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Michael Browne

Michael Browne is a music publicist and writer living in NoHo. His writing has recently appeared in Fractal Magazine, Westwind, and Entropy. He is also a book critic at Necessary Fiction.

Interviews Music

Interview with Alistair McCartney

by on December 6, 2017

Alistair McCartney is a Los Angeles based author of two books, and most recently of The Disintegrations—a book that tackles the subject of death in all its abundant mystery and vague lore. The book is very much a Los Angeles book, as it sees its narrator find comfort and a narrative home base at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City; the final resting place of many of Hollywood’s most notable stars. The book often shifts from auto-fiction, to fiction and memoir, as McCartney takes us on a melancholic stroll of the afterlife and all the detritus and traces it has left behind in his own life. We recently talked to him about the book’s connection to music, his early influences, and LA as inspiration.

Angel City Review: Your recent book The Disintegrations uses the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City as a setting and pivot point for the various narratives that follow. Darby Crash, late singer of LA punk band the Germs is buried there, among others. You’ve also mentioned that their song “Land of Treason” was an inspiration while writing the book. Like Jim Morrison, Ian Curtis, and others, Crash’s death seems to precede him in an overly fetishized way. In which ways is his life and music suggestive of the kind of narrative you wanted to tell? 

Alistair McCartney: “Pivot point” is a great, almost psycho-geographical way of describing how the cemetery in my book works narratologically. Anyway, yeah, Darby Crash was definitely a kind of icon for me as I wrote this book—in the specific sense of those Russian icons people are always praying to in old Russian novels. Or the way as teenagers we put posters up on our walls of rock idols we worshipped—I had one of Darby in this black mesh tank top. As for the particular song you mention, “Land of Treason,” I was particularly drawn to the end of the first verse:

I like a receptacle for the chosen dead, 
we find our bodies clawed. 
And with the scent of death,
 we find that we are not so very awed.

Just the idea, philosophically, that we set death up as grand thing, but in the end that grandiosity or sublime quality is just a facade. That idea resonates throughout the book. I wrote a lot more about Darby in an earlier version of The Disintegrations, and what I was interested in was the seemingly pure quality of his self-destructive nature, the almost saintly innocence of his fucked-up-ness. I think those qualities are mirrored in some characters in other stories, especially in “Robert” and also in the shadowy figure my narrator appears to be talking to.

ACR: Writing a book about death to the extent that you have, might seem like a massively melancholic undertaking to some. Some would make the argument that the real miracle of a book like this is that it was completed at all. A certain level of mental and emotional detachment must have been required to make your way through the book. Did music aid in getting you on track?

AM: Absolutely. Writing The Disintegrations was a really difficult undertaking, waking up to the fact of the book on a daily basis was often quite hard, and I think as you say it required that detachment, as well as a sheer stubbornness or obstinacy on my part. I listened to music constantly, not while writing, but during other parts of my day. I remember a certain period I was really struggling with the tone and form when I listened to Iceage’s Plowing into The Field of Love all the time, Scott Walker’s Soused, Bill Callahan’s The Doctor Came at Dawn and Apocalypse, just to name a few sources of inspiration. What really drew me to these records and so many others was their ability to take the melancholic but through sonic means turn it into something uplifting. I’m not sure if literature can do that, though on a syntactical, rhythmic level it can, especially when hearing the work read aloud. Regardless, music was an endless source of reaffirming what I was doing was okay.

ACR: Who were some of your literary and musical heroes growing up?

AM: Well, thinking specifically of my teenage years in high school, which were such a potent time to discover literature, lots of the usual suspects like Burroughs, Bataille, Rimbaud, Genet, Mishima, outsider writers who created intense fictive worlds, those books you hid from your parents down the side of your bed. And Kathy Acker—today is the 20th anniversary of her death and I’ve been thinking about her a lot. She’s one of those writers I had an immediate emotional relationship to. Reading Blood and Guts in High School while I was still at my Catholic boys high school blew my mind. I was probably even more passionate about music. My sisters introduced me to The Velvet Underground when I was really young. I loved Sonic Youth, Echo and the Bunnymen, Jesus and Mary Chain’s first two albums, My Bloody Valentine, Throwing Muses, Husker Du, just to name a few. The Smiths were major heroes; their first album came out the year I turned 13, and I think that to be a teenager while they were together was one of the most fortuitous timings in my life.

ACR: What was the first record you bought or heard that elevated music to a work of art for you?

AM: Wow, what a great question. I’d continue with my Smiths line of thought. Whenever they had a new single or album out, I’d head to Dada’s, a record store in downtown Perth, Australia, where I’m from. The cover art for each record they put out was a major part of the experience. And of course Morrissey’s lyrics were so thrilling on an emotional level, but also on a literary level. That fusing of the literary and the sonic was pretty unique. Though as I say this, I have to go back even earlier, to The Velvet Underground’s first album, which my sisters turned me onto when I was in fifth grade. Even at that age, when I was too young to fully take in the greatness of the album, I adored it. Some songs took more getting used to, but intuitively I tapped into the singularity of Lou Reed’s and John Cale’s vision, the way the album was like a novel, or each song was like a short story.

ACR: The Disintegrations seems to place a certain importance on narrative tone and style. How important is tone and style over plot in your works? Is tone something you seek out in your favorite music over elements like musicianship, craft, etc?

AM: Huh, that’s really interesting. Well, in terms of my own work, yeah, voice and tone and style and even more, atmosphere, are crucial for me. As a reader too. Plot is not something I think about too much, though I actually did for The Disintegrations, in stories like “Eun Kang and The Ocean” for example, and especially regarding the relationship between the narrator and the figure he’s talking to, but I kind of buried certain elements of the plot, or shredded it, so the reader has to tease it out for themselves.

In terms of music, I would say tone and atmosphere and style are also the main draw for me, though I’m not sure they can be totally separated from craft. I guess to go back to Darby Crash and The Germs, they can be—musicianship was the last thing that appealed to me about their music, it was all about the friction. I think I’m passionate about music though because in some ways all music values form over content.

ACR: Like many local writers, you were able to locate a level of quiet dread and despair that is very much part of the undercurrent of living in Los Angeles. You’ve lived in LA since the 90’s. At what point did this characteristic of LA start to manifest for you? 

AM: I think pretty much straight away. Moving here from London where I lived after leaving Australia was quite a transition. I mean, in some ways LA was a lot easier than London, it reminded me much more of home geographically. But that quality of dread as you put it showed up really early in my perceptions, especially in the weird spatial quality of this city, its emptiness at night, something I really noticed as a non-driver, which I still am to this day. Also in the drifty, daydreamy nature of the city; everyone here is dreaming of something, beneath that laid back vibe those yearnings have an edge to them. My narrator very much participates in this collective dread. I’m sure reading also added to my perceptions. I worship at the altar of Joan Didion, who of course was key in constructing this fiction about LA.

ACR: Is there a piece of Australian music or literature that may have informed your writing style?

AM: I’m not sure other Australian literature has been much of an influence on my work, though readers may see influences I don’t see. I do love the great expansive novels of the Australian writer Patrick White, but I don’t think they’ve informed my style, except perhaps in a broader sense; someone once told me that Australian writers are drawn towards writing big books, in an attempt to cover up all the empty space of Australia. The Disintegrations ended up being a pretty slim novel (the earlier version was much longer, but I cut back ruthlessly), but I think like my first book, The End of The World Book, which was an encyclopedia of my obsessions, it was ambitious in scope; my goal was to write my own book of the dead.

ACR: What are you currently working on?

AM: I’m working in a very rough form on my third book, which will continue the sequence of books I’m constructing. I’m not ready to talk about its content, and I’m still figuring out the form, but I’m pretty excited about it. For one, unlike The Disintegrations, the subject of this book is something I know a lot about. I think I approach a book more like a musician approaching an album than a writer approaching their next novel. The Disintegrations was such a particular project, and after finishing it, I feel really freed up to pursue a really different path and sound.

The Disintegrations is available now via University of Wisconsin Press.

Book Review

Death of Art

by on October 12, 2017

Novel by Chris Campanioni
Review by Michael Browne

 

Writer Chris Campanioni gives a crucial glimpse into our modern narcissism with his new book of memoir / non-fiction / hybrid text / does it really matter, Death of Art. Despite the ostentatious title, Campanioni tactfully avoids repeating oft-argued cliches regarding art’s apparent demise, and instead uses the title as an entry point for talking about identity, language, social media, and modern life as a kind of performance.

