Monday, May 27, 2013

Follow the Recipe for Licorice Pizza

New article up at Popdose. It’s a listicle, so consider it my audition piece for Buzzfeed, I guess?
Every year, Record Store Day brings us new musical releases to surprise and delight. One of the most delightful surprises this year was a live recording by onetime Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus, performing Can’s 1973 album Ege Bamyasi in its entirety. It wasn’t an entirely unexpected move for Malkmus — he has long spoken of his love for the German experimental scene, and Can in particular — but still, it led us to wonder: When did this become a thing? ....

It’s a relatively recent innovation for one act to roll tape and recreate another act’s album start to finish. (Malkmus breaks slightly from tradition by performing Ege Bamyasi’s tracks out of their original sequence.) That noted musical omnivore Beck has made it something of a hobby, establishing a side project called
the Record Club for that very purpose; but for most groups that turn their hand to it, the full-album cover is a one-off, even a holiday. Here are our picks for five of the best — and strangest — single-artist full-album covers.

The funny thing is that I’ve been acquainted with the music editor of Buzzfeed for years, and he’s still producing and facilitating the same level of smart coverage and analysis that he has ever done, even as he serves the site’s need for clickbait. He’s navigating a very fine line, and doing it far more skillfully than ever I could.
It may have something to do with the difference in our ages — he’s a digital native, while I am a naturalized citizen. And no matter how enthusiastically I may wave the flag, I’m always going to speak the language with an accent. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Trouble With Classicists

The PopSmarts column continues its mission of yoking together culture both academic and popular, with an installment exploring the intersection of highbrow classics, Stephen King, and The Simpsons Movie. Your English Lit professor would call it a “motif,” kids.

It’s that old semantic versatility again, basically. It’s the Democracy of Ideas. When there’s a good hook or a resonant symbol, everybody wants to play with it, whether or not they have the stamp of approval from the Great English Departments of America.
And the dirty secret is that the academic outsiders — the cartoonists, the pulp hacks, the grindhouse movie makers — might be the ones to find new meanings in the device, simply because they haven’t had the “right” meanings beaten into their heads so many times.
John Cale once sang, channeling Andy Warhol:
I think sometimes it hurts you when you stay too long in school;
I think sometimes it hurts you when you’re afraid to be called a fool.

Truer words. Especially since it’s bound to happen at some point; so why be afraid of it?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Hitting An All-Time Low

This week at Popdose, the Like, Omigod! Digging Through the ‘80s Pop Culture Box series — an epic trawl through the seven-disc set from Rhino — reaches its halfway point. Now, it’s no secret that I’ve had a lead role on this project. The columns are in a round-table format, and are credited to the staff collectively, but I’ve been taking point on these pieces.

In fact, I can now reveal that Jon Cummings, Dw. Dunphy, and Dave Lifton have no independent existence, and that they are in fact pseudonyms that I have been employing for years. (I’m still not sure about Dan Wiencek. Sometimes I think he’s real, but I might have made him up, too, and then forgotten about him.)

Well, no. But I have been doing the work of compiling and formatting the discourse, which take place via an email list — taking a series of monologues and stitching them into something that resembles an actual conversation. Some of the hard work is done in the email threads themselves, shaping the flow and direction of the conversation as it happens, but a lot of it is done afterward, in the edits. Minor stuff, mostly. I find that creating a conversational flow is less about what gets said, and more about placement; tweaks to play up callbacks to earlier comments, positioning interjections and interruptions, inserting running jokes and leading questions.

I’ve always got a lot to say — no surprise there — but I try not to dominate the discourse. Which is why, at the last minute, I ended up cutting a long chunk from this week’s discussion of “Major Tom (Coming Home).” I want to run it here, though; in part because if I didn’t run it somewhere, I would be second-guessing myself — Did I really cut this for space, or because it made me uncomfortable to put it out there? — and in part because I still think it’s hilariously wrong-headed. And 100% true.
Holy mackerel, you guys, I’ve been doing this critic bullshit for a long time. I kept a journal when I was a teenager, and I dimly remembered writing something about this song; I thought the notebook must be long gone, but no — I just found it in a box in the basement, having survived thirty years and six times moving house. Let’s have a look...

