I forgot how depressing comic book conventions can be.
Or maybe it’s just that I’m depressed in general these days, and it just bleeds over into anything I do. But I don’t think so. For those of you who don’t already know, my other great passion (besides music) is comic books. There are all kinds of other names for them, mostly hoity-toity attempts at forcing the non-comics-reading world to take comics seriously as a medium – sequential art, for example, or graphic fiction. But nobody knows what you’re talking about when you use terms like those, so I just stick with comics.
And honestly, the word comics carries with it its own set of preconceived ideas, mostly relating directly to either Peanuts or X-Men. There’s more – much, much more – available to the discerning comics reader, especially one willing to part with large sums of money on a regular basis. The books I buy and read, by and large, contain no costumed super-heroes and no funny cartoon people or talking animals. (Okay, there are a few talking animals…) Despite its rich history, comics remains a fairly new medium – the first comic book emerged in the early 1930s – and new boundaries are broken all the time by writers and artists hungry to do something amazing in the field.
This isn’t meant to be a sales pitch for comics, but if you want to read books that will shatter your ideas of what can be done with panels and word balloons, try the works of Scott Morse, Andi Watson, Chester Brown, Neil Gaiman, Will Eisner, Alan Moore or Joe Sacco. Just for starters.
So, obviously, I approach comics as an emerging and exciting art form, just exploding with magic and potential. How utterly depressing, then, to be trapped in a room full of collectors, speculators and super-hero fans bartering over the price of old Avengers and Batman books. The Baltimore Comic-Con opened its doors on Saturday, on schedule despite the flooding Hurricane Isabel left in her wake, and welcomed what could have been dozens of area comics fans. The convention itself took place in the Baltimore Convention Center – or, rather, a tiny part of a smaller annex of the Baltimore Convention Center. And it was very, very small.
This despite the presence of one of comics’ biggest stars, Jim Lee. Lee rocketed to fame while working on X-Men (what else), but in 1992 he turned independent, starting (with six popular friends) Image Comics, one of the biggest market forces of the ’90s. Lee left Image in the latter half of the decade, taking his established (and largely terrific) Wildstorm line with him. Projects under his umbrella now include Wildcats 3.0, a textured and engrossing look at corporate warfare; Stormwatch, a superbly written (by Micah Ian Wright) post-modern military book; and Alan Moore’s entire line of America’s Best Comics. (Really, that’s the line’s name.) As part of that line, Wildstorm publishes Promethea, one of the finest and most genre-destroying books on the market.
But Lee couldn’t really draw the crowds, it seemed. Waiting lines to meet not only him, but other impressive writers and artists (George Perez, Ron Marz, Mike Avon Oeming) were much smaller than I remember from my earlier convention-going days, and the poor folks in Artists’ Alley didn’t seem to get much attention at all. Artists’ Alley, by the way, is where convention organizers stick all the unsuccessful and independent publishers, who tend to look at potential customers with desperation in their eyes. “Please buy our book,” they all seem to silently plead. “We don’t have enough money to get home.”
There were some bright spots of my convention experience. I hooked up with Jimmy Gownley again – he was one of my frequent con buddies, back when I wrote Tapestry and he did Shades of Gray. He’s a swell artist, an extremely nice guy, and he’s got a new all-ages book called Amelia Rules that’s doing quite well for him. (Take a look at www.ameliarules.com.) He and his wife Karen are also getting ready for the imminent arrival of not one, but two kids – twin daughters. Catching up with Jimmy was the highlight of the day for me.
And standing like an oasis amidst the crap was the Top Shelf Comix booth, manned by publisher Chris Staros. A better publishing company you will not find anywhere – Top Shelf is committed to expanding the medium and giving it the respect it deserves. Just this year, they’ve published two of my favorite graphic novels – Scott Morse’s The Barefoot Serpent, and Craig Thompson’s mammoth Blankets. Staros is a hell of a guy as well, and he’s got lots of great projects lined up for next year. Check out his wares at www.topshelfcomix.com.
