Wednesday, August 30, 2006

"The kid in high school who should have been reading books but was doodling band logos in his notebook? That was me."


"At last we had conquered Basingstoke." Seb Hunter lays down these words just past the half-way mark of his metal-memoir, Hell Bent For Leather. It is a hard-won sentiment, but no reader will be caught off-gaurd when, 10 pages later, they follow Hunter into his first day on the job at McDonald's. Nor will the reader be too surprised to learn that Hunter's greatest challenge is remembering which fryer to use for apple pies, and which to use for fish. It seems all of Hunter's wisdom is of the hard-won variety.

Most readers of a certain age will quickly recognize Hunter – he's that guy you remember from grade 10 who was mostly sweet, probably smart, but couldn't seem to focus on anything that didn't involve a guitar. He also didn't show up for grade 11.

Hunter gallops through the expected trials and tribulations of a kid taken over by the rock & roll dream. He pisses away his life listening to Led Zep and figuring out Jimmy Page solos, one note at a time. He falls into a number of bands, none of which make it as far as "Puppet Show ... and Spinal Tap." He possesses analytical facilities that weave together some beguiling sense regarding the metal of the late-80s and early 90s. And he ill-advisedly follows his whims when it comes to recreational drug use. After months of clouding his brain with mary-jane, he drops acid. His first experience is such a catastrophic disaster, he drops it again a few days later, just to make sure it's as bad as all that. Conclusion from trip #2: it's much, much worse.

I'm an easy mark for a memoir like Hunter's, but even so I was surprised at the accolades it's received. Q, Blender and Maxim give it their unanimous endorsement – perhaps the British setting makes the difference, I thought. But then the very American Publisher's Weekly awarded it a starred review.

I can't get quite that excited about this book. I've been ruined, because I've already read Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman, which neatly sews up the musicologist analysis of said musical era. But more significantly, I've read Cheese Chronicles: The True Story Of A Rock n Roll Band You've Never Heard Of, by Tommy Womack.

Why Womack's book remains a sub-underground classic is a mystery to me. He's got Klosterman's articulate and witty self-awareness, but he's also got band experience and a particular insight that comes with possessing genuine musical chops. Womack, like Klosterman, knows that guys my age from rural North America all share precisely the same formative rock & roll experience: the first time we saw that 30-second TV ad for the local KISS concert (on a b&w set, no less). This is sure to set a guy on ironic footing, but irony can take you only so far as a rocker; Womack hears Jim Carroll's “People Who Died” at exactly the right moment, and Government Cheese is born. They share the stage and tips jar with REM, drive that beat-up van from Bowling Green to NYC to play at CBGB (OMFUG), make videos and air them on the all-new, all-powerful MTV, and otherwise complete their natural ascendancy to ....

Well, Government Cheese might be just a hazy memory in a select few minds, but Womack, I'm happy to say, is still the man. He's busy doing the solo gig, and throwing his cheery, musical heft behind Todd Snider (has Tommy recovered from Leno and Letterman? You be the judge). As for Cheese Chronicles, you can get your very own copy at Amazon for a mere $35, or you can buy it directly from the man himself, at the more reasonable price of $16 (US, of course).

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Injecting "New" Blood Into Creaky Franchises

I wondered how long the Star Trek franchise would be allowed to stay in suspended animation. The answer appears to be two more years, tops. Two years can feel like a long time to a guy who likes to wear a velour tunic on his day off, but for those of us who (out of desperation, perhaps) turned to Star Trek for imaginative and ideological stimulus, that might seem like a rather short fallow period.

Or not. It depends whether you think J.J. Abrams -- now heralded as the forthcoming producer and possible director of Star Trek XI -- is a television wunderkind, or just another lucky guy in La-La Land who plays well with others. I lean toward the latter view, but my bias comes from admittedly limited exposure to his product. I remember Felicity as being the first TV series to feature a haircut that jumped the shark; Alias was a by-the-numbers comic book melodrama that rested capably on Jennifer Garner's gorgeous shoulders (and the occasional appearance of Lena Olin); and as for Lost, the jury is still out -- what began promisingly as television's only post-9/11 drama has become larded, obtuse and indeed "lost", much the way Twin Peaks did years earlier.

