Saturday, October 30, 2010

"And in my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid."

The Song: "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," Sufjan Stevens. Words & music by Sufjan Stevens. Track 4 of (Come on Feel the) Illinois(e), 2005. Track 13 of Into the Dark, a soundtrack to the novels of John Connolly, 2007.
How/when acquired: Gift CDs, 2007.
Listen/watch here.

If you're looking for an extra scare this weekend, that video is one of the most chilling things I've ever seen.

"Humani nihil a me alienum puto," wrote the Roman playwright Terence: "nothing human is alien to me." This is why I read crime fiction, and probably why I hang out with crime writers. I can imagine myself capable of almost anything, given the circumstances; what would would those circumstances be?

In his very entertaining talk on Wednesday night, my friend John Connolly read from his new novel-in-progress, the next book in a series about a private detective who is literally as well as metaphorically haunted. The scene he read made a passing reference to what I think is the most important truth of stories about any human atrocity: the speed at which the horrifying becomes normal, once you're living it.

I'm sure that John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and others knew that other people wouldn't think that what they were doing was "normal." I'm equally sure that fairly early on in their stories, what they were doing became normal to them.

This morning I got up, checked my e-mail, threw a load of laundry in the washer, took the dog for a walk. I'm making coffee right now, and have the TV on for white noise ("Being John Malkovich" is on, which I haven't seen in ages). All of this is normal to me. I won't kill anyone today if I can help it. But I can imagine a world in which I did things I would not want the neighbors to know about, and I think — in fact, I hope — most of us can.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Five Semi-Random Questions with SCOTT PHILLIPS

Scott Phillips, author of The Ice Harvest, The Walkaway, and Cottonwood, is a man whose deceptively sweet nature masks a twisted soul. I mean that in the best possible way. He'll be at Noircon next week, but took a few minutes to answer five semi-random questions about his life and his newest book.

1. What sport did you play in high school?

None. I did not play any sport. I was a nerd.

2. What kind of car do you drive right now?

A sleek 2005 Hyundai Accent.

3. Do you currently have any pets?

I do not. The last one died and I didn’t replace it. It was a cat. A really obnoxious cat.

4. What’s your favorite place you ever lived?

Bordeaux, 2006. I was there for a couple of months, as writer in residence in the Department of Gironde. I had to go talk to libraries and schools, and be interviewed frequently by my friend Christophe Dupuis, a bookseller and scholar. It was great. I wish they’d ask me again. It helped that I spoke French, so they didn’t have to hire an interpreter.

5. Briefly describe your new book and how readers can get it.

RUT is the story of a small town in Colorado, 40 years from now, as it spirals toward extinction. It’s the story of a place and a time where nothing really works any more, and I hope it’s a funny book about decline and fall. It is available from Concord Free Press. Readers are asked to donate to charity in exchange for receiving a free book, and report their donations at At the moment, Concord Free Press is the only place the book is available.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"It's not a deal, not a test nor a love of something fated (death)."

The Song: "Nautical Disaster," The Tragically Hip. Words & music by The Tragically Hip (Gordon Downie, Paul Langlois, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, Johnny Fay). Track 7 of Day for Night, 1994.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1996
Listen/watch here.

In honor of Halloween, the next few posts will be lyrics that send chills down my spine. This line does it every time, a distillation of the randomness of disaster and survival. The meaning we assign to things has no effect on its outcome.

According to an interview with Gord Downie, "Nautical Disaster" was inspired by the sinking of the Bismarck, and ties that disaster to the end of the singer's relationship with a woman named Susan. Devastation comes from any direction, at any time. Some live, some die. There is no why.

My brother Ed is responsible for introducing me to The Tragically Hip, and to this album in particular. I think I remember buying this CD at a store in a strip mall on Little River Turnpike in Alexandria. I'm pretty sure I've seen them live, but I can't remember when or where. The Hip are like that; they hide under the surface of your consciousness, until you happen to hear one of their songs and remember anew, "Wow, this is a really good band." Maybe that's a Canadian attribute?

