LX Commentary #14: Vibe So Hot

Onto side C, where we kick off the second record with a mondegreen.

One of my favorite lyrics in “Vibe So Hot” is when Benji Hughes sings “I’m standing in a cape on your lawn.”

Only that’s not the line. It’s “I’m singing in a camp on your lawn.”

“Musician With Cape” painting by Charlotte artist Kirk Fanelly, 2009, Pastel on Paper, 22×19

It took Priscilla Ahn’s cover version to make me realize my error (fun fact: Jonathan Wilson’s cover goes “singing to the bird on your lawn”), but when it came time to write the L Extreme chapter I owned my mistake and did it the way I always heard it.

What would someone standing in a cape on someone’s lawn do? Especially if that someone had a jambox at their disposal?

Sometimes stories write themselves. From here we take our cues from most of the remaining lyrics in something resembling a play by play of a song that isn’t that type.

Plot-wise I knew it was time to get the whole gang together and moving towards a resolution of what was set up on the first two sides, so here we have Benji, C, L, and Frank all interacting (albeit sometimes from afar) for the first time.

Other tidbits:

  • Side C’s title bounced between Love is Weird, Love is Wild, and Love is Far Out over the years—all nods to spoken word segue samples found on OXOXOXOXOX (aka A Lovers Extreme). I considered changing it per format so the ebook/paperback/hardcover would each be different. I also almost used all three, but didn’t like the way it looked in print. So officially it’s far out, but spiritually it’s all of the above.
  • Edit: Old note I found in an early draft: “Love is a weird, wild, far out extreme razor on a budget you still gotta do next time (maybe, I think) everybody, fall me in.” Maybe the 3 part title wasn’t so crazy…
  • The song “Turn on the Charm” felt like a natural companion piece to “Vibe So Hot”

    No dials to break off in real life.

    for reasons I can’t quite articulate.
  • It took a long time to get the continuity of the jambox controls right between chapters. It deviates slightly from how a jambox actually works, but these things matter.
  • L lives on the third story since this is Side C—the third story of the book.

    “As their star-crossed eyes intertwined from afar, Benji was reminded of a movie from 1996 based on a play from 1597 (pilfered from an older poem) that inspired the classic 1980s song currently playing on the jambox.”

  • Where else can you find three Dire Straits jokes in a row? Over here.
  • “A week of bad songs” was quoted out of context from this Vulture interview, while “situations with the neighbors” is something Benji says in a promo video for A Love Extreme.
  • I didn’t know C would be the DJ or Frank would return here until I wrote the scene, but it’s a great off the cuff right place / right time situation.
  • “I thought he couldn’t speak” is another LILILIL reference about Space People. Invoking hat line is the main reason for Frank’s silence at their first meeting and Heartman & Songstress’s silent movie origins. I tried rewriting Frank’s intro to allow for talking, but ultimately preferred introducing him as a strong silent type.
  • Remember earlier when C said “I can’t recall” would be a better alibi than “I had

    I really liked that Musician With Cape painting.

    bronchitis” back in “You Stood Me Up” a few chapters ago? It’s almost like Frank was dropping eaves…
  • Another draft had Frank solely speaking in Frankenstein quotes. That gimmick couldn’t quite carry all of his dialogue, but was fun enough to keep a smattering of for phrasings like “I am fearless and therefore powerful” and “she might refuse to comply with a compact made before her own creation.” (There’s also a plot reason Frank knows these excerpts we’ll get to later.)
  • I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is the song John Lennon actually wrote, not “He Ain’t Heavy” from the trippy Chapter 1. Another part of the in-joke here is Benji Hughes also has a song titled “I Want You.”
  • “Could she not understand why the little voice inside her head was now outside her head?” is a big clue hidden plainly in the narrator’s rambling non-sequiturs.

Check out L Extreme

LX Origin Story, Part III

This part of the story is best told in emails. But I’ll do it out of order the way L Extreme the novel plays with sequence.

April 22, 2020
From: Benji Hughes

To: JL Civi
Subject: Re: Never Like I Read In Books & Magazines…

I’m still checking this out.
It’s really good.

173 days earlier…

November 1, 2019 2:29pm
From: JL Civi

To: Benji Hughes
Subject: Never Like I Read In Books & Magazines…

Hi Benji (and Mary, if you still monitor this inbox…),

Not sure if you remember, but you did a custom song for my wife’s birthday a couple of years ago. The file was called “Face Like a Diamond” but you said you wouldn’t title it that. We’ve taken to calling it “Beat Of My Heart” and still enjoy it very much. So thank you again!