Thankfully, my love of comics allows me to overlook a lot of its less savory aspects. But seriously, I’ve never encountered an art form or an industry that needs a dose of inviting self-respect more than comics. I’ve been reading these things since I was nine years old, and the Baltimore Comic-Con even put me off a bit. I can hardly imagine the effect such a desperate, insular event might have on newcomers, perhaps those who had just seen X-Men 2 and thought they’d give comics a try. Like science fiction and Japanese animation, comics seem to work better if you get into them on your own, because when they become communal experiences, they start to get a little terrifying and sad, even for longtime fans like me.
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Once again, it seems, my favorite record of the year is going to be ineligible for the Top 10 List. But here, let me tell you all about it anyway.
But first, let me tell you about this book I just finished reading.
Nick Hornby, writer of High Fidelity and About a Boy, among others, crafted an autobiography of sorts in the early ’90s called Fever Pitch. This book details his obsession with British football, and with the Highbury football team called Arsenal in particular. Hornby is an obsessive fan – he has, numerous times, passed on social occasions like weddings to attend football games, he’s gone to the field with broken bones and other injuries that would keep saner men home, and he remembers the date, score and scorers of virtually every game he’s ever attended. In this book, Hornby lovingly captures what it means to passionately care about something, almost to the exclusion of all else.
Needless to say, I found myself identifying with him often, just as I had throughout High Fidelity. Substitute music or comics for football, and more often than not, Hornby could be describing me. That he so nimbly depicted my own obsessions while discussing a subject I had not the least interest in stands as a testament to both the book and the odd universality of these all-consuming passions.
At one point near the book’s conclusion, Arsenal wins its first championship in 18 years, an event for which Hornby had been waiting half his life. He spares nothing in describing it as the single best moment of his life, which he understands many people would find pathetic beyond words. But it started me thinking about how many of the best moments of my life are related directly to music – a certain concert, for example, or the first time I heard a certain album that imprinted itself on my soul.
Most people I know don’t experience music the way I do, and don’t think of it as anything higher than background music for their own lives. I’ve always felt bad for those people, in the same way I’m sure they feel bad for me. While I can’t see the thrill in parenthood or marriage or parties or most of the things people plan their lives around, those people can’t lose themselves, find themselves and fill themselves up with music. I can’t imagine a day without it, and I can’t imagine a day when I’ll stop loving and needing it as much as I do, and I dream of being able to communicate that love and need to people in a way that makes them understand, and I know I’ll never find the words.
I buy an insane amount of music on a regular basis, more than any one person should have time to listen to. The reason I keep buying records is the same reason Nick Hornby keeps going to football matches – we’re both hoping for the win. I have had a mere handful of musical experiences so spiritual, so fulfilling that for a time, in a sense, they become me, and that feeling is so inexplicably wonderful that I would (and do) gladly buy hundreds of mediocre-to-very-good albums in the hope of finding that one perfect gateway to the infinite.
It’s been years since I’ve felt that, and I’ve bought hundreds of albums in the interim – I’m well over a hundred just in 2003 so far. Most of them pass by without making much impression. Several give me what the characters on Buffy the Vampire Slayer would call “a happy.” Some move me, and a few of those that do move me to tears. And a very few enrich me beyond price, and those easily make up for the hundreds that don’t.
Jeff Buckley’s Live at Sin-e is one of those.
By now most people are familiar with the tragic tale of Jeff Buckley. He made one album – the phenomenal, incredible Grace. While working on his second, he took a dip in the Mississippi River and never came up. The words “gone too soon” have rarely been more apt – Jeff Buckley was gifted with an exquisitely beautiful voice, a genuine talent for songwriting and a singer’s soul. If music is a conduit between singer and listener, then Buckley’s music made singer and listener indistinguishable. Buckley was his songs, and while you’re listening to them, you are his songs, too. He makes you live them – it’s impossible to hear Buckley’s voice and not be drawn in completely.
