Essay from Worlds of Steampunk Exhibition

NOTE: UC Davis Librarian Roberto Delgadillo asked me to write this essay for Shields Library’s exhibition Worlds of Steampunk: Fiction, Art, Fashion and Culture in 2012. The online display has been taken down, so I’m reprinting it here before the C19 Conference where I’m presenting on steampunk in October 2020.

As the great folksinger John Prine once wryly noted, “We are living in the future.”  We carry powerful computers that weigh less than 5 ounces and fit into jeans’ pockets.  We load entire libraries’ worth of books onto a single, thin viewing screen.  We listen to music through pea-sized earbuds. 

What does all that have to do with steampunk?  Everything.

Steampunk celebrates an era when technology was different—ornate, intricate, just plain BIG.  It rejects our modern “smaller and sleeker is better” aesthetic.  As a result, steampunk has transcended its literary roots to become a cultural phenomenon that playfully and critically mashes up old and new, real and imaginary.

Contemporary steampunk literature developed in the 1980s, in part a reaction to “cyberpunk” science fiction tales that took an angry, edgy look at computer-generated realities.  Steampunk transplanted that attitude into the 19th-century when steam—not cyberware—powered cutting-edge technology.  In those days, locomotives and cotton gins were new innovations, and citizens dreamed of a near-future in which we’d all be criss-crossing the globe in airships that looked like giant Fabergé eggs while listening to music on wax cylinder players hand-cranked by robot butlers. 

Steampunk gave modern readers a fresh take on the cultural territory that once belonged solely to actual 19th-century science-fiction authors (Poe, Verne, Wells, et. al.).1  Writers started asking provocative questions:

What if steam had been used to power the enormous calculating machines envisioned by Victorian mathematicians, jump starting the computer revolution by 100 years and enabling Victorian-era nobility to have their own web pages and PowerPoint slideshows?2 

What if Frankenstein’s monster went to the center of the earth described by Jules Verne, or if Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson had a contraption that allowed them to visit the spirit world (and they fell in love along the way)?3

What if we were made by a God who really was the watchmaker envisioned by Deists, and our universe needed to be periodically re-wound to keep running?4 

What if child laborers staged a successful rebellion against robber baron technocrats?5

The writers who tackled these questions wanted to create stories that melded historical research with futuristic sci-fi gadgetry.  That weird blend of old and new fuels steampunk. 

Two classic novels show the genre’s range.  Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates (1983), for example, emphasizes fantasy instead of technology.  The modern-day heroes use magic, rather than a time machine, to get back to the 1800s.  At the same time, however, the book has deep historical research behind it.  Powers discovered a very real, but unusual, factoid: several people in 1810 reported seeing Lord Byron around London, while the poet was actually in Greece.  The author turned this into a major plot point.  In The Anubis Gates, Byron is duplicated as a ka (a sort of magical Egyptian clone), and this double is sent to London as an assassin who must be stopped by the protagonist.  Thus, Powers’ story may present different reasons for historical events, but history itself remains unchanged. 

In contrast, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (2009) willfully alters the dates of the Civil War and the Yukon Gold Rush to imagine what would happen if mining equipment had released toxic gas that turned most of the population of 1860s Seattle into zombies.  If history isn’t held sacred in Priest’s work, the defining technological elements of the genre certainly are.  Her Seattle is littered with airships and giant machinery.  Citizens wear ornate goggles that make the toxic gas visible.  They carry battery-powered energy rifles with multisyllabic names straight out of Wild West medicine shows.  In Priest’s steampunk, history can be bent any which way as long as the iconography remains.

Priest in particular has promoted steampunk’s values of “salvage and customization” and its rebellion against contemporary techno-culture’s sleek design ethic and disposable mentality.  “Steampunk” has become one of the more popular search terms on eBay and Esty because of crafters who take everyday items (TVs, laptops, phones) and redesign them with neo-Victorian artistry.  Similarly, corners of the fashion world have been “steampunked,” giving us accessories such as leather top hats, brass goggles, and elegant corsets that are (I’m told) far more comfortable than their 19th-century counterparts. 

Steampunk’s mix-and-match aesthetic gives it an ability to both celebrate and critique early science fiction tropes, good or ill.  It revels in the high adventure and fantastic journeys, the mad scientists and monsters, and, most importantly, the cool, clickety-clanky technology.  It also wrestles with the not-so-pleasant elements of 19th-century western civilization, including empire carving, flagrant racism, and a huge gender-equity gap.

