Month: April 2009

The Buzzard

The Buzzard book coverI have to admit that I was a little skeptical when I picked up John Gorman’s The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio. After all, I’ve lived my entire life in Philadelphia, so to me, rock radio has always meant WMMR. (Well, at least it used to, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) A few pages into The Buzzard, however, I started to get a sense that Gorman’s memoir isn’t just about a radio station in Cleveland; it’s about the precarious place of rock radio in American culture.

The basic issue Gorman sets out to explore in the book is how best to compete in a commercial market without selling out. Working his way from Music Director to Program Director and eventually to Operations Manager of WMMS FM as the narrative progresses, Gorman examines the full potential of FM radio while constantly pushing the medium’s limits. Confounding easy labels like Top 40, Album Oriented Rock, and Contemporary Hits Radio, Gorman and his motley crew of radio professionals reinvent a flagging radio station and eventually turn it into a ratings monster by (who’d’a thunk it?) playing music that people want to hear. But their quest is more than just a quest for ratings, and this, it becomes clear throughout the memoir, was the “secret” of WMMS: Gorman and company wanted to create a radio station for the people of Cleveland–a full service, one-stop-shopping outlet for all of the city’s pop culture needs. In other words, they weren’t merely trying to shove a corporate product down the throats of anyone who might happen to tune in. Instead, they were working hard to become a central part of a community.

WMMS found success by–if you’ll excuse a cliche that Gorman has the good sense never to employ–keepin’ it real. They kept track of what their listeners requested. They played music by local acts (and not just in the low-rated time slots normally reserved for such fare). They helped to break national acts like Bruce Springsteen, and they offered their listeners a wide variety of musical programming with music from multiple genres like jazz, oldies, classic rock (before such a label existed), hard rock, and soul.

Reading Gorman’s account made me yearn for a station as relevant and wide-reaching as WMMS apparently was–emphasis on was, for as the station evolved into a ratings monster, the powers that be were sowing the seeds of its undoing. In the case of WMMS the powers that be turned out to be the corporate parents whose efforts to ensure the continued success of the station involved trying to distill everything that made it unique and relevant into a simple, static formula. The trouble with this strategy, however, was that it failed to take into account the fluid nature of the WMMS “formula.” In his various roles at the station, Gorman was much like the leader of a jazz band, always gauging his audience, keeping abreast of current trends in popular culture, and playing by ear when necessary.

Overall, The Buzzard is a must-read for anyone who recalls the days when FM rock radio was relevant. Clevelanders may be a little more familiar with a lot of the names that Gorman drops throughout the book, but for the rest of us, he’s provided a handy cast of characters in the appendix so we can keep score. More important, his love for the station he helped to create is apparent on every page. In fact, Gorman’s tale is so engaging that it’s hard not to become a fan of WMMS even for those of us who never had the chance to tune in.

Zonetrooper Magazine

Zonetrooper CoverAs the cover of the premiere issue makes clear, Zonetrooper aims at becoming the magazine of sci-fi, fantasy, comics, and RPG. Expounding upon this premise, co-editor Bill Gladman explains in an editorial that Zonetrooper is “what happens when two guys get an idea stuck in their already overworked minds that just won’t go away.” That the idea to which Gladman refers is starting a magazine–or megazine, as the publishers have begun to call it–specializing in all of the aforementioned areas of entertainment speaks not only to the chutzpah that he and fellow editor Joseph Shover demonstrate as they dive head-first into the already saturated sci-fi indie-zine market but also to the ways in which print-on-demand technology has changed the publishing landscape.

The magazine, it turns out, can be ordered through Lulu.com, which means that putting it out doesn’t represent a major financial investment for the pair. This, however, is not to say that it doesn’t represent a major investment of time and effort–an investment that’s reflected in the fact that much of the writing in Zonetrooper is by Gladman and Shover. Through Gladman, we meet Jack the Rabbit, living legend of the Purple Plains, in the first two chapters of The Book of Noheim, while from Shover, we get Cronac: Temporal Enforcer (part one) and Major Tom’s Journal (part one), a reimagining of the David Bowie classic “Space Oddity.”

