In Praise of Interpretive Artists

When I was getting paid to be a music critic, one of the more entertaining nights on the job was the annual get-together of all my newspapers’ music critics to compile our “Best Of” lists for the year’s Local Music Issue. These editorial lists were based solely on our own subjective opinions and observations, ostensibly filtered through our superior critical experience, while the separate Readers’ Poll represented the vox populi. It was sort of a “what’s good” vs. “what’s popular” dichotomy, to some extent.

The fact that there was very little overlap between the two lists probably says a lot about how music critics exist in little bubbles of elitism that have no bearing on the lives and experiences of most normal human beings. As I wrote in one of the opening paragraphs of Eponymous, music critics are:

“. . . the deeply demented souls who live in a world where a packed stadium equals ‘lowest common denominator failure,’ while eight of their kind gathered in a space of their own making watching a nobody doing nothing anyone else wants to hear equals ‘artistic triumph.”

One of the things that used to cause particular outrage at the annual gathering of the music critics was the fact that the hoi polloi would routinely vote for cover bands in the “Best Local Artist” category that we gave them in the Readers’ Poll. Can you imagine that?!? Lawks, how much we needed to educate the rabble, to help them rise above the humiliation of dancing in public to bar band versions of “Mustang Sally” or “Brown Eyed Girl,” while (shudder) actually enjoying themselves?!? Forsooth, we must select the most experimental, underground, obscure band we can find to counter their ignorance! Excelsior!

One year, though, one of our own turned on us: a normally dependable music critic came to the annual gathering of the rock and roll gadflies and nominated a duo who primarily played other peoples’ music for the “Best Local Artist” slot in our annual critics’ poll. The duo dug up pop obscurities and then completely reinvented their arrangements, he explained, turning them into something unique and fresh. They offered extraordinary vocals and exceptional instrumental talent. They were socially active, playing at the sorts of benefits that we liked to support, on behalf of the sorts of causes that music critics get excited about (e.g. “Hey! Let’s go to the PETA rally and see if there are any naked women painted as tigers there today!”) They collaborated with others in the community, sharing stages with some of the obscure weirdos that we’d already selected in other categories. Why, he pressed, would we not consider them for the top slot in our regional poll, just because they didn’t write their own songs?

Why? Why?!! WHY?!?!? Because . . . because . . . HERETIC!!! ABOMINATION!!! FREAK!!!! OUTCAST!!!! I won’t go through the details, but suffice to say that voices were raised, fingers were pointed, drinks were slammed, cigarettes were stubbed angrily, words were exchanged, feelings were hurt, alliances formed and broke up, more drinks were slammed, and in the end, we gave “Best Local Artist” to a new group composed of three of our friends who had only played two shows out in public to a total of nineteen people (but, boy, that TEAC Tascam 4-track musique concrete deconstruction of ABBA Gold they sent us was awesome!), while the proposed covers duo was grudgingly awarded a prize in a new category we created especially for them: “Best Local Interpretive Artists.”

These days, honestly, I’m generally happier to go out and dance along to cover tunes played by great local bar bands than I am to go shuffle morosely in a seedy bar, hoping to find the next best thing, and having it fail to show up. I still appreciate the act of songwriting, of course, and I love up-and-coming artists who sing what they write, but I also appreciate the act of performing and connecting with an audience, and some of the better shows I’ve experienced in the past few years have been shows primarily composed of cover songs.

So today, I lift up and celebrate our friends the Interpretive Artists by sharing a list of my Top 20 Favorite Cover Songs Ever, below. Feel free to submit additions to this list in the comment section, and I will make sure that no angry music critics show up to stub their cigarettes out on your arm.

  1. “Young Man Blues,” by The Who (covering Mose Allison)
  2. “Morning Dew,” by Einsturzende Neubauten (covering Bonnie Dobson or Tim Rose)
  3. “Whole Lotta Love,” by Tragic Mulatto (covering Led Zepellin, filtering Willie Dixon)
  4. “Rosegarden Funeral of Sores,” by Bauhaus (covering John Cale)
  5. “Shipbuilding,” by Robert Wyatt (covering Elvis Costello, though technically Wyatt’s version went public first)
  6. “Black Diamond,” by The Replacements (covering KISS)
  7. “Sugar Smack,” by The Hanslick Rebellion (covering the Archies and the Velvet Underground, at the same time)
  8. “I’m Not Lisa,” by Killdozer (covering Jessi Colter)
  9. “Stagger Lee,” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (covering Lloyd Price and 1,000 bluesmen)
  10. “Scumbag Pines,” by The Kamikaze Hearts (covering Beef)
  11. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” by Isaac Hayes (covering Glen Campbell)
  12. “Ray of Light,” by Madonna (covering Curtiss Maldoon)
  13. “The First Cut is the Deepest,” by Rod Stewart (covering Cat Stevens)
  14. “Pablo Picasso,” by John Cale (covering Modern Lovers)
  15. “Going Up,” by COIL (covering the theme song of British TV show Are You Being Served?)
  16. “Love Hurts,” by Nazareth (covering The Everly Brothers or Roy Orbison)
  17. “Yoo Doo Right,” by The Geraldine Fibbers (covering CAN)
  18. “Personal Jesus,” by Marilyn Manson (covering Depeche Mode)
  19. “Viva Las Vegas,” by Dead Kennedys (covering Elvis Presley)
  20. “Kaw-Liga,” by The Residents (covering Hank Williams)

Five Statements, Five Questions II: Albany Edition

1. I am in Albany tonight. Did anyone notice a disturbance in the force?

2. The Albany-Colonie area has about half the population of Des Moines, but the traffic is orders of magnitude worse. Why?

