High ruckus everywhere (For Charley Patton)

He has seen devastation, disaster, horror, anguish. He has been buffeted by winds, traveled outside his body, glimpsed heaven for a minute, died many times before his hour came. And he conveys all this while getting people up on the floor to dance.

— Luc Sante on Charley Patton

I can write you poems
Make a strong man lose his mind

— “High Water (For Charley Patton),” Bob Dylan

The blues isn’t really such evil music, by and large. (It’s old gospel that scares the hell out of me.) The blues isn’t even so dark, or so low-down sad. I mean, it is but it’s not. The blues is a lot. The blues is the gamut. The blues has scope. The blues is Blind Willie McTell singing, “I drink so much whiskey, I stagger when I sleep,” but it’s not a moan from the depths of humanity. It’s Blind Willie saying, Keep ’em coming, barkeep. Blind Willie said his dreams were “dark and cloudy, my mind’s going to my feet,” which sounds like a Bob Dylan lyric from “Time Out of Mind.” More sad times, sounds like. But a bit later in that same song, “Dark Night Blues,” he says, as an aside, “Ah, play it, Mr. McTell…” The man’s an entertainer, foremost. They most all were. When you hear “Dark Night Blues,” you’ve just been winked at by a blind man.

Now, Robert Johnson, he really was haunted. Or anyway, he looked haunted, sounded haunted, sang haunted songs. “Me and the devil, were walking side by side,” he sings, sounding like he could tell you the brand of Scratch’s cologne.

Robert Johnson, he was a man on the run, stopping only to check his heels for hellhounds, take a swig of poisoned busthead, maybe sing you a haunted little song about those devil blues. And yet …

Busthead. Writing. Robert Johnson singing, “Hot tamales and they’re red hot / yes, she got ’em for sale.”

Then there’s Charley Patton, my favorite. Charley was everything and all. Charley was mighty and mythic. Charley with his gravel chant, thumping on his Stella guitar, populating his songs with people he’d give voice to, characters and shit-talkers, all the while keeping the song chugging. He could have given guitar lessons to trains.

Lots going on, then, in a Charley Patton song. Real life. Evil doings. Charley would have brought a knife to the cross roads, would have cut a better deal.

But Charley, he was a showman, too. Would play that Stella between his legs and behind his head. Charley was it. He was a one-man combo. He was wit and sage wisdom, he was rhythm and ruckus. He was the true king of the blues, a pure product of the Delta, and yet from a world unknown.

Coffee with a swig. Writing. Charley Patton, my favorite blues singer, singing, “You can snatch it, you can grab it, you can break it, you can twist it / Any way that I love to get it.”

‘Cryin’ Won’t Help You’ (Small-Batch Fiction)

Originally published as part of the short story “Her Better Devils,” in Akashic Books’ “Memphis Noir,” and now part of the novel “Everybody Knows” …

He turned to go inside and she turned to watch the rain. It was pure noisy spite now. There was no reasoning with it; it would not respond to batons or wands. It did not fall from the sky but rather seemed to be flung from it.

And she sang, for the first time in ages. She sang snatches of Charley Patton’s “Devil Sent the Rain,” and then his “High Water Everywhere,” Parts One and Two. She sang, “I was going to the hill country, but they got me barred.”

And she sang Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks,” coming to the chorus and holding on to it, clinging, as if it were driftwood: “Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good.”

From inside the house he heard it, or heard something — a sound like music, singing. He turned and listened but then went back to his gathering. Couldn’t be, he thought. She doesn’t, anymore. Or anyway, won’t. Must be the wind.

When he reappeared in the doorway with a peach crate of their things, she was there to greet him.

“Well.”

“Did you bring your old family Bible?”

He just looked at her.

“Because a Bible, they say, is handy in hard times, and particularly in a flood.”

Still he just looked at her.

