Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Flash Gordon and Rocket Fresh Rainier

Rainier Beer celebrated its hundred-year anniversary in 1976... well, sort of "a hundred"; there was some discontinuity ignored, some no-beer years due to Prohibition and such.

My boss coined the word “Beercentennial” to mark the occasion verbally--America’s Bicentennial was still, er, Fresh in the minds of folks--and we dreamed up television ads that touched on the past, present, and (possible) future of the popular beer. (I was writer/producer for the firm that provided all creative work for the brewery.)

Rainier had a reputation for presenting strange and surprising, tongue-in-cheek and amusing, commercials back then--still a rarity back in those stolid Seventies. But the requisite seriousness of such a major benchmark for Rainier actually constrained our much-vaunted creativity. Blowing the frothy heads off a tray of poured beers was about as wild as we got... except for the "future" spot, which evolved gradually from a single sci-fi parody to a 30-second extravaganza that borrowed
from the “hot” films 2001 and Star Wars, joined by the outmoded glory of newspaper-strip and movie-serial hero Flash Gordon.

Our commercial ended up inside the bizarre Star Wars bar, where the camera discovers a big reunion in progress for the Flash Gordon characters—Dr. Zarkov, the lovely Dale, Ming the Merciless, and so on, plus (renamed for ad purposes) “Fresh” himself. But this reunion is occurring many years later, with the characters showing their post-retirement age.

Most of the parts were taken by local actors, but we actually hired the original movie Flash, Buster Crabbe (famous as a handsome, virile Tarzan too), still showing serious star power at age 72 (as I recall). Crabbe was serendipitously the main guest that year at a nicely timed Seattle science fiction convention, and we were happy to use his accessibility to our advantage.

In those days we also created several beer posters each year, usually related to the TV spots that were appearing. But the brewery balked at a "Fresh Gordon" poster; we couldn’t convince them of the sudden craze for science fiction that was sweeping the country. But I was so certain of its viability that I got permission from Rainier to print and market the poster myself.

So a comics shop owner and I did just that, printed 2000 or so, and over the next year-and-some sold all of them, to sci-fi fanatics and Rainier collectors and specialty poster shops. Now, skip ahead 35 years. Searching through stuff recently, before wife Sandra and I left on vacation, I found the copy of “our” poster that I’d kept as a sample/souvenir.

I decided to write a blog post around it, and that’s what you’ve been reading. (Used to caption the poster, that tiny print you can’t make out in the lower right-hand corner was meant to sound like pulp magazine copy.)

Retro rockets firing, Fresh Gordon jockeyed his MFR-80 spaceship down onto the arid, dusty surface of planet Bungo.

Then, aided by his thirsty companions of so many years, Fresh broke through the belligerent throng of alien vizki and d’jin, forging a path straight to the barren
world’s lone outpost of galactic civilization, the B’aarli Maltina. There the beerless company at last espied the liquid treasure for which they had quested so long--Mountain Fresh Rainier.

Even Bing the Brewless was overcome. “The Beer That Conquered the Galaxy” soon quenched five more parched throats.

Classy, huh? Oh yeah, I really thought I was hot stuff back in the day…

Monday, October 10, 2011

Roots, Right Hooks, and Hits

Remember the Who’s hardnose heyday and Roger Daltry raging, “Hope I die before I get old”? Never imagined I’d ever have to admit such a sea-change, but the older I get, the farther I drift from Rock and the nearer I draw to Folk (or, in current terminology, Roots/Americana). Only the Guthrie/Dylan/Springsteen-styled Populist mergers keep me hangin' on and around the Rock scene at all. (Happy to admit I haven’t looked at a Rolling Stone issue in years!)

So here are a half-dozen Folk/Roots (&Beyond) CD releases, both new and older,
that I’ve heard and enjoyed in recent weeks (and you can play spot-the-connections if you choose):

Purpose + Grace (Topic). Pride of place goes to our guest from across the Pond, Martin Simpson. Back in Old Blighty after several years’ residency in the U.S., Simpson plays a Blues-infused, Anglo-AND-American Folk now, his guitar work smooth and Root-solid, often surprising, occasionally sensational. His own vocals keep improving too, but for this eclectic set, he brought in some big guns: June Tabor, Dick Gaughan, Richard Thompson.
And the tunes are terrific, ranging from antique (“The Sheffield Apprentice” and “Barbry Allen”) to Americana (great expanded versions of “In the Pines” and “Little Liza Jane”), from updated (“Bad Girl’s Lament” and “Jamie Foyers”) to current (“Brothers Under the Bridge” and “Strange Affair”). Still, the disc’s apex is reached--and the album’s title secured--when Martin and “Geordie” Gaughan team up for Depression-anthem-come-‘round-again “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.” Anthemic and--think English slang now--brilliant.

Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch). Ry Cooder’s new album
channels Woody Guthrie to offer Ry’s trenchant musical response to the New Depression and never-ending political chicanery--played as only slide-master Cooder can so casually emulate—with angry laments against Wall Street, the wars abroad, old folks cheated, families splintered, returning veterans neglected, a modern Jesse James (Tex-Mex corrida style), and other on-going Populist complaints. It’s a wry Cooder keeper, blending Blues, Old Time Country, Gospel, Folk Ballads, and other Roots-in-Americana;
and his National steel guitar might rightly sport a sticker updating the well-known phrase on Guthrie’s: “This machine crushes banksters and warmongering profiteers.”