I have a sort of crazy & wild proposal for you, so I’ll get right to it.

I wrote a novel based on / inspired by A Love Extreme. I say “based on / inspired by” since it’s not totally clear which is the right term. Or put another way, I don’t know where it stops and I start…

The closest comparable I can think of is the Yellow Submarine movie and novelization. Those were billed as “an original story by Lee Minoff, based upon the song by John Lennon & Paul McCartney.”

But even that isn’t exactly right. It’s more Yellow Submarine via Being John Malkovich crossed with one of those nonfiction 33 1/3 books about the history of an album. It has a weird vibe.

The book is on the third draft and still needs some work. But I’m at a crossroads where it’s time to decide whether to scrape off the serial numbers to eliminate any reference to you and your songs OR to go all in on the fictionalized Benji Extremeness of it all. (There’s an argument that the former is an easier path to a better book, but I think the latter option would be a heck of a lot more fun to run with. But that decision is largely up to you.)

I understand that this is a little bit bonkers. I have also read in some interviews that you don’t like discussing the origins of songs and prefer for them to stay more mysterious and open to interpretation. This isn’t an attempt to reveal the secrets of your universe, and I’m pretty sure nobody will mistake this story for your actual intent. (Heck, even the parts I researched I probably got wrong in places.) It’s intended as a tribute by a big fan. You were the muse providing an outline/ideas/situations that I channeled into a wacky yet semi-coherent storyline that I had a ball working on the last couple years.

I tried to stay true to the cross-genre, goofy yet sincere spirit of your catalog. The book is part love story, part buddy comedy, part surreal magical fairytale, part origin story, and even a sort of prequel/sequel to LILILIL. It’s totally wild, and I’m sort of amazed that (I think) it mostly holds together as well as it does all things considered. Again, what direction this ultimately takes is in your hands and I’ll respect your wishes if you don’t want to be associated with a project like this.

Happy to provide more backstory around how this came to be if you’d like, but I want to be respectful of your time and I’ve rambled on enough. Hopefully it will all make more sense if/when you start reading it.

I’m attaching a PDF version of the manuscript to this email. If you’d prefer an eBook or a paperback copy that can be arranged; those things are relatively easy to produce these days. (I realize that asking you to read an 83K word novel that you inspired might be a touch unreasonable and presumptuous, so I’m also attaching a 4-page song-by-song / chapter-by-chapter synopsis so you can get a feel for the story and how it weaves things together. Obviously the synopsis has spoilers, but it is shorter…)

Sorry for the totally long space message. Good or bad, at the very least I suspect this will be the best piece of Benji Hughes fanfiction you’ve ever read. I hope you dig it. 🙂

Best,

JLC


I sent the above pitch, and now the future of the book was in the hands of god or fate or time or whatever. I didn’t want to be a pest, but I did send a short follow-up in late December and late February plus a Facebook message in March—but I’ll spare you the full recap.

Hey, at least I tried was my main thought after not hearing anything. I was busy with a new job without a lot of writing  time, but figured at some point I’d reread it and decide how to de-Benjify the whole thing if I still liked it

Enter the coronavirus. The world had shut down for about a month when that reply from Benji arrived and blew my mind.

Nothing more came of this until September 2020. That’s where I’ll pick up the story next time in Part IV.

LX Commentary #13c: Girl In The Tower (Part III)

Let’s pick up where we left off with the doors. SAL + MON = Salmon.

Two sides to every story. (That’s an Extreme joke…)

The CD version of the album Songs in the Key of Animals assigns these names to each disc. The LP version subtitles the sides. L Extreme the novel pays tribute with little signs on two opposing doors Heartman finds in the hallway ostensibly leading to the brain of Benji Hughes. Can’t get much more Malkovich than this!

Minor spoiler not completely spelled out in the book: Off-page at the end of this chapter, Heartman enters the MON door and emerges in the white room from I Am You, You Are Me, We Are One. It’s the first step of his transformation from Heartman to Benji in the “real world” as contractually stipulated in his deal with Evilon.

Girl in the Tower: “Without warning he was overwhelmed by a cavalcade of tunes that were difficult to describe…it sounded like three songs being played at once.”

I Am You…: “Celebrities start screaming, their white-suited howls blending into white noise. All three songs play at once.”

