The Weird Bits That Made Me: Julian Dawson, Travel On

Welcome To: The Weird Bits That Made Me, an expoloration of the idiosyncratic or obscure pop culture that I was into as a kid. I lived a strange suburban existence, with relatively young and somewhat hip parents and there were some real gems in the offbeat cultural stuff they exposed us to as kids. It hought it would be fun to once a week explore some of that.

There are certain moments when I remember how young my parents were when they married, settled and had the three of us. By the time my mother was my age she’d been with her life partner for twelve years, married for eight of those, and had three children.

So it becomes less weird when the musical touchstones of my childhood, beyond their teenage boomer staples, include stuff like Green Day, Blues Traveler, The Wallflowers.

But beyond even that, comes the fact that my parents were still heading to rock clubs and listening to bar bands well into my childhood. One time, after a trip to New York City’s The Bottom Line (now closed, but a favorite of my dad’s) they came back with a CD from a British, Indie Signed Singer Songwriter named Julian Dawson called Travel On.

We listened to this CD A LOT as kids. It was one of those that just stuck around in my mom’s car, and unlike a lot of the transitive stuff my dad picked up in his 30’s, was actually really good.

And then, when streaming came along, I made the decision to search Mr. Dawson (I still haven’t dove into his other work though I probably should, based on my adult tastes, I’d probably dig his shit). And today, we’re going to talk about the album, Travel On, which came out in 1995 and I listened to regularly probably until about 2003.

First things first, this ablum is super 90’s. It’s that odd combination of male yearning, 60’s nostalgia, daddy issues, and a vague social conscious, plus synths and acoustic guitars.

I forgot how deeply in my brain these songs were until I listened to them again, and how my favorites from when I was a kid are still the ones I prefer, despite getting most of them more. But were I to curate the album (which isn’t long) I’d probably still stick to the opening track, “Travel On,” the fun and propulsive, “Just Can’t Say No,” the 90’s-tastic depression ballad, “Sigh Heart, Don’t Break,” and the lovely parental loss song, “You’re Listening Now,” and the werido folk style story song, “Queen Of The Bayou.”

I’m less into the exhortation of shallow tourism as colonialism, “New Columbus” which includes the eye rolling insight, “Columbus has a credit card, he’s traded in his cross. The King and Queen of Nicotine still guarantee the profit and loss.” I’d liked this song as a kid because it is pretty catchy. Knowing a little bit more about how music works, it has a pretty fun guitar riff and some neat harmonica work. There are a few other songs that are very much about heartbreak and betrayal that I get more as an adult, but are also just, still not my thing.

Julian Dawson’s entire discography is on Spotify and while I don’t know if I can recommend this entire album, I would DEFINITELY say that I think people should at the very least listen to “You’re Listening Now,” which is the kind of raw and beautiful piano ballad that I will just never be able to resists. A sample of the lyrics:

The strong and silent teacher,

You let the music talk

I learned to sing in harmony

As soon as I could walk

But trying to please everybody on Earth’s

Not an easy thing to do

When all the time I was only try to please you

I mean, dude, I am not made out of stone. That is some heartbreaking shit.

I was a little nervous to go back to this one, because it was SO odd, and also because I didn’t know if it would hold up at all, but it really did, and also is a bit of a Rosetta Stone into the kind of music I got into later. I’ve always been into this kind of lyric heavy acoustic pop-rock, and I think this album has some influence on that.

I’m hoping to get one of these done a week. I have a decent list of stuff that I’d like to talk about. It’s going to be fun.

Bittersweet And Strange: Howard Shines a Bright Light on The Voice Of My Childhood

It is absolutely impossible to calculate the depth of Howard Ashman’s influence on me, and countless other people like me, who fell in love with musicals as a medium because of his work with Disney.

The new documentary on Disney+, directed by Don Hahn, who produced Beauty And The Beast is of a piece with Hahn’s equally wonderful, Waking Sleeping Beauty, chronicles Ashman’s life, from his working class Baltimore roots, to his tragic death from complications from AIDS in 1991.

