Monday, April 14, 2014

Why Nirvana Was Important (To Me)

There is a segment of music fandom that say Nirvana is overrated. They're probably not wrong. The band got catapulted into sainthood on the strength of a small catalog, albeit a pretty great one, and a metric ton of media hype. Their status as deities is perhaps overblown, even if they were briefly great.

Still, some among the naysayers also say they don't get why people connected with Cobain. They say his lyrics were mostly strung together nonsense (true) and his songs were simple rips on Pixies and Beatles melodies (also true).

So why the hell did anyone connect with this junkie?

For me, I can point to two small music moments that exemplify what it was that bored under my skin.

The first was from a throwaway song not released until after Cobain's death, a tune that may have gone nowhere if not for his suicide. The moment starts at about 1:55, and is attached to these lyrics: "Things have never been so swell / I have never failed to feel" (though I used to hear the second line as "I have never felt this well"). But it's not what he is saying, it's how he says it. Listen to the delivery:

The incongruity between the lyrics and the delivery, the unspoken yet completely realized cry for help, is something a lot of us felt during that time, especially if you were of a certain age range. He's saying, "I'm pretending everything is fine and HOLY SHIT it hurts so damn bad to pretend everything is swell when it's really NOT."

Typical teenage shit? Perhaps. But it resonated. Though it was released after his death, that moment showcases the emotion a lot of us heard and felt in a much of Cobain's music.

The other moment came from Nirvana's stunning unplugged performance, a somber, meditative set that probably did more than anything else to solidify the band's legend. Stripped down, you saw the songs as songs and his voice as a voice. No noise, no fire, just a guy and a guitar. And it was lovely. THE moment, though, starts at 3:44 in the below video and builds with wonderful emotion until the ugly, dirty, broken climax at 4:58, the vocal tear at 5:00, and especially the crazed look at 5:07, plus the long, slow wind down from that emotional high. Maybe more than anything, this captures what we were drawn to:

This is really, for me, THE Nirvana moment. You either get it or you don't. Nothing I can say or write can make it click. That's not a cop out, it's the truth.

If you've ever wondered what the draw it, THAT is the draw. And if you still don't understand, then all due respect, but you probably never will. Nothing wrong with that, either. Just sayin'.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Trick to Writing Great Conversations

The trick to writing great conversations is dear god how the hell am I supposed to know? Who COULD know?

Seriously, do you understand how hard it is to pen dialogue that sounds real and natural but that also gets across the information you need to get across?

'Cause that's the thing, really. In a book or a short story or comic or whatever, dialogue isn't merely people talking. It has to get across information. That information may be characterization or character history or plot details or exposition or mood or a million other things, but the point is that dialogue should be there for a reason.

Yet at the same time, it should feel perfectly natural. Perfectly real. Perfectly alive. Otherwise readers will cry "FAKE!" and be pulled out of your story.

How do you do that?

If there was some easy writing shortcut I'd have mastered the art long ago, and so would thousands of other writers. Fact is, dialogue is a fuzzy weird not-quite-science you have to do on "feel." It takes practice to be able to make it work on a consistent basis. It's a writing muscle, really.

You can flex that muscle and make it stronger, though.

Once in a while, I like to do something like this: I think of two or three or four varied and different people. I put them in a room together with a vague purpose or, more commonly, with a weird hook to get a conversation started. For example:

Priest with guilt about recently seeing an escort/call girl, stereotypical soccer mom with a pill problem, and a terribly shy 17-year-old kid who is also high are the only passengers in a bus that has just run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. The driver just left to walk to the nearest gas station an hour away.


Get it? You have to crawl into all three heads and just let fly.

But not really.

If you're telling a story, you can't actually do that. Every word counts. Real conversations are rambling and stupid. So you write these people chatting it up, then you slice it to ribbons in order to get it down to the point and to advance the story the way it needs to be advanced. It may take draft after draft after draft after draft, with each draft involving changes of a single line or even a single word each time.

But that's how you boil it down to perfection.

Writing real, good, true dialogue that crackles but that also serves its purpose is HARD. But it's worth it.

If you want, take my writing prompt above and give me a few lines in the comments. If I get a few, I'll do my version in a future post and we'll talk writing!

Monday, November 18, 2013

This book about Breaking Bad is out.

So hey, check it out. Breaking Down Breaking Bad: Unpeeling the Layers of Television's Greatest Drama is available for purchase and stuff.

It's from me, so that's kind of cool. It's available for Kindle and Kindle-friendly devices such as iPads and iPhones, as well as in a print edition. It's totally affordable, too. Impulse buy!

This book began as a germ of an idea about a year or so ago, but it wasn't an idea I took very seriously at first. Too much on my plate at the time, dealing with too many other things, juggling too many other projects.

