Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: The Night Train by Clyde Edgerton (including a Remembrance of Clarence Clemons)

When legendary saxophone player Clarence “Big Man” Clemons died last Saturday of complications from a massive stroke, the music world bid a sad farewell to a titanic figure and to one of its most enduring partnerships, that of Clemons and his bandmate and bandleader of 40 years, Bruce Springsteen. And though the greatness of what they accomplished together needs no qualification, I’d be denying much of its significance if I didn’t also note that Clemons and Springsteen formed one of the most magnificent black-white partnerships in music history, one whose meaning resonated well beyond the music itself.

Over the last week, columnists, bloggers, and others have spun various versions of the Night the Big Man Met the Boss and its mythic meaning. It’s virtually impossible to get the facts straight in a tale this tall, given how many ways both men told it—on-stage and off—over the last four decades. But whether on that stormy 1971 New Jersey night the door actually blew off its hinges at the club where Springsteen was playing as Clemons strode through it doesn’t really matter. What does is that these two men saw rock ‘n’ roll future in each other’s eyes that night, and heard it right away in the sound they made together. It’s tough not to sentimentalize their meeting now, but to do so is to miss the point of what their friendship was all about: rock ‘n’ roll at its most raucous, rapacious, and redemptive—the wild and innocent howl of two men who wanted everything and were going to play their guts out until they got it, and, in the process, teach a world riven by racism a thing or two about friendship transcending race.

Less than 4 years after their fabled first meeting, Springsteen and Clemons posed for the gatefold cover of Springsteen’s Born to Run album in a shot that not only became one of the iconic images of rock ‘n’ roll, but also affected the American teenagers who bought the album in 1975 in ways they probably didn't realize at the time. There’s nothing overtly political about the way these two men pose on that album cover—after all, Springsteen is laughing, not raising a fist—but it’s an invitation to the world they create on the album, a world that’s better and more potentially post-racial than the one you’re living in, but accessible to you if you’re willing to take a ride.

So much of what’s been written about Clemons over the last week has focused on his magnificent solo on Born to Run’s closing track, “Jungleland,” which is certainly the piece of music that will outlive him the longest. But for me, Clemons’ defining moment in virtually every E Street Band show I ever saw was a more modest one, his solo in “The Promised Land,” a song from Springsteen’s 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town. The juxtaposition in that song is almost unbearably powerful: First, you have a white singer who watched his father lose his hearing, his youth, and almost everything he ever hoped for or believed in during a life of factory work, singing “I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man/And I believe in the promised land.” And then you have a black saxophone player wringing every ounce of meaning, pathos, defiance, faith, and pride from the song in a taut, note-perfect solo that leaves little doubt about what “I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man” means to him as a man living through the long, unfinished journey from slavery to freedom.

Rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues, and soul music and the dismantling of racial barriers have never been entirely inseparable. The musical forms themselves were always a hybrid of black and white Southern roots, and most of the greatest soul performers in particular were usually backed by integrated bands. (Even Queen of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson toured with a rip-roarin' multiracial band at her commercial peak in the early '60s.) To give rock ‘n’ soul credit for, say, ending Jim Crow would be absurd, but there’s no question that the white supremacists who railed against race-mixing and portrayed rock ‘n’ roll as a point of intersection for black and white teenagers had a twisted, if not altogether inaccurate sense of what was happening. When rock ‘n’ roll exploded in the ’50s with the arrival of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and others, the kids could feel the music’s pull, and the pushback from their parents was every bit as powerful. And in some locales where worlds may have collided, blacks and whites were legally separated and whites were determined to keep them that way.

Clarence Clemons knew whereof he blew on "The Promised Land." E Street Band creation myths aside, Clemons didn't spring to life on the Jersey Shore in the 1970s. He was born in Maryland in 1942, and like other African-Americans of his time and place, he grew up with de jure segregation, and latched on to rock ‘n’ roll and R & B early on as a release and escape. And though the racial barriers of the Asbury Park music scene in the early ’70s weren’t insurmountable, Clemons has freely admitted that he crossed some generally understood racial lines when he joined forces with Springsteen. That said, integrated bands weren’t unheard-of on the shore; they were just uncommon.

But what if the Boss and the Big Man had met a decade earlier in the segregated South? What if they’d been two rural North Carolina teenagers brought together by minimum-wage work, an upright piano in the backroom of a furniture repair shop, and a shared obsession with James Brown’s Live at the Apollo album? Without reference to Springsteen or Clemons, implicit or otherwise, this is, essentially, the question Clyde Edgerton explores in his rollicking, rhythm & blues-infused new novel, The Night Train. And though Edgerton’s book is only slightly more political than the cover of Born to Run, and no fairy tale of triumph over racial discrimination, it nonetheless affirms how rock ‘n’ soul kicked a steady drumbeat against the locked doors of segregation even if they didn't kick them open. And for that reason The Night Train feels true, as Clyde Edgerton novels always do.

