Writing something that will stand the test of time.
That's what Michael Essington strives for when he's sitting in his author's seat, penning books like "Last One to Die," "Life Won't Wait" and the forthcoming "Born Frustrated" or columns for the Los Angeles Beat and Strange Reaction. And there's many more publications that have been privy to print the 48-year-old scribe's offerings.
He's a master of telling intriguing stories about his life, including fights, jail, hospital visits, family and ex-friends.
On the music front, the San Fernando Valley (a few miles outside of Los Angeles) resident has written for this blog about his favorite record store, knocked out the liner notes of the re-released classic Symbol Six EP and unleashed pieces for Britain's Deep Red Magazine on the Sex Pistols' "Never Mind the Bullocks" LP, blues, punk and Johnny Cash.
Here's an email interview we conducted with Essington:
* When did you first start writing? Who were some of your early influences to get you going? What was it about those writers that stuck with you?
I have written on and off since I was a teenager. But I’d stop for years, and then start up again. Nothing of any substance until the mid-'90s.
I’ve always loved the work of Hemingway, every page is him on the edge of a fight or knocking back a bottle of wine -- It was funny to me. And his use of language, he would use words like “to-morrow.” Writers like Richard Stark (alias Donald Westlake); I loved his very sparse prose. He would never waste 18 pages describing a character’s shoes. James Frey, the first chapter of "A Million Little Pieces" should win an award. I love Eddie Little’s two books; John and Dan Fante; and of course, Charles Bukowski.
I think what sticks with me is their voice. All these writers range from the 1920s to current day, but their stories are relevant.
* How would you describe your writing style? Were there one or two moments in your life that pointed you toward writing books? Tell us about them.
My early style, the style I was developing in my initial Mike Check columns, was described as great campfire stories. Stuff you’d love to hear over a beer. I’ve made efforts to polish my writing with each book. It’s a balancing act of improving the writing without losing the edge to the writing.
My dad passed away in 2005. I think that made me want to record my stories, so to speak. Family history is like a big puzzle. Each family member is a piece and each piece that you lose, the picture is fractured. The more fractured, the less clear everything is. The stories that I shared of my dad and the times together could easily fade away into obscurity if I didn’t preserve a bit of them. My brother knows some of the stories and other people that shared these experiences, but what happens when I die? My brother passes away? Will the next generation be focused on our family stories or will they think the next Pokémon episode is more exciting?
The generation that would sit with their grandparents for hours and listen to stories of the “old days” is fading away. The overall attention span of our culture has been shat out the window. So, basically I felt the need to put pen to paper and try to remember what I’ve done in this life.
* What do you get out of writing? You cover a gamut of emotions with your writing -- is it a catharsis?
In the very beginning, it was a bit therapeutic. Things I had bottled up, pedophile neighbors that want to hire me to do their lawn then expose themselves to me. I had forgotten this stuff, then slowly, but surely stuff comes out and into my books. I have, over the last few years, tried to be a little more sympathetic when writing about family. In the first book, I tended to blurt out anything I thought about people. Now, I’m trying to see their point of view a bit.
* What's your musical background? Who are your favorite bands and how have they affected your life, your writing?
I tried to put a few bands together back in the '80s, but aside from writing lyrics, I have no musical talent. There are many bands that I love, but I won’t say music really has an influence on my writing. I tend to get distracted by outside noise. I know Bukowski wrote to classical and James Frey told me he blares punk rock while writing. I can’t.
I play different types of music depending on my moods. For months, I’ll listen to old-school punk rock, then get bored and search for old '70s glam stuff for a month. I go through phases. My three oldest favorites are David Bowie "Diamond Dogs," Kiss "Destroyer" and Black Sabbath "Paranoid." I listened to them when they were released and I still listen to them at least once a year.
* What was your first punk-rock gig (what age were you?) and what was the experience like?
My first show, not so much punk as it was a little left of the dial: My dad decided to take me to a show for my 15th birthday. At the time I had been in the punk scene for about a year or so. Prior to that I had been into the stuff I refer to as the “gateway” music. Like they call marijuana a “gateway” drug, which, they say, leads to heavier stuff. Music, I feel, is the same way. Almost everybody I’ve ever known, that got into punk, started with Kiss, went to Devo, and somewhere in there experimented with Gary Numan for a second, but abandoned all of these groups the second they received airplay.
