The Indubitable Dweeb
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» Posts from April, 2010

April 30, 2010

In Appreciation of Mike Cooley

I’ve started writing what I hope will become my next novel. I can’t say much about it, other than it’s snarling and short, a fast-paced genre-tweaker with bad kids doing bad things. Trashy in only the best ways. Or so I hope.

I’ve thought about the style in relation to songwriting more than anything. A get in and get out sort of approach. Songwriters who are also storytellers have always appealed to me. People love to throw around Bob Dylan’s name in this department and I can’t blame them. I went through my Dylan phase, shortly after the mandatory Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd ones, and I can still say confidently that Dylan’s oft-overlooked  Ballad in Plain D has few lyrical peers. But I’ve been thinking more contemporary than stuff like that.

For my money, the best storytelling songwriter today is Mike Cooley from Drive-By Truckers. You may not listen to Drive-By Truckers, but you really should. Start with The Dirty South and work forward and backward from there. You’ll find the dominant voice in the band is Patterson Hood, and the man can write morality and mortality with the best of them. Jason Isbell appears on three albums and contributes a handful of gems, including three certifiable masterpieces. But it’s Mike Cooley who consistently and deceptively astonishes. He takes hook-heavy chug-a-lugging rock songs and finger-picked ballads and fills them with so many clever turns of phrases that you’d be tempted to think he’s just a whiskey-drenched jester, aiming for whoops and backstage fondles. What he’s really doing is writing efficient and effective tales, which taken together form a tragicomic southern epic of tough guys and sad sacks looking for a way out or a way back in life. The songs Zip City and Space City could work as the opening and closing chapters to a heartbreaking biographical novel. Carl Perkins’ Cadillac is a flawless distillation of the Sun Studio days in Memphis, while the rise and fall of grunge detailed in Self Destructive Zones serves as a sequel, featuring verses like:

The hippies rode a wave putting smiles on faces,
that the devil wouldn’t even put a shoe
Caught between a generation dying from its habits,
and another thinking rock and roll was new
Till the pawn shops were packed like a backstage party,
hanging full of pointy ugly cheap guitars
And the young’uns all turned to karaoke,
hanging all their wishes upon disregarded stars

Yes, Cooley gets in and gets out and gets it done. And since I have a crush on y’all, I’ve put together a little mixtape for you, an Itunes playlist of the Best of Mike Cooley.

I skipped songs from the new album The Big To Do, cause I haven’t had a chance to give it much of a listen. I’ve also left off live versions and his songs from Pizza Deliverance and The Fine Print, just to ruffle some feathers. Still, I think this is a good representation of Cooley at the top of his game and I hope it encourages you to buy some of the complete DBT albums (maybe you’ll prefer Patterson Hood – no skin off my back). For me, I’ll use the mix as inspiration and instruction while I write a children’s book. I’m sure that’s what Cooley intended.

P.S. Cooley and the gang are some of finest ambassadors from the state of Alabama. Worlds better than this knucklehead, in any case.

April 29, 2010

World Famous in New Zealand: Das Bieber

I try to keep up with the Bieber-stream media. You see what I did there? Rather than writing “mainstream” or even “lamestream,” I went with “Bieber-stream.” It’s something I do here. Keep folks on their toes. Comment on culture in clever ways. Thank me by buying a book.

In any case, the Justin Bieber-slanting CBS News has asked the kids of New Zealand (The Kiwiettes, if you will) to chill the hell out. Bieber Fever has reached George Romero-like levels, resulting in a frightening mob scene at the Auckland Airport, and Justin’s “mama” has suffered as a result. I want to think the best of our very distant neighbors to the southwest (or southeast should you decide to fly Air Emirates), so I’m a skeptic. I smell a PR person behind this. And if not that, then I smell Germans. Because as anyone who has set their watch to NZST will tell you, if you want meet someone from Munich, go to the Auckland Airport. I swear, it’s like Paris in 1942.

Of course, this is from a tourist’s perspective. I spent 3 months in New Zealand a couple years back. My wife and I bought a cheap car, and filled the trunk with camping equipment and drove down every road and hiked in as many corners of that lovely little country as we could and slept in huts and yards and hostels and on beaches. We met plenty of locals, very few Americans, and a shocking number of Klauses and Ilsas. We ran into one intrepid young Bavarian on two separate occasions: once while doing a jigsaw puzzle in a headlamp-lit hut along the Milford Track; once along the steaming, sulfurous moonscape of the Tongariro Circuit. He (and every other German we met) spoke flawless English and was a perfectly lovely fellow, so I don’t mean to disparage an entire people. I’m just intrigued by the disproportion. The French and Spanish and English and Italian combined didn’t even have half the representation.

I’m sure if I actually lived and worked in New Zealand, I’d shrug this German infiltration off as some backpacker urban legend. But I assure you it’s true, and I think it has resulted in a Bieber bumrush. Germans get a bad rap for their taste in music. So perhaps a band of backpackers were trying to regain some cred. Perhaps they weren’t fans at all, but musical freedom fighters trying to rid the world of a devastating future filled with soulless bubble-gum pop. Perhaps Bieber is lucky to have gotten out with his reputation intact. Have you ever read The Dead Zone?

It seems far-fetched until you watch the following clip. It’s taken from an interview in New Zealand shortly after the airport fiasco. Cunning as ever, Bieber strikes back by denying that the German language even exists. “I don’t know that means. We don’t say that in America,” he quips. It’s a brassy move, and will spark numerous conspiracy theories. I expect Glenn Beck to break it down blackboard-style any day now.

Which brings me to the real point of this post. New Zealand! A strange and wonderful place and so much more than hobbits and Bret and Jemaine. I will be posting frequently about the oddities and peculiarities of New Zealand in upcoming weeks, and hopefully you’ll all learn a little something. Bieber was a just a gateway, the first dose to get you hooked. Stay tuned.

April 27, 2010

Twitter, or the Ubiquitous Soul of Henny Youngman

I’ve been away. Waxing a boat in Long Beach Island, digging up stones in Syracuse, taking an all-expenses paid culinary tour of Toronto. No joke. This is the kind of thing I do when I’m not…blogging or tweeting. I still hesitate with words like “blogging” and “tweeting.” Just ten years ago, I’m sure such terms would have sent a ripple of blushes through a bathhouse. Now they’re acceptable ways to spend the day.

I’ve taken to the blogging. I enjoy it enough that I know I’ll keep at it. Twitter is another story. It’s not that I think Twitter is slumming it. Heck, Margaret Atwood tweets her Canadian ass off and I’m sure Toronto likes her even more than they like me. No, Twitter is intimidating. Twitter is humbling. And I suspect it strikes fear in the hearts of all stand-up comedians. Let me explain.

The purpose of Twitter is to sell things, be it products or people. And there are three different ways to go about it.

Some folks broadcast their every thought. It caters to their inner three-year-old. I tend to stay away from this type of tweeting, because honestly I don’t think people want to know that I had peanut butter and crackers for a snack or that I like puppy dogs better than kitty cats or that I really gotta pee. If I were Levar Burton, over one and half million folks would dig hearing that sort of stuff, but as it stands, there are only 50 or so kind souls who follow me and they know I don’t have that Burton swagger.

Others use Twitter to sling the latest news. The New York Times has better foreign offices than I do, so I don’t try to beat them at that game. Next time Maoist eunuchs overthrow Djibouti, you probably won’t hear it here first.

The only other reason to use Twitter is to crack jokes. And that’s primarily what I try to do (other than trick people into checking out my blog). Usually I see a headline or a wacky bit of news. I come up with a one-liner, sometimes provide a link. And I hope that one or two of you crack a smile. The wheel of karma turns back my way. Until, of course, I go out and tease some local orphans and have to repent with another smile-inducing tweet.

It’s all very exhausting, and the problem with what I do on Twitter is that everyone else is doing it too. Many are doing it much better. Look at today’s news. Etiquette expert Elizabeth Post died. Randy Quaid and his wife were sent to jail for a bizarre litany of crimes. Joe Boxer bought Charlie Brown. Surely quick witted tweeters have already ribbed these subjects thousands of times in any number of clever ways. Even if I did have a good joke on deck (which I don’t), I’m not a fast enough typist to get a digital copyright on it.

If she were alive today, Ms. Post would surely tell you that if someone else has already cracked a similar joke about Mr. Quaid on Twitter, then you should defer to that humorist, even retweet them as a sign of respect. As you might guess, not everyone follows this etiquette, and Twitter is full of plagiarists who steal jokes word for word and pass them off as their own. Stand-up comedians are livid!

But it’s comedians who will end up the defendants in any copyright cases. When IrishStallone36 or HappyKelly! have already done a Charlie Brown in boxer shorts joke, a similar joke ain’t gonna work as well for Patton Oswalt a week later at the Kansas City Giggle Factory. And if it does, then HappyKelly! is going to be ranting on her blog about how Ratatouille stole her thunder. With thousands of people joining Twitter every day, the next generation of comedians will have to go completely obscure or absurd if they have any hope of surviving in our tweet-happy brave new world.

And me? I’ll just have to give up entirely. There’s always boat waxing to fall back on.

April 19, 2010

An Excerpt from Aaron Starmer’s Clover

As an author of novels for young people, I have to stay on top of the trends. The trends have shown that girls these days are swooning over magical old men who sweep into their high schools and offer danger and breathy declarations of love. Stephanie Meyer is keeping the vampire fires burning with her upcoming novella and the Eclipse filmMaggie Stiefvater’s Shiver has shown that girls dig werewolves too.  Lauren Kate’s Fallen has proven they like them winged and biblical. And Carrie Jones’s Need feeds the need for hot pixie-love. No, I’m not talking about Kim Deal and Black Francis.

Seeing how successful these books have become, I thought I’d jump into the game. So here, for the first time, is a sneak preview, an excerpt from a novel I am writing. Set in coastal South Carolina, it is known simply as Clover.

The violet light skipped across his face. I couldn’t always tell indigo from violet, but this was violet alright. It splashed soft highlights in his fiery hair and shrouded his freckles in inky, purple shadows. I reached down to touch his cheek.

