Mahatma Randy’s Horror Show

My first real band after college was called, “Mahatma Randy’s Horror Show.” It was pretty much a disaster in every regard.

One day in 1992 or 1993 I was wandering through the Tarpon Springs Crappy Amateur Art Festival when, suddenly, a song struck me fully formed in my head. It was called, “My Baby’s the Last of the Communists,” which, only a year or two after the end of the cold war, seemed topical and funny. I quickly abandoned the poorly-soldered windchimes and ran back to my car to write the words down before I forgot ’em.

It was a pretty good song. Well, good lyrics. Not a song yet.

That motivated me to form a band. My previous (And first) one was “Technicolor Yawn,” which was also a disaster, but for more typical college band reasons. The good thing about a band, though, was that it gives you something to do, people to bond with, and hot-and-cold running chicks. All of that appealed to me as I was bored, lonely, and going through the worst breakup of my life at the time.

I put an ad in the personals section of Creative Loafing, a weekend entertainment paper or tabloid or supplement or whatever you call it. Eventually the phone started to ring.

Now the important thing to remember here is that I am not now, nor have I ever been a musician. I’m a slightly-better-than-average singer, and that is it. There endeth my list of talents. I had no idea what this song would sound like, but I intended to put together as large a band as I could with a horn section. I was going for something like Oingo Boingo or Bad Manners or something like that. As to how to write the music, I figured I’d just hum or whistle melodies, and have the other guys jam something together. (I can’t read music. I should probably mention that)

Recruiting was easy. Super-easy. I got a drummer in no time. As anyone will tell you, drummers are the hardest thing to get. Keyboardists? Dime a dozen. Gutarists?There’s so many of them you actually have to pay to keep them away from you. Everyone goes through that “I wanna be a rock star” phase. Bassists? Well, every guitarist can be a frustrated bassist if you ask ’em nicely enough. Drums, though? Drums are hard. There aren’t a lot of drummers, given the expense and size and noise of the kits, and such as there are are always in demand. They have bands lined up waiting for them, so they’re not gonna put up with my crap.

But, nope, I got a drummer. I bought him some Mexican food and he told me about his weird love life, and I listened patiently and said some up-with-people crap of some sort, and – bang – he was in.

Thus I ended up with a nine-piece band, including a four-piece horn section. Ten piece band, if you count me, which  you probably shouldn’t do as I’m not a musician. I’m just a singer.

The first problem was how to explain the sound I was looking for to these fine folks, and that just didn’t go well. I lacked the vocabulary to explain it, so all I could do was play them songs and say, ‘like that,’ which went over worse than you’d imagine because either the couldn’t copy the style, or didn’t understand it, or simply didn’t wanna do it. They wanted to play stuff that sounded like Thelonius Monk or Skynyrd.

Now, that would actually be pretty awesome, and I’d jump at the chance nowadays, but back then I didn’t know a lucky break when I saw it.

The second most obvious problem was scheduling. Most bands are 3 or 4 or 5 people, tops. This makes scheduling easy. Show up at the garage and we’ll jam. We can take my car! With each person you add, however, it gets more and more complicated. An order of magnitude more complicated.

One of the horn players was a doctor. Initially we met at his house. I had to go to the bathroom once, and there were needles all over the place. I don’t know if he was diabetic, or a drug addict, or very sick in some way that required him to treat it at home, but he was definitely a dangerously negligent housekeeper, so we decided to meet somewhere else from then on out.

And he stopped coming.

My drummer volunteered his place, so we met there and jammed in his living room.

You know what? I’d forgotten about it until this moment, but I don’t think we initially had a bassist. I think I tried to play bass. Honestly, my memories are fuzzy, but I know I took a turn at it. I couldn’t do it (Because I’m not a musician) but everyone liked my voice, so we kept meeting.

Well, I say we kept meeting, but the horn section evaporated quickly. Horn players get excited about playing with other horn players because they never get to. There just aren’t many bands with a horn section, though a lot used to have a sax or (Less commonly) a trumpet. Those guys were invariably the first ones to get kicked off the bus, so to speak, when the money doesn’t roll in. And the money never rolls in. So once we were down to just one horn guy, what point was there? He was more interested in playing with the others than with us, now we were just another band, so…gone.

The thing is, I really only had one song. I mean, I had a bunch of songs left over from my previous band, but never recorded any, so I didn’t have anything I could convey to these guys, so there was really just “My Baby’s the Last of the Communists,” which I wanted to be short and punchy and funny, but they were thinking long, serious, dramatic rock ballad. I can’t recall if I ever played any of ’em any They Might Be Giants, but I imagine if I did they probably told me to go straight to hell.

Our drummer had issues. He’d told over dinner one time that he’d been married up until recently. Then he was driving home from work one night and saw this hooker. Then he took the hooker home and threw his wife out, and now the hooker was his girlfriend.

Drummers, right? Amiright?

What can you say to that? “Gee, that’s keen.” I didn’t want to ask any questions because honestly no answer would be a good one. I mean, was she still hooking? Is it possible that I misunderstood her and she just made those hook rugs that were popular in the early ’80s? He never actually said hooker, exactly. Maybe I misunderstood? And he’s a drummer…I mean, I had to keep him, right? And we were practicing in his house. I just resigned myself to avoiding touching anything in his house, and compulsively washing my hands.

