Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith: The Black House

The Black House
by Patricia Highsmith


Finally, a break from the constant murderin’. Oh sure, people still die, but The Black House features fewer sudden blows to the head. Most of the time, the characters act with good intentions, only to have their situation spin out of control. After the unpleasantness of Slowly, Slowly in the Wind, I welcomed the change. Reserving judgement for the as-yet unread Mermaids on the Golf Course, this is so far my favorite of the short story collections.

Genuine suspense fills the plots, like in “When in Rome,” where a woman decides to payback her inattentive husband by having him kidnaped by an admirer. “The Kite” talks about a boy who deals with his sister’s death by making a gigantic kite in her honor, and what happens when he runs into interference. In “I Despise Your Life” (possibly a winner for interest-piquing titles), a young man tries to impress his father with his new bohemian lifestyle.

The title story, in a way, is an old-fashioned haunted house tale, even if the haunting has nothing to do with ghosts:

“There is something funny about the house,” Ed Sanders said dreamily, perched on a bar stool. “It looks haunted — you know? The way that roof and the chimney tilts at the top, as if it’s about to fall down on somebody.” Ed saw his wife approaching, and was sorry. He was having a good time taking about the black house. It was like being in another world, like being a boy again, twelve years old perhaps, and not a thirty-nine-year-old man with a growing paunch, knowing all about life, and more than enough.
— “The Black House

Very nearly was that my favorite out of the eleven stories, but “Blow It” edged out in the lead. In that, a man tries to make the decision between two women he’s been dating, each perfect in their own way, when suddenly he has an offer to buy an equally perfect house just outside of New York City. Sounds simple enough, but the way Highsmith let his inner monologue unfold was just as suspenseful as “The Black House.” And perhaps since this story was a little closer to my literary neck of the woods — love and self-sabotage — I grew more attached.

If I had to pick a weak point in the book, I’d give it to “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” though perhaps it wins for most amusing title. Still, it’s blessedly short, and soon you’re on to the much better “Under a Dark Angel’s Eye.” Unlike the previous collections I’ve reviewed, The Black House is likely the one that’s most appealing to a wider audience — entirely compelling and complex, in an easy bite-size form.


Book # 10/52
Read as part of a 700+ page collection of stories, but this book was published on its own in 1981.

Photo by Tyson Habein

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith: Slowly, Slowly in the Wind

Slowly, Slowly in the Wind
by Patricia Highsmith


Here we watch the unpleasant passage of time, the mounting madness of people who perhaps did not have much sense to begin with. I wish I could tell you that these people were relatable, or even just somewhat sympathetic, but most of them aren’t. With the exception of about three or four out of the twelve stories, no one is likeable or all that compelling. Still, I plodded on, curious about the next title, wondering where it would rate against the others. For the first time in this collected volume, I started to find myself skimming.

Within this book, Patricia Highsmith’s prejudices become more apparent. She takes a disparaging attitude towards other races, dogs and to some degree, children. At first I wanted to take it as just another form of satire, but after getting farther into those stories, I didn’t feel any sense of humor behind the writing. She’s once again pointing out the various horrible ways people can act towards one another, but rarely did I feel that the reader was invited to find them silly.

All of the characters act out of apprehension, and they are often unable to cope with change. When a man’s daughter runs off with a disliked neighbor’s son, he kills the neighbor and makes him a scarecrow. After a man is mugged for the third time in his Brooklyn neighborhood, he stabs the black teenager the next day, thinking that it’s payback for other crimes committed by “welfare people.” Another man hates that no one notices his petty thievery at the local wax museum, so it escalates to murder of three of their employees, followed by an “artful” arrangement of their bodies on a set piece. The psychopathic characters aren’t even interesting ones.

Still, there are a couple of bright spots. The more effective stories come when Highsmith either uses a non-human entity as the source for fear, such as in “The Pond,” where vines take on a life of their own. In “Please Don’t Shoot the Trees,” set in a non-specified future where everyone has a personal helicopter, the area trees have started forming mysterious white blisters that shoot toxic substances, seemingly on purpose. My first thought was that maybe The Happening would have had better reviews if it had taken that approach — Nature that Nukes YOU! Well, it’s a thought, anyway.

Probably the best story out of the twelve is “A Curious Suicide,” in which a doctor decides to take revenge on the man who stole away the woman he loved. Yes, it’s murder again, but maybe it just reminded me of the Ripley novels, since it’s set in France and Switzerland, and it involves plotting around housekeeping and job schedules. For once, the person committing the crime couldn’t mount a decent insanity defense.

Overall, I would not recommend this book on its own. Shoved in among four others, I suppose it was an okay way to make some progress in the back catalogue, but like the title suggests, time slowed to an unfortunate pace.

Book # 9/52
Read as part of a 700+ page collection of stories, but this book was published on its own in 1979.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith: Little Tales of Misogyny

Little Tales of Misogyny
by Patricia Highsmith


Now there’s an attention-grabbing title. Patricia Highsmith presents seventeen different stories that circle around the label satire, but never quite claim it. Whatever her intent, she likely manages to irritate the super-feminists, happy-ending enthusiasts, and sticklers for traditional story arc.

A young man asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box — her left hand.
— “The Hand”

I can’t claim any of those labels either. As in, don’t treat me like I’m incapable because I’m a girl, but I will go ahead and let you change that tire if you’re offering. As in, endings suit the style of the story not the will of the reader, or the most frustrating of critique groups. Those who write have heard it before: “It’s just I, like, just don’t get it? Like, I don’t know people like this.”

There’s a fine line between riling others with smugness and just being a good-natured pain in the ass. It’s the difference between, say, Dr. House at his best and at his worst. I decided to take Highsmith’s stories more as a poke at convention rather than any serious superiority. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but one can’t control the reactions of their readers, nor should they really try. Most of the time, I found myself laughing a bit at the some of the ridiculous, abrupt endings to the stories.

The morning of her departure on the world tour, Diana stood on the sill of her attic window, raised her arms to the rising sun, and stepped out, convinced that she could fly or at least float. She fell onto a round, white-painted iron table and the red bricks of the patio. Thus poor Diana met her earthly end.
— “The Evangelist”

Highsmith takes her spare writing style to an extreme here, presenting every character in a very matter of fact way. Even the descriptions are more like an inventory list. Here are the people, here is the situation, these are their things. In a way, that’s what makes the semi-satire work. Even though she became more cynical as she got older, I don’t buy the argument that she wrote these stories to be hateful towards women specifically, but rather that they’re her usual display of the awful ways people can behave. She doesn’t endorse it, but she’s not criticizing either. It is what it is. Your discomfort is your problem.

Much like The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, it’s not a collection of stories for every reader, but it’s an interesting jaunt into unusual territory. I wouldn’t have wanted the book to go on much longer than it did, but in my journey through Highsmith’s work outside of her Ripley series, it was a title I could not resist.

Book # 8/52
Read as part of a 700+ page collection of stories, though this book was published on its own in 1974.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Selected Short Stories of Patricia Highsmith: The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder

The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder
by Patricia Highsmith


Angry hamsters! A carnivorous ferret! Vengeful chickens! Come one, come all, come find yourself strangely amused by all the different reasons why an animal might be driven to kill. Or perhaps they did not intend to kill the person involved, but now that it’s done, what’s the harm? Yes, this book just may be the anti-Marley & Me.

Patricia Highsmith’s not known for her great love of the human race, so it makes sense that she’d spend an entire short story collection thinking of ways animals could vanquish with these pesky people who just get in the way. I mean, really, how is cat supposed to react when her owner’s sleazy boyfriend tries to toss her off the side of the yacht? Or what about the pig who just wants to eat some of the damn truffles it is sent out to find? Come on, cut a mammal a break, man.

While reading, I felt compelled to note aloud what particular species was currently doing all the murderin’. “Hey, honey,” I’d say to my husband as he tried to fall asleep. “I just finished a story called ‘Eddie and the Monkey Robberies.’”

“Mmmurph,” he’d say, and roll over. Fine, guess you don’t need to hear about the irritable camel either.

Oddly enough, the story “Notes from a Respectable Cockroach” doesn’t contain any murder, unless you count the squishing of other cockroaches. Using the dive Hotel Earle as inspiration (if you can call it that), a cockroach simply tells his tale and takes a sudden opportunity to improve his living situation. You’d think that a story about a cockroach wouldn’t be interesting, and yet, it is.

The people who die tend to be cruel, having wronged the animal or another person in some way. They are all varying degrees of horrible, and the animals often come across as indifferent. You don’t exactly root for them, just go along for the ride. Not every story is written from an animal’s point of view, though when written from a human’s point of view, the character is often only a few steps removed from the perceived villain.

Like a lot of Highsmith’s work, this book isn’t for everybody. Saying that I enjoyed reading it does not seem like quite the right word, but it provided good examples of the atypical short story done well. Though I read them as part of a 700+ page collection from 2001, the book was originally published on its own in 1975.

Book # 7/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
by David Bayles and Ted Orland


Small book, big ideas and questions to ponder: What drives us to do what we love? What gives us the confidence to keep going and what keeps us from starting at all? First printed in 1993, one might expect some of the concepts raised in this book to be slightly out of date, but in the two and a half hours it took me to finish it, I never once felt like I was reading a sixteen-year-old observation, nor did I feel any of it crossed the line into preachy self-help nonsense.

“Artmaking grants access to worlds that may be dangerous, sacred, forbidden, or all of the above. It grants access to worlds you may otherwise never fully engage. It may in fact be the engagement — not the art — that you seek.”


Where a person is in their artistic life will determine what they get out of this book, I think. Writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, photographers — it’s not really aimed at one particular field. Originally, my photographer husband purchased it and found it to be a useful reminder that “tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite for succeeding.”

In other words, do what you do, see what happens. Some artists will succeed before you (that 9-year-old prodigy), some will never be appreciated until they are long gone (F. Scott Fitzgerald), but the personal satisfaction one derives from their art should not be wrapped up in the fear of approval.

“The real question about acceptance is not whether your work will be viewed as art, but whether it will be viewed as your art.”


It’s hard not think of people like Bob Dylan or Lady Gaga while reading, or really anyone else who doesn’t fit an expected mold. They’re the sort who seem to come from their own planet, their own universe, and maybe initially, it’s hard to see what the big deal is. It might be hard to see the art in the performance. The thing is, whether you “get it” or not is not going to change them. You like it or you don’t, but they’ll just keep on being who they are. It does take a fearlessness to be able to do that. Certainly not everyone can all of the time. If all art is autobiographical, it takes bravery to expose yourself to the potential criticism of others.

Reading this made me think more of music than books, despite wanting to be in the business of writing them. For me, they are so intertwined with one another. Maybe I’m constantly trying to put the feelings I get from music into a language I speak — the story behind the music, the process of creating something out of the echos in your mind. Even if I’m not writing about musicians, the characters are all passionate about something that isn’t going to pay the bills. Or perhaps they once felt that way, and now they wonder how to find that spark again. Either way, I like writing about the process — how the inside affects the outside.

Years ago, when I was in middle and high school, I used to be much more fearless about my work. Hell, I’d hand a friend a very first-draft section of a story, written during history class. (History class was a very productive time for me.) “Read what I did today,” I’d say, not at all nervous by the reception. I wrote short stories, poems, made strange birthday and Christmas cards, all without revision. “Oh, just excuse the typos,” I said, presenting someone with a binder full of papers. It wasn’t that I’d convinced myself I was some genius. I certainly felt capable, above-average, but it was more that I trusted my friends to get what I meant, despite the imperfections. And the thing was, they did. They enjoyed what I wrote, asked when I’d have more for them to read, and I used up a lot of printer ink.

The confidence began to erode, I think, once I got out of practice. I didn’t write as often, had a handful of personal issues going on, and I found myself dropping out of college feeling like I was nowhere near the right headspace to write much of anything. I started and stopped a few projects, but it took a long time, a bit more than four years, before anything started to stick again.

Though I’m not the type to make serious New Year’s Resolutions, last year, I bothered. “I’m going to be more brave,” I said. What that meant, I didn’t know. I didn’t want to be too specific, thinking that leaving it open-ended would leave the greatest chance for success. And I think I have succeeded. My husband and I started an online monthly arts magazine, where I have a music column talking about whatever I want. I finished a third draft of a novel, let some people read it, then wrote a fourth and final (for now) draft, and let people read that one. I took on this Cannonball Read challenge, I wrote another 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. I decided to be more present. By staying in practice, by doing exactly what I want to do, not only have I enjoyed the positive response, but I’m just happy to have my brain working again. I can do this, you know?

“We tell the stories we have to tell, stories of the things that draw us in — and why should any of us have more than a handful of those? The only work really worth doing — the only work you can do convincingly — is the work that focuses on the things you care about. To not focus on those issues is to deny the constants in your life.”


And that’s it, really. I don’t need to have a million and one ideas if I just write from a place of honesty. If I feel strongly about something, it will come through. People who would never go fly-fishing still liked A River Runs Through It. Americans who don’t know a damn thing about soccer enjoyed Fever Pitch. The best kinds of books, the best songs — the best anything, really — takes the personal and makes it feel universal. We recognize that these stories aren’t about the techniques, the actions, but the emotions behind them.

We’re all proud, we’re all apprehensive. We suffer from fits of loneliness, and we’re all in love with something. One mistake informs the next success. If this book accomplishes anything, it’s a great reminder that being true to yourself doesn’t have to be a cliche. Whatever our definition of success is, we make the decisions.

Book # 6/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review also appeared on RiVerSpeAK on Decemeber 22, 2009

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Citizen Vince by Jess Walter


Citizen Vince
by Jess Walter



“The people are funny... they live in this perfect place, but it’s all they know, so they all assume it’s gotta be better somewhere else.”

Even if I did not live near the same city as Jess Walter, even if I’d never heard of this book, the two pages of blurbs alone would have compelled me to pick it up. Two of my favorite writers, Nick Hornby and Sarah Vowell, sing its praises, but perhaps the Washington Post Book World sums up the novel best: “You just have to read it.”

After you read this review, get thee to your preferred bookseller and drop the fifteen bucks. I mean it. Then buy one for a friend. You know you were stuck on a present for them anyway. Why not make it a fantastic story full of humor, heartbreak, and redemption?

Shuffled off to Spokane, Washington, as part of the Witness Protection Program, Vince Camden spends his mornings working at a donut shop and his nights selling stolen credit cards to his poker buddies. It’s 1980 — just days before the presidential election, and Vince can’t quite shake the not-so-paranoid feeling that someone from his old life is after him.

Even from the perspective of an outsider, Walter writes with great affection for his home city, but does not shy away from pointing out Spokane’s quirks. As someone who lives in the area, the ways in which the city still has not changed made me laugh:

“In this town, five guys drive to a tavern in five cars, have a beer, then get in their five cars and drive three blocks to the next tavern. It’s not just wasteful. It’s uncivilized.”


And while we may not still have a zoo (unless you count the Cat Tales sanctuary north of town), I couldn’t agree more with the line, “Our lousy zoo is emblematic of a city and a region afraid to succeed.” Swap out the zoo with any of the following — bus system, light rail, North-South freeway, year-round farmer’s market — and that about describes the glacial pace Spokane has at times when it comes to public improvement. Yes, the past five years have had leaps forward in food, culture and the occasional bike lane painted, but the hesitancy lingers.

Still, this is not a novel about Spokane’s progress, and the political portions are merely a subplot. At its core, Citizen Vince is a story about a man trying to find his place in a new life, wondering what remains of himself after all that has changed. Walter’s writing is some of the best out there, filled with the sort of passages that make me feel like a hack, but also wanting to get to work.

“Jesus, it’d be nice if there were someplace to dump all those things that you’ve felt and seen, like taking the film out of a camera. That’s why people write books and stories, no doubt, to leave some impression behind, to share a sense of the beauty and pain.”


I’m not the type to well up over the books I read, but damn — That’s it. We write to leave our fingerprints on the world and to pay tribute to all that came before. Like Vince, we’re searching for answers, community, and maybe, a dash of immortality.

Book # 5/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

See also my review of the recent Jess Walter/Sherman Alexie reading at Auntie's Bookstore, over at SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Excerpt from the currently untitled NaNo '09

Lee had the night off, and along with Roshaunda, we were going out. A band called Werebears had a gig inside an abandoned storefront, and they’d rented the space out for the night. A friend’s birthday party or something. Roshaunda probably knew, and we’d heard that one of the breweries and the Dry Fly guys were manning the bar. Though I did not know the band’s music outside of the blurbs I’d read, I needed a good time. The cold weather had gnawed at my edges with more persistence than usual, and I didn’t need another person telling me to find a sense of humor. I needed to soak in all the good feelings I could get before I had spend Christmas in Malibu.

When I stepped onto my front porch, Lee and Roshaunda had just parked the truck in the space across the street. They didn’t live together, but lived in the same building and seem to alternate who spent the night at the other’s place. Friends learned long ago not to question the logic or financial smartness behind their setup. I just figured Lee preferred having an escape route, even if it was one only an apartment floor away. And anyway, it wasn’t my business.

After hellos and the obligatory admiring of Roshaunda’s rather mod red and white dress, we drove back into downtown so as not to make her walk far. “Don’t you look dashing this evening,” she said and put one manicured nail to my shirt. She’d dusted some gold flecked powder over her dark cheekbones. “All Mr. Rock n Roll and dangerous with your long black hair.”

My hair barely hits my collar. “Dashing, that’s me.”

“Baby, you make him uneasy when you say stuff like that,” Lee said. “Compliments give him, like, hives.”

“Shut up, Lee.” I laughed. “Thank you, Roshaunda. Tell your friends.”


At ten minutes to nine, we arrived to a full venue. Somewhat predictably, the show didn’t appear to be anywhere close to starting, but a DJ had the crowd enjoying the wait, playing a mashup of “Electric Avenue” and “A Town Called Malice.” The bass rattled the windows up front and Lee paused outside the door for a cigarette.

Roshaunda made a face. “Ugh, baby, I told you to get your fix before we left so you could brush your teeth. I don’t want to smell that breath all night.”

Lee shrugged. “Sorry. Go on and get a drink.”

“Shit, I’m going to have to be drunk, aren’t I?” She looked at me. “You keepin’ him company?”

I nodded, and she gave us an exasperated sigh before going inside. Lee apologized to me again. “You shouldn’t be breathing this stuff in, Dom. Go get a drink too.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.

“Nah, if you end up with a third round that’s lung cancer, I don’t want you knocking down my door.”

“If I end up with a third round, Lee, they’re going to have to put me out of my misery.”