The movie deals with his early work and relationships sensitively before settling into his life long partnerships, creatively with Alan Menken and his life partner Bill Pausch, both of whom tell some of the most touching stories about him.

What I like so much about Hahn’s approach here, and why I think it surpasses Waking Sleeping Beauty (which I happen to really like a lot) is that here Hahn doesn’t have an axe to grind. He wants to share his friends life and work, especially his work, with people. And the work so often speaks for itself.

Old footage of Ellen Greene singing “Somewhere That’s Green,” or Jodi Benson recording “Part Of Your World,” or an incredible demo of Ashman singing “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” or the joyous look on Jerry Orbach’s face as he listens back to “Be Our Guest” for the first time, this man wrote such wonderful, perfect, musical theater songs. There are no talking heads, narration is provided by Hahn himself, or by stories told over old photographs, which makes it much more intimate. Occasionally an old interview with Ashman will pop up, and listening to him talk about his work is transfixing.

Thinking about AIDS is something I do, and have done A LOT, in my life. I was too young for the most dangerous time of this disease, but I live in the New York area and love art, so pretty much every bit of the art I love was shaped by the disease, by the generation of men who were lost.

Watch this one with tissues, y’all. It’s going to break your heart. And be prepared for one final punch in the gut over the credits.

Magical Movies Tour: Fantasia 2000

Watching Fantasia woke up something inside of me. I think it’s an incredibly special piece of art, interesting and idiosyncratic and unique. It was also a deep financial failure for Disney Studios and despite years of trying, Walt’s desire for a sequel never got off the ground. When Roy Disney took over, it became his dream to chase and, based on the reading I’ve done this year, really bugged the crap out of everyone else at the company.

The result of that war (besides Michael Eisner losing his job and Bob Iger becoming a thing) is Fantasia 2000, which is an interesting beast, and nowhere near as lovely as it’s predecessor. Choosing a slate of new pieces and remastering “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” the film is presented much more like a splashy symphonic event concert, complete with celebrity introductions and projection screens.

It is nowhere near as charming and the work on display feels a good deal less magical.

I liked a few of the pieces more than others. Interpreting “Rhapsody in Blue” as a bustling day in 1930s New York, drawn in the style of Al Hirschfeld is inspired and the resulting piece is a lot of fun to watch. “The Firebird” is interesting if imperfect and “Pomp And Circumstance” is a lovely little fable that features my good friend Donald.

At the bottom of the barrel is probably “The Pines of Rome” where several blue whales migrate and jump out of the water. While I’m sure this sequence seemed really cool on Imax screens in 2000, now the CGI looks dated and there’s no majesty on my home tv.

The celebrity narrators are well chosen and acquit themselves well, but still feel, off, I guess?

Next week, we’re talking about Dinosaur, which I genuinely cannot remember if I’ve ever watched before.

Magical Movies Tour: Mulan

I know last week I WENT OFF about how Hercules is my favorite of this run, but that was of course before I watched Mulan again which is as different from Hercules as could possibly be, and also might be my favorite?

Mulan is a really special movie for so many reasons. I do really love the “girl disguises herself to go to war” trope, which of course started likely with the Ballad of Hua Mulan, (though my Western Catholic example was always Jeanne D’Arc.) and Disney’s version of the tale is remarkable for a few reasons.

First of all, there are several truly incredible animation sequences. The battle with the Huns on the mountain side, and the final battle at the Imperial Palace have always been stand outs, but this time, I was really moved by the montage of Mulan getting ready to leave home.

It’s moody and epic and a little bit foreboding. The music helps that but the images in that sequence are just absolutely incredible. Mulan sitting on the Great Stone Dragon, seeing her parents in silhouette, and the lightning crashing as she makes her choice.  I was really moved by it.