I think Lost is telling, because the past season shows signs of network meddling. Tightly controlled story-telling has given way to a looser, even sloppier, episodic format -- an indication that people in the boardroom have looked at their swelling bank accounts and figured it was time to adopt a longer view. The creators, Abrams included, originally declared their intent on keeping the enterprise limited to four seasons. I thought this showed remarkable wisdom, and I'm hoping the folks at Battlestar: Galactica have taken note -- there's a definite shelf-life for storylines that allude (even falsely) to a natural conclusion in the opening episode. That "best before" date is usually at season four, and it never ever exceeds season six.

Of course, it could be that Abrams is just the man to resurrect the Star Trek franchise. Franchises typically don't take huge risks. They'll bring in someone who agrees to stay within strict creative guidelines and (more often than not) a very strict budget. Abrams, like Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer before him, has demonstrated remarkable facility in this regard. He's also been a very busy man, and it's likely he ceded control to Lost somewhere around the time Tom Cruise tapped him on the shoulder for M:I:III. The consensus seems to be that Abrams' disciplined Mission: Impossible was the best of the three. It also seems to have highlighted what thin gruel that franchise has amounted to. Here's hoping his Star Trek can escape that fate.

Other franchise news:
this interview with Grant Morrison certainly makes the latest attempted rejuvenation of the Batman ("hairy-chested Neal Adams love-god") franchise sound like fun -- albeit safe fun. I think Morrison's approach to craft is pleasantly common-sensical, if not particularly memorable. Hat-tip to Bookslut.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Tacit Knowledge/Before I Wake

Michael Blowhard adds another trenchant observation to his occasional “Let's stop and take an unblinkered look at the publishing industry” efforts, here. This earlier post is what originally turned me on to the Blowhards. I'm not resorting to hyperbole when I say it changed my life for the better.

In June, 2003 I'd just finished the first draft of a novel. I had other boxes of paper I'd typed out, but this one was different: I'd spent four years on it, waking up at 4:00 in the morning to type for two uninterrupted hours before my daughters (one an infant, the other a toddler – originally, of course) woke up. After that, it was time for me to change diapers, warm bottles, tend to the household. In June, I had achieved the singular feat of concluding a manuscript that ran to 763 single-spaced pages. My wife asked if she could take a peak; she promised to be generous but honest in her appraisal, so I pushed the heap of paper in her direction. I was kinda-sorta pleased with myself, but mostly looking forward to taking a break from the insanely early mornings.

Days later, a friend e-mailed me the link to the Blowhards, with the words, “Wondered what you might make of this.” I read it. I feverishly hammered out a lengthy comment, and hovered over the “post” button for a bit. Then I went back and read all the other comments for the first time. I finally shut off the computer without saving my comment and stared out the window.

Then my wife walked in, holding a page from my manuscript and tapping a pencil to her lips. “I think I've just found your first sentence,” she announced.

I snatched the sheet from her hands and looked at it. Page 145.

I determined then and there that waking up at 4:00 was strictly for the birds, that I was no longer going to be the bleary-eyed droop who slouched around impervious to my daughters' glorious impromptu song-craft (among other delights), and that I was going to renegotiate a more realistic personal contract with my dreams.

I was grumpy for a stretch. The kicker was this really had been “tacit knowledge”: I'd been a buyer for a successful independent bookstore in Toronto, and I had friends in the publishing industry, including a high-profile editor of high-profile fiction – I witnessed first-hand how it all worked. Early in the game, my editor friend encouraged my efforts at fiction, but also made a point of sitting me down and explaining what I needed to do to get published and sold. Without getting into specifics, we were talking about a hell of a lot of work, the likes of which made my 4:00 a.m. type-fests look like an idyllic pastime. (For the record, I did give the advice a try, and there followed some literary misadventures which I'll save for another post or two.)

