Tag Archives: John Lennon

With a Song in My Heart: Y is for…

“Your Song” – Elton John, 1970.

Kids these days (ugh) probably don’t know what a B-side is.  Well, young’uns, back in the dark ages of analogue music, songs were released on these archaic, dinner plate-shaped things called records, which, unlike their later brethren the CD, could be played on a mind-blowing TWO sides, helpfully labeled A and B for quick reference.  “B-side” was generally bandspeak for “throwaway”:  when a band put out a single they’d usually stick some filler or weird experimental crap on the B-side, fated to be swiftly forgotten by all but hipsters and pretentious music critics.  Elton John’s “Your Song” is that rare example of when the B-side outshone the ostensible hit.  Released in 1970 as the backing track for the single “Take Me to the Pilot,” the DJs of the day decided they liked “Your Song” better and put it in heavy rotation instead.  It’s arguably the most beautiful piece of music ever created by the songwriting duo of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and was praised by none other than John Lennon as the best thing done in rock following the breakup of the Beatles (never one for modesty was he).  Interestingly enough, Elton John has suggested in interviews that he took only about half an hour to write it.  Not bad for something banged out over a tea break, n’est-ce-pas?

What I’ve always liked about “Your Song,” and what I suppose appeals most to my nature, is the modest, insecure manner in which the lyrics shuffle themselves forward.  This isn’t the kind of bravado and boasting about wealth and sheer awesomeness we’d see in say, gangsta rap.  Instead, the singer is apologetic at his lack of money, offering the usual empty promises about what he would buy for his love if only he could afford it.  Then, he can’t even decide what hypothetical successful person he wants to be – “If I was a sculptor, but then again, no, or a man who makes potions in a traveling show.  I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do.”  In life, love demands confidence, but the shy still feel it and burn with it and need it as much as anyone else.  As he struggles on, the singer complains about getting the verses wrong and not even being able to remember the color of his love’s eyes, asserting only that they are the sweetest he has ever seen.  The chorus, too, pleads for reassurance that the object of the affections doesn’t mind this grossly inadequate tribute, which in the end can but say simply “how wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”

When you style yourself a writer, or indeed, any kind of artist, there is something of an unconscious expectation among others that you should be able to express yourself flawlessly in each moment.  That you should be a boundless reservoir of wisdom concerning the human heart, that you should be able to navigate relationships with the ease and skill of an emotional Magellan, and moreover, always know exactly what to write on a birthday card.  In fact, I have lost track of the number of serious conversations I’ve been in where I have sat dumbfounded and dumbstruck and totally without words, and come away thinking there was something wrong with me, unable to reconcile the contradiction of being adept in one medium of language and inept in another.  So too do I find that when I’m trying to reassure my loved ones or my dearest friends in a difficult moment my platitudes sound to me like bad soap opera lines that have been translated from Mandarin Chinese via Czech, Swahili and Esperanto.  There was a point in my twenties when it felt like everyone was coming to me for advice on some matter or another, though I wasn’t sure where I got the guru reputation.  The best I could do would be to recycle something I heard or read and hope that it fit the occasion.  Wisdom is a quality I’ve never perceived in myself; rather, I’m like the narrator in “Your Song,” stumbling about in the dark, only ever by happenstance finding words that fit.  My idle fantasy of giving a TED talk one day seems destined to remain just that.  Dammit.

My wife and I met at a karaoke bar, and we used to go to that same one every couple of weeks when we were first dating.  “Your Song” was heavy on my performance rotation, along with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (the first song she ever heard me sing) and a few of the others who’ve found their way into this series of posts.  (Also “Love Shack,” but that’s another story.)  “Your Song” was my favorite to sing to her, however, and it remains in the opinion of your humble narrator the greatest love song for the tongue-tied.  It also happens, in my case, to be true – my wife’s pale, enchanting blues are indeed the sweetest eyes I have ever seen.  Love songs like this one resonate most because they are surrogates that let us speak the emotions we can’t articulate ourselves, directly and without distraction, cutting right to the unburdened clarity of one person’s passion for another.  We often can’t say – or sing – it better.  Though I’ve never fancied being a sculptor or a snake oil huckster, this song fills that slot for me.  It’s a good reminder at those instances of awkward flailing that I remain one of the better B-sides, a person of deep feeling, though my inability to speak such things aloud can make me seem in person to be cold, verging on Vulcan, as if the heart beats only at the basic task of pumping blood.  That blood, however, runs hot.  And I hope you don’t mind if I put it down in words.

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With a Song in My Heart: V is for…

“Valotte” – Julian Lennon, 1984.

Without exception, the first reaction anyone has when hearing Julian Lennon sing is “wow, he really sounds like his dad.”  Released a mere four years after John Lennon was murdered in New York City, “Valotte” would not sound out of place on Lennon the elder’s final album Double Fantasy.  The entertainment press of the day, as skilled as their contemporary counterparts in crafting stories from smoke and nonsense, immediately started running rumors that the three surviving Beatles were planning to reunite and begin recording again with Julian standing in for his father.  Paul McCartney shrugged them off of course, pointedly asking why Julian would ever want that.  Every son stands in the shadow of his father, and Julian (and Sean) Lennon are within the umbra of one of the most famous and beloved musicians who ever lived.  Julian writes in the introduction to his mother Cynthia’s book John that strangers approach him constantly and tell him that they loved his dad.  To him, though, John Lennon wasn’t the larger-than-life rock god who gave the world the Beatles and Imagine, he was a flawed, often absent and cruel parent, and the relationship was complicated until the moment John died and remains so long afterwards.

As I expect Julian does from time to time, I envy those friends of mine who can still ring their dad up and kvetch about the Jays and the Argos and how the kid is getting along in school.  For all but eleven of my years I’ve tried to manage a relationship with someone who is not here.  The lack of resolution, of closure, can at times feel like a wound that begins to bleed again just when you think it’s finally scabbed over.  From the moment you enter the world, you have this aspirational model waiting to show you how it should be done.  (For some, you have a cautionary tale waiting instead.)  Legacies are a difficult birthright, a yardstick by which every single thing you do will be measured, evaluated, and just as often, judged.  When the legacy is invisible, the task is even more difficult.  You’ll never be able to ask him if he’s proud, or, conversely, on a bad day, you’ll never be able to shove it in his face and say, look what I did without your help.

