Sunday, March 27, 2016

Shampoo Planet by Douglas Coupland

One of the reasons I review old books on this blog is that I'm interested in seeing fiction with a bit of a perspective, particularly the near-past. Nothing dates like the recently contemporary. A companion question might be: what happens to the zeitgeist writer when the zeitgeist changes?

One such writer is Douglas Coupland. I read most of his earlier novels, but the last book of his I picked up was "J-Pod" his sequel to the classic "Microserfs," and that was a decade ago. It's 16 years since I heard him reading from "Miss Wyoming" stood up in a long-gone nightclub on Oldham Street, Planet K. (Those were the days, when writers read in night clubs, and the audience was young enough to watch standing up).

Somehow I missed "Shampoo Planet", his second novel - which came out in the 1990s pretty quickly after his iconic "Generation X." In a note at the back of the book Elizabeth Young says that "Shampoo Planet" is about the younger generation (what we would eventually call Generation Y, or in the UK, "Thatcher's Children"), a more consumerist generation. In reality, Tyler, our first person hero, is not quite the consumerist that Coupland would write about so effectively in "Microserfs." The family - the dysfunctional working class family - has often been as much as a subject for Coupland as the family - the dysfunctional middle class family - is for Jonathan Franzen. Tyler is the oldest son of Janine, a classic hippy mother who gave birth to her son in a commune in the early seventies. Though new age-y and hippy still, Janine has a pragmatic side to her that comes from bringing up three kids. Like Saffie in "Absolutely Fabulous" the kids take on the role of being the sensible ones. They share a phrase "Earth to Janine" whenever she gets a bit too new age. With a dropout hippy father (more later) and a deadbeat partner (or ex-partner, the book starts with Janine throwing out the useless Dan), its no wonder that Tyler is a bit more of a pragramatist. The "Shampoo" of the title refers to his obsession with different hair products, though that's a little bit of an affectation - not just for Tyler but for the whole book.

Tyler has just returned from an adventure interrailing round Europe, before he finishes his college course and goes and gets a sensible job in hotel management or something similar. He lives in Lancaster, a dead beat town in California, where everyone used to work for "the plants", chemical works that are now being decomissioned. His generation haven't got the jobs their grandfathers and fathers would have had, but instead survive on the McJobs and call centre jobs that make up the service industry. (Later in the book, Tyler bemoans McJobs, and wonders who ever came up with the idea? A nice little in-joke as it was Coupland's phrase that then got wider currency.)

We meet his sensible, practical girlfriend Anne-Louise, and his younger materialistic hippy sister and younger brother, and a group of slacker friends all far more content with life in Lancaster than Tyler is. He has been to Europe, and has a secret. The secret is Stephanie, a rich French girl who took him in and became his girlfriend for those last weeks in Paris, and was everything that Anne-Louise wasn't, uncaring, materialistic, world-weary. Of course, when Stephanie and her friend announce they are arriving in Lancaster his world is suddenly more complicated.

Tyler is typical of Coupland's bright laconic narrators, an innocent abroad in the world on the cusp of life changing. In five years times, unknown to Tyler, his type will have the world at their feet, as the internet and computers change everything - but at present, he's not even sure there's an opportunity there, as his geeky friend makes money from software, whereas he just plays computer games. Whereas his mother's profundity is lost in a hippy dream of crystals, candles and the like, Tyler's world is moulded by management books, hair products, going to the gym and a sense of being straight in a world of chaos. He dreams of a job for a multi-national in Seattle, the kind of life that will eventually come his way (and is model for Coupland's later Bright Young Geeks' novel "Microserfs.")

In between a thin plot that sees him losing Anne-Louise, but moving briefly to Los Angeles with Stephanie, who is using him as a stepping stone for her own ambitions (modelling, older men), visiting his old hippy father Neil (ten feral kids, no electricity, two wives), and keeping his mum from getting back with Dan, the book is really a series of riffs - the kind of zeitgeist ruminations that Coupland made his own. Travelling up the coast with Stephanie Tyler starts writing "fortune cookie" style messages on dollar bills in felt pen. These are not so far removed from the statements that Coupland collected and showed in his recent work that was part of an exhibition last year in HOME in Manchester.

