the Hip Journalists who write the big books on the power of song (post-bomb,
post-Republic) determine whether great anthems or great poisons have shaped
our lives, they'd better get it right. Because we know. There's nothing
we know so well as the smells of a diner where we found love/lost love/gave
love away to The Band or Tull or Traffic; the movies we made out of fragments
of the flimsiest scores resonate like great bells down the years. Never
have so many salivated so consistently, so satisfyingly, for so long.
It's amazing. As a country we don't read very much or well. The
ability to write clearly isn't a soft skill anymore: corporations will
pay real bucks if you can help Vice-President Johnny communicate in English.
And forget about foreign languages. We'll leave it to ascendant countries
to learn ours. But we can remember lyrics two decades old that came into
our ear like a potion (poison? a musical Claudius killing our fathers,
separating us from our own lives?) while we slept. We may not know much,
but we know the sounds we've consumed. In the summer of 1975 I drove a
truck for a frozen foods plant north of Seattle. The truck carried a 1200
gallon water tank and gas powered compressor. Throughout the pea harvest,
I wandered from one field to the next, where the pea viners, metal elephants
two stories high, worked in herds scooping up pea vines, beating them
in their great cylindrical innards, until the shelled peas fell into a
bin, ready for processing and freezing. The pea handling parts of the
viners, belts and pulleys and little conveyor buckets, became clogged
with pea-stuff: along I came to spray them clean, to keep 'em vining.
Harvest time, as anyone who's ever worked a farm knows, is a race with
nature. Nature provides; nature takes away if you don't snatch away the
goodies in time. So the hours were long, the weather hot, then wet. Two
months of solitary fatigue (but the pay was good, $4.51 an hour in '75).
The cab of the International Harvester behemoth I drove became my home
and refuge; in a yellow rain slicker, covered with stinking decaying pea
silage, my arms and legs aching from climbing up and down the elephants
with all the parts moving, I'd sit down and drive away and turn on the
AM radio. Heaven. I'd never listened to so much radio in my life. And
pop music in the summer of 1975 was exquisitely, even classically, bad.
It was the summer of Morris Albert ("Feelings"), Bee Gees (Jive Talkin'),
Glen Campbell (Southern Nights), America ("Daisy Jane"), and thirty or
forty tunes penned by the ubiquitous Barry Manilow. But I loved it. With
no one around to corrupt my innocent acceptance with a critical sense,
(no one was less hip than I was; functionally it was a camp response,
without the awareness) I ended up owning that music to a degree I've not
experienced since. I let it take me to cognitive places no pop has gone
before. My reading from the previous academic year, still resonating,
added to the mix. What's the difference between an English major and a
Teamster? None, so far as my experience could tell. Stephen Crane and
Neil Sedaka? All part of the American scene. The Old Testament and the
Captain and Tenille? Not sure, but worth exploring. Schopenhauer and the
complete absence of women from my twenty-year-old summer world? Dangerous,
with possible scarring. I listened. I drove, I scored movies of the landscape
-- darting eyes editing the raw film. Something was going on, though I
didn't recognize it. Then it was like a survival tactic; it was fancy,
fantasy; I used the music like a drug; I needed it to keep going from
July through September; I needed it to transcend the world of experience
until the world of experience improved. I didn't get it. I'm not sure
I get it now, but at least I'm more aware of what I'm not aware of. (Kierkegaard,
via Percy: Only the man who is not aware of his despair is truly in despair.)
God knows I've tried to love experience untouched by the production process.
Truly. But it's like a gay man getting married and having children. Maybe
he can pull it off, but he's killing his own nature. I didn't recognize
that my truck and my bad music and my windshield movie screen was, for
me, an early experiment in process: the reordering of experience, the
juxtaposition of memory and observation, can lead to a sovereignty over
that experience. Participating in process is ownership. And owning experience,
the opposite of consuming experience, is a blessed state, an ecstatically
"The production process girds time,
the plainness and the planeness of it."
Some kind of natural production process has since roped in that soggy
pea harvest twenty years gone, girded its real time, conquered it, laughed
at it; all that's left are the heightened moments of music and image and
the unspoken narratives they drove. It happens with all of us. Our memories
turn into movies. Or dances. Or texts. Or pieces of audio tape.
I have this recurring novel -- anybody have one of those? It's like a
nightmare but it's written out in text, and therefore much more frightening.
In that story, a golfer (or should I say a Golfer) lives more to capture
and edit the highlights of his career on videotape than to live life itself.
The question for the narrator/observer becomes, is Jimmy French a monster,
a peculiar creation of our times, or is he the greatest artist of those
times? By the standards of a textual age, he is in a way a monster; he
negates text, makes it irrelevant. In Jimmy French's imagination, "the
image is everything", screed become meaningful to a startling degree.
But what is he violating? Only the sensibilities of those whose minds
cling to text. Is text sacred? Or is it archaic? Jimmy French uses the
tools of expression -- videotape cameras, editing units, music mixing
-- which his age offers. And he uses them better than anyone else. By
some standards that would make him the Mozart of the age, rather than
a monster. I've battled this text for years, and I still don't know the
answer, don't know what Jimmy French is. Does it matter? The Golfer himself
knows that text is not making or shaping the world's mind anymore. Sad
but true. Then what is? The Production Process!
