October 9, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Winged Shoes and a Shield collects Don Bajema's short story collections Boy in the Air and Reach into one volume. These stories are about more than their main character Eddie Burnett, they powerfully reflect America in all its raw and dirty glory.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Bajema's prose combines the precision of pop-song lyrics with the surreal haziness of a fever-dream. A raw and direct pathway into the mind of an independent youth "trapped in the culture of Southern California.""
1. "I Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag"—Country Joe and the Fish
From the title story, "Winged Shoes and a Shield" Eddie Burnett comments that it's a "'Good thing I'm a Gemini, and a good thing I know Athena. That's all I have to tell them.' Eddie laughs out loud, and washes down a few more whites with another can of Colt. Seven hours later he's ushered out of the induction center, excused by the psychologists on the grounds that he is too insane for the U.S. Army."
I remember very well riding along in one of those classic Volkswagen buses filled with San Diego surfer kids, the girls scared to see us go, and boys scared to leave during those awful days when we sent our youth to war (average combat age 19) howling with laughter, singing those bitter, furious, truthful lyrics, "Wall, com'on all you big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again, got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam…so put down your books and pick up a gun, we're gonna have a whole lotta fun…and it's One, two, Three…."
2. "Mystery Train"—Elvis Presley (Sun Sessions)
The first short story in the book is titled "Rock-a-billies," which in a prose poem introduces the reader to the central characters of the book, the Monroe's, a family of Texas Transplants living in one of the canyon communities of San Diego in the late 1950's. The central character of the collection is Eddie (Eddie Cochran) Burnett (Johnny and Dorsey Burnett) who fights against the culture that represses him, the government that wants to send him to war, and himself, as do, I guess, most young people in one way or another.
Music runs through the book and is referenced many times, but specific to "Mystery Train," it could be summed up from another story when the young Eddie has grown into a disillusioned manhood and wanders to railroad tracks to stand as close as possible to a train passing by, "…hoping he'd hear the seminal sound of American Rock and Roll. A moment of ecstasy was waiting in the dark when those railroad cars rattled and clacked past. A beat fathering the bass line of all those pointy-shoed, duck butted squawlers who played out their lives in halls, clubs, barns, hayrides, tents, and on frying stages out in the clearing of county fairs…. Waiting for the train to tell him if the culture that surrounded him really came from trains. If rock and roll besides fucking in the shanty, also had something to do with leaving."
3. "Red River Valley (traditional)"
There's a battlefield scene from Gettysburg early in the book because I think that the events of the Civil War, its Cain and Abel violence, the horrible confrontation between two cultures inextricably linked, yet, again-at war with itself had a tremendous effect on our American male, or at least it does Eddie's, psyche.
"Red River Valley" was a favorite among troops on both sides of the skirmish line. Lends itself to the harmonica and has the sound of campfires within it. Of course I hear strains of the Battle Hymn of the Republic and Dixie as well. By the way, historical accounts tell us that Abraham Lincoln requested the band to play Dixie following his Second Inaugural speech-with the intention it be taken as a gesture of reconciliation-of course, that was misunderstood and used by the opposition as an excuse to vilify him for his sarcastic, gloating insult to the soon to be defeated Confederacy. Look for the photograph of his speech; astonishingly you can see John Wilkes Booth watching in the crowd. No really.
4. "Sally Go 'Round the Roses"—The Jaynetts
The story "Bad Girl from Texas" name checks Johnny Horton (another early rocker) and his huge hit "Battle of New Orleans." The Monroe brothers want to hear the semi-humorous account of the battle where "Old Hickory" (later to be President Andrew Jackson) said, 'we can catch 'em by surprise if we didn't fire our muskets till we looked ‘em in the eyes.'"
Actually, legend has it he said, "Don't fire until you can see the whites of their eyes."
In any case the boys want to hear the tale again, Eddie wants to hear the flip -side ballad "All for the Love of a Girl," but as Eddie nears the "bad" girl, she's singing under her breath the haunting Jaynetts' song of warning and the pain of heartache to Sally. And when you listen to it, pay attention to the girl's sexy whisper of
" . . . is to . . . " when they tell Sally that " . . . the saddest thing in the whole wide world (is to) see your baby with another girl."
5. "Me and Bobby McGee"—Kris Kristofferson—Janis Joplin
"Route 66"—Nat King Cole
"A Day in the Life"—The Beatles
The story "Blackroad" is a journey down America's cultural highway, a pretty dark stretch of road along Route 66. Nat King Cole does a nice version of that tune. There's a reference to Kris Kristofferson's great sing-along made famous by Janis Joplin: "…there's Janis singing about a drifter who decided to squirt and scram instead of riding along with some trucker trying to remember another song."
And how about that perfect image of "windshield wipers slapping time"?
The Beatles classic "A Day in the Life" is referenced to the assassination of John Lennon-- "Entertainment?" Lennon answered a cop in the backseat as he departed the Dakota for parts unknown as rain-singing tires spun a last verse of "A Day In The Life."
A sad reference to the poignant account of a Lennon, who had identity issues far beyond the norm, one might suggest the core of his talent was the whole establishing obsession of himself the imperative of recognition, fame and a sense of being. And the nearly unbearable irony that as he was dying in the car a cop was continually asking him, perhaps one hopes to keep him conscious, "Are you really John Lennon?"
