The Best of The Destroyer (Author’s Choice): Revisiting Remo and Chuin

I’ve been working on a project that plays with 80s action-adventure tropes. To refresh my memories, I thought I’d re-read a series that I’d enjoyed in middle school: The Destroyer by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir. Reading all 100+ novels was unrealistic, so I did the logical thing—I started grabbing the reprints that appeared in the mid-80s on eBay that were labeled “Author’s Choice.” Surely, these would be the cream of the crop.

Well, I had a hard time figuring out which stories had been re-issued this way. To save anyone else from doing the digging I had to do, here’s what I learned about the reprints and my thoughts on their literary value today.

WHAT WERE THE “AUTHORS’ CHOICE” RE-ISSUES?

As near as I can reconstruct, the “Author’s Best” of the Destroyer includes the following books:

  • Death Therapy (originally #6)
  • Terror Squad (originally #10)
  • Slave Safari (originally #12)
  • Funny Money (originally #18)
  • Brain Drain (originally #22)
  • Mugger Blood (originally #30)

Many stories are standalone, although Brain Drain is a sequel to Funny Money. To complicate things, my copy of Slave Safari lists Voodoo Die as the next in the “Author’s Choice” series, though I have never found a copy after months of searching used books sites on the internet. I suspect, but can’t prove, that they stopped republishing them before it came out. To complicate things even more, Chinese Puzzle (shown below, originally #3, so the earliest of these) has an intro indicating it is part of the “Author’s Choice” series though it isn’t branded as such.

ARE THEY WORTH READING?

Here’s the conceit of The Destroyer novels. Our hero, Remo Williams, is a cop with no family whose identity is erased by the US government so that he can operate outside its laws. It seems one US President (heavily hinted to be John F. Kennedy) realized that American laws don’t work and we need an enforcer to operate outside them. Conveniently, there’s a centuries-old Korean assassins’ guild that’s willing to train this American enforcer (for a fee). So the old Korean master named Chiun comes to America and takes Remo under his wing. Each novel is a mission where they stop spies, terrorists, and other baddies.

But it’s all done (mostly) tongue-in-cheek. The bad guy in Funny Money and Brain Drain is a cluelessly deadpan robot who predates The Terminator by a few years and may have inspired it. Mugger Blood dispatches with its Soviet super-spy villain hilariously within the first 50 pages, then follows Remo as he fights a Harlem gang. I never felt like I was being asked to take its tough-guy act seriously.

If you’re interested in finding and reading these “Best of” the Destroyer novels, here are my overall thoughts:

  • They are part of (and in many ways, parodies of) the 80s “men’s adventure novel series” phenomenon. These series were James Bond on steroids with some Mike Hammer and Rambo thrown in. Lots of violence, lots of sex, and lots of tough-guy posturing. That’s part of The Destroyer’s DNA though, as I said, it’s a willfully comic version of it.
  • They are funny. I laughed out loud at least once reading each novel, sometimes a lot more than once.
  • They are pretty conservative, though in an ironic way that was probably humorous in the 1970s but doesn’t seems as funny today.
  • They’re sure to offend. I cringed a few times in each novel, either because of dated ideas (70s/80s norm), sexist stuff, or intentionally offensive ethnic content. At least 2 of the 7 books (Slave Safari and Terror Squad) had pretty repulsive rape scenes. Proceed with caution.

If you’re going to enjoy Destroyer novel, you to be comfortable watching two white writers use an elderly Korean character to voice deep cynicism about America, rule of law, and human nature. And it’s funny—dear God, is it sometimes very, very funny. Chuin despises Americans, but loves 70s soap operas and Barbara Streisand. He loves Remo, but he does nothing but criticize him mercilessly. So, he’s two stereotypes for the price of one: an Asian wise man and a Jewish Mother. (And it’s not even subtle; in Chinese Puzzle, the third book, there’s even a scene where he and a group of Jewish moms commiserate the awful failings of their obviously successful sons.)

At this moment, we’re lucky to have a number of researchers doing nuanced work on Asian characters in US literature. Those include Josephine Lee, Yunte Huang, and many others. I would be really interested to see a scholar who is studying yellowface and portrayals of Asians in US literature take an in-depth look at this series. It seems ripe for re-examination.

Similarly, these are the kind of books where, when a Mexican guy says “is” it’ll be spelled “eez.” Sure that was pretty common practice at the time, but it takes the fun out of reading them, especially if you’re part of the group being portrayed. I was surprised and disappointed by the number of times a book’s villain turned out to be a Black man. Mugger Blood, for example, was criticized for its portrayal of young African-Americans at the time. This great 2009 AV Club story explains it well. In the “Author’s Choice” edition, the authors respond by having Chiun mock their racism in a truly funny introduction. Regardless, at least two of the other “Author’s Choice” novels have Black guys behind the evil plots (and, unlike Mugger Blood, those books aren’t intentionally satirizing American racism). If the “Author’s Choice” are supposed to represent the best of the series, I’m leery of the rest.

About the politics: at least two of the introductions in the “Author’s Best” feature the writers explaining their left-leaning origins as newspapermen. They’re not neo-Nazis or Nixonian douchebags. They come across as the kind of folks who started on the left, felt like the 60s revolution went too far, then elected Reagan and developed a distrust for “big government” anything. I was never 100% sure how much they really admired their books’ “Let Remo take the law in his own hands, Constitution be damned” conceit and how much was just schtick. So, know what you’re getting into.

In the “Author’s Best” reissues, the writers not only provide contextual introductions, but also have responses to them written by Chuin. Take a look at this one:

Just look at those similes. Hear that disdain. If you can enjoy that, you’ll probably enjoy reading The Destroyer.