I finally took up Michael B's self-publishing (i.e., "blogging") suggestion, which had the pleasant effect of quickly extracting me from the Slough of Despond (note the starting date in the Archives). I re-engaged, but still kept writing, mostly shorter stuff that didn't require an undue amount of my time. I'm editing and formatting a selection of it, and will be going the Lulu route – with a little luck we'll have something ready by the end of September (working title: “Youthful Desires”).

In the meantime, it's been a privilege and a treat to acquaint myself with Robert J. Wiersema and follow his progress as newly-published novelist. This cat's living the dream, but aye carumba – the work he's done and continues to do! In 2005, as Wiersema was making the final changes to his soon-to-be-published novel Before I Wake, he:

- worked as buyer/seller for Victoria's pre-eminent independent bookstore;
- worked as contributor/organizer for that city's literary festival;
- reviewed over 100 books for various newspapers and trade journals;
- hit the road and did promo work for Before I Wake at Toronto's Book Expo;
- obligingly started work on his next novel.

If you need any further proof of Michael's “authors sell themselves” thesis, here's what RJW's currently up to. I understand he also remains happily married and has taught his son how to play chess. Excelsior, dude! (Whew – I think it's time I brewed my second pot of coffee!)

Before I Wake
has received excellent advance reviews (here is one such with spoilers), and can be found in nearly every bookstore in Canada, or purchased on-line here.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Justice Served

The last "Superhero Personality Test" I took registered me as The Flash ("fast, athletic, flirtatious" -- and just plain creepy). I'm obviously happier with my results in this test. Apparently I'm Spider-Man: "intelligent, witty, a bit geeky with great power and responsibility."

Spider-Man is my number one fave (has been since adolescence). The essence of his appeal is spelled out in bold letters on the masthead: "Peter Parker Is: The Amazing Spider-Man!" And vice-versa, of course. Spider-Man swings from a thread and frets over the domestic tedium he's supposedly left behind with one quick costume change. I think he qualifies as the only superhero who doesn't have an alter-ego.

It also looks like The Green Lantern was very much in the running. I'm not sure what tipped the scales (probably my enthusiastic response re: red-heads), but I'm fine with him, too -- especially as he was rendered in the 70s by Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams: socially conscious to the point of camp. C'est moi, mes amis. C'est moi.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Gratuitous

Yesterday, as I signed into Yahoo! for my e-mail, I noticed this tagline in the "News" column: "JonBenet Suspect Tried To Remove Facial Hair." I realized then that, beyond the neverending blizzard of headlines and tabloid covers, I had yet to read one single article or op-ed piece on this murder/media frenzy, and that now was definitely not the time to alter that record.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Addressing The Black Puppies


Churchill's “black dogs of despair” introduced themselves to me this summer, albeit as puppies. I'm not exactly debilitated by their little shadows, but you can see I'm not quite “inspired”, either. So I'm cautiously taking a page from Searchie's terrible and beautiful imperative, in the hope that my muse and my unbidden canine companions can work something out.

To be honest, it's really been a very pleasant summer for us. We witnessed the most spectacular thunderstorm just days before our vacation. Then we climbed into the car and skipped town just as the worst heat wave in decades settled in. We took the North Superior route through Ontario to Manitoba, driving through the southern mass of the Canadian Shield. All those rocks and trees that inspired The Group of Seven provoke similar reveries in me. I've lost track of how many times I've taken this path by car, bus or train. The mode of travel doesn't matter: so long as the seat I'm in is comfy, the austere beauty of it all clears my head and prompts me toward loftier thoughts.


It's a long drive for two little girls, though, particularly when you have to exercise some discretion about which beaches are best for cooling their feet and legs: the first time we stopped at Wawa for a cool-off break, we emerged from the bracing cold water of Lake Erie and witnessed a brilliant rash take hold of our skin. Apparently the water is still recovering from the decomissioned scintering plant.

