Yes, Let’s Talk About “That Book”

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Over the past six months I’ve done something that I’ve never done for any appreciable length of time since the early days of parenthood: I’ve sacrificed my needs for the needs of others. I have ignored my own advice that the key to happiness is balancing responsibility to self, others and the community and decided to let the attention to self fade into the background.

I have to admit that I probably needed to balance things out, and the universe provided me with a series of opportunities to put the me-me-me side of my personality on hold.

I actually feel pretty good about it. It’s kind of nice to know that the world isn’t dependent upon me for its survival, for we’d all be in deep shit if that were true.

The service I’ve performed on behalf of others took two forms. I occupied my days working in a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless families and children. I spent my nights editing a book called Music Reviews with a Touch of Erotica for the author we know as the altrockchick. In the process I’ve put my own writing and music projects on hold. I haven’t picked up the guitar or fiddled with the piano since last Thanksgiving.

And I still feel pretty good about it.

My daily work at the nonprofit is often draining—helping the homeless is like pushing the boulder up the hill and never quite getting there. The boulder is made heavier by a combination of unfeeling, bureaucratic processes and an indifferent society. Victories are fleeting and the struggles to help people find housing, find a job, keep the housing and keep the job are never-ending. Often you end the day wondering if there’s anything you did that made even a marginal difference for a family, but you come back the next day and take another shot at the boulder.

I think what enabled me to recharge my batteries every night and most weekends was a combination of a supportive life-partner and the opportunity to edit the altrockchick’s entire body of work.

After finally convincing her that a book would be a worthwhile endeavor, we got down to business. Our working agreement was simple: total honesty and direct communication. We agreed to avoid couching our suggestions in the form of polite requests but state them as demands for action. We assumed that each of us had only the best intentions for the other, so we’d skip the niceties and get to the point.

I opened the partnership by telling her to reopen the website and her Twitter account to reestablish her public presence. I also told her she had to decide on a consistent presentation of her pen name, which I’d seen in multiple forms (The Alt Rock Chick, Alt Rock Chick and altrockchick). Validating her status as a millennial, she went with the latter because it was the quickest to type.

Our most contentious debate had to do with pricing. We knew we had to go the self-publishing route, with all its pluses and minuses, and one plus is the author gets to set the price instead of the publishing house. She wanted to give it away for nothing; I argued strenuously for at least $11.99/print, $11.99/paperback. Her stand was all about principles; mine was all about communicating the book’s value based on the quality of content. This was a role reversal of sorts, since she’s the international marketing expert and I’m the human resources/organizational development type. We never did reach agreement on that point, but other factors intervened to render the debate irrelevant.

When I asked her what she wanted out of the book, she put great emphasis on a continuous narrative, and said she’d need to write another twenty or so reviews to achieve that. Since she had posted about three hundred reviews over the years, I had plenty of material to edit, so we agreed that she’d focus on the new stuff and I’d tidy up the old stuff.

That took about six months—and I enjoyed every minute of it. While I had to look at each post with a critical eye, her writing was often so engaging that I had to read each post more than once to get past the pleasure bias.

I did note that her earliest reviews were generally not up to standard, and her reviews of contemporary music often felt like she was holding back, trying too hard to avoid damaging the artist’s ego. While her self-proclaimed image as a dominant woman in a BDSM relationship might lead one to believe otherwise, I’ve learned that she is highly sensitive to other people’s feelings. She admitted that she tended to soften her language when she found the work of an up-and-coming artist less than satisfactory. “Everything from St. Vincent onwards is the real me; anything before that is hit-and-miss.”

That was very helpful guidance, enabling me to narrow my focus. In the end I recommended that she cut about two-thirds of the contemporary reviews and rewrite all the classic reviews that came before Nevermind, the post where I think she first found her voice. That meant re-doing all The Beatles’ reviews, to which she reacted with a healthy “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” and then proceeded to write an absolutely brilliant and thorough review of Sgt. Pepper.

