Monday, January 31, 2011

"All alone in a world that's changed/Running scared, now forced to hide/In a land where he once stood with pride."

The Song: "Will the Wolf Survive?", Los Lobos. Words & music by David Hidalgo and Louie Perez. Track 11 of How Will the Wolf Survive?, 1984.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1985.
Listen/watch here.

Memory's not reliable. I have a vivid memory of listening to this tape on a Greyhound bus from Norfolk to Washington, DC, one winter while I was in college. I was sure it was January 1983, when I returned early from Christmas break for play rehearsals; for years, I've associated this tape with learning my lines for Loot, Mask & Bauble's February 1983 production.

As it turns out, the album didn't even come out until a year later, in 1984. I certainly didn't own any kind of personal stereo until 1985, at the earliest; I think I bought my first Walkman knockoff with earnings from my summer job that year. So my vivid memory of memorizing lines to the beat of Los Lobos is a lie. Which makes me wonder what else I remember that simply isn't true.

Tomorrow, after the Mystery Bookstore closes, Westwood will no longer have any off-campus bookstores. Westwood used to be the heart of the Los Angeles book community; someone said on Saturday that they remembered a time when Westwood had five bookstores, within walking distance of each other.

People say that independent bookstores cannot survive in this new environment, with so much competition from online sellers and e-readers. I don't believe this. I agree that the old models don't work any more, but I see stores finding new models, with new ways to remind people that it's still a great thing to be able to walk into a place that sells and promotes and believes in books. In fact, I'd argue that there's never been a more interesting or exciting time to be an independent bookseller, because I see new opportunities popping up all over the place.

E-readers aren't replacing print books. They might be cutting into the sales of print books, but I see e-readers sparking a renaissance of reading, as people remember how much fun it is to get lost in a story. And if you really love a book in e-format, you're going to want a print copy, so you can hand it to someone or leave it to your kid or just take it down off the shelf once in a while to find that passage you loved most.

It's not like music. The listening experience is the same whether you're listening to an MP3 or a CD; audiophiles can talk about albums vs. singles, digital vs. analog, the warmth of vinyl vs. the austerity of electronics, etc., etc., but the average person doesn't know or care whether they're listening to a digital device or an analog one.

Books are different. Books are both useful and decorative. Books are, as my friend John says, an optimal delivery system. Reading an electronic screen is not the same sensory experience. No matter how much people love their e-readers — and I love my iPad with a foolish, cultlike passion — the e-reader will never be a tactile pleasure in the way that books are.

People will keep buying books. People will still want a place to come for recommendations and conversation and that joyful shock of recognition that comes only when someone puts a book in your hand and says, "Have you read this?"

The world has changed. The wolf will survive. Maybe not in Westwood, but the wolf will survive.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"And it's one more day up in the canyon/And it's one more night in Hollywood/It's been so long since I've seen the ocean/Guess I should."

The Song: "A Long December," Counting Crows. Words & music by Matt Malley, Charlie Gillingham, Dan Vickrey, Adam Duritz, Ben Mize, David Bryson. Track 13 of Recovering the Satellites, 1996.
When/how acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1997.
Listen/watch here.

I did see the Pacific Ocean yesterday, from the back deck of my friend Gary's house, and then when I walked down to meet my friend Ann Marie for brunch at Patrick's Roadhouse, and again when I rode down Ocean Avenue to the Third Street Promenade.

Coming back to Los Angeles in winter, I notice two things immediately: how full of color everything is and how much money everybody seems to have.

"When I come to Los Angeles, I covet things," I said yesterday. Everybody seems to have so much stuff, and the landscape is full of stores and billboards and signs inviting us to buy more, more, more. I saw not one but two Bentleys yesterday, one black and one white. Those are $200,000 cars. Who has $200,000 to spend on a car? And why would you, if you could?

And yet . . . and yet . . . the danger of Los Angeles is that we see these cars on the street and think, My God, what a thing of beauty — because they really are. And then we (or at least I) think, Somebody owns that. Somebody gets to drive that around. From which it is only a small step — again, at least for me — to thinking, Why can't I have that?

