Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.

He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.

Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Viva Music City

For a music nut like me, Nashville's one of the coolest places I've ever ventured into.  You can just drop me off at Broadway and I'll be a happy pappy.  If you've never been to Music City, Broadway's the main hub where you'll find scores of honky tonks, country bars, eateries and other live music hubs.  Seriously, you can't get away from music here.  They take even it to the streets, which is both good and perhaps not so much in the case of the homeless artists scratching for coin amongst a mass of competition.

Aesthetically, it's all so wonderful to the point many of the bars rid their windows and create open air shows where you can peek inside and watch.  Many of the bars have outside balconies and rooftop levels to soak up the city's ambience with roaring music surrounding you from all stations.  In proximity to this nirvana of tunes is the Johnny Cash Museum, which I was fortunate enough to visit, and you can even find a Man in Black impersonator strumming a block away from the museum.  Not a bad bit of cheap publicity for the museum.  If you're up for it, there's even a Pedal Bar to push yourself around town as a group while you collectively soak up the suds along with the songs.  What a cool town.

Photos (c) Ray Van Horn, Jr.

                      Listenin' to:  Elvis Presley - Elvis at Sun

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mojo Nixon and Skid Roeper Said It and Damn If They Aren't Right...

He is everywhere...

Photo (c) Ray Van Horn, Jr.

                    Listenin' to:  Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls

Monday, April 28, 2014

When You Have to Dig a Little Deeper...

Writers and artists aren't like the rest of the world.  We're solitary bats of a sort, many of us thriving from dusk to dawn as opposed to the morning-to-dinnertime norm.  In my case, I live both, which is by necessity at this point in my career.  I have a day job and of course, the Blabbermouth review gig.  I'm accustomed to fielding a lot more, but the times have been harsh for the print industry and I, like many other journalists, watched many of my paying gigs go down the drain with canceled publications.  A large percentage of the webbies (in entertainment journalism, anyway) generally want work for free, which does nothing for my budget, alas.  

Nevertheless, twenty album reviews a month when you're a working dad can be considered a healthy enough load of side work, particularly when deadline approaches and you get behind the eight ball as the days dwindle each month due to obligations and life's unexpected curveballs.  When you have a young one to care for, that responsibility alone can present its fair share of challenges to getting work at home completed.  It's never easy to tell a child that you can't play at the moment, nor watch him play his Nintendo D.S. when there's work to be done.  Having already been to the office during the day, it's never easy to justify needing more time to work to make room for your other obligations, since a child is the biggest obligation a person can have in life.  Nor is it easy to concentrate when this presents a small bit of conflict when the child takes his frustrations out on the other parent who has to hold the fort, or when he goes bonkers trying to stay engaged in something or worse, to get attention.  My son, sweet child that he is, has been able to adapt to our pinball machine of a lifestyle, but kids are still kids.

I make a lot of time for my son, since it's a must and before I know it, he'll be stowing himself in his bedroom with a locked door or carousing with his friends as teens must do in order to avoid driving themselves and their folks insane.  I tell myself when it's time to write reviews (usually after the household's in bed) that I'm benefiting my family with the needed extra income.  The "me" time for writing has gotten pocked by the likewise dwindled "work" time for writing.  Priorities, you know.

When I started in music journalism, I felt like I was living the life.  I was "in."  I was constantly at a show, constantly photographing concerts, constantly putting my tape recorder before musicians for interviews.  I had no children at the time, but three different columns on top of freelance assignments, and my wife understood how desperately I wanted to live a writer's life.  I went for it with all guns blazing and my wife kept the saddle warm for me with her compassion.  I slept very little but ran on euphoria.  I'd envied the bigger name writers, DJ's and the magazine editors who were always in the company of the elite, always in the high profile shots partying it up like tag-alongs to royalty.  I've had my fair share of it, too, but to much more modest measures.

I think of these things when I'm forced to stop everything and everyone and bulldoze through my album reviews, as I am this very minute.  I take deadlines bloody serious, so it goes back to mincing sleep, albeit I now have to force "x" amount of hours of rest if I'm to be effective in my day and night work.  I am getting older, thus the body becomes more demanding. 

This month, we went on a long trip and I'm just getting my bod put back right from all of that, since I'd fallen sick for almost a week upon our return last week.  Unfortunately, the month of April has been set with so many tasks and new challenges that I only got started on the twenty album review queue on the 22nd.  Way late, even for me. 

