Category Archives: Journalism

The Weird and Wonderful World of Richard Matheson

The writer Richard Matheson was born to Norwegian immigrant parents in New Jersey on February 20th, 1926. He had his first story published when he was eight years old. After graduating from high school, he joined the army, serving in the US infantry with the 87th Division in France and Germany during World War II. His experiences of warfare formed the basis of his 1960 novel “The Beardless Warriors.”

After the war, he studied journalism at the University of Missouri and moved to California. Summer 1950 saw Matheson make his first real mark as a writer when his short story “Born of Man and Woman” was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and drew attention. It had the kind of frightening science fiction themes that became Matheson’s trademark and was the first of dozens of short stories he would publish over the next two decades.

iamlegend

“I Am Legend” from 1954 was his first published novel and is probably his masterpiece (it was voted the best vampire novel of the 20th century by the Horror Writers Association in 2012) A daring deconstruction of the vampire legend, it flips the whole narrative on its head by making the last man alive the destructive predator that vampires fear and despise as he systematically wipes them out by day following a futuristic plague.

omega

It was adapted for film as “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price in 1964, again as “The Omega Man” in 1971 with Charlton Heston and, more recently, in 2007 with Will Smith.

i-am-legend-2-will-smith

The book may have been about vampires but its main theme was loneliness and there are few better books about that subject. As the main character Neville is alone most of the time, it’s a difficult story to write but Matheson does a great job of keeping the reader engaged with his solitary hero in his nightmare world. “I Am Legend” also served as the direct inspiration for classic zombie movie “Night of the Living Dead”, giving birth to a whole new genre of film, almost as if the vampire pandemic gave birth to zombies.

He was also a successful television writer, penning episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “Star Trek” as well as numerous western shows.

screenshot-2017-03-01-at-12-31-22-am

His 1956 novel “The Shrinking Man” (filmed in 1957 as “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, which Matheson also wrote the screenplay for) has been ripped off by everything from “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” to last year’s “Ant Man.” It had its New York premiere 60 years ago this week in February 1957. In 2009, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” was placed in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, this accolade is only given to films that are “aesthetically, historically or culturally significant.”

nightmare-at-20000-feet

“The Twilight Zone” seemed made for Matheson and another famous story of his, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, was filmed for the show among others. It concerned a nervous flyer (played by William Shatner in the 1963 TV show and John Lithgow in the Twilight Zone movie twenty years later) who is convinced a demon is smashing up the wing of the passenger plane he is on during a vicious thunderstorm. No one believes him, even when he saves the lives of everyone on board by trying to kill the creature and forcing it to flee.

the_nightmare_at_20_000_feet_by_lupographics-d5ozhnr

terror-simpsons-twilight

The Simpsons did a parody of this story in one of their Halloween specials where Bart Simpson sees a demon dismantling the wheels of the school bus he’s on. Demonstrating how his stories are so ingrained now in popular culture.

the_devil_rides_out_t00-mkv_snapshot_00-43-04_2012-11-11_12-52-29

In 1968, he adapted Dennis Wheatley’s novel “The Devil Rides Out” for Britain’s Hammer Horror films. It is one of the best British horror movies ever made and features Christopher Lee in one of his finest roles as a man battling the forces of darkness.

duel

His nerve-shredding TV movie script for “Duel” became Steven Spielberg’s first film in 1971.

screenshot-2017-03-01-at-12-49-08-am

Other Matheson novels made into films include “Bid Time Return” which became “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour (arguably a big influence on “Back To The Future” and “The Terminator”), “What Dreams May Come” with Robin Williams, “Stir of Echoes”, a supernatural horror film starring Kevin Bacon and “Real Steel”, a sci-fi action movie about fighting robots with Hugh Jackman.

what-dreams-may-come-film-images-117c7ee8-c979-4079-ae8f-e1901b4b1d9

He once said: “I wrote about real people and real circumstances and real neighbourhoods. There was no crypt or castles or H.P. Lovecraft-type environments. They were just about normal people who had something bizarre happening to them in the neighbourhood. I could never write about strange kingdoms. I could never do Harry Potter or anything like that.”

Assessing his career, he said: “I think ‘What Dreams May Come’ is the most important (read effective) book I’ve written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death, the finest tribute any writer could receive. … Somewhere In Time is my favourite novel.”

His daughter and two sons also became writers.

Richard Matheson died in June 2013. He left behind a significant body of work including dozens of novels, short stories, TV show scripts, TV movies and movies both adapted by him from his own work and adapted by others. Writer Ray Bradbury called him “one of the most important writers of the 20th century.” While Stephen King claimed Matheson was the writer who had influenced him the most. Another writer called Harlan Ellison praised his “supernova lifetime of writing mentioned in the same breath with Poe and Borges.” That is about as good as it gets.

I’ll leave the final word to Mr Matheson: “I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another.” You certainly have, sir, you certainly have.

