Thursday, November 24, 2011

Things Become Momentarily Real

First of all, happy Thanksgiving, everybody!  I hope you've each eaten many turkeys and gravies by now.  Lord knows we can't let them rest after what they've done.  (They know what they did).  If you're not American and didn't celebrate Thanksgiving today, then I wish you a happy Thursday.  Thursdays are pretty fantastic, too!

But that's not really the point of all this.  No, I actually wanted to tell a little story, about myself.  It's not really a story so much as a description of a train of thought, experienced over the course of about ten minutes.

Like most people, I fantasize.  In fact, I fantasize a lot.  In the car, on the street, in the shower; wherever I am, even if I seem to be paying attention to something else, my brain is often constructing an alternate universe of thoughts and ideas that everyone else finds very interesting indeed.  It's a useful byproduct of my amateur insanity, because it provides me with conversation topics (not usually as useful in the shower), as well as ideas that sometimes find their way into the words I scribble on the computer screen.

About a week and a half ago I had one such story idea.  Actually, and improbably, it began with a title.  While running bizarre and unconventional sentences through my head, analyzing them for phonetic and metrical beauty (or whatever strikes me as beautiful), I happened upon the phrase "a hundred degrees in my head."  I liked it, and my first thought was to use it in a poem.  It suggested a lot of things: fevers, obviously, but also uncomfortable buzzing of an overclocked, overstressed brain, or a mind on the cusp of a meltdown.  It had that familiar um-DA-da um-DA-da um-DA beat, long associated with some of our culture's finest poetry, and it struck me that I'd never heard anyone say it before, even though it was (I thought) a pretty awesome line.

But before I could think of any accompanying lines, I began wondering, and fantasizing, about what sort of things (apart from spontaneous illness) might make someone's head feel superheated.  It struck me that A Hundred Degrees in my Head might make an excellent short story title, and since my record with titles is remarkably dismal, I thought it would be a bad idea to waste this one.

My fantasy immediately sprung into action.  Half-thinking, half-mumbling, I assembled the skeleton of a basic plot.  I cobbled together disparate snatches of autobiography and furtive melodrama, with an eye to something both fictional and true-to-life.  A sequence of progressive vignettes took shape in my mind's eye: a series of misfortunes and disappointments, climaxing in a mental and physical collapse, followed by a slow slide into a jaded paralysis.  It was pretty depressing.  I liked it.

By the time I was out of the shower (for I'd been there the whole time!), I had practically scored the entire thing to music, having developed grandiose plans to film my newest opus.  With a camera and some actors, we could shoot the movie on a modest budget.  We would take Sundance by storm.  I'd make a million dollars and retire to France, eating all the hot, buttery croissants a million dollars could buy.

I was getting the slightest bit ahead of myself.  I decided to stick to what I knew, or thought I knew: the short story form (movie rights can always be negotiated later).  But even so, I felt energized.  I was genuinely excited by the story.  It had potential; it felt honest, expressive, even relevant to today's issues and stuff.  I wanted to do a really good job on it.  And supposing I did, was it unreasonable to think of finally getting seeking some form of professional publication?

Suddenly, it felt like a hundred degrees in my head.

As it is, I'm still running the story through its paces.  Plot details have to be ironed out, characters have to be named.  The right tone still has to be set.  But I feel really good about it.  If its potential holds up, I may try some things I've never tried before.  Right now, I've got to focus on getting it off the ground.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Neighbors: A Brief Tale Of Irritation

"Goddammit, I'm working here!"  It was two in the morning.  He should have been sleeping, but he probably couldn't do any of that, either.  Some distractions were simply too profound.

The sound was familiar and unmistakable.  He stared at the ceiling for a while, seeing nothing (except the ceiling), but hearing more than he needed; the furtive creaks, the muffled voices, the unaccountable changes in pace and tempo.  He could not work, he could only stare.  But why stare?  Why bother?  Creak.  Creak.  Creak.  Creak.  Creakcreakcreakcreak...

"Goddammit, got to finish this."  The work didn't need to be finished.  It wasn't really work: it was strictly voluntary, pro bono, for the good of the people.  Just like procreation.  And there he went, thinking about procreation at a time like this!  He had work to do; he worked harder.  What did she look like?

A train sounded in the distance, and that was just ridiculous.  He imagined that he could hear drums.  He couldn't, but suppose for a moment he could?  What the hell were they doing up there?  "What the hell are they doing up there?"  He knew what they were doing; somehow it just helped to imagine they were doing it in the middle of a massive drum circle.  A massive drum circle in their tiny little apartment.  Full of hippies taking drugs and eating brownies.  Brownies?  Special ones.  "I'd like some brownies," he thought.  Not the special ones, though, because they tasted like shit.  Where did the train fit into all of this?  Was the train even involved?  Of course not, because trains don't fit in apartments.  It didn't matter, he couldn't hear the drums anyway.  He wished he could.

It was two fifteen.  Was she pretty?  He focused on his typing.  He typed harder.  It was almost loud enough.  Two twenty.  Jesus Christ.  The woman said something, and he was irritated at the thought that he couldn't hear it.  But why did he care?  "I need a drink."  There were no drinks to be had.  The stores were closing.  The bars were far away.  He had work to do.  The bars were way too far away.  He heard some more voices.  Why weren't there any drinks in the fridge?  What did she say?  Wait, how many people were up there?

He kicked the wall and no one heard it.  He didn't bother to kick it again.  "Now my foot hurts," he said, and he grabbed his foot to show himself he meant it.  It didn't hurt for very long.  "My foot hurts and it's late and I have work to do.  I don't want to do it, but I have to!"  He wanted to have to, really badly.  What else did he have?  Nothing for a sore foot.  Nothing at all.  Brown hair?

