Monthly Archives: April 2007

Bad blood

Boy, Robbie Robertson sure knows how to slip the shiv in, doesn’t he? Over at Salon.com, The Man Who Broke Up The Band gets to field three questions on the occasion of the release of The Best of A Musical History, the compilation culled from the luxury box set The Band: A Musical History. And on the third question, he gets to stick it to former bandmate Levon Helm:

I don’t have any issues with Levon. I just haven’t been in touch with him. I know he’s upset about something. It just reached a certain point a long time ago where it seemed like he was always upset, so I stopped paying attention to him. I don’t have any issues. I think Levon did a great job playing and singing some songs that I wrote.

Now, fans of The Band and Bob Dylan have plenty of reasons to thank Robertson for his undeniable place as guitarist and chief songwriter for The Band and his work as Dylan’s right-hand man during the dicey mid-1960s period when His Bobness went electric.

But the regal condescension of “I think Levon did a great job playing and singing some songs that I wrote,” which reduces Helm to the status of a groundskeeper looking after Lord Robbie’s prize begonias, only reinforces my instinctive belief that Helm’s frequently withering appraisal of his old bandmate in This Wheel’s On Fire is a lot closer to the truth than the pompous self-mythologizing offered by Robertson in The Last Waltz.

Not only is Helm’s book a great read, but his readiness to concede Robertson’s central role in the Band’s songwriting makes him all the more convincing when he accuses Robertson of doing everything he can to diminish the contributions of his bandmates. Helm’s chief beef is that the one-for-all, all-for-one spirit of The Band was sucked away when Robertson began hogging sole songwriting credit for tunes that had been heavily shaped by communal workshopping. There’s no denying that the inspiration burning bright through the first two Band albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, dwindles to a faint spark on Stage Fright and Cahoots, and vanishes entirely under the stale professionalism of the subsequent works. Rock of Ages is such a splendid concert album, it’s shocking to realize the short span of time separating it from Before the Flood, which is virtually brought to a halt by the side and a half of overplayed Band standards, spiced only by one uninspired new song.

Bob Dylan fans also have plenty of reasons to distrust Robertson’s presentation of The Band’s legacy. One of the reasons I became a bootleg collector was the news that my beloved official copy of The Basement Tapes included only a fraction of the songs recorded during those legendary sessions, and the Band tracks larded into the playlist were in fact recorded during separate sessions but included by Robertson to give the incorrect impression that the Basement Tapes sessions were a gathering of equals, rather than an instance of Bob Dylan leading his on-call backup band through a bunch of new and old songs. That’s why my copy of A Tree With Roots remains in heavy rotation, while the Columbia-produced The Basement Tapes is strictly for backup on long car trips.

Fortunately, The Band’s legacy can be encompassed without shelling out money for shelf-busting box sets. You can find it in those first two Band albums and Rock of Ages; if those get your curiosity going, you can continue prospecting in Stage Fright, Cahoots and the all-covers Moondog Matinee, which boasts what may well be the single cheesiest extant version of the theme to The Third Man. The self-embalming of The Last Waltz is worth at least one viewing, though the aroma of formaldehyde and cocaine can get oppressive. (Helm’s book is particularly scathing, and often uproariously funny, on this subject.) Islands and Northern Lights, Southern Cross are strictly for completists.

And by all means, check out The Basement Tapes. His Bobness never sounded so relaxed and funny, and those bogus Band tracks are enjoyable in their own right. If you get a yen to hear the complete version, log onto eBay and place bids on a couple of Dylan recordings. You don’t have to win the bids. The bootleggers will make it their business to get in touch with you, and you’ll be on your way.

But I think you’d be wise to leave The Best of A Musical History on the shelf. Like they say, you’ll go looking for history, but what you’ll get is His Story.