I made an agreement with myself to edit at least one review a day, no matter how busy I was at work or with the usual crap that comes with modern living. Often I’d do more simply because I was having such a good time.

And that’s how I screwed up the whole thing—by having a good time.

Because I was consuming the altrockchick in small bites (now there’s an image for you!), I didn’t give a second thought to considerations like word count and book length. Eventually I began assembling the book in chronological order, and one night I left off after pasting the edited reviews from 1962-1969 into the master document. When I opened the document the next day, I said to myself, “Geez, this taking an awful lot of time to load.” I scrolled down to the bottom, and saw that the master was well over 500 pages, so I thought I’d better check the word count.

200,000 words? Already? Your typical novel runs between 60,000 and 100,000. Then I looked at what else I had to add:

  • The Beatles (19 reviews)
  • The Stones (9 reviews)
  • The Kinks (15 reviews)
  • British Invasion (1 intro and 8 reviews)
  • Motown (1 intro and 4 reviews)
  • The Psychedelic Series (1 intro and 17 reviews)
  • Conversations: The Moody Blues (7 reviews)
  • Jethro Tull (10 reviews)
  • 1970’s (37 reviews)
  • The Clash (5 reviews)
  • 1980’s (9 reviews)
  • 1990’s (18 reviews)
  • Oasis (8 reviews)
  • 2000’s (9 reviews)
  • 2011-2014 (26 reviews)
  • Great Broads (1 intro, 21 reviews)
  • Jazz (1 intro, 9 reviews)
  • Blues (4 reviews)
  • Dad’s 45’s (5 reviews)

I knew I was licked, but in a stupor I went ahead and calculated the total word count, which came to 1,237,489 words, almost 2.5 times the length of War and Peace. It was time to Skype.

She’s already written about that conversation, but I’ll just say that it knocked us both for a loop. She decided to put the project on hold while she considers her options.

But you know what? I still feel good about it. I feel good even though it was all volunteer work and I know I could have picked up a few bucks teaching leadership and organizational development classes at night instead of editing a book that may never see print. I learned a lot, thought a lot, laughed a lot and gained some insight about my own musical biases. It was worth every minute and then some.

Two things she didn’t cover in her post are worth mentioning. The first was her response to a question I asked after lowering the boom about her prodigious output. I don’t have her photographic memory, but the gist of what I asked was, “Let me get this straight. During the four years you’ve been writing you’ve been working full-time—the only time off you took coincided with the blog shutdown. You’ve changed your residence twice, including a move to another continent. For a while you managed a European operation and spent a lot of time traveling. I know from our previous conversations, you have sex with your partner four or five times a week and those scenes are all-night sessions. How in the hell did you manage to write over a million words of mostly damned good stuff?”

I’ll do my best to paraphrase her response. “I don’t spend a lot of time in my life sitting around doing nothing—it sounds weird, but I need stimulation to relax. When I decide to do something that’s important to me, I get organized, focused, and then I don’t let anything get in my way. One thing that really helped me was integrating what was going on in my life with the music I was studying—I could write about the music and reflect on my life at the same time.” Now I see her looking at me raising one eyebrow and saying, “I’m very efficient, Robert,” then dropping the eyebrow and raising her hands to her face in semi-mock horror. “But a million words! It didn’t feel like that at all! I had no fucking idea! It’s obscene!”

As for the Skype call ARC mentioned in her post . . . what she failed to capture was how the moment unfolded from the viewer’s perspective, so here goes the cinematic version: When the connection kicked in, I saw a red garter strap over the bare skin of her upper right leg moving towards the center of the screen, then, as she began to ease into her chair, I saw the gleam of red patent leather surrounding her torso, followed by the reverse arc of a silver chain that led upwards to a pair of clamps attached to a pair of pink, firm nipples, culminating in a full breast shot highlighted by blonde hair caressing her shoulders and the upper edges of her breasts, and finally a beautiful and slightly wicked smile accompanying the words, “Looks like you’ve finally caught me at the right time!”

