music

Just Kids, Patti Smith

Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids is touching and well-written. The account of her life with the visual artist Robert Mapplethorpe is a glimpse into a very isolated and very culturally important moment. Their artistic and aesthetic nascence is recounted well and authentically, communicated a kind of existential striving that put them at odds with much of what was around them. While certain aspects of the book felt a bit performative or pretentious, the vast majority of Smith’s writing seems much more concerned with depicting a reality than with depicting the author in the best possible light.

Different modes of writing are separate enough that I’m usually cautious about narrative books written by good songwriters or good standup comics. While the emotional realities are always there, the translation and communication of those realities often requires a skillset that may not be present. Patti Smith clearly has the narrative chops to pull this kind of thing off, and does it well. There is a lot of intention and reflection being distilled into the narrative, less a reliance on anecdotes or filler storytelling.

While my overall impression of the book remains positive, there is a bit of pretension and preciousness in here that isn’t my favorite, as well as a bit more name-dropping than I care for (although most of the name-drop-heavy antecdotes are pretty essential to the narrative, so handling that well seems like a rather titanic task). It’s a hard bit of criticism to sustain, but it’s enough to keep me from recommending this book completely free of any “well, but” riders.

Mishka Shubaly’s “Beat the Devil” and Amazon Singles

Mishka Shubaly seems to do a bunch of diverse shit. I’d heard him on a podcast a few times before hearing about his whole relationship with Amazon.com as a popular purveyor of their “Kindle singles,” a novellete-length product usually available for around 1.99 and published exclusively as a digital product. I’ve been leery of those kinds of things -with the sometimes-exception of self-published informational ebooks- because as much as people like to talk shit about “the gatekeepers” the traditional publishing model does hold back the flood of self-aggrandizing “personal brand” vanity publishing, badly edited how-tos, and, oh my god, so much fucking supernatural erotica.

While “Beat the Devil” is certainly a cut above that sort of thing, I can’t really say that I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine, but not great. There’s enough to make it worth the two bucks, enough to keep me reading through to the end, there is some pretty bad writing on display. Shubaly can write damn good introspective prose, but his dialog is badly artificial and his need for an external narrative morality skews things to the cliche. I love his oral history, the telling of insane stories that feel real and drive forward with undeniable emotional honesty, but there’s a lot of shit to wade through, and it’s sometimes distractingly bad.

All of this culminates in the mediocre recommendation of “try the sample?” for this particular artifact and a pretty solid “fuck this noise” on the whole “Kindle Singles” thing. I feeling like Shubaly’s work is some of the better writing in this particular medium, and it’s only OK. I’d love to see more small presses and lit mags really push things on the ebook front, but with Amazon’s history of fucking over presses and booksellers, I completely understand the reluctance.

Recommendation: “try the sample?”

Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ and the Inspiration of Aspiration

Full disclosure:

  1. A) Lolita is one of my favorite books of all time
  2. B) This is a re-read -I have know read Lolita 2.6 times (I started and for some reason did not complete a re-read about 2 years back)

Lolita is wonderful. Nabokov is an unmatched master in the classical sense who is more than deserving of every bit of praise he has received. But rather than defaulting to a continued gushing on about how amazing this book is, I’d prefer to take a look at the motivation and rewards of re-reading, and the inspirational/aspirational role of reviewing great art in the context of one’s own creative output.

Lolita is better than the things I make, and it was created long before many of my own literary inspirations were published. It’s been my experience that truly transcendent displays of virtuosity have one of two effects; the devotee of the virtuoso will either run to his own performance of the craft in a frenzy of manic inspiration, or he will step away from the craft for a time, depressed by his own relative lack  of skill. As a young(er) man, I was a rather driven guitar player. I had cut my teeth in church bands and transitioned into playing in metal, post-hardcore, and jazz groups (sometimes all in the same week). I had good gear, good chops, and decent technique. Unfortunately, I also suffered from being an overly-competitive and egocentric young male. Every superior guitar player was a threat, a rival. I would pick apart their playing with the most critical eye possible (sure, he’s fast with those sweep-picked arpeggios, but all he can do is play that fake-ass Yngwie Malmsteen neoclassical bullshit -he couldn’t handle the polyrhythms I have to work with). This was -obviously- incredibly unsatisfying, and that attitude was objectively detrimental to my growth as a musician.

