Archive for October 2009
A writing pal and I are going on a blinders-on fiction sprint in November, so I won’t be blogging or tweeting or Facebooking (?) or anything that month. (I will continue blogging and tweeting and Facebooking (?) for work, though, for the obvious reason.) Email responses will be slower than usual, too.
Seeya December 1. I’ll tell you how it went.
… and not just because it’s the second-worst album by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The word “magic” is particularly annoying when applied to consumer technology, starting with Arthur C. Clarke’s oft-quoted “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That’s pithy and pungent, but untrue. Air conditioner technology is quite advanced. We all know the difference between air conditioning and magic.
Bill Gates, during his post-CEO/pre-departure years at Microsoft, tried to push this word. I saw him use the term “magic” to describe what his company’s software did at many conferences, much as he does in this 2004 column for InformationWeek:
It’s the magic of software that will connect these devices into a seamless whole, making them an indispensable part of our everyday lives.
He’s describing Windows Update, a service about as magical as a doorbell.
And now Apple is playing the “magic” game. Its new mouse replaces its previous wireless “Mighty Mouse,” which was characterized mostly by its inability to hold a Bluetooth connection for more than 90 seconds. It’s called a “Magic Mouse.” It’s amusing to see the trendsetters at Apple picking up on a half-decade-old discarded Microsoft slogan. So much for thinking different(ly). But it emphasizes how much trouble computer makers are having selling their wares nowadays. With computers becoming more and more commoditized, it’s hard to get anyone excited about them for reasons other than design, at which Apple excels. So the companies who sell us computers and products that connect to them have to start making things up about them, like they’re “magic.” This doesn’t seem like much of an exaggeration anymore.
I’m more familiar with Lydia Davis’s work as a translator than I am with her fiction, a deficiency I intend to remedy shortly. In an interview with The Economist’s Intelligent Life promoting her new collection of short stories, Davis talks about what she learned as a writer from translating Proust (her Swann’s Way is the strongest of the Penguin series a few years back):
She considered each sentence a “little puzzle”, and strove to stay true to Proust’s sounds, rhythms and word choices … “Translating makes me much more acutely aware of shades of meaning,” she explains. “You have a set problem and you can’t get around it by avoiding it. You have to pick just the right word.”
Jane tagged me in her meme about learning to write. At first I wanted to write three contradictory practices that illuminate my development as a writer. That’s hard for me, not because I have trouble telling stupid stories from my youth (I don’t, as my friends know all too well), but because because I feel like I’m still becoming a writer. Yes, I know I’ve been writing or editing for more than 25 years, long enough that I have plenty of work in the remainder bin or landfill, but I’m still trying to get good. So, rather than tell you about the 11th grade high school teacher who inspired me or the thrill when I heard my fiction read on the radio, I’ll tell you three things I’ve learned along my “twisted path to becoming a writer,” a path I have yet to complete.
1. Hate adverbs.
One practice I’ve picked up is to eliminate as many words ending in “-ly” as I can.
I’m writing a novel. To solve a problem I created for myself in the second act, I went back and looked at something similar I had written years ago. It was a terrible piece of writing. Trying to make the sentences more powerful than the story dictated, I loaded them with tricks. Some of them I had picked up from my years as a cranky rock critic (fellow travelers know the “comma, say, comma” formulation); others confused listmaking with storytelling. The worst of them was my reliance on adverbs and adjectives to do the jobs that nouns and verbs are for. The sentences was full of pairings like “astonishingly precise” and lots of adverbs like “actually” and “simply” that, most of the time, are just fancy ways of saying “very.” I even used the words “insouciant” and “insouciantly” in a 3,000-word section, which should trigger some sort of penalty.
Almost every one of my sentences gets better when I remove the adverbs. As I continue down the path, I’m learning not to put the adverbs in at all.
2. It’s not about me.
Go to bookstores. The local Booksmith, workplace of my favorite bookseller, has a wall of new hardcover fiction. I am a ravenous reader, but the wall is full of novels I’ll never read by authors I have never heard of and novels I’ll never get to by authors I have heard of. Even if I complete a novel worth reading and talk someone into publishing it and inserting it into such a display, most people who go to bookstores looking for fiction (a small percentage of a small percentage) will never notice it. This once made me despair; now it liberates me. Here’s why.