Fortunately, everyone in the household knows the score and as of this morning, I've nailed down thirteen reviews already.  It's gonna take an extra push to knock out the remaining seven, but I've spent my career carrying the reputation of a grinder.  I'll make deadline, no worries.  Keep the java brewing, the television off and Facebook kept to a minimum.  I've made some new friends who I hope to avoid neglecting like the old ones.  A theme throughout April was catching up with family and friends, even if I had to punk out a couple times once I was sidelined from illness.  I'm amazed by all the people I was able to see this month, but now I must burrow in like a fast-fingered mole and push to the finish line for the month.

I have story and script ideas burning at me and I just got my sticky notes for those projects organized into some sense of order where I can attend them after deadline.  I recently entered Top Cow Comics' Talent Hunt and threw my very soul into my entry script.  Every writer says that, I'm sure, but failure was not an option for me.  I studied hard, I gathered immense material from their books, I chanted mantras, I put Sara Pezzini of Witchblade onto my computer desktop and bulletin board.  I threw myself into the comics scene with the same passion as I did music.  I summoned the universe every way I know how.

Well, reality bites, I didn't get picked.  The news threw me off for a few hours, but instead of dwelling on it, I got straight to work on those reviews.  That's how you deal with adversity.  To the good, I've recently made some friends in the industry as a result of my enthusiasm for comics.  That's a bigger win in the long run.  I never have time to mull over failure since life's always at a grind and as far as I'm concerned, I didn't fail.  I have my family, I have my work, I have a better grasp on how to write a comics script and I have new friends in the comics field to get to know.  I appreciate their attention and willingness to converse.  That's a huge win.

Thus I turn the page, like Bob Seger advises.  Seven more reviews.  I've got this.  I'm a pro.  I'm not even sweating it, even when I must pause now, get my son ready for school and dropped off, then to the office to kick off a new work week.  I'll be back at this spot later tonight, doing what I love and I'll dig just a little deeper once the kiddo's been played with, fed and tucked in for the night.  I wonder which Berenstain Bears book he's gonna have me read tonight...

                       Listenin' to:  Arch Enemy - War Eternal

Sunday, April 27, 2014

"My Son's Obsession With Bane," an Essay by Ray at ReadWave

My kiddo digs Bane, a lot.  I was a kid once, so I get it, but what happens when you're a father and your son's into one of the most violent villains in the comic world?  Come join me at ReadWave in my Comic Books forum as I try to reconcile my duty as a dad and simply letting my kid be a kid.



              Listenin' to:  Gary Numan - The Pleasure Principle

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Cool Comic o' the Week: Moon Knight #1

Moon Knight is one of those cult favorite characters who reliably draws out readers' wallets whenever he appears.  Albeit, his solo exploits have always been met by quick cancellations.  Frankly, Marc Spector, aka Moon Knight, has kinda been a bitch character in the Marvel Universe like Nova, Quasar, Captain Marvel (take whichever host of the celestial duds you like), Luke Cage, Black Panther and Spiderwoman.  Moon Knight draws readers, but he's been more or less a cash cow character who frustratingly disappears into the outer edges of the very dusk he's sworn to watch over.  The same fate could've been said of Black Widow until Scarlet Johansson made her an overnight icon in the first Avengers flick and Iron Man 2 prior to that. 

Consider me one of those cult fans who's always appreciated Moon Knight.  In the eighties, I used to think he came off like an uncolored Batman, another protective force who rules the dark, but there's not much else to align the two characters other than their mutual prowess in the martial arts.

Mercenary Marc Spector has had about a hundred resurrections to this point and if comic characters were real, he'd no doubt be yelling at the Marvel editors to quit throwing him into the grave and exhuming him every few years since he no doubt must feel like the target of a circle jerk.  At least he's wearing the right color!

To get a little serious, the "All-New Marvel Now!" initiative has found the empire imprint wiping the slate clean upon their cross-signaled universe (or multiverses, if you will) once again.  Some of their existing titles remain intact with # 1's stamped upon them (regardless of actual issue sequencing), while a good handful of titles were bagged altogether.  This has made room for a slew of reboots including our beloved Moon Knight, who gets Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey to usher him into a new era. 

Hopefully this means staying power, since reception to Moon Knight # 1 has widely been strong.  As Marc Spector in recent years has been depicted as a growingly detached pissant nonetheless obligated to his charge of power by the mystical Egyptian god, Khonshu, this series appears to be going the extra mile. 