Continuing the spirit of the season, I'm headed down to Kennebooks tonight, where the internationally-beloved John Connolly will discuss and sign his latest Charlie Parker novel, THE WHISPERERS, at 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"So I gave myself to God/There was a pregnant pause before he said OK."

The Song: "The State I'm In," Belle & Sebastian. Words & music by Stuart Murdoch. Track 1 of Tigermilk, 1996.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2007.
Listen/watch here.

I would like to pretend that I'm so cool I bought Tigermilk when it was new, but of course I didn't. I did not become aware of Belle & Sebastian until I moved to Los Angeles, and heard them on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic. Around the same time, they got a funny shout-out in the movie High Fidelity:

Barry (Jack Black): Holy shite. What the fuck is that?
Dick (Todd Louiso): It's the new Belle and Sebastian...
Rob (John Cusack): It's a record we've been listening to and enjoying, Barry.
Barry: Well, that's unfortunate, because it sucks ass.

Transatlantic friends refer to them as "cardigan music," which may be a reference to the fact that the second track on this album, "Expectations," opens with the sound of Stuart Murdoch unzipping his cardigan, or maybe just to the clothing preferences of Belle & Sebastian's fans.

Anyway, I was late to them, and did not acquire Tigermilk until 2007, after my friend Kevin quoted this song to me and expressed surprise that I didn't own it. An iTunes gift certificate at Christmas remedied the omission.

"Precious" is a word I've heard used to describe Belle & Sebastian, and "twee" is another, although "twee" is one of those words that seems to mean whatever the person using it wants it to mean. But if they take themselves a little seriously, even when they're joking, what is wrong with that? I have said before in this space that I often feel wistful for the days of my adolescence, when I took myself seriously and felt I had a right to do so.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Don't listen to your teacher, you're not crazy/Just smarter than the rest of them"

The Song: "Life is Sweet," Maria McKee. Words & music by Maria McKee. Track 11 of Life is Sweet, 1996.
How/when acquired: Purchased used CD, 1999
Listen/watch here.

I bought this CD and You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, McKee's 1993 masterpiece, at Amoeba Music in Los Angeles during my month-long scouting trip in 1999, before I moved there. Life is Sweet was exactly the album I needed, and hit so close to home that the first time I listened to it, I burst into tears. (Today's quotation was almost from another song off this album, "Smarter," but it's so close to my own life story it's too personal to post here. And no, you can't listen to it online. I checked. Buy a copy if you want to know.)

Yesterday a friend asked, in an apparent non sequitur, "How patient are you?" I had no idea what he was asking. We've been friends for almost ten years, and I've been plenty patient with him in that time (as he has been with me, of course).

I gave him a blank look and he said, "Well, you're really smart. How patient are you with people who aren't as smart as you?"

Here is something that should not be a secret: I am not as smart as I pretend to be. I am not as smart as anyone thinks I am, and quite often that includes myself. I never have been. I have an uncanny verbal memory, and I'm good at words. That is not "smart." I can barely multiply two-digit numbers without a calculator. I am terrified of money. I'm an awful driver, and had no hand-eye coordination even before I started to lose my vision. I didn't learn to tie my shoes or tell time until I was well into the first grade. Anyone who has seen my apartment knows that I lack quite a few basic life skills. Everybody does certain things better than I do.

What, then, would I have to be patient about? I'm busy being grateful that people are patient with me.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"And I need a job,/So I want to be a paperback writer."

The Song: "Paperback Writer," The Beatles. Words & music by Lennon/McCartney. Single, 1966. Track 14 of The Beatles 1, 2000.
How/when acquired: Gift CD, 2000.
Listen/watch here.

That link is to a short film the Beatles themselves made to promote the single, along with one they did for the B-side, "Rain." They were arguably the first two true music videos. "Paperback Writer" is one of Paul's, though both Lennon and McCartney are credited as usual.

The great paradox of readers' conventions and book events is that they put me way behind on my reading. I have two manuscripts to finish reading for notes and a book to finish for script coverage, and I declined some books I actually want to read at Bouchercon simply because I have no idea when I'll get to them. I don't read as fast as I used to, for reasons that range from the proliferation of distractions to the fact that the way I read has changed. It's getting harder and harder for me to turn off the editor in my head, even with books I'm reading for pleasure. Earlier this year I had to set aside an award-winning debut novel because I could not restrain myself from picking up a red pen and slashing away at needless words.

