I love a good ska song. Unfortunately, good ska can be a bit like a good man or a cop when you need one: hard to find. Sturgeon's Law -- which tells us that 90% of everything is crap -- doesn't go far enough for ska. Here's Hockensmith's Amendment to Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap except for ska (which is 99% crap), reality TV (which is 100% crap) and the Star Wars prequels (which are crap to infinity).
Ska, for those of you who didn't grow up listening to not-particulary-popular New Wave/alternative sub-genres of the late '70s and mid-'90s, is the peppy Jamaican precursor to reggae that was appropriated by white kids who weren't angry enough to be punks. It's a deceptively simple style -- it creates a bouncy dance rhythm by emphasizing every upbeat -- which probably explains its appeal to teenagers forming their first garage band. Learn a couple chords and you're halfway to writing your first ska song. The other half: whipping up lyrics that remind the listener that he or she is hearing ska and hence should be "skanking." ("Feel that beat/move your feet/take a chance/get up and dance," etc.)
Clever songwriters -- Chris Murray, Dan Potthast, Tim Armstrong and the guys in Madness and Johnny Socko come to mind -- are able to pull off the neat trick pretentious critics sometimes ascribe to genre authors they wish to pat on the head. They "transcend the genre." Most ska bands can't, alas. They give you the un-cha-un-cha beat and maybe some horns and a lot of "take a chance/get up and dance" lyrics, and that's it. They lack the talent and creativity to offer more...or even just pull off the straight-up-the-middle approach well.
I love a good Western, too, but the genre's got a ska problem. Which isn't to say there are too many Westerns about skanking cowpokes. (As a matter of fact, I can point to at least one album that proves ska and Westerns are two great tastes that taste great together.) Rightly or wrongly, ska is easy for snobs to dismiss because so much of it follows a simple formula, and Westerns are the same way. Good guy + bad guy + horses + hats = Western, some assume.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with a formula -- just like there's nothing wrong with a ska beat -- if it's used with skill. I can think of a hundred books and movies that follow the "good guy + bad guy + hats + horses" equation and add up to great entertainment. Unfortunately, one could point to a million that are completely forgettable. I'm not sure if the percentage of good to shaky (or downright crappy) is as low as it is for ska, but Sturgeon's Law most definitely applies.
I've been thinking a lot lately about what I'm going to write next, and a Western...I'm tempted, despite all the misfires. Westerns can be a ton of fun, done right. The "Holmes on the Range" books are obviously Westerns of a sort, though I've always thought of them as historical mysteries first and foremost. What would it be like to double-down on the horses and hats?
So I've been reading and watching a lot of Westerns, and I've noticed something. My tastes have shifted since I wrote about the genre a few years ago. Two of the Western films I put on my top 10 list back then -- The Searchers and Rio Bravo -- wouldn't even make my top 20 now. And a couple that were M.I.A. before -- The Big Country and Shane -- are now near the top.
Have I soured on John Wayne? Nope, despite the recent kerfuffle about his less-than-enlightened views on race, sexuality and politics. I simply decided that I don't dig Rio Bravo as much as I used to, and the elements in The Searchers that I always found problematic bother me a bit more now. I'd never have asked the guy to fill out a ballot for me, but I can still enjoy the heck out of a John Wayne popcorn adventure like The War Wagon or The Train Robbers.
The Big Country and Shane, meanwhile, grew on me thanks to their more nuanced, thoughtful approach to violence. I'm an old-ish man in a sad old world, so I have a new appreciation for a Western that can be both old school entertaining and grown-up about killing. It makes me want to give High Noon another try. I used to think it was dull. Maybe it's just adult.
Am I going to write a Western of my own? A Western-Western, I mean, without all the "deducifying" stuff in my mysteries? I don't know. If I do, I hope it's got more going for it than "feel that beat/move your feet." In the meantime, I'm going to keep exploring -- and enjoying -- the genre. Finding a great Western, like finding a great ska song, might seem like a long shot sometimes, but it's one I'm willing to keep taking for the sheer joy of the occasional bull's-eye.
My Fave Western Movies, 2019 Revised Edition
(1) Little Big Man
(2) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
(3) The Big Country
(4) For a Few Dollars More
(5) Dances with Wolves
(6) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
(9) A Fistful of Dollars
(10) True Grit (2010)
(12) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
(13) The Tall T
(14) Man of the West
(15) The Wild Bunch
(16) Fin de siecle John Wayne (True Grit, The Cowboys, The Shootist)
(17) The Naked Spur
(18) Ride Lonesome
(19) Red River
(20) Meat-and-potatoes late period John Wayne (The Sons of Katie Elder, Big Jake, The Train Robbers)
Honorable mention: Winchester '73, The Man from Laramie, Firecreek, The Gunfighter, Hombre, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Fort Apache, Day of the Outlaw, Death Rides a Horse, Last Train from Gun Hill, Hour of the Gun, Support Your Local Sheriff, Warlock, The Great Silence, The Professionals, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Ox-Bow Incident