Sunday, December 24, 2017

9 Years?!?!

It was somewhere around this time nine years ago that I started blogging about music.
My first review (on a site my son set up for me) was about the Hollies' ROMANY album. My second was on Al Stewart's MODERN TIMES. Within a week I had two-dozen reviews posted. A week later I'd added another dozen. Then I contacted Internet-rock-review legend Mark Prindle (I'd made a few comments at his huge review site), he posted a link from his site to mine, and I kept on rolling.
That first year I posted pieces on everything from made-up music history (What would have happened if the Beach Boys' SMILE album had been released on time?: World peace, and Brian Wilson winning the Nobel Peace Prize), to how CNN became the Michael Jackson Network after MJ died.
After nine months I had 225 reviews posted. I wrote six posts in a day, once. I wrote all of them in shorthand "text English," like most people use on their cellphones and Twitter -- I was striking a blow against illiteracy or something, I thought. Besides, as an extra bonus, writing that way seemed to annoy some people. Every post I did before #666 on King Crimson is still in text -- I was going to put them all in Real English once, but ... you know, life's too short.
Then the old website started having trouble. Posts disappeared for no reason, and I had trouble accessing the site. So I gave up and moved here to Blogger, and everything's been great ever since.
I was surprised for awhile by how much the blog has meant to me. It's been a way to blow off steam about work, whine when I'm lonely, work through issues when I'm angry or depressed, rant about politics and modern life, etc. After 950 posts, it's really been the best diary I've ever had.
The rash of posts this month has also helped me avoid thinking about other things that have been going on. The Girlfriend was in the hospital for a couple days back in November, after she was having increasing trouble breathing. She was diagnosed with COPD and the beginnings of congestive heart failure. She's doing much better now after being on oxygen 24/7 for awhile. Her spirits are good, and she has more energy than I do, most days.
My car got back-ended on the way to work a couple weeks ago. Almost $7,000 in damage. I wasn't hurt -- and I was grateful the woman who hit me wasn't hurt either. She was nine months pregnant and had her four-year-old daughter in her SUV. So it could have been a lot worse. I just want my old car back. And now I REALLY hate to drive here.
But enough. Thanks for reading here. And as a special Christmas gift, I was going to post a list of the 40 worst Beatles songs I could actually remember. But then (after typing the list out) I discovered I'd already posted that list -- back in July of 2016. And that list is better and funnier than what I was going to post this morning. Alzheimer's is an amazing thing....
See ya next year!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Great Christmas songs

I've written about all of these here before, but you should track them down if you haven't heard them already. They'd make a great soundtrack to the season.
* Step Into Christmas -- Elton John. Phil Spector could have produced this. A whirlwind of sound, from Elton's best period.
* Happy Xmas (War is Over) -- John Lennon.
* 2000 Miles -- The Pretenders. Gorgeous, heartbreaking.
* December Will be Magic Again -- Kate Bush. You can see the cartoon video in your head.
* Remember (Christmas) -- Harry Nilsson. Gorgeous nostalgia.
* Snoopy's Christmas -- Royal Guardsmen. The long version is a great Christmas pop-opera.
* Little Saint Nick -- Beach Boys.
* Ring Out Solstice Bells -- Jethro Tull.
* A Christmas Song -- Jethro Tull.
* Merry Christmas Darling -- Carpenters.
* It's Christmas Time -- Carpenters. Even better than "Merry Christmas Darling." Almost perfect.
* Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) -- Darlene Love.
* Same Old Lang Syne -- Dan Fogelberg.
* A'Soulin' -- Peter, Paul and Mary. Kind of dark for a Christmas song, but unforgettable.
* Fairytale of New York -- The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl. Hilarious.
* Santa Claus is Coming to Town -- Jackson 5.
* The Most Wonderful Time of the Year -- Andy Williams.
* Jingle Bells? -- Barbra Streisand.
* The Little Drummer Boy -- Harry Simeone Chorale.
* Feliz Navidad -- Jose Feliciano. The best thing he ever did?
* Hurry Home for Christmas -- Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. You'll have to trust me on this one....
* Father Christmas -- Kinks.
* I Believe in Father Christmas -- Greg Lake.
* The Man With All the Toys -- Beach Boys.
* The Twelve Days of Christmas -- Ray Conniff Singers. Whatta hoot!
* The Bell That Couldn't Jingle -- Smothers Brothers. Cute.
(Late addition, 2 Jan 2018 -- Jim Croce: It Doesn't Have to be That Way. Don't know how I forgot this one. It's wonderful.)

Favorite olde-style Christmas carols:
* Carol of the Bells.
* O Holy Night.

Christmas songs I never need to hear again:
* Christmas Eve in Sarajevo -- Trans-Siberian Orchestra. So over-the-top they make ELP sound modest.
* Jingle Bell Rock -- Bobby Helms, and....
* Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree -- Brenda Lee. The two most overplayed "classic" Christmas songs.
* Wonderful Christmas Time -- Paul McCartney and Wings. Embarrassing to all concerned.
* Blue Christmas -- Elvis.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

"A Night at the Opera"

It's May 1976. Jeff picks me up in his tiny ticket-me-red Austin Healy Sprite -- a car so small I can just barely shoehorn myself in -- and gives me a lift to the end-of-schoolyear Newspaper Awards Banquet in downtown Boise.
For some reason, it was decided we'd have the semi-formal banquet at The Gamekeeper, a semi-classy restaurant where Jeff works. Jeff, the school newspaper's cartoonist -- who looks something like a self-drawn cartoon of Paul McCartney, all arms and legs and hair -- started out at GK as a dishwasher, then was promoted to try and become an assistant cook. That isn't going so well, judging by his stories from work, most of which revolve around gross and horrifying disasters with food. Did we all just think he was joking? His hilarious stories about the kitchen directly contradict The Gamekeeper's jingle playing on local radio stations. All together now:

The Gamekeeper, dining leisurely.
The Gamekeeper, dining in luxury.
The Gamekeeper, dining
Where you want to be
In delightful company.
Dining elegantly.

Yeah, uh huh. Tell that to the guy who burned beyond recognition 68 chicken breasts in the kitchen's huge cooker. Revealingly, Jeff does not choose chicken for dinner.
As we pull away from my house, Jeff says he has a surprise for the soundtrack on our 10-mile drive into town. It's the latest album by Queen.
I'd heard of Queen. Their "Killer Queen" single from a year earlier hadn't really thrilled me. It was too ... arch, too clever, and the guitar work seemed shrill. Jeff assured me their SHEER HEART ATTACK album was more brilliance, but....
A month or so earlier they'd come out with the six-minute "Bohemian Rhapsody," which I'd first heard while foolishly leaving the radio on while having dinner with my family. Halfway through the falsetto chaos, my mom and dad turned to me and said practically in unison "What IS this shit?" I shrugged. Hey, I didn't know....
But it grew on me, so I was mildly interested in their album, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Besides, Jeff had turned me on in the past to Kansas's LEFTOVERTURE, plus lots of great old Beatles, Elton John and Paul McCartney songs I'd never heard before, so....
The album started with a rumble, then some of that same bouncy, hyperactive guitar that marked these guys. Then it downshifted into mere overactive guitar and a set of vicious lyrics apparently pointed at Queen's former managers ("Death on Two Legs"). Hilarious. I thought maybe these guys had potential.
I was annoyed by their occasional silliness ("Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon," "Seaside Rendezvous," "Good Company"), but the good stuff was impressive. "I'm in Love With My Car" moved well, and seemed a good soundtrack for Jeff's involvement with the Sprite. "You're My Best Friend" sounded like updated Beach Boys. Then came the gorgeous "'39," a space-age folksong, still one of my Queen faves.
When they tried to get heavier, I wasn't impressed. They seemed to be straining to keep it simple and heavy, as on the kinda pathetic "Sweet Lady."
But when Jeff turned the tape over, the real heaviness kicked in: "The Prophet's Song" was stunning -- a misty, foggy tale of prophecy and doom, something like Led Zeppelin crossed with The Moody Blues. And it was a great soundtrack to careening in and out of downtown traffic.
We arrived at the banquet then, but the rest of the album was downhill anyway. The filler "Love of My Life," the silly "Good Company," and a dumb filler guitar-instrumental of "God Save the Queen." After "The Prophet's Song" and "'39," "Bohemian Rhapsody" was almost an anti-climax.
So I bought the album, and it grew on me, and I followed Queen for awhile, more or less. I was impressed with their 3/4's-great "It's Late" (did they always have to get Too Heavy?), amused by "Fat Bottomed Girls" and "Bicycle Race," and bought THE GAME later, mostly for its second side ("Rock It/Prime Jive," "Save Me," etc.) and for "Play the Game" and "Need Your Loving Tonight" -- emphatically NOT for "Another One Bites the Dust." I thought their team-up with David Bowie on "Under Pressure" was pretty great.
Then I drifted. Finally in 1991 I heard their INNUENDO, which has some amazing stuff on it, like "The Show Must Go On," "I'm Going Slightly Mad," and "These Are the Days of Our Lives." I thought at the time that it might be their solidest album. And of course that was Freddie Mercury's last hurrah.

On the Moodies reaching the RnRHoF

Well, it's about time!
This was really overdue.
I would have jumped on this faster, but when I read on Facebook a couple days ago that The Moody Blues had FINALLY been voted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame ... well, all I could think are the two sentences above.
I don't usually follow too closely who gets into the RnRHoF. I think it's a useless, stupid institution, since the "history" of rock and roll gets added to every day. The "Rarnhof" should be a big beer-drinking pub in Germany or Switzerland.
But I'm glad for the Moodies. I never thought they got their due, back in the day. Once upon a time, their "Classic 7" albums meant way more to me than The Beatles, or anyone else. I still think if the Moodies had been signed to a hipper, more with-it record label, they would've had more hits and sold more albums.
Don't get me wrong -- I thought Decca was great. Decca at least had enough taste to offer a home to Caravan and Camel, among others, not to mention The Rolling Stones (after turning down The Beatles). But Decca was way uptight and old school, never even as "progressive" as EMI, and nowhere near as adventurous as Vertigo, Virgin, or Harvest. Not to mention Island.
But give the Moodies credit -- they stuck with Decca, even when they could have gone elsewhere. When Decca was bought by Polygram late in the '70s, the Moodies stayed on.
The Moodies were important to me because they were the first "strange music" I ever heard, and back in high school I spent way more hours stuck under headphones listening to the Moodies than to anyone else. Because Moodies albums were trips that you could got lost in -- for hours. I many times played their "Classic 7" albums all the way through one after another, back in the days when I had time to burn. When the radio got boring, the Moodies never disappointed me.
That doesn't mean I love ALL their stuff. I think IN SEARCH OF THE LOST CHORD is mostly dated psychedelic crap. I think most of the orchestral sections on DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED sound like bad movie-soundtrack music. I think one of their hits, "Isn't Life Strange?," is fourth-rate Bee Gees. And for most of their stuff after 1983 -- don't get me started.
But the Moodies could rock ("Story in Your Eyes," "Question," "Eyes of a Child Part 2"), or they could space you out ("Have You Heard?/The Voyage," "My Song"), or they could boggle you with a cosmic mix of the two ("You and Me"). Their later albums like LONG DISTANCE VOYAGER and THE PRESENT were at the very least good polished pop music for their time.
I know that without the Moodies and how strong their albums were, it would have taken me longer to get hooked on "strange music," and I would have been way less likely to stray from listening to the radio, no matter how bored I was. They deserve to be in the RnRHoF just for expanding my mind a bit.
Besides, when's the last time you heard any of these great overlooked Moodies songs on the radio?:
Peak Hour, Evening: Time to Get Away, Twilight Time, Simple Game, Voices in the Sky, The Actor, Lovely to See You, Send Me No Wine, Never Comes the Day, Eyes of a Child Part 2, Out and In, Gypsy, Watching and Waiting, Don't You Feel Small?, It's Up to You, Minstrel's Song, Dawning is the Day, Our Guessing Game, After You Came, One More Time to Live, You Can Never Go Home, For My Lady, You and Me, Land of Make-Believe, In My World, Meanwhile, Nervous, Veteran Cosmic Rocker, Blue World, Meet Me Halfway, Running Water, Sorry, No More Lies.
This was a choice for enshrinement in that silly, useless building in Cleveland that, for once, was well deserved.

