PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

In Praise Of Gasoline Alley

One of the sad truths about comic strips is that most newspapers don’t appreciate or understand them. Every few years, overcome by the desire to “freshen things up” newspapers will drop long-running comic strips and replace them with newer strips, which often display an alarming lack of taste on the part of the person doing the choosing. Because of this, long-running strips like “Dick Tracy” or “Popeye” get dumped, and manage to limp along with a greatly reduced circulation, while newer strips, many of which look like they’re drawn by second-graders, take their position in on the comics page, and fewer and fewer people decide to keep buying the paper.

One of these classic comic strips is Gasoline Alley. Gasoline Alley began in 1918, by cartoonist Frank King, and had the novel approach of aging its characters in real time. This comic strip saga held the attention of millions during its heyday, but many people are shocked that it’s still being produced. What’s more amazing is that it’s still better than 95% of the comic strips being published. You can read it online here. It’s one of the first things I check out every morning.

After humble beginnings as a comic strip about auto mechanics, the strip really took off when one of the lead characters, Walt Wallet, found a baby on his doorstep, and named him “Skeezix.” From that incident, the comic strip evolved into a unique creation, featuring elements of soap opera, situation comedy, and adventure. With the characters aging in real time, readers have been rewarded with a huge family tree. Currently, the strip focuses on the octogenarian Skeezix and his large family. In 2004, the strip dealt with the death of Walt Wallet’s wife, Phyllis, at the age of 105. Walt is still alive, but has a live-in caretaker.

Currently written and drawn by Jim Scancarilli, Gasoline Alley manages to tell compelling stories, which lately tend to deal with issues of aging. However, the strip is never boring or morose. The gentle humor and realistic elements of the stories make this one of the best “continuity” strips running today.

Long overlooked by the critical elite, Gasoline Alley is just starting to garner some respect. Collections of Frank King’s early strips are being published under the title “Walt And Skeezix,” by Drawn And Quarterly. Getting back to the issues I addressed in the opening paragraph, if the Gazette ever wants to revamp their comics page, and turn it into a revenue-generating circulation-booster, I’ll volunteer my services as an expert in the field.

Me First And The Gimme Gimmes is one of my favorite bands. They are considered by some to be a novelty or comedy act, but musically, their stuff holds up. Their gimmick is that they take the hardcore-punkish musical chops that the various members honed in a slew of legendary So Cal Punk bands like The Swingin’ Udders, Lagwagon, and NOFX, and apply them to what can best be described as “inappropriate” songs. Our SOTW is from their most recent CD “Me First And The Gimme Gimmes Ruin Johnny’s Bar Mitzvah.” It’s the Gimmes cover of Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time“.

“Ruin Johnny’s Bar Mitzvah” is a live album, recorded at an actual Bar Mitzvah, and includes covers of songs by Led Zepplin, The Beatles, and a couple of very special versions of “Hava Nagila” You can buy CDs by Me First And The Gimme Gimmes, and also grab a few more free MP3s at the Fat Wreck Chords website.

After taking on Singer/Songwriters, Broadway, and R&B on previous albums, the Gimmes entered the studio just last month to begin work on their next opus, a collection of Western classics.

The Town Was Jumpin’

It was a busy and fun-packed weekend here in Charleston. Anybody who complains that there isn’t anything to do in Charleston just isn’t looking. There was too much stuff to do. Case in point:

Friday night I attended the performance by the No Pants Players at the Labelle Theater in South Charleston. Even with a truncated cast, the Pantsless crew put on a hugely entertaining show that drew fans from as a far away as Kentucky. They also performed Saturday evening. The next No Pants Players extravaganza takes place during FestivAll. Details to come.

Saturday afternoon, uncle-y duties prevented me from dropping by the book signing by Robin Boyd at Taylor Books, but I’m sure I missed a cool time. I’ll have to stop by and grab a copy of her book later this week. Late in the afternoon, I tuned into the Kentucky Derby to see if the horse that shares its name with a wrestling personality (Sinister Minister) would win the big race. He didn’t.

Saturday evening, Mel and I caught our Gazz Editor himself, Doug Imbrogno, along with Paul Callicoat performing as “DouglasEye” at Capitol Roasters on Summers Street. Fifteen years we’ve been writing for Doug, and this was the first time we got a chance to hear him sing. We were both quite impressed, even more so when we found out that this was the first time Doug and Paul had performed together. It sounded like they’d been working together for years. As we were sitting there, enjoying the performance, I realized that this was the first time that I’d been out to hear live music (not counting seeing Mel perform) in a decade. I gotta start getting out more. Thank God for smoke-free venues!

Sunday was a day of rest. Or, in my case, it was a day for the mighty hefting of large appliances and pieces of furniture. I don’t think there was anything major to go to Sunday night, but with new episodes of “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “Desperate Housewives,” “American Dad,” “Robot Chicken,” and “King Of The Hill,” who cares? There’s nothing wrong with spending an evening watching great TV.

Monday Morning Art: Double Shot

This week, we kick off with a double shot of Monday Morning Art.

