As (Not) Seen On TV: Death And Life In The American West

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So just over a year later after I handed over the manuscript of my second novel, The Death And Life Of Red Henley, to some North American producers (film and TV, but more latterly TV, as that’s where the money is, though not in my case), they’ve handed it back. In truth, I’ve missed her, I’ve gone back over the pages many time, tinkering here, readdressing there, I spent a few months crafting a TV pitch that ended up using the characters from the book and transplanting them a few years into the future, created eight episode arcs and a new world that was set some time after Louis Green first ever discovered the story of Robert Walker, a preacher called Blue, pool balls as instruments of torture, the fire in the Tennessee countryside and Red Henley and her strange demise. In essence, and really without thinking, I created the sequel to a novel that had yet to be printed. The idea was (we were so knowing), that book 1, with its magical/grotesque reveal about Green and Walker’s backstories and relationship, would eventually become season 2 once we got picked up as a show in the US.

Except we didn’t. Which happens a lot, or doesn’t happen a lot, depending on how you look at it. The manuscript floated around the WME office in LA and then floated back. It wasn’t quite the heartache I’d experienced on Cross Country Murder Song, which went briefly to Miramax, Jude Law and a handful of others who all decided it wasn’t quite what they were looking for. TV and film people, I’ve found, are a bit like old A&R men; they’re not sure they want it until someone else does.

And that’s where it sat, I re-read it occasionally and was still stirred by the power of the prose and its sometimes fantastical darkness. I did a few edits (for no good reason other than I was unhappy the way some of it sat on the page), put it back in the drawer and then I started on book 3. And then I was asked to write the liner notes for the Manics reissue of Send Away The Tigers. There are two renowned musicians who really like CCMS (most just say they like it and put it down after page twenty-three, but that’s okay too), one’s retired and the other one is MSP singer James Dean Bradfield. While we chatted about Tigers, he told me that his wife had taken the family away for a few days not so long before and how he’d settled down with CCMS for the third time and read it in less than 48 hours, which I only recommend if you like scream-filled, fitful sleep and bad dreams that haunt you long into the next day. It was, he said (god love him) the first time the book had truly opened up and revealed itself to him. It’s a dense read and I admire anyone who can get through it once let along go back for more of the same. Where, he wanted to know, was Red? He’s been asking the same thing since the manuscript went off for its gap year in the US. I had no answer and so I took it out of the drawer and read it again and decided there and then (after speaking to ever eloquent David Quantick, a man more enshrined in cynicism than even me) if self-publishing/pledging worked, if Unbound was a worthy platform or a waste of my time. To my surprise, he was all for it, after the success of his first book on there he’s about to publish his second.

So, I stepped out on that road and I’m still on it. We reached a remarkable 34% in four days, which I think even surprised some of the people at Unbound. And here I am shaking my collecting tin of coins at you. If it’s on any interest at all, then head here and pledge – https://unbound.com/books/red-henley – or just go and read about the lonely polar bear for free, it made one of my dearest friends cry on the top deck of a bus on Oxford Street, but in a good way. Do what you can or do nothing at all, I’d just like to see Red live.

 

A Few Words About Love (and Blood)

I finished my second novel (truly finished it after kidding myself it was completed a few months previously) and then watched it dwindle and die. My former editor had retired and wasn’t taking on the number of books he once did and the new season of editors and publishers who had blanched at Cross Country Murder Song’s multi-layered plot lines and dense flashbacks (or maybe they just didn’t like all that blood?), didn’t seem keen to rush in and scoop up my latest effort. I remember one editor on that first round sending back a note that said CCMS didn’t have any redemption. I suggested they try reading Cormac McCarthy and then shutting up, but I’m not sure my then agent ever passed that on, sensibly.

