Dirt Road and Frankie Presto: Novels about Music

DIRT ROAD (2016)
By James Kelman
Catapult Books, 407 pages.

By Mitch Albom
Harper Paperback, 368 pages.
★★★★ ½

I love music so much that when I read about it, it's usually a novel. I generally avoid books about actual musicians because they are so formulaic. Kid grows up loving music and either has to overcome a tough childhood or flee from stultifying boredom. Works hard, gains fame, gets screwed up, and dies young. Biography. Gets screwed up and finds religion, rehab, or a true soul mate that lights the path to sobriety. Autobiography.  So let's go with the novels.

James Kelman is a heralded Scottish author who won the 1994 Man Booker Prize and has been shortlisted three other times. His 1994 win was, however, so controversial that several prize committee members resigned. More on why in a moment.

Dirt Road comes from observations Kelman collected during periods in which he has lived in the United States. Its protagonist is a 16-year-old Scottish lad named Murdo who is even more adrift than most boys his age; after all, both his beloved older sister and his mother died before he's had a chance to grow up. He's shy and lives with a loving but stern and emotionally distant father, Tom, whose nose is always in a book. These would be burdens enough for any teen, but Murdo is also anxious about his future. Dad speaks of college, but Murdo knows he's no scholar and he'd like to quit school, but to do what? Just one thing excites him: music. He's good at it, as in really good. He can hold his own on guitar and figure out new instruments, but give the boy an accordion and he dazzles.

Murdo's dad thinks they both need to get away and proceeds to book a short holiday to Alabama. Why there? It's where his brother John relocated decades ago and where he lives with his Southern-born wife, Maureen. What Murdo doesn't know about America is—everything. Imagine a morose 16-year-old Scotsman plopped down in a place where he knows nothing of race relations, the gun culture, evangelical religion, foodways…. A mix-up forces Murdo and Tom to spend a night in a Southern backwater town, where Murdo has a chance encounter with African-American musicians. Murdo doesn't know that a white boy doesn't just wander into the middle of a black picnic/jam session, but music draws his like a moth to the flame. His innocence overcomes suspicion, as does bemusement over the fact he's never heard of zydeco or the star of the occasion, a legendary performer known as Queen Monzee-ay. But when she hands him first a guitar, then an accordion, Murdo gains instant respect, is gifted with two CDs, and receives an offhand invitation to drop on it if he happens to be going to the big festival in Lafayette.

After long days of hanging out with Uncle John and Aunt Maureen, Lafayette becomes an obsession—wherever that might be. His dad's idea of a holiday is to hang out with family, which would be a 16-year-old's dream never! You can probably see where this is headed.  Along the way you'll meet some colorful characters: a transplanted Celtic musician named Declan; sensitive Maureen, who does her best to try to understand Murdo; conjunto star Diego Narcisso; and Queen Monzee-ay's entourage. Will Murdo find his way through music?

Let's cut to what makes Kelman controversial: his favored style is stream of consciousness writing. This means that Dirt Road is sometimes a bumpy one. Great stream of consciousness writing takes us into the minds of characters, but how much time would you like to spend in a 16-year-old's brain? Kelman does a good job with this, but Murdo's mind is nonetheless a jumble of reoccurring questions about the future, sex, new ideas, ennui, frustration, his sorrows, and a lot of stuff he simply can't fathom. As a reader, you must impose structure and order that exists outside of Murdo's thoughts. I ended up admiring this book more than I liked it. Like Murdo, I was only absorbed it when it was about music and I felt just as claustrophobic when he was with his family. That was, of course, Kelman's idea. As a reader, though, I wanted more dirt roads and less suburbia.
By contrast, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto is one of the most inventive books I've read in some time. Let's start with the fact that the book is narrated by Music personified and that we meet our main character at his own funeral, which feels more like an apotheosis. This novel is what you might get if you blended Searching for Sugar Man with Zelig, Forrest Gump, The Bible, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Frankie is Francisco de Asis Pascual Presto, who was born in a burning church during the Spanish Civil War, was rescued Moses-like by nuns, and eventually raised by Baffa Rubio, a blind musician who schooled him like a tyrant on the guitar. But the war raged on and at age 9, Frankie is packed into the hold of a smelly boat and sent to the United States with his sole possession: Baffa's gift of a guitar with six strings that have the power to change fate. They are also akin to a cat's lives; when one glows blue and breaks, Frankie's life also alters. The novel is a stroll through postwar American musical history—from Detroit's 1950s jazz scene to rockabilly and Elvis, a hit record, the Sixties, Woodstock…. Along the way Frankie meets the greats, including Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, The Everly Brothers, The Beatles, The Byrds, and scores of others. What they all agree upon is that Frankie Presto is the greatest guitar player who ever lived.