We decided our best course of action was to drive one long, killer day from Toronto to Thunder Bay, and make the second day easier on the system. Midway through day two, my wife proposed we find a beach and take a break. I knew just the place: West Hawk Lake

West Hawk was formed from meteor impact. The lake is located in the apron-fringe of the Shield, and is very deep and cold. Some mining and logging has been done around West Hawk, but the lake proper is a delicious resort for people of any class. When I was a kid, my family vacationed there in tents or trailers, and there were usually one or two parishioners in either of my father's congregations who owned swanky cottages overlooking the lake.

We pulled off the highway, and parked next to the long, sandy beach. I made a point of buying the girls ice cream at the lake's convenience store – a place where I purchased my most memorable comics when I was a kid. Then we dressed down, and descended to the beach.

Right off the hop, something seemed amiss. While our daughters played, I went through my internal checklist: sun and sand, and plenty of cool, fresh water to frolic in (check); an abundance of young, athletic flesh, lightly oiled and not-so-primly ribboned with nylon spandex (check); my beautiful wife, happy and similarly clothed (check); my gradually improving mood, moving steadily toward unmistakable friskiness (...um, bad news, boss....).

I stood and glowered at the crowd around me. For the first time in my life I was conscious of a clear, dividing line at work: at one end of the spectrum were the tanned and muscular, unselfconscious in both poise and motion; at the other end, clothed in a billowing pair of trunks, skin pasty-white and offset by dark thatches of bodyhair, awkwardly aware of this mortal coil (and the fact that he could stand to drop a few pounds prior to his shedding it altogether) was ... me.

Feh – the vagaries of the bourgeois, mid-life male in North America. The blue-collar Joes I associate with in town don't worry about body-image; neither, I suspect, do the very rich. What about Europeans? Do they give a toss about the fading physique? The answer is important to me, because (yet another bourgeois affectation) I've generally strained to put on the European mindset, which I would loosely define as: embracing adulthood is infinitely preferable to holding onto one's youth.

But I had once been young on this very beach, and I knew exactly where the current crop of yoots were coming from. I was no longer there, and this garnered a sensibility that reached deeper than “Good grief – I'm putting on a spread, and I've eaten too much ice cream to care!” I'm talking about that one stuck note on the circus pipe organ: the Big D Minor. Certainly, Death is no stranger to me. But this one-way argument I've had with Death is changing. I've had family and acquaintances die, representatives from of every stage of life. The ones who died young were invariably aberrations: accidents, stupidity, despair or just plain freakish turns in health. A person can witness this and remain in vibrant denial about the imminent presence of Death.

Not so, the 40s. I caught up with a childhood friend in Winnipeg, and we went through the ritual list of people we knew. The roll-call has its usual traumas, divorce and remarriage being a fairly common element. But death is getting more frequent mention. I was told of a mate from university – recently remarried, recently a father of two – newly diagnosed with cancer and given one month to live. I thought of how I'd spotted him at the Folk Festival last year, with his two golden-haired sprats keeping him tethered to the children's tent. It had been so good to see him get a second crack at happiness, but, Jesus – now this?!

He's still an aberration, but in some unfortunately unremarkable ways: he's male, and his odds are worse than most. It's different for women. Two summers ago, a neighbor was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has two young children, and a shell-shocked husband. They seem to have come through it – watching her with her family is a near-delirious treat. But we returned from vacation to see two other women pushing strollers and wearing do-rags over their shiny heads, while another passed away quite suddenly. It's just so fucking wrong.

Just before I left, my friend gave me two CDs: Johnny Cash's posthumous album, and Bruce Cockburn's latest, Life Short, Call Now, both of which remain in heavy rotation. I thanked him, then quipped, “I guess they were sold out of Oh My God: I'm Gonna DIE!!

What has been sinking in, however, is this: the spectre of my own death pales next to the possibility of enduring the deaths of those I love. Unthinkable. You do what you can to avoid this fate, but in the end it's just not up to you.

