Reading My Own Writing

A couple of weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my one and only novel, Eponymous, is now available in an e-book format. This unexpected news inspired me to do something I have never actually done: read my own 350-page book from beginning to end, the way that normal readers would experience it. I’m about 80% through the novel at this point, and I’m actually enjoying it and finding it something of a page-turner, since there are whole chunks of the book, and numerous characters and situations, that I had completely forgotten about since I prepared the final proof copy of the book in the summer of 2001. I obviously know how it ends already, but the literary path from beginning to conclusion includes twists and turns that had completely fled my forebrain over the years, so it’s been enjoyable to have a lot of “Oh, yeah, that!” moments as I’ve clicked through the eBook I bought for four bucks.

Does it sound weird to you that I’ve never read the novel from beginning to end, or that I’ve forgotten big chunks of it? I am thinking that it might, to folks who don’t write as much as I do (and that’s probably 95% of the humans on the planet today, realistically speaking). I mean, I obviously read every word in the book, at least once, as I typed it, but I did not write the book’s chapters in the order that they appeared in their final format, and I spent a lot of time taking what was originally two unrelated short stories and expanding them and knitting them into a coherent narrative, and then building a back story that made character interactions seem (to me, at least) natural, so when I felt like all of the pieces of the puzzle were put together, I just gave it to other people to edit, and never read the whole text from start to finish. Given this fact, it actually holds together better a decade on than I would have expected it to, so I think I got lucky in that regard.

I’m guessing that the “I forgot what I wrote” element may also feel alien (if not affected or precious) to folks who don’t write as often and obsessively as I do. I’m used to that forgeting piece, though, since I have been writing in so many outlets, for so many years, that to retain all of those words and all of those ideas and all of those stories in my frontal loaf would probably result in me being a far less functional human being that I strive to be on a daily basis. When I first set up Indie Moines and pulled a bunch of my old online archives dating back to 1995 into a single site, there were literally hundreds of posts that I had completely forgotten, while others still burned bright in my conscious mind, for whatever reason. I occasionally pull out my records from my 2004 Poem a Day Project, and am pleasantly surprised by some of the pieces that didn’t speak to me at the time, but resonate now, while some of the things that I thought were fantastic in 2004 haven’t held up quite as well. Seeing your own things through fresh eyes, even if they are your own (only older), isn’t a bad experience, really.

In addition to the things I’ve forgotten over the years, there are also probably hundreds of thousands of words (literally) that I have lost throughout my life. I remember writing a piece of historical fiction about Lady Jane Grey in seventh grade, that my teachers thought was fantastic, though I don’t have it any more. I won a statewide poetry contest in 11th grade for a poem that I can no longer recall or reproduce. I wrote for military base and school newspapers through most of my high school years, and have very few of those pieces anymore. In college, I kept journals and lyric books, all of them long lost to basement floods or household goods moving catastrophies. I did what I consider to be some of my best writing work anonymously for many years on a series of websites in Albany, the vast majority of which have also disappeared into the (Upstate) ether. On some plane, it’s more painful to remember things I’ve created, and not be able to access them, than it is to just forget about stuff I’ve done, occasionally being pleasantly surprised when I stumble across it again, years later.

Does it sound arrogant for me to say that I am enjoying reading my own writing? It shouldn’t, because the relationship of a serious, high-volume writer to his or her many, many own words is less akin to something that occurs in a Self Appreciation Society or a Cult of Personality than it is to something that occurs as the Worm Ourobouros eats its own tail in the privacy of some dark, necrotic grove. The tail meat may taste good at first when the Worm starts nibbling it . . . but the longer and harder the Worm chews on it, and the more it swallows, the less enjoyable (and healthy) the self-eating experience is likely to become.

So I’m glad to have this one chance to read Eponymous straight through in its entirety, and I doubt that I will ever do so again. Fortunately, though, at least the print and eBook editions of the book mean that I will never have to regret losing it, as I have with so many other pieces . . . and that’s very comforting on a variety of planes!

More Than Night Fever . . .