In addition to pieces by Gladman and Shover, the magazine features work by some other new talents as well. A manga-influenced comic strip calle “Cygan” by Stacy Gaston offers an explosive and bullet-riddled vision of a potential future, and game designer Joseph Matthews offers some thoughts on the problems (and solutions) of designing a role playing game centered on military campaigns. Though I’m no expert in this field, I can say without hesitation that Matthews has clearly put a lot of thought into the topic and offers a number of potential scenarios and variables for curious gamers to consider.

Perhaps the most interesting piece in Zonetrooper comes from game reviewer Levi Mendenhall, who offers commentary on the failure of videogame manufacturers to adequately support new games as they throw the majority of their marketing weight behind proven titles like Tomb Raider, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the Mario franchise. In short, it seems as if the videogame industry is playing the same game as the publishing industry: throwing big money behind the same-old same-old in order to keep quarterly profits high. Which is why magazines like Zonetrooper and small presses matter: they may not always put out the prettiest product, but at least they’re doing something new and something different. And, in so doing, they’re keeping imagination and creativity alive.

Given that Gladman and Shover are as interested in breaking new talent as they are in promoting their own work, Zonetrooper represents a golden opportunity for up and coming sci-fi writers, comic strip artists, and game designers. And the good news if you fall into any of these categories is that you can read the entire first issue online at Myebook.com to see if your work is in line with what the editors are looking for. After all, as Gladman notes in his introduction, one of the things that Zonetrooper is willing to do is find writers and artists that “the spotlight may have forgotten.”

So to recap: it’s a new publication, it specializes in sci-fi, and it’s a potential open market for writers, artists, and game designers. It’s called Zonetrooper, and you can read it for free by clicking on this very sentence.

I am a dog.

dog_cover_artbookI am a dog is a strange animal, but I mean that in the best way possible. Weighing in at 22 or so pages, it has the heft and appearance of a children’s book but clearly is not. Rather, it’s a lavishly illustrated meditation on friendship, life, death, and quite possibly reincarnation. The story centers on a lone dog who befriends a turtle and embarks upon a journey to find the turtle’s home. Along the way, they team up with an owl, encounter a trio of sinister blue people, and fight off a pack of angry dogs. All the while, the narrative follows the kind of dream logic that I imagine my own dog uses to make sense of the world around him, and hints of magic realism abound. Among my favorite lines: “I bark at the water but I’m not really angry.”

Yep, that’s my dog in a nutshell.

While the story in I am a dog is certainly both engaging and intriguing, the true star of this book is the artwork. Indeed, it might not be too far off the mark to imagine that the art existed first and that artist/author Douglass Truth wove his enchanting narrative around it. Whatever the case, the paintings that adorn the book are as colorful and imaginative as the story itself, and they bring the story to life brilliantly. Needless to say, Truth’s gallery is absolutely worth checking out, for Truth is a real renaissance man with an eye for color and a clear zest for life.

Tea & Bee’s Milk

Tea and Bee's Milk CoverWhen I learned that my good friend from graduate school, Jeff Hibbert, had moved to Istanbul, Turkey, I was somewhat mystified. Not Constantinople, I wondered? More to the point, why leave the comfort of the United States for the relative uncertainty of life in what pundits have, rightly or wrongly, come to describe as a developing nation? Having read Tea and Bee’s Milk: Our Year in a Turkish Village by Karen and Ray Gilden, however, I can see the attraction that life in Turkey had for my friend.

On the surface, Tea and Bee’s Milk is about the authors’ efforts at spending “a year doing nothing” in a foreign land. This “nothing,” however, is far more involved than sitting around and, well, doing nothing. In fact, there’s a whole lot of “something” in all that Karen and Ray do throughout the book — getting to know shop keepers, traveling, drinking tea, and struggling to get decent internet service, to name just a few things. In other words, Karen and Ray are living — and not just to the artificial rhythms of life in the Western world. Rather, they’re living at the pace of a culture that places more value on human interaction than on making money. The world they discover is one not of sheer lust for goods and services (i.e. the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality inherent in the American Dream) but one based on mutual give and take between individuals. Their “doing nothing,” then, represents a paradigm shift: what one culture might regard as “nothing,” another might well regard as the entire point of living.

