T.R.U.E., Week of 7/1, Post #1

Neil Young– “A Letter Home”

This isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite Neil Young album. It’s a little too much what Neil apparently intended it to be; a photo album full of family snapshots, Neil noodling around in a little song-booth, figuring out (or remembering) songs he loved way back whenever, and also a sweet little letter to his mom. These aren’t cover versions, not even remakes. They’re just him playing the tunes. Neil clearly loves these songs. I love a lot of them, too. But I won’t be putting on Neil’s versions of them much.

There’s one element of this package that transcends it, though. A little gesture of glorious genius. Appropriately, in the circumstances, it seems almost a throwaway. An extra.

It’s the credits. Or, not the credits themselves, but the slip of paper they’re printed on, foxed and tanned and stained to replicate–so precisely that it literally stole breath from me–the paper sleeves that once housed the slabs of scratched vinyl on which I, like Neil, first heard most of these tracks.

The effect of that sleeve, at least on me, is more than just nostalgic. I took one look at it, and suddenly remembered not just those near-useless objects in general–stained and crumpled before I even pulled them out of their record jackets for the first time–but specific sleeves. The speckles on my copy of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind”. The rip down the center of my Phil Ochs best-of.

There I was, suddenly, in my own childhood room. Humming the songs that have become my letters-home songs. Understanding all over again how profoundly my relationship to art I love has intermixed with, transformed, become indistinguishable from my relationship to people.

It may indeed be better to burn out than to fade away, as NY once claimed on “Rust Never Sleeps” (my copy of which had a paper sleeve with a giant coffee stain, like a birthmark, in the upper left back corner, even though I didn’t drink coffee then).

But I think Neil’s found another way entirely, which is to somehow keep taking in and giving out so much that he just keeps burning.

T.R.U.E., Week of 7/1, Post #2

Mary Rickert– “Journey to the Kingdom”

I was hoping to get to Mary Rickert’s new novel, The Memory Garden, before we have the chance to talk and work together at Readercon next week–just because I’m so sure it’s going to be good–but work and life keep interfering. So I went back this weekend and caught up with this masterful mid-length story from 2006, which I hadn’t previously read.

A lighthousekeeper’s daughter and her widowed mother get visited, on their island–where the only thing that seems to grow is plants from the seed packet their husband/father had in his hand when he drowned–by the ghost of the husband/father. Who keeps melting into a puddle. And who one night brings a younger ghost-sailor as a guest. The ghosts are gentle, sweet, alive, full of stories. And they feed on breath. From the mouths of the living, or stolen from just-used coffee cups.

As in the reconfigured fairy tales of W.B.Yeats, and as in most of my favorite ghostly tales, everyone in this story tells a story (one character even declares–as though stealing the breath from MY mouth–”Don’t you think we’ve gotten awful complacent in our society about story?”). The emotional landscape is wild and weird and full of shadows, even though the characters themselves are all somewhat detached either by grief or by no longer living (and “a remembered emotion is like a remembered taste, it’s never really there”). The end is scarier than you expect, and also a sort of sweet, and as to what, exactly, happened, and whose story was closest to truth, and whether that ending is happy or sad, and for whom…

Great, great story. She’s a major writer. Go read her.

T.R.U.E., Week of 7/1, Post #3

T.R.U.E, week of 7/1, Post #3

No matter the stereotypes or even an individual artist’s stated intentions, the act of making art for other people is a fundamentally optimistic one. It presupposes not only a faith (sometimes mistaken for narcissism–and sometimes accurately pegged as narcissism) that one has something worth articulating but also that other people want to hear it, can be reached, can be moved by whatever that thing is.

It’s pretty much impossible to argue that art is a team game. But too many people forget that it is absolutely and unequivocally a cooperative one. You can go ahead and count awards and sales and compute rankings any way you like. In the end, though, if humanity as a whole gets better, and if people individually have richer, more satisfying, more stirred and engaged lives, then everyone wins. And if either of those things doesn’t happen, everyone loses.

For that reason, more than any other at this point, I’ve been grateful that a lot of my best work seems to fall somewhere in the murkier corners of the big tent of horror. Because the horror community is full of people hellbent on making us a community. Peter Straub goes so far out of his way, so often, to call attention to authors whom he feels deserve notice. Ramsey Campbell has been supportive way beyond what I would ever have asked of him. Lucius Shepard was like that. So is Liz Hand.

