Change, My Dear
Growing Older And (Hopefully) Wiser
Today is my birthday. I’m 39 years old.
That means not only can I see 40 from here, but I can see his raised middle finger and his contemptible sneer. I can almost hear him saying, “It’s colonoscopies and aching joints and hearing loss from here on out. It’s a long, slow road to the nursing home. Have fun!” Pretty soon, 40 will be a distant memory – that is, if my senile old brain can even recall it when I’m eating the drug-laced Jell-O with my dentures out.
I’m old, is what I’m saying. Ancient. A relic of a bygone era. And I’m finding as I age that it’s not my own advancing years that get to me, it’s the ages of those around me. My nephew Luke is one year old. I have no idea where that year went. His mother, my sister, is 36. (Or, as she calls it, “twenty-sixteen.”) My best friends are all graying or balding. I have friends who have teenage kids. And these friends are my age. This means I am old enough to have teenaged kids.
On an average day, I certainly don’t feel old. But I can feel the passage of time. I’m very different now than I was in my younger days. (For instance, I am apparently now the kind of person who says things like “in my younger days.”) My teenaged self wouldn’t even recognize me. I take conference calls, I wear shirts with collars, I get up every morning to run, I have a 401k. In fact, I’m pretty sure my teenaged self would want to beat me up.
Only a few things have remained the same. One of them is that I mark time with pop culture. Anniversaries of my favorite albums freak me out. (Did you know that Jellyfish’s amazing Spilt Milk is 20 years old this year? The first check I ever bounced, I wrote to buy Spilt Milk.) Richard Linklater has just released Before Midnight, the third in his walking-and-talking trilogy. The first one came out when I was 20, the second when I was 30. And for the eighth time since I’ve been paying attention, we’re about to get a new Doctor.
I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who my whole life, so I’m able to chart my timeline by the show’s. I started watching at eight or so, captivated by reruns of Tom Baker’s time in the role. By the time I hit middle school, my local PBS station had moved on to Peter Davison’s episodes, and with the advent of the VCR, I was ready to capture them. I watched the Davison run probably 40 times as a young teen – he was truly my Doctor. The show was taken off the air when I was 15, and I remember being devastated, despite having never seen the sixth or seventh Doctors.
The TV movie happened when I was a senior in college, about to graduate. It was terrible, and I felt like I’d grown out of Doctor Who. Silly me. The show returned to TV screens when I was 31, and even though it wasn’t great for an unfathomably long time, it rekindled my love for the ropey old classic series. David Tennant came along the next year, and made the role his own, before Matt Smith – my absolute favorite actor to play the part since I was a kid – breathed new life into the show. With showrunner Steven Moffat at the helm, Smith has presided over a golden age in Doctor Who. And I’m so glad to have seen it.
Now Smith has decided to move on. His tenure as the 11th Doctor will end this Christmas, meaning we only have two more episodes with him. On the one hand, it’s not enough. I’m not ready for Matt to leave, not ready for another seismic shift, another reminder of the passage of time. But on the other hand, that’s what’s magical about the show: change doesn’t kill it. It can shudder through the loss of its lead actor, its face and voice, and come through even stronger.
I like to think my lifelong Who fandom has taught me that lesson. Time can take its toll, all of life can change around me, and I’ll still be fine. I’ll still be me, even though I look and act different. There’s nothing better than realizing that change won’t kill you. Today is my birthday. I’m 39 years old. And I say, bring on the future. Let’s see what’s next.
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Both of this week’s review subjects make me feel old.
I can’t help it. Whenever I tackle a long-running band, I can’t stop myself from thinking about where I was – and who I was – when I first heard them. For instance, I’ve been a Megadeth fan since around 1988, when I was 14. I heard Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying, and that was it for me. This was shortly after being indoctrinated by Metallica’s then-new …And Justice for All, my first real metal album. But Megadeth shortly overtook them in my heart when they released Rust in Peace in 1990.
There was a time, honest to god, when I would have physically fought anyone who dissed that album. Rust in Peace still stands as one of the best speed metal albums ever recorded, and I still love it, but man, I was devoted to it when I was 16. I adored it enough that the more melodic groove-metal direction Dave Mustaine took his band after that felt like a betrayal.
When I worked at Face Magazine, I wrote a pair of “Dear Dave Mustaine” reviews in the form of open letters to him. 1997’s Cryptic Writings made me sad, but 1999’s painful Risk made me angry. Pop metal of the worst kind, I called it. An abomination, a travesty, the worst thing I’d ever heard. It was as if Dave had personally stabbed me in the back. I felt that strongly about it. I wanted my Megadeth hard, heavy, fast and powerful, and this was like Bon Jovi in comparison.
But I stuck with them, and I was rewarded. In 2004, after a brief absence, Mustaine reformed Megadeth and burst out of the gate with a speed metal trilogy worthy of the early days. I wrote my third Dear Dave Mustaine column for the second installment, United Abominations, and begged forgiveness. The fury was back, and before long, so was bassist Dave Ellefson, contributing to the best damn Megadeth album in nearly 20 years, Thir13een. Man, that was good stuff, and it reminded me of what it was like to be 16 years old and in love with metal.
If I really think about it, though, I’ve been praising Mustaine for stagnating. I don’t want to say that Risk is a good record, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate the experimental streak that runs through it. Who says Megadeth can’t record a disco-infused song like “Crush ‘Em,” or a poppy tune like “Breadline”? I mean, why not? Granted, they didn’t do it well, but was I really saying that Dave Mustaine should remain trapped in a speed metal box for his whole life? Mustaine is 51 now, and every time he’s tried to break out of that box, his fans (myself included) have slapped him down.
