The Glam Rock Murders: Chapter One

I’m hoping to have this out within a couple of weeks, so here’s the first chapter of the second book in my Sarah Turner Mysteries series: The Glam Rock Murders. If you like this, then why not try the first book in the series, The Basilisk Murders, available from Amazon US and UK?

“OK, let’s try it again”

The opening riff of “Misty Lady” rang out from Sid Berry’s guitar, and even though I was never a fan of the Cillas, I couldn’t help tapping my foot along with it. When you’ve heard a song that many times, on the radio, on TV, in the background in pubs, you can’t help but nod along.

“Ooh, ooh ooh, my misty misty…stop. Stop. Terry, what the fuck are you doing?”

“What’s the matter?”

Graham Stewart, the Cillas’ vocalist, had thrown down his mic and stormed over to their bass player.

“Terry, it goes G to D to D diminished seventh to A minor. You were playing a fucking C. Where in that sequence does a C fit in?”

“Well, you can play a C in the A minor.”

Graham turned puce. “Well, you can, if you think playing the fucking third of the chord in the bass is in any way acceptable. But also, you weren’t playing it on the A minor, were you? You were playing it in the D dim seven. You arse.”

Hi, I’m Sarah Turner. You may remember me from such serial murders as that time those technolibertarians all got murdered on that island. Not that I killed them – though I was tempted – but I solved the murders.

Anyway, when I’m not solving crimes like some ace Miss Marple-style supersleuth, I’m a journalist, and I was currently watching the first rehearsal of the “legendary” 70s glam rock group the Cillas, before they started their reunion tour. At the time, I thought it was likely to be a fairly boring assignment, but I didn’t realise that murder had started to follow me around like I was some kind of a Jessica Fletcher.

So we’re going to get into another story of how I solved terrible crimes (unless I didn’t and I’m the murderer this time – woo, suspense!) (spoiler, I’m not the murderer) but at the time I was just thinking what an annoying bunch of arseholes this band were, especially the lead singer. I needed the money I was making from being there, but I was beginning to wonder if I needed it quite enough to put up with all this mantitlement.

To set the scene, this was a rehearsal room in Clacton. Big, empty, echoey room with no atmosphere at all. Whitewashed concrete walls, high ceilings. The band were arranged as they would be on stage. Graham Stewart was at a mic up front, wearing tight leather trousers, with a grey mullet and goatee beard that made him look like a cross between Peter Stringfellow and Noel Edmonds.

Directly behind him were Terry Pattison, a bald, fat, little white bloke in T-shirt and jeans, playing bass, and Sid Berry, a skinny black bloke with short salt-and-pepper hair, about a foot taller than Terry, on guitar. The two of them together looked like a number 10 come to life. In between them, and set slightly back again, was Pete Le Mesurier, the drummer. Younger than the rest of them, in his mid sixties rather than early seventies, he had a square, grey, face.

And off to the sides were three younger musicians. On my left as I faced the band was my wife, Jane, on keyboards. Behind her was Simon Cotton, playing a second drum kit, while on my far right was his brother Andy Cotton on a second guitar. All three of these were white, in their twenties, and looking bored, as well as seeming far more professional than the old men.

There were a few other people in there as well – a fat white bloke in his thirties with a goatee beard who seemed to be a professional fan, a few roadies, and various wives, business people, and assorted hangers-on. While you and I may not have thought about the Cillas in decades, except when hearing their tracks on Radio 2 or seeing them on “I Love Nostalgic Cheap Clips of the 70s with Stuart Maconie Mocking Them” on Channel Four, apparently they were still big enough business that it was worth them having all sorts of people in the room doing nothing other than getting in the way.

If I was playing with my old band for the first time in forty years, I’d want to do it in private, but then I’m not a rock star, and don’t have that kind of ego that wants to be in front of an audience at all times.

Sid lit a cigarette while Graham was shouting at Terry, apparently unaware of laws against smoking in the workplace. Within seconds, I could feel my chest starting to go – I’m allergic to tobacco smoke – and wished I’d brought my inhaler along. Graham, however, seemed oblivious to everything except his anger at the bass player.

“Look, Terry, it’s very simple. You play the root notes on the G and D, do a little walk up on the diminished seventh, and then play the fifth on the A minor. It’s not like it’s a hard part or anything. I can play it and I don’t play an instrument.”

“Well, why don’t you play it then? If it’s so easy, you can play an instrument rather than poncing about like a wanker at the front of the stage waving your arms, can’t you? Or you could at least just talk about it instead of giving me a bollocking for a wrong note.”

Graham sighed. “Okay, I’m sorry. I know you’ve not played live in a long time…”

“Since you sacked me.”

“Okay, yes, since I sacked you…”

“Since you sacked me from my band, which I formed…”

The other members of the Cillas were looking on with some amusement at Graham’s increasing discomfort. I’d not met the band before, but it was already obvious that their prima donna lead singer was not the most popular person in Cillaworld.

“Okay… just, you know what, forget it. Play whatever the fuck you like.”

Graham walked back to his mic, and picked it up. Andy Cotton, the band’s musical director, lifted his right hand from the acoustic guitar he was holding and started beating time. “All right, everyone, third time’s the charm.`Misty’ from the top. One, two, three, four.”

