Archives

All posts for the month October, 2013

Let’s get one thing clear before I get started here. I cannot write songs. At all. The idea of putting notes together and creating some sort of melody is as alien to me as the notion of running marathons for fun. Some people seem able to do it, but I can’t begin to imagine how.

But I am a writer and have respect for wordplay, imagery, and poetry, so I often find myself judging certain songs not on their hooks or melodies, but on their lyrics. And sometimes I hear a song and call only think “Are you even trying?”

Now, I’m not talking about the easy targets here. Katy Perry and Taylor Swift are out to please teens, so they can sing whatever bubblegum lyrics are going to please that demo and it’s fine as long as they do it over there, away from me. Likewise, nobody listens to Ke$ha or the Black Eyed Peas for lyrical depth, they’re in it for the beat and the catchy hooks that encourage folk to get their dance on. Andrew W.K. simply has some passionate beliefs on parties and partying that he’s trying to get out there. And if the lyric “Rub that shit, it’s yours, bitch, grab his dick, it’s yours, bitch” offends you, maybe you shouldn’t have been listening to Lil John in the first place.

But some people in other genres just get stuck in my craw. And here’s some examples.

54/40: Lies to Me

At it’s heart, Lies to Me by Canadian rock band 54/40 is about a guy who feels he doesn’t deserve to be as happy as his girlfriend makes him, and suspects that when she tells him otherwise she’s lying, saying he’s a better man than he is, but for now he’s happy to buy into the delusion. Simple notions that dudes and ladies of flawed self-esteem can easily relate to. There’s just one repeated line that drives me crazy.

Maybe it’s not fair to her
To believe in what she says
That’s the way it goes sometimes
And it can also go the other way

YES. BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT “SOMETIMES” MEANS.

“It can also go the other way.” That was implied by your use of the word “sometimes.” We have other words that mean “That’s the way it goes, and there is no other way it could go,” like “always” or “consistently.” But no, you wanted us to be absolutely sure we understand what “sometimes” means.

The lyric feels lazy. It feels like the lyricist found himself a line short in an already emaciated verse–that’s it, by the way. That’s the entire verse. From there it’s right into the bridge. Anyway. Having come up with three whole lines for his second verse, he finds himself out of ideas and needing a rhyme for “says,” so he opts for a detailed explanation of what “sometimes” means. It’s a lazy time-filler of a lyric, devoid of any real meaning…

And he repeats it twice.

Which means he thinks it’s meaningful. Meaningful enough to sing twice in a song that only has eight lines of actual verse. It just… I just wanna…

Flip a bitch

GRRRAAAARGHH

Tariq: Chevrolet Way

Okay. Many of you probably haven’t heard this song. I envy you that. It’s from a formerly Calgary-based artist named Tariq who had two songs receive some radio play on Canadian rock stations in the 90s: this and Not Just a Waiter. Not Just a Waiter is what it sounds like, an anthem about how he’s an artist and not simply a conduit between kitchen and customer. Chevrolet Way is also exactly what it sounds like: a blatant attempt to sell a song to a car company. Or so it appears, given how little effort he put into anything but the chorus. To illustrate my point, here’s the chorus:

In the Chevrolet way,
I’m thinkin about the world today.
It’s a four-by-four road,
more torque, more load.
It’s a Chevrolet way yeah,
so you better get the hell out of the way.

Nothing that would be out of place in any car ad ever recorded. Now, here’s a sample of what he came up with for a verse:

My girl she loves me good,
I think she always will too.
But in southern Alberta, southern Alberta,
his neck went redder as the sky turned blue.

WHAT. WHAT. What does any of that mean? Whose neck? There was no third person in this verse before now! It’s like you had a seizure halfway through and forgot what you were singing about! The verses from One Week by Barenaked Ladies make more sense and the guy who wrote them has freely admitted to making them up as he went along!

Listening to this song made me feel like I was having a stroke. His album only sold 10,000 copies, and ten years later Tariq was a guitarist in an obscure Vancouver band and a radio host on CBC Radio 3. Chevrolet Way did not land him a car commercial… but it did get him a Juno nomination.

Further flipping of bitches

Stupid Junos

Ko: Capable of Love

They say Ko writes songs so deeply personal he sometimes breaks down onstage. If that’s true, and this is an example, then I’m sorry Ko had such a painful relationship with an addict. Loving someone that’s insistent on destroying themselves is a bitch.

