Sunday, July 10, 2016

On Importance

I've been writing novels since 1999 - seventeen years now, and I like to think I've gotten better.  My first book was written in the shadow of an old relationship that faltered and in the brightness of a new relationship that seemed to be working out.  Shawn's also been seventeen years now, so that's been kind of tidy.

I've been writing seriously for a long time.  A little while ago, when I turned thirty and had a crisis of confidence, I came to terms with the fact that I wasn't ever going to write an "important" novel.  Nothing that changed people in a big way.  Not only have I found it very difficult to secure an agent or a publisher interested in my books, I've sort of resigned myself to the idea that the books I want to write are accessible, and fairly contemporary, and not about Big Themes.  I'm never going to write 1984, for instance.  I'm not going to write The Grapes of Wrath.

I came to that way of thinking at a time when I was freaking out about being 30 and not having published a great deal of my fiction.  My nonfiction has done well.  I've written a few monographs of Stephen King and I'm well-known in that world.  I'm writing a bio/exegesis on one of my favorite bands' albums, and I hope that will be something, too.  But I've written 22 novels and only one of them has been published, as an ebook.  My short-fiction collection is available in paperback, but that hasn't really done gangbusters, either.  None of this matters and all of this matters.  I take my writing seriously, and not being published in the traditional way has been this huge burden I sometimes think about and sometimes don't.  I want my name on the dustjacket of a hardcover book you can pick up at the supermarket, you know?  Maybe all that's beside the point.

In 2009, following the completion of Roller Disco Saturday Night, I fell into a writer's block.  When the thing you love doing the most is something suddenly shut off from you, you feel adrift.  I'm sure a lot of it had to do with my impending fourth decade.  I spent three years writing about another writer's work and life, editing I'm On Fire and Roller Disco, and attempting a couple very long novels that shit the bed (Tangerine and American Storm).  Then, in 2013, something in me snapped and I sat down to write what I thought would be a novella called My Agent of Chaos.  It turned out to be more than that - not only a full-bodied novel, but also my writing salvation.  It was a serious book with something to say.  I don't know if it was Important or not, but it was real and it was something I could be proud of.

And look, I don't know what Important means - to readers, to myself, to publishing houses and agents.  I'm not sure.  What I do know is that I followed up Chaos with a book called Panic Town, the fifth book in a mystery series featuring private eye Wayne Corbin - a man I've followed since that first, furtive year of novel-writing in 1999.  Panic Town isn't really "Important" except how it's important to me.  It allowed me to remember, in a way Chaos didn't, that writing was hard work, but it was also super fun.  I wrote the book in a white heat and marveled that I'd finished in in three months. I'd blocked out nine.

I got to thinking about the books I'd liked so much in the past that I'd written - books the few readers I'd had seemed to like the best.  Find the River, written in 2001 - my first big books with a big cast.  The Legend of Jenny McCabe, in 2006 - a book from which I took minor characters from most of my previous books, made them major characters, and put them all in Minneapolis. That book was massive, nearly 300,000 words.  Maybe You're Right, written right after, a book about sex and love and writing.  Those were the ones I thought of as my "high points" of my literary work (though I'd argue that my fourth Wayne Corbin book, The Taste of Concrete On Your Tongue, might function that way, too).

My Agent of Chaos turned out to be good, and hard-won, but I don't know as if I'd put it on the top shelf of my work.  Right after Panic Town, I decided to jump back into National Novel Writing Month and bang out what turned out to be Things Have Changed, a book that felt Important in my head but turned out not to be.  It's pretty slight, despite the fact that it opens on a grisly suicide and features a character with possible multiple personalities.  It worked, but barely.

Then I decided to write Eating Animals.  A book that started out being about a cooking show competition and turned into a treatise on S&M and sin and evil and generational misdeeds.  The longer I wrote, the more I realized I wanted to write my own East of Eden, and that I was succeeding at doing so.  It's a nearly 200,000 word book that I managed to write in 4 months.  I wrote one 5,000 word chunk in a single afternoon, fewer than 2 hours, just because it was too strong not to.  That book made me believe I could write Important things.  Stuff that mattered.  I think Eating Animals might actually be Important.  I don't know.  It was important to me.

When I wrote Who We Are, What We'll Do, and What We Won't, I intended it to be a little slight.  Of course, that didn't work out for me, either.  I wrote it for NaNoWriMo, anticipating a similar experience to Things Had Changed.  What I got was another My Agent of Chaos - almost among my best work, but I didn't stick the landing and it needs fixing.  And I will fix it.  It means more to me now than it did when I started.

What now?  What next?  I'm working on a nonfiction book about the band Blitzen Trapper right now, and I'm editing a book my father wrote.  Then: what I anticipate to be a long, long book called American Lonely.

My three favorite novels of all time are It, by King; East of Eden, by Steinbeck; and The World According to Garp, by Irving.  I've written my homages to the first two.  I think I want to write my homage to Garp next.  Not the story or even the style of writing, but the scope, the thrust, the intensity.  I want to write something that, even if it doesn't turn out to be Important, will be something that Matters.  I thought, when I was going through my writer's block, that I had not only ceased to write, but that I would never again write work that Matters.  I proved myself wrong.

I'm a good writer.  I'm a smart guy.  And I have a feeling that, if I treat it right and don't prioritize speed and page count over story, American Lonely can be Important.  That's how I want to start my forty-first year: doing something Important.