Since I wasn’t a bassist (And I can’t remember if we had one before me or not), Tom, the guitarist (And the only guy who’s name I can remember) brought in a friend of his. They’d played together in a band in the past. Power trio. On the surface this seemed like a good idea, as he was a really good bassist, and Tom was a really good guitarist. As one might imagine of a prostitution-enthusiast, our drummer had good rhythm. So: Power trio + me as singer.  I could work with that.

But by this point we still didn’t have any music written out, and the bassist flat out didn’t like my songs, so they took to playing their originals from back in the day. And as I didn’t know their songs, the bassist took to singing them.

I’m gonna be honest: He probably had a better voice than me. So in essence I’d gotten their old band back together.

Nowadays, this wouldn’t present a problem. A decade ago it wouldn’t have presented a problem. Twenty years ago it wouldn’t have presented a problem. Right then, though…well, nowadays I can talk anyone into anything by charm, bluster, or some humorous combination of thereof. Back then, though, I was in my mid-20s, and I just lacked the confidence – no, wrong word – arrogance to step in and force these guys to do my will. I didn’t even know how to explain my will, honestly.

It went downhill from there. The hooker had a serious conversation with her boyfriend about taking over “Some” of the singing duties, by which she meant all. Even then, I would have said, ‘yeah, sure, you can do harmonies and backing vocals and I’ll give you one song to a set,’ but, well, hooker. I honestly didn’t want her around.

The only thing that kept me from being forced out was that the Bassist didn’t want her singing, which was lucky as I didn’t have to get into it with the drummer. As a result she just became the worst cliche of local-band-girlfriend, hanging around all the time, banging a damn tambourine at random intervals and…well, to her credit, she didn’t warble much. Generally local-band-girlfriends who want to be in the band just spontaneously sing along.

The downside, of course, was that I was basically the second vocalist in my own band, and tended to be ignored at my own practices. I *did* manage to spruce up a song that Tom had played with an earlier band. It was called “Spot.” We recorded a demo of it. Well, half a demo. The drummer kept spontaneously stopping after the bridge. We could never explain to him that wasn’t the end of the song.

I don’t know where the demo went, but years later I recorded a version of it with another band, “Mahatma Randy and the Randy Mahatmas.” You can listen to it here.  It’s not bad.

The bassist couldn’t make it to practice one day, so I decided to stage a reverse-coup. I brought Dave Teach along to play bass. That would shift things in my direction somewhat. When we got to my drummer’s house, however, he wasn’t there. He’d forgotten. Tom was there, as were Dave and I, but the drummer didn’t show.

We plugged in our instruments on his front porch and jammed there for a bit. I’d like to say we played really loudly until the neighbors came out and drove us off, but we didn’t. We intended to, mind you but, again, I was going through the worst breakup of my life at the time, and just lacked the needed arrogance to front a band, much less that needed for a good pranking.

So we just noodled around for a few minutes, and then Tom left and then Dave and I thought, “This is stupid,” (Given that there was only a bass there now), so we left too. I wanna say Tom was kind of souring on the drummer by this point.

Later on I called up and asked the drummer where he’d been. He’d spaced on the whole thing. I told him, “It’s ok, we plugged in and practiced on your yard for a while, so it worked out fine.” He got upset at that. “You did what? That’s not cool at all.”
“It’s ok, the neighbors only complained a few times,” I lied.
“What?”
“Look, it’s ok, we were gone long before the cops got there.”
“Cops?” He got weirdly quietly upset over the phone. By this point the silent spaces between his words were almost audibly announcing ‘crazy-crazy-crazy.’

He started in on wanting his girlfriend to sing, and at that moment I just gave up. “You know what? That’s a good idea. We could use a female vocalist to compliment my lack of vocals. I think that’d be a good sound.” He didn’t get it. He didn’t even notice it.

“Ok, well, I’ll see you next week,” I said, with no intention of ever going there again, and I never called him back. Never heard from Tom again, either, which is the real shame of the whole thing, as he was really good.

Ah well.

What brings all this up is that I’ve been converting old video and audio tapes to digital, and hear the one practice we recorded, which consisted of, basically, me sitting in the corner while my band ignored me and played their own stuff.

Good times. Good times.

MOVIE REVIEW: “The Other Side of the Wind” (2018)

I just watched “The Other Side of the Wind,” a posthumous film by Orson Welles.

Shot between 1971 and 1975, the production was a typically sisyphean ordeal of a subset so specific to Mr. Welles that I’ve taken to calling it “Orsonian.” The film’s  troubles, and those have been detailed ad nauseam elsewhere, so I’m not going to bore you with them.  Suffice to say that he was placed under an actual honest-to-God voodoo curse in 1942, and since his movie finally came out in 2018, I think we can conclude that it’s still in effect.

So how do you review a “new” Orson Welles movie? It’s always a little difficult since Welles himself disliked symbolism and metaphor in movies. The story is the thing and the deeper meanings, if any, are subject to your own interpretation or, more likely, are only in your own head to begin with.

