The Inside, Off Hand, Down Low Actual Reality of
The Song Is You
Arthur Phillips is the author of the critically acclaimed novels “Prague,” “The Egyptologist,” and “Angelika.” His fourth novel, “The Song Is You” will be published by Random House in April 2009. The book follows the evolution of a relationship between music enthusiast Julian Donahue and a rising young Irish singer, Cait O'Riordan. Their story is a meditation on the potent and ephemeral power of music, its affect on performer, audience and fan, and how it informs our sense of self and place in the world. Phillips currently lives with his wife and two children in Brooklyn, NY.
Mike Mattison is lead-singer for Columbia Legacy recording artists The Derek Trucks Band, and also the founder, with Paul Olsen, of the blues-roots group Scrapomatic, who's third album, “Sidewalk Caesars” was named by Amazon.com as one of the “Top Ten Blues Albums of 2008.” Mattison's third record with the Derek Trucks Band, “Already Free,” will be released in January 2009. Mattison currently lives in Atlanta, GA.
Phillips and Mattison grew up in Minneapolis, MN, and both attended Harvard University. In fact, Phillips, one year ahead of Mattison, introduced himself at a pre-Freshman mixer and invited Mattison to sing in his college band. Upon graduating in 1990, Phillips moved to Budapest, Hungary, where he pursued a career in jazz saxphone and gathered material for what would be his debut novel, “Prague.” At Phillips invitation, Mattison joined him in Budapest and the two spent a year honing their musical skills with the Istvan Garaguly Band.
The following is a transcript of a conversation that took place between these gentlemen in a Brooklyn, NY cafÈ in Nov. 2008.
CLICK HERE TO READ PART I-
THE SONG IS YOU… AND HIM, AND HER…
CLICK HERE TO READ PART II -
BE A PROFESSIONAL!
CLICK HERE TO READ PART III -
NOSTALGIA AND TECHNOLOGY: OR WHY
DEAD PEOPLE MAKE THE BEST MUSIC
CLICK HERE TO READ PART IV -
IN THE END, THERE IS ONLY MUSIC,
SO DON'T BREAK IT
I. THE SONG IS YOU… AND HIM, AND HER
Mattison: A mutual friend of ours, when I asked him for a synopsis of “The Song Is You” said-…
Phillips: He hadn't read it?
Mattison: [Laughs.] No, he said it is basically about a guy's love affair with his iPod. Do you think that's fair? Do you think that's true?
Phillips: That's the first line of the jacket copy they just sent me yesterday: “Julian Donahue is in love with his iPod.”
Mattison: So did [our mutual friend] just read the jacket copy?
Phillips: I think I said it, and then he's quoting me because he didn't read it. So he's not such a mutual friend as he is a big dick.
Mattison: [Laughs.] Huh.
Phillips: Can we link him, on the website, underlined in blue: Big dick?
Mattison: To, like, a porn site?
Phillips: No, just click on him, and his head would pop up and it would say, “Big dick?”
Mattison: His head superimposed on an actual cock?
Phillips: Yes, because with the Internet, you can do anything these days.
Mattison: So you agree with the copy?
Phillips: I do. It's about somebody who's so in love with music, that music is what makes things feel like real life. Especially when you can carry music around with you all day long - which I do - and listen to it all the time, then suddenly when you're going to the doctor and this song comes on, you're like, “Wow, that's the sound of me going to the doctor.” And then the next time it plays, a year later, you're like: “God, remember that time I went to the doctor, and I was diagnosed with a minor skin disorder? That's the skin disorder they diagnosed when I was listening to that song which I love. Every time I hear that song I ITCH.”
Mattison: What was the song, “Stars Fell On Alabama?”
Phillips: No, it wasn't. It's personal. I don't want to get into it.
Mattison: [Laughs.] That's interesting, because I think I met you through music, in a way. And knowing you in college, in particular, every time I saw you, you had earphones in. So this [characterization] is coming from quite a bit of personal experience.
[The intervewees are interrupted as tea and dessert arrive.]
Phillips: Let the record show that a tart just arrived. A succulent berry tart.
Mattison: I'm not trying to say that the character Julian is YOU-…
Phillips: No, but, I just wrote this thing - which we can link to, as well, if you want - and in it I was saying one of the things that I find amazing now, as a headphone addict, is that when a song comes on that I was listening to 20 years ago when I met you, I think about what I was doing 20 years ago, and what I might be doing 20 years from now, and what it feels like today, and I still love that bass line so much. So now the song also reminds me of myself 20 years ago and what I thought I might be doing in 20 years. Which is totally different from what I am.
