“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 . . . 

Limitations

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.

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 . . . .