Thursday, 15 November 2018

WRITERS ON WRITING #114: Zadie Smith

I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last.  It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.  Macro Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal — they’re forever moving the furniture.  They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again.  Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety.  Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it.  There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all… Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line… Opening other people’s novels, you recognize fellow Micro Managers: that opening pileup of too-careful, obsessively worried-over sentences, a block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the twenty-page mark is passed… That’s the strange thing.  It’s as if you’re winding the key of a toy car tighter and tighter… When you finally let it go, it travels at a crazy speed.  When I finally settled on a tone, the rest of the book was finished in five months.  Worrying over the first twenty pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters — all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence.  Once the tone is there, all else follows.  You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.

That Crafty Feeling [a lecture delivered at Columbia University, March 2008]

Click HERE to visit the website of UK novelist ZADIE SMITH.

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Thursday, 8 November 2018

WORDS FOR THE MUSIC #12: Jim Morrison


Moonlight Drive
from the 1967 Elektra LP, Strange Days


Let's swim to the moon
Let's climb through the tide
Penetrate the evening that the
City sleeps to hide
Let's swim out tonight love
It's our turn to try
Parked beside the ocean
On our moonlight drive

Let's swim to the moon
Let's climb through the tide
Surrender to the waiting worlds that
Lap against our side
Nothing left open and no
Time to decide
We've stepped into a river
On our moonlight drive

Let's swim to the moon
Let's climb through the tide
You reach a hand to hold me but I
Can't be your guide
Easy I love you
As I watch you glide
Falling through wet forests on our
Moonlight drive
Moonlight drive

Come on, baby, gonna take a little ride
Down, down by the ocean side
Gonna get real close
Get real tight
Baby gonna drown tonight
Going down, down, down…

Lyrics by Jim Morrison 
Music by Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek & John Densmore
© 1967 Doors Music ASCAP 

The Songwriter:  Until the mid 1960s rock and roll was a form of entertainment designed to appeal almost exclusively to adolescents.  Tunes were catchy, lyrics were largely confined to simplistic rhyme schemes of the classic Tin Pan Alley 'moon–June–spoon' variety, and songs were restricted to an ideal length of no more than two and a half to three minutes so as not to overtax the limited teenage attention span.  

It wasn't until Bob Dylan released his groundbreaking 1965 LP Bringing It All Back Home, containing material which was in a true sense poetic and which broke every pre-existing rule governing song length and subject matter, that the post Tin Pan Alley pop song really came into its own as an authentically 'adult' art form. 

Moonlight Drive, the first single taken from The Doors' second 1967 LP Strange Days, is a case in point.  The idea that a song so uncompromisingly dark could receive high rotation airplay and be performed by its creators on prime time television would have been unthinkable in the buttoned down 1950s and even in the first half of the pre-psychedelic 1960s.  Its masterful blending of blues imagery and Symbolist poetry is every bit as groundbreaking, in its way, as a song like Dylan's Mr Tambourine Man or anything released by Jimi Hendrix or acid-inspired UK bands like Cream or Pink Floyd.  While it conforms to the three minute rule –– clocking in at 3:06 –– it is anything but predictable with Robbie Krieger's eerily haunting slide guitar continually weaving in and out of the melody and Ray Manzarek's punchy keyboard work driving the rhythm along with John Densmore's excellent (and vastly underrated) drumming.  It's a song which manages to be simultaneously captivating and unsettling from the first note to the last, crowned by Morrison's supremely confident vocal performance which is, by turns, seductive, bluesy, and bordering, by the end, on the semi-psychotic.  

This is rock and roll born of the unlikely melding of oldschool down home blues exemplified by artists like Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker and 'decadent' nineteenth century French poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine with a healthy dose Antonin Artaud's The Theatre and Its Double thrown in to remind the listener that Morrison's primary aim was always to provoke his audience and shock them out of their passivity.  He achieved his aim with Moonlight Drive, a song which confronts the listener in ways which few so-called 'popular songs' ever manage to do even today where shock for its own sake has become a standard cultural requirement.  You can love the song or hate it but the one thing you cannot do is ignore it. 

speaking, the song seems closer to a Rimbaud poem like Le Bateau Ivre [The Drunken Boat] than it does to any other late 1960s rock lyric that I can think of.  Rimbaud's poem, published in 1871 when he was only seventeen years old, contains many lines which, to my mind, could be interpolated into Moonlight Drive almost verbatim without sacrificing one iota of its power as a musical composition.

