Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 15: “Coming Up Close,” by Til Tuesday

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Specificity is a valuable thing when it comes to popular music, which is a thing that I’m not sure everyone who makes pop music always understands. Popular music, after all, is meant to appeal to a wide number of people, to hit charts and be turned into viral TikToks and so on. One way to do that is to make the song general enough in its themes and lyrics that anyone can see themselves in those elements, or can ignore them entirely to simply chase the beat and let the song be the background and mood. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I’ve bopped along happily to enough work like that, that I could never fault it for being what it is.

With that said, a song being specific in its theme, or lyrics or point of view, doesn’t mean it can’t be engaged with by people who have not experienced the specifics of that song. It just means the song (and the songwriter) has to get there by a path less traveled. The upside to a song like that is when it works, it can be breathtaking.

“Coming Up Close” is a specific song about reaching for grace, not quite achieving it, and being transformed by the attempt anyway. Aimee Mann, who wrote the song, puts in all the details, describing the event in its particulars: Night. Iowa. Borrowed car. Farmhouse. Carved hearts. Dylan tape. Hopefulness. Sadness. It’s all there, painting a picture that is about Aimee Mann herself, in that small slice of time.

So, if it’s about Aimee Mann, why was it, when I heard the song for the first time in high school, it felt like Aimee Mann was writing about a moment in my life? I had never been to Iowa, I didn’t particularly like Bob Dylan’s music, I had never charmingly vandalized an abandoned structure. I didn’t know Aimee Mann! How was she breaking my heart?

The answer was that in the specifics that belonged to her, she was painting a picture that I understood in my own life: A feeling of yearning, of hoping, of knowing this time is not quite your time — of, well, coming up close enough to a moment to see how much you wanted it to be yours, to hear it calling to you, to have it feel like home, and still having to turn back. My own specifics were different in the details. But I had been to the emotional place where Aimee Mann had been in that song. I took a different path. I got there all the same. She hadn’t broken my heart. She gave me a moment from her own experience (or at least, her own talent) that allowed me to understand my own broken heart.

Aimee Mann and her band Til Tuesday gave me two gifts in that song. The first was the song itself, because right up to this day it remains one of my favorite songs, and Aimee Mann one of my favorite songwriters, precisely because so many of her songs — from “J for Jules” to “Goose Snow Cone” — are blessed with a specificity that speaks to me. The second gift was for later, when I became a creative person in my own right, hoping that what I wrote could connect with others: it’s okay to be specific, either from your own experience or in the telling of the experience of your characters. If you do it right, and if you do it well, people will see themselves in what you write anyway. That’s been a very useful gift over the years.

As a coda to this discussion, these days, I do know Aimee Mann just a little bit. She and I have been performers on the JoCo Cruise over a number of years, and in that time we’ve hung about in the green room and on the lido deck, had conversations and become friendly to and familiar with each other. To my credit, when I first met her I did not say “Hey, Aimee, thank you for helping me understand creativity, and the nature of my own broken heart, when I was seventeen, you’re awesome” because, you know. That’s a lot to lay on someone the first time you meet them.

But she did, and she did, and she is. I’ve known her long enough now that maybe it’s a little less awkward to have it out there. Thanks, Aimee. You’re pretty great.

— JS

Athena Scalzi

Visiting Italianfest

This past Sunday, I ventured down to Cincinnati to visit my friend, and she took me to Italianfest in Newport, Kentucky! Which is right across the river from Cincinnati. I had never heard of Italianfest before, but apparently it’s been going on since 1991. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was basically just a long stretch of food tents lined up along the river, with a stage and music, and bounce-houses for kids.

Most of the booths were totally decked out with signs of what they serve, but this one was the loudest and proudest, so I got a pic. And I ended up trying the crabby lobster mac & cheese it boasted, which apparently had four cheeses in it! Here’s what a six dollar portion looked like:

Personally, I liked it, but my friends weren’t so keen on it. I thought it was pretty good, though it mostly just tasted like regular mac & cheese with old bay seasoning in it.

After the mac & cheese, my friend got us an order of four stuffed shells to share, and I forgot to take a picture, but they were super good! The sausage in them had a strong anise flavor, but not too overpowering when combined with the ricotta cheese mixture and red sauce.

Then, after the shells, my friend brought over another plate! This time it was bruschetta, which happens to be one of my favorite foods.

As you can probably tell from the photo, it was scrumptious. I’ve never had bruschetta where the tomatoes weren’t diced, but I’m not complaining.

And then, just when I thought I could eat no more, my friend got us a bowl of ice cream to share!

It’s not the prettiest serving, but boy oh boy was it tasty. You could definitely tell this was homemade ice cream, it was ridiculously creamy and delicious. The flavor on the bottom is actually banana, and while I usually hate banana flavored things, this ice cream was the bomb dot com.

After eating all that amazing food, we took a walk over the river to Cincinnati across this purplish-blue bridge. I didn’t take a picture, but I got a frozen lemonade slushy to drink while we walked across the bridge, and it honestly tasted more like a weak limeade, but it was refreshing either way!

