Tag Archives: elvis costello


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
  • Murmur, R.E.M.

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.

Continue reading Soundtracking

Holiday Triumphs: Several Tidings of Great Joy

Continuing the fabled tradition begun all the way back in 2009, Scratchbomb presents Holiday Horrors and Holiday Triumphs: an advent calendar of some of the more hideous aspects of this most stressful time of year–with a few bits of awesomeness sprinkled in.

I can not, in good conscience, let my last holiday post be about Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny. So here’s a few of my favorite Christmas-y things to spirit us through the depressingly brief portion that remains of this festive season.

First off, a Yuletide rocker that is quite popular in England but that has never caught on here in the US. It’s “I Wish it Could Be Christmas Every Day” by Wizzard, a band headed by Roy Wood, formerly of The Move and ELO. It sounds like an outtake from the Phil Spector Christmas Album in the best possible way, very Wall of Sound-y, with Motown-esque beat that shall not be turned away from the inn.

Continue reading Holiday Triumphs: Several Tidings of Great Joy

A Very Special Scratchbomb Christmas Post

Why do I celebrate Christmas?

I have a feeling most people don’t think about this. I celebrate Christmas because I celebrate Christmas. What’s to wonder about? But I think about it a lot because I took a roundabout route away from and back to Christmas.

For my first few years on Earth, my immediate family did the whole Christmas thing. I looked forward to trimming the tree and putting up the decorations like any kid did. My favorite part was pulling down a heavy pile of Christmas records to throw on my clunky portable turntable. (The Sesame Street Christmas album was my favorite, although I don’t think it had the cover seen here.)

charlie_brown_tree.jpgThen, around age 7 or 8, my mom became a Jehovah’s Witness and we all followed suit (as I’ve alluded to on the site a few times). As you probably know, Witnesses don’t do holidays, because most holidays have weird pagan origins, which Witnesses perceive as being Satanic (no, really). So all of a sudden, no presents, no tree, no “I Hate Christmas”. Nothing.

However, my extended family (which remained varying degrees of Catholic) always had Christmas at my grandparents’ house, which was literally next door to me. So my mom and brothers and I all got dressed up nice and went to their house and drank egg nog and ate too much…in other words did all the things people do at Christmas. Except for the whole exchanging gifts thing.

I should note that this is not standard operating procedure for Witnesses. Most Witnesses wouldn’t come within a ten foot pole of any holiday, unless if was to preach about how it was secretly demonic. But my extended family is very big and very tight, and my mom couldn’t bear the thought of us not seeing each other when we were so close. Even if it meant endangering our survival of the impending Apocalypse.*

* Witnesses don’t really believe in Heaven and Hell, in the sense that they’re places you go when you die, but they do believe the end of the world is coming very soon, and if you don’t get on the right side post-haste you’re gonna be shit outta luck when God’s whip comes down.

I was chatting with some folks online earlier this week, and when I revealed this biographical tidbit, all reactions were in the ballpark of “yeesh”, “yikes”, and “so sad”. But I didn’t see it that way at the time, and I really don’t see it that way now. In retrospect, yes, it was very weird. But I don’t feel traumatized by the experience. If anything, I feel it enhanced my love of the holiday.

Maybe it’s because we didn’t have much money (or any money) when I was growing up, and I didn’t expect presents anyway. Maybe it’s because I was lucky enough to have a large family that likes getting together and doesn’t explode into arguments every five minutes. Whatever the reason, because an odd set of personal circumstances, I got to experience the good things about Christmas (family, togetherness, good times) without the bad stuff (disappointment).

I was never disappointed I didn’t get a certain toy because I knew I’d get nothing. I didn’t expect anything out of Christmas except playing with my cousins and staying up way too late and laughing at old family photos. And I got to have that every year.

It’s very difficult for me to not worry and not think about Everything. Even when I was a kid, I found it hard to be happy (as I wrote about here). But at Christmas with my family, I was happy.

By the time I went to college, my mom had abandoned Witnessery, and so had I. Christmas was a-ok again. None of us reverted back to Catholicism. We just entered that vague, irreligious sphere where most people live. But I had to ask myself, if I’m not a devout Christian, then why do I celebrate Christmas? Why am I honoring the birth of someone I don’t really believe in?

My best answer is, Christmas is an alibi. It allows us to get together and think of one another and, hopefully, be happy for a little while. Absent any expectation of gift-getting (or the pressure of gift-giving), that’s what it was for me as a kid. Absent any real religious belief, that’s what it is for most people.

solinvictus.jpgChristmas has always been an alibi. December 25 used to be a pagan holiday honoring The Inconquerable Sun (or Sol Invictus, depicted to your left) a holiday that always involved plenty of merriment–possibly because even before it was a day to honor the sun, it was a day to honor Bacchus, the god of wine.

