If you’ve read Sunset Trip, you will know the story of Solarstar, the fantastic London-based eighties' post-punk group. Fronted by Dead Boys-obsessed American vocalist and rhythm guitarist Mark Jennings, and Sussex-raised guitar hero Matthew St. James, the band released a self-titled album to much acclaim on trendy London indie label Cherry Smash before nightmarish drug habits got the better of them. St. James recovered from his crippling heroin addiction and by the turn of the century become a huge star, playing his maudlin orchestrated ballads to Robbie Williams-sized arena crowds. Jennings had it tougher, struggling with cocaine and alcohol throughout the nineties. While London rejoiced in its Britpop revival, Jennings hid away in Hollywood, crashing and burning multiple times as he tried to get his life and career in order.
In ‘97 Jennings would go to rehab the last time in the quaint southern California ocean-side town of San Clemente where he would meet down-and-out rock ‘n’ roll journalist Drew. The two would bond and reconnect two years later when Drew quit an investor relations job and joined a reformed Solarstar on tour. Mark was the only original member of the new lineup, his supporting cast from an assortment of Los Angeles psychedelic rock bands. While on tour, Drew interviewed Solostar for Alternative Press magazine. All these years later, that piece is considered the definitive article on the band. Drew was kind enough to let me and Obliterati Press include the entire transcript for the book.
So, what more is there to say? I told Sunset Trip from Drew’s point of view, neglecting to mention that I crossed paths with him and Mark when I lived in Los Angeles. When Drew started working as a publicist for Cherry Smash Records, who had relocated from London to L.A. in the early ‘90s, he hit me up to review some of the acts he was working with for my fanzine Vendetta. What fascinated me most was the story of Solarstar. I was blown away by what would have been their last performance at the Troubadour in late ’99, so much so that I thought I could be the one to write the definitive bio of the best band that never was. I had many chats with Mark and even a few with Mathew when his people would let me. However, events didn’t unfold the way that any of us planned and my notes were shelved away until many years later when the genesis of Sunset Trip came to me on a Marrakech rooftop in September 2016.
I don’t think I will be giving anything away if I tell you that my old friend Drew is currently residing in Morocco, living a vampiric rock ‘n’ roll life that I heard inspired Jim Jarmusch to make the film Only Lovers Left Alive. I sat down for mint tea on Drew’s roof top riad one evening and let the recorder work his magic as we talked about Solarstar, their legacy, what could have been. As we said our goodbyes, Drew took me to a small room where he keeps many of his music mementos.
“Take this,” he said, handing me a weathered 45, the words “Solarstar,” “Bullet” and “Uppers & Downers” written in sharpie on a blank sleeve. Drew went on to tell me that this was an early demo that would become the definitive album tracks. He gave us our blessings to share these recordings in all their raw glory. While not as polished as the album masterpieces, one can’t help but soak in the majestic Velvet Underground-tinged ballad “Bullet” or the primal punk pop of “Uppers & Downers”.
Disclaimer: this is a work of fiction, fan-fiction if you will. Solarstar was brought to life, entirely due to my Cleveland friends John Petkovic and Dave James who were part of seminal Cleveland garage punks Death of Samantha. They read the novel and tapped into the soul of the best band that never was. You can read a 5000-word feature on Death of Samantha in the most recent issue of Ugly Things magazine. John and Dave wrote the music and I wrote most of the lyrics with a little help from John. Enjoy.
We are very pleased to announce that our next published book will be the novel The Weighing Of The Heart by Paul Tudor Owen.
Set in New York, The Weighing Of The Heart centres around Englishman Nick Braeburn, who, upon taking a room with the wealthy Peacock sisters in their Upper East Side apartment, becomes infatuated with Lydia, the Portuguese artist who lives across the roof garden. As Nick’s obsession grows, he draws Lydia into a bizarre crime, the consequences of which will have a profound effect on each of them.
This novel was submitted to us during our first, and to date only, submissions window, and within a few paragraphs, we just knew we had stumbled onto something very special. Superbly evoking the New York of Joseph O’Neill, as well as other great American novelists like Roth, Franzen and Chabon, The Weighing Of The Heart truly deserves to take a place in the pantheon of great New York-set novels, alongside such classics as The Bonfire Of The Vanities, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and Bright Lights, Big City.
We closed our submissions window earlier than planned, partly due to the surprising volume of submissions, but largely because we knew we had already found the novel. We felt extremely lucky and privileged to have had this novel land on our desks (well, in our inbox), and we wanted to make it our focus. Now, as publication date approaches, we can’t wait for you to see what has had us so excited.
While The Weighing Of The Heart is Paul Tudor Owen’s debut novel, he is a respected journalist, having worked for The Guardian for fifteen years, with three of those spent as their deputy head of US news in New York, time which greatly inspired and informed Paul’s novel. He also co-wrote and co-edited The Wire Re-Up, the popular book about David Simon’s classic HBO series. He grew up in Manchester and lives and works in London.
