On "Palisades Park" by Counting Crows

Story songs don’t have to tell coherent stories - in fact, perhaps it’s better if they don’t. I can’t really be sure what all goes on in “Hold On” by Tom Waits, or “Changing of the Guards” by Bob Dylan, but maybe that’s why I keep playing them over and over. Maybe with every listen I get more clues to figuring out what exactly is going on, or maybe the story is vague enough that there are a lot of stories in there. Sometimes a mystery you haven’t solved is the most compelling; you don’t usually read a mystery novel again once you know how it ends.

Adam Duritz of Counting Crows can tell coherent stories when he wants to - take “Another Horsedreamer’s Blues,” where you get a pretty good idea of everything that’s going on - but is also a master at vague songs, like the 2008 gem “Cowboys” or the classic “Round Here.” You could write about a hundred short stories based on “Round Here” and get a different story every time, and all of them could be good.

I think Duritz picked this up from Springsteen. It was his rendition of “Thunder Road” in 2000 that led me to start looking deeper into Springsteen, and a couple of years later, when I heard “Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” for the first time, I felt like I was hearing the primordial ooze out of which Counting Crows were formed. It’s got pianos, accordions, large bodies of water, a carnival, angels (in the live version) and the expert juxtaposition of Americana imagery and primal emotional concerns that populate so many of the best Counting Crows songs.

Elsewhere on that particular Springsteen album is the epic “New York City Serenade,” which is perhaps the most obvious template for the newest Counting Crows songs, “Palisades Park” (now streaming and available for free download) a multi part song that opens with a piano, pinball machine and trumpet instrumental, turns into a rousing rock song, then turns to an artsier, free-verse coda over its nine minute run-time. You could probably do a whole essay comparing it to “New York City Serenade,” which is built on a similar structure with some similar lyrical themes, but here’s the thing: “Palisades Park” rocks a bit harder. They may only get to the chorus twice in eight minutes, but there’s nothing in “NYC Serenade” that’s quite as rousing to me as when Duritz singing about carrying that spark from Palisades Park down into the cliffs and down into the dark.  

The song tells a story. After several listens I’m not sure sure exactly what that story IS, and the excellent video may or may not help, but it’s something to do with nostalgia, and hanging onto the sparks of things that inspired us once before. Maybe it’s about chasing your dreams (at least the good ones). Or fighting for a version of nostalgia that leaves out all the bad dreams and trying to get your old friends back. There are recurring characters (possibly a transgender theme). I don’t really know. But maybe it’s BECAUSE I don’t exactly know that I’m going to keep coming back to it. Or maybe it's just that the chorus works like gangbusters. It makes me want to carry that spark from Palisades Park and get further than I ever made it before.

I’ve been a Counting Crows fan since 1994. I had a strange, transcendental experience at the age of 14 riding my bike on a gray day with “Sullivan Street” stuck in my head (a friend talks about how "Darkness on the Edge of Town" made him suddenly see what sort of person he wanted to be, and that bike ride and "Sullivan Street" did it for me - suddenly everything was clear). Recovering the Satellites, their next album, was, for me, that record everyone gets at sixteen where every song seems to be about YOU (except for “Mercury,” which was about the girl I took two their concerts in 1997, still two of my favorite concerts ever, even though we spent the whole time fighting). Over the years they’ve taken some lumps, with most of the music world lumping them in with Dave Matthews-type prep rock instead of thinking of them as being more like “if Springsteen were backed by The Band.” Maybe it’s partly a result of only releasing one album of originals in the last twelve years. Either way, I’m glad they’re back, and I can’t wait for the rest of the album, Somewhere Under Wonderland, which is out in September (just a few days after my new book. Just sayin'). If the book is a flop in the stores and I end up in a bad place mentally, at least I'll have a good album to see me through it.

WGN Radio Interview

The other night I went out to Tribune Tower, the gothic skyscraper on Michigan Avenue, to do a radio interiew on Pretty Late with Patti Vasquez. WGN broadcasts out of that building. WGN! The station on which I listened to the 1989 Cubs! And the TV station that introduced me to Scooby Doo, which sent me down this wayward path to begin with!

It was cool just to have a reason to go into the Tribune building to begin with, but the radio show was a blast. We talked for a good hour about history, ghostlore, and all kinds of fun stuff.

You can hear the whole thing here!