Friday, December 15, 2017

More disappointments

* Richard Goldstein: GOLDSTEIN'S GREATEST HITS (1970) -- Goldstein was (along with Paul Williams -- no, not that short songwriter with the blonde hair and glasses) one of the very first rock critics -- he had a regular pop-music column in THE VILLAGE VOICE starting back in 1966.
The review that brought him the most attention was a slam of SGT. PEPPER that was published in the NEW YORK TIMES. He got tons of hate mail. And 50 years later, Goldstein's still right about that album -- it's totally artificial and way obsessed with production and detail, with one absolute killer song at the very end. Of course most of the other songs on there have long since become classics as well.
That SGT. PEPPER piece is by far the best thing in Goldstein's GREATEST HITS. I expected the book to be dated, but I also thought I'd enjoy the dated effect. Most of it just reads as thin and naïve. There's a nice interview with The Shangri-La's that I wish had been done in more depth. There's a decent review of Dylan's JOHN WESLEY HARDING. There's a brief look at art-rock that has a slam or two for my old heroes The Moody Blues. There's a long piece on the history and hype behind San Francisco bands of the late '60s. There's an interesting write-up on how singles were manipulated into hits back in those days.
Too bad the SGT. PEPPER review is also in the DA CAPO BOOK OF ROCK AND ROLL WRITING, which I already have, surrounded by lots of other good stuff. This was not worth my $9.99. But as a snapshot of the naivete of the times, you could maybe dig it, if you were there back in the day.

* THE SOUND AND THE FURY: 40 YEARS OF CLASSIC ROCK JOURNALISM, edited by Barney Hoskyns (2003) -- There is some good stuff in here. David Toop's piece on Charles Manson's connection to The Beach Boys is interesting, and it's good to have it all laid out finally. David Dalton's eyewitness account of Altamont is pretty chilling. But both these pieces end too abruptly. Nick Hornby is as amusing as always in his look at the Collected Works of Abba.
But that's about all, really. The rest of these selections are usually interesting, but not gripping. Good B-level material. Can't believe editor Hoskyns really thinks these are classic examples of what rock writers wrote about.
For that, check out the DA CAPO BOOK OF ROCK AND ROLL WRITING, or those annual YEAR'S BEST MUSIC WRITING collections that I'm still finding buried gems in.

Coming soon: More Nostalgia -- "A Night at the Opera."

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Cousin Jim's band

In the fall of 1973, after I moved back to Idaho from Washington, my cousin Jim suggested we should team up to write songs. He was taking organ lessons and learning how to sort of string notes together. I'd been feverishly scribbling short stories for a couple years. Seemed like an obvious first step toward forming a band.
I had visions of my cousin becoming a younger Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman. Turned out the organ he was learning how to play was one of those little living-room electric organs millions of families had back in the early '70s when they were briefly a fad -- the kind that "anyone" could play, with "automatic" settings and reedy keyboard tones and percussion noises like a popcorn machine.
I quickly churned out half a dozen lyrics for Jim, waiting to see where this might lead. The high-school girl who was teaching Jim how to make noise on the keyboard thought the lyrics were OK, and said she might be interested in joining us if we were planning on forming a group. It helped that Jim had a big crush on her. That was always motivational -- one of the lyrics I wrote was about a girl classmate I had a crush on. She didn't even know my name.
All we needed for our "band" was someone who could sing, a guitarist, bassist and drummer. None of that was ever going to happen. Mostly because neither Jim or I knew any musicians our age, and neither of us were very outgoing.
Jim never got any tunes written -- I'm sure it was much harder than writing lyrics -- and the band idea died. I thought making random squawking noises on the organ was much more fun (and much easier) than actually learning to PLAY the thing. But then, I never had enough self-discipline to learn how to play an instrument.
I didn't put much weight on any of this stuff at the time. It was just another phase we went through. After all, I grew up with Jim. He was my closest friend for years, and indirectly introduced me to radio, rock and roll, and science fiction. I thought he was a normal 14-year-old, just like me.
Then I started noticing that he was maybe just a little slow. I first noted this when I was the only one of his friends who showed up for his 15th birthday party. We didn't care. We had a great time anyway, fumbling our way through making homemade pizza. We managed to not poison ourselves, and even cleaned up after ourselves, which must have been a relief for my Aunt Vera, Jim's mom.
I spent most of the summer of 1974 with Jim, riding our bikes around Cascade Reservoir in the mountains of central Idaho, getting farther into music and science fiction, spending the whole summer doing what we wanted, as if parents and chores didn't exist. When I did talk to my aunt and uncle, it was mainly to tell them how out-of-date their musical tastes were. They listened to stuff from the '40s! They liked Lawrence Welk!
After high school, Jim would occasionally show up at my front door without warning, hanging around for three hours and expecting me to entertain him somehow. But that wasn't as easy as it had been when we were 14 or 15.
At one point, I lived next door to him in the same dumpy trailer court. There Jim pretty much kept to himself, which was kind of a surprise. But after my girlfriend Tina got grabbed while throwing out the trash one night, only then did Jim reveal that a woman had been raped in the trailer court a year earlier -- as if this information wasn't that important, as if we didn't need to be careful.
Somewhere I had passed Jim by. I realized it, maybe he did too. I was hanging out with people like me, with interests in music and writing, who were maybe too fast and glib for my cousin. Sometimes they were too fast and glib for me.
Later, when I'd moved to an apartment elsewhere, Jim showed up at the front door without warning for the third night in a row, and I told him to go home and try calling first next time -- that I wasn't put here to entertain him all the time.
He went -- and the next time I talked to him a year later I was unemployed and looking for work. Jim had started driving a taxi, and thought there might be a spot for me. I was set to join the Air Force in six months, but that wouldn't feed me right then. Jim got me an interview -- then told the boss that I was leaving in six months, and the boss refused to hire me. I was furious about that one.
But Jim DID take me and my future ex-wife out for drinks a couple nights before I went off to basic training....
I went off to the military and then reporting, and lost touch with my cousin for 25 years. The next time I saw him was at my mother's funeral in 2008 -- where I barely recognized him. Suddenly he was a foot shorter than me -- how could that have happened? Just a dapper little man in a dark suit. We didn't talk.
After that he got in touch by e-mail, and said maybe we should start corresponding. But his letters were very odd -- he kept trying to sell me things. He barely spoke about himself at all. I finally pried out of him that he was living in a small town, with a crazy woman who made him do all the household chores, and who allowed him two hours a day to go to the library, where he tracked me down on the Internet. He had no job, no car, no prospects. He sounded like he was trapped in hell.
I wanted to know what he'd been doing for the past 25 years -- we had a lot to catch up on, right? He wouldn't tell me. Naturally, as an ex-reporter, I wondered what he was hiding, and I said so. He said I was "verbally nasty," and threatened to send Mormon missionaries to my door. He said what was missing in my life was God. I said God had certainly done him a lot of good.
That's about where we left it. A year or so ago, he e-mailed me and suggested we start writing again, ghod knows why. I responded that if he planned to try to sell me things or talk about the weather, he might as well not bother. If he wanted to write about something meaningful, bring it on. Naturally, he didn't bother, and awhile later I found out his e-mail address no longer worked.
Last week, while brainstorming blog ideas, I thought about the band Jim and I never had, and I looked him up on Facebook. There I learned that he'd become a Trumper, is still into God, and is apparently addicted to on-line video games. His Facebook page barely says a word about him personally. Can't tell if he's still with the same crazy woman, but he's still in the same town.
I'm sure if I "friended" him he'd respond, and would likely become that one person in my life I seem to have a sick need to Argue With. I'd prefer to avoid that. But he reinforces my belief that God and Trump are lifelines for people who Can't Figure Out What's Going On and feel deeply threatened and scared by it.
So though I may feel bad about some of the things I've said in the past, I'm not so sure that I really want to get back in touch....

