Hello. I’m Gavin Edwards, contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the New York Times-bestselling author of The Tao of Bill Murray, the ’Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy series, and Last Night at the Viper Room. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina. I like caffeine, boardgames, and lists with three items.

Neil Tennant Q&A

pet shop thingIn early March, I wrote an article for The New York Times about the American debut of The Most Incredible Thing, a ballet based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, with choreography by Javier de Frutos and a score by the Pet Shop Boys. It was a pleasure to report for many reasons–not least getting on the phone with the brilliant Neil Tennant, one half of the Pet Shop Boys (along with Chris Lowe). Our conversation covered more territory than there was room for in the article, including an update on what the duo have been working on lately–so here are some highlights from the interview.

What surprised you with this whole experience of The Most Incredible Thing?

I was amazed how good it was. (laughs)

The Most Incredible Thing seems like a very Pet Shop Boys idea, but it’s even more a very Pet Shop Boys title.

The title was probably the single thing that most attracted me to it initially!

Tell me about the section of the score with the clock.

We decided to be quite literal and put the clock ringing for each hour. It’s meant to sum up all aspects of human life—

Well, that’s not too ambitious.

It’s not, is it, in twenty minutes? A baby is born, it’s got religion, it’s got the Ten Commandments in there, it’s got a rocket going off to the moon. I was very pleased when we stuck it all together. I think we’re going to do another ballet. Pop musicians who write ballets—it doesn’t happen that often. I mean, Elvis Costello did one [Il Sogno]. He actually wrote an orchestral score.

You’ve always had songs with the trappings of the classical world, like “My October Symphony” or name-dropping Debussy—it’s almost like you were anticipating that you’d move in this direction.

We always had theatrical ambitions, and that’s because of our backgrounds. Chris’s mother was a dancer and his grandfather was in a musical act called The Nitwits. And they were a comedy jazz group, sort of trad jazz, and they used to play in Las Vegas during the sixties–Chris’s grandfather lived in Las Vegas. So Chris is accustomed to this way of looking at things: actually putting on a show. And I was an amateur. As a boy I was in the youth theater in Newcastle, where I grew up. But I also wrote a play and put together some shows and put music in them–even when I was seventeen I was doing that. So for both of us it seemed like a natural way of going about things.

The Most Incredible Thing score integrated electronics and orchestral arrangements. Could it work as an amateur production with a schoolmarm on piano?

Yes. I mean, you’d have to do a piano score first. I think the next ballet we do will either have only electronic or only orchestral. It actually might be only electronics. It’s always quite a problem with electronics and orchestra together, getting the balance right. The guy who mixes our sound in our concerts also does a lot of classical stuff in Germany–he does Pet Shop Boys but he also does the Berlin Philharmonic. So he’s got those skills. You’ve really got to balance the whole thing very carefully. And also, sometimes a melodic line sounds like it’s being played by the orchestra and actually it’s being played on the keyboard and vice versa.

Years ago, you said something—I think to Chris Heath–that maybe the Pet Shop Boys could change every year. One year it would be four girls, and the next year four elderly men.

Well, you know, we never did it. But as you say that, I immediately think what a great idea it was. You know we got that from Menudo? When we first went to New York in 1983, there was this show “Menudo” on the television. And it was, like, five Mexican boys or something? And when one of them got to sixteen they got thrown out and a younger one came in. There was something fascinatingly brutal about this idea.

What else are you working on now?

We have just been in Berlin for two weeks, writing some new songs. And we’ve done it a different way. We didn’t really do any writing last year–well, we did a tiny bit–’cause we were on tour quite a lot of the time. But I wrote lyrics and I decided to email them to Chris and it turned out that Chris had set most of them to music. So we’ve suddenly turned into Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

And the thing is, ultimately Chris writes the music and I sing over it. But when Chris writes the melodies, he doesn’t write the melodies I would write. His are more complicated and so I have to learn his melody but then suddenly it all falls into place. So we’ve written some songs that might be on the next album, who knows? Who knows when the next album will be, but we’ve started that process. We had a fun two weeks. We like writing songs, writing music, we enjoy it.

That’s good. It’d be a long life otherwise.

People in the press often think you’re doing it for the money or because you have to. But really we do it because, right from the beginning, it’s fun and exciting having new songs at the end of the day, even if it’s never released. It’s a great feeling, a new song.

posted 27 April 2018 in Articles. no comments yet

Sittin’ on the Dock of the Ballet

tmitHello! In case you missed them, I wanted to call your attention to two pieces I wrote for The New York Times in recent months. The first one was on the 50th anniversary of Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” I spoke with an extraordinarily cool range of people for the article: Steve Cropper, Zelma Redding, Grace Slick, Booker T. Jones, et alia. Plus I got a statement from Michael Bolton (which is not a sentence I ever thought I’d be typing). The second one was on the American debut of The Most Incredible Thing, the ballet with a score by the Pet Shop Boys and choreography by Javier de Frutos. I’m really proud of both–but the space constraints of newspaper articles meant that I couldn’t put in all the great stuff people told me, so I’ll try to post some of it here in coming weeks. Stay tuned….

posted 4 April 2018 in Outside. no comments yet

R.I.P. Tom Petty

silence screencapTom Petty died three weeks ago, and I’m still not used to a world without him. I interviewed him just once (for the first Mudcrutch album, about ten years ago)–he was gracious and professional and insisted that I stick around to listen to rehearsal rather than be ejected into the afternoon rush hour of the San Fernando Valley. But his music had long been a soundtrack of my life (as it was for so many people), and I treasure that I got to see him a half-dozen times over the years (including one show at the legendary Fillmore stand).

One source of solace recently was hearing about the Los Angeles vampire community moving west down Ventura Boulevard in tribute to Petty. Another was being invited by the good people of Billboard to write about Petty’s legacy; when I asked if I could tackle “American Girl,” they immediately said yes. If you’d like to read my essay about “American Girl” and its wide-ranging impact on our culture, there’s a little more to life somewhere else.

A paragraph that got cut because of space limitations:

The lyrics of “American Girl” are deceptively simple; Petty wasn’t trying to compete with Elvis Costello in the Wordplay Olympics. Or as he told Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone in 1977, “I ain’t making records for somebody who’s going through their dictionary.” But “God it’s so painful when something that’s so close / Is still so far out of reach” perfectly expresses longing, just like “the waiting is the hardest part” does—Petty had a knack for cutting down human emotions to their essence. Here, as in many of his best songs, he walks right up to the edge of cliché before taking one crucial step back. (Consider “You Wreck Me,” a song that Petty originally wrote as “You Rock Me”—he knew that just one changed vowel could transform a hackneyed lyric.) In the painful aftermath of Petty’s death, many fans shared stories about how his music provided a bridge to relatives and roommates who they had nothing else in common with. The universal quality of Petty’s songwriting is why his music was woven into so many disparate lives.

posted 24 October 2017 in Outside. no comments yet

The Tao of Bill Murray Paperback

ttobm paperbackThe Tao of Bill Murray is coming out in paperback, which I guess makes me a paperback writer. Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book? It’s on sale October 24th and has this spiffy new cover, plus an appendix on Bill’s remarkable 2017, when the Cubs won the World Series and he went along for the ride. (The cover design, by the way, is adapted from the Spanish-language version published by Setanta/Blackie Books, so my thanks to them.) Tell your local bookstore that you want them to get you a copy (find a local bookstore via IndieBound), or hit up Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, or Random House.

posted 2 October 2017 in Buy My Stuff. no comments yet

The Golden Age of Francis Spufford

red plentyI recently had the pleasure of interviewing the brilliant author Francis Spufford for the Barnes & Noble Review. I suggest you go read our conversation, but I suggest even more strongly that you read his books, including Red Plenty (a brilliant fictionalized history of the Soviet Union) and the new Golden Hill (a exhilarating novel set in 1740s Manhattan).

A bonus exchange that we had to cut for space:

Have you thought about why Red Plenty is so appealing to science-fiction fans?