Two thirty.  He began browsing Wikipedia; any article would suit him.  After a few lines of Flag Day, a sudden realization: the noises had stopped.  He looked from side to side, as if there were something to see.  He saw nothing.  He slowly looked behind his chair; did his roommate hear anything?  He scratched his brow and turned his head, ears tuned to maximum attention.  Nothing.  A voice.  Nothing.  What did she say?  Nothing. 

"Thank God," he sighed, "I can get back to work."  It wasn't very important.  It was only a distraction, a profound distraction.  Distractions were unavoidable; at any rate, he couldn't avoid them.  No one likes to admit such things, but he had to have been aware; there was nothing in his life except for two in the morning, and "work," and maybe Flag Day.  Flag Day was on June 15th, more than half a year away.  Did he miss it?  "Man, I can't even remember."  Was that the day of the barbecue?  With the beach and the sand, and the hippies, and all the pretty girls in bikinis?  The lithe, nubile, brown-haired girls in the tiny flag bikinis?  Was that Flag Day?  Did that even happen?  He googled it, but he couldn't tell.

Two thirty five, and he heard music.  "What?"  It was faint music, and he couldn't tell what kind.  It could have been opera.  It could have been hippies, playing their hippie panpipes.  Not their hippie drums, though.  It could have been Spanish pop.  Music, and then, tentatively, creaking.  Creak.  Creak.  Creak.  Creak.  "Goddammit."

He couldn't work.  It was important, but he couldn't work.  "I'll do the rest tomorrow."  He went to the living room, where he couldn't hear the creaking, to play some video games. He stared at the television, and the screen was empty.  He didn't see a thing.  Some distractions were simply too profound.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Smile Sessions

In 1967, the Beach Boys narrowly missed out on the opportunity to become the boldest, most avant garde act in the history of pop music.  Fully explaining why they missed that opportunity would take pages upon pages; it's a long and involved tale of contractual problems, drug abuse, mental illness, and personal conflicts between members of the band.  However, the opportunity certainly existed.  The previous year, the band had begun work on an album that almost certainly would have produced an impact to rival Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, months before that album was even due for release.  Brian Wilson, the band's leader and principal composer, was bound and determined to shock the world with his sound.  Forty four years later, the fruits of those labors have now been commercially released, and their psychedelic sound can still startle.

The album, Smile, didn't come out in 1967, because it was not finished.  In 2004 Brian Wilson finally settled on a running order, and enlisted his collaborator (songwriter Van Dyke Parks) to write new lyrics for tracks which still had none.  With a new band he rerecorded everything from the ground up, producing a very successful album that, nevertheless, wasn't really Smile.  Now, the Beach Boys have finally released The Smile Sessions, a collection of the most complete and most intriguing music recorded from the time.  But that isn't really Smile, either.  It's Smile with an asterisk, or a grade of "incomplete," in more or less the state in which it was abandoned all those years ago.  

None of this should detract from the beauty of the music, which has been newly remastered.   The album's key tracks (Heroes and Villains, Cabinessence, Wonderful, Surf's Up, Vega-Tables, and Good Vibrations) sound excellent, and are as near to "complete" as one could ever ask.  Secondary tracks such as Do You Like Worms? and I Love to Say Dada don't carry the same impact without the lyrics added for the 2004 version, but their relative completeness is remarkable.  Painfully, you can see how, with another month or two and a clear plan of attack, Smile probably could have been finished in time to really make its mark. It wasn't, so this (generously expansive) collection will have to do.

The sound of Smile, or at least The Smile Sessions, is defined by its eclecticism.  Many songs are defined by baroque instruments like pianos, horns and harpsichords, but heavily distorted electric guitars make appearances at surprising turns.  Melodic, dynamic bass lines enhance the arrangements, and in some places even try to dominate the mix.  Of course the truly dominant sound is of the Beach Boys' unparalleled singing; except when it isn't, and the Sessions present us with long stretches where the words were either never written, or simply never laid down on tape.  Thanks to the 2004 album, we now have lyrics to go along with them, but the fact that they were written so late (who knows what the words might have been in the 60s?) helps to preserve a bit of the mystery from long ago.

Smile, as originally conceived, was completely unlike anything ever attempted in the world of rock and pop.  It was meant to be constructed like a puzzle; songs would be built from small, separately recorded pieces which could be stitched together to form larger compositions.  Pieces of those compositions could then be used to sew the songs together, allowing them to flow with few to no breaks between tracks.  The songs themselves were also unique; the bulk of it was new work with highly abstract lyrics by Parks, but mixed in among them were excerpts from classic 40's and 50's pop tunes (Gee, You Are My Sunshine, I Wanna be Around).  Put together, Smile was supposed to be serious, humorous, spiritual and spontaneous: more or less, everything at once.

Pieces of the puzzle have always been available for those willing to explore the Beach Boy's 1970s albums, as well as the tapes spread by the noble bootleggers who've kept the legend alive.  Now that they've been assembled, it's easier to see the scope of Brian Wilson's ambition, and it helps to take the edge off of mourning for the greatest album that never was.  It isn't everything at once, but it is definitely something special.

Embedded amongst the outtakes and alternate versions are tracks that, while properly belonging to Smile, weren't integrated into the 2004 version.  The merits of songs like He Gives Speeches may be debatable, but it's obscure ephemera like that that make Smile special, and add to the value of the Sessions.  The main event, however, remains the core tracks.  They are among the very best work the Beach Boys, or any band of their era, ever recorded, and it's wonderful to see them finally enshrined in their discography where they belong.