Three Jobs Should be Enough

A story about working . . .

Literary Yard

By: Joel E. Turner

Three jobs should be
enough, I mean none of them is what you’d really call a job, not
like when I was clocking in at the refractory plant, lifting heavy
shit to make bricks, running a hydraulic press. Before I got that lay
off letter from headquarters – Moon Township Pennsylvania, can’t
make that up. Bring you back if there is sufficient demand. Being an
A-rated tech don’t mean shit, I guess.

Better off out of
there anyway, I seen old guys at the Eagle Lodge coughing out their
life from the asbestos after twenty years. They say it ain’t like
that anymore, but still.

The lady at the
coffee joint, she’s alright, tad on the nervous side. Laughed my
ass off when that buzzer for the drive-through went off, she jumped a
mile, bent over trying to figure out the damn spresso machine. Niece

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Foolish Records (the end of Xmas vinyl)

Let’s go straight to the top here with one of the most foolish records to grace the top 40. “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” was concocted by Jerry Samuels, a recording engineer/producer/songwriter and released under the nom de plume Napoleon XIV, and got to #3 in 1966 on the Billboard charts.

Anyone between the ages of 60-70 does not need me to describe this manic recitiative. For those of a younger age, who do not understand what a novelty record is, please go to YouTube and look this one up. I cannot be responsible for educating you on everything.

The B-side of this 45 is the same song backwards. On the label, the title and credits are backwards as well, i.e., mirror-imaged. Thus:

There is also an LP available, the track listing of which is worth perusing:

Side 1
  1. “I’m In Love With My Little Red Tricycle”
  2. “Photogenic, Schizophrenic You”
  3. “Marching Off To Bedlam”
  4. “Doin’ The Napoleon”
  5. “Let’s Cuddle Up In My Security Blanket”
  6. “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”
Side 2
  1. “Bats In My Belfry”
  2. “Dr. Psyche, The Cut-Rate Head-Shrinker”
  3. “I Live In A Split Level Head”
  4. “The Nuts On My Family Tree”
  5. “The Place Where The Nuts Hunt The Squirrels”
  6. “I’m Happy They Took You Away, Ha-Haaa!” (by Josephine XV)

You can find out more about Mr. Samuels and his career (apparently still working as a booking agent) at his website (

Two comedy lp’s also appeared under the Xmas tree this year. The first, I’m not sure I really dig, to use the parlance of the time (1959):

Though it really is a fantastic cover. I’m not a Lenny Bruce devotee, so I’m not sure if this offering isn’t one of his better ones, or perhaps his humor was better appreciated in person . . . or I’m just not hip enough, which doesn’t seem possible given how often I listened to this Del Close and John Brent masterpiece during my formative years:

If you’ve never heard this, again, off to YouTube with you.

The other comedy LP I received is truly a classic, though besmirched by Mr. Cosby’s terrible behavior (which is no doubt why an unnamed friend gave it to me):

This was Cosby’s first lp, and he certainly was a comic suited to the medium. Many of my age group will remember Noah’s dialogue with God: “What’s a cubit?”

The last record in this tedious recounting of Xmas surfeit is by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs and is not “Wooly Bully” (or “Little Red Riding Hood”, for that matter). It is “Ju Ju Hand”:

Wow, with the picture sleeve and everything. Imagine my surprise that it sounds EXACTLY like “Wooly Bully” with different words. It was released in 1965, on the heels of the wild success of WB, and got to #26 on the US charts, which tells you something about . . . well, it definitely tells you something.

“Wooly Bully” to this day evokes a shudder for me, as in my sophomore year of college, I lived in a dormitory wing that was apportioned to the DKE fraternity. They couldn’t fill all the rooms, so the four rooms on the first floor were populated by non-DKE’s like me.

When the DKE’s had their “Hell Week”, their pledges were all required to live in the basement of the dorm and a turntable was set up to play “Wooly Bully” at ear-shattering volume over and over. (I moved out).

This was, of course, the fraternity that gave us Brett Kavanaugh.

