On Elves, Stags and Not Putting Your Hand Down
What Amy Ray and Drew Hayes Have in Common

I wish I could talk about Shawn Colvin today.

Her new record, Whole New You, came out a week ago (3/27). I don’t have it. I ordered it 15 days ago. It’s not here. This has gone beyond funny.

Luckily, I have a backup. One of the discs I ordered in February finally showed up. It came out on March 6. (See what I mean about unfunny?)

Before I get to that, though, I want to talk comic books.

In fact, a specific comic book called Poison Elves. Even if you have no interest in the sequential art of graphic literature, this should intrigue you: Poison Elves creator Drew Hayes has just signed another contract with his publisher, Sirius. The intriguing part is that the contract is exclusive, and good for the next 50 years.

That’s not a typo. 50 years.

I should point out that Hayes is in his mid-30s. Provided he lives to see the end of his contract, he’ll be in his mid-80s. This is the closest thing to a lifetime compact that I’ve ever seen.

A bit about Drew Hayes, his book, and Sirius, just in case you don’t read comics, which you should. (Last pitch, I swear.) Drew Hayes has been writing and drawing his own monthly comic, originally called I, Lusiphur, since 1986. He self-published 20 issues under Mulehide Graphics, and in 1994 he made the jump to Sirius, a company started by Robb Horan and Lawrence Salamone. Here’s what’s cool about Sirius: they’re just a publishing firm. They don’t produce the books they publish, and they don’t have any say in the creative process.

For those of you used to traditional publishing houses (Random House, etc.), that may not seem like a big deal, but for a comic company, that’s pretty radical. Drew still writes and draws Poison Elves, but with considerably more regularity than he used to when he was self-publishing. The reasons are entirely financial. When self-publishing, Drew often couldn’t afford to print his new issues, which is why he only did 20 in eight years. Since signing up with Sirius, Drew’s published 64 issues and a couple of specials, all written and drawn by him. Sirius foots the bill and recoups their publishing costs. Drew writes and draws and gets a salary. Publisher and artist split the profits.

Sirius, like a few other publishing houses, most notably Image, is like self-publishing with someone else’s money. It’s also a creatively-focused deal, as opposed to a financially-focused one. Drew’s arrangement allows him to do the book he wants to do, when he wants to do it. It’s up to him to dazzle you or not. He gets no help, and he brooks no interference. Essentially, by signing his life away to Sirius, Drew has bet on himself. He’s betting he can dazzle you on his own for the rest of his life. Sirius, in turn, has bet on Drew Hayes, choosing to associate with him until the end of his creative life.

Man, that’s admirable.

If we could translate that energy to the music business, we’d get artists with full creative control of their work, and record labels that treat these artists as lifetime commitments. We’d get uninhibited creative growth, and musical relationships instead of quick, mass-marketed one night stands. Most importantly, we’d get artists betting on themselves, making the music they want to make, for as long as they want to make it.

There are some examples of this in the current musical world, and I think the Indigo Girls are a pretty good one. For more than 10 years, they’ve been doing their own thing, and evolving constantly. It’s true that they’ve been on the periphery as far as sales are concerned: two hits (“Closer to Fine” and “Galileo”) off of nine albums (two of them live). Somehow, they’ve convinced Columbia Records to bet on them for a decade.

I mention the Indigos because one of them has just decided to bet on herself, at least for one album. Not that it would be possible for these two to remain apart, personally or artistically, for very long. Amy Ray has called her solo album Stag, but she’s chosen a cover picture featuring both her and Emily Saliers. Long story short, they’re not breaking up.

The Indigo Girls have always been able to surprise me. Their last three studio albums (Swamp Ophelia, Shaming of the Sun and Come On Now Social) have all been markedly different from each other, yet heard in sequence, they tell an increasingly raw and angry story. Even with that buildup to jump off from, Stag is surprising. It’s powerful, vicious, electrified and vitriolic. It was obviously recorded over a matter of days, which accounts for its brevity (32 minutes) and its startling power. It’s a short, sharp burst of anger that feels like nothing Ray’s done before.

Oh, and it’s pretty terrific.

“Johnny Rottentail,” the bluegrass-inflected opener, is about a minute and a half long. (For that matter, so are “Black Heart Today” and “Mtns of Glory.”) It and “Lazyboy” comprise the only tracks not covered (nay, drowned) in feedback and electric guitar. “Laramie” sounds like the best song Neil Young hasn’t done in the last 20 years. “Lucystoners” rips Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner a new one (by name) to the accompaniment of thudding drums and blistering guitars. Joan Jett does a nifty cameo on “Hey Castrator,” which sounds exactly like you’d think it might.

If Stag had been nothing more than low-budget punkus outus for half an hour, it wouldn’t rank so highly with me. There are moments of wonder here, like “Measure of Me,” perhaps the most lovely song Ray’s ever written. (Take that for what it means, since Saliers is almost entirely responsible for the quiet, reflective side of the Indigos.) Every song on Stag comes from a place of pain and rage, and Ray’s decision to record this stuff raw and unadorned makes it surprisingly affecting. Ray doesn’t hide behind studio sheen or contemplative lyrics. She bets it all and delivers mightily. Now, if only it were longer…

Speaking of betting on yourself, I typed this column while watching David Copperfield (the magician, not the Dickens character) nearly kill himself on national television by standing inside a flaming tornado. I like to think he did it just to give me a thematically relevant example to include here, but that’s mostly because I can’t think of any other reason to stand inside a flaming tornado. So, thanks, David.

I wanted to close this time with the coolest quote I’ve read recently. It’s from wunderkind director Robert Rodriguez, he of Desperado and Spy Kids fame. Rodriguez likes to handle almost every aspect of his films himself, from writing and directing to editing, sound editing and special effects. That’s how he brought the 100-million-dollar-looking Spy Kids in at 36 mil. This is his quote, from the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly:

“If you ask a bunch of kids, ‘How many of you can sing or dance or write an opera?’ they’ll all raise their hands. But if you ask the same group 20 years later, maybe one person will raise their hand. I want to be the kid who grew up to be the guy who didn’t put his hand down.”

See you in line Tuesday morning.