Six Morrissey B-sides

 

Football. If you had to choose only one sport to represent the working class, surely it would be the beautiful game.

I played myself. I was pretty good – not good enough to go pro, but decent enough to win a top-goalscorer award and play at the top level as a kid. A striker, I banged in plenty of goals in two seasons playing for Irish team Shamrock Rovers, and I went on to play for Home Farm F.C. before returning to Rovers again, where I spent a couple of seasons before hanging up my muck-covered boots.

How does this relate to Morrissey and B-sides, you may be wondering?

Well, most Morrissey fans will know that he was born in Manchester to a working-class Irish migrant family. Working-class life permeates Moz’s oeuvre. He was (and probably still is – I don’t happen to track his TV-watching habits) a big fan of the soap opera Coronation Street, which focuses on the daily lives of working-class Mancunians. You’ll also find many references to working-class life on the covers of Morrissey singles, such as a photograph of two boys used for the single Roy’s Keen (see below), taken by Roger Mayne, a photographer famed for his documentation of people on London’s Southam Street.

As for the football connection – there’s something about B-sides that reminds one of substitutes: back up, a suggestion of not being good enough for the starting line-up. But what about the substitute who pops up with a last-minute winner having only been on the pitch fifteen minutes? Substitutes complete the team and have an invaluable role to play. Plus, some players who regularly feature on the bench are often exceptional, even better than some in the starting eleven (think of super-subs like Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Chelsea’s Tore Andre Flo).

The same can be said for B-sides. You’ll find some gems accompanying singles, some that are arguably better than the A-side.

With that in mind, here are six Morrissey B-sides from over the years.

 

1. Have-a-Go Merchant

Moz Boxers

Have a go when the pubs all close, and have a go when they open. So begins this boisterous B-side to Boxers – Morrissey’s ode to pugilists everywhere, released in 1995. Have-a-Go Merchant would also show up on the compilation album World of Morrissey, released the same year. It’s been claimed that this song was written about Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs, in response to her cover of Everyday Is Like Sunday, which Moz utterly despised. There once existed a very charming fan-made video for this, featuring handheld footage of families from years gone by. Alas, I can’t find it, but you can still listen to the track by hitting the link below.

A-Side: Boxers (16 January 1995)
Listen to ‘Have-a-Go Merchant’ here.

 

2. Get Off the Stage

Moz PP

This biting B-side takes aim at aging rockers whose time, in Mozzer’s opinion, has come and gone: move on, ye old rockers, and make way for the youth of today. Many have opined that the song was originally aimed at The Rolling Stones, who, for better or worse, are still rocking some 29 years after this track accompanied the Piccadilly Palare single release. Of course, this very song could be aimed at Morrissey today, something he surely knew would happen someday. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it appeared as a self-deprecating inclusion on the setlist for his next tour.

A-Side: Piccadilly Palare (8 October 1990)
Listen to ‘Get Off the Stage’ here.

 

3. The Edges Are No Longer Parallel

Moz Roy's Keen

My only mistake is I’m hoping, laments Morrissey in this guitar- and strings-driven ballad. Making its appearance on the single Roy’s Keen, the track features familiar themes of hopelessness and loneliness, before launching into a snare-pounding, upbeat outro that contradicts the lyrical content. Surprisingly, this excellent B-side has never even made it onto a compilation album. It did, however, show up on the 2009 remastered version of studio album number six, Maladjusted. In a word: magnifique!

A-Side: Roy’s Keen (6 October 1997)
Listen to ‘The Edges Are No Longer Parallel’ here.

 

4. A Swallow on My Neck

Moz Sunny

A Swallow on My Neck was the B-side of the single Sunny, released in 1995. It went on to feature on the compilation album My Early Burglary Years. For me, this track is stronger than the song to which it played second fiddle. It’s rumoured to have been written for Jake Walters, a long-time friend of Morrissey’s, and features the wonderful opening lyrics I have been smashed again with the men from the Old Valhalla Road Crematorium, and You have been telling me that I’ve been acting childish . . . foolish, ghoulish, and childish. But I don’t mind, I don’t mind. When the result is a song like this, we don’t mind either, Moz.

A-Side: Sunny (11 December 1995)
Listen to ‘A Swallow on My Neck’ here.

 

5. Munich Air Disaster 1958

Moz IB,EH

Returning to the football theme, Munich Air Disaster 1958 is a tribute to those who lost their lives on British Airways Flight 609 – including members of the Manchester United football team, nicknamed the Busby Babes. This gem was a B-side on the single Irish Blood, English Heart, before showing up on the albums Live at Earls Court and Swords. The mournful lyrics speak of keeping the memory of those players alive: We miss them, every night we kiss them. Their faces fixed in our heads. A beautiful tribute song that’s been embraced by United and City fans alike.

A-Side: Irish Blood, English Heart (4 May 2004)
Listen to ‘Munich Air Disaster 1958’ here.

 

6. Good Looking Man About Town

Moz YHKM

A B-side with a brilliant bassline, Good Looking Man About Town showed up as a support act for You Have Killed Me – the first single from Morrissey’s eighth studio album Ringleader of the Tormentors, released in 2006. This one reminds me of some of David Bowie’s jazz- and drum-and-bass-infused efforts like Little Wonder, and ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, but that could just be this writer. Anyway, go forth and listen – it’s a treat that’s best served with a healthy dose of narcissism.

A-Side: You Have Killed Me (27 March 2006)
Listen to ‘Good Looking Man About Town’ here.

 

There we are – six Morrissey B-sides. Share some of your favourite Moz B-sides in the comments below if you’re bothered.

Until next time . . . I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar.

Six Morrissey Cover Songs

Cover albums: a waste of time, or a rare treat for fans?

Really, it can be hit and miss (arguably it’s mostly miss). But take Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Kicking Against the Pricks, or Metallica’s Garage, Inc., and you’ll find that there is evidence of successful cover albums hitting the shelves of our favourite music stores.

Throughout his career, Morrissey has dropped some brilliant cover songs into our laps for infinite consumption. And with the recent announcement that he’ll be releasing an album of covers in May (charmingly titled California Son), I thought I’d list six that have found their way onto a set list or two over the years.

1. It’s Over

Morrissey California Son 1

Original artist: Roy Orbison
Listen to it here.

Morrissey has followed up his splendid cover of The Pretenders’ Back On the Chain Gang with a gorgeous rendition of Roy Orbison’s classic ballad first released in 1964. This one features sublime, goosebump-inducing backing vocals from Laura Pergolizzi, better known by her stage name LP.

2. You’ll Be Gone

Morrissey You'll Be Gone (Jacky)

Original artist: Elvis Presley
Listen to it here.

It’s Over, followed by You’ll Be Gone — this all seems a tad depressing. But it isn’t, because this cover of The King’s 1965 release from the Girl Happy soundtrack has Morrissey in top form, delivering a devastating vocal to rival the original. This live performance featured as a B-side on the single Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s Up on the Stage, taken from Moz’s most recent album, Low in High School.

3. That’s Entertainment

Morrissey That's Entertainment 1

Original artist: The Jam
Listen to it here.

This cover of Paul Weller’s love letter to London originally appeared as a B-side on the single Sing Your Life, taken from the-man-who-put-the-M-in-Manchester’s second solo album, Kill Uncle. Many of Morrissey’s covers have been very faithful to the originals, often being a tone-for-tone, word-for-word remake. For this one, Mozzer slowed the tempo, which gives the listener more time to consume the lyrics, and which arguably better complements the song’s reflective, appreciative nature.