Since his death, we’ve been granted several more visits with Buckley – a two-disc collection of the skeletal outlines he was working on at the time of his drowning, a reissue of all of his singles and EPs, and a raucous, powerful live album. And now we have the final missing piece, as far as I know. Before Grace, Buckley released a four-song EP called Live at Sin-e, a document that has just been re-released in an expanded version. And when I say expanded, I mean it – Live at Sin-e is now two and a half hours long, and comes complete with a live DVD as well. It’s 150 minutes of Jeff Buckley and his guitar, and nothing else, and it’s positively mesmerizing.
This set was recorded in 1993 at the New York club that gave Buckley his start. (It’s pronounced “shin-ay.”) And perhaps it’s that distinction that sets this apart from his other posthumous albums, but this is the first one that doesn’t make me boundlessly sad. These are not artifacts from his last days or recordings from his final tour – when Buckley wrote and played these songs, his best days were still ahead of him, and it’s that sense of potential that helps make Live at Sin-e a joyous listen.
Well, that and the sheer power of these performances. This set is the clearest examination yet of that voice, that superhuman, impossibly gorgeous voice. Here it is largely unadorned, forced by necessity to stand on its own and communicate everything by itself, and this context allows us to marvel at it from every angle, and it’s still not enough to understand it. One thing becomes crystal clear by set’s end, if it wasn’t clear already – Buckley wielded that voice with perfect precision and control, and with it, he could do anything. Absolutely anything.
For instance. Here he covers Van Morrison, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, among others, and he completely reinvents each song, often stretching his versions to 10 or more blissful minutes. He unquestionably owns every song by the time he’s through. One of the album’s highlights is a stunning, soaring rendition of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai,” and he twists and wraps that voice around every alien syllable with stunning ease. He segues effortlessly from Led Zeppelin’s “Night Flight,” a version that outdoes the rock gods with just one six-string, into Nina Simone’s glorious “If You Knew.” And at one point, he perfectly mimics Miles Davis’ 1970s fusion sound with just his guitar, using his voice as Miles’ trumpet, piercing the din.
Buckley’s control is so perfect that he’s able to lose himself in the material, the way that only accomplished players and singers can. He scats his way through a 10-minute read of Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do” that’s simply breathtaking, and his 12-minute rendition of the traditional “Dink’s Song” bursts skyward on pure feeling. Far from the minimalism one might expect from a solo show, Live at Sin-e is invigorating, and often positively exhausting.
It’s also incandescent. There isn’t a minute of this recording that doesn’t feel like it descended from some more perfect place. It’s difficult to believe that all of this music came from one person in one place, even if you watch the DVD, and it’s even more difficult to believe that this person is gone. It’s no exaggeration to say that music has often saved my life, and also no exaggeration to say that this year especially it needs saving. It’s also dreadfully ironic that Buckley’s incredible gifts couldn’t save his own.
But the bottom line here is this. If music is my life, as Nick Hornby suggests that football is his, then the stunning, indescribably beautiful music on Live at Sin-e is one of the reasons why. This is the type of album, the type of experience, that I wait and hope for, that I drag myself through endless days in search of. Put simply, it’s a record worth living to hear, and I’m glad beyond my ability to communicate that I lived to hear it.
I’m sure most would consider that a strange and sad statement, and maybe it is, but to me, it’s the most uplifting sentence I’ve typed all year. I can’t understand indifference towards this music any more than I can understand the senseless death of its author, even though the reality of both is inescapable. My fondest wish for those I would love to love better is that they could listen to something like Live at Sin-e and hear it the way I do, and take from it all the wonder and joy it brings me. In lieu of that, however, all I can say is that this little live album (and several others like it through the years) has made my life better, in ways that nothing else but music can. This is what it’s all about.
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Next week, why two of my recent purchases make me feel really, really old.
See you in line Tuesday morning.