Posts Tagged With: New York Times

Next up: “The Big Book of North Carolina Music”

ncblueNot quite a year ago, I found myself at an industry convention gathering with some of my rock-writing peers, doing what we all do at these things — swapping stories, telling lies and catching up about projects we had in the works, real as well as imaginary. Talking to another writer I knew, I mentioned that I was working on a book proposal for a history of North Carolina music. His reaction was…surprising.

“Yeah,” he scoffed, “that’ll be a short book.”

Words were exchanged, some of them unpleasant; no, it didn’t go especially well. But almost a year later, I am pleased to report that this “short book” has taken a major step from abstraction to reality. I’ve come to terms and shaken hands with University of North Carolina Press for a book with the working title “The Big Book of North Carolina Music,” which will have a format similar to UNC Press’ 2008 best-seller “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.”

uncpressWhile this won’t be an encyclopedic A-to-Z history of North Carolina music, my “Big Book” will cover a lot of ground in its 16 chapters — from Charlie Poole in the 1920s to “American Idol” nearly a century later, with Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis, Arthur Smith, “5” Royales, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, the dB’s and Let’s Active, Superchunk and Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five, Nantucket and Corrosion of Conformity, beach music, 9th Wonder and J. Cole and more in between. It should come in at close to double the heft of my Ryan Adams book “Losering”; and while that still isn’t nearly as long as it could be, it’s nevertheless the most ambitious book project I’ve ever taken on.

But the beauty part is I’ve already been working on this book, piecemeal, for more than a quarter-century. I moved to Raleigh in 1991 to take the News & Observer music-critic job, and my first day was Jan. 15 — two days before Operation Desert Storm started in Kuwait. That was a time when the Worldwide Web wasn’t much more than a gleam in Paul Jones’ eye, back when most people still got their news by reading it on paper or watching the 6 o’clock news.

I must confess that I didn’t come here thinking the News & Observer would be a long-term destination, but it just worked out that way. Back when newspapers were still prosperous, the desired career trajectory was to spend five years or so at a mid-sized paper like the N&O before trying to move up to the New York Times or some other prestige publication. For a variety of reasons, that never happened. Most of the opportunities that came my way over the years felt like they would have been lateral moves rather than upward ones, although I did get a call from the Washington Post in 1999. But that was right after the birth of my twins, Edward and Claudia. At that moment, starting over in a big city was just not in the cards.

So I stayed in Raleigh and I’ve never regretted it, in large part because North Carolina music turned out to be fascinating and beguiling in ways I never imagined before I lived here. When I arrived, I was fairly well-versed in the North Carolina music I’d heard from afar on college radio — Connells, Let’s Active, Flat Duo Jets and such — without knowing much of anything about the history from farther back. So I’ve spent my years here filling in the history, bit by bit, learning as much as I could about North Carolina’s wildly varied music.

Despite the many variations of this state’s music, I do see all of it as of a piece and part of the same continuum — and “The Big Book of North Carolina Music” will, I hope, tie it all together as one story. I’ve spent the past few months going through my archive of stuff to get it organized (see below), and now begins the real work. TBBoNCM will be my side-project for the next two years, the thing keeping me up late nights and weekends and days off. If all goes according to plan, it will be done and dusted by the end of 2018, with publication to follow in 2019. Fingers crossed!

And yeah, whenever it’s done: I’ll be sending an autographed copy to that colleague.

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Pulling for friends along the amazon

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.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 3.59.21 PMThose 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.

Vic“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.

MJStill, 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.

ADDENDUM (9/17/2016): Well how about that — another of Steve Knopper’s books comes in at No. 44 on a great list to be on.

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“Poseur” traces Ryan’s track marks in New York (and New Orleans)

SpitzPoseurWhile “Losering” recounts a wild time or two from back in the day, on the whole I’d say it’s pretty tame — certainly a lot tamer than it could have been, because I was more interested in Ryan’s music than the dirt. But those seeking the dirt will find a good bit of it in “Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the ’90s” (Da Capo Press). Written by playwright/critic Marc Spitz, “Poseur” recounts the author’s posed-with-the-gods moments in the city alongside Ryan and other celebrities including Joe Strummer, Chloe Sevigny, Allen Ginsberg, Toni Collette and Julian Casablancas (go here to see capsule summaries of the namedrops, plus a map showing where much of this happened).

But the book’s most vivid descriptions of Ryan come from New Orleans, where Spitz went in 2003 to report on sessions for what eventually emerged as the album Love Is Hell. That was a dark, grim time for Ryan, and Spitz writes about the experience in fairly harrowing detail. A sample:

Only two years earlier, he’d been the boyish kid playing his acoustic guitar in front of the Twin Towers four days before they were hit. But he’d gotten strung out on heroin and cocaine and gone semi-mad after the release of his first two solo albums, Heartbreaker and Gold…[H]e’d East Villaged up, recorded a version of [The Strokes’] Is This It on a Casio-type keyboard, picked fights with more successful and still-mainstream artists like John Mayer, and run wild all over Manhattan by night. Like all of us, Ryan had Strokes envy, and now he was sharing their manager – and I guess some of their drug habits…He was barely in control of his considerable talent, pretty, and flirting with death as a way to figure out who he truly was, but not interested in the answer at the expense of the drama…he had a beautiful and true voice when he let himself go there, but he got caught up in imitating either his heroes or those more firmly and comfortably entrenched in the zeitgeist…

 Down in New Orleans, putting up track orders and then changing them, taking lunch orders and then changing them, poor Ryan was a dervish of rock-and-roll ADHD. The guy could not sit still and was unable to unload his head fast enough…He was a low-life, as desired, but his brain was so teeming, he never slept or felt at peace and kept not dying. He was a mess.

There’s plenty more where that came from, most of it unbearably sad and depressing — all the moreso because the depravity rings very true. Here’s the story Spitz wrote about it at the time. A couple of years later, the New York Times would announce a story about Ryan sobering up with the headline,  “Ryan Adams Didn’t Die.”

ADDENDUM (2/4/2017): “Poseur” author Marc Spitz has died at age 47.

SECOND ADDENDUM (5/15/2017): Wow, a claim that Ryan got a member of The Strokes hooked on heroine.

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Blurb love and the writer’s life, with Silas House

https://loseringbook.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/blurbs.jpg?w=400&h=360&crop=1A time-honored ritual of book publishing is The Blurb, a testimonial soundbite to a book’s worthiness. Blurbs have a long and somewhat sordid history; still, we pursue them in hopes that they’ll entice people to buy. It used to be that blurbs primarily appeared on book jackets, taking the form of a sentence or phrase from a review or another author. Some blurbs still appear on covers, but nowadays they mostly live on the web. And they almost never appear out of thin air, especially if they’re from another writer.

In the months leading up to publication, you and/or your publisher send advance copies to reviewers as well as better-known writers, in hopes of initiating a four-step process. If all goes according to plan, the recipients will take the time to read your book (step one); like it enough to say so (step two); agree to write a blurb (step three); and follow through (step four — Valhalla!).

We sent “Losering” out to a few superstars who were obvious longshots, Stephen King and Nick Hornby, because they’re both big Ryan fans. I’ve heard nothing from either, but hope springs eternal. In the interim, plenty of other writers did come through on the blurb front — including Silas House, a very fine novelist who teaches writing in Kentucky. He was extraordinarily kind:

A tightly written and bold look at one of music’s most brilliant and enigmatic artists, Ryan Adams. But this fine book transcends that, providing a first-hand account of the birth of modern Americana music and showing us what a profound effect music has on all of our lives. “Losering” is the best in music journalism, and Menconi is surely one of our best music writers.

You’ll find that and other blurbs enshrined in the “About” page of this blog. Meanwhile, I’m a little bit prouder of that blurb right now because Silas has a terrific essay in the New York Times, “The Art of Being Still.” It’s a wonderful, note-perfect rumination on the writing mindset, and what it takes. And as someone who never feels like there are enough hours in the day, I find one part particularly resonant. Recounting how he was asked at a reading about how many hours a day he writes, Silas answered, “I write every waking minute.”

Boy howdy, can I relate. Even when I’m not parked at the computer pounding away at the keyboard, I can never turn my “Writer” switch off. I’m never not writing, which is both blessing and curse. It’s not something as simple as loving what I do, it’s that I can’t do anything else; and in a world where so many people seem never to find their true calling, to feel like I’m doing what I’m meant to do is…well, a blessing. But when it’s driving me nuts, keeping me awake at 3 a.m., it can feel like more of a burden.

Still, it’s not one I’d trade. Thank you, Silas, for the reminder.

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I’m your man

When I go to a convention, I’m usually there to cover it — typically for the News & Observer but occasionally for someone else. Coming to Nashville for this week’s Americana Music Association Festival & Conference has been different because I’m here in a marketing capacity to launch “Losering.” As part of the N&O’s financial struggles, the paper’s employees have to take unpaid furlough weeks this quarter. I chose mine to coincide with AMA so I could focus on book matters. That’s been good, but it also feels weird not to be filing AMA dispatches for my work blog.

So I did my first reading the other day, on the mezzanine of the AMA conference hotel, and it went well. About 15 people came, paid attention and asked questions; and we sold into double figures on books (thanks to Nashville’s Parnassus Books). Some of the people who came, I didn’t even know. Every writer has war stories about readings they’ve done where the only attendees were friends or relatives; and as glad as you are to see them, it’s even better when strangers come because then you feel like you’re making progress. Still, we’re grateful when anybody at all shows up.

I guess you could say I’m here on behalf of UT Press, too. My American Music Series colleague Don McLeese did a reading for his Dwight Yoakam book (at the Country Music Hall of Fame, no less). So I put on my co-editor’s hat and introduced him, talking a bit about the series. I’ve connected with a few other scribes at the conference, and we’ve had some really good discussions about potential future titles. Here’s hoping they continue on-course.

Another writer who did a reading at AMA was Sylvie Simmons, whose “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” is just out and earning raves in all the right places. Of course I’m green with envy — this is the kind of New York Times acclaim every author dreams about, and her book is also in amazon’s top-100 — but not resentful. Simmons is much-beloved in the rock-write world, and she has definitely earned the acclaim. What I’ve read so far of  “I’m Your Man” is great, and Simmons went through quite an odyssey getting the book done. At her reading, she broke out a ukulele to do a lovely rendition of Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a very charming touch that made me feel awkward about the stammery reading I’d done the day before. But we endeavor to persevere.

I was proud I could give Simmons a copy of “Losering,” and she was kind enough to accept it with enthusiasm. A cool thing about participating in something like AMA is seeing your name in the event program alongside people you admire, musicians as well as other writers; it’s probably the equivalent of getting the late-season call up to the big leagues for the proverbial cup of coffee, but a thrill nevertheless. And after Simmons’ reading, as folks were standing around in clusters making plans for Friday evening’s shows, two people who hadn’t been at my reading came up to me with copies of “Losering” they wanted signed.

That was pretty danged cool. And so was this, the first local review to turn up in the Triangle. On we go…

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