Aug 252014
 

Jeff Cohen

UnknownMy home state of New Jersey has something of an image problem, and it is one that can teach us all something about first impressions, images, perception and memory. In other words, you can learn a lot about writing a story and promoting it if you think about New Jersey.

Yes, I'm serious.

The thing about my beloved home--and no, I don't mean that ironically--is that it is a Activity_2006compressed version of the United States. Very compressed. We're the third smallest state, and yet we have the most densely packed population per square mile. There are almost 9-million people here, and you have to figure at least some of them are not being held against their will.

In New Jersey, one finds some of the most famous beaches in the country. We have lovely suburban areas sitting right to some very accessible and cosmopolitan cities. Great restaurants, hiking, historical areas, theme parks, skiing (if you're into that sort of thing), Aerial-view-of-atlanticprofessional sports teams, casinos, performing arts centers, cultural events, theater, swimming, fishing, music, comedy, film, nature, and one-of-a-kind sights like Lucy the Elephant, which I will not picture here because you just have to see Lucy to believe it.

But there's a problem with the state's image: we are seen, for the most part, as a toxic waste dump run by the mob. Yes, there's political corruption in Pinelands_bridgeNew Jersey and guess what--there is wherever you're living, too. We actually seem to be better at uncovering and dealing with it than other places, so it gets more publicity.

I believe the problem with New Jersey's image is much more basic, and much simpler to explain than a perception of politicians who close down bridges as forms of retribution or gangsters who somehow aren't quite good enough to work in the big city.

It's Newark Liberty International Airport.

To be more specific, the problem is that most people who don't live in this area come to New Jersey through the airport, which is mostly in Elizabeth, if the truth is told. You get out of the airport, and no matter which way you're headed--onto the train to get to Manhattan or south on the NJ Turnpike--you have to pass through the area surrounding the airport to get to any of the other lovely images I've posted today. And this is what you'll see:

7386756458_9469840214_z

That's the first impression you'll get. So people come to New Jersey--admittedly they're usually on their way to New York or Philadelphia and too cheap to fly into those airports--and when asked about the Garden State, their minds will flash onto the image above. (And we're not even discussing the smell.) When they could be seeing something completely different:

Overlooked-Attractions

New_jersey_nj

Ar116154535359674

S
o what's the lesson to take away? If you're writing, make sure you start off at a gallop. Get something into your first chapter, preferably your first page (bookstore browsers are notoriously fickle and have short attention spans) that will grab the reader's interest and make your book a must-buy.

And consider the first words anyone will see online about your book. Think about how you want to introduce it. As Terri's post last Thursday points out, cover copy is written well in advance of the pub date. Be involved with your editor, the publicist on your book and anyone else on the team that creates the final package. Make the right first impression.

Be the Pine Barrens. Be Met Life Stadium. Be the Jersey Shore. Be Atlantic City, if you must.

Don't be Newark Airport.

Aug 122014
 

Jeff Cohen

When my daughter texted me on Monday evening with the words "Robin Williams!" I thought she had just seen him on the street. Eve moved into Manhattan a couple of weeks ago, and that's the kind of thing that happens there. 

What had actually happened was unthinkable.

I will not claim to be a friend of Robin Williams; the fact of the matter is we never communicated in any way, not even the way one occasionally interacts with a celebrity's assistant on Twitter. We never met. I never so much as wrote him a letter to tell him how much I admired what he could do. 

But if you don't think Robin Williams was important to me, you don't know me. Or Robin Williams.

Right now on social media people are debating what the best Robin Williams movie was, whether he was funnier on his breakthrough sitcom Mork and Mindy or in film. They're missing the point.

The finest performances that man ever gave were in his original medium, as a standup comic who could operate like none other who ever lived. See if you can find his perfomance at the Metropolitan Opera (originally on HBO) on YouTube now. Check out any other performance of his, on the amazing Comic Relief specials with his accomplices Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg. Early bits on improv specials or later opportunities to play on Whose Line Is It Anyway.