“Don’t say shit like that.”

“Sorry. I’m trying to be more upbeat tonight, but it’s not happening yet.” I looked around at the other smokers, all exiled to the outdoors. Some smoked with gloves on, others removed just the one, while others had the red, dry hands of those who never bothered with gloves at all. A group of people waited to cross the street just behind them, and one man with dark hair wore a familiar grey wool coat. An old flutter rose from the back of my brain and I swallowed.

“Coupla vodka sodas and we’ll have you sorted right out,” Lee said through an exhale.

“Right,” I watched the man approach and squinted his face into focus. My glasses need replacing.

“I know she hates it, and I’m trying to quit, but if I don’t have this now, I’m just going to be thinking about it all night and I don’t want to get all moody and shit.”

“You don’t have to justify it to me,” I said. The man walked closer and loosened his scarf with one long finger. I lost track of what Lee said next and wondered what my hair looked like. Before I talked myself out of it, I called out, “Michael, hey.”

His eyes shifted our direction, also squinting before brightening with recognition — Thank God. “Dominic! Wow, it’s been forever,” he said and held out an arm. We shared an awkward hug and he smelled fantastic. “How are you?”

My heart just fell out of my chest and landed on the sidewalk here, Michael, but I’m great. Really. “Oh, I’m good, good. Just, uh, you know, been writing and stuff. Trying to keep warm.”

He smiled. “Well, you won’t do it out here.”

“Ah, you may have a point there,” I said. Lee cleared his throat. “Oh, this is my friend Lee. His girlfriend knows whoever’s birthday it is.”

I know, I know, way to make sure to mention the girlfriend.

Lee held out his hand and they shook. “I’m his friendly neighborhood bartender,” he said.

“Michael and I went to college together,” I said. “We were in the dorms the first two years.”

Lee’s eyebrows raised my direction for a moment before he nodded at Michael. “Ah. The old bunk mate. That’s cool.”

Ten years since I’d last seen him, and he still looked great. Older, of course, though better off than me. He had the kind of blue eyes that made people forget what they were saying mid-sentence, and it took the first few months of school to keep my thoughts in order. Now, skills rusty, I had to put in much more effort. “Dominic was the tidy one,” he said to Lee.

“I believe it,” Lee said. He pressed out his cigarette against the brick wall. “I’ll let you two catch up. Roshaunda’s going to be pissed if I don’t get inside soon.”

Lee can tell when I’m all stupid with desire. “What are you doing in town?” I said.

“My grandmother died about a month ago, so I’m helping my sister sort out her house and stuff.”

“I’m so sorry. Were you close?"

He frowned. “Oh, I don’t know. She still recognized me at the end, so I must have made an impression.”

“Still, that’s rough.” I pressed my hands into my jacket pockets.

“Harder on my sister, really. She was taking care of her. I just want to help her out, and she’s got two kids now, so.”

I tried to remember his sister’s name, but couldn’t. Something with an S? I’d only met her once when she came down to Pullman with some friends for a basketball game. “How long are you staying?”

“Through Christmas, I guess. See how long it takes. The woman accumulated a lot of junk over ninety-two years, and we’ve got an auction place in the Valley handling the art and some other stuff in storage.” He sighed and smiled again. “I’m sorry, here we are out on a Saturday night and I’m Debbie Downer.”

That made me laugh. “Well hell, you’re in good company. Not two seconds before you walked up, Lee was giving me a hard time.” I glanced through the window, where I could see the two of them sitting near the end of the makeshift bar. Roshaunda was drinking a martini. “Are you still living in... San Francisco, was it?”

He nodded. “I am.”

“Must be, uh, warm?”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said. “Veronica and I busted up about a year after, but I had a job and, you know...”

“May as well make something of it.”

“That’s right.” He stared at me, and his arm started to extend again before he drew it back and cleared his throat. “You look good, by the way. I heard about you getting sick again, but I never found out if you’d recovered. So... it’s good to see you.”

Hearing that pleased me to an embarrassing degree. “Got my hair back, can’t complain.”

“Still. I should have called or something.”

“You’re all right. I was looked after. You had your own shit going on.” The weird thing about having some sort of personal misfortune is how often you end up consoling the people you tell, rather than other way around.

“Well, thanks. I did, I guess.” He tilted his head towards the door. “Should we stop freezing out here and go get a drink?”

---
One of those brave/masochistic moments. I poked at this a little before putting it up, and may continue to do so. NaNoWriMo novels: A giant hunk of marble that isn't anywhere close to art. Or even nice countertops.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

Crooked Little Vein
by Warren Ellis


Men who have sex with drugged ostriches are far from the strangest situation that private detective Mike McGill finds himself investigating. The underground, the disturbing, the depraved — all of it seems to find him, whether he likes it or not. Somewhat depressed and living in his office after his girlfriend leaves him, one morning he receives a visit from the White House Chief of Staff.

“You’re looking at me strangely, son.”

I smiled, shook my head. “It’s just what TV does to us. You say ‘chief of staff’ and I expect John Spencer from The West Wing, you know? I don’t suppose you’re a genial man of Chicago with a drink problem, right?”

“Hell, no. I take heroin, son.”


Within minutes, he’s given a handheld computer, half a million dollars in his bank account, and instructions to find the “other” Constitution of the United States. Traded for years in exchange for keeping secrets and power, it is the document composed by several of the Founders, detailing their real intent for American society. The White House would like it back and to put it into effect. One more thing: “You talk about this, the Office of Homeland Security turns you into pink mist. There will be Shock and Awe, you understand?”

He has no choice but to understand. When the first lead takes him to a Godzilla bukkake theater, he leaves not only a bit nauseous, but having met Trix. She’s writing a thesis on extremes of self-inflicted human experience. They team up, and over the course of their travels, each situation becomes more bizarre than the next.

At a little over 50,000 words, Crooked Little Vein is a quick, straightforward read. It’s the sort of book where you laugh through a grimace — “Ohh, that’s gross. Funny, but gross.” You want to keep reading, but the story goes beyond morbid fascination. Warren Ellis creates a narrative that’s both compelling and thought-provoking, asking all the while what the pursuit of liberty and happiness really means in the modern world.

“Look,” I said. “You don’t get to keep the parts of the country you like, ignore the rest, and call what you’ve got America.”


I’m a big Warren Ellis fan, with several of his graphic novel and his comics work sitting on my shelf, as well as being a regular reader of his various online alcoves. His work deals with the unconventional, ideas that seem like that product of an extremely active imagination, until you start reading the news stories he uses as research notes.

I’m also a big fan of things I like overlapping. The West Wing is one of my all-time favorite television shows. For years, Ellis has talked about his respect for Aaron Sorkin’s work, about how he’s the kind of writer who makes you want to chop off your own hands because you’ll never compare. Knowing that, the aforementioned reference and dialogue like this really made me laugh:

“CIA’s been running Aaron Sorkin for years. He leaks this stuff out under cover of fiction to test the waters. Every time he gets too cute we plant crack on him in airports. Or make him write Studio 60.”


(I wanted to love Studio 60, I really did, but he did kind of botch it.)

So while Crooked Little Vein may not be for the faint of heart, nor the sort of book you’d pass along to your conservative grandmother, I still wholeheartedly recommend reading it. When you’re done, get your mitts on Global Frequency or Desolation Jones, or read the weekly (and free!) FreakAngels. Welcome to a never-ending back catalogue and your latest addiction. You’re welcome.

Book # 4/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.


This review also appeared on the Pajiba site itself on Dec. 8th.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren’t as Scary... edited by Ted Thompson with Eli Horowitz

Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren’t as Scary, Maybe, Depending on How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn’t Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out

Edited by Ted Thompson with Eli Horowitz


Yes, you read that right — The title of this book really is 52 words long. Much of the McSweeney’s stable delights in the strange, and this collection of short stories takes it to the level of unconventional tall tale. Even the dust jacket is a little bit different. On the inside is the beginning of a short story by Lemony Snicket, and readers were invited to finish it, fold up the jacket, slap a couple stamps on it and send it in. The winner was picked some time in 2006, with their story published in a later book. I love the idea of encouraging creativity in an unusual way, and I love that the proceeds from this book benefit the tutoring center 826NYC.

However, I didn’t necessarily love this book. I didn’t dislike it, but I was glad that it was a quick read. In a way, the book seems better suited towards late-elementary or middle school-aged kids. The stories have peril, but not in an overly adult way. Much of the stories are from a kid’s point of view.

Somewhat predictably, the ones I enjoyed more were ones by authors I’d already read. Nick Hornby, Neil Gaiman, and Jonathan Safran Foer have good contributions with “Small Country,” “Sunbird,” and “The Sixth Borough.”

Anyone who has attended college might award Gaiman the best quote in the book: “‘I am an academic,’ said Professor Mandalay, ‘and thus have no finely developed senses that would be comprehensible to anyone who has not ever needed to grade papers without actually reading the blessed things.’”

The two contributions that surprised me? “Grimble,” a 1968 story by Clement Freud, and “The ACES Phone” by Jeanne DuPrau. “Grimble” told the tale of a boy whose parents suddenly leave for Peru, but leave him a series of detailed notes on how to get by while they’re gone. The premise seems simple — as most of the plots in this book are — but it’s the one I enjoyed the most. “The ACES Phone” deals with a mysterious phone found in a park, and discovering the meaning behind the strange noises heard at the other end.

