The Problem with Returning Again and Again to Guns ‘n’ Roses

What makes Guns ‘n’ Roses so popular, even to this day?

On the one hand it’s surely their sheer musical talent: Appetite for Destruction is an archetype of hard rock so good that 33 years after its release few have matched it. But I think their longevity lies in the mysterious duality of lead singer Axl Rose, who oscillates between incredible tenderness – Use Your Illusion I and II are full of wistful ballads about time, love, loss and separation – and sickening aggression, as he rails against homosexuality and black people or dedicates a whole track to a ‘joke’ song about killing his lover because “she bitched so much; she drove me nuts.”

I’ve been trying to reconcile those two sides to Axl for two decades, floundering as I try to explain to myself how I can worship a man who yells “back off bitch” simply because, on another song, he can sing sweetly to an absent lover with one of the most beautiful voices you’ll ever hear.

Because whatever you think of a Guns ‘n’ Roses ballad – and I think plenty of things: I desperately love “Estranged.” I think if you took its chords, lyrics and structure and gave them to Bob Dylan or Radiohead it would be a widely accepted masterpiece of modern music – the presence of misogyny and violence is undeniable. That underbelly (some would euphemistically call GnR “raw”) pervades so much of the group’s music.

As much as I try, I can’t take one without the other. In fact, It’s only recently occurred to me that when I listened loudly to Guns ‘n’ Roses in my suburban bedroom, my parents may have been worried. As they sat in the living room of my quiet house in my quiet English hometown, what did they think was happening to their son as words like these drifted down the stairs?

Ya get nothin’ for nothin’
If that’s what ya do
Turn around bitch I got a use for you
Besides you ain’t got nothin’ better to do
And I’m bored.

It’s So Easy

I used to love her, but I had to kill her
She bitched so much, she drove me nuts
And now I’m happier this way.

Used to Love Her

I call my mother
She’s just a cunt now
She said I’m sick in the head

Bad Obsession

Back off, back off bitch
Down in the gutter dyin’ in the ditch
You better back off, back off bitch.

Back off Bitch

How on earth is the singer of those words the same one who sang “Old at heart but I’m only 28 and I’m much too young to let love break my heart. Young at heart but it’s getting much too late to find ourselves so far apart”? How can the same person who sneers “turn around bitch I’ve got a use for you” be the same person who sang so vulnerably in “Patience”?

Whether I like it or not, this is the true face of GnR. For years I wondered how I might reconcile the immaturity and the sexual violence of the Bad Axl Rose with the sweetness, sincerity and humility of the Good Axl Rose. As I’ve aged I’ve realized that transformation, like the caterpillar into the butterfly, was never the key that would unlock their mysteries to me, as if the uneasiness I felt could be resolved and the two sides reconciled. They cannot be reconciled. Rather, at the core of Guns ‘n’ Roses is the privilege that so many men, myself included, are allowed to hold the abhorrent and the admirable together at once.

I think this paradox is all too common among men. I hope that the generations coming up behind me are different, but if I’m honest with myself, I think I was a misogynist growing up – systemically, I still am – and that music like Guns ‘n’ Roses helped cement a worldview it took me the best part of ten years to disentangle. And during all those years – just like Axl Rose, screaming “back off bitch” one minute and “I’ll never find anyone to replace you. Guess I’ll have to make it through this time without you” the next – I was capable of extreme tenderness, too. I think of myself as a kind, thoughtful person, but I can point to extreme lack of respect at best and immorality at worst when it comes to my behavior toward women, and to the relationship that defined my twenties and lasted until recently.

The question isn’t how a man who beats his girlfriend – as Axl Rose is alleged to have done – can also sing love songs to that same person; the question isn’t how a man accused of emotionally abusing his wife – something Axl’s ex-wife alleged – can also sing lines like “How can you say that I never needed you when you took everything?” The question, perhaps, is this: why do we perform this collective gaslighting for men only, one I’ve performed with so many male heroes – hello John Lennon – and one I’ve performed on myself, in order to allow for the evil alongside the good?

People are complicated, we say. Or men are pigs. That’s also a saying. The answer may lie between the two statements, but what I do know is that I can’t think of a non-male Axl Rose. And if they exist, I am almost certain we don’t try to forgive them their violence just because glimmers of light peek through the cracks. Axl Rose wrote “Sweet Child O’ Mine” about his girlfriend – and also beat her. He sang coded lines like “I know that you can love me when there’s no one left to blame,” which sound plaintive in the context of swirling orchestral strings but are more sinister when you consider the context of their abusive relationship: you can hear the over-controlling partner in lines like “I could rest my head just knowing that you were mine.”

I wonder what the other members of the group made of it. I know that Slash has said of the racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant song “One in a Million” that “I don’t regret doing One in a Million, I just regret what we’ve been through because of it and the way people have perceived our personal feelings.” Presumably the hard-partying lead guitarist, rhythm guitarist, bassist and drummer on the back cover of Appetite for Destruction had no problem with the implied sexual violence of “Welcome to the Jungle,” in which Axl sings about his “serpentine” and boasts “I wanna hear you scream.”

Is Axl Rose a bad person? Is Slash? Are the other members of Guns ‘n’ Roses? Am I? I don’t know. What’s a bad person? How long after a crime should you be punished for committing it? And do displays of sensitivity absolve anything? I don’t know that, either. What’s notably lacking from Guns ‘n’ Roses canon, though, is the apology. There’s no “sorry I abused you” song and I doubt there ever will be.

