Archive for Cleveland

“Book Daze” Part One

Read any good books lately?

I hate, hate, hate conversation icebreakers like that. They’re akin to comments on the weather. Why we feel the need to engage in inane introductory exchanges in order to talk with someone is beyond me. Years ago, I would see someone every day and they would ask me, “How’s it going, Greg?” or some other empty alternative. I would always be downright honest with them: “I have a lower back cramp and a cyst on a testicle.” They stopped asking me after a while.

But I did want to talk with you about books, reading, and writing for a while, so I figured it was actually a very apt question. It’s rare that one of these insipid conversation-starters is actually relevant to what’s being discussed!

By sheer coincidence, I am writing this entry right in the middle of National Novel Writing Month–or “NaNoWriMo,” as the die-hards call it. My wife is a big NaNoWriMo–um, –er. For those who know not, it’s a month-long project in which one challenges oneself to sit down and start, write, and complete an entire novel during the course of the month of November. Many creative types not only look forward to it, they thrive in this kind of atmosphere.

This is simply something I cannot do. Not that I wouldn’t love to be able to grind out a whole, completely original book in a month. It’s more just that’s not how I work. I can’t. I don’t have that kind of drive in me.

Some of it is probably a determination problem. I usually work best on a deadline, but I love creating and writing and imagining so much that to have a clock ticking over my proverbial head all the time would seem too much like homework.

Another part of it is how I work. I write very randomly. Some people do very well writing in a linear way, going from start to finish. I jump around: write what comes in my head and then work on the context later. Sometimes it’s very hard for me to come up with a proper ending until long after I had started something.

Followers of either me or this blog know I don’t post here that often. It’s not because I don’t have thoughts to share; it’s more that I don’t have good wrap-ups (“wraps-up”?) for these thoughts. They would just come off as the disjointed ramblings of a madman, even more so than the ramblings that DO get published on here! Seriously, I have a series of files on my computer with half-baked paragraphs and rough drafts for blog entries. This current entry is saved as “blogentry10.”

This same reluctance to finish a project has also stalled a lot of my non-blog writing. I currently have at least seven major (to me) writing projects in various stages of development–things that have a real shot at getting out there and doing well once they’re published in their respective formats…or at least existing, which is good enough for me. But my brain only works on them in various chunks, and for only four of them do I have a somewhat clear idea on how to “end” them. One project, the one I’m most passionate about from a story angle, currently exists in Word files, numerous scribbled notes, and pages upon pages of sketches.

And you know, a lot of my unwillingness to finish things comes from just general fear of not being satisfied with my eventual product, or the fear of it not satisfying or at least entertaining others. I try so hard to be a perfectionist, but one can only be as perfect as one’s limitations and resources. The old saying that something doesn’t get released but rather escapes has never been more true. I was completely unhappy with the way Yankoheit 27 turned out. There was so much more I wanted to do with it, both during and after production. Sadly, though, I was crippled by time, resources, money, and an extreme lack of cooperation by those who initially expressed interest. But I pressed on and was determined to finish it and get it out there, and then people still hated it. A former friend went so far as to suggest that it was the worst thing he had ever seen…but this of course was only after he kept tripping over his own dick to jam his hammy, squeaky-voiced face into it. This is that David Cross school of douchebaggery: when you don’t have enough scruples (or testicles) to turn down a project you don’t necessarily believe in, so you’ll end up bashing it in a desperate attempt to retain your tenuous “street cred” with your hipster-loser fanbase. I’m not too concerned about criticism per se, but I am concerned if I’m not delivering a satisfying product.

I bring all of this up because I did want to talk about writing; more specifically, the current state of writing in this country. The current state of books, to be exact.

What the hell is going on with books lately?

Why is there a sequel to The Shining? Why on earth is there a threat of more Harry Potter books after the entire central conflict supposedly was resolved? How did an erotic piece of Twilight fan fiction get published on its own, become a hit, and get a movie adaptation??

You see this stuff happen and it’s very hard to regard a lot of current mainstream authors as writers in the truest, old-school sense. The Stephen Kings, Tom Clancys, John Grishams, undead Michael Crichtons, et al–though producers of entertaining work at times–are “writers” in the way that White Castle and the ready-made-food counter at a gas station are considered “restaurants.” Don’t get me wrong; every October I try to sit down and read through a few classic King short stories while I’m on the toilet (usually, and appropriately, after eating White Castle), but not for a second am I kidding myself into thinking that I’m indulging in some great literature. And I’m certainly not going to line up to buy a hardcover edition of his bimonthly exercise in gruesome dismemberment, unnecessary details about a woman’s figure, oddly described moments of juvenile-flavored supernaturalism, and of course those all too random and awkward flashbacks involving some character’s sexual abuse as a child, especially when the first of umpteen paperback editions will be released a month later, just before the two-night ABC movie of the week adaptation. No, these are the fast-food equivalents to good literature, meant to do nothing more than give you a tasty, quick, filling morsel but no nutrition. I read Dracula in high school and the mood and tone still resonates with me long after I’ve forgotten any element in the derivative Carrie. I will forever remember the last line in, say, Double Indemnity before I could even begin to try to recall how The Client ended. The moon, indeed.

