When The King Ruled Over T.V., Not Just Rock ‘n Roll

The deserved praise for this year’s rock ‘n roll biopic from Baz Luhrman, Elvis, has hit a proper chord at a time when the Presley estate could use a booster from a hype hypodermic. As generations fade with their adulation of The King of Rock ‘n Roll, what Austin Butler achieved with an Academy-worthy depiction of Elvis Presley cannot be understated in its relevance. Elvis has stood to wane from the public eye along with always-in-the-public-mind icons such as Tina Turner and John Lennon.

Pilgrimages to Graceland are no doubt up these days, jam-packed in reverence of gold records galore as it was when I was able to visit the Memphis-planted estate built on Vitalis and (at the time) rebellious hip thrusts. Graceland is something every American (or those traveling from abroad with an interest) should see, whether you’re a fan of Elvis or not. Perhaps you’ll take an overnight at The Heartbreak Hotel across the street from Elvis’s variegated, polychromatic mansion. Maybe you’ll be compelled to snag a gold “TCB” lightning pendant, the acronym Elvis and his entourage used as code for “Taking Care of Business.” More mandatory is a trip to Sun Records in downtown Memphis where Elvis cut his recording teeth, along with the Stax Museum–not just a shrine to classic soul and funk, it marks another of Elvis’ landing spots later in his venerated career.

One of the stressors behind the new Elvis film is exposing the truth of what most fans long knew at the time Presley’s death in 1977. Tom Hanks delivered just as much as Austin Butler as Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ unscrupulous manager who not only mishandled and exploited Elvis’ global popularity, he was contributor to The King’s exhaustion and tragic death. Part of this fatigue came from a relentless, cash grab Vegas residency and via a gamut of 31 makeabuck movies, many of them insufferable dreck. Jailhouse Rock, King Creole and Viva Las Vegas nothwithstanding, Elvis Presley became for better or worse (mostly worse), a parallel king of the cinema while he was alive.

If you grew up in Elvis’ times and the few generations thereafter, you will be familiar with television in its primitive, pre-cable state. You would then know the terms “VHF” and “UHF.” Rabbit ear antennae and roof-mounted sputniks scraping to pull low fidelity wavelength transmissions, all part of our archaic home entertainment norm. We’re talking capturing no more than 13 or 14 channels total of a possible 36, between the mainstream VHF where the networks primarily operated, and the independent t.v. stations fighting to be seen amidst the tundra of static-snow in UHF land. Elvis ruled both domains.

Elvis’ 17 televised appearances over the decades turned him into a ratings powerhouse on The Ed Sullivan Show, Stage Show, The Milton Berle Show and the nefarious “Hound Dog” incident on The Steve Allen Show. Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii, via Satellite and the 1977 Elvis in Concert nabbed gangbusters rating shares. Yet most fans would agree Elvis’ shining hour on the boob tube came with the electrifying ’68 Comeback Special, done Elvis’ way in rebuff of a starchy scripted Christmas Show. Let history show whose instincts played out the best.

Two years after Presley’s death, Kurt Russell launched an esteemed career of his own in the respectable 1979 made-for television bio movie, Elvis. From here, a devastated American public was still licking their wounds from The King’s inglorious death. Elvis impersonators first sought to keep Elvis’ legacy prospering in memory, even if the countless milking of this shtick soon led to farce. You get why the door was kicked wide open for Joe R. Lansdale’s hysterical horror romp, Bubba Ho-Tep, brought to comedic genius in the 2002 film, with an aged, dropped-out, purported “real” Elvis played by Bruce Campbell.

Seldom few glittering personalities have been elevated to their own personal canon like Elvis Presley. Before cable hijacked the way we consumed television, stations dedicated entire weekends in January and August to Elvis, marking his birthday (January 8th) and death day (August 16th). If you can picture it, one station (usually a UHF channel) would run a two-day marathon of Elvis’ schlocky films. You’d be guaranteed Blue Hawaii, Love Me Tender, Roustabout, Loving You, G.I. Blues, Follow That Dream, Kid Gallahad, Clambake, Fun in Acapulco, The Trouble With Girls, Charro! Double Trouble, Harum Scarum, Girls! Girls! Girls! and Tickle Me along with the few respected movies Elvis laid down for posterity. Keep in mind, in these days, television stations usually signed off the air for five hours before 6:00 a.m. between daily broadcasts.

