During the year I stopped writing words, I wrote a bit of music instead. Not songs per se, but notes on lined paper, like some sort of powder-wig fancy lad. I used to do this when I was in high school, as I detailed here a long time ago, but hadn’t given much thought to it in 20 years or so. I gave composing up because it was damn near impossible for me to turn paper notes into the kind I could hear with my ears, being neither a talented multi-instrumentalist nor the sort of person who could gather together a small wind ensemble.
The advent of sophisticated composition apps changed that. A few years back, the desktop composition application Notion came out with an iPad version that’s nothing short of stunning. It allows you to not only write music but also hear how it sounds, with a ginormous number of orchestral sound samples to choose from. For someone like me, who has music theory knowledge but can play no more than one-handed piano on a good day, it’s a godsend.
When I was in high school I wrote music. When I was in high school I did a lot of things. I used to write stories and write sketches and draw cartoons and draw comic books and play trumpet and play bass. I was not encouraged to do any of these things. I didn’t go to an artsy school and I don’t come from artsy people. I simply wanted to do many things and didn’t understand people who said it was important to pick one thing and stick with it. Who could be satisfied doing just one thing with their life?
Upon hearing of the passing of Ray Manzarek, my first thoughts were not of The Doors or Jim Morrison, but of the keyboardist’s role in one of the weirder albums ever released. The record was called Men Are Made In The Paint, a spoken word project by Bill Walton in which the former UCLA great and NBA analyst shared his thoughts on the game of basketball at length. At great length, in fact, because Men Are Made In The Paint is a double album, clocking in at almost 2 and a half hours of Bill Walton’s witness protection voice talking about hoops.
This is bit odd, but a Bill Walton spoken word album is not especially strange in and of itself. What puts Men Are Made In The Paint over the top is who Walton made the album with, and who released it.
If you’re a former punk rock kid of a certain age, you no doubt remember the little catalogs that came in every SST release, printed on Bible-weight tissue paper and strategically folded so they could hold listings for every record that label put out yet still fit between the CD and booklet for Damaged or Double Nickels on the Dime. One of my former bandmates swore he would one day own every single item in that catalog, and so he made it a point to learn every last release printed thereon, memorizing the backlist of obscure bygone groups like Tom Troccoli’s Dog and Fatso Jetson.
While studying the catalog with talmudic dedication, he discovered a tiny section for something called ISSUES RECORDS. Its only listing was Men Are Made In The Paint. The existence of a Bill Walton double album should have been crazy enough, but it was made doubly (quadruply?) crazy by the fact that Greg Ginn was somehow responsible for its existence. My friend, who worshiped Ginn, would often point to this as a sign of his quixotic genius and proclaimed this thing must be worth listening to it because Ginn deemed it so.
Welcome to Paul Rodgers’ “Rock and Roll Fantasy” Fantasy Camp. I’m Paul Rodgers, and I’m here to help you live out your dreams. My goal is to make this the best two weeks of your life, so let’s do this! By the end of this camp, you will be transformed from ordinary schmoes into rock and roll fantasy gods!
Before we do anything else, you need to be schooled in the fundamentals of rock and roll fantasy. The key to a successful rock and roll fantasy is knowing the difference between a jester and a dancer. I have two models up here on the stage with me; don’t panic, these are NOT real jesters and dancers. They are are simply here for demonstration purposes.
As you can see, the jester has a floppy hat with bells on it, and a checkered union suit, and he may hold a few items he could use to juggle, such as bowling pins. However, I want to stress this, just because he doesn’t have anything to juggle doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not a jester. That’s a common rookie mistake. Now, onto to the dancer. You’ll notice this model is wearing a silver leotard, and the hair…
Why are we doing this? Because differentiating between a jester and a dancer is the most important aspect of the rock and roll fantasy. If you can’t tell them apart, how are you going to arrange them? Back to the dancer…
Why are you asking about instruments? We won’t be playing any instruments. No, not during this demonstration or at any time during the next two weeks. I don’t know who gave you the impression you would be playing music, but they were mistaken. Now, if I could continue with my demonstration…
No, this is not a rock and roll fantasy camp. This is Paul Rodgers’ “Rock and Roll Fantasy” Fantasy Camp, as in Bad Company’s smash 1979 hit “Rock and Roll Fantasy.” This is where you get to realize your dream of living in the world of the song “Rock and Roll Fantasy.”
Sir, have you never heard the song? It clearly says “my rock and roll fantasy,” meaning me, Paul Rodgers, and my rock and roll fantasy involves jesters, dancers, and nothing else. Except for the part where your mama calls you but you don’t go home because you’re having too much fun, but that’s it. What more could you possibly want from a rock and roll fantasy?
