It’s Still Billy Joel To Me

In Kevin the Vampire, I give Billy Joel a bit of the business. In advance of announcing the book’s release date, I thought I’d work through some of my issues with the piano man here, since the chip on my shoulder has a long history. (And a bit of a reputation.)

If you asked me fifteen years ago about what I thought of Billy Joel’s music, I would have said, “It’s like a taking a photograph of your kitchen and hanging it in your living room.” I’m no longer sure what that means, but I bet it’s still a fair description.

An even better one might be this photograph:


A paper cutout of a sexualized female silhouette, border showing, lain across the keys of a miniature Casio keyboard, the kind that Gene Belcher uses to record his farts on. For me, this summarizes the entire Joel oeuvre, but it makes my thoughts beeline to “Uptown Girl,” where I might as well start.

Despite the shittiness of this track, its theme is one I empathize with, where dreams of a better or more interesting life get hopelessly mixed up in sexual fantasy. Socially, you are who sleep with, that’s one of our world’s core beliefs. The line “she’s livin’ in her uptown world” is somewhere between hackish and perfect: sure, it’s so graceless it’s like listening to someone chew rocks, but isn’t that also the point of the song: that between the singer and the object of his desire stretches a chasm so vast, he can’t even imagine what the bridge across would look like. In another context, it might be an expert touch, but in a pop song it just makes you want to gag.

I’m from a working class immigrant neighborhood in the Bronx, the kind where if you are born there you move out of as soon you can, because you have to make room for the next wave of immigrants. But you don’t see it neatly as a social obligation you perform. The mechanism by which the process works involves you learning to despise the place. You’re from one of the places in America where upward mobility is real, you’ve gotten a good education, and somewhere along the line you’ve put it together you belong to the demographic fascists come from. Long story short, you want to dump and run.

Billy Joel writes songs that are supposed to be about you, or your parents maybe. The picture it paints isn’t all that flattering. Sex between the singer and Virginia from “Only The Good Die Young” sounds unsatisfying for everybody. Captain Jack gettin’ you by tonight is the most unromantic self harm you can imagine. After listening to a couple dozen of these, you feel like your people don’t even know how to lose properly.

I spent a number of years idolizing Bob Dylan, whose lyrics and melodies always felt so much more vibrant and meaningful. In the early 2000s, I noticed he was releasing at least one piano song an album, always about working class people, until it occurred to me he was consciously writing Billy Joel songs. This seemed confirmed when I saw that the two men had released their versions of Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” about a month apart. Ever since that, I’ve daydreamed about Dylan calling up Joel at three in morning and saying, “Billy, I’ve got another hit for you!” and Joel shouting, “Go to bed Bobby, you’re drunk” before hanging up.

I’m saying that Billy Joel seems like someone who’d hang up on cultural icons trying to do him favors.

(But also, if I was him, I’d still screen calls from Bob Dylan. Who knows how or why it happens, but when that dude tries to be you, he doesn’t give up easily. And you might have to die first. Just sayin’.)

But over the years, things change. I’ve learned there are people who want hear “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” inside an Italian restaurant even less than me, and one of them is Billy Joel. My opinion of the neighborhood where I grew up has improved greatly. (If you visit New York, take the 5 train up to the Bronx for pizza, pasta, and pastry! But don’t miss the people!) The scars that alcoholism and depression have left on my life have made it much harder to be critical of Joel’s difficult character. And look, I feel a bit of spiritual kinship with the person who wrote “Movin’ Out,” even if the track literally sounds like someone puking.

It’s tedious to argue “Piano Man” isn’t a great song. Even with that stupid line about wearing a younger man’s clothes.

I still don’t like the music, but I’ve given up being as hard on him as I used to be. Life is shorter, sadder, and a little uglier than I used to imagine. Someone has always understood that, in his own unbearable way.

None of which means I’m above putting this video here.

Why Ancient Rome’s Most Boring Poet is Totally Awesome

The phrase Carpe diem is from the Roman poet Horace. It literally means ‘pluck the day’ as one does a flower, sexual connotations attached. The line is addressed to a woman whose name translates roughly from Greek as ‘She of the unblemished mind’ and the thrust of the line is “How ‘bout we fuck before one of us dies?” Only that’s giving it too much credit, because at least that might be humorous. Carpe diem may be the least erotic moment ever put to paper, even if I include the farts and skid marks from Joyce’s love letters.

Seize me!

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Cover Art for Kevin the Vampire

How exciting! We’re getting ready to release Kevin the Vampire here at Square Straw Press.

Wait, who is that?


That’s us!

Check it out: it has an S and a P. It has a square and a straw, and it’s pressing. Plus a bookmark, ‘cause we make books. It’s got everything it is.

The text of Kevin has undergone a few late changes. Some people had an issue with the ending, so I added some plot leverage there. I wasn’t in love with the opening so I made it more suspenseful and asinine. Then we had a long debate over here that resulted in us deciding Kevin’s actions would make more sense if he is less bohemian wastrel and more bourgie snob, so I made changes throughout–but that not that many, because when you really look at it those are just very slightly different senses of entitlement.

We also argued about how to spell bourgie. Booshie. Boozhee. Basically everything looks wrong.

We discussed all this in the woods. True story.