Jane looked over at me as the song started up again, and rolled her eyes. I smiled. I’d heard plenty of stories about Graham from her before, and it seemed they were all true. But in case he had a point, I paid attention to what Terry was doing on the bass – I couldn’t really help it anyway, given the way the throbbing from the low notes was disturbing my stomach – and it sounded absolutely fine to me. Possibly not the greatest bass playing I’d ever heard, but musical enough

They got as far as the middle eight before they got into serious trouble and ground to a halt. Once again, it was Terry who was making the mistakes.

“It’s OK, Terry,” said Sid. “That part there was always a bastard to play. To get it right you have to fret the two strings and play them both simultaneously, then pull off and quickly fret the eleventh fret, but just get the harmonic, not the actual note. It’s not really a bass part at all in the conventional sense. I was showing off, basically.”

Terry nodded. “I’ll probably get it eventually, it’s just I’m not Jaco bloody Pastorius, you know?”

Andy walked over and conferred with Jane for a second, then turned to the others.

“OK, I think I have a solution,” he said. “Jane’s only using one hand on that section anyway, so if you can just do the fiddly top bit, Terry, she can hold down the main bassline with all the root notes. Make sense?”

Terry nodded, cautiously. “I’d rather just do the bassline and have her do the fiddly bit…”

“Can’t work that way, I’m afraid. Those harmonics and glisses aren’t something you can do on a keyboard.”

“Fair enough.”

“OK,” said Andy, “let’s try this once more”.

And the band played through their glam rock hit from forty-five years earlier, without a hitch.

I needed a drink, but there didn’t appear to be any alcohol in the rehearsal room. I’d talked to Jane about it at a break earlier, and she’d told me that Graham had asked that the room be kept clear of all alcoholic or caffeinated drinks, because he was a Mormon. I didn’t really see why that should mean the rest of us couldn’t have any fun, but I was resigned to my fate. I needed the money from this writing job more than I needed the drink.

But it didn’t seem right to be listening to this music, which I was only really familiar with from drunken family parties, without a half-drunk can of cheap lager in my hand. There was a cognitive dissonance here, hearing such familiar music in such a different circumstance.

I looked over in the corner, and saw two middle-aged women having a stand-up, yelling, fight. That was more like it. That was exactly what I needed to see when I heard “Misty Lady”. I was at home again.

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Linkblogging for 11/1/18

Not done one of these for a while. Proper post again tomorrow…

I made the pizza cinnamon rolls from Mario Batali’s sexual misconduct apology letter

Genetic study supports the carbohydrate/insulin model of obesity

The discovery that lemons cured scurvy probably gave rise to the Mafia coming into existence

Nick Barlow replies to Owen Jones’ article on Brexit

Charles Stross on AI and predicting the future

A brief introduction to longevity research

The Carolingian quest for the correct text of the Bible

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Tim Farron: Mea Culpa

The first time I really had any contact with, or knowledge of, Tim Farron was when he was standing for the job of Lib Dem President. At the time, I was supporting the campaign of a friend of mine, who didn’t make it to the final ballot, and said something about this on Twitter, to which he replied in a friendly and witty manner.

I immediately liked him, but I had concerns about him, which I mentioned in an email list I was on for other Lib Dems — “isn’t he a bit of a homophobe?” I asked.

And I was immediately told, by a gay friend, “no. I know Tim well. That was all a misunderstanding based on one bad vote and him having a dodgy intern. He gets it now.”

And for the next seven years I’ve defended Tim. Tim became, if not a friend, at least a friendly online acquaintance — one of those people who’ll occasionally turn up in your DMs at random when you’re having a bad day, to check if you’re OK, and with whom you could have a bit of a joke. Someone who could take the teasing about his obvious ambition for the leadership in good humour. He’s someone to whom I felt a great deal of personal loyalty.

And when he was asked in 2015 if he thought gay sex was a sin, almost every LGBT+ person I know stood by him. Not *every* one, but the vast majority — they agreed that he was right not to answer questions about his religious beliefs, and that he was not a *phobe of any variety. The biggest supporters of his leadership bid I know were trans people, lesbians, and bi people, all of whom told me, and said publicly, that he was better on their specific issues than many politicians with far better reputations. I was told over and over that he was someone who was well intentioned, who paid attention, and who actually changed his views based on what he was told by LGBT+ people. And all his public statements seemed to confirm that. In the 2017 election he was asked again if he thought gay sex was a sin, and at first he prevaricated, sticking to his line that he didn’t make theological pronouncements, before seeing that the issue wasn’t going away and saying that no, he did not think that gay sex was a sin.

And if that had been the end of it, I’d have been happy with my steadfast support of the man while he was leader. He did an immense amount of good for the party when he was leader, right up until the election campaign got derailed by this question, and his stance on Brexit and general attempts to reposition the party on the left, where we should be, are undoubtedly what saved us from the complete wipeout that seemed likely three years ago. I still think that, given the choice between him and Norman Lamb (who turns out to be both an anti-autistic bigot and a supporter of Brexit) the party made the better choice, though I *really* wish we’d had enough MPs that we’d had a non-problematic candidate standing. (Just as I wish that in 2017 we’d had a contest at all, rather than a coronation of a leader who has at least as many problems as either of them. Luckily, a party is not its leadership.)