It’s even harder to see print die when it involves someone you respect. For Christmas one year I received a George Carlin book; never mind which one. I love Carlin. I miss his wit and genius so much. In addition to Mssr. Izzard, Yankovic, and Secondcity, George Carlin had a great deal to do with how my comedic sensibilities were shaped in my adolescence–and I was so lucky to have been able to see him live in my youth (how we weren’t stopped at the door is another question). But the book wasn’t really a book so much as just his latest stand-up act written out and broken up into chapters. I’m sure there is some value in this to some, but without the actual performance from George–the vocal inflections, the wiry mannerisms–you’re only getting a Half-Carlin. Then of course later he released the “audio” version of the book on CD, which in reality was just audio ripped from the HBO special featuring this routine. So George was able to get three profitable products–a book, a CD, and a TV special…shit, to say nothing of the tour leading up to that special!–all off the exact same written piece of material. This is a major cheat. One can easily become a “best-selling New York Times author” or “Grammy-nominated artist” simply by writing a stand-up act and knowing how to market it across different channels.

Michael Moore did the same thing, taking his entire narration screenplay for Fahrenheit 9/11 and publishing it as The Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader. Bill Maher releases books of compiled “new rules” bits from Real Time without crediting the rest of his show’s writing staff. Jerry Seinfeld’s big mid-90s hit Sein Language were just the opening and closing stand-up acts from episodes of Seinfeld, most of which were written by Larry David and not Jerry. It’s a lazy form of writing. Sure, someone is putting those words down on paper or on a file, but it wasn’t for a book. It’s a deceptive way to fatten up that “Other Books by…” page that authors love sticking into the front of their latest project.

Apart from fiction and humor, I love reading books about the arts, pop culture, and the entertainment industry–biographies, history books, etc. The “stories behind the stories” always fascinate me. It’s probably why I’m such a huge fan of substantial special features on DVDs (the commentaries, documentaries, etc.). There used to be a time when biographies and history books of the sort–especially if it’s about a specialized type of media or a unique artist–required a great amount of research, with the author often spending years tracking down otherwise forgotten persons or materials that have never been uncovered before.

For prime examples, Mark Lewisohn’s numerous Beatles biographies and Andrew Sandoval’s The Monkees: The Day-by-Day Story of the ’60s TV Pop Sensation unearth things such as musicians’ union paperwork, previously lost master recording tapes, internal memos, and other informative Holy Grails that would be off-limits to casual or even hardcore fans. Sandoval’s book, published in 2005, had started life in the early 1990s when he began conducting interviews for Rhino’s remastered versions of the Monkees catalog, including scoring in-depth chats with the then-reclusive Mike Nesmith, who not only discussed his career as a Monkee in detail for the first time in decades but who also constantly asked, “Would anyone really be interested in reading all this?” The likes of Lewisohn and Sandoval and Roger Ebert and Jerry Beck became super-experts in their particular fields of study because they strived to ask about the minutiae.

But then there’s that other kind of entertainment book. I don’t quite know how to refer to it. There might be an industry term for them, but let’s for the sake of argument call them “compiled history books.” The narrative isn’t based so much on the kind of story the author wants to tell but rather on the research materials they’re limited to. Instead of crafting a story based on their materials, they merely rewrite text from their sources (or just copy them verbatim) and hope that the context will happen naturally.

One example that angered me to no end was the 2006 book Mastering the Universe: He-Man and the Rise and Fall of a Billion-Dollar Idea, chronicling the origins and history of (what else?) the Masters of the Universe toy franchise. It was written by Roger Sweet, who’s usually credited as creating the toyline, and his nephew David Wecker. I had one of my characters make fun of the book back when it was new, but something needs to be said about how poorly it was physically written. It begins as a rather dry memoir about Sweet’s days at Mattel at the start of the 1980s, but then the majority of the text is taken over by boring product descriptions of every single toy in the Masters of the Universe collection. They aren’t even written in a “Here’s a fun character we did called Ram-Man…” kinda way, like how a toy web site might spotlight the figures. Instead we get very cold, very technical summaries of each toy, including patent numbers and industry jargon. It becomes pretty clear that Sweet and Wecker merely copied text off whatever Mattel paperwork Sweet took with him when he left the company.

