Friday, December 18, 2009

The Further Adventures of _No Certainty Attached_, Part II

The following piece was published in the November issue of Bootleg magazine and is reprinted here by kind permission of Brian Tucker. Enjoy!


Truth Deeper Than Words
Interview with Robert Lurie
Conducted by Brian Tucker

Meeting your heroes is a risky proposition. Interviewing them and writing about them is something altogether different. UNCW graduate Robert Lurie, over the course of six years, wrote a biography of Steve Kilbey of the Australian band The Church. The idea grew from his college thesis and into a book that has garnered praise from Kilbey and fans of The Church alike. The book is as much about Kilbey as it is Lurie, non-fiction that mirrors the life of a once-famous musician and that of his audience. Being part of the narrative is a risky choice indeed, but one that seems to have paid off.

Lurie wanted to write a similar book in the nineties but decided not to. He once opened for Kilbey at a London club in 1998 and left with a sour opinion of the singer, who, at the time, was heavy into a drug habit. Lurie had the idea to do the book again and his professors approved. Still surprised at the thumbs up, Lurie bought an expensive plane ticket to Australia where he spent a month alone and at different times interviewing Kilbey who slowly opened up to him about his life.

This past summer Lurie's book No Certainty Attached was published by Verse Chorus Press and has since gone into its second printing.

How different is the published book versus when you completed it as your graduate school thesis?

A: Night and day. I really don’t think the original thesis reads well at all. It’s disjointed, and there are some bad typos that got past the gates. I’m bothered that it even exists! But having talked to some other MFA grads about this subject, I’ve concluded that the feeling of “thesis revulsion” is pretty typical.

What suggestions did professors or students give you that helped in shaping the book?

A: I wrestled with how much of my own story to leave in. The students and non-Church fans seemed to really like that material, but I had to be careful because, at the end of the day, this was a book about Steve Kilbey and The Church. Dr. Phil Furia—a very accomplished biographer and therefore a trusted authority—came up with a winning formula: 1) Use the “character” of me as a stand-in for the reader; 2) only include aspects of my life which directly impact the subject or the understanding thereof; and, 3) Most importantly, invest the biographical information with the same passion and novelistic detail as the memoir sections. It’s an ideal approach, and I implemented it to the best of my ability.

Talk about the process of taking your manuscript and presenting/proposing it to potential publishers.

A: I didn’t follow a normal process—mainly because I didn’t know the process! I had initially intended to self-publish, but George Hurchalla (a fellow writer) suggested Verse Chorus Press because they had published successful biographies of Bon Scott (from AC/DC) and the Go-Betweens. They seemed Australia-friendly and had a network in place to promote and distribute niche books dealing with Australian music. So I just sent them an email stating that I’d written a book about the Church and would they be interested? When they wrote back on the same day I suddenly had to buckle down and re-write the book in order to have something to show them!

What suggestions or responses did they give, positive and negative?

A: On the positive side, Steve Connell (editor) liked the story and felt that there was an audience for it. Early on, Steve Kilbey stood out as a compelling character. But Connell also commented that the early excerpts I sent him seemed quite fragmented and not really fleshed out. I used that as a guide in the rewriting process. Generally speaking, I tend to rush things in the first draft. During revision is when I slow down and really begin to sink into the story.

How many publishers did you approach before deciding on one?

A: Verse Chorus Press was the only one. They were the only American publisher that made sense for this type of book.

How long was the process between getting a publisher and seeing the printed version? Were there things you had to fight to keep in or keep them from adding?

A: The revision/editing process took three years. There was a lot of tightening-up to do, plus Verse Chorus had a lot of other projects on deck. The timing actually worked very much in my favor: The release of the book coincided with the release of the Church’s album Untitled #23, which has turned out to be the best-reviewed album of their career. So this book has arrived at a time of renewed interest in the band. Happily, there were no major fights about what to leave out/put in. Steve Connell allowed the creative vision to remain intact. His cuts made sense, and his many suggestions of what to add only strengthened the book.

How did you prepare yourself for interviewing Kilbey before flying to Australia ?

A: I read many of the older reviews that were out there, just to make sure I didn’t ask a lot of questions that had already been asked before.

He’s a hero of yours, how difficult was it to meet someone you admire, let alone take on interviewing for writing about his life and work?

A: Very difficult. I was quite intimidated by him. Steve is not “famous” by the standard definition—he is generally not recognized in public, but to me he had been an idol going back to my teens. I’ll put it this way: I would have been less nervous hanging out with the President of the United States.

You’ve mentioned the Internet as a great source of bootleg concert materials and other information on The Church. What other tools helped you write the book?

A: People, pure and simple. Having been such an active fan for so many years, I had developed friendships with a number of people that were also friends of Steve’s, starting with Brian Smith, Sue Campbell, and Donnette Thayer back in the mid ‘90s. A lot of people put their faith in me and helped me out because they knew me. A mutual friend passed Steve’s email address on to me. I refer to this individual in the preface as Deep Throat!

At what point did Kilbey open up to you, stop being standoffish? Was it hard for him to warm up to you?

A: Surprisingly quickly. We met up at a songwriting workshop in Bondi, Australia, that had been organized by John Kilbey. John lent me his guitar and Steve and I got talking about the composition process in front of the other students. He treated me—and the others—as peers, and that put me at ease. And we were pretty much up and running from that point on.

