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Power Pop Wednesday: Liz Phair and Hermione and Women Who Rock

As a lover of early ’90s alternative rock, it’s practically illegal for me to NOT like Liz Phair.

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Liz Phair, as seen in the dreams of my youth

Oh, Liz, with your girl-I-would-date looks and WAY-out-of-my-league fantastically filthy mind, you charmed me to no end with your ability to wield a guitar and sweet-talk into the microphone with a voice built for power-pop, all while looking … well … like that. *Sigh*

Continue reading → Power Pop Wednesday: Liz Phair and Hermione and Women Who Rock

Your Midweek Dose of Perspective: We Are All Dust On a Mudball, And Still We Persevere

Saw this video time-lapse of images from the International Space Station today and just had to share, because nothing reminds you of both your own insignificance and the sheer awesomeness of creation like seeing your own planet and everything on it from a few hundred miles away.

Problems suddenly become very small. May yours be infinitesimally tiny as we head forth into the holidays.

It’s Halloween, Kids … Scary Stuff! Mwuahahahaha … BOO!

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True story: As a kid, I was unnaturally obsessed with monsters.

I would read or buy anything I could get my hands on that involved the classic characters, especially Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster or Mr. Hyde.

Looking back now on that time from the perspective a parent, I’m sure my own parents were a little concerned.famousmonsters131vgf

I partially blame my obsession on Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which combined with MAD magazine pretty much explains why I write the way I do.

Every month Famous Monsters featured as many stories as you could possibly wring out of every monster movie ever made. Pictorials featured background stories on the movies and – most importantly to me – stories about the makeup.

So important, in fact, that at one time I actually considered becoming a makeup artist as a career. It was a nice idea and led me into one really cool high school job, but what I was missing was the “artist” bit.

My interest in monsters also led to to a period of masterful (if I do say so myself) construction of Halloween haunted houses in the spare attic over my parents’ garage at our house in Summerville, S.C.

Fortunately, I had equally bored, weird and enthusiastic friends who would help me in their own masterful ways to pull these off. The other (more normal) neighborhood kids would come and drop a quarter a pop to walk through and be frightened by old spook-house gags like grapes as human eyeballs. a glow-in-the-dark ghost suspended from a beam by black fishing line and one friend apparently being sliced open by a giant pendulum blade.

Yeah, we were those kids. To the parents of the neighbor kids who paid to see our horror shows, I apologize for any therapy your youngsters had to undergo.

So now I’m living Halloween as a 45-year-old, and I can’t help casting my mind back to those days. We did a lot of improvising as far as special effects and materials. The giant pendulum was cardboard spray-painted silver and embellished at the blade edge with red tempura paint. We pillaged my dad’s spare lumber and used tools that these days, should I suggest that my son go off and build something with them, would get me arrested for child endangerment. There was lots of simulated gore (usually ketchup or red food coloring) and always – always – a record or cassette of spooky sound effects (thunder, groans, cats, evil laughing, etc.) playing in the background.

But should my kid want to do the same thing today, an entire industry exists to support him. Round about Sept. 15, Halloween shops pop up like mushrooms in otherwise vacant strip mall storefronts, packing in every single effect that we wish we had back them into a few thousand square feet, readily for sale to anyone with the wherewithal to pony up the cost. That cost, say those who track such things, is rapidly approaching what we typically spend on Christmas decorations.

Animated, full-sized talking monster mannequins. Smoke machines. Light effects. Everything you need for excellent make-up and costumes. Bony, motorized skeleton hands that rise from the earth and is guaranteed to make children under the age of 7 soil their pants and run away screaming. The spooky sounds, meanwhile, are available via download so you can freak out anyone anywhere with just your iPod.

It’s depressing, not because it’s too much, but because it’s everything I ever wanted and never could get my hands on.

My wife has hinted around that some year she’d like one of those giant inflatable Christmas decorations to go on our lawn. I say let’s take the money and invest in some really kick-ass Halloween decorations.

Santa chasing reindeer in an eternal loop of yuletide kitsch? Nah. Scaring the pants off the neighbor children? Yeah, that’s money well spent.

It’s My Birthday, So You Get the Presents (Spoiler – It’s FREE EBOOKS!)