Which is why it's much better for my soul and my peace of mind that I live in central Maine.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

"And the lights of L.A. County/They look like diamonds in the sky"

The Song: "L.A. County," Lyle Lovett. Words & music by Lyle Lovett. Track 5 of Pontiac, 1990.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1990
Listen/watch here.

You can't beat Lyle Lovett for the perfect combination of good humor and rage. This is the happiest song about homicide I've ever heard.

The lights of L.A. County stretch out as far as the eye can see, when you're flying into LAX at midnight. We landed in fog so dense the world outside the plane looked like nothing but twinkle lights (though, to be fair, that's pretty much what the night looks like to me anyway).

I'm here, anyway, and will not have time to process the culture shock before heading back on Tuesday. But I'll roll with it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

"Going to California with an aching in my heart."

The Song: "Going to California," Led Zeppelin. Words & music by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Track 7 of Led Zeppelin IV, 1971.
How/when acquired: Purchased MP3, 2002.
Listen/watch here.

I've never been a Led Zeppelin fan. I can admire much of the music objectively, but most of it has never connected with me. It's Big Swinging Dick music, and nothing summed up my feelings better than the Viking kittens version of "Immigrant Song."

Still, context is everything. Over Thanksgiving 2001 my cousins, friends and I rented a cabin in Yosemite, and spent the weekend eating, drinking, hiking, drinking and consoling each other and ourselves for the losses of that terrible autumn. Our friend Hugh, a professional film editor (among other things), recorded a lot of it on video, and cut it together to make a short film. This song was the soundtrack for shots of us hiking a mountain trail. I had never really listened to it before, but it was perfect for the purpose, wistful and hopeful at the same time.

I've always said that California is the American version of the French Foreign Legion. It's what we do when we can't think what to do next, when our hearts are permanently broken and our dreams disappointed for what seems to be the last time. A voice deep within us says, Move to California. Things will be better there. California is the end of the line, the American dream distilled.

This afternoon I'm going to California for the final weekend of The Mystery Bookstore. It's a trip I can't afford to make, but can't afford not to. I'd no more miss it than I'd skip a family funeral.

Posting's been scarce the last couple of weeks, and I realized this morning that it's because I've been spending so much time and energy filtering what I say about all of this. I am sad and I am angry. I'm angry about a lot of things that can't be changed or fixed, and won't be helped by anything I say.

This much, however, I do want to say. The Mystery Bookstore had thousands of people on its electronic mailing list, thousands of people who got its newsletter every month and the updates once a week. These newsletters included lists of forthcoming books, plot summaries and recommendations from booksellers. They were free to anyone who asked for them, part of the cost of doing business. I wrote them, not for free but for a pittance, for an hourly rate barely above the minimum wage.

And the vast majority of people who got those newsletters — the vast majority, it's not an exaggeration — took that information and those recommendations and bought online.

Money is tight. I understand that better than most. But in this online era where "content wants to be free," it still costs money to produce content. People's time is worth money. People's expertise is worth money. In the old model, sales were the reward for that time and expertise. Now it's taken for granted, and nothing supports it. People will say it's no longer even necessary; the work I used to do for an hourly wage is now done for free by book bloggers whose only compensation might be free books. If people are willing to do work for free, it makes no sense to pay anyone for it, no matter how little you're paying. Right?

Maybe that's true. What I know is true is that we pay for the things we value, and what we don't pay for, we don't value. What we don't value goes away. If we really don't value it, we don't miss it.

But I'll miss The Mystery Bookstore.

The Mystery Bookstore will close for good on Monday, January 31. I'll be there on Saturday afternoon for the last formal event, when T. Jefferson Parker signs his latest book, BORDER LORDS, and I'll be there most of the day on Monday. Almost everything in the store is currently discounted by 35%, and many older hardcovers have been marked down to a dollar. The store is at 1036-C Broxton Avenue in Westwood, and ample parking is available in the structure above the store.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"'Cause I want to live inside the world/I want to act like a real girl"

The Song: "Dreams Are Not My Home," Rosanne Cash. Words & music by Rosanne Cash. Track 9 of Black Cadillac, 2006.
When/how acquired: Gift CD, 2006
Listen/watch here.

