Tuesday, March 14, 2017

COMIC BOOK REVIEW BY BILL SHUTE! FIGHTIN' ARMY #133 (Charlton Comics, June 1978)

When I first arrived in Oklahoma, I had a part-time work-study job lined up at the Oklahoma State University, where I took two classes a semester, but that did not give me enough money to live on, so I had various other jobs to pay the bills. The longest-lasting of those—around 3 years—was at a restaurant and club called THE RIALTO. It was a former movie theater which had been converted into a night spot, though it was still primarily a restaurant, as opposed to a bar that served food. It was less than a block from the edge of the college campus, so it was in a prime location. Being a former movie palace, it was quite large, and they somehow were able to convert the balcony into a second floor of seating, for couples who wanted some privacy or people who had a working lunch and wanted to be away from noise and activity while they worked on company books or did whatever office workers do when they take their work to lunch with them. That second floor was on one end of the place, covering about ¼ of the restaurant, and you still had a good view of the dance floor and the small stage from up there. We also projected those primitive 1980-style visuals in sync with the music on a screen behind the stage. We pretty much had music playing all the time, although it was kept low for the lunch crowd and gradually turned up as the afternoon evolved into evening. The Rialto also had a large disco ball on the ceiling (a very high ceiling, since this had been a two-story structure), though fortunately we never played disco music. It also claimed to have the “finest sound system in Stillwater” (although I suppose that’s not much of a compliment!).

We were closed Mondays, and I worked four or five nights a week, five to close (which was 11 on weeknights and 1 on weekends). In the three years I worked there, we had various kitchen employees come and go, but there was a core group working most of the time. The night-shift kitchen manager, my boss, was a lady named Marcy, an art major. She had long straw-like hair which she wore in a ponytail, and she almost always wore military fatigues. The one thing I remember about her more than anything else was a remark she made one night during our chatting while working. We were talking about art, and I must have brought up Norman Rockwell and used the word “artist” in the same sentence, because she stopped the conversation cold, and spoke to me the way you’d speak to an eight-year-old, saying, “Norman Rockwell was an illustrator, NOT an artist.” Yes, ma’m!

I was the unofficial assistant kitchen manager. As we were open six nights a week and Marcy worked five of those, she had it in her employment agreement that she would get either Friday or Saturday off each week (our busiest nights, of course), so on that night, I was the acting kitchen manager. We also had an Oklahoma State football player named Robert who worked with us in the off-season—he was an excellent cook, and as a handsome and charming football player, he would also schmooze with customers and help at the bar. Then we had the four gentlemen I’m going to be discussing here: Yong and his three friends, all from Thailand. I don’t remember the other guys’ names at this point, but all four of them were former college or trade-school students (though NOT from Oklahoma State, interestingly, even though they were in Stillwater) who had overstayed their student visas and were technically “illegals,” as they’d be described today.

As with any small business, everyone pretty much did everything as it was needed. Unless it was my night in charge, I tended to stay at the front of the kitchen only during rushes, though on a Friday or Saturday night a “rush” could run for three hours or more. Otherwise, I enjoyed being in the back doing dishes. No one else enjoyed doing dishes, but I could see what was going on up front and could tell when I was needed. I enjoyed the privacy back there, and I’d often have a little cassette player up above my work station and have some of my own music playing.

Yong was the leader and translator for this group of young Thai men. They were all great guys, worked hard, had good senses of humor, and were very conscientious people in all areas of their lives. Yong’s English was excellent, but the others did not have much English. They tended to communicate through a number of English slang phrases by which, via context and emphasis, they managed to express whatever it was they needed to get across. If there was some specific technical point they had to say, they’d tell Yong, and he would tell me or the other employees.