Take a look at the riff he could do with a scarf, unprepared on Inside the Actor's Studio

Robin Williams was a genius, and like too many geniuses, he was his own worst enemy. He had well-documented substance abuse problems, and now we know he was battling depression, a battle he finally lost.

I'm terribly sad tonight, and so is my daughter. And so are my wife and son. We were all fans. We all saw the honesty in the man and the willingness to share himself with us. And we are very, very sorry we will never see that again.

But I'm angry, too. At the disease that took him, just as surely as if it had been cancer. He was sick and he fought for a long time, but the disease was stronger, and that makes me mad. The world should not be deprived of a quick, childlike, brilliant mind like that prematurely, and now that has happened and there is nothing that can reverse it. 

I've always believed that depression needed to be better understood and that it needed to be brought into the open to be conquered. Maybe now that will happen and that will be his final legacy.

Unfortunately, I'm too sad to think about that tonight. And even putting on a Robin Williams DVD won't make that better.

Rest in peace, sir. If only you had found some in your life.

RIP?

 Books, Film, Lynne Patrick, Television  Comments Off
Aug 062014
 

Lynne Patrick

Apparently publishing as we used to know it is dead. Or suffering from terminal asphyxiation which will see it off sometime in the next few years. I know this because I keep reading it in the book trade newsletters the good old internet drops into my e-mail in-box most mornings.

The only thing is, I seem to have heard the same thing before, though not about publishing.

Back in the 1950s, live theatre was in its death throes, and couldn’t possibly survive the decade.

Then it was the turn of film.

Online news, it’s claimed, has very nearly put paid to print newspapers, and all the various ways of watching stuff on a computer screen instead to a pre-arranged schedule on TV make a nonsense of the way they used to count viewing figures.

More recently, the demise of the novel has been announced on a pretty well annual basis. And of course print books are a thing of the past, as are bricks-and-mortar bookshops.

Yet as far as I can tell out here in the real world, theatre, film, newspapers, TV, bookshops, and especially the novel are alive, well and positively thriving; in fact, every now and then, one or other appears to enjoy a resurgence of popularity. Earlier this week, alongside yet another article on the death of publishing I read one about a new bookshop that’s just opened in London, and one about a revival in the fortunes of small independent bookshops where the staff actually know something about what’s on the shelves. For the time being at least there are enough of us who like the feel, look and smell of real books to ensure that that keeps right on happening.

Sure, technology marches on – but the impression I get is that, rather than the latest development heralding the end of the previous one, we’re simply offered more choices. Erin’s post a few days ago is the living proof: she likes print and eBook versions, because they serve different purposes in her life.

When I was a kid, shopping was a matter of going to a couple of places and choosing between two or three versions of the same item. Nowadays retail parks and designer outlets proliferate, there are half a dozen major supermarket chains and the average town is awash with small and large shops. And that’s before you start thinking about online shopping. Not that I do; on the rare occasions I shop at all, I like to see what I’m getting.

And so, I suspect, do the majority of aspiring authors. Yes, there are more options than there used to be for getting your book out there. Yes, you can get someone to turn your peerless prose (or poetry) into an eBook, and make it available online within days of typing THE END, instead of waiting months for an agent to respond, then sending it to another agent who also takes months to say no, and maybe, just maybe, after a seemingly endless process, find a conventional publisher who shares your vision of it and is willing to invest time and money in making it a success, or at least a physical reality.

And yes, I do know that it’s frustrating and dispiriting to have to go through that process with only a small chance of success. And that people sell millions of copies of self-published eBooks. Some people. A few people. Actually, let’s be realistic: a very, very few people. But it does work for some people. It’s another option. Not the only option: just another one.

Sometimes the amount of choice that’s available is overwhelming. I have a vivid memory of my daughter, aged about five, on her first visit to a large bookshop. She learned to read when she was three, was a regular visitor to the children’s section of the local library and had already accumulated a sizeable book collection of her own – but faced with quite literally thousands of books to choose from, her brain went into overload and she burst into tears.