(“The Vorbing”, my vampire novel inspired by Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” is available here)
© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Advertisements

Press Self-Destruct: Newspaper Dinosaurs in the Digital Age

If I ever have grandchildren, I’m sure I’ll tell them about the time a newspaper did an article about me. “What’s a newspaper, granddad?” they’ll ask with genuine wonder.

Traditional or “legacy” media (a term which already appears to have consigned television, radio and newspapers to history’s dustbin) forms are struggling to survive in the 21st century. Newspapers, in particular, are seeing sales drop at an alarming rate which, in turn, reduces advertising revenue and only older, die-hard brand loyalists are happy to pay to access content on newspaper websites. It tries to roll with the times to stay afloat by hiring bloggers and sourcing stories from hackers and activists (or “hacktivists”, if you will).

The problem is that the newspaper business model of is dying and the purveyors of the new business model are not only deciding what crumbs to feed the press, they’re naming their price too.

newspaper-extinction-timeline

There is now a timescale for the demise of newspapers in most countries. It is comparable to how self-publishing challenged the dominance of printed books. Reports of the end of hardback and paperback books have been prematurely announced many times in the last decade. Then sales of ebooks dropped and the electronic takeover didn’t happen. It turns out that people like the feel and smell of a real book. Technology has an annoying habit of losing power or breaking down. Recharging is not always possible but printed books never need that just a light source to read from.

ebookvsbookThe internet had a similar affect on music too. The mp3 file appeared to have trumped vinyl records which were in a similar decline. Now vinyl sections of record stores are growing as are sales. There’s life in the old analogue dog yet.

41984_3

Could print media stage a similar comeback? It’s probably wishful thinking as news or rather the information itself is freely available from endless sources. If newspapers charge for content, people can get it somewhere else for free. Citizen journalists don’t have the resources of a major newspaper or that Pulitzer cachet, but they do have that most precious modern commodity in abundance – time. Printed newspapers report yesterday’s news, by which stage a newer story has broken online. Yes, the papers can update their websites but the loyalty is to the information and whoever breaks it first now and not the brand. Even if a newspaper gets a scoop, it can be repackaged by news aggregrator sites and the reader may not even know who originally broke it. In the frenzy to get likes and shares and the kudos of being first with news, the basic courtesy of a hat tip to the originator of a story also appears to be endangered.

So it appears the newspaper is terminal decline. It was a remarkable phenomenon while it lasted but, sadly, it seems to be going or have already gone the way of the Dodo.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

 

Capital Punishment: The Ghosts of Death Sentences Passed

The death penalty question has been dragged kicking and screaming into the headlines again this week after the execution of a man in Alabama who appeared to be still conscious during his execution. It was reported that he “coughed” “heaved” and clenched his fists as the authorities began administering lethal injections to end his life. He had been convicted of the murder of a man during a robbery in 1994. The jury gave him a life sentence which was overruled by the judge who imposed the death penalty as judges in Alabama are allowed to do. The execution has prompted 101 lawyers and legal professors in Alabama to call for the removal of 34 inmates from death row who were put there by a judge overruling a jury’s verdict.

So let us take a look at the history of the death penalty.

“Since 1976, 1,348 people have been executed in the US, but in that time 136 people have been exonerated from death row on the grounds that they categorically could not have committed the crime for which they were sentenced to death. In other words, for every ten people on death row who are executed, at least one person on death row is innocent.” – Dr Bharat Malkani, Birmingham Law School

There is no way back from an execution. Like any of man’s constructs, the death penalty is fallible. Innocent people have been executed throughout history. No amount of compensation can replace a human life.

The Guildford Four were three innocent Irishmen and an Englishwoman found guilty of carrying out the IRA pub bombings in Guildford in England in 1974. As he sentenced them, the judge, Mr Justice Donaldson, lamented the fact that he was unable to impose a death sentence on them as capital punishment had been abolished in England in 1965. He said he would have no hesitation in having them executed. (The judge even asked the home secretary why they weren’t charged with treason as that was the only way he could have them put to death) Imagine how those innocent people felt hearing those chilling words.  The Guildford Four were exonerated and released from prison in 1989. Their story was told in the movie In The Name of the Father starring Daniel Day Lewis.

inthenameofthefather3

Even though the rate of capital and non-capital murder offences increased after the abolition of the death penalty in England, Scotland and Wales in 1965, it’s arguable that those figures would have risen anyway given the more permissive attitudes of the late 1960s and the proliferation of gun use in British criminal circles starting with the headline-grabbing Kray and Richardson gangs.

New forensic methods and tools are becoming available all the time now, things unavailable in the past when death sentences were decided and handed down. Cold cases are being solved, convictions quashed and people are being set free. What future developments will arrive to challenge the evidential certainties of today?

The death sentence happens all over the world with China heading up Amnesty International’s league chart for having the most executions. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States take up the next four positions.

