Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 2 Jun 04 06:14
"Jesse Sublett is a musician, crime novelist and non-fiction author living in Austin, Texas." That's the way understated bio Jesse sent for this intro, but here's more flesh: Jesse was a founding member of the vibrant, demented 70s/80s punk scene in Austin, Texas. His band, The Skunks, was first and foremost among bands that included The Big Boys, The Dicks, Butthole Surfers, Kamikaze Refrigerators and a bunch more, playing venues like the world-famous Raul's, Duke's Royal Coach Inn, Club Foot, Studio 29, Soap Creek Saloon, and Voltaire's d'Basement. After the Skunks, Jesse became an author in the Dashiell Hammett vein, publishing mysteries like _Rock Critic Murders_, _Tough Baby_, and _Boiled in Concrete_. He also wrote articles for Texas Monthly Magazine and the New York Times Magazine, and documentaries for the History Channel. More recently, he's battled a life-threatening rare form of throat cancer. While recovering, he wrote his latest book, _Never the Same Again: A Rock 'N' Roll Gothic_, which begins with the tragic murder of Jesse's girlfriend Dianne Roberts when he was 20 years old. Two music-obsessed members of the WELL agreed to lead what promises to be a rich discussion about Jesse's life and work in its several contexts: Ed Ward lived in Austin from 1979 to 1993, where he was the pop music critic for the Austin American-Statesman, the local daily. The first show he saw on the job was the Police, with the Skunks (led by Jesse Sublett) opening. Jesse's soon-to-be wife, Lois, was dressed in a skunk suit. Not for the first time, Ed thought, "This job's gonna be interesting." Rik Elswit describes himself as "singer, songwriter, clergyman, raconteur, writer, teacher, purveyor of fine musical instruments, three-time loser on The Dating Game, holder of the record for number of consecutive freshman years at USC, and arguably the best slide guitarist in Pacific Heights."
Berliner (captward) Wed 2 Jun 04 13:05
Jesse, the first time I saw you was in 1979, in the old Palmer Auditorium in Austin, leading the Skunks through a set on a show where you were opening for the Police. (Also for a band I bet *everyone*'s forgotten called Fashiøn). How'd an obscure local band like the Skunks land a gig like that? And did it lead to any kind of lasting relationship with the Copelands?
Jesse Sublett (jessesublett) Wed 2 Jun 04 17:13
Getting the gig was easy. We knew the promoter. He was anxious to build his rep in Austin and he knew the Skunks was the biggest local draw he could put on the bill, and he knew we were professional and he could depend on us. There were other bands around back then, but a lot of club owners & promoters wouldn't touch them because they were afraid they'd be tuning up onstage, throwing up backstage, etc. Some of those fears were unfounded, some were actually underestimated. The funny thing when I think back on it is how small the scene was back then. You knew everybody. You could call people. You advertised gigs by putting up flyers all over town and then magically you'd have a crowd at the gig. About the Copeland brothers: We did have a sort of relationship with the booking agency end of the brothers -- what was that called, FBI? I forgot. We hoped that if IRS wouldn't sign us then at least they might manage us and book us. Finally after a certain amount of flirting back and forth (my memory fails me here, I hope I'm not making some of this up, but this next part really did happen) Miles Copeland came to see the band when we played Blackie's in Los Angeles. I spoke with him at the bar and so my hopes were high. We took the stage and I could see Miles very clearly as we played. He left during the third or fourth song and I never heard from him again. What the heck. Screw him. I remember talking to Sting after their Armadillo gig when they played for, what was it, $1 cover or $3, after the first LP came out and they were shit hot. Sting was kinda sour, like he wasn't really into hanging out and rubbing shoulders with the masses. Then when we opened for them about a year later or so, they were hot, with the 2nd LP and Walking on the Moon. Before the gig they came backstage and Sting wasn't very friendly. In fact I think the deal was he was surprised that there was a third act on the bill. He asked what kind of stuff we played and I remember very clearly saying, We're a lot like you guys, except no reggae. I don't know, it made sense to me at the time, but Sting didn't exactly warm up to me and in fact he turned on his heel and walked out. And they got lost on their way back from dinner or the hotel and missed our set and started late. I remember we didn't play very well that night. Everything was too fast.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 2 Jun 04 17:37
Where were your earlier gigs? Didn't The Skunks emerge as a reaction to the soporific cozmic cowboy scene that was so prevalent in Austin around that time?