I'll let you know when I get there.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Dennis Blunden Doesn't Love Me

Awhile back, I wrote for a magazine called A Bear's Life. It started out positive and ended up not, but they did publish a few articles I wrote dealing with my own personal gay experiences. At the time, all the nonfiction I was writing was either about Stephen King or Disney, so it was a welcome respite to write about myself.
My first article was in part about the first boy I was ever in love with and in part about my first celebrity crush. Both were straight, of course. The article was called "Dennis Blunden Doesn't Love Me," and I thought, since A Bear's Life doesn't exist anymore and since I retained all the rights anyway, why not share it with you guys. WARNING sensitive readers: it's a little bit PG-13 in here, so if you don't want to know about my naked teenage exploits, avoid.

Dennis Blunden Doesn’t Love Me
originally appeared in A Bear’s Life magazine

            The first guy I ever fell in love with was a crazy person.  No, I don’t mean “crazy,” like the fun kind of crazy like Bill Murray in What About Bob? or even the borderline-dark crazy of Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, when all she really needed was some makeup and a few meaningful glances from Emilio Estevez to snap out of it.  No, my first love was clinically bipolar, afflicted with megalomania, and had a violent persecution complex.  He was also straight.  Let’s call him Eugene.
 
            I met Eugene in high school and I should have known what I was getting myself into, but the sociological climate of the early 90s was working against me.  Depression and vague rage were popular due to the advent of grunge music, and because I was in high school, all that stuff was heightened.  It would be beautifully narrative if I could think of my falling for Eugene as a symbol of our turbulent times – he was a brooding, mysterious loner, just like the misunderstood geniuses you see in Cameron Crowe movies.  And I was finally admitting to myself that I liked boys; figuring that out at sixteen in a high school world populated by slackers and overachievers and the heavily medicated might have made Eugene’s unique brand of lunacy appealing. 

            But mostly, it was the fact that he could grow a beard at seventeen.  That, and those blue, blue eyes. 

            Of course, like most straight-guy crushes, it ended disastrously.  After Eugene uncovered my intentions – via an ill-advised game of Truth or Dare, no less – he actually seemed curious.  What followed was an even more ill advised sticky-fumble session, during which I realized that while I was giving inexpert head to the love of my life, he was having an experiment he was only half-heartedly into.  Of course, this only meant that grunge suddenly made way more sense.  That Pearl Jam song, “Black”?  Totally written about me. 

            The lesson I should have learned is this: keep the straight guys untouchable.  This had worked great during my nascent gay days when I lusted after celebrities before I knew what lust really was.  Remember that 80’s show Head of the Class?  The first guy I ever crushed on was the chubby guy who sat in the back row wearing flannel and Chuck Taylors and cracked jokes and had this hair I used to imagine running my hands through.  Played by Dan Schneider, Dennis Blunden was the wellspring from which all my other attractions erupted.  The hypothesis goes as such: Dennis’s penchant for flannel begat my attraction for Al Borland on Home Improvement, whose beard got me thinking about Riker from Star Trek, whose hairy chest turned me into the bear-crazy cub you see before you.  Essentially, my lust is Darwinian; if not for Dan Schneider, this might be a column about how much I’m into the vapid clone scene.  Fetch me a Diet Red Bull, Marco, I’m late for the foam party!



            Sadly, me being me, I found a way to ruin my first crush, too.  You know that song, “Centerfold,” where the girl the guy is into is lodged in his memory as this pristine high school angel until he later sees her in a porno magazine?  My thing is like that, except for a sad lack of naked Dan Schneider.  See, I happened to stumble across his Twitter feed (“stumble across” in this case means “actively seek out,” because I am occasionally a lunatic myself), and signed up at once, perhaps hoping for a string of insightful self-reflective tweets captured brilliantly in 140 characters or less.  Instead?  His Twitter is almost entirely a marketing gimmick pushing the TV show he’s currently writing.  Completely understandable, entirely normal … and overwhelmingly disappointing.  When you’ve traced back every crush, every lust, every love back to one individual – one fictional individual – you’re inevitably going to feel disillusioned when you realize he’s just a regular working Joe trying to make a buck.

            For what it’s worth, though, I ended up running into Eugene again not too long ago.  I found him at random, bumping into him at a camping-goods store in town, where he was then working.  We went out for burritos, and maybe, yes, I did harbor some illusions that he’d gone gay somewhere along the way and would desperately want to make out with me.  Alas: he was still straight, and seeing a girl, and startlingly sane.  (And, I must mention, still bearded.)  No sticky fumblings this time, just one of those conversations between guys who went to high school together.  Near the end, he said to me, “I’m sorry if I fucked things up back then.” 

