October’s an exciting month for me, book-wise, because I have a lot of irons in the fire and books to root for right now. I’ve got my own book out, of course, to go with a pair of just-published titles in the American Music Series I co-edit for University of Texas Press — Chris Morris’ “Los Lobos: Dream in Blue,” and Kristin Hersh’s spectacular “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt.”
Those three books came out via UT Press on Oct. 1. Five days later, my good friend Steve Knopper published his latest book, “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” (Scribner). It should come as no surprise tht I’ve been obsessively checking amazon every day to follow the progress of this quartet of books. And while none of them are exactly burning up the charts just yet, they all seem to be off to solid starts. How the sales picture will turn out over the long haul, that’s up to the universe. All we can do is hope for the best.
At the moment, however, the most interesting metric to track is not sales positions but reader reviews, which have become increasingly important for us lowly mid-list types struggling for traction in a crowded marketplace. Get a bunch of reviews, and that might help sales along. Morris’ Los Lobos book is farthest along in that regard, already with eight reviews — all of them with the maximum five-star rating. Nice, very nice.
“Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” has just three reader reviews so far (two of them five-star), but I expect that pace to pick up in a hurry. National Public Radio recently reviewed “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” and said it is “not only one of the best books of the year, it’s one of the most beautiful rock memoirs ever written.” I thought the same thing when I read the original manuscript, and reviews like that have inspired UT Press to give this one the maximum push — they’re thinking that 50,000 in sales might be possible. Well, on behalf of the entire American Music Series list…I’ve got my fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, Team Benson/Menconi’s “Comin’ Right at Ya” has just a single amazon reader review so far, but at least it’s of the five-star variety. That takes a little of the sting out of the fact that I recently got my first-ever one-star amazon review, for “Losering” — more than three years after its original publication date. A reviewer identified as “Amelia, Austin Texas” called it “A weird book” in a four-sentence dismissal that questioned if I’d ever actually spoken to Ryan Adams (snicker) before concluding, “This book sucks.” A more generous soul would refrain from noting that this particular reviewer has a “helpful” rating of just 38 percent, but I am not that person. So I’ll just say this: Bless her heart.
Still, that’s nothing compared to what’s happened on amazon thus far to Steve’s Michael Jackson book, which is being savaged by hyper-protective Jackson partisans who will not tolerate anything less than 100 percent glowing praise of their hero. So even though “MJ” earned a Booklist starred review that called it “very powerful” as well as an excerpt in Rolling Stone (where Steve has been a contributing editor for many years), four of his six amazon reader reviews are one-star takedowns accusing him of slander and bias.
Steve is one of the most all-around fair-minded people, let alone writers, I’ve ever known. But given what a fraught subject Jackson continues to be, I was afraid something like this might happen, after the amazon-reviewer reception given to 2012’s “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson” by Steve’s Rolling Stone colleague Randall Sullivan. “Untouchable” drew so many anonymous one-star slams from Jackson partisans who didn’t appear to have even read the book that the New York Times cited it as a prime example of books victimized by orchestrated campaigns of bad amazon reviews as “attack weapons.”
After the attacks subsided, “Untouchtable” eventually picked up enough decent reviews to bump its overall average (for 389 total reviews) up above three stars, which is at least respectable. I hope a similarly kind long-term fate awaits “MJ” — and also success, whatever that means nowadays, for all four of these books.
I was glad to see this recent Facebook post by writer Henry Carrigan from Nashville, and know that “Comin’ Right at Ya” is providing entertaining diversions in unlikely places. And I’d also like to note, by the way, that the book is available in Germany; and for those interested, the “How a Jewish Yankee Hippie…” subtitle roughly translates as:
Wie ein jüdischer Yankee Hippie Ging Land Oder Die Oft Empörend Geschichte von Asleep at the Wheel
As noted earlier, Asleep at the Wheel is on the Austin City Limits Music Festival schedule again this year in the band’s traditional Friday-afternoon opening slot. And after today’s set, Austin American-Statesman music critic Peter Blackstock (founding co-editor of the original No Depression magazine, and also one of my oldest, dearest friends) did a brief interview with Wheel main man Ray Benson talking about “Comin’ Right at Ya” — in which Ray declared, “I’m an author, folks, and don’t you forget it…not just a guitar player.”
Heck, yeah. Check the video for that here.
Speaking of quirky DRA ephemera, I don’t know how the heck I’ve missed this up to now since it’s apparently been floating around the worldwide web since March — but check out the Ryan Adams paper toy, which you can download, print out and assemble. It’s the handiwork of Tim Wertz, a designer/illustrator/artist who (given the song he named this after) apparently has a soft spot for Ryan’s first solo album.
Dunno how your holiday season is shaping up this year, but mine is looking quite Asleep at the Wheel-intensive. I already had them penciled in for New Year’s Eve with the Avett Brothers over in Greensboro. And closer to home, the Wheel has just been announced for Dec. 17 at the Carrboro ArtsCenter with a Western swing holiday-themed show titled “Merry Texas Christmas, Y’all!”
You might think it odd for someone of the Jewish faith to do a Christmas show. But as Ray puts it in the closing Epilogue of “Comin’ Right at Ya,” “We’ve done two Christmas albums even though I’m Jewish because, between Jesus and Irving Berlin, there would be no Christmas without Jews.”