I also was super moved by the ending when all of the city bows to Mulan after the emperor, but I think that’s just because I watched The Return Of The King the week before I watched it and had a bit of an emotional hangover.

There’s some of the Aladdin formula at work here as well, and it’s really the only one after that where it works. Eddie Murphy’s performance as Mushu is a delight of comic relief, the antics of the cricket are also fun, and the ancestors as a kind of comedic Greek chorus make for a nice bit of business too.

There’s still a steep drop off in quality this run from The Lion King, but it’s also not nearly as pronounced as I remembered. Pocahontas is a stinker, but everything after that is actually pretty good to great. (Mulan and Hercules)

Next time, that “pretty good” streak continues with the Tarzan. 

Magical Movies Tour: Hercules

*Contented Sigh* I love Hercules.

In the course of this project I’ve been compelled to get my butt off the couch and dance a total of five times, “Bear Necessities,” “Why Should I Worry?”, “Streets Of Gold,” and then, “Zero to Hero,” and “A Star Is Born.” Which I think says something. Hercules is, as the kids say, a BOP. This movie SLAPS. It is so much fun, just oodles and oodles of fun.

It doesn’t hurt the cause that it is an adaptation of Greek myth, a genre I am inordinately fond of. (Have you heard the gospel of our lord and savior, Rick Riordan? How about Lore Olympus? Wanna talk about Lore Olympus?) To be fair Disney’s Hercules is a loose adaptation of the greatest hero Greece has ever known. (Or, “My jerkiest brother” as Jason Grace calls him.) (Oh no, I gave myself a sad) It’s still a really fun ride.

It’s incredible watching this after watching Pocahontas and Hunchback, because I really do like it so much more. Perhaps it’s because it’s less self serious? Because it uses a different music style? I like that it leans into being a cartoon quite a bit. Hercules’s strength is used for physical comedy as much as it is for incredible action set pieces. (And that fight against the Hydra is really cool.) I also like the voice performances. James Woods is an unrepentant dick head but he’s perfect as Hades and Danny DeVito slays as Phil. Tate Donovan is completely winning as Herc, and Susan Egan creates a GODDAMNED ICON with Megara.

There are few songs in the world that have implanted themselves as much in my brain as “I Won’t Say I’m In Love.” It’s a wonderful song and so much fun at karaoke. (If you’re wondering I usually take the Muses part and someone else takes Meg.)  (That someone else is often Kristi.) (I miss karaoke)

I don’t have more words to spill here but I just had a blast watching this movie again.

Next week, we’ll bring honor to our families by watching Mulan. 

Magical Movie Tours: The Hunchback Of Notre Dame

I’ve never read Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame De Paris from which all the adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame stem. I always figured if I was going to muddle through thousands of pages about Paris architecture and Hugo’s penchant for excruciating detail and bloated casts it should be for the story that I’ve been obsessed with since I was a child.

Which is why I’ve read Les Miserables like 4 ish times (sometimes I start and get frustrated, other times I just skip to the good stuff, but I’ve read the whole thing front to back 3 times), but I’ve never bothered with Notre Dame.

When The Hunchback Of Notre Dame came out I was a little too old for being fully into Disney and not quite the Broadway musical obsessed teenager I would become. It was firmly in my preteen attempts at being a normal person. I regret those years mightily. (This instinct would rear it’s ugly head and lead to misery my sophomore year of college as well). So it just hasn’t imprinted on me the way it has a lot of other people. The music though, once I did become that Broadway musical obsessed teenager, did work it’s way into my heart. “The Bells Of Notre Dame,” and “Out There,” and “God Help The Outcasts” are just absolutely stunning works of musical theater music. It’s some of Alan Menken’s strongest work, all dreamy strings and triumphant horns, and Steven Schwartz’s lyrics are deep and strong and moving.

The art is once again incredible, capturing a time and place so mythic and golden that it shines with God’s love, and yet corrupted and foul with hypocrisy and obsession.