Searching for James Garfield's Spoons

So, a few weeks ago, someone broke into President Garfield's tomb in Cleveland and stole a dozen commemorative spoons.

I'll just let that last sentence sink in.

One's mind fills with questions here. First of all, why were there spoons in the tomb? And why would anyone steal them? Were they valuable?

Presidents often have some memorabilia on display in their tombs; Lincoln's is pretty much barren of them now, but back in the old days it was practically a dime museum. But Garfield memorabilia is in fairly short supply - the guy was only president for 200 days. The whole set of spoons might bring fifty to a hundred bucks on ebay, but I was able to pick one up for a dollar.

As a grave robbing fan, I had to see this place for myself.

Earlier this week, I found myself in Cleveland, checking out Lake View Cemetery. I always liked President Garfield, after all. He was a neat guy - an intellectual professor whose students thought he was sort of a rock star, an abolitionist who was among those who signed up to fight for the Union because he knew full well it was a war about slavery from day one, he was nominated for president out of nowhere as a complete surprise to everyone (himself included), and had some ideas and plans that might have made him the lone particularly great president among the forgettable and sometimes regrettable bunch who came between Lincoln and Roosevelt.  But after four months in office, he was shot by Charles Guiteau, a maniac who had failed his way through life and eventually used his own hanging to launch his singing career.

Ever since the theft of the spoons, it's been about all I've talked about. When I meet with kids, I ask right away if they know who James Garfield does; they usually don't, but when I mention he was a president who was shot, that usually rings a bell, and there's usually a kid in the group who's heard that if the doctors had left him alone, he probably would have survived (on this point, historians generally agreed - Guiteau shot the president, but the doctors killed him).

For a little known President, the guy has a heck of a tomb. It towers 200 feet above the leafy Lake View Cemetery, and is covered in bas relief sculptures with scenes from his life (including a death bed scene). Step inside and you find yourself in a magnificent dias filled with stained glass windows and mosaics surrounding a terrific statue of the president, looking commanding and full of life. A narrow, twisting staircase takes you up to a viewing deck that gives magnificent views of all of Cleveland.

Down below is the crypt, where the president and his wife's coffins are set up on biers. Nearby is a little memorabilia case, which the thieves left alone - they didn't get the Garfield-brand laxative tea, which is worth slightly more than the spoons on ebay.

I spoke to Kevin, the docent, who chuckled when I referred to the "spoon heist" and showed me the point of entry (one of the smaller stained-glass windows had been broken), and the little TV stand beside the entrance where the spoons had been on display.

I told him the Guitea connection had occurred to me. Guiteau, as I mentioned, failed his way through life. One of his many failed ventures was joining The Oneida Colony, a free love sect. Their philosophy at the time was the anyone could be in love with anyone at any time, but they changed their minds a bit after meeting Charles Guiteau, who was eventually kicked out of the colony. He tried to sue them at one point. The colony still exists today, but the free love and religious aspects are long gone. These days, they just manufacture silverware. Like spoons

Kevin cracked up. "I hadn't thought of that!" he said. "It's Guiteau's revenge!"

Stealing random spoons from the tomb might indeed have seemed like revenge to Guiteau's ghost (it's not entirely logical, but logic wasn't his strong suit).

New Book Announced: JUST KILL ME

Here's a deal memo being sent around today:

Adam Selzer’s JUST KILL ME, a dark humored novel in which a teen intern at a Chicago ghost tour company is interrogated for murder, when the reports of “real” ghost sightings increase along with the number of missing tourists, to Dani Young at Simon & Schuster, by Adrienne Rosado of Nancy Yost Literary Agency.

So, it looks like I'm finally writing myself into one of my novels! I won't be the teen intern, though - the narrator is a young woman named Megan. "Adam" is the owner of the company, a middle aged recluse who reeks of gin when he shows up at all and seems to be harboring a dark secret. This has been a lot of fun to write so far, and now I have ten weeks to finish the draft - in the middle of working on promoting PLAY ME BACKWARDS!

Cornersville Trace High School Crotch Kicking Rules!

In Play Me Backwards, Leon and Dustin Eddlebeck reminisce about the time before they became complete slackers, when they were engaged in such pranks as trying to talk the school into starting a crotch kicking team. Dustin leads a few other Gifted Pool veterans in a spirited rendition of the fight song. This is that fight song, "Til They Can Taste 'Em," as performed by The Enjoyment Buzzers.

