“You Are Here” 

Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

The delicatessen: gone and then here and then gone again; suddenly deserted and sepia-stained by additional decades of pollution, the kindly owner long since gone, as was his standing offer of some cake for you every time your father waited for take-out; gone like the old men always seated in the back, racetrack gamblers your father had said—these ones who never seemed to leave have now indisputably left; the meat case on the other hand, the one that had held pastrami, gefilte and dills, that one topped by a glass vat of matzo balls that looked like it belonged in a Frankenstein film, well, it might still be there but you’ll never know because the window with the fresh and somehow virginal strawberry cake is now boarded-up by a plywood sheet with No Trespassing stenciled on it . . . 

Here, at the other end of your life, you grasp the importance of something that should have been obvious: That memory inherently magnifies; it enlarges the details, real or imagined, amplifying the good and also the bad. And in doing so, it pulls the now-distant closer to you—or seems to, at any rate. To revisit, however—to stand in the midst of the actual thing remembered—is like using a telescope the wrong way around—things seem smaller and, if not farther away, then certainly diminished.

You’ve no idea why you’re here; there’s no reason that can be articulated to others or yourself. You had been too far away to have credibly decided that, ‘Hey, as long as I’m in the area . . .’ And you’re no longer connected in any way to this place—anyone you may have known is either dead or gone. And in leaving when you did, yes, you’d won, but this also doesn’t feel like a victory lap—perhaps since the win had been just as much a close call made possible by luck.

Something else has drawn you here and you still can’t work out what, but the one thing that you’re certain of is that it has nothing to do with finding closure. It feels much more like curiosity; like an urge to scrutinize your own DNA to understand its sequencing—and, perhaps, if you have the courage, the nature of any mutations.

Down the road slowly, looking for your old school, and finally it comes into view: gone and then here and then gone again; the remembered landscaping suddenly melting and disappearing into the weeds. The ‘Twenties architecture had always made it seem more of a castle than an elementary school, and now abandoned, with what passes for crumbling battlements, it looks like the Midwest version of a gothic ruin. At one time, however, everything about the place had seemed to you outsized and medieval—vast, wide halls and immense staircases that could accommodate five students descending side by side, as if the very building had been challenging you to grow into the knowledge being dispensed there. All that’s gone now, gradually fading—like the echo of the late bell disappearing down the hall after the school day had begun. The building has become a husk next door to something that’s much newer and operating under its name. It’s double-fenced now; contractor’s chain link standing in front of the black wrought iron from the old days. And hanging on the new fence, in somber unity with the deli, there’s a sign that warns Keep Out . . . 

Everything’s changed except for the streets: Somehow through the years they’ve remained intact, the long-forgotten names materializing again just seconds before their signs posts. It’s a persistence that’s in no way comforting and the exact opposite of nostalgia. In the past, these streets had guided you through recollections of this place and had even helped in the remembering itself much like the rooms inside a memory palace. Their continued presence now, however, has transformed them into a grid; faint guidelines to help you more accurately trace the absent, the threadbare and the imagined. It’s like TV news graphics of tornado-leveled towns overlaid with Google-mapped streets: a meticulous underscoring of the destruction’s scope as if that were some sort of explanation.

As you wander the town, it feels as though you’re passing through double exposures: your ambered memories and the Rust Belt decline have shared the same addresses thus far. And at each of those, the clash between past and present had ended in a standoff—which makes you feel increasingly disconnected, like you’re standing outside of time.

Across from the school, beyond the main road, north toward the neighborhood where your best friend had lived: gone and then here and then gone again, but this time not coming back—because it’s happened at last, as it was bound to; a street name has finally eluded you. It’s simply not there, and you’re certain that it won’t be, not on the tip of your tongue or anywhere elsewhere. How in the hell can you forget this but still know that his long-ago cat had been called Arthur? You carefully make your way to the corner searching for something familiar because, Christ, you’d practically lived here on the weekends and then literally every day throughout the summer. But now the trees are gone and the all houses are less cared for: everything here has been made unrecognizable by time and downturn. And if you allowed yourself, you’d admit that this feels a little like panic: Because you can still recall an afternoon out in his grandmother’s garage, where both of you had shot his late grandfather’s pistol into an ancient phone book. It was stupid and luckily nobody had been killed, and to this day you can still feel the adrenaline surging. But that’s all you have—an unmoored memory; something that exists only in you because your friend and his grandmother are both long dead, and now even the location has been lost . . . 

These streets are like remaining nerves that had once led to an amputated limb; they’re alive and pulsing with information from something that’s no longer there: phantom feelings, certainly, but still having visceral affect.

But that’s not right—it’s something more insidious and complicated than that. This visit isn’t neatly about swimming upstream; you haven’t made your way here to search for lost time. In fact, it would have been far less disturbing had the town just disappeared, had some unimaginable catastrophe happened and simply leveled it all. Because it’s not the change itself that you’re reacting to—rather, it’s all the falling apart: entropy made even worse by the gauge of memory. This is essentially like visiting a friend who’s dying from some terrible, wasting disease, where recalling her previous vitality becomes as difficult as seeing her fade away. You wish the town had been unrecognizable instead of deeply and sadly less good because it’s transformed you into a tornado survivor looking for reminders of your life before the storm.

If you’re in your best friend’s neighborhood, then your own must be close by, and you’ve run out of excuses to put off paying the visit that you now realize is the reason you’re here. Five streets over and a lifetime away: gone and then here and then gone again; your father planting a carefully staked sapling off-center on the expansive lawn dissolves into the enormous tree that now stands in a shockingly small front yard. 

And then you slowly turn around before considering the rest of the house because most of your childhood memories involve gazing out from the yard to the street. It occurs to you all these years later that these six or seven or even eight blocks had been the Mississippi to your own Huck Finn. That when you talked about home back then, you were referring to maybe a dozen houses as much you were to your own. Case in point: You couldn’t say what the color of your parent’s bedroom had been, but you perfectly know that Gary’s house, three down and on the right, had been cream with a second story painted charcoal gray. But not anymore; it’s now a single yellow that’s beginning to fade into something more subdued; a color that had been fashionable maybe 10 years ago. And you also note that the lawn in front badly needs to be cut. To the left now: the majestic tree canopy over the street has never been restored—in the wake of the blight that killed the elms, you had assumed that other varieties had replaced them, but obviously no one had bothered back then—perhaps they had thought it best to move on. And since forward motion is something you passionately believe in, you can’t explain this uneasy feeling that it hadn’t been the right decision: Something lost was allowed to remain so, but what exactly had been gained? You then look directly across the street at the house you could always see from your porch: Weirdly, it hasn’t changed in any way, there’s not a single thing that’s different—those architectural details that had been ill-advised even back then are still there, and now more questionable than ever. Under what circumstances does something like this occur? How does a less-than-interesting home bestow on itself historic status? Evidently someone had deemed not moving on to be the more desirable option. 

And finally an equally slow 180, which brings you back around to your old house: gone and then here and then gone again; a different color now, with your father’s tree higher than the roofline and, remarkably, your mother’s overly tall custom shutters still flanking the picture window—or maybe new ones designed to be duplicates for reasons you’d never fathom. This, you realize, is the nature of legacy as it plays out in real life—the complex lives of your parents have in the end been reduced to this: a tree and shutters, both of unknown origin to the successive owners of the house, that for some reason seemed worth preserving—perhaps for nothing more considered than a shrugged Hey, they look okay. You wonder what your parents would have thought about their temporary immortality—the result of two decisions that they may not have pondered themselves. Or at least not as much as you had pondered before writing “Not Really Green Eyes.” But the result for you will be much the same, because no one really knows who writes pop tunes—they simply enter the culture fully formed from what most people assume is a song factory. And just as the tree will eventually be cut down and the shutters finally changed for a different design, this era’s music will fall out of fashion—and with it your one hit song. 

And it’s then you understand that even though you had tried to have a different trajectory than your family, you were in fact part of a dynasty with a history of dubious and accidental contributions. Gone but still here and then gone again, but you’ll forever be coming back: Whether you remember your past or not, you’ll always be condemned to repeat it. This is the nature of your DNA—its sequence and its mutations . . . 

You walk the eight blocks from your childhood to the cross avenue where there’s a better chance of a cab; to the familiar corner with the neighborhood pharmacy, just down from the grocery store. But any memories it might have stirred fail to materialize, because when you get there, the only thing you find is a weedy, vacant lot. You’re still staring at it when an old woman approaches, heading up the street with determination in the direction of your old school, and as she passes by, you can’t help yourself—you simply have to ask:

“Hey—I haven’t been around for a long time; what happened to the drugstore that was here?”

Slowing down, she sizes you up with a suspicion that doesn’t feature in any of your memories. And when she pauses, she keeps much more than a careful distance between you and her. “Barton’s, you mean? They went out of business about seven years ago, after all the problems with the fake prescriptions and that thing with Medicare.” And then she moves on immediately, uninterested in anything you might say next—and it occurs to you that curtness, too, isn’t present in your recollections.

You turn back to the stark and shadowless weedy lot where the pharmacy had been, thinking about fraudulent prescriptions and the now inauthentic past. Jim Barton has been a good friend of your father, and every one of your childhood ailments had been cured with medicine dispensed by him. Fake prescriptions. That thing with Medicare. The Rust Belt blight had affected far more than buildings and neighborhoods.

Jim Barton: gone and then here and then gone again—replaced by someone you never knew. And you imagine that unlike these crumbling facades, Barton had begun to fall apart from the inside. The downturn for him had been a losing battle against cancerous economics—the collapse had first hollowed-out his livelihood and then proceeded to devour his hopes. 

And in the wake of this, perhaps, he’d filled his first forged prescription—which must have been deeply self-shocking, although even more so later on, when he realized he’d gotten away with it. And thus encouraged, he did it one more time—and then again and again and again. At which point he began to manipulate the records for reimbursement from Medicare. 

All of this, maybe, while presenting a front to the world that showed no signs of inner collapse. And to achieve this he would have had to have sent almost subliminal signals about no trespassing; oblique warnings to those around him that it’d be best if they kept out. These would have been directed toward his family and his friends, but at some point he might have understood that they were actually intended for himself: Cautious reminders that in the future self-examination would have to be sidestepped. 

But in the end, Jim Barton’s desperation and self-delusion had simply led to this—a stark and shadowless weedy lot, and a suspicious old lady who needed to walk much farther for her medicine. 

That was the sequence of Barton’s DNA and these were the broken strands. Or maybe it’s just your imagination fueled by apophenia . . . 

A cab finally comes into view and hailing it proves no problem at all; it pulls curbside with the swift eagerness of a taxi in an old film. And it makes you realize that anymore this isn’t a taxi cab town. It’s a place of far fewer small luxuries and not many expense accounts. In the back now, you tell the driver to take you uptown. “I want to go to the old bank building—the tallest one—but I’m not sure of the address.”

