Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Book Update

The book, Skipping Through the Graveyard in My Puke-Stained Suit, has been out for roughly seven months.  How has my life changed?

In a nutshell, as Mr. Welker would often say, not much.  Sure, it feels great to have it out there.  People back in that part of Pennsylvania have told me, it’s good that someone has finally written about here in a reasonable way.  Hell, in any way!  Nostalgic, but no too nostalgic.  Not demeaning, not looking to take some “Trump/Red State” style dump on the Coal Region.  (Reading that sort of nonsense makes me see red, too.)  Anyone raised there is sure to have some negative feelings about it, as with any working-class neighborhood or area.  I know those people too well, I know myself too well, to understand that there’s a lot more going on in rural American than mediocre, desperately out-of-touch nimrods in most media will ever understand.  Their version of rural America may as well be rendered in crayon and the size paint brush you’d use on a house.

A few people in New York have told me that I should be contacting the local papers back there, hitting them up with promo copies.  But I’m not so keen on that as most of those papers don’t have any sort of book section, not even an Arts section these days, and this would be positioned more as a “human interest” story.

I’m particularly not so keen on the home-county newspaper, The Pottsville Republican.  When I graduated from college back in the 80s, I blanketed the country’s magazines and newspaper with my resume and clips from the campus newspaper.  I got one writing assignment out of that, for Musician magazine (thank you Scott Isler and Bill Flanagan!), about The Georgia Satellites (just before they broke big with “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”).  (More importantly, that was my introduction to New York City.)  Two papers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Detroit Free Press, wrote back enthusiastic, positive letters of support, each running 2-3 pages long – while not offering jobs.  I got one-line rejection letters from most major newspapers and magazines.  The Pottsville Republican ignored me.  I had included them on a lark, not really wanting to write for them, but I had the stamps and envelopes, why not.  I can’t recall any other publication that ignored me with that mailing, but you better believe I remember my home county newspaper doing so.

Of course, I’m seeing that any sort of publicity is good publicity when you’re trying to sell books.  But it’s also my attitude that a paper like that isn’t going to set the world on fire.  If they approached me, I’d be amenable as I realize most or maybe all people working there now weren’t around in the 80s.  This book isn’t my livelihood … by a longshot!  This has helped me see the pay scale for books and how they relate to a person’s life.  Sell a few hundred or thousand copies, you can break even, make some nice pocket money, or a tax-return size chunk of change for sales in the high thousands.  Tens of thousands, you can have this as a respectable side income.  Hundreds of thousands, you could probably support yourself.  Millions, you’ve hit the jackpot, and time to look at the next mansion over from Stephen King’s in rural New England (which always seemed to be the high-school daydream for me).

Anyone who writes a book, the secret hope is that he can make a living doing nothing but that.  But that is such a rare option for so many writers, me included.  As I’ve noted previously, that would be a “lightning in a bottle” situation, probably involving movie or streaming-service folks catching wind and throwing money around.  I never know who’s reading this thing (the only way Amazon sale analytics falls short is in demographics), but I surely can’t count on some producer in the HBO office reading it and blurting out: “Man, this would make a great limited series!”

The every-day reality for me is the second paragraph, and it’s not bad.  In the past month, sales have slowed down.  Every quarter, I can do a “countdown sale” on Amazon, which means pricing the Kindle version of the book at a buck or two for a week.  It’s not even the pricing scheme that matters: it’s getting free publicity as Amazon will promote the book more visibly in that time period.  There’s always a windfall of sales that week, although I’m hardly making any money in the sale.  It’s worth it for the free publicity.  The ads I take out roughly every quarter tend to be break-even proposition in terms of the sales they generate.

The one heartening aspect of selling a book on Amazon, at least this one, is that roughly a third of my sales come from Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s program that charges readers $9.99/month for the ability to read thousands of books, mine included.  It started slowly but really picked up after the first Countdown sale in January.  For every 300 pages read on Kindle Unlimited, that’s roughly one digital book sale for me.  Some days creep along with only 0-50 pages read.  Other days, I’ll check in and see 500-900 pages read (haven’t hit 1,000 in one day).  That means people are reading all over the place, seeing an ad, or getting good word of mouth.  Not taking too much of a chance: it’s “free” or at least part of their monthly service payment.  That’s been the one consistent plus through this whole experience.

The worst part?  When you’re an author and you look at your sales page, you can see worldwide sales.  That’s right, Kindle will make your book available on their sites in over a dozen countries.  The problem being, you’re more than likely to see sales only in your country.  I’ve sold three books in the United Kingdom, one to someone I know, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the other two were friends of hers!  I know this book would do well in Ireland as Irish Catholicism, and the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) friction between my Protestant mother and dad’s Catholic family are running themes, along with that black Irish sense of humor I was raised with in the Coal Region.

In January, I realized I could get on Kindle UK and order books as gifts to send to various magazines and publications in Ireland and England.  So I did, 10 copies to various Irish newspapers and literary magazines and two newspaper in England, focusing on book editors in the publications’ reviews sections.  I even picked two prominent Irish-American newspapers here, both with offices in New York City, and sent them copies.