The magic trick here is you can technically read Side B before Side A—just like you can choose which side of a vinyl record to strat with. Initially a happy accident, once I realized how the chronology was playing out I ran with it. (A before B allows the bookends of the Benji & C letter shuffling make sense, but some readers argue reading Side B first enhances Side A…)

Other tidbits:

  • “Shark Attack” b/w “Mama, I’m a Zombie”

    Evilon’s look (“a cross between an Egyptian pharaoh and a playing card”) was inspired by the cover artwork to Benji’s 2 singles on Merge Records plus a cool gig poster featuring a Benjified King of Hearts. Both were designed by North Carolina artist Mark Reynolds. Why does Evilon resemble Benji Hughes? That’s not for you to know.
  • “An appendage army appearing across all angles” might be the longest alliterative I’ve ever pulled off, but I’m no Chris Elliott. (No, not that Chris Elliott, who would be right at home as a character in L Extreme.)
  • The “hates music” cutout never actually appears in the book, but if you look closely at Frank’s business card you can find the right letters for it to work.

    Whole lotta LILILIL here since this is the place where the book reveals it’s equally inspired by both albums. “She’s not allowed to sing” echoes the predicament of the Space Princess. “Everybody’s Crazy ‘Bout You” is an outtake from the LILILIL sessions. In the LILILIL narrative, Evilon is not that evil anymore and leaves a “space jam” he really digs for the Space Princess. I figured back in his evil days he wouldn’t like music. Making music his weakness unlocked the karaoke fight scene—along with the purpose for the ever-present jambox in Benji & C’s apartment.
  • Click the image to make your own pulp-style cover!

    “One footsoldier managed to land a pirouetting kick to Evilon’s wrist” took inspiration from Benji’s description of his studio defense technique in this Vulture interview. “Hughes ­demonstrated a kind of pirouetting kung fu stabbing technique. ‘That’s me going past you and making sure that you don’t ­follow along, as I travel to my next destination.'”
  • You can listen to a playlist of the songs from the epic karaoke battle (plus a few related bonuses) over on Spotify.
  • In an older draft, Evilon magically switches places with the “little piggy who had none and was spared” in a Quantum Leap style body-swap that helps him temporarily evade capture, explaining why he resurfaces later. It all felt overly long and convoluted, so I cut it to keep things moving.
  • In multiple interviews, Benji Hughes refers to the song “I Went With Some Friends to See the Flaming Lips” as “pretty much a play-by-play.” Here Benji the character uses that line to summarize his previous life inside the body to a disbelieving C.
  • Realizing the thin thread from which any disbelief might be suspended, the narrator interjects to lay out the perceived faulty logic to the reader. The authorial intent is “Yes, this is ridiculous. But it’s like that by design and I have a plan, so trust me and read on…” Does it work? That’s not for me to know.
  • Open question: Why did Benji let C fold the L?

    “Was C a soldier from the fingers?” is minor misdirection, but also casually hides the truth in plain sight via a dismissive aside.
  • I’m still amazed at how many words you can spell with the letters in EVILON. The real Benji Hughes was surprised when I told him about the “IN LOVE” anagram. But my favorite is the final one using overlapping letters, perfectly illustrated by aleirart on Fiverr.

Check out L Extreme

LX Commentary #13b: Girl In The Tower (Part II)

One epic chapter allowed me to squeeze in a few more musical references via section breaks—either a song title from a different Benji Hughes album or a lyrical snippet, with the precedent set in previous longer chapters to give the reader a reasonable breakpoint every 10ish pages if needed.

Screenshot of Scrivener writing app sidebar with titles for individual scenes from the book.

I actually title every scene in a similar way while writing in Scrivener, but only include some in the main text as section breaks.

Specific to “Girl In The Tower,” the sections are:

Rallying Many Men
Beat of My Heart
Coming For You Ready or Not
Your Voice is a Music That I’ve Never Heard
It’s Crazy, You Probably Won’t Believe Me

Fans of A Love Extreme will recognize 2 from this song. The last one is a lyric from Monterey off Another Extreme (aka XXOXOXX).”Your voice is a music…” quotes the Cohen-esque unreleased “Masters In China” covered by Priscilla Ahn.

That leaves “Beat of my Heart”—a song that’s a music that most haven’t heard.

Benji Hughes online store, circa 2016.

Around 2016-17, Benji Hughes had two new sections in his online store. Why Do These Parties Always End the Same Way? let fans book a private house concert. And Love for Sale took commissions on custom songs for special occasions. “Beat of My Heart” was a gift for my wife’s birthday that fit so well with the Heartman & Songstress section I couldn’t not reference it in L Extreme.

More to come on that song in an upcoming origin story post, but for now we’ll switch up the beat with the usual,,,

Other tidbits:

  • Big props to Dr. Rachna Khanna for consulting on realistic medical landmarks for Heartman and his merry band of travelers to encounter while traversing the body.
  • “Sometimes winter is cruel” comes from “Magic Summertime” by Eleni Mandell, as covered by Benji on Songs in the Key of Animals.
  • “Benji set Jessica’s heart on fire. He wasn’t even trying” is a direct paraphrase from the aforementioned “Beat of My Heart” song.
  • More medicine: Hallux the big toe, Pollex the big thumb. Of course they’re cousins!

