Author Archives: Joseph F. Berenato

About Joseph F. Berenato

Joseph F. Berenato obtained a B.A. in English and spent four years as the entertainment editor of The Hammonton Gazette before returning to his roots at his family's blueberry farm in Hammonton, NJ. In 2014, Joe conceived, edited, and contributed to New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics. In addition to The Sacred Scrolls: Comics on the Planet of the Apes, he co-edited two Star Wars volumes for Sequart with Rich Handley, with a third in the works. Joe wrote the introduction for IDW Publishing's Star Trek: Gold Key Archives Volume 3 as well as retrospective essays for that company’s Star Trek #50 and their forthcoming Gold Key 100-Page Spectacular. He also contributed to ATB Publishing's Star Trek anthology Outside In Boldly Goes. He holds a Master of Arts in Writing from Rowan University, and is adjunct professor with Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing, NJ, where he teaches freshman composition and serves as advisor for the school’s newspaper, the Atlantic Cape Review.

Who Mourns for a Pop Star?

Michael Jackson died five years ago today. At the time, I was a contributor for the now-defunct Critical Mess.Net. This is what I had to say on the topic.

michael_jackson2My esteemed, inimitable colleague Rocko Jerome has written a worthy, fitting tribute to the King of Pop.  And everything he says goes double for me.

I was just like him, choosing to watch Michael Jackson over ANYTHING else that was on television.  I gaped and gawked when the Moonwalk debuted, and slid across my kitchen floor for weeks in white socks and black penny-loafers, trying desparately to recreate the work of a dancing magician.  I got a sequined glove for my sixth birthday, and it became one of my most treasured possessions.  I used to strut around the house in it, using a toy magic wand as a microphone, and lip-synch to the entire “Thriller” album.  ALL.  THE.  TIME.  Hell, EVERYONE in my grade was a fan, because he was Michael Jackson and he was the epitome of awesome, and if you had a bad word to say about Michael, you probably got beat up.

I loved him.  Absolutely, unconditionally loved him.  And a part of me has always loved him, even during the strangeness of the last sixteen or so years of what would be the final chapter in the too-short life of the King of Pop.

Being a life-long fan of Michael Jackson (even if I’ve kept that fact somewhat on the downlow since high school), it was thus inconceivable to me for the longest time that there could, in fact, be people in this world who did not feel the same joy and nostalgia every time “Beat It” or “Billie Jean” would come on the radio, or who wouldn’t try to do the freaky zombie shoulder shuffle every Halloween during the umpteenth playing of “Thriller.”

Turns out I just had to look to the children.  The next generation, you see, does not quite think Michael Jackson is as bad as I do.  Apparently they thought him rather dangerous.

This perception of Michael Jackson from the younger end of the generational divide is shocking to me, and makes me sick.

alfonso_ribeiro_michael_jacksonjpgThe kids we have working at the farm packing blueberries range from 17 to 19.  The oldest one was born in 1990.  They don’t know what it was like to watch “Thriller” for the first time, are so used to the Moonwalk that they have NO idea what it felt for the entire WORLD when it was premiered during Motown 25, never wanted to own a sequined glove, didn’t envy the fuck out of Alfonso Ribeiro because he got to dance with MJ (Cousin Carlton?  Really?  He can dance?), didn’t completely jazz out with the morphing technology (and then get really confused as MJ masturbated on top of a car he just smashed) during “Black or White” (which, sorry, Rocko, premiered after “In Loving Color,” not “The Simpsons”)… They don’t know any of this.  Half of them never heard of “The Wiz.”  They don’t even remember when he was black.  All of that is ancient history to them.


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They only know him as the weird hermit who looks like a monster, has a kid named Blanket that he dangled off of a balcony in Germany, used to be somebody, and fucked children.  The fact that he was acquitted — an act that used to MEAN something in this country, damn it, before the Court of Public Opinion got so fucking big — means absolutely nothing to them.  Many of them were happy that he died, because now the world is a safer place.

