Back in 2005, when I was working on my most recent book, ROADSHOW: Landscape With Drums, A Concert Tour by Motorcycle, I made a conscious decision to avoid including photographs. That was intended to be a personal challenge to me as a writer, forcing me to rely on words alone to carry the story, make it come alive.
But as with any big rock tour, or long motorcycle journey, there was plenty of visual documentation available — travel photos, concert photos, backstage snapshots, maps, memorabilia — and I thought that later I might put some of those into a picture book, the Roadshow Illustrated Companion. I envisioned an artfully designed, large-format volume, that would combine a variety of that visual material with relevant excerpts from the original book. I defined it formally as:
a Pantechnicon of Photographs From Performances & Peregrinations,
Accompanied by Selections From the Original Text of Roadshow
Lovely word, “pantechnicon,” and its original meaning of “moving van” seemed appropriate. “Peregrinations” is nice, too, simply meaning “travels.”
My buddy and Scooter Trash colleague, Brutus, was commissioned to assemble that material from many sources — personal photos taken by me, my travel companions, and various crew members, plus concert photos by Andrew MacNaughtan and others, and maps, backstage passes, tickets, merchandising, postcards, souvenirs, national park passport stamps, everything like that. Brutus would then deliver all of that to my longtime art director, Hugh Syme.
So it came to pass that Hugh was presented with a pile of computer discs and a couple of boxes full of . . . stuff. But he didn’t know where to start, and waited for guidance from me.
Somehow, I had imagined the Illustrated Companion would more-or-less assemble itself — Brutus would gather the images; Hugh would select the best of them; my editor Paul McCarthy would choose passages from Roadshow to accompany the pictures; and the publishers (my friends at Rounder Books) would put it all together.
Well . . . dream on.
In real life, I was already occupied with other things. In 2006, I started work on the writing and recording of a Rush album, Snakes and Arrows, which would be a full-time job for most of a year. Then followed the subsequent tours, in 2007 and 2008, that also demanded long periods of work and complete engagement, precluding any other projects.
And yet, in a way, the Illustrated Companion was being written and published all along, right here on this Web site. (Who knew? Not me.) It is obvious to me now that over the past couple of years my writing energy has become increasingly focused on this medium, and my experiments in combining words and images have been inspiring and rewarding. The result is something new for me — a kind of hybrid of books and magazine articles, I suppose, but much more immediate.
At present, I consider the medium almost ideal (the “almost” will be addressed shortly). Apart from the freshness of the concept, and the cross-inspiration that occurs when a photo suggests a tale, or a tale evokes a photo, the creative growth of each successive attempt was exciting. I would work on a story for as long as it needed, writing in the mornings and reading over my work in the evenings, with Macallan and red pen in hand, building, reworking, and grooming word by word. When the floods of red ink on my printouts start to subside, and there are only a few single-word changes at the end of the day, I know it is as good as I can make it. Then I send it to my genius editor, Paul McCarthy, for his input.
Every time, on every piece of writing we have worked on together, beginning with Ghost Rider in 2001, Paul’s attention to the small details of clarity and time orientation, and the larger vision of what he calls “higher-level meaning,” adds up to a holistic elevation of the entire work. After I incorporate Paul’s suggestions, which always surprise us both in how thoroughly they inspire me to aim higher and — at least — achieve a quantitative improvement, I submit the finished draft to the design and layout talents of Greg Russell, who makes it all “pretty.” Then, only a day or two later, it’s hey presto, abracadabra, mirabile dictu: the story is published, exactly the way I wanted it to be — or even better — and it happens now.
To an impatient writer who craves immediate gratification, yet with certain artistic standards, and at the same time preferring creative autonomy, that process is pretty much irresistible. I retain complete control over content and presentation, yet work with trusted collaborators who elevate the work, then have the ability to release a story or book review to my hoped-for audience immediately.
In conventional publishing, once you complete a book (and if you’re lucky enough to find a publisher), it can be up to two years before that book is a physical reality. Even a magazine story takes months to appear in print, and many changes in words and images can occur at the whim of editor or art director, and not always for artistic reasons. Sometimes those changes seriously diminish the pleasure of the original creation — the way I wanted it to be.
So, in a way, as I have assembled the stories and photographs on this Web site, I have unintentionally created a kind of “Illustrated Companion” to Roadshow — not as it was originally conceived, but in a presentation that is more satisfying, and more comprehensive, than I could have imagined back in 2005.
In addition, many new threads have been woven into those stories, including the theme of “roadcraft,” which I have described before as a title for a book I’d like to write, with the subtitle How to Work the World. That book is gradually being worked out in these stories, too.
But there remains so much more I want to write about — my ongoing travels in life and the natural world of weather, landscapes, and wildlife as I observe them every day, whether in California, Quebec, or Kansas. And there are still new subjects I would like to develop, areas of interest about which I have learned a few things worth sharing.