The latest person to fall–or, rise–into this category, for me, is Christopher Golden.

Nothing may come of anything we’ve been talking about, and that isn’t the point of this post. The point is, because he likes my work, he has veered far off his own path to help me find mine. To see if our paths intersect. To make sure I know he hopes so.

Most of these TRUE posts are going to be about art, because art is so fun to chatter and argue about. A few are going to be about people. Because in cases like this, I can’t think of anything truer.

Motherless Child Eve

The revamped, darkly glittering (as opposed to sparkling) new edition of Motherless Child hits the shelves–as in actual shelves, at a store near you–tomorrow. And within a couple months, all going well, I’ll be turning in the final draft of Good Girls, the second book in the “Motherless Children” trilogy, for publication in 2015. Seems a good moment to nudge this particular space awake again. See what spills out.

Mostly, for all of the above reasons and more, I’ve been feeling so excited about this part of my life. So happy to be immersed in the work, and getting the opportunity to share it with people on a wider stage again. I can’t wait to hear what you all think about this one. But today…the day before a new book comes out…that has traditionally been hard for me. Tomorrow, next post, whenever I surface here next (I really will try to make it sometime soon), I suspect I will sound very different. Less…pensive. But today, this is what happened when I sat down:

Motherless Child hits the shelves tomorrow, and as always with me–and almost ONLY, for me, on eve-of-release days–I find that I’ve woken up in that Cave of No Useful Thoughts. The ones it’s almost impossible not to have, sooner or later, and that neither inspire nor comfort. About reviews I don’t seem to get despite the reviews I keep getting; the awards I occasionally still get shortlisted or nominated for but don’t win (and yeah, shoot me, kind of believe I should); the sales numbers or movie deals that flicker, occasionally, just over the horizon, and turn out to be someone else’s; the lights of that magical place where…well, I don’t know what happens there, because I don’t live there.

Then I remember. Write and make myself post something like this, to remind myself of three crucial things. The only crucial things:

1. I have actual readers who care about at least some of what I write. Enough that I get to have release days, sometimes. What an insanely lucky writer that makes me.

2. I chose this. There are many routes to that magical, lit-up place; I passed on all of them, and wandered off to collect stories in the woods and tell them to other woods-dwellers around campfires and teach other people to tell stories in the woods. The only days, in my whole life, when I even vaguely regret that decision, ironically, are these days.

3. Tomorrow, before I do anything else, I get to get up early and go straight to my desk and work on the next book.

And when that’s done–and only then–maybe I’ll wander down to some nearby shop. Just to see what my book looks like on a table there, where people who don’t live in my woods can see it.

Sentient Kid-Cat Familiars (The Motherless Child Soundtrack Project, Part 8)

Tommy Collins– Black Cat

Like a whole lot of rock music, horror literature often taunts and haunts and commands and teases us into asking what’s actually perverse, and who says so, and who asked them? Even the kind of horror I write– which, when it isn’t Motherless Child and sometimes, even when it is, tends toward the melancholy and moody as opposed to the gory and giddy– hovers over houses we supposedly don’t want to visit, inhabited by people we’re not meant to know, down streets we’re warned never to walk.

And maybe we shouldn’t walk there. Or linger there. Certainly not stay there.

Except that they have so much cooler cats…

Take the ones that keep crossing Tommy Collins’ path on this 1960 track. A snipped couplet from it heads the first chapter in Motherless narrated by the monster — the Whistler himself. In the song, felines keep dodging in front of our walking man, herding him out his way, across a street, and finally out of town toward an old oak tree where he finds…

The lonely girl of his dreams?

The genius in the song is its sweetness, the way it takes a symbol of superstitious fear– perversion, even– and flips it on its paddy-pawed back. In this joyride’s most deliciously rhythmic moment, our hero “smiled at the kitty/and petted it,” on his way to lifelong bliss with the lonely girl to whom the cats have led him. “A black cat never hurt me…we’re going to have two or three…”

Right there, of course, is where the horror writer in me pricks up its ears. Just what does that last line mean? Two or three… kids? Cats? Sentient kid-cat familiars born to lure unsuspecting others out of town, toward the lone oak tree?