In my house, my grief-stricken parents always tuned in for the two Elvis weekends, more so to hear the music as they did chores, hung outside on the porch, tossed a few spirits and, of course, to have me go as cross-eyed as the man himself in Blue Hawaii over how awful yet vibrant those cardboard cutout rock extravaganzas were. You just know one big reason for Batman ’66’s existence was to stick it to Elvis’ (moreso Colonel Parker’s) litany of lame.

What resonates the most of Elvis in my house growing up, however, is that glorious ’68 Comeback Special. When VCR’s became a thing, my stepfather recorded a rerun of it and he played it many times over. This is also the man who entered my life as my future dad figure tacking up a poster of Elvis decked in one of his trademark spangled jumpsuits and a Hawaiian lei only a few days after meeting me. This gift bestowed by flicking on my lamp at 11:30-ish at night and walking across my bed with me in it. I could hear The King’s posthumous snicker from beyond, then age 8.

I try to tell younger people, my son, especially, who has an in-and-out love of Elvis, you had to live it to believe it. Sure, somewhere in the 900’s of channel hell on satellite and cable t.v., someone’s still running weekend-long tributes to The King. Back in the day, though, it meant something. It was like the country stopped in remembrance, swinging like mock malefactors with Jailhouse Rock on the t.v. It really was like that. Elvis Presley is eternal, so much he’s deified in ghostly hologram form in a nuclear-blasted casino in Blade Runner 2049, one of my absolute favorite movies ever. No irony the meeting of former and current Blade Runners takes place in a scarred, torched and abandoned Las Vegas. Like Harrison Ford says to Ryan Gosling with “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” he likes that song, 88 years from when it first came out.

Any suspicious mind says Elvis’ reign is likely to make it all the way to 2049 and perhaps more…

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

My Sacred Trails at Sugarloaf Mountain – Will They Remain Open to the Public?

Once a year, I grind out 7 miles of rugged terrain hiking at Sugarloaf Mountain in Frederick County, Maryland. Plotted within reach of the Blue Ridge Mountains and flung into 20,000 acres of farmland separating the commercial hubs of the city of Frederick and Washington, D.C., Sugarloaf overlooks the winding Potomac and Monocacy Rivers and a leg of the C&O Canal.

The mountain is owned by the nonprofit organization, Stronghold, Inc., named for Gordon Strong, a lawyer and conservationist who acquired most of the 3,400 acre property in the early 20th century. Strong made his residence on Sugarloaf (known as Strong Mansion, still in use today) and he established a trust fund in 1946 for Sugarloaf’s ongoing preservation.

The premises has been open to the public for years, yet I grow concerned reading recent reports Stronghold, Inc. is considering rescinding public access in light of the county’s proposal of future rezoning and land use designation efforts. Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard is the only viable commercial entity enjoying support near the foot of the mountain entrance. While the plan proposes to protect most of the 20,000 acres in the Sugarloaf area from development, one can’t help but get the impression the planning and zoning board is silently licking their chops with potential. Sugarloaf, after all, is a mere 10 minutes away from Highway 270, a major artery bridging two of Maryland’s strongest business sectors.

Perhaps Sugarloaf’s fate being up in the air is why I felt more compelled than usual to take some time off and hit my favorite hiking destination in Maryland. My annual Sugarloaf hike is a quiet ritual I usually observe by and for myself, though I’ve taken company with me at times. I always start on the orange trail from the east vista up to green, which is a stunning mini gorge to behold. I swing through green to the five mile craggy loop of the blue trail spanning from the west vista back to east.

Hiking Sugarloaf is a time when I purge, breathe, find thanks and connect with the divine in private. These trails are thus sacred to me, and I know they are to others, given the random manmade rock cairns you can find deep on the blue trail.

