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I see the shirt from afar, like the midway full of people parted just for my sightline. BLEED THE FREAK, it says in big, blocky, bright red letters. I’m not sure what it means, but it doesn’t feel right. Something about the violence of the phrase, the awkward but hypnotic syntax. The words worm their way into my brain like a song, bleed the freak, bleed the freak, bleed the freak.

I’m 16 years old, at the Puyallup Fair with my church youth group. It is 1994. It’s before the deep-fried fair food explosion — before deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried Snickers, deep-fried Oreos, and before it occurred to food vendors at fairs large and small to experiment with dipping anything they can think of into batter and then deep-frying it. It’s before the Puyallup Fair becomes the Washington State Fair, before I grow up and move away from Washington, before going to state fairs becomes one of my favorite Midwest summer activities, and before I’ll care at all about seeing the animals, much less them becoming one of my favorite parts of a fair. Largely because seeing the animals — the horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, roosters, and rabbits — is one of my wife’s favorite parts of a fair and one of the side effects of marriage is often your partner’s favorite things become your favorite things. There are, however, plenty of the deep-fried staples, between corndogs, elephant ears, and funnel cake — but also the Puyallup Fair staple, fresh scones with raspberry jelly. Then there was a fair’s worth of girls for a 16-year-old to ogle and teasingly push your friends into. And lastly, a selection of rides like the carousel, Classic Coaster, Kamikaze, Scrambler, and the small, two-person squirrel wheels in which my best friend Brad would spin and rock us back-and-forth so fast and jerky it would make me feel like I just might throw-up, though I’d never say that to Brad, not wanting to give him the ammunition to make fun of me nor the encouragement to keep doing it. More… “Name Your God”

Aaron Burch is the Founding Editor of the literary journal Hobart and the author of Backswing, a story collection, and Stephen King’s The Body, a nonfiction book about the novella that Stand By Me was based on. He’s currently working on a book of essays about music and growing up and religion and other stuff, THIS WAS ALL BEFORE THE INTERNET. He is on Twitter @Aaron__Burch.

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I am not a religious man, by neither temperament nor upbringing, but I did, once, come close to experiencing the sort of transcendence of the self that the world’s great spiritual traditions speak to. In my case though, it was not in a church, a synagogue or a mosque, nor was it retracing the steps of ancient pilgrimage or flying through the stars on a proscribed substance. Rather, my encounter with the essential interconnectedness of our selves and the universe came on a nipping cold March evening on the far outskirts of Ottawa. In one of the cheaper corners of the then-Scotiabank Place, now-Canadian Tire Centre, along with the rest of that sold out stadium, I would be moved by a three hour a set of stories and experiences that spanned the highs and lows of humanity. From rollicking, juvenile triumph to sober, resigned reflection and back again, with some stops for muscular calls for social healing and jokey, upbeat romances along the way. It was the first and thus far only time I saw Bruce Springsteen, complete with as many surviving members of the E Street Band as he could marshal, in concert. More… ““Walk Like a Man””

Carter Vance is a writer and poet originally from Cobourg, Ontario, Canada currently resident in Ottawa, Ontario. His work has appeared in such publications as The VehicleContemporary Verse 2, and A Midwestern Review, amongst others. He is a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Ideas Fellow. His debut collection of poems, Songs About Girls, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in 2017.

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There we sat, Mom and I, side by side on the piano bench. A mirror on the panel above the keyboard reflected our fingers, perched to perform. Deadly piano-playing duo? Not quite. You see, I had decided to teach Mom to play the piano. She was in her mid-50s; I was 13.

Perhaps a grade eight history-teaching project had infected me with the teaching bug. More likely it was connected to Dad’s second bout with cancer. At the hospital, the radiation had zapped his tumor. Now he was back home and had returned to work, but Mom and I were left with the aftermath of his life/death ordeal. We needed a diversion to keep us sane in this sudden change to supposedly safe routine. Besides, my music credentials were impeccable — five years of learning Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin on our pink Roxatone-coated piano.

“FACE,” I pointed to the white keys straddling the middle of the keyboard, “That’s middle C.” I followed the methods of my own piano teacher, Miss Garlick.

