Category Archives: Writing Process

Remembering Robert J. Walsh

Robert J. Walsh died last month. This is sad news.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rob for lunch in Los Angeles three years ago, and I’m going to jump to the middle of the story here for some levity and type three important words: Guitar-shaped pool.

But let’s start at the beginning.

In 1983, G.I. Joe, a TV cartoon, debuted. Music by the talented Johnny Douglas. In 1984, more G.I. Joe aired, music by Douglas as well as Rob Walsh. (Why the addition? Read my book to find out!) Rob wrote and composed a lot of music for Marvel Productions (that’s the animation company in Los Angeles, separate from the comics publisher in NY), and man, did it sound great. One of the points I wish to make over and over about the G.I. Joe (and Transformers!) cartoons is that they were great because the producers in New York had high standards and spent money. They wanted these shows to be great. It’s not just G.I. Joe fans really love G.I. Joe and their nostalgia elevates that show. The show was great. Can’t tell the difference? Just watch most American TV animation from the 1970s. That was the landscape into which G.I. Joe was born. Things were bad and then they got better. Music was a part of this. Johnny Douglas (who died in 2003, so no mourning over him today) and Rob Walsh made that music.

After Carl Stalling died, Walsh scored for Friz Freleng’s later Pink Panther work, and then he made a bunch of music for Marvel. I figured Rob’s involvement in writing a library of cues that were used for dozens of episodes of Real American Hero was worth a paragraph or two in my book, so I needed set up an interview.

We spoke by phone in the summer of 2015. I got a few great facts and quotes I knew I would work into my book. But I was going to be in Los Angeles soon after, and was there any chance we could meet in person? Part of this is elementary. It’s nice to shake someone’s hand and put a real face to a voice, and I could follow up with additional questions in the moment. Rob’s website mentioned a guitar-shaped swimming pool, which I jokinging said I wanted to see. This had been described online in a biographical section of one of Rob’s websites (he owned a few music-related businesses).

One of the amazing aspects about researching and writing this book is that I get to occasionally witness history. I don’t mean that to sound grand. History was finding a dusty 35mm print of My Little Pony: The Movie in a box (two boxes, actually) under a desk in the back closet of Sunbow Entertainment in July of 1998. No one in the office cared, but it was a shock to me. Before I visited Rob, he’d announced a year or three earlier that he’d made a deal with Hasbro and a record label to release some of his 1980s cartoon music. By the time I was standing in front of him, he was actively remastering it from mag reels, digitizing the original tracks, cleaning them up, and adjusting them in Pro Tools. We met for lunch, talked about recording this music all those years ago, his trouble releasing a CD of X-Men music, and his excitement for the release of the ’80s material. I had taken a cab, so we jumped in his car and drove just a mile down the road to his house. There, I saw the kinds of props, instruments, and trophies that one expects to see in the abode of a professional musician, one who’s been doing this for decades. It was also perfectly L.A. I haven’t been in a house like this before, but from movies and TV, it felt familiar and funny in a way. And my buddy plays in a band, so seeing a bunch of guitars made sense:

And pedals:

I stuck my head outside. Indeed, the guitar-shaped pool was there! I write this gently, and not to poke fun, but is there anything more perfect than a musician living in Los Angeles with a guitar-shaped pool?

He took me to the back rooms, introduced me to two nice young folks who were busy at computer workstations, wearing headphones. They were interns or employees, and I have a recollection that one may have been one of Rob’s kids. I introduced myself, told them how excited it was to be there, and tried not to get in their way. I’ve occasionally visited a G.I. Joe alum’s home and I don’t want to appear like a salivating collector there to swindle someone out of rare art or toy prototypes. I’m mostly looking for information, and again, the act of meeting this person in person. A few times such a visit has netted me something concrete, like an old photograph, and yes, occasionally I’ve bought some rare art or toy prototypes. This wasn’t that kind of visit — just a follow-up for information.

Rob pointed to a densely packed closet-full of reels. I gasped.