Enjoying this book likely comes down to personal taste. I’ll admit that I bought this book because it was on sale and had a ridiculous title that made me laugh, but I don’t typically read such whimsical, fantastical work. Still, it’s beneficial to stretch one’s reading wings now and then, and perhaps in a few years, I can pass the book along to one of my kids.

Book # 3/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.


This review also appeared on the Pajiba site itself on December 24, 2009.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

No Compulsive Chronicles column this month:

However, you can read what I wrote for the RiVerSpeAK blog here

Sample quote?

"Want to know how you get better at your field? By doing it. Get your ass in a chair, your hands on a camera, or your feet on the street — Just go. Complaining and complacency is for the lazy, the lame. The boring. You’re not boring, are you?"

Cannonball Read Book Review #3 coming soon.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood by Jennifer Traig

Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood
by Jennifer Traig


Obsessive girlhood? Judaism? Weird food rules? “The fumes from the bacon my sister had microwaved for dessert had tainted everything I owned, so now it all had to be washed.” Oh, I may have laughed out loud, but at the same time, I thought, That doesn’t seem SO unreasonable. Consider me sold.

For a long time, I couldn’t eat unless there were even amounts of food on both sides of my mouth. If I ate something with pieces — say, cocoa puffs — an even number had to be on the spoon. Gum? Split it in half. There were other rules too. By age 10, after years of not understanding what was so great about pork chops, I decided to ban pork from my diet. (Except pepperoni. Everyone knows that comes from the pepperoni tree.) To avoid hassle and slabs of bacon waved in my face, I started telling baffled strangers that I was Jewish. Now it wasn’t weird — it was faith. Eventually, the rule extended to anything I’d consider a pet, and shellfish? Forget it, that’s like eating sea bugs.

Throw in a side of lactose intolerance, and suddenly a whole system of separating meat from dairy seems just perfect, thank you. Also, could you arrange the food just so in the cabinets? And the dishes too? Jesus, just let me do it already. Ah, there, that’s better.

(Faux-Judaism does not prevent one from using handy phrases like, “Good Lord!” “Oh my God,” and “Jesus Christ on pony, what the hell are you doing?”)

However, I know I’m not an extreme case by any means when it comes to OCD. As a prime example of the condition, Jennifer Traig offers up her childhood for inspection. Aside from rigorous cleaning, arranging, and inescapable thoughts like, “What if I stab my mother?” she suffered from scrupulosity — a highly religious form of OCD.

Growing up in a mixed-religion household with a Jewish father and Catholic mother (“We supported her religious practice only when it involved tasty snacks for the rest of us.”), Traig found tremendous fascination with the endless minutiae of Jewish law. So many rules! Such structure!

Before long, she’s praying three times a day, using a Kleenex as a makeshift yarmulke, and food poisoning guests with an undercooked kosher dinner. Everything is an ethical dilemma, even finding somewhere to sit in her own home — “Food gets dropped on the upholstery all the time. To sit on these chairs is to sit on ham.”

The severity of her symptoms would fluctuate throughout her childhood. After therapy, the incessant questioning of rabbis to differentiate between Orthodox and Crazy, keeping her hands busy with tacky crafts, and the dry humor of her parents, she leaves for college feeling mostly okay. Life can be managed (possibly) without meltdown.

Reading the process is endlessly entertaining, as Traig writes in a great self-deprecating, yet sincere way. Devil in the Details is the sort of book where you end up reading whole pages aloud to anyone sitting near you, usually preceded by the phrase, “Oh, this is funny...” though the whole thing is. If you’ve ever been abnormally particular about anything, or felt impossibly different, you’ll relate. And if not, come see how it feels.

Book # 2/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 book over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.


This review was also featured on the Pajiba site itself.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Cannonball Read: No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days

No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days
by Chris Baty


“The biggest thing separating people from their artistic ambitions is not a lack of talent, it’s the lack of a deadline,” Chris Baty writes in the introduction. “Give someone an enormous task, a supportive community, and a friendly-yet-firm due date, and miracles will happen.”

Each November since 2004, I have participated in the madness that is National Novel Writing Month, wherein I aim for a 50,000 word story, all while still managing to occasionally toss clean socks and a sandwich at my family. I’ve reached the goal every year except 2007, when I had a hungry 2 month old who hated his baby swing. That year, I wrote 25,000. For me, November is the time I force myself to sit down and try out new ideas, with the hopes that some of them might form a viable book one day.

I like to reacquaint myself with No Plot? No Problem! before beginning again. No matter how many times I’ve participated, the advice offered helps get my brain moving. Since I’m also participating in Pajiba’s Cannonball Read this year, the tips on time management are especially helpful. Now, will I actually ignore my DVR for the entire month in favor of a writing and reading extravaganza? Probably not, but I’ll at least quit watching West Wing reruns.

50,000 words seems like a short book, and it is, but some great titles (including this one) fall into that range: The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are all NaNo-sized. There’s still plenty of room for plot, sub-plot and whatever characters one feels like tossing into the harried mix.

No Plot? No Problem! offers a week-by-week guide to the writing process, everything from the exciting initial ideas, the frustrating middle lag, and when the finish line first comes into sight. It’s funny, motivational and a quick read.

The most important thing the book stresses? “Exuberant imperfection.” The idea of National Novel Writing Month is to sit your ass in the chair and get it done. Banish your inner editor and embrace quantity over quality. Rewriting is for another day. When one gives themselves the freedom to try out any idea, any random or funny plot twist they choose, the result can be surprising, even great. And if nothing else, there’s that glow of accomplishment — “Look at what I can do.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another 1,667 words to write.

For more information on National Novel Writing Month, now in its 10th year, visit nanowrimo.org

My feature on the Spokane-area NaNoWriMo group appears in the 10th issue of SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine.

Book # 1/52 (while started in October, I finished reading the book November 1st.)

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends November 1, 2010.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Indie Accuracy

Hello [Inlander],

In the recent article "Indie-spensible" [Sept. 24-30 2009, p. 45], I noticed several inaccuracies that were used to make a bigger point about the state of indie music today.

Specifically, suggesting that band like Oasis, Hanson and Bloc Party are signed to major labels shows a lack of research and doesn't take into account the difference between being a major-label band and independently produced albums being distributed by a major label. To say that they are the same thing would be akin to calling Guinness an American beer because it has a large US distributor.

When Oasis were originally searching for record deals, they wanted to go with Creation Records, which at the time was a highly successful independent UK label. Around the same time they were finally signed, Creation was undergoing financial troubles and had to sell to Sony. So while it is fair to say that their albums from 1994-2000 were released as imprints of a major label, that is no longer the case. In fact, since 2000, all Oasis music has been released under what was originally an imprint of Creation -- Big Brother Recordings. Their older albums now have Big Brother catalogue numbers.

Big Brother records has a distribution deal with Sony in the UK, and with Warner Bros./Reprise in the US, though it remains an independent label. In addition to releasing their own material, old Creation standbys Happy Mondays also released some of their more recent music through Big Brother.

(sources: 1, 2 and 3. And while Wiki isn't the be-all end-all of sources, of course, these entries aren't full of conjecture either.)

Is it some tiny label with lo-fi everything? No, but I'm not sure why a band should be faulted for wanting the smoothest distribution process, especially when they move such a high quantity of albums (Just look at the sales from the last album, Dig Out Your Soul.).

You say that indie is a sensibility, one that means doing your own thing and sticking by your ideals. If that's the definition, and if Big Brother is an independent label, then what's the problem here? Too many people bought their album?

In the June 2009 issue of Q Magazine, Noel Gallagher was asked about loyalty, professional and otherwise, and he said, "[Creation founder] Alan McGee would tell you: he thought for six months I'd blow him out because we had bigger offers than Creation's. But I'm a man of my word, professionally."

Now, one can easily label me as an Oasis superfan (and I am, unabashedly), which is why I recognized the major-label assumption as incorrect right away. If one didn't know any better, they would read the list of names provided in the opening paragraph of your article and take it as fact.

But what about the bands I only like but don't know a lot about? Or ones I have no strong feelings for either way? I did a little further research.

Bloc Party, while they do have (again) distribution through Atlantic, their record company is the independent Wichita Recordings. And though I do not know what the criteria is for this award, their album Silent Alarm was given the 2006 PLUG 'Indie Album of the Year' award. (source)

Hanson, meanwhile, are on the independent 3CG Records. While they did begin their career on a major label, they left in 2003. Their distributor in the UK is another independent label, Cooking Vinyl. (source)

So if you want to quibble about major label distributors and say that makes a band ineligible for the 'indie' blessing, fine. We all draw the line in different ways. Saying that Hanson is not 'indie,' however, shows a major lack of research.

Also, I'm confused as to why you would refer to The Shins as having sold out. For most of their career, they were on Sub Pop records, and now are on the label Aural Apothecary. I don't quite understand the attitude that a band has to be only known by a few in order to be considered indie. If being recognized was besides the point, why would anyone want a record deal in the first place? If a band is creating just for the sake of creating, then why venture out of the garage/basement? Why is it so distasteful to some music fans that a band might want to succeed and go beyond only making ends meet?

As far as the subject of the article, The Most Serene Republic: What sort of face are we presenting to them as a city if the feature in the popular weekly essentially says, "Hey guys, we think you're great, but if you continue on this path to success, we'll have call you sell-outs. Have a great show!" I don't know that this was the intent of the article, but it certainly came across that way.

I agree that the term "indie" doesn't necessarily mean what it used to, but as far as I know (and I could be wrong, I haven't been to Myspace in quite awhile), Myspace doesn't have one option for "indie" and one option for "independent label." Because anything can be released on an independent label. This all could be a matter of bands clicking the best box out of the options given. Fault Myspace, not them. If you had your own label, but were distributed by a larger company, who would you show your allegiance to?

Feeling passionate about a certain era and genre of music is a great thing, and we all have our opinions on "the rules" of the music business. It is a debate probably as old as the music business itself. However, a dismissive attitude mixed with poor research shouldn't be the way to go about it. Success isn't a bad thing. Having your own label and asking for help getting it out there isn't a bad thing. Disagree? Well, all right. Next time, use better examples.

---
(This was an email sent to both the author of the article and the editor of The Inlander. I am a near-weekly reader of The Inlander, and while I do have the occasional passing complaint about their content, they're still a worthwhile publication and of great value to Spokane. However, for obvious reasons, I couldn't let this last inaccuracy go unnoticed.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Other Haunts:

Both Tyson and I have pages over on the Creative Profiles section of the RiVerSpeAK blog. RiVerSpeAK, in addition to being another local site that one has to think twice to spell correctly, is meant to be a central area for all of Spokane's creative culture to promote themselves and each other. One stop shopping, if you will. The site is in its infancy, so there's only a decent handful of profiles right now, but soon there will be contributors writing for the blog (including yours truly), along with interviews and a calendar of some sort. I wrote a bit about it in Issue #9.

Tyson's page has a few examples of his photography, and mine has one fiction sample and one non-fiction sample, both of which should be familiar to anyone who has read my column or this page.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Compulsive Chronicles #9: Solo Efforts


(Photo by Tyson.)

Compulsive Chronicles is an ongoing column for SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine. Each month, I post supplementary material relating to the column on this page. This month, I discuss the perils and triumphs of solo albums.

Here are some of my favorite songs from artists who broke away from the band and released their own material:


1. Why Not Nothing? - Richard Ashcroft (The Verve)
I ain’t got time for your politics
or your masquerading Machiavellian tricks, good-bye
You know I ain’t got the time


It took me a little while to devote enough attention to his solo work. Old Boyfriend bought me the first one for my 18th birthday (along with some clipped interviews from magazines, which was thoughtful of him), and I’ll admit I didn’t give it enough attention then. I was busy diving into Ryan Adams, The Frames and the last Bush album. Not until 2006, when I officially started in on my book again, did I start playing him more often, at once aghast that I’d let the music sit on my shelf for five years.

It’s a high road on your own, you gotta learn the way you do
Take my advice, don’t let ‘em treat you like a fool
Hey, pain, I’m going to look you in the eye,
that’s when we started singing


On a trip back from Montana in 2007, I spun into Rockin’ Rudys when I passed through Missoula. While their music selection is not as spectacular as years past, I can’t very well not look at what they have. Both Keys to the World and Human Conditions sat in the used bin, and though I was also buying a Tracy Bonham album I didn’t know existed until then (Blink the Brightest), there’s tradition to follow. One must spend more money than originally planned while music shopping. The shops are dying, man — Support the cause!

“Why Not Nothing?” opens Keys to the World and it’s a massive, fantastic, defiant kick in the ass. I love the horns, the volume and the steadfast confidence.

Who the fuck are you when you take that mask away?
Friend, I don’t know, Oh where do we go?


I love The Verve, and I’d love if they stayed together long enough so that I could see them live, but I would be just as pleased to see Richard Ashcroft on his own. Whatever the band’s doing, I hope he also keeps doing his own thing. I cannot recommend him enough.

2. I’ve Seen It All - Björk and Thom Yorke (The Sugarcubes, Radiohead)
Dancer in the Dark has to be one of the saddest movies of all time. The year it came out, I heard all about how great and well-made it was supposed to be, and that despite her real-life crazy, Björk put on the performance of her life. The movie is all these things, but oh wow, does it hit you right in the gut. Unless you’re a sucker for punishment, it’s not for repeat viewing.

Strangely, the soundtrack (entitled Selmasongs) does not affect me in the same way. Although the songs feature prominently throughout the film, I could separate the two, including a long stretch in high school where I used to put on the music while I fell asleep. We’ll let someone else infer what that might say about me or my occasional state of mind.

What about China? Have you seen the Great Wall?
— All walls are great if the roof doesn’t fall


Thom Yorke makes a great duet partner, as also evidenced on PJ Harvey’s “This Mess We’re In.” Being only a casual Radiohead fan, I didn’t recognize his voice here at first. He sings in a very low and measured way, letting Björk do all the vocal gymnastics.

The sounds of trains morph into a drum beat and the orchestra is at once haunting and gorgeous. Though I own just three of her albums, I find Björk’s music fascinating. Even when I don’t love it, there’s always something surprising.

3. Wise Up - Aimee Mann (‘Til Tuesday)
I know it seems lazy to reference the Magnolia soundtrack when Aimee Mann has such an extensive back catalogue. Still, the set of songs used in that movie stand up as some of the best she’s ever done. Paul Thomas Anderson says she is “the greatest articulator of the biggest things we think about, ‘How can anyone love me?’ ‘Why the hell would anyone love me?’ and the old favorite, ‘Why would I love anyone when all it means is torture?’”

You got
What you want
Now you can hardly stand it, though


Her songs are aching and lonely, beautiful, and yet not always hopeful. There’s an edge of madness, and those are always the fun things to write about. Pick apart feelings, pick apart what we try so hard to push back, stare out into the world and try hard to not look so disheartened.

When I watched the movie — back when it took two VHS tapes to get through it all — I remember thinking that the only way these people’s problems might be solved was if the world came to a sudden end. The characters seemed so impossibly sad and screwed up, it was hard to know what they should do.

You’re sure
There’s a cure
And you have finally found it, you think
One drink
Will shrink you ‘til you’re underground


For as much as I like confidence, there’s nothing wrong with melancholy either. Sometimes the confidence only covers what lies beneath, and only sociopaths are above insecurity. For all the good that propping up ourselves will do, sometimes it’s best to wallow for a little while, reassess, and come out swinging another day.

4. To Try For the Sun - Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac)
Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks will always be wired together in their own complicated way, forever inspiring and frustrating the other, even thirty years since the end of their relationship. On his 2006 solo album, Under the Skin, Lindsey revisits his past again.

We huddled in the derelict building
The gypsy girl and I
We made our beds together
With the rain and tears in our eyes


Sometimes I get bored by his tendency to draw out the guitar solos into long, meandering territory, but here, Lindsey goes back to the brisk finger-picking that should impress anyone. This song is both nostalgic and unwavering, accepting his history as what formed him today.

I don’t know that any of the good successes come without struggle, and we learn from every failure. It’s worth looking back on the times where we wanted everything, but had no idea how to get there.

And who will be the one
To say it was no good what we done
I dare anyone to say we were too young
We were only trying for the sun


5. Cheers Darlin’ - Damien Rice (Juniper)
I have a great affinity for the sounds of glassware used in songs. Whether in Ani DiFranco’s “Diner,” The Cardinals’ “Cherry Lane,” perhaps it provides a sense of immediacy, the feeling of being right there and experiencing the music as part of a community of listeners. In “Cheers Darlin,’” it comes as the encouragement of a marital toast, when we’re all supposed to give our well wishes.

I got your wedding bells in my ear
Cheers darlin’, you gave me three cigarettes
to smoke away my tears
and I die when you mention his name


I’ve always said that Damien Rice makes the sort of music that’s stab-you-in-the-heart good. He is a howl of loneliness and introspection, crashing through love lost and love never had at all. The songs sound so personal, yet so identifiable — How does one’s chest not seize just a bit while hearing them?

I should have kissed you
when we were running in the rain
What am I, darlin’ ?
A whisper in your ear? A piece of your cake?


When does the ache of “never meant to be” go away? I don’t know. Maybe that’s why some of us write or play music — We’re forever trying to figure it out. The messy inertia of minds, how the past informs the future, all these words meditating on what we mean to one another, we keep searching.

Honorable Mentions:
Teotihuacan - Noel Gallagher
(because I just can’t help myself)
What is this, you ask? Likely forgotten by everyone but the most fervent among us, this is Noel’s contribution to the first X-Files movie soundtrack. Played over the second half of the end credits, it’s entirely instrumental, features a lot of drum machine, and you can bet we all stayed to see his name roll across the screen. The X-Files is one of my favorite TV shows, and of course, I enjoy it when things I love overlap.

Candy - Iggy Pop and Kate Pierson (The Stooges, The B52s)
Kate Pierson’s voice gets stuck in my head about every time I hear it, and sometimes just thinking of this song or her band’s “Deadbeat Club” causes her to occupy by brain for a good day or two, on a loop. Could be worse, I suppose. At least I like hearing this song. And I’ve always liked Iggy Pop, even though I don’t own a lot by him. Lately, my main source of his songs is through videos on VH1 Classic.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Compulsive Chronicles #8: Sunday Morning and Beyond

Compulsive Chronicles is an ongoing column for SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine. Each month, I post supplementary material relating to the column on this page. This month, in the course of talking about Sunday morning records, I reference the MOJO Magazine “All Back to My Place” interview questions.

Here are my answers to those questions (with no limits on length!):


What music are you currently grooving to?