The last run of Moon Knight saw Spector being tormented by a nihilistic, face-chewed essence to go over the edge and surrender to dark impulse.  Spector's field training has always made him a formidable antihero (since Marvel long abandoned the purer hero attributes from the couple of short-lived Moon Knight series during the eighties), but Spector has been a bit of a dick in recent times, to be honest.  Even Captain America called him out during the last run.  The suggestion that Spector had begun to go insane by the previous series' cutoff had a lot to do with his unlikeable personality.

This time, Warren Ellis takes that insanity angle and suggests Marc Spector is suffering from a dissociative identity disorder.  Appearing in the new launch clad inside a white double-breasted suit and white mask (not far in appearance from The Rose in the Spiderman titles), it's established by Ellis that Spector is well-known in New York City by the police.  Under this quasi-clean-cut image, Spector comes off as a dapper, genteel forensics expert whom a lead detective addresses as "Mr. Knight."  Fully aware the cops are dealing with a split personality victim, it's implied if Spector should appear in his full battle garb as the Moon Knight, he will be treated as a rogue with full intent of arrest and prosecution.

"Mr. Knight" meticulously analyzes a crime scene that leads him stories underground to apprehend a blown-apart former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative who is carving up people for their limbs and muscle tissue.  Given uneasy leeway by the NYPD to take down the butcher, "Mr. Knight" uses ingenuity and only a portion of his considerable stealth to win the day, far less in-your-face than a standard Moon Knight scrum.  A plot exposition toward the end of the debut issue reveals Spector has already been counseled by a psychiatrist with dubious ethics.  In her opinion, he doesn't have "D.I.D." but actual brain damage following his death, resurrection and consciousness assimilation by Khonshu.

Already this is the most interesting and adventurous plot ever conceived for Moon Knight.  The best line in this issue comes as "Mr. Knight" defiantly tells his S.H.I.E.L.D. quarry, "I've died before.  It was boring, so I stood up."

Freakin' A.  Finally, some due for this character.

                         Listenin' to:  Roxy Music - Country Life

Friday, April 25, 2014

Thursday, April 24, 2014

So Sayeth The Man in Black

Words of wisdom I snapped off during my visit to the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville:

"A man should never forget where he came from, else he might lose track of where he is.  And if a man doesn't know where he is, he can't know where he's going ."

                  Listenin' to:  Johnny Cash - At Folsom Prison

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Skippers 'n Snakes at Stones River Battlefield, Murfreesboro, Tennessee

From age 10 through my mid-twenties, I was a pretty serious Civil War buff.  My folks would drive me to numerous battlefields within reach of the mid-Atlantic and I'd always thirsted to venture further the more sites I saw.  I live in close in proximity to Gettysburg, the pivotal theater of the conflict, and frequently hike up there or drive around with my son to clear my head or to climb the rocks at Devil's Den and Little Round Top.  It also happens I have a great-great-grandfather and great-great-uncle who fought for the Union Army at Gettysburg, so I continue to be drawn to the Civil War, though my schedule hardly allows me to delve deeper than I get to.

In my recent travels, we spent a lot of time driving around in preparation of my brother-in-law's wedding, and there wasn't a lot of time initially to do much sightseeing, considering I was in a hotbed of Civil War action.  Fortunately, luck presented itself when my wife took my mother-in-law to get her fingernails done and I'd spotted the entrance to Stones River Battlefield, scene of a three day outbreak where Union Major General William S. Rosecrans took on Confederate General Braxton Bragg's troops in a bloody affair.  Historians consider the outcome of the Battle of Stones River inconclusive or a draw, but the end result found the rebel army in retreat of its foes after hostilities ended at the field on January 2, 1863.

If you're a parent, you no doubt know what it's like to take a young child on a long haul trip, one initially filled with zero fun and lots of grown-up responsibilities.  I like to brag on my son since he rolls with the punches when it comes to being dragged about for family business.  Still, I could detect his fading spirits and growing desperation for some sort of energy release the longer we ran from one task to another throughout Nashville, Franklin and Murfreesboro.  I knew from my studies that there was a great likelihood of crossing into one of the scenes of the many skirmishes and battles that raged throughout Tennessee and admittedly, I too was suffering a severe case of wanderlust.

Thus me and the boyo let the ladies do their thing and we ventured off to Stones River in search of a quick-fix adventure.  I knew with a body of water, the opportunity to throw and skip rocks would be the most appealing proposal to my son at that point of the trip.  As for me, I was finally getting to see a deep Southern battlefield after all those years of tramping in Yankee and northern Virginia territories.  Call it a win-win.

