Daily Archives: June 4, 2008

The Big Idea: N.M. Kelby

Inspiration is a funny thing in that it hardly ever comes as you straight-on; it comes in at different angles and sometimes what it inspires doesn’t necessarily seem to be an obvious takeaway. Case in point: Murder at the Bad Girl’s Bar and Grill, a funny, Florida-soaked mystery novel (“A perfect beach read” — New York Post), whose inspiration found its home in a different clime, with an entirely different mood. In this Big Idea, author N.M. Kelby explains how the inspiration got from there to here.

N.M. KELBY:

Murder at the Bad Girl’s Bar and Grill is a tiki-styled retelling of Macbeth set in South Florida. The characters include the last living relative of Macbeth (a Scottish clown who has a puppet circus, in addition to a set of vestigial wings), a Barry Manilow impersonator with a dog named “Mandy,” the “Queen of Scream” Danni Keene (the retired star of 1980 shockmiester horror films), FBI dropout Brian Wilson (named after THE Brian Wilson), a landlocked mermaid, and Jimmy Ray, the star of Whale Season, a 70 year old Buddhist Blues player whose advice as to how to be a good Buddhist is “Throw your heart into the world like a Frisbee.”

Did I mention that there’s also a Meticalla tribute band from Lawrence Welk’s hometown that plays “Leper Messiah” on the accordions? Oh, and there’s a couple of dead bodies and a kettle of vultures, too.

The book surprisingly began in Vermont. In winter. -5. I’m from Florida. You can only imagine. I was there because I felt that I’d lost my sense of magic in the world. So, I decided to go back and visit an old influence of mine, Peter Schumann. His work with the Bread and Puppet Theater had always been inspirational to me––and I was desperate for inspiration.

When you think puppets, you usually think of silly sock things, at least I used to. But Schumann created epics, some called “circuses”, using towering puppets, some two stories high. The work could be filled with whimsy or political themes, but it was often beautiful and shockingly magical.

So that winter, I visited Herr Schumann and his Bread and Puppet Museum. And here’s what I wrote in my notebook. When you read the book you’ll see how I used many of these passages in the final edition:

They are everywhere you look. Puppets and masks are hanging from the rafters, or set in amused repose at tea parties, or sunning themselves at imaginary beaches, or standing silent as language waiting for the moment of use. Their faces are the color of stone or rust. Their expressions are simple and kind: content as the moon dreaming of itself.

Nearly fifty years of puppets hang from every spare space on both floors in this museum––although it is not really the kind of museum that one usually visits in the dead of winter. It is not a striking building designed to illuminate the art that is contained within. It is, in fact, an ancient barn outside of the rural town of Glover, Vermont. At -5, it is the most balmy day of the week. Brittle winds are wailing through the slats in the walls that winter’s heaving has caused. The wounds of winter are everywhere. The floor longs for tropical oceans and has buckled into waves that the coming of spring will lessen, but only so much.

Desire is so powerful.

Throughout the cavernous space, puppets move in the fog of cold, animate themselves. No one is willing to give them life. Not now. Not in the bitter edge of winter.

Is this heaven? they think.

Not now, we say.

From every inch of this space––from the 20 ft ceiling to the stable that once held the team of horses that tilled this land––clay eyes watch you.

You can’t help yourself when you think of the biblical, think dust to dust. Here, in this place, it’s easy to believe that we are made of clay, animated by some unseen hand. A madonna hangs from the rafters above you, exposed as an angel, holds the Child close to her breast.

Peter Schumann is a gnome of a man who speaks in a still-stubborn German accent. He is rough-hewn. His accent is filled with wood smoke and raw wool. There is a wolf dog at his side. The dog is nearly as large as a child’s pony, but not docile–seems unwilling to give in to being tamed.

He and I shiver uncontrollably as we walk through this mad and exquisite clutter which really seems to be one man’s mind. Peter makes all the masks himself. They all seem to resemble him.

In the dark corners of the barn, somewhere in a place difficult to determine, there are the soft groans of a cow that has been too cold too long and refuses the relief of giving milk and now just stands focusing on the pain of being alive in weather so cold that it breaks metal and men.

At one point I turn to Peter and say, “When you see all of this what do you think? What do you see?”

“I see my heart,” he says this as if it’s a great sorrow.

And so that night I began to write the tale of Sòlas Mackay, the last living relative of Macbeth, a circus clown by training and disposition who suddenly believes that his life’s work, his beautiful puppets, could be the reason behind his estranged brother’s murder. But I made it funny, too.

Visit N.M. Kelby’s blog here. And learn about the BBQ sauce the book inspired.

That Other Thing

I’m in the category of people who were mildly infatuated with Barack Obama a year ago but figured he’d run into the buzzsaw of the Clinton machine and get shredded like carnitas, which I suppose goes to show what I know about politics.

As you might expect, I’m happy with this presumptive nomination; for many and varied reasons, I think Obama is the best candidate out there. I also think he’s a generational candidate, like JFK or Reagan, and a historic candidate, for obvious reasons. But to be blunt about it, the latter two of these mean a whole lot less to me than the former. I have the luxury of being able to say that Obama’s ethnicity is the least interesting thing about him to me, and whether he’s a pivotal political figure in American politics is for history to argue about. Here and now, in 2008, I think the direction he wants to move the country in is a better one than the direction McCain does, and that is both necessary and sufficient for my vote. Obama as icon is all fine and good, but I’m more interested in him as president.