4. Satellite of Love

Morrissey Satellite of Love 1

Original artist: Lou Reed
Listen to it here.

Lou Reed wrote Satellite of Love in 1970, while still a member of The Velvet Underground. The track would turn up on his now-legendary debut album, Transformer. Although relatively unsuccessful as a single, reaching a lowly #119 in the charts, it went on to become a regular feature on his set lists and compilation albums. Moz’s live cover of this track was released on 2nd December, 2013, as a tribute to Reed following his death less than a couple of months earlier. This writer is happy to report that he owns a copy.

5. Drive-In Saturday

Morrissey Swords 1

Original artist: David Bowie
Listen to it here.

David Bowie reportedly refused to give Morrissey permission to use an image of the pair together for the artwork on the repress of The Last of the Famous International Playboys. Was there bad blood between the two? Possibly. Possibly not. I haven’t investigated, and I don’t really care. What I do care about it Morrissey’s cover of Bowie’s 1973 track Drive-In Saturday. You’ll find it on the compilation album Swords.

6. Redondo Beach

Morrissey Redondo Beach 1

Original artist: Patti Smith
Listen to it here.

This rendition of Patti Smith’s classic was featured on Moz’s excellent album Live at Earls Court. Possibly this writer’s favourite to feature on this list, it’s similar to That’s Entertainment in that it’s slowed down and given extra room to breathe, allowing the listener to grasp and visualize the tragic story being told. A truly great cover version, this one.

There you are — six glorious Morrissey covers. Are there any songs that Moz has performed over the years which have stood out to you, or that you saw live? Add a comment and share a cover or a story if you like.

Until next time . . . I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar.

Six Morrissey Lyrics

My first full-time job was in a toy store. I was just out of school and was yet to go to college, because I had no idea what I wanted to do. And a full-time gig with a weekly wage sounded good to a working-class boy like me, who just wanted a few quid to go out and buy CDs, DVDs, and spend time with friends.

The store was, and still is, named Smyth’s. Now, judging by the title of this blog post you might be thinking “Okay, that’s the connection: Smyth’s Toy Store / The Smiths — Morrissey’s original band. Duh, we get it.” Well, that is one quasi connection to my favourite pop musician. But it’s not why I’m mentioning the store. The actual reason is because I only discovered Morrissey while working there.

The man who played Suedehead: The Best of Morrissey on repeat and pretty much initiated an irreversible re-shaping of my personality was one Paul “Jolly” Rogers, who I’m proud to call my friend to this day.

But it wasn’t an immediate romance; it certainly wasn’t love at first sound. You see, in my opinion, Morrissey is rather like the great Irish stout Guinness: it’s an acquired taste — you’ve got to train your taste buds. When it came to Mozzer, I needed to give myself time to get used to his unique sound.

Despite us not hitting it off straight away, it quickly grew into a full-blown passionate affair, and, like so many others, I was hooked for evermore.

One of the reasons I admire Morrissey so much is his unparalleled powers as a lyricist. I could’ve listed loads, but I don’t have all day, and neither do you. So, here are six brilliant Morrissey lyrics (excluding The Smiths songs) that pack plenty of wit, a good helping of poignancy, and a healthy touch of self-deprecation.

1.

“I wish you lonely, like the last-tracked humpback whale chased by gunships from Bergen. But never giving in… Never giving in.”

Track: I Wish You Lonely
Album: Low in High School (2017)

Moz Low In High School

Let’s begin with a recent track. Can you picture a lonelier figure than that humpback whale? The last of its species, being hunted by gunships no less! Emphatic, powerful lyricism that touches on Morrissey’s bête noire: man’s “war” on animals. Overall, the song, and this line, could be interpreted as a celebration of unapologetic individualism.

2.

“When you sleep, I will creep into your thoughts like a bad debt that you can’t pay.”

Track: The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get
Album: Vauxhall and I (1994)

Moz The More You Ignore Me...

Who knows who this track is directed at? Could it be his old foe the NME, who’ve waged war against Morrissey for years? Could it be Mike Joyce, following the legal disputes over The Smiths royalties? It was a toss-up between the above and the line from the same track “Beware, I bear more grudges than lonely high-court judges”. So, knowing that Moz is one to hold a grudge, it could be about quite a few people. Anyway, isn’t it quite brilliant?

3.

“It’s not your birthday anymore. Do you really think we meant all those syrupy, sentimental things that we said yesterday?”

Track: It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore
Album: Years of Refusal (2009)

Moz Years of Refusal

Moz is not only one of the greatest lyricists of all time, he’s also one of the funniest. And he doesn’t like to beat around the bush, either: “Seriously, we don’t like you that much.” Pure gold.

4.

“You have never been in love until you’ve seen the dawn rise behind the home for the blind.”

Track: First of the Gang to Die
Album: You Are the Quarry (2004)

Moz First of the Gang 1

Morrissey came back with a bang in 2004 with the release of his first album in seven years. The lyrics above are from the album’s second single “First of the Gang to Die”, and I’d struggle to find a more powerful way to describe the gift of sight. Again, it’s playful, but also particularly poignant.

5.

“The woman of my dreams, she never came along. The woman of my dreams – there never was one.”

Track: I’m Not Sorry
Album: You Are the Quarry (2004)

Moz You Are The Quarry

There’s been an air of mystery around Morrissey for decades; something the man finds strange since he considers his work to be rich in autobiography. Unfortunately, in this celebrity-obsessed world we live in, people’s sexuality is often a hot topic of debate. It’s been said that Mozzer is a frustrated heterosexual, a homosexual, bisexual, asexual . . . One of the more popular and persistent rumours is that he’s celibate.

There were a few revelations in his book “Autobiography”, which was published in 2013, and you may read what you will into the lyric above. But at the end of the day, who cares? It’s no one’s business but Morrissey’s.

6.

“One fine day – let it be soon – she won’t be rich or beautiful. But she’ll be walking your streets in the clothes she went out and chose for herself.”

Track: November Spawned a Monster
Album: Bona Drag (1990)

Moz November Spawned a Monster 1

Who else in the world of pop music would write a song about the plight of the disabled? Apparently this memorable track tackles the underlying pity and discomfort that is supposedly felt by many in society towards individuals with disabilities. The hopeful lyric above — the final lines of the song — wishes for this particular individual to find her independence and be released from the shackles of such ways of thinking.

There we are. I could list many more Morrissey lyrics. But for now, it’s last orders again.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

 

Photo in header by Samuel Gehrke, borrowed from this Billboard article.

You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me

 

 

A sample of my short story ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me‘, about a reclusive former actor and politician who’s reluctantly propelled back into the limelight by a determined journalist.

–––––––––––––––––––––––

 

In his youth he was an inextinguishable flame; an irrepressible voice in the world of entertainment; a reasonable, level-headed voice in the world of politics. He’d been both an actor on screen and a performer in the presence of the media. But what’s happened to Roger Dreyfus, the former governor of California and star of the action-packed mega-hits Glorious Day, A Bridge to Brooklyn, and What’s In It For Me? Where is Roger Dreyfus?!

   That’s how the article began.