* Coming soon *
GUEST POST BY
Last weekend, a friend posted a screenshot of a £5 treble that was just about to come in.
Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha to score any time against Watford, Dedryck Boyata first goalscorer for Celtic against Hamilton Accies, and Eden Hazard first goalscorer for Chelsea against the Geordies.
Apart from confirming the fact that you can bet on a combination of pretty much anything these days, this punt also made me wonder, at odds of 254/1, why anyone in their right mind would even consider it.
Aside, obviously, from the big price and the potential profit, you might place this bet, it could be argued, as a consequence of being British. Although gambling activity dates back almost to the beginning of human civilisation—from the creation and manipulation of dice in the ancient and classical worlds, to the invention and spread of modern playing cards sometime around the twelfth century—it wasn’t until 1569 that Britain staged its first national lottery. Yet the event represents a milestone in the history of one of our most abiding cultural habits. Sold to the people as a patriotic undertaking, the lottery directly and officially catered to the nation’s appetite for a spot of gambling, and it subsequently helped to fund, amongst other things, the construction of the first Westminster Bridge and the settlement of Jamestown.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and a growing mercantile society, followed, soon afterwards, by the industrial revolution, meant that an increasing number of British people had cash on the hip if they wanted to bet. And that’s precisely what they decided to do. Tales of eccentric wagers often come from the British Isles in this period. The Count de Buckeburg is famously said to have bet that he could ride his horse backwards from London to Edinburgh. Another game punter, or so the story goes, staked £500 on one of his pals being able to travel from the capital to Dover and back before a second lad managed to put a million dots on a piece of paper.
As Britain moved into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, betting on sports became increasingly prevalent. As early as 1851, according to one history of gambling in England, a million pounds was bet on the Chester Cup, a prestigious horserace, and cash prizes for predicting the results of football matches (what would eventually become the football pools) are generally believed to have preceded the establishment of a league. But it was improvements in the railways and the development of the electric telegraph system that made sports betting a nationwide phenomenon and a mass enterprise. With these innovations, you could follow races or games from different parts of the country, and so the prospects of gambling opened up as never before. Similarly, by the twenty-first century, and the speedy evolution of the internet and the launch of the betting exchanges, gambling in Britain had gone through another technological revolution. The act of gambling had never been easier. Its range of markets had never been bigger. According to the Gambling Commission, the gross gambling yield for the period October 2016 – September 2017 was £13.9bn. No more recent figures are available, presumably, because it takes so long to count such enormous piles of money.
But there’s more going on here than Brits simply being partial to an occasional flutter. Increased gambling activity is also a symptom of another kind of cultural and social adaptation. According Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, pioneers of risk society theory, people’s orientation to risk has undergone significant change since the middle decades of the twentieth century. As a consequence of the success of industrial society, the logic of wealth production has given way to the logic of risk production. That is, the rapid technological, economic and political developments of global capitalism in the previous sixty or seventy years have destabilised social structures and created a situation in which uncertainties proliferate in most aspects of our lives. In other words, we can’t keep up with what we’re doing, and we can rarely predict what’s coming next. Where once institutions such as the employer, the church, the bank, the media, the nuclear family, even the nation state, might have seemed, at least to some extent, preeminent and secure, nowadays their place and their influence are increasingly equivocal. Think about anything from 9/11 to the collapse of Northern Rock and you’ll soon find evidence of what Giddens calls ‘the careering juggernaut,’ a world where science and progress are beyond our control, and where the bottom of our existence might suddenly fall out.
This isn’t about life becoming riskier, though. It’s not about there being more buses. Or about the spread of bird flu. Or Islamic State. It’s about the fact that we don’t have the experience to confront the risks that we’re constantly in the process of creating ourselves. And it’s about a set of circumstances in which the entities that we once turned towards for answers are often just as clueless as anyone else in terms of formulating a satisfactory response. Of course, for the individual, the situation is doubly discomfiting. Not only do the experts and those in positions of economic and political power appear uncertain how to proceed, you have to start thinking about how you might proceed yourself. What do I do if I lose my job? If the family unit breaks down? If Brexit occurs? These are fundamental questions of self-identity. And they can sometimes feel like a catastrophic burden. How do I act? What’s going to happen? Who do I become? Issues have arisen around immigration in the West over the last few years not, as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage would have it, because we don’t know who the new arrivals are, but because increasing numbers of those already situated aren’t really sure who they are anymore.
Back to the gambling: I can’t say for certain whether any of these observations went through my friend’s mind last Sunday morning as he sat around the house, as he likes to do, scratching his balls and contemplating the bet. But what I can say with confidence is that something persuaded him to take the plunge. All of a sudden, for one reason or another, Dedryck Boyata seemed like a fuckin good idea.
We can all agree that Prince was a musical genius. In fact, if you don’t agree, you’d best click away now, because I’m going to ramble on quite a bit about one of his ﬁnest live performances.
In a 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he shared the stage with Tom Petty, Jeﬀ Lynne, Steve Winwood, and George Harrison’s son, Dhani, as they performed a cover of the Beatle’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.