The Plot (I warn you there be spoilers, but in a movie of this sort I’m not sure they’re really of any significance. It’s not really a plot-driven film):

John Houston plays a washed up movie director who was once the golden boy of Hollywood, but has fallen from glory since the golden age. He is pretty obviously based on Orson Welles himself.  Peter Bogdanovich plays a very successful young director and self-described “Apostle” of John Houston’s character. He is pretty obviously based on Peter Bogdanovich, who was the golden boy of the early ’70s, and the last of the pre-Spielbergian wunderkind. And also one of Orson Welles’ real-life best friends. In fact, Orson was broke and living in Peter’s house for much of the production, and some of the scenes were shot there as well.

I’m just going to call them by their actor names.

It’s Houston’s 70th birthday, and he’s decided to celebrate by screening a film he’s been working on at his home as part of the party. He’s invited film crews, cineastes, critics, directors, producers, Dennis Hopper, Rich Little, and others. In fact, the party scenes are a who’s who of behind-the-camera power of the “New Hollywood” era (About 1965-75), some of them playing themselves, some playing fictional characters. Orson himself even turns up briefly as a disembodied voice asking John Houston a question.

The film, then, is an ersatz documentary about a fictional director’s birthday party. This is actually visually rather fascinating, owing to its quick cutting, and random juxtaposition between film type. B&W, color, 8mm, 16mm, different grains, etc. We’re to believe the whole thing was cut together from the footage of a dozen or more cameras wandering about the house at the time.

Yeah, that’s right, kids: Orson Welles invented the Found Footage style. Who knew?

This is contrasted with what we see of Houston’s movie, “The Other Side of the Wind,” which is in beautiful color, very nicely composed shots, neato-keeno cinematography, and no plot whatsoever.

(In essence an androgynous man follows Orson’s naked real-life girlfriend around. Neither of them ever say a word. They have sex. It means….nothing. I think maybe it’s supposed to mean nothing. Of course this film-within-a-film is incomplete, and we’re not getting the whole story, but it seems to be a parody of a particular style of European art film at the time, and my sense is that Orson found it pretty but vapid)

As it turns out, the production is broke. The male lead – Johnny Dale (Played by Bob Random) apparently freaked out during a sex scene, ran off the set, and hasn’t been seen since. They’re out of money, out of time, and out of a leading man. The party is a desperate attempt to hit Bogdanovich up for money to complete it, but that doesn’t really pan out.

The screening is a bomb, Houston loses everything, and floors his Porsche into a drive-in theater screen, killing himself.

The End.

So what does it all mean? Well, as with all Welles films, it means what it says, but the thing is I’m just a little less clear on what this says than in his other films. I’m assuming it’s a slice of life of Orson’s own eternal filmmaking torment, and the standard Hollywood bullcrap, but while the failure of the movie does provide a framework for the film, I’m not entirely sure it’s what it’s about.

The most interesting aspect for me was the Johnny Dale character. The androgynous lead of the film-within-a-film, we’re told repeatedly that he was attempting to kill himself by drowning when Houston saw him from his yacht. He saved his life and forced him into acting, against his will. Later on Houston’s own posse do some looking into his past, and discover that Johnny is really named “Oscar,” is super-gay, and that his drowning wasn’t a suicide, it was an audition. Houston is furious and amused that he fell for it.

Johnny/Oscar freaked out during an oral sex scene with Oja Kodar, the perpetually naked lead of the film within a film and ran off.

There’s a curiously gay element running through this picture as well. It’s implied that Houston’s character is a latent homosexual. He has a career-long penchant for discovering handsome leading men, building them into stars, then stealing their women, then discarding both. Susan Strassberg, playing a thinly-disguised Pauline Kael – says this is as close as Houston can get to having sex with his leading men, which she thinks is what he really wants to do. He belts her, which pretty much means she’s probably right.

So is Houston’s character an expy for Orson himself? Yes and no. It has been well documented that Orson was super-de-duper-de straight, so that aspect isn’t him. Also, Orson never had an eye for jailbait, whereas Houston is nailing a 15-year-old girl in the film. I don’t know where that came from (Bogdanovitch says it was a late addition to the script, and that it was a slam at his relationship with the then-19 Cybill Sheppard, which he took offense at, and which made the later stages of production rather chilly)

On the other hand, the fall from early glory, the endless struggle to find financing, projects falling apart for stupid reasons near completion, and the continual hand-to-mouth existence while his acolytes copy him and find fame and fortune – that is all totally Orson. Though he insisted this wasn’t an autobiographical film, it pretty definitely is.

The acting is all over the place. Bob Random and Oja Kodar (Who gets second billing) don’t have any lines in the movie. Houston’s jailbait girlfriend is just a terrible actress (Orson found her waitressing a diner, and insisted she be in the picture.  She was not up to the task.) Bogdanovich’s role was originally held by someone else, then re-cast halfway through production. He’s not bad, as he’s basically playing himself, but he’s not an actor. Given the feel of the bulk of the film, this doesn’t really hurt it at all, though. A surprising amount of dialog is improved, but the more scripted stuff stands out as a result.

