LX Commentary #8: Where Do Old Lovers Go?

The song may be about going away, but ironically it helped pull the musical concept of the book together. It was also one of my favorite chapters to write. The lyrical breadcrumbs showed me connections to other Benji Hughes songs so clearly it made me start seeking them elsewhere. Benji & Jessica are at a grocery store:

“You could make the grocery store a party, you could make a funeral rad.” — “Where Do Old Lovers Go?

“There was a time when we stood in the line at the grocery store waiting to pay. Staring at all of the magazine covers…” — “Do You Still Love Me?

“They say that Taylor Swift got fat…Heard Elton John’s breaking up with his man…Some people think that Elvis died…Kurt Cobain committed suicide. I don’t believe it.” — “Everybody Falls In Love

Circling back to “You could make a funeral rad,” gave me the next destination. On the way they’d stop at a tennis court:

“We were playing tennis. It was your serve. Love love, I was pretty sure.” — “Higher Than Balls

And after the rad funeral they’d talk about death and how to avoid it…

“If we turn all of the lights out, lay down real quiet and pretend that we’re dead.” — “Let’s Not Ever Die

As always, the situations found in the Benji Hughes lyrics paved the way for the story of L Extreme to tell itself.

Originally this chapter also included an extended Jessica flashback based on the songs “Jamaica” and “Kenny” — but the little C (and little Squeak from LILILIL) in my head knew I had to get to the point a little faster. That bonus double A-Side single got relocated to “Ladies on Parade,” allowing this chapter to serve as an appetizer to the big left turn coming next…

Tidbits:

  • Benji was scheduled to do a performance of all Elvis covers at a show in LA. The concert got cancelled, but inspired the live Elvis album here. (Also, Elvis is another guy who can rock a white jumpsuit without looking like a doofus.)
  • In album time, Side B of A Love Extreme clocks in at 17 minutes and 14 seconds. Awfully specific indeed.
  • “Garlic Power” was an actual typo that I turned into a plot point.

    “The list was on the back of an envelope the City used to send him a parking ticket.”

  • After Benji’s 12/10/11 show at Spaceland in LA (I refuse to call it the Satellite…), I grabbed the setlist off the stage. It was written on the back of an envelope from the City of LA—though the violation was leaving trashcans on the street and not parking. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
  • The green smock and the teen worker stocking shelves are a nod to my high school job at The Christmas Tree Shop. Never let a good story get in the way of the truth.
  • Mötley Crüe’s headline is a play on how Benji Hughes sometimes changes the lyric “Do you still think one day you’re gonna have a couple kids?” to “Do you still think one day you’re gonna marry Nikki Sixx?” during live shows.
  • HER HIDDEN TALENT? riffs on the song “What You Don’t Know
  • The homophone joke always makes me laugh, including right now as I write this.
  • My favorite deleted scene from this chapter came from our intrusive narrator, but I cut it because it was a little indulgent and caused unnecessary confusion about the setting:

Flashing back to our flashback that’s already backflashing, we need to catch up to Benji and Jessica in the church. The thing is, when we got there we wouldn’t find them in the church. Where’s all the people? might be your first question upon learning this. And if you acted that out with your hands, I applaud you. Or I would if my hands weren’t locked together in the shape of a church. In this case, a church without any fingers in it. Because Benji and Jessica weren’t in the church. They were next door to the church.

  • Speaking of church, seven empty pews in front of Benji = seven songs/chapters prior to this one.
  • My family rented a party bus with bench seating along the sides, a stereo, disco ball, cupholders and dancing pole to take us to the cemetery after my grandmother’s funeral. A few days later I saw a Benji Hughes concert at the Bootleg Theater in LA. He opened the second set with “I Hate When Pretty Ladies Die” and I cried. A few months later I added the party bus here.
  • “She watched them float above the power lines in the backyard.”
  • “If your house burns down,” Jessica said as she eyed the flames, “it wasn’t me.” That’s from a song by Vincent & Mr. Green (aka Jade Vincent & Keefus Ciancia) featuring guest vocals by Benji Hughes.
  • The famous chef referred to as “Benji with a K” is none other than J-Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats, Cooks Illustrated & NY Times fame. He also does infer you can dry rub a vegetable, though he may or may not approve of my fictionalized spice rub ingredients.
  • “Isn’t someone always playing the Eagles somewhere?” was originally the Beatles, but Joe Walsh’s namecheck in the song “The Mummy” led me back here. My mom swears that “Hotel California” came on the radio at roughly the exact same moment she read that line for the first time.

