My live music superlatives so far

I’m getting old. I have a bad back. My knees grind whenever I take the stairs. My hair has receded clear off my scalp entirely. I’m starting to really feel the slow physical degradation that goes along with the aging process, every day of my life.

I tell myself that age is a construct, that it means nothing, that it has only the power you grant it. This is true to some extent, and while reminding myself of that does help, it only gets me so far. There is no denying my exterior travel casing is long out of warranty, and is starting to wear out.

To compensate, I try to do things old people do not do. I think of the oldest person I know, which is my dad. He has always been the oldest person I know. What would Dad never have done when he was my age, i.e., in his late forties? Would he have, say, spent a weeknight in a packed music hall while a hillbilly surf rock band threw fried chicken at the crowd?

Southern Culture on the Skids @ Slim’s (RIP), San Francisco, CA (2019)

I think not.

But preventing myself from turning into my father is not the only reason I still go to shows. I go because I love them. I love the crackling energy of the good ones, especially in smaller venues. I love the unpredictability of the performances, the beer spilled on my shoes, the low-key seediness of it all. I love spending two hours in the same room as the people who recorded some of my favorite music, sometimes close enough to cough on them. Live music makes me feel like I’m squeezing the most fun I possibly can out of life. It’s one of the best parts of living in San Francisco. I make it a point to catch a show whenever a good one pops up on the local events calendar. Right now that means not at all, because, well, you know why. (For posterity’s sake: Covid-19. Duh.) But I mean before that, before that.

When I lived in Florida, I did not have access to the surfeit of shows I have here. Florida is not on the way to anywhere else, so a lot of bands just skip it entirely. Those that don’t will usually stick to one or possibly two of the Miami / Orlando / Jacksonville triumvirate, none of which I lived in and two of which I actively loathed (Miami is seriously underrated though). I appreciate what I have—or have had, I guess—here in San Francisco, I really do.

Going to shows is one of the two or three things I miss the most now that we’re in semi-permanent lockdown status. I’ve been thinking a lot about the shows I’ve seen in my life—the good, the bad, the unexpected, the disappointing—and I’ve compiled a list of the ones that have stood out for me, and why I still think about them all these years later.

Here it is.

Continue reading “My live music superlatives so far”

My 2018 in live music

2018 was, as they tend to be now, a … difficult year. Fortunately, I live in a city where we want for little when it comes to top-quality live music options. And since going to a show is one of the ways I like to forget about my (and the world’s) troubles, you better believe I saw a few.

Though the year is technically not over, and I do have tickets to one more show—Lee Fields & the Expressions at The Chapel, which is a New Year’s Eve show that will not end until 2019, and so I will include it in next year’s wrap-up—I nevertheless present you with a list of all the shows I saw in 2018, in descending order of awesomeness.

All venues are in either San Francisco or Berkeley unless otherwise indicated:

  1. X and Los Lobos (The Fillmore)
  2. Fleet Foxes (The Greek)
  3. Calexico (Great American Music Hall)
  4. Southern Culture on the Skids (Slim’s)
  5. Mipso (Freight & Salvage)
  6. Bombino (The Independent)
  7. Elvis Costello (The Masonic)
  8. George Clinton & P-Funk (The Independent)
  9. Yukon Blonde (Hotel Utah Saloon)
  10. Mipso (Lincoln Theatre, Raleigh NC)
  11. The Pretenders (The Masonic)
  12. Rodriguez (The Warfield)
  13. Robyn Hitchcock (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival)
  14. Toots & the Maytalls (The Fillmore)

With the exception of the very last entry, this list wasn’t easy to put together. That’s because that Toots & the Maytalls show was the only actively bad show I saw all year. The gap between, say, #12 / #13 and #14 is pretty wide, because Rodriguez put on a very low-key but still highly engaging performance. In a different year, he would have ranked much higher. But unfortunately for him (and the Pretenders, for that matter), I caught a lot of great live music in 2018.

