Reviewed: January 18, 2002
By: Lewis Shiner
Publisher: Avon Nova
328 Pages, $7.50
Ray Shackleford has a
lot of strikes against him. He's never recovered from his relationship
with his father, whose death just made things that much worse.
He doesn't get on all that well with his mother. He's not entirely
satisfied with his work as an electronic repairman. To top it
all off, his marriage is breaking up.
Life's been like that for him. Another disappointment he remembers
is the day his band replaced him as their drummer, back in 1970,
about the time the Beatles attempt at rejuvenation, an album they'd
planned to call "Get Back" fizzled out into "Let
it Be", which was not a terrible album, but was a swan song
with a double meaning.
Ray used to wonder what that final album could have been, what
Paul's "The Long and Winding Road" might have sounded
like without Phil Spector's Wall of Sound production values. One
day, he wondered so hard that he actually heard the song coming
out of a set of speakers in his workshop. The next day he imagined
it again. Only this time he recorded it.
It was a strange ability that Ray had discovered. If he could
immerse himself in the memory of things surrounding the recording
of a song, he could re-imagine it, come up with a "what might
have been" version.
He'd become a living embodiment of the the musical notation called
"fermata" (it appears over each chapter title), which
allows performers to hold a note or a tone at their own discretion.
Ray's discretion tends towards fixing up musical history.
McCartney's tune was just the beginning. He hooked up with a west
coast producer named Graham Hudson and released it as a bootleg
out-take, a "lost tape". Its immediate success suggested
The Doors had planned to release something called "The Celebration
of the Lizard," but it was a project that drowned in Jim
Morrison's dependency on booze, and all that survived was an album
called 'Waiting for the Sun."
Ray surrounded himself with Morrison, drank Coors, compiled a
working demo of the songs that might have been on the album (many
were used later on, except for the title track) and worked at
trying to put himself into the frame of mind that would have created
"Lizard". It wasn't as easy as imagining the Beatles.
The Doors were darker, less in control. Ray found himself taking
on some nasty moods and habits.
It got him there. He imagined the perfect Doors' album, but at
a price. "It breathes fire and blood and semen" It scares
the living shit out of me."
If you imagine at this point that all of this is developing into
an extended metaphor for Ray's own deterioration you wouldn't
be far wrong. The next 60 pages get even stranger, as he attempts
to recreate "Smile," the album which would have been
the Beach Boys' equivalent of "Sgt. Pepper". This time
he can't seem to get the feeling, to catch the wave, if you will.
And this time something different happens. He finds himself translated
from 1989 to 1966, finds himself with the opportunity to not just
recapture a "might have been" but to encourage Brian
Wilson to change history.
I learned a lot about the bands while I was reading this book,
and internet browsing seems to verify a lot of the information
that Shiner packs into his writing. Ray catches Brian before he
turns into the bloated weirdo that Maury Chaykin portrayed so
well in the film adaptation of Paul Quarrington's novel Whale
Song. Ray catches the Beach Boys at the moment when they are about
to split into a studio band and a touring band. Ray helps Brian
None of this is really doing Ray any good though. The psychic
effort is dragging him down and he's picking up on the looniness
of the business and its people. During an attempt at a vacation
he nearly kills himself in a Freudian accident that would have
reenacted his father's death.
After that, he decides to try one more. Jimi Hendrix. "First
Rays of the New Rising Sun". This is a lost album that we
sort of know a little about, because the Hendrix estate actually
released a CD with this title in 1997, an attempt, they said,
to reproduce what Jimi had been trying to do on his last project
before he died. I wonder if they read this book, which won the
1994 World Fantasy Award, before they started the project.
Ray doesn't pull this one off. To do it he would have had to save
Jimi's life and destiny just wasn't having any of that. The repercussions
nearly kill him, but the outcome is positive.
See, I'm only skimming the surface of this book here. What it's
really about is Ray coming to terms with his own life and the
choices that he has made along the way, It's about sorting out
his relationship with his mother and the memory of his father,
about winding up a marriage that isn't working and about finding
a way to a better life. Over the course of the novel all those
things happen, and some of the relationships he forms during his
time slips help him to understand things better. The music isn't
life itself, but it's a symbol for it.