Glimpses

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 other projects.

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 create "Smile."

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.