Monday, May 26, 2008

Who Runs Bartertown? Making myths from blotters

I started Peromyscus to write about writing. Not as futile a concept as it may sound, as writing about writing is actually writing. Deep thought for the day. Shortly after I started the blog I started fangirling about something, and all thoughts of writing about writing fled. I do still write, and yesterday that odd synchronicity, that confluence of two different things that's the trigger for writing, happened again.

A friend of mine wrote in her journal about writing that's meaningful, that hits you with an emotional slam. Something that I can do only rarely, it seems. When I examined that, I realized I have a problem with writing about reality which I don't have with myth.

Reality, I tend to report on. (I think; readers may beg to differ.)

Myth, I riff on.

And riff on is better.

The key then, would be to look at reality as myth, get away from the everyday and find the archetypes that stand behind each 'real' incident like living creatures ill-disguised as shadows.

But how do I do that?

In the first part of the two thought streams, I was reading a review of some books on the music industry. (The Sound of Money, Robert Christgau, New York Times.) In it, Christgau says, "historically, crime and pop music go way back. All the renegade urban styles - jazz up through at least the 1930's, and also Argentine tango and Greek rebetika and Portuguese fado and many others - thrived in the underworld. And the unpredictability of such a working environment has always favored tough guys who know how to collect what's owed them." The second part of the puzzle came to me when someone (actually the same friend; maybe I only have one) in a comment about (guess what) Led Zeppelin, mentioned Bill Graham.

Here are a couple of passages about popular music, mass adulation and revenge. Forty years apart, the first one is in Oakland, 1977. The second is entirely out of this world, in the land of myth.

In Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, Graham describes the sickening incident where Peter Grant, John Bonham, and John Bindon beat up Jim Matzorkis, one of Bill Graham's security staff, after Matzorkis rebuffed Peter Grant's son in some minor verbal altercation.

In his Mystery Train, Greil Marcus gives us the bare details, the myth, of another violent incident in popular music, before going off on his own riffs: Robert Johnson was a Mississippi country blues singer and guitarist, born in 1911; he was murdered by a jealous husband, in 1938. He died in a haze: if some remember that he was stabbed, others say he was poisoned, that he died on his hands and knees, barking like a dog; that his death "had something to do with the black arts."

The Robert Johnson I can see in my mind's eye; it's twilight and birds in flight are black silhouettes against stark trees lumpy with Spanish Moss and crows' nests. There are wooden buildings along a packed dirt road. One of them is a bar, and in the bar Robert Johnson is on all fours, barking like a dog. A woman with her arms folded across her chest looks on at the chaos she's caused, as men lift up the stricken bluesman and take him to a doctor. He won't be able to do anything; he doesn't have a drug to undo a Hoodoo curse. Now the woman has to face her husband. I can feel her story coming into focus; what she's wearing, where she's been, why she did it. How her husband found out.

The modern tale is only print on a page. It's taking place in an aluminum trailer – a Winnebago. Although the description suggests it's night, I can only see bright lights, which are washing out all the subtle tones. The men are just men. One imagines they drink Pabst beer and bowl on the weekends. Seeing the soft-lit folk tale behind the incident is difficult – it's a crime scene, not a catalyst for a story.

Try again: focus on the details that make this more than a report. As the trailer door locked, Bill Grahams's security guards were going for their pieces, the book says, in the trunks of their cars, because they didn't carry at work but they all had guns. There's an in; there's the hint of complexity, the suggestion there's more than black and white and newsprint to the story. Focus on the man who reaches his car first. What kind of gun is it? What's the car? It looks like a Thunderbird. There's the concrete expanse all around, thousands of vehicles from the kids at the gig that night. Mercury lights buzz on tall poles. Bill Graham says, in his book, that he worked out a solution afterwards and told his guards, "If you don't think what I do is fair… I'll fly twenty-five guys of your choice to New Orleans [Zep's next stop on the tour]… and you can do them there."

It's drifting into mythspace now. There are two gangs, here: the home turf gang, never crossed, never outgunned, and the visiting one, way out of home territory but never defeated, never letting one of the regional kinglings even glimpse a victory. That's why John Bindon, in this story – the real one, the printed one, because I'm not making this bit up – licks Jimmy Page's foot on stage as he plays that night. This is the Anabasis of Xenophon set in Oakland, this is Mad Max inside Bartertown. The elements overcome the facts. Everybody gets handed a role and no choice but to play it. No one backs off. Everyone gets hurt.

There it is. It's all becoming real to me – or unreal to me – not appearing out of the fog of unknowing, but gradually disappearing into it, like the Cheshire Cat's face, leaving only its core values and the feeling of unbalance, a tipping of the scales, waiting to be righted.

I don't know why the Robert Johnson image is clearer. I think it's because it was a long time ago, and the police reports aren't waiting there to contradict me as they would a modern story. It could be because the protagonists are 'other', but if so, that's not because they were black. For all I know Jim Matzorkis may be black too. I haven't asked and no-one's said. The thoroughgoing gangsterism of music was the same in the seventies as it was in the thirties, so it's not that there's some sort of romance that got lost in the intervening years. It may be that the older story already has the edges worn off it – like a lucky pebble, handled by eager children for years and worn to a smooth shine, it looks different from the mass of pebbles on the beach, even though it was once one of them. That's the trick, then, not to find a shiny pebble, but to pick one and shine it yourself. Keep it and cherish it and make it special.

I guess I can do it if I try. The key would be to try more often.


Malia said...

The "romance' of Robert Johnson's death: passion, jealousy, hint of black magic, lends itself easily to fantasy. The Matzorkis incident you had to work at, which one gave you the greater satisfaction reading them later? The first made me feel the tragedy, but the second, a little fear, even shock (I nearly gasped), it was quite vivid. You used a term once that I can't remember right now, but it meant, I think, 'moment in time', the Matzorkis bit was perfect example of that. In fiction, the writer is allowed "artistic license," you are allowed to play with details somewhat despite the availability of archives and police reports. Some of us have an overwhelming desire with modern events to want to get it right, gotta work on that. That said, if you throw a slutty vampire or horny elf in your stories...

Peromyscus said...

*Slaps forehead*! I always forget to put the slutty vampire in. No wonder I'm not a bestseller.

The second is far more "real" than the 1938 one, isn't it? The first one seems to have stock scenery from the warehouse while the second has the immediacy.


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