Then there was another agent and now there’s no agent, well, there is, (and there might be another here, ultimately) but this one is based in LA and he’s helping me out for free, because, and get this, he likes my books. He pushed hard to try and get CCMS to an infamous and incredibly talented director and when that didn’t work, he, along with some other equally powerful people (who like me too! The world’s gone nuts!) tried to land it at the feet of one of my favourite living directors. In retrospect, I’m glad that stiffed, I’d have probably had to attend some sort of writing roundtable, attempted to shake his hand and gone straight over the chair next to him. He’s that kind of guy, well, he is to me.

But where were we? Where are we? The French Alps, currently. At a remote chalet where the snow is scant, but that hasn’t deterred most of my housemates from heading to the hills this afternoon with their skis thrown over their shoulders. Part of the reason I came out here, was that the second novel (The Death And Life Of Red Henley) didn’t die. The aforementioned agent in LA (and his band of powerful friends – think Marvel heroes, but with binders and mobile phones) loved the Red manuscript, so much so that they want to develop a TV idea based around the characters who inhabit Red’s world. Roughhewn, raw, lost, they may even be losers, but they’re enigmatic losers all the same (which is how I think of myself when I’m feeling especially charitable) who walk and talk and live and breathe and wash the blood of their sins off their skins everyday. Cheery, right?

So, here I sit, the second novel’s even picked up traction again, people are interested in publishing it, but I’m not, not until I’ve seen this new adventure through, at least. The sun’s on the mountains and I’m developing another world based around the first one I created a scant, few years ago. It’s hard, but the right kind of mental workout, some characters have aged, some have got younger, some are new to this place and they haven’t got a clue what’s about to hit them. If we ever get a TV audience (if we ever get it on TV), then I hope they feel the same way. It’s a good way to start again; some hope, a little damnation, another year. One more go around…

Happy New Year to you and yours from the mountains and my black, Welsh heart.

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The Fall of Rome (LA Edit)

It’s nearly midday and the sunshine is scattering the shadows across the patio of my suite at the London West Hollywood. Someone is smoking dope on a balcony high above me, someone else is playing Nirvana and singing along. The low thrum in the near distance is the endless stream of cars snaking their way along the stop start procession that is Sunset Boulevard at any time of the day. We’ve been here five days now as I’ve stood around watching Rush packing up their metaphorical tents and saying (maybe for the last time) goodbye to the road.

Spirits are high though, earlier in the week we all stood around a pool at the Canadian Consulate as the sun moved sluggishly through the sky making the light liquid and a breeze picked up, diffusing the smoke from the tight clutch of people in the corner nursing their cigarettes. The Mayor of Los Angeles had sent a framed note of thanks to the band (to which Alex responded: “do we have to get him one now?”) while the band signed a print of the recent Rolling Stone cover article, which sat on a stand as people nodded at the figures in the picture approvingly as if the real thing weren’t just standing some few feet away. Jack Black wandered past, his hand on my arm, “Are you Canadian? Me neither, I live here, but tell me…”, he said, an actual glint in his eye, one eyebrow so arched it looked like someone had drawn a tick across his forehead, “Right now, are we in Canada or are we in LA?” He smiled before asking the next person who caught his attention, keen to canvas opinion. By the time he’d made it across the patio and beyond the outdoor dining area and to Matt Stone he seemed no clearer on whose soil his feet were currently planted.

Jack wasn’t at the Irvine Meadows on the R40 tour the next night, though Steven Adler was, being politely told that he didn’t have the right pass for where he wanted to go. He shrugged it off with a smile and wandered back to the VIP hospitality with his friends. The word is Jack Black will be at the LA Forum tonight though, Jack White too (pleasingly) as well as most of rock’s glitterati who owe something to Rush or simply want to wig out as they thunder through Cygnus X1. Which is what I was doing side stage that night, Geddy Lee some twenty feet away rushing the lip of the stage as the first three rows air drummed at the stars forming in a deep blue dome high above this natural ampitheater. The delighted cries of a throng of middle-aged men almost girlish in their startled response.  It’s easy to see why Geddy might not want to let this go, the euphoria that erupted as the star man descended and settled on to the rear projection screen as 2112 crept into life was almost histrionic. Lee so caught in the moment even he played air drums along to Neil Peart’s much mimicked roll across the toms during Overture.

