Category Archives: 1994

I Heart TV: My So-Called Life

As long as I’m taking a gauzy walk down memory lane, here’s the first draft of another I Heart TV essay – my favorite of the contributions I made to the book. My So-Called Life was, is and will always be one of my all-time favorites, so being able to celebrate it in print…and mention Wonderfalls, Freaks & Geeks and Juliana Hatfield in the process?!…was something I truly cherished.

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“When someone dies young, it’s like they stay that way forever,” muses 15-year-old Angela Chase in the memorable “Halloween” installment of My So-Called Life, which found her entranced by a student said to have died in 1963. In a weird way, the same thing applies to TV series, like My So-Called Life, Wonderfalls or Freaks & Geeks, that were axed before their time. We’re left with a handful of episodes and the promise of what could have been if only…if only.

The drama, which debuted in August 1994 and lasted a scant 19 episodes, told the story of Angela, her family and friends; and while it’s probably best remembered these days for introducing the mercurial acting talents of the Emmy-nominated Claire Danes to the world, it featured an equally capable supporting cast. Bess Armstrong ably portrayed Patty, Angela’s homecoming-queen mom who struggles with the conundrums many working mothers face; and Tom Irwin was simply terrific as quixotic dad Graham. Likewise, Angela’s friends became real-life acquaintances—her troubled pal Rayanne (A.J. Langer), gentle Ricky (Wilson Cruz), heavy-lidded crush Jordan (Jared Leto), ex-best friend Sharon (Devon Odessa) and geeky neighbor “Brain”—er, Brian (Devon Gummersall). Even little sister Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit) comes across as a believable kid whose bratty behavior we understand: she wants to be in the epicenter of the universe—where Angela lives. (Small wonder that for Halloween she dresses up as her older sis’.)

In many ways, due to the use of voice-over narration, the episodes play in part like diary entries woven into the fabric of ongoing stories. Unlike a diary, however, each episode expands the viewpoint to reveal the perspectives of other characters; and also tells their stories independently of Angela. The most notable plotlines are Angela’s infatuation with Jordan, whose inability to articulate anything of substance proves as frustrating to him as it is for us (and leads to a wondrous season-ender in which he turns to “Brain” for help); troubled Rayanne, who reminds Patty—and us—of kids we knew; Ricky’s descent into homeless hell and rebound to stability; and the slow growth of Graham’s restaurant ambitions, to say nothing of his possible dogging around. In the pilot, we discover that he almost stepped out on his wife; and in the finale, he again veers close with feisty restaurant partner Hallie Lowenthal (Lisa Waltz).

 Of course, there’s also Brian’s quiet yearning for Angela. It’s only when he becomes Cyrano de Bergerac to Jordan’s Christian de Neuvillette in the last episode, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” and she learns the truth, that she begins to see him in a new light. It doesn’t stop her from leaving with the hunk, mind you, but the quizzical look she gives Brian says it all. If there had been a second, third or fourth season, that would have been explored. One hopes.

What lifted MSCL above a well-acted suds fest, however, was the superlative writing. Stewarded by creator/co-executive producer Winnie Holzman, who earned an Emmy nomination for the pilot’s script, the show explored topics not generally associated with “teen” dramas of the 1990s, including body image, Ricky’s homosexuality and the world of metaphysics. In the Halloween episode, Angela interacted with a ghost; and in “Other People’s Mothers,” which finds Rayanne spinning out of control, there’s an introduction to tarot that, in the installment’s final moments, sounds suspiciously like real life: “The cards are read in sequence. Each card leads to the next. We move from terror and loss to unexpected good fortune, and out of darkness, hope is born.”

As good as they are, however, it’s the Christmas episode (“So-Called Angels”) that sends shivers up my spine no matter how often I view—or think about—it. Alternative rock-pop genius Juliana Hatfield guest stars as a seemingly homeless girl who appears to Angela and, on Christmas Eve, to Patty; and guides both to Ricky, who’s been living on the streets since being banished from his home. In the final scene, we see Juliana turn away from the camera; and, with the flap of a wing, ascend—like the guardian angel her character is—towards heaven. Of course, to single out a specific episode for praise is akin to recommending just one Juliana Hatfield album—it can’t be done, as each has something special to offer and deserves to be heard.