The tempest blessed my wakings on the sea.
Light as a cork I danced upon the waves,
Eternal rollers of the deep sunk dead,
Nor missed at night the lanterns' idiot eyes! 
Translated from the original French by LOUISE VARÈSE

The imagery is similar and there's the same uneasy feeling of barely contained madness lurking below the surface of the language.  It's worth quoting the track which precedes Moonlight Drive on Strange Days to put this claim into context.  Horse Latitudes is not a song as such, but rather a spoken word piece, lasting just over sixty seconds, which Morrison allegedly wrote when he was fourteen for a high school English assignment, basing its imagery on a painting he'd seen of the horses of Spanish conquistadores plunging from a galleon into a storm-tossed sea:

When the still sea conspires in armor
And her sullen and aborted currents
Breed tiny monsters
True sailing is dead
Awkward instant
And the first animal is jettisoned
Legs furiously pumping
Their stiff green gallop
And heads bob up
In mute nostril agony
Carefully refined
And sealed over 

I can think of almost no other songwriter in the English language who could get away with putting a track like this on what was ostensibly a 'popular' recording designed to appeal to what was still, despite its newfound sophistication, a predominantly teenage audience.  Nor can I think of any other lyricist who could successfully juxtapose magnificently poetic lines like 'Surrender to the waiting worlds / That lap against our side' with straightforward blues steals like 'Come on, baby, gonna take a little ride' without making the result sound utterly ridiculous.  Few songwriters have ever come close to replicating the visionary quality of Morrison's best work or its astonishing ability to provoke, confront and disturb the listener five decades after it was originally inflicted on an unsuspecting world.

Strange Days, Elektra Records 1967

Click HERE to visit the official website of THE DOORS.  You can also click HERE to read more about The Lords  and The New Creatures, two volumes of poetry by JIM MORRISON originally published separately in 1969 but republished in one volume following his death in Paris on 3 July 1971 and his internment in that city's Père Lachaise cemetery (also the final resting place of Frédéric Chopin, Honoré de Balzac and Oscar Wilde, among others).  These works have now been joined by Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison Volume I and The American Night: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison Volume II

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Friday, 19 October 2018



A remarkable human being left the world on 11 October 2018.  He was a swimmer, a surfer, a singer, a pianist, a jazz fan, a successful businessman, a raconteur, a writer and a devoted and deeply loved husband, father and grandfather.  His name was Earl Drewes Page and he was one of the kindest, bravest, most compassionate men it has ever been my privilege to know.

Earl –– I always knew him as 'Uncle Earl' even though we shared no biological connection –– was my father's best and truest friend for more than fifty years.  They met in 1953 when Earl applied for a job at Andy Ellis’s menswear store, a famous establishment located at the southern end of Pitt Street in Sydney which made suits for many a sporting and radio personality (and even the odd cashed-up criminal).  Dad was the first staff member Earl encountered when he arrived for his interview.  Seeing how anxious he was, dad urged him not to worry because Andy was a good guy, he said, who was bound to give him the job.  Earl was far from convinced of this, but dad just smiled and kept insisting that the job would be his if he wanted it.  ‘How do you know?’ Earl eventually plucked up the courage to ask.  Dad smiled again in his cheeky way and said, ‘Because you’re the only bloke who's applied for it.’

So began a friendship which, as I said, lasted for more than fifty years and soon came to include Stan Xenita, the son of Russian immigrants whose family would, in time, introduce Earl and John to ballet, homemade bathtub vodka and other exotic continental delights.  It was Stan who introduced Earl to a beautiful seventeen year old redhead by the name of Patti Eady, whom he asked Earl to escort home from a club for him as they both lived in Manly while Stan himself lived in the far off suburb of Fairfield.  Stan unwittingly did his young mate a tremendous favour that night.  Earl married this gorgeous young dancer in May 1960 with his other best mate John serving as best man, just as Earl had served as dad’s best man when he'd tied the knot with my mum Dawn almost exactly one month earlier.  The two couples saw a lot of each other during the early years of their marriages, forging a bond that neither time nor distance nor serious illness would ever succeed in breaking.

