Friday, September 29, 2006

Back to Writing

Now that the National Holiday is over (that link is for those of you still clicking over from Backstreets for my interview with Chris Phillips), I'm back to work on my novel. As with past celebrations, the National Holiday motivated me this year, and I've been cranking out between 1,200 and 1,500 words per day for most of this week. I was at a big logjam, but (to mix my metaphors) I've busted the clot and the words are flowing freely again.

I've always looked to writers like Bruce Springsteen, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash for inspiration. Their best songs are also terrific stories, told sparely.

That's good fiction writing in a nutshell. A great novel is not about how many words you take to tell the story. It's about how much story you can cram into as few words as possible. The late, great Nick Alicino taught me that years ago, but he used Springsteen songs to prove his point.

More on that some other time.


Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, September 25, 2006

Maybe We Should Make the National Holiday Last a Week

Welcome, fellow Bruce fans. The National Holiday continues. If you're looking for my interview with Christopher Phillips of Backstreets, click here or scroll down to the next post.

Since you're all here, allow me to preach to the General Admission seats for a minute or two.

About all of us who are evangelical Springsteen fans: I always knew we were everywhere. But I learned over the past three days that we really are everywhere.

Since Saturday, when Chris put up a link to my interview with him, over 5,000 of you have visited. To put that in perspective: This blog has been up for almost ten months. Before Chris linked (which led to another link from Greasy Lake), I had under 5,000 total visitors. Now I have over 10,000. In three days, the number of hits here has doubled. That's not pageloads, that's visitors.

When I say everywhere, here's what I mean. Since 4 p.m. Saturday:

  1. This blog got at least three hits from every state in the Union. We got over 500 from New Jersey.
  2. We had visitors from six continents. In fact, we had at least ten visitors from every continent except Antarctica.
  3. We had visitors from every Canadian province.
  4. Somebody from every country in Europe, except the Vatican, stopped by to read.
  5. African nations represented include: Egypt, Sudan, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
  6. We had visitors from every country in South America except Venezuela.
  7. Over three hundred of you e-mailed. I've responded to every one. Thanks.
  8. Twenty American soldiers logged in from Iraq (or Lt. Ed Novak visited 20 times in 3 days). Thanks to all of you over there making the world safer for the rest of us. Come home safely and soon.
  9. We Bruce fans are in every profession. I've counted hits from law firms, medical practices, accounting firms, investment banking houses, three movie production companies, five newspapers, HBO, schools, colleges, universities, airlines, three departments of the federal government and at least ten agencies of various state governments... the list goes on...
  10. Can I have a hand for Chris Phillips for that? What a great interview Chris gave about a terrific magazine... obviously, it's one of our favorites, since so many of us visit every day.
Thanks to all of you for joining the party here at Random Thoughts. Come back as often as you like.

Here's the background on this blog, for the thousands of you who are new visitors. Here at Random Thoughts, it's all about writing, which is why Bruce Springsteen figures so prominently.

I have favorite novelists, but Bruce is my favorite writer.

I write because of a guy named Nick Alicino, who left us much too soon. Nick was my Ninth Grade English teacher and an evangelical Springsteen fan before the term existed. In September of 1984, Nick got me hooked on Bruce and on writing. I'm not sure which came first... but I've never been a writer without being a Springsteen fan; I've never been a Springsteen fan without being a writer.

Four years ago, The Saint and I saw Bruce play in Boston with Nick and his daughter. (October 4, 2002, for those of you rushing over to Backstreets for the setlist.) Since then, I've finished one novel, found an agent, had a third child (OK, The Saint did all the work there) and started a second novel. I've also met dozens of fellow writers and Springsteen fans.

Why is September 23 a National Holiday for me? I wouldn't be doing this--chasing my dream-- if Nick Alicino hadn't introduced me to Bruce Springsteen. So here's a little secret. Eevery September 23, while I'm wishing Bruce a Happy Birthday (and many more), I'm also thanking Nick Alicino. I don't think Bruce would mind, do you?

Come on back any time. It's been a hell of a house party.


Labels: , ,

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The National Holiday Commences

It’s that time of year again: The National Holiday. September 23. Bruce Springsteen is 57. Every year, for Bruce’s birthday, I do something a little… strange. By “strange,” I mean “stranger than normal.”

A couple of years ago, I started collecting e-mail memories of favorite Bruce Moments, that kind of stuff. It got so that some years, people knew I’d be knocking on the inbox before my missives actually arrived, and I’d get gifts. Wonderful Bruce-related masterpieces. In 2003, I received more gifts on Bruce’s Birthday than I did on my own. As an added bonus, all my Bruce’s Birthday gifts were Bruce-related.

2006 marks the first National Holiday since I launched Random Thoughts. So I tried something new.

This blog is about writing… So, who better to include in my celebration of the National Holiday than a writer… who writes about Bruce for a living.

We’re joined today by Christopher Phillips, editor and publisher of the spectacular Backstreets Magazine. Yeah, I subscribe. So should you. Click over there now and check them out. If you like Bruce, you likely subscribe anyway, but if you like Bruce and you don’t subscribe, what the hell are you waiting for? Click, my friends. Do it now. We’ll wait.

Chris makes a living chronicling Bruce, which immediately reminds me that I used to get paid to stand around at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum talking baseball with people. Great job, but Chris Phillips has a better one. He also works harder at it than I did at the Hall of Fame.