The band ran from the stage that night, the buzz of Working Man still rattling teeth and rafters and made straight for their cars and back in to LA before the traffic clogged up the highway as surely as an auto accident. I talked to the crew and to the band and though no one was saying it out loud, it was there, the inevitable elephant in the room, one more (show) and then no more. Maybe. There’s nothing in the diary, no plans drawn up just yet. And so we wait for the R40 tour to draw to a close, drinks and a party afterwards and then inevitable goodbyes. Someone asked me if I could make the article I’m writing bittersweet, how could I not? That’s all this feeling is, bittersweet. If someone doesn’t shed a tear during Closer To The Heart later tonight then they clearly haven’t been paying attention these last forty or so years. But for now we wait for stage time and one last curtain call, seven hours and counting.

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The Death and Life Of Red Henley

And two years later it’s done.

What started out as a vague idea about the need to belong and why we feel the need to be a part of something (religion, love, even book groups, okay, maybe not book groups), and with a working title of Standing Behind God’s Back (Cross Country Murder Song was called Trauma for the longest time, until it wasn’t), has mutated/evolved into something quite different. Admittedly, the larger themes of the corrupting aspect of religion and love  – it’s clearly a lighthearted romp – are still there, but whereas CCMS was a multi-layered plot (which really pissed some people off; it’s as if I was asking them to think too much), Red’s twelve concise months set in 1980 in New York City. There’s an extraneous chapter called Solstice – guess where that comes in the book – and a few flashbacks to a commune/cult in the Tennessee countryside, but it’s all pretty linear. Well, it is for one of my books. Dead people speak, there’s a very real battle between good and evil, a note or two on the true nature of sin and there’s a passage about a polar bear as a metaphor for loneliness that has made everyone who has read it break down and cry, even me. There’s also a red number 3 pool ball that plays a big part in the plot, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself.

And how do I feel? Well, how kind of you to ask. Not as bleak and bloody-minded as I did after finishing CCMS – that felt like my first real break-up – but saddened still. I was talking to a proper Rock Star friend about it and he said that the post-production/album blues are a very real thing. Even though some of the characters in Red are hideous, I still miss them. I had a dream the other night where two of the protagonists, Red and Walker, were chatting to me quite amiably, and when I woke and realised they were just figments of my imagination, I actually felt quite sad. That said, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where Walker exists; he’s a complete bastard. But the letting go is a difficult thing, I handed it off to the agent a few weeks ago and felt my stomach flip like a young girl who’s just caught her boyfriend making out with her mum, the agent made some encouraging sounds – ‘very strong’, ‘horrifically violent’ – and then passed it on to my editor at Random House. Which is both exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. I admire or like – let’s not pretend – very few people, but Dan Franklin at Jonathan Cape is one of them and he has the manuscript now, as I sit here writing, I can imagine him at home with pursed, thoughtful lips and a pen hovering over the scenes of carnage  – a man strung up in a tree like a broken kite, someone falling out of the night sky like an exploding star – and jotting down carefully annotated notes in the margins, which he’ll talk me through over a coffee at some point soon while we’re seated at his desk, a desk where Hemingway once sat. The idea of that still thrills me.

So, next comes the edit, the artwork, publication and my inevitable Red Henley tattoo, but that’s some way off yet. That’s the best part of letting go, the beginning again.

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September Song

The phone call explained everything. Emotional upheaval is nothing new in my life, I lurch from one relationship to the next, crushing feelings beneath my feet, it’s not something I’m proud of, when I finally look back, they’ll be the only source of my regrets, I hope. Was unloved, finds it hard to love now, not least myself, it’s an old story and it’s not just my story and it’s not the one I want to tell now.

