The Unbearable Banishment: May 2011

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The book I just published for Bruce Springsteen and Nick Hornby

And by "I," I mean "WE," because there's no way I could have pulled off a stunt like this on my own.

Back in 2003, I took a class in book binding and letterpress printing at the Center for Book Arts in Manhattan. I had been collecting for quite some time and began to wonder, as most collectors eventually do, how books are constructed. Especially the fancy ones.

That same year, British author Nick Hornby published Songbook. It’s a series of essays about songs that are meaningful to him. It's still in print and it's a pretty entertaining read. I'm a big fan of his work and have a healthy collection of signed first editions and rarities.

Songbook includes an essay on Bruce Springsteen's Thunder Road that I think is particularly effective. It's the standout piece of the book. I was in bookbinding class stabbing myself with a sewing needle trying to perfect a chapbook spine stitch when I had the spark of an idea. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, to create a chapbook that married both Hornby’s Thunder Road essay with Springsteen's lyrics? And do it legitimately, with permission from the artists? Yeah, right. Like that could ever happen.

* * *

I bought a rare Charles Bukowski first edition from Jim, who lived in Phoenix, Arizona. As it turned out, he’s a letterpress printer. He creates beautiful, limited-run books at synaestheia press. He's a design and production genius. I was a patron of his press and we became pretty good friends. He visited New York City, I visited Phoenix and we also met in Las Vegas once. We spoke all the time.

I told him about my crazy idea for the Thunder Road chapbook. He encouraged me and said that if I could somehow secure permission from Hornby and Springsteen, he would print it. Shortly thereafter, Hornby was on a promotional tour for Songbook. At his Manhattan stop, while getting my copy signed, I casually asked if I could reprint his Thunder Road essay in a chapbook. Much to my surprise, he said yes, with the stipulation that every penny made from the sale go to charity. That was okay by me, since making money never entered my mind. Not once!

Now the tough part. Bruce Springsteen’s business machine is fiercely protective of his material. I thought that going to him with an agreement from Hornby already in-hand would add legitimacy to the project. I wrote to his manager, Jon Landau, and not long thereafter, much to my complete shock, received permission to reprint the lyrics on a letterpress broadside. The stipulation was the same as the one Hornby set out for us; we were not permitted to profit from the venture. All proceeds had to be donated to charity.

We received nothing more than a verbal agreement and a “good luck” from Hornby, however, we received a multi-paged contract from the legal department of Shore Fire Media that we were required to sign and return. It was stipulated, in no uncertain terms, that all monies were to be donated to charity and that we were to use the lyrics provided with the contract (vs. getting them off the internet and possibly misquoting). Pretty serious stuff. The contracts were signed on May 28, 2004.

With my recently acquired knowledge of chapbook construction, I worked up about four different prototypes. The trick was to collapse both the essay and the broadside into one book. I sent them off to Phoenix and, if I’m being completely honest here, the layout ideas that Jim came up with were much better than mine. I wanted the book to be great so it required some humility on my part. The finished layout is probably 80% his talent and 20% my lucky guesses.

Do you know what can dramatically increase the value of a book? A signature. We had another brilliant, impossible, idea. We would fly to London, meet with Hornby, and he would sit and sign a stack of title pages for the essay portion of the book. In early 2006, I sent him, via his publisher at Penguin, a “Hey, remember me? We’re going to be in the neighborhood. How’d you like to sign some title pages?” e-mail. How many authors of Hornby’s stature do you suppose would entertain such a request? Damn few, I’d guess. But he agreed to do it. On March 16, 2006, he had us over to his writing studio and for a few hours the three of us bullshitted about music and literature and the internet and he told us some fun stories about dealing with Hollywood, all while signing page after page after page after page.

We were planning a print run of 200 copies. Hornby signed 250 leaves. This is common practice as it allows for overage, contributor copies and damage during construction. Nick developed a terrible hand cramp. I felt kind of bad. Afterwards, he walked with us back to the tube station and took us past the vintage (1913), now demolished, Arsenal stadium, home to his beloved Gunners. It's one of my top five favorite afternoons ever.

I sent a request to Springsteen asking if he would be willing to sign a portion of the broadsides. I didn't dare hope that he'd sign all 250. He declined and I didn't have the nerve to pursue the issue. Frankly, I was surprised that he granted permission to use the lyrics and I didn't want to push my luck.

* * *

It took a little over a year to produce the printer’s mock-up proof. A year is a bit longer than is customary for this type of work, but there were delays.

And then there were more delays. And the months peeled away. I thought the project was becoming a burden, so I offered to find someone else to print it. But Jim is steadfast and a man of his word and always finishes what he starts. The printing commenced slowly.