Jesse Sublett (jessesublett) Wed 2 Jun 04 18:24
I was thoroughly disgusted with the cosmic cowboy scene. I grew up around rednecks who didn't get it that Okie from Muskogee was supposed to be a joke. I didn't care for Willie Nelson or any of that scene, but more importantly I wanted to rock. I loved glam rock, Lou Reed, the Dolls, Roxy Music, Stooges -- all the bands that ended up being called proto punk later on. And in Austin there was a great merging of glam rock and blues and basic rock n roll. Gary Myrick was doing that, and so were the Werewolves, and a band called Krackerjack was the best of them all. That's the scene I wanted to be in, but by the time I started trying to get my act together, those bands were gone-- broken up or moved to LA. I was in a band called Jellyroll that did OK but made very little impact on the scene before it fell apart in mid 77. So the punk thing was happening in England, and we were buying all the hip singles and LPs that were coming out, and we said, hey, this is kinda what we feel like. It wasn't very far off the kind of stuff we played when we were fucking around, just having fun. So I joined the Violators -- 3 chicks and me, since they couldn't find a girl bass player -- and Eddie Munoz and I started the Skunks after recruiting Billy Blackmon to play drums. It was very off the cuff. Just, hey, let's start a band, and since we had been playing together (Eddie and I) for a couple of years already, we already knew lots of great covers -- Stones, Who, Kinks, Lou Reed, Stooges, etc. -- that worked very well in that early punk scene. And it was so completely opposite of the stoned, slow, stupid cosmic cowboy groove, that people would get violently angry when we played. They would yell at us, Play some rock n roll goddamnit! Play some Led Zeppelin you faggots! It was so easy to torment them and egg them on. They would practically combust themselves. We started out playing Raul's, a little chicano bar, as you know, on the drag. We knew it previously as Gemini's, one of the lower rung clubs where you could get a gig without necessarily being a hot band. And the guys running Raul's had hoped to just have Chicano music for their pals, but their they wer in the middle of a sea of whitebread university students and they couldn't make much of a go of it. So when we approached them -- the girls and I -- and asked if we could play there, Joseph, the manager, kind of leered at the girls and said, Hey, why not? But you better be good. So we played and the Skunks opened and there was a huge crowd and they were astonished. Very happy. A lot of the bands were content to play Raul's and nowhere else, and in fact they considered you a sell out if you tried to go mainstream and play other clubs. But we had other ideas. From the very beginning, we were playing other clubs, other cities, even. We played Fort Worth and San Antonio and Dallas the same week we played our first Raul's gig. We played Soap Creek Saloon, Mother Earth, and other clubs in Austin within a few weeks of the first Raul's gig. We'd play anywhere, and risk having assholes throw stuff at us just so we could develop a bigger following. Sometimes it was a little ridiculous. Once the Skunks got booked into this club called the Pendleton Pump, and to get there you drove down miles of narrow county road thru corn fields off I-35 north of Austin. We drove and drove and started thinking we'd missed a turn off or something. Finally around a bend in the road there's a gas station and this little joint there on the road and that's it. We pull in and start unloading our gear, feeling a little surreal. Jon Dee and I are standing there outside before the sound check, staring at the corn fields surrounding us and then the manager comes over to us and one of us says, Hey, you think we'll get a crowd tonight? He kinda shrugs and says, Well, I don't know. Corn Fest is tonight. Sheriff is playing, too. Sheriff, it turns out, was a popular local band and, sure enough, it was deader than hell that night.