While my brother and I went through this gateway period, my dad would try to introduce us to “the originators” of whatever genre we were listening to. When we were into Kiss, he would pull out his old Cream, Bowie and Alice Cooper albums. Shortly after we picked up the import EP of Devo’s "Be Stiff," my dad pulled out some old Kraftwerk, and a really old Edgar Winter album. On the album there was some frantic song called “Frankenstein,” on it Winter goes nuts on the synthesizer. With the exception of the Bowie and Alice Cooper albums, we didn’t like much of the music he played for us back then.
My birthday rolled around, and my dad thought I would really dig Winter’s music if I saw it live.
One thing I can say about my parents is they always had contemporary tastes in music. Anyway, my dad gives me these tickets, and for a second, I didn’t know why, but I was a well-mannered kid, so I enthusiastically thanked him, and we left to go.
On the marquee outside of the Country Club, it had Secret Affair as the opening act. I had never heard of these guys, but with the name I knew it was something different, hopefully a punk band. We go in, find a table and wait for Secret Affair. As soon they hit the stage, the audience freaked out, it was as if a black guy had walked into a Klan meeting. Everybody was doing the finger, and screaming obscenities. It was crazy. I enjoyed them. They were good pop music (I guess that’s what mod is). They performed an old Smoky Robinson song "Going to a Go-Go," with an updated sound. After about a ½ a song, a guy who looked like a member of ZZ Top gets up, with his beer, and stands just to the right of the stage and held up his arm and gave the band the finger throughout the rest of their set. At the age I was, it made me like them even more.
Secret Affair, and all the other bands I mentioned earlier, all have one thing in common, our parents and other adults didn’t like them.
When their set ended, I felt sorry for them. Whoever booked this tour for them had no idea the type of crowd Edgar Winter attracted. I was the only one who clapped. This was my first glimpse of how enraged music can make people. Once I started spiking my hair and dove headfirst into the punk scene, I would encounter this reaction, pretty much daily. The first time, though, was very memorable.
This was my first “concert.” And it would be a few more months, before I would get to go to anything harder than Secret Affair.
* Does the music and attending live gigs still resonate with you as strongly as at the start? What's a current musical experience that moved you?
I think the last show that I was really impressed with was Volbeat. On March 13, 2011, my 45th birthday rolled around, and my brother surprised me with tickets to see Volbeat at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard. In case you haven’t heard of Volbeat, they are a band from Copenhagen, Denmark, described as James Hetfield’s favorite band. They are a combination of punk, rockabilly, death metal and a pinch or Johnny Cash. Confused? Don’t be. This is a great energetic mix of music.
Here’s where things get weird, not with Volbeat. Volbeat puts on a damn near flawless set. They did great versions of songs like "The Mirror and the Ripper," "Heaven Nor Hell" and "Fallen" from their latest album. As well a ramped-up version of Bay City Rollers "I Only Want To Be With You."
Now back in the early '80s when slamming became the staple of hardcore punk shows, it was based on the pace of the music, the energy in the room. Nowadays, a band could be playing a ballad and these jerk-offs will go ape-shit.
Here’s my theory on it: you get a roomful of people that weren’t loved enough by mom, and loved too much by dad (follow me so far?). They will fill up on booze, hit the slam pit with one goal in mind, “Goddammit, I’m going to prove to the world that I am a man!”
That’s great; if it helps you sleep on your tear-soaked pillow, then slam, ass-hat. The only problem is if I am tapping my foot, and you’re swept-up in a surge of homoerotic energy, and ram me during a slow-paced rockabilly song, I’m going to lay you out. And the beauty of being a gray-haired 45-year-old man is that security doesn’t seem to believe that I had anything to do with these guys laying face down on the concrete.
Anyway, Volbeat put on a great show, and as the show was winding down the vocalist, Michael Poulsen, said if anybody wanted to hang out he’d be at the bar after the show. So, the whole place emptied out except for, maybe, 50 of us diehards (hell, it was a Wednesday night), and sure enough at around 12:30, 12: 45 he comes over to the bar smiling at the turn-out. So, me, my wife, my brother and his girlfriend all get a picture with him, and he looks at me, with a smirk, and says “I saw you out there.” A little reference to me putting some kids to sleep.
* When writing, is there ever anything off the table, or do you lay it all out there?
I have, pretty much, laid everything out there. The only subject I’ve sidestepped is my sex life. It seems that, almost, every indie writer since Bukowski has felt a need to jot down every graphic detail of their extra-curricular activities. Not that mine are or are not legendary, it’s just that I have two children that don’t need to know what I do behind closed doors.
(You can order Essington's books on Amazon.)