It’s often said that meeting idols can be a letdown. Was it like that for you?

A: Initially, yes. I had met him a number of times in the ‘90s and that never went well. I found him to be very standoffish. But once we started working on the book it was anything but a letdown. He’s such a dynamic, larger-than-life personality, full of so many interesting stories and insights. There’s a reason I referenced Orson Welles at the beginning of the book: Steve is in that league of raconteurs: Welles, Sinatra, John Huston.

How did you go about interviewing him? Were some places and situations more conducive to getting him to talk about himself?

We did a number of interviews at Gertrude and Alice’s cafĂ©/bookstore in Bondi. Those were the most enjoyable; Steve was in his element. But many more interviews occurred later on, long distance over the phone, and he always gave freely—both of his time and his thoughts, probably not expecting much in return. For reasons that remain mysterious, he told me a lot of things he hadn’t told other interviewers. I got the “scoop.”

You’re a musician. Did you find that it helped you in terms of communicating with Kilbey instead of just being a fan?

A: Very much so. You may have nailed it there. We were able discuss the intricacies of his music, as well as other music we both enjoyed: Neil Young, Sinatra’s Only the Lonely. It was a common language and it helped build the rapport. This was an even bigger asset with Peter Koppes. Non-musician journalists often make the mistake of singling out Marty Willson-Piper as the primary guitarist in the band, simply because he is so energetic on stage. Now, there is no question that Marty is an exceptional musician deserving of any praise that comes his way, but anyone who actually plays guitar recognizes that Peter’s contributions are every bit as crucial to the band’s sound. In fact, during their early years, Peter was unquestionably the dominant player and the most accomplished musician in the band. After the book came out, he told me he was just so happy that it had been written by a musician, because I took their work seriously and understood the true dynamics within the band.

After interviewing the focal point of the book, Kilbey, were other interviews easier to come by? Did members of the band seem surprised that someone was writing a book on The Church?

A: Yes, Kilbey’s participation gave the green light; the others began to line up after that, and this is one of the reasons why the revision/editing process took so long. On the whole, I think people were both a) surprised/flattered that anyone would be interested, and b) anxious about the outcome: Would this earnest American kid bring the goods?

Why was The Church and Steve Kilbey such an influence on you personally? Why do you think they didn’t continue to be a success in the States in the nineties?

A: For me personally, their music articulated feelings and impressions I’d had all my life that I could never quite nail down. When I heard “Under the Milky Way,” something just clicked. To this day, I can’t tell you what the song is about, but I felt strongly that it was telling a kind of truth that is deeper than words. I had to hear more, and I was not disappointed: their already impressive body of work unfolded before my ears, taking me to another place. And I’ve stayed there ever since. It informs who I am as an artist.
The lack of later success could probably be summed up by bad decisions, bad karma, failing to seize the moment, and simply the ever-fickle tastes of the masses. But in a way, the fans won out. I don’t know if the richer work that began in the mid-late 90s and continues to the present would have happened if they’d been driving around in limos. It seems born out of an attitude of “We have nothing left to lose; why not follow the muse into these fascinating, obscure corners?”

What album by the band resonates with you the most?

A: I can’t pick one. Depending on my mood, I turn to Starfish, Hologram of Baal, After Everything Now This, or the new one: Untitled #23. But for about a decade, Priest=Aura was my favorite because it is a self-contained world.

How long did it take you to complete the book? Did your narrative change from how you originally conceived it?

A: Seven years from inception to publication, though there is material pulled from personal journals going back to 1998. It went through more permutations than I can count, but I always wanted it to read like a novel. The best parts of the book stay true to that vision.

Your story is part of the book as well, your journey to Australia. How did it affect or change your life?

A: It was great to finally get to the place I had dreamed about so much. Australia is indeed magical, particularly the coastal areas. More importantly, meeting the people I had listened to and read about for so long felt like the culmination of one phase of my life. In the long run, telling the story of the artist that inspired me has cleared the decks for me to now do my own thing. It has been a rite of passage, and the beginning of a career.

Has Kilbey read the book and commented on it? Do you maintain contact with him?

A: Yes, he has read the book, blogged about it, and promoted it at Church concerts. This goes well beyond anything I could ever have dreamed of. I try to carry that feeling of gratitude with me every day. From a karmic perspective, I now need to do something really nice for someone. I don’t know what yet, but it will happen! And yes, we stay in touch.

A car company recently used ‘Under the Milky Way’ in a commercial sung by another singer. What do you think Steve Kilbey would think of this beyond receiving payment for the rights to use it?

A: I think Steve takes a realistic view of these things. He doesn’t feel that a song’s intrinsic integrity is compromised by how it is used. Plus, the additional income allows him to continue making music. The only real downside is that the other guys in the band are not credited as co-songwriters on that particular song (“Under the Milky Way” was written by Steve with Karin Jansson), so they don’t see any money from it.

What pressures did you feel taking on this idea for a book given there are a lot of fans out there of the band and Kilbey?

A: I successfully ignored any pressures until right before the book came out, at which point I realized that the “characters” I had written about were real people with families. I just prayed that everyone involved would recognize that the book was written out of love. Happily, almost all of them have.

