Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Night Videos

Rick Ocasek's solo career didn't exactly set the world on fire when the Cars broke up, but you can't fault the man for trying. This late 80s single, "Rockaway", is a high-energy rocker that is vaguely reminiscent of the Cars' more uptempo, less-synthy work, but I'm moderately surprised it wasn't a hit for him. But that's beside the point. I'm gobsmackingly surprised by the gonzo bugnuts video, which looks for all the world like some unholy synthesis of the Go-Gos and the Brothers Quay. The 80s produced some bizarre music videos, but few approach this level of nutso.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Eddie Murphy.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Chicken Ranch anniversary: Miss Jessie (1885-1962)

La Grange Yellow Pages phone book, 1958
On this date in 1962, Faye Stewart, otherwise known as Jessie Williams or simply "Miss Jessie," passed away at the age of 77 in San Antonio, just a couple of months after selling the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange to Edna Milton. Her sister-in-law, Eddie Ledda Moody, traveled from McLennan County to oversee Miss Jessie’s burial in Sunset Memorial Park.

Faye Stewart’s parents came from Georgia, moving to Waco well before she was born. The family lived for years on Franklin Street, but struggled after Stewart’s father died unexpectedly in 1886. While it is entirely possible that Stewart learned the ropes of prostitution in Waco's infamous Two Street vice district, there’s scant evidence she was successful enough to own her own brothel there. By 1910, however, she’d moved to Austin and assumed the alias of Jessie Williams, as was customary for women in the sex trade intent on protecting their families’ reputations.

Curiously enough, despite the fact Miss Jessie spent nearly three decades in La Grange and was as well-known a civic benefactor as anyone in Fayette County, I have found no photographs of her. Zero. Nada. Which is strange, since I know photos of her exist somewhere. So in lieu of Miss Jessie's photo, we'll have to settle from the 1958 edition of the La Grange phone book. Think that cover art is coincidental? Or was someone with the Yellow Pages making a not-so-subtle joke? In any event, here's to Miss Jessie, the woman who turned a number of shoddy prostitution operations into the brothel known today as the Chicken Ranch.

[Note: I originally listed Jessie's death as 1952. It has been corrected to 1962. I apologize for any confusion.]

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Happy Trails, Trigger

Trigger is gone.

I cannot express how much this sucks. As near as I can tell, William Rogers was rehabbing from back, and complications set in. He passed away March 16 at the age of 47.

March has been a very difficult month for me, with too much death and dismay. It's been hard to process. Hard to function, really. Trigger's death was the coup de grace, so to speak, which is why it's taken me so long to write this remembrance. He's one of the few college friends I've stayed in touch with. We last spoke in October, trading insults as always. He was from La Grange, I was from Columbus, two small Texas towns just 20 miles apart, so we had a built-in rivalry we never failed to capitalize on. He was a few years older than me, so we never actually competed against each other in high school, but really, that was just a technicality.

I took my family to his wedding at the Texas Renaissance Festival. My daughters played peek-a-book with fairies in the chapel. That was a fun wedding. And to tell the truth, The Wife and I were jealous--we'd briefly considered getting married at a renfaire, but gave up on the idea because we knew our respective parents (not to mention our priest) would throw a fit (we were somewhat less assertive back then).

Facebook, in it's infinite wisdom, decided I didn't need to see his update feed sometime in November, so I was completely unaware of his growing medical issues. Word of his death blindsided me. Thanks a lot, Zuckerberg.

I remember the day he found out I was writing a book on the Chicken Ranch. He called me up and bellowed into the phone, "What makes you think a Columbus PUNK has any right to write about the La Grange Chicken Ranch?"

"You La Grange slugs had 40 years to get it done, and didn't," I answered. "I figured it was time the professionals took over."

He paused a moment, then answered, "Good point."

Few people supported my book projects as enthusiastically as he did. He shared stories, pointed me toward potential local sources and loaned me some of his family's photos of the place. It breaks my heart that he joins the growing list of people who never got to see the book in print.

Lest I get too maudlin, I shall now share the True Story of How Trigger Got His Name.

It happened this way: In 1989, William Rogers arrived at a Cepheid Variable meeting at Texas A&M eager to meet like-minded genre-oriented folks and make friends within the tribe. All members of the tribe sported Delta Names, which are generally nicknames of a vaguely demeaning, silly or embarrassing nature. When it came to Will's turn for Delta Name discussion, one of the committee officers suggested "Buck," for as all good science fiction fans know, the biggest pulp hero of the 25th century is Captain William "Buck" Rogers. Which would've been fine and dandy, if someone in the crowd hadn't half-remembered that there was once a cowboy singer who had the last name of Rogers, nevermind that his first name was Roy. "Trigger!" someone shouted. I wish I could say that I was the shouter, but alas, I wasn't so clever. "Trigger!" others picked up the cry (I was amongst these folks--never look a gift bandwagon in the mouth, that's my motto). And thus, by the end of the meeting, Trigger was firmly ensconced as his Delta Name.