Would it be so terrible, in the end, if you were one of them? (The lured, I mean. Although now that I think about it…)

So in my book of songs, or song-book, it’s the Whistler who smiles at the kitty, pets it. He’s the source of the superstition, after all, and the superstition itself. The path you shouldn’t cross, and the reason you want to.

If you search online, you’ll come across a series of compilations of early garage and rockabilly tracks ostensibly put together by Lux and Ivy from the Cramps. The compilations are a blast, gleeful and playful and sleazy and innocent. They purr and they hiss, good-natured and bad-tempered. Transgressive and transcendent.

Like cats.

Good art.

Relationships worth having.

Days worth living.

Marble and Moustache (The Motherless Child Soundtrack Project, Part 7)

Warren Smith– Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache

You haven’t read Motherless Child yet (though of course I hope you will, someday), and I’m not going to summarize the moment we’ve now reached. Let’s just say it’s the novel’s first fulcrum point, where very human hungers and longings careen into their less complex but more perverse extra-human analogues. As I wrote the scene, I was sure I was climbing a musical mountain of harrowing heartbreak, past George J., past the Brakeman, heading toward a tune of positively preternatural, if not supernatural, sorrow. Something like…

…well, like almost anything but what actually bursts from the Whistler’s mouth.

Warren Smith’s “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache” is the opposite of preternatural. Or supernatural. It may be the least spooky towering rockabilly classic I know. No blue suede shoes here. No mystery train. Very little reverb. Just an ordinary joe who’s been gone somewhere– for work, we sense, not for fun, certainly not on any kind of joyride– and comes home to find his girl gone. No– worse than gone. About to go. Swept off by another, but still there. The song’s rhythm is jaunty, irresistible. But Smith sings it with a barely– and I mean barely– suppressed desperation. No histrionics, but an angry, almost nasty edge. “Who you been lovin’ since I’ve been gone…

What makes the song so delicious, and so devastating– the Whistler’s ideal combination– is the source of the singer’s desperation, and its depth. How does the interloper lure our poor guy’s girl away? He’s a long, cool cat, sure, he’s got that flashy car, he’s tall. But what does he actually do? “He held your hand and he sang you a song…

In other words, the stranger pays court, romances, makes love to this girl, in the corny, magical, swooning way pop songs always tell us love should be made. Meaning, in the way that– for most of us, most of the time– work, and exhaustion, and lack of confidence, and self-consciousness, and self-doubt, will never quite allow. The interloper isn’t just stealing this guy’s girl. He’s stealing all girls. And the singer’s confidence that he deserves a girl. That he has anything to offer that any girl would want.

Ever.

Which brings us to the other reason I think this track surfaced at this moment:

Where “Blue Yodel #9″ (see post below) hides its sadness in its strut, it’s effectively the interloper’s song. This one’s the joe’s song. And in the jauntiness of its rhythm, the singer’s dawning realization that he really is in the process of having his heart broken, there’s a wild-eyed, amazed sort of liberation. A moment of forgetting to be self-conscious and giving in to the angst and the anguish– and the hope being dashed, and the love he understands, too late, that he really was ready to offer. A moment of just letting the feelings he really does have in him rip. The bridge bounces and claws right up to that underplayed but breathtaking punch-stop… and then, instead of a yowl, or a yodel, we get one of those astonishing rock music moments, the words and the cadence as smooth and hard and perfect in the mouth as a marble in the fingers, impossible not to play with, to repeat, to flick against the wall to hear its echoes. “He had a RED Cadillac and a black moustache…

Warren Smith was always going to lose. He seemed always to know it. He was an afterthought on 1950s Sun, in the shadow of Presley and Lewis and Perkins and Cash, and even before he got himself addicted and took to robbing pharmacies, he sang with a disappointed edge. In the late 70s, when rockabilly had an unlikely resurrection, he went to Europe and was reportedly astonished to find himself playing to packed houses and standing ovations. The fact that he dropped dead of a heart attack at 47, right in the midst of a resurgence that seemed likely to eclipse any success he’d had in the decades before, seems sadly apt, somehow.

Early this year, Thomas Anderson– an occasionally terrific heartland rocker/songwriter who has never found his audience– released a track called “The Late Great Warren Smith.” It’s lovely, pretty much an elegy for another tryer who “did your best.” It’s plenty spooky. An ode to a myth.

But “Red Cadillac” remains something else. Something worse, and more wondrous. It’s neither elegy nor myth.

