Today’s Funky Friday Brought to You by The Roots and … Elvis Costello? (A Rumination on Genre Busting)

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OK, lemme ‘splain.

Anyone who’s read this blog … you know – ever – has a pretty good idea that I’m an Elvis Costello fan from way back, and there’s a good reason: I consider my discovery of Costello on par with my initiation into a musical world that included the Beatles as its foundation.

But I’ve never really explained why.

Better than why, I’ll explain when. It was 1983, and I was 15, riding with my dad in his tiny Chevy pickup truck to help him out with a rehearsal for a play he was directing at the Chapel Street Playhouse, a tiny but very active community theater in Newark, Del. As we got closer to the theater, this song came on the radio – likely longstanding Wilmington, Del., Top 40 station WSTW. Something about the opening piano chords with the bass guitar right up front grabbed me, then the singer’s falsetto kicked in, followed by a more normal register, and the sound of the female background singers.

That’s about 20 seconds into the song. And man, I was hooked. I did something I rarely did. I asked my dad to just sit there in the parking lot and leave the radio on while I listened to the rest of the song, which turned out to be about a lovelorn writer using literary imagery to explain the ups and downs of a romantic relationship.

OK, I thought. You got me. I’m done. Who is this guy?

But the DJ didn’t say. Because this was the Stone Ages, when there was no handy digital display to tell you the artist if the DJ neglected to, I was in the dark. When I got home, I was doubly in the dark, because my family had no cable TV, and thus no MTV. That might have been the last time I heard it on the radio.

Sadly, even though the song was on the 1983 album Punch the Clock, it took me until 1985 to actually own the song with the release of Elvis_costello_best_1985The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions in 1985. It contained the single I had heard – “Every Day I Write the Book” – as well as enough cuts from his back catalog to make me want to investigate further.

What I found was not a gold mine but a friggin’ platinum mine. Here’s this skinny dork (hello, 115-pound theater nerd 11th-grader) who not only rocks with this weird amalgam of new wave pop and pissed-off punk, but who is obviously literate. His songs, dense with words and metaphor and cross references, were like novellas in themselves.

Since then I’ve been a permanent fan, and pretty much anyone who knows me well is aware of this. Example: When I met up for lunch with a former college girlfriend a few years after graduation, one of her first questions as we made awkward smalltalk was, “Still like Elvis Costello?”

I wanted to say, “Yes, because he A) Didn’t break up with me, and B) Writes great brokenhearted nerd songs that helped me get over you.”

But it was more than that. I admired not only the literary quality of the songs, but the fact that his style was all over the map. One minute he was channeling pop-punk rage, while the other he was crooning a country song or paying homage to the sweet harmonies of Motown.

It was that ability to adapt and cross genres that, in the end, kept me as a fan. And, as it turns out, those same qualities are frequently what I look for in the authors I read and the ones I try to apply to my own writing.

As much as I love science fiction in books, film and TV, it’s the work that is able to admit that it’s other things that really grabs me. For instance, one of my favorite authors is Christopher Moore. If you’ve ever read his work, you know he’s hard to pin down as far as genre. Does he write humorous fantasy? Fantastic humor? Is it horror? Scifi? Occult? Why does he say the F-word so much?

Exactly! You never really know where he’s going – only that along the way you will be taken on an absurd and ultimately sweet adventure. Whether it’s a Pacific Island cargo cult, a pesky Native American trickster spirit or a rumination on what happened during the “lost” years in the life of Jesus, you will laugh and you will encounter elements of the weird, fantastic, science-fictional and – occasionally – the kinky and naughty.

Another example: I just watched the movie Safety Not Guaranteed, about a team of magazine writers pursuing a story about the guy behind a classified ad seeking a time travel companion.

Is it science fiction because there’s the prospect – real or imagined – of time travel? I say yes. But what makes it great is that around that conceit is a deep story of real people trying to recapture lost time or bygone days. The emotions are true and the situations believable, even if, at the center of things, is a concept that goes back to the earliest science fiction novels. The same could be said for films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

So, how does this all relate back to the funk mentioned in this post’s title?

