Nilsson: Harry

(The latest in my series of posts on Nilsson’s albums, which I’ll be collecting into a book soonish)

Harry was the first of Nilsson’s RCA albums proper not to be produced by Rick Jarrard, but instead to be produced by Nilsson himself. Jarrard blamed the Beatles for the severance of his relationship with the singer, and Nilsson himself seems to have agreed with this, though he would not have placed the same interpretation on it as Jarrard.

Jarrard, put simply, thought that spending time around the Beatles fundamentally changed who Nilsson was and made him into an unrecognisably different, unpleasant person. Nilsson, on the other hand, said that spending time around the Beatles while they were working, together and separately, had showed him that he was capable of producing his own sessions, and that if he was going to work with another producer it shouldn’t be one like Jarrard, but one more like the Beatles’ producer George Martin. So, halfway through recording Harry, Nilsson abruptly fired Jarrard as his producer, by telegram, and the two never spoke again. Jarrard had produced “Open Your Window”, “Mournin’ Glory Story”, “Marchin’ Down Broadway”, and “Rainmaker”, and Nilsson produced the rest of the album by himself – and truthfully, while one can see that Jarrard was treated shabbily, especially given that Nilsson’s second album had only been recorded thanks to Jarrard’s pressure on the label, it’s hard to see any difference in the sound of the tracks that Nilsson produced on his own – and the presence of George Tipton added to a sense of sonic continuity with the first two albums.

That said, there is one major difference with the earlier records: Nilsson had finally met his father for the first time since his childhood. While he was apparently completely underwhelmed by finally meeting Nilsson senior, the experience seems to have provided some amount of catharsis for him, and so for the first time we get no songs about his father leaving. There’s a nostalgia here still, a sense of looking back at the past, but the past conjured up is far more of a golden age than that in the previous albums.

Also, this album, more than the previous record, showcases Nilsson as an interpreter rather than as a songwriter. While there had been only one cover version on Aerial Ballet, here we have a ratio closer to the five cover versions of Pandemonium Shadow Show, with three cover versions of other people’s records, two songs written for Nilsson by his friend Bill Martin, one song co-written by Nilsson and Martin, and one song originally written by Nilsson’s mother (the last time one of her songs would show up on an album).

This is a pattern we will see throughout Nilsson’s career. He was a great songwriter, but not an especially prolific one, and he would tend to alternate between albums where he wrote most of the songs and albums that were mostly or solely cover versions. Here the cover versions include works by songwriters who would reappear time and again in Nilsson’s music – Lennon/McCartney and Randy Newman – but they’re still among the weaker songs on what is a remarkably strong album.

And this may indeed be Nilsson’s best, or at least most enjoyable, album. While Nilsson Schmilsson is the album which produced Nilsson’s biggest hit and his most recognisable recording of one of his own songs, Harry is the album that produced those songs which would appear in Nora Ephron romantic comedies in the 90s, and which now make up the bulk of the “best of” compilations. There are no hits on here, but there are some astonishing pieces of songwriting and gorgeous vocal performances.

More than anything, this is the album that shows just how good Nilsson was at all aspects of his art – as a performer, as a songwriter, as a producer, and as an interpreter and selecter of other people’s songs. It’s an album which just exudes a playful joy, as if Nilsson is inviting the listener to share with him the sheer wonder of being able to make music. There are very few albums which have that kind of easy virtuosity – Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney at their very best were capable of similar playful inventiveness, but neither ever had quite the combination of self-assuredness and sophistication that Nilsson pulls off here.

After this record, Nilsson would produce a couple of albums which were astonishing in their own way, but which weren’t conventional pop albums like this, before heading into a very different phase for the albums from Nilsson Schmilsson on. While The Point and Nilsson Sings Newman are both wonderful records, this album is really where Nilsson’s initial phase as a bright young thing ends, and while he would go on to make many more great records, he’d never quite make anything like those first three albums again.

The Puppy Song
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

“Dreams are nothing more than wishes and a wish is just a dream you wish to come true”.

Much as he had with Aerial Ballet, Nilsson opened the album with a song written for another performer – in this case Welsh folk-singer Mary Hopkin. Hopkin had been spotted on a TV talent contest and signed to the Beatles’ Apple label, and Paul McCartney, who was producing her first album, Postcards, asked Nilsson to contribute a song. That album went to number three in the UK, but Hopkin’s version, while pleasant enough, lacked Nilsson’s easy familiarity. The song itself combines a breezy melody, over simple major chords, with lyrics which seem at first to be equally breezy but which have a curious melancholy, lonely, edge to them – the protagonist wishes he could have a puppy, and also that he could have a loyal friend, but with both puppy and friend he’d “stay away from crowds”, and he acknowledges that having either a puppy or a friend is something he’s wishing for rather than something he has.

The song has gone on to become one of Nilsson’s best-known compositions, hitting UK number one (as a double A-side) in a cover version by David Cassidy, from an album which took its title, Dreams are Nuthin’ More than Wishes, from the song. That album was produced by Rick Jarrard, and it must have been strange for Jarrard to produce a hit single based on a song from an album he’d been sacked from…

Nilsson’s own version was later used over the opening credits of the 1990s hit comedy film You’ve Got Mail.

Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

The second song on the album has something of a trad jazz feel to it, with banjos, fiddle, harmonica, and honky-tonk piano mixing with lusher, layered, sax and clarinet arrangements to produce something which is, in its arrangement, somewhat reminiscent of Rhapsody In Blue, though melodically the pieces are nothing alike. There’s also a touch of Stephane Grapelli in the skittering violin. Lyrically, it’s the first of several songs on the album to discuss nostalgia and a lost early-twentieth century past, and thus ties in with later songs like “Marchin’ Down Broadway”.

The cover of Harry shows Nilsson as a very young child, and much of the album seems to be looking back to the time he was growing up. In this song, the couple looking back on their life got married in 1944, when Nilsson would have been three. There’s a nostalgia here, but it’s a nostalgia for a time Nilsson himself would have little or no memory of.

As with all the songs on the album, Nilsson gives an excellent vocal performance, but the track is a slight one, if extremely pleasant. There’s nothing bad on Harry, but there are tracks which are less necessary, and this is probably one of them.

Open Your Window
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Quite possibly the best melody Nilsson ever wrote, this song was covered by Ella Fitzgerald on her album Ella (Produced by Rick Perry, of whom more in future essays). Fitzgerald’s version sticks very closely to Nilsson’s, which is unsurprising, as this is an absolutely exemplary recording of an absolutely exemplary song. There’s a contentment and joy in this song, and a laid-back relaxed feel which makes you feel like, as the song says, “living is easy, as easy as pie”. Lyrically it’s not quite up to the same level as the melody, having merely serviceable lyrics, but this is a relative assessment – the lyrics are perfectly competent, and do a decent job of evoking the sentiments intended. It’s just that Nilsson’s melody is so absolutely beautiful that a merely competent lyric perhaps feels like it doesn’t do it justice.

But that’s just nitpicking, frankly. This is simply beautiful, and is an example of Nilsson at his very best. It’s a song I could listen to over and over, without ever finding a real fault with it. Harry is an album that never gets worse than very decent and listenable, but this is exceptional even by the standards of this exceptional album.

Mother Nature’s Son
Songwriters: John Lennon and Paul McCartney

This cover version of Paul McCartney’s song from the White Album is at one and the same time one of the most impressive and one of the more pointless tracks on the album – and for the same reason in both cases. Other than the original’s horn part being transposed into a string part on this version (oddly, as the horns on the Beatles’ version were exactly the sort of thing one would have expected from Nilsson), this is a soundalike cover version – the guitar part is the same, the tempo is the same, and Nilsson takes the song straight, singing it more or less the same way as McCartney had. This makes it extremely pleasant to listen to – the song is one of McCartney’s better melodies from this time period – but not especially interesting artistically. Nilsson sings it well, of course – at this point in his career Nilsson was pretty much incapable of singing badly – but no better than McCartney did.

Fairfax Rag
Songwriter: Bill Martin

The first of several songs on the album written by Bill Martin. Martin was a friend of Michael Nesmith (of the Monkees) and had written a couple of songs for the band (“All of Your Toys” and “The Door Into Summer”). He later moved into comedy, with Nilsson producing a comedy album for him, Concerto For Headphones And Contra Buffoon In Asia Minor, and later still he wrote the screenplay for the film Harry and the Hendersons (known in the UK as Bigfoot and the Hendersons).

As with much of the album, this is rooted in pre-rock musical styles, although not particularly in ragtime (despite the title). Instead we have a rooty-toot Dixieland clarinet part in the verses, and a full Dixieland horn section in the instrumental break, combined with a swing-time vaudeville melody that bears more than a little resemblance to Nilsson’s own “Cuddly Toy” and “Daddy’s Song”.

While most of Nilsson’s cover versions fit with his general aesthetic, as one would expect, the Bill Martin songs are the only ones that sound so like Nilsson musically that one can imagine Nilsson actually having written them. In part that’s because, at least in the songs represented here, Martin mostly avoids drawing from rock-era musical influences, instead going back to the popular music of the twenties, thirties, and forties. There had been a minor fad for revivals of these styles in the mid-sixties, but by the time of Harry that fad had largely passed. But for Nilsson, at least, that was the music he was most suited to – while he did record some rock music in the 70s, it was never as suited to his style as the ballads, jazz, and vaudeville of his first few albums, and he would continually return to those styles.

Martin’s songs don’t generally rise to the level of Nilsson’s own best work – and it’s notable that he never recorded any more of them after this album – but they all fit well with Nilsson’s style, and all deserved recording. It’s a shame Martin didn’t write more than the handful of songs we know of.

City Life
Songwriter: Bill Martin

The second of Bill Martin’s songs is a slow, lazy, blues-flavoured jazz number which seems to be inspired by the Lovin’ Spoonful – certainly one could imagine John Sebastian singing this on Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful, and its rootsiness fitting in with that laid-back album. But at the same time it also fits in perfectly here – so perfectly that it’s very hard indeed to believe that this wasn’t a Nilsson composition. In particular, its lazy jazz feel has a strong similarity to that of “Open Your Window”.

As with many of the songs here, the evocation of a pre-rock idiom suits Nilsson’s voice perfectly. Nilsson’s vocals on this album are always astonishing, and he has a perfect control of his voice which is almost unknown in popular music. In particular his changes in voice as he moves from his chest voice to his falsetto are so perfect that it’s almost impossible to hear where the transition happens (most vocalists, even if they have strong falsettos, have difficulty smoothly transitioning between voices, and often have a break or gap in their range).

Lyrically, this is quite hilarious – one side of a conversation between a young man and his mother, telling her he’ll definitely be coming home soon, “just as soon as I get a few dollars ahead”, “Gonna show up in person instead of those letters I never write”, but that he has to stick around in the city instead of visiting his parents because he’s going to get rich real soon now.

