Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Always Say the Person's Name": A story based on "Ode To Billie Joe" by Bobbi Gentry, as suggested by writer Jenny Diski (13/100)

Always Say the Person's Name

I’m in a self-esteem workshop trying to—what else—feel better. I’ve been to a bunch, all over the place, and one thing they always do is hand out these half sheets of paper with two columns, ten questions each. Except they aren’t really questions, just the words “I am” and then a three-inch line for your answer. Twenty times. When someone shares their “I am” conclusions out loud, they end up explaining what they just summed up and people chime in with encouraging statements like “Fear is in all of us, but so is strength, Frank,” and “You know, Susan, big is beautiful.” You always say the person’s name when you give them encouragement.

Of course, the people in these workshops are never here because they have a problem with high self-esteem. It’s hard to imagine someone coming in and saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me—probably nothing—but I just feel so good at so many things.”

After the “I am” portion there are one-on-ones that take up the rest of the time. The “Six Minute Power-Up” is what they call it. Each person gets together with someone else for six minutes, and before rotating they just have a conversation about how a free throw is so easy but so unattainable or the way their cats look at them when sensing shame.

The woman running the workshop is shaped like a pill and wearing mostly denim. When it’s my turn she tells me about coming-of-age in Colorado, how she worked in the public relations department of a popular but morally bankrupt ski resort and had to overcome how she felt about spinning their problems. This takes less than two minutes, which is a third of our time spent together, something she has planned: always give away the bulk of your time.

“How are you?” she asks, and then pauses briefly before adding my name.

* * *

My “I am” list reads something like this: taller than most people, wearing expensive glasses, thirsty for something other than free coffee.

“I am never going to learn to sew properly,” one woman says, and then while everyone else is telling her that it’s a matter of practice, amongst other things (“And what does properly even mean?”), I’m sitting there thinking about how little I care about sewing and, everyone’s right, how easy it’d be to just practice if I did care. The thing I’d write down if I got the kind of serious everyone here wants is I am incapable of letting the right things go. I can never figure out the correlation, but whenever I think about writing that one down I always think about a girlfriend who made me spray her with a fire extinguisher. She told me that she loved the feel of it, and it was harmless as long as I wasn’t too close and she didn’t get it in her eyes or mouth. So, once a day we’d go into the garage where she’d strip down and spin while I sprayed her with a fire extinguisher for a few seconds. When I’d stop, she’d keep spinning, right into me so I’d have to catch her.

I tell all that to the pill-shaped woman. Her smile is unwavering. She scratches her jaw-line and starts telling me that we all sometimes harbor odd feelings of regret. Her eyes dart around the room, maybe for a clock but maybe just to think.

I can see that she’s struggling, so I go on to say that I always caught my girlfriend, but I always held on to the fire extinguisher, too. I ask her almost rhetorically if she thinks it’s possible to handle them both and for the next minute she tells me stock phrases, how material goods can’t take the place of human connection and how any bond is only the sum of the people in it. Then a bell dings and she moves on.

* * *

When we’re on the final round of the power-ups, I end up with a woman in her late forties. She says that she has trouble speaking to people because she’s afraid that anything she says will be seen as stupid. I’m gentle with her. I tell her the fire extinguisher story I told the moderator and this woman tells me that it’s just a matter of getting her back.

I don’t think that’s it. What if it’s not a matter of going back? What if it’s a matter of taking back? Of being able to get back? What if that’s impossible?

I only say that last part to her. She scrunches up her nose and then sets her face in a wise old way. “If it was impossible would you be telling me about it?”

What I tell her is “No.” What I write at the bottom of my paper is I am saying yes.



