Saturday, December 1, 2007

Evel Knievel R.I.P.

I believe that this past November saw more celebrities pass than any month since I started A Shroud of Thoughts. The latest to pass was not an important figure in films, music, or literature, but he had an impact on pop culture in the Seventies nonetheless. Daredevil Evel Knievel died yesterday at the age of 69 after years of failing health from diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, and hepatitis. Anyone alive in the Seventies will remember Knievel as the daring (some might say reckless) motorcyclist who jumped the fountains at Caesar's Palace and tried to jump the Snake River Canyon.

Evel Knievel was born Robert Knievel in Butte, Montana on October 17, 1938. His parents divorced when he was a child and he was raised by grandparents. As a child he saw the Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevil Show when it came to Butte, the event which would lead to his chosen profession as an adult. In and out of trouble while he was growing up, Knievel eventually found himself spending the night in jail. Another inmate there, William Knofel, was called "Awful Knofel." Robert Knievel was then called "Evil Knievel." He later changed the "i" to an "e" because he thought it looked better.

Knievel served in the United States Army as a paratrooper. He later played semi-professional hockey with the Charlotte Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League. Having ridden motorcycles since he was very young, Knievel finally took up motorcycle racing. By 1965 he was co-owner of a motorcycle shop in Moses Lake, Washington. As a publicity stunt he jumped his motorcycle over parked cars, a box of rattlesnakes, and a mountain lion. The stunt drew 1000 people. It was then that Knievel decided he could make a living performing motorcycle stunts. He formed Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils that same year and they toured the West. Eventually, Knievel would go solo, and it was in 1967 that Knievel performed the stunt that would make him famous. On December 31, 1967 he jumped the fountains at Caesar's Palace. The jump ended with a crash in which Knievel was injured, but a film of the stunt was broadcast on ABC's Wide World of Sports. By 1968 Knievel was regularly performing motorcycle stunts and earning around $25,000 for each one.He was also setting world records, getting his name several times in Guinness Book of Records. It was in 1972 that he attempted his biggest stunt ever, jumping the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. Using a rocket powered motorcycle to perform the stunt, Knieval made it all the way across the canyon, only to have the bike's parachute pull the motorcycle down into the canyon. Fortunately for Knievel, he survived the stunt with only minor injuries.

The early to mid Seventies saw Knievel at the height of his career. At least two feature films were based upon him. In 1971 there was biopic made called Evel Knievel, starring George Hamilton in the lead role. In 1977 Knievel played himself in Viva Knievel. An unsold television pilot, Evel Knievel, aired on CBS in 1974. That same year Ideal Toy Company released an action figure based on Knieval, complete with motorcycle and other accessories. He was a frequent guest on talk shows of the time. A pinball machine even bore his name.

In the end it was Knievel himself who put an end to his own success. In 1977 the book Evel Knievel on Tour by Knievel's former agent, Sheldon Saltman, was published. Knievel viewed Saltman's book as an attack on his character, and for that reason Knievel attacked Saltman with a baseball bat, breaking Saltman's left arm. On October 24, 1977, Knievel was sentenced for assault and battery to three years probation and six months in a county jail. The attack on Saltman essentially ruined Knievel's career. Not only did his various merchandising deals dry up, but he found it difficult to book performances as well. As the years passed, Knievel would meet with more trouble from the law. In 1983 he ran afoul of the IRS, who claimed he owed $1.6 million in taxes from his various jumps. In 1986 he solicited a policewoman in Kansas City, Missouri and had to pay a $200 fine. In 1994, a domestic disturbance call in California resulted in the discovery of several firearms which resulted in weapons violations. Knievel had to perform 200 hours of community service.