That said.

So lick a ring around this L
So that it burns all night
Then I pass round that Philly so, so
So we can all get high

This, I admit, may not be Ko’s fault, but in the first half of his chorus he’s thrown out two slang terms for marijuana I’d never heard before. And “L?” Seriously, L is a slang term for a joint now? We had a slang term for a joint that was basically one letter. Jay. As in the letter J, first letter in the word “joint.” Precise and sensible. L? Meaningless and redundant.

Who do I speak to about putting a stop to this?

The Dirty Heads: Lay Me Down

Now this one doesn’t actually anger me. But it’s a little throwing. This song is a story, the story of two lovers on the run from the law. Here’s a sample from verse one.

Well this is how it starts Two lovers in the dark
On the run, from the one That they called Sheriff Spark
Six guns by their side and bullets around their waist
Two shots to the sky
Signal sound for the chase

Verse two…

Well it’s the story of the two
Always on the move.
They got nothing left to lose
‘Cept their guns and their wounds

And then…

But the sheriff finally found them with his eyes seeing red.
So the lovers had to shoot him down and fill him full of lead

A simple narrative of two lovers whose only escape was to flee to Mexico and kill the man hell-bent on catching them. But here’s what we have in verse three…

Well you’re my green-eyed girl And I’ve been running around with you.
It’s the afternoon and we got nothing left to do.
So wipe the dirt off, or Take your shirt off,
And we should go hit the cantina, We got work off.

Wait wait wait wait wait. Wait. Back up. In the last verse you shot and killed a man, don’t just start singing about beachside sexy-time fun like that didn’t happen! Okay, yes, tonally the third verse fits the chorus much better (the chorus being about finding a safe tropical place to rest and then bang), but come on. I still don’t know what these two even did that caused a sheriff to hunt them all the way to whatever tropical beach town they settled in once they were done murdering. Maybe they were wrongfully accused and have finally escaped an unjust fate. Maybe they’re serial killers and everyone in this town is going to die. I don’t know. I just know they’re having fun on a coastal town now, and that it a hell of an awkward gear shift to go from “they escaped the law by killing it to death” to “SPRING BREAK FOREVER, BITCHES! WOOO!”

It’s still catchy, though. So unlike Capable of Love, I will not kill the radio rather than listen to this one. But I maintain, it’s like they brought in a second lyricist, played him the tune, and then asked him to write a verse without telling him what the rest of the song was about.

Next time… I will probably revisit another old script. Hopefully some people are still enjoying that stroll down my path of past literary mistakes.

So I hit a chord with many people in writing an open letter to one of my great regrets. Thought I might see if I could strike a similar chord talking about things that bring me real joy. Some of those things have to do with television. I know, it doesn’t seem like a proper subject for such discussions, but until such a time as I can fly to Australia on a whim to watch the sun set over Uluru (formerly known by its slave name, Ayers Rock) or take off to Chicago to see an old friend in a play and then take said friend out for the deep dish pizza I’ve been craving since 1996, well, television just has to do sometimes.

As long as it’s good television.

Which brings me to this: an open letter to a friend I’ve been introducing to Doctor Who, which may prove enlightening to others I’ve tried to convert.

Sad is happy for deep people

Hey there friend. So one day, months ago, I convinced you to try out Doctor Who. The new series, not the classics. Not yet, anyway. And you were hooked fast, amazed when I said these first few episodes that had captured your attention were “the rough patch.” But it hasn’t been an easy journey. This show does like to mix its wit, charm and adventure with frequent doses of heartbreak. Maybe the BBC feels that even what they consider “family programming” should be delivering some important lessons to young viewers: people leave, and sometimes there’s nothing to be done about it but be sad for a while; no matter the tragedy, there may be a triumph right around the corner, you just need to be willing to look for it; bad things happen to good people, and it’s not fair; sometimes humanity is the real monster, whether it’s malice, greed, or the simple laziness that makes people not care how their products were made or by who as long as they stay cheap.

But I digress. Heartbreak comes, and it comes kind of often, and we tease you about that. There were some extremely sad goodbyes already, and you can tell another’s on the horizon, and you’re dreading it. Which our constant reminders don’t help. Well, they’re not supposed to, we’re specifically tormenting you with them because we’re terrible people.