Also I streamlined some of the talky bits. Everyone likes their talky trim and svelte. Like their best friend’s hot grandma.

Kevin will be available in ebook, print, and audio. The audio is not done, but the ebook will be free! So be sure to download that when it comes out. Release date to be announced soon.

Covers are ready for all three.

Oh, did you want to see one?

KevinVampire (3)

This was done by Keri Knutson over at Alchemy Book Covers and Design.

There is corn on the altar. Corn!

You’ve heard of the American Dream, but here’s what America sees when it’s dreaming.  Down to the vampire and the socks, I think.

I amended the text so that the color of Kevin’s nail polish matches the picture. I went to Target to figure out what that color would be called if it was sold at Target. (Kevin buys polish at Walgreens, but I was at Target. On account I am posh.)

The book just says “brightly colored” for the socks, ’cause I don’t have any words for that.

Unless it’s “stripes,” I guess.

Don’t Act Like You Don’t Know: The Pleasure of Vicarious Self-Destruction

As I was watching season three of Bojack Horseman this week, I found myself rooting for the titular horse (ha ha, “titular”) to slip further down the spiral of alienation and remorse. Not, I think, because I’m a sadist, or because I feel the character deserves to suffer for his callousness or narcissism, but because I find it cathartic to watch people make terrible, self-destructive decisions. I can do this guilt free when those people are fictional. Even more so when they are anthropomorphized cartoon animals.

empty fire

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The Road to Publication: Getting People to Do Stuff For You

I’ve had a busy week! Here’s the highlights:

I’ve formatted Kevin the Vampire for both print and ebook.

You can pay for formatting services, but it seemed a good idea to do it at least once myself, if only to learn what goes into interior design decisions.

It turns out it is not rocket science, but it was challenging to find clear instructions. Unless you want to cut and paste some weirdo’s exact design preferences, it can require a lot of noodling around and digging through manuals to get the look you want. The ebook, for example: I spent a whole night tinkering with css only to find out that e-reader apps don’t support half of what I learned, and some even less than others.

On the other hand, I had not imagined how fun it could be to place your page numbers until I had to do it for my own print book. Center of the page, outside of the page? How about even on the top of the page?! Daring, right? The same goes for heading chapters: numerals, Roman numerals, chapter titles. All these little decisions: it’s like planning your wedding. To yourself.

Fonts though. I hate picking fonts. A font is one of those things people only notice when they are wrong. Since I think about them while I choose them, I must be messing them up. That’s logic.

An imprint logo has been designed for my publishing company.

You see them on the spines of books and inside with the front matter. Like those logos, mine is fairly simple: a letter, a box, and a line. But seeing the logo inside of my book made me feel like I’m now wearing man pants instead of short pants. I am totally legit. Because there is a logo. That is what logos do.

I’m pretty close to having a cover for Kevin the Vampire.

I’ve had trouble finding someone to do the kind of work I want for The Killbug Eulogy, but the designer I spoke to about Kevin made me what I wanted in like twenty minutes. There is even a joke from the text I don’t remember ever telling her about. Anyways, I like looking at it. It cheers me up very much.

I got edits back for The Killbug Eulogy.

This is both the most exciting thing and the biggest headache. Pretty much every little decision I’ve made in the book, I’ve been encouraged to needle in one direction or the other. Creatively, I want to move onward to the next project—which I’m half way through, but forced to put on hold to attend all this publishing business—and now I have to go backward. So that’s frustrating. But this is also going to help me tighten some screws, and it should come out a stronger novel over all.

Did all this really happen in the last week?

It seems so! I felt I was very busy getting nowhere fast, but it turns out a lot of little bits can add up to a whole lot all at once.

Oh, and I also think I got the author picture I’m going to use, probably even until I’m like eighty. It was illustrated by a seven year old. It’s of me farting. My hair totally sticks out to the side like that when I’m letting one rip.

toot (1)

Make Fiction Till Someone Dies: Putting Risk Back Into Writing

It seems like fiction writers, more than any other creative type, will not put themselves in position to be criticized. Many will barely tolerate the implied criticism of quality work in their own field. In addition, there is a thriving industry that tells anybody with the aspiration to write that their talent is real and their voice is necessary. Just imagine this was the case in all the arts, that you could go to a seminar and spend $300 an afternoon to be told the whole world is waiting for your band’s hair metal covers. That doesn’t exist (please please don’t exist) and it shouldn’t.


Joust! by Hans Splinter, CC BY-ND 2.0

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The Herculean Labor of Writing Fiction: Reclaiming Life from Mental Illness

In my early 20s, I was sitting in Washington Square when a man coming up to me to ask to borrow my pen. I was holding it under my coat, to keep my hand warm in the November weather. The pen was for making notes in the book I was reading, and the man asked what this was. I said Steppenwolf. “That’s a fun book,” he said, and he asked if he could make up (not recite) a few poems for me. About me, I think he said. I suppose this was a come on, and I as usual did not want to be come on to, but I was comfortable enough to say that I liked one poem but not the other (“The first one was better”), and afterward there was a third about which I don’t recall having an opinion at all. I assume if he noticed the pen I was hiding, he had also seen the title of the book I held, and that was what had invited him over. “More than Prince Charming to me” were words he poemed with. It must pay some sort of compliment that I remember.


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