Keep watching this space …
To look at me, a 40-something Gen X-er with more salt in his beard than pepper, you would expect my musical tastes to have ended sometime around the year 2000. Sometimes I worry that’s been the case. Looking at my favorite albums and songs and bands, it’s easy to see why; my music choices have largely remained drawn from the 1970s through the 1990s, with some deep dives into the music of the sixties.
Despite being a 70s kid, the music of my early childhood was the music of the 60s. That was the music of my early years, those long drives with my family, the radio tuned to some oldies station (though back then these “oldies” were barely 20 years old), or an album on our station wagon’s 8-track cassette player.
This was the pre-teenage, pre-music discovery years of my life. The music I listened to was the music my parents listened to. For most people I’m certain their childhoods were the same. The emotional connection I have to songs like ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Bring It On Home’, ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and ‘Sunny Afternoon’ are largely drawn from those younger years.
I didn’t really start discovering “my” own music until the mid-80s. I’d moved to a new city and state and as such did not integrate very well. After schools and weeknights and weekends were spent listening to the radio in my bedroom. This being the mid-1980s though, it was a fine time to be a music fan or to become one.
Live Aid was the first eye-opener. Queen, U2, and a new-wave band from Boston left the biggest impressions. In fact the first proper album I bought with my own dollars would have been this one:
The Cars were my gateway to modern music. They led to the discovery of bands like Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Cure, The Jam, Billy Idol, Duran Duran, David Bowie, The Pixies, New Order and on and on and on. This was a golden era for music, as any Gen X-er will tell you, though we probably didn’t appreciate it at the time. 60s music still seemed cooler, and ‘classic’ and was still everywhere, thanks to the first baby Boomers hitting the big 4-0 and entering their midlife crisis years. We 80s kids didn’t yet realize that by the time we reached our parents’ age we’d be nostalgic for the music of our youth the way they were for theirs and would stop looking at new music in the same way we once looked at our older sounds.
[Part of this is actually science. The teenage brain reaches its peak development around the age of 16 and continues on that path until the early 20s. That’s why the music you loved at that age and the five or so year span following remains with you your entire life. While you certainly can and should continue discovering new music, it will never be the same. ]
I, of course, dove deep into music over the next fifteen years or so. I was there for the birth of “Alternative Rock” and Grunge and Hip-Hop and the rise of Generation X. I bought the albums, I went to the shows. I lived the life.
And then … it sort of ended. By 1995 I was parting ways with music. It wasn’t as important to me. The bands I kept up with dropped off, broke up, committed suicide (literal and career). Life got more complicated, the workload more intense. I was in this weird, nebulous place where I wasn’t quite old enough to be nostalgic for my still too-recent childhood and teenage years, but hadn’t yet ‘arrived” in my adult ones. Life felt like it was on pause while I sorted my shit out. Music was paused as well.
So what does all the above have to do with Arcade Fire’s 2010 album “The Suburbs”?
Hypnotic, melodic, complex – The Suburbs was and remains everything a great album should be and does what any great album should do; transport you. Because of the music, obviously, and because of that mood and tone, but mostly because of the subject and title; it’s exactly the album I would have loved when I was a teenager. I can easily picture throwing the cassette into the deck of my Toyota and cruising the streets of my town, and being utterly surrounded by it.
The Suburbs remains my “New York Soundtrack” – the album I’ll put on anytime I want to remember what those Big Apple years were like. Me, essentially starting my career and life over again after some pretty disastrous decisions in the mid-2000s nearly killed my career. It, along with The Dead Weather’s Horehound, Metric’s Fantasies, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz! and Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, take me back to a time that seriously does feel like yesterday and a million years ago at the same time. But I’m not here to talk about those great albums (yes, even the Coldplay one). I’m here to talk about The Suburbs.
But not the album. Not exactly.
The Suburbs. The ‘Burbs. The Sprawl. Maligned and scorned by the hip, the self-conscious, the self-absorbed, and the “hip urban elite” who (until Covid-19 anyway) lived comfortably in their lofts and apartments and townhomes of whatever metropolis they call home. The ‘burbs are where you go where the dream dies. When marriage and children enter the picture you feel its pull; abandoning the excitement, the energy, the vibe of the city for the house, the fence, the cul-de-sacs and crescents and tree-lined streets, the strip-malls and shopping centers, bisected by roads and freeways, survivable only by automobile.
Call them “sub-urban.” Beneath contempt.
