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August 12, 2016

Book Notes - Keegan Jennings Goodman "The Tennessee Highway Death Chant"

The Tennessee Highway Death Chant

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Keegan Jennings Goodman's novel The Tennessee Highway Death Chant is as compelling as it is inventive.

Blake Butler wrote of the book:

"Keegan Jennings Goodman's Tennessee Highway Death Chant melds the limitless, pensive texture of a Tarkovsky film with the logic of Nabokov, prying the lid off of the edges of our continuously repeating, and yet never fully catalyzable, experience of death. A singular work that bends to no trend and bats no eye while treading head on into the fundament."

In his own words, here is Keegan Jennings Goodman's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Tennessee Highway Death Chant:

"Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," Merle Haggard

In the Tennessee Highway Death Chant, there is a chorus that comments on the action of the main narrative, speaking in various public modes—letters, obituaries, and essays, the sort of stuff you would find in a local newspaper, but expanded and exaggerated. The choral speaker is a local man named Nathaniel Jarod, who has an inflated vocabulary and a keen eye for adolescent drama. My model for the choral interludes was taken from Greek tragedy, with the strophe and antistrophe, stage directions that indicate turns and counter-turns to focus the attention on various aspects of the story. But it also was conceived as a chorus in the sense understood by popular music, which contrasts with the verse of a song. One of the choral interludes is an essay about Merle Haggard's old country tune "The Bottle Let Me Down."

In that essay, the speaker tries to decode the dream imagery of the sleeping country singer to find out what the song is really about. The curious thing about the song is that the person whose memory haunts the singer is never really identified. The expectation is that this person is an old lover, but it is never made explicit. The chorus uses this elision as a way of interpreting the significance of the bottle: prompted by the etymological associations of the last line of the verse, which says "I'm hurting in an old familiar way," the dream analysis suggests that the bottle here is a reference to the mother's breast.

"You're Still on My Mind," Gram Parsons

While the kids in the novel never make it inside the bar, they are able to secure some booze through an illicit exchange made in the parking lot of the local honky tonk. The atmosphere of the bar, which is called The Matinee, stands in their imagination as a vague indication of what lies ahead of them had they survived into adulthood. It is an absence that gives a structure to their undeveloped desires. In one scene, for instance, they climb atop the Matinee to view the whole valley that holds them in limbo between life and death. But it is also familiar to them through the country songs they hear.

This song by Gram Parsons, recorded for the Byrds' The Sweetheart of the Rodeo, is one of those songs that gives us a glimpse into the familiar honky tonk setting so essential to country music, with the accompanying jangly piano and the nimble pedal steel of JayDee Maness. In the song, the heartbroken drinker sits before an empty bottle, listening to the juke box, thinking to himself about having just one more before heading home. This is all familiar, and Gram Parsons does an excellent job of recreating a rough and essential song whose merit is how closely he sticks to the established pattern and expectations. As a result of his adherence to the traditional tropes, however, we do not really get a sense of the surroundings. One way to explain this is that the honky tonk has been described in so many country songs already, and Gram Parsons can take it for granted. In any case, what I like about this song is that its familiarity makes it invisible. It is only implied, again as an experience that lies beyond the reach of the teenage protagonists.

When writing about the Matinee, I had in mind an old honky tonk that was off the highway near this trailer park where I spent a lot of time as a kid. A childhood friend of mine, my brother and I used to fish for largemouth bass and catfish in this pond that was located on the outskirts of the trailer park, and the bar there had a strange presence in our imaginations. On summer nights we would tote our flashlights and trident spears to go gigging for bullfrogs, and, while quiet during the day, the honky tonk was a wild place at night, full of strange characters and drunks who had wandered off to relieve themselves in the bushes. There was never any booze around my house, and seeing adults drinking was a rare and fascinating spectacle to me and my friends.

"Ramble on Rose," The Grateful Dead

The Death Chant does not really have characters in the traditional sense. The people who appear in it and who have names are not meant to be round in the workshop sense, and their story is not meant to elicit from the reader any sort of sympathy. I envisioned them more as just voices speaking from an American void.

I of course didn't start out with that idea, but this is how the book ended up fuelling itself. And "Ramble on Rose" resembles this formal aspiration of the novel. Like so many Grateful Dead songs, the lyrics were written by the psychedelic visionary Robert Hunter, and he has suggested in interviews that he just whimsically strung phrases and names together, in a sort of lyrical pastiche style that fit perfectly with the strange rhythm of the song. When I hear that song, I think of how a phrase, a name or an image expressed linguistically can take on a force of its own, a way of outrunning the normal uses of communication. And a rose, I'm told, can either ramble on the ground or climb the trellis. I feel like the phrases themselves ramble horizontally rather than vertically—in the sense that they are strung along without adding up to anything except the song itself.

