Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Star Wars Story

by G. Jack Urso 

As a sci-fi fan, it would be remiss of me in the final few hours of 2017 not to somehow honor the 40th anniversary of the premier of Star Wars. There is little I can add to the recognition, but I do have one story that perhaps illustrates the power of the phenomenon to those too young to remember a world before George Lucas’ blockbuster movie.
When the film debuted in May 1977, I was not immediately taken with the hype. Star Trek was my main sci-fi interest and I regarded Star Wars as an over-produced, genre-destroying, corporate monster. I waited over a year before finally giving in to peer-pressure and got my dad to take me during one of our weekly divorced-dad weekends in June 1978.

Now, I hasten to add that Star Wars had been playing at our local multiplex, Cine 1-2-3-4-5-6 (yes, that was its name) at Northway Mall in Albany, NY, since May 1977, so it was playing for a full year before I saw it — and the theater was still packed. Let that sink in for a moment. Star Wars played at theaters continuously for over a year. It’s impossible to imagine any film doing the same thing today.
The old Cine 1-2-3-4-5-6, here upgraded to Cine 10. Demolished in May 2007 (
I was looking for any reason not to like the movie. When an imperial officer used the word “sensors” early in the film, I leaned over to my dad and said that was used in Star Trek. My dad shushed me and told me to give it a chance. By the time Luke Skywalker fired up his lightsaber for the first time, I was hooked. As though bound by quantum entanglement, I remain so today.

The backstory of an awkward young man with limited prospects who hates his life rang true with a lot of kids, and still does. Luke Skywalker’s coming-of-age is what gives the film its heart and helps it rise above what Alec Guinness described as the “banality” of the dialog in the script. My father, despite being an ex-marine himself, got a bit motion sick during the Death Star run. Nevertheless, having grown up with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, he recognized the similarities which Lucas used in creating the film’s overall structure. By building on the work of the previous generation, George Lucas created a film that attracted young and old alike.

Hey, I’m a Believer!

I walked into the theater a skeptic and walked out into the hot June night a hard-core, rock-solid, Stars Wars fan. I quickly joined the fan club, got the Kenner figures, got the models, got the soundtrack, and got the books. The only books at the time, however, were the novelization of the film (1976) and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (1978), both by Alan Dean Foster, who also wrote Star Trek Log One, which I cover in another article (see link).
Book covers to Star Wars and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (original copies, author’s collection).
I still have those books (see above). The gold cover of the movie novelization is wrinkled from when my brother and I fought over reading it in 1978. Some pictures later fell out, which I saved and put back. The binding fell apart in the 1990s and it is now held together by electrician’s tape. The dog-eared pages are now yellowed and stained. I took them with me wherever I moved throughout middle school, high school, and college. I probably haven’t read them in 20 to 25 years, but I could no more get rid of them than I could sever a limb or a memory.  

With the books came the music. I played the 8-track of John Williams’ soundtrack almost daily. I also got the single with the disco version by Meco. That single was huge and turned up on TV, radio, and in ads. It even helped inspire me during my runs that summer of 1978 (as referenced in my short story “I Now Know Why Salmon Swim Upstream”).While I still have Meco’s singles for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, which I bought at the time of the films’ releases, I long ago lost the 45 for the first film — which brings me to the most interesting part of my tale.
Meco's 45s for the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (author's collection).
After the divorce in 1978, mom sold the house and we moved into a much smaller brick row house. By the summer of 1980, I was working for my mother’s one-woman cleaning service. She had a number of customers in an exclusive upscale apartment/condominium complex called Oxford Heights. She was in high demand because she provided complete service, including windows and laundry. I was paid $5 an hour (about $15 at the time of this writing), which was a pretty respectable wage for a 15 year old. Despite the high pay, I loathed the work. It was boring and tedious and my Sicilian mother was a stern taskmaster. Instead of swimming and going to baseball games, I spent the summer stinking of bleach and folding other people’s underwear. My mom worked me eight hours a day, five days a week and . . . wait. Wasn’t this supposed to be a Star Wars story?
Gold . . . Everywhere, the Glint of Gold . . .

One day during that summer of 1980, while cleaning the apartment of a young couple by the last name of Fenton, I was vacuuming the hallway leading into the bedroom when I caught a flash of gold out of my eye. I looked up and saw a gold record. An actual, honest-to-goodness, gold record awarded for at least one million sales. The light reflected off it like a disco ball. I looked closer and saw it was for Meco’s Star Wars theme single.

I think I almost passed out right there.

I called to my mother and asked her about it. My mother, who never saw the movie, responded nonchalantly that the husband, Mike Fenton, who worked as a casting agent in New York City, was a friend of Meco who gave it him. For a moment, amid all the family dysfunction and the grind of a lost summer, I was connected to a phenomenon — if in only in the most tangential of ways.  I glimpsed behind the curtain and beheld the face of Oz.

On a cosmic scale, considering the present age of the universe of some 13.8 billion years, 40 years is so small a percentage that barely a measurable amount of time has passed between 1978 and 2018. So, in some way, it is still June 1978 and I am still at that theater in Albany, NY. Indeed, every time I watch Star Wars I am transported, albeit briefly, back to that one moment in time and space. My father is still alive, I am still young, I am still sitting on the edge of my seat, and I am still waiting for the movie to begin.

It seems like it was only yesterday.