Well, I’ve come to praise the suburbs, not bury them. The suburbs made me who I am. And in this COVID-era, the suburbs seem to be drawing more people into their orbit. The appeal of the big bad city becomes somewhat limited when you can’t go anywhere or do anything.
My first true memory of the suburbs involved me chasing a blimp. I was four years old, happily being four years old in the subdivision I lived in with my parents and sister. One summer evening (childhood memories of these suburbs seem always to be summer) I’m in the backyard of our bungalow and what do I see in the sky but a blimp, much like the Goodyear Blimp, only with red and white colors. I run and tell my dad and tell him we have to follow it. Why he agreed I’ll never know but what resulted was a family outing with me and my mom and my sister in her stroller wandering the tangled network of streets looking for wherever this damn blimp is, just hanging there in the sky. We eventually found it at the edge of our subdivision, among the skeletal structures of the coming expansion of houses yet to be built, yet to be occupied. The “blimp” was really just an oversized helium balloon, with the logo for the construction company on it. I was disappointed that it wasn’t real (and that rides weren’t in the offering), but as we walked back home, I realized that the world existed beyond the limits of my own realm; the front yard and backyard of our house, and wherever my parents would take me. That there was more out there than just my home and street. That there were mountains beyond mountains.
Looking at a map of that neighborhood now I am amazed at how much of my memory of that period is confined to a tiny grid of streets among many. Really my world extended from my street to a block south to my school, and maybe a block or two east and west. My world was comprised of wherever my bike or feet could take me. Venturing a block south of my school was considered a Big Journey, and if we wanted to go to one of the shopping malls in the vicinity we had to ask a parent to drive us and save a quarter to call when we wanted to be picked up. Our experience of the city at large was made in increments and always entailed some sort of voyage.
As we grew older and gained the freedom that comes with age, trips into the city itself involved a lengthy bus to subway ride and consumed the better part of the day. Downtown represented freedom, record stores, comic shops, the best burger joints, and girls (especially girls). On those trips your world expanded to areas accessible by public transit. Of course when we got our licenses and access to a car, that world grew exponentially. There was literally no place we couldn’t go and as we explored, as our sphere of influence expanded, the world we grew up in seemed all the more tiny and insignificant. Cruising through neighborhoods only a mile or two west of ours presented homes and schools and kids our age who lived in worlds that were as foreign and unknown to us as ours were to theirs. We would never experience their lives, the halls of their schools, and maybe we’d pass each other at a mall, we were ships in the night. Maybe we’d learn later, at college, that a new friend lived in a neighborhood that was a stone’s throw away geographically, but a lifetime down the road.
But to understand the allure of the suburbs is to understand their relationship to the city they orbit. To glimpse the glittering skyscrapers of New York or Los Angeles as you pass them on the freeway to your home enclave, is to see a light seductively drawing you in. You want to escape, you want to find your place in that light; you want to find home. I’ve come to realize that dream, that search for your place in the world is a recurring theme in a lot of my work.
When I first experienced The Suburbs I was living in NYC. Prior to that I lived in another large city. All told “Urban” living has occupied 25 years of my life. Big cities, sprawling megalopolis. Places I thought would be my forever home but ended up being just a blip of memory. Places where I thought I’d find a path through life, a career, a happiness that eluded me for much of my life. There’s something to be said for a reinvention. I reinvented myself when I moved off to go to college; again when I threw it all away and made my way to another part of the world. Chasing that dream only to realize it wasn’t the one I really wanted.
And now it’s all over.
In 2018 my family and I decamped to the suburbs; actually to a town founded in 1630 that’s part of a greater metropolitan area (this is no tract house subdivision; it’s older than the danged country). But we’re close enough to the big city that we don’t feel quite so isolated. Our lives are back on those quiet suburban streets, where our child has learned to ride his scooter and now his bike. Where the playgrounds ruing out with the sounds pf playtime and laughter. Where the local baseball diamond hosts little league games all summer long and the ice cream trucks prowl.
It’s certainly a different place from the one I pictured when I began my professional career. Ending up as a work-from-home/stay-at-home dad in a suburb is now where I expected to wind up. It’s a different life than the one I envisioned for myself. In many ways it’s much, much better.
