Archive for March 16, 2009


On Facebook, it’s popular for people to make lists of the 25 albums that “affected them profoundly.” As a music lover, I figured such a list was for me, but found it an impossible and wholly unsatisfying task. Yet I couldn’t quite let go of the idea.

Eventually it struck that a mere list was part of the problem. I needed to talk about the music a little, why it meant something to me. You see, music has played a central role in my life for as long as I can remember. The youngest of seven children, I inherited a great, vast collection of 60’s/70’s music. Recalling these albums, I began to see my life unspooling, circling like a needle on vinyl, as my growing mind took on new shapes, colors, and sounds.

A friend of mine, a 7th grade English teacher, recently read my upcoming novel, Bystander (Feiwel and Friends, Fall ’09). One line that he mentioned to me — and it’s often surprising to hear what folks connect with, or what gets quoted in reviews — was this: “Music helps.” And I think it does, and certainly has for me, just as it helps that book’s central character, Eric Hayes.

So appropos of nothing, here goes . . . something.

1) Batman, Original TV Soundtrack Album
I got this as a kid and wore it out. Actually, I think I got bubble gum stuck on it. But nevermind! It was the first album I’d reach for, over and over again, wearing a towel as a cape, pretend-fighting the Penguin, the Joker, the Riddler, King Tut and more. And I always, always won.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

2) Monkees – Greatest  Hits
Another childhood favorite, watching that silly TV show and listening to my sister Jean’s Monkees albums.  As I grew up, my tastes became more sophisticated, and it took me another couple of decades before I fully appreciated the pure pop structures and giant, tooth-decaying hooks of these Boyce and Hart  tunes.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

3) Beatles – White Album
The Beatles have to be on here and this is the one I’d pick, despite all the flaws and warts, or perhaps because of them. Everything’s already been said about this disk, and this band; I just keep coming back to it, and hearing new things, finding new favorites, and it’s been more than 40 years ago today. I remember my brothers coming home with this one, and that strange plain white cover, the gatefold, and the four glossy photos inside.  That’s how I learned their names, quizzed by my elders: “This one is Ringo, that’s George, he’s John, and the other one is Paul.”

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

4) Led Zeppelin – s/t
With four older brothers and two older sisters, I inherited one of the great record collections of all-time. We had everything, it was when classic rock was NEW, and I listened to it all at a very young age. I remember when this disk came out and how I liked the cover of that blimp exploding. Probably my first “heavy” album. This video is a cheat, “Immigration Song,” from the (underrated) 3rd album — but definitely definitive with a monster riff.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

5) Andrew Lloyd Webber – Jesus Christ Superstar
I have a very specific memory of when my oldest brother, Neal, brought this album home.  We were a Catholic-school family, and the very idea of this disk kind of freaked my mother out.  True story: All seven kids crowded into Neal’s room — this was 1970, so I must have been nine — and we listened to it all the way through, both disks. And Mom and Dad were not thrilled. It gave me the inkling that rock could be dangerous, driving a wedge between generations. How cool was that?! Also: a great lyric booklet to study and sing along with! “Prove to me that you’re no fool/Walk across my swimming pool!”

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

6) Yes – The Yes Album
Like so many vets, my brother Bill returned home from Vietnam with a most excellent stereo system –- including one of those (cheesy) light boxes, with flashing colored lights that responded to the music. I remember sitting in his room, a bunch of his friends gathered around, listing to this album and just staring in red-eyed stupification at that dumb light box.  Music became . . . a head thing. Steve Howe was probably my first guitar hero.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

7) Allman Brothers – Fillmore East
Maybe not the greatest collection of tunes ever assembled –- and I am absolutely  a song craft geek who loves Burt Bacharach and the Brill Building-era songwriters -– but the performances on this live album are staggering. Duane Allman at the peak of his prowess, that slide guitar rising up from some deep backwoods place, Dicky Betts playing alongside him, the two drummers churning, moving it all forward, Greg Allman’s white-boy soul-stirring vocals. This is also a double disk and one that defined a certain time and place for me, one of the first “air guitar” albums where you just had to play along. A great guitar album that still makes me think of an old childhood friend, Jimmy A, a transplanted Georgia boy who loved his Allmans.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

8) Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland
This is the first disk where Hendrix really took control in the studio, and thusly spread his wings and waved his freak flag in the sky. I’m stunned by the variety, the skill, the confident cool of this double disk. And I still get a kick out of listening to “Still Raining, Still Dreaming” on my headphones, hearing that guitar whoosh through my brain, one ear to the other, like some kind of 60’s skull rinse.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