That’s the thing that might make Guns ‘n’ Roses problematic, overall, or rather being enamored by their music problematic. There’s always going to be a part of me that wants to believe that their world is acceptable. I know it isn’t. But I am still seduced by the absurd idea that there may be a world out there where men drink and take drugs and dominate women and everybody is happy about it.

I wonder if Axl Rose thinks that, or just his fans. I wonder whether he regrets his actions. I wonder what music he would make now, if he made any new music. But still, he tours with the rest of GnR, singing the same songs. And still we cheer.


Album Review: Son Lux, We Are Rising

Son Lux’s latest album begins tensely; melancholic and abrupt chords vying with glittering and muddled arpeggios, with Ryan Lott’s sighing, tired voice. It begs to break its bonds, and listening, you sympathise: ‘Flickers’ feels like it’s waiting for the drop, for a kick drum to cut through the air. And when it does, the release is satisfying and sweet, though not what you might expect: there’s no great end here, only the imposition of a rhythm section that feels like exhaling after holding your breath.

As an opening track, ‘Flickers’ signals We Are Rising as an album that requires concentration. Across its nine tracks something more is always going on than what seems to be going on, and the depths that can be plumbed are plenty: there’s a rumbling array of tones, a portfolio of glitteringly fast melodies and slow emotional dirge.

Take ‘Leave the Riches’. A truly excellent song, it marries musical grace with lyrical depth. The recurring line “Leave the riches, take the bones”, matched with the track’s creeping violin introduction, its slowly thumping electronic snare, is incredibly evocative, invoking strong and precise imagery: “I’m ready to be robbed / I’m ready for your thieving hand’, Lott sings, confessing “I’m ready to undress. I will become a breathing man; / leave the linens, take the bones”, and the song’s quiet reverb, its smouldering mass of instruments, creates a feeling of drama as if the narrator, waiting in a tomb for some assailant, is in a grand play.

“Play” is a word that aptly describes We Are Rising. Theatrical and frequently performative – it feels like certain tracks were designed as mechanisms for different personalities through which the handle “Son Lux” could operate – the album seems often to deal in movements of a kind, with ‘Flowers’ alternating between mysterious quiet and overly expressive set-pieces and ‘Let Go’, with it’s combination of fast and frantic flutes, clarinets and string trios, masterfully rekindling the tone of ‘Flickers’. In a way, though it’s different in style, it shares its D.N.A with Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz: like the Stevens album, We Are Rising is coherent, themed, comprehensive, and expansive, and it feels like an “entity” rather than a simple collection of tracks.

That unity is a real strength. We Are Rising is a genuinely impressive album; there isn’t a weak track, it’s well arranged, recorded and mixed, the songs are beautifully composed, and the players are expressive and stylish. And Lott wrote and recorded the whole thing in a month; February, the shortest month, at that. The achievement is almost depressing.

Listen to the album


Every story is a never ending story

In 2016 I released the first (and it turned out only) issue of Right to Copy, a magazine about art and copyright.

For a little while, I also published pieces on the topic at the website selling the mag. Here’s one from September 2017.


Before I even came close to a word written by J.R.R. Tolkien I had created a world for those words. I was ten when I first read The Hobbit; but it was some three or four years earlier that I first examined the bizarre runes and thick-blood-red dragon on the book’s front cover, resting on my Dad’s nightstand, and began to tentatively map out what the image might mean.

For me the story of Bilbo Baggins began, in a very real sense, the day I contemplated that front cover. Though reading the book itself solidified the story, and modified preconceptions – after all, until reading the book I had no idea what a hobbit was – it was the book cover that put the world of Middle Earth in my brain, if immature, hazy and ill-formed. I can still connect what I thought The Hobbit might be (and therefore still was, even when I read it) with the aesthetics of two board games, The Key to the Kingdom and HeroQuest.

And of course, the story of The Hobbit carried on afterward: in re-reading, in discussions with school friends, and in the connections I made between it and other books, films, TV shows, board games, video games and more. I later moved on to the Lord of the Rings, began obsessively playing Magic: The Gathering, and immersing myself in the Final Fantasy video games series, and each mingled with each in strange ways. At the same time, I began pondering what might be contained in Tolkien’s Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales. When I eventually did read them, I had the same experience as with The Hobbit (and all manner of other things), as my ruminations and the texts bled together and formed something that, because it began before the book was even open, will never really finish.

While I considered for a long time the extent to which those early experiences conditioned me, trying to justify them through university study of literature and later as a freelance music writer, it took me much longer to realise that it was the artworks doing the conditioning. To find a link between two songs was not special; to see one narrative in another wasn’t a critical act: it’s built in. A story is always more than a story. It’s the reason that Reddit subforums proliferate with theories – amounting to micronarratives – about possible plotlines and unexplored recesses of our favourite TV shows; why so many people feel that, however definitive the intentions of its author (an example: Sherlock Holmes being killed off only to be brought back), a story is never really finished.  

A story endlessly connects with other things, whether by the will of the creator or each member of its audience. Jonathan Lethem has put this more eloquently than me, at least for the creator’s side –

“… consider the remarkable series of “plagiarisms” that links Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe” with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, or Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch’s life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.”

— and it’s no coincidence that I formed these opinions, as a boy, while reading Tolkien. Speaking for his audience in a letter written just before the third Lord of the Rings book was published, he wrote:

“It is, I suppose, a tribute to the curious effect that a story has, when based on very elaborate and detailed workings, of geography, chronology, and language, that so many should clamour for sheer ‘information’, or ‘lore’.”

