Kool Kat of the Week: Seventeen Years of Stompin’ and Stammerin’: How Jeff Clark Sold His Soul to Rock and Roll Journalism

Posted on: Nov 19th, 2013 By:

Jeff Clark, Editor/Publisher of Stomp and Stammer, costumed as Alice Cooper for the 2012 L5P Halloween Parade.

Happy Birthday, Stomp and Stammer! There’s no way we’re missing your badass two-day party this weekend at The Earl including Prince Rama headlining on Friday Nov. 22 and legendary soul man Swamp Dogg at the helm on Saturday Nov. 23. Here’s why:

Maybe ATLRetro ought to think of Stomp and Stammer as the competition–and yeah, we’ve been known to sneak more than a peek at their calendar when putting together This Week in Retro Atlanta. But I’d much rather call Atlanta’s independent rock music tabloid an inspiration and Publisher/Editor Jeff Clark a good friend and a kickass music journalist with a no-holds-barred attitude for telling it as he hears it. Sometimes that pisses off folks, sure, but with Jeff’s encyclopedic knowledge of rock from its roots to the present, we think he’s earned the right to call out some pretenders. I’ve joked a few times that I gave Jeff his first big break when I was editing Tuesday Magazine, what the features and entertainment section of Georgia State University‘s student newspaper The Signal was called way back in the 1980s. But I think it was actually my predecessor Brad Hundt. In any case, while I was lucky to have many fine writers back in the day, I stand by the assertion that Jeff was and still is the best.

In any case, Atlanta is damned lucky to have a great free music print tabloid like Stomp and Stammer, especially in this online era. While Jeff has assembled a mighty swell staff over the years, it takes the right pilot and a hefty dose of passion to keep something this awesome going for so many years. If that doesn’t make Jeff a Kool Kat, we don’t know what does, and we’re mighty excited to have the chance to ask him about his own musical roots, how he got into writing, the origin story of Stomp and Stammer, the killer line-up he has booked for The Earl this weekend, and when he plans to throw another of his famous yard sales.

ATLRetro: With your musical knowledge, we wonder if you were listening to a stereo in the womb. Seriously where do your musical roots start? What age and what did you listen to?

Jeff Clark: Hard to remember any specific moment or time, truthfully. I do recall having a little red transistor radio when I was a kid. It was pretty small, about the size of a juice box, and I think it only played AM stations. Back then there was a lot more music on AM than there is today, and I was significantly enthralled by the sounds that were coming out of that thing. I used to carry it around with me all sorts of places, and I think at some point I somehow attached it to my bicycle, probably with tape or rubber bands, so that I would have a radio to listen to while I was zippin’ through the neighborhood doing wheelies.

I used to crudely record songs from the radio onto cassette tapes, and make my own mix tapes that way. Keep in mind that this was early/mid ’70s AM radio, WQXI and stuff, so a good deal of the songs were from cheesy one-hit wonders and such, but to me it was the epitome of cool. I also remember listening to that little radio late one night, in bed, with the volume very low so my parents wouldn’t know I had it on, and you know how on the AM band, especially at night, storms, even at a great distance away, cause interference with muffled crackles and electric frizzle? So “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac came on, and with all the soft crackly static bursts punctuating the verses intermittently, in the dead of night, alone in my room, it was probably the spookiest song I’d ever heard. “Thunder only happens when it’s raining…” To this day, it’s one of my favorite songs.

A few years later, my older brother was going to Georgia Tech and ended up doing some work at WREK, the college station there. So I started listening to WREK simply because he worked there, even though he wasn’t one of the DJs. That was a major revelation, because that station’s always been so adventurously programmed. I heard all sorts of weird, wonderful music, some of which stuck with me and piqued my interest in the underground scene. I specifically remember hearing the Velvet Underground for the first time on WREK and loving it, although I’ve long forgotten which song it was.

Eye Candy, featuring Shonna Tucker (Drive-By Truckers).

Other memories stick out, like seeing bands on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in its early years, when they actually had cool, interesting musical guests. Watching the local TV coverage of the Sex Pistols‘ US debut at the Great Southeast Music Hall. Being introduced to the Ramones by a really cool girl I had a crush on in high school, I have no idea whatever happened to her. Laughing at CREEM magazine. Seeing PiL on AMERICAN BANDSTAND, still one of the weirdest, most anarchic TV appearances by a band I’ve ever seen. The first really big concert I went to was The Who at The Omni. That was 1980, I think. After that it was The Kinks, Dylan, Zappa, all at the Fox, I think. Got a job at Turtle’s Records not too long after high school, and that provided another great avenue to discover new music, and meet fellow fans. By that point I was going to shows at 688, the Agora, the Moonshadow Saloon, etc, all the time, and there ya go.

Did you ever consider being in a band yourself? If yes, what instrument did you play or would you have played?