In the early ’90s, I had a difficult job with a difficult boss. Much of that boss’s direction was unhelpful, both to the financial and editorial health of the magazine I edited, but one of his suggestions was brilliant and has stayed with me. I was editing a music magazine that had its offices in Peterborough, New Hampshire, no center of pop culture. There were elements of the office’s physical location that were useful, but bucolic setting = cloistered attitude for some of the editors there. They were self-conscious tastemakers, out of touch with our readers. My boss suggested we talk to readers regularly and learn what they thought. My initial response was negative — no one knows better than I what my readers want, damn it! — but within the week I tried it. It was fantastic! Much of the feedback was obvious or mundane, but some of it was surprising, provocative, and essential in helping me understand what my readers wanted. Without it, I would have been unable to turn the magazine from one intended to please four editors into one set on entertaining several hundred thousand people.
Which brings us back to that wall of new fiction and the practice I draw from it. I’m only going to get a few people to notice my book; what can I do to make it stand out? Do I know what is my book about? Do I have characters, subplots, or themes that don’t support what that book is about? Are they there just to entertain me? What about the reader? There is a difference between what one writes for herself and what one produces for an audience. After I’ve written something, I ask: Will anyone who picked up this book because of what it is about care about this? No? Then why is it there?
3. You can’t get to the 10 percent until you throw away the 90 percent.
The first two practices are about taking things about. This one is about putting things in. I think I’m starting to get good; I even have some external validation to support that belief. But most of what I write is still crap. Most of what everyone writes is crap. Tama Janowitz once wrote that the first drafts of her novels were 1,200 pages; the second drafts were 800 pages; the final drafts ran 400 pages.” Regardless of whether you’re a Janowitz fan, that sounds about right. You can’t have the best writing on paper until you put everything down on paper, including the dumb ideas, cliches, forced transitions, clever asides, and limp dialogue. None of that will be in the final/published version, but you can’t get to a good-enough final/published version until you have written out all the junk. My practice: Pour it all out, then sort it all out.
Chuck Berry is the greatest lyricist in the history of rock and roll. His unprecedented synthesis—blues (especially the jump-band variety), country, and swing funneled through his wry, nonlinear mind—extended ideas about what the new teen form could encompass. Berry took over rock and roll moments after its birth, and anyone who has subsequently picked up a guitar with the desire to write a rock’n'roll song that described real life knows that Berry provided most of the tools. He also coined the word “motorvatin’,” which counts for a lot.
His Chess recordings have a bit of fluff toward the end (Owen and I have already weighed in on “My Ding-a-Ling”), but not much. Those records showcase Berry in his prime, all train-track guitar lines and images of “coffee-colored Cadillacs.” Berry’s prime musical foil is his St. Louis compatriot Johnnie Johnson, a pianist with a blues background whose rhythmic style was so flexible and skeptical that it influenced Chuck’s fret work, not to mention his lyrical world-view. Piano and guitar hop over each other throughout this set, like grinning duelists. Detractors often claim that Berry’s songs “all sound the same,” but they’re referring only to the jump-start guitar introductions that were Berry’s duck-walking trademark—though even those were immediately distinguishable to seasoned fans. There’s a tremendous variety of styles on his Chess tracks: Listen to “Havana Moon,” “School Day,” “Dear Dad,” and “Have Mercy Judge” and hear a performer able to thrive in blues, rhythm and blues, straight rock’n'roll, and his own fusion of them all. The only thing that’s the same is the high quality.
Like Jerry Lee Lewis, Berry alternated between adult and teen topics as surely as he moved from adult to teen beats. Sometimes he could call up lines like the hilarious hyperboles in “No Money Down” (by the end of the song, he has an entire furniture store installed inside his new car) that rang true and immediate to both. Berry’s conversational singing is a major part of his appeal—everyone can understand what he is singing, although some couplets like “it’s way too early for the Congo/So keep a’rockin’ the piano” (from “Rock-and-Roll Music”) have defied attempts at explication for half a century.
Berry presented himself as a guy next door with a penchant for pungent and detailed singing, writing, and guitar-playing. He always considered himself an artist (he allowed none of the usual “It’s junk because it’s for kids” crap), and the most amazing thing about his wildly imaginative work is that there’s no condescension. Although the kids in the audience couldn’t comprehend the singer’s child-custody anguish in “Memphis,” Berry wrote the tune in such an open-ended way that everyone could be included. Everyone could be included: that’s Chuck’s genius in a nutshell.