But it turns out that when he said gay sex was not a sin, he was lying, and he now says he was wrong to do so. Presumably this means he also was lying when he said all those things to LGBT+ organisations that made so many of my LGBT+ friends so enthusiastic about his leadership.

Now, at the time, I had what I considered extremely good reasons to support Tim, and to say he wasn’t a homophobe. But every one of those reasons has unravelled, one by one, since his extraordinarily petty resignation speech. He has been remarkably bitter and ungracious, and has repeatedly stated that it is currently impossible to be both a Christian and a Liberal politician. This is, to my mind, a slander against many, many, decent Christians who manage not to be massive homophobes. Indeed, in the same interview where he said that he was wrong to say that gay sex isn’t a sin, he also said that there was only one other Christian in Lib Dem head office. This seems to suggest to me, unless Lib Dem head office is *far* less representative of the party than I thought, that he’s using Christian in that particular way that fundamentalists use it, in which Catholics, mainstream Anglicans, and anyone else who doesn’t share their peculiar interpretation of the Bible doesn’t count as a Christian (unless and until they’re trying to make a claim that Christianity is the majority religion in the country, of course).

This seems to me almost as offensive a claim as his claim that “gay sex” is a sin. He’s not claiming that his fellow Christians are misguided, or misinterpreting the Bible, or wrong on doctrine, but that they’re not Christians at all. As his version of fundamentalism is still, I believe, an Anglican one, that means that he’s considering tens of millions of people worldwide with whom he’s in communion to be falsely claiming to be Christian.

Anyway, I’m drifting from my point, which is this:

Based on all the evidence I had, and in particular based on what I still think is the sound principle of taking my lead from the people most affected (as a cishet married man I am exempt from Tim’s criticisms, though for all I know since I was married in a Lutheran church he may think my marriage, and therefor sex life, is also sinful), I defended a man who was being accused of being a massive homophobe. It now turns out that he was a massive homophobe all along, and is not only unrepentant about it but thinks that the worst thing he did was pretend not to be.

So I am saying publicly: I was wrong, I fucked up, the people who told me differently were right, and there’s no wiggle room in this. Bear that in mind when judging anything else I say.

This blog post is supported by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Patreon’s well-publicised missteps last month led to the level of support dropping dramatically, so I appreciate even more than usual the people who continue to back me, and now would be a better time than ever to join them.

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Fire and Fury

By now you’ve almost certainly heard about Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, the book which has reignited debates such as “is Donald Trump actually suffering from Alzheimer’s, is he a sociopathic narcissist, is he just a viciously racist overprivileged arsehole who has never in his life had anyone say ‘no’ to him about anything he wanted, or are those things not actually mutually exclusive?”

Wolff’s book is the proximate cause of Trump describing himself on Twitter as a “very stable genius”, which is always the sign of complete stability and of genius, but does the book actually tell us anything we didn’t already know or hadn’t at least guessed? After all, the book’s principal subject did, earlier this week, publicly get into an actual dick-measuring contest with Kim Jong-Un over their relative willingness to declare nuclear war on the other’s country. The precise details of how truly loathsome a person Trump is, or what precise crimes led to him taking office, almost make no difference. Now that he has the office of the US Presidency, the only thing that really matters is for those in the US to get him out of office before he can destroy the entire world in a fit of pique, and to follow that by removing the rest of the Republican Party, who may not present as immediate a danger to as many people, but who are still committed to ensuring the deaths of many millions of people in the service of enriching the already rich and further privileging the privileged.

Given that we already know that, can this book really tell us anything?

Well, the first thing is, of course, that “we” don’t already know that. There are two things, in particular, which it is important to note about how Trump is seen in the US. The first is that he is far more unpopular than any other President in history, and more viscerally so — on my visit to the rural Midwest recently I noted that walking through the Barnes and Noble in the shopping mall, all the books turned out to show the faces to the customers fell into a few categories — they were either biographies of centre-left (by US standards) politicians like Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton, books about actual revolutionaries (I noted a book by Zizek on Lenin, for example), or dystopian fiction (this latter category containing most of the same books that started to appear face out in Waterstones in the UK in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote — things like “It Can’t Happen Here” and “1984”). The whole place *stank* of politicisation, in a way that it never has before. And my small-c-conservative mother-in-law spent pretty much the whole of Christmas ranting about the evils of the man — even though I’d never before heard her express a political opinion in the twelve years I’ve known her.

(Of course the counter to this is that those people who *do* like Trump have that support firmly rooted at this point, and will probably never decide that he’s less than wonderful).

But the other thing is that this unpopularity is still within a framework of “respect for the office” and a near-veneration of the President, whoever he happens to be. This means that it’s pretty much impossible for anyone — at least in the mass media — to talk clearly about the evident fact, that the man in the Oval Office has no understanding of the job to which he has been appointed, has no interest in learning about the job, and has neither the intellectual or emotional capacity to do it even were he somehow to be educated. Even the ostensibly left-leaning media doesn’t point out that the emperor has no clothes, and contents itself with saying that he is perhaps not as well dressed as he could be. Acts which, to anyone with a clear view of Trump, look like the petulant impulsiveness of a spoiled, not-very-bright, overprivileged white man who doesn’t actually understand or care about the consequences of his actions are, even by his enemies, interpreted as strategic maneuverings, as part of a wider game-plan. The whole set-up of the news media in the US — far more than over here — is predicated on this idea, that the person in that office is always worthy of it, no matter what.