Look. I’m a pretty horny hetero male with a fairly sophisticated sex life of my own, but all I could do is stammer an apology, cut off the connection then close my eyes tightly and try with all my might to implant that picture in my mind forever.

I felt REALLY good about that moment.

 

 

 

 

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Altrockchick Review of Max Gowan’s Restless Heaven

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a2197006622_101from altrockchick.com 

Max Gowan is one guy with an acoustic guitar who released a 6-track EP of original compositions called Restless Heaven. The first thing I noticed is how exceptionally well Max keeps the rhythm going, a talent I usually hear only in the old Delta blues singers. Most singer-songwriters have a band to drive the tempo, but Max just has Max—his acoustic guitar and his voice.

Going completely solo is a pretty gutsy thing to do, because there you are, just you and your guitar, and there are no other sounds to distract the listener from your songs. That means your songs had better be damned good.

And these songs are damned good—exceptionally good. Max held my attention completely through three spins and I can’t wait to hear it again. Restless Heaven is a great EP by a young songwriter with unusual self-awareness and a complete lack of pretense. The songs are honest without being obvious, poetic without being artsy and absolutely captivating without any gimmickry.

A perfectly delightful guitar pattern with exceptionally clean and expressive picking opens the song “Half Soul.” Max shifts to a strum for the vocal, and oh my, what a pleasing voice! He’s definitely not an American Idol type or one of those drippy folksingers who have to imbue every syllable with emotion, but a singer with a warm timbre and clear articulation. The melody flows very nicely, with good spread across the staff that encourages you to hum along. And in keeping with the lovely music, Max proves to be a talented lyricist as well. The second verse in particular is remarkable for its insight into how the game is supposed to be played and how we as human beings hide our flaws and mistakes in a charade that helps no one and only extends the game-playing:

I got a breath of fresh ambition, it poured into my lungs
Now I’m stuck with tunnel vision, I’m just like everyone
If you pretend you’re doing better we all stay the same
I’ve never been afraid of confidence but at least I’m not insane, I’m just confused

I work with many people who still have that fresh ambition and the tunnel vision that goes along with it, and I suffer through their pretentiousness every day. What drives that pretense are the twin adult beliefs in the importance of convincing others that you know what life is all about, and that one should never reveal knowledge gaps or vulnerabilities. What Max asks us to accept is that we are all confused, and admitting it would be a big step towards clarifying our confusion. With its pretty music and thought-provoking lyrics, “Half Soul” is the perfect opening track.

“Lookout” opens with high fretboard picking and strumming, settling into a I-IV major/major seventh pattern as the baseline; as the song progresses, Max throws some interesting chord variations thrown into the mix. This song is an ode to his North Carolina home and the power of its natural landscape to bring clarity to the confused soul, and Max sings this with genuine feeling without going overboard à la John Denver. “Lookout” is a song that is very pleasing to the ear, and I would suggest that Tarheels everywhere embrace it and turn it into a hit single to offset the impression that the state legislature has turned North Carolina into something like the dystopian world described in The Handmaid’s Tale.

The title track has a very cool rhythm that Max plays with graceful ease. I’ll talk more about his guitar playing in a minute, but first I want to focus on the lyrics, which deal with the tug of opposites—in this case, the desire to explore the world and the pull to stay with the familiar and comfortable. His ambiguity is reminiscent of Memphis Minnie’s in “Nothing in Rambling,” and I get the impression that he’s as comfortable with that ambiguity as anyone can be. People have this silly idea that you have to choose one path or another: you don’t. It’s okay to feel restless, because when you stop feeling restless, you’re dead! Max makes his case less bluntly and more effectively than I just did:

I’m gonna step into the outside, I’m gonna see what’s real
I kind of like it on the inside, cause I don’t want to feel
It’s just a silhouette the kind I don’t forget
The hanging around outside my head
It’s just a silhouette

Back to Max’s guitar playing. I am always harping about how little touches make all the difference in music, and when he switches to high-fretboard picking on the word “silhouette,” I get goose bumps.