This CD, a memorial to Rosanne Cash's parents, came out within a month of my own mother's death. Jennifer Lechner gave it to me. I played it pretty much nonstop for about six months, and bought copies for all my siblings. Even now, phrases from it can punch me in the gut.

I've been listening to Rosanne Cash's audiobook reading of her memoir, COMPOSED, and it's been catching me the same way. I'm overwhelmed by the generosity of it, the balance she strikes between a clear-eyed willingness to sit in judgment over her choices and a profound tenderness toward her younger self. She manages to find the universal in her extraordinary life. At the end of this book, I'll probably write her a thank-you note.

Early in the book she writes about that sense of not knowing how to be a girl, in the way that other girls seemed to. It's always been a mystery to me, too. Princess stuff makes me angry; makeup baffles me; years ago I ceded defeat in the battle of my hair, and wear it in a careless way that becomes increasingly inappropriate with age. Even the name of this blog was meant to be ironic, because although I am happy to be a woman, I was never any good at being a girl. Too blunt, too independent, too critical and probably too lazy.

But I still feel a little wistful about it. Jewelry will always look silly on me; I never did learn to walk in really high heels; and even my lifelong search for the perfect handbag has always been about something other than fashion.

It's snowing again. Weather permitting (and it may not), I'm hoping to get to Boston tonight for the launch of Daniel Palmer's first novel, DELIRIOUS. If you're in the area, you should go: Borders downtown, 511 Boylston, at 7:00 p.m. Dan's a client and a friend, and I'm proud of the work he did on DELIRIOUS. Check it out.

Monday, January 24, 2011

"A man can be happy with the weather/As long as it doesn't snow."

The Song: Yeasayer, "Wait for the Wintertime." Words & music by Yeasayer (Anand Wilder, Chris Keating, Luke Fasano, & Ira Wolf Tuton). Track 8 of All Hour Cymbals, 2007.
How/when acquired: Gift CD, 2008.
Listen/watch here.

I beg to differ. It's not snowing, but I'm not happy. I put off walking Dizzy this morning for as long as I could, until he was yelping and frantic, but the thermometer still read -11F when we left the apartment. After an hour of sunshine, it's warmed up to -9.

How cold is -11? Cold enough to make you unpleasantly aware not only of the hair in your nostrils, but of the hair in your ears as well. Cold enough to make you feel every piece of dental work in your mouth and every healed fracture in every bone you ever broke. Cold enough to fog up your sunglasses just from the warmth of your skin. Cold enough to make you want to hurt something as bad as you hurt.

I have to go out again in about an hour. Between now and then, I need to take a shower, and really ought to wash my hair. I don't own a bonnet hairdryer, and I just pray I have enough time to blowdry every drop of moisture out of the hair on my head.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"I've been too long without summer/In this winter home."

The Song: "Till it Shines," Lyle Lovett & Keb' Mo'. Words & music by Bob Seger. Track 8 of Smile: Songs from the Movies, Lyle Lovett, 2003.
How/when acquired: Gift CD, 2008.
Listen/watch here.

Bob Seger's original of this is excellent, too, but I don't own it. This cover is from the soundtrack to the underrated Mumford, where it plays over the closing credits. Lyle Lovett and Keb' Mo' are a magic combination. I wish they'd record a whole album together.

My twin sister called last night just to make sure I was okay, because I hadn't posted since Tuesday. Sorry about that. I just haven't had anything to say, and feel as if I've spent most of the past four days dealing with the weather. We had another 10 inches of snow yesterday, which required shoveling approximately every two hours just to keep up with it. My building's roof is overwhelmed, the gutters are clogged with ice, and a row of icicles has laid a half-inch sheet of ice across the deck in front of my front door and my next door neighbor's.

I grew up in Virginia Beach. I don't have the slightest idea of what to do about any of this. I've sent an emergency email to my landlords, who are also friends, and I hope they'll know.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Too many sad days/Too many Tuesday mornings"

The Song: "Tuesday Morning," The Pogues. Words & music by Spider Stacy. Track 1 of Waiting for Herb, 1993.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 1993.
Listen/watch here.