Steampunk frequently uses clockwork imagery and, on some level, encourages us to treat it like a brass pocket watch in the hands of a novice mechanic.  Take it apart.  Examine it closely.  Don’t worry.  You can fit it back together.  And if it doesn’t work perfectly, it will still look cool.  Maybe cooler than it was the first time.

1As H. Bruce Franklin has noted, most 19th-century authors dabbled in something they’d have called “science fiction” if the label had been around back then.  He includes Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce and many others (and that’s just the Americans).  To learn more about nineteenth-century SF, see Franklin’s Future Perfect anthology, Mike Ashley’s Steampunk Prime,  Jess Nevins’ wonderful introduction to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthology, or E.F. Bleiler’s monumental Science Fiction: The Early Years. And be sure to check out Roberto Delgadillo’s awesome Pinterest showcase made for this exhibition.

2See William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine.

3See Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley’s short story “Black as the Pit, From Pole to Pole” in Waldrop’s Custer’s Last Jump for the former, and Paul DiFillipo’s “Walt and Emily” from his Steampunk Trilogy for the latter. 

4See Jay Lake’s novel Mainspring.

5See Rachel E. Pollock’s short story “Reflected Light,” reprinted in the VanderMeer’s first Steampunk anthology.

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Strange Stars Book Review in SFRA Review

My review of Jason Heller’s exceptionally great book, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded, is finally available online in the new issue of SFRA Review.

If you haven’t seen the new layout for the Science Fiction Research Association’s SFRA Review, you’re in for a treat. Download the PDF copy from their site rather than just using the links on the web page and see for yourself. They even used the fantastic cover art from Heller’s book (by Butcher Billy and Marina Drukman) for the section header (sample below).

From SFRA Review 50.2 Strange Stars Jacket Design: Marina Drukman, Illustration: Butcher Billy

I volunteered to review the book shortly after seeing a panel of pop musicians at the Worldcon in San Jose in 2018. They all raved about Heller’s work. (I finished it later that year but sometimes in academia it takes a while to get a review published–especially when the journal is going through the amazing stylistic overhaul that SFRA Review has seen in the past year.)

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Celebration of Authors at C19 Conference

I’ll be participating at the “Celebration of Authors” event for the all-online C19: Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists conference this October.

My book came out over a year ago, but it’s a biennial conference and the book wasn’t available last time we met.

This year, they’ve created an online slideshow of everyone’s book promotional material. The good folks at the University of Alabama Press created a cool slide that I’ll share here in advance of the meeting:

I’ll also be presenting on a panel called Teaching the Weird Nineteenth Century. My topic: “The Pros and Cons of Steampunking Your Syllabus.” More on that later.

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Americana Music in Sci-Fi Games

There’s a fascinating video on Polygon from last week that begins by asking “Why is there so much banjo music in science fiction video games today?” (I’m not a gamer, so I wasn’t up on this trend–but I’m obsessed with ways science fiction uses music and have covered similar trends here.)

Journalist Clayton Ashley’s answers to his question instigate a really fascinating 150-minute look at science fiction’s treatment of technology, blue-collar workers, and Southern/Appalachian themes. It is totally worth watching, for both Lisa Yaszek’s succinct explanation of SF history (with requisite nod to Mark Twain) and the examples of older pop music.

Remember, using 19th-century culture in SF doesn’t always result in things that are obviously “steampunk.” I think music’s a great example of that.

Addendum: the influence of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is worth commenting on. When the radio show needed a theme, Douglas Adams and crew used the Eagles’ instrumental “Journey of the Sorcerer” because of its blend of sci-fi whooshes and banjo. So the tradition has been around since 1978, when the show first aired.

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Gears and God Reviewed in Extrapolation

My book on 19th-century American science fiction was reviewed in the journal Extrapolation. I’m linking to the review’s first page, although the rest of it is behind an academic paywall that will prevent most folks from reading the whole thing.

Kudos to the folks at University of Alabama Press for quickly getting an excerpt up on the book’s Amazon sales page!

Reviewer James Hamby definitely understands the book’s bigger mission. Here’s a quote:

Many of the issues first raised by these [American SF] novels over a century ago, such as imperialism or the mistaken belief that scientific advancement always signifies social progress, are still very much with us today. This study serves as a valuable reminder of the complexity and cultural significance that can exist in forgotten and overlooked works of literature.

When I started this project almost a decade ago, I wasn’t sure anyone would see the value of reading a lot of proto-steampunk, inventor novels. I’m glad the book’s intentions came through.

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New James Gunn’s Ad Astra

Signal bump for the new issue (#8!!) of James Gunn’s Ad Astra.