1. Having written about Robin Gibb and his terminal illness a little while back, I wasn’t surprised to hear of his passing last week. I was, however, surprised at how shallow many of the obituaries I read of him were, with many of them focusing on the Bee Gees’ disco era hits, “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever,” neither of which showcased Robin in any capacity beyond harmony vocals. But years before those songs came out, Robin was one of the primary songwriters, and the primary singer of the band, and they had loads of hits in those days, which should have been cited by the media when they covered his passing. So to rectify this inadequate coverage, here are five utterly fantastic early Robin Gibb performances that demonstrate his true vocal talents far better than the Saturday Night Fever-era hits do, as he really deserves better than to be remembered as nothing more than a disco icon:

2. In addition to Robin Gibb, and Donna Summer, and Donald “Duck” Dunn, the musical world also lost another heroic figure this month, though his influence was felt in wider circles than his name was known. Chuck Brown, who passed away on May 16, was the Godfather of Go-Go, and a hugely important musical figure in Washington, DC, around which I spent most of the 1980s. Along with his band, The Soul Searchers, Chuck offered a funky stew of R&B and soul atop long, killer, percussion-heavy rhythmic tracks, with loads of skritchy guitar and call-and-response vocals, guaranteed to make you move and sweat, so long as you had a pulse. What later bands would create using loops and samples, Chuck and Company created by jamming and grooving, live, for as long as it took to get the job done. His music has been widely sampled and appropriated over the years, though outside of Washington, he’s never gotten the name-recognition and love that he deserved. Here’s one of the his best and most famoue early songs, “Bustin’ Loose,” which was originally released in 1978, and shows the prescience of his musical vision. And here’s a later, live clip, which shows the rhythmic behemoth that Go-Go grew into over the years, recorded at Version II of Washington DC’s 930 Club, which aure looks a whole lot nicer and cleaner than Version I at 930 F Street, where I used to hang out in the 1980s:

Eponymous (The eBook)

The original print cover of the book, with which I was pleased.

I spent a few years, on and off, during the late 1990s and early 2000s working on a novel called Eponymous, which saw the light of day in a print edition in 2001. I got some nice reviews on it, sold a decent number of copies, made a few bucks off the project (though not enough to cover the time I spent producing it, even at minimum wage) and then decided that I never wanted to write another novel again. Eponymous was supposed to be in print for three years, but it still shows up in new and used editions in a variety of outlets, and I still get little royalty checks every six months or so. I don’t really think about much anymore, except to be gracious when strangers write me to say that they enjoyed it.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to hear today that Eponymous has been converted by the publisher into a digital edition, and can now be downloaded and read on both Kindle and Nook, and possibly on other e-readers as well, though I have no clue what those might be. I looked at the sample on my Kindle, and it appears that they’ve done a good job of converting the text for the most part, although the formatting of some of the poems and lyrics and other pieces contained in the original print edition is a bit cock-eyed. While the print edition went for about $20, the eBook edition is available for around four bucks, or less. So if you have been, or are, curious about this lost classic (?), you can now read my first and last novel for less than you’d spend on a foofy whipped drink at a coffee shop.

Here’s a brief write-up on Eponymous that ran in the Albany daily newspaper back in 2002 to demonstrate that you don’t actually have to know me to like the book:

Dark, well-crafted satire of band life is set in the Capital Region.

By Lisa Stevens

Collie Hay is a washed-up musician who is now a music critic in J. Eric Smith’s fast-paced novel, Eponymous.

Collie, full of self-hate and loathing, is writing a self-hurt book to try and alleviate the guilt that consumes him following a horrible accident involving his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Kris Dennison, a bassoonist and a school teacher. Cause of the accident? “Toxic stupidity,” Collie explains.

The Capital Region is the backdrop of this dark satire, which Smith deftly crafts. The author’s in-depth knowledge of band life and his talent for rich character development makes for great reading. You’ll find yourself cheering for Collie’s smart-mouth, smart-aleck attitude and wanting to scream “grow up” all in the same sentence.

Eponymous, in its darkness, is also a laugh-out-loud page turner. We can only hope Smith is at work on his next book.

In Praise of a New Hawkwind Album

On April 30, Hawkwind released a new studio album called Onward, and with a few days worth of listening under my belt, I’m thinking this disc deserves one of the highest BLANGA scores of the group’s past two decades, joining such latter-day crunchy classics as Distant Horizons (1997), Electric Tepee (1992) and The Xenon Codex (1988). It’s pretty amazing stuff for a band whose founder (Dave Brock) has been playing live for more than half a century, and who has worked with more members and put out more records than pretty much anybody this side of Mark E. Smith’s The Fall.This is the second album produced by the current line-up (founder-leader Brock, stalwart drummer Richard Chadwick, prodigal synth player Tim Blake, and relative newcomers Niall Hone and Mr. Dibs), and the¬†creative growth in two short years that this group of players has achieved together with Onward is remarkable and delightful, as it is a very solid addition to their studio canon, with numerous songs that should be concert staples for years to come.