Can you imagine that?  They think the world is a better place because Michael Jackson is dead.

They can’t even fathom the impact that he had on the music they listen to and the dances they feebly try to emulate.  Christ, Fred Astaire (yet another person these ignorant imbeciles have probably never even heard of) once stated that Michael Jackson was the greatest dancer he’d ever seen, but the world is a better place because he’s dead.  His inluence on popular music paved the way for virtually every single pop act in the last twenty years, and many rap and R&B acts, most of whom cite MJ as a major influence, but the world is a better place because he’s dead.

The family of the first child he was accused of molesting settled for an undisclosed amount of money, but I guarantee it was beyond ten million.  I’m sorry, but I’m of the opinion that no amount of money would be enough if someone molested your child.  You’d want to see that bastard’s head on a pike.  Instead, they settled for a large amount of money.

And the second instance…?  There was obviously not a necessary preponderance of evidence in order to eradicate reasonable doubt.  And isn’t that one of the basic tenets, one of the core foundations of the American legal system?  If there is reasonable doubt in a case, then the accused MUST be found not guilty.  And Michael Jackson was found not guilty, which means that there was NOT enough evidence for a conviction, and that there was reasonable doubt.

Acquittal

He was found not guilty.  I can NOT stress that enough.  He was found not guilty.

Mugshot__michael-jacksonBut that doesn’t matter to so many people.  They know better than the jury that acquitted Michael Jackson.  They were not in the court room, they were not presented with the prosecution’s evidence, they didn’t hear the case, but he LOOKS like such a freak, he must be guilty.  He was charged with the crime, so he MUST be guilty.  He’s a reclusive, mysterious celebrity who dresses strangely, acts strangely, and loves children, so naturally he MUST fuck them.

Who cares if he was found not guilty?  Celebrities are always found not guilty, they can get away with everything.  He did it.  He had to have.  Just look at him.

The world is a better place because he’s dead.

It is entirely possible that Michael Jackson truly was a living representation of the best of us.  It is entirely possible that Michael Jackson was something unique, something extraordinary in the world.  A man who genuinely, innocently, and whole-heartedly loved children just to love children.  It is entirely possible that he wanted to protect them, and nurture them, and make them happy, and give them all better lives.

No, surely that’s impossible.  No grown man could possibly think of other children like that.

neverlandIt is entirely possible that Neverland Ranch was actually a place for a select group of lucky kids to be catered to, and pampered, and made to feel important and special; a place that celebrated all the wonderment of childhood; someplace that Michael Jackson himself dreamed about as a child, while his father was mercilessly beating the shit out of him.  It could have been someplace that Michael Jackson wished desperately he could go when he was young, to get away from the abuse, and just be a child… something that he NEVER got to do when he was ACTUALLY a child.  It’s possible that Neverland was actually all of those things, and not some crazy-assed multi-million-dollar magnet for kids that Michael Jackson wanted to fondle.

But it can’t be.  He was a freak… just look at him.

The world is a better place now that he’s dead, right?

jacksonkidsBecause none of that can be true.  It simply CAN’T.  Because if it is, if one man is truly capable of all of that… the selfless love, the musical prowess, the mind-altering dancing ability… if all that can exist in HIM, why can’t it exist in ME?

I can’t do all of those things, and I certainly have no desire to help the children of the world — children of strangers, children in foreign countries, children I’ll never meet — so neither can he.

If I can’t do it, nobody else can.

BULLSHIT.

I retract what I wrote earlier.  The negative perception from the younger portion of the generational divide doesn’t make me sick.  It makes me sad, and it fills me with pity.  Because these people, so convinced that there is one less monster in the world because television called him a monster, have no idea what we’ve lost.  They have no idea who he was and what he represented before he became what gossip columnists turned him into.

They think the world is a better place because he’s dead.

And for that, I feel nothing but pity for them.

Rest in peace, Michael.  For whatever its worth, I always believed you, and believed in you.

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My Date With (the) Davy Jones (Memorial Celebration)!