The words are wistful, the melody's cheerful; this song has been a staple in my "Music for a Bad Mood" playlist for almost 20 years now. (Ouch.) If you'd like to make your own "Music for a Bad Mood" playlist, I follow this song with the Psychedelic Furs' "Pretty in Pink" — it's a good segue from one riff to another, I think.

We're about to get another storm here, snow followed by freezing rain and ice pellets. With luck I will be able to get to and from tutoring, and get my errands run before anything starts falling from the sky.

It would not be accurate to say that I feel sad. I feel okay, other than the last of the cold that's hanging around the back of my throat. But everything is harder than it should be, which I know is winter blues. I keep saying that this is the year I get a light box, but I never do it until the season catches me, and then I lose the motivation. The world operates on momentum, and I need to get some back.

Monday, January 17, 2011

"It's been a long, long time coming/But I know a change is gonna come."

The Song: "A Change is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke. Words & music by Sam Cooke. Track 29 of Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964, 2005. (Originally released as Track 1, Side 2 of Ain't That Good News, 1964, but I don't own that.)
How/when acquired: Gift MP3, 2007.
Listen/watch here.

The first version of this song I owned was actually The Neville Brothers' cover, released as track 4 of Yellow Moon (1989). Yellow Moon is another essential blues/soul CD, but I'll get to it eventually.

Sam Cooke's a fascinating guy, shot down under mysterious circumstances at the age of 33. My mother loved his early gospel music with The Soul Stirrers. Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of her death, which doesn't seem possible; I still pick up the phone a couple of times a month, thinking it's been too long since I called her.

We celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, and that seems more important rather than less as we get further away from 1968. My earliest memories date to 1968, sometime before my third birthday. They're not coherent narratives, they're just images, and I'm not completely sure what I remember independently and what are memories created by old photographs. I do remember the pocketbook I carried at Easter that year, shiny black patent leather that matched the ribbon on my hat. I do remember not liking my hat, which was white with a black ribbon, and wanting my twin sister Kathy's, which (I think) was yellow.

Easter 1968 fell on April 14, ten days after Dr. King's assassination. I don't remember anything specific about Dr. King's assassination. What I remember is that we got a puppy for Easter, an Alaskan husky-German shepherd mix my mother called Boyfriend. It was a joke between my parents, but it must have been something more, too. Mom was newly pregnant with what would turn out to be my sisters Peggy and Susan, born in November. Daddy was on the USS Austin, which was in and out of port all through the first half of 1968, running training exercises and making trips to the Caribbean. Boyfriend would grow up to be a very big dog, and while he was so gentle he let Kathy and me try to ride him, he looked like a white wolf.

I remember the tension of that time, even though I didn't know what it was about. Kathy and I once ran away from the trash collectors, because they were dark and the truck was loud and the whole idea of garbage men seemed scary. It was Mom who explained that different skin colors were nothing to be afraid of, and that the garbage men were husbands and fathers doing a job, just the same as our own father.

It's not true that children have to be taught to hate and fear. The opposite is true: children have to be taught not to. Any animal's natural response to the unfamiliar is to fear it and flee it. It's every American's responsibility to learn for ourselves, and teach each other, that colors and cultures different from ours don't have to be unfamiliar, and aren't scary. The different is not the enemy. We need this holiday to remind us.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

"And we could be diving for pearls . . ."

The Song: "Shipbuilding," Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Words & music by Clive Langer & Elvis Costello. Track 6 of Punch the Clock, 1983; track 18 of The Best of Elvis Costello & the Attractions, 1990
How/when acquired: Purchased LP, c. 1984; purchased CD, 1990.
Watch/listen here.

Did you know that Chet Baker played on Punch the Clock? Well, he did. You can hear him on the album version of "Shipbuilding." Unfortunately, that's not the link above, but you should own this song in some format anyway. You can listen to Elvis Costello and Clive Langer talk about the song here. It's about men returning to work to build ships for the Falklands War. The words are almost optimistic, but the song itself is profoundly sad.

It's been a tough week for a lot of people I know. Both Dizzy and I have colds, and I'm as tired as if I'd spent the last several days boxing. My attention span is not what it should be, and I've been editing and reading at a pace so slow it frustrates me.