I’ve been pissing in the wind: total silence.  I don’t expect to sell books in France or Spain.  I do expect to sell books in the UK but, for the life of me, I don’t know how at this point.  When I buy ad space on Amazon, it’s only for the United States, nowhere else, with no option to buy space internationally.  This is the one thing that sticks in my craw, probably the only thing.  Sure, I want the book to take off like a rocket, but it was just as important to pull it together and make sense of that time of my life.  I’ve been meaning to do that for years, could sense I had enough stories and material to do this.  So I did.  Didn’t want editors monkeying with it.  Didn’t want some false narrative inserted into it, as that’s not how life works.  Our lives do have a beginning, middle and end, but as far as I can see, the type of drama you read in fiction or see in movies is rarely part of our every-day lives.  As I’ve learned, the end leaves a lot to be desired.  In fact, it scares the shit out of most people.  But I don’t believe our lives are horror stories or fairy tales with happy endings.  Thus, this book.

Will I do it again? Sure, why not.  I already have a lot of material for another one, although this one would be fiction, and I already have a few missing chapters in mind.  Completely different from a memoir, but in my mind, a fun read.  Will I get it out this year?  It’s possible.  I have to rouse myself from mid-summer stupor and make it happen.  But give me some time, and I think this thing can happen again.  At least now I know how to navigate the Amazon publishing system.  I’d still rather do it this way than deal with publishing houses and editors, assuming that would even be an option.  I’ve spent so much time on the outside of that world that I feel perfectly comfortable on my own.  About the only thing I envy them for is the marketing department!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Pulitzer Prize and Kendrick Lamar

What will those zany members of the Pulitzer Prize committee come up with next?  First it was the Nobel Peace Prize committee awarding Bob Dylan for "literature.”  (He’s not a poet, unless you own a copy of Tarantula, and if you do, you’re stouter than I.  Chronicles, a partial autobiography, is a rambling mess: a fun read, especially for fans, but not Pulitzer material.)  Now the Pulitzer committee is giving the prize for music to Kendrick Lamar, as opposed to some respected-but-obscure jazz or classical musician.

Let me check off the names I’m familiar with in the list of past winners: Aaron Copeland, Wynton Marsalis, Ornette Colman, Steve Reich and in 2015, Julia Wolfe for Anthracite Fields.  I actually went out and bought this, based on the similar Pennsylvania Coal Region background.  (Unfortunately, it didn’t register with me.  I like the fourth movement, "Flowers," but there's a lot of modal choir patterns in the longer pieces that felt repetitious.)

I want to listen to more classical and jazz music, particularly more modern pieces.  I do, as I go along.  I’m a provincial in these areas, but a well-meaning one who wants to learn more.  As opposed to hiphop which, along with the rest of society, I’ve been bludgeoned with since the mid-90s or so, when the majority of a cool genre devolved into gangsta rap and overbearing clichés.  It’s been a major industry since that time, like any other, like rock or country before it.  Much as with rock or country, things get strange and hollow when they become industry and dominate the culture.  It would be nice to walk past a jeep with blacked-out windows and hear bass-heavy Mozart blasting from the speakers, but come on now.

I hadn’t realized the monetary reward for the Pulitzer was $15,000 … which Lamar could spend in one night in the VIP section of a trendy L.A. night club.  That sort of money can probably make a huge difference for a classical or jazz musician struggling to make ends meet.  I’m sure the cultural exposure puts a few more asses in seats, which is what it’s all about for performing artists.

The whole endeavor feels hollow and self-congratulatory, like any other prize, be they Oscars or Nobel Peace Prizes.  It feels like it’s given more to prove how wonderful, insightful and all-encompassing the august group of people giving the award are, as opposed to the artists themselves or their work.  A look at the Pulitzer Board reads like an Upper West Side wine-and-cheese fund raiser for Bernie Sanders.  Shamefully, a majority are New Yorkers.  Gail Collins?  Do you really picture her listening to Kendrick Lamar?  And do you picture her or any of these women being OK with being called “bitch” as a matter of course (as is the case in Lamar’s lyrics)?  I’m certain their explanations would be the usual condescending “different cultural qualifiers” tripe that subtly creates lowered expectations for off-white people and holds white people who don’t agree with them to irrational standards.  (You would be taking your life in your hands to call any of countless number of women I’ve worked with in NYC “bitch." This is abhorrent behavior in our every-day lives, particularly at work.  Why is it OK in this instance?)

The comments sections of publications and message boards have been the predictable shootouts between older, white rock fans and younger, white hiphop fans.  Or even worse, this type of person.  I was writing about indie rock snobs in that piece, but college-educated hiphop snobs fall roughly into the same category.  (All those 90s kids wearing sideways baseball hats are now around 40.)  With the caveat that they’re “of the people” because they’re championing a genre that’s selling in the overall culture.  But not omniscient in that old way we were raised to believe in with 60s and 70s rock.  Those days are gone.  I’m certain that I’m oblivious of the Top 10 hiphop acts of the past few years.  Most people are.  If I’m aware of them, it’s because they’re being hyped ad nauseum via reality shows or social-media fanned negative press coverage.  Like most sane people, I don’t pay attention to things that don’t appeal to me.

I’ve seen more than a few incidents where the offended hiphop fan, having his unquestionable taste called into question, quotes direct lyrics, often for the entire track.  Supposedly for the lyrics they consider the best Lamar has to offer.  I actually found a few sites that let the fans state their favorites.