In his latest collaboration, Elvis Costello has teamed with perhaps The Best Band in the World, The Roots (hailing from my adopted metro area of Philadelphia), working together to fuse The Roots’ particular brand of neo-soul, funk, hip hop and R&B to Costello’s dense storytelling. It’s what makes me love Costello still, repackaged and re-purposed with a funky back beat, a driving horn section and a noir feel that he hasn’t inhabited in years.

There’s no fear as both he and The Roots venture into uncharted waters of creativity, and the result, as it frequently is when fear is cast aside and new frontiers are explored, are extraordinary.

 

God Bless Allyson Bird, For She Speaks the Truth

A few weeks ago I wrote about why going into journalism is a great career choice for people who want to write for a living but aren’t sure how toNewspaper readers actually translate that into rent and grocery money.

What I might have glossed over is the fact that today, possibly more than ever, it is one of the lowest paying, most thankless jobs out there. You will be called upon to do twice the work of normal humans for about a third of what most college-educated professionals are paid. It is stressful, relentless and exhausting.

No one has summed up the negatives of the field lately better than Allyson Bird. Allyson is a fellow University of South Carolina journalism school alum who distinguished herself in her undergrad years and went on to work at the highly-regarded Post and Courier, the major newspaper in Charleston, S.C.

Full disclosure: I attempted on numerous occasions early in my newspaper career to get a job at the Charleston paper, to no avail. While you don’t hear much about it outside Charleston, it’s a fine paper in a spectacular old city and generally considered a plum gig.

So when I received the USC J-School alumni newsletter that referred to her blog Sticky Valentines (named after a line in the Elvis Costello song “Alison” – which only increased her cachet with me), where she wrote at length about why she, not yet out of her 20s, was leaving journalism, I was intrigued.

It turns out that a decade apart, Allyson and I shared many of the very same concerns about the newspaper world and our place in it – specifically, how we would continue to survive the business in the face of increasing work demands and ever diminishing returns. She did what I attempted to do on a number of occasions – left the business and found a non-news job that let her put her skills to work and afford something other than a four-person apartment share and Ramen noodles.

I’ve actually written before on this same topic in response to a column by Connie Shultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist formerly with the Cleveland Plain Dealer and now a columnist for the Parade magazine Sunday newspaper supplement. In it, she lamented the dearth of young people going into journalism, with many of them saying they would prefer to go into marketing, advertising or media relations. She expressed horror that j-school students would opt for “The Dark Side.” I, however, was not surprised at all.

I replied to her column via the Poynter Institute comment thread by noting that her outrage was silly, because for a college graduate – even one devoted to the cause of truth – to expect no more in her paycheck by her third job than a Burger King management trainee would is a travesty, and that until newspapers learned to pay people like the college-educated, highly skilled individuals they are, the trend would continue.

So as a counterpoint to my earlier blog entry, I invite you to read Allyson’s thoughts and consider them well before you jump into journalism as a long-term career. Per my earlier statements, I still heartily stand by the news biz as a great entry point for young writers. But as Allyson notes, it might not be the kind of career you want to stay with for the rest of your life.

Oh, and a little something for my fellow Gamecock, because I simply couldn’t resist.

Black and White and Read All Over

Writers can come from any number of backgrounds – just go down the list of famous authors and you’ll see a broad spectrum of “first” careers.

But if you’re a teenager or young adult and you’re serious about wanting to get paid to write every single day, I have two suggestions for you.172146__his_girl_friday_l

The first is to write a brilliant bit of fiction or a staggeringly wonderful bit of non-fiction before you are 21, then get a multi-book deal with a big New York publisher and ride that gravy train for the rest of your life.

The second and more realistic suggestion is this: go into journalism.

Why? Well, first, the world needs more journalists. It needs people committed to rooting out truth and telling great stories and doing something other than gushing over celebrity gossip and ranting, twitchy-eyed, about their given partisan political perspective. It needs folks willing to toil in relative anonymity to hold the powerful accountable and tell the stories of the ignored and disaffected.