But as we grow up we all develop the mental filters that help us cope with the world and deal with the vast amount of choice it offers us.

I think maybe we’re conditioned by the way technology works. Upgrades and new versions appear so often that anything new is out of date before it leaves the shop, and the old version soon stops working or ceases to be compatible. But it doesn’t have to be like that; the arrival of something new doesn’t necessarily mean an earlier version becomes redundant.

Change and progress aren’t synonymous. Sometimes the new way is just another way.

Jul 212014
 

Jeff Cohen

My children, who are in their 20s, do not really grasp the idea of episodic television.

Oh, they get that there's a new chapter in a television series every week, and that they have to wait until the next one is aired (or if they're binge-watching, 15 seconds)  to find out what happens next. They get, mostly, that the story doesn't just play from beginning to end in one shot.

But they don't know very much about the way television was back in my 20s. When the same characters showed up every week, but for the most part they dealt only with the problem posed by the current episode's writer(s), they solved it, and they they disappeared until a whole new set of challenges showed up seven days later.

On shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or  1180207320_1F Troop, there was no concept of a story arc. There was a story and that was it. Next time there would be another story. That's how television worked.

Things changed in the early 80s when Hill Street Blues and shows like it challenged viewers with continuing storylines that were not concluded at the end of the week's show. You'd have to wait to see what was going to happen, and sometimes it could take quite a while. Characters would recur from season to season. Viewers were rewarded for their attention with callbacks to previous episodes.

Now, television (particularly in one-hour drama) is almost entirely made up of stories that stretch over longer periods of time. And like most other things, it has some good and some less than good to it.

The new show  Halle-Berry-ExtantExtant is an example: Starring Halle Berry, it tells the story of an astronaut in the elusive "near future" who returns from a 13-month mission to discover that she is pregnant despite her belief that such a thing is not possible. Not surprisingly, answers to the main story questions were not provided at the end of the first episode.

And I'll tell you, I'm just tired of the whole thing.

Lost was the breaking point for me--years of hints, quandries, theories, suggestions, and in the end, the answers given were just as irritating as not knowing. I have avoided some you'll-never-guess shows since then, and not avoided others I wished I had.

You're wondering what this has to do with crime fiction publishing, and you have a point. Consider this: each novel in a series--and I'm trying to complete the second book in one series so I can start the seventh in another--is an episode of a television series. The same characters usually reappear, a new plot is introduced for them to confront, and their relationships will possibly shift or change depending on the circumstances of the story.

Except: I solve the mystery at the end of each book. The reader (who finishes a book it takes me around three months to write in an odd number of hours) is not asked to wait a year until the next installment shows up to (maybe) get some answers to the burning questions.

At the same time, though, there is continuity. Characters grow; they develop. I don't have patience for a character who is the same in book #5 as in book #1. If the silly bugger didn't learn anything from the first four experiences, I can't expect him/her to be any smarter about the situation now. 

Sometimes a character will show up as a minor player in a book and I'll realize s/he has something that can be interesting in the series. 9780738741512_p0_v1_s260x420Two books later, it would be a major omission to the reader if that character weren't involved in the action.

So there is both the Old Television and the New Television in mystery series. On the one hand, people will develop and change. On the other hand, they won't change a lot, at least not very quickly. Because that's the way life is: People tend to evolve rather than have an epiphany every time something happens to them and completely change their personalities in accordance with their new self-understanding.

On the one hand, the story will conclude at the end of the book. On the other, the characters' lives are (usually) not over, and that means their stories go on to the next installment. (In the Guesthouse books, they can go on even after the character dies, which adds a level.)

The one thing I won't do is introduce a story that is huge to the characters and make a reader wait until the next book to resolve it. I won't leave a pregnant Halle Berry wondering what the hell happened for however many episodes Extant will go on. That's not how I write.

