Thursday, June 9, 2011

RUSH to Judgment

To watch three artists as technically proficient and talented as Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee -- collectively known since 1974 as RUSH -- is to witness art, specifically music, even more specifically live music, in its truest, most urgent, finest form.

And because RUSH plays with such expansive courage and sophisticated precision, the band accomplishes what few artists -- and that includes artists of pretty much any genre -- can do these days: Make you think.

Perhaps that’s why the Bi-Lo Center wasn’t sold out at the Canadian trio’s June 8 show in Greenville, SC. After all, we live in a society of fast food, fast Internet connections with fast relationships (see: Weiner et al) . . . fast consumption. Even a long, lingering, costly meal at a $65-a-plate high-end restaurant likely doesn’t last much more than an hour or so. And these guys rocked for more than two and a half hours.

But RUSH made you think. At least, made ME think. During the show, I thought more than once about art, the process and creation of art, the dedication and (HATE this word at it applies to art, but it seems certainly to apply to RUSH) discipline of art.

It was as if, watching Alex Lifeson coax, manhandle and otherwise reshape his guitar(s) to make it do what he wanted to do and to watch Neil Peart do things on that massive drum kit what so few drummers can do . . . I thought, naturally, about writing. And about how art’s made.

To digress: Nearly every time I meet one of the writers I worship, who happens to live in my neighborhood and was the youngest winner of a major international literary prize, she asks: “So. What are you reading?” I have an answer. (I love to read. Just finished THE THREE MUSKETEERS, but be sure to get Lowell Bair’s translation. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve read in years.) But a few years ago, I was talking with a friend who fancied himself The Writer. I asked him: “So. What are you reading?” “Me?” he responded, as if thrown a trick question. “I’m not much of a reader.”

Among the zillions of frustrations I have in my day job, which is buying the talent for our live-music venue, are the bands. Which is kind of akin to a grocery store manager saying he gets annoyed at . . . all those groceries. But here’s the point, really: We get somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 requests (let’s call them “queries”) from bands, artists, musicians, agents/agencies, to perform on our stage at The Handlebar. Each year, we have to fill around 400 or so slots. That’s 150 shows a year times three or four bands per show, including the headliner and opening bands.

Here’s what often happens: We’ll post a show on our Website, a big show, a brand-name artist who likely will a bunch of tickets. Sometimes within minutes, we’ll get several requests from area bands and some even farther afield asking if they can open for that band. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but here’s where the irksomeness comes in.

If we were to get as much interest from fans to see the show as quickly and as hopefully as some of these bands want to open for these shows, we’d sell out more frequently and more quickly -- and make more money to afford to develop younger and, let’s face it, less talented bands who are seeking broader exposure.

But then things get muddy. Oftentimes, a big, national, brand-name touring band will bring its own “support,” bringing along with them their own opening bands. The reasons for this are so numerous, mystical, weird and political that it may require another blog . . . or maybe not.

The bottom line thus becomes: Okay, local/regional band guys, you didn’t get the opening slot for Such-and-Such Big-Name Band, but . . .

You also didn’t come to the show.

More often than not, when I walk into a half-filled or even packed-out show in my venue, I don’t see a lot of musicians or would-be musicians. The excuses I’m given -- on the rare occasions I care to ask -- include: We had practice, man. I was gonna, but I don’t have the cash. I had to babysit my stepsister’s little half-brother because . . . We had a gig at the Barbed Wire Grille.

Okay. Sure. I get it. My writer friend’s not much of a reader, either.

And that’s the point. To bring RUSH and their prowess, passion, dedication and--let’s just say it, perfection--back to the business of art, more specifically writing: Watching Neil, Alex and Geddy perform was, for me, something like being able to sit inside Jonathan Franzen’s or Jennifer Egan’s brain and watching them work for a couple of hours.

If I could be one of Isaac Asimov’s characters from “Fantastic Voyage” (the guy who got to pluck the bacteria off Sophia Loren’s chest, for instance . . . uh, sorry), I would inject myself into their heads and see how it is, exactly, they are capable of the pyrotechnics that make them so . . . fucking good.

If I were a musician (and I can barely play the radio), I would RUSH (again, sorry) to plunk down more than the price of a book (especially one on Kindle or used or . . .) and do anything I could to see a band of such powerful mastery perform.

Which leads to the second point. As I was walking back to The Handlebar from the Bi-Lo Center arena, it occurred to me: Creativity inspires creativity. Hence this blog post: RUSH inspired me to at least SAY something -- never mind that it’s not nearly as proficient as the music that inspired it.

So today comes a story on MSNBC: The gist of the piece is that a performer/artist as brilliant as Jon Stewart makes you THINK, which, then, makes you more creative. So, while the government shreds arts funding and chops away at education, including and especially targeting arts education, we’re left with some hefty personal decisions.

Open the book and read. Get out of the garage where you practice. Witness the work of an artist who/that will make you THINK, expand your worldview, your vision, recalibrate your sense of who you are and what you have to contribute to the world, regardless of how much it costs in time or treasure.

Then, in the sweet, spare space, get into it and get good at it.

Friday, April 1, 2011

South Carolina Book Festival In a PLUNDERed World

It's a bit strange receiving an email more than a year after your first novel's been published, from the publishing house that granted you the Biggest Dream Of Your Life. The house has forwarded yet another email that's an invitation to the South Carolina Book Festival. I think I was supposed to have attended last year. But, well, oops. THE PLUNDER, my debut, was published on Inauguration Day, 2010. Inauguration Day was a Big News Day. The nation's First African-American President getting sworn in -- and getting more coverage than baseball's opening day -- likely explains why THE PLUNDER ROOM didn't lead the nightly news on the three major networks (and FOX). It's just something you deal with.

