Said the Gramophone’s Sean Michaels: Us Conductors

For over a decade, Said the Gramophone has been one of the seminal music blogs and the most well written thanks to the distinctively eloquent prose of founder Sean Michaels. Though I’d been sharing music on Muruch a few years before Said the Gramophone was created, its literary presence in the then burgeoning mp3 blog scene certainly influenced my own approach to writing about music. Subsequently, I’ve rarely felt such excitement, sisterly pride and faith-like confidence in a book’s potential to entertain and inspire as I did turning the first page of Sean’s debut novel, Us Conductors.

“The sound of the theremin is simply pure electric current. It is the chanting of lightning as it hides in its cloud. The song never strains or falters; it persists, stays, keeps, lasts, lingers. It will never abandon you.

In that regard, it is better than any of us.”

Us Conductors is an extraordinary work of historical fiction that is equal parts love story and spy novel – and all about the theremin. The tale encompasses the unusual life story of the instrument’s Russian inventor, Léon Theremin, particularly his romance with the theremin’s most famous player, Clara Rockmore, as well as a whole lotta Stalin-era international intrigue.

Sean portrays Léon Theremin as the Steve Jobs of the early 20th century with his innovative inventions, motivational speeches about bringing cutting edge technology to the common man and his ongoing battle to maintain creative control amidst greedy corporations and sinister political agencies, both American and Soviet.

Yes, I imagined a theremin in every home; not just the billions of new songs that would sing out, but the realization of millions of Americans, Englishmen, Spaniards, Siamese: If we can do this, what else can we free people accomplish?”

I read the first half of the book during a recent vacation, happy to discover it was the perfect book for a perfect beach day. I fell into the novel’s poetic description of Léon and Clara’s budding romance with seagulls flying elegant circles in the clear blue sky above me, the sun glistening gold on the sea beside me and Allison Crowe singing “Hallelujah” into my ears.

The sweet, old-fashioned courtship of the protagonist scientist and his beloved muse often brought to my mind one of my favorite poems, “Recuerdo” by Edna St. Vincent Milay.

For dessert you ordered a chocolate parfait. I ordered a cup of coffee. I drank it sweet, with two small spoonfuls of sugar. Someone was playing records, one after another. They all sounded like love songs. You hid your grin as you scraped mousse from the bottom of the parfait glass.”

Unfortunately, my return home was accompanied by the novel’s Kafkaesque second half. It was a drastic change in tone, though the quality of Sean’s writing remained steady throughout. I suppose history left Sean little room for creative license. The sorrow and disillusionment that plagued the novel’s final pages ultimately overshadowed the pure joy of its exquisite beginning. Nevertheless, I hope this was just the first of many Sean Michaels novels to come.

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You can hear music, both classic and modern, that inspired the novel at Sean’s Official Site and here’s a video of an aged Clara Rockmore herself playing theremin on Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan,” a piece frequently mentioned in the book…

Current Read: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is an award winning classic tale of a teenage boy’s struggle to survive alone in the Canadian wilderness after a plane crash…kinda like Lost if Jack was the only survivor on the island and the smoke monster was really just a homicidal moose. The adventure setting itself would be an interesting enough read, but what makes the story so riveting is the protagonist’s mental transformation from a young boy upset over his parents’ divorce to a man teaching himself how to live in the jungle and overcoming obstacles both external and internal.

S. by J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst

Remember how unique, intelligent and exciting Lost seemed to be the first few seasons? How we kept plodding through the weaker storylines, annoying characters and complicated plot twists, because the little cryptic details so strongly hinted at a greater mystery that we felt certain would ultimately lead to a mindblowing epiphany when the series finally reached its end? And how, after seven long years of fan devotion and theories, most of us were so disappointed and confused (and not in a good way) by the series finale that it made all those years feel like a total waste? That’s exactly how I feel about S., the new critically acclaimed novel by Lost producer J.J. Abrams and author Doug Dorst.