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LX Chapter Commentary #7: Why Do These Parties Always End The Same Way?

“We need to call the cops somebody killed the DJ!” is the lyric from A Love Extreme at the core of this chapter. Striking the right balance of goofy and sincere for L Extreme proved challenging.

Benji & C’s comedic banter worked during the initial setup where Benji has no recollection of the party (“a lot of talk you can’t remember the next day“) and C teases him about it, but the abrupt switch to the DJ murder plot was hard for early readers to take seriously when the roommates made a big joke about it. I knew I wanted the “somebody killed the DJ!” bit to come out of nowhere like it does in the song, but also needed to balance some semblance of believability to it no matter how absurdist the storyline was.

Eventually the solution was twofold: Have Benji straight up acknowledge that he isn’t sure if C is being serious or fooling around, and have C dodge the question and hint that he doesn’t completely recall either. As C said previously, “I can’t recall” is a better alibi than “I had a sore throat.” Amnesia isn’t intended as a convenient plot device; both faulty memories happen for a related reason we’ll get to in The Mummy chapter later on.

The other line I was driven by an unknown force to write about was “Sometimes numbers are exchanged.” This manifested as the paper scraps scene. Originally the letters were all Xs and Os in an overcomplicated reference to the self-released Benji Hughes albums XXOXOXX and OXOXOXOXOX (re-released years later as Another Extreme and A Lovers Extreme), but it wasn’t making sense to anyone but me. (Re-reading the outtakes and my notes now it barely makes sense to me…)

Something that does make sense to me is this excited note in the margins of that old draft:

Not Xs and Os! The cards spell EVILON, but Benji mistakenly thinks they spell IN LOVE — which segues to “We were in love, in love as they come…”

Realizing that EVILON & IN LOVE were anagrams provided the jolt of inspiration I needed to get this scene back on track. As a bonus, it also ended up inspiring some pretty cool illustrations when I started to realize some other anagrams for the same six letters:

A deleted scene called this Spanish for extraterrestrial, with an alternate meaning “to surrender possession of”

More on Evilon and aliens later…

Tidbits:

  • Opening this chapter with a deja-vu redux of “Tight Tee Shirt” was planned. Hinting Benji can hear the narrator happened naturally/goofily while I was writing—but inspired me to figure out why it happened and to make it important. Took a real long time for me to figure out how/why, but this was the point I started to run with the intrusive narrator as a character idea.
  • In the companion version of this scene from “Tight Tee Shirt” the TV is showing a movie related to the previous dream, but here I specifically wanted the TV to be off to plant the “maybe it wasn’t a dream” seed.
  • “What’s the last thing you do remember?” is a nod to the movie Memento, which provided some inspiration/reassurance that a non-traditional structure to the narrative was okay.
  • I intentionally steered away from the obvious/assumed “you can’t remember because you drank too much” trope, though the first draft did go there.
  • One of the final pieces of the full puzzle of the novel was naming the roommate character C. From day one he went by Count (and technically still does), but late in the game the real Benji Hughes suggested C had a better ring to it for a reader plus an extra layer of mystery pairing his single-letter name with L’s. It was Benji’s only major editorial comment, and a great one at that.
  • “You know, the other story they tell you to distract you from the main story. But it’s not always a distraction. Sometimes the twist is the fact it relates.” True + meta foreshadowing.
  • Starting a sentence with “well” being a sign of lying is one of my all-time favorite fun facts. Keep an eye out for characters speaking this way…
  • When the paper scraps were still Xs & Os, they came from a business card for a character named Detective Oxymandis. On a break from editing L Extreme, I added Oxymandis to my Duty Calls short story Copper on Parchment as a fun little crossover. Later I cut him from LX, so even though he originated there he only exists in the subsequent story. (Ultimately a good thing, as the way LX plays out his appearance here would make no sense.)
  • C ate the paper. That’s how it got inside. Benji just figured out how an old magic trick worked. File that away for future/freaky/flashbacky reference…
  • Originally I divided the novel into two parts, split up like the two discs of the double CD. The cheeky “I need to change discs” came after Mmmmmm. Later I added “I need to flip the record” for a cooler old-school vibe. Much later I realized the four sides of a double LP made for (semi-)reasonably contained acts, so I ran with it. (Pun intended; more on that later…)

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LX Chapter Commentary #6: Cornfields

When I hear the word “cornfield” I immediately think of Quantum Leap‘s third season premiere episode “The Leap Home” from 1990 (or 1969 if we go by the leap date). Sam Beckett leaps into himself as a 16 year old, and running through the cornfield on his family’s farm features prominently in two different scenes.