Sheldon Saltman said of Evel Knievel that "He was a true daredevil, but he basically was not a good human being." Given Knievel's attack on Saltman and his various legal infractions, it is hard to argue with Saltman's statement. That having been said, it must be pointed that he did eventually straighten up his act and even found religion. Besides which, it remains that Knievel was a great stunt motorcyclist, perhaps the greatest of all time. He not only performed spectacular stunts, but he set many records. He still holds a record for having broken 35 bones. Regardless of his personal life, Knievel left his mark in the history of motorcycle stunts. And he also had a huge impact on pop culture. He inspired action figures, movies, pinball machines, and even songs. It is even possible that he may partially be the inspiration behind the Marvel Comics character Ghost Rider. I rather suspect Knievel will be remembered for a long time to come.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Tag I'm It

I've been tagged by the award winning d. chedwick bryant, the eloquent kitty cat with a penchant for perfume and Bob Dylan.This amounts to winning an award for the writing in my blog. In turn, I have to tag five other bloggers I feel are worthy of winning an award for their writing, as well as list the three things I feel are necessary to powerful writing. Ched listed:
1. Must love to read the writings of others.
2. Open to observing life with a sense of the absurd.

3. Ability to write about a supposedly mundane moment & make it interesting.
As to the three things I feel are necessary to powerful writing, I would say:
1. One must have the ability to take even the most unoriginal idea and make it entirely one's own.
2. One must write for himself or herself, without worrying about the opinions of others.
3. One must write about subjects which one loves passionately.

As to the bloggers I feel should win an award for their writing, here they are in alphabetical order.

Beth: Beth's blog, Finding My Voice, covers pretty much anything which interests Beth, which is everything from movies to politics. Beth is a very good writer with a great sense of humour. She also has a beautiful voice (as proof, here's a link to her entry with an audio clip of her rendition of "Gotta Be This or That" by Sunny Skylar).

Jeremy: Jeremy's blog, Popped Culture is about my favourite subject: the entire gamut of pop culture. Here one can read about everything from the misuse of the puppets from the old Canadian children's show The Friendly Giant to Kermit the Frog performing Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." Jeremy clearly loves pop culture and it shows in his blog.

RC: RC's blog Strange Culture also covers the whole gamut of pop culture. What sets Strange Culture apart from other pop culture blogs is that RC often examines pop culture with a philosophical bent. For instance, one of his recent entries dealt with the theme of "Good vs. Evil" which recurs throughout the rides at the Universal Studio's Island of Adventure theme park. You don't see that in every blog.

Reel Fanatic: Reel Fanatic's self titled blog is exactly what it sounds like it's about: movies. Reel Fanatic covers the whole spectrum of film, from B-movies to Oscar contenders. You'll find everything there from movie reviews to the latest news. What makes the blog so great is two things. First, Reel Fanatic has very good tastes in movies--it's rare that I find myself disagreeing with him. Second, he clearly loves movies, which is a big advantage when one is writing about them.

Row Three: Row Three is a collaborative blog, but it includes one of my favourite bloggers of all time, Marina of the late, lamented Mad About Movies. Like Mad About Movies before it, Row Three has movie news, reviews, and commentary. And like Mad About Movies, it has the advantage of Marina writing for it. Like Reel Fanatic, I rarely finding myself disagreeing with Marina. And like Reel Fanatic, she clearly loves movies. Here I should also mention that the other writers at Row Three (Andrew, Jonathan, and Kurt) are really good too.

So there are my five award winning bloggers (well, I guess Row Three counts as more than one, but who is counting...). If you haven't done so already, check out their blogs. You'll thank me later.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mel Tolkin R.I.P.

Mel Tolkin, the lead writer of the legendary TV series Your Show of Shows, died on November 26 at the age of 94. In addition to Your Show of Shows, Tolkin wrote for shows ranging from Caesar's Hour to All in the Family.

Mel Tolkin was born Shmuel Tolchinsky in Odessa, Ukraine on August 3, 1913. The family migrated to Montreal in 1926. He studied accounting in accordance with his family's wishes, but found himself drawn to show business instead. In the Thirties he wrote musical revues and played piano in night clubs around Montreal. He used the name "Mel Tolkin" so that his family would not find out. His first big break in show business came as writing the book for the revue Of V We Sing which ran for a brief time on Broadway in 1942. During World War II he served in the Canadian Army.