It’s all very well-executed, but a bit cosy and lumbering, until something happens.
Let’s have a step-by-step breakdown.
0:17 - They play, and Tom Petty sings. It’s all okay, but you feel that if you went to put the kettle on, you’re wouldn’t miss too much.
0:38 - It’s worth noting that there’s no sign of Prince onstage. He simply hasn’t yet arrived on our plane of existence.
0:50 - Jeﬀ Lynne chimes in, and you think he’s not going to hit the high bits, but he does, bless him.
1:23 - Oﬀ in the shadows at the right of the stage, we catch our ﬁrst glimpse of a diminutive guy with a red hat (note: 'in the shadows’, not ‘in The Shadows’).
1:53 - There’s a guitar solo here by someone else, but only in the same way that the mugger in Crocodile Dundee had a knife.
2:09 - Our ﬁrst proper view of the man, strumming along, as if he’s there to quietly make up the numbers.
2:57 - Petty’s back, singing like he’s just woken up from a kip.
3:28 - The spotlight ﬁnally falls on the little feller. He lets out a wailing, extended note, gives a heavy dose of what can only be described as ‘blues chin’, and looks to the heavens.
3:57 - Striking a pose not dissimilar to Pacino in Scarface (“Say hello to my little friend!”) he goes on to tease out some beautiful noises, performing some feats of digital dexterity on the fretboard.
4:26 - A smile and a nod to Petty that seems to say, ‘you’re alright Thomas, but you’re on my stage now, boyo’.
5:36 - The swagger on display at this exact moment should have been bottled and given to nervous virgins.
4:42 - He turns to face Petty and Dhani, who now know they’re merely audience members too, and witnessing something truly special. He lets himself fall oﬀ the stage, safe in the knowledge that if some human doesn’t push him back, the spirit of Hendrix will surely do the job.
4:57 - A cheeky glance. As Danny Dyer might say, he’s about to get naughty.
5:00 - He launches into a searing fret-mangling solo, that compliments the original track, but embellishes it and takes it to ridiculous new heights.
5:35 - Another smile: ‘I know’.
5:56 - He closes a thoroughly epic performance with a ﬁnal high-pitched twiddle, and hurls his guitar upwards. The instrument is never seen to come back down to earth, and for all we know, exceeded escape velocity and is still hurtling through distant parts of the universe, to eventually be discovered and worshipped as a god.
6:12 - Whilst the rest of the band bask in the adulation of the crowd, Prince gives them nary a glance and walks immediately oﬀstage, either straight into a parallel dimension, or into a purple Ford Fiesta. Neither would surprise me.
And that’s what happened.
GUEST BLOG POST BY
When I sign copies of my books, I inscribe them with the line “rock ‘n’ roll saves lives” because it saved mine.
Backtrack to 1984 and my lost nineteen-year-old self. I had been a promising long distance runner in my youth, but my athletic dreams took a nosedive when I struggled to succeed at the next level. I quit my nationally-ranked university team and compensated by drinking heavily, often with the aid of Valium, which had been prescribed to me for anxiety issues. With running out of the picture I lost my identity. I did have music, however. I had always loved rock ‘n’ roll as a kid and with sports out of my life, I became obsessed with the punk and new wave scene, especially artists from the UK like Echo and The Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs and The Cure. My fervor grew to the point where I pleaded with my parents to let me study abroad. My grades were not strong enough for the London School of Economics, but I did get accepted into the University of Essex in Wivenhoe Park, which borders Colchester, an old Roman town about an hour’s train ride from Liverpool Street Station in London.
The year spent at the University of Essex inspired my first novel Wivenhoe Park, which was first published in 2013. I was lucky enough to experience firsthand the rise of The Jesus and Mary Chain, who remain my all-time favorite band and forge friendships that still exist to this day. I remain close to my best friend at the time, Marc, who inspired the Johnny character. People often ask me why it took so long to write an eighties coming of age tale. Like the novel’s protagonist Drew, my dream was to become a music critic. For the next few decades I published several fanzines and contributed to renowned magazines such as The Big Takeover, Skyscraper and Alternative Press. During this time, I also worked for a record label in Los Angeles and started my own, Elephant Stone Records. So, what triggered my journey into writing fiction?
In the back of my mind I had always loved coming-of-age tales from an outsider’s perspective. As a youngster I loved The Outsiders; Catcher in the Rye; Less Than Zero; and Bright Lights, Big City. Later in life, Kevin Sampson’s Awaydays had a huge impact on me. In 2012, my wife and I were in New Orleans with her mother-in-law Ellendea Proffer, who is an accomplished academic with a MacArthur genius award to her name. At this time, I was in a creative funk as the music industry had changed so much that my record label had been relegated to side hustle status and I had been sucked into a corporate day gig. Writing came up in the discussion and I remember telling Ellendea that I had always wanted to write a novel. She said, then why don’t you? Some four months later I completed the first draft of Wivenhoe Park, which a publisher friend loved. Almost a year to the day after that lunch in New Orleans, Wivenhoe Park was in print.