Since this song from A Love Extreme is an instrumental, “cornfields” was the only word I had to inspire me. Musically it feels like the soundtrack to a chase, which kept running through a cornfield front and center in my mind. The first instrumental dream had a movie/music tie in with Lovers & Other Strangers, so the precedent existed.

I was already running (pun intended) with the QL parody/tribute piece when I found a Star Trek podcast Benji Hughes guest hosted called “Treklenburg.” Midway through the episode he mentioned how much he always loved Quantum Leap. (He also mentions Enterprise and says “Put an instrumental theme song on that!”) My tenuous connection was serendipitously validated, and the rest is history.

Other tidbits:

  • Mirroring the “Two _____. Both w___… Sometimes…” opening on all of the instrumentals was a fun bit of synergy to work out. For the longest time the intros started “There are two…” Shortening it up was inspired by the novel Foe by Iain Reid, which starts with the line “Two headlights.”
  • The song starts with what I’ve always heard as the sound of wind chimes, which is very similar to the sound effect when Al the hologram from Quantum Leap would appear or walk through an object. (Not to be confused with the sound of the imaging chamber door.)
  • As an obsessively nerdy fan of Quantum Leap, I wrote the first draft mostly from memory of this episode plus other references. I screwed up on the number of cheerleaders and the color of Sam’s attire, but worked those mistakes into the plot instead of correcting them to add some dreamy realism.
  • If you want a great proxy for a mini Season 6 of Quantum Leap, check out the novel The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stewart Turton.
  • Does the handlink access Ziggy directly, or is Gooshie the go-between? That’s a legitimate question.
  • “Al likes girls. And girls love shoes.”
  • I entered an early draft of this chapter (minus the album references by removing Benji’s last name) as a short story for a NaNoWriMo writing contest. There was a requirement to include the number 1667 (the number of words you need to write per day for a month to “win” NaNoWriMo with a 50K word manuscript), hence Ziggy giving a 16.67% chance Benji will remember the party.
  • The saga cell parody at the end still makes me grin every time I read it. An old Benji Hughes mailing list email about tour dates called him “Dr. Hughes” which directly connected my brain to the famous QL opening narration.

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Watch “The Leap Home, Part I”

LX Chapter Commentary #5: Waiting For An Invitation

Our lyrical raw materials: Cemetery –> Stars/Planets –> Band –> Apology Letter –> Unsent Invitations. Musically it’s a pretty song that takes things down a notch compared to the tunes that preceded it. And that’s the slalom course I tried to ski here.

Other connections were also in play. The opening line “Ladies roll by…” got mentally paired with “Ladies On Parade” several songs later, so I knew the same graveyard setting should be revisited when that chapter rolled around. By this point I had a semblance of a plot to move forward, so the trick became how to overlay L Extreme onto A Love Extreme while staying true to both in a complementary fashion regardless of whether someone was introduced to the book or the music first.

A crazy balancing act, but a fun one!

Other tidbits:

  • A graveyard felt like the right setting for the next part of fake Halloween. I hadn’t worked out exactly what chased them (monster? neighbor? drone?), but linked the stars & planets imagery to a few interviews that referenced the UFO sighting at an outdoor Benji Hughes show witnessed by hundreds of people and it just clicked. (My favorite reader theory: it wasn’t a UFO, but a lamp that a neighbor threw so they’d stop being loud…)
  • 128 monsters was the number of Sesame Street monsters on the Muppets Wiki at the time I wrote this chapter as a nod to C’s namesake. (Apparently the count has since gone up.)
  • My boss/landlord/friend in LA owned a tea shop called “T” in West Hollywood. I

    Poorly photoshopped image of the actual rooftop cross that inspired this scene.

    lived diagonally across the street from an old Korean church that went on the market around the time he started thinking about opening a second location. I thought it was a perfect fit since it already had the name on the roof. Remembering that caused the busted steeple/cross forming an L to pop into my head.
  • “Trying to whip the stars into compliance” was personal slang for attempting to make the puzzle pieces of this project work during early drafts.
  • “Benjory” is a made up word (obviously) but captures the spirit of what’s happening so well both before you know the whole story and in medias res.
  • Most of the items collected trick-or-treating were included in something called “The Benji Hughes Kit” sold online with a flash drive bundling three digital albums. The flash drive itself is the only item I omitted so as not to be too meta. (I also couldn’t work out a use for it that wasn’t forced—though I did just find an old note that said “That flash drive from Halloween has even more albums on it.”)