Every Saturday morning at ten a.m., I walked four and a half blocks to private lessons in Miss Garlick’s basement studio. Despite her name, she exuded sweetness and competence when her fingers flew along the piano keys of her black upright or black baby grand. Her pink puffy cheeks and short grey hair gave her the appearance of everybody’s grandmother. More… “Don’t Look Down”

Sharon A. Crawford, a former journalist, is a freelance memoir and fiction writer, writing instructor, blogger, book reviewer, editor, and actor. Sharon was Writer-in-Residence (2009 to 2014) with the Canadian Authors Association Toronto Branch, currently is a member of Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters in Crime, Toronto Heliconian Club, and runs the East End Writers’ Group. Sharon writes the Beyond mystery series. Her latest mystery novel is Beyond Faith. Visit Sharon’s website https://samcraw.com/ and her author blog https://sharonacrawfordauthor.com/.

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We started our “best of” practice in 2016, when it struck us that we were all pretty cool people who liked a lot of stuff. Most of our editorial meetings become exchanges of the movies, music, books, articles, podcasts, and tv shows we’re watching and loving. We have had informal office townhalls on Bob Dylan, Roxane Gay, and Beyoncé. We have created lists of the top female vocalists of the 20th century and debated the merits of authorship, discussed the role of fandoms, and every drama — no matter how great or how small — that have arisen in the past three years. The “Best of” post has become one of my most favorite rituals for The Smart Set. First, it allows us to reflect on all the material we’ve come across throughout the year and pluck those texts or people that really struck a chord. Second, it allows us to share that joy. We hope that you find below a few samesies from your personal lists and a couple of new things to binge.

  More… “BEST OF 2018”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.

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I knew Walden was a dangerous book from the first few pages.

“The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad” I read, “and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.”

I remember looking up when I read these words to see if anyone was watching me. I was alone, sitting in the English Resource Center, which was a small library controlled by the English teachers in my high school. On most days, there were a handful of students hanging around — all members of an unofficial clique of mostly freshmen and sophomores who liked reading and discussing books. This is where the literary magazine Savannah was cut and pasted together, literally, twice a year, and where six of us hatched a school newspaper in our sophomore year. Kids came to the ERC to read, hang out, think revolutionary thoughts, and practice our best avant-garde poses. There were several second-hand couches and chairs, which together formed a sad little lounge area; an adjoining office with a mimeograph machine, typewriters and filing cabinets; and of course, the books, which were displayed in several creaky free-standing bookshelves that leaned forward from the white-painted cement-block walls, threatening to collapse into the center of the room from the sheer weight of intellectual curiosity. The shelves were jammed with novels and literary nonfiction — some philosophy and history too — and the air in the ERC always carried a faint whiff of paperback, that mouldering acidic smell that any collector of books will immediately recognize. I had thumbed through nearly all of these books, discovering for the first time names like Hemingway, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. More… “Steal This Book”

Daniel Vollaro is writer and teacher of writing whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in Boomer Cafe, Blue Moon Literary and Art Review, Crania, Creo, Fairfield Review, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Paperplates, and Timber Creek Review.

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The best rock and roll performers have tended to make impetuousness a virtue. We learn of accounts of how Brian Wilson labored over studio creations like Pet Sounds and Smile for ages, but the more readily available go-to examples of rock and roll inspiration center on Bob Dylan leaving in a given take despite microphones picking up the scrape of his jacket buttons on his guitar, or the Animals nailing “House of the Rising Sun” in a single early morning attempt. We like the idea of genius rising up in one inspired moment, and we also like the idea of an artist being secure enough in what they’ve just wrought to let it ride, knowing that it is more than good enough — it will last.

Within the Beatles, John Lennon had a famous — or infamous — lack of patience when it came to recording. He wanted a number in the can, and he wanted to move on to the next. Better yet if it was one of his songs and not Paul McCartney’s, given their more or less friendly completion. Friendly enough, anyway, that they’d help each other out with tips, newly added bits, criticisms. For the band’s early period, Lennon was easily the most productive composer between the two. If you go back through the discography, you’ll see that he dominates. There is a shift around the time of Revolver, when McCartney pulls ahead by the same margin. The death of manager Brian Epstein in August of 1967 led to a big McCartney growth spurt in terms of handling the bulk of the songwriting and directing the group. Lennon, simply, seemed to acquiesce, which hadn’t seemed to be in his nature up until then. There was a combination of burnout, a giving in to lethargy, but also a change in how songs were going to be written. More… “Revolution Carnival”

Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in Harper’s, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, and Boulevard, with other work running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and JazzTimes. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Downtown with Rich Kimball, in addition to various radio programs and podcasts. His last book was The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, and he has two books forthcoming in 2018: Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls, and a volume examining the 1951 movie Scrooge as a horror film for the ages. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com.