Still, here are three good books I've read since the beginning of the year.

Good Books I've Read Lately

James Hynes, NEXT. This novel showed up on several "Best of 2010 lists," including that of my friend Tod Goldberg, who said it was the best book he'd read all year. It's a book by a man, about a man, for men, but I'm surprised that I haven't seen any reviews comparing it to MRS. DALLOWAY, which it owes a lot to. It's the story of a single day in the life of Kevin Quinn, a middle-aged journal editor who lands in Austin, TX for a job interview. NEXT starts out as one kind of book, and lulls the reader into thinking they know what's happening — just as Kevin thinks he knows what's happening, just as he thinks he knows who he is and who he will be. He doesn't, and we don't, and as his world takes a sharp and unexpected turn, this book becomes something quite extraordinary.

Armistead Maupin, MARY ANN IN AUTUMN. Don't try to read this book unless you've read Maupin's earlier books about the residents of Barbary Lane; the book might stand on its own, but why would you want it to? If home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in, San Francisco is home for Mary Ann Singleton, even after 20 years away. She returns to the city in personal and physical crisis, and finds that the past is still very much present, in unexpected ways. It's always a pleasure to spend time with these characters, and if the world spares them more often than not, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Michael Ruhlman, THE SOUL OF A CHEF. This was one of four books I got for Christmas (and thank you all very much!). Ruhlman, a food writer trained as a chef, gives us in-depth looks at the lives and backgrounds of three American chefs. The first section, on the Certified Master Chef examination, is as tense as any thriller. The second, on Cleveland's Michael Symon and his restaurant, Lola, is a fascinating portrait of a working restaurant. The third, on Thomas Keller and the French Laundry, feels like excerpts from a much longer work, and probably are (Ruhlman is co-author of The French Laundry Cookbook). Great reading for anyone interested in food, but I wish that a copy editor had been more rigorous about Ruhlman's verb tenses, and that a proofreader had been more careful with the entire manuscript.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"And each time I feel like this inside,/There's one thing I wanna know:/What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?"

The Song: "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," Elvis Costello & the Attractions. Words & music by Nick Lowe. Track 13 of Armed Forces (U.S. version), 1979.
How/when acquired: Purchased cut-out cassette, c. 1984.
Listen/watch here.

You know what, this whole week will be nothing but Elvis Costello songs. I've said before that I could do an entire year of nothing but Elvis Costello songs; that might be excessive, but at the moment I'm on a roll. Nick Lowe wrote this song and recorded the first version, and many other artists have covered it, but Elvis Costello's is the definitive interpretation. The song is not on the original U.K. issue of Armed Forces, but was added to the U.S. album after it became a hit single.

I am so very tired of the knee-jerk righteous indignation that spews from both sides of the political debate any time a public figure opens his or her mouth.

What a relief, then, to hear President Obama sound presidential last night. In lieu of a substantive post of my own, I'm just going to reprint the relevant paragraphs of last night's speech:

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Not all good things come to an end now it is/Only a chosen few."

The Song: "Almost Blue," Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Words & music by Elvis Costello. Track 6 of Imperial Bedroom, 1982.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, 1983
Watch/listen here.

A word about Imperial Bedroom, one of the best albums of all time. My high school boyfriend owned it on vinyl, and we listened to it almost nonstop during the second half of the summer of 1982. It came with a lyrics sheet, unpunctuated words scrawled closely together in what appeared to be Costello's own handwriting. This song felt like a portent of adulthood. Twenty-nine years later, it feels like a distillation of something more true than words.

The Mystery Bookstore announced yesterday that it will close on January 31.

In the summer of 1999, as I visited Los Angeles and fantasized about running away to the circus, I walked into a dark, narrow store on Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood. THE MYSTERIOUS BOOKSHOP, the sign said; Washington, DC had only recently lost a mystery bookstore of its own.

I chatted with the clerk, who sold me a signed copy of L.A. Requiem and a paperback of Gone, Baby, Gone. I told him I was thinking about moving to Los Angeles. He said, in a tone I couldn't quite figure out, that Los Angeles had a lot of transplants already.