A good bit of my living comes from aspiring authors, and I'm always excited to find new good work. But I worry, coming away from Bouchercon, about aspiring authors who are more interested in being read than in reading. I heard more than one say he or she was too busy writing to read, and that alarms me. I also worry about the aspiring writers who count on being able to support themselves by writing fiction, because only a fraction of the published novelists I know can do that. A couple of my friends do very well, but the vast majority still have day jobs, even with multiple titles in bookstores.

It's a great leap and a lonely effort to sit down and write a book. It's a hero's journey, and money isn't enough reason to do it, even if you sell it for hundreds of thousands of dollars — which about as likely as winning the lottery, in that we all know someone who has, but it wasn't us. It has to be about something more important, or you're almost bound to be disappointed.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"If songs were lines/In a conversation/The situation would be fine."

The Song: "Hazey Jane II," Nick Drake. Words & music by Nick Drake. Track 2 of Bryter Later, 1970.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 2004.
Listen/watch here.

I often think I'd communicate more effectively if I could just carry around my iPod and play songs for people, rather than try to put words together myself. Presumably that's the point of mix tapes, or at least the point of mix tapes that aren't assembled for the sole purpose of impressing someone with one's musical taste (I've gotten a few of those).

The music of Nick Drake (1948-74) has enjoyed something of a revival over the past decade, at least in part because it's been part of several TV advertising campaigns (VW, AT&T). But I discovered him because his music is a key element in Phil Rickman's fine novel The Wine of Angels, which launched his Merrily Watkins series. A major character in the novel (and in the series to follow) is obsessed with Nick Drake's music, and more dangerously with the legacy of his early death. I am old enough to understand that there's nothing romantic about early death; it's just wasteful, and it makes me angry as much as it makes me sad. But Rickman wrote so beautifully about the music that I had to find it for myself.

Nick Drake only made three studio albums, and I bought them all: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later, and Pink Moon. (A compilation of unreleased home recordings, Family Tree, was released in 2007; I don't have it.) The music is light but heartfelt, almost mystical, and formed the soundtrack for the six weeks I spent waiting to move from Los Angeles to Maine. Nick Drake's death — an overdose of anti-depressants — may or may not have been deliberate, but he made it clear that he never felt at home in the world. During my own period of homelessness, it was exactly what I needed.

Blatant self-promotion alert: A piece I wrote to mark Agatha Christie's 120th birthday is now up on Gale-Cengage's Books & Authors blog. Check it out here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"I'm so tired, I don't know what to do."

The song: "I'm So Tired," The Beatles. Words & music by John Lennon & Paul McCartney. Track 2 of side 2 of The Beatles (the White Album), 1968.
How/when acquired: Gift LP, c. 1979.
Listen/watch here.

I have no real memory of when or how I got this album. I think it was a gift for my 14th birthday, but that might be confabulation. If you remember giving it to me, speak up. My mother, who worked for Capitol Records before her marriage, owned all the American Beatles LPs through Beatles '65. Those records were the soundtrack of my childhood, but everything from Rubber Soul on, I found on my own.

Although credited to Lennon/McCartney (like most Beatles songs), this one is John's, and he sings it. He wrote it on that famous Transcendental Meditation retreat to India, in February-March 1968, and it's addressed to Yoko ("I wonder should I call you/But I know what you would do . . .").

On my second day home, I ought to be back to the normal routine. Instead, I woke at 4:00 a.m. for no reason, and could not get back to sleep. I got up at 6:00, had five productive hours, ran some errands, then crashed hard for about an hour and a half. Now I need to get back to work but feel fuzzy, with a catch in my breathing that bodes no good at all. I always get sick after Bouchercon, a combination of overexposure to other people, sleep deprivation, and (just possibly) alcohol abuse. I'm pounding Vitamin C and fluids, will go to bed early, and hope to catch whatever this is in the bud.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"For your kindness I'm in debt to you."

