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Monday, January 29, 2018

Southern California Vol. 10 - Haunted Black Star Canyon

 Haunted canyons?  Seriously, Cary?  

Well, before you start giving me crap about this post, you should google Black Star Canyon.  You'll see that it's considered one of the most haunted places in Southern California.  A few paranormal shows have taken trips out at night to try to document activity.  In fact, it gets a whole five pages devoted to it in Greg Bishop, Joe Oesterle and Mike Marinaccci's Weird California (a personal favorite of mine).  

It also happens to be a beautiful hiking spot and is less than a half hour from my house.  Now, I'm going to just go ahead and say here that I've never experienced anything weird in Black Star Canyon myself, but I have two good friends who have.  I'll tell you their story in just a little bit, but first let's talk about why people think Black Star Canyon is haunted in the first place.

In the 1830's, the canyon was the site of an armed conflict between Native Americans and local trappers.  It was around this time that rumors of the canyon being haunted began.  In 1899, the canyon was the site of a murder that took the county by storm.  Three men got in a gunfight over a horse trade gone wrong.  When the shooting stopped, one man was dead and the other two turned themselves in.  Again, rumors swirled that the ghost of the dead man still traveled the canyon.  

There's also the story of a busload of children that went off the cliff on a steep canyon road, killing everyone inside.  Supposedly their ghosts also travel the canyon.  To make matters worse, there are some very real dangers in Black Star Canyon.

First, there are the "squatters".  Now, whether these people are really squatting or not is debatable, but there are multiple reports of people who live in a house near one section of the trail who love to chase off hikers by shooting shotguns over their heads and threatening them.  There's also the possibility that you'll run across a mountain lion.  In case you're thinking that's not a big deal, note that the sign above makes it a point to tell you that "your safety cannot be guaranteed".  They aren't joking.  In the last decade there has been at least one death of a mountain biker by a mountain lion who stalked and ambushed him on his morning ride.

The trail is also rife with "No Trespassing" signs since anything off the trail itself is private property. 

So why do people go?  Well, because of the waterfall.  It's one of the most beautiful in the area and while it's not very easily accessible (you'll have to climb over some boulders and cross some water) the destination is totally worth it.

Which brings us to my two friends.  I'm not going to use their names at all because they have no idea that I'm writing about this on my blog, but I'll say that I work with both of them.  They are avid hikers and on this particular day, they went with their families.  It was a weekend and early in the morning.  They parked and began walking the trail when one of them and his wife began hearing a strange crying sound.  They were ahead of the other friend and his family so they stopped and waited for them to catch up.  

When the whole group was together, they all listened for the sound and every single one of them heard it.  They described it to me as sounding like a woman or a young child crying, sobbing on the trail above them.  They called out to see if anyone was up there but no one answered.  Instead, the "crying" started again.  They called out one more time but then the sound stopped. The one who heard it first told me that the sound was so creepy, the hair on his arms was standing on end.

They waited a while longer, calling occasionally, and the sound never started again.  They decided to continue on to the falls.  The rest of the hike was uneventful and on the way back they asked other hikers they passed whether they had heard anything in that section of the trail.  No one had heard anything other than bird calls and normal forest sounds.

Now, neither of these men are prone to embellishing things.  Also, they both told me this story separately, without the other there to help them "remember".  Their descriptions were almost identical with one of them telling me, "It was seriously f__ing creepy."

What did they hear?  Who knows?  

It could have been an animal.  It could have been one of the "squatters" messing with them.  The bottom line though is it was an unsettling situation in one of the most notoriously eerie locations in Orange County.

Are you feeling like you want to do something weird also?  Well, you're in luck.  I've got a pretty creepy book out called The Wash. You can read it from the safety of your own home and not have to worry about squatters shooting at you.

Until next time, stay safe and stick to the trail. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror Vol. 2: Roger Waters - Radio K.A.O.S.

When you talk about concept albums in general, there are two names that are going to come up right off the bat: Pete Townshend and Roger Waters.  Townshend practically created the genre with The Who’s Tommy: A Rock Opera.  It blew minds in its day because it was the first of its kind; a rock musical that was both cohesive in story and in musical flow.   We’ll talk about him more in a later post but for now, let’s talk about Waters.

