ARTICLE

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

Why I Started El balazo Press and Am Not Quitting My Job to Run It

 photo by glen noble via unsplash

photo by glen noble via unsplash

As the owner of this small press, former employee of a traditional publishing house, and current employee at one of the world’s top content creators, I think constantly about the economics of writing and publishing. I also often get asked the following questions in the following order:

1) Would you leave your current situation for a traditional publishing job?

2) Would you quit your day job to run your small press, El Balazo?

3) If you’re not trying to leverage El Balazo for a real publishing job or trying to build it into a full-time job for yourself, then why are you doing it, anyway?

Why I Don’t Work for a Traditional Publisher

I used to work for a traditional publisher (non-big five), and quit during the recession because I didn’t make enough money to pay off my student loans. I also tried to work for one of the big five, but couldn’t get an interview there when I was young-enough to consider an assistant job. Had I gotten hired when I was younger, I might be there still, working away. Now that I’m older and have had a bit of life experience, I’m glad things turned out the way they did.

It’s well known that traditional publishers almost exclusively sign new books written by celebrities or writers who have both built up a following and whose work will appeal to a mass market.

Editor friends of mine at traditional big five publishing houses have told me that the first question they ask when considering a manuscript is: what is the author’s platform? Do they have 10,000+ followers on Twitter? Does Google auto-suggest their name in the search field? In other words: can this author basically sell the book himself with the audience he has already built?

Editors at the big five aren’t snobs and don’t hate unknown authors. But, book publishing is a tough business. Even the biggest publishers are strapped for cash, and need to make solid bets on the books they believe sell lots and lots of copies. In the past, big five publishers would subsidize the publication of cool, indie stuff with money made from the hits. Not so much anymore. In this economy, it’s not the time to take risks on new authors or on content that falls outside of what is known to be marketable. The margins from hit book sales are a lot smaller, but the bills are just as high. Fewer and fewer cool, indie books get published by the big five.

For me, the point of reading is to discover risky, energetic content written in unconventional language or structure that is so particular to a unique person — a unique artist or thinker — that it’s uncomfortable and odd and moving and exciting. Working full time to acquire solid bets, such as a Rom Com actor’s ghost-written memoir, is not my cup of tea.

Why I Won’t Leave My Day Job

I run El Balazo in addition to holding down a demanding full-time job. Yes, this means we can publish much fewer books than we could if I dedicated myself full-time to El Balazo. Yes, it means I sometimes struggle to update the blog as often as I should. Yes, it means the snowball of growth is going to take quite a bit longer to grow big and fat as it rolls more slowly down the hill.

But because El Balazo doesn’t rely on income from benefactors, isn’t beholden to shareholders, and isn’t required for living expenses, it’s free. Free as a naked bum under a tennis skirt. El Balazo can publish and say whatever it wants. If no one’s floating you or relying on you, no one can require anything of you.

Why Am I Doing El Balazo, Anyway?

Here are the facts: I pay out of my own income to publish and market other people’s writing in my free time without expecting to make my money back. What the hell is wrong with me, right? Why do I do this weird thing?

I do this because I’m a writer and I fuggin love books. I think the world needs more good, weird books that have people fighting for them and producing them professionally. I believe there is still a community of people who care about great, weird books. And I want to find them as desperately as do many other writers. 

I’m also frustrated that so much unique talent is passed over by major publishers. Because it’s lost in the slush pile. Because it’s quirky and therefore probably not marketable to a mass audience. Because, even though it might be marketable to a large-enough audience to make a nice profit, most writers don’t have the skills to create the platform publishers are looking for. Because they’re writers, not marketers. And they shouldn’t have to be.

I believe that thinking about how to market a book while writing that book dilutes a writer’s freedom to say what she needs to say. And, as you may have noticed, freedom to think and say what you want is El Balazo’s number one value.

I want El Balazo to be a place for writers who’ve not only had the cajones (or ovaries) to spend those lonely, long hours honing their writing skills, but the badassery to use those skills to say something unique — to create something new.

Why You Shouldn’t Publish With El Balazo

If you publish with El Balazo, I can’t guarantee you money. And, it’s okay with us if the marketable audience for your work is 100 people. It’s fantastic to entertain, inspire, and amuse an audience of 100 people. But, you can bet your butts that we ain’t giving over the rights to anyone in case your audience turns out to be wildly larger than that.

Although we are a new, small press open to creative content, we also won’t publish most of what gets sent to us. We at El Balazo are our own particular cat. Our taste is specific, it’s ours, and, we know it when we see it.

Why You Should Publish With El Balazo

Granted, we are only publishing our second book, and we have a lot to learn. But, we are committed to howling at the moon for new and creative writing that fits our tastes.

Because we aren’t tied to a building, to a paycheck, to a genre, or to a need to be marketable, we can and will take risks. We can and will take badass content out of its obscure corner, design it boss AF, and sell it to anyone who’s interested.

We also won’t tie you down. Go ahead. Use El Balazo to acquire some street cred, to help build that platform a larger publisher is looking for. Go ahead: be free. We wouldn’t want you to be anything less.

Interested in publishing with us? Send us your stuff!

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

why saying, "six word novels ARE bullshit" is bullshit

I met my friend Josh in a punk club one night after I had just graduated college and moved to Boise. We were introduced by a mutual friend, and after Josh revealed that he wrote for the Boise Weekly, I made the rookie mistake of telling him that I am also a writer. Newly-graduated writers: don’t do this. Nobody wants to hear about your writing.

Josh, out of politeness, asked what I liked to write. “Flash fiction,” I said, expecting a normal response like, “Oh, cool. I’ll take a look sometime,” and then an abrupt shift in conversation, because who really wants to read the work of a freshly-graduated zygote with no real writing experience?

But, what happened next was magical. Horrible and magical. Josh proceeded to yell at me over the sounds of the band playing about how much he detests the genre. Josh and I have two different versions of the same story, but the point is, what was supposed to be a casual exchange about two people doing the same thing turned into a long, arduous, draining argument that made me think, “This guy is going to make a great friend.”

Flash fiction, contrary to Josh’s description, is actually comprised of 1,000 words or less. You can check out One of These Days by novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez for one of the best examples of flash fiction ever written. I write flash fiction ranging from 100 to 1,000 words, a project I began in freshman year of college. I was attracted to the structure, not because of brevity, but because of the challenge it presented. Build a world, a character, and a plot in 100 words? I knew this request was possible with 300 pages, but so few words? Now, that’s a real writing task.

Josh’s argument hinges on the fact that flash fiction is too emotionally ambiguous and lacking in plot to be complete without relying on the reader to fill in the blanks. It relies too much on subjective inference to trick readers into thinking they understand the story’s plot. Josh essentially thinks that without enough content, the story isn’t actually a story.

This argument is absurdly wrong for several reasons. Six word stories highlight that a strong message—whether it’s tragic, comedic, or simply intriguing—can be conveyed with only a few brief words. Stories are just that: messages from an author to a reader.

However, so many writers think these messages need to be complete. They don’t.

Writing lives in a liminal space. Fiction is comprised of strands of truth and shards of lies, and looking beyond just the six word, 100 word, or 1,000 word stories, we can see that the art of storytelling doesn’t rely on completion, in terms of completing a plot, but on the storyteller’s ability to convey a message to her reader. Fiction lands within the in-betweens and contradictions of the human condition (and of a story itself).

Since when does writing not live in this liminal space?

The ephemeral. The intangible. The odd, tucked away places in-between dreams. Flash fiction brings us these spots of time in ways most fiction can’t. It lives in the blurry spaces of the mind, where we struggle to piece together a memory or a dream that slowly drains out of us. Flash fiction is liberating; it encapsulates these spaces and drives readers to infer and interpret.

The nonsensical belief that any story must be complete is an arbitrary rule, just like placing a random word limit on a piece or asking yourself to exclude the word the from your vocabulary. Flash fiction begins and ends with limitations, which can force writers to produce some of their best work, like Marquez’s piece linked above. Many writers find the limitlessness of a page comforting, but a large group of us stare at a blank page and think, “Now what?” Beginning with a set value of rules propels us forward and makes our work better.

The story begins with the box. You write around the box, inside the box, and in the margins of the box. You cut the bullshit. You trim the unnecessary. You cling to the concrete. You argue with yourself about what is most important instead of rambling for pages and pages about the soft architecture of her back. In the end, you’re better for it. You can convey a meaningful message in a handful of words. Flash fiction is a new type of concise writing that encourages authors to argue with themselves, eliminate the bravado, and cinch down words tightly into a compact package that slams readers with a world, characters, and (usually) a surprise ending.

Some of the best works of art came from limitation. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was one of the worst reviewed books of all time because she dared herself to write a complete story in only 300 pages (approximately, depending on which edition you purchase). The traditional novel had not yet been popularized, and critics admonished her for her brevity and lack of substance. Can you imagine that? One of the most celebrated novels of all time criticized because it broke the conventions of what good writing should be.

I wish I could go back and tell Shelley, “Do what you need to do to make your best art as long as you’re not hurting anyone. You go, Mary.” The degree of blithering she received from her contemporaries (who were still churning out 1,000 page tomes every few years) about the laziness of her writing was astounding. But, suddenly, people took notice of Shelley’s concise and moving story. The form of the novel took hold, and now it’s the most popular style of storytelling available.

In my opinion, Frankenstein is absolutely complete story, but for its time, it lacked the thorough details Shelley’s contemporaries deemed appropriate to tell a proper story. Shelley argued that writers are supposed to live in the liminal. I say there’s nothing wrong with readers inferring and thinking and interpreting what they want to see from my words. Go for it. I want to hear about what you think you read.

Because it’s not about completing a story, as in wrapping up a plot. It’s about impacting readers. Flash fiction forces great writers like Josh Gross to ask question after question about baby shoes and write an entire article about why he detests the genre so vehemently. It brings readers closer to the bones of a story. It forces them to confront snapshots of time. Authors can’t know for certain—whether they write 100 word stories or 100,000 word novels—if they’ve answered every question a reader might have, and that’s okay. A good story relies on impact, not length.

Flash fiction makes you think. It sparks loud arguments in bars and forms intense new friendships. It asks readers to think for themselves. That’s what good writing—interesting writing—is supposed to do.

You can read or buy Josh’s quality (and often verbose) work on his website, or check out more of my writing at erinnelson.com.

 

 

WEIRD, ARTICLE

The Animals of Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain

When we cuddled up with the cat and a cup of tea to watch Alejandro Jodorowsky's surreal, disturbing, strangely funny, imagination overload The Holy Mountain, I knew I'd be taken for a ride. I had no idea how agitated, intrigued, delighted, and disgusted I'd be. It's like nothing I've ever seen. (Others have written about this. I particularly like this person's explication of how Eyes Wide Shut Ain't Got Nothing on The Holy Mountain.)

I also didn't expect the animals! There were so many animals. Sadly (and rather disgustedly), I'm not positive that some of these animals weren't harmed in the making of the film. It looks as if some iguanas and toads may have been hurt during the conquest of Mexico scene when Spanish cane toads walked over the Mexican iguanas whose civilization was blown to bits and bright fake blood splattered the whole kit n caboodle.

Also, I'm not sure if that python liked being stuffed into a knit sock. Though, come on ... Is that not one of the cutest things you've ever seen? Look at that snake all wrapped up in the sock! Okay, fine. It's probably just me. 

The chimp seemed to do fine in all his scenes. He didn't seem to mind wearing his red sweater, or the white shorts and yellow shirt they dressed him in. Though, I guess he seemed sort of uncomfortable always having to hold hands with one of the actors, what with only being able to use three of his four limbs to get around. I did have the thought while watching him: no wonder apes wanted to walk on two legs. That looks hard. 

chimp and girls.jpg

There was also this adorbzzz baby hippo (squee) taking a bath and drinking from the fountain in the scene when the alchemist washes the Christ figure. I was happy for their sake that he (or she) was not an adult hippo taking a bath because that would have been fucking scary, considering hippos are often super dangerous and mean. 

Okay, so there was also a Pelican walking around during the egg scene when the beggar/Christ figure's excrement gets turned to gold. A couple times he (or she) calmly flapped those pretty wings with the big black stripes of feathers. 

The Holy Mountain also featured some fun uses of taxidermied animals. Like these wizened goats who form the back of the alchemist's chair. And these cheetahs that spit some sort of milk into the face of an enlightenment seeker from the breasts of a skinny old naked man. 

I couldn't find a photo of the awesome camel standing in the corner of the alchemist's studio thing, contently unaware that these humans frolicking near him were engaged in creating something vexing and original. So, you should watch the film to see what I'm talking about. But, if you do, quick warning from a The Holy Mountain-watching veteran: wait to eat your popcorn until about ten minutes into the movie. Just trust me on this one. 


ARTICLE, NONFICTION

Why Six-Word Novels are Bullshit

I met my friend Erin over an argument. She didn't like something or other that I wrote in Boise Weekly, and decided to shout at me about it in a punk club. That turned into a wild disagreement on literature that has made us friends ever since.

Erin, a book store clerk and published book reviewer, also likes to write flash fiction (stories generally less than 100 words), something I largely detest. Not because of its its brevity, but because I dislike trying to make things be things they aren't instead of letting them be the best whatever they already are that they can be, and that once you begin with the premise of writing flash fiction, you're already creating a box—extremely short form—that the story you are writing may not fit into. Stories should be as long or as short as they need to be, no more, no less.

Obviously, Erin disagreed, and brought up the so-called six-word novel, something that was big on Twitter for a while with the hashtag #SixWordNovels, but that was around before Twitter as well. Erin cited a story by Hemingway as an example of how six words was all it took to tell a rich and engaging story: “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.”

I'll admit, Hemingway has never really been my thing. But the belief that those six words somehow constitute a complete story is patently absurd. We went 12 rounds over it, convincing everyone in the bar we were about to come to blows, when in fact we were having a great time.

Erin's argument was that from those six words, a reader is given a sense of plot, background, and an emotional weight that conveys the story's gravitas. I completely disagree because from my perspective the plot is wildly ambiguous, and the background and weight that would be delivered hinge on those plot points.

How so?

Why weren't the baby shoes ever worn? I'm serious. Why? If you know about Hemingway's life, or have read his work, then you fill in the blanks with the events in A Farewell to Arms (his wife and child die). But, one: that's a helluva lot more than six words, and two: not everyone has read it, and three: that's a subjective inference.

Everything that supposedly makes this story great comes from the idea that it is a tasteful take on tragedy, a concise slice of life that showcases the fine line where tragedy bumps into the day-to-day life we still have to live while enduring it. His baby is dead, and now he has to deal with the physical objects around him that stir him up through emotional association. It's heavy.

But what if the shoes weren't worn because they didn't fit the baby they were bought for, who is alive and plump without a care in the world? What if someone bought the shoes as a gag present for a person with extremely large feet? What if they were given as a gift at a baby shower and the expectant mother got two of the same pair from two different attendees? What if a junkie told her parents she was pregnant so they would give her money to spend on heroin and they instead bought her baby stuff which she was then trying to sell? What if a wholly different tragedy struck and the baby was born with deformed feet that don't fit in shoes? Etc.

The point is that those are all very different stories, and if you reach the end of the six words and you can't say for certain what happened, then no, it isn't a complete story. I accept some ambiguity of character as acceptable at the end of a story, but not ambiguity of plot. And moreover, if the events of the story are totally different than those the reader believes to have transpired, then the intended emotional connection is false as well. I don't think you can even say for certain that the story is a tragedy, and not a comedy. I'm not saying that a complete story can't be told in six words, just that I find it highly unlikely it will be truly complete or satisfying for the reader.

Some would say that art is subjective, and that you take from the story what you will. But with storytelling, the area that is open to interpretation is more about how to feel about the story, not about what it is that the story is actually about.

For example: let's assume that it's a story about Hemingway's baby dying and not any of the other potential scenarios. If so, at the end, one could feel sad, they could feel that he dodged a bullet because having kids is a burden, they could feel that capitalism is a beautiful system that allows for the best possible distribution of required goods even in the face of tragedy, or many other things. That's the subjective interpretation of art that works for this medium. But those emotional responses are still based on the perceived fact and/or events of the story, and if in fact those fact or events are different, then it's all screwy. It's like a server in a restaurant writing down on a ticket that you want a club sandwich and the cook deciding that means you really wanted a batter-fried human thumb. That level of subjectivity doesn't apply to written communication because there is an intended message. If the medium is too short to convey that message, then it doesn't work. And if it is short enough to convey that message, then that brings up a whole other issue.

Social media has driven the idea that brevity is somehow a paramount value. But there is a strong tendency for people to mistake shallow thinking for concise writing. If a story only takes six words, fine, but it probably isn't a very interesting story. Incredibly complex issues don't always fit into 140 characters, and trying to force them into that box does a disservice to your subject and to your readers. And with both flash fiction and social media, it's the box that comes first, not what fits into it.

Of course, Erin disagreed to the bitter end (last call), a truly wonderful character trait, and continued to work on her yet-to-be-published collection of flash fiction, a book I sincerely look forward to reading one day.

You can read more of Erin's “wrong” opinions on her blog, or in her work for The Blue Review.

 

MUSIC, ARTICLE

Terrified By way of The Sapphire VXIII (Part Two)

As we discovered in Terrified By Way of the Sapphire (Part One), yours truly was introduced to (and spooked by) popular music via sounds emanating from the 3” speaker of the trusty Sapphire XVIII am radio in my mom’s 1975 VW Super Beetle. An active imagination and exposure to Scooby Doo Where Are You? had made me an easy scare. Part one covered the eerie references to a sinister, indulgent world in The Eagles 1975 “Hotel California,” which had me quaking in the midday sun as the pastoral landscapes of Minneapolis’ western reaches spooled before my eyes. A year later, a singer with a smooth, calming tenor voice raised the ante. 

One does not think of Cliff Richard as someone who sends chills down your spine (at least not in the classic sense). Being a veteran entertainer for a good twenty years at that point, he might’ve once been been thought by some as a punk threat to the British aristocracy with his involvement in early British Rock N Roll. But, that’s about it. Back then, he and his backing band, The Shadows, had a fantastic (if not relatively tame) rockabilly sound that pre-dated as well as greatly influenced the Mersey Sound/British Invasion some five years later.

But, as for so many other bands, success for Richard was fleeting. Richard was unable to drum up a real presence on the American charts until his mid-70’s comeback. That comeback was birthed from a simple three-and-a-half-minute ghost story set to a catchy little disco beat.

Though Terry Bitten would become one of the more successful songwriters of the 70’s and 80’s by penning a few monster hits for Tina Turner, he scored his first hit by co-writing Richard a song called “Devil Woman.” The song was placed smack in the middle of Richard’s I’m Nearly Famous LP (gotta love that self-deprecating title!) and chosen as the second single to be pulled from that record in April of 1976. The bigwigs at his label, EMI, obviously wanted to switch gears when the first single from that record, the yawn-inducing “Miss You Nights,” meandered into UK’s top twenty. “Devil Woman” crept into the top ten here in the U.S. and became his third highest-selling singleNot sure what it says about this country when a song about an evil, manipulative female becomes a guy’s first hit after nearly twenty years of making records. Was it the disco groove? Maybe Americans like a little danger with their party?

The charts were a mess of styles that month: obligatory disco (Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady,” Sylvers’s “Boogie Fever”); rock-solid rock (Aerosmith’s first single, “Dream On”), schmaltzy love songs (Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around And Fell In Love,” Carpenter’s cover of “Kind Of A Hush”); and even danceable historical revisionism (the Four Seasons’s “December 1963 (Oh What A Night)”). To hear Richard’s perfect tenor sail over those other styles was a shot to the ear, regardless of lyrical content. And, because America has been knee-deep in a Zombie fetish for the last ten years (TV shows, movies, kids shows, games, t-shirts, coffee mugs, stuffed animals, names of cocktails), it’s hard to appreciate that the spooky content of “Devil Woman” was quite the anomaly for a top-40 pop hit.

The song’s protagonist believes he’s been hexed since a mysterious black cat appeared at his door. He finds himself at the table of a fortune teller only to realize she might be that same cat “with evil in her eyes.” The song’s co-writer, Christine Holmes, recorded and released her own version that same year (under the name Kristine Sparkle), changing the perspective to a cautionary tale. The arrangement of Holmes’ version, however, is too busy and lacks the fantastically patient creepy-crawling feeling of Richard’s.

All the ridiculous nods to man/woman relationships were of course lost on my five year old mind, but the ominous notes, minimal instrumentation, and the tense, opening 4/4 drum pulse was a nail biter while my mom and I put-put-putted around. As a child, this spooky little jam blindsided me and put me on edge. The lyrical imagery was as powerful as it was clichéd. The word “evil” was thrown around a few times and, though I didn’t know the depth of its meaning, I was aware of its connotations and knew it stood for bad things. As the song slithered out of that three-inch speaker, my mind raced with images of black cats with evil eyes, crystal balls, mean-looking strangers, dark neighborhoods on moonlit nights. It was full-on Halloween time within these three and a half minutes. Plus, Richard upped the ante during a quiet moment following the second chorus by ad-libbing  a whispered “stay away” followed by “look out” (which perhaps further stressed me out). But – abracadabra! — such was the power of Top 40 Radio!  

Was I the only one affected by this song? Probably not. In fact, there’s a good chance “Devil Woman” was a seed planted in many would-be musician’s minds back then that bloomed into glorious dark flowers in the years to come. Of course, the song could’ve had another effect, as well. Beyond the haunted house imagery, some may have walked away from this one forever strapped with a lifelong distrust of women.

But, wait a minute. What if this wasn’t just a hackneyed relationship song with a demonic allegory wrapped in a minimal disco beat? What if Terry Bitten really did know a devil woman? Ever wonder about that? What if we’ve all been far too dismissive about this whole damn thing? Maybe this is a cry for help! Jeepers, has anyone even heard from Bitten lately?

Think about it.

MUSIC, ARTICLE

Fare Thee Well To The Grand Ridiculous

Over their storied career, the Grateful Dead have been many things to many people. Perhaps above all else, they were some of the greatest Absurdists in the history of Rock & Roll. To achieve such a prestigious title, the band had to step and stumble into amazing, strange situations and embark on odd, creative endeavors. Few other groups witnessed as much lunacy, especially at such an early stage of their career. 

As one of the best results from Ken Kesey’s early 60’s free-form no-holds-barred acid tests, the band’s creative foundation was built on absurdity. Only very few ideas were turned away for being too far-out. As time marched on, this worked for and against them. The list of good ideas gone weird, gone wrong, gone well, is long and makes for one of the most fascinating careers in popular music.

Luckily, there were more positive effects than negative from these far-out ideas and creative leaps of faith:

  1. Adding a second drummer to the line-up and, therefore, forcing their already complex time structures into previously unknown dimensions? Check!

  2. Deciding to make friend and Bay Area LSD manufacturer Owsley Stanley their sound guy? Check!

  3. Countering their growing popularity by creating an in-house mail-order ticketing service? Check!

  4. Deciding to take their act to Egypt and playing in front of the pyramids amidst a total lunar eclipse only to have their first of three performances almost hijacked due to a sky full of bats? Checkity-check-check!

  5. Landing a top ten single twenty years into their career? Okay, that one wasn’t necessarily up to them, but it was absurd nonetheless.  

Perhaps the highpoint of their Absurdist existence, however, came in 1974, just shy of their tenth anniversary. They had already lost founding keyboard/harmonica player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan to liver disease the previous year and had absorbed the husband and wife team of Keith and Donna Godchaux (piano and vocals, respectively). Also by this point the band found themselves running out of gas after years of constant road work, money/management problems and, of course, rampant drug use. These troubles ran deep-enough to inspire the band to retire from the road indefinitely at the end of the year -- a retirement that lasted maybe twelve months. In typical Absurdist fashion, however, they were also making incredibly complex and fresh music (while stumbling through some amazingly lackluster shows) and blazing trails by creating their own over-the-top sound system, the much ballyhooed “Wall Of Sound,” which looked something like this:

What you’re looking at is roughly 60 speakers, 50 amps, and about 27,000 watts of power. Remember earlier when I mentioned they made friend and local LSD chemist their sound guy? Yeah, well, the Wall Of Sound was his idea. Turns out, he knew a thing or two about electronics, as well.

When the band unveiled the Wall Of Sound for its first appearance in a live performance, every tweeter (the part of the speaker which produces higher-end frequencies) blew during the first song. It took another year of tinkering before they were able to take it on the road with them. (Actually, they had three Wall(s) of Sound(s): one  being used for the current show, one being torn down from the previous show, and one being set up for the next show: a practice now standardized in the giant world of music tours.)

The Wall Of Sound was a first on many levels (mostly technical), and while it provided the band with perfect stage sound and provided the audience with amazingly clear live sound, it also required an extra twenty crew members and four semi-truck trailers. It also inevitably sent the band’s finances into a wall of its own. Anyway, it was during this time touring around the country with all this stuff that the band decided to add another dash of the ridiculous into the mix. (Deciding to add another dash of ridiculousness into the mix? Check!)