She stood, took the crate from him and set it to the side of them. She kissed his neck, draped her arms over his shoulders. “What you do is, husband, you put that Bible on the ground where you’re standing.” She kissed his lips. She said, “And then you stand on it.” She pulled back and smiled. “See, a Bible’s a good inch thick, what with all those books inside it, all those plagues and prophets, and their scoldings, all those tall tales and God sightings, and the revelations, oh, and the lamentations, oh, and the miracles, oh, and Jesus Christ himself, and Queen Esther, too, and thou shall not this and thou shall not that, either, and the proverbs and the psalms and the odd parable, and some actual true shit, too, even, I guess.”

She kissed the top of his head, the tip of his nose, her lips in a slow dart about his head.

“So, like I was saying, you stand on that Bible, a good inch thick. It won’t save you, like you’re taught it will,” and kissed his lips, “but it’ll buy you ten whole minutes from the rising water while you think of something better.”

She stepped away, looked down at her bare feet and toes all there.

“That’s what little I believe, husband,” she said. “Lucky for me you believe enough for the both of us, huh?”

But it was as if he hadn’t heard a word of it. He was grinning, still, eyes shut since she kissed him. But when he came to — it was like coming to, like he’d been knocked out, blissfully dead, there for a moment — the grin had been washed away as if by the rain or blown off by the wind.

Fool enough to try (Some thoughts on short-story writing)

I’ve been reading short stories, with a mind to write a few. It’s not gone well, cowed as I am by what I’ve read — Doris Betts’ “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” and William Trevor’s “A Bit of Business.” Maybe I’ll just go for full demoralization and read some Eudora Welty, maybe “First Love,” where she writes, “Afterwards there was the strange drugged fall of snow,” or my favorite story of hers, maybe of anyone’s, “No Place for You, My Love,” which includes this passage:

The boys had a surprise — an alligator on board. One of them pulled it by a chain around the deck, between the cars and trucks, like a toy — a hide that walked.

What writer wouldn’t have stopped that sentence with “like a toy,” knocked off for the day and poured some bourbon to celebrate the best thing anyone in the world wrote that week?

a hide that walked.

Kind of makes you want to give up altogether on writing sentences, much less stringing enough together to call it a story. But what am I going to do? I can’t dance or dunk and don’t have the nerve for crime.

So I press on.

Coffee. Writing. Paul Simon singing, “I’ve been working on my rewrite, that’s right / Gonna change the ending / Gonna throw away the title / And toss it in the trash.”

I mostly write novels, or try to. It’s not out of some grander ambition. It’s what Faulkner said:

I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.

I’ve written one poem in my life and have two lines for another that I’ve been trying to add to, for something like fifteen years. My difficulty writing poetry has everything to do with my difficulty reading it. I don’t have the intellectual metabolism. I can’t absorb the words, take in their meaning. I’m all jumpy, from one line to the next, and then I’m at the end without having read, really read, a single line. I’m like Tom Waits’ Uncle Vernon in “Cemetery Polka” — “independent as a hog on ice.”

I’m not much better at short stories. I’ve only written a handful that are legitimately short stories — the rest are chapters, or sections, from novels. I’ve had ten short stories published in my twenty-five or so years of serious writing, but only a couple, really, were written as standalone short stories.

Most of my standalone short stories remain unpublished. I believe the word for that is telling.

But I press on, not demoralized, really, but more deluded. Maybe the only difference between those two mental states is a little bourbon in my coffee, or a new day, like today, with the strange drugged fall of snow. The world outside my window is white as a blank page, a blank screen, waiting for someone to muck it up. I’m just fool enough to try.