What they don't know is much about him as a person, including the fact that he is forever searching for Aurora, the love of his life, whom he first met trying to stay alive in the streets during the violence of his childhood. She weaves in and out of Frankie's world like a sad tune caught by the wind. Here's where author Mitch Albom throws us a real curve. He is a screenwriter and former writer for the Detroit Free Press who knows a lot of people and has lots of musician friends. He convinced them to collaborate with him by giving "interviews" about their thoughts on Frankie Presto's music. Thus readers get a triple perspective, the omnipresent reflections of Music, Frankie's internal thoughts and private experiences, and the mediated "memories" of music insiders such as Burt Bacharach, Darlene Love, Lyle Lovett, Roger McGuinn, Ingrid Michaelson, Paul Stanley, and many more.

And there's the matter of those strings, which are magical under Frankie's fingers but also potent in their own right. The entire novel is suffused in a gauzy light that is where legends, magical realism, spiritualism, and spirituality overlap. Albom's book is like a deeply moving musical composition—so much so that it also spawned a soundtrack CD. What a book! It is one to be read and re-read because there are times in which we all need to swing upon a magical string.

Rob Weir


Thinking about the Boston Celtics

I've been watching the Boston Celtics since the early 1960s. Lots of people are high on this year's team, though I (reluctantly) think we've seen the last few weeks what this year's edition really is: the lower part of the top tier.  I want to be wrong, but I doubt that the C's will get out of the second round; they're too young, too inconsistent, and too soft inside.

I've had the usual Facebook debates with family and friends, my biggie being that I think that Marcus Smart is way overrated. My jump shot isn't much worse than his and I've got a few decades on him. But I did start to think about how I'd rate the best Celtics of all-time. That's always a dodgy and perhaps a dishonest thing to do. How, for instance, does one really factor for differences in how the game is played, the training, the equipment, the competition, and so forth? You can't really, so I've created some categories of my own.

I will, however, say that the greatest to ever don the Kelly green and white was Bill Russell. When he was on the court, Wilt Chamberlain was cut down to size. So Russell carries off the award for Don't Bring This Shit into My House Unless you Want to Wear it on Your Face award.

Other Categories:
Best Clutch Players:

            1. Dennis Johnson: Did you ever hear anyone say that a game was lost because DJ didn't come up when the game was on the line?

            2. John Havlicek: Hondo had a way of being right where he needed to be when the Crunch Time came.

            3. Larry Bird: There was something about a big game that turned Bird into a velociraptor.

Best Players to Take Charge When Pissed Off:

            1. Larry Bird: Ask former teammates what it meant when Larry was stewing and said, "Just give me the damn ball." Nobody played mad like Bird.

            2. Dave Cowens: He loved it when people said he was too small to play center or tried to lean on him.

            3. Kevin Garnett: When he was on the court, Garnett was simply antisocial. It  didn't matter if you were an opponent or a teammate; KG would get in your face.

            4. Tommy Heinsohn: Tommy still rocks the 'tude.

Best Assists:

            1. Bob Cousy: Yeah, a different era but Cousy saw the court as well as anyone I can remember and was famed for spreading the defense so he could feed the ball to Russell who'd kick it out to an open man.

            2. Bill Russell: When Russell set a pick, defenders were dead.

            3. Rajon Rondo: When he was healthy and in his prime, few distributed any better.

            4. Larry Bird: One of the things that PO'd Larry was when a teammate wasn't paying attention. LB was known to bounce a pass off the side of heads as a wake up call. He only had to do it once.

            5. Jo Jo White: A vastly underrated player who had great court sense.

            6. Nate Archibald: What Isaiah Thomas might have been if he had caught on a bit earlier.

Best Agitators:

            1. Jim Luscutoff: He was the basketball what Dave Schultz used to be in hockey.

            2. Tommy Heinsohn: Anybody who tells you Heinsohn was a clean player never saw him play.

            3. Bill Russell: Russ often played with a chip on his shoulder and only a fool tried to knock it off.

            4. Robert Parrish: Parrish often agitated so guys would lean in on him, thereby leaving Bird, McHale, and Johnson open.

Best Rebounders:

            1. Kevin McHale: McHale invented the stretch forward position and he remains the golden standard.

            2. Bill Russell: The glass is mine, man!

            3. Satch Sanders: He didn't score much and didn't necessarily top the rebound leader charts, but when you needed a board, he got it.

            4. Paul Silas: The heir to Sanders.

Best Pure Shooters:

            1. Pete Maravich: He wasn't called "Pistol Pete" for nothing.

            2.  Ernie DiGregario: He didn't play a lot of minutes because he couldn't guard a one-legged man but he could he shoot out the lights.

            3. Ray Allen: His sweet shot was like something from a training film.

Steadiest Players:

            1. Paul Pierce: Your basic lunch bucket pro, which is why his number is in the rafters.

            2. K. C. Jones: Always overlooked. Seldom disappointed.

            3. Bill Walton: Came to the C's late in his career, had a role to play, and did so better than all the naysayers said he would.