I don't really know what people talk about in songs these days, but my guess is that this sort of whimsical non sequitur lyrical style was something that was relatively novel and alive back in seventy-two. (The recording I know is from the Europe '72 triple album, but I'm sure there are others.) A comparison is initiated, but we're never told what the antecedent is: "Just like Jack the Ripper, just like Mojo hand, just like Billy Sunday," but we are not expected to make a connection with a single referent in the comparison. It's like the phrases, names and the panoply of these historical times and places are building their own momentum.

In a traditional novel, the characters are known by what they say and what is said about them. We are expected to believe in a unity that holds all these vocalizations in place. But in the Death Chant there's not really any stability to what is said. One of the destabilizing forces is the very words that they utter, not even to each other, but out into the ether.

"Over the Hills and Far Away," Led Zeppelin

Like a lot of teenagers, my life was forever changed when I learned how to play "Stairway to Heaven," but the Zeppelin song that I liked the most was "Over the Hills and Far Away," maybe because of the acoustic guitar (I had an old twelve string that I'd use for the worship band at my country church), and the country licks Jimmy Page plays here. To my untrained ear, these chords that open up the song were more familiar to me than anything else on Houses of the Holy, which I used to listen to countless times while driving my little four-cylinder pickup truck down the back roads that first summer after I got my license.

While writing the Death Chant I had to reach back in my memory to those hot summer nights when everybody would drive their vehicles out to some farm road and set up an impromptu party, drinking Miller Lite in the headlights and blasting the radio—usually the classic rock station rather than the contemporary country station, since, in the absurd stratifications of even a rural high school of less than a hundred kids, there was still what Freud calls the "narcissism of minor differences," and we considered ourselves worlds apart from the farmers' sons and daughters who liked Garth Brooks.

"EZ Rider," Taj Mahal

People say that the slide guitar work of Ry Cooder was partly responsible for what came to be known as southern rock, via Duane Allman, who, after falling off a horse, was given a glass bottle of the pain-killing Coricidin and the self-titled Taj Mahal for his birthday, quickly picking up the style, and eventually taking it to Muscle Shoals. The song is a traditional blues song about a good-time woman, with variations on the name, Easy Rider, and C.C. Rider, a version of which was playing on Alan Ginsberg's record player when he died. I think you could also include "Easy Wind" among variations of it—because Pigpen has a couple of lines that suggest that (he also sings about a midnight rider in "Operator" on American Beauty ). Taj Mahal's version references this in the title and, more loosely, in the lyrical content, though it's not really considered a cover version of the traditional song, for instance, the one that Lead Belly sang.

Taj Mahal is considered a blues scholar, and this is reflected in his music. 'Scholar' can mean many things of course, but we're often encouraged to maintain the distinction between those that make art and those who interpret it, however broadly that might be understood. I remember reading an interview by a well-known writer of fiction who also studied philosophy, for instance, and who said that, as a principle, he did not mix the two. It's a dogmatic position, one encouraged by workshop mentality of production and consumption. Tracing an influence in a musician is like separating out some individual object—like a river or tree or mountain—that is not really separable from its surroundings except in thought, and there is always something arbitrary about this.

In the country compositions of John Stone, it's hard to identify any single vein of influence, and one of the choral interludes in the Death Chant discusses how the tradition of country and western music, as well as English poetry, is handled by the ill-fated Stone.

"Waymore's Blues," Waylon Jennings

One of the more evident features of John Stone's music is an attraction to obscenity. Blues music is more sophisticated in this sense than country music: for instance, continuing the tradition of erotic invitation, the Mick Jagger sings on Beggars Banquet, "Parachute woman, won't you land on me tonight." The finesse of a "heavy throbber itching just to lay a solid rhythm down," or of a "crawling king snake in the room of love," should not be overlooked. But in the country song, the dirty lyric is often just told straightaway. There's maybe no better example of this than what we find Waylon Jennings singing here, "Every woman I see looks like a place I came in." This part of the country music tradition has been taken up by John Stone, as discussed by the choral interlude I mentioned above, and it's hard to say what the overall effects are, except maybe that sublty is not the only way to a woman's heart.
"You Can't Catch Me," Chuck Berry

Besides everything on Chuck Berry '75, this song is probably my favorite by the great pioneer of rock and roll. The Rolling Stones' version on Now! is the one I've listened to the most, and with Bill Wyman's bass line really coming through to carry the rhythm, it's a great cover. In my novel, the teenagers roll down the highway, and this drag racing song is perfectly suited, with its fast beat and choppy guitars, to express the feeling of rapture when thundering down the two-lane blacktop. The feeling is one of wind rushing through the open window, and headlights opening up the darkness that makes a driver feel so alone while driving through the night.