The Song: "Kind & Generous," Natalie Merchant. Words & Music by Natalie Merchant. Track 3 of Ophelia, 1998.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 1999.
Listen/watch here.

Twelve years after I first heard this song, it can still surprise me into tears. I listen to it whenever I need a reminder to be grateful, which is often.

I was telling a story at a party a couple of years ago when my friend Jenny said, "Yeah, but you live that kind of magic life." It's true. My whole life is a series of miraculous surprises, starting with my birth as an unexpected twin. From day one, the universe has come to my rescue; I try never to take it for granted, and I try to be grateful.

It happened again last night. I took buses from New York to Portland, then a cab back to the airport, where I'd left my car. I found my car, but could not find my keys.

I carry a giant black tote bag, a gift from my friend Karen L., that is something like a magician's hat. I never know exactly what's in there, and sometimes it's best not to look too closely. But I dumped the entire contents on the hood of my Beetle, sure that the keys would fall from the bottom. They didn't.

The last place I remembered having them was at the airport a week ago, so I thought it couldn't hurt to ask whether anyone had found them there and turned them in. Otherwise, they could be anywhere: on a plane, at Dulles Airport, somewhere in San Francisco, somewhere in New York City, on a bus traveling the Northeast Corridor.

"We don't have lost-and-found on site any more," the woman at the Traveler's Aid desk told me. "It got to be too much. There's an automated system. I can give you the phone number." I called it and got voice mail. I left my name, phone number, and details of what I'd lost, with no real hope that anyone would return my call.

Plan B was to return to the bus station, catch a bus to Augusta, then take a cab home and get my neighbor to let me in. I have an extra car key somewhere in the apartment (though to be honest, I don't know where), so figured I could beg another friend for a ride to Portland today to pick up my car. Dizzy wasn't scheduled for pickup until 4:00 this afternoon.

So I walked to the taxi booth, staffed by a tall, handsome older man (a man who looked very much like old pictures of my grandfather McLaughlin, in fact) named Dan, who knew I had not come in on a plane. I told him my whole sad story and he said, "Let me make a phone call. Or two, actually." He did, and asked, "How many keys were on the ring?" I told him, and added that the key ring also has an old card from the Beverly Hills Library (sentimental; I couldn't give it up). "Let's go upstairs," he said.

"They found them?" I said. "They have them?"

They did indeed. Twenty minutes later, I had ransomed my car and was headed for home. I picked up Dizzy first thing this morning, just because I missed him.

So thank you, Dan, and thank you, St. Anthony (finder of lost things), and thank you, whatever forces in the universe continue to save me from myself, time and time again. I will try not to make it so hard for you, I promise.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"From an uptown apartment to a knife on the A train/It's not that far."

The Song: "Walking Down Madison," Kirsty MacColl. Words & music by Kirsty MacColl and Johnny Marr. Track 1 of Electric Landlady, 1991.
How/when acquired: Purchased used CD, c. 1994.
Listen/watch here.

It's an interesting life I lead, I'll be the first to admit. My daily life is a constant scramble, and in many ways I live more like a college student than like a real grown-up. But I have friends and clients who are real grownups and very prosperous, and invite me into their worlds, which I appreciate very much.

Yesterday I visited one of those worlds, for a luncheon and reception to celebrate this year's winner of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, Secret Keepers by Mindy Friddle. I've been honored to serve as a judge for that award for the past two years, and Secret Keepers was one of my favorite novels of last year.

Last night's reception was a lovely event at the New York Yacht Club. I'd never been there; it is a spectacular Gilded Age building, full of America's Cup memorabilia. It's a visit to another world in many ways: dazzling, enchanting.

But New York is a city of contrasts, as Kirsty MacColl notes. From the opulence of the Yacht Club, I walked across town to the N-Q-R train, which I took to Brooklyn. Along the way I passed people sleeping on the sidewalk, tired house cleaners on their way home, parents with small children up way past a suburban bedtime, and signs in at least five different languages.

