Mark Gruenwald’s Letter to Young Me


Thirty years ago today, on October 18, 1988, Marvel Comics legend Mark Gruenwald wrote a letter by hand to 12 year old me. I recall the elation of receiving it (in part because it arrived in a fancy envelope with Spider-Man emblazoned upon it). At that time, I had begun to collect autographs, and I was writing to a number of celebrities attempting to secure some great souvenir or prize. Many of those efforts prompted no response, but Gruenwald certainly delivered, as you can see from the image above.

At that time, I knew Gruenwald from his work on Captain America and various Avengers titles. Back in those days, I loved comics (especially the Avengers books). I would scour the spinning racks at used bookstores and the stands at comic book stores for any issues I could find. I’ve spent the last fifteen minutes searching the Internet in vain for an image of the Avengers t-shirt I would proudly wear to elementary school in the mid-1980’s. So you can imagine that for me to receive a letter from someone from Marvel Comics was a true delight.

When he wrote to me, Mark Gruenwald had worked in the comics industry for a decade. In October of 1988, he was 35 years old, seven years younger than I am now. No matter his age, he knew how thrilled a young reader would be to correspond with a comic book creator. I know this because I recently purchased a copy of Marvel Age #71, the issue he mentioned in his letter. It features an article by Gruenwald in which he recounts that he “was a mere lad of ten when Stan Lee printed a letter of [his] in Fantastic Four #20.” Marvel published that issue of Fantastic Four in November of 1963 when Gruenwald was only two years younger than I was in 1988 when I wrote to him. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, his letter is far more accessible than it was in the 1980’s:


961440-ma71In the Marvel Age piece, Gruenwald recalls buying X-Men #1, Amazing Spider-Man #1, Hulk #1, and even Avengers #1 new off the stand. He almost certainly bought Avengers #4, the issue in which Captain America joins the team, upon its release. Gruenwald was a true partisan of Marvel Comics, noting in that same Marvel Age article that as a youth he “discovered that it was more fun to play Captain America than Superman — you had to pretend you could fly and had super-strength and x-ray vision, but as long as you had a garbage can lid and a reckless nature, you could actually do whatever Cap could — though not quite as well.” Years later, in 1995, he told Lena Williams of The New York Times that Marvel’s super heroes “can lick any three DC heroes with their hands tied behind their backs” and “crack funnier jokes while they’re doing it.”

Gruenwald died too young at age 43 on August 12, 1996. That hits rather close to home as I will turn 43 in just two months. In August of 1996, though, I was beginning my junior year at The University of Texas at Austin. Although I didn’t visit the comic book shops as frequently, I would occasionally steal away to the one in the Dobie Mall or others elsewhere in the city to recapture those feelings from the 1980’s. In April of this year, I visited Austin for the first time in more than a decade and found myself browsing the boxes of comics at Austin Books. I chanced across a number of titles from Marvel’s New Universe series which was in part, of course, created by Mark Gruenwald.

Requiescat in pace, Mr. Gruenwald.



Dear Jim –

Below is my autograph because you demanded it!

To answer your question – yes, I love my job and wouldn’t trade it for any other (expect maybe Tom DeFalco’s). As for how I got to be an editor, read Marvel Age #71 for the full (boring) story. Favorite Marvel comic I don’t edit? Thor (though I used to edit it) or Justice (usually).


Mark Gruenwald

Arcade Fire in Raleigh (7-12-2018)

Arcade Fire’s lead singer, Win Butler, walked right past me as the band took the stage at Red Hat Amphitheater last Thursday, July 12, 2018. Above, you’ll see the photograph I hastily took from my aisle seat at the venue. A great show it was, although the band elected not to play “Intervention,” one of my favorite songs of their catalogue.

I can’t recall exactly how it was that I discovered Arcade Fire, but I suspect that I learned of them from one of the music blogs I read back in mid-to-late 2004. In those days, I would download many, many albums from the iTunes Store, and Funeral, Arcade Fire’s first full length album, was among them. Apparently, I soon became a partisan of the band, introducing several friends to their work, if this tweet and that tweet are accurate.

I’ve now seen Arcade Fire four times, and they are a bit of a joy to behold. The News & Observer‘s David Menconi reviewed the show, and in so doing, he captured its spirit. Calling the group a “sort of a millennial chorus come to life,” he opined:

[I]t was pretty much one emotional crescendo after another, all in a key of E (as in Epic).

Arcade Fire’s members are all quite serious, and yet they always look like they’re having a great time. Everybody played pretty much everything, changing instruments while moving front to back, back to front and even beyond the stage. More than once, you’d look up and realize that one of them had ventured out into the crowd and was playing away nearby.

The finale was, of course, “Wake Up,” and the evening ended as it began: with everybody in the place singing.

