Today, I’m thrilled to have Duke Miller as a guest for Music Tuesday. “Songs of Paper” is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, On Damaged Ground.
I dedicate this story to Pantopicon. She is a writer working at Wattpad.com and loves Jacques Derrida and Japanese robots. She writes by deleting. We like to pretend that we are pretending as we deconstruct our way to nothing. DM
Songs of Paper
(What a shame about me…we could be high…where are we Mikey, on the moon?)
I am certain that “The Autumn of the Patriarch” by Gabriel Marquez is a good place to start a story about music.
There are few mentions of music in the book and for most people the paper is silent like the tips of soft fingers. That doesn’t bother me. Neither does the fact that many of the sentences in the book are three or four pages long and one runs fifty pages that throws beach sand into the face of James Joyce.
Large numbers of people find it unreadable, as if the ink painting the words is made of high-quality boredom.
The only thing important is that I hear music coming from “The Autumn of the Patriarch.” My ears are like Randy Newman writing a song and the book is a radio playing the composition. The melody flows across the history of Latin America with the sound of idealistic men and women scratching out an escape plan on broken plaster to the irrational signature of 3/10: the off-beats of the jailers, the repeating phrases of the interrogators, and the frenetic motion of the torturers, all combine to build toward a destruction of captured eyes looking outward from rows of mesmerizing red seats.
Join me in the power of stillness. The singers, guitars, and horns will reanimate and take their place beside the pages that are full of mass murder, pain, pedophilia, rape, and assassination. The crazy dictator has his day and the music comes from the dog ears of terror; from the muteness of bodies changing into tears.
The refrain is an all-consuming fire.
Bear with me while I avoid the error of confirmation. The mistake of following a well-worn path that is reinforced by expected outcomes. No, the “The Autumn of the Patriarch” will lead me to exhilaration and unknown consequences. I’d like to think it could produce autoeroticism, but I can only hope.
So we start with no music in the normal sense, and you will enjoy it or not; yet I need to grow in the highlands and remove the hand over my heart and run away while others march over the cliff. I can no longer salute or pray and my sentiments are like the ditches of a country road waiting for cars to crash or foxes to hide or bodies to be dumped by lovers.
I fall into my feelings. The interior of my personality hears voices from a great distance and they are traps of solid tones. I am desperate to live in that place beyond caring, but it is impossible as long as I breathe.
Dissolution is my loving companion. I offer this to you, even if you don’t care. In fact, it is better that way. It is more personal and I can feel your eyes burn into me as if my secrets are naked atheists tied to an ancient stake.
All light fades.
The Marquez book rests upon my desk. It is heavy with humidity, stinks of mildew, and wrinkles as still-wet coffee gravitates. Ants crawl out of the pages and onto my arm. They try to get their pincers into my skin, but I mash them with my thumb and watch them squirm around and die. They are the type of ants that still kick when they are decapitated. I think they must be critics or internet trolls.
He is an old squatter living in the ruins of my compound, here by the dying sea. Neighbors say he is not to be trusted and that he gets high with bad people. I am a poor judge of how the future might turn out, so I close my eyes in his presence.
The smell of shit, piss, and pot comes from the fallen, defaced existence in the pile of rubble he calls home. People should visit him on an adventure tour. They’d need to bring satin sheets that are capable of creating dreams about fancy hotels with maids and pool boys. That would be nice on the stained concrete floor of Octavio’s life.
He is thin like a speed freak, but has been free of alcohol and hard drugs for 20 years. The overworked therapist treating him recommended that he use only pot. “Marijuana has saved my life,” he says.
Music was his first love, and he used to be a student and played different instruments. On most nights, I hear him at the baby grand piano abandoned in our shared ruins. His scabby hands beat on the keys and the clashing sounds are only traces of talent from a missing person. Hallucinations are part of his life now, but he is also mostly present and maintains a keen sense of fairness. Sometimes I buy him powdered doughnuts and he tells me thanks for the vegetables.
We came to a long sidewalk with garbage cans. “These are the best ones,” he said. They were all near restaurants and the jackpot was finding a takeout order dumped, instead of carried home. “But if not here…well, I eat garbage,” and then he laughed with one tooth showing on the left side of his mouth.
Octavio and I found two half-filled Cokes; a partly eaten sandwich; a piece of fruit pie; and a glob of beans in a Styrofoam container. He also pulled out a Spanish language copy of “The Autumn of the Patriarch.” We both looked at the paperback as if the trash can was an opening into the mind of the past. The music began immediately and built an inlaid ceiling over our heads and spot lights made golden circles upon the stage where the actors moved. We were captured in our upper right balcony box and I could see a reflection on the top of the conductor’s bald head.
“Look,” he waved, “a book by the master. I give it to you as a present.” He grabbed my arm and opened my hand and put the book there as if he were curing me. There was something putrid and sticky on the outside. I picked a few leaves from a bush and wiped the green cover that showed four flowers and distant mountains.
One of Octavio’s dogs was at our feet. He watched and waited for a bite to eat.
Polo is the black and white one. He looks like an old man trying to find his teeth. His head quivers with sad eyes and he is always moving; jerking his feet, twitching his head. Polo got a nerve disease last year that should have killed him, but it didn’t, and so he lives in constantly mutating moments.
Octavio saved Polo by singing corridos to him. The songs became machetes and trains bristling with howitzers that carried soldaderas to the front where Pancho Villa shot his own men for being late to supper and then rode like a nightmare to the next town and enlisted thousands of the poor, just like Octavio, to take revenge upon landowners and fat bankers with round faces. The corridos transported themselves across the decades to come out of Octavio’s mouth and destroy the illness within the frame and fur of Polo.
That is what Octavio believes, as if Polo’s wagging tale is a renaissance born to outwardly shine from the center of the universe. There is love there and I can see it in both Polo’s and Octavio’s eyes. People invest everything that is good about themselves into their dogs. Octavio, despite his pathologies and rumored crimes, is no different. The evil, mistakes, and bad manners within people are momentarily transformed when they love a dog.
Sometimes Octavio goes without food, but never Polo.
The sun is setting now. Octavio is at the piano and sings “Sólo Le Pido A Dios,” which is not exactly a corrido, but rather the beating heart of Latin America’s fight against injustice. Mexico is a battleground and the innocent are beginning to smell the dirty war. The sorry fuckers always attack the students first; the ones who are too young to totally understand the danger, but old enough to threaten those in power. The naïve, beautiful sons and daughters of the nation are the cut off ears and tails of dead bulls and they hang on the walls of wealthy aficionados. Normally the masses are still, but maybe not this time. Who knows? Unfortunately, it has been years since the passenger trains stopped running and thoughts of Zapata and Villa and Juarez have diminished like the rainbow butterflies dreaming in the tall trees.
The expatriated ghost of Marques rides the black Arabian horse across the burning green stream while a dozen exiled generals wait in crumbling mansions.
I walk outside and lie in my hammock. Octavio’s voice is earthy. The fragrance of pot is in the air and I hear dogs circling within the shadowy ruin. Footsteps are in the alley just outside his chained door and suddenly he shouts “Don’t kill my dogs you bastards!”
I live in the Melodious Church of Octavio and his voice is a choir and the dogs are the parishioners and the sermon comes from a time long ago when the Division del Norte was the devil’s finger torching Mexico.
There is no end to the world’s insanity and it runs all over me as my hammock sways.
The stars come and the wind carries the sound of the waves into the rustling palm fronds. Octavio’s voice heroically rises upon the cracked piano keys. Maybe the road is not so black. Marquez’s mad patriarch and Octavio’s psychosis merge in my mind. I decide to return to my writing. I type two quick sentences that have been years in the making: “He was decaying in the tropics like a thousand books of literature lining the moist, dark aisles of the world’s last library. Yet, the books sang to him and the lyrics were complex patterns of felt light.”
Thomas Mann says writers shouldn’t reveal their inspirations. It destroys the “magic.” Perhaps, but I do believe that most writing is born of negative things: war, abuse, illness, heartache, disappointment, insanity, crime, bad government, something broken along the way. So music is a little different, since I can see nothing wrong with the principle of pleasant sound. I write with music at a very high decibel level. Sometimes I play the same song over and over and people complain. I’m like the guy in sunglasses sitting in front of the big speakers and his face and ears are pinned back and his tie is flapping. All writers are thieves and I steal feelings from the music and fit them into my stories. “Songs of Paper” is filled with Wilco, The Blue Nile, Daft Punk, Steely Dan, Michael Franti, Leon Gieco, Dr. Rockit, Herbie Hancock, Mercedes Sosa, Nine Inch Nails, Randy Newman, Broken Social Scene, Talking Heads, Miles Davis, Max Richter, and Kinky. The sentences you might have contemplated are born in the loud, sad, uplifting, mysterious, primal, and melancholy notes from these groups. Absolutely! If I am the master of my words, then music is the woman waiting at the bar. I tend towards ex-drug addicts and reformed alcoholics who have survived to play for the rest of us about what it is like way out there. That’s where I like to be; way out there, somewhere; anywhere, but where I am. It is my burden and music helps.
Now I just need to get rid of my worms.
(What a shame about me…we could be high…where are we Mikey, on the moon?)
Duke Miller expatriated himself from the United States many years ago. He has lived and worked in more than 25 countries, most of them at war. His philosophy has been hard won and he is happy to be alive and tries to be mindful of each moment. Writing is a form of therapy and he considers himself more of a poet than a prose writer. People suffering in hidden or overlooked places have greatly affected the stories that he writes.
If you’d like to read more of Duke’s work, his first novel, Living and Dying with Dogs (an extraordinary book) is available in many places, including here on Amazon. His second book, Handbook for the Hopeless is due to be released soon, and he is currently at work on On Damaged Ground.