For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn't find anything. Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus. No, I can't explain the title, either. Yes, it's an exorcism movie, Read more

The Great Rock and Roll Secret

Suppose the great rock single had flickered over the airways just once, on the night you had passed out in the back seat?  Probably not, but still...rock and roll has always had this sense of possibility.  --Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, page 93 I originally read the above quote in the 1980s, when the first edition of Read more

Review: The Making of Day of the Dead

When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero's third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it's still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night Read more

The Manic Pixie Pout-Pout

Since I now have another two-year-old, I'm back to reading the simplest books to her at bedtime. Most of these books are innocuous, if occasionally incompetent (i.e., Big Snowman, Little Snowman, a Frozen tie-in book that probably takes longer to read than it did to write). A few are brilliant, such as Room on the Broom. But I'm here to talk Read more

The Omai Gods: the story behind the story

One of my favorite and oft-quoted bits of writerly advice comes from novelist/filmmaker Nicholas Meyer: "Art thrives on restriction." Meaning that if you don't have enough of something--usually money and/or time--you're forced to compensate by being creative. Here's a story that shows how that works, at least for me. I've never written steampunk. I honestly don't even know if it's a Read more

A Tale of Two Curls

Posted on by Alex in Jennifer Goree, music, Tufa, video trailer, writing | Leave a comment

Sometimes a song inspires a book. Sometimes a book inspires a song.

And sometimes–okay, this is the only time I’m aware of this happening–a song inspires a book which inspires a song.

There are two wonderful songs out there that share a title with my upcoming novel. Don’t ask me to pick a favorite, because I can’t. But I can tell you the story.

First, if you go here, you can read about my introduction to the music of Jennifer Goree. She’s an amazing songwriter and singer, currently part of the group Trembling and Vine. She has been kind enough to approve the use of her song titles and lyrics for my Tufa novels, including “Long Black Curl,” from her 1998 CD Don’t Be a Stranger. My novel Long Black Curl will be out next spring.

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This album cover, although it predates my novels, could easily be an illustration from a Tufa story.

Recently she was also kind enough to produce a brand-new video of that song, with a beautifully minimalist setting that perfectly complements her haunting performance.

Now we jump forward to 2014. The band Tuatha Dea has produced a wonderful CD called Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae, based on the world of my Tufa novels. The first three tracks share titles with my first three books: “The Hum and the Shiver,” “Wisp of a Thing,” and “Long Black Curl.”

Tufa tales cover

Their “Long Black Curl” is a totally different song, with nothing in common with Jennifer Goree’s except the title. But it’s just as haunting, and it’s the first time anyone has recreated the world of the Tufa for a video (you can even see the books’ recurring characters Rockhouse and Mandalay).

I can’t tell you how proud I am to be associated, however tangentially, with both these songs. Since almost everything I write has some relation to music that I love, to have this book series feed back and inspire such great music is a real honor. I hope you also enjoy both these songs, for their very different but equally magical qualities.

And if you should happen to read my novel Long Black Curl when it comes out next year, I hope you enjoy it, too.

You can buy Tufa Tales here. And you can get Don’t Be a Stranger by contacting Jennifer through Trembling and Vine.

High Hopes: is talent finite?

Posted on by Alex in Bruce Springsteen, creativity, fans, Horror Films, John Carpenter, music, old people, pop culture, release date, tennessee | 11 Comments

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This weekend, I finally listened to High Hopes, the most recent Bruce Springsteen album. Yes, it came out on January 14, and I bought it then, but I hadn’t listened to it. There  were many times when I listened to a new Springsteen album multiple times on its release day, and almost exclusively for days after that.

But something’s happened to Bruce. Or to me.

I should say that I’ve been a Springsteen fan since I first heard “Rosalita” as a twelve-year-old back in Tennessee. I was in college when Born in the USA made him a superstar, and I’ve seen him in concert multiple times, with the E Street Band, the ’92 “alternate” band, the Sessions Band, and as a solo performer. I own all his legitimate releases, and a fair stack of bootlegs.