Chris took the time to sit down for an interview so we can celebrate the National Holiday in style. I’m running it verbatim here. After you’re done reading, click on over to Backstreets. Check out the site. Subscribe to the magazine. Or go shuffling through the merchandise. You’ll find lots of great stuff there.

The lights are up… The crowd’s screaming “Chriiiiiiiiiis,” and here he comes, folks.

AH: Give me a little background, if you can. About yourself, your wife, your daughter, your pre-Backstreets life.

CP: I'm 35, born in 1971. My mom's a Jersey girl, my dad grew up near Philly, and I lived up and down the east coast while I was growing up. Born in Pittsburgh, also lived in upstate New York and Augusta, Maine before my family settled down in the Deep South -- Thomasville, Georgia, which is right near the Florida line. Lived down there from when I was 10 until I got out of high school. I went to Duke University, with a double major in English and Studio Art (with a focus on printmaking and book design).

Graduated in 1993, with very little idea of what I wanted to do next -- didn't have a job lined up, and some friends were in the same boat, so we decided to throw all our stuff in a U-Haul and drive out to Seattle. For no good reason, other than it seemed like a cool place to be, good music scene, and another friend was already out there, renting a house on the cheap from his brother-in-law, and he had a couple rooms open. So -- I landed in Seattle with not a lot of dough and no job, but rent was only $250 a month -- which saved me, as I spent a few months unemployed, panic starting to build, starting to question the logic of moving to a new city on the opposite side of the country from my family and most of my friends.... at least the money was draining slowly.

Prior to moving there, there were only two companies I knew of in Seattle that I thought might hold prospects: Microsoft and Backstreets. I'd been an avid Backstreets reader in high school (used to have to drive down to a record store in Florida to find it), and so the first thing I did when I settled in was to send resumes to those two. And then I spent the next few months sending out 100 more resumes (to graphic design firms, other magazines), reading the resulting rejection letters, listening to Stevie Wonder, drinking beer and playing Nintendo with my also-unemployed roommate. So we were well into a 12-pack and a game of MegaMan 3 one afternoon when the phone rang, and it was Backstreets.

This was three months after I'd sent the resume, and I'd really forgotten about it. But as luck -- a whole LOT of luck -- would have it, the magazine's managing editor was leaving, and for the first time in the magazine's 13 years at that point, they had to look outside their circle of friends to hire someone to work on the magazine. That was literally the first time they had to look at a resume, and mine just happened to be there. So after a couple of interviews (to which, green behind the ears as I was, I wore a coat and tie), I came on board, and it's what I've been doing ever since -- so really, it's my first and only "real" job. In high school and college I'd worked at a record store, a book store, worked as a DJ at a local radio station, and spent a few summers "working on the highway" for the gas department in Thomasville; and while I've been at Backstreets I've done some freelance writing (music features, record reviews) and freelance design for other magazines, but Backstreets has been my only real JOB-job for the past 13 years.

So, long story short, I started at Backstreets in 1993, working for the magazine's founder, Charles R. Cross; became the Editor a few years later, and then in 1998, I took over the whole operation when Charley wanted to pursue some book projects (since then he's written two biographies, of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix). So it's been my baby for about 8-1/2 years now. In 2000, I moved Backstreets from Seattle to Washington, DC, to move in with my girlfriend, Laura. We went to Duke together and have known each other since the first week of Freshman year, but it never occurred to us to start dating until we were on opposite sides of the country. We spent much of 1999 flying back and forth to see each other -- and honestly, I owe a lot to Bruce's '99 tour for keeping Laura and me together. I could take "business trips" to the east coast to see shows, and she'd come meet me, in Boston, in New York, etc. By the end of that year it was clear that something had to give, and luckily I had a job that was "portable." Not the easiest thing to move the operation across the country, but it was doable... and really, it made a lot of sense for the business to be close to the Springsteen epicenter. So I landed in DC in January 2000, set up shop near the zoo, Laura and I moved into an apartment right up the street from the office, and we spent 4 years there. As much as I missed Seattle, it really was like night and day in terms of having the business within driving distance of New Jersey -- rather than having to deal with expensive red-eye flights, I could just hop in the car. And with Bruce concentrating more and more on playing shows in the Northeast -- all those multi-night stands in NJ and NYC, the Holiday Shows in Asbury -- it was damn good timing.

Laura and I got married in the fall of 2001 (just 3 weeks after 9/11 -- National airport re-opened just in time for guests to fly in). We never meant to stay and settle down in DC, it was really just a stop-gap measure to get ourselves in the same place. So by 2004, we started to get serious about where we might want to put down roots, have kids. We liked the idea of being in a smaller town, with a more friendly cost of living, better schools, that kind of thing. My brother and his family were in San Francisco and they were having similar thoughts... so we decided, hey, why not put our heads together and move somewhere together? After some serious negotiations (and several cities vetoed by one of us or another), Laura and I suggested Chapel Hill, NC -- we've loved this area since we were in school (Duke is right down the road)... my brother and his wife came to check it out, spent 24 hours here, and basically said, "Yeah, that'll work." So it happened pretty quickly -- we all moved to Chapel Hill in the summer of 2004, going from having my brother, his wife Wendy and their two boys on the opposite side of the country, to literally right around the corner from us. It's good living.

Not that moving the business is easy, though -- with all the inventory, it's quite an undertaking. So the plan is to never, ever move again.

A year later Laura was pregnant, and Lucy Rose was born on February 24, 2006 -- she's almost seven months now, and Good Lord, she's a good egg.