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Hi, yes … that fateful day has arrived. Today I turn 45.

Given the new realities of the lifespan of healthy humans (and the fact that genetics are working in my favor here), unless I do something (else) monumentally stupid, I fully intend to live at least until the age of 90.

That puts me squarely at the doorstep of midlife. Half my life down, half yet to go.

MV5BMzE1MzMzMTExOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTk0ODkyMw@@._V1._SX640_SY923_For lots of folks (particularly men), this is a time of re-evaluation. To paraphrase Edna Mode in The Incredibles, men this age are often … unstable.

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Me at 45 – A TSFW (Totally Safe for Work) Selfie in Brown

Well, hopefully no more unstable than on any other day. I won’t be going out shopping for a red Porsche Boxter convertible in which I’ll install a significantly younger woman. I married a significantly younger woman, and if there’s any toodling around in exotic sports cars to be done, it will most certainly be done with her.

And any instability anyone might notice was, honestly, probably there already. Folks working with a full deck rarely go into writing for a living, and they certainly don’t become newspaper reporters or novelists.

So, there’s that.

What I do have, however, is a pretty decent sense of accomplishment. I noted in this space not long ago that Stan Lee, dean of Marvel Comics and the creator of most of its characters, didn’t create cornerstone superhero Spider Man until he after he turned 40. Stan is now 90 years old, which means he’s spent the last 50 years not as Stan Lee, but as STAN-friggin’-LEE!!!, who still runs a media empire, hosts a TV show or two and maintains a busy schedule of sci-fi and comic book convention appearances.

colt_45That carries a lot of weight with me because I admire late bloomers. I never aspired to be one of those pain-in-the-ass writers who busts out of the gate at 25 with a Pulitzer Prize-winner (mainly because what those sort of writers produce is usually self-absorbed, whiny crap, but that’s another blog posting).

As someone who got carded for booze up until his 32nd birthday and took 20 years to write his first book, I realized it might take me a while to grow into this whole novelist thing. But once I managed to give birth to that 300+ page baby at the (entirely appropriate, given my genre) age of 42, there’s been no looking back. If I never write anything again, I can rest assured knowing that I have added my own little piece of original creativity to the universe.

And there are other, perhaps more significant, accomplishments, too. I have amazing friends, cultivated over decades, who remain the sort of people I can talk now exactly the way we did when we were in high school or our early jobs. They provide me with a constant source of encouragement and inspiration and I am in awe of a great many of them every day. I can only hope I send back to them just a fraction of the love, support and laughter they send my way.

And most importantly, I have an amazing family – a beautiful wife who supports me with warmth, patience and love through all the ups and downs of this writing life and frequently jumps in to help with a needed dose of reality, and two spectacularly smart, funny and kindhearted children who are always proud to tell their friends and teachers that their daddy is a writer.

But wait a minute. Let’s put the brakes on the sentimentality. Weren’t you promised presents?

Indeed you were.

Without you, the readers, my family and friends would still be with me, my work would still get done and my book – and those I still hope to write – would still be out there. But without readers, a book is only words on a page.

Once you – a stranger – pick it up and begin that first chapter, you become a willing participant in a reality that another has created. It’s like telepathy in a way. I’m putting my thoughts into your head, and in the midst of the trance-state we call “reading,” those thoughts are manifested in your own mind as an alternate reality. Other than unconditional love, I believe it’s the closest thing to magic any of us will ever really experience.

So as my gift to you, starting today I’m offering the Kindle version of Immaculate Deception free for three days through Amazon, in the hope that if you enjoyed it, you’ll be inclined to let others know that they can, as well – and with minimum risk. Other than individually shaking your hands or giving you big, wet kisses, it’s the best I can do.

Really, thank you ever so much. And here’s to another 45 years.

Today’s Funky Friday Brought to You by The Roots and … Elvis Costello? (A Rumination on Genre Busting)

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OK, lemme ‘splain.

Anyone who’s read this blog … you know – ever – has a pretty good idea that I’m an Elvis Costello fan from way back, and there’s a good reason: I consider my discovery of Costello on par with my initiation into a musical world that included the Beatles as its foundation.

