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June 11, 2012

To Do’s Reviewed

ARCHIVES, June 11 – A quarter century ago today I graduated from high school. David Letterman had started his Top 10 Lists just two years earlier, and high school kids across America—emulating college kids across America—aped his format in a thousand different lunchrooms. That spring, I made top ten To Do lists for me and my pals Bob, Eddie, and Jason. We were all heading off into adulthood, and it seemed important to prioritize our strengths and weaknesses.

Here’s mine:

So there’s been some progress. I’ve made great strides on #s 3 & 7. I’m still working on #2. # 4 is a tough one.

# 9 surprises me. I’d just purchased my first vehicle, a pea-green 1974 Chevy Impala the size of a mausoleum. It cost $500, which I’d earned washing dishes my senior year. Running or immobilized, it was a welcome sanctum. If we’re going by meters, it got a respectable 48 MPG (also, what did gas cost in 1987? A nickel? ). I’m not sure what there was to complain about.

Then there’s #8. I didn’t learn to correctly spell the word “lose” until I was in my mid-20′s. The phonetics make it an easy enough thing to get wrong. But this wrong word is still kind of correct, in that I did like to loose (as in, “to let loose, free from bonds or restraint”) my temper upon the world.

I have made considerable growth in this department. But every now and then, at the DMV or in traffic, I still think, I might just loose it.


June 8, 2012

You’re The Only Woman

1. Wait for the cover art to kick in at 18 seconds. The guy from the Melvins was in a band with John Tesh? Huh?

2. The craftsmanship is devastating. In the entire canon of recorded music, how many other songs can claim two functional, world-class choruses? As soon as you get one unstuck from your head, you’re humming the other one. Marketing genius.

3. If Gen X spans 1960 to 1980, that means that almost half of my own generation has little to no recollection of the 1970′s. Specifically, they have no recollection of the 70′s profound ickiness, of which this track, released in ’80, is a swan song. Consider:

- There was a time when men actually named their own band “Ambrosia”, as if their music was sweet, sweet nectar.
- The whisper at 2:36. That’s the whole decade right there. Adults in the 70′s were always whispering seductively to each other. It was gross.
- All those plaintive, distant sax cries. What fills this emotional function in pop music now? Scratching? Grunts?
- When the late-inning bonus verse kicks in at 3:12, the one guy sings, “I’ll put my loving arms around you” and then, as if to underscore this point, John Tesh does so on the cover of the record.

4. Rest assured, the young woman sung to was very much NOT the only woman in Ambrosia’s life. This song is like the guy who shows up with the surprise bouquet of flowers to hide a dalliance. Good God, how many decapitated hookers did this song attempt to cover up?


June 6, 2012

Yet More Points

LIFE, JUNE 6 – Remember those Good Citizen Karma Points I mentioned on Monday? Here’s a better opportunity to earn some. My pal Jeff Winterberg is sick, and he needs your help. Last year, Jeff was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a rare brain cancer. His family and friends have just set up a new fund-raising site to help Jeff with his staggering costs.

I wrote the intro to Winterberg’s 2004 photobook. I knew him well, when we lived back in Richmond. Jeff is the template of a Good Guy. If you throw some spare cash his way, you’ll probably get enough points to yell at a child in a movie theater.

So: do so.


June 4, 2012


CALIFORNIA, June 4 – Tomorrow is a state primary. If you don’t live in California, you can skip this blog post and read the book reviews I just posted for Friday. If you do live in California, voting tomorrow is your chance to pick up some Good Citizen Karma Points you can then squander, at a later date, by talking during a movie or yelling at a child. And if you live in California and you’re registered with the Green Party, it will almost definitely be your only chance to vote for Roseanne Barr for president.

Two interesting ballot measures come up for vote tomorrow:

PROP 28: Change In Term Limits

This one chops state legislature terms from 14 years to 12. The alleged secret of Prop 28 is its duplicity, allowing a back door increase by redefining the limit as time served in either the Senate (now just 8 years) or assembly (6 years). And currently serving legislators are exempt. It’s a rare ballot that is both supported and fought by people sick of career politicians gumming up the works in Sacramento.

The real secret of Prop 28 is that term limits are stupid. We need career politicians, just like we need career pilots, and career surgeons, and career firefighters. Job experience is an asset, no matter what the job. Democracy is not a Frank Capra film; there are no Jimmy Stewart citizen-politicians waiting to sweep into the statehouse and set things right.