Speaking of “obsession,” having not read the novel, I assume if Frollo is at all faithful Hugo had a bug up his butt about hypocritical sticklers, huh? “Hellfire” is a terrifying song (even if it’s a little bit stolen from Sweeny Todd, Alan and Steve? I see you.) and his determination to burn Paris to “cleanse his own sin” is horrible and really cool.

I get why people love this movie, I really do, I see it. I just, don’t love it. It’s not in my heart, I appreciate it tremendously and love things that it’s given us. (Seriously, that music, just heavenly.) (There was also a time when wandering around Epcot that Mary and I tripped over Esmerelda and she taught us a dance and it was easily one of my favorite character interactions ever, I think I was 12?)

Next we get into the movie from this era that did get into my heart, and that’s Hercules. 

Magical Movies Tour: Pocahontas

Oh boy, Pocahontas is gorgeous to look at, and has some damn good songs (To be fair, I’m a complete sucker for Steven Schwartz. Godspell! Pippin! Wicked! This piece of garbage), but jeez, are the story and script a hot piece of trash.

I mean, we know the obvious, really racist, two sides of the argument vague native American spiritualism stuff, plus you know…Mel Gibson, but it’s also just super shallow. Pocahontas is headstrong, but it’s not really grounded in anything the way it was with say, Jasmine or even Ariel and Belle. Plus you know, it’s hard to have agency when you fall in love with Mel Gibson, then his friend Christian Bale kills your fiance and your father tries to kill him.

Seriously, the story is a big old mess. I’m not even getting into the historical inaccuracies, because I have no problem with historical fiction deviating when the work is good. (I know far more about the Romanovs than I do Jamestown and I still think Anastasia is a delight despite it getting everything wrong) (Also, I realize for racism reasons they are not remotely comparable, but from a strict analytical sense, they work) (Also, I wrote this post MONTHS ago, but this is a really cromulent point right now because the Hamilton discourse is turned up HIGH right now)

That said, it’s still stunning, visually. Really, the painted backgrounds and character designs are deeply appealing, those vaguely defined nature spirits shine against the more muted earth tones around them. “Colors Of The Wind” is a beautifully animated sequence, in particular.

And, as I mentioned up top, I have a serious soft spot for this music. Again, I’m a sucker for Schwartz and his too clever wordplay, which in this movie is most on display in “Mine, Mine, Mine,” and my favorite song on the soundtrack, “Just Around The Riverbend.” Both have this quick patter of words that are easily identifiable as Schwartz and has always drawn me into his work. (It’s different than Sondheim’s walls of words, which I also love.)

Overall, I think there’s a reason I stopped rewatching this one once I got to elementary school, despite continuing to have the soundtrack on repeat. It’s terribly flawed as a film.

Next week we’ll get into ANOTHER flawed piece, that others remember as a masterpiece and I haven’t watched in at least fifteen years, and has beautiful Steven Schwartz music, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame 

The Ten Album Challenge

If you’re on Facebook. (Which I am. Too Much) you’ve probably seen the following coming out of your friends and family lately.

I’ve been nominated by *Insert Name Here* to post 10 albums, 1 per day for the next 10 days which MOST influence my musical taste, without any caption or explanation. I’m gonna tag a friend each day to share the same.

Well, 10 days ago, my sister Mary tagged me to do it, and since what I do, like all the time is talk about the media and art that has influenced me and hit me and made me happy throughout my life, the “no explanation” part was hard for me. So I journaled the explanation and I will now be sharing those quick paragraphs with you.

Day 1: Green Day Dookie

Dookie

This is the album that taught me the glory of basic, 3 chords and some angst rock and roll. So much came to be because of this love and I still, to this day, will turn up the volume when a song from this comes on. (Hell, “Basketcase” came on the radio on Sunday and I cranked it and rolled down the windows.) This isn’t even getting into the “hidden track,” which is stoner humor perfection. “And did I mention…I was all by myself,” still makes me giggle.