The four guys shared the bottom floor of an old two-story house which had been cut up and converted into rental units, as often happens in college towns. They would invite me over from time to time, and the one thing I remember most about them was that they were HEAVILY into Grand Funk. At that time there were eleven Grand Funk studio albums out, plus the 2 LP Live album, and they owned ALL of them, and owned them on cassette. Grand Funk had not issued an album in a few years when I knew these guys, and their last album had been the Frank Zappa-produced GOOD SINGIN’, GOOD PLAYIN’, recorded for a new label after they’d left Capitol. Whenever I’d visit them, the guys had some Grand Funk album blasting. I can’t say I disliked Grand Funk—I’d definitely take them in a heartbeat over a pretentious act like Steely Dan, and they had honorable roots in the great tradition of Michigan Rock’n’Roll, and as a longtime reader of CREEM, I knew that Michigan Rock’n’Roll was the best there was! However, there was always a generic quality to Grand Funk, in my humble opinion. I never found much of their stuff distinctive or memorable. They did, however, have those great Midwestern qualities of hard work and sticking to one’s chosen career field, so I had to admire that….and I would not turn off their music if someone else was playing it. A version of Grand Funk is actually still around today (surprisingly, minus Mark Farner)—I saw that they were playing one of my familiar haunts recently, Delta Downs casino and racetrack, near Lake Charles, Louisiana. With eleven albums, there was  A LOT of Grand Funk, and believe me, I heard it all multiple times.

The guys could never really put into words WHY they were so into Grand Funk. I’m guessing that what seemed generic to an American like me seemed solid and reliable to them, and except for a few ill-advised ventures into ballads and/or orchestration, at least Grand Funk tended to stick to the journeyman rock and roll they did best. However, I took it upon myself to turn the guys onto other music that I thought they’d enjoy. In fact, since I could kind of guess at the qualities they thought they were hearing in Grand Funk, I wanted to find them OTHER music that would satisfy those needs even better. I was somewhat successful, though of course they never abandoned their first love. I remember when the Grand Funk “comeback” album GRAND FUNK LIVES came out in ’81, they had that on non-stop for weeks.

As cassettes were their chosen medium for music, and I was able to make cassettes of records I owned, every few weeks when I’d stop by their place for a beer and to hang out, I’d bring 2 or 3 cassettes for them. I remember that they were playing some of those awful post-Mick Taylor Rolling Stones albums like BLACK AND BLUE and SOME GIRLS, so I thought I’d turn them on to some early Stones. I taped for them the first Stones album, when they were still a blues band, and when I brought that tape over, I also brought over two six-packs of some quality beer—at least quality in comparison with the awful Old Milwaukee or whatever they usually drank by the case. They usually smoked this awful ragweed that would not get anyone very high and which mostly caused a headache. I inquired among my pot-smoking friends, and no one else was familiar with this crap they smoked, so I’m not sure where they got it. Anyway, they fired up some joints (I passed on it) of that stuff, drank the Heinekens or whatever it was I brought, and really got into the early Stones. I then taped some of the other early Stones albums (and the great MORE HOT ROCKS compilation) and the Yardbirds and the Animals and the like. I had a sense that they loved the BLUES BASE of Grand Funk, as deeply hidden as it might have been, and I was correct. Soon I had them listening to Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker and Roy Buchanan and Hound Dog Taylor and the like. Those seemed to strike some chord within them. I also taped them one of my all-time favorite albums, GOOD GEAR by the Count Bishops—I used that as an entry-way to get them into punk.

I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see these Thai guys, beers in hand, pumping their fists in the air, shouting “rock and roll” or whatever, as they were blasting a Hound Dog Taylor album or FIVE LIVE YARDBIRDS in the living room of the ground floor of their rented house. I also introduced them to THE JAM, and they ate that up too. I would make cassettes of the older Jam things and then of each new release as it came out. One event I can remember as if it happened yesterday was the night THE JAM were scheduled to play the FRIDAYS TV show, ABC’s short-lived attempt to present a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE-inspired “hip” late-night variety show. I managed to talk Marcy into bringing a small portable TV, and we plugged it in back in the dishwashing area at the rear of the kitchen, and she agreed to let us watch that while she covered for us in the kitchen (she was a classical music person and was not interested). I can still see and hear and even taste the brutal, in-your-face version of "Private Hell" that Paul Weller and crew delivered that night. That performance can often be found on You Tube, though it goes up and comes down, and I’d suggest you check it out. It later appeared on a bootleg LP I owned, and from that LP, I played it more than once on my Canadian “Inner Mystique Radio” shows in the mid-to-late 1980’s. The four guys and I were standing near the dishwasher, eyes and ears glued to the small black-and-white screen. It was the closest I ever felt to the guys…united in love for REAL rock and roll.

