Saturday, January 31, 2015

Friday night playlist 3

...All the usual recent stuff, plus:
The Neville Brothers -- *Hey Pocky Way, *Bird on a Wire, *A Change is Gonna Come, Fire on the Bayou, Brother John/Iko Iko, Yellow Moon, Voodoo (live), Ain't No Sunshine, Let My People Go/Get Up Stand Up (live) (all from BEST OF/THE MILLENNIUM COLLECTION).

Would never have heard the Neville Brothers if it weren't for KPLU's "All Blues" show every weekend. On this cheap best-of they do an absolutely gorgeous version of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire," and a beautiful cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." There's also a very nice up-tempo version of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" -- the original's one of my all-time faves, so I wasn't expecting much.
Some of the others will definitely keep you moving -- like "Voodoo" and "Yellow Moon," "Fire on the Bayou" and "Get Up Stand Up."
Best of all for me are the GREAT horn parts that light up "Hey Pocky Way." I've been playing that one over and over.
Most of this is good party music. I admit I'm hesitant about some of their "issue-oriented" songs, but I'm still listening. And I've heard Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle" WAY too many times to put up with another version by someone else....

Finished William Gibson's IDORU (1996) finally. It's a nice entertainment. It's certainly not as "visionary" as his NEUROMANCER was, or the short stories in his BURNING CHROME collection were, but it reads smoothly, and there's some nice cyberspace/computer-oriented stuff in it, some nice "visuals."
In the future, a world-famous rock musician decides to "marry" a famous Japanese singer, who is actually a computerized simulation. His management panics, and hires a data-visualizing expert to see if he can figure out WHY. The musician's fan club also freaks out, and sends a representative from the club's Seattle chapter to Tokyo to get The Real Story.
The story then moves into vivid character sketches and accidental smuggling of illegal computer hardware, and turns into a chase-intrigue thing. There are brutal security men, tough and clumsy Russian agents, homicidal former bosses with a grudge. And it's funny.
I bogged down about 100 pages in the first time through, in what I thought was Gibson's rather distant, thin style -- plus the fact that the data-visualizer's job-interview seemed to be taking up the whole book. But it read quicker and more smoothly this time around.
Only complaint is I would like to have seen the musician's brutal head-of-security "talk to" a villainess in the plot on-stage. In the book, we're only given hints of what that conversation will be like, and I was looking forward to it. She'd certainly earned a talking-to.
It only took me about five years to get through this novel. I wonder what ELSE I've got lying around here....

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Escape routes

During a 60-year writing career, Graham Greene wrote a series of novels that mulled over how to live a moral life while surrounded by crime and intrigue. Novels like BRIGHTON ROCK, THE THIRD MAN, THE QUIET AMERICAN, THE HONORARY CONSUL, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, A BURNT-OUT CASE, etc.
I haven't read any of them. But I may HAVE to now, after reading Greene's partial autobiography, WAYS OF ESCAPE (1980). I read Greene's previous partial-autobiography, A SORT OF LIFE, about 20 years ago and thought it was BORING AS SHIT. Greene just didn't REVEAL much. Yeah, his childhood wasn't easy, and he struggled for a few years as a newspaper sub-editor while writing his first few books. He suffered throughout his life with manic depression. But he just didn't REVEAL much. He seemed so DISTANT.
WAYS OF ESCAPE reveals more -- that writing those many novels was a way of dealing with that manic depression. Greene wonders a couple of times in the book about how people who can't write or paint or make music deal with the craziness and stress that goes with everyday life.
Greene brought some of the stress on himself. When he wasn't writing, he was serving in Britain's Secret Service during World War II -- he insists it was No Big Deal. ... And didn't I read somewhere awhile back that he was a spy for years after that? That would explain his attraction to visiting various hot spots around the world -- Russia, Poland, Vietnam, Israel, Cuba, Spain, west Africa, Kenya, Malaysia, Paraguay, Argentina, Panama, Ecuador, etc.
Greene describes all these travels in the book ... and discusses the real-life models that some of the seedy characters in his novels were based on -- characters that critics said for years came totally from Greene's imagination, from a place they started calling "Greeneland."
Along the way, Greene also discusses smoking pot and opium and taking cocaine while in some of these foreign locales -- rather nonchalantly, as if it was all just part of the job.
He also mentions (but does not name) a series of mistresses, and admits to spending lots of time in brothels. All of this is related in a reserved, gentlemanly manner. As if it wasn't shocking -- as if it was just the thing an English gentleman should do.
Of course there's nothing romantic about writing -- you sit in front of a computer or a piece of paper and just do it -- try to make what you see in your head come out on the page. Greene doesn't describe the actual writing of his novels much, but he does talk about some of the situations surrounding them, his financial condition, the failure of his marriage, his travels for research.
He still doesn't reveal much, and he says up front that he won't. But it's an easy book to read -- one of the easiest things I've read in months. I was done with it in a couple of days.