“Tide” has a loping, swaying rhythm accentuated by the picking style and the 3/4 time signature. This is a more reflective song, describing the discovery of one’s self-limitations and the need to allow others inside to help us through the rough patches when those limitations seem terribly confining. Sometimes a song will connect with you in a way that has nothing to do with the songwriter’s intention—a lyrical fragment just hits you at the right time and helps you express the thing that’s been making you feel a bit off-kilter. The couplet in “Tide” that hit me was “I’m living through other perspectives/’Cause right from the start I got tired of mine,” because with all the writing I’ve been doing the last few years and the lack of feedback in comparison to my output, I’m really getting tired of the “sound” of my own voice. Because I’m in a new city where I know very few people, I’m often stuck with my own perspective, which gets very tiring. I need to hear voices and views other than my own, and that’s really been an issue for me with the blog and the move to Europe.

Thanks, for clearing that up for me, Max!

“Bricks and Cobblestones” starts with a snappy little rhythm, again played extraordinarily well. The song is about the conflict between appearance and reality, and how our obsession with appearance makes it easy to avoid dealing with the things inside that really need fixing. Max’s insight into this age-old problem is to remind us that a flaw is not the end of the world and taking the time for a little bit of self-reflection goes a long way towards curing our need for magic tricks to distract others from our imperfections:

Bricks and cobblestones, your eyes are open and there’s no one home
Looks inviting on the surface but it’s fallin’ down
But I’m alive and well
As far as I can tell
And it’s paradise and hell
That we create for ourselves
I found a crack inside of my foundation but I’ll fix it soon
Work in progress it’s this constant process and it’s never through
You survive somehow
The light that won’t burn out.

The light-hearted rhythm reinforces the sentiment that we are not going to solve our problems by worrying ourselves to the point where adrenaline is squirting from our ears. Take your time, says Max. The light won’t burn out.

“Whistle in the Dark” seems to describe the looming going-away-to-college experience (or for those less fortunate, the going-away-to-boot-camp experience) that breaks up a lifetime of patterns and assumptions. While the song definitely has a sorrowful air, the lyrics remain firmly rooted in Max’s ambiguity and unusual ability to see both sides of the question. The final couplet is a perfect ending to a song about transitions, and a great motto for anyone wondering what life is all about:

There’s no promise, nothing’s promised, there’s no guarantee
That’s what makes it worth the time to me

This song has more musical variation than the others, suggesting that Max has a world of possibilities to choose from as he continues to develop.

I have to say I am thoroughly amazed by Restless Heaven . . . and very relieved. Max is one of many who have approached me on Twitter and requested a review, requests that always lead to a certain discomfort. I love exploring new music, but the truth is that because of the proliferation of recording software and the consequent increase in independent records, the quality of the music produced today has become iffy at best—and that applies to both the indies and the slaves of the record companies. While I support the democratization of music production, it has made things a bit awkward for the independent music critic who cannot hide behind the shield of the corporate façade. I’ve had to decline several requests based on incompatibility with my general tastes, and have had to refuse to consider several others because the music just wasn’t that good. I hate telling new artists that are just breaking in that their music didn’t grab me, and after agreeing to Max’s request, I had that uh-oh feeling that this could turn out to be yet another awkward moment in the life of a music blogger.

So, it is with great joy and palpable relief that I can say, “Hey, Max! You don’t suck!” To my readers, I will say that Max Gowan is an amazing talent, and if he chooses music as one of what will likely be many creative paths he chooses to follow in life, I want to hear what he comes up with every step of the way.

You can purchase this must-have collection on Bandcamp.