And yet…

His last album, 2012′s Wrecking Ball, was the first time I felt like he was singing at me instead of to me, or for me. The new Celtic and overt gospel influences couldn’t disguise that these songs just lacked…something. And the re-recording of “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” released in a definitive version on the Live in New York City album in 2000, was simply unnecessary, as if he needed something to fill out the album (I’m not saying this was the case, just that, to me as a listener, it felt that way).

And now we get High Hopes.

Even the title track has been released before, back in 1995 as part of the Blood Brothers documentary package. “American Skin (41 Shots)” was part of the same Live in New York City album mentioned above, and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was the title track of his Grammy-winning 1995 album. So right off the bat, there are three songs that we’ve heard before in landmark original versions. Yes, these are new versions, livened up by Tom (Rage in the Machine) Morello’s guitar solos, and certainly there’s no lack of commitment to the performances. But it’s also the equivalent of hearing stories we already know instead of new ones.

Which leads to the question: what’s the point of the album?

My friend Melissa Olson, author of Dead Spots and Trail of Dead, once said that she thought some artists might just have a finite amount of art in them. This was apropos of director John Carpenter, whose work has certainly showed a decline, although I remain a fan (yes, even of his most recent film The Ward). I would never have thought this of Bruce, but perhaps it’s the case. Maybe the Boss has reached artistic retirement age. Certainly his last couple of concert tours have been more about preaching to the choir than converting new followers, a celebration of past glory days (heh) more than a forging of new ones. And maybe, at 64, that’s to be expected. But I’d hoped to follow him into the twilight with the same fervor I felt when he led me into adulthood.

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Filmmaker John Carpenter. Does he have any mojo left?

And, since I’m not exactly young myself (nor old, I should add), I wonder with each new book if the same thing might happen to me. I don’t want to keep going past my sell-by date, artistically speaking. But will I know when I reach it?

So what do you think? Is there a finite amount of creativity and art in every artist?

Help fund Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae

Posted on by Alex in faeries, folk music, fundraiser, Hum and the Shiver, music, tennessee, Tufa, Wisp of a Thing, writers | 2 Comments

One of the best perks about being a writer is that you get to meet other artists. Most of them are fellow writers, but I’m lucky enough to also count visual artists, filmmakers, and musicians among my friends. I’ve connected with many of them through art, either theirs or mine, as well as through social gatherings like conventions and workshops.

And sometimes, these connections turn into something you never expected.

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In May of 2013, I first met the members of the band Tuatha Dea. Having written two novels about the Tufa, a race of musicians descended from Old World faeries and currently living in Appalachia, you can imagine my surprise at finding a band named after the fae (known in some circles as the “Tuatha De Danaan,” a.k.a. the “Children of Dana”), based in Appalachia (Gatlinburg, TN, to be precise), who perform the kind of Celtic-influenced music I always imagined my Tufa might play. There’s luck, then there’s serendipity, then there’s just plain astounding coincidence. I think meeting this band was a little bit of all three.

But that’s not the best thing. After reading my books, they came to me with an astounding proposition: they wanted to do an EP of original songs based on my Tufa series, titled Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae.

I couldn’t turn down a chance to hear what this band–and they’re a great band–might do with this idea. So I gave the project my blessing. And I have no stake in this; the band is doing it entirely independently. I’m like everyone else, just waiting to hear what they come up with.

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And this is where you can help. To finance the CD, they’re running an IndieGoGo campaign. As with all such crowd funding, any amount is helpful. So if you like my novels, and you ever wondered what a modern Tufa band might sound like, then please consider helping Tuatha Dea get this project off the ground.

You can find out more about the project here. Watch the video, learn about the band, and consider helping out.