Jesse Sublett (jessesublett) Thu 3 Jun 04 06:46
I'm up early, and waiting for you guys to ask questions, so I'll mention something we were discussing in the greenroom: photos. Jon asked if there were many photos from the book online, so we could point people to them. A few of them are online but not many. It would be cool to have more. People can go to my website and click on the music links. You can see pix from the last Skunks gig, last May 7th, and also some photos that accompanied the story on the Skunks that ran in the Chronicle in December 2000. I believe there is a Patti Smith & the Skunks photo there. Patti, by the way, really rocked the club during the song she "jammed" on with us. She made up a sort of mantra that went, "Have no fear/ tell god the Skunks are here" while making noises on guitar without actually playing any chords or anything. By the end she had ripped off the strings. You can go to Amazon and blow up the book cover (you might be able to get it large enough on my website which is, BTW, www.jessesublett.com) and you can see the pic of Patti jamming with the Skunks at Raul's on there. She's the one with the hat & long hair. Nobody else was ever allowed to wear a fucking hat when they played on my stage. Her personality transformed completely between the afternoon I met her and that night when she came to the club. She was friendly and open at her poetry reading, but surly and weird at the club. She was much worse the following night at her concert. Wouldn't have anything to do with me! Maybe because I tried to talk to her after our "jam" and then tapped her on the top of the head and said, "nice lid you got there, kid." I dunno. I take that back about hats. I make one other exception: Jon Dee Graham, who has made kind of a reputation for himself with his cool hats, can wear one any time he chooses to play with me. Of course, back in the day, he never wore one. Back to the book cover: On the extreme right hand of the cover image, you can see Elvis Costello jamming with the Skunks at Raul's, too. In the actual book jacket, he's almost sliced off completely. Too bad because he was pretty skinny back then but he could stand to lose a few pounds these days. Up in the nether regions of the cover, mostly lost in shadow, you can see pics from the band playing at Club Foot, that nice huge cavernous and musky place we used to play downtown by the old bus station. Those are the only band images featuring the Murray twins in the Skunks. As you probably know, Ed, that was my least favorite version of the band. We did have some fun and arguably we made some good music, but it's not the version of the band I think about when I think about the band. But I like the white jacket I'm wearing in those shots, hence, those shots were used. All the other images show either Jon Dee Graham on guitar or Fazz Eddie Munoz. Fazz Eddie as some of you may know later on went to play with the Plimsouls. He's also played with Dave Vanian of the Damned, and other bands. Jon Dee -- well, what a resume -- John Doe, True Believers, many of the Austin femme rockers and folkers (no insult intended there), Calvin Russell, the Resentments, and many more. Currently he's in Europe with the Resentments and also, himself. Look for the new solo CD on New West. It's gonna be good.
Berliner (captward) Thu 3 Jun 04 08:07
Jon Dee's pretty wonderful; he's one of my favorite songwriters at the moment. But we'd better haul back here; not many of the people reading this are very familiar with Austin punk history, and that's not all I want to ask you about, since I'm sure Rik will have some stuff to add when the West Coast wakes up. I really can't find that book cover online (could well be my legendary net-savvy coming into play here), so I can't see the photos yet (and they weren't with the galleys I read earlier, either). But one thing that was great about the late '70s/early '80s *was* the feeling of community in the punk crowd. Even in a scene as little written-about as Austin (which, as is true of all the scenes that have come out of there, had far more good bands than anyone outside of town ever got to hear), you *could* get Patti Smith or Elvis Costello up on stage with the local punk sensation. I remember the night Iggy got up and sang a duet on "St. James Infirmary" with Bobby "Blue" Bland at Antone's, too, but that's the sort of thing that's more indigenous to Austin. I'm wondering if this sense of community existed before punk, and afterwards. What was your experience?