Oddly, my children do read my books, and it doesn't seem to bother them.

 

P.S.: Of course we're sorry to see our pal Ben LeRoy leave DEAD GUY, but this Thursday we'll be thrilled to welcome the wonderful Terri Bischoff of Midnight Ink to the fold! Make sure you check out DEAD GUY this Thursday (and every one thereafter) to welcome Terri and get her distinctive perspective on the publishing scene.

Jun 162014
 

Jeff Cohen

I know; I promised this week would be the antidote to last week's post, in which I would show you how to write a really good query letter to an agent. And I still will post on that, even after Josh's rebuttal last Tuesday (which made very good points), but not until next week. If you were waiting with baited breath for that one... it's possible you need to reprioritize.

Instead, I felt the need to vent a little on the "holiday" of Father's Day, which if you're keeping score at home, was yesterday.

Today, Father, is Father's Day

and we're giving you Necktie-The-Best-Collection-Men-Necktie-Formal-And-Poly-Silk-Tiea tie.

It's not much we know;

it is just our way of show-ing you 

we think you're a regular guy.

You say that it was nice of us to bother

but it really was a pleasure to fuss.

For according to our mother,

you're our father.

And that's good enough for us.

--Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby, "Father's Day"

Just a few short weeks ago, Americans (and for all I know, people everywhere else) celebrated Mother's Day, a holiday designed by florists and greeting card companies to exalt the concept of motherhood and move some inventory. 

I have nothing against Mother's Day, nor mothers in general. I think they should in fact be exalted and recognized for the impossible job they do raising children every single day. And that is exactly what happens on Mother's Day. You can see it in the respectful, reverent advertising that goes on for weeks before the Day itself:

Square_200_5922d8805ef7921354a78930 Tokyo-lebanon-mothers-dayKhoury-home-Mothers-Day-Ads-in-Lebanon


Mothers are, then, then, to be honored and celebrated on their day. Bravo (brava, actually). A nice idea. I always felt bad before the holiday at school for the kids who didn't have mothers while the rest of us worked on a card that (supposedly) looked like a flower, but okay. 

Good for you, moms. More power to you, and thanks for all you did and do.

So imagine my delight when this lovely specimen arrived in the mail days before fathers were to be equally well feted:

Dads

Father, Groucho Marx once said, is the town schlemeil. (That's something of a buffoon, Gentiles.) And while I could easily dispense with the once-a-year Hallmark fest because I have two children who show they love and respect me all the time, it's the presentation that rankles a bit.

Father-fruit-loom-hed-2014     Wearable-Sleeping-Bag-10-Fathers-Day-Gifts-So-Bad-Theyre-Awesome

Yes, that's right. All Dad wants is bacon in bed, a remote control, and a nap. Or a sleeping bag he can wear. (?)

The image of fatherhood has taken a pretty harsh beating since he Knew Best in the 1950s. Of course the antiquated idea of a man's home being "his castle," (which one assumes means he should have a crocodile-infested moat around it and parapets from which to pour boiling oil on rampaging Visigoths) has been swept away, and that's good. The family unit gets stronger when everyone has a voice.

But what's happened in addition to that is that fathers have become comic figures, and not heroic ones.  (I subscribe to the theory of Heroic Comedy, and this ain't it.) They are figures of ridicule, cliches, easy and fair targets. Make fun of mothers and you're a beast. Turn Dad into a grotesque figure who just wants to sit on the couch and drink beer, and you're the showrunner of a sitcom, making millions in Hollywood.

Oh, and by the way: Buy this Double_34855power tool for the old man. It's what he REALLY wants. (No, it isn't.)

So Father's Day? Eh. We didn't do much. Errands, mostly, some for my mom, some for my spouse, one for my daughter, recently back from wandering Europe following her graduation before starting work in August. The baseball game wasn't worth watching.  The only gift given was to my wife, whose birthday was a few days ago (we waited until the whole family was on the same continent). It required some assembly. Guess who did that.