Once again J.J. Abrams came up with a very cool and clever concept, albeit blatantly derivative of both House of Leaves and Griffin & Sabine: the novel within a novel within a novel with postcards and other loose pieces inserted throughout the book. The main narrative is a controversial book by a notoriously mysterious author with coded footnotes by his equally mysterious translater, while the “handwritten” margin notes contain the philosophical debates and flirtatious correspondence between two strangers trading the book back and forth in a college library.

Unfortunately, the book is far more tedious than it is interesting and the ending was not worth the work it took to get through it. It’s an unquestionably beautiful book in appearance and I admire the high brow intentions of its authors, but it’s simply not an enjoyable or even functional read even for a die hard bookworm like myself. For one thing the book lacks the envelopes and folders of Griffin & Sabine, so it’s far too easy for the inserts to fall out with no way of knowing which pages they belong between. I found myself wrestling with the book and its paper guts every time I read it. That wouldn’t matter if I loved the novel, but the writing style of both plots is extremely dry and lifeless. Considering Abram’s awesome idea and his cinematic trailer for the book, it would seem the fault of the weak execution lies with the writer. But the same was true of Lost. An idea man is useless without someone to bring said idea to satisfactory fruition.

I hate to give the book a bad review simply because the authors at least tried to make a truly literary novel. But I feel like I’ve been suckered by the Lost people again – to paraphrase my favorite Bushism: fool me once shame on J.J. Abrams, fool me twice – won’t get fooled again! And I’ve long since lost my patience for books trying to copy the Houses of Leaves gimmick. Besides it was so much work and disappointment, I really wish someone had warned me not to fall for the critical hype.

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Support Independent Bookstores Saturday!

Saturday is apparently “Small Business Saturday” as well as “Indies First Day,” in which authors and book lovers are being encouraged to support their local independent bookshops. Therefore, I encourage all local bookworms to visit Charleston, WV’s only independent bookstore, Taylor Books, on that day or any day. You can also order books and ebooks/epubs from Taylors online, but it’s worth the trip for the bookshop’s atmosphere.

Now that Trans Allegheny closed, Taylor Books is my favorite bookstore on this side of the Atlantic and has thankfully survived the invasion and demise of chain bookstores in the area. Oh and if you don’t like books (how strange and sad), Taylors also has the best coffee in Charleston – I especially like the Nicaraguan Vienna dark roast blend. If you don’t like books or coffee, I really don’t know how you live.

If you do like books and are looking for recommendations for Indies First Day, my personal favorite books of all time are: Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (I recently bought this lovely edition from Taylor Books myself to add to my somewhat obsessive Return of the Native collection), The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut and pretty much everything else written by Kurt Vonnegut or Edith Wharton. More modern favorites have been Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, The Book Thief and anything by Kate Morton, Maggie O’Farrell and Victoria Hislop.

I also highly recommend the more modern classic The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, which is now being adapted for a movie. You can read my rave review of it here. I first heard about the Guernsey book from a former manager of Taylors and it was a longtime staff pick on the shelves there. I’ve since given copies of the book to several friends, all of whom loved it as much as I did.

Other favorite bookstores of mine on both sides of the Atlantic: Empire Books in Huntington, WV; Two Sisters bookery, Old Books on Front Street and Pomegranate Books in Wilmington, NC; and The Winding Stair, Hodges Figgis and Chapters in Dublin, Ireland.

It would be very nice if independent bookstores get the kind of support from Indies First Saturday that Record Store Day brings to indie music shops.

John McMillian: Beatles vs. Stones

John McMillian’s new book, Beatles vs. Stones, examines the rivalry between the two titular bands and their fan bases. You know any book that begins with a “Recommended Soundtrack” is going to be good. Between that opening suggested playlist and the introduction’s juicy retelling of how Paul McCartney upstaged Mick Jagger at his own birthday party by passing the not yet released single of “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” to the DJ, I was hooked.