Oh, and you should definitely go to ReverbNation and check out their music. In fact, the song “Hypocritical Mass,” that you can stream from this site, might just turn up in a future Tufa novel….

And here’s a rough live version of their song, “The Hum and the Shiver,” that will be on the CD.

Book Review: Belushi a Biography

Posted on by Alex in music, reviews, writing | 1 Comment

A lot of people probably don’t remember John Belushi, but he accomplished the rare trifecta of simultaneously having the number one TV show (“Saturday Night Live”), number one movie (National Lampoon’s Animal House) and number one album (“Briefcase Full of Blues” by the Blues Brothers). He remains a unique figure in American popular culture, both for the way he lived and the way he died.

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I was a college freshman when he passed away from a drug overdose in 1982. My whole idea of college, in fact, was formed by Animal House, and I did the best I could to live up to that, to my detriment. I even dated a girl who named her dog Belushi, which she shortened to “Booshy” (one reason we quit dating).

So Belushi, beyond his skill as a performer, represented something to me and my generation. Each generation has a similar tragic icon, from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain, but those figures always seemed to end up on pedestals; Belushi, on the other hand, seemed to be someone you could approach if you happened to encounter him. Dan Aykroyd called him, “America’s guest.”

In 1984, two years after Belushi’s death, Bob Woodward–half of Woodward and Bernstein, of All the President’s Men fame–wrote Wired: the Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. It painted a vivid picture of late 70s/early 80s drug use among celebrities, and pissed off pretty much everyone involved in Belushi’s life. That’s understandable: it focused on everything but the things that made Belushi memorable. Still, it’s a great book as a time capsule, and Woodward managed to get the cooperation of everyone involved in Belushi’s life. (If you can find it, there’s also a movie version, starring Michael Chiklis of “The Shield” as Belushi; it’s not good by any means, but it’s the kind of surreal disaster that has its own entertainment value.)

In 1990, Belushi’s wife Judy wrote the touching memoir Samurai Widow, about life after her husband’s death. And “The Best of John Belushi,” from his years on Saturday Night Live, is a great DVD primer on what made him a star in the first place.

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But if you want to know what Belushi was like, and why his loss was indeed a tragedy, you need to seek out the 2005 coffee table book Belushi. It consists entirely of comments and interviews with people who knew him, from his family to co-stars. In fact, the only notable absence is Robert De Niro, who saw Belushi on his last day. It’s also loaded with terrific photos. I’ve had it on my shelf for a couple of years, but I’ve tap-danced around it, because I was pretty sure of the effect it would have. But over these Christmas holidays, I finally read it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book. But it’s not an easy book, if you’re old enough to remember Belushi in life.

Doom hangs over it from the start, both because the reader knows what’s coming, and so do most of the commenters. It makes the memories of Belushi’s talent and performances that much more touching and vivid. And that’s where this book exceeds Wired: you do get a sense of the mess Belushi made of his life, and the cost to those around him, but you also understand why it mattered, both to them and to the world at large. It dwells far more on his talent and good qualities than it does his flaws. And it accomplishes the thing tragic biography always should: you miss him when he’s gone. You feel his loss the way you would someone you actually knew.

I was in tears by the time I finished. I cried for the loss of this unique talent, for the pain of those around him, and for the time in my own life that he symbolized and encapsulated.

And then I watched The Blues Brothers.

 

Announcing the First Original Tufa Song

Posted on by Alex in Hum and the Shiver, music, Tufa | Leave a comment

 

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There might be cooler things in the world than a band you really like, writing brand-new songs based on your novels. But at the moment, I can’t imagine what. Here’s Tuatha Dea premiering their original song, “The Hum and the Shiver.”

