Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Talking Drum

The Drum is a new online literary magazine, distinguishing itself from other online collections of written works by having the authors read them in streaming audio. You also have the option of downloading the recordings as an mp3 so you can download it on your iPod. It doesn't cost any money to listen or download, primarily because The Drum doesn't pay the authors it selects to feature. In my case, that's OK because I'm happy with the exposure.

You can find me reading my flash fiction work "A Handful of Nickels" (which I originally titled "In the Nickel of Time" but somehow the other title made it to the website; I think I may have had a brain fart when I filled out my submission form) online now at http://www.drumlitmag.com. Just click on the link, scroll down a bit and there I am. Click "Play" to play or "Keep" to download.

While I'm excited to have been chosen to appear on the site, I also have two conflicting feelings about it. For one, I'm no fan of my recorded voice, though I used to play with tape recorders a lot when I was a kid, making up talk shows and singing dirty lyrics to songs taped from the radio with a friend of mine. I have this nasal thing going on and everyone always complains that I'm a mumbler anyway. But I tried my best when recording the piece to speak as clearly and emotively as possible.

Second, I'm not the biggest fan of author readings in the first place. To me, the great thing about reading a book with one's inner voice is that you don't know what is going to come next, and so the silent recitation in your head carries the tone of discovery. It's this constant word-by-word surprise that keeps one reading to learn how the sentence, paragraph, chapter, and story resolve.

But when an author reads his or her own work, he or she knows what comes next - knows, in fact, what will happen at the end of the story, and somehow that can't help but come across in the reading. Unless the author suffers from dementia or amnesia, he or she cannot regain the innocence required to replicate that sense that a first-time reader has of always discovering something new in the prose. No matter how skilled a public reader an author is, reading one's own work is an exercise in repetition rather than revelation.

Don't you wish sometimes you could go back and listen to "Stairway to Heaven" for the very first time again? Rediscover what made it such a magical and incredible experience? Instead, we listen to the song today having heard it at least 50,000 times before; we no longer are taken on the unexpected twists and turns because we know the terrain of that song so well. Which is not to say that it cannot be enjoyed - despite it being overplayed over the years, it still thrills me - but it never again can be an eye-opening experience. It's the satisfaction of a familiar flavor rather than the ecstasy of a profound new discovery.

All that said, as an aspiring author, I'm buying into the whole fantasy and dreaming of my first reading/book signing event. In retrospect, I suppose it's why I began practicing my autograph as early as sixth grade. I want to present my own work to a curious audience, field questions, and sign a perfect-bound page on which my name is printed as author. In time, I'm sure I would get over being self-conscious of my voice, and maybe would even be mindful of how I read my excerpt, and try to do so with as innocent and objective a tone as possible.

Until then, I plan to submit more pieces to The Drum and hopefully will have additional opportunities to practice my reading-aloud skills.

Monday, May 17, 2010

In Respectful Memory of Ronnie James Dio

One of my favorite rock singers of all time died yesterday morning of stomach cancer. Ronnie James Dio, heavy metal's chief proponent of the "devil horn" hand gesture as a sign of musical power, sang professionally with the bands Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Dio, and Heaven and Hell (the latter reprising the Black Sabbath lineup but renamed so as to distinguish it from the Ozzy Osbourne-era repertoire). With this kind of pedigree, he clearly was a heavy metal demigod; yet his talent, appeal, and charisma transcended labels. To say he was heavy metal's most sonically and gifted vocalist is almost damning with faint praise, as the genre is not known for singers with refined voices. But Dio was different. Described as leather-lunged, he could scream with pure tonality and convey a gentle ballad with a smooth, lovely sound. He could growl at the moon and sing with a soft falsetto. No other hard rock or metal vocalist could approach the command and control he had over his voice.

My introduction to his music was via an oddly circuitous route. I was working in the kitchen of a restaurant inside a department store in the once-swanky Chestnut Hill Mall, in Newton, Massachusetts. One of the assistant cooks was a twenty-something high school dropout looking to turn his life around. I was 17 and just looking to earn some money for recreational pursuits. One day, we were talking and he asked me if I liked Black Sabbath. I said I'd never heard their music before. He replied, "Really? I thought all potheads were into Sabbath."

The next time we were working together, he handed me Sabbath's first two albums, Black Sabbath and Paranoid. To put it kindly, they were beat to shit, having somehow survived untold parties where drunken hands carelessly ran phonograph needles against the vinyl grooves, while the album covers themselves were worn and faded and smelled vaguely of spilled bong water.

I took the albums home and played them, and through the skips and crackles I heard the heaviest music I've heard before or since, laced with Almighty Guitar Riffs and Thundering Bass Lines and Brutal Drum Beats, topped with Ozzy's Mutant Wolf Wailing Vocals. I was instantly hooked, but I knew it wouldn't be worthwhile to tape these noisy, skippy albums so I went to the record store to get my own copies.

