Sunday, March 18, 2007

33 1/3

I said that if my non-fiction book proposal got rejected, you wouldn't hear about it again. I lied.

Here's the skinny: the Continuum Books series 33 1/3 were soliciting submissions and proposals for their series of books on classic (and not so classic) albums. Anybody who has even a passing interest in me, my blog and my writing will be unsurprised by my choice of album. David Barker at 33 1/3 received a staggering 449 submissions for his call for book proposals. Mine was one of the 96% that were rejected. I’m cool with that.

I’ve decided to post the full text of my rejected proposal here, based on the vast amount of Jack Daniel’s I have consumed this evening (which has severely impaired my judgement), and the fact that, in the words of The Cranberries: “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?”, with the caveat that I’m removing any unique identifiers from the body of the text of my proposal, as this is still an ostensibly anonymous blog.

I can see a huge number of flaws in my proposal, but I don’t want to dwell on them here.

[Boring Stuff: the proposal was to include my name; a brief outline (up to 1000 words); a brief bio of myself explaining why I'm the best person to write about that album (up to 500 words); and a couple of sentences on which 33 1/3 book I've enjoyed the most so far, and why.] Without any further ado, here it is:

33 1/3 Book Proposal Outline

Isaac Hayes – Shaft

By [AKA]

My proposal tackles Isaac Hayes’s seminal 1971 soundtrack album Shaft.

It’s the story of an album that changed music, cinema, popular culture…and me.

It’s the story of an influential album imbued with sensuality, self-confidence, effortless cool, black pride and sweet soul music, which has endured as an emblem of a unique era in both music and cinema.

It’s also worth covering because the 33 1/3 series has yet to showcase a soundtrack album. (For what it’s worth, it’s also my favourite album of all time.)

It’s worth remembering that the word “soundtrack” has many connotations. The soundtrack to the story of the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks also happens to be the soundtrack to the life of a writer and pop-culture obsessive growing up in North London. Music can be many things to many people.

My proposal is for a book that would be part personal memoir and part snapshot of a moment in popular culture when music, movies, fashion, literature, politics and civil rights intersected and created something special that would irrevocably change the way that black people were portrayed in the media by a decade in history that spawned more than 200 movies, and almost as many accompanying funk and soul albums.

The story of Isaac Hayes’s Shaft covers a lot of ground:

The evolution of music, with the melding of funk with a traditional film score. The versatility of the album lies in the fact that, like John Shaft himself, it works just as well on the streets and between the sheets; both with infectious funk workouts that can ignite a dancefloor, and as background music that not only works in the context of the film, but also stands alone successfully as orchestral soul music that can be thrown on any turntable.

Melvin Van Peebles and Earth, Wind and Fire may have inadvertently pioneered the idea of the soundtrack tie-in with Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song that same year, as an additional marketing tool, revenue stream and as a collectible item for fans of the movie, but the music from that film is now virtually forgotten, whereas Hayes’s innovative album has continued to endure.

It’s also the story of the next phase in the Civil Rights movement, and the evolution of popular culture with a film and an album that had success with both white and black audiences. With the album taking the number one spot on Billboard’s Black, Jazz and Pop charts, not to mention Grammys and Oscars, Shaft forged a link between film and music promotion that has never been severed, and paved the way for the success of album tie-ins which peaked with the massive success of the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

Then there is the ripple effect of the music and movies of the blaxploitation era that persists today, for good or ill, in hip-hop culture - Snoop Dogg riffs off Black Caesar, and the high-rolling, opulent pimp persona of Superfly and The Mack continues to be seen in artists from Ice-T to Akon.

It’s the story of Isaac Hayes, one of the leading composers and songwriters at Stax Records who lovingly moulded his album in Soulsville, and whose own persona of Black Moses would end up in the self-parody of South Park’s Chef. However, nothing will diminish his unforgettable performance of the Theme from Shaft at Wattstax in 1973.

It’s also the story of me, and an album that has followed me around like a personal talisman and a harbinger of momentous change in my life. In the early months of 1972, somewhere in North London, a heavily-pregnant woman drops the needle on that very same record and dances around her living room. Soon after, she will give birth to a boy. Neither the woman nor her son will realise the significance of this. Before I was even born, I had heard my favourite album.