Ned Lagin was studying molecular biology and humanities at MIT in the late 60’s as well as playing piano for the school’s jazz bands. After seeing the Grateful Dead in Boston in 1969, he helped organize a few shows on the east coast for the band. In return, Garcia invited him out to San Francisco where they were recording what would be their American Beauty LP. (Invite someone who you’ve never met into the studio with you? Check!) Once there, he contributed to the album and began strong friendships with Garcia and bassist/resident envelope-pusher, Phil Lesh. His involvement naturally extended to live performances and -- presto! -- Lagin became a quazi-member of the group. He played Hammond B3 organ, electric piano, and clavichord with the band on stage and in the studio for the next handful of years.

By 1974, they had set aside the middle of each show for Lagin to play electronic music with Lesh in the middle of each show with the former plodding around on an analog synthesizer and the latter indulging in coordinated feedback. The first few attempts at this collaboration resulted in awkward but fascinating chunks of experimental music punctuated by screeches of high-end feedback and bowel loosening tremors, all delivered to the audience, mind you, by the afore mentioned 27,000 watts of power. By the end of the band’s final shows that year in October at San Francisco’s Winterland Arena, much of the band would join them for what had evolved into amazing voyages of haunted, improvised electronic soundscape with Lagin using the Wall Of Sound as his larger instrument.

These Lagin/Lesh mini-sets were given the title “Seastones” and, while this may’ve been a rousing boost of creativity for a band feeling stifled and burning out in their current situation, one must consider the reactions of the audience who weren’t necessarily expecting this particular veering into deeper space. Okay, sure, it’d be a good bet 95% of the people attending these shows were well aware of the band’s talent for improvised music, but very few of those could tolerate such extended voyages (some up to thirty minutes) without an actual melody -- especially while under the influence of high-powered hallucinogens. General reactions varied from amusement and acceptance to impatience and rejection. During a short tour of Europe that autumn (deciding to taking along a 75 ton sound system overseas? Ch-ch-ch-check!), they had by then extended “Seastones” into a group composition. A rowdy London audience primed to hear the songs from a band who rarely played their shores were made to sit through a half hour of no-boundary experimentation. How wonderfully absurd!  

Is this a case of the group taking out their frustrations on the audience? Maybe. And, even if so, they wouldn’t be the first nor last to pull such a stunt. Were they just doing as they pleased no matter the consequences? Definitely. Which is precisely what makes their career so much more unique. A resistance to adapt or conform is not even close to being on the to-do list for group of people whose collective and creative mind was formed during the Acid Tests nine years previous.

Whether you like their music or not, one has to tip their hat to this band for their delightfully stubborn ways. Essentially, if it wasn’t weird enough, then it wasn’t fun enough … and if it wasn’t fun, then it simply wasn’t worth it. 

ARTICLE

what are you talking about - part II

In our first discussion of one book among the slew of books written to help us plebes decipher James Joyce, we looked at James Joyce’s Ulysses and Anthony Burgess’s Rejoyce (1965). (Anthony Burgess who is best known for his 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange.)

Part Two will find us taking on Joyce’s last novel, Finnegans Wake, and John Bishop’s 1986 tome, Joyce’s Book of the Dark.

If you weren't aware already, Finnegan's Wake is one of the most incredibly written and misunderstood books ever printed. It’s hard to even find an entry point in beginning to talk about it, not least of all because the book has no concrete entry point of its own but starts in the middle of a sentence. Joyce drops his readers into his ocean of words and we’re swept away by the fast moving and often baffling current. Here’s what I mean:

 “But the duvlin sulph was in Glugger, that lost-to-lurning. Punct. He was sbuffing and sputing, tussing like anisine, whipping his eyesoult and gnatsching his teats over the brividies from existers and the outher liubbocks of life. He halth kelchy chosen a clayblade and makes prayses to his three of clubs. To part from these, my corsets, is into overlusting fear. Acts of feet, hoof and jarrety: athletes longfoot. Djowl, uphere!”

But then, what does one expect? Driven mad by the trials and tribulations of Ulysses (the struggle to complete it and then the obscenity trial(s) shortly after its original publication) as well as his ongoing battle with eye problems (iritis, glaucoma and cataracts leading to twenty operations and unimaginable pain and suffering), it’s a wonder he even bothered with another novel -- let alone one of such far-reaching magnitude.  The popular notion is that Ulysses is a book about and which takes place in a single day and Finnegans Wake being about “night,” specifically dreams and the netherworld of anything-goes. But that theory, even if it’s what the author had in mind as a concept, is just too easy of a description.

Hardly anyone understood what Joyce had written. Even those who stood behind him years before while he toiled arduously on Ulysses thought he’d gone off the rails.I am made in such a way that I do not care much for the output from your Wholesale Safety Pun Factory,” wrote Harriet Weaver to Joyce in a twisted fan letter, “nor for the darknesses and unintelligibilities of your deliberately entangled language system. It seems to me you are wasting your genius.

D.H. Lawrence didn’t seem to enjoy the ride, either: “My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest, stewed in the juice of deliberate journalistic dirty-mindedness – what old and hard-worked staleness, masquerading as the all-new!” Ever the competitor, Vladimir Nabokov didn’t want Lawrence to get all the fun and so did his own act of bitchiness by whining the book was, “nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room [...] and only the infrequent snatches of heavenly intonations redeem it from utter insipidity…”  Yowza!

Two editors at Houyhnhnm Press, Danise Rose and John O’Hanlon, set out to publish a “more comprehensible” version of the book and, after thirty goddamn years of work, it was finally published in 2010. To get an idea of the work involved, take a look at Rose’s personal copy of Wake with she made her own notations of possible amendments: 

Naturally, a boundary smashing book as such attracts those overachieving souls who wish to decipher it all for the good of humanity. Sticking with the absurdity of it all, I set before you one such example: John Bishop’s 1986 tome, Joyce’s Book of the Dark. It is a 400+ mind-melting page the likes of which not seen since … well, since Finnegans Wake was published some forty-seven years previous. It’s hard to not hype the magnitude of Bishop’s work. A reviewer for the esteemed Library Journal went for the undersell approach by writing that it: “will help serious readers of the Wake get their bearings.” Yes, well maybe that’s true, but whatever bearings Bishop may help us find in Joyce’s work gets thrown off considerably by his own research. He atom-splits Wake into a trillion possibilities and connects the dots between the novel’s various influences: the political/philosophical teachings of Giocan Vico, the Egyptian Book Of The Dead, and that old stand-by reference point and all around great guy, Sigmund Freud. But that’s merely the beginning. In fact, that’s hardly the beginning.  Let’s just take a gander at a random sentence, shall we:

 “According to one line of speculation inevitably issuing from the Wake’s study of ‘meoptics,’ we might therefore conceive of an agent internal to the body agitating the ‘rods and cones of this even’s vision’ into wakefulness during visual dreams – and doing so not haphazardly, but with such weird precision as to etch there, graphically, people, scenes and even alphabetic characters of a sufficiently credulity-gripping lifelikeness as to conceive the dreamer of their reality.”

Yeah, that’s exactly what I was thinking! It’s not just words, either. Oh, no. He’s has gone to the trouble of making us some visual aids. Check this one out: 

I’m not going to bother explaining that one for you (because I can’t). Here, try this one that is supposed to be a bit simpler: 

Bishop is the sadist and we’re just masochists.

This book, like its subject matter, has the ability to induce panic attacks. The walls of the reader’s imagination are eliminated and the enormity of not just Finnegans Wake, but of the possibilities of the world and life itself, become almost too big for the mind to handle.

Expect to take this one slow. Bishop’s lofty ideas and theories require patience (Lord knows I haven’t read it all), but it’s worth the time and effort. In that way, Joyce’s Book of the Dark is perhaps the perfect companion to Finnegans Wake as both books challenge and reflect the wonders of language and thought.

However, an argument can be made that Bishop’s work is almost too much. Jeepers, maybe I don’t need a full breakdown of Egyptology in order to understand, say, three certain pages of this thing. (“That Joyce has in mind as a “premier terror” of the dark “errorland” of sleep, the loss of consciousness is suggested by the name that he repeatedly uses throughout the Wake to refer to the Egyptian afterworld.”) This is akin to getting your car stuck on a dirty, wet backroad only then watching the tow truck getting stuck in the same pit as it tries to pull it out.

Bishop himself is a professor of English at the University of California Berkeley, which means he’s about a mile from where I’m writing this thing so I could wander over to his office and ask him myself … but … I’m sure he’s busy.

Joyce’s Book of the Dark is a world unto itself: a fascinating verbal/visual gate-crashing study of the whole goddamn creative universe. It might someday get its own critical companion study -- one which helps us figure out what was going on in Bishop’s head, never mind Joyce’s. It creates new problems, new questions, new furrowed brows. If you want to get your hands really dirty and muck about in the essential fibers which make up the staggering brilliance of James Joyce, Book of the Dark is where you want to be.

But for those of us who need Joyce’s vision watered down just a wee bit more, there is another fantastic manual out there, one which even the hyper-kinetic American philosopher and psychonaut * Terrence McKenna endorsed some years ago. Stay tuned for part three.

*Yep, that’s an actual term, look it up.

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

Cuz a New Town Party Don't Stop

 Pierre Huyghe. "Streamside Day," film still, 2003. Film and video transfers; 26 minutes, color, sound. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York. © Pierre Huyghe.

Pierre Huyghe. "Streamside Day," film still, 2003. Film and video transfers; 26 minutes, color, sound. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York. © Pierre Huyghe.

In winter 2014-2015, the Lacma sponsored a retrospective of artist, Pierre Huyghe (b. 1962, Paris). I walked into the exhibition and a man in a suit announced my full name into the dark studio. I found a hermit crab in an aquarium wearing a football-sized Sleeping Muse shell. Outside, a bee hive was the head of a lounging, nude sculpture.

Despite these distractions, I spent most of my time in an alcove watching Streamside Day: a video of a celebration Pierre Huyghe invented for Streamside, a recently-birthed planned town in rural New York.

Onscreen, a parade of teenagers in rabbit and bear and horse costumes wander down a dirt street lined with naked wood homes. The smooth, bare earth is carved in the middle of a forest. The fresh-cut barrenness reminds me of a copper mine.

In a dirt quad, families sit on lawn chairs, look at their new neighbors, eat a curated pile of rainbow donuts. The mayor of the town gives a speech into a cheap microphone from a plywood platform.

The scene evokes the feeling of the first day of ninth grade. I look at the faces of the moms and dads who just spent a chunk of change on a down payment for this very new and out-of-the-way place. I get a sneaking suspicion that Huyghe is poking fun of the families. Parading their children around in pagan animal heads. Dotting the scene with silver Mylar balloons, bare plywood, rainbow-colored food. Failing to provide chairs so families bring their own mis-matching fold-ables.

Despite this, in an interview with Art 21, Huyghe said the town, “was under construction when [he] found it, and … created—or invented—a tradition for it … a celebration, once a year.” He continues: “This is a town that has no organicity. It's an image—an instant, pure image. Months ago, there was no town. Now, it's a brand new town with roads.” A new town, which, to Huyghe, warranted a celebration.

Watching the Streamside Day video, I was reminded of the time I once drove 4+ hours from Orange County through the Mojave Desert to the hot scrawled ruins of California City. Brainchild of Nat Mendelsohn, California City is and was an 80,000 acre planned community that was birthed during the New Town Movement of the 1950s. Mendelsohn imagined California City might one day rival Los Angeles.  

Though California City did end up becoming home to a few hundred residents – most of whom work for the nearby Airforce base – it is mostly a grid of ghost cul de sacs and crumbling asphalt. Street signs stare over the hard desert ground. California City is the state of California’s third largest city, by geographical area. It can be seen from space. I visited it because I have a thing about New Towns: towns with “no organicity.”

Born and raised in Orange County, CA, most of which is a New Town-type stucco suburban sprawl on the coast of Southern California, I know some of what it feels like to grow up in a New Town. Irvine, CA, is a particularly good example: a grid of glass office buildings and apartment towns built on what feels like an arbitrary spot in a grassy expanse.

I now work in another New Town: Broomfield, CO, which sits halfway between Denver and Boulder. Youtube hosts a video from the 50’s detailing its inception and birth.