At the store, I thumbed through the Black Sabbath section and saw a number of choices. I figured at minimum I would get the first two because I already knew I liked them. I then assembled a chronology from the available titles to see where they'd gone from there. It being 1980, I noticed that there was a brand-new album by the band, Heaven and Hell. I was disturbed to learn, however, that Ozzy was no longer in the band, replaced by a guy named Ronnie James Dio (I've always held that only assassins are known by all three names). "Figures," I said to myself. "I'm always getting into bands too late." (It's true, many of the artists I'm most into I discovered when they were either dead, disbanded, or on the artistic decline.) I ended up just buying the first two albums.

A short time later, I was visiting a friend of mine and he was blasting out an amazing album by a group called Rainbow. I'm pretty sure the track was "Stargazer." The vocalist was astounding. I asked him who it was and he said it was Ronnie James Dio. "Unfortunately, he's no longer in the band. He just joined Black Sabbath."

You can guess where I went next. Yes, back to the store. This time with Heaven and Hell in hands. I took it home and listened to it, instantly transported to that golden place where music is nutrition or a willing sexual partner - where music is not just good, not just even good for you, but essential to your very existence. I was hooked.

And just in time, because tickets for "The Black & Blue Tour" were going on sale. This was Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult on the same bill. My friends and I were already big Cult fans, having worn out copies of Secret Treaties, Agents of Fortune, and Spectres. My Sabbath discovery was new to the gang but once they got a face full of "War Pigs" and "Iron Man" they were on board. Still, for all of us, Cult were going to be the bigger attraction.

The concert was in Hartford, Connecticut, so a road trip was in order. Not even an early dinner at Denny's could derail our enthusiasm. It only got better when we entered the Hartford Civic Center and discovered the sound board where our seats were supposed to be. The usher explained that they had to move it form its original location for some reason, then led us to new seats in the fifth row on the floor, not more than 10 or 15 feet from the stage. Just ahead to the left of us was a speaker stack about the size of a house. Whatever this show was going to be, it was going to be loud!

Sabbath and Cult took turns throughout the tour opening for each other. This night, Sabbath came on first. In less than a minute, Ronnie James Dio had me in the palm of his hand. He painted such an imposing atmosphere with his presence and his voice (he was oddly short for his power and affect), and made such a strong connection with the audience with the devil horns and his earnest stage patter. This was his first tour fronting a venerable band and he knew he had to win over the fans. He succeeded in spades.

By the end of their set, I was exhausted and drenched with sat. I stood and boogied the entire set, desperately communing with the congregation with shouts and horns. As the lights came up, I was hoarse and completely spent. Cult came on eventually and played a powerful set themselves, but I had nothing left to give them. I sat for most of their set and my hands were so raw from clapping for Sabbath that it hurt to applaud.

I saw Sabbath again on their next tour, in 1982, at which time I was in college. Then Dio left the band and I kind of ignored heavy metal for a few years. I didn't even respond when he reunited with Sabbath for a one-off album called Dehumanizer in 1992. (I've actually never been a huge metalhead anyway; my favorite bands all have colors in their names: Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, Deep Purple, and Rainbow. Yes, there's also a Whitesnake but I prefer the Scorpions, chiefly because their singer sounds like Dio.)

A few years ago, Sabbath's label wanted to put together a collection of Dio-era Sabbath selections and they got back together to record three new tunes, which were strong. Then there was a tour as Heaven and Hell, which I had wanted to see but never did. Prior to that, the band Dio came to Worcester, Massachusetts, but I deemed it too far to go to stand among young metalheads. The result of the tour was a live album and DVD, Live from Radio City Music Hall. When I heard it I was amazed at how good he and they still sounded. I decided that if they toured again, I would definitely try to catch a show.

In 2009, they toured again and a friend of mine scored me great tickets. The date was August 28, 2009 - what would have been my mother's 76th birthday. Little did I know it would also be Ronnie James Dio's last performance. It was the last show of the tour and they exhibited no fatigue. This was a burning hot show, tight, energetic, and mesmerizing. Dio was in fine voice, active, talkative, and as engaging and charismatic as ever.

The tour over, Dio began preparing to tour Europe with his own band when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. That tour was canceled, as was a European Heaven and Hell tour slated for summer 2010. Periodic updates on his website were hopeful, but his gallant battle ended on May 16. The man who wrote "Die Young" had done just that. He was two months shy of 68 years of age, two years short of the three score and 10 he was due at minimum.

Tributes to Dio have come in from his bandmates, Queen's Brian May, younger metal artists who were influenced by him, and of course, from his wife, Wendy, and his fans. But I would like the last words here to come from him. RIP, RJD.