Xmas Vinyl Part 3: Jazz with Mongo, Charles and Sonny (Ra, that is)

El Pussy Cat is an excellent lp from Mongo Santamaria, released in 1965 on Columbia. It was his first LP after the the smash hit Watermelon Man! (45 and LP of the same name) in 1963. Much as I love Mongo’s version of that Herbie Hancock classic – I have the 45 on Battle, and play it regularly – overall, I’d rate El Pussy Cat as the better LP. There is more of an Afro-Cuban feel and more of a jazz vs pop-boogaloo sound.

The title track is a bit goofy, with fake cat mewling, but the groove was striking enough that it was covered by a couple of noted ska artists: Roland Alphonso (1965) and Bad Manners (1980). The prolific session drummer Sandy Nelson also covered it in 1965 on the Drum Discotheque lp, but then Sandy Nelson covered just about everything.

The cuts are all originals from various members of the band, including Bobby Capers (alto/baritone sax and flute), Marty Sheller (trumpet), Hubert Laws (flute and tenor sax) and Carmello Garcia (timbales and drums).

Afro-Cuban music was a big influence on pop music and jazz in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, from “Louie, Louie” to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” to the great hits produced by Bert Berns (e.g., “My Girl Sloopy” by the Vibrations, “A Little Bit of Soap” by the Jarmels, “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers, “Tell Him” by the Exciters).

There is an excellent bio/documentary out now about Bert Berns, which is disappointing only in its failure to highlight by name such great Afro-Cuban artists as Mongo and Teacho Wiltshire, the latter of whom arranged many of Berns’s records.

Here is a link to the trailer for Bang! The Bert Berns Story.

With Charles Lloyd, are we more in the mainstream of jazz than with Mongo? I guess you’d have to say that, but as with many great artists, Charles Lloyd has covered so much ground that to label him at all is a mistake.

Listening to this made me realize that I need to seek out more of his work. The quartet is outstanding – Lloyd on tenor and flute; Keith Jarrett on piano; Ron McClure on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, and the four extended pieces give them all room to stretch out.

Lloyd blows hard at times, and beautiful at all times on this record, often evoking Coltrane and Ornette Coleman on the tenor. The bio on his website says that “at the height of his career in 1970, Lloyd disbanded the quartet and dropped from sight, withdrawing to pursue an inner journey in Big Sur.” This was his last record before that period began.

Lloyd returned to the jazz world in the early 1980’s and is still touring today.

With apologies to Wynonie Harris, a true R&B pioneer, this 45 release of his 1946 78 RPM single “Dig This Boogie” b/w “Lightnin’ Struck the Poor House” is all about the debut of a young pianist named Herman Blount, soon to be known to this, and who knows what other, worlds as Sun Ra.

“Dig This Boogie” is a hard-swinging number, with Sun Ra leading the intro over Harris’s propulsive drumming. The B-side is a more laid-back tune, with sax and trumpet complementing the vocals.

This reissue was created by Modern Harmonic for Record Day 2017 on red vinyl with an initial pressing of 1000. What makes this even sweeter is the cover art by Cal Schenkel, the Philadelphia area native who is most noted for his work on the covers of Frank Zappa/Mothers of Invention recordings.

Cal is still very much active as an artist, and you can see more of his artwork and purchase it here.

The record is a bit of a curiosity, but it is just one more element in the amazing mosaic of Sun Ra’s work. Some may view him as an eccentric or an outsider, but for someone who charted his own path more than perhaps any other jazz artist, he had a deep grounding and appreciation for the music that went before him, whether R&B, big band jazz or bebop.

His live shows were legendary, and a free jazz brawl with someone dancing in a chicken costume (there were always costumes) might be followed by a stomping and faithful rendition of a Fletcher Henderson chart. (I saw that show). He was a hell of a pianist and a constant composer.

From the late 60’s to the early 90’s Sun Ra (or Sonny, as his friends called him) and the core of his Arkestra lived in a house in Germantown, Philadelphia. I remember looking him up in the phone book around 1977; there was the listing “Ra Sun GE8-9007”.