I have. For one thing, I am a science-fiction fan, so it’s appealing to me. But also it’s because I set out to build the world of the USSR in the early 1960s pretty much the same way you’d describe an invented culture on an alien planet. You have to assume your reader is sitting somewhere very different and the whole thing has to be built up from ground level in the heads of people reading. And the same skill set which will build interstellar empires turns out to work quite nicely on building the real historical USSR because it is freaky enough and works by different enough rules that you might as well treat it as alien–with the lovely, paradoxical kicker that it’s true.

posted 29 June 2017 in Articles. no comments yet

Friday Foto: Radiohead in Atlanta

radiohead atlantaPhotographed at the Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 1, 2017. Radiohead are performing “Daydreaming”–the first song of an amazing concert.

posted 14 April 2017 in Photos. no comments yet

Meeting Bill Murray: The German Edition of The Tao of Bill Murray

meeting bill murrayAchtung! I don’t think this website gets a lot of German traffic, but I am nevertheless delighted to announce that the German edition of The Tao of Bill Murray, titled Meeting Bill Murray for the book readers of Deutschland, will be on sale on April 24th. My thanks to the good people of Bastei Entertainment for publishing it, to Bernhard Schmid for his diligent work translating it, and to Stefanie Bemmann for her cover artwork. (Really, this post is just an excuse to post the cover.) You can buy the book directly from Bastei, from various retailers in Germany, or it’s downloadable here in the States. Let Bill Murray teach you German!

posted 30 March 2017 in Buy My Stuff. no comments yet

Reading at Sensoria

final-cover-artIf you are in or near Charlotte, North Carolina, and if you would like to hear me reading from The Tao of Bill Murray, answering questions (about Bill or anything else that interests you), and signing books (my own, presumably), then you are in luck–I will be appearing at CPCC for the Sensoria festival on Monday, April 3rd, at 11:30 am. I’m told we’ll be at the Hagemeyer Learning Resources Center–specifically, the second floor atrium. I’m not George Saunders (who’s showing up a couple of days later–the Sensoria festival is no joke!), but I doubt he’ll have stories about Bill Murray hanging out with the Wu-Tang Clan and tending bar.

posted 30 March 2017 in Buy My Stuff. no comments yet

1988 Countdown #36: Michael Jackson, “The Way You Make Me Feel”

(And the beat goes on. New to the countdown? Catch up here.)

mj3610A beautiful woman walks down a city street: tight black dress, bangles on her wrists, long kinky hair, flawless mocha skin, high heels. This is model Tatiana Thumbzen. A funky guitar riff plays in the background (the song “Hot” by Roy Ayers). The neighborhood is grimy and covered with graffiti; it’s supposed to look like a sketchy part of New York City, but it’s pretty obvious that this video was filmed on one of the standing “New York” sets maintained by Hollywood studios.

There’s a half-dozen B-boys hanging out on the corner. One of them points out the woman who’s turning the sidewalk into a runway and tells his friends, “Look at that! Look! Whoooo-oh! Now, that is foxy.” A silhouetted figure steps up onto the sidewalk, in the path of the woman. Our B-boy keeps giving live commentary, as if he were a streetcorner Marv Albert: “I thought I told him to go home! What is he doing?”

mj3601With the slightest of detours, she walks around the mysterious figure. “She gonna pass him up,” our play-by-play man informs us. We now see that our spurned hero is Michael Jackson, who tries to look tough. His Bad-era plastic surgery has settled in more fully than it had on the “Bad” video (not in this countdown—it was released in 1987), so his face no longer looks like a constant rictus of pain, although it still has some unsettling mask-like qualities.

(This is, by the way, the third of seven singles released from Bad, and the third Michael Jackson clip we’ve seen on the 1988 countdown, after “Another Part of Me” at #94 and “Smooth Criminal” at #60. There will be two more in the higher reaches of the chart.)

mj3602Jackson yells: “Hey!” Thumbzen stops and turns around for a beauty-shot close-up: dangling earrings, bouffant hair, impeccably groomed eyebrows. The soundtrack goes completely silent. Jackson curls his lip and turns towards her. As he advances on her, he flashes a V-sign at waist level and then snaps his fingers, moving his wrist like he’s showing off a switchblade. The vaguely menacing effect is ruined by his outfit. Black pants, white T-shirt, long-sleeved denim shirt: all plausibly tough. The white sash he’s wearing as a belt, tied in a bow at the front: that makes him look like a backup dancer in an old Gene Kelly musical.