Catch the Rainbow - Rainbow
We believed we'd catch the rainbow
Ride the wind to the sun
Sail away on ships of wonder

But life's not a wheel
With chains made of steel
So bless me, come the dawn

Heaven and Hell - Black Sabbath
They say that life's a carousel
Spinning fast, you've got to ride it well
The world is full of kings and queens
Who blind your eyes and steal your dreams
It's heaven and hell, oh well

And they'll tell you black is really white
The moon is just the sun at night
And when you walk in golden halls
You get to keep the gold that falls
It's heaven and hell

Friday, May 14, 2010

Confessions of a music snob

Being a music lover, I can tell you that there is no greater feeling than to discover some new music you’ve never heard or appreciated before. It’s a feeling of fulfillment or completeness, as if there is a slot in your brain with a distinct size and shape and only one kind of musical experience fits cleanly, and once it does there’s an undeniable sense of rightness that hadn’t existed before, like when your ears pop or a satisfying meal has placated a craving stomach, or even when an urgent need to relieve yourself is finally consummated.

My newest musical obsession may surprise you, especially if you know that I own several thousand units of music (LP, CD, cassette): it’s the Rolling Stones. Not exactly a new or obscure outfit. But I’m no ordinary music lover; I’m a music snob. Being a snob means that I love music so much I can’t help finding fault with most of the music that exists in the world (or at least in the marketplace).

Again, if you know me well, you’ve probably used the phrase “Jason’s music” before. It implies that the music I favor is either intrinsically weird or just out of fashion. It’s true that I’m an admitted ‘70s guy and that some musical trends and genres from that much-maligned decade are easy prey for those who don’t know any better (such as progressive rock, jazz-rock fusion, concept albums, vocoders, and lyricons). But it’s not that I gravitate towards the noncommercial or the complex, I simply am suspicious of anything that is too popular.

For example, I didn’t own Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band until about 2005, and I almost never play it. I have no use for U2. Billy Joel’s music brings on a facial tic. I do like Bruce Springsteen but only when he was skinny and hungry, not his most popular years as a buff hunk with a hot butt. After he painstakingly brought me into his desperate, rambling wooing of Sandy on the 4th of July in Asbury Park, I should care that he’s dancing in the dark with Monica from Friends?

I’m much more drawn to musicians who aren’t necessarily physically attractive but who are staggeringly talented yet have never become household names. Artists like Al Kooper, who played the organ on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and was also in his band for that fateful electric set at the Newport Folk Festival. He later joined the Blues Project and founded Blood, Sweat & Tears, then he discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd and produced The Tubes. Along the way, he recorded a strong of little-heard solo albums that show off his deft arranging skills and white soul ambitions. And still, if I mention his name, most people think I’m talking about Alice Cooper.

Or Ian Hunter, whose name is even less known than his former band’s odd moniker, Mott the Hoople. Still rocking with full tanks of talent and integrity at age 70, Hunter rarely registers with people until you tell them that he was the singer on Mott’s “All The Young Dudes” and that he was the author and original recorder of “Cleveland Rocks” (the theme from The Drew Carey Show) and “Ships” (mawkishly taken to hitsville by Barry Manilow). He also wrote and originally recorded “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” a hit for ‘80s headbangers Great White, who will forever be known as the band whose pyrotechnic show burned down The Station nightclub in Rhode Island, killing 100 concert-goers who would have been better off following Hunter.

Or the Waterboys, helmed by Mike Scott, a highly literate, passionate, and spiritual Scot whose brilliant writing and emotionally forceful singing and playing are largely unknown in the country, with the possible exception of one song, “Fisherman’s Blues.” I am firmly convinced that “Waterboys” must somehow rhyme with the name of Pete Townshend’s band, because every time I tell someone about the Waterboys, the response is always, “The who?”

And then there’s Andy Pratt. Like my all-time musical hero, Brian Wilson, Pratt is only comfortable and socially engaging when he’s performing his music. He had one minor hit in 1973 called “Avenging Annie” (you’d only know it if you heard it, not by the title alone); the marketplace’s indifference to his unmistakable voice and gorgeous music is well beyond my ability to comprehend.

The last example I’ll give is a big favorite of mine, the progressive group Gentle Giant. People are surprised when I tell them that Giant released 10 albums from 1970 to 1980, because virtually no one has heard a single note of their music. Which may not be that surprising, since their musical arsenal includes such radio-unfriendly instruments as violin, cello, vibraphone, and recorder, in addition to the standard progressive gear (multiple keyboards and synthesizers, electric and acoustic six- and 12-string guitars, puffy shirts, and boots). The only people I can talk to about Giant are people who probably could have written this exact same post themselves.

