Neil Peart: An Appreciation

“Against the run of the mill / Swimming against the stream.”

“We break the surface tension with our wild kinetic dreams…”

“So much style without substance / So much stuff without style…”

“It’s hard to recognize the real thing / It comes along once in a while.”

-from “Grand Designs” by Rush (1985)

We all fantasize about meeting our heroes some day, no matter what cautions conventional wisdom might offer to the contrary. For but one example, I used to have literal recurring dreams about meeting Neil Peart, renowned drummer and lyricist for the band Rush, though with his shocking death last week from brain cancer at the age of 67, those long-standing desires have now sadly crossed over into the realm of permanent fantasy. Neil didn’t do meet and greet sessions, either before or after shows. He tried for a little while at the beginning, but found it simply wasn’t his thing. When Rush’s breathtaking run ended on their own terms in 2015, the band was as or more popular than they’d been in decades, and forty years of continuity is a heck of a long time to deny your fans the access they crave. But Neil and his admiration society had an understanding. Despite acclimation far and wide as one of a handful of the best drummers in the history of rock and roll – for, at the end of the day, he was surely the most influential – Neil was a humble, mild-mannered, and famously private person. Adulation on any level made him uncomfortable, and adoring throngs arguably don’t come any more vocal or vociferous than Rush fans. Continue reading “Neil Peart: An Appreciation”

Scott Hutchison: An Appreciation

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“I hate when I feel like this, and I never…hated you.”

Looking back now, surveying the wreck, I can see, and concede, that I wasn’t quite ready to share four walls of any description with Scott Hutchison, and that my limited exposure to his work, intense and gratifying as it was – right up, at times, to the edge of transcendence – left me terribly ill-prepared to process the sad end to which he came. The self-effacing singer and oft-stunning lyricist of revered folk/indie rock thunderhead Frightened Rabbit died at some point last week, surely by his own hand, in the woods near a marina in his native Scotland, his body finally discovered at the end of a desperate, wide-ranging, communal search effort two days after he’d gone missing. If it appears I am unconcerned about the specifics in this case, you are correct. There’s nothing to be gained in any sense I value by trailing behind Scott Hutchison and somehow observing as he whittled away his life’s final hours in isolation. My heart’s broken enough already, thanks. Continue reading “Scott Hutchison: An Appreciation”

Bill Paxton: An Appreciation

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Bill Paxton’s characters always seemed like they were up to some mischief, or, failing that, up for some. The hint or indicator springs from the face, and his was a deceptively expressive one, with its deep, handsome lines, wide, slightly gap-toothed smile, and flinty grey-blue eyes that fairly danced with life, ill-contented to ever sit idly by while others made their mark or had their fun, desperate to be wherever, and with whomever, the action was. Action became Bill Paxton’s calling card over time, but he brought the same levels of play and professionalism to grade-Z schlock that he did to ponderous prestige pictures, and reliably came out of the transaction as one of the most memorable things on the screen. The kind of resume and cinematic archive he now leaves to the ages couldn’t possibly be the product of luck alone. Continue reading “Bill Paxton: An Appreciation”

David Bowie: An Appreciation

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To a self-trained and finely conditioned amateur musicologist like me, Greatest Hits albums have always been the music industry’s signature cop-out, a sort of mercenary placeholder designed to reward artists (or, more often, record companies) for minimal work ethic or creativity while, in effect, also encouraging and congratulating nascent fans for their insufficient curiosity or incomplete devotion. A “real” fan – went the considered reasoning, since adjusted, of an unnamed critic who, full disclosure, shamefully counts a couple dozen or more such hits compilations among the several thousand albums he owns – would surely already know, love, and possess all those songs from their original releases. Even if the record company made the artist tack one new song onto the end in order to justify the record’s purchase by completist dead-enders, it’s most likely a “hit” of substandard quality Continue reading “David Bowie: An Appreciation”

Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister: An Appreciation

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I foolishly tasked myself with the impossible, to attempt to sum up Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister for posterity. My head was spinning at the news of his sudden loss – at the age of seventy following a very public year in precisely the wrong sort of spotlight, and a late cancer diagnosis kept sensibly private from everyone but those who most needed to know – and the tears were still uncomfortably fresh. If the world this morning after is full of shocked music fans who surely felt themselves existing on an intimate, “need to know” basis nevertheless, that only serves as another bit of evidence of how far the man’s reach extended and how deeply his impact was felt. Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister was so many different things to a sneaky large segment of the music-going public: a figurehead, a fountainhead, a guru, a gadfly, a hedonist, an evangelist, a hellraiser, a barnburner, a stoic professional and rock and roll raconteur all rolled into one, with countless miles of astonishing history behind him and a cheering crowd before him each and every night. Continue reading “Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister: An Appreciation”

Scott Weiland: An Appreciation

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“STP last night was one of those rare shows where you strain in hindsight to think of ways it could’ve been much better and come up with air, outside of ‘oh, they didn’t play obscure song A…’ Who cares, when you notice at a particularly heightened moment that 4000 people are singing the lyrics to ‘Plush’ in unison? So good to have them back, happy, energetic, rocking, in full bloom. Great night with Nick and D.”   -Personal Facebook entry, 8/18/10.