And it is this, more than anything else, that distinguishes Fire and Fury. It is, quite simply, the first product of the USian mass media to simply take as read what is obvious to the rest of us — that Donald Trump is barely literate, has no understanding of the basics of the US Constitution, and has no concerns other than the shortest-possible-term gratification of his physical needs and his emotional desire for respect from rich and important people.

In truth, it doesn’t tell us anything new about Trump at all — no-one reading this is going to be surprised that Rupert Murdoch thinks he’s “a fucking idiot”, that Trump watches a lot of TV, and that he’s willing to sign any bit of legislation put in front of him by any of the small number of people he trusts. Trump is, in fact, almost an absent character from the book. Its impact actually comes from that fact — that the author has just blatantly decided that the monster in the White House is of no consequence except as someone the people actually trying to get things done must placate.

What this book really is, in fact, is Steve Bannon’s account of his feud with Jared Kushner. Trump is treated as a force of nature that must be placated, rather than as a person — much of the detail in the book comes from the way that Kushner and Bannon would both leak to media outlets which Trump followed, in the hope of swaying him to their points of view. Trump comes across as a man without fixed political views at all, and who is only concerned with gaining popularity — someone who genuinely doesn’t understand that in a polarised political climate, if you say things that will get cheers from people on your own side, you’ll get booed by the other side.

In this, Bannon seems to have encouraged Trump to say the things that will get cheers — the executive order about immigration is portrayed as entirely Bannon’s work — while Kushner seems to try instead to persuade Trump *not* to do things that will get boos. Kushner is portrayed as a naive young inexperienced child (though Kushner is thirty-six) who has much the same political views as a centrist Democrat of the Hillary Clinton type, but who has no real knowledge of or understanding of politics.

Indeed, one thing that is notably absent from the book is policy. It’s made clear that Bannon had a policy agenda, and similarly Reince Priebus (who is notionally the third part of a triangle with Bannon and Kushner, but who is given much less time than the others, presumanly because as a professional politician he doesn’t just run his mouth to everyone who’ll listen, but instead has a strategy and a staff who at least have the most basic idea of how things might look to the outside) had policy priorities, and that those two sets of priorities clashed, but what those priorities are is more or less glossed over.

But the *way* those things are glossed over is, itself, indicative — the failure of the healthcare bill is presented as Priebus’ failure, and as something from which Bannon was completely dissociated (Bannon indeed is presented as supporting universal healthcare — the best picture one can actually get of Bannon’s policy agenda from reading this places it shockingly close to people like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, oddly enough, with an emphasis on rebuilding old industries, on closing borders, and on government spending — with the vicious racism deemphasised so much, Bannon appears almost as a left-populist, though again this is very much Bannon’s account of himself). On the other hand the immigration executive order is presented as a triumph for Bannon, but the fact that courts ruled against it is reduced to an aside.

This is, fundamentally, politics-as-soap-opera. It’s The West Wing or House of Cards, where the effect of a policy doesn’t matter at all, and all that really matters is the backstabbing and feuding between the President’s advisors — who’s in, who’s out, who’s ganging up with whom.

But, assuming that this is a relatively accurate picture of what was going on (a dangerous assumption, since this is Bannon’s view for the most part, but I think we can take the broad outline as being correct), what strikes me about it is the similarity of the descriptions of the inner working of the Trump administration to that of the Nazi administration in the 1930s.

In particular, Trump is presented as having a similar personality to Hitler — an unwilllingness to work, an impatience with detail, and an arrogant belief that he already knows everything that he needs to know (these are traits that I also share, incidentally, so I’m not making this comparison to Hitler as a solely pejorative one). This has led him to structure the White House organisation in much the same way — have multiple people you believe to be loyal to yourself, but who hate each other, give them competing, overlapping, responsibilities, make vague pronouncements and leave the details up to them. They will then fight among themselves over the interpretation of your words, you take responsibility if there’s a success, and you let them stab each other in the back if there’s a failure.

In Nazi Germany this was known as “working towards the Fuehrer”, and it’s a strategy which, once you are already in power, does a surprisingly good job of keeping you there, because it means that the ambitions of your underlings are turned against each other, rather than against you. But it’s also a strategy for turning policy-making ever more extreme — if people are competing primarily to show that they are loyal, and if they’re working from the vaguest of instructions, this process selects for the most radical of policy viewpoints, and doesn’t allow for nuance or course reversal, short of the underling falling out of favour and being sacked (as both Priebus and Bannon, of course, have).

Not one single person in this story comes out well. Of course, that is in some ways to be expected — these are, after all, people who are willing to work for an administration which is, if not outright fascist in the textbook sense, at least Poujadist with many fascist tendencies (I would personally say it’s absolutely a fascist government, but I am trying to be as generous as possible here). Fascists tend not to be nice people, and they also tend not to be very intelligent.

But astonishingly Trump actually comes out of this better than most of the other people involved (with the slight exception of Mike Pence, who gets about two sentences either because he’s a professional politician like Priebus or because he’s really a complete non-factor in the regime’s decision-making). He just wants people to like him, to not have to do any hard work, and to eat hamburgers and watch TV. Those are completely comprehensible motives, and one could almost feel pity for him being put in a situation which is distressing for him, except that he’s making it much more distressing for hundreds of millions of other people.