When I was a kid, like a lot of kids I would fantasize about how cool it would be to be a big rock star in a band that toured the world playing to millions of fans. I had an electric guitar for a while, but never really learned to play it very well at all. I know I should’ve kept at it, but after a certain point I realized I was better suited to channel my deep interest in music in other ways. Besides, I’m pretty certain I would write terrible songs and I’d have to give myself a scathing review, and then I’d let a bitter grudge against myself fester for months upon months until I physically attacked myself in a drunken rage in public one evening. And that would just be embarrassing.

When did you do your band interview, who was the band and when/where was it published? How did it go?

My first band interview was probably not for a publication, but an on-air interview for WRAS when I was attending Georgia State University, late ’80s. But I did lots of interviews for them, and I can’t remember which was the first. My first published interview was for for The Signal, the GSU student newspaper. I started writing for it after I was temporarily canned from 88.5 at some juncture. So my first published interview for The Signal was either Dinosaur Jr (Lou Barlow) or Edie Brickell & New Bohemians (not Edie but their guitar player, can’t remember his name). I hope it was Dinosaur Jr, because that’s at least cool, but then the first band I ever saw play was Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show (a terrible, hokey ’70s act) at Six Flags, so I’ve never really had the cool factor in my favor. As an aside, I started both writing and doing radio while at GSU, and I’ve pretty much consistently done both ever since.

Legendary soul man Swamp Dogg headlines Stomp and Stammer 17th Birthday Weekend, Night Two.

Ha, I think the first rock band I ever saw live was Paul Revere and the Raiders at Carowinds. You’ve watched the Atlanta music scene for over two decades now. What local band are you saddest to say had the most potential but never made it out of here?

There have been lots of them! For a long time, no one paid much attention to Atlanta bands. Like, on a national scale. In the ’80s Atlanta was overlooked because there was so much attention paid to Athens, and in the 1990s, the rap/urban thing started getting huge with So So Def and LaFace and all their acts, so that sort of became known as “the Atlanta sound.” You had exceptions, for sure, like the Georgia Satellites and Indigo Girls and whatnot, but I tended to prefer the more offbeat ensembles. Things like Opal Foxx Quartet, Smoke, Dirt, Magic Bone, King-Kill/33, these were all amazing bands in their own way, but I wouldn’t say that any of them were really destined for mainstream acceptance. Interestingly, in some circles Benjamin (Smoke, OFQ) has posthumously become a small scale celebrity. I mean, there was a multimedia dance performance in New York recently based loosely on his life, featuring Smoke songs. That, to me, is rather bizarre.

These days, with the major label system barely a factor as far as signing new talent, especially in the rock realm, most bands aspire to getting attention from Merge or Vice Records or In the Red or other established indies, if they have any label aspirations at all. Often a band can cultivate a solid following by releasing music themselves, putting it online, using social networking, blogs and word of mouth and touring with other likeminded bands that already have a dedicated fan base. It seems like the potential rewards are far less than they once were, but the ability to make a living playing music is actually more acheivable if a band is good, smart and works hard.

Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires will be be backing up Swamp Dogg on Saturday Night. Photo credit: Barry Breicheisen.

Anyway, back to your question. In the past couple of years, I thought both Knaves Grave and Ghost Bikini were amazing bands that certainly had the talent and potential to break out of Atlanta, at least on the indie label, fill-a-small-club scale if not greater. Both of them broke up a few years after forming. That sort of thing happens everywhere in every city’s scene. It’s disappointing, but what can you do? Bands are often volatile, it’s like a three or four or five-way marriage, and in many cases the personalities aren’t the most mature.

Before Stomp and Stammer, you were writing for multiple news venues, including national outlets like Details? Why did you decide to devote your energies to creating a damned fine local music zine instead?

I think it’s probably because it gives me the freedom to do what I want. I wrote pieces for a few national publications – Details, Raygun, Alternative Press, a few others. That was cool, but I really get more personal satisfaction doing the stupid stuff I do with S&S. That’s probably crazy, I suppose. Also, there aren’t that many national magazines covering good music anymore (meaning, music that interests me) in the print world, and at this point I’d probably make less money doing that anyway. Having S&S gives me an anchor that I know will be there month to month, and I don’t have to keep pitching stories as a freelancer to editors that don’t give a shit about Kid Congo or whoever I’m inspired to write about that day.

Also, for the most part, I hate writing. I do it because I can, and I’m not bad at it, and I’m writing about things that interest me. But most times I’d rather just be able to enjoy music without having to think about it. On the other hand, I have a lot of strong opinions (who knew?) and writing certainly allows an outlet for them. And that’s another thing – I don’t know of a national publication that would let me say some of the things I say. Everyone’s so fucking afraid of offending somebody.

Prince Rama headlines Friday night of Stomp and Stammer's 17th Birthday Weekend.

How did Stomp and Stammer get started? It must have been challenging paying print costs in the beginning, but then you already had a long rolodex of contacts in the music industry and local scene to hit up for advertising.