As has been the case with most Hawkwind studio albums since the late 1980s, Onward features an assortment of new compositions interspersed with recastings of older material from their catalog. Robert Calvert’s “Death Trap” and “Aero Space Age Inferno” both get excellent, high-energy treatments on Onward, while Dave Brock’s evocative “Green Finned Demon” gets a suitably moody treatment that presents it as well as it’s ever been framed since first appearing as a B-side to “Night of the Hawks” in 1984. The acoustic-synthetic freakout of “Mind Cut” (which evokes the equally twangy-loopy “Hurry on Sundown” from the group’s 1970 debut album) is a re-casting of an ancient, pre-Hawkwind Brock busking number called “Get Yourself Together,” and it’s aged surprisingly well all these years on. “The Flowering Of The Rose” is a walloping long-form groove built on a riff that appears to have been culled from the Calvert-era “Steppenwolf,” with some tasty leads tossed out by some combination of Brock, Hone, Blake and Hawkwind’s late keyboardist Jason Stuart, who died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorage in 2008. 1993’s “Right to Decide” also gets a fresh run-through recorded with Stuart before his passing, and it’s a nice enough version, though it really can’t match the power and passion of the original, which was one of the finest songs Hawkwind produced in the 1990s.

Among the new numbers, standouts include opening BLANGA-fests “Seasons” and “The Hills Have Ears,” (the latter featuring long-time lead guitarist Huw Lloyd-Langton in a guest spot), the topical “Computer Cowards,” and the flat-out groovy “The Drive By.” The short spoken-word piece “System Check” is a worthy follower in the tradition of “Sonic Attack,” in which the concept of musical machinery as a weapon is explored, while Brock’s “Howling Moon” and Blake’s “Southern Cross” are evocative mood pieces, painting pictures with sounds and textures in lieu of tints and brushes. Onward is a long album, true, clocking in at nearly an hour and twenty minutes, but it is a rewarding listening experience, and I recommend it highly, for both grizzled BLANGA veterans and space-rock newbies seeking a fresh thrill. It’s good to have fresh BLANGA in hand, especially when it’s delivered by the masters of the genre. We’ll have to update the BLANGA Guide soon . . .

Hawkwind 2012: Blake, Hone, Brock, Dibs, Chadwick.

BLANGA: The Story . . .

My longest-standing claim to Internet notoriety stems from a 1993 online exchange on Compuserve’s RockNet Forum about the pioneering space-rock band, Hawkwind. Fellow RockNet denizen Zen Poet (a.k.a. Steve Pond, in the real world) shared my enthusiasm for Hawkwind’s thunderous noise-scapes, which he’d experienced in a very personal manner, both having seen the band in its heyday as an impressionable youth, and then later having played synths and guitar with Inner City Unit (featuring former Hawkwind mainstays Nik Turner, Dave Anderson and Dead Fred), and backing erstwhile Hawkwind frontman Robert Calvert (also with Dead Fred) during the final tours Calvert played before his untimely passing in 1988. (Steve still makes music as the mighty Krankschaft).

At some point in some conversation way back then, in a stab at onomatopoeia, one or the other of us described the lock-step grinding guitar figures that anchor some of the group’s most scintillating flights of fancy as making a sound like “BLANGA BLANGA BLANGA BLANGA BLANGA . . .” We eventually started using the word “BLANGA” as a short-form description of the best qualities of Hawkwind’s music, and along with another RockNet chum named Dave Rice, we started compiling rankings of various Hawkwind albums based on their BLANGA scores, rating them on a scale from 0 to 10. As I wrote at the time: “A BLANGA Score of 10 is the epitome of the form; a BLANGA Score of 0 is ANTI-BLANGA, music from an evil alternate universe where all male musicians have their testicles removed at age 13, and female musicians are only allowed to sing seven-part amens whilst shrouded head to toe in surgical gauze.”

I had very limited Internet skills at the time, but Steve and Dave were both very technically adept, and at some point in the earliest days of the World Wide Web, the three of us agreed to craft an online version of our unofficial Hawkwind BLANGA Guide. I wrote the copy and assigned the ratings, then Dave worked his coding magic, and Steve did what needed to be done to host it on his Doremi website (named after the Hawks’ masterful Doremi Fasol Latido album), where it soon became an important part of the online Hawkwind experience. Amazingly enough, the BLANGA Guide lives there at Doremi to this very day, with one major sprucing and updating completed in 2010, some 15-plus years after the original version went online.