9) Neil Young – After the Gold Rush
One of the ultimate singer/songwriter disks, filled with sad lonely tunes from a sensitive young Canadian. It was a revelation: Oh, a boy can have feelings -– and express them?! “Oh, oh, lonesome me . . . .”  Everybody, it seems, has a sad summer that they spend listening to Neil Young, and this was the album I heard.  “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” indeed. But, hey: “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.” This is a disk that makes me remember certain people, specific times, and it’s all good.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

10) Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde
If I had to pick one Dylan album –- and I have nearly all of them –- this has to be the one. Or maybe “Blood on the Tracks?” Or “Highway 61 Revisited?” Anyway: Ranging from the pure blues of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” to the visionary, surreal writing of “Visions of Johanna,” this is Dylan’s magnum opus. Here’s Bob at the height of his powers. He is absolutely my favorite all-time musician/songwriter; I consider him the greatest American artist, any genre, of the 20th century –- and he’s still kicking. No one is in second place.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

11) Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street
The template for a style of rock and roll I still love today, sprawling, a little sloppy, a little dirty, raw and imperfect. It’s about the spirit, not the polish. This isn’t a great singles collection, but a unified whole, though “Tumbling Dice” was the cool kids’ tune for the summer of 1972,  But still: “Rocks Off,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Loving Cup,” “Ventilator Blues,” “Shine a Light,” 18 songs that define rock and roll. Also, amazing piano on this one from the unheralded Nicky Hopkins.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

12) Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
This is the album that made me pour over the liner notes and parse the lyrics, attempting to figure out what the hell they were writing about. The story puzzled and intrigued me. While most prog has not dated well, this disk still stands up for me –- even if I’m still not sure what’s going on in this concept album’s surreal tale.  Vintage Peter Gabriel on voice, some understated solos and guitar effects by Steve Hackett, great drum fills by Phil Collins, production touches from the great Brian Eno, Tony Rutherford on bass, and maybe too much keyboard wankiness from Tony Banks; it created a world and swept me away. Clip: Excerpt from “Supper’s Ready,” from “Foxtrot,” a song inspired by the Book of Revelations.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

13) Stiffs Live
My first true introduction to punk, this 1977 compilation kind of baffled and frightened me.  Uneven and imperfect, it nonetheless featured a rowdy take on Nick Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride,” “Wake Up and Make Love with Me” by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and Elvis Costello and gang doing the mock-anthemic, “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll & Chaos,” the way another generation might play, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” At a time when I was impressed by musical virtuosity, this disk helped me value the importance of attitude.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

14) Talking Heads – More Songs About Buildings and Food
It was 1978 and I was still listening to prog bands like Yes and Genesis, though that was clearly dying, when my oldest brother visited from NYC and  handed me this brand-new disk. It took a little while before I got it, and it sent me hurtling in a new musical direction.  I went on to become a huge Talking Heads fan for much of the 80’s . . . until they ran out of steam.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

15) David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust
Here’s the English dandy, the art rock, the glam side of things. When so many in my environment were listening to southern rock or heavy metal, I was seduced by this disk’s crazy artistic pretensions and writerly concerns. “Starman,” “Suffragette City,” “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” –- and it’s not just me. This is one of the most influential albums ever made. Music aspiring to . . . art. Connecting to Marc Bolan and T. Rex, and Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, Talking Heads, U2, etc.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

16) The Clash – London Calling
Is this list too obvious? Am I boring you? Well, what can I say except, um, too bad. Released at the dawn of the Reagan Era, the Clash collectively cemented themselves as the only band that mattered. To me, the perfection of snarling punk spirit,  with great songwriting and energetic performances that embrace ska, punk, rock, and even a touch of Motown. Mick Jones and Joe Strummer forever. This came out my first year of college and when I hear it, that’s where I am again, every time.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

17) Richard and Linda Thompson – Shoot Out the Lights
Thompson is one of my musical heroes, an inventor of folk-rock, master guitarist, brilliant songwriter. And Linda has the voice of an angel. These deep, penetrating, personal tunes combine to make one of the great records, ever. That Richard & Linda’s marriage was breaking up during the recording of this disk somehow makes it all the more harrowing: “Shoot Out the Lights.” The track below, “A Heart Needs a Home,” is a cheat; it originally appeared on the album, “Hokey Pokey,” but it’s such a nice moment I had to share it.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

18) John Coltrane – A Love Supreme
This is the sound of the soul unfolding, pure and free, a master of his instrument searching, experimenting, going off. Absolutely wild, it represents the opening up of all possibility in music. Not at all the slick jazz I once listened too – you know, those albums for “refined tastes” – this was as insane and alive as anything ever put on vinyl. He was a giant and to listen to this was to stand in his footprints.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

