Friday, 21 September 2012

I can't believe it, but I think I like Michael Jackson

The summer of 1987 was quickly coming to an end, and I was getting ready to head off to Edmonton to university. I used to play basketball at this outdoor court in Coaldale, usually by myself but sometimes with a couple different buddies.

One night, I'd called my best friend Chris Vining, who had been away working at his dad's place up by Cherhill. I was really excited to see him, because we were inseparable. Besides, he was heading to university with me. We were going to be roommates too.

So, he pulls up in his orange Pinto with this stoic look on his face. I hadn't seen him in awhile, and didn't say too much to him on the phone besides setting a time to play ball. So I was a bit uneasy.

He looked me square in the eye. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but…"

Then he paused.

"I think I like Michael Jackson."

I looked at him, nodded, and with my head held in shame replied: "Me too."

Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson's "Bad" album. However, back in 1987 he had released a single with Siedah Garrett called "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" and it was really good. Vining and I kind of comforted ourselves with the fact that it was not just Michael Jackson, but a duet.

But then, "Bad" was released and it sat on the charts for more than a year. "Bad" was the next single, but the one that really struck a chord with me was "Man in the Mirror". Jackson was really making a statement with the song and the images in the video were absolutely amazing. It's a history lesson on the 80s, and race relations in general. Everything from Bishop Desmond Tutu crying to a baby being rescued from a well. And the historical figures – my hero Bob Geldof, organizer of Band Aid and Live Aid; Mother Teresa; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Gandhi; people marching to free Nelson Mandela; the lives and deaths of John and Robert Kennedy; the Chernobyl disaster; the nuclear arms reduction talks between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan; Lech Walesa; and so much more. Plus the Michael Jackson video began to show everything wasn't just about Michael Jackson. He makes no appearance at all in this video. He lets the images tell the story. That video really got to me. Check it out:

Genesis of dislike
The dislike I had for Michael Jackson came from a number of odd sources. I never really like things that are overhyped. I started listening to music in Grade 9, so around the latter part of 1983. Jackson's album "Thriller" had come out and it was always on. "Beat It", "Billie Jean", "Thriller" – those songs got vinyl fatigue from every radio station, video show, and junior high dance.

The girls at my school St. Joe's all really liked Michael Jackson, and raved about him. And swooned. That meant they played his tape, and it was only "Thriller" on their ghetto blasters and Walkmans. It was just too much.

And there was this punk on the school bus who used to bug me about my acne. He was a couple years younger, but had no respect whatsoever. He wore one of those red Michael Jackson jackets with countless zippers. The first time he wore it was at Halloween, complete with accompanying black face. Kind of a cool idea. But he wore that jacket every day after. I guess it was Halloween every day. Well maybe just a horror show.

The bottom line was I really didn't like his music. At the time, I was more familiar with his sister Janet who was a teen actress appearing in episodes of Diffr'ent Strokes and Fame, and his brother Jermaine who appeared in a memorable episode of The Facts of Life. It focused on the danger of teenage obsession with stars. And of course The Jackson 5, but that was more a name and I couldn't name one song of theirs. I really hadn't heard of Michael Jackson at all, and really wondered what the big deal was (actually in 1983 it would have been "the big hairy deal"). 

Bad is good
Then came "Bad". As I got older, some of Michael Jackson's stuff began to grow on me. Really, the benefit of age and distance gave me a new appreciation of his music. I'll never be a fan, but I have come to like those big three hits off "Thriller" and most of "Bad".

"Thriller", the single was known for the epic video. Directed by noted filmmaker John Landis, it was fairly long, but told a great story, had narration by Vincent Price who had starred in many horror movies I watched as a kid, and the makers tried to get it nominated for an Oscar for best short film. It has high production values for its time, and is well worth a look.

"Beat It" was a song I should always have liked, because Eddie Van Halen played guitar on it. I guess I did not really get into Van Halen until a bit later, but I wonder if I had discovered them sooner, if it would have softened my view of Michael Jackson. I doubt it.