I actually don’t recall the specifics (and wouldn’t share them here if I did) but eventually, tensions rose, words were exchanged and we stopped speaking. Our friendship died. And the Thunder Road chapbook project ceased.

In July of 2008 I wrote to Hornby and said that, with deepest regrets, the book would not be made. He wrote a short piece on his blog about how all artistic endeavors begin with good intentions but don't always come to fruition or a happy ending. He used our book as a case in point.

* * *

Years passed by.

I wrote to Jim last fall and after a few tentative e-mail exchanges, I asked if he wouldn’t mind shipping the guts of the book. He had finished the essays and broadsides but the covers still needed to be printed and the book had to be assembled. He boxed them up carefully and they arrived in New Jersey sometime in December.

* * *

I had some contacts in the letterpress community that led me to Ray at Lead Graffiti, an extraordinary letterpress printer in Delaware. I approached him about the project with the caveat that although I could cover the cost of materials, all the heavy lifting would have to be done pro bono. Would he be interested?

He embraced the project so enthusiastically that in addition to making the 200 softcovers, he decided to create a special run of 26 hardcovers that would sell at a premium. Ray's partner, Jill, jumped in and created a beautiful linocut stamp of storm clouds to print on the cover.

Here's Ray slaving away at the printing press.

I was moved by their enthusiasm for the project and willingness to create hardcovers. I meditated on how they could be made even more special. I approached Springsteen again and asked if he would be willing to sign the broadsides for just those 26 copies. He politely declined five years ago, but this time he said yes. I dropped the broadsides off at his house and picked them up several weeks later.

* * *

The book has two spines. The essay is bound in on the left spine, and the broadside with the lyrics unfolds from the right. We borrowed the same font from the Born to Run album cover for the title. The covers are printed on black Somerset Velvet and the flysheet for the essay is printed on white mulberry paper.

Click on these pics, magnify, and take a good, close look. Try not to salivate into your keyboard.

The linocut is printed black-on-black ink for the cover and repeated in white-on-white for the flysheet.

A hand-rolled deckle edge that emulates yellow road paint was added along the bottom.

It's sewn with matching yellow thread. The hardcovers have yellow endpapers.

The 26 copies signed by both Springsteen and Hornby were priced at $225 and are sold out. But I still have the softcovers to sell. They are priced at $60 each; a steal considering the level of craftsmanship and the content. All copies are signed by Nick Hornby on his essay. Per Hornby and Springsteen's request, proceeds from the sale are being donated to TreeHouse, a school in London for autistic children.

We created six special sets that are not for sale. One hardcover and one softcover are laid into a custom clamshell case, handmade by Bill of Bottle of Smoke Press, who also assisted with the cover printing. These sets go to Springsteen, Hornby and the four project participants. Bruce was kind enough to inscribe the broadsides for those six copies to each of us. Here’s my hardcover copy. Brothers and sisters, this is all the payment I'll ever need.

* * *

Getting this book made has been a long, arduous process but the finished product is a small masterpiece. Hardbound copies were purchased for the special collection libraries at Columbia University, The University of Delaware and The Newark Library. There’s also a copy on hold for the Library of Congress.

Letterpress printing is a fading art form. There are no new Heidelberg Presses being manufactured. These books are created by craftsmen who are at the top of their game. They're the polar opposite of cold, impersonal eBooks. Aside from the obvious “do-good” aspect, they are a prestige item. But it was very, very expensive to produce. And I don’t just mean the black Somerset Velvet, white mulberry paper and untold hours of uncompensated labor. This book annihilated a great friendship.

You can order a copy via PayPal. The account is [Please do not leave orders in the comments section.] I'll start shipping copies sometime next week. If you really want to help out, throw a link up to this too-long post.

Please note: We are sold out. There are no books available. Thanks to all who purchased a copy.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

How a bona fide tough guy inscribes a book

A poem should be written so that a whore, a stockbroker, a garbage collector, an aviator, a jockey, a baker, a child molester, a saint, a fool and a genius can understand it.
Charles Bukowski

If you're familiar with Bukowski's work, you know how much he adhered to that philosophy.

That's the inscription in one of my Bukowski first editions. In this month's column over at the Undie Press, I discuss Bukowski's talent for inscribing and also say some unflattering things about a beloved, dead author. Enjoy!

* * *

If you haven't already done so, click to the comments in my last post and read JZ's fascinating history lesson. It's got more gravitas than anything I've written here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Conference Room With a View

The job market is steadily improving here in New York and I've been on a mad tear interviewing in an effort to shed this consultant skin and get a position that will provide my family and I with fat, juicy benefits. I have some freelance friends who would never trade-in their independence. They don't want to be beholden to The Man, man, but that ain't me. The Man has afforded me a pretty decent standard of living and I'll sign on the dotted line with blood as soon as I find a good match.