I’m never sure about Oja. Some people say she was Orson’s muse and the love of his life. Others say she was his Yoko, or perhaps his Zelda, and the love of his life. So did she keep him going or destroy him? Probably neither, but I’m undecided.  Something that I’ve never heard commented on before I watched it last night: Oja plays her entire role in “Redface.” Or, technically I suppose, given that she’s naked in 75% of her scenes, “Redeverything.” She’s a Croatian actress playing an American Indian for no explained reason (I’m just going to assume that in the film-within-a-film she represents America or the Frontier or perhaps poor treatment of American Indians. I dunno, man, it was the early ’70s). She’s never given a proper name in the party scenes, but people sarcastically call her “Pocahontas” and “Miniehaha” and stuff like that. In 1973 this would have been nothing at all. Nowadays, with all the Whitewashing kerfluffle, I’m interested to see if there’s any backlash, or if Orson gets to play his “Dead-Genius-Beyond-Criticism” card.

The gay subtext – which is relatively subdued – would probably have been rather scandalous in the day. Again, I’m interested to see how that plays out now, with our modern attitudes on homosexuality.  Honestly, this whole film would have been pretty scandalous back then, and I feel like that’s deliberate.

Good lord, is there a lot of nudity in this film! The first shot is a half dozen naked women in a steam bath. Then there’s a hippie night club with nude films projected on the walls, then the “Bathroom Orgy” sequence, where there’s 2 or 3 people in a stall, Oja changing her clothes while an orally fixated lesbian teen looks on, Oja having sex with Bob Random in the car (Which is rumored to have been real, not simulated, but I dunno…), then endless naked wandering through backlots, and the scene on a mattress where she starts to go down on the guy, and he freaks out and runs away. Oh, and her naked with scizors destroying a giant phallic symbol. As I said, it’s a parody of Euro-Art Films)

(I’m not saying this for titillation purposes, but the sex scene in the car is the best-shot sequence in the film. Ignoring the nudity, the car shaking, the rain on the windows, other cars coming past, the rythyms of the camera and the cuts and the lighting are just stunningly put together. It’s mesmerizing and beautiful, and not for the sex. It’s an example that even when he’s just making fun of something, Welles could still do it better than the thing he was making fun of. It’s a pity the scene is too dirty to show your friends, or my Orson-Welles-loving aunt)

My biggest beef, I guess, is the absence of the suicide scene at the end. In the script and storyboards, as I said, Houston slams into the projection screen, killing himself and his car explodes. That shot was never filmed (Because they would have had to destroy the car and the screen, so it would have been filmed last).  As a result, the movie just ends with Houston driving off. There’s no real climax as such.

Given the ease of making that scene (They even have Houston’s voice-over!) it would have been easy to shoot it and insert it. Given the amount of money Netflix invested in FINALLY getting this thing made, it would have been a pittance. And Bogdanovich’s opening voiceover has been changed some to reflect the modern day, so clearly slight changes to the film were thought to be acceptable.

Go figure.

 

So is it a good movie or not? Of course. It’s an Orson Welles movie.

Do I like it? That’s another matter. I’m honestly not sure.

 

Why I named my son Beyowulf

Twenty years ago today, (as of 11:11 AM), my wife and I had our first and only kid. he was a couple weeks past due, so we had to go in and get him. For various reasons, we opted for a C-section. “Grande!” A nurse said during the operation.  He was a big kid. I don’t remember how big, cuz I’m bad with numbers, but pretty big. Ten pounds? That sounds right. The doctor’s first comment was, “It’s a linebacker!”   We were very happy.

My wife got an infection, so they decided to make us stay overnight an extra night  in the maternity wing, and then he crashed. SIDS. Fortunately we were in the hospital, and they caught it, but if my wife hadn’t gotten sick, if they’d let us go home, he would have died.

They rushed us by ambulance to All Childrens in St. Pete, and he spent a week in the NICU while we stayed in the Ronald  McDonald House a block away (seriously: give them money. They do great things)

For various reasons, only one of us was allowed in the NICU at a time, so the wife and I took shifts. I talked to him constantly, sang him The Might Be Giants songs, and told him how strong he was and how much fun he’d have if he’d just get well and come home with us. I held his tiny little hand and prayed pretty much every moment I wasn’t talking or singing. My folks came down to see him in his little Lucite crib with all the IVs sticking in him and monitors attached to him and so forth. The four of us looked at him for a couple minutes and cried, then the nurses told us that they’d already looked the other way as long as they could, and three of us would have to leave. I took my folks out.
“I don’t see why we had to leave,” one of them said, “that other kid had six people visiting.”
“that other kid is dying,” I said. “that’s the family saying goodbye.”
“Oh,” the folks said, chagrined. They knew how bad off we were, they didn’t realize how bad off everyone else in there was.

All the other kids died. All of them. Mine lived. I attribute that to God, but you can say it was just dumb luck if you like. I won’t argue with you. This isn’t a sermon.