I'm interested in the actual process of writing for other writers, how they do it, what effect it has on them, when they know they're doing it right. First it was Joyce Carol Oates' JOURNAL and now Greene, and I've got more piled up. I'm trying to figure out if I'm a writer or just a middle-aged guy with ego problems. Maybe I'm just self-obsessed and I love the sound of my own voice in my head. I could be the world's worst writer. I just don't know.

Reading William Gibson's IDORU, enjoying it much more this time. Got bogged down after 100 pages last time -- now I'm two-thirds of the way through, and I'm enjoying the slick, slippery, shiny surface of the thing. Plus, some of the characters are musicians, which means the book actually fits into this blog. Even if one of the characters is a computer-generated illusion....

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Friday night playlist 2

...Pretty much the usual stuff, plus:
Tedeschi Trucks Band -- *Made Up Mind, *The Storm, Calling Out to You, Do I Look Worried?, Idle Wind, Misunderstood, Part of Me, Whiskey Legs (all from MADE UP MIND).
Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes -- *The Love I Lost, *Bad Luck, If You Don't Know Me By Now.

Tedeschi Trucks Band really rocks on "Made Up Mind," and "The Storm" has some nice guitar work. Unfortunately, these are the only two songs on their MADE UP MIND disc that really seem to rock. On a lot of the rest, they sound something like a Southern-Rock Fleetwood Mac. "Idle Wind" with its added flute sounds vaguely Jethro Tull-ish. "Whiskey Legs" is bluesy -- that doesn't mean I like it much. "Made Up Mind" has everything you'd ever want from a classic rock and roll song except for a really great ending. It just sort of ... stops.
I'll be listening more....
Hadn't heard Harold Melvin -- with Teddy Pendergrass on lead vocals -- since the early '70s. Had forgotten how really brilliantly these songs are sung. "The Love I Lost"'s choruses are just killer, and "Bad Luck" has always been a fave. I can't play "If You Don't Know Me By Now" at work -- it's too gloppy and slows me down. But man, Teddy was a helluva singer....

Friday, January 23, 2015


Joyce Carol Oates has been publishing novels and short stories since the early 1960s, averaging a book or two per year into the 1990's. She's won a couple of National Book Awards and several O. Henry Prizes for her short stories. Some of her works are pretty dark. Her story collection NIGHT-SIDE focuses on experiences with the paranormal. Her '90s novel ZOMBIE was supposedly partly based on the Jeffrey Dahmer case. She's been appearing in horror anthologies for years.
Her JOURNAL 1973-1982 (2007) shows her at work agonizing over several books and dozens of short stories.
She writes constantly. She writes so much that her novels and short story collections start to back up on her. She writes so much that whole novels and collections go unpublished.
In the decade covered by the JOURNAL, Oates starts writing a series of "Postmodern Gothic" novels -- books that are 600 to 1,000 pages long: BELLEFLUER, A BLOODSMOOR ROMANCE, THE CROSSWICKS HORROR, and MYSTERIES OF WINTERTHURN, along with other, shorter novels.The backlog piles up to the point that she lets CROSSWICKS go unpublished -- despite having poured months of work into it.
And when she's not writing novels, she's doing short stories, or essays, or reviews. It's like she never stops.
It helps that she has a strong marriage, and supportive surroundings. She several times refers to her life as "idyllic" -- and it is, even though she seems kind of above-it-all sometimes.
She's not hurting for money. She's embarrassed by her stories appearing in PLAYBOY and PENTHOUSE and VIVA, and says she and her husband don't need the money. And they don't -- the paperback rights for the best-seller BELLEFLUER sell for $385,000, and a later book sells for $50,000. Oates ends up a professor of creative writing at Princeton. But even before any of that happens, she and her husband are living comfortably.
She travels, and meets other writers like John Updike, Philip Roth, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Susan Sontag, Gail Godwin, Anne Tyler, John Gardner, and more.
What impresses me is Oates' determination and drive -- her absolute conviction that what she sees has GOT to come out, no matter how long it takes, no matter how miserable it makes her, no matter how outlandish or extreme it might be. She says at one point that she is addressing in fiction material that she would never be able to tackle directly. I wonder what drives her, and though she gives some family history, we never learn what powers her creativity.
Her very happy marriage must have meant a world of support to her -- her husband Ray also ended up a professor at Princeton. Now I have to read Oates' A WIDOW'S STORY, about what happened after Ray died unexpectedly from a hospital-borne illness a few years back.
I'm not exactly a fan of Oates' fiction, but her JOURNAL shows a writer hard at work mulling over problems encountered in writing her novels, reacting to the public's reactions to her work, and living a low-key, quiet, creative life. In many ways, it does sound idyllic.