These are two digitally-assaulted takes on the same photograph, a simple streetscape shot in Dunbar, during a February stroll. On the left, you see “Dunbar Street 1,” a straightforward version, with the photo minimally tweaked for contrast and run through a variety of filters.

On the right, you see “Dunbar Street 2,” a more drastic assault, with lots of extraneous painting, and a flood-fill rainbow, created using power lines, and a different set of filters.

That’s the fun of digitally-assaulting photographs: You can create an endless set of variations using the same source material. If you want to stare at them more closely, click to enlarge.

Cool Toy Of The Week: George Lucas as a Stormtrooper

This week the Cool Toy is an action figure made by Hasbro, one of the big toy companies, but since it’s a unique figure, and since getting your hands on one is going to be fun, I thought it’d be good to showcase this guy. You read about him in GazzNotes, now you can get the action figure!

It’s George Lucas, as the limited edition George Lucas in Stormtrooper Disguise tribute figure, from the new line of Star Wars action figures. The catch is that you can’t buy it in stores. As part of the Star Wars Ultimate Galactic Hunt You have to collect and send in five proof-of-purchase stickers from the new assortment of Kenner-styled Star Wars action figures. These figures harken back to the classic action figures that many of us grew up collecting. Including Lucas as a Stormtrooper is a great gag and something that will delight hard-core Star Wars fanatics.

My buddy, Derryl Depriest, brand director for Hasbro’s Star Wars division explains, “As the architect of the Star Wars galaxy, George Lucas has entertained millions of fans with his classic space saga of good versus evil. The new action figure allows Hasbro to honor Lucas, the greatest character in the universe.”

You’ll have to buy a few specific figures to get the redemption certificate and different stickers (you can see an example on the left), and you’ll still have to kick in $4.95 for shipping and handling, but you’ll be rewarded with a cool, somewhat goofy action figure. You can find full details about the promotion here.

A Day Without Pants

As everyone knows, May 5 is a special day. It’s National No Pants Day! What better way to celebrate than to see Charleston’s own No Pants Players, as they treat us to an evening of fine improv comedy at the Labelle Theater in South Charleston?

Friday (and Saturday, for you stragglers) The No Pants Players ply their improv trade at the Labelle with an all-ages show that kicks off at 8 PM. Admission is a mere five bucks, and audience members who participate on stage will be rewarded with prizes from Krispy Kreme and Main Tin. I caught the No Pants Players a couple of months ago, and it was loads of fun. It’s about time that we finally got some great improv comedy in this area.

If you go: Admission is five dollars. The show is appropriate for all ages. Curtain time is 8 PM, Friday and Saturday May 5 and 6 at the Labelle Theater, 311 D Street, South Charleston.

Mountain Booking

Saturday at Taylor Books, author Robin Boyd will be signing copies of her new book, The Mountain Biker’s Guide to West Virginia from 1 PM to 3 PM. Robin’s enthusiasm for biking in the Mountain State is evident. She says, “I’ve mountain biked in Europe, Africa and Australia, and all across the United States, and I stand by the fact that the best mountain biking in the world is in West Virginia.”

Robin Boyd is a professor and a journalist, but she’s also a competitive athlete, mom, and bicycling advocate. In the book, she tells of her favorite places to ride, all over the state, covering different skill levels and locations ranging from remote to just five minutes from downtown Charleston.

The book also features photography by Danny Boyd. Already established as an educator, film maker and wrestler, Danny adds yet another “slash,” as he shows off his prowess as an adventure photographer.

The Mountain Biker’s Guide to West Virginia is available at stores around the state or from the West Virginia Book Company at 888-982-7472. The book retails for 8.95.

If you go: Robin Boyd will be at Taylor Books, 226 Capitol Street, Charleston, Saturday May 6, from 1 PM to 3 PM.

So Who Is Andy Prieboy, Anyway?

Okay, I’ve been writing about him all week, so here’s his rough biographical sketch: Andy Prieboy was born in California, raised in Indiana, and became part of the San Francisco punk scene in the late 1970s. He toiled on the fringes of the music business until he was hired to replace Stan Ridgeway as lead singer of Wall Of Voodoo, in 1985. Wall Of Voodoo had one hit while Ridgeway was the lead singer (“Mexican Radio”) but were not expected to survive his exit. Oddly enough, both Ridgeway and Wall Of Voodoo went on to make better music apart than they did together.

Around 1990, Wall Of Voodoo split, and Prieboy recorded “Upon My Wicked Son,” a brilliant solo debut that showed more diversity and brilliance than even his impressive work with Wall Of Voodoo had. Two songs from that album have been recorded by other artists, with great success. “Tomorrow Wendy,” a song about an AIDS victim, was the only hit for Concrete Blonde, while “Loving The Highway Man” was recorded by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. You can hear Prieboy’s original versions by clicking on the song titles.

In the late 1990s, after contributing a few songs to the “Mr Potato Head” children’s puppet show, Prieboy took up residence at a Los Angeles nightclub and developed his “Gilbert and Hooligan” style with “White Trash Wins Lotto,” a musical about Guns N Roses. “White Trash” became a hit, and productions have been mounted in Los Angeles, Toronto, and New York. Thus far, it has not been recorded or released officially. He’s been working on it for eight years now, taking time out to co-author “The Psycho Ex Game” with Merril Markoe.

I’m a huge fan of his work, and thought maybe some of my readers might get a kick out of him, too. He’s one of those rare birds, a songwriter of substance and humor, whose music actually means something. Andy Prieboy, go listen to his music.

Overlooked Album Of The Year: 1995

The Artist: Andy Prieboy
The CD: “Sins Of Our Fathers” (out of print)

The best album of 1995 was so poorly distributed that I couldn’t find a copy until one turned up at an affordable price on eBay three years ago. I knew it was out, but I could never find a copy at the same time that I had the disposable income to pick it up. It was worth the eight-year wait. This is an epic album, musically diverse, lyrically brilliant, with a perfect blend of humor and gut-wrenching emotional wreckage. Fueled by the dissolution of a long-term dysfunctional relationship and frustration from twenty years of being bounced around by the music industry, “Sins Of Our Fathers” is a masterpiece that deserves to be ranked with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” as one of the great catharthic achievements in rock music.

A recurring theme of the album is the collapse of Prieboy’s deal with MCA Records, and the desperation at having your dreams dashed and your career left in ruins. This CD would have made the perfect soundtrack for the dot-com bubble bursting and the Enron debacle. Mixed in with the songs about business are the songs about Prieboy’s personal hell in dealing with his failing relationship. His drug-addicted ex is a major character in these songs. One of the admirable things is that Prieboy doesn’t shy away from exposing his own faults. The song “Psycho Ex” (which you’ve probably heard about by now), tells the tale of an obsessed ex who doesn’t want to let go. It’s followed immediately by “You Cannot Not Want Me,” which is exactly the flip side–Prieboy’s plea to a woman who’s rejected him. It’s a bold move, artistically , portraying behavior as “psycho” in one song, then exhibiting that same tone in the next.

Other highlights of the album are “Who Do You Think We’re Coming For,” a hair-raising tune which compares an executive at MCA to a Cardinal who turned his back on Louis XIV during the French Revolution, and “When The Dream Is Over,” a doomed-love song, starkly arranged with piano and strings.

Mixed in among the heavy tunes are lighter moments with Prieboy’s sardonic humor and a dash of vaudeville. The musicianship is top-notch, particularly Scott Thunes (late of Frank Zappa’s band) on bass. Sadly this CD is out of print, and sells for as much as sixty bucks on the secondary market. Once in a while, you may luck out and find one for less than ten dollars on eBay. It’s worth hunting down.

The Psycho Ex Game: A Novel

Continuing with “Andy Prieboy Week” here at Popcult, today we’re looking at a novel, co-written by Prieboy with comedy writing legend Merrill Markoe: “The Psycho Ex Game,” inspired by the song posted earlier here at Popcult. “The Psycho Ex Game” is a “He said/She said” book, with alternating chapters told in first person by slightly fictionalized versions of Prieboy and Markoe “Grant Repka” and “Lisa Roberty.” They meet at a performance of Repka’s musical, based on the romance of Tommy Lee and Pam Anderson, and strike up a bizarre email correspondence, which develops into a game, as they try to out-do each other with sordid tales of their respective “Psycho Exes.” This is one compelling read. Both authors so clearly delineate their characters that you feel like you know them instantly. The game itself is a terrific device to let us get to know these people.

” From the Psycho Ex Game Official Handbook:
All points in Psycho Ex Game are self-awarded by the narrator.
Points are given based on a personal value system of
humiliation, horror, self-debasement and pain endured. “

This book is a pure delight. Or to be more exact, it’s a guilty pleasure. You feel bad getting so much enjoyment out of other people’s tales of misery, but Markoe and Prieboy do such a deft job of letting you inside the heads of their protagonists that you instantly relate to them.

Part of the fun of this novel is that it’s so thinly disguised. Though Markoe’s “Lisa” is famous for having dated “Nick Blake,” a big-time movie comedian, in real-life, Markoe spent the better part of a decade as the significant other of David Letterman. I’d rather not guess wrong about the identity of “Jane Gray,” the novel’s name for Prieboy’s psycho ex, but I think it’s one of the alternative music scene’s favorite divas. In the book, “Grant’s” musical is about Tommy Lee and Pam Anderson. In reality, Prieboy has created “White Trash Wins Lotto,” an acclaimed musical that tells the story of Guns N Roses.

This book was published almost two years ago, but managed to fly under my radar. I didn’t find out about it until last week, while I was making one of my periodic checks of Amazon to see if a cast album of “White Trash Wins Lotto” had been released yet. Imagine my shock when I discovered that one of my favorite musicians had co-written a book with a comic author whom I hold in high regard. Talk about not being able to put a book down: My desire to finish reading this book mirrored “Lisa’s” obsessive need to read the next email from “Grant.”

“The Psycho Ex Game” has been out long enough that you can buy it now for next nothing, using Amazon’s “new and used” option. I think my hardcover copy was less than six bucks, including shipping. It’s the best six bucks I’ve spent in years.