It’s been interesting getting feedback and seeing what kind of reviews Trial of Tears is getting. There have been quite a few from Amazon and Goodreads. If there any of you out there who want to ‘friend’ me on Goodreads, please do so. There’s also a nice blog interview with Rina Jacobs here:
Due to the increased popularity of this blog (mind you, I measure popularity by the amount of spam I get on this site) and questions on how things get started and influenced, I wanted to relate a coming of musical age memory. I must’ve been thirteen and in eighth grade. Until then, my tastes pretty much stopped at the Beatles and whatever was on AM radio at the time. My parents hadn’t sprung for FM in their car as yet, so any drive was confined to classical music on WQXR, or Top 40 on WABC, both in full glorious mono, ambient static on tinny car speakers. I also had a small transistor radio which, in the time-honored tradition of anyone from my generation, I would listen to after it was assumed I’d gone to sleep.
In the back of the library of my junior high school, where study halls were scheduled, I discovered tape recordings of recently released rock albums that one could listen to on headphones. The first one I tried was Sticky Fingers by the Stones. There were already a handful of songs from this record in constant Top 40 rotation and I soon went to uncharted waters. I liked the one song I knew by David Bowie, ‘Space Oddity’, so I checked out the Ziggy Stardust album and it was as if I found the answer to a question I never knew existed. It became an immediate obsession for the next month until I moved on to the next record on the list, this one by a band I’d never heard of before.
All The Young Dudes by Mott The Hoople. I had no clue that this attitude, this swagger, could be expressed musically without the use of sheer volume or aggressive guitar tones. Though this is without a doubt a rock band, on record they don’t come off especially heavy. The record opens with their cover of the Velvet Underground’s Sweet Jane, singer Ian Hunter coolly intoning Lou Reed’s lyrics and guitarist Mick Ralph’s (who later left the band to form Bad Company) overdubbed intertwined guitar leads far outstripping the original. Next comes Momma’s Little Jewel, the semi-cryptic lyrics trying to convince a young lesbian to try hetero sex. Then the super cool effect of the record grinding to a halt, only to crest into the soaring lead intro of the irresistible title track, the biggest hit of their career. When I bought the record a week later, read the credits on the back cover and saw that this song was written by Bowie, I knew how Columbus felt when he first spotted the new lands. This couldn’t be mere coincidence. Track after track of this record burrowed into my consciousness. I had discovered not only new music, but apparently there was a whole scene going on that none of us eighth graders was aware of and I was granted pioneer’s credit. The striking visual aspect was missing at first, aside from small photos of the musicians on the back covers of the albums. This is waaaaaay pre-MTV or anything remotely like it. No one had any idea that these were glam bands or what they looked like, though once we found out, it only added to the cache.
Fast forward to early 1974. A full-blown fan and growing my hair out, I had bought their next two records, as well as the back catalog, consisting of four records. While I liked the first four and there were certainly many good moments, I was still partial to the more recent releases. The songs spoke of social unrest, individuals taking on the world alone, and loose women in such an enticing, exotically British way. One Sunday I opened the New York Times Art Section and saw the full page ad proclaiming that they would be playing 5 nights at the Uris Theater. The first rock band to play Broadway! I’m not sure if this somehow legitimized it in my parent’s eyes, but I managed to convince them to buy tickets for my first concert.
Along with a couple of friends, we took our seats in the balcony after buying t-shirts. I still have the tattered remnants of that shirt. It resembles Dr. Bruce Banner’s clothing shortly after he loses his temper and becomes the Hulk, but one can still make out the band faces drawn over the New York City skyline. I wish I’d kept the program from the show, but it disappeared sometime in my teenage years. I was all set for Mott to hit the stage, but this being my first show, I didn’t realize there is usually an opening band before the headliners, some unknowns trying and failing, in most cases, to make a name for themselves. I certainly never had heard of these guys, some English band named ‘Queen’, but they turned out to be pretty good. I was totally unprepared for the massive wall of sound, especially from the guitar, but my synapses adjusted after a couple of songs. The singer also had an engaging way of working the crowd and they were well received.