If you  don’t know him by name, you still know his music.  It has been inescapable on rock radio over the last 30 years.  "Another Brick in the Wall (part 2)”, “Money” or “Comfortably Numb” are all hit songs by the band Pink Floyd that he either wrote or co-wrote and he sings on all three.  

Pink Floyd had been doing concept albums for years.  Instead of focusing on narrative cohesion though, they looked to unifying concepts and produced way more winners than losers.  Their album Dark Side of the Moon is actually a concept album about fear, documenting all of the anxiety points a human adult contends with in life.  The album Animals was a concept album that focused on class in 1970’s England.  These are both amazing records. 

The Wall changed the game though.  It told a very vivid story about a rocker who was facing a mental breakdown.  It took you through his troubled childhood and into his mind as paranoia, suspicion and guilt overwhelm him.  It was so well done, in fact, that the Hollywood film simply put images to the album.  Why rewrite something when it's already perfect?    

To say The Wall was a smash success would be like saying the surface of the sun is kind of hot.  It was freaking world shaking.  It catapulted Pink Floyd into the stratosphere in terms of popularity.  Up until this point, the band had been fairly democratic, but since this album had Waters' name on almost every song, he began referring to himself as the band's leader.  The rest of the band did not take kindly to this. 

Here's where you have to start asking yourself whether Roger Waters is a genius musician or a frustrated author.  Following The Wall, Waters insisted on using the leftover songs from those sessions to craft another concept album.  It was to be sort of an epilogue to The Wall and despite his bandmates' objections (notably David Gilmour who said, "If they weren't good enough for that record why are they good enough for this one?") Waters forced Pink Floyd to release The Final Cut.  Before the band even started touring, they'd already broken up, agreeing to go their separate ways after the last scheduled date.  

Waters was already making solo plans.  He'd had another idea for a concept album.  This one also reached back to those days prior to his writing The Wall.  It was called The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking and it was supposed to be a collection of thoughts our protagonist has as he makes a cross country road trip.  It wasn’t a great album, but it was generally reviewed well and in the absence of new Pink Floyd material, fans took a chance on it.  There weren't really any singles for radio or MTV to latch on to, but Waters hadn’t embarrassed himself.  Instead, by his reckoning, he'd set himself up to knock the next album out of the park.  He was motivated by a few things.  First, he wanted to make a statement about nuclear war and the dangers civilization was facing.  Second, he wanted to discuss unemployment in Thatchers' Britain.  Finally, and more importantly to him, he wanted to prove to the world that he was the creative force behind Pink Floyd.

This last piece was important because the rest of the band had decided to get back together without him.  They'd all realized that they enjoyed playing music together, just not when Waters was involved.  He had sued them in an effort to keep them from using the Pink Floyd name but ultimately, he'd been unsuccessful.  So for Waters, this next album needed to be the statement that showed everyone who the real creative genius in that band was.

Just like KISS' Music From The Elder, Waters created his album in a vacuum.  With only a couple of people he trusted to bounce ideas off of and co-write certain songs, Waters began crafting a story that he foresaw becoming another movie, a massive stage show and hopefully, a unifying message to the world to lay down their arms.

Thus we get Radio K.A.O.S.

It tells the story of a wheelchair bound man who is considered a vegetable.  The thing is, mentally he's alive.  He can hear radio waves in his head and thanks to a cordless phone his brother steals, he learns to hack into computer systems with his mind.  He uses this ability to trick the world into thinking nukes have been launched and then when everyone is shitting themselves with fear, he reveals the truth.  In the end, everyone laughs and starts getting along together better.  Also there's a side story about coal miners getting laid off their jobs.

I'm not joking.  That, in a nutshell, is the narrative behind this concept album.

Now, some would say that this is no more implausible than The Who's Tommy and they would be right but Tommy had great songs.  Radio K.A.O.S. does not.   Additionally, Waters realized that releasing a double album would mean he wouldn't make as much off of each record sold.  So, he made the very capitalist decision to shorten the whole thing to a single disc.  That decision completely gutted the story so that when one listens to the album, it's hard to follow what's happening. 

To make up for it, Radio K.A.O.S. was shipped with extensive liner notes so that the listener could follow along.  When I say "extensive", they read like a freakin' book.  

Personally, I've never enjoyed having to read along while listening to music and it turns out that most people feel the same way.  Radio K.A.O.S. was a commercial failure.

