Frivolity and its Necessities
Some Things I've Been Meaning to Talk About

This is one of two columns I did this week. The other, a look a posthumous albums by Warren Zevon and Elliott Smith, is in the archive, if you’re interested. It didn’t turn out quite as well as I’d hoped, but it’s there.

I’m using this one, though, for all the other random bits and pieces I’ve wanted to discuss over the past few installments, but haven’t. The week’s theme of finality and loss is touched on here and there, but mostly this is just scattered thoughts, arranged in no particular order. And as usual for columns of this sort, I thought I’d start with a brief look ahead at some of the new music scheduled to hit stores in the coming months.

Next week’s a good one, with the new Rufus Wainwright, the (reportedly horrible) new Wilco, and the (apparently terrific) new Megadeth. After that, you have to wait until June 5 for anything truly significant. We’ll get Paul McCartney, Chris Cornell and Dream Theater on that date, and two weeks later, we’ll see the White Stripes, the Polyphonic Spree and the Chemical Brothers.

Batten down the hatches for June 26, because it’s a flood of new releases, including Ryan Adams, the Beastie Boys, the Click Five (with their new singer), Steve Vai (with an orchestra), and a massive live box set from Pearl Jam. Then in July, we have new ones from Spoon, They Might Be Giants, Interpol, Suzanne Vega, and Velvet Revolver.

Also, July is reunion month, and it’ll bring us the first new Crowded House album since 1993, and the first new Smashing Pumpkins disc since 2000. We know who’s in the House – it’s mastermind and resident genius Neil Finn, Nick Seymour, Mark Hart and new drummer Matt Sherrod. As for the Pumpkins, we know it’s Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain, and… um…

The rest of the summer is clouded in mystery right now, but given how fantabulous this year has been, expect that it won’t remain so for long. The farthest out I can see right now is August 21, which should bring us new discs by the New Pornographers and Minus the Bear. But I should have updates soon enough.

* * * * *

Anyone watching Lost? Let me say for the record that if the show goes off the rails in the coming seasons, I will point to this week’s episode, specifically the revelation of Jacob, as the moment when it all went wrong. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but wow… I don’t know what to make of it.

Regardless, the real news on the Lost front hit on Monday, when ABC announced that it would allow producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse to set an end date for the show. Lost will run three more 16-episode seasons, for a grand total of 48 more episodes after this season, and will wrap up in 2010. This is an extraordinary move for a major network, and the first time I can think of that any of the big four have taken this step. Lost will end the way the producers want it to, without slowly crumbling over several extraneous seasons that only exist to bring in the advertising bucks.

I credit HBO with making it safe for networks to do this. Thanks to shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, viewers are used to smaller, uninterrupted seasons, complex narrative storytelling, and a novelistic structure with an end point. Six Feet Under ended when Alan Ball wanted it to. The Sopranos will shortly wrap up its run with creator David Chase firmly at the wheel.

I remember when DC Comics took a similar plunge. Of course, comics cost less and bring in considerably less revenue than TV shows do, but I recall what a huge deal it was in the early ‘90s when Neil Gaiman announced the end of Sandman. No new writer would take over. When the original creator’s story was over, he would put his pen down and pack up shop, regardless of the fact that DC Comics owned (and still owns) Sandman completely.

I think this is an immensely positive development for lovers of serial narrative, like me. Here’s what happened in the comic book realm: DC took a lesson from smaller publishers and began accepting creator-owned properties with designated end points. Their Vertigo line is famous for it now. Y: The Last Man, one of the finest books currently being published, is set to end its run at 60 issues. 100 Bullets will run 100 issues.

I predict that this will start happening with television shows as well. We’ve already seen it with J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, pitched as a five-season novel. I think the major networks will start to catch on to this idea, taking pitches from producers who want their shows to run four or five seasons, and then end on a high note, with the conclusion of the story. This is a serious commitment for the network and the producer, of course, and the success or failure of the first couple of these novelistic shows could determine the fate of the paradigm.

And of course, some (if not most) shows will still be based on renewable premises, and will bounce from good idea to bad until the money runs out, just like DC still publishes Superman and Green Lantern and a hundred other ongoing books. But from a creative standpoint, there’s nothing like having a beginning, a middle, and an end to your story, and being able to present it the way you created it. And if Lost does well in its final three seasons, I think we’ll see much more of these finite long-form televisual novels in the future.

