showing them movies like White Zombie. It's just what she does. She doesn't seem to feel one way or the other about it. She's Pennywise the Clown reborn as a dutiful nine-to-fiver.

Sample lyric: "Children of L.A., share with me your nights. See me when you pray."

9. "Strippers Audition" (2:14)  Yet another high point of The Worst!, this deceptively upbeat, bouncy composition focuses on one of the seedier aspects of the cruel business we call show. In terms of melody and arrangement, "Strippers Audition" could be an advertising jingle for floor wax or toothpaste. Lyrically, however, it's sung from the perspective of two aspiring starlets (Jennifer Griffin again, plus Kim Pendleton) who wish to appear unclad in one of Ed Wood's sexploitation films and so write him letters of introduction ("Dear Mister Wood...") in which they alternately flatter and criticize their potential boss. The first of these young ladies is nasally and naive, probably a new arrival in Hollywood, fresh off the bus from Peoria or thereabouts. The second has a smoky voice and a cynical outlook. She seems like a gal who's learned some tough lessons. Both want to appear in Eddie's next film, which I'm guessing is Orgy of the Dead. "We wanna star for Ed D. Wood," they chirp. "Make us into monsters! We'll be good!" Ironically, I don't think Eddie had much pull when it came to casting Orgy. These ladies should have sent their 8x10 glossies to Stephen C. Apostolof instead.

Sample lyric: "Your spooks and zombies and your ghouls are mighty queer! So sincere!"

10. "Tor's Theme" (0:49)  Another brief instrumental, this one presaging a full-length number that will surface later in the album. "Tor's Theme" is a lurching circus waltz, suggesting that wrestler/actor Tor Johnson's life was a kind of nonstop traveling freak show, with himself as the prize exhibit.

11. "Criswell Predicts" (0:57) And speaking as we were earlier of Orgy of the Dead, here's a song devoted to that film's soothsaying star. Although less than a minute in length, "Criswell Predicts" feels like two songs grafted together. The chorus, performed by a male vocal group similar to that of "Exploitation Men," is a jolly, Mickey Mouse Club-type anthem praising the phony fortune teller unabashedly. ("Criswell predicts! Your incredible future! Nostradamus of the air!") The verses, though, consist of the man himself giving his loony forecasts in rhyme while a slightly foreboding, moody guitar noodles away in the background. Criswell's voice is put through a filter, making it sound as if it originates from an old TV set or radio. Josh Alan Friedman has no real satirical or critical point to make about Criswell, per se, but through the predictions themselves, we get some insight into the preoccupations and prejudices of his mid-Twentieth-Century audience.

Sample lyric: "A Cuban revolution brews in 1958! Sends Desi Arnaz back to be elected chief of state!"

12. "Tor! Tor!" (3:09) You couldn't very well do an Ed Wood musical without giving a few minutes of it over to Tor Johnson, the bald, hulking "Super Swedish Angel" of wrestling fame who had memorably appeared in both Plan 9 from Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls for Eddie in the 1950s. Johnson's eternal fate was to be the very definition of a gentle giant: the soul of a church mouse in the body of a gorilla. Vampira and Criswell had accepted their outlandish public personae with a sense of what-the-hell pragmatism (hey, an actor's gotta eat, right?), but they were lucky enough to be typecast in more glamorous roles than poor Tor, who was forever playing the brainless bruiser or the monosyllabic monster. This song is rather sympathetic to the man's plight. It reminds me a bit of Randy Newman's "Davy the Fat Boy," another song about a plus-sized fellow who finds himself being exhibited like a freak for the public's amusement. Musically, however, it's closer to a sea chanty like "Blow the Man Down." And for some arcane reason, Friedman has chosen to interpolate a bit of the Scottish folk tune, "Did You Ever See a Lassie?"

Sample lyric: "It's hard to be mean/Make everyone scream."

13. "Ed Types Plan 9" (0:37)  Another brief instrumental, one that might have served as transitional music during a scene change if this show were ever performed onstage. The only sounds here are some rhythmic, percussive typing and some swooning inhalations in the background. Obsolete though it may now be, the typewriter made a grand noise, didn't it? Artists as diverse as Leroy Anderson ("The Typewriter"), Raymond Scott ("The Girl at the Typewriter"), and Dolly Parton ("9 to 5") have taken advantage of the device's percussive possibilities. Shame to think we're losing that.