Bobbie Gentry is an American singer/songwriter mainly known for the song that this story is based on. It seems like people were really latching on to that meandering, Bob Dylan story-song thing at the time (stuff like "Tangled Up In Blue" kind of pisses me off, but I was never a huge Dylan guy), but Gentry nails it. Just the perfect amount left unsaid. She put out a shitload of albums--fourteen between 1967 and 1971, four in 1971 alone--and singles in a short amount of time and then said "Fuck it" and quit show business in the late-70s. She was one of the first female country artists to write and perform her own material, which is impressive, considering a dude like Scott Walker was still mostly sucking from the Jacques Brel musical teet at the time. Also, she had big hair and was really adorable. Nobody's really heard shit from her since 1981, but, hey, here's to her.

Jenny Diski
is a British writer who loves to smoke. She has about a dozen-and-a-half books in print, and while I'm sure they're all fantastic (her personal exploration of the sixties looks especially awesome), I've only had the pleasure of reading Stranger On A Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America with Interruptions. In it, she speaks humorously and honestly about America, riding the trains in search of nothing much and finding truth (and the truth about truth, in all its clichéd glory) without having to go much further than the smoking car on her train. The best parts of it, however, are the ones where she reflects on her past, her times spent in mental institutions and coming of age at a weird time in the world. As if there isn't a weird time to come of age in the world. I mean . . . you know what I mean. Buy the book here and read it. Jenny lives in Cambridge with The Poet, leading, I hope, a very pleasant life.

Our Band Could Be Your Lit on Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.

Next week: A story based on "Your Friend and Mine--Neil's Song" by Love, as suggested by musician Bob Bucko Jr.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

"Excuses": A story based on "No Love Lost" by Joy Division, as suggested by musician Aaron Beam of Red Fang (12/100)


The autumn I tried to start smiling with more teeth, I got caught stealing cigarettes from the gas station and then went on a big family revival kick, deciding that I needed to visit all of them, every aunt uncle and cousin I never see. It was a bust like it is anytime someone tries to do something like that, but I was so caught up in all of it that I ended up not shaving between Thanksgiving and a week into the new year. I was out of a job and the majority of my savings when I finally got around to shaving, so I had time to do it in stages over the course of several days: chinstrap beard, then chops and a goatee, then the Frank Zappa, etc. My only option for the last day seemed to be a Hitler mustache. So, I shaved it in and walked around my house with it for a day, forgetting I had it until catching my reflection in a window or mirror.

I left it for another day. That’s when I started acting like him. On purpose, of course. I was bored and kind of curious about how much it takes to get caught up in an idea, fake or not. It started with standing on a chair in my kitchen and yelling in German, which amounted to a lot of harsh vowels strung together with throat-clearing noises. It was nonsense, but in my head I was speaking of freedom and infestation, the things that hold my people back. I would move slowly around my room on my desk chair as if in my dictator’s car, saluting people who stand up for me, idolize me as a savior of their beliefs, a savior of their morality.

I left it for a while longer. As I became more removed from the initial shaving-in, I became more removed from being Hitler. I felt as if I had moved from being the man himself to being a look-alike, someone designed to throw his detractors off his trail. I was shaving daily but leaving the mustache, trimming around it. I still had it a week later, by which time I was just a loyal soldier, herding the people through the camps, standing in front of my bed with my chest puffed out, holding my mother’s old color-guard rifle and pretending to oversee the abuse of the prisoners. I was watching the rapes and beatings with pride, knowing that bringing the world back up from its forlorn condition involves a cure that must be achieved and instituted, country by country, starting with mine.

Days passed and I lost sight of Hitler completely. I went from the camps to the crowd, staring out my window at cars driving by and pretending Hitler was in one. I wouldn’t salute. I’d just stare, hopeful. It all trickled down though, and I ended up becoming myself one morning, some guy with a tiny square mustache looking into the mirror and wondering how and why it all felt so natural. The things that came out of me surely were not in me. That night, when I tilted my head under the light and picked up my can of shaving cream, I set it back down and walked away, slowly, with a stride that said, “I’m going nowhere.”



Joy Division was a band. Then they weren't. Then (a version of) they were New Order, which played up every Joy Division fan's secret desire to dance and be sad all at the same time. Like INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence, Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis died from hanging himself. Unlike INXS, Joy Division didn't have a shitty reality show to find a new lead singer, though Rockstar: INXS runner-up Marty Casey pretty much kicked ass when I saw him singing with LA Guns on the back of a flatbed truck in the outfield of a softball field in Farley, Iowa.