The Night Train is the story of Larry Lime Nolan, an aspiring blues and jazz piano player who works in a furniture repair shop with Dwayne Hallston, whose father owns the shop. Dwayne, rhythm guitarist and trombone player in a 5-piece band (soon to grow to 7-piece with the addition of a horn section), shares not only Larry Lime’s penchant for rhythm & blues music but also his fondness for Alfred Hitchcock movies, basketball, and a countrified local TV variety show.

The barriers to friendship that Larry Lime and Dwayne experience in their hometowns of Starke and Prestonville, N.C. don’t drive them to moral outrage so much as simple frustration that they can’t do the things together that teenage boys do. They come up with an ingenious prank (riotously funny in Edgerton’s hands) involving Hitchcock’s The Birds, a theater balcony, and a hypnotized sleeping rooster, but can’t attempt it together in a whites-only theater (ever-true to his material, you can see Clyde Edgerton lull a chicken to sleep on YouTube). Larry Lime and Dwayne can’t sit on a wall together and shoot the breeze with other boys their age without fear of reprisal. And even though Dwayne imagines inviting Larry Lime to join his band, which seems like a natural thing to do after all their talk about R & B records and chord progressions and syncopation in the backroom of the furniture shop, he knows it’s impossible. And it pisses him off.

Though we spend nearly as much of The Night Train in Larry Lime’s head as we do in Dwayne's—the book begins and ends with Larry Lime at the piano—we never find Larry Lime struggling with the barriers to white-black friendship in quite the same “Why has it got to be this way?” sense that Dwayne does. For Dwayne, the knowledge that he can’t be anything but secret friends with a black guy comes only with the attempt to push beyond it; for Larry Lime, these rules of the rural South are bred in the bone. This is double-consciousness writ simply but surely.

Of course, 1963 wasn't just a time of segregation in the South; it was also near the peak of the struggle against it. The challenges to segregation waged by sit-in protesters 50 miles west of Starke in Greensboro are mentioned frequently in The Night Train, and the specter of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his influence on local clergy, are ever-present, and Larry Lime and Dwayne even debate the validity of the sit-ins openly, albeit briefly, at one point in the book. Much like desegregation itself—which didn't happen in most of North Carolina until the early '70s—black-white friendship not circumscribed by circumstances is an idea imagined but a dream deferred.

Which is not to say The Night Train is a downer of a book; it's every bit the rollicking good read that Killer Diller was. In fact, though The Night Train was probably written primarily for adults like all of Edgerton’s other books, it’s the first one I’ve read that would work just as well as young adult fiction (much in the way Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn do), because the teenage characters and family dynamics (black and white) are so well-drawn, funny, and real, and the message about the challenges to one-on-one race relations so clearly conveyed. There's no question I'll be encouraging my son to read this book in 5 or 6 years when I want him to know more about where I came from (Durham, N.C., just like Edgerton) than my own stories reveal.

The Night Train, though Edgerton’s shortest book, is as rich in voices and comic characters as all his novels, populating the neighboring towns of Starke and Prestonville in Hanson County, with their well-delineated black-white divisions. The book’s cast of characters include not just the teenage boys at the heart of the story but also the irascible Flash’s Mama (mother of the foreman at the furniture repair shop, who's also a guitar player and singer, and a sexually conflicted, bumbling bigot as well), Larry Lime’s blunt Uncle Young, and Larry Lime’s Aunt Marzie, who takes a temporary job looking after Flash’s Mama after she has a stroke, and regrets missing the opportunity to verbally abuse the old misanthrope while Flash's Mama still had enough of her mind to make it fun.

Another delightful part of the book is the ever-present Brother Bobby Lee Reese Country Music Jamboree, a live variety show broadcast every Saturday night from Hanson County’s own WLBT-TV. Sponsored by a local dog food company, one of the show’s regular highlights—along with the country music acts and Bobby Lee’s rural family-story humor—was the host (Brother Bobby Lee) eating dog food on the air each week. One of the intriguing aspects of the show is that it's equally popular (or nearly so) with whites and blacks. Much of The Night Train, as it turns out, is about points of intersection between the separated black and white worlds, as well as the lives and likes of working-class blacks and whites in Hanson County that turn out to be not all that different.