Mattison: What did you think you were going to be?
Phillips: A pot dealer.
Mattison: Well, you WERE a professional musician.
Phillips: I thought I was going to be a spy.
Phillips: Anyhow-… You can link “spy” to, like-…
Mattison: Some pornography site?
Phillips: Boris and Natasha pictures. So, no, [the book is] not autobiographical, but it's the autobiography of this guy I might've been, if things had gone differently, and then I woke up at age 39 and things had gone to shit. See, my own actual life doesn't interest me, and I don't want to write a memoir of my life. But I like writing stories about people I COULD have been. So here's this guy, and one thing we share, for sure, that is completely mine, is this relationship with my headphones. And I saw no reason to give him a taste in music that is, for the most part, anything other than what I like.
Mattison: Right. What you know.
Mattison: This changes things, because I thought [our mutual friend] came up with the “love affair with your iPod” line. But to me, I thought, the book was more about - and this may be a little high concept-…
Phillips: I can take it.
Mattison: The kind of mutual seduction between the performer and the audience or, more specifically, the performer and the fan. To me the two characters of Cait and Julian are kind of doing this “dance” - it IS a seduction - all across the world, for eachother. I won't be a spoiler, but it is sort of interesting where the book ends up.
[Discussion of the fact that Mattison may have an older draft of the book.]
Anyway, that to me was the most interesting part, or the most interesting idea.
Phillips: Because you're a professional “seducer.”
Mattison: I am. And a pervert. The performer and the fan, or the performer and the audience NEED eachother. And it's weird different styles of need, and different things that they're putting ON eachother. To me that experience rings true. Not that I'm a rising young Irish female pop star.
Phillips: You're the closest thing I know to one.
Mattison: But I do perform for a living, and it's just fascinating at the end of a performance, when somebody comes up to you and is telling you what they “got” out of it. A lot of times I'm horrified. [Laughs.] Oftentimes, I'm really touched. It's an interesting relationship.
Phillips: Somewhat the same thing happens with books. People come up and tell me, or I foolishly read online people's reactions to the books and then I think, “Wow, I didn't mean for that to happen but, ok, that's great. Or it's not great, and I'm sorry that happened. I didn't mean to piss you off as badly as I obviously did.” But there is something that I'm sure happens in a performance situation, in a situation where people are going out, and out of themselves. To go to a club and listen to music is to go out and want somebody else's emotional life injected into you, to a certain extent.
Mattison: Yep, I totally agree.
Phillips: I need to go out and feel. And, ideally, I'll be so ecstatic, I'll be jumping around, or slam dancing, or drinking myself into a stupor, or meeting a stranger and getting laid, or whatever. Assuming that the person up onstage is doing their job properly, and emitting a stream of plausible emotion into me.
Mattison: I like what you wrote at one point early on in the book. I think it's in the first part, where you're talking about Julian's father, and his experience of having his voice from the audience accidentally, or on purpose, appearing on a [live] Billie Holiday record: "Certain mystifications are flung like stellar dust around singers, when they are merely people of a certain talent, one being the evocation of sexual desire through methods most people cannot duplicate: crank mating-calls, evolutionary deceit for the price of the cover and a two-drink minimum."
Music is something-… primal.
Phillips: No offense to you, but you weren't on my mind with that sentence.
Mattison: No, thank God.
Phillips: But I can remember two or three moments, certainly, of sitting just below ankle-level of the woman up on stage singing, thinking: “She knows everything about everything that's every been known about anything. And if only I could spend the night with her, everything would be fine.”
Mattison: And why do we, or Julian's dad, feel that still, about Billie Holiday? Because that's what her talent is?
Phillips: It's amazing. But the more you find out about performers, literally, as people who have to go out and buy groceries and stuff, it can only take away from the enchanting sorcery. They still just have to go to the store and buy toilet paper. They shit like everybody else.
[Discussion of famous singers' shits. Followed by a discussion of whether anyone will ever air or read this interview.]
Mattison: After you listen to this podcast you will hate both of these artists so much that their careers will be immediately over. [Laughter.]
Phillips:But the reason I mention it is that I was once much younger and single and living in a faraway land of which we know nothing [Note: presumably Hungary], except that they had strip joints.