I am growing quite preoccupied with The Noisettes’ “Never Forget You,” even though I don’t have the album (yet). Great band name, great song with a big over-the-top sound, and the singer has great hair. I’ve been reading about them in the UK music mags for a long time, and last year, DirecTV played an entire gig of theirs. I loved it, but never got around to buying anything from them. This song is more or less telling me to get off my ass and plunk down the $13 already.

As far as music that I actually own goes — Last month I bought The Cure’s Staring at the Sea singles collection, and it’s fantastic. Very briefly, I dated someone who was a massive Cure fan, but it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve come around. I’m on a bit of an alternative-80s kick in general, so this suits me fine. “Boys Don’t Cry” gets stuck in my head whether I want it there or not, but as far as picking a favorite, I’m going with “In-Between Days.”

What, if push comes to shove, is your all-time favourite album?

Easy: Definitely Maybe from (who else?) Oasis. It has my all-time favorite song (“Live Forever”), my all-time favorite love song (“Slide Away”), and if you don’t like the drums on “Bring It On Down,” there’s something wrong with you. The album is near-perfect, and I won’t hear otherwise.

If this question were “What album besides the obvious is your all-time favourite?” it would be a toss-up between Ryan Adams and The Cardinals’ Cold Roses and Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase. I can’t compare the two, other than to say both are probably the best albums from either band. I would gladly listen to either of them at any time.

I realize that those two choices are only slightly less obvious. Fine. I will also offer Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled for consideration, even though I’m really not a fan of the song “I’m So Afraid.” AFI’s Sing the Sorrow is near-perfect as well.

What was the first record you ever bought? And where did you buy it?

My dad used to buy me a lot of my music for things like good grades and, of course, birthdays and Christmases. However, the first I ever remember spending my own money on is Garbage’s self-titled album. For my thirteenth birthday, I received my first CD player and I needed more to play on it. To be honest, I didn’t listen to the band that much after I bought the album. Turns out that Garbage is really more of a singles band for me — whatever pops up on the radio is fine.

Shortly after I bought it, one of my dad’s friends was in town and he saw what few CDs I’d amassed. He said, “I don’t listen to anyone unless they’ve played the Ed Sullivan show.”

I thought for a moment, and then answered, “Well, they’ve played Letterman, which is in the Ed Sullivan theater.”

The first single I ever remember spending my money on was “Creep” by TLC — a cassette single, no less — for under $3. It had the song itself, and then the instrumental track. Really kind of a let-down. I received the full album as part of a report card reward not long later.

The first vinyl record I ever bought was the numbered “Machinehead” single by Bush, from Rudy’s II in Missoula, MT. #1442 out of (I think) 5000. It has an acoustic version of “Comedown” and the B-side “Solomon’s Bones.” I think I paid around $10 for it.

Which musician have you ever wanted to be?

Could I have Ryan Adams’ talent without the side of crazy? Hmm, the crazy probably informs the talent, so maybe not. If I ever had a band though, we’d probably be in his corner of the woods, soundwise.

Ani DiFranco is in a nice position professionally — She owns her label, makes a livable chunk of change and her rabid fanbase is ready to buy anything she does at the first whiff of a pre-sale. I’d love to be able to play guitar like her. I’m not all that political though — and I already feel short at 5'6". Would being her also include the 5'2" height?

So would it be weird to be someone I’d also make out with? I don’t think that highly of myself. However, every time Noel Gallagher makes fun of bands like Radiohead and Coldplay for treating their shows as lectures on everything that’s wrong in the world, I think yes. Every time he bemoans the death of the record shop, every time he talks about his dino-like ways, I get it. It takes me ages to send a two-sentence text message. Well, at least I do know how to use a computer, but he’s in a position where he doesn’t have to know. It is not essential to what he does. What I’m saying is, I’m already a bit like him. Only without the musical talent. Or the money.

Be music journalism’s go-to source for a quote, write some of the best songs ever and generally be able to record whatever I want and have it sell no matter what? Sign me up. I’ll take the current version though — off the drugs and with a hot longtime girlfriend, ha.

If I were him though, I’d be less dismissive of women in rock. It’s not that he has a poor attitude, exactly, but he could make a better effort.

What do you sing in the shower?

I don’t do much singing in the shower. Maybe whatever is stuck in my head at the time, or if I have the radio on, whatever strikes me. If I wanted to be funny, I could say, “Leather” by Tori Amos, only for the line “Look I’m standing naked before you...” or Rathergood’s “Soluble Song,” which begins with, “I’m glad that I’m not soluble/ that would be just bad...”

What is your favourite Saturday night record?

If by Saturday night, you mean getting ready for a night out... Most of the time, there’s not so much an album, but a handful of songs, stuff I like singing along with:

“She Bangs the Drums” by The Stone Roses
“D’yer Mak’er” by Led Zeppelin
“Crystal Days” by Echo & The Bunnymen
“Step Out” by Oasis
“Let It Ride” by The Cardinals
“Start!” by The Jam

As far as full albums go, The Ting Tings We Started Nothing is a lot of fun. Perfect preamble for a Saturday night, still good after having a few, and there are handclaps. Handclaps make everything better. Again, I won’t hear otherwise.

Also good? Junior Senior’s D-d-don’t Stop the Beat.

And your Sunday morning record?

In my column, I talk about listening to Beck’s Midnite Vultures, but quite often I will put on David Bowie, Live in Philadelphia. I only have it on vinyl, so I have to turn up my crappy record player almost to the point of excess in order to hear it in the kitchen. “All the Young Dudes” or “When You Rock n Roll with Me” are perfect on a Sunday morning. Or borderline afternoon, as the case may be.

When Grace was around three, she went through a stage where she wanted to listen to David Bowie all the time. I made her a CD with a bunch of different stuff she likes and made sure to include some songs from him. She would play “Suffragette City” no less than four times in a row some days. I asked her why she liked it so much, and she shrugged. “It’s a good song.”

And in the end, that’s all that should matter. Do you like a song? Does it make you want to sing along or pick up an instrument? Does it make you want to dance? Does it make all the right parts of your brain light up? Yes? Then it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. No need to over-intellectualize, just put on what suits you.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Compulsive Chronicles #7: Your Name in Lights

Compulsive Chronicles is an ongoing music column for SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine. Each month, I post supplementary material to the column’s topic on this page.

In this month’s column, I offered some guidelines to naming your band. Because I like to pretend I’m an authority on such matters.


5 Great Band Names (in no particular order):

1. Eagles of Death Metal
2. Reverend and The Makers
3. Blitzen Trapper
4. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
5. Gnarls Barkley

Honorable Mentions: Ezra Furman and The Harpoons, Foals, The Noisettes

And on the flipside...

5 Great Song Titles: Songs that made me say “I have to hear a song called that.”

1. For Those of Ya’ll That Wear Fanny Packs - Ben Folds Five
On their album of collected oddballs and live bits, Naked Baby Photos, Ben Folds Five describe this song as “just screwing around while waiting to do a show. Engineers tend to go out for coffee while we’re on these kicks and luckily they often leave the tape machines on.”

For those of ya’ll that wear fanny packs!
And ponytails!


Sometime in 2000, I picked up this album at a once-great shop in Billings, MT, called Ernie November. Though I’ve never been a giant Ben Folds Five fan, I was one of the many who owned Whatever and Ever Amen, and the completist in me couldn’t resist this one when it only cost six dollars.

The whole album is full of song titles that make one curious to hear what’s behind them — “Dick Holster,” “Jackson Cannery,” “Satan is My Master” — and “...Fanny Packs” is hilarious straight away. They spend the six minutes giving shout-outs to an imaginary crowd, playing over-the-top solos and saying “Goddamn” a lot.

I wanna borrow an Allan wrench!
I wanna borrow some duct tape!
I wanna borrow a mic cable!
Bass in your face!


It reminds me a lot of the ridiculous songs my friends and I made up in school. Whether we were musicians, friends of musicians or just massive music fans in general, we all had a serious silly streak when it came to little impromptu masterpieces. I only wish we had tape running more often.

2. Eyeball Tickler - Oasis
I spent $10 on the “Lyla” single, picked it over other singles available at 4000 Holes, mostly because I was dying to know what a song called “Eyeball Tickler” sounded like. Including the title track, there are only three songs on the disc. Not that I needed to provide any further evidence for my madness, but the cost felt entirely reasonable.

One of these days, the people who try to mock me for my unabashed love for this band are going to figure out that I’m too far gone to be embarrassed by it.

“Eyeball Tickler” is a big, loud number where Liam makes good use of the grit he’s cultivated in his voice over the years. Written by Gem, it feels like forty guitars in your face and has far more words than the sometimes chorus-heavy style of other Oasis songs. There’s a great scream near the end that, combined with everything else, would be quite the assault live. To my knowledge, they’ve never included this one in their set and that’s too bad.

And any song that begins with “Listen to the monkey” earns bonus points, but only because the word “monkey” makes me giggle.

I brought this single along when I saw the band play in Seattle last summer, on the off chance I might run into one of them. Not only is “Lyla” my daughter’s favorite song (I’m not kidding), but I wanted something that came from the current incarnation of the band. Well, save the drummer, though I probably wouldn’t recognize Chris Sharrock if I saw him out. Sorry, Chris. You’re great and all, but you’re not really the selling point, you know?

I had to settle for Neal Casal from The Cardinals for my random musician-meeting that trip, but it’s good to be prepared.

