Friday, July 03, 2009

A Free Write Friday of Sorts...

I have not been posting, and there is a reason for that.

I have been very angry. Those who know me well, are friends with/stalk me on facebook or follow my tweets, you already know what is making me angry. For those of you in the dark, I don't want to get into it. It's been all I could think about for something like two weeks, and every time I sat down to write I couldn't, because I wanted to write for my novel and not in anger. Let us leave it at that.

As to the rumors I've been hearing through the pipeline that I have forsaken blogspot for twitter, or that I feel my art should be only used for pay, or that I'm stuck in a tunnel, or that I've gone so crazy I forgot I had a blog, or whatever other crazy rumors are out there, they're all wrong. Each and every one of them. Trust me. I've just explained myself.

First things first, before I get into the writing: a quick update. The month of June was fairly uneventful. my sister and her husband celebrated their 4th anniversary. My brother-in-law Joe got married, which meant I got to attend my second wedding of the year. The first one was a low key deal in March in Iowa. This was rather a bigger deal and took place in Puerto Rico. The trip was very nice, if I do say so myself. Very nice indeed. Of course, sunny and beautiful just about every day, and the wedding was amazingly awesome. The flight back was a terror, but we're going for the highlights and not the lowlights on our way through June.

Skip forward to this past weekend, when my old roommate Chris came to town for a Twins v. Cardinals showdown. Of course we hit up the City Museum, Ted Drewes and drank ourselves some Schlafly Pale Ale (I believe Chris went with the dry-hopped American Pale Ale here at the house, and then the regular Pale Ale at Beatnik Bob's). Good times were, indeed, had by all. I can't remember who won the baseball game, though.

Anyway, that about wraps up the update. Work is still going well, Kathy is still looking for a job (leads? leads? anyone?) but in a slightly ironic twist of fate she received word this week that the bi-monthly program guide published by the television station from which she was laid off won an award for its design, and that her name is on that award because (fancy this) she was the designer. So with that tidbit added to her resume, she can't possibly be too far from employment now!

Okay, now on to the Free Write Friday of sorts. I've been stuck writing my novel lately, as I said I wasn't exactly in the right mood. But I need to keep my head down and power through. So in the interest of doing so, I'm going to write for a little bit and do it here, on my blog, spontaneously. Well, maybe not so spontaneously, as I've been thinking about how to go about constructing my novel for about two months now, and have actually already written some down. But this is a part of the envisioned novel that exists only in my head and as a scribbled note in my composition book.

Now I know that usually, my Free Write Fridays are done via suggestion; I ask around Tuesday or Wednesday, I check comments, I pick the most creative or the one with most potential (or I sandbag it and post an anonymous suggestion myself and take off with that...wait, did I just admit that?) and on Friday write it. But instead, this time it's just going for the overarching idea in my head of the novel about the guy in a band working through the relationships and the music, and one of the more specific ways in which I was planning on presenting the idea. So we'll give it a try. Here we go.


July 2009

One of the most important lessons about rock 'n' roll my father taught me was the idea that a song belongs to the person who wrote it in much the same way a true story belongs to the person to whom it happened. But, he was always careful to point out, that doesn't stop others from trying to tell the story or play the song.

There are two ways to cover a song, my father used to say. Make it sound like it did on the original recording, or make it your own in some way. He made it very clear which method he preferred.

"If it's a fast song originally, try to speed it up. If the main instrument is a guitar, transpose it to piano. If it was sung with a twinge of longing, amp it up."

I had a hundred perfect examples for him the last time we had this conversation. "Dad, you know that song 'Superstar' by The Carpenters?"

"Yeah," he answered, "originally written by Delaney, Bonnie & Friends, sung by Bette Midler of all people on The Tonight Show, but made famous by The Carpenters," and he started singing it.

"Yeah, that one. The way they do it, you know, it's, you feel sad for the singer."

"'Your guitar, it sounds so sweet and clear' yeah, 'but you're not really here...'"

I should have stopped there, tried to talk about that song, because I knew where the conversation would end. But I went on anyway. "Well, there was a tribute album to the Carpenters, you know, back in 1994?"

"'You said you'd be coming back this way again baby...'"

"And, well, Sonic Youth did a version of it, and..."

"What do I always tell you about covering tunes?" He had stopped singing, was looking at me, had even taken his glasses off so I could see how serious he was.

"Well, it was a tribute album," I tried to stall him. "It was released ten years ago, dad, and Sonic Youth..."

"And what do I always tell you about rock 'n' roll?"

