For his efforts, Justin will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Sweden, where he will take Bob Dylan's place in the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10th. He will also get Bob Dylan's check from the Nobel Academy, and half Dylan's song publishing royalties in perpetuity. It's the least we can do.
I'm very pleased to be reading from my short story "Waiting for the Question" at the best bookstore in Southwest Portland Annie Bloom's Books this Monday.
The reading is in conjunction with Forest Avenue Press's City of Weird anthology, in which "Waiting for the Question" is published, and it's been a highlight of my year to be involved with such a great project. Really. These people have worked hard to bring you a great book. Check it out.
The event on Monday (11/14) will feature other fab City of Weird contributors Justin Hocking, Suzy Vitello, and Doug Chase, and the show starts at 7 PM. Come say hi and have your reading thirst sated.
I'm always fascinated by the elements that make a story go--whether it be a book, a film, a TV show, an essay, or something else--and I'm at least as fascinated by what's missing when it doesn't quite.
The latter was the case with my story "Waiting for the Question," also known as my Alex Trebek story, which I worked on for years until it finally came together and was published in the brand new anthology City of Weird, brought to you by Portland publisher Forest Avenue Press.
Necessary Fiction has done me the honor of publishing my short essay on the process of writing and publishing "Waiting for the Question," which includes details of how Forest Avenue's Laura Stanfill and Gigi Little emailed Alex Trebek to get his permission to publish the story in the anthology. Yeah, that's gonna work, right? Read on, my friend, and be amazed.
About five years ago, I sat down to write a story about Alex Trebek.
This story would be different from so many of my other short stories because it would come from an idea.
I didn't write from ideas. I didn't like ideas. Everyone had ideas. I wanted to be different.
My idea was I wanted Alex Trebek to show up to an apartment complex, squat down, and sort of study the distance from this position. Think of it as a contemplative pose. He'd grab his lip, absent-mindedly pinch it, look off into the distance, and stay there for a long time. I just wanted his presence in this pose in this story, kind of like the old man in "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," but I wanted it to be Alex Trebek, and I wanted him to be squatting, and I wanted to see what would happen.
This is why writing is so wonderful. You decide you want things a certain way, and that's the way they are. At one point, the story was called "A Very Old Game Show Host with Enormous Wings." I just wanted it that way, and it was so.
So, I wrote the story, and I liked much of it, and didn't like other parts of it, so I rewrote the other parts several times over the course of about five years, and eventually I had a story, now called "Waiting for the Question."
(There's a whole section that should go here about the acceptance of this story by City of Weird, but that portion of the tale is coming out later this month at Necessary Fiction, so you'll just have to understand it's coming down the pipe, and I will check back in here when it's up.)
What you need to know now is Forest Avenue Press's City of Weird anthology is available for sale, and it's where you can read my Alex Trebek story "Waiting for the Question" and 29 other stories all set in Portland, and by some very respect fiction writers. It's a real honor to be included, and I think, somewhere, Alex Trebek is happy about it too.
So, please buy the anthology and read my Alex Trebek story and get 29 other Portland stories to boot.
Also, there is a series of readings coming up to celebrate this offering, and I'm participating in two of them. However, the official launch party is this Wednesday at Powell's on Burnside, where my writing compatriot Mark Russell is reading with three other City of Weird contributors. I won't go into all of the revelry scheduled for the event, but let's just say it feels very much like you won't want to miss it.
Anyone who knows me knows I'm curious about the intersection of rock and roll with the novel form. To me, the rock life is inherently dramatic, and it hasn't yet been overdone in literature. How do we use the long fiction form--where words and not music have to do most if not all of the heavy lifting--in a way that complements what we already know about rock and doesn't take away from it?
With this in mind, I'm very pleased to have my latest review--on the novel Beatlebone by Kevin Barry--up at Page and Spine. Topics explored include John Lennon, scream therapy, and the advantages and disadvantages of making famous people into fictional characters.
