Tag Archives: Allen Klein

With a Song in My Heart: H is for…

“Hotel California” – Eagles, 1977.

“Hotel California” is not a song I like very much.  That’s something of an understatement, really.  I detest it.  The hatred began as a seed of indifference, nourished by decades of hearing it overplayed on the radio, oversung off-key at karaoke bars, over-requested at weddings and over-selected on pool hall jukeboxes, blossoming finally into a putridly fragrant flower of pure, embittered, soul-deep loathing.  Even hints of the first tinny, ear-scraping chords are enough to send me into paroxysms of bile-spitting fury, questioning how anyone could possibly endure this egregious example of rock & roll wallowing in its own crapulence yet again.  And I know I’m in the minority opinion, as there are millions who consider it one of the finest rock songs ever written.  Rolling Stone magazine ranks it 49th on their list of the 500 Greatest Rock & Roll Songs of All Time.  Myself, if I have to hear the insipid banality of the warm smell of colitas or sweet summer sweat or prisoners of our own device one more time, I may punch something.  You know when I laugh the loudest at The Big Lebowski?

theeffineagles

Yep, right there.  As an aside, there’s a story to this:  The infamous Allen Klein was planning on charging the Coen Brothers $150,000 to use Townes Van Zandt’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” over the closing credits, which would have broken the movie’s music budget.  When Klein saw this scene, he erupted in a fit of gut-busting laughter and told the Coens they could have “Dead Flowers” for free.  So even though I rue realizing I have anything in common with Allen Klein, on this point he and I are in complete agreement.  And before you ask, yes, Dad had a worn copy of Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 and Mom loved Glenn Frey, so clearly that was one trait that skipped a generation.  (My son does not know who the Eagles are so perhaps we’ve broken the cycle – now I need to cure him of his fixation with Nickelback.)

At this point you are wondering, why on earth is this song on the list?

In July 2008, just after a certain junior Senator from Illinois secured the Democratic Presidential nomination, my wife announced that she’d purchased tickets to the upcoming Eagles show in Toronto, part of their Long Road Out of Eden Tour.  It is a common occurrence in marriage, I suspect, that from time to time one partner must work on feigning excitement in something that the other is bubbling with enthusiasm over.  “We’re going to see the Eagles” was about as scintillating to me as suggesting that we attend a three-hour dramatic reading of Canada’s federal tax code.  I chewed through my tongue to prevent quoting the above-noted Lebowski moment and said “great!” while simultaneously invoking my inner weasel to think of legitimate reasons to not attend.  Still, I knew it was important to her, and I reconciled with the idea by reasoning that the Eagles were considered in some circles to be legends, and that seeing them live would be something to tick off the proverbial liste de seau.  I’d just have to endure the visions of a bunch of aging 70’s rock fans swaying on replaced hips to that damnable song for 7 interminable minutes.

The date arrives, we find our way to the venue and take our seats.  It’s the first time I can recall that I’ve never felt the slightest twinge of anticipation about a concert.  This should be a big deal, and it isn’t.  I’m wasting a seat someone else who will enjoy these guys even a modicum more could be otherwise making better use of.  No matter though, I’m here and I’ve gotta get through this.  I’ve gotta choke this down like that childhood plate of brussel sprouts.  The lights go down, the crowd roars, and the Eagles take the stage.  Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit walk out attired in matching dark suits, pick up their instruments, check their amps and start to play.

And they rock.

By the second song I’m sold.  They’re incredible.  They play with the studied, impeccable craftsmanship acquired only by those who’ve been at it for forty years.  They banter together and with the audience with the healthy self-deprecation that is earned only by a life hard-lived and knocks well-taken.  (Glenn Frey, introducing “Take it to the Limit,” or as he calls it, the ‘credit card song:’  “I’d like to dedicate this to my first wife, or as I call her, Plaintiff.”)  They blow the typically reserved Canadian audience back against the wall with nothing but tunes and talent.  Joe Walsh even earns some hometown cred (or cheap applause, if you will) by donning a Maple Leafs cap for a couple of numbers.  Running through a healthy combination of Eagles classics, covers, selections from their respective solo careers and material from the new album, the Eagles, for lack of a better word, fly.  It’s one of the tightest, most accomplished, most exciting shows I’ve ever seen.  No messing about with pyrotechnics or stage diving or bollocks political posturing.  Just four gifted guys bringing their best, seasoned game.  This is a shimmering blade of rock and roll forged with an expert hammer and polished to a perfect shine.

Naturally, there comes an inevitable point midway through the song list.  Those all-too-recognizable tinny chords start twanging.  The crowd loses it.  As Don Henley invokes the dark desert highway, my wife gives me a knowing look, and I smile.  Yeah, okay.  This isn’t so bad.