In this pandemic year of 2021 the suburbs are experiencing a rebirth of sorts. They have a much greater draw then they did a decade before. The cities still draw the hopeful in, and I will proselytize that at least a few years of urban life is good for the soul. The cities are where you make your name, where you forge the person you hope to become some day. But stand atop the Empire State Building, Mulholland Drive, the CN Tower or the Prudential Tower, and you’ll see the lines radiating out like spokes on a bicycle wheel, connecting villages to towns and cities and the suburbs in between. At night, the streets and roads and highways gleam, headlights and taillights rushing through like red blood cells through veins and arteries.
The suburbs are about longing. They’re about being on the outside and looking in and dreaming about what was or what could be someday. Not many urban kids rebel against their parents to move to the ‘burbs; it’s always the reverse. The promise of that excitement, that constant search for a place in the world is forged in a suburban setting, not an urban one. In a city like New York you look for an escape from it; the heat, the noise, the people and can find it within a relatively short drive but you always feel the city’s pull on you whether you live there or glimpse it from a hilltop or a highway.
But that longing is part of the romance of the suburbs. You always feel that pull that a better life could lie around the next corner, or the next subdivision over. You can waste your life looking for that place, only to realize that what you’re looking for is right beside you all along.
[This is the latest in a periodic series in which I write about some of my all-time favorite albums and the memories that shall forever be attached to them]
Album: Blue Sky Mining
Artist: Midnight Oil
March 1990. I’m on an airplane flying south, and very frustrated that it’s not a flight winging its way east. I’m on a family vacation, you see; my family, and my aunt, uncle, and cousins, all winging their way south of the border, down Mexico way for a week-long vacation at an all-inclusive resort.
Where I want to be going is several hundred miles east, across the Atlantic, across Europe, to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A.k.a. The U.S.S.R. A.k.a. Soviet Russia
[AK-47. An Eastern block assault rifle which saw great use in Afghanistan. Vietnam and countless Golan-Globus schlock of the 1980s, usually involving Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and in the case of The Delta Force, a shirtless Robert Forster playing a middle-eastern terrorist.]
The reason I wanted to be on that trip and not this one, is because my best friend (then and now) is going. His school, three hours drive away from mine, was planning this trip to the Soviet Union since September the previous year. A lack of overall interest led to an offer to me to accompany. I asked my parents and expected them to say yes as I was, as I am now, a student of history, and to see the Soviet Union, to trod Red Square and see Lenin’s corpse was a dream of mine.
I was a weird kid. But in my defense, he was the walrus.
So I was hopeful. Being a teenager with little sense of just how much things like this cost, it seemed a no-brainer. Of course those hopes were dashed on the rocks when my parents told me no, I couldn’t go, that it was too much money, and anyways they’d decided to surprise my sister and I with a vacation in Mexico with them and my aunt and uncle and cousins. “Surprise!”
I was not happy. But I was also possessed of some sense of appreciation. I couldn’t just sniff at a week in Mexico, drinking Pina coladas, eating tacos, and sunning on a private beach. Then I learned my friend’s school was partnered with an all-girl Catholic school’s history class, so it ended up being my friend, two other guys, and about thirty gorgeous girls in catholic school girl uniforms my age.
So there I was; the most miserable teen ever to be found on a plane to Mexico.
But fortunately I had my walkman. I had my tapes. I had AA batteries in reserve.
And I had Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining to keep me company.
I think my love – my Animotion-esque obsession – with music began in the mid-80s. I was still a kid then, but entering an age where G.I. Joe and Transformers and Star Wars were on their way out, and MTV, Friday Night Videos, and Top 40 rock radio were in. A traumatic move to the US south found me more often then not sequestered in my bedroom, reading quietly and listening to the local radio station. Mostly Top 40 nonsense, but on evenings I had more success pulling in radio-waves from the smaller campus radio stations further east. That was how I first heard R.E.M. and Talking Heads and Love & Rockets – tiny pinprick sparks of light amidst the endless spin of Whitney Houston, Loverboy, Dire Straights, Billy Joel and other mainstream music. This was the era of the resurgent Boomer – legacy acts like Paul Simon, the aforementioned Mr. Joel, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Chicago – who was taking the radio back from the post-punk new wave, new romantics era of the early to mid-80s – Soft Cell, Duran Duran, Thompson Twins and The Human league. Sure, there was great new stuff out there – 1986 saw the debut of Come on Pilgrim, from The Pixies after all. But you had to hunt for that stuff.