The death penalty in Western countries has been around for centuries and would appear to have moral backing. The Bible calls for “an eye for an eye” or the law of retaliation. Leviticus 24:20 says: “Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.” As Gandhi succinctly put it, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” BBC Learning interpreted and expanded on this quote: “This famous quote refers to an Old Testament reference regarding the legal penalties for violence. Gandhi rejected violence as a means to change, and only engaged in peaceful ways of protest. A version of this quote was in fact also used by Dr Martin Luther King Jr during the struggle for civil rights and equality in the USA. Both men were proponents of the power of the people and their peaceful methods carried great weight and helped bring about social change.”

christoncross

If you wanted to take a pro-Christian view of the death penalty, you could argue that Jesus was an innocent man put to death for nothing. Even Pontius Pilate stated that he could see no wrongdoing on the part of Christ. Nevertheless, the execution went ahead to placate the baying mob, the local elders and to maintain peace in the region. So it is not simply a case of innocence or guilt, the death penalty, as almost happened in the cases of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, can be abused as a political tool with sacrificial scapegoats slaughtered because someone wants blood.

Prejudice plays a part in executions too. If a person belongs to a socially-reviled group, race or social class, there probably won’t be a big effort to save them either.

The families of some victims are against the death penalty, some for humanitarian reasons, some because they think execution is a quick, easy escape from what the offender has done to their loved ones. They want them to spend the rest of their lives rotting in prison and contemplating their actions. The execution of the focus of their rage may not bring the closure they hoped for. It can prove anti-climactic when people get what they think they want.

It is very expensive to keep people in prison for decades. And, in countries with huge prison populations like the United States and China, there is chronic overcrowding. So, to use horrific Holocaust economics, the death penalty is cost effective and recycles occupied space. No politician will publicly admit this but these are the decisions being taken in countries with the capital punishment on their statute books.

Whatever heinous act someone has committed, the “life” they are allowed on death row is non-existent. In the United States, death row prisoners can wait many years before their execution, with no hope for the future. They appeal and appeal and appeal and go back and forth to courtrooms endlessly. Depression is common among death row inmates but they are placed on suicide watch to prolong their psychological torture. When all legal options have been exhausted, a date of execution is set. There have even been stories of men sitting in the death chamber getting last-minute reprieves and being taken back to their cells on death row (essentially a mock execution). That is mental cruelty of the highest order. Even worse are the stories of executions going wrong with inmates suffering agonising injuries and/or a slow death. (Saddam Hussein’s half-brother was accidentally decapitated during a botched hanging in Iraq in 2007.)  A state that retains such a barbaric system loses something of itself that it can never recover.

Yes, there are some people who are beyond rehabilitation and will always be a threat to society. The solution is not to put them down like animals. We have surely evolved beyond the sadistic public executions of the Middle Ages.

guy-fawkes-3

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

“You Can Quote Me On That” – The wise ramblings of Stewart Stafford (Slideshow)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

cpgvazjxyaaf_op

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Legacy?

“I’m not just a boxer!” Muhammad Ali once said. He wasn’t. He was so much more than that. Apart from his fluid, balletic boxing skills in the ring, he was one of the first sportsmen to use psychology to wear down his opponents before a punch had been thrown. He was fighting some of the toughest, hardest-punching men in the world but he cleverly figured out that they had built up their bodies but neglected their minds. So he used words like weapons, chipping away at his rival’s psyche until they were beaten men and didn’t even know it. That tactic certainly worked with the brutish Sonny Liston in the 60s. Just watch the old black-and-white press conferences as Ali fires one verbal missile after another and world champion Liston can’t believe what he’s hearing from this cocky young pup.

Ali I Am The Greatest

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay. He changed his name for this reason: “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God – and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.” He grew up in a time when black Americans were third-class citizens. He won the Light Heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, came back to America, and, when they refused to serve him in a restaurant because of his colour, he went outside and threw his gold medal in the river. Even after becoming Olympic champion for America, no one believed in him. So he believed in himself. He could use words to attack but he could also use words to pump himself up. He called himself The Greatest until he and the world believed it. It gave him the confidence, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, to make his dreams a reality against the tide of begrudgers who wished him ill.

He used words to taunt but he also wrote poems, told jokes and gave speeches to inspire. Some credit Ali with being the first rapper and creating hip-hop music.

Ali Handcuffed Lightning

In 1974, Ali had perhaps his most famous fight, The Rumble in The Jungle in Zaire, Africa against George Foreman. Nobody gave the ageing Ali a chance. If you watch the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, you’ll see the extraordinary mental process Ali engaged in to psych himself up for the fight. He begins at the first press conference asking who thinks he can win the fight. Nobody does and he seems down. Then he goes on the attack against his critics. Then he starts working on himself: “Everybody’s scared…there’s nothing to be scared of!” You can see he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying yet but he keeps going. He turned to his religion for reassurance: “All I need is a prayer because if that prayer reaches the right man, not only will George Foreman fall, mountains will fall!” Ali refused to watch Foreman training, even when they passed each other in the gym. He blocked out his fear. Then Ali tried a different form of psychology on Foreman, a similar brute to Sonny Liston. Ali was 32 then, his speed had left him and he needed a new tactic. He called it rope-a-dope in which he would go to the ropes and absorb punishment before launching a surprise counterattack when the other fighter was exhausted.