Aaron Beam plays bass and does vocals in the band Red Fang. They are based in Portland, OR, but instead of holding that against them, I will instead say that they are an awesome band in a place I don't think I'd like very much. Red Fang's music is pummeling rock and roll. There's really no other way to say it, and you should order their album through Sargent House records, because Sargent House fucking rules. Aaron is actually a Midwest boy, much like myself. However, he's from Iowa instead of Wisconsin. Still, his music is a throwback to the days of bearded men playing giant riffs, so I will not hold that against him either. The Red Fang burger at Kuma's Corner had bacon on it, and though I am unsure of the other toppings, it looks delicious. I also find it highly unlikely that they are not named after the Native American football player Chief Xavier Downwind.

"Prehistoric Dog" from Red Fang.

"Sharks" from Red Fang.

"Reverse Thunder" from Red Fang.

Our Band Could Be Your Lit on Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.

Next week: A story based on "Ode to Billy Joe" by Bobbie Gentry, as suggested by writer Jenny Diski.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"An Abridged History of Never Coming Back": A story based on "Pulaski Skyway" by Clutch, as suggested by writer Eirik Gumeny (11/100)

An Abridged History of Never Coming Back

We’ve got a history of dock workers, and have for a long time in this country, which is probably why so many folks try to peg the origin of the disappearances in the early part of the 1900s. The main argument is between those who believe it all started at the beginning of the 1930s, when Frank Hague got into it with the labor unions during the construction of the skyway, and those who believe that it started when the Holland Tunnel between New York and New Jersey was being designed in 1919. All of these people are wrong.

Here’s how far back it goes. In 1021 AD. Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah took a donkey ride to the outskirts of Cairo for a little night meditation and when people went looking for him later on they found the donkey and some bloody clothes but no Al-Hakim. It’s true that people disappear all the time: kidnapping and runaways and mental cases who just wander away to nowhere with something resembling soap opera amnesia. But, what’s also true is that someone always chooses to make these things happen, whether it’s the individual in question or not. Sometimes it’s random, to prove that it can be done, that one person can take another person and not kill them so much as delete them, just remove them from whatever it was they were going to do for the rest of their life. More often than not, though, there’s a reason. Some might say that we hold grudges and drop bodies.

All of these people are right.

There were obviously lots of disappearances between Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah and the early 1900’s dock days, Edward V and The Roanoke Colonists and so on, but those latter glory days are the ones people are most interested in. Going into that century it seemed like the whole country was dancing on steel just because it was possible. There was so much of it. I can’t say the industrial advances didn’t have their logical perks, but the men who made them became invisible. The real middlemen, the men on the docks and the men building bridges, became invisible. To make up for it, they started their own variation on the nameless disappearance religion. It started from the bottom, the very bottom, the dwellers and, later, mole people, who made the city move simply by being the ruled class, by being the lowest level so nobody else had to. Once they were one, the stevedores and labor workers got in, maybe only twenty people all together to represent this larger faction. They abducted twenty-five year old Dorothy Arnold in 1910 because she was a bratty heiress to a perfume empire and a shithead boozer from Manhattan. They dug deeper and spread further, which isn’t to say they got smart. In 1914 two men in Santa Barbara, California made Idaho businessman F. Lewis Clark disappear because they thought he was “the man who went across the USA with that Indian broad.”