The book begins with Campanioni sitting around with a stranger cutting his face out of magazines in which he modeled. The book follows this act of self-immolation throughout, as Campanioni struggles with trying to refashion his own image and his own identity, in a world where these things are valued above all else. Campanioni is frank and open about his stints as a model and actor, and his struggles with the performative aspects of both. The text almost becomes a space where Campanioni can explore himself; a liminal space where he can avoid binaries and social norms and—in a way—deconstruct himself:

I had lately been thinking of a project titled Death of Art, which itself came from the       blacked out title of a poem I’d just written called ‘Death of the Artist…’ Cutting out my face could be the beautiful overture.

Formally, Death of Art moves from vignette style passages of memoir, to essays and poetry. Campanioni’s tone alternates from playful, to philosophical, to the banal and the confessional, and all at a blistering pace. His subjects range from 90210 and Tinder dates, to social media narcissism and celebrity culture. An obsession with 90210 and a brief reference to Care Bears in particular become interesting pivot points for Campanioni to make comparisons between the empathy of our former analog world, and the disconnectedness of our modern digital world.

Death of Art brilliantly taps into our insatiable need to be seen and felt via social media, and how life is not experienced in our modern age, but rather, documented. The Facebook photo as preferred cultural currency to the actual image and experience represented.

The same way that our generation will look back on our lives in sixty years and there will be plenty to see. Probably we only wish we would have lived it too.

In the section titled “Self-Interested Glimpses,” Campanioni adopts an essay style (as he frequently does) and argues that “Authentic experience has been replaced by fetishized experience; existence becomes object.” In Campanioni’s world, the Instagram photo of a sunset now reigns supreme over the actual sunset. This is not a wildly new concept, as many postmodern thinkers have believed that society and modern culture have started to place more importance on “simulacra” or the simulation of reality, rather than the object itself.

For Campanioni public spaces have become zones of anti-social behavior. He argues that the increased access to each other that social media provides us has “led us to become less tolerant, less sympathetic, and less understanding.” This is exemplified in the book via the nearly tweet sized entries describing a series of Tinder dates where he struggles to make eye-contact and prefers to meet in coffee shops, hotel bars, or “anywhere public enough to pass through, in transit, like anyone else. Just passing through.” The Tinder passage in particular reads like a detritus of  ineffectual millennial dating experiences that only work to solidify Campanioni’s belief that our ability to connect is stunted, not enhanced, by applications like Tinder.

Much of the book is devoted to Campanioni’s self-reflection and almost reads like some playful postmodern diary. The author is constantly engaged in a dissection of his own image, striving and hoping to dismantle it. “The Internet has its own idea of me, and so do its worshippers. I want to create my own idea of me. Maybe the Internet will follow.”

Campanioni’s concept of life being fetishized but not experienced, is nicely juxtaposed with passages that reflect his childhood:

We lived our days as if they were scenes in a musical; we danced & continued to sing. Sometimes in Spanish or English but also often in a language made up by my father, a practice I’d adopt too, & which became my true joy in life: the pleasure of words & the sounds they contained. Whether it meant anything was besides the point; it meant everything.

Here childhood is reflected upon nostalgically and without the author’s jaundiced view of our current culture’s unchecked narcissism. It’s also indicative of Campanioni as a great linguaphile, and the simple pleasure he derives from the physical sensation of the words exiting his mouth. This runs counter to the mechanized way we communicate now:

Face-to-face meetings have given way to my face on your touch screen…

Death of Art is a punchy hybrid text that holds its own intellectual weight and does well to not veer off into pretension nor cliche, which is no minor triumph considering it’s broad and aspirational title. Campanioni is a serious writer and a world class thinker, and there is something great to be gleaned from his latest offering that seems to revel in its ability to avoid classification and open up a dialectic about the modern ways in which we communicate.

 

Death of Art is available now through C&R Press.

Interviews Music Uncategorized

Interview with Donald Breckenridge

by on August 30, 2017

Donald Breckenridge is the author of four novels and the editor of two fiction anthologies. He has also served as the fiction editor of the Brooklyn Rail for the last sixteen years, and is the co-founder and co-editor of InTranslation, and the managing editor of Red Dust Books. His most recent work, And Then (David R. Godine), is a haunting novella and taut meditation on the people that pass through our lives. The book sees Breckenridge announce himself as an exciting and original prose stylist, and should undoubtedly make some “best of” lists by year’s end. We recently talked to him about the intersections of music and literature in his life.

Angel City Review: Did your passion for music precede your passion for literature?

Donald Breckenridge: I don’t remember which one came first but some of my earliest memories are shaped by music and also having my father read to me before bed. When we lived on the Naval base in Philadelphia when I was around four I had a portable turntable in my room with some Disney records, also those Viewmaster reels with their accompanying records—Spiderman, Yogi Bear and the like—and a copy of Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits, which had “North to Alaska” on it and now, whenever I think about living there and playing alone in my bedroom, it is almost always accompanied by that song.    

ACR: Who were some of your musical and literary heroes growing up? 

DB: In elementary school I would have said Jimi Hendrix—who I still adore—and in junior high I would have said Lou Reed—I still listen to the Velvets all the time—although when I was in junior high in ’81-’83 hardcore was immensely popular. Albums by Channel 3, Black Flag, GBH, Circle Jerks, that This is Boston Not LA compilation and that Maximum Rock and Roll compilation, Not So Quiet on the Western Front were constantly changing hands in my remedial math class, in study hall (that I took so I could read novels during school without getting yelled at) and on the back of the bus. I didn’t really embrace hardcore until the Bad Brain’s Rock For Light came out although I first heard it through a post punk filter of mainly English bands as I was really into: Joy Division, Gang of Four, The Fall, Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire, PiL and The Cramps by then. In high school my musical heroes were Mark E Smith, HR, John Lydon, Ian Curtis, Richard H Kirk, John King and Lux Interior. It was around this time that I moved from Virginia Beach to Alexandria and began going to punk shows just across the Potomac in DC. I saw a ton of great music then—lots of DC hardcore (although ’85 turned out to be the twilight for hardcore) and bands from NYC, LA and also English groups were constantly blowing through town so I was really in the right place at a great time for new music. In high school I was reading a lot of Huxley, Mailer, Kerouac, Kafka, Burroughs, Celine and Genet.   

ACR: Would you say the DIY ethos / the aesthetic of punk inspired your creativity early on? Or did you get your creative inspirations from elsewhere?

DB: The DIY ethos of that era absolutely, and to this day, not just with writing but also how I present my work to the world. Whereas the punk aesthetic at the time was extremely important, and anger is something that you should never lose your capacity to embrace. However, beauty, love, and emotional honesty will enable you to thrive in the world because anger cannot sustain itself for very long. For me and for many other people, punk was a compass that enabled us to find a singular path. 

ACR: Did your creativity initially manifest through writing or were you driven to start a band like so many kids immersed in post-punk, hardcore at the time?

DB: I was far too aloof to try and form a band, although that’s not to say that I didn’t have a few friends who could have made music together if we had put an effort into it but we were seriously invested in making art: photography, painting and later performance art. We would critique each others work, consume the same authors, loved the same bands, immersed ourselves in galleries and for a time it was a secure and nurturing bond. I wanted to be a photographer before I started writing. My creativity initially manifested itself behind a lens and soon after through the theater yet I couldn’t afford to make the art that I wanted to here so gradually, glacially, I found the courage to begin writing fiction.   

ACR: In an interview I’ve read from a few years back, you mention that you wrote your novel This Young Girl Passing with music and certain films on in the background to immerse yourself in the era. Do you still write this way?

DB: Absolutely yes, with And Then I wrote most of the late 70’s era section with Television’s Marquee Moon and the 1st Gary Newman and the Tubeway Army album playing constantly in the background. I was really going for something cold—blithe yet psychedelic and angular, haunting and brittle. While writing out the late 80’s era section I spent a lot of time listening to Malcolm Mooney era Can, Captain Beefheart’s Doc at the Radar Station and mid-60s era Coltrane. I was searching for something haunting and spontaneous while at the same time it had to be completely visceral and kaleidoscopic. While much of the autobiographical section was spent listening to the post-punk from my teens as well as lots of records by the Television Personalities. Ultimately I was trying for something nostalgic that would sound and feel like every guitar solo Daniel Treacy stole from Roger McGuinn… and also a ton of Gamelan recordings from Java and Bali.         

ACR: How much does the music you enjoy inform your narrative style? If at all?