What this is, I guess, is me ruminating on that time. I’d like to say it was a fairly tale after that, but in fact it’s been a pretty hard couple of decades for all concerned. Additional medical conditions, awful, awful, awful schools that have no idea how to work with special needs kids, poverty, my own ineptitude as a parent, the list goes on and on. It really wasn’t until a little over three years ago, maybe four,  when it finally began to settle down, and feel like the train might actually stay on the track.

Through it all, though, my kid has been a treasure. He is the reason I am alive, the reason I keep on going. With all the odds repeatedly stacked against him, he’s kept fighting and, well, I suppose nothing’s going to change there. The fighting continues. Some people get a normal life, others have to claw and scrape for it. But the important thing is that we’re all still here, the three of us, we all still love each other, which is better than most people in our predicaments.

I could brag about that, I suppose, but I’m humble. I’m fully aware and ashamed of how outclassed I am. if I was twice the man I am, I wouldn’t be a quarter of what my father was, and it pains me that I haven’t been able to be nearly as good a dad to my son as he was to me. He was superhuman, that one. And my son is superhuman, too. All the times he’s faced death and made it back off…well, a hero is someone who keeps on fighting, right? someone who doesn’t give up, and just keeps slugging away when the odds are frankly abysmal?

There’s a moral dimension to heroism, too: like my dad before me, my son has always done the right thing, if he’s been aware of what it is. He is that rare person for whom there is no difference between what he should do, and what he does. He’s moral, he’s smart, he’s ethical, and he’s braver than anyone I’ve ever met in that there are times when he’s abjectly terrified, but he just keeps on going, fighting, striving, winning less often than he loses; but then “victory” isn’t the measure of heroism. A willingness to risk defeat is. I could see all that in his eyes the very first instant after his birth. He was born with them open expression was like someone desperately trying to make sense of the situation, and figuring out what to do next.

(am I reading too much in to that instant? Of course I am. I was overwhelmed then, and now. Just the same…it’s real to me, and it feels real to my wife and him.)

If those qualities aren’t the universal hallmarks of heroism, well, they should be. There is no one in this world that I am prouder of, no one I love more, no one I know who cares more, who feels more, who tries harder. despite all he’s had to fight against, he was, is, and evermore shall be the bravest, most noble person I know.

There’s a reason I named him Beyowulf.

Greetings to everyone who heard me on the radio!

Hello to everyone who heard me on 106.1 FM or 1340 AM. If you’re checking this site out because of that, thank you very much.

Also, the first article (Below this one) isn’t indicative of this page as a whole, or me, I’m just wondering aloud about an issue of mine.

Anyway, thank you for coming, and please do surf around. I got a ton of cool crap on here. Annnnnnnnnd vastly more boring crap than that.

Why am I an Asshole to Amateur Writers on Amazon? (Part 1)

Here’s an online-social situation where I’m repeatedly an asshole, to my shame.
 
A few years ago, some guy and I got to talking online. I don’t remember how we met. He was kind of acerbic, but we got to talking about old-timey pulp SF. He said he’d written a book of short stories in that style and genre, and as I needed to kill some time in the hospital, I said ‘why not?’
 
The deal was he’d review one of my books and I’d review one of his. We’d give each other reviews on Amazon. “But don’t give a bad review if you don’t like it,” he said, “That’s like the biggest dick move you can do.” I agreed. (I personally don’t tell people to not give me bad reviews. I don’t *want* them, obviously, but it means someone read my book, and that’s worth more to me)
 
Well, his book sucked. I mean it sucked really bad. Grammatically and technically and spelling-wise, it was fine, which is a nice change of pace for armature kindle books (And one that I, myself, can not claim), but it was a terrible, terrible book.
 
Just a quick example of the level of terribleness I’m talking about here: It’s a collection of short stories, right? Ok, at least one of the stories was a fragment of a story he’d abandoned, one was more-or-less Star Trek fanfic, two were setups he’d invented for RPG games, and there’s two lengthy appendices, one of which is just how he’d reconcile the Marvel and DC timelines into one big sprawling universe if it were up to him.
 
I decided not to give it an Amazon review at all. If you can’t say something nice…
 
Meanwhile, he read my book, “The Undead at War (And Other Stories)” and he went off on me about the story, “The Cetian Sky.”
 
Quick overview: A bunch of American Southern refugees settle on the planet Gagarin, in the Tau Ceti solar system. There’s others, too. Mostly Chinese and Russians, but the overwhelming majority are rednecks. They are desperately homesick and there’s a wave of suicides. The main character (Who’s black and British) decides they need *something* from home to focus on, and ultimately she decides on the rebel flag.
 
Now, I gotta point out that this is a pretty controversial decision. A good number of people on Gagarin oppose it, including one of my biggest and most important recurring characters. He greats it as vile, is disgusted by the protagonist, stomps out, and never has anything to do with her ever again. In essence she got bitch-slapped by Moses. She’s very broken up. So it’s not a yee-haw oooh-doggie dukes-of-hazzard the-south-shall-rise-again kind of thing. It’s more about the cultural baggage people take along with them. The solution is morally ambiguous at best, though it does seem to work somewhat, and I don’t *tell* people how to feel about it.
 
I should also point out that this was in 2012 before the present kerfluffle over the flag flared up. I probably wouldn’t have written it, or written it that way if was 2018. Just the same….
 