And when you think about it, that's how fathers should spend Father's Day--reiterating the idea that we are essential, useful, and worthy of respect and love.

Maybe it isn't such a bad gig after all, huh?

May 252014
 

Jessy Randall

Every-time-you-watch-jersey-shore-a-book-commits-suicide

In a recent article in Salon, Susie Meister talks about her experiences on reality TV shows and her love/hate relationship with reality TV. Her piece is interesting to me because of what she says about the gender dynamics of reality TV, but here's the non-gender-related part that keeps reverberating in my mind:

"the cast is banned from bringing books, music, television, phones, cameras, computers, games and other forms of entertainment that would distract from cast interaction."

Well ... NO WONDER they all go batshit crazy and turn on each other! No books for weeks? I'd be crying, shaking, screaming, ripe for cult kidnapping.

Meister was on Road Rules and The Challenge, which may be different from my beloved Top Chef and Project Runway, but when I think about it, I'm not sure I've ever seen any of the cheftestants or designers reading books. I guess I always figured they were reading off-camera, for obvious reasons. But maybe they, too, aren't allowed books? I know the chefs can't have cookbooks, duh, and the designers can't have pattern books, duh again. But what about just books to read? I mean come on.

COME ON.

May 042014
 

Jessy Randall

I just finished binge-watching True Detective. Best show I've seen on TV in a long time.

Seems to me there would be a market for a book of True Detective craft projects, with chapters including:

stick sculpture (small)

stick sculpture (large, bones and skulls optional)

stick mobile

cross-stitch: "Death created time to grow the things that it would kill"

cross stitch: "All the dick swagger you roll, you can't spot crazy pussy"

beer can people

antler hat

Bones

And speaking of beer can people, here are some helpful tips for making them:
http://www.esquire.com/blogs/food-for-men/true-detective-beer-can-men

And here are fifty compelling questions about the beer can people:
http://uproxx.com/uncategorized/2014/02/50-questions-rust-cohles-beer-can-men-true-detective/

Also, if you, like me, had trouble understanding what Rust was saying half the time, then you may enjoy this:

 And several other excellent parodies here.

Mar 032014
 

Jeff Cohen

You never know who may be listening to you--Paul McCartney, "Take It Away"

How about those Academy Awards, huh? Were you shocked? I was stunned.

I'm lying. I wrote this a week before the Oscars. Hey. Life gets in the way sometimes.

Still, thinking about the glamor and silliness of Hollywood--and the best thing about the Academy Awards is how silly they are--got me to wondering. My writing has certainly not made me a household name, and I'm perfectly fine with that. But if I'm being accurate (to the best of my knowledge), my books have, in the past few years especially, sold conservatively in the tens of thousands, and that's probably an underestimate. 

So after a while you start thinking that maybe one or two of those mass market paperbacks has made it into the hands of a famous person. 

It's sort of a cool thought. Who might be a fan of the Haunted Guesthouse series? There's no way of knowing, really, unless said celebrity were to reach out and communicate with the author (that's me). And so far, they haven't, with one exception, who was a friend before the series started and has blurbed a couple of the books.

Erin posted a while back about the impression an author leaves when making public his/her thoughts about politics or some other sensitive topic. The flip side of that is wondering whether someone whose positions I support might be reading my work.

Or what if it's someone with whom I disagree vehemently? What would that say about my novel?

So in order to prevent myself considerable embarrassment (after this display of undigestible hubris), I've decided to provide a list of celebrities whom I hope are or will be fans of my work. Because you never know.