Unfortunately for Waters, his former bandmates also released their Pink Floyd album around the same time and in head to head competition, Water's lost resoundingly.  While his first single ("Radio Waves") charted in both the U.S. and U.K., subsequent singles weren't as successful.  Meanwhile, Pink Floyd's first two singles from their A Momentary Lapse of Reason album topped the U.S. rock charts for weeks.  

"But what about the tour?" you ask.

That's a good question and it was the true bright spot in this endeavor.  Waters' idea for the tour was very ambitious and involved interactive moments where a live D.J. took questions from the audience which Waters answered.  The story was more fleshed out live and the production was elaborate.  Going to see the Radio K.A.O.S. tour was an experience, not just a rock show.  Unfortunately, with the album tanking, the tour didn't generate much excitement.  Ticket sales were modest at best and after a two month U.S. tour, Waters canceled the rest of the shows except for two nights in London.  He had actually dipped into his own personal finances to keep it going that long.   

Now, one of the weirdest things about this whole debacle has to do with a hidden message on the album.  Waters hid verses via Morse code at the beginning and ending of the record.  One of them gives some oddly mysterious insight into why Waters came up with this particular story.  The translation (from Wikipedia):

Now the past is over but you are not alone 
Together we'll fight Sylvester Stallone 
We will not be dragged down in his South China Sea 
Of macho bullshit and mediocrity

That's right.  Waters had a beef with Rambo and produced one of the worst concept albums of all time as a result.

Ultimately, the failure of Radio K.A.O.S. did nothing to deter him from continuing the concept album trend.  In fact, every release since has been a concept album, although none as overtly narrative as that one.  His next studio album, 1992's Amused to Death, was an anti-war rock opera, which to be fair is a pretty good album.  

His latest is 2017's Is This The Life We Really Want? which, while not a narrative concept album, is united by its political subject matter, directly addressing Brexit and the rise of Trump's America.  It's honestly the best work he's done outside of Pink Floyd and it was in pretty heavy rotation on the Christopher iPod at the end of last year.

You don't care about that though.  I can tell.  You want to hear the horrible stuff, don't you?  Well, if you insist.

The link above will play you the entire album from front to back.  Try to follow the story if you can.  After it's over, try to remember the chorus to any song other than the lead off track "Radio Waves".  It'll be harder than you think.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Southern California Vol. 9 - The Ghostly Gambling Boat of Coronado

What good is living by the ocean if there's not at least one decent "ghostly" ship story to tell, right?  Well, in this case I've mislead you a little.  The "ghost" ship is an actual verified ship, but the ghostly part is how rarely it makes appearances.

To tell this story, we have to go back to a time just after prohibition, when organized crime was focusing on new opportunities.  Now that alcohol was legal, many of the major crime figures had done one of two things.  They either went "legit", applying for the licenses, etc. that they needed and providing access to alcohol legally, or they branched out into other areas that were still off-limits like gambling and prostitution.

Enter the S.S. Monte Carlo.  It was an interesting ship in its own right.  It was one of twenty-four ships commissioned by Woodrow Wilson to be made of concrete at a time when there was a steel shortage in the United States.  It was originally an oil tanker named the S.S. McKittrick.  Later, after changing hands a few times, it eventually made its way to two very enterprising individuals who had a great idea.  

Ed Turner and Martin Schouwiler converted the ship into a gambling boat.  They anchored it in international waters off of Coronado Island and offered free water taxi rides out to the "sin ship" for anyone looking to spend an evening playing cards, throwing dice, drinking bootleg liquor and/or spending time with "ladies of the evening".  With the ship in an area where they were protected from U.S. law, the two men and their criminal partners began raking in some major money.  One estimate puts the total at close to 15,000 gamblers visiting per week and upwards of 50 million dollars (at today's value) flowing through the ship's tables.

Needless to say, the good people of San Diego were not very happy with this but there was literally nothing they could do.  Legally, all they could do was try to warn the populace away from visiting the boat.  Local ministers preached about the dangers of the "sin ship" and many prayed that God himself would intervene.

You can bet that they took credit when mother nature did just that.  On New Year's Day 1937, a huge storm actually pulled the ship off it's anchorage and set it adrift.  Where did it go?  Well, of course it went right into shore at Coronado.  Without the benefit of international waters, no one wanted to claim the boat.  The local authorities confiscated everything of value and it was left to rot on the shore.