 

The Only Good Musical is About Actual Musicians

Posted on by Alex in Eddie and the Cruisers, filmmaking, movies, music | 9 Comments

Although music forms a huge part of many of my novels, I don’t, as a rule, like traditional musicals. People bursting into song, unless it’s played for laughs (as in Cannibal: the Musical, an early film by South Park’s creators), overwhelms my suspension of disbelief. Even something as monumentally clever as Little Shop of Horrors stops dead (and never recovers) for the cliche ballad, “Suddenly Seymour.”

What I do like are movies about musicians, especially rock and roll musicians. They provide a realistic context for all that singing and dancing. And the best ones feature music that tells its own story, that fits seamlessly into the tale being told during the non-singing bits.

Here are a few great ones that you might not have heard about. (I’m not going to get into biopics like Walk the Line, Ray or Great Balls of Fire, or movies where stars play themselves, like A Hard Day’s Night and Purple Rain. Those are separate topics.)

Eddie and the Cruisers, from 1984.

Eddie and the Cruisers, from 1984.

My favorite is probably Eddie and the Cruisers. You can read my thoughts on the novel here. The movie, while shying from the book’s more interesting concepts, presents many scenes (and a lot of dialogue) verbatim, and it does a good job capturing the book’s atmosphere. The music, by East Coast native John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, is also top-notch, embodying the Jersey Shore sound (back when that term had nothing to do with some of the worst people ever to make millions on TV) and yeah, echoing early Springsteen, but if you’re doing a movie about a legendary New Jersey rock star, that’s hard to avoid. Still, not everyone loves it, so I’d recommend making your own decision.

A close second is Phantom of the Paradise, Brian de Palma’s classic glam-rock parody. Paul Williams, who also plays the film’s villain, composed all the songs, and they’re wonderful in the way they reference both the plot and each other (“Faust,” a deadpan parody of serious singer-songwriters, is itself parodied within the film by “Upholstery”). And each musical number is, for the most part, set up so that there’s always “source” music (i.e., an onscreen explanation for where the music is coming from), something you seldom get in traditional musicals.

Grace of my Heart is loosely based on the life of Carole King, from her Brill Building years as a songwriter through her breakthrough as a performer. In an inspired bit of forethought, the music is written by pairs of songwriters: one Sixties veteran working with a newcomer (i.e., Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello). And since the protagonist is also a songwriter, the film gives you a great idea of how these things were (and are) done. The movie itself constantly inverts expectations: for example, Denise (Illeana Douglas at her best) is introduced to Cheryl (Patsy Kensit), another songwriter whom everyone (including the audience) expects to be a rival; instead, they become best friends.

The Idolmaker is Taylor Hackford’s classic story of a guy who’s got everything except the looks to be a star, so he fashions first his cousin, then a busboy, into prefab teen idols. The music was originally supposed to be done by Phil Spector, but (surprise) he proved unreliable, so Jeff Barry stepped in at the last minute. And if this is how Barry responds to pressure, then he should be given unrealistic deadlines more often. Of the five onscreen numbers, three of them are absolutely fantastic in both musical terms, and as scenes in the story.

It’s interesting that all these movies are, from a contemporary perspective, period pieces, some on purpose (like The Idolmaker) and some, though current at their release, through the passage of time (like Phantom of the Paradise). It seems as if movies about or starring today’s musicians, like most modern pop music itself, has lost its passion.

What musicals about musicians would you add?

A Halloween treat from the Bledsoe family

Posted on by Alex in Blood Groove, family, Firefly Witch, Girls with Games of Blood, Halloween, music, video trailer | 3 Comments

Here’s a little treat…or is it a trick?…from us to you. Hope you enjoy!

Don’t Get Rock Blocked

Posted on by Alex in music, pop culture | 1 Comment

“On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.” –Hunter S. Thompson

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When I was a teenager–and I suspect this is true for most people reading this–music was incredibly important to me.  I didn’t play an instrument, but I had strong opinions and preferences, and I would listen to records (yep, I’m that old) with the kind of attentiveness that would probably be diagnosed as ADD today. I absorbed the trivia found in Rolling Stone magazine, kept up with the charts and eagerly awaited the next release by the artists I followed.