But starting around 1987-1988 music began to change. More socially conscious. Bands like UR, singer-songwriters like Bruce Cockburn and Tracy Chapman and Cowboy Junkies. Amidst all of this “Conscious Rock” was a little band from Down Under that scored their first big North American hit with a little song called “Beds are Burning” which notched heavy airplay on MTV and on the radio.
Australia was cool in the 80s. Don’t ask me why. Well, obviously, it’s a fantastic, fascinating country, albeit one I’ve never visited. But I feel like I at least know Australia. This is the land down under! The land of Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli, of Razorback and The Cars That Ate Paris. Of INXS, Crocodile Dundee, and Jacko … and a little trilogy of car-crash post-apocalyptic movies that pretty much launched a sub-genre from a former doctor turned filmmaker named George Miller
So there I was, heading into my deep teens, becoming interested in the world around me and its problems. Artists against Apartheid weren’t gonna play Sun City, and neither would bands like Midnight Oil. They’d been kicking around since the 1970s, releasing a string of commercially middling (for North America that is – they were huge down under), but really solid albums. They’d flirted with mainstream US success on albums like Red Sails In The Sunset and 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 (scoring the minor hits “U.S. Forces” and “The Power And the Passion”). The Oils weren’t interested in getting drunk, Scoring chicks, and driving their cars; they were interested in stopping nuclear proliferation, curbing the world’s petrochemical addiction, and educating dumb suburban kids like me about colonial treatment of aboriginal people the world over. They were anti-capitalist, anti-corruption, and anti-greed. They toured the outback; they spoke out against their government and businesses. They walked the walk, talked the talk, and put their money where their mouths were particularly in erudite, shaven-pated singer Peter garret, who eventually became a sitting member of the Australian parliament, and named minister of the environment.
They also rocked hard. And that was just why this kid needed to hear.
Naturally I scooped up 1987’s Diesel and Dust. I rocked out to Beds Are Burning and The Dead Heart, but he found that top-to-bottom Diesel and Dust was a tight rock album with barely a weak link in the chain. I was a fan, and I was hooked on the Oils, on U2, on all those bands and those issues facing the world I was going to become an adult in.
The tricky thing with finding a new band (or in my case discovering one that had been around for a while) was waiting for their next one. This was still the 80s. Music wasn’t cheap. Finding obscure albums from Australian bands while stuck in N. America was a challenge. The Oils’ early albums wouldn’t be re-released stateside until 1990. Waiting for a new Midnight Oil album, like waiting for a new U2 or Depeche Mode one, was interminable.
There were rumblings in ’89 that a new album was on the way. I was a regular consumer of Rolling Stone magazine. In fact it was Rolling Stone that published an early review of Blue Sky Mining, giving it 5 stars out of 5 and calling it the band’s Joshua Tree.
Needless to say, I was excited. I just needed to get my hands on it. Blue Sky Mine, the first single and video, was getting heavy airplay on MTV, like they were tempting me to madness.
Wikipedia will tell you Blue Sky Mining was released on February 9th, but owing to where I was living and the odd quirks of record distribution, the album didn’t make it to me until early march. Three days, in fact, prior to the family’s departure to Mexico. I needed this album in my sweaty little hands, and I needed it before a week-long vacation. What was I supposed to do? Converse with my family?
And so, on a cold Wednesday in March, the call came, and I made haste to the local record store – the only record store, in point of fact – and was handed my cassette copy (because I did not own a CD player) of Blue Sky Mining (MSRP $10.99, or roughly $22.00 in 2021 dollars – thanks inflation!). Into the walkman it went, and after the audio level test (remember those?) it began.
Now, being familiar with Blue Sky Mine, the lead single, The Stars of Warburton was the first “new track” I got to hear. Stars is a propulsive, melodic song that starts slow and just builds and builds and builds to something transcendent, which is typical of the Oils. Despite being in a frigid northern cline it felt like the outback must have; hot, dry, desolate.
Bedlam Bridge was next. A slower, more mournful track with one of my all time favorite bridges of any rock song;
So how stands the city on this winters night
The city on the hill or so they said
The snow is falling down around the armoury
The city’s closing in around my head
Forgotten Years. This song bangs, to use the modern nomenclature. Here’s the video. Watch it and we’ll get back to things.
Pretty good stuff, huh? A great album closer, if it were one. Definitely a high point of any Oils show. This is the fourth song on the album.
Mountains of Burma. Another slow burn, and one with lyrics seemingly more tornfrom the year 2021 than the year 1990.