            Back in high school, our climaxes had been anticlimactic.  I’d been waiting years for real release.  Which goes to show, I guess, that sometimes even one-sided sociopathic first love has a happy ending. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Why I Blitzen

All right! A few (many) people have written to me and asked, "Hey Kev, what's the deal with you and Blitzen Trapper? Why are you writing a book about them? Why should I care about your Kickstarter?"
Awhile back, my friend Paul Chapman made a mix CD with the song "Furr" on it. I fell in love with it, because I apparently love songs about werewolves (see also Warren Zevon & MST3K). Later, another friend introduced me to "Black River Killer" and the casual evil in it just thrilled me - it was like the audio equivalent to Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. And, because this is what I do, I decided not to explore any further. I don’t know why I do that.
Anyhow, in the meantime I’d become a Drive-By Truckers devotee. I was having an experience with them that I’d always wanted with Springsteen - the ability to follow them around, get close to the stage and the rock, all for a reasonable price. When they came to Boston a few years ago, I was excited that Blitzen Trapper was opening for them. The problem was that I also had tickets to see Patton Oswalt that night, and because I’m the world’s biggest dummy, I chose to see Patton over what would become a dream double bill. (Patton was awesome, by the way.) My rationale was that I was seeing both bands the following two nights in DC, so it was okay to skip one night. STUPID.
However, the next morning I flew down to DC and met with my buddy Ian Lekus, who’d gotten into DBT at roughly the same time as me (it might have actually hit harder for him because he lived in Athens for awhile). We waited the band, excited but not, you know, champing at the bit for Blitzen Trapper. Then the band took the stage and, sure, our first thought was prurient. Was EVERYONE in this band hot? Then - then they kicked off their short set with a song called “Fletcher,” off the album AMERICAN GOLDWING. Ian and I became psychic buddies right then, falling in love with the band IMMEDIATELY.
We went back to the merch table between sets and I picked up the album FURR, from which the title track, “Black River Killer,” and a whole slew of other fantastic songs come. The band played the next night and I was in heaven. We connected with the Trappers via social media pretty rapidly, and they were immediately responsive. At some point, I mentioned that I’d listed their live albums on their Wikipedia page, and they wrote back, “Thanks. Yeah, that Wiki page is so janked. Sorry about that.” I took that as a personal mission to write their entire page and make it one of the most thorough, well-researched, and accessible Wiki pages out there. The band was ecstatic.
Soon enough, I hit on the idea of writing a book about them. They were similarly into that idea, and eventually we whittled the concept down so that the book would be on their breakthrough album, FURR - what went into it, how it happened, why it was big; everything. It was going to be a labor of love for me, but one I really wanted to see published. When you’re passionate about stuff, you do it for the love ... but hell, I don’t make a whole lot of money, and being able to write a book like this with an advance (like real authors do) would be such a load off, and an incentive to get this book written quickly, and well.
That’s why I launched this Kickstarter, and why I’m asking for your help. I love this band, and I’m so excited to write this, but I could really use this advance money. It’ll help me get the time for research, some new hardware, and all the other expenses that go into constructing a nonfiction book. I ask, if you can, to help me out on this one. The band is super involved, and has even provided all the incentives at all levels, including backstage passes. I think that’s so cool, and I hope you do, too.
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/521727074/furr-inside-blitzen-trappers-breakthrough-album

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Meet Me In the City: Bruce Springsteen at Madison Square Garden

            There are two pits for General Admission at Madison Square Garden: the one at the very front, allowing you the closest access to the stage; to get into this one, you had to show up early in the day and get a special wristband, and then come back later and be entered into a special lottery, and only if you were really lucky did you get shuffled into the pen containing the most dedicated fans around.  Then there’s the second pit, the one I’m in, a little further from the stage, holding all the general admission folks who couldn’t do the whole lottery thing, presumably because they got up at ass o’clock to get on a train from Boston and it’s technically a work day so they telecommuted all day from the aforementioned train and various Starbuckses and libraries around New York so they don’t lose their vacation days.  You know, I’m assuming. 

            Despite being further back, the energy in the second pit is palpable.  This is a bit of an unusual setup for me.  When I go to Drive-By Truckers or Blitzen Trapper shows, I’m right up front, usually touching the stage.  Back here, I expected things to be a little more blasé … but this is Bruce Springsteen.  At least in the leadup, everyone back here is pumped and ready.  Of course there are two gigantically tall humans in front of me, but if I stand just right, they serve as a window rather than a door, and I’ve got a direct sightline to the center mic.  Now, if only Bruce stays in one place the whole night, I’ll be fine.

            He takes the stage about an hour after I arrive and the place goes nutso berserk.  Everyone on their feet, arms in the air, cheering either inarticulately or shouting the name that sounds too much like “boo!” to the unsuspecting ear: BRUUUUUUUUUCE!  Every time I tell myself I won’t do it.  Every time I’m wrong.  Hell, I’m wearing the shirt of the show to the show.  I don’t care about being cool anymore.  I just want to have the time of my life. 

            Launching right into “Meet Me In the City” – one of the outtakes off The Ties That Bind: The River Collection – and Madison Square Garden is right there, already screaming the words along and knowing the call and response near the end of the song without having to be told.  It’s like when he went out for his first Rising show and everyone in the audience knew the words already.  Tears spring to my eyes because my emotional availability is sometimes a liability.  The band is in full form, chugging like a steam train down a track whose destination feels familiar but is never quite the same.  After “Meet Me” pounds to a close, Springsteen comes to that center mic, beautifully composed between the heads of my two Amazonian compatriots, and explains a little of what writing The River meant to him.  I’m not going to transcribe from memory, but the gist and the feeling was that this was the album about trying to find his place inside the world in which he lived.  The prior albums were all about being an insider, but The River was about finding yourself in a society in which you had to define yourself.  So that’s why, at least partially, it meant so much to me back in those dim days of 1993, when I lived alone and was searching, searching for some reasons and explanations as to why and how my life turned out this way. 