So why do I call it a "Ghost Ship"?  Well, because it disappeared over time.  You may think that I mean it rotted away, but that's not what happened at all.  The boat was actually claimed by the sand and sea, however periodically it appears again.  At extremely low tides or most recently, during the El Nino Southern California experienced in 2016, the ship will surface so close to shore that people can actually walk out on it.

Pretty cool, huh?  

So, if you ever think you may be in the Coronado area, check the tide tables and see if you can find the S.S. Monte Carlo.  There's a rumor that it's still got a ton of gold on board somewhere.  Maybe you'll get lucky like so many of her visitors did before.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror Vol. 1: KISS - The Elder

Concept albums.  For someone like me who is an avid book lover and writer but loves music with all of my heart, this is an area where my two worlds meet.  It should be the nexus of all things Cary Christopher.  Instead, I tend to despise concept albums.

Is there any worse idea in the history of rock and roll?  I would argue no.  For the most part, they are overblown, pompous and usually not very well thought out. However, there are exceptions.

For instance, Pink Floyd's The Wall is a master class in how to tell a complete story while also writing fantastic songs.  The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band takes a much looser approach to the idea of the concept album by just reimagining the band itself and using that to experiment with their artistic direction.  More recently, the Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera uses a combination of the legendary rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd and an honest and open look at the cultural atmosphere that formed them to create one of the greatest albums ever about the American South.  

I'm not here to talk about the good ones though.  I want to talk about the ones that went completely and totally off the rails because while they may not be fun to listen to, the circumstances around them are usually very interesting to read about.  Plus, for sheer content there are easily more bad concept albums out there than good ones.  I'd personally put the ratio at 50:1.

One thing that the vast majority of horrible concept albums have in common is that they tried to do what The Who's Tommy or Pink Floyd's The Wall did.  They try to tell a story instead of using the concept as a broader unifying idea. There is no more perfect example of this than the album I want to kick off this series with.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you KISS' Music From The Elder.

This album's reputation for being an ultimate clunker is very well known, but since many of you come here as fans of things other than music, let me recap a little for you.  From 1974 - 1977, KISS released eight albums of solid rock and roll, including their seminal Alive and Destroyer albums.  They literally became the most popular band in the world, even topping Led Zeppelin at one point in concert revenues and record sales.  Their manager at the time, Bill Aucoin, had laid out a plan to make them megastars by infiltrating other revenue streams and thus KISS was the first band to really exploit their brand on a massive scale.  They released toys.  They had their own pinball machine.  

They even had a Marvel comic book released with them fighting Doctor Doom and...  it was printed with their own blood mixed into the ink.  That last part is not a myth.  I have the comic and there's a feature in the middle that shows them pouring vials of their own blood into the ink vats.  Snopes verified it.

KISS started to become pure promotion; a caricature of the hard nosed, rock and roll band they'd started out to be.  As such, the music began to suffer but at the same time the four members' egos were expanding on an exponential scale.  How could they not?  Money was coming in faster than they could spend it and everyone working for them or with them was telling them they were geniuses.  This continued to be the case as they put out four solo albums in 1978 (one for each band member).  The idea had been Aucoin's again but this time it was a disaster.  None of the albums did very well and when the stunt bombed, cracks in KISS' armor began to show. 

Aucoin was undeterred.  He convinced the band to do a movie (KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park).  It's a complete disaster.  Partially financed by Hanna Barbara, it is basically a live action Scooby Doo adventure with KISS as the good guys.  It's hilariously inept and we'll probably talk about it in another post at another time.  I only mention it to say that when the movie flopped and the record sales for both the Dynasty and Unmasked albums were well below expectations, one would think that a band would start to reassess their work and either make a course correction or call it a day.

However, this band has Gene Simmons in it.  There is no ego bigger in the world today than Gene Simmons’.  In fact, the scale for gigantic ego is measured in “Simmons”.  

For instance, Donald Trump is the first person to register at a perfect 10.0 Simmons other than Simmons himself.  U2's Bono measures a 6.0 Simmons now but was marked at an 8.5 Simmons when he recited his "When Love Comes to Town" lyrics to B.B. King.  He's mellowed with age.

I digress.