Phillips: [Laughs.] There were stripping fauns and minotaurs. But the delusion that goes through your head when you see a stripper, or at least when I see a stripper, is very similar to the delusion that went through my head when I saw Briana Corrigan of [popular British band] the Beautiful South singing: “She means ME!” The stripper, I know she's paid to take of her clothes for the other guys here, but she actually wants to take off her clothes for ME. An instantaneous hallucination and psychosis, that's duplicated in the idea that if I can get close enough to the stage, then Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries will come down and say, “Later on, we'll get a drink.”
Mattison: Absolutely. And I do like the fact that you have linked performing - particularly vocal performing - with sex work. But I think it's totally true. And not that I'm setting myself up as some sort of paragon of singing - but last night we played in New York and this guy came up and it didn't take me long to realize that he was probably coked out of his brain, and he said, “I really like your voice, and I really like Derek. You guys are very soulful.” A beautiful compliment. But then he started going off into this VERY PERSONAL narrative of what he'd just experienced and what he assumed I HAD EXPERIENCED, TOO. He basically said that the body language between Derek and I needs to be much more intimate or we'll ruin his buzz. [Laughter.] But people DO think that [the performer] “gets” their version of “it.”
Phillips: It seems impossible to have an emotional experience with another person and not feel like the other person is aware of it. Which makes perfect sense, except in this odd state when one person is on the stage and the other person is in a crowd of several thousand people. It doesn't seem possible - there's something in the brain that doesn't let it seem possible that it isn't about you.
Phillips: Which is the great joy of it, of course.
Mattison: That reminds me. This is Julian on Cait: "He did not believe that she literally understood him, or wished to help him, but when the song was working, was collecting and filtering and compressing sensation and offering it back to him, there was a wondrous bonus notion that the headphones were a two-way connection between that voice and his mind, that voice that sang solely to his mind and understood only his mind and must therefore be aware of him.”
Immediately I thought of “The Girl From Ipanema,” which to me is one of the loveliest songs of longing. This guy just projecting everything on to this, I'd imagine, pretty hot Brazilian chick on the beach.
Phillips: Do they make other kinds of Brazilian chicks? Or do they allow them on the beach?
Mattison: [Laughs.] On the other hand, I had a girlfriend once, and I was playing that song and she said, “I HATE this fucking song!” I said, “Why?” And she said, “It's about stalkers!” And I was like, “No! No! It's about this beautiful childish longing.” And she said, “He's a pervert!” And I thought, I guess that's both sides of the coin.
Phillips: I hadn't thought of that. Tom Jobim sitting there hidden behind the bar-…
Mattison: Just jackin' it!
Phillips: Jacking off into a margarita. [Laughter.] Which is then served to an American tourist.
II. BE A PROFESSIONAL!
Mattison: Did your experience as a professional musician inform any of your writing [of this book]?
Phillips: Very little, because when I was a professional musician, I was so unhappy to be onstage making music.
Mattison: You were UNhappy?
Phillips: Oh, yeah. That's why I don't do it anymore.
Phillips: I discovered, to my astonishment, that I actually didn't like it.
Mattison: It was too-… what?
Phillips: I sucked too bad. [Laughter.] I was always frustrated. I never got past the point of thinking this isn't very good, and they think this stuff isn't very good, and I wouldn't listen to it if I weren't in this room -- I would leave. So I wasn't having any emotional reaction past the edge of the stage. It was just humiliation as far as I was concerned. So there was never this moment of me looking down, and catching someone's eye and-… you know.
Did you ever see that clip of Robert Wagner playing a vaguely Chet Baker-esque trumpet player in “All the Fine Young Cannibals?”
Mattison: I've heard about it. I've never seen it.
Phillips: See if you can find it on YouTube. It shows him in a nightclub playing, weirdly, on probably a plastic trumpet and looking out in the audience and catching the eye of - I think it's Natalie Wood. Just, you know, eye-raping her from the stage. [Laughter.] I never had that moment. I kept thinking, “This thing is out of tune, and my voice sounds weird, and I keep having terrible intestinal pain.”
Mattison: See, but whether that was true or not, you were maybe self-editing like any performer does.
Phillips: I never got past [gestures to self] the censors at all. So there's very little of me as a musician in the book, and much more of me as a listener. Because even as a musician, I wished I could make music as good as the music I like to listen to.
Mattison: I still know guys who are professional musicians who are never satisfied. And some of them shouldn't be. [Laughter].
Phillips: Do they also take pleasure in it, the ones who should be satisfied?
Mattison: For example, I've had conversations with musicians I respect where they say, “You know, performing isn't really my thing.” And my only response to that has been, “Sorry! But that's what musicians have to do.” The era of being a studio musician-…
Phillips: Steely Dan.
