30 for 30: Comics

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

2. COMICS

The fold out cover to X-Men #1 - the highest selling comic book of all time

I went through two intense period of buying comics. One was from ages 10 til 17. The second was around age 25, just before I left Australia, up til now.

Fun fact: a week after I quit collecting comics the first time I started going out wth my first girlfriend.

That first period was mainly about superheroes. (Did you know that ‘superhero’ is actually a trademark co-owned by Marvel and DC? Such a joke – no wonder those two companies are still running the comic book industry.)

The second period has been more mixed. Some alternative stuff, lots of older stuff, still the occasional superhero thing. But the big defining theme of my second tenure in comics is the trade paperback.

I have no idea what my first comic was. It would have been borrowed off a friend at school. But comics taught me, at barely 10 years old, that I wanted to OWN something rather than borrow it. If I read a comic I liked, I went out and bought it. It’s something I’ve carried over into music, books, DVDs and more.

This was around 1991, so I was there to buy X-Men #1. At over 8 million copies, it is still the highest selling comic book of all time. Along with all the X-Men and Spiderman books, I had pretty much all the big guns – Daredevil, Fanstastic Four, Batman, Superman, the Flash, etc.

My teachers hated comics. And I was an argumentative little shit, and would ask why. Comics get a bad wrap, but even that highly commercial, glossy, 90s era of comics brought some real goods. Acclaimed books like Marvels, Kingdom Come etc are rightly considered in great BOOK lists.

(I was, of course, too young to have been there for the 80s revolution that has truly broken through to the mainstream. Watchmen. V for Vendetta. The Batman from the current movies is very much Frank Miller’s dark take on Batman)

I gave up around 17. It was a slow petering out rather than a big decision. I was buying up all sorts of music. I was seeing movies more. Hanging out after school with friends in the city. Meeting girls. All age gigs. And of course, end of high school studies.

And the comics got really shit anyway. Overblown, crass and saturated with holographic covers, trading cards, all sorts of stupid shit. It was all big events where you had to buy 30 comics a month just to keep up with the story…or maybe I just grew out of it.

The comic book industry as whole crashed in the mid 90s anyway. I was part of the reason. I had enough, and I left it to rot.

I went on and fell in love with Bob Dylan

I learnt a lot from those 90’s superhero comics. A hell of a lot. And I will go to my grave defending comics.

First and foremost, I learnt how to read. I make absolutely zero bones about this. English is my second language and I was reading English for maybe five years up until comics, and still spoke broken-ish English with a strong accent.

So every day, several times a day, I would read comics. And why it was different from reading books was because my English was not good enough to read Friedrich Nietzsche, but every issue of the 1991 mini series the Infinity Gauntlet started with a Nietzsche quote.

So I’m ten years old and I’m reading amazing stuff like “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

And lets face it, I was not really going to come across this stuff in school.

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

That was used in the Incredible Hulk #425. Bet you didn’t know that shit at age 12. I did!

It wasn’t just random literary quotes. Words like ‘intergalatic’, ‘radioactive’ etc. Not only were they hard – they fired my imagination. I learnt words like ‘hybrid’ from comics.

Just run your eye through your average list of characters to find so much more. Morlocks. Nova. Doomsday. Even Daredevil. I didn’t know what a daredevil was when I was ten. I looked it up.

The point I’m trying to make is I was buried in thoughts, words and ideas.

There was great sophistication in the writing too. Great science fiction ideas. The Hulk meeting an evil future version of himself. The wonderful Marvels series, which we are told classic stories from the point of view of an average person on the street. My mind exploded every week from all the cliffhangers, plot twists and mysteries.

As I got older, I cared less about the big graphics and more about the stories. It led me into my next phase of comics. More ‘adult’, thoughtful, character driven books like Starman, Bone, Sandman Mystery Theatre, Zot!, Astro City and more. I’d also read books ABOUT comics like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It’s this era that I really, really loved comics. This stuff is so great, I can’t even describe them to you.

A lot of that stuff was independently published. Or if it was published by Marvel or DC, it was on an imprint. (The most famous work of this era, of this style, is probably Neil Gaiman’s Sandman)

I learnt a million things from these comics. I mean – Oscar Wilde was a recurring character in Starman! It’s the same neat trick that stuff like Doctor Who pulls off – it’s entertaining and educational. What a great head-fake.

I would buy comics from everywhere. A lot of those places depress me now.

Comic Kingdom on Liverpool Street. God that place just depresses the hell out of me. It still looks like the 80s, and I’m pretty sure the staff is still the same people. They just never got the memo that the 90s and 00s happened. They were too busy reading old issues of the Phantom.

