THE ABSOLUTE BEST & BADDEST OF 2012, in the highly concentrated, subjective, supercool, chocolate-coated, no-steroids-or-MSG-allowed world-view of My Terrible Self, Jesse Sublett, author, blues singer, blogger, etc.
TOP TEN BOOKS of 2012
1. The Bruiser, Jim Tully (1936)
The Bruiser is probably the best novel about boxing, outside of Bud Schulberg, I’ve ever read. Even if you give the number one slot to Schulberg, The Bruiser is still one of the best novels I’ve ever read, period. You expect a novel set in the boxing world to have a regular pattern of action that drives the plot forward page after page, and on that, this book delivers and then some. But there’s also more heart, more cool-as-shit hardboiled lingo on every page than you’d expect from any of the best tough-guy authors of any period. There’s not an ounce of fat here. The book feels like a movie because, after all, Tully wrote for movies and was pals with a who’s-who of top slot actors from the 1920s-30s. I mean, Charlie Chaplin and Wallace Beery, to name a couple, were close chums. I love this book! Hell, I’ll probably read it again in a couple of weeks.
Did I mention that Tully was a boxer before he was a writer?
If you need an introduction to Tully, a great place to start is Woody Haut, whose excellent piece on Tully, posted on November 28 of last year, prodded me to finally get around to reading Tully, after hearing about him at least ten years ago from my good pal, the publisher and professional mad man Dennis P. McMillan. As I recall, Dennis really wanted to bring some of Tully’s work back into print, but at the time he was trying, he was also moving toward a decision to disengage from the highly addictive yet difficult-to-make-a-dime-in racket of publishing books. Woody Haut, by the way, is a wise, wise man and has written a number of very, very cool books on noir lit. If Woody says something like, “Jim Tully may have been the true father of hardboiled fiction,” whether you agree or not, you better listen, because he knows what he’s talking about.
2. Circus Parade, Jim Tully (1927)
OK, so I’ve written about Tully already. I mentioned that he was a boxer and a Hollywood writer, but I neglected to mention that he was also a hobo who rode the rails and who also became a circus bum, and this book is auto-biographical. I’ve already raved and raved about The Bruiser. Pretend that I have raved again about Circus Parade. Thank goodness I only read these two in 2012, or this list might be exclusively devoted to one author.
3. Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champ, W.K. Stratton
OK, forget that last line. Even if W.K. “Kip” Stratton wasn’t one of my best friends, and even if I didn’t love books about boxing, I would have to list this great, great bio of Floyd Patterson. I mean, Kip had his work cut out for him, too, because everybody is such a huge Muhammed Ali fan (for good reason) and then there are guys like me who just love Sonny Liston, the heavyweight who beat Patterson for the title. But seriously, Floyd wasn’t the most flamboyant of guys, and the turmoil and difficulties of his early life as a juvenile delinquent weren’t there on the surface for all to see. But how many heavyweight boxers are known for their compassion, not just out of the ring, but in it? Here’s a guy who actually picked up his opponent’s mouth piece and handed it back to him before resuming the punishment? Stratton does a fine, fine job here of not only bringing this long neglected sports hero to life, but he also does a tremendous job of evoking the sounds, sights and smells of the boxing world, and the tumult of the various worlds and characters (as in, “Don’t mess with that dude with the bent nose, he’s a character…”) that swirled about it.
4. The Black Box, Michael Conelly
Again, Michael Connelly is a friend of mine and I expect nothing but the best from him, but in this outing, he proves again why people say he’s by far the best crime writer going today. Harry Bosch is getting older, and several generations of younger cops and new technology have appeared since we first met him back in 1992 with The Black Echo. But Harry is here to stay, I reckon, and I’m glad.
5. The Score, Richard Stark, Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptation
Here goes: The best crime caper novels by a long shot were written by Donald Westlake under the pen name Richard Stark. The protagonist was a professional thief named Parker. One of the best films noir of all time was Point Blank (1967), adapted from the first Stark novel, The Hunter. The Score is the third adaptation of Stark’s novels by graphic artist Darwyn Cooke. Each one is stunning, explosive, cinematic, super-cool, but if anything, they keep getting better and better. I can’t tell you how much I love these books. Read more about this at the great website devoted to Richard Stark and Parker: The Violent World of Parker, then go see the blog about this new Cooke book, suitably titled “Like Having a Scorpion in the Room.”
6. You Can’t Win, Jack Black (1926)
When it comes to criminal memoirs, this is one of the earliest in modern literature and still one of the best. This is available in many editions, including eBooks, but one of the coolest editions is the one with an intro by legendary Beat junkie and convicted murderer William Burroughs. Burroughs penned his intro and made various allusions and quotes without the benefit of a copy at hand to double-check his accuracy. That’s how much he dug this book, or how desperately the publishers wanted his seal of approval-take your pick.
7. Mars Attacks: 50th Anniversary Collection, by the Topps Company, Inc., with introduction and commentary by Len Brown, afterward by Zina Saunders
Yes, a book commemorating the 50th anniversary of a bubble gum card series, which was adapted into a terrible film, despite having Jack Nicholson in it. The book was published by Abrams Comic Arts, which also published the super cool Heroes of the Blues, by R. Crumb, which also began as a card collection. They may be crazy about bubble gum cards, but they sure have great taste.