The smalltown life in the novel is beautifully portrayed, and is what makes it still readable a scarcely believable quarter century after it was written. Coupland was brilliant and seeing the world that was coming as it was forming. His American teens interrailing are more believable than Franzen's character in a gangster Lithuania in "The Corrections", and indeed, the great thing about Coupland's book is how well he writes about the young people who are his protagonists. Through Tyler's eyes we see the small town world he's from. His best book, "Girlfriend in a Coma" would take these themes and make them more explicit, with a much stronger plot, but there's plenty to enjoy in "Shampoo Planet," whether its the Amway style networking marketing craze that spreads quickly through the village, or Tyler's tendency to give things his own "branded" nomenclature. Read Ben Lerner or Tao Lin or  Joshua Ferris today, and there's lots of echoes of Coupland in them, but perhaps because his characters are so everyday, he somehow seems to still resonate more than all of them.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Life's Work

I was reading an article about Updike in The Guardian by his biographer, Adam Begley, where he talks about Updike's best work being his short stories. In the article, he lists ten favourites. Updike was famously a regular writer for The New Yorker, and you could argue that our idea of the genre of the "New Yorker story" comes partly from Updike (and Cheever.) Of course, Updike was a prolific writer, over 20 novels for a start including the Rabbit novels and "The Witches of Eastwick", also a successful (and to my mind, excellent) poet, and writer of reviews, correspondance....and short stories.

His short stories are collected in two volumes in the "Library of America" series, and Begley says there are 186 collected across those two books. Whereas we understand, I think, a little of a poet's "collected" - short but intense books from Eliot or Larkin - much more prolific complete works from Auden or Hughes; the sense of a collection every four or five years. Popular novelists tend to be prolific (Stephen King) whilst literary novelists often only slowly pile up the volumes or - in some cases - are parsimonious with their finished works (Heller, Pynchon). But what does a good writing life mean for a short story writer?

The Updike collected presumably doesn't include everything he wrote, but heading up towards 200 stories for a long writing life seems a good life works in itself. More than most I'd imagine, though short story masters have sometimes had much shorter writing or publishing lives (Fitzgerald, Carver, Salinger, David Foster Wallace) for various reasons.

Of course, we can't all be Updike, and certainly can't have such an illustrious history writing for the New Yorker, but I guess the imagination is the thing. I've wondered what makes a good "haul" for short stories in a year - even in poor years I've written three or four, and usually aim for twice that number. So having begun writing regularly from about 1996 - so twenty years - I seem to have completed about 125 stories in that time. 200 would seem a good target for a lifetime writing.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Poetry Not Poetry

About once a year I give up poetry, usually at the point that I start writing poetry again. It is the nature of the beast, I think. I've not been reading much poetry of late - I wonder if there comes a point when you're only really interested in reading new stuff, and when I mean new, I mean genuinely new. There seems to be, somehow, a bit of a return to safeness, to nature poetry, elegies, to a non-demotic language. There are good poems and books out there, but sifting them becomes harder. There's an unshifting, unshiftable mainstream in British letters, that feeds into a somewhat complacent culture - what's to write about? The anniversary of the first world war.... more classical tropes. I liked but haven't given it enough time, Sarah Howe's award winning "Loop of Jade." I was less enthralled by Claudia Rankine's "Citizen," but again I need to find time, to give it time. Besides, if we're talking about American racism, I've been listening to black American rap music for thirty years; its not a subject I've been tone deaf to. Listening to Kendrick Lamarr's highly politicised album from last year I was reminded of a brilliant, but forgotten rap album from 1992, "Tricks of the Shade" by the Goats. Elsewhere, cheap publishing options mean there are a plethora of small presses, pamphlet presses that those more embedded in the poetry scene seem to be better than me at engaging with. Over five years after my Salt pamphlet I've an ever shifting "collection" of poems, that I'd hope to come out at some point, but as ever, the restlessness of my style probably stops them from cohering.

That said, I've kept going to a few things: hearing quite a bit of live literature this year, and, accidentally, if not reluctantly, have started performing poetry live again. I've a couple of small gigs coming up, and its good to road test new material. I'll be in Didsbury this Thursday, The Word is a newish night compered by Fat Roland at Home community cafe, next to the church, opposite the Art of Tea on Wilmslow Road.

There's a fun exhibition on at Manchester Art Gallery currently, The Imitation Game, curated by Clare Gannaway. It takes the idea of "the Turing test" - at what point does A.I. (artificial intelligence) become aware enough to appear human. This is art as technology, technology as art; various exhibits are animatronics, robots, and the playful nature of the show means that there is both a sense of wonder and a purposeful engagement. One such outcome is the end result of Ed Atkins' "Performance Capture" piece from M.I.F. last year, and on Thursday night Paul Granjon gave a fun performance with mini-robots, cheesey songs and even BBC Micro programming, as accompaniment to his "robot" exhibit. The exhibition catalogue is well worth getting, with some explanatory essays alongside images of the show.

