Monthly Archives: December 2007

The Giant Rat of Sumatra!

Actually, it was found in another part of Indonesia. But how many times does a science story let you combine a Sherlock Holmes reference with the title of a Firesign Theater album?

Blue Monday

During a particularly troubled time in the mid-1990s, it became a ritual of mine to play John Fahey’s “Dry Bones in the Valley” (from his 1975 album Old Fashioned Love) before starting my day. Workday, weekday, whatever. I’d eat breakfast to it, iron my clothes to it, head off to work with it echoing in my head. To this day, I couldn’t tell you why. It’s a magnificent instrumental track: just Fahey on his steel-stringed acoustic guitar, playing a three-part epic that starts as an ambling country blues, then descends into a dark passage that resolves into an intricate circling figure that fades into the distance. Nothing else on the album measures up to it — certainly not the dim Dixieland tracks that were Fahey’s characteristically self-sabotaging response when mainstream record companies took an interest in his work in the early 1970s. Similarly, when Fahey found himself the focus of renewed interest two decades later, he responded with albums full of tedious sound collages and musique concrete dabblings.

Infuriating as it could be, Fahey’s mulish, contrarian temperament went hand in hand with his music, which at its best was a meeting ground between the blues, world music and free-form improvisation. His blues credentials were impeccable: not only were his early records steeped in country blues, he wrote a scholarly treatise on Charley Patton and helped return Bukka White to the limelight after years of obscurity. As an offshoot of this scholarship, Fahey invented a mythical bluesman, Blind Joe Death, and celebrated his work with liner notes so poker-faced that some fans took him at face value. For all his forbidding mystique and fuck-you sarcasm, Fahey could be a great concert act when he was in the mood: the first Fahey album I bought, Live in Tasmania, captures him in a warm, fully engaged performance with wry asides to the audience.

The video shown above amusingly sets Fahey’s “Desperate Man Blues” against some vintage film clips — the poster did the same trick with “I’m Gonna Do All I Can for My Lord,” “America” and “Tell Her to Come Back Home.” (Whoever you are, kkerins, you’re definitely on Fahey’s wavelength.) To see the man himself at work, here’s a clip of a concert performance of “Candy Man.” There are plenty of other film clips on YouTube.

As for the records, novices can start with the anthology Return of the Repressed, then check out earlier works like The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death. There’s plenty of room for exploration: Fahey left a lot of work behind, and even when the junk is discarded, what remains is one of the most intriguing bodies of work in American music.

The translator

Bernard Scudder died in October. Why this sad fact should be more widely known — and why Scudder’s work should be better appreciated — is explained by Jeff Sypeck and Sarah Weinman.

Get your geek on

For anyone who ever put together a Godzilla model kit and caught a buzz off Testor’s airplane glue, here’s Starship Modeler’s “Wrecks” contest. Check out the battle-damaged Imperial Walker turned into a shelter by the local primitives, and this bit of explanation that says more sensible things about the Star Wars universe than Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell put together:

It did not bother me that the more primitive inhabitants of this later refuge would make the decision to build a refuge in and under a battle damaged AT-AT. The StarWars universe is filled with crazy and impractical things that are simply there because they look cool. One of those sinfully cool things in the Star Wars universe is the AT-AT it self which of course is arguably the most important component of the best SFX scene ever made. 

There’s also the wrecked spacecraft from Planet of the Apes, a model of the USS Constellation after The Ice Cream Cone from Hell did a tune on it (the modeler combined elements from the original Star Trek episode and the remastered version — we’re talking deep geekery here) and a nice diorama of the Vostok 1 after landing.

Sippin’ to the sagas

Not only does Egil Skallagrimsson have his own saga, he’s got his own orange soda, his own sparkling water and his own malt extract that can be blended with Egil-brand apple-flavored water, to get you ready for some Yuletide mayhem. That’s better than Beowulf can manage. Yo, B-Wulf, you got your own pineapple soda? I didn’t think so. Punk.

Laughing at the dark

Even if you’re not a fan of Terry Pratchett’s work, you have to be impressed by the savoir faire with which he’s handling the fact that his life and productive years are about to be drastically reduced by a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Not that it matters, but anybody who can face the abyss with this much grace is aces in my book.  