3. Hat Shaped Hat - Ani DiFranco
I like a long song at the end of an album. There’s something soothing about a good, lengthy album closer, like putting a coat of varnish over what I’ve just heard, sealing in the complete experience. The advent of selective mp3 downloading and the shift away from playing one album on its own has perhaps affected the practice. With all our music contained on one device, it’s often easier to hit ‘shuffle’ and see what we get. And what comes after that. And after that. There’s also something satisfying about moving through a sizeable chunk of our full playlists.

That’s not to say that no one listens to full albums anymore — and there are dinos like me who still happily buy CDs and vinyl — but musicians probably have less of an urge to create thirteen minute epic grooves. And the days of the secret track, hidden at the beginning or end of an album, are likely finished.

Ani’s got some great long ones though — if anyone might carry on the practice, it’d be her — and even just the title “Hat Shaped Hat” sounds like lots of fun.

In walked a man
in the shape of a man
holding a hat shaped hat
he held up two fingers and said, how many fingers?
And I said, peace man, that’s where it’s at


I listened to this album (Up Up Up Up Up Up) a lot on a trip across the country, shortly after it was released in 1999. With my headphones arranged on my ears in a way that would still be comfortable, the songs followed me into sleep, filling my head in those darkened hotels and relatives’ guest rooms.

‘Til the sun set sweetly
like it does in those paintings
the ones they hang in the hotel rooms
the ones they bolt to the wall
as though anyone would want to steal them at all


Up until that trip, I couldn’t connect to the songs in the same way I did with Little Plastic Castle. Something about the magic of late-night headphones and time to think let the music cement, and though I don’t put the album on as often, this song will always be one of my favorites.

4. It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry - Glasvegas
If Joe Strummer and the Edge had a baby, and if that baby was raised in Glasgow on a steady diet of Oasis and The Smiths, you might get something like Glasvegas. Never have such sad songs felt so good.

I’d been reading about Glasvegas in various UK music mags for several months, and they seemed like a band I’d enjoy. What I read almost inspired me to buy the album, songs unheard, but with less disposable income than I used to have, I waited. Then they popped up on Craig Ferguson’s late night show with “Geraldine,” and I knew that the sooner I could mainline their album, the better. Their songs are big, beautiful and heart-wrenching, and further endeared by referencing my favorite band:

Training ground notches, perfectly executed notches and near misses
It’s all about going out and getting pissed with eagle eyes and sincerity bottom on my list
What’s the story morning glory?
I feel so low and worthless


Singer and songwriter James Allan crams a lot of content into their melodies, and with his thick Glaswegian accent, having the liner notes helps to absorb it all. But even before I knew more than a handful of lines, it took not even thirty seconds into the album for me to say, “I am so glad I bought this.” Listen to the ache in his voice and the radiating, soaring guitars, and you can’t help but feel good. When I am filled with memory, fragments of my own fiction and the urge to sit down write more, I know the music is at work on such a greater level.

This is it, the end was always coming and now it’s here
So this is the grande finale
The crescendo of demise
This is the happy ending
Where the bad guy goes down and dies, this is the end
With me on my knees and wondering why?


I love it when music makes me want to be better at what I do.

The band name could be better. It reminds me too much of the stupid “Spovegas” nickname people use around here, (based on, what, the over-flashy sign at the airport? ) and it’s not too far removed from Death in Vegas. Also, I’m not a big fan of Las Vegas in general. It’s a good thing Q and MOJO had such good things to say about the band, otherwise I might have been too quick to dismiss them. New music so rarely impresses me on a grand scale anymore, and Glasvegas surprised me. I cannot wait to see what they do next.

5. Oh My God, Whatever, Etc. - Ryan Adams

And the light of the moon leads the way
towards the morning and the sun
The sun’s well on the way too soon to know
and oh my God, whatever, etc.


Through the night, I rode the train to Seattle, armed with a shuffled mix of Ryan and Oasis. Hours of music drifted between my ears and into a mind too excited for rest. When I opened my eyes from something not quite resembling sleep, we had stopped at one of the small towns along the way. The people took an unbearable amount of time to board, but on we went, through the trees and then into the city. We circled around the baseball and football stadiums, past the theater where I would be later that evening, before finally stopping at the station.

If I could I would fold myself away like a card table
a concertina or a murphy bed, I would
but I wasn’t made that way


To have a little over a day where I had no concerns, nothing planned other than being in the same room as my favorite musicians felt therapeutic. I had a chance to free up this mixed up head of mine and feel nothing but a level of good that defies vocabulary.

So you know instead
I’m open all night and the customers come to stay
and everybody tips but not enough to knock me over
and “I’m so tired” I just worked two shifts


Even with a title that sounds like a throwaway, even with lonely subject matter, this one sends a tremor straight from my chest and into my ribs. To hear it live, along with so many other songs, felt like a gift. I may get borderline evangelical about music, but to me, there is no greater way to feel of the world than to be in its presence, to stand with others who feel as you do and sing.


Honorable Mentions: The Disease of the Dancing Cats — Bush; Warm Leatherette — Chicks on Speed; Feral — Beth Orton

Fake Band Names From 1992/1993

Big Phantom
Tigris
Black Thursday
Wildebeest
Finnegan
Wedged in a Cubby
Argyle Experience
Zebrafish
Cascade
Mercy

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Compulsive Chronicles #6: "...And the livin's easy."

Compulsive Chronicles is an ongoing music column for SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine. Each month, I post supplementary material to the column’s topic on this page.

Songs from Summers Past (Mentioned in Issue #6):

“Ode to My Car” — Adam Sandler
“Morning Song” — Jewel
“Sonnet” — The Verve
“Popstar” — Pretenders
“The Safety Dance” — Men Without Hats



Artifacts:

When I hauled the dusty box downstairs, Grace stared at the cassettes with some skepticism. “Do they play movies?” she said, having some memory of the VCR.

“No, music.” I started grouping the tapes into piles. Summer mixtapes in one. Ex-boyfriends with bands and/or pubic radio shows in another. Noel Gallagher on the radio in Seattle, January 1998, in with the other Oasis bootlegs. The Mike Flowers Pop covering “Wonderwall?” Forgot I had this, cost me 25 cents out of the Hastings bargain bin.

mixtape1


“But some of them play movies?”

“No, just music.” Full albums — David Bowie, Teenage Fanclub, Björk — clacked into a pile. I dug around some more. “Oh wait.” I held up an 8 mm tape likely containing a Spanish class video project involving la lechuga. “This one plays movies. This is what video cameras used to use.”

“Why don’t they anymore?”

“They’re smaller now. Or use DVDs.”

“Oh.” Grace stared at the other tapes and started to laugh. “They’re kind of funny.”

“Why? You don’t think they can play music?” I read over one mixtape and saw a Happy Mondays song I forgot I had, “Stinkin Thinkin.” Even before I’d fully noticed the trends in my music listening, there they were. Another band from the North of England.

mixtape4


“They’re just . . . plastic.”

“Well, how do you think CDs play music?” I asked. She shrugged, so I dug around some more and produced a tape of Oasis b-sides Amanda made me. “Come on, I’ll show you how these work.”

We went into her bedroom where she has a small stereo with both a CD and cassette player. Fumbling a bit with the tape, I wondered again why it is that some players have the tape go in right side up while others slide in upside down. Her player takes tapes upside down with the side you want to play facing outwards.

mixtape2


After a second of white noise, “Listen Up” began. Liam singing, which despite being the original version, I hadn’t heard in awhile. “Oh!” Grace said, “I recognize this song.”

We had a conversation about not touching the actual tape reel, about being careful with the old case and not to accidentally step on it. “It’s like CDs,” she said. “How you can’t scratch them so they still play.” She listened in her room for a little while, and shortly after I showed her how to flip sides, she came back out into the living room.

“Hey, Mommy? I’m going to pause my song tape so that I can eat the rest of that bagel. I know which button says pause.”

“Okay.” Her reading has improved, but in this case, I suspected knowing had more to do with her working the DVR remote. I stared at my laptop, then back at my black notebook with scribbled late-night thoughts. Every idea I had was a half-formed one, or too big to articulate just yet.

“So why did you bring the videos down here?” Grace said after sitting with her bagel again.

“Tapes. They’re cassettes.”

“Oh, sorry. I keep forgetting.”

“So why do I have these out?”

“Yes.”

“I’m writing about them. Or some of them. I don’t know yet,” I said and thought, Everything I ever write about music has the same three subjects woven into its DNA. Everything and everyone that are so important to me are probably tiring to everyone else. One lone paragraph stared back.

“Oh.” Grace finished eating and jumped up. “I’m going to go back into my room and listen to my music tape again.”

“You like it, then?”

She nodded. “Yeah! I know the songs.”

Everything that was ever important, we get a chance to pass along.

mixtape3


(For more detailed notes on the photos, please visit my flickr page.)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Excerpt from Show Me How to Shine Now:

I could hear Thom’s guitar even before Ian opened the door.

“Hey,” Thom said without looking up. Sitting on the sofa, he did not seem to notice me at first while he continued to play a few different chords on his acoustic. He stopped and scowled at some words written on a piece of butcher paper spread across the table. When he did look up, he did not appear surprised. “Hi, Maryjane.”