The full trek may not require you be in peak physical condition, but the Sugarloaf trails done back-to-back will grind you up, gnaw upon your feet and provide challenging inclines with very little flat portions. It’s a tremendous cardio workout where the bears and bobcats stay in hiding for the most part until the lighter foot traffic months. Snakes are abound, so stick to the blaze and you’ll do just fine. The green glacial boulders scattered in pockets along the blue trail are worth the entire jaunt.

There is a yellow trail circumventing the mountain, once popular, yet it appears to me this has become a road lesser traveled, given the unkempt overgrowth I found at intersecting junctions…

If Sugarloaf Mountain does end up closed to the public, I’ll feel a tremendous loss, but I’ll keep my spirits aligned with cautious optimism for next year’s return. For now, have a walk with me at Sugarloaf in picture form…

–Photos by Ray Van Horn, Jr.

The Madness of My Digital Magazine, Retaliate

Ray Van Horn, Jr. circa 2010

Taking on a major project by yourself takes guts.  It also takes a lot more from you and out of you, as I learned when I attempted to launch my own digital heavy music and horror magazine, Retaliate, in 2010. A road briefly traveled, then abandoned.

I’d spent the seven years prior years knocking myself out working my way up through the tiers of music and film journalism and I’d been writing simultaneously for numerous magazines and websites. I wrote monthly columns, conducted more than 300 personality interviews and reviewed more than a thousand promotional albums and videos. Blabbermouth, Metal Maniacs, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Pit, Rough Edge.com, About.com Heavy Metal, Fangoria Musick, Horror News.net, DVD Review, Unrestrained to name a few, along with numerous others. 

I slept very little. I worked a full-time job, then went out to cover shows, interview bands, staying up in the late hours after gigs to transcribe and turn in copy for deadlines. Up until 4:30 a.m. in the rock life, back up at 7:30 a.m. for the mortgage title life. I did a lot of my phoner interviews during lunch breaks in the conference room of my employer, sometimes with a small audience. Repeat, rinse, all with horns hoisted high in the air. With the transition in media toward the digital age, however, the fatigue finally struck once I found myself, along with my colleagues, dropped to the bricks as trad print mags folded, one-by-one.

It was a very difficult and upsetting thing for me to digest since one, a lot of my secondary income was tied into my freelancing work for those rags, especially once I became a new father when we adopted my son.  I’d already learned to fight for work, having been downsized from the mortgage title industry on numerous occasions, since the rollercoaster nature of that business dictates employment. 

One thing that kept me going during this bruising time to my writing life was my old heavy metal blog, The Metal Minute. I used it as outlet for the countless promotional albums hitting my mailbox which I couldn’t cover for assignment. I did my “Take 5” interview series with artists, and I was able to service many of my longtime publicist and record label contacts that way. The Metal Minute boomed. I wrangled a large, devoted audience and before I laid it to rest, I’d collected more than 900,000 hits and was bestowed the honor of “Best Personal Blog” by Metal Hammer magazine.

While building and branding The Metal Minute, I found myself being courted by loads of websites who couldn’t afford to pay me. Would that I could write merely for the passion of it as I’d first done, but I’d become a paid professional by then. I’d nearly bowed out of media journalism altogether during this phasing out period. My attempts as a veteran scene writer to coax assignment froms editors of the few remaining big dog hubs were met with frustration.  So too became the fate of many of my peers, since those periodicals still hanging on were well-fortified with staffers and freelancers already.  I think most writers reading this, regardless of experience and time involved, can relate.

I’ve worn many hats in small-league journalism, and with mounting bills and a young mouth to feed, I turned to beat reporting for a local newspaper, as well as field data collection for Patch.com. I was grateful for the work but still feeling that itch of addiction from being in the music scene. I’d done interviews backstage, on tour buses, in pubs and restaurants. I’d even taken one of my guests to 7-11 after our chat in his hotel room and our off-the-record extension was one of the more memorable times of my writing life. The promos kept logjamming my mailbox, since I was receiving hard copy materials before those went digital like the magazines.

It wasn’t a long layoff, but I quickly missed the road dogging, shooting concert photos from the pit, talking with artists and sharing pints and life stories after their gigs. As The Metal Minute gathered steam, I got a smarmy bug up my butt and came up with the idea that maybe I should take on the digital realm and begin my own venture.  I had all the industry contacts I needed to get launched, so why the hell not?