Over the years, the band has irked reviewers and fans with its sense of self-importance, but the emotive impact of their anthems ameliorates the effect of any haughtiness.

Take, for example, “Intervention,” an epic indie hymn from the band’s 2007 album, Neon Bible. It begins with a blaring pipe organ and features this devastating lyric: “Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.” Shortly before the release of Neon Bible, a bootleg MP3 of “Intervention” circulated online, prompting quite a reaction.

Here’s how Kelefa Sanneh of The New York Times described it at the time:

Would it be perverse to claim that “Intervention” sounded even better when it was a shared secret, circulating as a low-quality MP3 taken from a BBC broadcast, complete with a breathless D.J. — “If that doesn’t get you, man, if that doesn’t get you somewhere special …” — talking over the last few notes? Maybe. But even now, after all the attention and the big-hall shows, the best Arcade Fire songs still sound mysterious.

I remember that exuberant deejay. I recall his utter glee. That bootleg MP3 thrived on my iPod until I bought Neon Bible on the day of its release. I can even recall the circumstances of its purchase. That day, March 5, 2007, I was attending a conference on the Georgia coast, and I felt compelled to trek to a Best Buy in nearby Savannah to buy it.

For some time thereafter, though, the song didn’t seem quite the same without the deejay’s commentary over its closing bars. In those days before streaming platforms, there was something special about discovering a song online before it was widely available. I wish I still had that version of “Intervention” – the one with a rhapsodic disc jockey heaping praise upon the song as we awaited its official release.

Remember, too, that in 2005 Arcade Fire backed David Bowie on “Life on Mars?” and “Five Years” as well as their own “Wake Up.” If you’ve not encountered that EP, you should halt all current activity until you’ve heard it.

Simply put, there is something grand about Arcade Fire, a band worthy of much of the hyperbole their music provokes. So, when they play nearby, I’ll bear witness.

You can find the set list for the Raleigh show here.



Music Law CLE in Charlotte This Week


If you find yourself in Charlotte, North Carolina on Wednesday, January 18, please join us for a music law program sponsored by The Chief Justice William H. Bobbitt American Inn of Court. Planned by yours truly, the event features both an entertainment lawyer as well the frontman of a 1980’s power pop band who now happens to be a lawyer.

Pretty cool, eh? Here’s the event summary:

“I fought the law, and the law won,” a rock band once proclaimed. At our next meeting, we will learn about the law of music from both a music performer and a rock musician turned lawyer. Entertainment lawyer and former disc jockey Coe W. Ramsey of Brooks Pierce’s Raleigh office represents radio and television stations, musicians, new media companies, and others in nearly every area of entertainment law. Before practicing in the area of workers compensation at Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, LLP in Raleigh, Michael Connell played guitar in The Connells, a power pop band that recorded 8 albums and toured the world. At this event, Coe will teach us the basics of music law and forming a band, while Michael will offer his practical insights on the rock world from the perspective of a musician and performer.

The event takes place Wednesday, January 18, 2016 at Draught, which is located at 601 S Cedar St, Charlotte, North Carolina 28202. You can register for the event by click here.

Above you’ll find the cover for the single of “’74 – ’75,” a fine single from The Connells. You can read more about the band and its exploits on Wikipedia here.

New Year’s Day


“All is quiet on New Year’s Day!

We can break through!
Though torn in two,
We can be one!”

– U2, “New Year’s Day” (Island Records, January 1, 1983).

Happy new year!

I have a memory of leaving a friend’s New Year’s Eve party shortly after midnight on January 1, 1997. At that time, I lived in Austin and attended The University of Texas. I left the South Austin apartment where the party had been held, and I made my way to my gold 1995 Saturn SL1 in the parking lot. After finding my way to the highway, I drove north on I-35 to my apartment in Northwest Austin. I remember U2’s “New Year’s Day” then coming on the radio (as it often does in the wee hours of January 1 each year).

It was a nice moment on a leisurely drive that took place two decades ago. Later that year, on November 23, 1997, I saw U2 perform in San Antonio on its PopMart Tour. The show, which was the first time I’d seen the band perform live, took place the day after INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence died. (You can find the setlist for that show here.). In the years since 1997, the Saturn Corporation dissolved, consigning the SL1 and its ilk to the dustbin of history. Today, on January 1, 2017, I will listen once again to “New Year’s Day.”

Farewell to 2016, the cruelest of recent years. Let us brace ourselves for 2017.



In December of 2015, I turned forty, an occasion which prompted much existential thought. To “celebrate” the occasion, I compiled My Life’s Playlist, a collection of one song from each year that I’d lived. In the 40 days preceding my birthday, I identified a song a day, starting with Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” from 1975 and ending with Lera Lynn’s “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For” from 2015. In posting my choices to Facebook, I used the hashtag #40Songs40Days40Years. A fun project it was (and a challenge, particularly when I reached the meaningful songs of the early 1990’s, of which there were many). You can read about that experiment – and see all of the song selections – here. If you find yourself on Spotify, you listen to the full set of songs here.