“You’re old,” I said.

“Aye,” he said.

“In school, the boys are always bragging about being men and all that. Three years ago, they didn’t even know what shaving cream was.”

“Tis true,” he remarked.

“Your face is rough,” I said. In his stubble I could feel the hills of his homeland, the roots of soul.

“Twas a beard for many a snow,” he said. “The sands of Myrtle Beach know lil kindness towards a whisker me-fears. Barbers rule this land.”

“Myrtle Beach is cruel,” I said. I’d always believed it, but never had the courage to admit it to my friends or my parents. They all adored the golf and go-carts.

“Aye,” he said. Smoke trailed from the side of his mouth. If the breeze hadn’t stolen it, I would have sucked it up and felt its dangerous caresses on my lungs.

“There’s a dance,” I told him. “It’s not important or anything. It’s just something we do here. If we went for an hour, would that be awful? Together I mean. If we went together.”

“I do a jig,” he said. The velvet soles of his boots attacked the sand and the rhythm of the waves combined with the gentle scrape into a sensuous lullaby. I knew that Lance was still waiting at the concert. He’d texted me, “Wassup Jen? Where u at? Got the tix. Theez jams r gonna rock ur bra off!” I’d let him wait. I had my music here.

“The rainbow?” I asked him. “How long will it last?” In a tide pool, I saw that the colors were now cast upon my face.

“Never can say. She’s like a sparrow in a tawny fog. She disappears, but then she always finds her way back.”

“I thought you hid your pot of gold beneath it,” I said. That first night, after I met him near the clover patch, I’d gone home and done research on the Internet. The reputation of greed scared me. Even that morning, fear hitched a ride with my passion as I chased down that rainbow.

“Me pot of gold is here, love,” he said, tipping his green hat. “Tis your heart.”

April 17, 2010

The Vegas Line: A Dinner with Andre

I know someone who had dinner with Andre. A friend of mine, through some art world connections, found himself across the table from the man, chatting between mouthfuls of pasta or sushi or some such. My apologies if this bombshell has caused you to drop your mug of coffee or to fall down a well, IPhone in hand, mouth agape. It is shocking, but I assure you it’s true.

If you aren’t shocked, it’s only because you’re thinking, “Andre? Andre Agassi?” Heavens no. This wasn’t some binge of crystal meth and Oedipal rants. “Andre the Giant, then?” Sadly, that glandular wonder is dead, and even if he was alive, I suspect a dinner with Andre the Giant would involve massive turkey legs and troughs of gravy as opposed to the stimulating discussions for which the Andre I refer to is famous. “And which Andre, pray tell, is that?”

In the 1980s, if you wanted to make a joke about intellectualism, Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre was always a good place to start. It was a film featuring Wallace Shawn, most famous to the masses for his “inconceivable” role in The Princess Bride and now for his joyously goofy part on Gossip Girl. In the film, Wallace (or Wally, as he’s known to pals) eats dinner with theatre stalwart Andre Gregory. They talk about art retreats and existentialism and all things well-heeled and white. And that’s it. Roll credits.

As much as people were baffled that this could be a movie, there were critics such as Roger Ebert, and plenty of turtle-necked philosophy majors, who ate the junk up. I saw it when I was green and impressionable and while I can say it wasn’t an entire bore, I definitely didn’t buy into it. Just like I didn’t buy into Waking Life or I Heart Huckabees or similar exercises in navel-gazing cinematic blather. That said, should I ever be invited to a dinner with Andre Gregory, I would be honored and humbled. Because it is the equivalent of winning the culinary/conversation lottery.

Really, it is. Think about it.

Let’s say Andre eats dinner every day, a safe assumption. Let’s also say he eats at home most often, but regularly goes out with his wife or friends, and occasionally dines at art openings and parties and business functions. From this, we can make a generous guess and assume that, on average, Andre eats dinner with a person he has never met once every five days. Now you can’t count any person who happens to be in the room while he cuts a t-bone. Having a conversation with Andre is essential to having dinner with him. So all things told, for each year of his life, Andre has had about 73 new dining companions. It’s been almost 30 years since the film. In that time, it multiplies to 2,190 folks.

Now let’s round the number to 2,000 for the sake of calculations and Andre’s expanding ego. There are approximately 6 billion people in the world. 6 billion divided by 2,000 equals 3 million. So one out of every 3 million people can at one point in his or her life brag, “Guess what I did last night, dude? I had dinner with friggin’ Andre?” Mugs of coffee are dropped. Wells are fed with the awestruck.

For perspective, consider this:

  • You’re 3 times more likely to have won an Olympic Gold Medal in the last 30 years (about one in a million)
  • If you’re a woman,you’re 12 times more likely to have gotten sweet with Warren Beatty (one in 250,000)
  • And watch the skies! Cause you’re about 15 times more likely to die from an asteroid impact (one in 200,000)

Was my friend lucky? As you can see, he was, and his luck didn’t stop there. After his dinner with Andre, they moved on to a bar to grab some drinks. And what did Andre propose? “I should call my friend to join us,” he said. “You would really like Wally.” Inconceivable.