“No problem; I’ll get you there,” the driver says in the direction of the backseat. “But, hey, you should know it’s the third tallest these days.” Turn and face the strange, ch-ch-changes, whispers Bowie, suddenly seated next to you. Look out, all you rock ‘n rollers. Then he’s gone, and you almost laugh because, yeah, thus far this trip has confirmed that you’d taken his further advice to heart and had become a different man. “A bank still owns it, though,” the driver continues, helpful and weary at the same time, “Pretty much more of the same—just a different one.”

The cab window next to you now framing a stream of images from your past: the movie art house boarded up; a different shopping center in the place of the one you knew so well; the church and library, still next to one another, both still impervious to time. And then a distinct shift for the worse—the crossing of a line that divides the still-clinging from the parts of town that have simply let go, like that hell-of-a-final-step that takes you from the shallow end into the deep. Locations so changed, you don’t recognize them, even though you must have passed by them countless times back in better days.

“You from around here originally?” the driver asks.

“No—but someone I once knew was. Just curious about where he came from.”

At the end of the street, the old bank building juts above the urban blight—still here, but much smaller than you remembered and significantly less imposing. And it hits you that you’d come from a place that had once called a 20-story building a skyscraper. But it was also more than that back then—this Art Deco building, already old by the time you were born, had been the Future to you. Unlike the rest of the town, it had always seemed to have been transplanted here, evidence, maybe, of a world far beyond this place. To your younger eyes, it had looked like what King Kong might have climbed in advance of the planes that would shoot him down to ensure he’d never leave.

Staring at it from the cab, you find the through line that stitches past to present—the building remains visceral to this day; it still thrills you, an emissary from the future, that has since seen things which overshadow it. Even darkened with the years and seemingly shrunken, it defiantly remains not of this town—as fully apart from its decline now as it was from its ascendancy then. The old bank building, the lone example of Art Deco in this place, is a testament to other kinds of outsiders—those who are also at odds with the Midwest, its tastes and its sensibilities. And further, it’s a monument to simply not being here for all those who aspire not to be.

Your father: gone and then here and then gone again; one time he had taken you to the observation deck, and you’d never forgotten that from way up there you could clearly see another state and, you still persist in believing, another country on the horizon. Looking back, you’re certain he’d misunderstood: your excitement hadn’t been about a building that was the greatest pride of the town—your pulse had been racing because you’d seen beyond the city limits . . . 

In front of the building you ask the driver to wait because the chances of finding another cab here seem slim, and increasingly it was becoming important to know that you had a way out of this place. “Is that plaza with the river view still there around the back?” The driver nods, cuts the engine and settles in with yesterday’s sports page.

Up close, the building’s limestone skin is stained and muted with age, but allowing for this, you have to admit that it still looks good. In other circumstances it might have earned a well-deserved restoration. But not right now because it’s in the wrong place at an economically grim wrong time. Still, for having been born before the massive crash of the previous century, here it is, still holding forth in the wake of post-Millennial collapse—albeit in the literal shadows of much taller and newer structures.

The plaza still runs from the rear entrances of the building right down to the river’s edge, which looks much more polluted now—as it probably is. Overlooking the water, there’s a structure of some kind. And when closer, you find that it’s a podium supporting a large map under half-fogged Lexan. It angles upward on the far end toward the river in an attempt to suggest perspective and has to be several years old—outside long enough for the sun to have bleached most of the color from the inks. At the top in the back, faded lettering in san-serif bold proclaims Forward To The Future, and just below, a few points smaller, On The Move In The New Millennium. Centered under that, after all the sloganeering, is simply Five-Year Renewal Plan. The bank must have been part of the financing, but still, why leave this standing here? Pride, maybe? Or, more likely, it might be as a cautionary reminder about making ill-advised investments in the future—an accidental corporate monument commemorating yesterday’s tomorrows.

Underneath the three-tiers of the title, the map itself is a ghosted image where only the boldest contours remain, and most of these are only partial. There’s a rub-on arrow atop the Lexan, curled now from the edges in by time and the river’s humidity. It points to the phantom area just below and announces with a faded Day-Glo confidence that, like it or not, You Are Here, although it refuses to say in what way.

The Lexan flares in the late afternoon sun and you’re suddenly thinking of that carnival attraction: Gone and then here and then gone again, just like its annual visits. Every a year a tractor trailer would arrive alongside the edge of the drive-in’s parking lot. Both sides of the truck announced in three-foot letters that there was an actual whale inside. The driver was an old man—at least old to you—who would then become the ticket taker and, after that, a docent of sorts. Inside, after parting with 50 cents, there was indeed a whale—frozen solid behind a half- fogged glass that ran the length of the trailer. Later you found out that it weighed 20 tons and was nearly 40 feet long. Exactly how the old man had come to own the whale’s corpse was never clear, but this much was: he annually appeared next to the parking lot with the regularity of a holiday. And that was the thing—his dependability was the reason that you still remember all of this. Because if something is kept frozen for long enough—decades it turned out, in this case—freezer burn is unavoidable, and the truck was obviously not airtight. Over the course of your annual visits, the whale’s skin began to progressively peel, making it ever less recognizable until a point was reached where small labels were needed to explain specific features. You increasingly needed to squint at the hulk encased behind the half-fogged glass and fall back on memories of previous visits to make sense of what you were seeing. Slowly you began to realize that the more recent appearances of the whale were smudging your earlier recollections. The present was overwriting the past, not simply following it. And it was then you instinctively understood that it was time to stop giving your 50 cents to the old man by the fold-down steps . . . 

The Morphing Nature Of Memories

Being an excerpted project note for a book-in-progress

Confession: Prior to major writing projects, I’m a Deeply Serious Notetaker. For me, notes are what storyboards were to Hitchcock–so detailed that the only thing I need to do during their eventual realization is concentrate on the purely technical.

But this isn’t to say that all notes are equal–they’re not. And by this, I mean that some of them cut  to the very marrow of a project. Put another way, some notes accidentally become part of the genome map of the writing at hand–with emphasis on accidentally. Because those kinds of notes cannot be consciously written–or at least I can’t write them intentionally–in much the same way that most pop artists don’t simply sit down and say, “Right–time for the hit single.” Notes like these are genuinely mysterious because there’s almost a channelling aspect to them.

Which brings us to this morning, when I lost my way in a draft of the book–preplanning be damned, it happens. And in an attempt to find my footing again, I pulled down one of the Moleskines containing general notes for the project and found this–which immediately put me on the right course again. The thing is, I have almost no memory of writing this–I have the vague impression that is was in the middle of the night more than a year ago. And I’m also certain that I didn’t capture it in the the midst of an Ah-Ha Moment. I merely wrote it down because that’s what I do–I take notes.

But now, all this time later, it’s proven to be important enough to move onto its own well-deserved page in the Notes folder of Scrivener, my writing app. In terms of the book, it’s turned out to be a hit single: one which feels more attributable to my skills as possessed conduit than as a writer–almost creepily so, in fact.

But however this occurred, I’d like to thank my late-night, past-self for having the sense to get it down–and, of course, give props to whatever scotch and music played a part . . .


The best live versions of songs are the early ones–the ones closest to the writing and the recording. Five or ten or twenty years later, there may be “legendary” live performances–but these are honored as a specific sets of downstream moments and performance inflections, and not as the purest, most direct connections to original intents.

The marginalia of age versus direct emotional lineage: An artist’s expressive tools may be better honed later, but the original vision has blurred. So which version is better? Which is worse? And why? Unavoidably, it comes down to this–considered and retrofitted or raw and immediate?

Eventually, all singers become cover artists of their own material. And even though covers can be breathtaking and even breakthrough in their reimaginings, there’s one thing they can never be–original. At their best, they can only supplant because they can never replace.

We’re talking about authenticity here. In terms of pop singers–indeed, in terms of all of us–it’s a binary existence: There’s only the original and the remixes (which are sometimes endless). And the remixes are what we call autobiography–the morphing truth we tell ourselves in order to fall asleep, and then at three in the morning when awakened from that recurring bad dream, whatever it may be.

In the middle of the night, we’re all cover artists of our lives–second-guessing and revising the shoulda/coulda/woulda of our respective histories.

Here’s the thing, though: We’re hard-wired to favor the present, no matter what that might be. Thus Sting thinks the crappy orchestral version of “Roxanne” trumps previous versions and Lou Reed believes in the Take No Prisoners iteration of “Walk On The Wild Side”–the one punctuated by a stand-up routine . . .

The problem is that there are two kinds of authenticity–original and present. And psychologically, Present Authenticity always wins. Two decades later, a pop star prefers to be a commentator on the song written by his or her 19-year-old self rather than re-inhabiting the teen. Similarly, at three in the morning, each of us prefers to adjust that failed love affair from years ago to seamlessly make sense with our present circumstances instead of simply reliving it.

Trailer For A Work-In-Progress

As I’ve previously noted, part of drafting my book involves recording myself reading newly written sections. From the outset, optimizing the sound of the text has been very important to me. And the only way to effectively tweak it is to, well, actually voice it.

As a consequence, I’ve many recordings of the novel’s final-draft sections which, because they’re locked down, are no longer of use.

Last year, it occured to me that edited versions of these readings could serve as the basis for occasional book “trailers.” And layered with music and visuals, they’ve proved to be pretty effective at this task.

The critical proviso then as now is to warn potential listeners that I’m a writer, not a professional narrator. But what I lack in rounded tones and perfect enunciation, I more than make up for in terms of definitive demonstrations of the novel’s prose rhythms . . .

Transcript Of “The Dull Ache Of Dormancy” Trailer

“Ready, then, to tidy up?” The voice seems to come from everywhere. And though you’d like to answer No, the car-wreck curiosity is irresistible. Turning away is useless because youʼre already rubbernecking–even though (or maybe because) this freakish accident is your own:

In a swivel chair on an oriental rug, youʼre waiting for playback and remembering Steppenwolf: Well, you don’t know what we can find / Why don’t you come with me little girl? But on a different kind of magic carpet ride–one that’s the opposite of escape. The dimmed halogens at the edges of the studio spill tarnished light down the walls, yellowing the acoustic panels before smudging into shadows. This, even as the fixture above your chair blazes at maximum setting, containing you and the ivory-handled cane in a cone of glacial light . . . .

“Standing by for ‘Post-Modern Pop Song;’ digital transfer of original mix, yes?” The Engineer makes this question an announcement, his voice omnipresent between the monitors. Squinting through the Arctic light and beyond its glare on the control booth window, you see him silhouetted against the halogen-glint on all of that gear for re-polishing your past: Business-brisk, in service to the entertainment industry and bathed in the glow of his professional tools. Apart from a terse Letʼs do it, then, what more is there left to say?

And now you want a cigarette–for the first time in many years. Recording studio. Engineer. Hidden dread before playback. Making music means chain smoking–or at least it did. It’s Proustʼs madeleine-and-limeflower tea, but turned inside out: circumstances have conjured up a sacred object from the past. And though you try, you canʼt shake the desire because in addiction there is no gone. Absence there becomes abstinence; the dull ache of dormancy. Lou Reed materializes then, fading up with some mid-chorus advice: You’re still doing things I gave up years ago–which are true words in a truer song . . . .