By contrast, the selection of best show of the year wasn’t nearly as easy. It was always between X / Los Lobos and Fleet Foxes, but the fact that X has long been one of my favorite bands AND they brought Los Lobos—a hugely fun band that is still more than capable of headlining on their own—along with them are the two factors that tipped the scales.

Still, that Fleet Foxes show was pretty incredible. Here is a short video clip I shot; my old iPhone SE had a shitty low-light camera so the image is terrible, but the sound is what’s important here anyway:

There is something about the simplicity and haunting honesty of their performance that just hit me square in the heart.

Seven of the bands on this list are acts I had seen before; in fact, it was my third time seeing both Elvis Costello and George Clinton & P-Funk, and my fourth seeing Robyn Hitchcock. Elvis was as solid as he always is, and he did a full three-hour set with no opening act; considering how he almost died (apparently) earlier in the year, that’s pretty impressive. George gets points for his outrageous stage show and for the fact that his classic cuts are still so strong, but his set itself wasn’t as tight as I would have preferred. Still, it was a much better performance than when I saw him at Stern Grove a couple years ago, in an outdoor amphitheater at two o’clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

I doubt I will be able to top this list next year, but you never know. The 2019 slate starts, as I mentioned above, with Lee Fields & the Expressions, and will also likely include Richard Thompson and Judas Priest (though not on the same night).

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Why I self-published my first novel, and why I hope to never do it again

TL;DR – self-publishing is both democratizing and hard AF. It is not a shortcut, and it comes with a few major drawbacks that you should consider if you’re thinking about putting out a book the way I did.

If you have a copy of How I’m Spending My Afterlife sitting on your bookshelf, you might have noticed that the spine carries an imprint: that of Mind Balm Press. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’d like to tell you now that Mind Balm Press does not exist. It is not a real publishing house, and the only reason those three words are on the spine at all is so that the book looks like all the other books on your shelf. I mean, they all have their own imprints on the spine, right?

So if Mind Balm Press didn’t publish the damn thing, who did? Well, I did. Self-publishing is easier and more accepted now than it ever has been before. It’s a legitimate, viable way to push your work out to your audience, and there are a lot of talented authors out there who self-publish high-quality books and do quite well for themselves.

The big payoff: How I’m Spending My Afterlife on the shelf at the Books, Inc. store on Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA

It certainly wasn’t the route I set out to take, though. Back in 2016, I was dragging my manuscript through all the traditional publishing channels and getting basically nowhere with it. I spent about a year or so sending out queries to agents and trying to get in front of them at the handful of writers’ conferences I was able to squeeze into my schedule and budget. I had some nibbles, got a few requests for the full manuscript, and while all the agents who read HISMA told me they enjoyed it and thought it was well-written, none of them fell in love with it, which seems to be a prerequisite for an agent to spend a year or more of their professional life trying to find a home for a manuscript.

Maybe my queries were weak. I did use the same basic structure for all my queries, but I tried to change things up on the regular, always testing new approaches to the copy. But since nobody ever gave me any specific feedback on why my query didn’t grab their attention, it was a bit like playing shuffleboard while blind.

After a while of that, I had a decision to make. I could keep on grinding it out, finding new agents to query and sending them a letter and the first chapter or two of the book and waiting up to four months before getting a response, or I could start trying the independent presses that accept submissions directly from authors and wait as long as a year to hear back on those

… or I could also just put it in a desk drawer and start the next project. That’s a valid choice. Lots of people write several novels before they manage to sell one to a publisher. There is no shame in that, and it’s not like I had any lack of ideas for more novels.

But I felt pretty strongly that HISMA was a good book, one that could go toe-to-toe with anything the big publishing houses were putting out, one that could find its audience and resonate with them. Turning HISMA into a vault novel would, I was pretty sure, be doing myself—and possibly other people too—a disservice.

And yes, I know how that sounds. But I’m telling a story here, and there’s no point in sugar-coating things now, is there?

So that left self-publishing. I’d been keeping it in the back of my mind as a last-resort option for a while, but I was still reluctant to commit to going down that road. See, I used to have this uncle who wrote a novel once, maybe fifteen years ago. His schtick was that he ended every chapter with a different character uttering the same line. It was … not great, and he ended up bringing it out himself on a vanity press, which is basically what most self-publishing was back then. He wound up with a garage full of copies he couldn’t sell.