Pack your bags full of guns and ammunition
Bills fall due for the industrial revolution
Scorch the earth till the earth surrenders
Were the Oils prophets? No, they were singing about present day issues. It just took us thirty damn years to finally notice.
King of the Mountain. Another banger in the FY mold. Not a complaint, and a great way to kick off side B, same as they kicked off my first time seeing them in concert later that year.
[As a side note: does anyone else miss album sides? If the cassette had one small advantage over the CD it was that it replicated that switch of sides. Eject the tape, flip it over, pop it in, press play. You don’t get that with CDs. You don’t get that with streaming. Maybe that’s why vinyl made a comeback in recent years; for that pause in the action.]
On a whole Side B of Blue Sky Mining is a much slower, much more mournful mirror to the harder rock of Side A. River Runs Red is practically a ballad, only one of the good ones 1990 gave us, at a time where seemingly ever hard-to-mid-rock outfit was whipping out the acoustic guitar like that sensitive ponytail type you saw at every suburban house party.
But Midnight Oil’s ballads are as propulsive as their all-out rock tunes. Shakers and Movers, and One Country following next are practically operatic as they build and build. Have I used “propulsive” enough times in this entry yet to convince you otherwise?
Antarctica rounds out Side B, and it feels like the comedown after a really strong workout. you’ve pushed yourself and pushed hard and now you just need to sit and breathe.
Some albums take time to hook you. Call them slow burns, call them whatever. Blue Sky Mining, for me, was not one of those albums. It dug its hooks in and pulled almost immediately. By the time Antarctica was finished I was flipping the tape over to hear it all again. I knew then, that this was going to be one of those musical experiences I would never forget. that in years to come I might not like the band as much, but that album would always be a part of me.
And I was right.
By the time our plane to Mexico lifted off I was getting familiar with Blue Sky Mining. Over the week that followed, I listened to it over and over again. When I got sunburnt on the second day there – they take afternoon Siesta for a reason, amigos – I spent a lot of time in my hotel listening to it. The vacation was certainly a fun time, and probably preferable to Leningrad in March, and part of that enjoyment was that music swirling through my brain.
Funny thing is I think that vacation actually deepened my appreciation for the album more than it would have otherwise. Because there wasn’t much else to do but listen, when I returned home I found to my surprise that my friends weren’t as into it as I was. Maybe because I spent so many hours recovering in my hotel room from that wicked bad sunburn I had nothing to do but listen to it over and over and over again.
I saw the Oils later that month. My first “real” rock concert. Memorable for all the right reasons and the wrong ones too, I suppose. Blue Sky Mining marked the apex of my fandom of all things Oil. By the time 1993’s Earth and Sun and Moon arrived, I was on my way out with Midnight Oil. The music didn’t have quite the same snap. Of course this being the era or grunge, of Nirvana and Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and the RHCP and hosts of other alternative rock bands crashing the mainstream, a band like the Oils was only going to have a limited shelf life but in a way I think the Oils success in 1987-1990 paved the way for bands like Nirvana; underground artists given a chance in the mainstream and reaching millions of angry, disaffected teens in the process.
That diminished interest in the Oils was also an ending of sorts to the world I knew, even though I didn’t know it at the time. My parents’ marriage, already rocky, was showing its first real fissures. By Christmas 1992 they’d separated. By late 1993 they were divorced, the relationship crumbling like the Soviet Union had. The divorce cast a long shadow over that decade and over my life, that extends to this very day.
There’s something special, something unique, about finding the right album at the right moment in your life. It’s a rare thing to discover something in the moment that speaks to you in a way it wouldn’t if you’d discovered it ten, twenty, thirty-one years later. Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining is my 1990 album; the one I’ll pull out and listen to when I want to remember what I was going through at that time.
Listening to Blue Sky Mining now – even as I make final edits to this entry – it still brings me back to that year and vacation 31 years ago. It makes me think of hot Mexican weather, bookended by the arctic chill of our northern airport and the long drive to and from there. I remember my friends; most of whom moved on with their lives and left me behind. I remember the Russia trip I never got to go on but became the stuff of legend. I remember the world that was, and was changing all around me without my realizing it. The decade that lay ahead would be one of the most memorable of my life; possibly the most memorable. Everything changed in the 1990s, for me. They may be long ago years, they may be long gone years …
But have not, and will never be forgotten years.
[Have an album in your life with as much meaning as Blue Sky Mining has for me? Let me know in the comments below.]