Mattison: Yeah, a Steely Dan dude. That's over. I'm not picking on musicians who have performance anxiety, because everybody has that. It's like every night, who knows what you're going to be feeling? Who knows what's going on in your life? You might say, “This is the LAST thing I want to be doing.” And you can even find yourself getting angry with audiences - which is a dangerous place to go: Beginning to have contempt for people who are providing your living. But, you know, one is, after all, just a person.
Phillips: And there's no reason to think that you should be able to - night after night - naturally produce the stream of emotion that consumers have come to expect of you. You might not feel “bluesy.” You might feel “tax-returny.” [Laughter.] Or something. I'm sure people go through all kinds of rituals to try to get their head from tax-returny, back to bluesy.
Mattison: That's a hard road.
Phillips: I'm sure there are tricks that become so commonly used that that's where some clichÈs come from. To a certain extent hard rock “power chord” clichÈs are an effort to ritually every night put yourself back into the inability to drive 55, for example. Where maybe earlier that day driving 55 seemed fine.
Mattison: I think you hit on something. As a performer, and I'm sure as a writer, too, there are tricks - whether you're completely conscious of them or not - that you know you can pull out if you have to, if things seem to be going south. I remember we were playing out at this festival in Phoenix, and there were these very nice young hippy kids. They had obviously smoked some type of drug. [Laughs.]
Phillips: You're not endorsing the use of illegal drugs?
Mattison: Just Gateway. And I had this nice conversation with them. We were watching Solomon Burke the great soul singer who still has an amazing voice. And I thought what's happening between audience and performer is that they [the audience] want to come and see proof that those guys [the performers] are going to go up there and risk EVERYTHING and NOT fail. It's almost this hopeful thing, where you go because you're pretty sure you're going to get what you want, but you're not totally sure. And it's oddly life-affirming when somebody goes up there on stage and just crushes it, and you think: “That reflects on me.” Like you were saying earlier.
Phillips: The performers who are very persona-rich, intrigue me enormously. Like Tom Waits. What are we to think Tom Waits does every afternoon at three?
Mattison: I just assumed he slept all day.
Phillips: But for the most part, he's a professional musician. So he books travel, and gets checked in to the hotel and all the rest of that stuff that has very little to do with the Tom Waits persona. He's a traveling businessman, but somehow when he steps onstage you assume, up until the minute they dragged him in, he was, you know, at the bar around the corner philosophizing. It's the same when you watch Mick Jagger prance about in his AARP-ish manner. [Laughter.] Are we to assume he's still out acting like a tomcat at 2 AM in the morning in East London looking for action? It's a funny business.
Mattison: It is.
Phillips: But you him watch and you say, “Yeah, that's what he's doing.”
Mattison: Sure. But I happen to BELIEVE in the Tom Waits persona more than Mick Jagger's. Maybe it's just personal taste.
Phillips: For some reason you do. And yet if he turns up on time to the gig, and turns up the next night across the country to another gig, and makes it to the Conan O'Brien Show on time, he's a smart businessman.
Mattison: He's not hobo.
Phillips: He's not a hobo, exactly. Or maybe every couple of years he needs to go be a hobo for a while. I don't know what he does in his spare time.
Mattison: I don't either.
III: NOSTALGIA AND TECHNOLOGY: OR WHY
Mattison: This I like, too, from the book: I think it's Julian talking about his father's sense of music: “The only real ones, the pure ones, were the dead ones. The sound of a recording made by a dead singer is different not only because of the lesser (and thus more emotionally trustworthy) technology” - meaning, vinyl, I assume, and how they recorded it - “but because of the purity that remains on the tape after the merely human is discarded.”
I agree with that, too. I like that sentiment. And I hate to be a nostalgist, but they don't make music like they used to!
Phillips: No one seems to think so, ever.
Mattison: Can you think of any contemporary musicians, this month, where you were really excited to go out and buy their cd?
Phillips: It's just people left over from my heyday of pop music-loving. I feel that civilization rests on the shoulders of the Smiths and New Order. [Laughter.] If Morrissey does something I'll go and listen to it and pay for it and feel like I'm in the hands of someone who is taking good care of culture forever. But I'm out of touch. I don't know anybody new.
Mattison: I'm kind of the same way. Which is ironic, because I'm trying to be a “contemporary musician.” [Laughter.]
Phillips: Oh, well, YOU, I forgot. [Laughter.]
Mattison: No, no!
