Declan Hughes

Friday 14 March 2008

The new REM album...

My first new REM album was Fables of the Reconstruction in 1985, and "the new REM abum" has been a part of my life ever since. I got into the band when an ex-girlfriend with superior musical taste to mine lent me Reckoning in 1984. That makes me slightly cooler than the people who only caught up with them on Automatic for the People, but nowhere near as cool as the indie kids who were into them way back in '82 when Chronic Town was released. (It obviously makes me a certain age as well, but as you can tell from the photo, I'm not exactly trying to hide that.) I probably shouldn't get into a pissing match about who's cooler than who, however, being debarred, among other things, by my nationality. As Bono once said, Irish people are good at lots of stuff: we can be passionate, creative, exuberant, entertaining, we're known for talking, drinking and writing, we're equally gifted in friendship and grudge-holding ... but we're just not cool. Never have been cool, never will be cool, look like gobshites when we try. And in fairness to Bono, he was telling it against himself: U2 is a great band, but cool they ain't. 
Anyway, there's a new REM album on the way, called Accelerate, and it's probably wiser to talk about it now, before it's been released, when it still has the potential to surpass Out of Time - not necessarily the band's best record, although it would be in my top five, but the one that has a special place in my heart, because after I bought it on cassette, it went straight into my Walkman and provided the soundtrack to the summer I had my first successes as a playwright, fell in love with the woman I'd marry and was so much younger than I am now - rather than having heard it, when it almost certainly won't. I'm steeling myself for disappointment, in other words, despite the hype that says: the last one was crap, but this is the business. They've been saying that since Green, their major label debut, and what a load of crap that turned out to be (even if it gave me an expression - World Leader Pretend - that I've thought of on pretty much a daily basis since my children were old enough to boss me about).
I loved REM from the moment I heard HarborcOat - sorry, that's how they spelt it, and yes, it looks as silly as Cum On Feel The Noize now - and no, I have no idea what it meant, if anything, and in a way, that was the point. I knew what it sounded like: the Byrds and the Velvet Underground met in heaven, topped off by vocals from a classic neurotic white boy outsider with a southern burr. It was melancholy and melodic and Peter Buck played guitar like the best you could ever do was the Rickenbacker jangle (I prefer the early, jangly stuff). God forbid a guitar solo: Buck did fills, but you could tell if a law had been enacted that he could only play rhythm, he would have been content (School of Keith). Meanwhile, Mike Mills carried much of the melody on snaking bass lines (sinuous, I think rock journalists call them - they also say "seminal" a lot, but I think we all know why that is), adding glorious harmonies the while; Bill Berry kicked the band along like - well, I don't know much about drummers, but I know what I like ("Charlie's good tonight, inne'?"; "John Bonham on the drums!") and what do you think REM are since Berry left? Better? Or worse? (The Untouchables.) 
And over all was Michael Stipe, growling and burring in a voice almost totally impossible to decipher. Phrases did drift through, but by and large, you had no idea what he was on about. It sounded great though. I remember Peter Buck justifying it at the time by saying one of his all time favourite records was Exile on Main Street and you couldn't make out the vocals on that either. And that seemed fair enough to me, not to mention Exile being an excellent touchstone to invoke for a rock musician, or anyone. And if you feel better now you can hear Michael Stipe announce that he wants to hear the caged bird sing, well, you're a better man than I am. 