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Growing up in the country

When my family moved from Boise to Meridian in June 1974, I thought we were moving to The Sticks, even though it was just 10 miles directly west, out into the country. Meridian wasn't the sprawling mess then that it is now -- back then it was just a small rural agricultural town of maybe 3,000 people, though it was soon to be home of the largest school district in the state.
Moved away from my favorite used bookstore ever, I had to find new places to supply my addictions. One tiny hole-in-the-wall bookstore in "downtown" Meridian briefly supplied me with old science fiction magazines from the late '60s, but they didn't have much else and they weren't around long.
So I fell back on Meridian Drug -- an old-style drug store from back in the day when drug stores had a whole lot more than just medical stuff. Meridian Drug not only had a great book and magazine rack, they had a music section, too -- all the latest vinyl, plus occasional surprises. Once they had on display a dozen new, sealed copies of INTRODUCING THE BEATLES, on Vee-Jay Records, selling for $1.99. Why I didn't grab one of those I don't know, unless I thought I had enough Beatles at home already.
Actually, I didn't have that much music at home. Lots of 45's and tons of cassette tapes filled up by recording songs off the radio, but not that much on album. The Moody Blues' SEVENTH SOJOURN, THE BEST OF BREAD, Neil Diamond's first GREATEST HITS, INTRODUCING LOBO, Three Dog Night's HARMONY, the first Osmonds album, TUBULAR BELLS, The Carpenters' SINGLES -- the usual child's starter-kit of pop music. Grabbing stuff a cousin was bored with, I added copies of Simon and Garfunkel's BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (and finally heard the gorgeous "Only Living Boy in New York" and the great melodrama of "The Boxer"), The Beach Boys' SUMMER DAYS (AND SUMMER NIGHTS!) (worth it just for "Let Him Run Wild," "Help Me Rhonda" and "California Girls"), and Peter, Paul and Mary's TEN YEARS TOGETHER best-of. But that still wasn't much.
In the first few months of high school I'd add The Beatles '62-'66 and '67-'70, ABBEY ROAD and the White Album, plus YESSONGS, and the rest of The Moody Blues' "Classic 7." But there was still so much I hadn't heard yet, and I knew it.
Meanwhile, I'd been getting my science-fiction magazines second-hand for a quarter each. Meridian Drug carried GALAXY, a mag I'd never previously liked much, which was reborn from mid-1974 through 1977 thanks to editor Jim Baen -- it became the most interesting magazine in the field, publishing wonderful fun stories by John Varley, Larry Niven, Roger Zelazny, Frederik Pohl and a bunch more. The grocery store a couple doors down from the drugstore carried ANALOG, AMAZING and FANTASTIC, so one 10-minute bike ride from the trailer park we lived in could set me up with enough reading for a month. It never occurred to me to wonder how a small rural town in Idaho could be so well-supplied with SF magazines.
The book rack at Meridian Drug kept me well-supplied too. It was the first place I saw a copy of Samuel R. Delany's huge and notorious "science fiction" novel DHALGREN, which I never bought new and could never get more than 200 pages into, despite repeated attempts. Delany had been brilliant once, wonder what happened....
MD also put me in touch with a collection of writings about The Who from the pages of ROLLING STONE -- "THE WHO: TEN GREAT YEARS." I'd been a Who fan since hearing "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Love, Reign O'er Me" and "Bell Boy" on the radio a few years earlier. I'd soon add a copy of WHO'S NEXT to my cheap collection of tapes.
Next I tripped over a Beach Boys biography and a huge collection of record reviews from ROLLING STONE, and started longing for a bunch of music I'd never heard. So I started pursuing that. There was life-changing music out there that the radio never played, and I couldn't figure out why. It was easy to get interested in off-the-wall music then -- 1974-75 was a pretty dull musical period in a lot of ways.
That first couple years in the trailer park, I was still trying to figure out what interested me, where I fit in. Then I got on my high-school newspaper, and most of my uncertainties ended. I finally realized I was where I should be, where my talents fit in best.
My best friend ever lived in that same trailer park -- but I didn't meet him until three years later, I was so withdrawn and anti-social and scared of embarrassing myself by talking with people. Most of the friends I had ended up living in that trailer park at one time or another. It really was a small world, back then.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


While I mull over another music-and-nostalgia piece that's almost finished, here's a brief rundown on what I've been reading lately. There are a few good things in here. But most of it, eh.
* Tobias Wolff: IN PHARAOH'S ARMY (1994) -- If Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's THE VIETNAM WAR series on PBS got to you, you might try this, though I think the best book on Vietnam is still Michael Herr's brilliant DISPATCHES. Wolff was a field-artillery officer in a backwater village in the Mekong Delta in 1967-68, and was grateful to be assigned there, because he would rather have died than show how incompetent he was. Wolff tells 13 stories about his war experiences in this brief book, and all but one of them work. Some of it's even funny. Near the end it gets brutally funny. Vivid, direct, involved. There's no distance between Wolff and the events he describes. I wish the book had been twice as long. You can read it in an hour or two.
* Damon Knight: CHARLES FORT - PROPHET OF THE UNEXPLAINED (1970) -- Fort was maybe the first of those folks who keep track of bizarre occurrences -- rains of stones, rains of frogs, spontaneous combustion, unexplained disappearances, even UFOs. He kept track of these kinds of oddities for years in the 1920s and '30s, and eventually filled four books with what he'd learned and let readers be the judges. Unfortunately, he led to those folks who now track Bigfoot, compile details about UFO sightings, try to reach people beyond the grave, and think the Twin Towers were transported to an alternate universe during 9/11. At least Fort had a sense of humor. Knight covers the ground with some sensitivity. Fort had a truly weird childhood, and he was lucky he had enough money to follow the odd compulsions that led to his books. But I wished there was more about what's IN the books, and the reactions to them. Knight sometimes goes off track -- there's a whole chapter about Velikovsky's WORLDS IN COLLISION theories, ghod knows why.
* Viv Albertine: CLOTHES MUSIC BOYS (2014) -- Viv gained some attention as self-taught guitarist with English punk-noise band The Slits back in the day. I picked up the book for that. Her memoirs of that time are direct, intimate, funny, gross. She slept with Mick Jones of The Clash, Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols, and other Names. But the only time she felt right was when she picked up a guitar. Short, hard-hitting chapters, and she doesn't romanticize what happened. Later, the book turned kind of self-indulgent as she drifted into the 1980s and I lost interest. I couldn't finish it.
* Anthony DeCurtis: IN OTHER WORDS (2005) -- Interviews with musicians, writers and movie-directors. I bought it for the Bob Fripp interview, which didn't tell me anything new. Phil Spector on John Lennon held my interest. The Van Morrison interview didn't seem as awkward as DeCurtis thought. Don DeLillo was pretty gripping when talking about his JFK-assassination novel LIBRA. The rest are all people you've heard from before. Includes the dullest front-cover I've ever seen on a book.
* Philip Caputo: A RUMOR OF WAR (1977/1996) -- I respect Caputo as a reporter, but this memoir of his tour in Vietnam is too distant. He's too far separated from the events he describes. It's dull. I couldn't finish it.
* Jon Fisher: UNINHABITED OCEAN ISLANDS (1999) -- If you want to get away from it all, this is a book you could consult. Didn't realize there were so many islands in the Pacific once used by the military and now uninhabited. One of them has been bulldozed and shaped to look JUST LIKE an aircraft carrier. The maps were not as detailed as I'd hoped. A full-color "atlas"-type edition of this book would be well worth the price. The descriptions of some of these places make them sound like they'd be interesting to visit. Some prices for the properties are even included.
* M. Harry: THE MUCKRAKER'S MANUAL (1980/1984) -- I thought Harry's guide to investigative reporting might teach me all the areas in which I'd unknowingly made mistakes as a reporter. Unfortunately, most of his advice is very basic: Everyone has dirt on them, and if you're careful, organized and never give up, you can get your hands on that information. Well, duh. I didn't learn much.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"Keep the Customers Satisfied"

I'm not sure who's idea it was, but what started it was the Morning Announcements over the intercom at Lowell Elementary in Boise. Every morning, the principal would make the day's announcements -- and sometimes students would come on the intercom afterward and sing or do a brief comedy skit.
My friends and I thought we could do this and Get Famous.
God knows who suggested the idea, but somehow the plan was hatched to get on the morning announcements and sing "Snoopy and the Red Baron." God knows why.
The conspirators were myself and friends Tim, Steve, the other Steve, the other Tim, and Patrick. We were all in the same fifth-grade class. Within days we got onto the morning announcements and sang the flattest, weakest version of "Snoopy and the Red Baron" that you'll ever hear. That's because we NEVER practiced. It was excruciating. Nothing but stunned silence afterward.
Thus started our 15 minutes of fame.
After that, we were semi-officially "a singing group." We were The Snoopys. We took it upon ourselves to break meekly into song whenever our teacher, Mr. Jones, abandoned the classroom for 15 minutes at a time and vanished off to the teachers' lounge for a smoke. God knows what we sang, and I can't remember. I can't remember if anyone ever told us we were "good." It didn't matter.
(Can I note here that Mr. Jones warned my mother during a parent-teacher conference that if I didn't take a bigger part in sports and get out and socialize more often, that I'd end up gay? Seriously. This was in 1970. My mom told Mr. Jones to mind his own business.)
There was some talent in the group. Tim could actually sing -- he later got solo vocal spots in school choir concerts. As for the rest of us -- who knows? We thought about adding more members to the group. We even thought about adding two girls.
We never officially sang together in public again. But we always Had Plans. We began collecting lyrics for all the songs we thought we might someday sing in an official songbook -- a composition notebook from class. Life in The Snoopys became an immediate power struggle between Tim and I over who got to carry around the songbook.
I thought Tim was my friend. As part of our research into cool songs to sing, he invited me over to his house, where we listened to Simon and Garfunkel's BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER album in a glassed-in den where Tim's record player was. "Keep the Customers Satisfied" was a big favorite, along with "Cecelia," though neither of us understood the words. Too bad we never got to the gorgeous "The Only Living Boy in New York."
I was actually closer friends with Steve -- who was an uncoordinated nerdy geek just like me. It was just like looking in a mirror, and I thought his loopy sense of humor was a scream.
But the battles over the songbook got uglier. Tim started threatening to beat me up. He started chasing me home on our bikes -- we zigged and zagged through after-school traffic and I was usually able to dodge him and make a run for it. Only once -- on the last day of fifth grade -- did he catch me in a local park and start punching me. That was the last time I remember purposely hitting someone in anger, with an intent to hurt. I was screaming and crying in anger. And then I ran.
Two weeks later we moved to Washington. I was in an Air Force family and we moved every two or three years. Three years later we moved back to Idaho, and Tim ended up in my junior-high English class. He'd gotten pudgy and didn't seem to remember me.
Steve was around school, too. We had similar lives for awhile. He worked in the same car-parts store I did after graduating from high school. He joined the Air Force two years before I did. Last I heard, he made a career of the AF and was a foreign-language instructor. That was more than 15 years ago.
I lost touch with everyone else a lot longer ago. And some of them maybe I wouldn't want to know now. I looked up another old friend from sixth grade a couple days ago and found out from Facebook that I REALLY don't want to talk to him now. I used to know him when he smoked pot and listened to Peter Frampton, and now he's as far away from that as he can possibly get. And not in a good way. What is it that changes people so much? Is it just life and experiences, or is there something more?