We didn't introduce ourselves, but that was Richard Brewer, the store's assistant manager. Six months later, I had moved to Los Angeles, and was living within walking distance of the store. I knew Richard's name, and that of Sheldon McArthur, the store's irascible manager. Times were hard: the store's New York owner had decided to close the Los Angeles branch.

A group of loyal customers rallied to buy the store, with Shelly as managing partner and Richard as assistant manager. They needed help. I was freelancing from home and needed to get out more, so I volunteered. I didn't even need to be paid, I said. They could pay me in books.

They did pay me, of course — not much, but they didn't let me work for free. My real compensation from The Mystery Bookstore, though, was a ticket into the world of books, the world of authors and readers and people who cared passionately about the printed page and the creative process. As it turned out, The Mystery Bookstore was the circus I ran away to.

I didn't leave it even when I moved to Maine. I've continued to write the store's weekly and monthly newsletters, and went back whenever I could for major events: the L.A. Times Festival of Books, the annual holiday party, friends' and clients' book launches. All of the book work I do now, I owe to The Mystery Bookstore; my first book editing project came out of a conversation with Scott Phillips one slow afternoon in the store. Over the past 11 years, the store has been the one constant of my working life, as other clients and projects came and went. My association with The Mystery Bookstore been more valuable to me than I can say, and I owe the store more than I could ever repay.

My friend Tod Goldberg describes the store as "a public trust" over on his blog today. I felt that way too. I think we all did. Certainly the current manager, Bobby McCue, and assistant manager Linda Brown feel that way. Owners changed, managers changed, but no one ever really quit the Mystery Bookstore; we all came back, because the store was something more than a business.

But it was a business, and now the business is closing.

I'm planning to fly out for the store's final weekend, at the end of the month. T. Jefferson Parker is the store's last formal event, signing at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 29. See you there?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Nobody was saying anything at all/We were waiting for the end of the world."

The Song: "Waiting For the End of the World," Elvis Costello. Words & music by Elvis Costello. Track 12 of My Aim is True, 1978.
How/when acquired: Purchased cut-out cassette, 1984.
Watch/listen here.

January's a tough month; my brother James calls it "Suckuary." It ought to be a month of new beginnings — and it is, in many ways — but it's also a month when all the people and things who'd been holding on through the holidays break down, give up, admit defeat and die. And in the northern hemisphere, at least, days are short, nights are long, and temperatures are cold. Grim.

Sorry. Today's post is not only late, but a last-minute substitution for another post I'd had ready to go, in anticipation of news that's been pending since last week.

As a public relations professional, I offer this advice for free: when you have bad news to announce, do it quickly and simply. Don't explain, don't apologize, just report the information and move on to what you plan to do about it. Give people the courtesy and respect of letting them react and adjust as early as they can. If you can help them, great. Explaining, apologizing and asking for forgiveness don't count as helping.

Sorry to be cryptic. I personally am fine. More will be — should be — clear tomorrow.

Monday, January 10, 2011

"And I said to myself, 'What's the matter here?'"

The Song: "What's the Matter Here?" Words & music by Natalie Merchant and Robert Buck. Track 1 of In My Tribe, 1987.
How/when acquired: Illegally copied cassette, 1988; purchased CD, c. 1991. (My cassette has "Peace Train" on it; the CD doesn't.)
Listen/watch here.

I spent most of Saturday glued to coverage of the shootings in Tucson, on TV, radio and online. The 24-hour news media didn't acquit itself well, rushing to report that Rep. Giffords had been killed when she was still alive, offering conflicting reports about the number of victims and the number of suspects, and generally reminding me of the value of newspapers. Finally I remembered that I was choosing to consume this stream of media, and switched away to something less scary: a rebroadcast of The Exorcist on Spike TV.

Speed kills, as the signs used to say. Whatever else I took away from the events of this weekend, what I feel is the overwhelming need to take a deep breath and slow. down. The fact that we can communicate with each other instantaneously does not mean that we should. Anything worth doing takes time: learning, cooking, building, editing, writing, thinking. Creation takes time. Change takes time.