Comic Kingdom’s main competitor is Kings Comics on Pitt Street. The staff are young and hip. There are plenty of girls on both sides of the counter. They have lots of movie merchandise, toys, posters and stuff. The store looks great too.

The thing that depresses me about Kings Comics is the same thing that depresses me about indie record shops. Every time I’m in there and I want something and they don’t have it, it just destroys them. And it’s so much more expensive than Amazon.

Not that Amazon is any good. They never have anything in stock. They don’t sell single issues. There is a massive gap in the internet for a comic book online shop – deals with the distributors directly, digital comics, single issues, rarities and old collectables, etc.

I wonder how the iPad and such devices are going to affect comics. I like physical artifacts – but I love the promise of a good story and with great artwork a lot more. It will b like music I guess – some digital, some physical.

Funny how people talk of in-demand entertainment, I think of comics. This is what I had for years. I would buy a stack of them. But once I had them I could read them any time, at my own pace, and re-read them at my leisure. I didn’t wait for a TV show or make sure I’m home at the perfect time. Or wait for a repeat. I’ve been doing in-demand for 20 years.

I still probably have 10K+ comics at my parents house. They are mostly protected in bags, and they are in nice boxes. Although they haven’t been taken care off and I lug them everywhere I moved when in Sydney.

These days I buy Trade Paperbacks. If you don’t know the term, it’s basically a bunch of comics grouped altogether in a book. Most bigger bookstores carry them now.

I don’t know how I got back into it – but I blame the internet. It was just so easy to come across news. And slowly, I peeked back to see what my old friends in tights were up to. I never went back to X-men, but I’m amazed to see that X-Men #1 is now up to 236. But my tastes have changed, and I walk right past the kiddie stuff. Although, I don’t look down on it one bit. I wonder who all these new superheroes are…

So I’ve re-bought a few of those comics I loved as trade paperbacks (or even some fancy hardcover versions). I will probably get rid of a lot of them when I get home. There are lots of valuable ones in there. It might take some time to sort it all out.

I read all the comic book news because some of the websites are really good (Comic Book Resources and Newsarama in particular). I think the music industry could learn a hell of a lot from how the comic book business works. A lot of what I read and see on those sites informs a lot of the ideas I bring to my own work.

The best example of that is this Saturday. Free Comic Book Day was a daring initiative to bring both new and lapsed readers into comic shops, with exclusive products on the day, and creators doing instore events and working behind the counter. It is basically the model for Record Store Day. So if you’re around on Saturday, go visit your local comic shop. Cool things will be going on and pick up a free comic while you’re there. There will be something for everyone.

Finally, for me now, I still buy comics. I get the eventual trade paperbacks, collecting six months or so worth of stories. So I dip in and out – I don’t hang out at my comic shop several times a week anymore. I am going to back and reading old stuff, and trying to keep on top of all the great new work that is being created every month, if not every day.

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30 for 30: Smoking

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

1. SMOKING

I had my first cigarette in school, like most people do. But it wasn’t until I was around 20 that I really, really took to it.

Now, I know there’s no way to justify smoking. There just isn’t. It’s utterly indefensible. I don’t really support people taking up smoking – although if you are a smoker already, then chances are I love having a cigarette with you. The best way to avoid it is t0 never start.

Tara once told me, quite matter-of-factly, that she just went for that whole ‘Just Say No’ campaign of the 80s.

So, with that said, none of the following justifies smoking. I’m going to say stuff like how much “I like Zippo lighters”, for instance. And an adoration for Zippo lighters in no way justifies the slow destruction of my body.

These days I am down to a pack every 3 or 4 days. A couple during work and a couple at night. Packs in London are only 20s, whereas in Sydney for many years I was half a (25) pack a day.

The real numbers come up when drinking. I can probably go through 2 cigarettes a pint, and I’m consciously pacing myself. If I’m drinking at a beer garden and sure no one will notice, I will chain smoke when I drink.

Smoking suits my restlessness. As Jo said to me once, it’s really unfair how she, as a non smoker, doesn’t get to just go out of a building and have a few minutes to herself, several times a day.

I especially loved this when I was seeing gigs and going to pubs and clubs. 2am, sober, surrounded by drunken hipsters and loud music – the excuse to get out of there for a few minutes is heaven. I don’t know how people stand being in those places for hours upon hours. Grabbing your drink, a fellow smoker, and getting a break from all that – it’s brilliant.

Constantly heading out for a cigarette – a few times a day for ten years – I wonder how it’s affected me. Has it turned me further into an introvert? In any given situation, I can get up, go, and just be in my own thoughts almost straight away. Just stop, and think.

The other thing is I’ve perfected is the five minute conversation. Heading out for a cigarette is an open invitation. Basically, anyone in your little party is allowed to join you. And you have five minutes to find that common ground, roll around in it, then head back inside. It doesn’t matter if you’re a friend of a friend of a friend, etc who just turned up for a little bit.

I have gotten to know a lot of people this way. Not many friends I know are smokers – but most of my best friends are. We just spend more quality time together. I think of my friend Piero, who I worked with for a few months. But our cigarette breaks were where I really got to know him. People I’ve worked closer with for 4 times that length – I know nothing about them.

My Dad smokes. And I don’t remember anyone else in my family smoking, growing up. I think my brother must have when we were younger. Mum hated the things and still does. Even aunties and uncles were pretty much non-smokers.

Not that Dad ever gave me a cigarette. It did his health no good in the end. He shouldn’t be smoking, but it’s hard. He’s old, and he’s been doing it all his life. Think about how easy it would be for YOU to give up something you’ve been doing several times a day for decades on end.

Don’t give me that “It’s killing you” bullshit. If I said to you that you had to give up ice cream, or chocolate, or coffee, etc. After you’ve had it for DECADES. It’s not easy. And it’s not like it’s a sudden, allergic reaction. One bit of ice cream is not going to kill you. But it will make you sicker, as your whole body is getting sicker anyway. So get off that high horse.

But I bring that up because that is justification for my Dad. I still have the odd cigarette after dinner with Dad in our backyard when I’m home. It’s our time together. We both wait all day for that moment. Who wants to live longer if I can’t have those moments.

I can’t roll cigarettes. If I could, I think I would have saved thousands of dollars over the years. In a way, it’s the coolest way to smoke. And so often, I feel like a few puffs but not a whole cigarette. Rollies would be the way.

Learning now kind of feels like giving in. Learning a new skill to help improve my smoking, and to save me money in doing it, seems like a big commitment. And every smoker is trying to cut down or quit. That just seems a step in the wrong direction.

Also, learning seems embarrassing. I know in theory how to do it, I just need to buy the filters and the tobacco and practise. Just sit around one weekend and smoke and practise.

But buying tobacco and filters at the same time, makes me feel like I’m a kid smoking for the first time. You know when you skipped school and you could smoke, but of course you didn’t even own a lighter? And you would buy smokes AND a lighter and it would give you away? I’m turning 30 and I still feel that way. I feel like if I buy filters and tobacco at the same time, the guy behind the counter will declare me an amateur and take away my smoking rights.

My brand is Marlboro Lights. On the odd chance there isn’t Marlboro Lights I would smoke Camels. This has happened maybe 4 times in the last decade. In France I smoke Gauloises because I am a try-hard Frenchie and I would do anything to pretend I lived there.

Why Marlboro lights? Mainly because the musicians that I liked who smoked, they smoked Marlboro lights. Before you declare me superficial, this is the reason why music sponsorships are a multi million dollar industry. Also, I’m not alone in this. Marlboro Lights are what the Strokes smoke. I know nothing else about the Strokes. But In know THAT. Because someone told me. Also, I know what my friends smoke. It’s just something I notice.

I try to get soft packs if I can but they are harder to find in London. There is a very specific way of ripping part of the foil at the top (on just one side of the sticker on the top face) so they dispense easily but the pack still keeps it’s shape. The advantage of the soft pack is they don’t destroy every pair of jeans you own with sharp cardboard corners. They also look a million times cooler.

My first lighter was a proper sized Bic lighter. I still have it, I know where it is. I prefer the smaller Bic lighters, the ones that are like 5cm tall and run out in barely a week. I went through so many of these. They are also light and small and slip easily into a soft pack once you’re had three or four.

In London, I use clipper lighters. This is because one of my first jobs in London, the company I worked for created boxes of promotional lighters. Then they worked out they couldn’t send lighters with flammable liquid in the mail. So I took a few boxes. 4 years later I still use them.

I have been given some great smoking presents. My favourites are the Zippo with the Fender logo on it (Casey), a cool 1930s looking robot ashtray (Marianne) and a flip top ball thing that was also an ashtray, that I adore (Johanna).

When am I going to quit? I really don’t know. Honestly, I probably never will completely.

There’s that age old image of the old man having a cigar after dinner. Maybe with a bit of whiskey. Knowing my friends, that cigar will be a joint. A small indulgence. And smoking will be mine. If I ever do quit for a while, and I start again, then that’s just the way it is. I don’t really take the idea of quitting seriously.

Gin Blossoms – Past is gone but something might be found

From the very first time I ever heard Hey Jealousy on the airwaves, I loved this song. It was by a band called the Gin Blossoms – on the surface,  one of dozens of alterna-lite bands that broke through thanks to grunge. But their story, and their songs, were much more than that.

The biggest part of the story revolves around the death of guitarist/songwriter Doug Hopkins. Hopkins wrote Hey Jealousy and Found Out About You – two stone cold pop rock classics, and both huge worldwide hits. Hopkins had formed the band, wrote some of their best songs, developed their jangly guitar sound – but had constant problems with drinking. As a teenager who had one ear stuck on the radio in suburban nowhere Sydney, I knew none of this at the time.

Hopkins‘ drinking and behavior had taken it’s toll on the others, and he was fired from the band he had formed just before the release of New Miserable Experience, the Gin Blossoms‘ proper debut album. The album that would spawn those two big hits and sell 2 million copies. Hopkins would watch from afar as his former friends rose to fame on the back of his songs. He could not beat his chronic depression, or the drinking.

New Miserable Experience came out in August ’92.

In December ’93, Doug Hopkins took his own life.

A fantastic article about Hopkins, written by a friend of his, can be found here – http://www.metrotimes.com/editorial/story.asp?id=12123. It’s a wonderful, wonderful article. We meet some lost suburban kids, one who could write songs, who loved girls but was awkward. Who drank too much, and knew it, but had nothing else to do to help the time pass. About horrible phone calls bearing bad news, and beautiful songs that you can’t believe were written by mortals. A must read.

Hopkins left us with barely a dozen songs, and only a handful are on that debut Gin Blossoms record. But he definitely had something. God knows the world of blogs don’t need anymore proclamations of genius – but he had all the elements. He had a natural sense of pop hooks – growing up on REM, Tom Petty and Big Star. But his lyrics were really special – one reviewer at the time remarked ‘misery never sounded so good’. It’s one thing to be a drunken suburban fuck up who fell in love too easily. It’s another to express that feeling so clearly in song.

The Gin Blossoms story is not just the Doug Hopkins story. As great as the songs were, the golden ticket for the Gin Blossoms was Robin Wilson‘s voice. That clear, high, longing voice – sitting above it all. Restraint yet passionate, young yet wise, sad yet hopeful. Jesse Venezuela and Scott Johnson (Hopkins‘ replacement) captured the bright, Byrds-y guitar playing right where Hopkin‘s left it, and all the time providing fantastic guitar solos and riffs that served the songs but were memorable in their own right.

New Miserable Experience is the masterwork -where it all came together. That amazing sound that still sounds completely modern was mixed in with hopeless-romantic Hopkin‘s great songs, then topped Wilson‘s great voice. The record captured a generation of disillusioned kids – of which I am one. Almost everyone I know who loved music during this time loves Hey Jealousy. Present tense – they still love it to this day.

Interestingly, one of the very best lines on that track is

You can trust me not to think
And not to sleep around
If you don’t expect too much from me
You might not be let down

Originally, the ‘think’ was ‘drink’.

Universal Music had the foresight to reissue New Miserable Experience in their Deluxe Edition range. Which means it joins hallowed company like Marvin Gaye‘s What’s Going On, Sonic Youth‘s Daydream Nation, the Velvet Underground & Nico and dozens of other acclaimed records.

The band continued on – but they were a wounded beast. But there were highlights as high as Hey Jealousy to come. Their biggest hit ended up being Til I Hear It From You, the lead track off the movie Empire Records. It was co-written by the legendary Marshall Crenshaw. And it was all still there – the melancholy, the voices, the jangle.

Check out Robin Wilson‘s much classier stubble and short hair look. The band looked a million bucks, and a long way from flannelette.

Their second album, Congratulations….I’m Sorry, would be their last. The lead single was Follow You Down – another great song. It sold half a million – but the band was in tatters. They all went their separate ways – new bands mostly. None recaptured the magic – or public imaginations – that the Gin Blossoms had. (The band did reunite for a new record in 2007. I’m still yet to hear it)

My brother had New Miserable Experience. I remembered thinking how mysterious the record looked, with all the squiggy artwork and stretched perspective photos. But God, did I love Hey Jealousy. I was too young to drink, to drive, to fuck – but the song just got me. I loved the hit songs, and it was all I knew until years later, in my 20s, earning money, and I finally bought the album for myself.

Of course, I caught up with the song. And all the others – that loser feeling, that desperation for that beautiful girl. Late nights, rock ‘n’ roll, jealousy, alcohol, cars and girls, girls, girls. It was all there in Hey Jealousy, and all the other songs too. As I approach 30, I still come back to this band, those songs, those records, those feelings.

In the end though, it all just makes me think of how fragile these things we call ‘bands’ can be. How magical, and how fleeting. How young, emotional boys fall in love with girls and music, and how they give up their lives – literally or figuratively – so the world can have a great song.

And how that may never, ever stop happening.