Ali Foreman

When fight night came, Ali started throwing right-hand leads at Foreman. As in any battle, doing the thing your opponent least expects usually ends favourably. A right-hand lead has to travel twice as far across the shoulder to land and it’s hugely disrespectful to any fighter especially the champion of the world to catch him with one let alone twelve as Ali did. Foreman, enraged, punched himself out in the blistering African heat and Ali shocked the world by winning back his world title at the past-it age of 32.

Ali Knocks Out Foreman

Ali was a political figure too. He became a black Muslim and changed his name, that was a political act. He was involved in the Civil Rights struggle with Malcolm X, that was a political act. And he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army to go fight in Vietnam, there is no greater political act than that. He said: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” Ali was stripped of his titles, boxing licence and was out of the ring for four years in his prime. He didn’t sit around and mope but went on a tour of American colleges to get the young people on his side (and against the war) with his wit, charm and intelligence. Another political act.

Ali He who is not courageous

Those four years out of boxing cost Ali huge sums of money. Financial pressure and his enormous pride made Ali continue fighting long past his prime. His last, disgraceful fight came three months before his 39th birthday. An ailing, flabby Ali was easily outclassed and hurt by his old sparring partner Larry Holmes. It was an undignified end to an incredible career.

Then began the next great fight of his life when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome and the verbose Ali was replaced with a trembling, whispering giant. He still managed to light the Olympic flame at the 1996 games, a highlight for anyone who remembers it. His condition worsened in recent years until he was unable to speak. For the last 30 years, this has been his frail public image. If any good comes from his death, it will be that all his classic clips will get aired again so today’s youth can see what the man was like in his dazzling pomp.

joe_frazier

Ali had a dark side too. Fellow boxer Joe Frazier helped Ali out financially when he was banned from the ring. Ali later turned on Frazier, ruined his reputation by calling him an Uncle Tom and a bitter feud developed between them.

Frazier Drops Ali Bigger

It resulted in Frazier breaking Ali’s jaw and knocking him out in their epic Madison Square Garden encounter in 1971 (that resulted in Ali being out of the ring again for a good while). Despite having a white Irish great-grandfather named Abe Grady who’d married a freed slave out of love (not slave rape as Ali conveniently claimed), Ali said some nasty, racist things about white people including: “The white man is The Devil!” He even compared the white race to poisonous snakes. Pretty distasteful stuff but typical of the hardline rhetoric he was absorbing from radicals around him at the time. In 1972, Ali went to Ireland and received a rapturous reception from a then all-white country. Jose Torres, journalist and former world light-heavyweight champion who accompanied Ali to Dublin, said: “I want to tell you something now: I think that it was his experience in Ireland that reminded him of the goodness of white people and he began easing his attacks on the white man after that. It was when he began to take out of his dictionary the talk about the white devils. How could he think bad of white people when every street he walked down in Ireland, he had all these white people loving him?” In 2009, Muhammad Ali journeyed to Ennis in Ireland (below) where his great-grandfather came from and everything came full circle.

Ali Ennis Boxing Pose

Like Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ali is “a man more sinned against than sinning.” History will be kind to him.

Muhammad-Ali-quote-on-Elvis

When Elvis Presley died in 1977, the Soviet news agency Tass granted him American icon status along with Mickey Mouse and Coca Cola. Muhammad Ali has more than earned that status too. So long denied recognition, Ali forced the United States to overcome its prejudices and acknowledge him and his people. That is perhaps his greatest victory and a lasting legacy that will inspire people of every race, colour and creed for generations to come. May he rest in peace.

Ali How I Would Like To Be Remembered

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

David Bowie – Anonymous Icon

“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just in the right place to do something exciting.”

David Bowie

Bowie 60s Album

David Bowie was all wrong for the 1960s for many reasons. Firstly, he tried to fit in with whatever trend was happening at the time. He hadn’t found his own look or voice yet. We’re all guilty of mimicking our influences until we find ourselves. (Some of Bowie’s 60s output has been compared to The Who. During the recording of Under Pressure with Queen in 1981, Brian May played a take and said it sounded like The Who. Sixties Bowie might have been pleased with the comparison but not the Bowie of 1981. He frowned and said to Brian May: “Well, it won’t sound like The Who by the time we’ve finished with it.” He was not an imitator anymore but an innovator pushing for perfection.)

David Bowie had been ignored in the 1960s. He had been trying since he was 15 in 1962 to break into music with various bands, images and sounds. He’d been a mod, an acoustic hippy and even tried putting out novelty records like The Laughing Gnome. After seven years, he had only managed one hit right at the tail-end of the decade in September 1969 with Space Oddity (he’d never be allowed that much time in today’s music business and the world would miss out on a spectacular talent). For nearly three years after that, nothing he tried worked.