Nobody else involved with the production of the toyline is interviewed, nor did Mattel grant permission to the authors to use any images of their trademarked characters (if permission was even sought). The latter isn’t too surprising, but neither writer couldn’t get anyone else on record to talk about one of the defining toy fads of the 1980s? That would involve actual work, actual research, and an actual idea of what kind of story you wanted to tell and what questions you would need to ask interview subjects. They had no interest in outlining their narrative first; Roger’s files would take care of that once they’re copied and pasted. This is the utmost laziest kind of writing, especially when you’re trying to present your project as an authoritative history of a topic.

And sure enough, when peripheral subjects happen to come up in the book–such as the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon series or the horrible 1987 feature film with Dolph Lundgren–Sweet flounders, glossing over information or outright getting major facts wrong. Why? Because that would involve research, and it would apparently be too much trouble to hop onto the IMDb to see which character Courteney Cox played in the movie. Sweet’s story also ends abruptly after the release of the movie, ignoring a follow-up He-Man toyline that came just two years later and barely acknowledging the concurrent She-Ra sub-franchise. But, isn’t this book about the “Rise and Fall of a Billion-Dollar Idea”?? Why not talk about all aspects of it, especially that later “fall”? Again, that would involve work. To further show his lack of interest in exerting minimal legwork, Sweet’s five pages discussing the animated cartoon are taken mostly from another book. Not passages, mind you, or extended quotes; just a quick “And here’s what this guy said about it in his book…” and away we go. Another author takes over. Sweet and Wecker couldn’t even bother to stick with their own story, dropping the reader off at a literary subway station with the vague promise of picking us back up after the ride’s over. A lazy work of writing has become even lazier.

Sadly, things haven’t gotten better now that writers are bypassing publishers and releasing their work on-demand. The advent of YouTube and Wikipedia has made it all the more easier for a lazy writer to craft a lazy book about a subject that may require anything but laziness. Need a fact or image? Check Wikipedia; they pride themselves on stealing from other sites and them offering everything for free without credit or compensation. Need to see an obscure television clip or hear an interview? Don’t bother tracking down your own copy when you can watch a blurry, murky version on YouTube and just cite the interview source rather than whoever actually took the time and trouble to upload it.

There are fortunately people out there doing things right; as in, the hard way. My friend Thad Komorowski spent years meticulously researching the complete and entire history of The Ren and Stimpy Show for his awesome book Sick Little Monkeys, doing his damnedest to track down and interview practically every person ever credited as working on the show, even notorious “I don’t want to talk about Ren and Stimpy” veteran Billy West. (When it was becoming clearer and clearer through interviews that series creator John Kricfalusi wasn’t exactly the guiltless and saintly victim of corporate meddling that he made himself out to be for two decades, Kricfalusi pressured a few of his closest allies into refusing to do interviews with Thad.) I am quite proud to say that I helped Thad a little on his book, providing a bunch of vintage newspaper articles on the show from back in the day, video recordings of rarer episodes and original airings, and two mid-90s audio interviews I did with crew members back when I was a journalism student. I also supplied him with my extensive airdate notes that I had researched around the same time for an episode guide I was compiling, which amounted to a few long-distance phone calls to Nickelodeon’s headquarters and pleasant conversations with a patient receptionist or two flipping through these big airdate logs and us trying to decipher which episode “#104” was, etc. And with all this and with all of his other research and notes, Thad did the right thing. He used them in the context of his narrative rather than letting it be the narrative in of itself. He actually wrote a book–gasp! In THIS day and age??

Even in well-written or well-researched books the desire to simply Google their information is becoming more and more apparent. In the 2012 Weird Al: The Book, Nathan Rabin spends a concerning amount of time describing a dumb but otherwise forgettable TV appearance Al had made in Japan back in 1984–going into it in more detail than he does Al’s career-related spats with the likes of Coolio, Eminem, and Lady Gaga. Why? Because Al had uploaded the Japanese appearance on his YouTube channel among other odds and ends. In last year’s Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones raided YouTube for clips relating to the final years of Henson’s life, including his last TV appearance ever on The Arsenio Hall Show–not to mention a videotaped recording of Henson’s entire memorial service. It’s very passive research.

But then we must come back to that other kind of book, the “compiled history book.” Mel Blanc is perhaps one of the most famous and notable names in the history of American animation, and though Blanc himself wrote a well-received quasi-autobiography near the end of his life called That’s Not All Folks, surely much more could be said about a man who worked almost constantly from the mid-30s right up to his 1989 death, bringing to life some of the world’s most beloved fictional characters. Ben Ohmart promises such a detailed tribute and biography in his 2012 Mel Blanc: The Man of a Thousand Voices, but instead we frustratingly get another lazy man’s narrative.