The narrator begins by detailing the achievement of a man named Morris Greeley, who paved the path for Broomfield by birthing nearby New Town Greeley, Colorado. “Morris Greeley was a man of vision,” says the narrator. “In the wide horizons of his mind, he saw the stirring future of the American West. After viewing the rich, rolling land that sweeps majestically up to the great wall of the Rocky Mountains, he advised, “go west, young man, and grow up with the country.”

The narrator’s booming voice resonates with the enthusiasm of post-war America -- an America full of middle classers seeking to flee from the dirty urban sprawl toward the healthful environs of the grassy suburbs. The narrator asks: “Why not meet the challenge of a growing area by building a whole new city from scratch … a modern dream city for 30K people where everything is carefully planned from the beginning … ?”

Why not?

“Soon, the detailed planning for Broomfield heights was underway in earnest,” says the narrator. “A firm of experienced city planners was obtained to make a dream city as perfect as man can conceive. Streets were laid out in arcs and curves to conform to the natural landscape … street arteries were planned to carry traffic easily and quickly to and from a smart, modern shopping center.”

I know lots of people who live in Broomfield (no Heights). It’s affordable, is home to dozens of tech conglomerate high-rise office buildings, and, indeed, has some nice views of the mountains. I’m guessing the smart, modern shopping center is the strip mall with the Starbucks and Buffalo Wild Wings.

It’s easy to criticize New Towns such as Broomfield, CO, or Irvine, CA. They’re populated by mostly white, middle class folks. Chain businesses dominate. Homes and apartments matchy-match like they came from a box set. Driving culture dominates. They’re usually dozens of miles from what could be considered a true city, a natural people center.

In fact, the out-of-the-way nature of New Towns is part of their DNA. Distance from the messiness of the people center is what makes New Towns feel safe. I’m not sure if Streamside is or will become a typical New Town, but it has most of the earmarks of one. And, my instinct is to criticize it, to start humming lines from the Father John Misty song:

"they gave me a useless education

... a subprime loan

on a craftsman home" 

But, maybe that isn't the right response.  At least it didn't seem to be Huyghe's. “When I first saw this town, I just went to see all the people,” said Huyghe. “And then I said, ‘I'm going to invent a celebration because it's a brand new place … I organized the whole celebration—from the parade to the concert, to the food, to the mayor giving a speech, to the kids playing—everything.'”

I hum: "Oh ... just a little ... bored in the USA..."  The narrator continues: “on an historic day, the 21st of August, 1955, a town was born … 100 new families had pioneered and found the realization for their dreams.”

MUSIC, ARTICLE

I Have To Break Your Heart With This Song

The_Shangri-Las_1964 (1).jpg

In an era of gleaming Top 40 pedestrianism; among bland chart- topping ne’re-do-wells with forced smiles and fancy dresses; amidst clammy-handed, cigar-chomping behind-the-scenes record executives, shifty-eyed promo men and loud, obnoxious radio DJs with ridiculous voices and “you’re the next big things, baby!” come-ons; in spite of double-talking, chart-topping one hit wonder boys with grabby hands on dark late night tour busses filled with guitars and drums…among, amidst and in spite of stood The Shangri-Las: brilliant, different and dark.

 Yet they only have two recognizable hits to their name. Sure, that’s more than what a lot of groups are able to achieve, but considering the talent of both the vocalists and the team behind them, one would think their career should’ve been more storied. What their career lacked in longevity, it made up for with influence, leaving in their wake a dozen singles, a couple LP’s and a rock solid legacy which can be found in both obvious as well as more surprising sub-genres: Punk. Contemporary Vocal. Noise Rock. Pop. Bruce Springsteen. Nation Of Ulysses. Amy Winehouse. The Slits. Kathleen Hanna. The New York Dolls. Kim Gordon.The Ramones. Laura Nyro. Aerosmith.

The Shangri-Las sound and look has since become a personification of “the girl group image”.  Yet, at the same time, they defied that very cliché by releasing a string of melancholy singles which clashed with the genre’s more innocuous themes, challenged conventional gender roles of the day, redefined femininity and, last but not least, changed the notion of a pop song’s overall theme. So it only makes sense their greatest work, the one song which can encapsulate their career and worldview, was almost forgotten, buried on the flip side of an arbitrary single released during their most hectic year.

 Ah yes, the 45 rpm single: so much can be accomplished in three minutes. As with the punk movement a decade later, the groups of this genre were (and still are) best appreciated two songs at a time; full albums tended to be redundant, if not unnecessary.Sometimes all it takes is one small record to change a life; what may be one person’s trash is another’s favorite song.

The last vestiges of old world showbiz clung in the air during this time of popular culture. Performers were encouraged to play, look and act nice with the audience and the press; don’t rock to boat and all will go accordingly. The Girl Group Era (most commonly pinpointed between 1960 and 1966, though by no means the only time female led musical combos were popular) has been perceived as maybe the last innocent period in the history of Rock ‘N Roll, just before things became weird and serious and all big business-like, just before Rock ‘n Roll died and was reborn as the more vague Rock Music. So, those show biz sensibilities could still be seen in the charts as the Girl Group era took off. The subject matter tended to concentrate on optimistic themes and almost entirely on matters of the heart aimed straight at the ever growing teenage record buyer: The Supremes “Baby Love”; The Ad Libs “The Boy From New York City”; The Chiffons’ “Sweet Talkin’ Guy”’ and The Crystals “There’s No Other Baby Like My Baby”. Boy-Meets-Girl scenarios were running amok all over the charts and one couldn’t turn on a radio without being hit with“he’s the best boy in the world” idealisms or a “he did me wrong” sob-fest or the ever popular “I want him back” reconsiderations.

Much of this material was written by outside composers and matched with vocal groups based on sound more than personality; occasionally a song will be recorded by two different groups within a year giving it two different perspectives, sometimes the perspective didn't change at all. Though the female vocalist was often the protagonist of the songs, it didn’t necessarily equate a position of power. Instead,a good amount of the material has the singer as a mere by-stander in her own situation; oftentimes submissive but mostly eager-to-please. Look nice, act nice and all shall go accordingly. The proverbial boat shall not be rocked.

Of course, there were always exceptions to the rule; writers, singers and producers who couldn't help but do things their own individualistic way have always been around. Most notably, to this reporter at least, were The Tammys who combined their razor-sharp, daredevil harmonies with fantastical arrangements from the minds of Lou Christie and Twyla Herbert. Their third single was the culmination, the beautifully uncompromising masterpiece, “Egyptian Shumba”.

On the  other end of the spectrum were The Jaynettes who had created a haunting, lost-in-the-woods atmosphere for their single “Sally Go ‘Round The Roses” which found its way into the charts, resting at the number two slot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart despite its baffling lyrics. (“…hope this place can’t hurt you / roses they can’t hurt you / Sally don’t you go, don’t you go downtown / Saddest thing in the whole wide world / Is see your baby with another girl…”)

Bessie Bank’s gorgeous 1964 hit ballad, “Go Now”, may’ve been similarly arranged as others of the time, but the narrator is a strong-willed female taking charge of an obvious irreversibly downed relationship; her voice may be covered in sorrow but she knows what she wants. ("I don't want you to tell me just what you intend to do now / Cause how many times do I have to tell you darlin' / I'm still in love with you now...") And gets it.

Then, of course,  there were The Ronettes, the ultimate Not-Sure-If-You-Can-Bring-Them-Home-To-Mother Girl Group. With their husky, come-hither voices, stunning African-American Indian-Irish genetic content, purposely half-lidded Cleopatric eyes, topped with perfect hair and wrapped with perfect clothes, they certainly appeared as though they were lot of fun. Something in the way they smiled into the audience, into cameras, though, something about their long run of wonderful singles, gave the impression the Ronettes’ idea of “fun” might be slightly dangerous or at least cause you some sort of mid-level distress.

The three Ronettes possessed a look and sound so unpretentious and all-encompassing it could (and continues to) absolutely shatter the false structural integrity of even the most hardened teenage ruffian. His macho standoffishness but a weak shell against their raspy vocal landslide and producer Phil Spector’s larger-than-life production techniques. The teenage hoodlum begins to question his past and future views on a woman’s place in the world, his idea femininity forever changed. The Ronettes music is so powerful and awe inspiring it brings him to honest tears as he cruises his sparkling new 1965 Ford Thunderbird down the strip, radio blasting “Do I Love You?”; tears flow from his eyes onto his lap onto the floor mats, the tears filling up, up, up and over the car’s windows, the salt audibly corroding the Thunderbird’s frame and drip-drop-dripping onto the roadbed leaving a trail behind him which evaporates into the air. Just like the music invisibly coiling from his radio. “Do I Love You?"

Even as main vocalist Veronica Bennett was slowly, painfully, turning into "Ronnie Spector,"getting pulled into a paranoid web of the most ridiculously misguided, double-standardized self-obsesesd male in their orbit, she was able to throw that smile into an audience and camera knowing full well it's curtains for any teenage boy bearing witness, knowing full well she inadvertently relegated herself to a gross ten year imprisonment in her soon-to-be-husband's LA mansion.  "Do I love you?" 

Here we go. November 29, 1965, the Moulin Rouge Club not too far from Spector’s mansion/jail. "The Big TnT Show". Stage bright with light, every seat filled with a screaming teenager. This could be the night. A dozen performers. Places everyone, places. Smack dab in the middle of the set, the announcer clutches the microphone, plugging one ear with a shaky index finger: “Give a great welcome to…The Ronettes!” Teenage exaltation and screams turn the air into a solid mass of joy, the three girls on stage soak it all in and smile. Only two songs for the cameras. Ready? Go.  Music starts, giant Hal Blaine drum intro --dum. dum-dum, BAP! dum dum-dum, BAP!-  and…Jesus, just look into their eyes as they shine through another performance of the wonderfully assertive “Be My Baby”. The screams are of an unknown level, new territory. How unusual for teenage girls to be losing all self-control over female performers. That’s power. They can hardly stay in their seats, their views on a woman’s place in the world, of femininity forever changed as the powerful music and the sight of those three up there in sleek modern pantsuits take control of their world. “Be My Baby”. Just look at those three up there casually singing brilliance, its so natural looking, are they kidding? The night we met I knew I needed you so…look at their eyes, their smiles, lightning arcs right off their every move - zzzzzzZAP! Right between the eyes. Teenage boys vaporized. Girls gone wild…and if I had the chance I’d never let you go…The three do a quick dance during the instrumental break, ka-ZAM! The very air between performer and audience congeals into a mutual agreement. This could be the night. Song ends. Deafening screams. An airplane taking off. The only ones in the vicinity under any kind of control are the Ronettes themselves. They just smile, they just know. Next song, the already standardized “Shout!”, always a crowd pleaser, works every time for even the lamest of groups. You know you make me wanna…more electricity, more arcs. The go-go dancers in the background normally there as decoration for the bands are useless now and so are erased. If this wasn't being captured on film for history, no one would remember them back there trying to keep up…-Shout!- The air breaks on the first downbeat – sscchLAM. Three Ronettes clapping in 4/4 time…say you will…hip shaking, wrist twirling full-on sensory attack. There are no survivors -Shout!-This could be the night. Say you will! The three synchronize their way off stage with smile as big as the screams are loud, -Shout!- Ronnie giving a delicate wave of the right hand, goodbye. That’s it, song’s over. Anything more might be slightly dangerous or at least cause some sort of mid-level distress. Teenage screams forever it seems and the three know they’ve just upped the jig with a mere two song, seven minute set preserved for all time on film and eventually slid into the Library Of Congress shelves. Male-dominated entertainment industry has been emasculated, burning embers under their feet if only for that sliver of time. Shout! Screams everywhere. There were no survivors. All barriers smashed, say you will…no matter the color, Shout!, no matter the creed, because rock ‘n roll is fun and racial inequality is a drag. Say you will...everyone shrieks -Shout!- with delight at the power of The Ronettes. Do I love you? Be My Baby.

But I digress.

Anyway…where was I?  Ah yes: while a more watered down group such as The Supremes were all forced smiles, glittering gowns and far too eager to win your acceptance, The Shangri-Las were downright glum by comparison. Our girls just stood at the lip of the stage and looked fairly serious; when they smiled it was one of confidence, defiance and being comfortable under the bright lights and nerve racking pressures. An invisible but palatable bond connected them giving off the impression they were just as much a gang as they were a vocal group.

