Thursday, June 26, 2008

Smoke and mirrors

The morning smoke break came after the rain. An old man, standing under the awning of closed shop, dirty and crazy eyed, fiddled with a single, white cigarette resting behind his ear. Two blocks over, a woman whose face was aging faster than her figure, rested miserably on a street bench and slowly, sucked down an extra long 100. Sooner or later, she was going to have to go right back inside. From the look on her face, the notion of laying in the street under the traffic light had occurred to her once or twice.

Gathered like pigeons pecking over Styrofoam peanuts, a cluster of office assistants, secretaries and receptionists stood out by the curb, clucking at each other and waving their fuming fingers wildly. Probably somebody brought donuts. They had the look of people fighting off a sugar buzz.

Stalking down the street, a fierce, hairless man in cut-off shorts and black socks smoked a extra thin cigarette. He scowled as he crossed the street and kept the effeminate looking thing close to his body. One misstep, a single pothole and he'd have burned a blister on his porcelain smooth legs.

A hard-looking woman in a striped shirt chatted up two rough-looking characters. The three of them were killing time. None of them looked like they had any place they needed to go and might have been veterans of the city's professionally unemployed. It's really only seasonal work, but they'd been hard at it. The grit and grime on their clothes looks like it was ground in under the tread of a tire. This was just a ten minute break from the grind, a little bit of tobacco shared among friends.

The woman laughed a lot. She was young. Happy days were indeed ahead. She looked to be about eight months pregnant.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Crawling out of the crater

Taylor Books seemed kind of slow for a Friday morning. The weather was nice. More people were probably getting ice cream across the street than stopping in for coffee and a book. I

I was missing out on cheeseburgers to meet with one of the few people willing to read and respond to my book. We drank coffee and talked about the pros and cons of the story. He picked out a couple of things I noticed and fixed when I started going through the files a few weeks ago. He picked out a couple of things I failed to notice and probably should also fix.

He was very kind and gave me a lot to think about.

While sitting there, one of my most faithful and favorite readers stopped in and noticed me.

"Hey, it's my favorite blogger," he said.

I smiled, shook his hand and told him I was glad to see him.

"I love your blog," he said. "I really love what you do --except when you go on about your book. I just completely tune out, but the stuff about your life, the stuff about you, that's great. You should write a book about that."

I laughed. The book in question was sitting in front of me. The two men, one to my right and the other to my left, represented my continuous conversation, the two views about whether to keep going or whether to go somewhere else.

"Well, maybe I'll do that," I told him. "One of these days..." Though really, I think I'd have to do something worth reading about first, other than survive the petty scrapes of an ordinary life.

"Just let me get this one done first," I told him. "I've kind of been at it for a while."

Agents and publishers are waiting, even now, to reject it. I must not disappoint them.

Monday, June 23, 2008


It had to happen eventually. George Carlin died Sunday.

I spoke with the man once, a couple of years back. He was supposed to play the Civic Center. I did my usual song and dance and got him on the phone for an interview.

I always compare other comedians and other interviews with comedians I do to George Carlin. Carlin was funny on the phone. He was Carlin. He didn't switch into some decaf version of himself, as if he was trying to save up the person he intended to be for the paying crowd (aka Lewis Black, Martin Short and Aries Spears). From my thirty minutes with him, Carlin was Carlin. He was a little abrasive, a bit arrogant, but honest and funny when it moved him, which it did often.

The irony of the interview with Carlin was he canceled the show in Charleston, due to health problems. That year, I was the only person in Charleston who even got a sample of the man live. One of the few guilty perks of doing what I do. I got something nobody else got and it meant a lot to me.

I started listening to Carlin when I was 14. A friend of mine had a tape and we listened to it until we practically wore the thing out. In college, Carlin's run-in with the law over his famous seven words you can't say on television and radio, was taught as part of the course. It was in the textbook. Carlin was kind of a living patron saint among the radio people and the non-news communications people. I certainly drew on him when I first started writing for my college paper as a columnist. I learned from him. Funny could be profound. Philosophy could be silly.