The Great White Grape Slushee (Play Me Backwards teaser)

So, we got one of those "Soda Stream" machines at Smart Aleck's Guide HQ. Didn't much like the Splenda-based syrups you could buy, so we started making our own. We made hundreds of them, and ended up making a whole new Smart Aleck's Guide with 100+ recipes, 50+ soda fountain formulas, and a whole bunch of pictures of people wearing stupid hats.  They'll be putting up new excerpts every day this week over at smartalecksguide.com  Also included are recipes to make White Grape and Purple Vanilla slushees, which appear in the upcoming Play Me Backwards!

Here's an excerpt to plug both at once, with simple recipes in the sidebar:

The Smart Aleck’s Guide to Bootleg Soda: 100+ Homemade Soda Syrup Recipes, plus 50+ classic fountain drink formulas.

Just $2.99 on Kindle

"White Grape" and 
"Purple Vanilla" are
actually two of the easiest
soda/slushee syrups to
make; neither uses
fresh fruit, like most
of the recipes.

White Grape:
Mix 1 part white
grape juice with
2 parts sugar, boil
to dissolve, and cool.

Purple Vanilla:
Avoid real grapes
for this; take one
packet of "purple 
stuff" drink mix,
2 cups sugar, and
1 cup water, plus
1 tablespoon of 
vanilla extract (or
to taste).  Booil to

Add to carbonated
water for soda, or
directly over shaved
ice for Slushees.
From PLAY ME BACKWARDS: in which Leon and Paige have been commanded by Stan (who claims to be Satan) to search Des Moines for the possibly mythical "white grape" flavored slushee....

Paige and I were back out hunting for Slushees the next day. Now that we'd established exactly how we'd celebrate getting the White Grape one, she was much more into the whole quest than she had been before. In the days since the 5-yen piece appeared on the wall, we'd searched for the Great White Grape Slushee everywhere: among the subdivisions of Ankeny, the split-level houses of Clive, the brick bungalows of Beaverdale, the stately mansions of Sherman Hill, and the neatly-ordered streets of downtown Des Moines. 

By this time we'd found that we could usually predict what they'd have in each gas station. Casey's General Store usually had the same three flavors at every location, Kum and Go usually had the same four, and Quick Trip had the same six. 

But now and then there'd be a wild card, and on that day we found two new flavors: "strawberry citrus freeze" and something called "purple vanilla,” which was tasty as hell. "Purple" is a reliably good flavor to start with, and adding vanilla made it practically a gourmet dish, as gas station grub goes. Rather than sharing one, like we usually did, we each got our own. Paige hadn't had a whole one in a long time; she usually just had a sip of mine and got a bottle of juice, if anything. But one makes exceptions for purple vanilla. 

When we got to the car, I called Stan.

"We found purple vanilla," I said. "Is that it?"

"Why would purple vanilla be the same thing as white grape?" he asked.

"Well, purple usually means grape, and vanilla-flavored stuff is usually white, right?"

"You've got a fine understanding of junk food semiotics, Harris," Stan said. "But you still haven't found the Great White Grape."

Play Me Backwards by Adam Selzer is coming in August from Simon and Schuster

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My Best "Call Story."

People love to talk about when they got "the call." The phone call saying that someone wanted to publish their book. I honestly don't remember too much about my first one. I know I said "So, it's definitely going to come out now?" I think I was in my kitchen, but it's a blur.

The better story is about the time I got the call for Play Me Backwards, the new one. I was quite literally dumpster diving when I got the call about that one.

My career was at sort of a low ebb, you might say. In late 2011 I had two novels out on the same day from different publishers (and under different names). But I never saw either one of them at a store where I didn't do events. The one that came out under my own name didn't even get reviewed in the trades; when your new hardcover from a major publisher doesn't even warrant a mention in the trades that loved your last one, it's hard not to feel like you're pretty much washed up. Even one of the contracts for those two had come with a lecture about what a risk I was, and how I probably wasn't going to be worth it. Now that they weren't troubling the sales sheets, it was hard to see a way towards recovery.