 Being made up of two sets of sisters, Mary and Betty Weiss and Marge and Mary-Ann Ganser, they kind of were a gang. Having a grown-up in the rougher parts of Queens, New York (and, in the case of the Weiss sisters, a troubled upbringing with their father dying when they were young and a subsequent strained relationship with their mother), they came by this image honestly giving their music and persona a distinctive air but also served as protection. Any unwanted advances from wide-eyed male musicians or other industry types licking their chops at the sight of young, successful female flesh were met with a cool wave of indifference. It was well-known from early on: don’t mess with The Shangri-Las.

 Of course, there’s some differing of opinions on the true nature of these four, however. Motor-mouthed 1960’s radio DJ MurryThe K and singer Evie Sands have both weighed in about the girls rebelliousness but with differing opinions. The former was known for being a bit of a windbag and prone to unnecessary hyperbole; so, his version is typically apocryphal as he claimed the girls were arrested multiple times for various pranks and even has them kidnapping a male fan who eventually tries to escape from their hotel room by hanging a bed sheet out the window. “Those girls were crazy,” K would later gush, “I LOVED them!"

Sands, meanwhile, was just starting her career but not as easily charmed. Claiming to’ve been snubbed by the girls while sharing a car en route to a performance, her adverse reaction to their gang mentality was inevitable. “I was excited to meet them,” writer Mick Patrick quotes her as saying, “but they were the rudest girls I had ever met. Really crude and crass. I came from a very strict home, very respectable; [and had] never heard such language in my life, I didn't even know some of those curse words existed. They were absolutely disgusting.” 

On the other end of the spectrum were those who claimed the girls were anything but rabble-rousers. Writer John Grecco, dismisses the Shangri-Las bad girl legend and claims (completely unsubstantiated) they spent more time together in their hotel rooms while on tour as the other bands ran wild, chalking it all up to just harmless fun: “Over the years the girls jokes have taken on a life of their own with people wanting to make more out of them, blowing them out of proportion with interpretations leading to the sinister," Grecco insists in the liner notes to the best collection of the groups music Myrmidons of Melodrama, "but they were simply teenage pranks pulled by fun-loving teenage girls."

A more probable assertation can be found in the words of someone who was closer to them than any of the above. Songwriter Ellie Greenwich, composer of the group’s most effective lyrics, thought the girls were a little of both in an interview with writer Charlotte Grieg:

“Overall, the girl groups had very sweet images, except for the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las, who had a tougher, harder attitude. By today's standards, they were as innocent as the day is long. Back then, they seemed to have a street toughness, but with a lot of vulnerability. Mary Weiss [had] the sweetest long straight hair, an angelic face, and then this nasal voice comes out, and this little attitude - the best of both worlds. Were they tougher than [say] the Dixie Cups? They were a little harder. They also knew they had a look, and they played into it. You'd say, "This is what you're gonna do," The most they'd ever say was, "Well, we're not gonna do it." Ten minutes later, they were doing it. That's as bad as they got, if you wanna consider that bad.”

We'll leave the final word of this aspect to Mary Weiss herself, speaking with Telegraph writer Iaian Aitch in 2007, she unapologetically shrugged it all off:  

“Our road manager was just a few years older than us, so there was no one to protect us. One time I was in my hotel room and there was a glass panel in the door and I saw a hand coming through it. We were in a state where it was legal to buy a gun, so I walked into a store, showed my ID and bought a Derringer. I was sixteen years old."

See how easy it is to get sidetracked by their mystique? Let’s get back on track. Their first singles, “Wishing Well”, “Simon Says” were good but overall benign; their voices were already in place but they hadn’t distanced themselves from the rest of their peers. That all changed after scoring two successive hits with “Remember (Walking In The Rain)” and “Leader Of The Pack”; it was with these two singles which established what would become their trademark style and subsequent legacy: melodramatic singles packed with soap opera story lines, heavy use of studio techniques and a dash of sound effects all packed into three minutes. The most standout element were the spoken interludes somewhere in the song, a fantastic way to draw the listen further into the narrative. Though first popularized and brought into the charts thirty years earlier by The Ink Spots, and used by some of their peers, it was a technique which would become The Shangri-Las calling card, one which would be copied and parodied in the following decades.

Whether by design or default,  "Remember" and "Leader of the Pack" fit the girl's natural tough exterior perfectly; their label, Red Bird Records, knew they had something special and quickly revamped their image to fit accordingly. As luck would have it, the BBC helped matters considerably by pulling the latter from airplay due to its violent content (Melody Maker January 16th, 1965, p. 20: “The Shangri-Las new single has been banned but shouldn’t fans have the right in what they can and cannot listen to on radio and television?”). The clean appearance initially adopted during the time of their earliest singles was ditched for something more alluring; the typical light colored skirts, heels and sensible shirt (the go-to attire for female performers at that time) was replaced by succession of sleek, eye-catching outfits, each one better than the previous: cat-suits of white boots, tight black curve-fitting leather pants topped with a white ruffled shirt under a leather vest. Sleeveless up-to-the-neck sweaters and matching tight polyester chinos. Dark pants, button-down oxfords with a necktie. Genders bended. Completely singular. 

This is not to suggest all of their material was based on rebellion or fused within complex parameter, (" The boy", "Simon Says", "what is Love" for example, are all void of drama) but it would turn out those which were ended up being their best and most memorable work. “I Can Never Go Home Again” is mostly spoken instead of sung and revolves around the story told by a girl who runs away from home to be with her boyfriend, only to discover her mother has died while she’s gone.

“She grew so lonely at the end / The angels picked her as a friend / And I can never go home again." The funeral march of “Dressed In Black,” “He walks along, a shadow in the night / each time he walks past my window / can’t hold the tears from my eyes / we’re still so much in love, why can’t they realize?” makes no bones about its intended mood. The superb “Out On The Streets” is a fantastically complex and haunting narrative about a girl who knows she has to break up with a boy as their relationship has taken the rebel out of him. He used to act bad, used to, but he quit it / It makes me so sad ‘cause I know he did it for me.” 

Heck, even the upbeat “Give Him A Great Big Kiss” isn’t spared from trouble  during the spoken exchange between the girls:

“What color are his eyes?”

“I don’t know, he’s always wearing shades.”

“Is he tall?”

“Well, I gotta look up.”

“Yeah? Well I hear he’s bad.”

“Umm, he’s good bad, but he’s not evil.” 

That last word comes and goes quickly, a mere fact more than a point of concern as the song continues on its bouncy way. A term such as “evil”, however, wasn't thrown around in pop songs too much back then, if at all, so with it comes questions. Since the term was used, we must presume the girl has had some experience with evil, or at least enough to compare and contrast it against typical strains of juvenile delinquency. What horrors has she seen? How many teenagers knew (or know) what constitutes a felony? Just that one four-letter word, used so casually, gives an insight to some dark, complex themes under the surface of these songs.

Interestingly, and much like the usage of sound effects, this doom and gloom recipe did have a tendency to backfire. The most obvious example being “Past, Present And Future”, anentirely spoken piece done with an emotionless tone while, underneath, is just a mournful piano and strings (based on Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, no less). The simple narrative has a girl talking to a boy who is interested in her availability:

"Was I ever in love? I called it love, I mean, it felt like love. Will I go out with you? Why not? Do I like to dance? Of course. Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to, but don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me ‘cause that will never happen again. Shall we dance?"

At which point the strings and piano tornado up, pushing the song into ridiculousness. Words this powerfully stark can be interpreted differently and many have speculated its sub-text to be pertaining to the protagonist having been raped; others think it’s more about the rather common defense mechanism (especially in teenagers) which kicks in after getting spurned. A similar controversy arose in 1962 after The Crystals released “He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss”; repelled program directors kept it off the airwaves as public debate swirled over its subject matter. The song’s writer, Carol King, later regretted having anything to do with it but never denied either it being about domestic violence or her own experience with such horrors (The song as a whole was inspired when King discovered Little Eva (singer of the hit "Locomotion") was in a physically abusive relationship). All of which is too bad since “He Hit Me…” is an amazing piece of work, its minimal arrangement (a Phil Spector production, ironically) makes it far more successful than the overdone “Past, Present And Future”. Morton’s hamfisted production all but compromises the girl’s vocal take here, thus voiding the lyrical power.

The amalgamation of these sights and sounds reached its zenith in the early months of 1965 for their appearance on ABC TV’s hit teen show, Shindig! while promoting the beautiful “Out In The Streets” (“Shindig’s pick of the week!”). They stand on three individual pedestals in an otherwise empty stage wearing close-fitting all black leather suits and boots, anything white in previous wardrobes is gone (as is Betty Weiss who had taken a leave of absence). The song begins, a haunting angelic chorus, the stage goes black, the only source of light being three spots shining down from above each girl dramatically highlighting their profound look. The Ganser’s bowled, black hair curling under their remarkably pronounced underbites; when one of ABC’s TK-41C cameras slowly meanders to stage right and zooms in on the twins’ profile, their seriousness envelops the entire screen. The bridge of their nose slopes perfectly south towards a mouth subtly miming the lyrics, eyes swallowed up by dark pools, heads slightly tilted back in defiance. More shadows than light.

 In direct contrast, Mary Weiss’ long blond hair is the brightest image in the TK-40’s Ektar 135 mm lens, her soft facial structure looks to be made of a haloed, luminous fog, it drifts into the camera’s lens, into focusing coils, deflection coils, into transmitters, oscilloscoping into electro-beams and then breathing –ssssSSSSHHHAAAAaaaaaa-- into cathode-ray tubes across the country, lifting off, drifting off nationwide television screens into homes, into the eyes and ears of good ‘ol American teenage Shindig! viewers. They hear the haunting ballad, see the three girls stand almost motionless on their pedestals, moving only their arms in slow, graceful movements. To the teenage viewer staring with awe into their flickering black and white television screen, those languid actions take on a fluttering magical strobe effect, blurring lines of objectivity; the Information-Action Ratio no longer traceable in living rooms across good ‘ol America. A sound mistaken for the delicate breaking of thin crystal threads -tink!- is actually the sound of hearts breaking in good ‘ol American teenage Shindig! viewer’s chests. (So won’t you hurry, come on, come see about them.)

These visuals combined with the chilling  elegance of “Out In The Streets”, makes for the perfect sensory elixir, coming at your in an entirely different way than, say, The Ronettes; where they tended to meet you head-on, The Shangri-Las crept up from behind. That this was all done for such a fleeting two and a half minute appearance lends itself to the importance the visual image was to their music and, ultimately, their success and legacy.

By this time the Shangri-Las had already been kicked into the fast lane which garnered them steady work; they filled 1965 with a handful of singles and a hectic public appearance schedule including tours, radio/TV appearances and commercial endorsements (“Won-der, won-der, get Revlon’s natural wonder! How pretty can you get?”). Their third release of that year, “Right Now And Not Later”, was a fantastic Motown-flavored mid-tempo number; Weiss’s voice was upfront and distinctive and the four blend perfectly and the melody was ridiculously catchy but, ultimately, it was neither here nor there. What was missing was their true essence. 

That essence wasn't really missing, it was just on the other side. “The Train From Kansas City”, the actual reason for this here dissertation, was a 180 degree turnabout and encapsulated everything so distinctive about The Shangri-Las: incredible harmonies and musical arrangement, depressive lyrics and sound effects making it one of most brilliantly sung and arranged records of the genre, right up there with “Egyptian Shumba” and “Sally Go ‘Round The Roses":

Baby, baby, please believe me

I would never, never 

Do anything to hurt you

Baby, baby please believe me

I would never, never

Do anything to you to make you blue 

 

But yesterday I got this letter

From a boy I loved

Before I ever knew you

Before I even knew you

 

And the train from Kansas City is comin into town

The train from Kansas City is a-comin

Nothing I can do can make it turn around

Baby, baby please don't worry

 

Nothing in this world could tear us apart

We'll never, never part

So wait right here and I will hurry 

I'll be back in time it takes to break a heart

I gotta break his heart

 

Yes the train from Kansas City is a comin'

The train from Kansas City is a-comin'

Nothing I can do can make it turn around

 

Well I never answered his letter

I just couldn't tell him that way 

No I never answered his letter

Cause I didn't know what to say

 

Now I'm going down to the station

He'll be there at ten after two

I'll show him the ring on my finger

I don't know what else I can do

 

Oh, the train from Kansas City is coming into town 

The train from Kansas City is a-comin'

Nothing I can do can make it turn around

 

Here comes the train

Here comes the train

Here comes the train

 

(Greenwich/Barry/Tender Tunes/Trio Music, 1965)

As with many of their greatest songs, the lyrics and arrangement were from the minds of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, one of the most talented songwriting teams out of the already successful Brill Building. These two had already crafted some of the best songs of the early and mid-60’s: “Be My Baby”, “Then He Kissed Me”, “The Kind Of Boy You Can’t Forget” as well as a handful of past and future Shangri-La sides (“Out In The Streets”, “Heaven Only Knows” and “What’s  A Girl Supposed To Do”). Depending who you believe they may or may not’ve helped write “Leader Of The Pack”, though, according to the song’s producer/writer, Shadow Morton, he gave them credit merely for “business purposes”, a claim Greenwich would later refute. Either way, if you were to take a look at the Billboard Hot 100 list covering the year 1964, the duo were responsible for seventeen; Greenwich, in particular, had a brilliance for writing strong, concise lyrics which carried more dramatic pull than any other song floating around the airwaves at the time. It should be pointed out the duo also contributed their fair amount to the ever growing mountain of saccharine pop singles (“Da Doo Ron Ron”) as well as nauseating girl-loves-boy anthems (“The Chapel Of Love) illustrating, if nothing else, the Greenwich/Barry team were just as capable of pandering to the more boring aspects of pop music. That they could write in both directions gave credence to their talent as well as a certain disinterest in playing by industry standards.