I’ve been digitizing old film and videotape in my personal archive, and I have many out-of-date formats in need of rescuing. At home is a closet-full of DAT tapes, Video 8 tapes, and 16mm and 35mm negatives and release prints, so seeing something like this in Rob’s studio felt familiar. It made me anxious, but also happy and relieved that it was mere inches from the equipment that would “save” it, rather than sitting in boxes in a garage or a storage locker.

We stepped into the mixing room. The set-up was impressive — huge monitors, mixing boards, more gear, a sound booth, framed art and pictures on the wall. Rob pointed out a few trophies, like the photo with Stan Lee. Up on the massive monitor, several tracks were queued. Rob clicked “play” and an eruption of nostalgic, sonic might filled the tiny room. This was music I knew well and loved heartily. The audio quality was impressive — uncompressed WAV files, and I could hear all the instruments in this orchestra like I was in the original recording session. This was not crunched down to mono, broadcast across a timezone, and filtered through my 16-inch TV set’s speaker. The bass of the drums rumbled through the room, the strings swelled and roiled, and the horns surged into my ears. This was a music cue I’ve always identified with Zartan, what I would call a “creeping theme.” I laughed aloud, nervously — relief, the tingling joy of nostalgia, the physical need to push back against all the changes in air pressure as the soundwaves rocked around and through us. I probably said “Oh my god!” a few times. Like that My Little Pony film print in New York, this felt almost disorienting. How was I lucky enough to be here, hearing this, learning about this? Surely this was only a space, an experience, for professionals, or people who had contributed originally, someone like Rob. I wasn’t an invader, and I had been welcomed into this studio, but it still felt like this wasn’t for me. It was too rarified. But Rob had a big smile on his face, and he was going to (hopefully!) make some money off this, and fans would get what they’d been asking for, so it was, after all, okay that I was there.

Despite all of the digital tech, the “Protools HD-3 station, a digital automated console, a 9-foot 1080p HD Digital Projection room with 5.1 surround sound [which] has accomodated ADR, sound fx editing, sweetening and mixing,” as the website states, I loved seeing the analog stuff, too.

A few steps away was the recording booth, with acoustical foam, a mic, and even more guitars.

Rob had to step out for a minute, maybe to take a phone call. I couldn’t help myself, so I pulled out my phone, clicked “record,” and tapped “play” on the mouse in front of me. It was hard not to ruin the recording with my own giddy laughter.

Rob came back in, I took a photo of him, and one of his employees took a photo of us. Rob offered to take a picture of me in the booth. Now this is not where G.I. Joe voice actors recorded, but this is still a special space, where Rob and his peers made music. I’ve spent a little time in sound booths at colleges and studios on the East Coast, but again, this is a pro’s space, so I wasn’t going to say no. I mugged it up, and chuckled.

Rob signed one of those X-Men CDs that some legal maneuvering precluded him from selling, and handed it to me. I said thanks, thanks to his two employees, and hopped a cab.

Two small postscripts:

1) Why was I in L.A. in the first place? To visit family. My wife, Ellen, and I were out with her brother, Owen. But they knew I was taking this book-excursion, and “guitar-shaped pool” had become a shorthand joke for it. I was going to talk with the guy with the guitar-shaped pool. But Owen is a musician and around my age, and he was a G.I. Joe fan in the ’80s, too. So he understood that this wasn’t just lunch, but a fun and important rendezvous. I departed to meet Rob, and after leaving his studio, headed back directly to were I’d left my family. They were anxious to hear how it’d gone. I was ecstatic. Rob had played G.I. Joe music for me on this gigantic, deafening system! We three got into Owen’s car, and I was trying to describe how moving it all was, when Owen said “Wait, I can patch your phone into my car!” So we listened to that clip above, just the audio, in Owen’s otherwise unimpressive 4-door sedan. But car interiors are actually great acoustical environments, and Owen’s had great speakers. So Owen and El got to hear, just an hour after I did, this raw, loud, lush 1985 recording of a full orchestra belting out gorgeous 1980s theme music. Where I can share my excitement for all of this research, the book-writing, the meeting of fascinating people who’ve worked on G.I. Joe, I am thrilled. This was definitely that, all squeezed into an intimate, tiny space.