Granted, those 13 things you named sounded exciting, in their own way. However, they are not in the scope of our mission here.
And to the guy in the back who yelled “ripoff,” sir, let me just say that compared to other song-specific seminars out there, this a bargain. Trust me, it costs a lot more to attend Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” Fantasy Camp. And that camp is actually two weeks long, so that’s false advertising right there. As far as I’m concerned, Paul Rodgers’ “Rock and Roll Fantasy” Fantasy Camp is a steal at $7000 a session.
No, there will be no appearances by any other members of Bad Company, as I am being sued by all of them. Yes, even by the estate of Boz Burrell. Possibly for running this camp, but I am not at liberty to discuss it.
Before I conclude this introductory session, I have to say that I am super excited to teach all of you about “Rock and Roll Fantasy,” and also have to inform you that having attended this camp for 15 full minutes means you are no longer legally entitled to a refund. Now, onto the mess hall for some moderately priced peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!
My roommate had an odd look on his face. It was an unsettling mixture of trepidation and something close to embarrassment. I thought either someone was dead or I’d won a lottery I didn’t know I’d entered.
“You have a voice mail,” he told me, “from Kathleen Hanna.”
Kathleen Hanna had called me because I’d emailed her about doing an interview for the zine I had just started. I named it Jes Grew, after a “disease” in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, a novel about race and the influence and spread of black culture into the mainstream. Said novel was one of my many obsessions and a driving influence behind Record Ignite!, the band I’d formed a while ago. But that band was no more, and so this zine was where I thought I should channel my creative energy.
I’d emailed Kathleen at a generic info-type address on her website, so I didn’t have a huge expectation I’d actually hear from her. It felt like asking for a million dollars–this probably won’t work, but it’d be awesome if it did. When I’d formed my now defunct band, there were a select few groups in my pantheon of what I wanted it to be, and Bikini Kill was one of them. I admired their commitment to doing something that was genuinely dangerous, and was also sympathetic to their brand of feminism, though I realize now my understanding of exactly what feminism entailed was rudimentary at best. (Now that I have a daughter, I feel like I understand feminism better than I ever did before, but that’s another post entirely.)
In other words, getting a call from Kathleen Hanna was an enormous deal in my universe. My roommate left the room so I could listen to the voice mail, sensing that this was something he should allow me to enjoy by myself. Hearing a recording of her voice address me was enthralling and terrifying all at once. She sounds just like she did on that Mike Watt album!
I eventually reached her on the phone in person, which was even more terrifying, and we arranged to meet at a coffee shop in Soho for the interview. The day we met was a gorgeous late fall afternoon, just the faintest chill in the air, summer stubbornly hanging on. At this point in my life, my only interviewing experience came as part of a group affair when Jello Biafra came to speak at NYU. Me and another editor at the school’s humor magazine lobbed questions at him along with 20 other “reporters,” one of whom took a good 10 minutes to ask Jello if he would lend his time to something called the Million Marijuana March.
I did plenty of advance work to prepare for this interview, and yet was still frightened beyond comprehension before it began, afraid that I’d say or do something unspeakably wrong. That feeling faded quickly once I actually met Kathleen, because she was unbelievably warm and engaging, completely putting me at ease about talking to someone I considered a hero. (I imagine she had extensive experience doing this.)
We talked for 2 hours, in large part about her new artistic direction, since her first solo album Julie Ruin had just come out and was quite a musical departure from Bikini Kill. But we also covered the gamut of politics and feminism and music, and I somehow managed to sound coherent on these subjects while cognizant of the fact that I was discussing them with Kathleen Fucking Hanna.
Before we parted, I gave Kathleen a bunch of 7 inches from the label my friends upstate had started, including my old band’s sole release (seen to your left). I can’t say why I did this. Perhaps because I felt I should offer some kind of token of appreciation for taking the time to talk to me, and I had nothing else to offer. I think my rationale was, We all love you, so here’s something you, in essence, helped make. She demonstrated far more thankfulness than she needed to, and left. I hadn’t the slightest idea, really, of what I’d just done.
It’s Friday! I bet you guys got some big plans for the weekend, like gettin up in the club and so forth. If so, may I suggest a solid tune for pregaming? It’s a song called “Butter On Ya Muffintop” by 4two7. I heard recently it on Billy Jam’s show on WFMU, and it is exactly as ridiculous as that title implies. It is, in fact, so dedicated to its specific area of the female anatomy that it nearly transcends the Ick Factor (almost like Foot Patrol).