Saturday, December 2, 2017

"Saving Grace"

Gene and I had it all planned out.
We knew from a couple of "recording sessions" in my garage that -- although neither of us could actually PLAY an instrument -- we could bash around and make a pretty good, amusing noise. So we thought we'd take my cheap acoustic guitar and even-cheaper drum set out into the back yard and put on a free "concert" for the kids in the neighborhood.
It was the middle of summer and we were bored. I'd been in the neighborhood maybe eight months. I was at that age when everything about music was fascinating and I was devouring everything. I was hearing and learning about new stuff constantly.
Gene helped with my education. He turned me on to The Beatles' "Hello Goodbye" and "I Am the Walrus," The Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday," and Led Zeppelin's silly "Whole Lotta Love," which I've never been able to take.
So everything I bought got played on the garage stereo with Gene. Todd Rundgren's great "I Saw the Light" (and the B-side "Marlene," which was boring); INTRODUCING LOBO; Three Dog Night's HARMONY; Chicago's third(?) double-album, which I never got all the way through; El Chicano's wonderful "Brown-Eyed Girl" (I never heard Van Morrison's original 'til years later and I wasn't impressed); Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Some of Shelley's Blues"; Bobby Russell's "Saturday Morning Confusion"; Mal's cute and silly "Mighty Mighty and Roly Poly," which made no known chart; Gladstone's controversial "A Piece of Paper." I was a real off-the-wall-45's addict.
Gene and I thought we could do this stuff. We could both sing, sort of. Gene was actually a pretty good singer, I thought, and was great at making up lyrics off the top of his head. He could even get something like chords to come out of that cheap guitar my parents had bought me a couple years earlier. And I could bash the drums, though I had no sense of beat or rhythm. Loved the cymbal -- big splashy noises -- and the cowbell.
Not sure why we stayed a duo. There were other kids around who were just as into music as we were, if not moreso. Right next door was Jim, who turned me on to Creedence's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" and "Hey Tonight." His sisters Sandy and Gayle were big music fans, too. But they were, you know, girls. And I was 12 years old and still pretty scared of girls. Jim and Gayle were in high school and maybe a little too grown-up for anything as silly as what Gene and I were up to. When my parents inflicted the first Osmonds album on me (I'd asked for something else entirely), it was Jim, Sandy and Gayle who suffered through it with me.
On the other side was Mike, who was into Frank Zappa, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk, Eric Burdon and other stuff too loud and weird for me to hear. But he was also a sucker for Tommy James and the Shondells, and tried to educate me by tossing me a stack of gift 45's like Rod Stewart's "Maggie Mae," The Clique's "Sugar on Sunday" (with the GREAT forgotten B-side "Superman"), and others I've forgotten. Mike was a high school dropout and much too worldly and cynical to join a "singing group" led by a couple of 12-year-olds.
So Gene and I were on our own. The first thing to do was publicize our free "concert." I drew up a really ugly flyer, which I then copied a dozen times, and we stuffed it in all the neighborhood kids' mailboxes. We chose a Friday afternoon when both my folks were working for our backyard bash.
Gene thought we'd open with our stunning version of Delaney and Bonnie's "Never Ending Song of Love" (we maybe should have chosen "Only You Know and I Know") to grab our audience's attention with something current, then we'd segue into our own "greatest hits." And then see what happened next.
The afternoon came. We hauled our instruments out into the back yard, threw open the gate, and....
Nothing happened. Nobody showed up. None of our friends in the neighborhood ever even mentioned it.
Probably a good thing, looking back. Any "concert" we'd attempted probably would have lasted less than five minutes. And we would have made a heckuva racket.
But then I might have had a REAL story to tell....
It was the last time I ever "seriously" tried to be in a band or sing in public. Maybe I should tell you about the first time....

Friday, December 1, 2017

"I Hardly Know Her Name"

The best Christmas present I ever received (other than starting a blog) was the cassette tape-recorder my parents got me for Christmas of 1971. From that point on, I could record the songs I loved off the radio and ignore all the other crap. This went on for years.
Those little plastic boxes of reel-to-reel tape were a godsend to cheapo music addicts like me. Yeah, the sound might have been a little mushy and fuzzy and distant -- but that didn't matter when I could assemble nothing but The Good Stuff on a blank tape.
The only downside was that the recorder sometimes became possessed and ate tapes. Always the best ones, of course. And the chances of having something eaten went up, the longer the tape was. I had some 120- and even 180-minute tapes for awhile. They must have been microscopically thin. I could probably have seen through them. They didn't last long.
I started out with Really Cheap blank tapes. They used to sell three 60- or 90-minute blank cassettes in a bag for around 99 cents at places like, yes, Radio Shack. (I was actually addicted to Radio Shack's catalog for about five minutes back in the day -- back when I had the delusion that I could set up my own radio station in my bedroom.)
Needless to say, the sound quality on these tapes was pretty wretched. But I didn't care. They made noise. That was good enough.
Once at Radio Shack I was able to score a couple of "high quality" TDK blank cassettes -- actually the "basic" bottom-end of their line as far as sound quality goes. They must have cost a couple bucks each, a shocking expense. But they were far above the three-in-a-bag tapes I'd been buying up 'til then. Suddenly I could hear highs and lows -- sounds weren't as mushy and hissy.
The first song I recorded on these "high quality" tapes was The Wackers' fast-paced two-minute love ditty "I Hardly Know Her Name," which seemed to get a lot of airplay on Tacoma's KTAC AM, for a song that never cracked the national Top 100.
I know next to nothing about The Wackers. Wikipedia isn't much help. I read somewhere ages ago that they were a Northern California bar band that sometimes dressed in women's clothing when they went on-stage. Shades of David Bowie and Alice Cooper -- both of whom were too scary for me to hear back then.
Over 40 years later, I found a copy of one of their albums, HOT WACKS, which includes "I Hardly Know Her Name." It still sounds great -- a two-minute blast of energy in the same league as Five Man Electrical Band's "Absolutely Right." But the next track on the CD is a dull version of John Lennon's "Oh My Love." I've never gotten any farther. I've read that the second side was a six-song ABBEY ROAD-like medley. I should look into that.
A few weeks back I found a cheap copy of their third album, SHREDDER. This includes the band's only chart single, "Day and Night." Never heard it. But I'll be investigating it soon -- possibly in that previously-announced upcoming previously-unheard-music blowout that's seriously overdue here.
Other early songs recorded to high-quality tape? The Royal Guardsmen's great "Snoopy's Christmas" (hey, it was the holidays), The English Congregation's "Softly Whispering I Love You" (which really sounded like an overblown rock opera), The Jimmy Castor Bunch's "Troglodyte".... All these still sound great to me, though I don't play them much.
The cassette disease stuck with me, though. At one point I had more than 100 tapes full of favorite music, fake DJ-ing, spontaneous comedy skits with friends, etc. Almost all of it's gone -- taped over, eaten by cassette players, gone sticky and unplayable and then trashed. What remains -- the oldest of it's from 1981 -- is in a box in the closet. But I don't play it much. The sound quality's way better on CD's.
COMING SOON: More Nostalgia.

PS -- Hope you've seen at least SOME of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's THE VIETNAM WAR on PBS. It's damn hard to watch at some points, but it's an amazing piece of work. FINDING YOUR ROOTS is no slouch, either.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A review about reviews

Jo Walton's WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT (2014) is like sitting around with an old friend, talking about what great books you've read lately. It's 130 posts compiled from a blog she wrote for, about re-reading various old science-fiction classics and guilty pleasures.
Walton doesn't pretend to be a "critic" -- she just writes about what struck her upon reading (or re-reading) some books. But she does what all the best book critics do -- enlightens you about what makes a book worth reading. Those flashes of insight are what make her reviews a lot of fun to read.
She hasn't convinced me (yet) to try reading C.J. Cherryh or Lois McMaster Bujold or Steven Brust, but I like and agree with her reviews of Samuel R. Delany's NOVA (a helluva lot going on in that book, it's crammed full of action, thought and detail) and BABEL-17 (flashes of brilliance); and her comments on Roger Zelazny's LORD OF LIGHT and DOORWAYS IN THE SAND.
Maybe even better are her "theme" columns -- Do you skim? What about novel series(es?) that go downhill? (On Frank Herbert's DUNE series: Read the first one. Then stop.)
There are a couple of reviews about books you've never read -- because they never got finished: Robert A. Heinlein's THE STONE PILLOW and Harlan Ellison's THE LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS -- this review (for April Fool's Day) wasn't as funny as it could have been, but if Walton's point was that Real Life is way weirder than fiction, she nailed it.
I also back Walton's idea of re-reading books to see if they're better or different than you remember. Every few years I re-read Peter Straub's IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW, and every time I get something else out of it, almost like it's a new book. The last time, it was like the story was completely new to me. I've also done this with Roger Zelazny's THIS IMMORTAL and ISLE OF THE DEAD, the two Delany novels mentioned above, and some others. Oh, and Robert M. Persig's ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE. I may not be able to read anything NEW, but there are some old friends in the house that I know I won't be wasting my time with.
Walton's book won't waste your time, either.

However, this one might: Will Romano's CLOSE TO THE EDGE: HOW YES'S MASTERPIECE DEFINED PROG ROCK (2017) is the third of Romano's books about progressive rock, and the first to disappoint me. His MOUNTAINS COME OUT OF THE SKY is still the best prog-rock history, and his PROG ROCK FAQ was almost like a sequel, and was nearly as solid.
CLOSE TO THE EDGE recycles a lot of stuff Yes fans likely already know, adds a lot of (to me) unnecessary, extraneous material, adds a list of tour dates, discography, bibliography, a weak index, and ends up almost 300 pages long. You can read the good stuff in an hour.
I was annoyed with this book from the start, with Romano's first-the-earth-cooled history of prog. I know he was trying to set up a context for his story, but. His history of Yes is more solid, and includes some info you may not have read before. But in this book supposedly about one album you get Yes's full career up to CTTE (which was the band's fifth album), plus much about the three albums that followed.
My biggest gripe is that except for a couple of stories, this book doesn't put you into the studio with Yes while they were recording CTTE -- in two- and three-minute segments, with leader Jon Anderson telling the band "If you don't like this tune, YOU come up with something better." There's a book there, about how that band worked ... for awhile.
Romano also takes all this stuff VERY seriously, referring to the title track of CTTE as "a symphony," or at least a sonata. There's a whole chapter on "water imagery" in '70s prog, for chrissakes. It's too much, if you've heard a lot of this stuff.
Romano and Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard could have used a better proofreader. There are words dropped, odd sentence constructions, words misspelled -- it looks like the book was a rush job. The first time Strawbs leader Dave Cousins is mentioned, he is listed with no first name. (The Strawbs is where Yes keyboard-player Rick Wakeman came from.) One more read-through would have helped immeasurably with smoothness, would have avoided jolting me out of the book.
And I'd say Pink Floyd's DARK SIDE OF THE MOON defined in the public's mind what prog was. But there's been enough written about DARK SIDE, right?
Yes drummer Bill Bruford has some less exalted views about working on CTTE. Judging by his AUTOBIOGRAPHY, he could have written an interesting, funny, acid-tinged book about what Yes and those sessions were like. But he wouldn't have bothered.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Tedeschi Trucks 2!