19) REM – Murmur
Here was another album that came along, around 1984 or so, and made me rethink music. Punk and New Wave had come and gone, bland Hair Bands were ruling the airwaves, and this raggedy collection of guys from Athens, Georgia –- of all places –- arrived with a new sound. And what was up with that singer? What was he mumbling about? The guitarist wasn’t that good, but he had a certain something. They struck me as fresh and original. These guys only got better for a nice long stretch . . . until they got worse. Hey, it  happens.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

20) The Band – Music from Big Pink
Great American roots rock -– from a bunch of Canadians. The songwriting, the musicianship, the blend of traditional (“Long Black Veil”) and the new (“Chest Fever”), with some classics thrown in: “The Weight,” “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “I Shall Be Released.” The arrangements are ragged and rough, no shiny veneer at all, blending country, rock, R & B, folk, and soul.  A perfect document of a particular place and time –- and also, timeless.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

21) Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
It took me a long while to come to this album, since I tended to dismiss the Beach Boys as dumb surf dudes who were writing superficial ditties. Somewhere along the line I discovered song craft, and melody, and harmony, and realized that Brian Wilson was a genius, and that this was his shining hour. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” “God Only Knows.” This clip kills me.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

22) Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
I love 70’s soul, all those great singles, but this is the album, the unified whole, that transcended the genre. The nine songs lead directly into each other in a fluid song cycle that addresses themes such as the Vietnam War, drug abuse, the environment, economics, justice –- and you could dance to it.  A disk that amazes me. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” “What’s Going On,” “Save the Children.” If you’ve never heard this as an album straight through, then you are in for a treat.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

23) Bob Marley – Songs of Freedom Box
This is a cheat, of course, because it’s a box set and has nearly everything, but that’s only because for Marley it wasn’t about one disk or one song. He was the first World Music superstar, and he opened my ears to sounds outside the familiar comfort zone of my own Western culture.  Beyond the easy riddums and sunny vibe, there’s this incredible man writing deep, meaningful tunes.  “Redemption Song,” anyone?

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

24) Guided By Voices – Bee Thousand
This came out in 1994 and introduced me to the lo-fi, indie scene, with beguiling, hook-laden tunes recorded in a basement.  From the opening fuzz of “Hardcore UFO’s,” here’s a 30-song buckshot of unfinished ideas, broken melodies, and hipster cool. Again, an album that just sort of changed my ideas of what an album could be. They were doing it themselves, without permission from the big record companies.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

25) Elliott Smith – Either/Or
Styles change, but it always comes back to the songs for me, and the songwriter.  Some guy at a piano, or idly strumming a guitar, picking out a melody. So I’ll end with this 1997 disk by Elliott Smith.  Depression, drug addiction, suicide, and great songs: What more could you ask for? (Life, O life!) An indie darling with hushed vocals, as far from arena rock bombast as you could get, Smith connects Nick Drake with the Beatles, Ray Davies with Big Star, AC/DC with Modest Mouse. And of course he admired Dylan. Said Smith, “I love Dylan’s words, but even more than that, I love the fact that he loves words.” Elliott Smith died on October 21, 2003, and he is missed.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Jigsaw Jones Cover: Part 7, DONE!

Our journey from concept to completion is done. Time for a Gatorade and a box of jelly donuts. (No, not really.) Below, please find the FINAL cover for Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Secret Skeleton (Scholastic, Fall, 2009).

Some links to the previous posts: One, Two, Three, FourFive, and Six. Read them all and experience the awe and wonder of the creative, collaborative process!

How’s that for bloggy investigative journalism? How could a traditional media outlet possibly compete with that level of detail? My thanks to Matt Ringler and Jen Rinaldi at Scholastic for their extraordinary openness, and to the great, gifted R. W. Alley for pulling back the curtain.

School Visits

Come Spring, school visit season begins in earnest, and my schedule becomes sprinkled with weekly visits to both far- and near-flung locales. I’m grateful for the work and the opportunity to promote my books, meet with students and teachers, and hopefully inspire somebody along the way. At the same time, it’s a fish-out-of-water experience. Writers work in solitude, clicking on keyboards in lonely rooms, trying to resist the sirens’ call from the Girl Scout cookies in the cupboard: “Take a break, have a seat, chillax, eat a cookie. Have two or three!

On the day of a school visit, we are plunked amidst dozens, even hundreds, of squirming school children and treated as celebrities. Suddenly we are entertainers, expected to be delightful, clever, wise, and talented. We even have to comb our hair. The irony is that we are placed in this role because we are good at being alone, unkempt, semi-successfully fending off cookies.

Still, I really do enjoy it, and sometimes even love it. But wow, that’s hard work.

