List-O-Mania Part Two: Albums

OK, here is another of my lists.   This time the topic is all time favorite albums.  As with all of my lists, it is subject to head-slapping oversights and ommisions, and would no doubt look significantly different tomorrow than today. 

I grew up in the late sixties and seventies, a time when the album became the center point of the music universe.   Album releases were events comparable to the releases of motion pictures and books.  There were overt concept albums, like Tommy and Quadrophenia by the Who and The Wall by Pink Floyd.  Other albums contained songs that were part of an overriding mood or theme that the artist wanted to convey.  There was lots of brilliance, and even more self-indulgence and pretentiousness (see the Emerson, Lake and Palmer album Works – Volume One for a classic example).  There were also the different genres of popular music, dominated by what has now come to be referred to as “classic rock” (a term I truly despise).   There was folk, progressive, soul and country – and there were interesting artists making great music in every genre.   There were hard rock and heavy metal and Rhythm and Blues bands.  There were singer songwriters and there were punks.   And, of course, there was disco.  

 Now, well into the 21st century, the album is still alive, but on life support.  The internet and IPODs have changed the way music is sold, marketed and purchased.   For many, albums have been replaced by individual song downloads and the creation of custom playlists.   There’s a lot of good in this new model, with many artists adapting to it and getting more music to their fans faster.   Some artists still approach album releases as opportunities to explore and examine themes.   But the golden age of the album seems to have passed.

 So my list is dominated from the years I’ll refer to as “The Album Era”, the years when I was building my album collection and developing, for better or worse, my own tastes, my likes and dislikes.    I have a personal relationship with each of the albums on the list – at a minimum, they are part of the soundtrack of my life.  Some of them shook my earth and profoundly changed the way I see the world.  

 Here is my list of my fourteen favorite albums:

 #14  Copperhead Road, Steve Earle, 1988:  Earle’s cross over album, from respected country songwriter to rock superstar.   Whatever genre he works in, Earle is an enormously talented songwriter, and his range is on full display here, from the southern gothic, multi-generational anthem of the title track, to the deceptively plaintive love song “Even When I’m Blue”, to the rocking hillbilly perfection of “The Devil’s Right Hand”, to my favorite, the hard rocking and poignant collaboration with the great Irish band, The Pogues, on “Johnny Come Lately”.   A rare combination of folk, country, hard rock, and poetry.

 #13  Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan, 1975: Dylan’s “divorce album” is as raw and open as an untreated wound.  A very difficult album to categorize – it’s not folk, it’s not rock, it’s not blues – it’s not acoustic, it’s not electric – isn’t solo, isn’t with a band.  Whatever it is, it’s all connected, starting with “Tangled Up in Blue”, through “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” and ending with “Shelter From the Storm”and “Buckets of Rain”.   Blood on the Tracks sounds like no other album by Dylan or anybody else. 

 #12  Tunnel of Love, Bruce Springsteen,  1988:   Released as the eagerly anticipated follow up to the mega hit “Born in the USA”, Springsteen defiantly deconstructs the all-American cartoon of his superstardom and turns inward, wrestling with his image, his Catholicism and his success.   Conflicted and brutally honest, the result is some of his best and most personal songwriting, with songs like “Tougher Than the Rest”, “Brilliant Disguise”, and the achingly beautiful “Valentine’s Day” standing out.

 #11  Surrealistic Pillow, Jefferson Airplane,  1967   The breakthrough album that defined the San Francisco sound, this album is best known for the immense hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” – and to me, that’s a shame, because good songs though they are, they are among the weakest tracks on an album that shows the incredible range of this band that history all too often overlooks. The aching  Marty Balin ballads “Today” and “Coming Back to Me”, the acoustic guitar instrumental “Embryonic Journey”, the unabashed 60s hippie pop of “How Do You Feel”, or the tight rocking “Plastic Fantastic Lover” are good songs by talented musicians with exceptional range.

 #10  Live at Leeds, The Who, 1969   Without a doubt the greatest live album by the greatest live act in history.   Famous for their stage antics, this album proves that the Who were great musicians – there’s never been a greater rhythm section than John Entwistle and Keith Moon, and, on this album,  Pete Townsend gets to show his credentials as an electric guitar God.  As good as any of the power blues by super groups like Cream, the same band that was the Godfathers of the punk movement also prove here to be a great heavy metal band.