I am tempted to transcribe some of the best rhymes here, but I think it might be better to just let you listen and experience them in their full glory. What Sir Mixalot did for big butts, 4two7 will do for muffintops and buttering them, with perhaps a bit of jelly as well.
If you’re in a more old school mood, perhaps you’ll enjoy this slow jam by the generically named duo Charles and Eddie, “Would I Lie to You.” This video was available on demand on our cable, so my wife played it on a whim one evening, and I found its early 1990s-ness exquisite. That very particular time fascinates me, in large part because that’s when I had the misfortune to be in junior high/high school. It’s an era most people haven’t quite tried to mine for nostalgia or comedy, certainly not in the way the 1980s have been raided. But good lord, is it ever ripe for mining.
There’s a parallel here with the 1960s, which didn’t really start to happen until The Beatles came along. If you look at artifacts from the early portion of that decade–particular what was played on the radio–you can see people stumbling to figure things out, almost as if they’re waiting for something like The Beatles but they have no idea what that thing is yet. The pre-Clinton 1990s are a bit like that, with the catalyst being the arrival of Nirvana. The difference is that in the early 1990s, every aspect of fashion and culture was a million times worse. The Simpsons are a notable exception, but even The Simpsons didn’t really become The Simpsons for at least a season and a half. It’s like irony had to wait to arrive until we had an ironic president.
If you know nothing about the Very Early 90s, this video is a crash course. The Cavaricci outfits, the needless camera trickery, the white guy’s Fabio hair, the Quiet Storm beat–it all screams First Bush Administration, which we all know was a time of tumultuous change. Sadly, the Charles portion of Charles and Eddie passed away in 2001, but Eddie now fronts a band called The Polyamorous Affair. They never let the music die, guys.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but writing a novel is kind of hard. One the main reasons it is so hard is the time needed to complete it, time that can be spent in so many ways that don’t involve sitting at home by yourself in front of the computer screen. Not to mention that simply being at a computer screen offers so many distractions. I’m constantly worried that I’m “missing” something on Twitter; breaking news about the Mets, perhaps, which I am semi-professionally obligated to keep on top of, or perhaps a hilarious meme that cries out for my contributions.
One of the biggest enemies of novel writing is lack of focus, be it internet enabled or just the wandering of mind that tends to happen when you have to do one thing and one thing only. My biggest problem is I’m a multitasker by nature. I find it extremely difficult to work on one single thing when I have ideas for a dozen others, all of them vying for headspace. When it comes to shorter nonfiction stuff, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with working on more than one project simultaneously. But that method is deadly for fiction writing in general and novel writing in particular.
Colson Whitehead (whose novels The Intuitionist and John Henry Days are in my own person canon) wrote a great piece about this a few years back for the Times, “What To Write Next.” The intent was humorous, but even more so than the jokes, what struck me about the piece was its subtext: The writer’s fear that you’re toiling away on one thing when you can and should be working on something else, an impulse that can prevent you from doing anything at all.
An excellent way to combat this lack of focus is through music. I’m far from the first person to point this out, but I feel compelled to share my thoughts anyway, as I owe a debt to all the music I listened to while writing this book. I know I wouldn’t have been able to do it without clasping headphones to my dome and letting music push the outside world away for a while.
I found listening to albums (remember those?) helped the most. A complete album–a good one, anyway–immerses you in a universe, which helps you focus your energies and attention for the running time and hopefully beyond. The albums I listened to most often while writing Love and a Short Leash were:
Miles Ahead, Miles Davis
Double Nickels on the Dime, The Minutemen
Mikal Cronin S/T
David Comes to Life, Fucked Up
Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, Guided By Voices
Get Happy!, Elvis Costello
Singles 06-07, Jay Reatard
The Tyranny of Distance, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
Melted, Ty Segall
In addition to these records, I also got sucked into various boots of Petit Wazoo/Roxy and Elsewhere-era Mothers of Invention shows (1972-1974). I can’t quite explain why; I listened to a ton of Frank Zappa in high school and college, but only rarely since then. This was an addiction I thought I’d conquered. Whatever the reason, my desire to listen to this music again reemerged right when I was finishing up my final draft, and I’m glad it did. I found the funk-and-jazz charged jams of this era of Frank Zappa’s oeuvre to be helpful for this particular stage of my toil.
I found that commercial radio doesn’t help me all that much, with its incessant breaks and complete lack of imagination, but listening to WFMU definitely did. I did most of my work on the weekends, and the Saturday afternoon block of Michael Shelley, Fool’s Paradise with Rex, and especially Terre T’s Cherry Blossom Clinic powered me through many marathon writing sessions.