The text message said one thing: ‘five years’. And, sitting at my desk, I started to cry. A lot’s happened in the last few months, not least my moving home and cities. The machinations of a half-finished book to deal with, going inside the darkest reaches of myself to make my latest leading man come to life. That’s my choice though, and one I’m glad to have. But in the sheer noise I’d surrounded myself with to combat the pain and loneliness I was feeling, I’d somehow overlooked the fact that this early autumn week always drains the the life out of me. If you look at the Vintage imprint of CCMS, there’s an inconsequential looking serial number and some letters at the top, embedded in the edge of the box: JSTB 18 – 09/07. Simply put, Justin Smith The Boy and the date on which he died, the 18 September 2007. Five years ago. CCMS was dedicated to him and Ted Millington (who I’ve written about before here) and for those who were unlucky enough not to have met either, I can tell you that you have a life less lived. Boy, he was always called The Boy or Boy, was Justin Smith to his mam (we’re Welsh, we have mams, not mums), and, for a brief, dazzling second he was Pepsi Tate of Tigertailz. Built like a second row forward but with a shock of blonde hair and more than adept at applying lipstick and eyeliner and a dusting of rouge. Women adored him, men didn’t know quite what to make of him. As two Welshmen away from home and living in London (though he travelled back and forth) we became fast friends, quick witted, too loud, too in thrall with ourselves, but if you can’t be buoyed up on your own magic at age 23 then when can you ever be? The band faltered, I got fired from my job, we stopped moving in the same circles, life had brought us down with a tangible bump. We both, strangely, became producers, but in different cities and spheres, and our collective disappointment in the thing we thought would save or make us meant that we avoided contact with each other as if that stink of failure might somehow rub off against us again. It’s hard when you first realise that life is a fragile house of cards and can give way at any point.

Then suddenly I was forty and threw a party in a private club in Soho. I remember the crippling bar tab and the wraps of coke made up as party gifts for my guests, colourful, garish bundles of face-chewing joy. And I remember Boy being there, and it’s a cliche, but it’s a truism too, it was as if he’d never left London, as if we’d never quietly left each other’s side. We laughed and argued and laughed, speaking some sort of internal dialect that perhaps siblings share. I went home while he went on into the night taking one of our friends with him who he got so drunk that they threw up in a potted plant in the Groucho. I was on my own sofa by then and thoroughly exhausted. The Boy still raging into the night and against the dying of the light.

He got ill not long after that, after he’d come back into my life and made me realise how easily we can let love go in all its shapes and forms. His cancer whittled away at him, reduced him to this tired, sleepy figure made miniscule among the cushions of his own sofa. We went to Wales and sat with him on his birthday, the knot of friends wondering how many more birthdays there would be where we could embrace him and touch the curve of his shoulder. He had a long scar that ran as an angry red line down his chest. And as I sat and looked at him across the table I knew that he was moving quickly from this life and into the next and no matter how hard I embraced him or clung to him he was always going to resist me now. He travelled to New York not long before he died with his wonderful wife and his dearest friend, he actually got engaged there as I remember it, and while they sat in a dusky New York bar, the remains of the day as spokes of light filtering through the window, she stood up and silenced the bar with a full blooded and quite, quite beautiful rendition of Moon River. Shan can make a room rise and fall with her voice, theatres and arenas too, she is, as they say, the real deal. But in that small room, in the company of strangers, she passed on her final gift to the only man she ever wanted to marry, one final thing before he died.

Months later, after we’d buried him on a Welsh hillside, where the different shades of green rolled ever upwards to meet the blue of the sky, I was sitting in an apartment block over looking San Francisco Bay, somewhere behind me a TV was on when Moon River came out of the speaker, a gospel rendition full of longing and need, before me I could see the lights flickering on along the Bay, a tanker sitting unmoving in the channel and in my head the roar of loss intermingling with the last echoing note as Moon River drifted by. Another thing lost to the oncoming night.