 #9  A Space in Time, Ten Years After, 1971  Ten Years After is known primarily for the power blues guitar riffs of Alvin Lee.   A Space in Time shows surprisingly sophisticated songwriting, command of lovely melodies, and atmospheric production.  There is great melding of acoustic and electric guitars on the justifiably famous “I’d Love to Change the World”, and also on the lovely rockers “Hard Monkeys” and “I’ve Been There Too.”  The sonic love song “Let the Sky Fall” is another highlight, while there are still examples of the great blues rock that the band was famous for in “One of These Days” and “Baby, Won’t You Let Me Rock and Roll You”                                    

 #8  Red Dirt Girl, Emmylou Harris, 2000  Best known for lending her incredible voice to interpretations of other artists music, in “Red Dirt Girl”, Emmylou Harris shows off her skills as a top notch songwriter.  The material is personal, confessional, atmospheric and deeply felt.  The album crosses and combines genres  – it isn’t quite rock, it isn’t quite folk, it isn’t quite country.  It is beautiful and eloquent.  Highlights include “Michelangelo”,  “Tragedy”, “Red Dirt Girl”, “My Antonia”, “Boy From Tupelo”, and her emotional elegy to her Father, “Bang the Drum Slowly”, which, for me, never fails to conjure up the haunting image and feel of Arlington National Cemetary.

 #7  Let it Be, The Replacements, 1984   The third album from the restless Midwestern juvenile delinquents could have been titled “growing pains”, because it shows them in transition, from the punk rockers of their first two albums to the maturity that leader Paul Westerberg was suddenly writing songs with.  “Androgynous” is one of the most amazing and sophisticated love songs ever written, and “Sixteen Blue” is the archetypical teen angst song.  “Unsatisfied” is an eloquent articulation of the punk mindset, and “Answering Machine” captures the frustrating loneliness for which Westerberg would become spokesman for.  “20th Century Boy” proves the Mats could rock with the best of them.  With “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and “Gary’s Got A Boner”, the Mats happily demonstrated that they’d never completely grow up.

 #6  Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones, 1971   My son Jon thinks “Beggar’s Banquet” is the best Stones album, and he may be right – it’s right up there with “Exile” as the very best of the Stones.   My vote is for “Exile”, because of the Mick Taylor / Keith Richards guitar interplay.  On hits like “Tumbling Dice”, “All Down the Line” and “Happy”, and especially the often overlooked “Stop Breaking Down”, the line between lead and rhythm guitars are blurred.   The Stones have spent most of the years after “Exile” trying to recreate this sound, but have largely failed.  I think it’s because Taylor was a more talented and melodic guitar player than either Brian Jones before him or Ron Wood after.   With Taylor manning the stratosphere, Richards was left to explore the dirt in the gutter, and the Stones never sounded tighter or rawer than on tracks like “Ventilator Blues” They explore their blues/gospel roots on songs like “I Just Want to See His Face” and “Shine a Light”.  

 #5  London Calling, The Clash   1980   The greatest album by the greatest punk band.  On London Calling,  the Clash is bursting open with creative energy and ideas and influences, from the pop of “Lost in the Supermarket”, the hard rocking “Brand New Cadillac”, the exhilarating Phil Spector-ish wall of sound and tragedy of “The Card Cheat”, the reggae of “Revolution Rock”, the political fervor of the title track, and the beautiful “Train in Vain”.  It’s the raw emotional content of rage, disappointment, heartbreak and boredom that tie these disparate elements together.  Punk or not, “London Calling” stands as perhaps the most eloquent articulation of the theme of rebellion that has always been at the core of great rock.

 #4  The Beatles (the White Album), The Beatles, 1968  As my son Nick points out in his top ten list, the White Album contains  lovely pop songs like “I Will” and “Martha My Dear” that could have fit on early Beatles albums, as well as bad-ass songs such as “Happiness is a Warm Gun”,  “Yer Blues” and “Helter Skelter” .  To me, the White Album showcases Lennon, McCartney and Harrison at the peak of their songwriting skills.  Besides “Helter Skelter”, McCartney rocks with “Back in the USSR” and “Birthday” and shows his famous skill for ballads on “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son”.  Lennon contributes lovely pieces such as “Dear Prudence” and the heart wrenching “Julia”, as well as the primal scream “Yer Blues” and the eerie “Cry, Baby Cry.”  Harrison’s contributions are among his best as well, with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Piggies”,  and the overlooked “Long, Long Long”