   His son had called him first thing that morning and told him about it. First he sighed, and then he panicked—as he did on a regular basis now—and shortly after he got off the call and calmed down, he drove to the nearest store (which took an hour to reach, because the local store which serviced the sparsely populated-but-large gated community in which he lived had burned down two days earlier) and picked up a copy of the magazine in which he’d been featured.

   Now, as he sat at the table in the spacious kitchen featuring the granite-top counter, the biggest fridge he’d ever laid eyes on, and the island in the middle of the room with the mahogany countertop, where dinner would be eaten (alone), he read the piece written by one Warren S. Franzen.

   He knew Franzen; had met him a couple of times, didn’t like him—thought he was too effeminate. He didn’t have a problem with ‘the gays’ as he called them. Heck, he’d been governor when they passed the bill. But he liked men to be men, irrespective of whom they shared a bed with.

   He remembered the first time he’d met Franzen: He was greeted by a short, skinny man who some would call stylish, although not Roger; Roger liked men who dressed like men; none of these skinny suits, no checked pants and bright pink shirts, and certainly no stupid hairstyles. Upon meeting him, Franzen first words were unintelligible; it was a combination of “Oh-mah-God”, “Whaaaat?” and a wail which had reminded him of the time his mother had put out her back when lifting their overweight bulldog all those years ago. And it wasn’t that Franzen wasn’t a nice guy—he would categorize him as a nice, amiable person—but he was too loud, too annoying, too camp. And Roger didn’t do camp. This didn’t deter him from being a Hollywood heavyweight for the best part of forty years; he just put up with the campness like one puts up with an old football injury that creeps up on you every now and then.

   Football, he thought. Now there’s a sport that fairy Franzen had never played.

   The thing was, Franzen adored Roger. There was of course the possibility that this was the result of an attraction; Roger was muscular, masculine, magnetic; his charisma was infectious, as were his handsome features. Plus, this piece wasn’t an attack on his character; far from it. It was a celebration of the man, and it was a calling:

   “Come back to us, Roger!” it said.

   And that was the problem precisely.

   Damn that little prick, Roger thought to himself.

   He’d worked hard to escape life in the public gaze. People, he’d concluded after all these years, were perverts. Obsessive, silly, perverted little cretins. He’d also acknowledged that this supposed perversion that he’d grown to despise was part of the reason he’d become so successful in the first place. But he hadn’t held on to fame; eventually he’d willed it away like a bad flu that wouldn’t clear. He’d been a major player in Hollywood and a political powerhouse, but all that changed four years ago. Nobody, apart from family (i.e. his son, not the ex-wife) and his few remaining friends, (one a controversial Libertarian economist, one a successful author, and the other a director with whom he’d collaborated on many occasions), had contacted him over the past four years. And when the aforementioned called him it was usually unwelcomed.

   So, the question was: why? Why was Franzen calling him out? And why now?

   As he sat in the kitchen reading the piece he grew more and more frustrated; with each word, sentence, paragraph, his anxiety levels increased. He licked a thumb and aggressively turned the page. He released a vexed groan. He cleared his throat even though there was nothing to clear: this was the ultimate sign that his anxiety had peaked: incessant throat-clearing.

   “Ah-hmmmm. Ummmmmm. Ah-hmmmm. Ummmmmmmm. Ummmm.”

   He sat reading the article in the cheap, gossip-filled entertainment column, as he emitted noises like a car struggling to start.

   When he reached the end of the piece the throat clearing stopped. This was beyond the peak: he’d never gotten past the throat clearing, it was always a downhill return to calm. He’d soared to unchartered territory—this was the next phase. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Perhaps his head would explode like it had in that movie he’d starred in back in the 80s (box office earnings: $120m). Perhaps he’d keel over and die of an aneurysm. Perhaps he’d leave the physical world but remain a living thing: a revelation that the key to transcendence was not calm, meditative conduct, after all, but in fact intense, silent rage.

   What happened surprised him. After reading the final paragraph, And this journalist’s mission is to find our beloved Roger Dreyfus. Bring him back into our lives. With everything happening right now in the entertainment industry, in politics, in America, we need Roger Dreyfus more than ever. So, to use one of his most famous lines: watch this space!, he calmly picked up his phone which rested on the table. He tapped the screen and unlocked the phone. He dialled the most recent number.

   As he waited for his only son to pick up, he recalled the scene in which he spoke those immortal words: Watch this space, he said, before blowing off a Saudi terrorist’s head.

   God, they’re easy, he thought.

   Almost three-thousand miles away, Rain Dreyfus looked at his vibrating cell phone. His blond-headed four-year-old kid was busy poking his father in the chin with a toy pistol.

   “Honey,” Rain called to his wife, who was sitting across from him reading the magazine which featured the article on her father-in-law.

   She stood up.

   “Come on, Sean, daddy has to talk to the crazy man.”

   Rain didn’t laugh; he rolled his eyes. This crazed man calling him was nothing more than an inconvenience: the only reason he’d told him about the article earlier was so the discussion about it would be on his terms. They barely spoke as it was, why was his father calling him after only talking with him a few hours earlier? After Sean was distracted by his mother, Rain reached for the phone, stood up, left the room, opened the back door and stepped out onto the patio. It was a sweltering Monday in Los Angeles—what’s new?

   “Yo, Pop.”

   “Rain.”

   The greeting was too calm, the voice too rational. He was expecting an explosion but  had instead experienced a lame fart.

   “What’s up, Pop?”

   “Franzen,” Roger’s calm voice said. “He’s still based in LA?”

   “I don’t know, Pop. Why would I know that?”

   “You’re good with the internet. Find out.”

   “Why? Why do you want to know?”

   Back in New Hampshire, in a dull kitchen that was too big for four people, let alone a single divorcé, Roger paused: whatever he had in mind, he hadn’t thought it through.

   “Pop?” he heard through the phone.

   “Ah, never mind. Forget it.”

   “Okay. Listen—”

   “I said forget it,” said Roger. “And don’t call me.”

   He hung up the phone and sat in silence in New Hampshire.

   In Los Angeles, Rain pocketed his phone and returned inside to his wife and kid.

 

***

A couple of days passed and Roger spent them in bed at the behest of his emboldened paranoia. He refused to answer the buzz of the gate which permitted entry to his property. Most of his neighbours were CEOs, bankers, not celebrities. This wasn’t a celebrity town; that’s why he’d moved here. He didn’t speak with the neighbours often, and many of the properties were vacant throughout the year. That was something he was thankful for.

   His phone had vibrated seventeen times in two days. That was more than it had buzzed in the preceding two months. The phone was a necessity; in case of emergencies and the need for food or alcohol when he was too lazy, or paranoid, to venture outside. Seventeen times in two days—certainly the article had led to some kind of activity, and if the calls were from anyone other than his son, the economist, the author, the director, or—God forbid—his ex-wife, then someone had gotten hold of his number. He knew that this was a distinct possibility; people had ways of getting anything they wanted these days. All it took was a little journalistic tenacity, and that was something Warren S. Franzen held in abundance.

   He would sleep and jolt awake following dreams filled with flashing lights and paparazzi. He would sweat and think about appearances on Jay Leno and David Letterman. His mind would drift and he’d find himself in conversation with Oprah yet again (he’d always hated Oprah). He’d recall the interviews, the fans, the autographs, the relentless demand and inquiry, and he would retch regularly.