Ohmart doesn’t act so much as the credited author as he does a host, introducing writings and even complete chapters by others who are conveniently left off the front cover. Much of Mel’s biographical information is taken from extended passages of an unpublished book attempted by Mel’s son, Noel. Ohmart makes no bones about it, either; he says right at the start that he’s letting Noel take over for a lot of the text, presenting the unfocused and hyperbolic text in bold. An introduction to Mel’s career of recording novelty singles with Capitol Records is all the credited author allows before offering a mini-history and complete discography written by two actual Blanc scholars. When Ohmart first brings up the character of Foghorn Leghorn, he turns things over to voice historian Keith Scott–or rather, he copies and pastes a lengthy blog post Scott made on his web site about the origins of the loudmouthed rooster.

This kind of crap borders on contempt for the reader. “I can’t be bothered to write anything original on my own, so here is someone else to do the heavy lifting.” Why am I reading a book claiming to be “by Ben Ohmart” when entire halves of chapters are by Noel Blanc and Keith Scott, to say nothing of the Capitol discography that gets slapped right into the middle? Toward the end of the book’s narrative proper, it starts to smell like it started life as a compilation of essays, as there is even a section of testimonials and tributes by Blanc fans and other voice artists–followed by the entirety of a speech Mel himself gave at an advertising conference. That concept alone is fine, but when you present something as a book YOU’VE written, then you actually have to do some of the writing. If this book was presented as merely being “Edited by Ben Ohmart,” I don’t think it would have seemed so lame.

Ohmart’s story on Mel Blanc ends rather quickly. The remaining two-thirds of the 700-plus-page tome is made up of a supposed complete Mel Blanc discography (again!), filmography, and list of known radio credits. This alone would have made a fantastic book, but then Ohmart wouldn’t have been able to stick his name on the cover–hence the haphazard biography in the front. Other writers take over for most of this back section, with Ohmart seemingly taking care of the filmography. Well, the problem with that is he simply copied and pasted Blanc’s credits as listed on the IMDb. Ohmart chooses not to credit the site as a source, because if he did than he would have had to find out who edited or contributed to Blanc’s numerous entries on the site. I personally did a lot of clean-up of Mel’s credits on the IMDb, and I definitely recognize specific, minor character names or labels that I came up with (unless Ben Ohmart also happened to have decided to refer to an off-screen voice in Super-Rabbit as an “Observer”). Again, it’s simply taking the work and research of others, with as little effort as possible, and printing your name on the cover (it should be noted that Ben Ohmart also self-published his book, meaning he was devoid of having to answer to an editor or publisher or lawyer).

I wish I could say this kind of lazy writing–or “lazy compiling,” if you will–was anything new. I had to deal with it head-on a decade ago…when I had the unfortunate misery of editing one of the worst books ever written.

I was between jobs at the time, and an opportunity came up for me to do some freelance editing for Kent State University Press. I got the job that age-old way: someone I knew worked there and asked me to help them.

Now, I usually can’t stand people who get jobs that way. Very few things are more annoying than someone who gets everything handed to them through no effort or skill of their own…all because of a relative or friend in a position of minor authority. Look at the newspaper comics and you’ll see what I mean. How many of those hacks have their jobs because they just happen to be the son or grandson or widow of the creator of whatever strip they’re working on. How does that happen? In what other modern profession, especially one tied to corporate media, can someone inherit a job from a deceased relative?? What artistic qualifications did Tom Wilson Jr. or Jeff Keane or the Walker clan have to write and draw comics besides mere blood? AND to be guaranteed wide circulation of thousands of newspapers worldwide right off the bat?? Who gets a lifetime career just handed to them, besides Kim Jong-un of course?

But I was asked to give this project a whack, partly because the subject matter was kinda sorta right up my alley. It was a book about the history of rock and roll radio in Cleveland.

I don’t know how it is in other mid-to-big cities, but in Cleveland there’s something of an industry with the sole intent on cashing in on baby boomer nostalgia. I love being a Clevelander, and we do have a pretty cool cultural legacy (something I talked a bit about in Yankoheit 27), but the city does tend to take things a bit too far. The local PBS station produces specials where yuppies wax romantic about popcorn balls and department store Christmas trees and the local Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise (seriously!). We have a local publisher called Gray and Company that shits out cheapie paperback books about the history of every suburb and neighborhood and then lets every has-been weatherman and newspaper columnist write their non-awaited memoirs. Not everything is worthy of reverence just because it’s old. Unfortunately, because we overcelebrate everything local, our city’s real cultural landmarks–birthplace of Superman, being home to late night TV pioneers like Ghoulardi and Big Chuck et al–get completely lost in the shuffle among all of the cheesy relics.

The Kent State University Press, at the time, didn’t care one whit about local nostalgia. That’s not what university presses are meant for. KSU was about publishing limited, scholarly books from a historic perspective–books that could be used for reference and educational purposes.