    Actual text message I sent soliciting medical advice for some added realism in the part about the tiny people who live in our bodies…

  • Anatomical snuffbox might be the coolest term I learned while researching L Extreme.
  • I contemplated writing a scene where the crew visits the voice box to gain the power of speech, but decided there was already too much going on in this chapter to justify an overly explain-y side quest.
  • “She had a strange urge to sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ or maybe ‘God Save the Queen’ like she did at a minor league baseball game once…”
  • By total coincidental accident, the shopping list from “All You’ve Got To Do…” was already sword shaped when I had the origami idea. I actually went back to change it and was pleasantly surprised it already looked the way I wanted. Hat tip to my past self for having the idea or my later self for giving it to him.
  • Swedish pop stars referred to it as a suburb of the brain.”
  • The hide and seek connection is a little too obvious from the lyrics, so I had Heartman be completely against Hallux’s idea to add a little conflict as a reminder they started off as rivals.
  • Heartman admitting he got confused about whose heart was congested is him speaking on my behalf. As I think I’ve said before, when I make a mistake as an author I like having the character acknowledge it in the story. Adds some realism when a character errs, and as a bonus it sometimes makes rewrites simpler 🙂
  • I love how the Circle of Willis coincidentally looks like a stick figure.

    Twenty-five years was inspired by the Goldenrods song “Only In My Dreams“—which also inspired the tone of Heartman’s contemplative journey.
  • The Circle of Willis came from Dr. Khanna’s list of landmarks, but I picked it as an in-joke reference to my friend Sean Willis. He passed away a couple of weeks ago. I know he started reading L Extreme, but never heard if he made it far enough to catch his subtle name drop. Unrelated side-note: Willis was one of the first people I told about A Love Extreme once I discovered it. I sent him a text suggesting he listen; barely an hour later he wrote back “Wow. You’ve got it made, because you’re made so well. Thanks!” RIP.
  • The doors are labeled SAL & MON in reference to the labels on the two discs/sides of Songs in the Key of Animals. They’re also more important to the story than they seem here. More on that later…

Check out L Extreme

LX Commentary #13a: Girl in the Tower (Part I)

Once I decided the Heartman & Songstress fairytale would carry Side B, I knew it needed an epic conclusion. This 40 page chapter is by far the longest in the L Extreme book—essentially a standalone novella when combined with the four 4-page shorties that precede it.

My original idea was to continue the silent-film nature of the other Heartman & Songstress chapters, but I abandoned that in favor of foreshadowing Heartman + Benji’s connection in advance of the reveal. (Also, you can’t really have a karaoke battle with characters who can’t speak, can you?)

Evilon’s appearance as the villain was completely unplanned until I signed his name to the King’s note. It was a fun little cameo based on a bit from LILILIL where Chocolon mentions that Evilon “is not that evil anymore.” I laughed when I wrote it, and my brain went like this:

He’s not that evil anymore.
This is the story of when he was evil.
A Love Extreme as a prequel to LILILIL.
Maybe that’s the title: A LIL EXTREME
In LILILIL the future is behind us and the past is all we can see.
So it’s a sequel to LILILIL and a prequel to A Love Extreme.
A prequel can be an origin story.
They both have the same narrator.
So Frank is really…whoa!!!!!!!!!!
I just think I figured out what it’s really all about…

And just like that, the building blocks for the rest of the story fell into place.

Other tidbits:

  • “…signals received from behind the veil of dreams…” is partly foreshadowing, partly tying the concept album Spirit Guide into the mythology.
  • Underlining the words in Evilon’s letter calls back to a Muscadine lyric: “And every word he wrote is underlined.” Not underlining the Ls in the note is an easter egg for the observant.
  • More riffing on LILILIL with “Seeking assistance wasn’t difficult. The challenge was deciding who to solicit.” Heartman deciding who not to recruit from the body is one of my favorite parts.
  • Hallux is the medical term for your big toe. Roman battalions were knows as Miles, the root of the word Military. Hence Miles Hallux, commander of Jessica’s footsoliders. 
  • Remember Jessica’s supermarket magic trick where she made the list disappear? She ate it, hence it’s in the body now. How’d it shrink down to Heartman & Hallux size? That’s not for you to know…
  • Foot Force Five by Five is a nod to Fox Force Five from Pulp Fiction.