at the latter's wedding, May 1960

Uncle Earl and Aunty Patti were an important part of my life from the day I was born, people who went out of their way to make me and everybody else they came into contact with feel loved and appreciated.  Seeing them and their four wonderful kids was always a treat for my sister and I, an experience we looked forward to because listening to Earl and dad swap reminiscences about their time as fashion and jazz-obsessed young men about town was always highly entertaining and, for a fledgling social history buff like me, totally fascinating.  These strolls down memory lane would usually begin with dad pulling out his scrapbook –– a large grey folder crammed with photographs, press cuttings, concert programs and other memorabilia –– and showing us the newspaper article about himself and Earl getting their hair permed as a shop-related publicity stunt back in 1957.  There was an accompanying photograph of them sitting under huge salon dryers with curlers in their hair, accompanied by quotes like 'It costs a lot of lettuce to look real sharp' that were as catchy as they were funny.  It seems pretty tame until you remember that wearing a beard or something equally 'radical' like suede shoes was enough to get a man jeered at in the street back then.  Earl and dad didn't give a damn about that.  They were rule breaking trendsetters whose love of fashion was equalled only by their idolization of Frank Sinatra, their personal style guru as he was for so many men of their generation.

The friendship of Patti and Earl became even more important to my mum, my sister and myself after dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1991.  Earl went out of his way to spend time with dad, meeting him in town for lunch and occasionally taking him up the coast to visit Stan who had now fallen victim to Alzheimer’s Disease and was only intermittently capable of remembering who they were.  Earl was also there for dad when his condition deteriorated and he was forced to enter a nursing home and then a government-run dementia facility located halfway between Sydney and Wollongong.  Although Earl lived on the northern beaches –– a difficult two to three hour drive from the facility depending on the state of the traffic –– he remained one of dad’s most frequent visitors during the last few months of his life. 

I became much closer to Earl following my father's death in November 2006.  He was an important link to the person my father had been before his sharp and lively mind had been destroyed by the devastating combination Parkinson’s Disease and an associated condition known as Lewy Body Dementia.  I treasured every moment we spent together discussing our mutual passion for jazz and the recordings of great vocalists like Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Helen Merrill, June Christy, Dick Haymes and others too numerous to mention.  (He also loved country performers like Johnny Cash, which was another enthusiasm we shared.)  We used to meet regularly for lunch at the Athenian –– a Greek restaurant in the city that he and dad had patronized for decades before it had moved from York Street to its current home on Barrack Street –– and were often joined there by Jim Chlebeck, a newer friend of dad’s whom Earl became very fond of because they were kindred spirits in many ways, modest self-effacing men who had been there for my father when he had needed them the most.

These lunches were a lot more than an excuse to get together for a meal.  Spending time with Earl and Jim, listening enraptured to their stories about growing up in Manly and Los Angeles, helped me come to terms with the fact that my father was gone and had died, not peacefully or quickly, but in a prolonged state of unendurable mental and physical agony.  Being in their company seemed to bring him back to life for a while, helping to ease the pain of having lost him at the age of sixty-eight.  This was why I chose to dedicate my second novel to them –– a novel that grew directly out of the many jazz-related conversations we had at the Athenian while tucking in to taramasalata, dolmades and the best moussaka in town.

It was during these lunches that I finally learned more about Earl's family and its involvement in the long-vanished world of Australian variety.  His parents and elder sister were actors and dancers who regularly appeared at top drawer theatres like The Tivoli and The National on Castlereagh Street, sharing the bill with legendary performers like Roy 'Mo McCackie' Rene and George Wallace.  Earl was encouraged to follow in his parents' footsteps and, for a time, studied piano and singing, his voice good enough to earn him a few pennies by taking requests from the neighbours whenever he ran short of pocket money.  But these impromptu backyard concerts were soon to be no more.  He preferred swimming and surfing to the gruelling life of a performer and was soon spending all his free time at the beach or down at Manly Baths, not far from where he grew up.  He was a proud, fully paid up member of the Manly Surf Club until the day he died and the great project of his later years was writing a detailed history of his beloved club –– a project he approached with tremendous verve and researched in his usual meticulous way, leaving no historical stone unturned.  

