Bob Stinson, 1959-1995

18 Feb


My favourite guitar player passed away twenty years ago today.

Robert Neil Stinson was born in 1959. It’s not my place to guess about his upbringing or to make any calls about what his younger days may have been like, but by his teen years he’d clearly seen a few things. We know this because, when his younger brother Tommy was edging towards adolescence, Bob put a guitar in his hands as an alternative to going out and getting in trouble.

Any big brother will tell you, there are times when the easiest route -by far- is to be a dick and hang with your friends. But Bob Stinson, when he was twenty years of age, was happy to spend time hanging out in the basement, teaching his twelve-year-old brother to play bass, and forming a rock band to keep the kid out of trouble.

Now, okay, forming a r0ck band to stay out of trouble might go down as one of the stupidest ideas in history, but let’s give him a pass on that one, okay? Forget the rock’n’roll myths, forget the legend of the band he formed, forget everything else; all I’ve ever needed to know about Bob Stinson is on show in those moments he spent with his kid brother.

But if you do need to know more, make it the next bit.

A lot of people want to take credit for inventing grunge. A lot of people are happy to put their hand up and claim it. Truth be told, I’m never truly convinced there even is/was such a thing. Even as a fan of the music. Nirvana were a punk band. All of the great bands who were touring and playing in the build-up to the the grunge explosion were playing DIY punk rock, or metal, or hardcore, or simply “indie”. They were all left of the dial, for sure, but ‘Grunge’? That’s always seemed like a marketing term to me.

I once heard someone argue (or maybe it was me, when I was drunk, who knows) that you can hear the grunge sound kick in halfway through the 8:24 of Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns by Mother Love Bone. And I’ve also heard fellow Replacements fans try and assign all the credit for the movement to the writing of Paul Westerberg.

I love that song, and Westerberg is my favourite songwriter, but both of those arguments miss the mark.

Listen to Cobain’s guitar on the first two albums. Listen to Mother Love Bone. Listen to Pearl Jam. Listen to all of them. Then go and listen to the guitar playing of Bob Stinson. A guy with zero pretension, with no need to pretend he was something that he wasn’t. A player who simply liked to play, who liked metal, rock, pop and prog rock. A player whop managed to fuse all of these into an interesting punk rock guitar sound.

His last few years weren’t kind to him, but that’s not the story I’m interesting in telling. Bob was 35 when he died, and he’d been in the best band in the world, inspired a generation of musicians, and looked out for his brother.

Transcend The Genre

12 Feb

Richard Price has a new book coming out. There are few guarantees in life, but we can all rely on the stone cold fact that a new Richard Price book is a good thing to have in your life.

Mr. Price was interviewed in advance of publication by The New York Times , and, as these things always seem to do, the piece has ruffled a few feathers. Not because of factual errors or omissions -there is no mention of the ‘Jay Morris’ episode, for instance- but because of some old attitudes that creep in whenever the mainstream press tackles crime fiction.

Here’s one quote in particular that seems designed to rile and annoy;

Mr. Price had good reasons for going undercover for “The Whites,” which will be published next Tuesday by Henry Holt. He wanted to inoculate himself against literary critics who might sneer at him for writing a slicker, more commercial book. He was already late on delivering a separate novel, set in Harlem, that he owes a different publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and hoped to hide the fact that he was moonlighting. And he wanted to see if he could write a stripped-down, heavily plotted best seller, without sacrificing his literary credentials.

I winced the moment I read that part of the article. I could already hear my friends in the crime fiction community starting to cry foul, and I could feel my own back tensing up, ready to launch my very best passive-aggressive assault on the NYT. But the real reason I winced isn’t because of ‘them,’ rather, it was because of ‘us.’

Here we go again, I thought.

Are we that brittle? Do we lack that much self-confidence in our own taste and chosen field that we need the approval of the NYT in order to validate what we already know to be true?

Every six months since I joined the online community of crime writers, there has been some variation on this. Maybe John Banville is taking shots at genre writers, maybe Tony Parsons is -before then admitting how hard it was to write- talking of slumming it. Maybe….oh who cares. It happens a lot. Almost on cue. There are two strands to it; the sneering that writing crime fiction is more commercial than “literary fiction” (which is a genre in itself) and also that crime fiction can’t be ‘literary,’ and therefore writers like Price somehow ‘transcend the genre.’

