Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie and me

I know. I suppose everyone will want to have their say about David Bowie, which goes to show what an important influence he has been.

The very first song I heard by David Bowie on Australian radio, and the first to which I attached his name, was ‘Queen Bitch’, from the ‘Hunky Dory’ album. A song with the words ‘queen’ and ‘bitch’ in the title? Would that get airplay in the US even today?

Oh yeah
I’m up on the eleventh floor and I’m watching the cruisers below
He’s down on the street and he’s trying hard to pull sister Flo
Oh, my heart’s in the basement, my weekend’s at an all-time low
’Cause she’s hoping to score, so I can’t see her letting him go
Walk out of her heart, walk out of her mind, oh not her

She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that

She’s an old-time ambassador of sweet-talking, night-walking games
And she’s known in the darkest clubs for pushing ahead of the dames
If she says she can do it, then she can do it, she don’t make false claims
But she’s a queen and such are queens that your laughter is sucked in their brains
Now she’s leading him on, and she’ll lay him right down
Yes, she’s leading him on, and she’ll lay him right down
But it could have been me, yes, it could have been me
Why didn’t I say, why didn’t I say, no, no, no

She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that

So I lay down a while and I gaze at my hotel wall
Oh, the cot is so cold it don’t feel like no bed at all
Yeah, I lay down a while and I look at my hotel wall
And he’s down on the street, so I throw both his bags down the hall
And I’m phoning a cab ’cause my stomach feels small
There’s a taste in my mouth and it’s no taste at all
It could have been me, oh yeah it could have been me
Why didn’t I say, why didn’t I say, no, no, no

She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that

You betcha
Oh, yeah

What the hell was this song about? It was 1972, I was fifteen years old and I didn’t have a clue. But I knew that it was in some way subversive, and I was hooked. Here was my Elvis, my Beatles or my Rolling Stones: someone my parents would hate.

I was (as usual) a bit behind the times. There were other songs—‘Changes’, ‘Starman’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Space Oddity’—that other people apparently already knew. I was a nerdy, fifteen-year-old sci-fi geek, and here was the stranger in a strange land himself; here was the real Valentine Michael Smith. Those weirdly alien-sounding vocals, the bizarre haircut and make-up, the outrageous costumes. ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. It was all there. ‘Ziggy Stardust’ remains—and I don’t think this will be widely disputed—one of the greatest albums of all times.

Over the years David Bowie continued to evolve and experiment, to excite, baffle and disappoint his fans. I suspect all those who count David Bowie among their favourite recording artists will have their favourite era. This will probably be the era in which they first discovered him. He continued to re-invent himself, never content with the success of the past, never content just to repeat himself, never content to simply please his existing fan base. I always wanted everything David Bowie did to be touched with genius, but not all of it was, of course. I hate some of what he did. But he never gave up. He kept coming back. The ‘plastic soul’ era; the Berlin era; the ‘Metal Machine’ era; the ‘Scary Monsters’ era; the ‘new wave/pop’ era. I didn’t like everything he did; but someone else always did.

Then, later in life, in 2002, he surprised me with what I think is one of his best albums, ‘Heathen’. The next two were not so much to my taste. And the latest, ‘Blackstar’, released on his sixty-ninth birthday, just a couple of days before his death? Weird, certainly. I may hate it. I’m not sure. But, once again, he was David Bowie being out there, very much a stranger in a strange land.

There is, of course, much more to David Bowie’s life and career: his collaborations, his movies, his artwork, his internet savviness. He was always the consummate market expert, even down to the timing of his death. Love it or hate it, ‘Blackstar’ is almost guaranteed to become a classic.

David Bowie was my voice in the early years of the nineteen seventies. He expressed for me all the weirdness I was too timid to express myself. Over the years, even during those eras when I didn’t particularly like his work, he was never far from my thoughts. I always had an eye out for news about him. He has accompanied me through life since I was fifteen years old. He is the ultimate icon for my generation. The deaths of very few celebrities have moved me personally. The death of David Bowie has. I feel I have lost a friend and companion this day.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Hemingway, the App

Every now and then a new application pops up that will claim to make you a better writer, or that will offer to edit your work for you. Of course, MS Word itself offers to do some of this, with its spell checker and grammar checker, and I think we all know that the results are chequered at best.

I came across an app recently: the ‘Hemingway App.’ It claims ‘to make your writing bold and clear’. It does this by pointing out what sentences it considers hard to read or very hard to read; phrases that have simpler alternatives; the number of adverbs (of which it will specify what it considers to be a suitable number for a piece of writing of that length); and uses of the passive voice. It is called the ‘Hemingway App’ because Hemingway is so often held up as a writer whose writing is ‘bold and clear’, a paragon for all writers since. He is often cited by those whose aim is the extinction of adverbs. Once you begin to look more closely at Hemingway’s writing, of course, it becomes clear this his writing is far from always ‘bold and clear’; nor does he particularly shy away from the use of adverbs.

Any piece of software like this is just begging to be put to the test, and this can be done on their web site here: Text can be entered and subjected to scrutiny. Naturally, the first author anyone is going to subject to this analysis will be Hemingway himself. Here is the opening paragraph of For Whom the Bell Tolls:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.

The first thing the app does is identify three out of four sentences as ‘hard to read’. Erm, well … Either the software can’t count or it is not able to identify sentences very well. There are only three sentences here. Perhaps the app doesn’t know what semi-colons are. Nevertheless, it highlights the whole passage as ‘hard to read’. Hard for whom, one wonders. It identifies ‘gently’ as an adverb and advises its removal. Really? ‘The mountainside sloped where he lay’ would be an improvement? What mountainside doesn’t slope? So, remove an adverb and generate a tautology. The point is that it slopes gently here and not precipitously. The app apparently has no problem with this sentence opener: ‘There was a stream alongside the road …’ I would consider this passive, but the app doesn’t. As an editor I would change this to: ‘A stream ran alongside the road …’ So … not a great start for the app.

It rated this passage a ‘ten’ (good). The lower the rating, the higher the readability, apparently. It goes up to twenty-four. Even the lowest rating of ‘one’, however, is still only ‘good’.

Here’s a passage from a Hemingway short story:

I guess looking at it now my old man was cut out for a fat guy, one of those regular little roly fat guys you see around, but he sure never got that way, except a little toward the last, and then it wasn’t his fault, he was riding over the jumps only and he could afford to carry plenty of weight then. I remember the way he’d pull on a rubber shirt over a couple of jerseys and a big sweat shirt over that, and get me to run with him in the forenoon in the hot sun. He’d have, maybe, taken a trial trip with one of Razzo’s skins early in the morning after just getting in from Torino at four o’clock in the morning and beating it out to the stables in a cab and then with the dew all over everything and the sun just starting to get going, I’d help him pull off his boots and he’d get into a pair of sneakers and all these sweaters and we’d start out.

The app gave this a grade of twenty (poor). That it may be—we are harsh critics—but the point of including it here is to consider adverbs more closely. I have highlighted the adverbs; I see ten of them. The app identified one: roly. Which, of course, isn’t an adverb. (Is it even a word without its ‘poly’ partner?) So … the software doesn’t appear to know what an adverb is.

Finally, who could resist entering some gibberish.

Me thinks this um piece of software is crap. But it likum this. Car happy not today. Me good writer ugh.

This (apparently) is a Grade 1 (but still only ‘good’) piece of writing, with no issues at all. Now I understand what I have been doing wrong.

Some might advise caution when using, or even considering purchasing, the Hemingway App. I would never do that, of course. 

[By the way, this post rated ‘seven’. I’m not at all sure that I should be happy about that!]