With Shadow Morton behind the board, this resulting team was far above the normal. To drive home the point of the lyrical narrative, they mixed in sound effects; not all the time, mind you, just when it really mattered. The most famous being the sound of a motorcycle in “Leader Of The Pack”, but there’s also seagulls in “Remember”, a crack of thunder in “Give Us Your Blessing” and ghostly train sounds which appear in “The Train From Kansas City”. Interestingly, these sound effects worked both ways for the group. As the years have ticked by, “Leader Of  The Pack” is now mostly known for the motorcycle sound and not the depth of the story or strength of the vocal arrangement. As such, it’s become a caricature, a cartoon version of this particular era, a case of kitsch eclipsing content. 

As it begins, “The Train From Kansas City” finds the protagonist (a female in the original with subsequent cover versions flipping gender roles) in mid-conversation as she in informs her fiancé about an old boyfriend coming into town looking for her; she hasn't had the heart to end their relationship in letters and, now that he’s soon arriving, knows she has to do it in person. “I’ll be back in time it takes to break a heart,” assures Weiss later in the song and then delivers one of the song’s more crushing lines: “I have to break his heart.” Crushing not because she wants to break his heart, but has to; it’s a part of the human condition this song so greatly mirrors. 

The crux of the matter here is this impending heartbreak, but just exactly whose is left uncertain as it doesn't happen by song’s end, there's no real conclusion and a sense of urgent dread hangs over the entire piece; from the opening piano charge to the closing harmonies, in Weiss’ voice and in the mournful train whistle. The enormity of the event isn't lost on her, there’s ache and sympathy in Weiss’ delivery; the news she has to deliver just might squelch anything else in her old boyfriend’s life; he’s doomed and she knows it. As does her fiancé. And now, so do we. Heartbreak is inevitable for all of us at some point and here it’s symbolized in the form of a train the story's antagonist (and yet another addition to the long list of songs using trains as a metaphor or subject in popular American music, not least of all Andrew & Jim Baxter's mournful "Kansas City Railroad Blues" originally recorded in 1927). As Greenwich so skillfully has her admit: “Nothing I can do can make it turn around.”

For anyone having been in a situation of rejection (and, I would suppose, that’s most, if not all of us), this song shoots right to the core of that particular fear; no one wants to be replaced, especially by someone for which they still hold feelings. In that light, “The Train From Kansas City” is a unintentionally vicious and brilliantly written break-up song in an era already steeped in such matters. How Greenwich, Barry, Morton and these four girls were able to crystallize this completely unique perspective on the pitfalls of relationships in three and a half minutes is simply astounding.

With all the layers in this song (the story, the voices, the instrumentation, the use of the studio) it requires multiple listenings. Weiss’ strong alto and the story she’s relating is difficult to hear past, but once you can latch onto Betty Weiss and the Ganser sister’s absolutely perfect backing harmonies, a whole new dimension opens up, they are the song’s (and quite possibly the group’s) secret weapon. Listen how they hang on to and stretch out the word “and” in the line: “so wait right here and I will hurry…”; their voices work counter against Mary Weiss’s troubled and determined tone. As the final section begins with “I never answered his letter”, Betty and the Ganser’s voices seal together attaining gospel proportions.

As with a lot of great songs from this time, certain aspects of instrumentation are added at just the right points to audibly expand its world. This is made clear as the very opening: a rolling piano and the sound of a train whistle begin simultaneously; Betty and the Gansers start the narrative with the first line off in the distance, a train whistle distance. Mary enters right on their heels for the second line strengthening the sound and bringing it all into focus. The instrumentation counterpoint (which has only been the piano, tambourine and percussion thus far) kicks into gear with guitar, bass and drums; this balancing act is accomplished in thirty seconds giving us little time to soak in the true essence of what exactly is going on here.

Other small ingredients can be picked out as well: the double-time tambourine during just the final measures of each chorus; the tack piano swelling under the entire performance. The most powerful trick, the one which breaks it all open, happens just as the final verse reaches its emotional peak. Everything drops out except for their voices (Betty and The Gansers’ voices…I mean, crimony, these are teenagers singing this?) and that constant tambourine’s whole notes...

“Well I never answered his letter…”

 Then, as all good arrangers know, tension builds with added instrumentation and the Barry/Morton team’s expertise coalesce with added guitar and handclaps…

“Now I’m going down to the station…”

If you’re listening close (I know, not everyone is and that’s okay, but you and me, we’re listening close and hanging on every syllable) you’ll notice it all comes to this: the reverb drenched snare drum. Entering begins; it kicks you in the guts, it’ll drive you nuts, its pulse heightening the agony of the line:

“I’m going to show him the ring on my finger…”

All of these elements are small but crucial in defining this as a major work and much of it due to the talents of Jeff Barry and Shadow Morton.

 That such a magnificent look into sorrow was relegated to the B-side of a single gives one pause. The reasoning for this seemingly giant oversight may to do with their label wanting to back off the dark stuff a bit; their two preceding releases of that year (both Barry/Greenwich compositions), the aforementioned “Out On The Street” and the ethereal “Give Us Your Blessing” (a young couple plead with their parents to accept their relationship and, when they don’t, the couple die a car accident while eloping) were indeed grim. So, the general consensus from the label must’ve revolved around not wanting to over-saturate the market with all things macabre as well as not wanting to pigeonhole the girls so quickly. 

Regardless, “The Train From Kansas City” has since been re-discovered and covered several times in the ensuing years and, with each one, furthering its stature. Two of the best latch onto different aspects. The now legendary inde rock band Superchunk from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, recorded one and fittingly tagged it onto the B-side of their debut single. Being a rock band, they naturally transfer the original version’s piano riff onto guitar and bass, zero in on the song’s unrecognized anger and frustration then play it into the ground. The result is wonderfully ramshackeled and a far more cathartic take; how they ended up with a less vague conclusion is refreshing as it is confounding.

For her 2004 live EP release, The Tigers Have Spoken, Neko Case was able to wring-out something amazingly close to the original. Possessing a wonderfully unique voice, (an alto which matches Weiss' perfectly) and accompanied by the Canadian band, The Sadies, Case is able to concentrate on the song’s vocal beauty and its accumulative pain. Kelly Hogan’s pristine harmonies add that last, helpful final touch, almost equaling the eloquent ache of Betty Weiss and the Ganser sisters some forty years previous. Where Superchunk tightly wound themselves around the song and try to strangle it, Case and The Sadies bore their way straight into its very fibers. And not a dry eye in the house.

The final line, “Here comes the train”, repeats three times building up the necessary tension and mystery, but no matter who is singing, those four words act as a perfect cliff-hanger leading us eavesdroppers to wonder what happens as the music and the girl’s last notes fades out and the sound of the train clamors in. But maybe we already know what happens. The kind of heartbreak detailed here is distinctive enough to be easily recognized by anyone who has experienced it, even when it’s not our own anguish. We’ve all been on the train, we’ve been at the station, we’ve all waited for someone to return. And therein lies the song’s power: it magnifies the most harrowing ingredients of emotional vulnerability and, smothering it in harmonies, reverb and mournful sound effects, allows us to empathize with not just the character’s situation, but our own as well.

Despite its surface appearance of renewal and an impending fresh start, “The Train From Kansas City” seems to be more about goodbyes, that horrible, sometimes life-altering kind which we all must face at one point or another. As listeners, we’re not so much concerned with the girl’s fiancé or their new life together; no, it’s the conclusion of her old romance which draws us into that world. Greenwich’s ability to pinpoint the tension of this singular narrative couldn’t have been pulled off by The Supremes or The Angels, not a goddamned chance. More than anyone else during the renowned Girl Group Era, the four tough, beautiful and exceedingly talented girls from the darker parts of Cambria Heights, Queens, were able to give this three minute drama a timeless essence. 

For the broken-hearted, for those left waiting, for those who’ve been replaced, for anyone scarred from a goodbye and left with that great aching void swirling inside their chests: fear not, The Shangri-Las understand, they have your back. “The Train From Kansas City” is proof positive, adding beauty to the sadness of life, sadness to the beauty of life.

 


ARTICLE, MUSIC

Some audible advice.

There's very little I despise more than the commercial FM radio scene. It’s gag-inducing, anger sparking. It’s all blah, blah, blah, repeat, repeat, repeat. You know the score. You also know one needs to really dig (or get really lucky) to find the sweet spot your music-loving heart desires. Every major city, heck, any mid-sized city has some pocket on the AM or FM dials which holds a fantastic radio station. Thanks to the Internet, those pockets have been easier to search as Internet Radio has kicked open the doors of availability. What was once an entertainment and educational source confined to your surrounding area is now only confined to how much time and interests you have to spare. While I could list off the number of hero stations out there which requires investigation (and there are plenty), I’m just going to highlight the best. 

It should come as no surprise it’s WFMU out of Jersey City. They have a lauded history which has been blabbed about in such fancy-pants rags such as The New York TimesThe New Yorker, (NYT’s persistent runt of a little brother) Rolling StoneThe Village Voice blah, blah, blah. There’s even a bunch of whoop-dee-do famous people who’ve gone on record and named the station as a fave. Yeah, WFMU is that good: even the Hollywood types enjoy it! So, what's all the fuss? Before they hit the web, WFMU was already amazing with their fierce independence and brilliant DJ’s; this has been going on since 1958, mind you. Not a bad track record. After they went live on the web, their stature climbed even further. One of the corner stones here is their free music archive which hosts roughly 45,000 songs available free as streaming or download and challenges those neer-do-wells over at Archive.org as best free music dumping ground. According to the station, it’s “a social music website built around a curated library of free, legal audio.”  In other words, you’re not going to get popped by the Feds for digging into their database.

But you’ll need to do that on your own time. What I want you to do right now is investigate one of their web satellite stations; they have three apparently (which, including their terrestrial stream, means they have four available stations, each different, each amazing in their own right…no, they’re not paying me to write this tripe…hell, the WFMU folks are so staunchly independent, they won’t take any underwriting); the one I want you to dial up and dive into is their “Rock ‘n Soul Ichiban” station. Why? Because it’s 24/7 obscure rockabilly, 60’s garage rock and soul. Not interesting enough? Well, hows about they toss in vintage commercials (movies, soft drinks, various concert adverts) and air checks from around the country. You can make believe it’s 1966 in your own living room or wherever the hell you’re hearing it. I mean, shucks, where else are you going to hear Johnny Ray Harris sing “Alligator Meat” or The Jay Jay’s pumpin' out “Shake It Some More” or the wonderful Nocturnals crying their pretty little eyes out in “Because You’re Gone”?

Mix it all together and you have a nice stream of gold flowing from the speakers straight into that membrane which separates your inner ear from your outer ear and which will slowly bleed for a good 36 hours if you accidentally jab it with a Q-tip or chopstick or twig or what have you.

So, there you go: one long-winded screed about a radio station which you may or may not enjoy. What with the Holidays approaching, you're gonna want some kinda distraction, something to do while avoiding your ex-spouse or friends or fruitcake-bearing neighbors at your windswept door who want to know if you'd like to hear a carol or two. Well, you don't. You want to listen to WFMU.