And just as predictable as the regular appearance of these views are the rebuttals from those of us in the genre gallery.

I’m here today to say, let it go. Not just because we know they’re wrong but also, in our reactions, we prove them right.

But first I’m going to wander wildly off topic and complain about comic books and stand-up comedy.

See, I love comic books. love ‘em. But I hate graphic novels. And by that, I mean I hate the term. “Graphic Novels.” A lame cop-out of a title. Something cooked up by an industry that labours away under an inferiority complex. An industry that thinks, in order to be taken seriously as an art form, they need to refer to themselves in comparison to another medium. They’re comic books. Get over it. And yet, just as regularly as our little kerfuffles in crime fiction, I’ll see someone getting upset when a mainstream critic is surprised that Watchmen or Maus have literary qualities and “transcend the medium.” The thing is, they’re right. Both of those books are brilliant works of literature, and in crossing over to mainstream attention, they pretty much do transcend the medium.

Sure, there is an undercurrent to those reviews, something mean and cold that assumes that comics as a medium are not literature, and that it’s rare for them to achieve that lofty height. But you know what? The joke is on the reviewer for thinking that, so who cares?  Well, clearly, we care, which means the joke is on us. Why do we care so much? Does it reveal that, deep down, we worry there’s some truth to it? That not all comics are Watchmen?

Along with comic books, one of my first loves was stand-up comedy. And there’s a recurring issue that the greats of the field can’t be called stand-up comedians. Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor. These guys (let’s just admit that I listed a whole bunch of guys and no women, but I have something to say about that another time) have to be “poets” or “preachers.” “Visionaries” and “Story-tellers.” They can’t simply be called what they are, the best damned stand-up comedians in their field. And stand-up, at it’s peak, is one of the purest and highest art forms.

But why is this? Why can’t they simply be called comedians? Why can’t comics simply be great comics? And why all the fuss when ideas of literary quality are introduced to discussions of crime fiction? (see, it was a trap, I never really wandered off topic) Is it because of ‘them’ or because of ‘us’?

Why do we get so angry? Sure, we’re being spoken down to. But then, if you’re that insecure about your own tastes that you need the endorsement of those who seek to do the talking-down, well, you have a whole other problem.

Is it because the concept of “transcendence” implies that there are constraints? That the rules of crime  fiction can be tight and challenging? Well, newsflash, they are. Constraints are key to art. Restrictions are there to be overcome. Rules are there to be broken. When I describe my first three novels to people, I’m often describing the ways they go against the genre, the way they’re not quite detective novels, the way my protagonist is an ethnic minority or criminal, and the ways in which I try and explore social issues and have arguments with myself on the page. Clearly, I’m not just saying, “yeah, they’re fun detective novels, just like all other detective novels.”

I have no issue whatsoever with seeing a reviewer try and find nice things to say about Richard Price by making references to his work being more literary than many crime novels, because that’s one of the reasons I read him. His writing has qualities that put him right up at the top of the field, along with writers like George Pelecanos, Helen Fitzgerald, and Reed Farrel Coleman. I could go on, I could draw up a much longer list, but the point is not all crime novels are created equal and some writers deserve all that extra praise.

I’m proud as hell to be a published crime writer. I wear the title as a badge of honour. And I -like most people who get upset when these issues come up- know there are many brilliant writers in the field. There are works of crime fiction that stand as some of the finest pieces of literature ever crafted. But not every work does. Not every comic is as good as Watchmen. Not every comedian is as good as Pryor. We each set out with a blank canvas and do our best. If we’re diligent and honest in what we’re doing, our ‘best’ gets a little better each time.

‘Literary’ is not a bad word. Or, it shouldn’t be. Sometimes, sure, reviews are using it in a condescending way, but often times they’re using it as praise. They’re using it as a short-cut to praise a writer for doing something good. each time we shout about it, each time we sneer or moan or snark, we put some distance between us and ‘literary.’ There’s something aspirational to the idea of literature. I aim for it every time I start out with a blank page, and I don’t hide that, or apologise for it.