I used to read slush fiction for them, and they’re supported by my alma mater, University of Kansas, and the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction. They’re named after longtime mentor and professor James E. Gunn from KU.

The blend of fiction, poetry, and academic research articles is really impressive, and I know it takes a lot of work to put it together each year (often in tandem with the CSSF’s Summer Institute–though Covid-19 put that on hold this year).

Nice work, team at the CSSF.

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The Welterweights: My Old Band’s New “Best Of” Compilation

After spending the last few months writing about music and publishing a short story about a rock and roll record collector, I decided to create a compilation on Bandcamp for my old group, the Welterweights. The “album” is available for free.

I wrote all these songs (sang ’em too) and collaborated with a great bunch of friends. I’ll post the history and some thoughts below, but here are the front and back covers (featuring art I drew on bar napkins while waiting to go onstage or get paid over the years):

The Welterweights played from 1998 (our first gig was on New Year’s Eve) until around 2003, performing along the I-70 Corridor between Lawrence, KS and St. Louis, MO. We had the usual ups-and-downs, including

  • having three drummers in as many years (all amicable partings as guys left for better out-of-town jobs)
  • slugging it out in regional clubs trying to get a good-paying, well-attended shows
  • doing several recording sessions paid for out of our own pockets with a legendary roots-rock producer held in reverential awe by the singer/songwriter (me)
  • garnering local radio airplay and in-store shows at record shops
  • self-releasing a CD that came out in late August 2001, just weeks before a horrific national event made no one anywhere care about pop music for a while (reading Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day has really brought these memories flooding back)
  • getting nominated for a local music award and listed in a “Year’s Top 10” list in the local paper
  • gradually fizzling out as age/careers/other interests took precedence

I’m proud of some of the songs and accomplishments, not so proud of others. Some sound better now than they did then. Mostly, I just remember working really hard to write good songs.

The dated references are food for thought. “Little Red Light” only works if you’ve seen an answering machine attached to land-line phone. And, could any songwriter, then or now, write about answering machines without accusation of aping the Replacements? (Though to be fair, we were also aping their sound, performance style, and probably blood-alcohol content then too). “Just Plain Fall” (a favorite of several folks close to the band) has a chorus with the term “Indian Summer” in it, which may not bother anyone but me. It seemed like a pretty benign phrase but has a darker history I didn’t know when I wrote it circa 1997. “St. Martin’s Summer” means the same thing (same # of syllables and everything), so it’s easy to fix if I ever sing it again, but the recorded version is what it is. I’m all for learning better/kinder ways to say things. All this is just proof that a lot of time has passed. These songs already belong to an earlier age.

The combo of Covid-19’s forced isolation, Pinsker’s novel, and “The Record Collector”‘s publication finally got me to document that band in an accessible way.

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New Short Story Published!

“The Record Collector” went live Friday! Metaphorosis Magazine online has both the printed story and a recorded podcast of me reading the story.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the reading involves me doing several voices including an imitation of Little Richard’s voice. If Paul McCartney couldn’t pull it off, I sure didn’t stand a chance but tried anyway.

Check out this beautiful cover (entitled “The Woman Who Brought Love to Death”) for the issue by artist Max Pitchkites:

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Source: Max Pitchkites/Metaphorosis June 2020 issue

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Influential Albums – 1) Boink!!

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

boink!!

This was the second Replacements “album” I heard after buying Pleased to Meet Me blind (based on a concert review in the Kansas City Star that mentioned they’d played both “Gimme Shelter” and “Happy” by the Rolling Stones). My friend Bill Sykes bought it on cassette, and we listened for days on end. I didn’t know it was a compilation EP, but I knew it was genius. (Whoever sequenced this for Glass Records in London deserves a damn medal). I’m going to go on track-by-track, fragmented rant here.

“Color Me Impressed” is the best pop-punk song ever written. Period.

“White and Lazy.” Suddenly I realized I wasn’t the only Midwestern White kid obsessed with blues music and punk. The harmonica squall and indecipherable lyrics are perfect, as is the moment 1:50 minutes in when it transforms into by-the-book (obviously ironic) American hardcore. It takes guts to immediately follow that racket with…

“Within Your Reach” A slow, sparse tune that aches with missed chances and lack of fulfillment. Westerberg solo with a drum machine. His voice is perfectly ragged, which contrasts the keyboards and synth beats.