I knew his rules, the gray areas. I tried to stall a little longer, hoping to pique his curiosity enough to at least ask if he could hear what I knew he would ultimately decry as a bastardized version of one of his treasured musical masterpieces. He liked to do that, to claim all the music that came before 1976 as his own. "But dad, look, it's a tribute album, for a band that made music from 1969 until 1982."

"Eighty-three," he corrected me. I couldn't let him go any further until I had said more.

"Fine, eighty-three. They made music before and after. And the tribute isn't about a bunch of people thinking they can repackage the songs and sell them to a younger crowd, they're paying tribute to them."

He was speechless. I thought he might actually want to hear the song this time. My heart pumped in my throat. "What I wanted to say was, though, that the way Sonic Youth does it, that you don't feel sorry for the singer at all, you feel kind of, kind of creeped out. Like with The Carpenters, you feel like the guy lied to the singer just to get her into bed or something, but with Sonic Youth, you know? Not that! You feel like, like, feel like there never was any actual connection between the singer of the song and the person they're singing about. You get the sense that the singer's kind of, like, a stalker or something. It's really very cool, they do what you say, they make it their own."

I had just contradicted myself, and I knew it; after trying to convince my father that Sonic Youth had not usurped the song, had paid tribute to The Carpenters, I then told him flat out they had made it their own. And he caught me.

"I thought you said it was a tribute."

"It is, but..."

"That's not a very nice tribute, huh? Changing the meaning of their song?" And that was that.

"Nobody should ever be allowed to cover a song," he said to me, and I mouthed along with the next part of his statement; "except for Joe Cocker." I rolled my eyes. "And," he continued, "speak of the devil, Mad Dogs and Englishmen covered the tune before anybody else. Delaney, Mad Dogs, Bette Midler, Cher, some Australian lady, then The Carpenters. Maybe this Sonic band's paying tribute to somebody else, and they shouldn't be."

Because Rock 'n' Roll, I knew, attained perfection in 1976 with Led Zeppelin's release of "Achilles' Last Stand."

This was just the last of many conversations I had with my father about covering music. I asked him when I first started my band if we should play some Rolling Stones tunes, and he said no. "Not unless you intend on dressing up like them, looking like them, and playing only their music, and call yourselves The Ruby Tuesdays or something like that. Be a tribute band. You're no Joe Cocker."

To be honest, though, there were three kinds of bands that could play rock 'n' roll cover tunes, and my father acknowledged all three of them: Joe Cocker (not really a kind of band, but he goes on the list), tribute bands and wedding bands. And there is a reason they go in that order, too. Joe Cocker is the ultimate, because according to my father Joe Cocker is creating art from the remnants of previously shattered art (and what shattered that art? I'll let you know when I find the answer). Tribute bands fall next because they are providing a service that is like but not equal to the service provided by bands and artists who have passed this world and entered the crowded venues of Rock heaven. Wedding bands go last because they provide a very basic service which is always better than hiring a DJ but nonetheless nothing to get excited about.

These rules only ever applied to rock 'n' roll, though, never to any other kind of music, at least according to my father. Together, he and I had spent every Christmas since I was thirteen playing in a community orchestra together. My first year out of college, the band wasn't touring for various reasons and so I joined my father full time with the orchestra. He played timpani, I played whatever other percussion instruments needed to be played, and one night after playing some Holst and Mahler I asked him about the rules.

"If we're going to open with Mahler, dad, shouldn't we stick with Mahler? I mean, unless you're at a wedding gig, you wouldn't open with 'Twist and Shout' and then go on to 'Misty Mountain Hop' now would you?" We were packing up the music and still standing on the stage while the audience dispersed.

"You probably wouldn't play 'Misty Mountain Hop' at a wedding anyway," he answered, "but you're right. Only, this is different. Nobody in our audience ever got a chance to see Mahler. You can't run down to the record store about buy a recording of Mahler conducting himself, you know. He wrote it down so that others may play it. So much of the enjoyment of classical music isn't happening out there," and he waved toward the seats in the auditorium, "but up here, with the musicians. Rock, you know, the enjoyment...there's a lot of it up on stage, but even more of it out there. And out there, they want to see what they hear. They don't want to see Blood Sweat and Tears playing 'Stairway to Heaven.' Give 'em 'Spinning Wheel,' give 'em 'Lucretia MacEvil.'"

