Thursday, December 27, 2012

Goodbye D̶a̶r̶i̶n̶ N̶i̶c̶h̶o̶l̶a̶s̶ Mr. “Shark Fear, Shark Awareness” Johnson

As of November 28, 2012, the guy on the far left of this photo is dead. Specifically, he is no longer in possession of his head, which he removed with a shotgun.

If that sounds terrible, it is. (Trust me, I miss him very much.) But it’s also the sort of crisp, clear writing that Darin Nicholas Nick Johnson would have appreciated. Here is the exact moment when I knew that he had a gift:
It was the middle of the afternoon. A man lay on his back in the middle of the hallway. He was barefoot and wearing no shirt.
“You’re sure you’re okay?” I asked as I passed the guy in the hall again.
“Eventually you will make a mistake,” he said calmly.
I shrugged and went to my room, where I curled up under the covers and started to fall sleep. Before I did, I groaned and climbed out of bed to lock the door, in case he had been talking to me.

That’s from a mass email he sent to friends while working in Antarctica. Those emails became the basis for his book Big Dead Place, which I highly recommend.

I recently went through my email archives, but was only able to locate a handful of emails from Darin/Nicholas. Here are two. The first is from 2001. I asked Darin why he stopped sending mass emails about his adventures in Antarctica. Here is his reply:

From: Johnson, Darin
Subject: RE: hey!
Date: 12 May, 2001 7:31:45 PM EDT
To: Ryan Bigge

Hi Ryan. Yeah, I tentatively decided mass emails are gross. I can't quite put my finger on it, I like to get them but when I send them I just feel cheap. So I rarely correspond at all! With anyone! I should get a job as a consultant for Negative Solutions Inc.

I'm writing a book called "Big Dead Place" about Antarctica. I don't know yet if it will be a travel account or a nonfiction story using themes and literary devices. The idea is that Americans conquer Antarctica but that spiritual corruption conquers Americans. (Maybe it's a human story, but I only feel qualified to go for the jugular of Americans.)

Yesterday I heard that in July it's traditional to have a holiday called "Christmas in July". Christmas trees. Egg nog. Candy canes. Listen, one Christmas a year is already too much and these zombies want to have two.

I must go eat waffles.

Take care of yourself.


This second email, from 2003, was in response to a question I had about where Nicholas was now living.

From: Nicholas Johnson
Date: 27 June, 2003 7:11:39 PM EDT


Are you still in Toronto? I don't remember why, but I gathered you found Toronto an improvement over Vancouver; still true?

I'm back in Seattle. I'm subrenting an apartment in a real honest-to-god neighborhood. No more eating at the gas station, and I don't have to sneak around in the alleys looking for a dumpster for my trash. There's birds, and a garden in the back. Kind of creepy, but oh well.

I spent the last week pissing in cups and bleeding in tubes for my employer at this place called LabCorp in the suburbs. The gal who works there wants to become a nurse. There were six copies of TV Guide on the waiting room table, though the TV was playing an in-house video touting a pharmaceutical company. I went in one day for a drug test and she sprayed blue stuff in the toilet and told me not to flush the toilet and not to wash my hands or I would have to retake the test. The top of the toilet was taped down with some tamper proof red tape. When I came out she told me about people who have snuck in with bags of other people's urine hidden on their person. But it's usually too cold (chilling on the way to LabCorp) or too hot (from the microwave that they heated up in before they arrived). "Then I have to call their company and tell them their employee tried to cheat," she said.

Though I have been reduced to a hollow shell of the correspondent I used to be, thanks for all the emails you've sent my way. A while ago you sent me one from about a guy on the ice who wrote some shitty article comparing working in Antarctica to being on "Survivor". I later found out that that guy was so good at poker that he had taken a bunch of people for about US$6,000 over the course of the season, not cheating, just playing. So even though he had a very low-paying dishwasher job, he made some good money down there. That story is far more interesting than anything he wrote about, yet it is nowhere to be seen.

That article about the guy reporting from the DMZ was hilarious.

Speaking of hilarious, I'm reading your book. Besides laughing though, I am happy to finally learn what that whole cocktail craze was all about. The way you explain it gives it perfect meaning, rather than just being another retro fad to fill the void. You did the same thing in tracing the emo/indie thing. So I'm reading and alternating between laughs and "aaaaahhhh, so that's what that was..."s.

Working on anything now?

I'm trying to get all my pictures together and a glossary for my book, which I just sent off to Feral House for the first round of publisher edits. It should come out sometime while I'm at the Pole, where I have a year contract starting in October. It is difficult to imagine that anything can be worth the miserable year of hell entailed in writing that accursed book whose publication is to me like excising an inflamed tumor, but I suppose it will be interesting to see if there's any fallout while I'm there. In any event, I learned a lot in the course of the project. One time you said to me, "These emails are good. You should write a book about this." Though I can say with absolute authority that those emails were mostly ego-driven dogshit, thanks for the support. It helped.

I hope you're well.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Introducing The Nirvanas Anthology

I wrote this shortly after the first Beatles Anthology was released in 1995. I salvaged this from my archives after Wednesday's unexpected merger between Paul McCartney and the surviving members of Nirvana. Sadly you have to be both a Beatles nerd and a Nirvana fan for this article to make much sense. This is an edited version that better reflects modern attention spans.
Introducing the Nirvanas Anthology
Much of the excitement surrounding the Nirvanas Anthology has to do with the brand new song entitled "In Stereo" and the circumstances surrounding its recording. This song began in the form of a four-track demo recorded by Kurt in the early 1990's, and was given to the two and a half surviving Nirvanas by widow Courtney Love. Enlisting the help of famed Nevermind producer Butch Vig, they transformed the demo into a high quality Nirvanas recording with bass, drums and plenty of "grunge" guitar. When asked about "In Stereo," Butch Vig commented, "It's a sort of love song. When I say that, I mean it's a song about happiness and holding hands, as opposed to a Courtney Love song. It's a beautiful tune and they all do great harmonies with Kurt."
Unbeknown to most, the tape's poor quality meant that Pat Smear was forced to imitate Kurt's voice for some portions of the song.
Dave Grohl, the Nirvanas drummer said, "It was a nice change. In the olden days, Cobain always had complete creative control. This time we all were given a chance to throw in our two cents worth. I think that if Kurt was still alive, and provided that he wasn't so strung out on heroin that he couldn't remember his own name, he'd really like ‘In Stereo.’ ”
Krist Novoselic was less eager about the project, but eventually agreed to lend his assistance, saying "I plan to use most of my royalties to continue the fight against music censorship. The rest will go towards finally finding a barber who can give me a decent haircut."
"In Stereo" was recorded at Shabbey Roads studio near Berlin, Washington. Coincidentally enough, this studio is located a mere two blocks away the Top Heavy Club, where the Nirvanas spent their formative years developing and honing the sound that millions of teenage girls and boys would cling to like leeches a scant few years later.
Here is just a teaser of the 45 tracks that compose Anthology One:
Let's Get Ugly - A Vaselines cover taken from a 1988 Sub-Pop compilation. This was recorded when the band was still known as the Silver Nirvanas.
Flannel Fields Forever - Takes 9, 12, and 34 - These tracks are different takes of Flannel Fields Forever. The album version was a patchwork quilt of takes 2, 25, and 78 which were digitally grafted together to create the finished song. Here, for the first time, can be heard some of the other takes that Cobain originally conceived and how this song could have sounded.
I Like Myself and Wouldn't Mind Living - An early demo of the song that would become "I Hate Myself and Want to Die." Listen carefully and you can hear Dave shout "Cranberry sauce" at the end of the song, for reasons that have yet to be explained properly.
Scoff - An alternative take of this song from the Bleach album, featuring the drumming of former Nirvanas member Chad Channing. Controversy over the reasons for Channing's firing on August 16th, 1990, shortly before the recording of their breakthrough album Nevermind, continues amongst music academics to the present day. Channing argues that he was a better drummer, but that Grohl was hired because his look and sound more closely fit the Nirvanas mould. Also worthy of note is that at the end of this track can be heard what sounds like "K is gone." This would be used as a piece of evidence in the 'Kurt is dead' rumour of October 1990, after he was involved in a mountain bike accident.
Other "proof" included the fact that hair obscures Kurt's face on the album cover, coupled with the odd spelling of Kurdt Kobain. All this helped create a rumour that Kurt had died and had been replaced by a look-a-like. (Possibly Mark Arm.) These "Kurt is dead" rumours reappeared in 1991, 1992, 1993 and again in 1994 in Rome until he finally put an end to the rumours once and for all by committing suicide.
Opinion - This Cobain song was given to Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees. Mark lost the song in a poker game. It then passed through a number of hands, including Conan O'Brian, Yassir Arafat, the Emperor of Japan and Mark Lanegan (again.) However, by this time, the song had become disgusted with Mark's carelessness, and changed its tune, becoming a country western ballad.
Heart-Shaped Box - This features the original Steve Albini production and highlights the Nirvanas innovative use of loud guitars and even louder drums. While some consider Albini the fourth (or is that fifth?) Nirvana, he has maintained a discrete distance about his work on the album, and has continued to insist that the Scott Litt remix on "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies," coupled with a bad mastering job, ruined the immediacy and rawness of the songs.
I Can Scream Louder Than Love (The Ballad of Kurt and Courtney) - A song co-written by Love and Cobain about the trials and tribulations of two successful rock n' roll musicians trying to raise a child and live out a normal life, even though their every move is being observed under the media's microscope. It also addresses their numerous and well publicised shouting matches and neighbour-awakening arguments. Their touching harmonies and harsh screaming all combine for an aural treat. If one listens carefully, the plaintive cries of the youngest and most promising member of the Nirvanas, Francis Bean, can be heard just before the second bridge.
Workin' for The Man - A song that was recorded during the In Utero sessions. The Eastern flavour of this song is believed to have come from Novoselic's dabbling in Eastern religion and philosophy. Novoselic at one point even visited the Mahesh Yogi for insights into life. This reaction against Christianity is believed to have stemmed in part from Cobain's controversial claim of 1992 that "The Nirvanas were bigger than Jesus." This turned out to be a misquote by interviewer Maureen Cleave. When she finally owned up to her mistake, three months later, she apologised profusely and publicly corrected the error, saying that Kurt had actually said, "Jesus Christ! Why is there such a big fuss over the Nirvanas?" 

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A strong idea survives shrinkage

I’m going to be speaking at SXSW Interactive 2013. I feel lucky and blessed. But I also put a lot of time and thought into my application, which certainly helped.

Photo credit: Dylan Reibling
This week I was asked to convert my 1,000 character topic description (150 words) into 140 characters (22 words). I suspect this is the sort of thing that makes many people panic. But because I spent so long crafting a title for my talk that summarized those 1,000 characters (“Creating Great Analog Souvenirs for a Digital Era”) I felt confident I could distill my thoughts without weeping openly.

I’ve included three summaries here (140 characters, 400 characters, and the original 1,000 characters) in case it helps other people understand how to prioritize and condense. It’s a great skill to have, but one that can be tough to learn. During my time at the CFC, we were asked to do a similar exercise for txt2hold, and I found that it was a great way to determine the inner and outer orbits of a particular idea.

140 characters
Online and offline worlds are now melting together. Learn why and how artists are creating analog souvenirs to preserve our digital lives.

400 characters
Online and offline worlds are now melting together. But life in the cloud lacks the permanence of paper, which is why we’re starting to lose significant emotional moments in the digital ether. In response, artists and brands are creating analog souvenirs. Learn how to convert fleeting texts and tweets into physidigital keepsakes through a mix of research, design thinking and creative inspiration.

1,000 characters
The online and offline worlds are now melting together, thanks to smartphones and social media. But as our life shifts into the cloud, we’re starting to realize that 0s and 1s lack the tangibility and permanence of paper and film. Significant emotional moments are easy to misplace in the online ether, which helps explain why artists and brands are trying to create analog souvenirs of our increasingly digital lives.

Want a coaster of your favourite Instagram photo? No problem. Looking for a miniature printer that connects to your smartphone and generates a tiny personalized newspaper? Done and done.

Drawing on my experience as co-creator of and, two interactive art projects that generate unique paper keepsakes of digital experiences, I will explain the whys and hows of converting fleeting texts and tweets into permanent analog souvenirs through a careful mix of research, design thinking and creative inspiration.


Tuesday, December 04, 2012

On indie culture, putting birds on things and Tightrope’s Best Canadian Essays 2012

(This is a modified version of my November 28, 2012 reading as part of Tightrope Book’s Fall 2012 launch for Best Canadian Essays 2012.)

Last year I wrote about indie culture and how it went mainstream without really trying for Broken Pencil. My essay focused on authenticity versus transparency. So, for example, Louis C.K. made $1 million dollars in 12 days selling his last comedy special for $5 through his website. How do we know this? Because he was kind enough to tell us. That’s transparency in action.

Now is Mr. C.K. authentic? Maybe. Maybe not. To be honest, I’m at that age where I don’t really know anymore. And this would bother me, except that no one really knows anymore. Authenticity is a slippery concept, it’s a moving target measured with notoriously faulty equipment. That is to say, authenticity is measured by human beings. And we are very unreliable.

The problem is that authenticity is far sexier than transparency. Transparency is a spreadsheet full of earnings. I’m thinking of Zoe Keating, an indie musician who created a publically viewable Google Doc of her income.

Authenticity, meanwhile, is Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads. Authenticity is Lou Reed releasing Metal Machine Music as a way of giving his record label the middle finger. (And most of his fans too).

What we often forgot is that transparency takes bravery. Maybe even more bravery than Metal Machine Music. That’s because with transparency, you leave the job of interpretation in the hands of your fans. Authenticity can be spun, shaped, cultivated and managed. That’s not to say that transparency makes the end result more or less authentic. But it does demystify the conditions under which culture is created, which is what indie culture is all about.

Indie, as you might recall, is short for independent from the mainstream. Indie means more than simply putting a bird on it.

The other benefit of transparency is that it helps other artists. Zoe Keating makes almost nothing from Spotify, for example, which is probably a helpful thing to know if you’re a musician.

So, in the spirit of transparency, I will mention that I received $2000 from the Ontario Arts Council for my essay, which originally appeared in Broken Pencil. That sounds like a lot, but writing an essay is plenty of work, especially if you do it correctly. I was paid considerably less for being included in this book – I received two copies of the anthology.

So there you go. I walked the walk. I was brave and transparent. I’ll leave the job of interpretation to my fans.

Please buy the anthology. Or buy me a beer. Or both. Just do whatever feels most authentic to you.

(Special thanks to Broken Pencil for publishing the article in the first place. Extra special thanks to Lindsay Gibb for being such a wonderful editor. Also thanks to Christopher Doda and Ray Robertson for putting together such a fantastic anthology. And super thanks to everyone at Tightrope books.)