    Limited edition set of goodies previously available for purchase outside of Halloween.

  • The remaining contents had a chicken and egg history to them: sometimes the objects were invented first and a use later followed; other times I’d figure out what I needed while writing a chapter and go back and plant it in the stash. As Benji says, “Some of this stuff may come in handy…”
  • Five-star instrumental jazz is a nod to the two instrumentals (dreams?) cowritten by Benji Hughes on the album A Thousand Kisses Deep by smooth-jazz trumpeter Chris Botti.
  • C’s proposed party invite list includes members of past real-life Benji Hughes bands, a literal riff on the “wait until your band gets back together” line from the song. Christian is the only exception. That’s not a real person, but a reason to sneak in an out of context lyrical reference to yet another classic.
  • Finishing this chapter was a struggle. I couldn’t find the right breakpoint to end on. Early beta reader feedback (correctly / astutely) said the interactions between C & Benji were funny but went on longer than necessary. I also had a longstanding tendency to want to go from A to B to C in my writing without omitting any character actions from the timeline. The lyrics clearly told me if I was waiting for a perfect section ending it was never gonna come. An abrupt pivot made sense—both to roll with the outro and to subliminally tease the larger change in direction coming soon…
  • Editorial aside: “Waiting For An Invitation” is one of the more common gateway Benji Hughes songs popularized by its inclusion in an episode of How I Met Your Mother (see video below).

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LX Chapter Commentary #4: Neighbor Down The Hall

Many of the songs on A Love Extreme have phrases I adore so much they became non-negotiable blueprints for L Extreme chapters from the earliest drafts. Here the magic words were “jambox” and “Halloween.”

Inserting a jambox as a recurring prop was relatively easy. Working Halloween into the book’s timeline proved more difficult…

Why was it hard? At first I tried to timeline things too literally. Benji gets stood up on April 17th, but that’s a flashback so the date doesn’t matter. It’s Halloween in the next chapter, and enough time needs to pass so it can be April 17th again X chapters later for the Flaming Lips show. Five months is doable. But they go swimming in a parking lot in between, and I’ve only got the winter to work with. Maybe they time travel? Are the two April 17ths really the exact same day?

My plotting was going off the rails, so I briefly tuned it out and went back to individual vignettes. I could always deal with linking them together later.

“Happy Halloween from your neighbor down the hall” is such a simple lyric, but in the context of “Neighbor Down the Hall” I always got a kick out of how it comes out of nowhere—somewhere between a grand reveal and an inside joke. So that’s what I did.

Three grown men pretending it’s Halloween when it really isn’t under the guise of an undercover neighborhood watch mission was so absurd it made anyone I pitched it to smile. (They didn’t always think it was a good idea, but they always grinned at the unreasonable zaniness of it.)

Other tidbits:

“Don’t mock one of the greats.” – Local Boy (aka Dad) from Timely Persuasion on Paul Simon (aka Jonah Levin in this photo)

  • One year on a post-Coachella 2am drive home to LA I asked my wife to pick out some driving music. She put on “Still Crazy After All These Years” and fell asleep 12 seconds later. In her defense, when I woke her up for a do-over she said she wanted to hear “Kodachrome” which would have been acceptable. In Paul’s defense, he once blew a room away when he was underage in a funky bar. But all things considered I side with C here. He’s awesome, but as a general rule Paul Simon isn’t loud.
  • While researching musical themed books I found a Monkees tie-in novel Who’s Got The Button? by William Johnston. Davy astutely says “That’s not the landlord’s knock!” early on. I borrowed that line here as a tribute.
  • The line “I’m an excellent judge of volume” (aka an EJOV) has been kicking around in

    “It’s loud enough so the neighbors don’t complain.” – Words of wisdom from Lloyd Dobler’s sister Constance

    a draft of a different novel for years before I co-opted it in a different context here.
  • The Say Anything reference with the red line for the stereo volume foreshadows “Vibe So Hot” later on, but during the writing process this early line inspired that future chapter.
  • 13 apartments upstairs and 12 downstairs represent the 2 LP version of A Love Extreme with 13 songs on disc one and 12 on disc two. (The CD would be 11 & 14, but I went with vinyl to keep with the “sides” theme of the sections.)
  • I’ve always interpreted a shift in narration between the first and second verses of this song, with the knock-sounding drumbeats signifying the handoff to another point of view if it were a musical performed on stage.
  • Frank’s silence at their first meeting was always a thing, but the why around it evolved quite a bit between various drafts. Same with exactly who had the idea for