The late sixties were all about Flower Power and everyone being one with each other and the Earth. Bowie, with his unusual eyes, was about the opposite – the outsider.

Bowie 60s Eyes

Bowie wasn’t going to be ignored again and decided on a new strategy for the 1970s. He would push his outsider look about as far as it could go to become the gender-bending extraterrestrial messiah Ziggy Stardust in the 1970s. Whereas Elvis was himself, Bowie would play a character to become a superstar, an interesting twist on what The King had started. It was influenced by the androgynous look of Little Richard in the 50s and Bowie was a huge fan of that.

“It’s always time to question what has become standard and established,” he said.

Bowie Dress

David Bowie wasn’t going to follow the crowd and try to fit in anymore. He was going to use shock tactics and press everyone’s buttons. He was going to wear a dress and publicly state that he was gay despite being married to Angie (the gay thing is no big deal these days, back then the impact of such a statement was seismic. Many Hollywood stars like Rock Hudson denied they were gay in interviews until the end as they were afraid it would ruin their careers. As Bowie didn’t really have a career at the time, it had the reverse effect and was the making of him).

Bowie was clever enough to figure out that there are two ways to get your message out there; advertising (which costs money) and publicity (which is free). He was going to make the press work for him by tossing them eye-opening quotes and posing for provocative pictures to make them do the work of drumming up interest in his career with headlines. While wearing dresses didn’t give him the breakthrough he craved, it gave him his first unique image and people started to remember him. Bowie was moving in the right direction.

To give an example of how brave David Bowie was, he decided to walk around TEXAS wearing A DRESS in the early 70s! A guy called him a fag and pointed a loaded gun at his head. Did it phase Bowie? Nope, on the contrary, it proved his shock tactics were working. He was getting noticed at last. He wasn’t following another trend, he was setting his own. Bowie would do exactly what he wanted in the 1970s and nobody was going to stop him and they didn’t. He was about to take things even further and really push the boundaries of what was acceptable.

Bowie Fellatio 2

On June 17th 1972, Bowie performed mock fellatio on guitarist Mick Ronson at a show in Oxford. Bowie’s manager Tony De Fries took Mick Rock’s photo and had it made into a full-page advert in music paper Melody Maker. There were repercussions and paint was thrown on the front door of the house in Hull where Mick Ronson’s parents lived. Paint was also thrown on the car he’d bought them. Ronson left the tour but was persuaded to return. If Bowie was going to suffer for his art, so were those around him.

Bowie-Ronson-Starman-TOTP

On July 6th 1972, David Bowie appeared in what would be a life-changing performance of Starman on the now-defunct Top of the Pops. During his spot, guitarist Mick Ronson joined him to harmonise and Bowie draped his arm around him in a limp-wristed fashion. Bowie knew exactly what he was doing. A young Boy George remembered his grandmother saying “oh, he’s a poofter!” when she saw Bowie make that gesture and similar statements were uttered in homes all over Britain. Of course, anything parents didn’t like was automatically what kids were going to get into and they flocked to Bowie in their droves as new fans (concert audiences began to grow noticeably after this). It was a masterstroke. In a Stardust flash, David Bowie was a star after a decade of trying. Such was the power of television then. It had made Elvis a star in the 50s, saved his career with the ’68 Comeback Special and did the same for Bowie in 1972.

Bowie Eyepatch

The Ziggy Stardust image was such a hit, Bowie said “I thought I might as well take Ziggy out to interviews as well. Why leave him on the stage? Why not complete the canvas? Looking back it was completely absurd. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity. I can’t deny that experience affected me in a very exaggerated and marked manner. I think I put myself very dangerously near the line. Not in a physical sense, but definitely in a mental sense.”

While Bowie appeared to be telling all his most intimate secrets to the world, what he was really doing was projecting a fake image of himself and revealing nothing. In later years, long after he stopped playing characters, he retained that air of mystery even up until his death (especially after his enforced retirement following a minor heart attack on stage in 2004).

Bowie Finger
Check the finger, Paparazzi!

 

It’s something he has in common with Freddie Mercury, both men hid in plain sight for decades. When you look at the information they left behind about themselves, it seems to tell you a lot but doesn’t. They showed but didn’t tell and perfected the politician’s art of doublespeak. That is why the public remain fascinated with them and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Film Review: Spotlight

This review is spoiler-free.

Spotlight is the story of how journalists at the Spotlight newspaper in Boston exposed child abuse in the Catholic Church at the turn of the century. It desperately wants to be All The President’s Men, but just isn’t good enough. Ben Bradley Jr. is a character in this film. His father, Ben Bradley, was editor of The Washington Post when they broke the story of the Watergate break-in that ultimately brought Richard Nixon’s presidency to an ignominious end. Spotlight also tries to get into the nuts and bolts of what a day in the life of a newspaper is actually like. From all the staff meetings and editorial decisions that have to be taken to the subsequent journalistic legwork on the street, it’s structurally identical to All The President’s Men. (This movie is set in 2001 and it is strange how none of the information the journalists need is gleaned from the internet. It all comes from books, paper files or knocking on doors. There’s another deliberate attempt to ape President’s Men. Spotting something on a computer screen is nowhere near as dramatic as a shock face-to-face revelation with actors.)