We harassed each other consistently from that point on. Trigger ran dealers room for the Aggiecon I ran in 1991, and did a mighty fine job of it. He co-directed Aggiecons in 1992 and 1993, simultaneously running the dealers rooms for those cons as well (the dealers rooms were great, but the overall conventions weren't as good as mine--he did pretty good for a La Grange guy, tho).

What bothers me most is the blatant unfairness of his untimely death. I know life isn't fair, but damn. Trigger was probably the most earnest person I've ever known. He was goofy as hell and could go out of his way to be annoying as all get-out, but he was earnest. He was profoundly rude to go see Billy Joel in Houston on the Stormfront tour without me. He was a big fan of Jim Henson's Dinosaurs and could readily be counted on to provide a quote from that show at a moment's notice--"Not the momma!" more often than not. He was an organ donor, so even in death, he's still helping people. He was a fun guy, and we are all diminished by his passing.

His extended hospitalization left his wife and son facing a mountain of medical debt. If anyone is so inclined to help out, donations to the family may be made at

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Night Videos

Remember how in the 80s all the big singers wanted to actors? And all the big actors wanted to be singers? Yeah, that. He's Eddie Murphy (with a lot of help from Rick James) doing his "Party All the Time" thing.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Paco de Lucia.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Aggiecon 45: Who cares?

As Lawrence Person so helpfully pointed out, Aggiecon 45 has announced its guest lineup for this year. Which consists of exactly two people, an obscure anime voice actor and some guy who does a podcast that isn't StarshipSofa or any of the other A-list podcasts up for Hugos every year.

I used to be emotionally invested in the success or failure of Aggiecon, because hey, I ran the damn thing long years ago and was a regional guest on a regular basis for a decade running. I even received the "Aggiecon Lifetime Achievement Award" from those good folks (which puts me in a small fraternity including the likes of Harlan Ellison). But you know what? I just don't care anymore. Year-in, year-out I've offered advice and offered to open my SFWA directory for them to land some really cool guests, comparable to the really cool guests Armadillocon and Apollocon bring in. Crickets chirp in response. They've even stopped inviting me as a regional guest--not that I'm a huge draw, by any means, but I'm fun on panels. Surprisingly, this doesn't bother me. The current students seem to be fixated on emulating Dragoncon, which means lots of C-list media celebrity types and as few of those boring old writers as possible. Sorry, I've got better things to do with my time.

I do believe we're watching the final stages of the Aggiecon death spiral. At this point, it's a question of "when," not "if." Surprisingly, that doesn't bother me, either. I'd rather let the con die the true death rather than watch it limp along in the hollow, irrelevant manner that's come to dominate of late.

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Friday, March 07, 2014

Friday Night Videos

The great flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia died this week, so here is his magnificent "Entre dos Aguas" from 1976. I'd say more, but his performance speaks for itself.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Hooters.

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Monday, March 03, 2014


So, "12 Years A Slave" beat out the realistic science fiction survival epic "Gravity" last night for Best Picture at the Oscars.


I couldn't bear to watch the Oscars beyond 10 p.m. last night out of fear the over-blown "Gravity" would take home the big prize, thus becoming the 2014 version of "Crash." Because "Gravity" is a dumb film. Dumb, dumb, dumb. It is as stupid and nonsensical as any Michael Bay explosion-fest, but unlike, say, a moronic film like "Armageddon" that knows and accepts the fact that it is dumb, "Gravity" is the cinematic equivalent of the classroom dunce who starts wearing glasses to look smarter.

Director Alfonso Cuarón certainly knows how to put together a pretty film. He had a state-of-the-art light box filled with LEDs in order to realistically simulate the 360-degree tumbling an untethered astronaut would experience in space. He dusted off a cool piece of 1980s NASA technology, the MMU, so George Clooney would have a nifty jetpack to go swooping around the space shuttle in. He spent a tremendous amount of effort getting all the little details right, then turned right around and shat all over the Big Picture.

Look, I don't really care that there isn't really a Chinese space station circling the Earth, nor that the ISS and Hubble Telescope don't share anywhere near the same orbits. I'll buy that--this is an alternative reality, and in some other timeline the decision may well have been made to put these massive objects in close proximity to make servicing missions easier. Maybe all the space stations share the same orbit specifically to make emergency rescues more viable. I don't know. But it can be justified, even if improbably so. I'm fine with that. I'll even accept the cascading cloud of space debris--that's the Macguffin that gets the ball rolling, after all.

