Coming Of Age

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Area attorney, musician, art gallery owner and author Mark Paul Smith said he wrote the first draft of his latest book, “Honey and Leonard,” in the mid-90s while he was struggling with addiction.

It was, he recalled, “written in a hazed frenzy.”

After 15 years of sobriety, Smith “dug the manuscript out of a drawer” and said he could “feel addiction dripping off the page.”

“It was a shocker,” he said. “It was like, ‘Whoa, I thought I was fine back then.’”

Smith said drugs and alcohol are a kind of “rocket fuel” that can provide “some inspiration.”

“Some good stuff came out of the bad stuff,” he said. “But in the end, if you keep drinking, you’ll kill yourself like Hemingway.”

Smith doesn’t miss those days at all.

“In fact, guess what?” he said. “This’ll shock ya. Life’s more fun without it. Who knew? I could have saved a million bucks.”

Smith said he had to get knocked off his high horse and end up down on his knees.

“And by ‘down on my knees,’” he said, “I mean I had to accept a higher power in my life. I’m not saying it’s Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha. I don’t know what it is. I just know it’s not me.”

“Honey and Leonard,” which can be purchased via Amazon.com and at the Castle Gallery (owned by Smith and his wife, Jody Hemphill Smith) is about an elderly couple that goes on the lam and becomes an international cause célèbre in the process.

Among the many aims of the book is banishment from common English usage of the word “elderly,” he said.

“The book says you can be vibrant and vital well into your ‘70s and ‘80s,” he said. “In fact, you can be in love! You don’t have to be just elderly. I think elderly should go the way of the word retarded. Don’t use it anymore. It’s not nice anymore.”

The Honey of the title struggles to make what she thinks she knows about love fit her current circumstances, Smith said. She thinks loving Leonard might cure him of Alzheimer’s. She wonders if she can continue to love Leonard as Alzheimer’s progresses. And she ponders what the ravages of age mean for her own lovability.

What she realizes (and this goes back to revelations Smith has had in his own life) is that it’s “more important to love than to be loved,” he said.

“You can have a stadium full of people love you and it you won’t do one bit of good if you can’t love at least one of them back,” Smith said.

There was a time in his own life when Smith sought the love of stadiums full of people. After a stint as a newspaper reporter in the ‘70s, Smith went off to seek fame and fortune as part of a rock band called Wyler.

Smith describes Wyler as “a seven-man band touring the southern United States and working steady during the disco era.”

The band found especially enthusiastic audiences on the Bayou south of New Orleans, he said.

“The band got to the point where we met with (Bob) Dylan’s manager,” Smith said. “He was going to sign us and I realized, ‘I don’t understand any of this.’ So I went to law school so I could negotiate own rock and roll contracts, none of which were forthcoming.”

Smith’s father was a lawyer who taught his young son cross-examination at the breakfast table.

“He’d say, ‘Who were you out with last night? How many sisters does he have? What’s their number? I’ll call them. What time did you get in? Really? Because your mother and I were up then.’”

Smith said that everything he did for the first 30-or-so years of his adult life was dedicated to “changing the world.”

“I tried to change the world as a hippie protester,” he said. “I tried to change the world as a journalist. I tried to change the world through rock and roll. And, finally, I tried to change the world through law. I’m sad to report that the world has changed me. I have not changed the world.

“For everybody who is out there now trying to change the world,” Smith said, “I’ve tried it from every angle and, as far as can tell, it ain’t changing.”

The only thing you can change, Smith said, is yourself.

“That’s kind of what ‘Honey and Leonard’ is about,” he said. “How to change yourself. Here’s the deal. Life is a spiritual obstacle course. It’s designed to see if you can get over yourself. That’s the whole game.”

We are all destined, perhaps, to believe at one or more points in our lives that we are at the center of the universe, Smith said.

“That is a trap we are all in,” he said. “And one way out of the trap is to love somebody more than you love yourself.”

Smith, who describes writing a book as “the most fun you can have with your pants on,” is already hard at work on his next tome.

It’s called “Rock and Roll Voodoo.”

“It’s about my band in New Orleans and on the Bayou,” he said. “I’m about 70 pages into it and I’m having a ball.”

Smith describes it as a roman à clef.

“That is fact disguised as fiction,” he said. “Because, lord knows, this protagonist is doing stuff I would never dream of doing.”

Smith eschews the “violence porn” that infects so much entertainment these days and encourages authors to write about real life.

“It’s not always pretty,” he said. “It’s not always thrilling. It’s long stretches of boredom punctuated by sheer terror. But that’s life.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Accidentals Will Happen

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The Accidentals named themselves for one happy accident, little suspecting that it was just the first of many.

