The Hunt for Hank Williams: Leonard Cohen and "Untold Tales of PunisherMAX"

In "Tower of Song", Leonard Cohen begins the hunt for the ordinariness preached by Hank Williams' songs. And it's this search that taps a brutal vein of honesty with Cohen, as much as in Untold Tales of PunisherMAX.

Untold Tales of PunisherMAX

Publisher: Marvel
Length: 22 pages (each issue)
Writer: Jason Starr, Jason Latour, Megan Abbott, Nathan Edmondson, Skottie Young
Price: $3.99 (each issue)
Publication Date: 2012-12

I'm Your Man, the 1988 album by Leonard Cohen, is a strange but secretly vital offering. It's an experiment in the blues that reads almost as a "What If…?"; What If blues could be gotten at by way of electro-synthpop. And the question it poses: are there legitimate means those two very different genres could have a meaningful conversation? It might have been hard to understand the full impact in 1988, but just two years on, with the album being rereleased on CD, the moment it represented became a little more clear.

Back in 1988 already, I'm Your Man seemed to tilt on the cusp of ushering a new age of music, one that would rely more heavily on technological evolution. It's a story that would take a more-or-less upward swing from the early 90s, through Napster, and eventually end in iTunes. Even if the story does wend a way through inconveniencing the Music Biz by simply nullifying it. But at a conceptual level, I'm Your Man closes off the '80s of Living in a Box and REO Speedwagon and Kraftwerk. And in wedding together the sensibilities of such bands with the older experiments of blues, I'm Your Man offers a way to think about synthpop as not simply frivolous and largely irrelevant.

"Tower of Song" provides a natural coda to the album, both literally and thematically. It is a track dripping with a disillusion and a paranoia of being hunted down by grand, dark forces that only Robert Johnson could properly muster. But the thematic unfurls beautifully as Cohen (or his analog and protagonist in the song), begins a hunt for Hank Williams.

The track plays out a little like this: Music is a Dark and Paranoid Mistress and has, despite her bestowing Cohen with gifts, Rapunzeled him in her Tower. Cohen in the song becomes a powerful image for someone brought to ruin by success and talent. And then the denouement; "I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get/ Hank Williams hasn't answered me yet/ But I hear him coughing all night, in the Tower of Song."

Cohen offers a savage parallel between his own project in I'm Your Man and Williams' with simultaneously modernizing country music and epitomizing lived reality in a way great filmmakers like Ozu or De Sica later would. But the sad and final truth? Both Cohen and Williams are locked away from that ordinary world they hope to describe, locked away in the Tower of Song.

Being brought low by the very talents that should prove to be your vehicle for success, talents that would normally liberate you from the ordinary, is a theme that lies at the heart of each of the five stories in Untold Tales of PunisherMAX. Take Mel for example in Megan Abbott's "Ribbon", who is lured onto a bus and onwards into the woods by a girl who is 'older than you think'. Or Jimmy the body shop guy in Jason Starr's "Jimmy's Collision", who's likable enough, but has a gambling problem and spiraling out from that, the unluckiest car crash ever. Or Wang in Nathan Edmondson's "Manhunt" who petitions the Punisher to seek out his human-trafficked daughter. Each seem to be their own kind of 'just folk', and by the end, each are found out by time and by just and by Punishment.

Beginning in January of 2004 and running for 66 issues subsequent, writer Garth Ennis gave us arguably the cleanest, purest inflection of the Punisher to date. In his mass murder of mobsters who dealt drugs and ran whores, Punisher targeted an entire culture of crime and permissiveness with a war that would not end. Ennis' powerful insight, that came at a time when America faced a seemingly interminable war against Terror, was to turn the Punisher outward, and have him affect geopolitical and military-industrial shifts with a similarly laser-focused war.

Would we ever see that kind of Punisher again?

What if the Punisher didn't have to be? In Untold Tales of PunisherMAX, five unique and gifted writers find themselves taking the Leonard Cohen option. These writers present stories of people on the edge, trapped by their own talents, in Towers where the everyday of emotional honesty remains tantalizingly out of reach. In each of these tales, the Punisher is little more than a cipher, a death-dealing deus ex machina that arrives like a necessary judgment. If there's any reason these Tales are Untold, it's because they're hardly the Punisher's tales at all. These tales belong to the world he stalks his prey through, a world that Leonard Cohen mistakenly understood to be the one Hank Williams' songs aspired to.

In very short, very pithy, very Tennessee (but maybe also Hank) Williams style, these stories tell of entire worlds, whole lives that are called to judgment. And more than anything, they speak to the enduring power of innovation that lies latent in a character like the Punisher. This series comes with stern praise; it should be read and wondered at and then forgotten. At that point you should live your life where judgment and bedlam cannot find you out.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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