 #3  Are You Experienced. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1967  Hendrix’s debut album truly changed everything.  This has to be one of the most influential albums of all time.   The over simplified myth is that this freak of nature guitar player dropped out of the sky and dazzled us with sounds we had never heard before.  The truth is that Hendrix was much more.   He was a brilliant songwriter (“The Wind Cries Mary” is brilliantly evocative in both music and lyrics, “Purple Haze” virtually invented heavy metal, “Manic Depression” walks the edge between sanity and insanity) as well as a wonderful interpreter of other people’s songs (His version of the traditional “Hey Joe” is pure perfection and unlike anything that preceded it).    The reason he remains unparalleled as a guitar player is because his playing was an extension of his soul, and there was only one Hendrix.

 #2  Bringing it All Back Home, Bob Dylan, 1964  Half electric, half acoustic, all genius –  this album is as revolutionary and brilliant today as it was 46 years ago.   The electric side one glides with tight rockabilly efficiency, starting with the surreal rap of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.  “She Belongs to Me” is an ironically titled song of a man enslaved to his muse (“You will start out standing proud to steal her anything she sees/ but you will end up peeking through a keyhole down upon your knees”)  “Maggie’s Farm” is a personal declaration of independence.  There’s the comic  surreal boogie “On the Road Again” (“I wake up in the morning and there’s frogs inside my socks/ your mama she’s hiding inside the icebox/your daddy walks in wearing a Napolean Bonaparte mask”) The acoustic side two is awe-inspiring:  raw, personal and poetic.  This is what anyone who doesn’t get Dylan needs to listen to.  It begins with the epic poem to physical and spiritual exhaustion, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”  Next it’s the jarring juxtaposition of nightmare and paradise in “The Gates of Eden”, followed by the relentlessly bleak and angry “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” and the heartbreaking “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”.   It’s beyond belief that four songs of this stature can be found on the same album side – most artists would consider any one of them the crowning point of their career

 #1  Darkness on the Edge of Town, the River, Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen, 1978, 1980, 1982   OK,  three albums as number one might seem like cheating, but to me these three albums are so  thematically linked they should count as one.  Issued between the mega successes of the “Born” albums (Born to Run (1975) and Born in the USA (1984)), they combine to chronicle the journey of the same character, a character who is the embodiment of the mythic archetypes forged by the rock that had preceded him:  alone, rebellious, sexual, and misunderstood.   At the end of Darkness on the Edge of Town, he chooses to stay on the outside, scorned by omnipresent and nameless forces (the “they” of “Something in the Night” and “Prove it All Night”), bruised and battered but defiant and triumphant:  “Tonight I’ll be on that hill cause I can’t stop/ I’ll be on that hill with everything I’ve got/with lives on the line, where dreams are found and lost/I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost/for wanting things that can only be found/in the darkness on the edge of town”). 

In The River, he tries to come back to society and find love and hope, characterized by the many optimistic garage band songs that comprise most of the first disc.  But even finding love doesn’t fill the void presented by the knowledge of his own mortality, as seven of the nine songs on the second disc are dominated by death imagery.  The album that begins with the optimistic 12 string guitars of “The Ties That Bind” ends with the rainy acoustic guitars of “Wreck on the Highway”, while the character lies awake in the dark, clinging to his lover, haunted by his awareness of death. 

It’s enough to drive one mad, and that’s where the stark and acoustic Nebraska begins, with the retelling of the Charles Starkweather murder spree of the 50s.   The outsider of “Darkness” still had his defiance at the end, but at the end of Nebraska, he is left at the altar, jilted and alone, struggling to find “A Reason to Believe”.

Those who know only the bandana wearing pop icon of “Born in the USA” or the respected elder statesman of the 21st century may wonder what all the fuss is about.  These albums should make believers out of anyone with a functional ear and soul.

Not Fade Away

Thanks to everyone for their kind words and condolences regarding the passing of my Dad last week.  It’s been a rough week, and things are finally settling down, and I’m just beginning to grasp the enormity of the hole that has been left behind. 