The Spotlight team comprises Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams among others. Keaton has already played a newspaper man in 1994’s The Paper. There were some key early acting beats that Keaton fluffed, I thought (that comic bouncy walk of his is all wrong for this movie), but his performance gets better as the movie goes on. Maybe he’s miscast in this and someone with more gravitas might have been better.

The film kicks off with some forced comic relief (no one in the cinema laughed, that’s flawed writing) as the makers know there are a litany of depressing abuse stories ahead and try to lighten the load for the audience. It was similar to Suffragette in that way.

There are further problems with the script. At one point, Mark Ruffalo even yells “We gotta nail these scumbags!” in one of many righteous rants from various characters in the film. That’s a cliché straight out of every cop movie you’ve ever seen. They don’t need to overdo convincing an audience that child abuse is wrong by judging their characters like that. “I was just doin’ my job!” is another chestnut, the equivalent of a Holocaust movie where a former Nazi says they were only following orders (the parallels are deliberate and subtle as a sledgehammer. The character that says that line is Spotlight’s equivalent of the informant Deep Throat from President’s Men, thankfully there are no references to Deep Throat in this as it would have been entirely inappropriate given the sensitive subject matter.) There’s another cliché recycled from Thrillersville later on when there’s a race-against-time to get a crucial source to confirm vital information. Guess what happens.

The church administrators are all soulless, dead-eyed politicians using every trick in the book (guilt trips, threats, intimidation and the law itself) to keep the truth of clerical abuse from being made public. It’s a simplistic black-and-white good vs evil story with some unforgivable hackneyed moments in it. (Even the title plays into black-and-white simplicity, with the crusading journalists shining a spotlight on the darkness of the Catholic Church’s sins. The journalists are such martyrs that they even injure themselves putting on their dishwashers due to the stress of the investigation) Great movies play around in the grey areas more, as that’s where realism lies. The acting, writing and direction in Spotlight are okay, nothing remarkable.

You could sense the movie’s lack of buzz at the announcement of the Oscar nominations recently. Every time Spotlight got one, there was silence. It does feel like it was conceived as worthy Oscar-bait and, as such, it follows the awards rulebook to the letter.

Spotlight is a good film striving for greatness that’s beyond its reach.

Perhaps Spotlight’s best moment comes when it fades to a black screen at the end and lists the names of all the places where abuse scandals involving Catholic clergy have come to light around the world. The screen is filled with them page after page after page. That is truly chilling. Images speak louder than words.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

When Stardust Met Mercury

“Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest. He took it over the edge. And of course, I always admired a man who wears tights. I only saw him in concert once and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.”

David Bowie on Freddie Mercury

It is interesting how many times the lives and careers of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury intersected over the years. Bowie, struggling to make a name for himself in the late 60s, played a gig at Freddie’s college, Imperial in London (Bowie never went to college but was self-taught and a voracious reader). Freddie was there to help out. As there was no stage, Bowie told Freddie and the others to help him push some desks together to create a makeshift one and the show went ahead.

Freddie had a desire to become a rock star himself but was struggling to write songs. The man, who in just a few short years would go on to write what is routinely cited as the best song of all-time, Bohemian Rhapsody, would bang his head in frustration on his piano and ask: “how do they do it?” It’s possible he took inspiration from Bowie, a man writing his own material and performing it before Freddie’s very eyes. Bowie’s visual element wasn’t yet there. There’s no doubt that Freddie took inspiration from it when it was. Freddie changed his name to Mercury, messenger of the Gods but also a planet, just as Bowie had christened his alter ego Stardust in a celestial fashion. It was the Dionysian god-like approach to rock music that Jim Morrison had taken earlier.

Freddie and Queen drummer Roger Taylor had a stall in Kensington Market selling exotic clothes and various bits of tat. Even then, Freddie had an eye for the visual. So did Bowie, once again their paths crossed. Freddie’s stall with Roger was going nowhere, so they decided to close it. Freddie got a job at another stall. One day, David Bowie showed up looking for a pair of boots. Freddie fitted him for a pair and sold them to him (did Bowie remember Freddie from Imperial College? It’s possible he didn’t, but Freddie almost certainly remembered him. It wasn’t the first time a star had come down and bought something at the stall where Freddie worked. Noddy Holder from Slade dropped by and bought his iconic mirrored top hat there: “I got the hat off a guy in Kensington market, called Freddie,” Noddy said. “He said: ‘One day I’m gonna be a big pop star like you.’ I said: ‘Fuck off, Freddie.’ He became Freddie Mercury.” So Freddie was playing an important backstage part in glam rock already, seeing their choices, helping them into them and watching their fans react.)

