NOTE: Elizabeth Taylor – The Writer + New Music of the Week
In the era of immediate search, it is often overlooked when one very famous name trumps another. While actress Elizabeth Taylor is truly one of a kind, so is the English short story writer/novelist who shares her starry name.
Taylor took a circuitous path to discovery and today continues to take small steps toward recognition on the list of 20th century authors. Taylor published her first story at age 30, then returned almost 12 years later with the “Hester Lilly” collection in 1954. “Hester Lilly” showcases her character-building talent by portraying her protagonist Harry Breakwater in the new “Spry Old Character.” Breakwater is one of the most stubborn occupants of the “House of the Blind”, but Taylor needs a few sentences to provide everything you need to know about him.
For him, the country was negative: simply, a place where there was no city. The large rooms in the Home irritated him. At his sister’s, he couldn’t be wrong, skirting the table that took up the largest space; and the heat of the fire, the ticking of the clock on the chest of drawers had given him his bearings. When she died, he was helpless. The House had appealed to him as an alternative to his own photo of him on the street with a tray of matches and a card pinned to his chest with words like “On My Beam Ends” or, simply, “Blind.”
Over that handful of statements, we get Harry’s sense of being smarter than everyone else but resourceful. Taylor elucidates what happened to land him in “house” and how the lack of choice or even hope makes him the person he is. For all of her so-called “prim” prose, Taylor uses the veneer to land a few body shots on the grim reality of life. Also, as the novella unfolds, Taylor never appeals to our sympathy, instead balancing the story on the less predictable fear of wanting to help and going too far to help. As a result, “Spry Old Character” ends less with a character sketch and more voices waiting to be heard.
As Taylor continued to write and gain recognition, she received accolades and even an exclusive deal with The New Yorker in the Sixties. However, as short stories fell into disuse, Taylor simply changed direction and put together a collection about social issues and evils (“The Devastating Boys” (1972.)) one of the smaller stories published in the spring of 1969 in the origin (in The Cornhill Magazine,) is the terrifying “The Fly-Paper”. For a writer familiar with normal life (especially married life and its parochialism), “The Fly-Paper” turns ordinary life into a tableau lest it welcome paranoia which then lets horror through the door of behind.
We meet young Sylvia, a girl like so many others. Precocious and unhappy, Sylvia is an orphan who lives with a very rigid grandmother. The harsh winter coat can’t hide Sylvia’s restlessness and simmering defiance. She flounders in her music lessons. She comes home like a petulant child. She is confronted by her grandmother who uses repetition and her stern attitude to “break” the girl. Also, the town is somewhat shaken by the recent murder of a little girl. However, that doesn’t dent the island world of Sylvia.
On her way to her next music class, she is confronted by a strange man on the bus. He tries to engage her. She resists with her grandmother’s lesson “Don’t talk to strangers” ringing in her head. However, this man sitting across from her just won’t stop. He hasn’t crossed any real lines, but his perseverance is visibly breaking Sylvia. Taylor actually describes her as “embarrassed, not nervous, not nervous at all”.
This last statement is essential. First, we don’t sympathize with Sylvia but occupy her place in this story. Second, what is unfolding are our emotions in addition to his. Sylvia grows tired of the man, so naturally she lies to him. He skillfully points out the details that lead him to know that she is cheating on him. However, his reaction prevents us from finding him dangerous and rather an annoyance.
She gets off the bus to go to a store where she is blocked by the man. Fortunately a woman who was also on the bus intercedes and even protects her by chasing the man away. Feeling scared but safe, Sylvia stays with the woman who takes her home to relax. Taylor describes this trip in detail when they arrive at “the little brick house at the edge of the vacant lot”. As shabby as that backdrop might sound in Taylor’s words, there’s a home-like comfort to it.
As Sylvia breathes better, she eventually notices that “fly paper” is simply hanging from the window. The flies on the paper are eerily “half alive and desperately trying to free themselves”. In a short story with no real action or activity, Taylor has struck fear into everyone reading this. The differences in setting, characters, and even intent are minimal in his stories. However, its total Flannery O’Connor-esque control of the narrative draws you in and simply refuses to let you go.
Mik Davis is the Record Store Manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg.