The idea of a sequel and, possibly, a trilogy floated in my mind as I was writing Wivenhoe Park and it came to fruition when I started outlining ideas for my 2015 novel Heartworm. Set ten years after Wivenhoe Park, Heartworm is a comedown novel. If Wivenhoe Park was my Psychocandy, celebrating the mad rush of youth, Heartworm is most definitely Darklands. What worked for Drew in 1985 is most definitely not clicking ten-years later as our protagonist supports a less-than-glamourous writing ‘career’ with dead-end office work, burying memories of his ex-wife with drugs and alcohol.
Heartworm is about Drew coping with rejection in his life and it was in fact inspired by rejection. The novel was initially pitched to Bloomsbury Press for their 33 1/3 series of books inspired by classic albums. Heartworm is also the title of the acclaimed 1995 album by Dublin’s Whipping Boy, a record with cult status in Ireland, one that has topped artists such as U2, The Undertones and Van Morrison in Irish music polls. While most books in the 33 1/3 are dry music criticism, several, namely Joe Pernice’s Meat Is Murder and John Niven’s Music From Big Pink are first-rate rock ‘n’ roll fiction inspired by the music and times of their subject matter. Heartworm the album was a lifesaver for me when I was going through my divorce in 1995. Like Drew, I had lived in Ireland and I wanted to capture the vibe of mid-Nineties Dublin and the angst of the Whipping Boy album, which paralleled what was going on inside me. When my Heartworm didn’t make the cut, it lit a fire inside me to say, fuck it, I’ll show them! As the famous Whipping Boy single from the album proclaimed, ‘We don’t need nobody else’.
The forthcoming Sunset Trip on Obliterati Press is Drew’s hope for redemption. The story begins in 1999 with Drew two-years sober, trying to stay afloat at a soul-crushing investor relations gig in Boston. Circumstances lead him to a record label job in Los Angeles. Will he stay above water or sink into a rock ‘n’ roll heart of darkness?
Writing this final chapter was a therapeutic experience for me. Just after the release of Heartworm I learned that I had a congenital heart condition and that if I did not have surgery, I would only have a year or two to live. On top of that, two friends in their mid-forties passed away in part from heart-related conditions. One before the surgery, one soon after. This triggered me to give up drinking, which at various stages in my life was quite problematic. I wasn’t comfortable with AA, which has worked for some of my rock ‘n’ roll friends, but I saw a counselor who specializes in drug and alcohol addiction for six months.
I have been alcohol sober for twenty months now and sobriety has changed my writing process. Wivenhoe Park and Heartworm were written on a steady diet of red wine and Benadryl while Sunset Trip was completed on a course of Moroccan mint tea and cannabis. The later doesn’t trigger me and was in fact recommended to me by my counselor who helped me kick drink. Speaking of Morocco, a visit to Marrakesh inspired the genesis of Sunset Trip.
My wife and I visited the breathtaking desert city in the autumn of 2017. At this time, I had loose notes for what would become Sunset Trip. One afternoon, while sitting on the rooftop of the riad where we were staying, the whole story rushed to me. I madly typed out the outline and when I came home, wrote the first draft in three months. I sent it to Nathan and Wayne at Obliterati and a few revisions later, here we are. In addition to publishing Sunset Trip in October, Obliterati will be reissuing Wivenhoe Park and Heartworm as eBooks in July.
It was early 1986 and almost everyone I knew was desperate to see Rocky IV. The trailer looked amazing – this time, Balboa was taking on a Russian behemoth and every punch sounded like a nuclear missile exploding. In a post-Star Wars playground, expectation was high, but we had a long wait until the UK release date. I’d already watched a clip on Film 86 – a moody montage edited to ‘No Easy Way Out’ by Robert Tepper. I was hyped.
Then a classmate – let’s call him John, because that’s his name – mentioned he had a VHS copy at his house. He delivered this in such a laid-back fashion, that we didn’t quite believe him. Rocky IV right? Not III or II?
No, he assured us, it was the real deal – he’d already watched it. His uncle was a very good man to know and could get hold of pirate videos. Me and two mates rolled up to John’s house one weekend, ready to see The Italian Stallion, Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago in action and took our places on the settee.
“Oh, it’s not there,” he said. “I’ve got the cover, though.”
He showed us the tape box, which did indeed have ‘Rocky 4’ written in biro down the spine.
“We could watch this instead,” he said, holding up another box: Zombies: Dawn of the Dead.
It was a crushing letdown. Our hearts had been set on Stallone, and we’d been left with some ropey-looking video nasty. Then we started watching, and it was incredible. I can remember the tense opening scenes as Ken Foree’s SWAT team enter a tenement block where people have been hiding their dead from the authorities. It’s bedlam. A woman embraces an undead loved one, and has a chunk of her neck bitten off. Someone’s head explodes with a shotgun blast. Down in the basement, zombies ﬁght for scraps of human ﬂesh. It was like nothing I’d ever seen.