Around the same time, I was working as a substitute teacher in the Philadelphia School System and met another sub who had played oboe with Sun Ra for a while. He said it was great, because there weren’t too many gigs for a jazz oboe player; though he left as the scene was a bit bizarre at the Germantown house.

I promise there will be only one more Xmas music post, but it is the one you have been waiting for, featuring that great artist….Napoleon XIV

Xmas Vinyl Part 2: R&B – JB, SAR Compilation, Eddie and Ernie

You gotta start with James Brown:

A Soulful Christmas was released in 1968 which was a key transition time for JB as his work took on more of a political punch and his sound moved to the stripped-down vamps that would result in hits like Mother Popcorn and Funky Drummer (just to mention a few) in the years to come. After the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, Brown performed shows in Boston and Washington DC that were heralded for calming racial tensions and encouraging black pride within a non-violent context. Brown then recorded “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”, a civil rights anthem that saw its first release on this album. The other stand-out track is “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”, which includes a shout out to Hank Ballard (“The Twist”, “Finger-Popping Time”, etc.) who was an early influence on Brown’s raucous sound and co-authored the song.

Much of the rest is good Christmas background music – original songs with Christmas themes and licks from Christmas songs woven in. There’s a lot of vibes, which I suppose sound sort of like bells. Anyway, this is a great record for R&B fans in the Christmas season.

Next up is Looking Back, a compilation of recordings from the SAR label in the early 1960s. As the back cover of the record recounts, the label was run by Sam Cooke and J. W. Alexander. Sam did a heck of a job as a producer and got some outstanding gospel and R&B performers onto wax.

Most R&B fans will be familiar with The Valentinos, aka The Womack Brothers, who, having watched the travails of Cooke and others who crossed over from gospel, decided to rename themselves for the pop/R&B market. Their biggest and first hit, “Looking for a Love”, was a reworking of a gospel song by the Womack Brothers, “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” (also on this compilation) and got to #8 on the R&B charts in 1962. It was later the first chart hit for the J. Geils Band, who recorded it for their 1972 LP The Morning After.

Track listing from Looking Back

More famous is “It’s All Over Now”, which the Rolling Stones famously released as their first number one hit just before the Valentino’s version came out in 1964. The story is that Bobby Womack was not happy about the Stones stealing their song – until he got his first song-writing royalty check for it. The Valentino’s version is quite different than the Stones’ and is more similar to renditions by Ry Cooder and The Grateful Dead

Half of the album tracks are gospel cuts, leading off with R. H. Harris with His Gospel Paraders singing “Somebody”. Harris was a huge figure in gospel music who led the Soul Stirrers in the 30’s and 40’s (Cooke joined the Soul Stirrers as lead singer in the 50’s). The three songs from the Soul Stirrers here are after Cooke had left, and feature Johnny Taylor on “Stand by Me Father” and Jimmy Outler on “Looking Back” and “Time Brings about a Change”.

Many non-gospel fans will know Johnny Taylor for such later funky songs as “Who’s Making Love”; but Outler never had much of a secular singing career. He is a powerful singer with a rough, appealing voice in the Wilson Pickett vein. His performances here are a treat.

And finally, we have a male singing duo, the Simms Twins (Bobby and Kenneth) in the tradition of duos from the fifties such as Marvin & Johnny, Don & Dewey, and Robert & Johnny. They remind me of a sweeter version of Sam & Dave; a little bit of the Impressions, and also a duo from Jamaica, The Bluesbusters (see below) – here’s a record of theirs I got a few years ago – check them out!

Finally, we have Time Waits for No One by Eddie and Ernie. This is a compilation on Cairo Records (as is Looking Back), and features a duo that never really made it on the national record scene.

There are some similarities to The Sims Twins duo featured on Looking Back, but Eddie and Ernie were on the scene just a couple of years later, and have more of a Stax/Volt sound. They are often compared to Sam and Dave. They were based in Phoenix and seem to have spent a good deal of their career there, eventually joining a local group, Phoenix Express in 1971.