            Here’s what you don’t get from message boards, especially one as psycho bonkers as the Springsteen one: the feel of the place, the knowledge that you’re both a part of something big and that you’re experiencing this singularly, as an isolated person, and Bruce is singing directly to you.  He’s singing about cars and girls, two things I know so little about, but it all feels like my experience.  Out in the street, I walk the way I want to walk; I know about how the cool of the night takes the edge off the heat; hell, oo oo, I got a crush on you.  The message boards – boy howdy, guys; they’re all about conspiracy theories and how Bruce won’t stop lying to us and how the “well is dry” and it’s weird as fuck.  But here, in the thick of it, it’s nothing short of transformative.  How, in a fun little rockabilly song like “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” can he perfectly address the weird nuance of being so sexually frustrated you feel mean?  That’s so specific and odd to sing about, and he does it with the same smile and incongruous joy that he would sing about existential futility in “Dancing in the Dark.”

            During “Hungry Heart” – he always lets the audience sing the first verse entirely, then he repeats it, because baller – he tramped off the stage and up to the riser between Pit One and Pit Two.  I was so close – almost close enough to touch, but we all remember that time during the Rising tour when I reached up and grabbed his hand in the middle of “Mary’s Place” and was so awestruck I didn’t know how to let go.  He ended up shaking me off without skipping a beat.  I didn’t take many pictures of the show – I wanted to live inside it – but I took a picture of him right next to me, before he leapt off the riser and crowd surfed back to the stage.  He’s in his sixties, guys. 



            I will give a shout-out to some of the denizens of the Second Pit, who paid the same amount I did to get here and who decided that their conversation was far more important than Bruce Springsteen.  I knew it would happen during some of the slow songs, but come on, folks, I’m trying to wrap myself up in the song that perfectly encapsulated my previously complicated relationship with my father, I don’t need to know about what Helen did at that PTA meeting.  I was on the verge of asking, “I’m sorry, is Bruce Springsteen interrupting your night?” when someone behind them shouted, “Hey shut the fook up!  New York, you’re my savior.

            Note: the song, “The River” is perfect in every way, especially live, and especially when the people in front of you are as invested as you are.  I’m pretty much sure tears came to my eyes during the entire first two sides of album, and we weren’t even on “Point Blank” yet. 

            Given the second pit’s macroaggressions, I was prepared to suffer through the final three-song suite, which are all slowish numbers that require a little more attention and care.  I think Springsteen must have anticipated that, because he recast them: “The Price You Pay” is epic enough on the album, but in concert, it’s another “Backstreets,” it’s another “Born to Run.”  Here, live, it attains the Biblical promise and intent of the lyrics, even though it’s just about people trying to get by.  The album’s final love song, “Drive All Night” has the potential to be dismissed; long stretches are just repetitions (“You’ve got, you’ve got, you’ve got, you’ve got my love, girl; you’ve got my love”) or frankly bizarre declarations (“I’d drive all night, just to buy you some shoes.”)  What happens here is that the song becomes all about buildup, slow, meditative, desperately and subtly erotic … and then the band crashes in, and it’s all release.  It’s a song that took me awhile to understand on the record, but here in this setting, it’s the closest to auditory sex Springsteen gets this side of “I’m On Fire.”  He finished off The River with a somber, bleak rendition of “Wreck On the Highway”: no gussying this one up, no concessions for an arena audience.  It gets dark and stays dark, because that’s the way he wants you to feel this one.  If he’d decided to play the entirety of Nebraska after this one, no one would blame him. 

            He didn’t, though, maybe because he knew we all needed a little cheering up.  “So that’s The River,” he concluded, and then hit the place with a one-two-three punch of “She’s the One,” “Candy’s Room,” and “Because the Night.”  Everyone was up and dancing.  One of the flannel giants in front of me turned to me and said, “Can you believe how cool this is?”  “I can’t!” I shouted, and then we both joined in the chorus. 

            Then, oh man.  There are moments that come into your life that are so elevated and unique that you can barely credit them as they’re happening.  My favorite song of all time is “Brilliant Disguise,” a song whose meaning has shifted for me since I first discovered in when I was 18, but has never stopped meaning just as much to me.  It’s the intersection of surety and identity, and how those two things are never as solid as we think they are.  In Springsteen’s book Songs, he refers to this as the sequel to “Stolen Car,” which he’d played earlier during the River set, and hearing them bookending like tonight, it makes sense: “Each night I wait to get caught, but I never do” pairs so well, so hellishly well with, “so when you look at me baby, you’d better look hard and look twice / is that me baby, or a brilliant disguise.”  Who am I?  Why am I?  What the hell have I done?  

            I have never seen the song live, and suddenly, here it was, and I was this close, and those words I’d memorized over half a lifetime ago were drifting into me from the source.  I was unprepared and overwhelmed.  Never has not understanding who you are and what you mean to other people been so thrilling.   

            Then there’s the raucous bam-bam of “Wrecking Ball” and “The Rising,” two songs that the message board assured me were “over” and “not worth listening to” and “no one really even likes.”  You wouldn’t have known it from everything going on in Madison Square Garden: everyone from the pits to the nosebleeds on their feet, singing along and dancing if they had a mind.  This occurs to me over and over, but it never fails to stun and thrill me: the audience’s total embrace of Springsteen’s newer material is nothing short of astounding.  I wouldn’t say “Wrecking Ball” got the exact response as “Thunder Road,” which came next, but it thrilled everyone to their feet and everyone knew all the words.  Is there any legacy performer for whom this is true? 