Note of Hope (429 Records). Opening salvo in the big build-up to the 2012 Guthrie centennial. Unfortunately there’s less meat and more aimless motion in this collection of unknown Woody texts nesting in new musical settings. The whole first half of the CD just limps along, but then Kurt Elling’s boogie and Ani DiFranco’s mechanized “Voice”
auger some better; Pete Seegar and Studs Terkel (the one prodded awake and the other resurrected via tape) rouse ‘n’ roll the bindle on down the line; and Chris Whitley (high and lonesome some weeks before he died) and Jackson Browne, rumblin’ and rattlin’ for a fanciful 14-minute “You Know the Night” (Woody busily courting his second wife)… well, de Gents and DiFrank Lady do just manage to take ‘er on home after all.

Wonder Wheel (Jewish Music Group). The Klezmatics had Guthrie Estate approval to adapt some of his Coney Island-era writings to klezmer music…
not a totally off-kilter stretch since the folk-poet’s second wife Marjorie (mother of Arlo and Nora plus two) was Jewish. But the result, while sung splendidly and played with an ear attuned to stately (rather than spirited) dance, seems to me a waste of Woody. The klezmer arrangements just overwhelm the Okie from Okemah, rendering his posthumous contributions surprisingly unraucous. Klezmatics fans should sample “Mermaid’s Avenue”
(the only Woody lyrics offering his usual evocative sense of place), “Gonna Get through This World,” “From Here On In,” and “Wheel of Life” (Rabbi Woody, would you believe?), while the goyisch Guthrie gang must settle for his less earthy, more spiritual writings: “Holy Ground,” “Orange Blossom Ring,” and “Heaven.”

World Musette (Paris Jazz Corner). Klezmer clarinets, saxes, and fiddles show up sometimes in the wonderful French music called musette—bluesy and triste (sad)
but somehow lightly so--which more commonly features accordion and guitar (and violin bien sur). The ever-changing ensemble known as Les Primitifs du Futur took a broader approach for this disc, incorporating xylophone, Hawaiian steel guitar, trumpet, oud, and whatever else might be needed to create a many-nations, World Music version of musette. Present too for many of the tracks, adding banjo, mandolin, and some vocals (plus artwork for the elaborate CD booklet, itself worth the price of the disc), is U.S. expatriate Robert Crumb,
better known as cartoonist R. Crumb, professional artist and amateur musician--as opposed to amateur artist and professional musician W. Guthrie, but both men shaped by the Depression (one way or another) and each eventually emblematic of his time. All that aside, this album is strangely effective, a potpourri of varied sounds and styles, China to America, that still links back to the Parisian clubs and Buenos Aires dives that musette evokes.

There’s More Pretty Girls Than One (Arhoolie). Both Crumb and fiddler Ian McCamy appeared on World Musette; now, a decade later, comes McCamy's
Melody Sheiks, a cheery quartet of expats residing in Provence and gleefully making Old Timey music together—tight and in tune, but no threat to the master pickers on either side of the Atlantic. And so what? With this repertoire, all the Sheiks need is a suit and a smile:
“Drunken Hiccups” and “Goodbye Booze,” “Ragtime Annie” and “Old Molly Hare,” both the “Dill Pickle” and “Pig Ankle” rags, the “Quebec Quickstep” and “Saint Jobe’s Waltz,”
“Take Me Back to Georgia” and “Home Sweet Home.” Hot times in the Old Country, thanks to Crumb’s great collection of Twenties 78s, and a hell of a ways from the "New Country" we know and leave, gladly, behind! So rise up, Billy, and walk along, John, and sail away, ladies, sail away...

Catch ya on the other side.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Re:Freshin' (and Rainier Beer)

After limping through the Weill marathon, my clumsy stumblings in pursuit of his Jazz connections exacerbated by a recalcitrant new computer that keeps refusing to follow orders, well, I’m just bone tired. I feel like the Incredible Shrinking Man’s cousin. Add-in real height loss resulting from Parkinson’s as well as collapsing vertebrae… and it’s no wonder I’ve been having this irritating Mad Men/Pan Am Fifties dream...

My wife and I are out for a walk, and we bump into somebody she knows from business.

“Hey, Jim,” she says to him, “I want you to meet the ‘little man.’
Don’t know what I’d do without him… gets me out the door in the morning and keeps me going. Keeps me on my toes too.”

Not really. These days Sandie can wear flats and still get above my paltry 5’8”. I’ve lost nearly four inches in height, which has all slid down to my waistline. That’s one definition of an “Adult,” of course… someone who’s stopped growing at both ends and started growing in the middle. (I qualify.)

At any rate, no more big essays for a while (a Weill?). In fact, we’ll be gone east to Pennsylvania, New York, and Montreal for part of October, so blogging will be minimal for a… no, won’t say it… for some weeks.

These bleary thoughts have reminded me that back when I wrote and produced Rainier Beer ads (usually working off the buzzword phrase “Mountain Fresh,” clinging to the real tall mountain’s coat-tails), somebody among us on the creative team came up with a two-word bumper snicker that I liked well enough to stick a sample on my own car:


This time it’s RE-freshin’ I need, because… as we might have said in some other Rainier ad (but didn’t), with the unused two-word text positioned below photo of an empty sixpack-bottles carton…

Right now I’m “FRESH OUT.”

* * * * *

Note: One more post coming in a few days, so there’ll be something to think about while we're gone.