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Laughing through rock hard times: Stephen Colbert and Mark Oliver Everett

31 Aug

The stereotypical great artist is a tortured genius. He or she rages against the pain of life with art as the only means of survival. That screaming into the darkness has created swirls of starry nights, howls of poetry, scores of beautifully painful rock songs … and, sadly, way too much substance abuse and death by suicide. The bleakness overtook them.

Stephen Colbert GQYet there are many other great artists out there who, in the face of unfathomable tragedy, not only make great art but use it to illuminate how tragedy feeds grace and gratitude. As I recently caught up on my reading, I learned more about two such geniuses: Stephen Colbert and Mark Oliver Everett, who performs as Eels.

Colbert – one of the most talented, quick-witted comedians ever to hit television – is gearing up for his September 8 debut as host of The Late Show. Over the summer, he’s done a number of quirky videos to keep his hand in while he and his team develop his new style as the talk show host Stephen Colbert, as opposed to the vainglorious idiot “Stephen Colbert” he portrayed on Comedy Central for nine years. For instance, the world got to know the town of Monroe, Michigan just a little bit better thanks to Colbert taking over as host of the public access TV show, Only In Monroe. (Believe me when I tell you, not all Michiganders eat muskrat … although some most certainly do.)

Colbert also sat for an intensive cover story interview for GQ with writer Joel Lovell. Despite being a typical PR opportunity to promote the new show, it is one of the most moving pieces of journalism I’ve read. With Lovell as a guide, Colbert connects faith, comedy and humanity in a way few artists dare to in this cynical, agnostic age.

Colbert grew up in South Carolina as the youngest of eleven children in a devout Catholic family. When he was ten, his father and the two brothers closest to him in age died in a plane crash. The only child still living at home, he buried himself in books (particularly Tolkien, to the point where he speaks passable Elvish). A haphazard student, he transferred from Hampton-Sydney to Northwestern, found his way into Del Close’s improv sphere, joined Second City – and the rest is comedy history.

But Colbert never became an angry comic, or bitterly ironic, or one who used comedy to whistle past the graveyard and distract himself from despair. Instead, his mother, guided by their Catholic faith, helped him “recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity.”

Things the Grandchildren Should KnowI’ve talked about Everett before and have gotten more familiar with his Eels catalog; his Shootenanny is currently one of my favorites. He published his memoir in 2008 when he was 45 – and if anyone should write a memoir at such a relatively early point in life, it’s him. Otherwise, no one could comprehend how the poor guy survived so much relentless heartbreak.

When Everett was 18, his father died of a heart attack, and young Mark was the one who found the body. A few years later, his troubled sister committed suicide while he was touring for his first big album. Within a year of that loss, his mother died of cancer. Later on, he lost a first cousin who was a flight attendant on one of the planes that crashed on 9/11, and his roadie ODed. (When Everett mentions becoming friends with Elliott Smith, I nearly shouted out loud, “Don’t do it!”)

Like Colbert, Everett had an unbidden, compulsive attraction to making art (creating alternative rock music, in his case) – and though he’s far from religious, Everett shares Colbert’s optimism. As he writes,

I had an epiphany. While I was thinking about all these tragic circumstances, I pictured a blue sky in my head and I suddenly felt greatly inspired. I realized that I had to write about what was going on … And the blue sky told me that there was a way to do this that was something different. That it wasn’t all bad, that there was a bright side, even to this. For me, the bright side was knowing that I was going to learn things from all this, and also just the fact that I could be inspired and could do something positive with all of it …

Reading this book puts Everett’s music into a totally different light. When he sums up being in love with a beautiful girl in the same verse as falling on the floor crying your guts out by saying “Hey man, now you’re really living,” that’s exactly what he means. He’s not being sarcastic. He’s being truthful.

Read Colbert’s GQ interview – it’s gorgeous, and excerpting it doesn’t do it justice. Then read Everett’s memoir, Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Everett’s own story of finding hope existing in tandem with tragedy is surprisingly eloquent, too.

See you on the flip side …

New to the Rock & Roll Bookshelf – Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of “Purple Rain”

30 Jan

Where were you when you first saw Purple Rain?

If you graduated high school within five years on either side of me, I’m almost certain you saw it in a packed theater. Given it opened in July 1984, you probably had to wait in a long, sweltering line to get in. You might have been amazed to be part of a racially mixed crowd (or, in our case at the Broad Street Cinema in the West End of Richmond, to be pretty much the only white people there).