It’s the not-entirely-defeated ballad of the doubting, nearly desperate, whistling rest of us.

Singing Brakemen, Satchmo Eggs (The Motherless Child Soundtrack Project, Part 6)

Jimmie Rodgers– Blue Yodel #9

Now here’s what I meant about this book writing me, or writing itself while I did my damnedest to stay in the corner and keep from humming so it didn’t realize I was there:

In the post below, I talked about Natalie, my protagonist, at the moment she realizes she’s about to hear the Whistler– fabled musical monster of melancholy– perform. She tries to imagine what he’s going to sing, thinks first of George Jones. She’s got her self-pity all nicely warmed and fluffed and folded, has lit a mental candle or two, and seems all set to settle into a long, indulgent bubble-bathos. And so, naturally, the next possibility she thinks of is…

Blue Yodel #9 ? Really? Is that song even sad?

Well, yeah, I guess it is. Sure it is. I mean, it was recorded, what, a year into the Depression? The persona’s a street-tough, jobless, very possibly homeless. And Jimmie Rodgers, at 33, had less than three years to live, and maybe it’s hindsight or more likely primitive recording equipment, but you can hear the shadow in the voice. That ghostly suggestion of weight.

But mostly, what I hear in this song is swagger. The hobo-culture roots of the Dirty South, where the po-lice grab our singer and he does the opposite of folding; he puffs up. He preens, while Satchmo’s trumpet eggs him on: “You can find my name/on the tail of my shirt/I’m a Tennessee hustler and I don’t have to work.” Then the police take him to jail. Then the street-tough’s much tougher girlfriend retrieves the firearms and comes to town to get him.

And then the Singing Brakeman yodels.

And that’s why Natalie thinks of this song. Because that sound…

Wild and free. Defiant and solitary. Hungry and sad.

It’s not Whistling. Not yet. But it’s close.

The version of this song that I most often hear, in my head, is probably Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s. For all the elemental oddness of his voice and his phrasing, though, he’s way too grounded and reflective a guy to inspire the Whsitler.

At least, until he hits the yodel.

And I find myself understanding– and, worse, hearing– what the Wichita Lineman hears in the wires.

Still Jonesing (The Motherless Child Soundtrack Project, Part 5 1/2)

Closed the Spotify, switched off the computer last night, and found George J. still hanging around down there at the end of the bar in the back of the brain, the way George J. generally does. And we got to talking, or rather I talked, George by this point in the condition George generally is in my bar at that hour. Here’s what occurred to me:

It’s true, the Whistler wouldn’t sing or whistle George Jones. Not onstage.

But– like George himself, I somehow imagine, maybe like a scary number of the aging rest of us– the Whistler, as I’ve conceived him, spends most of his non-feeding life (sic), and all of his artistic life, pumping relentlessly at an emotional well that has long run dry. What he’s calling up out of a past that isn’t even his –that was, instead, the past of the person he was before he became the Whistler– isn’t actual emotion, or even residue of actual emotion, but the memory of it.

Nick Tosches once pegged George Jones– devastatingly, brilliantly –as a “cipher.” A “blank space,” inhabited by the music itself.

That is, I realize now, not far from my imagining of the Whistler, or at least of the Whistler-as-artist. What pours out of this monster’s mouth onstage, at the height of his musical power, isn’t “authentic” feeling but its hollow, howling echo.

One unretractable step from the man (or monster) himself, in other words.

Like the art of almost all significant artists?

No, the Whistler would not sing George Jones in public.

But he might actually be George Jones…

Lonesome Whistles, The Dead Coming Back (The Motherless Child Soundtrack Project, Part 5)

George Jones– pretty much anything

My good friend M.Z. and I are in roughly the twentieth year of an argument about the writer Denis Johnson. Not about the quality of his writing (because who would argue that? This is Angels Denis Johnson; “Emergency” Denis Johnson– still, for my money, the single greatest American short story about youth and drugs, because it isn’t, in the end, about either; “It was one of those moments you stay in, to hell with all the troubles of before and after. The sky is blue and the dead are coming back” Denis Johnson).

The argument goes like this:

To M.Z., DJ is a towering genius at least in part because his compassion for the desperate, the addicted, the homeless, the drunken, and the homicidally fucked-up knows no bounds.