Well, this other guy just went batshit over my story. He called me a racist, a scum-of-the-earth type, a pile of shit, and you name it. I tried to explain and he wouldn’t listen. He also couldn’t understand pretty simple things like how high the tides are on Gagarin (VERY). He gave me an overview of the book story-by-story, but he just obsessed over that one thing. This was all by email, BTW.
 
I gave him a needlessly polite item-by-item review, and he admitted that most of the stuff I said was true, but he wasn’t going to bother doing anything about it. Fair enough. His book, whatever.
 
Good to his word, he gave me a one-line review that was something like “This is an OK sci-fi book with some good dialog.”
 
I just fumed and fumed and fumed and finally I gave him a shitty one-star review. That was a complete asshole thing to do, even if it was accurate. I was also jealous, as he had like 7 books and I had 2, and his seemed to have a lot of good reviews, and mine had basically none.
 
Anyway, It sat there for a couple weeks before he spotted it, then he correctly said that he thought it was me and that I had it in for him. He couldn’t prove it though, as I don’t use my real name. (Actually, he could have easily proved it. It’s not hard to figure.) Eventually, feeling guilty, I took it down.
 
A few months ago I looked him up out of morbid curiosity. He’s got 25 books now. I’ve got seven. This time out I noticed that only maybe half of his books have reviews. I read them. Most of ’em were “This is a great book! This person is a great writer! They have talent! Read this book and tell your friends!” or “Tell your friends to read this book! He has talent and is a great writer and talented! Book is great!” or “Read this great book, which is talented and great and great writer! Tell your friends to read it!” Basically the same 5 or 6 keywords over and over in different combinations. That’s the universal Amazon sign that you begged your aunts and uncles to write reviews, and gave ’em a template. Most of the real reviews were mediocre-to-bad.
 
Probably ten years ago a different guy contacted me and asked me to review his book on the website I was editing at the time. I said, ‘sure,’ and honestly the premise was pretty unique and good – an interstellar antiques appraiser, who has adventures while running from star to star appraising things. Then it just sort of fell apart in the last act. It became some kind of largely-incomprehensible political allegory. I *think* it was how socialism is bad, but I honestly never knew. Then everything is resolved in one page, and it’s done.
 
I wrote him and said that I honestly didn’t think I could give him a good review, and I didn’t want to publicly give him a bad one. I would be happy to give him a detailed critique, however, to point out where it had problems and several ways that might help fix it.
 
He gave me a hurt little, ‘no,’ and disappeared…and I got mad at him.
 
Because I’m an asshole. This guy wanted to be a writer, he probably hung a lot of his self-image on the idea, wrote a book, timidly asked me to read it, and then I told him ‘it stinks,’ and then *I* got mad at *him?* What the frack kind of sense does that make?
 
I had it in my head that he’d eaten up my time and refused my sage wisdom and blah blah blah when I was trying to be nice. (or was I? Or was I just trying to drive home that I’m better than him? I don’t know.) I probably wrecked the poor guy’s life, or at least his self-image, and yet I stayed mad at him for *years.* It’s completely irrational.
 
So I’m an asshole. It only applies to amateur Amazon books like the ones I write, though. Never people with other ways of getting their stories out there. Never online stuff. Never vanity press. Never actual people in the meat-world handing stuff out. Just Amazon.
 
I don’t know why this is, but I’ll speculate about it in my next post. This one is already too long.

BOOK REVIEW: “Irontown Blues” by John Varley (2018)

Having spent twenty years waiting for this book, and then wolfing it down in a day, it seemed only right for me to think about it for 20 hours before I started talking about it. I was disappointed, but perhaps something would change. Maybe I’d strike on some idea that would suddenly unlock it and the whole thing would strike me as brilliant. It’s happened before. Hell, it happened with the first book in this trilogy, Steel Beech, which I utterly hated upon first reading, but I now recognize as the best book of Varley’s career.

“Irontown Blues,” though…no. I don’t see it.

As with all the books in the trilogy, it’s standalone and mostly-self-contained. While events and people from the other books are relevant, those events will be replayed or explained here so the reader doesn’t have to schlog through 3 other novels and 13 short stories to figure out what the author is talking about. As a result, I’m going to dispense with a lengthy aside about the larger Eight Worlds universe this fits into for now, and just jump into the story.

In short, it’s a self-consciously noir detective tale. Chris Bach is a hard-boiled detective. He wears a trench coat and a fedora. He has a cheap office with a 1939 calendar on the wall. He actually lives in a community called Noirville.  A hot dame with a sexy dress and a glamorous hat breezes in and gives him a case. You know, the usual.

The big reveal is that all of this takes place on the moon about 350 years from now, and that Chris is one messed up cat. He’s dealing with a massively bad case of PTSD and some well-earned paranoia as a result. His detective shtick is his attempt to cope with it by play acting a life as a generic gumshoe. It’s something he knows well from old books and movies, and the simplicity of it appeals to his attempts to stay centered.

Apart from “The Big Glitch,” the event that traumatized Chris, the moon is always depicted as a near-utopia in the Eight Worlds stories, but that’s played down here. We focus on the seedy underbelly. Even so, as Chris himself admits, there’s not much crime. Not really enough to justify his hobby.

