Welcome to the online home of Edward Cowan (hey, that’s me!) and his literary projects, wild hares, and moments of ephemeral inspiration. Here you’ll find details about my novels, Unfated and Now It Gets Interesting. Also: drawings of skeletons and other creatures, many of them wearing sweater vests. You can also find me on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, and Twitter. Enjoy!
*Yep, I changed the title of this series to something a little less self-aware and cumbersome than “40/4/40: The Albums That Shaped a Life.” And so I give you: The Music That Made Me. Cuz I still loves me some alliteration.
When I decided I’d do little write-ups about my favorite albums from each year of my life, I envisioned grouping them into posts covering five year stretches. Then I started in on 1980, and . . . well, I got a little carried away. (Anyone who knows me won’t be remotely shocked by this occurrence.) It appears I’ve got a lot to say about this, the year that kicked off everyone’s favorite decade. So off we go!
One of the interesting things about rolling through a year of music is the rare instance when what you always believed about said year is confirmed. As for 1980? Well, I didn’t have any ideas at the time, being a toddler and all, but as I grew up I always sensed that this had been an odd, transitional year for popular music. The deaths of the two Johns, Lennon and Bonham, put a definitive end to the defining rock bands of the Sixties and Seventies, respectively. (Imagine all the people who still hoped against hope, even in 1980, that the Beatles would reunite. See what I did there? Imagine all the people? Thanks, I’ll show myself out.) Disco wasn’t dead, but it had jumped the shark and begun its long decline. Punk might have made a lot of arena rock sound laughable, but its inherent attitude was like a virus that burned out once it killed the host. Michael Jackson and Prince were coming on but hadn’t reached their titanic peaks. New Wave was probably the most vital form of music going.
. . . At least, that was my general impression. And hey presto! Scrolling through the list of album releases in 1980, I discovered it was indeed an odd year, one that lacked a single, defining sound. (As for a defining moment? Lennon’s murder, probably. That’s not what anyone is looking for when looking back on a year in music.) That doesn’t mean there weren’t a haul of good albums. Among many other luminous offerings, 1980 brought us a few contenders for the coveted title of Edward’s Favorite Album of the Year. Let’s reel off a few.
In the immortal words of Ron Swanson: “Don’t half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” (Though I prefer the term “full-ass” to “whole-ass,” as described in my novel Now It Gets Interesting.) AC/DC, above all other rock bands, whole-assed one thing. You will never be in any doubt as to what you’re getting when you press play on an AC/DC album. That monolithic style is probably why they’ve never been among my favorite bands. On the other hand, if aliens ever land on Earth and demand to know what rock ‘n’ roll is all about, I will immediately play them Back in Black. It’s just about the most perfectly distilled essence of rock any band ever made, featuring one of my all-time favorite song titles, “Let Me Put My Love Into You.” That right there is rock ‘n’ roll, boys and girls.
Queen, The Game
I love Queen, but their best albums came out prior to 1977 and thus, alas, fall outside of the purview of this little series. Any album featuring “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” cannot be ignored, however. (Not to mention “Play the Game” and “Save Me.”) Especially not for anyone who grew up going to roller skating rinks. And as long as we’re talking about Queen . . .
Queen, Flash Gordon
I cannot possibly sum up the impact Flash Gordon, the movie and soundtrack, had on my life in one paragraph. That deserves its own post—hell, maybe even a full memoir—which I promise to get to one day.
Talking Heads, Remain in Light
In the early aughts, I decided to blindly buy albums by bands I knew only by their singles. Remain in Light was my first Talking Heads record. I chose it because everything I had read indicated it was the most revered of their albums. I understand why in the context of the times; the band’s first three albums had a somewhat unified sound, whereas this one took a deep dive into African polyrhythm. For you younger readers, know this: in the Eighties, every self-respecting musician was delving into African polyrhythm, Caribbean percussion, and anything else Americans and Brits decided to dub “World Music,” culminating with Paul Simon’s Graceland. This was the Eighties equivalent of every Sixties band’s obsession with the sitar.
The Talking Heads had dipped their toes into the World Music waters with “I Zimbra” off Fear of Music, but Remain in Light represented the full realization of that musical direction. As great as it is, though–seriously . . . “Born Under Punches,” man–I like the first three Talking Heads albums and one that came later more than Remain in Light. (We’ll get to that later album by the by.)