It must have been difficult for the three guys who did not speak much English to live in northern Oklahoma, where they did not have much contact with other people from their culture, where they had to stay somewhat under the radar because of their immigration status, working a minimum wage job full-time. While Yong was a man who read books in English (and I remember loaning him STUDS LONIGAN by James T. Farrell and AMERICAN HUNGER by Richard Wright), the other guys did not, but they did enjoy comic books. As the boys were on a low-budget (I didn’t want them spending their beer and ragweed money on reading matter), I would loan them comic books from time to time, usually horror or war comics or even westerns, ones where the action would pretty much be clear and where just getting SOME of the language would be adequate. I’d drop off maybe 5 or 6 old comics at their place, and then a few weeks later, I’d pick those up and drop some more off.

One I remember them enjoying was FIGHTIN’ ARMY # 133, a Charlton war comic. If you had to choose one war comic book to represent everything that’s great about war comics, it would be this issue. It was like the gritty but totally stereotyped B-war movie of your dreams—it’s like the Platonic form of a war comic. All the stories are set in World War II, and the evil Nazis are exactly what you’d expect in pulpy entertainment. When I re-read this issue for this review, during the first story, I thought to myself, “I’m surprised the Nazi commander was not wearing a monocle.” Of course, in the next story, he was. I was also expecting one of the Nazi underlings to say to his commanding officer, “Jah wohl, mein herr,” and sure enough a few pages later he did. And the Americans were called “dirty Americaner schwein,” as I was hoping and expecting they would be. It was almost like one of those straight-to-video action films where you can anticipate the dialogue and recite it along with the actors. You also have another one of those stories—and these are probably one reason why war comics were popular with privates and corporals stuck in the middle of nowhere and wanting something to keep themselves busy with—where the second lieutenant who has book learning but no real-world experience in battle starts out arrogant but eventually realizes the sergeant knows a lot more than he does, and the story usually ends with the officer stating in front of the whole unit how he was deficient and now realizes the error of his ways. Surely, that was satisfying to some E1 or E2 recruit who felt unappreciated. As clichéd as this issue is, it does have some nice little touches (and the story-boarding is such that it moves really well….I can see how someone with a limited grasp of English could totally get what was happening). For instance, the second story deals with the war in Italy, when Italy was still part of the Axis, and you see Italian citizens being abused by the Nazis and Italian resources being stolen by the Nazis, at a time when the Italians were starving. You see how the Italian people turned against the Germans and joined the Allies. It’s not like THAT is a topic one is exposed to very often. Overall, a solid and satisfying war comic.

In their usual manner, the guys used the same limited storehouse of English slang to let me know that they enjoyed this issue. I remember one of them pumping his first in the air and saying “Kick Ass,” while another one did the same and said “rock and roll.” Some things must be universal, and I guess they could imagine heroic Thai forces standing up to the Japanese or the Chinese communists or whoever while they were reading this comic book. I’m glad it prompted the same kind of reaction they’d give to The Jam or The Count Bishops….or their heroes, Grand Funk.

When I would visit the guys, I noticed that they had Asian items in their place which they could not have gotten in Stillwater—they must have gone to Oklahoma City or Tulsa to get them, which was interesting as none of them had a car. They must have gone with friends to an Asian market in a larger city. As I would always pass on that ragweed they smoked, they would offer me tea, and Yong introduced me to something I still drink today—in fact, coincidentally, I’m drinking it this morning as I write this piece--FERMENTED TEA, more specifically PU-ERH TEA. It was compressed into little bowl-shaped pieces, about 1/3 of an inch each, which were wrapped in paper. You would break that up and then steep the pieces. It had a nice kick to it along with that organic “glow” that only tea can provide.

Whenever I drink that tea….or whenever I’m out somewhere and hear Grand Funk, I think of Yong and the crew from THE RIALTO. Seeing this copy of FIGHTIN’ ARMY #133 also brought back clear memories of them fist-pumping their appreciation of it. As we say here at BTC, old comic books (NOT old Grand Funk albums) are your best entertainment value!


planckzoo said...

Great Piece Bill. Funny enough,I bought GFR live today.

Bill S. said...

That's the one GFR album I ever owned, and I think it's their best. It certainly is a "power trio" classic. If only the studio albums kicked ass the way the live album does.!