My Dad, though, was unique.  There was no you could spend any amount of time with my Dad without smiling if not laughing.  He always had a sparkle in his eye, and it was through that sparkle that he viewed his own unique take on the world.  He was always good company, and his gift was in making people feel better.  This gift continues on even after his death, in the memories of the times we shared and the stories he told.  Even in the sadness of my mourning, a smile inevitably forms on my face.  I think it is because he was such a powerful life force that death seems weak by comparison. 

My Dad was a great storyteller, and I know that I could never do any of his stories justice, and I know that I will undoubtedly get a lot of the facts and dates and details wrong, but what the Hell.    This is a story he told a few times, as late as a few weeks ago, and it remains one of my favorites.

In 1947 (? Or 1946?), after he returned home from the Army, on a bright summer afternoon my Dad stopped into an empty bar in Ladysmith for a drink.  As he walked up to the bar, the bartender said, “Oh, no you don’t.  You get your ass out of here”

“But I just got home from the Army,” my Dad protested.

“I know exactly who the Hell you are, now get the Hell out of here!”

“But … “

“I mean it, you get the Hell out of here”

At this point the story flashes back to the summer of 1944, my Dad having just turned 18 and enlisted in the army.  He got on with a busload of other recruits from Northwestern Wisconsin, most of who were unknown to each other.  They were on their way to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, where they would receive their basic training.  1944 was years before the modern interstate system,  plus the fact that, at least as I imagine it, the bus had to stop several times to pick up additional recruits, made what today would be approximately a seven hour ride an overnight excursion that included a stay over in a Milwaukee hotel.

Somewhere, north of Madison, as the bus made one of its scheduled stops, my Dad had the initiative and enough spare bucks in his wallet to spring for a case of beer.    Never being one who had any trouble making new friends, my Dad and his fellow recruits enjoyed the beer and the ride enough that by the time they made it to Milwaukee, they were old friends – old friends locked together in a Hotel in the big city the night before their induction into the Army.   What had started on the bus remained to be finished.

Later that night, as my Dad sat, as he described it, innocently and quietly in his room on the third or fourth floor of the hotel in downtown Milwaukee, a bunch of these new friends broke into his room and promptly took all of the furniture in it, bed, chairs, desk, whatever they could find, and threw it out his window.    My Dad, as with most of his stories, tried to convince us that he was the unwitting victim, that he had no idea why these guys singled him out.  We remain unconvinced.

As did the bartender who threw my Dad out of his bar three years later.  He knew exactly who my Dad was, as it turns out he was on the bus and had been put in charge of controlling the new recruits on their way down to induction.  He, of course, blamed my Dad for the mayhem that resulted in a bus load of drunken recruits and the rock star like devastation (this was at least 20 years before Keith Moon and company) of at least one Hotel room.   No matter how much my Dad feigned ignorance and innocence, the bartender wasn’t having any of it.   And I’m sure that the bartender suspected, as do I, that my Dad knew exactly whose bar he was walking into on that summer afternoon.

That’s it – I’m afraid the story isn’t the same without my Dad’s voice telling it.  But those who knew my Dad and his mastery of mischief can hear his voice and see him scratching the side of his bald head and staring off into the distance and pausing for effect before delivering one of his trademark punch lines.  And like me, if you knew him, you are undoubtedly smiling, in spite of yourself.

Thanks, Dad, for all the joy and laughter you have given over the years.  More than anything else thanks for the smiles that will endure the tears and persevere for as long as your stories are told.

The Mathematics of Loss

I have a minor fascination with numbers and number sequences and riddles about numbers.   One of my favorite number riddles is known as Zeno’s paradox.   Take two points on any number line, and then halve the distance, and then halve that distance (½,¼ ,1/8  … ) and you can go on to infinity.  In other words, there are an infinite number of measurements between one and two inches, for example.  Yet we can see by looking at a ruler that there is a finite space, one inch, between the two points.  How can this be?  What are the implications?  Who cares? 

Unfortunately, it is a sad turn of events that has me thinking about Zeno’s paradox tonight.  I think I am beginning to understand how the infinite can exist within the finite.

My Father, Larry Gourdoux, passed away today.

This morning, about a quarter to ten, between his daily routine of morning coffee and “dinner” (his term for what most of us refer to as “lunch”, or the meal between “breakfast” and “supper”), I called my Dad on his cell phone.  He answered and I could hear that he was in a public place.  Our connection, as usual, wasn’t too good, and we quickly got past the hellos.

“Where are you?”, I asked.