I think most musicians have an album that at some point broke them into a million pieces and reassembled them into something else entirely. For me, that album was Lifes Rich Pageant by R.E.M., which came out thirty years ago this past week, and I wrote about the experience for BULL: Fiction for Men. Let's take a Sunday morning trip down memory lane, shall we?
It must be my birthday week, because not one but two of my reviews have popped up in Internetland since Sunday. The latest is my review of The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod, which is brought to you by Colorado Review.
Over the next three months, three reviews of mine--all of newly-released books--hit the streets, and you cannot go wrong with any of these three titles. Case in point? Rob Roberge's latest memoir Liar, which I reviewed at The Rumpus this past week.
My band's debut album for Mercury Records, Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big and Buzzy, came out 20 years ago today, so I thought I'd give the whole thing a listen--plus the B-sides!--and jot down whatever pops into my head.
“Blue Collar Suicide”
is an old Roger song from his time in the Mortals. It came together
while recording Fizzy
when Roger played the track’s rhythm guitar part and P.H. gave it
the Bo Diddley treatment. We all instantly knew we had a new track
for the album and worked it out on the spot. The only change in
arrangement from the Mortals’ version of the song is the addition
of the bridge/solo section, which we also worked out on the spot. Our
plan with Fizzy
was to more or less re-record the tracks of Wheelie
for Mercury with better production values, but I don’t think anyone
in the band felt good about simply repeating Wheelie
our Mercury debut. “Blue Collar” made it so we wouldn’t just
offer up Wheelie Again to
our hardcore fans,but
instead improved upon it. That this song was lively enough also to be
the first track on the album was an added bonus. The Refreshments
were the kind of band that rehearsed every song until it was
note-for-note done, meaning there was little room for exciting things
to happen in the studio. Still, wherever we went into the studio, I
wanted something unplanned to happen. This song was the
big surprise of the session.
By the way, the last bit of bass noise on the track is me slapping
all of the open strings once and letting them ring for a second
before muting them. Now you know.
title always sounds suggestive, which makes sense considering the
song’s content, but really it’s a reference to Monty
Python’s The Holy Grail.
There’s no good reason for this reference, other than the fact that
band often liked to quote old movies in the basement during the Dusty
era, and somehow it stuck as the title. The Fizzy
recording of this track has one big issue for me. That’s me singing
backing vocals on the chorus. Dusty, who had been our backing
vocalist, was thrown out a month or two before recording, and I really didn't want to repeat Dusty’s backing vocal lines
verbatim. I felt there were a few backing vocal elements on this
track that were distinctly Dusty’s, and I went out of my way not to
repeat them. One is during this chorus, in particular after the
second line. On this track on Wheelie,
Dusty added a nice little melodic element after “want me to.” For this version, I took it off, to the song’s detriment. It’s a
little thing, but it’s something I notice every time. I wish I’d just
sung Dusty’s line.
like that “Swallow” is a quintessential cut from our club days.
The track’s a bit long, even by 1996 standards, but the storyline
and chorus are distinct enough to have it front and center on the
album. I think it helps make Fizzy
not just a bunch of singles but one album-y piece of work. It’s
also the grooviest song in our distinctly non-groovy band. If I had
it to do over again today, I’d lobby to edit it.
One of my favorite Refreshment tracks, this tune was one of the five
Roger brought back from the ranch where he spent the summer of 1993.
It was clearly one of the songs that acted as a guide to our
aesthetic, and it boasts the best bridge section of any Refreshments
song. Its charm is apparent, with its simple repeating melody
and the narrator unraveling the wealth of possibilities for him and
his love. So many classic lines. It really needed very little but
Roger’s contribution, but I’ve always been proud of the backing
vocals, especially in the bridge. The highest note is out of
my range, but producer Clif Norrell stuck with me for several takes.