And they really thought that was the kind of book they were getting, too. The book’s author was a longtime news announcer for WMMS and fancied himself as some sort of amateur historian on Cleveland pop culture. I was told he had pitched the book to Kent State as an academic look at the entire history of Cleveland rock radio; the innovations, the impact, the legacy, etc. At some point later on it was being scaled down to focusing primarily on the history of WMMS–still something that needed to be explored and dissected, given the station’s worldwide fame, but not exactly what the press had in mind. By the time I came along it was clear that this joker was more interested in writing a book of his own personal memoirs. This was something KSU was wholly uninterested in–who did he think they were, Gray?–and the situation became all the more frustrating when the author didn’t understand the difference between what he had originally pitched and what he had written. “Surely MY story is as important as the story of rock radio in Cleveland, right?”

The manuscript was a mess. A portion of work and a round of editing had already been done before I had gotten my hands on it, but I would spend the next several months screaming at my computer as I tried to make this mangled piece of literary driftwood into something resembling coherence. My girlfriend at the time would later tell tales of being woken up in the middle of the night by the sounds of me pacing in front of my monitor and growling in frustration.

The main problem with how it was written was, as I’ve been saying, the type of research that had been done. Instead of trying to seek out unique sources of information or going any kind of extra distance, the author claimed to have gathered what he was calling the “Cleveland Media Archive” (or something of that ilk). I’m not quite sure what he was hoping to accomplish that wasn’t already being done by, say, the Cleveland Plain Dealer or the Cleveland Public Library or any of the area universities, but the gist of it seemed to be that he was asking people to send him any articles, video tapes, promotional items, novelties, etc. related to Cleveland media. Doesn’t this sound a bit like someone trying to amass a personal collection with as little effort as possible (to say nothing of the fact that I don’t think he was offering compensation)? It would be like if during all my years of researching and compiling the “Weird Al” Yankovic Songography that I just asked fellow fans to send me actual CDs and things from their collections instead of seeking them out and acquiring them on my own. Again, it’s that passive research thing I’ve talked about.

You can probably guess where there is going. In order to tell the “history” narrative that he was using as a facade for his own oh-so-interesting backstory, he merely relied on this supposed archive of his; putting newspaper articles in chronological order and trying to glue them together with weak segues. The problem with this technique was that he was stuck with whatever he already had available to him, so certain pieces of information or minor news events go unresolved in the text. A number of times I gave him a note that asked, “So, what happened? How did this thing end?” Instead of finding that kind of information out, he would ask that we merely remove the “offending” (dangling) passage. He wasn’t even willing to trot down to a library and dig into a newspaper microfiche file. Heck, I’m willing to bet that a lot of his newspaper articles came from the daily newspapers that were delivered to his house and saved in his closet. Again, passive research. You don’t even need to put pants on for that.

I will happily share some of the goofier aspects of this process over time, but I will give you a taste of what I was up against. When we were nearing the end of finally editing this monster of a headache of a book, the realization came that we were going to need a foreword. The author himself didn’t write any kind of introduction or set-up the story for the reader (despite being asked), and it was felt that maybe someone with more reliable writing chops would offer their thoughts. That’s when I had a great idea. A fantastic idea. A super duper fucking brilliant idea.

Instead of a dry foreword written by some local schlub or friend of the author, why not go for broke and try to contact celebrities who spent their formative years in Cleveland during the late 1960s to early 1980s, the heyday of rock radio, the period of focus in this book? We could ask them to maybe just offer a few thoughts on listening to Cleveland radio during their adolescence and young adulthood–flipping the dial to WMMS or hearing Bowie or Springsteen for the first time. This way all that cheesy talking-head nostalgia that Clevelanders eat up can be done away with right at the start of the book, and be done with style!

My compatriot at the Press and I started putting together a list of names to forward to the author. The author could use his media contacts to get these people on the phone. Drew Carey would have been a lock, and we had a lead on Tom Hanks, but I wanted to think outside the box–ask Cleveland-born-and-bred celebrities that you wouldn’t normally associate with its pop culture legacy. Halle Berry ended up on our list, sure, but so did Teri Garr, Sean Young, Mark Mothersbaugh, Tim Conway, and many others. I might have to see if I have my list somewhere hidden deep in one of my computers. The list we came up with so exciting. It was going to look like those introductory blurbs that stick out like a sore thumb in front of every Stephen King paperback, but entertaining!

The author wouldn’t go for it.

My heart sank upon hearing this response. I was flabbergasted. Why on earth wouldn’t this be a great idea??

The author didn’t want to seek out all these people.

But, but, you work in the media. You have hundreds of contacts. You know people in upper management at Clear Channel that could—

The author decided it was too much work.