DB: Music immensely informs my narratives and it has since my first attempts at writing plays nearly three decades ago when I would have Coltrane Plays the Blues on repeat whenever I was writing dialog. So much of writing well is in listening and if you cannot hear what your characters are trying to convey then you will never be able to present them convincingly on the page. Listening to music and constantly seeking out new sounds enables you to hear and respond accordingly to your character’s motives and objectives as they continuously evolve throughout the narrative.

ACR: What are some albums that are inextricably tied to New York City for you?

DB:  John Coltrane: Crescent

Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde

Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus: Money Jungle

The Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat

Archie Shepp: Attica Blues

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls

Cabaret Voltaire: Red Mecca

Can: Tago Mago

Compound Eye: Journey From Anywhere

Albert Ayler: Spirits Rejoice

Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus

John Cage & Kenneth Patchen: The City Wears a Slouch Hat

Valis l: Destruction Of Syntax

The Fall: Perverted By Language

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers: With Thelonious Monk

Alice Coltrane: Ptah, The El Daoud

Miles Davis: On The Corner

Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Funhunt: Live At CBGB’s and Max’s 78/79

The Ramones: The Ramones

Johnny Thunders: So Alone

Luc Ferrari: Electronic Works

The Clean/Great Unwashed: Odditties 2

The Stooges: Fun House

ACR: You have mentioned that you are an avid record collector. Is there a record that started it all for you?

DB: My mother recently sent me her Elvis Presley albums from when she was a teenager. In the box she also included the 1st album I ever bought which was a copy of You’ll Never Walk Alone, that Elvis recorded with The Jordanaires in ’71. It’s a full-on unapologetic gospel album so many would argue that my first attempt at buying music was a proper swing and a miss. I guess that purchase taught me to be a bit more careful with my limited funds. When I moved to NYC when I was twenty I made the mistake of bringing all of my records with me and soon afterwards I had to sell them in order to eat, although I got next to nothing for them, so for a number of years I subsisted on cut-out bin cassettes and listening to WKCR, as that station is an absolute blessing and introduced me to jazz and classical music. I began collecting records again in earnest about 15 years ago and now I have a few thousand albums. 

ACR: Some people argue that New York City lost its “edge” years ago. Some people believe this has had an affect on the arts scene there as well (music / lit / etc). Do you believe this is true? 

DB: I think the city is constantly changing and no scene in NYC has ever remained in the same place for a very long time. It might have been cheaper to live here in the late 80’s when I moved here but if you have absolutely no money after making rent it is next to impossible to survive anywhere. Trust me on that because getting by here on a few dollars a week is no fucking joke and carving out enough time to create your art while working 40 hours a week takes nearly inhuman sacrifice. I’m sure that is true everywhere and yet art frequently happens anywhere because it absolutely has to. I think some people who claim the city has lost its edge are nostalgic for their loft dwelling twenties in that now misty golden era before Brooklyn became a global brand name. Or they never lived here in the first place. However getting older while watching your neighborhood change to the point where it is hardly recognizable from when you first moved in can be soul crushing. And having to move every few years to find cheaper rent sucks. I moved eight times in my first decade here. I lived in a really beautiful African-American neighborhood with a solid civic foundation during the height of the crack era and watched as a dwindling lack of social services; affordable supermarkets, reliable public-transportation, horrific schools, dysfunctional hospitals, daily shootings and a community-phobic police force drove nearly all of the long-term homeowners away before the banks and realtors swooped in to re-brand the neighborhood for a more affluent group of people who themselves were recently priced out of wherever it was they were coming from. The neighborhood where I live now is rapidly gentrifying and while the property values are soaring it isn’t getting that much better for the families who have lived here for generations. Every week I get calls from aggressive realtors with their all cash offers to buy our house and I positively relish the opportunity to tell them to fuck off.       

ACR: Your prose style (dialogue in particular) is incredibly unique to me in the way that it breaks up the narrative line. It creates a really vivid experience, especially in your new book And Then. Is style something that is self-conscious to you or is it something that you don’t think about much?

DB: I write very slowly—if I get five lines in a day that is a great writing day—and then spend weeks cultivating the spaces around the sentences. Narrative switchbacks, visual displacements and dialog that breaks through the lines—like weeds coming up through the cracks in the sidewalk—gradually overtake those spaces. I am always trying for vivid while keeping things present, so thank you very much for saying that.   

ACR: What are you currently working on?

DB: I’m working on a retelling of Sophocles’ Theban Plays. A short version of Antigone was published over at Fjords Review in the spring of ’16 and I am currently working on a longer version of Oedipus right now. What I’m attempting is a novel length triptych of King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone

————-

Purchase And Then on Amazon.

 

Music

Ed Nash (Toothless) talks literary favorites

by on August 2, 2017

Ed Nash (bassist of Bombay Bicycle Club) recently launched an exciting new side project named Toothless, named after a drawing by LA’s own Raymond Pettibon. Toothless have since released a fantastic full-length titled The Pace Of The Passing. The record is a bold and determined effort that sees the indie bassist tapping into the oeurve of Bombay Bicycle Club, albeit with a slight variation that is wholly original.

As part of our music and literature series, Ed has given us five works that have informed his creativity on The Pace Of The Passing.

The Odyssey – Homer

When I started writing the Toothless record I had a real problem writing lyrics, I had ideas and themes that I wanted to cover but found it hard converting these ideas into actual lines that made sense in a song. Everything I tried seemed overly emotional, basic, or wasn’t interesting to listen to in the context of a song. I started looking at how my favorite lyricists got their ideas across and noticed that many of them created worlds or retold familiar stories as a vehicle for their own ideas. Nick Cave sings about Mermaids and Murderers, Sufjan Stevens retells stories from American Folklore. I started trying to do the same with my own songs and found that Greek myths was a great way in. They are not only stories that I love and know very well but also have very clear cut messages and morals. Starting with that very clear framework meant that I could easily work in my own ideas. The Odyssey is the most famous ancient Greek story, and it’s full of small stories and messages that I use throughout The Pace of the Passing

Waking Up – Sam Harris 

Another theme that I look at throughout the album is the existence of God and what happens when you die. I became aware of Sam Harris’ work while writing the album and found that his views regarding religion and spirituality were the perfect fit with my own. In Waking Up Sam Harris puts across the idea that you can be spiritual without following any organized religion. Up until reading this book I had always thought that the two went hand in hand and there was no place in between. This book opened my eyes to a rational scientific way of thinking about spirituality and death. 

Orchard book of Greek myths – Geraldine McCaughrean, Emma Chichester Clark 

My mum gave me this book for my 6th birthday when we were on holiday in Greece. It’s a beautifully illustrated children’s book that retells the most famous Greek myths minus all the gruesome stuff. Reading it while being in Greece really captured my imagination and is the reason that these stories have remained so important to me – the stories seemed real and I could imagine them happening in the area that I was staying in. This book is entirely responsible for my interest in Greek Mythology and the majority of the Greek myth references on the record. I learned about King Midas, Charon and Sisyphus here! Out of all these books this one had by far the biggest impact on me.

Animal Farm – George Orwell

In the same way that I retell stories in my songs to convey my own ideas, I use personification. I think its a very easy way to get a point across while still making the song interesting and not preachy, especially with the themes that I am thinking about on this record. Animal Farm is my favorite and most effective use of personification in literature that I can think of. The fable uses the microcosm of an English farm to tell the story of the rise of the Soviet union. The physical traits of the animals relate to their personalities and those of their real life counterparts.

The very first idea for a song I had came when I was reading an article that said the Sun was in the middle of its life – its about 4.5 billion years old and is expected to last the same again. I had the idea to personify the Sun as someone who is having a midlife crisis, where they are looking to the future and realizing their own mortality. As it’s the sun there is an added level of anxiety as there are so many other people relying on this one person. 

In my song Terra I turn the earth and the sun into lovers that have been wanting to be together but have never properly met. 

The Rules of Attraction – Bret Easton Ellis

My favorite of Bret Easton Ellis’ books, this story focuses on students at a New Hampshire liberal arts collage in the 80s – in particular three students and their love triangle. It is written in first person with each chapter belonging to a different character. As the book progresses and you hear from more characters, your opinion on the story and the events change, Rashomon style. This device is particularly effective with the love triangle, as relationships are almost entirely subjective.  