But I’ve never really explained why.

Better than why, I’ll explain when. It was 1983, and I was 15, riding with my dad in his tiny Chevy pickup truck to help him out with a rehearsal for a play he was directing at the Chapel Street Playhouse, a tiny but very active community theater in Newark, Del. As we got closer to the theater, this song came on the radio – likely longstanding Wilmington, Del., Top 40 station WSTW. Something about the opening piano chords with the bass guitar right up front grabbed me, then the singer’s falsetto kicked in, followed by a more normal register, and the sound of the female background singers.

That’s about 20 seconds into the song. And man, I was hooked. I did something I rarely did. I asked my dad to just sit there in the parking lot and leave the radio on while I listened to the rest of the song, which turned out to be about a lovelorn writer using literary imagery to explain the ups and downs of a romantic relationship.

OK, I thought. You got me. I’m done. Who is this guy?

But the DJ didn’t say. Because this was the Stone Ages, when there was no handy digital display to tell you the artist if the DJ neglected to, I was in the dark. When I got home, I was doubly in the dark, because my family had no cable TV, and thus no MTV. That might have been the last time I heard it on the radio.

Sadly, even though the song was on the 1983 album Punch the Clock, it took me until 1985 to actually own the song with the release of Elvis_costello_best_1985The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions in 1985. It contained the single I had heard – “Every Day I Write the Book” – as well as enough cuts from his back catalog to make me want to investigate further.

What I found was not a gold mine but a friggin’ platinum mine. Here’s this skinny dork (hello, 115-pound theater nerd 11th-grader) who not only rocks with this weird amalgam of new wave pop and pissed-off punk, but who is obviously literate. His songs, dense with words and metaphor and cross references, were like novellas in themselves.

Since then I’ve been a permanent fan, and pretty much anyone who knows me well is aware of this. Example: When I met up for lunch with a former college girlfriend a few years after graduation, one of her first questions as we made awkward smalltalk was, “Still like Elvis Costello?”

I wanted to say, “Yes, because he A) Didn’t break up with me, and B) Writes great brokenhearted nerd songs that helped me get over you.”

But it was more than that. I admired not only the literary quality of the songs, but the fact that his style was all over the map. One minute he was channeling pop-punk rage, while the other he was crooning a country song or paying homage to the sweet harmonies of Motown.

It was that ability to adapt and cross genres that, in the end, kept me as a fan. And, as it turns out, those same qualities are frequently what I look for in the authors I read and the ones I try to apply to my own writing.

As much as I love science fiction in books, film and TV, it’s the work that is able to admit that it’s other things that really grabs me. For instance, one of my favorite authors is Christopher Moore. If you’ve ever read his work, you know he’s hard to pin down as far as genre. Does he write humorous fantasy? Fantastic humor? Is it horror? Scifi? Occult? Why does he say the F-word so much?

Exactly! You never really know where he’s going – only that along the way you will be taken on an absurd and ultimately sweet adventure. Whether it’s a Pacific Island cargo cult, a pesky Native American trickster spirit or a rumination on what happened during the “lost” years in the life of Jesus, you will laugh and you will encounter elements of the weird, fantastic, science-fictional and – occasionally – the kinky and naughty.

Another example: I just watched the movie Safety Not Guaranteed, about a team of magazine writers pursuing a story about the guy behind a classified ad seeking a time travel companion.

Is it science fiction because there’s the prospect – real or imagined – of time travel? I say yes. But what makes it great is that around that conceit is a deep story of real people trying to recapture lost time or bygone days. The emotions are true and the situations believable, even if, at the center of things, is a concept that goes back to the earliest science fiction novels. The same could be said for films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

So, how does this all relate back to the funk mentioned in this post’s title?

In his latest collaboration, Elvis Costello has teamed with perhaps The Best Band in the World, The Roots (hailing from my adopted metro area of Philadelphia), working together to fuse The Roots’ particular brand of neo-soul, funk, hip hop and R&B to Costello’s dense storytelling. It’s what makes me love Costello still, repackaged and re-purposed with a funky back beat, a driving horn section and a noir feel that he hasn’t inhabited in years.

There’s no fear as both he and The Roots venture into uncharted waters of creativity, and the result, as it frequently is when fear is cast aside and new frontiers are explored, are extraordinary.

 

The Monorail – Getting from Here to There the Science Fiction Way

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One of the early criticisms of Immaculate Deception (from a friend and former newspaper colleague who had not yet read the book, incidentally) was that there would be no way that anytime in the near future the United States could agree to build any sort of high-speed rail system, let alone the extensive maglev network I describe in the novel.

Had he known they were present in the narrative, he probably would also have pooh-poohed the presence of the aircar, loosely based on the designs of the Moller Skycar, which is an actual thing.

Granted, when it seems difficult for some in politics and punditry (the real in which my skeptical friend now dwells) to wrap their brains around better, cooler trains. The fact that people in urban areas (particularly along the Northeast Corridor of the U.S., where I live) actually like to use trains and would like to see more of them seems antithetical to the the current widespread belief that investments in forward-thinking infrastructure are silly. Honestly, it’s so much easier to spend all that money on fighting spurious foreign conflicts and letting bridges rot, right? But that’s another blog posting…

Suffice it to say that whether they’ll every really happen in the U.S., high-tech public transportation systems like maglevs (beyond the one at Disney World, of course) are an integral part of science fiction literature and film. There are even a few musical references – my favorite being “IGY” by Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagan.

And it’s not just a current (pipe?) dream – it’s one that’s apparently been around a very long time. Here’s a great story from the website io9 talking about the monorail concept through history.

All aboard!

For the Love of the Mix Tape

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Some of you might actually be old enough to remember making good, old-fashioned mix tapes (if you do you’ll know the significance of the picture above).

Maybe. But since I have no way to track the demographics of this blog other than by geography, for all I know every one of you could be 8-year-olds sneaking a peek behind your third-grade teacher’s back.

But I’ll assume that if some of you might not be able to remember making a mix tape, you’re at least old enough to be familiar with the concept.

Let me be clear – we’re talking about a mix TAPE here. Not a burned CD. Not an iPod or online playlist.

It’s a tape. That you mix. Yourself.

If you’ve never done this, here’s a short tutorial, compliments of one Mr. Cusack.

Yes, there are indeed rules – rules that you can only learn by doing exactly what John is doing in that clip, which is sitting in front of a stereo system with stacks of records and tapes and CDs and hand selecting the songs you are going to painstakingly record onto a compact cassette of magnetic tape over the course of several hours.

It is an act of artistic devotion. An expression of love. A declaration to the universe and every person that ever rummages through your music collection that this – THIS – is what you believe is music that deserves to be listened to over and over again.

Yes, iPod playlists or other digital media accomplish basically the same thing, Actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve written about musical mixology. In working on Immaculate Deception, I went so far as to create a custom-mixed “soundtrack” for the novel – an album-length collection of music that complemented and/or inspired the narrative. Early readers of the novel got custom burned CDs as little hand-crafted thank-you gifts.

But actual mix tapes were beautiful for one very important reason: whether intended  or not, they became artifacts of specific times, places and emotions.

Want to know what songs you compiled to accompany that last minute road trip to the beach the summer before college? There it is, sitting in a long-overlooked box, in its sturdy plastic case, the ball-point lettering on the song list long faded.

Want to know what songs you put together for that desperate first love? Ha! Too bad! Chances are you can’t (unless you married your first love) because you gave it to her as a token of your deep affection and she either threw it away in disgust over your cheating/boring/politically untenable nature or has treasured it always as a symbol of something dear and true she once had.

How about the mix for that Michael Bey-scale epic kegger your junior year? Ha! That’s lost, too, purloined by a friend or random guest who lifted it from the stereo after everyone else had passed out or retired to a corner or their room for less musical (but more rhythmic) activities. But somewhere that person might still have that tape.

And even if it ends up in a landfill, when the aliens come to excavate a dead Earth thousands of years from now, Flmbrg, commander of the interstellar expedition, might dig it up and consider it on par with the cryptic cave paintings of Neanderthals.

And in essence, that’s what a real mix tape is – something that serves as a musical complement to something in life, whether it’s a love affair, break up, an epic party or just … hell, I don’t know, Monday morning.