Over the past few months I’ve been doing a lot of writing, a lot of reading, a lot of thinking. About life, about the state of the world, but mostly, about how we communicate with each other. Specifically, how I, a writer and an author, communicates with his audience.
When your book is accepted for publication, the marketing people forward you a questionnaire to fill out, to tell them a little bit about yourself. These are details like where you were born, where you went to university, where you presently reside. They like to know if you have a website, and if so, how much traffic it gets. They want to know your social media presence; which platforms you use, and crucially, how many followers you have.
Basically they want a sense of you; more specifically, what assets are at their disposal to promote your work. If you frequent your local bookshop enough that the owners know who you are, then that’s a potential in-store event. if you’ve been a longtime resident of your town, that’s a piece in the local paper. Heck, even in the town you were born in (in my case, a place I haven’t lived in for over forty years, and haven’t visited in a dozen) you’re a “native”, and as such the local media may be interested in running a piece on you and your book.
But what they really want to know is about the social media. Because that’s going to be the primary way they get word on your book out. That’s The Game; you want to win, you have to play. And I HATE social media. Hate. it.
I’ve gone off before on my dislike of social media before; here and here. Short version for those too lazy to click either; I think social media and its insidious reach into our daily lives is one of the worst things to happen us as a species. I believe in years to come we’ll look at social media as a thing designed to make us feel good but is as unhealthy as cigarettes are looked upon right now. If I had my way we’d bury social media face-down in the ground with a stake of holly through its heart and its mouth stuffed with garlic.
I’m not the only one who feels this way either.
“Anytime you are provided with a service, like Facebook, for free, you are in fact the product being sold. In exchange for likes and retweets and public photos of your kids, you are basically signing up to be a data serf for companies that can make money only by addicting and then manipulating you. That because of all this, and for the good of society, you should do everything in your power to quit.”
That, from Tech guru Jaron Lanier, pioneer of VR, who I first read about in Rolling Stone Magazine of all places, back in the early 1990s. He has an interview at GQ I’ve linked to here, and also on my Facebook author page (more on THAT in a sec). I’m going to share this update on that FB page, but I’m going to predict the FB algorithm will throttle this particular post‘s reach because it’s so critical of everything they do. It’s given me serious consideration as to whether or not to keep my FB page active.
Facebook gives you nothing without giving them something first. For a page like mine that means one thing: paying them to boost your posts to people already following your page.
For the record, I don’t have a personal page on Facebook. Lord knows I get asked for one all the time. People want to connect with you and feel a connection. Mostly they just want to stalk you, look at your photos, insert themselves into your lives by asking you to join their Multi-level Marketing scheme or to just boost their follower numbers to communicate to the world how wonderful and liked and popular they are.
[And don’t get me started on the parents who post every minute detail of their children’s lives on social media. But congratulations on feeding your kids into an algorithm that by now knows when they were born, where they attend school and what their interests are. You just handed that information over to the algorithm. Slow. Clap.]
When you tell people you’re not on Facebook the first response is confusion, then doubt, then followed more often than not by a confession that not being on FB is probably smart, that they spend far too much time on it, and they really only use it to keep in touch with friends and family.
Seriously though; does anybody really like Facebook? I mean, besides “social media experts” who stake their living on that platform?
Now, for an author or other creative type, social media is a double-edged sword, and a very sharp one especially if you don’t like social media. Because in the 21st century it’s not enough to write a book people will want to read. It’s not enough to get the book into their hands; something that traditional media and publicity efforts still do a much better job of than social media does. Trust me, I know; I married a publicist and I see her at her job every day.
To be an author in 2020 means you have to be connected to your readers, to your fans. it’s not enough to be you, a working writer; you have to be a friend, a confidant, you have to be engaged with your audience. Basically, you HAVE to be on social media.
Well, call me old fashioned (“Brad, you’re old-fashioned”), but I’ll always prefer the meaningful communications and contact over the superficial social media-curated ones. Whenever I receive a comment on this website, whenever I receive an email, it does a major improvement to my mood. It’s not a “Like” or a “Retweet” or a “Share”; it’s someone reaching out to me directly to say “hey, I really enjoyed your book or your TV show, or your movie, or your comic book.”
In my experience, I’ve found social media to be a dead end for promoting your work. because social media is a closed ecosystem. You share something on Facebook, it stays on Facebook, and the “transaction” for what it is is usually a like. Rarely a click, hardly ever a share. That’s in part because unless you, the page manager, are unwilling to fork over money to Facebook to promote your work, it doesn’t reach its intended audience.