Phillips: Usually, you give me your stuff for free, though, so-…
Mattison: Yeah, you've got a direct line “in,” there. No, I'm the same way. There's so much great stuff that came, for me, before 1975, that I'm kind of in a “why bother?” phase. I do go in phases.
Phillips: My dad - well, both of my parents - taught me excessive love of music. He still finds young jazz singers that he gets excited about. But it's almost, invariably, because they sound like older jazz singers.
Mattison: They have that old-style “thing”?
Phillips: They have a style and a sensibility and a catalogue that he digs. So he'll get excited about [Minnesota-native] Connie Evenson, and there's another one he's found, who is 25, and he's just bouncing off the walls about her. But, you know, she sounds like Jeri Southern. I understand. But is he into new music, or just into new versions of his old music? As far as he's concerned they DO make music like they used to. He's very conservative in his tastes, obviously.
Mattison: But that's very different from a lot of jazz-listeners. There are whole schools of [players and listeners]. There could be a jazz-war someday. People who are like, “It'll never happen the way it used to! Zoot Simms!” versus people who say, “I'm so MODERN. It has to be about innovating.” To me, jazz is in such a weird place. I was once so excited about it. You and I played in a group together [in Budapest] and, really, my first attempt at being a professional musician was at your invitation.
Phillips: Come join the Hungarian Clown Show! [Imitates Hungarian clown music. Laughter.]
Mattison: But I've almost become turned off by jazz as a genre. Which is maybe a failure of my imagination. I'm just in one of those phases where I can't listen to it.
Phillips: I certainly go through phases, too, where all I listen to is one certain thing for a long time. I've had jazz phases where that's all I want to listen to. It's been a long time. I've certainly come down to four or five players, all of whom are dead.
Mattison: Sax people?
Phillips: Not all. I'm still Chet Baker addicted. Stan Getz and Lester Young and Chet Baker, Billie Holiday. And then there's a smaller group of weird singers from the 50s that I like, Jeri Southern. Chris Conner, have you heard of her?
Phillips: She's still alive. I think she's from Oklahoma, or Arkansas or Missouri. She's like a female Chet Baker. She has the same weird vowels in certain cases. They seem related. Have you ever heard of Regina Spektor?
Phillips: This is her. [Motions to the speakers in the cafÈ.] There's something very interesting going on with Regina Spektor.
Mattison: Yes, she's definitely one of the “other” girls. In a good way. I wish I could think of other people I like without becoming such an old hater. But I guess that's what I've become. [Laughs.]
Phillips: You're not a Hater.
Mattison: Oh, I hate. [Laughter.]
Phillips: Anyhow, about the quote you just read. I was just reading Sasha Frere-Jones [the popular music critic for the New Yorker] about some technology, called the “pitchificator” or “pitch-o-rama,” some piece of software where, depending on how you set it, it just fixes the pitch of the singer. And you can set it differently for all kinds of effects.
Mattison: I think you can do that on here. [Motions to his Mac laptop.]
Phillips: Ever since there have been recordings, there have been ways [to manipulate them]. Recordings don't sound like someone sitting next to you.
Mattison: They are a magical thing.
Phillips: It's a figment of a moment of an imagination or whatever. Yet an old recording can feel like it's more “accurate” in some way. Although, then there's old Bessie what's-her-name-…
Phillips: Those scratchy recordings. SHE probably didn't sound scratchy.
Mattison: No, she didn't. Technology is getting so crazy. Blues people, like jazz people, are so interested in their niche, and the legends. Frankly, they're a little weird. They're a little bit like comic book collectors to me, but I'm glad that they're interested. [Laughter.] Some guy took all of the - what are there, 13, 14, Robert Johnson sides [in existence]? He went back and digitally tried to remove all of the “scratch.” And it was his theory - using some “calculations” - that Robert Johnson's voice is actually lower, and we've been hearing it slightly sped up. Most 78s, he thinks, do that. So he pitched it down and it's kind of a different animal. It's pretty amazing.
Phillips: Do you like it?
Mattison: I DO! Since the blues “revival,” we've been taught that the old blues is kind of “neat,” and everyone was kind of doing this hokey stuff. But it's dark, scary music.
Phillips: I always thought it was.
