Wednesday, January 4, 2017

All That Shit Starts With E: "Revival" Revisited, Part 3

Today, we'll conclude* our reappraisal of Revival.  There is plenty left to be said about the novel; I'm unlikely to even scratch the surface, but there are certainly a few things which stood out to me that I'd like to at least mention.
First up on the agenda: the theme of music that runs throughout much of the novel, which we are going to use as a Trojan horse to get us to an entirely different conversation.
Those who bought Revival as a hardback were greeted by an unexpected sight:
And once they recovered from the shock of seeing King with a mustache, they probably noticed that he was holding a guitar.  (For the record: I like the 'stache.  I think it looks pretty fuckin' cool on him.  Not as cool as that Danse Macabre beard from back in the day, but shit, man, nothing looks as cool as that thing.)  They might even have noticed that the neck of the guitar has little drawings of spiders all over it, which is kind of rad.
King's history with the guitar goes back farther than this hardback author photo, of course.  It can be dated to at least 1992, when King became one of the original members of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a covers band (formed by Kathi Kamen Goldmark) whose members were all authors.  King played guitar and provided some vocals.  There have been two books of essays written by its members: 1994's Mid-Life Confidential and the 2013 interactive ebook Hard Listening.  King provided outstanding essays for both, but of particular interest to us is "Just a Little Talent," from Hard Listening.
The essay begins with King reminiscing about going over to his friend Chris's house when he was in his early teens.  Chris had gotten an album called Dave Van Ronk Sings the Blues, and it apparently blew the boys' minds.  
Chris was learning to play the songs, and was especially keen on "Bed Bug Blues."  I know Van Ronk's music mostly by reputation: he was from the same scene that ended up launching Bob Dylan to stardom.  Launched Bob Dylan to stardom, I say; did NOT launch Dave Van Ronk to stardom.  Ever heard of the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis?  Well, I offer these into evidence, your Honor:
Note the / .  Also, album-cover-bombing cat for the win!