The Tedeschi Trucks Band can apparently play anything. And they do. Which has maybe become a problem when it comes to live shows.
I saw them for the second time on Sunday night at Seattle's beautiful Paramount theater. And I thought they were WAY better when they played a year ago at Seattle's McCaw Hall as part of their LET ME GET BY tour.
Don't get me wrong, here. They sounded great. They played great. Some of the songs -- especially the half-dozen I didn't recognize, which I assume were tryouts of new material -- came across as pretty strong.
But with 12 people on stage, I assume there must be a lot of egos to keep happy in this band. And there was a lot of showing off.
But here's the thing: There was MORE showing off a year ago. But the songs were stronger.
In the review I posted last September, though I thought that McCaw Hall concert was one of the best I'd ever seen, I was already uneasy with some parts of TTB's show. I don't think every song should be an excuse for Derek Trucks to show how loud and high and long he can play that guitar. And he CAN play, no question.
But that was still happening on Sunday night. In almost every song, at some point everybody backed off and opened up space to let Derek take over. Three or four times is OK. But after that it's too much. One of his best solos was on a long, angry piece called either "It Makes You Wonder" or "Shame." In fact, some of TTB's best moments were when they were clearly angry, as on one of their earlier songs, "Get What You Deserve."
Other solos made attendees wonder if TTB were trying to become some sort of blues-pop-jazz-rock-fusion band. I enjoyed some of this -- a drum duel just before intermission finally caught hold of a nice pounding groove (there was actually a lot of pounding in this show), and keyboardist Kofi Burbidge got some wild squawking, bubbling sounds out of the organ later in the show. I liked this -- I thought it was funny.
Their sax player also did a jittery, twitchy, Ornette Coleman-like meltdown early in the show that I thought was hilarious ... but he'd done the same bit a year ago. It's OK to do one clearly overdone meltdown -- that's funny. But one in every song is too much.
There were other spots that I thought were just dead -- where it seemed something was supposed to happen but didn't. This might have been technical -- during intermission, a tech worked on a couple of amps, and the second half of the show had fewer gaps. But some spots seemed to leave members of the band lost or waiting for cues. If things had been right on cue, it would never have occurred to me that there were dead spots.
And then there's the song choices. I still have a fairly long list of stuff I'd like to hear TTB do live -- they did nothing I'd hoped for. They did two songs from LET ME GET BY -- but not the best one, "Anyhow," which they opened powerfully with a year ago. They did B.B. King's "How Blue Can You Get?" and Ray Charles's "Let's Go Get Stoned," both of which came across with passion and power. Susan Tedeschi did a solo spot on Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," but she messed up the first line of the lyric ... and I'm sorry, but her version doesn't beat Peter, Paul and Mary's.
But Susan has a great voice that was strong on the rockers and cut through the big sound. And there's a couple of TTB's backing singers who can keep up with her. Former lead singer Mike Mattison took a few leads and still has a powerful voice. They should use him more often for contrast. He was especially good duetting with Susan on "Get What You Deserve."
TTB didn't talk much. Susan lightened up a bit toward the end and talked more, introduced the band, etc. She and Derek had hardly any interaction on stage.
At least they gave value for the money. The show ran almost three hours (not counting the half-hour intermission), and TTB came back on stage for an encore while we were in the lobby buttoning up coats for the 35-degree night outside. But we were done by then.
I was still disappointed. Maybe they were tired. They've been on the road a LOT the last year or so. The songs I thought were new sounded VERY good, and I'll still look for their next album.
Maybe I wish they would have settled down a bit -- actually been a blues band rather than a blues-pop-jazz-rock-fusion orchestra. Just because you CAN play everything doesn't mean you HAVE TO play everything. Stick with what you do best.

Friday, November 3, 2017

More bad behavior

Want to read 500 pages of selfishness and egomania?
No? Not interested? What if it's really well-written?
Joe Hagan's STICKY FINGERS (2017) updates Robert Draper's excellent ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE: THE UNCENSORED HISTORY (1990), by hooking a biography of RS editor/publisher/founder Jann Wenner around his coming out as a gay man in 1995.
Along with re-telling all of Draper's best stories (some with a little more depth and context), STICKY FINGERS then chronicles who Wenner slept with, how often, how this affected his magazine, etc. Everyone close to Wenner gets the same treatment. His ex-wife Jane, for example. A fascinating psychological study, in a way.
Much of this is riveting reading -- because the stories of RS's early days (Hunter Thompson, Altamont, etc.) are great stories. But it all becomes too much, because the star of this story never for a second drops his selfishness and greed. He forgives himself for everything, and throws everyone else under the bus.
Brilliantly, vividly written. Lots of cameos by John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, etc. But do you really want 500 pages of it?

By the way, if you read Peter Biskind's DOWN AND DIRTY MOVIES (reviewed here awhile back), about the founding of Miramax Pictures back in the 1990's, the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein should have come as a very small surprise. After reading how he abused and terrorized his employees at Miramax, it should be no surprise that he abused and harassed actresses, too. The surprise is it took so long for him to take a beating for it.

COMING SOON: Reviews of Will Romano's CLOSE TO THE EDGE: HOW YES'S MASTERPIECE DEFINED PROG ROCK (disappointing so far, but I'm only 70 pages in) and I AM BRIAN WILSON. And maybe some other stuff, too....
ALSO PLANNED: More live-blogging about Strange Music I've never heard before. Next test-listening session coming soon. Already have the intended victims piled-up and waiting....

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


I read a lot more stuff than I usually review here. Some of it doesn't seem worth writing a whole post about. A few examples:
* Barry N. Malzberg -- BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS. The first half of this book is Malzberg's brilliant, anguished THE ENGINES OF THE NIGHT, a 1982 history/critique of the science fiction field that I raved about way back in the early days of this blog. It's still one-of-a-kind. And every one of Malzberg's pessimistic predictions for SF in the '80s came true.
Throughout that earlier book, Malzberg kept threatening to write "The True, Terrible History of Science Fiction." BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS isn't it. There are some great things in it -- "Tripping With the Alchemist" is all about what it was like to work at the twisted Scott Meredith Literary Agency, an SF fan's revenge on the Real World. "Rage, Pain and Alienation" was Malzberg's angry farewell to SF back in 1976, and it's still angry -- not the whiny self-indulgence he now thinks it is.
There are other good pieces on SF writer Robert Silverberg, SF editor John W. Campbell, and mystery writer Cornell Woolrich -- but overall the new stuff is less angry, less outraged. I'd rather read "The True, Terrible History of Science Fiction." Malzberg still has time to write it.
There's one great joke: One of the hot-shot SF writers of the '80s is quoted as saying "Boy, I sure hope I'm not still writing this stuff when I'm 50. That'd be pathetic." Wonder what he thinks now?
There are numerous typographical errors in the Kindle edition.
* John Clute -- STAY. Not enough book reviews from science fiction's best critic since 1993. Included is a long horror "lexicon," THE DARKENING GARDEN. It's interesting, though I'd rather read a Horror encyclopedia that's like Clute's amazing SF ENCYCLOPEDIA. Didn't read the short stories.
* Judith Merril -- THE MERRIL THEORY OF LIT'RY CRITICISM. This collects all of Judith Merril's old book review columns from THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION and her commentaries from the annual best-of collections she assembled back in the '60s. I thought this would be a great read. But apart from columns I'd already read on Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, and the English New Wave scene, I haven't found the great stuff yet. Disappointing.
* 20TH CENTURY SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS. 1,000 pages of biographies and bibliographies on well-known SF writers up through 1990. I'm sure there are later versions, but they've gotta be expensive. I like the critical essays, but there are many typos.
* Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg -- THE BUSINESS OF SCIENCE FICTION WRITING. A series of business-related columns for newer writers, first published in the SFWA Bulletin. Resnick and Malzberg assume the writer can get published repeatedly, regularly, and talk about what happens AFTER that. This came out almost 10 years ago, so discussion about on-line publications is skimped. For me, the best parts were various atrocity stories about publishing -- publishers taking forever to pay writers, writers who took cash advances and never wrote the books, etc.
* D. Scot Appel -- SCIENCE FICTION: AN ORAL HISTORY. Not really a history at all. Instead, a collection of interviews with SF writers. One long, excellent interview with Philip K. Dick. Other interviewees are from an earlier generation -- Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, etc.
* Damien Broderick and Paul DiFillipo -- SF: THE 100 BEST BOOKS. This recommended-reading list picks up from where David Pringle's SCIENCE FICTION: THE 100 BEST NOVELS (1985) left off, so it opens with Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- which Atwood continues to proclaim is nothing as low-culture as science fiction. So I'm an old stick in the mud -- I'm not impressed with the list of novels and writers, and there's very little in here that I've read. So take me back to 1977....
* Jonathan Coe -- THE ROTTER'S CLUB (2001). I was sucked into this early-'70s English family saga because some of the teenage boys in it form a progressive-rock band. But the band only lasts for a 15-minute rehearsal, and then they become punk rockers! Also, the book's named after Hatfield and the North's second album -- and one of the characters tells another (who was injured in a terrorist bomb blast) that the Hatfields' album was recorded "for us, somehow." There is a funny, moving story that unwinds through this book, but somehow it wasn't charming enough to carry me along and I started skimming. It could work for you -- I may just be going through another one of my "I can't read fiction anymore" phases....

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Bow down to Nabiru

So, how 'bout that End Of The World, huh? Pretty impressive, right?
Oh, you missed it?
Well, to recap -- earlier this week The Media briefly carried a story outlining how the huge and mysterious planet Nabiru (or Planet X, if you prefer) had been predicted to slam into Earth and destroy all known life TODAY, Sept. 23, 2017 -- leaving room for an interstellar by-pass route, I assume.
One of our local all-news radio stations even ran a sound-bite of some pseudo-para-archeologist who allegedly calculated "Bible equations" mixed with "something from the Pyramids" and determined that NOW was The Time. They even quoted him saying "Everything I've heard, everything I've read, everything I've learned says that now is the time, that 2017 is a slam-dunk."
So, feel all relieved when you woke up OK this morning? Convinced we're all Past It?
Nemesis will not be mocked.
Of course, The End has been predicted at least twice since 2000 -- and many times before that. Last time I checked, we're all still here. If you're reading this, I think it's safe to assume that you are, too.
Here's the thing -- If Planet X were approaching on its doomsday course, we would, by Ghod, be able to SEE it. Rogue planets move rather slowly on the universal scale, and something allegedly that HUGE would be clearly visible in the daytime -- and block out a helluva lot of stars at night.
Also -- if Nabiru were really approaching, the gravity effects would be incredible -- the huge tides would drown coastal cities, the continents would crack, mountains would be tumbling all over each other....
None of this has happened. Though we HAVE had WAY TOO MANY earthquakes and hurricanes lately. For the folks at the center of those disasters, it really HAS been the end of the world.
But some people will believe ANYTHING. And others seem to WANT us all to panic. What would they gain by that? (I'm not talking about The Big Media here.)
I'll be looking forward to one of my favorite radio programs tonight. They're about half good sense and half pure BS, most of the time. Wonder what they'll say? "Hey, end of the world! It didn't happen, right? Wonder why not? Maybe the calculations were off...? Oh well, maybe next time. On tonight's show, we've got...."
Course we're not out of the woods yet. That joker Kim Jong Un could still lob a nuke at us. His most recent threat is to explode a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. Been about 60 years since anybody's done that. Don't believe me? Look it up.
And of course Kim can't test too many more nukes under his Special Test Mountain in North Korea. Because he's already radiating his own people. You can look that one up, too.
And it would probably take the end of the world or the malign influence of Planet X to put a single new or coherent thought inside Donald Trump's head.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The latest snooze