Anyway, as some of you know, I was recently in Dublin, Ohio, visiting Bailey Elementary as the invited guest of Bill and Karen, the considerable brainpower behind the  Literature Lives blog. They’ve been writing about the experience, and I think it’s a worthwhile read for any educator involved in author visits. In one particular post, Bill offers some excellent tips for a successful author visit. And believe me, every author I know wishes they could be treated as well on a visit. I’d like to take all the credit for its success, but honestly, I think the specific author contributes something less than 25% toward the overall outcome. The rest is up to the schools, the PTO, the teachers involved. The more you put into it, the more you get out; the more students bring to the session/s, the more they take away. It’s that simple.

Fan Mail Wednesday #34

Can you believe we’re up to #34 already? And still, nothing from my Mom. What’s up with that? Meanwhile: Boo-ya, David’s in da house!

Hello James,

My name is David. I am 10 years old and I LOVE LOVE LOVE Jigsaw Jones books. You should write more because I would love to read them.

Sincerely, David

I replied:


Well, I LOVE LOVE LOVE getting letters like yours — thanks so much.

I have a new book that’s just about finished, called The Case of the Secret Skeleton. My part is done, but the book still needs final art, then it has to be printed, glued together, and shipped to the warehouse. I understand that it will be offered on Scholastic Book Clubs in September. And let me tell you: It is going to rock your world and shatter the very foundations of your existence! (Okay, maybe not — but it is pretty entertaining, hopefully.)

Above: Rough cover sketches by R.W. Alley (click to enlarge).

Hopefully you can wait that long without, like, exploding. Which, let’s face it, would be gross. There are now 40 different Jigsaw Jones titles, so there’s probably still a few you haven’t read.

Click on this link — right here — to learn more about the next Jigsaw Jones book!



Calvin & Hobbes & Self-Taught Artists

Unconfirmed info states that the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip below, by the great Bill Watterson, was produced more than 15 years ago. It still resonates today, a little bit, don’t you think? (Click on the strip to see it larger.)

As a child, I learned to draw by copying the comic strips. I’d fill pages with my own renditions of Andy Capp, Beetle Bailey, and Charlie Brown. It was relaxing, soothing, almost meditative, that physical/mental activity of drawing. Somehow as we get older, we stop. We learn that there’s “good art” and “bad art,” and decide that it’s best to leave it to the professionals. We get the message and the message is: Don’t. Just don’t.

Our loss.

When it comes to art — and we could easily be talking about writing here — the most dangerous questions revolve around quality. Is it “good?” Is it “bad?” Because the unspoken question is: Can I continue, or would it be best for everybody if I just stop? Because if I’m making bad art, then I’m probably a bad person, and this is absolutely a bad idea. So I better quit now.

I’ve always been uncomfortable when it comes to teaching creative writing. It’s such a fragile thing, the courage it takes to dare make something. The artist is exposed, vulnerable. The last thing I ever want to do — as the so-called expert, the professional — is to kill it. And it’s so easy to do. With just a few ill-advised comments, we can suck the joy out of just about anything. At the same time, it’s why I have such respect for people like Ralph Fletcher, and the insights of Lynda Barry, or the impressive bloggers, Stacey and Ruth, at Two Writing Teachers who work with such dedication to keep kids motivated and involved in the act of writing. All I know to do is say, “Great job, keep going, you’re fantastic.” And maybe — maybe — there’s a point where artists of any age need a little more help than that, though I have my doubts.

I remember being asked to interview Mark Teague very early in his career, late 1980s. In my preparation, I kept coming across information that stressed he was a “self-taught” artist. And I puzzled over that. Because, like, who cares? Why was that significant? What did it matter?

The conclusion I reached was that for most of us, we need permission to draw (or paint, or sculpt, or write). Sort of like going down to City Hall to pick up a fishing permit. You can’t be an artist unless you go to art school. Everybody else: Put the crayons down and please step away from the table.

The thing with self-taught artists is that somehow they manage to persevere without a license. They keep on making pictures, hand and mind in unison, and it seems to me like such a healthy, wholesome activity (in which we are made, figuratively, whole and at one, ommmmmm). Today my daughter Maggie still loves to draw pictures. We’ll sit down at the kitchen table, divide up the Sunday comics, markers and paper strewn everywhere, and recreate our favorite characters, music playing in the background. I hope she never stops. Because somehow the act of stopping is like a little death in all of us. An end of innocence, of participation, of creative joy, of play. We lose something very dear when we surrender our art (and our artistic selves) to the professionals.

FINAL COMMENT: Looking at the comic strip above, and how it reflects today’s financial climate, you are either struck by Bill Watterson’s amazing prescience . . . or by how little things have changed over the years. Given what we’re learning daily about the big corporations: The surprise in it is that anyone could find it the least bit surprising.