To that end, I called in sick last Tuesday (kack-kack) and interviewed at Large Orange Institution inside the elegant Helmsley Building, just outside of Grand Central Station. Originally built in 1929 by the New York Central Railroad Company and known as the New York Central Building, it was renamed in 1988 by a wretched, old gargoyle named Leona Helmsley.

I interviewed with two different Big Shots. After sufficiently charming and dispensing with Big Shot #1, and while waiting for Big Shot #2 to show up, I snapped this photo from the conference room window. This is looking north up Park Avenue. I like this perspective because everything comes to a sharp point.

The third building on the left—the one that juts out a bit—is Lever House. Directly across the street is the Seagram Building. Both are considered influential architectural milestones and if a certain JZ wants to explain why in the comments section he should feel free to do so. The building one block north of the Seagram Building with the gold glow is the Waldorf-Astoria. This is the high-rent district.

Here's the elevator I took up to my interview. It's so Olde World New York. It's red painted wood with an ornate metal façade.

At the center of the abstract design at eye level is an interlocking "NYC" in front of two intertwined serpents. (Click on this one.)

The elevators have an over-the-top Louis XIV interior with a sky mural on the ceiling. It's flea market elegant.

The interviews went SO well, and my skill set is so suited to their needs, that before the day was over I got a call from the headhunter telling me they're interested. It would, however, be a three-month contract-to-hire. Nobody hires directly on staff anymore! Here we go again.

# # #

Boy, did I need a stiff drink after all that. It feels strange to drink at 3:00 in the afternoon, but when ya gotta, ya gotta. And I knew just the place.

I met CB, who is a writer and keeps very irregular hours, and Bob, who's visiting from London, at the elegant Campbell Apartment inside Grand Central Station. It's a little known, stately, watering hole tucked into the corner that looks out onto Vanderbilt Avenue. The drinks aren't cheap but it's an authentic New York place to have a libation.

The room was once the office of American financier John W. Campbell, who served on the New York Central's Board of Directors. It was never actually an apartment.

Light streams in and bathes the dark wood room with midday sun. There's balcony seating (from where I took these shots) where you can observe all the busy little creatures chasing out their destinies.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Of high art and low art

Mural with blue brush stroke (1987) is a five-story high mural in the atrium of the Equitable Life Assurance building on 7th Avenue and 53rd Street by benday dot master Roy Lichtenstein. I had always tried to get a photo of it but pictures are not permitted. The cracker jack lobby security guards are quick to jump on anyone who pulls a camera out of their bag.

I just got a 3G iPhone and the Facetime feature includes a forward facing camera. So by pretending to send a text message, I was able to take a pic over my shoulder. The work is a nice piece but this photo looks kind of washed out. The colors are more vivid in person. I haven't mastered my iPhone's camera functionality yet.

Now that I have an iPhone I feel like I've been given a seat at the cool kid's table in the cafeteria. The Facetime feature is kind of useless to me since I don't know anyone else with a 3G iPhone. I resisted the iPhone for years but now that I have one I kind of see what the fuss is all about.

# # #

I was out for lunch eating my ham sandwich and saw this homeless woman acting in a most peculiar way.

Upon closer examination, I saw that she was painting. She had a gallon can of what looked like white house paint and a small, small, model paint brush. She would dip the tip into the can of paint and make very deliberate and delicate squiggles of white paint on her shoe. She had already painted her backpack, luggage, pants and hat. (Click for detail.)

This pic doesn't do it justice. It makes it look like the suitcase is covered with pigeon droppings. But the work is actually quite detailed and delicate. I would hazard to say that the effort and number of hours spent on her project might rival that of Mr. Lichtenstein's mural above.

It made me wonder how the arbitrators of art—the ones who hold the purse strings and dole out commissions—get their position. And what separates one artist, who has his work displayed in corporate atriums and is a multimillionaire, from another artist who has the same burning need for artistic expression but is homeless. To me, these things have more to do with chance and circumstance than the quality of the work itself. I've seen works on display at MoMA that didn't have the same depth of thought as that suitcase.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It's Guess the Odd Shape Tuesday

Can anyone guess what this is without scrolling down?

Give up? It's the entrance to an inflatable tunnel at a local fair! What were you thinking?

If you think this looks odd, you should see what it looked like when they came out the other end. All sorts of anatomical horrors were called to mind.