“At the Post Office”, he replied.

“How are you feeling?”  

“I’m in a Helluva shape”, he said.  “I’m feeling dizzy”  There was a trace of fear in his voice.

“You’d better get yourself in”, I said, meaning in to see a Doctor.  My Dad’s had some serious health issues the past few years, and suffered from congestive heart disease, as well as an abdominal aneurism.

At this point, our call was disconnected.  I tried calling him back a second and then a third time, with no answer.  I then called my sister, and she called the director at my Dad’s senior complex, and asked if she could drive the three or four blocks over to the post office and see if our Dad was okay.

We waited about a half hour, and then got a call, first my sister, then me, from the Rusk County Sherriff’s department.  The deputy informed us that they had taken my Dad to Ladysmith in an ambulance; they had no information at this time, and would call back as soon as they could tell us something.  On the calls, they took our addresses and phone numbers.  I asked the deputy if my Dad was conscious when they took him, and he replied no, he was not.

So my sister in Oshkosh and I in Pleasant Prairie waited nervously for a call back.  Finally, around noon, my phone rang.  It was my sister.  They had sent an Oshkosh policeman to her door to give her the news that my Dad had passed away.

The details we have are still a little sketchy, but from what we can gather, after talking to me this morning, my Dad got in his parked car and lost consciousness.  The director from the senior complex found him there and called 911.  On the way to the hospital, they tried to revive him, and for a short time were able to get a very weak pulse.  Once at the hospital, they tried for about another 20 minutes, and then it was over.

The next few hours were spent making and answering phone calls and tending to immediate business.  My sister and I went about these tasks with great efficiency and purpose.   Finally, sometime in the late afternoon, the immediate tasks having been tended to, I had time to think about my Dad and my loss, and it started to hit me.

When I heard the trace of fear in my Dad’s voice this morning, and when he didn’t answer when I tried to call him back, I braced myself for the worst.   So when I heard the news it really didn’t come as a surprise.  I took comfort in the fact that he apparently went pretty quickly.   He had   been very open this summer about the fact that he was 85 years old and ready to die, and the one thing he feared above all else was a slow and incapacitating decline.  

It is still a shock.  He had spent the past several winters in south Texas, and when he came back this year, he looked better than he had in years.  He had good color and high levels of energy.   He was very active routing out and painting wooden signs for friends, and he purchased a membership at a nearby golf course.   He actually golfed several times – something he hadn’t done in years.  In Texas, he was at the center of a large group of good friends, having breakfast with them every morning at the Port Isabel What-A-Burger, and enjoying happy hour every afternoon next to his neighbor’s trailer.  This summer, at the senior complex in Bruce, he had made a new group of good friends, with whom he had coffee every morning and “dinner” at 11:00.  He was happy and vital to the end, and, as he had been his whole life, he was funny. 

He had one setback in early July, when he was hospitalized for a week in Eau Claire, a week that the nursing and cleaning and medical staffs won’t likely forget for a long time, as he entertained them, his shtick in prime form, new audiences that had never seen anything like him.  At 85 years old, it was his curtain call, his last great audience, and he put on the performance of a lifetime, and they all fell in love with him.  Even I, who had witnessed these routines countless times over the years, was transfixed, and laughed out loud despite myself when, for example, he was talking on his cell phone as one of the nurses took blood, skillfully pricking the tip of his finger.  After a couple of minutes, my Dad told whoever he was talking to on the phone to hold on for a second, and then, with the delivery of a master, expressed a sincere but much delayed “Ouuuuchh” to the nurse.  Despite my better judgment, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

He seemed to recover completely from the hospital, and, as I took him from doctor offices to labs to surgeon’s offices, he not only seemed to be getting better physically, but was enjoying each visit as an opportunity to repeat his shtick.   It was as if he was taking his hospital show on the road.  I was amazed when, for what seemed like the fourteenth time I heard the same hokey lines about nurses or receptionists being good looking, someone would always laugh, not the polite poor old guy trying to be funny laugh, but genuine laughs from deep down, as in, did you hear what this guy said?

The routines were extended to his morning coffee group, where he made friends with a very nice old guy who my sister and I would refer to as his sidekick.  Every day he’d come to coffee with some wild scheme for him and his sidekick:  they were going to go out west and be cowboys, they were going to become astronauts and take a wing off of the space station.  Gradually, with each crazy adventure he’d concoct, the attendance at morning coffee grew.