Van Halen, Women and Children First
The requisite Van Halen album and mention. I don’t think this one stacks up to either of the first two albums, but hey, I’m in the tank for Van Halen, so they’re going to show up all over this series, even in passing.
The Clash, Sandinista!
If you don’t know the story behind Sandinista!, it goes like this: the Clash’s record label hadn’t wanted to release the double album London Calling. (Proving, once and for all, that record label execs are idiots.) So the band went in and made a triple—that’s right: triple!—album. That is trolling of the highest order, friends.
How did the Clash generate enough songs for a triple album? Well, to put it charitably, they, um, threw in a lot of, um, “experimental compositions.” Or, in the argot of our times, filler.
If you took the twelve best songs off Sandinista!, you have an album that tops every other release in 1980. But this list is about celebrating cohesive, beautiful works of sonic art—all killer, no filler, if you please. So I can’t reward the Clash for saddling an album’s worth of genius with an epic troll job aimed at their record label. Which leads us (finally) to Edward’s Favorite Album of 1980 . . .
The Police, Zenyatta Mondatta
I guess the picture up top spoiled the surprise, huh?
Here we have my favorite Police album. (Though it pains me a little not to crown Regatta de Blanc, which features my favorite Police song, “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.”) Basically, I love every single song on this record except for the first—which just happens to be its biggest hit and one of the most famous songs from the entire decade.
That would be “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.”
. . . Which isn’t to say I think it’s a bad song. More than anything else, pure overexposure is probably what soured me on it. (That, and the absolute abomination that is “Don’t Stand So Close To Me ’86.”) But that track always bugged me for some reason I couldn’t quite define—at least until I heard a quote from Steward Copeland insisting that Sting threw in the line Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov to sound intellectual. Copeland claimed Sting had never even read Lolita. (That’s some nice shade you’re throwing, Stew!) And . . . yep, I think that’s it. That line always irritated me, even as a kid who hadn’t heard of, much less read, Lolita. Its generic phrasing gives it away: here’s a dude trying to sound smart.
OK, enough about a song I don’t particularly like. Let’s talk about the rest of the album.
I discovered Zenyatta Mondatta (and the Police’s penchant for goofy yet pretentious album titles) during my high school years while working a summer job bagging newspapers. I had inherited a hand-me-down 90-minute cassette my older brother had made by copying tapes he checked out from our local library. (That’s right, we Cowans are pirates! Don’t @ me, RIAA.) Zenyatta was on one side, Synchronicity the other.
Here’s the thing about Zenyatta: I have an intense fondness for songs combining light or jaunty music with grim lyrical content. (Or the other way ‘round, though I can’t think of any examples of that off the top of my head. Did Slayer ever do a song extolling kittens and rainbows?) From an early age, I found this juxtaposition hilarious. The uber-example of this phenomenon is probably “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which details the depredations of a serial killer to a tune you can teach kindergarteners to sing. (And I have, in fact, heard kindergarteners singing it.) Come to think of it, the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” is a pretty upbeat number, too, what with all the fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fas. And hell, “Life During Wartime.” Damn, I love the Talking Heads.
I don’t think any band made more of these songs than the Police, though; few things tickle me more than finding out someone played “Every Breath You Take” at their wedding. And Zenyatta is loaded with tracks that scratch this extremely specific musical itch o’ mine. You’ve got “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around,” a bouncy little number about the crushing depression of poverty and the sameness of every day; “Bombs Away,” the subject of which you can surely imagine; “Man In A Suitcase,” which describes the transient, empty life of a man perpetually on the road; and above all, “Canary In a Coalmine,” which has to be the happiest song about hypochondria ever written. Add all that up, and you’ve got an album custom made for the misanthrope in all of us!
HONORABLE MENTION: The Clash, Sandinista! See above.
- In the Year of Our Ed 1980, a compilation album entitled Metal For Muthas was released in England. It’s most famous for including two of Iron Maiden’s earliest recordings. (Which is why I cared in the first place.) While perusing the track listing for the album, my heart seized up—for not only did Iron Maiden appear on Metal For Muthas, but also . . . TOAD THE WET SPROCKET?!!! WTF?!
- Alas, this is not the same Toad the Wet Sprocket we all know and love, but an unrelated English metal band. For one sweet moment, though, the idea of a compilation featuring both “Wrathchild” and “Walk On the Ocean” made my heart flutter with happiness.
- 1980 also saw the release of Chipmunk Punk. If you’re wondering whether a musical genre is dead, kids, always look for the release of a Chipmunks album on that topic.
Coming soon(ish): 1981-1984.
In honor of my fortieth year on this planet, I thought I’d do something fun and goofy and obsessive (three adjectives that describe my very nature): pick out my favorite album from each year of my life. And I’d nick the title of ESPN’s popular sports documentary series, 30 for 30, then throw a little Princespeak on it and call my own lil’ series 40/4/40. (Why? Because my mama always said, “When in doubt, E-Train, just do what Prince would do.” And that is a 100% true story.) And then I’d throw in a subhead that would make you feel just how crucial this task truly is. Something like . . . I dunno . . . The Albums That Shaped a Life. Yeah, that’s it.
Starting with 1977, I’m going to Wikipedia my way through every album released per year and determine which one I would take to that hypothetical desert island where we will all, at some point, while away our lives, stranded and alone but somehow also blessed with electricity. While I’m at it, I’ll throw in some honorable mentions and any humorous and/or random factoids I unearth. Sounds fun, right?
(What’s that you say? It sounds monstrously self-indulgent, not fun? Well—fie on you, sir or madam. Fie. Go hate-watch something and get off my lawn.)
BONUS! Once we get into the mid-Eighties and onward, I’ll also throw in the album that would have been my choice at the time. Which should make for a pungent mixture of nostalgia and embarrassment.
To start things off, let’s plow through 1977-79, a.k.a. He’s Named Like My Name!
The Beatles are my favorite band ever. And I think they’re (as close to objectively as you can get in terms of art) the best band ever. But let’s just say I was going to get a band’s logo tattooed on my arm. I would choose the Clash. In addition to being my second-favorite band, the Clash connect with me viscerally in a way the Beatles can’t match. The Clash’s music is the perfect mix of sarcasm and anger and intellect. It’s not just nihilistic barking-for-profit (ahem, Sex Pistols); there’s also something lovingly workaday about them. Just listen to “Career Opportunities.” Yeah, yeah, punk was this snarling rebellion against the popular music and society of its day. But take out the three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust song structure and isolate the lyrics of that song, and what do you have? Pretty much a conversation any two out-of-work blokes could have in a pub. Alone among the punks, the Clash felt real. Plus, Joe Strummer is the lead singer of my time-travel fantasy band.
HONORABLE MENTION: I couldn’t leave this year without mentioning one other album: John Williams’ Star Wars soundtrack. No, I never owned it, but I’d say Star Wars (and its score) is the one piece of art/entertainment that has had as much of an impact on my life as my favorite bands.
- In 1977, David Coverdale released an album titled White Snake. “Wait!” you exclaim. “Would that be the same David Coverdale who later formed a band called Whitesnake?” Yes—the very same. I wonder if any other solo artist has later started a band and named it after one of his solo albums.
- Also, I like to imagine the Elvis compilation Welcome to My World was directed personally at me, as he passed away mere weeks before my birth. Sort of a pass-the-torch gesture from one King to another.
We just covered how the Beatles and the Clash are my two favorite bands. But for the first third of my life, if you had posed that question to me—“Edward, what’s your favorite band?”—the answer would have been Van Halen. And it wouldn’t have been close.
Oh, every few months an individual album might have swayed me (looking at you, Hysteria), but though my eyes wandered, my heart never strayed. I would guess that I have spent more hours listening to Van Halen than any other band. Yes, that has a lot to do with the limitations of cassettes, Walkmen, and a kid’s budget . . . but I still love Van Halen. Their debut isn’t my favorite of their albums, but it unequivocally rocks. And Eddie Van Halen is the lead guitarist of my time-travel fantasy band.
And there’s this: I was named after my paternal grandfather, and I had an uncle on my mom’s side that half our relatives called Edward and the other half Joseph. Beyond those great men, I never met another Edward until I was a freshman in college. (It was an unsettling experience for both of us, let me assure you.) When I was a kid, there were plenty of Brians and Johns and Jeffs out there, but as far as I knew, only one me in my entire generation. So when I stumbled upon an Edward in popular culture, I was all like:
The three most important Edwards of my childhood:
Third Place: Eddie Fiola, a freestyle BMXer.
Second Place: Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie (more on him later).
First Place By a Country Mile: Eddie Van Halen.
HONORABLE MENTION: The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope. A bit of a dip from the debut, but nothing on The Clash can equal “Safe European Home.”
- In 1978, David Coverdale released an album titled Northwinds. Now I hope he starts a Celtic folk band with that name.
- He also released a Whitesnake EP titled Snakebite AND a full Whitesnake album called Trouble. Settle down, Dave.
Hey, are you sensing a theme? I told you I love the Clash.
Here’s the thing: 1979 was an absolutely loaded year for music. I kind of wish I could fudge things and shift some albums to later, leaner years. But I am a man of honor, so I shan’t.
Just look at these releases! Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Armed Forces; Van Halen II; Talking Heads, Fear of Music; Michael Jackson, Off the Wall; The Police, Regatta de Blanc; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Damn the Torpedoes!; Prince, Prince; Pink Floyd, The Wall . . . the list goes on and on. It’s crazy.
Aaaand it doesn’t matter, because none of those albums holds a candle to London Calling.
So here’s my shameful story of how I got into the Clash:
Year’s ‘99 and my trunk is raw/In my rearview mirror is the motherfuckin’ law
—Wait, shit, that’s just me riffing on “99 Problems.” (Don’t worry: Jay-Z will have his day in this series.) Here’s the real story:
The year was 1999. I had moved home after college. I was unemployed. (I warned you this story was shameful.) I was in the hometown bookstore perusing a bargain-CD bin. Two glittering jewels emerged from the sea of shit there to be found: Combat Rock and London Calling.
At that point, I knew exactly three Clash songs: their cover of “I Fought the Law” (featured on The Clash), “Rock the Casbah,” and “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.” The latter two appeared on Combat Rock. So yeah, I was a Clash neophyte, but hey, Rancid talked about them all the time and everyone said they were one of the great bands. Which left me with the question: Which album to buy—Combat Rock or London Calling?
(You may ask: “Why not both?” Ahem. I’ll just repeat myself here: I had moved home from college. I was unemployed. Pay attention to the narrative, people!)
Given the fact that two of the three Clash songs I knew—both of which are no-doubt-about-it classics—appeared on Combat Rock, why did I choose London Calling?
Because I was broke, and London Calling had more songs.
Yep! That’s it. London Calling, which I consider one of two or three contenders for the title of best album ever, only came into my hands because it featured nineteen tracks to Combat Rock’s twelve. And boy, was I ever lucky. Because Combat Rock, aside from those two famous tracks and “Straight to Hell” . . . well, there’s a reason it was the last Clash album featuring the full lineup. They had clearly already made their decision vis-à-vis staying/going.
Anyway. I went home, tossed London Calling in the stereo, and . . . was surprised. I knew this was one of, if not the, classic punk albums. Yet I wasn’t getting the snarling, three-chord savagery I expected. Instead I heard “London Calling.” “Brand New Cadillac.” Honestly, I was a bit . . . not underwhelmed, but taken aback.
My confusion built as the ultimate murderer’s row of songs kicked off with “Jimmy Jazz.” Then came “Hateful.” “Rudie Can’t Fail.” And finally, “Spanish Bombs.” For my money, this is the greatest four-song run on any album ever made. (And it’s not like the album dips appreciably in quality from there.) But it wasn’t until halfway through “Spanish Bombs” that I poked my head up, groundhog-style, and caught wind of what was happening. No, this wasn’t the proto-punk album I had expected. It was just a fucking INCREDIBLE album.
By the end of the year, I owned every single piece of recorded Clash material I could get my hands on. And that’s the story of how our Edward came to love the Clash.
HONORABLE MENTION: Of all those albums I listed above (and more; seriously, check out 1979 in music), I’m going to go with Armed Forces. “Accidents Will Happen.” “Senior Service.” “Oliver’s Army.” “Moods for Moderns.” “Two Little Hitlers.” This is my favorite Elvis Costello album, which I can’t say for any of the other artists who released otherwise awesome records that year.
- Both Cheap Trick and Bob Dylan released live albums from Budokan in 1979. Please please please tell me they shared a bill and performed together and that there is a bootleg of this I can listen to!