I’m shocked by how much Clif played with effects in the studio on
this one. There’s a great deal of farfisa organ, monkeying with the
guitar track, and the repeating piano lick in the second half of the
chorus. I also remember Clif making me play with a pick on this one
during the verses, an idea I was not crazy about. Finally, the chorus only comes around twice.
Maybe that’s why this second single didn’t do as well as the
first. Still, at 4:24, adding another chorus would’ve meant losing
one of those fun verses. No regrets, coyote.
there’s one song that represents the Refreshments at their most
complete, it’s this one. The tune moves seamlessly from Outlandos
reggae to Still
cowpunk. The verses incorporate great lyrical moments culled from
Roger’s Southeast Asia trip in 1993, and its chorus is as genuinely
anthemic as any thing on a Skynyrd album. Anyone who made it to track
four on this album knew that we weren’t just some novelty act but
one that could have genuinely soulful moments. Again, this is
Roger at the top of his game, but I feel like the bass line is its
own statement. It’s the one song we wrote when I did not give a shit
what anyone else was playing. My attitude was, “This is the bass
line, deal with it.” The song’s rhythm is probably as close as we
came to Camper Van Beethoven, a band that acted as a very early model
for us. Not to beat a dead horse, but I’m again very proud of the
backing vocals, even if I elaborated on them live later. I wish I’d sung
backing vocals on every other line of the second verse, which is
something I regularly did live. (I did manage to get the last line in
there.) Also live, I regularly altered the backing vocals on the last
pass of the last chorus as well. You only get one shot at the record.
“Don’t Wanna Know”
This was a Mortals song I never heard the Mortals play. The
sentiment in the verses is one any musician from any band can relate
to, trying to keep your spirits up on a night when maybe you’re not
the hottest ticket in town, and I loved it from the first time Roger
played it in the basement. I don’t want to keep up with the backing
vocals obsession, but it’s the one area where a song can truly
exceed a band’s expectations in the studio. Dusty sang along
with Roger in the second verse, which always sounded great, so I
kept that up. I also started singing the second half of the first
verse along with Roger, which I loved as well. Since I started as the
band’s backing vocalist a mere month before this recording, I’m
always pleased to hear them sound okay.
Brian has some particularly memorable parts in here as well, like
the violin-like guitar sounds in the second chorus. When Blush
excelled, I called his parts “Richrathian,” after REO
Speedwagon’s late guitarist Gary Richrath, who also sported a Les Paul
and a similarly tasty tone. I think the main hook of this one
qualifies as Richrathian. The tune speaks for a lot of people who
maybe wonder too much, or not enough, about where they’ll be in a
year. Keep the faith.
If I have any ill feelings towards “Girly,” it’s because it
was the third single off this album, and I think in retrospect it’s
a bit one-dimensional compared to some of the other possibilities. We
closed most of our shows with it back in the day, and I liked playing
the bass behind my head during the solo parts, but the song sounds
thin to me today. Of course, Blush’s main lick is deadly, and the
violence in the main storyline is just perverse enough to work. Blush
really loved it, and Roger, for all of his avoidance of some of our
earlier material he seemed to find too risque, didn’t
mind it either.
kept the bass line very simple for the studio version. I think I
wanted to differentiate it from “Carefree,” the other swing tune
on the album, which has a busier line. We’d played “Girly” a
thousand times by the time we recorded it for Fizzy,
and I just couldn’t quite hear it anymore. It lacks a bridge, or
any variance in the verse, save Roger’s ad lib at the end of the
third verse, which I remember being not quite as impactful as the one on
version. Still, for all my bitching, it’s hardly the worst song we
I loved this song from the first time Roger spoke the chorus to me
one day while driving us home from band practice. It’s down-to-earth,
rockin’, memorable, and never more true. No one I’ve met in the 20 years since
recognizes the track by name, but many know the chorus.
The production of the song sounds thin to me. We went into
Ocean Way in 1995 hoping we’d come out with something that sounded
like a Brendan O’Brien album, and this definitely isn’t that.