As this year’s birthday approached, I knew I would add a new song to the list to represent 2016, a year which has robbed us of too many artists and musicians. The choice this year was simple: the powerful and somber “Blackstar” from David Bowie’s album of the same name. Released on January 8, 2016 (which also happened to be Bowie’s 69th birthday), the album was somewhat of a surprise foreshadowed only by a few digital singles in late 2015. Bowie’s death just two days later on January 10 stunned the world.

Although it was technically released as one of those digital singles on November 19, 2015 (a month to the day before my fortieth birthday), “Blackstar” properly arrived two months later with the formal release of the album of the same name. I listened to it that day, unaware that the song would become all the more haunting in just 48 hours when we would all learn the sad news. Now, knowing what we know would come, the song – intended by Bowie to serve as his final farewell to his fans – is overpowering:

Something happened on the day he died,
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside,
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried:
(I’m a Blackstar, I’m a Blackstar).

I’ve thought about Bowie a great deal in 2016. I read Rob Sheffield’s excellent book, On Bowie, a collection of a music critic’s observations and memories released just five months after Bowie’s death. Not once, but twice, I saw The Wham Bam Bowie Band, a tribute band based in nearby Asheville, North Carolina (a video of whom you can find below). A week after his death, I penned my own obituary of Bowie, in which I wrote:

Now we find ourselves a part of a popular culture absent David Bowie, once its ubiquitous fixture. For many, including myself, there was never until this week a cultural landscape that existed without Bowie thriving therein. As Jemaine Clement, a member of New Zealand’s Flight of the Conchords musical duo, remarked on behalf of that group, “Both born in the ’70s, we hadn’t witnessed a world without Bowie.” To fans and followers of popular music, Bowie remained omnipresent in both his output and influence, and we always anticipated that he would soon release something intriguing and new. Unlike many of his contemporaries who long ago lost whatever edge they once maintained, Bowie never halted his quest to experiment and reinvent himself. One need only listen to Blackstar, his haunting final album released just a few days before his death, to confirm that fact. Its stark album cover . . . now seems especially foreboding in light of what we would soon learn about the state of his health.

There were other songs which resonated with me this year, including Angel Olsen’s “Shut Up Kiss Me,” Radiohead’s “True Love Waits” (an ancient song by the band finally seeing its official studio release), and, of course, Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” (the emotive impact of which was also amplified by the artist’s death shortly after its release).

But, to me, “Blackstar” was the only choice for My Life’s Playlist for 2016. I chose Bowie’s “Heroes” – a marvelous gem – as the selection for 1977. In fact, only Bowie, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire appeared more than once on the playlist. Requiescat in pace, David Bowie.

Thanksgiving in 1810, 1910, and 2016


Six years ago, I stumbled across “Thanksgiving in 1810,” a 1910 magazine article by author Clifford Howard, who looked back a century and remarked upon the great social and technological changes of the last century. “The world has changed more in the last 100 years than in any 100 years that have gone before,” he observed. Little did he know how much that change would accelerate in the ten decades which followed. He also speculated about the world of 2010, the year in which I found his article. “[W]hat will it be in 2010?” he asked. (Howard’s prose was accompanied by a series of wonderful illustrations by artist C.T. Hill, an example of which you can find above.). After chancing across Mr. Howard’s words, I wrote a blog post about my discovery. It became “Thanksgiving in 1810, 1910, and 2010,” and it is now one of my favorite posts that I’ve contributed to the Abnormal Use law blog. I like to think that Howard wondered if a writer from 2010 might somehow find his article and offer commentary on the progress society had made in the intervening century. I’m pleased that I could be that writer, and since 2010, I’ve revisited Howard’s article. You can read his piece here, and if you like, you can find my own work here.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Ephemeral Existence of Nirvana


For nostalgic lovers of popular music, September 2016 became an exhausting month of anniversaries of the release of influential albums from 1991. September 24th saw the 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind (which was preceded, of course, by the September 10th anniversary of that album’s first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”). Also turning 25 in September of 2016 was Blood Sugar Sex Magik by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band whose edge has faded considerably in the intervening years. Just days before the arrival of this year’s September, on August 27, we beheld the 25th anniversary of Pearl Jam’s Ten. That these albums and singles which still resonate us with us today saw their release within just weeks of each other in the halcyon days of 1991 is, quite frankly, a marvel.