Then the pagans became Christians, but they didn’t want to lose their bitchin’ holiday. So the priests said, Fine, we’ll call it Jesus’ birthday. Just go to church in the morning and everything’s cool.

I hesitate to call it a lie. How about a seasonally appropriate word: a humbug. In the P.T. Barnum sense, a humbug is a flashy hoax that captivates everyone, even people who know it’s not real. It doesn’t matter that it’s not real, because it gives you pleasure.

Or call it the Jebediah Springfield Principal: If a story inspires us to do good, does it matter if it’s not true?

That may make me sound hypocritical, since I recently denounced Santa as a lie. The difference to me is, Santa is a lie that, one day, I’ll have to tell my daughter is a lie. As for Christmas itself, I can keep on pretending for as long as I want. And the pretending hurts no one. I can let myself be caught up in the wonder and spectacle and the love of it all, and not think about the fact that I don’t believe in The Reason for The Season.

If you’re one of those people who can’t stand their family, I hope Christmas is an excuse to get together with friends and other loved ones. And if you don’t do Christmas at all, I hope you have an excuse that’s just as wonderful.

If you’re a Christian and you celebrate Christmas religiously, presumably you do so either not knowing or not caring about the holiday’s weird pagan origins, or the fact that Jesus was probably not born on December 25. Even if it’s really not Jesus’ real birthday, for you it’s an excuse to celebrate the fact that he was born.

If Christmas is nothing more than an alibi for us all to be Christmas-y, that’s enough for me.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
A Colbert Christmas: Colbert/Costello Duet

Unfortunate Juxtoposition Theatre Presents…

While stuck in traffic, “Accidents Will Happen” popped up on my iPod via shuffle. I’m sure I’ve heard this song several thousand times, but not in quite a while. By rule, I am never in a good mood in the morning, but this immediately brightened my commute.

I got that warm feeling you get when you listen to something again for the first time since forever, and you remember how great it is. I thought about how it is exactly the right length. How haunting the outro is. How fantastic the lyrics are; not as overtly clever as in some of Mr. Costello’s songs, but simple and subtle in the best possible way. Lines like It’s damage that we do and never know/It’s the words that we don’t say that scare me so.

And I thought about how there was a period when I listened to Armed Forces on a nigh-daily basis. When it was so much a part of my being that, like Jonathem Lethem once said about Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, “I might have wished to wear the album…in place of my head”. I thought about listening to the whole album start to finish, something I never do anymore with any album in this iPod age.

And as Elvis sang Accidents will happen…, an ambulance came screeching alongside my bus, sirens blaring, lights flashing. It hopped a curb in front of an auto parts store, then squeezed in between a phalanx of parked cars and a truck that completely ignored its pleas to get through.

Real accidents always overshadow metaphorical ones. I hit pause until the drama passed. But when I unpaused the song, it just didn’t feel the same. Sigh.

Holy Goddamn! 006: You Can’t Show Me Any Kind of Hell I Don’t Know Already

slater.jpgHoly Goddamn! is back for another action-packed episode. Sorry that this one’s a little later than usual. I’ve tried to adhere to my self-imposed every-other-week schedule, but some unforeseen issues have plagued the Scratchbomb Home Office of late–most of them not good, as chronicled here. As you’ll probably notice, these events, and my attempts to defy them, have greatly affected the song choices (as have my reflection on baseball seasons past and present).

In episode 006, I have a long chat about fantasy baseball with Skip “Wheels” Slater, a frequent Scratchbomb and Holy Goddamn! contributor. You’ll also hear some wise advice from Vin Scully, some more nostalgic sound bites, and a closing tune that’ll make you wanna run out in the street and punch somebody in the face.*

* Please don’t actually run out in the street and punch someone in the face. Unless they deserve it.

And please forgive the inclusion of a song from my old band. It just seemed to fit the flow and theme. I vow not to engage in such reflective narcissism again. Probably.

