Monday, May 31, 2010

The Angels' Wasted Sleepless Nights

There was a fringe hit on mid-80s FM radio that had, for me, a virulently infectious opening:

I don't wanna face
The day
The day

The singer sounded like a badly hungover, pre-morning-cigarette Mark Knopfler, and for the past quarter-century whenever I've woken up to an unpleasant scene, that's what I'd sing before hitching up my pants and getting on with it. Couldn't tell you who sung it originally, though.

Last month, as the Gulf of Mexico took on Chernobyl-like proportions, I determined to warm up Google and give my memory cells a kick. “Face The Day” was sung by an Australian band called The Angels (fronted by Doc Neeson, whose vocal stylings suggested Tom Petty channeling his self-pity into psychotic aggression), known to North Americans as Angel City. After a little more scrounging I reluctantly headed over to That Repository of Legally Sold Media Files. The real surprise came when I played the song-clips on offer: The Angels were anything but one-hit wonders. There were a half-dozen songs that immediately refreshed themselves in my memory — songs that I'd completely dug, back in the day. I hit “Buy Album,” figuring the odds were good I'd like the unheard material, too.

I do. Wasted Sleepless Nights (A) is currently the most-played album in my collection. The songs on Wasted Sleepless Nights are structured on a solid four-four hard-rock ("chk-chk chk-chk") groove. The lyrics tend to be stream-of-consciousness riffs, low on decipherable content but plenty high on snarling attitude. The later tracks are the ones that sound the most dated: the re-hash of “We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place” is bloated with Frankie Goes To Hollywood synth-horns, and “Back Street Pick Up” is pointedly injected with (again) a synthesizer track pulled directly from ZZ Top's Eliminator. The early stuff, however, flat-out rocks: it's all infectious, but “Take A Long Line” “I Ain't The One” and “Marseilles” are absolute show-stoppers.

According to the Wiki and their own website, The Angels formed in the late 70s, and spent the 80s and 90s touring the world and opening for absolutely everyone. Outside Australia, however, The Angels garnered little more than a few FM radio hits. God only knows why these guys didn't become huge but I'm grateful for it — for entirely selfish reasons, of course. Unlike the many acts they opened for, the Angels' music hasn't worn out its welcome with media over-saturation. Wasted Sleepless Nights stands a very good chance of being this year's Dirty Diamonds.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Early Summer Reading: Girl Crazy by Russell Smith, In Search Of Captain Zero by Allan C. Weisbecker

Poor Justin, sliding uncomfortably into his 30s and their manifold disconsolations. He has a former girlfriend who’s “moved on” but keeps calling at inopportune moments, he’s an academic teaching a blow-off course, and he’s ensconced in a crappy, sweltering apartment. He registers the beautiful women available to everybody but himself, the supercilious boss pulling in some sort of action on the side, but these are indecipherable mysteries he can’t quite break into. At least not until he meets Jenna, a 20-year-old stripper who crash-lands in Justin’s life, pulling a trainload of contraband and violence behind her.

As improbable as this platform sounds, it launches the tautly strung thriller that is Girl Crazy (A). Russell Smith’s blurb-buddy Barbara Gowdy invokes Elmore Leonard (and Nabokov), but I was put more in mind of Tapping The Source (w), by Leonard protégé Kem Nunn, in which a naif figures out the way things work by blundering heedlessly into a very bad scene. As with Tapping, Smith’s book rests on a sturdy architecture of artful intrigue. And yes, dear Canadian readers, there is some sex: not the perfumed meditations of Nabokov or even Updike, but the horny-porny variety. Readers discomfited by or inured to such pulpy pleasures should stay away; the rest of us can enjoy Smith’s mash-up of pulp-slash-satire-slash-psychological-thriller.

Speaking (tangentially) of surfing books, Allan C. Weisbecker’s memoir In Search Of Captain Zero: A Surfer's Road Trip Beyond The End Of The World (A) is the latest addition to my surfer’s library. For reasons that didn’t become clear to me until the very end of the book, Weisbecker is keen, almost desperate, to relocate an old friend and former drug-running partner who’s disappeared in South America. Weisbecker throws his surfboards into a camper, calls his dog and drives down the west coast right into Costa Rica looking for his friend, catching more than a few bitchin' waves en route.

The bald facts of the journey make for compelling reading, but while Weisbecker’s capital-A “Alpha” male bona fides provide the impetus for the trip (and the book), they too frequently conjure a seriously blinkered point of view. Any noob who spends a little time amongst drunks, druggies, religious fanatics and/or surfers will come away telling you the conversation cycles back to the arcane again and again, and that any insight discernible to outsiders is gleaned with great difficulty. Weisbecker does get to the insight, but for this reader, who has neither surfed nor run drugs, there was quite a swamp of arcana to wade through. I rank Captain Zero well above Daniel Duane’s Caught Inside (A), but decidedly below Thad Ziolkowski's On A Wave (A, w), which is, for me, the star to shoot for.

Decide for yourself, of course. Weisbecker's site is here. "Out-gonzoing Hunter S. Thompson" is no small claim, but if anyone comes close to it, Weisbecker does.