After he got home from the hospital, he seemed to regain his strength, going back to work at his sign-making and even making it out with me for a couple rounds of golf.   He was looking forward to returning to Texas this winter.  When talking to him, you got the sense of a man at peace with himself – he was ready to die, but until that happened, he was going to enjoy living every moment left.

This afternoon, after all the calls were made and things started sinking in, I went to the harbor in Kenosha, near where I live, and stared out at the vast deep blue of Lake Michigan.    This is what, for some unexplained reason, I am often compelled to do when I get news of this sort.   I think I’m not alone, a lot of people, when confronted with grief or tragedy, end up at the seaside.  I think it’s natural when we lose someone we love to gaze at the sea or the night sky, because our loss, the hole we feel inside, is so large that we need something bigger than ourselves, big enough to contain the enormity of our pain.

This is where good old Zeno and his paradox come into play.   This is where the infinite lives within the finite. It’s the mathematics of loss.  The immeasurable and incomprehensible infinity of loss will be visible within the small area occupied by an empty chair at tomorrow morning’s coffee at my Dad’s senior center, and it’ll exist within the tiniest fragments of my broken heart.

It Was Thirty Years Ago Today

The first time I saw her, if my memory is correct, was on Monday night, January 14, 1980.  Our first date was Friday, March 28, 1980.   Somewhere in between a friendship that will never end began, during breaks in our night classes at Gateway Technical. 

The exact date I fell in love with her is unknown.   All I know is it was long before I admitted it to myself, and even longer before I nervously confessed it to her.  My memory is usually pretty good, but now, more than 30 years later, I can’t remember what it was like not to be in love with her.   Sometimes, I suspect I was in love with her long before we met, possibly from the day of my birth, if not before. 

We were married thirty years ago today, on Saturday, August 15 1981.  I am thankful for all of the time we’ve spent together.  For the past 30 years, we’ve been travelling companions exploring the deep and mysterious realms of the heart and soul.   Our journey so far has revealed, in the depth of our love, truth and beauty far beyond what I could have ever imagined.   Every morning, when I wake up next to her, my soul is renewed and refreshed, and in that moment, all pain and cynicism and defeat are laid to waste, and love and hope and faith are restored, and I am sustained.

Happy anniversary, Debbie.  Thank you for your kindness, your courage, your heart, your strength.  Thank you for your eyes, your face, your skin, your grace.  Thanks for your friendship, your companionship, your understanding, your love.  For all you’ve given me, I remain devoted to you, and forever yours.

Status Report

Over the past few months, I’ve been tweaking my memoirs project, getting rid of things that didn’t work, changing things that needed changing, adding new material, and experimenting with the ordering and grouping of the individual pieces that make up the collection.    For the longest time, I wasn’t getting anywhere and was beating my head against my desk.   I was having difficulty putting together a coherent sentence (a possible outcome of beating my head against my desk), and whatever words that would come to me would be even clumsier and more nonsensical than usual.

One of the problems was the main character.  When writing a book of any sort, it always helps to have an interesting main character, not just to advance the story, but also because as the writer, you and this character are going to spend a lot of time together.  This has been a problem on the memoir project – the main character is me.  I’ve become so sick and tired of myself that I can hardly stand to look in a mirror.  Putting my shoes on, I am disgusted with the sight of my feet – so you can imagine how bored and impatient I grow spending so much time in my head,  exploring my memories and my perceptions and observations of the world around me.

Then one day, a couple of weeks ago, things started flowing, and the progress that had eluded me for weeks suddenly occurred.   I have a couple of chapters to revisit, but the bulk of my changes and additions are complete.  I have no idea why the dam that had been blocking me suddenly burst, but it did.   There will be time later on to figure out how and why, for now, I am happy to ride the current and see where it takes me.

I have assembled a new list of agents to submit query letters to, and I hope to begin that process this week.  I am also exploring alternate publishing methods.  For those that aren’t aware, I thought I had completed the project earlier this year, and had sent sample chapters to a respected New York agent, who responded very enthusiastically and asked for the entire book.  I sent him what I had, and for whatever promise he found in the sample chapters, he found the book as a whole lacking and backed out.   It stung badly, but I recognized what he found to be missing, and I reluctantly went about applying his cryptic remarks as constructive criticism.