Holy Goddamn! 006 Setlist:

“Watch me paste…”/Intro
“Have you seen the schedule…”
Les Savy Fav, “The Year Before the Year 2000”, Let’s Stay Friends
Deefhoof, “Scream Team”, The Runners Four
Viva Voce, “Lesson #1”, The Heat Can Melt Your Brain
Vin Scully lectures on perspective, spring training, 1988
XTC, “No Language in Our Lungs”, Black Sea
The Pixies, “Down to the Well”, Emerson College radio, 1987
Bill Moss, “Number One”, Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label (v/a)
Interview with Skip “Wheels” Slater on fantasy baseball strategy
Elvis Costello, “Hand in Hand”, This Year’s Model
Jay Reatard, “I Know a Place”, Singles 06-07
The Replacements, “I’ll Buy”, Tim
“Someone’s rockin’ my dreamboat…”
Record Ignite!, “Chew You Up”, demo, 1999
“But we were winning!”
Vince Guaraldi, “Rain Rain Go Away”, The Charlie Brown Suite and Other Favorites
Ted Leo, “Rappaport’s Testament: I Never Gave Up”, Mo’ Livin’ EP

Inappropriate Walk Up Music: 03.23.09

santo-shea.jpgFor previous Inappropriate Walk Up Music posts, click here.

Every day until Opening Day, Scratchbomb presents three tunes that are completely, unequivocally inappropriate for use as major league walk-up

These are not necessarily bad songs–although that
certainly helps. They are merely songs that don’t evoke the fear and dread one traditionally associates with the walk-up song. In fact, they evoke the exact opposite.

Imagine yourself in the on-deck circle. Bottom of the 9th. Down by one. Man on second, two out. You hear the PA system blare, The centerfielder, number 20… The crowd roars at the sound of your name. And as you stroll to the batter’s box, you are greeted with the strains of one of these songs:

* “I Want You”, Elvis Costello
Even in a catalog full of vengeful, bitter songs (Elvis once said the only emotions he understood were anger and revenge), this tune stands as particularly harsh. Blood and Chocolate was recorded more or less live in the studio, which makes it even more visceral. As the song winds down, the mics are slowly turned down on everything but the vocals, so by the end all you hear is Elvis’ painful lyrics and an organ wailing off in the background. Brutal.

* “Don’t Touch My Bikin”, The Halobenders
When I was in high school, the only “cool” radio station whose signal I could get in my room was Vassar’s. I would tape 45-90 minute chunks every now and then so I could listen to them on my walkman later, hoping to find something new and awesome I couldn’t hear anywhere else.

Vassar played this song one night, and as I listened to it on the way to school, it took every bit of my strength to not totally lose it. I was not yet familiar with Calvin Johnson or the whole K Record phenomenon, so I was completely unprepared for his aggressive brand of silliness. This remains one of my favorite songs that no one else seems to remember.

* “Outlaw Pete”, Bruce Springsteen
Sometimes you see Bruce Springsteen do some live tunes and you think to yourself, “Man, he’s still got it!” And then you hear new songs like “Outlaw Pete” and you think to yourself, “Jesus, he is totally off his rocker.” If you can get through this 8 minute tune (8 MINUTES) in one sitting, you’re a stronger man than I.

Holy Goddamn! 005: Spring Is Here, I Hear

lasorda2.jpgHoly Goddamn! celebrates the impending baseball season! I hoped to have Sean from Massapequa in studio to discuss his trip to spring training, but he bailed for various reasons that will be discussed in his online interview later today.

Fear not! There is plenty of audio goodness in this here episode! Listen as Skip “Wheels” Slater discusses guts, John Sterling honors great moments in Yankee history, and Gary Cohen and Bob Murphy call the best friggin game ever. And also, hot music. And also, karate.

An audio quality note for those who care: the last few episodes were output at lower bit- and sample rates to reduce file size, but in my humble opinion, that resulted in them sounding like they were recorded in a shark tank. So this week, I’ve upped the quality back to previous levels. The file size is bigger, of course, but I think you will appreciate the difference. And if you don’t appreciate it, do your own podcast. Jerk.

Holy Goddamn! 005 Setlist:

Monorchid, “X Marks the Spot: Something Dull Happened Here”, Who Put Out the Fire?
Ricky and the Impressionables, “Baco Walk”, Black Cherries (v/a, 2008 WFMU/Cherry Blossom Clinic Premium)
Mel Allen says play ball!
Brian Wilson, “Trying to Say to You/Baseball”
Carla Thomas, “The Next Ball Game”, Saturday Night Fish Fry (v/a)
Skip “Wheels” Slater and the importance of guts
Buzzcocks, “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”, Singles Going Steady
“Outside, ball four, the game is tied!”
Ted Leo, “Army Bound”, Living for the Living
Elvis Costello, “King Horse”, Get Happy!
Bill Murray, “It just doesn’t matter!”
Mountain Goats, “Cubs in Five”, Nine Black Poppies
John Sterling presents Great Days in Yankee History
“And if he ever completes his trip around the bases…”
Bill Evans, “Spring Is Here”, Bill Evans at Town Hall Volume 1
Harry Caray, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”