Despite the bees that terrorized my kid at first, he eventually got with the program and began asking me about the Civil War.  After correcting him that war is not cool, despite how it looks to young eyes, we tramped about the premises.  I read a marker that talked about a nighttime ceasefire between the armies that found the Union soldiers playing "Hail, Columbia" and "Yankee Doodle," with the Army of Tennessee countering them with "Dixie" and "The Bonnie Blue Flag."  Before turning into a pissing match of ballads, someone kicked up "Home Sweet Home" (not the Motley Crue version, obviously) and both armies laid down their differences for a brief moment to sing the tune in unison.  That was the only cool thing I could say about war, I told my son.

With my son finally starting to relax, I found a weathered path to the river to guide him to and as expected, he asked me if he could throw some rocks into the water.  With a firm smile, I told him "absolutely," and thus we had at it, pelting the gurgling river with everything we could scoop from the banks without tumbling into the drink.  I'd shown him how to skip rocks many times in our hiking travels, and once again, he got the bug to mimic me. 

Not satisfied until I'd gone as far as I dared without getting us lost in a state I knew very little about, I guided us along the river's edge while my son tried to no avail to replicate my skippers.  In the past, he'd grow pouty and frustrated when he couldn't complete them, but this time, he just gave a heavy sigh and did what most six-year-old boys would do in his case; he picked up a bundle of rocks and hurled them simultaneously into the water.  "Is that what the war here looked like, Dad?" he asked me after that and I responded, "Yeah, spot-on, my man."

And so we trailed along and I saw my son's curiosity growing more intense as the small cliffs grew more rugged.  I had that spark in his eye when I used to mountain climb in college without ropes.  I'm a lucky bastard to have survived my reckless scales back then and I felt a growing dread in the pit of my bowels, though I totally understood the escalating yearning inside my kid.  Then that dread turned into a full-fledged knot when I spotted something my son thought was a big branch on a rock beneath us.  "That's no branch, buddy," I whispered.

Slowly raising my camera, I took this shot of a brown snake and quietly ordered my son backwards after letting him look for a few seconds.  I'm no fan of snakes, to be honest, and this was as far as I cared to meet this guy, who was sunning himself.  We were the intruders, I reminded my son, as we slid back and got out of there, fist-bumping each other along the way.

We explored more of the battlefield after a cautious laugh from our encounter before heading back to get the ladies from the nail salon.  My son would talk about our confrontation with the snake to everyone at the wedding rehearsal and rehearsal dinner that evening.  I understood his transference of fear to enthusiasm since we'd gotten away without hassle from that snake, but when you're the parent, the fantastical allure becomes something altogether different and unsettling.  I found myself lifting a prayer of thanks that I hadn't put my son in real harm's way and now, I'm thankful for this one of many bonding experiences we've enjoyed together as father and son.

                 Listenin' to:  Grace Jones - Warm Leatherette

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Many, Many Miles to Memphis...Impressions of Graceland

So I just completed an eleven day trek that found me hitting Nashville, Memphis and Kansas City.  The trip was based upon the wedding of my brother-in-law and completed by a relaxing visit amongst friends.  There were seldom few moments to rest and I saw much in my travels, including a trip to the estate of The King of Rock 'n Roll, Elvis Presley.

If you really know your Elvis, you're familiar with the "TCB" acronym that followed his larger-than-life aura.  TCB was Elvis' slogan for "Taking Care of Business," and there's no denying the work ethic of the man.  The cat took care of his business, and then some.  Graceland is a testimony to wealth, fame and indulgence (particularly Elvis' car museum and the Lisa Marie jet airliner), but it's more a presentation of living like royalty with a grounded sense of modesty.  After all, Elvis was a renowned philanthropist aside from mega-entertainer.

Depending upon your outlook of life, Graceland is either a mecca or one of the biggest tourist traps you'll ever encounter.  With all due respect to Elvis, I consider Chuck Berry to be the true king of rock 'n roll, but there's no taking away from Elvis' vocal talent, charisma, wherewithal, dedication and above all, confidence as the first prestigious American rocker.  Thus I found Graceland, for all of the cash register ka-chings tolling in the back of my head on the opposite street of the mansion, to be a testament to the American dream.  Elvis is the quintessential rags-to-riches story lead, and thus, he is to be revered and celebrated, even if America at-large no longer stops to pause for his birth and death days as it once it did.  Those are just the times.