My Hoped-For Famous Fans

  • Mel Brooks: Always at the top of my list, unless Harpo Marx is resurrected. If someone knows how I can get Mel a copy of any of my books, don't hesitate to get in touch;
  • Jon Stewart: The smartest comedian at work for the past 15 years. Can take an incredibly obvious joke and still make it hilarious. I don't even care if he likes the book; I just want him to read one;
  • Queen Latifah: Hey, a fellow alum of 8096523-standardFrank H. Morrell High School and multitalented performer. Jersey girl with attitude, someone I'd be proud to have as a reader;
  • Ringo Starr: The People's Beatle and funniest of the bunch;
  • Steven Spielberg: Let's face it--if he were a loyal reader, Josh and I would have heard from him by now;
  • Derek Jeter: Not only an unparalleled athlete entering his final campaign, but an aspiring publisher--someone get this man a book!
  • Bette Midler: Because she's damn funny;
  • Craig Ferguson: Doing the funniest, most subversive talk show on the air, and a fan of crime fiction who books authors on his show. Yeah, you could do worse;
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Simply the coolest guy in any room he enters. A superstar astrophysicist? You know if Dr. T. likes your work, you must be smart;
  • Bill Murray: I'm not sure why, because I don't think he'd like my work, but I want to hope he would;
  • George Clooney: This generation's attempt at Cary Grant, falling a little short but way closer than most of us get. Smart, talented, committed; what's not to like?
  • Tina Fey: She's really funny, and if she publicly said she liked my books, my wife would be impressed with me for the first time this millennium;
  • Gene Wilder: The best comic actor of the past 50 years, and an author in his own write.

To be fair, of course (or even not to be fair), it's probably right to list a few celebs who, if they are fans of my work, I'd appreciate keeping it to themselves:

Thanks-But-No-Thanks List

  • Ted Nugent: Yeah, and his music is lousy, too:
  • Mel Gibson: I hold a grudge. Move on;
  • Rush Limbaugh: You shouldn't have to ask why;
  • The Duck Dynasty Guy: I'm almost ashamed to have a beard because of you;
  • The Boston Red Sox: Nothing personal. It's a religious thing;
  • Alec Baldwin: Luckily, he's getting out of public life, so that will never become an issue;
  • Vladimir Putin: Keep your shirt on, Vlad. I didn't watch your Olympics, either, so we're even;
  • John Travolta: If he can't get my name right, he's not going to be much help anyway; *
  • Justin Bieber: Get help, man--or just get better advice, and listen to it;
  • Isabel Allende: You know why.

For the record: I doubt any of these people has ever been in the same room with one of my books, but this is a fantasy league sort of thing, where you get to choose the names and assume they'll go along with you--or not. So that's my list. What's yours?

 

P.S. Recently the world of comedy has lost its grandfather and its funny uncle. Rest in peace, Sid Caesar and Harold Ramis. It doesn't matter how old you were; either way, it was much too soon. This is a world that can't afford to lose the laughs.

*Added after the Oscars

Feb 242014
 

Jeff Cohen

BALTIMORE, MD--It's not about baseball. Not this time of year, although there are stirrings in Florida that can cause a fan's heart to hope. It's not about the impending retirement of the noble Derek Jeter or the welcome relief from the year-long sabbatical imposed on Mr. Rod. No, I'm not in Baltimore this weekend, staying within spitting distance of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, for the baseball. It isn't here yet.

I'm here because a Mad_squirrelsquirrel got into my attic.

A few months ago, we woke up one morning to a nasty scratching sound in our bedroom wall. This is not something you want to wake up hearing, but it was undeniable and just as unmistakable. Something was living inside our walls, and that something was larger than a mouse.

You can be all anthropomorphic about squirrels and how "cute" they are if you want, but when one has taken up residence in your attic, it's just a rat with a fuzzy tail, and one that can do a good deal of damage. So we had an "animal control expert" come by, and he determined exactly how Rocky was getting inside our house. There was a hole in the soffet next to our attic window.

I asked him if the hole could be plugged, and Mr. Ranger shook his head. "You need a roofer for that," he said.

Well, the time had come. We'd been living in this house for just about 20 years, perhaps to the day, and had not addressed our roof except for a few patches after Hurricane Sandy had her way with the entire state of New Jersey and its neighbors. So the roof now had to be replaced.