I'm writing this for my own benefit more than for anyone else's, because I am among the worst offenders. Emails don't need immediate responses. No one needs to be on Twitter. I need to spend more time thinking and less time reacting. I'm probably not the only one, but I'm the only one whose behavior I can control.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

"For reasons I cannot explain/There's some part of me wants to see/Graceland."

The Song: "Graceland," Paul Simon. Words & music by Paul Simon. Track 2 of Graceland, 1986.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, 1986.
Listen here.

Today is Elvis Presley's 76th birthday. Happy birthday, sir, wherever you are. The only Elvis recordings I own are on a cassette of Christmas music, but this song feels more appropriate anyway.

I tell everyone that they need to see Graceland. I never felt particularly interested in Elvis Presley until my brother Ed and I visited his home, at the edge of a residential neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee.

Whatever you expect Graceland to be, it is not. It's relatively modest, for one thing, a brick center-hall Colonial similar to those many of my schoolmates grew up in. The furnishings are very much of their time (early-mid 1970s), but not particularly garish. The grounds are beautiful, and the famous gate is weirdly out-of-place, installed only to keep curious fans at bay. The house looks exactly like what it was: a family home.

Graceland is worth visiting, first of all, because it gives you a real sense of Elvis Presley the man, and how he struggled with his public image. I did not understand until I walked through his home that Elvis worked really hard, and never took any of it for granted. He was grateful, and he was humble, and he was scared. His private life was a constant effort to improve himself, through reading and karate lessons and the three television sets in his TV room. He was a prisoner of his fame as much as a beneficiary of it, and he must have been terribly lonely. Most of all, I came away from Graceland with the impression of a man who had meant well.

The author and music critic Jim Fusilli, whom I know and like (and whose novels you should read), wrote a thoughtful piece for the Wall Street Journal this week in which he observed that by the end of Elvis Presley's career, he'd become the first Elvis Presley impersonator. I think about this all the time, and it's a question you can't avoid at Graceland: do all great success stories inevitably become parodies of themselves?

Friday, January 07, 2011

"I was born like this, I had no choice/Born with the gift of a golden voice..."

The Song: "Tower of Song," Robert Forster. Words & music by Leonard Cohen. Track 12 of I'm Your Fan, 1991.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, 1991.
Watch/listen here (that's Leonard Cohen singing with U2; I couldn't find a sample of the Robert Forster cover, which is what I'm listening to).

One of many things I love about Leonard Cohen is his sense of humor about himself. This line, sung by him, is an obvious joke; his voice has its own cracked beauty, but no objective listener would call it golden.

It's one reason so many artists have covered his songs. I own a few collections of Leonard Cohen covers; I'm Your Fan and Jennifer Warnes' Famous Blue Raincoat are my favorites. I bought I'm Your Fan as a new cassette, and it includes my favorite versions of "Chelsea Hotel" (Lloyd Cole's) and "I Can't Forget" (The Pixies) as well as this version of "Tower of Song."

This song was in my head this morning as I watched the latest of many news stories about Ted Williams, the homeless man with the amazing voice. In the past 72 hours, Mr. Williams has been taken off the street and given opportunities beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Yes, it's a magical story. I can't shake the feeling that it won't end well.

Mr. Williams, God help him, is an addict. Addicts can and do recover, sure. Look at Robert Downey, Jr., whose recovery is nothing short of miraculous. And yes, people become homeless for all kinds of reasons. But a certain percentage of homeless people are homeless because they've let everyone close to them down; because they've disappointed and alienated everyone who tried to help them; because they let every second, third and fourth chance slip through their fingers, or drowned them in a bottle, or shot them into a vein.

I'm not saying we shouldn't keep trying to help. Having been through this with an old friend over the past year, though, I'm skeptical about how long magical happy endings last.

Still, he really does have a golden voice. We'll be hearing a lot of it in the next few months. I just hope it doesn't become something that haunts us.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

"You know he'll always keep moving/You know he's never gonna stop moving . . ."

The Song: "Baker Street," Gerry Rafferty. Words & music by Gerry Rafferty. Track 2 of City to City, 1978.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, c.2008.
Listen here.