But what we don’t frequently remind you of is the moments of joy that this show delivers. For every “I’m burning up a sun just to say goodbye,” there’s a moment like “Just this once, everybody lives!” Or the simple emotional climax of one of my other favourites: “Not now, not again Craig, the planet’s about to burn, for God’s sake kiss the girl!” Moments like the end of The Big Bang, where you want to cry not because it’s sad, but because it’s so beautiful. So… perfect.

Which is not to say the sad moments won’t come. Just that they’re worth it. Vincent and the Doctor is one of my go-to episodes to rewatch, yet it brings a tear to my eye every time. It may end sadly, but before it does there are moments of such incredible beauty that they can make you, for a moment, see our world for the incredible miracle that it is, and that the occasional tragedy can’t change that. An hour that’s beautiful and tragic at the same time. No wonder it’s about Vincent Van Gogh.

Doctor Who is these things in (relatively) equal measure, and that’s why I love it. Stephen Moffat put it best in his episode The Girl in the Fireplace: one can tolerate a world of demons for the sake of an angel. Those moments when the Doctor works his magic and everything’s wonderful make the moments when he can’t worthwhile. The tear-soaked goodbyes are worth it for those moments when the Doctor realizes he’s thrown on his old bow tie without realizing it, and that the old madman with a box is still alive, even after he thought he’d lost everything. (That doesn’t make sense to you but it will eventually, it’s a nice moment in The Snowmen.)

Or maybe it was Blink that put it best: “Sad is happy for deep people.”

Feeling is good, feeling is human

And what it comes down to is, why would you want to watch anything that can’t make you feel things this strongly? Yes, it breaks your heart now and then, but the fact that it can is part of what makes it amazing. I’ve been looking at my TV viewing, and making some cuts from my line-up as I realize that I’ve been missing out on amazing shows like Homeland and Breaking Bad because I’ve been too busy keeping up on Nashville. Nashville. And I spent most of my time watching that playing Minesweeper while waiting for a plotline I cared about to happen. So I dropped it. Because I’d rather be watching something that grips me, even if it’s not always a laugh. Like Game of Thrones, even if I dreaded The Red Wedding so much it damn near gave me nightmares. Skins might enrage me from time to time, but at least it’s engaging me. In 18 episodes (per generation) they made me care more about some of those stupid self-destructive British teenagers than I ever cared or could possibly care about the Glee kids, even before Glee became an engine for churning out iTunes singles. Hawaii Five-O… still having second thoughts about dropping that one, but for all the witty banter and decent action, it is no Justified and never will be.

Doctor Who is going to crush me later this year. The biggest, most painful goodbye in nearly four years is on the horizon. And yet I still can’t wait to see what happens afterwards. I mean, I’ll have to, there’ll be about nine months in between, but still.

And that is its power. It is a source of wonder, of excitement, and of pure joy, a joy made all the more powerful by the pain that comes along the way. And that’s why I try so hard to share it with people. To spread wonder, excitement, and joy. Isn’t that worth a few tears?

Thanks for bearing with me, folks. Next time, I’ll be hilariously angry about pop culture. That’s always fun, right?

This month has been known amongst my friends as “Super September,” with at least one party, often landmark birthday parties, each weekend. It’s been a long, tiring, very busy month. Super September serves as both an excuse for not blogging in like a week (also some temp work that left me exhausted with a sore back for a few days), and a great set-up, as we continue to look at plays about super heroes.

But this time, instead of comic book creators, we tackled actual super heroes in The Death and Life of Lethargic Lad, written by myself and my colleague Chris Munroe.

What’s it about?

It’s based on the Canadian comic book-turned-long running webcomic Lethargic Lad, which uses the mostly mute super hero Lethargic Lad and his various friends/foes to parody super hero culture: the comics, the movies, the cons, the fans, whatever is big in the news or capturing creator Greg Hyland’s attention that week.

For a time, my favourite comic ensemble. But then so little was done in the 90s that comic books should be proud of.

Lethargic Lad and company.

 

We focused on the major cast members. For good guys, the four “replacement Lethargic Lads” that turned up in a parody of the “Death and Return of Superman” story from the early 90s and then stuck around to be the principals: the Last Son of Lethargy, the Lad of Steel, Little Green Boy, and the Evil Cyborg Lethargic Lad. On the side of evil: Lethargic Lad’s primary nemeses Evil Smiley Face Guy and Mr. Mimico, plus the Part Time Lethargic Lad Revenge Squad: Evil Kitty Cat Guy, the Quizmaster, and Lady Bad Girl.