3. I put my suitcase in the back seat of the wrong rental car, and now it’s gone. Do you have my clothes?

4. I had dinner with Jed Davis tonight, who’s one of my favorite songwriters ever. Who are yours?

5. I drove from Great Barrington to Albany tonight taking a shortcut on Dugway Road, which is a gorgeous dirt path southeast of Spencertown. Why does it feel so good to drive fast on dirt roads?

Rubbernecking at the Trainwreck of Journamalizm

My dictionary offers the following definitions of the word “news:”

1. a report of a recent event; intelligence; information.

2. the presentation of a report on recent or new  events in a newspaper  or other periodical or on radio or television.

3. such reports taken collectively; information reported.

4. a person, thing, or event considered as a choice subject for journalistic treatment; newsworthy  material.

5. newspaper.

Definition number five is pretty near and dear to me, as I’ve written numerous times before how much of a newspaper-lover I am — and how poorly I though that our daily newspaper, in both its print and online incarnations, served my old home community in Albany.

My distaste for that newspaper notwithstanding, there are still a couple of writers I like at the old newspaper’s hyper-hormonal blog portal, so I occasionally poke my head over there to catch up on their latest musings.

I’m often silently appalled by the non-news things that get placed on the front page there — but today they really out-did themselves, moving into a whole new realm of unbelievably idiotic traffic-mongering, shown below:

Bad newspaper? Or worst newspaper ever?

Three cannibalism-related stories on the front-page, one on top of the other? Wow. I don’t know where to start with unpacking the idiocy of this one, and once I do, I don’t really know how I would stop in less than 25,000 words. So I guess in summary, I’ll just note that in every definition of “news” I’ve ever encountered, the subjects in question generally involve things that are real.

Last time I checked, zombies did not qualify on that front, and hence, they should never be news.

But even if they did qualify, why in the world would I care how my boss would fare against them? Will having a strong zombie-fighting boss make me feel safer if a bath-salts-addled face-eater or a human-consuming Canadian blue-movie star happens to land in the office next to mine?

The mind reels . . . as do, I suspect, the hit counters. Wow, and wow again . . .

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!

America Drinks and Goes Home

The Bumble’s Thumbs allow her to manipulate Scrabble tiles far better than most cats are able. She was actually having a fine game of Scrabble tonight, until Marcia nailed her with a bingo and gloated (see photo below), forcing The Bumble to get all puffed up with indignation and chase The Nervous Orange Cat into the linen closet. I finished out The Bumble’s game for her, and got stomped:

Never challenge a cat with thumbs . . . if The Bumble says “QIJKUORX” is a word, then it is . . .

Weather Conspiracy and Other Matters

1. The first half of January in Des Moines was so nice, weather-wise, that I had become convinced that the tales of severe Iowan winters were just a myth cobbled up and promulgated by the locals to keep expat New Yorkers like us from moving here. I have ridden my bike, worn shorts and hiked more in the past three weeks than I ever did in any winter month during my 18 years in Albany. Nice! Unfortunately, though, yesterday the temperature dropped into single digits, the wind kicked up with 50 mile per hour gusts, and the dry, stinging snow started flying. Oh well . . . I guess they do have winter in Iowa. But with an annual average snowfall of only 33 inches, I can’t imagine it being worse than a typical endless, icy, sleety, dark Upstate New York cold season. Fingers crossed. Katelin and I did some really nice walks during the warm spells, including another trek out the Great Western Trail and a nice walk around Saylorville Lake, per pics below:

Beautiful rural cemetery in Cumming, Iowa.

Road between Cumming and its cemetery, under big Midwestern skies.

Creek on the Great Western Trail.

On the Great Western Trail. (I love the missing blades on the weather vane, and the bullet holes in its tail, which become more obvious and visible if you click to enlarge this shot).

Trees reflected in a frozen creek, on the Great Western Trail.

Katelin on the trail around Saylorville Lake.

I will eat your soul . . . . I want your soul . . . .

Uhhh . . . . I think we will pass, thanks . . .

2. When I was in sixth grade, our family lived at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while my dad attended the Army’s Command and General Staff College there. Last weekend, Katelin, Marcia and I went down to Kansas City for a night on the town, and on our way there, we popped over to Leavenworth to assess the old homestead. It didn’t look half bad, honestly:

We lived in the end unit of this apartment complex.

My bedroom window was the one on the second floor of the end unit, closest to the front of the house. When I looked out this window, I saw the distinctive dome of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. My next door neighbor was Rob Heinsoo, who went on to achieve a high degree of acclaim as a game designer, including serving as the lead designer for the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. His brother (another Eric) and I were among his very first dungeon victims, and it was an absolute hoot to read about his tentative first dungeons many, many, many years later in this interview. I still remember the School for Dragons . . . there was no going forward after we bumbled into that. The Napoleonic war game mentioned in the interview was based on the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt and to this day, the only things I know and retain about that battle are based on the game. That was also the year that I became a life-long Kansas City Royals fan. Needless to say, Fort Leavenworth holds fond memories for me!