Happy Birthday, Lon Chaney! A Playlist For a Monster

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As resident Houston Press astrolabe polisher, chirurgeon and goth expert, the world of old horror-movie actors falls under my purview. My heart is given most to Boris Karloff, because any man who can rock horror and narrate the Grinch is more badass than any of us will either be. That said I want to take a moment to celebrate Lon Chaney, Sr., the man who brought some of the greatest silent film monsters ever to life.

He was well-suited to the task. Chaney's parents were both deaf, and growing up in a silent house turned him into a tremendous pantomime talent. He initially went into theater, but a scandal involving his wife (she tried to commit suicide by drinking mercuric chloride) him off the stage and into film.

There, he became an absolute titan, and his performance in Phantom of the Opera still ranks as one of the greatest performances in film history. He also appeared as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the sadly lost Tod Browning masterpiece London After Midnight.

Chaney maintained a discreet and mysterious life apart from his work as an actor, wishing his art to be all that remained of him in the public eye. But such a romantic and dashing figure of haunted yesteryear, who would be 120 years old today, deserves a tribute, and today's playlist is dedicated to him.

The Mountain Goats, "Letter from Belgium": The Mountain Goats are one of those '90s lo-fi bands that gets lost in the shuffle since overproduced Autotuning did all that brain damage to our learned selves. John Darnielle's 2004 offering We Shall All Be Healed is still a hell of a record, though, semi-autobiographically walking a listener through the many meth addicts and other odd characters Darnielle had met while living in Portland and California.

One of those was a girl named Susan, who would freehand draw Lon Chaney in a notebook filled with cake recipes. It's all part of the modern beat-poetry vibe in "Letter from Belgium," and worth a listen. Speaking of California crazies...

Rob Zombie, "California (Go To)" To me, there has never been a more underrated goth song than this oft-ignored track from Zombie's second solo album. And yes, Zombie is goth, and don't tell try and tell me you don't hit the dance floor for "Living Dead Girl."

This song is another ode to hopeless and strange glamour that drops Chaney's name amid the arrangement's funk horns and sinister vocals. I picked this comp video to show you because I was hoping half-naked Betty Page and Sheri Moon Zombie might hopefully get this track the attention it deserves.

Gene Simmons, "Man of 1,000 Faces" From Simmons' first solo album, the Demon talks lovingly of Chaney, whose incredible makeup skills earned him the nickname "Man With a Thousand Faces." Old horror movies were always a big inspiration to Simmons, and he would of course go on to wear his own iconic painted face.

Game Theory, "The Last Day That We're Young" I don't mean to harp on the world of obscure and moody musicians, but if you ever have an afternoon to kill try looking up tracks from Game Theory's Lolita Nation on YouTube (Like the Dogs in Space soundtrack, it's one of those lost CDs you're not getting for under $100 otherwise.)

It's kind of incredible that there's a world where the Smithereens are renowned, but no one knows who Scott Miller is. Maybe Miller sensed something when he penned this aching song, calling on Lon Chaney to hang up his faces and be done with it, as each one was one less chance to win.

Garland Jeffreys, "Lon Chaney" Let's go out on a soft note. A sad and sweet tune from Jeffreys' first solo album way back in 1973, "Lon Chaney" both puts the master of horror on a pedestal as well as encourages him to walk away from monsters when he's done. Perhaps there's no better tribute to the man than that, and we should all try to make sure that playing evil remains just play, as Chaney did.

Happy birthday, good sir.

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