Engagement drives the algorithm. The more people who like the page, and like, and comment on the content, the more people see it. For me to get even a fraction of the reach this website does, I’d need to wrangle at least 2,000 FB fans. Before leaving Twitter for good back in 2019 I had about 1700 followers. If I were to jump back into that cesspool (sorry Twitter fans; you know it’s true) I could increase that number. I could Tweet and Re-tweet and share and comment and hash-tag and signal boost; I could make Twitter outreach The Job that supports my writing. I could go back to playing That Game.
But I’m not willing to play that game, because I value those fans too much. I value you too much. You’re not numbers; you’re people, like me, like the person next to you. You have your hopes and dreams, your wants and worries and fears. Being reduced to a digital thumbprint on a Silicon Valley hard-drive somewhere south of San Jose is dehumanizing, and as per the GQ article I’ve linked to, much more troubling, much more insidious than a lot of us realize.
I’m not sure what’s going to become of my Facebook page, or my social media presence. Truth be told I think I’m kind of done with both outside of “official” business. My next book is at least a couple years away so there’s no immediate need to return to the social media trenches. But it’s a challenge, I won’t lie. Because my publisher will look at my non-existent social media usage and go “hmm, is this really the author we want to support? The one who’s making it exceedingly difficult to reach his audience?” I will of course need to find another way to interact with my audience, which is why I this website is going to become the conduit for people who want to each me, and reach out to me.
I’m going to work on a redesign, with a more fan-friendly way of commenting and conversing than at present. I’ve always enjoyed long-form blogging and writing over little updates and posts and tweets anyway.
I’m also planning to launch a newsletter, which you will be able to subscribe to. This will contain non-website based content. Some peeks behind the curtain at some previously unseen Magicians Impossible and Mixtape materials from the archives. Sneak peeks at my next book. Fun stuff that won’t be too annoying; maybe every other month. We’ll see.
Of course, feel free to let me know what you think of all of this. I suspect I’ll need to maintain some sort of social media presence; you still do need to go to where your audience, your customers are. but maybe, just maybe, there’ll come a day when we don’t need to.
I’ve been writing professionally for 20 years. The official anniversary would have been February 2 or 3 of this year. That was the start. I haven’t held a regular “day job” since. I’ve been a writer longer than I’ve been anything else. My cumulative school years, from preschool and kindergarten through college were 18 years. In all that time I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing, which is writing.
I was going to do one of those “What I have Learned In 20 years Of Writing” posts, but instead, I want to bring you something called “Things I Wish I’d Done Differently”. So on that note:
- I would have traveled more
When Robocop went to camera I was paid my production fee, aka the balance of money the production owed me my writing. This was in the form of a Very Large Check With A Lot Of Numbers on it. All in one big lump sum. I did the sensible thing and banked it all, knowing I’d have to manage that money wisely, because by that point my next paying gig hadn’t materialized. But if I could do it over, I would have earmarked some of that money, renewed my passport, and trekked to Europe for a few weeks. That was one golden opportunity I had that I passed up. Because then, as now I was always worried that my good fortune was one bad day from ending forever.
- I might have taken that day job after all.
My then writing partner took a day job at a local comic book store a couple of years after Robo. Both because money was tight and he needed a little more but also because he’d always wanted to work in a comic book store, to get some experience on a ground level of the comics biz. I kind of wish I’d done something similar – comic book store, bookstore, video store. At that time I didn’t need the money, but could have easily managed my writing at the same time. While the freelance life has forced me to hustle like crazy for work, having a bit of a reliable source of income might have made it all a little less stressful.
- Those Big Life Decisions would have been made sooner.
I’m a procrastinator and a time delayer. I hate making BIG DECISIONS when times are uncertain. But if I had that do-over I would have gotten married sooner, and started a family sooner. When I got married, it was only a couple of weeks after the honeymoon that the economy crashed and times were tight. We managed okay, but there was a significant drop-off in work on my end. The birth of our child was a happy moment, and even then in the lead up I worried we weren’t ready, that we didn’t have enough money. But believe me when I say there’s never enough money and you never really are ready.
- I would have diversified earlier.
I had ideas for novels and comics well before I made by debuts with both. I spent my focus on film and TV writing because that was where my main interest lay, and where the money was. But I wish I’d knuckled down on the comics and novels earlier because I feel both of those made me a much better writer.