The Paul Granjon performance, like seeing PINS Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground night last week, reminded me how strange, how unusual, how unique so many events are in Manchester; and I'd be surprised if there's another city in the UK - in Europe? - where the fringe, the off-piste, the unusual is as potentially central to our cultural life.

I've been trying to write a long post about the European literary imagination, as I'm despairing a bit of both the Brexit lies, but also the Stronger in Europe campaign's appeal to our wallets rather than our hearts. For me, Europe has to be an imaginative as well as an actual union and community - and we are the better for that shared imagination...more next time....but in the mean time, the poem I've written about my European-ness will no doubt have a second outing at my reading on Thursday.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

The Lost Art of Songwriting

Because I write poetry as well as music, people often assume that I write songs from the words first. It happens this way very occasionally, though not as often as when I find myself with a few sung lines, and nowhere near as often as my usual way of songwriting, which is to create some music and then add the lyrics afterwards. Last week I recorded this way, a little three minute piece with three slightly distinct sections. Usually I might "scat" sing over the top to get some lyrical ideas, but the song's structure means that this one needs to be somehow about something. I'm still working on that...

The classic songwriting partnership would be a melodicist and a lyricist. I was reading an interview on the reissue of Elton John's hit-filled masterpiece "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Retreating to the ("honky") chateau in France where he recorded many of his albums, after an unsuccessful session in Jamaica, Bernie Taupin would come up with the lyrics and Elton would write the music. They wrote and recorded the album in a matter of days - this, remember, is a record featuring "Candle in the Wind", "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting", "Bennie and the Jets", "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", "Harmony" and "Love Lies Bleeding." Retrospectively "Saturday Night..." would be described as being about remembered nights out in the Midlands, whilst "Candle in the Wind" wasn't written by a Marilyn Monroe, rather, her story fitted it the better. Given the lyrics of the Sci-fi band "Bennie and the Jets", Elton felt a funky track would work best, and it became number one on black radio in the US before topping the pop charts.

Similarly, during their imperial period Morrissey would sit in one room of the studio and Johnny Marr in the other, and they would miraculously come together with songs like "This Charming Man" and "How Soon is Now." If Bernie Taupin would trawl his childhood loves of westerns and adventure stories for songs, Morrissey's were a mix of his childhood in Manchester, and a fading British culture (sometimes explicitly so: "This night has opened my eyes" being a straight lift from Shelagh Delaney's "A Taste of Honey.") Pre-Google a writer could keep ahead of his audience by just having read and watched wider than them. How many Joy Division fans in 1979 were aware of Ballard ("The Atrocity Exhibition") or Burroughs ("Interzone".) Good writers create their own mythology however...the yellow brick road is now as much a John/Taupin invention as a Frank Oz one, and the latter is anyhow filtered through the wonderful film version.

A song can be about anything, yet sometimes it seems that the temptation is to make all songs generic. Yet for every contemporary R&B song that is a bland love lyric, the hits tend to have something that makes them standout - either quirkiness like "Umbrella", or contemporary awareness like "Poker Face" or "Hotline Bling."

As a songwriter its right never to waste a good title. The one bit of advice that Adam Ant took from Malcolm Mclaren was to put his art school sloganeering into the songs. "Adam and the Ants" became "ant music for sex people" in explicit manifesto song "Antmusic." If McLaren's version, Bow Wow Wow, became less famous, its perhaps because the art house obscurity - "Louis Quartorze", "Chihauhau" - ignored McLaren's own advice. Their biggest hit was the sloganeering "Go Wild in the Country."

How songs come into being is always fascinating. The "scat" singing I use is very common. Famously, "Yesterday" was originally "Scrambled eggs" until Paul McCartney found the right words for his soon to be immortal tune. Nirvana's songs were partly so successful because Cobain had problems remembering words - hence the repeated refrains, and layering of different chorus hooks in a song like "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Coming up with words can be difficult - even for the best writers. Dylan, whose archive has just been sold to an American University, was a magpie for words, but however much lifting there might be, there's a Dylanesque vision there. Yet Dylan collaborated on lyrics for "Desire" for instance. And there's nothing necessarily wrong with a repurposing - such as the Pete Seeger's  "Turn! Turn! Turn!" finding inspiration in the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Poetry and songwriting are odd bedfellows, though many have tried. There are few lyricists who really deserve to be read on the page like poetry, but then again there are few poems as weirdly effective as Oasis' "Live Forever" or "Wonderwall." Critiques of "bad lyrics" from non-bookish writers like Noel Gallagher sometimes miss the point I think - this stuff is hard!