Southern fiction starter kit

Psalms and blue yodels, a muddy-brown Merc with steer horns. A woman named Delia. Or Ida. A pistol. Pack of smokes. Some barbed wire. Enough whiskey to float a muddy-brown Merc. The ghosts of Elvis, Hank, Wolf, and Muddy. The second coming of Patsy Cline, with one hand on her hip and another wrapped around a Schlitz tallboy. A crucifix. The big river, seen through bloodshot eyes. Or stained glass. Neon. A jukebox. Muddy singing, “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” Innocence. Guilt. A dog named Prophet. Dry ribs, a mess of beans, and whatever’s on tap. Jesus. Furry Lewis. A stranger with a match. And the second coming of Patsy saying to the ghost of Elvis, “Don’t even think about it, boy.”

Jerry Lee Snopes: A life in twenty-odd tweets

Who was Jerry Lee Snopes? A man, a myth, a drinking problem with a Twitter account? One of Faulkner’s Snopes clan — kin of Flem and them? “Inlaw to outlaw, rake, session man” is how he identified himself on the aforementioned Twitter account, in which he concerned himself mostly with drink, song, dog racing, and domestic affairs. He was a friend of mine. I never met the son of a bitch.

Here, then: a life in twenty-odd tweets:

Too wet to plow. Like I’d fucking plow. (Nov. 13, 2010)

At the dog track. Ecclesiastes in the fifth. (Nov. 13, 2010)

I ain’t been everywhere, but the guy who wrote “I’ve Been Everywhere,” one time he stopped me to ask directions. (Nov. 15, 2010)

Wander and other lusts. (Nov. 20, 2010)

Going on a spiritual journey. You know, beer run. (Nov. 22, 2010)

Dog races tonight. Hosanna Slim in the fifth. (Nov. 26, 2010)

Sunday, bloodshot Sunday. (Nov. 28, 2010)

Tuned the neighbor kid’s guitar, told him, “You can rob banks with the thing now.” (Dec. 14, 2010)

I went down to the crossroads, saw my baby there. Kind of an awkward scene, really. (Dec. 15, 2010)

All right, what the hell. Merry Christmas. (Dec. 25, 2010)

She asked me if I was a glass-half-full kind of guy. I said, “No, baby, keep pouring.” (Jan. 3, 2011)

She said, “Play that Dylan song about how everybody must get stoned. I just love Bob’s gospel period, don’t you?” (Feb. 4, 2011)

Between grief and nothing, I’d choose whiskey. (Feb. 19, 2011)

Told her I was going to try to quit being an asshole. She said, “They got a patch for that? Gum?” (March 4, 2011)

Stuck inside of Memphis with the immobile blues again. (Aug. 27, 2011)

“I can’t be good, baby / honey, because the world’s gone wrong.” Still waiting for that Mississippi Sheiks reunion tour. (Dec. 27, 2011)

Whiskey in a tall glass. “Blue Skies,” played on a trumpet. A ten-minute head start, if it comes to that. #allineed (Jan. 5, 2012)

What doesn’t kill you is biding its time. (Jan. 13, 2012)

Between grief and nothing I will take green beer. (March 17, 2012)

Hadacol on the rocks. (Jan. 13, 2013)

The past isn’t dead. It’s just off taking the cure. (June 20, 2013)

Dark was the night, cold was the beer. #apologiestoblindwilliejohnson (June 23, 2013)

Dr. John the Revelator. #apologiestoblindwilliejohnson (June 23, 2013)

God don’t never change a flat. #apologiestoblindwilliejohnson (June 23, 2013)

One ‘L’ in snootful? (Aug. 22, 2015)

Glasses were raised. Mine got as far as my lips. (July 25, 2016)

The Desk Rat (Small-Batch Fiction)

When Kenyon Review Online published “The Newspaper Wake,” my short story about the latest wave of layoffs at a dying Memphis daily, they cut this section. I hated to see the fictional desk rat Tommy Miles edited out, on top of being laid off, so here he is now, for posterity, the poor bastard.

