Sunday, January 31, 2010

My State of Mind...

...or, rather, my attempt at marshalling my thoughts and getting them to work together for a while this morning, might best be represented by this scene from Baraka:

(Come to think of it, did Avatar rip some moves from these guys?)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Every now and then...

...I find my way back to this video:

(Johnny Cash, "Hurt")

Then I return to my empire of dirt.

You're Such a Disappointment

This is useful.

But we don't stop there. Not only are we disappointed, we need to express it. Vent it. Hiss it and spit it and hurl it like fistfuls of mental manure at the great wall of hey, screw you.

You have but to take a peek in the comments section below this column, any column, any article on this or any news site whatsoever, to see just how mean and nasty we have become. It does not matter what the piece might be about. Obama's speech. High speed rail. Popular dog breeds. Your grandmother's cookies. The anonymous comments section of any major media site or popular blog will be so crammed with bile and bickering, accusation and pule, hatred and sneer you can't help but feel violently disappointed by the shocking lack of basic human kindness and respect, much less a sense of positivism or perspective.

Maybe this, then, is the ultimate upshot of our endless, self-wrought swirl of sour disappointment, of never having our impossible needs fully met, of constantly being thwarted in our desire to have the world revolve around our exact set of specifications and desires.

Our disappointment begins to curdle, to turn back on itself, poison the heart, turn us nasty and low. It shifts from merely being a national mood or general temperament, into a way of being. A wiring, deep and harmful and permanent. It's all very disappointing, really.

That's Mark Morford. I'd quote more, or you could click through, but the rest just wouldn't live up.

Owen Pallett (Live)

I gravitate more and more toward (or, rather, into) the songs of Owen Pallett despite initial misgivings. His music reminded me of Philip Glass. Still does. And I can't take more than ninety seconds of Glass before my sanity shatters. But last summer I caught Owen Pallett streaming live for the Pitchfork Music Festival, and something shifted. Though I remain indifferent to his studio work, I've spent more than a little time watching and listening to Pallett's live performances on Youtube.

Here's one from his show this past Monday in London:

And here's a great one--the lead single from his new album--performed with an orchestra in Vienna last August:


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Worst Obituary in the History of Death?

I know nothing of Richard Lacayo, the author of Time Magazine's Salinger obit. He seems a handsome fellow in his bio photo, with more than a spark of the jolly in those crinkled baby blues. He works as a senior writer for Time Magazine, so when he writes the eulogy it shouldn't read as if some drunk stumbled in off the street to bellow at Salinger's family while the corpse was still warm. Right? (Right?!) Yet somehow, despite the tradition of grace and respect in eulogies, Lacayo wrote this seedy drivel and--probably in a rush to let advertisers surf the waves of gawking and grief--his editors published it, pronto. Yet, inexplicably, they posted Lacayo's thrashing of Salinger's reputation under the heading "Appreciation" when it should have been filed under "Depreciation." In three short pages, Lacayo does little more than spit in the faces of Salinger, his family, and his fans.

Yes, I'm a Salinger fan. I admire Catcher in the Rye as much for its voice as for its story; but my fondness for the book arises from what it meant to me way back when. I doubt it would make much of an impression were I to read it for the first time today. I love several of his short stories, sure, and I'm still glad I tracked down the New Yorker issue with the Hapworth story in a library long, long ago. But, generally speaking, I don't consider myself a Salinger groupie. I've met a few, and, trust me, I am not one. I cannot match the intensity of their devotion. I don't quote from the stories. I've read "De Daumier Smith's Blue Period" only the one time. And I haven't studied the life of the man, nor peeked into his affairs through memoirs or biographies. I'm attached, not obsessed.

So I can forgive the headline ("J.D. Salinger Dies at 91: The Hermit Crab of American Letters") and Time's use of a photo Salinger sued to have removed from the jackets of his books. And forget Lacayo's backhanded praise: "Like some of his favorite writers — like Sappho, whom we know only from ancient fragments, or the Japanese poets who crafted 17-syllable haikus — Salinger was an author whose large reputation pivots on very little." And ignore the verb-tense shifts that riddle the piece. (No doubt I'm shifty, myself, in that respect.) Deeper down in the article, things get much, much worse.

In the second paragraph, Lacayo falsely credits Salinger as the first (first what? first author? first person?) to reject fame. In fact, Lacayo describes Salinger as "bent over [his reclusivity] with an inventor's sweaty intensity." Which might not turn my stomach if the next paragraph didn't name-check Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley, Jr., then close with this:

But what matters is that even for the millions of people who weren't crazy, Holden Caulfield, Salinger's petulant, yearning (and arguably manic-depressive) young hero was the original angry young man. That he was also a sensitive soul in a cynic's armor only made him more irresistible. James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway had invented disaffected young men too. But Salinger created Caulfield at the very moment that American teenage culture was being born. A whole generation of rebellious youths discharged themselves into one particular rebellious youth.

[Emphasis added.]

They what?! They discharged themselves into Holden Caulfield? I suppose they did so with "sweaty intensity" too. At this point I begin to wonder whether I am reading a eulogy or a send-up.