In his youth my father was a high school football hero fighting off women with a stick.  I was a quiet geek whose tongue would knot itself in the presence of a breath of perfume.  In career he was a civil law barrister and solicitor with his own practice.  I am… well, incredibly not.  There was a moment, maybe a couple of years in high school, where I thought I wanted to be a lawyer.  I figured out what courses I should be taking to ready myself for the inevitable university degree and law school, and yet, it isn’t as if in my spare time I was watching L.A. Law or Law & Order obsessively, or hanging out at the local courthouse watching proceedings, or tracking down my late father’s attorney friends and asking them if I could fetch coffee and read amicus briefs in their offices over the summer.  I was watching movies, writing Star Trek fan fiction, drawing James Bond comic books, playing drums in my hometown’s world-renowned marching band and trying and failing to work up the courage to step up to the plate with girls that I liked.  It was fairly obvious by my graduating year that law was not where my passion lay, despite the caveats of my grandmother (the other one) that a law degree was the golden ticket.  She’s not entirely wrong, and there are moments when I think I should have just gone ahead with it.  Hindsight and all that.  And since any success I would have would be compared to my father’s anyway, maybe it should have been an apples to apples comparison.

When the sons of John Lennon decided to go into music, they were walking into it fully understanding of the comparisons that would be made, and that the success of their father was an impossible benchmark.  At the risk of sounding a bit trite, they had to be doing it for love, and because they were driven by a desire to express their own creativity and personality, not to merely offer a pale imitation of what had gone before.  Even with your father present and guiding you, a son always has to forge his own path.  On occasion that path can venture through dark territory, and perhaps it will never lead to a place as prosperous as that achieved by your dad, but it will, at the end, be your own.  In the music video for the other single release from that 1984 album, “Too Late for Goodbyes,” Julian performs with his band while a silhouetted figure, strongly implied to be John, dances in a brightly lit doorway attempting to distract him.  Eventually Julian stops looking and continues to go his own way instead.  Rightly or wrongly, it’s his choice, as it is for the rest of us.

Had I tried to be more like my father, it’s arguable I might have had a more financially rewarding career, more options now for experiencing more of the world and giving those closest to me more options with theirs as well.  Would that translate to a better life?  The people I know who are wealthy certainly don’t seem like pillars of joy.  Maybe we’d be happiest of all sitting on a pebble by a river playing guitar.  When we truly commit to our life and become willing to accept the consequences of our choices whatever they may be, the shadow of the father fades away.  I think about this in the context of being a father myself and knowing that at the very least, my son will have a better life than his birth dad’s, and every opportunity to exceed my achievements as well.  But none of that matters so long as at the end of it all, he can look back and say that he was happy.  I guess that’s the irony that becomes apparent only when you get to the other side of the divide between having a parent and being one.  You expend so much energy in thinking you’ll never live up to your father’s impossible standard only to find that he never wanted you to in the first place.  He always wanted you to be your own man, and to pass the same lesson on to your own son.  That’s how you make him proud, even if he’s not here to see it.

With a Song in My Heart: I is for…

“Imagine” – John Lennon, 1971.

I doubt there is a soul reading this entry who’s followed my work and finds this choice surprising.  You could even argue that it’s the safe choice, the obvious choice.  Lennon again.  A few more fawning paragraphs about his immortal brilliance, as if I haven’t said enough about him already.  I do find myself growing a bit self-conscious whenever I drop in a Lennon reference, no matter how oblique, but the fact of the matter is that he and his music linger each day at the edge of perception, seeping into actions, words and deeds like an ethos that informs every moral choice.  I can’t point to a single event in my life that “Imagine” evokes because it’s always been there, like a continuous score for a movie whose running time is 38 years and counting.  Like the lyric says, I’m not the only one who thinks so.  President Jimmy Carter once said that in the many countries he’s visited, he has heard it being used equally with national anthems – imagine there’s no countries indeed.  (Given that a majority of the world’s national anthems are about war, it seems only right to have a dovish counterargument.)  So I suspect there’s meager appetite for a critical dissection of the chord structure, the history of the composition and the words; more scholarly scribes have covered this territory with far more accomplished diction.  We’ll go another way.

Isn’t it a bit ironic, the question might be asked, for a person who has lost so many of the important people in his life – some at a very early age, no less – to embrace a song whose first line is “imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try”?  The simple answer is yeah, people are walking contradictions.  The deeper answer goes more to the essence of faith and belief and whether or not one’s ability to grieve demands a contrived Judeo-Christian image of departed relatives lounging on clouds and strumming harps.  Baptized Anglican, my gradual disillusionment with religion was like the disintegration of a finely woven tapestry, its threads pulled away one at a time by doubt and dissatisfaction with pat answers to lingering spiritual questions.  I didn’t care for bromides like “your dad’s in a better place now.”  No he bloody well isn’t, the better place is here with his wife and his children.  When my frail grandmother died almost a decade later, the weak sauce offered at the funeral was “your grandmother has been made young and strong in the embrace of the Lord.”  Like a salesman telling his mark exactly what they wanted to hear, to close the deal.  And I wasn’t in the mood to buy.  With age I understand now why those lines are delivered in those moments, but back then they did nothing but stoke anger and resentment at the whole enterprise.  I rejected attempts at comfort or counselling because I quite honestly thought the whole world was full of shit.  It was quite easy to imagine there was no heaven.  I didn’t even have to try.  Lennon got it, though.  He dared us to imagine living for today because there weren’t nothin’ waiting round the next bend.

When Pat Tillman died, a bunch of famous politicians showed up at his funeral and spouted the usual script about Tillman being taken to the Lord’s side.  Tillman’s brother took the dais and called them out on it, asking them to keep their religion to themselves and reminding them that Pat had been an atheist and that as far as Pat’s beliefs were concerned, “he’s f—in’ dead.”  There is this tendency for human beings to handle loss by pretending that it isn’t really a loss after all.  That the deceased have merely changed lodging arrangements.  They’re just living one universe over, but there’s no reliable wi-fi between there and here.  We don’t really seem capable of being able to process the concept that something can be present in one minute and utterly vanished from existence in the next.  Instead we imagine an otherworldy waystation, and that some day we’ll catch up to those who’ve gone ahead.  The better we behave while we’re here, the better our chances of a good seat in the great beyond.

John Lennon says no, this is all there is.  While one might initially be inclined to think of that in a negative connotation, I choose to see it as quite hopeful.  Here, in this life, we have everything we’ll need.  Because it contains everything that ever was and ever will be.  The cosmos is the greatest recycler – new worlds are born from the deaths of the old.  Every atom in your body and in the chair you’re sitting in and the air you’re breathing and even the words you’re reading right now came from a supernovaed star and will still be here long after they have ceased to exist in their present state.  People die and are transformed.  Physicality becomes memory, and the impact of action becomes imprinted in history.  The music remains embedded in the record even after the needle has been removed.  Footprints on the soft, malleable continuum of time are immune to the wash of the tide.