The whole world lives in New York City, but I'm headed home today.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"You think you're alone until you realize you're in it"

The Song: "Watching the Detectives," Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Words & music by Declan Patrick MacManus (Elvis Costello). Track 7 of My Aim is True, 1978 (US release).
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1987
Listen/watch here.

Music geek trivia: "Watching the Detectives" does not appear on the U.K. version of My Aim is True, but was added to the American album, released a year later. I'm a little worried that we're barely six weeks into this blog and I'm already on my second quotation from this record, but it might be possible to do an entire year of nothing but lines from Elvis Costello songs. Anyway, what could be more appropriate for a Bouchercon wrap-up post?

The highlight of this year's meeting for me was the culmination of a year-long project, a reading of "I Can't Get Started" by Declan Hughes. "I Can't Get Started" was Hughes' first play, and is a biographical riff on the last 30 years of Dashiell Hammett's life. It moves back and forth between scenes from Hammett's life with Lillian Hellman and scenes from an imaginary novel Hammett never wrote, during the years of his famous writer's block.

I first read the play after meeting Declan at the Baltimore Bouchercon in 2008, and thought it would be great to include it in the San Francisco meeting, because of Hammett's connection there. Declan gave his blessing, with the warning that he wouldn't be in San Francisco himself. I pitched it to Sarah Weinman, who thought it was a great idea and brought it to Rae Helmsworth, the conference chair. Rae liked the idea, too, and gave me a slot on the program.

The question then was how to make it happen. I had some ideas about casting, and approached a few authors; many crime writers come from backgrounds in theater and film. Martyn Waites and Alison Gaylin were enthusiastic about it from the beginning, following a three-hour breakfast at last year's Bouchercon. I approached Brett Battles, who writes great espionage thrillers and did theater in college, in the airport on the way home from Indianapolis. Queen of noir Megan Abbott was a no-brainer, but needed to be persuaded that she would be great, as did the incomparably hard-boiled Christa Faust. Declan, God bless him, changed his mind and decided to come to San Francisco after all, and he recruited his friend, international bestseller, standup comic and consummate professional Mark Billingham.

We met Saturday morning for a table read that was hilarious and reassured everyone, I hope, that this was a good idea that would come off. We had an excellent turnout for the last slot on a Saturday afternoon, and although we warned people we'd run over the 60-minute time limit (which we did, by 20 minutes), almost no one left. I could not have been more pleased with how it all went, and am so grateful to everyone involved in making it happen. My only regrets were that 1) everyone had to scatter to different obligations after the reading, so that we weren't able to congratulate each other over drinks; and 2) no one videotaped or recorded the session.

Over dinner that night, though, Mark said — and I, obviously, agree — that every Bouchercon should include something like this, maybe even more than one: sessions of actual storytelling, in addition to the endless panels in which authors talk about their process. Sessions like our reading remind everyone of what brought us to this genre to begin with, and of why it's so much fun to assemble once a year to talk about it.

Congratulations to Rae Helmsworth, Jon Jordan and Judy Bobalik on a fabulous four days. Jon and McKenna Jordan are co-chairs of next year's meeting, in St. Louis, and Judy will once again be coordinating the panels. Family obligations will keep me away next year, but it's not too soon to register yourself.

In the meantime, if you're in the Los Angeles area, you can see Declan Hughes himself at an event with author Laura Caldwell this very night at The Mystery Bookstore. 7:00 p.m., in the heart of Westwood (1036-C Broxton Avenue), with plenty of parking available. Wish I could be there.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Ah Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in/Are you aware the shape I'm in?"

The song: "I and Love and You," The Avett Brothers. Words and music by The Avett Brothers (Seth Avett, Scott Avett, Bob Crawford, Joe Kwon). Track 1 of I and Love and You, 2009.
How/when acquired: Free download, 2009.
Listen/watch here.

At dinner last night with a small group of much-loved friends, the discussion turned from popular stuff we hate (always a favorite topic) to the rare things that are both popular and excellent. I'd put this album in that category.

This track, in particular, I downloaded not because I knew anything about The Avett Brothers but because it was free. On first listen I didn't much like it. It sounded jangly and discordant, and I wasn't even sure the instruments were in tune. By the third listen, it was one of my favorite songs of the year.