There was one other concern: I always knew that the personal angle would be controversial; some people just want a straight biography without this muddled fan/idol subplot. “Just the facts, ma’am.” But it was absolutely clear to me from the start that the personal backstory was the soul and lifeblood of the book. If I was going to write the book, then it had to be written that way. There was no other option. And it has paid off. While it has not entirely escaped criticism from some corners, the insertion of the personal story has prompted a lot of people to write me directly, sharing their own stories of how they discovered the band. I received an email from a guy who grew up in apartheid-era South Africa, and saw in the Church’s music the possibility of an existence beyond the repression of his own surroundings. Another fan said the music of Steve and the Church had formed the soundtrack of her twenty-year marriage to her husband. All of these people told me they saw in my experience a mirror of their own. This makes me so very glad that I took the risk of laying myself out like that, and I’m so grateful for the many key people—including Steve himself—who encouraged me to write the book in a creative, non-conventional way.

At what point were you done writing and had to let it go for the publisher? Were there stories or other, new, information that was left out you wanted in?

A: This was the hardest part. There is so much more that could have gone in there. I finally just had to turn off the tap, but I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t think of other stuff that could go in. And of course, so much has happened since 2006—when the book essentially ends. I’ve already decided that in ten years I will revisit the idea of an expanded edition or sequel. I have a feeling Steve will still be around and still creating important work. Besides, he has already told me that he wants me to set the record straight that his paunch is now gone.

There is surely an interest in this book given The Church’s fan base around the world. How has the book sold so far and will it likely go to a second pressing?

A: It has already gone into a second printing, which is very exciting. I do think there are still a lot of Church devotees out there who don’t know about it yet: people who go to the concerts but are not checking online message boards every day. The challenge now is to find them and make the connection. These people don’t exactly advertise themselves, do they? Think about how you and I met: pure chance! So maybe this article will help spread the word in your corner of the universe, and I thank you for showing such an interest in this project over the years.

Monday, November 23, 2009

George Harrison

Here's where it gets personal. Of all the natural and pharmaceutical remedies for anxiety and depression this world has to offer, nothing soothes my soul or placates my demons quite so well as the opening bars of George Harrison's "Blow Away." The gentle chords drop down like soft rain into welcoming soil; the unadorned guitar acknowledges in its mournful slide the inherent suffering of existence; and then there's the voice: so open and fragile, so defiant in its vulnerability.

I'm not sure why, but my eyes often fill with tears when I hear this passage; some of it is undoubtedly due to the huge void left by George's passing eight years ago. He would almost certainly have had much to say in these turbulent times, and we would have benefited from his calming influence.

But then, George would be the first to point out the futility of wishing for that which can never be. As it stands, his existing body of work has taught me how to let go of my worries and simply submit to love. I find myself in an interesting position at the age of 35; when I first got into the Beatles in my teens, I scoffed at the simplicity of statements such as "All you need is love." But now, supposedly older and wiser, I think that the Fab Four had it about right. And while "All You Need is Love" was a John and Paul song, it was George who articulated that message most consistently over the course of his career.

Much of George's work and life, as we know, was informed by his abiding interest in Eastern spirituality and Indian classical music. But what initially led this working-class Liverpool lad down such an esoteric (and, at times, rigorous) path remains a mystery. The book Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison (perhaps the most illuminating biography of this private man out there) doesn't even hazard a guess. But I think George himself gave a clue in a comment he made during the Beatles Anthology interviews: Regarding the band's fishbowl-like existence in the midst of worldwide Beatlemania, he said, "We gave our nervous systems." Yoga and meditation probably provided a quiet refuge from the mass hysteria that threatened to consume him. We know that he stopped using LSD in 1967--at the very time that his contemporaries were going out of their minds on it--in part because the Bhaghavad Gita completed the sentence that his psychedelic explorations had begun. To paraphrase Alan Watts, he had received the message (that hallucinogenic drugs had to offer) and it was now time to hang up the phone. Casual listeners can be forgiven for interpreting George's Beatles track "The Inner Light" as a paean to acid-tripping, but it is in fact about meditation. "Without going out of my door, I can know all things in Heaven (...) / The farther one travels, the less one knows." Indeed. All four Beatles believed in "Love," but George believed in God as well, and he spent the rest of his life attempting to commune with the divine.

George Harrison was not without his faults. Like many rock stars of his era, he was continually bombarded by an unimaginable array of worldly temptations, and more often as not he succumbed. But he kept returning to his spiritual practice, at one point musing that he needed meditation like an alcoholic needs AA.

Perhaps I need the music of George Harrison in the same way. I find myself continually returning to the albums All Things Must Pass, Living in the Material World, and George Harrison in times of difficulty. Meanwhile, 33&1/3 and Cloud Nine are good pick-me-up, get-on-with-the-day affairs. I almost don't need anything else. On the flip side, the angry noise of Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails can at first seem bracing and cathartic, but I find that if I listen to that style of music for too long I become agitated. This, too, George addressed when he sang: "Beware of darkness / It can hit you / It can hurt you / Make you sore and what is more / It is not what you are here for." I didn't understand that line when I first heard it at the age of fourteen. I understand it now.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Quiet Genius of Harper Piver

Harper Piver is the most focused, driven artist I know. She also happens to be my wife, but that is immaterial to the conversation.

Or is it?