So can you imagine there’s no heaven and still consider yourself a spiritual person?  Maybe that’s one contradiction too many for some, but it’s what I’ve considered myself to be.  There is a magnificence to the universe that moves me.  Throughout the chaos, patterns emerge, and their perfection is, for lack of a less obvious term, musical.  My mind grows restless at the idea of settling on an answer provided for me by thousands of years of dogma; I would rather search out my own, and spend life imagining possibilities and connecting with those who fancy the notion of life as this ongoing quest, with all the supplies we require laid out before us in a limitless bounty.  Living for today, and in peace.

I hope someday you’ll join me.

With a Song in My Heart: A is for…

“All You Need is Love,” The Beatles, 1967.

So we begin this 30-day, 26-song collection with what might seem a fairly obvious choice; indeed, an immensely popular, zeitgeist-entrenched piece of music that means pretty much the same thing to millions of people all over the world.  But rather than attempt some lurching, musical-snob faux-hipster, high-falutin’ rationale of why “All You Need is Love” is more significant to me than it is to the rest of you posers who only got into the Beatles after they became popular, I can merely set the scene and leave the judgment to my dear readers.

What is the meaning of “All You Need Is Love”?  Is it a tremendous oversimplification, cynical pablum for the forlorn masses, or is it a justifiable mantra, a truth keyed into by four Scouse musicians and shared, prophet-like, in the Our World broadcast of 1967 – in a performance where author John Lennon can be seen nonchalantly chewing gum, conveying perhaps his true opinion of its significance (or maybe just trying to soothe a dry mouth)?  No matter; once the sound flies from the amplifiers it no longer belongs to its creators, but to the world.  We puzzle over the strains of “La Marseillaise” leading into that undanceable 7/4 time introduction, and Lennon’s litany of pronouncements.  “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.”  Reminds us a little of the opening of Waiting for Godot:  “Nothing to be done.”  But what’s he really saying?  That there are no horizons left to conquer, or that there is nothing beyond accomplishment?  Does it matter?  It’s still a killer tune no matter how you interpret it.

But there’s one line that gets me.  “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.”  It’s not the easiest of ideas to hear, let alone believe, particularly in the moments when the excrement is weighing us down to the point we can barely lift our legs to take the next step.  You have to come to accept the notion that the worst of experiences are essentially mid-terms for the soul.  However, the news isn’t all bad, because where you’re meant to be applies equally to the best of times.  On a warm summer day, roundabouts five in the afternoon, sandwiched between a bocce tournament and a family picnic, beneath blue sky and upon green grass I looked out over the faces of sixty-four treasured family and friends, clutched the gentle hand of the woman I’d just pledged myself to and heard this song play.  The first song I heard as a married man.  The first song for the next step.

And it was exactly where I was meant to be.

The Advice Guy Is In!

Wikimedia Commons.
Wikimedia Commons.

Anyone who blogs is familiar with search engine spam:  the nigh-incomprehensible, often hilarious terms that somewhere, someone is typing into Google and finding themselves directed to your site with.  Since I’m a conscientious writer who likes to ensure that no fan is left behind, I’m taking this opportunity to address some of the possibly legitimate questions that have gone unanswered.  Let us have at it then, and continue doing our part to bring light to the world’s mysteries.  I should note that according to the WordPress calculamatron, every single one of these searches has been entered more than once, which means somewhere someone waits in vain for a response.  Wait no more, say I!  Behold:

“how to sick solar panel to car bonnet”

Firstly, you should check the solar panel’s temperature to determine whether or not it has as a fever.  If it does, make sure it stays warm and feed it plenty of broth.  Flat ginger ale is always a good option as well, but be sure it’s completely flat because you do not want to have to burp a solar panel.  Once the panel is feeling better you may then go ahead and attach it to the car bonnet.  I recommend a good strong length of rope and a bowline hitch.  Do not drive faster than 20 mph or in southeasterly wind conditions.

“where can I buy graham crackers in london”

Round the shops, guv.

“el final de Breaking Dawn: Part II”

Mucho gusto!  El final is caliente with mucho, mucho vampiros emos attacking el chupacabras with nada shirts on.  Es muy bueno!

“face Stockholm French martini”

This is actually one of my favorite drinks.  To make it, shake equal measures Lillet and Bollinger over ice and pour into a chilled martini glass.  Garnish with an Allen key and then smash your face into it.

“have I displeased you”

Yes.  And you know why.

“what does being forged through fire mean”

I had to check Google Translate on this one but the closest definition I can find is that apparently it involves taking an item, placing it in a fire and hammering it until it’s the right shape.  It is strongly recommended that said item is not any part of the body.

“did john lennon appear in on her majesty’s secret service”

This is a little known piece of movie trivia, but in fact, he did.  About thirty minutes in, he can be spotted hiding behind George Lazenby’s left eyebrow.  The predicament of Lazenby as the only James Bond to ever appear in only one movie inspired Lennon’s later solo unreleased demo, “You Cooked Yer Golden Goose You Naff Git,” which was rerecorded by the surviving three Beatles in 1995 but lost after the master tape was eaten by a passing walrus, goo goo g’joob.

“professor splash sexy picture”

Borat, is that you?

“life lessons learned from Mario”

  1.  Eat every mushroom you can find
  2. Stars are a plentiful source of invincibility
  3. Avoid bananas on the rainbow road
  4. The princess is in another castle
  5. Keep leaping because there’s always another barrel coming

“my little pony dude”

Now that’s a name nopony would self-apply where I come from.

“google coldplay”

Google them yourself.  I’m not your damn keyboardist.  Well, I was, for a time, in the hazy progressive rock band days I don’t like to talk about, where we would eat mushrooms (see above) and spend hours contemplating the collected works of Frank Herbert before attempting to translate them into song form.  Sadly, “Be My Shi-Hulud” never really burned up the charts the way we hoped it would – though it did result in a surprising number of restraining orders.

“snack crackers shape”

Trapezoidal, because five-sided crackers are for posers.

“sequence of events to become president”

Witness:

  1. Make a lot of money
  2. Join a political party (suggested method:  coin flip, depending on weather)
  3. Find someone else who is richer than you to back your campaign
  4. Run for office and don’t say too many stupid things
  5. ??????
  6. PRESIDENCY!

Alternatively, use the Frank Underwood House of Cards method:

  1. Be evil
  2. Convince everyone between you and the presidency to resign
  3. PRESIDENCY!

“conjuring demons through music katy perry”

It’s relieving to know that I’m not the only person out there who thinks “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” is an invocation of the evil power of Our Dark Lord Satan.  I mean really, when she sings about dancing on tabletops, that would be enough to get you burned at the stake in Inquisition-era Spain.  I know, you probably weren’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition.  *loud, ominous note*  NO ONE EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!  Our chief weapons are fear, surprise and Katy Perry.

