• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

"...Again the blades sang together. He thrust high. De Bernis parried lightly, using the forte of the blade with great effect, and countered promptly. Leach beat the blade set aside in the same manner.... It plowed a furrow in his right cheek."

Anything that includes either sword fights or gunfire and read while listening to early Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" will almost draw actual blood.

I should include the soundtrack to West Side Story. This was played constantly by my prescription barbiturate- and

then-over-the-counter amphetamine-addled mother until multiple copies of the LPs were scratched beyond listening. I tacitly approved the knife-fight background music as long as I didn't have to sit through the visual: choreographed, flaming pirouettes and flailing wrists as the Jets apparently danced the Sharks to death.

I recall a Harry Belafonte calypso record (yes, the one with the banana song) of Mom's, which was on quite a bit, and I associate it with the failed attempt to read Atlas Shrugged (Mom's book). Ayn Rand's concerns were far from my own.

About that time I read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, a few H.P. Lovecraft stories, and later, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as it appeared in Rolling Stone. The Yardbirds, especially performing their version of Muddy Waters's "I'm a Man," seemed to complement Thompson's gonzo prose. Pink Floyd's first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, with its wonky organ and surreal imagery, suited Lovecraft, Heinlein, and almost any and all science fiction and fantasy. In the late '60s and early '70s this genre was enjoying a kind of Golden Age (the New Wave), often featuring dark, even mainstream characterization and wild punctuation.

Chicago blues rode my cheap, portable turntable while I read Dreiser's American Tragedy and Thomas Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge for school. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Albert King and Ray Charles provided backup for Nathanael West. Somewhere between Miss Lonelyhearts and The Dream Life of Balso Snell, I discovered John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Cannonball Adderley. Jazz proved to be great reading music, and not just for its lack of distracting lyrics -- I played Nina Simone Sings the Blues all through U.S.A. by John Dos Passos. I was also smoking marijuana and so remember little of the Dos Passos.

Carlos Castaneda's books coincided with Procol Harum and Robin Trower, having nothing to do with each other atmospherically, but chronologically on the same page of some confabulated photo album. The Dwarf by Par Lagerkvist was accompanied by King Crimson. Charles Lloyd and Keith Jarrett played to the sound of turning pages: Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, and The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. A relatively late-in-life reading of Moby Dick I associate with the Kinks and the Who and their rock operas. I don't necessarily recommend the combo, but that's how it went for me.

At some point in my 20s, somewhere around Springsteen and Little Feat, Michael Herr's Dispatches, The Hack by Wilfrid Sheed, Graham Greene's Quiet American, and Anthony Burgess's Enderby, I opted to read and to write with as much silence in the background as I could manage. To this day, while writing or with an open book in front of me, if music is coming from anywhere I will opt to listen to the music. Music trumps language on a visceral level, though both are pleasures -- when they're not instruments of torture. Rap and hip-hop, "the New R&B," martial or German beer-garden music, and Broadway show tunes are torment, just as awful prose is tantamount to chewing on aluminum foil. Anyway, today I will read or I will listen, but not simultaneously.

My own memoirs, when and if they are written, will best be read while listening to a recording of the highest quality and played at maximum volume -- it is a composition by John Cage, usually performed live and always listed first in the program. I must find the title; I believe the word "ambient" occurs in it. For some two minutes or so, I believe, Cage sits at the piano and refrains from playing anything. Eventually the audience stops shifting, clearing their throats, and rustling programs. After the first minute these sounds give way to something as near silence as men and women are capable of this side of the grave. A silence that is attentive, expectant, possibly embarrassed, self-conscious, and pregnant. More rewarding than any memoir.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader

More from the web

Comments

Sign in to comment