You can't prep yourself for any of it – it's said that worry does nothing to rob tomorrow of its sorrows, but does a great job of robbing today of its strength. Or, in the words of this book, Ya Can't Let Cancer Ruin Your Day. The title alone pretty much delivers the full emotional package of these terribly limited lives of ours.

The present, and my present company, are all I have. It is a gift. It is enough.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Whither Gaming?

I play a one-note trumpet when it comes to video games, but since no-one's listening, I'll put it to my lips yet again. I love playing video games, especially "shooters". I enjoy the sense of discovery that comes with rounding a corner, and the thrill of teasing out reaction patterns. But I believe the gaming industry reached critical mass with Half-Life and The Sims. The real-dollar decline in gaming began with Halo and the XBox required to play it. With The Godfather and Sony's Playstation 3 it's sinking fast, and I don't think it's likely to recover anytime soon.

If you look at the game templates coming out for XBox 360 and Sony Playstation 3, you'll find little of substance to differentiate them from Berzerk, the quarter-gobbling monster of the 80s. The Berzerk template was two-dimensional; you steered a stick-man through corridors and shot robots before they shot you. Someone -- probably not the programmer -- made an awful lot of money with that game (garnering a small fortune from yours truly, for starters). It worked, in other words, so that's the template -- second-person shooter -- the game industry has run with.

Flash forward 26 years. The new "bots" are more sophisticated in their behavior, and the overall playing landscape is more or less three-dimensional. But that's it. Same basic template. The end.

There are a few other templates, to be sure -- the virtual pilot, team sports, hand-to-hand fighting, etc. -- but they've all been around for 25 years or longer. We are talking about an industry that has delivered increasingly more spectacular bells and whistles, while keeping the baseline product unchanged for over a quarter century. The automobile industry might be able to coast on its laurels for that length of time, but anyone trying to pull the same stunt with computers is begging for a spectacular fall.

If you eavesdrop on industry conversations, you'll overhear a fair bit of chatter over how to make games that appeal to women. This is a good start, but the pitches are telling: a popular scenario with the suits is a Tomb Raider-type game with a Brad Pitt look-alike.

Wrong, all wrong.

If you want to know what the most addictive video game for women is, I'll tell you for free: Tetris. I don't know a single woman with the capacity to resist. I've played Tetris; I've enjoyed Tetris; I've even been a Tetris freak. But women put me to shame. They'll play it for hours. Then, when they finally pull themselves away, they'll stare at you with an unusual intensity. You might flatter yourself into thinking it's your Axe bodyspray, but the fact is they're staring at the gaps between your ears and your shirt collar and deciding what algorhithmic shape best fits that space.

I have got absolutely no theory as to why Tetris is so huge with women; I'm just here to pound the pulpit and say, if a programmer or developer is truly interested in keeping the gaming industry an economic engine that fires on all cylinders, they'll leave the shooter freaks to figure it out for themselves, and concentrate on producing the next Tetris.

And good luck to 'em.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Presidential Reading

When I heard the President was reading Camus, I hoped against hope that he'd picked up The Rebel, or was at least giving consideration to the philosopher's short and provocative essay, The Unbeliever. Alas, Mr. Bush's choice was predictable: The Stranger. I have to confess that although I am an unabashed admirer of Camus's writing, the general public consumption of this short novel has always made me a little batty. I really wish it was read with greater care -- adolescent males, in particular, seem to take all the wrong messages from it.

Link from Maud Newton.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

One Book

One book that changed my life: Back when I worked at the bookstore, my co-worker and I would roll our eyes whenever we overheard someone say, "This book changed my life!" It's always amused me to hear this claim made about novels, particularly. There may well be novels that can change a person's point of view, or inspire them toward action РVictor Hugo's Les Mis̩rables is often cited as the classic example Рbut I'm more inclined to think of novels as keeping me company (pleasant or otherwise) than shaking me up and turning me around. Were I to name such a novel, it would probably be Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, for its abundance of genuinely subversive mischief. But I think I'll eschew the fictional route for something more tangible, a self-help title that has indeed helped me help myself and deserves credit for a demonstrable change in the way I think and act: The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner.