- I also like that Pink Floyd released The Wall the same year Michael Jackson released Off the Wall. I want to believe that was no accident—that Floyd and Michael had created the first two-artist, double concept album and we’ve all just been too busy with the obvious Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon thing to notice.
- Oh, and David Coverdale released a Whitesnake album titled Lovehunter. But no solo release. Looks like Dave finally settled down.
Coming soon(ish): 1980-84.
No, it’s not a deleted track off the first Destiny’s Child album; it’s the topic of today’s update! (Though if you imagine I’m Beyoncé singing these words to you, they’ll sound so much better.) This here is a little missive on the state of my writing as 2017 rolls along.
Back in the prehistoric days of 2015, I began publishing a little (actually: gigantic) series called Unfated. I decided to release it as what I termed a “serial epic.” Rather than drop one doorstop of a book on you every two or three years, I would unveil shorter books multiple times a year. Ideally, this would keep my writing tight, thus avoiding the dreaded epic bloat, while also keeping you the reader engaged and not spending years wondering, “When the heck is the next book ever going to come out?”
And it has worked! . . . Mostly. The only snag? Back then, I decided I’d release each new Unfated book on a quarterly schedule. Here’s my current, Spring ’17 update on that:
Wait, I’m not finished:
I should probably cut myself some slack; I did, after all, manage to get the first six–count ’em: SIX!–books out on that schedule. The last release, When a Fool Dreams, dropped in Ocotber 2016. I was cruisin’.
Then Book Seven came along.
She’s called A Queen Among Ghosts. And she kicked my ass. For half a year, she ground me down to powder and then snorted that powder like cocaine, granting her the crazed strength to kick my ass even more.
The good news? She’s amazing. Once she let me finish her off, I was left with one of my favorite books in the series. I can’t wait for you to read her. She’s in the hands of my capably brilliant editor right now.
That little lover’s tussle between myself and Book Seven made me rethink my “four books a year” schedule, though. When I conceived that plan, I was envisioning the individual books being of short-novel length—say, 40-45,000 words. A Queen Among Ghosts is quite a bit longer; she’s a novel, full stop. And Book Eight, Monsters Born and Monsters Made, isn’t going to be any smaller.
There’s not a thing wrong with that! Quite the contrary: I love where this story is taking me and my characters, and I’m not planning on shortchanging anyone—including you, the reader. You’re going to get the best I can write no matter what.
I could keep putting out four books a year if I adopted a totally cloistered existence. (Do they have Wi-Fi in those Himalayan monasteries?) But at what cost? Oh, only my job, health, relationships, sanity . . . chump change, to be sure.
More importantly, the books wouldn’t be as good. And that I cannot abide.
In light of all that, I’m changing things up a bit. From now on, I pledge to release Unfated books semiannually, a.k.a. twice a year. That ain’t bad, right? So: you’ll get A Queen Among Ghosts this spring and Monsters Born and Monsters Made come fall. Then it’s on to 2018. If this sounds like a bum justifying his laziness, just trust me: I’m not going to be writing one word less. Hopefully, all those words will just be that much prettier for me having the time to really give them my all. Pretty like Bey is singing them to you.
And on that note, what you came here for:
Thanks for reading!
And sometimes I find myself writing country western lyrics . . .
HELL OR ALABAMA
“If you’re looking for forgiveness,” she said, “I would recommend you go to Hell. There are devils down there eager to part with any such lie they can sell. But a human being can’t forgive any more than she can learn to fly. So I’ll flap my arms if you want me to. And in return? You can up and die.
“Now, you might call that trade unfair, but I suspect you’ve guessed it’s time to go—to Hell or Alabama, I don’t care and I don’t even want to know. Find another angel if you will, then beg her pardon when you stray. Just be advised that not all angels let a sinner like you slink away.
“For angels, much like devils, in Hell or Alabama, can be cruel. From Muscle Shoals to Mobile, down the Styx to fry in that infernal pool—you’ll find yourself descending into one Hell or another either way. And remember: all those halos and those horns, they all look the same when the bill comes due to pay.
“So when you reach Hell or Alabama rest assured you’ve found a home where demons and forgiveness and such other supernatural fictions roam. You won’t be the first I’ve sent there. Don’t think you’ll be the first to make it back into my good graces—for grace, divine and fallen, is the one true thing that neither Hell or Alabama claim to lack.”