When Evil Smiley Face Guy and Mr. Mimico finally succeed in killing Lethargic Lad, the Replacement Lads spring up to carry on his legacy while the Part Time Lethargic Lad Revenge Squad plots to conquer the world.

But mostly they all sit around and argue about TV, movies, and comic book nerdery. And then the Evil Cyborg Lethargic Lad turns on everyone. ‘Cause, you know, evil.

So why’d that happen?

Many of my nerdier friends at that time had become huge Lethargic Lad fans. It spoke to my love of things geeky and made fun of them in just the right way, much like Hijinks Ensue does now. One day, Chris Munroe decided to email Greg Hyland and ask for permission to write a play about his characters. To my shy, quiet, nobody-will-ever-say-yes-to-my-dreams amazement, Mr. Hyland said go for it, and I decided I wanted in. Chris agreed to co-write the project, and soon we were crafting an outline and picking which scenes we were each going to write (for the most part, I wrote the heroes and he wrote the villains).

We found places for as many of the Lethargic Lad supporting cast as we could: Walrus Boy was made the owner of the coffee shop where the Lads hung out, Guy With a Gun Gal (a character designed, I assume, in reference to a Punisher storyline not even I’ve read) makes an appearance, Mr. Cheese is there solely to make fun of how ridiculous the plot of Batman and Robin was, we put in references to the No-Mutants (a team featuring no mutants) and Poison Uma Thurman, a character created to mock Uma Thurman’s portrayal of Poison Ivy who Chris re-imagined as a villain whose schtick was poisoning Uma Thurman. And, just like in the comics, Lethargic Lad’s one true love Lethargic Lass was a cardboard cutout.

I also found a way to include one of my favourite running gags. Every time something particularly bizarre happens, or there’s a continuity error to cover up, Greg would include the feature “Greg Talks to a Frog,” in which a giant frog would berate him about what was happening. In our script, this took the form of the Narrator being berated by a giant frog about once per scene. I thought it was funny. And done right, it certainly can be.

How’d it turn out?

You know what? Two of us worked on this thing, two of us should get to reflect. So joining us live via having emailed me last week, here’s the Internet’s Chris Munroe.

Three lessons I took from Lethargic Lad:

1) Ask for what you want in this life. The worst that can happen is that you’re told no, and sometimes you’ll offer nothing (nothing!) in exchange for the stage rights to your favorite webcomic and the author/artist, who’s never heard of you, will just give those rights to you out of the goodness of his heart, because why not?

2) To participate in the production of something you’ve written, you need to be able to sublimate your creative ego. The product will be different than what you put on the page. I have an enormous amount of respect for Dan’s ability to do this well. As to my own ability in that regard, we’ll leave the question hanging…

3) Reference-based humor will date. Rapidly, and badly. This is a show from the early 2000s, based on a comic from the 1990s, and WOW does that fact show. Both Dan and I were willing to go very deep into the genre-convention-based lampshade hanging and, while as an exercise this proves interesting to look back on with a decade or so’s hindsight, it shows on every page. Would a third writer who knew nothing of comic books or the culture that surrounds them have helped moderate our instincts in this regard? We’ll never know, as neither of us thought to invite one to give thoughts on the finished product…

Oh man. He ain’t kidding. The pop culture references were thick on this thing. Thick. And grotesquely dated. Future archaeologists could find a copy of this script and figure out it was staged no later than the fall of 2000 based on the references to Ally McBeal, Ironic by Alanis Morissette, and the endless shots at Batman and Robin. Throw in the fact that four of the main characters are references to a Superman story from 1993 (not technically our fault) and a running gag that depends on you having read the Superboy comic from the mid-90s (totally our fault), and yeah, we could’ve used someone to remind us what was going to amuse an audience rather than each other. Sorry, Munsi, do continue.