And one year later, he continued:

“… while many … demand maps, others wish for geological indications rather than places; many want Elvish grammars, phonologies, and specimens; some want metrics and prosodies…. Musicians want tunes, and musical notation; archaeologists want ce¬ramics and metallurgy; botanists want a more accurate description of the mallorn, of elanor, niphredil, alfirin, mallos, and symbelmynë, historians want more details about the social and political structure of Gondor; general enquirers want information about the Wainriders, the Harad, Dwarvish…”

Authors build those open communication lines into their work; readers – including me but including writers as well – find them and create their own communication lines. You could imagine Shakespeare “demanding” information of Ovid in the way fans wrote to Tolkien; and once I’d read Dante’s Commedia, it was clear (at least in my reading) that Eliot’s Waste Land goes further than drawing influence from the Italian poet, offering up new episodes for exploration in Dante’s (and so Eliot’s) vision of hell.

Just imagine that Dante and Virgil are traveling through the circles of the Inferno, stopping to hear the stories of damned souls, and then they the first speaker in Eliot’s own epic: 

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee   
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,      
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,        
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,   
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,      
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

Perhaps it’s a stretch but for me, most of The Waste Land feels like the voices of life’s lost souls, now speaking to whoever will listen. While the first section continues on to the story of the hyacinth girl and Madame Sosostris with her pack of tarot cards, it closes with the image of the undead crossing London Bridge – a line that Eliot himself, in his published notes, attributes to Dante. The second section, a ‘Game of Chess’, presents the stories of several people to the narrator, in the same way, that Virgil shows Dante around hell in the Inferno; and the voices of other lost souls pepper the remaining three sections, both as direct and reported speech. (Phlebas the Phoenician, subject of the poem’s fourth section, is a famous example: a man who “a fortnight dead /Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell / And the profit and loss”). 

The Waste Land, with its fragmented allusions, references, and implicit quotations, doesn’t thirst for myth like the Lord of the Rings does but the Waste Land is a prime example of the necessary cross-pollination of art. In its own indiscernible, high modernist way, it’s a beautiful example of the “Isn’t there more..?” compulsion that seeps into discussions of Game of Thrones, or endless arguments about what would happen next at the closing of The Sopranos, or my own childhood connections between board games, card games, book covers, and their books.

Once I started looking, those connections were always there. While Eliot transforms the information he gets from his influences, he is looking to “continue the story” of Dante in the same way that Virgil’s Aeneid continues (and tries to better through retelling) the story of the Iliad and Odyssey, or in the way that over centuries, stories of King Arthur’s court proliferated and competed with one another for authority. If the Aeneid picks up where the Iliad left off, swerving the camera away from the Greeks and instead looking at the fall of Troy from a soon-to-be-Roman Trojan hero, then Eliot’s poem retells Dante’s wanderings in the Inferno but acid-dripped; barely connected, hard to fathom, without clear subjects or a sense of place. The connection between the Commedia and The Waste Land isn’t explicit like the connection between the Iliad, Aeneid, Odyssey but the connection is there, bubbling, in the same way that a musical phrase might recall another without coming from substantially similar songs.

People much smarter than me have written about the importance of those connections to modernist literature, from Pound’s Cantos to Joyce’s condensed history of English literature through a survey of its styles, which makes up the fourteenth chapter of Ulysses.  But for me, from very early on, it was clear that everything I read connected with something else; sometimes because it was intended, and sometimes because I wanted it to be. 

I don’t make that statement because I think it’s original, or because I read differently from others. I’m a casual reader, with increasingly less time on my hands for reading. I make it because, when I look back on those early discoveries – the presence of The Hobbit on my Dad’s nightstand, and how that story began; or my wonderings about the Silmarillion, based on nothing other than conjecture as I finished The Lord of the Rings – I remember how odd I found it when it became clear to me that, legally speaking, stories belonged to people.

There isn’t space here to discuss the way copyright law has changed in the last 100 years or more – for that, better to read Lawrence Lessig for starters – but it’s important to say that, at this point in history, we have authors whose work is blocked by law from being worked on by others, even after their deaths; even, indeed, when the author himself admits that his readers always want more, as Tolkien did.. In other words: the natural connections between works of art, made explicit by succeeding producers, is being closed like a plant yanked from the ground and being allowed to dry up.

Though authorship as a symbol of authority is hardly new I do think we have come to a point in which the rights of that author, economically, socially, and morally, are considered to be stronger than at any point in our history. As an adult, I understand, rationally, why this is the case; the child in me finds it completely strange.

As much as Tolkien presumably liked the idea of world building, and of connections between works, successors to him in his own universe aren’t given the freedom that Virgil had, when reading Homer; that Eliot had when reading Dante. While fan fiction set in the Tolkien legendarium abounds, the term itself denotes its own inferiority and (as with all fan fiction websites) is replete with statements claiming no infringement on the works and ideas of JRR Tolkien.

