After a week’s vacation (which led to antibiotics all around in our house!), Southern Creatives is back.
I hope you all enjoy this guest post by Jim Booth and find it as entertaining as I do.
Southern Rock Stardom, Postmodernism, and the Persistence of Memory
(Dedication: To the musicians who were in famous bands like The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, .38 Special, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Marshall Tucker Band, and The Box Tops – to the musicians in unjustly obscure bands like Big Star, The dBs, The Right Profile, Dillon Fence, Bus Stop, The Windbreakers, Let’s Active, Rain Parade, Arrogance, Backyard Tea, and Doco…and finally, genuflections in the general directions of those seats of stardom, Athens, Columbia, and Charlottesville….)
Memory is important for writers everywhere. We know the famous example – the Narrator tastes a cookie and we’re off on a 1.5 million word jaunt “in search of lost time.” We’d all readily, if waggishly, observe that that Madeleine must have been some cookie. We’d also admit, though, that there’s an inherent truth in Proust’s great novel that makes our waggishness a bravado that we use to hide the insight his opus offers that haunts us all: memory is an element, perhaps the most important element, in our determination of who we are.
Nowhere is memory considered more precious than in the South. Our long tradition of storytelling has served the function of allowing (one might argue compelling) a psyche of communal identity. Whether good old boys, decayed aristocrats, or, as in the case of my latest novel, aging rock stars, our Southernness is essential to our identity. And our sense of identity is woven into us through shared experience, through memory collaboration via our stories, in ways that perhaps no other region of the country feels as keenly. For Southerners, then, who we are is reflected in our memories, and our memories are the products of our stories.
We all can (or should be able to) recite the canon of Southern literature that lays wreaths at the altar of memory: Look Homeward Angel, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sound and the Fury, A Good Man is Hard to Find, and that paean of paeans to memory, Gone With the Wind. We Southerners are, it seems, “borne ceaselessly into the past,” if I may be forgiven for quoting a Minnesotan.
Now we get to the thing.
Why would a Southern writer like me create a novel like Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star? Isn’t the rock star a cultural construct of postmodernism, an ironically “mythic” figure whose purpose is to be without story, without sense of place, without memory? The antithesis of what we think of when we think of Southern literature? Why tell the story of a person who has achieved that postmodern goal of being everything and nothing all at once?
* * * * * *
Rock music is, many critics have argued, a perfect art form for a postmodern world: it is ephemeral, more the consort of fashion than of art or literature, history or geography. Its artists, indeed, almost seem to consider memory a mortal enemy. Its mantra is “the latest is the greatest.”
Yet Jay Breeze (née Brent – in typical postmodern style, he’s adopted a stage name to “brand” himself, like Sting or Bono, in yet another manifestation of the postmodern drive for separation of self as construct from self as real person) is tormented by the very things that should make him happy: his riches, his fame, his power over people. His escape from who he was (small town Southern boy) to that paradoxical existence that is the rock star’s lot – everyone knows your name but no one knows who you are – does not seem to have brought him the happiness one would expect in a culture that values image above substance.
So he does what one of our greatest Southern novelists, Thomas Wolfe, tells us we can’t do: he goes home again. His band having ended its career, he returns to the place where his path forked and he chose a path that led away from his Southernness – UNC Chapel Hill – to resume his studies which he’d ended abruptly when the sirens of fame sang to him. He wants to become a “real” writer, not merely a rock song composer. He meets a woman – a “real” woman, not a fan – and they fall in love, real love, not fan/star adoration.
And he does write.
He writes letters to the girl to tell her his stories, unaware perhaps that he is telling us his stories, too. And he struggles to come to terms with who he has been, who he is, who he will be. In sharing his memories, in telling his stories, he reclaims that Southernness he feared he’d lost.
But Jay never knows this – and readers know this only after the fact; for Jay is dead even when the novel opens, having died senselessly in a car accident, albeit in typical rock star fashion, at once dreadful and impressive. And what we learn of him we learn through the courtesy of his literary executor and editor, a long time friend named Charlie Beagle, a journalism professor and former writer for Rolling Stone who assembles his papers – including his letters to the woman.
In spite of Jay’s best intentions, perhaps postmodernism wins in the end – his life is reduced to a pastiche, an assemblage of the pieces Charlie can find and paste together for readers to peruse in their attempt to know more about what is perhaps only another enigmatic dead rock star.
But perhaps not. His friend and editor Charlie argues that Jay’s life and work touched many people and that his attempt to become a “real” writer was what Wolfe warns us about: a well meant but misguided attempt to return to a home that no longer existed. Charlie’s view is that Jay’s letters will help readers see that despite his fame and wealth and decadent cosmopolitan experience he was a small town Southern boy who simply wanted to come back home.
And thus to this final point.
That long list of bands in the dedication are all Southern. Whether they have reached great heights of fame like the Allman Brothers or R.E.M. (that bow towards Athens) or find themselves the subject of a film like Camilla Ann Aikin’s poignant documentary We Didn’t Get Famous (the title is self-explanatory), almost all of these musicians live (or are buried) in the South. Among the living are Bill Berry of R.E.M. and Chuck Leavell of The Allman Brothers who have farms in Georgia; Mitch Easter of Let’s Active and Jeffrey Dean Foster of The Right Profile who still live in their hometown of Winston-Salem, NC; Tim Lee of The Windbreakers who grew up in Mississippi and now lives in Knoxville, TN.
Among those gone, Toy Caldwell of Marshall Tucker Band died in his home state of South Carolina; Duane Allman and his band mate Berry Oakley both died in their home town, Macon, GA. Alex Chilton of both The Box Tops and Big Star died in New Orleans, LA, down the river from his home town of Memphis, TN.
Here in the South, rock stars respect memory as all good Southerners do and, after all their wanderings, come back home where memory matters, Thomas Wolfe and postmodernism be damned.
You can find out more about Jim and his novels on his website: Jim Booth, Author
Many thanks to Jim for being my guest this week on Southern Creatives. I so enjoyed his post!
If you are a creative type from the South or if you are creating something about the South, contact me if you would like to be featured on Southern Creatives.
melindamcguirewrites @ yahoo dot com