Maybe it’s like comedy?  When someone describes it to you, the humor somehow disappears?  I’m reading those lyrics, and all I’m seeing is the blustery, violent posturing that decades in NYC has taught me is adolescent male insecurity, half-assed political statements that sound like someone drunk spouting off, and shallow self-aggrandizing that has always annoyed me with hiphop.  And the occasional good one-liners and rhymes!  I’m reading a lot of emptiness, a lot of lines that sound like they're trying to impart something important but are actually saying nothing important.  Let’s not forget the silly cultural references to products, movies and TV shows … which a lot of people seem to mistake for brilliance.  It just means the dude had the TV on when he wrote the lyrics.

And that’s fine.  Most lyrics do not stand alone when separated from the music.  (The music I've sampled on youtube is OK, the usual repetitious riffs that hiphop employs that are boring more often than not, but sometimes pretty cool and inventive. Lack of melody or memorable choruses are what turn off most rock fans.  Cool production touches and smart musical references are two of the few things I like about most hiphop.)  People like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen wrote far better lyrics than this, but even with them, you read their lyrics on the printed page, they’re not anywhere near as meaningful without the music.  Lyrics are not poetry.  They’re not meant to be.  If Lamar’s lyrics read like gibberish to me?  Well, so do David Bowie’s lyrics, although I find Bowie’s music far more compelling that anything in the history of hiphop.  Little Richard sounds like a mental patient in his lyrics.  His music changed the world.

So, I can accept that and expect the usual defensiveness you get with fans of any genre when someone points out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.  All emperors stand naked to anyone who simply doesn’t subscribe to what the emperors put forth as common wisdom.  Millions of people get this?  That’s true.  Millions of people got Arrested Development and De La Soul, too.  For however many of millions got it, there are far more people who didn’t get it.  Or who got it, and time marched on.  (The great lesson most rock fans learn as they age: yes, time even marches on your favorite artists you thought would last forever.  Very few do.)

That's taken me decades to wrap my mind around as a rock fan.  Not everyone gets it.  Not everyone is on your wavelength.  Especially with music, which tends to intertwine itself with pop culture of given time periods and specific age groups of the fans.  It might stand the test of time in your life, but most lives, it won’t.  Very little does.  The problem with hiphop tends to be the avalanche of words in each track … there’s often nothing solid to grab onto over the course of time.  That’s the key to people listening to something decades later: something identifiable in a piece of music, something that really stands out, grabs the listener.  In the case of music, it’s usually a melody or a riff, a memorable chorus, something that makes sense to people beyond the immediate fans.  There’s very little of that in hiphop, which is why older artists tend to get ploughed over.  Maybe it says something about me, but the most memorable thing about Public Enemy to me is that screeching sound in “Don’t Believe the Hype.”  Believe me, when I was new in NYC, living in the Bronx, the summer of 1988, all you could hear blasting from cars was that sound!

At that time, I was a lot more amenable to exploring that sound.  Decades on, I’ve done the same dance too many times, with the overall culture, with critics, with white hiphop fans acting like they need to educate me, when I spent close to a decade living in a neighborhood they would never set foot in.  I recall Chuck D. stating that hiphop was CNN for black America.  It seemed more like The Cartoon Network, or at least became that in a hurry.  I was living there and didn’t need him, much less an army of white suburban shitheads, to define my experience.  All I was seeing was poor black and hispanic people in much the same boat as the poor white people I had left behind in rural Pennsylvania.  And they were being encouraged to ignore and hate each other with horseshit like hiphop fanhood and divisive politics, rather than recognize they had much more in common.  It goes on today, maybe even worse given Trump’s berserk victory.  (If the working and under classes of America ever get on the same page culturally and politically, look out.  But that won't happen any time soon.  I don't see too many white liberals with any understanding of the white working class, nor non-white people who are politically engaged but can't seem to recognize this important bridge that needs to be crossed.)

On one hand, it feels like an empty gesture for the Pulitzer Prize committee to give a music award to a hiphop artist.  Much as with the Nobel Peace Prize in literature for Bob Dylan.  They’re trying to generate hype for their prize, and it seems as though they’ve shied away from hype over the course of decades.  Why now?  Maybe there’s a younger wave of voters on the committees, and they feel a need to make a point, to “move with the times”?  I’d say it would be just as intriguing to pull the same stunt with a country act, but tip of the hat to Kendrick Lamar and hiphop in general, there is nobody on a mass level in country doing anything remotely interesting these days (nobody in rock either).  Plenty of cool stuff going on in alt. country, but I don’t want to come off sounding like one of those white hiphop-fan jackasses preaching about “underground hiphop” and how much better it is.

On the other hand, yeah, this is pretty interesting, not a bad move. I don’t particularly like the guy’s work, it sounds false to me, then again, a lot of hiphop does, and has since the mid-90s.  It’s all right to recognize a lot of kids and young adults do get this guy on some important level that makes no sense to me.  It’s fruitless to say I don’t get everything.  It’s obvious.  When you really understand music, the depth of it, how many hundreds of genres there are, how many decades and centuries of history there are with some genres, how many artists have come and gone in the history of the world … I’m OK with accepting that I “get” maybe a dozen genres and a number of artists somewhere in the high hundreds.  And I’m someone who pays far more attention to music than your average fan of any genre.  The more you learn, the less you know.  I suspect understanding how dumb you are probably prevents one from being nominated to join organizations like Pulitzer Prize committees!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Blue Mountain and a Bucket or Rocks

Well, get ready for the anti-rural Pennsylvania pile-on.  I just read the story about the school superintendent at Blue Mountain High School suggesting that having each classroom equipped with a bucket of “river stones” to throw at potential school shooters is somehow a valid defense against this ongoing wave of semi-automatic, schoolhouse genocide.