ARTICLE, NONFICTION

What Are You Talking About? (Part 1)

 

It’s been seventy-three years since James Joyce died in a Zurich hospital after a surgery for a perforated ulcer. Therefore, it’s been seventy-three years since the rest of us have been left to fend for ourselves when it comes to deciphering the author’s two greatest works, Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. Since their publication (1922 and 1939, respectively), most of us know more about these book’s notoriety than their actual plots. Well, guess what? Turns out, since his death, there have been a whole slew of books written by people trying to and then deciding they have, in fact, figured it all out. You've got your reader's guides, your companions, your centennial symposiums, your methods and designs, interpretations, introductions and even unabridged republications of original Shakespeare and Company editions. On and on it goes, everyone seems to have an angle and, apparently, everyone has a goddamn book contract. 

 

Perhaps the most readable of these is 1965’s Rejoyce by Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess. (Also published as: Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction To James Joyce For The Ordinary Reader). The main reason the book’s success as a digestible look at Joyce’s work is due to Burgess’ career as a critic and linguist, both of which are fairly important decoding tools needed for the job. Though how he was able to condense a brilliant and, ultimately challenging writing career into three hundred paperback pages might be worth a book itself, but let’s not let get distracted.

 

In quick succession, Burgess unravels Joyce’s early work (Dubliners, A Portrait Of The Artist… and Chamber Music) into bite-sized pieces as he takes us into the path of that literary one-two punch of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. The early work might seem separate entities, but, as one learns from Rejoyce, each act as a stepladder to the next book. Sure, all that is typical, almost expected in a writer’s creative trajectory, but where Joyce ultimately ended up is far from typical.

 

So, once arriving at the inception, development and execution of Joyce’s last two books, Burgess strips away the perplexity and underscores certain aspects of the narratives which are often lost in the hub-bub. For Ulysses, Burgess reveals the difference between complex inner dialogues of each character which are written in that now famous/notorious stream-of-conscious style:

 

The first [artistic problem with using extensive interior monologue is concerned with characterization: how does one make one person's interior monologue sound different from another? Joyce…solves the problem by assigning a characteristic rhythm to the thought-stream of each of his main three characters. Stephen’s is lyrical…Bloom’s is quick, jaunty, jerky…Molly’s are long flowing.”

 

And then there’s this observation on the underlying thematic possibilities:

 

“Each episode of Ulysses corresponds to an act of the Odyssey, and the correspondence proliferates in a mass of subtle references. When, for instance, Bloom strolls by Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in glorious summer morning weather, he is re-creating the lotus eating episode of the Odyssey. But the Homeric parallel is only the beginning. Shape and direction are primarily imposed on each chapter by means of an Odyssean reference, but that reference suggests related references, sub-references and those have much to do with not only the direction and subject matter […] but the action itself and even the technique [.]”

 

Oy vey! Even when stripped to its foundations, Joyce’s writing is a bit…oh how shall we say, congested with meaning. And, as we know now, that wasn’t even his most challenging work.

 

While Burgess does take on Finnegan’s Wake (“Difficult?”, he asks rhetorically about the book, “Oh yes, difficult. But a certain difficulty is the small price we must pay for excitement, richness [and] originality.”), he actually saves much of his critical/analytical expertise for his second book on this subject ten years later entitled Joysprick: An Introduction To The Language Of James Joyce. Sounds like a lovely beach read, no?

 

Finnegan’s Wake is so full of mystery and verbal rabbit-holes, it’s a wonder anyone even bothers; but then, what's fun about not bothering? Anyway, in part two, we’ll take a look at the a book which may be our best source to figuring out this master’s greatest, most frustrating work. Until then, I leave you with this: 

ARTICLE, MUSIC

Humble Pie - The Sad Bag Of Shakey Jake

 

On Christmas night in 1895 St. Louis, Lee Shelton (also known as "Stagger Lee") shot and murdered Billy Lyons after a dispute over Lee's hat. Sure, it was just another night it for that era, but this particular homicide quickly made the rounds via word-of-mouth; from local newspaper reports, to re-told eyewitness accounts in hushed tones and finally morphing into legend. Why this particular crime became so famous is anybody's guess, both men were black, both were part of various criminal elements. The story made its way into the imaginations of black laborers who identified with the inherent struggle and turned into a filed holler as a way to make their backbreaking work a bit more tolerable, if not more meaningful. Once a folk story is accepted by the African American community, there's no stopping it from becoming part of the fabric of the country and, in this particular case, "Stagger Lee" became one of the most famous American Folk Songs. As the years ticked by, more and more musicians became fascinated with the tale and made their own versions; up through generations it rose and, by some estimates, over two hundred musicians, bands and balladeers have since recorded versions of the song. This simple tale has become part of the American double-helix with the basic story never changing. As the Depression seeped in, actual, real-in-the-flesh, working-class anti-heroes became popular figures to the struggling citizens. Typically, each one had at least one song re-telling their respective take: Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger and Bonnie And Clyde and Shakey Jake. Wait, what?  

Fresh out of the popular English group, Small Faces, Steve Marriott was writing songs for his new project, a band destined for greatness called Humble Pie with drummer Jerry Shirley, bassist Greg Ridley and a young Peter Frampton sharing guitar and vocal duties. One of the very first songs he wrote was not too far away from "Stagger Lee" or any of the subsequent depression-era folk ballads. Even with Marriott's already proven track record of quality songwriting and his admiration of American country music taken into consideration, the song's depth still impresses and has the simplicity and directness which can be found in all great folk songs or tales. Without knowing the background of the song's author, one could be led to believe "Shakey Jake" is an actual legend dating back generations, told around campfires or in country-crossing automobiles between two people passing the time, exchanging stories. It's bar room talk, a legend passed down from Elder to Junior. 

Whether the legend of Stagger Lee was a direct influence on Steve Marriott has never really been proven or, for that matter, even questioned, but it does seem likely (his protagonist in this song bears no relation to the Ann Harbor, Michigan street musician of the same name nor the Chicago bluesman Shakey Jake Harris). Marriott was smart enough to not overwrite and kept it to a simple story of one man's mistake eventually leading him to a hopeful but undetermined ending. A shooting (accidental?) kills one man and puts another on the run. As all great folk legends, the protagonist here is pursued by some version of authority; in this case, "Texas Rangers", thus putting the action deep into America, deep into cowboy territory and, therefore, deep into that fantastical world so appealing to the imagination of  young kids; even a young boy growing up in London, far from the Texas plains. Marriott was smart enough keep his anti-hero simple and convincing. 

From what can be determined, "Shakey Jake" is one of the earliest songs the band wrote, showing up in their earliest set lists. The version here was recorded a year after its creation while the band was making an appearance on the popular German TV show, Beat Club. Undoubtedly the result of constant touring, the band has tightened -up the song, it's crunchier, leaner and has lost the vague sense of laziness of the original. With Marriott, Frampton and Ridley each taking vocal parts, the song's depth is increased; while the voice of the protagonist shifts with different voices and verse, the perspective remains the same. Add to that Marriott's tasty, Little Walter-styled harmonica part and you have yourself one amazingly compact song. These charming aspects were soon overrun by the band’s shift into a harder-hitting, arena filling Rock Machine sound which carried them for the next handful of years until their break-up. “The Sad Bag Of Shakey Jake" quickly became a memory of times since past, much like the song’s protagonist himself. 











WEIRD, ARTICLE

Anthony Bourdain, the feels, and Calvino’s Invisible Cities

anthony-bourdain-sicily.jpg

Lately, I’ve had the feels. They’re like happiness-draining remoras that suck my life meter into the red zone. To combat this, I stuff my brain with content (movies, books, articles, Twitter, TV).

Consuming this content one Sunday, I read Calvino’s Invisible Cities the same day I watched the Parts Unknown episode in which Anthony Bourdain goes to Sicily and has a breakdown because some man on a boat tossed stunt octopi into the water above his head while he was supposed to be snorkeling for live octopi, which he was supposed to be eating for dinner that night. Apparently, these dead cephalopods caused him to slide into a “hysterical depression.”

“Is this what it's come to,” he asked, “back in the same country almost a decade later, and I'm still desperately staging fishing scenes?"

Okay, so. If you don’t know this already, Anthony Bourdain has probably the best life ever.

He gets paid a ton of money to eat, drink, and travel to hundreds of cities around the world, ad infinitum. Beautiful, intriguing, mysterious, dangerous, austere, ancient, charming, bustling, urban, rural cities. American, Chinese, Canadian, Colombian, Russian, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Peruvian, Chilean, Mexican, Argentinian cities. And though he does the same five things on every show (eat, drink, fish, walk around, talk to people) in every city, I’ve watched him go to every single one. Because I am obsessed with cities (every city I go to I daydream about living in) – their history, their aura, their varieties of cultures and people and architecture. Maybe I love cities for the same reason I ingest so much content: an inundation of details and experiences can tamp down the feels.  

In Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo recounts his travels of 55 cities to an aging Kublai Khan. Similar to watching Parts Unknown, reading Invisible Cities is like travel porn for the restless. It’s intensely satisfying to read Polo describe dozens of distinct and wonderful cities to the great Khan – for instance: Laudomia where inhabitants “frequent the house of the unborn to interrogate them,” or Octavia, “the spider-web city … [hanging] over the void.”

Though Polo and Khan speak as if Kublai Khan has conquered all of these cities, Polo mentions so many of them – including modern-day cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles) – that (we realize) he’s not exactly describing only the cities in Khan’s empire, but cities, generally (real, imagined, and dreamed) and the ways that cities as corollaries of human life grow and die and morph into unrecognizable versions of their former selves even as those selves refuse to recognize the change because of nostalgia or fear or lack of self-knowledge.

Another thing happens while Polo describes these myriad beguiling, oddball, distinct, wonderful cities: they meld in the mind into one soup of City. They become the city of Trude, whose inhabitants say to Polo: 

“You can resume your flight wherever you like," they say to me [in Trude], "but you will arrive at another Trude … The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the names of the airport changes.” 

Trude, soup of City. Now, that’s a weird nightmare.

Kind of like the weird nightmare of eating exquisite cheese after exquisite cheese (always with a breathtaking view in the background) after finding meat on sticks after meat on sticks after meat on sticks from streetcart after streetcart after streetcart after getting hangover after hangover after hangover from expensive pinot noir after expensive pinot noir after filming fishing scene after fishing scene after fishing scene for dead fish after dead fish (as the stooge for the Food Network, now CNN).

“I may look normal,” says A. Bourdain at the end of the Siciliy episode, “but I'm not barking uncontrollably or running around shrieking with my pants wrapped around my head. Which is what my instincts tell me I should be doing."

Yup. Humans are cray. We break down for no apparent reason – sometimes not in spite of abundance, but because of it. Even the Great Khan is not immune. At one point while listening to the fecund details of his empire, he breaks down with:

a sense of emptiness … a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble … the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption's gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing.”

Emptiness. Desperation. Dissatisfaction. Breakdowns. Dead fish. Exquisite cheese. Too many people on this earth making us feel insignificant. Fecundity of detail. What are we to do?

*looks around for answer … continues to look with obsessive concentration … keeps looking … looks into the sky … looks in books … looks under cat … looks under the couch … looks under fingernails ... gets distracted by fingernails; cleans them … forgets what she's looking for ... grabs a beer … sits down with friend to watch Anthony Bourdain visit Paris ... dreams about living there.*

 

WEIRD, ARTICLE

Collective nouns

72c227a7e53844ebd83d369452c48cc1.jpg

Here is a Monday roundup of some collective nouns for groups of people: 

  • A disappointment of writers
  • A crash of musicians
  • A density of young earth creationists
  • A calumnation of marketers
  • A slop of frat boys
  • A cuntpunt of sorority girls
  • A vexation of goths
  • A superiority of vegans
  • A portfolio of baristas
  • A musk of mountain climbers
  • A constriction of cyclists
  • A muddle of philosophers
  • A lingering of Dead heads
  • A disservice of juggalos
  • A tedium of NPR groupies
  • A merit of tech bros
  • A thighgap of So-Cal chicks
  • An envy of bridesmaids
  • A bloom of fauxhemians
  • An indignance of mommybloggers
  • An amendment of libertarians
  • A desperation of artists
  • A paleo of personal trainers
  • A sitcom of squares

More collective nouns pending inclusion. Thank-you.

 

 

 

ARTICLE, MUSIC

The Sound Of Boundaries Breaking

This past March, Sony/Legacy released Miles At The Fillmore, a four CD set of Miles Davis’s run of shows at the Fillmore East from June 17 – 20th, 1970 and three songs from a Fillmore West show on April 11th of that same year. In the blur of our hyper-reactionary, oversaturated musical culture, this release has been quickly passed over. That’s a shame. Let’s explore its significance.

