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.