The really strange part of this for me?  You need to be from there to gather this (and I am from Schuylkill County).  Blue Mountain is, by far, the best school district for miles around, in county or out.  I didn’t go there.  In fact, I often disliked kids from Blue Mountain when I ran into them my two years at the Penn State branch campus in Schuylkill Haven.  (Blue Mountain is to Schuylkill Haven as Cinderella is to her sisters.)  There might have been Catholic schools that rivaled Blue Mountain for academic excellence, but this was a public school.  They were always the best high school in the county, and they still are now.

Those kids would carry around a sense of entitlement on campus, and it was irritating.  Actually, the Pottsville kids, too.  (Pottsville is the county seat, and I would guess the largest school in the county.)  It was that “south of the mountain” smugness.  (Schuylkill County is divided in half by the Broad Mountain, with the general concept that the north half is a bunch of factory-working rednecks, and the south side the more refined “upper class” of the working-class county.  There really is no comparable community or school on the north side to Blue Mountain.  Then again, there are south-side towns like Minersville, St. Clair and Pine Grove, among others, that are virtually identical to “north of the mountain” towns.  It’s possible the dichotomy exists because of the infamy of Shenandoah, the north-side town permanently known for its well-earned, rough-and-tumble image. Call it the antidote to Blue Mountain.  That ‘Chendo toughness embellishes the entire “north of the mountain” image.)

Some of the Blue Mountain kids would carry themselves around with that “Big Man on Campus” vibe.  They were from the best school district, and the Penn State branch campus was in their backyard, on the edge of Schuylkill Haven, just down the road on Route 61 from their tasteful country homes, usually helmed by two college-educated parents.  The thing is, when I got out of high school, I was hoping to ditch that vibe, anything to do with one bunch of kids seeing themselves as superior to all others, a malady that made high school such a shit endeavor.

I recall one English class, reading some forgotten passage out loud, and two kids from Blue Mountain snickering at me for my Coal Region accent.  I would later befriend these guys, but they came off like James Spader in an 80s teen flick when I first met them.  Never mind that I left that place with a 3.9 grade average, one of those guys flunked out and the other muddled through on the six-year party plan.  In their minds, I was a redneck because of the accent and where it indicated I was from.  (As it turned out, my eclectic taste in music, particularly all those great 80s indie bands, cemented our friendship.)

In my book, I get into being on the golf team, and how we always got out asses horrendously whipped when we played at the prestigious, much-harder golf course at the Schuylkill Country Club.  This was Blue Mountain, and those kids were raised playing that course.  Us playing there was like the scene in Caddyshack where the caddies take over the country-club swimming pool for the afternoon.  We didn’t belong there, in more ways than one!

Moving on to the main Penn State campus, then the world in general, then New York City … I look back now on that whole north/south of the mountain divide and laugh.  It is laughable in the overall scheme of the world, but I’m sure, is still a very real thing for the people who live there.  It might be a matter of degrees, but it matters.  That’s why I was mildly surprised to see Blue Mountain in this news story about the “bucket of rocks vs. AR-15 assault rifle” insanity.  If the story had said Tamaqua, Schuylkill Haven, Shenandoah or any other town around there?  Yeah, that would have made more sense in my mind.  But Blue Mountain?  The gem of the county?  I suspect people not from there think that school superintendent is some Li’l Abner caricature, running around in bib overalls and a jug with XXX on it.  Not realizing that’s an extremely smart individual running a highly competent school district.  How this bucket of rocks thing entered his mind, I don’t have a clue!

It’s not fair to say I hate it when people dump on rural Pennsylvania.  I do it myself sometimes.  And I think about it all the time.  The people in cities who dump on places like this, who aren’t from there, I can see, these people often don’t know shit about life.  They think they do, but this vast blind spot concerning working-class white people, when they are white, too, tells me so much more about them than anything else that will come out of their mouths.  It bothers me much more when people who are from there, who know that environment, dump on it, unapologetically, all the time, no looking back, fuck that place, fuck those people, I’m in a much better place, thank you very much, look at me now, so much better than all those dumb hillbillies.

No.  Just no.  You can’t reject your roots: know who you are.  I probably entertained those kinds of thoughts straight out of college, in my mid-20s, but I quickly came to realize, there’s just as many bad, shitty aspects of life you run into no matter where you live, particularly cities, with their own special brands of darkness and stupidity.  We’d all be wise to erase this upper-middle-class, suburban world view from our lives.  It’s sterile and reeks of all the false values I’ve come to reject in my adult life.  It’s permanent high school and the rigid caste system that ragged, immature way of life implies.  (Of course, I recognize this is America now and will go on being this way for a long time.)