AH: Note to self: Hurtubise, you are a very bad editor. You cut nothing from Chris’s answer. Retort to self: That’s because Chris’s answer was fascinating and a good editor knows when to lay down the editing pencil.

AH: Tell us a little about Backstreets. How does something that started as a mimeographed handout in 1980 grow into a respected magazine today? What's the circulation now?

CP: Well, even at the beginning, Backstreets was a notch up from a mimeographed handout -- Charles Cross, who published the first one himself in 1980, talked a local radio station into helping underwrite the cost in exchange for some advertising, so he was able to get it professionally printed, in three colors. That said, yeah, it was a far cry from what it became -- that first issue was just on one piece of newsprint, folded to be a four-pager.

I don't think Charley imagined at first that Backstreets would be an ongoing thing -- its predecessor and inspiration, Thunder Road, was a great magazine, but it stopped publishing after six issues. That first Backstreets issue just got a good enough response that he kept it going for a second issue, and a third... soon he was offering subscriptions, and it just kept going.

Charley was (and is) a music journalist, with a good deal of experience in writing, editing, and publishing already, so it was his world -- it's not like he was an architect by day. You can also partly chalk it up to how passionate he was about Bruce. But that passion being reflected by Springsteen fans all over the world -- I think that was the other major key to what kept everything rolling. Springsteen inspires the kind of abiding, "serious" fandom that makes a magazine like Backstreets work in a way that, say, a Britney Spears fanzine would not. And beyond that: the idea of community has always been a big part of Springsteen's music and his shows; so, prior to the internet, Backstreets was able to help that play out among fans, to help foster a sense of community -- or hell, an actual community.

The newspaper format stuck around for a while — the first nine issues were on newsprint — but with issue #10 it became an actual magazine, and it was just in time for the Born in the U.S.A. boom, which certainly helped. But to be honest, as much as I've heard Charley's stories, it's still hard to imagine what it must have been like to start from nothing and build Backstreets up the way he did -- in the pre-internet age, with nothing but word-of-mouth. The failure rate for magazines has always been extraordinarily high, but consider a magazine with very little advertising, aimed at small niche, and it's mind-blowing that Backstreets became something sustainable.

As much as I feel like I've busted my ass here for the last 13 years, I was fortunate in that Backstreets was on a pretty solid footing when I came on board. We were no longer writing subscription labels by hand, as Charley did in the early days, or struggling for distribution. Well, distribution is always a challenge for a magazine like this, but even thinking about starting that from scratch just gives me a headache.

So it's a testament to Charley's vision, willpower and hard work -- and the support of fans who subscribed, contributed, and spread the word -- that Backstreets became more than just the fleeting whim of a wild-eyed kid who was crazy about Bruce.

And of course, you'd have to give Bruce some credit, too -- giving us more than enough to write about for 85 issues now.

AH: For the five people who read this who aren't evangelical Springsteen fans, what else does Backstreets offer in addition to the magazine?

CP: Well, we used to offer the Backstreets Boss Hotline -- which seems so quaint now, but again, pre-internet, it was a different world. Subscribers were given a phone number to get access to a recorded message that we'd change each week -- or more often than that if there was a lot going on -- which had breaking news, show reports, that kind of thing. Tour announcements --before you could get online and find this stuff instantaneously, the Boss Hotline was the way a lot of fans stayed informed in the months between issues of the magazine.

With the internet, of course, that changed -- and so around 1995, as the Tom Joad tour kicked off, we started up a Backstreets website, which eventually became And that became a better way to keep our readers up to date with Springsteen news between issues -- without any long-distance charges. And while the magazine is still the thing that's closest to my heart, I've spent more and more time maintaining and improving as the years have gone on, so that at this point there are a lot of visitors who don't even know we publish a magazine. (We try to fix that whenever we can.)

At this point, the website has regularly updated Springsteen news, reports after each show, the latest tour itinerary and links for tickets, message boards (including a ticket exchange, where fans can hook up with each other and move extra tickets at face value), and more. We actually kept updating that phone hotline up until about 3 years ago, when we finally put it out of its misery. If anyone misses it, it must be like you'd miss non-power steering. The website is so much easier, for everyone.

And then there's Backstreet Records, our all-Springsteen mail-order shop, which is a big part of what's going on in the office on a daily basis. In the early days of the magazine it became clear that we wouldn't be able to subsist on advertising revenue, like most magazines do, and while subscriptions certainly helped, we started up this retail arm to help support the magazine.

So Backstreet Records carries CDs, posters, T-shirts, vinyl -- all Bruce or Bruce-related stuff, all official, catering to collectors and fans. Sometimes we're dealing in rarities, we've been getting some exclusives lately which is fun, and some leftover tour merchandise that's hard to find, but we also carry all the "mainstream" stuff -- all these new books that are coming out, CDs that Bruce guests on, you name it. Basically, it's a one-stop Boss shop. And we handle all the order-taking and fulfillment ourselves -- everything's in-house, and all the inventory is here in the office. We're getting ready to ship out this new Greetings From E Street book right now, so we're up to our neck in boxes at the moment -- it's like an obstacle course in here.