To honor this debt, I wanted to share a playlist of songs that were often drilled into my ears when writing the novel. Some have particular resonance for reasons related to novel’s plot/subject matter, some are mood setters, and some are just bitchin’ tunes. I’ve arranged them in an order that helps my own process: Get pumped up, settle in, shot of energy, scale back again, repeat. I’m not sure if this will be instructive to anyone or if it really shares anything except a glimpse into my weird headspace. But hey, you get some rad tunes, so shut your noise. Playlist available here, deets after the jump.
Every year around this time, I entreat you, the Scratchbomb reader, to consider donating some funds to WFMU, the Fun 91, the Freeform Station of the Nation. That time is upon us again.
WFMU does not get any money from the government (federal, state, local, what have you), nor does it get any money from corporations. It also refrains from constantly begging for money throughout the year a la PBS. WFMU has but one two-week pledge marathon that raises the bulk of their operating costs for the year. That is why it is crucial to add your support at this time.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but radio in the New York area is bad. Like, really bad. Atrocious, one might say. For a city that likes to think it’s the Center of Everything, particularly when it comes to the arts, New York’s radio stations are unlistenable, robotically programmed swill. WFMU is an island of goodness amid this raging sea of garbage.
Because they are not owned by some huge Conglomco, and because they are not beholden to any taskmasters governmental or corporate, WFMU gets to do whatever the hell it wants (within FCC confines, of course). I don’t love everything I’ve ever heard on WFMU, but I do love the fact that all of it is made by real humans who love music and radio, which definitively cannot be said for everything else on the airwaves.
I first started listening to WFMU well over a decade ago. A roommate turned me on to Terre T’s Cherry Blossom Clinic, which was exactly the kind of punk/garage/glam show I’d been searching for my entire life to that point. I made my first WFMU donation to her show when I was still powerfully, crushingly unemployed, because I believed in it that much, and if I couldn’t share what little money I had with something that made me that happy, well, what was the point of money anyway?
I still love Cherry Blossom Clinic and listen every Saturday I can; in my push to complete my novel over the last few months, I probably wrote 75 percent of it listening to Terre T. And so I feel somewhat indebted to WFMU for providing me with a soundtrack to my industry.
WFMU is also home to The Best Show, which is not only one of the funniest things humans have ever done, but which would be impossible on any other station. To do the kind of humor that Tom Scharpling does on that show–be it sparring with callers, chatting with guests, or performing comedy with Jon Wurster–requires large swaths of time that other spots on the dial would never allow in a million years. Even if you don’t listen to The Best Show, chances are you enjoy some form of comedy that has taken inspiration in some way from The Best Show. (SNL, for instance, counts many Friends Of Tom among its writers and performers; peep Bill Hader’s t-shirt in this video for visual evidence thereof.) That alone makes it, and WFMU, worthy of your attention.
I’ve volunteered for WFMU events for last few years and it is always a joyous experience. I am not blessed with a huge amount of free time, but I make time for WFMU, because being a tiny piece of what makes it happen is so rewarding. For instance, two years ago, I got witness this bit of amazingness–a Nerd-Off between John Hodgman and Patton Oswalt–live and in person.
My wife and I will be assisting in The Best Show’s first marathon program this evening. We will also be donating funds in addition to our time, and if you have any change to spare, I urge you to do the same. If you can part with 5 bucks, I assure you it is appreciated. I’ve manned the phones at the marathon and received pledges at that level, and I can promise you that every little bit helps.
However, if you care to listen during tonight’s show (which will feature special guests Ted Leo and Julie Klausner) and care to donate $75 or more, you are entitled to the Hammer of the Gods Best Show Demon Summoning Pack, which includes:
A Best Show magazine with contributions from such luminaries as John Hodgman, David Rees, Robert Popper, Michael Kupperman, and more, plus an interview with Michael Nesmith and many other awesome tidbits and treats.
A flexidisc with an exclusive song from Kurt Vile
A CD of brand new comedy from Scharpling and Wurster.
A free download of the audio from last year’s Radiovision Conference panel, featuring Tom, Marc Maron, and Ira Glass.
A new Best Show sticker! A Vance the Puppet stressball! Some other stuff, I bet!
If all of that ain’t worth $75, I don’t know what is.
High rollers can donate more and get premiums from other DJs, which are always fantastic; the premium CDs from Terre T, Rex, and Evan “Funk” Davies always contain some amazing vinyl finds you simply can not get anywhere else. Think you can just get anything from anywhere in our digital age? You are completely wrong, and WFMU’s DJ premiums prove it every year.