They went to the spine of it all in 1938 and flew Andrew Carnegie’s nephew and his plane into an uncharted area around Long Island. Then a few of those idiots tried to take credit for Amelia Earhart the year before. I helped build the Jersey Turnpike in the 50s, and even though they weren’t the brightest group, they got on track by the time I joined. I had a hand in a few of the big ones after that, namely Nelson Rockefeller’s son Michael and that son of a bitch Jimmy Hoffa. We didn’t have anything to do with D.B. Cooper, though he seemed like our sort of man. He had it all: everybody knows D.B. Cooper and nobody knows D.B. Cooper. He could have been another criminal, but he could have been like us, too, a guy who wanted to draw and erase certain lines between output and recognition. I’d love to meet him, assuming he’s still out there. He’d be about my age, which is to say that we’re both too old now to do any sort of disappearing other than the kind that comes naturally with getting old and fading, the kind where it just sort of happens, when the choice is finally no one’s.



Clutch is a band from Germantown, Maryland. Singer Neil Fallon doesn't look anything like what I imagined him to look like before I actually saw him. The band added a full-time organist to their line-up as of their 2005 album Robot Hive/Exodus, making them the second coolest rock band ever with a permanent organ. I think their 2004 album Blast Tyrant is their best album, putting it in the running for one of the best riff rock albums of the decade. They've chilled out a lot in the past several years, and I heard all they do is sit around and smoke weed and talk about theological issues. Pure Rock Fury is their best-named and least-enjoyable album, which is kind of a bummer, but the least-enjoyable Clutch album is still way better than most bullshit out there. Maybe I've just got a soft-spot for bands whose songs can be learned within a month of picking up a guitar, but Clutch really are masters of the groove riff.

Eirik Gumeny is a writer from New Jersey. He is the head honcho at Jersey Devil Press, an underground journal of misfit writers who are too beautifully fucked up for anywhere else. Much like Neil Fallon, Eirik doesn't look how I thought he would. I expected a white dude with dreadlocks, fingerless gloves, and Hawaiian shirts (strikes one, two, and "get the fuck out of here" in my book). He has a book called Exponential Apocalypse that I've been meaning to order for a long time. You should all make an attempt to beat me to the punch, and place your orders. I bet it's as great as the other book JDP released this year: the 2010 Jersey Devil Press Anthology, featuring almost two dozen awesome stories in it, including one by yours truly and one by OBCBYL alumnus yt sumner. Get that one, too. Eirik also enjoys tacos. Probably.

Our Band Could Be Your Lit on Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.

Next week: A story based on "No Love Lost" by Joy Division, as suggested by musician Aaron Beam of Red Fang.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

"Love, I Guess": A story based on "Pyramid" by Andreas Vollenweider, as suggested by musician Ulrich Schnauss (10/100)

Love, I Guess

Keri had moved out of our cabin in the fall, but I found out where she went to. Every once in awhile I’d pay the grocer’s boy in town fifty cents to call her up and just listen, write down everything she said. Which was this: Henry, I know it’s you and you need to stop calling me and figure out your life. Except the boy was thirteen and a terrible speller, so when I’d go into town to get supplies and pay him, he’d hand me the notepad paper he transcribed her words onto and it’d come out looking like Henree you aint never bin a god dam foole til now and I just need to see things you cant show me. I dont hate you but im gonna let the police no abowt this if I get won more call from you I sware to God. I’d thank him and give him his fifty cents.

“She sounded mad, Hank” he said to me once.

“You didn’t say anything, did you?”

“Nope. I just listened like you said.” He clicked the two quarters together. “Why you havin’ me do this, Hank?”

“Love, I guess.”


“It’s,” I started and then stopped. “Go like this.” I held my arms out in front of me with my fingers pointed up, elbows bent at a ninety degree angle, and then tilted my hands towards each other at the same pace until the fingertips touched gently in the middle.

The boy copied me exact. “Like this?”

I took my pointer and middle fingers on each hand and walked both of them halfway up his slanted arms. “Like that.”

People in town started talking about how Keri got her pilot’s license in December. I kept watching for planes to fly over the farm. It was late April when one finally did, and I started making the shapes the next day, when the winter wheat was knee-high. I counted the rows and had my whole crop all drawn out on some graph paper. Every couple of nights I’d belt some tennis rackets to my feet and go make a big shape in the wheat. First it was something simple, just a circle or a triangle. Then I’d climb up on my roof to get an idea of how I did.