But Bannon comes across as a cut-rate Machiavelli whose intellectual limitations would have been far more obvious were anyone involved in the Trump campaign a basically functioning human being. Priebus, Paul Ryan, Rupert Murdoch, and most of the other supporting players are just kleptocrats plain and simple, while Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are, in this portrayal, people who are more concerned that other rich people will say nice things about them than they are with the effects of the policies they espouse.

(Also in this Bannon-heavy version of history, the whole Russia mess is solely the fault of Kushner and the people in his camp, which seems… very convenient.)

The really odd thing about the book is that, as incendiary as it’s been, it actually seems to skirt round saying some much more explosive things. There are hints in here which seem designed to encourage the type of prurient speculation which I won’t indulge in, but which will definitely cause a storm on social media if people put the clues together.

But fundamentally, for most people reading this, Fire and Fury is not a book you need to read. Much of the new stuff just confirms what everyone who pays the slightest attention already knew, providing a few extra details to a general picture that was already very clear, and what we didn’t know is far more gossip than it is material that will provide any real insight, at least to those of us who don’t care about Jared Kushner’s relationship with his father or Donald Trump’s marriage. The excerpts that were published in advance also contain almost every single revelation in the book — there’s nothing, at all, in the whole book that’s new if you’ve read the web articles that preceded publication.

In the end, the only worth the book has is that it is the first example in the mainstream US media of someone actually pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, without skirting round the matter. While the fact that the US president is a fascist is still not mentioned in the book, and is still taboo among US mainstream news reporting, at least the fact that he is incompetent, and that not one single person in the whole Government organisation thinks otherwise, has now been publicly, clearly, stated on the record.

Hopefully now the discussion can move on to what to do about at least the fact that the person in control of half the world’s nuclear weapons has no real understanding of what that means, and also has no impulse control. And hopefully, once the gigantic toddler has his finger taken from the button, the discussion could even move on to how to stop *any* fascists, even competent ones, from getting power in the US.

This blog post is supported by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Patreon’s well-publicised missteps last month led to the level of support dropping dramatically, so I appreciate even more than usual the people who continue to back me, and now would be a better time than ever to join them.

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New Post on Mindless Ones

Holy resurrection, Batman! After eighteen months I’m finally starting posting the Batposts again. I’m going to clear the previously-Patreon-only backlog on Mindless Ones and then start with new posts in a couple of weeks. For now, here’s Batman 66: The Movie

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2018 Awards Eligibility Post

Just a brief post today, as I have some family business to deal with over the next couple of days that’s going to take what little energy I have left that the cold I’m dealing with isn’t sapping. The next proper post is going to be on Saturday, and will be the next in the series of posts on The Just City.

But for now, a brief Award Eligibility Post. I wasn’t going to do one of these, but I saw many, many authors all saying the same thing on Twitter today — “let people know which of your books are eligible for awards, because no-one else will!”

So, using the Hugo categories as a guide, I would be eligible this year for Best Fan Writer, for the blog posts I’ve done on SF and comics here, on MIndless Ones, and on my Patreon, but not much else. I’ve not published any short fiction in 2017 — annoyingly my short story “The Book of the Enemy” is out next week, just after awards consideration cut-offs.

I have, though, published two novels, both of them rather outside my comfort zone. In 2017, the thing I was trying to do with fiction was, primarily, to teach myself some craft techniques I didn’t feel like I was very good at. What I’m interested in as a reader and writer is completely orthogonal to the things that most writing craft exercises teach you, and I find the structures and preoccupations of most genre fiction a little alien — fundamentally what I’m interested in most as a writer or reader is not the same aspects that most commercial fiction is good at.

(It’s not even really what the novel per se is good at — one of the big revelations for me a few years ago was discovering what a Menippean satire was, and how many of the books I like, which I’d been thinking of as novels, weren’t novels at all by many definitions but fell into that category instead).

But another thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that just because something is not my thing doesn’t mean it has no value, and so in the two novels I published in 2017 I tried very consciously and deliberately to use all the various genre-writer tricks (the things you learn from sources like the Writing Excuses podcast or “How to Write” books) and to write books that found a balance between the idea-driven writing I like and the character-relationships-and setting-driven writing that is currently fashionable in commercial fiction.

(This sounds like I’m being contemptuous of that stuff. I’m really, really, not. I wouldn’t have spent the best part of a year trying to teach myself how to do this if I didn’t believe it had value).

The first novel I published in 2017, Destroyer, would definitely be eligible for any SFF awards. It’s firmly in a horror/adventure/alternate-history genre, with magic and elder gods and secret histories. It’s also, I think, the book which of the two falls more on the side of being about the adventure rather than the ideas — it’s a book my dad likes, and he likes books that dads like.

The second novel, The Basilisk Murders, is only dubiously SF, although it would probably be eligible for any murder mystery awards. It’s set in the far distant future of… er, 2018… and while it deals with the same themes that much of my SF writing does, it’s doing so without much in the way of actual SFness, so probably wouldn’t be considered for those awards (though it’s the same kind of not-SF as something like Cryptonomicon, if you see what I mean). That one falls far more on the “ideas” side of the scale than Destroyer does, and I think it’s the better book of the two, but I also think that it’s less good at the craft-level stuff I’ve been teaching myself.