Talk is cheep

Well, whaddya know. Turns out the robin hadn’t left the scene after all. He was just out cruising the robin equivalent of singles bars in order to find a lady bird he could entice with the robin equivalent of sure-fire opening lines. So before long, the arbor vitae in my backyard will be alive with the flitter-flutter of little wings.

Meanwhile, Mr. Robin J. Redbreast, Esq., is getting awfully territorial. I saw him scrapping with one of the local cardinals yesterday morning. The dogs staged one of their Westie jailbreaks this morning, and as I was checking the fence for egress points I walked a little too close to the arbor vitae and Mr. Redbreast exploded out of the greenery a foot in front of my nose.

Chill out, dude. I don’t even like hen’s eggs, much less robin’s eggs, so your brood is safe from me. Show a little gratitude that I’m keeping dogs that like nothing better than snacking on cats that otherwise endanger the family.

Stung by writing

I don’t know if the Internet can take up the slack created by the collapse of newspaper book-review sections, but if it does, discussion groups like the one going on over at Bookblog will be a big part of the reason.

The book currently under discussion, The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, is one I’ve always been fond of because it took me so completely by surprise. I bought the first paperback edition at a Foodtown supermarket book rack, of all places, because it stood out like a flare amid the romance titles and bodice-rippers and the length suggested a quick read for a dull afternoon. It was a quick read, all right. It takes a lot for a book to make me put it down and think, Omigod, did I just read that? but The Wasp Factory managed that feat more than once.

Bookblog’s backlog (backblog?) of discussions includes a pretty impressive range of titles, including A Canticle for Leibowitz and A Confederacy of Dunces.

Book tour blues

Since my own book is coming out in just a little over a month and so far the publicity rounds mainly involve me driving back and forth across the state (though not everything has been scheduled yet), I can only marvel when somebody like Kevin Sessums sounds depressed because he’s on a national book tour. I look at his itinerary and think how nice it would be to have such a problem.

Who knows? Maybe by the time summer rolls around this blog will be full of my weeping and lamentations, but right now I’m jazzed about the whole thing. I’ve been to enough author appearances to know the difference between good ones and bad ones — bad appearances, that is, not authors — and I’m determined that anyone who takes the time to come see me is going to have fun. Maybe not fun on the scale of a Kiss concert — flashpots and bookstores really don’t work well together — but I’m not just going to stand around mumbling with my nose stuck in the book. I like shooting the breeze with people — why else would I be blogging?

I’ll have my own itinerary posted in the next week or so.

A pair of Pinskys

You say you can’t get enough of poet Robert Pinsky, New Jersey’s gift to verse? Well, who can blame you?

So here’s a clip of the man reading his own Samurai Song on Poetry Web International, and once you’re done with that, check him out as he moderates this debate between Sean Penn and Stephen Colbert

The write way

Walter Mosley has a new book out: This Year You Write Your Novel. From the excerpts given here at the NPR site, I’d say it’s a good, hardheaded collection of useful tips and sage advice for people trying to get started as writers:

There are all kinds of ways for people to cajole themselves into starting their book. Some get a special pen or a particular desk set at a window looking out on something beautiful. Others play a favorite piece of music, light a candle, burn incense, or set up some other ritual that makes them feel empowered and optimistic. If this is what you find you must do to write — well… okay. Rituals frighten me. I worry that if I need a special pen or desk or scent to start me out, what will happen when I lose that pen or I’m on vacation or a business trip and my window looks out on the city dump?

My only ritual for writing is that I do it every morning. I wake up and get to work. If I’m in a motel in Mobile — so be it. If I am up all night, and morning is two o’clock in the afternoon, well, that’s okay too.

The only thing that matters is that you write, write, write. It doesn’t have to be good writing. As a matter of fact, almost all first drafts are pretty bad. What matters is that you get down the words on the page or the screen — or into the tape recorder, if you work like that.

Your first sentence will start you out, but don’t let it trip you up.

Absolutely true — that is, absolutely true for me. I pissed away years of good writing time because I was waiting for inspiration to set me glowing. I thought that once I was enveloped in that hard, gemlike flame, I would crank out reams of finished pages in long mad bursts of creativity.

What actually happened, of course, is that I accomplished precisely zilch in the way of writing. Waiting for inspiration was my first ingenious method for undermining myself. And then, when against all odds I found myself actually getting words onto paper, I fell back on another, equally fiendish way to clutch up. Mosley knows all about it:

There will be moments when you will want to dally over details. Do Georgia geese fly south in April or June? Is it physically possible for Bob Millar to hear the cult leader yelling from a mile away — even in a desert? Would the police arrest Trip if the women were allowed into the bar and were served by the owner?

All of these questions are valid. Before the book gets into print, you should have the answers. But many writers allow questions like these to help them procrastinate. They tell themselves that they can’t go on until these questions are answered.

Nonsense. Put a red question mark next to the place where you have questions and get back to it later.

Boy, that was a great way to keep myself wallowing in an unfinished project. From my late teen years and through my college years, I sullenly poked at a novel, dreaming up ever more ambitious themes and subthemes that would require deep-dish research into arcane areas of theology and science. True freedom came when I abandoned the research and simply tried to write a narrative based on what I’d been dicking around with. That’s when I learned that my brilliant concept for a novel was simply a big echoing jug with a hole in the bottom, one that I could spend my life filling and refilling with no results.

Writers are not engineers. When an engineer comes to a canyon, he has to figure out a way to bridge that canyon. A writer can simply sail over the canyon and continue on his way. When I encounter a pothole, I write past it and leave a little mental orange cone on the site, so I’ll remember to come back and fill it.

The same goes for a stretch of lousy prose. You can always come back and buff it up. The important thing is to finish. Don’t lose your momentum.

Here again, Mosley hits the bullseye:

You begin with a sentence and keep on going. Maybe you will follow the plan assiduously; maybe you will be diverted onto another path that will lead you far from your original ideas.

Whatever the case, the work is the same. Some days will be rough, unbearable; some will be sublime. Pay no attention to these feelings. All you have to do is write your novel this year. Happy or sad, the story has to come out.

Stick to your schedule. Try to write a certain amount every day — let’s say somewhere between 600 and 1,200 words. Do not labor over what’s been written. Go over yesterday’s work cursorily to reorient yourself, then move on. If you find at some point that you have lost the thread of your story, take a few days to reread all you have written, not with the intention of rewriting (though a little editing is unavoidable) but with the intention of refamiliarizing yourself with the entire work.

Using this method, you should have a first draft of the novel in about three months. It won’t be publishable. It won’t be pretty. It probably won’t make logical sense. But none of that matters. What you will have in front of you is the heart of the book that you wish to write.

There is no greater moment in the true writer’s life.

A big part of my personal time-wasting method was to kid myself about chasing the muse. You can’t chase the muse. You have to give the muse a chance to find you. An orderly schedule is a writer’s best friend. Putting your butt in the chair at a certain hour every day will, after a while, do something to your brain so that the areas reserved for creative activity start sparking.

You want me to come out and say it, don’t you? Okay, I will. Great writing begins with your butt. (Let’s see if that gets into Bartlett’s.) Put it in your favorite chair at the same time every day, and it will guide you. For me, the morning is the best time. For you, it may be the afternoon. You will know the time of day when you feel the most focused. If you haven’t figured that out yet — something I find very hard to believe — then do so. And, above all, act on that knowledge.

Don’t try to write everything in one burst. Set yourself a quota. A page a day is a very practical kind of quota. Write a page a day, every day, and by the end of the year you will have a novel-length pile of pages. Write two pages a day and in a year you’ll have a Stephen King-length pile of pages. Write three pages a day and in a year you’ll have a Tolstoy-length pile of pages.

Notice how I said “pile of pages” instead of “novel”? That’s because once the pile of pages is finished, your work is only half done:

Your first draft is like a rich uncultivated field for the farmer: it is waiting for you to bring it into full bloom.