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If you ask me, there were quite a few cringe-worthy moments in the movie La La Land but one moment especially hit home. Early in the story, Emma Stone’s character, Mia, apprehensively confesses to Ryan Gosling’s idealistic jazz pianist that she “hates” jazz. It’s probably intended to show Mia’s relatability for the audience, but this viewer at least winced with recognition. The fact that Mia eventually discovers that she likes jazz after all is less about digging the music than about giving the viewer the Hollywood ending they want. She’s not alone in her defensiveness when it comes to America’s music — believe me, plenty of people tend to give us jazz fans the side-eye whenever the topic comes up.

The sad truth is that all too often jazz suffers the same kind of casual dismissal that hip-hop, country, and EDM used to get before they took over the mainstream. Granted, this might be something only a jazz lover would notice but since at least the ’70s, jazz has become something of a niche market, to put it mildly. In terms of yearly record sales, jazz usually sells as much as classical music does, one of the many things the two genres have in common. Far too often jazz comes off as dated or quaint; it’s your granddad’s make out music. Worse, there’s an implied snobbishness often projected onto loving jazz — it’s a little like explaining that you prefer to spend your Saturday nights translating Hegel or making artisanal cheese. More… “Giant Steps”

Matt Hanson lives in Boston and writes for The Arts Fuse,  Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine.  His work has also appeared in The Baffler, The Millions, and 3 Quarks Daily, and other places.  He can usually be found in the nearest available used bookstore.

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In “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” Randy Newman takes some potshots at rock stars continuing to grind it out long past their prime. The joke, of course, is that the chief target of the satire is he himself. Although the cleverness and self-awareness of the song belie the indictment, “I’m Dead” invites the suspicion that in recent years each Newman album (to paraphrase the lyric) has tended to sound like the one before – just not as good. But Randy Newman peaked much later than many of his peers from the Woodstock Nation. Never having been a hippie, he could embrace middle age without embarrassment, and in 1988, at the age of 45, he brought out his best collection of songs ever, the rueful, sardonic, and teasingly autobiographical Land of Dreams. More… “Randy Newman’s Land of Dreams

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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No one would ever peg Betty Wright’s funky 1972 hit, “The Clean-Up Woman” as a heartbreaking ballad. From its first emphatic chords on an electric guitar, followed by Wright’s soulful delivery, the song is one to rock your hips — not rock your heart. Wright sings about taking her man for granted and then losing him to the woman who swoops in to clean up the pieces of the neglected fellow’s ego. Indisputably, it is a song about loss; it is also a top-40 tune with an insistent beat that makes it nearly impossible to keep from dancing.

But dancing was the last thing on my mind on a recent afternoon when I finally left my classroom to go home, the sun dazzlingly low in the winter sky. I slid a shiny disc into the CD player, and the small space of my car welled up with that bright rhythm and Wright’s snappy delivery. Suddenly, I was shaking with sobs I had been holding back for months. More… “In Chapels of Music and Steel”

Melanie McCabe’s most recent book is His Other Life: Searching For My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams, which won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize. She is also the author of two poetry collections: What The Neighbors Know and History of the Body. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Shenandoah, Sweet, and other journals. Her poems have been published in The Georgia Review, The Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Southern Poetry Review, among others.

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members of Blue Cheer
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Not all moments of musical awakening have to do with sublimity. The early days of 1968 found rock and pop music waking up with a kind of hangover from all of the psychedelic happenings of the year before, when seemingly everyone — even the badass Rolling Stones — went the shimmering kaleidoscopic route.

Something was due to jar everyone back to having their feet on the ground and their ears pressed against it for the movement that would play a role in defining the new year. Enter, then, Blue Cheer and its debut Vincebus Eruptum, the first heavy metal album in history. More… “Blue Cheer”

Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in Harper’s, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, and Boulevard, with other work running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and JazzTimes. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Downtown with Rich Kimball, in addition to various radio programs and podcasts. His last book was The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, and he has two books forthcoming in 2018: Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls, and a volume examining the 1951 movie Scrooge as a horror film for the ages. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com.

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