The Dame’s case is interesting: in a disease-free future, some guy is deliberately infecting people with very hard-to-cure illnesses. Nothing lethal, but still a serious crime. Chris takes the job and then the book all kind of falls apart.

Do you know what a MacGuffin is? As Hitchcock put it, it’s the thing that has no value in and of itself, but which drives the plot because everybody wants it and is trying to get it. The best example in this context (Though not a Hitchcock-related) would be The Maltese Falcon. The bird itself is basically worthless, but people are willing to kill and die for it. That obsession sets up the conflicts, action, and, more importantly we learn about the characters. Specifically Sam Spade, the detective and protagonist. It’s pretty much a standard detective storytelling device.

The problem in Irontown Blues is that the case itself is more-or-less a MacGuffin. It exists only to set up the book and get it rolling, and provide a spine for the narrative to hold on to, but it’s not even remotely interesting in and of itself. It’s really just a lot of rigmarole that serves no purpose, it’s just a pointlessly convoluted manipulation, which the book itself pretty much admits, but when the author tries to put meaning to it, to explain why the first two thirds of the novel are just padding, well, the explanation doesn’t really wash. I mean, it’s internally logically consistent, I guess, but it’s far from satisfying, and it never connected with me. And while it may be consistent, that doesn’t mean it’s good.

The real reason, I think, is that the author simply wanted to write a hard-boiled detective novel, and that’s pretty much the end of it. The Eight Worlds universe just happened to be the most convenient venue at hand.

This confuses me, because I know Varley can write a good detective story. He’s done it before. This mystery stinks, though. It is clearly just busywork. Part of that problem is that Chris is really bad at his job. Now this could be endearing. A crap detective can be charming or funny, but here, no, he’s neither. He gets a case – first one in forever – then procrastinates for three days before doing anything. When he finds out he has to go to Irontown, he gets scared and procrastinates for days longer. He doesn’t even send his sentient bloodhound, Sherlock, to follow the dame around.

Another problem is that Chris is basically the least interesting character in any Varley story ever. His dog is more interesting. Hell, his dog’s translator is more interesting, and she only turns up in the notes where she talks about the difficulties of translating dog-thought into people-talk. She’s never even ‘onscreen’, so to speak. There’s really none of the existential dilemma we find in the first two books in the series. In Steel Beach, Hildy Johnson is trying to find some meaning in life, and figure out why she’s suicidal. Then a disaster happens. She doesn’t find meaning, but she does at least kick the suicide thing. In Golden Globe, Sparky Valentine is an actor who’s led a life of no particular significance. He gets a chance to do something that will be the pinnacle of his career, something that will make him feel his life is well-lived, and he goes through hell, high water, the whole solar system, and fights with the mob in order to do it.

In this book there’s none of that self-examination and quest for meaning. A bland PTSDed-out ex-cop plays dressup, some people try to kill him at one point, and then he and his dog live happily ever after with his girlfriend (A minor character from Steel Beach) whilehis dog’s translator lusts after him.

Big deal.

The traumatic event in his life revolves around the disaster from Steel Beach, and we have an extensive flashback of his actions and aftermath, and, yeah, that stuff is actually pretty good, but it goes to show how little of the rest of the book stands out.

Readers of the series will want to know if it finally makes good on the promises at the end of Steel Beach and Golden Globe. Yes, but in a far less impressive fashion than we were led to expect.  In fact, it feels derivative of the penultimate book in Varley’s “Lighting and Thunder” tetragy.

Which brings up a second major problem with the book: Tone. Voice. Phil Collins sounds the same whether he’s singing solo or with Genesis, right? Sting sounds very different when he’s solo than he did with The Police. Varley, likewise, had a different authorial voice in the Eight Worlds series than he does in his other work. He also has a somewhat different voice in his standalone works, like “Slow Apocalypse,” which ‘sounds’ different than the Thunder-and-Lightning stuff. Here, however, we have an Eight Worlds story that doesn’t sound like an Eight Worlds story. It sounds like a Thunder-and-Lightning book. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just distractingly out of place. Remember that album of heavy metal covers Pat Boone did? Just felt wrong, didn’t it? Of course he did it as a joke, but Varley is serious here.

Another problem, I think, is that as this series has progressed, it has gotten less fantastic, and less disturbing. The moon is a a place where death itself is not an absolute certainty, nobody starves, nobody gets sick, everyone has access to all the information and entertainment there could conceivably be, everyone can live any kind of life they want, and folks change gender back and forth again and again based on their moods and the whims of the fashion industry. Hell, mosquitoes have been genetically modified so they no longer even bother people. Even this marks a slight reduction in marvelousness than the original Eight Worlds stories. (Which, despite a near-magical utopia, were plenty squick-inducing in places)

In this book, mention is made of perfect health, of gene-altered smart dogs, of cybernetic implants, but it’s all taken down several notches, and only mentioned when it absolutely has to be. It just feels different. Like he’s trying to put the mushroom cloud back in the bomb. I have to say that I do not think he’s actually trying to do that, it just feels that way by accident.