Brian W. Aldiss has also been writing since the early '60s, and has won science fiction's top awards while tackling novels, short stories, memoirs and criticism. His TRILLION YEAR SPREE is an excellent critical history of the science-fiction field. His first novel, THE BRIGHTFOUNT DIARIES, showed me how I could write my first e-book, after years of putting it off.
The only review I read of HARM (2007) before buying it indicated that Aldiss wrote the novel in anger over current events -- terrorism and torture, surveillance, personal security issues, and other aspects of the war against terror.
Now I wish he'd been a little angrier.
In HARM, a British citizen who happens to be a Muslim gets jailed for writing a satiric novel in which one character jokingly suggests assassinating the British Prime Minister.
For this, he is jailed and tortured repeatedly, for months. No charges are brought. There is no trial. His wife is also interrogated and tortured. The interrogators want names, plans, contacts. They don't believe the book was a joke.
As the torture goes on, the hero ... dissociates ... and seems to ... travel ... to an alien planet, where he becomes a different person. This new planet is certainly no Eden. nor are his adventures there very enjoyable -- except as a break from the torture sessions.
Some neat things happen on this planet. The insectoid life forms that live on the planet are pretty neat. The village of Haven seems not such a bad place. Best of all is "The Shawl" -- the million pieces of a shattered moon that blocks out the sun during two days out of every 12. There are some interesting uses of mood on this alien planet.
But. The planet's native "ruling" race gets wiped out. Nobody in a position of power there can be trusted. They all seem deranged. Some of the writing in this setting is awkward and cliched. Not sure how much of that was on purpose.
I'm also not sure that the alien-planet setting mirrors or contrasts the main story to any useful purpose.
There's also no escape from the nightmare back here in "the Real World."
Hate to sound bloodthirsty, but I think the torture sessions should have been MORE brutal. I don't think Aldiss should have let his readers off the hook. There should have been no relief.
Spending a whole novel in George Orwell's Room 101 (from 1984) might have been too much. But in these days of short attention spans, I don't think it does a writer any good to downplay his message.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Friday night playlist

(* = Great stuff!)

Irma Thomas -- *River is Waiting, *I Think it's Going to Rain Today, If I Had Any Good Sense I'd Go Back Home, Overrated, Be You (all from SIMPLY GRAND).
Etta James -- *The Jealous Kind, Come to Mama.
Bo Diddley -- *Mona, Who Do You Love?
Delfonics -- *Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time?
Spinners -- *I'll Be Around, *I'm Coming Home.
Al Green -- *You Ought to be With Me, *I Can't Get Next to You, *Love and Happiness, *Take Me to the River, *Call Me, *Love Ritual, *L-O-V-E Love, *Let's Stay Together, *I'm Still in Love With You.
Dramatics -- *What'cha See is What'cha Get, *In the Rain, *(Gimme Some) Good Soul Music.
Funkadelic -- *Can You Get to That?
Aretha Franklin -- *Rock Steady.
Brothers Johnson -- *Strawberry Letter 23.
Timmy Thomas -- *Why Can't We Live Together?
Tower of Power -- *So Very Hard to Go, *Down to the Nightclub, *You're Still a Young Man, *What is Hip?
Sly and the Family Stone -- *M'Lady, *Sing a Simple Song, *Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin, *I Wanna Take You Higher.
Earth, Wind and Fire -- *Serpentine Fire, *Getaway.
Sanford-Townsend Band -- *Smoke From a Distant Fire.
Booker T and the MG's -- *Time is Tight, *Hang 'Em High.
Wilson Pickett -- *Land of a Thousand Dances, *Funky Broadway, *Don't Knock My Love, *Fire and Water.
James Brown -- *I Feel Good (I Got You), *Papa's Got a Brand New Bag.
Otis Redding -- *Shake, *Respect, *Try a Little Tenderness.
Janis Joplin -- *Kosmic Blues.