Finally, after the intermission, the stage went dark. A narrow spotlight fell upon the microphone stand in center stage and Ian Hunter stepped into it, wearing his customary shades. From the darkness a piano played quietly and he started singing the first verse of ‘American Pie’, much to my surprise. To the last line ‘and that was the day the music died.’ he added: ‘or did it?’ Then the piano, still shrouded in darkness, started pumping the boogie intro of ‘Golden Age of Rock and Roll’ from their most recent record. The big difference was that on the record there are multi-tracked saxophones playing the main chords and the whole feel is like a 1950’s rock n roll revival, whereas when the band kicked in live, the whole stage suddenly lit up, with two overdriven guitars and the primal, thunderous, galloping rhythm section, it’s a miracle that the back wall of the Uris theater didn’t blow straight out onto 52nd street. As I mentioned earlier, Mott records, aside from the attitude, were not very aggressive sounding. However, live and at full throttle, it was a sonic barrage. I could describe the rest of the show, the wild interplay between singer and force of nature lead guitarist Ariel Bender, the incredible stage outfits, the total, absolute confidence this band had in its ability to perform song after incredible song, but the best way to put it is I fell in love, and hard.
Fast forward once again, this time to early 2009. That 1974 tour was the last the band would ever play in the US. Ian Hunter left to go solo the next year, taking Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson, who had briefly joined Mott at the end, with him. I’ve caught pretty much every show he has played in New York over the years. At the age of seventy-three, he still tours and records regularly and what’s most impressive is you never feel that his best work is behind him. Each new recording contains gems and he’ll be releasing another one sometime in 2012. The internet has served Hunter and Mott well, as an online community developed, globally uniting fans. After many failed attempts at reconciliation, the band announced in February that they would play five nights at the Hammersmith Apollo in London in October as a one-shot. Never having been to London, I thought the perfect fiftieth birthday present to myself would be to go and see if memory would serve me. There is a big risk in attempting to recapture the past. You may only see mad shadows. Once again, they far exceeded expectations. Though it wasn’t the visual extravaganza it used to be, the music was potent, mature and still retained its punch, amazing since they hadn’t played together in thirty-five years. It was a blast and not just from the past.
I’ve been consistently inspired by their music for so long that I included my own little homage to them in my novel, Trial of Tears. Most of the characters in the book are named after either Mott band members, road crew or the names of song characters. Also some location names, even though the story is set in Manhattan, are lifted from other songs. For me, their whole career can be summed up as the Golden Age of Rock and Roll.
I’m happy to announce that ‘Trial of Tears’, the most eagerly anticipated new book since William Shakespeare’s sequel to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is now available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon and CreateSpace. There’s a link to buy the book on the ‘Trial of Tears’ tab of this website.
I don’t usually take requests, but I’m as vulnerable to flattery as anyone else. That’s crap, actually. I’m a lot more vulnerable. This probably dates back to my childhood, when I hoarded whatever meager table crumbs of faint praise my parents happen to let fall on the floor among my seven siblings and myself, each fighting like starving, stray dogs for any minor sign of approval, no matter how offhand the remark.
“Chris, your grades aren’t as good as Wendy’s. You got an A- in physics.”
“But, Mom, I’m the only seven year old in the class.”
“Enough of your back-talk. Fetch the belt.”
After a relentless flogging, she eyed me cowering under the dining room table.
“At least you didn’t pass out like Charlie did yesterday.”
My heart fairly burst with pride.
One thing any novelist needs is to have a not very firm grasp on reality. I’m particularly gifted that way, in addition to being an only child of very supportive parents. Anyway, back to the request: this comes from a fellow novelist who, after reading my first novel, Trial of Tears, commented favorably on the dialogue. Well, she said the punctuation was O.K., but I knew what she was really asking:
“How do you write such crackling dialogue?”
Actually, proper dialogue punctuation has long been a thorn in my side and is still a constant source of correction and irritation in every draft. I pray that no errors make it into the final version of the manuscript, but Apostrophus, the Greek God of writing, rarely responds to my entreaties, so I’ll skip this subject entirely and focus instead on what works for me.
The first thing I’d suggest is to really get to know your characters well and ‘listen’ to them. If you pay attention to the way your friends relate to each other in a group, you can spot all the different cadences and rhythms in the way they communicate. If all you had was a typed script without character names assigned, you could still tell who was who. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t occasionally identify the speaker when writing dialogue, but in a two way conversation, it should be minimal, and done in a way that supports the scene by adding action and reaction, i.e. ‘Frank replied with a frown as he opened another beer’.
My editor made a valid point when he noted that I was giving all my characters very clever things to say. They can’t all be funny and erudite. Not that they can’t have their occasional moments in the sun, but some serve better as ‘straight men’ to which the more glib ones can riff off of, like a soloist having a good rhythm section to work with. To cure this problem, I broke out all the main characters’ dialogue into separate word documents to see how they were coming off and plainly saw what the editor was referring to. In addition to better parceling out the good lines, I was able to further tailor the rhythms, maintain consistency and individuality. Some people speak in short sentences, some use longer words, some pause when arriving at a point, etc. You can also spot superfluous dialogue that neither advances the plot nor defines character. However, you don’t want to do this too early on while writing, as it will prevent you from moving forward. This exercise becomes useful after a couple of passes through the finished manuscript.
One of my biggest sources of correction in later versions of drafts is overuse of certain words. I’m amazed at how these escape detection in earlier drafts, but I suppose I get pickier with each version, and use a finer grade of sandpaper to polish the manuscript. When I find what looks like an overused word, I do a search and word count in the document and am can be astonished by the amount of times it appears. It’s BYOT (bring your own thesaurus) time then, scanning the manuscript to find and sometimes change the offending word. However, if the word falls into a particular character’s dialogue with some frequency, I’m more inclined to leave it in. People have favorite words and expressions they use with regularity. I’m especially careful that it doesn’t land in the dialogue of different characters, though I’ve had fun in this novel by having different characters utter the same phrase, but in totally dissimilar contexts.
The best thing any writer can do after a couple of drafts (manuscript, not beer) is to read the whole story aloud. This is always good for narrative blocks, but especially useful in dialogue. You can spot stilted conversation quite easily this way. Dialogue, like music, has a rhythm to it. I’m not suggesting you can dance to good dialogue, but it can give you the mental equivalent of tapping your toes and I dig that funky punctuation.
Had a guest blog in the San Francisco Book Review this week on being a working writer, meaning a writer whose main source of income is not yet his writing.
The printed galley has been corrected and sent back to the printer. It’s amazing that I can still find things to correct after umpteen drafts. Unless something out of the ordinary crops up in the next galley, this should be it. I know this screams ‘Newbie Writer’, but it was incredibly cool to finally get a printed copy of the book, cover and all. It’s a book now, not just a manuscript.
There’s a fun interview with me on The Lit Chick Show: http://www.litchickshow.com/. I put together a little takeoff of MTV Cribs in at the beginning.
There’s also a nice review of Trial of Tears on the Jersey Girl site: http://jerseygirlbookreviews.blogspot.com/2012/02/trial-of-tears-by-chris-semal.html
I have been left with no other choice for this entry than to write about my cat, Maurice. My wife is out having drinks with friends and he is sitting at the front door meowing his furry little head off. Every so often he’ll strut back down the hallway from the entrance to fetch me in whatever room I am hiding in to join him at the door in anticipation of her crossing the threshold. I suppose I have the option of meowing as well while we wait, but I always demur. I have tried various diversions, among them food, cat toys, both with and without catnip, and a crumpled ball of aluminum foil that I throw around the living room. He is having none of it, looks disdainfully at my attempted distractions, and remains focused. I would use the expression ‘doggedly’ except that it is a gross understatement. The word ‘cattedly’ should become part of the English language, as should the expression ‘cattitude’. Maurice has a major cattitude. I know that when the roles are reversed and my wife waits for me to come home, upon entry I will find the two of them slouched comfortably on the couch, watching television. He won’t have uttered a sound or spent two seconds near the front door, unless perhaps to stretch his legs. My wife is very amused by this. I try not to take it personally.
I would rather be editing the proof of my novel or playing an instrument or watching a hockey game on TV or doing most anything else than listening to him, but I have no choice. There is no escape and I feel like I’m in some Edgar Allen Poe story serialized into Cat Fancy magazine. His fortissimo caterwauling, though constant, is not rhythmic, so I can’t let it recede into the background the way I could if there was someone working with a jackhammer on the street in front of my building, or even in my apartment. Clearly, my preference for the sound of a jackhammer in close proximity should give the reader an idea how near I am to the end of my tether. Nor is he interested in sharing a cocktail with me and mellowing out. On the other hand, that means there’s more vodka for me and I’m starting to need it.