Two and a half decades after Nirvana achieved superstardom, I realize that for most of its contemporary fans the band existed only for two and a half years. Sure, there were those in Seattle and other hip corners of the country who knew the band from its beginnings in the late 1980’s, but most of us came to learn of Kurt Cobain and his comrades when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit MTV. From September of 1991 to April of 1994, Nirvana’s fans bore witness to Nevermind and its endless throng of singles. The band’s success led to the reissuance of its first album, 1989’s Bleach, and the assembly of older and archival material that became Incesticide. In 1993, Nirvana recorded In Utero with famed producer Steve Albini and appeared on MTV”s “Unplugged.” Then, in April of 1994, Kurt Cobain committed suicide, bringing the band’s existence to a close but ushering it into the hall of legends. We’ve seen a good bit of material released in the many years since Cobain’s death, but it struck me recently that the band existed (and thrived) in the public arena for such a relatively short period of time before it came to an end.

Like many then and now, I considered myself a Nirvana fan. In September of 1991, I had just begun my sophomore year of high school in suburban Houston, Texas. I’m not entirely certain when I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or bought Nevermind, but it couldn’t have been too long after September of 1991. I bought Incesticide on the day of its release in December of 1992 (just a few days before my 17th birthday). I even tracked down and purchased the band’s compact disc singles and compilation album on which the band appeared. In December of 1993, I had the chance to see Nirvana perform in Houston, but I foolishly elected not to do so on a school night. Two years ago, upon the twentieth anniversary of the death of Cobain, I penned a few thoughts about him and his legacy:

Cobain was an interesting contradiction. He brought punk rock music to the masses (making 1991 the year that genre finally “broke” into the mainstream). But he clearly disdained the many suburban fans who flocked to his band’s shows. “This is off our first record, most people don’t own it,” he said to the crowd on November 18, 1993 as he introduced “About A Girl” during the recording of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. With that statement, Cobain passive aggressively suggested that the general public, who had heaped praise upon him and bought his album in droves for more than two years at that point, was somehow neglectful in not owning 1989’s Bleach, his band’s first record. Basically, if a fan was not the type of person he would have befriended in high school, or if a listener did not share his political and social opinions, Cobain didn’t want their support. An interesting marketing strategy, that. We suspect that if Cobain had lived into the Internet days, we’d be hearing a myriad stories about his rudeness to certain segments of fans (which is consistent with some actual anecdotes we’ve heard about him in the early 1990’s, as well).

But you can’t deny his talent. He mixed the elements of light hearted pop with heavy grunge and punk (in a far, far more sophisticated and appealing way than what passes for punk, or the inappropriately named “pop punk” genre, these days).  Even within the same song, he would shift from melodic and almost quiet poppiness to heavily distorted and loud guitar, and in so doing, create an extraordinarily catchy tune. Although he downplayed his lyrical abilities (telling interviewers that the lyrics were the last part of a song he would develop, sometimes as late as the day the song was to be recorded), his words, often contradictory themselves, were more thought provoking than he would claim them to be. In addition to his own merits, he introduced a generation of young music listeners to bands they’d never before encountered such as the Melvins, Shonen Knife, Scratch Acid, Daniel Johnston, the Raincoats, and the Wipers. On the aforementioned Unplugged album, he covered the Meat Puppets, Leadbelly, the Vaselines, and even David Bowie. Back in the early 1990’s, there was no Internet (at least not one that was accessible to the general public), and the task of finding new music – especially that which was not promoted on MTV or discussed in Rolling Stone or Spin – was a challenge indeed. In those days, a decision by a musician as famous as Cobain to don a t-shirt promoting a previously obscure band had an immense effect, and thus, fans of Nirvana, if they elected to do so, could explore Cobain’s own musical influences and save such bands from the ash heap of music history.

September 17th of this year also heralded the 25th anniversary of Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion albums (for all intents and purposes, at least to date, the last notable works of that band). What an odd historical coincidence that the last meaningful hard rock albums from that era arrived in stores just a week before the album that would seal that genre’s doom. 1991, as they say, was the year punk broke, but it was also the beginning of the end of the unironic hard rock and heavy metal genre which had dominated both the charts and the hearts of high school students for so many years beforehand. As a fan of both hard rock and grunge, I mourned the demise of heavy metal but enjoyed the rise of alternative music (or whatever else we were electing to call the new style of music emerging in those days).

Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl took hold of us and released a significant amount of material over such a small amount of time. Consider what that band accomplished both musically and culturally in that period of time and consider how other bands have squandered months and years of their existence.As a teenager, time seemed to move far more slowly than it does in my more advanced years. Remember those youthful days when we all longed for time to pass more quickly but realized we must endure the slow passage of days, months, and years? So, to the me of 1991, 2.5 years must have seemed an eternity, whereas I’ve now lived that period of time tenfold since 1991. Now, in 2016, 25 years after the release of the band’s most famous album, it doesn’t seem so long ago.