Jesse Sublett (jessesublett) Thu 3 Jun 04 08:26
Yeah, it was such a small town in the music scene, and geographically, too, which probably had something to do with it as well. Back then (pause for sigh), you could drive across town in the time it took to smoke a cigarette. The important parts of Austin, including ALL the nightclubs, except for the honkytonks on the outskirts, plus the capitol, UT, downtown and Sixth Street (before it became a booze mall for tourists & frats), were all concentrated within a radius of about three miles or so. Incredible. So you had a few neighborhoods where rents were cheap and Tex Mex was plentiful, and that's where all the musicians and their diehard fans lived. The university kids tended to live in the university neighborhood, and lots of those musicians tended to be more oriented toward the more experimental or extreme end of the music spectrum. I'm thinking of bands like the Huns & Records and even Standing Waves, who all came along in the fall of 78, only 9 months or so after the Skunks & Violators debuted, but it was long enough to represent a whole new generation and turnover in the scene. The Next and I guess a couple of other bands came soon after the Skunks /Violators debut in January 78. But back to the scene community -- it was grand, really, and it's funny to think how low tech it was. No internet, no MTV. You got your info from Inner Sanctum, the UT area nerve center record store. They played all the cool new shit and stocked it and recommended it. And on the other hand, if you tried buying something that wasn't hip, they'd make fun of you and sometimes even refuse to sell it to you. Try having that experience at Tower! And to get the word out about gigs, you plastered posters up and down the Drag. You'd meet everybody down there, too, fans, friends, fellow musicians, etc. We got free movie passes at movie theaters, and a girl down at the copy shop in the student union ran our posters off for free. She even did the sleeves for our first single that way. We helped out other bands by giving them opening slots -- in fact, we gave Joe King Carrasco a shot on a Friday night at Raul's! Nobody had heard of him and in fact, when I got there that night, there was a steady stream of kids coming out going, Who is this guy? He sucks! But obviously, some people liked him, me included, and he did in fact find his niche, as you well know, Ed. We also helped other bands get PA systems, which was a major effort back in those days,because most clubs we played at didn't have one, so you had to scrounge to find a PA that was affordable. By 1980 the Skunks owned our own system and we'd rent it to friends for cheap. A lot of the guys from those bands are still good friends today. In the same sense that the scene was a community in a positive way, it tended to be like a close-minded small town, too, at times, and that could get annoying. People expected certain things from you and when you didn't go along with it, they could be real nasty. Kinda like family -- but I guess that goes with anything in the arts biz.
Jesse Sublett (jessesublett) Thu 3 Jun 04 08:28
The guys who ran Raul's were like family, too. Three big Mexican guys -- Roy Gomez, Joseph Gonzales, and Bobby Morales. They'd have fajita parties for the bands sometimes. When they needed something, like a benefit or something, we'd do it in heartbeat, and they reciprocated. This same thing went on with the guys who ran the Continental Club. Different scene, but still, those guys were great pals, and some of them still are close friends of mine. When our gear got ripped off in NYC, they pitched in and bought Jon Dee a new guitar.
Jesse Sublett (jessesublett) Thu 3 Jun 04 08:43
Oh, I forgot about the book jacket. Go to www.jessesublett.com and go to books/purchasing. The link for Never the Same Again takes you to the book's Amazon purchasing page. You can click on the book jacket there and make it bigger.
Low and popular (rik) Thu 3 Jun 04 09:59
Jesse, while you mention Lou Ann Barton late in you book, there's little mention of the blues scene. Did any of that influence you in the early days, or were as divorced from it as you were from the Willie/Waylon thing? I remember blues being really popular in Dallas and Houston, but don't know if Austin was on the circuit.
Jesse Sublett (jessesublett) Thu 3 Jun 04 10:12
The blues scene was a huge influence on me. As I said earlier, bands like Krackerjack were blues bands with makeup and more decibels. Jimmie Vaughan in Storm and later the Thunderbirds, was an idol to all of us -- Eddie Munoz, Carla Olson, and Kathy Valentine (latter two of the Textones, and Kathy, later of the Go Gos). Stevie Ray Vaughan played in Blackbird, later in Krackerjack, and then the Nightcrawlers, before his band Triple Threat, which included Lou Ann Barton. Lou Ann struck me dead almost the first time I saw her, back in 74 I guess. I had never seen a sexier woman. I still believe she is far and away the best white R&B singer. None of the more recently popular local chick singers can touch her. I mean, she's sexy just reading the phone book. I came up with the blues. John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Mance Lipscomb, Freddie King, and many others, were guys I saw at the Vulcan Gas Co and later at the ARmadillo. I bought their records, listened to them late at night on radio shows, and dreamed of playing that kind of music when I first started, at age 15. Or 14, I reckon. I had the usual terrible garage bands starting out, and I and a fellow hipster in Johnson City would try to play that stuff, and we loved it but we weren't very good. My first real band, Jellyroll, would've fit in with those bands who played the One Knite, Austin's notorious blues biker bar, but we played too loud and too fast and, like I said, wore make up and stuff, and I just don't think the blues crowd dug that. Maybe we should've tried harder. Lou Ann became a good friend later on, in the mid 80s, and we hung around a lot and talked about playing together some, but never did. I have a song on the Carla Olson and Mick Taylor Band Live CD called "Who Put The Sting on the Honey Bee" which was written for Lou Ann. She loves the song but hasn't learned it yet. It's been about ten years so I don't know if she'll ever get around to it. She doesn't do many solo gigs these days anyway. She mostly plays with Jimmie Vaughan and does her ebay thing.