As for guns and Pennsylvania – guns and any rural area in America – don’t get me started.  I’m all for anyone in America having hunting rifles, antique guns, even hand guns or a shotgun for home protection.  Let’s make another constitutional amendment to protect every American’s right to always own this level of weaponry if he so chooses.  But let’s get rid of everything else.  If you’re worried about “the government” breaking down your door and taking you prisoner all because you’re not toting semi-automatic weapons and semi’s converted to machine guns, you don’t need to find yourself another country.  You need to find yourself another fucking planet.  If the “end times” come, the survivalists are right, and these armed-to-the-teeth militants are the only ones surviving in their bunkers?  Ask yourself if you want to live with these folks.  I’d rather go down fighting hand-to-hand with the killer cyborg robots, winged skulls and nuclear mutants.

The last few years when I’ve visited Pennsylvania, I’ve noticed something alarming.  In terms of gun ownership, I’m not crazy about one man owning dozens of guns.  It suggests a level of fear and constant state of paranoia that seems debilitating.  But I can surely live with that.  I have to – it’s the way things are in America for a lot of frightened, deeply intimidated men.  (This is the greatest ruse, something I learned boxing: self defense is fear.  Maybe fear that is entirely justified.  But fear nonetheless.  When you can admit that to yourself, that’s when the lightbulb goes on over your head.  It’s all right to be afraid.)  I can live with the outrageous levels of gun ownership, but I’m having a hard time living with the open-carry law.

I wouldn’t mind this so much if the few times I saw people carrying guns in public they were staunch, dependable, John Wayne types.  But that hasn’t been the case.  The first time, my brother and I were getting ice and hot coffee for the road at a Sheetz in Cressona, PA.  Somebody called out my brother’s name, we turned to see a chunky dude in a camo hooded sweatshirt and pajama pants approaching him … with a .38 special holstered on his hip.  Apparently, this was one of my brother’s former coworkers.  He had been fired for exceeding his absence level at work (which takes some doing), was known as a bit of nut.  I really needed no background on this.  I could see in his eyes, no one was home, much less hearing him speak and realizing this guy had mental problems, surely not enough to be institutionalized, but enough for daily meds.  And he’s openly carrying a hand gun in public?

The handful of times I’ve seen this since then, while I didn’t have this level of direct contact with the person, I wasn’t overly enthused to see some hard-edged, scowling, middle-aged dude sporting a holstered hand-gun on his hip … in the St. Clair Walmart parking lot … walking down the main street of Ashland … coming out of a Dunkin Donuts in Shamokin, etc.  Like we were in the Old West, and this guy was going to have to draw on a cigarillo-smoking desperado in black.  You can read me off all the statistics you want.  This is way out of bounds and totally unnecessary.  I’ve lived in New York since 1987 and lived in a crack-ridded neighborhood in the Bronx from ’87 to ’97.  If I put myself in the mindset of these dudes openly carrying guns in a comparatively safe rural area, I would have been walking around with a flamethrower those 10 years.  It wasn’t unusual to hear gunshots in the distance at night in that neighborhood, and there were a few notorious murders in my neighborhood.  You learned fast what to do and what not to do to avoid trouble.  Your mind was your greatest weapon, developing the traits and abilities to avoid meaningless, violent confrontation.  Not a gun.  (Granted, there are situations, urban or rural, where a gun could save your life, but they’re surely not an every-day aspect of existence, and something I’ve thankfully yet to encounter.)

So, think about the superintendent and the bucket of rocks in Blue Mountain.  If anything, this is the antithesis of our gun-crazy culture, albeit more than a bit nuts.  Biblical in a sense, like Davey slinging rocks at Goliath?  Only in this case, I’d rather not go up against some deranged 15-year-old with an AR-15 assault rifle … with a bucket of rocks.  I don’t like those odds!  Nor do I like the concept of arming teachers.  Teachers don’t strive to obtain their degrees and dedicate their lives to broadening the possibilities for children with the thought of one day gunning them down in a crisis situation.  The concept of armed teachers is the antithesis of education: it’s more like prison.  And the few teachers I knew in high school that would have been comfortable handling guns in school were people who scared me nearly as much as the thought of some unhinged kid on a shooting spree.

Then again, there’s a lot I no longer understand about high school and this horrible, dark strain of shootings that has somehow become normal in our society.  We used to have fire drills.  The bigger end of the baby-boom generation, those kids would have nuclear-attack drills, hiding under their desks when the alarm went off, waiting for Russian warheads to rain down on them.  Kids are doing the same thing now, only they’re hiding under their desks when the alarm goes off, waiting for a psychotic American teenager with a semi-automatic weapon to kill them.

A few years back, when we were staging our 20th high-school reunion, I went back to the high school for an informal tour.  (The concept was to gather as many people as possible the Friday before a Fourth of July weekend, but I was the only person who turned up!)  I hadn’t set foot in the high school since graduating.  Approaching the front door, I was shocked to realize it was locked down (even in July).  There was a camera on the far wall overlooking the far-left door, which appeared to have a buzzer/intercom set-up.  I pressed it, announced who I was and why I was there.  The woman at the front desk in the office buzzed me in, then escorted me to wait for the principal.

The tour went fine.  It was amazing to walk through that place again and have the teacher guiding me grasp that not a lot had changed culturally there in the past 20 years.  But that front-door buzzer stuck with me.  Back in the 70s and early 80s, you just walked right in or out.  There was no need for lock downs, shooter drills or armed guards.  Then again, at that point in history, there were relatively few, if any, school shootings on record, and only a handful of mass shootings serving as templates for what would become societal norms decades later.  Is there something wrong in our society that horrible scenarios are now the norm?  Obviously.  And the concept of dozens of people, particularly kids, being murdered, would be a lot harder to envision without semi-automatic weapons.  (Imagine what Charles Whitman would have done in that tower in Austin in 1966 if he had one instead of a hunting rifle.  Then again, you don’t have to, as Stephen Paddock did just the same in 2017 in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and wounding 422 others.)  A bucket of rocks doesn’t seem any more or less sane against those kind of numbers.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Meet the Beatles

Of course, I never actually met them.  I was born when they broke big in America, a toddler for their entire existence, and a large McCartney/Wings fan through the 70s.

It seemed like getting into music as a kid in the 70s, the one hallmark all serious fans of that time held: going through the Beatles phase.  That initial blast where it became clear to the young listener: my God, this stuff is over a decade old and sounds as alive and interesting as anything going on now.

I’ve had that similar music experience many times over with other bands and kinds of music.  A real surprise as an adult has been hearing live blues and jazz albums from the 50s and 60s, knowing they were recorded in the most rudimentary ways possible, and the music sounds so immediate that you feel like you’re in the audience.  Compare and contrast with your average Rolling Stones live album that sounds like a fuzz machine echoing through a stadium.

I had brushes with The Beatles as a small child.  As noted in the book, “Hey Jude” became a childhood staple at neighbor Bubba’s house, plundering his older brother’s collection while he was fighting in Vietnam.  And the pool parties where some kid would lay the needle down on the portable record player at the start of that 45’s flipside, “Revolution,” and we’d time our jumps into the pool with Lennon’s opening scream.

The first real blast of Beatledom came with Brother J and me pining over the recently-released Blue and Red compilation albums in 1975.  They came out in 1973, but it wasn’t until then that both of us were thinking, “Man, we should own these things.”  We didn’t know where to start with The Beatles in terms of albums.  Their 70s revisionist era was just beginning, where their songs would be repackaged in all sorts of bizarre ways.  I recall their “rock and roll” songs being packaged as a collection. Their “love songs” as another.  The “Hollywood Bowl” recordings.  Almost immediately issued in the shitbins was “The Beatles at the Star Club” – a recording of their rowdy Hamburg shows pre-stardom.  (Brother J made the mistake of buying that in the late 70s … it was the worst pile of shit we’d ever heard.  I’ve since seen some revisionist history on this bootleg … they’re wrong.  It’s recorded and sounds like shit.)

The Blue and Red albums kept looking us in the face every tie we went into Woolworth’s.  Double albums.  I can’t recall the pricing, but it was reasonable, around $10.00 for each.  So, we kept mowing lawns, saved up, and eventually made those albums ours, probably in the spring of 1975.

I was immediately struck by how much more I liked the Blue album (1967 onward).  This sounded like the music I was listening to in real time.  Their influence was so strong that mainstream music would go on sounding like their varied takes on pop music for well over a decade, surely into the early 80s.  (And that’s just in terms of cultural dominance … there have always been melodic pop/rock bands since then, if not dominating the charts.)  “I Am the Walrus” and “A Day in the Life” were far more out there than most music I was hearing on 70s AOR radio.  Nearly every track had a timeless feel to it.

The Red album didn’t register nearly as well, probably because the recordings were more basic and raw, and only started to evolve production-wise leaning into 1966 (Rubber Soul leading into Revolver).  I’ve since come to realize those two albums are the apex for me and The Beatles, where they were all on the same page, still seeing themselves as one band, creatively intertwined, putting out pop music that would be influential decades later, without any hazy psychedelic shadings, a few leaps beyond the early boy/girl stuff.  In 1974 I was thinking, meh, whatever.  I didn’t realize that “In My Life” was Lennon’s direct take on Smokey Robinson and demonstrated his growth as a lyricist.  “Eleanor Rigby”?  Yeah, cool.  I didn’t realize that no one in the rock world was doing this, putting out a track with only vocals and classical backing.  Orchestras had crept into rock music in the late 50s, with The Drifters and Phil Spector working them into arrangements.  But not like this.  I’m shocked listening to “Eleanor Rigby” now – this was groundbreaking material at the time.

Of course, the early boy/girl material left me cold at the time, just sounded silly.  I still feel that way, although to a much lesser extent.  You could hear them breaking ground almost immediately – the fuzz guitar in “I Feel Fine,” Lennon’s lyrical genius in “Help” – but I don’t think they shifted into creative overdrive until after the Help album, later in 1965, where they really started learning their strengths and how to use the studio with George Martin.

This was the perfect musical schooling for an 11-year-old boy just getting into music.  Other kids were doing it, too, and I was always tuned into when that was happening.  Those kids were either musicians themselves, or smart kids who understood that Styx, Boston and REO Speedwagon weren’t created in a vacuum.  Old friend Tony was a budding guitarist, way into heavy metal, but he knew, The Beatles were a band he needed to hear.  And it wasn’t like we were in a Beatles-only musical world.  We were surrounded by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in their 70s prime, The Who, Kinks and Stones still putting out reasonably good material.  Dozens of bands putting out good-to-great material.  Bands like Fleetwood Mac and Supertramp were putting out top-shelf pop albums that many considered Top 40 fluff because it was such a normal occurrence back then.  While 70s AOR radio was becoming dull in terms of repetitively playing the same tracks over and over (it took me decades to appreciate Jethro Tull again), there was a time, up through the late 70s, where you could still hear an amazingly large variety of 60s/70s pop rock being played routinely.  It became a teenage/young adult culture unto itself that many of us still identify with strongly.