On the next page Lacayo spoils the ending of "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"--and why not? Surely everyone has read that story by now, and there's not a soul in the world who might be inspired to pick up a copy of Nine Stories, say, this weekend. Nope. No one. Sorry, kids.

Later, as if ruining an ending for new readers weren't dastardly enough, Lacoyo dips into the eccentric and sordid details of Salinger's life. Lacayo cites biographies and memoirs published by people with ulterior motives (that much is inarguable, isn't it?).

Toward the end, he gives a rundown of the literary snark penned by a few notable critics:

In 1961 Salinger published Franny and Zooey as a single volume. It stayed at the top of the best-seller list for six months. By that time, the cult status of The Catcher in the Rye was fully established. But in some important corners of American letters, there was a backlash forming. In reviews that were on the whole positive, John Updike still found Salinger sentimental, and Alfred Kazin thought he was getting "cute." For years John Cheever told friends that he thought Salinger wouldn't let Hollywood make a movie version of Catcher because Salinger was too old to play Holden. And in a review that is said to have infuriated Salinger, Mary McCarthy accused him of a "terrifying" narcissism and wondered whether Seymour killed himself because he suspected that he, too, was "a fake."

Lacayo then cedes the floor to Joyce Maynard, Salinger's former lover, who cashed in with a tell-all memoir about their affair:

The picture of Salinger that Maynard draws for us is of a man preoccupied by homeopathic medicine who had a diet regimen built around vegetables and ground lamb cooked at very low temperatures. He loved certain TV programs — The Andy Griffith Show, The Lawrence Welk Show — and had reels of old Hollywood movies that he projected at home. He wrote every day, but the unpublished work was stored away in a large safe that occupied a good part of one bedroom. She tells us that because she found sexual intercourse with Salinger too painful and frightening to complete, she remained a virgin during their months together. All the same, Maynard wanted children, but the man who had summoned her there wasn't interested in starting another family. And he looked on in gathering disgust as Maynard, who was preparing to expand her Times Magazine article into a book, was seduced by the New York publishing and media world he detested. After 10 months together, Salinger abruptly called things off.

Is that surprising? A long time ago Salinger called things off with the entire world.

No, sorry, but no, he did not call things off with the entire world. He called things off with fame. The world didn't go anywhere, and Salinger remained in and of it. That distinction isn't just important. It's essential. Failure to appreciate it is symptomatic of the very thing Salinger lived to reject: phoniness.

(Is that surprising?)

In brief, Lacayo's "appreciation" of Salinger fails to memorialize the writer and his work--in fact, the piece does not appreciate Salinger at all. Rather, whether Lacayo meant to or not, what he wrote stands as a petty, snark-filled rebuttal to Salinger and his readers. It's Desperate Housewives posing as a eulogy.

I'd elaborate further, but I feel compelled to shower.

The Onion on Salinger's Death

Reading this tonight makes me feel much, much better:

Bunch Of Phonies Mourn J.D. Salinger

CORNISH, NH—In this big dramatic production that didn't do anyone any good (and was pretty embarrassing, really, if you think about it), thousands upon thousands of phonies across the country mourned the death of author J.D. Salinger, who was 91 years old for crying out loud....

Read the rest here.

Rest in Peas (for Breakfast), J.D. Salinger

What a sad day for the world of words on pages. Last night, Howard Zinn; today, J.D. Salinger. For no good reason, I'm stunned.

More later, but in the meantime I nominate this for Best Obituary Paragraph Ever:

In 1945 he was hospitalized for “battle fatigue” — often a euphemism for a breakdown — and after recovering, he stayed on in Europe past the end of the war chasing Nazi functionaries. He married a German woman, very briefly — a doctor about whom biographers have been able to discover very little. Her name was Sylvia, Margaret Salinger said, but Mr. Salinger always called her Saliva.

Sighing. Breathing. Soldiering on.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rest in Peace, Howard Zinn

I had a great phone interview with Howard Zinn back in 1994 or so(which became my first nationally syndicated piece). Professor Zinn was very gracious, every bit the warm heart you find beating on each page of A People's History of the United States. The book is invaluable. The man, more so.

What Ever Happened to Terry Hall?

I heard Nouvelle Vague's version of "Our Lips Are Sealed" this morning, with Terry Hall (the song's author) singing along. Which made me wonder: What's Terry Hall up to these days? He was the singer and leader of the Specials, Fun Boy Three, and The Colourfield; but I hadn't heard a single thing he'd done since the eighties.

So, first stop, youtube. Here's a pleasantly creepy pop song from his 1997 album Laugh: "Ballad of a Landlord" ("Embedding disabled by request." "That's what she said.") Great video! The song's a bit overproduced for my taste, but his performance is funny and this is already my favorite of his videos. I also found this hilarious, sickly sweet (but in a good way) duet with Sinead O'Connor (with hair!):

I love the juxtaposition of his looks of boredom and her flirty grins. This was apparentlya tune done in 1970 for the Eurovision TV series, and covered by O'Connor and Hall for a late nineties compilation that slipped by me during my meditation and poetry years.