Mournin’ Glory Story
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

And this can be seen in its way as the reverse side of “City Life”, a more dispassionate, darker, look at someone down on their luck.

This song seems to be inspired by “Eleanor Rigby”. Much like that Beatles song, it’s a story song, told in third person, about a woman who’s having a hard time, and the backing is, at least at the start, a very sparse, staccato, cello part. Tipton does a trick here in the arrangement that he’s done on other occasions, of having a simple, empty, string part that sounds like chamber music, but then having a second set of strings come in, in a different part of the stereo spectrum, playing a more syrupy, sustained, Hollywood style string part – this means that we can get the detail and nuance one finds with a sparser, baroque-style arrangement, while still having the heartstring-plucking of the thicker orchestration.

“Baroque pop” is a much-misused term, which usually seems to mean only “has a harpsichord on it”, but this would fit the bill better than many examples – there’s an austerity to the melody which suggests real baroque music. This song is stately and measured, and all the more affecting for it.

Because the “classy” stateliness of the music contrasts vividly with the lyrics, which talk about a woman sleeping in a doorway (presumably homeless), wishing for death. There’s a surprising amount of religious imagery packed into this short song, but it all points to a character who sees herself as unseen by God. There’s a tremendous loneliness here, and a compassion for the protagonist which she no longer has for herself. It’s quite, quite, beautiful, and a highlight of the album.

Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Something of a filler track, this, it’s “only” a very pleasant song which is enjoyable to listen to. It also has some musical similarity to “City Life”, although it’s possibly a more straightforward melody.

Harry is in many ways about the atmosphere and the cumulative effect of the whole album, rather than the individual tracks, and this definitely adds to that cumulative effect, even if it’s not as instantly impressive. It does, however, have a few good laugh lines in it, which is very necessary on this album.

Nilsson’s records are usually very funny, but Harry is probably the least humorous album he ever made, and so having the jokes in here about how he’s even willing to kiss his mother in law, in what’s otherwise another song about lost love, makes a big difference to the overall feel of the album.

But it’s still only a moment – this is still basically a serious song, one which we are intended to take as a sincere expression of emotion, not as a comedy song.

Musically, it’s a strong example of a type of ballad that Nilsson would make his own over the next few albums. The introduction in particular is very similar to the piano intros for songs like “Without Her” or “Remember (Christmas)”, and this is really the first time Nilsson goes in that direction musically. It is, of course, a type of music to which Nilsson’s vocals are perfectly suited, and he does a great job vocally here, but the track as a whole is somewhat blander than later attempts at the same style.

Marchin’ Down Broadway
Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and Bette Nilsson (uncredited)

This is the last of the songs on Nilsson’s albums which were written by his mother. In this case, it’s a fairly straightforward, but catchy, example of the soldiers’ homecoming song, written during World War II. According to Nilsson, Irving Berlin once offered Bette Nilsson a thousand dollars for the publishing rights to the song (which is very much in Berlin’s style), but she turned him down. Whether that’s true or not, it seems to sum up the feeling of the song very well – Berlin wrote dozens of songs like this, and it could easily have become a hit in the 1940s among the same audiences who went for all the patriotic songs that were hits at that time.

As with all the songs that Bette Nilsson wrote, this is extremely short, only one minute long, but it serves an important purpose in the structure of the album – after three songs taken at fairly sluggish tempos, having one that’s upbeat and optimistic is necessary to prevent listener fatigue, especially as the next song is a midtempo ballad.

I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

This song was written and recorded for the soundtrack of the film Midnight Cowboy – one of several recordings by major artists which were eventually turned down in place of the music the filmmakers had been using as a temp track, Nilsson’s own recording of “Everybody’s Talkin’”

Nilsson clearly knew that the filmmakers wanted “Everybody’s Talkin’” and turned in a virtual clone. The arrangement, with its banjo, guitar, and high string line, is near-identical, and the song has a very similar feel, while the lyrics relate more directly to the plot of the film but still have the same message of escape.

It is, in many ways, absolutely fascinating to hear Nilsson try to emulate his own record, while also writing a song that hits all the same points as another writer’s song. For all that Harry is named after its creator, and it’s certainly an album that only Nilsson could have created, it’s also an album that’s largely about how Nilsson relates to other songwriters, and to the act of covering other people’s songs. Sometimes Nilsson tries to recreate someone else’s performance (as in “Mother Nature’s Son”), sometimes he’s radically reworking someone else’s song, here he’s doing the closest thing possible to writing a cover version, and it’s fascinating to see how Nilsson strips out the elements of someone else’s song and puts them back together in a slightly different manner.

It is, however, not wholly successful on its own merits. When listening to it, it’s basically impossible for anyone who’s heard “Everybody’s Talkin’” (which is almost certainly the entire audience) not to think “this is trying to be ‘Everybody’s Talkin” but it isn’t”. It’s a track that would work on its own merits if the audience didn’t have that context – and to be fair to Nilsson, when he recorded this, “Everybody’s Talkin’” hadn’t yet become a hit and he would have no way of knowing how much of his audience would come to the record already knowing the earlier track. But that context is how the audience will always come to the song, and in that context, it’s a little bit of a failure.

Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and Bill Martin

The last of the three Bill Martin songs on the album, this one was co-written by Nilsson, and later went on to be covered by, among others, Michael Nesmith on his Nevada Fighter album. Of the three Martin songs here, it’s also the best-known due to appearing on many low-budget Nilsson compilations over the years – Nilsson is much-anthologised, and most of the anthologies consist of the same few tracks, with the bulk of Nilsson Schmilsson and Harry, the better-known songs from the first two albums, and little or nothing past that.

“Rainmaker” is an odd song for Nilsson. Most of his songs are firmly in the first person (though note that “Mournin’ Glory Story” is also a third-person song), and even when the character singing the song is not intended to be Nilsson himself (as in, say, “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Any More”) it’s meant to be expressing the emotions of the character.

Here, instead, we have a narrative about a travelling “rainmaker”, who can “call down the lightning by a mystical name”, and who travels to a Kansas town that hasn’t seen rain in months. When the townspeople renege on their deal to pay him after he brings down the rain as agreed, he leaves the town in a perpetual rainstorm.

It would be tempting to ascribe the basic story to Bill Martin, given how different this is from most of Nilsson’s work, but note that Nilsson’s next album of original material, The Point, is a third-person fantastical narrative, so it’s not entirely certain that he didn’t come up with the idea. The song also has some similarity to another Nilsson collaboration, the song “Old Dirt Road” which he co-wrote with John Lennon for Lennon’s album Walls and Bridges (and which also appeared on Nilsson’s final album, Flash Harry).

Musically, as well, this is something of an outlier – it’s the only song on the album which is at all rock and roll influenced, although it’s in a Nesmithian country-rock genre rather than the heavier rock that was starting to gain popularity.

In a later album, Nilsson would sing “deep down in my soul, I hate rock and roll”, and it’s certainly true that the style was not the one he was most suited to, but the fact is that the album needed something of this sort in order to add a bit of variation to side two, which is otherwise an extremely slow side of the record.

And Nilsson does a fine job here – the strained “rain rain go away, come again another day” at the end of the song is particularly powerful. It might not be the most characteristically Nilssonian thing on the album, but it’s a remarkably good track nonetheless.

Mr. Bojangles
Songwriter: Jerry Jeff Walker

A cover of the country standard, originally recorded in 1968 by its writer. This song is not, as popularly supposed, about the famous black tapdancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, but is rather about a white street performer who Walker met in jail in New Orleans, who used “Bojangles” as a pseudonym, presumably inspired by the more famous man. It’s probably the weakest song that Nilsson ever covered on an album, and it’s hard to see what attracted Nilsson to it, but he does an excellent job on the vocals. It’s a simple country waltz, which has a lyric which is clearly intended to pluck the heartstrings, about an old alcoholic in jail reminiscing about his dead dog,

This is another song which often appears on compilations, even though its Laurel Canyon country-rock style is uncharacteristic of Nilsson – many of the compilations seem to be designed to make Nilsson into a safer, more conventional figure than the albums suggest him to be, and this track, which wouldn’t be out of place on an album by James Taylor or Jackson Browne, fits that image very well.

But that said, all this is not to say that the track is unpleasant. It’s a very pleasant record – it’s just that “pleasant” is all that it is.

Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear
Songwriter: Randy Newman

And the last song on the album is a cover of a song by a name we will be seeing quite a bit more of in these essays – Randy Newman. Newman was a very similar artist to Nilsson in many ways, having started out as a jobbing songwriter working for a publishing company (though with slightly more success than Nilsson had had – he had had a lot of songs recorded by successful artists, although no massive hits with any of them) who had recently turned to singer/songwriterdom.

“Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” had been a turning point in Newman’s craft, the point at which he changed from being a jobbing songwriter to doing something a little more interesting, and it was apparently written when he was writing a song intended for Frank Sinatra Jr. He got so bored writing a standard pop song that he just decided to write a song about a dancing bear instead, and from that point on didn’t write any conventional pop songs ever again.

(At least until he started writing songs for children’s films in the 1990s – but even there it’s entirely possible to see Newman’s later material as being a knowing pastiche of children’s songs, rather than as what it presents itself as).

The song had been a big hit in the UK for the Alan Price Set (a blues and jazz band formed by the former keyboard player of the Animals) in 1967, and Nilsson’s version follows the same template as Price’s, as did Newman’s own version (not released until 1972, on his Sail Away album). While Price performed the song in a husky imitation of Mose Allison’s vocal style, however, Nilsson’s vocal was a lot more easygoing.

Nilsson’s take on the song is a strong pointer to the way he would approach Nilsson Sings Newman, the project he would start soon after finishing Harry, in which he performed only Newman songs. In particular, the choice of song is telling – many of the protagonists of Newman’s songs are damaged or malicious individuals, but Nilsson only chooses songs which have a protagonist who can, at least in some senses, be read as basically decent. Simon Smith claims surprise that “a boy and bear could be well respected everywhere”, but of course part of the reason people are amazingly fair to him is that he’s going around everywhere with a bear!

But Nilsson’s take on the character – and it’s a perfectly valid reading of the song – is a naive one. He’s genuinely joyful that he and his ursine friend are welcome wherever they go, and doesn’t even seem to consider the possibility that this might have anything to do with people being scared. What’s to be scared of, after all? It’s just Simon Smith and his amazing dancing bear.

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New Comics Posts From Me Elsewhere

There’s a new post from me on Mindless Ones about Crisis on Infinite Earths issue 3, and for Patreon backers, a bonus post on Animal Man.