            We closed things out with Bruce spoonfeeding us what even the casual fans wanted: “Born to Run,” “Dancing In the Dark,” and “Rosalita,” with a grand finale cover of “Shout,” one final blast before we all had to return to the normal lives we lived that aren’t interpreted by a master songsmith.  I couldn’t leave for a little while, too enthralled by what I had seen and experienced to really move.  I wanted to absorb it.  I wanted to keep feeling it. 

            Of course these moments are fleeting.  They have to be.  No one can live forever on nerve endings and elevated consciousness.  Eventually we come back down to earth, and while it’s a somewhat duller, somewhat less thrilling life in the shadow of three and a half hours of pure passion and excitement, we take at least a little of that with us, and spread it into the world.  If that’s the price you pay, I can live with it. 



            

Friday, October 16, 2015

All I Wanted Was to Rock and Roll

One week ago today, I was on a plane hurtling through tailwinds and contending with an endlessly shrieking three-year old on my way to Walt Disney World, where I celebrated my friend Joe’s birthday in our customary style: Disneying the shit out of it. Our friends Robert and Brad and Kay and Ricky joined us incrementally, but mostly it was just me and my buddy Joe. We dined. I got drunk in a tiki bar. Like super drunk. Somewhere in there, I found time to head out to downtown Orlando and take in what was probably my last Drive-By Truckers show of the year. They rocked my face off, and Patterson Hood not only dedicated a song to me, he also mentioned me on Facebook, so my life in rock and roll was already soaring.

            A day after I got back from Disney, I headed out to the Sinclair in Harvard Square to take in my third Blitzen Trapper show ever.  Third.  That seems insane to me, because much of the last year and a half has been spent immersed in their music. I became the fan that wrote their Wikipedia page and got permission to write a book about them. Half-measures don’t suit me. When my friend Ian and I caught them last year in DC, we only did it because they were opening for the Truckers; I knew “Furr” and “Black River Killer” and that was where my knowledge of Blitzen Trapper ended.  The day after the first show, Ian and I went out and bought three more albums. We were hooked. I was nuts hooked.

            So now I was at the Sinclair and, look, I don’t know how these things work. My approach to Truckers shows is showing up an hour or more early so I can make sure to hug the rail with my DBT buddies.  When I go to Springsteen shows that are general admission … well, I’ve been known to hang out for sixteen hours and read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, because waiting most of a day to get into the pit at a Springsteen show is a surefire cure for not reading Pulitzer Prize winners.  I was completely unprepared for how a Blitzen Trapper show functions. I got in line a half hour before almost anyone else. I got to the front and grabbed the stage. No one else was copying me. Maybe it was the Cambridge hipster thing. People wanted to be there, but, like, didn’t want to seem excited to be there? Screw it. I’m a lone wolf. I’ve got enthusiasm in buckets.  

            Seeing my first full Trapper concert on my home turf was the circumstance of some cruel fate. Last year, I’d been able to see them and the Truckers on the same bill.  Now, they were playing in New York City on the same day as the Truckers’ Orlando show, and as much as I love NYC, any excuse I can make to go to Disney with some of my best friends is an excuse I will make. Besides, I think I prefer the more dramatic, narrative feel of them showing up in my hometown. My first show after becoming a megafan, and it’s right here in my backyard.  Dig it.

            Two Red Bulls in and eyes wide and nerves jangling, I watched opening band, The Domestics – also from Portland – take the stage. Assessment: good stuff. Steeped in classic Britpop sounds; they seemed to have studied at the feet of The Kinks and The Turtles. Also two of five band members were foxy beyond. In the parlance I tend to use on Twitter: hotness game on fleek, trill af.  On night three, I let the drummer know where he stood on my yum-o-meter and he was real Portland about it. I bought their album, I get to have an ogle.

            Blitzen Trapper took the stage and the uncritical, overwhelming bliss gripped me at once. My interest in this band has been on a steep and steady grade ever since discovering them and this moment – stopped in time, steeped in importance – served as both a culmination and a reward. Before even playing a note, the band’s camaraderie and charisma flowed off the stage in palpable waves. Their new album, All Across This Land, had come out the week prior, and it was The Ghost of Tom Joad and it was English Oceans and it was Stunt: the first new studio album since I got into a band. I’d been careful to listen enough to let it seep into me but not so much that I got sick of the new songs. Plus, I needed to be open enough to their live interpretations. Everything was launching.

            Eric Earley, lead singer, stood at the microphone and let a low rrrrr sound drag out: part growl, part engine revving up. Then he opened up and the band did too, as the guttural precursor ramped into “Rock and Roll Was Made For You.”  Its deceptively happy music and somewhat generic title belied its darker lyrics, saturated with addiction terminology – rock is for blacking out, rock leaves its own track marks up and down your arm. It starts out midtempo and then explodes into a full-out rocker; it was a mission statement for the album and it is for the show. Rock and roll will take no prisoners, will offer no quarter. It will rule you, it will wreck you, it will make you travel to three different cities and stand in the front and scream until you’re hoarse.

            The set list that first night oscillated between folk and country funk and rock so 70s it would pulse only in sepia for people with synesthesia.  They made room for my two favorite songs, “Love the Way You Walk Away” and “Big Black Bird,” which served as the big rollicking closer.  Along the way, not one but two Beatles covers: “Come Together” and “You Never Give Me Your Money,” both of which traded off verses between Earley, keyboardist and guitarist Marty Marquis, and drummer Brian Koch.  I can’t be aloof about this: bands trading verses is one of my weaknesses, even more so than hot drummers.  Not only were they swapping vocals, but they have a way with three-part harmony that will make your heart burst and your knees weak. In the encore, Earley, Brian, and Marty stood at the front of the stage and took on a half-acoustic, half a capella cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” Sweet country sounds, right here in the midst of Harvard Square.

            After the show, I met with delightful bassist Michael Van Pelt, who has been my primary contact in my journey through Blitzen Trapper’s past and present. All I can say is that I’m getting better talking to people I admire; I didn’t fall down or palpitate once, unlike the time I met Bernie Wrightson at ComicCon and felt compelled to show him my Cycle of the Werewolf tattoo and point at it and be all, “You made this! Look, this is something you made!” I’m an embarrassment to humans. Mike and I gave each other a hug and I told him how much the band rocked, because I’m way more articulate on paper than in real life. I bought a shirt and took it home and tried to sleep because I had to be up early to fly to Philadelphia for Night Two. 

            Philadelphia is … well, let’s just say that my Air BNB was very nice, and I was more amused at the cow pelt on the wall than disturbed. Also, I was the only customer in the Indian restaurant next door, so I self-consciously read my 33/13 book on Neil Young’s Harvest as I made the entire kitchen staff cater to just me. To give you an idea of my neighborhood: I had to walk forty minutes to find a Starbucks. It was fucking worth it. 

            The thing about the Sinclair in Cambridge is that it’s fairly new and modern. Big stage, fairly expansive room, great little bar. All the good parts of hip without any of the drawbacks, like a hot guy with a funky mustache who likes stuff sincerely.  In contrast, Johnny Brenda’s in Philly is as old school as possible.  It’s a little bar and tavern, in which I ran into Eric Earley and also, insanely, had a normal conversation with him. What was happening with me?  I may have also told him that the band rocked the night before, because I’m a dork.  Can I point out how nice everyone in the band is, by the way?

            My friend Clams, aka David, a Drive-By Truckers buddy, joined me for a drink or two (it was two and it was ill-advised, but Johnny Brenda’s had no Red Bulls which … I mean, come on, Philly. I need caffeine.) and then we headed upstairs to the concert room. Good lord. If the band wanted vintage verisimilitude, here it was. Tiny stage, tiny room, ample balcony, beads on the walls; it was like walking into a time machine to a time when clubs all looked like your cool uncle’s rec room. I loved everything about it.

            The band leaned more heavily on newer stuff, and it was awesome to hear some of that airing out.  The snaky, brooding “Love Grow Cold” pops live, its almost sensual desperation alive and bitter.  “Nights Were Made For Love” has become one of my new live favorites, Earley’s vocal jumping in just as the instruments crash together, nostalgic urgency shaking those beads on the walls and the feet on the floor.  Someone drunkenly shouted, “Don’t play your new stuff, play your old stuff.” The crowd laughed it off and the band seemed to understand that Drunky McSadlife didn’t speak for the rest of us.  We were here for “Furr” and “Black River Killer,” sure, but we kept coming back for the new stuff.  And hey, we got “American Goldwing,” and I could have been happy with just that.  Someone else requested “Gold for Bread,” and Earley said, “Oh man, I forgot that one. We’ll have to rehearse that for a later show.”

            The later show was the next night. I took a train down to Washington DC, my whole Blitzen Trapper live experience coming full circle. I met my buddy Ian and we spent the afternoon working (this whole telecommuting thing allows me to live a rock star lifestyle and still have an office drone job) and then made our way to the Black Cat.  Again we were among the first there, and it almost didn’t matter: the floor was huge.  We ran into another fan at the front of the stage and he was just as stoked as we were, but he didn’t like the Beatles so as it turned out he couldn’t be fully trusted.  Ian had been beside me when we first heard Blitzen Trapper live; they started off with “Fletcher” then, and they brought it back tonight.  Again, I shut my critical functions off early and just let myself get lost in the music.  We got “Gold for Bread.”  We got “Big Black Bird” (absent from the night before). We got “Heart Attack” in an extended jam to close out the night.  And then it was over.

            I hung around after the show like a super creep, but Erik Menteer and Marty Marquis came up to me and thanked me for coming out to all these shows and supporting the band. I thanked them for, I think I said, “being so awesome,” because DOOOOOORK.  Then there was Mike, bassist extraordinaire, and we talked a little more and said bye for now, because it’s gonna be awhile before I see them again.

            Of course today’s a little bit hollow.  I mean, sure, I’m staging a big comedy show tonight and seeing Rocky Horror at midnight, but there’s no rock show.  They’re way down in North Carolina today and I’m back in Boston, leading my normal life. The normal life that includes writing novels and putting on comedy shows and getting tattoos. I may not have a normal life.

            Rock and roll was made for me. It's an important thing, like breathing and love. It’s a salvation and an addiction. It’s sin and it’s heaven. It lifts me up and keeps me internal. There’s little that’s more exhilarating than seeing a band you love play new music live, seeing it with friends sometimes, sharing the experience with dozens or hundreds of others there to try to get the same bliss as you.  Blitzen Trapper never shirked their duty, never wavered in their stated intent to rock my world. 

