Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 3)

"You're making the musician's mistake," another record company executive once told me. "You think a song is words and music and chord changes and all that. It's not. It's three minutes of s--t whose sole purpose is to keep teenagers from switching radio stations between Clearasil commercials."

Two years later I was back in River Falls, Wisconsin, back in college, back hanging out on the distant periphery of the Minneapolis music scene, and back to going off in sixteen different directions at the same time and consequently getting nowhere. I was too weird for the straight-ahead rock 'n' rollers; I could fake it for a little while, but in the end I just couldn't pretend that Rush or Styx was making interesting music for long enough to matter. I kinda sorta almost fit in with the punk and New Wave crowd, but had trouble with the emphasis on piercings and weird clothes and hairstyles, and was too serious about my musicianship to get into the whole noise, anarchy, and nihilism thing. I was closest of all to fitting in with the serious arts grants and commissions people, over on the far New Music end of the continuum, but every time I got almost within reach of making substantial progress in that scene, I'd slip up, and let my sense of humor show.

Never let your sense of humor show. Never admit that you are being anything other than absolutely, utterly, 100-percent excruciatingly serious — at least, not if you're hanging around with a bunch of painfully insecure people who are not themselves sure if what they are doing is actually art or merely pretentious bulls--t.1

So I kept floundering on, and kept adding acquaintances to the curriculum vitae. I'd already met or otherwise spent quality time with Aaron Copland, John Cage, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Libby Larsen, and especially Laurie Anderson. (And Gene Roddenberry, Dr. Seuss, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Leslie Fiedler, too, but those are all stories for another day.2)

Now I got to know Buddy Rich, much better than I wanted to, and got in a great photo-op backstage with DEVO, and got to know Morton Subtonick, on what seemed like fairly good terms at the time although I doubt he'd remember me now. Subotnick suggested that I apply to Cal Arts and come out to California to study electronic music under him, but I was fed up with life in California, so once again, I let the One Ring pass by.

Sometimes, though, the mind does wonder...

The really funny part is, as a musician, my Muse3 already had been whacking me over the head persistently for some years, trying to get my attention, but I wasn't listening. For example, back in '76, this band I was in —
Note: I have an enormous repertoire of funny, strange, and disturbing stories, all of which begin with — no, not, "This one time, at Band Camp" — but with, "This one time, this band I was in..."

So. Back in '76, this band I was in got signed to do a gig at a "supper club," and the contract specifically stated that we had to do at least one set of 50's music. Now, the lead singer was adamant that he would never stoop to singing such rot, and the lead guitarist was equally adamant that he would never stoop to playing such rot, and the rest of the lads in the band were at first highly confident that once the club owner saw what a terrific, talented, and progressive group we were, he'd forget all about that 50's junk. But as the opening date grew closer, the booking agent kept asking for a copy our playlist, and he kept making increasingly anxious calls to confirm that, "You are working up a 50's set, right?" And so finally, having a soft spot for Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Eddie Cochran, and Carl Perkins, not to mention a sizable rockabilly record collection — it's not all Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen4, and Frank Zappa, you know — I volunteered to step out from behind the heap o' keyboards, and with the drummer and the bass player work up a rockabilly set as a trio, "just in case."

I'll spare you the rest of this story. If you've seen The Blues Brothers, you can imagine it. Only without the chicken wire. But the ironic twist on the ending is, while I'm only a competent guitarist, and barely an adequate singer, it turns out that when it comes to retro roots rockabilly, I have a real knack. And over the next few years, and through the next few bands, there were many times when being able to cut short whatever we were playing and jump right into a Buddy Holly or Everly Brothers tune saved our butts.

Again, the mind can only wonder. If I had but chosen that path...


Meanwhile, while all of that was going on, I was also following my interests in electronic music deeper into computer science5, and having a brief flirtation with linguistics and anthropology, and still writing stories. Thanks to the success of Star Wars there had been a fresh infusion of vulture capital into printed science fiction, and while several of the old-school pulp magazines such as Galaxy, If, and Fantastic were dead or dying (and the first and oldest magazine in the field, Amazing Stories, was coughing blood and not looking at all well), ANALOG and F&SF were both still going strong and growing in circulation.

Better yet, Bob Guccione was pumping stupid amounts of money into OMNI6 in an effort to prove that he was not a pornographer; PLAYBOY had recently opened itself up to unsolicited sci-fi submissions, a decision which Alice Turner quickly came to regret7; and there was a new big dog in the neighborhood: ASIMOV'S.

The first successful sci-fi pulp magazine to be launched since the 1950 debut of GALAXY, edited by the remarkable George Scithers, ably assisted by Gardner ("Jabba") Dozois, Darryl Schweitzer, John Betancourt, and a host of others whose names I should remember now but don't, ASIMOV'S went with astonishing rapidity from being a quarterly startup to being the premiere magazine in the field. More importantly to me, in that same time period my submissions to Asimov's went from getting bounced with form rejections to coming back with actual letters telling me why my story sucked.

And then, in February of 1980, without even realizing it, I finally wrote my big hit single. And to what has proven to be my enduring surprise, it was not a song, but a story: one that tried to grok the juxtaposition between the punk scene I was leaving and the electronic frontier I was facing. And because I wanted Scithers to really notice this story, I put a lot of time and effort into coming up with a snappy title. I knew it had to be one-word title; I knew that the word had to be a new word, to express a new concept. So I spent a lot of time putting together the bits and phonemes and trying out different syllable combinations, to see how they sounded and rolled off the tongue, and then I picked the one that I thought sounded best and would make the strongest and most lasting impression.

And so, from the very first rough draft, this story had but a single word for a title, and lo, the word was —


To be continued...

1 Unless of course you are doing stand-up comedy, in which case you should laugh at everything you say, no matter how stupid or insipid it is or how many times you have said it before. Most audiences are insecure in their judgement and depend upon the performer to let them know whether they should laugh or not.

2 Oh yeah, and once I got drunk with Charlie Daniels, but that is really a story for another time!

3 After decades of confusion, I've finally realized what my problem is. I've always thought my Muse was Euterpe, the Muse of Music. Now that I look at their pictures, though, I realize my Muse is now and always has been Thalia, the Muse of Comedy.

4 In case anyone cares, Stockhausen's son, Markus, is very much alive and doing music that is very different from that of dear old dad.

5 Even going so far as to write a primitive space-battle game on my TRS-80 Model 1.

6 Another fine product of the PENTHOUSE publishing empire.

7 When word got out that Playboy paid as much for a 5,000-word short story as most sci-fi publishers paid for an entire first novel, all eyes in the sci-fi world turned towards Ms Turner's office in Chicago. Being on stalks helped.