Jesse Sublett (jessesublett) Thu 3 Jun 04 10:21
Was Austin on the circuit? Are you kidding? Hell yeah, it was on the circuit. Contrary to popular misconception, Clifford Antone didn't start the blues scene here, either. Long before Antone's became known as home of the blues, Austin's east side had an incredible blues scene. Bobby Blue Bland was in the air force here, I believe. There were great clubs -- Ernie's Chicken Shack, Charlie's Playhouse, the I.L Club, Victory Grill, and many, many more. Eleventh Street was lined with cars. Thriving scene. Ike & Tina, Louie Armstrong... The Vulcan Gas Company which opened in 1967, booked almost as much blues as psychedelic. That's where I saw lots of the old guys. Then Armadillo continued the tradition and Antone's codified it. Yep, it was on the circuit!
Berliner (captward) Thu 3 Jun 04 10:29
For those outside Austin, the Vulcan Gas Company was probably America's first psychedelic dance hall, which'll get the Friscans in an uproar, but who do you think gave the San Francisco scene its first light-shows except Texans on the run from LBJ's anti-pot pogrom in Austin? (The man who ran it, Houston White, later ran the Texas Embassy on Connecticut St. on Potrero Hill, and the Avalon's first manager was Bob Simmons, another Austin refugee, who founded KMPX with Tom Donahue). Armadillo World Headquarters was its successor, formerly the Sports Arena, where Elvis played his first Austin gig and a lot of wrestlers sweated and groaned. It was run by a collective of hippies and was where Willie Nelson did his first gig after he left Nashville for Central Texas, uniting hippies and rednecks. People like Van Morrison, Little Feat, and Bruce Springsteen were major stars there before they broke out in the rest of the country, and both Frank Zappa and Commander Cody recorded live albums there. It was doomed by the real estate boom of the early '80s, like so much in Austin. Just a little context. It's been my observation that music scenes are a lot more tolerant of each other in Austin. On an off night, when there was nobody you wanted to see at Raul's, you might well go to the Rome Inn to see the Thunderbirds, right? Sublett slipped in.
Jesse Sublett (jessesublett) Thu 3 Jun 04 11:31
Thanks for all that context, Ed. You know the story and you tell it well. I didn't know about Simmons. I wonder if he knows about this discussion? I'll send him an email. The Skunks opened for the Thunderbirds at Soap Creek once, and it was a great gig. I did enjoy that aspect of Austin and I still do. There were times when the blues & punk scenes were mutually suspicious of each other, and a number of the musicians have confided this to me. Then we laughed about it, because we were also mutual admirers -- or at least some of us were. To me there's always been an obvious parallel between early punk and blues, as well as punk and the whole early pulp fiction world -- Black Mask and all that. Getting to the root of the thing, doing it on the cheap, for the fans and fanatics who appreciate it the most. Those who crave it, because if they don't get it, their heads will explode.
Berliner (captward) Thu 3 Jun 04 12:07
And clearly, on the pulp fiction tip, you were one of those. When did your interest in that stuff start, and how, and what made you decide you'd like to turn your hand to it?