6. "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well (traditional)" & -See Nick Cave's version
The story "Joyce" is an account within a trailer park community that was set inside a Tuscarawas reservation reserved for the shell shock victims of WWII. The gospel rave up "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well" was frequently sung during those early 1950's in this community-a hymn that gives credit to the prescient capacity of the famous shaman from Nazareth. In this story a young girl declares that she doesn't "love Jesus," which also brings to my mind the process of brainwashing little children. Joyce, five years old, sings "YES, JESUS LOVES ME."
7. "Sixteen Tons"—Tennessee Ernie Ford
Veterans from the wars of the 20th Century figure in these stories and bring to my mind the macho anthem that both terrified and enthralled me as a boy listening to "Sixteen Tons" with its bleak summation, "and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt," The man can't even go to heaven—he's too broke!—
"St. Peter don't ya call me ‘cause I can't go-I owe my soul to the company store."
And there's the looming figure of the man swaggering up with his sleeves rolled over thick forearms and a cold hard face to go with his line, "if you see me comin' better step aside, a lot of men didn't, a lot of men died. One fist of iron, the other of steel, if the right one don't get ya, then the left one will."—Holy crap!
8. "I Do Love You"—Billy Stewart
There's an account in the story "Navajo" of a man driving a primer-coated muscle car with a woman he loves but is not not supposed to be with, sleeping in the backseat as he blasts through the Mojave Desert. Billy Stewart's soaring arias evoke that dizzy feeling of new and unquenched love.
9. "I'm a King Bee"—The Rolling Stones
"Boy in the Air II" describes a moment in time when "the cites ignited, fists were clenched in love and hate and at the same goddamned time." During the mid-to late 60's era of race riots, Eddie finds himself in the bottom of a stadium jumping in a track meet against a genius.
Years, and years later the New York iconoclast Lydia Lunch grinned at me from the back of a car as we toured Europe—my first reading tour—asking as we'd spent three days in Austria, Switzerland and in southern Germany,"Don, something seems strange to you doesn't it? A feeling like something is missing?"She was right, as usual, there was a strange feeling that I hadn't been able to identify. She leaned deep in her seat and smiled, "No black people."
And there it was. I realized how as Americans we may seem polarized, in conflict at times, contentious over our history, struggling for true trust and co-operation, depending, or wistful with the amazement and mystery of the "other." But, in fact, we as Americans are inextricably bound. That the mix of Hank Williams and Doc Boggs, John Phillip Sousa, forever sits-in with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, James Brown and Bessie Smith on our vast stage; that there is no black music, (yeah, I know, Jazz but that's up to question beyond examining here) and there is no white music. It's music, and ours, American, is powerful, brought from the compression of our society from coal to diamonds and it makes us the envy of the world. And let's not forget Neil Young, or The Band, or Los Lobos, Tito Larriva, Tito Puente, Gato Barbieri…and on and on into beautiful forever eternity.
10. "I Wish You Love"—Gloria Lynne (1964, #28 on the Billboard Hot 100)
Music functions in every way imaginable in our lives. It's not hard to imagine dying with a song running through one's mind.
Publisher's Weekly says of Winged Shoes and a Shield: "Bajema's prose combines the precision of pop-song lyrics with the surreal haziness of a fever dream. A raw and direct pathway to the mind of an independent youth ‘trapped in the culture of Southern California.'"
If so, it's founded on rock-a-billys, and we didn't yet mention the California Sound of Chet Baker, or the Stan Getz cool of that era, the beaches in Rio transplanted to San Diego bikini's tilting over the sand, didn't get to the exuberance of The Troggs, the bounce and stomp of The Kingsmen, the yearning of Brian Wilson and the booming power of The Chantays. The wail of The Animals, Eric Burdon, with one foot on the platform. But in it all, the quest was for love, the need, the imperative is always for love, for acceptance by those desired. The affirmation of worth from the gaze from one thought of as beautiful, the cool, the sheer force of life generated by love and conquest, the pain of it unrequited and the pain of it requited, the butterfly life of it, the music in every instant as one runs down the stairway to the sidewalk, holds open the car door. The magic that's so clearly present in a young girl's heart, the fevered search through the summers in so many cities
And the story "Best Time of Day" recalls the moment profound spiritual love moves into the first complete physical act. Wanda Monroe is 32, beautiful and lonely and troubled, Eddie Burnett is 14, lonely, troubled and on fire. The music is Country Western, there must be "Delta Dawn," there's "Kiss and Say Goodbye" (the marvelous Darby Gould of Jefferson Starship sang it on stage in San Francisco with Morgan Ficther accompanying on her violin on one reading). There's also Brenda Lee, singing Sweet Nothin's and I'm Sorry.
There's so much music in our lives and we're back full circle for this book, I guess. I'm sure you can find, in our nearly all-access world, a wonderful, amazing and guaranteed to pull your heart and give you a smile, photograph of those consummate rock-a-billys—the little girl Brenda Lee looking up into the beaming face of just being discovered by Elvis Presley at some little backstage way, way back when.
Don Bajema and Winged Shoes and a Shield: Collected Stories links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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