So what about the Rolling Stones? Certainly not a group whose name elicits blank stares. Indeed, they are so popular, so consensually acclaimed, that they should never be able to occupy a place in the heart of a man who has never seen any Star Wars film in its entirety or read a single syllable of any Harry Potter book, purely out of stubborn refusal to be like everyone else. How is it that my snobbishness let them through after decades of turning my back on them?

As it turns out, it was purely happenstance, as I suppose it would have to be because I wouldn’t have purchased Ronnie Wood’s autobiography, cleverly titled Ronnie, on my own initiative. It was, in fact, given to a friend who offered it to me because he was even less inclined to want to learn more about the Stones’ third second guitarist (after Brian Jones and Mick Taylor) that was I, who at least is a ‘70s guy and who already owns the memoirs of such musical personalities of the era as David Crosby, Al Kooper, Ian Hunter, and Brian Wilson (who has admitted he didn’t write his).

I took the book because I was looking for new bathroom reading. I’ve gotten in the habit of keeping a paperback by the toilet for those times when I sit and feel like I might be there for a while. So for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working my way through and it even though it’s horribly written (along with passing a urine test, writing a memoir is just not something he can do successfully), and even though he is an unreliable reporter (among his drug-addled contentions is that his pre-Stones band the Faces were the second-most popular British band of the early ‘70s – after the Stones themselves – conveniently forgetting that Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Elton John outsold the Faces infinity to one during that era), it still is a compelling glimpse into the musical history and moral debauchery of 1970s rock and roll.

Since reading Woods’ more or less accurate recollections of his life and career, I’ve become much more interested in the Faces, Rolling Stones, and even Faces vocalist Rod Stewart, whose solo career (at least since 1978) I had always judged to be something akin to a crime against humanity. But in retrospect, listening with some sense of the back story, I’ve come to a new appreciation for Woods’ place in rock history. (This is not a new dynamic for me. In college, I was completely confounded by William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It was only years later, after reading a biography of Faulkner that served to contextualize where, how, and from what sources that story came, that a rereading of the book brought me the rewards the author had intended.)

The Faces are an easy band to like because they never took themselves seriously. Competent musicians armed with a love of American blues and soul – and plenty of drink – they rocked with true spirit. Aside from Wood and Stewart, the band included keyboardist Ian McLagan, who became an in-demand session player; Kenney Jones, who became the inadequate replacement for Keith Moon in the Who (to be fair, Moon was irreplaceable); and bassist Ronnie Lane, a wonderful songwriter with a plaintive voice whose career and life were cut tragically short by multiple sclerosis.

As for Stewart, when I went back through his catalog, I realized he actually had a number of fine songs. In fact, his solo career began just months before joining the Faces, and his emerging stardom was one reason why the band disbanded after only four albums (according to Wood, the Stones’ courtship of the guitarist – in 1975, Wood toured with the Stones in between Faces tours – was another reason for the Faces’ demise). Despite his image as a Casanova, Stewart is at his best when he’s being sentimental or philosophical (such as my favorite of his solo songs, “Handbags and Gladrags,” where he chastises a shallow, self-absorbed girl that clothes, earned by the sweat of her grandfather, don’t make the woman). In comparison, the songs by the horny Rod bursting with bravado (“Tonight’s the Night,” where he deflowers some poor virgin; “Hot Legs”; and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”) fail on every aesthetic level yet were among his biggest hits (supporting my suspicion of anything that’s popular).

And now, back again to the Rolling Stones, whom I’ve long hated for at least three reasons: 1) they had the unmitigated gall to call themselves the world’s greatest rock and roll band; 2) they tended to co-opt rather than create musical trends (cf. their brief forays into psychedelia, reggae, and disco); and 3) they were universally loved. While I still don’t like the idea of the band – let’s face it, they all seem a little too much in love with themselves – I am now able to admit that their music (most of it, anyway) does indeed not suck.

That said, given that I’m a music snob, it behooves me to note that I think I like the Stones on a different level than most people. While the Budweiser-swilling masses no doubt enjoy the Stones for their raucous, raunchy image and quintessentially bad-ass rock and roll – a personality-driven musical style that’s none too complex, none too tight, and all too catchy – I’m attracted to subtler, deeper aspects of their art.

For example, the Stones are peerless at integrating lead and rhythm guitar parts, what Wood reports he and Keith Richards call “weaving.” The art of rhythm guitar has been lost over the years, largely due to the number of unheralded rhythm guitarists overshadowed by their showier lead counterparts. For example, if I were to ask you to name a member of the Beach Boys, you’d probably never come up with the name of rhythm guitarist Al Jardine. If I asked you who played rhythm guitar in the Beatles, you might have to pause before answering John Lennon, because that was not his claim to fame.

At the same time, lots of bands have eschewed the traditional rhythm/lead pairing by accommodating multiple lead guitarists, like Thin Lizzy and Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose guitarists switch roles from time to time. And latter-day King Crimson successfully did the unthinkable by pairing another lead guitarist, Adrian Belew, with rock and roll’s version of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s sentient android Data, Robert Fripp. But if you had a band with two rhythm players, you’d be Seals and Crofts; it just doesn’t work.

The Stones, on the other hand, have developed and perfected a true union of guitar souls, a musical innovation so potent that it worked equally well no matter who was slinging along with Richards. Sometimes it’s hard to know which parts are which because they’re both integral to the overall sound. But for a band that doesn’t do a lot of soloing and has some, but not a ton, of classic riffs (“Bitch” and “Brown Sugar,” both from Sticky Fingers, are my favorite), it’s that weaving that makes Richards and any guitarist he’s playing with a guitar god.

I also think the Stones have done some of the best ballads in rock and roll. You don’t expect a lot of sentiment from Mick Jagger but when he goes for the heart instead of the labia he’s not only effective but very convincing. On “Play with Fire,” there’s a vulnerability behind the bravado that another singer may not have been able to reach. His ability to churn out bluesy testimony while also getting across a heartfelt falsetto on “Fool to Cry” is impressive, and whenever Jagger twangs on the country-ish songs like “Wild Horses” – has to be one of the top two or three ballads ever written – it never sounds false or forced.

To me, a quintessential Stones song is “Get Off of My Cloud.” This is a song I liked even when I didn’t like the Stones. Even though the main riff of the song is actually Charlie Watts’ machine gun drum pattern, it’s full of hooks that get the heart pumping, the fists waving, and the hips moving. It has the urban pathos one expects from the group (“I live in an apartment on the ninety-ninth floor of my block/And I sit at home looking out the window imagining the world has stopped.”) It has the cocksure machismo they’re famous for (“Hey! You! Get off of my cloud”). The repeated heys and yous in the chorus enable the audience to participate in the hero’s fight for independence, not realizing that his rejection of others will lead to a loneliness that won’t be expressed until another song. And those guitars are not playing single-string wailing solos but rather strummed chordal licks, all rhythm, ably supported and punctuated by Bill Wyman’s reliable bass.

Ultimately, what I appreciate the most about the Rolling Stones is that they’re the last band standing that draws direct connections to Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Holly, that understands that rock and roll is more about feeling than finesse, and that despite the whole Glimmer Twins cult of personality, despite the jet-setting ego trips, high-profile romances, drug busts and binges, despite all the SHIT that surrounds the Stones, good honest simple hip-shakin’, butt-kickin’ music remains at their core.

World’s greatest rock and roll band? Hell, they’re the only rock and roll band left. For that reason alone, I’m proud to be a fan.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Assignment: "It Makes No DIfference," by The Band

As mentioned in my prior blog post, I was given an assignment by Steve Almond, who led a session at Grub Street's The Muse and the Marketplace conference, to choose a song with deep emotional importance to me, and write about the event that imbued the song with such meaning for me. So here's my story - but first, here's the song:

The year was 1988. I was 25 years old. Just starting out in my adult life, but I was in a holding pattern, and soon I crashed and burned. It started the year before, when I let myself get fired from my first job out of college. For two years I'd been doing PR in house for a producer of computer industry trade shows. The first year or so, I had a manager whom I despised. She was evil and liked nothing better than to dress down one of her charges in full view of other departments. By the time she left, my morale was rock bottom. Her replacement, however, thought I had potential and not only treated me with respect but also gave me more responsibility and put me in a position where the higher-ups in the company recognized my successes.

So in short, I was feeling pretty loyal to this guy. Then the company decided to branch out into the housewares industry, where the national association had decided to cut back from two trade shows a year to only one. My company hired away their show manager and decided to hold a competing event. The industry didn't look too kindly on a for-profit company with no housewares industry experience elbowing into their space. Therein lay a PR challenge. My manager and I took the lead in building relations and by the time our show was ready to launch, the industry was excited to see what we could do.

Then, literally the day before we were to leave for Chicago (where the industry is based), we heard that my manager had been given notice and was not being permitted to work the show. Instead, I would be supervised by the Conference department head, a man I hated. This was a complete shock to me and aside from the loyalty I felt to my manager, I also felt that I was being put in a position to fail because I would have to deal with the "Where's Keith?" questions. I was pretty bullshit about this and my manager did nothing to pacify me. I and a person in the department even more junior than myself decided to refuse to go to the show. My manager appreciated this display of solidarity. And we all were summarily fired.

I later learned that my manager had in fact been given notice several weeks before and had been told that he would not be going to Chicago. He kept this information from me, which I saw as a betrayal because he had an opportunity to quell my anger and save my job. As a result, I shortly thereafter decided to have nothing further to do with him, and didn't even see his name again for about a dozen years, until the day I opened up the newspaper to find my mother's death notice and was surprised to find his on the same page.

So strike one was losing my job. I decided then I wanted to get out of the computer industry. I thought I'd like to work in health care. Over the next several months, I had a number of interviews at hospitals but always lost out to someone who had some prior health care experience. I did a couple of freelance gigs, leveraging my trade show experience and contact for a PR firm and an exhibiting company, but overall I was unemployed for 10 months. It was during this time that I sank into deep credit card debt and have never been particularly solvent since.

Fast forward a few months. It's Thanksgiving Day. I'm throwing around a football with some friends. I leap to make a catch and land awkwardly on the leg of a friend sprawled on the ground. My ankle hurts like hell, but I eventually get dressed and go to my folks' house for Thanksgiving dinner. After the meal, I go to my girlfriends' parents' house for dessert. My ankle is still killing me but I make it through the evening. Eventually, I tell my girlfriend what happened and she asks to look at it. My ankle is swollen and deep purple. She takes me to the hospital. I've torn ligaments and have to wear a cast and use crutches. Strike 2.

Fast forward 2.5 months later. It's my 25th birthday. My parents and girlfriend take me out for dinner. I'm feeling miserable because I'm still out of work, my ankle is still tender, and my friends have told me they're not around. We go back to my folks' house and SURPRISE! It's a surprise birthday party for me. That's nice, though I was actually hoping to have some alone time with my girlfriend. But whatever, I'm happier than I was earlier that day.

Now, my best friend's birthday is two days after mine, so we had a tradition of going out drinking on the day in between, which was February 13. The next day, of course, was Valentine's Day. On February 13, my friend and I went out drinking Scorpion Bowls. My girlfriend also went out that night. A guy asked her out. She told him she had a boyfriend, but inside, as she told me later, she wished it wasn't so. The next night we celebrated Valentine's Day. A few days later, she told me what happened on February 13 and that she wanted to date other people.

Mind you, we had been dating off and on (but mostly on) for four years at this point, and though she was three years younger than me and still just a senior in college, I was thinking that we would be getting engaged before too long. I had no thought at all about not spending the rest of my life with her. She apparently thought differently. And I can understand that, given she soon would be graduating college and spreading her wings, whereas I had been unemployed for about as long as it takes to carry a baby to term. Still, it was strike three.

I was horribly depressed and despondent. I went to a therapist because I was still interviewing and needed to be able to exude self-confidence, which I had absolutely none of at that time. I've never felt as much pain as I did then. I was desperately searching for a release, a way to express all the hurt I felt inside. I reached for music, because that's simply what music does for me. I recalled how several years before I had deliberately sought out a song that would make me cry, because a girl had broken up with me but I hadn't broken down at all about it. I eventually found it in Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne" ("Just for a moment I was back in school/And felt that old familiar pain" is what did it).

So I went through my record collection and began auditioning tunes. It didn't take long to find my catharsis in Robbie Robertson's lyrics and, especially, Rick Danko's voice crying out those lyrics. The whole performance touched me to the core to such an extent that I listened to that song no fewer than 20 times a day for several weeks.

The lyrics are raw, honest, and real:

It makes no diff'rence where I turn
I can't get over you and the flame still burns
It makes no diff'rence, night or day
The shadow never seems to fade away


It makes no diff'rence how far I go
Like a scar the hurt will always show
It makes no diff'rence who I meet
They're just a face in the crowd on a dead-end street


And then, at the end of the song, the dagger in the heart. I would scream-sing this part with a dark blue anger until I was hoarse:

Well, I love you so much
And it's all I can do
Just to keep myself from telling you
That I never felt so alone before

This was the lowest part of my life, which means there was no place to go but up. Not long after, I met the woman who would become my wife. And not long after she and I started dating, I got a job. And the fact that my wife and I are now divorcing after nearly 17 years of marriage only means that a certain cycle is coming around again, and I'm already thinking of the songs that will inhabit that emotional wound (George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" and Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" are top contenders).

But for that one bleak time period, The Band's "It Makes No Difference" was indeed the difference between sanity and depression, between hope and despair, and, quite possibly, between life and death.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Fear and Loafers at the Writer's Conference

Today I attended my first-ever writer’s conference, “The Muse and the Marketplace,” sponsored by Boston’s leading writing center, Grub Street. I’ve never been much of a joiner or a sharer when it comes to my writing, but with a manuscript that thus far has only attracted the interest of a pay-to-publish press, I felt I needed to get out there and see what it takes to break the plane and enter the realm of the published.

The first day of the weekend-long event (I only registered for Saturday) began early for me, as I was scheduled to sit face to face with an agent at 8:30 am, shortly after registration opened. This was called the Manuscript Mart and it carried an additional cost; for me, however, it was the central reason to be here.

To date, I’ve sent my manuscript to more than 20 agents, each time getting a form letter or postcard expressing their regrets and their wish for my future success. It has been frustrating not to be able to get any specific or substantive feedback. With the Manuscript Mart, however, you pick an agent and submit a query letter, synopsis of the entire work, and the first 20 pages some weeks in advance of the conference. Thus, when you meet with the agent, he or she will have actually read it and will be prepared to discuss it with you.

Beginning yesterday afternoon, I started feeling nervous about the whole thing. Did I really want to know, face to face, what an agent thought of my work? Could I take it if the feedback was negative? With the previous submissions, there was always the comforting thought that maybe they hadn’t actually spent more than a couple of minutes looking it over, checking it for vampires before chucking it. Now there would be no doubt. The agent will either think it’s good – and that I’m good – or not.

Early as it was, it was too late to turn back. I had risen at 6:00am, dressed in the recommended business casual attire (shirt, pants, blazer – much nicer than my typical business wear), and driven to my office in Boston’s South End. The conference was in the swanky Park Plaza Hotel, a little more than a mile away. Being a long-strider, I made it in about 15 minutes. The warm morning, brisk pace, and sports coat added a patina of moisture that mingled with the mild anxiety I was already feeling.

I entered the hotel and got my registration packet, replete with itinerary and name tag on a red lanyard. The tag said, “Jason Rubin” on it. Anally, I inserted a caret (feel free to stop and reread the previous five words before proceeding) and my middle initial, so that it read “Jason M. Rubin,” my preferred professional name. Then I went to the room where people meeting with an agent checked in and waited to be told we were on.

It was in that room, which felt like a group of people waiting either to audition for a role in some production or waiting to be called in by the dentist to fix a lost filling, that I made my first demographic observation (which by day’s end was found to be fairly accurate of the overall attendance). Essentially, to quote Jan and Dean, it was two girls for every boy, with Caucasian representation at about 99.5% and probably 10 to 20% more lefties than you’d find in a more random societal sampling. Just about all the women were smartly dressed. The men ranged from my get-up to guys resembling IT geeks (comb-agnostic hair, short-sleeved shirts with odd-colored plaid prints; probably science fiction/fantasy writers). Comfortable shoes seemed to carry the day.

When the time came, I made my way to the room where 14 tables were set up, two chairs each. One chair at each table was taken up by an agent. The empty chair was for the writer. My agent (I like the way that sounds) sat at Table 13 (I’m not superstitious, so no worries). Her name was Katherine Fausset from Curtis Brown Ltd. My first choice of agent was sold out and she was a late add to the conference roster but despite the fact that she herself doesn’t handle historical fiction, I was very pleased with the experience.

For one, she had extensive hand-written notes on all three pieces: the query letter, the synopsis, and the sample. Another good thing is that she talked very rapidly so she crammed a lot of feedback into a constrained 20-minute session. She had very good recall about the details of my work and gave me very useful input into what she liked and thought was marketable, and what could be fixed. Overall, she gave me reason to believe that there is a market for my story, and with a little more work someone somewhere would be willing to represent it.

Of particular joy to me was that she liked the way my story began, which was something I was unsure about, having reworked it extensively based on feedback from my friend, author Ellen Kushner, whose novel Thomas the Rhymer was a stylistic influence on my work. Katherine liked the fact that my book is based on a 17th-century English folk song (“unique and potentially a marketable hook”), and thought the plot was “lively” and the work itself “imaginative and sexy.” I won’t bore you with the negative things. Suffice to say, I emerged satisfied, relieved, and considerably drier than when I went in.

Following that, I had some time before my first of two pre-lunch conference sessions began, so I went to a room where the editor of an online literary magazine called The Drum was recording flash fiction (500 words maximum) for consideration. I read “In the Nickel of Time,” a piece I had unsuccessfully submitted to the Harvard Book Store for a flash fiction anthology. The editor thought I read it very well, so we’ll see if it makes it to the site.

My first session was called “This is How a Caged Writer Sings,” led by Steve Almond, a writer I’ve read a little of but heard a lot about. It was all about drawing inspiration from songs, which is something I do anyway. He reinforced my belief that writing while listening to music is essential, and played a number of great tunes by the likes of Tom Waits, Joe Henry, and Bruce Springsteen on a Bose Wave system. Before the session even started, he was playing a song and asked the attendees if anyone knew who it was. I was apparently the only one who could identify the artist as Michelle Shocked. At the end of the session, he gave us an assignment for us to do on our own at home: Think of a song that carries emotional importance to you, and tell the story that that song takes you back to. I know exactly what I’m going to write about. Watch this space. I had bought his new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, earlier and had him sign it. He wrote: “To Jason, 1. Crank the tunes. 2. Undress. 3. Dance naked. Steve”

The second session was called “The Essentials of Dialogue,” led by Adam Stumacher, who teaches creative writing at MIT (I bet you didn’t know MIT offered creative writing; well, they do and you don’t have to leave your trumpet at home, either). He gave a number of good, concrete tips and backed them up with readings that contain strong dialogue. He gave an assignment towards the end of the session that I had a lot of fun with. It was this: Two neighbors are in a pasture together and they come upon a dead horse. Write a dialogue in which they talk about how they’re going to move the horse; at the same time, one of the characters has something else they’re dealing with that needs to be incorporated into the dialogue. We had 10 minutes to work on it, and I got an idea quickly and ran with it. I was so pleased with what I’d done, I was hoping I would have a chance to read it, but when the 10 minutes were over, so was the session. Here’s what I came up with:

A: How’d it happen?
B: Don’t know. Just found her like this.
A: She bit anywhere?
B: Not that I can see. Don’t know if there’s an injury on the other side.
A: So how do we get rid of her?
B: Don’t know. Can’t keep her here, that’s for sure.
A: S’pose we could chop her up and take her in bits in a wheelbarrow.
B: Messy business.
A: Yup.
B: Maybe if I take the head and you grab her around the neck we can drag her.
A: Worth a try. Weird thing, though.
B: What’s that?
A: Just thinking of when I came home from school in sixth grade, found my mother dead on the kitchen floor.
B: That’s rough.
A: Heart attack. She was a smoker.
B: Sorry about that.
A: Well, it was a long time ago.
B: Smoker. That gives me an idea.
A: What’s that?
B: We could just burn her.
A: It would stink but that may be the best way.
B: What’d you do with your mother?
A: Went screaming to the neighbors. First dead body I ever saw.
B: Did you try to move her?
A: Naw. We just left her until the ambulance came.
B: She got a better send-off than this horse will, I hope.
A: Yup.
B: Well, let me get the gas can. You got a match?
A: Yup. I’m a smoker, too.
B: That’s kinda funny.
A: Well, I never thought much about it until I saw this horse and thought of my mother.
B: Are you OK with this?
A: Yeah. Let’s get it done. It’s just a horse, after all.
B: Well, even a horse is somebody’s mother.

Then it was time for lunch in the Imperial Ballroom. You could pay extra to sit at a “Five Star Table” with actual published authors, agents who represent actual published authors, and editors who refine the work of authors who will actually be published. I elected to dine with the commoners. It was a typical bar mitzvah lunch of roasted chicken breast with a few slices of mushroom in a sauce that bore a striking resemblance to marsala without ever really committing to it, three halves of roasted red bliss potato, several skinny spears of baby asparagus, and some carrot shavings for color. This was preceded by a mixed greens salad and followed by a key lime tart placed dangerously close to a yellow puddle of unknown sauce.

Conversation at the lunch table was polite and curious, as we shared the plots of our stories and talked about the sessions we’d had. I was thinking a nap would be in order, but soon it was time for the third session. Mine was about first-person narrative nonfiction. It was just OK. The presenter was funny but mainly read to us from notes and anytime anyone asked him a question, he always said, “I have two responses.” He never had three, he never had just one. He always had two.

The last period of the day was called “Hour of Power” (remember, writers thought up these great titles), which was a series of sessions that anyone could drop in and out of. I went to one about building a platform, but the presenter was terrible, also reading from her notes, which weren’t even well-written notes. Ultimately, there was nothing she was telling me that I didn’t already know, and her examples were not easily replicable. I ended up leaving it early but by then I was too tired to crash a different session. Instead, I sat on a comfy chair and read the notes thoughtfully written by my agent (we’ll always have the Manuscript Mart).

The sessions officially concluded, it was time for the cocktail/schmoozing hour. I’m very good at the first part, but the second isn’t such a strength. I ordered a Maker’s Mark on the rocks. The bartender took a small rocks glass and dumped a large scoop of ice cubes into it. Though it looked full to me, the bartender then tossed a second scoop of ice into the glass, which was now apparently filled to 200% of its capacity. Somehow, he managed to get some bourbon in there. I sat at a table and was soon joined by two women. We all chatted about the events of the day and the plots of our stories. When I finished my drink (the liquid part of it, anyway), I decided it was time to go.

It had been a long day, nearly 10 hours, and I had spent it listening to people talk, taking notes, sizing up this crowd of people who self-identify as writers, and wondering when and if my big break will ever come. As I left the hotel, I removed the lanyard from my neck and tossed it into a trash can. I began walking back to my office at a somewhat slower pace than before, and that’s when I saw that the streets looked very clean. Downtown Boston looked very pretty today. I didn’t notice that this morning.