It matters not, really, whether one believes in ghosts, the tarot, angels or dreams. What matters is that the characters are so believable that we, the viewers, embrace them much as we do the people in our daily lives, quirks and all. Angela, Brian and the rest are no different than many a teenager, forever thinking they’re seeing the full picture when, in truth, they’re viewing slivers. As the season progresses, however, they gradually begin to grasp the complexities of life. In “The Substitute,” for example, Angela’s inspirational English teacher (Roger Rees) turns out to be a deadbeat dad on the lam from the law; yet he still motivates her to hold onto her ideals, and risk suspension in order to distribute the school’s banned literary magazine. Likewise, Patty and Graham—though more clued in about life—are far from perfect, with each confronting the same challenges many adults face at one time or another.

In the end, though, watching My So-Called Life is indeed like viewing photos of someone who passed too soon. We lose ourselves in the snapshots and episodes, laughing at every mention of Tino (the show’s own Godot) while, at the same time, wishing for a different conclusion. And when Angela slides into the passenger seat of Jordan’s car in the finale’s final moments, her eyes glued on Brian…sadness seeps in. In a flash, everything that could and would have been is no more—except in our hearts, where Angela and friends live on.

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Today’s Top 5: January 1994, aka “Hello Mary Lou” (via CMJ Music Monthly’s CD Sampler)

cmj_94001Of all the compilations in all the countries in all the world, on one cold winter’s day she showed up on mine – well, not mine per se, but CMJ New Music Monthly’s. And unlike Rick’s initial reaction to seeing Ilsa again, I’m glad she did.

First, though: January 1994 wasn’t a snowy month for the Philly region, but it did feature some extreme weather. On the 7th and 8th, an ice storm paralyzed the city and suburbs; and, on the 19th, we “enjoyed” a not-so-balmy high of 7 degrees Fahrenheit.

Major events that occurred: figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked on the 6th in a plot hatched by rival Tonya Harding’s ex-husband; Vice President Al Gore chaired a Superhighway Summit in L.A. on the 11th; a major earthquake struck the L.A. area on the 17th that left 57 dead and 8700 injured; President Bill Clinton delivered his first State of the Union address on the 25th; and, on the 30th, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII.

On the music front: the year opened with the Lemonheads’ wondrous “Into Your Arms” atop Billboard’s Modern Rock Hits chart. Other songs that topped that specific chart this month: Pearl Jam’s “Daughter,” the Gin Blossoms’ “Found Out About You” and Nirvana’s “All Apologies.” Mainstream hits included “Hero” by Mariah Carey, which held the top spot for the first three weeks of the month, and “All for One,” a collaboration between Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart and Sting that I’ve yet to hear.

The ‘90s may not have been the ‘60s upside down, but they were a great time for music. A wealth of newer acts in all genres were crafting cool sounds and old-timers like Neil Young were doing the same – his early ‘90s run, which actually began in ’89 with Freedom, rivaled his work in the ‘70s. Alternative rock, which was really just rock cranked out by Gen Xers, was the Big Thing. Alt.country, as it was called, was an actual thing, too. Singer-songwriters were (finally) in vogue, again. Hip hop was mainstream.

Rolling Stone and Spin were both solid music magazines with robust review sections, but there was so much music being released that many new releases weren’t mentioned in them, which is why I sought out additional magazines and newsletters. As a result, on an excursion to Tower Records on South Street or in the Northeast, I picked up the January issue of CMJ New Music Monthly, a habit I’d picked up a few months earlier.

cmj_94b002For those unfamiliar with it, the magazine mimicked the shape of a CD longbox, though (as I remember it, anyway) it wasn’t quite as long. (A CD longbox, for those unfamiliar with the term, was a cardboard sleeve that held the CD jewel box; they were used in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s because, when placed side by side, they took up the same space as a vinyl album, which meant retailers didn’t need to change their racks; and, too, they made shoplifting a bit more difficult.) I enjoyed CMJ because it focused primarily on newer acts, many of which were ignored by Rolling Stone – and for the sampler CDs that were included with every issue. Though I no longer have the magazines themselves, I do have quite a few of the CDs.

And, with all of that out of the way…welcome to today’s Top 5: January 1994, aka “Hello, Mary Lou,” which is drawn from CMJ Music Monthly’s January 1994 CD compilation.

ml_blurred1) Mary Lou Lord – “Some Jingle Jangle Morning (When I’m Straight).” The second-to-last song on the sampler is this, a digital conversion of a 7-inch single released by the Kill Rock Stars label. (The version on Mary Lou’s 1998 album Got No Shadow is a different recording.) Even now, after all these years, the song sends me to another place. Diane loved the song, too, and we both became major MLL fans as a result. She’s released a handful of albums, including one last year, and a bounty of EPs; and we’ve seen her in concert twice, including once in the mid-‘90s at a swing-dance club in Philly, and again in the early 2010s at a house concert (which is where the photo came from).