You see what I mean when I say my 16-year-old self would want to beat me up?
It’s exactly that newfound perspective, however, that is allowing me to enjoy Megadeth’s 14th album, Super Collider. True to its title, this record collides virtually every style from the band’s catalog, and adds a couple. So yeah, we get the faster metal of “Kingmaker” and “Built for War,” but we also get songs that sound like they could appear on Cryptic Writings and Risk without trouble. There’s an element of meat-and-potatoes hard rock to this album, eschewing complex arrangements for thick chords and straightforward riffs. The title track is perhaps the worst offender – it’s a song Lynyrd Skynyrd might reject for being too simple, with a moderately catchy chorus and no metal showmanship.
And yeah, the fans hate it. But I hope this time Mustaine doesn’t care. His heart is clearly in this stuff, and I’m ashamed that I didn’t hear that before. He really does give his all to mid-tempo rockers like “Burn” and “Off the Edge.” Where once I would have despaired to hear him shout “burn, baby, burn ‘cause it feels so good,” now I kind of admire him for it. He has to know the reaction he’s going to get, and he did it anyway. The most experimental material is in the latter half of the album, from the crawling epic “Dance in the Rain” (with David Draiman of Disturbed lending his voice) to the Rivers Cuomo-does-metal melodies of “Don’t Turn Your Back.”
And then there’s “The Blackest Crow,” the one that steps the furthest off the reservation. A creepy banjo line with fiddle accents starts things off, and though it gets heavier, the song retains its Deliverance feel. It’s the best thing here by (ahem) a country mile, and easily the riskiest thing Mustaine has done since… well, you know. But it pays off. The album includes a cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Cold Sweat,” which should be a novelty, but oddly fits right in. And bonus track “A House Divided” brings in a mariachi trumpet, to surprisingly fine effect.
What does all this mean? Isn’t Mustaine doing exactly what I hated him for in 1999? Well, yes, so it’s clear that I’ve changed. I’m willing to allow him the latitude to try new things under the Megadeth banner, and sometimes fail. (Some of these songs fail spectacularly, actually.) Change can be good and bad, but the willingness to change is always a good thing. Or so says the older and wiser me. So, Dear Dave Mustaine, I’m going to give you this one. Super Collider is a bold step away from the hard and the fast, but I’ve learned that the rules don’t need to be similarly hard and fast. Keep doing what you’re doing. I’m listening.
(As an aside, Super Collider could not have come out at a more apt time for me. I now work at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which collaborates with CERN in Switzerland on experiments using the Large Hadron Collider. Pictures of that collider, as well as the CMS detector our scientists work on, adorn the cover and liner notes of this album. I brought it in to work this week, and it was a big hit, particularly the photo of Mustaine and his merry men pretending to work in the LHC tunnel. Hilarious.)
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And finally, here are the Barenaked Ladies to teach me the same lesson in a different way.
Listening to BNL has always made me feel young. They were a college band for me, and the smartass 19-year-old I was responded well to tunes like “Grade 9” and “Be My Yoko Ono.” But they were never a novelty band, as they proved repeatedly – 1994’s Maybe You Should Drive is mainly straightforward and pretty, and later songs like “I Live With It Every Day” and “I’ll Be That Girl” showed off a darker side that few casual fans knew they had.
I’ve always liked BNL more than casually, though. I saw them live at least half a dozen times, and stuck with them through their fallow periods. But when Steven Page – the one with the really interesting voice – left in 2009, I figured it would spell the end for the band. And in retrospect, I wish it had. The maudlin All In Good Time, released in 2010, showcased a confused and angry group of musicians, taking it out on their former singer. Page, meanwhile, quietly moved on, releasing his glimmering solo bow Page One that same year. I wondered if the remaining Ladies could find a way to move past their own acrimony as well.
And now here’s Grinning Streak, the second Page-less BNL album, and they probably think this is what moving on sounds like. The album consists of 12 straight-ahead pop tunes, often hearkening back to the old sound without capturing it. It’s mostly breezy and positive, but it’s also almost utterly faceless. Ed Robertson has a fine voice, but it’s not one that sticks with you, and the songs are completely forgettable. I’m never going to hate this band, but Grinning Streak sounds forced, like they're trying to remember when they were great.
Only two songs – “Boomerang” and “Odds Are” – bring anything resembling the old goofy fire. The band experiments with programmed beats here and there, particularly on “Keepin’ It Real,” but they’re so pedestrian that they might as well have had Tyler Stewart play them live. Robertson sings all but one, the disastrous “Daydreamin’,” which keyboardist Kevin Hearn croaks out. “Daydreamin’” is the only one that is truly awful. Most of these songs are just boring, and from this band, that’s a damn shame. Even Robertson’s lyrics, usually much wittier than they’re given credit for, seem average and uninspired here.
The tragedy is, this album isn’t flat-out bad. It’s just lifeless. It’s a cautionary tale – here’s what happens when you can’t change, you can’t adapt, you remain stuck where you are. There’s no shame in growing beyond who you used to be. I’m nothing like who I was, and couldn’t act like it if I tried. That’s the lesson of Grinning Streak. I wish the band had learned it before making this album, but we all have to figure these things out as we go. It’s part of growing up, growing older, living. And I hope to do a lot more of all three.
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Thanks to everyone who wished me well today. I’m grateful for all of you. Next week, either Black Sabbath or two women named Laura. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date.
See you in line Tuesday morning.