Simmons flexed his egotistical muscle to his songwriting partner Paul Stanley and convinced him that they didn't need to go back to basics.  The real problem was that KISS weren't being taken seriously as musicians.  What they needed was to show the world that they could stretch beyond the rock genre into something grander, dare Simmon's think it, even classical.  

Stanley ate that shit up like ice cream.
Now to be fair, KISS weren't taken seriously as musicians by much of the mainstream music press.  Rolling Stone famously once likened an early KISS album to the sound of "buffalo farts".  However, by the time KISS started writing Music From The Elder they had already established themselves as a world class band.  Had they regrouped and focused on their strengths (stripped down, groove heavy rock and roll with a killer live show), I'd probably be writing a different post right now.  Instead, they decided to write a concept album.

Simmons had the story idea.  It was to be a modern day fantasy about a secret society looking for a hero.  The problem was, the story itself wasn't fleshed out beyond a mere outline.  Instead of doing more work on it, the band decided to move forward with the concept as it was and began writing songs.

The album took months to record.  It was created in a complete vacuum.  The only people allowed to hear the mixes were the band and the producer, Bob Ezrin.  They reached out to other (more esteemed) songwriters for help and actually got the likes of Lou Reed to contribute on three tracks. Still, it's questionable as to whether he even heard anything but his own contributions prior to the release.

Of course the problem with creating in a vacuum is that you get no outside perspective and to make matters worse, only half of KISS was truly represented in the studio.  Peter Criss (drummer) was fired before the sessions started.  His replacement (Eric Carr) had no say at all in the sessions.  Ace Frehley (lead guitarist) was also completely frustrated with being in the band.  He'd descended into an alcoholic haze and was so disconnected from the band that he only showed up to record his parts.  That left all of the big musical decisions to three people:  Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons and the producer Bob Ezrin (who admitted he was snorting enough cocaine at the time to support several Columbian druglords and their families).  

How could this happen, you ask?  Leave that, once again, to Bill Aucoin.  He had convinced the record company that KISS knew exactly what they were doing and were going to deliver a pure winner.  The man was persuasive enough that his argument won the day and so instead of getting a preview to what was happening, the executives at Polygram sat and waited.  The finished album was unveiled at a listening party for Polygram execs and higher ups within the KISS organization.  Imagine the silence in that room when those people realized all the money they'd  poured into this project was lost forever. 

Music From The Elder is a complete and total mess.  It's exactly the opposite of what KISS needed to do in order to get their career back on track.  Filled with symphonic passages and a barely tangible storyline (again, about a secret society choosing a champion to fight the lords of darkness), Music From The Elder is as far from a KISS album as anything you can imagine. 

I have it on vinyl. 

I bought it as a teenager from a bargain bin at my local record store.  It said "KISS" on it so I expected it was going to be filled with snarling guitars, booming bass and songs about partying.  Boy, was I wrong.  That I didn't toss it in the trash is a testament to how much I love music.  The collector in me wouldn't let me discard it.  In fact, up until recently I still had every record I'd ever purchased. Of the albums I have shed, this is not one of them, simply because no one wants it.

The only song on the set that's worth playing out of something more than curiosity is "Dark Light" (Frehley's one contribution).  Of the rest, there is not a singable chorus or catchy hook in sight.  Not one memorable line.  Instead, there is a plethora of strings, horns and even dialogue. 

The resulting lack of sales would haunt KISS for over a decade.  It took incessant touring by the band to pay off their advance and it would also take them years to regain their audience in the U.S.

Thanks to Music From The Elder, KISS easily stands on top of the pile when it comes to worst concept album of all time... but it's not like they didn't have challengers.  We'll talk about some of those in later posts.

Until then, if you feel like you absolutely need to hear some of this record, then you are in luck.  You can hear the whole thing for free on YouTube at the link above.  I'd suggest skipping around a bit just to get the flavor and then going for a palette cleanser somewhere else.

If you're into horror but want something truly scary instead of horrible in and of itself, I encourage you to check out my Amazon Author's page.  There you'll find my horror novel The Wash as well as a couple of short stories that should scratch your itch.  

Also, please sign up for my mailing list.  It costs you nothing, you get a free short story and a promise from me not to e-mail you unless I have something important to share (like a promotion or major book release announcement). 

Until next time, happy listening!