My friend Steve Pilon started it with me in 1996. Both of us were working at 99X at the time, and we were sort of in charge of putting together this little free monthly music magazine they did for a while to promote the station and the music they played. In retrospect, from 99X’s perspective it was a mistake to put me in charge of such a thing. They did it because I’d been writing for Creative Loafing for several years; therefore, in their minds, I knew how to put together a free magazine. I had no idea what I was doing. Shortly after 99Xpress started in early 1995 I got Steve the job of doing the layout for it. He and his wife had a record label at the time called Long Play Records, they put out Smoke, Opal Foxx Quartet, Big Fish Ensemble, a few other acts, and Steve did the design work for the CDs. Anyway, basically we used that year to experiment and put all sorts of silly things in the 99X magazine, some of which included mocking some of the acts they were playing, which was clearly a mistake and I’m sure ultimately contributed to my dismissal from the station. But we learned how to plan issues, and layouts, and deal with advertisers, and PR people, distribution locations, etc. We learned how to make a magazine.

So it was Steve’s idea to start Stomp and Stammer. He was the publisher, I was the editor. At first it was just an online zine. This was, I think, April 1996. I guess it was sort of ahead of its time, in that respect, so ahead of its time that we found it incredibly difficult to find anyone willing to pay for advertising in an online-only music magazine. So in November ’96, the first print edition came out. I think it was a mix of Steve’s and my contacts in the local scene as well as national labels that allowed us to have a pretty solid advertising base from the get-go. Steve left the fold a few years later to focus on other, more lucrative endeavors. Delusionally, I opted to stick it out. And while everyone tends to treat me as if I AM Stomp and Stammer, we have many talented writers, designers, photographers, distributors, advertisers, etc contributing to every issue, and they deserve a huge chunk of the credit for keeping the operation going.

White Woods is on Stomp and Stammer's Friday night line-up.

Why do you still distribute printed copies of Stomp and Stammer versus going online only? And it’s free, too. Is it challenging staying print in an online world?

As far as getting advertising and paying printing costs, that’s always a challenge. I’ve gone through some extremely lean patches at times. Why do we still distribute printed copies? I guess I’m old fashioned. And I think there’s still a significant part of the population that enjoys picking up such things at the record store, or reading while they eat their burrito, or while they’re at the bar, or taking a crap or whatever. There are certain qualities that printed matter can provide that online cannot. Everyone and their mother has a blog nowadays, and I just don’t know if I’d want S&S to just be another one cluttering up the internets. Instead, we’re killing trees and cluttering up the window ledge at Eats. I’ve found it extremely hard to make any significant advertising profit online, then again printing costs are crazy and keep rising. Is one way better or worse? I don’t know.

You have some pretty killer and also diverse line-ups for both nights of Stomp and Stammer birthday shows. Did you have any particular goals in the kind of music/musicians you wanted to include?

I always want to put on a great show and showcase bands that we’re really digging, especially new local bands. If possible, I also like doing things that are a bit out of the ordinary, like people that have never played Atlanta or if they have, then not in a long time. So that usually entails bringing in acts from out of town. Some years I’ll just stick with local bands to keep costs lower, but this year I decided to go for broke and fly in a few headliners that wouldn’t have played here otherwise, and that I think really need to be seen and experienced. I also don’t like repeating myself, so every year I try to get bands that have never played our birthday shows before. And I like to mix up genres a little bit, not just do the same sort of thing.

Zoners play Friday night. Photo Credit: Bobb Lovett.

Can you tell our readers a bit about the different acts and what makes them special? Anything else you’d like to make sure they know in advance?

Well, as far as the first night (Friday, Nov. 22), Prince Rama are just one of the most creative, fun, strange, fascinating bands I’ve heard or seen in the past few years. They are two sisters in their 20s who grew up in rural Texas and in Florida in a Hare Krishna community, and now they are based in New York. They have really interesting, inventive ideas about music, art, film and fashion, and they combine all of it together with Prince Rama. Their current music is sort of an amalgmation of dance music, psychedelia, pop and various ethnic sounds from cultures the world over. And they are just really cool people.

Zoners are a fairly new Atlanta band on the scene that look like a bunch of misfits tossed together but have a really tight, punchy pop-punk sound. Catchy original songs, and they cover the Dickies and 999, and that works for me! White Woods is Julia Kugel of the Coathangers. She’s put out two White Woods singles on Suicide Squeeze but has never played a White Woods show ’til now. She’s put together a band including Matt from Zoners. I don’t know exactly what it will be like, but I’m certain it will be wonderful.

Sodajerk opens Saturday night of Stomp and Stammer's 17th Birthday Weekend.