Jesse Sublett (jessesublett) Thu 3 Jun 04 13:59
Well, Ed, you might remember that Louis Black, editor of the Austin Chronicle, asked me if I'd write a story about the club circuit that Austin bands frequented back in the early 80s. I had been reading a lot of hardboiled at the time, so it was on my mind. Backing up, it all started when I was in college. I'd been an old movie buff, actually, since high school, when I used to work nights as a dishwasher during the summer and got home and nothing was on but old movies -- sci fi and murder mysteries mostly. Then in college Dianne and I would go to the movie retrospectives at the Paramount, Austin's grand movie palace downtown from the twenties or thirties. So Casablanca, Big Sleep and Maltese Falcon were always the highlights. Talk about the ultimate movie experience in the days before multiplexes and THX sound, that was it. Seeing Bacalls nostrils flare on the big screen, and Bogey's famous smirk, the two of them crowded together in a thirties roadster -- I really flipped for that world. Now there was a man, you know? So I started noticing Chandler and Hammett's names in credits, and absorbed more film noir and started reading the books. Johnny Reno, the Fort Worth sax guy, turned me on to Rauol Whitfield. You and John Morthland and Louis Black turned me on to some other names. I started incorporating film noir scenarios into some of my songs. The first one was Push Me ARound. The last verse is right out of Public Enemy: A crowd surrounds Cagney's little frame policeman says, anybody know his name This little man used to be at the top His girlfriend says, He used to be a big shot. And I wrote a bunch more like that, or a few, and then it threatened to become ridiculous. So when Louis asked me about writing that story, I thought I'd write a hardboiled short story featuring a bass player named Martin Fender. I did it, and although it incorporated stuff about the club circuit, it was really a hardboiled little short story, the birth of Martin Fender. I have to admit that I also was inspired by the short stories of a cat named Dick Wiener, who was writing in music mags -- Music Sound Output was one of them, I think -- about a detective named Ford Fairlane who bounced around the new wave club scene in NYC. I remember he mentioned running into George Scott of 8 Eyed Spy, John Cale, and the Contortions (and Raybeats, and others) and other cats. And I knew George Scott myself, and I was thinking that was really cool, maybe I could do that. I guess the stories were pretty tongue in cheek. And I confess I didn't really take my own first effort that seriously at first, but once I started and figured out how much I liked it, I decided I would take it a bit more seriously. I wanted to be good -- I knew I wasn't going to be seriously compared to Chandler or Hammett, but I wasn't going to do it as a joke, either. Because one thing I noticed was that when guys like Robert Parker and Elmore Leonard and Arthur Lyons, good as they were at what they did, when they tried to write about rock n roll, they were terrible. Leonard has gotten better, Parker doesn't try anymore. So I did think I could stand out in that area. Another thing, Ford Fairlane eventually became a movie. I don't think it started out to be such a stinker, but once Andrew Dice Clay got on board, it dove into the sewer, where that guy lived. And the movie was a bomb and one good thing about it, it seems to have taken Clay down the toilet with it. But th bad thing was that my first novel, Rock Critic Murders, came out at the same time, and although lots of movie producers liked it and were definitely interested in it, nobody wanted to go where Ford Fairlane had gone. And I couldn't blame them.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 3 Jun 04 15:24
You guys got me thinking - we should mention Tara Veneruso's great documentary "Janis Joplin Slept Here," which is evidently still available on VHS and shows a lot of the early Austin blues scene through the eyes of people who were there. The title is a reference to the fact that it's hard to pin down exactly where Janis lived when she was in Austin, because she got around quite a bit... seems to've crashed wherever she could. When she died I was living in the top story of a three-story house on 32nd Street where Janis was known to've lived. The girls on the second floor said they saw her ghost pass through that night. I was thinking that ghost must be pretty tired if she passed through all her various residences on the way out...
Jesse Sublett (jessesublett) Thu 3 Jun 04 15:42
Ah, that's a good thought. I've been thinking of Janis a lot lately since I've been researching my next book, which is on a gang of bank burglars & pimps called the Overton gang, who ranged freely here during the sixties. The story seems to be all over the place because Austin is indeed a hard place to pin down, just like Janis' former residences. So many different cross currents going at the same time. There's Threadgill's the old post Prohibition era roadhouse that evolved into the politico/folkie hangout in the early sixties, while still a genuine beer joint (and gas station, too, I suppose), now owned by Eddie Wilson, who managed Shiva's Headband, the town's first successful (sort of) psychedelic band, after Roky & the 13th Floor Elevators, and then was the proprietor of Armadillo World Headquarters, then went from counter culture to lunch counter culture, as the guy who bought Threadgill's and turned it into a down home cafe, which still features good roots music there at the original location, and also at the newer south Austin location. And what do you know but Eddie is a great historian and collector of all things Austin, and has been a great source of information and connections on the Overton Gang, because he grew up just a couple of years behind the gangleader, Timmy Overton, who, as you might have guessed, was a big fan of the Austin blues scene on the east side where he grew up, where they had those great clubs, Ernie's Chicken Shack, Charlie's Playhouse, and others I mentioned. Austin's a weird place all right. Just when I get bored with it something pops up to remind me that I don't know the half of it.