Late Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland was just one of those guys, a soul so historically troubled by issues with drug abuse that his end, when it eventually came, would inevitably be heralded online in a procession of shared news links, more often than not containing personal notes to the effect of, “Sad, but not surprising.” Yet, the news of his passing, received ignominiously in just that sort of sober outpouring via my Facebook newsfeed at, like, 2:30 this morning, nevertheless hit me like a punch to the gut. Continue reading “Scott Weiland: An Appreciation”

Wes Craven: An Appreciation

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It could be said that I came of age, as both a horror fan and a fan of movies in general, during Wes Craven’s golden age, but the very suggestion of a “golden age” implies undue disrespect to the several distinct and highly influential phases of his career as the author and director of uncommonly smart, uncommonly affecting, above the bar genre nightmares. Craven was a calm, thoughtful, professorial type, sensible but sly, a horror lifer who never particularly seemed to mind toiling away in a disreputable genre. Instead, his work strengthened it from within. At two flashpoint moments, in 1984 and 1996, he succeeded in bringing the movie mainstream to him rather than the other way around, but some of his most personal and memorable successes were written in the margins of his career comparatively. Neither quite the all-encompassing brand name that was his zombie-wrangling forebear George A. Romero, nor the sci-fi/horror auteur that was his contemporary John Carpenter, Wes Craven’s name on a poster, above or just below the title, still carried impressive weight and, with it, made plain certain, unspoken promises. Continue reading “Wes Craven: An Appreciation”

Dean Smith: An Appreciation

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It seems to me that becoming a sports fan as a kid is the safest way, though hardly foolproof, to ensure that love (of a particular team, of a program, of a player) might endure over time. People tend to catch the sports bug young or not at all, and early adoption certainly helps inure any budding fan from the host of off-field ugliness and disappointments he or she might experience over a lifetime of support. It also has the curious side effect of making us feel our heroes are immortal, or should be. Sports figures rise and fall, routinely. Sports heroes rise and reign, then decline and fade. It’s all part of the standard narrative. They are so celebrated, so lionized, so lifted above the common rabble, that even if it is never spelled out, immortality is implied in these plaudits, or at least it is there for the youngster to infer. College basketball, even more than its gridiron (or professional) counterpart, is a (fairly) benign cult of personality revolving around its head coach. Stars shine brightly on the court, then inevitably, regularly depart, grist for a wheel that never stops turning, but the coach is perpetual, a fixture, a fulcrum on which the program turns, or has that potential at any rate, assuming, of course, that he’s any good. Continue reading “Dean Smith: An Appreciation”

“Dimebag” Darrell Abbott: An Appreciation

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Even in a genre where the distance – emotional, physical, metaphorical – separating player from fan is so paper thin, in a style of music where, above all others, total commitment onstage is a baseline requirement, I find it hard to imagine a metal musician who took such inspiring, unquenchable, childlike pleasure in his craft and so thrilled to find himself in what some might’ve imagined an unlikely spotlight, as did former Pantera guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott. His tragic shooting death ten years ago tonight at the hands of an unbalanced fan on stage at a rock club in my adopted hometown of Columbus, Ohio, is, for the millions worldwide who loved his band and his playing, a wound that sometimes seems as if it will never fully close, let alone heal, the kind of premature and pointlessly cruel removal of a kind man and loving presence from the larger metal community that brings to mind not journeymen but giants – Cliff Burton, Ronnie James Dio, Chuck Schuldiner – the kind of singular artists who did one thing as well as or better than just about anyone who lived, or, failing those lofty heights, did it in a way so innovative and brilliantly different that it redefined the way an instrument was considered and played for years after. Nobody sounded quite like Dimebag Darrell. For a while, though, just about everyone tried. Continue reading ““Dimebag” Darrell Abbott: An Appreciation”

Chuck Noll: An Appreciation

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As best I can piece together, the first football game I ever watched was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV. In 1980 I was still a fairly tiny thing, pure as the driven snow, and life was interesting to a degree I found almost overwhelming. From what I could tell, everybody sure seemed excited and invested, practically over-awed, by what was happening on this particular field. There are surely few athletic feats more impactful for an impressionable youngster to witness than Joe Greene engulfing a cowed quarterback or the sick thud of Jack Lambert concussing a tight end. It was striking. Continue reading “Chuck Noll: An Appreciation”