Once I got enough distance from that part of my life to recognize those kind of tendencies in myself I worked hard to try and move beyond that place of ego. Not to say that excellence in a creative endeavor doesn’t require ego; it absolutely does. There is an inherent conceit in the root idea of “lots of people should take time out of their day to mentally upload the words and ideas I make up”. At the same time, that excessively masculine and externally deprecating ego (displayed most publicly in, say,Hemingway and Norman Mailer) is absolutely toxic. Some of my  best writing has forced itself into objective existence in a literary post-coital afterglow.

I can see myself coming back to Lolita, specifically for this effect. There is no better example of an immediately recognizable voice, a voice that we have every reason to deplore but cannot help but come alongside of, invest in. While there is certainly a danger of coming off as a second-rate Nabokov clone when sampling so heavily for inspiration, I don’t think my own work would suffer for being a bit more Nabokovian than it is now.

Recommendation: Read it. Duh.

 

Lolita
by Vladimir Nabokov
Powells.com

Best New Music Releases of 2015 (So Far)

Music of 2015 (so far):

I’ve been listening to a lot more new albums lately. I’m a bit tired of the driving focus placed on singles in our iTunes era, and everything I’ve loved this year has been part of a strong album that functions well as an album, not just a collection of songs. NPR’s First Listen has been an amazing resource in this regard (http://www.npr.org/series/98679384/first-listen). There is no better argument for limited sharing of digital audio -I’m going to be purchasing most of these albums as physical media in the next month or so.

In no particular order:

Matthew E. White, ‘Fresh Blood’: I saw the band open for The Mountain Goats in 2012, and my brother thought they were better than the main act -if I didn’t love John’s band so much, I might have, too. Amazing musicians, amazing arrangements, monster presence. The new album has all of that -and better songs. ‘Holy Moly’ kills.

Lightning Bolt, ‘Fantasy Empire’: Great music to play loud. Noise-rock, proto-metal high-clarity lo-fi… it’s hard to classify. It’s damn good, somewhat intoxicating, and exhausting. Not for the faint of heart. Listen to it all the way through.

Inventions, ‘Maze of Woods’: Explosions in the Sky guitarist Mark Smith teams up solo laptop guy Matthew Cooper and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The guitar arrangements and piano parts sound like they’ve been lifted out of ‘The Earth is not a Cold, Dead Place’. Great minimalistic post-rock with an extravagant electronic twist. Like ‘Fantasy Empire’, listen to it all in one go.

‘Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith’: The title is rather self-explanatory. heart wrenching, black songs covered with beautiful precision, full of dead-on harmonies and understated acoustic instrumentation. I’m not as familiar as I’d like to be with Elliott Smith’s music, but this album has put my feet upon the path. Don’t listen to this if you’re having a bad day.

Liturgy, “The Art Work’: Another very loud and aggressive album that refuses to fall to our rock-nerd Linnaean taxonomies. On first listen, it seems to be more squarely metal than something like ‘Fantasy Empire’, but that’s just where the train is coming from and Liturgy are going somewhere else entirely. Horns and spoken-word vocal delivery sit right next to driving tremolo-picking and black metal thunder and it all belongs together.

Reading Log: John Cavanagh’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn (A 33 1/3 Book)

P1020346

Yup, more rock journalism. I’m not tired of it yet.

Cavanagh sights in perfectly here, focusing on the album itself and only touching on the tumultuous events that followed (the mental illness and loss of frontman Syd Barrett). He introduces us to a massive cast of characters, and while I was never able to draw a round picture of anyone in particular, the movement and the era were captured perfectly, an uncorrupted glimpse into an incredibly interesting time and place.