   He’d only left his bed for three reasons: to eat, to visit the bathroom, and to check his Beretta M9, which his ex-publicist had purchased for him at his request ten years earlier (when his paranoia had first made its appearance). The pistol was loaded, always was. He’d fired it drunkenly a couple of times. A few other times he’d held it to his head. This was also a drunken act. He was only ever suicidal in the morning, or when he was drunk. So he didn’t drink very often, and he slept past noon on most days. He’d found that filling his days reading works by his favourite writers and watching lectures online was a good distraction from the noxious elements of life, or his head. He hadn’t had sex in four years, and it didn’t work anyway. He’d asked himself: when your cock goes, where does your pride go?

   On the third day he decided to revisit his original idea; the one he’d considered before calling his son a few days earlier. He retrieved the 9mm from the walk-in closet that was mostly empty, and placed it on the granite countertop in the kitchen. He showered, shaved and worked his penis to see if it did anything.

   It didn’t.

   In the bedroom he took his phone and texted Rain: Get me Franzen’s fucking address.

   When he returned to the kitchen he said aloud, “Who do I have to shoot in here to get a bourbon, neat?” He couldn’t remember if this was a line from one of his movies. There was no response, not even in his head.

   Under the winding staircase he rummaged in a box filled with miscellaneous items until he found what he was looking for: the bottle of 23-year-old Four Roses. Back in the kitchen he poured himself a glass of the bourbon and, with 9mm in hand, he rambled around the house. In the living room he urinated into the fireplace. In the dining room he upturned the table. In the home theatre—which he rarely used—he sat with his feet up and watched his most celebrated movie, A Bridge to Brooklyn. He hated it. He shot the pistol at the giant version of himself on the screen, piercing a neat, smoking-hot hole in his forehead; his aim was still good, even if his cock didn’t work anymore.

   His phone vibrated.

   He opened the message from Rain: 1842, Wells Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90046

   He returned to the kitchen and began to write on a single sheet of ruled paper. He spent some time writing the letter. He sipped his fifth glass of bourbon and thought about each sentence at length. When he was done he placed the letter in the envelope, licked, and sealed. On it he wrote: Warren S. Franzen, 1842, Wells Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90046

   He walked with dignity, despite his voluminous consumption of alcohol, to his study. He fingered from the library a copy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea.

   He sat at the island in the kitchen and read the short novel into the early hours, pouring the remainder of the bottle into the glass as he read the final paragraph of the widely celebrated work. After he absorbed the final few lines, having read them a number of times as he always did when finishing a novel, he closed the book and placed it on the mahogany countertop.

   He stood up, fixing his shirt neatly into his pants, and downed the remaining bourbon. He whispered to himself, “Watch this space,” as he raised the gun to his head and took a deep breath.

The Funny Thing About Research

Ahhhh, research. Arguably the most important part of the writing process. How can you write about something if you know nothing about it? That old writing tip ‘write what you know’ is always apt — you don’t want to look stupid, do you?!

But how about other ways you might look in the age of the internet and having access all areas? If I was to go through the things I’ve looked up in the name of research it would paint a pretty messed-up list…

For one short story I had to research the job of an embalmer, how a cadaver appears and feels, how the process of embalming works, etc. For my work-in-progress novel American. Porn Star. President. (about a porn-addicted journalist), I’ve looked up almost every genre there is on PornHub, and what the world of the porn industry is like, from on-set slang to company rivalries. Some writers have even acted in adult film for their stories — now that’s dedication! For a short story about a protesting employee of a corporate giant, I delved into self-immolation, and have come across some harrowing and incredibly tragic cases. For my screenplay Let’s Talk About Sex, I researched the most comic and weird sex-related injuries (thinking about it still makes me wince).

One could look at this and reach the conclusion that I’m a sex-addicted, cadaver-infatuated nutjob who’s about to set myself on fire in protest at my exploitative employer (must. crush. capitalism.)…

So, is all this research essential when it comes to whatever project it is one’s working on?

In my opinion, yes… It’s like the method actor approach, although how far an actor — or a writer — would go is another thing. If I’m writing about a murderer I’m hardly going to go out and attack someone. But I would likely go to our all-knowing, omnipotent friend (or, arguably, foe) the Internet, and read about individual cases and the perpetrators… What was their mindset? How did they rationalise doing something so abhorrent? Did they even rationalise it? What was their background? How were they raised? What did their day-to-day look like?

I think it’s a part of us, though — this curiosity, this need to know… We’re voyeuristic that way… Or, as David Fincher said: people are perverts. We’re forever curious about the private lives of others. We obsess over individuals like Charles Manson and Aileen Wuornos (monsters arguably created by other monsters, but that’s for another blog post). We make celebrities out of some of the craziest people who have ever existed. We create sensations around porn stars (Jenna Jameson, Linda Lovelace, Ron Jeremy, John Holmes, James Deen, to name a few). Not that I’m saying porn stars are monsters like Manson and Wuornos, of course. To be clear, that’s not what I’m saying at all! I admire porn stars for having the balls to do what they do… pun possibly intended.

But what do they have in common? Well, they’re the outliers, right? And we’re always interested in the people who go against the grain of “normal” society, be it by doing something awful (Manson and Wuornos) or something unusual (adult performers). We’re always fascinated by the ones who don’t do the “normal” thing.

But coming back to research and writing, what does it all mean for the writer? The one who opens the doors to the often excessive, often fucked-up realities of the world? Speaking from personal experience, my research has led me to having some odd, some adventurous, and some deeply disturbing dreams (including being pulled across the bed by a demonic spirit flashing before my eyes. And yes, I do have night terrors… I scream in my sleep sometimes. It’s ridiculous, and a little embarrassing, but it has scared my girlfriend in the middle of the night, and that’s definitely a consolation. It’s okay, she thinks it’s funny).

The great F. Scott Fitzgerald said this of the writer:

“Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.”

For me, that’s a perfect — and profound — way to describe a writer. The first time I read it, it simply made sense. I’ve definitely found myself feeling not-like-myself after writing a certain scene or a specific character, and that’s sometimes difficult to shake off immediately. Haruki Murakami has made reference to this in an interview with The New Yorker:

“When I’m writing a novel, I wake up around four in the morning and go to my desk and start working. That happens in a realistic world. I drink real coffee. But, once I start writing, I go somewhere else. I open the door, enter that place, and see what’s happening there. I don’t know — or I don’t care — if it’s a realistic world or an unrealistic one. I go deeper and deeper, as I concentrate on writing, into a kind of underground. While I’m there, I encounter strange things. But while I’m seeing them, to my eyes, they look natural. And if there is a darkness in there, that darkness comes to me, and maybe it has some message, you know? I’m trying to grasp the message. So I look around that world and I describe what I see, and then I come back. Coming back is important. If you cannot come back, it’s scary. But I’m a professional, so I can come back.”

Coming back, even if it’s from the “real” world, is imperative. And, as Murakami alludes, it takes skill: he’s a professional, he can come back. He’s trained himself to come back. As made evident by my dreams, I’m still in training.

But to end in relation to Fitzgerald’s above quote, maybe being good has been made easier today with the existence of the Internet, which allows us to do more research without having to leave the house or office. We’re not restricted to our first-hand experiences and our sometimes-limited imaginations; we can delve into these worlds and mindsets using the collective consciousness that is the Internet.

We can write what we know, even if we preferred life when we didn’t know it.