Just a quick public thanks to Scott Kirsner for coming up with the idea for the Coffee for No Reason that we hosted. The attendance was much larger than we expected (thanks to Cosi for being kind about that) and I got the chance to meet a bunch of cool people doing cool things. Some I knew already; plenty I was lucky enough to meet for the first time. I shouldn’t have to be reminded than Silicon Valley isn’t the only place where tech innovation is happening.
However, if you do live near San Francisco and you didn’t fly cross-country for a cup of coffee, you can see Scott at a “Fans, Friends & Followers” workshop at BAVC on December 1. It’ll cost more than a cup of coffee but I’m sure it will be a bargain.
Jane is the primary coffee person in my life, but I’m going to host, along with the great Scott Kirsner, a coffee-for-no-reason gathering in Kendall Square on Friday, October 16. Scott has the details here, but I’ll paste in the highlights of his post below, in case you’re too overextended today to click on a link:
What if a bunch of us descended on the Cosi in Kendall Square to have coffee together for absolutely no reason?
That would sort of be fun, especially if it was a Friday morning.
Here’s how it will work:
Jimmy Guterman and I are hosting. We’ll be there from 9 to 11 AM on Friday, October 16th. We’ll try to grab a table in the dead center of the restaurant’s front room. You’ll find our pictures below so you can recognize us. Come up and say hi, or introduce yourself to someone who looks like they are part of this craziness.
I’m bringing a stack of brand new hardcover business and tech books that have been sent to me as “review copies.” Grab one that looks interesting. Jimmy is bringing a few free copies of an album he produced: The Sandinista Project.
(And if you have something you’d like to give away for free, bring it! There’s also an open WiFi network that usually works, in case you want to bring a laptop and do some demos.)
But mostly this is just a chance to meet some interesting people (most of whom work or hang out in Kendall Square) and introduce them to one another… and goof off on a Friday morning. No content, no sponsors, no agenda, no nothing. Just a social-media-driven coffee klatsch.
PR Folks: You’re welcome to come, but please don’t view this as an opportunity to pitch two of the dimmer members of Boston’s journalistic firmament. ]
The Twitter hash tag, of course, is #CFNR (Coffee for No Reason).
Hope to see you there! No pitching!
Eli and I have fantasized about a full-band-with-horns version of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” We never got around to it and now it’s too late: Idolator reports that Kelly Clarkson, of all people, is performing such an arrangement of the song live. Yet another reminder that a good idea isn’t nearly as important as acting on your good idea.
“They took a light from a honky-tonk/Put the gleam in your eye,” Carl Perkins howls on “Honky Tonk Gal,” one of his many amazing performances on The Classic Carl Perkins, a stellar five-CD boxed set that includes all his recordings for Sun Records and those shortly thereafter. (I just pulled out that box for the first time in many years.) With such a line, Perkins neatly encapsulates rockabilly’s concerns and fears.
Rockabilly, that reckless, primal thrash of honky-tonk country-and-western, is all about conflict—between rural and urban, between barroom adventure and home comfort, between the headfirst sin of Saturday nights and the heartfelt repentance of Sunday mornings. The honky-tonk gal Perkins adores is both his joy (she’s hot stuff and knows it) and his pain (she’s no longer a demure housewife). She’s the conflict of rockabilly personified.
Perkins treats this dilemma the way any self-respecting rockabilly cat would: He blazes out fiery riffs and drives through the quandary in fifth gear. He’ll deal with the consequences of his rampage tomorrow. Even lost in the thrill of taking his Gibson guitar for an unexpected joyride, he knows that somewhere down the road there will be a price to pay. Rockabilly is about release, but its release always has limits—that’s the form’s country birthright. That’s also what makes Perkins, a pure rockabilly performer then and always, different from Elvis Presley or Roy Orbison, rockabilly cats who expanded into straight pop and, in doing so, uprooted themselves. “You could never take the country out of Perkins,” veteran Sun-reissue compiler Colin Escott wrote in one of his many expert liner-note essays, pinpointing what set Perkins apart from Presley and what prevented him from achieving Elvis-like success. Presley, for all his indisputable greatness, sold out for pop success in every way imaginable. Perkins, even in his most banal countrypolitan settings, never surrendered.
This massive set has no fluff. Perkins’s gracious, quavering tenor carries some magnificent country ballads; among the most noteworthy are “Turn Around,” his first professional recording, and “Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing,” the most understated expression of honky-tonk regret and paralysis in post-Hank Williams country music. But Perkins’s meat is his rockabilly, “Blue Suede Shoes” and all that, in which he repeatedly drives full speed to the edge of his world, leans over the cliff to enjoy the view for a brief second, and then, as he knows he must, pulls back and carefully heads home.