2) Bob Dylan – “Blood in My Eyes.” As I said above, CMJ focused primarily on newer acts, but veteran acts sometimes snuck onto the compilation CDs. This song hails from Dylan’s 1993 album World Gone Wrong.

3) Tara Key – “Seraphim.” This punky, low-fi delight led me to buy Bourbon County. The song itself isn’t on YouTube, but here’s the album in full.

4) Lorelai – “Mostly I Sleep.” I never followed through and purchased anything by this Pittsburgh-based group, but this track is pretty cool – conjures the glorious Three O’Clock.

5) The Spinanes – “Noel, Jonah and Me.”

Of Concerts Past: Mary Black at the Chestnut Cabaret, 1994

 

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Last night, we saw Garland Jeffreys, Marshall Crenshaw and Jonathan Edwards at the Ardmore Music Hall in Ardmore, Pa. – a club known, years ago, as the 23 East Cabaret.

It was a somewhat odd, though enjoyable, show that found the veteran singer-songwriters sharing the stage in a round-robin format. Garland was Garland – i.e., great. Edwards, whose work I am unfamiliar with, was talkative and funny, and good on the harmonica; the audience enjoyed him. Crenshaw, for his part, was subdued; he never quite connected, perhaps due to playing almost all (relatively) new songs. At evening’s end, and this was the strange part, the three filed off stage – and never returned for the planned encore. Instead, they were waylaid by fervent fans (not us!) seeking to have their photographs taken with them.

Anyway, the night got me to thinking: I never made it to the 23 East Cabaret before it shut down in 1994, but I did make it quite often to its younger (by a year) sibling, the Chestnut Cabaret in West Philly, including its final show, on June 17, 1994. That was Mary Black, the Irish singer.

Now, we’d seen Black in March (maybe April) of 1991 at the TLA – a sold-out show, or close to it. At the time, she was touring in support of her Babes in the Wood album and seemed on the verge of becoming more than just a niche act in the States. On stage, she was poised, confident and, backed by a note-perfect band, spellbinding. The environment helped, too: the TLA had movie theater-styled seats in those days, so it was comfortable. You sat back, relaxed, and let the music wash over you.

The 1994 tour, I suppose, was the next logical step for expanding her base, at least in Philly. The Chestnut Cabaret held about 800 folks – more, actually, given that some shows found people packed in like sardines. And Black seemed to be on a roll: she contributed to the well-received Woman’s Heart compilation in 1992, singing on the title cut with Eleanor McEvoy –

– and singing a song on her own, too. She released the solid Holy Ground album in 1993 – not quite on a par with Babes, but it commanded its share of airplay on WXPN, Philly’s adult alternative radio station.

This 1994 show had the makings of another magical night, in other words.

But on the drive into the city to meet Diane and friends for dinner on a warmer-than-normal mid-June afternoon, I heard something remarkable on the radio: an arrest warrant had been issued for O.J. Simpson in connection with the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman; and Simpson was nowhere to be found.

Anyway, after dinner, we arrived at the venue to find its air-conditioning turned off – and on a day when it hit 89 degrees, that wasn’t a good sign. The second bad sign: the turn-out was sparse. The TLA, with its seats, fit maybe 400 folks, and half that showed up this night. In fact, thinking back, it was likely closer to 150 people milling around. Maybe it was the heat, lack of advertising or just the neighborhood. (West Philly, back then, was bum-ridden, and said bums often extorted concert-goers, insisting on a nominal sum in exchange for “watching” one’s car.)

The third, and fatal, bad sign: the silent TVs near the bar were tuned to CNN, which was all-O.J. As the night wore on, many people – including me – drifted from the concert floor to the TVs to check for updates. Thus, my main memory of the night is of standing with a dozen-plus other men watching O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco lead a phalanx of police cars on a low-speed chase down a California highway. Mary Black, in the background, sang one of her new songs – “Lay Down Your Burden,” possibly, though I can’t say for sure.

Oh, and one more memory: I bought, and drank, the venue’s last (over-priced) bottle of Miller Genuine Draft Beer.