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 . . .