I saw Earl for what sadly proved to be the final time in July 2018, roughly one year after he'd been diagnosed with the inoperable liver cancer which, according to his doctors, had been certain to kill him within three months.  Although he was noticeably frailer than he had been at our previous meeting, he was still his old charming self that day, bringing along some photographs of himself and dad (some of which are featured in this post) and some other mementos he wanted me to have.  I was as pleased to accept them as I was to see that his appetite –– which had always been healthy to say the least and once got him thrown out of a Weight Watchers group after its supervisor claimed his presence was having a demoralizing effect on his fellow dieters –– had returned with the aid of the medications he'd been prescribed to counteract the side effects of months of chemotherapy.  

It felt like old times even though I was painfully aware that this was probably the last meal we'd ever share together and the last time I'd ever get to discuss the work of era-defining musicians like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck with him.  (He's wearing horn-rimmed glasses in his wedding photos as an homage to Brubeck, his favourite pianist and a musician whose style he strove to emulate in his own playing.  Unfortunately I never actually heard him play because he gave up the instrument years before I was born.)  I was impressed, as I had been since learning he was sick, at the courage he showed in facing his own mortality.  He wanted to be strong for Patti and his family and he remained the same unyielding pillar of strength for them right until the end, accepting the inevitable with no sign of panic or self-pity.  Few men live the way that Earl did and even fewer die the way that he did.  His sole concern in those last few months was to make his death as easy as possible for those he was leaving behind. 

One O'Clock Jump
Count Basie was one of Earl's all-time favourite jazz artists

Happily, we did get to speak one more time before he died.  He was determined to take one last overseas trip so he could visit his son Kristian in Thailand and his granddaughter Maeve in London and I called him a week or so before he left to wish him bon voyage, pleased again to find him in high spirits despite being very tired.  We spoke, as we always did, of his great and abiding love for jazz and the Manly Surf Club and a little about his most recent stay in hospital before moving on to the subject of racial and religious tolerance.  Earl believed all his life that the best way to create understanding between people of different races and creeds was to have them meet and interact as individuals, leaving whatever divided them 'at the door' as it were.  It was a belief I saw him put into practice on more than one occasion.  He treated everyone he met, not as racial or religious stereotypes, but first and foremost as people whose lives, opinions and happiness mattered as much to him as that of his family and friends.  He was a genuinely openhearted man who treated everyone with dignity and never judged, belittled or intentionally scorned a fellow human being. 

But my fondest memory of Earl will always be what I saw him do after the funeral of his old mate Stan.  We were having a cup of coffee after the service with Patti and my mum, sharing our memories as people do on such occasions, when Earl was suddenly approached by a very young child, one of Stan's grandchildren, who had just finished a drawing of his grandfather flying up to heaven.  Earl sat this little boy –– someone who had never set eyes upon him until that moment –– on his knee and spent the next ten minutes praising his drawing, telling him how wonderful it was and what a great job he'd done of colouring it in.  It was the instinctive reaction of a grandfather, yes, but it was also something more than that.  It was Earl being Earl, recognising talent and appreciating it, giving the gift of his attention to a stranger who needed his unqualified love and encouragement.  It explains, far better than any words of mine ever could, what kind of person he was and why he'll be so sorely missed by everyone whose lives he touched in so many different ways.

Come Fly With Me
Sinatra was Earl's favourite male vocalist
and remained so all his life 

My deepest condolences to Earl's darling wife Patti and to their children Amanda, Kristian, Gabrielle and Jacqueline and to all eleven of his grandchildren. Your husband/father/grandfather may be gone but he will never be forgotten.  He'll be in my thoughts every time I hear Frank Sinatra sing, read one of the great jazz books he was kind enough to pass along to me or eat some good Greek food.  He was my second father and someone I'm going to miss more than words can say.

PATTI and EARL PAGE, May 1960


Thursday, 11 October 2018

WRITERS ON WRITING #113: Elizabeth McKenzie

In this case [when writing her 2016 novel The Portable Veblen] I had diagrams on large sheets of paper and something in my head like a musical score.  I also did more drafts than I can count, and stumbled into many dead ends.  There was a constant back and forth between making practical assessments of the progress (and damage), and writing spontaneously, letting the narrative develop unplanned.

Marketing, Marriage and a Sentient Squirrel [BookPage, January 2016]

Click HERE to read the full 2016 interview with US novelist ELIZABETH McKENZIE conducted by MICHAEL MAGRAS.

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