The child in me, now it can use fancy adult words, says: well, if no infringement can be made then what kind of legend is it? When Kirol Yeskov’s The Last Ringbearer was translated into English in 2010, it was already clear that it would never see a commercial release. Despite being a considered, thoughtful book telling part of the Lord of the Rings story in a new way – not unlike the relationship the Aeneid has with the Iliad and Odyssey – it remains on the fringes. This is a shame because The Last Ringbearer is exactly the sort of story the Tolkien legendarium needs. Telling the story of an orc company following Frodo’s successful toppling of Sauron and Mount Doom, it looks at much of Tolkien’s philosophy in a completely different way: painting Gandalf and the Elves as reactionaries, deconstructing Tolkien’s distrust of industrialisation; arguing that the Lord of the Rings is an unreliable account of events.  While I haven’t found “fan fiction” that matches The Last Ringbearer for quality, I believe – admittedly as a point of faith – that it exists.

Of course, there will be work that is of poor quality. But if The Last Ringbearer is considered a form of fan fiction, then the Aeneid is too — and I can reasonably assume that people think it’s not. Though 100 bad stories might exist for every equivalent to The Last Ringbearer, that trade is worth it, because something in us is always looking for more. Our basest stories exist in a pool in our minds, a pool that we each and all step into. We accept this in the works of antiquity; we appreciate it in works of academic bent; we should embrace it in “low” art as well.  

Something in me, and I think us, craves that freedom to explore. I want to satisfy that craving as I did as a child, looking at the book cover of The Hobbit; and I hope for all of us to be able to satisfy that craving as we did in the past.


Here, apparently, is a diary of everything I did in March 2016

During the period now known officially as ‘the proper big boy lockdown’ earlier this year, I decided to go through old files and do a bit of a clear out. Well, apparently in March 2016 I decided to try to log “what I see, hear, and read.”

The intention, presumably, was to do this forever. I stopped in…March 2016.

I have no idea whether my memories of any of these things are accurate, because I never intended to publish any of them. Diaries, eh?

Botticelli Reimagined | V&A, London, 07 March 2016

It’s rare that an exhibition impacts me on its own terms. I can remember only one, also at the V&A, about cold war propaganda.

Usually I remember an exhibition because of the people who were there, or the context for me being at the exhibition in the first place: a disagreement at a Damien Hirst show Tate Modern; an excellent exhibition on conceptual art at LACMA. That one I remember because, as I walked through the exhibition with my wife I thought about whether I would live in LA, enjoying the seemingly infinite expanse of possibilities that felt available at that time, on that trip, in that part of the world. I remember the art less.

‘Botticelli Reimagined’ I will always remember on its own terms (though it being on my 29th birthday does make it easier to remember). The conceit, that Botticelli’s pervaded our culture beyond the point of being Botticelli, appealed to my own feelings about free culture, cross-pollination and so on. And, thanks to the well-put-togetherness of the exhibition felt — well, like it was not conceited but true.

As I walked in and saw Honey Ryder emerge from the sea in Dr No, I knew that I was hooking onto a real idea; that as I delved further and further into the past, I’d arrive at Botticelli himself from the perspective of his imitators, and that Boticelli’s greatness lies in that imitation more than in his work itself. Because the exhibition went from the present day backwards, arriving at two expansive rooms of Botticelli’s works. To learn that such a master rarely signed his own works, and so were contentious, was revelatory to me; to see, in the opening rooms (showing the 21st and 20th century) many examples of works that unconsciously copied the Birth of Venus was sobering and exciting.

To see the vast number of copies produced in centuries preceding our own rights-driven, ownership-obsessed times was saddening, and a reminder of the role of the imitation in the art of the past.

I’d like to see the exhibition again but fear the impression it left would dissipate. Because I too am touched by the image of Botticelli more than the man himself.

Tuck Everlasting | 9 March 2016

I’d like to write an alternative version of ‘Tuck Everlasting’, in which Mae Tuck is sent to the gallows and hung for an excruciating period of time, unable to die.

The book would focus on the days following, not unlike Saramago’s ‘Death with Interruptions‘ in its investigation of the material and practical concerns around such a thing. How many days would it take to pardon her, since she cannot die? Should she be pardoned, given that she cannot die but has committed manslaughter? Would it need to go the supreme court?

Consulting Detective | 10 March 2016

In the first case, I sit alone at my dining table with a tea and pour through the newspaper, visiting every name on an elite list of Benson & Hedges Imperial smokers — the stub of one being found at the scene of the crime.

As I follow leads, I look at the board game’s beautiful London map, and try to make geographical connections. I visit the central cabstand. I think that the killer is, or is connected to Richard Camp – since he lied to me about smoking B&H. The newspaper tells me that, in a shooting game, Camp, Marlowe and Zobar were all there; so perhaps the murder is a conspiracy.

I love that as I tackle each case in this beguiling board game, the city will develop, grow, come alive.

Adaptation | De Uitkijk, Amsterdam, 11 March 2016

I went to watch this for the second time in my life, remembering basically nothing about it since the time I watched it on release.

At that time, I was very young and neither liked nor understood it.

I also remembered it as being supremely weird, with Nicholas Cage’s character having a doppelganger with which the film played to supremely confusing effect.

I remember leaving the film being confused as to which Cage had done what, and why, and feeling that the “happy go lucky” Cage represented something that I couldn’t grasp.

Of course, it is simply his twin brother – though he does represent something. Indeed, the mixture of the “real life” film and Kauffman’s own writing of it seemed much more elusive at that time but my adult mind found it simple.  As I’d hoped when I bought the ticket, ‘Adaptation’ has transformed in my adult mind in the way that ‘The Truman Show’ did (I was 15 when the former came out, 11 when the latter was released) now that the world has gotten big enough for me to understand the film. 