But my book would be different. For one thing, I can write decently well. For another, I have a background and a network that might actually help me do this right. I spent a lot of years working in both marketing and in various aspects of media, and during that time I had countless graphic designers and editors and so forth fall into my orbit. My father spent his career in advertising, and he taught me how to flow text into page layout software when I was 14 years old (I think it was Adobe PageMaker, which I don’t think even exists anymore). I once owned a record label—Mind Balm Records, natch—and I figured that a lot of that knowledge would transfer over.

I also have a certain amount of self-awareness when it comes to my own assessment of my abilities, so I was confident I’d have no problem hiring professionals to double-check even the things I felt I could do well enough on my own. This included hiring a professional editor, and the one I ended up hiring had a resume that included some of Neil Gaiman’s books as well as Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which I enjoyed.

And when I thought about it a little more, the whole enterprise became more and more appealing. The idea of having total control over every aspect of the project was a plus, I had to admit. It wasn’t my biggest driver—that was just getting the book in front of people—but certainly seemed like something I could work to my advantage. After all, I was trying to use this book to launch a career as an author, and having complete control meant I’d be able to manage how I and my work were presented to the world from the very beginning.

The potential for higher royalties certainly didn’t hurt either. When you self-publish an e-book through Amazon, you can grab 70% of the sale price for yourself, as long as you have it priced between $2.99 and $9.99. The numbers are different for physical copies printed with CreateSpace, but they’re still better than you’ll get on a traditional publishing deal.

So I went for it. I hired that editor. I bought a batch of ISBNs. I got the art director from one of my old jobs to put together a cover for me. I tweaked and re-tweaked the interior. I got professional author photos taken. I cooked up a marketing plan. I set a publication date. I scheduled a release party. I got the word out.

And just like that, on October 3rd, 2017, I was a published author. Self-published, to be exact, but published nonetheless.

I’m glad I did it, if only because self-publishing was probably the only way I was going to get HISMA out into the world just then, and I needed to be done with that book. I was having difficulty moving on to the next project, and while I’m only getting started in my authorial career, I do already know that the only thing that matters is what’s next.

But all that control and self-determination (or is this more self-actualization? I can never keep those straight) comes with strings attached. Whether those strings are tight enough and strong enough to cancel out the advantages will depend on the author and his or her specific situation; for me, they were enough of a hindrance to convince me that I never want to self-publish again if I can help it:

1. For one thing, you are completely on your own when you self-publish. There is no institutional support, whether we’re talking financial or moral. If something has to get done, you’re the one who has to do it. And doing everything by yourself is hard. Of course, I knew it would be that way before I even got started, but expecting it and experiencing it for yourself are two very different things.

2. It’s not just slogging through the long list of things you have to do that’s difficult, either. Many of the individual items on that list are hard, in and of themselves, to accomplish without either a track record or institutional backing. Like getting reviews, for example. Reviews are the lifeblood of any successful indie book launch these days. But reviewers with a platform get countless requests each and every year, and they can only work through a tiny fraction of those. If you are persistent enough, you can shake free a few stray reviews through sheer force of will, but it’s incredibly time-consuming to do this.

(And speaking of reviews, if you’ve read How I’m Spending My Afterlife, I would really love it if you could take a moment and leave a short review of it on Amazon for me. Thanks so much!)

The hard truth is that nobody cares about you or your book. You have to make them care, and this is probably a lot easier (though by no means objectively easy) to do when you have a publisher helping you out.

3. This won’t be a problem for those who are a bit less introverted than I am, but I’m extremely uncomfortable talking about how great I am or how great my work is. I’ve always hated self-promotion, and as a result I’m terrible at it. This is something that a publisher’s marketing  department would do for you, but if you don’t have one, you have to do it yourself (see point 1).