Edgerton really builds this theme of unlikely points of cultural intersection around the Bobby Lee show, which brings us to the what’s probably the most didactic-sounding paragraph Clyde Edgerton has ever written in a novel:
And you might wonder why descendants of slaves in rural North Carolina, 1963, tuned in to a country music show. For one thing, the only other TV show at ten thirty on Saturday nights was a thirty-minute weather program hosted by Gabe Ferguson, who kept dropping his map pointer. But it was also because of Bobby Lee Reese: his apparent na├»ve generosity and his ability to talk to black people under the radar. Aunt Marzie said, He talk about us all sand lugging and suckering out there in that hot sun in a way you know he don’t feel superior-like. He gits it, and he ain’t all wound up and worried up.
Bobby Lee Reese’s show plays a pivotal role in The Night Train for several reasons. First and foremost is that both Dwayne’s band, the Amazing Rumblers, and Flash (the furniture shop foreman) are planning to audition for the show in different weeks. The other is that the narrative occasionally shifts between the primary action of the book in spring 1963 and snippets of an interview conducted in April 2011 between former Amazing Rumblers piano player Ray Wheeler and Bobby Lee Reese in a nursing home in nearby Summerlin, gathering Bobby Lee’s recollections about the show, its cultural impact, and the Amazing Rumblers’ appearance on the show (which becomes the stuff of legend for reasons too marvelous to reveal in a review).

As Dwayne’s band prepares for the show, Larry Lime is a constant presence at their rehearsals in the back room of the furniture shop. Initially, the plan is for the band to play two Hank Williams songs with Larry Lime’s dancing pet chicken joining the act (and thus giving them a leg up on others auditioning for the show). By the time the chicken dies (prior to their audition)—sparking a comical exchange in Larry Lime’s family over whether to eat it or bury it—the band’s sessions have moved in a different direction. Having already nailed “Hey Good Lookin’” and “I Saw the Light” for Bobby Lee’s show, they’ve dedicated themselves to a new project: reproducing James Brown’s life-changing Live at the Apollo album, note for note, beat for beat (one hell of a leap for a white drummer schooled in country and rockabilly), and dance step for dance step, with Dwayne as James Brown. Larry Lime has transferred the album to reel-to-reel tape and brought it to the shop so they can learn it, and hung around to work with them on everything from the dance moves to the horn charts to the on-the-one beat. And though the dance steps Dwayne is trying to master are as hot as they come—being the signature moves of the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business in his prime—these are also baby steps. There’s the telling moment when Amazing Rumbler sax player Gaston is chosen to say the emcee’s introduction of James Brown:
Okay, Gaston, said Dwayne, I got it written right here. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s star time. Are you ready for star time?”
Should I say it like a nigger?
Yeah, but don’t say that.
Because. Go ahead.
When he’s not teaching the Amazing Rumblers to play soul, Larry Lime is undergoing a “practice yo’ ass off” jazz piano apprenticeship to a hemophiliac black musician player known as The Bleeder during off-hours at a local nightclub. His ambition is to learn to play like Thelonious Monk—and then to make Monk’s music his own. He tells his mother, Canary, about his lessons with the Bleeder, and she thinks, “Jazz might get him outen the South … It was a familiar thought for all her children—with other words for ‘jazz.’”

And there it is: Escape. Busting out. Full stop. Urgent, but not desperate, and not random, either—tied to a real ambition close to the heart of both mother than son. And an ambition shared by both Larry Lime Nolan and Dwayne Hallston, even though both are mostly accepting of the fact that they aren’t going to fulfill that common ambition together. As a story of North Carolina in 1963, that’s what makes The Night Train feel true. To take these boys any farther down the path of liberation from the constraints of segregation at that moment in time would have transposed the book into the realm of myth—kind of like the less-likely-than-a-lightning-strike rock ‘n’ soul myth lived out by Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen, which still feels stranger than fiction in an era when a black man can become President of the United States and still get bullied into showing the world his birth certificate to prove he belongs here.

Clyde Edgerton’s The Night Train is not a novel of post-racial America (whatever that may be), either in its evocation of an era of significant but fitful racial progress, or in the interracial relationships it portrays. As such it’s as rewarding for where it doesn’t take Edgerton's characters as for where it does, a contradictory effect as delightful as the way it accomplishes the seemingly impossible trick of being a categorically quiet book (like Edgerton’s Walking Across Egypt and Lunch at the Picadilly) that pulses with music you can hear and feel as you read it. And unlike Edgerton’s previous books, which have dealt with race and racism more incidentally—Raney set the table perfectly with the moment when Raney thinks that her New South, Charlotte-bred husband Charles talks about blacks in the high-minded way he does only because he doesn’t know what the blacks are like around here—the message comes down decisively on the one in The Night Train, and it locks into an irresistible groove.

Maybe there’s as much that makes us different as makes us alike, Edgerton seems to say, but it’s the alike that matters, and the alike that brings us together and gets us somewhere. If rock and soul music didn’t matter enough to change the world overnight, it did its part to set the wheels in motion. If you listened from the first time you heard it—and if you climbed aboard the train when it rolled through your town (Raleigh, Nawth Carolina!)—then you know that train kept a-rollin’ all night long and into a better day.

Pre-order Clyde Edgerton's The Night Train from Powell's Books.