“If Only You Were Lonely.” This was the B-side of the Replacements first single. Again, it’s just Westerberg and an acoustic guitar. The first three songs prove he’s a great songwriter. This one proved he could work in any tradition. It’s a smart punk’s take on barroom country. “Well I ain’t very good but I get practice by myself/Forgot my one line so I just said what I felt” It’s Hank Williams and Woody Allen. Funny, sloppy, sad.

“Kids Don’t Follow.” An anthem. The opening of this track—a recording of police on a bullhorn breaking up a teenage party while a kid (allegedly young Dave Pirner) yells back “Fuck you!”—is legendary. The alternately soaring and staccato lead guitar on this is why Bob Stinson’s a god to people like me.

“Nowhere is My Home”—a power-pop gem that Alex Chilton produced but never got a proper release when the band was together (other than on this little import). Metaphorical homelessness, lost kids with pictures on milk cartons that end up in the trash. How many thrash songs used words like “disconcerted”? It’s smart music, but still sloppy and heartfelt.

“Take Me Down to the Hospital.” Another dose of blues mythology via Minnesota punk rock—the “St. James Infirmary” tradition with a narrator on his way to the grave. Fast, chugging… you feel like he’s going to die any minute. Again, the lyrics (“Tight uniforms/Fill out these forms/Take off your shirt/Where does it hurt?”) make the near-death experience seem hilarious and pathetic.

“Go.” A brilliant teenage werewolf of a song, alternately asking the listener to “stay and close your eyes” and “go while you can.” It does everything Pearl Jam and those other grunge bands did over and over during the early ‘90s. But the Mats were too creative, too smart, and too in love with music to just hammer out one type of song, as every song before this one on the EP proves.

“Go” and “White and Lazy” have something in common: I’m not sure what the words are. I don’t think anyone knows. This stuff exists in the realm of “Louie, Louie,” using energy and tone to convey meaning. I remember rock critic Arnd Schirmer calling Astral Weeks his favorite all-time record stating “I still don’t know what Van Morrison’s singing about.” I remember Joe Strummer talking about obsessing over Jamaican reggae lyrics—realizing their words and point-of-view was brilliant even though he was only catching 1/3 of the words through the singers’ thick patios. (Strummer knew American kids were doing the same thing with his records.) This album hits that for me.

The Replacements were probably the first group I discovered who were still active when their music changed my life. That counts for a lot. But so does Paul Westerberg’s ability to write about normal, boring life and capture the absurdity and sadness of it. Like Buddy Holly, The Replacements seemed like normal guys who just happened to be blessed with a genius eye for detail in lyrics and great sense of melody.

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And, yeah, the name of my blog is a reference to the Replacements’ “Customer,” where he asks the store clerk girl he’s in love with “You sell Wondermint?”

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Influential Albums – 2) The Clash (US Version)

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

clash

I bought the first Clash record on my 16th birthday, the same day I read The Catcher in the Rye and smoked my first cigarette. That’s not a fact, but it’s true. Hearing their cover of The Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” blasting out of my friend Danny’s car speakers changed my life and listening habits. I spent less time reading comic books and science-fiction novels and more time practicing guitar and writing “songs.”

Discerning fans (or just people who were actually there in London 1976-77) argue that the British version of this is more authentic (the US edition added later singles) and more of-the-moment. Fine. But I’d trade “Cheat,” “Deny,” and “Protex Blue”—all three of ‘em—for one “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais.” So would most of the purists, in their heart of hearts, I suspect.

The Clash does play a part in “The Record Collector.” I couldn’t quote their lyrics (copyright and all) but I found what I think is a pretty good workaround for Metaphorosis. I hope Joe Strummer would approve.

NOTE: Spotify hosted a multi-episode podcast on the Clash, called “Stay Free,” hosted by Chuck D of Public Enemy. It is essential listening for anyone who likes (or even hates) the band.

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Influential Albums – 3) The Complete Buddy Holly

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

buddyhollybox

This was the first box set I ever owned, because Buddy Holly was the first performer that made me feel like I needed to hear everything he ever did.* I bought this with money from a job running the cash register at the local fast-food drive through. I was supposed to use the funds for car insurance and gas, but every now and then would save up to make a purchase like this.

Buddy Holly–his everyman persona, his songwriting craft, his use of rhythm guitar to build melody–mattered more to me than any other performer, even though he belonged to an earlier generation. My closest friend in 1st grade, Chip McLeod, had a father who’d seen Buddy play in Iowa, who belonged to the Holly Memorial Society, so we grew up listening to him.

As the late Kansas City KCUR radio personality Bill Shapiro noted in his CD Rock and Roll Library, Buddy Holly’s tragic early death made it possible for his entire output to be collected and packaged for mourning fans. A lot of those mourning fans went out and formed bands. With Holly as a role model, they valued songwriting, studio innovation, energetic simplicity, and–more than anything–artistic growth.

That’s what Buddy stood for and stands for to me.

*Note: The collection in question doesn’t have everything, though I believed the linear notes that called it “complete” for a long time. There were six cassettes in the version I bought in the late 1980s, but they’ve uncovered more recordings since then.

hollyback

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Influential Albums – 4) Born in the U.S.A.

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

brucebornintheusaEvery Every song tells a story. All the stories collectively add up to more than the sum of the parts.

Look.  This is a “how to” study in sequencing an album.  Don’t believe me?  Ask Steve Earle.  Really, the question of “best sequenced single album” comes down to this one and Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (assuming you agree the Beatles’ records are brilliant but all have clunker tracks). I listen to the Dylan album more, but it didn’t come out when I was approaching middle school and buying tapes. This one did, and it pretty much defined my musical understanding.

Were it not for a little too much 80s synthesizer and compression, this would be a perfect album. Like its contemporaries, Thriller and Purple Rain, every song could’ve been a hit single and more of them were than not. I’ve tried to collect all the 45s for my jukebox.

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Springsteen recorded a lot more good songs than he needed for an album, which means even the B-sides of his singles for this record are excellent. I loved singing “Johnny Bye Bye” (the B-side of the “I’m on Fire” single) when I was still in a band.

Also, Springsteen and the E Street Band iconography—New Jersey, tough-guy camaraderie, weird nicknames—pervaded my middle-school years, particularly the great 80s film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.

 

 

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Influential Albums – 5) Still Life

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

the-rolling-stones_still-life-

It’s not even close to the best Stones album (that’d be Exile on Main Street, with Let It Bleed and Some Girls behind). It’s not even the best Stones live album (which is probably Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out), but it’s the album that introduced me to the Rolling Stones beyond what I’d heard on oldies AM radio stations (“Get Off of My Cloud,” “The Last Time,” “Satisfaction” and a few others).

Still Life is a snapshot of early Ron Wood-era Rolling Stones. He and Keith Richards seem to be having fun bailing each other out on leads, and the 80s tracks like “Shattered” and the underrated “Let Me Go” are great. Wyman and Watts are my probably favorite rhythm section, and they make this record.

rollingst-still-life

More importantly—check out the cover songs they played. They cover Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ “Goin’ to a Go-Go,” Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty-Flight Rock,” the Temptations “Just My Imagination,” and their old single, Norman Meade’s “Time is on My Side.” Rockabilly, Motown, R&B—all beloved by, and one and the same to, the Rolling Stones. They come onstage to Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” and exit to Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” (this album was my first encounter with the latter).

For me, the Rolling Stones have always been about their variety and their sense of humor. This album has both.

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Influential Albums – 6) Alien Lanes

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

gbvalienlanes-e1339533085293

7) Alien Lanes, Guided by Voices

I saw Guided by Voices perform live at Grinnell College when they toured behind this record. Elliott Smith opened. I was front row. GBV rocked harder and looked like they had more fun than any band I’d seen at that point.

Alien Lanes is abstract expressionist music, where enjoying the residual evidence of the artists’ working process is essential to the whole experience. GBV had psychedelic-ish lyrics, British Invasion melodies/harmonies, and “college radio” band ambitions that valued art over commercialism. They recorded the material on Alien Lanes on a 4-track, using the cheap technology to create very real, choppy, handcrafted music.

Like GBV-megafan Albert Hammond, Jr., I forget the names of songs on this record—at least partly because it’s such a perfect single-sitting listening album.

Understand, it doesn’t have traditional “flow” where tacks don’t blend seamlessly into one another, or tell some kind of developed coherent story. No, Alien Lanes is a perfect CD-era album where the “throwaway” tracks work as lead-ins to the amazing songs. Somehow, this calls attention to both the weird beauty of the tracks that seem like noise and to the intentionally half-assed soundscapes in the more polished songs.

The band understood this completely, which is I suspect why they made their first “big” video doing two short songs with a sudden transition: “Auditorium/Motor Away.”

It’s hard to pick a favorite from their three-album run of Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. This one gets the nod mostly because of that live show in Iowa.

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Influential Albums – 7) This Year’s Model

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

7) This Year’s Model, Elvis Costello and the Attractions

thisyearsmodel

This was the first cassette I ever bought “blind,” having never heard the artist before, just based on A) a story about him in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, and B) he looked like Buddy Holly, and, C) He’d worked with Nick Lowe whose Rose of England was on repeat in my tape deck.