Lets Go Crazy book coverAnd when the movie started and you heard Prince intone, “Dearly beloved,” your mind and your ears were blown simultaneously.

He played like Jimi Hendrix, squealed like Little Richard and danced like James Brown. His size and style took androgyny to uncharted territory. You readily forgave the movie’s porny women’s roles, the ridiculous dialogue and amateur acting – although Morris Day and the Time were almost worth the price of admission alone – because Prince was so off-the-charts RIGHTEOUS!

Rock writer Alan Light was a Cincinnati high school grad spending his last summer at home before college when Prince’s semi-autobiographical extravaganza came out. In his latest book, Let’s Go Crazy, he  provides as much of the backstory as he can about the making of the movie without being able to interview Prince anew or reprint any photos. As the many online lists of “things you didn’t know about Prince” demonstrate, there’s still a lot here to delight long-time fans, especially the commentary by Wendy (Melvoin) and Lisa (Coleman) of the Revolution.

But Light has a larger mission. He wants to prove why Prince matters, since anyone younger than him (us) may never have the opportunity to see what the man can really do. That’s not just because he’s not touring as much or because his albums have been a really mixed bag since Sign O’ the Times. As Light points out, Prince’s drive to keep moving forward – propelled by his exceptional ego – is destroying much of his legacy.

Prince is prolifically innovative in terms of erasing himself from the historical record. After all, he changed his name to a symbol, introducing the meme “the ___ formerly known as ___” before we knew what memes even were. During his bitter feud with Warner Brothers, he’d perform with “SLAVE” Sharpied on his cheek so the label couldn’t use the photos for promotions. His professional reputation was just as disposable. Lest we forget, in the space of only four years

Purple Rain album

he went from this …

Parade

to this …

Around the World in a Day

then this …

and this ...

and, amazingly, this …

yet still ended up here

yet still ended up here

Prince is also famous for tracking down every scrap of online video and yanking it. I tried to find some early 1980s material to share in this post and came up empty: nothing from Purple Rain, none of the salacious MTV videos that primed us for the movie. (I did find a grainy version of his music video for “Kiss” on a German music site, featuring Melvoin in brocade for old times’ sake.)

Of course it’s Prince’s world and we just live in it, so he is perfectly within his rights to disavow his earlier stuff in order to follow his faith, control his image and promote the newest version of himself. While he’s still technically brilliant and can drop a really good album when he wants to (or two, as he did last fall), I doubt that will ever be enough to turn the younger generation into the hyperventilating, crazy-eyed fans we Xers will always be.

Biggest Prince Fans Ever

And that’s a damn shame.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Valentine’s Day is coming up – the perfect time to woo the rock-and-roller in your life with a copy of Love and Other B-Sides!

Soon to be featured on the Rock & Roll Bookshelf: Laura Lee

15 Dec

And now, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to Laura Lee, author and blogger at The Power of Narrative.  Her second novel, Identity Theft, is available for pre-order, and given the log line, I’m going to like this one immensely: A bored employee in a rock star’s office begins an online relationship with a fan in the guise of his boss and sets off a chain of events he cannot control.

Laura was kind to feature me in an earlier post on her blog, and I am so pleased to return the favor. Here’s her guest post:

***

Laura Lee

Laura Lee

I often begin speaking engagements by explaining to the audience that I am not a British man.

Of course they can see that by looking at me. It is less obvious, it seems, when they only have a page of writing to consider. Apparently I am linguistically androgynous. The editor who worked on one of my books referred to me throughout her notes as “he.” There was also a brief period after my novel Angel was published that the internet decided I was a gay man and started showing me ads for gay luxury travel and dating sites on every web page. So I find that it is helpful just to put it out there that I am not male, gay or otherwise.

Throughout the years a number of professional reviewers have referred to me as “British author Laura Lee.” I never claimed to be from England. The reviewers came to this conclusion on their own. I am not sure if the different reviewers read my writing and independently imagined I sounded British or if one person did and the others picked up on this mistake via internet research.

I was born and raised in metro Detroit.

I did spend a year in the UK as an exchange student my junior year in college and I returned for six months with a work visa following my graduation with a highly lucrative diploma as an independent major in theater studies. But my supposed Englishness manifested itself long before that. When I was still in high school a friend of mine said, “You have a very British sense of humor.”

I said, “What do you mean a British sense of humor?”

She said, “You know, dry and not very funny.”

This remains one of the best things that has ever been said about my writing. I love its unintentional humor so much that I have tried to use this in biographical blurbs a number of times. The marketing folks at my various publishers, as if to prove the point, always ask me to cut it out.