After the wedding festivities and long days of preparation, my family and I were drained.  We'd had a quick sojourn into downtown Nashville (that can hold for another post) and had already agreed to hit Graceland since we were in the area.  Now I'd been under the delusion that the distance between Nashville and Memphis was only about an hour-and-a-half tops.  Wrong.  With Elvis and Stray Cats tunes rolling down the long, three hour pike into Memphis, we finally arrived with a very squirmy six-year-old in desperate need of a bathroom.  Considering the boy was so good along our hefty travels, I'm not going to hold it against him.  Getting him attended to and our bellies stuffed at The Rock 'n Roll CafĂ©, I smirked at the adjacent Heartbreak Hotel, which is erected at the end of...you guessed it, Lonely Street.  Tres cool. 

A shuttle takes you across the street into Graceland, and in the meantime, I'd been observing how less stately the surroundings of the thoroughfare was.  Perhaps they were more golden during Elvis' time in life, or perhaps he'd chosen the less-than-regal spot to remain modest.  Either way, Graceland seems to be the only reason to truck down this downgraded portion of Memphis unless you're a local.

Nevertheless, with storm clouds rolling in, we jumped onto the shuttle and began our tour of the mansion.  You get an audio guide for your tour and I would suggest that if you visit, do not follow the group you're with, or you'll miss out on the nuances and subtleties of Elvis' wonderland.  Take your time.  No one inside will rush or pressure you.  Soak it up, absorb.  It's all a throwback to a mix of fifties and seventies architecture and interior modeling, and that'll either impress you or you'll find it a little tacky.  Me, I was engrossed from start-to-finish.

I'm not going to recap every room, but my favorites were the club basement that has three t.v.'s, a stereo, a bar, a wraparound sofa and a zany color structure between navy blue and yellow that's intimidating upon entry, but strangely welcoming once you get used to it.  Then how can anyone not be impressed by the jungle room with its man-made wall fountain?  Elvis reportedly loved the acoustics in that room since there's shag carpet on the floor and ceiling, thus he pulled recording equipment in and laid down many songs in the latter part of his career.

While the horse farm, the garage-converted-into-office and Elvis' vehicles are all quite impressive, what really stole my breath away was the labyrinth of gold records inside of his trophy room, followed by the shrine inside what was once his racquetball court.

I have to say I was feeling a bit emotional stepping into the former racquetball court and hearing on my audio guide that Elvis spent some of his remaining few hours in this life inside the adjacent lounge, playing music.  You step inside the racquetball building to find a pinball machine and incline exercise bench, followed by the comfy lounge area.  Once you put it all into perspective that the workaholic Elvis (who was, as far as I'm concerned, exploited by his manager, Colonel Parker) was spending his last moments doing what he loved, then the enormity of the lifetime achievement awards room that was once the racquetball court just sucker punches you.

With a handful of Elvis' seventies jumpsuits in display cases (including that bitchin' tiger suit I remember loving as a kid), the certified award records that rain from the ceiling on down will keep you glued there awhile.  I thought about the day Elvis died in 1977 (the same year Star Wars enchanted me as a kid and changed my life forever) and how the world around me seemed to stop, at least with the adults of our time.  It's comparable to and far more impactful than Michael Jackson's recent passing, though you had to be alive at the time of Elvis' passing to truly get it.  Jackson left this world with controversy behind his name.  While Elvis' death had speculative overtones to it, anyone who saw his rise to popularity will tell you, he represented all the danger elements of rock 'n roll while keeping true and retaining a nice guy image.  He opened the door for his peers and turned American music on its head.  Even better, he remained humble by recording gospel music in his time.

The truly jaded might call Graceland a pit of decadence, but considering all the joy Elvis gave his fans through his music, and to the world with his charitable contributions, the preservation of his legacy is just.  As you tour the mansion and the subsequent exhibits across the way, you'll be surrounded by Elvis tunes.  There's no escaping them.  If you're a fan, it's paradise.  If you're an employee, I'm sure it's purgatory.  If you're not so much a fan, it's still worth the excursion.  I only found offense by the price tag of $30.00 for CD packages, but overall, well-worth the experience.

As we drove back to Nashville under God's super soaker that turned into a four hour soggy retreat, I lingered happily upon our visit to Elvis' homestead.  The Vegas hall containing more of his circus-like costumes made them seem less silly than they appear in old footage of the King in his later days, particularly when you consider how many shows he did in such a short period of time.  They're lordly uniforms indicating a life well-lived and well-pushed to the edge.  Thus I would say Graceland is a mandatory pilgrimage, not only for rock 'n rollers, but also for those who value tangible proof that the common man can make it through perseverance.

All photos (c) Ray Van Horn, Jr.

           Listenin' to:  Gene Vincent - Capitol Collectors Series