We didn’t get through the whole ﬁlm. I was let down by the weak attention spans of my classmates, who wanted to go off and explore John’s dad’s magazine collection. Then I went home and was off school with the ﬂu for a week. The bits of Dawn of the Dead I’d managed to see made their way into my fevered brain and have been there ever since.
It was a couple of years before I tracked it down. A pirate third or fourth generation VHS copy bought by mail order. I closed my curtains one Saturday afternoon and watched it in his entirety. It was brilliant. It had a vibe all of it’s own, an otherness. It was clearly done on a budget, yet the surreal combination of the zombie-occupied shopping mall setting and Tom Savini’s grisly special effects elevated it to another level altogether.
Dawn (and Night of the Living Dead, released a decade previously) established the basic rules of the modern zombie ﬁlm from which every other movie is a variation. And it’s a sub-genre that shows no signs of abating. Much like the vampire movie, it’s one that’s open to endless reinterpretation and reinvention, and one I’m very much there for.
As I write this, I'm on day 112 of #100DaysOfWriting.
Maybe I should explain.
A little while ago, I noticed a writer, Jenn Ashworth, was doing 100 consecutive days of writing and documenting her progress on the socials. The idea was that word count didn’t matter. This wasn’t like National Novel Writing Month, where participants committed to writing 50,000 words in November. Instead, you’d find time to write something – anything – each day for 100 days. In fact, you didn’t actually need to write anything at all, you could just do some research, or some correspondence, or some planning. Anything, in fact, to move your writing project along in some way.
My first novel, Lord of the Dead, was written in such a piecemeal style - short bursts of activity separated by days, sometimes weeks of inactivity – that committing to a sustained period of writing seemed like a great idea. If I cracked on, I could come up smiling with the best part of a novel in just over three months. So 2nd January became ‘DAY 1’, and on the train into work, I did some scribbling. In the spirit of counting things, here’s 10 things I noticed over the next 99 days. I’m not doing 100 things. That would be mad.
1. The first few days require a bit of adjustment. At the beginning, you’ll probably have all the ideas you need to keep you going, it’s more the discipline, finding the time to fit it in among, work, family life and everything in between.
2. Soon you’ll get creative with juggling your time. I realised if I took the longer route into work, I’d have a better chance of getting a seat, about 25 minutes uninterrupted writing, and still get to work on time.
3. If that didn’t work out, I could get myself out at lunchtime. I could find a cafe, get something to eat and back to work, and still squeeze in 20 minutes of writing. In fact, the change of scenery would usually inspire something, a piece of dialogue, a character or a location, which I probably wouldn’t have thought of.
4. Writing in the morning really works for me. At weekends, if I happened to wake up early, instead of mindlessly thumbing my phone for an hour, I’d do a bit work. And then probably go back to sleep.
5. There’ll be times when you really – I mean really – don’t feel like writing. On my least productive day, with a stinking hangover, I did a total of eight words of dialogue. I wasn’t even that happy with them, but it was something, god dammit. There’ll always be something that could scupper things – a visiting relative, a christening, a weekend away with your significant other. Whatever it is, work around it. Fit it in.
6. At some point you might run out of stuff to write about. I guess it depends on your writing process. I’m not a meticulous planner. I have a vague idea of scenes, beats, plot points and where I want to get to, but often don’t have a clue as to how I’ll get there. A handful of days were taken just planning out things to write, a list of scenes on my phone for quick reference.
7. One good thing about #100DaysOfWriting is that you have to think ahead. Not just what I’m going to write about today, but what I’ll do tomorrow and so on. I think this consistency is great for your book.
8. Watching your book grow is pretty satisfying. I quickly gave up trying to organise anything into chapters and instead concentrated on getting it down, scribbling in my notebook, typing it up and scoring a line through the notebook page when it was done.
9. Don’t sweat over the small stuff. You could waste lost of time checking names, locations and facts that’ll distract you from your flow of writing. Instead, I’d write myself lots of notes. ‘Insert seas slug latin name here’ and so on. Fuck all that, you can sort it out later. Just keep writing.
10. Probably the best thing about #100DaysOfWriting is that it’s habit-forming. It changes the way you think about writing. I was always whinging about not having the time to write. There was always work, or family commitments, or the annoying need to eat and sleep, or good old-fashioned procrastination to get in the way.
I think #100DaysOfWriting makes you realise these pressures are always going to be there and if you’re going to be a writer, you’ll need to find techniques to work around them. So that’s why I’m on day 112. I’m maybe halfway through a really rough first draft, so when I hit DAY 200 of #100DaysOfWriting on 20th July, I might be ready to start a second draft.
A writer writes, right?
Earlier this week, it was confirmed that Steven Spielberg would begin filming for the as-yet untitled Indiana Jones 5 in April 2019. Okay… now pause. Let’s just think about that for a moment.