Certainly it was Harper's intelligence and beauty that initially attracted me, but I have to admit that the Wall of Chili played a part too. You see, one evening very early on in our courtship, I found myself staring at two hundred or so cans of Hormel chili stacked against the wall of her kitchen. Not only was this an unusually large concentration of a single food item, it was doubly perplexing due to Harper's vegetarianism.

The owner of the cans was, at that moment, getting ready for our night out. When she wandered in and saw what I was looking at, she laughed.

"They're for a dance piece," she said.

My expression betrayed my deepening confusion, so she "clarified": "It's going to be a post-apocalyptic statement on consumerist culture. We're also using shopping carts, helmets...and roller skates."

Oh. At that moment, I began to fall in love.

I have discovered in the years since that Harper has an uncanny knack for taking highbrow concepts and transforming them into electrifying performances that push hard against the boundaries of her medium. On paper, you could say that she is a dance choreographer, but that is only a partial truth. Yes, she operates in the field of dance--primarily because her language is movement. But she incorporates film, sound collage, and dialogue into her work, and spikes the whole thing through with large doses of humor and pathos. The aforementioned post-apocalyptic canned foods piece was ambitious and mind-blowing without falling prey to pretension; Harper's sincerity allows her to navigate the treacherous waters of Art well clear of the shoals that routinely beach the rest of us. And Cache, her thesis performance at Arizona State University, was a hallucinatory tour-de-force: an extended meditation on family and illness that featured improvised monologues, psychedelic Sesame Street clips, the herding of the entire audience onto a balcony halfway through the show, and a disheveled madman playing "Eye of the Tiger" on his accordion as he stalked the fringes of the set. The sold-out attendance for its three-night run surprised only Harper, who remains blissfully unaware of her own greatness.

Don't you wish you had been there?

I am not particularly qualified to write at length about modern dance, but I can tell you that my wife lives and breathes her art. She does not compromise. If she gets an idea to have thousands of bouncy balls dropped from the ceiling at the climax of a performance, she will find a factory that makes bouncy balls and buy them wholesale. I know what I'm talking about here: I had to help her haul the damned things from rehearsal to rehearsal. In fact, I think we still have them in a giant plastic bin somewhere.

Harper Piver can barely contain the multitude of visions that crowd her mind. They make their way out into the world not only in dance, but also in photographs, sketches, the glide of her violin bow across the strings, and the cryptic bites of poetry that roll off her tongue in between breaths. It is a privilege and an inspiration to share my life with her, and I simply cannot imagine how things would have turned out if I hadn't seen her across the room at Fat Tony's one winter night almost six years ago.

Ah, but that is another story.

Here is Oscar, one of my favorite of Harper's short films. Enjoy.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Curious Case of Bill Shatner

William Shatner's gloriously messy autobiography Up Till Now contains perhaps the single greatest concluding sentence in all of western literature: "Do I wear a toupee?" The fact that every reader with marginally functional eyes knows the answer does not diminish the existential power of the question. For like everything else surrounding the Man Who Was Kirk, that Tribble that sits atop his head has developed a mythology unto itself. Is it a mere hairpiece? Or an intelligent being engaged in perpetual mind-meld with its host? Does he wear it, or does it wear him? Only the Shat knows for sure.

But what if that concluding question had been "Am I a good actor?" Ah, that is a far trickier nut to crack. The prosecution would direct you to Devil's Rain, or the "Khaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnn!" scream in Star Trek II as damning evidence of his crimes against celluloid. But I would point you to Spock's death scene (also from Star Trek II), Judgment at Nuremberg, and his masterful, note-for-note perfect performance as Denny Crane in The Practice and Boston Legal as evidence that William Shatner can, occasionally at least, be an effective, nuanced, and even quite moving actor.

So why, then, does he suck so badly the rest of the time? Up Till Now provides some intriguing clues. First, there's the simple fact that the Shat was trained as a stage actor and had a long, fairly impressive theater career before breaking into television. When I watch him in his default mode of grand gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, and booming voice, I begin to think that he never quite made the transition to acting in front of the camera. I can't help but wonder how it would all look from the balcony; probably electrifying. In his early years he appeared in many Shakespeare plays alongside Christopher Plummer, and by every account he more than held his own. When Plummer took ill right before a performance of Henry V, the Shat stepped into the lead and made it his own--literally inverting the performance: taking scenes that had been loud and making them soft, standing when Plummer had been sitting, etc. Plummer has said that when he read the reviews later, he knew at that moment that his colleague would be a big star.

The makers of Boston Legal, as well as some Star Trek directors, understand that Shatner's mad energy and celebrated vocal tics can be harnessed to great effect. With the right script and the right guidance, the man becomes a force of nature. The problem is that William Shatner rarely works with these types of people. Which leads directly to the second probable cause of Bill Shatner's on-again, off-again sucktitude: his absolute lack of standards. For every Judgment at Nuremberg, you get ten White Comanches. This need to always be working, no matter how awful the project, may be the result of having been born at the height of the Great Depression. Even now, pushing eighty, he confesses to being unable to take a break. Well, whatever the cause, the guy has racked up an impressive resume of very, very bad movies and TV shows. No matter how much talent an actor brings to the table, if he's working with the script of Kingdom of the Spiders, there's only so much he can do.

If Shatner had his way, he'd probably want that fabled performance of Henry V to be his legacy. If I had my way, he'd be remembered for Rocket Man, a performance so surreal as to give Fellini and Dali pause, his intentions as inscrutable as Joyce's in Finnegan's Wake.

Split the difference and you get Kirk. In the final analysis, is that really so bad?

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Further Adventures of 'No Certainty Attached'

Back in June, Doug Crist of the Bainbridge Island Review interviewed me regarding No Certainty Attached and the long, tangled story of its creation. Some of the material made its way into his excellent feature story, which you can read here. Now that the book has been out for a couple months, I thought some people might be interested in reading the extended answers to his questions.

> Q. What prompted you to write a book about Kilbey and his
> band? As I recall, you were doing it for your master's
> program, but that may not be accurate. If so, was your
> advisor enthusiastic about the project?

Yeah, I was doing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with nonfiction emphasis, for which we are required to write a book-length thesis. And I thought, “What the hell can I write 300 pages about?” Well, might as well take this slightly unhealthy obsession and get something out of it! I had a few different advisors, but the reaction generally was “Steve who?” However, this might have been the first biography written in the department, so it was intriguing from that standpoint. The book went through several different phases. One of my advisors felt--rightly--that the strongest writing occurred in the sections where I recounted my direct interactions with Steve. As a writing instructor who had no interest in the Church, he wanted to see me take the book further down this memoir path. That would have made for a good read, but Church fans would never have gone for Robert and Steve: A Love Story. So the dual narrative thing began to take shape: I would fold my experience into the larger narrative and act as a sort of stand-in for the reader, who gets to walk with me into John Kilbey’s (Steve’s brother’s) apartment and stare down at the lonely Macintosh, realizing that they are gazing at Karmic Hit Records in its totality. They feel John’s fat housecat brush against their legs as they watch the two brothers banter back and forth. These scenes were fun to write and are hopefully illuminating to the readers. But you get the full biography as well. And whenever possible, I tried to depict Steve’s own experiences with the same energy and narrative detail I had brought to the “memoir” scenes. Ultimately, my book benefited greatly from having gone down that twisty path on the way to the MFA degree.
> Q. How did you first contact Kilbey, and how did he respond
> to your idea? Did you travel to Australia, how many times
> and how long were you there?

I first met Steve when, as a musician, I opened for one of his solo gigs. I was star struck and did not handle myself well, and he was completely indifferent. Based on that initial meeting, I doubt he took me seriously when—a few years later—I sent him an email stating: “I’m writing your biography.” When I asked if he would consent to an interview, he wrote back, “I thought you learned your lesson”! But then he made his fatal mistake: “Okay,” he said, “I’ll give you a couple hours. If you get here.” So a few months later I showed up on his doorstep in Australia. It was completely insane and it’s not something I would do now. Thank God for the brashness of youth! You’ll hear over and over again that Steve is “difficult,” but his mother didn’t raise him to be the kind of guy who would cast me out after I’d come all that way. I stayed in Australia for a month—interviewing the Kilbey family and researching the book. Financially, I was living off my credit card’s fumes—something else I wouldn’t do now.

> 6. In interviewing Kilbey, was he candid or guarded (or
> both)? Cooperative? Enigmatic? Did you have a good mutual
> rapport? How about the other members of the band? Kilbey's
> family?

Steve was incredibly candid. I had wandered onstage just at the moment when he was starting to get his life back together and was ready to talk. One of the only subjects he was tight-lipped about was exes (girlfriends and first wife), and that’s pretty understandable. I admire and respect that. After Australia we ended up doing an additional series of interviews over the phone; it all clocked in at over 20 hours, and when I listen to some of that stuff now, I’m struck by how different it is compared to the other Kilbey interviews I’ve heard/read. Yes, there were times where he would give these frustrating one-sentence answers and then wait while I tripped all over myself trying to fill up the empty spaces in the conversation. But most of the time he was warm, funny, and absolutely sincere. He started his blog not long afterward and you get a lot of that feeling in there as well, but when he’s writing he can still sometimes wrap it all up in irony or sarcasm. There wasn’t much of that in our conversations.

His family: I talked to his mom and brothers. Joyce (the mom) is a very sweet lady. It would be impossible to overstate how warm she has been to me—both during the long writing process and after the book came out. Like all moms, she was eager to share embarrassing (read: endearing) stories about Steve’s childhood. Steve’s brother John cooked me dinner and was a wonderful host, though a bit guarded when it came to the actual interview--but I can’t fault someone for being loyal and protective toward his family. Russell Kilbey was just a wonderful, funny guy, and definitely fit the stereotype of the mischievous middle sibling. In direct contrast to John, he told me it was my “journalistic responsibility” to dig up as much dirt as possible. He said: “The readers don’t want to hear about the speeches on economic policy, they want to hear about what happened in the Oval Office with the cigar.”

Band: Peter Koppes—co-lead guitarist and “the quiet one”—became a great partner in the project. We fell into a very easy rapport when the Church were out here (in Arizona) doing a couple gigs in 2006. Tim Powles didn’t work with me directly on the book, but I had interviewed him previously in 1998 and hung out with him a number of times since then and was able to pull from that. He has always been an easy person to talk to and spend time with. Marty Willson-Piper (other lead guitarist) is not a “looking backward” kind of guy and did not participate, but he has been pivotal in arranging for the band to sell the book on the road and on their website. I’m really grateful for that. I also got to talk to the band’s original drummer, which will be a real treat for the longtime fans to read about.

> Q. What did you learn from your interviews that surprised
> you? How did your perceptions of Kilbey and the Church
> change as the project went along?

We’ll be here all day if I start talking about my perceptions of Steve. Briefly: at some moments he is absolutely the wise mystic I had envisioned. At other moments he is…not. But he’s mellowed over the past few years and the two sides of him are beginning to fuse. He’ll never be a “regular bloke,” but you aren’t so much assaulted by the extremes in his personality anymore. I’ve been very lucky to have him in my life. I’ve learned a lot from him about being an artist.

I am still a huge admirer of the band and their work. The most recent Church album is one of their very best—if not the best.

> Q. How long did it take to actually write the book?

That’s a tricky question. There are sections of the book that were written as far back as 1998—after I first met Steve. But I mark the real beginning in 2002—when I emailed my friend Sue Campbell a couple of vignettes depicting Steve as a weary, iconic troubadour taking the stage and strumming along as the words to “Providence” floated up out of his throat. So that makes this a seven-year endeavor. Seven years with another man living inside my head.

> Q. I gather the publication of your book has seen delays.
> How did that process unfold? Was it hard to find a
> publisher?

It was not difficult to find a publisher once I went looking. I had intended to self-publish, but that is not a good move for career longevity. Verse Chorus Press was always my first choice because they had put out a biography of (Australian band) The Go-Betweens. And Steve Connell was a complete ass-kicker of an editor. This was like the MFA part 2. I kept thinking I was done and he’d keep sending it back asking for more. He absolutely raised the bar for me, and got me to dig deeper than I thought I could.

Q. I read in Kilbey's blog that he's enthusiastic about
the finished project. Your response....?

This is something that, at 14, I never could have dreamed of. Philip Furia (biographer of Johnny Mercer and Irving Berlin) told me, “Biographers are usually lambasted by their living subjects.” No Certainty Attached shows the good, the bad, and the ugly about Steve Kilbey. So by embracing the book, my subject has displayed the sort of maturity and grace you’re not going to find in a lot of “rock stars.” I’m impressed, and so, so thankful.

Q. Do you think Kilbey/the Church deserve more
> recognition, critically or commercially? Why has the band
only seen fleeting popularity, and that so long ago?

Yes! I don’t think they’re ever going to be mega stars, but they should be much bigger than they are now. At the very least, I should think that a good chunk of Radiohead’s fans would fall in love with the Church if they heard what they’ve been up to since 1988. The reasons for that not happening are complicated and have to do with some bad personal and business decisions. Consequently, it’s been difficult for the Church to get the level of exposure that would help break them to a new audience. Also, there is sometimes a lack of quality control: they’ll follow a great album like Hologram of Baal with something lukewarm like Box of Birds. I said in the book that they needed to find a great producer—their own George Martin—but they’ve proved me wrong with this recent album.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Godlike Genius of T. Kyle King

You've probably never heard of one of my favorite authors because he hasn't finished his novel yet, but T. Kyle King is the real deal: a freakishly talented wordsmith who can bend the English language to his will.

Before I go any further, some disclosure is in order: I have known Kyle for fifteen years and consider him one of my closest friends. The circumstances of our meeting are pretty illustrative of who he is as an artist, and it's fitting that we first crossed paths at a meeting of an organization called the Phi Kappa Literary Society: an eccentric collective of University of Georgia students who suit up every Thursday, share creative writings, and debate political, philosophical, and cultural issues. Midway through a heated session one evening in 1994, a rail-thin, ghostly pale, almost tubercular figure sporting an impressive jet-black beard ascended to the lectern to give his side of the argument (the topic of which is lost to history). Even behind the obscuring frames of his glasses, his eyes burned with the intensity of a young Rasputin, and his voice proved equally hypnotic--he would drawl certain words out, let them get bogged down in sticky stuff and then gently pull them back up. His cadence was like a marsh: full of deceptive softness but hiding all kinds of things that could kill you.

Shortly thereafter, I learned that Kyle, like me, was an aspiring writer; and, sure enough, his work proved so monstrously good that I began to wonder if he had conducted some kind of occult ritual granting himself extra hours in the day; he appeared at first glance way too busy with Phi Kappa, law school, a serious football addiction, and diligent courtship of his future wife Susan to be able to crank out the polished short stories and essays he sent my way. His voluminous email correspondence alone--seemingly tossed off every morning before breakfast--matched in eloquence and incisiveness the nonfiction work of Walker Percy.

Kyle is often dismissive of his talents, saying that he really only holds expertise in five subjects: Christianity, William Faulkner, football, Star Trek, and the TV show Mad About You. That may very well be true, but through the prism of those five subjects he somehow addresses the whole of human experience. Don't ask me how; we are in the realm of magic here.

In the late '90s, he began work on a sprawling, fitfully brilliant novel called By Awful Grace, which he eventually tabled when his son Thomas was born. At its best moments, the book aspired to a slot in the top shelf of American literary fiction. The multiple points of view and kaleidoscopic scrambling of past and present were impressive flourishes for a first-time novelist, but what most distinguished the work was its deep rootedness in place--a steadfast fidelity to home and hearth that was equally characteristic of the writer himself, manifested in his reluctance to venture north of the Mason-Dixon line (which he did not finally do until his late '20s).

If T. Kyle struggled with anything as a writer of fiction, it was the imposing legacy of William Faulkner--whose pervasive influence has threatened to consume and smother the originality of so many modern Southern authors. In recent years, Kyle has stumbled upon an ingenious solution to this dilemma--a shift to sportswriting, specifically to the subject of college football. It is his literary end run. Bill Faulkner never touched upon the triumphs and travails of the Georgia Bulldogs in his work, which has left Kyle free to develop and deploy a wholly original writing voice. When his blog really gets cooking, he does for grown men in shoulder pads and tights what Homer did for Greek dudes with spears. I have no doubt that his inevitable return to fiction will benefit from this fruitful foray onto the gridiron.

You may be wondering why I am devoting all this space to a novelist who has not yet published a novel. Look at it this way: we constantly exalt remote figures such as Faulkner and Hemingway, forgetting the massively talented artists in our midst--who even now may be meandering their way towards future greatness. I'm putting my money on T. Kyle King as one of those future movers-and-shakers. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

For the Love of Mickey Rourke

To love Mickey Rourke, you must forget Mickey Rourke. That's the only way to go about it without exposing yourself to some pretty extreme cognitive dissonance. Forget the many horrible movies: Double Team with Jean Claude Van Damme, Fall Time with Stephen Baldwin, Exit in Red, Out in Fifty, Point Blank, the ready-for-Cinemax soft-porn combo Wild Orchid and Another 9 & 1/2 Weeks. Forget the diva behavior on set, the surgery, and the arrest for spousal abuse. And forget every interview he's ever done.

Fix in your mind instead three movies: Rumble Fish, Angel Heart, and The Wrestler. When I first saw Rumble Fish on late-night TV back in the early 90s, I thought Mickey was about the coolest dude I'd ever come across: the tousled hair, soft voice, confident swagger, and thousand-yard stare pretty much did it for me. And beneath those rugged good looks was some serious darkness into which I couldn't help but be pulled. Angel Heart, which I saw not long afterward, sealed the deal. What's not to love about that movie? You've got a plot that is, in Roger Ebert's words, "Raymond Chandler meets The Exorcist", a moody, jazz-inflected score by Trevor Jones, tough-guy dialogue, the rainy streets of New Orleans, and Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro firing on all cylinders. Mickey's gradual implosion over the course of the film didn't feel like acting...probably because it wasn't.

As for The Wrestler, there's not much I can say that hasn't already been said. To call it a career resurrection would not be an overstatement. While it's true that Rourke managed to deliver some fine cameos even in the midst of his crap years, I never allowed myself to dream that he'd get a starring role again--let alone nail it in the way that he did. There are many high points in the film, but it's the boardwalk scene that secures his place as one of the greats.

So...we're back on track, but it's been an abusive relationship--this thing between Mickey and me. He kept breaking my heart and I just kept coming back, hoping like a battered housewife that the halcyon days of our courtship could somehow be recaptured. Perhaps, under all that muscle and scar tissue, the quietly brooding persona that had so attracted me in Diner, Body Heat, and The Pope of Greenwich Village still slumbered, awaiting the nudges of a perceptive director to be roused once again.

What has emerged instead is an entirely different and better actor: a large shambling wreck of a man who is able to transmit from his deep well of misery straight to celluloid. His metamorphosis (self-induced) from beauty to beast only means that his outsides now reflect his insides. To the viewer, it feels a little like voyeurism to have such direct access to someone else's pain, but I can't tear my eyes away.

Having carried the torch for this guy for fifteen years, I felt vindicated when the previously unthinkable happened: Mickey got nominated for an Oscar. Suddenly the rest of the world was tuned in to my frequency, and the looks of disbelief I used to get when I said "Mickey Rourke is one of my favorite actors" evaporated, replaced by vigorous nods of assent. A groundswell began to build. TV commentators started openly predicting that the Mick would walk away with the golden statue. I allowed myself to hope.

On Oscar night, I stood right next to the TV so I could hear it above the gossipy roar of my friends ("Look at Kate Winslet's dress!" "John Mayer and Jennifer Aniston are together??"), praying more fervently than I had at any point since I was a teenager trying to get laid. I needed to know if the outcast could be redeemed--if Lucifer could repent and be welcomed back to heaven.

The moment was upon us.

"And the Oscar goes to..."



"Sean Penn."

Without a word, I walked out the door, down the stairs, across the complex to the swimming pool, and sat under the night sky for ten minutes. I said, softly, "I'm sorry, Mickey."

This story became legendary: Harper's oddball husband who boycotted Sean Penn's acceptance speech with the gravitas of Martin Luther King at Selma. All for greasy old Mickey Rourke. What can I say? We don't always choose the things we hold dear, and they don't always make sense to others. I mean, I care about world suffering, I really do. But at that particular moment in time I felt bad for one specific person who, despite--or perhaps because of--some very self-destructive tendencies had touched my heart and the hearts of countless others, and should have been acknowledged for that.

Oh well. We'll always have Rumble Fish.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Godlike Genius of Robert Mitchum

Amongst the giants who roamed the earth during the Golden Age, none towered quite so tall as Robert Mitchum, a man who--metaphorically and quite literally--had his way with Hollywood. Poet, singer, womanizer, both bookworm and inveterate hellraiser, he claimed to not give a rat's ass about acting and yet turned in some of the finest performances in the film medium's history: Night of the Hunter, Out of the Past, The Sundowners, Cape Fear, Farewell My Lovely, The Yakuza, Dead Man--those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Thunder Road--which he produced and co-wrote--is affectionately remembered as the "Gone with the Wind of the drive-in." Unique in Hollywood, he understood "the Southern thing," having been raised both in the North and the South (probably the only aspect of Mitchum's wild life to which I can relate). His accents--Southern, Irish, Australian, Brooklyn--were flawless.

To really appreciate the Godlike genius of Robert Mitchum, one need only watch Martin Scorsese's lurid update of Cape Fear followed by the original. Lord only knows how long Robert De Niro spent preparing for the role of Max Cady in the remake; there were reports that he weight-trained relentlessly, getting down to 7% body fat; he probably spent time in prison with hardened criminals, remained in character on set, and engaged in all other manner of method absurdity. Yet all that work was rendered null and void when he opened his mouth to proclaim "Come out, come out, where evuh you ahr!"--his cadence a freakish miscegenation of Alabama redneck, Virginia planter, and Brooklyn Dodgers fan.

Now witness Mitchum's Max Cady, a performance cranked out between trips to the bar. His method was no method, because Cady already resided within Mitchum's dark heart. It wasn't difficult for this one-time drifter to channel Cady's rage at the self-righteous elite embodied by Gregory Peck's lawyer protagonist. The sadism flowed naturally from those feelings. This performance felt authentic; one could easily believe that Cady lived and breathed outside the confines of the film. Mitchum did not need to cover himself in tattoos or take day-trips to the local prison to prepare for his role; he'd already done real jail time. All he had to do was fix his icy eyes on his quarry and let the hate roll off his tongue.

Bob Mitchum lived by his own rules. I'm not saying I agree with them, but they were his. This was a man who proposed to his wife with the words "Stick with me, kid, and you'll be farting through silk." We will never see his like again.

*Much of the biographical information above was derived from Lee Server's book "Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care," which I highly recommend.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Foote and Percy Rolling in Their Graves?

So I've dragged myself into the blogosphere. I guess it had to happen.

For years I scorned the medium. After all, Fitzgerald didn't need a blog. But I've come to realize that Fitz and the other guys were operating in the days when people still read books and magazines. Now everyone's getting their info online, and a blog is just a different way of communicating ideas. Technology is inevitable, as my wife likes to point out in our heated discussions concerning the Amazon Kindle. At this point, no one questions whether an electric guitar is still a guitar, and so it will go in years ahead when the debate over whether blogging constitutes writing is finally put to rest.

What closed the deal for me was the fact that my former colleagues from the University of North Carolina Wilmington--smarter and more talented people than I--have taken to blogging like Rick James to cocaine. If Emma Bolden ain't too proud to blog, then neither am I.

So...the loose theme of this blog is "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants." What I mean to do here is simply muse on the artists and ideas that I find interesting. Will this new outlet curb my compulsion to deliver unsolicited monologues on, say, Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts in social situations? Probably not. But I think it could be fun.

Today I have Shelby Foote and Walker Percy on the brain: two of the finest writers the South produced in the latter half of the 20th century. I've just finished reading "The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy" and am still reeling from the headiness of the exchange. Email seems so superficial in comparison to these stately, rambling, often brilliant letters.

For the uninitiated: Walker Percy was a longtime resident of Covington, Lousiana and penned a number of acclaimed novels such as "The Moviegoer" and "Love in the Ruins" as well as many philosophical (and sometimes impenetrable) essays. Shelby Foote wrote over two million words over the course of his career but is best known as the soft-spoken, scene-stealing commentator from Ken Burns's "Civil War" miniseries (To some Yankees, with his aristocratic accent and carefully cultivated beard, he was Col. Sanders with a Ph.D.* Imagine that, they must have thought, a smart Southerner!)

I started reading The Correspondence back in my twenties, and at the time I couldn't get enough of the young Foote's grandiose pronouncements. Now, after rereading those passages, I am struck by how much of a prick Shelby Foote actually was in his early years, and am a little alarmed that I didn't pick up on this before. For about ten years starting in 1948 Foote cajoled and berated Percy endlessly, and told him, essentially, that he would never amount to anything as a writer unless he read Proust. Well, in 1961 the still Proust-free Percy published "The Moviegoer" and promptly won the National Book Award.

By the end of their lives it was Percy who feverishly cranked out novels, while Foote spent endless hours making mix tapes of his favorite symphonies and did the occasional commentator gig for cash. "Two Gates to the City"--the magnum opus he spent his entire life chattering about ("The protagonist will be the Delta itself!") remained unfinished at the time of his death. Instead, the novelist's lasting contribution to American letters was the staggering three-volume nonfiction opus "The Civil War: A Narrative." No mean feat, but not exactly what he'd envisioned for himself when he started out. Walker Percy, on the other hand, had intended to be a doctor. As John Lennon sang, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

*Foote performed poorly in college and did not earn his honorary doctorate until after Ken Burns made him famous.