Oh, God. I actually write about it as the capstone of The Major Tom Trilogy. 700+ words. I just typed it all out and I think my eyes are bleeding, and I can’t feel my legs. Guys, are you still there? I feel cold... so very cold...
The name of Major Tom is well-known to hard-core David Bowie connoisseurs, and now to fans of “New Music.” The unfortunate astronaut was Bowie’s first “persona,” the subject of his first success in 1969. before the Thin White Duke, before the Man who Sold the World — even before Ziggy Stardust — there was Major Tom.

….Although the first two chronicles of the luckless spaceman were created entirely by Bowie, and haven’t been played on mainstream radio for years, the third and most recent was conceived independently of Bowie’s guidance and approval, and can be heard by any casual listener to “New Music.” The song is “Major Tom (Coming Home),” and it was created by a German named Peter Schilling. It recounts the events of “Space Oddity,” but is an incredible leap from it stylistically. Whereas Bowie’s trip is a rambling composition, held together by wild guitar as spacey as its subject, Schilling’s version is a tight rhythmic package, a nervous, twangy high-speed musical piece. It hums with synthesizers. Its deft, terse lyrics are delivered with a cockeyed nervous energy that swells towards the end into a glorious release — but when the release comes it is not in a rush of pent-up violence, but in a beautiful promise of peace.

....Schilling, though working with an established subject, has made his work more touching than the original: his viewpoint lets us get into Major Tom’s head, and to sympathize with him. He doubts his mission: “Starting to collect requested data / What will it effect, when all is done? / thinks Major Tom.” Bowie’s cerebral detached viewpoint stresses the alienation of humans in space, but Schilling remembers that it is humans in space.

....“Major Tom (Coming Home)” is gloriously triumphant, while “Space Oddity” is ultimately depressing. Let’s face it, you’d rather hear about becoming more than human than about deep-space death, thus, Schilling’s piece is that rarity of rarities: the remake better than the original.

You know, if I had a spaceship, I would fly it faster than the speed of light, just so I could go back in time and punch my teenaged self right in the fucking face.
And that’s that. Just be grateful that I spared you all my utterly clueless “interpretation” of “Ashes To Ashes.” There’s a lot I’ll do for a laugh, but I still have some sense of shame.

In the meantime, rejoice in the news that Lego has released a David Bowie minifig. At least, I'm pretending it's Bowie.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Gun To A Knife-Fight

A new market for me today. The good folks at Bluffer’s set up an online debate between Brian Joseph Davis and myself. The proposition before us; “Is Dan Brown a terrible writer?” If you’ve read any of my previous columns on the topic, you can probably guess which side I was arguing.

The “debate” itself is done in quasi-Oxford style, with no rebuttals; Brian and I never interacted, the whole thing having been organized remotely by our editor and new pal Emma Smith. And while it is perhaps inappropriate for me, as an interested party, to venture an opinion as to winners and losers, I dare say that while Brian’s defense was admirably succinct, mine was, let’s say, rather more … spirited. Or maybe “excitable” is a better word. (Hey, like the scorpion in the parable, you knew what I was when you picked me up.)

It’s an interesting mode for me to write in. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve always loved almanacs, books of trivia, factoids. I recently had the opportunity to do some work for Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers (you can buy that book now, if you're so inclined), which are very much in that spirit. Bluffer’s has something of the same “hot,” hyper-compressed style. The articles are all quite short, and informationally-dense. And they demand a singular discipline.

Here’s a dirty little secret of writing; short articles are much harder to write than long ones. It’s a relatively simple matter for me to unload a big bucket o’ hate on Dan Brown, but something else again to boil that bucket down into five poisonous mouthfuls. They call them “bullet points” — but with a limit of one hundred words to back up each assertion, any damage you do must come not from massive kinetic impact, but from precision and incisiveness. Not a bullet, but a stiletto.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Finally On Our Own

My latest PopSmarts column is live at Popdose. This was a tough one to write; the facts on the ground were obvious enough, but context and tone were very important for this.