"Billie Jean" was a song I did find myself moving to, even back in junior high. It's one of my favourites, along with "Man in the Mirror". CBC Calgary used to have this Sunday morning show called Switchback, hosted by Humble Howard who was a local radio deejay. He used to play old episodes of the Batman TV series (the one starring Adam West and Burt Ward), and play music videos. I usually missed the first part because my Dad took me to church every Sunday morning, but I always caught the tail end before Sunday dinner at noon. The very first video I ever saw on Switchback was "Billie Jean". It's funny the strange things a guy remembers.

Parting thoughts
It's funny how things turn out. Michael Jackson was an icon of the '80s. His music was prolific, and influenced pop culture by the sheer force of his popularity. But every thing, and artist, has their time. His time passed with the '80s. Unfortunately, as the years went on, his life morphed into some sort of bizarre cartoon, ending tragically with his death in 2009. Still, in his prime, there was no one more popular, and 25 years ago when "Bad" was released, there was no more anticipated album.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Peasant vision – part one, Channel 7

I'm not sure when I first heard the term "peasant vision" but I know I laughed out loud. There is no better way to describe it. The only thing close came from my buddy Dean describing his own childhood on a farm near Winfield, Alberta. He called it "The Rural Cable Network".

Back then we had three channels on our TV. As the 1980s opened, we still had to get up to physically turn the channel and adjust the volume. The sound wasn't as big a challenge as the reception. We had an antenna on our roof to receive the signal, but whenever it got windy – and in Southern Alberta that happens a lot – it would play havoc with our reception. One day, my Uncle who lived just up the road, got the idea of moving the antenna into the attic of his house and it worked. We never did follow suit though.

Broadcasting becomes narrowcasting
Television was much simpler back in the 1980s, although in some cases not necessarily better. With only three channels, the networks had to appeal to everyone, so there was a much greater variety of programs on, even with just three channels. Sports, news, music, comedy, movies, drama, variety shows, talk shows, they all were on the same channel. Now, in the million-channel universe, there is a specialty channel for every one of these interests. Broadcasting has become narrowcasting.

On with the show…

The dial had a lot of numbers even back then, but there were only three that mattered: 7, 10, and 13.

Channel 7
Seven was Lethbridge 2&7. It had a lot of different incarnations actually – CJOC-TV, and CFAC were the two I always remember. It was the local independent TV station with local news and lots of locally-produced shows. Usually they ran right after the late-night local news. I recall staying up late some nights doing homework, past the news, and seeing AgriVision, Commodity Futures Magazine, Sportsweek, and Mechanic At Large on in the background. (In this small world we live in, I have come to know Bob Bourke, the mechanic at large, and even worked with his now former wife.)

Star struck – Southern Alberta style
When I was little, I always found it strange, but really cool, to see people walking around Lethbridge that I'd watched on TV. The first time it ever happened, I wasn't even in school yet. Me and mom were on the bottom floor of Eaton's in Lethbridge and I saw Bill Matheson walk by. He was the local weatherman who was well-known for covering his weather map with arrows, symbols, and drawings. He was much shorter than I pictured. He left soon after that for the greener pastures of Edmonton, but it wouldn't be the last I saw of him. When I arrived in Edmonton to go to university in the fall of 1987, there was Bill Matheson on ITV still littering his weather map.

Show time – a testing ground?
Channel 7 bought a good chunk of its programming from the big three US channels – ABC, NBC, CBS (FOX would not start until 1987). One thing I observed was that Channel 7 aired a lot of shows in their first year. If they became hits they would seem to migrate to Channel 13, and occasionally Channel 10. Cheers, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Miami Vice, Knot's Landing, Moonlighting, are shows that come to mind. I always suspected the CTV network could pay more than an independent station for TV shows. I always wondered if Channel 7 felt like a testing ground, like they found the hits and other networks profitted.

Channel 7 also programmed differently. They started their primetime shows at 6 p.m. after early news, and were done by 10 p.m., in time for the late news. Perhaps again, it was to carve out their own niche.