Anyway, I hear the call for last orders again.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

Six Short Stories

 

 

There’s a good chance you’ve heard the following well-travelled quote many times:

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

You’ve likely seen it attributed to Mark Twain. Until recently, I would’ve thought that was correct. It was, in fact, originally written by French mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer Blaise Pascal (thanks for that nugget of knowledge, Eric).

But let’s get back to the quote…

What does it mean when it’s applied to writing short fiction, as it regularly is? Well, if it isn’t obvious, it means short stories take a lot of time to perfect — they’re difficult. You need time to trim the fat, or kill your darlings as the literati like to say. Some of the greatest novelists who’ve put pen to paper didn’t, or don’t, have the skill (or, perhaps, the temperament) to write short fiction. Many authors over the years have said writing a short story is far more difficult than writing a novel; there’s less room to play, there’s certainly less time to say all that you want to say — basically, you’re more restricted in the short-fiction world.

I’ve been writing short fiction on and off for a number of years while working on a number of screenplays and a novel. Am I near as strong as I’d like to be when it comes to the shorter work? No, but the more I write the better I get. And I’m putting together a short story collection that I hope to publish in the future (out of all the titles I’ve created over the years, this one is my favourite).

I’ve also been reading short stories for a long time. Some writers I’ve been reading for years, some I’ve only discovered, and some I’ve known about but have only gotten round to devouring recently.

With that in mind, I thought I’d list a few short stories worth reading written by American writers. I won’t go into much detail, as going in blind is always better. Of course, I do recommend buying the collections in which these stories feature.

So, here they are:

 

 

1. Nathan Englander — The Twenty-Seventh Man

From the collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’ (1999).

Englander 1

Nathan Englander made an immediate impact on the literary world with the release of his debut short story collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’. The first story in the collection, The Twenty-Seventh Man, is an allusion to the Night of the Murdered Poets  the execution of 13 Soviet Jews on the orders of Stalin, on August 12, 1952.

The short story isn’t available online, but you can read the script for the play based on it here. Or, you could go buy the collection in your favourite second-hand bookstore (for you Irish readers, it’s gotta be Chapters on Parnell Street).

 

2. Jennifer Egan — The Stylist

From the collection ‘Emerald City’ (1993).

Egan - Emerald City 1

Jennifer Egan is probably best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction ‘A Visit from the Good Squad’. I say ‘work of fiction’ because the book has been characterised as both a short story collection and a novel — Egan herself has stated that she doesn’t consider it to be either of the aforementioned.

What is unequivocal about her first published work ‘Emerald City’ is that it’s most definitely a collection of short stories. The Stylist, the first story in the collection, focuses on a divorced fashion stylist on a shoot in Africa with a photographer and three teenage models.

Read it here.

 

3. Raymond Carver — Errand

From the collection ‘Cathedral’ (1983).

Carver - Cathedral 1

Raymond Carver has inspired countless short and long fiction writers since he became one of America’s best-loved writers with the publication of his collections ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ (the latter of which has had its title borrowed by a number of writers, including Haruki Murakami and Mr. Englander mentioned above).

One of the greatest influences on Carver was the great Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. In Errand — a tribute to his idol — Carver re-imagines the final hours of Chekhov’s life, but brings the focus of attention on a young bellboy.

(Note: This idea has prompted me to develop a short story about Carver’s final hours, the same way he wrote about his idol. I’m still working on it…)

You can read Errand here.

 

4. John Updike — Pigeon Feathers

From the collection ‘Pigeon Feathers’ (1962).

pigeon-feathers

The American heavyweight John Updike is considered by many to be the greatest writer of the 20th century. He’s most famous for his ‘Rabbit’ series, which centres around the life of former high-school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Two novels from the series — ‘Rabbit Is Rich’ and ‘Rabbit at Rest’ — won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In Pigeon Feathers, a young boy adjusting to life at the farmhouse he’s recently been moved to with his parents and ailing grandmother, faces a spiritual crises after reading a work by H.G. Wells.

Read it here.

 

5. Stephen  King — Premium Harmony

From the collection ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ (2015).

Stephen King 2

Stephen King. He’s probably the most famous author around; the man who’s seen countless stories and novels he’s written find their way onto the big screen, who’s been on the bestsellers list more times than he can remember. He’s not someone this writer has read very often (honestly, I just haven’t been able to get into his books), but he has written a short story in a similar vein to Raymond Carver, which is probably why I like it so much. In his introduction to Premium Harmony in the collection, King confesses that he’d only discovered the work of Carver shortly before writing the story, which is quite surprising since the work was published in 2009 — some 21 years after the short-story master’s death.

In Premium Harmony — which is unquestionably a pastiche  a car ride to a birthday party takes a turn when a couple stop off at a gas station to pick up a gift. This one is darkly comic, and hugely enjoyable.

You can read it here.

 

6. S.J. Coules — Photographs

From the collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’

photographs-3

You’re damn right I’m plugging my own work.

My short story collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’ is definitely a work in progress. Out of all the short stories I’ve completed, four, maybe five will feature in this collection. The rest are to be written  many have been fleshed out and partially developed, some I haven’t even thought of yet. Of the completed works that I plan to include in the book, one has been published, the others have either been submitted to literary magazines, or are sitting on the laptop, eagerly waiting to be read.

In Photographs — my first published short story  a crotchety man who’s found himself old and with nothing but pictures, alcohol, and television to pass the time, encounters an irritating local kid.

You can read it here.

 

Anyway, last orders have been called.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

 

Thoughts on the Work of Book Cover Designer Chip Kidd

When I was a kid my brother would regularly draw football (soccer) kits: jersey, shorts, socks — the works. With him being older, I would usually copy whatever it was he was doing (including asking for the same Valencia CF home jersey one Christmas, which understandably infuriated him – “We’re not twins, dickhead!”). So, I picked up a variety of colouring pencils and began to draw (or to be more accurate design) my own kits. (Yes, brother, you and I were in fact practising fashion design.)

Alas, my designs weren’t up to much; there was a subtle art to designing a football kit — get too carried away and you’d wind up with something more appropriate for an LSD trip than the football pitch (although some goalkeepers jerseys over the years have definitely sparked thoughts of tripping balls).

My desire to draw didn’t end with football kits: extraterrestrial sketches, bubblified cartoons, watercolour paintings… I would attempt to tap into the creative well that existed on my mam’s side and show what I could do (for the sports genes, see the old man’s side)… which, clearly, wasn’t very much. My brother, however, certainly had a talent which he never fully pursued (although he’d tell you he wasn’t very good, which is inaccurate to say the least).

Anyway, I had tried my hand at it, and I learned early on that I definitely wasn’t going to be the next Edward Hopper, Ilya Repin, Todd McFarlane… or Vivienne Westwood.

Which leads me to the following statement: I’m hardly an authority when it comes to the visual arts.

But I do have an uneducated opinion I can share, kind of like someone on the TV who has zero understanding of basic economics talking about minimum wage and price controls — it’s an opinion we really shouldn’t take seriously.

But if I may indulge myself, I’d like to share my unqualified thoughts on the work of someone I greatly admire, the one and only Chip Kidd.

Now, when I say share my thoughts, I mean I’m gonna share some of my favourite works by Mr. Kidd — i.e. his book cover designs I admire most — and scribble a few words underneath each design, basically something like, “I dig this because the colours are nice. Isn’t the picture he used here really impactful? Don’t I sound like I know what I’m talking about?