Davy Jones passed away on February 29, 2012. On March 10th of that year, a memorial celebration was held in his adopted hometown. The following is an account of my visit.

davypostcardI have written before of my life-long affinity for The Monkees.  I’ve made no secret of it.  They were my first introduction to “real” music (that didn’t come from some manner of kid’s album); theirs were the first albums I bought with my own money.  I’d listen to the tapes over and over again until my tape player ate them and I had to buy new ones.  My friends and I would swap vinyl and copy them until we could afford our own.  I drew their logo all over my school books and notebooks and folders.  My walls were covered with posters and pin-ups from Teen Beat, Tiger Beat, 16, Bop, and any other publication in which they appeared in.  And, like so many others, Davy Jones was my favorite.  

Davy always got the girl.  Davy always got the joke.  Davy could sing, Davy could dance, Davy could ride horses, Davy had great hair and cool fashion sense and an awesome accent.  Davy got to hang out with Count Dracula.  Davy inspired Chekov from Star Trek.  Davy was the heart and soul of the group, there for every iteration in their history (I didn’t know at the time that he didn’t participate, either voluntarily or involuntarily, in the three “new” tracks cut for THEN AND NOW: THE BEST OF THE MONKEES [Arista Records, 1986]).  Best of all, Davy was SHORT.  In (ahem) short, Davy was my God-damned idol.

I have also already written about how unexpectedly hard his death hit me.  One never expects to be impacted by the death of a celebrity, you know?  I mean, yeah, I always figured that when Shatner or Nimoy beam out, I’ll probably get a little misty.  But I never expected such depth of emotion to come forward for one of The Monkees.  Apparently, though, even though I out-grew Davy by the time I was 12 (he was only 5’3″, after all), I have never, in all these years, outgrown him.

So when Michael Schoenfelt started a facebook event for a Davy Jones memorial to be held in his adopted hometown of Beavertown, PA (population: 900) on Saturday, March 10th at high noon, it didn’t take me long to decide I wanted to go.  For those not in the know, Beavertown is in the mountains of Pennsylvania, two hours north of Harrisburg, and almost 200 miles from me.  No way I could make the drive by myself, and — it being tax season — Yarn Girl (being an office manager for her father’s accounting office) was unable to go with me.  I got on the horn with my sister Debbie, who’s always up for a road trip, and we were set.

We set off at 8 a.m.  The ride was mostly uneventful until we got relatively close to our destination, when the roads suddenly got extraordinarily mountainous.  First time in either of our lives we’ve ever seen signs warning of a steep grade, and telling us to reduce gears.  Not unlike a rollercoaster, you’d reach the top of a hill, and it looked like the road just dropped off the edge of the world.  Like many mountain roads, there was no shoulder; just a guardrail (presumably so authorities would see exactly where a car plummeted to its doom) and a sharp drop into the abyss.  It was knee-shakingly harrowing for two people who come from flat farmland; I can only imagine what kind of special hell it must have been for the people in the car behind us, from New York, who kept pulling over to the shoulder afterwards to check and re-check their GPS.

davyprogramFinally we arrived at our destination: the Fireman’s Carnival Grounds on Sassafras Avenue, literally just around the corner and across the field from Davy’s house on Center Street.  After the attendants directed us where to park, they handed us these lovely little prayer cards, and the solemnity of the event suddenly hit me.  I don’t know quite what I was expecting, dig?  I never stopped to think about it, really.  All I knew was that Davy had made this place his home.  These were his people, and they were inviting his fans to share their memories and their sorrow with them.  Here were people who knew him, interacted with him daily, waved to him on the street as they mowed their lawns.  Of COURSE there was going to be a bit of solemnity to the event.

crowd2We unpacked our chairs and snacks from the car and, camera in hand, made our way to the carnival grounds.  We were still a tad early, so not all the spaces were taken.  I was actually worried about that — reading some of the feed on the event page, I noticed that some people had arrived the night prior.  Fortunately, setting up shop was rather easy, so no hassle there.  Looking around, the variations in age came as little surprise.  There were literally people of all ages, from 3 to 83 (give or take); The Monkees are one of the precious few bands to retain their original fans and keep making new ones.  All told, the town officials figure there were roughly 500 of us in attendance.  Not a bad turnout for what the planners originally thought was going to be three or four guys mourning over a beer.