- I would have mastered the art of surrender sooner.
I know the adage of not giving up on your dreams. It’s drilled into you. Rejections, passes, dropped by agents, fired by producers. It’s all happened to me. And I’m not saying if I had a do over I’d walk away from this profession at all. But what I would NOT do is make it the be all/end all of everything. Sometimes walking away just means taking a step back from the fire. It means taking that vacation. It means realizing that this project you’ve invested a lot of time and effort in really isn’t going anywhere. It would also mean not swallowing the many lies spun by the snake oil merchants out there. If it seems too good to be true that’s because it is.
- I would have realized experience is greater than things.
I own a lot of books. And movies. And CDs. Because I didn’t travel much in those earlier years I spent my leisure money on those things. I couldn’t afford Hawaii or wherever, but I could afford that three disc special edition. And now I’m just trying to get rid of a lot of them. Take books. Of all the books I own that I’ve read I very rarely have given them a second read. So in the last move I culled maybe 20% of them. I know the bibliophiles out there just screamed in horror, but to them I ask: what’s more valuable; the book, or the story that book contains? Once you’ve read it, do you still need it? This year I’ve really embraced all my local library has to offer. eBooks. Borrowed books. As of this writing I’ve read 35 books, graphic novels, etc all thanks to my library. Varying degrees of difficulty, but the point is I’ve read them. While I still buy books movies music et al it’s to a lesser degree than before. I’d rather save my money for experiences, even if they’re the local variety.
- I would have trusted my gut more, personally and professionally.
Holding onto relationships, be they personal or professional well past their expiry date helps nobody. It hinders you. When those relationships turn toxic as in “this person is working behind the scenes against me” its best to sever ties immediately and without preamble. I’ve ended more friendships than the ones I’ve maintained. I’ve severed business relationships just as fast, especially when I realize that there’s no more opportunity in it. Of course I’ve done these well after the point I was aware I should have but held onto because I’d convinced myself a toxic relationship was still a relationship and better to have that than to have nothing. I was wrong. You’ll lose months if not years trying to be something to someone you aren’t. All that does is make you miserable.
- I would have tackled those passion projects sooner.
Mixtape was a passion project. Magicians Impossible was also a passion project. And to read both you can kind of tell that. Not that I feel my film or TV work have been sub par because people keep paying me to write for them on the basis of that previous work. But the projects that came from a place of personal memory and personal pain are the ones I feel are the best of my work. I wish I’d spent more time nurturing projects like those over the ones I was being paid to churn out (i.e. the ones that, if and when they finally saw life on screens big and small, bore such little resemblance to my work it was like I’d never done the work at all).
- I would have worked less
You read that right. I used to be the write every day type, and I did. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, for years. And all it made me was miserable. It actually had a detrimental affect on my overall health, and was at the orders of my doctor as well as my family that I take time off. My first “vacation” in that regard was over 2 weeks in 2001 where I got out of town and just read, relaxed, hiked, swam. Didn’t think of work at all. And when I returned to my home and my desk I found the world had kept turning, that nobody I worked with had begrudged me the time off. It made my work on resuming so much stronger because I’d had distance from it.
- I would have done most of it pretty much the same way.
In that first year of writing, I had an potential opportunity to move to LA, to join the staff of a then moderately successful genre show. And I seriously considered taking the offer. What held me back were a couple things. One, I didn’t think I was ready. I was still new, still green, and felt that I would have been one titanic screw up to being fired. Of course, who knows? I could have flourished down there. But to do so might have meant all that I have done in the last 20 years might not have ever come to pass. I might not have written that comic book or those novels. I definitely wouldn’t have met my wife. I wouldn’t have my son. I might have been astonishingly successful down there but I don’t know if I would have been happy.
So on reflection, my life and career have been okay for the most part. I’m both very lucky to have made it this far, but I’m not ashamed to admit it’s also because I do have talent with the written word. Luck and chance opportunity might get you in the door, but if you can’t step up, knuckle down, and do the work, they’ll show you that door again just as quickly. I’ve had up years, I’ve had down years. I’ve come close to quitting many times. But I’m still here, and fate willing, will still be here doing what I’m doing for the next twenty.
Which is why, after a nice little break I’m back at my desk, and back on the clock. I have one manuscript to red-pen, and another to finish outlining. I might even find time to take a vacation again too.