"Sims Serenade" is an audio piece about the production process itself.
Harry Lyman Sims, native of Hallam, California ("the most mediated place
in the entire world"), is a rock impressionist. In a monologue posing
as a sound check, he runs through his repertory of "seventy-nine people
and/or aggregates of people who/which play rock & roll." The production
process makes it possible to punctuate with short bits of tunes Harry's
musings on the filtered lives nurtured by Hallam's multi-pathed microwave
signals. He is not, he says, what he seems; but he is not quite a reliable
confessor of his own unreliability. Once experience lived first-hand is
compromised (as it has been for virtually every person living in the industrialized
world), then the kaleidoscopic possibilities of new perceptions, filtered
experiences, present themselves with great speed and seductiveness. It's
very hard, if not impossible, to find one's way out of the Fun House.
Harry can't. He knows it. He's spent his time and talents on becoming
other people. There's no returning to the "plainness and the planeness
of living life first-hand." He doesn't even try. Instead, he simply survives
as what he is, being "marvelously adapted to the age that [he lives] in."
I'm not a big fan of live radio. Maybe that's because, like Harry Lyman
Sims, my first-hand perceptions are compromised. But live radio, whether
it's concert broadcast or A Prairie Home Companion, isn't a first-hand
experience, either. It too, is filtered experience pretending to be unfiltered.
Another piece I produced for New American Radio, "Saturday, Late in the
Twentieth Century," is a radio show where the production devices are all
up front. Harry Lyman Sims, in an earlier incarnation, is "the man who
talks about things," sidekick to host Jenkins "Jinx" Potter. The program
starts before the program starts, with the end of he previous program:
a short promotion of "Saturday" ahead; a weather forecast ("take the dark
and threatening skies that hung over Phineas Phogg as he passed the banks
of Newfoundland, well, that's our weather forecast"); news ("There isn't
anything happening in the world worth bothering yours about"), and roll
tape. And tape it obviously is. Over applause, Harry points out the "sixteenth
century Venetian audience; you can tell by the brocade". And Harry, Jinx
and the recording engineer known only as the King of Siam begin to talk
over each other and even themselves in a fugue of voices leading to the
shows four interweaving features: a recurring story, read by Harry, about
(you know him already) Jimmy French the Golfer; Harry reciting a litany
of gourmet foods available by mail; skits about the revenge of a slighted
classmate, and a Word Co-op for an illiterate society; and Jinx trying
to come to terms with the age of acquisitiveness passing him by before
he got to play. Music from Dvorak's Ninth Symphony and from Leonard Bernstein's
Candide ("We're neither pure nor wise nor good; we do the best we know")
punctuate the production. Overall, "Saturday, Late in the Twentieth Century"
is my dream of a radio program freed from the bounds of earth. The production
process, in my work, is never transparent. It's a major player in everything
we see and hear via electronic media. Maybe it's just a bow, or a nod;
maybe it's an elaborate sacrifice. But I can't approach any of this work
without acknowledging the production process; then, because of the layers
of meaning it adds are myriad and irresistible, I feel compelled to appease
it, as if it were a jealous god.
"Short Summer at Longhurst" is a play on tape. I've always loved American
comedies of manners (if the term applies to American plays) á la
Philip Barry and S,N. Behrman. And I've always been aware that many of
the things I love are hopelessly anachronistic. Thus a comedy of manners
in the old style "when leisure and privilege and meringue wit alone could
bake a play" in which the characters are aware that something is wrong,
out of sync, anachronistic. The form of the play is a prison from which
the most aware character is trying to escape, by persuading or tricking
another character to act as the surrogate the author needs to have in
play until he tries this kind of thing again. "Short
Summer" is a sparer sound than "Sims Serenade" or "Saturday, Late in the
Twentieth Century." It's a bath of words, and hat was my delight in writing
and producing it. It comes closest to text and reminds me that there are
plenty of textures and colors in just words, without a great deal of sound
play. Still, the production process shows itself, as one of he characters
speaks only through the telephone, and the narrator (Chorus) is compelled
to communicate with one befuddled member of he cast. The author himself
is heard from, when Chorus demonstrates to Regis what happens when he
begins to get off the point (angry rapping of a big stick from above).
And the music throughout is a succession of scratch recordings by Benny
Goodman and his various ensembles.
My water truck lessons in production during the summer of 1975 were also
lessons in irony. I don't know for sure whether irony dominates the production
process or simply is synonymous with it. It may not matter, since as producers
of sound pieces or as listeners well-schooled from birth in the production
process and its implications, all our moves and responses are fueled by
irony. In our taste for indirection, symbols which signify something below
the surface meaning, and an acute awareness of anachronism, we "think
mythically and on many planes," according to Harry in "Sims Serenade."
"We're remarkably sophisticated about the signs and symbols and songs"
which mediate and filter our experience. And the power of text in our
lives may be diminishing in proportion to the growth of this sophistication.
It demands a less literal, less earthbound expression. It has its own
language. It seems to create its own need for more. But just as I don't
know whether Jimmy French is a monster or the greatest artist of the age,
I don't know whether we're heading for catastrophe, or just a change in
the way information travels from one imagination to another.