Still, it obviously did the trick. I’ve always been proud of the
bass during the end solo section. Like “Mekong,” I discovered my
part, stuck with it, and didn’t care what anyone else was doing.
The end of the song sounds like the controlled chaos I loved from our
early live sets. No one is listening to anyone else, but the wheels
stay on the tracks just enough to keep the song moving forward.
subsequent video was a lot of fun to shoot, and was easily our finest
moment in the video world. The video got regular play on MTV during
the summer of 1996, and KROX even added the song for an L.A. minute
that same season. Finally, the song was the number one song of
1996—that’s the number one song of the year—at
KNRK in Portland, Oregon, a good association with the Refreshments
and my adopted hometown.
song was titled “B.O.B.A.” on Wheelie,
which stood for “Buffett on Bad Acid,” and was wisely renamed to
its more obvious signifier for Fizzy.
We of course had to add mariachi style horns to it—it was the
absolute right thing to do—but I feel like the track loses
something of its original drunken silliness with the drowning out of
Brian’s guitar in the beginning.
verse of “Mexico” was written in a rare songwriting collaboration
between Roger and me. Yes, I’m the creative genius behind the
“lures/bobbers” and “hooker/erection” lines. These are easily the most heard of any words I’ve
ever written, no doubt finishing slightly ahead of “Carefree.” I
love that some of the spontaneity of the song is preserved in this
recording. The lyrics to me always and forever sound like they were
created off-the-cuff over beers, and indeed they were.
Once the nonsensical verse was finished, Roger and I had a
competition to see who could write the best chorus for the song. I
showed up to his place the next day with my chorus in tow. He said,
“Who goes first?” I said, “You.” He played his chorus, and my chorus was never heard from again. As much as I like
that this song is out there, I’m very thankful I don’t have to
play it 100 nights a year for the rest of my life. Ole!
when Roger brought in a song, it was pretty close to finished, and
all the band members had to do was make a snip here, a snip there,
add their parts. “Interstate” is a special
song for me because it was a song brought in by Roger that was
reworked significantly afterwards, creating something better than it
would’ve been otherwise. It was a little one-dimensional when it
came into the basement. Those intro chords were just one chord, G
major, over and over. Even after reworking the chords and some of the
feel, Roger only sang one verse until we took the song into Ocean Way
to record it for Fizzy.
I eventually got tired of nagging him to write at least a second
verse and wrote my own which, surprising to me, met his approval. He
doctored the words a little to make them feel more natural to him, but I
will take credit for the Tempe music homage in the second verse of
That’s Roger and not me singing background. I can’t remember
At five and a half minutes, and repeating the first verse for the
third, I’m surprised this didn’t get drastically edited at the
time, probably because there was a good chance it wouldn’t make the
album. I bet folks skip this track when listening to the whole thing
today. Our penchant for repeating one verse over and over again was something Roger and I defended at the time, citing Gordon
Gano, but most of Gano’s songs don’t stand the test of time
the time of recording Wheelie,
we thought “Suckerpunch” would be the first single off our first
major label record, but something happened in the year between
that made us lose a little faith in the song. For one, we edited
it drastically from the Wheelie
version, trying to get it more into a single form, and it lost
something in translation. That chorus is great, but somehow we only
manage to get to it twice. I feel like it needs a bridge or something.
Again, Roger sings the backing vocals. I seem to recall he had a
specific idea for the end, and just did it.
This version feels light and quick, making it seem more like a
jingle than a song. I felt that at the time of the recording as well,
and if I had it to do over again I would’ve lobbied hard to make
this track a B-side, replacing it on side two with “Psychosis.” I
knew that would’ve been a tough fight. Roger didn’t like
“Psychosis.” Besides, Mercury liked “Suckerpunch,” which
meant there was still a chance it would be a single. I can’t
imagine what they would’ve done if we’d delivered an album
without “Suckerpunch,” but I wish we would’ve found out.
my most famous song—my most famous anything—so you’re not going
to hear me say anything bad about it. It’s obviously simple: two
verses, one chorus, guitar solo. The guys disliked the edit to the
first chorus—halving it from the Wheelie
version—and I agree with them. They also didn’t like that the
last chorus going an extra half, which I disagree with. In later bands, I played the full chorus the first two times
around, then played the chorus and a half to end it.