“You are what you love, not what loves you”, says Kauffman’s brother Donald as he dies. This is true of these films. It is true in many situations. Despite my memory, this is a great film: down to the infidelity, car chase and manslaughter that ends the movie, after Kauffman speaks of needing such resolution with both Donald and a screenwriting guru – something I didn’t understand, and found ridiculous at the time.

Now, the beguiling mystery of the Florida swamp (as a youngster I did not know anything about Florida) seems perfect. The film both easily and uneasily (the uneasiness being deliberate) blends the various layers of its adaptation together, and Cage is a great Charlie Kauffman. It makes me want to re-watch ‘Synecdoche, New York’. 

The Causality of Hesitance | Steleijk Museum, Amsterdam, 12 March 2016

I love this video. I have nothing to say about it now except that it’s hit me profoundly both times I’ve seen it and I’ve liked to find it once somebody puts it online.

(The piece was part of the exhibition ‘Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art’.)

Room | Somewhere in Amsterdam, 12 March 2016

I wanted this film to last ten hours. Nothing in it felt wasted.

And as Jack escaped the clutches of Ol’ Nick and ‘room’, my heart pounded more violently than I can remember in a long time. The mastery of the film, though, is in the hour that follows his escape, looking at Jack in the real world.

A very good film it would have been if it had ended after his escape; like an exceptional short story.

It’s brilliance is that it goes further, into Jack discovering elements of his world outside of room, and exploring how both he his mother Joy adapt to life outside their over-time-acceptable hell.

I could have watched so many more hours of this. I could have watched Jack’s sixth, seventh and eighth years, and if a sequel were announced (a sure impossibility) I’d be happy just to watch two-and-hours of Jack and his mother at home.

13&14 March 2016 | Emily is Away

This game is short enough to be interesting and to want to play more than once. So far I’ve gone through twice, and semi-tempted to a third run.

It replicates the feeling of being on MSN Messenger nicely (I should know), and brought a pang of bittersweet nostalgia with its accurate rendering of sounds, colours, and profile pages full of early 21st century lyrics.

The first time round the game, I found it a little conceited — and yet had read everywhere online that the game was “heartbreaking”. I didn’t think so but on second playthrough got more of that feeling — perhaps because in the first round I played as a woman, and had no idea that the game would take a romantic turn — and in the second played as a man. Not that a girl wouldn’t fall in love with a girl — but knowing that the “protaganist” would become romantically involved, and then playing as a man, brought back the pangs of pain that came with sitting on MSN messenger for hours, pouring myself into unseen women.

Because that’s the thing: I don’t feel sorry for the protagonist; I don’t find it heartbreaking. It just feels like both the protagonist and Emily project something into the blank space of the chat window — and get something in return.

The game isn’t brilliant. But it’s brilliant enough that I would love to see a fuller game from the same mind. It touched me, somewhere and somehow.


Kentucky Route Zero: a Play, a Poem, a Game?

Once upon a time, I wrote some articles about games for my wonderful friend Jake. Today, I just downloaded the “TV edition” of one of my favourite pieces of art ever, ever, ever — and it reminded me that, in 2013, I once wrote something about it.

Kentucky Route Zero (KRZ), the game in question, was developed and published over the course of six years, with the fifth and final act released in January 2020. To my mind, it’s much more than a game; it may not be a game at all. 

I reviewed the first act in 2013, for Scripted Sequence.



What I said about KRZ Act 1 in January 2013

Kentucky Route Zero, an unsettling point-and-click-plus-text-adventure starts with a wide shot, Edward Hopper style, of an old American gas station complete with a man-sitting-watching-world-go-by gatekeeper. It’s an unmistakably American scene, and a strangely constructed-feeling one. But we’ll come back to that…

The good

The game, being released episodically as five Acts, features:

  • Conway, a man with an Elvis quiff and a vague association with truck deliveries
  • Shannon, the cousin of a lady called Weaver who runs into Conway after he is sent to a delivery there
  • a straw hat-wearing dog (which you name yourself, from a few options) that I chose to call Homer.

Its story unfolds over:

  • traditional point-and-click scenes, where the graphics combine with gorgeous audio to paint
  • a top-down map of roads, which Conway drives
  • text vignettes, which are played like Twine games are, as choose your own adventure

This alone makes Kentucky Route Zero really interesting. Not because the mixing of these approaches creates novelty though, but because the game has these different approaches to better achieve its desired atmosphere.

In other words: its theme has certain aspects which can be more powerfully explored using one method than another, and the game realises that, and runs with it, rather than confining the theme to form.

If Kentucky Route Zero is a point-and-click, and if it is also a text adventure, it’s because it wants to express its story through an atmosphere; and if it uses both of these it is because it betters that story, that atmosphere.

The game

But it doesn’t really give me choice. Jake wrote in 2012 about why violence, not narrative, represents greater choice in games – and maybe he’s right, as Kentucky Route Zero evidences. Like many games, Kentucky offers text (description and dialogue) and then a choice of dialogue options from which to move things on. It also (both when driving Conway’s truck around the map and when in point-and-click sections) offers you different routes – but, almost always, only one route really offers advancement.

For example, in a key section of the first act, Conway and Shannon enter a mine. They sit on a tram, which the player moves along the mine shafts by clicking in the relevant directions; and depending on which shafts you take, you learn new and interesting things about the central story (not to mention some very creepy music and disconcerting imagery). About half-way down the first shaft is a turntable which presents new routes — bearing in mind that you must eventually escape this mine — for Conway and Shannon to navigate.