    “A bare left foot on a blue circle. Benji’s right hand on yellow, hair dangling down. Right foot blue, turning Jessica sideways.”

  • The Twister bit was inspired by a question asked of Benji Hughes in an interview with Freaker USA. It also tied in well with the existing Clue references from “Why Do These Parties Always End the Same Way?”
  • I tried the invoke a mix of Quantum Leap (“smack dab in the center of the imaging chamber”) and Timely Persuasion (“as if he had left the body and become Jessica, seeing what she saw”) in describing how the eye portals worked. (Technically QL inspired TP so it’s all the same, though QL never really described how the effect worked.)
  • “Heartman thought he spotted something in the corner of Benji’s iris” is a paraphrase of “It made the moon just out of reach, I saw it trapped there in your eye” from “The Beach.”
  • “…a few anonymous foot digits from witness toeprection” is my favorite bit of groan-worthy punny wordplay. (It will also be a Googlewhack as soon as this post is indexed.)
  • Hallux’s idea of playing footsies to find a path between bodies is me telling the reader I did think of other possibilities too, but in an effort to keep things family friendly I didn’t go there. As the narrator says, “Are you thinking of other pairs of body parts right now? Regardless of whether those are male or female, I’m not going there.”
  • Yes, I recognize the hypocrisy in making this chapter a single 40 page epic but splitting the related commentary posts into separate parts. See you in part II 🙂

Check out L Extreme

PS: Splitting this into parts gives me an excuse to use different videos at the end of each. The official Girl in the Tower music video is at the end of the “Mmmmmmm” post. Here’s a short film with the song as its soundtrack.

LX Commentary #12: Mmmmmmm

Confession: I cheated a little.

On A Love Extreme the album, “Mmmmmmm” comes before “Even If” sequence wise, not after. It’s the last song on the first CD, or a little instrumental bridge between two songs on the vinyl / streaming versions.

In the first draft I honored the spirit of the 37 second interlude by cutting to C interrupting Benji’s Heartman & Songstress story to complain it wasn’t true in a Princess Bride / Neverending Story sort of way. But I didn’t like how it broke the immersion of the book within a book fairytale vibe and had to remind myself that serving the story took priority over serving the songs.

Since I’d already established all of the instrumentals were dreamy scenes, that had to happen here. “Girl in the Tower” opens with the lyric “I had a dream last night…” so slotting in this dream immediately before it made the most sense. C’s objection got tacked on to the end of GitT as a coda, and the dreammmmmmmy segue got its proper place.

I did take the opportunity to bend another rule though. The other dreams are written in first person, but I gave this one to the narrator. He omnisciently walks us through Heartman’s visions, coyly drops hints about where this whole thing is going, and does some more of that fourth-wall breaking that was fun (with a purpose!) to write.

Writing this chapter came shortly after I decided the narrator of L Extreme should be the same person who narrated LILILIL, the space-opera concept album Benji made for his daughter and released via his website in 2014. In real life that’s Jeff Bridges, but in the Benji Hughniverse it’s an all knowing cat who can simultaneously experience past, present and future. So it technically isn’t Jeff Bridges (unless he’s interested in doing the audiobook…), but if you imagine the narrator speaking somewhere between The Dude & Starman you’re getting close to the voice I heard.

Other tidbits:

  • I wrote the first instrumental dream staring at the cover of Love Devotion Surrender

    “Heartman wears an unbuttoned green shirt adorned with blue palm trees and golden islands. His short sleeves are decorated with flowers and text that reads Hawaii and Aloha. The islands are collectively shaped like the Hawaiian ones, bolstering the likelihood of an accurate caption.”

    and riffing on what I saw. Here the starting point was a photo of Benji in a Hawaiian shirt that was making the rounds while he was promoting Songs in the Key of Animals. (It’s also a common wardrobe choice for live shows.)
  • A 37 second instrumental doesn’t give a whole lot of foundation to work from, so this chapter draws inspiration from the songs “The Beach,” “Shark Attack” & “Time Machine” among other things.
  • “Do songwriters dream of one hit wonders?” used to be “Do songwriters dream of number ones?”—both to pair with “Do counters dream of one number?” and to have an excuse to drop a reference to “Neverending Party” by the Goldenrods. An astute early reader pointed out a number one was the only positive thing in the list. They were right.
  • “Are we all members of one big sleep club?” references a neat little side hustle involving Jeff Bridges that includes this glowing review of Benji by Jeff. (And man, somnolent is a great word I wish I used…)
  • Acknowledging the song sequence switch in the story made sense for the narrator, and also got me off the hook in case anyone thought I made a mistake.
  • You don’t want to know how many times I had to count out the Ms in this song title while proofreading. Making things harder, my original digital download version of the album from the old Lala.com (RIP) spells it Mmmmmmmmmmm—but I use the seven-character version from the back of the LP/CD.
  • “Wearing a Hawaiian shirt in Hawaii is a bit like wearing the shirt of the band you’re going to see at their concert.” It’s funny because it’s true.
  • “Heartman raises his left hand in a casual peace symbol wave.” See photo above.
  • “The current sweeps her up and flips her over.” This happened to my wife on a vacation in Hawaii while I watched. That’s a play by play.
  • “A stereophonic squeal that sounds like two girls instead of one.” Best album