Objectively looking at the version of the book I submitted, I now see how right he was.   There were large passages that were overblown and pretentious, and in fact had little to do with the overall story I want to tell.  Simply put, the manuscript wasn’t nearly as ready as I thought it was.   In poker terms, I had fallen in love with my cards, and over played their value.  It’s very easy not to see the flaws and mistakes in your own writing, especially when you know that parts of it are good.  This is exactly where I was – the parts I recognized as being good were blinding me to the parts that weren’t.   Only after the agent’s rejection was I able to begin looking at my work more objectively.  Whether I’ve been objective enough remains to be seen.   This is one of the lessons I have learned – you need to be brutally honest and unsentimental when reviewing your work, because potential agents and editors and publishers, who are reviewing literally thousands of documents, have no choice but to be brutal in their assessment – and you only get one crack at each of them.  The other thing I’ve learned is that once you get past your own ego, and recognize and address the flaws, your document will be indisputably better.

Despite the flaws that still surface in my frequent reviews and the self loathing I am too often subject to, I remain convinced that the assembled collection has a worthwhile story to tell.  My affliction with Parkinson’s disease has changed me and the way I view the world and my own past.   It has taken my life’s journey on an unexpected and dark detour.  My hope is that, for the reader, my book can shine a light, however dim, and help illuminate the dark paths that are as unexpected as they are inevitable in everybody’s journey.

So, as Walter Cronkite used to say …  that’s the way it is.  Stay tuned for additional developments …


List-O-Mania: Short Stories

For some reason lately, I’ve been occupying my spare time making any number of top ten lists.  I have no idea why.   The lists cover a wide range of topics, from top 10 favorite movies to top 10 favorite pre-packaged breakfast foods (Quaker Oats Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal is number one, in case you are curious).    Not that anyone gives a rip about me or my opinions, but I thought I’d post some of these lists from time to time on my blog, because,  one, it is my blog,  and two, why not?

So, since it is the middle of summer, we begin with my top ten favorite short stories of all time.  It seems like summer, for whatever reason, is when I read most of these stories.  Maybe it’s because the days are longer and as a kid I had summer vacation, but short stories for me are as much a part of summer as baseball.

You’ll notice that I have actually listed 20, not ten, because it didn’t seem right leaving the ones in places 11-20 off the list.

Like all the lists, not a tremendous amount of thought or time went into creating it, and I have undoubtedly forgotten a couple that moments after I post this I will remember and slap myself on the forehead, hopefully not rendering myself unconscious again.

Note too that all the entries are from American Lit.  I’d like to give some high falutin’ explanation of the short story as a uniquely American art form, but the truth is that I am not as well read in world literature as I’d like to pretend I am.

You’ll also notice an overabundance of William Faulkner titles.  This is because, despite his many and considerable faults, he is my favorite short-story writer of all time.  His ridiculous and over dramatic style for me, for some reason, works so much better in the short forms than in his novels.   One of the first books I ever purchased was his Collected Stories, and it remains among my favorite books (list number 37).

 Here is my list – comments are welcome:

  1.                  A Good Man is Hard to Find                                       Flannery O’Connor
  2.                  That Evening Sun                                                         William Faulkner
  3.                  Big Two Hearted River                                                Ernest Hemmingway
  4.                  An Occurrence at Owl’s Creek Bridge                       Ambrose Bierce
  5.                  Hunters in the Snow                                                    Tobias Wolff
  6.                  My Son the Murderer                                                 Bernard Malamud
  7.                  A Rose For Emily                                                         William Faulkner
  8.                 Death in the Woods                                                       Sherwood Anderson
  9.                 Barn Burning                                                                 William Faulkner
  10.                 Two Soldiers                                                                  William Faulkner
  11.                 The Man Who Was Almost A Man                             Richard Wright
  12.                 Bartleby the Scribner                                                   Herman Melville
  13.                 To Build a Fire                                                               Jack London
  14.                 Good Country People                                                   Flannery O’Connor
  15.                 Dry September                                                             William Faulkner
  16.                 Indian Camp                                                                  Ernest Hemmingway
  17.                 Young Goodman Brown                                               Nathaniel Hawthorne
  18.                 The Secret Life of Walter Mitty                                  James Thurber
  19.                 Eyes of the Panther                                                      Ambrose Bierce
  20.                 The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky                                  Stephen Crane