You’re beginning to adjust to the disconnectedness at the heart of Studio World: A perpetual twilight between the centuries that might be anywhere. And yes, the time frame could be narrowed a little by identifying the modules and racked MIDI units. But the spartan trend in component design makes everything an echo of Jonathan Ive. Which is why the concept of Where is useless: The hardwareʼs international minimalism has eliminated any sense of “here.”

But all of this is academic because you don’t know the tech–at least not like you did.Well, after all, just look at yourself. And so you lean back in the chair: surrounded by speakers, wanting nicotine and free-floating in a cloudy pool of maybe 10 years. It occurs to you that your resurrection fantasy had always been much more specific than this–even as the details of how you came to be here begin to soften and smudge.

You’d written the hit song for a successful film. Except in reality you hadn’t . . . .

The Writing’s Sonic Debris Field

In O! Lucky Man, Lindsay Anderson’s savage film about post-war Britain, someone observes that you won’t make it in the catering business unless you know what to do with the leftovers–and so complete is my agreement with this food-station insight that I’m about to apply it to “Overture,” the audio file embedded in this post. But before we can get to it, to its what, we need to detour through the vaguely akimbo why . . .

At its most distilled, my ongoing work-in-progess is a novel about a former pop musician eventfully remixing a collection of songs from years ago–songs which were the last he wrote. (And if, by chance, I’ve just saved you $26.95, you’re very welcome.) High-concept-wise, it seemingly doesn’t get any simpler than this–but the operational word here is seemingly, and it’s underscored half a dozen times.

The work-in-progress didn’t start out simple: For the first time as a professional writer, I was visited by something that behaved very much like that phrase I’m too superstitious to bang down here. The awful thing that rhymes with Fighter’s Lock. Yes, uh-huh, you know–that which shall resolutely remain nameless. I’d labored for months working out the structure of the book; spent days researching Bosendorfer grand pianos; had meticulously outlined how each sequence of the story unfolded. And yet there I sat–unable to get beyond page 12. This went on for what seemed forever, even allowing for the time spent in Full-Out, Fuck-Me-Hard-It’s-All-Over Freak-Outs.

And then one day–when I was uncomfortably close to bashing-out a series romance novels under the name Christana Metroform to support my obviously washed-up self–I worked out what was wrong. I couldn’t move my protagonist into the remixing process because I onlyconceptually understood what he was tweaking. How to explain this? In terms of the songs he was rethinking, I was attempting to conjure up the tips of the icebergs and not the icebergs themselves. In the case of Page 12, I thought I only needed two actual couplets from an imaginary song which would be expected to feature a 60-line lyric. And, of course, I was Deeply Wrong.

Cue my personal Kubler-Ross Moment: Fast-forward through the numerous meetings of forehead and palm, through the finger-drumming, through the angry denial, to–yes–an acceptance of what needed to be done. Before I could write the book, I needed to write the songs. Like it or not, in order to reveal the tip, I needed to construct the whole goddamn iceberg. Fourteen of them, actually.

And this is how I came to ring up my songwriting partner from so long ago that years and years can be considered equal parts avoidance and spin. “We need to come out of retirement,” I said. “I need songs that no one but you and I will ever see.” Could there have been a sexier, more seductive offer? Apparently not, because we spent the next few months writing and recording my protagonist’s last collection. One that he would pick apart in the studio. (Full-disclosure: After asking my former collaborator to write material that only peeks through the novel’s prose, I neglected to tell him that the songs would also be turned inside-out over the course of the book. I don’t feel guilty about this–sometimes an offer can be too sexy and seductive.)

More fast-forwarding: The demos that represent the pretend collection of my fictional songwriter were completed and, lo, they turned out to be much more than research–at least to our ears. Yes, they were written in-character; yes, they were, by design, in the manner of old-school singer-songerwriter material, but they somehow transcended their deep-background status. Fast-foward once again: The demos did the trick, and my work-in-progress instantly moved beyond page 12. If not exaltation in the streets, there was at least a bonafide Risky Businessmoment that involved me, tube socks, underwear, savage air guitar and a waxed, hardwood floor. But, critically (and less disturbingly), something else happened.

I still remember pointing out to my collaborator that beyond functioning as a soundtrack to the book, the songs were narrative enough to be a set of theater songs. Which–finally–brings us to “Overture.” As I continued to wrestle with the book, my collaborator wrapped a selection of demo melodies into–well, you know.

Yet more fast-fowarding: Discussions with a theater company ultimately fell apart and, sucked back into my writing, the spin-off demo faded into the background. Until today, that is, when I rediscovered it while searching for another demo I needed to tweak the manuscript. Unsurprisingly, “Overture” has remained baroque, fun and, er, theatrical–so what to do? what to do? Spoiler alert: it’s attached to this post . . .

At this juncture, it’s not my intent to release the demos into the wild. After all, they were created for my ears only and it would would be very much like including my working outline with the book. (Which, it occurs to me, is not completely true–there are three songs that definitely transcend their origins, even the being-written-in-character-and-genre bit.) But “Overture” is something different; something designed to be a once-removed core sample of the original demos. And because of this, “Overture” isn’t the inspiration for anything in the novel and, more importantly I’ve a distinct intellectual distance from it. So why not? Why the hell not, indeed.

Thus, Gentle Reader, here’s a glimpse into the musical underpinnings of my work-in-progress that, in their sheer and dramatic orchestral-ness really aren’t underpinnings at all. Insert here your favorite one-hand-clapping metaphor for paradox. If this were a film trailer, “Overture” would be the over-the-top scene that doesn’t feature in the release print–that extra exploding car hurtling pieces of itself at the camera before the smash-cut to black and “Coming Soon.” Up until now, I’ve always wondered about those kinds of trailer moments–why aren’t they included in the release? But having rediscovered “Overture,” I now understand: They’re unrepentant shards of because-we-canfilmmaking that don’t fit into their respective movies and yet remain too cool for the cutting room floor. It’s less a con game than self-indulgence. And you know, I’m okay with that . . .

“Overture.” Smash-cut to black. Legend: “Coming Soon.”

[restore audio link]

“Jimmy,” Visualized

Okay, I’ll admit that I’m intrigued–the posted reading of “Jimmy,” intended for my reference use and not public performance, has been doing doing, er, rather well in terms of visitors. A smarter individual would pretend that this development had been foreseen, but trust me, it wasn’t.

Thus, this is the logical conclusion to the posting of an excerpt from my work in progress that included the “Jimmy” sequence and the followup entry including my reading of it. With a tad of hubris (but a lot more raw curiosity), here’s the visualization of that reading:

To those of you who remain disinterested (and those of you who’ve become increasingly annoyed by all this repurposing), take heart–the chances of a film version remain astronomically slim and years
away . . .

“Jimmy” (And Audio Companion To “Limitations”)

There’s been surprising amount of positive feedback on “Limitations,” the most recent excerpt from the on-going work-in-progress–and, intriguingly, a number of readers have asked about the rhythm of the prose in this sequence: was my intent to be formal or conversational? To which, of course, the answer is yes.

As I’ve earlier indicated, this project is unique in terms of my writing in that the final draft is always the one that best reads aloud. So determined am I, that I’ve actually passed over better “page writing” in favor of the version that’s better spoken. (Confession–at first, doing this gave me a deeply sick feeling, but I’ve gotten used to it.)

Thus, I’m in a unique position to address (if not answer) that prose-rhythm question because I have the recordings of the work that were made to help me decide what became final drafts. Here, then, is the “Jimmy” sequence from the previously posted “Limitations” excerpt. And to make things a bit more interesting, I’ve retrofitted a soundtrack on the recording. (Well, after all, I had to do something–I’m a writer, not a professional narrator . . . )

Thanks again for all of that kind feedback.

[restore audio link]


Written and read by yours truly (from a work-in-progress)
Music: Max Richter, “I Was Just Thinking,” from 
24 Postcards In Full Colour

(remixed by me)


Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

Without limitations, everything’s possible–and that’s the problem: everything’s possible.

Studio World makes it easy to get lost chasing digital perfectibility. Here, creation is decoupled from time and space and–frequently–any sense of perspective. (Which, you suppose, says something about the world, since God had worked under similar conditions.) Most stillborn projects aren’t the result of drugs or writer’s block. Rather, it’s the seduction of 52 tracks and the lure of endless tweaking: a song that can be perpetually fixed-in-the mix instantly becomes addictive, and then every few hours that little musical problem turns out to be Not Quite Dead. Even in the studio most of us do things that just aren’t good for us. 

Bryan, after Jimmy, there at the dawn of music’s digital age: trapped for seven self-indulgent years inside 50 desk-direct recordings. Obsessively laying tracks and then endlessly deciding among the infinite “final” mixes. And so, in the end, the big surprise wasn’t that the album never came out–it was that something quick-and-dirty did: a collection of covers recorded in three weeks; a release in all senses of the word.

Jimmy, before Bryan, in someplace inaccessible during the old analog days, with his master tapes actually wearing out; their ferric oxide scrapped off edges-first by endless runs across play heads. Jimmy had been looking for Perfect Mixes, and, in retrospect, he’d been having a breakdown. But the legendary, self-destructing masters was only the most repeated story; the one sane enough in later years to share with dinner guests. The last song completed had been something musique concrete, but approached almost as if it were dub: the vocal was Jimmy, heavily reverbed, speaking a session guitarist through a blistering solo note by fucking note–however, all of the guitar had then been replaced by a digital cello carefully programmed to ignore everything Jimmy had commanded. Thus “No, goddamnit, it’s E beforeG; right there at the 5th fret” tore through the dark chocolate melancholy often and to no avail. Like a tape loop–until it finally sunk in that someone had done this in real time. After which it became disturbing in a way that even edgy performance art isn’t, andeliminated any need to wonder whether Jimmy ever recorded
again . . .

Red Vector

Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

Red Vector, the biggest summer film of the decade, tells the story of a spy forced out of retirement. Harrison Ford had lobbied hard for the role because it allowed him to play his age. And he most effectively leveraged the no-longer-young angle in the seaside cottage scenes bookending the film. A new agent, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is sent to convince Ford to again serve his country and, of course, they fall in love at his secluded waterside home. Two hours later, the action returns to the cottage on the cliff: the main baddie (Christopher Walken, naturally), whom Ford thinks he’s killed in the middle of the third act, turns out to be–big, collective gasp from the audience–Not Dead, Heavily Armed and Really Pissed . . .

A music department assistant had run love-, water– and sand-based searches across the back catalogs acquired by the Global Entertainment Group: old songs were filtered through these queries, distilling those with meanings that might fit the new context of the film. But there’d been no search for autumn because the screenplay’s slugline simply stated exterior. seaside home. So in the end it wasbeach that had snagged your song, and then the rest of the very cinematic lyric had gone on to clinch the deal.

