July 2, 2014
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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Gary Amdahl's writing has impressed me for years. His latest book, the novel Across My Big Brass Bed is both clever and lyrically told.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
The novel's title comes, of course, from Bob Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay," on the Nashville Skyline album (1969). I say "of course" but have been surprised a surprising number of times when someone fails to make the connection. The problems of reference and referents and referees and referrals become transcendently silly in the age of instant knowledge: a third of the people on the planet have seen the Gangnam video, but I have not. I don't really even know what it's about, but I could find out, easily. The questions are "What do I want to know?" and "What do I know, willy-nilly?" and "How and why do I refuse to know something?" At any rate, it puts the title of my novel in a different light: the light of marketing.
It's easy to make the argument that titles of things—not just literary things, all things—have always had at least one eye on the market, however it's constituted and understood, but I don't think that's the case, at least with me, at least with this novel.
Another argument that is easy to make but somewhat specious is that there are turning points in our lives, auspicious events, telling moments, golden ages, crucial decisions, close calls, pivots that allowed us to dodge a bullet. It's closer to the truth to say that very instant is a turning point, and our control of our lives is only apparent.
Nevertheless! We can't write history without marking up and annotating our lives, and the night in 1969 when I was in bed, long supposed to be asleep, listening on my transistor radio to the pop station, and heard "Lay, Lady, Lay," looks very much like a moment when my life changed. It was the first time I'd heard a steel guitar (Pete Drake's "Talking Guitar"), the first time I understood how something that wasn't conventionally "good," in this case, a singing voice, could be more interesting, more moving than one that was "good"; and finally, most importantly, it was the first time I'd heard my secret, barely understood sexual longings dramatized, in public as it were, in a song, on a radio! I was twelve. I began to write in earnest.
Another song by Dylan, "Only a Pawn In Their Game," (1963), one by Phil Ochs and Bob Gibson on the same subject, "Too Many Martyrs: The Ballad of Medgar Evers" (1963), and one written by Dick Holler and performed by Dion DiMucci, "Abraham, Martin & John" (1968) also figure in this somewhat autobiographical novel. "Civil Rights," mainly expressed as the denial of same to black people, was an incomprehensibly huge part of my childhood and youth. I was born and raised in Minnesota, which is now thought of as a blue state, progressive, tolerant, liberal—at least in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, where half the state lives. I don't think Minnesota was ever what we too easily call a red state, but it was "negrophobic," Richard Hofstadter's term for the late 19th/early 20th century part of the country that was known as "the Northwest." Briefly, the idea goes like this: it wasn't Christian to own slaves, therefore they ought to be emancipated, but when the question was "Where should emancipated slaves go, and what should they do?" the answer was resoundingly, "It's not our problem and we don't want them here." I was twelve. Martin Luther King became one of my heroes.
I now listen almost exclusively to classical music. This happened over the course of decades (I ended high school as a ridiculous southern-rocker wannabe and began college as someone who could listen endlessly to "Cowgirl in the Sand"), but in the novel I compress it into a sexual affair and a concert of Erik Satie music played on a specially made thirteen-string guitar. The teenaged girl in this series of scenes attracts the narrator on two fronts: she is the horn-playing leader of a woodwind quintet, into which she invites the flute-playing narrator; and she is able to tune his motorcycle. The music typically played by woodwind quintets is, one might say, the opposite of rock-n-roll: soothing but strange, haunting, fabular. Good examples would be: Samuel Barber's "Summer Music" (1956), Carl Neilsen's "Quintet for Winds" (1922), and Darius Milhaud's "La Cheminée du Roi René" (1939). The performances I have on record are by the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet, made in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The Satie that I have in mind is Anders Miolin's adaptations of the three "Gymonpedies" and the six "Gnossiennes," played on a guitar called "Abbandono."
Bach's cantatas are by far the most important music in the novel—as rendered on that essential instrument of the tango, the bandonéon—something that has never been done, so far as I know, though I do have Bach's cello suites on baritone sax and the Goldberg Variations on accordion. I spent a lot of literary energy trying to evoke that music, Bach's religious music, that is, the passions and the Lutheran masses and cantatas, and a lot of time in the wake of such foolish energy expenditures feeling, well…foolish, thinking why not just tape a fucking CD to the inside of the back cover? Why not just write the name and have everybody fill in the blank? Why not skip Bach and say, say, Springsteen? "Born to Run" will be in every reader's head and your pseudo-philosophic, pseudo-poetic prose will be lifted effortlessly into regions of cool and glory you have only suspected might exist?
I was raised and confirmed a Lutheran. I grew up hearing and frankly loathing the hymns we had to sing every Sunday. My parents said I could "leave the church" after I was confirmed (at 14), and I did, immediately, and mainly because I couldn't stand the music—though I was of course having trouble as well with the theology, cosmology, eschatology of the Lutherans, and that is actually a major theme in the novel. I was reflexively resistant, therefore, to Bach, and very surprised when I heard a choral prelude at the beginning of Tarkovsky's Solaris, and an aria from the middle of The Passion of St. Matthew, "Erbarme dich," opening his The Sacrifice. Exemplary cantatas: #4, "Christ lag in todesbanden," (Christ lay in the bonds of death) and #161, "Komm, du süße Todesstunde (Come, O sweet hour of death).
Again, briefly: the music is extraordinarily complex and works on a super-human level to reconcile rational disgust with moments of true feeling, true philosophical consolation, true spiritual succor. It reconciles as well moments of sublimity that I only just apprehended as a boy with a quest for sublimity that has characterized my adulthood. I was forty-five. I had found a musical home.
Gary Amdahl and Across My Big Brass Bed links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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