I believe I’ve made made my case. This concludes my annual plea on behalf of WFMU, one of my favorite things in the world, until next week when I bug you again during Marathon Week Two.
Note: I wrote this last week when the events described first blew up the internet. Another site took a pass on it, so I reread and wondered if I was still just as mad as I was when I first scribbled it down. The verdict: Yes! Here’s to Irish Alzheimers!
I have a small, select group of people who crossed a certain line with me and will never be allowed back into my good graces, barring a miracle. Chuck Klosterman is high on that list.
I was reminded of this when he threw up a piece at Grantland that pooped all over tUnE-yArDs for the crime of winning the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop Poll’s record of the year. It wasn’t so much his choice of target that bugged me as the methods used, and reasons behind aiming in that direction. Per Klosterman habit, the piece made feint, passive-aggressive stabs at its subject, qualifying all of his contempt behind insincere well-wishing for the creator of art he doesn’t like while implying the poor, misguided souls who profess to enjoy it are simply saying they do to bolster their elitist cred. Like much of Klosterman’s writing on music, it was obsessed with the idea that critics might like things the average slob doesn’t.
Multiple Fire-Joe-Morgan-style takedowns of this post have already been penned, so I won’t attempt that. (I’m partial to this one by Scott Creney.) However, the tone and direction of his tUnE-yArDs hit piece reminded me of another, even more infuriating thing he wrote years ago, one that I believe he still deserves an enormous amount of grief for penning.
Back in 2002, Dee Dee Ramone and Robbin Crosby (late of the hair metal band Ratt) died within 24 hours of each other. The New York Times asked Klosterman to write a look back at both men for the “Lives They Lived” issue of their Sunday magazine (aka Guys Who Died This Year). Klosterman proceeded to pen one of the most rage-inducing, wall-punchingest things I’ve ever read in my entire life.
One of my Christmas presents to myself was the acquisition of a new USB turntable. I haven’t had a record player in several years, and I missed it terribly. Yes, I am one of those snobs who thinks vinyl sounds better than other formats. I have no problem listening to CDs or MP3s, but every now and again, I enjoy hearing music played in this format. I don’t think it’s old fashioned so much as decadent, an indulgent treat like sipping a 12-year-old scotch.
Other than aesthetics and my own pretentiousness, the reason I wanted a record player again was to hear some stuff that I only have on vinyl and which has never been released in other formats. So within minutes of popping it out of the box and setting it up, the very first thing I listened to was “Krayola,” Lung Leg’s portion of a split 7″ from 1998. I remembered adoring this song, and the passage of time didn’t diminish that love at all.
Lung Leg–a quartet of Scottish lasses–made their only American tour around this time as the opening act for The Make-Up. It must have been the only Make-Up tours I didn’t see, because I definitely never saw Lung Leg, and I have a uselessly encyclopedic memory for Bands I Saw and What Bands Opened For Them. I used to catch the Make-Up live at every conceivable opportunity, both because they were an amazing live band and to atone for being to young to ever see Nation of Ulysses live. I also purchased all of their singles, of which there were roughly eight billion (all later collected on I Want Some).
The two bands collaborated on a split 7″ around the time of their tour together. The Make-Up’s side (“Pow to the People”) was quality, of course, but the Lung Leg portion blew me away. The driving beat and insistent guitars, contrasted with vocals that are almost whispered, the killer fadeout that leaves you wanting more…perfect in every way.
Since I loved this song so much, I went out and bought the only other Lung Leg release available at the time, Hello Sir, a collection of two early EPs. I was profoundly disappointed, because it was nothing like “Krayola” in style or substance. It sounded somewhere equidistant from Beat Happening and Shonen Knife. At the time, I found it angular, silly, and amateurish. After one listen, I tucked it away in my record collection, where it stayed untouched for well over a decade.
Listening to that compilation again after all these years, my opinion has softened considerably. The songs are quite enjoyable for what they are; I was mostly mad because of what I expected them to be. I also recently acquired Lung Leg’s only LP, Maid to Minx, and found it eminently listenable. The production is considerably better than that of the EPs, and there are a few glimpses of what I liked so much about “Krayola,” particularly the title track.
Nothing quite measured up to “Krayola,” however, which I suppose is ultimately unfair. If you can manage one masterpiece, that’s one more than most us get in our lifetimes.
Note: I suspect this version I’ve digitized may be running a tiny bit fast. So, you know, caveat emptor and all that.