(Incidentally, I know I’ve been away quite a bit recently, but I’m building up quite a backlog of posts that I’m getting scheduled for the next few days. Expect a lot more from me shortly…)

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References in my “Book of the Enemy” Story

As some of you might know, in January the latest Faction Paradox short story collection, The Book of the Enemy, came out, and it has a short story (well, shortish — 10,000 words) by me in it. That story is also called “The Book of the Enemy”, although the book isn’t named after my story.

I’m planning on posting about the stories by other people in it at some point, but a couple of times recently I’ve been asked about references in my story — it’s a very densely referential piece, in the manner of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or things like that — and so I thought I’d go through every reference I intentionally put in there (I say “intentionally” for reasons that will become apparent later…) and list them here, for the benefit of anyone who’s at all interested in this stuff. I may miss one or two, since it’s a few months since I wrote the story.

This isn’t to show off my cleverness or anything like that — there’s nothing particularly clever here — it’s just that I’ve had enough people asking me “is X a reference?” that it’s probably worthwhile having something to point them to. If you’ve not read the story, feel free to skip this and know that you won’t be missing anything of any importance to you.

Everything that follows is a SPOILER for my story.

The story itself is a pastiche of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century genre fiction, and hopefully the general voice will be recognisable to anyone who’s read, say, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — I’m not pastiching any particular writer’s voice, but rather going for the general popular style then.

The original idea I had for the story had  the same “enemy” — the book itself — as in the final version, but I was originally planning on going for a much more Borges-style thing — a review of the imaginary book, which also worked as a review of the book in which the story was, and so on. But I just couldn’t get the actual story to work. I discarded multiple drafts, and missed a couple of soft deadlines, before realising that I could go in a King in Yellow direction instead with the story. I actually made the realisation while reading Stephen King’s “The Breathing Method”, which is his own pastiche of the kind of story I’m doing here.

But the idea of a framing story around the actual story being told by a club member is a very common one, both in this kind of fiction and in things like the Black Widowers and Azazel stories by Asimov or the stories of the Oldest Member by P.G. Wodehouse, and it just seemed perfect for the story I wanted to tell. And once I’d got that, and the pseudo-Edwardian voice, everything else fell into place. 

So here is each reference as it appears in the story…

“A great many clubs even specifically catered for the solitary gentleman” — the Diogenes Club from the Holmes stories.

“the club’s oldest member” — Wodehouse wrote a series of golf stories, all told with a frame story about how they were being told by “the oldest member” of the golf club.

“Mr Holmes” — obviously all the Holmes and Watson references here are to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

“excursion across the moors” — as in The Hound of the Baskervilles

“wrestling match on a precipice” — “The Final Problem”

“Reginald” — the first name of Jeeves from Wodehouse’s Jeeves books, not revealed until the penultimate Jeeves book, Much Obliged, Jeeves, in 1971, more than fifty years after the character first appeared.

“Ruritania” — as the characters state, originally mentioned in The Prisoner of Zenda

King Rudolf — again, The Prisoner of Zenda

“I noticed another gentleman” — this bit of action happens simultaneously with an important scene in “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James.

“an address in Belgravia” — a little reference to the BBC’s Sherlock series here, though also see later.

“the unfortunate events” — these events are those from The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, as are the Martians here, which I also tried to keep consistent with the editor Simon Bucher-Jones’ use of them in his Charles Dickens’ Martian Notes.

“Popes” — in the Doctor Who novel and audio drama All-Consuming Fire, Holmes and Watson meet the Pope, and the Faction Paradox books share a continuity with the Doctor Who books.

“beings we may as well consider Gods” — this is the understanding of Holmes and the Martian as to what is happening in the War which forms the backdrop to the whole Faction Paradox series. Their understanding may or may not reflect the reality.

“more suited for a continental orchestra” — this is actually a reference to non-fiction from the same time period. One of George Bernard Shaw’s perennial complaints when writing music criticism in the late 19th century was that British orchestras tuned their instruments to a higher pitch than continental Europeans did. This had largely passed in the decade leading up to the time this story is set, but the change was a recent innovation, and Holmes in this story is having memory problems, so it’s reasonable for him to use this as an example.

“demons trapped in pyramids” — several stories, but I was specifically thinking of the Doctor Who story Pyramids of Mars here.

“squamous cephalopodic beasts” — as in Lovecraft’s work.
“mock turtle soup and dodos’ egg” — Alice in Wonderland

“a siege and gunfight” — this is a reference to a real historical event, but it’s also me being accidentally clever. I picked the siege of Sidney St as a historical event that happened around the same time my story was set, mostly by looking at historical news stories and seeing what would fit the location and be dramatic. It was only a month later, when I reread Ronald Knox’s original essay on Sherlockian “canon”, that I realised he said “When Holmes, in the ‘Mystery of the Red-Headed League,’ discovered that certain criminals were burrowing their way into the cellars of a bank, he sat with a dark lantern in the cellar, and nabbed them quietly as they came through.  But when the Houndsditch gang were found to be meditating an exactly similar design, what did the police authorities do?  They sent a small detachment of constables, who battered on the door of the scene of operations at the bank, shouting, ‘We think there is a burglary going on in here.’  They were of course shot down, and the Home Office had to call out a whole regiment with guns and a fire brigade, in order to hunt down the survivors”

The Houndsditch gang event is the siege of Sidney street. The example Ronald Knox used, in the essay which first created the concept of “canon” as it’s applied to pop culture, and which created the whole idea of treating the internal contradictions in stories as things to be explained away — the example he used of how the real world differs from that in the Sherlock Holmes stories — is the same one I used in my story, which is about canons and the contradictions in stories and how the real world differs from that in the Holmes stories.

