Book Soundtracking: Coming Through Slaughter

by Andrew Patterson

I’ve been home sick for the last few days, reading fiendishly. Right now, I’m plowing through Herzog On Herzog which is one of three Herzog books on my ‘To Read’ stack currently. The straight interview format is perfect for my less-than-sparkling mindstate: I don’t feel well enough to dig deeply into poetry and feel like starting a new novel in this state would be akin to trying to make fists upon waking.

As a big fan of his work, having the director himself meditate on the details surrounding his films (often having to set the story straight against the plethora of myths surrounding them) make it a compelling read. It’s offered great insight into where his films come from, as well as totally changed how I see Herzog. I’ve always imagined him, at least in some part, as an artful prankster purposely playing with people’s perceptions of reality and their sense of what films should be. It turns out he is just a totally earnest individual with a strange way of perceiving the world. He comes across as entirely refined in a very specific, unique manner.

Previously, I was completely enthralled in Michael Ondaatje‘s Coming Through Slaughter (In fact, it was one of three Ondaatje books I’ve read and adored recently). Coming Through Slaughter is a re-imagining of the life of jazz legend Buddy Bolden:

It is a masterful piece of literature that embodies very much the spirit of jazz, particularly all of it’s self-destructive tendancies. Fragmented, free and experimental, Ondaatje’s narrative weaves between the personal and the public, the heartwarming and the profane; it offers a kaleidoscopic view of New Orleans and the partially fictitious Bolden character, revealing all their respective grime and glory. Much of my time spent reading it, I was listening to Miles Davis’ Filles De Kilimanjaro (on recommendation, thanks N!). With it’s textures in turn smooth and prickly, this late 60’s Davis record offered a well-suited, jangly backdrop to Ondaatje’s addictive prose.

I thought I’d post an excerpt (itself a testament to the musically serendipitous) in an attempt to pique some curiosities. It is one of the more moving passages I’ve read relating to music. It’s a passage from the midpoint of the novel that depicts a scene in which Bolden, having pretty much quit life, has just witnessed a performance in Lincoln Park by a young successor and, down-and-out, retreats to the barber shop he once worked at to wallow in solitude. He’s been trailed in secret by Dude Botley. The following is Botley’s account of what transpired:

“He steps out of the park like a rooster ignoring everybody, everything and goes up Canal. I trail him back to the barber shop. There’s wood planks all over the broken glass window and he just rips one out and climbs in, steps off the ice-shelf onto the floor and paces around his arms out to the side like he’s doing a cakewalk. I watch from across the street and soon he’s just sitting there in one of the chairs looking into a mirror. Pretty dark there, not much light. There’s light in the back of the shop and it pours in all over the floor of the shaving parlour and Bolden is restless as a dog in the chair. He shouldn’t be there because he don’t work there any more. This is about eight at night and I’m on the other side of the road shuffling to keep warm because it’s cold and I should be dancing. I can even hear Lincoln Park over the streets.

I see him walk to the back of the parlor where the light is and he come back with a bottle and the cornet. He try first to drink but he begin crying and he put the bottle in the sink. The tears came to my eyes too. I got to thinking of all the men that dance to him and the women that idolize him as he used to strut up and down the streets. Where are they now I say to myself. Then I hear Bolden’s cornet, very quiet, and I move across the street, closer. There he is, relaxed back in the chair blowing that silver softly, just above a whisper and I see he’s got the hat over the bell of the horn… Thought I knew his blues before, and the hymns at funerals, but what he is playing now is real strange and I listen careful for he’s playing something that sounds like both. I cannot make out the tune and then I catch on. He’s mixing them up. He’s playing the blues and the hymn sadder than the blues and then the blues sadder than the hymn. That is the first time I ever heard hymns and blues cooked up together.

There’s about three of us at the window now and a strange feeling comes over me. I’m sort of scared because I know the Lord don’t like that mixing the Devil’s music with His music. But I still listen because the music sounds so strange and I guess I’m hypnotized. When he blows blues I can see Lincoln Park with all the sinners and whores shaking and belly rubbing and the chicks getting way down and slapping themselves on the cheeks of their behind. Then when he blows the hymn I’m in my mother’s church with everybody humming. The picture kept changing with the music. It sounded like a battle between the Good Lord and the Devil. Something tells me to listen and see who wins. If Bolden stops on the hymn, the Good Lord wins. If he stops on the blues, the Devil wins.”