New this week
THE WEEKEND – Dawn FM
Say what you will about the new measures of success, Abel Tesfaye seems to be quietly surpassing them while creating a brand of music that both sounds timely and harkens back (confidently at that) to the past. All sixteen tracks from “Dawn FM” were on Billboard’s Global Top 200. As an album, it’s more designed to be heard en bloc like a radio broadcast (borrowed slightly from his friend Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Magic”). Tesfaye’s concept holds up very well whether you’re stuck in traffic or not. The personal touches of spoken parts by Jim Carrey and Quincy Jones add to the sincerity (and take it away from the cut-off feeling of the “reflective” albums). Musically, Tesfaye is back to the hit sound of “After Hours”. Lots of searing synths and deep bass that push you to the dance floor and leave the aching echoes ringing out after the damage of this lifestyle is done. He sure knows how to sell a “Starry Eyes” ballad and a sleek single (“Take My Breath” — by no means another “Blinding Lights”.) Yet he’s also ready with surprises (Lil’ Wayne on “I Heard You’re Married”, and Tyler. The creator of “Here We Go… Again”, the hits of Michael Jackson are the most promising while “Sacrifice” and “Less Than Zero”, produced by the Swedish House Mafia, are ready to be played in the summer months.
GENERAL PANIC – Widespread Panic / Miss Kitty’s Lounge
GRATEFUL DEAD – Live at the Fillmore East 3.1.69
It’s back to the beginning for this loyal pair of bands. Athens, GA’s Widespread Panic has come a long way from its home playing days on Weymanda Court to stadiums and arenas around the world. Their first “Space Wrangler” reflected their time on the road taking everything into account. The never-before-seen session that includes “Miss Kitty’s Lounge” is a stripped down winter 1990 session with John Keane where they literally try different combinations to take it to the next level. The original five Panic players are here with help from Phish’s Randall Bramblett and Page McConnell. Some tracks are familiar (“Love Tractor”) and many are rooted in their jammy textures. A year later, they were signed to Capricorn and moved in and out of the studio to shape these raw songs. With producer Johnny Sandlin and the help of T. Lavitz of the Dixie Dregs, Widespread Panic suddenly sounded less like a tour act and more like a band you’d hear on the radio. Sandlin (longtime Allman Brothers producer) wisely adds The Memphis Horns to “Weight Of The World” and forces the band out of their comfort zone to make “C.Brown” a story and “Walkin’ (For Your Love)” a single quite reminiscent of Pop/Dead. The Grateful Dead are by far the largest of the Psychedelic/Hippie/Pre-Jam bands. However, there are quite a few periods to manage to better understand and apprehend their vault from style to style. One look at the limbs will give you the best idea of how many disparate backgrounds have come together to create this hydra-like beast. Jerry Garcia was a Bluegrass enthusiast who was part of the early ’60s Beatniks scene that evolved into these Merry Pranksters. Bob Weir (“The Other One”) followed the Beatles playing Rock N’ Roll and a capable singer who was about to blossom as a guitarist. Bassist Phil Leah studied avant-garde music and jazz. Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann made the Dead one of the first with two drummers. New keyboardist Tom Constanten had just joined on November 23, 1968, bringing with him a background in electronic and improvised music. Finally, there was a continuing (but now slightly drifting) influence from original leader Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. This March 1, 1969 captures The Dead both in flight and changing dramatically. In 1968, as their instrumental prowess improved, Weir and McKernan were nearly fired. The Dead’s music was becoming increasingly complex and while McKernan’s bluesy/rootsy courage was needed, 1968’s “Anthem Of The Sun” was almost too difficult for the Dead to reproduce live. More importantly, the dead began to split into different combinations of writers. Lyricist Robert Hunter would soon take on a dramatic role as Garcia’s collaborator. Other members also followed. This series of shows at the Fillmore East in their hometown captured them harnessing the power of improvisation and interaction like they had never done before. The “Other One Suite” and “Eleven” become long musical explorations. “Live/Dead” favorite “Alligator” and its bumpy New Orleans funk (with lyrics by Robert Hunter) would be set aside for a 24-minute run through “Turn On Your Lovelight” that ends with the Beatles “Hey Jude”. Plus, “New Potato Caboose” slowly works its locomotive groove into a frenzy, which erupts into the psychedelic outpouring of “Doin’ That Rag,” then the longtime centerpiece “Dark Star” sends the Fillmore and his audience in the space. On this third night of the four-night homestand, the dead really gave everyone a glimpse into their future. This refined but jam-laden set would be the first staples of thousands of Dead shows to come.