Or, to put it another way: Early to bed, early to rise; revise revise revise. Nobody writes a great first draft. Plenty of writers say they do, or said they did, but they are and were liars. That’s why one of the better advice books for writers is called Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.

Another good one is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I also like Stephen King’s On Writing. But the best writing advice I heard, the kind that really made me serious about doing this kind of thing, was a few sentences spoken by P.D. James during a 60 Minutes profile. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but she said she really started getting somewhere as a writer when she realized that nobody else was interested in helping her accomplish something, that she would have to make the extra effort by getting up an hour early every day and making herself write.

Works for me. It will probably work for you, too.

A taxing woman

This amusingly myopic item about how Universal beat out Walt Disney for the right to open a Harry Potter theme park is full of showbiz types claiming to be relieved that they missed out on the deal because now they won’t have to deal with that awful J.K. Rowling.

Just because she pulled a storyline out of her head that generated a hugely successful line of novels that in turn support a series of blockbuster films, Rowling has the notion that she’s entitled to a say in what gets done with her characters. In fact, her own ideas about what a Harry Potter theme park should be like might have impeded Disney in its headlong rush to generate more crappy rides and spin-off products. The nerve of the woman!

Aside from the fact that I like the Harry Potter books quite a lot, I admire J.K. Rowling’s stiff neck in dealing with the various showbiz geniuses who have viewed her the way mining companies view the natives who showed them the route to the gold mine — as an inconvenience to be gotten out of the way so lucrative exploitation can begin at once.

Not many writers would have the nerve to tell Steven Spielberg to go fly a kite, but that’s what Rowling did when he wanted to collapse the first two Potter novels into a single film. I happen to agree with him that the books in question are virtually identical, but guess what? Identical or not, Rowling wrote them and she gets to decide. She also values her relationship with her fans, and she doesn’t want to give her imprimatur to a theme park that will treat her readers like tourist-cattle being herded through a slaughterhouse for wallets.

Rowling also probably understood something that should have been crashingly obvious to the Disney people: that Harry Potter’s dark, violent world would have been a terrible match for the Disney brand. That they expended so much effort in wooing Rowling betrays, I think, a certain desperation — a realization that they have been burning their creative seed corn with schlocky direct-to-video sequels to their classic films.That’s something they’ll just have to deal with without Rowling’s help. I just finished listening once again to Jim Dale’s audiobook reading of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and the theme park it created in my mind beats anything Universal and Disney combined could come up with.

Words count

You might think that an industry founded on and propagated by the printed word would have a vested interest in catering to those people who still like to read, but newspapers across the country have been steadily cutting back on their book coverage.

At Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee talks about ways to oppose this self-destructive trend:

This week and throughout May, the National Book Critics Circle will be trying to raise some public recognition of where things now stand – and to create some pressure to reverse the trend towards downsizing and elimination. We have about 700 members. Not all of us are editors or reviewers for newspapers. But we do see the book pages at newspapers as part of the cultural ecology, so to speak. Halting their destruction seems like a necessary thing.

What can you do? I asked John Freeman, the outgoing president of NBCC, who responded by naming some very specific actions that would be helpful.

(1) Sign the petition to reinstate the book-section editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

(2) Write to your local newspaper’s publisher to express support for its book coverage. And if your paper doesn’t have such a section, ask why not. “It always baffles me,” as Freeman says, “why university towns like New Haven, Durham, Champagne-Urbana and Iowa City have virtually no book pages in their papers.”

(3) Talk to your local independent bookseller. Local literary scenes are often undercut by the power of superstores and the reliance of newspapers on “wire” copy about books (that is, material issued by syndication). Smaller bookshops are rallying points for opposition to these trends.

(4) Review books for your local paper. This requires developing a voice that may sound rather different from the one you might use when reviewing books for a professional journal. An easygoing style doesn’t always come easily. But it can be enjoyable to acquire and to practice, and newspaper ink has addictive properties.(“The more the academy engages with the public through reviews,” Freeman told me, “the better chance we have of connecting tradition with culture, and judging new works of art accordingly.”) And if you already review, consider becoming a member of NBCC.

(5) Whether or not you join NBCC, please make its blog Critical Mass part of your Web-browsing routine. Over the past year, it has become the “blog of record” for literary and publishing news. And insofar as book-folk have a rallying point in dealing with the changes at newspapers, Critical Mass is it. Freeman says it will have updates on efforts to challenge cuts at The Raleigh News & Observer, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The L.A. Times.

At this point, the future of newspapers is very uncertain. It is all I can do to suppress the (admittedly cliched) thought that we are striving to preserve a claim to occupy a few deck chairs on the Titanic.

But uncertainty may also represent opportunity. Newspapers now often gear their cultural coverage at some “youth market” – quite vaguely and patronizingly conceived – that editors treat as having an attention span registering in milliseconds. So you get in-depth reports on “American Idol,” perhaps. The wisdom of directing scarce resources in that direction is not unassailable. Other media can cover such things faster and, if this is the word to use, better.

Back in my newspaper days, I once found myself talking to a managing editor who brightly declared that the arts and entertainment section of the paper needed to cover more television shows in order to attract readers. When I pointed out that (a) there was already plenty of television coverage in the world and (b) it was pretty stupid for newspapers to encourage more of the very activity that was helping to kill newspapers, she looked at me with the faintly pitying air of a Rosicrucian faced with someone who didn’t know the secret handshake. She left newspapers entirely a few years later, and the paper we both worked on is gasping even harder for air, but she was the expert, eh?

That’s why I got out of the newspaper business — I just wasn’t smart enough to run things there. I’m so out of it, I think it’s ridiculous for newspapers to take their actual news coverage — which is expensive and time-consuming to gather and edit — and dump it on the Internet for free. And here’s another hot one — I actually believe that newspapers should concentrate on generating unique local and regional coverage instead of running the same canned wire copy to be found in every other newspaper! Whoah! Have you ever heard anything that stupid?

So let’s give that list of suggestions a shot. Who knows? Crazy, impractical people such as ourselves might help save the newspaper industry from the smart, clever people who are running it into the ground.

Location, location, location

Maybe it’s because the recent stretch of gorgeous weather comes after a drenching nor’easter and several miserable days of drizzling rain, but we’ve been spending every possible moment outdoors, listening to the synphony of birds in and around our back yard. By the end of this summer we’ll probably be confirmed bird watchers, trooping out to Sandy Hook and Cape May to observe the southbound travelers.

While taking in the sounds and trying to connect them to specific birds, I noticed a robin flitting across the yard to one of the arbor vitae, bearing clumps of vegetable matter in its beak, then racing back across the yard with an empty beak. I remarked that it looked like a bird was building a nest in our yard.

Stupid thing to say aloud. There was no holding the kids back after they heard something like that. Turns out there was in fact a perfectly woven, deep and cozy looking nest bound into the arbor vitae, just about shoulder height on me. The kids demanded to be hoisted up for a look, and of course I couldn’t resist staring myself.

The robin hasn’t come back since. We must have scared him off. It’s probably all for the best. The arbor vitae is right behind our swing set, and sooner or later somebody would have swooped back and jostled the bush. Any eggs in the nest could have been damaged, even knocked loose and sent toppling to the ground.

What can I say? Sorry guy. The big galumphing humans spoiled your plans. Hope you have enough time to build another nest and start the necessary work of the summer.

Thus spake Vonnegut

In many ways, the reactions to Kurt Vonnegut’s death are more interesting than much of the man’s own work. The Onion AV Club has a list of 15 things Vonnegut said better than anyone else, and I really can’t argue with any of them. Interesting, though, that a significant number of the best lines come from Cat’s Cradle, which I still consider the man’s best novel.