The songs are worth a listen, especially “Time Waits for No One” and “Falling Tears”. I feel like the songwriting is not that strong on some of the cuts; maybe in the right hands they might have made it bigger.

Next Up: Jazz . . . .and then I’ll get to what everyone (i.e., no one) is waiting for: comedy and novelty records.

Xmas Vinyl Part 1: Philly Sounds (featuring Bowie cover bands, Ben Vaughn, Palymyra Delran, Mick Cancer and Nazz)

The vinyl resurgence may be cresting, at least as evidenced by what was under my tree this year. Or maybe no one can figure out what else to get me.

I believe some people like buying vinyl records but don’t have a record player, so they target those who do. Another factor in my case is that an outstanding local second-hand record store that’s been around for over forty years, Gold Million Records, is closing, and has been having a sort of never-ending sale. (Buyers alert: their entire collection is up on Ebay if you have a spare $25K.)

My yield was about a dozen records (not including ones I bought for myself). The one pictured above (“Wildwood Days”) is not a Bobby Rydell album (although a cover of his famous (in Philly/Jersey) hit performed by a David Bowie cover band (this was before they called them tribute bands) is included); but rather a compilation of cuts by various bar bands from the era, bracketed by promotional gabbling from Bob Pantano, a well-known (even now) Philly DJ.

This collector’s (?) item was released on the Motherlode Productions label, and has the distinction, prized among the true cognoscenti, of not being listed in Discogs (or anywhere else that I could find on the WW Interweb). There is no date anywhere on the physical product, but I would guess it was released in 1975-1976, based on its inclusion of renditions of “Born to Run” and “Philadelphia Freedom”.

We will mention only in passing the turgid recreation of the popular Springsteen hit (the original of which I didn’t like the first or millionth time I heard it) by Supa Heat, a “phenomenal band” whose “new quadraphonic show is a sight and sound sensation”.

More interesting are the Bowie covers by Ziggie (“Shapes of Things” a la Bowie’s Pinups) and Money (“Cracked Actor”). Philadelphia was then, and is still, a huge Bowie town (just this past week there was a week-long Bowie festival at venues throughout the city); so it perhaps is not surprising that bands were still doing songs from Aladdin Sane and Pinups several years after their release.

The “Shapes of Things” cover seems to trudge on forever; skips the chorus several times; and perhaps wisely never attempts the guitar feedback sounds and racing instrumental passage of the Yardbirds’ original version that was pretty exciting to hear on the radio back in 1966.

The version of “Cracked Actor” is not bad, a bit more Mott the Hoople-ish than Bowie’s version. Having spent some time in the Wildwood milieu, I find it somewhat comical to think of that largely straight crowd pounding down cheap drafts while being serenaded with this nasty ode to a gay hustler.

Now on to Philly bar-band veterans who made it to a higher level. Instrumental Stylings by Ben Vaughn was released in 1995 and was the resume that led Ben from a decade+ of leading his outstanding combo in Philly, solo work including Rambler 65 (recorded entirely by Ben inside the eponymous Rambler), production/collaboration with artists including Charlie Feathers, Arthur Alexander, Alan Vega and Alex Chilton, and film scoring for classics like Wild Girls Go-Go Rama, to a new career in Los Angeles creating music for TV, most notably Third Rock from the Sun and That 70’s Show.

It is a wonderful album, highlighting Ben’s creativity as a composer and instrumentalist (esp. on guitar). Allmusic‘s review says Ben “shies away from no genre: bone-crunching surf, spaghetti western, drag-strip stompers, country-blues boogie, Italian soundtrack, breezy bossa nova, Tex-Mex cowboy ballads, noir Indian music, and numerous mix-and-match hybrids thereof”. 

In an interview in Broadway World, Ben tells the story of how he came to record Instrumental Stylings, and how a phone call he received on-air during a promotional interview at KCRW in Santa Monica led to a same-day job offer to create music for Third Rock.

Those of us from Philly have known about Ben for years, and look forward to his regular annual return gigs. You can also check out his weekly radio show, The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn (broadcast on over twenty stations and also available as a podcast), which is also wonderful, a word that seems to cling to Ben’s efforts.