He'll be missed.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bait and Switch

One of my least favorite tricks in dealing with performing artists is the ever-popular bait and switch. What happens is the writer contacts the headliner. The headliner's people say the star is too busy or busy focusing on the show or busy going for a world masturbation record (it really doesn't matter, it's all soft-soap for 'no.' Everyone smiles about it, but we all know it's because the 'star' doesn't like talking to the press), but they still want some press. They want people to come to the show. This is when they roll out the opening act. They throw him out front and say, "Well, he can't do it --he's busy doing smack in the back of the bus, but I hear the other guy is giving great interviews."

Uh, yeah... great interviews. Like an interview is a blow job.

They will even provide you with a phone number.

A good part of the time, the opener is just fine. Often, a good opener on a major tour is someone to watch later, particularly in country music. I've talked to a lot of guys who started out as C-list or B-list and have moved up the ladder after a couple more hits and a follow-up album.

What's funny about the bait and switch is when they lure you in to do it. For instance, a guy named George is headlining a show and he has an opener named Joe. George has the misfortune of picking a date in an area when there are going to be a lot of other musical acts to catch, many of them cheaper. Not only that, it's a bad time for the economy and a lot of people might be hesitant about coming to the area because their big ol' pickup trucks suck down gas. So, maybe, ticket sales aren't so hot. The local paper isn't doing anything about George's show because they're full up. It doesn't really fit in with the coverage they already have planned.

And besides... George doesn't do interviews. He doesn't talk to minor press and barely talks to the majors. He's a big star. He's a big old star, a red giant who is bigger than he ever was, but doesn't shed exactly the same kind of healthy glow he used to. Maybe his gravity isn't what it used to be either.

So, George's show gets a polite mention, but not much else. Ticket sales are down. The opener is still willing to do press, may be eager to do press if he has a hit on the charts, but nobody is calling.

What happens is word is circulated that the headliner and the opener, in this hypothetical case George and Joe, are both willing to do press. The headliner was an unexpected possibility, considered so impossible as to not be worth the time to try. So, the writer contacts the designated rep for George. George's people get back fast and explain,"Oh, wait, no... sorry. George is still busy. The tour, you know? But I hear Joe is willing to talk and Joe is blah-blah this and Joe is blah-blah that and if you ask, he'll do a unicorn dance. You will believe he is a real unicorn."

So, the writer tells his editor. His editor rolls his or her eyes and shakes his or her head. You have to be fucking kidding me. After that, the writer gets to call them back and tell them, "no." He also gets to mention that in a career spanning five decades of hits and a couple dozen tours, many of them coming right through your little town, George has (to the best of your knowledge) never done an interview with the local paper. It was news that he wanted to. It's not news when his opener wants to. Everyone knows that already.

There is an apology: another time, another show. And really, another time, another show.

You still get to feel good that you turned down the designated hitter and got to at least remind the star's people what the word "no" sounds like. Maybe it isn't quite so cut and dried. Maybe nobody cares, but it fees pretty good regardless.

Monday, June 16, 2008

monkeys with typewriters

The results are in on the West Virginia Writer's competition. I didn't win, didn't place, didn't even show. Bummer.

I didn't expect to win, though I believe in my warped little book. I have a suspicion that regional flavor does very well at this thing --books about growing up in the hollar, the coal fields or by the railroad. There's nothing particularly wrong with that. Homer Hickam did it. So, did Breece Pancake, and my book is not about West Virginia, West Virginians or really Appalachian life. I don't know if I have that kind of book in me.

When I started writing, I considered some of the writers who influenced me early. Guys like Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and even Dean Koontz are pretty geographically centered. McMurtry's books are set in Texas. Stephen King mostly writes about a mythical version of Maine and Dean Koontz has California. They're very much married to the places they live. I'm a writer who lives in West Virginia, but not a West Virginia writer. I know the people. I am one of the people, but my literary voice doesn't have the right twang.

