Monday, August 25, 2014

Dog Days

It's that time again. And, inevitably, people are complaining. Look, I want to say, you knew it was Texas when you moved here. And, as summers here have gone in the recent past, it really hasn't been that bad this year. Of course, it's not over yet, either.

I used to look at the state capitol building when I lived here last and imagine the workers dealing with all that heavy stone, laying the floors, installing the woodwork, in the depth of a Texas summer. My old house had two window-unit air conditioners and there were days when I was just immobile in the living room as the unit wheezed in cold air. The kitchen didn't have one, and as I remember I ate out a lot, or else ate salads. The refrigerator worked fine; my landlord's brother owned a used appliance store. There was even an ice machine. The electric bills were frightening, especially once I went back to freelancing. The office had the other machine, so sitting in it was okay, and it connected to the sleeping porch/bedroom, a room lined with windows that was just wonderful before and after the summer and winter weather. So life wasn't too bad once you got used to not doing too much. It could have been worse: I could have been working construction.

But then I moved to a place without air conditioning entirely. You didn't need it for the 45 or so days of summer in Berlin, of course, but really, summer in southern France wasn't so bad, except maybe for a week at its height. Which would be right about now. The French cleverly invented shutters, big wooden doors that you could close without closing the windows, so that air could circulate.

The place I live now has central air/central heat, CACH, as the real-estate listings have it, and what I discovered over the winter is that the house is very well insulated. I'd unthinkingly step into the garage and suddenly it was winter, just as now I walk in there and it's like an oven. (Well, it does face east). I've got the thermostat set for 79º, which is about right. The temperature at night slips below that most of the time so that I'm not running the compressor all the time, and the well-insulated interior keeps use at a minimum, although it steps up during the afternoon.

As it should: these past couple of weeks, we've been into the three-digit range. Today's high is forecast for 102º, low of 79º. These are the dog days, the days when Sirius the dog star is above us. Might be: I rarely go out at night, and anyway, the city illumination in the distance would negate seeing it, even if I did know a damn thing about stars, which mostly I don't.

No, boy, it's not about you.
"Cane Beagle" by Ale300885 - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This weather, though, has all kinds of side-effects. For one thing, it hasn't rained decently in some time. There's a general drought on, which has been going for the better part of the decade, although,  again, it's been atypically wet since I got here. I gave thought to starting a garden, or at least plants in planters, on the back deck, and a friend even presented me with four tomatillo plants he'd kind of impulse-bought during a road trip. They throve nicely (although the chile seeds I got from a friend in New Mexico never sprouted because apparently they don't in peat pots) until one day they didn't. This is something I remember from my previous residence, too. One day, the leaves start looking bad and no amount of watering will change that. In what seems like minutes (but is actually a couple of days), the whole plant goes from plasmolysis to death. Bang. 

Things aren't much better in the critter community. I was planning to write a post in which I was upbraided by the local blue jay family for writing about such lowly critters as bugs and turd-laying toads when there was such a splendid display of avian-Americans available to me. Which is true, even if the blue jays' latest family caused a bit of panic when the kids were learning the ropes and several times flew at the screen in the open window a couple of feet from my head here on the desk, but managing to grab the mesh with their claws just in time and take off again. I don't know which of us was more alarmed. When the lawn in the back yard was going, so were the bugs, including the first lightning bugs I'd seen in decades, and so were the birds eating the bugs. Corvids were popular: there were grackles, of course (Austin's famous for grackles: ask anyone with a car who's parked under a tree they use for sleep), but also cowbirds (which may or may not be corvids, but are structurally similar) and starlings. Grey doves made the scene, with their annoying cooing sounds, but also their ability, unique in the avian world, to suck up water through their beaks. No leaning back and gargling it down for them. My most treasured avian-American visitor, though, was a woodpecker of some sort -- I still haven't identified it properly -- with a body covered with bars of black and white, and a bright read topknot. His station was one of the trees, where he'd cleverly knocked a wound. The wound bled sap, the sap attracted ants, and the woodpecker had dinner. And I shouldn't neglect the cardinals, of whom I have two, male and female. At one point I thought I might have a wounded baby cardinal back there and went out to check. Nope: some bird had found a bright red cigarette lighter in the street, where it had been run over, and brought it into the yard. 