Ben mentions in the article above having recorded the album in the basement studio of Palmyra Delran. She is another Jersey/Philly music scene stalwart, who some may remember as the drummer/leader of The Friggs, whose sound has been described as “trash pop” and “an all-female version of the Standells”. Their song “Shake” was featured in the film Superbad.

She also was the drummer for Pink Slip Daddy, a band which featured Mick Cancer on vocals and Sal Mineo’s Only Son (aka Ben Vaughn) on guitar.

Their 1990 release on Apex/Skyclad, Antidisestablishmentarianism, also found its way into my collection (ok, I bought it for myself) this holiday season.

The track listing on the reverse tells you what you need to know:

But, wait, what you really need to know is contained in the warning label on the front (inspired, no doubt, by the PMRC):

We’ll leave you with a more mundane addition to the collection, the first 45 from Nazz, Todd Rundgren’s band. The b-side was Hello, It’s Me, which may have gotten even more airplay over the years.

Old-time Philly hands will remember Todd playing with Woody’s Truck Stop. Todd is a 1966 alum of Upper Darby High School, where my lovely wife Anne was librarian for many years (long after Todd, and for that matter, Tina Fey or Jim Croce, were in attendance).

Next up: R&B records, including the hardest working man in show business.

Gallagher’s Pub Memories: A Bag of Oregano, Frialators and a Hoagie (Hold the Roll)

In the summer of 1972, I began working at Gallagher’s Pub in Avalon, New Jersey as a cook. That’s it above – must have been in the off-season. Some people may remember it by its later name, Jack’s Place.

Avalon is a town at the Jersey Shore, for any really-out-of-towners.

The circumstances surrounding how I became employed there have long been shrouded in . . . forget it, they haven’t been shrouded at all. I, along with everyone else involved, have told this story a zillion times. Here is my version.

All names have been redacted, but if there is sufficient interest, I am willing to out everyone involved.

How I Got My Job at Gallagher’s Pub

I was 17 and was working at the Rocking Chair Breakfast House in Avalon as a dishwasher. My brother, who was 22, had just begun working there as a cook, after being fired from Gallagher’s Pub, and had gotten me the job.

The Breakfast House was a horrible place to work as a dishwasher. It was open 24/7. On my first night, I worked from 11pm to 2pm. We did all the dishes by hand. Over the years, I worked at a lot of places as a dishwasher, but this was the only one that had no dishwashing machine. I suspect that was not legal. It was definitely not sanitary.

One of my co-workers was an English guy – Pete – who was spending his summer working 80 hours a week at this fine establishment. But that’s a story for another day.

So, why had my brother been fired? Well, he lived in a house with a bunch of other guys in Avalon – three or four of them were working as cooks at Gallagher’s Pub, along with a friend of my age (who is now a well-regarded life coach).

It was a nice house, much nicer than one would expect for a bunch of barely 21 miscreants. They had been renting run-down houses at the shore for four or five years.But this past year, they decided to raise money to pay for the house by running “$3 Nights”. This involved renting a hall, buying many kegs of beer, and charging $3 for entry and unlimited beer. These were wildly successful. I sold tickets to them at my high school. The cops were paid off, as most of the attendees were underage, and everyone was happy. But again, a story for another day.

So, back to Avalon. One evening, the younger sister of one of the housemates incurred some sort of injury – a broken leg, maybe. She was at a nearby hospital and they required someone related and over 21 to give permission for medical treatment.

This led to the Avalon police showing up at the door of the house my brother and his friends were renting. (Nobody had phones in their houses at the shore then, which was why the cops had to pay a personal visit).

One of the guys was home with his girlfriend, and as it turned out, two of my friends, who were there in the hope of having someone of age procure beer for them.

The guy went to the door and saw that it was a cop outside. He looked back and saw on the kitchen table a bag of . . . well, he thought it was marijuana. Of course, it was oregano.