“Comin’ Right at Ya” moves into the personal-appearance phase of the PR campaign this week with Thursday’s Books & Beer in greater Pittsboro, NC, where Eddie Huffman and yours truly will hold forth about various book-related matters. I was one of the editors who worked on Eddie’s “John Prine: In Spite of Himself” and “Comin’ Right at Ya” is my third book, so we’ll have plenty to talk about.
Better enticement: This will happen outdoors at The Roost, where the oven-fired pizza is very fine and the beer (dare I hope for Starpoint Brewery’s Whiskeytown beer?) is even finer. Buy a book — and there will also be copies of “Losering” as well as my long-ago novel “Off The Record” available — and it even comes with a free beer.
Thursday evening’s weather is supposed to be perfect, and for an added bonus we’ll have the excellent singer/songwriter Elliott Humphries there to do a few songs including selections from the John Prine songbook, the occasional Ryan Adams obscurity and maybe even an Asleep at the Wheel tune or two if I can talk him into it. I did a Books & Beer back in June with Tom Maxwell, and it was a great time. So come on out if you can.
Down the road a bit, I’ll also be at the Texas Book Festival on Oct. 18 (with co-writer/subject/star Ray Benson), and at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh on Oct. 21. I hope to see you at one of these if I’m in your neighborhood.
AFTERMATH: Books & Beer went great. Not sure if anybody else enjoyed it, but we did!
As DRA 1989 settles into its free-falling chart descent, there are still a few ephemeral Ryan Adams/Taylor Swift artifacts out there — including this online quiz, Who Said It: Taylor Swift Or Ryan Adams? Sounds like it should be simple, right? Wrong. I took a crack at it and as you can see from the summary on the right, I only managed to answer six out of 10 questions correctly. Ouch.
And yet according to figures from quiz-writer Darren Robbins (who put this together for his blog), that score would probably translate to a C rather than a D if graded on a curve. That 60 percent represents the mean or most common score, hit by 26 percent of the 350 people who have completed the quiz so far.
Only 6 percent achieved a score of 80 and less than 1 percent got 90. And as for perfection, to date only one person has correctly answered all 10 questions and received the certificate that goes with it, my British superfan friend Andrew (see below). Give the test a try and see how well you do.
UPDATE (10/7/2015): After I put this post up on social media, another 169 people took the quiz over the next 24 hours or so – 11 of whom achieved perfect scores. That brings the total number of A+ students to an even dozen, out of 519 who have taken the quiz so far.
When word first emerged that Ryan Adams was covering Taylor Swift’s 1989 in its entirety, there was a lot of worried talk among Ryan’s hardcore fans about how this might be his “Touch of Grey” moment where he got too popular too fast. But everyone can relax because it appears those fears were unfounded. For all the online buzz (not to mention asinine gender-privilege debates) inspired by the album, it does not appear to be reaching much beyond Ryan’s previously established fan base. So far, it’s following the same debut-high-and-fall-fast pattern as Ryan’s other albums.
After debuting at a respectable No. 7 last week, DRA 1989 takes a steep second-week drop all the way down to No. 22 in the Billboard 200 album-sales chart dated Oct. 17. That mirrors what happened with last year’s self-titled Ryan Adams album, which debuted at No. 4 — and in an odd coincidence, also dropped to No. 22 the following week. Ryan Adams was off the chart entirely after just seven weeks; as of this past August, it had sold 134,000 copies. It seems likely that DRA 1989 will top out at around that same figure.
By contrast, Swift’s original 1989 continues to show impressive staying power coming up on a year since its original release. Her 1989 is at No. 7 this week (where DRA 1989 was last week), its 49th on the chart, and has yet to spend a single week outside of the top-10. It has also sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S.
It never fails: Publish a book about somebody and people will show up as soon as it appears, relating stories you wish you’d heard in time to use. That happened a fair amount when “Losering” came out three years ago, and the pattern is holding with “Comin’ Right at Ya,” too.
After an excerpt from the book appeared in this past Sunday’s News & Observer, I heard from a gentleman named David Weiss, who lives in my neck of the woods nowadays but knew subject/star/co-writer Ray Benson in suburban Philadelphia way back when. He had a few tales and details about Ray’s childhood that would have been great to try and work in. Too late for that now, but at least I can share them here. Writes David:
I grew up across the street from the Seifert clan. Ray’s older brother Mike was my best friend from the time we were 4 years old all the way through high school. Little brother Ray was always tagging along with us (even though we tried to ditch him most of the time). I last saw Ray at Mike’s funeral several years ago and was pleasantly surprised by how warmly he greeted me, considering that we weren’t always very nice to him as the tag-along little brother.
The Seifert house was such a wonderful contrast to my own home across the street that I spent most of my time there. I said at Mike’s funeral that Bobbie (Mrs. Seifert) probably felt like she had five kids instead of just her own four. Their house was always filled with music. Bobbie Seifert was very creative and artistic, and Mike was an all-county saxophone, clarinet and recorder player. Funny that I don’t recall Ray being particularly musical as a child.
Their household was also, to put it politely, chaotic. You could jump from the open stairwell onto the living room couches with your shoes on (which we often did) and nobody said a word. Ray was as accident-prone as anyone I ever knew. Whenever he showed up at Chestnut Hill Hospital emergency room it was, “Ray, are you back again?” He split his chin open on a trampoline, got a large fish hook stuck through his finger, was hit in the head with a pipe. I’m sure there were other incidents that Ray may remember better than I do.