Then I had to go and ruin everything by Photoshopping a Devo "energy dome" onto John Filo's famous photo of Mary Ann Vecchio. I'm a horrible person, really.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Now It Can Be Told

Little Wonder is an expanded extract from a book I was working on a couple of years ago called Seven Souls. This was my rock ‘n’ roll novel, a big, sprawling, shaggy beast of a thing, and it drew from a lot of influences. The main narrative through-line had its source in my time kicking around the fringes of the Boston music scene — especially the joy and eventual disappointment I found during my brief tenure playing in the folk-rock band We Saw The Wolf — and in an abortive flash-fiction project organized by erstwhile Internet pal Ben Haggar, the whole thing cut with generous dashes of Egyptian mythology by way of William Burroughs, of Gene Wolfe’s bizarre and wondrous short story “Melting,” and of Alvin Schwartz’s deeply weird “metaphysical memoir” An Unlikely Prophet, with a sprinkling of Virginia Woolf.

It was a little bit ungainly, is what I’m saying. I’d call it “kaleidoscopic,” were I feeling charitable (“digressive” if not), with a big ensemble cast all pulling the narrative in different directions, all jockeying to tell their stories. And in a spectacularly ill-advised bit of framing, I created a device whereby they could do just that — a long journey overland through three states, where the characters would pass the time and shorten the road by telling stories. Their own stories. Each story in a different genre, told in a different voice, a different style.

I had envisioned a lean, swaggering thing along the lines of Spider Kiss — then found I had thrust into its middle a contrivance that fell somewhere between The Canterbury Tales and Ulysses. But the idea would not be denied. I finished Rikki’s story (which bore the working title “Harvest Home”), sketched out several of the others, skipped and bobbed and weaved as best I could — then put the whole book aside, in despair of ever sewing the whole thing together, and moved on to something else.

But even as Seven Souls lay fallow and other projects came and went, I always remembered D, God bless her, looking over those chapters and saying, “These are pretty good. You ought to do something with this part.”

She’s a wise woman. Somebody ought to dedicate a book to her, or something.

Monday, May 06, 2013

I Read Your LiveJournal, It Says You Quit Friendster

Who starts a blog in 2013? Good Lord. Maybe after you read this we can discuss it on my Delphi Forum, and you can add me as a friend on MySpace. While, I dunno, downloading a Korn album from Napster, or something, assuming you don’t lose your AOL dial-up connection. It’s a model that already seems quaint, is what I’m saying. Not as dead as print, perhaps — if it makes sense to talk about degrees of deadness — but surely not thriving.

Which is a pity, because it still seems to me a fantastically useful model, especially for talking about things that can’t be easily conveyed in 140 characters, or a status update, or a scene from Doctor Who rendered as an animated .GIF — in this case, the work process. How something arises out of nothing. How ideas become a product.

And the product, right now, oddly enough, is print.

Little Wonder is an experiment in print-on-demand self-publishing. It is a slender thing, a novella, or perhaps more properly a novelette, or maybe even a long short story, depending on how you count — 14,000 words or so, in any event. It is an extract from a projected longer work, but is complete unto itself.

And it is, in its printed form, a beautiful object, if stupidly overpriced. A slim paperback, with a spine but notionally almost a chapbook. Built for your hip pocket. I did the design work myself, sweating over typefaces and trim size and graphics; every drop cap, every page break, every inch of white space. It gives me immense satisfaction to pick it up, to flip through the pages. But then, it would.

The ebook version is far more affordable, if a less tactile pleasure, and looks great on an iPad, e-reader, or phone.

I’ll be using this space to talk about it, and other upcoming projects. And if you’d like to talk about it too, feel free. Leave a comment, send me a note, and well hash it out. Talking is good.

Walk right in. Sit right down. Honey, let your mind roll on.