This morning I'll head over to the last session of Bouchercon and say goodbye to my friends, many of whom I don't know when I'll see again. Then I'll get on a plane and fly to New York, and I'll spend tonight in Brooklyn, in the sanctuary of another friend.

I am not a demonstrative person, but have hugged more people in the last three days than I had in the previous 12 months. I almost never tell the people I care most about how I really feel, because I honestly think it would embarrass them and I know it would embarrass me. Instead I've listened to this song five times in a row while I wrote this blog post, because The Avett Brothers understand:
Three words that became hard to say:
I and love and you.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"Look, I'll call you in the morning/Or my service will explain . . . "

The Song: "Another Hundred People," Pamela Myers. Words & music by Stephen Sondheim. Track 7 of the Company soundtrack, remastered 1999.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 2007
Listen/watch here (that's a concert version with Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin, not the version I own).

Busy. Too many people to see, too many people to talk to, too many places to be. It's lovely to be in San Francisco, and I am very happy to be seeing so many friends in one place. Normal service will resume on Monday.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"She only sleeps on planes."

The Song: "Suzie Lightning," Warren Zevon. Words & music by Warren Zevon. Track 2 of Mr. Bad Example, 1991.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 1993.
Listen here.

Greetings from San Francisco. I slept all the way from Portland to Dulles, and for about two hours during the five-hour flight from Dulles to San Francisco.

Sleeping on planes is a gift I'm grateful for. I've mentioned before that this song was my personal anthem in 1994, when I spent most of the year on the road. Congress had enacted the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking & Branching Efficiency Act, and I worked for an organization that needed to explain it to our members. It might be an exaggeration, but I swear I remember spending all of January in a King Air flying around Missouri. I got snowed in for several days there, but that's a story for another time.

I don't travel anywhere near as much as I used to, and that's a mixed blessing. My basic travel skills haven't left me: I can still fit everything into one suitcase, I still remember to keep dollar bills in my pocket, I still know how to get out of people's way if they're in a bigger hurry than I am. But I do notice, when I travel, just how narrow my range of vision is becoming — literally, not metaphorically. I've also lost a lot of my old urban pedestrian instincts. I hate nothing more than looking like a tourist, and that's going to be a challenge over the next several days.

If you're at Bouchercon, please say hi. If you wave at me and I don't respond, please don't take it personally; chances are I didn't see you (see previous comment about my shrinking field of vision). And everyone has permission to poke me any time I say, "We don't have that in Maine."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"Insanity laughs, under pressure we're cracking"

The Song: "Under Pressure," Queen & David Bowie. Words & music by Queen (Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon, Roger Taylor) and David Bowie. Single, 1981; track 4 of Grosse Pointe Blank soundtrack, 1997
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 1997

I'm leaving for San Francisco on a 5:45 a.m. flight from Portland tomorrow. See you on the West Coast.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Those who find themselves ridiculous, sit down next to me."

The Song: "Sit Down," James. Words & music by James (Tim Booth, Jim Glennie, Larry Gott, Saul Davies, Mark Hunter, David Baynton-Power, Andy Diagram). Single, 1989.
How/when acquired: Purchased MP3, 2009
Listen/watch here.

James played the HFStival in 1994, and one of my most vivid memories of that day is of dozens, maybe hundreds of people literally skipping around one of the upper balconies of RFK Stadium to this song. Listening to it again makes me want to skip even now.

As I watch the coverage of this year's election cycle, what surprises me most is the tenacity of this idea that people should conform to some idealized standard lifestyle. The Republican candidate for Governor of New York is dismissing the "homosexual lifestyle," rather than talking about whatever he might have learned from dealing with the consequences of his own life choices. The independent candidate for Senator from the state of Florida got married, rather than ignore or address rumors about his personal life. Everyone seems so sure that American voters are unwilling to accept candidates as they are, rather than holding them to some weird 1950s-era standard of conformity that no longer seems to apply to anyone. That assumption, more than anything else, is causing some truly bizarre distortions in our public discourse.

