The NC Writers Network conference

I spent this weekend as a faculty member at the NC Writers Network Fall Conference, which was a most pleasant affair. Saturday afternoon, I did a reading from “Losering” on a bill with five other faculty authors, which was very cool even if I felt totally outclassed by poet Alice Osborn’s Darth Vader meditation. And Sunday, I co-taught a music-writing class with Peter Holsapple, co-leader of The dB’s, which was great for two reasons. First, he brought along a guitar, which lightened my teaching load considerably. And second, it was a thrill to work with Peter because The dB’s have always been such a major part of my musical constellation. I’ve pretty much written a book’s worth of stuff about them over the years (hmm…).

We had a good group of students, and they were interested in everything from how to describe music on the printed page to how to get published (songs as well as prose). We discussed various legal, copyright and “fair use” issues, which I know a bit about from the Ryan book. I tried to give pointers on how to approach concert reviews to capture the experience for readers. And I borrowed Peter’s copy of Lester Bangs’ “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung” to read one of my favorite passages aloud — the concluding paragraph of Bangs’ 1977 essay “Where Were You When Elvis Died?”

If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other’s objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present: it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’. But I guarantee you one thing: WE WILL NEVER AGAIN AGREE ON ANYTHING AS WE AGREED ON ELVIS. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.

Still kinda gives me a chill, which also goes for the songs Peter played for us to discuss. One was “She Won’t Drive in the Rain Anymore,” the penultimate track on the excellent new dB’s album. Simultaneously intense and quiet, the song described his wife’s retreat from Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in harrowing terms, with telling details (like keeping an axe in the attic, in case one has to hack one’s way through the roof). It was a haunting, evocative portrait of resolve in the face of danger, and the price paid afterward. Peter said his dB’s co-leader Chris Stamey called that song “cinematic,” and I’d agree.

The other song he played pretty much knocked everybody’s hat in the creek. “Don’t Mention the War” (which Peter wrote for the Radio Free Song Club) starts out describing Lonnie, everybody’s favorite uncle until he went off to war. Then it turns into as vivid a description of PTSD as I’ve ever heard:

Short of temper, slow to respond
Overthinking til half his mind is gone
Too sad and too mad to tell jokes anymore
And he takes lots of trips to the liquor store
Passes out on our couch, that’s when he dreams
You can tell when he jumps and he cusses and screams
And he sweats and he shouts and turns white as a sheet
And he gives off a smell that’s like old rotten meat
And he opens his eyes he’s still seeing what’s dead
And he’s trying to get back on our couch in his head

We all sat, transfixed. Afterward, Peter said this one was pretty much all fiction, even though it was scarily believable. Now that’s writing.

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