Second, you will gain the skills that every good writer of fiction or non-fiction books must develop, and you will acquire them early. You will learn to write with speed and clarity, get to the point quickly, interview strangers, go into uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations, observe the world around you and do sneaky things like read upside down and eavesdrop on the folks in the restaurant booth behind you while simultaneously holding a meaningful conversation with the person across from you.

You’ll also learn to take criticism without taking it personally. Of all the lessons you could learn early, this is probably the best, as it enables you to accept a comment like, “This need a lot of work,” without collapsing into a heap of self-doubt and whiny pleas about the writing coming from your soul.

Trust me. The value of each of these skills, for any writer, can not be overestimated.

220px-ErnestHemingwayThird, you will join a line of great writers who made the transition from journalism to writing fiction, depending on many of the skills they learned as reporters to make their writing special. Mark Twain started in newspapers and pulled the things he experienced and wrote about into his fiction. Ernest Hemingway started his working life at the Kansas City Star and used the lessons he learned there to inform his writing from then on.

J-school is the writerly equivalent of joining the U.S. Marines. You might arrive thinking you are one badass 1289926514-Mark Twainmofo of a writer. Your high school English teacher gushed over your work. Your parents fawned over your awards and teacher’s-pet status. In high school, you might have thought your writing was the absolute shit.

A good journalism school does exactly what Parris Island does for young recruits – it strips you down of all your self-delusions and preconceptions to the very kernel of what you know and who you are, then builds you back up the way you’re supposed to be to do the job at hand.

The Marines specialize in turning tuner-driving, subwoofer-blasting high school douchebags into honorable, unstoppable fighters by breaking them through mental, physical and moral trials, then putting them back together the way the Marines want them – fearless, razor sharp and hard as nails.

A great J-school takes your flowery and overwrought high school prose and says, “You might think you’re awesome. You are not, but we’ll make you that way.”  It will strip you so bare of your writing preconceptions that you’ll wonder if you could ever really write at all. Your professors will then start adding basic skills – simple interviewing, the inverted pyramid style, headline writing and copy editing. Only when you have mastered those skills will you be allowed to go down the flowery path again to become the writer that you were truly meant to be.

Sure, I’m biased. I graduated from the excellent journalism school at the University of South Carolina at a time when the faculty was populated with delightful, curmudgeonly newspaper veterans – people who remembered copy boys and typewriters and the clackity-clack of the Associated Press wire machine chugging out reams of stories from around the nation and world. They themselves make great stories.

But here’s the best part of going to a real J-school. Unlike your fellow aimless undergrads, with their relatively useless English and history degrees, you will not only get an excellent liberal arts education, but you will be actually learning a trade. Depending on the market, you can graduate and immediately get a job in your field. And what do you know – that field is writing.

Granted, that first job will likely be at a small newspaper in a backwater town. That sounds like a drag – wouldn’t it be much better to work at the New York Times or ABC News, after all? Sure it would, but unless your parents own a paper or sit on the board at Disney, neither is likely to be your first job.

But the benefits of parachuting into East Outer Nowhere are myriad. Depending on the size of the paper, you’ll get to do almost everything. At my second newspaper job, as city reporter at the Camden (S.C.) Chronicle-Independent, it was possible to cover everything from snooze-inducing city council meetings to violent crime, business ribbon cuttings to interviews with visiting celebrities and political bigwigs, .

I got invited to pilot a glider plane, fly with the Army Golden Knights skydiving team, rappel from a fire department bucket truck and qualify on .38, .45 and Glock 9mm handguns with the police department. On a weekly basis I hung out with cops without being a suspect, visited the jail without being a prisoner and got to see the inner workings of local and state politics without the mess of running for election.

Will you get rich? Unlikely. But you will learn to live within your meager means – a must for any writer, no matter how successful you might become. And until you write that breakout novel that’s bubbling up inside you, you’ll get the daily satisfaction of knowing that you are being paid every day to hone the craft you aspired to.