But in terms of The Beatles, for my first few years as a rock fan, those two albums were it.  If a song wasn’t on those two albums, chances are we weren’t hearing it on the radio.  As we didn’t have the full albums, there was a vast sea of Beatles material we knew little to nothing about.

I still remember hearing “We Can Work It Out” on the radio one day and thinking it was a new McCartney song, not realizing it was a decade old, and that was clearly Lennon on the harmony vocal.  Ditto, “If I Fell,” which wasn’t on the Red Album, but should have been.  A wonderful pop song that blew my mind the first time I heard it.  I knew it was The Beatles, but I didn’t know where it was coming from!

The first non-Blue/Red album bought was based solely on economics.  The Let It Be album was in the shit bins for much of the early/mid 70s, at least at Woolworth’s.  I’ve since seen conjecture that this was because bootleggers were pumping out thousands of fake copies to record distributors, more than stores could handle, so they’d dump the album into the bargain bins at the front of every record store or section.

I don’t know about that.  The copy Brother J bought for $0.99 at Woolworth’s looked like a legitimate Apple release.  What I do remember is that rock fans at that time looked down on the album because it sounded half-assed and unfinished compared to the last album they released in the fall of 1969, Abbey Road.  Let It Be came out in early 1970, although it had been recorded a year earlier and then shelved because no one quite knew how to salvage the project (their attempt to “get back” to a more basic sound … although you can surely hear the same desire on many songs on The White Album).  I suspect record stores dumped it into the cheap bin, bootleg or not, because of that reputation among the fans.

Imagine my surprise to drop the needle on “Two of Us” and hear what would become one of my favorite Beatles track.  I can’t say that for the entire album, although I’ve grown to love it.  What really grabbed me was George’s guitar solo on “Let It Be,” sounding so much more raw and alive than the thick/bouncy, Leslie-speaker version on the Blue album.

But that album let me know: if all I knew was the Red and Blue albums, there was a truckload of material with the Beatles that I didn’t have a clue on.

It wasn’t until 1980 or so, when Brother J came back home one weekend from his junior year at Penn State, that I finally heard Abbey Road.   I knew the hits that appeared on the Blue album.  (I even knew one-offs like “Old Brown Shoe” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”)  But I’d never heard “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “Oh! Darling,” “Because” or any of the medley tracks.  This was the second time I was absolutely floored by a Beatles album.  My head split open, and doves flew out.  I couldn’t believe how good this album was.  I remember coming downstairs after listening to it for the first time on headphones and telling J, “That’s the best album I’m ever going to hear.”

And it could be, despite horseshit like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Octopus Garden” appearing on it.  (Sidenote: I can see why George Harrison was glad to leave the band.  I can picture him offering “All Things Must Pass,” “My Sweet Lord” and “Isn’t It a Pity” to the band, and Paul responding, “I don’t know, mate, I think we should do about 300 takes of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and use that instead. We already spotted you ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ – isn’t that enough?”)

I should mention J had already bought Sgt. Pepper’s by that point, which didn’t blow my mind nearly as much (although I recognized I was supposed to view it on a higher level at that time).  I’ve never thought much of tracks like “Fixing a Hole,” “Getting Better,” or “Lovely Rita.” Among others.  Half that album is filler.  Of course, the other half is mind-bending.  But, again, I was shitting my diapers in 1967 … I can recognize now, especially given the overall vibe of the summer of that year, that this album changed the world.  Ditto, Magical Mystery Tour.  (This would lead into J buying the Yellow Submarine album, and being mad as hell to realize side two was bullshit orchestrations from the terrible animated movie that put us to sleep.  Still, we came away with “Hey Bulldog,” which was worth it.)

I should note, after the Blue and Red albums, J was buying these albums with his own money.  He really picked up the flag with The Beatles, not to mention getting the ball rolling with Hot Rocks and Phased Cookies from The Rolling Stones.  The problems with all these compilations were they left out so much great material, legendary album tracks, that it would take us a few years to mine out for ourselves being born slightly too late to assimilate these albums in real time.

J did the same with The White Album shortly thereafter, and that was another mind-opening experience, despite the sprawl of that collection.  I hadn’t heard “Dear Prudence” until the late 70s … why weren’t they playing this on the radio?  I had no idea.  AOR radio would never play tracks like “Julia” or “I Will” – songs that now strike me as real gems.  About the only track I remember radio playing routinely was “Birthday” as background music to rock-star birthday announcements followed by four-song “super sets” or “rock blocks” as they were often called.

It seems strange to me now that I wasn’t immediately gobbling up these albums in the mid-70s after that Blue/Red introduction, but those were different times.  It took time to save up money for albums, and back then, we didn’t know what we were buying.  (We were also buying a ton of great albums in real time.)  If songs weren’t being played on the radio, or if a friend hadn’t bought the album on eight track or vinyl, we didn’t hear them.  Ever.  If the internet existed back then (especially as it existed in the downloading bonanza days of the early 00s)?  I would have downloaded the Beatles entire catalog in one afternoon and tried to absorb it all in a few weeks.

