Tuesday, March 11, 2008
So Few Books, So Much Time
I've never written or published a book, though I've been featured briefly or mentioned casually in several--which relates slightly to the "witness" title this blog bears.
I think basically I'm too stubborn or willful to submit to the necessary work regimen, or just unable to stay focussed long enough, to write a novel or memoir or even a book of related essays; lengths ranging from brief lyric poem on up to feature screenplay seem to be my attention-span limits. Still, other people have deemed bits of my work worthy of preserving--poems appearing first in so-called little magazines, for example, and then a couple of them picked up for obscure anthologies later.
A different example: back in the late Sixties-early Seventies I wrote maybe two dozen short pieces for Rolling Stone; and three of my record reviews were then reprinted in the first book collection devoted to such--brief but deathless paragraphs praising releases by Clifton Chenier (I was proud to introduce his Zydeco accordion music to the world of rock), the Everly Brothers, and... who? Can't remember the subject of the third. (All of the pieces I wrote do also appear in the early bound volumes of Rolling Stone, but that doesn't count since there was no selection process involved.)
Another article I wrote back then, this time for Ramparts Magazine, critiqued what I saw as the phoney revolutionary attitude of Jefferson Airplane, examining the band's Volunteers album in particular, issued while the group was also doing jeans commercials! Many years later this piece was picked up for offprint use in the syllabus of a counter-culture course taught at a college in Germany, and then quoted too in a recent biography of the band, Jeff Tamarkin's Got a Revolution. I guess Internet access served as the key.
On the other hand, my long interview with Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman (offered complete, for the first time, in five early chapters of I Witness) has been quoted in a couple of Parsons biographies (one book also used a photo I own of Gram and me, seen below-right on this home page), but because both The Helix and L.A. Free Press underground newspapers long ago neglected to credit me as author, any quotations appeared anonymously (as it were).
Also basically anonymous were my writing and editing efforts for three other books: the notorious mid-Sixties Course Critique of professors and classes at the University of Washington (loads of fun to compile and write, laced with ridiculous puns throughout); the 30th anniversary history of Seattle Center and the renowned 1962 Seattle World's Fair that launched it (Meet Me at the Center by Don Duncan); and a thick Seattle Art Museum catalog for a major exhibition of (pre-Green Movement) giant "Earth Works." The author, some hopeless academic, hated my attempt to enable reader comprehension!
No thanks there, of course, but I did receive brief mentions, merited or otherwise, in two books focussed on Elvis Presley: Greil Marcus's Mystery Train (a later reprint offers after-the-fact acknowledgment for a story he used that I'd told him years earlier) and Peter Guralnick's great two-volume definitive biography of Elvis, for which I had helped line up a couple of interviews with Northwest promoters or reporters. (But you'd have to look deep in the lengthy Who's Who of people thanked to find my name.)
The experiences I had at the Stones' Altamont Festival turned up later in another guy's book too. Record producer and folksinger Sandy Paton, best known for his excellent Folk-Legacy label, published a collection of short prose pieces back in the mid-Seventies (I've forgotten the title and don't find it referenced anywhere) and in the one on Altamont he namechecks me and the battles, Hell's Angels vs. stoned fans, I witnessed with horror that day; Marty Balin of the Airplane, for one, was knocked out by them.
More personal: over the years I've fantasized that someone somewhere would discover my circulating screenplay on Mississippi Bluesman Robert Johnson, titled Hellhound on My Trail (written back around 1968-70; see blog chapters of June 12 and June 15, 2007), and offer to publish it, but only the last 20 or 30 pages have ever seen print. I've come to accept the unlikeliness of that ever happening now and have learned instead to look with special fondness on the final two books I want to mention.
Among the best English Lit courses I took in grad school, at the University of Washington in 1965, was one titled something like "The English Popular Ballad" (meaning the post-medieval Child Ballads, more or less), taught by Dr. David C. Fowler. The major assignment in his course was to select a folk song well-known in England or America that the ballad hunters had missed--to research it through history, try to find the ultimate source for it, analyze its structure and content, and finally make the case for its inclusion in the somewhat ex-clusive ballad books. I chose the Scots folk song usually titled something like "Lang a-Growin'," or "The Trees They Do Grow High," made famous by Ewan MacColl, Joan Baez and others; did all the research, sending for manuscript copies from overseas libraries, reading microfiche and old songbooks, listening to all the recordings available, etc., with no Internet back then to make things easier; then wrote my paper--which convinced Fowler so completely that his own subsequent book, A Literary History of the Popular Ballad, cited my research and thanked me for establishing the song as worthy of serious academic study.
That remains the highwater mark of grad school for me (even though I only learned of my inclusion in Fowler's book several years later). I may only be a footnote, but by God, I'm proud of it!
From a Scots ballad to the Nottingham cityscape... as we finally head south to England and the novel titled Living Proof, from the great "Charlie Resnick" series of police procedurals by prizewinning mystery writer John Harvey. Back when I still had a real-location bookstore, the annual BoucherCon gathering of mystery writers and fans came to Seattle, in 1994 or so; as a mystery bookseller I naturally had to "buy" a dealer-room table at the convention.
One evening there was an auction staged to raise funds for the widow of author Robert Bloch (best known for Psycho), whose medical bills and recent death had left his family in financial straits. Towards the end of this worthy event, Harvey as one of the guest authors offered to auction the rights for some fan to appear as a character in his next book. This novel idea (excuse the pun) seemed to leave the room confused, convention-goers looking around at each other wondering whether it would be "cool" to spend one's money so (let's call it) egotistically.
Let me just say that Harvey's generous offer soon became a regular fundraising occurrence at such conventions, and other authors immediately afterwards that same night made similar offers successfully. But this first time out was met with silence. Finally, just to get the bidding started, I raised my hand for the seventy-five dollars or whatever it was... and no one else bid! So suddenly there I was, about to assume some unlikely role in an upcoming mystery. Harvey and I talked a bit; I assured him I didn't care what he wrote, and that he really didn't have to use my name at all. But we corresponded more over the next few months, and finally he sent me a proof of the page and role I'd come to fill...
I'm quite happy to state that on page 137 of the hardback of Living Proof, any curious reader can find one "Ed Leimbacher" and his Seattle store MisterE Books given a comical, slightly venal, but recognizably booksellerish walk-on part (several paragraphs actually) at a fictional book fair in Nottingham. And further deponent sayeth not.
Gee, ain't it grand to be famous for, maybe, 15 seconds?