The guy yelled at my friends to grab the bag and “take off” out the back door, which they did. At least one of them was a veteran cross-country runner who was probably at 96th street before the cops entered. (I will identify this party, as he is no longer with us: D.J. Webster, who became an award-winning music video producer in later years – he produced the famous “Voices Carry” video for Til Tuesday and worked with everyone from Jeff Beck to Stevie Ray Vaughn to Sheila E. to Billy Idol. He died of cancer at an early age, may his crazy soul rest in peace).

Anyway, the cops’ interest was piqued by all this activity. They ended up searching the house (I have no idea if they actually got a warrant), found some of what you typically found in a house of that ilk in that era, and all the guys whose names were on the lease were, as we would say then, “busted”.

The ones who worked at Gallagher’s Pub were also fired from their jobs. A few weeks after this all “went down” (again, as we would say in that era), I had a conversation with my friend, the now-life-coach, who was the one remaining cook at Gallagher’s. He said I could start working there. “Just don’t tell them whose brother you are.”

So they hired me. A few days after that, I was in the kitchen and the owner came up to me.

He asked, “Are you (my brother’s name)’s brother?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “I thought so. That’s ok.”

Steaks in Peanut Oil?

I worked there the rest of that summer and the following summer.

In the summer of 1973, the owner decided he wanted to upgrade the menu a bit, and hired “a real chef”. This guy tried to teach me how to make a white sauce, which was not something you could make on the grill or in a Frialator.

For those who haven’t worked in that sort of kitchen, below is a picture of a Frialator, although I don’t think I have ever seen quite such a clean one.

The Frialator was developed in 1918 by the Pitco company. Its owner, J. C. Pitman was eloquent on its purpose:

A man of principle. One small step for a man, one giant leap for fried food!

Anyway, this chef bought a lot of steaks, and then showed us how he was going to marinate them in peanut oil.

Maybe a week later, there was a really bad odor in the kitchen. Word got to the owner, who came in one morning and located the source, which was the aforementioned steaks. I think the chef just left them in the pantry, rather than the walk-in fridge. The owner threw all the steaks away and told me to tell the chef to come see him when he arrived. By that afternoon, my friend and I were running the kitchen.

The Scottish Ladies

 I have fond memories of the Scottish ladies that we worked with there.  I think they lived in Scotland most of the year, and just came for the summer. They were all related– cousins, or maybe two of them were sisters. Betty ran the kitchen. She quit in protest when my brother and his friends were fired. The following summer,she came back after her replacement was fired (see above). May was the prep cook. Sadie was a waitress, the youngest of the bunch.

If we got fresh with Sadie, she would say “Tsyoo”, or something like that. I have no idea what it literally meant, but the meaning seemed to be “go away and don’t bother me with your impertinence.”

Unusual Food Events

Lots of ridiculous things happened in the kitchen. Once, someone ordered a hoagie “hold the roll”. We looked at the slip then proceeded to fashion a rolled up conglomeration of meat, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce and onions that had the shape of a hoagie but without a roll.

We had a bartender who was a really big guy. He was always trying to lose weight. Back then, a lot of restaurants, like ours, had a “Weight-Watchers Special”, typically a plate of lettuce and tomato with a can of tuna plopped in the middle. This guy would come in the kitchen and ask “Can you make me one of those tuna things?” It was too lowering to his pride to call it by its real name.

We had nickel hot dog nights. We’d put out a steam table with a bin for dogs and a bin for sauerkraut, a pile of rolls and condiments, and a jar for people to put their coins in (honor system). We had to keep the supply replenished, which could be a challenge with everything else going on. One time, we went out to check and found that the rolls were all gone. A guy was standing there with a hot dog in his hand, piling sauerkraut on top of it, then slathering it with mustard. Maybe it was the same guy who ordered the hoagie without a roll.

In Closing, the Defendant . . .

Anyway, there you have it. I moved up the career ladder from dishwasher to cook due to a broken leg, a bag of oregano and the guy who made Aimee Mann famous. (Perhaps) needless to say, we had other encounters with the police during those summers. But we’ll put those in the “another time” category as well.