By shooting and cutting the film’s love montage to a song it already owned, GEG also managed to create most of the video needed for VH1, and then promptly distributed the costs across both the music and film divisions–something the accountants found far more stirring than any ballad ever written. Afterwards, they stood you in front of a green screen and had you lip-sync the chorus for a couple hours, so that later, intercut with footage from the film, there’s just under 45 seconds of you in the six-minute video of your song . . .

Red Vector ends on a downbeat note–which probably accounts for all that bewildering acclaim for a blatant Big Summer Movie. And crucially, this undermining of expectations was your second lucky break. The original climax would have had Christopher Walken shotgunned off the cliff, and then, as Ford pulls Gyllenhaal to his chest,smash-cut to black and credit roll–which would have reprised Sharpnel’s “Armageddon Outta Here” from the second car chase in the film.

But the project’s director, both sensitive and French, had tired of making Euro-inflected action films, and so over a long weekend at the Chateau, he’d rewritten the predictable ending: Gyllenhaal is now revealed to have been a double agent, and is shot by Walken just before he’s blasted off the cliff. Ford rushes to her side for some forgiving, final words, and then audiences everywhere go weepy. As he cradles no-longer-with-us Gyllenhaal, a slow reverse-zoom aerial shot reduces him to a dot in an existential universe. (Being French, the director had insisted on calling this–yes–his Vertigo Moment.) After which there’s fade to black and credit roll–with what else but “Autumn Beach?” The full vocal version because now the song is about Harrison Ford alone with his memories. And of course, it’s also a certainty that the audience’s mood is now autumnal.

Saddened filmgoers filed out of theaters to a Dolby remix of “Autumn Beach” that you had had nothing to do with. And this was the version of the song that became a hit. However, if the studio hadn’t lost its battle for the uncontroversial Focus Group Ending, the deluxe, hit-bound iteration of the song would have appeared a full three minutes into the credits, accompanying the names of craftspeople in esoteric technical groups and therefore only heard by geeks in nearly empty auditoriums.

But Harrison Ford had intervened–he’d seen Maggie’s New Death Scene as the chance to do his first real acting in more than two hours: he could emote over the lover dying in his arms or snarl an Asta la vista variant–as choices go, it wasn’t hard. And so, with no second thought, Ford made a call and got the Vertigo Moment made by cashing-in one of his career chips . . .

Without limitations, everything’s possible–and that’s the problem: everything’s possible. However, that won’t be an issue here because there are parameters built into the sessions. All that’s needed is to clean-up the tracks; to be worthy of the 24-Bit Sampling line on the back of the lyric booklet. Get in, meticulously scrub and then get the hell out. Things that just aren’t good for us.

It means some badly needed cash, to say nothing of the rush that comes from being right all those years ago when you had stood firm regarding your own Vertigo Moment; when everyone else–critics, listeners and even Jack–couldn’t have been more wrong.

This is why you’re at Limbus Sound, in this swivel chair, on this oriental rug, in this cone of glacial light, with your cane on the floor beside you. Except it isn’t the real reason.

Your presence here has nothing to do with networking or savvy management or personal persistence or the obvious quality of the song or even the hard work (which, after all, had occurred 10 years ago). Your resurrection-fantasy-come-true is the result of the acquisition strategies of a global conglomerate, the database skills of a corporate research assistant, the accidental alignment of song subject with a story created by a politicized committee of screenwriters, the fortuitous choice of a literal title, the overweening ambitions of an dead-ended action director and the second agenda of an international film star.

Within significant limitations, only certain things are possible.

These are the fading details of your second chance–and why a version of “Autumn Beach” mixed by someone else will bump the original to the end of your re-release or, more likely, simply replace it.

A Deepening Twilight

Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

“I’d like to be very honest with you, yes? So let’s have a candid discussion.” And here you jump because the Engineer is now just behind your eyeballs, as if psycho-acoustically leaning forward to better share a secret. “There’s something strange about Formal Absences, and I wonder, perhaps, if you can’t hear it because you’re still so close to the work?” And then a long pause while he finds neutral language and rehearses its delivery. “The songs, well, they often seem at odds with the collection’s production–sometimes only slightly, but also in larger ways, yes?”

And you jump once more, but this time because the observation shakes you. As a producer back there in London, maybe the Engineer had been the real deal. Or perhaps he’s just approaching the tracks with fresh ears and 10 years’ distance. Nevertheless, the collection’s feel has always niggled at you: base level, it was what you intended, but not quite what you meant. Which, in retrospect, might have been the reason The Formal Absences of Precious Things had crash-landed in the stores and burned up in reviews. Heartbreaking and, yes, unlistenable.

“At odds? In what way? Specifically, I mean.” Not said defensively because for the moment the complex politics of the re-release have been put aside; it’s a kind of time-out–or something like one–where The Engineer is no longer channeling the dry caution of the company.

“Well, it’s like a double exposure in photography, yes? Two things at once–one on top of the other? Most of the time, the songs are saying this, while the production is implying that. And it can be quite disconcerting–I mean, well here you go, have a listen . . .”

You’d always anticipated there’d be time to prepare for that flip into the earlier version of yourself. But in the end, it turns out to be like the dentist, where the lip is jiggled as a distraction before the needle goes in: first the diversion of the Engineer’s concerns, and then the sudden jab of playback that is, despite the metallic taste in your mouth, the opposite of Novocain. You haven’t listened to Formal Absences in the last ten years, not even to prepare for remastering. There’s been no need because somewhere deep inside the songs have never stopped playing. Indefensible stuff, really–well, just look at them, Darling.

Punched into the corner monitors of the speaker array, the carefully constructed stereo image of “Post-Modern Pop Song” materializes. The phantom bassist, 45 degrees left of center, pumps out the minor-key reggae riff. And then, from an illusory stage right, the entrance of someone you no longer are and yet somehow remain:

When you went, you took the light;

now there’s only darkness inside of me

Though I crumble out of sight,

you would never know it to look at me . . . .

Beatrice: that dead-of-winter when she’s gone, equidistant from fall and spring; a place where the old colors have been forgotten rather than faded and the new ones are nowhere in sight; those words that permanently stain your heart with the gray-scale of that afternoon; the dirty snow, the dun-colored clouds and the early nights of too-short days that are also somehow endless. Only darkness is left inside . . . .

Grasping the sides of the swivel chair, thumbs digging into the seat cushion . . . .

Beatrice: months, maybe years, gone away from living; hiding yourself in the everyday, turned inward and inside-out, self-medicating and self-loathing; yearning to no avail, serving the self-imposed sentence by writing sentences; journals that might someday make sense of this–messages to a future self from a place that has no future; forever drowning and then writing yourself back to the surface. Crumbling out of sight . . . .

Face expressionless, eyes unseeing: night terrors, but you’re awake . . . .

Beatrice: an autumnal afternoon, a half-remembered eternity later, with steadier hands and transfixed by the day after a residency in darkness; your life once more thrown into relief next to a golden sun beam illuminating dust motes as you’re finally able to write what you’ve been unable to say to anyone. When you went, you took the light . . . .

Swept away in a current of time that’s not the one flowing around the Engineer . . . .

Beatrice: now suddenly unseen spring; behind studio walls conjuring up the undead and giving voice to the unspeakable; the pantomime propriety of taping confessions after long-passed judgments, all in the name of art-as-commerce; unarticulated loss now strictly metered and click-tracked, so that which changed everything forever could be expressed as a momentary, disposable pop song; the attempt to balance on the taut lines of craft above the abyss of your own creation. You would never know it to look at me . . . .

The instantly reconstituted past closing over your head; the sinking into it, the surface shimmer of the studio growing dimmer and more distant as you descend through a deepening twilight.

This is how she reenters your life.

Black Gang Chine

Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

Downstairs at the bar in Black Gang Chine, anticipating this meeting with Jack, you light a Gauloise and contemplate how best to explain yourself. Thus far Cult Artist, cliched or not, sounds pretty good–if said fast and with authority, not allowing questions to form, it captures andconveys the essence of what you’re still calling your career.

And yet when you are recognized, it’s most frequently through the writing you’ve done for others, and less–with that one massive exception, of course–for any of the music that you kept for yourself. So there’s a problem of accuracy in this self-labeling: your own songs are appreciated by a small base of fans, but too few for even a cottage patronage of your work. You’ve come to call this Fractal Economicsbecause the alpha’s always the omega–because no matter how small an endeavor is, it’s still all about the fucking numbers.

Black Gang Chine is beneath The Gosford, which in turn is below Frontera, and you’ve arrived a full 30 minutes in advance to compellingly re-edit yourself. The actual bar is slyly Kubrick: an antiseptic light from within the thing diffuses through the translucent counter–it’s like drinking on top of a medical light box that awaits the x-rays of your broken career. And although you’ve no desire to examine that damage, it’s impossible to ignore the florescent glow because the only other light in this subterranean room comes from a few scattered, alcoved candles . . . .

You look out over the glinting sea of lofted, disposable lighters, and then take care of business with the crowd-pleasing anthem about a spectral woman . . . .

No, goddamnit, begin again. The most important thing is you’ve written the best pop songs never heard by a mainstream audience. Best in this case meaning nuanced, uncompromised pieces that only meet the listener half way. You don’t write hits; you pen songs that sometimes are modestly successful for other artists. But, as “Not Really Green Eyes” clearly proves, if called upon, you can construct a monster. These days, however, you have little interest in chart wars and the business end of music: these days there are lines you just won’t cross, no matter how much money stands to be made. Said fast and withresolute authority, not allowing questions to form.

But once again, there’s that matter of accuracy. Because it’s much more than the refusal to cross certain lines: it’s also the fear around three in the morning that you only think you know how to write hit songs. That sitting down and consciously trying to conjure-up one might prove–to yourself and the world–that the one time had been a fluke. And the essence of your career . . . .

In the men’s room, puking in a urinal; haunted by the last thing she had said . . . .

Third try, then. Big, deep breath. You’re the guy who wrote “Not Really Green Eyes.” Yes, that one–the one on the radio; the one inescapable all that summer; the one that was stately and progressive and about the woman you were living with at the time. So obviously you’ve got The Touch, and, well, any label needs artists with that. Which makes the deal you’re discussing now that much more attractive–and also cost-effective because these days there’s just you. Back when the song had topped the charts, there’d been a band–though in truth, Dark Victory’s revolving membership had made it more of a concept than a group. But nevertheless, you’re solo now; like someone militantly single after a bad divorce. And to keep yourself from wincing here, you light another Gauloise.

The exposed-brick walls of Black Gang Chine are those of a 19th century cellar. In contrast, however, the furnishings of the club extend the tone of the luminous bar: you’re seated in the middle of an antique fever-dream of a tomorrow that never happened: where the Ripper’s Whitechapel is collided into Lang’s Metropolis–and this intrusion of each into the other, with no effort made to meld them, produces a temporal yin and yang; an entanglement, but with demarcations.