If I ever get published, if I have any kind of success, the state probably will not embrace me as one of their favorite sons. I'm really sort of on my own, which in it's own peculiar way, underlines my spiritual tie to the area.

So, even as I submitted to the contest, I knew I was doomed to fail. I submitted because I knew what would happen and how I'd feel about it. I needed for it to hurt. I'm going to send my book out in the next week or two. It's going to get rejected a lot. It may get passed up by everybody this first time out. I'm going to take the letters, the stickers on my cover letters and the stunning silence hard. It's going to hurt. If I had done anything other than lose and lose in such a terribly anonymous way (I couldn't crack the top 8. How many books do I really think people sent in?), I might have raised my expectations too much. I'd have expected too much to come too soon. I'd have expected a hit and a lottery win, fame and wealth. I think getting anything would have done me more harm than good.

So, it goes... I'm halfway through the next phase. If I finish by the end of this week, I'll spend next weekend working on cover letters and a nice pitch for agents, publishers and whatever devils can be conjured. A week after the 18th, my current cosmic tailspin should be wearing off, too. It usually does.

Interesting thing to note: First and second place for the novel competition were won by residents of Texas and Florida. Nice... I lost to people who don't even live here any more.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A return to form

I had the hood of the car up and set of pliers in my hands. I was told to check the battery, but I was pretty gloomy about the chances it was the battery. Slowly, I loosened the bolts and exposed the galvanized posts. They were clean. No corrosion. The wires looked good. Damned if I knew...

"Hey there."

Behind me, on the hill, stood two old guys in road leathers. Their faces were cooked red from their last ride and their bare arms were covered in tattoos: confederate flags, skulls and crosses. My neighbor Eddie plays bass in a band, but Eddie has been laid up after a series of "procedures," including an angioplasty and a double hernia.

Eddie tells me other than having heart blockages and a bad back, the doctor says he has the body of a twenty year-old. He's pushing fifty and he would be the baby in this musical outfit.

The bigger of the two men came clomping down the hill.


"Yeah," I said. "I think my starter is shot. A guy I know told me to check and clean the posts around the battery."

"That's a good place to start."

"Yeah, but it isn't doing any good."

We stared at the engine together. It wasn't going anywhere.

"Go on and turn the key," he said. "Let me take a look."

A second pair of hands and eyes was welcome. I tried the ignition.

Click, click, click...

"Hit the horn," he said.

It moaned like a lovestruck goose.

He shook his head. "Yeah, it's the starter. The horn was the giveaway. The battery is fine."

He looked deep into the organs of the car, prodded a few things, suggested tapping some part of the machinery to force it to turn, but neither of us had the appropriate stick.

In the end, he shrugged. There wasn't much he could do. He told me, if I wanted, I could crawl under the car, remove the starter, take it to an auto parts store and have them check it. I could also take a claw hammer to it. I'm a lot more handy than I used to be, but I draw the line at things I could break permanently.

I thanked him for his help.

"Hey," he said. "You should stop by Eddie's some time, when the band is practicing. You can get your fill of some great music and the holy spirit."

Right. Eddie is in a Christian biker band. Eddie plays the banjo. I'd almost forgotten.

I promised I would. Of course, I would. I might not hurry on that one, but I'll make it over. A biker band that sings about their love of the lord and can work in a banjo would be worth the trip, which is only next door.

And the car? 60 bucks for the tow. Another 400 for repairs... on a car whose warranty expired two months ago.

I hate June.

Update: Okay, officially, Jay you were right (damn you, Jay. Damn you to hell). After the mechanics got to screwing around with the car, they figured out the battery was only putting out a small charge and wasn't holding a charge. They did a check of the electrical system afterwards.
The damage to my wallet is substantially less than $400 bucks. I'm still out about $130 (with the tow), which sucks, but $130 is better than close to $500.

I still hate June.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


The deadline to rsvp for my class reunion is in the next day or so. Probably because it is so close, everyone on the old high school e-mail list was running down memory lane today.