Though there are a million creative writing courses there are far fewer songwriting classes, and I guess that's because not all writers are good musicians and not all musicians are able songwriters. One without the other doesn't really work. the Elton/Bernie approach is quite rare - and its notable that when singers sing other peoples' lyrics, like Elton, like in the Manic Street Preachers, the songs are often difficult ones for other people to cover. Elton or James Dean Bradfield takes the words and makes them fit the structures of the song, sometimes hilariously, but mostly so you wouldn't notice.

Songwriting in the 21st century is not as hit and miss as in the past - bands want a "hit" on their album as much as Heart did when they recorded "Alone" or Simple Minds did with "Dont you (forget about me)" - bands who usually wrote their own material getting the biggest hit of their career with someone else's song. Call in a Max Martin or one of the other celebrity writer/producers that record so much of contemporary pop. Martin is third only to Lennon and McCartney in American number one credits. Think of that....ahead of Elton John, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, Carole King, Bob Dylan, Bacharach and David - Max bloody Martin, writer of "...Baby One More Time" and "I Kissed a Girl." But, wait, aren't those classic songs now in their own right, that launched careers for Britney Spears and Katy Perry. But the Co-write is the lifeblood of contemporary music - there's one co-write on the new Rihanna album that features eleven names. Some of this is sample culture, where a sample means a song is a hybrid hydra with many heads. Sometimes its because the star came up with the concept, someone else wrote it down. But, this goes back forever. Didn't Elvis get a co-write on "Heartbreak Hotel" because he saw the newspaper article with that heading and knew what a hit looked like?

When I started writing songs again in 2007 after a bit of a hiatus, one of the best early songs was called "Sad Lovers of Twilight" which was a phrase I'd written down one night on a scrap of paper. Or I thought I had. When I came across the piece of paper a few years later, it said something slightly different. I can't recall now where the change came - probably in the recording process.

If songwriting is a lost art its perhaps because of a couple of things. The post-Beatles consensus was that bands had to write their own material. Amazingly, them, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks et al proved themselves the equals of the task. The professional songwriter still existed - e.g. the aforementioned Carole King - but by the early seventies even they were going solo - King's "Tapestry" was a songwriters' greatest hits done her own way, which was for a brief period one of the top ten selling albums of all time. It seems that the fecund nature of pop music in the sixties, seventies, eighties, even nineties meant that this model continued untouched. The great thing is that these "amateur" songwriters were able to take the culture in different ways. Yet since the millennium the idea of the "band" is one that has lost some of its currency, especially at the top of the charts. Indeed you have to slightly admire the otherwise ever-more bland Coldplay for their determination to still have hit singles - but they too, bring in hired help, with "all songs arranged by Coldplay and Stargate" on their newest album. We're in the age of the "featured artist". I noticed on the Brit awards how interchangeable the acts seemed - almost as if they were now soundtracking the stage shows they were putting on. It allows and enables a teen star like Justin Beiber to "grow up" by bringing in some top songwriters. The second contemporary trend is related more directly to technology. The "song" as something that can be played on a piano or an acoustic guitar is still there of course - just listen to the buskers on Market Street next time you are passing - but the "song" as it comes to fruition is a now a ProTooled, cut and paste melange. Producers like Calvin Harris and Mark Ronson are even more magpie-like than Dylan or Noel Gallagher, picking the shiny bits and putting them together. We're in a post-sampling world, where if you want a bit of Chic on your record, why not get Nile Rodgers in to provide it for you?

For the unknown young songwriter, its the same as ever I guess - from Frank Turner to Ed Sheeran there's a way forward that doesn't now require transit vans and having conversations with your drummer - a loop sampler is all you need. Yet where music goes beyond the few lines re-warbled on the X-Factor it requires something more I think - the glory of pop music has been its reinvention over the year, and though a new song might always have earlier echoes (where there's a hit there's a writ) the unique circumstance of young bands with rudimentary material, but a personalised vision of the world, has been the lifeblood of the artform since "A Hard Day's Night." The best songwriters have a mythos, a self mythology about their work - Dylan, Ian Curtis, Joni Mitchell, Kurt Cobain - that somehow connects beyond a brill building hit.

As I sit there humming tunelessly over my new musical backing, I'm looking for something more than just a melody line, but something that converts words into meaning, that creates a soaring sense of something with just a few words, or a clever turn of phrase that nobody's used in quite this way before.