One more time, but with all the cards on the table–and therefore not for the meeting: you’ve no explanation why “Not Really Green Eyes” climbs to number one. As in not a single clue. As in no-fucking-idea-whatsoever . . . .

She’s just gotten sick, and your concern, while great, is shaped by television narratives: She’s the beloved guest star, so despite test results, it’s bound to be fine in the end. Because that’s always the way these things work out in all the medical dramas–some dodgy touch-and-go in the second act, followed by a cure. Said fast and with nervous authority, without pausing for questions to form.

But make no mistake, in spite of appearances, this is survival, not denial: unavoidably sometimes the informed and the clueless arrive at the same destination. Because yes, you fully comprehend the horrors yet to come, you’re already deep into sleepless nights, but during the day you do your best to cling to hope–it keeps you from drowning in all the bad news.

It’s been a season filled with grim diagnoses: Dark Victory is on life-support and your songwriting’s been  seriously ill–and there the simple prescription is, of course, the bashing-out of better tunes. It’s time to work-up a new collection both you and the public can live with, but the constant worry over Jan and the group and what’s left of your professional future is a less-than-ideal place from which to storm the fortress of popular taste.

But then to your astonishment, you simply manage to succeed–you back into the formidable barriers and, shockingly, they tumble down. It’s like knocking over the most expensive vase on entering a high-end boutique, and then finding that the accident has made you the new owner of the shop. The initial impulse to flee, however, stubbornly remains. And so when people offer congratulations, you learn to give them a knowing smile–as if The Plan is working like a charm; as if everything is Right On Schedule. Signaled slyly and with authority, not allowing questions to form.

Except that there is no plan, and certainly no schedule: Elton John topples from number one, and you’ve no clue how you did it. As in What-the-hell-did-I-just-do? As in no-fucking-idea-whatsoever.

“Not Really Green Eyes” is a story about the various stations of love; a miniature epic moving from doubt to heartfelt certainty. Maybe the self-exposure of the lyric grounds the studio majesty of the cut, the significance of what’s being said equal to the wide-stage, stereo grandeur. Maybe the music buyers like confessional transformations that play-out in six pop-song minutes. Maybe radio programmers think they’ve found “Born To Run,“ finally unburdened by cars. Maybe deep inside you’re certain of what the disease will do to her. Perhaps the song is actually your oblique and ungentle goodnight. Afterwards, when all you have left is time, you’ll endlessly ponder these
things . . . .

One more run at it–there’s just enough time–once again for yourself, and not Jack . . . .

As her health unravels and the band falls apart, the blurring shock begins to fade, and you find yourself finally able to focus on caregiving and careful writing. Both demand putting the needs of others before your own, and you develop a meticulous servility about medications and theoretical hits.

“Not Really Green Eyes” is intended to be just another cautious, machine-tooled lyric, but something unexpected occurs: spontaneity and inspiration connect. The moment is entirely without drama; there’s no enlightened sense of occasion–you’re merely giving yourself a brief holiday by working in the old way again. She’s across the room, napping on the couch; something she’s never done in the past. It’s late October, and the thinning light is as golden and brittle as the leaves. You watch her sleep in the silent apartment, and, to better keep the time, meter each line to the beat of a heart that you’ve always hidden away.

You’ll realize later it’s the last quiet moment before you find a career and lose something precious. Before Death, like a pack rat, leaves something shiny in tragic exchange for her.

The arcing chart-climb of “Not Really Green Eyes” blazes across her final days, descending, then, into the utter desolation that’s left in their wake. The mayfly existence of a hit pop song bookends last-stage illness and burial, which is planned by relatives after private discussions that pointedly don’t include you . . . .

Downstairs at the bar in Black Gang Chine, anticipating this meeting with Jack, you light a Gauloise and contemplate how best to explain yourself.

Blunt Nails

Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

At the last moment “Not Really Green Eyes” snags you a three-record solo deal; a lifeboat miraculously within jumping distance as the scuttled Dark Victory sinks. And the only thing you need to do to square this deal with Triumph Music is ensure that lightning strikes again (and then maybe one more time). But you’re not worried; this isn’t the hard part–well, at least not yet. No, the terrible price is having to sing that song each night on tour. Every encore you look out over a glinting sea of lofted, disposable lighters, and then take care of business with the crowd-pleasing anthem about a spectral woman. Afterwards, as you leave the stage, you always wave and shout Good Night, creating the impression that both these things are intended for the crowd. Said fast and with devastated authority, defying questions to form.

In this way, the Dark Pack Rat again returns, this time for your new, uncompromising start, leaving in its place something thin and fraying–but potentially lucrative and thus shiny. It feels like Faust 101, or something very close to it–a back-ended bargain you should have refused had you not misplaced your balls.

Your deal produces two acclaimed disasters, and the final release repeats the pattern–cursory support and tepid sales precede the cut-out racks. But this time there are no glowing reviews to cushion your collision with the bargain bin. You learn pop success is a ménage à trois: commercialism, critical acceptance and fan love in tangled intimacy–in essence, the circumstances guarantee at least one of them will wind-up hurt. So when your contract with Triumph isn’t renewed, there’s no real surprise. In the middle of open and empty sea, your lifeboat finally sinks.

You try hard to hard not to think about that third release; it was a classic Hail-Mary pass. Triumph had driven the wedge of nonexistent sales between your taste and tenacity: it was time, they said, to get Deeply Serious, because the music world was changing. And further, they said, you had to stop acting like it was 1973. And, after consideration, that was exactly what you did–by resolutely entering the studio and recording Mercenary Love.

Long before “Not Really Green Eyes” had made its unexpected way up the charts, music critic Chuck Mancuso had done his enfant terriblething, ordaining that in a crowded field, you were the only new songwriter to watch (as many years later, with a drug-proof consistency, he’d also praise your first solo album). But his Uncutreview of Mercenary Love was just a single, terse paragraph: “Like his namesake city in World War II, singer-songwriter Anthony Dresden is now a bombed-out shell of his former talent. Which explains why ‘painful’ is the only way to describe the wanna-be pop songs on his new release. Each track is like driving a blunt nail through my hand with the hammer of his vanished intelligence.” Oh yeah? Well, fuck you too, Chuckie M–both you and that hammer / intelligence thing. Because if you stop and really think about it, what the hell does that even mean?

What follows is three years in the wilderness: ad agency jingles, session work and the odd, increasingly infrequent gig. And although no one in the business ever calls you, the checks for “Not Really Green Eyes” still appear.

But what should have happened is something you’ve forbidden yourself to dwell on: after the Triumph crash-and-burn, you’d worked hard to trust yourself again, and then recorded a small-label album that was a genuine return to form. But the critics never saw it, much less any of the public, because, goddamnit, it was never released. The four-person indie had suddenly folded–before the promos were even unboxed. And later that day one of the newly unemployed with taste and what turned out to be foresight, had walked with all those unopened cartons containing your new release. For years afterwards, you’d see your “lost album” selling to collectors for crazy sums. So much money, in fact, you stared at your own copy longer than you should have–until, thank god, self-disgust had flooded-out the temptation. The hollow-shell essence of your bombed-out career.

Ultimately, of course, this can’t go on, and you have to do what’s always filled you with dread: acquiesce to that long-deferred sit-down between yourself and industry reality. So you turn off the TV, ignore all calls and ask pointed questions about where you stand. And hours later, after taking stock and realizing there’s no way out–or rather, in this case, no way back in–you finally pick up that jangling phone and find Jack Magnus on the other end.

Preview Of A Coming Attraction

Here’s how we play: Sometimes I need to talk to myself in the form of essays about technique–a long time ago I discovered that all my best thinking involves a degree of explaining. Thus this post is primarily for myself, but as always, you’re welcome to eavesdrop.

Over the past year or so, I’ve occasionally posted excerpts from a work in seemingly endless progress. They were shards deemed sufficiently finalized for placement in an online window because–on a number of levels–they really were like still-warm pies. And I have to admit I’ve been both surprised and flattered by the variety of visitors they’ve attracted.

Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about limitations of such excerpts. Their successful selection for optimal stand-alone scrutiny ensures the complete absence of original context. In effect, a highlight from a much larger work has been wrested and severed and retrofitted to vaguely operate as a short story.

For instance, here’s a paragraph carefully chosen because it contains a miniature backstory arc:

Big, Deep Breath

Third try, then. Big, deep breath. You’re the guy who wrote “Not Really Green Eyes.” Yes, that one–the one on the radio; the one inescapable all that summer; the one that was stately and progressive and about the woman you were living with at the time. So obviously you’ve got The Touch, and, well, any label needs artists with that. Which makes the deal you’re discussing now that much more attractive–and also cost-effective because these days there’s only you. Back when you had topped the charts, there had been a band–though, in truth, Dark Victory’s revolving members had made it more of a conceptual group. But nevertheless, you’re solo now; militantly single after a bad marriage. And to keep yourself from wincing here, you light another Gauloise.

Here also, is the attendant vocal test, because yes, I’m still writing this book that way; in every instance a final-draft passage is the one that works best when read aloud–by design, Best Vocalization even trumps technically better “page writing.”

[restore audio link]

“Big, Deep Breath” is not necessarily the best piece of writing I could have chosen, but it is, however, perfectly suited as a bite-sized bit of meaning–its tiny “story” neatly ends with an equally minuscule “closure” (or, rather, something that out of context can be made to function that way).

But here’s the thing: “Big, Deep Breath,” while not the book’s stellar passage, is a far better piece of writing than its excerpt-context suggests. Things are happening in the paragraph that can only properly resonate within the larger work. Sometimes it’s not so much the struck orchestral triangle as it is the interplay of the surrounding acoustics: the book quite literally can be seen as the missing concert hall.

It’s no wonder, then, that these days I’ve been wondering if a better way might be possible–one that doesn’t involve a work becoming its own weird set of Cliff Notes. And then this morning it suddenly struck me that what I wanted was a kind of film trailer.

Coming Attractions have always fascinated me because the best ones rise above the obligation to simply intrigue an audience. A world-class trailer captures the film’s quintessence without necessarily telling its story–or, and this is significant, even adhering to its timeline. In fact, a great trailer frequently conveys a movie’s emotional resonance by significantly rethinking its structure. While the logic of this is obvious (no one–not filmmaker, studio, theater or audience–is best-served by a two-minute Classics Illustrated version), the odd Is / Not-Is of a great trailer is magical in the same way a 20-minute John Coltrane deconstruction of “My Favorite Things” nevertheless remains emotionally true to the vastly different original song.

Since this morning, I’ve been wondering if a collection of excerpts from the book could be cut together and made to function in the manner of an artful film trailer–as a meditation on its essential themes, but not necessarily a mirror.

What I envision is something luxuriously long, at least by the standard of conventional excerpts–perhaps as many as 10,000 words–something with no obligation to match the event-arc of the book.