As for which side of the debate I reside on…I love songs by both bands, but I’m definitely on The Beatles side. My ’80s childhood gave me a positive introduction to The Beatles’ music through the copy of The White Album in a friend’s father’s vinyl collection, the seeming omnipresence of “Yesterday” in the musical ether and love at first listen with “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” (which remain my two favorite Beatles songs). Meanwhile, MTV’s heavy rotation of the videos for The Stones’ “Start Me Up” and Mick Jagger’s embarrassing duet of “Dancing in the Street” with David Bowie (both of which featured a heavily made up and hideously dressed Jagger demonstrating some terrible dance moves) slanted my perspective of The Rolling Stones as a campy, pandering pop group on par with Human League and Adam Ant. It was only later that I learned The Stones were actually respected rock legends. I eventually grew to love The Stones’ pre-80s catalogue and the 1994 single “Out Of Tears” (my favorite Stones song after “Paint It, Black“), but by then The Beatles had staked their flag in my music enthusiast heart.

McMillian details the evolution of both band’s stage images. It was especially interesting to read about those contrasting personas – the good boys vs. the bad boys, the conformists vs. the rebels – each band played with at one time or the other. The Beatles began in rough and tumble leather before polishing up in their Sunday Best, while The Stones went from mimicking The Beatles’ matching suits to posturing themselves as the slovenly Anti-Beatles – for which both John Lennon and George Harrison accused The Stones of stealing The Beatles’s original style. It’s the quotes from Lennon in particular that show, despite more positive interactions in later years and recent statements to the contrary by Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, there was certainly a heated competition and tension between the two iconic bands in their early years.

The book briefly brushes over how “the British class system” influenced the ambition of Liverpool’s underdog Beatles and the condescending attitude London’s elite Stones had toward their Northern counterparts, a topic I wish had been expounded on.

Discussing the various reasons for resentment and envy between the two bands, the author credits The Beatles for having paved the way and paying the pop dues which allowed, at least initially, The Stones greater artistic freedom. But as the years passed and The Beatles grew more experimental, there were more accusations that The Stones were riding their creative coattails.

Yet there were times when a more friendly, sportsmanlike vibe brought the two powerhouse groups together. The Stones were and continue to be openly admiring and appreciative of The Beatles, George Harrison’s recommendation is said to have been the catalyst to The Stones’ being signed by Decca, and it was Lennon and McCartney who (in addition to gifting The Stones with a song to record) first encouraged Jagger and Richards to try writing their own songs.

The middle of the book begins to lag beneath more typical biographical information, temporarily abandoning the tug of war between the two bands to merely follow already well worn views of their respective paths. I understand the need, or at least desire, to have a full picture of both bands’ careers, but it’s a dry read for those of us already familiar with those bullet points. I did appreciate that McMillian doesn’t place John Lennon’s experimental art (a.k.a. Yoko) phase on a pedestal as so many do, but instead paints it more as shock rock rather than art rock and realistically portrays the political (both intentional and accidental) association of both bands.

The main theme is brought back into focus as The Beatles break up and the three non-Lennon members briefly consider forming a record label with The Stones, ushering in a very entertainining period of snarky press quotes from John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards about each other’s bands and their own futures.

That is really the book’s crowning glory. McMillian wisely takes a step back on narration and allows the 20/20 hindsight of history to shine a glaring light on the foolish declarative statements of those talented and sadly bitter young men. With the exception of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who wisely kept their mouths mostly shut, members of both bands seem to have been so wrapped up in tearing each other down they simply couldn’t imagine the legendary status and historic staying power that they and their rivals would achieve. May those quotes serve as a warning to young artists: be careful what you say to the press, you may be writing your own fool’s epitaph for the history books.

Though I mostly enjoyed Beatles vs. Stones, the meat of the book fizzles out with no definitive conclusion and the epilogue is a bit bizarre and unsettling — ending abruptly with a grisly description of the bullets which killed Lennon. A more satisfying finale would have been a deeper discussion of modern Beatles and Stones fans and the influence the two bands continue to exert on new artists and pop culture. As it is, the book is certainly interesting, but ultimately feels unfinished given its title.

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