    Frank’s business card, illustrated by aleirart via Fiverr.com. Why does it look ripped?

    neighborhood watch. Ultimately it’s Frank planting the seed with Benji, though how much free will is involved is a valid question to have.
  • Want one of Frank’s business cards? Comment here or hit me on Twitter and I’ll send you one (while supplies last).
  • Benji Hughes famously/frequently/randomly wears a cape in concert, so casually introducing it here just made sense.
  • C says Halloween is 101 days away, which would make it July 22—the date A Love Extreme the album was released.
  • Per the Believer Magazine article by Joe Hagan that first introduced me to Benji Hughes, “ashkanah” is Benji’s made up non-sequitur that means “whatever” and allegedly went viral around Charlotte for awhile.
  • “Even factoring in the popularity of the costumes would still be counting on a longshot.”
  • Ending with something sinister chasing everyone was there from the first draft, but it took me a few years to figure out exactly what chased them and why. This Wanted/Needed/Loved article helped me figure that out plus some other character motivation yet to come.

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LX Chapter Commentary #3: You Stood Me Up

A dream, a frame story, and a flashback walk into a novel based on lyrics from a double album by Benji Hughes—who also stars as the protagonist.

Kidding aside, the thrill of working on L Extreme was the kitchen-sink zaniness of the structure. As I began to identify the throughline of the plot, songs naturally identified as dreams, skits, or flashbacks. “You Stood Me Up” was squarely in the latter category as a lyrical play by play:

“You had a date with me on April 17. I showed up at the Dairy Queen where we were supposed to meet…”

Setting and setup took care of themselves. I tackled it as a Waiting for Godot type situation, exploring what a character would do waiting for a date who never shows up and running through all the emotions that go with it. Nervous excitement slowly evolving into a feeling between annoyance and genuine concern.

For the second half, the idea was a riff on the concept of a friend who overanalyzes any story you tell them, and the other friend who has a tendency to tell shaggy dog stories where not every detail is as important as they think. What does this Dairy Queen story have to do with how Benji met L?

“I might never have met the girl if you would’ve shown up that night.”

Other tidbits:

  • After the play by play of “Tight Tee Shirt,” I intentionally danced around some of the more obvious lyrics here—both for fun and to show that the book was going to be more than a one trick pony. Benji can’t remember the calendar date that’s ultra specific in the song. The initially referenced time is different before steering back to the expected 4:53. And C can’t comprehend how these “important” details are missed.
  • My early notes pondered doing the dream sequences in second person, the skits in third, and the flashbacks in first. Feels like too much—especially with how jarring a second person opening chapter would be—so my past self was likely right to not act on that impulse.
  • Red Lobster is a reference to a different Benji Hughes song.
  • I know Dairy Queen doesn’t have table service, but needed someone for Benji to interact with to not have a completely introspective chapter and also a MacGuffin for C to fall for. A few early readers called me out for bending reality, so I added the “new concept” bit as acknowledgment. (It’s sort of true if you consider Grill & Chill.)
  • Tangentially related: I’ve had an idea for a story about a political campaign text message that causes a car accident for awhile. This song probably indirectly inspired it.
  • “Robotic communication device” is a nod to my other favorite Benji Hughes album, LILILIL.
  • I almost cut the phone call with Mark completely to move things along, but decided to keep it in a Chekov’s gun sort of way.
  • My wrists can’t bend enough to make the evil opera mask either, to the constant amusement of my siblings.
  • A lot of Benji Hughes songs feel like two-parters to me, inspiring a natural scene break mid-chapter between the retelling of the date and the “that’s one you taught me” follow-up discussion.
  • “There’s this girl, let’s call her Tommi, she’s got a heart of gold…”
  • Years after the first draft I wondered if anyone else had a theory on why “50 Ways to
    Jawbone Mini Jambox

    It’s just a jambox I don’t play it that loud.

    Leave Your Lover” only cites five ways. I didn’t find an answer, but I found this awesome thing by Vinnie Favale—which in turn inspired fictional Benji’s lyrical riffing towards the end of the chapter.
  • Real Benji astutely posits that “make a new plan” and “no need to be coy” aren’t really “ways” to leave your lover. I wholeheartedly concur.
  • Using the jambox to trigger the chapter break was one of the first “I think I can actually make this work!” moments of inspiration that got me excited to keep working on this book.
  • Bonus: I recently found this great review/essay on the song. Check it out.