The album, the movie, little cues from Hayes’s masterwork continued to appear at flashpoints in my life. On my 18th birthday, I treated myself to a double-bill of two movies that I’d never seen before at the arthouse / grindhouse Scala Cinema in King’s Cross. The movies were Shaft and Superfly. The music rises. Something inside clicks. Years later, a first date with the woman who would become my wife, and there it is again. Fast forward again to a cheap hotel room somewhere in Portugal, fighting through the static on the only channel I can tune in on the TV, and there it is. The sounds of downtown New York traffic imperceptibly give way to that gently percussive opening before melting into that wah-wah guitar refrain. The lone piano keys plink ominously in the background. The lush, mellifluous strings rise. The horn stabs come in. Through the fuzz I can still make out a man decked out in an immaculate knee-length leather coat hugging his muscular build, strutting proudly and defiantly through a sea of yellow cabs. We’re past the two and a half minute mark before the manly voice of Isaac Hayes rises up, saturated with gravel and riven with sex, proclaiming the arrival of John Shaft. Every time I hear it, it feels like the first time all over again.

When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, Shaft kept appearing to us over and over again on stray radio stations, no matter where we were or what we were tuned to. Just like me, tucked up safe and warm in the maternal womb, the music of Isaac Hayes was being passed on to another generation.

As you can see, Isaac Hayes’s Shaft is incredibly fertile material for a 33 1/3 book, and there is plenty of ground to cover. Can ya dig it?


I’m [AKA], and I’m a freelance film and (sometime) music journalist, living and working in London.

I’ve written for and contributed to a number of books, magazines and websites for over 6 years, most notably [redacted].

Why am I awesome and why am I the best person to write about Isaac Hayes and Shaft? From my proposal, you can get a taste of how important this album has been to me personally. Writing this book would be yet another milestone in the relationship between me and the album.

I like to think that my writing is passionate, clear, concise, entertaining and accessible. I have plenty to say about the album, both contextually with regards to its place in the history of music and popular culture, and personally, touching on my feelings about the album and how it has been ingrained in my DNA since birth. I feel that given the opportunity to write this book, I can provide a unique perspective on the album, whilst also embracing its significance in a wider framework. I hope I get the opportunity to do so.


Without a doubt, my favourite 33 1/3 book is Douglas Wolk’s book on James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, because of the way that he makes that night back in 1962 almost mythical, seamlessly blending together harsh realities, maybe-truths and poetic fictions to recreate an amazing night in the history of live music. You can hear the screams and feel the sweat, the paranoia and the passion whilst reading it and it is an amazingly evocative and powerful piece of work.

(I also have a fondness for Dan LeRoy’s book on The Beastie Boy’s Paul’s Boutique, because it is beautifully written and rigorously researched, throwing up some excellent anecdotal story-telling of the making of the album. And for what it’s worth, I eagerly await Zeth Lundy’s book on Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, purely because I love that album so damn much, and I look forward to reading what he has to say about it).

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Majestyk

This is indescribably fantastic. Indisputable evidence (as if we needed it, and we really didn’t) that Charles Bronson was one of the coolest motherfuckers ever to walk the earth. Revel in the Awesome:


An unattributed bit of graffito that I remember seeing in one of those old Nigel Rees compilation books of Graffiti. Probably the first one, Graffiti Lives OK published in 1979, which means I’ve mentally stored this arcane piece of useless trivia for 28 bloody years, since I was seven years old. Curse my eidetic memory!

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to get my brain kick-started in the mornings. Some days it’s a lot easier than others.

There are days when it’s pretty easy to hit the ground running. You just need the right trigger. Days that begin with the sound of my daughter’s laughter always start well. Or a day when I can flick on the radio and out comes Jackie Wilson’s Higher And Higher, setting me up perfectly for the travails of the coming 24-hours. Both of those things have occurred in the last week, which is why it is so easy for me to draw on them as examples.

But serendipity, like caffeine, only goes so far.

Despite the fact that I will never, ever be a Morning Person (I have always been a Creature of the Night by nature), I do try and make sure that I get out of bed about an hour and a half before I have to head out to work. The Reason? Well, it’s the only time I’m going to have to myself for the entire day, so I might as well make the most of it and gently ease myself into a state of readiness for battle. If I get up late and just run out the door, I spend the rest of my day on the back foot trying to get myself up to speed.

By getting up early, I can have a leisurely cup of coffee, read a few e-mails or maybe a comic, and sift through the illegible scrawls in my notebooks or on the shreds of paper that I seem to accumulate, making sense of the fleeting thoughts that I hurled onto the page the previous day.