It wasn't entirely unpleasant but parts of it reminded me of why I'm probably not going. For the most part, these people didn't care about me twenty years ago. I was part of the scenery, maybe less than that. I was a walk-on character in their very important dramas. I think if I went this time, it would be the same. I'd be part of the fodder, part of the crowd, just a member of the audience for heroic tales having nothing to do with me.

I'm still conflicted. I think I want to go, but I can't find a single good reason.


Friends occasionally tell me I make too much of my birthday. I try to remind them, it's not about getting my hopes up and seeing them crushed. I've come to expect very little. After 38 years of mostly shitty birthdays, the best I can hope for is to not get stabbed in the parking lot on my way home from my second job -or at least not get stabbed anywhere vital. It's that grim. More times than not, my luck goes completely sour around this time. There usually isn't cake. There often isn't ice cream, but I do get to be a pinata for seven to ten days. That's always something.

I dread June. I hate it for the virtually unavoidable downward trajectory. Nobody likes bottoming out, even if things usually get better in July.

What I didn't see coming was my year-old car suddenly failing. That happened this morning. I've got power, but it won't turn over. It just clicks. Sounds expensive. At the very least, it's a tow truck to the bottom of the hill to a garage and probably a couple of hundred bucks in repairs.

And fuck... I've still got six days to go.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Random music #13.

Music writing lesson #13.

Local bands will go out of their way to hurt themselves. You probably can't get them to put the scissors down, but you might ask them to stop making the stabbing motions at their wrists.

It was a rough week in the world of music journalism. Last week, I was reminded again why writing about local music is sometimes less fun than writing about washed up rockers. I did a piece on a local horror punk outfit, that's a fun change of pace from the usual pop/punk/faux jazz fusion stuff that shows up.

The interview was set. The photographer was scheduled. Half the band showed up. Half decided to stay home. Neither the pictures or the interview was as wonderful as it could be. Possibly realizing it would be a good idea to have some involvement in the article, one of the musicians sent me some pictures and a request to call another member by some jolly pirate nickname.

I said, no. Not only that, I gave him a list of reasons why I couldn't use the pictures. They were my favorites... First, they sucked. They were the wrong resolution, the wrong color and the band appeared to be drunk in one shot. The beer bottles in front of them and in the hand of the lead singer weren't particularly helpful.

The article ran. It was what it was, but not terrible. The helpful musician who sent the photographs, his wife decided to send me a note explaining how I'd mis-characterized the band in the article she didn't read. I won't say that he had her contact me, but you know... it would tend to look that way.

I called her on it, told her it looked like she didn't read the article, as she missed major portions of it, including the opening paragraph. I suggested her husband would have done better and gotten some input if he'd behaved like he gave a flying fuck.

This is why writing about the washed up rocker is sometimes a lot more gratifying. Most of the time, the bass player shows up when he's supposed to. His people get you what you need and at the end of the call, they say, "Hey, hope to see you at the show." They don't send their wives to bitch if they're feeling pissy about not getting what they want.

But I still told her that I thought they were interesting and neither her bullshit or her husband's had changed my opinion of the band. I made it a point to tell the lead singer, one of the two who showed up to talk and be photographed, to keep me informed about another show.

A lot of local bands fill their heads full of mythology about how playing music is going to be. Too many of them think because a few people come to a few shows, they've arrived. They drink the kool-aid even before it's been mixed with water.

To a degree, as a music writer, you have to be willing to overlook the casual rudeness, the idiotic posing and the strange egos -unless they pull this stuff during the interview, then by all means, "it's showtime." I think you have to be willing to tell them when they're doing it wrong, when they haven't got their shit together, when they're shooting themselves in the foot.

Like Lester Bangs said, "Be honest and be merciless."

But you don't have to call anybody a cocksucker.

They don't have to listen. They can continue to behave like clueless jackasses and eventually, they'll be boring their fellow gas station employees with stories about what it was like to be in a punk band ten years ago when the music scene was still cool.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Paul McCartney

Two weeks to go... Man, I hate this time of year. It's worse than Christmas and Christmas is pretty bad.