Day 2 – Backstreet Boys Millenium

Millenium

This is the album that made me fall in love with pop music. It also happens to have the three best songs ever recorded by a boy band, “I want it that Way,” “The One,” and “Show Me The Meaning Of Being Lonely.” I will defend the music of this time forever, I will not however, defend the haircuts.

Day 3: Sara McLachlan “Mirrorball”

Mirrorball

I like people singing sad songs with pianos. I don’t know why, but I do. I think a big part of it was being 11 when this album hit. But I also love live albums, especially from eras I missed. I was too young to really experience the whole Lillith Faire thing, but I’ve always loved the soft acoustic energy of that festival.

Day 4: Zac Brown Band Uncaged

Uncaged

I have a deep appreciation of musical artists who think genre is bullshit, and the person who I think does this the best is Zac Brown. He’s a country artist who refuses to discount his rock and roll roots for the poppier Nashville sounds, and Uncaged is the album that made me fall wildly in love with his ability to use romantic imagery to tell classic country stories. (“She’s a natural disaster, she’ll tear the land in two. She’s running to be running but that’s all that’s left for you.”)

Day 5: Original London Cast Recording Les Miserables

Les Mis

Look, choosing what Showtune to put on this list was practically impossible, so I went with my earliest memory, and Patti Lupone. Also, “One Day More.”

Day 6: Bruce Springsteen The River

The_River_(Bruce_Springsteen)_(Front_Cover)

This is the Springsteen that I love the most, the party song mixed in with the heartfelt ballad storyteller. I love Springsteen infinitely, but this album is my favorite, the one that clicked for me as a kid, understanding why exactly it is that my family worships this man.

Day 7 Coheed And Cambria Second Stage Of The Turbine Blade

Second Stage Of The Turbine Blade

There’s a piece of wisdom out there, which is, “you will always think the music you loved when you were 14 is the best.” And for the most part, this list isn’t that (it actually skews a bit younger) but I was 14 when Second Stage Of The Turbine Blade imprinted on me, and Coheed And Cambria came to be everything to me. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before and I’m still chasing that high by seeing them play live every year. (PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE let Manhattan be having concerts in September!)

Day 8: Billy Joel Songs In The Attic

Songs In The Attic

My father gave us all the incredible gift of loving the B side. Movies that weren’t quite hits, songs that didn’t make it on the radio, restaurants that you have to walk a little bit from the main tourist drag to get to. Songs In The Attic is that impulse contained in an album, a collection of songs that Billy loved, but hated the album cuts of, and that the record company wouldn’t promote. So he made an album of the live versions, and they’re perfection. “Miami 2017” and my favorite song ever “Summer, Highland Falls” make appearances too, so I can’t complain.

Day 9: The Postal Service Give Up

Give Up

Deciding whether to go with Give Up or Ben Gibbard’s other band, Death Cab For Cutie’s Plans, I realized quickly that in addition to the fact that I still listen to Give Up, in it’s entirety regularly. It also opened a whole world for me, as a teenager, to that whole synth based, indie rock world. (Basically the other thing up for this entry was the Garden State soundtrack. That whole scene)

Day 10: Carole King Tapestry

Tapestry

I am a white woman who loves rock and roll, to not include Carole king would be beyond strange. (Much like she isn’t in the hall of fame! WHY NOT? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?) Anyway, this album is the best, and everyone should listen to it all the time.

Anyway, those are my 10 albums and some little entries explaining why I chose them! Hope everyone is staying safe, still. Love you all so much.

 

Magical Movies Tour: The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad

Another anthology of sorts, this time just two stories, both adapted from popular children’s books, The Wind In The Willows and Tales of Sleepy Hollow, and both shorts excellently executed.