The encounter on the road, where the "flattops" come up next to the car and challenge it to a race, is an image that was a great inspiration to some of the scenes in which the protagonists in their mystical Firebird are racing along in a convoy of pickups and coupes driven by these other kids, these hellions, lost teenage souls—some of whom probably had short hair, buzz cuts, or flattops. My idea for this menacing group of kids partly came from Medieval dramatic and visual representations of souls being punished in hell, devoured by Satan, who lack the ability to communicate. (Jeffrey Burton Russell is my favorite writer on the topic of Satan, demons and such.) In the Death Chant, these kids are referred to as the congregation, an audience to John's ecclesiastic tendencies, since all they cal do is listen—their words come out garbled and unintelligible, but they are still able to indulge and exert themselves in erotic embraces and drinking binges.

"Big River," Johnny Cash

As an aspiring country and western singer, John Stone, the main speaker in the book along with the narrator, Jenny, has a sharp ear and strong taste for all the great country music of his day, including of course the songs of Johnny Cash. In an unpublished interview, he has said the following about "Big River":

"…Country music from its inception is in inauthentic form: it started as an urban phenomenon, where country folks who had moved to the city soaked up any nostalgic expression of the hometown, the green pastures. Think about all the reliable tropes of country music at its best. David Allan Coe—written, as we're told, by Steve Goodman—sang about them in his song "You Never Even Called Me By My Name." The prison scenario so ubiquitous in country music is a reflection of the walls of the city, in which we feel imprisoned. The train signifies escape from that prison, and mobility from the exigencies of the economic situation that has chained us to city life. The myth of country music is that what we're hearing is the same thing you'd be hearing if you were out at the farm, or raising hell out on the back roads. Some people are confounded by the way country music so easily integrates pop sounds, especially the way it did in the nineties—but that's not at all surprising when you consider that there's not really an authentic soul to country music, some privileged content that isn't already borrowed from elsewhere. In any case, the country song is not all that different from the general history of the personal lyric that has come to dominate popular forms like soul, rock and roll, blues and whatever else there is. The dominance of the subjective forms—and by subjective form I mean it in the grammatical sense, or let's say grammatological sense, where the subject, the ‘I' is at the center of the experience or emotion the song attempts to communicate—the dominance of this approach makes those instances that diverge from it all the more powerful. Let me give you an obvious example of what I mean. The song "Big River" by Johnny Cash is not really about a guy whose girlfriend left him. It's about the river itself, the river as an expression of the passage of time, and also about the expansiveness of the the American midwest. The river does what the singer can't: it carries his lover, fulfilling her desire to roam, to travel the land and see new places better than he ever could. So in some sense, it's inaccurate, or incomplete, to say that "she loves you, big river, more than me." If she loved the river, she could also stay put. The river is there too, in St. Paul, Minnesota. What she loves is not so much the river, but its expansiveness, its changeability, and the perpetual novelty that it can deliver. So even this song, which seems to be about the needs and desires of this particular woman is still just about a familiar feeling expressed by the singer. This is what I mean when I say that the subjective content, even if buried beneath the lyrical surface, remains in the final analysis the fate of the song as a whole. The strength of that song is that the singer does not have to tell us how he feels—everyone knows this as a general rule—and instead has found an image that can suggest how he feels. When you hear the song, you think, my god, yes the mighty Mississippi—who can compete with something so big, so exciting, so wise, something so balanced, who has seen so many cities (Davenport, Memphis, etc.) and remained unchanged? and you feel for the guy. For a country person, the city is a place of anxiety—it threatens to disrupt, or cast into question, the very heart of who you think you are, where you come from and so forth. The river is enviable because it knows those cities—but it just keeps on rolling by, its course altered but its soul unchanged. It presents an ideal for the country person whose straits have forced him to go into the city and still maintain some sense of his core. But the conceit of the country song is that there is a core that precedes the encounter with this urban threat. The literary people talk about pathetic fallacy in poetry. It is when nature reflects the inner mood of the speaking subject. The clouds grow heavy from my despair, the sun shines right now because of my joy, and so on. But "Big River" has an interesting and instructive approach to pathetic fallacy: the speaker has "taught the weeping willow how to cry," and has "showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky," and his tears are going to flood the Mississippi. Traditional pathetic fallacy is an aggrandizement of a certain order: my emotional condition is verified and validated by its being reflected in nature. But here something different is occurring. It's almost mythical in character: it purports to tell us why the weeping willow weeps, why the clouds cover the sky, and it even purports to tell us why there are occasional floods. And this is where the distinction falls apart: myth in one sense is a practice of anthropomorphizing nature, making it spirit, or showing it as subject; but in another sense, that subject, or spirit, is not fully individuated…"