So I had no preparation for what came blaring out of my boombox. It was the spooky organ of 60s garage bands I loved, but twice as fast. The rhythm section crammed so many notes into it–bassist Bruce Thomas floored the high-school jazz band bass player in me.

Look, if you’re talking “New Wave” —a fraught term which in the American Midwest basically meant punk with less atonality and more keyboards—there’s this record and then there’s everything else. (I’m sure someone has made the argument that it’s the first record of the ‘80s, even though it came out in 1978.) Costello knows how to write a tune, and how to balance vitriol and melody.

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Influential Albums – 8) The Blues, Vol. 1

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

8 – The Blues, Vol. 1 (Chess Records, Various Artists)

bluesvol1

I won’t go on about the legacy of Chess Records and how their 50s output basically gave us Rock and Roll’s Walt Whitman–Mr. Chuck Berry–and inspired the British Invasion.

When I was a little kid, the local classic rock station used to play a “Motown 5 at 5” during their evening commute segment.  This was before radio was completely segmented down to the tune, when “classic rock” and “oldies” were fairly interchangeable, and you could reasonably expect to hear Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Herman’s Hermits, Bob Dylan, and the Four Tops on the same station.

Anyway, the fifth song on the “5 at 5” was always a blues song.  It was a nice idea, but the station must’ve only had three blues albums: one was The Blues Brothers soundtrack and the other was Muddy Waters’ Hard Again (an amazing record).  The third one was this one.  So growing up, I’d hear all these classic tracks on the radio with some regularity.  “Smokestack Lightning” and “Juke”–damn. This is one of those compilations that came out after a bunch of punk bands had drawn from blues so, for example, “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” was as famous as New York Dolls cover to a lot of folks as the original was. Check out the amazing contents:

1. Don’t Start Me To Talkin’ – Sonny Boy Williamson
2. First Time I Met The Blues – Buddy Guy
3. Worried Life Blues – Chuck Berry
4. My Babe – Little Walter
5. Walkin’ The Boogie – John Lee Hooker
6. Hoochie Coochie Man – Muddy Waters
7. Reconsider Baby – Lowell Fulson
8. Smokestack Lighting – Howlin’ Wolf
9. Juke – Little Walter
10. When The Lights Go Out – Jimmy Wither
11. Just Make Love To Me – Muddy Waters
12. Spoonful – Howlin’ Wolf

This collection (along with the Robert Johnson recordings and the American Graffiti soundtrack) did the most to persuade me that the best and most interesting music had been made a few decades before I existed. My tastes were altered, preferences set. I probably never got deeply into hair metal or most “grunge” because of these early influences. And I still really love Little Walter and Chunk Berry, which I can’t say about a lot of things I liked as an early teen.

I owned this one on cassette tape, then CD, and should probably hunt down an album copy just to complete the trifecta.

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Influential Albums – 9) Still Feel Gone

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

9 – Still Feel Gone, Uncle Tupelo

uncletupleostillfeelgone

The first time I heard “Gun,” the opening track of Still Feel Gone, I was playing it on the air of a college radio station. It got to the chorus—“My heart, it was a gun. It’s unloaded now…”—and I just quit. At that point, I knew I had to stop everything I was doing (queuing up commercials, selecting the next track) and just sit there and listen to this song.

My inaction would result, of course, in the dreaded “dead air”—utter silence after the song ended. Deejays have nightmares about it. I still do. At that moment, I didn’t care. The song had spoken to me. It jumped out of the speakers and took over my life for three minutes.

I didn’t know then that this was the beginning of my lifelong love for the songwriting of Jeff Tweedy, an endlessly rewarding relationship that resulted in great concerts, great common threads for many friendships, great creative inspiration. I had no idea Wilco was ahead, or that they’d still be a major force over two decades later. Watching Tweedy and John Stirratt go from Anodyne to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is as satisfying an experience as any music fan can hope for. The Jay Farrar tracks are dynamite too, obviously. It’s a knockout.

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Influential Albums – 10) Dinner Music for People Who Aren’t Very Hungry

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

10 – Dinner Music for People Who Aren’t Very Hungry, Spike Jonesspikejones

There’s a moment in everyone’s life where you realize you just ain’t like the other kids.  This record was mine. For my 3rd grade class “Bring a Record” day, other kids brought Village People, Tommy Tutone, and the soundtrack to Grease. I brought this. They looked at me like I was from fucking Mars.