NoddyHolder
Noddy Hoider of Slade with the hat Freddie sold him
Bowie Dress
Bowie in his pre-Ziggy dress-wearing phase

Roll on a few years and David Bowie has found his musical mojo in the character of alien rock god Ziggy Stardust. The 1970s were going to be about the visuals as much as the music.

Photo of David Bowie
Bowie as Ziggy Stardust Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor recalls: “Freddie and I saw the first Ziggy gig at Friar’s Aylesbury. We drove down in my Mini. We loved it. I’d seen him there about three weeks before in the long hair and the dress. Suddenly you saw this spiky head coming on stage. You thought, wha-a-at??? They looked like spacemen.” Once again, Bowie was taking chances on stage as Mercury took mental notes in the audience.

Queen soon joined Bowie in the ranks of rock stardom. Bowie and Mercury both worked seperately with photographer Mick Rock. Rock was particularly fond of an old shot of German actress Marlene Dietrich and asked David and Freddie if they wanted to recreate it. Both divas saw the visual possibilities and favourable comparisons with glamorous old Hollywood and responded.

Mercury Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich (left) and Mick Rock’s recreation with Freddie Mercury (right)

Mercury’s Dietrich pose would form the basis of Queen’s cover of their second album “Queen II” and be recreated in the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975.

Queen II

Bowie Dietrich
Bowie’s Dietrich pose photographed by Mick Rock

In October 1977, Queen and Bowie released very similar anthems. Queen had “We Are The Champions” and Bowie had “Heroes.” They are both played regularly at sporting events.

Fast-forward to Montreux, Switzerland in 1981. Queen are recording their album Hot Space at Mountain Studios there. Bowie happens to be in town the same night at his apartment there. Engineer David Richards sees a chance at rock history and invites Bowie down to the studio. Bowie does backing vocals for Queen’s track “Cool Cat” (he later refuses permission for the song to be released and insists that his vocals are taken off the track. Some advance tapes had already been sent out with Bowie’s backing vocals on them and are worth quite a lot of money today. The song, minus Bowie’s vocals, was included on Hot Space) In the studio though, everyone seems happy and relaxed with Bowie’s minor contribution. Bowie wants more though and suggests that they write a song together. Roger Taylor already had a track called “Feel Like” which has many background elements of what would become “Under Pressure.” It would be rewritten, have Bowie’s vocals that classic John Deacon bassline added.

“Feel Like” demo

Bowie and Queen could have written an obvious song about love but chose to write about pressure which is something both camps clearly understood. Fans only hear the joy in most music without considering the blood, sweat and tears that sometimes goes into the creation of it. Big stars that write their own material have to keep topping what they’ve done before. They become hostages to their own talent and fanbase in a way. So pressure was the common ground that Bowie and Queen chose to occupy and occupy it spectacularly they did.

Bowie took over the session which seems to have unnerved Brian May: “It was very hard, because you already had four precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us.” May said Bowie “took over the song lyrically” and demanded control of the last mixing session. (Roger Taylor didn’t seem to mind Bowie’s instructions and felt that Queen could have done more with him at a later date.)

“Under Pressure” studio take

There is a well-known story of the vocal sparring session that developed between Mercury and Bowie. They weren’t supposed to hear the other’s contribution so as to keep their improvisations fresh. However, Bowie was secretly listening to what Mercury was doing. When Mercury got suspicious as to how Bowie was perfectly counterpointing him, Queen’s German producer Mack revealed the deception. “The bastard,” Mercury swore. It wasn’t the only way these two titans were competing with quantities of wine and cocaine allegedly being consumed to jazz up proceedings in the 24-hour session.

As the line “People On Streets” is repeated in the song, that was its title until it became “Under Pressure” at the last minute. Bowie refused to film a video for it but, even so, it gave Queen their second number one when it was released in November 1981 just after the release of their first and best Greatest Hits album. Bowie had hit the top spot the previous year with “Ashes to Ashes” and he would have another chart-topper 18 months later in 1983 with “Let’s Dance.” So the experiment worked for all concerned and is now considered one of the best duets ever recorded (even better than Bowie’s duet with Bing Crosby, although that seems to grow in popularity every Christmas and will again, no doubt, with Bowie’s death.) With “Under Pressure,” David Bowie became a part of Queen history and vice versa.

Bowie Mercury 80s

Their paths crossed again at Live Aid in 1985, when Queen gave what is generally considered the greatest live performance of all-time . Bowie had the unenviable task of having to go on after them and he raised his game. Queen did him a favour in one way as the crowd were already fired up from their performance and Bowie didn’t have to do much to excite them even though he did with a rousing rendition of “Rebel Rebel” and a seminal performance of “Heroes.”

The bassline from “Under Pressure” was sampled in the 1990 Vanilla Ice song “Ice Ice Baby” which also reached number one and once again brought the combined careers of Bowie and Mercury to public attention.

david-bowie-and-freddie-mercury-90s

Freddie Mercury knew he was dying for years before his actual passing (as Bowie did for the last 18 months of his life when diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer in 2014.) Freddie had only publicly announced his HIV status on Saturday, November 23rd 1991 when he died of AIDS the next day to worldwide shock. Bowie did something similar, bringing out a new album on his birthday with his death being announced just two days later. The impact of Bowie’s death seems greater, possibly because there was no internet when Freddie died. Anyone and everyone could say their piece online about Bowie’s passing and they have.