Since that night, “Hotel California” has been a lesson in humility for me.  A reminder to temper my opinions, to crawl back from the edges of extremism and recognize that the truth lies somewhere in the mushy middle.  It’s one thing to hate a particular song, or movie, or any work of art, really, but there are precious few instances where that can lead legitimately to a complete dismissal of the artist as a worthwhile creative force.  There is usually some value to be found in everything, and in the cases where there isn’t, it’s not worth giving those sorts more than a microsecond of our precious consideration.  Music preference, and by extension the professional criticism of same, has always been about strong opinions, but the danger is in letting ourselves get caught up in how much this band is infallible while this other one sucks beyond redemption.  It’s hardly worth the rise in blood pressure, especially when – as the Eagles proved for me – you can still occasionally find yourself pleasantly surprised, and well and truly rocked.

Five things to hate about pop culture references in novels

Aren't those the Spice Girls?
Aren’t those the Spice Girls?

Whether by coincidence or not, I’ve come across a few articles recently about the wisdom (or folly) of including snippets of song lyrics in your novel.  The consensus seems to be that it’s a bad idea.  Allen Klein is dead but those who adhere to his mantra are still far and wide squeezing the vice of legality against the temples of well-meaning, starving scribes who seek to pay a tiny bit of homage to that epic anthem that helped get them through a rough patch of their lives, or, more cynically, want to drop in an overly familiar reference point that will elicit immediate emotional identification without putting in the effort to craft their own.

I get it.  It’s difficult, and even a bit scary, to risk originality in a self-referential culture where everything seems to link back to something else like a giant Wikipedia.  Going where no one has gone before is even more daunting given that every time you think you’re venturing down a fresh trail, you find someone else’s bootprints on it.  There are simply too many of us writers attempting to figure out the human experience.  It’s inevitable that more than a few will reach identical conclusions – sort of the thousand monkey/thousand typewriter argument featuring mildly more intelligent monkeys.

In one of my more wrenching experiences as a gestating writer, I lent a draft of the novel that preceded my current opus to my best friend for his feedback.  I can still recall with gut-churning anxiety the pregnant pause that hung between us one afternoon when I was forced to ask him the question that chills all writers’ bones as it spills across our lips:  “So, what did you think?”  I don’t think the word had entered the zeitgeist yet, but his reaction was the equivalent of “meh.”  I should point out here that my friend is not evil nor inconsiderate of others’ feelings.  But like the most ideal of companions he will never let you twist out in the wind with your pants down if he can help set you right.  And his most germane suggestion, while wounding to anyone convinced of one’s own genius as most beginners tend to be (and I certainly was back then), was not only invaluable, but continues to inform me when I compose fiction.  Paraphrased, it was simply this:

“Cut the pop culture references.”

Between the tears and the simmering hatred (which quickly subsided – we’re still besties, no worries folks), it was a cloud-parting Voice of James-Mason-as-God moment – and yes, Eddie Izzard fans, I am aware of the irony of using a doubly-meta pop culture reference to illustrate this point – that I could not believe I had not seen before.  And it reinforced the notion that you can’t write in a vacuum.  Because I never would have come to that conclusion at that time in my life, and yet it was exactly what I needed to move forward and become a better writer.  Whether it’s in using song lyrics, referencing TV shows or framing your character’s predicament in terms of how much it makes them feel like Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, there are, to me, five main reasons why popular culture should be flung far from the pages of your book:

1.  It dates you

And not the good dinner-and-a-movie type either.  Pop culture’s shelf life is shorter than that of the mayonnaise you’ve been meaning to throw out of your fridge for the last few weeks.  Your bon mot about your hero’s wisecracking best friend being a combination of Sue Sylvester and Honey Boo Boo is going to go way sour long before your book even makes it to the shelves.  I remember a few years ago when Desperate Housewives premiered and every entertainment trade paper, magazine and website could not shut themselves up about it; every goddamned article about anything television-related found a way to work in some mention of Desperate Housewives and how it was a divinely inspired paradigm-shifting watershed point in the history of broadcast programming.  Ask yourself whether in 2013 and beyond, anyone is going to view a witty Desperate Housewives reference as anything but sad.  (Fair warning, Downton Abbey and Girls, it will happen to you too.)  You want your story to mean something to people for decades and generations to come – timeless is preferable to timely.