Given that part of the novel is concerned with the remixing of songs in a recording studio, let me try to put this another way: imagine an instance where the dance mixes of a song collection–which are usually after-the-fact exercises–function instead as its pre-release singes. Imagine getting to know these artful mutations before you meet the real thing.

I’m not claiming that this is breakthrough thinking, but I also can’t recall any instances of book-excerpt-as-film-trailer. So if this has been done, it’s happened only rarely, and–flashing amber light here–possibly for good reason . . .

Despite the lack of other examples, I’m still inclined to see what I can do with this concept. If a book proposal conveys what happens in a story, then film-trailer excerpts could demonstrate how it feels. It goes back to the aforementioned Is / Not-Is of all the best Coming Attractions–just as fiction is a true lie about the world, a further fictionalizing of the relationship of its excerpts might hew truer to the larger, imminent work.

The Only Thing That Matters

Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

After five summers’ growth, the birch is big enough to finally stand on its own. So on an autumn afternoon, you find the wire-cutters and release the tree from its bonds. But its chance has been missed–the damage is done–and it stays rooted there, too close to the house. The other saplings that replaced the elms are also beginning to grow, and the stripped-back starkness of the town is gradually being obscured. It’s then you realize that if you stay, the reality of this place will similarly fade–that even when it’s no longer seen, it will still be there just below every surface. You’re seventeen now, and the only thing that should matter is not taking root in your yard: staying here will drive the family’s local history yet another generation deep. But it will also place an emotional buffer between you and everything unforeseen. Because in the end, home really is the place where they have to take you in. Like your great-grandmother or Christopher’s cousin or Mrs Thompkins’ sister’s kids. What’s going to happen if you need somebody when you’re far away from here? When none of your emergency telephone numbers have local area codes? Because this is the place where all of your friends are–but it’s also where most of them will die. Thus moving on means doing so by yourself and then falling out of touch. It happens already in miniature, when classmates are transferred to other home rooms. And even now you understand that the fading-away is your leveraging of physical distance; a too-quick surrender to disconnection that’s just short of an embrace. It’s the manifested gap that’s always inside you, the separation from others you’re rarely able to bridge. Moving on means losing touch because if you can’t reach out now, what are the chances from 600 miles away? Proximity in this place contains your shyness, necessity keeps it in check, but when at last that limit is gone and you can feel the relief of being yourself, well, there will be no going back. And what happens then, when regardless of distance, those emergency numbers are long out of date? Because after all, in the end, you know this town as intimately as you do the rooms of your house–it may be lacking in many ways, but you can navigate it in the dark. And this confirms your greatest fear: settling into that comfortable, Midwestern rut, the cost of which is the insularity of a forgotten Stone-Age tribe. Staying on means a life that, like your father’s, ticks away on autopilot: a manufacturing job punctuated by vacations twice a year–holiday trips that will never extend more than 50 miles from home. So yes, right now the only thing that matters is not taking root in your yard: you stand there holding the cutters, staring at the tangle of wires on the ground, and with the decision made, walk away relieved, knowing this is the last autumn that you’ll be here.

Out there in the frozen yard, white against the white snow, the untethered birch is waiting for spring as you put the last of your stuff in the back of the car. You’ve chosen to leave in this first week of the year, when the wintery essence of the town can be seen; while the bare limbs remind you of the dying elms and your childhood epiphany. The packing had been Christmas run in reverse, with your things put into boxes that were then taped shut in preparation for surprise. Because you’re not sure of where you’ll live when you get there or what any part of the future will hold. Because the only plan you’re leaving with is to somehow make it through to spring. You switch on the car’s heater to kill the cold, and the fan rattles on its last bearing. Then the family materializes, huddled in the front yard, already like phantoms in the silver-blue dawn. With one last wave, the house is behind you and, radio already on, you’re headed east as Elton’s nameless chain drowns the incessant whirring. And in just a few miles more–on the freeway ramp–you’ll understand that his high-flying bird is you . . . .

Zen And Tonics

Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

Christ, it’s like an establishment shot: The light raking across the impossible keyboard–eight octaves of ebony and laminate that float in the darkness of a dead-still studio. The only thing that’s really missing is a superimposed time-and-place. You sit here in front of the layers of lacquer, the hand-fitted hardwood and felted hammers, in a moment of zen silence that honors experience, confidence, passion and belief. A Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, better known to you asThe Beast, where craft has been taken well beyond even unreasonable expectations.

The nine extra keys, all weirdly black, make this the porn star of pianos. And back in the day, you’d occasionally test them to make certain the dark octave still worked. But that was as far as it ever went; nothing was played down there. This was because you knew of no music that needed these extra notes: you’d been in the business of churning-out pop, with a limited need for repertoire–though you suspected that even in classical music, such pieces were extremely rare.

But here’s the thing about that extra octave: it doesn’t actually have to be played. Just its existence down there at the end affects the other 88 keys. Piano strings resonate, they don’t need to be struck, and something played in an upper octave inevitably bounces off those nine lurking strings. When the music comes back, it’s been transformed by the trip, like a mind broadened by travel.

You know this because even though you played pop, your real love has always been jazz. And there parts of chords are often left out; only the tops of harmonic series are played–3rds and 6ths, 7ths and 9ths, 11ths and sometimes even 13ths. The tonic notes in all of these cases are provided by the listener’s imagination. But on a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, the sympathetic resonance of the extra strings fills those blanks and completes the chords.

As implied by their color, these additional notes are the equivalent of dark matter in astronomy–invisible, but changing whatever is played anywhere on the piano. An attentive audience can sense the extra octave; its proof is in every subliminal tonic. So yes, dark matter: something in the music that can only be explained by something outside of it . . .

Craft that’s been taken well beyond even unreasonable expectations–the thing on which you’re supposed to bash-out a formula that transcends itself. Which is ironic, because among the many things you lack are confidence, passion and belief. But since you know this from long experience, at least you’re assured of that: you’ve seen the block and been around it any number of times, just like the still-alive bomb defuser or, more accurately, a wily, old whore. In this Post-Steinman world, you’re not really sure if one out of four will do, but then again, with nothing else left, it’s the only thing you’ve got to work with.

You sit here in the perpetual studio twilight; finally alone, but not really: the black-lacquered Beast completely fills this corner and causes a tightness in your chest. You’re that guy in Alien, eating his breakfast and ignoring a bad case of heartburn, who seconds later is blown apart by something deep inside him. It’s been years since you’ve seen a Model 290–the past decade, after all, has been carefully designed to detour around this reunion. But all roads, it seems, have still led back here, to the dimly lit, looming Beast. Thus this struggle to stare it down, because you’d really like to look away.

You’re petrified that you can’t do this anymore–you haven’t written a pop song in 10 fucking years. And thinking back, it seems quite possible that maybe you never knew how. You had stopped writing because you couldn’t fully express yourself–pop music had always been too tonic-based. To be crowd-pleasing, the chords always had to be completed, tidy and hummable. Just as each lyric had to be ground-down to the fewest syllables and tightest rhymes. Audiences had wanted nothing left to their imaginations, and in obliging them with skillful craft, you had made a generous living. Back then you had written on another Beast, because you once held hope for all 97 keys. But really, everything could have been composed on a battered, rehearsalhall upright. Because back then the extra strings had resonated with the tonics that you dutifully provided, taking something that had been utterly obvious and making it even more so. Every blatant chord wound up with its own harmonic reinforcement, something touring had further underscored with a riser of backup singers. Doubled-tonics wrapped in doubled vocals–this had been the essence of your dalliance with Pop: in no way truth, but loudly done twice over for effect. Rhetoric, with massive amps and a truck full of custom lighting . . .

The Thing Most Easily Forgotten

Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

From the outset of the visit, something begins to take form. It starts out like a movement in the corner of your eye that disappears when you try to catch it: there and then not there, followed, of course, by a troubled pause and then a shrug. But in its persistence, it grows into something niggling, something significant that’s not quite remembered, like the ambientdread in wondering whether you’ve turned off the coffee-maker. And increasingly, you think about the Oblique Strategies, which you’ve left back at the studio, or rather, one card in the deck–the cautionary one, the one that reads, The most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten.

It’s on the evening of the second day, at her basement pantry, when you finally nail what’s eluded you before it once more slips away: where the hell is the cat, the other love of Beatrice’s life? Because there’s no litter box in the house, but there isn’t a pet door either, and thinking about it, you haven’t seen any food or water bowls. 

So staring at the pantry door, you work through the possibilities. First, the obvious–that the cat’s gone missing, lost in this new neighborhood. Second, that Minna has been hospitalized, though there have been no calls to the vet. The third and grimmest scenario is that the cat is simply dead–maybe hit by a car or, unthinkably, killed by Jack.

Where the hell is Minna? But no, that’s not the question: the problem isn’t that she’s missing–it’s that her absence has gone unmentioned. And even that doesn’t go far enough; it doesn’t capture what’s actually wrong: Beatrice’s silence isn’t as disturbing as her seeming lack of concern. True, she may be waiting to tell you about the cat, whatever that news might be, butin the meantime, her brave-face happiness is seamless and disconcerting. Minna is, after all, like a child; so loved and often referenced you have to keep reminding yourself you haven’t been introduced.

But whatever has happened to the cat must have only just occurred, and people often deal with worry and grief in ways that seem mysterious. So even though the disconnect with Minna is disturbing, it seems better to wait and give her some room until she’s ready to open up.

Then suddenly Beatrice is calling downstairs, asking if you’re okay, which seems almost telepathic in the midst of wondering the same thing about her. And it makes you feel as if you’ve been caught out because no, you’re not okay, so you search for the response most like a polite smile and discover I’m straightening the pantry. A good choice because it underscores your helpfulness and at the same time avoids her question.

“Well, get yourself up here right away, because suddenly I feel like dancing.” That brave-face happiness once again, seamless and disconcerting . . .

Boston / Vancouver / Santa Fe

Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

Sometimes San Francisco and often New York, but never before in Boston. Confirmation she’s arrived, a key at the desk, and then the elevator doors wipe the lobby: gray, Kubrick bellmen and baroque floral arrangements are replaced by brushed steel and some repurposed Vivaldi.

The urgency of “Summer,” allegro non molto, and then the dusk inside 21-11: the drapes are drawn not quite shut, and in the gap brilliant daylight boils; it’s almost as if God Himself has become a peeping tom. Quietly lifting your case inside, you signal your arrival with the closing door. A hallway aligns this small vestibule with the slash of blinding light at its end: the darkened bedroom that reveals itself as you reach the open door.

A crumpled duvet and decorative pillows are strewn across the room, an art-directed debris field of entangled, textured fabrics, their distance from the stripped-down bed showing the force with which they’ve been flung. She’s naked atop a single sheet, tanned flesh against the white linen, with a blindfold fashioned from a copper silk scarf that S-curves down her shoulder, leading your eyes across her breast to the aroused nipple that’s like a pink bud. Here the boiling sliver of afternoon has spilled upon the floor; it races across the carpet and up the side of the bed, where it highlights the tautness of her belly and burnishes the oiled skin. White light, oh have mercy; while I’ll have it, goodness knows.