bandRight around noon, the program started.  First up was a remarkable Monkees tribute group, dubbed The Davy Jones Memorial Band.  What was most remarkable, besides their encyclopedic knowledge of the Monkees catalogue, was the fact that these guys had never played 90% of these songs before.  It was all impromptu, and all audience requests.  And they knew it all, from THE MONKEES through JUSTUS.  Number after number, those gathered sang along with the band, called out song titles, laughed along with the inevitable lyric flubs, and had an overall good time.

Intermission followed, and it was time to hit the concession stand.  It was maybe 40°F, you see, and sitting around listening to a band did not do much to instill warmth.  Thankfully, they were selling copious amounts of coffee, along with hot dogs and some of the best chicken noodle soup I’ve ever had in my life.  Hunger sated and core warmed, it was time to settle in once again as the event took on a more somber tone.  

alex1Following intermission came a litany of speeches by many who knew him best.  Organizer Michael Schoenfelt spoke, followed by Beavertown mayor Cloyd William Wagner; Davy Jones fanpage organizer Sarah Combs; Beavertown residents and close friends of Davy, Kat and Rocky Damelio, Bruce Hassinger, and Skip Kline; and, in perhaps the most unique speech of the day, 17-year-old Alexandra Amrine.  Amrine had only discovered The Monkees a little over a year and a half ago, but they quickly became the center of her musical universe, with Davy at ITS center.  She told the tale of how she lived the dream of so many teenage girls before her: to get noticed in the crowd at a concert, and have Davy pull her up onstage to dance.  

Following Ms. Amrine and several others, Mayor Wagner took to the stage once again to read several letters from those who could not attend. Friend and fellow Monkee Peter Tork said, “I am truly at a loss for words, mostly remembering moments that pale in the telling of them. I carry so many images of Davy through the years: the bright teen at the center of The Monkees TV show, the witty prankster, always with a joke (not always a new joke, but always a joke!), the dedicated horseman, the devoted family man, and the gifted performer who captured hearts around the world.”  Monkees drummer Micky Dolenz said, “We worked together.  We lived together.  We had families together.  We played and fought together like best friends in a schoolyard.  We were as close to siblings as you can possibly get. He was my brother.”  And his friend and co-author (and the man responsible for introducing Davy to Beavertown) Alan Green said, “I’m sure we’re all going through the same blur of emotions and I’ll bet most of you gathered there today are remembering David by recounting your personal memories, either of meeting him – or of meeting each other ‘through’ your Monkees connection that has resulted in lifetime friendships. So even at this time of great sadness and grief, David is again bringing us together – and it behooves us to rejoice in his freedom and not be downcast by our own feelings of loss. He’d be the first to tell you that out of grief comes something good. Always. Good Grief!”

church2After a few other speakers and another musical interlude by The Davy Jones Memorial Band, the entire congregation started to make the journey on foot to the church on Orange Street that Davy had purchased several years ago in hopes of turning it into a Monkees museum.  It was there that things started to get emotional for many of those in attendance.  As people started to lay flowers and other gifts (among them, horses, a bluebird, stuffed monkeys) on the church steps, it was impossible to ignore the tears and sobs all around me.  Wave after wave they came, leaving tributes and gifts, holding each other, comforting each other, friends and strangers, those who knew him personally and those who only knew his music.  All grieving, each of us in our own way, some loud and some silent, but all of us there, together, to honor the man who had left a mark on us in one way or another.