I wanted to try something like this with a song, where your opinion on what is happening is constantly changing. The song “Palm’s Backside” is a back and forth from a guy and a girl looking back at their relationship. The first half of the song is from the guys point of view where he has seen his old girlfriend with a new partner and thinks that she looks happy. In the bridge of the song the girl takes the lead and everything is flipped around. You find out that she actually isn’t happier and it’s all for show. This song wouldn’t have worked in the same way without using the stylistic device from The Rules of Attraction

The Pace Of The Passing stream: 

 

Music

Jesse Tyre (The Grand Southern) shares his literary inspirations

by on July 12, 2017

As part of our ongoing series where we talk to writers and musicians about the music and literature that informs their creativity, we welcome Jesse Tyre of LA-based alt-country outfit The Grand Southern. The band recently released a new EP titled “Traded Heaven,” which takes it’s cues from the great alt-country acts of the past (Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, Son Volt) while wholeheartedly channeling a Southern California lyrical and musical sensibility that is both fresh and reinvigorating. Below are six books that have informed lead vocalist Jesse Tyre’s creativity throughout the years.

John Prine Beyond Words

This book is truly a gift. Lyrics and chords written out with pictures and stories. His handwritten lyrics on coffee stained paper with a phone number scrawled on the side of the notepad. It feels like you are getting a sneak peak through his personal scrapbook. His songs are mostly just stories from his own life, and he’s got the pictures to prove it. Often when I am short on inspiration, and my eyes dart between the unfamiliar and the external, I end up where I started – short on inspiration. We don’t have to look too far to find a story to tell or a song to sing. I will never have his voice, his character, but I can hone in on the best version of my own voice – the most genuine. There’s humor and heartbreak in the most mundane experiences, and what is glorious to some, may be simple and boring to others. Sometimes amplifying the trivial and muting the exaggerated makes the ride a lot smoother. When you find something to get behind, say it again.  In fact, say it three times and add a bridge and a catchy melody.  

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

I read the British “Adrian Mole” series when I was a kid, as well as Catcher in the Rye in my early teenage years. The brilliance of these books is that they appeal to a universal commonality in the experiences of these young men, and the readers fascination with the mysteries of the teenage mind. I was convinced that I was Adrian Mole and later Holden Caulfield. How these characters spoke to me in such a profound way could only be characterized as the stars lining up just right, so the pages came before my eyes at the exact time my stupid adolescent thinking aligned perfectly with how these characters saw the world. I read David Eggers’ book in my early 20’s, and although a bit more mature and slightly more grounded in a reality, I felt a similar kinship to the character. I was also living in San Francisco at the time, yet his story had occurred a generation before me, so there was some implied expertise and wisdom of how to navigate through this period in my life. Our shared experience ends with these fairly superficial notions of age and geography. His story is interesting, but not riveting. His struggles are sad, but not devastating. How he shares his story, a perfect mix of humor, vulnerability, eloquence, and self-deprecation blew me away. It’s not enough to have a story and a rhyme scheme, its not enough to have something important or relatable to say.  You have to be smart. You have to be captivating. You have to be fearless in peeling back layers and showing the underlying feeling, even if it makes you or your audience uncomfortable.   This book is a perfect model of how a song should be written. It was the same sense of wonder I felt after hearing John Prine, Carol King, Van Morrison, Smokey Robinson… so that’s how you tell a story.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

To oversimplify the book’s implication, we all start from an equal place of potential, and our success, sustainability, and even survival are generally decided by availability, opportunity, access, and necessity. Consciously or not, these basic themes have a profound on my relationship with music. Just as complex grains, animals suited for domestication etc, were available to Eurasian civilizations, music and fellow musicians are bountiful to anyone with a wifi connection living in Los Angeles in 2017. So plentiful in fact, that it is difficult to not be desensitized by the abundance of content and players. Often the most difficult task is to filter out everything and everyone that I don’t connect with. I am constantly learning from others.  From the days of the first Napster downloads, I could see what other music people who listened to my band were also “stealing.” This insight was impossible to obtain (at least on this scale) with this ease previously.  The constant opportunity to be inspired by sounds at a local bar or the Hollywood Bowl gave us the kind of direct access I always dreamed of as a kid growing up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Lastly, the parallels between necessity and innovation are striking. I often reflect and wrestle with what many musicians refer to as their “need” to play and have an outlet, and our desire or “want” to be heard. Now that we are past the point of just trying to survive, is the motivation to make the best music we can still burning? The necessity exists if we want to be heard, but it must start internally as well. There is a need to constantly push for excellence, but also a great longevity in being resourceful and sparing. If you can record a great song with a guitar or piano, why build 100 tracks around it?  As soon as we take it on the road, it may be difficult to reproduce in any recognizable and meaningful way. We have an abundance of resources in one place, but leave the comfort of our geography and the equation starts again from zero.   

 A New Pair of Glasses by Chuck “C” 

This book is a lesson in perspective. That perspective only comes from smashing the ego and being willing to be vulnerable and honest. Writing lyrics requires that kind of internal transparency. It is too easy to taint the process with our ideas of how others will perceive our music, thinking about what people want to hear – and the darkest cloud – what will sell. The truth is that themes of the human experience are universal, and if I can share a story or convey a feeling as I know it or as I felt it, people will probably identify. Some people at least. And if no one does, at least I can live with the work I did knowing it is a reflection of who I am and how I see the world. And then I write another one, and another. “I love you and what you think of me is none of my business” is a powerful statement from the author. Difficult to apply in my daily life, but when I am writing and really tuned in, that mindset brings great comfort. He also says, “Walking alone is not normal, is not natural.” To think we have all the answers, or that no one can contribute to our composition, to our craft, to the 2nd line in the 3rd verse, is foolish.  Being open to collaboration and inspiration strengthens the vessel, and also informs us when we cant find our own voice.

Sex, Drugs, Ratt & Roll: My Life in Rock by Stephen Pearcy and Sam Benjamin

These figures were larger than life when I was a kid. Ratt had probably peaked before my time, but I had the VHS tapes with Milton Berle and Warren DeMartini crashing through the ceiling. The most fascinating piece of this story, beyond the hustle and sleaze that defined (and probably still lingers heavily over) the Sunset Strip, was that Stephen Pearcy was a fan of Rock n Roll. He sought out David Lee Roth before anyone knew about Van Halen. Finding him in the parking lot of a club, offering up a joint, and beginning a friendship that would last years. He was unapologetic about his range as a singer and what he had to do to get the band gigs.  None of it mattered. His voice worked, it was perfect for that band and perfect for those songs. When you’re young anything is possible, and that great unknown can be all the inspiration you need. Another lesson in perspective as the band deteriorated, you certainly get the sense that you are only hearing one side of the story, and that’s ok. Everything is perspective, and what a better way to tell a story that with a pinch of resentment, guilt, hubris, etc. I often forget what it was like to be young and inspired, to learn someone else’s song just to emulate exactly what they are doing.  Those things happen so much more subconsciously now and that’s probably a good thing, but to just be a fan and have a poster on your wall, that’s where everyone who plays music started. It’s a very pure place to be. 

The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse

Change is unavoidable, yet inevitable. Change is generally easy with acceptance, however resistance to change and the reinvention required to adapt are difficult barriers. This fictional novel based in Echo Park is mostly the story of a working class community and the people who breath life and color into the neighborhoods. A few decades removed from the recent gentrification that has, once again, reshaped the community and its cast of characters.   Loosely based on the author’s experience, it really is a shining example of making the ordinary engaging. I find when I am really tuned in, I write drawing on my own experience, and the experience of others I can identify with. I am, of course,  the foremost expert on myself and my experience. The author weaves through the characters search for a destination beyond their destiny, for expectations and social class structure to be accepted and questioned simultaneously. These are universal themes, yet the story here is so unique to this geography and this community. Living in Los Angeles, we often have a culture overload. An abundance of performing arts, visual arts, museums, galleries, and fashion. The city is transient and evolving, not unique, not good or bad, just changing. However, the richness of generational community culture has become a thing of the past in many parts of the city. Maybe making room for a new set of characters to make new stories, or maybe creating a superficial existence where there is no time to create, because people need to spend their time paying rent and taking their dogs to yoga. There will always be a place for a scene, for a community, for traditions and culture to be shared and enrich, it just may not be here. Stories share those experiences, even after their gone, songs do too. Even if you know all the words and all the notes, a song can still be a blank space to insert your own faces, your own town, and your own experience. 

The “Traded Heaven” EP is now available on iTunes.

 

News

Music Web Series – Call For Submissions

by on May 31, 2017

Music has an incredible ability to transcend time, space, and culture. A song can have the unique power to transport you to a moment in history, the future, a particular setting, or to a certain feeling that holds emotional weight. Music can also be a catalyst or companion for social movements and signify a change in society. At times it can be a great unifier and is found as a crucial means of expression in all corners of the globe. For a new web series on music, we are interested in publishing essays, short fiction, and poetry that explore the poetics of music and/or music composition. We are looking for pieces that burrow deep into music’s connection to places and peoples and movements. Like The Velvet Underground’s connection to New York, or the work of João Gilberto and his contribution to the bossa nova sounds of Brazil, we are looking for pieces that speak to the music that shapes us.