So vote no on 28, even though it will functionally maintain the current, more restrictive term limits. It’s kind of confusing. How about this: vote no and then stretch your arms flamboyantly in front of your polling place and look a stranger in the eye and say “WOW, term limits are an especially pernicious form of codified anti-intellectual horseshit, am I right?” (if appropriate, do a high five).

PROP 29 – Tobacco Tax For Cancer Research Act

This adds a dollar to every pack of cigarettes sold in California. Despite the $16 billion state budget deficit, the extra cash would “fund research for cancer”. It’s not a super precise goal. What kind of research? Who conducts it? Even with the impressive array of B-movie villains fighting 29 (most major tobacco companies, the state GOP, the CA Oil Marketers Association (?) ), the vagueness and potential waste should stop anyone cold.

Then there’s the fairness issue. Cigarette taxes are regressive: they place the heaviest burden on the poor. And tobacco, unlike fried foods or gentlemen’s clubs, is a physically addictive vice. I’ve known a lot of recovered drug addicts over the years, and I’ve never heard anyone recall heroin withdrawal the way I hear my smoker pals contemplate kicking cigarettes.

Taxing broke smokers to fight Big Tobacco is counterintuitive. It’s like fighting sex traffickers by arresting prostitutes, or protesting foreign policy by slashing veteran benefits. Seriously, if you vote for this, it kind of makes you a monster.


June 1, 2012

Books Read, May 2012

Raymond Chandler

My pal Quinn gave me this paperback years ago, and I promptly stashed it in my car, where it became an undone chore. Every time I had an oil change or downtime in a doctor’s office, I thought, why aren’t I reading that book? Also, I’d heard from pals that Chandler’s plots are a shade beyond comprehension (something I’d already gathered from 1946′s The Big Sleep, with Bacall & Bogart).

What hadn’t been made clear to me was that Chandler’s dialogue (inner and outer) trumps plot. And envisioning all those dusty waiting rooms and rich men’s parlors made me deeply nostalgic for a Los Angeles I never knew, and which almost definitely never existed. Who today will make people in the 2080′s homesick for the L.A. of now?

Joan Didion

After her husband collapses and dies during dinner in late 2003, Joan Didion takes an extended detour into the netherworld of grief. From this alien terrain, she reports on a newfound “fund of superstition”, a form of sporadic dementia in which her missing spouse serves as a phantom limb. Time becomes plastic, and memory seems changeable. Her focus is less on grief than on “the power of grief to derange the mind”, the many overlaps between prolonged sorrow and traumatic physical brain injury.

This was perhaps the wrong Didion book for me to start with. More than once, I flashed back to William Styron’s Darkness Visible, a similar psychic travelogue (in his case, from the Marianas Trench of depression) by a similarly gifted writer. In both books, it’s hard to ignore the odor of self-indulgence. Didion’s phrase repetition mirrors the lyrical nature of profound cognitive dissonance, but it’s also stupendously irritating. And what’s our incentive to share her experience? If we’re all going to have to learn about hallucinatory grief at least once in our lives, why should we do so any earlier than scheduled?

Is it wrong that I found this whole thing distractingly morbid and devoid of chuckles?

Bill Buford

Buford’s only written two journalistic full lengths. His second book, Heat, actually made me enjoy reading about food. The only subject I care about less than cuisine is sports, so Among The Thugs, his early 90′s account of UK soccer hooligans, seemed a nice companion read. Both books are detailed and illuminating delights with occasional soft spots (although Heat loses steam at Buford’s trip to Italy, while Thugs regains momentum in a different, much scarier Italian trip).

Turns out this is not so much about sports than it is violence – spectacular, gripping, senseless violence. An American in Britain, Buford somehow infiltrates a subculture where crowd brutality is both addiction and social mutation, like a computer virus, or herd animal behavior (at matches, fans allow themselves to be penned into enclosures). “Everyone – including the police – is powerless,” he writes, “against a large number of people who have decided not to obey any rules.” His detailed account of his own savage beating should be required reading in every undergrad writing course. It’s a model of retaining one’s presence of mind during crises.

Two complaints. Buford does little to describe and thus differentiate his real-life characters. And his account doesn’t shed any light on its own central puzzles: when and why did England get so goddamn scary? At one point, he describes an act of disfiguring violence I literally had no idea one human could inflict on another. This passage ruined my day, so if you’re really curious, find it in a bookstore and read it for yourself (page 239).


