Friday, January 11, 2008

The best storyteller you've never heard of

It’s not every day that a new obsession comes along in the Funhouse, but when one does my first order of business is to share it with yez all. In this case, I direct your attention to an absolutely brilliant Podcast — or, as I’d rather call it, an Internet radio show — called Atoms, Motion and the Void.

The show presents the collected adventures and memories of one Sherwin Sleeves, an aged New England man with a distinctly Anglo accent who initially hauls us in with charming tales of his younger years, and then slowly travels into different realms of imagination and emotion. This is a pure radio experience — even though Sleeves’ exploits are highly literate, extremely well written, and at points blissfully cinematic, it’s Sleeves’ smoky, craggy voice that will drag you in. The man himself has described his tones as audio Ambien, but he’s wrong (although there is a weird relaxation that accompanies the listening experience): this is the kind of “theater of the mind” that was embodied by all the best programs in the Golden Age of radio, except that Sleeves’ stories offer a curious mixture of Jean Shepherd’s small-town American roguishness (and longing for the simplicities of the past) crossed with the trippiness of the best fiction of the 1960s.

There is indeed a literary side to what’s going on with Atoms, Motion…. Sleeves’ delivery may make the strangest things seem perfectly natural, but for me the show synchs up beautifully with a lot of the finest way-out storytelling of the second half of the 20th century. There’s surely some of Borges’ labyrinthine weirdness (how that’s overlaid over the Stephen Leacock-like homespun old-wordliness is the neatest trick of all), Pynchon’s secret societies with odd agendas, the identity slip-and-slides common in Philip K. Dick’s work, and most importantly for me, a connection to the extremely psychedelic and mind-expanding work of genius comics writer Alan Moore.

Sleeves’ stories are cut from the same cloth as Moore’s wild journey through religion, the occult, and the imagination in Promethea. The 18th episode of Atoms, wherein our hero truly transcends it all, is an amazing adventure that is akin to the final issue of Moore's comic. (The 32nd issue which folded out so that the character’s final odyssey formed a whole that looked like a psychedelic wall poster).

Sounds too way out for ya, is that what’s troublin’ you bunky? Well, the show isn’t some oddball artistic construct, it’s damned entertaining, and in a few episodes it’s also profoundly touching (and I’m one who immediately clicks off at any inkling of Spielberg hearttugs). I guess the most laudable thing about the whole enterprise is that the show is the product of a gent in New Hampshire named Sean Hurley who has had no fiction published to date, has appeared only on local radio in very short snatches (and that since Atoms, Motion has attracted attention), and is giving the show away as a Podcast to get his stories out to the greater public. Given that I’m now in the 15th year of giving my own labor of love away to the public (and trying to spread the material further through this blog), I have to salute brother traveler “Sleeves” for his talent and dedication.

My own encounter with Sean’s highly addictive creation came through the Ron and Fez show, a radio show (not heard in NYC anymore on free radio, satellite only) that gets lumped in with the “shock jock” phenomenon, but has had some great moments where one of our fave commodities, nostalgia, has reared its misshapen head (when host Ron Bennington did a Ted Lewis “Is everybody happy?" one day, I knew the show had a lot more going for it than was immediately apparent). Sean first appeared on that program submitting novelty tunes as Sleeves, the most memorable of which is a pulse-poundingly weird ditty about graffiti, "Mighty Horse,” that did have me wondering, who the hell is this fucking guy?

Sean’s Sleeves voice is fascinating — in pictures he resembles a dandified Mick Fleetwood, but he sounds like a cross between Long John Baldry and the aforementioned Mr. Moore. (when he ain’t writin’ comics, Alan does occasional spoken-word performances that incorporate music, are quite poetic, and completely tripped out). When doing his own, more serious tunes, Sean has the sound of the great barfly/absurdist heartbreaker, Tom Waits.

I do hope that Sherwin/Sean reaches a larger audience very soon, as his work deserves it. In the meantime, folks on the Ron and Fez msg board that discusses his work have suggested that he try to get the Sleeves narratives published (he offers what looks to be an independently published version of the play on the AMV site; also sampler CDs). I’m sure the stories would indeed work on paper, but the true way to experience them is to hear them “told” to you by the 79-year-old inhabitant of some place called “Marked Mountain” (pronounced “mar-ked”).

Sean intersperses a wide range of music in the episodes from the Ink Spots to Rammstein, Danny Kaye to Harold Budd and Brian Eno, and Beethoven to Sigur Ros (one of my fave what-the-fuck juxtapositions being a show that includes tunes by both the Velvet Underground and Eddie Cantor). The latest development in the Atoms, Motion… saga was a one-man play that Sean performed in N.H. over the Xmas/New Year’s holidays. I couldn’t get around to doing a road trip up there, but the reviews made it sound like the most appropriate visualization of his imminently imaginative flights of fancy: just “Sleeves” there at a keyboard, telling his curious tales straight to his audience.

The fact that there are well over two dozen episodes may seem daunting to newcomers, but I suggest these shows: episode 2 as an amusing intro to the character and his ramblings, episodes 4 or 6 as door-openers to the larger tapestry that Sleeves winds up telling; 5 or 7 for uniquely touching tales (and I am not into the sloppy sentiment that ordinarily surrounds the telling of stories involving kids), and episode 18 if you just want to jump the gun, and experience Hurley’s mindwarpingly good writing.

Go ahead. Listen to Atoms, Motion and the Void

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