Global before it was Global
The other source of programming seemed to be loose affiliations with Global-TV stations. At the time, Global seemed from my perspective to be based out of Toronto. A lot of national news items aired by CFAC were from Global, by journalists such as Peter Kent (our current federal environment minister), John Burke, and others. Shows such as Ski West and Smith & Smith came from other stations. However, there was no actual third national network. Oddly, one of the first stories I ever covered in journalism school, and my first ever press conference, was the announcement of the purchase of Channel 2&7 Lethbridge by CanWest Global, which integrated the Lethbridge station into a true third national TV network.

Partners in crime-shows
Channel 7 did seem to be partnered with Channel 2&7 based out of Calgary, again illustrated by the content coming from that station. The best examples were Stampede Wrestling and Flames Hockey, both hosted by the legendary Ed Whalen. But they also shared news stories and other local programming like The Movie Show.

Pays to be early
One of our annual rites of passage was Ag-Expo, this big winter fair at the Lethbridge Exhibition Pavilion. My uncle always went early, so early he could have helped the vendors set up. Well, CFAC-TV used to do this promotion where you could trade in your ball cap for one of theirs – black with a station logo on it. All you had to do was visit their booth at Ag-Expo and look for the big hat. It was big too. The biggest ball cap I have seen in my life, it was the roof for their whole booth. By the time we got there, the booth's wall was covered with hats and we discovered the catch – they only accepted one of each kind, and I already could see every hat I could think of stapled to the wall. I guess I was out of luck. Until the next time I saw my uncle – wearing a black CFAC-TV hat. It pays to be early – really early.

Community news
It was this sort of outreach into the community that made Channel 7 different. I still remember the personalities such as Wally Hild, Ken Moore, John Scott Black, Karen Hawryluk (who is with the CBC TV new network now), Franca Cattoni (who had been runner-up from Miss Lethbridge), Rick Bourgon, Dan Germain, Steve Falwell (the long-time radio voice of the Lethbridge Broncos and later Lethbridge Hurricanes), and Doug Fraser (who is now in public relations with the Calgary Stampede). That was the thing about having three channels you really got to know the local personalities.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Launching RobVogt80s

Today is September 11, eleven years to the day since the world changed. In my own corner of the world, I began a brand new job in a new town the day before the world changed. It was a new adventure eleven years ago and one day. I have always respected milestones and anniversaries and been interested in the interconnectedness of the world. In the past, I have launched new projects on Sept. 11 to commemorate the occasion. For a long time I have also thought about how I could reflect on a formative period in my life – the 1980s. I have so many memories and thoughts I would like to share. Being a writer, it seemed logical the best place to do that would be to start my own blog.

So, bearing all this in mind, I am starting a new adventure – my own blog about the 1980s. I was advised to make the name unique for those who may want to find it. So, throwing privacy to the wind, I am launching RobVogt80s. It's going to be a place to talk about the things that influenced my life then, and how they still do. It's mostly going to be about TV, and movies, and music, and sports. There will be other pop culture stuff, like video games, and computers, and toys. There will be some "current events" stuff too, and whatever else from the '80s comes to mind. It'll be like opening an old drawer and seeing what's inside.

There is a place and time…

This was home growing up from birth until I left home 17.5 years later to go to university. Our farm was located six miles north and a mile and a half west of Coaldale, a town of just less than 5,000 people back then. Seven and a half miles may not seem like much, but to a kid growing up with no licence and faced with sprawling land in all directions, it was an eternity. The only time I saw my friends was at school, but the school bus ensured I never hung around after school, unless I made special arrangements which was rare. That would change somewhat when I got to high school and earned my licence.

Consequently, I occupied my time, when I wasn't out playing or working on the farm, by watching TV, reading books, and listening to music. So much of life, and so many memories, are attached to the songs I listened to, shows I watched, and events I witnessed. That's the stuff I'm going to start talking about.

Oh, one more thing. This photo was used to create this painting, which hung in our living room for years until my parents moved to the city.

Whenever the show Dallas came on, the opening credits began with that aerial view of the Southfork ranch. This painting always reminded of that. It was our very own Southfork – you know without the oil, and the cattle, and the back stabbing, and the drama.