The Pastoral English tale of Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, that foolish fop, captivated by adventure and his poor put upon friends trying to reign him in. Toad decides one day, at the urging of the troublesome horse, Cyril, that he absolutely MUST have a motorcar. Meanwhile, back at Toad Hall, Angus McBadger, Mr. Mole and Mr. Rat are trying to make sense of this newest mania for their friend, but before they can, Toad has traded the hall to some duplicitous Weasels for their car.

They then take him to court, claiming he stole it. He’s thrown in the tower and a wild escape attempt later, the weasels are discovered and all is well…or at least until Toad brings home an airplane! Oh will he ever learn?

The Ichabod Crane half, which as a kid I never finished due to terror, is my preffered. Yes, I know a few weeks ago I railed against the American Folklore stuff, but I like this one. (Maybe it’s the Old East Coaster in me. The western stuff doesn’t do it, but give me those New York Dutch ghosts any old day.) Narrated by Bing Crosby (I mean REALLY!) We learn the story of the lanky school master Ichabod Crane, who comes to Tarrytown and sweeps the women of town off their feet with his intellect and cultured ways. When he starts pursuing the beautiful and rich Katrina VanTassel, town bully Brahms decides it’s time to put him in this place.

At a party Brahms relates the story of The Headless Horseman, a spook who rides through the Hollow on Halloween Night, searching for his head. The song that does this is really great, but I’m also super partial to Bing Crosby, as he was my mom’s favorite crooner, I grew up with his voice.

Leaving the party Ichabod has an encounter with the Headless Horseman, and the next day is gone forever from Sleepy Hollow, did he survive and just leave town, scared by his rivals warning? Or was he taken by the spirit?

It’s such a fun ghost story, and one that I’ve always loved, even if I couldn’t watch this particular version without nightmares as a kid.

Both shorts are charming out the butt, with creative animation and character design and fun music. I rate this one a win.

Next week we start into a pretty classic stretch and I’m very excited about it. We’re doing Cinderella, and I am so so ready for my favorite princess.

Third Time’s A Charm – Be Our Guest NYC

The incredible Captain Awkward,an advice writer who I’ve been following for the past few years, has stated that when attempting to meet new friends as an adult you should find a recurring event that sparks your interest and go three times, no matter what. Three times, decide if it’s right for you, if you fit in.

Back in June, I got a Facebook notification, in the “events near you” section for “Be Our Guest: A Disney DJ Night,” the even was taking place that Friday, and the event description appealed to me, an evening where a bunch of people wore costumes and drank and sang along and danced to Disney music.

Yes, I couldn’t have designed a better evening myself. I texted Aless and asked if she wanted to come, she gave a hearty “OF COURSE” and we went. We had an absolute ball, talked to some great people, haunted a diner until 5 am and stumbled back to Aless’s apartment at 6 giggling.

It was incredible. In September, I went back. Aless was back in Colombia visiting her mother, but I thought about that 3 times thing, and I bought the ticket and went by myself this time. It was, again, unreal. I was immediately surrounded by people I felt connected to. I sang and danced and again, found myself in a diner at five in the morning laughing about everything and nothing.

This past weekend, I got my third shot. I laced myself into my black Ariel As A Human Corset, I hopped on a late train, and walked into the Gramercy Theater on 23rd Street and danced and sang my face off and had just, the absolute best time. (Aless came again this round).

Trying to explain why this event has gotten so inside of me is tough. It’s just a strange intersection of things that I really love. The cosplay and Disney songs are nice trappings, but what I really love about it is communal. It’s the part that gets me sitting in a diner talking to new friends until 5 in the morning. The part that I lost a lot of when I outgrew a group of friends. Getting a taste of that, even if it’s only one night every few months is nourishing. 

So anyway, I’m in on this event now, I’ve found people I care for very much there, and I hope to be as much of a regular there as I can. I’m also going to try to hang out with the people I’ve met there in other spaces. But even if those friendships never quite make it past the late night disco fries and milk shakes stage, I’m grateful for it.