Send your best work to the Angel City Review music editor: michael@angelcityreview.com

P.S. this is not limited to regional LA writers. Everyone is eligible to submit. Thank you.

 

Interviews Music

Interview with Thomas Moore

by on May 24, 2017

Thomas Moore is a UK based writer whose most recent novel In Their Arms (Rebel Satori Press), follows the spiraling life of a queer art critic as he numbly navigates a life of cruising apps and locales. In Their Arms dabbles wholeheartedly in the kind of erotic and depraved narratives that feature despairing males, made notorious by writers like Dennis Cooper. In Their Arms evokes a vague horror and routinely works to dull the reader’s senses. Stylistically, the book also features a detritus of pop music and cultural allusions.  In our next installment of writers talking about the music that has played a part in their creative lives, we talked to Moore about the role music plays in his writing and the importance of tone and style over narrative.

Angel City Review: Your most recent novel In Their Arms features several references to music pop culture – from Alice Glass of Crystal Castles to Wu-Tang Clan – juxtaposed next to images of violence and other pop culture artifacts. How big of a role does music play in your life and the art you create?

Thomas Moore: Music is a huge part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I listen to a lot of stuff and try to keep up with things as best as I can. In terms of the references in In Their Arms, a lot of those were more linked to the idea of popular culture now, and the mish-mash of things that the Internet throws up, and what different things signify and how they link together nowadays.

ACR: What came first, your love for literature or music? 

TM: I honestly can’t remember, but I suppose I probably heard music before I learned to read…so maybe it was music first? Sat in the back of my parents’ car, listening to their ABBA cassettes and my dad’s Glen Campbell tapes. Although honestly, I tend to try and not really separate things too much – I like the idea of seeing literature, music, film, visual art as kind of the same thing because I like the idea of all of those things being treated with the same amount of respect as each other. In my head I like to think of a new book and a new record having the same kind of weight and importance as each other.

ACR: I’ve read in a previous interview that you are really interested in mood and tone regardless of the medium. Is there a musical artist out there that you feel captures the tone of your works? 

TM: Yeah, mood is really important to me and tends to be the thing I respond to the most in art. It’s about the feeling that something invokes. There are lots of musicians who I feel a kinship with in one way or another. When it comes to artists who share the same tone as my stuff, I suppose it changes a lot depending on what I’m working on at any given time. When I was starting my first novel, I really felt that the first Crystal Castles album, and the Deerhunter record at the time, and Stars of The Lid had tones that I felt were similar to things that I was trying to work with. Then when I wrote my novella, GRAVES, in 2010/2011, Salem and some of the related Witch Haus thing seemed to reflect the tone that I was aiming for. With my most recent novel, Angel Guts: Red Classroom by Xiu Xiu felt like it had some similarities in tone and mood.

ACR: Would you say that mood, tone, and style are more important than a formal plot in your writing? 

TM: Yes, absolutely. Books that are mainly led by formal plot and character development don’t really do it for me. Which isn’t a criticism of people who do that kind of thing – it’s just a personal preference. It’s the same with films – I respond way more to a David Lynch film than something with a more clearly defined plot-driven narrative thing. I like it when things make emotional sense rather than narrative sense. I also think confusion is really important and shouldn’t be dismissed or used as a pejorative. Things don’t have to make sense. There doesn’t have to be a reason for everything in art.

ACR: Is there anything to be said for listening to music while writing? Do you find any inspiration directly within music that translates to your writing? 

TM: I often listen to music when I write – depending on what I’m working on. Sometimes a project has required silence, and other things have required super loud black metal records in the background. Yeah – going back to mood and tone – I think there are often feelings or atmospheres that I hear in music that I respond to, and I like to try and experiment and try to find how writing can correspond to that. I have sometimes tried to play around with text until I feel like it matches a certain tone that I’ve heard in a piece of music. It’s something that I’ve tried to do a lot.

ACR: There’s a line from In Their Arms where the narrator says that “there’s no music vague enough to fit the mood I wake up in.” This really resonated with me. Do you believe there are feelings that music cannot accurately convey, and can perhaps only be conveyed though literature / language, or vice versa? 

TM: Oh I don’t know. I don’t think that I’d like to give a definite answer on something like that. I guess it depends on the person who has made the art and the person who is listening/reading/watching/looking at the art. I think it would depend on interpretation, you know? I like the fact that one person may go away from a record or a book feeling a totally different way to someone else. Who knows what someone else is going to feel?

ACR: You’ve recently had one of your works anthologized by KiddiePunk (Collected 2011-2015). In addition to publishing Dennis Cooper’s GIF novels, KiddiePunk also has some esoteric forays into music (including a reverb edition of Hanson’s “Middle of Nowhere” album). How did you originally connect with KP? 

TM: Yeah, two of my works were included in that book – my 2011 novella, GRAVES, and my 2013 book of poems, The Night Is An Empire. I first got in touch with Michael Salerno, the filmmaker and artist who runs Kiddiepunk in 2007, mainly just because I saw his stuff and realized he was a complete genius and because his work blew my head off. I think we first hung out in person in 2008 in Paris and we’ve been friends ever since. He’s been really generous and cool in releasing my stuff and I think of him as a very important friend and person in my life. But aside from all of that, his work is like no one else on earth. Complete genius and inspiration. Yeah, Kiddiepunk has done some musical releases. A personal favorite is the Milk Teeth album, which you should check out. I’m extremely proud of my association with Kiddiepunk, because I think that Michael has and continues to do so many amazing things with it.

ACR: What are you currently working on? 

TM: I’m in the editing stages of a new book, which I’ve almost finished – it’s shorter texts – some poems and some strange prose bits and I’m just trying to get everything to click into place. And then I’m in the very early stages of working on my third novel, which I’m feeling very excited about. An idea just kind of came out of nowhere, and I’ve begun obsessing about it and thinking about it all the time, so I’ll see where it takes me.

ACR: Top 5 favorite albums of all time?

TM: I feel like I need to put a disclaimer in and say that this is just what I’ve come up with at the time of writing this answer. If you ask me another day then I think you’d get totally different answers … OK, so I’d have to have something by Morrissey, so I’m going to say The Smiths by The Smiths mainly because it starts with the song “Reel Around The Fountain,” which is one of the most beautiful things ever recorded. But really, I could probably just fill this list with Smiths and Morrissey Solo albums (like Vauxhall and I which contains the best Morrissey song ever – “Speedway.”) But yeah, I’ll go with the first Smiths record. Then I’d probably pick Angel Guts: Red Classroom by Xiu Xiu, which just feels like such a complete and self-contained piece of work – totally beautiful and fucked up in equal measures. But again, I’m obsessed with Xiu Xiu so I could have picked any of their records. Then maybe I’d pick the second Le Tigre album, Feminist Sweepstakes. Everything Kathleen Hanna is involved with is awesome and I saw Le Tigre play a bunch of times around the time of that album and they were completely stunning, and played some of the best shows I’ve ever seen – I came out buzzing. I’d probably pick a Hole album, so I’m going to say Live Through This. And then I’d want to pick something kind of experimental so I’d go for Happy Days by Jim O’Rourke, which as a writer I feel like I took a lot from, in terms of how the record is composed and repetition and drone and loads of stuff like that. 

The Smiths by The Smiths

Angel Guts: Red Classroom by Xiu Xiu

Feminist Sweepstakes by Le Tigre

Live Through This by Hole

Happy Days by Jim O’Rourke

ACR: Any favorites or influences from 2017 thus far?

TM: 

Pharmakon – Contact

Divide and Disolve – Basic

Arca – Arca

Xiu Xiu – Forget

Xiu XIu – Gone Gone Gone

The Magnetic Fields – 50 Song Memoir

William Basinski – A Shadow In Time

Anohni – Paradise EP

Brian Eno – Reflection

Blanck Mass – World Eater

The Mountain Goats – Goths

Antony Braxton/Miya Masaoka – Duo (DCWM) 2013

Jarvis Cocker Chilly Gonzalez – Room 29

Diamanda Galas – All The Way and At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem

Slowdive – Slowdive

Perfume Genius – No Shape

Gas – Narkopop

Sleaford Mods – English Tapas

Oxbow – Thin Black Duke

Teengirl Fantasy – 8am

Run The Jewels – RTJ3

Priests – Nothing Feels Natural

Wolf Eyes – Undertow

Lawrence English – Cruel Optimism

The Necks – Unfold

//

Follow Thomas on Twitter: @thomasmoronic

Interviews Music

Interview with Vermin on the Mount founder Jim Ruland

by on May 17, 2017

Angel City Review is proud to present the first installment of an interview series that will feature exclusive interviews with writers and musicians about the literature and music that moves them. First up we have Jim Ruland, author of the award winning novel Forest of Fortune and the short story collection, Big Lonesome. He recently co-authored Angeleno punk rock icon Keith Morris’ autobiography My Damageand is the man behind the Vermin on the Mount reading series. We talked to him recently about his love for punk rock, Los Angeles, zines, and the future of VOTM.