May 30, 2012

Book Soup

LOS ANGELES, May 30 – I’ll be doing a reading & signing at L.A.’s prestigious Book Soup tonight, at 7PM. Directions are on my LIVE page.

If you haven’t been there before, it’s not actually a big cauldron full of steaming broth and ruined manuscripts and screaming people. Although that would be funny.

May 28, 2012


Dear Rabies Clinic,

Here’s the thing: your sign is written is blood. So I feel like that’s at least Strike One.

Dear Life,

Seriously, why so many rules? If I get bored, how come I can’t just play touch football on the sun with W.C. Fields, or go inside a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or hang out with all the fish on the luminous ocean floor??

Dear Global Positioning System,

Could you at least try to act professional until Skynet arrives (August)? Jesus.

Dear Canteen Vending Service,

If I call your toll free number, it’s just going to be this guy laughing, right?

Dear Life,

Me again. Why does this kind of thing only happen in my mind?


May 25, 2012

Creepy Music

THE ZONE OF UNEASE, May 25 – Last month, in New York, I had a long chat with a friend about the music of the twenty tweens. “Nobody makes creepy music any more,” she said. With a jolt, I realized she was right. It’s as if one whole shade of the emotional spectrum has simply vanished from popular music. Unpopular music, too. Where has all the creepiness gone? Here are a few songs from its heyday:

1. “I Got You”

Remember that one guy in your high school? He’s the singer. And while his bandmates know how to dress the part, it’s clear that Red, Purple, Pink and Greeny have no real clue that Baby Blue actually did build that basement dungeon they all joke about at practice. Bonus: the sociopathically upbeat chorus.

2. “19th Nervous Breakdown”

Probably the best Rolling Stones cover ever recorded. Wait for the chorus at 3:01. Ouch.

I once complained to myself that this song is how I always wanted Bauhaus to sound. That was a stupid observation, and an unfair one. Bauhaus were plenty creepy in their own right. Check out the first few minutes of 1983′s “The Hunger”:

Even if it were possible to make this kind of movie now, the music would be either an overbearing film score or runway-decibel raprock. It’s a shame.

3. “Human Certainty”

Here’s a weird video someone made. The full song is even creepier, and sadder, once the vocals kick in. I used to listen to this song a lot in high school, which was an unhealthy choice.

Watching this spry young lady, I kind of expect the whole thing to morph into this:

4. “Hamburger Lady”

This is probably what the guy in the first video was listening to when he did those terrible things that got him into the paper.


May 23, 2012

Another Interview

THE INTERNET, May 23 – Despite what I just said in that last post, I forgot that I had another interview come out last week, on the New Orleans-based Room 220 blog.

This uses that terrible photo I let slip into the world, and one question is attributed to me that really belongs to the interviewer. But it’s an OK piece. I’m repeating myself in a lot of these things.


May 21, 2012

Tour Recap

HOME, May 21 – I took a week off from thinking about my book tour. Even now, I’m not sure what lessons I should’ve learned. I had a good time. I sold some books. A lot of people were very nice to me. Going into this tour, many of my expectations were rooted in the experiences of a previous millennium. No livid skinheads or uppity lefties took the time to confront me. No one confronted me about anything.

My only antagonist was the wall of rejection. Going into the tour, I knew that indifference would be part of the deal. And small turnouts are far less harsh on a book tour—where you have the luxury of a motive—than on a band tour. But it’s still tough dealing with society’s cold shoulder night after night. As a freelancer, rejection comes in easily-dismissible form emails. On the road, it’s a physical presence, a volume of empty space in every room.

Jesus, here’s a sad photo:

On this trip, I remembered some things about touring I’d long forgotten:

- The colossal waste involved with driving from city to city, all those mounds of wrappers and coffee cups I found myself cramming into garbage cans day after day.
- That weird thing where at least one person, at every show, without exception, will apologize for their own city.
- How much stuff people give me at shows, sometimes as networking, sometimes as an offering. On this tour, there were dozens of fanzines and CDs and albums, and, in one case, a taxidermied tarantula. Some things I had to ship home.
- How very many of life’s opportunities and adventures I will forgo for a little extra sleep, just to clear my head of that constantly encroaching confusion.

To this list, I can add one new observation: blogging about a book tour requires frequent use of the words “I” and “me”. Too much. I’m not happy with how much me there’s been in this blog. My life isn’t yet exciting enough to warrant so much real-time autobiography. Hopefully now I’ll have time to start writing about other things.