"You Gotta Move," The Rolling Stones

This old spiritual song tells about a force indifferent to status or station in life: "When the Lord gets ready, you've got to move." Whether you're rich, poor, high, low, whether you're a policeman or prostitute, you're bound to laws of change unfamiliar in equal measures with authority and vice. And this peremptory call is reflected in the unison of the slide guitar and the vocal arrangement that repeats throughout the song, where the voice is no longer an instrument to communicate spiritual or linguistic meaning and instead only cries out, as a sort of pure expression like that of a trapped animal.

Even the gods are subject to fate, and in John's strange cosmological theories, in which the parts and habits of the Firebird are mingled with the great and formative cycles of cosmic destruction and creation, there is an attempt to identify without naming the ultimate source of motion. Whatever it is that makes the stars move is the same force that sets our frail bodies on a path of motion that is individuated for only a brief span of time, while the transformations of the body, for instance in the various cycles of natural being (i.e. the nitrogen and carbon cycles), are eternal.

"Drifting Blues," John Lee Hooker

The version of this song that I know is from a very cool EP called Talk About Your Baby, released in 1963 by Atlantic Records in France, re-released as an LP in 1967 with additional songs. Hooker plays an electric guitar (I think he most often played at Gibson 335), keeping the beat with his thumb on the lower strings, with very few chord changes, while sort of rambling without too much concern for staying on the traditional paths that dictate the movement of the melody. The whole thing is very sparse and perfect for a late night when everybody's fallen asleep and you find yourself alone trying to finish off the last of the booze. I always got a sense from John Stone that he regretted not ever mastering the blues guitar. But like the singer in the song, he's still "drifting and drifting," and there's no end to time, no end to money, and so no reason why he can't sit down and learn the stark beauty of these hill country blues.

"I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," Hank Williams

There aren't really any villains in the Death Chant, with the possible exception of the police and paramedics, who have only a fleeting presence on the fringes of the purgatorial reality of the valley in which the story is set. But there is a mythical monster, the coppermouth snake. At one point in the book, John encounters the serpent and they wrestle together in a sort of cosmic and onanistic dance. The fight ends in a draw, and the serpent makes the following proposal: each will answer a question from the other.

John had just been gazing at the stars in wonder, and so he asks the serpent about the origins of the world. The coppermouth gives a cosmogonical account that has strong associations with how snakes themselves are born, involving eggs and serpentine spheres of fire. My source for the account was the Milesian philosopher Anaximander, the Presocratic who is considered by scholars to be the first philosopher to write an exhaustive treatise on the origins of the world.

Once the serpent's rather long and slippery speech is over, it is his turn to ask the question. Echoing the old Hank Williams song, he asks John: "Though you drive and drive, did you ever really think you'd get out of this world alive?"

"Spirit in the Dark," Aretha Franklin

There's not much dancing in the book, but if John's congregants dance, it would be to this classic and very groovy gospel song. I always thought of this song as a sort of American counterpart to the strange and illicit activities of Georges Bataille's religious cult Acéphale. Taken theologically, Aretha Franklin is giving directions, like a preacher, about how to do a dance that participates in and summons darkness, the traditional opposition of the light that stands as a metaphor for the presence of god and of knowledge.

In the Death Chant I wanted the darkness of the valley to have a positive ontological character. It was conceived not as absence of light, but as substance, and there are mythical accounts in the novel of the origins of blindness, dreams and gasoline that are based on this conception of darkness.

"I Shall Be Released," Joe Cocker

I don't really care for Bob Dylan's music, and so it's unlikely that the kids in the book would be interested in listening to his songs, except maybe those songs that are covered by other musicians. But Joe Cocker's version of "I Shall Be Released" (the only one I've heard) is a great tune, with the choral backing vocals, and Jimmy Page playing that great guitar that interweaves with the vocal phrasing.

I once saw a video of Joe Cocker singing "With a Little Help from My Friends," and there is this huge crowd on stage singing the chorus. Leon Russell is there all wild-eyed, with a huge, sequined blue top hat on, playing a Les Paul. Those massive choral arrangements are a vital part of the feel of the main narrative arc of the story that's told in The Tennessee Highway Death Chant, an intermingling of voices that has, throughout the book, coalesced into a force that will come apart with a sweep of the hand, an easy and maybe bittersweet release.

Keegan Jennings Goodman and The Tennessee Highway Death Chant links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

also at Largehearted Boy:

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