I remember Tommy Miles, sitting alone at the bar. He was a copy editor, a desk rat, a somber little fellow at work, hunched over his keys and staring at the screen through round, wire glasses as if bewildered by the nonsense before him. He’d shake his head and set about to fix it. He could make sense of the worst rot. He was a savior of bad writers, could teach sentences to walk straight with proper bearing and go out into the world and say what it was they had to say, in plainspoken language. It was a gift, though the ink barons who owned us didn’t value it so much, and less all the time. I don’t even think the worst of the writers noticed — they didn’t read a word of their rot, after they filed it. If they happened to notice, the next morning, that somehow it made sense, that it could speak plainly, if not quite sing, well, then … the newspaper sprites see to those things, don’t they? Tommy Miles was a newspaper sprite. He was one in the flesh, bent-backed from his labor, with a smoker’s teeth and a smoker’s cough, looking ten years older than his age, but looking dapper, still and all, in that little tweed newsboy cap he always wore.

You’d see the slightest little smile start to form when he’d finish one story and move onto the next. He’d pull back from the screen, never taking his eyes off it, and then lean back in and start again.

Some fall into their life’s work and some are dragged, and most of both get by well and harmlessly enough. And some have no more business doing what they do than a rat does captaining a great ship (I’ve seen it happen, countless times, though, with editors in chief). But a blessed few, by luck or grace or whatever name you give it, end up just where they should be, doing just what they should do. Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior had nothing on Tommy Miles, for that. He was a born copy editor, but now he was an ex-one.

He was hunched over a small glass of bourbon. I sat beside him.

“You poor bastard,” I said to him.

“I never met one who wasn’t,” he said to me.

He leaned back then, as if from one of those stories. He turned and showed me that start of a smile, but then it died on his face — didn’t stop or fade and start to turn to something else, but died. Then he stood and patted me on the shoulder, seeing the look of death upon me, too. He straightened that newsboy cap. Tipped it, just slightly. He turned and walked toward the door, in his head-down way, in those mincing steps of his. He walked like a very old sprite, though he wasn’t yet fifty. He walked and kept walking and I never saw him again.

Stuff and things

This is my blog. It’s about the music I listen to and the books I read and the movies I watch. It’s about the fiction I write. It’s about what moves me, much of which is old and out of fashion. I’m not selling sports drinks here. I’m not selling anything. I’m just trying to string together a few words and maybe create a sense of place … 

If blogs were bars (if only, if only) mine would be a neighborhood dive where the jukebox sings John Prine followed by Hoyt Ming and His Pep Steppers followed by the Velvet Underground followed by the Maddox Brothers and Rose,  “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band,” followed by Cat Power with Teenie Hodges on guitar. You could sit at a quiet corner table by your lonesome, if you like, reading some Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor or maybe Gogol’s “The Overcoat” or Jim Carroll’s “The Basketball Diaries,” or your latest rejection slip from The Paris Review. And then, if the mood strikes, you could mosey to the bar where the regulars wag cigarettes and argue about who was better, Robert Johnson or Charley Patton, Walter ‘Big Train’ Johnson or Bob Gibson, Eudora Welty or Barry Hannah?

The conversation wanders and strays. Politics and war. Religion and faith. Stuff and things. The wild glory of Sun Records. The sad state of country music. The death of the novel. And of newspapers, record stores, and greyhound racing. Baseball, back in the days of flannel, chaw juice, and Enos Slaughter. The best barbecue in Memphis, the best tamales in the Mississippi Delta, and Johnny Cash on the jukebox singing, “Like a bitter weed / I’m a bad seed,” followed by Elvis Costello’s “Mystery Dance” on a yellow Stiff Records 45, followed by Albert Ayler’s saxophone, wailing like the world’s ending — last call for real, worst luck.

The regulars drink their beers to the dregs. It’s late, they’d best be getting on. End of the world, and all. But then someone says, “Now then, where were we?”

Bessie Smith’s on the jukebox now, singing, “I hate to see / the evening sun go down.”

Faulkner the conjurer

Afternoon drew on; evening was finding itself.