“Rockabilly sure takes me over the edge,” top Stray Cat Brian Setzer countered when I threw that idea at him a long time ago, in suburban Massachusetts. “It’s the most menacing music. Heavy metal is kid’s stuff compared to it.” Yes, but Setzer and the many legions who adopted pompadours in the late seventies discovered the music and the accoutrements, not the culture. It’s no accident that most of the rockabilly revivalists came from northern urban areas. To them, rockabilly is Gene Vincent’s leer and Eddie Cochran’s shake without regard for the honky-tonk imperatives behind them. The Stray Cats, since reduced to beer commercials, can afford to shoot over the edge; Perkins and his contemporaries, who didn’t have the luxury of growing up in a society that had already been liberated by rock and roll, had no such romantic alternative.
Yet on “Dixie Fried,” his greatest uptempo composition, Perkins comes as close as any rockabilly performer to going over the edge and living to tell about it. His guitar flashes like the barroom-fight switchblades his tale chronicles; his voice dances with the wobbly exuberance of his brazen, drunken protagonist. “Let’s all get Dixie fried!” he screams, shattering any pretensions to caution, or civilized behavior. The violence escalates and the song smashes to its head-on conclusion, not with the law, but with the inevitable. Perkins may have the gleam of the honky-tonk in his eye, but his eye is fixed on home, where he prays his honky-tonk gal has returned.
Everyone rocks together; everyone suffocates together.
Sure, Paul Kelly’s influences keep popping up. Kelly sometimes seems like a rock-critic-invented mixture of Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Graham Parker, Bruce Springsteen, and a half-dozen other significant white male rockers, but this is not why he is so little known in the U.S. (I don’t think that Post, one of his early records, ever came out Stateside. Please let me know in the comments if I’m wrong.) Maybe his eclectic arrangements (Kelly seems to be a big fan of Sandinista!) and leanings toward literature (he named an album after a Raymond Carver story) have seemed forbidding to many. Yet there is nothing dense about Kelly, a Woody Guthrie fan who aspires to similar plainspokenness. His gestures and observations are tiny, unexpected, perfect motions.
Post is Kelly’s third album. He normally records with a band, once called the Messengers. Before then its members answered to the Dots and the Coloured Girls, but Post is a solo acoustic album that emphasizes the dark side of life. Before you start yelling Nebraska, know that the pessimism here is more specific than the broad-minded Springsteen would ever allow. (Also know that Kelly gives himself the marvelous luxury of occasional accompaniment, however spare.) Many of the songs here are lyrically grounded in the first stages of recovery from drug addiction. “White Train” and “Blues for Skip” are explicitly about heroin, and all sorts of junk—drugs and otherwise—thwart the soft vocalist throughout the record.
The soft singing is never intended as quiet comfort. The singer in “Adelaide” rethinks his childhood, all detail and foreboding (“Dad’s hands used to shake but I never knew he was dying/I was thirteen, I never dreamed he could fall”), and when he stumbles into the present as if it is a bad dream, he tosses off lines like “I own this town” to convince himself that someone is listening to him. In “Incident on South Dowling,” a junkie helplessly watches his lover overdose before him, and then he ponders the layout of the tiny apartment they shared. Precise observations, punctuated by tragedy.
The meanest song on Post is its truest. A self-satisfied rock-god-in-training sings “Look So Fine, Feel So Low,” the tale of an up-and-comer living off the kindness of an innocent (“She buys me things/She wants to take care of me/And all I gotta do is sing, sing, sing”) while a millimeter under the surface he detests her (“She’s so easy to impress/When she asks me dumb questions/All I gotta do is say ‘yes, yes, yes’”) for his predicament. Kelly’s character signs in a voice so drenched in derision he is oblivious to his inhumanity. The title lines are attempts to show remorse, but the kid is kidding. What the kid doesn’t know is that revealing himself ensures his eventual eviction. He looks so wise, but he’s really a fool. These deceptively complex characters are the folks Kelly wants to write about, and their multidimensional nature is part of why their stories don’t ring on radios from coast to coast. Kelly subsequently rerecorded rousing full-band versions of many of the songs on Post, and those takes are often exhilarating. They’re great performances. But on Post, they’re revelations.
“There are fellowships, rings, kings, and towers everywhere.”
Here’s today’s example:
The Management Lessons of Las Vegas (MIT Sloan Management Review)