    Nice tee shirt on a real sweet girl…

    screams outside of Kurt Cobain, courtesy of the shark attack girls Kim Tallon & Hillary Lefebbre.
  • When the scene changes to Heartman dressed as a knight, the story starts taking cues from the official music video for “Girl in the Tower” embedded at the end of this post.
  • What you don’t know‘s gonna hurt you” comes from what might be the darkest song in the Benji Hughes catalogue. I’m still not exactly sure why I decided to end this chapter with that line, but I’m glad I did.

Check out L Extreme

LX Commentary #11: Even If

“There ain’t no way you’re ever gonna find another lover like me…”

Imagining Benji Hughes as Heartman crooning the loungy opening line here only yielded one possible rival: Cupid. Two mythical beings armed with bows and tasked with making mere mortals fall in love.

I wanted a reason to dive a little more into Heartman’s character by seeing how he’d react to this ultra-specific form of competition/outside “assistance” that was actually a hindrance. And full disclosure: I also had some space to fill in using this song as a bridge from “All You’ve Got to Do…” to “Girl in the Tower.”

Tenuous and tangential, but the fact that this even exists made me include it in this blog post.

Unspoken in the book, if you pay attention to the timeline you may notice Cupid does serve an important role in disarming Heartman for just long enough to let an intruder into the lovestream. What if he works for the Evil Space Queen?

“Drowning in wine” was the other major lyrical inspiration, set up in the previous chapter and carried through here.

There’s also “the one you want to find is you…” which foreshadows the mirror chapter/song “So Much Better” we’ll get to later.

(Even if you noticed I skipped a song, I’ll explain why in the next installment.)

Other tidbits:

  • “Watching what love can do” is a dual reference to the songs “What Love Can Do” by Eleni Mandell (covered by Benji on the Unsung Heroes tribute album), plus “What A Little Bit of Love Can Do” by Jeff Bridges, featuring Benji dancing in the music video.
  • Peacockin’ Party” fills in added details about that time Jessica shifted her gaze to a donkey at the zoo at the same time Heartman fired a dart.
  • Lea = cochlea = the woman who lives in your ear. She may or may not have a pet

    If a little woman lives in your ear…

    snail. She may or may not get an in-world side-story in the future…
  • “He needed to let events play out in their natural sequence” is a hint that Heartman is picking up on some Lon influence already.
  • Segues always fascinate me. The way this chapter bridges into the next is one I’m especially proud of.
  • As a song, “Even If” fits the category of “I’ve never heard anything quite like this before!” Here’s another essay by John Quijano explaining the music better than I could. (My favorite part: “It is possible to run out of air signing along with these choruses…”)

Check out L Extreme

LX Origin Story, Part II

Like I said towards the end of Part I, after chipping away on a novelization of A Love Extreme on and off (mostly off) for a few years I had a song by song storyline that (amazingly) worked so much better than I imagined given the circumstances. I’d also come to appreciate the non-linear structure the album track order dictated, and was occasionally awed by the patterns that formed.

Each side/part included a dream, a flashback, a list, a pop-culture influenced set piece, and a relatively self-contained plotline ending with a stake-raising segue. Reveals from later parts made re-reading earlier parts more fulfilling to reread. Seemingly minor characters took on major roles as the story progressed. The addition of a non-album bonus track to Side D gave it a symmetrical 7-6-6-7 cadence. And the whole book rode the line between goofy and sincere—sometimes shakily, sometimes stumbling—but somehow managed to keep a limb on each side of the line.

Was the album the reason it flowed together so well, or was it my interpretation? And more importantly: was it really any good, or was I fooling myself? I knew I was too close as both the author and a fan, and those were two potentially dangerous things to be. It was time for some outside opinions.

I turned to my two trusted first readers Jon & Nate, and interestingly got a split opinion on the first half:

  • “The dream logic, pop-culture buddy comedy plus the mystery of L was great, but you lost me with that Heartman & Songstress nonsense…”

vs.