I wasn't great at first, but eventually I got better. And wild, too. I could make a horse. A guitar. A cowboy hat. I made a three-tiered cake over the course of an entire day, all by myself, rolling my feet like an ocean and flattening the wheat. I made angel wings. Medusa's head. I was crushing the crop with expectations, strapping leather to leather and trying to see how much more beautiful it all could be, each strand of wheat laid down flat and looking up as part of something larger than itself.


Andreas Vollenweider is a Swiss harpist who, in my head, walks everywhere with his harp. He's really into non-violence and all that stuff, which makes total sense, because his music is so chilled out that I'd find it really hard to beat anyone's ass while listening to it. He worked with Carly Simon on some stuff, so we know her taste in musical collaborators is far superior than her taste in men.

Ulrich Schnauss ist sehr gut. He is an electronic musician from Germany. His music takes nods from shoegaze and all sorts of electronic/hip-hop stuff and just keeps layering it all together until there's some really gorgeous soundscape where there was previously only a smattering of noises. He's released music under his own name as well as various others such as View to the Future, Police In Cars With Headphones, Ethereal 77, and others. I can't say enough nice things about the guy. And he looks like a suave and less "I'm going to eat your children" Nick Cave. And his name is fun to say. Like I said, the dude's awesome. My personal favorite album of his is 2001's Far Away Trains Passing By, but you can't go wrong with any of his stuff. His record labels sued Guns N' Roses. It's hard to say Axl doesn't have shit like that coming to him."Knuddlemaus" is one of my favorite songs ever, which is something I know I say a lot, but it's always true.

"Knuddlemaus" from Far Away Trains Passing By

"Blumenthal" from A Strangely Isolated Place

"Never Be the Same" from Goodbye

Our Band Could Be Your Lit on Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.

Next week: A story based on "Pulaski Skyway" by Clutch, as suggested by writer Eirik Gumeny.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"After I Threw the Ball At Thomas Hernandez and Before It Killed Him": A story based on "Jesus Christ" by Brand New, suggested by writer Adam Gallari

After I Threw the Ball At Thomas Hernandez and Before It Killed Him




Brand New is a band from Long Island, New York. The reason I never listened to them is because some douchebag I knew in college really liked them, but it turns out they're pretty great, often spooky and finding new ways to bring rage to music aside from angst-metal. I'm kind of bummed that nobody makes happy metal anymore, but that's what the dollar section at record stores are for, I guess. Frontman Jesse Lacey, like J Mascis and that dude from MONO, plays Jazzmaster guitars, which is something you can't really argue with as a tonal weapon. I'm trying really hard to not make a joke about how the band has been around for ten years, thereby making them not-all-that-brand-new, but instead I'll just say that All Music called "Jude Law and a Semester Abroad" a "semi-hit," which is kind of a backhanded thing to say. "Yeah, people almost cared." What a bunch of dicks.

(I feel bad about that last bit. Sloan rocks)

Adam Gallari is a writer from Manhatten, but he's currently in the United Kingdom, growing his hair out and posing by fountains all day. His book We Are Never As Beautiful As We Are Now (published in April 2010 by Ampersand Books) has been described in all sorts of ways, but everyone seems to find a way to mention the words "muscular" and "masculinity" as well as some sideways reference to Richard Ford or Raymond Carver. I can see that, but the real appeal of his stories is that they have a sharp eye that zooms in on the right details of something that might otherwise seem anecdotal, as if the characters, if left alone without Gallari writing through them, would falter and stop halfway through trying to tell their own stories. He doesn't just know how to write things, he knows how to see them and make the reader see them. He also likes baseball a lot, and I can only hope he isn't a Yankees fan (or, even worse, a Cubs fan). His essays and fiction have appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, LIT, The Millions and others. He is currently working on a novel. Also, go Brewers.

Our Band Could Be Your Lit on Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.

Next week: A story based on "Pyramid" by Andreas Vollenweider, as suggested by musician Ulrich Schnauss.