“Hey,” I said, feeling the need to add, “Ian invited me over.” I hoped I smelled better since my shower. Looking around, I wondered if they knew how lucky they were to have such a space. Claire had a well-paying job and our place was hilariously small. Their large front room even had a partial wall cornering the kitchen, as opposed to our line of linoleum marking the transition. Three people could actually breathe in a flat like this. Four, even.

“How’s your shirt?” Thom said, then covered his mouth for a yawn.

“Sent into retirement, I'm afraid. I’ve had it ages though, so I’ll live.”

“Good.”

“I’m going to clean up,” Ian said. “Thom, see if you can find Maryjane something to eat. We haven’t had breakfast.”

Thom rolled his eyes, but he put down his guitar. Ian walked into the bedroom on the right, the one with the window, and returned a moment later with clean clothes on his arm. He flashed a quick grin and disappeared into the bath. Thom started to walk back into the kitchen. “We still have some bread left for toast, if you like.”

I followed him. “If you’d rather, I can get it myself. Sorry, you don’t have to wait on me.”

Thom shook his head and sighed, but he did not look annoyed. “No, it’s all right. I needed a break anyway. I’ve been up all night working on a couple of songs and it’s really . . . not going well. I could use some food.”

“Well, thank you. The coffee I had earlier is trying to eat through my stomach, I think.” In my unfocused memory of the previous evening, I could not fully tell yet if Thom liked me. Or was I just some girl his brother brought round, stealing the remainder of the bread?

“Too much fun last night?” He took four slices and plopped them in the toaster.

“I may have overextended myself, yes.” My gut made a hollow noise. “I wasn’t in top form this morning, but your brother was very nice to me.”

Thom nodded, and again, I wondered what he thought. We stood there in silence — Him staring at the toaster, me staring at him — and we waited for breakfast. He appeared to have changed clothes from the night prior, but I couldn’t be sure. His long fingers tapped the counter a couple of times before he pulled a jar of strawberry jam from the refrigerator and ripped two paper towels from the roll attached beneath the cupboard. Everything was so tidy.

“We’re out of butter, sorry,” he said.

“Oh, jam’s fine.” Ah, hungover small talk. “Hey, Ian invited me along to your rehearsal this afternoon, if that’s all right with you.”

The toast shot up with such a pronounced ding, I flinched. Thom picked up the four slices and laid two on each paper towel. “Oh . . . eh . . . it’s not very interesting, but it’s fine with me if you want to come.”

“I wanted to meet everyone.” Why I felt the need to clear it with him, I didn’t know. He took a clean knife from the dish rack and smeared each slice with the jam. He really did not have to wait on me. How long had Ian been in the shower?

“Mia will be by Dex’s later when she’s off work.” Thom motioned to the toast, waiting for me to pick.

I took the two slices closest to me. “Thanks.”

He placed his with one jam side atop the other, held them sandwiched and walked back to the sofa. “Sit where ever you want.”

I chose the worn green chair that faced him. Motioning towards the brown paper he had spread on the table between us, I asked, “Why butcher paper?”

“Simon works the meat counter at a Sainsbury’s. He nicked me an entire roll last Christmas.” A faint smile crossed his lips, and I pretended to know who Simon was. “Don’t think his boss was too happy about it, but they couldn’t pin it on him.”

“I see.”

Taking a bite of my toast, I continued to study the room. The walls were painted a surprisingly sunny shade of yellow, though the wall by the kitchen had nothing but white shelves packed with records. There had to be hundreds, pushed up against each other just so, each shelf flanked by pewter bookends. From a distance, the coloured spines formed a tall rectangle, an art piece for the room. Thom noticed me looking at them. “They’re mostly mine,” he said.

“Do you mind if I take a peek?” I noticed the jam sticking to my fingers. “Promise I won’t touch.”

“Go ahead.” Thom took a large bite and ate half a slice at once. He set aside the other half, turned back over on the second slice, and picked up his pen. The same frown at the paper returned, his obligation of breakfast fulfilled. I stood, still chewing, and thought I had better stop trying to make small talk until Ian finished showering.

The record collection appeared to have no particular order to it, other than having albums by the same artist grouped together. Certainly they did not follow the alphabet because Small Faces sat ahead of John Mayall, and it was not chronological because Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac came well before a Billie Holiday album. I saw the usual suspects — albums issued to anyone in the past twenty-five years, as a requirement for human existence — Let It Be, Revolver, Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin I, II and III (two copies of that one, for some reason), Who’s Next, Exile on Main Street. The Jam made several appearances, as did probably every album from David Bowie and The Smiths. For all the easily recognizable names though, I did not know them all and I wondered when I’d get the chance to examine each faded sleeve. The last record on the bottom shelf was Concert For Bangladesh, sitting to the right of a battered copy of Blood on the Tracks .

Ian came out of the shower right as Thom tossed his pen across the table and sighed again. I swallowed my last bit of toast. “Feel better?” I said.

He nodded and stood behind the sofa. “Hey, did you sleep at all?”

Thom shook his head. “Mia did half past midnight, and I sort of lost track until she got up again after four.” He picked up the piece of butcher paper, folded it into quarters and set it in his guitar case that lay open on the wood floor. Then, he looked past his brother and made full eye contact with me for the first time. “I fixed Maryjane breakfast.”

I smiled. “And it was very, very tasty. Thank you.” I held up my crumpled paper towel as evidence. All cleaned up, Ian looked great, his wet hair combed away from his face and beared trimmed a bit. He wore glasses — rectangular metal frames that made him look older — and an England rugby jacket over a black T-shirt and jeans. When he went into the kitchen, I went with him, still wondering if I had anything interesting to say.

He made his own toast with the remaining heel of the bread, then tossed the empty wrapper into the bin and started water for tea. “Thom will need it,” he said in a way his brother might not hear. “He does this a lot. Awake for a few days, then asleep for all of one.”


Before long, we started walking and tried to beat the rain to Dex’s house. Ian explained that Dex’s lawyer wife, Judith, found other things to do when they overran the place, if she wasn’t working already. She and Dex had only married a year prior, and as long as she didn’t “stand in the doorway making faces,” he said, “she’s all right enough.” His hand kept brushing up against mine, but he seemed hesitant to grab hold of it again.

Thom just smoked, carried his guitar and didn’t say much. But then, Ian did enough talking for everyone and told me a bit about the bandmates I would meet. I learned that the bassist, Andrew, worked in a cafe, which was why by comparison the rest of them were so crap at making coffee. He brought a big thermos of it anytime they wanted it, whenever they needed a break from the alcohol. “I didn’t think your coffee was that bad, but maybe I wasn’t awake enough to notice,” I said. Ian laughed and his fingers grazed mine again.

“No, it’s horrible,” Thom said, “but he can’t botch boiling water, at least.”

Dex opened the door as the first drops of rain hit our heads. He motioned us inside, his eyes trying to decide if he should recognize me. His home looked like it had once been a storehouse of some sort, the space large and rectangular, with a loft-style room up a set of stairs. Some break, marrying a lawyer. I wondered how the other two did. Someone had to have the circumstances of the standard unsigned musician.

“Hey!” a voice called from above. We followed Dex upstairs, and I matched Simon and Andrew’s names to the faces I remembered.

“Everyone, this is Maryjane Cascade. We met her last night at Sam’s, but she saw us play there and loved it,” Ian said, surprising me by putting his hand to my back and moving me ahead of Thom and Dex to stand with him. “Maryjane, meet Simon Yates, our drummer. Andrew Smith there, of course on bass. And our host here, Dex Nelson.”

I gave a little wave and said to Dex, “Your house is lovely.”

“Thanks. My wife found it.” Dex smiled and held out his hand. He reminded me of a history teacher I’d once had, a quiet and reedy man called Mr. James, though Dex couldn’t have been any older than me. From what Ian had told me, I gathered that I might be closer to Dex and Thom’s age than his.

The two men sitting on the sofa stood and shook my hand as well. Simon offered a beer, but with my stomach only just settled, I declined. He had tied back the long hair I’d seen flying over his kit, and now I could get a good look at his face. He looked the exact opposite of boyish Andrew — all muscle, a strong nose and large mouth. The swirling block of tattooed ink extended past his shirt sleeves even before he held out his arm, three shades more tan than anyone else in the room. Andrew, skinny as ever, looked pale enough to see through.

“I hope you don’t mind me hanging around this afternoon,” I said.

“Ah, what’s one more body in this space?” Dex said.

Choosing the puffy chair closest to the stairs, I wanted to stay out of their way. Simon had set up his drums in the opposite corner, closest to the horizontal half-wall of the loft. Andrew’s bass laid nearby, and with the rest of the furniture and their gear, I could see why it did not occur to them to move more during gigs. Dex’s wife probably didn’t want a kit taking up space in the front room. Thom put his guitar case on the table. “I’ll take that can,” he said to Simon.

“So,” Andrew said to me, cracking open another, “you’re a fan, then?”

“I’ve only seen the one gig, but yeah. I had such . . . luck running into Ian and Thom last night. Mia too.” I wanted say how heart-stopping the music was. I wanted say how I did not know new music could do that to me anymore, and even though I’d only seen part of one gig — because I’d only seen part — nothing would make me happier than if they’d finish drinking and get playing.

Instead, Thom said, “And she agrees with me that the name Little Storm is shit.” He lit a cigarette. “I like her already.”

---
(subject to change, of course. I'd have my usual disclaimer of "This is very first draft," but it is in fact very third draft, and I keep poking at it. Not sure what came over me to post this, but there you go. Enjoy?)