Nyro Fiddles

Laura Nyro has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. About freakin time.

For those not in the know or too young to remember, Laura Nyro was a cult phenomenon of the 60s. Find her old Verve and Columbia records and listen to that voice—she did all her own harmonies; listen to those lyrics and consider that they were written by a teenager. Many of her devotees were other musicians who had hits with her more commercial songs—“Stoned Soul Picnic,” “And When I Die,” “Stoney End,” “Eli’s Coming,” to name but a few. She dropped out of the scene in the early seventies but eventually came back. Sometime in the 90s I caught her show with a quartet at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village and it brought back a night years and years before when I dropped in on one of her recording sessions.

What follows is true. Mostly. I wrote the piece back then with the old Crawdaddy or Creem in mind as a market. It never sold.  But here’s how that night went down…


CBS Recording Studios
The New York Tendaberry sessions
July 20, 1969

We were supposed to go to Studio A but there didn’t seem to be a Studio A in this building so Mary asks the guard where’s the Laura Nyro session and he says it’s in Studio B on the second floor. A placard by the guard’s desk reminds us that Arthur Godfrey broadcasts from the sixth floor.

We sign in and take the elevator.

The main double door to Studio B opens into a sort of T-shaped vestibule with the sound studio to the right and the engineer’s booth to the left. I hesitate outside, not sure we should walk in because it’s in use right now and we had been told to go to Studio A in the first place. The guard could be wrong (it’s been known to happen) and the studio could be filled with strangers and I’d feel dumb walking in and then just turning around and leaving.

Then through the door window I see Jimmy Haskell walk by from the sound studio to the booth and I know this must be the place. Jimmy’s arranging the horns for Laura. He’s a sweet, easy-going, middle-aged guy with a salt-and-pepper beard and he’s wearing a beanie with propellers sticking out each side. They spin deliriously as he walks.

Laura likes everyone to be happy at her sessions.

We walk into the booth and there’s Laura and a friend smoking a little pipe. The friend has longish hair and a mustache, both brown, and is wearing one of those knee-length Indian style coat-shirts, and I think he looks a lot like a guy who used to play lead guitar in my band.

Laura sits by the console in her full-length black dress and black lace shawl and that incredible black hair and I think maybe she’s put on a few pounds since I last saw her. There’s also this German shepherd running around and it has what looks like an old Sara Lee coffee cake tin in the closet filled with dog food and every so often goes over and chomps some down. Laura tells us the dog’s name is Beauty Belle (or did she say Bill?)

It’s eight o’clock and the session was supposed to start at seven but the engineers are having trouble setting up the second eight tracks and Laura Nyro, who’s usually fairly talkative, is preoccupied tonight. Dallas—could be the city, a guy, or a gal—is on the phone and Laura’s telling he, she, or it how stoned she is. The engineer’s on another line with someone named Danny explaining that he doesn’t see how he can mix the new album this week because his kids are out of school and he’s gotta spend some time with them. Indian Coat was trying to persuade him on this point earlier but Indian Coat is now out in the sound studio talking to Twin-Prop Jimmy while the musicians sit around bullshitting, trying each other’s instruments, and getting paid scale for it. Beauty Belle is watching Indian Coat very intently through the glass.

A young photographer approaches the console and waits for the lady to get off the phone. He shows her some shots he took of her a while back and she picks out some she likes and says she doesn’t want to give this one or that one to Vogue because they’re very personal-type pictures, you know? Indian Coat strolls in and says he wants that one blown up for his wall and Laura says he’s got to be kidding. She hates that picture. Well, she doesn’t really hate it, it’s just that she likes others better and I get the impression she’s uncomfortable with the word hate.

Break time rolls around for the musicians so they interrupt their bullshitting in the studio and move it out to the hall where they regroup around the soft drink machine. I go over and hang with one of the trumpets I know who with a couple more years could be old enough to be Laura’s father and he tells me it’s anarchy, pure and simple anarchy, but wait and see… they’ll start to play and she’ll point things out and say do this and try that and before you know it everything falls into place and it’s beautiful, man. The girl’s crazy but she sure as hell knows her music.

Back in the booth they’re blasting “Time and Love,” the song that’s to be re-recorded tonight. The backup tracks were laid down at an earlier session but something didn’t click and so they’re going to be done again tonight. Laura’s tracks with her piano and vocal won’t be touched and the band will play off them. After the second run-through of the tape Mary turns to me and says it sounds familiar and I say I guess it does have a few phrases reminiscent of “Flim-Flam Man,” especially in the fade.