I pretty much avoided keeping up with the news over the weekend, and I feel ... pretty good. There's nothing like listening to hours of old R&B hits or a couple of football games over the radio to restore your faith in Mankind ... or at least the future.
A couple of news items did get my attention earlier in the week, however.
Apparently Trump had Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi over to the White House, and over a Chinese-food dinner they all (reportedly) agreed to avoid a government shutdown, work on immigration reform, and put off that silly and expensive Border Wall for awhile.
Of course, the results of the meeting depend on who you ask. Maybe it was the MSG in the food. The White House's press-spokespeople insist that the Border Wall plan was NOT dropped, never will be, etc. etc.
And of course the rank-and-file Republicans are furious. How DARE Trump have sweet and sour chicken with the Democrats! How DARE he try to work out any of the nation's problems without the GOP! Obama tried to work out troubles by inviting the GOP over to the White House for a few beers and some informal chat -- well, by Ghod, it didn't work then and it's not gonna work now, gosh darn it!
Oh, and Kim Jong Un lobbed another missile over Japan earlier in the week. That Kim, whatta joker! And the Japanese get such a kick out of it!
While agreeing to stiffen sanctions against North Korea -- how much tougher can they get? The only person in North Korea with an electric lightbulb and a flush toilet is Kim Jong Un; the common folks have been eating grass and rocks for years now -- the United Nations still refuses to use the one bit of diplomacy that might actually work: Basketball diplomacy!
Send Dennis Rodman back to North Korea! He and KJU are LIKE THIS! Dennis would have things fixed in two shakes: "Kim, dude -- you don't wanna blow up the whole world, right? Cool. Now let's play some ball!" The Rod-man would make it happen. Kim won't listen to anyone else.
And there's no down-side. If KJU decides not to let Rodman come back home -- if he wants to hang onto his playmate forever, so the Supreme Ruler can have impromptu basketball games in a freezing-cold gym at 4 a.m. -- not that many people here will get upset. Everybody wins.
If Hunter S. Thompson were still alive, he'd be eating this stuff up with a spoon.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

RIP Brian W. Aldiss/Eclipse play-list

OK, this isn't going to be an epic. Science fiction writer Brian Aldiss died a couple of days ago. He was 92. Every time I visit Locus, I expect to see obituaries for my heroes Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg -- they're getting up there, but they're both hanging in.
I haven't read that much Aldiss -- only one short story, I think, the surprisingly adult for its time "Poor Little Warrior" -- and a novel, the not-quite-successful but still striking (and definitely involved with current concerns) HARM. But I've read several of his memoirs, and I think his histories of science fiction, BILLION YEAR SPREE (1973) and the updated TRILLION YEAR SPREE (1986), are still the best at tracking the history of the field. Somebody should write the history of the SF field's past 30 years.
But here's why Aldiss's death means a lot to me. His memoirs are often pretty amazing. THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE has some great behind-the-scenes stories about what it was like to be one of the top British SF writers back at the dawn of the "New Wave" in the early 1960's. And it also talks about some emotional problems Aldiss had that he didn't get fixed for YEARS. BURY MY HEART AT W.H. SMITH'S is sort of a first-draft of TWINKLING OF AN EYE. The later book is much longer, and MUCH more personal.
His first book, way back in 1955, was a fictionalized memoir, THE BRIGHTFOUNT DIARIES, about his experiences working in an Oxford bookstore after World War II. I read it in the summer of 2013 -- I'd always wondered what working in a bookstore was like. And after I finished it -- even though not much happened, it wasn't very dramatic, and it certainly wasn't the charming English novel I'd expected -- suddenly a lightbulb went on over my head.
"Hey, even I can write a novel in which nothing happens," I said to myself. And six weeks later I had written a rough draft for my first e-book, GUARANTEED GREAT MUSIC!, about the three years I spent working in a record store. It was like reading Aldiss's book showed me how to do it.
So there's that. So now I need to read some more of Aldiss's many writings. I've been told he wrote some pretty great science fiction, back in the day....

Here's what I was listening to during the eclipse yesterday, my 58th birthday. We enjoyed the change in the color of the sky, the temperature dropping, and the birds and traffic going all quiet, from the safety of home, rather than traveling along with half a million others to the path of totality down in central Oregon:
* Vangelis -- Alpha.
* Happy the Man -- On Time as a Helix of Precious Laughs, Wind-Up Doll Day Wind.
* Mark Knopfler -- Going Home (Theme from LOCAL HERO).
* Pink Floyd -- High Hopes, Bike.
* Steve Tibbetts -- Ur.
* Lyle Mays -- Ascent.
* Deodato -- Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001).
...There was probably a little more, but I can't remember what else. (Alzheimer's, ya know.) And we did NOT play DARK SIDE OF THE MOON....
Was nice to have such a huge astronomical event on my birthday -- I planned it that way, of course. And it wasn't even the end of the world or anything. No major fireworks. Thank goodness.
Later on in the day, The Girlfriend and I went to Tacoma's HI-VOLTAGE RECORDS (free plug) and heard some nice jazz from Art Pepper, rather good though morose early-'60s broken-hearted love ballads by Willie Nelson, and some killer rock and roll from (good Ghod!) Nazareth! RAZAMANAZ, it was. But EVERYthing sounds great on HI-VOLTAGE's sound system....

Friday, August 18, 2017

Welcome back, my friends....

David Weigel's THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS (2017) is a fast, easy-to-read, mostly-well-written history of the rise and fall of progressive rock. I read its almost-300 pages in three days -- pretty fast, for me.
But it's thin. It reads as if it was edited rather tightly from a longer manuscript -- as if the order from the publisher was to get all the story told in less than 300 pages. This is too bad, because the book could have been twice as long. It's cut too tightly -- a sentence here and there gets mangled. It isn't always clear who's being quoted.
The best part of the book recounts prog's early days, when the form and the players were just coming together. There's some excitement and freshness here, and Weigel interviews some folks you don't usually see quoted in histories of this sort -- Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine, Daevid Allen of Soft Machine and Gong, Kevin Ayers of Soft Machine, Pye Hastings and Richard Sinclair of Caravan, Peter Hammill of Van der Graaf Generator, Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues, Peter Banks of Yes....
But unfortunately, this section is too short. The next thing you know, Yes is dropping members, King Crimson is falling apart during their first U.S. tour, and ELP is arguing about what to do after their first album. And the prog-rock story has barely gotten started.
Not long after that, Weigel starts to skim the surface and skirt the edges. It's a "highlights" history, sort of. As happy as I was to see Van der Graaf Generator, Gentle Giant, Egg and Magma mentioned in some detail -- and even the Canadian band FM gets mentioned -- there is so much more Weigel could have done.
Pink Floyd is in here just for DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. Though Floyd's WISH YOU WERE HERE, ANIMALS and THE WALL also sold millions, they're not mentioned. The Moody Blues are in here just for DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED. There's rather too much about Mike Oldfield, though the story about making TUBULAR BELLS is pretty neat. Caravan is mentioned in the early-days section, but that's all. Their career isn't followed. Camel is mentioned in passing, but that's it. There's a lot about Daevid Allen before and after Gong, but nothing about when he led that band/hippy commune....
There's almost too much about Genesis, Yes and ELP, but don't get me started. I think it's helpful if you know a lot about prog history before you read this book.
I was pleased to find a section on Italian prog, and I was happy with the mentions of Caravan, Hatfield and the North, FM and Egg. I just wished there had been more. There's a bit on American prog bands -- Kansas is in here. But not Happy the Man. Or even Styx, though they're pictured. The section on neo-prog and later prog bands (Porcupine Tree, Coheed and Cambria, etc.) will probably mean more to younger fans than it does to me.
The book opens with a trip on a modern-day "Prog Rock Cruise," backtracks to the early days of the genre, and ends with the death of Keith Emerson. There is no discography, or even a "Where are they now?" update of what the acts did after being mentioned in the book. It's also saddening how many of the folks Weigel interviewed have since died. Since the book was published, Greg Lake has passed away. There is a long list of notes and sources, which includes lots of books and websites to track down if you're interested in learning more.
So, a great idea, smoothly written (mostly), but not long or detailed enough. Any chance Weigel might have a sequel in mind, in more depth? Until that happens, Will Romano's MOUNTAINS COME OUT OF THE SKY is still the best place to start for a prog history.

Monday, August 14, 2017

An annoying autobiographical pause

I used to be obsessed with fiction. Now most of the time I'm hung up on what goes on behind the scenes: Who are the people who write this stuff? What did they think they were doing? What are their lives like?
Been reading a lot of old science fiction fanzines lately, thanks to the nice folks at eBay. (This was before I found out you can read a lot of old SF fanzines for free at These privately-produced, small magazines -- often published by someone cranking a mysterious printing machine made out of bubble gum, Scotch tape and dead frogs, usually located in someone's dimly-lit basement -- have been part of science fiction since its earliest days. SF fans felt strongly enough about the stuff they were reading that they created their own "magazines," printed them, traded them with other fans, communicated.
I stumbled over fanzines in high school. The first issue I ever read was SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW 15, edited by Richard E. Geis. (More about him in a bit.) I thought his mag was OK -- but on the back-cover was an ad for Bill Bowers' OUTWORLDS. I sent away for some samples -- the first of which turned out to be a hilarious 40-page letter-column ... and then I was hooked!
OUTWORLDS had great, funny writing, gorgeous artwork and graphics, and everybody seemed so friendly ... if not crazy. In a good way. Though SFR had stronger content and harder-hitting opinions, OUTWORLDS was a flashier package.
Found a few more copies of SFR over the years and enjoyed it -- especially the behind-the-scenes peeks into the minds of SF writers, the arguments, the feuds, the horror stories about publishing that most readers never hear.
Thanks to eBay, I've recently piled up a pretty good stack of '70s and '80s fanzines. Along with taking a 40-years-ago look back with LOCUS -- "The newspaper of the science fiction field" -- I've gotten mildly acquainted with "fannish" fanzines, which are more like walking into the middle of a conversation and trying to figure out what the current comments in an issue were commenting ON in the first place....
Some of these little mags are charming, some are just silly. And you never know when a piece of great writing is going to slap you upside the head. In that stack from eBay are articles like one fan describing how she overdosed on anti-depressants FOUR TIMES before her doctors finally got her meds right (from the zine BANANA WINGS); Bruce Gillespie admitting in his METAPHYSICAL REVIEW that he'll have to do a low-budget no-art zine until he can AFFORD to print another issue of his epic zine SF COMMENTARY; former AMAZING/FANTASTIC and HEAVY METAL magazine editor Ted White writing about the months he spent in jail after being arrested for (I assume) pot-possession with intent to sell, and admitting to embezzling money from a well-known SF writer when he got into personal cash-flow problems; Dick Geis on the death of his father; Bruce Gillespie on the unexpected death of a close friend, and a LONG write-up on Philip K. Dick's half-dozen mainstream non-SF novels....
Several of these came from Dick Geis's long-running fanzine SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW/THE ALIEN CRITIC. I think Geis, who died in 2013 at age 85, could star in a book of his own. How this cranky recluse single-handedly put out a small magazine every three months for YEARS and even managed to live on the proceeds is a heckuva story. (It also helped pay the bills that he wrote more than 100 soft-core porn novels -- some of them even got published under his real name.) Maybe this isn't a story everybody would want to read, but still....
Back in the mid-'70s, Geis predicted a massive computer network on which you'd be able to read your daily newspaper -- or his monthly outpourings. He even eventually moved to posting on the Internet, after his accumulating health problems wouldn't let him work 50 hours a week on his magazines anymore.
Geis predicted at least as far back as 1974 that the U.S. economy was going to collapse due to massive debt and over-use of credit. Despite his health problems, Geis kept writing through 2011, but I haven't yet read how he felt about seeing his predictions of massive financial ruin come true....