Cavanagh isn’t the most sophisticated writer, but any shortcomings in his prose are offset by his boundless enthusiasm for all things Pink Floyd (focused on Piper, of course). It’s infectious, and his liberal use of exclamation marks -a practice that normally sets my teeth on edge- is endearing. This isn’t literary fiction. It’s a guy who’s madly in love with a piece of art, talking to all the people involved in making it and distilling the result into something accessible enough for the casual fans/passers-by and involved enough for the fanatics.

It’s a great story, it’s a great album. A book like this can go wrong so easily; veering off into inside baseball and the exclusionary, referential language of rock-geekdom, obsession over the dramatic tabloid celebrity or even sinking into saccharine nostalgia. This book is none of those things. It’s exactly what it claims to be; the celebration of a great moment in musical history, supported by an exhaustive body of interviews with the people who made it happen.

Recommendation: Read if you like Pink Floyd, counterculture, or good stories about weird shit. Pass if you hate exclamation marks or genuine enthusiasm.

Reading Log: Kim Cooper’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (a 33⅓ book)

P1020344

Kim Cooper’s 33⅓ entry on Neutral Milk Hotel’s magnum opus In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a good read for fans of the album, the band, or the alternative music scene in Georgia during the 90’s but it probably holds little interest for anyone else. Cooper isn’t writing for people outside the fold; the book assumes a working knowledge of Jeff Mangum, his friends, and their work. Casual references are made to bands like Great lakes, Olivia Tremor Control, and Of Montreal, with their lineups occasionally mentioned absent any introduction or framework for understanding. If you’re not already at least somewhat familiar with the subject, a Wikipedia survey might not be amiss.

The back of the book describes it as “a lovingly researched oral history of the Neutral Milk Hotel and the Elephant 6 collective”. The research is evident; Cooper seems to have made every effort to talk to as many disparate people as possible, peppering the text with long excerpts from band members and other involved parties. The choice to focus on the entire span of NMH existence serves the book well, and while her fact-checking seems to be especially thorough, but the presentation as “oral history” felt a bit clunky. It’s written in a loose past tense, with far too much self aggrandizing regarding the telling of the tale. Late in the third act Cooper abandons the form entirely to give us her personal interpretation of the meaning found within the tracklist of the album, a jarring and unnecessary break from the narrative that reads something like a good undgrad newspaper’s review of the LP.

Why do we read? Many of my friends read for practical edification; they consume long non-fiction tomes about economics, history, pop culture or technology. They read to learn something new or deepen their knowledge of something dear to them. If you are that kind of reader, (at least some of the time, like I am) and if you are interested in the subject, go ahead. The book is well-written, and the problems I’ve outlined above are more than manageable. If not, I’d look for a book in this series that touches on an album closer to your heart. While Darnielle’s Master of Reality is for anybody willing to pick it up, Cooper’s entry on In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is one for the fans.

 

Why I Write This Blog, and What It Is

cartoon me

This blog is intended primarily to serve as a personal reading log, where I record my initial, raw thoughts on the books I have read. These are thoughts that may be completely fresh, written minutes after I’ve turned the last page, or they may have been percolating in my head for a few days as I try to figure out what my specific response to a given work is (and why). I proofread my Reading Logs, but they don’t go through the same process of multiple revisions and rewritings that my fiction and essays. A blog is a bit more ephemeral and the writing on here isn’t going to be quite as polished. I think of it as letter-writing: I don’t want to make embarrassing mistakes, but it’s a conversational exercise, not an exercise of meticulously reworked composition. My post count, reading time, my fiction and nonfiction writing, music, and social life would suffer if I blogged that way.

This blog also serves as a journal of my creative endeavors. I write about playing music and writing, the two main artistic pursuits at this point in my life. I’ve only been writing seriously for a little under a year now, so I’m still pretty fresh and I hope my learning process might be useful to others. After all, you’re reading this for some reason. Maybe you know me in real life, maybe you’re an internet stranger who’s found that we share similar tastes, maybe you even enjoy my perspective on books. I’m writing this stuff because I need to on a personal level and I’m publishing it online because I think it might be worth reading.