(The sequel to The Basilisk Murders, out soon, falls way over onto the Destroyer side of things again, being far more of a conventional whodunnit and far less of an excuse to talk about transhumanist ideas.)

Also last year I released the third volume of my book on the Beach Boys. That was a really hard book to write, but I don’t know of anything it would be eligible for.

So anyway, that’s what I’ve done that’s eligible for awards. That’s not to say I think any of the books deserve awards, but I’m not an unbiased observer. If you do feel like nominating me for something, those are your options.

Now I’m going to go and feel guilty for being such a self-promoting egomaniac.

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Aerial Ballet

(This is the third in a series of posts looking at Harry Nilsson’s albums)

Nilsson’s second album proper was made in a very different situation from his first. Whereas when he had recorded Pandemonium Shadow Show he was an unknown, now he had written for the Monkees and was being feted by the Beatles, and Lennon and McCartney had described him as their “favourite American group” when asked by the American press.

But the album itself is very much Pandemonium Shadow Show part two. There are fewer cover versions, but otherwise the combination of Rick Jarrard’s production, George Tipton’s horn-based arrangements, and Nilsson’s songs about loss (both of parents and of partners) is much the same, largely because work started on the album almost as soon as the previous one had finished. The album contained probably the biggest hit Nilsson would ever have as a songwriter (“One”, which became a big hit for Three Dog Night) and also one of his biggest hits as a performer (“Everybody’s Talkin'”), but it was nearly not released at all. As Nilsson had refused to do the normal publicity for Pandemonium Shadow Show — he disliked the idea of live performance, and other than a couple of TV appearances and drunken cameos in other people’s shows, he never performed live once his recording career had started — the record company were considering dropping him. It was only the fact that they trusted Rick Jarrard, and that work on Aerial Ballet had already started, that convinced them to allow the album to be completed and released.

Nilsson did acquiesce to RCA’s demands that he do slightly more promotional work for the new album — he even got himself a manager and made a few TV appearances — but the real reason for the album’s comparative commercial success was the involvement of Derek Taylor, who had become a friend of Nilsson’s, and who wrote the liner notes. Taylor was an experienced publicity man, and it was him who brought Nilsson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin'” to the attention of John Schlesinger, the director of Midnight Cowboy. The song’s use in that film (chosen over offerings by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and over Nilsson’s own song “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City”) is what propelled Nilsson to stardom.

The album, whose title was inspired by Nilsson’s grandparents (or great-grandparents depending on which source one uses) who had performed in the late nineteenth century as a vaudeville act called “Nilsson’s aerial ballet”, using an invention of Carl Nilsson’s devising to allow ballet dancers to perform in mid-air, opens with the sound of some vaudeville-style piano and dancing feet, before going into…

Daddy’s Song
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

The opening track on the album covers old ground somewhat, effectively being a combined, improved, rewrite of the opening diptych from the previous album. “Daddy’s Song” is melodically and stylistically similar to “Cuddly Toy” (and even contains a similar lyrical reference to toys in the rain, albeit in a very different context), but the lyrics once again cover Nilsson’s relationship with his absent father, although this time, unlike with “1941”, he expresses hope that his future song would have a better experience, rather than the pessimistic expectation that he would repeat his father’s mistakes.

The song was included on initial pressings of the album, but was removed shortly after its release, as the Monkees chose the song to feature in their film Head and on its soundtrack album, in a soundalike version featuring Davy Jones (who had also sung lead on their version of “Cuddly Toy”). The Monkees paid $35,000 to have exclusive rights to the song, and Nilsson’s record label RCA was co-owner of the Monkees’ label ColGems, so the track was deleted in order to avoid providing too much competition; though given that Head was a flop it’s questionable whether they got value for their money. It’s been restored on all the CD issues of the album.

Performance-wise the most interesting aspect of the track is the way Nilsson overdubs himself multiple times, deliberately differentiating the voices he was doing, to act as a chorus rather than just multi-tracking himself in the conventional way to make a single vocal sound thicker.

But the song is a perfect opener for the album, which lost a lot of its impact when the track was removed, because of the way it introduces many of the themes which will run throughout it — a sense of nostalgia for a broken relationship seen very differently by the two parties, parental connections, and a hope for the future along with a sense of awareness that the hope is probably futile.

Good Old Desk
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

The opening track of the album after the initial pressings, this is a pleasant little song based on staccato piano chords and brass instruments, something in the same mode as the Beatles’ “Penny Lane”. The lyrics appear to be just about the pleasure of having a good desk, and possibly may relate to Nilsson’s feeling of security around having a “desk job” (Nilsson grew up very poor, and like many people who grew up poor, he was both extravagantly generous with his money and deeply insecure about it, craving financial stability). “It’s the one thing I’ve got, a huge success, my good old desk”.

Nilsson claimed for years that the song was actually about God (the initials G.O.D. being an acronym in the same fashion as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), but later admitted that when he’d said this on a TV interview “I bullshitted him. I thought it was funny.” — while Nilsson was deeply religious himself, the song was about nothing more than a desk, and he didn’t even realise the coincidence of the initials until it was pointed out to him.

The track was released as a single, to little success. A few months after the album was released, The Move (a British psych-pop band who were much influenced by LA soft pop music) would take the intro from this song and use it, note-for-note, as the middle eight of their UK number one single “Blackberry Way”.