And the other people? The ones we think we’re railing against? The people who assume there is no art or literature in genre, that comics can’t be amazing and that comedians are the bottom of the rung? Fuck ‘em. Put the joke back on them. If they don’t know where to look for good art, that’s not our problem and, frankly, I don’t need their approval. Neither do you.

Freedom of Speech, But….

22 Jan

I wanted to let the dust settle before I posted anything.

With all the chatter being thrown around over Charlie Hebdo, and freedom of speech, and Islamophobia, and over the Pope’s weird comments, there’s a fundamental point that all too often got missed. But first let’s look at the “buts.”

“I believe in freedom of speech, but….

“I think the killings were wrong, but…

“I’m not saying all Muslims are the same, but…

Everywhere we look, people are tripping over themselves because they’re wrapped up in clauses, caveats, cop-outs and bigotry. The Pope stands up and says, if someone speaks badly of his mother they can “expect a punch,” and that people shouldn’t “provoke” and shouldn’t “make fun of faith.” So, ignoring everything else for one second, what we have here is the leader of the Catholic Church -God’s man on the ground- saying that violence is fine if you offend someone’s feelings and that faith should be held to a different standard to other things when it comes to freedom of speech.

Listen folks, if you get offended, violence is fine. The Pope says so. Which begs the question, really, of how upset do his feelings need to be before he thinks murder is okay? I know where I stand on it, but I’m somewhat less sure of where this supposed liberal wonderful new Pope stands.

But you see what I’m doing here? I’m voicing an opinion on a religious leader, and my life is not in danger because of it. I’m certainly going to be causing offence to people, though, and given that I live in Glasgow I’ll be causing some of that offence no doubt to friends and relatives. I reckon they’ll turn the other cheek.

There’s another odd thing that happens here, and it comes from the left, from my ‘side.’ When bigots attempt to label all Muslims based on the behaviour of a few extremists, we’re all very quick to point out that “not all Muslims” are like that, and we like to sound very knowledgeable in pointing out centuries-old divides in Islam that mean it’s not really possible to talk about Muslims as if they’re all one thing, with one opinion.

And we are right to do that. We’re right to insist that Muslims as people are treated with respect, and to prevent bigots from trying to make them all into one homogenous group with no free will or no variety of opinions.

And yet….and yet….

When it’s the other way around, many of these same educated, liberal and rational thinkers leap to do the same thing. If a newspaper or magazine publishes an image of the Prophet, ‘we’ on the left seem in a mad rush to argue that the muslim community will be offended. The BBC and other media outlets can’t wait to find example of Muslims who fall into that narrative. So, how come we’re all so eager to point out that they are decent, rational human beings (just like us nice liberal folk who read broadsheets) when they’re being attacked for the activity of a minority, but we backtrack instantly to say they are all one hive-mind of religious thinking (unlike us nice liberal folk who read broadsheets) when we’re dealing with the publication of a cartoon?

Now that is a concept that is offensive.

Shit, I badmouthed the Pope a short while ago, why is nobody jumping down my throat to say that all Catholics are going to be pissed at me? What’s that? We treat Muslims differently? We give them less individual agency when it suits us? Oh shit, you know, I think that’s kind of Islamophobic.

Here’s the paragraph of the piece where my cowardly instincts tell me I should add a but or a caveat. I should say that, you know what, I probably wouldn’t have posted the image myself, or that I would have found another way of making the point. And you can find this paragraph in just about everything that’s been written in the media on this subject for past few weeks. And you know what? That paragraph, and the instinct within me to do it, sickens me.

Forget them. Forget the equivocations, forget the backtracking and the caveats, forget the pandering, forget the patronisation and the lazy assumptions. We don’t even really need to make it into a large debate about freedom of speech, or about racism or bigotry, or about intolerance or integration. Forget every single attempt to pretend this is any kind of complicated issue.

It isn’t.

The single question that needs to be asked is this;

At what point is it okay to kill someone for their ideas?

That’s it. That’s all there is to this.

And I think the answer is fairly simple.