The 2D scene offers 4 new routes (2 on each rotation of the turntable) and each has its own merits (atmosphere, increasing context for the mystery behind this central story, lush settings) but does not lead to the exit for the mine.

Guess which does? The original mine shaft, before you took the turntable options. You entered by one route, and to get out, all you had to do was keep going right. This means that the other shafts, which improve the overall ‘feel’ of the game (and this game is about feel, for sure) are incidental, in theory – nothing to do with the move from scene to scene and the eventual completion of the act.

The dupe

This is the Kentucky Route Zero deceit, and it’s very clever. It makes you feel like you’ve explored a quite organic world, simply by playing on the expectation that, given the option to try a new route by using the turntable, 9/10 players will never continue down the first shaft and to straight on to the exit.

What Kentucky Route Zero does here is give you the feeling that you’re a frontiersmen, an explorer, penetrating possibly endless shafts with all kinds of options (in reality each is very short and offers a single set piece) simply by playing the odds; by assuming that the video game convention (how could it be the first way?) will lure you into a feeling of choice, or indeterminacy.

It does this with dialogue scenes, too. Before entering the mine, for example (and this is one of the most emotionally affecting little snippets I’ve seen in a video game) Shannon asks Conway to speak into a microphone which is connected to a PA that blasts down the entrance to the mines.

The pretense for this is that it will tell us how deep and sprawling the mines are. But it also gives the player a chance to understand, but also feel like they’re shaping, Conway’s narrative. Shannon asks him to tell a story: you are given the option of explaining your first delivery of the day, or your breakfast with Lisette.

All of these choices (at least for the purposes of the first Act) seem incidental, but they give the player a valuable feeling: that they are contributing something that could happen later. In his interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, co-creator Jake Elliott put it this way:

We’re thinking of it like the way that an actor chooses… They don’t necessarily choose the dialogue or the plot, but they choose how to inflect it and how to think about, depending on their method of acting, the inner life of the character. There’s a lot of construction that happens, creative construction that happens at the level of the actor in a play. We’re trying to put the player in that role.

Theatre has influenced more than just the dialogue. Walls of buildings fade away to reveal the interiors, much like the set of a play. In one memorable point, the camera zooms out slightly to reveal a new frame around the scene, with a band playing some melancholy bluegrass in the corner – to put you in the mind of a theatrical Chorus, perhaps.

The drug

What makes all this so arresting is this: Kentucky Route Zero has chosen its material superbly for its intentions. This is like playing a piece of theatre, with a sense of mystery and agency that makes it so wonderful in the way that (for example) the long, rambling cut-scenes in a Metal Gear Solid game — which is like watching a film in between playing a game — does not have.

At no point do you think “Well, this is all just prescribed to me” because it constantly performs these sleights of hand which mask that linear, game-like reality.

You never think “I have no power here: why would I bother?”. It’s too beautiful for you to notice.

The agency

Most importantly, though: while the choices you make don’t matter in terms of the action, and perhaps don’t even matter in terms of the text options you see later, they do matter. Also like a good book (or a good film: Kentucky feels much like both, or a halfway house between), the game brings choices from you, the player, and asks you to think; and while this might not affect what the characters on screen do or think, in terms of the options they are next presented with, it makes them as characters.

In the opening shots, when you are asked to log-in to a computer and give a password, Conway is asked to pick three lines of poetry, three times: and whatever you choose, the password is accepted. Some might call that prescriptive. But, won’t my Conway be a different person from your Conway, depending on the poem that you get him to answer?

Maybe Kentucky Route Zero is also a bit like a great poem in that, in its combination of mystery, story, atmosphere and sound, it goes some way towards poesis.



Like that, did ya? Get in touch and I’ll tell you about the vegan Cincinnati chili I made recently. I decided to publish it, like my demo of the song Brook and an old short story that never got published, because I want to clear my brain of old things and start something new by the time I’m allowed out of my COVID-19-sanctioned imprisonment. 


‘Brook’ is a song I’ve tried to record 5,000 times since 2007

And now you can listen to another version of it!

Wait what the fuck is this?

Once upon a time, I thought I’d solve my problems by becoming a rock star.

(I still think that.)

But as the years have passed by and I’ve settled my sights on more achievable straw men (corporate management responsibilities, writing a novel, going on holiday), I’ve let music slip away a little.

In February, though, a good friend of mine set up Demo Club, in which a small group of us are “nudged over cliffs of their own making.”

From the friend:

I spend my life farting around on a guitar and write a lot of semi-songs that only live in my head. It would be good if someone hassled me to push myself further, and I have a hunch that others might feel the same.

Well, I write semi-songs too. Many of them, in fact, going back to about 2003. Over and over and over.

‘Brook’ is one such song. Lyrically it has a weird history and, 13 years on, I am still proud of the words. It’s a song about a sort of national park I found with a friend, the night after somebody I was very close with had suffered the death of their father.

I hadn’t slept and reluctantly sent her off to drive the 3-hour drive back to her family home. She, of course, had slept even less.

When my friend and I – not the one who had lost someone, but the one who took me driving that day – found that scenery, it felt enchanted. In my memory, it still does: silent, and with imposing and beautiful trees. I don’t remember seeing anybody else there at all. And to this day, neither of are quite sure where we drove. Nor can we find the spot on the map, since we just drove ‘somewhere’. Which was the point.

And the recording?

Since then I’ve recorded ‘Brook’ many times (the name is a silly reference to the phrase “brook no argument”, and also a reference to the babbling brooks I remember seeing at the park), but three distinct recordings stand out. One is similar to this demo but with a friend of mine playing the chords on piano, another adding drums. Possibly, in fact, the skeleton of the song came via the piano and were my friend’s.

A later version uses looped guitars, and no piano. A final demo, which I submitted to the first Demo Club, mixes the three approaches.

As for the version here: I recorded it in one take and didn’t do much beyond adding reverb and panning.

Such as it is, it’s a tiny exercise in letting go. I do not like my voice, and I struggle with perfectionism. My voice also needs to get better; giving it exposure may motivate me to improve.

As for perfectionism? Well, in a small way, putting out something unfinished should remind me that nobody in the world cares as much as I do about whether this is good.

So there we are. Here you are, maybe. Here I am, certainly.


The Mindful Ledger: editing zen

Published in November 2018.


Looking for New York at the Lewis Family Holiday Show (2018)

December 23, 2018, New York City.

The Sidewalk Cafe, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is right across from where Jeffrey Lewis grew up. He tells this to the crowd watching him in the small back room of the bar, the majority of that crowd being made up of his own family — his parents, brother, uncle, cousins and many more Lewises — and they know this.

I did not know this. Perhaps the 10 or 15 other non-family members in the audience didn’t either.

I will learn a lot about Jeffrey across this holiday show, which begins with two songs from him and continues through various permutations of ‘Lewis’, including his brother (and often band mate) Jack, their father, their uncle — aka Professor Louie — and various cousins by blood and by marriage.

By any measure, the concert is eclectic: the Professor raps, without music, on the class struggle and white privilege; Jeffrey’s cousin Shana, who runs an organic farm with her husband in Upstate New York (we are told), plays instrumental electric guitar along with said husband; Jack Lewis plays his bass with a drum machine in accompaniment , singing rock-ish songs about his life in Portland, and complains that he is rarely able to be in town fo the annual reunion. Jeff and Jack’s father covers famous blues standards.

Familial connections aside, the set becomes more bizarre as it continues, from a half-spoken, half-sung song and dance for children performed by a school teacher, to a stand up set from Colbert collaborator Jordan Carlos.

At one time, the main performers take to the stage together for a rendition of ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill’, a song in tribute to the protest singer. Before the ensemble begins, Professor Louie gives a brief rundown of Hill’s life and work, including Hill’s importance to the American labor movement. And in the run up to the number, he does the same for Perry Robinson, a relative of the family and a world-renowned avant-garde clarinetist who had died a few weeks earlier and whose compositions Jeffrey Lewis has been using as the ‘hold’ music between performances.

It’s a strange window into the artistic world, this show, and one that suits the most famous Lewis’ music perfectly. His songs, I suspect through both natural expression and design, are highly self-referential and often biographical. The presence of his family members, the stories they tell and the ones he tells about them, augment and enhance his already colorful musical stories.

In ‘What I Love Most About England is the Food’, his opening song of the night, for example, Jeff explains that it was written in response to his own father’s worry that it must have been horrible to tour there because the food is so bad. Later, he plays ‘Sad Screaming Old Man’, a song about his next door neighbor. When he introduces it as such, many of his family members knowingly laugh.

I am less in the know, of course, but this sense of just-in-reach authenticity lends the night a sort of hyperreality that brings the evening to life. Because for me, for many years, the New York of Lewis’ songs existed as a New York of the mind. As I sat in the Sidewalk Cafe in a casual room, on a casual Sunday, amidst casual musical brilliance, I was put in mind of the the almost haphazard quality that I associate with the city, from Duke Ellington, to the Velvet Underground, to Kool Herc, to Bob Dylan.

This is the sentiment Lewis, and the free peep show that is the Lewis Family Concert, conjures in me: a window is opened into the city in which I live, and the window — because there is still glass, after all — looks on a romantic view of New York’s do-it-yourselfness that has become both more real and more imagined now that the concert is finished.

Jeff Lewis, for his own part, summarized that fact-fiction balance succinctly back in 2001. “Life is a story,” he sang. “Don’t you doubt.”


‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Commits the Crime of Being Fiction

On December 26th I left Mary Queen of Scots feeling pretty chuffed. It wasn’t the best film I’d ever seen, sure, but it was beautifully shot, and its treatment of its two great symbols, and two women in power — the aforementioned Mary, and Queen Elizabeth I — was inspiring enough.

And sure, it’s true that the overtly modern application of female power is likely ‘inaccurate’. The manner in which Mary, espouses it in words and deeds, and the manner of Elizabeth’s ruefully contemplates of the matter (more than once she refers to the crown having made her a man, in order for her to rule it: I’m reminded of Amis’ claim that Thatcher was not actually a woman ruler) are surely not very 16th century.

Of course, I wasn’t there. But I can assume.

Assumptions were not good enough for the couple to my right, though, who left New York’s Paris Theater disgruntled, and would no doubt remain so over their too-expensive drink that they would inevitably order at their inevitable destination on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“That was absurd,” said the man. “Very progressive.”

(My rage withheld, I  accepted that both of these judgements could be complimentary).

“What do you mean progressive?” asked his partner.

“Well, the whole film was very 21st century. It was all very modern.”

“Yes, that’s true, and I do wish it had given us more of the history.”

Defeated, I realized that the man was right. I checked my phone and it was the 21st century. British period drama, foiled again!

I sank into my seat. Mary Queen of Scots had fallen into the trap, so easy to avoid but so often fallen into, of being art.

Its 10/10 review, there for the taking, was to be withdrawn because the film did not simply read aloud a series of firsthand accounts and essays by later historians.

How could the makers be so stupid? Everybody knows that depictions of historical period not only must but always are completely and utterly faithful to the language, style, philosophy and subject matter of their time.

And then I remembered Shakespeare…

I bet the man watched Shakespeare. I bet he loved Shakespeare. And all the bard’s plays, they used historical material as a catalyst for contemporary discussions. Henry V didn’t depict a historical Henry V. Hamlet probably has little to do with a real former Prince of Denmark. And Henry VIII? Well that was actually all about the legacy of a lady who is barely a baby in the play and had died a decade earlier: one Queen Elizabeth I.

I’d got them! This was perfect, the ultimate riposte, I just had to tap him on the shoulder and…

But they were gone.


Doctor Who is a Woman and A Frog Talks and That is All Fine

Here follows a very personal Doctor Who season recap. Be warned. I might as well be chatting to my therapist.

Feeling warned? Okay, cool.

I Am Not a Doctor Who Expert

I watched a lot of Doctor Who as a child, and I’ve watched a little less as an adult.

Yes, I tuned in enthusiastically for ‘New Who’ back in 2005, when I was just 18. And I’ve dipped in every time a new Doctor is cast.

Last year, partly in anticipation of the showrunner switch (a regeneration of its own, from Steven Moffat to Chris Chibnell) and out of a The Thick of It-shaped fondness for Peter Capalidi, I watched all of his Doctor’s seasons back to back.

But I’ve never been that turned on by ‘new Who’. I am not the first to suggest this, of course, but its casting of the Doctor as a sort of super hero god never felt right, and while I have no problem with a love interest (do you really think Ive never fantasized about the Doctor?), it  seemed to be on his terms.

Like this string of women (never a man, as far as I saw) were trying to hook up with a celebrity who was a bit too good for them.

Capaldi, both in his treatment of the character and the way he was written, rowed a lot of that back. And so I was excited, tremendously excited in fact, to see how Chibnell – creator of the excellent Broadchurch – would handle the Doctor mythology. I was especially excited when he cast Jodie Whittaker, both because she had been so incredible in Broadchurch and because she is a woman.

(Yep, I’m not going to pretend that I wouldn’t have been excited by any woman).

And Cor, isn’t it Excellent?

From the off, Chibnall’s Doctor Who felt totally different from the seasons before it.

There has been much criticism that series 11’s ensemble cast — the Doctor travels with three companions, none of whom seem sexually interested in her, nor worship her, though she and Yaz seem to flirt in a casual way — draws attention away from the brilliance of the Doctor but this is exactly what I liked.

The Doctor is barely the focus. A wonderful character, certainly. The leader of the group, for sure. But not a super hero.

From Caper to Caper

When I have watched New Who, I’ve found that the season-long story arcs really tire me out. With the exception of David Tennant’s second series, and its gradual teasing into the narrative of the Doctor’s arch nemesis The Master, they each felt labored to the point of overshadowing individual stories.

While the latest series has an arc of a sort (certainly, it has a call back; a conceit that suggests a continuity that is not really there), it is primarily made up of standalone adventures and it is also largely very lighthearted.

This allowed the series to pause for breath far more astutely than in previous years, without the need for prologues or codas. Some of the best Doctor Who episodes since its return have been strong, standalone stories, each of which could have been written without connections to larger story arcs.

(Think ‘Heaven Sent‘, a sort of puzzle adventure; the universally praised creeper, ‘Blink‘; or the dark and moody Second World War two-parter, ‘The Empty Child‘ and ‘The Doctor Dances’).

Under Chibnall, there has been a clear focus on these strong, contained narratives. From ‘Kerblam!’, the superb critique of modern conveniences like Amazon, to the slightly comedic ‘Witchfinders’ with Alan Cummings’ excellent portrayal of King James I, the series has remained light, somewhat wry, and highly effective.

“Caper” is the only word for a lot of these self-contained stories this season. A decidedly old-style word, now, for a supposedly super modern (why must a woman be, by definition, ”too modern”?) iteration of a beloved character, show, and formula.

It is Also Absurd

For my money, the best episode by far ended with the Doctor talking to a whole anti-universe that manifested itself as a frog with the voice of a pensioner from Sheffield.

Many people were outraged by this, since it appeared to lack gravitas and poked fun at the seriousness of protecting the universe during intergalactic time travel.

To my mind, it was perfect: Chibnell, it seems, has decided to take Doctor Who in as many new directions as he possibly could — perhaps aware that, after casting a woman as the Doctor, certain people were going to hate whatever he made, so why the hell not change everything?

And so he moved to an ensemble cast, he made heavy-handed allusions to the stupidity of Brexit, he turned the show back into something that works for kids, and made certain political points about civil rights via stories about the partition of India and Rosa Parks.

And, he put a universe inside a frog. Because let’s all remember that some SF/Fantasy is very serious indeed, and is all the better for it, and some is whimsical (cf. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) and is all the better for that as well.

Doctor Who has been running, on and off, since 1963. It’s had plenty of time to try plenty of things (which it has) and it will have plenty of time to try plenty more.

I, for one, am grateful for all that this latest series brought: from its occasional absurdity, to its occasional gravity, to its occasional political commentary.

I feel like the kid who fell in love with Tom Baker’s Doctor, all over again. And that is a very nice feeling indeed.