Similar paradigm shifts occur throughout the memoir and are perhaps best represented by a passage in the middle of the book in which the authors gradually redefine their understanding of the word “clean.” Where “clean” once meant that something was spotless or even antiseptic to the Gildens, it eventually comes to mean “clean enough.” More importantly, they learn to let their previous notions of “clean” fall by the wayside as an ice cream vendor pushes a scoop of ice cream onto a cone with his thumb and a baker wraps a loaf of bread in an old newspaper to protect it from the elements.

The overall arc of the narrative, then, is one of change. Although the authors are initially horrified at the state of the new, unfamiliar world in which they’ve arrived, they eventually adjust to that world. Yet to call this a narrative is a little misleading and, indeed, the transformation occurs largely between the lines. That is, this isn’t a travel memoir along the lines of Under the Tuscan Sun in which the narrator maps a clear path from point A to point B in her life via the tricks of the storytelling trade. Rather, the Gildens offer a montage of impressions from their travels — emails, brief essays, and anecdotes — and allow their readers to draw any and all relevant connections on their own. In many ways, this strategy leads to a more “real” sense of place and of the hectic joy of discovering a new way of life.

So, Jeff, if you’re out there and reading this, I get it now. Not that I ever doubted your good sense (well, at least not as far as your move was concerned), but now I have a better appreciation for the adventure you’ve embarked upon. And if anyone else is planning a similar move, definitely pick up a copy of the Gildens’ memoir!

How I Learned to Drive

Though I normally review books from small presses on this blog, I do, on occasion, take time to recognize other short-run productions as well–CDs, for example, and now dramatic productions. The reason I’m bending my own rules this week is that I just saw the Montgomery County Community College Drama Club’s production of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive and was quite moved by it. The play offers a backward glance at the life of a young girl named Li’l Bit and her efforts at understanding and, eventually, resisting the sexual advances of her uncle, Peck. Heavy material to say the least, but brought to life artfully and with, in places, a light touch.

What really makes How I Learned to Drive a moving piece of drama is that it never stoops to vilifying Uncle Peck or painting him in stark terms. That is, he’s never seen overtly as a monster, and Jeremy Beitler, who portrays the character in the MC3 production, delivers his lines in so soft and appropriately unassuming a manner that the true depths of the character’s flaws emerge only gradually. Even then, he is less obviously a monster than a man haunted by internal demons — a twisted, shameful creature who might honestly believe that what he does he does out of love.

If we take as a given that one strength of fiction and drama is an ability to allow us to recognize some element of ourselves in even the most strange of strangers and thus to identify with those we might otherwise consider our opposites, then How I Learned to Drive is an absolute success. In large part, this is due not only to Beitler’s performance as Uncle Peck but also to Lizz Cook’s portrayal of Li’l Bit. Cook’s first challenge with respect to the role is fairly straightforward: she needs to make the audience not only believe in Li’l Bit but identify with her as well — a task she handles with grace, humor, and wit. Her next challenge, however, is considerably larger: she needs to transfer the audience’s sympathy from Li’l Bit to Uncle Peck. Again, Cook succeeds wonderfully at this, first in a scene about midway through the play in which an adult Bit allows a high school student to “seduce” her, and ultimately in a final soliloquy in which Bit reflects upon everything that drove her uncle to do what he did. In both instances, Bit’s struggle to understand her uncle becomes the audience’s struggle as well — and, as is the case throughout this production — the audience cannot help but feel a small spark of sympathy for Uncle Peck even as we’re disgusted by what he’s done.

In all, the MC3 Drama Club production of How I Learned to Drive is an excellent production, buoyed by the talents of its leads as well as the impeccable acting of its “Greek Chorus” (Sophia Gallo, Alexander John Patrick Lavelle IV, and Nora Algeo). Beautifully staged in MC3’s new black box theater, it’s a must see. Which poses one small problem: the last performance is today at 2PM.

Farrago’s Wainscot

Just a quick note to say that the tenth issue of Farrago’s Wainscot is now live, featuring fiction by Bruce Boston & Lee Ballentine, Toiya Kristen Finley, Jason Fischer, Jason Heller, S.J. Hirons, and Matthew Kressel. This issue also features poetry by Erin Hoffman and Miranda Gaw, as well as an experimental wordform by Jeffrey Barnes.

You can read the new issue here: http://www.farragoswainscot.com

This is a great online journal — described by its editors as a “journal of the literary weird in fiction, poetry, and experimental wordforms.” Highly recommended.