(Although there's sure no complaining about this guy, who may have been dead, for spectacular color. He landed in the driveway, shed a lot of the red, and then disappeared)

There are mammals, too: squirrels and a cat. An old cat. Black and white, and acts like he owns the neighborhood, which in some respects he does. I know when he's around because the jays tell everyone he is. I saw him just yesterday, walking stiffly across my front yard. So as to keep on the good side of my avian-American friends, I pay him no attention: no feeding the predator. 

But the weather in the past couple of weeks has cut back on all this activity. I suspect water is at the bottom of all of it: there just isn't any here because it hasn't rained. My guess is that most of the critters are hanging out near any creek or even backyard swimming pool that's got wet in it. Yesterday I almost hit a squirrel who was attempting to cross William Cannon Boulevard, a four-lane road with a center divider. He was walking oddly, and I think his tiny brain was kind of baked, but it worked well enough that, as the traffic came on, he changed his mind and went back to the starting place. I wondered what was going on, but again, the thought was water. There are no birds in the back yard, few bugs at night, the grass is largely yellow, the leaves on the trees contracted but not plasmolized. 

As the day ends, instead of the colorful sunsets of a few weeks back, we get a sort of annoying yellow light and then darkness. What it portends is the same thing the Weather Service tells me: "abundant sunshine," which sure is a nice way to put it. And hot. 

Well, I knew it was Texas when I moved here. Now for the electric bill. 

Photo by Stephen Wolfe Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I'm going to be looking out the window while writing anyway. He'll be back. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

What Happens Next

One of the things I rarely do on this blog is to talk about my work life. Really: no sense in depressing you people who drop by and read this any more than is absolutely necessary. And that's really only half a joke. As the years go by, fewer paid writing gigs are available as magazines disappear and the reading public, what there is of it, begins to feel entitled to high-quality writing for nothing, just like has happened with music.

This means that those of us who want to stay alive have to either find another way to make a living (and at my age that's hard) or else figure out how to make a living off of books. And never has that latter course been harder. The small quality publishers who kept what are called mid-list writers alive over the years have been gobbled up by media conglomerates beholden to bean-counters whose only interest is the bottom line -- again, something you'll find in the music business. Hell, I believe one major publishing group is owned by a company that also includes a bunch of record companies. Structurally, it's all the same: you put out product, market it to the potential audience via targeted advertising based on research, and with luck you make a profit. Producers of product that isn't immediately profitable are let go. There's no development of talent any more: it's not cost-efficient.

Over the past five years, I've been represented by a superb literary agent at a top New York agency. Of course, during that time we've both been trying to sell something so we can each pay our rents. I came to him with a good idea, an idea he thought was good, too, but he had a word of advice. "This isn't a big book, much as I like it. You have to lead with a big book for your first book, because if you don't, there won't be a second book." And, unfortunately, I had to agree he was right. So I came up with a big book idea, or at least what I thought was one, and spent a long time researching enough of it to be able to figure out what I knew, what I needed to find out, and where what I didn't know was located. I got brilliant cooperation: my subject had somehow fallen between the cracks, and at the moment I was meeting people and doing preliminary interviews, interest had just barely started to revive. One thing I was waiting for was the publication of a catalog of a large gallery exhibit that had ignited this revival of interest. But one by one, the publishers turned us down. I went looking for a new idea. While I was looking, the catalog was published and the New York Times reviewed it, saying it was good as far as it went, but would have been greatly improved by some context. Which, of course, was what my book was: the context.

Anyway, my ship was threatening to go down, and I grabbed the first available life-preserver: do a history of rock and roll, but do it in the way I did it on my shows on Fresh Air: not so much emphasizing the big stars -- how could I possibly compete with Mark Lewisohn's immense three-volume history of the Beatles or Peter Guralnick's magisterial biography of Elvis? -- but instead concentrating on the forces within the culture and the music business as much as the individuals, successful or not, that caused things to happen.