But then Cuarón chunks all his hard-won world-building out the window. Objects in space are moving targets, okay? That means they wouldn't be in the same location for said cascading debris cloud to come flying back every 90 minutes to pound them. And debris clouds expand (the term is "diffusion") so even if Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were stationary targets (which they weren't--they're orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes as well, see?) the debris cloud would be so diffuse as to pass unnoticed. But no, having the same cloud come back to illogically menace our heroes proved an irresistible bit of false jeopardy Cuarón couldn't resist, effectively turning the film into a stalker film in space. I hated when they did that to "Sunshine," and I hated it here as well. But it doesn't end there. Any last vestiges of goodwill, of doubt I was willing to give "Gravity" the benefit of, vanished when Clooney, holding onto a tether connecting him to the ISS, let go and plummeted to Earth in a noble, heroic sacrifice. Except, what would really have happened was that Clooney would just continue to float there, looking fairly foolish. Inertia is a bitch. Cuarón wanted Clooney to make a heroic sacrifice--one that left a slight possibility of his survival, so Hallucinatory Ghost Clooney could come back and tell Bullock how to save herself--but couldn't be bothered to come up with something realistic. It's easier fake emotionally dramatic episodes than actually make them plausible. You know another film that casually inserted random directional gravity into an otherwise zero-G scene? "Wing Commander," when the space bulldozer pushes the wreck space fighter off the space carrier's flight deck. The wrecked space fighter falls like a stone--just like Clooney does. Yes, you heard me right--"Gravity" is film making on the same level as "Wing Commander." Only "Gravity" had a bigger budget.

Why am I so harsh on "Gravity"? After all, I like big, dumb films. The difference is, "Gravity" is pretentious. It positions itself as a smart, "realistic" film that puts it in the company of "The Right Stuff," "Apollo 13" and even more overtly science fictional classics such as "2001: A Space Odyssey" (and yes, while those first two aren't SF, they are undeniably the peers "Gravity" aspires to rub shoulders with). But again, "Gravity" is far, far dumber than it's betters, more in keeping with turkeys like "The Core." Hell, even "Avatar" with its derivative plot and rubber science is far more consistent in its world building than "Gravity" can ever hope to be. "Gravity" lies. It pretends to be something it is not. While most of the film-going public are buying that particular brand of snake oil, I cannot get past it.

But aside from that (and folks far smarter than I have annotated the film's scientific missteps to unbelievable length), "Gravity" fails simply because Cuarón--who wrote the damn thing, after all--doesn't care. He wants to give the impression that he cares, but doesn't want to actually do the heavy lifting. Otherwise he would've given us actual characters, other than thinly-written Generic Clooney and Generic Bullock characters. Instead, smarmy Clooney mugs for the camera and weepy, doe-eyed Bullock is defined by her womb. That last big of unfortunate misogyny continues throughout the film--why else show off Bullock's legs in such gratuitous fashion? There's no more reason for that than the much-maligned T&A shot from "Star Trek: Into Darkness." But defining women by their womb seems to be a habit of Cuarón's--he did this throughout his other overrated film, "Children of Men," which turned into little more than a thinly-veiled "Logan's Run" remake. Want evidence that Cuarón simply doesn't care about the big issues he injects into his films? When the Clive Owen character, who is trying to get the pregnant woman (SHE'S GOT A WOMB! AND IT WORKS!) to Sanctuary (or Iceland, whatever) someone challenges him with the question of the cause of worldwide infertility. Owen's telling response? "It doesn't matter." Bullshit. That's the only thing that matters, otherwise, the pregnant lady gives birth and it's a one-off. Without knowing the cause, any single pregnant woman is absolutely meaningless. Maybe it's not the woman at all, but one man, somewhere, who has viable sperm? Those three words uttered by Owen show a deep and profound disinterest in the topic Cuarón has chosen to build a film around. A persistent shallow thinking, and a refusal to consider the issue at a deeper level. Cuarón wrote those words, and they are very telling.

What does Cuarón care about? Metaphor. Metaphor. Metaphor. I think he might like metaphor, too. That, and eyeball kicks. He's very good at those.

Oh, and did I mention "Gravity" is misogynystic? Well, it is misogynystic. There's a lot more discussion on this out there in internet-land if you're interested.

Despite this, I still think Cuarón is a talented director. His "Prisoner of Azkaban" is still, for me at least, by far the best film in the Harry Potter series. "Great Expectations" is lovely and stylish with fantastic performances from the cast, while "Y Tu Mamá También" is a powerful, gripping emotional roller-coaster. So Cuarón is a talented director who is a shit writer, at least where deeper understanding of his subject matter comes into play.

But then again, I don't really know anything about film. I have this on good authority from folks who shouted me down for having the nerve to suggest that "Man of Steel" might not become the first super-hero movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Oh, wait. Look at that, "Man of Steel" didn't win, either. Imagine that.

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