Once we made it to the other side, I took a picture of the festival from Ohio. It’s hard to tell, but all those white tents are covered seating areas by the food stands and whatnot, and that bright pink thing was a huge T-Mobile truck stand thingy.

All in all, it was a super fun day, even though it was muggy as shit.

Now that I know it exists, I definitely want to go back next year to try all the things I didn’t this time around, like spaghetti and cannoli! If you’re in the Cincinnati/Newport area, I recommend you check it out if you haven’t already.

What’s your favorite Italian dish? Do you like banana flavored things? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


Big Idea

The Big Idea: Stephen Cox

How do you write a book that reaches past its target audience, to readers that have never tried your genre before? According to author Stephen Cox, you have to lean into the things that make it genre defying in the first place. Follow along in his Big Idea to see how he does this in his newest book, Our Child of Two Worlds.


Taking time for the feelings

I’d decided to write a Ray Bradbury pastiche for Halloween. The set-up came in a glorious rush – the year of Woodstock and the moon landings. A small town in the golden light of a north-eastern fall, Joan Baez was singing Farewell Angelina on the record player, and Molly was sewing her son Cory’s Halloween costume against the clock. He was so excited and so in the way, that she’d locked her bedroom door to finish it. Cory looked extraordinary – he had purple face tentacles – and he was unique – the only one of his people on Earth. Molly and husband Gene could only keep Cory safe by keeping him a secret… How deeply and how desperately they loved him, and he them, for in all their pasts lay tragedy and sorrow. Cory loved the day of disguises because it was a chance for him to play out among the other children.

The short story came as gloriously rich and as fast as a writer can hope. It brought so many questions, I soon knew it was a novel, and when I finished the first messy draft, I thought it could be two. Our Child of The Stars was science fiction, of course. It was a First Contact story, about how naïve, effervescent Cory loves Earth but sees clearly human folly, violence, and greed. There was plenty of danger. It was just as much a story about the joys and costs of parenthood, and how it feels to be a child. It spoke of difference, idealism, decency, and hope.

Here was the thing, the Big Idea. How do I write all this? The danger was it could have felt too emotional and domestic for the SFF reader and too weird for the mainstream reader.  Like Cory tasting Earth’s pleasures, I wanted it all – Hollywood sweep and intimate focus.

I drifted away from scifi for some years because I often found it emotionally unsatisfying. Many intelligent people won’t read it. Yet, it’s never been true that scifi doesn’t do feelings and relationships, some of it always has, and more so in the last twenty years. With the naivety of the new writer, I decided I would try to reach both sorts of readers. How?

Claire North writes stunning books with SFF premises, successfully sold to broader audiences. At a con Q+A she gave me this insight. It’s about taking time. The SFF reader understands that if your character’s family is eaten by demons, they will be angry and sad. A mainstream reader, she said, will often need those feelings to be more fully expressed and longer pondered on. 

Molly and Cory were already written with a foot well down on the emotion pedal. I landed a wise agent, who said in effect that speculative elements took more ‘bandwidth’ for a mainstream reader. Therefore, I needed to write the rest as straightforwardly as I could. Fewer POVs, largely using close third; explicitly placing the when and where of each chapter; less hopping around in time; and yes, leaning into its emotional side. As far as possible, the story was about and told through the family. Some great stuff had to be cut.

I knew that chapter one must show you that Molly and Gene love Cory, and he them, to prepare you for seeing his difference. Then I take you back to Gene and Molly’s fairy-tale courtship, the love and hope in that marriage, and how it is tested almost to destruction. This could have been backstory but It’s not time wasted, because we believe in them, we know who they are, we’re invested. We see this world looks just like ours. Then Cory comes, sole survivor of a disaster in space, and they must make some daring decisions.

One story was indeed two books. The national press, bloggers, and readers across genres were warm to the first one – several knew no book like it. A few scifi reviewers found it too emotional, but usually said that was a matter of taste. There are people and book groups who say this opened their minds to scifi.

Our Child of Two Worlds (out 14 June) opens with Cory no longer a secret. Humanity has the proof that we are not alone in the cosmos. The response is human – messy, diverse, complicated. Is Cory a messiah, a symbol, a forerunner of invasion, a key to power, or simply a hoax?

For the family, it’s personal. There are malign forces threatening the Earth so the stakes could not be higher. Are Cory’s people coming to rescue him?  If they do, will they take Cory away from his parents, breaking their hearts?  The arrival of aliens would be one of the most significant events in history… an idea often told in many ways.  Yet not my wonderful aliens, and not told in my way. And Earthbound dangers have not gone away.

Again, this book needed to be ruthless and decide what story it was telling. The risk in the writing was even higher now the scope was broader. Everywhere I could, there had to be a focus on the family, and again I had to take time for the inner life as well as the wheels of the plot. 

Finally, over the years I wrote the books, it became clear that to write honestly about the Sixties is to write about the hopes and challenges of our own time.

Our Child of the Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Our Child of Two Worlds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

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