Someone in my childhood home owned a copy of the City to City LP, and I think it might even have been my mother. Siblings, do you remember? I have vivid memories of this song and "Right Down the Line" playing on the car radio (WTAR-AM, when they still played music) as we drove around town in Mom's Ford LTD station wagon. If I close my eyes, I can smell the interior of that car, black vinyl and mud and cigarettes and God knows what else.

Gerry Rafferty was only 63, and in a way he seems to have died from success. The news reports say that "Baker Street" alone still brought him $125,000 a year, enough that he never had to work again. Alcohol and fear and who knows what other personal demons did the rest.

It's a strange and wonderful thing to create a work of art that people love. I think about this a lot, as someone in service to artists. Many might say — and I might agree — that since most of us can't create a work of art once, it is understandable and forgivable if an artist chooses to stop at one, or stop at two. Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and quit. Charles Laughton directed the strange and wonderful Night of the Hunter and never directed again.

Gerry Rafferty recorded City to City, and although he made seven albums after that, this obituary makes it sound as if he knew he had peaked, and found it harder and harder to keep trying. No one had the power to give him permission to stop, or forgive him for stopping.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

"It's times like these when the temperatures freeze/I sit alone gazing at the world through a storm window."

The Song: "Storm Windows," John Prine. Words & music by John Prine. Track 7 of Storm Windows, 1980; Track 7, disc/cassette 2 of Great Days, 1993.
How/when acquired: Purchased LP (Storm Windows), 1981; purchased cassette (Great Days), 1993.
Listen here.

So what if you're not a country music fan? If you can't find something to love in John Prine's music, I don't think we should be friends anymore. I saved my babysitting money to buy this album, which I think I still have. (My LPs are stored in a cedar chest that currently has a shameful pile of laundry on top of it. I could check, but it would mean doing something about the laundry.)

My CDs are alphabetized by artist, but I could just as easily arrange them according to my checkered romantic history. Quite a lot — maybe even most — of my music collection, especially from the early years, is a direct result of trying to impress/communicate with/understand the object of my affections at the time. I was a geeky, broke teenager who grew up to be a geeky, broke adult. I could not dazzle boys with clothes or makeup or fancy hair, and never cared enough about sports to be the Jock Girl. I could spend five bucks (later eight bucks, later 14 bucks, never mind) on their kind of music.

At the risk of embarrassing an old friend, I'll give Art Coulson credit for introducing me to John Prine. Art is a good writer and a citizen activist and a fine, upstanding family man; you should hire him for all your media needs in the Upper Midwest. Thirty years ago, though, he was a skinny kid with a guitar and a smart mouth. I thought he walked on water. If he loved John Prine, so would I, and 30 years later I still do. So thanks, Art.

The thaw over the weekend melted much (but not even most) of the snow central Maine got while I was away. Temperatures dropped again the other night, and now all of Gardiner's side streets have rivers of ice along their edges, where Dizzy and I usually walk. Dizzy's claws usually act as his own version of Yak-Trax, but even he slipped this morning. All he hurt was his pride, but I pretended I hadn't seen it. Dogs are sensitive that way.

Monday, January 03, 2011

"I've been paralyzed by a choice that lies well inside of me/Which world to hold me now"

The Song: "Hey Wow," The Connells. Words & music by Mike Connell. Track 7 of Fun & Games, 1989.
How/when acquired: Bootleg cassette tape, c. 1991; purchased CD, c. 1999.
Listen to a sample here.

The Connells were/are a band out of Raleigh, NC that never got the breakout they deserved. They wrote smart, jangly pop songs that come from the heart, and they put on a great live show.

Fun & Games is my favorite of their albums. While I haven't read much about it, I've concluded over the years that most of it is about recovering from mental illness. This song, in particular, seems to be about a stay in a psychiatric hospital. Anyone know for sure?

It's a new year and a sunny day, which makes me cautiously optimistic despite the skin of ice covering my part of central Maine. I'm glad to be finished with 2010; it was a good year for a handful of my friends and family members, but a bad year for even more of the people close to me, and I have to believe that 2011 will be better.

I don't make New Year's resolutions, really, but am determined to do more things this year that scare me, and most of all to remain in motion. Inertia rules the universe; bodies at rest tend to remain at rest. Let's get moving.