Wolf Hoffmann – Accept

To this day, I still thank every publicist and record label who got on board with me when I proposed to launch Retaliate, a digital magazine focused on heavy metal, punk rock, hard and classic rock and horror films.  By now, it’s been a proven fact horror and heavy music are natural bed partners, which I’ve said and lived since the Eighties.  It was a winning concept my industry friends and guests all believed in and I can’t express my gratitude enough for their generous time and friendship.

I deemed myself Editor-in-Chief, and recalling my time as Assistant Editor on my college newspaper, Spectrum, I used my old layout techniques and learned to apply them in a digital format.  Just this part of the process took a bit of time to refine before I began the months-intensive succession in assembling my debut issue.

Wearing multiple hats, I took on every aspect in making Retaliate a reality.  I booked and conducted every interview.  I fielded the music reviews.  I did the live photography and used a handful of supplemental press photos donated from the labels.  I laid it all out and banged my head against my desk when the pages wouldn’t merge in succession, then rejoiced when they finally did.  Outside of the cover fonts and logo, which I owe to my dear friend in Denmark, Sheila Eggenberger, everything was done my me.  I sometimes bounced my son (then a toddler) on my knee while I edited my articles and told him I was going to do something big for our family. It sounded good, anyway.

Jacoby Shaddix – Papa Roach

I engaged a partner, who was going to handle online production and distribution.  By the time I was ready to release Retaliate # 1 with a test price of $2.50 per download, I was already finding hints of gray on my head. Twelve years ago, hard to get my nearly grayed-out head around it. 

I’d assembled a hell of a guest list for Retaliate #1:  Marky Ramone, Dave Lombardo from Slayer, Jacoby Shaddix from Papa Roach, Stevie Benton from Drowning Pool, Richard Patrick of Filter, Chris Adler from Lamb of God, Wolf Hoffmann of Accept, Jim Gustafson of Poobah, former Overkill drummer Rat Skates, Nick Cantanese, formerly of Black Label Society, Steve Von Till of Neurosis, Alexx Calisse and others.  I had esteemed horror directors Mick Garris and Adam Green on board for my “Van of the Dead” horror section.  It was newbie gold.

I took to the pre-launch campaign trail and staged some goofy promotional photos with me pimping Retaliate.  One has me standing amidst a flurry of regional political candidate placards with my own stating “RETALIATE FOR READERSHIP.”  Another one has me dressed up as Pinhead from Hellraiser hitchhiking along an interstate with a sign stating “RETALIATE OR BUST.”  These photos were sent to all of my press contacts and I was offered publicity services from a few firms out there.  I wanted to get the first issue running and then take them up on it to implement my marketing plan.  All of it felt red-hot.

I’d grinded for many weeks hitting concerts to gather my live photos and interviews. I took phone calls at ungodly hours to conduct chats with those who I couldn’t connect with on the road.  I was giddy beyond words through the whole thing, though, most especially when Marky Ramone and I kept playing phone tag with bad connections on our cells.  I hightailed it back to my work office at the time and begged the use of their phone to get it done with Marky.  As a Ramones freak, it was one of the most gratifying interviews I’ve ever done.

I could spend the rest of this post gabbing about the wonderful interviews I had for Retaliate # 1.  I won’t forget Adam Green getting on a roll about the production behind his frigid terror zone in his horror film, Frozen, and him generously asking me if he could call back after fielding other scheduled chats, because he had plenty more to talk about.  He kept his word and we were back on the phone with shivery stories on his crew working with live wolves.

On the nuttier side of things, my interview with Dave Lombardo was completely insane as I waited for my liaison to come get me, which ended up being pretty danged long.  I was scheduled to photograph Slayer and Anthrax’s sets at the Baltimore Arena and by the time I was finally brought back to Lombardo on Slayer’s bus, I was given a meager five minutes.  We did a lightning round that I think left both us dizzy afterwards.  Dave Lombardo, one of the finest metal drummers to ever pick up the sticks, was a gentleman. I’m sorry to see what happened later in the Slayer camp, since I’ve also had an amazing chat with Tom Araya in the past.