I must have unconsciously remembered this example, because it’s simply too perfect otherwise. I actually had a minor freak-out when I noticed this, in an “I made it all up, and it all came true anyway” way, before I realised that I must have unconsciously remembered the passage.

And this is why I earlier said “every reference I intentionally put in there” — there may be other stuff in here I didn’t put in…

“non-Euclidean geometry” — a phrase beloved of Lovecraft, and used by him to signify evil beings from other planes of reality, so appropriate here. The description here is accurate, as far as it goes, except that I’ve attributed the discoveries of Einstein (that non-Euclidean geometry better describes physical spacetime than does Euclidean) to Moriarty — the description of his The Dynamics of an Asteroid in The Valley of Fear is very close to what people were saying around that time about Einstein.

“Every trace of romance” — this parallels, though doesn’t quote, a passage in Lawrence Miles’ Dead Romance, which shares a continuity with Faction Paradox. 

I think that’s all the references I deliberately put in.

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For Those Wanting the Paperback of Monkee Music…

There’s been a slight delay, as the font I used in the index is slightly too small for the printing guidelines. It should be available later today or tomorrow.

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Monkee Music: Second Edition

My latest book is out — the revised and expanded second edition of Monkee Music. This is about twice as long as the original version and contains full essays on:

David Jones (1965 album)

All Mike and Micky’s pre-Monkees singles

The extra material on the deluxe and super deluxe editions of The Monkees, More of the Monkees, Instant Replay and the Monkees Present

The Dolenz, Jones, Boyce, and Hart album

The cast album to The Point!, starring Davy and Micky

and Good Times!

It also has shorter essays on the live albums or DVDs Summer 1967, Live Summer Tour, Concert in Japan, and Twentieth Anniversary Tour, as well as a round-up chapter looking at “Milkshake” (from Peter’s Stranger Things Have Happened album, featuring Mike and Micky) and the 1976 Christmas single.

On top of that, every essay that was already in there has been revised and updated, correcting things ranging from my understanding of why Pool It! ended up as it did to my persistent misspelling of Cynthia Weil’s surname, and expanding on what I’d said.

If you follow this books2read link you’ll be able to find it at your favourite digital store — and if you follow the Amazon link in that link you’ll find the paperback available there from tomorrow, too. Those of you who prefer hardbacks, there’s a hardback available at .

People backing my Patreon at $5 a month or more will be able to find their free ebook copies here.

And for those of you who don’t get why I’d want to write 72,000 words on a manufactured pop band, here’s a playlist I put together that might explain it…

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Psoriatic Arthritis and Fatigue

I’m still not well enough to tackle the reader request posts, but I thought it might be interesting for me to explain why I’ve not been well enough for a few weeks to keep up a regular posting schedule, and also why I might have seemed down if you follow me on social media. I have a relatively common illness, but one that’s not particularly understood by people who don’t have it, so I thought maybe some people might find a post about it interesting.

In 2011, I started getting excruciating back pain. It was intermittent, but so bad that at some points if I walked more than ten metres or so, or stood up for more than ten minutes, I’d get pain in my back so bad that my leg muscles spasmed along with it and sweat would pour off my face. I went more or less overnight from being someone who would think nothing of walking five or six miles to someone who at times literally had to crawl up the stairs when I went to bed, because I couldn’t stand up long enough to walk up thirteen stairs.

However, I am fat, and so like all fat people with a health problem I was told that I was just too fat, and that I should just take paracetamol and lose some weight. And when I started to get stabbing pains in the joints in my hands, I assumed that was RSI, because I literally spend all day every day typing at a computer, I have bad posture anyway (I have the same low muscle tone that many autistic and dyspraxic people have) and I type in a ridiculously heavy-handed way using different fingering from the norm, so it made sense I’d get RSI.

So it wasn’t until Christmas 2015, after my foot literally swelled up to three times its size, which can also be a symptom of severe heart disease, that this pain which had had me in agony for four years at that point was actually taken seriously by a doctor. At that point, after various tests, they came to the conclusion that I probably had psoriatic arthritis.

(I say “probably” here, because in a couple of minor ways it presents slightly differently in me than in most people. But on the other hand, I have the major symptoms, I don’t have any of the signs that would be present with the other things that cause those symptoms, I have psoriasis — and people with psoriasis have a one-in-three chance of developing psoriatic arthritis — and it first manifested in my early thirties, which is about the normal time for it to turn up.)

Psoriatic arthritis is a form of arthritis which comes as part of the skin condition psoriasis. For those who don’t know, psoriasis is an autoimmune disease — basically, your immune system starts to attack your own skin. It’s very painful, and irritating, but luckily mine is more-or-less under control with steroid creams these days. But for years in my twenties it was so bad that I actually fantasised about getting my legs amputated so they wouldn’t itch so badly.

(Incidentally, for those for whom steroid creams *don’t* work, the one other treatment I ever found that worked as well for me was a mixture of liquid vitamin E and honey).

In a little over a third of people with psoriasis, your immune system decides that it’s *so* desperate to have a fight with something that it won’t just fight infections (like it’s meant to) or your skin (like it’s not meant to, but it does with normal psoriasis), but it’ll also have a go at your kneecaps and backbone and knuckles as well.