Two years and a matter of days later, today in fact, Sylvain died. She was my cat and while that might mean nothing to you, she was my cat for most of my adult life. She sat impassively through my years and months, my growing, a lazy eye on my comings and going. She sat on my desk as I wrote my first novel and looked at me as if she too wondered why the hell I was putting myself through it with no real idea of whether I’d be published or even if I had a book in me and if I didn’t then what would I do with the rest of my life? I’ve only ever wanted to be three things; a clown (I suppose I might have qualified for that one), a vet and a novelist. A lot of people don’t get to live their dreams, I was fully prepared and expecting to be one of them.

Cancer, they think it was cancer, took her too. She lay in the garden one night, hidden deep in the undergrowth and mewled and mewled, the sound of heartbreak and pain. I remember bringing her inside and holding her, but it was like trying to hold onto the Boy, she was beyond me then and always would be. The vet called me while she was still on the operating table, she had a gentle voice, one that didn’t want to make that call, and told me it would be best not to wake her again, her insides were a mass of infection, small nodules of death littering her insides. Some of the people who worked there had stayed late to see if she might live, they thought there might be a chance, but she was a shadow now too. I sat on my front step and cried and cried and then I went inside and gathered up her toys and held them to me and gulped for air as grief made my body shake. Those toys and her bowl still sit in the top drawer of my desk, so that sometimes when I write I can imagine her sitting there regarding me, never knowing when death might come.

I still miss them both, sometimes, like now, with an acuteness of feeling that makes me want to howl with anger and pain. I know that life is fleeting and that love is, absurdly, all. But they were and are two marks on my skin, a part of my making, beautifully rendered moments of love that I’ll follow down forever, always calling them back, but knowing they’ll never come.

Great Western

On the advice of an old friend, an old, old friend, I’ve finally decided to start keeping a blog again. I was still in my early twenties when I first met him. He still had hair and I looked like a Motley Crue roadie. It was an undignified look at best. But, as is often the case when I use this platform, I digress. The last time I blogged I think I was still waiting on Cross Country Murder Song to be published, I was almost certainly still in London with my then girlfriend and my dog. None of those things are true of me now. The book was published, certainly, and very well received too, I even took a meeting with a real film star’s production partner who bought me coffee and eggs (which I was too nervous to eat, though I did neck the coffee the way men who come out of the desert go at water) and I even got to go to the theatre to see said film star perform on a minute stage. Even though they passed on my book, I have to say that the film star was tremendous. I went in determined not to like him or the production (petty professional jealousy, it’s what I do best) and left with my jaw properly dropped. He was immense and had the torso of a young Tarzan, no wonder the critics cooed.

Anyway, that moment’s passed, as has the relationship and, for the foreseeable, my life in London. That’s more of an occasional thing now where I appear to work and attend meetings and tell my agent (she’s something new in my life too) that the new book’s going very well, which is almost true. I still pull out of there on the train at night and feel something that might be the rub of regret as I leave, but I can’t be sure. It’s early still and a new city alone is a lot to take in. So, for the handful of you who are interested, I’ll be scratching my head in wonder here a lot more. The book’s over halfway done and the agent thinks it’s ‘brilliant’, but then she is my agent, plus she’s just had a baby and might just be feeling kind or woozy or struggling mentally as I understand a mewling child takes it right out of you.

On a happier note (not to detract from the joy of childhood and the beauty it brings, etc.), I’m busy, which stops me sitting at my desk and wondering how often I can fuck up my life before someone turns up at the door and hands me a revolver (that’s right, I’m living in Sweden. I am not). But as much as this is a release, I’ll try not to make it all about wounded introspection. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent time talking to Kiss (all of them), Soundgarden (ditto, Chris Cornell resisted for a while, but he too soon gave in to my Welsh charms) and an admirable young man called Winston McCall who sings (I say sings, he admits that he can’t) with a band called Parkway Drive. Before their new album, Atlas, was sent to me, I didn’t feel one way or the other about them, but there’s something magical about that record and about their approach to life that had me totally entranced.