You stand in silence by the bed, transfixed as she caresses herself, watching her excitement build when she senses what you’re doing. You’re waiting patiently for her to reach the edge before saying what she wants to hear. And then as she’s trembling on the sheet, you announce “It’s Maintenance–for the A/C.” Her back arches at the thought of this, like it’s an electrical charge. And when it does, the burning sliver of afternoon slips between her legs.White Light, don’t you know it’s gonna make me go blind.

Beatrice turns her head on the pillow in the direction of your voice, her duchess-decadence turning into working-class desire. The serpentine tail of the blindfold now points to the space on the bed next to her. “You’d better be quick, then,” she says in a whisper. “I’m expecting my lover at any time.” White Light, I tell you now, goodness knows . . . .

Later on, as Vancouver’s lights shimmer on False Creek, Julia is found at last, lost inside the lovemaking, all defenses fallen away, like the clothes and the brocade spread. Her ruined voice has always crumbled beneath the Oxford English, like powdering brick underneath luxurious, well-tended ivy, but now as you slip inside of her, the poshness disintegrates too: the passionate, whispered urgings fray the cadenced BBC–the ingraining of the boarding schools less deep than her desire–and the class-irony of Ducky momentarily disappears, letting you hear the Estuary roots that she’s kept hidden away. And so when it comes, the glossolalia of lust is chanted in her true voice.

It’s a sensuous, slow unfolding of herself that gathers speed at your touch, opening out into complete exposure as she orgasms on top of you. A release this pure only happens outside of fantasies: it needs mutual surrender in the raw moment, and not scenarios . . . .

Sometimes San Francisco and often New York, but never before in Boston. After the blindfold, after sight’s restored, after other uses for the bronze silk scarf, after all the transgressive imagining, the only thing that’s left is sleep.


When you wake, she’s propped up on the extra pillows, wrapped in a hotel robe; lover-into-poet, with small, black wire-rim glasses perched midway down her nose. Curtains wide-open, spilling daylight across the bedclothes-wreckage of the sex, and at the foot of the bed, near the oil-streaked sheet, her manilla envelope of manuscript pages. She’s writing, bathed in late-day light, now brittle and almost autumnal, which stresses the laugh lines cresting her cheekbones and flickering around her lips: it’s that singular beauty of entropy the Japanese term wabi-sabiWhite Light, here she comes, here she comes.


Blue dusk becomes two electric lights flanking a mirror-image couple in robes: similar glasses, equally long legs and bodies identically slim. You make a note about a stanza-in-progress as she reviews comments on another piece–a collaborative reinvention made far simpler than it really is . . . .

True North reversed: the deceptive south; Santa Fe, again. The heat-shimmered wastelands you can’t romanticize, mesas that lop-off mountains and everywhere and at all times, the carefully preserved memories of Beatrice.

You’re naked in front of the mirror and marble sink, which is in the bedroom instead of thebath, and which is also a meticulous reproduction, like everything else in this town. It’s meant to inject the present with a dose of the mediated past, but history here is a recreational drug, and there’s no inoculation against ghosts: in time, the historical intrusion of the sink hasceased to register, but the phantom scenes of you and her never seem to disappear. At what point does the inherently improved facsimile become reality? How little authenticity must be left (or, grimly, how much has to remain) before it’s more usefully replaced? When you had made the reservation, there was no mention of this floor plan, and your expectations were based on other anonymous rooms. At check-in, however, an exiled clerk with an out-of-place Boston accent explained that the hotel had been a brothel–the preemptive reason for this washing of hands by a bed that’s still unmade. But seeing yourself in the mirror, you realize that restoration is always self-conscious, meaning it can never accede to the past even though it tries; that in the end it’s just a kind of sepia reinvention making history seem far simpler than it really was . . . .

“White Heat/White Light” by Lou Reed, copyright 1967. Published by Oakfield Avenue Music, Ltd. All rights administered by Screen Gems-EMI Music Inc (BMI).


First, a word of explanation: This post is primarily for myself–see it as a chef ‘s annotation of a recipe, capturing the meta-stuff that transcends ingredients and linear flow. I’ve just finished revising a scene in the novel, and the solution–downstream from all the hair-pulling–ended up being emblematic of the larger work. And so, while I’m still thinking clearly about it, it’s certainly worth making some notes.

But at the same time, I’m not opposed to interested parties looking over my shoulder from a kind of operating-theater gallery. (The deeper truth is that I simply can’t write for myself; I’m hard-wired to address ranks of readers–at least conceptually. Thus, in order to get these thoughts down, they’ll need to be published in some fashion, and–well–that’s where youcome in.) And that, as they say, is that: This piece will be of interest–or not. Proceed at your own risk (and for my part, I’ll pretend that all of you have stayed, hypnotized by every word).


It’s not lost on me that writing a book with a recording-studio as a leitmotiv has itself been very much like multitrack recording. Unlike anything else I’ve done, this writing can be said to be layered. Just as one might separately record individual instruments and vocals, the book’s been very much built–accreted, if you will, over time. And, to extend the recording metaphor, the attendant revisions increasingly feel like I’m at a mixing desk.

But here’s the thing–by reaching for multitrack recording, I’m not thinking wall-of-sound; this isn’t about “Mountain High, River Deep,” and it has nothing to do with “Born To Run.” Rather, the process I’ve settled into is more akin to old-school Jamaican dub music–it’s a reductive approach. By design, I’ve allowed myself to over-write in the context of the minimal style I envision for the novel. And then comes the mixdown-cum-revision, which reduces each sequence to its essence. This process isn’t about cutting per se–it’s about a kind of distillation; reduction in its literal sense. Shortening does occur, but only as a consequence. In most instances, it’s not about jettisoning material as much as a more efficient “repacking” of the meaning.

I usually try not to think about this process while I’m writing; I’m fearful of a killing self-consciousness. But sometimes a revision is successful enough to remind me of how I’m proceeding–like today, for instance.

The scene involves the protagonist arriving at a Boston hotel for a liaison with his lover. The meeting is simply the most recent in a long history of their rendezvous. The hotel is boutique property, a post-modern riff on mid-20th century Europe, undercut with sly, contemporary winks. It’s an always-fresh-flowers kind of place. The protagonist hasn’t seen his lover recently and, as desire builds, he’s the proverbial horse seeing the barn door. The original draft set all of this out in well-chosen but lengthy detail: The cut of the staff uniforms (minimal gray tunics) and their sedate-to-point-of-sinister collective demeanor; the single round table in the center of the small-means-exclusive lobby, on which sit over-the-top vases of Jan Brueghel-ish flowers; a remembered itinerary of past hotels where they’ve met; the usual checking-in dialogue and related stage business; and then the sudden sanctuary of a ride in empty elevator up to her floor.

Nice, even good–hell, well-written, if I do say so. But not well-suited to (or of a piece with) the lean, impressionistic novel that’s taking form. Thus the best way to understand this rough-draft scene is as 12, 24 or even 36 filled tracks in a Jamaican studio–ready to be used as raw material for something radically streamlined–because there’s way too much percussion, more guitar than will ever be used and at least one too many bass lines. But the interesting thing about the best dub music is that few tracks are completely eliminated–the art lays in the use of brief licks that also suggest the density of the source material.

Put another way, and moved to another musical genre, Miles Davis once said of a zen-simple solo, “You have to know 400 notes that you can play, then pick the right four.” It’s about distilled, resonant quality over self-indulgent, less-thought-out quantity.

This morning was mixdown time for the previously described hotel scene: lots of work, lots of coffee, lots of reading aloud, lots of frustration and definitely lots of not-minimal profanity. The result is a distilled 40 words:

Sometimes San Francisco and often New York, but never before in Boston. Confirmation she’s arrived, a key at the desk, and then elevator doors wiping the lobby: gray, Kubrick bellmen and baroque floral arrangements replaced by brushed steel and Vivaldi.

And if I’d been able to get it down to 35 words, I’d have gone there, too–but, after all, there are some limits. Miles, as always, was right: Know all 250-plus words of the scene, and then pick the right 40 . . .

Something else struck me in mid-revision this morning: I suspect that so-called world-building, so beloved by science fiction and fantasy authors, is also in play. Though I’ve never seen it discussed, there seems to be a tacit assumption that nominally naturalistic fiction doesn’t world-build–that it merely slit-scans Real Life. But does it? What if world-building isalways an intermediate step? What if Real Life needs the artistic equivalent of digitalizing analogue audio tape? What if nominally naturalistic fiction slit-scans a larger fictionalized world instead of Real Life itself?

My rough-draft of the hotel scene was a narrower, more manageable version of life. But what was needed–what is always needed, at least in this book–is a further-narrowed impression of the larger fiction. I’ve no idea if other authors work in this fashion; all I know is that I do: That fact that my story isn’t set five centuries from now in a a distant galaxy doesn’t mean world-building isn’t needed.

And with a scotch or two and a little cockiness, I like to think that the 40-word distillation of the hotel scene has more energy and resonance because there’s a genuine sense of a larger world lurking beyond its edges. Since I’ve referred to Kubrick in the revision, maybe this will help explain what I mean: When Kubrick was filming Paths of Glory, he asked for something like  250 degrees of art direction in a scene. Afterwards, when the art director saw the camera set-up, he complained to the director that the audience wouldn’t see most of his set–to which Kubrick replied, “Yes, but the actors will.” Maybe on an emotional level, it’s necessary for my irritatingly second-person protagonist to see more of the hotel than the reader . . .

Make no mistake, I’m not holding this revised passage up as an example of fine writing. Rather, I’m  presenting the revision of the hotel sequence as a fractal of entire book’s creation. Scholars have said that The Great Gatsby was only realized in revision and, without suggesting I’ve delusions of grandeur about my book, I’m beginning to understand, after all these years, what that observation really means.


Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

It’s dusk when you roll up the driveway to the future and, like a carny wheel coming to rest, the Lexus slows then brakes, and the windscreen frames the 121 on Beatrice’s new house. Which is, in fact, not new at all, being at least as old as either of you: Her reinvented life is built atop 40 years of other people’s endings; an occupancy dependent on inevitable departures. And all these concluded histories seem to tarnish her passionate commitment, providing actuarial tables for something that’s just begun.

Maybe new plays better amidst the new, or at least in temporary surroundings. Visited cities are seen as romantic because they’re interstitial: The asynchronous nature of hotel rooms and getting lost just blocks away tend to make reinvention seem far simpler than it is.

For her, starting over is a variation; a jazz riff on a well-known tune. It’s Miles and Trane reimagining “Someday My Prince Will Come:” Shards of the original song remain, embedded beneath the surface, the remnants of other princes past from different places and times.

Her upheaval had stopped at the neighborhood’s edge: slightly farther away from her life with Jack, somewhat closer to her family and friends, and within easy walking distance of the better downtown shops. The winds of change may have gusted through, but they had left her zip code intact.