4. There’s still a stigma attached to self-publishing, even if it is only a shadow of what it once was. A lot of bookstores won’t carry self-published books, even if you do use Ingram instead of Amazon-owned CreateSpace for distribution (indie stores hate authors who use CreateSpace, and I can’t say that I blame them). Some will, but only on consignment—and even if they do take your book, you still have to reach out to or visit each store individually to make the sale. Many reviewers won’t touch them either. And while this is dispiriting and frustrating, I do kind of get it. There’s still a lot of crap floating around out there in the self-published world, even if it is better than it used to be in the aggregate.

5. Self-published books are often not eligible for literary prizes and awards. No, I never would have expected HISMA to win the Man Booker Prize or anything like that, even in my feveriest fever dream. But it makes sense to set yourself up to take advantage of as many promotional opportunities (and winning a major prize is definitely an example) as you can.

6. Finally, self-publishing can be wicked expensive. In 2017, I spent about $5,000, all told, on getting my novel to market and getting the word out about it (a big chunk of that was just for the editor, which I will always consider money well spent). It’ll be a while before I earn that sum back, even with those more generous Amazon royalties—but that’s fine. I have a day job, and I didn’t do this for the money.

To be fair, some of these drawbacks won’t be as applicable to writers who work in certain self-publishing-friendly genres. If I were a sci-fi or fantasy writer, I’d probably have had a different experience with it.

I went with self-publishing because it seemed like the only option available to me at that time, and I didn’t want to set HISMA aside for a year or three on the off chance that the situation might improve in that time. I certainly learned a lot from the experience, but I do not want to do it again. Next time, I’m hoping to land a traditional publishing deal, and I’m working to make that happen.

But if my choices are self-publish or don’t publish at all? In that case, I’ll self-publish every time.

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The systemic nature of sports, or the real problem with football

Today is Thanksgiving, perhaps the most tradition-steeped of American holidays. I’ve been thinking a bit about a particular Thanksgiving tradition lately, and I’ve come to a conclusion:

Football – at least the American kind – is a really badly-designed sport.

Take the end of the Tampa Bay – New Orleans game a few weeks ago. That game ended with the Buccaneers threatening to score a touchdown in the game’s final minute, which could have sent the whole shebang into overtime. Tampa Bay’s quarterback ran to his left, found a receiver in the end zone and delivered a perfectly serviceable pass for what looked like six points.

But it was not to be – you see, as soon as that particular receiver caught that pass in the end zone, he became guilty of illegal touching. Apparently that’s what happens when you step out of bounds, come back in bounds, and catch a pass when the quarterback is out of the pocket – at least, that’s according to the referee’s explanation after he threw a flag on the play.

Then, because the game clock had ticked to zero during the play, the game was over. Honestly, there’s no less satisfying way to end a sporting event than having an official explain what you just saw, why the play doesn’t count, and that the game is over so go home now, all you sunburned drunks.

It was ridiculous to watch it unfold, but it’s no real surprise that things like that happen, for the simple reason that football has way too many rules. Illegal touching. Illegal formations. Illegal shifts (whatever they are). Ineligible receivers. Intentional grounding applies when the quarterback is in one place but not another. And all that goddamn clock-stopping, for pretty much any reason at all.

Because of the oddly analytical way my mind works, I tend to look at games and sports as systems. Every system has a set of rules that governs the movements and actions of its component parts – when we’re talking about a sport, the rulebook determines how the players, coaches, officials and ball interact with and respond to each other.

So if these rules are set up properly, what could we expect if we had two identical teams play against each other from now until the sun burns out? Well, if neither side has even a slight skill advantage over the other, we would expect each team to win basically the same number of games over the next few billion years. Ideally, the rules would be set up in such a way that the “better” team wins more often than it loses. In other words, as fans, we expect skill – and not the rulebook – to be what determines who wins and who loses each game.

I’m not arguing that the rules of football give either side an unfair advantage. Certainly in the NFL, from what I’ve seen, we can generally expect the “better” teams to win more games over a long enough time frame. But I am saying that football requires way too many rules to get to this equilibrium, and that that excessive complexity is an artifact of poor design. In design, as simple as possible is almost always better.