The next night, Saturday, Nov. 23, we have Swamp Dogg playing what he says is his first show in Atlanta, even though he recorded and produced at studios in Macon, Muscle Shoals and elsewhere in the South throughout the ’70s. He’s a really great soul singer, but his material is a bit more off-the-wall than most of his peers. He’s a funny, wacky character who says “motherfucker” a lot, has tons of stories to tell about his life, and is enjoying a significant comeback this year with the re-release of much of his back catalog via Alive Naturalsound Records. His backing band will basically be Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires, a gritty, raw, powerful, working class outfit based mainly in Birmingham although Lee himself lives in Atlanta. The Glory Fires also recorded for Alive, but I found out Lee was a big Swamp Dogg fan after he and the Glory Fires recorded a version of “Total Destruction to Your Mind,” probably Swamp’s best known song. So a few issues back, I had Lee interview Swamp for S&S, and that turned out so well I thought it’d be cool to take it one step further and have his band and Swamp Dogg collaborate on some shows. They’re also playing together in Athens at the 40 Watt the night before our show.

Speaking of Athens, the Drive-By Truckers are certainly one of Athens’ more popular bands of the past decade-plus, and that’s where Shonna Tucker cut her chops for many years. Now she’s doing her own thing with her band Eye Candy, featuring fellow ex-DBTer John Neff and other longtime Athens players. They have a debut album just out called A TELL ALL, which to my ears combines the sound of prime Muscle Shoals, classic Nashville country and ’70s AM radio playlists. I’m very pleased to have them on our bill this night. Opening the show will be Sodajerk, an Atlanta four-piece who haven’t been playing much lately so I was happy to find out they could do the show. They specialize in loud, crunchy, concise redneck rock ‘n’ roll, perfect for fist-pumping and PBR-pounding.

Jeff Clark (center) channels SCARY MONSTERS era Bowie for the 2013 L5P Halloween Parade.

I honestly think these are really strong lineups, and even though they may not be household names, I stand behind every one of these bands and I guarantee these shows are gonna be a blast. I hope you and your readers come out and make party with us!

Finally, we’ve gotta ask, when is your next yard sale?

Next spring. April. Hopefully on one of the first beautiful Atlanta springtime Saturdays of the season.

Creative Loafing just ran a nice little piece on Jeff, too. Check it out here

All photos are courtesy of Stomp and Stammer and for promotional use only.

Category: Kool Kat of the Week | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Kool Kat of the Week: Mad, Mad Music Radio: Col. Bruce Hampton Takes His Eclectic Talents to the Airwaves with Radio Free Radio on AM 1690

Posted on: May 13th, 2013 By:

Radio Free Radio; Hosted by Col. Bruce Hampton and Michael Holbrook; 7 p.m.;  first and third Thursdays of each month

By William Ashton
Contributing Writer

For a self-proclaimed “shy accountant,” Col. Bruce Hampton has made a spectacle of himself for more than four decades. He’s acted in an Oscar-winning movie (SLING BLADE [1996]), made 15 records (or so) and helped organize the H.O.R.D.E. concert tours of the ‘90s, but he’s mostly known as a performing musician, playing thousands of shows since the late 1960s.

A big, genial man, Hampton had a heart attack a few years ago, but he still plays 150 shows a year. He says that, at age “66 and above ground,” that’s plenty. “If I could go on at 8 p.m., I’d do more, but a lot of southern clubs start at 11,” he says. “It’s a young man’s game.”

Col. Bruce Hampton’s music is an unpredictable blend of blues, jazz and psychedelic rock, with a dash of funk and what not. Before the term “jam band” was coined, Hampton was jamming; he’s played  guitar and sang with The Hampton Grease Band, Aquarium Rescue Unit and Fiji Mariners (among others). A touchstone for many musicians in the jam-band circuit, Hampton was there for all but one H.O.R.D.E. tour in the ‘90s, he recalls.

“The only time I missed [H.O.R.D.E.] was when I went out with [the late blues musician] Hubert Sumlin one year, which was fine. We were in Louisiana one night when Sumlin offered to take us to the Crossroads [the intersection along Mississippi’s Highway 61 where blues legend Robert Johnson was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil]. We declined very quickly,” Hampton says. “It was a long way away.”

Col. Bruce Hampton (his legal name, he says) has recently taken his talents to the airwaves, playing music and sharing stories on AM 1690’s “Radio Free Radio” with former Hampton Grease Band member Michael Holbrook.  The show airs at 7 pm on the first and third Thursdays of each month.

“I’ve done occasional programs on AM 1690. Jon Waterhouse (from the radio station) asked us to do it every other week,” he said. “I do whatever Jon tells me.”

Hampton and Holbrook seem to have thousands of stories about life on the road, touching on encounters with everyone from Frank Zappa and John Lennon to Muddy Waters and Chet Atkins.

Playing with G.E. Smith led to Hampton’s sitting in on-air with the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE band one night a couple of decades ago, when Smith was “SNL’s” musical director. Longtime friend Billy Bob Thornton cast Hampton in SLING BLADE – and Hampton’s band performs in Thornton’s forthcoming movie JAYNE MANSFIELD’S CAR.