Don’t Leave Me
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Nilsson would often claim in later years that this song, a bossa nova song about lost love, was written on the same night as “Without Her” and “1941”, though they were all copyrighted at different times. It is, however, clearly of a piece with “Without Her”, “One”, and other songs from around that time, in being inspired by the demise of his relationship with his first wife, and the desperation is audible in Nilsson’s voice as he begs “don’t leave me baby” and claims, despite the rest of the song suggesting otherwise, that “things are gonna work out fine”. Like much of the album, the song teeters between despair and hope, and is about trying to make the best of a very bad situation.

Typically for Nilsson, the song also features an incongruous quote from a Beatles song — in this one he sings “beep beep, beep beep, yeah”, from “Drive My Car”, and it’s testament to Nilsson’s strength as a performer that it actually sounds, in the moment, like it makes sense in the context of a song about divorce.

Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Named after Tony Richland, a song plugger friend of Nilsson’s, this mid-tempo, rather bluesy, song makes very different use of the brass section than the other songs so far have, with the arrangement sounding closer to some of Henry Mancini’s soundtrack work than to the brass-band sound of the earlier songs.

Lyrically, the song describes the downward career trajectory of a former teen idol, who still has some devoted fans, but “the time has come, the walrus said, to call your fans by name”, the reference there being to “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, which Nilsson quotes in the lyrics and which had also inspired John Lennon to write “I Am the Walrus”. Nilsson seems at times to be impersonating Lennon vocally in the rather bitter last verse, and Lennon later told Nilsson that he wished he’d written this song.

Little Cowboy
Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and Bette Nilsson (uncredited)

Nilsson based this song on one his mother had sung to him when he was a child (as, indeed, he sings in the introduction). It’s a short, sweet, lullaby telling a “little cowboy” he needs to go to sleep, in a similar style to such cowboy songs as “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” or “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, and it manages to be charming enough not to outstay its welcome.

Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

And after the brief respite of a song about a mother’s love and a little child going to sleep, we get back to the major subject matter of the album — another song about the end of a relationship. Here the lyrics tumble out over the piano-and-brass backing — “life isn’t easy when two are divided and one has decided…” — the internal rhymes and long sentences being suggestive of pressured speech, as if the song’s narrator just can’t stop talking. Most of the themes here — such as the difference between the numbers one and two, both mathematically and emotionally, and the difficulty when two people have different views of their relationship — are repeated throughout the album.

This was released as the B-side to “Good Old Desk”, and was one of the three songs (along with “Good Old Desk” and “Bath”) that Nilsson chose to perform in TV appearances to promote the album.

Everybody’s Talkin’
Songwriter: Fred Neil

And here we get to one of the two songs for which Nilsson is best known — and the only cover version on the entire album. The original version of this song, by folk singer Fred Neil, had been something of an afterthought — written and recorded for Neil’s eponymous second album at the last minute after his manager, Herb Cohen, insisted on an extra song being included on the album.

Neil apparently wanted to go home to Florida and resented the pressure he was being put under to record another song, so he locked himself in the bathroom for five minutes and came out with a song about wanting to go “where the sun is shining” and “where the weather suits my clothes” and about not wanting to deal with people any more.

Nilsson’s version took Neil’s song and gave it a much more commercial pop sound than anything else on this album, with standard rock instrumentation (with strings) rather than the brass-band sound of much of the first half of the record, and with the most prominent instrumental part being Al Casey’s guitar figure.

But where Nilsson’s version wins over Neil’s is in the vocal. Neil’s vocal is perfectly fine, but not much more than that, with a glum, depressed, tone. Nilsson turns it into a song of wistful longing, and his keening towards the end of the track is far more affecting than the song itself is.

This track would go on to become a massive hit when it was used in the soundtrack to the film Midnight Cowboy, selling a million copies, hitting number six in the Billboard charts (and number two in Adult Contemporary) and winning Nilsson his first Grammy, for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Male. The album was rereleased under the title Everybody’s Talkin’ to capitalise on the track’s success.

I Said Goodbye to Me
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Possibly the most heartbreaking song on the album, “I Said Goodbye to Me” is an unflinching look at suicide from the point of view of someone contemplating it — “I said goodbye to me, I looked in the mirror, and I began to cry”, “There’s nothing left to say, I’ll pack up my memories and I’ll walk away”. The song also hints that this is in response to a breakup, with the narrator “hop[ing] that she will understand why”. While one doesn’t want to assume that everything in a song is directly inspired by the songwriter’s real life, given the utter despair in many of these other songs, it might be that this was reflective of Nilsson’s personal situation at the time.

Musically, the song is a waltz (apart from a two-beat interjection after most lines), following a fairly standard chord progression — essentially the chords change as little as possible while accomodating a descending scalar bassline, so you have a sense of constant motion while remaining static. This is a common tactic, used in songs like the Beach Boys’ “Forever” or Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, but here it’s especially effective at evoking the rumination and constant circling of thoughts that come with depression. The narrator in the song is constantly second-guessing himself — the word “hope” is used multiple times, which for a song about suicide might seem odd, but is curiously appropriate — and so the music circles round and round the same points, stumbling with the two-beat interjection and returning to the beginning.

(Indeed the middle eight, where the song shifts to a minor key and gets even darker, works simply by continuing the descent after the stumble, so going from II7/III to ii rather than returning to I — and the descending-bassline-over-static-chords thing continues there).