Angel City Review: What were your first encounters with punk rock and literature? Did your affinity towards both happen simultaneously or at different points in your formative years?

Jim Ruland: The worlds of punk rock and literature seemed very distinct to me and didn’t collide until I started getting involved in zines. A friend in grad school was a lifelong subscriber to Flipside, which was based in L.A. He wanted to move to L.A. and work for Flipside. I told him I thought this was a realistic ambition and put him in touch with my friends in North Hollywood where I’d lived for an exhilarating year after finishing my undergrad. He got the gig and soon I was writing reviews, interviewing bands, and penning my own column for Flipside. Writing for zines gave me access to the music I loved and I quickly figured out that I could do whatever I wanted to do. I was raised Catholic and had served in the Navy, so I was a rule follower by nature. Having the freedom to write in a space where there weren’t any rules was huge for me.

ACR: How much has punk rock informed your style as a writer?

JR: Punk zines are where I cut my teeth as a writer and learned how to write for an audience. There was a time when I wanted to be Kickboy Face but thankfully that was a short-lived phase I outgrew a long time ago.

ACR: Many people feel like music criticism (or criticism in general) is on the decline. What do you think the role of the music zine or blog will become in the next five years?

JR: Zines can be critical but they aren’t criticism. I wholeheartedly endorse the fanzine approach: embrace, document, and share the things you are passionate about. The world is full of weirdoes. Find your people.

ACR: First punk rock show?

JR: The Ramones at the Wax Museum in Washington, D.C. in 1985 (I think).

ACR: At what point did you realize that there were tangible ideological and aesthetic intersections between punk rock / DIY culture and the literary scene in LA and SD?

JR: When Flipside folded, two friends from grad school, Todd Taylor and Sean Carswell, started a new zine called Razorcake in 2001. They kept everything they liked about Flipside and got rid of the rest. We started doing readings around L.A. and found that if we asked people if we could read at their café or record store the answer was usually yes. I had this ongoing series of stories about a punk rock band that was perpetually on tour told in the style of a medieval manuscript. So I went around dressed like a monk’s robe with studded leather Birkenstocks reading these weird hyper stylized stories. In 2002 I set up an event at Track 16 in Santa Monica to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Damned playing for the first time in L.A., and Keith Morris and Brendan Mullen read. We were even invited to open for X at the Knitting Factory. It was all very strange. Todd asked me to set up a reading for the Chicago writer Joe Meno, who was a columnist for Punk Planet at the time, and I thought it would be cool to expand the audience beyond the two or three dozen L.A. punk rockers who were amused by what we were doing and Vermin on the Mount was born.

ACR: Much of the literary canon from Los Angeles is often painted with a sense of dread and vaguely apocalyptic themes. Nathanael West and Joan Didion’s essays come to mind. Did the LA punk scene capture that same mood for you? 

JR: Yes and no. I don’t think the early L.A. punk rock scene (or punk rock in general) was particularly literary, but it inspired some great narrative art that is full of dread.

ACR: How important is it for VOTM to be a place on the periphery of the culture where writers can read, share, collaborate?

JR: I think it used to feel more subversive when Vermin was held in a bar in Chinatown and I had not yet addressed my substance abuse issues, but I remain committed to Vermin being a space for indie and emerging writers. I’m not against mainstream writers (whatever that means) but if I have to deal with a publicist to book a writer for a show I’m probably not going to be interested.

ACR: How did the collaboration with Keith Morris on My Damage come together? 

JR: Everyone asks about that and it’s not particularly interesting. My agent heard about the opportunity and introduced me to the publisher, which is not the way things usually work, but is still not a very good story. Keith has been amazing to work with. The guy has so much integrity. When he commits to something, he commits 100%.

ACR:  So many rock “tell all” biographies tend to fall into the realm of sentimentality and cliche stories of debauchery and eventual cleanse and rebirth. In working with Keith on the book, how up front were you guys about avoiding the pitfalls of the rock bio?

JR: That’s a good question. I think there were some things we didn’t want to do—like we didn’t want to start the book with 75 pages of childhood memories—but I don’t know if we talked about how to avoid the pitfalls of the redemption trajectory. I knew that Keith’s stories would attract a lot of people who aren’t necessarily readers. So we hit on the idea fairly early to write short chapters—like a hardcore song—to keep the reader engaged and turning pages. But one of the myths of the redemption trajectory as it pertains to sobriety is that your life will get better after you get clean. Newsflash: it doesn’t. For many people, things get worse when they stop drinking and/or drugging because now they have to deal with the damage. I think Keith falls into that category. The glory years of punk rock were behind him when he quit and there were some hard years before he started to enjoy success with his band OFF!

ACR: Best place to eat a taco and catch a reading in SD?

JR: Salud in Barrio Logan has the best tacos in San Diego. On the last Thursday of every month So Say We All puts on VAMP at the Whistle Stop Bar in South Park but you better show up early if you want a seat because every show is standing room only.

ACR: Your favorite LA writer of the last 20 years?

JR: Chiwan Choi.

ACR: Favorite LA punk record?

JR: That’s a tough one but my go-to is The Adolescents self-titled debut, aka The Blue Album.

ACR: With nearly every corner of LA becoming more and more affluent these days, does that, in your opinion, affect the music scene in a negative or positive way?

JR: Punk rock has always thrived in the margins. It’s always been informed by class and power. Always, always. When Hollywood was the locus of the L.A. punk scene it wasn’t the Hollywood of stars and starlets but the Hollywood of teen hustlers and junkies. It’s ground zero, The Masque, was a bunker under a porn theater that Brendan Mullen converted into a practice and performance space. Glamorous it wasn’t. But even then you had punk in East L.A. Punk in the beach cities. Punk in the valley. Punk in Oxnard. So it’s a little disingenuous to talk about L.A. as a “scene,” which suggests some degree of homogeneity. It’s just too massive.

ACR: What are you currently working on?

JR: A novel set in near-future L.A. about a woman who works for an underground organization who breaks people out of prison hospitals.

ACR: What does the future hold for Vermin on the Mount?

JR:  I’m always looking for ways for Vermin to be a more meaningful experience for its participants. I’m presently experimenting with podcasts and planning something in the category of an anthology. I recently came to the conclusion that I was holding Vermin back by doing everything myself. I’ve basically been re-inventing the wheel with every show, which is dumb because even with the 13th year anniversary coming up I have no intention of quitting or slowing down. I recently posted a solicitation for volunteers and asked for help. I’m not interested in “taking it to the next level” in the sense where Vermin on the Mount becomes a thing that burns up the time and energy of everyone involved – like so many magazines and websites do. I just want it to continue. If anyone reading this is interested in getting involved in an irreverent, irregular reading series with a punk rock aesthetic, drop me a line.

//

Follow Jim on Twitter: @JimVermin

Book Review

Sonata in K

by on February 22, 2017

Sonata in K by Karen An-Hwei Lee

 

Sonata in K is the debut novel by San Diego based poet Karen An-Hwei Lee. Naturally, much of Sonata in K feels exceedingly poetic at times – the prose majestic and ornate – but the real pleasure derived from reading Sonata in K comes from the inventive imagination behind this kaleidoscopic work.

Sonata in K is a finely crafted intellectual novel packed with lush and decadent language that brings the 20th century Czech writer back to life in tender detail. The prose possesses an elevated, intellectual quality to it that never wanders too far into abstraction and always dazzles. Lee also doesn’t shy away from a cornucopic use of language. Ever the polyglot, Lee incorporates German, Hebrew, Spanish, and Japanese (to recall just a few), that accrete to form a text that is rich in language, culture, and ideas.

However, the novel’s great successes are not only to be found within the ornate prose. Sonata in K is a living, breathing, ornament of self-consciousness, intertextuality, and playfulness that when combined with a simulacrum (or maybe not) of Kafka, becomes a wholly original literary enterprise. The playfulness of the novel is apparent from the preface, where the reader is told that “K is not K.” and that “Kafka-San is not Franz Kafka.” The reader only has to venture a few pages in before understanding that these declarations are nothing more than a playful ruse. Kafka-san is indeed Kafka, albeit reimagined, reincarnated, possibly holographic, or all of the above.