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James Kelman’s Fiction: Come for the Booze and Cigarettes, Stay for the Battering

kelman books

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I was reflecting, as one does, on why no one reads James Kelman, one of the great living fiction writers.

Obviously, this is not true. He won the Booker Prize for How late it was, how late; was shortlisted for the Booker for A Disaffection, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; and there are a few more prizes thrown in. You will have no problem finding opinions and reviews of him on the interweb. He is known for writing about working class folks, often in Glaswegian or Lowland Scots dialect.

When he was awarded the Booker Prize, the columnist Simon Jenkins, writing in the Times of London, called Kelman “an illiterate savage” and the book, “the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk.”

My response: Sign me up.

(Disclaimer: I will read/watch read anything set in a grim urban setting, and featuring a lot of non-action and people smoking and drinking (e.g., the early films of Mike Leigh).)

Here in America, the only person I can recall who lit up when I mentioned Kelman was a guy named Frog, an amateur student of Irish, who I bumped into several years ago in a local taproom. Which perhaps made sense.

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Perhaps if I was in the academic lit world, folks would at least know who he was. As an experiment, I took one of Kelman’s books to a recent gathering of writers, and asked the eight folks there if any of them had ever heard of Kelman. I got one maybe from a guy who teaches at aprestigious university but that was it.

This is not a survey, academic or otherwise, of Kelman’s work. I figured out many years ago that I was not cut out for that type of work. Rather, I hope to encourage others to check him out – he is a vastly engaging and entertaining writer.

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 Pictured at top is a pile of my James Kelman collection – minus duplicates and also my copy of Not Not While the Giro, his first short story collection, which I loaned to someone and never got back.

I would recommend starting with his short fiction, as it will introduce you quickly to his style, which usually features working class folks in Glasgow or elsewhere in the UK. Very often it is a monologue recounting a few hour’s events, which may be very mundane, voiced with heavy Scots diction and word choice.

Often the action is practically non-action. Here he describes drinking a beer:

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This then might proceed to an objective, perhaps a bit distressed, analysis of a mundane situation; for example, the problem of a dwindling supply of cigarettes:

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And from there, there can be a descent into more painful self-examination:

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If this feels like Beckett, you’re on the right path. His characters are more rooted in the mundane than Beckett, but exhibit much of the same wry rationality and self-awareness of their pitiful condition.

For Kelman’s short fiction, really any of the collections will do as a starter, but my favorites are The Burn and Not Not While the Giro.

His novels run the gamut from . . . I’m not sure how to describe the range. The only ones I would provide any caution about are Translated Accounts and You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free. I could not figure out what was going on in either of these.

How late it was, how late is a long monologue by a man who has lost his sight:

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If that’s not your bag, then consider the two early character studies: A Disaffection, about an embittered, isolated school teacher; and A Chancer, about a gambler. His later works perhaps break out of the “sad guy” milieu. I recommend to anyone (not just fans of smoke and beer) Kieron Smith, Boy – a first-person narration by a ten-year old boy:

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Mo Said She Was Quirky is a first-person narration by a white Glaswegian woman living in south London with an Anglo-Pakistani Muslim boyfriend.

Dirt Road, his latest novel, is a story told from the point of view of Murdo, a teenage boy, who has recently lost both his mother and sister, and has gone with his father, Tom, on a sort of bereavement trip to visit relatives in Alabama, where Murdo, an accordion player, meets a group of Zydeco musicians who embrace him and invite him to play with them at a festival in Lafayette, Louisiana, which leads to an impulsive run-away road trip.

In reading Kelman, I like the abruptness of endings; the absence of a mission; the obsession over small matters; the unlikely settings; the lack of smart observations by a narrator; the honesty of self-examination; and the discovery of drama in everyday life.

If your tastes run to the perfectly-crafted, overcoming-a-conflict, workshop-stamp-of-approval brand of fiction, then maybe Kelman is not for you. But to me his writing has a ring of reality and truth.

Note: All quotations in the boxes are from various works by James Kelman.