No, the new start here is your own, and the disconnections will be radical and complete. You’ll need to begin again from scratch, without the safety net of the familiar or a sense of history.

The Nakamichi ejects Lucinda’s CD, and luxury-car silence supplants the dirt-poor twang. Four producers, three studios and two mixdowns had been needed to create authenticity. And though you consider pointing this out, you keep the irony private. Because Beatrice’s connection to her own roots may prove as tenuously honest.

She stares at the house, her profile traced by the bounce of the headlamps off the garage door: And at right angles, patrician still describes her best, just as it did in the moment you first saw her. During all this time there’s never been a need for any other adjective. But when she turns to you that other thing happens–the nobility of her nose disappears. Full-face, she exhibits a blunter elegance, more Emma Thompson than Emma Peel.

“All this change has literally made me ill–I can’t even begin to tell you how much. But now, thank god, you’re finally here, and everything’s going to be okay.” The tight-lipped smile as she puts the car in park disappears just before she kills the lights.

You’re lead around to the back of the house and up vestigial echoes of the cottage stairs: Those three dangerous flights down to the sea have contracted into a backyard stoop. And you wonder if the future will similarly shrink into something sensible, stolid and cautious.

In the kitchen beyond the patio doors the dirty dishes make you squirm. For the first time with Beatrice, you have a sense of genuine intrusion: A deep and sudden need for decorum, or at least a house-warming gift. This is visiting, an interruption of her life’s daily flow, and its currents are eddying around you. It’s the reason that even tender disruptions can only be temporary: All visits require resolution, either by ending or melding with the everyday. Thus staying on here means a giving-in to her provincial undertow.

The cottage, in contrast, had always seemed equidistant from each of your lives. The Gray House had never really been a home, just the consensual emblem of one. It had been forced to provide a sense of here in the absence of anything better: Because outside its weathered clapboard half-remembered hotel rooms had swirled, their color schemes and awful artwork bleeding into one another. But for all the passionate commandeering of the cottage as a port in that storm, it had remained another liminal bedroom, albeit with a beachfront view. Reinvention once again had seemed far simpler than it really was . . . .

The Dull Ache of Dormancy

Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

Shopping-cart vibration of ancient gurney wheels. Slap-back, metallic echoes off linoleum and old cinderblock. Rustle of swarming emergency techs and fragments of bad news: pressure-dropping tumbles through probable-pneumothorax. This is how she reenters your life: In a pool of unstaunchable blood, as patient-to-three and move-it-people collide and intertwine. She’s fading right in front of you; back, yet slipping away. And you want to sayHold on, but the irony stops you dead . . . .

“Ready, then, to tidy up?” The voice seems to come from everywhere. And though you’d like to answer No, the car-wreck curiosity is irresistible. Turning away is useless because you’re already rubbernecking–even though this freakish accident happens to be your own.

In a swivel chair on an oriental rug, you’re waiting for playback and remembering Steppenwolf: Well, you don’t know what we can find / Why don’t you come with me little girl? But on a different kind of magic carpet ride–one that’s the opposite of escape. The dimmed halogens at the edges of the studio spill a tarnished light down the walls, yellowing the acoustic panels before smudging into shadow. This, even as the fixture above your chair blazes at maximum setting, containing you and the ivory-handled cane in a cone of glacial light . . . .

In the hotel, at the window, you stare at the inlet and then past it, to the mountains, ice and sky beyond. At True North and unfettered possibilities. Standing here, now that she’s behind you; staring, even as she makes her oblique way south, toward the narrow selection of unacceptable futures that put everyone at risk but her. Aside from a wrung-out bitch or whispered lover, what more is there left to say? . . . .

“Standing by for ‘Post-Modern Pop Song;’ digital transfer of original mix, yes?” The Engineer makes this question an announcement, his voice omnipresent between the monitors. Squinting through the Arctic light and beyond its glare on the control booth window, you see him silhouetted against the halogen-glint on all that gear for re-polishing your past: Business-brisk, in service to the entertainment industry and bathed in the glow of his professional tools. Apart from a terse Let’s do it, then, what more is there left to say?

And now you want a cigarette–for the first time in many years. Recording studio. Engineer. Hidden dread before playback. Making music means chain smoking–or at least it did. It’s Proust’s madeleine-and-limeflower tea, but turned inside out: Circumstances have conjured up a sacred object from the past. And though you try, you can’t shake the desire because in addiction there is no gone. Absence there becomes abstinence; the dull ache of dormancy. Lou Reed materializes then, fading up with some mid-chorus advice: You’re still doing things I gave up years ago–which are true words in a truer song . . . .

“Ducky, there’s no irony in being a doctor who smokes. We all do things that just aren’t good for us; quite indefensible stuff, really.” Julia shrugs and glances at the Silk Cut, her own indefensible thing. “Someof these behaviors are as blatant as this, but the less obvious ones areno less damaging.” Cigarette glow at her lips again, and more blue-gray smoke as she contemplates you. Then, after a long moment’s hesitation: “Well, Darling, just look at yourself . . . .”

You’re beginning to adjust to the disconnectedness at the heart of Studio World: A perpetual twilight between the centuries that might be anywhere. And yes, the time frame could be narrowed a little by identifying the modules and racked MIDI units. But the spartan trend in component design makes everything an echo of Jonathan Ive. Which is why the concept of Where is useless: The hardware’s international minimalism has eliminated any sense of “here.”

But all of this is academic because you don’t know the tech–at least not like you did: Well, after all, just look at yourself. And so you lean back in the chair: Surrounded by speakers, wanting nicotine and free-floating in a cloudy pool of maybe 10 years. It occurs to you that your resurrection fantasy had always been much more specific than this–even as the details of how you came to be here begin to soften and smudge.

You’d written the hit song for a successful film. Except in reality you hadn’t . . . .

The Narcotic Blessing Of Forgetfulness

Excerpt From A Work-In-Progress

Though Beatrice doesn’t live at the end of the world, this is beginning to seem a technicality. Because so far it feels like you’re driving through an early Springsteen album: leather, denim and baseball caps inside too many tricked-out cars. And the endless succession of skinny kids hanging around on every corner; like that one, with his upended bike, kneeling next to the ratcheting gears. The town exudes a civic pride in being a kind of Wayne’s Worldsimulation, and this guarantees the wink you’ve been waiting for is never going to come: each one of these chop tops is aspirational instead of a John Waters reference, and you’ll need to think hard about that tonight, with scotch and a long journal entry . . . .

Something never thought about; something almost forgotten: The whir of a push mower and the play of sunlight on leaves that will be gone in three years’ time. Which makes you what? Seven years old? Or very close to it.

Your father’s mower whirring in the front yard, under the canopy of limbs that will soon be diseased. But all the memories of him have been too-long packed away, and so you have to make do with impressions: He’s conjured up as short, with darkish hair; in a white tee shirt, inappropriate pants and the smudgy suggestion of work shoes. All of this Sears-Catalog neat; it’s almost conceptual clothing. Because you can’t recall if he sweats while working out there–or if he perspires at all. Which, it now becomes clear, is also the reason you’ve parted and combed his hair.

Another season’s whirring, across a less-shaded lawn, as the last elms in the neighborhood begin their rapid decline. The kitchen’s still there; it can still be imagined, complete with its strange dimensions: too narrow and too long and then all at once wide in a way you remember as momentary. It’s where the savage intimacies of the family had most often been exchanged; collisions leaving many more scars than that dangerous drawer full of loose German knives. In the kitchen the family had been too distant and at the same time much too close; it had been a place where acceptance widened-out, only to narrow and close ranks again. The dining room, however, has become theoretical–as detail-free as the interchangeable dinners that had marked each holiday and celebration. Reduced to an essence half a lifetime later, this room’s revealed to have been the kitchen in a chandeliered Sunday Best; where weekday dictates and intolerance had been served up on good china. But its mislaid appearance has also faded these uneasy memories: the narcotic blessing of forgetfulness, though late, has at last arrived.

Still later, on a stifling night long before there’s any air-conditioning, a spray truck whirs past your tight-shut window, fogging yellow-lit neighborhood streets. This last-ditch rescue of the trees comes at the songbirds’ expense, because the insecticide kills many more robins than the number of elms it saves. The Midwest, however, is equal parts of momentum and determination–there once something is put into motion, no price seems too high to pay. Which isn’t surprising, because a comfortable rut is the most costly thing of all.

And then your father’s mower, blades glinting in the bright sun, trims around the new birch, avoiding the stakes. But the whirring this time is your childhood receding, leaving you earthbound, stranded and ten.

Wires and stakes, three sets of them; a new beginning secured in this stark new world. With the elms now gone, what was hidden is revealed: A ruler-straight horizon below a featureless sky. The kind of flatness that makes it seem you can see the neighboring states. But seeing forever is of little use when there’s nothing to be seen: The town is bordered on all sides by regressions of itself; either countless other identical places, like the result of facing mirrors, or greener, simplified versions of a single, industrial sprawl. Urban and rural are cinched together by the Rust Belt’s psychogeography: Outside of the townships–out among the cows–the only thing that changes is the population count. The scenery shifts, but can never avoid the grim context of the region. The feel of heavy manufacturing thrums, even when it can’t be seen; an analog of the locust drone that had once throbbed throughout the elms.

Hand clippers are used to trim those places the mower is too big to reach, and with practice, you’ve become adept at keeping the lawn from obscuring the stakes. With the elm trees gone, the town is exposed; it’s like that scientific toy from last Christmas–the scale-model man with all his bones and organs showing through clear-plastic skin. You’re beginning to see the town’s inner-workings, all the stuff that’s meant to be kept out of sight. And though too young to to do anything about it, you start to realize you want to get away. For one thing, the car worship is like weekday church, and the truth is you’ve never believed. But your friends had killed time watching from corners, shouting out models and years. And so at those intersections you had learned politeness; learned the benign dishonesty of manners, discovering that smiling could be a disguise for your deep and abiding disinterest. There’s also the bullying of those smarter or different; something shrugged-off like the weather. It’s tolerated in the kids because their parents also do it, with dismissiveness instead of scuffling. Getting good grades and reading books are invitations to be called a faggot. But the teachers won’t help because they’re unwilling to battle willful ignorance that’s generations deep . . . You’re wasting your life in this insular town, caught up in its rituals, repetition and rules. Because after you’re done faking all of that interest, after the hallway hassles over ruined grade curves, what’s left of your day is further splintered by narrow, ceremonial patterns: hymnals, baseball and frequent house arrest for asking unanswerable questions. So yes, now that the elms are no longer here, you can see things you want to leave behind. Is it possible staking the new tree to the ground is to prevent it from trying to escape? To keep it from pulling up its burlapped root ball before that becomes impossible? To guard against the birch floating away from this flattened desolation, to where its paper-curled presence has a chance of better fitting in? Standing here staring at the endless horizon, you feel a similar tethering: You may not live at the end of the world, but this is beginning to seem a technicality . . . .