That's not why I'm in Baltimore. Hang on.

After batting around the idea of a new roof for a few days, Rocky_the_flying_squirrelJessica and I decided it was best for a number of reasons, not the least of which involves our partners in all endeavors the IRS, to take our a home equity loan to pay for the roof. And if you're taking out a loan, you might as well get a few other things done. So we had a number of windows replaced too, just to experience the thrill (once this interminable winter, um, terminables) of opening a window and not having to prop it open with a book (I know, book lovers, but it's a cruel reality).

Still not the reason I'm in Barry Levinson's backyard. I'm getting there. Here. Wait.

Besides the roof and the windows, we had to prioitize the 15-million things that we could have chosen to fix in our ramshackle abode. And the one area (besides that roof) we'd been working hard not to discuss all these years was the staircase.

Our stairs, which go from the living room up to the bedrooms, were in desperate need of replacement. We'd talked to our contractor friend who lives across the street some time ago about repairing them because of the hideous, cacophonous creaking that caused us to pause the television anytime someone would walk up or down, or put the phone on mute because of the noise. And our contractor pal had informed us that repair wasn't an option. These stairs had to be ripped out and new ones put in. And he intimated, without actually coming out and saying it, that it was best we do so before someone were to head for the living room taking the local and end up there via the express. If you know what I mean.

So this weekend, two gentlemen (including our across-the-street neighbor) ripped up our Imagestaircase and installed a new and--since I can now verify it--vastly improved one. But it took the better part of three days, and there was no way to get up to our bedrooms while that was happening.

We decided on this particular weekend because it was one of the few coming up during which we had no plans, and initially assumed we'd book a couple of hotel rooms (one for us, one for our son the budding filmmaker and job seeker) and wait out the devastation. And then it occurred to me that if you're going to have a couple of hotel rooms anyway, it might be an idea to, you know, go somewhere.

It had to be within driving distance, and given the kind of weather we've been having since roughly Halloween, cancellable if necessary. And it might be a nice idea if we had an event, a destination, in mind for at least one day. So I started searching around.

And it turned out that this weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was playing a series of themes from science fiction film and television, featuring our host, SuluGeorge Takei. And since we're all big Takei fans in this house, the deal was done. 

We returned Monday, before Josh's shift at the movie theater was to begin, to a lovely new and completely functional staircase, having enjoyed some film music presented by a distinguished group of musicians and an iconic actor and Internet personality. (Alas, there was no time to see Edgar Allan Poe's home as well.)

So greetings from Baltimore, Maryland, everybody. Except we're back in New Jersey now, and supposedly things will (sigh) return to normal. Sort of.

There's still painting and maybe a new floor in the kitchen to discuss. 

Damn squirrel.

 

*No squirrels were harmed in the posting of this blog.

Feb 102014
 

Jeff Cohen

There was much hoopla in the past few weeks about the date, 50 years ago last night, that a rock and roll group from England appeared on an American television show and "changed history." (You can't actually change history; you can make history. Once it's history, well, that's history. If you know what I mean.)

Nonetheless, I was not as ambivalent to the overblown festivities as I would normally be. I'm a lifelong (pretty much) fan of the ImagesBeatles, still think their music is fresh and amazing, and enjoy watching them be appreciated by those of all generations. So although the coverage was certainly disproportional to any event ever, it was not as irritating--to me--as almost anything else would have been.

This is not going to be another one of those this-is-how-the-Beatles-changed-my-life stories, I promise. I was all of six years old when Ed Sullivan put them on a bill with Tessie O'Shea, Myron John-lennonCohen (no relation) and a very young Davy Jones, in the cast of Broadway's Oliver at the time. Frankly, I wasn't all that impressed that night, and wasn't until I got to hear the studio recordings, on which there was no hysterical screaming by teenage girls. (After all, I was six. Girls? Ugh.)