# # #

I was passing by the Aéropostale store on 5th Avenue and saw a big hub-bub. A gaggle of tourists and clicking cameras on a busy Manhattan street can only mean one thing: celebrity sighting! I've lived here a long, long time and let me tell you something; spotting a celebrity NEVER gets old. I moved in for a closer look. I had faint hopes that it was one of my two pretend girlfriends; Mary Louise Parker or Marissa Tomei.

As expected, I was sorely disappointed in the extreme. It was the cut, hunky young man whose poster adorns the entrance. It was an in-store promotion. That guy has 0% body fat! The girls swooned. You know, they only want him for his washboard abs and exposed boxer shorts.

They don't care one whit about his mind. If I saw my Mary Louise or Marissa, I'd ask them a lot of questions about their aspirations and pay attention. I wouldn't stare longingly at their heaving breasts while they answered.

# # #

As I've admitted in the past, I'm just a big old Anglophile so, yes, I got sucked into the Royal Wedding madness just a bit. I know I should be too old and too detached to care but what can I say? There are taxi cabs roaming around town that carry a congratulatory message for the Royal Couple. I think this is so fine! It's New York tipping our hat to London.

Every morning before work I have a cup of coffee at the same corner deli. There's always a flat screen TV playing the A.M. talk shows. The sound on the TV is turned down and they stream the local lite rock radio station in the background. I got my coffee and sat at a table to watch the wedding coverage. Big stupid smile on my face wishing I was there. The carriage had left Westminster Abbey and was well on its way to Buckingham Palace. As it turned a corner, the radio station blasted Barry White's disco classic Can't Get Enough of Your Love. It was so perfectly timed that it made me wonder if it was intentional.

I got to my office and booted up to watch the balcony kiss from my desk. I thought the BBC was the place to go for the best coverage. Go to the source! I got this very British response when I clicked the "watch live" link:

Shouldn't the BBC have assumed that streaming traffic would be extraordinarily heavy that morning and somehow found a way to up their bandwidth? Who's running that joint?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tales of Terror for Tiny Tots

I bought 9-Year Old Daughter a box set of classic paperbacks packaged by Wordsworth Classics. Peter Pan. Treasure Island. The Wizard of Oz. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The usual suspects.

I was complaining that I was out of reading material so she went up to her room and came down with a book from that set. English Fairy Tales. She knows I'm an old Anglophile and I'm always pushing books under her nose so turnabout is fair play. Besides, the illustrations were by Arthur Rackham and I've always admired his work.

For the love of GOD what are you British people feeding your children!? These are not at all like the delicate, sanitized fables that I've been reading to my poor young innocents all these years. It's basically the same story over and over. Male royalty discovers downtrodden female commoner, falls in love and marries her. It's Cinderella over and over and over, but with acts of extreme violence and cruelty. To wit.

This is from Mr. Fox, the tale of a beautiful young maiden (They're always young and beautiful unless they are a "witch-woman" in which case they're old and ugly.) who discovers a secret about the man she is soon to marry. While exploring the castle she discovers...
Why! a wide saloon lit with many candles, and all round it, some hanging by their necks, some seated on chairs, some lying on the floor, were the skeletons and bodies of numbers of beautiful young maidens in their wedding-dresses that were all stained with blood.
In Babes in the Woods, a three-year old boy and his younger sister are abandoned in the woods by a mean uncle. Is there a fairy tale happy ending? Nay.
Thus wandered these poor innocents,
Till death did end their grief;
In one another's arms they died,
As wanting due relief:
No burial this pretty pair
From any man receives,
Till Robin Readbreast piously
Did cover them with leaves.
The Red Ettin is a fearsome creature who...
...stole King Malcom's daughter, The King of Scotland. He beats her, he binds her, He lays her on a band; And every day he strikes her With a bright silver wand.
The Fish and the Ring is (yet another) fable of a parent who unwittingly entrusts their child to the tender mercies of a cruel adult.
Well! the man he nigh jumped for joy, since he was to get good money, and his daughter, so he thought, a good home. Therefore he brought out the child then and there and the Barron, wrapping the babe in his cloak, rode away. But when he got to the river he flung the little thing into the swollen stream and said to himself as he galloped back to his castle: 'There goes fate!
In Molly Whuppie and the Double-Faced Giant, the giant is cheated out of his own riches by a conniving young man, and is tricked in a most heinous way:
For in the very middle of the night, when everybody else was dead asleep, and it was pitch dark, in comes the giant, all stealthy, feels for the straw chains, twists theme tight round the wearers' necks, half strangles his daughters, drags them on to the floor, and beats them till are quite dead.
The Little Red Riding Hood of my youth always ended with the hunter slaying the wolf. Not in the original English version:
'All the better to eat you with, my dear!' says that wicked, wicked wolf, and with that he gobbled up little Red Riding Hood.

