We recently had award-winning author Michael Kardos as a guest on the Writer Types crime and mystery podcast. We started out by asking Michael—who is also a drummer—about his musical influences instead of his writing influences. Michael was a good sport about it, admitting that Billy Joel and his long-time drummer, Liberty DeVitto, were two of his heroes growing up.
My co-host and I both come from mostly punk/Indie rock backgrounds, so his response gave us a (hopefully) funny bit that ran throughout our discussion. At some point we even got around to Michael’s excellent books, including BLUFF, BEFORE HE FINDS HER, and THE THREE-DAY AFFAIR.
I was stoked when I heard about The Current’s Husker Dü documentary podcast—and then totally forgot about it. Ironic considering the title of the series. Although, it might be more accurate to say that I wasn’t ready to listen.
“Dü You Remember?” includes 5 episodes that originally coincided with the release of the excellent Savage Young Dü box set from Numero Group. Unfortunately, it also served as a heart-felt farewell to talented songwriter/drummer/artist Grant Hart who died in September of last year—a month before the release. So as excited as I was about listening to the podcast, I just couldn’t get myself to dive in. That all changed when the algorithm gods gave me a much-needed kick in the ass last week. The timing was perfect.
I recently played on two songs for a friend’s new album, the first recordings I’ve done in a few years. It got me thinking about my long relationship with drumming and the people who inspired me along the way. The long list includes everybody from John Bonham, Charlie Watts and Keith Moon to Bun E. Carlos, D.J. Bonebrake and Alan Myers. And, of course, Grant Hart. I’ve long found it hard to describe Hart’s drumming, but I’ve never heard another drummer play with the same combination of intensity, style and outright musicality. He was also one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation, right up there with his bandmate Bob Mould.
I started playing drums in my early teens and pretty much didn’t stop for twenty-five years. Picking up that first pair of sticks radically changed the course of my life. Not only did I make great friends, but I got to record and tour a little along the way.
Once drumming took a back seat, I was fortunate to find another passion in writing crime and mystery fiction. It’s been a real thrill getting to know that community as well, which—as luck would have it—includes several musicians. A few of us even tried to launch an ill-fated band featuring five crime authors. That project, like countless bands before it, was sunk by infighting over REO Speedwagon.
These days I still get the occasional chance to play. Most recently it’s with my good friend and former band mate, Jeff Whalen, who just announced his first solo record, 10 More Rock Super Hits. I was stoked to play drums for two songs on this stellar collection (pen name, S.W. Lauden; drum name, Steve Coulter). Having made two albums and a couple E.P.’s with him in the rock group Tsar, I can honestly say that the songs on 10 More Rock Super Hits are among Jeff’s best—but don’t take my word for it:
Ever notice that certain words pop up more often in songs than in real life? I’ve long thought of “creep” as one of those words.
I first encountered it with Social Distortion’s “The Creeps” (1982). On the surface it’s like the soundtrack to a low budget horror film, but underneath is the fundamental punk rock need to make the mainstream feel uncomfortable. In this case, “creeps” is a physical sensation akin to spine-tingling fear or revulsion. The word was used in a similar way at the dawn of Seattle’s grunge scene with Nirvana’s “Negative Creep” (1989). Of course, other bands used the word “creep” in the 80s. One of my favorites is That Petrol Emotions’ “Creeping To The Cross” (1987). And Luther Vandross got in on the action with “Creepin'” (1985). In both instances, the word “creep” is used as a physical act similar to skulking, prowling or sneaking.
But it wasn’t until the 90s that we reached peak “creep” with Radiohead’s 1992 classic. Although the word “creep” is used in a similar way to their punk and grunge predecessors, Thom Yorke’s professed “creepiness” is delivered as more of a lament about loneliness and isolation. Stone Temple Pilots followed a year later with their song “Creep,” and pop trio TLC released a song with the same title in 1994. But it wasn’t just mainstream acts that waved a “creep” flag in the 90s. Guided By Voices got in on the movement with their lo-fi “Fantasy Creeps,” while Blue Meanies gave “creep” the ska-core treatment with “Creepy.” White Zombie even used the word in their 1995 album title, Astro-Creep 2000.
I’m a writer and a music fan, so I often think of the lyrics to my favorite songs as short stories. A couple of the best elements are usually there—from isolation, desperation and validation to heartbreak, betrayal and revenge. Some songwriters create easy to follow narratives, while others make you tease the story out. Great songs can make us imagine exactly what the songwriter envisioned, but it’s more fun to create our own version of the story as we listen.
Lately I’ve been digging deeper with daily posts that re-imagine lyrics through the lens of short fiction. I can’t promise that I’ll keep up this pace, but I’m having fun for now. I call the series “Short Story in a Song:”
Discovering Pixies was like finding out that ghosts are real. Their music felt brand new and familiar at the same time—like it had been steadily playing in the background of all my favorite songs. I still remember the moment when a friend handed me a copy of Surfer Rosa. Songs like “Bone Machine,” “Broken Face” and “Gigantic” were a revelation. I’d played it to death by the time I got my hands on the band’s commercial breakthrough, Doolittle. From the opening bass line of “Debaser” and all the way through the anthemic ending of “Gouge Away,” Doolittle remains one of the most influential alternative rock albums ever. Interestingly, it was a mid-tempo song about drifters that gave Pixies their first hit. “Here Comes Your Man” would make a great short story.
The setting is a desolate rail yard. Box cars sit idle while desperate men stand around an open fire to fight the numbing cold. It’s a familiar scene for our narrator, the pointless monotony feeding his desire for the end to come. Despite it all, he waits patiently for death to arrive and take him away from his tired existence. And when it finally does arrive, it isn’t the shaking of a box car that rousts him from his daydreams but an earthquake. It’s not the ending he he’d hope for, but it answers his prayers all the same.
Read the full lyrics for “Here Comes Your Man” by Pixies right HERE.
Grunge. If you lived through it, listening to the genre’s ubiquitous mega-hits might be a chore these days. Don’t get me wrong, songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Black Hole Sun” and “Even Flow” are as undeniably great as they are stylistically diverse. If anything, it’s a testament to their cultural significance and broad appeal that bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam remain in heavy rotation almost thirty years after Seattle blew up. But for every legendary grunge act there are hundreds of mostly forgotten peers from Seattle and elsewhere—bands like Tad, 7 Year Bitch, Gumball, and Overwhelming Colorfast. Somewhere in the middle is Mudhoney, a garage-soaked powerhouse that helped define the “Seattle Sound” and continues to record and tour three decades later. “Touch Me I’m Sick” is probably one of their best-known songs, and it would make a great short story.
Our narrator is alienated as a result of some kind of affliction. It might be physical, emotional or both, but whatever it is doesn’t keep him from expressing a strong desire for human interaction. Whether it’s real or imagined—a terminal disease, an STD, drug addiction or an anti-social state of mind—he believes himself to be contaminated by something contagious. The rot that infects his body and mind seeps into his actions and words, making him confrontational as he tries to lure a woman home to share in his misery. She seems reluctant, and who could blame her since it’s obvious that he’s the one most likely to die alone.
Read the full lyrics for Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” right HERE.
Very excited to be over at Story and Grit today. Jessie Rawlins asked some great questions. I talk about my Greg Salem series, music (everything from Johnny Cash to REO Speedwagon), and podcasting—among many other things.
Hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed doing it.
Even 30 years after I first heard it, Fugazi’s “Waiting Room” still fills me with angsty anticipation from the moment the opening bass line kicks in. It’s three minutes of post-hardcore perfection that triggers some kind of Pavlovian response in me. And while I may not publicly drool as often as I used to, I do find myself almost hypnotized by the pulsating tension. The mysterious lyrics would make a great short story.
Our narrator sounds like he’s saying a lot without saying much at all. Instead of intricate detail, we get broad strokes and powerful imagery that evoke feelings of frustration and isolation. As if “the waiting place” from Dr. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go has been stripped down to its non-psychedelic core to reveal the mind-numbing horrors of inaction. Whether this is a song about a Dante-esque Limbo, the effects of mood-altering prescription drugs, or an actual physician’s waiting room—our hero has had enough and is ready to rise up. He’s calling on all of us to stand up with him and spring into action. Are you ready?
Read the full lyrics for Fugazi’s “Waiting Room” HERE.