8. Ulrich Haarbürste’s Novel of Roy Orbison in Cling-Film, Ulrich Haarbürste
You won’t find this one at the local mall. Yes, it’s a book (published in 2007) written from the point-of-view of a guy who has a thing about imagining scenarios in which he encounters Roy Orbison, the great rock n’ roll singer, and a situation of some dire emergency arises, including car wrecks, about-to-be-cancelled concerts, and even showing up at a swank costume party without a costume. Invariably, Ulrich saves the day by volunteering to wrap “the famous man in black” from head to toe in cling-film, which most of you may know as cellophane, Saran Wrap, etc. By any other name, it would be a strange read. I discovered this fetish author at least ten or so years ago by accident on the internet, back in the old dial-up days, when it was poky and prone to breaking down constantly if you had any access at all. So, imagine my surprise when I found Ulrich and his strange hobby. This summer, when I was writing Grave Digger Blues, I created a character modeled after him and decided to see what the real Ulrich has been up to. He published this book in 2007, for one thing. I suppose since then he may have “wrapped” another project or two.
9. Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Robert Caro
Wow. This is a great book, period. You can read elsewhere about what a monumental contribution to political biography and American history this book, the fourth in Caro’s biographical treatment of the life of the great president, Lyndon B. Johnson. You can read in my memoir, Never the Same Again, what it was like to be a young teenybopper in Johnson City, frequently encountering the great man at church and elsewhere when he was home from the White House. And I will probably comment on that again in this space someday soon. But only RIGHT HERE will you see someone like me say: This is one hell of a riproaring page-turning, noirish, thrill-ride of a book. It could easily be a dark film noir, a real thriller. Wow. I LOVED THIS BOOK. I told Caro all this at a party during the Texas Book Festival. I started by congratulating him by accurately describing how mean people in Johnson City can be, and were, when LJB was growing up and his family fell on hard times. I said: “They’re still that way.” He said, “Yes! I’m glad you told me. I found them that way, too.”
10. The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers
A really good first novel by a former Marine who fought in Iraq. Powers attended the Michener Center for Writers at UT, and his writing is evocative and hallucinatory in ways that bring to mind the great author and poet Denis Johnson. Some parts of the novel work better than others, but it’s a very impressive debut and we should all be watching out for his next effort.
TOP FIVE FILMS
1. Killing Them Softly
I really liked the other movies on this list, but few of them came close to this one. Beginning to end, inside and out, one of the greatest films noir of all time. It is small, dark, contained, sweaty, ominous, real, surreal. Brad Pitt is phenomenal. Richard Jenkins is superb. Based on the novel by the late, great George V. Higgins, and if you aren’t a huge, huge fan of the film adaptation of Higgins’ great novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, I have to tell you that we can’t be friends anymore.
2. Killer Joe
Stunning, startling, hilarious, sick, tight, unhinged. I also read the playscript by Traci Letts. Traci Letts writes white trash like nobody’s business. A related note that may be of interest: I was a little disturbed to encounter a couple of friends who had “left the wives at home” and after the movie, had gone to Lucy’s Fried Chicken to “pick up some dinner for the girls.” They were quite amused with themselves. No reports on how this went over, but I watched for police reports in the paper next morning, didn’t see any.
3. Django Unchained
Wow. Hell of a movie. I used to be fed up with Tarantino, but after Inglourious Basterds and this one, he’s OK in my book. And what’s with that actor, Christoph Walz, anyway? He’s one weird dude.
4. Seven Psychopaths
Almost every movie with Tom Waits in it is OK with me. Plus this one had other attributes.
Loved it a lot, although parts were a little too comic-booky. Did I really say that? Loved the low-tech Q, which was a good touch, plus the return of the Aston Martin.
This film captures small town folks quite well. The way they talk and think, the way they dress and live. Yikes. It was a fine film but don’t want to go there again. I lived it already, growing up in the Hill Country.
TOP FIVE TV
1. Election Night coverage of Barack Obama’s victory over some random dude named Mitt Romney, or Mr. Corporation, or MC One Percent, or something, I forgot already.
As if this isn’t self-explanatory. Plus there was the super bonus of watching everyone melt down on Fox. Now THERE’S AN IDEA FOR A MODERN OPERA.
2. Mad Men
Rarely a slack moment.
3. Breaking Bad
Strange, comic, brilliant, creepy, twitchy, funny. Is Bryan Cranston awesome or what?
This may sound creepy, but from spending so many evenings with them, we’ve come to feel like Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Lawrence O’Donnel, Reverend Al, and Big Ed are part of our family. And although I don’t watch a lot of daytime TV, being a fan of beauty, I’m quite fond of Tamron Hall.
BEST MUSIC of 2012
1. Smokestack Lightning: Complete Chess Masters, Howlin’ Wolf
The Wolf was awesome, a force of nature who lives on. Great box set collecting the work of a truly incredible talent. Not just a bluesman, but an artist and a fascinating human being. Here’s one of many listings for the box set that do not happen to be Amazon.
2. Bad as Me, Tom Waits
Weird and funny as ever, he came through again with a dynamite record. “Hell Broke Luce” is one scary goddamn war song. This video does it justice.
3. Garage Sale, Jon Dee Graham
Even if Jon Dee wasn’t one of my best friends, my oldest friend, one of my most talented friends, I like to think that this record would still be on here. But it’s got some damn good music on it.
4. Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Vols 1-3, Charley Patton
I belatedly got around to some heavy listening to Charley Patton, and now that I have seen the light, I don’t think I will ever stop. Fascinating as a historical figure, he did things to his guitar that still mystify and cause terrible arguments between guitar geeks to day. Listen to “High Water Everywhere Part 1.” Then tell me if you can show me anything better in any category. Very cool graphic novel bio of Charley here.
TOP TEN RANDOM
1. Creating ibooks for iPad
On January 19, 2012, Apple released iBooks Author as a free ap, which allows the user to create enhanced multi-touch multi-media books for the iPad. On February 6, I released an edition of my first novel, Rock Critic Murders, as an enhanced iBook for the iPad, with dozens of photos, drawings, videos, plus music and other media. A great experience, though I have not yet figured out how to make much money doing it. My new iBook for the iPad, Grave Digger Blues, is a streamlined and super hip iBook, created especially to take advantage of the ap’s technology, and I’m really proud of this one. It’s a wicked, outrageous apocalyptic pulp fiction narrative with 100s of photos from Austin art photographers–sexy stuff–plus drawings and collages by My Terrible Self, plus audio chapters and my own blues soundtrack and collaborations with Fort Worth blues musician Johnny Reno. I also released a stripped down version for Kindle (text and photos only) and a bare bones edition for Smashwords.
2. Almost meeting Rachel Maddow in Rockefeller Plaza
This is a no-brainer. We were trying to catch her before she went into her office to prepare for the show but we missed her and then saw her just as the elevator doors closed so we ran up two flights of stairs and when we got there she was just closing the door behind her and our friend who produces for Rachel said “you DO NOT bug Rachel during that time period.” So we went downstairs and ran into Tamron Hall, who is super beautiful, friendly, and originally from Lufkin and Grapevine and said her accent is not a problem except sometimes instead of saying “naked” she says “nekkid” and who came blame a gal for that?
3. Nick Lowe at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass AND…
Also seeing Preservation Hall Jazz Band at least twice that weekend (at Great American Music Hall, at Hardly Strictly, and again at their new West Coast home, The Chapel), and also Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, rocking the festival like crazy, with Robert Plant and John Paul Jones standing in front of me backstage, but I didn’t mind as I had never seen Nick Lowe play “Tennessee Stud” before and he had never played it before but he did one hell of a job and everybody under the Golden Gate loved it. And with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Robert Plant, Patty Griffin and Joel Guzman onstage for the Buddy/Jim encore, I thought, Wow, this is weird, it’s kinda like being at the Continental Club in South Austin but there’s like 100,000 people out there. Weird but fun. Especially since I was so ill I could barely walk 50 feet without resting, but fortunately, we had the golf carts giving us rides everywhere, so it was cool.
4. Random eating adventures in Austin
Enoteca and Vespaio, Justine’s, Hoover’s, Threadgill’s, Whip Inn… over and over again. There are many other restaurants in Austin, but these places are the places we really, really love.
5. Musso & Frank
Musso & Frank’s Grill on Hollywood Boulevard has always been one of our favorite places in LA. We had a great weekend trip there with our friends, doing lots of cool stuff, but when we went there for dinner Saturday night with our great friend Rocky Schenck, it all came together. Another great highlight was driving around LA in a Crown Vic, which was the only full-size car in the Dollar-Rent-a-Car lot that spoke to us. And boy howdy, I gotta say, driving around LA in a cop car is a hell of a lot of fun. And you know how people sometimes don’t get out of your way when you do something aggressive like make a U-turn in the middle of Sunset Boulevard? When you’re driving a big black Crown Vic, not so much!
6. Howlin’ Wolf Birthday Show
I organize and lead and produce and play and sing in this tribute to the great Howlin’ Wolf at the Continental Club around the time of the Wolf’s birthday on June 10. This year we did a Saturday night and having Denny Freeman, Mike Buck, Eve Monsees, Big Foot Chester and so many other pals of mine playing with me, it was maybe the best Wolf party I’ve had. Wow. It was cool. If you weren’t there, I gotta say, I feel badly for you.
There were other stellar events in 2012 in my life, including my family — my wife Lois Richwine, and my son, Dashiell, and I know I couldn’t do better than be involved with either one of them, but to have them both, hey, it’s a trifecta, a perfect storm! And my Mother and brothers and sister, and the extended family, I really appreciated them this year.
You may have noticed that I’ve been doing more political blogs lately and these are often published on OpEdNews.Com before they are posted here. OpEdNews.com is a great progressive news source. Lately I’ve been writing about the post-Obama-reelection secession craze and gun control. Go here for the direct link to my stories.
See you around.