Closing doors

Richard Russo (Bridge of Sighs, Nobody’s Fool, The Risk Pool) talks to Bat Segundo about plotting a novel:

When I was teaching my undergraduate and especially my graduate students. Plot is a very difficult — they say, how do you come up with a story? How do you know what happens first? What happens next? All of that. And I was trying to explain to them that the best stories, the best plots, are the ones that end up kind of paradoxically, you want to be surprised. But after the surprise, you want a sense of inevitability. Like that’s the only place the story could have gone. Those two things, that’s why a lot of books are disappointing. Because that’s a very hard effect to achieve. How can you surprise somebody even as, after they register the surprise, they say, “Oh, of course. This is the only way it can go. This is the only way it could have gone.” Those two things are antithetical. And yet the best books always have that. That coming together. So I was always looking for a metaphor to explain that to people. To my students. And I’d say, all right. Think of it this way. You’ve got a thousand doors. You choose one. You walk through it. Now you’ve got five hundred doors. You walk through that. You’ve got two hundred and fifty doors. Every time I started explaining that to students, that there were fewer and fewer doors, that was going to provide the inevitability. But there was still the surprise. You didn’t know. Every time a character makes a decision, it seems that there are so many other possibilities. So it’s a series of surprises that ends up with a sense of inevitability. But as I explained that to my students, and as I was writing this book, it occurred to me that’s also a description of life and destiny.

Listen to the whole thing here.

I seem to be a verb

A fine point of grammar, via Calvin and Hobbes.

Gutenberging it

Not to sound coarse or anything, but writing on a typewriter sucked.

Really, it just blew — no two ways about it. Whether it was on a manual or an electric model, the act of writing on a typewriter was better than having to use a pen, a pencil, a quill or a crayon, but only just.

It wasn’t about the writing, you see, it was about the rigamarole of checking the darkness of the ribbon and threading a new one (and getting ink on your fingers that smudged the page so you had to start anew), the careful stacking and alignment of the carbon paper between the top sheet and the safety copy, the unjamming of keys that locked like two wrestlers in a death grip because you got a little too immersed in your work and typed too quickly. And god forbid you should commit a typo. Hoo boy, you were in for it then. Backspace, backspace, scroll up the page, erase the mistake on the top page and the copy, hoping you didn’t nudge the paper stack out of alignment, then scroll the page back down and discover you had in fact knocked the paper-carbon-paper Dagwood sandwich out of skew so suddenly the line you were typing looked like hell. Or get out the liquid paper (or the little rectangle of correction paper) and reach in to perform the delicate maneuver of dabbing white goo over the typo, like James Bond trying to defuse a tick-tocking nuclear warhead, then waiting for the goo to dry so you could get the hell on with your work, only then to discover that the goo hadn’t yet dried and your correction looked like it had been typed over a kindergartener’s finger-painting project. Leaving you to choose between: Option A, start the page over (which you might already have done a few times already); or Option B, climb a water tower and start picking people off with a high-powered rifle.

Walking talking Jesus, how did I ever get anything written that way?

There are still typewriter snobs out there (Harlan Ellison, most famously) who sneer at people who write on PCs instead of clickety-clacks and rat-a-tat-tats, and all I can say is fuck ’em. John Steinbeck used pencils to write The Grapes of Wrath, The Pastures of Heaven and Cannery Row, so we’re all wimps as far as he’s concerned. Maybe it’s the paraphernalia aspect. I think it was John Updike who noted that writing, alone among the arts, has no hocus pocus about it — no fancy musical instruments, no alchemical mixtures of paint, no stalking and shaping of a sculpture, just somebody staring at a sheet of paper and sipping coffee. Maybe typewriter snobs see their Gutenberg gear as the equivalent of Sonny Boy Williamson’s harmonica, or Jimi Hendrix’s Stratocaster.

Whatever. All I know is that barring some Lucifer’s Hammer scenario in which chunks of comet debris rain down on Earth and send us back into the Stone Age, there is no threat scary enough and no enticement delicious enough to send me back to the typewriter. I’m not caught up in tinkering with the gear. I just want the gear to be advanced enough, and usable enough, that I can get to the writing with a minimum of fuss. It was a great day for writers — this writer in particular — when the PC was invented.

These thoughts have been inspired by another writer’s observance of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Commodore 64, which ushered many people into the joys not only of easier, faster writing, but the beginnings of what would become the underground cosmos of the Internet.