Hallucinations, a blog about writing, trains, and Wire to Wire
Viewing Entries From: January 2011
A postcard from my wife – well, she was my girlfriend at the time, and we had just finished our only freight ride together: hopping the Ann Arbor Railroad from southern Michigan to Frankfort, where Wire to Wire is set. (It’s called Wolverine in the book.) The 250-mile trip took 24 hours.
The postcard is to my parents. They knew we were hopping freight. They didn’t know about us getting caught when we tried to change cars at Whitmore Lake, or the ankle bracelet lost in a boxcar, or the angry engineer who threw us off the train in Owosso, or how we sat at an all-night donut shop with no idea what to do next until the young brakeman happened to come in and told us how to sneak back into the yards. Parents don’t need those kind of details. The note my girlfriend/wife wrote – that the trip was “easy and hard” – says it all.
Frankfort/Elberta is where the Lake Michigan railroad ferries dock. We spent a few nights sleeping on the beach and in the trailer my parents kept in a small camp up north, then rode the ferry to Wisconsin, where we ran into a lot more things that were easy and hard, and parted ways – but not for long – in Milwaukee.
The schematic is something Iron Legs Burk and I found in a locker years later in the abandoned engine house in Elberta. It was helpful in writing Wire to Wire in that it showed the dimensions of the ferries. And for the phrase, “twin screw,” which turns up in some dialogue. “The old twin screw.” Two propellers, that is.
Sometimes love was a train and vice versa, but mostly it wasn't: "If Love Was A Train," by Michelle Shocked
Trains change when you’re close enough to touch them. The sound is different, for one thing. The roar that seems like a single thing from afar turns out to have ten layers, at least, and sometimes more. There are multiple saxophones going, and many guitars and drummers, and there are even delicate parts that are hard to hear until they hook you and then become hard not to hear.
The sound changes again if you’re actually on the train, because the interplay of train and track is reversed.
The thing to remember is that trains play the track. Like a bow on a string, except they’re both made of steel. When you’re on the train, you hear the specific rhythm of your car – and the three or four cars around you – hitting all kinds of track. The iron rail gives a little under the weight of the train, and as you move down the line, the wheels hit the joints between rails in an ever-changing drum solo.
When you’re on the ground, what you hear is the same section of track being hit by all different kinds of cars. The pattern is a little more predictable, but just as hypnotic. For me, anyway, and maybe for you too.
Warren Zevon’s brilliant lyrics to “Nighttime in the Switchin’ Yard” got this perfectly:
Listen to the train
Listen to the train
Listen to the train
Listen to the track!
Listen to the track, he said. Only someone who had actually listened, carefully and specifically, to a moving freight would get that distinction. When I first heard that line, I wondered why Zevon would write a lyric that would only make sense – only really ring true – for people like Iron Legs Burk and me, people who had actually ridden freights. But maybe I was giving us too much credit.
Anyway, nothing sounds better than a certain kind of train, unless it’s a great train song. Wire to Wire is full of music, but not train songs per se, so to rectify that, I put a list up on the site. The minute you do something like that, you know you’re gonna leave out some good ones. And sure enough, after just a couple of weeks, readers have suggested several additions.
Mike M. – a longtime reader of my other site – says I should add “The City of New Orleans,” the Arlo Guthrie version. Good call. The list has already been revised.
Fellow writer Nicole R. suggests “Train Song” by Tom Waits: “I know he's someone people either love or hate, but this song is pretty awesome and perfect for his voice.” Agreed.
From Christine P. comes “Bob Dylan's Dream” – he is, after all, on a train headed west, she points out.
And Ears Two – well known to readers of the Segerfile – suggests…well, about fifteen different train songs. As you might expect from someone with encyclopedic pop music knowledge. Many of his nominees will be added in the future.
I’m dead certain the list isn’t complete yet. What else did I miss? Let me know.
In other music feedback, Mike M. points out that “Alice’s Restaurant” was released the year before “2+2=?” – making it an earlier antiwar song than Seger’s track. Fair enough, though I would put “Alice’s Restaurant” more in the folk rock category. Which raises a question: Why was it okay for folk artists to release antiwar protest songs all through the 1960s, while the subject seemed to be off-limits for other genres until about 1969, when Edwin Starr broke through with "War (What Is It Good For?)"
Iron Legs Burk on the road. "Train Man," by the Bob Seger System.
I haven’t read my book yet. The advance review copy of Wire to Wire sits on my desk glowing sedately, like a night light, only more golden. “It’s not for reading,” I tell people, “it’s just for looking at.” Some of my friends have disregarded this advice and read it anyway.
I guess the reason I haven’t read it yet – in book form, anyway – is that it’s the last step in a long process, and I’m not quite ready to take it. But being near the end has made me think about beginnings, which in this case includes three clippings.
The first is an interview with Dylan from the early 1980s, of which I saved only the last few paragraphs, now on very yellowed newsprint. In it, Dylan says:
“You can only pull out of the times what the times will give you…Everything happened so quick in the ‘60s. There was an electricity in the air. It’s hard to explain – I mean, you didn’t ever want to go to sleep because you didn’t want to miss anything. It wasn’t there in the ‘70s and it ain’t there now.
“If you really want to be an artist and not just be successful, you’ll go and find the electricity. It’s somewhere…”
When I first read this, I was working for the electric utility in Seattle. I dealt with electricity all day long, but it was obviously the wrong kind. I needed to find Dylan’s electricity.
Not too much later, I quit my job, drained my small retirement account, and started writing the book. This explains why I am not retired and living in a big house off Green Lake Park.
The second clipping is from the mid-1970s. My mom sent it to me. She never overtly tried to stop me from hopping trains – knowing her efforts would be futile – but she sent me a news story about some kids who climbed on top of a moving boxcar and got hit by a power line.
I scoffed at this story. Those kids were partying, I told her; they weren't serious freight-riders. But I saved the clip, and it inspired the prologue of Wire to Wire.
I found the third clipping on a sad day. My father had died, and my mom was in poor health. Eventually, and not entirely of her own will, she came out to Oregon to be closer to my sister and me. Our family house in Michigan sat closed up, but essentially as she left it. After a while we had to sell the house, and I flew back to clean it up.
It’s a strange thing to be alone in a house that no one has touched for almost a year, especially if it’s a house you’ve spent a lot of time in with other people around. When I walked in, the floors creaked like ice cracking on a lake.
I made a tour of the house, then sat on the couch. My mom saved newspapers and there was a small stack on the coffee table. A headline on the top one read: “Harsh fate awaits many.”
I sat there and stared at that for a while. It was a dark thought, certainly. And the editors were sugarcoating it with that last word. Many?? What about freaking all?
When I opened the paper up, I saw the article was actually about retirement planning. Harsh fate awaits many who fail to save for the future, was the full headline. But it was too late. The first half of the line had already cast its spell on me.
These days a new clipping is floating carelessly around my desk. Farmers find body surrounded by money, it says. It’s a sad couple of paragraphs about a woman found murdered in Eastern Oregon. My wife noticed it a few days ago and picked it up. “Why are you saving this?” she asked.
I have no idea, was my almost honest answer.
Maybe there’ll be some electricity there.
What about you? What clippings have made your desk their home?
Advance copy of WTW: "Will it glow at night? Will it make a hum? Will it look good with the rest of my furniture? Show me how this thing works," by Cracker.
(Runner-up: "A Day in A Life" -- I read the news today, oh boy. By a new group I just discovered on iTunes. Keep trying, fellas, and maybe someday you'll be the Blog Song of the Day.)
A farmer wakes up and sees his barn is on fire. You’re writing the dialogue – what does he say? That was one of the questions the writer Jack Cady posed to us in his fiction class.
When I said in my earlier post that I knew nothing about fiction when I started Cady’s class, I meant I knew nothing. Well, I knew enough not to raise my hand.
I could see the hypothetical farmer clearly enough. Picture Iowa, Cady said. A farmer alone in his kitchen, a cup of coffee in his hand. It’s a beautiful fall day – because terrible things happen on beautiful days – and the sun is just coming up. Through the screen door, the farmer sees the flames. Now he speaks. What’s his line?
I kept my mouth shut. All I could think of was, “The barn’s on fire.”
Or worse, “Oh, no.”
Or worse still, “Wow, look at those flames.”
None of that made any freakin’ sense. The farmer was alone in his kitchen – who the hell was he talking to??? Plus, the reader already knows the barn is on fire.
So I sat there hoping I wouldn’t get called on. I remember the moment so vividly, a couple decades later, because it was one of those times when you come face to face with the depth of your own ignorance. And by you I mean me.
Instead, other people suggested lines, not much better than mine, which was okay with Cady. Play with it the way a child would play with it, was his mantra. Try things. Make mistakes.
After he heard our suggestions, he told us how dialogue has to reveal character, and then he gave us his line: “Done it, didn’t they?”
I was hooked. Four words and I knew how stubborn the farmer was. I knew about the enemies he had made and how much he would risk in the name of what was right. I even knew what kind of woman his wife would need to be to share a life with such a man.
I’ve spent a lot of time since then looking at draft dialogue that didn’t feel quite right, thinking “Done it, didn’t they?” And I still don’t always get it. On a good day, with enough caffeine, I can make characters move across a room. But how do you get them to talk? Still, at least I know what the standard is, and how to make mistakes.
Songs with great dialogue: Dylan's "Isis," and "Highlands." And my current favorite, Chuck Prophet's "Hot Talk." What am I leaving out?
Philip Slater wrote a lot about money and sex in his 1970 book, “The Pursuit of Loneliness.” In the chapter, “Putting pleasure to work,” he describes how we eroticize anything that can be sold – cars, potato chips, toothpaste, etc – for economic reasons. “The gross national product will reach its highest point when a material object can be interpolated between every itch and its scratch,” Slater wrote.
But for the model to work, stimulation has to be ramped up constantly. Mass media is how it gets done. Every TV show, magazine, advertisement, movie, billboard, etc., has to be sexier than the last. At the same time, we have to clamp down on gratification. Otherwise, no sale. So Justin Timberlake can sing about bringing sexy back, but he can’t show us Janet Jackson’s nipples. That gets uncomfortably close to gratification.
According to P. Slater, the job of the economy and our culture is to generate “esoteric erotic itches that cannot be scratched.” We buy things hoping for relief, get none, and buy more. The Charlie Brown/Lucy metaphor applies – we never get to kick the football, but we never stop trying.
That fact that maximum stimulation and minimum gratification drives us all crazy is an unfortunate side effect – at least the economy is functioning. Sort of.
Of course, Slater was writing all this before cable television, rap music, video games, the Internet, sexting, etc. etc. etc. He had no idea how sexy we could make everything.
Last weekend, I saw the touring version of Hair and was struck by two things. One, the nudity is now handled very discreetly. Dim, dappled lighting disguised it almost completely. Were the actors really naked at the end of Act 1? Hard to tell from where I was sitting.
On the other hand, the show was packed with fully clothed pantomimed sex. How do you like it – doggy-style, reverse cowgirl, missionary, DP? They had it all, and none of it seemed particularly offensive.
In the 1970s, it was the opposite. The actors were naked and brightly lit, but you couldn’t do all that sex stuff on stage. It’s okay these days, because we’re all stimulation junkies. But naked bodies gets too close to gratification, and we’re bigger prudes about that sort of thing now. Or so I claim.
The second thing I noticed was this: showtunes were the earliest forms of rap and hip-hop. Seriously.
Here’s why. Except for ballads, most showtunes are just about slinging a lot of rhymes over a good beat. “They’ll be gaga at the go-go, when they see me in my toga??” What the hell? Nobody said “gaga” in the 70s. Nobody went to “the go-go.” And this was before Animal House. We did not wear togas. Doesn’t matter. The words sorta rhyme, so just keep going. Case closed. Don’t like rap music? Blame Broadway.
The earliest known rap song: "Hair"
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