Or maybe it's just me. It's true, as a close relative said recently, that my circle of acquaintances is slightly more bohemian than average. But am I really that unusual? Doesn't everyone now have friends and relatives living in ways that would have shocked 1950s suburbia? Was the idea of "normal" ever more than an illusion?

Today is National Coming Out Day, among other things. As a straight woman, I look forward to the day when we don't even need this, when it's just no big deal to be whatever kind of responsible, loving adult you are, with no need to explain it or justify it to anyone who doesn't ask.

We're all a little ridiculous. If you're willing to admit it and enjoy it, sit right next to me.

Friday, October 08, 2010

"Get smart, get scared, get lost, who cares."

The Song: "Highwire Days," The Psychedelic Furs. Words & music by John Ashton. Track 9 of Mirror Moves, 1984; track 7 of All of This and Nothing (Greatest Hits), 1988.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette (All of This and Nothing), c. 1989.
Listen/watch here.

Scrambling on many fronts between now and next Wednesday, when I leave for Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco. None of this stuff is life-threatening, I have to keep reminding myself. And time I spend banging my head on a table is time I could use to get the next thing done.

I had to double-check the date on this album: were the Psychedelic Furs already releasing a greatest-hits collection in 1988? Yes. They formed in 1977, released Forever Now (which I consider their masterpiece) in 1982, and disbanded in the early 1990s, although they've since reunited for tours. I saw them live at a converted roller rink in Adams-Morgan — in 1991, maybe? — with The Ocean Blue. I strongly suspect that Richard Butler was under the influence of something stronger than alcohol, though it was an excellent show.

I saw Richard Butler as part of his next band, Love Spit Love, in the old 9:30 Club before it moved. In fact, that was the first rock show I ever went to by myself. Everybody should do that once, but I don't recommend it. It's not like the movies; live performances are much more fun with friends.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

"Wake up, put your shoes on/Take a breath of the northern air."

The Song: "Smile," The Jayhawks. Words & music by Gary Louris. Track 1 of Smile, 2000.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 2004.
Listen/watch here. (That's a live version that is a little janglier than the album cut, set to scenes from David Lynch's The Straight Story. The album version is here.)

For some reason I pull this album out around this time every year, when I start waking up in the dark. The days shorten fast up here; if I wake up at 6:00 a.m. (my usual time), I've got 43 minutes of darkness before the sun shows up. Dizzy's night vision is declining as fast as my own, maybe even faster. He won't take the stairs in the dark, so we wait for sunrise to start the day in earnest.

I bought this CD at the same time I bought the Blue Nile's High, from the Best Buy in Westwood as I prepared to move across the country. It became part of the soundtrack of that move, and still has an almost magical power to make me feel better during times of frustration and confusion. The chorus of this song feels like advice from friends I've never met:
Chin up, chin up
You don't really have a problem
Chin up, chin up
In your hour of despair
And smile when you're down and out . . .

All set to a wall of music that feels like ocean waves, lifting us up despite ourselves.

Doesn't it feel like we're all due for a little good news? I feel that way, anyway. If you've got any, share it in the comments section.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

"If you want the things you love/You must have showers."

The song: "Pennies from Heaven," Frank Sinatra. Words & music by Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston. Track 7 of Songs for Swingin' Lovers, 1956.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1998.
Listen/watch here.

The rain hasn't started yet, but it's supposed to rain all day today and all day tomorrow. It's a good day for lounge music, but most days are good days for lounge music.

Aren't we about due for another revival of Cocktail Nation? It's been 14 years since Swingers set off the last one, and the deaths of Eddie Fisher and Tony Curtis remind me once again of how cool everybody was back then. Repressed, oppressed, suppressed, and all the rest of it — which was why people drank so much and died of heart attacks in their early 50s — but man, they looked good while they were doing it.

"Pennies from Heaven" was originally recorded by Bing Crosby in 1936, at the depths of the Depression. By the time Frank Sinatra recorded it, 20 years later, it was already a nostalgia piece. Did people living through the Depression know it was a depression, or was that just a label applied after the war started and recovery began? Twenty years from now, will we call this era the Second Great Depression?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

"I'm sorry I missed you/I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain."