No, my appreciation of what those four men accomplished goes in another direction, and I think somewhat deeper than most. What the Ed Sullivan performances show me are four guys who were just starting, who were used to the spotlight but not the United States, and who could have easily been exactly what the adults in the suits and ties were saying they were--a passing fad fueled by silly children.

Instead, they became probably the signature musicians of the century and their music is still relevant enough that today's PaulMcCartney60sartists cover their songs. Not bad.

I write books for a living. And in those books, I make up stories. If you want to call that an art form, I'm not going to argue, but it feels like entertainment to me. That is not to denigrate what I and my colleagues do; I have long droned on here about my high opinion of popular enterainment, and will not take back a word of that now.

The admiration I have for what John Lennon, Paul McCartney, MV5BMTUyNjE0NzAzMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMjQzMzU3._V1_SY534_SX475_George Harrison and Ringo Starr did is based in their ability to start as light entertainers and then grow into really great artists who were also fantastic entertainers. They never disappointed (unless you watched Magical Mystery Tour expecting a coherent film), but they also didn't rest on their laurels. They didn't stagnate.

George Martin, the producer of almost all Beatles recordings, has often said that one thing he loved about the group was that "they never gave me the same thing to do twice." The songwriters in the group were conscious of the danger in repetition; they wanted to progress with each new recording, and what is most amazing is that they actually did.

I have been struggling Imageslately with the feeling that I want to write something really notable, something that would stretch me into new areas, uncomfortable places (as a writer) and hit new heights for me. (Don't worry; this happens periodically. It'll blow over.) I don't want to stop writing the things I write; I love those--but I like to think there's something more as well.

Unfortunately, I suffer from a common malady among such entertainers as myself. I'm not sure what my limits are (I know; you're not supposed to have any, but we are given a finite amount of talent without an inventory of how much we have). And even such a revered writer as George Bernard Shaw, late in his life, was urged by a rather nervy acquaintance--Harpo Marx--to write something new.

Shaw looked over, stared Harpo straight in the eye, and asked, "Got any ideas?"

Yeah, I haven't hit on that yet.

And that is what, for me, is the defining genius of the Beatles. Given the opportunity to milk their success into a year or two of tremendous wealth and fame, they chose instead to push the envelope. The group recorded 13 albums of about 14 songs each. In a seven-year recording career. Writing almost all the material themselves, while touring almost nonstop for the first four years. That's astonishing.

The more they recorded, the more innovative they became. String sections in rock and roll? Why not? Backwards lyrics? Bass lines that were sung instead of played? Songs with false endings, concept albums, extended medleys of new material that didn't have anything to do with each other but managed to come together cohesively. Done, done and done.

A Hard Day's Night. Day Tripper. Yesterday. In My Life. Help! A Day in the Life. Here Comes the Sun. Hey Jude. I'm just getting warmed up.

So those of us who entertain for a living should take a hint from those four "youngsters from Liverpool," as the condescending and avuncular Ed Sullivan said. Don't rest on your laurels. Don't simply write what you've written before. Challenge the conventional. Write to entertain oneself as well as an audience. Try things that aren't supposed to be done and see if they work.

It doesn't hurt if you're a brilliant artist. Or four. But since none of us knows if that term applies to us, we must operate on the assumption that if we try hard enough, we can find out. Maybe we are brilliant artists, and we just don't know it yet.

Turned out The-beatles-0John, Paul, George and Ringo fit into that category. But ironically in the end, the love they took was not at all equal to the love they made. Countless millions were touched by the music those four men created. And they were repaid very well monetarily, no doubt. They also lost all chance at anything resembling privacy, their fame eventually drove wedges into their personal friendships, each one went through a divorce, one was shot and another died of cancer after being knifed by a madman.

Oddly, our memories of them are usually happy ones. We celebrate their work and we remember them fondly. And sometimes, when we dare to place ourselves in similar categories, we wonder, since they did it, if we can become great artists just by pushing ourselves to the limit. And maybe a little bit further.

Got any ideas?

 

P.S. Pitchers and catchers report in 4 days.