Chip Kidd is probably one of — if not the — best-known graphic designers around, and he’s created book covers for major names in literature including Haruki Murakami, Cormac McCarthy, Bret Easton Ellis, Michael Crichton, Jay McInerney, Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon, John Updike, and David Sedaris. His designs have also graced the covers of the perennial publications Rolling Stone and TIME.

So, let me share my most-loved works by this master designe, complete with uninformed thoughts on a subject I know nothing about…

1. Imperial BedroomsBret Easton Ellis

BEE Imperial Bedrooms

The rather disappointing sequel to Ellis’ debut novel Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms was released in 2010 to mixed critical response. Apathy, narcissism, violence, and debauchery are regular features in the author’s work, and this novel doesn’t shy away from delving into hedonistic territory. Kidd’s design does a good job at capturing the superficiality and overindulgence that permeates Ellis’ oeuvre.

2. Jurassic ParkMichael Crichton

Chip Kidd - The Lost World by Michael Crichton

Every now and then Kidd takes a minimalist approach to his designs. For Michael Crichton’s sequel to his now legendary Jurassic Park (arguably thanks to Spielberg’s blockbuster adaptation), Chip’s minimal execution works quite effectively: Black, white, red. Unglamorous font. Menacing T-Rex gonna bite ya… Simples.

3. FasterJames Gleick

Chip Kidd - Faster by James Gleick

This one speaks for itself. So clever. One of my favourites beyond Kidd’s work, that’s for sure.

4. The Dark Knight ReturnsFrank Miller

Chip Kidd - The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Maybe it’s because I purchased Miller’s iconic graphic novel years ago and it’s been on my bookshelf since, but this cover instantly screams “You know you want to read this. You know it, you bastard. Now OPEN ME!!” Mr. Kidd has designed many graphic novel/comic book covers over the years, including Watchmen, Before Watchmen, Rough Justice, and All-Star Superman.

5. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Chip Kidd - The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

I could have included this purely because The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is my favourite Murakami novel. But there’s something mysterious, magical, and alluring about the cover, prompting the potential reader to pick up the book and become a curious cat. (Murakami fans will appreciate that last line).

6. Villain by Yoshida Shuichi

Chip Kidd - Villian by Yoshida Shuichi

Various human bones positioned to form the shape of a pistol + hot pink. I’m sold… Even the position of the text feels right.

7. Reporting by David Remnick

Chip Kidd - Reportings by David Remnick

The long-time editor of The New Yorker and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Remnick published Reporting in 2007 — a collection of his writings from the aforementioned mag. Again, Chip’s execution is simple and, in my opinion, perfect in its simplicity.

8. The Little FriendDonna Tartt

Chip Kidd - The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Oh dear God — Kill it! Kill it!! (Now that’s an effective book-cover design).

9. GulpMary Roach

Chip Kidd - Gulp by Mary Roach

It could be down to this cover bringing out my inner perv because it reminds me of the poster for Inside Deep Throat, or it could be that it’s simply pretty cool.

10. Seek My FaceJohn Updike

Chip Kidd - Seek My Face by John Updike

This is just one of a number of pieces Chip Kidd has designed for the late American great John Updike. This painting-style (if it isn’t actually a painting), brush-stroke cover implores us to — as the title asks — seek a face. It’s somewhat suffocating, almost haunting, certainly striking.

11. What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningHaruki Murakami

Chip Kidd - What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Okay, so maybe I’m a little biased towards this one for two reasons: 1) it’s Murakami, and 2) he took the title for his memoir on long-distance running from one of my favourite collections, What I Talk About When I Talk About Love, by the hugely influential short story writer Raymond Carver. But besides all that, Kidd’s once again simple design finds a way of being effortlessly striking: The formidable font towers above the minuscule figure of the Japanese author on one of his many runs, giving us an idea of the mammoth tasks he regularly faces when tackling marathons, triathlons, and ultra-marathons, even well into his sixties. Which is all the more impressive when you consider he was a heavy smoker until his early thirties. Oh, Haruki, we’re not worthy!

12. No Country for Old MenCormac McCarthy

Chip Kidd - No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

The great American author Cormac McCarthy originally wrote No Country For Old Men as a screenplay (which begs the question: Did the Coen brothers read his draft before writing their own for their faithful 2007 Oscar-winning adaptation?). Anyone familiar with either the novel or the film will know the pickle Llewelyn Moss finds himself in having stumbled across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong — and a bagful of cash. They’ll also be familiar with the seemingly unstoppable monster who pursues Moss, the truly terrifying Anton Chigurh. For me, Kidd manages to convey the feeling of helplessness — of being hunted — as the lonely silhouetted figure traverses the red-hot, baking terrain, as the sun goes down… possibly for the last time.

There you have it — some of my favourite Chip Kidd book cover designs. And now I’m hearing the call for last orders.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

Nothin’ But the Hits Vol. 2

An excerpt from a story about a discontented rock star who becomes a hitman.

—————————————————————

 

It’s 2010. I’m adored. I’m surrounded by women. I’m the lead singer in a hugely successful rock band. I’m a Sagittarius. I’m the savior of rock ‘n’ roll, according to Rolling Stone. I’m the self-proclaimed Devourer of Pussy. I’m a vagrant. I’m bored. I’m writing songs. I’m playing Madison Square Garden. I’m the recipient of four Grammy awards. I’m in recording studios. I’m partial to drugs. I’m jaded. I’ve been singing in a band since I was fourteen. I’ve been touring with that band since I was twenty. Seven years up on stage. Seven years travelling, sweating, drinking, puking, fucking. Seven years having a good time. Seven years. I’m bored. Did I mention I’m bored? I met Pauly recently. Pauly. Yeah, Pauly. Me ‘n’ Pauly. All right. Seven years. Now Pauly.

   I’m gonna kill.

 

The merciless present

                                _

I’d grown a beard, and to my surprise it worked as a deterrent; people didn’t seem to recognize me. It added at least ten years. Two weeks earlier I’d been approached by a chubby sonuva bitch who introduced himself as Pauly. Pauly, who spoke with a New York accent and sounded like he was suffering from indefinite indigestion, told me that he worked for important people, whatever the hell that meant. He wouldn’t disclose who his employers were. He said they weren’t bad guys, but they weren’t necessarily good, neither. But I didn’t care. He asked me to kill. I told him I’d been killing all my life. He told me to cut the shit, that he meant really kill. I asked him who he wanted dead, and he told me it didn’t matter, and whether or not I was interested. I told him I’d sleep on it. That night, before sleeping on it, I drank, like most nights. The beard resulted in the absence of attention. I liked it. Maybe I’d keep the facial hair. One of my songs played in the bar. I sang along.

   I watched the drunks. I smoked a cigarette. I’d considered quitting because, while I loved it, my lungs were hurting. Constantly. I felt like I was on the verge of death. But the doc checked me out, said I was good. Told me I was healthy as a beautiful butterfly fluttering around in the sunshine. Another doctor once told me that if there were something really wrong, my body would tell me. The problem was my body had been telling me for so long that I could no longer believe it. My body was a god damn liar.

   The next morning I phoned Pauly and told him I’d kill, but that it would have to wait a couple of weeks while the band finished working our latest record. He told me he was proud of me. I told him to cut the shit and that I’d speak to him in two weeks.