            In other words: you don’t need rock and roll to live, but without it, is it really living? Three different nights, three different cities, and hell yes was I alive.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Twenty Years of The Ghost of Tom Joad

On this day, twenty years ago, I left my tiny rooming house room in Quincy and got on the bus, then the train, then another train to get to the Cambrigeside Galleria, where I worked at the B. Dalton's in 1995. The air around the mall smelled of chocolate because there used to be a chocolate factory nearby. It's gone now. The B. Dalton's is, too.
I was first in line when Best Buy rolled its gate up and I ran in, running right to the CD section and snatching up the first copy of The Ghost Of Tom Joad I saw. Two women who'd come in behind me were doing the same thing. I'd gotten into Springsteen only two years prior; the newest albums were Human Touch and Lucky Town, which at the time I drank in like water. I'd gotten in by way of Nebraska, which was bleak and monochrome and exactly fitted the life I was leading. "Streets of Philadelphia" had come out recently and I'd fallen for that, and I'd grabbed Greatest Hits the day it came out, but this was the first brand-new studio album by Springsteen I would hear since becoming a fan.
I didn't have a Discman then (that came later). There was no immediate download or buying in bed. On the long ride back home, all I could do was read the lyrics, and man, did they make sense. So many of the songs were stories of people so desperate that they forgot they were desperate. In 1995, that was where I was. Who I was. I got back to my rooming house and turned on the CD player and plugged in the headphones I'd borrowed from my then-boyfriend's best friend, who had since died. I fell into The Ghost of Tom Joad, and it fell into me.
That record came out twenty years ago, when I was twenty and living on my own and struggling against every desire to give up. Tom Joad gave me hope in its hopelessness. I was on the edge of the world back then, tottering. The people I was listening about had fallen off, and there was never a hope of getting back. All I needed was to not fall off. I've come close a few times, but I always got back.
Thanks for being my reason to live for a little while, The Ghost of Tom Joad. And thanks for being one hell of an album.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Why I Write Books

             Currently, I’m caught in a limbo of fiction.  It’s a limbo I don’t particularly cherish being inside.  I've finished Eating Animals and I'm waiting till the start of National Novel Writing Month to begin the new book.  I've got plenty to do: editing two books and proofing yet a third, but it's not writing.  It's not creation.  So, as a stopgap: why I write these things.

I first started writing novels in 1999 … okay, wait.  That’s not entirely true.  I really started writing novels in 1991, when I wrote my first unwieldy horror/sci-fi novel called Mind of Darkness, because I’d heard of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and liked the ring.  I was fifteen when I wrote it, and it was terrible … except, maybe, for a scene in which a possessed mother decides to straighten her scoliosis-afflicted daughter’s spine with a rolling pin.  That got me fired up and is the only thing in the book that still sticks in my head, twenty-four years later.  In senior year of high school, I gave novel writing another go and ended up with a novella called The Transmigration.  It was … all right.  Both books owed a great deal to Stephen King’s It (my then- and now-favorite novel) and both dealt with possession because that was apparently my bag back then.  This was a time in my life during which I was hanging garlic up around my bedroom windows, in case vampires decided to invade the suburbs.  I read horror comics and horror novels and my last date with a girl was going to see Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.  This was my frame of mind/reference.  I wrote spooky short stories for my composition classes and for my final thesis, I compiled a bunch of them into a short story collection.  I got an A-.  I think the minus was because I described sex a little too overtly in a story I called “Bound and Determined.”  You do the math. 

            It took me a long time to write another book, so I stuck with short stories.  Flashback: when I graduated middle school (this was apparently a big deal in my family), I got a typewriter and started typing up short-short stories with ironic titles and twist endings.  I was the O. Henry of the teenage set.  That practice largely ended when I had yet another fight with my monstrous stepmother, and she tore up all my stories and left them in a neat pile on my dresser when I came home.  A master of psychological and emotional horrors, was she.  Anyway, when I lit out on my own as a teenager and found myself ensconced in a dank, eternally beige rooming house on the wrong side of the tracks, my grandparents upgraded my typewriter to a word processor, and there I set about the task of continuing what I did in high school – writing short fiction.  None of it was very good.  A lot of writers thrive in down-and-out situations, but I faltered.  Junkies were ODing across the hall from me and old men were in the business of dying slowly in all the other rooms.  I got into writing bleak poetry and one time I saved a homeless guy’s life and he helped me discover Bob Dylan.  I worked at a bookstore and read and re-read Stephen King, and my friend Tracey got me interested in crime fiction and science fiction, so eventually I read that, too.  Robert Parker.  Orson Scott Card.  I tried to write a novel called Bridge Trip, but it went nowhere. 

            I moved out of the rooming house and into my own studio apartment and started writing short stories I was proud of.  A number of them made it into the first professional fiction book I got published, This Terrestrial Hell.  I wrote one story, called “Last Night at the Bear,” which was both inspired by my saving that homeless guy’s life and a Drew Carey (yes, that one) short story called “Tackling Jim Brown.”  It was my first non-horror story.  Things were clicking.  I tried to write a werewolf novel titled Canis Lupis but it was overly complicated and dull, and there was a woman in it named Devia, who was devious.  Yep.  Then I broke up with my boyfriend of five years.  I did it twice in one day because I was twenty-three and had a fluctuating sense of security.  Three weeks later, I started dating Shawn.  Two weeks after that, I started writing what would be my first novel.