            4. Kevin McHale: Often carried Bird's laundry when Larry had an off night.

            5. Bob Cousy: Just did what he did with grace and efficiency.

            6. Sam Jones: Not flashy, but played on ten championship teams and that will tell you all you need to know. 

            7. Bill Sharman: Jones with less hardware.

Best Coach:

            1. Red Auerbach: Who else? Nine banners and one of the inventors of the modern NBA. Red was one of the few people Russell trusted.

            2. Bill Russell: People forget he coached the C's for 9 years, two as player-coach, and hung two banners from the Garden Rafters.

            3. Tommy Heinsohn: He also hung two in nine years.

            4. Bill Fitch: Maybe the most forgotten successful coach. His .738 winning percentage over 5 years is the best in team history.

            5. K. C. Jones: Also won two NBA titles from the bench.

Guys on Current Team Who Might Become Immortals:

            1. Jason Tatum: He's a rookie. He 's also just 19 and he's already very good. He needs to condition better and work on consistency, but I think he's the best draft pick since Larry Bird.

            2. Kyrie Irving:  Looks like he was right that he needed to get out from LeBron James' shadow.

            3. Brad Stevens: Not many are better at tutoring young players. The question is can he turn them into veterans who will win championships.

Draft of Shame—Worst Number One Picks in Team History:

The Celtics, ironically, haven't drafted all that well in the past, but there have been some specialy stinkeroo picks. I won't count Len Bias (1986) who ODed before he ever put on a uniform. To be honest, I don't remember guys before the 1970s as the NBA used to draft ten rounds.

            1. Acie Earl (1993): Somehow managed to play almost four years and couldn't throw a basketball into the ocean.

            2. Eric Montross (1994): The next year the C's took a guy almost as clumsy as Earl.

            3. Michael Smith (1989); I'll give him credit. He knew after a single year he wasn't NBA material!

            4. Darren Tillis (1987): Who? Exactly!

            5. James Young (2014): Perfect example of the risk taken when you draft a one-and-done.

            6. Fab Melo (2012): And the risk you take if you draft a guy with an NBA body and D-League skill set.

I was surprised that the C's used number one picks on Glenn McDonald (1974), Norm Cook (1976), Clarence Glover (1971), and Charles Bradley (1981). You won't find them among the immortals.


Ballad of Huck and Miguel a Fun Spin on Twain


By Tim DeRoche and illustrated by Daniel Gonzalez
Red Tail Press, 270 pages.

To be honest, The Ballad of Huck and Miguel is a one-trick pony. Lucky for us it’s a really good stratagem. What if Huckleberry Finn was a boy from the 21st century and instead of journeying down the might Mississippi with a runaway slave, he was on the lam with an illegal immigrant and floating down the Los Angeles River?

Authors take on classics at their own peril and it’s especially gutsy for a first-time novelist such DeRoche to flirt with one that many, including me, believe to be the much-debated Great American Novel. Having said that, I zipped through DeRoche’s delightful tale much faster than Huck and Miguel paddled away from various dangers. DeRoche’s structure is that of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and is populated by most of the same characters. Our update finds the unschooled-by-choice Huck in Missouri with his reprobate Pap, who thinks that relocation to Golden State would afford better con opportunities. Huck is taken against his will and locked into Pap’s creaky camper and off we go to California, with a few stops in which Huck’s attempts to escape Pap’s clutches are thwarted.

In Los Angeles Huck meets a kindred spirit, Tom Sawyer, of course, but a better scrubbed version that lives with his Aunt Polly, a civil rights lawyer. Huck and Tom mess up a drug deal in which Pap hoped to profit. Instead, Huck is in for a reward and, just as in Twain, Pap is determined to play paterfamilias to get his hands on the dough, even if he has to kill Huck to do so. This means Huck won’t have a lot of time to acclimate to his foster home placement with Miss Watson and Ms. Douglas, a same-sex couple—“thespians,” as Huck calls them in his mangle of the English language. Not that Huck wishes to be “sivilized” in the first place. He roams the rugged hills and dales of northern Los Angeles, his main magnets back to the homestead being good grub and time at the stable, where he befriends Miguel, the horse groomer.

Pap’s appearances always portend disaster and soon Huck and Miguel find themselves running from a crime they didn’t commit. The situation is especially perilous for Miguel as he’s a “Mexigrant,” an illegal immigrant. So it’s down the Los Angeles River for our unlikely twosome. Did I say the Los Angeles River? If you only know it from Hollywood films where it appears as a concrete ditch filled with more graffiti and homeless people than water, you probably don’t know that it rises in the Simi Hills and that some of its 48-mile length is wooded and wild. It’s even pretty deep in spots before it dumps into the Pacific Ocean near Long Beach. DeRoche uses the flight from “policecops” and trigger-happy Pap to construct side journeys through 21st century perils: gangs, hucksters, rattlesnakes, double-dealers, and shady characters so deceitful they almost make Pap seem wholesome. They also rely on the kindness of various strangers such as off-the-grid loners, evangelists, and self-styled revolutionaries. Will it all come out well in the end? Read Huckleberry Finn and you’ve got your answer.

This is the time to make the obligatory remark that Tim DeRoche is no Mark Twain, a statement akin to saying that the horse at the fairgrounds is no Secretariat. DeRoche is clever with capturing Twain’s cadences and Huck’s penchant for garbling words. His major fault is that he slathers what Twain parses out slowly. Occasionally he simply overdoes things. Everything out of Huck’s mouth is a grammatical/synatctical steamboat wreck: ‘cause it remembered me of, breaked glass, sacrificializing, fantods, fantastical, catched, ‘thorities….  Huck narrates the tale and we don’t expect the Queen’s English from him, but it might have worked better had DeRoche made Huck a bit less garrulous and interjected other voices more often. Lost in the constant patter and episodic structure is the languid pacing of Twain’s original that allows the reader to float down the big river rather than cascade down a small one.

But truly I nitpick. If you ask my literary judgment, the best homage to Twain is Jon Cinch’s Finn (2007), an imaginative prequel to Huckleberry Finn. It’s masterful, but it isn’t nearly as much fun as DeRoche’s Ballad of Huck and Miguel. Kudos to DeRoche for being so impertinent as to even attempt such an undertaking. His is a one-trick pony, but it’s no gelding.

Rob Weir            


Play These for Valentines Day

Fourteen Great Love Songs for Valentines Day

Here’s one for all you lovers and dreamers: a (highly subjective) list of 14 love songs for Valentine’s Day. I don’t do power pop, so many of these come from the folk world because, hey, folkies are the best at melodies and confessionals.

But let’s start with a few classics:

Cherish” by The Association: Is there a Baby Boomer anywhere for whom this wasn’t the go-to love song? It was everyone’s “our song,” even if “our” lasted less than a week!

“Kathy’s Song” by Simon and Garfunkel: Paul Simon’s gorgeous weepy of the heart yearning in absence. Yeah, that boy can write a little.

“Case of You” by Joni Mitchell: Lots of people would rank this #1 of all time and damned if I’d argue with ‘em. Written after her intense relationship with Graham Nash dissolved, but the feelings didn't. And, yes, she's a freakin' genius. I still weep when I hear this.

Here are a few you-know-the-name-but… songs:

Speaking of Dreams” by Joan Baez: She doesn’t write much, but when she does…. This one is simply gorgeous. Try it—especially if you think you don't like Baez.

“The Blizzard” by Judy Collins: Another voice for the ages. This is a lush, dramatic song about an entire life coming into focus in a single snowy evening. It's a love letter to Colorado, but also about knowing when to let go. Just a beautiful piece of music.

I’ll Take My Chances” by Mary Chapin-Carpenter: If you want to be in love and raise a little cowgirl hell on February 14, here you go. Here she is slaying on "Letterman" it back in 1993. Saw her recently and she still kills it!

A few different-kind-of-love songs:

“The Dutchman” by Steve Goodman: We say for better of for worse, but this is what it means. Written by Michael Smith, immortalized by Goodman, and one of my favorite songs of all time. Goodman was taken from us way too young.

“Hard Love” by Claudia Schmidt. One of the most honest looks at learning how to love that I know of.This is one of a gadzillion great Bob Franke compositions and Claudia's voice is one everyone should hear.

"Donegal Rain” by Andy M. Stewart: A song about Irish patriot—probably Patrick O'Donnell—singing to his love before he is executed.  Another weepy. I really miss Andy, a guy I knew.

“Arrow” by Cheryl Wheeler: Nobody makes us laugh and then stabs us in the heart like Wheeler. This song of longing is in the second category and it's a stunner.

And some just flat-out beautiful songs:

“Love is Our Cross to Bear” by John Gorka: All I can say is, “Damn! This is a great song.” From a man who has written a boatload of fabulous songs. And you won't forget his voice.
Lock Keeper by Stan Rogers: Speaking of unforgettable voices! This song is a debate between two men, a lock keeper and a world traveler. Listen to who gets the last word. This one is in my top five all-time favorites and never fails to unleash the waterworks.

Desert Rain” by Justina and Joyce: If you want to know how beautiful harmony singing can be, here’s your answer. From two amazing folks I'm lucky enough to know.

"Falling” by Kate Rusby: Let’s finish with something fragile and sweet from a mighty Yorkshire mite.

My brainstorm list had thrice as many possibilities. What are your favorites?