Yes, I prefer the early, jangly stuff: the first four IRS records - they began to go off on Document, with the awful stadium rock of Finest Worksong. Although End of the World was a classic. And I loved New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the last great record they made. And the odds and sods collection, Dead Letter Office, is essential, not least because it has all of Chronic Town on it, but also because you can hear them do Toys in the Attic, King of the Road (courtesy of a heap o'booze) and Crazy by fellow Athenians Pylon, which weirdly may be the definitive REM song. I never much liked Automatic for the People, not because it was so successful (I don't object in principle to the later, successful stuff) but because it was the thin end of the Beach Boys-influenced/keyboard-heavy production wedge that made Up sound so tame, and, in tandem with the absence of decent tunes, made Reveal and Around the Sun so bad. At least Reveal has the classic-sounding Imitation of Life - Around the Sun is an unspeakably awful record, full of horrible synthesizer parps and bleeps and pissy lyrics - even when they play songs from it live, absent the bland production, they sound dreadful. I hate it in the way only a disappointed fan can hate, with a kind of faintly insane sense of betrayal - "I built my dreams around you, and now look what you've gone and done." Although a pithier judgement was entered by my wife, who stood in the doorway of whatever room I was struggling through the record in, looked at me with suspicion and said "Is that Phil Collins?" That should be the studio playback test for every REM track in future: "Is that Phil Collins?"
One more detail on how up themselves REM got during this horrible time - during interviews for Reveal, the band let it be known that they had had to be persuaded to keep Imitation of Life (the only good song) on the record, because it wasn't in keeping with the rest of the album. And they still sounded piqued by this instance of sinister corporate interference, as if an entire album of meticulously programmed, coherently bland toss was the least their true fans were entitled to. 
They got their way on Around the Sun
And now, by all accounts, they're scuttling back to the early, jangly stuff. 
When I was writing The Wrong Kind of Blood, I became obsessed with Let Me In from Monster, a rag bag of an album that has some great songs (Strange Currencies is the acceptable face of Everybody Hurts (Is that Phil Collins? You bet) and Bang and Blame is a great number) and a lot of noisy more-fun-to-record-than-to-listen-to stuff. But Let Me In is the stand out, a droning, melancholy white-noise-and-sweetness lament, inspired by Kurt Cobain's suicide, apparently. I wanted it playing in Hennessy's bar when Ed Loy comes in to confront Podge Halligan for the first time: it seemed to fit Ed's mood perfectly. And it did. But it didn't signify. I'd've had to explain it. And at the time, I had begun to get vaguely irritated by some of the crime writers I liked the most (you know who they are) overburdening their pages with musical references that didn't seem integrated with the action - that quite frankly seemed like they'd just lobbed the names of whatever tracks they were listening to that day direct onto the page, and then given their characters muso/fanboy stuff to say about them. I figured I knew what kind of music I liked, but I didn't know enough about Ed to know what kind of music he liked, and more importantly, whether he was the kind of guy who'd burble on about preferring the early, jangly stuff. I came to the conclusion that he wasn't. And the music playing in Hennessy's turned out to be Hotel California, which I don't much like, but which was more likely, and funnier too, I think, and made a tiny point about cultural homogeneity and alcoholic time warp with no explanation necessary.
I say I'm steeling myself for disappointment - but that's only because my hopes are so high for Accelerate. Why wouldn't they be? It's the new REM album.