Harrison Ford is 75 years old. By the time filming begins, he’ll be almost 76. Which is 4 years away from being 80. Now, I’m not ageist or anything, but we have to be realistic here. I’ll happily pay money to see this film, but I will not be a happy bunny if Indy is jumping from moving cars, or busting faces in ridiculously implausible punch-ups, or swinging from his bullwhip over fiery pits. I will not be happy if his character is physically more powerful or his body more resilient to being tossed around on screen than any character half his age.
Well, it’s just not plausible anymore.
The heinous stain on the Indy franchise that is Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was already pushing the realms of believability. Bouncing around in a lead-lined fridge that saved his life from an atomic detonation. Numerous fisticuffs with TRAINED Russian soldiers, all of whom were younger and, presumably, fitter. Bullwhip-swinging from the rafters of a warehouse; several life-threatening waterfall plunges, a heart-stopping race through the jungle with bullets flying, swords swinging, and great big teethy tree-chomping machines screaming through the air.
I mean… Come on. It was just insane. And the list goes on. Even if you forget the abysmal UFO ending, or Ray Winstone and Karen Allen’s piss-poor performances, or Shia LaBeouf, the one scene in this awful, AWFUL movie which cemented, for me, its utter and execrable disgrace, was the one in which Indy and Marion are stuck in sinking sand.
“Just say rope!” barks Indy, as Mutt comes to his rescue, brandishing a great big fucking snake he found in the jungle.
Oh yeah. Just say rope. Hilarious.
If Spielberg hopes for Indy 5 to be some kind of redemptive success, then I have some advice. Please, mate… please don’t shit all over the memory of the original three movies. Not like you did with Crystal Skull. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my favourite movies ever, and has been for about 30 years. I first saw it when I was about 10; I fell in love with it instantly and I haven’t stopped loving it. Indy was my hero for years. An ordinary boffin, thwarting the Nazis with eye-popping stunts, daring dos and the coolest hat on the planet. From everything about the character, to the plot; to the costumes, the music and just the overall LOOK of the film, I cannot stress enough how much I love Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Temple and Crusade were okay. Contrary to popular opinion, I actually preferred Temple, despite some slightly uncomfortable stereotypes. Crusade took on more of the comic tone, which was used sparingly in the first two movies. I didn’t like that as much. Temple was dark. Ominous. It retained the spooky quality that was used in Raiders - chasing after forces not to be meddled with. There was a compassionate quality to Indy in Temple, conveyed by his refusal to let the children in that movie go on suffering, such that he damn well would meddle with forces not to be meddled with. In Raiders, the ominous overtones came via the simply unknowable, destructive power of the Ark of the Covenant. "Death has always surrounded it," says Sallah, in a moment of reflective concern. This is not an object being sought as treasure; this is a mission to prevent it falling into the worst hands it could possibly fall into.
Crusade lost all that. I don’t quite know how to define it, even. The Ark of the Covenant is Old Testament power; the human sacrifices in Temple were about some warped human devotion to deities of death and destruction (even if there may have been outrage over a purported misrepresentation of the Hindu Goddess Kali). But with Crusade, the darkness seemed to be missing. There’s just something about it… about the way it looks that isn’t the same, and for me, it didn’t work as much. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, because I did. But by Crusade, it seemed to me that maybe they were best just leaving the whole thing be.
So when, nearly twenty years later, Crystal Skull was released, I can’t deny that I was pretty damn excited, if a little concerned.
So much for that. With the bad taste in my mouth of fond memories having been pissed all over, I did what I did with Alien 3. I just pretended it didn’t exist.
But now… now the chance exists to right some wrongs. I guess it doesn’t really matter that Harrison Ford is 75, as long as Indiana Jones behaves within the bounds of what can be expected from a man of that age. I'm not saying I don't want to see a bit of action; I'm not saying I want to see him forgetting his train of thought halfway through a conversation or the name of the person he's talking to. I'm not saying I want to hear him groan when he bends down to examine clues in the dirt and say: "Oh Jesus, my back!"
I'm just saying it has to be plausible. The character of Indiana Jones is as susceptible to the effects of ageing just as anyone is, and I have no problem with a film portraying his older years, as long as it's believable. It's simply another way of exploring a much-loved character. The one thing they did get right with his character in Crystal Skull was make him more reflective… more teacherly… Indy was always a bit of a clever bugger, but being older, his character’s wisdom was explored more. Shame then, that they also had him leaping from a moving motorbike, into a car, and back again.
I personally don’t know why Spielberg is so precious about the character being played ONLY by Ford. Sure… those are some pretty big shoes for any other actor to step into. But it’s not impossible. Generally speaking, I get as chapped off with re-boots as the next man. With Indiana Jones, though, I may be willing to make some allowances. Especially if they screw Indy 5 up.
For the time being however, it seems, that a re-boot ain’t gonna happen.
So please… for the love of Indiana Jones, and what will likely be Ford’s last crack at the whip, I ask that you join me in hoping to high heaven they don’t fuck this up.