After a dozen or so books, I'd never had one that sold even moderately well, and one can't live on good reviews forever. My editor at the old publisher had left, and the two new projects I came up with failed to land me a new one; one editor responded to my middle grade project by saying "Did he ever think of writing YA?" I felt like that was a good punch line for the end of my career (since I'd published several YA books) at least until WorldCon 2012, where I somehow ended up booked to do an autographing session sitting next to George RR Martin. That was the better punch line. I didn't sign a single thing, and none of my books were for sale at any of the dealers' booths.

But then the book I did under SJ Adams won me a Stonewall Honor, so I felt as though I was going out on a high note if this was the end. And Random House told me I could spin off the "Smart Aleck's Guide" series for whatever ebooks I felt like, so I'd always have something to do. I could write Shakespeare guides for years and not worry too much that the global market for The Smart Aleck's Guide to Timon of Athens was pretty tiny.

And now I had a new agent who was sending out the project I called Satan's Parents' Basement, the "Satanic YA" novel that I'd really written just to stay sharp. I'd been tinkering with it for a while; I'd work on it for a few weeks, then decide it was time to get back to "work" and switch over to something more commercial. This was the era when a book being a "boy book" made it seem about as marketable as a technical manual written in Welsh, after all. It felt like the only options for a book with a male narrator were either to get it made into a movie, be John Green, or get James Patterson's name on it somehow. For the record, I'm not sure we're entirely past that yet, but the market has changed enough that contemporary books by lower mid-listers at least have a shot again.  Still, I always assumed that the Satanic one would be one that I just had to toss up on Amazon or something.

By the way, I got "the call" from this agent saying she wanted to represent me while stuck in traffic on the way back from a haunted cemetery where I'd had some photos taken for my new Ghosts of Chicago book, none of which showed a ghost, but some of which showed more butt crack than I'd intended.

So, anyway, one cold day around January, 2013, I was dumpster diving. Not that I was that broke (I was paying the bills as a tour guide), I had just made a mistake. But I was digging around in a whole series of dumpsters. In the snow.

I should probably explain how garbage works in Chicago. We don't have "garbage night" or anything. In the middle of every block is an alley full of dumpsters that we put our trash in, and periodically a truck comes and takes it. Black dumpsters for most trash, blue for recyclables. Often, one can find some nice furniture out there, too. It's strange - you decide you need a table top, or a certain kind of shelf, and presto! You find one in the Enchanted Alley.

Theoretically you have a dumpster assigned to your apartment, but in practice everyone just uses whichever dumpster seems to have the most room, and no one really cares (except this one woman who used to live next door, and who also thought that the Navy Pier fireworks were gunshots, and who often told me the End of Days was at hand).  It's seldom that all the dumpsters are too full to fit another regular garbage bag or two, but the recycling bins fill up fast.  On this particular day, I had to spread my recyclables between four or five different dumpsters, since none had nearly enough room for the whole load. Then, when I got back to my apartment, I realized I no longer had my keys. They were either in the snow, or in one of the dumpsters.

It was while I was rooting through them that the phone in my pocket buzzed, and it was Adrienne, my new agent, saying that someone at Simon and Schuster wanted to talk to me about the Satanic book.

"Really?" I asked. "The Satanic one?"

"Well, don't be so surprised, Adam!" she said.

"Huh," I said. "Well, whattaya know!"

Then I found my keys.

This wasn't THE call. There wasn't a firm deal for a few weeks after this. I got THAT call at Disney World, which was a nice change of pace. I knew we were going to find out one way or the other that day, and bought a little devil-face looking thing at Epcot and took pictures of things being sacrificed to it throughout the day. There's a great shot of me holding it up, along with a knife, and standing next to Chip and Dale.

Play Me Backwards will be out in August from S&S.

Make Your Own Fold-Out Chalkboard

I'm always customizing my work environment - cleaning the desk, reorganizing, testing new pens, making playlists..you know. All the stuff you do as an excuse not to actually work. My favorite customization of my workspace (where I almost never actually work, honestly) is my fold-out chalkboard.

I take notes all over. There are little notebooks in the pockets of each of my jackets, and one on my dashboard, one by my bed. Sometimes I brainstorm by typing into Evernote. And sometimes I just want to crank up some music and draw on a chalkboard.

My apartment is small. Wall-space is a real commodity - there's no way I could find the space for an actual chalkboard of any size. But I do have room for a fold-out one that I made for roughly 30 bucks (though it would've been more if I didn't have hinges and castors lying around).

It fits right up against the rack where I keep my pots and pans:

Adam's New Book: Sept 2013