Sometimes Faulkner would write a sentence, simple as all that. But only sometimes. Rarely, actually. If to read Faulkner is to climb inside Faulkner’s head, imagine that head to be a factory where a world is ever under construction. That simple, little sentence is a shift change. The machines are shut down. The grinding has given grudging way to silence, footsteps to nothing but the sound of a clock ticking. Afternoon draws on. Evening is finding itself. Then the moment is gone, and the place is all a-clatter and bang. A new shift hits it running.

The second hand of that factory clock has nothing on what comes next in that book, “Sartoris.” It’s one of those sentences Faulkner didn’t write so much as unspool, a 63-word wonder in which time becomes “a dark unhurrying stream into which she gazed until the mesmerism of water conjured the water itself away.”

Ghosts and gators, tipsy catfish and robot commandos (All the rest is gravy)

Thirteen things that have gotten me through the pandemic (so far) …

Coffee.

Writing.

Dylan singing, “I’ll take ‘Scarface’ Pacino and ‘The Godfather’ Brando / Mix ’em up in a tank and get a robot commando.”

The very rare breakfast out: biscuits and gravy at The Arcade (pictured above), on South Main in Memphis, and Three Little Pigs Bar B Que, in East Memphis.

Podcasts, like Music Makers and Soul Shakers with Steve Dawson. Especially enjoyed the 2016 two-parter with Joe Henry, who says things like, “It is only music in real time. Everything else is just a suggestion of what might be music.”

Old favorite movies, like “Mystery Train,” “Repo Man,” “To Have and Have Not,” and “Raising Arizona,” lots of Hitchcock, some Buster Keaton, and “Stormy Weather” with Fats Waller and Cab Calloway.

New discoveries, like “This Property is Condemned,” from 1966, where Natalie Wood says she’s been to The Peabody in Memphis, and Robert Redford says, “That the same Peabody hotel in Memphis where they have the alligators and the ducks swimming around in that little pond there in the lobby?”

Mourning the loss of John Prine by listening to the great man’s music, like “Middle Man,” where he sings, “Leaning on the jukebox, lookin’ real good / Like Natalie Wood, on a Pontiac hood.”

“Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner,” with sentences like this one: “Before, it had been like passing through a country where nobody had ever lived; now it was like passing through one where everybody died at the same time.”

Kentucky bourbon, currently Evan Williams Single Barrel. (A shout-out, also, to the damned-near-impossible-to-find-outside-of-Kentucky Old Maysville Club rye, from Old Pogue Distillery, in my hometown of Maysville.)

Lots and lots of books, always books, especially short stories from the likes of Thomas McGuane and Eudora Welty, and also novels, like Edward Anderson’s “Thieves Like Us,” from 1937, and the new one from my good friend Richard J. Alley, “Amelia Thorn.”

Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee singing the word fire — fie-yur — in the song of the same name, about driving through West Memphis, Arkansas, on her record “Saint Cloud,” my favorite album of 2020.

Ghost River Gold, a local beer I love so much I even gave a tip of the can in “Everybody Knows,” the novel I finished a few months before the pandemic and revised during:

The DJ played songs about the Mississippi and its many tributaries, such as the Hatchie and the Big Black and the Wolf. He spoke knowingly of these bodies of water. He said there was a branch of the Wolf called the Ghost, and it flowed the color of golden ale and teemed with tipsy catfish. He said it was hard to find and nigh on impossible to leave.

Whiskey for Beginners (Small-Batch Fiction)

The boy sat lounging in the middle of the county road, half on his back and resting on one elbow. He was a rough-hewn son of Southern privilege in idle defiance. He was that dangerous — ten years old and wouldn’t have budged for an oncoming car if God was behind the wheel. He was stout for ten but sounded half again as old. Already he could drive a tractor and shoot a rifle and carry three twelve-year-old tacklers across a goal line. The one time he’d gulped his father’s whiskey hadn’t gone so well, but he was devising a scheme by which he would try sipping the stuff.

— from the novel “Everybody Knows”