… I ran through the rows of songs, putting together a little playlist in my head. Most people didn’t realize it, but song order played as important a role as song choice. “No Beatles?”
“Pres, give it a break, will you? There’s a whole ’nother world of music out there waiting to be discovered.” Pauly’s head swiveled, looking for the young waitress while he mentally subtracted dimes off her potential tip for making him wait.
“Jackson” came through the shitty speakers first. I looked at Katy and smiled but she rolled her eyes. I said, “You’re hotter than a pepper sprout, you know that, my love?”
She smiled an acknowledgement. “Haven’t heard that one yet.”
“Yeah,” Pauly said. “Sit down so we can eat.”
So I spent the rest of my quarters playing “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” some Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson, and Deana Carter. Then to throw everybody off I played two more from ‘back in the day’ for Katy—Reba’s “The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia” and No Doubt’s version of “It’s My Life.”
– Excerpt from THE REVELATIONS OF PRESTON BLACK
Consider the idea that the music we love is the soundtrack of our lives. The idea isn’t really all that complex, and is even a bit clichéd, but music surrounds us, no matter where we go. Playing on an on in an underappreciated trickle that drifts into the clouds and into space. Those particular waves are never heard from again. Music lovers, especially, know this to be true.
So we try to pick and choose the music that is unique to us. The sonic fingerprints that’d follow us to work, into the grocery store, into bars if we were permitted to choose. You all know the feeling of arriving at the precise moment one of your ‘personal soundtrack’ songs kicks in. Swear to God, the second I walked up to the podium to tell the server, ‘…party of four,’ the opening notes of “Statesboro Blues” kicked in and everybody turned and looked. Somebody needs to YouTube that shit. Now imagine that 24/7.
I may have written about this here before, but for some people, songs represent moments more clearly and concisely than images can. Take this little nugget of nostalgia, for instance. At some point in the summer of 1978, near the intersection of Sycamore Street and East Austin Avenue in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, I heard the opening sax line of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” I remember the night like it was yesterday. The sound of the trains from down at the rail yard by the river. Lightning bugs. And I even knew exactly what I was doing—leaving Scotty Armen’s house to get home before the street lights came on.
And why, you ask, is this level of detail important?
To me it’s significant because I’d just turned four years old.
But what about the inverse? The idea that songs change our fate, or thrust some tiny level of manipulation into our little spheres of conscious behavior? What if life imitates the subsonic art that surrounds us? Marketers know this to be true. Consider this little exchange from THE OFFICE, Season Four, Episode Five, “Local Ad”:
Andy: Best ad ever. Gimme a break, gimme a break, break me off a piece of that… I am totally blanking. What is the thing?
Jim: Nobody tell him!
Andy: What? No, why?
Jim: You got it, you’re so close!
Andy: Break me off a piece of that… huh huh huh… br—applesauce?
Jim: Break me off a piece of that applesauce, I don’t think…
Andy: Break me off a piece of that Chrysler car.
Andy: Football cream. Grr!
Michael: Okay, it’s football cream. It’s football cream. Alright! So, anybody else?
(Could I have found a better example? One that matched the power and intensity of the Gerry Rafferty story? Probably. Then why didn’t you? I don’t know. Wanted to lighten the mood, I guess.)
Anyhow, this is a big part of Preston Black’s problem. Music has made a mess of his life, so he lives his life like a song. Maybe it’s a little autobiographical, but I’ll never tell. I will say that the last time I got into a fist fight I had a very particular song in my head, (Hint: Beastie Boys) and whenever I walk into a room full of new people I hear The Clash. The soundtrack to the Summer of 93 was Pearl Jam’s TEN, so by default, any time I think of that first spring as a raft guide on the Cheat River I hear “Evenflow.” Heidi and I ended up moving to Florida because of the right combination of Jimmy Buffett and Herman Wouk’s DON’T STOP THE CARNIVAL.
Even with all this, I never had the problems Preston did. I suppose when I wrote it, I liked the idea of seeing how far this idea of subliminal control could go, blurring the lines between singer, song and listener. This little passage gives you an idea of what I’m talking about.
…And on the way back to the car I heard something that stopped me dead in my tracks. I really, really had to listen to make sure I heard what I thought I heard.
My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.
Young Johnny Cash.
My hands shook. “Katy!”
Not Rick Rubin’s version of Johnny Cash.
I heard Sam Phillips’s Johnny Cash.
“Katy!” I yelled. I needed her to hear it too.
I spun, trying to get a fix on a speaker.
Luther Perkins’s Tele picked out a twangy run while Johnny sang, “…got them hellhounds on his trail. Preston Black got them hellhounds on his trail…”
“Katy!” I threw my pop at the car. It hit the window with a thud and bounced onto the concrete. She didn’t move.
As I stepped on the trashcan next to the closest pump, I heard, “If you want to shake them hounds off your tail, the first stop’s the crossroads, the second stop’s hell. Preston Black got them hellhounds on his trail.”
I went to the car and banged the hood. “Hey, get up.”
I pulled my keys out, opened the driver’s side door and gave Katy a shake. “You have to hear this. Get up.”
When I heard Johnny’s voice again I yelled one last time. “Katy!”
“What?” She stretched, but didn’t open her eyes.
“Listen.” I climbed onto the hood, balancing myself on my tiptoes to get my ears closer to the speakers, yet somehow I still couldn’t hear. I stepped over the windshield and onto the roof.
“Preston! Get down.”
I craned my ear as high as I could in time to catch Johnny sing the last verse. “Preston Black, you got to be born again. Preston Black you got to be born again. Let the water wash your sins away, before you let the devil have his say, Preston Black, it’s time to be born again.”
The passenger side door opened. Katy stood and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She looked up at me, squinted at the bright lights, and said, “What is wrong with you, boy?”
Needless to say, it goes downhill from here. (Doesn’t it always?) After a near miss with Tommy Johnson’s ghost, Preston finds himself back in the in-between. That weird space where lines are blurred and seconds stop mattering. And despite the fiction that takes place on these pages, THE REVELATIONS OF PRESTON BLACK is a continuation of the love letter to music I began in THE DEVIL AND PRESTON BLACK. It’s about loving something so much—too much, maybe—that living with it hurts about as bad as giving it up would. And despite help from John Lennon, Joe Strummer, and Duane Allman, it’s the words of Tommy Johnson that ring the clearest for Preston:
“You want to know about chains? Then you got to be chained. You got to feel that cold steel cut into your wrists and you got to know how hope looks when it’s nothing but a tiny little light in the very pit of your ever-loving soul. You want to sing about hounds? Then you got to know how it feels when them hounds are breathing down your neck, and how a hound’d rather die than beg off a trail. Ain’t a man on earth can call them dogs off.”
I turned and clenched a fist. Didn’t know what else to do with my anger.
Resting his guitar on his toe, he said, “You going to sing about loss? You got to lose something.”
“Lose something?” I exploded. “I lost everything.”
He maintained his demeanor, which frustrated me even more. “No. You ain’t never had nothing. No mama. No family. Big difference between losing and never had. If you ain’t never had to pick a sack of cotton then you ain’t ever going to know how many pounds it takes to keep food in your baby brother’s belly. You may have been to hell and back, but you ain’t been to hell and done stayed put there. Trust me, you sit down there long enough, hurting and thinking on all those woes, thinking about the deal you made with that li’l ole funny boy, then you come back knowing all about them blues.”