I got this album from my aunt and uncle. My grandfather, a barbershop quartet tenor, may have been the original owner. Listening to it was the musical equivalent of growing up obsessed with Little Rascals shorts and Bob Clampett and Tex Avery cartoons (which I also did). Our local TV station would use “Cocktails for Two” as background music for their “We’ll Be Right Back” breaks during Bowery Boys movies on Sunday afternoons.

This was, in hindsight, my gateway drug into the world of novelty records, making space for Dr. Demento a few years later, and Weird Al, but also Roger Miller, They Might Be Giants, Robbie Fulks, really anyone who recognizes the artistry behind “novelty” songwriting, “answer songs,” or other tongue-in-cheek musical madness. (Sidenote: Elvis Costello named his 1989 Warner Records debut “Spike” in honor of Mr. Jones.)

The linear notes on back cover are also hilarious (and befuddled 9-year-old me).

backcoverdinner

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Influential Albums – G.I. Blues

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my short story, “The Record Collector,” I’m finally doing the “post an influential album each day for 10 days” thing that several friends challenged me to do.

Honorable Mention – G.I. Blues, Elvis Presley giblues

G.I. Blues was the only rock and roll record my parents owned. They had Mantovani, The Limelighters, Sing Along with Mitch.  The same folk-and-easy-listening library most whitebread adults in the early 1960s owned (if my adventures in garage-sale record shopping are evidence) and quit listening to after they had kids.

Regardless, hearing Elvis sing “Blue Suede Shoes” is one of my earliest memories, and I played it over and over as a kindergartner. Years later, I purchased The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me completely unaware that its cover was an homage to the Presley record I’d grown up with a decade earlier. I’m sure there was some subconscious recognition.

The_Replacements_-_Pleased_to_Meet_Me_cover

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Little Richard and “The Record Collector”

I was saddened to hear that Little Richard passed away this weekend. He was an amazing man, a force of nature, a testament to wildness–all the superlatives about him are true.

That’s why, when I wrote an urban fantasy short story about a record collector who exorcises possessed houses, I worked Little Richard’s music into the story.

Now, I’m faced with a quandary. I agreed–months ago–to do the reading for the audio version for the web site myself. I put it off, and it’s now due in a week. But reading it will require me–at least for a few moments on the page–to imitate Little Richard’s singing voice. If Paul McCartney couldn’t pull it off, I sure can’t, but I can do a reasonable enough impression to make the reading work.

The thing is, now that he’s gone, I want to do better than a “reasonable enough” job.

Obviously, this is just me putting extra pressure on myself, partly because I’m sad that one of my heroes died. And there was no way to know the story’s release would coincide with this.

So, that’s what I’m doing now. Just trying to get the story to work aurally (even though the print version will probably be the main thing people access). It comes out in early June from Metaphorosis and I’ve planned a few little promotional posts between now and then.

littlerichardAPfile

Source: Associated Press/AP File

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Story Sale – “The Record Collector”

I sold my fantasy short story “The Record Collector” to Metaphorosis Magazine recently. I enjoyed working with editor B. Morris Allen, and I’m happy that the story will be out in the coming months.

The story involves a haunted house, a local radio station, a not-very-proficient magick practitioner, and a guy with an enormous record collection who has some unorthodox ideas about exorcism. It’s set in St. Louis shortly after the turn of the 21st century.

I will probably try to do something fun leading up to the release.

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More Gears and God Book Reviews

I’m pleased to share two great book reviews of Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America that came out recently. Both do a fantastic job of covering the book’s focus on how dime-novel science fiction factored into the 19th century’s “science vs. religion” arguments

(As many of you know, academic publishing often rolls out reviews in terms of months and years instead of days, and the reviews in scholarly publications are often behind subscription paywalls. So, I’m linking to both of them; you should be able to read the first page preview, even if the whole thing doesn’t display.)

The first one comes from Martin Zehr in American Literary Realism’s Winter 2020 issue. I really appreciate the review’s understanding of how I’m trying to approach dime novels:

Williams’ book includes extensive notes, bibliography, and index, more than sufficient for the reader who desires a thorough grounding in what the reader will undoubtedly conclude is a vibrant form of American literature whose neglect is, putting it mildly, undeserved. Williams has certainly succeeded in blurring the distinction between serious and recreational literature in Gears and God.

Also, Jennifer Lieberman’s review in The Mark Twain Annual contains one of my favorite compliments in any reviews I’ve seen:

Williams is a master contextualizer whose deep knowledge of his subject matter renders his thematic close reading all the more convincing.

That’s always been part of the challenge: writing to an audience of literary scholars who may not have read these texts and may not be sold on their cultural importance. I’m glad it worked for one reviewer.