At Mercury’s funeral, a wreath from David Bowie was sent with the hastily-scribbled note: “Will be missed.” Bowie appeared at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 where he reunited with his old Ziggy Stardust bandmate Mick Ronson (Ronson died in 1993). Bowie performed “Heroes” and “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox filling in for Freddie on the duet. (As no video exists showing Bowie and Mercury singing “Under Pressure” together, this duet with Lennox was recut in 1999 to make it appear as if Bowie and Mercury were performing it on stage simultaneously.)

“Under Pressure” Rah Mix

Bowie surprised everyone by getting down on one knee on stage at the old Wembley Stadium and saying The Lord’s Prayer. He hadn’t told Queen or anyone else and only decided to do it five minutes before going on.

When Bowie himself died in January 2016, Brian May described Bowie as a “fearsome” talent (it appears May is still unnerved by the “Under Pressure” sessions 35 years on.)

Bowie Fred Heaven.png

Many internet memes appeared after Bowie’s death showing him reunited with Freddie Mercury in Heaven to sing “Under Pressure” again, reuniting them even in death. The show, as Freddie Mercury once sang, must go on.

Bowie and Fred Angels

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

R.I.P. David Bowie: From Space Oddity to BlackStar

David Bowie died of cancer yesterday aged 69. I’d like to pay tribute to him in some way.

Where on earth do you start with the legend that was and is David Bowie? You don’t, as he was not of this earth. His first hit was “Space Oddity” in 1969. At a time when people were writing hippy-dippy songs, Bowie was thinking of space travel and the future. Nobody else was doing what he was doing musically at the time. He truly was a visionary.

Despite that first hit, he struggled in the very early 70s to find another one. When he hit upon the persona of Ziggy Stardust, his fame exploded. “I’m going to be huge,” he said in 1972, “and it’s quite frightening in a way.” He went on to dominate the 70s the way Dylan had the 1960s. I can’t think of another performer who challenged himself and his audience as Bowie did, drastically deconstructing every successful look and sound and rebooting it with the next album. Something was popular? BOOM! He’d moved on to something else. Oh, you like that now? POW! He did it again. (Bowie said the one thing he hated journalists saying was: “You’re a chameleon that’s always ch-ch-changing.”) In an age of one-hit-wonder X-Factor wannabes, he looks even more of giant.

Nicolas Cage: “You have to stay uncomfortable. I learned that from David Bowie. I said, ‘How do you do it? How do you keep reinventing yourself?’ He said, ‘I just never got comfortable with anything I was doing.’ I knew those were words of wisdom from a great artist and I took those words seriously.”

My favourite Bowie story is the time he went to see Elvis Presley perform at Madison Square Garden in 1972. Bowie arrived late to his front row seat in full Ziggy Stardust gear as Elvis and the band were powering into “Proud Mary.” “He must have thought Mary had arrived,” Bowie joked. Yes, he was weird and wonderful, but people forget how funny he could be. (Just check out his “Chubby Little Loser” song from Extras with Ricky Gervais)

This is how he recalled writing the classic Life On Mars: “I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road. Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon.”

Queen gave what is generally considered the greatest performance of all-time at Live Aid. Bowie had to go on after them and he was still magnificent. That’s a true testament to how good he was.

Bowie At Live Aid

It’s a cliche to say when someone famous dies that there will never be another like them again but it’s true in Bowie’s case. Not just because of his groundbreaking, daring abilities but also because the music business he became a superstar in during the 1970’s just doesn’t exist anymore. Albums were king then but not now with music sales dropping. Live touring is where the money is. If Bowie was starting out today, he would never be given the time or creative space to develop even one of his personas let alone the many he did (can you imagine One Direction ever tampering with their smash-hit formula as drastically as Bowie did even once? Nope, neither can I.) Nor would Bowie be given a chance to come back from less successful albums. Presently, if you’re not an instant success, you get dropped by your record label. The patience of executives and their belief in the artist is gone. Young Bowie in this world would have to lower himself to entering reality talent contests like X-Factor or American Idol where his baritone wouldn’t be appreciated. He would probably be eliminated early in favour of the glass-shattering screamers who tend to win. I can’t see how Bowie or anyone else could have a 47-year musical career starting in  2016. It’s all about making a quick buck and moving on to the next teeny-bopper sensation before the kids get bored.

“Who wants to drag their old decaying frame around until they’re 90 just to assert their ego? I don’t,” he said in 1977. He didn’t, he left us at 69 with a staggering, diverse body of work. Hard to believe one man came up with all that but he did. The world was lucky to have him as long as we did. Go, David, fly Starman beyond the bounds of time and space to your true place in the Heavens.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.