This guy's in it
That way, I can trace the emergence of an act while talking about the other acts that were around before the name everybody recognizes got famous. Everybody talks about Elvis, Scotty and Bill mixing hillbilly and blues elements and making those trailblazing records in 1954, but not so many people realize that their fellow Memphians, the Rock and Roll Trio, the Burnette Brothers and killer guitarist Paul Burlison, who were doing this same idea earlier than Elvis.

And, as with Memphis, it's important to recognize that scenes existed, and the ambiance they created gave birth to lots of ideas as people explored ways of making music. Long before NWA were conceived, South Central was a maelstrom of musical activity, much of which is well worth your attention even today.

So's she
The problem was, in order to lay this out, I wrote a book proposal that was very, very long. I don't know that this is the case, but I suspect most of the editors took a casual look, said "Ho hum, another rock history book," and passed. The idea that my radio stuff is on a program with 4.5 million listeners, and that my archive gets 20,000 hits each time I have a piece on the air didn't seem to resonate with anyone. Me, if I were in the publishing biz and was approached by a guy with numbers like that, I'd sign him even if the book didn't seem like much. After all, do you know how many books you have to sell to make the Times best-seller list? If you're used to record-biz numbers, you'll be amazed. A friend who's taught journalism told me that one of his mentors when he was coming up told him "The publishing business understands everything but readers." Ain't that the case, though?

Two editors got it. One I talked to and he was totally on board. He went to the suits in his company and they told him it was "too ambitious." (Now there's two words people rarely use when they're talking about me!) The second guy wanted me to write a book he had in mind, but that book seemed to be one that had already been written. Not only that, but it was first published in 1984 and is still in print. That alone is a miracle. And it was too bad: this guy had no suits to report to. He was the suit.  I don't follow the publishing industry, but if I did I'd have known that he's a legend, and that a major publisher had just given him his own imprint to do with as he wanted (well, within reason). But...not gonna happen.

Except it did. Unknown to me, a friend in Oakland who had a book deal had that deal with this guy. And they'd talked a lot. The guy's daughter was going to school in Oakland, the publisher went out to visit her and hung out with his author, the author mentioned that it was too bad he wasn't going to do my book and the publisher agreed. "Why don't you split the book in half," my friend suggested, "and let the first part build the audience for the second part?" "Oh, man," the guy said, "why didn't I think of that?" E-mails flew between Austin and Oakland and New York, a phone call hashed out the details, the agent and the publisher traded facts and figures and...last Tuesday we all reached a deal.

And these guys will damn sure be in it!
It's a real good deal, the money will be enough to pay the rent during the year I have to write this first volume (the second volume is another thing entirely, and we're not even talking about it yet), but not enough that my lifestyle will change noticeably to anyone who isn't my landlord, who will be very gratified to get a check on the first of the month. I'm hardly going to get extravagant, but I am going to celebrate when the check clears the bank by buying a ticket to New York, spending a day hitting the museums, and then getting on a train for Montreal, where I'll spend a few days before heading back. I don't like to use the word "deserve," but I do need a break from Austin.

* * *
There's even a weird postscript to this. About a year ago, the guy who owns the rights to a book I did in 1983 called Michael Bloomfield: the Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero got in touch because he wanted to do it as an e-book. Since my relationship with him has always been a bit touchy (the book was in print for three weeks, and ever since I found out it was out of print and going for ridiculous amounts on the rare book market I'd been asking him to reprint it, and he'd refused), I insisted my agent be involved in any dealings. He reluctantly agreed, and we signed an agreement splitting everything 50/50. And there it sat. 

He gets his own book.

After the rock and roll book looked dead, my agent sent the Bloomfield book around -- I'd revised the text, although it needs a bit more work -- and, to everyone's surprise, got a bite. The day after we'd made our deal for the rock and roll book, he was offered a concrete deal for the Bloomfield book! That was last Wednesday. "What are we going to do tomorrow?" he asked me. The movie! The movie! (Although too bad Philip Seymour Hoffman's not around to play me...)

So it'll be a notch above broke not poor around here, but I'll still be the same old me, and you can count on the blog continuing, especially once I get some needed repairs done on the car and can drive around central Texas and over to Louisiana to visit my favorite smokehouses for some sausage and tasso. Stick around: this should get interesting. 

Site Meter