Most recently, Hall has hooked up with a band called Dub Pistols. Here they are messing with Blondie in 2007:

Well done, but so what? What I've always wanted (and always will) is more from The Colourfield. That's when Hall started spreading his wings within the pop-song genre, and it's when he made his most consistently interesting music. Here's that band's deliciously Echo-&-the-Bunnymen-ish theme song, circa 1985:

But don't get the wrong idea. That song wasn't typical of The Colourfield's sound. Here's a truer sampling:

I suspect Terry lives well these days off the royalties from the hit song he wrote for the Go-Go's so long ago, not to mention his minor hits with The Specials. And good for him. He's earned it. Yet, despite the fact that I ought to track down those solo albums, I can't help thinking Terry Hall stands as a great pop songwriter who never quite fulfilled his potential.

I hope those solo albums turn out to prove me wrong.

(For what it's worth, here's...the rest...of the story.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


I still enjoy watching this one, every time. That's me, with the strange chin wig, and my best friend Paul across the table.

Paul died of cancer four years ago. Damn him.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Not the kind of thing I normally post, but, well, this is beautifully shot and performed. Just, you know, make sure the kids are in the other room:

James, "Don't Wait That Long"

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Like I Said, Rock Star"

With an opening like this, who can resist?
The husband returns from the hardware store with a blowtorch and a fire extinguisher. "Please don't set the kitchen on fire," his wife says, following him into the kitchen. He promises to be careful.

Here's the rest.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Remember When Is Here Again

The Flash Flood is back.

Nearly ten years ago, in a private, virtual "office" at Zoetrope, I hosted a flash fiction workshop that grew into a monthly powerhouse featuring the work of, oh, fifty to a hundred different writers, probably more, many of whom have become shining stars in the genre (if they weren't already). A few others have moved on to longer stories, a dozen or more have published novels, and several have created some of the finest literary magazines found on the Interwebs.

For five or six years, great writers came and went, and the quality of the work (and the workshop) grew stronger by the month. A few thousand stories passed through those floodgates, and several hundred found publication--most, though not all, in online journals. Friendships were born. Dramas played out. Art thrived. In short, this workshop has been the most productive and inspiring creative collaboration I have ever witnessed.

In recent years (since I became a parent, coincidentally), the Flash Flood has slowed to a trickle. We went from monthly workshops to three or four a year, and participation dropped even though the work kept up impressive standards.

With the tenth anniversary of those first two Flash Floods coming up in January and February, I'm getting ready to open the floodgates twice more and then to put the workshop to rest. To celebrate, I'm inviting many of the writers who drifted through and away over the years to come back and rejoin the core group of around fifty who have been there from the start.

Part 1 will see the floodgates open at midnight, your time, when Friday the 22nd of January begins. This flood will roar on through that weekend until it trickles out the following Tuesday or Wednesday.

Then Part 2 will commence at Midnight on 19 February 2010 and flow on for another five days or so.

If you happen to be one of those writers (or if you're interested in the spectacle and I know you--or even if you just send me links to a decent sample of your work), I'd love to have you join us, too. Drop me a line.

(My email address is my name, sans middle initial, at gmail, plus ye olde dot com.)

Drum Roll, Please...

I have a new story up as part of Night Train's Firebox Fiction series:

"From the Canyon to the Driveway"

This is my sole publication since The Sun published "Lavender" in 2006. I've worked on (and set aside) three novels since then and, of course, teaching and parenting have devoured my time. Though I published several stories each year in the early 2000's, it feels strange, now, to send a new piece of fiction into the world. Very strange. I'm unaccustomed to feeling

The strangeness arises, no doubt, from the discomfort. In my teens and twenties, I acted professionally and semi-professionally in dozens of plays--sometimes for audiences as large as 1,800 people, backed by a full symphony orchestra (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Peer Gynt). I also sang in alternative rock bands, hosted public radio music shows, and wrote for a weekly alternative newspaper. As recently as 2003-2005 I wrote commentary and satire for a well-read, lefty, political site. But lately I've turned into something of a hermit, culturally speaking. I'm a devoted husband and father, so I rarely go out with friends after dark--which means very few movies, only a couple of concerts, and no plays or readings in a long, long time. Our kids both struggle with food allergies, so we don't go to restaurants. I avoid the sun, for fear my immortality will melt away.

So this publication has me feeling uneasy. I like the story, but I wonder if it's good enough--if it's really worth anyone else's attention. (I'm not fishing for reassurance here, dear reader, I promise.) But the discomfort is good. It's useful. I feel challenged to make the next one better, to dig deeper, to keep sinking my teeth into the neck of my muse until I strike an artery.

Anyway, the story is out there. It will show up in my book later this year, too. Enjoy.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I Am Not a Folkie

...but I love this collection of folk musicians covering Tom Waits songs:

Covered In Folk: Tom Waits

I just raided it for songs I wanted to include in a mix CD for my wife.

TANGENTIALLY RELATED UPDATE: Speaking of folkiness, I've never wanted to like Damien Rice, but his songs keep grabbing me by the throat, shaking me, and dropping me to my knees.

(Thanks, Maya, for the tip.)