Sometime this year, Atlanta fans may see Col. Bruce playing regularly at the long-shuttered Avondale Towne Cinema. Hampton is among those meeting with Avondale city officials, with a goal of reopening the venue under new management, he says.

“A couple of lawyers from Alabama are planning to reopen the venue, and music will certainly be a part of it,” said Hampton, who saw wrestling matches at the Avondale landmark when he was growing up in the Decatur area. “I’ll try to play there twice a month and have guest artists. We had a similar (residency) at Brandywine in the ‘90s and it was a huge success.”

Another successful outlet for Hampton’s talents are the summertime Jam Cruises, which gather assorted musicians – many from New Orleans – for musical voyages through the Caribbean.

Hampton seems surprised that he likes the cruises. “I dislike Disney World. I hate just about everything with a lot of people involved, but this is the greatest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “There’s food 24 hours a day, music 20 hours a day. The musicians are the cream of the crop. It’s fascinating and great.”

Hampton’s own fascinating story is the subject of a 2012 documentary, BASICALLY FRIGHTENED: THE MUSICAL MADNESS OF COLONEL BRUCE HAMPTON; the DVD (with new bonus live footage) has recently gained distribution through Amazon.com after a couple of years of limited availability.

Category: Kool Kat of the Week | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER by Seth Grahame-Smith: The Novel Is Better Than You’d Think, and Maybe That’s the Problem

Posted on: Feb 12th, 2013 By:

By Robert Emmett Murphy, Jr.
Special to ATLRetro.com

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER By Seth Grahame-Smith; Grand Central Publishing. 384 pages.

If the forecasts of the end of publishing as we know it, and the end of the novel as an important art form, prove correct, what will we be left with?

Well, one thing I note when I go into a bookstore is that though there’s not as much of what I personally want any more, there’s an ever growing abundance of at least one type of product. The product is remarkably adaptable to our all-too-instantaneous culture, and so deeply committed to vacillating fashions, that though the books are individually ephemeral, they are collectively eternal. I refer to novelty books.

Each is quickly produced, and just as quickly forgotten, yet the space they occupy is never empty. And if you return to that space over and over again, you will see that our impulsive and unconsidered consumption of facile distraction represents a continuum, demonstrating evidence of the hive mind and proof of a certain form of reincarnation. Moreover, within these novelties, maybe sometimes there is the possibility of a slightly substantive literature.

Both of Seth Grahame-Smith’s two most famous novels, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE WITH ZOMBIES and this one, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, were commissioned for gimmicky series dreamed up by his editor at Grand Central Books. In both cases, he was the only novelist engaged who was able to play with the gimmicks (rewriting classics with monsters, reimagining historical figures with monsters) in a way that received significant positive critical attention. Grahame-Smith has a rare gift (or compulsion) to infuse some artistry to a throwaway idea. His literary career is distinguished by focusing on some ersatz absurdity, applying a sharper intelligence than many would think the subject deserves, and then keeping his one-note-joke buoyed by imaginative wit and exceptional attention to telling detail. He knows how the mechanisms of the B- and exploitation-movies make a narrative move, and he knows how to toss in just enough brain candy so that we don’t feel as guilty while reading his work as we did that time when Mom caught us flipping though the pages of a dirty magazine. (I should throw in, his first book was THE BIG BOOK OF PORN, a modestly seriously-minded history of the porn industry.) Here we have (as Gina McIntyre put it) “a great SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch” transformed into a full-blooded, even epic novel.

In classic “high-concept” style (who the hell coined “high-concept”? It’s deliberating misleading as it inevitably targets the lowest common denominator!), the title says it all. I expected it to be fun, and it was, but I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was. And there in lies the rub – it was good enough to disappoint. When I saw what Graham-Smith was capable of doing, he raised my expectations, and then I found myself disappointed he didn’t do even more.

No one reading ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is expecting either a real biography, or something comparable to the truly timeless historical novels like WAR AND PEACE. This is a populist fiction about a President we like a lot more in myth that reality. Rather than comparing this book to Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s TEAM OF RIVALS (the basis of the Steven Spielberg movie LINCOLN) or Leo Tolstoy, we are more in the territory of the movie YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, that sentimental piece of heliography that made Henry Fonda a star back in 1939 (directed by John Ford, written by Lamar Trotti).

Well, like YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, only with more a lot more blood and a much higher body count.

But then Grahame-Smith surprises us with a Lincoln who is many times more believable than Fonda’s. This Lincoln is strongly sympathetic, and though frequenting engaging in super-heroic antics, he’s neither a paragon of some ideal (Superman) nor an invitingly unoccupied vessel for the reader to fill with over-textural identification (most private eye heros). Clearly, Graham-Smith learned a few things from comic-book pioneer Stan Lee’s formula. In the past, Graham-Smith has collaborated with Lee, and here we see that the student far has excelled the master.

The novel begins in 2008, with a fictional version of Seth Grahame-Smith deep in a writer’s funk as he watches President Obama’s first inauguration. At this historically appropriate moment, he is offered a confusing, disturbing, perhaps dangerous, but also irresistible commission: to edit and flesh-out a long rumored of, but never made public diary which represents nothing short of a secret history of the Civil War, and by extension, America’s development and the whole of Western Civilization. You see, vampires are real, and the diary was Abraham Lincoln’s own record of his war against them.

The novel that follows switches back and forth between Lincoln’s secret dairies, which are, of course, fiction, woven seamlessly in with Lincoln’s letters, which are real, and Grahame-Smith’s omniscient third-person narrative, which is based on the testimony of surviving (undead) witnesses and a great deal of material pulled directly from more respectable historical sources.

The novel starts in Lincoln’s childhood and shows his development in a rich and thoughtful in a way that too little genre fiction has much patience for. Deftly sketched is Lincoln’s complicated family tree, the challenges of his humble beginnings, his strained relationship with his father, his enormous personal drive, his insatiable intellectual curiosity, and how his life’s trajectories were guided by a series of early tragic losses and economic reversals. Lincoln’s famous battle with depression is woven throughout the book, but treated with an appropriately light touch, because Grahame-Smith instinctively knows that had the depression truly been crippling, Lincoln would’ve never become Lincoln. It is somewhat removed from the “cult of Lincoln” of popular myth and somewhat closer to a figure historians would recognize.

At least up to a point.

The “up to a point” part is the crux of the novel, because in 1820 Lincoln realizes his life is being shaped by the capricious whim and insatiable hunger of supernatural entities that are stronger, faster, more experienced and more skillful than he. In 1820, he launches a one-man covert-war against their evil.

The novel is at its strongest when addressing Lincoln’s early days. Rich in the biographical detail of years that many, even Civil War buffs, are not fully familiar with, this part of Lincoln’s life is the era in which this kind of keyhole narrative can most easily be integrated into historical realities. The young Lincoln rambled widely, living and working in several states and trying out several professions, giving any adept writer abundant opportunity to paint the landscape vividly and imaginatively and still remain in the context of the verifiable. When Grahame-Smith puts words in his fictional Lincoln’s mouth, he displays a fluid style that is often lacking in like-pastiches, for example, when the diary recounts what Lincoln witnessed at a slave auction:

“I saw a Negro girl of three or four clinging to her mother, confused as to why she was dressed in such clothes; why she had been scrubbed the night before; made to stand on this platform while men shouted numbers and waved pieces of paper in the air. Again I wondered why a Creator who had dreamt such beauty would have slandered it with such evil.”

By this point in the narrative, Lincoln has already allied himself with a group of not-so-evil vampires who call themselves the “Union” –  get it? – against the other more powerful group who dominated Southern politics and society. His political career which would start not long after and be shaped by that association. The contrasts in which the story revels rest on this foundation, largely historical content vs. horror-movie scares and comic-book action scenes.

The horror/action content is fast- paced, hugely entraining and often quite funny. In one episode, Lincoln, now a lawyer, is bruised in court with the loss of a civil suit; that evening he goes out on a vampire hunt. To his surprise, it turns out that evening’s monster is none other than his client from earlier in the day. Just as they are about engage in their death duel, the demoness hisses contemptuously that Lincoln better hope that he’s a better fighter than an attorney.

Grahame-Smith’s historical fidelity grants his hero a more interesting character arc than most pulp heroes. When this fictional Lincoln, mimicking the real one, falls in love, marries, has children and enters politics, he does something few action heroes ever do, but most men of accomplishment accept as an inevitability. He puts aside childish things (in this case, his axe) and creates a more stable and sustainable life, integrating himself into new venues, and pondering how he can apply the lessons of his youth to the realities of maturity.

This radical turn in the narrative allows the pulp novel to be shaped by more-complex-than-average relationships. Lincoln profoundly loves his wife, who is treated with a lot more respect here than in most dramatizations of Lincoln’s life, but  still he turns his back on her in her hour of greatest need. After losing a second child, she spirals into mental instability, but by then he is President and in the midst of the ultimate national crisis. I also liked the handling of his long-rivalry, and occasional allegiance, with Stephen Douglas, who in most Lincoln dramas is regulated to a single footnote incident.

The novel leans heavily on mano-a-mano combat up to this point, and as the more complex history unfolds, Grahame-Smith repeatedly interrupts it with more breathless action-episodes. During the build-up to the Civil War, the retired vampire hunter reluctantly accepts one last vital mission from his Union allies.

So the hero’s reluctantly dragged out of retirement for one last vital mission. Yeah, we all know how well those generally work out, don’t we?

This situation leads to a wild scene where Lincoln and his two assistant vampire hunters, Joshua Speed and Jack Armstrong (both historical characters), are hopelessly trapped in a burning plantation-manor-house, surrounded by an army of vampires, while Jefferson Davis, in classic melodramatic villain style, gives a smug speech about the superiority of his cravenness over Abe’s naive virtues. It would not have been out of place in the recent film DJANGO UNCHAINED.

As entertaining as all this interplay is, it also is evidence of the difficulties of taking a story that was one thing and trying to mutate into another into another. This problem is demonstrated even in the number of pages the book devotes to this subject or that. A full 187 pages are required to get us to the year 1843, when Lincoln hangs up his axe. After that, a mere 146 pages is left to get him into Congress, then the White House, guide the nation through the Civil War, and fall to an assassin’s bullet (by the way, John Wilkes Booth was a vampire).

Joshua Speed.

However, Graham-Smith, making vampires the primary drivers of the slave economy and the secret force behind the South’s mad, headlong rush into war, has stumbled across a near perfect metaphor. Vampires, since Dracula, have represented hold-over superstitions trying to keep the shadows deep and dark in the face of the light of reason and modernity, and they are simultaneously the aristocracy and the parasite. They have been exploited to make political points not only in fiction but presidential campaign rhetoric (anyone remember the “Romney is a Vampire” TV ad?). The metaphor has rarely been utilized as forcefully as here, but unfortunately it isn’t used to dig as deep as it could. Having set the stage so deftly, Graham-Smith fails to utilize his fantasy to illuminate real themes in history as historical fictions are generally expected to do.

One thing almost every Lincoln drama gets wrong is how slowly his positions on slavery evolved. From his earliest years, he found slavery morally repugnant, and his abolitionist rhetoric was fiery in even his earliest political speeches. But even well into the Civil War, his policies regarding the institution were, in fact, quite moderate (and from a 21st century perspective, reprehensible). Preservation of the Union was his number one priority, freeing the slaves was way down the list. It would not be much of a stretch to say he’d have been satisfied to institute a handful of reforms that maybe could have been utilized by others later, and that he was okay with the possibility that the end of slavery was something he didn’t personally live to see.

The first step in seeing someone as human is fully recognizing them as real. There’s little reason to think that black slaves, who did move Lincoln’s heart when he saw them suffer from a distance, were ever close enough to him that he was forced to see them as real as his friends and associates, or even as real as his bitter enemies. There’s little or no record of Lincoln having substantive encounters with blacks during his formative years in rural Kentucky. Working on a flat boat on the Mississippi, he wasn’t likely to be invited into the homes of slave owners, nor to encounter the minority of black freemen in his day-to-day labors. Though Lincoln married the daughter of a prominent slave-holder, he was not close to his in-laws, and he and his wife settled in a free state. I’d wager that it’s not likely he had a conversation with a black person longer than 10 words before went to Washington in 1846, maybe not until he entered the White House in 1861, and maybe not even until his memorable meeting with Frederick Douglass in 1863 (which isn’t included in this particular book).

Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Stephen Spielberg's LINCOLN. Dreamworks/20th Century Fox, 2012.

Moreover, not only was Lincoln not a liberal by today’s standards, he was a man of a time when it would’ve been almost overwhelming intellectually challenging to conceive of blacks as fully of the same species as whites. He was quite articulate in expressing his belief that blacks were inferior to whites. Lincoln’s moral evolution was a long road that most dramatists don’t want to admit he had to travel. Nor do they want to acknowledge that his eventual abandonment of comfortable, if reprehensible, moderation and his heroic embrace of a righteous stand was something that he was burdened with, in part, by the Confederate madness.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER doesn’t misrepresent Lincoln’s relationship with slavery, but having built so a fine bridge of fantasy to this true subject, it side-steps it rather than crossing it.

The novel is better in evoking the madness and hopeless of the Southern cause, but even here I find fault. We see the relentless spiral towards war through Lincoln’s eyes in the first-person entries. But Graham-Smith also availed himself of the third person omniscient, yet didn’t utilize it when it was most needed. It should’ve been said that the South had a smaller population, a limited industrial base, and significantly no cannon factories. The Confederate strategy was to strike first in the months between the election and inauguration and then dig in so that the Federal Government couldn’t respond. When Lincoln chose the course of military engagement, the South inevitably was doomed. Yet almost four years and more than 600,000 lives were forfeited to this pointless exercise. Even to that last moment, the firing on Fort Sumter – hell, even after that last moment – the South had so many other options, but they acted with the kind of irrational absolutism that we now associate with only the maddest of despots or the presumptuousness of the divine (read: supernatural) right of kings.

According to a 1973 study by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, had the South ended the institution of slavery by buying and freeing all the slaves instead of going to war, it would’ve cost them about $2.7 billion 1861 dollars. True, it is hard to imagine the political will to execute such a plan could’ve ever been mustered, but what were the costs of turning their collective backs on any compromise or accommodation? On the Southern side alone, the most often-cited figures are $1 billion in property destruction, $1.5 billion in loss of human capital, $767 million for war expenditures, and an appalling 258,000 dead young men. To this, Goldin added a net economic difference of $10 billion between an imaginary South without rebellion and the one we got, in which wide regions wallowed in near continuous recession for the next 80 years. This is the kind of clarifying extra that the fictional narrator Graham-Smith could have provided us with, but that the fictional diarist Lincoln couldn’t have been reasonably expected to.