Huh.  Probably not a coincidence, wouldn't you say?
Anyways, apologies for the digression.  The point is, that Van Ronk album -- Sings the Blues, not Inside -- made a big impression on young Steve King.  His buddy Chris produced a guitar (his grandfather's) and showed King the chords.  "By the end of the summer," writes King, "we had learned to play -- after a fashion -- every song on the Van Ronk album.  We began to buy folk magazines like Broadside and Sing Out!, because each issue had lyrics and chord progressions."  He continues, "My friend got a gorgeous bloodred Gibson guitar for Christmas that year.  It had beautiful tone, and the touch was like silk.  The following spring I bought a much humbler instrument in a Lewiston, Maine, pawnshop."
For the next three years or so, King and Chesley got together to listen to their latest acquisitions, and began gigging at open hoots at local coffeehouses.  If you're like me, right about now you're getting a little nervous, contemplating the fact that if things had gone slightly differently, there would be no Carrie or 'salem's Lot or The Long Walk on account of the fact that King ended up a member of The Chris Chesley Trio, who sold about a hundred and eighty records in 1967 and can't even be found on Wikipedia today.  There is no such Trio, of course, and we are all richer for it.  But reading this essay by King, it almost sounds as if maybe ... just maybe ... a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, some dude in Peoria turns a different corner, and it's a brief career in folk music followed by a lengthy career in secondary education for Steve King.
King sheds some light on how this did not happen by allowing that "at some point I came to recognize the obvious: We had exactly the right guitars for our talents."  Chesley was improving, but King was not, and he recognized it.  "This was depressing," says King, "but not too depressing, because I could write stories and I was good at that."
I think we'll mostly agree with him on that.  Let the record show that Chesley also made some efforts at story-writing, his name appearing alongside King's on a collection of self-published short stories the two wrote at around this same time.  It would be highly satisfying for the purposes of this narrative if Chesley had gone on to be a world-class musician on the level at which King went on to be a world-class writer; but it didn't happen that way.  Chesley seems to not even have have recorded as many albums as King has, given that his old pal Steve appears on a few tracks on the Wrockers release Stranger Than Fiction.  That's essentially a Rock Bottom Remainders album, by the way, and among its dubious pleasures are opportunities to hear King perform "Stand By Me" with Warren Zevon, "Bo Diddley" with Jeff Baxter, and "You Can't Judge a Book By the Cover" with Kathi Kamen Goldmark.  (The latter of those is actually kinda delightful.)  
I'm proud to own the two-disc CD, but I'd note that there's a reason the record label on which it was released was named "Don't Quit Your Day Job" Records.
Anyways, King seemingly won the implicit competition with Chesley all the way around in the end, didn't he?  As a King fan, that satisfies me; but I can't help but feel a pang or two for Chesley, who had no way of knowing any of this would be the result when he played "Bed Bug Blues" for a pal back in the early sixties.
In his essay, King goes on to reveal that he played a few open hoots in college "and for a while with a jug band called the Up Against the Wall Mother Juggers."  This jug band included King's wife-to-be Tabitha, who played comb, and about whom King reveals a good reason to be in a band: "when I stood next to her, I could look down her blouse."  That's kinda creepy, Uncle Steve, but I hear ya and know where you're coming from.
After college, King found his playing days dwindling to the point where they mostly consisted of playing to soothe one of his kids if they were toothachey.  At other times he might play while sitting outside smoking.  "Sometimes I'd scratch a few lyrics on a napkin and chord them out," he says, "but mostly when I had spare time, I spent it at the typewriter.  On the guitar, I knew twelve chords.  On the typewriter I was learning new ones every day."
But the love for the guitar never went entirely away; and years later, when he received a letter from Goldmark inviting him to audition for the Remainders, he strapped on a Gibson and made a tape of himself playing "Sea of Love," which he felt he'd butchered; no way he was getting in that band, he figured.  "Little did I know that I could have made the band if I'd said my instrument was a cowbell," King says, "or the skin flute."
King recognizes that he's got only a tiny amount of talent for playing the guitar, but, in one of those occasional points of view that remind me of why I'm a fan of HIS, not merely of his work, he says that "no one should let their little bit of talent get away just because they happen to have a bigger one with a cash register attached."  He adds that having "just a little talent is useful in all sorts of ways.  It keeps you humble; it lends you perspective; it gives you something to fall back on when it rains and nothing in your life seems quite right."
Sounds to me a bit like blogging.
"Just a Little Talent" appeared in Hard Listening in June of 2013, some seventeen months prior to the publication of Revival.  At the end of Revival, King lists the dates of its writing as being April 6 through December 27 of 2013.  It's not even vaguely out of the realm of possibility that its genesis lies in the writing of "Just a Little Talent."  We don't know it for a fact, but if you asked me to make an educated guess, I'd make that one real quick.
I'm encouraged in that feeling by a quote from King's Halloween 2014 interview with Rolling Stone.  Asked whether he thinks that being a rock musician "could have been your path if you had a little more natural musical talent," King answers:
Sure!  I love music, and I can play a little.  But anyone can see the difference between someone who's talented and someone that's not.  The main character in Revival, Jamie, just has natural talent.  What he can do on the guitar, I can do when I write.  It just pours out.  Nobody taught me.  In Revival, I took what I know about how it feels to write and applied it to music.
The prosecution rests, your Honor.
Having established that Jamie Morton is essentially a sort of mirror image version of King in a few ways, what do we do with that information?  Beats me.  Any reader worth his essential Saltes as a King fan already knew that, or suspected it.  I dunno, I guess it just gratifies me to affirm the obvious once in a while.
If nothing else, it made me feel secure in putting forward a hypothesis: that Revival contains one of the keenest insights of King's entire career into the emergence of the yearning toward creativity.  It comes during Chapter IV, when Jamie is at home alone one day as a child.  Everyone else in his family has gone to a football game; he's stayed home, ostensibly due to a stomachache but mostly because he's just not into football.  There's not much on the television except more football, so he goes to his brother Con's room to see if he can find some old paperbacks.
I walked in and saw Con's Gibson in the corner, surrounded by an untidy heap of old Sing Out! magazines.  I looked at it, leaning there and long forgotten, and thought, I wonder if I could play "Cherry, Cherry" on that.
     I remember that moment as clearly as my first kiss, because the thought was an exotic stranger, utterly unconnected to anything that had been on my mind when I walked into Con's room.  I'd swear to it on a stack of Bibles.  It wasn't even like a thought.  It was like a voice. 
Will you look at me askance if I speculate that this is a gussied-up version of what happened to King the first time he realized he was a writer?  He's spoken in the past about how writing fiction is, for him, like discovering a story more than it is like making up a story.  That's almost a synonymous way of saying there is some inner voice telling him the story; he is merely transcribing it.  There are probably a lot of people who would squint at a person making that claim; squint, frown in a barely-perceptible manner, and silently wonder if the person to whom they were talking was nuts.
And the thing is, it's not a totally invalid question.  Artists and lunatics have often been lumped into similar categories, so let's not get too angry at those hypothetical folks who hear things like "the guitar spoke to me" and start looking for their butterfly nets.
We've discussed Chapter IV of Revival elsewhere in this series of posts; it's the chapter in which we meet Astrid, and in which we get the history of Jamie as a burgeoning young rock star.  It's a very strong chapter, start to finish; but in terms of continuing our conversation about it, we want to circle back to its beginning:
When we look back, we think our lives form patterns: every events starts to look logical, as if something -- or Someone -- has mapped out all our steps (and missteps).  Take the foul-mouthed retiree who unknowingly ordained the job I worked at for twenty-five years.  Do you call that fate or just happenstance?  I don't know.  How can I?  I wasn't even there on the night when Hector the Barber went looking for his old Silvertone guitar.  Once upon a time, I would have said we choose our paths at random: this happened, then that, hence the other.  Now I know better.
     There are forces.
This concern hangs over the entire novel.  In fact, the first chapter had contained a few similar sentiments in its second paragraph, with Jamie telling us of Charles Jacobs: "I can't bear to believe his presence in my life had anything to do with fate.  It would mean that all these terrible things -- these horrors -- were meant to happen.  If that is so, then there is no such thing as light, and our belief in it is a foolish illusion.  If that is so, we live in darkness like animals in a burrow, or ants deep in their hill.  And not alone."
It isn't difficult to see why Jamie would feel existentially bereft at that thought, especially once you know the full events of the novel.  But Jamie could take a bit of solace if only we had a way to tell him about about the Purpose and the Random.
Many King fans will have encountered those words used in that manner before; others may not have, or may have forgotten it.  It comes from the novel Insomnia, which in some ways serves as a sort of Rosetta Stone for understanding the Dark Tower series (and possibly the whole of King's canon as well).  Seriously, guys: if you haven't read Insomnia, you haven't read the entire Dark Tower saga; it's arguably more crucial than a couple of the books in the series proper!
It's a massive topic, and one that I'm not going to give the time it deserves here.  But a few quotes (which I've trimmed a bit to make them flow better) from Chapter 17 of Insomnia will be illustrative.  In this chapter, the novel's main character, Ralph and Lois, have a lengthy telepathic conversation with Clotho and Lachesis, two extra-dimensional beings who exist outside what we think of as reality.
  • "First, know that there are only four constants in that area of existence where your lives and ours" "overlap.  These four constants are Life, Death, the Purpose, and the Random."
  • "Lachesis and I are agents of Death."  "But we are not only agents of Death," "we are also agents of the Purpose.  And now you must listen closely, for I would not be misunderstood.  There are those of your kind who feel that everything happens by design, and there are those who feel all events are simply a matter of luck or chance.  The truth is that life is both random and on purpose, although not in equal measure."
  • "There is no such thing as natural death, not really.  Our job is purposeful death."
  • "Atropos" -- a being like Clotho and Lachesis -- "serves the Random.  Not all deaths of the sort Short-Timers" (mortals) "call 'senseless' and 'unnecessary' and 'tragic' are his work, but most are.  When a dozen old men and women die in a fire at a retirement hotel, the chances are good that Atropos has been there..."
  • "Be content with this: beyond the Short-Time levels of existence and the Long-Time levels on which Lachesis, Atropos, and I exist, there are yet other levels.  These are inhabited by creatures we could call All-Timers, beings which are either eternal or so close to it as to make no difference.  Short-Timers and Long-Timers live in overlapping spheres of existence -- on connected floors of the same building, if you like -- ruled by the Random and the Purpose.  Above these floors, inaccessible to us but very much a part of the same tower of existence, live other beings.  Some of them are marvellous and wonderful; others are hideous beyond our ability to comprehend, let alone yours.  These beings might be called the Higher Purpose and the Higher Random . . . or perhaps there is no Random beyond a certain level; we suspect that may be the case, but we have no real way of telling."
  • "You have no concept of how strange you and Lois seem to us -- incredibly wise and perceptive at one moment, incredibly naive at the next.  Your batteries, as you call them, need never go flat, because the two of you are standing next to a bottomless reservoir of power."  "Have you not wondered why you are Short-Timers, marking the spans of your lives in decades rather than in centuries?  Your lives are short because you burn like bonfires!  When you draw energy from your fellow Short-Timers, it's like..."  The telepathy breaks down a bit here, and Ralph and Lois are given an impression of a little girl running with a bucket to the ocean; she fills it, and easily.  "You are like that child, Ralph and Lois -- your fellow Short-timers are like the sea.  Do you understand now?"
  • Lois wonders if it is safe for the people they take the energy from.  "Yes.  You could no more hurt them than you could empty the Atlantic with a child's beach-pail."

But I wonder  about that.  If somebody (let's say a disgruntled former minister) found a way (let's say via an ancient tome containing arcane knowledge) to truly tap into that power source, to channel titanic amounts of power (let's call it "electrical" power) out of individuals, then might that person not have some impact on the individuals?

Jamie's discussion of fate and coincidence rang some bells for me, and once the sound of those bells was revealed to be coming from the Purpose and the Random, there was no alternative: I cannot now help but view this novel's events through the lens of what the little bald doctors say in Insomnia.  And whereas before doing this research, I felt the Tower connections in Revival weakened it as a novel, I've now swung fully in the other direction: I think it gives the novel a great deal of allure for the Towerphile.

For more casual readers?  Maybe not.  But I'm not one of those; I'm a Constant Reader, and one who is still capable of being surprised even by works he's read before.

So when I flipped through Insomnia until I found the section I was looking for, I was -- even expecting to have some light shed on what I was writing about -- a bit stunned by the extent to which this made me appreciative of what King was doing in Revival.  So that it's been point-blank stated, I guess I would say that I now view Charles Jacobs as an unwitting agent of the Random (probably one being used by Atropos, although not necessarily); and I guess I would say that I now view Mother as a horrific All-Timer entity.  The hellish landscape that Jamie glimpses is not Hell, but one possible plane of existence, one that is probably just a representation cast in terms Jamie's mind is capable of grasping and also one that almost certainly represents some aspect of the Higher Random.

It's also worth mentioning that the example of Atropos's activity we are given -- an accident in a senior home resulting in multiple fatalities -- sounds more than a bit like one of the accidents Jacobs gives examples of during his Terrible Sermon as a way to illustrate the horror that God is capable of allowing.  So there's quite a bit here that has direct bearing on Revival.  Do I believe that King had Insomnia in mind when he wrote Revival?  Not per se, no; but if he did, it wouldn't surprise me, and if he didn't, then if anything it becomes all the more impressive.
But wait...!  There's more!  Elsewhere in this section of Insomnia, Ralph laments that in the face of this knowledge, freedom of choice seems like a nonexistent thing.  Lachesis tells him, "You mustn't think so!  It's simply that what you call freedom of choice is part of what we call ka, the great wheel of being."
To this, Lois says, "We see as through a glass darkly . . . is that what you mean?"  Clotho agrees, and says that it is a good way to put it.  The scripture from which Jacobs reads as part of his Terrible Sermon is from the thirteen chapter of First Corinthians, and it goes like this: "For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.  But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.  When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

Let's consider what is implied by this.  By proceeding from that bit of First Corinthians to his Terrible Sermon, Jacobs is implying either that he repudiates the words or that he himself has put away "childish things."  Either way, he is placing himself above the Word.  And to some extent, we might sympathize with him; because to some extent, Jamie sympathizes with him.  By the end of their relationship, both Charlies and Jamie will have seen the face of Mother -- the faces on her titanic leg, at least -- and will therefore have grounds to feel that they have gone beyond knowing "in part."

Based on the information given by Clotho and Lachesis in Insomnia, however, it should be clear that while Jamie and Charlie have certainly obtained a glimpse at the Higher Random, they are still completely in the dark as to the existence of the Higher Purpose.  In other words, they still merely "know in part."  They see through a glass; and very darkly indeed.
As a result, Jamie is despondent with fear that his life may be serving fate (i.e., the Purpose); but since he has no concept that such a thing as the Purpose exists, he -- understanding as a child (the condition in which we first meet him) -- misinterprets this as a bad thing.  And indeed, why wouldn't he?  It's been a bad thing for him, and for many of his loved ones; so why should a man like Jamie Morton feel anything other than what he feels?  Even if Clotho and Lachesis showed up to give him the pep talk they give Ralph Roberts, would it matter to Jamie?

Would it matter to you?

We've just spent some serious time on the macrocosmic; let's now level down a bit, and winnow our focus sufficiently to look again at the origins of Jamie's "talents."  I refer you again to Jamie's thoughts from the beginning of Chapter IV.  Did that reference to "Hector the Barber" and a "foul-mouthed retiree" trip you up for a moment?  If you've read Revival, did you remember that these references are to the same person?  I didn't; so if you didn't, feel no shame; or if you do, know that you are not alone.

Hector the Barber, as it turns out, is the grandfather of a friend of Jamie's brother Con.  It is Hector from whom Con picks up the bug for playing guitar.  He is at his friend Ronnie's house one night and the two of them are watching a television show called Hootenanny.  (We learn all this from Jamie, who in turn learned it from Con.)  This is a regular routine for the boys, and Hector frequently watches with them.  On the night in question, "after some white boy sang something about how his baby left him and he felt so sad," Hector tells them that what they've heard "ain't the blues."  He explains that the blues "is mean music," and disappears.  When he comes back, he's got a guitar, and he gives them a demonstration.  His grandson is astonished; apparently possessed of a modicum of musical knowledge of his own, Ronnie asks him what one chord is when he hears it.

"E," answers Hector.  "All this shit starts with E."  He proceeds to sing some absolutely filthy blues to the boys, and with that, Hector the Barber is out of this novel.  He's appeared on precisely three of its pages; but King has invested him with enough character that I'd happily read a whole novel about him.  We find out that Hector later tosses the guitar into the trash; Ronnie rescues it, and he and Con spend the next couple of years trading the Silvertone back and forth, learning an endless series of folk songs.  Neither of them is very good, but Con is a decent enough singer that they perform in public a few times under the moniker "Con and Ron."
Con gets his own guitar, eventually; but, just as eventually, his focus turns fully to playing football (which will itself eventually give way to a passion for science).  Thus, his Gibson begins a period of disuse.  In the meantime, Jamie could not possibly be interested in any of this.  He is shaken in the wake of the Jacobs family accident and the resultant Terrible Sermon.  Jamie is an empty vessel of sorts after that point.  He's initially filled by his burgeoning attraction to Astrid (who is still essentially a stranger), but the guitar will soon replace even her.
This is not entirely a positive development, as Jamie sees it.  He tells us that "talent is a spooky thing, and has a way of announcing itself quietly but firmly when the right time comes.  Like certain addictive drugs, it comes as a friend long before you realize it's a tyrant."

Let us now turn back to that 2014 Rolling Stone interview.  The interviewer asks, "Is writing an addiction for you?"  King answers:

Yeah.  Sure.  I love it.  And it's one of the few things where I do it less now and get as much out of it.  Usually with dope and booze, you do it more and get less out of it as time goes by.  It's still really good, but it's addictive, obsessive-compulsive behavior.  So I'll write every day for maybe six months and get a draft of something -- and then I make myself stop completely for 10 days or 12 days in order to let everything settle.  But during that time off, I drive my wife crazy.  She says, "Get out of my way, get out of the house, go do something -- paint a birdhouse, anything!"
     So I watch TV, I play my guitar and put in time, and then when I go to bed at night, I have all these crazy dreams, usually not very pleasant ones because whatever machinery that you have that goes into writing stories, it doesn't want to stop.

Think about what we're hearing, not just here, but in some of the other bits I've provided.  King is saying that for him, writing is an addiction, but a positive one; and he's also said that, unlike playing the guitar, writing is his true talent.  In other words, his true talent is a sort of inverse to whatever quirk of his genetic makeup determined that he would have substance-abuse problems.  I'm tempted to now be clever and try to cast one side of this equation as the Purpose and the other as the Random, but that's an analogy that wouldn't work particularly well.

And yet, it's impossible not to consider some of King's ideas about the Purpose and the Random within the context of his own seeming search for meaning.  Or maybe it's less a search for meaning than it is an acceptance of meaning.  However you wish to phrase it, it likely comes down to the same thing.

Later in Chapter IV, Jamie -- still in high school -- has been drafted by an older boy to audition for an open spot in his band.  The boy, Norm, asks him if he can play "Green River."

He reached into the watch pocket of his baggy jeans and held out a pick.  I managed to take it without dropping it.  "Key of E?"  As if I had to ask.  All that shit starts with E.

"You decide, freshie," Norm says, perhaps tipping us to the idea that while freedom of choice might be a bit complicated, it nevertheless does exist.


*I'd intended to conclude this post by basically just running through my notes and mentioning whatever I hadn't touched on that seemed worth our time.  But in thinking about this post as it currently exists, I don't think that would be the right approach.

Therefore, our three-part reappraisal of Revival swells to include a fourth part.  It'll be a grab-bag, and hopefully you will see it sooner rather than later!


  1. was really looking forward to this part - will read it today - but in the meantime - thought you might be interested in this little article from the BBC site today on 30 years since the Running Man which (I hadn't realized) was set in 2017!

    1. Ooh! That'll be well worth a read.

      Apologies in advance for the severe lack of actual music discussion. Didn't plan it that way! Just happened.

    2. It is a good read, thought an interesting discussion would be on any king stories set in the future when he wrote it which is now the past , present or near future for us now and how close he got to the way things are now....but was struggling to think of any other than the running man! Doh!

    3. Hmm... yeah, nothing comes to mind except a few of his sci-fi short stories, like "The Jaunt" and "Beachworld," but they are in far-flung futures. The near-future scenario of "The Running Man" is kind of a unique thing in King's work.

      Well, I guess "The Long Walk" counts. But its setting -- and I don't remember when it is set -- feels so much like the sixties (on purpose) that it probably shouldn't count.

  2. "Through The Past, Darkly (Big hits Vol. 2)" was the name of a Rolling Stones compilation album from 1969 - Don't say I don't provide any tenuous musical links! :)

    1. You, sir, have clearly not put away childish things. ;)

      Me neither!

  3. Mr. Burnette:

    A few random thoughts:

    Hate the mustache, love the beard though.

    I think your blogging is more than a minor talent. Always a good read.

    I believe that voice does speak to us sometimes to reveal a talent or path or whatever.

    Looking forward to the next part.

    1. Thanks! I'm working on it now. Well, momentarily.

  4. I love the title you isolated for this post - great exploration of this. The Insomnia research, as well. If they gave King Research awards for the blogosphere - and they should - this one is getting my write-in vote.

    I was just reading Chesley's interview in The SK Companion earlier today. I'm as excited getting that thing for Christmas this year as I was in 1989. More, probably.

    You picked some great quotes here. I definitely want to read this one again, and soon. Joyland, too.

    1. I enjoy picking the titles for these posts. I usually find that they sort of leap out of the text at me; I don't necessarily always even understand why, but figuring that out ends up being part of the fun.

      I enjoyed that Beahm book quite a bit myself. Have fun with it!