Basically, my immune system is an utter bastard to me, and wants to make sure I can’t walk or type or anything, and that I’m itchy all the time. But the worst thing about psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis is that it causes massive amounts of inflammation.

Now, you probably know what inflammation means in a general way — although you won’t understand just how appropriate the “flam” in inflammation is until you’ve had an inflammatory illness for a while, and you realise that you can actually feel the heat radiating off the affected joints from a good distance away. But inflamation is itself a bastard. It’s an immune response, and it’s basically designed to last only a short term while you’re killing off bacteria and viruses. But long term it raises your blood pressure (I have had hypertension since around the same time my arthritis kicked off, and this is not a coincidence), and massively increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and of diabetes.

It also gets much worse when you’re stressed, which is unfortunate, as when you have a stabbing pain in your back that means you can’t even walk up the stairs without being in agony, and you need to go up the stairs to get the cream you use to treat the itching that’s making you want to tear your own skin off, and you have a blood pressure headache, you often feel quite stressed.

Now, the pain from my arthritis can be dealt with, now that I know what it is. I take a dose of immunosuppressant drugs every day, and they keep it down to the point where I can walk a reasonable distance with a stick (I can do as much as half a mile on a good day before I need to sit down, so long as I take it easy). I was able to deliver leaflet rounds again for the 2017 election, which I hadn’t been able to do much of for 2015.

But while these things lessen the inflammation, they don’t stop it altogether — and it’s an immune reaction, so it kicks in whenever I’m ill, and since Christmas I’ve had three or four mild colds.

And while the physical aspect of inflammation is bad, the mental aspect is what affects me worst.

First, inflammation affects the brain directly, and is one of the leading causes of depression — there’s some evidence to suggest, in fact, that *all* depression is an inflammatory response — so whenever the inflammation affects me particularly badly, I develop all the worst symptoms of my depression. I’m even less sociable than normal when it’s hitting me, and so I’ve spent a lot of time recently turning down invitations from well-meaning friends.

But even worse than the depression is the fatigue.

Arthritic fatigue is something I *wish* I had known about sooner, even more than any of the other symptoms. I spent years in work suffering because of it, and I blamed it on my sleep conditions (I have sleep apnoea, and also probably have Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome). But for a long time I was so tired when in my last job that there were whole days when I couldn’t get any work done at all because literally all my attention was spent on not actually drooling — no exaggeration at all there.

Those of you who don’t have diseases that cause chronic fatigue won’t really be able to appreciate this — you may understand it intellectually, but not truly grok it — but there is a level of tiredness that is literally life-destroying.

You might remember that when you’ve had the flu, you have felt extremely tired and wanted to do nothing but sleep for a day or two. That’s part of the same immune response that causes inflammation — your body is flooded with chemical signals (cytokines) that tell you to do nothing at all and not move, to conserve energy that your immune system is using to fight off the infection and repair damage.

When you have arthritic fatigue, your body is constantly flooded with those signals. *ALL THE TIME*. For days, weeks, months, or years on end. You’re exhausted, you can’t do anything, and sleeping brings no relief whatsoever — you wake up just as tired as when you went to bed. You begin to have a very visceral understanding of the phrase “burned out” — you feel, literally, like your insides have been burned out and that you’re a hollow shell, uninhabited by a human mind (you even feel as hot as the phrase implies, thanks to the inflammation). In my case I become aphasic — I lose words, as if I’ve had a stroke (luckily, I have a very large working vocabulary, and can often find a synonym even if I can’t find the most appropriate word — I can imagine this being truly disabling for anyone who is less verbal than me to start with). I also lose what little short-term and working memory I normally have — I can literally have a conversation and then forget it ever happened within five minutes.

Anyway, thanks to those colds, that’s how I’ve been feeling for the last month. Many days I’ve not been able to do basic things like shower or walk the dog (don’t worry, dog-lovers, he’s had at least one walk every day because my wife walks him too, but we try to give him two walks a day and sometimes I can’t do my share), I’ve had to order takeaway because I’m too tired to cook, I’ve been incapable of doing anything other than binge-watching Deep Space Nine on Netflix. I don’t even *like* Deep Space Nine much, but it’s at the right intellectual level for me when my brain’s not working (the last time I binge-watched it was when I was recovering from a severe illness in 2016). And I’ve spent long periods literally just staring into space, feeling hot and tired but otherwise not feeling anything at all.

I’ve been in no state to write much in blog form — I’ve been able to produce some stuff for the second edition of the Monkees book, because the work I’ve done on that this month isn’t creative work, it’s mostly gap-filling, chasing down references, fact-checking and so forth, which is a lower-level skill than more creative writing — but I think I’m finally starting to get better (and at least now I know that “better” is a possibility in the future — for several years before my diagnosis I didn’t know if I could ever do anything to get rid of the fatigue).

So anyway, if I’ve been more flaky than usual since Christmas, that’s why. I should be better soon.

And for any of you who have psoriasis, if you start getting tired all the time and develop lower back pain, don’t let the doctors tell you it’s your weight. Insist on a referral to a rheumatologist, and you might be able to avoid ever letting it get as bad as it has for me (and it’s nowhere near as bad for me as for some — I’m a minor case).