I also insisted upon the sanctity of the music experience. By that I mean that if I was listening to something, whether it was the Bee Gees or Lynyrd Skynyrd, I would get irate–sometimes vehemently so–when interrupted. My parents (neither of whom I recall as having a favorite song, unless it was a hymn) never understood that. But music was crucial to me; it certainly gave me hope and meaning when nothing else did.

Now, the Bible says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”  Or, more appropriately, in “Two Hearts,” Bruce Springsteen says:

Once I spent my time playing tough guy scenes
But I was living in a world of childish dreams
Someday these childish dreams must end

To become a man and grow up to dream again

So the question becomes: is making the act of listening a priority one of those “childish ways,” a “childish dream?”

I say, no.  Hell, no.

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I am on this soapbox (made of old record crates from Peaches Music and Video) to insist on the importance of listening to music. We live in a crass, obvious, entirely profit-driven world, and the only way that’s going to change is for people to pay attention, really pay attention, to things that aren’t crass, obvious and entirely profit-driven. Sure, there’s lots of crass, obvious, entirely profit-driven music out there; but there’s also good stuff, real stuff, that deserves our attention. Music can help us escape, but it can also be a way to confront the very real problems we encounter. The right song at the right moment can change the course of your life.

Someone coined the term “rock blocked” for when your listening is interrupted by something tedious and mundane, usually at the point where you’re in the middle of that air guitar solo or lip-synching to the most emotional part of the lyrics. It happens to everyone, and it certainly happens more when you’re an adult, because most other adults assume that, unless you’re in the music business, listening can’t be that important. But that’s wrong.

So stand up for your right to listen. Carve out that space for music, because you never know when it could be one of those songs, one of those moments that changes your life. Don’t let yourself get rock-blocked!

Nurturing creativity and doing a job of work

Posted on by Alex in creativity, music, writers, writing, writing advice | 3 Comments

Last week, stuck for ideas for upcoming blog posts, I put out the call for questions from fans. I got this one from poet Eileen Sullivan:

“In what ways do you think you nurtured your creativity as a child, wittingly or not? What remains of that life in your and your work? And in what ways do you seek to encourage and nurture creativity in your kids? How does this link with that open mind of play and childhood inform your writing and life today?”

Thanks, Eileen. I love simple questions.

I grew up in a town of 300 people, 200 of whom were related to me. That limits your dating options, if nothing else (or it certainly should). The street we lived on was finally paved when I was in junior high school. When I turned fourteen, some kids up the street burned down the school, which in hindsight was the death knell for a town that had literally nothing else going for it. So it wasn’t exactly a hotbed of the arts.

As a kid in this town who wore glasses (the big, thick plastic kind that were all the rage in the Seventies), liked to read, saw no particular reason to kill small animals and (lest I slight the importance of this) liked to read, I never really fit in with the good ol’ boy culture around me. But I was always, for lack of a better term, “creative.” I loved to draw. I loved listening to music (learning to play was never a real option). And for some inexplicable reason, reading led me to attempt writing.

Was I nurtured in this? Technically yes, I suppose. I wasn’t actively discouraged, at least. But there was nothing like the communities you can find online now, so I worked in isolation, encouraged by a couple of teachers and benignly tolerated by my family. I have no idea why I felt so driven to create, and to this day the origin of it confuses me as much as it did my parents. But I did get one thing out of it that’s stuck with me to this day: I’m self-motivated. I don’t need encouragement, although it’s certainly appreciated. But either way, I’ll write.

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See? Either way. Like I said.

Now that I’m a father, particularly of boys, I’m aware of the danger of both not encouraging them, and over-encouraging. As I said above, I used to love to draw, and can still sketch a mean T-Rex. But I had a relative who, when she saw my interest, took it upon herself to turn me into an “artist.” What actually happened was that she killed any fun I’d gotten from art, and made it so that I never wanted to draw again.