…I use the phrase “finished product” very loosely here, as I find the script reads very much like a promising first draft that desperately needs a few editing passes to trim the flab. Jokes are repeated again and again, character/plot points are told, not shown, and we both seem to be operating under the belief that drawing attention to plot holes in an occasionally humorous way makes up for the utter lack of interest we have in actually closing them. Overall the “plot”, such as it is, exists as little more than a minimalist frame upon which to hang comic-book inside jokes, working on the assumption that the audience at the actual show will know enough about ‘90s-era event comics to take that journey with us. If memory serves, they did not.

Fact. The lampshade hanging is both fast an furious, and not once did we consider that if our characters (mostly the Frog, also Walrus Boy and Lady Bad Girl) were complaining about the story this much it might be a red flag.

Which is a shame, as re-reading this I was surprised at how many of the jokes actually did still work for me. Poison Uma Thurman, in particular, is a super-villain concept that does still make me giggle, what with her poisoning Uma Thurman and all, and beyond that I think a lot of the banter, the bickering and the patter still hits more than it misses, even with a decade’s hindsight. It’s not that the material was BAD, as such; it’s just that there was far too much of it, spread too long, without enough framework to back it up properly, which led in the end to a script that was much less than the sum of its parts.

I don’t know why I thought for so long that “wordier is wittier.” I still catch myself thinking that sometimes. “I can make this awkwardness Hugh Grant-adorable if I just make the sentence three times longer than it needs to be.” No. Stop it. Streamline that banter, whittle the jokes down to something more rapid fire, and have less people yelling about how stupid this all is and we’re on to something.

I remember almost nothing of the production of the actual show, as I was on the other side of town rehearsing a different show simultaneously with this (Cabaret? Rocky Horror? For the life of me I can’t remember which) [Rocky Horror. He was Riff Raff. -Dan] and had to split my focus between the two. And the role that was basically “amusing, largely mute background business” wasn’t getting the lion’s share of my attention due to this fact, which is a shame, as I recall the actual performances being light, breezy fun, and would have benefited from more time to devote to what I was doing. I have no idea if the SHOW would have benefited, but I personally would have.

Overall, Lethargic Lad is a good summary of Dan and I, as writers, for both good and ill, at that time in our lives, operating completely free from editors, with all the problems that creates. A decade later I use editors for my writing. Lots and lots of editors. Broken Escalator went through eight different readings during three editing passes before I considered it sufficiently workshopped, and I was tempted to give it a fourth pass before finally releasing it. That’s me today. Me a decade ago, unencumbered by any significant editorial voice other than my own belief that I was hilarious? Lethargic Lad didn’t stand a chance…

I, too, have since learned the value of an edit, and the value of people you trust to tell you what does and does not work. We’ll get to that more as we move on.

Would you stage it again?

Like this? No. Very much no. The humour fades exponentially the further away you get from the late 90s. But there are elements in there that work.

Perhaps what we’d need to do to make a Lethargic Lad script work is completely change our approach. Rather than try to replicate the “hangin’ round, mockin’ comic books” narrative of the webcomic, if we made this a full-on mockery/celebration of the tropes and cliches of nerd culture. Move away from specific references (“Wasn’t it dumb in Iron Man when they did this”) to something more overreaching (“Them’s surely a bunch of white dudes you’ve assembled to save the world”). I mean, nerd culture is in the mainstream now, and we could have fun with that. Not that we will in all probability. We both have other projects on the go and neither of us is likely to go back to this well any time soon.

Shortly after the run of Death and Life of Lethargic Lad I envisioned an outline for a sequel, Lethargic Lad Returns Forever. It also involved a cast of at least 14 and many, many outlandish props and costumes. I never bothered to write a word of it down. I couldn’t imagine anyone being excited to do it all again, and started writing smaller scale comedies with more character development.

Well. Eventually.

Not right away, as the next installment will show.

Repeated theme alert

  • “Sittin’ around coffee shops.” A lot of my plays involve characters just chatting in coffee shops rather than, you know, doing things. I can’t believe I didn’t mention this trope in Apocalypse Soonish, given what a serious offender it is on this score. Anyway, 75% of what the Replacement Lads do is quibble about 90s pop culture in a coffee shop.
  • No Simpsons quotes! But I did borrow a turn of phrase from… some sitcom. One character says “Get out!” in disbelief and the other replies “I’m out!” Not Seinfeld. What was it. Some lesser Friends clone, I think. Oh well. Hardly matters.
  • That said I did lift a few scenes from the original Lethargic Lad comics, but I feel that’s allowed in this case.