The novel follows a Nisei interpreter named “K,” who has been chosen to be a translator for the recently revived Kafka or “Kafka-san.” The story is set in modern day Los Angeles and takes place over the course of a few days, as the interpreter “K” escorts Kafka-san to and from a hotel to meetings with the very kafkaesque studio executives Mann No. 1 and Mann No. 2. The meetings between Kafka-san and these men become more absurd as the frequency of the sessions increase. Kafka-san begins to find himself tangled in a web of bizarre script ideas involving a rhinoceros in love that the men allege the origins of to Kafka-san. In a subtle indictment of the entertainment industry at large, when talking about Mann No. 1 and Mann No. 2 Kafka-san remarks:

Couldn’t tell whether they were ingenious artists, con-artists, or hooligans.

As a playful allusion to Kafka’s harsh authoritarian father Hermann, Mann No. 1 and Mann No. 2 represent some of the biggest thematic ideas of Kafka’s works. They are a representation of the absurd and enigmatic bureaucracy of the entertainment world. These menschen also possess a vague and possibly illusory authority over Kafka-san, as it is hinted that they were the ones who brought Kafka-san back to life, and therefore have the power to send him “back into the ether.”

During his stay in Los Angeles, K and Kafka-san visit LA Live, Koreatown, and the Malibu coast – among other notable locales – making many gastronomical stops along the way. He marvels at the eradication of tuberculosis, the local hockey team, the apocalyptic levels of smog, underground aquifers, and pasteurized cream. The oft-jaundiced view of Los Angeles is satirized here to an extent, but by the end of the novel, despite the “shmutz of Angeleno air,” Kafka-san seems to be reinvigorated by the city:

Never felt it so keenly, not in the days of my youth, under the household tyranny of my father. Hermann. The original Mister Mann, yes. Yes. Never when I was flying kites as a university student, this shop-girl or that shop-girl… Now, I am weary with a maelstrom desire to live.

Sonata in K is also in constant conversation with the letters Kafka wrote during his life that were then published posthumously. There are allusions to these letters throughout the text, and most notably in the letters from Kafka-san to Max Brod that appear scattered throughout. Letter topics range from marveling over his 129th birthday, to the presence of thousands of bottles of mineral water at a cafe, to radishes not being radishes, and the knowledge that his sisters have since passed away. In particular, the astonishment over the thousands of bottles of mineral water alludes to a letter Kafka wrote while living out his final days in the Viennese sanatorium, where his tuberculosis gave him a “desire for good mineral water.” This sharp intertextuality is one of the many aspects of Sonata in K that makes it such an intellectually stimulating and pleasurable read for both the scholarly and casual Kafka enthusiast.

That said, one does not need to be wholly familiar with the late Czech writer to enjoy Lee’s remarkable debut novel. Sonata in K provides a banquet of elevated ideas and consciousness that should place it on many best of lists within the indie literary circuit. Through Sonata in K, Lee has given us a richly inventive text that will not only please fans of Kafka, but also the polyglot, the satirist, the poet, the stylist, and yes, the Angeleno foodie.

 

Sonata in K is now available via Ellipsis Press.

 

Book Review

Baloney

by on January 10, 2017

9781552453391_cover1_rb_fullcoverBaloney by Maxime Raymond Bock

Translated by Pablo Strauss

 

Baloney is a new novella by emerging French-Canadian writer Maxime Raymond Bock, translated from the original French by Pablo Strauss. The book presents a fascinating character study of the utterly unremarkable but prolific fictional poet Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte, as he navigates various poetry circles and a vaguely imitative bohemian lifestyle. From the first opening lines of the book, we understand that we are being introduced not to a poet of great stature or prominence – but the exact opposite – a kind of faux-poet whose nickname within the East-Montreal poetry scene was “Baloney,” and whose complete poetry output was perceived as such. The unexceptional nature of Lacerte seemed to have been stamped on him upon his very birth, a day that saw “ninety-four other people” born in Quebec on November 18th, 1941. The novella begins thusly and like all masters of opening sentences, Bock has given us everything we need to know about our protagonist with beautiful restraint and an unmitigated frankness that colors the entirety of this wonderful entry from the Quebec literary scene.

The novella is narrated by a struggling – and much younger – poet, who meets Lacerte at a poetry reading. The narrator, who remains without a name throughout, has lost his knack for poetry and has traded in his creative faculties for the banality of family life and a career. After meeting Lacerte the narrator finds a strange degenerate company in him. He hopes that by merely being around Lacerte, he’ll be able to foster the creative spark he lost to the creative wasteland of family life. Upon going through Lacerte’s archive of writings however, the narrator soon discovers Lacerte’s writings to be “meagre pickings,” and “Just plain bad really: even as a failed fellow poet, I couldn’t find another way to slice it.” The narrator resigns to the fact that Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte was indeed, baloney. A fraud of the highest order. Regardless of this discovery, the narrator maintains a closeness to Lacerte until his final days, for reasons that remain unqualified and unknown even to the narrator.

Stylistically, the book often feels like a picaresque novel, as it chronicles Lacerte’s bohemian adventures. From running away from a lumber camp as a child, to a bizzare and derelict life in South America, to the East Montreal poetry scene, the novella is void of any true plot and replaced by the fractured events of Lacerte’s life. A lifelong poseur and true anti-hero, Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte rests on the periphery of the poetry world – and the actual world for that matter – never quite getting the recognition he desires, despite an extensive output that the narrator calls at one point, “typical hackneyed mad-genius writer shit.” Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte is the poster child of the deadbeat artist. A career faux-poet. Interestingly, Bock does well to not insert any sentimentality into our reading of Lacerte. If there is any empathy directed toward Lacerte, it is directed toward his utter disconnection from his family. A family where the closest member Yves – Lacerte’s brother – has been dead for fifteen years by the time the narrator meets Raymond. Otherwise, there is nothing but what the narrator calls a “morbid curiosity,” for a writer that spent all his life “borrowing, imitating, slipping through the cracks pretending, and pretending only to himself.” At its best, Baloney reveals the artifice of the poet lifestyle as some kind of game to be played, as something easily hacked, and evidently, a kind of con. Ultimately, Lacerte is a kind of has-been picaro figure: bumming and conning his way through life, while undergoing very little change, and possessing a cliche wanderlust that nearly gets him killed in South America. All of the cliche bohemian / “beat” traits abound within Robert “Baloney” Lacerte, to a degree that borders on the satirical. “Baloney” Lacerte is a “beat” but without the spiritual hunger and transcendence – without anything at all really.

The relative brevity of Baloney allows us just enough time with a character as unfortunate as Lacerte. It’s almost as if Bock cleverly did not deem Raymond “Baloney” Lacerte worthy of any more of the reader’s time. There was no room for elaborations or chapter long diversions. Bock felt like there was simply nothing more to be said, and that is perhaps the most powerful statement made here: Lacerte’s unremarkable life is easily chronicled within eighty-eight swift pages, and that’s that. Move along.

Baloney ultimately reveals the sometimes hyperbolic idealism and fetishism of the poet lifestyle as empty, via the con of Lacerte’s life as a “poet.” Baloney also nicely cements Maxime Raymond Bock’s position at the forefront of an exciting literary scene in Quebec, and thanks to Pablo Strauss’ surefire English translation, should put Bock on the literary radar of anglophone readers as well.

 

Baloney is now available via Coach House Books.

Book Review

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor

by on November 22, 2016

9780306824067My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor

by Keith Morris (with Jim Ruland)

 

Keith Morris, founding member of the classic Los Angeles hardcore punk bands Black Flag and Circle Jerks, has just released a new memoir that takes us back to the embryonic days of the Los Angeles punk scene. A career renaissance man, My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor, charts Morris from his youth in the sleepy south bay town of Hermosa Beach, to his notorious stature as frontman of Black Flag and Circle Jerks, to his battle with diabetes and formation of OFF! My Damage strips away the legend of Morris and sheds light into areas of his life that have been unilluminated until now. With so many rock memoirs being bloated exercises in ego and hyperbole, My Damage takes the road less traveled and paints Morris as humble punk rock guru. The book ultimately solidifies Morris amongst the most likeable guys in a musical landscape that is filled with so many titanic egos.