            Shawn definitely had something to do with it.  The whole book, which I titled Spare Parts after a Springsteen song, is about relationships – a long way off of the horror short stories I’d been writing.  Part of that had to do with the William Goldman novel, The Color of Light, which I now recognize is something of a World According to Garp pastiche, though I hadn’t read Garp at the time and knew nothing of John Irving.  My thinking at the time was that I’d gone through a terrible breakup and I was having love issues, and why not write a book about people my age faltering and falling in love and apparently crying six times a chapter.  Plus, I’d recently read King’s On Writing and I was inspired.  Anyhow, I got the book finished in a couple months.  It wasn’t very long – barely 60,000 words – and it wasn’t particularly great, but it got me over the hump.  I wasn’t a potential novelist any longer.  I could write novels, grown-up novels.  I sent it to an agent who sent it to a publisher.  Both of them dropped me on the same day.  Ah, the fleeting feel of fortune. 

            I’m not going to say it didn’t hurt.  I spent probably a decade afraid to submit anything.  But it didn’t stop me from writing.  While waiting to hear from the agent, I inadvertently began a second novel, I’m On Fire, also after a Bruce Springsteen song.  I say inadvertently because I set out to write a short story.  What ended up happening was that a longish novel came out of it.  My first real horror novel.  A decade and a half later, I looked at it again, did a complete rewrite, and submitted it to Cemetery Dance.  They published it this year as an ebook.  The ticking timebomb of success is a slow one. 

            Meanwhile, more books.  I liked contemporary crime fiction, so I wrote a book called The Eighth Acre, with every intent on my hero, Wayne Corbin, becoming a series character.  After my second, much longer book about relationships (Open All Night, also named after a Bruce Springsteen song), I got to another Corbin novel, The Color of Blood and Rust.  By this point, I’d only been writing books two years and the ideas just wouldn’t stop coming.  Five books in two years.  I wrote my second horror novel, Wolves in the Black, and my first epic novel (over 200,000 words), Find the River in 2001.  River I wrote entirely in the first apartment I shared with Shawn.  I needed to keep my spirits up, what with 9/11 happening and it being a really shitty apartment. 

            I don’t want this turning into a litany of books I wrote, because that’s not interesting.  This is more about why than about what, oAt some point during a particularly deep depression, I thought of giving the whole enterprise up.  I was in therapy at the time and he eventually tapped into why I was writing was getting me down, even though I couldn’t stop.  As it turned out, I was associating most of what I did with abject failure, no matter how fast or how well I wrote, because I couldn’t help comparing myself to Stephen King.  He’d had a number one novel before he turned thirty.  He published Carrie at the same age I was when I wrote Open All Night.  He was a huge massive success and I never would be.  It got more existential and sad from there: I was never going to write a book that changed minds, like 1984.  I was relegating myself to the midlist, in a changing publishing climate that no longer understood the concept of midlist.

            Therapy helped me.  So, insanely, did Coldplay.  Their big song, “Viva La Vida” was one of my big earworms that year, and I’d play it when I sat down to pound out a couple thousand words.  The refrain, “who would ever want to be King?” wouldn’t leave me.  Little by little, I realized that needed to be my ethos.  I was writing my own stuff.  I could keep trying to be a fourth-rate Stephen King or a first-rate Kevin Quigley.  I chose Kevin Quigley. 

            National Novel Writing Month helped, too.  The idea behind NaNoWriMo is to get at least 50,000 words of a book out in under a month.  November.  In 2005, I managed the feat, pumping out and 80,000 word book called Welcome to Bloomsbury, which is not named after a Bruce Springsteen song.  It’s a mess of a book, but it showed me I could dedicate myself to a single vision and write fast if I wanted to.  I’ve done NaNo a few more times since, and it’s always rewarding.  A bunch of my friends always try it, and I’m equally sad and happy when they end up ditching their books partway through.  I have only ever done that once, because I kept trying to write a book about possession and apparently that only worked for me in high school. 

            I’ve written twenty-one novels in sixteen years (plus some valiant attempts, like Mary’s Place and Tangerine and American Storm, which all fizzled out).  I’ve also written a bunch of nonfiction (mostly on Stephen King) and a short story collection and a couple of poetry books.  It’s been a remarkably fruitful time.  I start a new book for NaNoWriMo this year called Who We Are, What We’ll Do, and What We Won’t, and if I manage to finish before January, I will have written three full novels in 2015.  Yesterday, I got an idea for a new Wayne Corbin novel, and it’s a good one.  If I play my cards right, I can get cooking on A Dime’s Worth of Damage in March. 

            Why, though?  I mean, of course I want to make a success out of this.  I want people to read me and love me.  I want to make a living out of writing books.  I’m forty now.  Stephen King had already written my favorite novel and had moved onto other matters by the time he was my age.  I wonder if I’ve written my favorite novel of mine yet.  The Legend of Jenny McCabe and Maybe You’re Right are up there, but so is the newest Wayne Corbin book, Panic Town, in which nobody dies.  I guess that’s why, in the full measure of things.  I’m curious about my world, outside and in.  I like learning about people, and about why people do things.  I want to write situations that could have happened in my life, if I were more stable, or less.  But mostly?  Mostly I do it because I want to know if I’m ever going to write my new favorite novel.  I guess that’s as good a reason as any.