After more replays the band thinks it’s ready and they try it. It’s about nine now and Laura wants to finish by ten (definitely no overtime tonight) but the drummer isn’t the same one as last time and he’s doing some of his own thing (like doubles on the downbeat) and Laura wants to know the drummer’s name. Jimmy tells her it’s Maurice and she gets on the mike and tells Maurice what she wants. Her speaking voice is soft, almost sibilant, and I can never get used to associating it with the power, range, and clarity that explodes when she gets behind her piano. She tells Maurice to do it like Gary Chester did at the last session, keep it simple and easy and light and happy and no cymbals except for a bam-bam-crash in the chorus and only a one-stroke downbeat, okay?

At first I think the doubles on the downbeat sound better than the singles Laura wants but as the session wears on I come around to agreeing with the lady in black. Many more tries follow and one sounds perfect until Maurice forgets the boom-boom on his bass drum that leads into the fade. It’s 9:50 and Laura swears she’s not going into overtime again. Everything’s going to stop dead at 10:00 whether “Time and Love” is finished or not. Okay now, everybody be happy and light, everybody smile, and one of the percussion men sticks his head out from behind some baffling and flashes Laura this hideous shit-eating grin and everybody laughs.

At 10:15 the musicians take another break and Laura is asking about overtime. At 10:30 all the musicians pile into the engineer’s booth to hear the last take. It’s crowded and Mary and I have other stops to make tonight so we leave without good-byes because no one could hear us over the replay anyway. Art Garfunkel comes in as we’re leaving and asks if the Nyro session is here and I tell him yes. He shakes his head and says he heard it was Studio A.

Outside the moon is high and bright and I remember hearing that somebody might be walking on it tonight. I also hear that Laura Nyro sleeps in a coffin.

I don’t know.

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Dydeetown World

I want you to read Dydeetown World.  For that reason, I’ve lowered the price to 99 cents.  (This is no longer true, but please read on – FPW)

This is no marketing ploy to suck you into my old SF books.  The truth is, I really, really like Dydeetown World. Authors are asked all the time which books are their favorites.  I usually hedge because I like various books for various reasons.  The Keep because it gave me an international audience, Sibs because it wrote itself so quickly, The Select because it made me so much money, The Haunted Air because I love the theme.

But Dydeetown World has a special place in my heart, though I haven’t the faintest idea why.  So it bothers the hell out of me that no one’s reading it.

Maybe it’s the title.  I’m the first to admit it’s a sucky title.  Reminds people of diapers.  I hadn’t thought of that when I named it.  The Dydeetown of the title is the UN building which, in this future, has been turned into a whorehouse.  (Some might say that’s truth in advertising at last, but let’s not get sidetracked.)  When the new tenants moved in, the complex was renamed Aphrodite Town; over the years the name devolved to Dydeetown.  On my future Earth, everything’s for sale, thus… Dydeetown World.

This story developed from an opening hook that had lain fallow in my notebook for years.  The plot, characters, tone, milieu, just about everything in the story sprang from that one sentence:

I gathered from the medium-size Tyrannosaurus rex running loose in his yard that Yokomata discouraged drop-in company.

You have no idea how badly I wanted to open the story with that line, but it simply didn’t work.  I’d need too much backfill.  So it wound up opening section 4.

It started as a short story – five, maybe six thousand words tops.  A quiet little SF tribute to Raymond Chandler whose work has given me such pleasure over the years.  As part of my usual process, I took all the tropes of noir P-I fiction and gave them my own twist.  I’ve got a down-and-out private investigator with an addiction, I’ve got the tired, seamy city, I’ve got the seedy club owner who’s the go-to guy for anything illegal, I’ve got a full crew of various underworld sociopaths.  Only one person in the whole cast has any decency, and that’s a clone of Jean Harlow who’s a Dydeetown whore with (you guessed it) a heart of gold.  She’s the “Dydeetown Girl” of the novella’s title.

But that wasn’t the title I started with.  The working title was “Lies” because that’s mostly what the story is about.  We all say we revere the truth, but sometimes a lie can be stronger than the truth, better than the truth.  There are vital lies – the ones that can give you hope, can give you the strength to keep going when the truth would break you.  And sometimes, under the right circumstances, a lie can become the truth

I set it in the far future I had developed for the LaNague Federation science fiction stories (four novels and a handful of shorts) written early in my career.  But “Lies” was going to be different.  Rather than bright and full of hope like its predecessors, this story was going to be set on the grimy, disillusioned underbelly of that world.  I wanted to move through the LaNague future at ground level, take a hard look at the social fallout of the food shortages, the population-control measures, the wires into the pleasure centers of the brain – things I’d glossed over or mentioned only in passing.  But despite the downbeat milieu, the story would be about freedom, friendship, and self esteem.