My memories of first seeing The Big Lebowksi are not yet quite twenty years old. Though released in USA on 6th March 1998, it didn't hit the UK until a few weeks later. So, it was on or about 24th April that my housemate Andy and I, living in Carlisle at the time, went to the city's Warner Village (now Vue) cinema. Both hardcore cinephiles and Coen Brothers fans, our expectations were naturally high, especially following on from the success of their previous effort Fargo, which had won two Oscars and been a critical and commercial hit. The fact that I feel moved to write a blog post about it two decades later tell you that we were not disappointed.
Just a few hours later, we were annoying people at a party who hadn't yet seen the film by quoting lines from the film back and forth at each other, particularly most of Jesus Quintana's dialogue, and "this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass", a line we also employed when leaving the party, as we kicked over a bike belonging to a lad we didn't like for reasons I can't remember.
So I loved Lebowski instantly. It was endlessly quotable, and demanded repeat viewings - in fact, I went back a couple of days later to watch it again, and retain some more of the dialogue to drop into everyday conversation. Many of the actors involved did some of their very best work. Jeff Bridges, having made a career of playing charismatic, handsome but morally ambiguous characters, completely let himself go to play the slobbish, overweight Dude, his fat gut hanging out over his shorts, unkempt beard stained with White Russian. John Goodman, re-teaming with the Coens having worked with them on Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, was allowed to go all out as paranoid, combustible Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak, pulling a piece out on the lanes and caring for his ex-wife's Pomeranian. Completing the unlikely trio of friends was Steve Buscemi's Donny, the quiet one of the group, about whom we know little beyond him being told to shut the fuck up by Walter, and that he loved bowling and surfing, a fact made clear to us in Walter's clumsy eulogy after Donny has continued Buscemi's tradition of being killed off in Coen Bros' films. Perhaps most instantly memorable of all was another Coens mainstay, John Turturro as Jesus, the hairnet wearing pederast who can fucking roll, man.
But, much as I did love the film, it certainly didn't instantly take on the status of my favourite film. Or even my favourite Coen Bros' film. For a good few years later, I maintained that Fargo was their best work, occasionally arguing the case for Raising Arizona. But, as the film found its true home on DVD (it was considered something of a box office flop, and reviews were lukewarm), it was in this format that, over the course of several years, I grew to appreciate its true genius. There was just something irresistibly compelling about this film, and, during a period on the dole, I fell into a pattern of watching it several times a week, late at night. I came to realise that the lack of enthusiasm from many critics and even some fans was due to the fact that, with so much going on, it was hard to process everything in one sitting, or even several sittings. There's so much great dialogue, so many quotable lines, so many great gestures and facial expressions, that it's hard to keep track of them. A perfect example is the scene where The Dude confronts Da Fino (played by the late Jon Polito). Their inept attempts to square up to each other, and Polito's odd attempts to placate The Dude by making bizarre shapes with his arms, are so funny that one could easily miss the genius 'like an Irish monk?' line.
The fact that it rewarded so many repeat viewings was always its greatest strength. Throughout the script, there is not one line of dialogue, one single utterance, or even facial gesture wasted. Not only does The Big Lebowski reward repeat viewings, repeat viewings are absolutely essential to appreciating the level of its brilliance. I don't know how many dozens of viewings it was before I picked up on the nuances of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of Brandt, lickspittle to the titular 'Big' Jeffrey Lebowski. Witness the scene before The Dude meets his namesake where Brandt is showing a disinterested Dude around the many awards his boss has acquired. Several times he asks The Dude to stop fingering a shoe-shaped plaque. As The Dude has one last touch, the discomforted reaction of Brandt is exquisite. Rarely if ever has a film revealed so much hidden depth that you can watch it literally a hundred times and still find something you'd missed before.
For all the hilarious dialogue, at its core, this is also a film about friendship. These three lonely men, who seemingly have little in common other than their love of bowling, need each other. As unhinged as Walter is, he's the kind of friend you'd always want in your corner when confronted by three nihilists in a dark parking lot. And when he tells The Dude "nobody's gonna cut your dick off, not while I have anything to say about it," you absolutely believe him. As mean as he seems to Donny at times, when Donny suffers at heart attack, Walter cradles him in his arms with genuine love. Even when he makes a mess of scattering Donny's ashes, covering The Dude in the incinerated remains of their friend, The Dude can't stay mad at him for long, eventually accepting the borderline psychotic veteran's embrace.
Only a handful of comedies have stood up to such repeat viewings over the years. The Producers, This Is Spinal Tap, Withnail And I, and The Big Lebowski stand out, with Alpha Papa likely to join them. But The Big Lebowski stands head and shoulders above all of them. But it's not just the greatest comedy of all time, it's the greatest film of all time.
And if you disagree, well, that's just, like, your opinion, maaan.
In the quest to find a publisher for my debut novel, one particular difficulty I’ve come up against involves the repeated necessity to refer to myself. You must create a Facebook page. You need a clever Twitter handle. You have to make the world aware of everything you do.