Too much work. If it can’t be done passively, then it can’t be done.

All was not lost, though, as the author promised that he had a great counter-proposal. He would still use the same approach, remembrances about listening to Cleveland radio, but he wouldn’t ask a bunch of famous people.

Ooo, sounds intriguing, because if it’s not going to be a bunch of famous people, then surely it will be one fam–

Carl Monday.

Carl Monday??

Yeah, Carl Monday. He was (maybe still is) a local TV news reporter, specializing in those “we’re on your side” investigation segments for whatever channel he was currently working for. Not that he didn’t seem like a nice guy, but he wasn’t exactly what we had in mind; some older-middle-aged white-haired guy in a suit with a mustache.


Yeah, we’ve gone from Drew Carey and Tom Hanks to Carl Monday.

The author felt he was easier to get.

I don’t know how we were able to, but the idea was promptly vetoed. This wasn’t the first time this phrase was conveyed to the author, but the response was clear, “You’re going to have to try harder.”

He eventually came back to us with Tom Batiuk, the local comic artist best known as the creator of Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft. That suggestion was okayed, mostly out of desperation and fear that the book would miss a deadline or two. Batiuk and the author were friends of sorts, so again this just goes back to the lack of necessary effort on the author’s part.

Not to say that Tom Batiuk was a poor choice per se, as he was definitely of the age that we were envisioning, and he still had a decent amount of wit in his writing. This was just before Funky Winkerbean devolved into constant misery, supernatural treacle, and poorly drawn characters smirking as they make unintentionally horrible puns. But, I don’t even think Batiuk was on our dream list because he just seemed a bit too obvious. It was one step above getting a local deejay to write it.

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read Batiuk’s forward, as that part of the project was out of my hands. Besides, when it came to this God awful book, I had bigger fish to fry, some more of which I’ll share one day.

In the meantime, I guess I should mention that ten years later, the same author claims to be working on a follow-up to his shitty book, one all about Cleveland’s television history. The publisher: Gray.

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Why “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is NOT a holiday song…and other rantings about radio programming of the season

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the car lately; I wouldn’t necessarily say more time than usual, but enough to become a frequent radio listener. One thing everyone should know about me is that when listening to the radio, there are only three things that will make me want to immediately change the station without question or debate: the Kid Rock song “Picture,” one of the worst things ever committed to tape; Nickelback’s insipid “Rockstar”; and the whiny, wimpy, cancer-deserving voice of Dave Matthews.

And when it’s Christmastime every year, I add one fourth, final option: “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

For those of you who are unaware of it, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is an Academy Award-winning song originally written in 1936 by Frank Loesser that publicly debuted in the 1949 Esther Williams vehicle Neptune’s Daughter. To cash in on the success of the movie, a number of recordings of the song by such artists as Dinah Shore and Ella Fitzgerald were released throughout the year to commercial success. The song, in its most cynical form, is about a sexual predator trying to talk a girl into staying at his place so he can rape the shit out of her. It’s essentially the 1940s version of “Funky Cold Medina.”

Like a lot of torch songs from the 1930s-1940s, I first became aware of it from that celebration of all things entertainment, The Muppet Show. In one of the series’s watershed episodes, legendary ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev sings a duet of the song with Miss Piggy, with the roles reversed as the diva tries to prevent the (gay) ballet star from leaving a sauna. It’s a cute scene; heck, it’s a fairly cute song.

But it’s NOT a Christmas song. It was never meant to be. Yet for some reason, adult contemporary stations around the country have in recent years insisted on cramming various versions of it into their holiday programming–and now sadly to the point where modern artists are recording “new” versions in lieu of recordings of actual traditional holiday standards.

This is not open to debate or interpretation. It’s not a Christmas song; it wasn’t even written with any holiday in mind. It’s simply a song that mentions a temperature.

Everyone can blame this seasonal confusion in part on none other than Dean Martin. In 1959 Deano released A Winter Romance, an album primarily containing songs related to the winter months. Even though most of the album was reissued six years later as Holiday Cheer, only two of the album’s songs, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “White Christmas,” specifically mention the holiday that falls on December 25 (it also contains “Winter Wonderland,” but more on that in a moment). The rest of the album mainly focuses on things only related to the concept of being cold: winter, the month of January, Canada, etc. Despite the reissue, Dean never intended it to be a by-definition “holiday” album. Ironically, it worked better as simply a goofy concept album.

But the bigger culprit in this cultural crime has been radio programmers, who in the last couple of decades have been under increased pressure to provide more secular content in their otherwise all-Christmas lineups. Even though the Christmas season had traditionally been full of completely non-religious standards such as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Silver Bells,” stations had jumped on the political correctness train to include songs that couldn’t possibly be construed as appeasing religion.