It has been quite an amusing treat over the years to watch the word BLANGA propagate among the Hawkwind community, to the point where I have heard band members using it in interviews, have been challenged by former band members about low BLANGA scores given to discs they played on, and seen tape traders rating various shows based on the quality of BLANGA therein. Other bands and their fans have adopted the term as well, with the most obvious nod coming from American space-rockers F/i, who titled their 2005 album Blanga, and filled it with songs like “In the Garden of Blanga,” “Blanga’s Transformation,” “An Extremely Lovely Girl Dreams of Blanga,” and “Grandfather Blanga and his Band Light it Up.” It’s kind of cool to have influenced people that way, without them having any idea that the word “BLANGA” wasn’t something that just emerged spontaneously from the ether, but rather has a specific, definable birth-place and pedigree. It was my word and it was Steve’s word first, but it has since flown away and taken on a life of its own, with meaning to countless people who we have never and will never meet.

How cool is that? Pretty darn cool, I say . . . we invented a word!

If you turn the BLANGA up to 10 (or higher), this is what you get.

A Token of My Extreme

There are 728 pins and nine pounds of plastic and cardboard hidden within this shirt.

1. I had to do a spot of clothes shopping recently to have some fresh duds for the new job. This is among my least favorite things in the world to do, since left to my own devices, and in a vacuum, I would spend all of my waking moments wearing loose fitting gym shorts and a t-shirt, ideally with a grocery store or progrock logo on it. I wouldn’t own a pair of socks, either, if I didn’t have play nice in proper society. Or shoes, when you get right down to it. My feet get on just fine without such extravagances. But, anyway, life is what it is, and expectations are what they are, so I dress the part in the corporate world, and I do it well, when I need to. I bought three new dress shirts at one store last week and upon getting them home, I went through the usual insane ritual of removing pins, bits of plastic, strings with labels attached to them, cardboard, more plastic, more pins, and some little sacks with extra buttons or collar stays in them. I have never been able to figure out why so much packaging is required for men’s dress shirts. I would be just as happy buying them hanging on hangars, where I could see the cuts of the collars and cuffs just as easily as I can when they are mounted with pins-plastic-cardboard, as though they were works of taxidermy determined to show you what shirts would look like if they were worn by two-dimensional, one-armed men. Shirt manufacturers, stop the madness!!!

Safe for the gym AND the hot tub!

2. I do most of my reading these days on a Kindle, wrapped in a zip-lock bag. Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, I’m a Philistine destroying centuries of literary tradition by sacrificing the magic of the printed page for the cold heartlessness of a hunk of plastic and silicon chips, and that does bother me on some plane, though not as much as it used to bother me when I wrecked expensive hard-cover books by sweating on them at the gym or dropping them in the hot tub. But, at any rate, one of the interesting features about reading books on a Kindle is that you get a little bar on the bottom of the page that marks your progress toward the end of the book as a percentage. I read a lot of nonfiction, so it has been really interesting to me to note how often I find myself at 65% or so, thinking I’ve got another solid day or two of reading ahead of me, only to find myself crashing to the end of the meaningful text, with 35% of my purchased product consisting of end-notes, bibliographies, author acknowledgements, indices, appendices and/or glossaries that I’m not actually interested in reading. Now, on a Kindle, there’s no cost to the publisher or the reader to providing these wasted pages, but it makes me wonder why publishing houses feel the need to provide all of that useless paper (for most readers) at the back of their print editions, when they have to factor paper and binding costs into their economic model. Wouldn’t it make more sense to end the print editions where the main text ended, with a little tag saying “If you really care about notes and cites and appendices, please visit our website at”? My hunch is that they don’t do this, and that the end-notes and cites and other junk at the back of books are actually expanding in volume, because of fears about claims of plagiarism against the authors and publishers. That level of stringent documented rigor once only appeared in graduate school thesis papers, but it now seems to be a requirement for popular nonfiction as well. I did a totally unscientific survey on this topic by pulling a bunch of older nonfiction books off my personal library shelves, and I will note that many of the classics of the genre have virtually no post-text addenda in their printed editions. Why is this? I would welcome others’ thoughts on this trend, since I just find myself saying: Book publishers, stop the madness!!!