My father's first Christmas without his own father came upon all of us suddenly. My grandfather had died in February, but when December 15th came everyone in the family realized how different this year would be. Grandpa always played his tuba at an event called "Tuba Christmas" in one of the malls in town every year, up until the year before he died, and there it was, Tuba Christmas, upon us. We had almost forgotten about it, until one night there we were, rehearsing for the orchestra's holiday concert, and one of the tuba players mentioned it in passing. Of course. Tuba Christmas.

We called all of my father's brothers, even the ones we never talked to in Alabama, and invited them all up to come see Tuba Christmas one last time. Only the ones who were still in St. Louis came. So on a Saturday afternoon, we went to the Galleria and picked out a spot to watch and listen to all the tubas. We sat. We watched. We listened. I was the only one of my cousins to show up, but then for some reason Grandpa Schulz had always seemed especially fond of me over his other grandsons. While others would get a card with a five dollar bill for their birthdays, sent in the mail no matter how close they lived, Grandpa would always come down and visit with me, take me to a movie, usually war films or flicks about baseball. We sat for a long time, even after the tubas had all been packed up and hauled off. We were trading stories, and my father was telling all about the last camping trip before Robert, the oldest brother, moved out on his own. He told the whole story, and we laughed at the right spots, except for my uncle James, the second youngest.

When the story was over, James frowned. "Gerald, that's not how it happened. We weren't lost in the woods for six hours, it was more like half an hour. And it only rained for the whole day one of the days we were there. And dad had spare gas, he didn't use Robert's whiskey to fuel the boat, he just threatened to."

"Maybe you're right," my father said, after a silence. Robert sat, grinning, not willing or wanting to settle the matter of what happened to his whiskey.

"I am right," James said. "And it wasn't the sixty-two Pontiac anymore, it was the sixty-five. Remember, Dale had totalled the sixty-two on his seventeenth birthday?"

"That, you're right about," Robert chimed in. "It was the sixty-five. The Bonneville. Maroon."

When all was said and done that day, my father and I got back into his car to head home. "Why does James always insist on contradicting you?" I asked.

"What, about the story?" I nodded. "He's right. About the time lost, the rain, the whiskey. Dad's not around, James feels like he should correct history. But sometimes, you know, when you cover a song, you gotta change it a little. Make it your own." He turned the radio on, perhaps somehow knowing that Joe Cocker's version of "The Letter" would be on the classic hit station. "Besides, your uncle James has never been able to change it up that way. He's in a wedding band."


A little (very) disjointed, but remember, this only existed as a sliver of an idea in my head when I started. But the important thing is that I kept my head down and powered through. I've made an important step. Yay!

No promises about blogging. You can follow me on twitter, though!

Happy 4th of July everyone!


Becca said...

What is this anger you speak of? I myself have been a stranger to anger these past few months.... er, right.

Actually, I deleted my twitter account yesterday as I decided it was TOO angry. So there you have it. Shitty times all around.

Hang in there! I know Kathy will find something soon. I'm sure she's casting her net far and wide!

Anonymous said...

I don't know what anger you're talking about, either.


You should probably be careful posting your writing online. I know this sounds so ridiculous to say, but it's true: people steal writing. I'd be more guarded with your stuff.

That said, I'll be glad to read your novel when it is finished. Seems like everyone is writing a novel these days--you, me, Kim, Steve, Tanya, etc.. Your comments about the development process are pretty accurate, I think, for everyone. I spent several months note-taking, and that got me nowhere. I filled 4 notebooks with notes. The story changed dramatically, on average, once per week. Then I hung out with Steve (the teacher Steve) and he was asking me about it and we had a good long talk and then he said, "Stop taking fucking notes. Write." And the more I thought about that the more I realized how he was right and that writing, as he put it, really is a process of discovery, not of careful planning. My results, now that I'm writing and not note-taking as much, is yielding more interesting, more sophisticated results.

That said, writing a novel is the hardest thing I've ever done. It's complex to the point that one cannot make any sense of his or her own story until it is on the page. I get fractions of it, here and there, but the story itself is so amorphous, so blurry, that the only choice I really have is to write and see what shows up on the page. It's as though your Muse doesn't want you to figure it out right now; it wants you to discover it. And, as we all know, they say the reward is in the journey, not in the destination. Truly.

Good luck with your book.

Elliot said...

Bryan - thanks for the advice. Not much more of my writing will go up here. And as much as I didn't like Steve as a teacher, he's got good advice.

How nice to know that everybody from Webster is currently writing a novel. Maybe we should all start a publishing company together...

Or something.

Molly said...

there are too many men in this story. where are the women?

other than that, I love it! Really. I do.