 2.  It’s meaningless unless your audience gets it

In the realm of stand-up comedy, one of the worst offenders for dropping obscure references is Dennis Miller, with the result that even the most well-read of his audiences will only laugh at his material a fifth of the time (of course, ever since he was reborn as a Dubya-lovin’ right-wing pom-pom waver, he’s been considerably less funny anyway).  A reference that a great number may not understand is not the most egregious violation of “good writer etiquette,” but a major beat should never hinge on it.  If, at the moment of her deepest anguish, your heroine is compelled to confess that she feels just like Bitsie Tulloch’s Dylan on Quarterlife, that’s awesome for the three people out there who remember that show and completely baffling for everyone else (i.e. 99.9999% of your readers), and thus any hope you may have harbored for soliciting empathy will be lost to the winds like the passengers and crew of Oceanic 815 (see what I did there?)

3.  It’s the last refuge of the unimaginative

Licking my wounds back then, I was compelled to ask myself why I was relying so much on what other people had created instead of forging ahead on my own.  Writing moments that resonate is a lot like method acting:  you have to look deep inside and wrench the truth screaming from your own gut, not rely on what you once heard or saw in something somebody else wrote.  And it’s an opportunity that you should never pass up, even if it is intimidating.  If you’re running down the field with no one in the way, why would you pass the ball to another guy for the final five yards?  You should never abdicate the chance to be creative.  If you’re writing about a group of characters who have bonded over their love of a favorite TV show, why not make up your own show?  I’ll get you started:  every show is about cops, doctors or lawyers, so have your guys quote lines from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D.  Okay, I’m staking a claim to that one and writing a pilot.  “FADE IN:  INT. COURTROOM – DAY – CLOSE on SERGEANT LAWYER as he contemplates a scalpel in his right hand and a semi-automatic pistol in his right.  CUE the opening chords of The Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes.’”  Aw, crap, there’s Pete Townshend’s attorney on line one.

4.  It’s giving away free advertising

I’ll invoke the mighty Aaron Sorkin and repeat his maxim that a writer’s job is to captivate you for however long he’s asked for your attention.  And we writers are serious bear huggers.  We don’t want to let you go.  We want you firmly ensconced in our world, and not thinking about TV shows and songs that have nothing to do with the story we’re trying to relate.  We certainly don’t want you thinking about other products you might like to purchase.  Ever wonder why you don’t ever see commercials for handguns?  Because there are enough glowing closeups of barrels and triggers and bullets flying in sexy slow motion, and irrelevant exchanges of dialogue about muzzle velocities and stopping power in movies to do all the advertising gun manufacturers will ever need.  Walther probably owes a great chunk if not the lion’s share of the sales of its PPK to James Bond.  Sex and the City and chick lit do more for Manolo Blahnik shoes than ten years of paid ad campaigns ever would.  (If I can digress further into the cinemarr for a moment, one of the most vomit-inducing examples of this was the trailer for 10 Things I Hate About You – the ad trying to get people to see the movie, oh irony of ironies – which opened with a character saying “There’s a difference between like and love.  I mean, I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.”  Spew.)  If that’s truly your wish, then why not just publish a novel full of empty pages stamped with “Your Ad Here”?  Or go to work writing advertising copy since it’s probably more up your alley.

5.  And it will probably cost you

So not only will you not be paid for name-dropping all these lovely corporations and pushing their merchandise, but you’re just as likely to get dinged by the same people for using their content without the express written consent of Major League Baseball.  This is an older article, but a good one from The Guardian where novelist Blake Morrison talks about how much it cost him to include fragments of popular song lyrics in his work.  Don’t these people have enough money already without needing more of yours?  And what’s worse, the money probably won’t even go to the artist who wrote the lyric in the first place – it’ll get split amongst various anonymous shareholders in the faceless publishing company that holds the rights to the song.  If you really, desperately, achingly want to have your character sing “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to the extent that you’re more than willing to cough up whatever atrocious fee you’re invoiced for, Richard Ashcroft isn’t getting a penny, as much as he may be tickled that you quoted his signature composition.  It’s going to whoever now controls ABKCO Music, the actual rights holder of that song.  The thought of that should turn your stomach enough to lead you in another direction.  Here’s a much better thought:  Even if you can’t write chord progressions, you can probably make up your own original lyrics.  Then one day, maybe someone will want to compose a song using those lyrics, and they can pay you for the privilege of doing so (or, conversely, you can sue their ass off when they steal it without acknowledging your authorship).

Having said all that, let’s make it about me again.  Does any of this apply to my novel?  Well, fortunately, when writing fantasy there’s less of a temptation to include popular culture since it makes no sense within the context of the story – or worse, pulls you out of the story when a grizzled medieval warrior makes anachronistic mention of the Seinfeld episode about Teri Hatcher’s boobs (argh!  Desperate Housewives reference!)  That isn’t to say you can’t or won’t slyly drop in semi-clever hints or vague references about the galaxy far, far closer to home.  I’ve been pretty good about steering clear of that, with two or three arcane exceptions (in extremely non-consequential passages) that I won’t mention except to say that when you do read the book you get +1 Internets for finding them.  I have, however, committed the faux pas of including allusions to songs as chapter titles.  Not in all of them, but enough to be potentially embarrassing and/or expensive.  So a quick trip to the rewrite shed is in order.  But better to do it now than to get too far down the road and receive a sternly worded letter from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D. demanding recompense for what is, essentially, a throwaway gag that has no significant bearing on the greater narrative.

The moral?  Make your story one hundred percent yours, soup to nuts and credits to navy beans.  It’s like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman:  cheaper, easier and more fulfilling too.

Awesome Albums 1: Urban Hymns

As I suspect it was for most, my first exposure to The Verve was through the heavily-rotated music video for “Bittersweet Symphony” in the summer of 1997 – the weirdly compelling sight of this skinny, morose guy resembling an anime rendering of Mick Jagger, shambling down the streets of London’s East End and bumping into people, while wailing a surprisingly lush existential rock lament.  “Bittersweet Symphony,” as audiophiles know, is built from a sample of an old orchestral cover of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time.”  Due to the peculiar ins-and-outs of sampling rights, and the greed of the Stones’ former manager Allen Klein, The Verve were forced to relinquish all royalties from their biggest hit, and forfeit writing credits to Jagger and Richards.  But “Bittersweet” got people to buy the album – and enough people bought Urban Hymns to compensate The Verve for the bitter pill forced upon them by Klein.  Just as well too – listening to the entirety of the album, if you just picked it up on the strength of the lead track, is like finding an unexpected caramel centre inside your piece of chocolate.  You would expect that the remainder of the tracks couldn’t possibly live up to the heights reached by “Bittersweet” – that they do is one of the most enduring surprises in store.

A lot of great art has arisen from unhappiness and The Verve are no exception.  The English quartet (Richard Ashcroft, Nick McCabe, Simon Jones and Pete Salisbury) best known for their long psychedelic jams had already broken up once following the release of their previous album A Northern Soul.  In fact, most of the tracks on what would become Urban Hymns were written by singer Ashcroft for a potential solo album.  But the gang were persuaded to put their differences aside and give it one more go.  Lead guitarist McCabe’s unique, trippy style elevates some of Ashcroft’s more pedestrian lyrical inclinations to create songs that are deeply emotional but dreamy at the same time.  The album finds a decent balance between introspection and all-out rock:  songs like “Sonnet,” “The Drugs Don’t Work” and “One Day” lean toward the tender, while “The Rolling People” and “Come On” let loose with primal fury; the latter even features a wild Ashcroft screaming a cathartic release of profanity as the album draws to a close.  Those who grew up with the long-haired shoegazing iteration of The Verve will hear a tribute to their roots on the sole track bearing McCabe’s name in the writing credits, the aptly-titled wandering vibes of “Neon Wilderness.”  And the album’s middle section features a powerhouse trifecta that is as good as anything the Stones themselves ever cranked out:  “Space and Time,” “Weeping Willow” and “Lucky Man,” the latter of which no less a rock statesman than Bono once listed as one of the six songs from the last twenty years he wished he’d written.  It is by no means a perfect album; Ashcroft veers toward the treacle, some of his couplets are quite awkward, and he can occasionally come off like Captain Obvious in his emotional pronouncements.  But where he stumbles, McCabe and the others are there to pick up the slack, and the whole thing still manages to cook.

Ultimately, Urban Hymns contains enough treasure to be spread across three great albums, let alone this one solid, shining achievement – we listeners are lucky men ourselves that The Verve held together long enough to pull it off.  Nick McCabe walked away in the middle of their subsequent tour, and it would not be until 2007 when tempers cooled enough between Ashcroft and the other three to try being The Verve again.  The resulting effort, Forth, was a passable work, but only a glimmer of former greatness – whatever eclectic mix of ego and talent that had crystallized on the previous album wasn’t quite there this time, nor did it seem to be for the band, which promptly broke up again.  In latter years The Verve have been written off as a one-hit wonder.  But one would not dare set “Bittersweet Symphony” alongside the likes of “Disco Duck” or “Convoy” – The Verve have earned enough credibility with their signature song alone to merit a lasting berth in the echelons of rock.  Fifteen years and a few regrettable commercial uses later (Nike and Vauxhall ads and the closing credits of Cruel Intentions), “Bittersweet” remains poignant, moving and powerful, a radio staple, and if nothing else, a beautiful song – one far more sweet than bitter.