Mattison: I did, too. But with a lot of people, you play them the old scratchy stuff, whether it's been digitized or not, and they say, “Yeah, I GET it, but I can't get through the scratchiness.” Well, it takes about one nano-unit of imagination to get by that. But, anyway-…
Phillips: There is something about seeing a live performance that has the advantage of this erotic thing that goes on, but has the disadvantage of [knowing] that person came here tonight via their management, and they're going back to their hotel, and they go on and they have a recording date at the studio. It feels like you're dealing with a business person, if you think about it. Which you are, of course. That's just the way it is. Whereas, if they're dead, and all you have is the relic of the cd, then all of that stuff goes away. They are not a business person, they are not even maybe human, they are just this spirit of sensation that you're able to receive, so you trust them more.
Mattison: I think that's true whether you're talking about performance or not. It's true about people who die.
Phillips: You can trust the dead people, because they don't want anything from you anymore.
Mattison: Because they're, uh-… dead? [Laughter.]
Phillips: That's the word I was looking for! But there is something about them. They're not needy. I don't know if that always follows. But even if you read a writer who seems to be sort of needy, like -- Henry Miller? I don't know -- who WANTS something from the reader? I feel willing to give it to them in a way that I wouldn't if he was, like, “And I need your $13.95.” He wants something that dead people can use.
Mattison: It's not a financial transaction. It's maybe spiritual, for lack of a better word?
Phillips: I guess.
DEAD PEOPLE MAKE THE BEST MUSIC
IV. IN THE END, THERE IS ONLY MUSIC, SO DON'T BREAK IT
Mattison: This guy the piano player character, Dean Villerman. Is he real?
Mattison: I didn't think so. I liked the fact that he could be. Towards the end of the book, Julian is hanging out with him and a waitress, thinking, “This is DEAN VILLERMAN, who played with Billie Holiday!” And Dean Villerman doesn't even REMEMBER playing on a Billie Holiday record. And maybe it's NOT even Dean Villerman. But it doesn't matter:
“But for all that, there was this piano miracle: that distant and incomparable piano work, decades old, sonically veiled and only sometimes clear, like a glimpse of unimaginable beauty across a four-lane highway at night.”
That reminded me of a quote from William Saroyan, which I can't find anywhere.
Phillips: It's on the Internet.
Mattison: It's not! I can't find it anywhere. [It turns out it is, from the story “Finlandia.”] He was walking down the street in Finland, and he hears, coming out of this music store, a Sibelius piece, and he stops in his tracks and he says: “You forget sometimes, there IS ONLY music.” And I just loved that. That has happened to me before: “Fuck all of this. THAT'S ALL THERE IS.” I like the ups and downs of this guy, Julian. A lot of the time he's talking about and thinking about aching, and what music brings out of him. But there's also a lot of these inexplicable, ecstatic highs. I really enjoyed this book. I think there's a lot going on there.
There are very few pieces of writing about music that interest me, especially critical writing. Who cares? But James Baldwin did a really good thing in the story “Sonny's Blues.”
Phillips: Tenth grade we had to read that?
Mattison: Yeah. But I still think, “That's my experience with music. That makes sense to me!” People often say that somebody needs to make the Great American Jazz Film? Has anyone written the Great American Jazz Novel?
Phillips: I never read “The Man With the Golden Arm,” or whatever it was.
Mattison: Nelson Algren.
Mattison: I forgot how to READ. [Laughter.]
Phillips: There's that, too. Kingsley Amis wrote a letter to Philip Larkin - Philip Larkin had just put out a book - and Kingsley Amis wrote him and said, “I just got the new book, and I have to tell you, I think the binding's beautiful” [Laughter.] He said, “It reminds me of a manual I had when I was in the signal corps.” [Laughter.]
Mattison: Wasn't it Larkin who was the jazz critic? He couldn't get past anything from before, like, 1932. And he thought Charlie Parker was an abomination.
Phillips: I don't think I've read “Sonny's Blues” since 10th grade, but I remember Sonny saying something like, dimissing Duke Ellington as “corn-pone, down-home music.”
Mattison: Yeah, because he was a bop dude.
Phillips: Exactly. I remember thinking: Is that o.k.? Can you say that?
Mattison: You can say “pone.”
Phillips: Well, that, too.
Mattison: It's those last two-and-a-half pages where it's just kind of rhapsodic, looking down on the scene where his junkie brother is starting to play again, and he's talking about how people communicate in music, and how an understanding of that communication is happening in himself and in the audience. People don't touch that material a lot, because I think it's very esoteric and it's very PERSONAL.
Phillips: Superstitiously, you think it's maybe fragile, too: “What if I think about it, and then write it down, and it doesn't work any more?” That would be a shame.
Mattison: Good point.
Phillips: If I broke music. [Laughter.]