For those of you closer to my age who are now appalled that I like a band they’ve never heard of, the good news is that the new Kiss record, Monster, is vibrant and exciting and packed with songs. Paul Stanley will tell you that it’s the one of the best things they’ve ever done, as usual, but this time you might want to take that on board. Admittedly, there’s one song on there about cunnilingus that is as blunt as a ball peen hammer, but the rest of the record simply flies. I’m still taken aback by it. And on that happy note, I’ll get back to filing copy and wondering how the hero of my latest book will make it out of this alive. Though, as readers of CCMS will know, I’m always happy to leave my leading men dead in the wash, bloody corpses floating way out to sea. But then we all have days like that, I’m sure.

Summer, Highland Falls

It’s strange that a song written by a New Yorker about a place I’ve never been can cause such a reverie. The above title was written by Billy Joel, I think it was from Turnstiles, forgive me if I’m wrong, and whenever I hear it, as I just did, then I’m back in a classroom in Wales studying A level English with Mr. Millington. For those of you who’ve read my book – Cross Country Murder Song, Vintage imprint coming soon! – you might have noticed his name in the dedication. He and The Boy (more of whom another time), got both barrels of my love, I managed to catch up and reacquaint myself with The Boy before he died, but I never got to say goodbye to Millington and I’m sorry about that as he truly turned my life around.

It was the mid-80s or thereabouts, Ted was originally from Birmingham and how he ended up in our small, Welsh valley is still something of a mystery. Everyone has their Dead Poets Society moment I suppose and he was mine. All the girls were infatuated by this short man in a duffle coat with a bowl haircut, the boys in the class either loved or loathed him. I wavered between both. He was astute, sharp and funny and seemed to care, which was unnerving at best, my home life was a lesson in abandonment; three individuals trying to hold on the ever brittle strands of family. We were doomed from the minute my father walked out on us. Ted had issues of his own, a son he loved and doted on and what looked like a long dead marriage. A few years later, he and another teacher (she taught Home Economics and made the boys in the sixth form pant like tired bloodhounds) pretty much ran away together. He never did things lightly so it must have crushed him to give up on his family unit, no matter how badly they were listing.

But I’m getting away from how he taught us; with verve and style and, mostly, with heart. He taught us The Great Gatsby at a time when I was at war with the world. I didn’t want to hear about America’s Jazz Age or its most glittering participants, I wanted the land leveled, I wanted someone to pay for the pain I was feeling. Ted wouldn’t give up on us though, he drove Fitzgerald’s brilliant text into our consciousness, taught us the spare beauty of his dazzling prose, he taught us that knowledge is power, freeing too. Mostly he taught me that I didn’t have to stay in that place, both geographically and mentally, he set me free and I don’t think he did it unwittingly. He saw something in me that I must have missed. He saw past the anger and the hurt, reigniting my love of writing and reading, he kicked open a long closed door. It was no surprise that when I got my first tattoo some years later it was the last paragraph of The Great Gatsby around my thigh and it was as much about my love of the written word as it was a man who pulled me from my own infernal wreckage.

He became gravely ill in the same Welsh hospital as The Boy, both beginning their long descent into oblivion from beneath those same sheets. Old school friends tried to contact me for the funeral – an event literally filled with hundreds and hundreds of pupils, present and past – but I was in London then, travelling abroad for magazine work, moving homes, trying to gain some purchase on the world, trying to make my mark. By the time news reached me, he was set resting on a Welsh hillside at the end of his far too short journey. I’m working on my second novel now and had sat down today to write, but not about him or this, I’d almost forgotten a lot of it. But there wouldn’t have been a Cross Country Murder Song without him, hell, there wouldn’t have been magazine articles, memoirs, TV scripts, radio work, I’d have been rotting in my own personal hell, thinking about what might have been, still blaming the world, railing against the picturesque landscape outside, self-contained and always, always confined. Thank you, Ted Millington, my words of appreciation are long overdue.