Oh, and one more thing — this kind of thing is another reason why I get so annoyed at the research priorities of autism researchers. There is a *huge* overlap between people with psoriasis and autistic people, and I think you can tell from this post which one actually affects quality of life more. Rather than spending millions on stopping us flapping our hands so much, maybe look into this kind of thing? Just a thought…

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. My various stress-related illnesses and disabilities make this the way I support myself, and I’m more grateful than they can know for their backing,

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Autism, Empathy, Solidarity and Intersectionality

First, I want to apologise for the lack of posts this month. I’ve been very unwell since Christmas, battling fatigue and inflammation constantly (it’s hard to understand how literal the “flam” in “inflammation” is until you start suffering from a chronic inflammatory condition and can feel the heat radiating off your joints), as my immune system has been repeatedly hit by minor infections. I’ve managed quite a bit of writing since finishing The Glam Rock Murders, but most of it has gone on the second edition of Monkee Music, which sould be out next week, so not much has turned up here this month. I’m sorry.

I will be getting round to the various blog posts I’m committed to writing as soon as I am physically able, but today, even though I am not really well enough to write, I want to vent about something, and that is the constant bigotry against autistic people which even supposedly progressive people feel perfectly entitled to engage in.

In the last week or so, on Twitter I’ve seen:

A nasty group of transphobic shitheads producing an “education” pack aimed at teachers full of anti-trans bigotry. One of the things in it was “trans people are X times more likely to be autistic”, where X is some big, scary, number.

Trans people arguing with this shittery, but in doing so saying “only five percent of trans people are autistic so stop trying to scare people”. So, you know, thanks for implicitly accepting that being autistic is something to be scared of.

Disability Lib Dems retweeting stuff from Autism Speaks, and also having some fucking horrible ableist language about us on their website, including the claim that we have no empathy, no ability to make friends or understand other people, and that we are “being appearing [sic] to be stupid or thick”. They’ve since apologised for the tweets and started following and RTing some actual autistic Lib Dems, but the ableist stuff about us is still up on the website.

A left-wing sex-workers’ rights campaigner doing a long blog post about the alt-right’s influence in nerd spaces, saying in the middle of it “One of the main symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome is a pronounced inability to empathize with others” and then doubling down on this and making herself out to be a martyr under attack when called on this.

(The worst part of this, incidentally, is that she says this immediately after saying ” If you’ve never experienced any form of oppression, it’s easy to dismiss threats of violence or racial/misogynist slurs as “for the lulz.”… If you’re not in a group of people that has been targeted for genocidal extermination, then talking about throwing people in ovens and gas chambers means you’re just defying uptight PC culture.” Disabled people were literally the first group targeted for extermination by the Nazis, and Hans Asperger worked under the Nazis and sent disabled children to Spiegelgrund, a facility for exterminating disabled people. But apparently his view that we lack empathy still takes priority over our statements that we don’t, because no-one’s more of an expert on empathy than someone who kills disabled children to enforce Nazi racial purity laws…)

A load of other people who are normally on the side of the oppressed, like Brooke Magnanti, retweeting this hateful shit with approval.

Joyce Carol Oates saying autistic people “are said to feel no empathy w/ others; often don’t make eye contact or even seem aware of others.”

Honestly, at this point, there is literally no excuse for anyone to still be making this claim . Anyone who spends two seconds on Google before running their mouth off about things they have no knowledge of would find things like this post by Oolong. I don’t agree with everything they say there, and could probably write a post as long as this one picking nits with bits and arguing with other bits. But that’s to be expected when any two people discuss a subject that actually matters. But Oolong’s post, or the thousands of others by actually autistic people, show clearly that we are not lacking in empathy.

At some point when I’m more well, I’m going to talk in more detail about what causes neurotypicals — who, on aggregate, have far less empathy than autistic people in my experience, though as with everything there are a few honourable exceptions — to believe that autistic people have no empathy. There are reasons this belief persists, but it’s utterly incorrect.

What I’m concerned with now is that it is completely acceptable among even otherwise progressive people to dehumanise autistic people in this way. The claim that we are lacking this basic aspect of shared humanity, made with no evidence other than the prejudices of the neurotypical in question, goes utterly unquestioned. Even among people who would be horrified at other commonly-expressed bigotries like homophobia or hatred of immigrants, it’s apparently fine to spout eugenicist rhetoric about autistic people.

I don’t claim we are the most hated group — there are plenty of bigotries that are still acceptable, and trans people, immigrants, and fat people in particular are often dehumanised in very similar ways (and often by the same people, which is why it hurts all the more when members of those groups choose to throw autistic people under the bus). But anti-autistic bigotry is definitely among the current acceptable prejudices, and in particular calls to eliminate us from existence are entirely too accepted.

I’m just… I’m just worn down by seeing this stuff retweeted unthinkingly, sometimes by people I would consider friends. I’m sick of not being able to assume that someone else who I agree with will recognise my shared humanity and act accordingly towards me.

Since the Brexit result, and with the Trump election, it has been increasingly clear that Britain and the US are heading towards fascism. In times like that, solidarity between marginalised groups is absolutely necessary for any of them to survive. People of good will need to oppose attacks on immigrants and sex workers, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-semitism… I have always been a supporter of intersectionality on the basis that it’s the good and moral thing to do, but now I’m more convinced than ever that we need to take an intersectional attitude from a purely practical point of view — if we don’t hang together we may well hang separately.

And so I am asking people, even if you think that autistic people like me are the emotionless, unempathic monsters you claim us to be, stop saying so. Stop doing the work of those who want to pick off the marginalised groups one at a time for them. If you really have so much empathy than I do, you can show it by showing at least as much solidarity as I do.

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