Speed reading quotient: Girl Crazy, 12%, Captain Zero 65%.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Obligatory Hockey Post

Normally, my heart would be with the Flyers, who were my childhood favorites (yes, even during the Broadstreet Bully years -- my first three years of life were spent in Philly). Chicago, on the other hand, has always had my favorite logo. They're also an unpredictable team, with the sort of fans I wish Toronto would garner. My heart is with the 'hawks.

(I look crap in red, but is this not the spankiest jersey out there?)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The World Is A Ball, by John Doyle

Here is a book I wish our local library would pick up. Doyle is a terrific writer -- his dispatches from the previous World Cup were among the best in the broadsheets -- and everything I've heard about this book suggests it is in league with Hornby's Fever Pitch. If that is the case, I would create a space for it in the shelves and lay down my money. Alas, I am not enough of a soccer fan to make the purchase in blind faith.

Monday, May 17, 2010


After cleaning out the soft parging, new cement was liberally applied, inside and out.

Tar was sprayed onto the cement, to aid as a sealant.

The dirt was pushed back in, a cheque was written out, followed by a conversation about new deck possibilities and a handshake. Then the rains came -- torrential, as seems to be the new norm. I nervously descended the stairs. It isn't 100% (beneath the mudroom, where cinder blocks were used, remains a point of seepage) but the basement is much, much dryer than it used to be, and I am breathing easier.

Next: a new deck.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Nick Hornby forces me to reconsider my "occasionally buy it off the newsstand" policy, re: The Believer. Is it finally time to subscribe?

Obligatory Hockey Post

Or: "My Habs Theory"

How could a team whose regular season style of play was so, to put it kindly, lackluster get so far in the playoffs? I mean, one month ago it almost looked like the Leafs were going to keep them from the playoffs -- the Leafs, fer cryin' out loud. How is it this team now looks like serious contender for The Stanley Cup?

My theory: coaching. The wiley Jacques Martin took note of how mind-numbingly, physically punishingly, beyond absurdly LONG the regular season is and made a point of keeping his team from over-exerting itself -- saving itself, if you will, for the playoffs.

The Habs' current style of play isn't going to earn them more than one Stanley, but it has certainly been a revelation to watch. Originally it maddened me to see how many shots on net the Habs were apparently content to allow, making the team look like a one-player phenomenon. Over the span of the playoffs, though, Martin has marshaled his team to keep the action pressed to the boards. While this does allow for more than a few stunningly clear shots on net, Halak is obviously up to the task of keeping them out. In another season or two it won't matter how good Halak is as a goalie (and he is proving himself to be the best in the league this season), the human body can't take that sort of puck-peppering without breaking down. But for this season, it will more than suffice.

In other divisions: I'm pleased to see San Jose get as far as they have, not just for sentimental reasons -- I like their style of play (what little I've seen of it: those West Coast games run pretty late). While I am certainly rooting for the Habs, it would not break my heart to see the Sharks battle it out with the Flyers for Stanley. All in all, this has been fun to watch.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Back Yard History Lesson

Two years ago I noticed the sump-pump corner of our basement was faring poorly. During rains and thaws it smelled musty, which was not characteristic. I took a closer look (yes, that is daylight you see near the upper right of the sump line), then called a few people who knew from house maintenance. A series of repairs was undertaken, beginning with the roof (shingling/eaves-troughs) and moving to the basement. This is the summer of basement work.

We hired a guy to take down our cedar deck, which was poised to be an accident waiting (a very long time) to happen. With that gone, he moved his little backhoe into the yard and started excavating by the foundation. He was quite optimistic. “I love working on houses this age,” he told me. It's just over 130 years old. He took me for a nickel tour of the excavation, pointing out the solidity, general water impermeability, etc. “House like yours, I'm never worried about telling the owner some unexpected expensive news.”

I was pleased to hear this. I thanked him for his work, then went inside while he moved the backhoe to the south of the house and continued. Five minutes later, he was shouting for his partner to come quick. “I don't know what's with this hole, but it's big!”

I came outside and took a look.

The “hole” had been covered with wood, and maybe two feet of topsoil. The wood was very rotten: another accident waiting to happen.

At first glance it seemed it could be a cistern, except that the original cistern remains all but intact in the basement. Was it possibly an early septic tank? It seemed too small to fit the bill.

One local phone call later, we were told this was almost certainly the kitchen “greywater septic tank”: where drain water collected, then gradually leached out into the larger yard. We were told to completely avoid trying to remove this system, as it almost certainly had an extruding network sure to be labyrinthine. Fill it in, and make that the stop-point for the excavating.

I was fine with that. Best of all, as unexpected as this episode was, it did not amount to “expensive news.”

Thursday, May 06, 2010

We Laugh, Because We've Grown Weary Of Crying

T-shirt. But if you still have tears, or an abundance of optimism, these links should take care of that. Well ... except for the TED talk. Where do they find these guys? And how can I be like that?