* * * * *

Speaking of end points, the great comic book Strangers in Paradise ends its run this month, and I wanted to give creator Terry Moore a special shout-out to celebrate. He’s finishing the series on his own terms, with his own pen strokes, after 14 years.

Strangers in Paradise is the story of three people in constant orbit around each other, and the satellites they bring with them. It is a violent series, full of intrigue and pain and death, but it is also incredibly touching, a book that gets those small, human moments exactly right. SIP is credited with expanding the ranks of female comic book readers, and it’s easy to see why, with its two strong female leads, but honestly, I believe it brought people of both genders to comics because it’s just a damn good book.

Terry Moore is also reportedly one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. I got the chance to talk with him a few times during my days as a comics writer, and I found him charming and modest about his prodigious talent.

Anyway, Strangers in Paradise #90 comes out later this month – it’s actually the 106th issue of the book, counting the two prior volumes. And that’ll be it. I’ve been reading SIP since college, and I’m proud to say I’ve bought every single issue from the same comic book store: Casablanca Comics in Portland, Maine. Like Cerebus wrapping up three years ago, the end of SIP means another remnant of my younger life is gone for good. But it was a great run, a great book, and here’s hoping for a great final issue.

Thanks, Terry.

* * * * *

You may scoff at this, but I don’t honestly consider myself a collector of music.

I’m an obsessive fan of music, it’s true, and I do buy somewhere in the neighborhood of three to five CDs a week, on average. But you won’t see me scouring vinyl bins, looking for out-of-print Australian singles from my favorite bands. You won’t see me seeking out original pressings of anything – in fact, I’ve been known to wait for the remaster more often than not. I own exactly one copy of just about everything I have, and have no use for multiple printings with different sleeve art or different bar code numbers. (Seriously. People pay for an album they already have because the numbers on the bar code are different!)

Still, I do have several collections in progress, and I’m always thrilled when I finish one off to my satisfaction. I did so just last week with one I’ve been tracking down for years, and I’m over the moon about finally having everything I’d hoped to own by this group.

The band is the Prayer Chain, a little-known quartet from California that, in the space of five short years, went through one of the most dramatic artistic evolutions I’ve encountered, and in the process kicked against the very idea of mainstream-label Christian music and what it can be. The members of the Prayer Chain (Tim Taber, Andy Prickett, Eric Campuzano and Wayne Everett) have gone on to either start or contribute to some incredible bands, but none have had the impact on me that the Prayer Chain did.

They started off as a U2-inspired alt-rock band with up-front spiritual lyrics. Their first record, The Neverland Sessions, was released independently in 1991. (And it was the one I needed to finish the collection off – I found a copy online. Hooray for the Internet!) Shortly thereafter, they were signed to Reunion Records, home of Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, among other lightweight gospel-poppers. It’s no understatement to say that they didn’t quite fit on Reunion, and would actually be accurate to call them the heaviest and most artistically driven band on the roster.

The Whirlpool EP was something of a restatement of Neverland, but the band’s second full-length, Shawl, blew the doors off. Produced by Steve Hindalong, drummer of the Choir, Shawl is a tough, massive slab of melodic rock with deep themes – “Fifty-Eight” is about the distance between fathers and sons, and “Never Enough” is one of the most chilling songs about needing grace that I’ve ever heard. Still, Shawl was a rock record, and given that as a starting point, no one could have predicted where they went next.

1995’s Mercury still stands as one of my very favorite records. I don’t own very many like it, honestly. The band teamed up with Hindalong again, but the result this time is a strange, minor miracle of an album that winds around Cure-like guitars, space-age drones, armies of percussion, and slowly unfolding flowers of melody. It’s beautiful and ugly and scary, and it ends with “Sun Stoned,” the greatest end-of-the-world song I know of.

Apparently, the record label messed with Mercury, demanding changes and new songs and an overall less frightening vibe, and I would kill to hear the original version of that album before the suits got their hands on it. The remaining tracks that would have been on Mercury were all released later, on the rarities collection Antarctica and the career-spanning So Close, Yet So Far, but we still don’t know the running order, or how they would have sounded mixed and mastered as a record.

But the evolution and dissolution of the band is fun to trace. Mercury’s engineer, Chris Colbert, once said that you could hear the band break up on that album, and it’s true – they lasted only a few more months before going their separate ways. Still, I’m eternally grateful that I got to hear Mercury, and that now, I have all the stops on the journey that led there.

* * * * *

Next week, my heart will be in it, I swear. New ones from Rufus Wainwright and Wilco, and maybe another installment of Dear Dave Mustaine.

See you in line Tuesday morning.