Poster art for the movie of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012).

And not for nothing, the real Lincoln, who couldn’t have done Goldin’s math, wasn’t insensitive to the idea. In an 1862 letter Lincoln wrote, “Less than one half-day’s cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at $400 per head … [and] less than 87 days’ cost of the war would, at the same price, pay for all in Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Kentucky and Missouri.” (This letter is not cited in this particular book.) In fact the Federal government did buy back the slaves within the confines of the District of Columbia. (This fact is also not cited in this particular book.)

Once the war starts, the novel engages the reader mostly because of its effective and exciting compression of what actually happened, while the vampire metaphor, suddenly under-exploited and under-explored, loses much of it bite (pardon the pun). Lev Grossman puts it well in TIME Magazine, “Once the connection is made, it feels obvious, and neither slavery nor vampirism reveals anything in particular about the other. One could imagine a richer, subtler treatment of the subject, in which the two horrors multiply each other rather than cancel each other out.”

Yet as Lincoln fictions go, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER has more to say than most. Maybe it communicates something about our culture that a deliberately ridiculous, axe-wielding, vigilante super-hero towers over most more easily respected works. Allegedly realistic fictions have been full of myth, while the myth-shaped novel presents a sharper picture. One measure in how the novel succeeds is revealed in a words of a withering critique of the Timur Bekmambetov’s film based on this novel. Historian Vernon Burton enjoyed the book but hated the movie, and spoke volumes of the pitfalls of fictions that prove incapable of grasping the real historical issues they grapple with (from an article by Tierney Sneed in US News and World Report):

“‘Slavery was our national sin,’ said Burton, who said the connection works in that ‘the nation sucked the blood out of Africans for its wealth.’ However, in posing vampires as the villains behind the crime of slavery, the film risks ‘letting the South and the United States off,’ freeing it from blame for the practice.

‘The book did some clever things,’ said Burton. ‘I was excited to see the movie. The book had potential.’ He said the film version was oversimplified, and he worried viewers would make too much of what he and other historians often call the ‘Oliver Stone school of history.’”

That, at least, is one trap the novel didn’t fall into.

Robert Murphy is 47 years old and lives in New York City. Formerly employed, he now has plenty of time to write about movies and books and play with his cats.

Category: Really Retro | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Retro Review: THE DARK CRYSTAL: Returning to “Another World, Another Time – in the Age of Wonder” at the Plaza

Posted on: Jun 7th, 2011 By:

By Geoff Slade
Contributing Blogger

Art Opening & A Movie Presents THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982); Dir: Jim Henson and Frank Oz; Conceptual Designer: Brian Froud; Starring Jim Henson, Kathryn Mullen, Franz Oz; “The Small Game of Revilo”art exhibition featuring works by Brian Colin; also appearing will be Heidi Arnhold, artist, LEGENDS OF THE DARK CRYSTAL. Tues. June 7, opening reception 8-11 PM with movie at 9:30 pm; Fri. June 10 at MIDNIGHT; Sun. June 12 at 3 PM; Plaza TheatreTrailer here.

Jim Henson was at his creative peak when THE DARK CRYSTAL first hit theaters the week before Christmas in 1982. His Muppets were already firmly established cultural icons thanks to over a decade on SESAME STREET, five seasons of THE MUPPET SHOW, numerous television specials and two feature films. The song “Rubber Duckie” (sung by Henson as Ernie from SESAME STREET) had spent seven weeks in the Billboard Top 40 in 1970. Kermit the Frog had even filled in for Johnny Carson as guest host of THE TONIGHT SHOW in 1979, for God’s sake. And despite the mass-market, multigenerational appeal of the Muppets, Henson’s bearded genius was still, and always would be, artistically sound. This is likely because he never considered what he did as an entertainment exclusively for children. The original producers of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE agreed and featured “adult” Muppets in their own skits during the show’s inaugural season.

Jen the Gelfling pauses in a beautiful place on his quest to restore THE DARK CRYSTAL. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

There would be additional triumphs on television and in film before his unexpected death in 1991, but THE DARK CRYSTAL stands as Henson’s greatest achievement. The movie tells the story of Jen, the world’s last hope to end a thousand-year reign of evil and bring harmony back to the universe by returning a lost shard to the cracked Dark Crystal. “Of all projects that I’ve ever worked on, it’s the one that I’m the most proud of,” he said at the time.  Sure, he probably said something similar at LABYRINTH press junkets four years later, but THE DARK CRYSTAL achieves more without the benefit of a single human performance on-screen. Not to mention the charisma of David Bowie.

Read the rest of this entry »

Category: Retro Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

© 2017 ATLRetro. All Rights Reserved. This blog is powered by Wordpress