Jackson walks around her slowly enough that we can notice the strand of hair artfully dangling over his forehead, and then sings a cappella: “You knock me off of my feet now, baby.” And then, he jumps in the air with a “whoooo!” He moves his limbs, kicking his feet and waving his arms, and seems to be summoning the music into existence.

mj3603Let’s say this now: “The Way You Make Me Feel,” written by Jackson, and produced by himself and Quincy Jones, is excellent. It’s got a chugging locomotive groove that’s just undeniable. To this day, Stevie Wonder covers it live, which is pretty much the gold-standard seal of approval.

Director Joe Pytka’s camera spins around Jackson and Thumbzen. In the background, there’s a bench with newspapers scattered on it. The print media is not dead! (Or it wasn’t in 1988, anyway.) Pytka, by the way, would end up directing the Michael Jordan/Bugs Bunny movie Space Jam in 1996.

mj3605Thumbzen takes off; the B-boys point in her direction and Jackson chases after her, saying “Come on, girl!” Like the Henry Lee Summer video that clocked in at #86, this is another clip full of the raw material for a sexual-harassment training video. It doesn’t come off as harshly as Summer’s did because Thumbzen is actively flirting with Jackson: for example, she stops in the middle of the street just long enough for him to catch up with her.

She takes a few steps forward, and finds another group of B-boys in her way. Thumbzen’s best moments in this video involve her breaking her erect runway-model posture for human body language, as she does here with a “why you messing with me?” slouch. Details in the background: a bodega with a neon “OPEN” sign that has an iron gate rendering the business closed, graffiti on the wall that includes the word “BOOBS,” a neon sign advertising “USED APPLIANCES,” a Castrol GTX sign with no indication of anything else automotive nearby.

mj3604Thumbzen keeps walking, only to find Jackson in front of her with a group of B-boy supporters. It’s not clear if these backup tough guys will end up being dancers, as usually happens in Michael Jackson videos. Maybe they’re one of the gangs from “Beat It,” now retired from ritual knife fights? She watches with her hands on her hips as Michael Jackson outlines her body with his hands, sings “kiss me baby and tell me twice,” and mimes pelvic thrusts, strongly implying he knows how to have sex.

As Jackson sings the chorus, she runs away into an alley. In a different movie, or in real life, this would be a horrifying moment: her pursuer has trapped her in a dead end, with six friends backing him up. She escapes without incident, and Jackson trails her down a sidewalk, catching up in front of an old fallout shelter sign. As he serenades her, he gives little convulsive twitches, as if the choreography had taken over his body without his consent. An old man (actor Joe Seneca) sitting on a stoop gives Jackson the thumbs up.

mj3612Thumbzen’s on the move again, so Jackson’s in pursuit. He’s got this lovely running move where he drags his feet on the pavement. I don’t know whether it was the invention of choreographer Vincent Paterson or Jackson himself, but it’s a small moment of grace. This is an expensive video that’s trying to look gritty and low budget, but what makes the whole thing work (other than the excellence of the song) is the documentary power of it: the moments when you feel like you’re seeing Michael Jackson’s dancing skills in real time.

He climbs on top of a 70s sedan and dances on the car’s trunk for a moment; she moves away, so he jumps off and follows her, giving her a high leg kick to show the seriousness of his intentions. Even when Jackson is trying to be menacing and rapey, he seems graceful and nonsexual. There’s another 70s car next to her: surprisingly, the owner doesn’t keep it locked, because she opens the driver’s door and escapes through the front seat. Jackson dives into the car, in hot pursuit. As she closes the passenger door behind her, Jackson climbs through the open window. Thumbzen runs down the street while Jackson sings “my lonely days are gone.” She’s laughing and smiling and skipping—it doesn’t feel like he’s persuaded her, more that she’s been in on the game all along.

mj3608Look, she’s found three other models on the sidewalk! It’s a quartet of beautiful women with ambiguous ethnic heritage. There’s a quick consultation; they’re collectively amused by Jackson, who keeps on singing, backed by a crew of B-boys gesturing at the women. In the video’s most charming moment, the women mimic the B-boy gestures. It feels like at the intermission of West Side Story, the Jets and the Sharks decided to split the gangs up and do the second act as boys versus girls.

The chorus rolls around again. On the soundtrack, Jackson’s pretty clearly providing his own backing vocals: he likes to make a world where he mostly interacting with himself. To what extent does he think of the B-boys as manifestations of his inner self? Or Thumbzen?

Further courtship rituals around a beat-up VW convertible Beetle with a sagging ragtop: Thumbzen leans against the car while Jackson hikes his leg up onto a fender. She grabs him by the collar and then pushes him away. Lots more aimless business so the camera can keep moving: they circle the Beetle, they keep walking, they sit down for a split second, they go up a staircase to a building where the door is locked.

mj3616Dance break! A fire hydrant cinematically sprays into the air and somebody presses the “blue lighting” button. Lots of finger snapping, and four of the B-boys transform into backup dancers. Jackson and the backup quartet do a short muscular dance routine in silhouette, punctuated with lots of grunts and shouts, and ludicrously climaxing with all of them humping the pavement.

Thumbzen rushes forward–apparently, there has been a sufficient amount of state-of-the-art pop production and dancing to convince her that Jackson’s intentions are honorable. But Jackson’s vanished. She stands bewildered in the backlit blue spray. Then Jackson returns in silhouette–unless it’s his shadow, cut loose from him like Peter Pan. Thumbzen and Jackson share an emotional embrace. The fire hydrant keeps spurting out water, an unsubtle metaphor for Jackson’s own bodily fluids.

“The Way You Make Me Feel” topped the Billboard singles chart for one week (and also hit #1 on the R&B chart); it was the third entry in a streak of five #1 singles in a row from Michael Jackson. You can watch it here.

posted 20 March 2017 in 1988. 6 comments

Westlake on Graffiti

copsandrobbersOne pleasant aspect of being a fan of the late great novelist Donald Westlake is that he was so prolific—both under his own name and the hardboiled pseudonym Richard Stark—is that it feels like I’ll never run out of his books. Yesterday I grabbed a random paperback off the shelf: 1972’s Cops and Robbers, about two New York City policemen who decide to go crooked. It’s minor Westlake (it began life as a screenplay), but 44 pages in, it’s got a journalistic description of graffiti in New York City rich in detail and nuanced in aesthetic judgment. It’s all the more remarkable because it was so early in the history of NYC graffiti that people don’t seem to have been calling it “graffiti” yet (Westlake, at least, doesn’t use the word). The following passage is from the POV of one of the cops:

A recent fad among the kids has been to write nicknames on walls and subways and all over the damn place in either spray paint or felt-tip pen, both of which are very tough to get rid of, particularly from a porous surface like stone. The fad is for a kid to write his name or nickname or some magic name he’s worked out for himself, and then under it write the number of the street he lives on. “JUAN 135,” for instance, or “BOSS ZOOM 92,” that kind of thing.

The fad had hit the school building. As high as a child’s arm could reach, the names and numbers were scrawled everywhere on the walls, in black and red and blue and green and yellow. Some of the signatures were like little paintings, carefully and lovingly done, and some of them were just splashed and scrawled on, with runlets of paint dripping down from the bottoms of the letters, but most of them were simply reports of name and number, without flair or imagination: “Andy 87,” “Beth 81,” “Moro 103.”

At first, all that paintwork looked like vandalism and nothing more. But as I got used to it, to seeing it around, I realized it gave a brightly colored hem to the gray stone skirt of a building like this, that it had a very sunny Latin American flavor to it, and that once you got past the prejudice against working up public property it wasn’t that bad at all. Of course, I never said this to anybody.

posted 11 January 2017 in Excerpts. no comments yet