As for Hillary Clinton: As last night’s “I’m no conceding yet” speech shows, her original sins are hubris and entitlement. Clinton and her pals (and her husband) all assumed the nomination was hers to lose, and then went out of their way to do just that. If there’s a memory of the Clinton campaign that I will take with me from here on out, it is of her and her flunkies trying to explain how she was really ahead, as long as you looked at all sorts of various metrics that didn’t actually count. This is the thing that soured me on her as a candidate: So much time wasted on trying to convince people she was winning, rather than spent actually winning. We can argue whether Obama caught a break or two (or five), but at when the dust settled he did what mattered to secure the nomination in the real world: He got the delegates. He ran a reality-based campaign, which is why he’s the presumptive nominee.

The rumor is Clinton’s now bucking for VP (one does remember that point in the primary in which she offered the position to Obama, despite the fact he was ahead in the delegate count, which was an annoying example of her imaginary-world strategy) and while unlike many Obamamites I don’t think this is THE WORST IDEA EVAR, neither do I think there’s anything in it for Obama. There’s the idea that Clinton has so poisoned the well that there’s no way her people will pull the lever for Obama unless she’s VP, but you know, there’s a lot of time between today and November, and Clinton really needs to ask herself what she gets by throwing a spanner into the legitimate candidate’s machinery. It’s in vogue to suggest that the Clintons only think about themselves; I sort of doubt it, but now is a fine time to test that theory.

In any event, come November, I don’t think there will be much of an issue, at least, not among the Democratic voters who neither have a conscious nor unconscious inability to vote for a candidate who is black. Why yes, Appalachia, I am looking at you, although if we’re going down that racial road I suspect the number of black Americans who vote who won’t vote for Obama can probably be counted on a single pair of hands. Voting for or against a candidate based on skin color is not a strategy I endorse, but in this case I suspect those that do vote that way will cancel each other out — or, actually, will trend Obama’s way.

What I do think Obama has the potential for that McCain doesn’t is in motivating millions of new and/or formerly indifferent voters to head to the polls to vote for him. Obama will motivate black voters, but it’s clear he’s also motivating younger voters as well, and while one must always be careful in predicting the youth vote (which went for Nixon the first time 18-year-olds were Constitutionally assured the vote), hip, 40something multi-ethnic Obama’s aesthetic and platform has some natural advantages over that of cranky, 70something John McCain’s. And it doesn’t hurt Obama that McCain is following the least popular president in modern history, whose policies he’s generally supported.

It doesn’t mean Obama should simply walk right into the White House — the race is statistically tied now and I think it’s going to be reasonably close through most of the actual campaign. And we all know that the GOP doesn’t mind bringing out the knives. But if this long primary season has showed us anything, it’s that Obama keeps his eye on the prize, and is far harder to knock off target than many of us believed at the start of all of this. I suspect and hope he will be the next President of the United States because of it.

The Most Important Thing That Happened Yesterday

Yes, that’s right, Journey released a new album. What, something else happened too? Curious.

This is the first album with Journey’s new lead singer, Arnel Pineda, who comes off as an enthusiastic Steve Perry mini-me. It features a CD of 11 new songs, a CD of 11 of the band’s Perry-era hits re-recorded with Pineda on vocals, and a DVD of the band’s first US concert with Pineda on the mic. All for $11.98! Only at Wal-Mart! Hey, the Eagles showed you can get away with this. Also, let’s face it, Journey’s primary demographic isn’t shopping at Nordstrom these days.

How is it? Well, the CD of new songs is sufficiently Journeyesque to make most fans happy; the opening single “Never Walk Away” is a revisit of “Be Good to Yourself” and the rest of the album likewise shows that the band knows which side its bread is buttered on (i.e., Journey’s hit era, circa 1981 – 1986). And I suspect the ballad “After All These Years” will be a lite-hits station staple this year. It’s solid, although none of the songs here reach the heights of, say, the tracks off of Journey’s Greatest Hits CD. But then, that CD got to filter through six albums worth of material, so maybe that’s not a fair comparison.

However, it does draw attention to the fact that the secret sauce to Journey’s magic era was not Steve Perry, but Perry and Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain playing off each other in the band and in the songwriting; Schon and Cain without Perry get 80% to “Classic Journey”-ness, but you notice the missing 20%. That said, it’s definitely a better album than either of the Steve Augeri-era albums, in which the band seemed conflicted about what the hell they were doing. They’re not conflicted anymore, which should make fans happy.

As for the album redoing the band’s greatest hits with Pineda on vocals: Well, it sounds like the best Journey cover band ever, it does. I understand why the band felt like they needed to do this, but it’s still vaguely disconcerting.

This isn’t the fault of Pineda, however. Pineda was hired because he sounds so much like golden-era Steve Perry that it’s actually spooky; given that Perry’s never coming back to the band (really, that bridge has been burned, Perry partisans, get over it) this is as good as it’s ever going to get, and it’s pretty darn good. It’s pretty clear that Pineda knows why he’s there; the dude was doing Journey covers in Filipino bar bands when Schon discovered him on YouTube (no, really), so he gets his job and just seems damn happy to be doing it. Good for him; I hope he enjoys himself. In reality, in terms of sound, the real missing link between Journey’s apex and its current era is not Pineda but drummer Deen Castronovo, whose playing lacks the punchy, differentiated resonance of Steve Smith’s. You can recognize Smith’s rock drumming from ten mies out; Castronovo’s, not so much.

To be sure, if you’re one of those people who always hated Journey with every fiber of your being because of their stadium-filling Album Oriented Rock stylings, you’ll still hate them here, and perhaps even more so, because they persist in not perishing in some horrible tour bus incident (hopefully involving REO Speedwagon’s tour bus as well). But, you know, look: Journey is Journey. At this point, complaining about the band’s prom-friendly ballads and mom-safe anthems is kind of stupid, isn’t it? You can’t fight it. Don’t listen to ‘em if you don’t want to. At the end of the day, what you want to know is: how much does the band sound like itself? The answer: This time around, a lot.

never walk away.mp3 – Journey