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

This is more like it....

My assault on the novels of Philip K. Dick continues. A SCANNER DARKLY (1977) was Dick's anti-drug novel, his turnabout on the drug scene after he'd spent years using amphetamines to help him crank out more work faster -- more than 40 novels and 120 short stories in a 30-year career. Despite the subtext (explained in an author's note/dedication at the end), SCANNER DARKLY is my pick for PKD's best novel of those I've read so far. It's even better than my previous pick, THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH (1964) -- because even with Dick's usual plots-within-plots, wheels-within-wheels, nobody-is-who-they-seem-to-be setup, you can clearly follow what's happening all the way to the end and it's well worth the trip. There's even a happy ending. Or at least a hopeful one.
Every character in the book is a drug addict. After a few weird scenes to set the stage, the story turns out to be fairly simple: Narcotics officer and drug addict Bob Arctor is given the impossible job of spying on himself 24/7 for his superiors at the police department -- to determine if Arctor's a bigtime drug-pusher. How he gets forced into this corner is hard to explain -- you'll have to read the book.
Arctor first disassociates himself from the situation, looking at his friends through his role as drug-narc "Agent Fred." Then Arctor starts going schizophrenic, as the stress between his drug intake and having to perform surveillance on himself and all his drug-addict friends is too much for him to deal with.
In one 20-page chapter towards the end, Arctor falls apart -- and the writing is brilliant, some of Dick's best writing ever.
But that's not the end. Remember, this is a PKD novel -- nobody is what they appear to be.
Though the life of every character in the book centers around drugs, there is very little drug TAKING shown. Most of the characters -- including Arctor/Fred -- are addicted to the evil Substance D, which appears to be available everywhere, rots the mind in a ridiculously short time, and seems to be organic. It can be grown by anyone who can set up the right conditions to grow it.
This "secret" leads to an ending that is hopeful, uplifting -- it hints at a way out of the nightmare for all the characters.
Of course, Bob/Fred has had Issues from the start. In one early scene during an anti-drug speech to the ridiculously straight-laced Anaheim Lions Club, Fred catches a look at himself in a mirror while dressed in his police-narc-disguise "scramble suit," and all he can see is "a vague blur." Here's a guy who's already having trouble with Reality, and nothing that happens from that point on helps him much. Things just get weirder.
Because everyone in the book is a druggie, you have to sit through a lot of pretty meaningless dialogue. Watching hours of this on surveillance video is one of the things that drives Bob crazy. But not all of it's meaningless -- and it all works for the story.
Some of the writing and dialogue is pretty crude. And some of it's very clever -- very funny -- even moving, in the end. PKD grows on you, I think. The novels of his that I've read recently have each been progressively better, and they seem to work with each other -- some of the things that happen to Bob here are also mentioned in PKD's later VALIS.
Though PKD does clearly get his anti-drug message through here, the book is anything but a lecture. PKD climbs on the soapbox for just a bit in the afterword -- where he dedicates the book to a dozen friends who died or had their lives ruined from drugs. "These were my comrades," he writes. "There were no better. ... I'm not any of the characters in this novel. I am this novel."
It's the most passionate, most convincing PKD book I've read so far, keeping in mind that it starts -- as all of his do -- in some pretty gritty, down-and-dirty surroundings. The first character we meet spends the whole first chapter pulling aphids out of his hair, off of his body, and out of the carpet in his grungy apartment. If you can get through that, you'll be ready for the rest of the story.
Next up: THE DIVINE INVASION (1981).

Sunday, July 9, 2017


My assault on the novels of science-fiction writer and cult hero Philip K. Dick continues. For its first 220 pages, Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (1968) is a standout sf novel. Though it starts slowly, once rolling it builds steadily in character and incident, it complicates entertainingly, and the story becomes gripping all the way up to a high point of drama near the end.
All through the book, as I was hooked and got more involved and the reality of Dick's imagined world got more complex, I started saying "THIS is more like it! NOW I see what people were talking about with this guy!"
I got so involved that I read almost the whole book in just a couple of days, staying interested and enjoying it all the way. It wasn't work. SHEEP is much easier to read and get caught up in than PKD's VALIS (reviewed last post). It seems to have a lot more depth.
But as I closed in on the end, I had to take a break and go to work.
I should never have gone to work.
Because when I came back home and picked the story back up, PKD had somehow let the last 25 pages of his novel go pffff....
In the future, a massive nuclear war has virtually finished off Earth. A dark radioactive dust coats most of the planet. Fallout is an ongoing problem. The remaining cities are mostly abandoned, like ghost towns. Though San Francisco has somehow survived, western Oregon has become a desert. Most folks have left Earth for Mars. A few people crawl through life here -- those whose jobs won't let them leave, and those who aren't smart enough to pass the IQ tests to emigrate. Rumor has it the colony planets are in worse shape.
The remaining humans are plagued with guilt over the millions of animal species that have died due to man's stupid wars. Companies manufacture mechanical animals to placate this guilt. A few REAL animals survive, but they are only available at astronomical prices -- the bigger the animal, the higher the price. Real animals have become status symbols like cars or houses.
A sinister talk-show host named Buster Friendly has a 24/7 program on the only TV channel, where his guests are celebrities who are "famous for being famous." A religion called Mercerism seems to unite believers in a sacred shared ordeal similar to Sisyphus rolling his giant boulder up a mountain. And people use various mood-inhancing devices so they won't have to face too much reality.
Against this background, a police bounty-hunter named Rick Deckard tracks down a group of (supposedly evil) androids who've immigrated to Earth from Mars illegally. Deckard is told these androids are smarter and more brutal than humans ... but the androids are mainly just less empathic. Maybe conditions on Mars are even worse than on the dusty, depopulated Earth? We never find out.
Helping Deckard track down the androids is a mysterious woman named Rachel Rosen -- herself apparently an android, or at least a human with little empathy. It turns out one of the androids Deckard must locate and "retire" (kill) is a duplicate of Rachel.
The plot works from here. Much is promised. Much ominous darkness and threat surround Deckard as he proceeds in his mission -- he'll be paid $1,000 for each android he "retires." Then maybe he'll be able to afford a REAL sheep instead of the mechanical one currently pretending to munch grass on the roof of his decrepit old apartment building. Then won't his neighbor be jealous! Then maybe his wife will love him again and not consider him a failure anymore.
Much of the rest becomes a game of who's-real-and-who-isn't, as Deckard tries to take out the androids before they can get him. Which actually becomes fairly exciting. Until Deckard closes in on the last three androids hiding in an abandoned apartment building -- including the Rachel-duplicate and a supposedly evil and powerful android-leader named Roy Baty.
It may sound here like I didn't enjoy the book. Wrong. I liked it a lot. But PKD took the heavily dramatic ending that was staring him in the face and threw it out the window in the last 25 pages. The big expected fight with Roy Baty turns out to be nothing much, and Deckard's confrontation with the Rachel-duplicate is a wasted opportunity for much more ... because by then Deckard has fallen in love with the "real" Rachel.
I was also expecting more to be done with J.R. Isadore, the low-IQ pet-repair messenger who in many ways is the nicest and most genuine person in the whole book. But PKD just lets him slip away.
The last 25 pages are digressions and avoidances of drama. Rachel does sort of get her "revenge" after Deckard murders all of her friends, but even in the context of the book it comes across as a very small thing. After her function in the plot is made clear, she is also dropped.
How could PKD do this? Maybe because to round out this story in a way that seems dramatically obvious, he might have needed 50 more pages -- and maybe that room wasn't available in a Doubleday mid-'60s mid-list sf novel. Just a guess.
I've never seen the movie BLADE RUNNER made from this book, though I will say that the giant Japanese-style (or Times Square-style) neon advertising signs that allegedly made such a big visual impact in that film are NOT from this future. I've read that the movie does at least make the point this book doesn't -- that at the finale Deckard does recognize Roy Baty's humanity in a way that never comes close to happening in this book. About the only real humans here are J.R. Isadore and Deckard's wife, Iran. And we recognize Iran because she's as depressed as any normal person would be in a future world like this. Deckard comes across as just tired.
This is all too bad, because for the first 220 pages this is an excellent novel with action and vivid characters and some philosophical depth, and it deserved the Nebula Award it was nominated for. But PKD never answers any of the questions he brings up. If he had finished the job, this book could maybe have WON that award....

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Another round for The Vague Blur!