Following the war, Tolkin moved to New York City. His talent for entertainment found him at Camp Tamiment, a resort in the Poconos. It was there that he met his writing partner, Lucille Kallen. It was in 1949 that Tolkin and Kallen were hired for the TV show The Admiral Broadway Revue. An early comedy variety show, it starred Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Aired on both NBC and the Dumont network, The Amdiral Broadway Revue would pave the way for another show starring Caesar and Coca and written by Tolkin and Kallen--Your Show of Shows. Your Show of Shows debuted in 1950 and aired on Saturday night. It was one of the earliest sketch comedy shows and can be considered the direct ancestor of such series as Saturday Night Live and In Living Colour. In fact there is very little later sketch variety shows have done that Your Show of Shows did not do first--movie parodies, parodies of TV commercials, skits that pushed the boundaries of good tastes, and so on. Tolkin not only wrote many of the sketches on Your Show of Shows, he also wrote the theme song for the show as well.

Indeed, Mel Tolkin was the lead of a group of writers, most of who would become legendary in a relatively short period of time: Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Danny Simon, and Neil Simon. The performers on the show would become legendary as well, featuring not only Sid Caesar, but Carl Reiner and Howard Morris (best known as Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show) as well. Your Show of Shows would leave the air in 1954, whereupon Tolkin would become ;ead writer on Sid Caesar's next variety show, Caesar's Hour. Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Danny Simon, and Neil Simon would follow Tolkin to the new show, which included a new writer--a fellow by the name of Woody Allen. Sadly, Caesar's Hour was not the success that Your Show of Shows had been and lasted only three seasons.

From the late Fifties into the Sixties Tolkin would write for such series as Sid Caesar Invites You, The Danny Kaye Show, Run, Buddy. Run, and The Good Guys. In the Seventies he wrote several episodes of All in the Family. In the Sixties he also wrote the screenplay for the movie Last of the Secret Agents. Tolkin also wrote for Bob Hope and Danny Thomas.

Tolkin also worked on Broadway. In 1950 he composed the lyrics and music for the musical revue Tickets, Please. In 1958 he wrote the comedy Maybe Tuesday. In 1990 he wrote the musical revue Those Were The Days.

Even though his name is not as well known today as some of the writers he worked with on Your Show of Shows, Mel Tolkin was arguably one of the most talented comedy writers in television. The work that he and his fellow writers did on Your Show of Shows was sheer genius. Even today, over fifty years after the show first aired, those sketches are still laugh out loud funny. As a man who wrote many, many hours of the best comedy material ever to air on television, Mel Tolkin will not soon be forgotten.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Quiet Riot's Kevin DuBrow is Dead

Kevin DuBrow, lead singer of the heavy metal band Quiet Riot, was found dead Sunday at the age of 52. The causes were unknown.

DuBrow was born October 29, 1955 in Hollywood, California. By age 13 his family had moved to Van Nuys, California. He became interested in music as a teenager. It was in 1975 that legendary guitarist Randy Rhoads formed Quiet Riot with Kevin DuBrow as lead singer. The group recorded two albums (unreleased in the United States) before breaking up in 1979, when Rhoads left to work with Ozzy Osbourne. DuBrow then formed his own band, called DuBrow, with some of the old members of Quiet Riot. Not long after Rhoads' untimely death, DuBrow was renamed Quiet Riot.

This new version of Quiet Riot would have a hit single with a remake of Slade's "Cum on Feel the Noize." The success of the single would drive their album, Metal Health, to number one on the Billboard albums chart. Quiet Riot seemed poised for stardom. But their second album, Condition Critical (which included another Slade remake, "Mama Weer All Crazee Now," fizzled on the charts. As the album failed on the charts, DuBrow criticised other metal bands, the press, and even the record company. The end result was that DuBrow effectively alienated many of Quiet Riot's fans. Eventually even the other members of Quiet Riot tired of DuBrow and he fired from the band in 1987.

DuBrow would return to the band in 1991. The band continued to release albums throughout the Nineties and the Naughts, but they never again saw the success that they had with Metal Health. DuBrow recorded his own solo album in 2004, consisting of nothing but covers (such as T. Rex's "20th Century Boy" and Mott the Hoople's "Drivin' Sister").