I’ll never forget seeing the late Jeff Hanneman lounging on Slayer’s bus and jamming to Led Zeppelin with a hundred lit candles around him.  We said hello to each other in passing and that still strikes me today now that Jeff has passed.  Afterwards, I had to blitz and navigate my way from the arena loading docks to the rear of the stage on mere instinct for the layout. I waved my laminate badge like a lunatic to the bouncers and stage hands as I bolted into the photo pit as Anthrax began their set.  It’s something you can’t necessarily put into words, but it was a huge rush, disorganized as that night ended up being. Anyone in the biz would simply say, that’s just rock ‘n roll for you.

Running into Stevie Benton of Drowning Pool a week after we’d interviewed in the photo pit of Godsmack was a kick and Stevie was cool enough to take a selfie with me, center stage.  I’d done phoners with Benton, Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach and Adam Green back-to-back, another chaotic but wonderful night of the Retaliate cycle. Arch Enemy, I’d been asked by their record label to have a shipment of merch and CDs sent to my house the day of the gig I covered, since they were running out on the road. It was my pleasure to do so, and guitarist Mike Amott gave me a terrifc on-site chat in accordance.

Angela Gossow – former lead vocalist, Arch Enemy

And then reality struck.

As I was ready to hand over my work to my partner upon execution of a formal business agreement, the guy flaked out on me.  No response, no further communication.  I had to find out from a mutual friend he’d blown off our little enterprise despite his enthusiasm by my progress.  In scrambling mode, I found another party who expressed interest but once again, those overtures fizzled out. This was all before I taught myself DIY digital press. 

I attempted to pitch Retaliate on Kickstarter and was shot down. I even had donations from my guests as incentives.  I then opened ties with one of my guests and we nearly got Retaliate off the ground together, but his prior commitments took precedence. Fair enough, and by that time, my material was in danger of being too old to be marketable.  Besides, the true reality of things is nobody wants to pay for what they get for free everywhere else on the web, regardless of product quality.

With gnashed teeth and a heavy heart, I decided to throw the pages of Retaliate onto The Metal Minute for free as a commitment to everyone who participated in my endeavor. 

To be honest, the entire experience ragged me out and I was in the throes of fatherhood anyway.  Thus I pulled the plug on Retaliate, even as I received a nice outpouring of support from the industry.  I’d had high hopes, as the song goes, but it takes more than a mere man these days to accomplish anything of significance.  Retaliate was and still is my baby and I look at those pages with tremendous pride and gratitude toward the musicians, directors, publicists and labels who gave me their time. 

I thank them all for the crazy adventure that was Retaliate.  To the good, it was an indirect path to leading to my six-year writing stint with industry leader, Blabbermouth. To all who helped me, encouraged me, pushed me when I wanted to say forget it and above all, hung out with me at the aftershows, cheers, you beautiful people…

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

That “A-ha!” Moment When You Might Be On the Right Path

This post came about after reading a handful of bloggers projecting dispirate takes on their lives, specific to the topic of being on the right the path with life choices. I found clarity and optimism on one end of the spectrum, gloom and despair on the other. Reading in succession, I wanted to keep one hand open to divvy out high fives and fist bumps, the other hand free to swing around shoulders of the forlorn like Baymax from Big Hero 6 and whisper, “There, there…”

Caveat, though, whenever I do the Baymax bit at home with my future wife, I usually get a playful punch in the arm or elbow in the chest. Such is our shtick. We’re comfy inside our goofball skins. It took us much of our lives to be together following long paths filled with adversity. Between us, we’ve seen and done just about everything, and thus we seized the moment, hand-in-hand, when our paths as longtime friends cleared of its suppressive debris. What opened before us upon re-meeting later in life was a merged, linear road which became so easy to take together. There, there, and beyond…

Plotting one’s life course contains one-half uncertainty and unpredictability, the other half, risk. Life is very much a business model. The more in-tune you are with your personal inventory, the clearer the way becomes toward realizing a revolving bottom line you can live with. This entails material growth, sure. Yet, most of us want to be fiscally secure more than being concerned with emotional security. One often begets the other. Wealth can either make or break a person, but does it always have to entail money? Can the projected investments one makes into their stocks of life have future growth based on the immaterial?