  • “It started slow, but once I hit that Heartman & Songstress section it got really good for 70 pages. The rest worked when it called back to the fairytale, so-so when it didn’t.”

Around the same time, I posted two chapters to Scribophile as self-contained short stories with no reference to the source material. The opening dream sequence (retitled “Love, Devotion, Surrender & Other Strangers”) and the Jessica & Kenny vacation flashback (renamed “Just Say Dr. No to Jamaican Timeshares”).

Reactions to the dreamy opener were positive—especially the “And then I fall asleep” ending line. Over in Jamaica, Jessica and the James Bond references got high marks, Kenny served his purpose, and the intrusiveness of the narrator was a little polarizing.

My next round of edits focused on getting to Side B faster and calling back to it more frequently on the second disc. I also unified the dreams with similar openings for continuity. I posted the whole thing to Scribophile with no mention of the connection to A Love Extreme or Benji Hughescurious if anyone would figure it out on their own and eager for more critical feedback.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was more of the same. People found Benji & C’s witty banter shtick enjoyable to a point as long as it kept plot movement in sight. But Heartman & Songstress stole the show.

“I am hooked–fascinated by the idea of a tiny, intuitive man inside someone’s heart. I love this concept”

“This is the goofiest, funniest, most ridiculous story idea.  I love it!!!!”

“Other than encourage you to go much deeper into this body (he, he) I can say nothing about your writing art. Excellent sentences. Your style is easy to read, has a hint of sophistication and falls far short of giving me a headache.”

“Wow. Great story. I see the parallel to Cupid and Psyche, but it’s not slavishly following it.”

“This is weird and amusing. I like it.”

“Your writing style is unique. I enjoyed your ethereal descriptions. And your narrator is quite clever and entertaining!”

“At its heart, this story has legs.”

“This has to be one of the weirdest things I have ever read. Wonderful!”

“Pratchett-esque.”

“This has me smiling, and giggling, and turning the proverbial page.”

“Fun read, awesome concept. What the hell did you take to conjure this one up?”

Humble bragging aside, there was also helpful constructive criticism (and some less constructive dislikes—can’t please everyone!), but the overwhelming message was “yeah, this thing might work.”

But what was “this thing” exactly? It was a novel based on an album ostensibly starting the musician. But ultimately it was the story of how Heartman & Songstress navigated life both inside and outside the body, soundtracked by A Love Extreme.

The next rewrite kept that idea front and center, imagining the album came after the book and making sure Heartman & Songstress were always on my mind. The love story, the dreams, the banter and the songs all served the same greater purpose—even early on when the reader didn’t know about them yet.

Out here in the real world, someone else also didn’t know about this yet. I’ll get to him in Part III…

Check out L Extreme: A Novel Based on the Songs of Benji Hughes

LX Commentary #10: All You’ve Got To Do Is Fall In Love

Upon deciding to run with this fairytale interlude for the rest of side B, my storytelling goal became connecting the dots from Benji & Jessica to Benji & L while moving things towards a confrontation in “The Tower”—whatever that might turn out to be. So easy to do, right? 🙂

My favorite part of this chapter was a happy accident. Originally I recycled the shopping list from “Where Do Old Lovers Go?” here, showing the grocery store scene from the internal point of view. Somewhere along the line I picked up the habit of listening to each chapter’s song on repeat as I wrote/rewrote, and one day the drawn out way Benji Hughes sings the opening line here sounded like a rebus.

Wouldn’t it be sweet, if you could be in love with me?

Wood…Ant..IT..Bee..Sweet

Aside from the pronoun in the middle, each one had an easy image. And so did IT if I invoked the iconic Stephen King title.

🪵 🐜 🤡 🐝 🍭

℉ 🐑 🐟 🍺 📥 ❤️ 🌾 🪞

(I suppose a middle finger could replace the Fahrenheit lamb, but we’ll keep this G rated in accordance with the old “contains no explicit language” label that once appeared on an old version of the Benji Hughes store website.)