But in the run up to the show's final eight episodes, my fever for all things Breaking Bad reached ridiculous proportions. I spent an absurd amount of time digging into what made this show special with friends like Rick Lundeen (who did that killer cover illustration) and others. And as I chatted up anyone willing to listen, I took notes. Lots and lots of notes. Lots and lots and lots of notes.

Those notes became the seeds of this book. It ain't no collection of random thoughts, though. It's a full-on, real-deal, 20-chapter exploration of the entire show from episode one to the finale, diving into the characters, moments, and motivations that kept us glued to the TV for six years. My goal was to take what I learned during the writing of A Year of Hitchcock and Hitchcock's Villains, combine it with my enthusiasm for the show, and use it to create a book worth reading. I'm pretty proud of it. Hope you enjoy. Check it out on Amazon at this link.

Monday, October 14, 2013

I have recorded 15 years of noisy, droning, m2 music

 For 15 years, I have recorded noisy, droning music under the name m2.

Okay, it's actually been longer than that. Recording music of this sort long pre-dated the m2 project. It even pre-dated owning a four-track recorder. I used to own one of those old twin-deck cassette stereos with a turntable on top. One day I discovered that if you plugged headphones into the mic jack and dubbed a tape from one deck to the other, you could kinda sorta play with the tape and have it record layers on top of one another. It was messy and ugly, but it worked. You could layer music.

So I promptly took a cassette I had -- I remember what it was, too; a dub of R.E.M. with "Green" on one side and "Document" on the other -- and recorded 45 minutes of guitar feedback. Then I did it again. And again. And again. All on the same tape. Probably five or six times. Each time layered along with the other layer. Each time the tape was more worn and distorted, but sure enough the sounds laid on top of one another and I ended up with an epic blanket of sonic bliss.

I lost that tape many years ago.

And I sure do regret it.

But it tells you where my mind was all those years ago. Even before I discovered bands like Flying Saucer Attack, Azusa Plane, Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and others,. I had a thirst for music that sort of filled up the room with sound yet lacked the hooks and form and structure that defined traditional rock music. So I recorded it myself.

It came to a head in 1998, when I released from seven fields of vision. I figured no one would ever like this junk (and I remain mostly right), but I did it for me, so I was pleasantly surprised when some college station in Phoenix picked it up and a few scattered positive comments came in. Cool!

Nonetheless, I put the project on the backburner. For nine years. Sure, I recorded, but didn't think much of it or do anything with it. Then, in 2007, during a difficult time, all this stuff poured out of me and I posted eight times alone to the Internet. The record was cathartic. It might sound like noise to you, but for me it was pure release. Those songs mean something to me.

It kickstarted something.

Since then, I have regularly plugged in my guitar (LOUD) and recorded ugly soundscapes of overloaded guitar when I have something to get out of my system. For me, records like Dying Mother and Ashes and The Endless Twelve actually mean something to me. I know few people listen. Some do. It may be surprising to learn that there are a few hundred dedicated downloaders for each record (and THANK YOU!), but that's not why I do it.

It has been 15 years this year since I put a name on it. I expect I'll be doing it for 15 more.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

LAKEHURST: The Facebook Page

Hey, not fer nuthin', but my favorite little Pine Barrens town happens to have a Facebook page, and it happens to have been started by yours truly, and it happens to have all sorts of awesome pictures and facts from this great book about Lakehurst.

In fact, the page has been going for some time now, and it's full of AWESOME memories and pictures and general stuff from in and around Lakehurst, like airships, the Hindenburg disaster, life in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, places to drink great New Jersey beer, and loads more.

So hey, be cool and click on over and give the page a "like." I'd be awful appreciative. I might even smile about it or something.

And hey, it'd be spiffy if you wanted to buy the book, too, because it's pretty great and I wrote it and all so it would be nice. Just sayin'.

Monday, July 15, 2013

My new book comes out soon...

... so that's kind of cool.

The follow-up to A Year of Hitchcock is due out in, damn, just a few weeks! Called Hitchcock's Villains: Murders, Maniacs and Mother Issues, this collaboration with Jim McDevitt is a full exploration of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest villains, what makes them tick, the themes that drive the darkness in his movies, and of Hitchcock's own psyche.

I think it's pretty great.

This will be my fifth book, collaborative or otherwise, with a sixth hopefully coming out next year in ebook form via the Philadelphia Weekly. (That project is still up in the air.)

The project has actually been in gestation for some time now, practically since A Year of Hitchcock was finished. Basking in the glow of finishing such a big project, Jim and I came up with other ideas. The villains idea seemed promising, so we created a full book proposal to send to publishers ... and promptly put it in a drawer for the next several years, since we (or I, as I'm speaking only for myself) were temporarily burned out on Hitchcock.