Whereas I think he’s a towering artist in spite of precisely the same thing. That doesn’t mean I don’t have empathy for anyone suffering through any of the above. But I don’t consider boundless sympathy for the self-destructive a given, and I don’t think self-destructive characters automatically make for significant or wrenching art. Or maybe I’m drawn more to– and moved more by — what’s being destroyed, and what might be saved, and what the collateral damage will be, than I am to the verisimilitude of the process of destruction.

Which is probably why I’ve never quite gotten George Jones.

He pops up at a critical moment in the first chapter of Motherless Child, when Natalie realizes that the Whistler– legendary itinerant musician, mysterious figure, the relentless monster at this book’s heart, though of course she doesn’t know that yet –is in the otherwise soulless suburban bar with her, is in fact walking out onto the stage to join the nondescript pub musician toiling away at the mic. Music-lover that she is, Natalie immediately begins speculating on what the Whistler will play.

Something heartbreaking, surely. Preternaturally sad, because why else would that lo(oow-uh-oow-o)nesome whistle blow?

And the first idea that crosses her mind is, “Some George Jones wallow.”

If that were me talking, there’d be an implied sting in that tail. A hint of derision with my “wallow.” There might be for Natalie, too, wallowing most decidedly not being her game.

But even more than me– and just because I feel like I can hear the coke snorting, the drunken weeping, the wife-beating and barely suppressed rage at nothing in particular in the singer doesn’t mean I’m immune to the voice, or that almost any George Jones song at the right unguarded moment can’t rattle me right down to my defiantly self-determinant roots– Natalie would thrill to the experience of just being there, getting to hear. And the moment is certainly an unguarded one for her, anyway.

Of course, the Whistler doesn’t sing George Jones.

Not sad enough.

Or. No. Not wild enough.

After all. I didn’t name him The Whiner.

Jezebel, Humming (The Motherless Child Sountrack Project, Part 4)

Arthur Alexander– Sally Sue Brown

In the first Soundtrack Project post below, I mentioned that a few of the songs referenced in Motherless Child aren’t even songs I like. Turns out, that’s surprisingly few.

Depending on who’s singing it, this is one.

The fact that the Bob Dylan version, from his lumbering 1988 Down in the Groove album, manages, at least by 1980s Dylan standards, to be less than hateful doesn’t exactly save it. Those “ah-oohs” in the background are kinda sporty, almost make you think Bob’s actually enjoying the return of Saucy Sally, although he saves most of his sneering, spitting self for lines like “Got what it takes to make you hurt” (as in she does), just so we’re clear that this is still Jezebel, still hellborn and hellbound and hellbent on taking as many poor, helpless Bobs as possible with her.

Arthur Alexander’s original is certainly better, sweeter, if only because he is. Fickle and ruthless as his Sally Sue can be, the wounded yearning (as opposed to lustful sneering) in Arthur’s voice suggests that he really is “glad you’re back, Sally Sue Brown,”, and when he rides out the groove humming, “You ain’t no good/but I love love love you,” he sounds as if he does, or at least as if he’s dreaming of salvation through rather than in spite of or from her.

But it’s still an ugly song.

Which brings us to yet another of those tricky things about writing about pop music, trying to quantify or measure it: the songs themselves only have so much to do with their impact on us. Our feelings about any given track probably have at least as much to do with who we’re with at the moment we first hear it, who we are, what the light’s like, what we’re eating or drinking, the lover we just lost or found, the work and money we have or don’t, the extent to which the grooves and canals that spoke from our ears and skin into our guts and heart are open at just that instant.

And I suspect that Natalie– Motherless Child‘s vulnerable, resilient, defiant heart, a single mom, daughter of a widowed single mom, ejected hard from a youth that was never carefree and only now, 18 months after the birth of her son, dipping a cautious toe back into waters she knows are too deep– hears something completely different.

I think what Natalie hears is Sally Sue Brown’s strut. Her will. I think she’d find these pathetic singing dudes’ fear of Sally–and, by extension or association, of Natalie– almost reassuring. If only because it will keep men aware of her, but also cowering, just distant enough, until she decides she’s ready for them again.

And so she invests a jaunty but misogynist and unremarkable blues with meaning, savagery, intensity, vulnerability, and a sense of validation neither Bob Dylan nor even gentle Arthur Alexander ever intended, and that the song itself doesn’t deserve and can barely sustain.