One book I've read more than once: Ooooh, I love to re-read! But I'd say the book I've re-read most is Moon Palace, by Paul Auster.

One book I'd want on a desert island: probably something with a title like How To Get Off Your Freakin' Island And Back To Civilization.

One book that made me laugh: Oh, man ... anything by David Sedaris. I'll go with Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim.

One book that made me cry: hard to know where to start with this one. I've already mentioned Peter DeVries' Blood Of The Lamb, so I'll go with Peace Like A River by Leif Enger.

One book I wish had never been written: Easy: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- a book born from bloodshed, that has inspired bloodshed, and continues to inspire it still. Its only worthwhile byproduct is Will Eisner's final book, The Plot, which I highly recommend.

One book I wish had been written: this one.

One book I'm currently reading: Where God Was Born by Bruce Feiler.

One book I've been meaning to read: A Dance To The Music Of Time by Anthony Powell certainly qualifies, but to be honest, I'm having real trouble finishing Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle – not because it's boring, but because I keep getting distracted by other, shorter works.

One person I tag: YOU!!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Home

Infinity always gives me vertigo
And fills me up with grace -- Bruce Cockburn, Mystery.



A windshield shot of the plains of southwestern Manitoba, taken en route to Northern Alberta. And, yes, they are anything but infinite -- they simply allow for that illusion, and the blessing that Cockburn alludes to. Still and all, I'm glad to be back home.

Catching Up

I'm back, but not yet fit to post. Instead, I'm catching up on me cobbers.

Cowtown Patty considers how the cut of the hat determines the cut of the cowpunch, here. I've always wanted to wear a cowboy hat (from time to time, I still pull on the boots -- a throwback to my motorcycle days), but there isn't a single one that doesn't make me look like a horse's ass.

Andrew, the Aging Punk Wannabe has got me whistling Cheap Trick, thanks to his list of Thirteen Great Opening Lines From Rock, Pop & Country.

Scott has officially posted more pictures of his dog than I have of my kids (but then, he's never been one for self-restraint)!

Darko provides a much-needed Explanation Of The Philosophy Of Fjaka. Potential bumper-sticker: Fjaka - Now, More Than Ever.

Gideon calls this his "second-favourite movie dance routine". If his favourite is from Saturday Night Fever, I don't wanna hear of it.

I've been reading Seb Hunter's Hell Bent For Leather: Confessions Of A Heavy Metal Addict and thinking, "It's good, but it's not quite The Cheese Chronicles" (the gold standard of rock n' roll narratives, IMHO). Now Preacher Dan informs me that Tommy Womack has resumed his on-line ranting. Here's Tommy, in the throes of a condition I recognize all too well: the Ecumenical Hangover.

And finally, just about everyone on my list of cobbers has been hit with the "One Book" meme (if you aren't among them, you may now consider yourself tagged). I'll get to posting mine, but I thought Terry Teachout had an interesting variation: which authors dominate your bookshelves? The qualification is five books by or about, and here are my dominators:

Martin Amis
Aristotle
Paul Auster
Julian Barnes
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Frederich Buechner
Albert Camus
Leonard Cohen
Douglas Coupland
Robertson Davies
Don DeLillo
Annie Dillard
E.L. Doctorow
John Gardner
God (heh, heh)
Jim Harrison
Robert E. Howard
Philip Kerr
Soren Kierkegaard
Madeleine L'Engle
C.S. Lewis
Cormac McCarthy
Friedrich Nietzsche
Kem Nunn
Plato
Thomas Pynchon
Mordecai Richler
Carol Shields
Neal Stephenson
Nathaniel West
Rudy Wiebe
Philip Yancey

Another possible variation I might get to: which artists dominate your CD collection?

Thanks to my readers for all the pleasant wishes (silent or otherwise), and my apologies to every Winnipeg friend I neglected (for all my time away, it was a very limited visit -- argh).