The seeds of the performances on At the Fillmore (and their residual historical value) date back to Davis’s 1965 record, E.S.P., which started moving Davis’s music subtly into new territory until he really started raising eyebrows with the release of In A Silent Way (1969) that put electric instruments (guitar and piano) at the forefront of his music.  

Then came the watershed moment with Bitches Brew in April of 1970. With its long tracks (only six titles spread across two albums), multiple instrumentalists (two bassist, three drummers, a percussionist) and Davis’s own aggressive playing, Bitches Brew scared and angered the jazz cognoscenti who lambasted him in the press as a sellout. Worse still, they thought, Bitches Brew showed Davis was moving into the much maligned Free Jazz movement. None of this was true. However, for all the people the record isolated, it gained perhaps as many new coverts.

Anyone who knew about the trumpeter’s absolute contempt for being pigeonholed shouldn’t have been surprised at this shift in direction. Additionally, he had been playing some of this material live a good year before the record’s release. Yet, it’s often difficult for fans and critics of any genre to wrap their heads around a new direction. And, for some reason, jazz fans (be them purists or critics) have been known to be unusually reluctant to adapt.

At the same time Davis was moving his jazz further, the genre itself was quickly losing popularity to rock. No one was wiser to this than Davis. Through the mid 60’s, his “second great quintet” was part of the jazz vanguard mixing minimalism and modal concepts (instead of chord progressions). Though they were one of the greatest of the era, they played to ever-dwindling paying customers as the decade wore on.

So, of all the 20th Century jazz musicians, who better than Miles Davis to investigate rock instead of ignoring it—to shrewdly react with instead of against? Under the influence of his soon-to-be second wife, Betty Mabry (who would also release three fantastic funk LPs as Betty Davis), Miles turned his attention to rock and funk bands. He soaked up their ideas and fed these new influences into his own craft to create a completely new form of jazz, which is often referred to as Fusion or Jazz Rock. Bitches Brew was the result.

While a majority of the intelligentsia was thoroughly unimpressed, the kids loved it. His label, Columbia Records, quickly geared the marketing plan toward this new audience and took out advertisements for the LP in Rolling Stone as well as the jazz bible, Down Beat. Instead of playing clubs, Davis was to appear at festivals and venues normally frequented by rock bands.   

Which brings us to how Davis came to play the Fillmores. Bill Graham, proprietor of both Fillmores, liked to mix genre on his bills—give the kids some vegetables before dessert (in this case Davis shared the bill with Laura Nyro for the June Fillmore East dates and Grateful Dead and Stone the Crows for the April Fillmore West gigs). These shows were likely the bands’ fans first live exposure to Davis. Many in attendance thought Davis would serenade them with the cool jazz their parents listened to. Far from it. The combined effect of rock and funk along with Davis’s love for modern classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen created music far from that heard on, say, his seminal 1959 album, Kind Of Blue.

Davis’s band at this point was made up of Dave Holland playing bass, Steve Grossman handling horn duties, Jack DeJohnette drumming, and Airto Moreira fooling around with exotic percussion. Add to this mix two keyboardists: Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, both of whom were filling the gaps with amazingly adroit tapestries. Corea invented brilliant textures by using a ring modulator, which turned his notes into electronic noise. Each night these men played almost the same set without breaking between songs (each night sounding different from the other as per the usual non-structure of improvised music). The show was one giant blanket of sound falling over the dumbfounded heads of all those in attendance. It was the future.

Yes sir, them dirty, stinking hippies ate it up; a rapturous applause followed each show and, in the case of the Grateful Dead, headlining bands shit their pants (not literally) having been put in the amazingly unlikely position of following the legendary musician. As Dead bassist Phil Lesh would later remember:

“As I listened, leaning over the amps with my jaw hanging agape trying to comprehend the forces that Miles was unleashing onstage, I was thinking: ‘What’s the use? How can we possibly play after this? We should go home and try to digest this unbelievable shit.’ With this band, Miles literally invented fusion music. Of all of us, only Jerry [Garcia] had the nerve to go back and meet Miles [who] was surprised and delighted to know we knew and loved his music; apparently other rockers he’d shared the stage with didn’t know or care.”

Originally, the tapes of these four shows were taken into the studio and heavily edited by Davis’s longtime producer, Teo Macero, and released as a single LP: At the Fillmore in December. Now, over forty years later, At the Fillmore gives another example of Davis’ already immense musical stature.

Because we have the luxury of hindsight, we can see that Davis quickly moved on even from these groundbreaking shows. In fact, they were fairly benign in comparison to what he had coming in down the pike. Yet, the importance of Miles At The Fillmore cannot be understated; this is a fantastic document of changing times, the sound of a line drawn in the sand.

For most musicians, iconoclastic creative achievements are a lucky ending point to a career. For Miles Davis, it was just another beginning in a career of many beginnings. During the next five years (until his brief retirement from 1976-1981), Miles pushed his music and challenged those willing to listen. He revolved musicians in and out of the band, looked for fresh talent, and experimented with different instrumentations (including drum machines by 1973). He stretched his music into ropes of experimental wonder until it was no longer jazz, but simply Miles Davis music. For those willing to follow him on this new journey, the sky was the limit.

Not all were willing. This crowd included an elderly gentleman who strolled by one afternoon while the trumpeter sat on the steps of his New York City apartment building on West 77th Street.

The elderly man stopped him: “Miles Davis, you’re my man!” he exclaimed. “But this new shit you’re into, I just can’t get with it.”

Miles Davis turned to him: “Should I wait for you, motherfucker?”

WEIRD, ARTICLE

I Wanna Be the Free-est Man

I met a guy in Santa Barbara named Ken Loch. He may or may not have been homeless at the time. He kept a meticulous blog about the Tennissance. You see, the Tennissance is the ultimate mind / body confluence, a perfect melding of peak psychic powers with a mastery of physical motion, all embodied in the sport of tennis. I can't find the blog anymore, but his internet presence pops up every now and then on comment boards.

Ken Loch told me the next major advancement of the human race would come once enough people practiced the true technique of tennis, not that rinky-dink competition shit, but real tennis, which is meant to be a melding of tennis and yoga, sort of.

Anyone who's had an up-close encounter with religion or religious people can attest to the weird inverted freedom that comes from complete assuredness accompanied by unquestioning devotion. You wanna sit in a pew? Ken Loch is out there swingin' a racket! He's whacking a tennis ball with a tightly-wound thing specifically made for whacking tennis balls. His legs are pumping, his mind is focused; damn—he's a body in motion breathing air and sweating and pausing and then whacking that ball—inscape, know-whaddi-mean? He is a thing meant for hitting tennis balls.

No time to be the soft pink nugget of flesh encased in a car, a speeding mechanical insect, going from his house to his job and back again, he told me. He's a Tennissance man.

Tennissance forever.

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

mfa vs nyc, you forgot the internet

Author: Bernd Untiedt, Germany

Chad Harbach of N+1 curated a book of essays called MFA vs NYC that lays out the scene as-it-stands for NYC publishing editors, agents, writers, and satellite bookish NYC others. Kudos for all of the essays in MFA vs. NYC.

Particularly job well done on Harbach’s introductory essay. His comments on the status quo of NYC houses and MFA university programs not only ring true, but sting. It sucks that NYC editors have become like Hollywood executives searching for blockbusters and the university MFA program environments have become like writer’s camp: safe havens for writers of all shades of talent.

My problem with MFA vs NYC, is that, well, these essays forgot something rather, um, large as it relates to the culture of American fiction.

The Internet, people. You forgot the Internet.

Okay, okay, I’ll admit: Darryl Lorenzo Wellington did write an essay about his participation in the reality-TV-esque Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. But, that essay was basically an authorial confession for having played a part in the contest, not a true study on how Amazon’s publishing model affects American fiction. Also, Harbach of course mentioned that: “technology sends the New York publishing world into spasms of perpetual anxiety.” But, that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the fact that NYC and MFA programs are dual cultures for fiction, yes, but they are dual cultures running right alongside and outside of and on top of and mixed in with a third culture – the Internet – which in its wild-west-shoot-em-up-new-frontier way is fostering and promoting and creating and commenting-on and editing and disseminating and publishing fiction in new and weird and fantastic ways that have never been done before. Good fiction! Terrible fiction! Weird fiction! Mediocre fiction!

The Internet is not only a culture of fiction, but a force for fiction. A force that is running us all down like a freight train. It’s scary and loud and attracts vagrants and weirdos and might run off the rails, but, hey! It’s taking us to the new frontier!

In light of this, I disagree with many, many statements in the essay “MFA vs NYC,” and the sensibility of the collection of essays in MFA vs NYC as a whole.

In particular: I disagree with the sentiment stated throughout that MFA university programs are the only other realistic avenues to which would-be NYC writers, editors, and agents could flock. This is just not the case anymore. The Internet has become a thing of wide-open-possibilities -- giving writers, editors, and agents oodles of opportunities to make money from writing and publishing fiction. 

And even if the Internet doesn’t bestow a pile of money onto an enterprising writer, editor, agent, etc., these talented fiction-ites (if they love it enough) will do this work for free. They will come home from their full-time jobs and, despite their exhaustion, will still find the time to write. Because if they really love and need to write it will chase them like Faulkner’s demon, propel them into the gray light of the morning to their notebook or their iMac to hammer out a few more words. Because they need it more than they need sleep, wine, food, company, money. The fact that these writers who do this obsessive work have the gift of the Internet as publisher. 

Despite the fact that these prominent American writers wrote thoughtful and practical state-of-the-union essays about a specific set of NYC or MFA writers, the collection feels a little head-in-the-sand-ish considering the fact that the Internet and its fiercely chomping jaws has basically already destroyed the old guarde. Has freed them to maybe move to Cleveland (oh gawd no!) and say what they need to say. Forge their own path. Think outside the box. Create something new that speaks in the voice of their generation.

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

Interview with poet and novelist ron koertge

Poet and young-adult novelist Ron Koertge has written dozens of exceptional books of fiction and poetry that have won him lots of awards. His writing is funny and iconoclastic — snarky with a strong dose of pathos.  

Yay, he also agreed to let me ask him some questions about writing and stuff. I particularly loved his comment about the "agony of the blank page." Onward ho, writer! Fill 'er up. Blank pages are for the birds. 


What started you writing poetry? 
I always wrote something, starting in high school. They were lamentable poems, usually about how misunderstood I was. When I went to the University of Illinois, though, I ran into guys who took writing seriously and talked about being writers. So, I hung around with them. In grad school I met the poet Gerald Locklin who was even then writing poems and submitting them to the  —  as they were called then — little magazines. He turned me on to them and some people our age (we were in our early 20's), and pretty soon writing and publishing were just some things I did regularly. 

What sort of thing did you write about when you began?   
Gerry led me to Edward Field and his poems about movies and life-in-New York charmed the pants off me. Clearly, I could write about anything and not just so-called serious things. Before there was the word "snarky" I was snarky and irreverent, a good way to be for the 60's. So, I published a lot for a couple of decades before tastes turned more introspective and language-conscious.   

What was one of the most surprising elements about your life as a writer?    
I'm still surprised I write for kids/teenagers. If I wanted to be a novelist, I imagined it would be for adults. Not adults to be. Someone years ago reminded me I was chronically immature so I should write for 16 year old boys. Turned out they were right. 

If you had a soapbox topic about writing (something you're passionate about/something that bugs you), what would it be?  
I think prose writers should read more poetry. Out loud. I read a lot of really infelicitous prose: the plot drives the story, the characters are riveting, but sometimes the sentences are so clunky. A discipline of reading poetry out loud would help that.  

Is there anything else you would rather have done than write poetry and fiction?    
I love the race track and might have enjoyed life-on-the-backstretch. It's a very interesting sub-culture. But, I think I would have also written about it.   

What advice do you have for poets and/or fiction writers? 
Write a lot and don't be afraid to write badly. Some of the pages I turn out are so embarrassing but my motto is this: what's the gift of this terrible poem? This cringeworthy page? This rough rough rough rough draft? There's always one.   

Any other thoughts?      
It's a pleasure to be able to write. I've never understood the so-called agony of the blank page. Just fill it up! 


Ron Koertge's poetry collections include: the ghazal collection Indigo (2009), Fever (2006), and Making Love to Roget’s Wife (1997). His novels and novels-in-verse for young readers include Shakespeare Bats Cleanup (2006), The Brimstone Journals (2004), and Stoner & Spaz (2004).

Read more of (and about) Ron's poetry and prose at: ronkoertge.com. Or pick up his most recent book of poetry,The Ogre's Wife, and his most recent novel, Coaltown Jesus, published through Red Hen Press and Candlewick Press, respectively.