Joyce Carol Oates’s Wild Nights! is a book of five short stories chronicling fictionalized accounts of the last days of Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and Mark Twain. It is an impressive collection for a number of reasons: firstly and most obviously, it further cements the fact that Oates can do whatever she wants with a pen and make it work; secondly, she structures each of the stories quite convincingly after the subject’s writing style; thirdly, corollary to the second reason, is that she accomplishes these things without “stealing” from the authors. That is, she does not fill the stories with direct quotes or passages from their books; rather, she implements themes, imagery, phrasing styles, and even punctuation styles that were unique to those writers and makes them her own. It speaks to her skill as a writer but more than that, it speaks to her skill as a reader, as someone who takes in words with encyclopedic skill and is able to run them through her mind and produce something wholly different and unique. From this idea, I’ve attempted to do something similar based on both the writing styles of a few lyricists I like and how I think they would be in real life, if that makes any sense. While these will not be, in a strict sense, about music – they will not cheaply contain song titles or lyrical passages – they are my attempts to better understand some of the people I admire.
This first post is based on the work of the Blood Brothers’ Johnny Whitney and Jordan Blilie, whose lyrics contained imagery from war, nature, and the various disillusioned states of human aging. They were not averse to the occasional literary reference either; such references were skewed and warped to conform to the bleak nature of their writing. Centered on their spastic call-and-response vocal style, their lyrics were often exclamatory in nature, as if they were very excited about the world falling apart. Also interesting to note is how alike their lyrics were to stories, as they very rarely wrote whole songs from a first-person perspective (e.g., songs about a narrator’s heartbreak); instead, many times Blilie and Whitney acted as commentators on the craziness of life, as if we were all going around the racetrack while they sat in a booth and announced our comings and goings. As evidenced by the following piece of writing, my favorite aspect of their lyrics, along with their tendency to combine adjectives and nouns that shouldn’t go together (telepathic hangover, apocalyptic dress), was their unique use of personification and anthropomorphism – to them, everything had a voice, from swans and peacocks to toasters and machine guns. If their discography was a filmography, it would be full of fast-paced editing and unconventional angles, and they would have been behind the camera laughing the entire time.
Tanks are rolling through the former forestland; the mud is sucking their tread in desperation as if to leave hickeys but is constantly denied a permanent mark by the sheer infinitude of the tread’s rotation. This forest was cleared long ago to make way for the convoys, and now, after the tanks pass, the tree stumps sit sullenly like bodiless feet – like emotional residue from an annulled marriage – and the few stubborn birds still left in the area try to fill the empty spaces by perching on the stumps. Each shadow that is cast attempts to act as a blanket to whatever it falls on, but the only warmth left here is the occasional burst of cordite. The tree stumps eye the mud jealously – and oh how they regret that this is the closest they’ll ever come to being green again! – for they are evidence that something once grew from them that never will again, and the mud is evidence that things have passed through here and will continue to pass through; the mud feels the present in the contact and pressure of an abusive lover leaving a mark and a promise to return, and in this it knows the future as well. Through their phantom limbs, the stumps are only able to truly know the past. And although the past is of no consequence here, in their loneliness the amputee stumps long for it – even the feeling of the chainsaw, of which they are reminded whenever they see the tank treads spinning like saw-blades. The birds sing dirges, low and weighty, and the sky is always vomiting and grey in the face like a seasick tourist evacuating his vices into the water.
There are four young boys coming over the hill, following the convoy’s tracks and carrying long sticks. They pretend the sticks are guns, playing war games and aspiring to feel something of what a soldier feels by walking in the impressions they leave, as if you could become a poet simply by reading the eloquent words of poets, as if you could become the rain by dousing yourself with water, as if you could peel back a painting and step into the scene. Their presence is certainly not welcome in this area; the stumps resent that they can no longer be entrepreneurs to such boys, offering them sticks that can become anything with imagination; the mud, unimpressed after feeling the tremendous rumbling of the tanks, feels nothing when their tiny feet step on it, and it fellates their shoes aggressively, attempting to steal them; the birds see small versions of those who destroyed their homes, and wish them dead so they can pluck out their eyes. The boys split into two pairs to play snipers, a game during which they consistently fail to be as still as a good sniper should – like a tree stump!, like a skeleton picked clean!; naturally, it always devolves into an ill-conceived charge – both pairs running at each other and wrestling each other to the ground, smacking exposed body parts with their sticks. After this, they play another one of their favorite games – firing squad. The tallest of the boys breaks his stick into four parts and then holds out the lengths with the solemnity of a god reigning over fate. The boy who is obviously the weakest of the bunch, a pudgy, rosy-cheeked blonde, draws the shortest length. The other three boys step back and arrange themselves into a line, a few feet between them like an ellipse that foretells what comes next as they raise their guns and point them at the boy. The condemned throws himself into the mud and cries with genuine anguish, eyes like spigots, feeling a shame he knows he should not feel but is not able to help it. The executioners are impassive in their line, but before they fire, their concentration is broken by a whistling from above that soon grows into a screaming. The birds stop singing their dirge, the mud seems to dry up all at once, the stumps forget their age rings and turn green again, and while those things experience reversal and relive the past, the group of boys are frozen in the present, pointing their guns at the condemned as he wails, and the errant rocket is the future, plummeting and finally clearing the land of imperfections like a backhoe before sprouting a garden of fire with one million petals of smoke.