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LX Chapter Commentary #2: Tight Tee Shirt

Chapter 1 of L Extreme ends the dreamy non-dream with “and then I fall asleep,” so we naturally kick off the main action with Benji waking up.

After making the switch to fiction, my original concept for the book was a set of loosely connected short stories. Take the same characters and settings and let them roll through the setlist episodically regardless of whether or not it made sense plot-wise. But I wrote the first few out of order (on shuffle?), so by the time I got around to “Tight Tee Shirt” I’d already abandoned that idea in favor of a proper narrative. The first half of “You Stood Me Up” was already written, so the main goal here was to connect the dots from the dream to the flashback.

It also needed to establish the general ground rules. Benji & C as relatively new roommates in a small apartment on an okay side of town. Rapid fire banter somewhere between vaudevillian slapstick and an SNL sketch. Third person omniscient narration juxtaposed against the first person dreamy segments. Teasing L as the main love interest but not quite getting to the point. A plot grounded in one song, but taking cues from others. And in this particular instance, staying tightly aligned to the lyrical (and musical) plot of the chapter’s core track while knowing I’d deviate from that script elsewhere.

Like “I Am You…”, this chapter also made its way off the album, into my ears, out of my head and onto the page mostly formed structure-wise. I messed around with some potential larger rewrites a few times, but always gravitated back to this original/final setup.

Other tidbits:

  • Yes, in the previous commentary (and the above intro) I referred to Chapter 1 a “non-dream” but Benji & C call it a dream here…
  • I’ve always loved narrators who break the fourth wall and acknowledge the audience. This narrator has that tendency, starting off subtle but becoming more intrusive as the book progresses. Deleted scenes include a whole lot of narrator soliloquies as I experimented to find the right voice and the balance. (The eventual answer was obvious, but I’ll get to that later…)
  • C’s hazy dream (or is it?) comes back in full clarity towards the end.
  • The chase/tackle/wrestling bit was inspired by imagining action to match the unexpectedly rocking guitar outro to the namesake song.
  • “I’m a musician and I’m also a painter” is accurate biography. Ditto on “You write advertising jingles and paint houses.”
  • Re-reading my cache of Benji Hughes interviews from when I thought I was researching a 33 1/3 book, I recall this 2009 IndyWeek article by Chris Parker nudging me towards fiction—especially the way he so nonchalantly describes the plot of the song: “The provocatively clothed girl in question is a former paralegal who’s vacillating between becoming doctor or horse trainer, while serving cotton candy at the circus. She packs heat for when the boys get fresh, and ‘if she isn’t edible, she’s as close as you can be.'”
  • Why is C’s subconscious processing Benji’s love life? Excellent question…
  • Sometimes the exercise was about squeezing as much referential inspiration from the songs as possible, but other times omitted references are intentional. Those familiar with the song might ask “What about the pistol in her purse or her job at the circus?” Consider it wordless foreshadowing. Stay tuned…

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LX Chapter Commentary #1: I Am You, You Are Me, We Are One

As referenced previously, the first chapter I wrote for L Extreme was about the song “The Mummy” starring Benji, Count & Frank and referencing additional Benji Hughes songs from other albums. I did a few of those in random order and had a rough idea of how to loosely segue my way through the first side of the vinyl.

When NaNoWriMo came around I decided to take it from the top with the very first track. I sat at my desk as the clock struck midnight (a Nano tradition to hit the ground running as soon as Nov 1 literally hits), played the album for inspiration—and laughed out loud.

The first song is an instrumental. It’s also a cover.

Two men. Both wear white suits. The one on the right looks like he’s trying not to laugh…

Deep down I obviously knew this, but in my excitement hadn’t really planned for it in the moment. The idea that the five instrumental tracks would be dreams was already in my head, as was the original idea to do a 33 1/3 style non-fiction take on the album. I knew from reading interviews the title A Love Extreme was a play on A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—but the extreme version was a cover by Carlos Santana & John McLaughlin on their Love Devotion Surrender album.

Undeterred, I fired up that album instead (I’d randomly been turned onto it a few months prior to discovering Benji by my sister’s boyfriend). I stared at the cover depicting the two white-suited guitar legends and started writing about what I saw filtered through Benji’s eyes.