The end.
I have a vague recollection of Disney making a movie out of the classic Tom Thumb. I don't recall how the movie ends, but I'm willing to bet it didn't end the way the original story did:
Thus Tom was once more in favour; but he did not live long to enjoy his good luck, for a spider one day attacked him, and though he fought well, the creature's poisonous breath proved too much for him; he fell dead on the ground where he stood, and the spider soon sucked every drop of his blood.
The Rose Tree borrows a page from Sweeney Todd. Or perhaps it's the other way around.
And the child did as she was bid without fear; and lo! the beautiful little golden head was off in a second, by one blow of the axe. Because she was a wicked witch-woman, knowing spells and charms, she took out the heart of the little girl and make it into two savoury pasties, one for her husband's breakfast and one for the little boy's.
The English might be a bunch of crazies, but I still wish I was one of them.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Two sides of the same NYC coin

I just came from Lincoln Center where I saw a piano recital. I know most people would find that to be a big bore-fest of an evening but that stuff feeds my needs. The program included Bach's Tocatta and the beautiful Six Moments Musicaux by Rachmaninoff. The pianist was Xiayin Wang and, oh Sweet Mother of Jesus, what a performance! Do you realize the level of musicianship someone needs to attain in order to play at Alice Tully Hall? It takes a superhuman, almost mystical capability. You have to be, quite literally, among the best in the world.

They completed a major renovation of Alice Tully Hall just two years ago. The concert hall itself is a work of art. It's all soft angles and perfect acoustics and warm wood and full sound. And it's super-comfortable, to boot. I was sitting on the side balcony, which is the perfect view to watch her fingers dance across the keyboard.

The program had this to say about Bach's Tocatta:
The intervening slow passage raises questions of its own in its harmonic circling, and has to deal with an early crisis in the form of an extraordinary diminished-seventh tremulation.

What a bunch of pretentious gobbledygook. They could just as well have written this:
Gpungh elwengh crothzen leumbh geewee goygoy fungsell weveweve neng.
# # #

The day before I was bathed in Lincoln Center splendor, I passed this on Varick Street in Soho on the way to work:

Yeah, vermin proof if the lid is on. What kind of twisted city ordinance requires that the garbage bins that are vermin proof need to be labeled as such? Vermin can't read. I like the lettering. It looks like the cover of a death-metal CD. I am happy to report that I saw this near the Trump Soho Hotel. Make of that what you will.

Since I work on the third floor, I don't bother with the elevator. I take the stairs up. Right after I saw vermin-proof, I bumped into this little fella right around the second floor:

It looks like someone mushed his little head. They call these "water bugs" but that just a pleasant name for a BIG cockroach. I should have put a coin next to him to give you a sense of scale. He's a bit larger than your thumb.

New York. You gotta take the world-class pianists with the vermin.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Head on a stick

Ai Weiwei is a contemporary Chinese artist. He helped design the "bird's nest" stadium for the Chinese Olympics and recently had an exhibit at the Tate Modern in London where he covered the turbine hall floor with sunflower seeds that were made from porcelain.

He is currently sitting in a jail cell in China. (No one knows exactly where.) He was snatched as he boarded a flight to Hong Kong. The government said he has committed "economic crimes." I don't suppose his detention has anything to do with his outspokenness, does it? China is a terrible, terrible place. They're not our friends.

A fantastic sculpture exhibit by Mr. Ai, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, just opened outside of the Plaza Hotel at Central Park South and 59th Street. The exhibit was long planned and he was supposed to be there for the opening, but it's hard to attend your opening when your legs are in shackles.

The bronze sculptures are 12 heads of the creatures of the Chinese zodiac. They're much, much bigger than I thought they'd be. I was told by the guy selling exhibit books and tee-shirts that they weigh 800 pounds each!

There's rat, ox, tiger...

...rabbit, dragon, snake..., goat, monkey...

...and rooster, dog, boar.

Dragon is, by far, the most beautifully rendered. Click on this and have a look.

The heads are replicas of versions that were made by European Jesuits for the Manchu emperor Qianlong. They were looted in 1860 when the Summer Palace was ransacked and burned by British and French troops during the Opium Wars. The Chinese government eventually retrieved five of them (ox, tiger, horse, monkey and boar). Two of them (rat and rabbit) are part of designer Yves Saint Laurent's art collection. The remaining five are presumed lost forever.

Unlike Mr. Ai, the exhibit is FREE! FREE! FREE! It runs through July 15th.

# # #

To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance.