Magic Power

NOTE: This was originally written, I’m pretty sure, for the blog of the now long-departed Dark Sky Books. The book referenced below was going to be published by them, and then then didn’t exist anymore and it wasn’t. The book does, in fact, now exist, and was recently published, after a long, strange, infuriating and ultimately kind of awesome trip, by Dzanc Books. I wrote this a long time ago and recently rediscovered it on an old computer. The child referenced is now 11 and maintaining awesomeness. 


Something’s at the edge of your mind, you don’t know what it is
Something you were hoping to find, but you’re not sure what it is
Then you hear the music and it all comes crystal clear
The music does the talking, says the things you want to hear

A few months back, I was on a music writing panel at the University of Illinois’ Early Spring Literary Festival. Most of the other panelists were “real” music writers, talking about the kinds of things real music writers talk about. There was a lot of worrying over Pitchfork. As the representative fiction writer, I spent most of the time nodding, or shaking my head ruefully at the thought of a 2.1 rating and all it implies in the current rock media landscape, and mentally preparing for a question that nobody wound up asking: “why the hell did you write a book of rock and roll short stories, then?”

The good thing about a bunch of guys in cowboy shirts and half-beards talking about Radiohead is that it gives you some much-needed space to think. So I played with the fancy buttons on my cowboy shirt, tugged at my half-beard, and thought about how my collection of rock and roll-tinged short fiction, “If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home” came to be.

The answer is simple. The answer is Triumph (whose wonderfully cheesy “Magic Power” is just sitting there waiting to be “Don’t Stop Believing”-ed, and which serves as a narrative structure of sorts for this post). The answer is Rush. Aldo Nova. Pink Floyd. AC/DC. The Alarm. Why the hell did I write a collection of rock and roll short stories? The embarrassing answer lies in the fact that when I was twelve, and fifteen, and twenty, and twenty eight — oh hell, straight up through the day I first met my own son a little over five years ago today, I wanted to be a rock star.

I’m young, I’m wild, and I’m free
I’ve got the magic power of the music in me
I’m young, I’m wild, and I’m free
I’ve got the magic power of the music in me

Five years ago, my wife and I were anxiously loitering around the international wing of Dulles Airport, awaiting the arrival of our son, Ben, four months old and soon to be literally just off the plane from Korea. We sat and we paced and we made jokes that fizzled into the stale airport air, and we tried to ignore the fact that we’d driven to the airport with an empty baby seat and would be driving home with a full one. Full of what, other than “black hair, brown eyes, ten pounds, cute and fine,” as the paperwork told us, we had no idea. Full of mystery, expectations, needs, desires. Terrifyingly overflowing with one life-size, life-long question mark.

There were other people with us: Lori’s sister Lisa, who was serving as videographer, and Leslie, our adoption counselor from Catholic Charities, the agency through which we’d navigated the stacks of paperwork, fingerprinting, medical exams, and all the other myriad indicators that, on paper at least, we were adequate candidates for parenthood. Lisa and Leslie were there but did their best to leave us alone with our witless banter and nervous tics. It was a feeling more than strange: in a few hours/minutes/seconds, our entire lives were going to change. It was probably as close as I’ll ever get to knowing what it’s like to be an Olympic athlete, or a prizefighter, or a soldier.

Lori squirmed and smiled and tried to act like she knew everything was going to be okay. She was probably thinking about diapers and formula, pre-school applications and college funds. She was probably thinking that she was entering into a permanent and profoundly important partnership with a guy who in his secret heart of hearts still wanted to be Bruce Springsteen. A guy who, given the fact that he was near forty, couldn’t play a guitar or carry a note, and was, in fact, a regular workaday DC nine-to-fiver, might be just smart enough to make allowances in that moronic heart of hearts and concede that it was possibly too late to become Springsteen, that was okay — it was really okay– to aim a little lower, to finally come to grips with reality and aspire to something more achievable, more tangible, something more along the lines of Steve Van Zandt.

