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.

Organ Rainstorms. Gateway Drugs (The Motherless Child Soundtrack Project, Part 3)

Dwight Yoakam– A Thousand Miles from Nowhere

A Thousand Miles From Nowhere

In Motherless Child, this is the song Natalie and Sophie hear upon entering the Back Way Out, a faux-hipster joint in suburban Charlotte where they eventually meet the Whistler. To Natalie, it signifies only that the anonymous performer has better– less faux– taste than the Back Way Out norm.

To me, it’s less a great song than a great verse– half-verse, really– in an aural house of mirrors, reflecting itself into infinity. The chorus is a throwaway, not a yodel, barely even a sigh. The grand theme is stasis, not doom. Unless it’s doom-by-stasis.

But that verse. “I’m a thousand miles from nowhere/time don’t matter to me.” Followed by the quietly devastating payoff: “And there’s no place I want to be.” Elvis hopping the mystery train this isn’t. No traveling over mountains. Very possibly no traveling at all, because why bother?

Plus gushing rainstorms of organ. Plus slow lightning-flashes of lit-up guitar.

Okay, maybe it is a great song.

I heard Dwight Yoakam first in 1986, my working-at-the-record-store summer, when I was still too Wire-d (as in the band), still too much talking head and too little talking heart, to get country music at all. But Yoakam– Nashville ex-pat, pal of Blasters and Lobos, bad-ass Stetson wearer– seemed a perfect gateway drug into a music I’d previously dismissed, because I had neither need nor frame of reference for it yet.

In some ways–like the great majority of the No Depression/alt-country artists he clearly inspired– he still sounds that way to me. Like a gateway drug. Not quite one thing (ferocious, rib-rattling rocker) nor the other (soulful, rueful late-night companion).

Or maybe that’s me.

Or maybe he just never produced another super-moon of a song quite so blinding-bright as this one.

Crystals and Cassidys (The Motherless Child Soundtrack Project, Part 2)

The Crystals– \"Da Doo Ron Ron\"

First of all, to be clear:

All these songs gushing through and over these characters’ lives and out their mouths and down their desperate veins aren’t the songs that gush through and over me. At least, some of them aren’t. Some of them were my dad’s, but mostly from long before he was my dad. Some of them I came to late, or backward (as with the song that opens the novel, about which more shortly). A few I don’t even like.

These are Natalie’s and Sophie’s songs. Both characters came to me singing them. Left the same way. I don’t need the Spotify playlist I’m going to build, and post for anyone who wants it, to remember them. They’re still echoing in my head, in the hills behind my house, and there’s a wildness to them, every one. A yearning ferocious enough to qualify as hunger. And a joy too terrifying to last or even bear, and which I now think– this is what my vampire girls have taught me– may have been the secret ingredient of the real rock stuff since the very beginning. May be the secret still.

Take the song that opens the novel:

The morning I thought of the first paragraph of Motherless Child– and for days afterward– I thought I was quoting someone else’s book. Not because the opening is so very brilliant, but because it seemed to me just to have been sitting there, like lost luggage, waiting for someone to claim it. For fifty years. All it took was the memory of a misspelling I can’t possibly have been the first to have made. Instead of “ron,” I heard “run.”

Do run run.

Add one more piece of punctuation, and voila. The rhythm no longer girl group, but Cronenberg. Goldblum-in-Cronenberg. “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

Do run.

Run.

That’s the Chapter One title. The opening lines were even more obvious, once I’d started down that path:

“She met him on a Monday. Her heart stood still. At the time, she thought his did, too. Of course, she turned out to be right about that.”

The version Natalie hears, the one referenced by the above, is unquestionably The Crystals’.

But see, this is what I mean about this book seeming more like something I inhaled than wrote. Because like pretty much everyone, I am willing to bet, born in this country within five years of me, the version I first knew was Shaun Cassidy’s.

Even at 11 or so, when I finally caught the original on one of my dad’s oldies stations in the car on the way to my piano lesson, I recognized the difference. The Crystals hurtle by on howling saxes, the exuberance in Dolores Brooks’ voice like a wail from a rollercoaster, irresistible but also instinctive, headlong and helpless. Cassidy, by contrast, sounds so careful, note-perfect, coiffed, that instead of saxes, I hear hair-dryer.

Until just now, getting ready to write this post, I don’t think I’d even once gone back to Shaun after hearing Dolores. But somehow– because it’s a pretty great song, no matter who sings it, because the Cassidy version is so good-natured even if it isn’t good, and because maybe at six I needed my joy-in-art just a little less headlong and helpless– I always found myself rooting for Shaun, whenever I heard tell of him. I was so excited to hear about “American Gothic,” to imagine the arc of that particular celebrity life, that I spent a good half of the run convincing myself it was better than it was.

At the very least, it was exuberant. Wild, if not quite irresistible.

And hungry.

Woke Up Singing (The Motherless Child Soundtrack Project, Part 1)

So, last time I did this, I had a story to tell about I story I tried to tell about people telling stories. The posts are still below, if you’re interested. They recount my struggle first to finish, then to publish The Book of Bunk, my much loved (by me) problem child. Bane of my existence. Biggest idea I’d had, to that point, maybe the biggest I’ll ever have. The book did emerge, finally, in a lovely limited hardback, and thanks to the e-reader revolution, it’s even widely available, now. Even so, glancing through those posts, they really do seem from a different era. Different writer. Mr. Rueful.

These posts will be…different. They’re about my new book, Motherless Child, due out from Earthling this coming fall. But not about the process. Because, right, who cares, but also because, in a way, this time, there was no process. Four or five years ago, I got invited by the fabulous Ellen Datlow to contribute to a new anthology of vampire fiction. I didn’t quite turn up the majestic Hirshbergian proboscis, but I did tell her, “I don’t write vampire fiction.”

A month later, I woke up one morning with this sentence in my head:

“Get the goddamn gun out of your mouth and give me a Juicy Fruit.”

A week after that, I had me a vampire story called “Like Lick Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey.” I wrote Ellen. She told me the vampire anthology had been postponed, possibly for good. I packed up my vampire girls and went on my rueful, merry way. On that year’s Rolling Darkness Revue tour, I read that story.

Years later–maybe a month after the residents of Bunk County from The Book of Bunk at last packed their bindles and hopped their various trains for elsewhere, I woke again, in the middle of the night this time, knowing exactly what happened five minutes after the end of my vampire story. And also what had happened just before.

Also, I was singing “Sugar, Sugar,” by the Archies, though I didn’t see the relevance.

Not yet.

The Motherless Child Soundtrack Project will not be about process, then, because for the only time in my writing life, this was my process: wake up, go to desk, open computer, start typing. When I say that The Book of Bunk feels to me the work of a completely different writer, what I really mean to say is that there’s a new book coming out with my name on it. How– or whether– it was actually me writing it is an entirely other question.

Whatever doubts I have, though, about whether it was really me– really the writer I’ve always been– who wrote Motherless Child …I’m pretty sure I scored it.

Scored it?

Like my life, but unlike anything else I’ve written, Motherless Child is positively suffused–saturated — with music. The language in it thrums with its rhythms (as opposed to my rhythms? Or are those mine?). It might actually have been written to those rhythms.

The Motherless Child Soundtrack Project will be about that. About the–no joke– hundreds of songs ringing through this book’s pages. About what those songs have meant to me (if anything), and what they mean to Natalie and Sophie, my desperate, lost and perpetually singing protagonists. And what they mean to the Whistler, who came for them, and who keeps coming. And why they seem to mean so much to so many of us.

Maybe they’ll mean something to you, too. Or they already do. If so, sing along with me, now…

Disembunking

Seems like as good a time as any.

Truth is, I like my kids, and being outside, and teaching, and watching the Swedish “Wallander” DVDs, too much to blog consistently with my non-writing time. Always have. I never wanted this space to become a desperate collection of every nice thing someone said somewhere about The Book of Bunk (apparently, we all have Facebook for that), or a place to answer criticisms. I’m already halfway through the next book, as close to a flat-out, messy, wicked, gleeful B as this b is ever likely to try, and I’m having a blast, even if that book is already mutating into yet another something else. One more Glen book. Then there’s the half-finished YA trilogy about domestic terrorism. That ghost story novel that’s most of the way done, and needs to be got right once for all. The teaching novel I’m told I’m uniquely poised to produce, for which I have a damn good title, anyway. More stories, of course.

So. Not necessarily or even probably the last post on this site. But the last Bunk post. At least for a long while.

So where does that leave us?

At the moment, The Book of Bunk seems to have set up camp in a slightly disappointing but curiously appropriate netherworld. The few people who’ve read it seem to like it. A lot. It apparently launched in a uniquely timeless week that assures it will never qualify for any Year’s Best or Notable Books list, even if someone wanted to put it there, because everyone’s already rushed to print their 2010 selections, and it isn’t 2011. Except maybe in your Bunk County. As exemplified in the post below, a couple major websites and publications have decided not to review the book based on its limited run. The major presses are, at least for now, balking at publishing a bigger paperback run because there aren’t enough reviews. 22 and Catch. Amazon.com currently has it listed as Temporarily Out of Stock, even though I’ve been assured both by them and by my publishers that it isn’t. There’s one lovely customer review up (thanks, Kay). 0 of 1 people so far have found it useful.

But it exists. I’ve seen it. I’ve held it in my hands, and I’ve seen it in others’ hands. It’s there if you want it, and are willing to hunt just a little.

For this incarnation of the blog, I wanted to tell at least a bit of the story of this book’s creation. Or create its myth. Because for this book, the book is its own creation myth. Or the creation myth’s the story. And I thought it might be useful (and maybe a little cathartic) to share it.

I’m going to leave this blog up. As a crude, hand-drawn map, if you will, to Bunk County, if you ever want to mount a search. A road trip guide–like the Federal Writers’ Project guides themselves–to a county that was never there. Unless you find it.

You won’t find me there. But if you do go looking for Bunk County, and if you locate it…

Send me a postcard, okay?