Another problem is that it absorbs the Anna-Louise Bach stories into the Eight Worlds universe. Those were a series of three stories about a lady cop who lives on the moon, and one where she’s a lifeguard living on a space station. They are in a world that is similar in some ways, but that’s all: similar. Until now.

Varley has decided to shoehorn them into Eight Worlds, and brother, believe you men, he has to hammer the hell out of them to make them fit. It contradicts the Bach stories themselves, and the Eight Worlds backstory. I found it terribly distracting, but that’s probably just me.

The final and biggest problem is just the lack of interest here. This feels less like a story that was begging to be told, a story Varley was busting at the seams to share, and more like the sort of thing he feels he’s put off about as long as he can, and is finally banging out from a sense of obligation, not passion.

In the end, it’s short, bland, kind of abrupt, and basically sugarless. And, sadly, it’s the end of the Eight Worlds saga, which has been running (infrequently) for 45 years. Not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a ‘meh.’

 

Burt Reynolds, RIP

This is my Burt Reynolds story:
 
Somewhere in late 1992 I was working inspecting homes for State Farm Insurance. This was a great job for a lazy guy because it mostly entailed driving to a home, verifying that it did, in fact, exist, taking a couple external photos, and then taking those back to the office. Cake!
 
This also gave me plenty of time to screw around on my travels, stopping off to get lunch, or at a comic book store, or whatever happened to be on the way to/from/between my destination(s)
 
One day I stopped off in Peter Dunn’s Vynal Museum (Gulf-To-Bay Drive, across the street from Clearwater High School), and had picked up some random crap from the cheapie bin. While I was there, people had come in and gone and I didn’t notice. The cashier was fiddling around away from the register and hadn’t been paying attention. I went up to pay and as he took my stuff, he said, “Oh. It’s Burt Reynolds again.”
 
The way he said it cracked me up. It was just completely flat, with no affect whatsoever. It couldn’t have been funnier if he’d thrown in a “What ever shall I do?” or “Now happiness has returned to the village.” He wasn’t *trying* to be funny, but it was funny. I thought he was throwing random nonsequitors around, but then I noticed he was staring past me, so I followed his gaze and – holy crap! It’s Burt Reynolds!
 
“Holy crap!” I said, “It’s Burt Reynolds!”
“Yeah, he’s been in and out of here all week,” the guy said. Heavy sight. I dunno what Burt had done, but he’d clearly annoyed the crap out of this guy.
 
Burt had this enormous freight train of a bodyguard with him. He said something, then walked off. I went over, and stood in his peripheral vision about eight feet back (NEVER sneak up on celebs who (A) you know are good with guns and (B) have enormous bodyguards). He was looking through the Miami Sound Machine CD. No joke! Miami Sound Machine! Intently, like he was trying to find something specific.
 
“Pardon me, Mr. Reynolds?” I said. He was a little startled, looked at me, then quickly looked for his absent bodyguard.
“Yes?” He said.
“Hi. I don’t want to take up any of your time, I just wanted to say that I’m a native Floridian, and I really, really, really appreciate all you’ve done to bring the film industry to our state. Thank you.” I turned to leave.
“Oh, that’s very nice of you.”
“You’re very welcome.” I started walking away. In the background the bodyguard came out of the can, saw me, and looked startled like ‘I am so fired’, and started forward quickly. Burt must’ve seen him because he waved the guy off, and he instantly calmed down.
“Did…uhm…did you want an autograph or anything?” He turned to the bodyguard and said, “Run out to the car and get a headshot,”
“Hello,” I said to the bodyguard. He gave me an annoyed nod.
“Just wait a sec,” Burt said. I never get autographs. Just never do. I declined.
“I appreciate it, but I wasn’t trying to butter you up to get anything, I’m just genuinely greatful, and wanted to tell you it means a lot to folks who grew up here.”
 
Boom! Million dollar smile! “That’s so nice of you. Wow, thank you very much.” He stepped over, grabbed my hand and shook it, and slapped me on the shoulder. “Sure you don’t want an autograph?”
“Thanks, but I gotta get back to work,” I lied.
“Well all right. Nice to meet you!”
“Likewise!” I turned around and he slapped me on the shoulder again as I walked away.
 
Back at the office, my manager said,
“You were gone forever. What were you doing?”
“Screwing around as ever. Met Burt Reynolds.”
Eyeroll. “Sure you did.”
“Ok, don’t believe me.”
“Show me his autograph.”
“I didn’t get one.”
“Well then I don’t believe you.”
“Which is why I didn’t get one. I don’t *CARE* if anyone believes me or not about this stuff.”
“So what was he like?”
“Unsurprisingly very nice. I think I got his bodyguard fired, though.”

ORIGINAL SONG: “Fly”

I actually recorded this 2 or 3 years ago, but didn’t get around to fixing the mix until this week, and then got bored and did the video. The low vocal comes from recording the song during a bout of insomnia around 3AM and not wanting to wake my wife or kid.

The video has two screwed up clips in the end, which I’ll fix when I figure out how to, and how to upload new video over an old one.

Anyway:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_5VLUuAeRg