   Did I agree to this because I was bored? Was I out of my mind? When wasn’t I out of my mind? I’d always been out of my mind. What harm was there in disposing of a few fuckheads, anyway?

 

♠♠♠♠

 

   It was to be more intricate than I had anticipated. Pauly caught up with me and informed me that the person I was to kill was, like me, in the public eye somewhat. I had never heard of him. He was a politician. Politics never really interested me – politics gets in the way of progress.

   We were sat in a bar near the Garden. It was daytime, and the bar was gloomy and stank of something stale. There were only about a dozen people there, and Pauly sat by a window with a drink in front of him.

   Pauly was tired. Not only on that day; he was simply tired. His defeated brown eyes offered no hope or expectations. They were done, disinterested. Why he kept going I did not know, but, then again, what’s the alternative, heaven? He was in his fifties and had a mass of untidy, flaxen hair. His belly always cried for food, it seemed. Every time I saw him his shirt was unbuttoned in some place. He always wore stubble. I couldn’t understand why he played the role of arranging for people to be murdered; it all seemed too macabre for him. He looked like someone who had let things get to him, a thinker, and surely that meant he was in the wrong business. Maybe he’d be murdered himself if he didn’t cooperate. I didn’t really wanna know, anyway.

   I just wanted something else.

   Something new.

   ‘You’ve sold a lot of records,’ said Pauly, sipping his scotch.

   ‘I know,’ I replied.

   ‘You wanna know why it was you who I approached, not some ordinary, everyday lowlife. Some schmuck?’

   ‘No.’

   ‘You looked tired, fed up.’

   ‘So do you.’

   ‘That’s why I got in the game.’

   ‘You were so fed up that you decided to get involved in executions?’

   ‘Isn’t that why you’re here right now?’

   ‘I’m a little bored, sure.’

   Pauly turned and faced the bar that was to my right, then sighed and looked at me.

   ‘There’s no reason to most things. Even though the people I work for see a reason in doing what we do, it’s all bullshit at the end of the day. It’s just something to keep me ticking over, I guess. Something to keep me from . . well, it’s something.’

   ‘You have a family?’ I asked.

   ‘I did. I don’t see ‘em no more. Couldn’t stand being a family man, to be honest. Too much noise. I like a quiet house.’

   Just then, as Pauly’s tired eyes looked down at his pathetic, bulbous belly, a brilliant ray of sunshine invaded the bar, shedding light on us all, and for that brief moment I felt a sense of elation. A reminder that space was still there.

   And space made sense.

♠♠♠♠

 

   Over the next few days (in between recording) I made some lists. The first list I made was apt: ‘Reasons for Killing’. Another list I made was a ‘Favorite Drinks’ list, one a ’Top Five Live Concerts’ list, and the last list was ‘Women Whose Pussies I’ve Devoured’.

   I ran out of paper.

Nothin’ But the Hits

 

An excerpt from a story about a discontented rock star who becomes a hitman.

—————————————————————

 

Preamble
                                _

Most of you who pick up this—what is this?—this ramble, will know me as the lead singer of one of the biggest bands in the world—This Week’s New Release. You’ll know me as the guy on stage who shouts and swaggers and swears and sings, who has written rock songs that topped charts in countries all over the world, who’s played the biggest venues, who’s been voted Sexiest Man In Rock ‘n’ Roll on two separate occasions. You’ll know me as the man who was labeled the savior of the music industry: the Second Coming.

   What you don’t know is what I’ve been involved in behind the veil of rock stardom. This is something I’ve wrestled with for a long time, and only now do I feel I’m ready to share this side of my story that has been known about by only a handful of individuals, most of whom are no longer with us—many of whom chocked on their own puke, or drowned in a swimming pool alone at 4am high on Valium and cocaine.

   I don’t crave attention; I’ve had enough of that over the years. What I crave is clarity—it’s what I’ve always craved, but it had always seemed elusive. At the end of this confession you will understand that I’ve found something which I hope is close to clarity.

   This does not change who I am. The words written here are probably true to what you think you know about me: The Dylan Reed onstage is the Dylan Reed offstage.

   This is merely an addition to the story.

   An encore, so to speak.

                                                                        —Dylan Reed, Berlin – May 1st, 2018

♠♠♠♠

 

I grew up in a sunny, blue-collar neighborhood. A quiet American town the likes of which seem like they’ve been lost to the past, but which still exist—you just have to look for them. My neighborhood was near a bunch of lakes and housed residents who smiled and cared about each other and who were just regular, nice people. Sure they had their secrets, but didn’t everyone?

   I’d spent days in school bored outta my mind and days after school down by the lake listening to music on my battery-powered radio: Nothin’ But The Hits was the name of the show I’d listen to day after day. The disc-jockey’s name was “Madman” Maurice McGonagall and his show would start at 3pm every day and run for two hours. On most days I’d catch the last hour but on Wednesdays and Fridays school finished early and I’d listen to it all the way through. The Stones, The Doors, The Velvet Underground, The Clash, The Band, The Smiths, The Jam, The Fall, The Beatles—all the legendary “THEs”, and then there was Dylan and Hendrix and Bowie and Iggy and all these hits would play, one after another, with some brief intervals from Maurice talking in his smooth voice like he was an MC at a dark, smoke-filled jazz club, painting a picture of himself in the studio—legs up, sunglasses on, cigarette in mouth, maybe one hand down his pants. Maybe he’d jerk off while he listened to the music along with the rest of us—climaxing during the epic guitar solo.

   I did.

   Sometimes.

   Down by the lake.

   It was my own place, surrounded by a wall of trees, the sun glistening on the dead-still water. I’d breathe in the air through my nose and it was like life invading me, telling me everything was good; everything was as it should be. And because I was alone and because I was a teenage boy I’d get hard-ons and sometimes I’d stand there among the trees, by the lake, in the quiet, and I’d work myself until I jolted and a part of me became a part of the earth. Yeah, I was one with nature and the sonic waves that surrounded me.

   Sometimes I’d bring literature to the lake. I didn’t read all that much but my old man had a few books on the chipped wooden shelf in the living room, and every now and then I’d snatch one, drop it into my backpack and take it out once school was done and I was down by the lake. One of those books was a short story collection by a guy called Ford, and I enjoyed dropping in and out of these people’s lives, just catching a glimpse of what was going on with them, learning about their struggles and their flaws and their dramas in a few thousand words or less. I liked that. It made me more empathetic. It helped me understand the long-ass wrestling match that life is for some people; and some of em don’t even have a tag-team partner.

   That’s around the time I started writing. Some would call it poetry, but I didn’t because I didn’t know poetry apart from what we had to read at school. And I hated that shit. All I really knew was my family, my street, my school, the lake, my body and my songs, because though they played through the radio and were written by all those different people, they were my songs. I reached out and grabbed them as they made their waves from the speakers and I made them mine. And so I wrote about all those things I knew and I put them on paper like songs. I was writing songs without the music. Words with rhythm but without a beat, a hook.

   I met Daniel that summer. Daniel was a scrawny thirteen-year-old, like me. He had the beginnings of a pubescent moustache, and he said he was never gonna shave it. Daniel moved into the neighborhood with his family; his mom, dad, and older sister, Maggie, and we met while I was cycling my bike, and he was cycling his, and I noticed his Clash t-shirt and without a word I nodded and he followed me and we rode together to the lake and listened to Nothin’ But The Hits together, and so we were best friends in the space of a few hours.