But that still doesn’t address my main point. Getting myself into a state of alertness. Making my brain spark and fire to life, instead of stalling in a low-key, purely functional level of ponderous mental plodding. It’s a goddamn art, I tell ya! And I haven’t quite figured out a surefire way of doing it yet.

Sometimes maybe all it takes is a good night’s sleep, but those can be in short supply, especially when your young daughter is ill, as has been the case recently. Now, most kids, when they have a runny nose, either wipe it away with their sleeve, or just allow the mucus to slowly creep out and settle on their upper lip. Not my Buttercup. Oh no, she won’t touch it. This has lead to the repeated refrain of “Daddy! My nose is coming out!” resounding off the walls of AKA Central recently. Which means that someone has to get up and wipe her nose for her, despite the fact that we have tried to get her to do it herself. In fairness, she is capable of doing it, and if she wasn’t feeling so fragile, she wouldn’t hesitate. But not at the moment. And Snot Never Sleeps!

Rambling, aren’t I? OK, that’s enough for now.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

“I love writing but I hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says. “You may have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over, giftless. I'm not your agent and I'm not your mommy, I'm a white piece of paper, you wanna dance with me?" and I really, really don't. I don't want any trouble. I'll go peaceable-like.”
Aaron Sorkin from his Introduction to The West Wing Script Book: Volume 1

Also, something that occurred to me this morning as I was fighting my way through a particularly brutal hangover – many years ago, after I’d flamed out of my Law Degree realising that it just wasn’t for me, I dusted myself off and decided to re-enter the hallowed halls of higher education. I applied to get on to a bunch of media and film studies degree courses. I was rejected for all of them. I wasn’t considered to be suitable material for such endeavours. Now, universities use things that I’ve written to teach their film students.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. All those people who turned me away? Fuck them. Fuck them up their stupid asses.

Ah, and that’s enough of sucking my own dick for today. The white page beckons.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


Horn players call it their embouchure. Practicing every day keeps their embouchure strong. If they don’t, mastery of their instrument starts to slide and they have to build up to that level of excellence all over again.

My embouchure is pitifully weak at the moment. Seeing as this blog sometimes acts as my Jiminy Cricket, getting all of this out of my head will keep me honest and maybe even stick a much-needed foot in my ass.

My writing at the moment feels flabby and dull. It’s not writer’s block. I have no problem getting the words out. It’s just that they all seem so lacklustre, as if everything is stuck at the level of a first draft, and I don’t have the magic dust in my arsenal of tricks to bring the words to life.

January zipped along in a tumult of flailing fingers as the writing ticked over nicely, and I made strong and steady progress on my long-gestating screenplay Rotten Timing. Unexpectedly, an opportunity came up that was too good to dismiss, and I shifted my brainspace over to something else and started banging together a proposal for a non-fiction book.

Since that was sent off, I’m having trouble reclaiming the part of my brain that was preoccupied with it. I’ve been doing what writers should never, ever do. I’ve been giving my proposal a messy autopsy, violently slicing into it and thinking that “I should have punched that section up a bit” or “Damn, I shouldn’t have put that in there”. And it’s all futile, because it’s out of my hands now, and I should just forget about it and move on to the next thing. If the book gets picked up, great. And if it doesn’t? Well, shit, at least I rolled the dice and gave it a shot. (Of course, if the proposal is rejected, this is probably the last you’ll ever hear about it).

Another thing I’ve been doing (and I am positive that all published writers with a tantalisingly open web browser do this) is googling myself. It’s odd to discover that something I wrote is considered to be required reading on a variety of Asian Cinema Studies courses at prestigious London and American Universities. Kind of blows my mind a bit, to be honest. I’m no fool - I’m not the leading anything in any field. Nevertheless, it’s flattering and motivating and at least I know my words are reaching people.

But it also leads to a weird disconnect between differing realities and conflicting perceptions. Here I am struggling to squeeze words into meaningful sentences, convinced that I am creatively barren at the moment, and elsewhere I’m held up as some kind of authority on something. It’s fantastic, but it’s also confusing.

I don’t know what I’m trying to say. Maybe all writers are always painfully self-critical and dissatisfied with their efforts. Maybe I’m trying too hard to write my way out of an illusory slump. Maybe life is like a school report card, and I keep seeing the words “Must Try Harder” burnt into every page I fill. Maybe it’s OK to try your hardest and do your best, whatever the results, as long as you really are trying to do your best instead of just half-heartedly chipping away at something.

Anyway, enough of that. I know what I have to do. I’ve known all along. Must Try Harder.