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Critical Mass

I made my bones as a writer doing music criticism – CD and concert reviews, previews, features, and the like – for a now-defunct “alternative” weekly. So I can vouch for nearly every word of this article over at the Ringer.

Negative reviews are not only far easier to write than positive, they’re also way more fun, especially when your target is practically begging for some comeuppance. I dunno; there’s just something about puncturing egos that makes you feel like you’re doing God’s work. Granted, it’s not like I was in a position to destroy anyone’s career. I was just a guy nobody’d ever heard of making less than minimum wage writing for a paper nobody ever read – but still. It felt good.

There were downsides, to be honest. I had to remove my number from the phonebook after a rather ominous and threatening call from someone who didn’t take kindly to my tone. Another wrote a complaining letter to the editor, calling me a “12-year-old boy with his pants around his ankles, screaming ‘Look at me! Look at me!'”

It wasn’t always so easy, though, to separate the sheep from the goats. There was the time Tony Levin – yes, the Tony Levin – sent me a preview of his upcoming CD. I…didn’t like it. And even though I still have a hard time thinking of a musician I admire more, I had to be honest in my assessment.

And then there was the local singer-songwriter whose heart was in the right place but whose music wasn’t anywhere close. My review let him down gently – so gently that he wrote me a thank-you note. That made me feel even worse.

Best part of the job? The scads of free music that record labels kept sending to me long after I’d ended my run as a critic. Worst? The smug self-righteousness that lasted even longer. (No, really, it’s true – I’m far less sanctimonious these days. Ask the missus if you don’t believe me.)


The whole sordid tale behind the rise and fall of Swinger’s Tiki Palace (with pictures!).

Will Lloyd makes a pretty compelling case for the return to simpler times:

Americans – particularly Americans in positions of power and influence in politics, the media and the academy – need to start smoking again. The sourness and fury that has stalked these frustrated power-brokers and tastemakers ever since 2016 is past the point where it can be resolved by ‘self-care’. The moment when the upbeat, glittering Obama years curled away at their edges to reveal the grinning orange face of Trumpism was the exact time they should of swapped their iPhones for a few cartons of cowboy killers.

Novelist and short story prize judge Benjamin Markovits on what makes for good fiction:

Teaching, like judging, involves a lot of nitpicking. Cut the intro (you’re just announcing intentions, you haven’t found your stride). Shorten some of the sentences, let the story do its own work. We don’t need all the heavy symbolism and explanations. Standard creative writing advice. Behind all this is a kind of faith: that the difference between a bad story and a good one is a thorough edit. I sort of believe that, and I sort of don’t. 

Speaking of reading and books and such, this is fascinating. I would add one other possible explanation, however: People want to appear smarter and more well-read than they actually are. Call me cynical, but you know it’s true.

They Shall Not Grow Old is playing in Spokane on January 21.

This is more than two decades old now, but boy, does it ever ring true for me. Best line? “Why…do those with the worst moral tastes so often have the best aesthetic tastes? Why is Sodom such a pretty city? Why do the nicest people live in Iowa?”

CK’s iPics of the Year

Presenting my fourth annual iPics of the year. My 2018 selections – 20 subjects in all – are mostly derived from business and personal travels.


Quick story: In the early 2000s helveticka was collaborating with local advertising agency Miller.WhiteRunkle on AT&T’s retail store rebranding concepts, and I remember thinking at the time how terrible camera phones were. I hadn’t given up my Cannon SLR film camera, and I didn’t see why anyone in his right mind would ever use their dumb low-res cell-phone cameras.

Of course, most of these iPics were taken with my trusty iPhone 6. One of my New Year’s resolutions was having even greater resolution (get it?) in 2019. So I recently upgraded. So much for predicting the future of camera phones.