Saturday 8 March 2008

Reviewers, Dogs and Lampposts.

The third Ed Loy novel will be published on March 18th in the US, where it's called The Price of Blood, and on April 3rd in Ireland and the UK, where the title is The Dying Breed. In a past and parallel life I was and am a playwright, and I'm still finding the difference between theatre and publishing quite strange. For a start, in the theatre, there is an opening night, after which you generally have a fairly good idea of how the show is going to fare. The reviews come in quickly, and if they're negative, you're generally done for - if not in a Sardi's-empties-and-the-end-of- show-notice-is-posted-the-next-day way, then in a half-full at the weekend, parking available in the auditorium midweek, not with a bang but with a whimper way. You smile fiercely, blink back the tears, and find consolation in the friends who valiantly lie through their teeth, insisting it's the best thing you've ever done, or in the preferences of a handful of we-prefer-the- early-obscure-stuff types, who come back three times, in large part because there's no one else there.
Christopher Moltisanti in Hollywood mode in The Sopranos, having spotted Martin Scorsese from afar: "Hey Marty! Kundun! I liked it."                                                                                            
And in the theatre, chances are the reviews may be very negative indeed, because a) playwrights don't review each other's work, and b) it's harder to be nice about even a so-so play, largely because boredom in the theatre is more painful than boredom anywhere else. I can read a book I half enjoy, and am sort of bored with, and not resent it overmuch if on balance there's enough to keep me amused. In the theatre, that kind of evening has the GIN light flashing in my brain within fifteen minutes; by the final curtain, I want to have the director and the playwright killed. So I understand how theatre critics can err on the side of vitriol. I don't forgive them, mind - and there's another difference: the theatre is a strictly us-and-them game. Not only do playwrights not review each other, the theatre critic is, and often prides himself on being, Not Of The Theatre, choosing to adopt the persona of the man in the street, and if sometimes it feels like the man in the street he's channelling is someone whose girlfriend dumped him for you, that's just tough. (The other type of theatre critic - the intellectual who takes you to task for not writing the play she would have if only she wasn't too busy and important, or for failing in your duty to tasks you never set yourself - is way worse, of course, but at least most of her readers roll their eyes after the first pretentious paragraph and move elsewhere.) The only way to deal with bad reviews is not to take them personally - and that applies in spades to the occasional scorcher that actually is. We are the lampposts, they are the dogs.
And at least running up to the opening, you're busy in the theatre: rehearsals are progressing, you're hanging out with the actors, and seeing what the design team are bringing to the party. All your energies are devoted to the project in hand. You're living in the present tense, one of the great attractions of a life in the theatre. 
Publishing a book is not like that. For a start, if you're a genre writer and you've a book contract, chances are you're writing the next book when you publish. In some cases, you may have finished it. You're already moving on. Then there are the reviews. Unless you're a very big fish indeed, the reviews trickle in over a period of weeks, even months. Kingsley Amis once said of some writer he didn't like that the problem with tossing his book across the room after twenty pages is that he doesn't know you've done it. In the theatre, of course, you know instantly, for better or worse. With a book, unless, again, you're in the bestseller league and you can grade it by sales and chart appearances, there's a period almost of unreality - folk all over are reading your book and either heaving it from them in disgust, or bumping into furniture, so loath are they to put it down - and you don't know anything about it. At the risk of sounding a little Eeyorish, it can be quite a melancholy, anti-climactic experience. And you thank God you have a new book to scuttle back to work on, because when it comes down to it, the only thing that makes you feel better is the writing.
About six weeks or so before the book comes out in the US, there are pre-publication reviews in Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal. The PW review for The Price of Blood was a starred one, a welcome change from PW's take on my first novel, The Wrong Kind of Blood, which said that while I wasn't bad at describing the Irish countryside (my books are set in the city), no great hope could be held out for the Ed Loy series.  Anyway, this time round, among other things, PW said: "Hughes's stellar third novel ... Loy uncovers a horrible series of secrets, leading to a violent and labyrinthine conclusion at a famous Irish horse-racing festival ... this intelligent, often brutal thriller will have readers' hearts racing from start to finish."        
Booklist said: "This dark mystery manges to be quintessentially, unsentimentally Irish - and as twisty and nasty as The Big Sleep and Chinatown ... atmospheric and tough, with a lot of excellently described drinking."                                                                                                                
The Booklist review was written by Keir Graff, who runs a rather splendid site called The Designated Drinker, full of excellently described stuff about, uh, drinking. He even finds room there for a quote from The Price of Blood.                                                                                               
Library Journal said "The third title in Hughes's acclaimed series of gritty Dublin thrillers featuring PI Ed Loy ... Hughes's abilities to craft a "Dublin noir" crime novel and to expand the character of Ed Loy combine to make this a welcome addition to an eminently readable new series. Highly recommended." 
Hard to feel Eeyorish about any of those. As for Kirkus, well, let's just say there'll be more beer at my birthday party with Kirkus not invited.

And then, review-wise, that's it for a while. The books have gone out to the press, and I've my head down working on City of the Dead, which is what the fourth Ed Loy novel is called for the moment.  Meanwhile I'm hoping over the next few weeks no one tosses The Dying Breed/The Price of Blood across the room after twenty pages and wants me to know about it.