She would have been right. At that same time, I sat in my own haze and thought:

“I’m never going to be the lead guitarist of a rock and roll band. Shit. I’m never going to headline the 9:30 Club. Fuck! I’ll never write that damn novel. How do you do that diaper thing again? I’m never even going to be in a regionally popular southern rock band. Oh man. I’ll never write another story. What if I drop him? I’ll never even be in a cover band. A bar band. Goddamit. What do babies eat, again? I’ll never write another word. I will probably never even learn to play the guitar.”

All of the sudden, it hit me, as sure and solid as a brick wall: I’m really, really never going to be a rock star.

She climbs into the bed, she pulls the covers overhead
And she turns her little radio on
She’s had a rotten day, so she hopes the DJ’s
Gonna play her favorite song
It makes her feel much better, brings her closer to her dreams
A little magic power makes it better than it seems

Well, she is a he. His favorite song on some days is “Stay Positive” by the Hold Steady. On others, it’s the theme from Thomas the Tank Engine. Either one does seem to bring him closer to his dreams, which have much to do, on all days, with trains and shouting. He is Ben, a healthy, happy, funny, sweet little boy, our boy, and of course I can’t imagine life without him (fought off the urge to write that blog post – you’re welcome). Of course the first couple of days were terrible, the first months were difficult, and life is dramatically different — in all kinds of ways — than it was when we were driving around with that empty carseat.

It won’t surprise you to find out that I never did become a rock star (shit!), but I did manage to keep on writing. Somewhere along the line I realized that I had written nearly a dozen stories that involved rock and roll in some way. There was also, as a friend remarked, “a lot of father/son shit” happening in these stories. I kept going and these same things kept on coming up: rock and roll, fathers and sons, guys who were scared shitless about having kids, sons whose fathers were absent in one way or another. KISS. Hey — I already told you I’m not a real music writer.

As the whole “Triumph song as framing device” has already indicated, I’m sure, I’m not a terribly complicated person, either. Even my dreams tend to be overly simplistic, of the “steering a car without a steering wheel” variety. So “If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home” is, in a very direct and immediate way, a product of everything that was going through my mind as we sat in that airport, waiting for a tiny, helpless child, like Foreman waiting in the wings for Ali.

You’re thinking it over, but you just can’t sort it out
Do you want someone to tell you what they think it’s all about
Are you the one and only who’s sad and lonely, you’re reaching for the top
Well the music keeps you going and it’s never gonna stop
It’s never gonna stop
It’s never gonna, never gonna, never gonna, never gonna stop

“If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home” is full of men who are old enough to be confronting hard truths, but young enough that they haven’t yet abandoned all those stupid childhood dreams. Or, at least, not for good. They scrape and worry, drink too much, run with the wrong crowd, dress like Gene Simmons and sneak whiskey into Wiggles concerts. They are alternately penned in and lost without their families. They really want to fucking rock, to say fuck it and have just a few rounds more, but they need to pay the Discover bill or buy enough groceries to last the week. Sometimes they do the right thing. Sometimes they don’t. Mostly they want to, at least.

The world is full of compromise, the infinite red tape
But the music’s got the magic, it’s your one chance for escape
Turn me on, turn me up, it’s your turn to dream
A little magic power makes it better than it seems

Oh man, Triumph just fucking nailed it, didn’t they? After all, most of us don’t turn out to be Gene Simmons, Kanye West, or even Triumph’s own Rik Emmett. The interesting part is what happens when we get to that crossroads between how we thought it was going happen when we were twelve — when we really believed in the magic power of Triumph or AC/DC or Duran Duran — and how it all actually went down.

I’m young now, I’m wild now, I want to be free
I’ve got the magic power of the music in me
I’m young now, I’m wild, and I’m free
I’ve got the magic power of the music
I’ve got the music in me

This book is dedicated in part to my son, Ben. I hope that won’t freak him out. I hope it won’t piss him off, when he’s old enough to read these stories about fumbling fathers and directionless sons. I hope his KISS period is shorter than his Led Zeppelin period. I hope someday he’ll be Bruce Springsteen, if that’s what he wants to be. If that doesn’t happen, I hope he’ll find his own peace with his childhood dreams (currently, that would mean becoming a train conductor, or possibly an actual train) and his grown-up situation. I hope in his own way, whatever that may be, he fucking rocks. I think he will.