One option, and I do use this on occasion, is to place him and his food dish in the bathroom near the entranceway and shut the door. The bathroom also contains his litter box, so there is no need for anyone to call a pet shelter to report my cruelty. If there is someone out there who knows of an association to help distracted writers, you may wish to report Maurice. I would myself, but I fear retribution. The bathroom is not a good solution anyway as, after a few minutes, he resumes his entreaties. He weighs fifteen pounds, but I believe most of the weight is distributed in the muscles around his opera strength lungs and a mere bathroom door is about as useful as tissue paper in producing a sound baffle. For music fans out there, this is akin to going to a Metallica show to give your ears a break from listening to Motorhead.
So now at last we sit here next to the door on the floor of the hallway, Maurice and I. He seems content and is purring, resting his head on my leg as I balance my laptop on my lap. Odd that this is the first time my laptop has actually ever been positioned on my lap. This is not a comfortable way to type. My wife is going to think it to be a strange scene when she eventually walks in and hopefully I can quickly give the impression that I had fully intended to spend some time here when I hear the key in the door. I have my pride and refuse to meow on command.
On Feb 1st, I’ll be doing an on-line radio interview from 5-8 EST on http://www.blogtalkradio.com/big-blend-radio/2012/02/01/rants-raves-rock-n-roll
The full jacket and interior are at the printer now, so the next thing I’m going to see is the book galley in it’s physical form. It looks like the release is being pushed back slightly to early March so I can get this out to advance reviewers before then.
I’m in promo mode now, filmed a funny video for the Lit Chick Show that will be on-line sometime in February. Also have written some guest posts. One interview that’s up is: http://www.thinklikealabel.com/mistakes-are-the-best-teachers-and-other-great-advice-interview-with-musician-author-chris-semal
OK, after the last blog post dealt with a lot of sadness, I promised to lighten up and write about something happy this time around. Since some people have a fear of circus clowns, I’ll avoid that topic and stick to a subject that certainly brings great joy to each and every person, especially me: the bass guitar! Perhaps there are some six string guitarists out there reading this who will snort with derision, but let us pity those poor, misguided souls.
I first picked one up as a freshman in high school when the bassist for the Deep Purple cover band in which I was singing had to leave school for a couple of months due to some reason I can no longer remember. He lent me his instrument so that the band could continue to rehearse and Steve, the guitarist, demonstrated zen-like patience in teaching me some of the songs. I’m sure you’re all thinking, “Ah, the first thing he learned was ‘Smoke On the Water’”, but no, believe it or not, that wasn’t in our repertoire. It was way too obvious and I commend my band mates for their foresight at that tender age. The first song that Steve showed me was ‘Child In Time’, the ten minute opus from their amazing album ‘In Rock’. I suppose he thought that the beginning chords would be easy enough, and he was right, but then about halfway through the song, it’s off to the races and I can’t speculate on how many hours we spent trying to play this, just that there were many, many blisters acquired. I should point out that Steve was a European transfer student whose father was head of the Goethe Institut in New York, the offices of this association promoting German international cultural cooperation located directly across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue. The band was kindly allowed to use the auditorium and it’s a safe bet that in 1974, there were no other bands out there slamming their way through ‘Highway Star’ on the stages of institutions named for key figures of Weimar Classicism.
I’d always admired the shape of the electric guitar or bass in all its permutations, but had never strapped one on until then. I’ve now been playing for thirty-eight years (gulp!) and can still remember the initial sensation, feeling the smooth wood against the front of my body and flicking the switch to turn the amp on. If you’ve never experienced this, go into a music store somewhere and give it a try. The vibration from the strings through the wood, into the pick-ups and then finally out of the amp speakers is a majestic revelation. The instrument resonates and reverberates with the massive sound. A fourteen year old boy with a bass slung down at crotch level, plucking the low E string? Well, as I said before, I’m still jamming at fifty-two and have no immediate plans of stopping. Somewhere along the way, I actually learned how to play the instrument and it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had.
P.S. I have to mention this: I always write with music playing and have some nine thousand songs in iTunes on my computer, invariably set to random play. Guess what started playing halfway through creating this post? You got it: ‘Smoke On the Water’.