“You can’t say that you’re not very funny.”

Of course not. I am frightfully droll.

I cannot be sure, of course, that my high school friends should be cited as as authorities on things British. Another friend of mine around this time noticed that I had two copies of the Adam and the Ants album Prince Charming. One was the regular U.S. release, the other was the U.K. import with a gatefold sleeve. She asked me what the difference was between the two albums and I told her that one of them was British.

“It’s British?” she asked with what seemed like too much excitement.

“Yeah.”

“You man they’re singing in British?”

“Um. Yeah.”

“Can I hear it?”

I put the record on and she looked crestfallen. “They’re just singing in English,” she said. She thought I had been playing a joke on her.

To be clear, it is not only Americans who have trouble with this kind of thing. When I was in London once, I was visiting a friend’s family. The mother was watching Starsky and Hutch on TV. She asked where I was from. I said, “Michigan.” She squinted and asked if we had Starsky and Hutch in my country.

Americans pronounce Michigan as though it were spelled with an “sh” in the middle. In England, they insist upon pronouncing it as it is spelled– even though they pronounce Worchestershire as if there were basically no distinct letters in the middle of the word at all. She had no idea what this “Mishigan” place was.

Laura Lee book imageI have finally had the opportunity to put my mock-Englishness to use in my forthcoming novel Identity Theft. The novel tells the story of a British pop star who goes by the stage name Blast and a young man who works in his office. The office worker, Ethan, poses as his boss online and starts flirting with a fan in e-mail and chats. I had to create two voices, one a young American who pretends to be English and is comically inept and the other a real Englishman who has been living in Los Angeles for a decade and whose dialect, with any luck, does not elicit laughs. For this I enlisted the help of a couple of real live British-speaking English type people to help me edit my Americanisms out of Blast’s speech. A few slip in– you see– I’m American.

But this time around I will be especially pleased– chuffed– if a review of the novel begins,”British author Laura Lee has chosen “identity” as the theme for his second novel…”

See you on the flip side, Laura!

Rock and reading at the Brighton District Library

11 Dec

Being an indie novelist is a little like being in an indie band: being paid is less important (or likely) than connecting to an audience. Bands will work for beer. Us novelists, we’re happy to get out of the house and commiserate with other indie novelists.

Brighton District Libraray Local Author Event - 120614

At the Brighton District Library, ready to rock and read!

This fall I began what I’m grandly calling my book tour for Love and Other B-Sides. It began with the Books & Authors event at Leon & Lulu in October. That led to being invited to the Local Authors event last Sunday at the Brighton District Library, courtesy of Sarah Perry, a librarian there who is also a YA author. Once again I was able to meet a lovely group of writers whose considerable talents range from children’s picture books to adult fiction of many stripes.

I also got my first chance to do a reading. With a mere five minutes to introduce myself, give a shout out to Michigan public libraries for giving me a place to write and research my work, and read a passage from the book, I kept it short. I decided to feature a quote from my career rock-and-roller, Stee Walsh, about why he got into the music business, which I figured would resonate with the writers in the room:

I never played music to become a star or get rich. I played music because it was all I was any good at. I was a skinny loser catching hell from my father and this close to getting kicked out of high school. Being in a band gave me friends and girls and a ticket outta Richmond. I’ve been lucky enough to make a living out of it—an incredibly good living—and I’m grateful, but people are fickle and times change and no one really owes me anything and the fame could all be gone tomorrow. But the music will still be around, and it still makes me feel good to write it and play it with my friends for my fans, which is more important than making some critic respect me.

To those who organized the event, turned out, bought my book, bought others’ books, and generally gave independent writers reasons to keep at it – thank you.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. If you want to give me an early Christmas present, please, please like my book page on Facebook!

Blessed: Lucinda Williams at the Royal Oak Theater

25 Nov

Beat the Bots

Foo Fighters tickets went on sale last Saturday. Being all about sticking up for the little guy, the band kicked it off with a “Beat the Bots” pre-sale. As an email explained, “Fans sick of Scalper-BOTS programmed to clog online queues and snatch up huge amounts of tickets to resell them will get first shot at tickets to the show.” So, just as in days of old, those of us wanting good seats could drive down to the box office and get in line.

Of course, Saturday was the last day of a bitter cold snap, with freezing rain turning every parking lot and bridge into a luge track. We were allowed to start lining up at 8:00 a.m. with the box office opening two hours later. It was about 8:10 when I realized that, while I had thought to bring my Rolling Stone with Dave Grohl on the cover to keep myself occupied, I didn’t have warm socks, waterproof boots or long johns. I was woefully underdressed. For the next two and a half hours, I shifted from foot to foot, jammed my gloved hands into my pockets and tried to stay limber while my teeth chattered.