Look, this isn’t some diatribe for or against religion or how it’s expressed at Christmastime. Frankly, I think Don Wildmon and his fellow “War on Christmas” assholes have a serious screw loose and are a bunch of bigoted hypocrites (I already had not one but two of my characters mock them back in December 2005). This is in fact about trying to curb the manufacturing of one more artificial tradition in a season that is already brimming with them to the point of saturation.

It’s something I’ve been saying to friends for years. With each passing year a new Christmas movie, a new Christmas TV special, or whatever emerges, and invariably some of those will become a part of some corporate interest’s annual tradition, and it will get to the point where all the television and radio stations will simply be forced to start their “Christmas” programming earlier and earlier in the year just to accommodate everything. That in fact started this year, where two local radio stations here in Cleveland–“soft rock” station 102.1 WDOK and “oldies” station 105.7 WMJI–officially switched to 24/7 holiday music a week before Thanksgiving. I’m pretty sure they both switched at the exact same time, even though one station is owned by Clear Channel and the other by CBS Radio. At this point, whatever, you know? It’s akin to Coke and Pepsi both offering the same new flavor at the same time. But the point is that it’s already happening; we’re starting the “Christmas season” earlier and earlier. How else does one explain stores opening at nine o’clock on Thanksgiving night?

But as far as television and radio go, there should at least be some sort of attempt at purity to it. I don’t think any of the Harry Potter movies after the second one mention Christmas at all, for example, yet the entire series takes up several nights of ABC Family’s “25 Days of Christmas” campaign. And radio stations shouldn’t need to pad out what should otherwise be ample holiday programming with material that no matter how one slices it only has at best a tenuous connection to the season. “Baby It’s Cold Outside” seems to be included only because of the word “cold.” There are no mentions in the song of a time of year, a holiday of any sort, or even any real numerical temperature. It’s sort of like calling Dumb and Dumber a holiday movie only because Jim Carrey’s character is named Lloyd Christmas.

At the same time, I’m not really crazy about the idea that Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy”–a.k.a. the Peanuts theme–is considered a “Christmas” song as far as radio is concerned. I mean, yeah, I get it; it was originally composed for A Charlie Brown Christmas, but really, that piece of music has so transcended its original intent that to relegate it back to the holiday season is kind of missing the point. But I’ll nevertheless give it a pass only because it’s one of the only times that jazz music–or at least, what marble-headed Charles Schulz and the equally lamey white people at Coca-Cola thought was jazz music at the time–is heard on mainstream adult contemporary FM radio.

Granted a similar argument could be made for a lot of songs that we all consider to be “real” holiday standards. “Frosty the Snowman,” “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” etc. They don’t necessarily refer to Christmas, either, and it’s likely that they’ve all been grandfathered into tradition just by sheer time. But I have to say that it’s not that black and white. Those songs at least convey a sense of the spirit of the holiday season, whether it be because of the whimsical thought of a snowman coming to life or the imagery one conjures up upon hearing about sleigh bells and the like. To equate such elements with “It’s kinda chilly out, so let me rape you” is a little too extreme for me, and only a Sith deals in absolutes.

But honestly, the song supposedly counts because it mentions it being cold outside? Doesn’t that denigrate the meaning of Christmas and the holiday season in general? Even apart from the religious meaning of not only Christmas but the other December holidays, what about just the general spirit of peace on Earth and goodwill toward your fellow persons? I always thought Christmas was about more than just being “the cold holiday.” To negate it like that–and especially with a song that, again, was never meant to be a comment on a holiday by any means–is sort of a sign of ignorance or unfeeling.

This goes to a deeper problem we face every December: that radio stations are severely limiting their annual Christmas playlists, only sticking with maybe a couple dozen of tracks that they seem intent on overplaying ad nauseum to the point where one is sick of them. In the past it had usually been only one song per year that got overplayed. One year recently it was Lou Monte’s dumb but harmless “Dominick the Donkey,” another year it was Straight No Chaser’s oddball version of “12 Days of Christmas,” and this year it seems like it’s going to be the original Burl Ives version of “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.”

Don’t get me wrong. I like most of the songs that are a part of the normal holiday rotation. I need my Burl Ives fix. I don’t think it’s truly Christmas until I hear Bruce Springsteen screech out “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the Harry Simeone Chorale “rum” out “The Little Drummer Boy,” or Thurl Ravenscroft croon about the Grinch. BUT, for every standard that I’ve already heard at least a dozen times on the radio this year I am missing some others that too were a part of the holiday season year after year. The handful that stations are sticking with are getting overplayed and overplayed. Heck, on more than one occasion I’ve switched over from one station to another only to hear the song that just ended on the station I had left.

