August 19, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In Captive Audience, Dave Reidy collects fictional stories of performers on the fringes of the entertainment world and deftly mixes in cameos from real celebrities (from R.E.M. to Abe Vigoda). This heartfelt collection highlights Reidy's empathy for his characters, and portends a bright future for the author.
I had been working on a novel for nine months when author David Leavitt graciously agreed to read all that I had written thus far, about 90 pages. After reading—and I believe he read it all—Leavitt told me to stop working on the novel. There isn't enough here, he said. It isn't worth your time, he said. Write a story.
That was a pretty shitty Tuesday.
After mourning the novel for a couple of days, and convincing myself I could always return to it, I took Leavitt's advice and started writing a story. That story, told from the perspective of an imagined Abe Vigoda, would become "In Memoriam," the oldest piece in Captive Audience. By the end of that year, I had written three more stories about performers of one kind or another. And even then, in my own mind, I wasn't merely writing stories about performers. I was writing a collection of stories about performers. I was writing a book.
Considering my handful of performer stories the beginning of a book was more than a little ridiculous—I couldn't even convince small journals to publish the stories individually. But I saw the many small efforts it took to write a story as interwoven, part of something larger than the words that made the sentences and the sentences that were the building blocks of the story. And now, when I ask myself why I saw my writing of stories as the writing of a book, the answer has more to do with music than fiction.
Paul Westerberg's Stereo was released in 2003. It was packaged with Mono, a free CD of Westerberg's home-studio rock ‘n' roll rants and rave-ups. I bought Stereo to get Mono—I probably didn't listen to Stereo for weeks. But when I had, I realized that Stereo was the better album. The songs, imperfectly recorded in that same home studio, were simple in their orchestration and their structure. But many of them packed the emotional punch of a great short story. "Baby Learns to Crawl" captures the joys and inevitable pains of parenthood and childhood and shows without telling that the two life stages are inseparable. "Only Lie Worth Telling" depicts a relationship being unraveled by tiny deceits, an unraveling made more poignant by the good intentions of the two broken people in the thick of it. "Got You Down" is the story of woman who has given her life and her love to a married man, as told by a third man who waits for the woman to see a light she'll never see, loving her quietly and unrequitedly in the meantime.
The songs on Stereo could be linked by any number of themes—family, brokenness or love. The characters change, but the songs are different facets of the same roughly polished jewel. After a few months of listening to Stereo a few times a week, I didn't think of that collection of songs—that collection of stories—merely as an album. I thought of it in literary terms, as a kind of book. And I think it may have been this mindset, and the kinship I found between Westerberg's work and my own—written and recorded in a different medium, in a home studio of a different kind—that enabled me to see the words and sentences and stories I was writing as the beginnings of a book, just like the my quashed novel had been—a book no one was waiting for, but a book, just the same.
Paul Westerberg is just one of the musicians who had some influence on the creation of Captive Audience. In the three years it took to write the book, I listened to days of music and saw live performances by Jon Brion, Fujiya & Miyagi and others that—even the next morning—inspired me to get out of bed and to my desk. Here are five of the songs—well, four songs and a comedy bit—that had some impact on Captive Audience.
"Lotus" – R.E.M.
As I was writing the story "Dancing Man," it occurred to me that I needed to anchor it more firmly in time. The narrator, Dale, started using his classical piano training to play pop music when, as a high-school student, he became obsessed with R.E.M.'s Reckoning. He spends years playing gigs around Chicago for food or free drinks and, by the time he goes out on tour with a band that opens, just once, for R.E.M., Dale is worn down but, somehow, still hopeful. So I set "Dancing Man" in the late ‘90s, a time when R.E.M. was dealing with the loss of drummer Bill Berry. I remember the first time I heard "Lotus" on R.E.M.'s 1998 album Up—it was the sound of a band mourning something, but plugging away with some hope. That outlook—and that mood—suited Dale and his story.
"Make It Through The Summer" – The Chamber Strings
The song title, which reads like an imperative, is deceiving. The opening lyric is, "If I can make it through the summer, I know that everything will be all right." The character isn't telling anyone to make it through the summer—he's hoping he makes it himself. In this character's world, summer is something to be endured and wished away. Yikes. That outlook—and the fact that the Chamber Strings were underappreciated in their hometown of Chicago—inspire Ted, the narrator of the story "Look and Feel," to dedicate the first screen-printed poster he makes to promotion of an upcoming Chamber Strings show. Beneath all the particulars of date, place, time and ticket price, Ted tries to capture in an image—a red Frisbee eluding a spread-eagle human hand against a clear blue sky—what he feels when he listens to "Make It Through The Summer." In this effort is planted the seed for what will become Ted's defining ambition—to create a poster that elicits in potential showgoers the very same emotions that the promoted band's live music will evoke in them.
"Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue" – Bob Newhart
James Ryan, agoraphobic narrator of my collection's title story, structures his long, solitary days with the comedy records of Bob Newhart. He is obsessed with Newhart's storytelling ability, the best example of which is a one-sided-phone-call bit entitled "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue." The routine—in which Newhart plays a smarmy press agent advising a somewhat dim Lincoln just before he delivers the Gettysburg Address—helped to propel Newhart's debut album to #1 on the Billboard charts. When his follow-up album was rushed to market, Newhart had the #1 and #2 albums on the charts for two weeks. That record stood until 1991, when Guns ‘n' Roses released Use Your Illusion I and II. When informed that his record for consecutive weeks in the #1 and #2 slots had fallen to Axl Rose and company, Newhart uttered one of my favorite deadpan lines, transcribed here from his autobiography: "Well, you hate to lose a record, especially when you don't know you hold it, but at least it went to a friend."
"Faithfully" – Journey
When he returns home to his parents' basement from his nightly visits to an indie-rock club, Brian, the shy, thirty-something graphic designer who narrates "The Regular," analyzes track-by-track performances of pop songs using the powerful audio software on his computer. A song's individual tracks—an isolated recording of the drums, another of the bass, another of the lead vocals—are very difficult to find, even in the age of file sharing, so when Brian finds the individual tracks of Journey's "Faithfully," he pounces on them. Brian's scrutiny of the song's lead-vocal track alongside a recording of his own impromptu karaoke rendition confirms what Brian has always suspected: that his seldom-used singing voice, by coincidences of pitch and timbre, is almost exactly the same as that of Journey frontman Steve Perry. "The Regular" is about many things, but one of them is the idea that having a voice just like Steve Perry's is a kind of blessing and a kind of curse.
"Song Against Sex" – Neutral Milk Hotel
Jeff Mangum's lo-fi manifesto "Song Against Sex" can be played with exactly two chords. The moment I realized this, I was dumbfounded—how could a song that simple lack nothing in sound and overflow with nervous, Southern-grotesque emotion? That Kool-Aid of simplicity and feeling makes "Song Against Sex" a likely favorite of novice guitarists like Kyle, protagonist of the story "Thingless," who decides two weeks before starting high school that he needs a "thing," and that playing guitar is the thing for him. But, to be honest, I knew I would write about "Song Against Sex" before Kyle and his neighbor—the sad, attractive and slightly older Starlee—existed even in my imagination. The song's rawness and bounce and emotion had saturated me and I wanted to put some of what it made me feel into fiction. "Thingless" isn't a story without Kyle and Starlee and what goes on between them, but Kyle and Starlee probably wouldn't have come to be if I'd never heard "Song Against Sex."
Dave Reidy and Captive Audience links:
also at Largehearted Boy: