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 just 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)? 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 think I could pull a storyline off solely based on one album’s worth of songs.

Next is a part I do remember. 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 based on “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…

Of the Year – 2016

ALBUMS

1. I Had a Dream That You Were Mine — Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam 
I love when my favorite album of the year comes out of nowhere. I listened to this on NPR first listen because I liked the title and Hamilton’s last name. And I pretty much haven’t stopped listening to it since. Never been a big Walkman fan, though in hindsight I always liked the music of Vampire Weekend more than the lyrics. Sooo good.

2. Wild Dark Metal — Mason Jennings
Probably Mason’s best record since Blood of Man (if you don’t count The Flood as an excellent collection of older songs) — and somewhat of a companion piece with the electric guitar focus. He didn’t tour for this album, and an interview seemed to suggest he’s contemplating retirement. I hope he doesn’t hang it up for good, but completely understand if he needs a break.

3. Ruminations — Conor Oberst
This is the first time I’ve genuinely loved a Conor Oberst record top to bottom on my own vs. slowly come around to it based on my wife’s interest in it.

4. Give It Back To You — The Record Company
This one feels weird to me in some regards since I’ve been a fan of this band for so long that these aren’t really “new” songs to me.  But super proud of the buzz they’ve achieved in the leap from “best local band in LA” to “Grammy nominated artist for best contemporary blues album.”

5. Songs in the Key of Animals — Benji Hughes
Another time travel moment since this tied for my second favorite album of 2014 in its original form, but got a re-issue on Merge with a different track order and some new flare to a few of the intros/outros of the songs. Love that Benji is getting more well-deserved exposure, though I’m still a little baffled by the re-ordering since I’ve always thought the “draft” version was especially well sequenced.  Maybe I’ll get to ask him someday.

6. Emotions & Math — Margaret Glaspy
Favorite debut of the year — if “debut” is defined as “first release by someone I hadn’t heard of before.”

7. Life in the Dark — The Felice Brothers

SONGS

1. Couples Skate — Robert Ellis

2. O’Brien is Tryin’ to Learn to Talk Hawaiian — The Mr T Experience

3. Two Dollar Man / Old Daze — Mason Jennings

4. Freaky Feedback Blues — Benji Hughes

5. Plunder — The Felice Brothers

SHOWS

Sweet Spirit @ ABGB 1/31/16
They did a cover from Blackstar shortly after Bowie’s passing — and then went straight into an awesome rendition of “Young Americans” that brought down the house.

Benji Hughes @ The Bootleg Bar 2/4/16
My grandmother passed away this year.  The funeral was the weekend before this show.  I was scheduled to go to LA for work and could have been off the hook no questions asked, but decided to keep the trip anyways.  Whether it was too soon or not is still debatable, but seeing Benji and hearing “I Hate When Pretty Ladies Die” live at this show was exactly what I needed.  RIP, Gram.

Smooth Hound Smith @ ON A RIVERBOAT (!!!) at SXSW 3/18/16
I already covered this show in the SXSW recap, but man was that fun.

Supersuckers @ The Continental Club 3/19/16
This one didn’t get too much detail in the SXSW recap, but was a highlight.  When the schedule first came out and I saw the Supersuckers were playing the Continental at 1am I was pretty sure I’d be going by myself, but somehow managed to convince my wife to join me (as well as our friend Hunter) and a good time was had by all.

Reverend Horton Heat & Dale Watson @ Strange Brew 7/23/16
Dale Watson became our discovery of the year due to this show.  And I fulfilled my musical bucket list item of finally hearing “Liquor, Beer & Wine” live.  One of four times I saw the Reverend this year after way too many years off.

Felice Brothers @ the Sidewinder 10/5/16
Super cool venue, super cool setlist by a band that’s really coming into their own. And we kept up our remarkable run of consecutive shows where they play “Marie” — still my favorite song of theirs.

The Record Company @ Antone’s 11/12/16
Coverville introduced me to the Record Company years ago based on their awesome cover of “So What’cha Want?” by the Beastie Boys. My favorite part of this show was turning around to watch the crowd while they played it, watching everyone slowly reach the same revelation about what song it was when the signature guitar riff kicks in. I also got to ask singer Chris Vos about the lyric change on “This Crooked City” from “…and we shared a couple of beers” to “…and we shed a couple of tears.”  Both work well, but completely change the interpretation of the song.  He laughed when we screamed the older “beers” version during the set, and later told me “to be honest, I still sing beers sometimes too.”

