20 Questions: James McManus

James McManus is one of those writers who can write about any topic and no matter the subject, and you'll be hooked. But you don’t have to be a gambler to get caught up in the thrill of Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker. He hooks us here at PopMatters 20 Questions.

James McManus is one of those writers who can write about any topic and no matter the subject, and you'll be hooked. He’s got that ‘knack’ for turning out a good story. Apparently, that ‘knack’ works at the poker table, too, as a $10k advance on his latest book paid out almost $250k in wins during his (ahem) research. You don’t have to be a gambler to get caught up in the thrill of Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker (Picador, September 2010, excerpted here on PopMatters)

In addition to his books of non-fiction, fiction and poetry, watch for his byline in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Harper's Magazine, Esquire, a The New Yorker and others.

Book: Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker

Author: James McManus

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: 2010-09

Format: Paperback

Length: 608 pages

Image: The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Sam Lipsyte's The Ask made me cry with laughter about 25 times.

2. The fictional character most like you?

The unnamed narrator of Stuart Dybek's "Pet Milk" has, like me, reached late middle age and begun to look back on his youth, especially his 21-year-old self, kind of jealously.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Can't narrow it down to one, especially with so many different kinds of music to choose from, but the ten greatest white-boy rock albums ever are 1. Sticky Fingers 2. Let It Bleed 3. Modern Times 4. If I Should Fall From Grace With God 5. Rain Dogs 6. Elephant 7. In Utero 8. Time Out of Mind 9. Get Behind Me Satan 10. (tie) Gasoline Alley and 8 Mile.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Most assuredly, neither.

5. Your ideal brain food?

The New York Times, New Yorker, New York Review of Books, Google, and the books on my nightstand.(Right now it's Anna Karenina, Dybek's The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed with Magellan, Denis Johnson's Angels and Jesus' Son, Munro's Runaway and Open Secrets, Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace --all being read both for pleasure and in preparation for teaching at SAIC [The School of the Art Institute of Chicago] next semester.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

Teaching young writers and readers for the last 37 years, including Beth Kohl, David Sedaris, Anchee Min, Baird Harper, Adam Novy, Eileen Favorite, Kyle Beachy, Samantha Peale and Zach Dodson.

7. You want to be remembered for...?

One or two of my books, TBD by whoever's still reading in 2110.

Book: Physical: An American Checkup

Author: James McManus

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: 2006-12

Format: Paperback

Length: 272 pages

Image: Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

Tolstoy (before he became a saint), James Joyce (before Finnegans Wake), Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett, Raymond Carver (both Bad Raymond and Good Raymond). Among the living: Alice Munro, J.M. Coetzee, Cormac McCarthy, Stuart Dybek, Philip Roth, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, David Mamet.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Love in the Time of Cholera, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, American Buffalo, Jesus' Son, Runaway, Amsterdam Michael Clayton, Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are the Only People Here"; Lost in Translation, The Usual Suspects, The Sopranos, "Coin" by Jim Nutt, "Honky Tonk Women", "Don't Run Wild", Faces' "I'm Losing You", Ron Wood's slide guitar on "Cut Across Shorty", Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner".

10. Your hidden talents...?

Ad-libbing (I won't call it rapping) short rhyming songs for my kids when they wake up, come home from school, or whenever I happen to bump into them during the day.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

"Don't fuckin' do it!" delivered by my friend Reid Schaefer as my parents and grandparents were furiously pressuring me to enter a Jesuit seminary at age 14.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

A $4,000 advance from Harper's editor Lewis Lapham to cover the World Series of Poker Main Event in May of 2000. I neither bought, stole nor borrowed it from Lewis; rather, I persuaded him to advance me the money, and he generously and optimistically did so. I then cajoled my wife Jennifer to let me use this money to buy into a satellite (a small feeder tournament) into the $10,000 Main Event, instead of to pay a few of our mounting pile of bills; and I borrowed or stole it from myself, in a sense, because when I put it on the poker table I had yet to write a word of the article. But I did win a seat in the championship event and wound up finishing fifth, which paid $248,000. The article, brilliantly edited by Lapham and Colin Harrison, was featured on the cover of the December 2000 issue and widely anthologized. It also became the basis of Positively Fifth Street, published by FSG in April 2003.

Book: Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker

Author: James McManus

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: 2004-03

Format: Paperback

Length: 448 pages

Image: You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

Levi's (black).

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

At the Ritz in Wingham, Ontario, it would be Alice Munro.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

Kierling, Austria, spring 1924, with the ability to speak German. Would love to tell the dying Franz Kafka, most of whose work was unpublished then, how beloved and widely read he would become. "Listen, Franz, I'm from the future and we have these time machines, see . . ."

Then I'd fly (take a ship? what are the rules here?) to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, a few blocks from where I would be born 27 years later, to watch Ruth and Gehrig play, and perhaps place a few bets on the outcome of the '24 World Series.

Then back into my time machine to the early evening of April 14, 1865, just outside Ford's Theater, to warn the president, one of America's greatest writers, that maybe it would be better... or simply to kill John Wilkes Booth.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Wine, whiskey, marijuana, time travel, shuffling poker chips.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?

TriCor, red wine, Volvic, ahi, fish oil pills, low-dose aspirin, bicycling, shuffling poker chips.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

A two-hundred-square-mile synthetic-cubist landscape combining New York City, the Golden Gate Bridge, Kailua Beach, the Beartooth Highway, and the Bellagios of Las Vegas and Italy.

Photo by © Roberta Devlin

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

My wife Jennifer and I were in the Oval Office with President Obama last spring, and we wanted to (and did) congratulate him on getting at least a foot-in-the-door national healthcare plan passed. He told us that the prime minister of the Netherlands had recently asked him, "Mr. President, you extend healthcare coverage to millions more of your citizens, make it illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions or to cancel people who get sick, and they hold up signs calling you a Nazi?" All we could do was nod, groan and sadly shake our heads.

What I thought but didn't say: Anyone gullible enough to believe that a federal health-care program would be more likely than an insurance company to make a callous decision about coverage, let alone convene "death panels" to eliminate the sick or the elderly, deserves their place in the faith-based "Solid South" and whatever justice John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Sarah Palin et al were likely to grant them.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

The Winter Casino, the novel I put aside ten years ago to write Positively Fifth Street, Physical and Cowboys Full.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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