American history is a long, absorbing tale made up of countless episodes and intriguing characters. The republic began as a radical dream of economic freedom and political independence, cooked up by a handful of East Coast intellectuals who were exuberantly aware that they were committing treason against the British Empire. These ideas spread until they became a cause that enough citizens (although nowhere near a majority) were willing to fight for. The story continued to unfold on a landscape that encouraged westward expansion, a movement that seemed inevitable, yet presented many obstacles and challenges. Several decades after its founding, the young republic was put to the ultimate test when it became plain that two diametrically opposed economic systems, one based on slavery and the other on paid labor, could not remain one. A long, bloody civil war was fought to settle this issue in favor of freedom.

The story never stops unfolding. Democracy is continually threatened by both internal and external forces. In the present day, an unfortunate set of circumstances has elevated to the presidency a kleptomaniac with an untreated mental illness. He was assisted by an anachronism known as the Electoral College, a system originally designed to ensure that under-populated areas of the country would be given a voice. It has served this purpose, but in the present day, long after the nation has ceased to be predominantly rural, it continues to give these areas inordinate power. The electoral process in 2016 was further disrupted by interference from a foreign adversary, probably with the full cooperation of the winning candidate and his campaign. Donald Trump’s ultimate goal is to install a Fascist dictatorship, answerable only to him. Our place in history will depend on how well we resist this threat.

One of Trump’s worst qualities, apart from his extreme narcissism, is his ignorance. These traits are actually two sides of the same coin. His lack of knowledge is something that could have been remedied in school, or by reading books. But how can you educate someone who seems to think he was born knowing everything there is to know? He must have been a nightmare to his teachers. This man is emphatically not a reader. That would require a level of concentration, and an ability to immerse himself in another person’s ideas, that seems beyond him. The American story reads like a novel, with its twists and turns and nuances. It takes real effort to absorb all of its moving parts and get it whole.

Trump recently exclaimed over his incredible discovery that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. “Does anybody else know that? I bet nobody else knows that!” Actually, that is a fact well known to any halfway attentive school child. He wonders why “nobody” has thought about the causes of the Civil War, which must be the subject of millions of books. Has he ever cracked one open in his life?

Abraham Lincoln was indeed a founding member of the Republican Party. The newly minted party of the 1850s took in both abolitionists and the more moderate proponents of “free soil,” a movement to stop the spread of slavery into territories that were yet to become states. Lincoln at first adhered to the free soil platform, and only gradually became a full-fledged abolitionist. As president, he held back until it suited his military strategy to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The Democrats of that time were generally a pro-slavery party. They continued to hold the south through Reconstruction, and for many years after that, until a gradual realignment began to take place. This movement picked up speed just before and during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, and included a major shift in the alliance of African American voters.

The idea of party realignments that unfolded over a period of more than a century would make Trump’s eyes glaze over, if someone were foolhardy enough to try to explain it to him. How to make him understand that the Republican Party has evolved into something that Lincoln wouldn’t recognize? That would be beyond the capability of an extreme narcissist who doesn’t believe in anything except his own life story, suitably embellished to remove any fault.

I like the idea of a president who values the truth that can be found in books, including novels that don’t claim to be the literal truth. When I first read Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father shortly after his election to the presidency in 2008, I thought it read like a novel. Some critics have gone so far as to call it historical fiction. It’s a youthful autobiography, first attempted after Obama’s election as the first black president of Harvard Law Review. By his own admission, it gained only modest attention and lukewarm reviews. A second edition came out during his campaign for the Senate in Illinois. In the foreword, he admitted that some of his writing in the first edition made him cringe in retrospect. Judging by that statement, he showed more self-awareness in his thirties than Trump has ever shown in 70 years.

Obama admitted in that foreword that he occasionally used fictional elements. “There are the dangers inherent in any autobiographical work; the temptation to color events in ways favorable to the writer, the tendency to overestimate the interest one’s experiences hold for others, selective lapses of memory … I can’t say that I’ve avoided all, or any, of these hazards successfully … the dialogue is necessarily an approximation of what was actually said or relayed to me. For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.” Again, Obama acknowledges falling short of perfection, something that Trump seems incapable of doing.

Can you even imagine Trump reading a novel? That would require him to embrace a world not his own. He’d need to exert some imagination, to develop an attention span of longer than five minutes, to stick with a narrative that stretches beyond 140 characters. Trump is too busy reigning over a fantasy world in which he is the unquestioned supreme dictator of the United States, if not the galaxy. He is Superman and Batman rolled into one, a godlike creature who ordered the sun to come out at his inauguration. Soon he will command the Israelis and Palestinians to embrace one another, and ISIS to disband and give us all their oil. How can they not obey? He is the all-knowing, all-powerful Trump, who surpasses any hero in fact or fiction.

Advertisements

My Classic Rock Soundtrack

October 1, 2016

rockstar_55-xlI’m a music fan of the baby boomer generation, so how could I possibly resist writing a novel about a rock band? Handmaidens of Rock (2014) centers on a musical outfit that forms at a suburban Maryland high school like the one I graduated from in 1970. Before they can legitimately call themselves a band, the three members—lead guitarist Preston, keyboardist Neal, drummer Brad—must first prove they can hang together long enough to play a gig at a school dance. Once onstage, they must come up with a name on the spot, so they call themselves Homegrown. They amuse their classmates by mocking the local singing star they’re supposed to be backing up, mutilating the cheesy songs he attempts, such as “Love Potion Number Nine” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

To that point, the story is perfectly recognizable and plausible. No doubt there were bands forming all around me at my high school, but since I wasn’t intimate with any of them, I had to make up one of my own. The late 1960s-early 1970s era was a time of improbable rock dreams. The music we were hearing on the radio provided plenty of inspiration to push the envelope of our placid suburban lives. Musically, at least, we could revel in free love, dream in psychedelic colors, and march the streets to demand an end to the Vietnam War and all forms of civil strife. Those songs became closer to true life as many of us moved on to college, the military, and other real-life experiences.

Startup bands have always been lucky even to get a taste of local fame. To make my imaginary band compelling, I had to portray it as more talented than most, or at least extraordinarily lucky. One way Homegrown distinguishes itself from the musical dregs is to pick up some classy groupies, the “handmaidens” of the title. Candy, Hope, and Theda have more going for them than a strong determination to ride the band’s coattails. They’re “handmaidens,” but with ambitions of their own. They aspire to be a journalist, a fashion designer, and an actress-musician respectively. One of them, conveniently, has a powerful attorney father with connections to the music industry.

Any band that aspires to long-term success must write its own songs. How could I get my musicians to do that realistically, when I’m not enough of a musician myself to hear original songs in my mind? One technique was to keep classic rock stations playing on my computer for inspiration. Listening to songs that were popular back in my day, I’d imagine my band trying to write similar tunes. For example, “Time of the Season,” a seductive tribute to the Summer of Love by the Zombies, turned into a piece by Homegrown called “Grooving under the Desk.” The Status Quo song “Pictures of Matchstick Men” used to pound in my head all the time, since I heard it daily on the cafeteria juke box in high school. My band’s take on this was a psychedelic sex dream called “Hot Teacher in Tights.” I always loved the Doors tune “Tell All the People,” a catchy but vague call to arms with shout-outs to youth that could mean almost anything (Set them free! Follow me down! See the wonder at your feet! Your life’s complete!) My take on that was “Revolution for Amateurs,” which might or might not be an actual call to revolution.

Sad songs were part of the band’s repertoire. My lead guitarist Preston, having lost his mother at an early age, mostly hides his feelings behind a hard exterior but occasionally exposes them in song. His heartbreaking “Signals from the Clouds” bears a resemblance to King Crimson’s “I Talk to the Wind.” Idealism is also part of the musicians’ mindset. In “Peace Conquers All,” they envision a new era of free love in the streets, irresistible to the public and cops alike, as in the Animals’ “Warm San Francisco Night.”

Fresh out of high school, my band makes an amateur mock-detective movie with a witchy theme song called “Hex” (something like a popular Cream song, “Strange Brew”). With that in the can, they start writing songs with feverish speed and come up with an eclectic album inspired by that same band’s classic, “Disraeli Gears.” Further adventures follow, including trips to England, Scotland, and California. Scotland proves the most fruitful in terms of new musical directions. They spend time in a commune run by a defrocked priest known to have harbored draft resisters. Their near-worship of him inspires a spate of religious-themed songs, like the one called “Peace Warrior,” inspired partly by Jethro Tull’s “Hymn 43” (with the same refrain, “Oh, Jesus, save me!”) and partly by the Animals’ “Sky Pilot.”

The band changes its name to AMO, which sounds more grownup, and tries to find itself. While attending UCLA, the musicians become involved in a rock festival that ends tragically. Ironically, this is the event that propels them to national fame. Despite their newfound notoriety, the effects of the violence are devastating enough to send them flying off in different directions. The girls break up with their respective musicians and move on to presumably more adult relationships. Still, the wildly creative and romantic ride they took as “handmaidens of rock” can’t be forgotten. A five-year reunion concert takes place in the same high school gym where they first made a jubilant mess of backing up a semi-famous singer. Preston, emerging from a turbulent and fallow period, experiences enough of a creative resurgence to come up with two new songs: one about his inner turmoil called “The Stranger Within” (a take-off on Traffic’s “Stranger to Himself”), and one that celebrates his new marriage to a free spirit, called “Free Spirit of the Road” (which somewhat resembles the Doors’ “Queen of the Highway”).

Assigning a genre to Handmaidens of Rock has been somewhat challenging. No doubt it can be called “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” but how about “contemporary women’s fiction”? That is one of the more popular classifications these days, yet it doesn’t quite fit an early 1970s story. Some reviewers and advertisers have called the book “historical fiction.” That makes me feel ancient, since I remember the era so well. Still, maybe it’s the best way to describe a story with a classic rock soundtrack.