“sean bean 2012”

I totes would have backed that ticket.  Oh well, there’s always 2016.  As long as he can pledge not to be beheaded/impaled/blown up/shot/drowned/stabbed before the end of the term, I think he’s in like Flynn.

“argument for god the devil and the perfect pizza”

I’m for it unless it will make me unpopular, then I’m against it to my dying breath.

“I just wanna spend my life with you lyrics”

You know, some men will search their entire lives to find a really beautiful, deeply understanding and heartfelt set of lyrics they can pledge themselves to until death does them part.  I mean, I’ve had a desperate crush on “Subterranean Homesick Blues” since puberty, when lyrics stopped seeming so icky, but she’s never had any time for me.  Seriously, once you’ve heard that “Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine/I’m on the pavement, thinkin’ bout the government” couplet, how can your heart ever belong to another?  Though I’ve found as I’ve aged my tastes too have leaned toward older lyrics and now I find myself very curious about “Use your mentality, wake up to reality” from “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

“tolkien rips off harry potter a lot”

Please, do the world a favor and just go away.  There are some lovely caves in Canada’s north that you might find appealing.  Unless bitumen is located beneath them, then it might be a bit noisy with all the drilling and fracking equipment moseying about.

“things people do not know about graham crackers”

If you eat 100 of them in a single sitting you will attain superhuman strength.  (Editor’s note:  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, IN A CAR, AT WORK OR REALLY, ANYWHERE YOU MAY FIND YOURSELF WITH OCCASION TO TRY EATING 100 GRAHAM CRACKERS AT ONCE.  THE MANAGEMENT BEARS NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR INABILITY TO DISTINGUISH SATIRE FROM ACTUAL THINGS THAT ARE REAL.)

“the parent trap the end”

The twins realize life is a meaningless existential hell and tragically accept a teaching post in Australia.

“youtube videos of sweet honeys tied and gagged in inexorable bondage”

I don’t… I can’t even… heavens, where to even begin.  I’m not sure what’s more perplexing, that such a query would lead to my site, or that the person searching for said videos was literate enough to include the word “inexorable” in their search string.  Admittedly, it is possible that each one of those words has appeared in a different context somewhere back in the archives of my 262 posts, but that the mysterious forces of the algorithm should see fit to mesh them into a giant arrow that points here is, honestly, an argument for the existence of the fickle finger of fate, or at least, the conclusion drawn by the twins at the end of The Parent Trap.

This post is humbly dedicated to all those who have ever penned a “sarcastic advice” piece, because Zeus knows I didn’t come up with the idea.  And to all those who continue to fuel our biting wit with their comical inability to use the Internet properly.  We salute you.

Son of a preacher man

apostle

I’m fighting through a fog today; one of those insidious, creeping mists that slithers through your ears into your brain and blurs the connections between the synapses with shrouded fingers.  Maybe it’s choosing to give the nervous system a day off from the habitual double espresso poured into a concoction of milk and caramel.  Maybe it’s the gray sky choking out all the blue, and the persistent drizzle draping the morning in damp.  Whatever the reason, my gaze turns inward and I find myself unsatisfied with what I’m looking at.  I’m feeling like one of those old-timey salesmen drifting from town to town in a creaky covered wagon pushing miracle cures.  Like a prettily painted canvas being eaten by moths on the other side.  It’s the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two out, and I don’t have a bat.  Yet that doesn’t stop me from telling you how everything should be, how you should do this and that and why these things should be more like these other things, and if we would all only do more of this the world would be so much better.  The saying goes, a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; I’m claiming in my arrogance that I know the value of everything, and I’m damn well gonna tell you about it.

I’m a preacher reading from a Bible of empty verse.  And this morning we’ve hit a point of critical mass where the contradictions are crushing me, smelling like that unfortunately familiar odor of hypocrisy.  Who the hell do I think I am, and where do I get off?  I have no business telling you how to write a novel, I’ve never published one.  I have no business telling you how to make a movie, I’ve never directed one.  I have no business telling you how to run a country, I’ve never stood for office.  Robert McKee, the well-known screenwriting teacher who has never had a screenplay produced, is fond of remarking that the world is full of people who teach things they themselves cannot do, but I find it difficult to stand comfortably in those ranks.  I’m much more inclined towards the ones who merely prove they can do the work without crowing about it or trying to pass the divine secret onto a host of others.  People who lead by example and not by lecture.  Because when you stand up to the microphone and start your diatribe, there is every possibility that someone in the audience is going to yell back, “Fraud!” – and be bang on.

There are as many opinions as there are stars in the universe, and the democratization of media through blogs and the Internet has ensured that every single one will have its day, regardless of weight, validity or even coherence.  The op-ed, once the realm of what might loosely be termed “learned elders,” is now ubiquitous and available to all comers.  The result?  A veritable cacophony of voices in self-constructed pulpits telling you how things should be, how you’re living your life wrong, that if only these ten specific events would occur then all would be milk and honey, and you’re all idiots for not doing exactly what I say you should have started doing fifteen years ago.  It is not even to suggest that such opinions are always offered from a place of malice or spite – in fact, a great majority are genuine and selfless offers of help.  But there is a line when we cross over from teacher to preacher.  It’s porous, foggy, and easy to miss, and I’m worried that too much of my work falls on the wrong side of the DMZ.  And that my pulpit is a balsa wood facade, and it’s crumbling under the weight of empty words.

In the 1970’s, after the split-up of the Beatles, John Lennon wrote a song called “How Do You Sleep?”, which was a thinly-veiled attack on Paul McCartney, featuring such accusatory lyrics as “the only thing you done was ‘Yesterday'” and “those freaks was right when they said you was dead.”  At the time it was thought to be in response to some like-minded sentiments found in Paul’s solo work directed at his former bandmate.  Yet in years following, Lennon had a change of heart as to who his song was really about.  He offered:

It’s not about Paul, it’s about me. I’m really attacking myself. But I regret the association, well, what’s to regret? He lived through it. The only thing that matters is how he and I feel about these things and not what the writer or commentator thinks about it. Him and me are okay.

I found the first part of the mea culpa intriguing, particularly as dovetailed with one’s perception of John as a contradictory man full of anger who preached peace.  Beatle-weary wags might suggest that it was a half-hearted chickening out in the face of bad press, that if you watch the profanity-laced performance of the song in the movie Imagine you can see for yourself how pissed at Paul John really was.  As I’ve often been reminded, however, the criticisms that sting the most are those we know are about genuine failings within ourselves.  Perhaps John took Paul’s songs personally because he knew on some level that Paul was correct.  And that the wrath flung back towards the man he once stood beside on stage and in the studio was indeed meant to be directed inward.  “You must have learned something in all those years.”

When we’re preaching, ultimately it’s for a congregation of one.  The only person we’re trying to convince, cajole, persuade, motivate, shake out of their complacency or even knock off their immaculate marble Doric-columned pedestal is ourselves.  Even the most rage-filled screed against the unfair world is us picking away at our own flaws, burning off the fat, tearing away veneers of falsehood to get at the kernels of truth hiding in the innermost layers of our soul.  So we can be okay with occasionally having no real ground to stand on; we don’t have to feel like complete phonies.  Posting about how a story should or shouldn’t be written is my own inner Robert McKee giving myself a stern lecture, because I’m the person who needs to work harder at his craft.  Musing about how the world should operate is a challenge to myself to do something about it instead of just voting and complaining.  If someone else happens to agree, wonderful – but I’m the one who is meant to benefit, if, naturally, I choose to get off my duff and take my own advice.  I can be okay with sermonizing from time to time because I can shoulder the responsibility of calling myself out if I think I’m full of it.  That doesn’t make me a hypocrite, or a fraud – just a soldier in the cause of trying to figure out the big mystery with the limited tools at my disposal.  As expected, mistakes are inevitable and necessary, but hell, man, every stumble is still forward motion.  The exercise is a lifelong endeavor that ends only when the lungs breathe their last.

So shine on, crazy preacher man.  Those freaks was right about you.

The first (and most important) connection

sunset

I tend to go through phases in what I choose to write about here.  There have been politics phases, James Bond phases, Aaron Sorkin phases, family phases, phases devoted to the craft of writing as I see it.  Lately though I’m finding a lot of what I’m writing is focusing on the idea of connection.  Amanda Palmer’s video from a few weeks ago really slammed the back of my head against the wall.  My piece for Huffington Post Books about Ksenia Anske touched on this idea as well.  Because connection is how we make sense of the world.  We’re a vast palette of individual colors who want to blend together.  Yet there is a critical connection that we often fail to make as we throw our line out into the universe, hoping for the elusive nibble.  In our focus on the potential connections out there, we forget about the connection within – the connection to ourselves, to who we are, what we want, and how we feel.

Writing can be a purely intellectual exercise; a collection of arguments and supporting evidence, arranged in the most coherent order to maximize the strength of the opinion being presented.  Academia has thrived for thousands of years using this method, and our knowledge and scientific standing have been advanced immeasurably.  But the stories that stay with us through the generations are those that touch the more primal part of our brains; the part that feels.  We have this incredible disconnect, between aspiring to a higher stratum of intelligence while still being governed by passions that are as far from rational as can be imagined.  The best writing, and the writers who make the most lasting connections, are the ones who can tap into these passions and share them in a way that tells complete strangers, “I get it.  I get your pain.  And you’re not alone.”

I’ve been accused of being passionless on more than one occasion.  It’s a defense mechanism; a shield against loss and the pain that comes with it.  There was a story I read once about Julian Lennon, and how John once screamed at him that he hated his laugh, and to this day a laugh from Julian is very rare.  Similarly, emotional extremes are not my thing.  For me the thought of ripping off that bandaid and letting the agony pour through the reopened scar is tremendously intimidating.  Letting it loose publicly is even more frightening.  Yet one looks at what someone like Ksenia Anske is willing to admit to the world and one’s own history seems laughably tame in comparison.  I also consider it in the context of being a new father and not wanting my son to grow up thinking his dad’s a Borg drone.

There is great pain lurking beneath the armor – the pain of a lost father and mother, an adolescence and young adulthood spent wandering, feeling very much alone, not knowing what to make of this thing called life, feeling a sense of drift that persists to this day.  There is anger and regret over very bad choices and their lingering consequences.  There is frustration at the inability to articulate a clear vision of where I’m going and what I want.  This last one is brutal for a writer.  In creating characters you need to be able to define what they want, and how can you do this for a fictional person if you can’t even do it for yourself?  Without wants there is no reason for the journey – there is no story.

Even if I was to never write another word, I still need to connect to my inner self.  It’s very possible that once that connection is firmly established, the desire to write might fade away.  If I am truly satisfied with who I am and the state of my life, then I may stop asking those questions of strangers, stop seeking connection out there in the ether that is the global consciousness.  Stop noticing, as Amanda Palmer says, that this looks like this, because it just won’t matter anymore.  And yet there’s another, more tantalizing possibility – that the other connections will grow deeper, that things will make more sense, that I will be able to articulate a vision of substance, of meaning, of true passion.  I’ll know what I want and I’ll go after it at ludicrous speed, and those who don’t want to come along on the ride can eat my plaid dust.

If you fancy yourself a writer, you have to ask this very important yet somewhat awkward-sounding question of yourself:  Is all of me in this?  Are you writing the story of the sexy female vampire who runs her own shoe store and fends off the advances of a hunky foot-fetishizing merman because you have a deep, abiding need within your soul to spill your soul all over the blank page, or are you doing it because it’s a fun distraction and you’re tickled by the highly unlikely possibility of becoming the next Twilight?  Do you have what it takes to push past being ignored, past the hit statistics on your blog ticking down to zero, past people who greet your latest missives with apathy and indifference?  Is using your voice important enough to you that you can shake off the jealousy that can sometimes spike at the sight of others achieving great success by twists of fate, and say what you want to say anyway?  Fundamentally, are you passionate enough about it that it doesn’t matter if nobody but your significant other ever reads anything you ever write?  Intellectual exercises can be well-written, but they will never move anyone.  They will simply exist in a moment of time and be forgotten.  They will never connect.

Look, there are more than enough writers, both published and not, out there filling servers full of blog posts with advice on how to write, what works and what doesn’t (in their humble opinion, of course) and I don’t want to be that anymore.  The only advice I can offer is this, and it comes from the school of “those who can’t do, teach”:  You will only achieve what you want when you learn how to feel, when you have connected to everything you are.  When everything you do is to its fullest potential, and when you’ve smashed through the self-imposed mental barriers keeping you from experiencing all the joy, wonder and even the sadness that life has to offer.  When you cast off the stupid, pointless, time-wasting shackle of intimidation and become.

Thus endeth the lesson.  Let me know how you make out.  I will too.

Gather ye rosebuds – How I *almost* wrote for Star Trek

Close, but not quite…

A great deal of blogging advice says you shouldn’t talk about yourself.  I think I’ve been pretty good about staying true to that axiom, presenting my take on world events rather than extolling the mundane details of my boring existence.  This is one story about me however that I think is worth telling, not only because there’s a good lesson in it but because it involves my closest encounter with one of the biggest entertainment franchises on the planet – and if that doesn’t grab your interest, then don’t worry, I’ll be back to criticizing Republicans soon enough.

We flash back to an era when Star Trek: The Next Generation was coming to the end of its initial television run and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was taking over as the sole keeper of Roddenberry’s flame.  I’d grown a bit disenchanted with TNG as even at that age I had figured out that stories about deus ex machina subatomic particles and other varieties of technobabble weren’t remotely as compelling as the richer, more character-driven pieces DS9 was attempting.  The stories were more emotional and more consequential, as the space station couldn’t fly off at the end of the episode as the Enterprise could.  Characters had to live with their choices, and their mistakes would continue to haunt them.  For a young mind enamored with the idea of making storytelling his life’s pursuit, this was ambrosia.  Imagination soared with potential adventures for Captain Sisko and company (yes, nitpickers, I know he was a Commander during the time I’m talking about, but just roll with it, okay?).  Fortunately, because of a guy named Michael Piller who was one of the executive producers of the franchise at that point – and had arguably been responsible for turning TNG around after its wobbly first two seasons – those adventures did not have to remain confined to my brain alone.

Breaking into television writing is incredibly difficult because it’s a closed shop.  If you have a great idea for an episode of say, True Blood, and mail a script in to HBO, you’ll get it back without it even having been opened.  Too much history of litigation brought by angry writers hollering “You stole my idea!” has led to every single series accepting submissions and pitches only through registered agents.  Short version – you can’t land a TV writing gig without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you’ve had a TV writing gig.  When Michael Piller was running Star Trek, however, he enacted an open submission policy.  Anybody could send something in and have it considered – didn’t matter if you were a groundskeeper from Bangladesh, so long as you could write in proper teleplay format and enclosed the correct postage, they’d look at it.  Ronald D. Moore, who became one of Star Trek’s most prolific writers, working on Next Generation, DS9 and two of the movies before shepherding the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, was discovered in this way.  It was possible – you didn’t need an “in” with somebody who worked there, you just had to write something that grabbed them.  You had the same chance as everybody else.

Over the summer of 1993, as friends either slung burgers or soaked up rays on cottage docks, I got to work.  I researched how to write a teleplay, learned about scene headings, dialogue formatting and stage direction, and started writing.  My premise?  It had been mentioned a number of times on DS9 that Dr Julian Bashir had been salutatorian in his graduating class at Starfleet Medical, that he’d messed up on a single question on the final that had resulted in him coming second.  Obviously someone had beaten him and been valedictorian.  What if this person came to the station?  And what if it was a woman with whom Bashir had had a romantic history, but their competitive nature had dashed the possibility of a lasting relationship?  What if they were forced back together to solve a mystery that threatened the entire station?  Once those questions were in place, the teleplay came together fairly naturally.  I opened with a scene on the Promenade between Bashir and Lt. Jadzia Dax.  Dax is going over some personnel reports with a bored Bashir who is longing for some adventure to come into his life.  (For fun, the names of the crewmembers Dax is discussing are all the last names of my closest friends.)  Bashir notices a comely figure strolling across the Promenade – his old flame, the valedictorian herself, Dr. Sabrina Keller.  Sparks ensue, old rivalries resurface, and eventually Bashir and Keller have to team up to save the station from a rogue comet that plays havoc with the Bajoran sun – a crisis in which all their shared medical expertise is worthless.  I type this up in WordPerfect, print it out on my cheap dot matrix printer, bind it, label it and mail it off to Paramount Pictures, 5555 Melrose Avenue.  And wait.

Fast forward to February 1994.  I’m home from my first year of university on reading week.  My family and I are coming home from an afternoon out when I spy a huge envelope shoved in our mailbox – from Paramount Pictures.  It’s my original teleplay being returned, along with a pile of resources – the DS9 writers’ guide, copies of two previously produced teleplays and a form letter from Ronald D. Moore inviting me for a pitch meeting.  For a 19-year-old Trekkie, the reaction resembles what happens to Louis del Grande’s character in Scanners.

They weren’t interested in purchasing the script I’d sent them, but they felt that I had shown promise and been able to write the characters’ voices well.  They wanted to hear more.  A few days later, I received a phone call from a very nice lady named April who was Moore’s assistant.  She wanted to know if I’d received the material and if I was interested in pitching.  I replied, naively and sheepishly, that I was a Canadian student and couldn’t afford to come to Los Angeles.  After what I’m guessing was an eyeroll on her end, she explained that they took pitches over the phone.  It’ll be a half hour conversation with one of the show’s writing producers during which you’ll present several story ideas.  Well, in that case, of course I’ll do it, said I.  Just one caveat – I’ll be back at university so here’s my dorm room phone extension.  Thank you, said April, and she hung up, and I was left there feeling a bit shell-shocked, and intimidated that now I had to come up with at least five more stories for this meeting.  Well, at least I had a whole month this time, unlike the year it took me to come up with the first one.  Gulp.

A month fades away.  I banish my roommate one night and sit on the bed awaiting this call, story ideas spread out around me, the Beastie Boys blaring from next door.  The phone rings, it’s April again, and she tells me I’ll be pitching to René Echevarria, a writer whose episodes of both Next Gen and DS9 have been among my favourites.  Echevarria comes on the line, we exchange brief greetings, and I launch into my pitches – beating down the butterflies roaring away in my stomach.

Star Trek has always been about big ideas couched in science fiction premises.  The coolest space anomalies and weirdest aliens are meaningless if there isn’t a strong social message underneath.  In coming up with my pitches I tried to start with the social message first and build the plot around it.  The first story I pitched was about religious prejudice.  The planet Bajor, which the Deep Space Nine station watches over, is a highly religious world.  What if, I suggested, there was a minority of Bajoran atheists?  And a few of them had done something really awful, like blowing up a monastery, resulting in every Bajoran who doesn’t believe in their religion being treated with disdain – the same way some blame every living Muslim for 9/11?  Arriving on the station is one of these atheists, suspected of selling out his world to the Cardassians.  He proclaims his innocence, and the Starfleet crew, who are secular, are more inclined to sympathize with him than the religious Bajoran Major Kira, who hates this guy sight unseen.  A few twists and turns later, it’s revealed – after the atheist is shot dead while affecting a very unsubtle Christ-like pose on the Promenade – that he wasn’t selling anyone out, he was buying time for his family to escape from Bajor.  Bajor’s conservative attitudes take another black eye as Kira is forced to reevaluate what she believes.

Echevarria doesn’t waste a beat.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with the story, he says, but for the third season they are trying to reinvent Bajor as a happier, more positive place for the audience to sympathize with and root for, and this would run contrary to that objective.  Plus there are a couple of plot holes he doesn’t like.  What else ya got?

I move on to my next story.  I’d always been fascinated by the concept of the “red shirt” – the nameless, non-speaking security officer who dies and is never thought of again.  I opened the story with a shootout on the station, and one of these guys goes down.  You are supposed to think nothing of it.  But we stay with his story as Security Chief Odo is filling out the paperwork regarding his death.  His name is Warrant Officer Charles F. Kensing (deliberate allusion to Citizen Kane, which my film class had screened recently), and as Odo digs deeper, it turns out he wasn’t a random casualty, he was a deliberate target as part of a conspiracy involving Starfleet Intelligence that leads all the way to Commander Sisko himself.

Echevarria isn’t sold on this one either.  He doesn’t buy that Sisko would keep Odo in the dark the way I’ve suggested.  The entire plot could have been resolved by the two simply having a forthright conversation.  Next.

I re-pitch the valedictorian story.  I’ve tweaked it since my original script to play up the romance and competition angles, and sharpen the sci-fi mystery element.  But it’s still a no-go.  Echevarria tells me they featured the valedictorian in a recent episode that has yet to air at the time I’m speaking with him.  (When the episode does air, although the valedictorian is female, her name is Dr. Elizabeth Lense, and not only does she have no romantic history with Bashir, she doesn’t even know who he is – and their fairly forgettable encounter is an unrelated B-plot in a story about Sisko and his son Jake building an interstellar sailing ship.)

With his comments about making Bajor a happier, sunnier place, I know he’s not going to like my last story before I even start in on it.  It’s a dark tale about a Bajoran militia exercise involving teenage cadets, and Jake Sisko somehow being shoehorned into taking part.  Eventually he is forced into killing one of these cadets to save another and grapples with the consequence of having taken a life.  I can feel the cringing on the other end of the phone – it just isn’t happening for me tonight.

Finally, Echevarria thanks me for my pitches.  He asks a little about me and is surprised when I tell him I’m 19.  He also invites me back to pitch again.  Clearly he senses that there’s some potential to be harvested here.  I’m a bit apologetic about some of the stories that he’s passed on and he laughs it off, saying, and I quote, “you wouldn’t believe some of the shit people pitch.”  We exchange goodbyes and I hang up.  Looking back on it now I can see how every one of those stories wasn’t ready for prime time, but the experience itself was invaluable.  It showed me at a very young age that I could play with the big boys – that my writing was good, that it could stand up to professional scrutiny.  And the door hadn’t been closed – they were willing to hear more.  I had my “in.”

You may be wondering now, two thousand words on, why I titled the post “Gather ye rosebuds.”  As you can gather based on the fact that you’ve never seen my name in the credits of a Star Trek episode, I never took them up on Echevarria’s invitation to pitch again.  Not long after this call, my mother’s cancer worsened and she landed in hospital, never to emerge.  Star Trek stories were the very last thing on my mind.  I don’t blame myself for not ever following up, at least, not to the degree where I mope about it constantly.  Life, as John Lennon observed, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.  But these days, as I try to build a writing career, I think back to my “big break” and reflect on how I could have made better use of it.  Honestly, I was lazy and I chickened out.  I made excuses.  I could have fought through the grief – used it, shaped my pain into heart-rending adventures for Captain Sisko’s crew.  Perhaps.  For whatever reason, at the time I was not in the mood to try.  So I let the opportunity slip away like sand through fingertips.  DS9 is long off the air, Michael Piller has passed on and the open submission policy on television is history.  And René Echevarria certainly doesn’t remember me.

As the summer of 2012 draws to a close and new opportunities begin to present themselves, I’m determined to gather my rosebuds while I may, even if they may be fewer.  Carpe occasio.  That’s the advice I take from my Star Trek experience, and the best advice that the relating of this tale can bestow upon anyone.  Don’t chicken out of life.  The perfect time never comes.  And as they said in Vanilla Sky, every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around.  So send that book in.  Get your blog going.  Publish that article.  Submit your screenplay.  And if someone gives you a break, grab onto it and push until it hurts, until your fingers are bleeding and your arms are ready to fall off.  You have nothing to lose and the world to gain.

What are you waiting for?

We need to go darker

Katy Perry in the video for “Wide Awake,” conjuring some musical magic.

Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” has been on my playlist all week long, an incongruity even sandwiched inside an eclectic playlist that includes Hendrix, Dylan, the Byrds, Tom Petty, Richard Ashcroft, Thomas Newman, Jerry Goldsmith, Mychael Danna and Hans Zimmer.  I cannot stop listening to it.  It accomplishes the remarkable feat of being both catchy and soulful, bruised yet full of hope.  Apart from innocently fancying Ms. Perry herself (which my Alexander Skarsgard-adoring better half assures me she’s totally okay with) I’ve been indifferent toward her music until now.  Her breakout hit “I Kissed a Girl” is the giggle of a nine-year-old too chicken to truly explore questions of confused sexuality lest her parents think badly of her.  “Firework” is a well-meaning song undermined by Perry’s inability to hit and sustain high notes.  The lack of proper rhymes in “California Gurls” and the Brady Bunch-esque misdeeds of “Last Friday Night” are a saran wrap-deep package unwilling to chafe against the very successful mould in which she’s been forged.

Then her marriage to Russell Brand broke apart, and she wrote, recorded and released “Wide Awake” as a meditation on what she’d been through and where she is now.  And it’s a great song.  This isn’t a pig-tailed goofy girl jumping up and down on a beach – it’s the honest testament of an emotionally bruised woman picking herself up off the concrete.  Katy Perry has established such a niche for herself that she didn’t have to record this song – she could have released yet another ode to partying in the sunshine and achieved plenty of accolades and album sales.  But she chose to try to say something profound about who she is and how she’s feeling about the world.

I’m not going to go faux-Lester Bangs and suggest that “Wide Awake” is a watershed moment in music.  But it illuminates a larger question that I think most artists grapple with.  Is introspection by its nature a journey of sadness?  Does something have to be dark to be good?  Is the stuff of genius found only in the minor chords?  There’s an old axiom that says all real comedy is born from pain.  So too does it seem that the best music is that which reflects lessons learned at great cost.  This is not to say that everyone gets it right – it seems that every Kelly Clarkson song is about breaking up with someone and being better off because of it, but unlike Katy Perry in “Wide Awake,” you get the sense that Kelly’s just reading the lines someone else wrote for her instead of feeling them through the notes, and that’s why, at least to my ears, “Wide Awake” will have greater staying power than the grating and empty “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”.

Bob Dylan told John Lennon when they first met that he needed to get personal in his lyrics.  You begin to witness the transformation through the Beatles middle period as songs like “I’m a Loser” on Beatles for Sale and “Help!” lead to angry kiss-offs like “Norwegian Wood,” the existential exploration of “Nowhere Man” and the psychedelic dream state of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the Sgt. Pepper era becomes the truly dark, soul-baring Primal Scream anguish that closed out the Fab Four and realized itself fully in John’s solo career.  Had Lennon and the others chose to rest on their laurels and sing nothing but upbeat generic pop for their entire careers, they might have done very well.  They might still be touring casinos and retirement homes today.  But they wouldn’t be legends.  It was their choice to share their vulnerability, their humanity, that made them so – the gods who dared to admit they were the very same as the mortals who worshipped them.  In the documentary Imagine, there’s a scene where Lennon confronts an obsessed fan who is trespassing on his property, who wants to know how Lennon could have known so much about this fan’s life as to write songs that seemed to be about him.  Lennon responds, frankly, that “I’m singing about meself.”

The stories that have the deepest impact on us are tales of catharsis; of people like us who are tested to the limits of their endurance, who go all the way to the point of breaking and come back changed, improved, and renewed.  To find the brightest light, one must brave the darkness, because it is only in the dark that light can shine.  Every artist who starts out warbling giddily about rainbows and lollipops will face a crossroads at some point, where they will be forced to decide whether to continue skipping along the yellow brick road or stumble off into the gloomy forest – with no guarantee that something better waits on the other side, only faith that it does.  It’s a journey that is always worth taking.  The Dixie Chicks’ music improved immeasurably after their fracas with the American right over their Bush-inspired version of John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus moment”, when they got away from karaoke-ready dreck like “Goodbye Earl” and opened up with powerful anthems like “Not Ready to Make Nice.”  Brian Wilson struggled his entire career against the goofy surfin’ tunes that characterized the Beach Boys and that his record label insisted he continue to produce, and as a result we were blessed with lasting gems like “God Only Knows.”  I have no doubt whatsoever that someday Justin Bieber will grow a goatee and release an acoustic album, and you know what – done with the right intentions, and not just as a sales gimmick, it’ll be terrific.

Until then, play “Wide Awake” again and think to yourself, damn, Katy Perry makes for one fine-looking goth.

Don’t worry Coldplay, I still love you

Fun-loving guys, not that you’d know it from the humorless Anton Corbijn photograph.

What’s with the Coldplay hate?  Google “Coldplay criticism” and you’ll find oodles of articles and blog posts slagging the successful English pop quartet for any number of ills including but not limited to vapid lyrics, uninspired melodies, unabashed sentimentality, and that most lethal of sins in the music world, being popular.  I suppose the pile-on of sour grapes might be understandable if Coldplay were a bunch of pretentious, unapologetic douches (a la Chris Brown), but that certainly isn’t the sense you get from them in interviews, or more importantly, in performance – no walking off the stage in a huff of profanity mid-set because there were brown M&M’s in the candy bowl.  No one, even their most ardent supporters, will claim that Coldplay are edgy, envelope-pushing avant-garders, but I’m not convinced that’s what they’ve ever wanted to be.  They are not tortured Van Goghs forcing music out through their pores in relentless emo wrist-cutting agony.  Throughout their career, they have never failed to lose sight of the goal that most musicians, ostensibly, set out to achieve – to entertain.  Last summer I wrote about seeing Hugh Jackman’s show and how his sheer love of his job elevates the act of performance into an unforgettable experience; Paul McCartney at 70 is the same, and so are Coldplay.  After every few songs, frontman Chris Martin will pause to ask the crowd, and not insincerely, “Everybody okay?”  You get the sense that if but one person were to answer in the negative, Coldplay would take it personally.  He and the band recognize, unlike many embittered bands that have gone before, that they are there because of the people smiling back at them, and they owe it to every ticket buyer to give it their all.

Martin himself is an unlikely rock star – a thin, thoughtful, fairly good-looking English kid with a decent but not exceptional voice vaulted almost against his will into the stratospheric realm occupied by the likes of Bono.  Like U2’s leader, he struggles to reconcile his absurd success and wealth with the plight of the less fortunate through activism, stumbling to follow in the footsteps of the one who forged the path and continues to cast an ever-imposing shadow over both men:  John Lennon.  Lennon went through his period of evolution too, once he got the silly love songs out of his system and turned his focus first inward, then outward at the craziness of a war-obsessed world, finding a way to unite both that remains unmatched.  As a songwriter, Martin’s focus has always been on his feelings, and his lyrics have struggled to articulate the complexity of relationships, sometimes, as even he will admit, with rhymes that don’t quite gel.  Any good storyteller knows the key to creating resonance is to focus on the emotions that we all share, and Coldplay would not connect with so many fans were Martin not on to something with the words he sings.  But even Dylan wouldn’t have gone anywhere had he not been able to put the words to memorable tunes, and this is where Coldplay truly shines.  Taking a cue, perhaps, from Phil Spector and the kitchen sink approach of the Wall of Sound, Coldplay have, in their best songs, crafted melodies that are symphonic in their scope, using piano and string craftily without overdoing it, without tipping into syrup.  They think and act big.  “Viva la Vida” became their biggest hit because of its cinematic feel – to extend the movie metaphor, it was like a polished Cecil B. DeMille epic sprung on an era accustomed to smirking, Dogma 95, stripped-down, low-budget garage angst.  And in subject, Martin veered away from the plight of the heart, tiptoeing into the Shakespearean realm of the lament of fallen kings.  Overwrought?  The potential was there certainly, but it never materialized.  Coldplay were smart enough not to make the whole album sound like that, which made “Viva la Vida” that much more special.

Their latest album, Mylo Xyloto, continues their collaboration with U2’s veteran producer Brian Eno, who is succeeding in pushing the band to go big without, as U2 sometimes does, forgetting what made them what they are in the first place.  Coldplay will always be Coldplay, and there is something comforting in that, like the favourite sweater you love pulling on after the work week is done.  Hipster music critics forever trying to elevate thoroughly mediocre bands to undeserved pedestals (The Strokes, anyone?) detest guys like Berryman, Buckland, Champion and Martin because they defy the expectation that real music must always come from a place of pain, and that true musicians are somehow better than the rest of us mortals – that they are more plugged in to the soul and how to express it through song.  Where Coldplay get it right is recognizing that amidst all the existential suffering, the soul wants to be happy.  It wants a reason to smile.  Why not then indulge that – make music that makes the listener feel as good as the performer?  If I want to be depressed and think that the world is an empty, meaningless, cynical place, I’ll put on the Lou Reed record.  I’ve always been more about the hope that things are better than I think they are, and for that purpose, Coldplay is ideal.  When Chris Martin asks “Everybody okay?”, he’s letting us know that he and his bandmates truly do care that we are.  I think that’s something to celebrate, not sneer at.