Cooking, for example, might become a new department on the Web site called “Chef Ellwood’s Kitchen.” Or sports cars — I have written a fair amount about motorcycles and motorcycling, but relatively little about cars, though four-wheelers have fascinated me since boyhood, and absorbed much time and interest in my life. Over the past year I have been forging a sometimes rocky relationship with a 1964 Aston Martin DB5, and it has engendered plenty of stories — at least for people interested in that sort of thing. Perhaps I’ll open a new department called “Bubba’s Garage.”
And maybe this Web site will have to be more of a magazine — with different departments that would cater to my own widely-varied interests, which I realize will not all appeal to any “general reader.” (I know vanishingly few motorcycling drummers who like books, birds, and cross-country skiing, for example.) Up to now, I suppose I have tried to offer a “variety show” — a chautauqua, vaudeville, music-hall kind of medicine show, where I present a spectrum of subjects in small doses, mixing travel, personalities, drumming, nature, snow sports, social observations, editorial commentary, and sophomore philosophy. It may be that eventually I will need to divide those elements.
In any case, even as it stands, all of that requires a significant amount of time and energy from me, and — to reluctantly introduce the pragmatic underbelly — it necessarily has a “negative cashflow.” Although this Web site is undeniably a labor of love on my part, my best work in any field requires help from other professionals, and they expect to get paid for it, even if I don’t.
So I pay them, gladly. But just on principle, I would like to correct that imbalance somehow — not for personal gain, but for the sake of others who might like to self-publish in this brave new medium, while at the same time being paid for their work. (This principle is not altruistic, I would stress, but what might rightly be called “enlightened self-interest.”)
That principle works similarly for me as a musician, in the way I consider my musical instrument endorsements — drums, cymbals, drumsticks and so on. Like the Web site, that area is not a necessary source of income for me either, but I feel good about setting a precedent that will ultimately help other musicians who are equally dedicated, but perhaps less well rewarded. Some of the jazz greats, for example, earn relatively little from recordings and performances, but can eke out a decent living with sponsorship from musical instrument companies. The relationship is mutually beneficial, and the artistic side of their work, and mine, remains unsullied by commercial concerns.
These people are my kindred spirits in music, and I have been pleased to discover that there are a few other writers who take a similar approach to mine in their Web postings. Recently I read an article in the New York Times about an emerging trend called Slow Blogging. Said to be inspired by the Slow Food movement in Europe, which was born as a backlash against fast food and to celebrate the joys and rewards of growing and preparing the finest food possible, Slow Blogging (loathsome word, but we seem to be stuck with it) is likewise the antithesis to the rapid-fire, semi-literate, compulsive texting that is so prevalent these days (anyone feeling too optimistic about human nature need only read the comments that follow any online news story — shockingly, appallingly ignorant and vicious!). By definition, Slow Bloggers do not hack out quick-and-dirty opinions, but rather deliberately take their time in observing their subjects, whether a morning walk in the woods or a workplace epiphany, then frame those moments in words as artfully as they can.
That is certainly the way I view my painstaking contributions to this site, but again — the missing element is income. Consumers are adapting to the notion of paying “admission” for online access to music and movies, but not for the written word. Journalists and authors are increasingly being marginalized, because if their work is offered “on demand,” the result is mostly no demand. In the digital domain, it seems that very few people will pay for mere words.
So, perhaps the only alternative will be for writers to try to sell advertising space on their Web sites — maybe gathering on a collective site, to better attract the elite few who want to read stories. By building an audience, writers would build an income, and that would be good. The model is not perfect, but as Voltaire said so wisely, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
As a Child of the Sixties, and a believer in Art for Art’s Sake, I admit that the idea of selling advertising on my own site raises the hackles of my sensibilities, but — “for the greater good” — perhaps it could be done tastefully. I was thinking about the PBS example, for instance, with a brief page of “promotional consideration” credits. Personally, I would prefer to choose a few select advertisers, like my drum, cymbal, and drumstick makers (fair warning to them!), or more whimsically, The Macallan single malt whisky, BMW motorcycles, Aston Martin cars, Apple computers, snowshoe and cross-country ski makers, perhaps book publishers for Bubba’s Book Club, and kitchen equipment for Chef Ellwood’s Kitchen, and like that.
And they could all give me free stuff!
All of that is only a thinking-piece at present, a possible avenue for the future (“I’m just saying!”). But whatever may transpire in that direction, the background of these thoughts is the story of the Roadshow Illustrated Companion’s fate — or lack thereof — today.
Alas, a few complications remain. In the past few years, while I was involved with all of those other projects, my book publishers became a little over-excited, and started listing the title of the Roadshow Illustrated Companion as if it were already a reality — including it in the “other books by” column at the front of the paperback edition of Roadshow, and even, apparently, taking advance orders for it!
Well, short version — it’s probably not going to happen.
Or, as may be clear by now, it is happening right here, right now.
In any case, I do apologize for any inconvenience or false expectations.
Someday I would like to assemble some of my “News, Weather, and Sports” stories into a proper book — it would be especially nice to be able to present the photographs with higher resolution and greater layout flexibility. Plus, with the physical reality of a book, a CD, or a DVD, it is always nice to make something you can hold in your hands.
But for now, here is where it’s at . .