2) Four months later Rob emailed and asked if I would write some questions for him. He wanted to include interviews with people who’d worked on the Marvel/Hasbro cartoons as bonus features for his eventual music releases. I explained that the Rhino and Shout! Factory DVDs had covered that ground, but I was happy to do it anyway. Rob’s plan was to release the music remixed in 5.1 and on Blu-ray. I voted for vinyl instead. There may be a few audiophiles out there who will just listen to a Blu-ray in a home theatre, but this felt too much like a minority of a minority. (Also, I didn’t have a Blu-ray player, but would definitely buy a CD release!) Wouldn’t a Record Store Day release create some buzz? I don’t know if Rob conducted the interviews, and however the calculus ended up, when the Transformers music was released this past August it was indeed on vinyl, but I don’t take any credit for that.

I don’t know the state of any other music from the Walsh/Douglas/Hasbro library, but I hope we’ll get an official release of the G.I. Joe material. And I offer my condolences to Rob’s family and collaborators.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Animation, Book Behind the Scenes, G.I. Joe Behind the Scenes, Writing Process

A Real American Book! 2017 in Review

Continue reading

3 Comments

Filed under Behind the Scenes, Book Behind the Scenes, Photography, Writing Process

A Real American Book! 2016 in Review

A Real American Book! Year In Review 2016

It’s been another year, so here’s an update on my progress since the last Year in Review. As always, teaching and retailing take up much of the week, so writing happens mostly over vacations.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Book Behind the Scenes, Photography, Writing Process

A Real American Book! 2015 in Review

A Real American Book! Year In Review 2015

It felt good, a year ago, to put into words all that went into writing this G.I. Joe book, so I’m doing it again. Many things repeat from last year, and a few things are new. And there is — good news — some progress.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Behind the Scenes, Photography, Writing Process

A Real American Book! 2014 in Review

Tim Finn GI Joe book

Continue reading

6 Comments

Filed under Book Behind the Scenes, Photography, Writing Process

Interview #1: Larry Hama, June 2001 – Part Three

Regular readers: Sorry for posting a day late!

In our last episode, Tim sat down to interview Larry Hama, either the best person to start with or the worst…

“Best” because Hama never answered a question with “I don’t remember.”  He recalled stuff from the beginning of G.I. Joe as well as the end.  He talked for two hours.  And he dropped several helpful names, good people to track down next.  He was candid, funny, and not severe.

So why was this the worst interview to start with?

One, because I was starstruck.  Could I even ask the questions without stuttering?

Two, would Hama call my bluff?  I wasn’t a writer, and what research project was I researching anyway?  But this was a writer.  Sitting in front of me, humoring me, was a major reason why I was a comics reader, a Wednesday regular wherever my local store was – Bethesda, Providence, Cambridge.  Here was this famous guy whose name was credited first in almost 200 comic books I kept in my closet at home.  The writer of my “desert island” comics.  I worried my questions were too fannish, that I was bothering Hama and wasting his time.

Three, some of his answers were short, not because he was cutting me off, but because that’s just the way he answers some questions.  To the point.  I didn’t know Hama or his conversational cadence, so in the short term I thought my inquiry was lacking if I wasn’t teasing out bigger answers.  I didn’t feel like I had gotten much of the information I had gone looking for.

Two hours in, Hama suggested we break, and offered up some snacks from his pantry.  As I had stupidly skipped lunch, but hadn’t wanted to impose by asking for food, my relief was palpable.  Those cheese slices, crackers, and salami were a relief, and in the times I’ve visited Larry since ’01 I always smile when I see his kitchen.  Years later I would realize in fact it was a great interview, and that much of the work philosophy and analytical introspection was better than nuts and bolts like “favorite character.”

Nth Man issue #16 cover by Ron Wagner and Bob McLeod, 1990.

We talked for a little while longer, bouncing around non-Joe topics like Nth Man, an underappreciated Marvel gem, and the K-Otics, the blues band Hama played in for years.  When we were done, Hama walked me out.  Heading toward the elevator I sort of mumbled that I was writing a book, which codified it for me.  If I hadn’t been writing a book before, I certainly was now, even if I didn’t know what that meant.  Off the cuff Hama mentioned one Susan Faludi, a writer for Esquire Magazine.  I didn’t know who this was.  Larry explained that she had previously interviewed him by phone for 45 minutes, and that she had interviewed “everyone” regarding G.I. Joe.  Everyone.  It ricocheted around in my head like a lightning bolt.  My heart sank.  Already my project had competition!  Someone had tracked down all the people I didn’t even yet know I needed to track down!  I would later learn that Faludi had won a Pulitzer Prize, and that any article or book of hers on society, the male, and/or G.I. Joe would in no way compete with mine.  But that word “everyone,” as frightening as it was because I was now behind in the race, was vital.  As the elevator doors closed I promised myself that I would interview “everyone” and more, that I would find obscure contributors to G.I. Joe comic books, toys, and animation.  That I would track down people until I had an unreasonably large number of interviews.

So I did.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Behind the Scenes, Writing Process

Interview #1: Larry Hama, June 2001 – Part Two

In our last episode, Tim secured an interview with Larry Hama and took a train to New York…

Canon GL-1 and a GE microcassette recorder

In my backpack were a marble journal for taking notes, a video camera for recording audio (I’d keep the lens cap on), and a back-up microcassette recorder.  Even though we hadn’t agreed on an exact time, I worried that I had no time for lunch, so I called from a payphone at Penn Station and immediately hopped a subway.  When I got to Hama’s place, I was struck by how open it was, a two floor studio apartment with lots of light and a high ceiling.  My experiences with New York living spaces were all dark and narrow — whatever college dorms and apartments friend (and future book editor) Nick Nadel had been squeezed into.  Years later Larry would tell me about how his building used to have a view all the way to New Jersey, but by the time I got there in 2001, the whole street was built up with shops and tall apartment buildings.

I was also struck by the decorations.  On the left wall was a Gary Hallgren post-modern painting of Dick Tracy.  Across from it was another Halgren of Blondie, Dagwood, and Krazy Kat.  Next to the kitchen was a 1976 ink drawing of Bilbo Baggins and 12 dwarves by a young Michael Golden.  Up the steps to a narrow passageway filled with books and packaged G.I. Joe toys (and Golden’s original cover artwork to The ‘Nam #12) was a tiny room – Hama’s office.  Art, photos, memos, and an old paycheck covered the right wall.  Straight ahead was a computer, to the left were windows and an A/C unit.  A second PC, papers and books, and a flight simulator joystick covered the spare table, smaller than a chess board.  The whole space must have been six feet by fifteen feet, a sliver of a room you’d give to your drunk friend who’s crashing after the party ends.  A glorified closet, and yet so out of the way and with such an interesting view of the street it made perfect sense as a writer’s room.  And this is where scripts and cover layouts for my favorite comic books had been typed and drawn.

I drew this after another visit years later. The space hadn't changed.

Leaning against the left wall and below the windows was Hama’s guitar.  (Years later on a subsequent visit there was a guitar and a metal 1:1 scale working model of a machine gun, which made me think of the Warren Ellis quote “Larry Hama, perhaps unsurprisingly, knows a lot of people with guns, and so has marvelous stories to tell about stone lunatics with too much artillery who also happen to be comic artists.”)  (And it’s telling that the one time Larry appeared on the cover to a Marvel comic book, he’s holding a machine gun.)

Art by Paul Ryan and Tom Palmer, 1990.

There was just enough space for the two of us to sit down, me in the spare seat.  I turned on my gear, and started asking questions.  Mel, Larry’s pug, joined us halfway through.  I will never stop smiling at the seeming incongruity of it:  The famous Larry Hama, who had written a light “war” comic for 12 years, and who guided Wolverine’s solo adventures through a swath of Yakuza and evil mutants for another seven, who bridged the ninja craze at Marvel Comics after Frank Miller left Daredevil for DC, thoughtfully and quietly reminiscing with a pug in his lap.  What did I expect?  A chat at a shooting range?  With no plan besides “get the interview,” I didn’t know what to expect, but it turns out that the man I met was the real Larry Hama: a reserved and modest guy, a thoughtful and learned reader and writer.

In some ways, this was the best interview to start with, and the worst.

Why?  Find out next week…

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Behind the Scenes, Writing Process