BTW, our station is now selling a gallon of Regular gas for $2.19 -- the lowest price we've had in YEARS....

Am currently 90 pages into my book about my old writer buddy Don Vincent. The book is called WHAT HE MEANT -- at least for now. Am currently proofreading, not sure quite what I have yet, and I could use another 10,000 words, 10 pages or so, but that might yet work out....
On Friday worked on two short stories -- one about a tiny radio station that becomes "Radio Free America" when things in this country start getting even weirder -- not sure if that's gonna be a short-story or a book or what.... Took another look at the silly possessed-coffeemaker horror-story I wrote last April: I still like it. Did some cutting and re-writing to make it a little clearer, may send it out again for another rejection, soon as I find somewhere else to send it....
Am currently reading THE JOURNALS OF JOYCE CAROL OATES 1973-1982 -- it's pretty involving, even though I haven't read that much of her work, a few short stories. Some of her stories are pretty dark. Was struck by a comment she made about one of her books, THE TRIUMPH OF THE SPIDER MONKEY: "This is one of the most disgusting things I've ever read -- and I wrote it." So I'm gonna have to check THAT out now....
Hope you all are well....

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Shiner skates on

Lewis Shiner has written a couple of excellent rock&roll novels. His GLIMPSES is THE BEST rock&roll novel EVER, to me.
Shiner's SAY GOODBYE was a low-key, gritty story of a woman trying to make a name for herself in the indie-folk scene. Completely realistic, with great, vivid, believable scenes in nightclubs and recording studios, SAY GOODBYE had everything a music fan could ever want -- except for a good solid ending, and a clear explanation of why the main character was so DRIVEN.
Of Shiner's novels I've read, the weakest is now DESERTED CITIES OF THE HEART, which was about Mayan Indians and time travel, and had some nice atmosphere, but isn't in the same time-zone as GLIMPSES.
Shiner's also written some excellent short stories -- "Jeff Beck," "Love in Vain," "Brujo," others.
Well, after I gave up on fiction a week or so ago, I have to announce that Lew Shiner got me again. His SLAM (1990) is a low-key, gritty knockabout comedy about getting out of prison, finding a job, and having your whole world fall apart. It reads like the writer did some living before he started writing.
And it's FUNNY.
Dave gets released from a Texas prison after serving nine months for tax evasion, and heads to the Gulf Coast, where an old friend has grabbed him a skate job -- taking care of a house full of cats while the late homeowner's will goes through probate.
Dave hates cats, but he's grateful for the job. Until people start coming out of the woodwork, trying to get their hands on the house. The wacky head of the "UFO Church" down the street wants to make the house the church's new home. Neighbors think the house is a hot piece of real estate. One old couple swears there's a treasure map hidden somewhere in the house. And Dave's old cellmate thinks it's a great place to hide out while he sets up his next dope deal.
All this is almost enough to drive Dave crazy. But there's also the hot woman who works at the convenience store down the street. And the warmed-over 50-year-old widow who wants to grab the house for reasons only she knows....
This is just for starters. As Dave's story unfolds, it leads into an early look at the "computer underground," and some pretty cool views of "skater culture."
I'm not gonna tell you how it ends. But you'll be laughing.
Though not as amazing as GLIMPSES, SLAM is a lot of fun -- and it's smoothly written, quirky and involving from the first page. I was never bored. And it only took a couple days to read. If you haven't read any Shiner yet, you should definitely check him out.
I'm just happy I actually got all the way through a novel again. Too bad SLAM sat around the house waiting for five years to get read. I wonder what ELSE I've got lying around here....

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Is it just me?

Maybe I'm being stupid about this, but I have pretty-much given up reading fiction. I don't have the time or the patience for it.
I get bored quickly by fiction that doesn't at least TRY to be real, that is merely daydreaming, escapist junk-food for the brain, that fails to address the world I see around me every day -- millions of people out of work, who knows how many homeless people, stressed-out folks who never sleep, crazy people on the street every hour of the day and night, people who spend more time with their smartphones than with their spouse or kids, crimes and guns everywhere, terrorist attacks all over the place, people constantly yelling and screaming in frustration, people constantly drinking and drugging themselves because they can't take it....
You'd think the LAST thing I'd want would be more of this.
But it seems like any writing that doesn't at least notice that it's a big, ugly world out there doesn't work for me.
I can't remember the last time I made it all the way through a novel -- was it really Brian Aldiss's BRIGHTFOUNT DIARIES a couple years ago?
My favorite trick for years has been to get 50 to 100 pages into a novel and then give up because it isn't moving fast enough. Writers like Thomas Harris, Jack Ketchum and Kathe Koja spoiled me a long time ago. I didn't USED to have such a short attention span....
I recently got halfway through Paul Theroux's HOTEL HONOLULU, which I thought was a really great series of character sketches. Too bad he had to force a STORY in there.... True, I did re-read Theroux's novels MY SECRET HISTORY and MY OTHER LIFE this past fall, but those are almost like autobiographies, very direct.
Maybe I need to go back to Max Barry -- he was pretty edgy....
I used to read people like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling when I wanted to feel "caught up" with Reality. But I tried Gibson's IDORU and ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES and they just don't work for me. The last Sterling novels I was able to get through were ZEITGEIST and HEAVY WEATHER. Both four-star worthy. But I tried HOLY FIRE and DISTRACTION and ISLANDS IN THE NET -- no go.
Neal Stephenson? Well, SNOW CRASH was a lot of fun, had everything you'd ever want except a good ending. But I gave up 100 pages into CRYPTONOMICON. And since then he's written several books that are even LONGER. I'm about a decade past the point where I could get through a 1,000-page novel. Hell, it took me FOUR MONTHS to read Stephen King's IT back in 1987 -- and that was when I was INTERESTED. And I haven't been able to read King in YEARS....
I even read a couple short stories recently. Mildly interesting ideas, reasonably clever. But they were just notions -- they showed no signs of a real, lived-in life. And all I could think was that they were JUST LIKE something I might have written myself at age 19....
I tried reading some travel writing for awhile, and that worked out OK when Paul Theroux was writing it, or the silly J. Maarten Troost. But some other folks waste too much time for me. Redmond O'Hanlon is mildly funny, and I admire his adventurousness. But he needs an editor. And some others are even duller.
I LOVE to read. I WANT to be affected, impacted, have my face rubbed into something -- I WANT to be involved, I want to be ripped up by a story. And that hasn't happened to me in a long time.
Maybe this is just another sign that I should be writing my own fiction, that I'll never be satisfied until I do. Ghod help me. Wishing you had a story to write won't make it so.
My old buddy Rastro over at La Historia de la Musica Rock may have some comment on this -- he often seems to be reading current, cutting-edge stuff, and has reviewed a couple of fairly new novels over the last month.
I want to be grabbed by the throat. I want to be riveted. I'm sick of being bored. I just hope this isn't another one of the joys of GETTING OLDER.
Advice? Suggestions? Recommendations?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

These are the jokes....

I'm halfway through writing another e-book, this one about my old buddy Don Vincent -- about what a role model he was for me when I was just starting to write, about what close friends we were, about some of the things we went through together, about how he took me in and let me live in his apartment FOR FREE when I had nowhere else to go.... It's another book nobody will buy, but this stuff is forcing its way out, so....
One problem: I went on at some length in the book about what a joker Don could be, about how even though he could be a very serious guy, he took NOTHING seriously, everything was an excuse for playtime.
And naturally, as a result, I've been able to remember exactly ONE JOKE Don ever told. So much for this book making people feel like they'd actually met Don....
I don't think too many people out there can help me with this problem, but ... I'll be working on it....
And you can read more about Don under posts here entitled "Don's Greatest Hits" and "An obituary"....

A couple weeks back I read Joe Klein's WOODY GUTHRIE: A LIFE (1980/1999) --a very smoothly written and very involving biography of the legendary Okie from the Dust Bowl who wrote "This Land is Your Land" and "Roll On, Columbia," among many others -- one of the inspirations for Bob Dylan and countless other folksingers and singer-songwriters.
Much of the book is as stark and gritty and down-to-earth as the black-and-white photo of Woody on the book's front cover. And the book definitely doesn't romanticize him. Clearly Woody was A Piece Of Work. (Can't creative people realize they might have more success and last longer if they DON'T DRINK?)
The book's worth a look if you're into musicians' life stories. There's a heckuva supporting cast, including Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Burl Ives, Will Geer, Alan Lomax, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan of course, and more.
But it's not a happy story. And don't be put off by Woody's nearly-pornographic letters to his second wife, which are quoted at length....