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This is someone drawing because it’s fun.

So I’m very careful not to impose my desires on the boys. My oldest takes martial arts and theatrical acting classes; my youngest likes to build his own elaborate Lego spaceships. When they ask for my help, I try to do it in a way that lets them learn how to help themselves next time.

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Mellowin’ like Hendrix (see, he’s playing left-handed).

I suppose I am still tapped into that childhood well of creativity. Then again, who says creativity is a child-like quality? Our culture thinks of it that way, but I look at it as a job: I punch an unofficial clock every day, and management expects me to be creative. So I have to bring my “A” game, except it’s not a game. As John Ford said, it’s a job of work.

Hope that answers your question, Eileen.  Thanks for asking!

Book Review: Paperback Writer by Mark Shipper

Posted on by Alex in music, reviews, writing | 4 Comments

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“Rock and roll is a joke
and the joke is on
anyone–performer or
audience–who ever takes it for any more than that…”
(p. 11)

Writing about music, as I’ve said before, is tricky. The ones who do it well–P.F. Kluge, Sheila Kay Adams, Lee Smith–take it very seriously. So it follows that writing a parody about music, one that’s simultaneously respectful and hilarious, is even trickier. Writing that parody about the greatest rock and roll band ever, the Beatles, is the greatest trick of all. Yet in 1978, a writer named Mark Shipper did it, in a novel called Paperback Writer, subtitled The Life and Times of the Beatles: The Spurious Chronicle of their Rise to Stardom, Their Triumphs and Disasters, Plus the Amazing Story of Their Ultimate Reunion.

The date of publication is significant. John Lennon was murdered in 1980; after that, any book like this would’ve seemed tacky, if not downright heartless. But in 1978, with Paul and John both still vital presences in the music world, it seemed reasonable to poke fun both at their excesses, and at the fans who would never let them forget their past.

And fun is most assuredly poked. I’m only going to mention a couple of the jokes, because I certainly don’t want to spoil it, but here are some examples:

Lennon proceeded to explain to the roomful of reporters that his statement about the Beatles being “bigger than Jesus” was misinterpreted.
“What I meant,” he said, “was that we are all taller than Jesus.”
“Oh, Jesus,” [Beatles manager Brian] Epstein said from the front row.
(p. 82)

Or this bit, post-Beatles breakup, when Paul argues with his wife Linda about their group, Wings:

“What’s it gonna take for you to stay in the group, Linda?”
“Top billing.”
“What?”
“You heard me. Top billing.”
“You mean Linda McCartney and Wings?”
(p. 185)

And the book is filled with alternate lyrics to the best-known Beatles songs:

Instant karma
Mix it with milk
Goes down your throat
Smooth as silk

And this, the bridge for “A Day in the Life”:

Woke up
Fell out of bed
Tried to get off the floor
Couldn’t
So stayed on the floor
All day long

Finally, there are the extended scenes of alternate history, such as Lennon and McCartney getting stoned while writing a song with Bob Dylan, or meeting the Beach Boys and Donovan (“Don’t call me ‘Don!’”) during their meditation phase. And the novel climaxes with what must have seemed inevitable at the time: a Beatles reunion tour that doesn’t go quite as anyone expects:

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This is a relatively easy to find book since it’s got a cult following, although as far as I know it’s been out of print since the early 80s. Author Mark Shipper, it appears, withdrew into willful obscurity and has never resurfaced. Still, if you’re a Beatles fan, or just a fan of music in general, you’ll probably enjoy this a lot. There’s real affection in the humor, and McCartney’s final line is something that we all know is true, but don’t like to admit:

“I guess,” McCartney said as he took his wife’s hand, “it’s because you can’t live in someone’s past and live in their future, too.”
(p. 252)

Here are a couple of other bloggers talking about this book:

Pismotality

Rockcritics.com