Low and popular (rik) Thu 3 Jun 04 15:49
Can you remember a moment in your story writing when you thought, "Hey, I can do this"? "Never the Same Again" has the confidence of an experienced writer, but I don't remember reading of a moment like that in it.
Jesse Sublett (jessesublett) Thu 3 Jun 04 16:42
Well, when I first started writing the detective novels, my ego was inflated and I thought I was really rocking out, that every chapter was kickass. Now I go back and I can see all the uneveness and awkwardness and realize what a raw amateur I was. On the other hand, I wish I had that confidence. Parts of Never the Same Again flowed right out, like blood from an open artery. The parts about coming home and finding Dianne, seeing her dead body, and feeling that my life was over, that life itself was over, and various other things like that, are hard-wired into my brain. I didn't need to think about how to write the sentences, didn't need any guidance or self editing. How to put it together was another story. Do you start out with the grim stuff and then move on to the happy go lucky parts -- the band on the road, acting like idiots, drinking ourselves silly -- and risk making the grim parts seem trivial? This took forever to figure out. The book had a lot of extra writing in it, and the main editing chore was cutting the excess out. A lot of that was the happier stuff. Conversations I had with my son, Dashiell, now 10, on the way to school. These parts seemed very important to me at the time they happened, because they were bright spots that helped me get through the chemotherapy and the terrible depression and guilt I experienced when I went back and reopened my own investigation into Dianne's death, and also during chemo and radiation and recovery, which happened before that. Perhaps I should explain. Dianne's murdere was in 76, on the night of my first important gig. I stumbled thru 2 years with drugs and booze and rock n roll and girls, met Lois, hooked up, started the Skunks and the Violators, and got through the next few years on pure adrenaline and new love. But I pushed the murder down in my consciousness as far as it would go. It popped up again big time in 1998, after I was diagnosed with cancer and had surgery and was undergoing chemo and radiation. While doing that, I started keeping a journal, which was the starting point of the book. And I knew I would examine the murder and my feelings and the story of it, and find out more details about what actually happened, but didn't actually sit down and start writing about it until 1999. And that opened a vein, big time. I wrote about 40--50 pages and couldn't look at it all for months. So the book was written in many stages, with fits and starts. I didn't actually finally look up the newspapers and crime files until the fall of 2002. So I was having lots of problems with this mentally even as I was getting stronger physically from the cancer thing. Boy, I have rambled here, from a simple question about writing, haven't I? I'm glad you found the writing to be, ah, confident? I'm not sure what the adjective would be. But I am proud of it. And thanks.
Berliner (captward) Fri 4 Jun 04 01:18
It actually is a virtuoso performance in a really tired genre, memoir. Since every person who's lived on earth more than one day has a story -- and even those that die after a day have the story of that day -- it seems like every person on earth thinks their story is compelling enough to turn into a memoir that people will want to read, and it just ain't so. The thing that, as someone obsessed with narrative, I really was thrilled by was the way you took the four threads, Dianne, the Skunks, the noir thing, and the cancer, only two of which seemed even slightly related (the murder and the books), and turned it into a coherent story, each aspect of which uses insights from the others. The confidence, of course, comes from the fact that it's true. When you're creating a narrative from more or less whole cloth, you make mistakes. With luck, you go back and correct them. I remember reading the first draft of Rock Critic Murders and noting that there was a point at which Martin Fender had been going for about three days straight, drinking about 84 cups of coffee, driving all over Austin, still mentally sharp and physically on top of things, and he hadn't slept, eaten, or taken a dump the whole time. Fortunately, you agreed that that was something nobody was going to believe and fixed it. But less obvious things happen all the time -- and make their way into print, particularly in genre fiction. But you weren't writing about Martin Fender here, you were writing about Jesse Sublett, and when he went to sleep, it was because he went to sleep.