It's quite the skeleton crew here, always has been -- right now it's me and two other guys, Andrew Massimino and John Howie, Jr. So everybody's got a hand in everything, but Andrew (who is the Assistant Editor) and John are typically handling the customer service stuff -- subscriptions, Backstreet Records orders, essentially running the office -- while I'm maintaining the website and doing the magazine. As a guy who always wanted to be a rock critic but also fell in love with design, it's been a real treat to be able to have a job where I essentially get to put a whole magazine together myself. It kicks my ass from time to time, but it's also the kind of work I can get lost in -- where you look up at the clock and three hours have passed. When things get crazy -- like when these new books come in, I may be up from my desk with a tape gun in hand. But for the most part, those guys take care of everything else while I concentrate on the magazine stuff -- and they're good at helping with that too, with planning, proofreading, and they've both been writing more for the magazine lately, too.

AH: How long have you been with the magazine? How has it grown since you've been involved?

CP [who answered much of this in his backgrounder, above, but instead of the background paragraph I’d planned, I liked his answers better, so you get to read it twice]: 13 years. I came on board in 1993, with issue #43 -- and I'm working on issue #86 now, so it's been half the magazine's lifetime. I worked and learned under Charley for five years, as Managing Editor and then as Editor, and then in 1998, starting with issue #58, I took the whole thing over. Which was pretty daunting at first, running a business myself -- but Charley and I continued to work in the same office for a couple years, so it wasn't a total solo excursion -- he was always around to answer questions or help out when I felt out of my depth.

Developing was a big change under my watch. When I first started with Backstreets, the only way to get the word out about the magazine was either to advertise -- prohibitively expensive for us, for the most part -- or to get out there in person and spread the word. So we used to take stacks of flyers and magazines to shows, and stand outside afterwards handing stuff out.

I can't tell you the number of encores I missed so that we could run and grab our stuff and position ourselves by the exits. And then, insult to injury, you'd turn around after everyone has left and see 90 percent of those flyers littering the ground. So even just for the sake of catching full shows, the internet has been a wonderful thing -- thanks to search engines, people can find out about us much more easily, so I've been able to stop doing the flyer thing. Then again, sometimes I do look back fondly on the days when there wasn't a website to update, because it sure was easier to get magazine work done...

As for the magazine itself, there have been some very obvious changes. We've gone from all black-and-white to full-color, a move I finally made a few years back -- which has been a lot of fun from a design standpoint. And the magazine has grown, literally -- the page count has gone way up. 36 pages used to be standard; our latest issue was 92. That fluctuates, depending on how much content there is to pack in, and I keep telling myself I need to reign it in a bit, but with Bruce so busy, it’s hard. When people find out what I do for a living, the question I'm usually asked is, "How do you fill a whole magazine about Bruce?" But really, I tend to have the opposite problem -- what do I cut in order to publish an issue that won't break the bank?

And then there have been some changes necessitated by the internet, in terms of the way we have to think about the content. Pre-internet, Backstreets magazine could "break" news that was actually a couple months old. Now, when we break news, it's on, not in the magazine. The magazine can't be as current, period -- so we had to consciously shift the focus of the magazine to reflect the news cycle. And that's been the biggest change: more of a focus on features than news stories. We still run the news -- partly due to the "completism" urge that comes with being a geeky collector-type, and there's also the desire to have the magazine function as a historical record -- but we've put much more emphasis on analysis, interviews, photography, historical pieces (like the full-issue retrospective we did for the 20th anniversary of the Vietnam Vets show), the kind of in-depth coverage that print is more conducive to. So that's been the biggest challenge of the last ten years to me -- how to reposition the magazine so that the printed Backstreets and the online Backstreets complement each other without making one or the other unnecessary.

One constant has been contributions from readers -- Backstreets has always been a forum for fans, and we wouldn't be able to do it without other fans and freelance writers pitching in. Photographers, too. When I talk about doing the magazine "myself," I'm talking about the editing, layout, production, that kind of thing -- no way could I write the whole thing myself. For some issues I'll wind up writing a few features and columns, and for others I won't write much besides the editorial. So one of the things I've tried to do as editor is bring more and more good writers into the fold -- many of whom I've hooked up with just through email correspondence or meeting at a show. And again, it helps having good writers here in the office, too.

You asked earlier about circulation -- back in the mid-90s, we hovered around 10,000 or so; at this point we're up around 16,000. And while it'd be nice to take credit for that, I think we owe a lot of it to the internet, as well as to the fact that the '90s, frankly, were the doldrums for a lot of fans. I remember... oh, man, I fondly remember... days at the office where we'd sit around with nothing to do. But ever since Tracks in 1998 and the E Street Band reunion in '99, Bruce has been so active that there's hardly time been time to catch our breath. And there was a noticeable bump in terms of readership -- all that E Street Band activity has clearly gotten more fans on board. Or back on board.

AH: I notice from my trips to the site over the years that the official Backstreets mailing address tends to change whenever you move. Most recently, you moved from Washington to Chapel Hill. You answered a lot of this at the beginning but can you give us a few more details about the moves?

CP: One question we always used to get was, "What the hell is the Boss Magazine doing in Seattle instead of New Jersey?" And the simple, boring answer is, Seattle was where the guy who started it happened to live.

Back in 1997, when Charley and I were talking about my taking over the biz, one thing he pointed out was that I wouldn't have to stay in Seattle -- I could live anywhere and take this job with me. And as much as I love that city, and still have very good friends there, I was also starting to feel a pull back to the east coast, where my family is and where I grew up. So the idea of a "portable" job was pretty damn appealing, even if I didn't have any plans to move right away. And in 1999, when I started dating (my now-wife) Laura -- and she was living and working in Washington DC -- it was quite a blessing to have a job I could put on my back and take with me. (Well, put on a semi-truck and take with me, but still.) So the move to DC was, on one hand, purely personal -- Laura and I had had enough of long-distance calls and coast-to-coast flights. But the idea of being within driving distance of New York and New Jersey certainly didn't hurt. Backstreets functioned very well in Seattle, and really, could be done from anywhere. But for the sake of ease of travel to shows, that kind of thing, it made plenty of sense to be on the east coast.