Last summer, we revisited the idea. Our publisher liked it. And this book is the result.

Interestingly, Jim and I briefly batted around the idea of getting to this project right here on this blog (check the comments). Six months later, we actually got to it.

I guess I was supposed to be talking about this all along, but there was life to be lived and all, and self-promotion sucks, so I haven't until now. Blogging is a pain in the ass. But huzzah! Now I have talked about it.


Friday, July 05, 2013

I think I'm a beer writer now...

Way back when I first wrote Stuff Every Husband Should Know and contributed to Geek Wisdom, I pitched the idea of doing a beer book to my editor at Quirk Books. I can kinda write, and I like beer, so why not bring the two together for a beer book?

I was given a dose of reality. You have no history of beer writing, he said, so pitching a beer book would be difficult.

Made sense. I may write, but that doesn't mean I could suddenly do a great book on growing great tulips. (I could.) I needed experience. So I started blogging about beer. It was a way to get my feet wet and start building cred in the beer world. To be honest, I only took it half seriously, but good things started to happen. My first professional beer piece was published, and though it's kind of wordy, it got the ball rolling. Soon I was doing a load of beer reviews for Philly Beer Week, interviewing Jim Koch, and these days I'm doing a year-long series on beer for the Philadelphia Weekly. Heck, my blog post about J.R.R. Tolkien and beer has drawn over 12,000 views to date. A beer audience is building. Press releases come my way, beer packages, loads of stuff.

So somehow, I've become a beer writer.

And that's kinda neat.

Which means, I suppose, I need to pull that beer book proposal out of the archives and pitch it again. Because I like to write. And I like beer. The problem, of course, is that beer is BIG right now. So do I have anything new to say about it?

We'll see.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Re-Watching the Sopranos - Season 5

I put my Sopranos series on hold for a while simply because I got busy, but with the recent death of James Gandolfini, it seems appropriate to pick up where I left off. So here are my thoughts on revisiting The Sopranos season 5 many years later. As always, this is written assuming you have watched the season, so SPOILERS ALERTS apply.

At the time I first watched this, I felt this was one of the stronger seasons. I still think so.

In a way it's more fragmented than previous seasons, with many short arcs rather than several large arcs (though those are present, too). The mafia side of the drama is compelling despite the main conflict being marital, i.e. Tony and Carmella's split, which is the big story of this season. Stuff with New York is getting heated by this point, ramping up tension in a big way. Not NEARLY enough time is spent on this, but what time they do spend on it is great, and the show wraps up those stories very nicely at the end of the season. For the first time since season 2 you feel like you've seen a complete story.

That said, the formula of "old mafioso returns and causes Tony trouble" almost begins to wear thin here. Really, been there, done that. Thankfully, the new cast introductions who fall into that category give this old theme a new spin. The first instance is handled in a new way, the second provides a dramatic story that sets up all of season 6's turmoil. So that's great.

Oh, and Adriana.

Yeah, that.

I really love how this was handled. You think she has talked Christopher into flipping, he seems all in, then they cut to Tony calling Adriana with an emergency. The audience knows the jig is up. But notice this: They never show Christopher telling Tony. I love that choice. It's played like a mystery -- maybe Christopher really did try to kill himself -- but we know the real deal, especially when Silvio comes to pick her up. Brilliant writing and direction.

There is also a great tease when she's in the car with Silvio. She knows what is about to happen. When you first see her after the call from Tony, she's driving to Washington, D.C. with a suitcase next to her. It appears as if she fled. But no, that was a daydream. She's actually with Sil. Why daydream about driving away alone? Because she knows what is going to happen but gave in to the inevitability of it.

They also make the choice to kill her off screen. We don't even see Sil's muzzle flare. Only treetops and the sound of gunshots. In a show that revels in explicit violence, this was a bold and effective choice.

The marital drama of this season, however, was less compelling. Carmella having a brief fling, Tony wanting to get back with her, the kids being assholes, and finally reconciliation. Eh. I had a hard time caring about most of this. The story beats were good, but there was too much screentime spent on it.

As for Tony -- because after all, isn't he what the series is all about? -- you get less and less sympathy for him as the series goes on. In addition to being a thug and murderer, he's an asshole. That scene when he's having dinner with Janice and Bobby and he purposely stomps on her happiness ... I hate Janice, bad, but I really hated him at that moment, too.

That said, most episodes of this season were top notch. The only dud was, in my opinion, the extended dream episode late in the season. Very arty and symbolic, but it went on too long and they played games with the way they revealed the second murder by Busemi. It was too vital a story beat to do that with.

Still and all, best season since the second.