I can see now how insane a method of music appreciation this is, how crazy our world has become, an embarrassment of riches, so much wealth that we just don’t’ have the time, patience or right frames of mind to understand and slowly develop an appreciation for it.  It took me weeks to absorb one Beatles album, years to get a grasp of what the band meant.  That sort of slow, careful nurturing fans would develop with a band or recording artists seems like a thing of the past now.  It’s not an age thing either.  I find myself doing the same now with bands I stumble over, loving a track, sampling the album, buying the album, realizing the band has a five-album back catalog, and knocking those off in very short order.  It’s too hard not to do this when it’s there for the taking!

(Don’t get me started on streaming music in this context.  Yes, you can pull up a band’s entire catalog in seconds and listen to the whole thing in hours.  You love it?  Like nothing else you’ve ever heard?  Great.  You’re renting this music.  If for any reason that music is dropped form your streaming service, it’s gone from your life.  Never mind going further and finding bootlegs and live shows: not on there.  That’s one of the larger issues I have with the media format, and not the only one.  It surely fills the needs of casual fans, and that’s what I have to realize.  Most fans are casual, the real problem of the music industry: trying to develop lasting, passionate music fans when so much of their income is dependent on casual fans and then their waning senses of nostalgia.)

As it was, we pieced together the Beatles entire catalog, probably over the course of a decade from the mid-70s to the mid-80s.  The last to fall, of course, were those early albums we shunned, and those tended to be cursory experiences, not the revelations of their post-1967 career.  There were moments with each.  Hearing “And Your Bird Can Sing” and loving George’s guitar work.  Lennon doing his thing for the first time on “I’m a Loser.”  The genuine energy from both Paul's and John's vocals on "Twist and Shout."

We were buying solo Beatles material every step of the way.  Especially McCartney.  After Band on the Run came out, he took over the 70s.  That album was as great in its own way as any Beatles album: the essence of McCartney perfectly captured in one album.  You can say the same for Plastic Ono Band – a stunning piece of work that would not have been possible as a Beatles album.  A lot of people are now saying All Things Must Pass is the best Beatles solo album.  But they’re wrong.  Still, it would have made an incredible single album.  (One of the great 70s blowoffs for J and me was to play that awful third record of All Things Must Pass with those interminable, senseless jams.  Say the words “I Remember Jeep” and both of us smile at the memory of this ludicrously bad material.)  I should also note here that the best post-Beatles single for me was “Photograph” by Ringo Starr, but written with George.  Every now and then, Ringo go it right, but clearly not on the same level as the others.

It’s strange to think that I had probably only known the song “Dear Prudence” for a year or two before Lennon was shot in December 1980.  That was probably the last album J and I went halfway on, Double Fantasy.  Of course, the Yoko material on that album left us cold.  And not all of Lennon’s songs blew us away.  But “Starting Over,” “I’m Losing You” and “Watching the Wheels” were prime Lennon for us, and enough to keep the album, especially when phony “fans” were offering to buy the album for $20 and up when it became impossible to buy the album in the weeks following his death.  (When Milk and Honey was issued a few years later, it burned us that he had shelved tracks like “Stepping Out,” “Nobody Told Me” and “Grow Old with Me” – he had enough material in 1980 to make one hell of a solo comeback album.  But that wasn’t what he wanted to do.)

After that, it was a matter of changing media types.  I eventually bought CD’s for all their studio albums through the early 90s, even found a cheap used copy of The Blue Album, and the Past Masters which actually were very good collections.  I was pretty happy with that but when the mono and stereo remasters were announced in 2012?  I didn’t rush out and buy them, but maybe should have.  As it was, I pulled a massive trade with an old friend who was a big music collector, too, but only for the MP3 files burned at 320 kbps.  I feel weird now that I listen to only the stereo tracks.  The Beatles albums up to Sgt. Pepper’s were released in mono.  (A lot of folks go on record as stating that and The White Album in mono are the way to go.)  Honestly?  I wasn’t around back then as a fan, and this stuff all sounds perfectly good to me in stereo.  I suspect mono and original Beatles fans would be outraged, but I’m fine with this.

Stuff like the 1 compilation album?  I have no need for it.  I made the mistake of buying a few of the more recent remasters.  They were really nothing new, although I did like the McCartney-approved version of Let It Be, with the more stripped-down/original production values maintained on his tracks.  The Anthology collections were a lot of fun for serious fans, but I'd still find myself tracking down bootleg studio material before and after they came out.  Frankly, I’m just glad there’s enough public interest from new and old fans to support these kind of projects.

Maybe I’m noting all this because I suspect whenever Paul and Ringo go (they’re both in their mid-to-late 70s now), there’s bound to be another reappraisal of what The Beatles meant, and the wheel will keep turning for their music.  In all honesty, I don’t listen to it as much as I used to, will go through certain periods where I’ll get a yen and run through their playlist on the iPod for a week, but it passes.  I was raised in the 70s and grew up with the likes of Elton John, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Queen, ELO, and all sort of punk and new wave pushing me through those years.  The Beatles were the first time I looked back and realized there was much to learn from the past.  That’s something that any true music fan realizes: understanding the past is just as important as grasping the future.