Look at international soccer as a counterexample. The rules are certainly simple enough. And because of that, the game flows. It’s always moving. When the officials do stop play, it’s usually quick and fairly unobtrusive.

But in football, that’s not the case. Any rule infraction requires a couple minutes’ worth of official conference, explanation, and enforcement. The flow of the game is disrupted far too often, and for ridiculous things like an illegal formation or a holding call that nobody can find on instant replay.

(Of course, you could just compare the rulebooks. While the printed NFL’s Official Playing Rules and FIFA’s Laws of the Game are both about the same number of pages, the latter is much simpler, featuring graphs and a lot of white space. The former sometimes reads like a cross between stereo instructions and mortgage paperwork.)

The NHL used to have a similar problem. Used to be, it was illegal to send a pass across any two of the lines in the middle third of the ice. The two-line pass rule slowed down the game, which is bad enough – but it also favored teams with more gifted skaters while negating passing skill. Then there was the rule against offensive players having so much as a toe inside the goal crease on a scoring play. That was even worse than the two-line pass, because it took longer to resolve and often overturned goals scored in the run of play.

Fortunately, the NHL wised up and ditched both rules. Those rules degraded the product, and they were both unnecessary to bring the system into the desired equilibrium (which is a fancy way of saying that they didn’t make it any more likely that old-fashioned hockey skill would win out more often than not).

There’s a lot to like about football. The forward pass is one of humankind’s most beautiful creations. But the game has little natural flow because of the excessive (and excessively complicated) rules. Start getting rid of rules – like holding, for example, or almost anything that stops the game clock – and the game opens up and picks up a truly exciting, back-and-forth flow.

But I’m not sure that NFL fans really want that. A lot of them say they like the stoppages in play and the multiple replays from different angles. It gives them a chance to catch their breath, to let their minds process what they just saw.

And at a more basic level, if you start changing the rules of the system, you change its nature. Take away the holding penalties and the “skill” of clock management (could you hear my eyes rolling as I typed that?), and you might have a better-designed system that produces more free-flowing and entertaining result … but you don’t have football anymore. Football as we know it requires all those rules and stoppages and resets. Without them, you get a different equilibrium result.

So fine. Enjoy your clunky, kludged-together sport, football fans. There’s plenty of beautiful soccer out there for me to enjoy, thank you very much. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready for the Detroit Lions’ annual Thanksgiving Day loss.

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Advertising and the World Cup

There is something about big-time soccer that brings out great advertising.

Every four years, companies like Nike and Budweiser and McDonald’s build entire ad campaigns around their sponsorship of the World Cup. Since at least 2002, they’ve often been brilliant and have always been highly-anticipated, sort of how we used to anticipate Super Bowl ads but don’t anymore because it’s been so long since there’s been a really great crop of them.

Last week, the ad connoisseurs at Tampa ad agency Schifino Lee tweeted that they thought this McDonald’s ad might just be the best World Cup ad ever made:

I have to admit, that’s pretty good. It’s fun, through and through, and some of those trick shots—assuming they’re not assisted by CGI—are nothing short of amazing.

But it’s still not my favorite World Cup ad. That’s still the “Secret Tournament” ads by Nike, for the 2002 World Cup:

I prefer this one for two reasons: First, Eric Cantona is perfectly cast as the game-master; and second, Luis Figo gets thrown off a ship (I was never a big Figo fan during his playing days).

My drinking buddy Ken—who does not work in advertising but is the highly-suggestible type—weighed in on the matter. This one, from 2010, is his favorite:

“I’m a sucker for cameos,” he says, “and I love the hero or zero message.” Me, I like Bearded Wayne Rooney living in a trailer. Also the guitar part of the song that plays during Rooney’s segment rocks pretty hard.

Ken also mentioned this next ad, and while I have to disqualify it because it doesn’t seem to be advertising intended specifically for the World Cup, it’s worth looking at too:

I think the first-person POV is very effective, and I dig the way it begins and ends in very similar situations: you’re in exactly the same spot you started in, but at the same time you’re a million miles away from there.

Ken’s take: “I like the puking.”

And that’s why we’re friends.

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