Beneath its hard-boiled voice, its seamy settings, and violent events (Cyber/p-i/sci-fi, as Forry Ackerman might have called it) were characters trying to maintain – or reestablish – a human connection.  I disappeared into the story, and had a ball writing it.  So much so that it came in at three times the projected length, with a new title: “Dydeetown Girl.”

A novella.  One that none of the sf magazines wanted because it was too much like detective fiction; and which the detective mags rejected because it was “sci-fi.”  I began to fear my ugly-duckling hybrid would be doomed to perpetual orphanhood.  The wonderful Betsy Mitchell was editing for Baen Books then and bought it for one of their Far Frontiers anthologies.  From there it went on to reach the Nebula Awards final ballot for best novella of the year.  It didn’t win, but just seeing it listed was sweet vindication.  The ugly duckling had become a swan.

Betsy prodded me for a sequel.  I said I didn’t think there was any story left.  She said, “What about those urchins?”  (I won’t go into an explanation of that reference, but this is an example of what good editors do: They inspire as well as edit.)  That triggered a second novella called “Wires” which Greg Benford said had one of the best opening lines he’d ever read.  The second novella triggered a third, “Kids,” that resolved all the leftover issues from the first two.  (I had a thing for plural nouns as titles.)  Both were published in Baen’s New Destinies anthologies.  I rewrote all three into a novel and called it Dydeetown World. Easton Press published a leatherbound signed first edition and Baen did the paperback with a marvelous cover by Gary Ruddell.

I recently reread it to spruce it up and got a little verklempt at the end.  Not simply because I wrote it – I’m the first to admit I’ve written my share of flawed fiction – but I find Dydeetown World ultimately uplifting.  Its future Earth is a dirty, mean world, but it can’t prevent the bond that can form between an adult and a child.  And let me tell you, once that bond is formed, you’re risking all kinds of hell should you try to interfere.

Although written for adults, Dydeetown World wound up on the American Library Association’s list of “Best Books for Young Adults” and on the New York Public Library’s recommended list of “Books for the Teen Age.”

Remember that opening hook with a Tyrannosaurus rex used as a guard animal?  Think about that: in a story written in 1985 I used a dinosaur cloned from reconstituted fossil DNA, but I tossed it off as background color.

If only I’d thought to stick a bunch of them in a park…

So that’s how Dydeetown World came to be.  I’ve lowered the price because I write to be read, and I want you to read this one, damn it.  And if you don’t want to spring for the 99 cents, at least download the free sample.

Dydeetown World

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QUICK FIXES – tales of Repairman Jack

Finally…all the Repairman Jack short fiction – many hard to find, one nigh impossible – collected for the first time.  I compiled QUICK FIXES at the insistence of Repairman Jack fans, especially the completists. A number of small presses have approached me to do a signed, limited first edition, but I’m not comfortable with charging a premium price for previously published material. Through the years a number of these stories have been incorporated into Repairman Jack novels:

“Home Repairs ” into Conspiracies
“The Last Rakosh” into All the Rage
“The Wringer” into Fatal Error

If you’ve read those three novels, you have, in effect, read versions of those three stories.  For those who are newcomers to the character…

Who is Repairman Jack?

He’s an urban mercenary in Manhattan, a self-made outcast who lives in the interstices of modern society.  A ghost in our machine: no official identity, no social security number, pays no taxes.  He has a violent streak he sometimes finds hard to control.  He hires out for cash to “fix” situations that have no legal remedy.

The name Repairman Jack comes from his gunrunner pal, Abe.  Jack’s not crazy about it, but he lives with it.  He’s not a vigilante, not a do-gooder. He’s not out to right wrongs. Nor is he out to change the world or fight crime. (He’s a career criminal, after all, as are many of his friends.) He’s not Batman. He’s just a guy with a devious mind who likes his work best when he can see to it that what goes around come around. If you follow him carefully you’ll see he gets a real jolt out of running a scam or setting up someone to be hoisted on his own petard.

He came from a dream. The scene on the roof in The Tomb was that dream.  I worked backward and forward from there to create a character who could survive that situation. I decided on an anti-Jason Bourne – with no black-ops, SEAL, or Special Forces training, no CIA or police background, no connection to officialdom.  In other words, no safety net.  No one in officialdom he could call on.  He has to rely on his own wits and his own network.

I’ve been a libertarian forever, so I figured I’d act out my libertarian dreams, you know, make this guy an anarchist with no identity. But as I’ve continued his adventures, I’ve learned that it takes a lot of effort to live below the radar, especially since 9/11.