Other tidbits:

Kinda looks like a sword…

  • Easter egg in the paperback edition: The list is written in a font based on Benji’s handwriting. The first few parentheticals use my wife’s handwriting to represent Jessica adding clarifying comments. In real life my wife would never add extra detail to a shopping list (she can make the grocery store a scavenger hunt…), but I can make fun of her for it here 🙂 ❤️
  • If (magazine) references a sci-fi mag from the 50s where this Heartman & Songstress section would fit right in. (There’s also an Australian film magazine, invoking the movie references.)
  • “Eyes like billboards” comes from Benji’s unreleased song “Masters in China” covered by Priscilla Ahn. (Ditto “red wine saliva” a little bit later.)
  • “Your sweet, sweet kiss. Like an ice cold drink of cherry wine.” references the song “Magic Summertime” by Eleni Mandell, covered by Benji on Songs in the Key of Animals(The original also has a line “just like a fairytale when we first met” that isn’t in the cover version, but invokes an appropriate mood here.)
  • “Adequate portion of potion” isn’t from a song, but it’s one of my favorite phrasings.
  • At one show during his month-long Largo residency in 2010, Benji tried to

    Mock up featuring animated “Heartman” Benji from the music video over the outer space LILILIL album cover.

    have his band play “All You’ve Got To Do Is Fall in Love” and “So Much Better” simultaneously with him singing lead on the latter and Jackson Browne on the former. It was as weird and wild as you’d imagine—and almost worked in the places where the word LOVE (of course) overlapped. More on that later, but I bring it up here since this made me treat these two chapters/songs as companion pieces. Hence the mysterious foreshadowing at the end.
  • The animated video for this song by Jon Williams and Paul Friedrich influenced the way I imagined Heartman Benji while writing this section—and was also the first concept I mocked up for the book cover. You can watch that video below. (My favorite part is the piano playing fish!)

Check out L Extreme

 

LX Commentary #9: Do You Think They Would Tell You?

This wasn’t supposed to happen, but ultimately it became the embodiment of the epigraph at the front of L Extreme:

“Oh definitely. There is a theme there. I don’t want to say anything about it. Maybe it’s love. There is something that the whole thing’s all about.” 
—Benji Hughes, Artist Direct Interview, October 2008

Little did I know it would also evolve into the linchpin of the whole story.

“Do You Think They Would Tell You?” is my favorite song on A Love Extreme. I procrastinated writing the L Extreme chapter because I wanted to do it justice and wasn’t sure on the right approach.

Half of my 2014 NaNoWriMo sprint was spent on a European vacation to see the last ever Carter USM concert. On the Chunnel train from Paris to London I opened my laptop and decided to give this a go. I had this inkling of an idea about a doctor with a microscope diagnosing the Jessica character with cancer, but it was a total bummer and not my style. On a whim, I scrapped that and wrote the most literal play by play of the song I possibly could.

Hints on the paperback spine.A little woman lives in your brain. She wants to meet the man in your heart. She’s over all the ones in your feet. Scientists believe this is how love works…

A few paragraphs in I remember thinking “Wow, here we go. I don’t know where this is going, but I really want to find out.” I finished the song and moved on to the next one. And the next one. I glanced at the track list, and knew this stylistic interlude had to carry through the rest of Side B, culminating with a massively epic “Girl in the Tower” to close it out. An embedded novella that’s such a 180 it causes the reader flip back a few pages to make sure it wasn’t a weird printing mix-up. (Note the hints on the paperback spine…)

And that’s how “The Ballad of Heartman & Songstress” was born.

Other tidbits:

  • If I wasn’t mirroring the section breaks to match the vinyl sides, this would be where Side B/Part II opened. Over time I’ve come to appreciate how Heartman & Songstress is an important part of Benji & Jessica’s courtship, so the prelude of “Where Do Old Lovers Go?” still works as the section opening chapter. 
  • Several early readers had that exact “I thought it switched to a different book!” reaction I dreamed about on the train ride described above, which makes my past self smile every time it happens. Related to the above bullet, the “normal” chapter leading off this section might help give the surprise the right impact.
  • I’m frequently diagnosed with musical Tourette’s, and it’s the one part of me I embraced and magnified for the protagonist of my first novel Timely Persuasion. Now I know it really comes from a little woman in my brain.
  • The world inside the body portrayed here plays out as a cartoon in my head, or maybe a graphic novel.
  • Originally I intended to have a slightly more epic battle with the right foot, but in the interest of pressing on skipped it to write later and put in the throwaway placeholder about the left foot attack magically impacting the other. When later came, the idea of “paired parts” had marinated in my brain to a point where I dug the mystical mystery of it, so I (pun intended) ran with it.
  • An early draft ended this chapter with a scientist lifting his eye from an experimental microscope (one that could see so small) and contemplating what he’d do with this monumental discovery. The eventual reveal would be that he was the intrusive narrator of the whole book. Aside from serving the literal take on the song it wasn’t really adding anything, so it landed in the pile of killed darlings.
  • More importantly, I had a better idea of who the narrator should be inside the larger Benji Hughes-iverse, which we’ll get to in a few chapters…

Check out L Extreme