 

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MLA 2020: A Final Reminiscence

In hindsight, my favorite moment of the 2020 MLA Conference in Seattle wasn’t the excellent panels or my presentation or the fine coffee, beer, and seafood.

It was approaching the University of Minneapolis Press’s cubicle in the Academic Press Exhibition Hall and telling them: “I don’t see a copy on display, and this probably isn’t the crowd for it anyway, but THANK YOU for publishing Bill Sullivan’s Lemon Jail memoir. Pass that along to whoever made that call.”

The guy’s laughter made my trip. #mla2020

If you want to read a great roadie’s-eye-view of a great rock band, grab a copy.

 

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MLA and Book Reviews

MLA 2020 went well. I gave my presentation on Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” and got to connnect/re-connect with a lot of great scholars.

University of Iowa Press was gracious enough to allow me to display Gears and God at their booth, since U of Alabama Press wasn’t attending. Hopefully a few people grabbed the “30% Off” flyers on display.

I’ve had a couple of reviews for the book come out in the past months, and I’ll link to all of them once the most recent one is made available online.

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The Replacements: “Live and Drunk” at 35

Thirty-five years ago, the Replacements performed one of rock music’s most brilliant acts of artistic sabotage.

In 1984, the Minneapolis-based band was receiving accolades in the press. Music fans discussed when (not if) they’d move to a major label and leave the indie/underground behind. They were on the verge of being the Next Big Thing. And they weren’t entirely happy about it.

On December 9 that year, they played a special show at New York’s CBGB, the famed birthplace of American punk. The show,  often bootlegged under the title “Live and Drunk,” features the band creatively deconstructing everything around the concept of the “Big Break” gig. They pop the balloon of pretentiousness surrounding them and make themselves look like damn fools just for the joy of dragging their audience of trendy NYC taste-makers down with them. After the first song (the then-unreleased “Lookin’ for Ya)”, Westerberg yells to the crowd “The first person to compliment us….” His threat goes unfinished, but the show makes good on it.

The results are painful, and often hilarious. The ‘Mats are sloppy and mostly play other band’s songs. At the start, fans are shouting to the band the names of covers they want to hear (one girl really wants “Heartbeat” by the DeFranco Family and the poor thing never gets it). By then end, people are shouting “Play the Replacements!”

Now understand–the show should be listened to in its entirety from start to finish, like you’d watch a stand-up comedian’s special, rather than picking songs from the set. All the songs sound bad, but in an intentional way that shifts as the show goes on. That said, I’m going to post links and some highlights to look for (times according to YouTube video marked **):

6 min, 30 sec – A crowd member demands the band “Do the Pussy Set!” The band responds by playing “Color Me Impressed,” one of their best-known songs, at half-tempo. The drag-ass result is presumably the polar opposite of what crowd members who went to see a punk-inspired band would expect.

12 min, 50 sec – A pretty great cover of Elvis Presley’s “Do the Clam” with their roadie Bill Sullivan on lead vocals segues into a version of “Walk on the Wild Side” with sarcastic revamped lyrics about themselves: “Replacements came from Minneapolis, Minnesota/Thought they could pull one over on ya.”

43 min – The band begins covering songs while Westerberg sings Replacements lyrics. They start by doing U2’s “I Will Follow” while Paul sings their single “Kids Don’t Follow.” By the end of this portion, he’s crooning Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Looking” while the band plays “Temptation Eyes” by The Grass Roots. Shambling, but often clever as hell.

1 hr. 6 min – Sullivan warbles through “If I Only Had a Brain,” the Scarecrow’s song for Wizard of Oz and a tune the band clearly identifies with. He then sings the Gilligan’s Island theme, with lyrics about touring inserted.

Bob Mehr’s excellent Replacements biography, Trouble Boys, covers the self-destructive side of the band very well. They had an intense fear of success, and their alcohol-dependence didn’t help.

While Mehr’s book captures that element, it underplays the performance art quality that the Replacements had, including Westerberg’s assertion that they had a lot in common with Andy Kaufman (another bewildering 80s artist who, like the ‘Mats, got banned from Saturday Night Live). Which is to say, yes, they were drunk at CBGB’s but they also knew exactly what they were doing. They liked pissing off/on their audience and its high expectations.

It’s one thing for a band to have jitters and blow their shot at the Big Time, and quite another for a band to outright mock the entire notion of Big Time by delivering a willfully (and extraordinarily funny) awful show.  That’s what the “Live and Drunk” show is at its heart.

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