14. "Bela's Funeral Dirge" (2:37)  A mostly-instrumental composition that builds off the melody from track #4 to lovely, elegiac effect. A chorus of angels coos the actor's name, but those are the only lyrics here. The arrangement subtly suggests either traditional Hungarian music or the folk songs of European gypsies. Bela Lugosi, let's not forget, memorably portrayed a gypsy (named Bela!) in 1941's The Wolf Man for Universal. Although the makers of The Worst! are quick to point out that their album precedes Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood, it's worth noting that Bela receives a similar musical treatment from Howard Shore, who composed the score for Burton's film. Shore, like Josh Alan Friedman, creates special themes and motifs for Lugosi, ones with a certain "old country" flavor to them. Unlike Friedman, however, Shore explicitly quotes from Swan Lake to make the Dracula association unmistakable.

15. "The Worst!" (4:05)  The album's title track is also its longest and the last one to have any lyrics, so if there were ever a time for Josh Alan Friedman to make his thesis statement for this project, it's now. Did Friedman come here to bury Ed Wood or to praise him? It's a cop-out, but I'll have to say "both" and "neither." The song's lyrics can be simultaneously brutal and forgiving, referring to Ed Wood as "la crème de movie scum," a backhanded compliment that is reminiscent of something John Candy said about Eddie in It Came from Hollywood. "Ed Wood," declared Candy, "stands alone at the foot of the heap." Eddie was no damned good, Candy and Friedman are apparently telling us, but at least he was the best at being the worst.

The rest of the song's lyrics give us some fun factoids about Eddie's life, with a few urban legends sprinkled over the top like jimmies on a sundae. This song covers much of the same ground as Tim Burton's nearly-contemporaneous movie: the colorblind cameraman, the critic who didn't show up to review Ed's play, the church that financed Plan 9 but only if Ed and his cast would be baptized first, etc. And there are some fibs here, too, like the references to Eddie using hubcaps as flying saucers and "raid[ing] Paramount's dumpsters" for props. Neither of those stories are true, appealing as they may be.

Curiously, Eddie's rampant, decades-long alcoholism is never brought up. Not here. Not anywhere on the album. Overall, "The Worst!" is a surprisingly pretty and poignant little folk song, presenting Eddie as a B-movie Ozymandias who brags to one of his actresses (played by avant garde musician Phoebe Legere): "Trust in me, I'll give you immortality!" The most interesting musical touch is a clarinet solo that briefly lends a klezmer-like feel to the piece, the only hint of Friedman's Jewish heritage on this entire album.

Sample lyric: "I'm no technician! Direction is the art of a mortician!"

16. "Overture (Elevator Mix)"  (4:03)  Although it's the second-longest track on The Worst!, this album-closing instrumental feels like a bit of an afterthought. It's just a medley of prominent themes from the show. I counted "Kodak City Special," "Bela Lugosi," "Tor! Tor!," "Strippers Audition," "The Worst!" and "Trash!" Only "Kodak" is arranged to sound like elevator music, though. I was sort of hoping Friedman would carry that conceit through the track. He didn't. Still, it's a nice little capper to the album, especially since track #15 ends very suddenly with no real sense of finality.


Josh Alan Friedman's The Worst! is the kind of album I would never, ever have discovered if I hadn't gone digging through the flotsam and jetsam of Ed Wood's career, hunting for new discoveries and fresh input. In the preparation of this article, I've probably listened to it in its entirety about a dozen times, until the words and music became second-nature to me. I'm still not sure whether or not I "love" it (whatever that verb means), but I don't regret having purchased it, and I'm glad to know that it's sitting there in my iTunes library whenever I choose to summon it.

With a squeaky-clean conscience, I can recommend it to the curious and the semi-curious alike. That's more than I can say for many (most?) of the movies in this series. Unlike those low-budget flicks, there is no hint of amateur-hour sloppiness to The Worst! On the contrary, this album boasts high production values and excellent sound quality. This is no homemade demo by overzealous fans. It's clearly the product of people who know what the hell they're doing. Maybe that's why my feelings toward it are admiration and appreciation rather than affection. There's something a little too slick about The Worst! It's fun, but it never quite pierces the skin.

Next: Folks, I don't know how much I should tell you about the next installment in this series other than to say that it's an experiment that will more than likely fail. It's self-indulgent, certainly, but if one cannot indulge one's self, than whom can one indulge? You might think that I'm being deliberately vague and unhelpful. I apologize for that, but I don't want to scare you away. Let's just say the next article is more for me than it is for you, but you're still invited to read it anyway. How about that? If that sounds fair to you, then make your way back here in two short weeks for The Secret Testimony of Miserable Souls.