More than a year has passed, then, since The Miracle occurred. Yes, I had dreamed of getting published for about as long as Moses wandered around looking for a place to hunker down with his peeps. The incredible Ruth Cavin bought THE PLUNDER ROOM from me, without an agent. She was gracious, kind, generous and 90 years old at the time. We never met. I had gone to Manhattan to visit her several years ago. She called in sick that day. Hell, at 90, I would have called in debauched from a Caribbean island resort, indulging in everything you'd indulge in if the doctor told you you had only two more years to live. Ruth died in January 2011, two weeks shy of the year anniversary since she had gifted me with my lifelong dream and allowed me stop beating my long-since-bloodied head against the wall.

To her and everyone at the house, I am forever grateful.

So now two years go by, and I'm a bit perplexed. Here's why: I'm invited to the 2011 South Carolina Book Festival AND I can't read my royalty statements.

Royalty statements are about as simple to understand as Hadron Collider physics, which must be similar to post-tsunami spreadsheets prepared by Japanese-radiation experts, or as accessible and understandable as my wife's mind. The point here is that -- and permit me here please a loose translation of my most recent royalty statement -- I think I "earned out." Or probably came bloody damn close. That is, I think I got as close to selling the "break-even" number of 5,000 copies as I could get to, say, President Obama. (Which, incidentally, is where one copy happened to go; a friend at the White House gave him one of those 5,000.)

Folks who know such things say that 5,000 copies (give or take, say, 20) tell me that 5,000 is a respectable-enough number. A more respectable number would have been, let's say, 50,000 copies. But I dreamed for more than 20 years that I'd get a book published, too.

At any rate, the email from the publishing house that forwarded the invitation to appear at the South Carolina Book Festival this year -- that is, 2011 -- came as a surprise because I thought I had failed them. I thought I had eternally pissed them off for being unable to sell all 15,000 hardbacks that they'd printed. Despite every effort in the world -- and all of my advance money -- I still think selling 5,000 copies, as my friends in the know say, sounds pretty respectable-enough. As for the other 10,000, well, sadly, they were remaindered. That's industry jargon for what happens to your beloved book when it's no longer for sale anywhere, it's euthanized and buried in some mass pauper's grave with no ceremony or anything.

Okay then. I'm still grieving over the loss of our 17-year-old cat, too, but life must go on. After all, Dream One was fulfilled. I sold some books. The entire program turned out to be the Experience of a Lifetime. I am blessed. And still it's pretty cool that I'm invited to the South Carolina Book Festival, because more than 90 other authors (real ones, I can assure you) and 100 or so vendors (food?!) will be there, too. Sounds like a cluster to me. A cluster that says books aren't dying.

Not even for us straight, white, somewhat-middle-class American men. Oh, no. In fact, as tens of billions of books are tapped out on laptops, iPhones and even cellphones (the Japanese do that, seriously -- at least, before the earthquake/tsunami), manuscripts continue to find life in digital and other forms by the dozens of millions. And yet, I continue . . . writing. That pursuit seems about as Quixotic (which rhymes, incidentally, with idiotic) as sending your novel to the White House in hopes that maybe just Bo the Newfoundland Water Dog would read it. I mean, even Henry Miller called one of his books "a gob of spit in the face of God." (That possibly brings up more unfortunate and tasteless tsunami metaphors.)

Nevertheless, as they say in the trades, it's all good.

A friend and I just finished collaborating on an international political thriller. Because it was my idea, but he did most of the work, I can be, at this point, pretty objective about the completed project. It's so good it makes my palms sweat, makes me wet my pants, gets me more excited than splurging on an artery-banger from Wendy's. AND, I am working -- really hard, in fact -- on a book that's also, in my opinion, going to be pretty good, if only because it's taking so freaking long to write. This second book is about The Handlebar, the small concert venue that my wife and I opened in 1994 here in Greenville, SC. The tentative title is ROCKIN' A HARD PLACE, and it's due out in Spring 2012 on the mind-blowing Hub City Press.

Here's an interesting tidbit about those two latest books. Despite having been published, it's as hard, if not harder, find an agent as it is to find anyone who knows whether "grits" is plural or singular. As I said, I had sold my first novel to the dear, incredible Ruth Cavin without an agent, and didn't need an agent to sell the nonfiction project to Hub City Press. (Agents told me that my proposed book about the $3-billion-plus global music industry, as seen from one of the little Petri dishes that actually starts LIFE in the international music business, was "too regional.")

As for the thriller, we're looking at an agent now. We met a couple of years ago at what now counts among my top favorite bards in the world. I also happen think the world of this guy. Now, all's we have to do is polish the manuscript to such a fine and gorgeous sheen, it'll blind him.

So by May 13, a Friday (natch), when I am to spend a weekend with gaboozles of writers, vendors (food?!) and, one would hope, book-purchasing readers, I would love to be packed with breaking news: Yes! We got an agent for our thriller. Yes! I'm well on my way to doing a better-than-mediocre job on my book about the near-universal multi-zillion-dollar music biz. And maybe even! That the email that I orginally received inviting me to Columbia, SC, for the weekend means meant, perhaps, that the publishing house may not be all that pissed off at me after all.