In the past five years of blogging I've pointedly pushed my tone away from the splenetic, chiefly because the majority of the web seems taken up with the wrong people venting their spleens to no good purpose. My wife faults me for my reticence, says I'd attract more readers if I just let loose on, say, religious ridiculousness for starters. God knows I've plenty of spleen to vent on that subject, but, geez: it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Except the marksman has become fond of the fish. Maddening though their (mostly) barrel-constrained antics might be.

But I digress. Here, courtesy of The Academic Ivory Tower (via The Atlantic), is an example of an attitude that makes me call for the guillotine. Wow, is Richard Bausch ever special. First of all, he's a writer. Secondly, he's a writer who turned down a $10,000 advance for a snap assignment. Why did he, a writer (read: "nearly impoverished arty-type"), turn down the easy money? Because said proposal was for yet another "How To Write" book, and Bausch is waaaaaay above such grotty stuff.

I have my own take on "How To Write" books: I think they're fab. I consume them the way some folks consume detective stories, pastoral guides or erotic vampire romances. Occasionally one of these books is insightful and unique enough to turn me on to the author's works of fiction — surely a bonus for any writer struggling to be heard above the fray. If the vast majority of them are easily forgotten, who cares? They're a subset of the self-help genre, and let me tell you: some of those books can change your life for the better, if you give them half a chance.

Bausch could have rolled up his sleeves and attempted something as grand and humane as John Gardner accomplished (twice). Hell, he could have dusted off a few wheezy lectures he gave at George Mason, then cashed the cheque on a pleasant vacation with the missus. But, no: "This work is not done as a job, ladies and gentlemen, it is done out of love for the art and the artists who brought it forth, and who still bring it forth to us, down the years and across ignorance and chaos and borderlines."

Well, fan me with a King James Bible: this man's never written a word to get himself laid! I don't trust him — and neither should you.

WP Flashback: my John Gardner post, which continues to attract comments.

Short Cuts: Volume 2, She & Him

Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward (She & Him, respectively) continue to mine the motherlode of sounds gone by in Volume 2 (A, e). Deschanel's voice plays with confidence alongside Ward's "sweeping wall of sound", which is no mean feat. And Ward's voice, which brought much of the playfulness to Volume 1, is pushed further into the background. When I first played Volume 2 I was surprised by this choice, but with subsequent spins I very much appreciate the final effect. Deschanel's delivery has a depth that brings to mind k.d. lang, in her Shadowland (A) phase (my fave lang album). Hopefully people who were originally drawn to the duo via "the actress" have gone on to explore some of Ward's own impressive ouevre, but this is about them, and finally about her -- which is as it should be.

I very much liked Volume 1; I like Volume 2 even more.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Horns by Joe Hill

For better or for worse, writers tend to marry writers — Joan Didion/John Gregory Dunne, Paul Auster/Siri Hustvedt, Margaret Atwood/Graeme Gibson, Stephen & Tabitha King. For better or for worse, the public spotlight will catch one spouse and pretty much eclipse the other (see above). If they have kids, odds are there will be a writer in the batch. And odds are they’ll attract only the smallest fraction of their parents’ readership.

Passionate readers tend to have ambivalent if not conflicted feelings about the progeny of their favorite authors. I’m sure it’s the same for the kids. Most kids roll out from under their parents’ shadow with some hope that they won’t be compared too closely to the tree they just fell from. And most readers will finish these books and think, “Sorry, kid: but your dad got to me first.”

I was curious about Joe Hill, however, because his dad — Stephen King — never quite got to me. Of the half-dozen King books I've read, I’m partial to the shorts in Hearts In Atlantis. In fact, the title story neatly embodies the strengths and weaknesses of his larger novels, with its compelling start, killer second act and dreary auto-pilot finale. More consistent than this structural predilection, however, is the “Stephen King” tone of voice, which his fans adore but, sad to say, grates on me. I get the impression King writes best when he’s pissed off. By the halfway mark that tone has nudged me into a similar state, and I'm usually happy to leave the book alone.

So I mean it as a compliment when I say I find Joe Hill’s tone to be gentler and more beguiling. Make no mistake, however: with Horns (A), Hill beats a path familiar to readers of his father. The aptly named Ignatius Perrish (a fool who is the butt of a terrible cosmic joke, suffering multiple deceits and a seemingly fore-ordained fate) wakes up with a pair of horns growing out of his forehead, and equally inexplicable powers. If his life sucked before — and it did: his former girlfriend was raped and murdered and he remains the chief suspect — it very much looks like it is on the fast track to some place much darker.

In fact, Perrish’s metamorphosis acts as the catalyst that reveals the banal truths behind most of the terrible mysteries plaguing him, except for the Big One: where the hell is God while all this horrible stuff is going on? Ig arrives at an answer of sorts, one that nudges him out of his Gregor Samsa-like state of torpor and on to settling what scores he can.

Final Verdict:
Hill’s “nothing up my sleeve” approach to the horror genre is understated and surprisingly pleasant. Speed-reading quotient: the first 45% of the book (i.e., the set-up) — the exact reverse of his father’s work. Hill has me curious to see what he comes up with next.