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor was penned by Morris, with Jim Ruland (founder of local So-Cal reading series, “Vermin on the Mount”) lending a contributing hand. The book is written in a fairly conversational tone, with Morris’s deadpan, self-deprecating humor appearing in flourishes. The delivery is as blunt and direct as Morris’s extensive musical catalog, and Ruland does well here to not obscure Morris’s true voice in favor of more richly stylized prose. The result is a wild and no holds barred trip down memory lane to the beginnings of Southern California hardcore punk, and a look at the life and survival of one of its main progenitors. My Damage is not unlike other rock memoirs. Passages and anecdotes of spiraling excess (Morris smoking crack with David Lee Roth), battles with alcohol abuse, inter-band rivalries, and cautionary tales of the music industry are all here. What separates My Damage however, is the tenderness by which Morris describes his battles with addiction, diabetes, and a world that has been perpetually “up his ass.” Unlike so many of Morris’s peers, his tone is charmingly affable throughout My Damage, which gives it an endearing quality that is lacking in the memoirs of Morris’s peers.

My Damage not only chronicles the personal struggles of Morris, but also charts the nascent hardcore punk movement that helped shape not only the underground and DIY ethos of the scene in Los Angeles, but worldwide. We are given intimate accounts of the seminal Black Flag and Circle Jerks, the untapped promise of Morris’s oft-forgotten Bug Lamp, as well as his late career revival via his current outfit, OFF! For fans of the hardcore punk movement, My Damage provides more than enough to satisfy. Recording sessions for classic records like Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” EP, and the Circle Jerks’ debut Group Sex, are all told in wonderful detail.

Morris also reflects upon Black Flag’s infamous early performances, including the legendary Polliwog Park performance, which cemented Black Flag’s reputation as anti-establishment torch bearers and all-around threat to the safe and sterile Reagan suburbia. Morris also looks back on encounters with the police, with some confrontations resulting in extreme violence and abuse. There are stories of riotous gigs in Hollywood, and of police rushing into venues in riot gear. Through these anecdotes, My Damage proves itself to be a chronicle of a different time, a time that is perhaps hard to understand in 2016, where a punk rock “threat” sounds absurd and infantile. The music Morris made with Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, was a very real perceived threat to Reagan’s America, and was truly transgressive on a level that is hard to comprehend.

Lesser known facts about Morris abound here. His somewhat untold story as self-proclaimed “A&R boy” for Virgin Records in the late 90’s and early 2000’s is described in some detail. His struggles adapting to the office world of fax machines, copy machines, and conference calls are particularly comical. His short comments on being sent by Virgin to see a Vampire Weekend showcase in New York City and being so disappointed that he left mid-set because they sounded like “Paul Simon’s backing band when he discovered world beat,” provided some laughs.

Beyond all the band tensions, touring mishaps, stoned rampages, and weighing in on the dross of the music industry, Morris’s fights with diabetes and addiction really take center stage here. In his conversational candor, Morris recalls falling into a diabetic coma in Norway, just hours before he was set to perform with Norwegian punk legends Turbonegro. There’s also the time Morris passed out and crashed his car while driving to Amoeba Records, due to toxic levels of acid in his blood brought on by the diabetes. His battles to remain sober are inspiring, and are written here to the point where his struggles become universal and relatable.

Ultimately, My Damage has something for even the most fringe fan of punk. For those looking to get an insight into the early hardcore punk scene, there is more than enough. For those looking for a cynical take on the music industry, that’s here in spades. For someone looking for an unlikely source of inspiration when it comes to battling diabetes and kicking drugs and alcoholism, look no further. My Damage holds no punches, and where it outshines other memoirs is in its ability to present true human spirit in a way that isn’t overreaching or self-aggrandizing. With My Damage Morris cements his place as the ultimate punk rock every-man. And we love him for it.

 

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor is available through Da Capo Press.

Book Review

Hardly War

by on September 27, 2016

hardly_war_final_for_website_largeHardly War by Don Mee Choi

 

Hardly War is Korean-American poet Don Mee Choi’s latest offering and is a work that is boundless in its formal scope and the traumatic history it details.

The collection chronicles the Korean War through poetry, short prose, photographs, bits of letters, a postcard – and remarkably – an opera. Hardly War is a text that is in perpetual conversation with other texts, other histories, other forms. Choi alludes to and cites Korean avant-garde poet Yi Sang, children’s songs, films, Gertrude Stein, and French literary theorists. The dizzying degree of self-aware and referential academia within the collection might prove troublesome for some readers, but  combined with the hybridity of the forms, and the accretion of allusions, quotes, and snippets, Hardly War becomes something more elevated than your typical literary experience. Hardly War is a brilliantly prismatic work, that proves itself to be a challenging but ultimately rewarding book.

At times Hardly War feels vaguely intrusive and deeply voyeuristic. Almost like Choi is giving the reader access to her family’s deepest and most wounded personal artifacts. The accumulation of the various hybrid forms and pieces of postcards and photographs – some with little to no translation or caption – amount to something like a vicious and mad index of the Korean war. The result is a deeply intimate look at the geopolitical climate and national identity of a Korea in turmoil during the 40’s and 50’s.

The photographs that scatter across Hardly War were taken by Choi’s father on his various trips as a war photographer throughout Southeast Asia during the Vietnam and Korean wars. Many of the photographs used in the collection don’t depict the violence of war, leaving one to wonder how much violence Choi’s father saw – or rather – was able to capture. Many of the photographs depict the faces of children or high ranking military officials. There are relatively little images of death – apart from some men posing with a tranquilized tiger – and nothing of explosions or gunfire. The closest we get to a semblance of war is a photograph of two expressionless children gazing into the camera, standing in front of a tank. The photograph is neither disturbing nor graphic, and the children don’t appear to be in any immediate danger. We aren’t even sure which side of the war they represent. An uncharacteristic war image to be sure, but as Choi reiterates throughout this collection, this was “hardly war.”

In a prose vignette titled “6.25,” Choi’s father hears the engine of a Yak-9 North Korean fighter jet, and chases after it with his camera in tow. The plane ultimately eludes him and he is unable to capture it on film. This is suggestive and symbolic of her father’s experience as a war photographer and works to illustrate one of the main overarching themes that we take away from Choi’s latest collection. Photographing the actual mechanics and physicality of war in any form seems to be elusive, and all we are left with is a smorgasbord of war time personal effects (i.e. photographs of children, postcards of military ships, etc). Hardly War in this way ultimately challenges our preconceptions of what war is supposed to look like and manifest as. The title itself, Hardly War, defines itself around the irony of what the war experience is supposed to be. For Choi’s father, and many Koreans, the war was “hardly” a war at all: “That late afternoon the yet-to-be nation’s newspapers were in print, but no photos of the war appeared in any of them. After all it was hardly war…”

Their is a heightened degree of playful self-awareness that marks Hardly War from start to finish. This is apparent in the various forms that make up the collection and in Choi’s stylistic choices. One vignette features several lines of Korean script followed by the line “I refuse to translate” repeated five times. This is one of the more rebellious gestures within the text that suggests feelings of resentment and anger towards the imperialistic and colonial nature of translation. The act of translation to English being a kind of western affront; a colonial gesture. However, given that the majority of Hardly War is written in English, Choi is perhaps suggesting that language is rendered moot and unreliable in its attempts to communicate anything in the face of war.

In the short piece titled, “Neocolony’s Colony,” we are given Vietnamese and English translation side by side. Each English line however, ends with an emphatic militarized “Sir!”

Me Binh Tai / Me been there, Sir!

Me Binh Hoa / Me been high, Sir!

The oppressive and imperialistic nature of translation is laid bare in this instance. Here, translation from Vietnamese to English is seen as an act of ultimate obedience, from a Vietnamese soldier to an unnamed high-ranking American military official – we presume. The result of reading the translation from Vietnamese to English across the page creates a dehumanizing effect, and as the piece moves down the page, the lines become more self-deprecating.

Me Phong Nhi & Phong Nhat / Me flunky & fuck that, Sir!

Me Tay Vinh / Me terrible, Sir!

The end of the piece is highlighted by ME ~ OW written in bold and all caps. Choi’s playfulness here touches a sentimental note, as we are given an allusion to the noise a cat makes, but also phonetically the phrase aligns with the crude and vaguely racist English translation of the speaker:

Me flunky…

Me hate milk…

Me terrible…

Hardly War is a brilliant and layered collection that forces us to reexamine the codes of language and our conceptual notions of war. An act of protest in itself, Hardly War gives us a fresh and often complex perspective on a war that is often called the “forgotten war.”

 

Hardly War by Don Mee Choi is available now from Wave Books.

 

 

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