When does your “A-ha!” moment on the curving, jagged, sometimes blockaded thoroughfare hit you: when you feel surrounded by pleasurable things or from pleasure itself? Are you more concerned with the pathways others are taking around you toward the same destination or objective? Running parallel, yet seemingly with a faster track in some cases? Are you a “Keeping Up With the Joneses” type or do you move forward with a confident tread, leaving your mark without a care of how fast it takes you? Always keep in mind, my friends, the journey well supercedes the destination.

Also keep in mind, every life reaches a crossroads at some point. Some more often than others. It’s scary to hit a point where repercussion outweighs thinking on your feet with immediate reaction. Some personalities are full-frontal. Others are cautious. Impetuous or conservative, actions are determined by a culmination of life experiences, relationships, failures and successes, what works systemically in one’s life, heck, even a ceaseless “to-do” list which dictates our immediate thoughts and motions.

Progression keeps us happy in most cases, though for some, stagnancy and indecision is a safe haven. Leader types tend to get through the obstacles on the road quicker than followers, though it might be said the followers act as a buffer through which the leader achieves so readily. Even the leaders hit the forks in the proverbial (and literal) road, though.

So what do you do when the time inevitably comes you are forced to choose a direction to push your life? You can take the time to jot down a pros and cons list, a pragmatic way to take accountability and assessment before choosing your next path forward. You can also retreat, meditate and ground your inhibitions until settling upon which direction entails the least risk. A night out with a hard drink or two and a best friend’s ear is another good method.

I see the upward and onward attitude the motivated portion of our society takes toward achieving overt happiness, as much as I see others self-crippled in depression and anxiety. Would that we all had the secret map leading us out of an overwhelming land of confusion and into our private (or collective, if you’re a people person) nirvana. I say, however, there is an “A-ha!” to be had more than a “There, there” if you have the wherewithal and the guts to pound out your personal path.

In terms of outdoor hiking, we are most secure upon a marked and blazed path. The clearer the footway, the more painted marks on trees we see telling us we’re safely on our way, the more joy we grab from the moment. There’s security in this, much less all aspects of life. If we have the strength, we go longer in miles, knowing someone’s already taken the time to plow the brush and branches out of the way for us. Yet there come those times, especially hiking in the woods, where split and intersected paths occur. Some of us panic, in search of a posted map from the local rangers, if we don’t have a paper map to use and our cell phones are locked away from signal zones. Other personalities shrug their shoulders and see where one trail leads for sheer kicks.

In terms of life, we envy those with the freedom to indulge their “kicks,” and it often heightens our self-awareness. This may mean inspiring us to raise our standards, to do the time, the research and above all, the work, to achieve a similar footholding. The bipolar opposite, external exhibitions of others’ success may prompt jealousy, anger and insecurity. A self-flaggelation of the id. It could even trigger an internal alarm that one’s path has been wrong all along.

We all go through it, folks, peaks and valleys. To stay onward and upward, though, is to realize we’re all human, first and foremost. We all have worth. We all have strengths and weaknesses, but our spirits are the collateral we pony up for the rides of our lifetimes. Rather than focusing on the fast track, rather than letting others dictate our pace, much less our moral fiber in choice making and direction taking, stop for a moment (especially when hitting a crossroad) and inhale. What feels good to you? What offers you the most intrinsic boost to keep plowing on? What, and moreover, who makes you want to fight for them, much less yourself, no matter how rocky the terrain ahead may be?

There’s not always a perfect path. Sometimes you hit dead ends and you have to regress then regroup before starting on your way once again. Often you’ll need to shed and purge that which has impeded you, be it a fear of failure, a toxic relationship, dead weight you can no longer carry on the incalculable miles it takes to get where you finally feel gratification. For certain, leaps of faith are called upon, and prayers to whomever you believe is your spiritual guide in this life. You will meet on your path people who are your friends and your enemies and those in between. Often those collide, and change over time. The truest of the true will be there when you reach your summit and they’ve done more than pass along a comforting “There, there.” They’ll be saying “A-ha!” right alongside you as the dust of negativity clears and the esplanade to idiosyncratic prosperity looks more conquerable.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.