By Wayne Allen Sallee
I keep wondering each time the 28th of the month rolls around exactly when I’ll be typing my piece without snow on the ground. Well, OK, its mostly hail today. The hard snow that eventually bounces into Indiana, once its banged off my huge, middle-aged nose a few times. It is spring here, there are maybe two days in a row that one can feel it, not the temperature, but the sound of early morning birds and evening gulls in the parking lots. It’s the gulls and mournful they sound that bring up moments in the past, a gull with a broken wing I saw on a grey Good Friday who seemed resigned at his eventual doom. And from that I can recall most of that entire evening and weekend. Charles Gramlich, a writer displaced from New Orleans by Katrina and FEMA, hipped me to the term “iceberg memories.” Just as my dreams are incredibly detailed, in fact, the gulls and grey skies are repeaters along with the expected el trains and buses.
Music is probably the biggest instigator for iceberg memories that I may or may not choose to use in a story. This past Monday, I was up north for the book launch of HELL IN THE HEARTLAND, an anthology of stories set in Illinois, and Mike Martinez gave me a CD mix. Mind you, I still have an 8-track that could tape blank 8-tracks, and a cassette player with mixes from the early 90s. When one cassette broke, Charles’ wife Lana fixed it. While I had tried to fix it myself–imagine Jerry Lewis as a brain surgeon–I played my DEATHPROOF CD and kept Jack Nietzche’s “The Last Race” on repeat. Louder each time. Of course, when I got the cassette back, I realized I had Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck” on side two, right before “King Tut.” The only iceberg memory from that is the fact that I drank a lot in 1994 and assumedly had way too much time on my hands. Now, Mike had basically offered to burn some songs by The Ides of March and add a few other songs of his choosing. And what’s incredible about the mix is that most songs really do bring back memories for me. In a big way, images that I have put in my stories and used as springboards for other pieces.
Before I go on with a partial list, I ask if the same goes for those reading. I know music plays a large part of a writer’s life. I enjoy typing to Glenn Gray’s Cosa Loma Orchestra from the 1920s or Eartha Kitt’s song from the 50s. All I need to get back in my brain is the horns or Kitt’s voice and the crack of the ice in my glass of water. My Frankenstein’s laboratory is certainly different than most would expect. But, the memories this mix brings back, some spot on with stories I’ve written, songs I’ve mentioned.
Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” was first, and it brought me back to Rogers Park, where I lived with three artists. I had a manual typewriter, a stack of SASE’s, and it seemed like I never stopped typing as my roommates listened to new wave. A song I wish was on the CD is Nena’s “99 Luftballoons,” if only so I could get the lyrics of “99 Words For Boobs” out of my head. Its on YouTube, and the damn phrase I keep mumbling at the bus stop is “comfy pillows and Don DiLillos.” “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta Haynes and Jeremiah is THE Chicago song. I first heard the song in the early 80s, and when I lived north in Rogers Park, well, everyone was on LSD “Friday night trouble bound” one way or another. I have several stories set in Denver, and two characters in a record shop vie for the 45 RPM, one giving it up so he could get Robert Mitchum’s “Calypso, Is Like So…” instead. George Pelecanos tends to put references to a ton of music in his crime novels, characters will drive through have of Washington DC arguing about which band had the best cover of some Marvin Gaye song. Pelecanos is much richer than I am in musical knowledge. Well, he’s much richer than I am, period.
“The Weight,” by The Band. I was starving in Bellair, Illinois, pop. 54 in the summer of 1983. There’s a long story to how I ended up in this town, living in a yellow house with no windows and writing for a farm supplement that went into the Casey Daily Reporter. I could never cash my checks because, well, you know, I was a hippie from up thar by Chicagah. The guy who got this writing thing in motion split with some chippee half his age about three weeks into it; there were eight writers who starved. Mark Rainey published my long poem “A Rural Truth As Ugly” in DEATHREALM, the first of many mentions of this experience. In other stories, I basically kill the same man only giving him different names, the bastard who left me calling for my father to pick me up because I had only eaten one pack of Saltines in three days. I still had cuts on my fingers from when me and Bob McCoppin stole a can of Mighty Dog from a back porch and almost cried when we realized we had no can opener. We used pens and then tried to scoop the stuff out, slicing ourselves as little as possible. The stuff tasted like cookie dough served in Hell. But Bob had a cassette of The Band’s Greatest Hits, and we sang the words to “The Weight” as loud as we could, shoving this crap down our throats, blood from our fingers making us look like Heath Ledger’s Joker.
The Ides of March. Their work is hard to come by, though you can hear “Vehicle” on most 70s stations. “I’m a friendly stranger in a black sedan…” That one, and “L. A. Goodbye” really send me back. The latter song has been playing on jukeboxes in several stories, and in THE HOLY TERROR. The band is long gone, but Jim Steronik lives in nearby Berwyn, looks twenty years younger than me, and has written about 80 songs for other singers that have made the Billboard 100. Virtually my whole life in the decade before my first writing was published in a saddle-stitched book out of Detroit called BEATNIKS FROM SPACE, all on one CD. There are other songs I could mention, but this essay seems one-sided. I hope some of you will imagine me and the Mighty Dog when hearing “The Weight” again. Do any of you put certain songs in your works on a conscious level? If I drift away enough, the closing guitar riff on “L.A. Goodbye” fades into the sounds of the gulls I hear every night as I walk home. As always, thanks for reading…