My dad, Joe Urso, and I, circa August 1978, Lake George, NY.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Beatnik Café

by G. Jack Urso

Little boy

With your nose pressed against the window

There are no jelly donuts for you today

Only death.
     Bad beatnik poem from the TV series Peter Gun
    episode “The Blind Pianist” (Oct. 13, 1958) 

When I picked up a copy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind at a used book sale in 1984, I knew immediately I was a Beat. The raw emotion written in a staccato-like free verse explored every facet of existence in a world that always tries to classify and contain us. Being “beat” is a state of mind that transcends cultural norms. It is born of a discontent with Western society. Forced into a cycle of working to pay for the debt we acquire by existing to serve the system, we lose our sense of individuality and purpose. As long as that dynamic exists, Beats — with their artistic sensibilities, sardonic humor, and obscure literary references — will always be around to both contribute to and question the cultural zeitgeist (one way you can tell a Beat is that we use words like “zeitgeist”).
No serious self-respecting Beat would have admitted to being one. More often, they identified by their aspirations: artist, musician, philosopher, poet, student, teacher, or writer — not necessarily by what they did to pay the rent.  Despite the fact that “beatnik” is a media-invented name (spun off from “Sputnik,” the Soviet satellite first to orbit Earth), the word does define certain common characteristics about the Beats, including a love of jazz, marching to the sound of one’s own “beat,” and sympathy for left-leaning ideology. Nevertheless, Beats never made good revolutionaries. Despite critiques of society in such works as Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America,” most were generally apolitical during the height of their cultural influence in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The Beat Movement was a post-war response to the increasing commercialism and materialism of Western culture and the near-constant threat of war and nuclear annihilation. Rather than participate in a cycle of war and working for the sake of paying debts acquired by working, the Beats instead opted for a simpler life that found joy in valuing our individuality. The beatnik, like the hippie, has become a stereotype, but both were symptoms of a larger conflict between society and the individual. In studying such movements, we learn a little bit more about both.
Aeolus 13 Umbra explores the Beat Movement in a number of posts, including:

A Bucket of Blood (1959): From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel. Directed by Roger Corman. Beatnik characters and stereotypes populate this classic low-budget film about an artist with an unusual technique for making lifelike sculptures.

Allen Ginsberg: America: Ginsberg reads a segment of his poem, along with some freaky image processing by yours truly, which remains as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.

American Air: The Sound of the 20th Century: A sound collage I produced that integrates sound clips from Rhino Records’ The Beat Generation CD collection along with other audio from the 20th Century.

Beats on Film: 1959: This review takes a look at two quintessential Beat-themed films: A Bucket of Blood, directed by Roger Corman, and The Bloody Brood, starring Peter Falk, each released in October 1959.

How to Speak Hip (1959): Three cuts from the classic comedy-satire album by Second City alumni Del Close and John Brent.

Interview with Jack Kerouac on The Ben Hecht Show, October 1958: Screenwriter Ben Hecht, who could have provided an enlightening interview with Kerouac, unfortunately treats the Beat author as little more than an oddity and passing fad.

Jack Kerouac: Readings From On the Road and Visions of Cody: Talk show host Steve Allen on piano complements Kerouac’s spoken word delivery to provide us with a classic Beat-era performance.

Ken Nordine: Reaching Into In: One of Nordine’s works which I set to some surreal imagery.

October in the Railroad Earth: Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen: A selection from the 1959 album Poetry for the Beat Generation. Allen's subtle piano creates the perfect atmosphere for Kerouac.

Poetics in the Post-Modern Age: In this essay, I explore one evolutionary development of Beat-era poetic sensibilities — the rhizome.

Radio Documentary: The Cool Rebellion with Howard K. Smith: The noted news announcer takes a look at the Beats through decidedly conservative-colored lenses. An interesting exchange between a Beat and a Square at a nightclub typifies the cultural divide between the middle-aged middle-class and a rising tide of discontent with material Western values.

Radio Documentary: “Footloose in Greenwich Village” WNYC FM (1960): A well-produced portrait of the Mecca of the Beat Movement at the height of its cultural influence.

Radio Interview: A Great Day in Harlem: On August 12, 1958, many Jazz musicians of the Beat era got together for a picture. In this piece, I interview Jean Bach who directed the 1994 Academy Award nominated documentary, A Great Day in Harlem, about this famous photo.

Review: Edward Dorn's Gunslinger: Dorn is associated with the Black Mountain Poets, contemporaneous to the Beat Movement with whom they shared writers and editors and similar poetic sensibilities. Dorn’s masterpiece, Gunslinger, is a psychedelic ride through the American cultural landscape of the 1960s.

San Francisco Scene (The Beat Generation) — Jack Kerouac: Kerouac paints a portrait in words of the underground Beat scene in the City by the Bay.

The Bloody Brood (1959): From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel. Directed by Julian Roffman. Starring Peter Falk with Barbara Lord, Jack Betts, and Ron Hartmann. A man's investigation into his brother's death leads him into the underground world of THE BEATNIKS! Jazz, poetry, bongos, and DEATH!

The Greenwich Village Poets: Charles Kuralt Reporting: No collection would be complete without some bad Beatnik-era poetry.

The Little Shop of Horrors (1960): From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel. Directed by Roger Corman. Filmed shortly after A Bucket of Blood, The Little Shop of Horrors shares some of the same sets. While not a Beat film per se, the movie’s dark humor and down-trodden characters fit in perfectly with the Beat’s groove — like, you know what I mean, man?

William Burroughs: "Naked Lunch (Excerpt)”: A short excerpt from his novel read by the Beat icon himself. Video by yours truly.

Note: All media is hosted on Aeolus 13 Umbra's YouTube channel.