Everything in the song is circular, everything comes round again, which is why it makes sense that the last verse is the same as the first verse — this is not a record of someone who has decided to kill himself, despite what he says, but rather a record of someone who is thinking over the decision to kill himself. The mirror in the first line (which, like the rest of the first verse, repeats at the end) is key here — this is a song about reflection.

Everything about the song, arrangement, and performance works perfectly, from the minimalist piano-based backing track (with the strings mixed far down) to Nilsson’s wordless scatting, which here sounds like the singer has lost the capacity to verbalise his hurt and is just howling. The one slight quibble I have is with the decision to have Nilsson speak the lines in the last verse as a voiceover, along with his singing of them, in a sort of Ink Spots style. There’s nothing really added to the track by this, and to my ears it detracts from it. But otherwise this is a fine, fine track and a highlight of the album.

Little Cowboy
Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and Bette Nilsson (uncredited)

A short reprise of the earlier song, only fifty-one seconds long, with Nilsson whistling the melody rather than singing it, until the last line where the lead vocal joins in with the whistling.

Mr. Tinker
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Another song in the style of “Mr. Richland’s Favourite Song”, this sounds very inspired by some of the storytelling songs that the Beatles had been doing at the time — songs like “Eleanor Rigby” — as well as by the Kinks’ contemporaneous work, though the effect is actually more like Boyce & Hart’s songs for the Monkees trying to ape that style that it is like the inspirations. It’s a good enough song — the story of an old man whose wife has died, who’s lost his trade, and who has been left by his son, backed by a lovely Tipton arrangement featuring bass clarinet and valve trombone — but one of the more lightweight pieces in an album which is at its best when looking inward rather than outward.

Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Easily the most beautiful thing on the album, another introspective song of separation, although this time with a sneaky drug reference (“doing a number” at the time was slang for smoking a joint, so the “loneliest number that you’ll ever do” line was a pun on that). Other than that little joke, though, this song is a serious take on loneliness and the end of a relationship.

Nilsson was inspired to write this by the sound of a telephone busy signal, which is replicated by Mike Melvoin’s cramped piano voicings through much of the track, and that sense of trying to connect but failing is also present in the lyrics, which also hark back to those in “Together” (compare “life isn’t easy when two are divided and one has decided…” with “one is a number divided by two”). For much of the track there is only Nilsson’s voice, Melvoin’s electric piano just playing chords with the right hand, and a cello countermelody played by Jesse Ehrlich, before bass, harpsichord and flute come in for the middle eight (and Nilsson starts to sing some counterpoints against himself towards the end). It’s one of the best things Nilsson ever wrote, and an example of how the most mundane inspiration can lead to transcendent results.

Nilsson’s own version of this was released as a single to little success, but a few months later Three Dog Night released a cover version of the track, with Chuck Negron singing lead. Their version bludgeons Nilsson’s gentle little song, turning it into a rock anthem and replacing its subtle minimalism with husky singalong rockisms. However, it became staggeringly popular, selling over a million copies and reaching number five in the Billboard charts.

The Wailing of the Willow
Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and Ian Freebairn-Smith

A bossa nova genre exercise, this was co-written by Ian Freebairn-Smith, a composer, conductor, and arranger who’s best known for his work on the film Mash (he was one of the uncredited session singers on “Suicide is Painless”, the film’s theme) and composing the original theme to Magnum P.I.

Musically, this is a perfect pastiche of the style of Jobim, with a lot of clusters of minor sixth chords, and with Nilsson acting as his own cooing girl-group. The lead vocal is taken in a much lower register than is usual for Nilsson, and at points this almost sounds like a Jake Thackray track (although in the fade Nilsson jumps into his more usual falsetto range for the last few bars).

Lyrically, it’s another song about lost love, and refers back to the opening lines of “Don’t Leave Me — “the willow weeps and having wept can weep no more but still it cries for me”. illustrating the way that, even more than Pandemonium Shadow Show, this album works as a single, unified, whole. Every song has at least some small connection to one of the other songs on the album, or to the larger themes of nostalgia, loss, parental relationships, broken marriages, or hope.

This is ultimately a minor track — it’s lovely when listening to it, but it’s not got the substance of some of the songs around it — but Aerial Ballet is an album that’s strong enough that even the minor tracks would be highlights of many other records.

Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

And finally, the last song on the album is far more upbeat than almost anything on the rest of the record, as over a backing similar to that of “Good Old Desk” Nilsson sings “I’m beginning to think there’s hope for the human race”.

The reason, of course, is that this song is about the immediate aftermath of losing one’s virginity at a brothel. “I’m awfully glad you let me come inside”, indeed. It wouldn’t be a Nilsson album without at least one dirty joke song, though — remember that this is a man who once based a song for the Ronettes on a famous bit of toilet graffiti — and the song’s utter sense of joy is contagious.

The album finishes with a reprise of the opening, more dancing feet and piano. There are a few other possible contenders for Nilsson’s best album — Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman would both be on my own list, and there are arguments for Nilsson Schmilsson and A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night — but as a unified artistic work this is a staggering achievement.

This blog post is supported by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Patreon’s well-publicised missteps last month led to the level of support dropping dramatically, so I appreciate even more than usual the people who continue to back me, and now would be a better time than ever to join them.

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