church7It was strange, you know?  I looked around, and honestly wasn’t sure if I belonged there.  I almost felt like I was intruding on a private moment; the depth of sorrow some of the attendees expressed made me uncomfortable; not because they were crying over Davy Jones, but because, if I wasn’t, then perhaps I had no business being there, dig?  Then, amidst the grief, a chorus of “Daydream Believer” broke out, and it was hauntingly beautiful.  Everyone stopped what they were doing, and everyone sang from deep within themselves.  And it was then that I knew that I had as much business being there as anybody else.  If I could be compelled to drive four hours into the mountains to mourn the man (when half the time I can’t be bothered to drive ten minutes to Wal-Mart), then he meant just as much to me, and deserved my respects and my tributes, too.

davyhouse2From there, people slowly began making their way back to the carnival grounds, and the festivities broke up.  Though not on the official itinerary, many of us stopped at his house on Center Street before leaving the quiet hamlet.  I was absolutely shocked when I saw the house, in the midst of a quiet neighborhood.  It’s modest.  Unassuming.  Hell, the Christmas lights are still up, and their are old cars in the yard.  THIS was the house of a Monkee?  My God, he really WAS just a regular guy.  Nothing fancy, nothing lavish.  It was cozy, very homey.  Though he had houses in other states (notably Florida, where he died), THIS was the one he called home.  And considering the property, the town, and the townspeople, it really is no wonder why.

There is talk of another celebration next year.  Mayor Wagner posted today that the plan is to unveil a life-size statue of Davy at that one.  I don’t know that I’ll be able to make it — I’m honestly not sure my sister would drive that far again for a statue.  But even if I can’t attend, I’ll always have the fact that I was at THIS one.  That I made the effort for the man whose music has been one of the extraordinarily few constants in my life.  The man who, besides being the idol of millions of screaming girls, was also MY idol.  As I said before, I may have out-grew him, but I have never, and WILL never, outgrow him.

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I Write Because of Harold Ramis

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Harold Ramis died the other day. I never knew the man personally, never had the privilege of meeting him, and knew nothing about his private life. I only know him through his impressive body of work, as a director, writer and actor.

And I write largely because of him.

I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw Ghostbusters. It seems like it’s always been a part of my life. I know I didn’t see it in the theaters, so logically it had to be on home video, sometime in in the first or second grade. And I don’t think I could properly impress upon you the impact that it had on my life.

It was the first film that I could quote, leading to my life-long love of cursing. (The playground aides were none to happy when my 7-year-old friends and I spouted gems like “Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown!”) It was the first movie I watched over and over, repeatedly. And it was the source of the first fiction I’ve ever written.

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The above image is a picture of the script to a routine performed by Tony Ruggerio, Jim Mento and myself in the Stars of ’86 Talent Show at Hammonton Elementary School. In the interests of full disclosure, I didn’t write the whole thing myself; I was seven, after all. My mom acted as typist and had some input, but it was largely mine. It is, as far as I can remember, the very first piece of fiction I ever created.

Why Ghostbusters? Besides the fact that EVERYONE my age loved the movie – and most of us still do – there was one particular character that really resonated with me: Egon Spengler. He was really smart. He had funny hair. And he had glasses. I could totally relate. He built amazing equipment, got to shoot a laser, and chased ghosts for a living. He was living my seven-year-old dream life.

Spengler of course was played by Ramis, who also co-wrote Ghostbusters. So, not only did he play my favorite character in the film, but he also helped create the whole thing. (And, as I’ve learned later in life, was largely responsible for taking the original script and molding it into the classic film that I’ve loved for three decades.)

Writing that script woke something up in me. When we performed the routine, the reception was tremendous. People laughed where they were supposed to, and cheered where I wanted them to cheer. Something that I had written (with mom’s help, of course) had a very real, very positive effect on my entire school. Those of you who write know exactly what feeling I mean. Those of you who don’t write, well… I’m at a loss to describe it.

It’s wonderful.

It put me on the writing track when I was very young. I’ve stumbled a bit along the way, got side-tracked more than once, and have flat-out given up a few times. But I always come back to writing. Because the feeling it gives me, the satisfaction, the joy… there’s nothing like it.

It was a feeling I first had when I was seven.

Because of Ghostbusters.

Because of Harold Ramis.

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