Yes, there are certain songs that need to be buried and never to be heard from again. “The Christmas Shoes” for one. And this may sound incredibly insane, but we have had not one but two songs themed around Cleveland, “Christmas in Cleveland” and “Merry Cleveland Christmas.” The less said about either of these, the better, but let’s just say they reek of the work of some “fill in the blank” custom-song service. Do not seek these songs out for yourself, for your own sake!

But already this year I’m sorely missing songs that in the past I could always count on being a part of the normal holiday season. I need to hear the renditions of “12 Days of Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by John Denver and the Muppets; “Little St. Nick” by the Beach Boys; Bob Rivers’s “12 Pains of Christmas”; “Christmas in Hollis” via Run-D.M.C.; the Eurythmics’ “Winter Wonderland”; Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph”; the breathtaking Pretenders song “2000 Miles”; Willie Nelson’s bittersweet recording of “Pretty Paper”; and the king of novelty Christmas songs, the Seymour Swine version of “Blue Christmas.”

And that’s just the tip of the North Pole iceberg; that’s merely listing the songs that used to be standards on the radio this time of year. There is a whole slew of other songs–recorded by extremely well known artists–that as far as I can tell have never been a part of normal Christmas radio programming.

For example, I have never heard on the radio a song called “Christmas Time (Is Here Again),” which is a rather rockin’ and upbeat number from 1967.

Oh, and did I mention it was recorded by the Beatles?

Yeah, as in the Beatles Beatles. It was recorded shortly after production wrapped on Magical Mystery Tour and was initially released as a single through the group’s fan club. It would later see a more public release (albeit in edited form) as the b-side to their 1995 “reunion” single, “Free as a Bird.” So this is the Beatles at their peak–just six months removed from Sgt. Pepper’s–recording a Christmas song. It was not only one of the Fab Four’s rare group compositions, but each of the boys even get their only vocal spotlight–including George, who unlike his cohorts never recorded his own solo Christmas tune. It’s fun, catchy, and like everything else they touched represents a little bit of history.

But worthy to hear on the radio? Evidently not. Not even on the “oldies” station that during the rest of the year has a daily feature called “The Fab Four at Four” (as in o’clock). Nope, they would rather ram Celine Dion’s grating cover of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” down our throats.

Or did you know that the Monkees recorded a Christmas song? Or Norah Jones? Or the Moody Blues? Or Kenny Rogers? Or Spinal Tap? And you should know by now that I have to mention that “Weird Al” Yankovic recorded not one but two holiday songs (or three if one counts “Weasel Stomping Day”). But no, mixing up the selection with cuts by established artists is impossible; the stations have decided that people instead want umpteenth playings of “Last Christmas,” “Where Are You Christmas,” and whatever the hell that Dan Folgelberg song is (and more on that in a bit).

I cannot begin to explain how much I would love to be a radio program director at Christmastime. I would pull from all sources, make sure every kind of artist and genre is represented, and make sure the favorites are in rotation without sacrificing exposing listeners to a potential new favorite. I guess I sort of naively thought that the actual programmers would feel the same and with the same level of enthusiasm. But it seems instead every station just gets its government-issued copy of A Very Special Christmas Volume One and feels like that’s enough…or worse, they leave the decisions to an online poll. It’s crass laziness, and at a time of year where one would ideally eschew either crassness or laziness.

Speaking of otherwise irrelevant songs, why does that idiotic Dan Folgelberg song “Same Old Lang Syne” turn up every year? You know that one, the annoying “we drank a toast to innocence” song about some burnt-out singer who runs into an old girlfriend at a grocery store on Christmas Eve, but instead of either of them returning to their loved ones they go to a park to get hammered. It’s an otherwise sappy, whiny ballad, but because it has a reference to Christmas wedged into the beginning and then ends with the melody of “Auld Lang Syne” we have to hear this crap every year? Is that some last-ditch effort by pop/rock has-beens to remain immortal, cutting a quasi-Christmas record? How else does one explain repulsive shit like Neil Diamond’s recent A Cherry Cherry Christmas album? Dinosaurs desperately trying to prevent themselves from becoming oil.

I would say that radio listeners need to take a stand and tell stations to stop playing crap every year, but really, by now, what’s the point? Why stop at “Baby It’s Cold Outside?” Why not add “Ice Ice Baby” to the rotation? Or “Hot N Cold?” “Freeze Frame?” If we’re going to make a ridiculous exception for one, then how far can this possibly go?

And hey, John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” mentions Christmas, so why isn’t that ever added to the mix? So does Elton John’s “Levon,” Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Ben Folds’s “Brick,” Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl,” and many others. Hell, for years “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music was played at Christmas because it mentions–in passing!–snowflakes and wrapped packages (in brown paper, yet!). So really, what precedent is being set here?

Anyway, it’s something to think about. I’m off to watch my favorite Christmas movie, Die Hard.

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