Reviews

Men in Trees

Samantha Bornemann

Imagine Sex and the City set up on a blind date with Northern Exposure, and you have a pretty good take on Men in Trees.

Men in Trees

Airtime: Fridays, 9pm ET
Cast: Anne Heche, Abraham Benrubi, Emily Bergl, Seana Kofoed, Suleka Mathew, Derek Richardson, Sarah Strange, James Tupper, John Amos
Network: ABC
US release date: 2006-09-15
Website
Amazon

Doesn't this town have anything better to do than gossip about me?

--Marin (Anne Heche), "Power Shift"

Imagine Sex and the City set up on a blind date with Northern Exposure, and you have a pretty good take on Men in Trees. A fish-out-of-water tale from former Sex writer Jenny Bicks, the pilot gets no points for originality and several demerits for sheer implausibility. But lead Anne Heche brings a welcome edge to her role as newly downtrodden relationship coach Marin Frist. You want the series to be better than it is.

The pilot was all set-up. We learned Marin is a successful self-help author (book two is I'm Dating and So Can You) and saw her advising roomfuls of eager single women about their "learner's permit to love." (Typical advice: "You wouldn't drive with a blindfold on, so stop dating with one!") Tempting fate, her third book was to be titled I'm Getting Married and So Can You. That dream came crashing down when she discovered, en route to a speaking engagement in Elmo, Alaska, that fiancé Graham (Tobias Slezak) had been cheating on her.

Reeling, Marin failed to put her best high-heeled foot forward in Elmo. Three hours before her scheduled lecture, she beelined to the town's only bar to drown her sorrows in multiple shots of vodka. Inebriation was one problem; the other was the fact that her audience was full of men. (In Elmo, males have a 10-to-1 advantage.) Within minutes, she was deviating from her usual spiel in favor of references to her own heartbreak. "The point is, don't cheat," she advised.

As Marin's humiliations and pratfalls piled up, the pilot proved less a story than a series of set pieces. When Marin missed her flight out of Alaska, her designer shipped her the now useless wedding gown (along with a note of condolence and a bill). The dress needed to be there, you see, so that Marin could play tug of war with a tulle-hungry raccoon (while the Violent Femmes' Gone Daddy Gone played on the soundtrack), before pitching the dress off a cliff. The episode then stooped to the "strip and huddle for warmth" plot point when her designated new love interest, wry, stubbly Jack (James Tupper), saved her from drowning after she failed to notice she was, ahem, on thin ice. Offering contrivance after contrivance, Men in Trees is on similarly shaky ground: after six seasons of Sex and the City and countless imitators, who's jonesing for more jokes about fancy shoes and the women who love them?

If watching Marin battle the elements was a snore, her interactions with Elmo residents offered reason to stick with the show. The locals, it turns out, range from charming to intriguing. Bartender Ben (Abraham Benrubi, branching out from ER) made his fortune in business and moved to Alaska to escape friends' constant requests for handouts. He's separated from wife Theresa (Sarah Strange), which means they still work together at the bar but live in separate wings of his mansion. He wants her back, but she wants to "see what else is out there." (Marin: "So up here, women get to be men?" Theresa: "Everyone gets to be what they wanna be.") By contrast, Sara (Suleka Mathew) knows Elmo's men all too well. A divorcee raising a young son, she's turned to the "hospitality" business to make ends meet. As her clients visit her in the hotel room next door, she and Marin became quick confidantes. When Marin noted that men cheat all the time, Sara agreed: "I know. I'm the one they cheat with."

In opposition to the cynics are sweet Patrick Bachelor (Derek Richardson), the innkeeper and morning radio show host (more echoes of Northern Exposure), and another Manhattan transfer, Marin's stalker-ish number one fan, Annie (Emily Bergl). Both have a trying habit of quoting Marin to Marin, as when Patrick, on opening her car door, quipped, "Chivalry isn't dead, chapter five." Their bookshelves and brains overflowing with Marin's dating "wisdom," these innocents are clearly meant for each other: in fact, they realized they'd already met in a chat room devoted to the author.

In Episode Two, "Power Shift," the shared interest that brought them together threatened to stall their romance. Stunned to find Annie still in town, Marin tossed off some doomsday advice about Annie's long-term prospects with Patrick, and impressionable Annie immediately, regretfully put on the brakes. Patrick wasn't happy. "Just because you don't believe in yourself anymore doesn't allow you to take everyone else's hopes," he scolded Marin.

Which is to say, it's time for the coach to stop lecturing and start listening. Given Elmo's male-female ratio -- and maybe, the mystery and challenge represented by Jack -- the town suddenly seemed just the place to put her plan into action. Scrapping the how-to-get-married tome, Marin decided to extend her stay and start writing about men. If creator Bicks can follow suit -- ditch the urban-girl stereotype in favor of exploring the other characters' quirks and hurts -- this Alaskan adventure may evolve into a decent Friday night date.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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