Wednesday, July 6, 2005

introducing Endtroducing . . .

(writer's note: this version of Introducing Endtroducing . . . is only slightly longer than the "official" which appeared today in East Bay Express (thanks to my editor there, Rob Harvilla), but the extra room does allow the incorporation of more responses.
I'd very much like to thank series editor David Barker and authors Michaelangelo Matos, Joe Pernice, Erik Davis and Warren Zanes for their singular insight. God willing and the creek don't rise, interviews with various 33 1/3 authors will appear here in the near future. - RT)

Sometime in the late summer, early fall of 2002, David Barker, a friendly young Englishman editing a series of chapbooks on Contemporary American Fiction in his office overlooking Madison Square Park in New York City, decided that it might be nice to produce a set based not on individual novels but on individual albums. A contrasting cluster of musicians, critics, writers, and miscellaneous hangers-on would each devote 25,000 words to whatever record happened to tickle their proverbial fancy, from Dusty Springfield to Joy Division to DJ Shadow.

Not quite three years later, David Barker’s idea has evolved into the 33 1/3 series: a stream of affordably priced (less than $10 apiece) and conveniently sized (they fit in your back pocket) books as individual and idiosyncratic as the albums that inspired them.

Joe Pernice’s Meat is Murder, currently the best-selling of the collection, is a novella. Douglas Wolk’s Live at the Apollo is written against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Warren Zanes’ Dusty in Memphis explores the mythology of the South. Franklin Bruno’s Armed Forces is structured alphabetically (R is for Rock Against Racism), and Colin Meloy’s treatment of the Replacements’ Let It Be operates as a sweet, Huck Finn coming-of-age story with the legendary indie cassette as its soundtrack.

For the initial half-dozen titles back in ’02, Barker, a frustrated musician (“I tried both the guitar and the flute, but I was told that my lips were the wrong shape to play the flute properly.” And the guitar? “It just hurt the hell out of my fingers and I gave it up.”) whose first live concert was The Smiths at Royal Albert Hall, scoured newspapers, books, blogs, and his own record collection in search of the right musicians and critics who might bring his idea to life. But it wasn’t until English journalist Andy Miller’s manuscript for the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society landed on his desk that Barker was convinced he’d found the right track – the editor experienced “an overwhelming sense of relief and happiness that this guy had completely understood what I was trying to get people to do.”

And what’s that, exactly? “Um, well, it varies, doesn’t it?” Barker offers, accent in full force. “I think it’s a mix. I think you’ve got to have research. I would like you to come up with some original material that no one has written about or known before. And a personal angle that kind of brings it to life for the reader. It’s a mix of four or five different things, and I think it’s interesting how some writers do 10 percent of this and 90 percent of the other. And some people do 20 percent of everything.”

And while it might seem a given that any writer willing to take the time to pound out 25,000 words on a single disc would choose their all-time desert island pick, that’s not always the case.

“I think I assumed that most of them would want to write about their actual very favorite album,” Barker says. “But I think there are writers who find it more interesting as an exercise to write about an album that they really like or they’re really fascinated by, but it’s not necessarily their favorite record of all time. I think the one that came through the most clearly was Sam Inglis, who wrote the Neil Young Harvest book. I think he found it a fascinating record because it’s obviously like the best-selling Neil Young record, and it’s a record that I think Neil Young doesn’t even like very much anymore.”

Now, looking back over nearly three years of the series that he founded, Barker can still register surprise.

“I’m still incredibly bad at predicting which ones are going to sell better than others,” he says. “It’s still very, very hard to tell. But I think the main thing I’ve learned -- which probably if I’d thought about it before we started this series I would’ve worked it out -- is about 85 to 90 percent of the writers have written about albums that they became obsessed with between the ages of 14 and 18.”

To date, a total of 23 youthfully preoccupied chapbooks have been published, with four more (on Endtroducing…, Kick out the Jams, Born in the USA, and Low) due out in September, another quartet by year’s end, and ten more contracted for 2006. Beyond that, Barker’s unwilling to plan. “I don’t think we’re going to stop it,” he says, “But I just don’t like taking it for granted, because I think as soon as you start taking a project like this for granted, you just kind of take your foot off the pedal.”

introducing Endtroducing... - part two

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