I intended Jack as a one-shot, which is kind of obvious at the end of The Tomb. As I finished that novel, I thought, “Well, this character is definitely series material, so I gotta make it look like the guy is dead or they’ll want more.” I had books planned out and didn’t want to get locked into a series.

Then, later on, Jack became a way out of a trap I’d got myself into with a medical thriller contract. I’d become bored with writing them after doing three and I was contracted to do a fourth… but I had this idea for a techy thriller and thought, why don’t I rework this and use Jack again? It’d be great for him. I named it Legacies and made his client a doctor so I could call it a medical thriller.  The publisher was happy I was bringing back a character my fans wanted to see again, and I was happy to revisit Jack.  A win-win.

Legacies was fun and sold well, so I had to do another, and then another, and before I knew it, Jack had taken over my writing career.

But before Legacies, I brought him back in shorter works.

QUICK FIXES includes:
“A Day in the Life”
“The Last Rakosh”
“Home Repairs”
“The Long Way Home”
“The Wringer”
“Interlude at Duane’s”
“Piney Power”
plus introductions to each story

You can find all e-formats HERE

The paper edition is HERE

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Deep as the Marrow

Deep as the Marrow is about a lot of things.  Obviously, on the surface, it’s about the fallout from the President’s plan to legalize drugs.  This is the type of proposal that offends the entire political spectrum—right, left, middle…everyone.  Well, almost everyone.  The right calls him Satan, the left calls him genocidal, certain government agencies see their appropriations shriveling, and the drug lords see their $300+ billion a year in profits evaporating.  They all agree: Somebody’s got to do something about this guy.

But that’s what Alfred Hitchcock called “the maguffin.”  At its heart, Deep as the Marrow is about bonding…about the damn near insoluble bond that can form between an adult and child—maybe it’s a parent, maybe it’s a stranger, but there’s something in the genetic structure of many of us that reaches out to a helpless little one and draws him or her close, and God help anyone who tries to hurt that little one.  That’s what happens in Marrow…someone who’s not supposed to care bonds like Krazy Glue with a kidnapped child, and a nasty international plot starts to unravel.

But let’s get back to that maguffin.

When it comes to priorities in writing, a good story is first on my list.  I will sacrifice style and ego and just about everything else to put across my story in the most effective possible way.  But…I also like to use a story to explore my passions.  One of my passions is individual sovereignty.  I believe everyone owns his or her own life, therefore everyone owns his or her own body.  Follow that premise to its logical conclusion, and you must say that therefore no one—not one someone, not a billion someones—has a right to tell you what you must or must not put into your body.

But still…drugs suck…drugs are poison.  I got stomach cramps thinking about writing a novel that advocated legalizing poison.  So I did what I do with all my novels: I researched the subject.  And you know what I found?  We as a nation spend sixty billion [not million—billion (that’s nine zeroes after the sixty)]—dollars a year trying to keep our fellow Americans (land of the free and all that) from getting high.  And what’s the result?  You can buy pot. Heroin, coke, PCP, whatever you want in every city and town across the nation.

How many years of failure does it take before we admit that this tactic isn’t working?  It’s like trying to rid your house of cockroaches by crawling around the kitchen floor with a brick, mashing every one you see.  Not only are you making a mess of your floor, but the cockroaches are multiplying like mad behind the floorboards.  When a tactic—a very expensive tactic—fails year after year after year, isn’t it time somebody said, “You know, maybe this isn’t the right approach.  Maybe we should try something different.”

That’s mainly what President Winston says.  We’ve got 300,000 of our fellow Americans jailed for the “crime” of polluting their own bloodstream.  Some are in for life for growing marijuana—I kid you not: life—while the average murderer and rapist is out in seven years.  Think about that.

Think about what we could do with a fraction of that 60 billion dollars to educate people against drugs.  The message should be: Don’t avoid them because they’re illegal, avoid them because they wreck the pleasure centers of your brain.  That message has difficulty overcoming the rebellious appeal of an illegal substance.  But rob drugs of their outlaw glamor, make them legally available like liquor or tobacco, and you can make real progress against drugs. Dig:

In 1965, 42% of Americans smoked; by 2006 the rate was down to 20.8%.  That’s largely due to education.  Hammer home the damage drugs do to the neurotransmitter systems of the brain, to the cells that allow us to experience pleasure; show that after a while the only pleasure you’re able to feel is from drugs, and larger and larger doses of them.  Food, wine, love, sex…eventually they all take a back seat to the drug high.  And new studies show that the brain never really comes all the way back.  Even years after you’ve cleaned up, life just isn’t the same.