Low and popular (rik) Fri 4 Jun 04 08:00
I also like that you catch how an aware person is always coming of age, which is kind of what I was going for with the question of when you felt you came into your own as a writer. And the book weaves the picture of the evolving music scene, your evolving consciousness, the murder mystery, and the horrific threat to your life, in a well-balanced fugue. The humor and horror mix in such a way that I read the last half almost in one sitting. Couldn't put it down.
Jesse Sublett (jessesublett) Fri 4 Jun 04 10:51
It was funny, in retrospect, learning how to write the novels, because as you point out, sometimes I forgot to include things that made my hero a human being, like eating & sleeping. Then I clearly remember feeling like I had no idea how to juggle these things, and wondering if I needed to relate every time he stopped to take a piss. After a while I started getting the hang of it. It's interesting to learn that, if you've got any talent in storytelling at all, the important bits start to flow naturally, and you've got a natural editor inside of you. I also remember thinking that memoirs in general were silly and tired and overdone, long before I got around to writing my own, by which time I had decided I had to do it or else, whether the thing got published or not. Just because there are way too many of them, and way too many slim, vapid, poorly written memoirs, doesn't mean there isn't room for a good one. It helped that Ellroy did My Dark Places. We talked about it over the years. He gave me the impression that he wasn't going to do it. I'm talking about when Black Dahlia came out. He started telling his own story, how his own mother was murdered and the case never solved, and the parallels with the Black Dahlia case, as a way to promote his novel. And I guess that started him thinking about it more, and how that story made him who he was. I admired Ellroy for his writing, his intelligence, and his ferocity, but I didn't think I'd ever be talking about Dianne's murder to people to promote my own career. Martin Fender's world was noir, but in much lighter shades than the Dahlia case or my own past, and purposefully so. I didn't want to go there, and I studiously avoided it. I wanted to be a noir writer but didn't want to confront the darkness in my own past. So in a way, the crime fiction I was writing was a way of dealing with it, but also a way of avoiding it. After a while it wasn't possible to have it both ways. But it helped to wait to write about it. For one thing, after I got going as a published author, I got other work in Los Angeles as a writer. I was hired to write the screenplay for the first novel, Rock Critic Murders, and I wrote many spec screenplays and a few as a writer for hire. I also wrote and served in various other capacities on about 3 dozen documentaries, mostly historical subject matter, and mostly about wars. Doing that kind of work, I made up for the years of college education in writing that I walked out on to become a full time rock n roller. I learned a lot about story and point of view. I think it helped me learn how to examine the stories I relate in Never the Same Again. I think my music background helped too. I wanted the writing to be direct and honest but I also strove for a lyrical rhythm, including a certain amount of repetition, like you might hear in song lyrics. The editors sometimes didn't get it, and would cut out words and phrases because, they pointed out, I had used them before. Sometimes I'd put them back in, explaining, Yes, I know, that's the point. I knew the book had to be a certain length, too. A rock n roll book shouldn't be a big door stopper, unless perhaps it's written by Greil Marcus or something, or it's a bio of the Rolling Stones. The first time Tom Southern, my publisher, called about the book, he asked me what I envisioned. I said I thought the book should be relatively short, and should also be a narrow trim size, one that would fit in your hand almost like a paperback, and that the tempo and flow should move rapidly, so it felt like a rock n roll song. But the manuscript I originally turned in was too long by about 150--200 pages at least, and I was at a loss as to what to do with it. Fortunately, he hired a great editor, John Paine, formerly at NAL, who blazed through it in one week and told me where to throw stuff out and how to restructure the chapters. Very little rewriting had to be done, only where the restructuring -- mostly just putting chapters back in chronological sequence -- made it necessary. I really appreciate these compliments from you guys, by the way.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 4 Jun 04 11:22
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not heartb roken, (mim) Fri 4 Jun 04 21:36
Just wanted to pop in here and say this discussion is fascinating. if your posts are anything to judge by, Jesse, I love your writing style, and look forward to getting a copy of your book. I've only been to Austin once, visiting an old NY pal who moved there 10 yrs ago and loves it to this day (and he is a big music geek, and I know the scene there is a large part of his enjoyment of the city), and it seems like a fine town, like a little island of cool in the middle of texas. So i was wondering, are you born and bred in Austin? If so, ever wanted to move somewhere else for the experience of it? If not, what brought you to Austin?
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