I cannot say that I ever was a huge fan of Quiet Riot. While I am a metal fan, I have never been fond of pop metal and Quiet Riot was a most typical pop metal band. I must admit that I did like their remakes of "Cum on Feel the Noize" and "Mama Weer All Crazee Now." And there is no denying their influence. Both the single "Cum on Feel the Noize" and the album Metal Health were among the earliest metal records to hit the top of the charts, thus paving the way for other metal acts in the Eighties where Billboard was concerned. For better or worse, Quiet Riot also paved the way for other pop metal bands. Regardless of what serious metalheads thought of the subgenre of pop metal, it was certainly popular in the Eighties. Although he would only have one successful album, Kevin DuBrow then left his mark on music history.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Mizzou Won

Okay, I don't usually write about sports here. A Shroud of Thoughts is devoted to pop culture and I simply do not think of sports as pop culture. That having been said, last night was the occasion of what may be the most significant football game in the history of either the University of Missouri or the University of Kansas. In the end the Missouri Tigers would beat the Kansas Jayhawks 36-28.

The significance of the game rested on several factors. First, this game was the Big 12 North championship. Whoever won this game would move onto the Big 12 championship to face the Big 12 South champions Oklahoma. Second, for the first time in years both teams were ranked in the top ten in the AP poll--Missouri at number 3 and Kansas at number 2. Third, Friday night number one LSU lost their game against Arkansas. This puts the number one spot up for grabs. Whoever won the so called "Border Showdown" could find themselves ranked number one in the AP poll. Fourth, not only would the winner of this game move onto the Big 12 championship, but they could find themselves in the national championship. This would be quite an accomplishment for either team. The last time Mizzou was ever this close to a national championship title was in 1960. As to Kansas, they have never been this close.

Of course, the game is made all the more important by the rivalry between the University of Missouri and University of Kansas that has existed ever since they first played each other in 1891. It is the oldest football rivalry west of the Mississippi. What is more the rivalry's roots do not rest on the gridiron, but in the history of the two states. Prior to the American Civil War, there were outright skirmishes between the two states. During the War, Jayhawkers from Kansas would raid Missouri and bushwhackers from Missouri would raid Kansas. The rivalry then actually came about because of some very deep seated feelings the states hold for each other. Since 1891, the two teams have played each other 116 times. Until last night the record was tied at 53 wins apiece, 53 losses apiece, and 9 ties. Last night that changed, as Mizzou now has 54 wins over Kansas. Of course, Jayhawkers will insist that the record should be tied at 54 wins apiece, counting the 1960 game in which the Jayhawks played an ineligible player as a win (Bert Coan, ineligible because of recruiting violations on the part of Kansas). It must be pointed out, however, that the NCAA does not count the game as a win, which is ultimately what matters, regardless what Jayhawks fans might think.

Given what either team could gain from the game and the long history between the two teams, I think those of you who do not live in either Missouri or Kansas can understand why the game was so important. That having been said, I am still a little puzzled as to why some venues favoured Kansas to win the game, even if many thought it would be close. The simple fact is that Missouri played a much tougher schedule than Kansas did. In fact, I will go so far as to say that given the teams that the Jayhawks played, I don't think they really deserved their AP ranking of number two. Let's face it, while Mizzou faced off against the juggernaut known as Oklahoma, Kansas was facing off the rather less threatening team known as Baylor. At best, Kansas faced teams who might hope to get into the fringe bowls, while Missouri was facing teams with fairly good records. I might also mention that Kansas did not even rank in the top 100 with regards to punt returns and net punting, and until last night they had only sacked a passer a total of 19 times. I can also point out that the last time the Tigers played the Jayhawks, we beat them 42 to 17.

In fact, while I am happy that Missouri won last night's game, I must say that I am somewhat disappointed at the score. We only won 36 to 28. In my humble opinion, the score should have been more like last year's Mizzou/KU game; the Tigers should have given the Jayhawks a sound thrashing. While the Tigers were playing well last night, it seems to me that they could have played better. While I have to admit that this KU team is a good one, I don't think they are so good that they could rack up 28 points against the Tigers without some mistakes on Mizzou's part.

Regardless, for the first time in 47 years it seems that the national championship could be within Mizzou's grasp. As a fan of Mizzou football since childhood, I have to say that this makes me very happy. Of course, even if the Missouri Tigers do not become the 2007 football champions, I will still be happy. After all, we ended KU's winning streak, won the Big 12 North title, prevented them from going onto the Big 12 championship, and dashed any hopes, however meagre, they had of being national champions. For a Mizzou Tiger fan, that is more than enough.