Someone Else is Rediscovering Pavement

The best love letter to a band disguised as a letter to your past self (or is it vice versa?) that I have ever read:

Wait, You’ve Never Heard: Pavement – Brighten The Corners

My favorite quote:

“There’s a magic to the moment you finally love a band, and anyone who says he or she was with every band from the beginning is a lying sack of shit.”

(via Consequence of Sound)

PS: I also love the random “The Mummy” reference for reasons not intended by the author.

I Went With Some Friends to See Benji Hughes…

…it was the greatest show I ever saw.

I’ve been dying to see Benji Hughes live since discovering him back in October via an article in The Believer magazine that sat unread on our coffee table for several weeks. By the time I got around to reading it and listening to his album I learned we had just missed a show he did in LA days prior. A few months later we learned of another LA show 3 days after it happened. My wife was actually toying with flying to North Carolina for my birthday to see him play, but that surprise got nixed when I insisted on watching the LOST finale in the comfort of our own home. But now the wait is over, with Benji doing a 4 show residency at Largo throughout July!

Week 1 was nothing like I expected and more than I could have hoped for. The dude is just plain hilarious up there on stage with his big red cape, long hair and sunglasses. He randomly wanders off in between songs (to get “water”), one time sneaking back on stage against the rear red curtain while “camouflaging” himself with the cape. Goofy, but in a good way and highly entertaining.

In some regards it felt like we were watching a rehearsal as the band improvised the setlist — sometimes making song choices that Benji disagreed with but still nailed. (I’m not sure if this was part of the schtick or a real event, but later in the show it was revealed that Benji had accidentally ripped off the bottom half of the setlist while searching for a piece of note paper shortly before taking the stage.)

Jackson Browne was the special guest who jammed with him in the second half. They did a couple of Zevon covers, Benji’s “All You’ve Got to Do Is Fall In Love” (where Benji had to correct Jackson’s melody on the chorus), and one song by guitarist and former Muscadine partner in crime Jonathan Wilson.

Rough, out of order and likely incomplete setlist from memory:

Higher Than Balls
Even If
How Many Birds?
Country Love
Broadway (partial scat cover of the George Benson song)
Love Is A Razor
Turkeys with Guitars
Waiting For An Invitation
So Much Better
Don’t Forget to Write Me When You’re Famous
Oysters (Solo Piano)
Mohammed’s Radio (Warren Zevon cover w/ Jackson Browne)
Play It All Night Long (Warren Zevon w/ Jackson Browne)
All You’ve Got To Do Is Fall In Love (w/ Jackson Browne)
Solo Jackson Browne Song
Solo Jonathan Wilson Song
———–
Girl In The Tower

My only minor gripe is this:  I tend to go into concerts with a mental checklist of songs I hope an artist plays, and then judge the show on how much of my wishlist was covered.  In this case, only the encore song was on my pre-show list.  But it was still awesome regardless.  Can’t wait for next week!

All About The Benji Hughes

Every once in a great while a record comes around that just plain blows your mind.  One that lands in heavy rotation, building up steam and momentum with each listen.  You may like or even love other albums, but the magical ones like this are few and far between.  Music so good you can’t stop listening to it and feel the need to tell everyone you know about it.  CDs that make you think “Where the hell have I been?” upon discovering that it has existed for months or years without your knowledge.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an easy example from recent memory.

Skittish meets this criteria too.  It was (and still is) my favorite album of all time.

Before that it was probably Slanted and Enchanted.

Before that it was Nevermind.

Today?  It’s A Love Extreme by Benji Hughes.

Check this out.  How awesome is this guy?

Just, wow!  A little bit Beck, a little Joseph Arthur, but at the same time a whole lot of original.

Anachronistic as it is, I can’t help but reference the lyrical gold that might have found its way into Timely Persuasion had this album been around a few years ago.

“A woman lives inside of your head, singing to you all of the time.”

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

“You’ve got it made because you’re made so well.”

“Why do these parties always end the same way?”

“Just like really awesome candy.”

“I got there at 4:53.  We were supposed to meet at 5.”

Soooo good! Definitely my find of the year.