Five years ago, Savannah Buist and Katie Larson were Traverse City high schoolers and orchestra nerds who didn’t know each other all that well until they were thrown together by happenstance.

They both volunteered to perform at an afterschool event and they went to Buist’s house to rehearse. Instead of practicing the prescribed solemnity, however, they played the White Stripes.

“It was the song, ‘We’re Going To Be Friends,’ which is hilarious,” Larson said. “It ended up being prophetic.”

Buist said she and Larson knew they were going to form a band that very day. And it came to pass in a big way.

The Accidentals perform January 28 at C2G Music Hall.

In the intervening five years, the young women (and their eventual percussionist, Michael Dause) signed a contract to record four albums with producer (and rock legend) Marshall Crenshaw, were named a “breakout act” at the SXSW Music Festival by Billboard magazine and were described as the one of the best unsigned bands in America by musicologist Jim Linderman.

Given how hard it is for most local bands in America to stir substantive national interest in their music, it can be no accident that the Accidentals have risen so far so fast.

They’re really good.

At the risk of sounding like I have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll compare them to Nickel Creek, the Band Perry and other acts that mix traditional American musical forms (bluegrass, country, jazz and folk music) and make the results as instantly captivating as the best pop (without doing any of those influences a disservice).

The band had instant chemistry, of course, but some dues paying did ensue. Buist said they had no idea what they were doing at first. They owe some their current polish to aid provided by a vibrant and nurturing Traverse City music scene.

“A lot of musicians in the area came around and really supported us,” she said. “We owe it to Traverse City as a whole for coming around and doing that. Not just the musicians but the people too. Pretty soon all of Michigan started to be like that. We’re kind of trying to take that general love for music and bring it other places.”

But things certainly did happen fast. For example, the band had to wait until the summer of 2014 to tour in earnest because Larson had not yet graduated from high school.

Buist said they performed 218 shows last year.

Touring has been “one of the most difficult and amazing experiences a 19 or 20 year old could ask for,” she said.

“We’ve learned how to keep ourselves healthy on the road,” she said. “We’ve learned how to load in over 100 shows. And it’s also about socializing. We’re both really introverted and shy and it’s really hard to throw yourself into extrovert mode and start talking to people.”

Getting comfortable on stage is a work in progress, Larson said.

“It’s been a very huge learning curve,” she said. ‘It’s been a slow-and-steady, taking-it-step-by-step kind of thing. When we first started playing out, we would play ‘rock, paper, scissors’ to figure out who had to talk first. I think we’re still kind of a shy band.”

A shy band that found the courage to collaborate and perform with Marshall Crenshaw.

How that came about was that Crenshaw found a song by the band on the Reverb Nation website and liked it so much, he reached out.

“I said, ‘All right. This is like a remarkable thing,’” Crenshaw told the Local Spins website in August of last year.

“They just have natural ability,” Crenshaw said. “They’re children of artists. They have a work ethic about their art and they understand how to approach the process.”

Crenshaw is producing the band’s first album and has said that he will take it upon himself to shop it around to labels.

The Billboard accolade also came out of nowhere. The band didn’t believe it at first.

“We thought it was photoshopped the first time we saw it,” Buist said. “We didn’t get any notification. I think one of our fans saw it and said, ‘Hey did you guys know that you’re one of the top seven breakout bands at SXSW according to Billboard magazine.’

“We were like, ‘No way!’” she said

Given that both women are under 21, it is understandable that they’d claim the last five years have passed slowly for them.

But when they’re made to think about it in hindsight by an old journalist for whom time passes really quickly, they realize how improbable and magical it has all been, Buist said.

“We’re playing SXSW,” she said. “We’re playing at a couple of rock venues and opening for acts like Keller Williams, Rusted Root and the Wailers. It keeps escalating into craziness. It’s like this whole crazy, dream roller coaster.”

Buist said they’ve tried to be totally present and in the moment so they “don’t forget anything.”

“We’ve actually documented some of it via video,” she said. “We’re making sure we’re really embracing this part of our lives because not many people do what we’re doing right now.”

 

 

 

600 Reasons Why “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” Is the Greatest Film of All Time. Number 495 Will Make You Question Whether These Are, In Fact, The Droids You’re Looking For…

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Not really, but I wanted to try this clickbait thing that’s all the rage with the kids nowadays.

I have taken to the keyboard today to address the tragic lack of online commentary about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Seriously, if anybody else has written about this film, send me a link, because it’s eerily quiet out there.

The sequel, which recently passed “Avatar” to become the highest-grossing film of all time, clearly passed muster with a lot of moviegoers. It passed both “Avatar” and muster. But some longtime fans hate it. Some fans say it’s the worst “Star Wars” movie ever.

I don’t happen to agree, but I have to give credit where credit is due.

Kudos to the fans who figured out, by way of exhaustive sleuthing and presentation of the evidence, that “Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams is a dirty plagiarist who stole many narrative elements from an obscure 1977 Yugoslavian propaganda film called “Star Wars: A New Hope” and hoped we wouldn’t notice.

For their next investigation, I would suggest they look into how J.R.R. Tolkien stole from “The Hobbit” to create “Fellowship of the Ring” and how Mark Twain stole from “Tom Sawyer” to create “Huckleberry Finn.”

To the male fans that criticize Carrie Fisher for aging badly but not Harrison Ford, and who can find little to praise about Daisy Ridley save her resemblance to some other actress they have always wanted to see naked, I say, “I see what you did there.”

One strategy, it seems to me, for banishing the totally unfair stereotype that most fanboys are preposterously sexist is to parody that stereotype.

So deft and subtle are these parodies at times that they hardly seem to be parodies at all.

Nice work, fellas.

One of the more interesting emotions stirred in some fans by “The Force Awakens” is nostalgia for George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels.

In a publication called the Hollywood Reporter, Hollywood reporter Stephen Dalton claims that Lucas’ biggest mistake with the prequels was “overestimating his audience’s appetite for moral complexity and novelistic depth.”

The prequels, he asserts, “were rich in intellectual ambition and grand ideas about society, power, courtly love and the darkly seductive allure of fascism.”

“Abrams’s shortcomings as a rebooter also make it easier to appreciate Lucas,” wrote presumed New Yorker Bryan Curtis in a publication called the New Yorker. “‘The Force Awakens’ makes it once again possible to think about George Lucas as… a brilliant appropriator rather than an average one. It took a forgery to get him called an artist.”

I must confess that I have never been a big fan of the prequels and I realized reading the words of Dalton and Curtis that this failure is mine as a filmgoer — that it’s always been mine. I am too closed off, too provincial, to open my heart and mind to works of cinema that are utterly unwatchable.

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I was stung when fans started criticizing Adam Driver for making his “Force Awakens” bad guy, Kylo Ren, too temperamental. But I knew they had a point when I recalled Hayden Christensen’s far superior strategy of investing Anakin Skywalker with all the emotional nuance of a JV football player sulking after the coach benches him for missing practice.

I remember being put off by how characters having conversations in the prequels often didn’t seem to be in the same room. But I now realize what a post-production visionary Lucas was. He really didn’t care that they weren’t in the same room.

All kidding aside, I recently tried to give “Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace” another go. I lasted about ten minutes. It is almost the antithesis of entertainment. It could be used as aversion therapy in a remake of “A Clockwork Orange.”

My sympathy for people who are nostalgic for the prequels is real and closely resembles my sympathy for former hostages who are nostalgic for their captors and former inmates who are nostalgic for prison.

The heart knows what the heart knows is what I am saying.

But here’s one basic thing “The Force Awakens” is that the prequels are not: “The Force Awakens” is a good film.

Lucas’ first “Star Wars” movie was inspired in part by the ideas of Joseph Campbell, who believed in archetypal heroes who transcend culture.

In the prequels, Lucas failed Campbell: He made his heroes dull, uninspiring and far from archetypal.

The prequels made me question my love of “Star Wars” and “The Force Awakens” renewed it. Abrams accomplished that. Lucas didn’t. Lucas can’t.

That doesn’t mean Lucas doesn’t deserve to have his laurels burnished, although it’s a tad gauche of him to trash the new Disney team as he did recently.

If he keeps this up, he runs the risk of being asked if he’d like to return the $4 billion that the studio paid him, which would force him to hastily respond, “Ahhhh … I must have left it in my other pants.”

Just kidding.

Lucas has more than two pairs of pants.

There are other things Abrams accomplished that Lucas could not. He made his new characters as interesting as, if not more interesting than, the established ones.

He and his young actors invested a scene where Kylo Ren prepares to interrogate Rey with more genuine emotion and human chemistry than was evidenced in all the prequels put together.

Believe what you will about Lucas’ intentions in the prequels; he couldn’t make me care about any of it. Even if he’d had seven more hours to tell the story, I still don’t think he could have made me care about any of it. His characters started out as cyphers and ended as cyphers.

The best thing about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is another choice Lucas wouldn’t have made: he never would have put a female character front-and-center in a “Star Wars” film.

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The fact that Rey was excluded from some of the official merchandise shows what a depressingly radical idea this is.

I personally find Rey to be a far more compelling character, and Ridley a better actress, than Luke Skywalker and Mark Hamill (respectively) were in the first film.

Call Abrams a hack if you want, but he wasn’t hired to compete with what Lucas accomplished in 1977. He was hired to fix what Lucas has been doing since 1999.

Mission accomplished.