Ass in chair, and other wisdom…

The Smithereens. Courtesy Goldmine Magazine.

I spent much of yesterday following on Twitter the proceedings of ScienceWriters2010, the annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) being held up at Yale University in glorious New Haven, Connecticut.

In the session, Great Science Writing, Part I: From Eureka Moment to Book, several folks I know and have read (and others I have yet to read!) held forth on their tricks and tools for book writing, from Maryn McKenna (SUPERBUG) to Brian Switek, Laelaps blogger and author of the already-acclaimed and soon-to-be-released, Written in Stone.

But it was the quote from Misha Angrist relayed by organizer (and health writing hero) Nancy Shute that inspired a discussion that led to this post. Misha’s secret to book writing:

“It’s all about the ass in the chair.”

Angrist, as you may know, is fellow PLoS blogger here at GenomeBoy and author of the newly-released book on personal genomics, Here Is a Human Being. (Reviewed by here in The Lancet by Euan Ashley.)

Misha’s quote reminded me of hearing a similar thing at least ten years ago from Pat DiNizio, frontman and songwriter for the New Jersey-spawned rock band, The Smithereens. (I haven’t asked Misha if he was influenced by DiNizio – not well-appreicated is that Angrist is also a killer guitar player for the band, Sea Cow.)

From a book excerpt at DiNizio’s website:

A songwriter needs drive to have the ability to find the time and the place to make it happen. You have to sit down in a room by yourself and use the technique I call ‘ass in chair.’ This is to simply plant your ass in a chair with a guitar or keyboard, a notebook, and a pen, for as long as it takes to allow inspiration to happen. You have to work very hard to create the condition whereby you won’t get out of the chair until the ideas start flowing.  Believe me, after a while you’ll start getting the ideas.

DiNizio didn’t say it but others at the NASW meeting also shared strategies for shutting off the Internet and social media while ass is in said chair.

But after I pointed out the Misha Angrist/Pat DiNizio cosmic convergence, Nancy Shute asked me if this means that she too might be able to write “Blood and Roses” – Nancy is a Smithereens fan! DiNizio was fond of writing songs beginning with a classic movie title – he took this one from the 1960 movie to create one of their first big US and UK hits from their first full-length commercial release in 1987, a song that was actually written for another movie, Dangerously Close, that went straight to VHS at the time.

This Smithereens work, Especially for You, was noteworthy for me because it was one of the last two then-newly-released albums that I purchased on vinyl. The other was Suzanne Vega’s Solitude Standing – the one with “Luka.” I had not fully appreciated at the time the irony of this dual purchase as Vega did a duet with DiNizio on their album, the crushingly depressing “In A Lonely Place” – and that Vega had once hired (and fired) DiNizio as an office assistant before they both had recording contracts.

The Smithereens were not as well promoted by their record company as they could be and never quite got the recognition I think they deserved, coming up in the brutally-competitive New York/New Jersey music scene in the early 1980s and getting their first record contract a few years before the new wave/non-alternative alternative movement was broken by grunge in the early 1990s. The original line-up came from Carteret High School friends – drummer Dennis Diken, guitarist Jim Babjak, and bassist Mike Mesaros – who came together with DiNizio from Scotch Plains, about 12 miles away. Pathognomonic of EMI Records, I cannot embed the “Blood and Roses” video for you here – amazing since EMI pasted an ad at the beginning of their version on YouTube (if you’re gonna put an ad in it, at least let us embed it, you money-grubbing bastards). But here’s the link for those of you who don’t know the song.

Another killer song from this album was “Behind the Wall of Sleep” (video) – it ripped my head off when I saw them play live at the University of Florida student union in 1988. I believe that this title traces its origins to a 1919 short story by H.P. Lovecraft called, “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” that then became a Black Sabbath song with the “Behind” replacement ontheir eponymous 1970 album, and finally a bomb of a 2006 movie. In the Winnepeg gig account I’ll mention below, DiNizio notes being a fan of Ozzy Osbourne as a teenager but took a different lesson from him.

The band is still playing on and off although Mike Mesaros no longer appears to be with them, for reasons I still can’t find. Mesaros always kind of stood out from the other guys because he was the only one who had rockstar good looks and 80s polymer-product hair. I really admired his bass playing – I recall Mike saying he was very much influenced by The Ramones’ DeeDee Ramone.

Pat DiNizio with The Smithereens, Mayo Civic Center, Rochester, MN, 9 August 2009. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Jonathunder.

DiNizio is still very active and he has, uh, increased in stature. He also embarked a year or two ago on a living room concert tour where, yes, you could invite him to play in your home for a nominal fee. Here’s a link documenting his appearances in Winnipeg in February 2009 with some of his priceless stories.

Here’s one video of “Blood and Roses” that I could embed – from the living room tour last year – apparently backed by some folks associated with the living room host:

But this is how I remember The Smithereens roaring from the lab cassette tape player at the University of Florida while I was running alkaline elution DNA damage assays – they look like they were having a blast:

For those of you who remember The Smithereens – or want to know more about them – here are a couple of good articles:

Junior, Chris M. The Smithereens are still rocking after 30 years, Goldmine, 31 May 2010.

Matteo, Steve. Meet the Smithereens…Again, Crawdaddy Magazine, 5 March 2008.

Cahillane, Kevin. Not Fade Away: The Smithereens’ Monument to Persistence, The New York Times, 10 October 2004.

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4 Responses to Ass in chair, and other wisdom…

  1. mangrist says:

    Thanks for the shout out, David. I don’t know that “ass in chair” qualifies as wisdom, but if it motivates a Smithereens post, then I’m all for it.

  2. Aaaaaah … the Smithereens … that brings back memories! Most excellent album.

  3. Pingback: Sunday/Monday blogs round-up - 07/08 November 2010 - blog by Gurdur - Blogs on the Heathen Hub

  4. gregdowney says:

    I agree, Smithereens brings back memories of living in a fraternity house in the late 1980s…. hmmm… fewer memories than I probably should have given it was a two-and-a-half year period….

    But that’s not why I post. I agree with ‘ass in chair’ though in my advising to PhD students, I typically refer to it as ‘fingers on keyboard.’ It’s amazing how writing goes so much better when you actually, well… start.

    The other advice that I once got about writing that I try to pass on is ‘start with the easy,’ or, to put it another way, pick the low-hanging fruit. It never ceases to amaze me that students writing a doctoral dissertation batter their brains against the most difficult part of their work and then give up.

    Instead, pick the easy part to write and start there. Often times, the hard parts get easier, write themselves, or just go away. I spent a week working on a part of my dissertation that wound up as a ridiculously long footnote in the thesis that then wound up getting chopped entirely before it became a book.

    Hard parts of writing are sometimes hard because a) they don’t belong, and b) they’re impossible. For ethnographies, which is what anthropologists do for their theses typically, I tell students to write the facts first, the stories, the ‘data.’ Let the story do the heavy lifting of getting you into chapters, sorting out what belongs and what doesn’t…

    But it all starts with ass in chair…
    Thanks for the post!