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At Twain Museum for Big River Steampunk Fest

As I’ve noted before, Hannibal, Missouri hosts one of the biggest outdoor steampunk festivals in the Midwest. This year, I am coincidentally driving cross-country and will be in Hannibal for the event.

So, on Sunday, Sept. 5 at 1pm, I’ll be giving a talk on “Mark Twain and the Origins of Steampunk” at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. I’m thrilled to attend the event and participate with a little of my own contributions. I couldn’t ask for a better audience.

Many thanks to the folks at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum for hosting my talk, and to University of Alabama Press for arranging a special online offer for my book.

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Gears and God Reviewed in American Literature 93.2

I learned from University of Alabama Press that Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America will be reviewed in the September 2021 issue of American Literature.

It is part of Carol Colatrella’s group review on 19th-century technology studies that also examines Telegraphies: Indigeneity, Identity, and Nation in America’s Nineteenth-Century Virtual Realm by Kay Yandell (Oxford) and Modernizing Solitude: The Networked Individual in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Yoshiaki Furui (also U of Alabama).

It’s at Duke’s American Literature website. Because I know many readers won’t have access to the full review (which is behind an academic subscription firewall), I’m excerpting two sentences below:

Yandell, Furui, and Williams discuss how… texts and technologies are shaped by American politics and spiritual values, revealing underpinnings of modernist and postmodern ideas of self and society.

Accessibly written and offering analyses of texts and contexts, these books should be useful for students and scholars interested in the nineteenth-century communications and transportation revolutions as an analogue to a more recent paradigm shift to digital communications shadowed by pandemic and lockdown in our own time.

It’s good to see the book is still getting reviews a few years after release, which is not uncommon in academic circles.


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Last Half of May Updates

Two short stories sent out. Three short book reviews for The Mark Twain Annual written. Forty-eight tech writing student proposals graded.

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Science Fiction Studies New Issue: Nostalgia & Reviews

The new issue of Science Fiction Studies came out this month. I’m calling attention to it for two reasons:

First, it’s a special issue focused on nostalgia in SF, a topic near to my heart and mind. Guest editors Aris Mousoutzanis and Yugin Teo do a splendid job of gathering a range of papers on Octavia Butler, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Jack Womack and others. They cover the theoretical high points (Svetlana Boym, Fredric Jameson, et al.) and keep a nostalgia-positive goal “to challenge the assumption that nostalgia is especially about the past and thus out of place within a genre conventionally associated with the future” (Mousoutzanis & Teo1). As the editors note, “nostalgia becomes a source of hope… rather than being a regression to an idealized past…” (2).

If you care about the future-that-never-happened or steampunk or how critical investigations of the past can help form a better future, it is well worth your time.

Also, this issue features a review of The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link’s tremendous undertaking that features a chapter I wrote on Edisonades (called “terrific” by reviewer Carol McGuirk).

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Discussing The Mandalorian and Mark Twain on American Vandal Podcast

I’m part of this week’s edition of The American Vandal podcast from Elmira College’s Center for Mark Twain Studies. I discuss connections between Twain and The Mandalorian TV series (and Star Wars in general) with host Dr. Matt Seybold and Tor Books writer Emmet Asher-Perrin.

The Mandalorian‘s working title was, get this, “Project Huckleberry.” So how much Mark Twain is embedded in the show? Is Baby Yoda like Huck or like Jim? How does the “rebels vs. empire” narrative of Star Wars jibe with the science fiction stories Mark Twain wrote? Listen and find out.

It’s available on Spotify, Google, and Apple podcasts.

Here’s a related article link from Animated Times, and a photo of Grogu (Baby Yoda) from inews UK, because he’s the real star of the show. This is the way.

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Updates for Early 2021

I haven’t posted for a few months for fairly simple reasons.* Yes, teaching 3 college classes remotely while overseeing two elementary schoolers’ online education is hard. Props to all the others out there doing something similar.

I haven’t sold any stories since last April, but I have several projects in the pipeline:

  • Revising a couple of short stories almost ready to send out.
  • Pulling together a long-term research article involving Mark Twain’s “A Murder, A Mystery, and a Marriage” novelette.
  • Reading (or re-reading after decades) some of Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir’s Destroyer novels in hopes of doing a post on this site similar to the one I did for Doc Savage earlier.

In general academic work-life news:

These are trying times. Stay sane. Stay safe.

*oh, and WordPress’s editing software redesign is utter, high-maintenance garbage.

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Gears and God Discount

University of Alabama Press has given me permission to share the 30% off price reduction code we set up for the C19 conference with the public. That means anyone can buy Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith and Empire in Mark Twain’s America directly from them for 30% off.

When you order, use this Promo Code: WILLC19

You can buy it at University of Alabama Press.

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C19: Teaching the Weird Nineteenth Century

I’ll be on the “Teaching the Weird Nineteenth Century” panel, organized by Erin Pearson and hosted by Duncan Faherty, at #virtualC19 this week.

The panel is at 10:30 a.m. PST. I’m linking to where you can see the program. Presenters and titles below:

Teaching Old Weird America
Jennifer Brady (Harvard University)

Pros and Cons of Steampunking a C19 Syllabus
Nathaniel Williams (University of California, Davis)

“Fun Forever and No Grubbage”; or, Glories of the Nineteenth Century
Maura D’Amore (Saint Michael’s College)

Virtual Material Culture
Erin Pearson (Elon University)

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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:

Metaphorosis_2020-06

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Look.  Born in the USA 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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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)

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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 Chuck 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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