I have fond memories of piano player Skip Edwards recording on
this one. I kept trying to get Clif to get him to put his foot up on
the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis while he played—especially at the
end. I felt that would’ve given the tune the right feel, but Skip
wasn’t really that kind of dude.
This is one of the best backing vocal tracks. Very present, and
pushing Roger’s vocal to be even more brilliant. There’s an
ever-present clickity-clack going on throughout the song. That’s
P.H. with a pair of drum sticks playing, I believe, the back of a
metal chair. Once, a guy approached me at the Yucca Tap Room and said,
“That tune’s about a blow job, isn’t it?” I think of it as a
song more about subtle manipulation, but sure, a blow
The spiritual center of the album, and of the Refreshments. It
always reminds me of a night in the desert jamming and drinking with
Roger and Dusty, staring up at the full moon, Dusty belting out
“Lady” by Styx. Having said that, for the last three years of the
band I found this track pretty boring to play live. It’s long,
there’s not much to the bass line, no backing vocals. Still, I knew
how important the song was to our fans, that Roger and Brian’s
parts are great, so it was hard to vocalize any dissent. Still, I was
happy on the rare night it was left off the set list, sometimes
replaced by “Una Soda.”
That’s P.H. on the bongos in the background. That's
Blush’s best lead on the record, and the guitar pyrotechnics at the
end of that last verse are the perfect studio touch. We were all
waiting for our coal black souls to come alive, and with this track,
I remember seeing Roger and Dusty’s band the Mortals at Chuy’s
one night in 1992. It was one of Chuy’s Wednesday night shows, with
the Mortals going on first before two other bands. I stood at the
center-back of the club and watched Roger as he sang this song,
thinking, “I’d love to play that tune.” When Dusty first
brought up the idea of contacting Roger to jam, my
first thought was, “At least I’ll get to play that graveyard
was one of the original five songs we played at our first practice,
and it was always a favorite of mine to play live. Like a few of our
original songs, Roger grew to dislike it, so we phased it out. Still,
when Roger expressed dismay about recording it for the Fizzy sessions, I said, “Sing this song one more time, and I swear to God
I’ll never ask you to sing it again.”
Norrell lobbied for this cut to make the album, claiming it gave
more depth. Like I said above, if I had it to do over again, I’d
substitute “Psychosis” for “Suckerpunch.” The real fear was
that Mercury would somehow hear “Psychosis” as a single. It was still very
grunge out there in 1996, and I wouldn’t have put it past someone
at the company to lobby hard for the song to compete on that level,
which would’ve been disastrous from our end. The one way to make
sure it wasn’t a single was not to include it on the album, so we
didn’t include it.
The lone bass-intro song in our catalog, “Feeling” was one of
the five songs Roger wrote the summer of 1993 while he stayed out on
his grandparent’s ranch (along with “Down Together,” “My
Penis,” “Clown” and … sorry, can’t remember, but I know it
was five). It was a staple of our live set in 1994, but quickly found
its way to secondary status as we started writing the material that
would eventually go on our second Mercury record. I’ve always liked the
lyric, the sort of clumsy walk of the bass line, the bass run during
the solo. I also remember, once we signed him on, P.H. struggled to
get the feel of this one, which may have been another reason why it
found itself on the permanent B-list.
was never any real talk of “Feeling” making Fizzy,
and I still think that’s the right call. It just wasn’t as strong
as our other material. But again, I’m happy we got the track down
for posterity. I’d hate to think it was lost forever.