   Daniel and me asked for music instruments that Christmas. We both wanted electric guitars, but we argued because someone would have to either play drums or pick up the bass. Neither one of us was willing to concede the guitar so we settled it with a fight by the lake late one autumn afternoon. The sun was hanging low but the air was crisp and it was still warm. The argument reared its head again as Maurice spazzed out about a new band that was making its mark on the industry, right before he signed off for the day and ended the show with their new single. Daniel said if we ever wanted Maurice talking about us like that we’d need to hurry up and get a band started. But still we couldn’t agree on who would get the guitar, so it began with a push, and then we were rolling around on the soft grass, staining our music t-shirts, wrestling for the upper-hand, holding each other’s shoulders when one got on top, punching each other’s gut when we were balled in a brawl. After about ten minutes we both fell to the grass, exhausted; blood on our faces, aching bones and limbs. I’d tapped out after Daniel had worked my arm behind my back and threatened to break it. He had me by the wrist and elbow and pushed my arm further and further towards my neck, and as the bone threatened to snap like a twig I screamed and said OKAY! OKAY! FINE, YOU FUCK!

   So it was decided—Daniel would get the guitar that Christmas. And after he did and he practiced and I used a half-empty cardboard box to provide beats, and as spring arrived and we’d spend our days down by the lake again, I found the courage to mention my songs. Daniel asked me to sing them to him . . . I’d had some trouble with girls at school and I had gotten in trouble with the principle and with my parents for different reasons, but Daniel asking me to sing for him was the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to me. But we’d bonded and I trusted him and we loved each other in a way, and so I sang one of my music-free songs, only my voice was the instrument and Daniel listened and looked at me and I think in a way kinda fell in love with me. He didn’t say anything for a minute or two, just looked at me and at the towering trees that surrounded the lake, and he looked at flies hovering above the water—who were oblivious to how close to death they were, like some of us—and he just stared. Eventually he asked me to sing the song again, and so I did, this time with more confidence, and he began playing something on his guitar and before we knew it we’d written our first song together. Little did we realize we’d write a thousand more.

   We looked at the rest of my lyrics and we worked on more songs and we wrestled and we jerked off and we listened to Nothin’ But The Hits by the lake and we were happy.

   And that’s how I spent my teenage years.

Expressionism #1 — Liquid Pills

Anyone familiar with Jack Kerouac will know of his ‘spontaneous prose’. His method was well developed and it had its rules laid out in his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”. For his ‘set-up’ he compares it to an artist before they put pencil to paper, or a brush to canvas: “The object is set before the mind, either in reality, as in sketching (before a landscape or teacup or old face)  or is set in the memory wherein it becomes the sketching from memory of a definite image-object. . . .”

I took that idea of a blank canvas and the brush, but without a clear object or idea. I opened a word doc and jotted down whatever arrived in an attempt at writing a very short, somewhat coherent story. I suppose you could call that ‘spontaneous prose’, or ‘subconscious prose’. 

This is how many writers approach the first draft of their works, with nothing really in mind. Then they take that first draft (or ‘vomit draft’ as some writers call it), and refine it from there. But here I wanted the vomit to remain; there’d be no clean up on aisle five. So I’ve called it Expressionism, and this is my first effort. No edits, no path — just words that flowed out onto the page.

 

Liquid Pills

Liquid pills.

Take them, slowly.

Take them in a few mouthfuls.

Down them like there’s no tomorrow.

They’ll dampen the thoughts but liven the spirit.

I pass through the narrow, rain-speckled, rouge-lighted laneway with a stumble and a fumble. I curse — cunt — who? Anyone. Whomever. And I fix my long cashmere coat and I will an argument with someone, but no one’s here.

5am.

Who’s around then?

Some taxi tarts. Some residual rodents of the night before. Some of those without a home to go to. Some of the heroin heroes and the wannabe di Neros waiting for the moment to pounce.

I’m classless — that’s lacking class, not a class. Gauche. Inelegant. Ungainly. Graceless. I do have a class. A working one. But I’m not stateless. Of which I’m not a devoted fan — not a centralized, expansive, militarized Europe. Who decides on the situation when Theresa, Jacob, and co. set sail? Us? No, the Junk, that’s with a ‘yuh’ —  Here, you! Piss off!

I don’t want to get into that, though. Who wants to? We’re all tired of it. All we want to do is to be left alone. Let us be. Let us do a bit of work and live life to a decent standard. Let us work and play. Let us live and love and let us not be drowned by the greedy and the corrupt.

We’re drowning. A stretched arm from the icy wall of water. A gasp, an open-mouthed cry — a raw caw, caw, caw. Can’t… breathe… Help… No help. No, we don’t need help, we need release. Release from your cold, stifling, suffocating grasp.

You. Corrupt. The Corruptors. The parasites. But enough of that… Because I’m loaded. I’m loaded on liquid pills and I’m looking for some new thrills. Some cheap thrills. Something that will let me forget… something… someone…

I approach The Beast. I don’t notice him at first. He’s the man with the plan.

   ‘All right, Beastie,’ I slur.

   ‘Sebastian,’ he purrs. ‘Sebastian, you’ve looked better.’ His voice. That voice. The Beast, a paradox. He’s a gentleman — a cock-hungry gent who speaks the Queen’s English as well as Hitchens the Polemicist did.

He chuckles, does The Beast. He laughs giddily like a schoolgirl.

He’s big — boisterous belly; nosey navel peeking through his partially unbuttoned shirt.

   ‘Sebastian, be a darling and give me your lighter. Mine… lost its way somewhere earlier in the night. I can hardly be held responsible for everyone and everything.’

I fumble around in my pocket and find the lighter. I rev the engine — the flame greets the ciggie.

   ‘I’ve got work in the morning,’ I tell The Beast.

   ‘You mean in a few hours?’

   ‘Yessssss.’ I stumble. ‘I’ve got work and it’s for the devil.’

   ‘The big C…’ he nods his head.

   ‘Tell me, Beasty boy,’ I say, attempting to stand up straight, with dignity — whatever that is. ‘Do you think we’re headed for the big bang of the nuke? Europe… Balkanization… China… The T Man… Where are we headed?’

   ‘Oh,’ The Beast says. ‘Oh, my sweet little Sebastian. That’s not for me to say… I’ve got a date with Mister Junk and The Elephant’s Whiskers — they’ll decide your fate… they’ll make the call on the Big Bang…’

   ‘What’s the way to go? I don’t want the big C…’ I say, half moaning… ‘I gave myself to It…’

   ‘It doesn’t matter,’ says The Beast, dropping the fag and twisting his foot on the concrete. ‘It’ll all be over soon.’

   ‘Soon,’ I say. ‘Soon I’m in work… It won’t be over by then…’

   ‘I’ve got to go,’ says The Beast. ‘I’ve got a lot to devour.’

   ‘So…’ I hiccup. ‘So, does the big C,’ I say.

   ‘We’re not so different, then,’ he says as he paces down the street — giant, meaningful steps.

I lean against the wall. The Beast left a half-empty pint behind.

I reach for the liquid pills.

I drink it.

We all drink it, in some way.

                                                                                    – 20th September 2018 — 8:19pm