The Song: "Secret Meeting," The National. Words & music by The National (Matt Berninger, Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Scott Devendorf, Bryan Devendorf). Track 1 of Alligator, 2005.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2007
Listen/watch here.

I believe that my brother-in-law Scott first brought The National to my attention, although it might have been my friend Tom, or my friend John. They are the quintessential sensitive-guy band of the turn of the 21st century, and speak directly to my specific subculture of anxious, over-educated white people.

"Secret Meeting" is a song about the voices in one's head that keep us from connecting with people we might want to know, people who might wish us well.
I think this place is full of spies
I think they're onto me
Didn't anybody, didn't anybody tell you
Didn't anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room

That ability to disappear gracefully in a room is valuable for people like me, who gather information as a bulwark against anxiety. Better to be one of the spies surrounding this song's singer than have other people watching you, although the line between paranoia and delusional narcissism is a fine one.

But this song is also about that moment when we realize our brains have tricked us into misperception, and that the world is going on without us while we're locked in our own craziness. I had a moment like that this morning, where suddenly things seemed to clear. It might just be that the weather is beautiful again; it might be that I finally seem to have found an over-the-counter allergy medicine that's working. It might be the sense of making some progress on some long-term tasks, or the fact that it's only a week until I'll be seeing many of my closest friends at Bouchercon in San Francisco.

But for the moment, at least, the secret meeting in my brain has gone the dull and wicked ordinary way, and is adjourned to the call of the chair.

Monday, October 04, 2010

"Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking/When I hear the silly things that you say."

The Song: "Alison," Elvis Costello. Words & music by Declan Patrick MacManus (Elvis Costello). Track 5 of My Aim is True, 1978 (US release).
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1987
Listen/watch here.

I watched the Sunday morning news shows yesterday instead of going to Mass. My mistake.

Elvis Costello was 23 when he recorded this song, which regularly makes lists of the best pop songs of all time. Like much of humanity's greatest artistic achievements, it seems inspired by a painful breakup. The singer of "Alison" suggests that he plans a more permanent remedy to his heartache — the last line, which provided the album's title, is "My aim is true." Better for all of us that Elvis Costello chose music instead of bullets as his weapon.

I bought this cassette from a cut-out bin — probably at Kemp Mill Records in Georgetown, if that store was still open in 1987. Kemp Mill was probably the most important music retailer in the Washington, DC area during the 1970s and '80s; they expanded and collapsed, and now seem to have only one physical store, in Hillcrest Heights, MD.

This weekend I saw The Social Network, which posits that the entire Facebook empire happened because of a breakup. It's a terrific movie; I'd heard so much about it I thought it was bound to be oversold, but no. Even if you take it as fiction (which is probably safest), it's an important picture of the transformation of information delivery in the first decade of the 21st century. Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster, tells the movie's main character that he destroyed the record companies and changed the music business forever, and it's hard to deny that.

Still, I miss the old Kemp Mill stores. I miss cut-out bins. I miss the adventure of walking into a store with five bucks in my pocket, pawing through a box of old cassette tapes and coming away with treasure. Browsing iTunes offers nothing like that experience.

Friday, October 01, 2010

"Just a few more weary days and then/I'll fly away."

The Song: "I'll Fly Away," Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch. Words & music by Albert E. Brumley. Track 9 of O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album, 2000.
How/when acquired: Inherited CD, 2006.
Listen/watch here.

It's the end of a long week, made longer by the news this morning of Stephen J. Cannell's passing. He was a regular visitor to The Mystery Bookstore, a living legend, and a true gentleman.

"I'll Fly Away" is a Baptist hymn that may be the single most-recorded gospel song. (Check out Kanye West's surprising cover here, and Johnny Cash's here.) This version is part of the phenomenal soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers' Depression-era riff on the Odyssey.

I bought this CD as a gift for my mother, either for her birthday or Mother's Day. I took it back when we divided her belongings after she passed away — but it's not on my shelf, which makes me think I must have passed it along again, maybe to one of my siblings.

Anyway, it cheers me up, which is handy on this rainy day.