As I felt my spine go numb and my gums freeze, I had to ask myself: why do I put myself through this? 

I could say it’s to earn the admiration of those in my age group who, due to other commitments and common sense, don’t go the extra mile I often do to see my favorite musicians perform live. “You are awesome,” read one post on my Facebook page; “Young. At. Heart” read another. If my race against decrepitude and boredom lands me in a mosh pit every once in a while, I’ll have the support of those living vicariously through my folly.

But there’s a more valid reason. Live music connects us physically with the singer and the song in ways a pair of headphones never will. It amplifies our ability to experience pure joy. Case in point: the transcendent Lucinda Williams, who I saw at the Royal Oak Theatre on Saturday night.

Lucinda Williams

Singer/songwriter Williams grew up in Louisiana, the daughter of a poet who was also a rabid Hank Williams fan (no relation … pity). Tom Petty was my gateway to her music. He did a blistering cover of Williams’ “Changed the Locks” for the soundtrack of She’s the One. (Lucinda returned the favor, covering “Rebels” when Petty received the ASCAP Founders Award this year.)

She’s got a voice like a broken beer bottle and views the world through cigarette smoke and smeared eyeliner. Her genre is hard to pin down. Alt-country, blues, rock, folk and gospel fuse together in her fearless lyrics that demand she be treated with passion and respect, as in one of her evocative creations, “Unsuffer Me”:

 

Her three-piece band was phenomenal, filling the sold-out venue with a dense, precision playing so thrilling, Lucinda herself would pull to the side of the stage to watch. She balanced her new material with old, plus some apt covers including Detroiter Bettye LaVette’s “Joy” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” She was having so much fun, when she finished her nearly two hour set, she came back for an encore … then another … then another (and perhaps another: I lost count in my glee). She got to a point that she ran out of numbers in the songbook she kept on her music stand; she sent the roadie offstage to fetch more lyric sheets so she could do more songs. (Kenneth Brian, the leader of the band that opened the show, told us in the lobby that she was making up for a stuffy gig the night before in Cleveland; “I’ve never seen her like this,” he said, astonished.)

Foo Fighters ticketsLucinda Williams was a perfect way to close out a year of remarkable shows, as I’ve been blessed by great opportunity and more often than not, a willing concert buddy. She reinforced my resolve to keep showing up, despite the cold or cost or clueless drunks air-drumming throughout the evening. And good thing, too … because I have a date with Dave and the boys in August 2015!

See you on the flip side … 

P.S. If you live in the Brighton, Michigan area, there’s still time to RSVP for the Brighton District Library Local Author Showcase, featuring yours truly and signed copies of Love and Other B-Sides! Let us know you’re coming by registering here: http://bit.ly/1vauiBR

 

 

Unplugged (audience): Chrissie Hynde at the Masonic Temple Detroit

22 Nov

Chrissie Hynde StockholmWhen I went to the “Women Who Rock” exhibit, up from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a time at the Henry Ford Museum last summer, I was a little hesitant. Yes, many amazing women shaped the genre and the industry, but there are relatively few great female rock guitarists – and that dearth is a significant issue for an art form that values the singer/ songwriter/ guitarist above all.

Then just as I was leaving, I caught a TV interview with a reporter who declared Chrissie Hynde is “the female Keith Richards.” I went back into the exhibit and watched a tape of her playing lead guitar on “Middle of the Road” to verify his assessment, and I had to agree: she’s an authentic rock-and-roll badass.

At 63, she is also freakishly hot, a testament to the benefits of vegetarianism and swaggering for the last 40-some years. She has the good fortune of being a contralto from the start, so her range has remained intact throughout her career – no need to scramble to reach the high notes when she never sang any in the first place. She is also unafraid of collaborating with musicians decades younger than she is, as evidenced by her 2010 album, Fidelity! with Welsh singer J.P. Jones. It includes the song “Perfect Lover,” which could be autobiographical for all I know – if anyone could be in this situation, it would be her:

 

My partner generously extended my Concertpalooza streak by getting me tickets to her solo show at Detroit’s historic Masonic Temple on November 15. Once again I was a little hesitant because Hynde is, as the gal selling t-shirts put it, as “a pistol” when it comes to performing, particularly in this era of camera phones. Signs were posted throughout the lobby of the Masonic, and the guy with the Voice of God microphone repeated the respectful request to “experience the show in the moment, not from behind a screen.” Despite the civility, not everyone complies, which results in everything from her mild rebukes from the stage to flat-out stopping the show, as Hynde did at her Nashville concert a few days ago. With this fresh in my mind, I could only hope no one would turn her into Pissy Chrissie during the show.