Laura and I both went to school here in North Carolina -- we met our Freshman year at Duke, where we lived in the same dorm, in '89 -- and we'd been daydreaming about coming back to this area, which we both loved. So after four good years in DC, where we never really planned to put down roots, we picked Chapel Hill as the place to settle down. Basketball season's a little tricky for us here in Tarheel country, but otherwise it's a great place to be. And the BBQ can't be beat.

AH: Backstreets is obviously well respected by mainstream newspapers and the music press. The quality of the writing inside is great. How does it feel to have earned that kind of respect from your media peers? What's the best compliment you've been paid on behalf of Backstreets?

CP: Not to be falsely modest, but I haven't thought too much about respect from our media peers -- we're just kind of hanging out in our Backstreets bunker, clicking away on the keyboard and kicking out the jams on the office boombox and stuff. Do we have media peers? We do? They respect us? Cool! Can they hook us up to get on some label promo distribution lists?

But let's see. A producer of "The Simpsons" (we're not worthy!) invited us to a table reading next time we're in L.A. -- and I haven't been to L.A. in years, but I keep thinking I should get on a damn plane just for that. Dave Marsh has been kind. And any time Charley tells me, "Good issue," that's a good feeling. Plus, one time this blogger guy said, "The quality of the writing inside is great," and that was nice.

Ironically, the compliment that sticks with me most is one I can't really remember at all, because the whole thing is a blur. The first time I met Bruce -- just a couple years back -- was in a narrow backstage hallway, with Jon Landau. The image I have burned in my brain is of Bruce flipping through the magazine (issue #79), with Jon standing next to him and pointing things out over his shoulder. And they were smiling. And they both said nice things. What were those things? No idea. But it was a good day.

AH: Was there some magical moment in your life that turned you into a Springsteen fan? Do you have a clear and distinct memory of your musical tastes pre-Bruce?

CP: Oh yeah -- I've written about it in the magazine, so I won't bore you with the long version, but the thing that removed the veil from my eyes was a Springsteen mix tape my brother's girlfriend made for him, with the full Born to Run album on side B. Jon brought it into my room, cued up to Jungleland, and put it on the stereo... So, like eight minutes later… that was it. I was 13, in seventh grade, it was spring of 1984, and Dancing in the Dark was on the radio, but Born in the USA wasn't out yet... perfect timing. That was the Summer of Bruce for me: Nebraska, The River, and Darkness on the Edge of Town were the other ones I picked up right away, all in constant rotation. For some reason I didn't pick up the first two until much later, but I was certainly hooked right away. My girlfriend at the time hated Nebraska -- I remember calling her up with that opening harmonica wail cued up on the turntable just to drive her crazy.

As for musical tastes prior to that -- yep, very clear and distinct (sometimes embarrassingly so, but what can you do). I was always into music -- before I was old enough to do my own thing, records from my folks' collection that did it for me were Jim Croce, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Diamond, the Beatles... I remember liking a Henry Mancini album a lot.

And then once I started school I was a real radio kid, always had pop radio on in my room, never missed a Top 40 Countdown. That awful-but-great late-'70s, early '80s period with Franke & the Knockouts' "Sweetheart," Robbie Dupree's "Steal Away"... But living where I did, it would take a long time for something like Springsteen to filter down to me (other than "Hungry Heart," which I knew and liked okay).

First records I bought with my own money (besides the Star Wars soundtrack) were Hall & Oates "Voices," Queen's "The Game," and Styx's "Pieces of Eight." I've kind of joked that before Bruce it was all shit like Styx, Kansas, and Rush... and indeed, I was crazy for some Styx.

Right after my Barry Manilow phase (second grade) and Bee Gees craze (third grade). But there was actually some good stuff in there too. Right before discovering Bruce at 13, I was liking Johnny Cougar, big into the Police, starting to dig Prince, discovered that there was more to like about Iron Maiden than their cover art, and was thrilled by hip-hop from the beginning -- my friends and I were all over Rapper's Delight, and just like Jungleland, I still remember where I was when I first heard Planet Rock. Of course, plenty of people would say most of that stuff's shit, too.

AH: Do you have a favorite album or song? Does this change from year to year or minute to minute? Why is your favorite album or song your favorite?

CP: Minute to minute, for sure. But always in the running are Born to Run, Tunnel of Love, and Nebraska. Because they're all perfect records. Tunnel often wins out, maybe because it's the underdog.

As for songs, off the top of my head... Be True, Born in the USA, Tunnel of Love, Shut Out the Light, Born to Run, Stolen Car (Tracks version), Living Proof...

AH: When you hear a song like Born To Run on the radio, do you still instinctively turn up the volume every time?

CP: Since you said "Born to Run," I've gotta say yes. That's a song that just kills me every time -- and if it's the car radio, even better.

But just as often, I'll hear a Bruce song on the radio, or at a restaurant, or in the grocery store -- like "Glory Days," or "Cover Me" -- and think, Christ, can't I get some peace?! Stop following me! I'm lucky to be as big a fan as I am -- otherwise, working at Backstreets, looking at Bruce's face all day every day, would kill it. It's rare that we'll have Bruce on the stereo here, for just that reason. But it happens -- when a new record is out, or if it's been a while and someone has a hankering to hear a particular show or something.

In the last 24 hours, the Backstreets stereo has played host to Dean Martin, the new Prince record, the Melvins, the Cure, Marvin Gaye, Ray Lamontagne, Dan the Automator, TV on the Radio, and, currently, The Carpenters. Specifically, at this moment, "Goodbye to Love." But Tracks is sitting over there, too, and I think disc two might be itching for a spin...

AH: You interviewed Bruce a couple of years ago during the Vote For Change tour. Did you do the interview in person or over the phone? You've interviewed quite a few Friends of Bruce over the years. How was the interview with The Man himself? (Perhaps I should have said "The Boss," but you'd have seen that one coming, right?)

CP: Surreal, and wonderful. Over the phone -- it was actually on the very day that we moved into the Chapel Hill office two years ago. That morning, we were helping the movers unload boxes from the truck; that afternoon I sat on a box with the phone newly plugged into the wall, my phone recorder just barely salvaged from the "IMPORTANT STUFF -- OPEN ME FIRST!" box, and the call from Bruce came.
"Hello, Backstreets..."
"Hey Chris?"
"This is Bruce!"
And then stunned silence out of me. Not that I didn't know he was going to call, it had been arranged two days prior... but still, it's BRUCE on the phone! So I got my act together and got down to business -- looking back, I kinda wish I was chattier, but in any case, we got right into questions, and he was incredibly quick, articulate, eloquent, funny... I'd imagined he might hem and haw, or take his time to answer, but the challenge was actually to keep up with him. It was before he'd done much press for the tour, so his answers didn't have any kind of "stock" feeling to them -- just very impressive, a lot of fun, and a long time coming.

AH: Let's turn to covers for a couple of questions. Who out there has the best covers of Bruce songs?

CP: Probably Emmylou Harris. But funny, as great as his songs are, they seem to be hard to cover -- maybe the standard is set too high. I get excited about tribute albums, but I'm rarely knocked out by much. I really like the version of "Wages of Sin" by Damien Jurado and Rose Thomas, on Sub Pop's Nebraska tribute album. I love those two Gary U.S. Bonds albums, of course. The Mavericks' "All That Heaven Will Allow" is perfect. Superchunk gets huge points for even attempting "Born to Run" live. Now I'm just waiting for The Hold Steady to cover "Jungleland."

AH: Staying with covers for a minute: What songs would you love to hear Bruce cover, or have you heard him cover, that really resonated? The motive here: My "Bruce should cover this" list includes “All Along the Watchtower,” “Rockin' in the Free World,” “Fortunate Son,” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Apparently, if I'd seen the VFC tour stop in St. Paul, I'd have heard all except Folsom.

CP: "Trapped" resonates. "Jersey Girl" resonates -- more Tom Waits would be great, like "Hang Down Your Head."

With the Seeger Sessions Band, I'd love to hear him do Lucinda Williams' "Crescent City." And Dylan's "HIgh Water (For Charley Patton)." And something off of Robbie Robertson's Storyville -- "Night Parade"? "Hold Back the Dawn"? "Shake This Town"? And none of these just for the lyrics alone -- though they sure don't hurt.

And with the E Street Band, the Afghan Whigs' "Going to Town." If only so we could hear him sing:

When you say
Now we've got Hell to pay
Don't worry, baby, that's okay
I know the boss

Pair that one with "Murder Incorporated," and you've got gold, baby.

And then some Clash -- he's already done one of my dream covers, "London Calling" -- "Safe European Home" would be next on the list.

The Jayhawks - "Real Light"

Cheap Trick - "Come On, Come On"

WIth the horn section, "Domino," "Try a Little Tenderness," and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered."

"Walk a Mile in My Shoes," "Band of Gold," "Hold On I'm Comin'"... work "Roseville Fair" into "County Fair"...

We could do this all night.

AH: Do you have a favorite Bruce concert, or a few favorites? What made them particularly memorable?

CP: Not to rub it in -- but that St. Paul show you mentioned is way up there. I'm not a Neil Young freak (a fan, sure, but not hardcore), or even typically a fan of guest spots like that, but when he came out, the dynamic completely changed and it was like we were taken somewhere else. There was just enough Neil to make the whole thing feel wild -- in every sense -- while remaining an E Street show. It didn't feel like a guest spot, it felt, for a few songs, like he joined the band.

Other faves would be the second Fenway show in '03 [AH note: I concur. Best. Concert. Ever.], the DoubleTake benefits in Somerville, the '99 Boston stand (particulalry the last two nights), and my first show, 12/7/84, in Tallahassee, which literally changed my life.

AH: Which do you prefer, Bruce with the E Street Band or without?

CP: Judging by my favorite shows, I guess you'd think with... but really, I love it all. The Joad shows and D&D shows are high water marks in his career, to me -- I guess there wasn't one of those solo shows that stood out over any other to make the list. But I've just been thrilled at the way he made good on his intention to use the E Street Band like Neil Young uses Crazy Horse.

AH: In your ultimate fantasy Duet with Bruce, what song are you singing?

CP: Well, even in my ultimate fantasy, I'm still always watching, always watching... only, like, in my living room or something.

But singing along? Two Hearts would be cool, but it kinda belongs to someone else. Something big, I think, like The Rising, or The Promised Land, or the Detroit Medley. Let's make it the Medley, so it lasts longer.

AH: Where will Backstreets be in five years?

CP: Covering Springsteen's stripped-down rockabilly tour, featuring Steve [Van Zandt], Garry [Tallent], and Larry Eagle -- Max [Weinberg] is busy with the 11:30 Tonight Show slot, of course. And we'll have Lucy Rose licking envelopes.

AH: I know that a lot of the time, Bruce's tour or album schedule determines the theme of upcoming issues of the magazine. You clearly have a winning formula. How else do you find ways to keep the magazine edgy after 26 years?

CP: That's easy -- I'm getting so little sleep because of the baby that I'm edgy all the time! To be honest, we try very hard to keep things fresh around here because if it bores us, it will bore our readers, too. It's not so much a formula as it is a foundation. And we keep our eyes and ears open, looking to add to it.

AH: Any final thoughts? Anything I haven't asked that you want to address?

CP: Nope -- this was fun! Thanks for letting me be a part of the National Holiday celebrations.

AH: is always my first stop during the National Holiday celebrations. Come back any time you want. We’re Open All Night. Christopher Phillips of Backstreets Magazine, thanks for doing the inaugural guest interview on Random Thoughts. We now return you to our regularly scheduled celebration of the National Holiday known as Bruce’s Birthday.


Labels: ,

Friday, September 22, 2006

Special Guest Tomorrow!!!

With the National Holiday only hours away, a reminder that we'll have a special guest appearing at Random Thoughts for ONE NIGHT ONLY!

Tune in tomorrow for my interview with Christopher Phillips, editor and publisher of Backstreets Magazine.

If you like great writing about rock and roll, go check out the site. If you're a Springsteen fan, you know this already.

Check in tomorrow and I'll have the interview with Chris up here somewhere.


Labels: ,

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Odds & Ends as the National Holiday Approaches

M.G. Tarquini and Elizabeth Krecker interviewed J.A. Konrath and Barry Eisler for Spinetingler Magazine.

The full interview is located here. Mindy and Elizabeth both posted outtakes from the interview on their blogs. I'm technologically challenged this morning, so I couldn't figure out how to link directly to Mindy's post, but if you click on her link above, it's the Sept. 14th post.

Elizabeth, however, made it easy to link to her outtakes, and if you click here, you'll find her version of events. As a reward for making it so easy to link to her post, I think I'll send Elizabeth some venison jerky.

A reminder that we have a very special guest joining us on Saturday, Sept. 23rd, the National Holiday known as Bruce's Birthday. I don't know what time I'll be posting on Saturday, but tune in and stay a while.


Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Finding my Inner Badass

The last couple of days, I've needed to tap into some anger.

I needed prison songs. I needed "Dude on the verge of exploding" stuff. When that happens, my three buds (Bruce, Kris and Johnny) won't do. When things need to be really bad (in a good way), I need Hag.


I may have mentioned (a few dozen times) that a good chunk of my new novel takes place in a prison. My protag is an inmate. So who better to get me in an inmate's mindset than a former inmate?

Now playing on iTunes: Hag: The Best of Merle Haggard. I'm wallowing in my redneck upbringing. When I grew up, redneck was a term of affection (and it still is among my friends from Cooperstown, one of whom lives on a self-created street called Redneck Drive--he's one of the guys doing VenisonFest with Ed Novak and me).

So Hag's rocking his way through his greatest hits (is there a better country song than "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink"?), because I need to climb down and grab the third rail. Seems both my agents love what they've seen of my new novel. Among other things, they want me to keep my protagonist exactly the way he is. Which is pretty much what the Great and Gifted Jamie Ford opined the other day.

So I've dialed up Merle on the old laptop. He's magic, as always.

Bottom line, I need to step up my pace. That starts now. Hag helped.

We will, of course, still be celebrating next week's National Holiday. In fact, stop in on Saturday, when Bruce turns 57. I have a very special guest appearing here for one post only. If you're a fellow evangelical Bruce fan, you'll want to come by for the virtual house party. I can guarantee that when the countdown officially begins this Sunday, there'll be nothing but the Boss anywhere near the stereo.

Anybody have any requests? How about Favorite Bruce Moments?

If you're following the links on the right-hand side, the fabulous Jim Atwell has gotten three columns (count 'em, one, two, three) out of a bunch of lost cows.

Not funny, you say? Click on over to the Cooperstown Crier website. I dare you not to laugh.

On other matters, the first cold of the fall has arrived. I mean the kind of cold that follows "common," not the kind that precedes "weather." Care to guess who was lucky enough to benefit from Mother Nature's (or some snotty kid's) largesse?

Yeah. The guy who needs to step up the pace is sidelined by a cold. But I've purchased NyQuil, which means I'm about to have:
  1. A great night's sleep
  2. Crazy dreams
  3. Need for an alarm clock
  4. A wake-up call
  5. Somebody haul my ass off the mattress.
The Saint and Oldest Son leave for school at 6:40 a.m. Middle Child is strong, but not strong enough to separate his old man from a NyQuil slumber. Daughter will be tuned in to Hi-Five if she's awake, so Middle Child will have to go it alone, or hope The Saint stays around an extra five minutes. One thing's for sure: The morning commute will be even more of an adventure than usual.

I wish you crazy dreams as well.


Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

While We're Remembering

The amazing Johnny Cash died three years ago today. He's one of my heroes and has been since... now that I think about it, he's been one of my heroes as long as I've been alive.

I know, I know. It's easy to love the guy. He transcended genres. He's a rock and country legend.

But he also influenced me as a writer. I always approached fiction the way I imagined Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson and Bruce Springsteen approached writing lyrics. I still do. I don't know if my imagination comports with reality, but I digress.

I was in New Orleans at a conference with a client the day Johnny Cash died. By the time I heard the news, I was in the bar at my hotel with a bunch of Marine combat veterans on their annual reunion. (The spectacular National D-Day Museum is in New Orleans, and those vets, who'd served in conflicts from World War II through the current fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, were all staying at my hotel.)

I'd been chatting with these guys off and on for a couple of days, and they affectionately (some, not so affectionately) called me the fucking liberal from Boston.

When one of the not so affectionate ones learned I was sad that Johnny Cash had died, he said, "What does a fucking liberal from Boston know about Johnny Cash anyway?"

I stood up and sang Folsom Prison Blues. I didn't buy another drink for the rest of my stay. The not so affectionate guy from Alabama bought my next three rounds.

Do you have any memories of Johnny Cash? Share them in the comments section if you feel like it.

On a happier note, the National Holiday known as Bruce Springsteen's Birthday is almost here. I'll be posting a bunch as September 23 approaches.


Labels: , , ,

Monday, September 11, 2006

Take a Moment

And remember where you were five years ago today.

I was on my way to vote in my local municipal elections. I can't remember who or what I voted for, but I remember voting. The TV was on inside the polling place, and nobody spoke. When I voted, there were three other people at the booths. Two were crying.

My polling place was a school since converted into condos. Middle Child had just turned three. He was in day care across the street. When I came to pick him up, I checked my polling place again. A line of people stretched out the door. About three quarters of them carried flags. They were singing "God Bless America." This was for a city primary just outside Boston that normally would have had 8% turnout.

Today I got an e-mail from my friend Ed Novak. Some of you know Ed in person; some of you know him from this blog. I was a Groomsman in his wedding. His daughter is one of my Godchildren. His wife is my oldest friend. Her parents and mine grew up together.

Five years ago, Ed watched news coverage of the attacks with his work colleagues. Today he observed September 11 remembrances in Baghdad. Next month, God willing, Lt. Novak and the rest of his unit will be home... and I'm holding him to the promise he made me in July: Venison and beer at his house.

While you're remembering where you were on that awful day, be sure also to remember the men and women still in harm's way who are making sure it never happens again. Thank them for a job well done and-- if you're so inclined-- say a prayer for their safe return.

Thanks, Ed. Come home soon.


Labels: ,

Saturday, September 09, 2006

May I Have the Envelope, Please?

What do the Great and Gifted Jamie Ford and my agent have in common?

If you guessed: "They both love what they've seen of my manuscript," then you win a prize to be named later. And as a bonus, my agent has seen more than Jamie has. I suspect my agent's detailed comments will be very similar to Jamie's.

My agent's partner (also known as "my other agent") is reading the pages now. Just to make sure.

Pumped? Come join me in the stratosphere and I'll tell you. I celebrated with an extra fifteen minutes on the bike this morning (and a double espresso, and a capuccino).

In the meantime, go check out Jamie's blog post about writing vs. the idea of being a writer. Dead on.

I need to get back to my manuscript before Jamie passes me. Not that I'm racing Jamie-- I'm just not writing very quickly.

In other news, it's a glorious day, and we're going to a cookout. Johnny Cash is playing on iTunes, and Bruce is up next.

Have a great weekend.


Labels: ,

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Middle Child Turns 8

So who'd have thought that Charlie Sheen would be lucky enough to share a birthday with my son?

The Middle Child is 8 today... he shares the day with one of his best friends; the aforementioned actor; and a gangster (Whitey Bulger).

With some of the stuff that comes out of his mouth, you'd think he's 28 (the age I was when he was born), not 8. I'm not talking about stuff of the 4-letter variety. That comes occasionally, but it's more the provenance of the soon-to-be teenager.

We do something special for each of the kids on their birthdays. Dinner, a favorite movie, a sleepover, or all of the above. Last night, we took the Middle Child and his Buddy with the Same Birthday to the Outback... Table for 9. Great waiter.

Breakfast today was easy. Middle Child's favorite foods in the world are ice cream (dessert last night) and donuts. Walking in with two dozen this morning, I was a conquering hero.

The Middle Child is an unmitigated joy. Unlike the guy who coined the phrase, the Middle Child is a Uniter, not a Divider. He combines a slapstick sense of humor with perfect timing and the brain of Einstein. He also loves History and mooning people.

I haven't been mooned yet, but it's not even noon.

All three kids are upstairs playing together, and not fighting. We're inside dodging Ernesto remnants, and all is right with the world.

Happy Birthday, Buddy. I love you.



Friday, September 01, 2006

Initial Feedback

The great and gifted Jamie Ford read my first chapter. I say "the great and gifted" because I've read Jamie's writing, and his short story, I am Chinese, is spell-binding. I posted a link to it somewhere here, but if you go to Jamie's blog, you can read his story. Do yourselves a favor and head over there.

So, yeah, Jamie liked it. And if you know Jamie, you know that this is high praise indeed.

I owe a nod to M.G. Tarquini, too, because we had a couple of conversations about where I should put the chapter that Jamie read... Minds out of the gutter, people. You know where I put the chapter. I put it right where Mindy told me to put it. But if you know Mindy, you also knew my answer before you read it here.

That is all. The weekend is here. Can I hear an Amen, please?


Labels: , ,