Music Recommendations

Used to be – back in the good old days, before CK decided to crack down on all the fun around here – that I’d wrap up the year with a list of the best albums released over the previous 12 months. I don’t exactly have time for that right now, but I want to at least leave you with a handful of solid recommendations, suitable for gifts or for your own personal enjoyment. Each comes with the AB Seal of Approval™, which guarantees not only satisfaction and edification, but also spiritual fulfillment. Here’s what you and yours ought to be listening to over the coming holidays:

Art Ensemble of Chicago The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles
Between the Buried and Me Automata I
Between the Buried and Me Automata II
Brian Eno
Music for Installations
 Piano & A Microphone 1983
Steve Tibbets Life Of
New England Conservatory Symphonic Winds Night Songs: The Music of Richard Toensing 
And Nothing Hurt
David Sylvian/Holger Czukay Plight & Premonition/Flux & Mutability (remastered)
Steven Wilson Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall

Merry Christmas, y’all.

Poetry Break

William Shakespeare

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Smith

Today in 1941, in Leland, Mississippi, Wadada Leo Smith was born. Over the last few years, Smith has become not only one of my favorite trumpet players – for his tone, for his technique, for his fearless improvisation – but also one of my favorite musicians, period.

I don’t want to get all weird on you, but there’s a spiritual quality to his music that’s, I dunno…somehow necessary right about now. Not in a corrective or a political sense; just as a reminder that some things are simply bigger than we are. And it sometimes takes an artist like Smith to reveal that bigness, if you will.

Anyway, if you have a music lover on your Christmas list this year, you could do a lot worse than picking from Smith’s extensive discography. (He’s released 30 albums since 2000 alone.) Some favorites of mine: Divine Love (ECM, 1979), Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012), The Great Lakes Suite (TUM, 2014), A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke* (ECM, 2016), and Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM, 2017).

*with Vijay Iyer

A Brief History of Showering

It was in the early 1800s, writes Sarah Zhang, that people began “experimenting with the new possibilities offered by modern plumbing.” But showering, it turns out, has its origins in hydrotherapy—a method of treating madness with water:

In the 17th century…the Flemish physician Jan Baptist van Helmont would plunge patients into ponds or the sea. His inspiration came from a story he’d heard of an escaping “lunatic”who ran right into a lake. The man nearly drowned, but when he recovered, so did his mind, apparently. Van Helmont concluded that water could stop “the too violent and exorbitant Operation of the fiery Life.” His [sic] began stripping his patients naked, binding their hands, and lowering them headfirst into the water…

And yet today, despite this “dark and violent history,” most people shower at least five times a week.

Holiday Greetings!

Every year about this time I receive a special holiday greeting. Not just any ol’ greeting, but a package of original illustrated and silk-screened fine art cards. They’re beautiful. They always feature a mountain scene and night sky with an applied bright, shiny star. And they’re always the same size.

Illustrator and graphic designer Wild Bill Voiland – who once operated Wild Bill Graphics here in Spokane – has been creating these pieces of art for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure when I received my first, but I’ve kept a copy of every single card ever since.

Thanks for the annual holiday cheer, Wild Bill. And Merry Christmas to you as well.

Think Good, Write Gooder

From Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner (Princeton University Press, 1994):

“[W]riting is an intellectual activity, not a bundle of skills. Writing proceeds from thinking. To achieve good prose styles, writers must work through intellectual issues, not merely acquire mechanical techniques.”

I think this is correct—even though it’d be a heckuva lot easier if writing were nothing more than “a bundle of skills.” But, for me anyway, the thinking part of the equation is arguably more important than the actual writing—even though it’s the first to get tossed overboard when deadlines loom.


I picked up my first copy of Desert Oracle the summer before last at the Little A’Le’Inn in Rachel, Nevada—mostly because its bright yellow cover stood out from all the self-published UFO- and Area 51-related tell-alls on the shelves.

A couple of minutes’ worth of reading and I was hooked. Ken Layne‘s digest-sized quarterly is part travelogue, part field guide, and part unapologetic nature writing—with a healthy dose of X-Files sprinkled in for good measure. Since then I’ve not only subscribed, I’ve also picked up every back issue available (sadly, no. 5 appears to be out of print).

If you like celebrating the weird and the wonderful, you need to subscribe. If you think the desert southwest is a mysterious and magical place, you need to subscribe. If you appreciate independent writing and publishing, you need to subscribe. And if you want to be responsible for the coolest present under the tree this year, you need to introduce someone to Desert Oracle with a gift subscription.

Finally, check out the podcast. It’s wildly entertaining and informative—and creepy as hell.

Breaking News: People Are Dumb

Got a text from the missus about the latest salvo in the War on Things We Don’t Like Right Now.™ Seems it’s not enough these days to dislike something—you’ve got to be a nuisance about it. To wit: deciding for others whether they ought to listen to a 1944 Christmas song because of its “inappropriate” lyrics (while pretending you’re not simply preening for social media attention).

It’s so tiresome, isn’t it? Thankfully, though, some radio stations have decided not to board the puritanical bandwagon.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t even like the song all that much. I mean, it’s not as heinous as “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” but it’s not great. I’m not even entirely sure why it’s considered a Christmas song.

But that’s not the point. I’ll let the missus speak for herself in the following transcript of yesterday’s text conversation:

“So … ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ is inappropriate. What about ‘Santa Baby?'”

“Stop thinking. It only leads to trouble.”

“It was just on the radio and she’s pretty much whoring herself out for gifts.”

“But that’s probably empowering.” 

And that, ladies and gentleman, is why I married this woman.

Christmas Gift Idea for Aaron

The American edition of Andrew Roberts’s Churchill: Walking with Destiny comes out today.

I know, I know—you’re probably wondering whether yet another bio of the eminent British statesman was really necessary. Apparently so: Both the New York Times and the Economist named it one of the best books of the year.

What’s the fascination with Winston? Well, for one, he smoked as many as 10 cigars a day* and actually got a doctor’s note authorizing a minimum of 250 cc (a little over 8 oz.) of “alcoholic spirits” at meal times. During prohibition. I mean, sure, he led Britain to victory in WWII and wrote some 13 million words in 43 books and is one of the most significant figures of the 20th Century—a period with no shortage of significant figures—but c’mon. What a badass.

*According to former valet Roy Howells, “in two days his cigar consumption was the equivalent of my weekly salary.”

Quote of the Day

When studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn approached George Bernard Shaw to either convince the renowned playwright to create new material for feature films or purchase the rights to several of his plays (the account varies, depending on the source), negotiations quickly broke down.“Well, Mr. Goldwyn,” Shaw told him, “there is not much use in going on. There is this difference between you and me: You are only interested in art and I am only interested in money.”

Monday Miscellany

Surprise! Mid-century modern and minimalism are “a feast for the eyes, but a nightmare for the ears.”

Wanna be an artist? Jerry Saltz offers up “33 rules to take you from clueless amateur to generational talent (or at least help you live life a little more creatively).” Rule no. 20: Accept that You Will Likely Be Poor.

Speaking of art, this is pretty cool.

For months in the early 1940s, Alexander Weygers and his wife Marian “slept in a tent he’d built and stayed alive on dandelion soup and gopher stew.” Meanwhile, he patented a flying saucer.

William Logan reviews Ursula K. Le Guin’s poetry. He’s…not kind: “There’s a breathless bit of Zen, a dash of lardish sentiment, and a lot of pure idiocy on every page.”

One of the Best

I first met Pat Lynch around the time he mailed out a two-page, typewritten RFP for annual report design services. It was dated July 5, 1988. My firm was lucky enough to receive his inquiry, respond, and subsequently begin a working relationship with one of my all-time favorite clients.

A contact sheet for the 1989 WWP annual report. Pat and I were scouting photography locations for the company’s CEO, Paul Redmond, and president, Jim Harvey. Photos by J.Craig Sweat.

Pat joined The Washington Water Power Company in 1983. This coming Friday—November 30th, 2018, 30 years after we first met—will be his last day with that company, now known as Avista. I’ve never met a better ambassador, regardless of the business or the industry. A true gentleman with the proper dose of integrity, humility, and empathy. A consummate professional with an equally good sense of humor. The son of a sportswriter and a fan of every sport. A team player and a community advocate. And a devoted husband, father, and grandfather.

Thank you, Pat. It’s been a real pleasure. Wishing you and Suzanne the very best.

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