All right, pal. But what do I say?
Social media is one thing; the biography page of an author’s website is quite another. This section throws up a range of issues for anyone looking to get a foot in the publishing door. While it seems indulgent to partake in the kind of online soul-searching that seeks to answer the question, Am I a writer? it might be revealing to take a closer look at some of the reasons why it can be a challenge, in describing yourself and your work, to find suitable words and strike the right tone.
An awareness of existing outside of something does not represent a new experience or an original thought. Artists and writers from George Bernard Shaw to Dee Dee Ramone have riffed upon a sense of feeling somehow detached. What I’m talking about here, though, as regards the task of formulating the author biography section, is not a sense of existing outside of society, but a sense of existing, specifically, outside of the publishing industry. Deliberately or otherwise, writers themselves often contribute to a feeling of being inside or outside of an exclusive community. Consider, for example, many contemporary writers’ willingness to stop their work and prescribe the rules of writing. Rules, by their nature, create an outside. What does it mean if I don’t keep a word count? Don’t read my sentences aloud? Don’t love what I do? What does it say about me if I write in the evening instead of in the morning, work before breakfast not after dinner, venture outdoors, stand at the window, compose in the kitchen, at the library, on the crapper?
If an aspiring author manages to navigate the pitfalls of the act of writing, he soon stumbles upon more rules and regulations as he enters the sphere of the literary agent. The first fifty pages, ten thousand words, a natural break, personal, professional, a blurb, a synopsis, a chapter outline, an email inquiry. The recent controversy when one London agent posted on Twitter a sarcastic submission letter sent by a would-be disciple (the post provoking a mixed response, it’s worth remarking, from both writers and fellow agents alike) demonstrates how seriously the guidelines for submissions ought to be taken. Break the rules here, flower, and you might find yourself up in the kind of kangaroo court at which even Norman Stanley Fletcher would surely have baulked.
Interestingly, around the time I was thinking about content for my website, I was also re-reading Nelson Algren. Algren himself found it problematic to reconcile his worldview with his place, or not, within the publishing industry. “A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery,” he states in Nonconformity: Writing on Writing, a work produced in the early 1950s and published posthumously in 1996. “The strong-armer isn’t out merely to turn a fast buck any more than the poet is out solely to see his name on the cover of a book, whatever satisfaction that event may afford him. What both need most deeply is to get even.” Not concerned, obviously, with the matter of what to write about himself on his website, Algren’s stance nevertheless evokes a spirit of belligerence that seems sorely lacking in today’s writing and publishing arena. It’s impossible to say how Algren might approach a twenty-first-century literary agent and the sharp observations (and various pictures of cats, dogs, desks, books, laptop screens, snacks and cups of coffee) on his or her Twitter feed, but I suspect the exchange might be edifying for all.
Not instructive, either, in my attempts to find the right words for the biography part of my website was a recent email communication with another London agent. Here I discovered what I already knew. Trends and the bottom line. Quite understandable. It’s a business, not a charity, or some kind of therapy. Yet the agent’s message didn’t offer a great deal of encouragement in terms of my believing in the inclusivity and openness of the publishing racket. “Brilliant” prose, he wrote, “as good and probably better than most of the stuff that gets published and on the prize lists.” At the same time, though, he described a situation, almost apologetically, in which it would be impossible to shift a Yorkshire novel about gambling on the football, even in a World Cup year, because of its northern setting, its sporting subject matter and the fact that most publishing houses cater to a seventy percent female readership.
I’m a big boy, though. I understand the game. Clearly, you can be too precious about your relationship to the industry. You can take yourself and your work too seriously. You can be unrealistic in your expectations or blinkered in the measure of your potential audience or your talent.
And your manuscript might be a bag of shite.
The question remains, however: Does it matter how an author describes himself or how other people, inspecting his website, categorise his output or come to judge his endeavours? Should a writer struggle to get inside? Algren again: “If you feel you belong to things as they are, you won’t hold up anybody in the alley no matter how hungry you may get. And you won’t write anything that anyone will read a second time either.”
As I’ve discovered in the last couple of years, it’s difficult enough to convince those in the industry to read your work once. For a variety of reasons, the idea of writing something that a publishing insider might read a second time sounds optimistic in the extreme. In this context, the image of the writer as strong-armer, street robber or safecracker seems to speak to the state of British publishing itself. If a debut author manages to gain entry and, with a bit of luck, subsequently escape, whilst maintaining a semblance, at least, of his originality and integrity, despite the rules and regulations, the conventions and limitations, the reductive analyses, he might rightly consider himself above the law.
Which brings me back to the challenge of describing myself and explaining my literary situation. As a consequence, perhaps, of re-reading Algren, and of the experience, more generally, of labouring to persuade an agent or a publisher to consider my manuscript, on the website I resorted to the language of the heist: “John O’Brien is looking for one big score. He lives in Frankfurt am Main.”
Follow John O'Brien on Twitter: @johnnyrises