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is a phenomenon. Though he's been dead since 1982, his books keep selling, his cult keeps growing, Hollywood keeps making movies of his short stories and novels.
And I'm still trying to figure out why this is so.
True, Dick's novel THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH (1964) is absolutely one of a kind and will turn your mind into a pretzel. A MAZE OF DEATH (1970) has a twisted grimness that is all its own.
PKD has a really good feel for the gritty down-to-earth realities of life. He's also good on those little moments that suddenly become overpoweringly Significant.
But the people he writes about are so average, so dull, that they can be boring to read a whole book about.
Even when Dick's writing about himself.
I've bogged down in half a dozen of his other novels, and there's a couple I've forgotten completely.
VALIS (1981) is one of those where I bogged down after a couple chapters and then forgot about it. I got through it this time in a few days, with no problem. It's definitely different and often interesting, but not exactly stunning. Except maybe in the amount of work PKD had to do to get it written.
It was Dick's attempt to explain the vision (or breakdown) he had in early 1974, when he thought he was contacted by God. Or at least by a Vast Active Living Intelligence System.
Over the next five years, Dick reportedly wrote some 5,000 pages trying to explain what happened to him, what it meant, what he thought it revealed. Among other things, this supposedly alien intelligence identified a life-threatening health problem with PKD's son.
More than 1,100 pages of these writings were published a few years back as PKD's EXEGESIS. It's an amazing pile of work. But awfully tough to get through.
VALIS tries to novelize some of PKD's experience. One problem is, he doesn't show what happened to him until he's 50 pages into the book. And even when he gets to it, he just barely describes it. He finds other, more human ways to lay out his story. But this central experience is underneath everything else. If you don't know about it before starting the book, the story's kind of a mess.
First PKD comes to a personal crisis: His wife leaves him and takes their young son, then two close women friends die even though he tried to help them. First PKD tries to commit suicide. Then the blinding pink light of VALIS touches him and starts pouring vast amounts of information into his brain.
The rest of the book is a search for God, or at least for what VALIS is or means.
PKD, his alter-ego, and a small group of friends eventually find A New Savior living in northern California. She turns out to be a stunningly intelligent, frightfully verbal 2-year-old girl.
The first thing she does is immediately cure PKD's schizophrenia. His alter-ego -- who has been the star of the book and whom PKD has had long conversations with alone and when surrounded by his friends -- immediately disappears.
Then the girl tells them in absolutely Biblical cadences some of what they want to know. She is by far the sharpest person in the book.
Naturally, this divine creature can not be permitted to live -- and she dies in a stupid off-stage accident.
The rest of the book is a search for another Savior. PKD's alter-ego reappears and starts traveling the world searching for the next Messiah -- first in Europe, then Russia, Asia, finally into the Pacific islands. The new Messiah who will heal the world is out there somewhere -- VALIS has told them so.
Twenty pages of PKD's EXEGESIS is tacked onto the end of the book, to lay out the basic thought structure beneath the novel's heavy religious theory.
Most of the people in the novel are nuts. They even discuss this. PKD himself can barely handle the stress of walking out of his own yard. He blacks out during plane flights. Too stressful.
The book will hold your attention, parts of it are kind of drily funny, and it's unlike any other novel you've ever read. It's as direct and basic as PKD could make a complex subject. It's better than staring at the TV for a few hours, I guess, but that doesn't mean it's going to be a pleasant experience. I'll be reading more by PKD, but I'm hoping for a little more entertainment along with his message.
Just make sure you don't pay too much for it.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Second childhood

Been buying old science-fiction magazines cheap on eBay recently, trying to recapture my childhood, get back to the days when I thought being a science fiction writer would be the best job in the world.
Maybe not the best PAYING job. But somehow I wasn't worried about that back then -- ask any of my old girlfriends and the ex-wife who watched me many times buy books and music before I bought food: "It's OK, honey -- we'll live on love...."
I think mainly what I missed from the magazines was the great artwork, but I re-read a few of the stories, the ones I remember best. They're still great. It makes me feel good to re-read them, and just to read those old magazines again, years after I sold half my collection off because I was short on cash....
I still wish I could have pulled it together 40 years earlier and made a more serious run at being a real writer. I mean, I was pretty serious, but I don't think I knew what I was doing. There was a whole lot of living and learning I hadn't done yet. And now that I've done it, I don't really have the energy to obsess about my own fiction writing anymore, most of the time. I was a reporter for too long, and the "just the facts" approach maybe buried my imagination.
A year ago, just for fun, I started writing a music-fantasy set in an after-the-bomb future, starring my usual lineup of old friends. I got about 6,000 words into it without worrying about where it was going or what I was going to do with it.
This was shortly after I met The Girlfriend -- and then spending time with her became much more important than anything else I was doing. It still is. She hasn't kept me from writing creatively -- I haven't really felt like it. Plus I didn't know where this story was going anyway.
I re-read some of it a couple weeks back. To me, it seems pretty good. Might have some potential. Kinda visionary for me, funny in places, I like the setting and I know the characters.
But I don't know where it goes -- unless it starts repeating some of the shocks of real life as my friends lived it, and I'm not sure I want to write about most of that stuff. Or unless I want to dive into pure fantasy. But when you've been a full-time reporter for 20 years, imagination was the first thing you tossed out.
I may post the story here in pieces, but I need to look back through it again, make sure I'm happy with it as it is. I'm hoping maybe it will develop as I post the parts, and maybe I'll figure out where to go with it. Sort of a novel in progress.
A note to my old friends who are out there -- don't worry. I don't think you'll recognize yourselves, though you'll recognize your names. And I think you'll be happy with how I've depicted you. The story's intended as a tribute to those old days 40 years ago, anyway. Certainly those were happy times for me (as I look back) and I want to keep them that way.
You have been warned.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Tilting at windmills?

I'm not a Frank Zappa fan, though I agree he was an interesting personality. If you ARE a fan, you'll probably enjoy Neil Slaven's biography of FZ, ELECTRIC DON QUIXOTE (1996), which is the first book on music that's held my interest all the way through in quite awhile.
There've been other books on Zappa. FZ wrote one himself, THE FRANK ZAPPA BOOK, which I thought was a little silly and scattered, along with skipping whole sections of his life. Barry Miles's ZAPPA, which I read and reviewed here a couple of years ago, wasn't bad -- but it soon bogged down into recapping album-tour-album-tour-album-tour until Frank died. It could have used more detail, more interviews.
But Miles was great at catching Good Stories -- one leads off his book, a story from Frank's early years that maybe explained the direction FZ went for the rest of his life. It's such a great story that Miles repeats it again almost word-for-word a few chapters later.
Slaven -- a producer at Decca/Deram in the early '70s -- maybe doesn't have such a nose for great stories, but he compiles a ton of period quotes from newspaper and magazine articles, and adds a ton more info from interviews he did with Zappa. Slaven also comments in some depth on the music itself, something Miles never did. Slaven gets across some of the obsessiveness that would push a man to record and release more than 60 albums in a nearly-30-year career.
Slaven also picks up some of the sarcasm of his subject. He clearly has his own opinions on how Zappa was treated, which of FZ's albums are worth re-hearing, and how much of Frank's work will continue to be heard.
There's also detailed coverage of FZ's later trips to DC to argue against rock censorship. This section made me think it's too bad FZ and Hunter S. Thompson aren't around today to call "Bullshit!" on so much of what's coming out of DC. Actually, I think FZ and HST woulda made a great ticket for Prez and VP.
But hypocrisy, fascism and greed never die. Musicians do. There's a long chapter on all the work FZ got done while his health was declining.
There's also detail on the many fine musicians who performed as FZ's backing bands -- among them Terry Bozzio, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, George Duke, Jean-Luc Ponty, Ian and Ruth Underwood, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, Eddie Jobson, Patrick O'Hearn, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Captain Beefheart, the Original Mothers, and many more. Their opinions -- usually very favorable about FZ -- come across strongly.
None of this changes my opinion of FZ's music -- for most of which, I've never been able to get past the stupid, silly, grade-school-level lyrics. They seem too close to the things FZ was trying to make fun of. But maybe I've just heard the wrong stuff. I heard a chunk of HOT RATS while in a Tacoma record store awhile back, and it sounded pretty good. Maybe I need to hear more of that and the WAKA/JAWAKA-GRAND WAZOO period....

I've also been eating up parts of the annual BEST MUSIC WRITING series from DaCapo Books. Each volume I've found so far has something in it worth holding on to -- a long piece about a guy who discovered "numbers stations" on short-wave radio and ended up compiling a four-CD set of what they broadcast, which turned out to be code-messages to spies -- some of this stuff was later used on a Wilco album; a hilarious/disgusting piece on how Warner Brothers Records treats artists who never earn back their advance; a long piece on how Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" still works today, 50 years later; looks back at Phil Ochs, Bettye LaVette, Nina Simone, Anita O'Day and others; meeting The Shaggs; the importance of Big Country; an obituary for great English DJ John Peel; and much more.
Well worth your time if you find a copy at Goodwill.
More eventually....

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Art for art's sake

Here's a sort of out-take from that new book I maybe started writing a few days ago....

OK, now here's a surprise. Was thinking recently about all those old science fiction stories and novels I read back when I was growing up, and realized that half of the stuff I read I got sucked into because of the great artwork. Like the artists were working their asses off trying to get me (and other readers) to notice or read something we might normally have passed by.
This was especially true in science fiction magazines in the '70s and '80s, where the quality of the stories varied, but the artwork was usually of pretty high quality. And back in the '60s, the artwork was almost always top notch, even if some of the magazines were sometimes kinda shoddy. No matter how far to the Right the old '60s ANALOG went, the art was always amazing -- there was a feeling of freedom and exploration (and even comedy) there that even iron-handed old editor John W. Campbell couldn't spoil.
Though I sold a ton of old SF magazines a few years ago when I was short on cash, I still have a cabinet-full left. So I went to that cabinet last night to maybe get nostalgic about the old days through some great art, and discovered ... most of that art disappeared out of my house a long time ago.
I think when it became clear to me that I was A Words Guy -- because I was never going to be An Artist -- I think I started hanging onto the words that meant the most to me, and let most of the artwork go. And now I miss it.
Exploring the net earlier today, I found a couple websites that do a pretty good job of preserving some of this stuff. They maybe short-change some great black-and-white interior illustrations for the more dazzling color cover stuff, but at least they know who the artists were -- eye-opening artists like Kelly Freas (who could go from cartoon-like comedy to gorgeous stuff that would take your breath away), Rick Sternbach, Mike Hinge, Vincent DiFate, Steve Fabian, John Schoenherr, Jack Gaughan, James Odbert, Val Lakey Lindahn, Janet Aulisio, Broeck Steadman, Roger Dean, Rodney Matthews, Angus McKie, David Hardy, Ian Miller, Patrick Woodroffe, Virgil Finlay, Paul Lehr, Richard Powers, Ed Emshwiller, Ames, and so many others.
Only a couple of these guys are well-known names. Most of them never broke through to the mainstream like Frank Frazetta or Jack Kirby did. They didn't get paid very well, most of them, especially back in the old magazine days. Some of them died broke. But their gorgeous work is really timeless. And I'm sorry now that I don't have more of it around.
About the only art book I still have in the house is Hipgnosis's gorgeous and hilarious book of album covers they did for Pink Floyd and other rockers back in the '70s, WALK AWAY RENE. And it's a classic that you'll never get away from me. Once I had a copy of Roger Dean's gorgeous VIEWS portfolio -- but I never figured out what the lengthy text was raving on about, and I already had most of the album covers, so....
Here's the weird thing -- science-fiction/fantasy/horror has never been bigger on movie screens and TV. But for most of the artists listed above, their work seems to have almost vanished, and I think something unique has disappeared. It's not quite "retro" yet -- in some ways it's the world all around us today -- only BETTER.
Meanwhile, science fiction magazines are just barely holding on. The most recent issues of ANALOG and ASIMOV'S I've seen over the last couple years are WAY thinner than the old days, and they hardly run any artwork beyond the cover. FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION never did run interior art. INTERZONE is pretty flashy and art-filled, very current -- but the fiction doesn't grab me much.
The good old stuff is pretty-much gone.
What all this babbling means is the next time I go to Half-Price Books or Goodwill, I'll probably be grabbing all those old science-fiction magazines up on the CLEARANCE section's top shelf that I can hardly reach. And I'll pay a buck apiece for them. Just to have the art around again....