Sorry to run on like that.  The subject is one of my hot buttons. In a nutshell, I think the best way to beat drugs is to make them legal.

Rest assured, Deep as the Marrow is not a polemic.  It’s not about legalizing drugs.  It’s a thriller about a father’s quest to find his kidnapped daughter and the help that rises from a most unlikely source. One of the lead characters, Poppy, has generated an amount of email second only to Repairman Jack.  Plus the novel earned one of the best one-line blurbs ever from the Associated Press:

“Truly inspired in conception and perfect in execution.”

It’s a very cool book, if I do say so myself.  I loved writing it and it remains one of my favorites—because along the way I fell in love with Poppy.  I think you will too.

Still available in print, I believe.  The ebook in all formats can be found here.

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Sibs is the only one of my forty-plus novels with a strong erotic element.  I usually avoid sex scenes. (Yeah, I hear you: Write what you know, Wilson.) But really, they offer too much potential for purple prose.  And in too many cases I think they’re unnecessary.

But they were necessary in Sibs. It’s a novel about sexual possession and wouldn’t have worked without them. The villain is a voluptuary and sex is what he’s after. So I had to show rather than simply hint. The result is a mixture of horror and police procedural, with erotica fueling the plot.

The seeds of Sibs were planted decades before its publication when I was writing and rewriting a short story about a unique form of sexual domination.  When I finally got it right, Weird Tales published it as “Menage a Trois” (later reprinted in the first Hot Blood anthology).

But all along I’d been thinking about another variant on the story, and when I devised the final twist, I had to drop everything and write it.  I was in the middle of Reprisal but I put it aside and sat down and wrote Sibs in seven weeks (as a part-time writer). I was doing 50 pages a day sometimes. Like taking dictation.  It’s a wonderful experience every writer should have. It consumed me.  That fire is reflected in the pace of the book. Sibs has, perhaps, some shortcomings in that hellbent-for-leather pace, but I didn’t want go back and tinker with it. Something special there, the way it gushed from me.  I can’t say it’s a terribly nuanced novel, but it’s one of my favorites for the shear joy of being able to rap that thing out. It grabs you by the throat and does not let go.

The original editions contained 4 illustrations that are integral to the story and are included in the ebook.

For those interested in interstory connections, Sibs has a number of (admittedly tenuous) links to my Secret History of the World: Jack uses Dr. Gates’ house as part of a fix in Legacies; In All the Rage, Luc Monnet bids on wine offered by the Gates estate; the Gati family in Sibs is featured in “Menage a Trois” where a Detective Burke plays a part in the framing sections, just as he does in “The Cleaning Machine,” which happens to be one of the Seven Infernals.

The ebook sells for $2.99 here.

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The Fifth Harmonic

Have you heard of The Fifth Harmonic?  No surprise if you haven’t.  It’s the most personal novel I’ve written, the hardest to classify, and one of my best, I think.  It’s been called a New Age thriller, and that’s pretty close.  A mystical Mayan mystery woman is paired with a hardshell skeptic (like me) with terminal cancer (not like me), involved in exotic settings, strange legends, a romance, and really good sex (or so women readers have told me).  It supposes that a few New Age concepts are true.  (Don’t let that put you off – I don’t buy them either, but they work for the story.) I drew on the experiences of a trip into MesoAmerica and began fabricating. It virtually wrote itself.  Maybe because it was so personal.

The inspiration came from an acquaintance (let’s call him Sal).  He found a lump in his neck.  Turned out he had a squamous cell carcinoma on his tongue.  They cut out the tumor, removed lymph nodes and some muscle from his neck, and radiated him.

The result: Sal can talk fine but the surgery left him with a wry neck and the radiation did a number on his salivary glands, leaving him with a perpetually dry mouth.  He has to keep a water bottle nearby at all times, but otherwise his life goes on.

It could have been so much worse.

What if the tumor had been more advanced and more aggressive?  He might have had to have his larynx removed (which means he’d be talking through a squawk box or burping his words) along with part of his jaw and most of his tongue.  The more intense radiation would leave him with no saliva, and no taste buds as well.

Then I thought: What if that were me?  As far as I’m concerned, that’s not living.  I’d rather be dead.  But before I died I’d explore every other possible means of a cure.

And that’s how The Fifth Harmonic came to be.  I knew it would be a tough sell but it was something I simply had to write.  Turned out I couldn’t find a New York publisher for it.  (They all said they had no idea how to market it.)  It wound up with a small New Age house and remains largely unknown.  The hardcover is out of print, and the paperback is years off.  The publisher’s ebook edition remains available.  Go here.  (Again, I apologize about the price – not my doing.)

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