Not to worry. Following a brief statement to a fan in the front to “put down the phone or go home” – and a crack about how it was good to see so many “old faces” in the crowd, adding “You’re never too old to haunt the house” – the remainder of the show was noisy and joyous. Hailing from Akron, Hynde has an affinity for a Midwestern crowd and seems genuinely pleased by the city’s return to the living. Even with a new solo album to tout, she was happy to dive into her Pretenders material, including “Precious” and “Tattoo Love Boys.”

And for the first time in too long, I enjoyed a concert without having to look through a sea of arms aloft, cameras glowing. It’s worth wondering how many of the photos we take at concerts are 1) any good or 2) viewed again ever … or 3) better than letting the energy and the sound take you over to create visceral memories that no photo can match.

Chrissie Hynde Masonic - 111514When Hynde came out for her second encore, she relented at last, perhaps as a reward for us behaving ourselves. “I appreciate you not using your camera phones during the show – they really fuck with my head,” she said. “But now, hey, the show is over so, go ahead and take them out and get your pictures.” After an uneasy titter went through the crowd, she said, “No, really, get them out!” So, for the last two songs we were able to take fully sanctioned, if also kind of crappy, photos to commemorate the experience.

See you on the flip side …

By the way, my next stop on the book tour is the Local Author Showcase at the Brighton District Library on December 7. I’ll chat about my work, then follow up with a meet and greet. Plenty of copies of Love and Other B-Sides will be available! Let us know you’re coming – RSVP here!

Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days on Earth

5 Nov

For those of us who long to be artistic hyphenates, Nick Cave is inspirational. The singer-songwriter-film composer-screenwriter-poet-actor is still going strong decades after dropping out of art school to join a band in Melbourne.

Now in his late fifties, CaveNick Cave 2012 looks like Johnny Cash as designed by Tim Burton: long legs, pointy shoes, jet-black suit and matching hair. He’s known for his literate, sexy and occasionally violent imagery, delivered in a mesmerizing baritone. Being a sucker for Greek mythology, I first started paying close attention to his work when I figured out “More News from Nowhere” from Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! was a retelling of The Odyssey.

Until recently, I had no idea I’d seen him on screen back in 1988. Cave and his band, the Bad Seeds, were the punk musicians at the Berlin club in a pivotal scene in Wings of Desire:

 

I came this close to seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds when they came to town a couple of months back but, lacking a concert buddy as well as the funds after spending umpteen zillion dollars on concerts this year, I took a pass. Thankfully,  I took the opportunity to see Cave’s “autobiographical documentary,” 20,000 Days on Earth, at the Detroit Film Theatre. The quotes are there because this is far from the usual chronological tour through a rock musician’s life story.

 

The film follows Cave on a surreal “typical” day, his 20,000th: from waking up next to his wife to writing threads of lyrics in notebooks and on a manual typewriter, on to therapy and rehearsal and a meal with his longtime musical collaborator Warren Ellis, and eventually onstage both in a club and at the Sydney Opera House, performing the song that began on the page at the beginning of the film. As he drives from appointment to appointment, friends and collaborators (Blixa Bargeld, Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue) appear as passengers to chat about their work, then disappear. At times, his internal narrative sparks a collage of images from his career and/or artistic perspective; his description of the impact of seeing his wife for the first time is illustrated by images ranging from Jacqueline Kennedy in mourning to explosions in space.

The directors – visual artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard – won World Cinema Documentary awards at Cannes for directing and editing the film. They certainly deserve the praise, for no one could do a better job of chronicling what it’s like to live in an artist’s head as he shifts from husband to musician to father to star.

It’s an extraordinary film because, of course, Cave is extraordinary. He’ll never be on pop radio but he could create the soundtrack for your dreams, be they terrifying or rapturous. As he sings in “Jubilee Street” on his most recent album, Push the Sky Away:

I am transforming

I am vibrating

I am glowing

I am flying

Look at me now

See you on the flip side …

P.S. I’ll be guest blogging soon on Laura Lee’s The Power of Narrative. We met at the Leon & Lulu Books and Authors event a few weeks ago and I’m grateful to her for reaching out to me for the chance to meet her readers. In the meantime, check out her site and her many published works – and tell her I sent you!

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