It got polished a bit over the years, but the general structure of the trippy, nondescript white room filled with celebrities flowed out pretty much intact all at once.

Some tidbits:

  • As the story goes, Santana & McLaughlin were dreaming about each other in the lead up to collaborating. The dreamy nature of this song and that fun fact influenced my decision to make all of the instrumentals dreams.
  • “A white suit makes you look like a doofus” was inspired by something Jim Bob from Carter USM (my other favorite musical act) said on a live album—though his version is “a white suit makes you look like a dickhead.” Same difference 🙂
  • Miami Vice is both a reference to the popularization of white suits and the song “Miami Nights” by Dirt Nasty & Ke$ha that Benji Hughes sings the chorus to.
  • “You’ve got heart, man” has more meaning on a second read.

    Fred Karlin: “A hip looking cat with some crazy chops—both with the music and the facial hair. He has the inverse of a goatee.”

  • “I Am You…” is actually an instrumental sampled from the soundtrack to the film Lovers and Other Strangers composed by Fred Karlin. The cat with the sideburns playing an organ and conducting the orchestra is a fictionalized version of Fred as a tribute to the original.
  • The thing that changed the most as this chapter got rewritten were the actual white-suited celebrities. In the final version they are (mostly) a list of Benji Hughes’s influences, favorites or offhand conversational mentions.
  • Sri Chinmoy was an Indian spiritual leader followed by Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin. His teachings inspired them to make Love Devotion Surrender. Sri really did have this special platform he’d use to lift celebrities, animals and objects. It was such a wild story I couldn’t resist including it here.
  • “Up Where We Belong” references an epic duet cover version Benji did with Jenny Lewis at Largo in LA.
  • I really liked the idea of unifying the instrumental songs on A Love Extreme into the dream sequences, but I also knew that dreams in novels—especially as opening scenes—were frowned upon as overused tropes. Eventually that led me to think “What if they aren’t dreams?” Hence the final line of the trippy dream-like chapter became: “And then I fall asleep.”

Check out L Extreme

LX Origin Story, Part I

Before I dive into chapter by chapter, song by song commentary for L Extreme I wanted to provide a little background on how this came to be.

The Believer Issue 64, July/Aug 2009

Where it all began. (Note the illustrated Benji on the far right.)

Let’s start at the beginning…

July 2009: I purchased the special music issue of The Believer magazine at Skylight Books in LA. It was a total impulse purchase based on the theme, the cover, knowledge of Dave Eggers’s involvement and the fact that it came with a CD ala the old British music mags I was obsessed with as a teenager. It would be a couple months before I got around to reading it, but I find it fascinating that I can trace this book back to this exact moment.

When I finally dug into the magazine was a red-letter date. On 9/7/09 I purchased A Love Extreme and added it to my iTunes library. Followed under a week later by The Ballad of Hope Nicholls by Benji’s 90s band Muscadine, a clear signal that an obsession was brewing.

My Last.fm profile shows how much airplay that album got at home—quickly topping my personal charts and assuming the “favorite record of all time” title in a post on this blog dated 8/22/10.

Flash-forward some unknown period of time, once again at Skylight Books. I had forgotten this, but my wife vividly remembers watching me browse the spinning metal rack of 33 1/3 music criticism books and saying: “Somebody should write one of these about A Love Extreme. No—I should write one of these about A Love Extreme.”

That explains my archive of 37 articles / interviews with Benji found online spanning 2006-2018. But when did I switch the concept from non-fiction to fiction(ish) magic realism? I honestly don’t remember, but I have some vague flashes of forces pushing me in this direction from both the research and the music:

“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.” — Artist Direct Interview, 2008

“There’s not gonna be a 2019 “A Love Extreme” re-release with bonus tracks we didn’t put on there.” — Seeds Entertainment, 2010

“I want to be in your book—the front page of your life.” — lyric from A Love Extreme track “So Well” 

“Don’t forget to write me when you’re famous.” — lyric from unreleased song played during Largo residency, 2010

Something I do remember is sitting on the couch listening to A Love Extreme for the umpteenth time and telling my wife “I bet I could write a novel based on this whole album.” She definitely rolled her eyes, and probably went to bed.

I found a file on my hard drive dated 2/18/13 (President’s Day! And possibly the same day as the above memory) titled “A Love Extreme Notes” that contains very brief bulleted sketches of the first thirteen songs plus “I Went With Some Friends to See the Flaming Lips.” Aside from noting the instrumentals should be dreams it doesn’t really mirror the plot of the novel at all, but shows some spark of inspiration. The text file was never edited after its creation. (I didn’t even open it during the later writing stages since I forgot it existed.) Maybe I got distracted, or didn’t think anyone cared. More likely I didn’t feel capable of pulling off a storyline based on one album’s worth of songs.

Next is another text file, this one dated 9/21/14, 11:20pm Pacific time. A short story based on “The Mummy.” For years I’d written little fiction pieces about songs to amuse myself or my wife or my friends. Usually they go unfinished. A script for a made-for-TV movie based on “Taxi” by Harry Chapin. A short about a car breaking down on the side of the road inspired by “My Name is Jonas” by Weezer. A Twilight Zone style anthology series with the pilot episode adapting the Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch version of “Wildside” (with apologies to Lou Reed).

This Mummy story wasn’t very good, but it still amuses me to no end. Most importantly, it sets up a framework for what followed. As best I can recall, my brainstorm went something like this:

I’m into Pavement it’s my favorite band I’ve got their DVD I watch it 50 times…

Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy are roommates in a band with a Monkees type living situation. They’re watching the Slow Century documentary about Pavement in their small apartment on an okay side of town and arguing about who gets to perform at the prom.

But monsters are too obvious. I’ll call Dracula “Count” and make him speak in numbers, sort of like an adult version of the Sesame Street character. Frankenstein is just a big guy named Frank who may or may not be a monster. Who’s the mummy? A reincarnated Egyptian pharaoh? Somebody’s mom?

That was enough to get me off the couch and over to the computer. During the very short jaunt down the hallway I scrapped the mummy character in favor of a fictionalized version of the actual Benji Hughes for reasons completely lost on me. I wrote:

Benji and Count were watching “Slow Century” for the fiftieth time while they waited for Frank to show up. They knew it was the fiftieth time because that’s what Count did — he counted.

989 words later I had a dumb little ditty that started with those three characters living the lyrics of “The Mummy” and ended with a riff on the lyrics from “Everybody Falls In Love“—a different Benji song recently released on XXOXOXX (later re-issued as Another Extreme)—part of a 4 (!!!) CD set of new albums we got pre-release copies of when my wife mentioned her plan to surprise me with a trip to NC to see a Benji Hughes show to a co-worker who responded: “I didn’t realize you liked him—I kinda know him…” That album was added to our library on 8/26/14, less than a month before I wrote the Mummy short. It was the missing piece of creative connective tissue I needed. Don’t only write about A Love Extreme; write about ALL THE SONGS!

Inspired, I ran with the idea as my 2014 NaNoWriMo project, writing just shy of 17K words about Benji, Count, Frank and Benji’s mysterious ex-girlfriend L that November. And the next November. And the one after that. 2014-2018, every November spent chipping away with another 10-18K words song by song, chapter by chapter. A lot of it got scrapped—there’s 30K words of outtakes in what became an 87K word book—but a lot of it worked far better than it had any business doing under the circumstances.

Of course, there was this looming moral/copyright/intellectual property gray area issue to resolve. I figured I’d toss the hail mary of a pitch to Benji down the road if/when it was ready, and most likely rework the whole thing to scrape off the serial numbers and remove the references when I got either a no or a no response. But I was having so much fun it was the least of my worries at the time…

Stay tuned for Part II of how this zany project got off the ground—probably after a few chapter commentary posts…

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

New Novel: L Extreme

It’s been awhile but we’re back with style…

Announcing the new novel by JL Civi: L Extreme!

L Extreme Book CoverReaders of this blog know I’ve been a huge fan of Benji Hughes for years. Somewhere along the line I decided to write a novel based on his album A Love Extreme. For a reason I can’t fully recall or explain I decided to make a fictionalized version of Benji the protagonist. And somewhere much later down the line he gave me permission to release it, did the cover art, and wrote an afterword!

I call the book a cross between Yellow Submarine and Being John Malkovich with a sprinkling of 33 1/3 style fun facts scattered throughout. It’s a zany, cross-genre story grounded in the song by song world of the album but ultimately its own separate thing. If you dig it, the credit goes to Benji as the muse. If you hate it, blame me and I apologize for tainting the album. Personally I think they go well together regardless of whether you view it as a novelization of a record or a soundtrack to a book. But of course I’m biased :).

I’ll kick off a similar chapter by chapter commentary series of blog posts like I did for Timely Persuasion in the near future. For now, check out the ebook at your favorite store.

More soon…