The following is from Brad Zellar's Till The Wheels Fall Off. A former senior editor at City Pages, The Rake, and Utne Reader, Zellar is also the author of Suburban World: The Norling Photos, Conductors of the Moving World, House of Coates, and Driftless. His work has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, The Believer, Paris Review, Vice, Guernica, Aperture, and Russian Esquire. He spent fifteen years working in bookstores and was a co-owner of Rag & Bone Books in Minneapolis.
Before Russ, there was just time and waiting. Not even looking but biding my time. Then Russ came along, and I know I watched him and studied him endlessly. He gave me names, dates, connections, and cross-references. He showed me the way one type of music, or one specific artist or record, evolved naturally from another (Howlin’ Wolf to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Captain Beefheart to Tom Waits), and the ways obvious influences could be absorbed or incorporated to make something wholly original (Phil Spector plus Bob Dylan plus the Rascals plus Creedence Clearwater Revival equals Bruce Springsteen).
I also credit Russ with teaching me how to push my ears, how to get them in shape for music I hadn’t yet heard, music he knew I wasn’t yet ready to hear, so that when I did finally hear, say, Pere Ubu or Ornette Coleman (or even freer jazz I grew to genuinely love more than Russ ever could), it sounded to me as natural and purely intoxicating as the cleanest, most undiluted pop music.
We never, however, really talked about anything else. Russ loved books and always seemed to be reading something interesting, but when he recommended books to me, he usually just handed them to me and said, “Check this one out.” I would read the books he gave me without fail, and if he saw me reading a book he’d recommended, he might say, “What do you think?” And I would invariably say something like, “It’s great,” and he would nod and that would be that.
I don’t remember him, though, asking me how things were going in school or what I was up to when I wasn’t hanging around the rink. He might—and in fact regularly did—say, “What’s going on?” but it never felt like an invitation to open up or unburden myself, and he certainly didn’t push or pry. He was the same way with my mother, and I assume with everyone else. There was an almost Socratic purity to the way he interacted with me (and with the world), as well as the way he engaged, educated, and indoctrinated me to the ins and outs of his record collection. “Who does this sound like?” he might ask. Or, “What does this remind you of?” If I didn’t have a ready answer he would say, “Think about it for a bit and let me know. I’m curious to hear what you come up with.”
Soul to Russ was just another category in his record collection, another bunch of chemicals in his chemistry set. Everything was physical. Funkadelic’s Free Your Mind . . . and Your Ass Will Follow was, I think, Russ’s central credo. Or creed. Or philosophy. Or whatever.
All I know, or at least what I believe, is that the music seemed to rewire me, and it transformed the whole world, made it seem a bigger, more exciting place. Even Prentice felt wholly changed, or at least I suddenly had the feeling doors were opening all around me. The music was coming from somewhere else, after all, and that knowledge was a huge, fascinating comfort to me and tickled the lazy wonder for which I had such great, slack-jawed capacity.
I think most of my first real, clear, and vivid memories came when I was nine and we moved to the rink, and though I’m probably mistaken, it seems to me I didn’t start remembering, or at least forming detailed memories, until around that time. Maybe, of course, it’s simply that those early experiences at the rink, and that time of radical change in my life and my routines, were so wonderfully strange and powerful that they penetrated my buffer of oblivion in a way nothing else ever had. It was as if I’d finally been awakened. The oblivion, though, was a comforting old habit, a protective shield, and at times I still felt a need to retreat into it. I would sometimes go up to the roof of our building, directly above the rink and accessible via a short flight of stairs in the back hallway. Early on during the Screaming Wheels years, the music would get me wound up and vibrating in a way that was still so utterly unfamiliar it was almost narcotic or like a state of intoxication. Up on the roof, I would just stand there listening to myself breathe and to the curious night sounds that weren’t human music, the sleighbelling of crickets or cicadas, the distant hum and surf of traffic, the wind rattling the flag on the courthouse lawn or stirring the trees along the boulevards, and all the other stray sounds of a typical night in Prentice. The railroad yard on the east side was still active in those days and a reliable source of a truly consoling sound: the sound of something heavy being carried away.
It’s the Fourth of July, the first one I’ve spent in my old hometown in at least ten years. The theme of the annual Prentice Summer Fest— which takes place over Fourth of July weekend—is “Party Like It’s 1999,” and it’s sort of a discordant kick to walk around town and hear Prince everywhere. Things have already been exploding all around me out in the neighborhoods for several days, but they’ve been growing in intensity all day.
Fireworks are one of the few minor growth industries in Prentice, it seems; people who are poor and beleaguered and bored love to blow stuff up. It’s easy drama, I suppose, and easier spectacle. Fireworks fascinate me, but it’s not a comfortable fascination. I’ve never had the bug, and don’t understand it. They make me anxious, and in my imagination, I inevitably go to a place where explosions in the night and a sky filled with bursts of fire and light don’t signal mindless fun and where a barrage of concussive sound is a regular source of real danger and terror. I imagine I’m a reporter, a war correspondent entirely unsure which side I’m on, or even which side the sides are on, but I’m certain I feel the familiar uneasiness and existential terror of the noncombatant, alone and in no real physical or personal peril yet at the mercy of all the world’s racket and rancor. I, once again, recognize that I’m not made of stern stuff, and that I’m lonely.
I no longer try to feel awake.
Days like this, I miss the people who used to be my family and the people who used to be my friends, miss the old impulse to be around other people and to participate, however awkwardly, in what I guess I’ll call the human community. I miss having a tribe, miss the rink, miss skating on sweltering Fourth of Julys to Russ’s “America! Fuck yeah!” mix (I wish I could find the actual cassette of the mix, but my boxes of tapes are buried in a storage space under the track; I know, though, that it included the Blasters, “American Music”; the Clash, “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.”; James Brown, “Living in America”; Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son”; David Bowie, “Young Americans”; Chuck Berry, “Back in the U.S.A.”; Funkadelic, “One Nation Under a Groove”; and Talking Heads, “The Big Country”).
The year before I moved back to Prentice, most of my contact with the outside world involved fleeting exchanges with my neighbors or random store clerks. That’s really not an exaggeration. I’ve now been wandering around Prentice for more than a month, and I haven’t run into more than a handful of people I know or remember. It’s a town full—or, really, not so full—of strangers now, and even Rollie, my only remaining solid connection, has been spending a lot of time at Big Sammy’s cabin somewhere up north.
A lot of people around Prentice seem to operate full-time junk sales out of their yards and garages. In some neighborhoods you get the feel of a roving flea market; these random inventories—entire lives and houses being liquidated piecemeal—provide glimpses into family histories and a community culture I couldn’t have guessed at, even when I was a child spending so much time wondering about the lives of the people who surrounded me every day.
Maybe, I thought as I drifted through a bunch of these sales one day, all along there had been people like Russ (or me) in Prentice, people in the grip of some private obsession that allowed them to survive in a little universe of limited culture and sometimes oppressive conformity. At one yard sale over the weekend, I found three hardcover collections of the notebooks of Elias Canetti, a writer (and Nobel Prize laureate) I’d never read. All of these books, I’ve discovered, have extensive underlining. Certain quotes have been transferred to scraps of paper that were apparently used as bookmarks:
“He sorts the moments until they become extinguished.”
“Little remains of youth’s dreams. But how great is the weight of that little.”
“This insatiability almost surpasses all understanding.” “They search all over for their ruins. But I am my own.” “A labyrinth made of all the paths one has taken.”
“. . . to tell a story in cataracts.”
There’s no citation provided for any of these quotes, every one of which is like a blow to my head, but I assume the words are Canetti’s. I’d taken all three books over to the old man running the sale, who was seated in a lawn chair and hooked up to an oxygen tank in a patch of shade next to the garage.
“How much for these?” I asked. “Fifty cents apiece,” he said.
“That doesn’t seem like enough,” I said.
“It’s more than enough,” the man said. “If I were an honest man, I’d encourage you to steal them.”
“Were these books yours?” “They were.”
“So you read them?” “I believe I did.”
“I’m curious where you found books like this in Prentice.”
“I didn’t find them in Prentice,” he said. “If I’d had to depend on the things I could find in Prentice, I would’ve died of some kind of starvation a long time ago.”
I thanked him and went on my way, but as I’ve spent the last several nights making my way through those Canetti books, I keep wondering about that guy and thinking about him as a younger man, not yet dragging around an oxygen tank, coming home from some job, having dinner with his family, then finding some private space—or maybe not even—where he could sit down and read Elias Canetti.
The experience reminds me of those index cards in the plastic pouches attached to the books and records in the library. There were often, as I’ve said, virgin cards, cards dated from before I was born, on which nobody but me had ever signed a name, and that was a stupid badge of pride. Other times, though, other people would have checked out a book or record before I had, and if, as was often the case, the particular book or record made a deep impression on me, I would study the names on the index cards. I learned things about people in Prentice I’d never met or heard of, and would never meet.
He sorts the moments until they become extinguished.
. . . to tell a story in cataracts.
For much of my life, exhaustion has built thick, complicated screens in my skull, scrims upon which all sorts of confusing and fragmented images were projected, which felt like a fuzzed and interminable legato between night and day, sleeping and waking, and unconsciousness and consciousness. These gauzy scrims behind my eyes—and there were definitely several of them constantly flickering with static imagery—played all sorts of strange tricks with reality, or what I took for granted was reality, stretching and constricting time, producing long shadows, figments, and hallucinations, disrupting consciousness with digressions, snippets of nonsense, fragments of memory, and protracted surreal interludes. I eventually determined that each of the screens in my head drew from different pools of memory and consciousness. One of them was a pure visual and audio archive from what I’ll call my actual past. Another was like a highlight reel from my subconscious, more fragmentary and slippery than the others, and more challenging; more than anything else it resembled those old recordings of radio transmissions from outer space, but there was also that channel surfing—spastic and inattentive—aspect: pre–channel surfing, actually. I once had a little transistor radio that was disguised as a can of beer (some promo item one of my uncles had given me), and late at night I used to lie in my bed or sit on the floor of my bedroom while I scrolled up and down the am dial pulling in nothing but stray and furtive fragments of music, voices, and static that would erupt for an instant like a Roman candle and then fade or disappear just as quickly. The second screen in my head was like a cerebral version of that little radio.
I had to wrestle with every single image, voice, or snippet of music or sound that appeared on the second screen. It was—and still is—an exercise in forensic consciousness. The screen is like a whirlpool that’s constantly roiling with odd words, phrases, and
images, circling wildly and then disappearing below the surface. One night, for instance, the phrase “too melon tasting” uttered in an unfamiliar old woman’s voice kept pacing back and forth in my brain and barging into the scrum on the second screen. For several days at least, I struggled to source this tiny and unwelcome invasion. But the more I struggled to make sense of it or locate it in my actual memory, the more persistently it looped, until it eventually became an absurd mantra—or an earworm—that I couldn’t shake.
It finally came to me in the middle of the night: at some point in the recent past—it’s possible, even, that it wasn’t the recent past—I encountered an elderly couple tasting free samples in a liquor store, and “too melon tasting” had been the old woman’s assessment of a particular drink.
There exists a third screen in my head as well. This screen, I’ve concluded, serves up whatever the present tosses at me: the droning voice of a teacher, the progression of voices in a conversation or a staff meeting, the music that’s playing, whatever is happening Infront of or around me as I’m driving, sitting at my desk, or moving about in the world—everything, in short, that isn’t yet memory or past. Fragments from this “present” screen—mostly things from the peripheries of my daily experience—eventually get archived and transferred willy-nilly to the loop on the second screen. The first time I went to New York City and saw the jungle of screens in Times Square, I felt as if I was looking at a large-scale version of the insane theater in my head.
So many nights as a child, and as an adolescent, I’d find myself tracking moonlight and shadows across the floor and walls, or studying the static view outside my window as if it were a radar screen. At such times my mind would be on a very low flame, a few tired words or phrases seesawing in the silence or surfacing through the waves of static that grew louder and more erratic as the night progressed. I’d sit there barely conscious, but the moment I tried to climb into bed and close my eyes, the whole chorus would convene again with a vengeance, and all the screens would flicker and then come roaring back to life. I seemed to exist entirely in this relentless and woozy carnival of hypnagogia; I might spend what felt like hours ruminating on an outrageous pair of shoes I’d seen on a complete stranger weeks earlier.
Ultimately, toward dawn, I was always left with nothing but the barely beating heart of the world, the ceaseless surf and hum of even the quietest small town, all the invisible sleepers rolling unconscious through the slow-breaking waves of sleep. The relentless pining of the clock. The modern world on the back burner, as close as it could come to stasis. I was left with only me and what was left of the night and the puzzling snow globe that was my skull at 5:00 a.m., a snow globe that felt as if it was being slowly rolled from hand to hand by a distracted giant. I was left with the retreating darkness, the shadows receding on the walls, the cruel pinch of exhaustion, the terrible reality that I was going to have to sleepwalk through another day. What was that they were saying about what?
Every night I would reach a point where I couldn’t fall asleep but also couldn’t be truly awake. I would sense, on many, many nights, that I was drowning, that I was desperately trying to kick my way back to the surface. Or I would thrash around, grasping at the dis-solving figments, stumbling through a dense and hazy subterranean no-man’s-land. I would sometimes, at this impossible hour, take a walk to try to resuscitate my sanity, to get clear thoughts moving in my head again. At such times I moved in slow motion through what felt like a muslin-filtered border country, imagination and hallucination barging right up against and bleeding into reality. I might hear what sounded like chanting. The jingle of dog tags. The distant tolling of a clock or a burst of faint music sucked from a car window somewhere out in the town. I might hear a baby crying, then someone laughing, retching, a congested, inebriate laughter. A radio in a dark house. Wind chimes twisting somewhere on a backyard clothesline. The barking of a dog, answered by another on the next block.
I might think of the men over in Floyd Valley, in the slaughterhouse, exhausted on their feet in the slippery dead mess, blood bubbling everywhere, breaking down animals into meat. I’d been there on several occasions in elementary school, sent there with other kids in the late darkness, to stand at the mouth of a tunnel that took the men—and in those days, they were all men—to and from the slaughterhouse and to their cars and trucks in the parking lot. We—I and the other shivering kids—would stand there just outside the weak light of the tunnel, shaking UNICEF collection cans at the blood-soaked, broken-knuckled zombies as they plodded past, blank faced and clutching their empty lunch pails, moving almost unconsciously into the bruised light that was just then creeping into the eastern sky.
Somehow, though, I made it through all those sleepless nights, managed to dress myself and stagger off to another punishing day at school. And somehow, I escaped and I got saved, and now Albert Ayler takes me across catwalks in my imagination, down fire escapes in some sleepless city in my head, and out into a landscape that’s both hallucination and reality, into a city that feels utterly paralyzed yet purrs the whole night long, the whole night through; through empty streets, past other dreaming houses where there are still signs of the half life of the sleepless, glum lamplight and the blue wobble of tv screens in dark windows. I wander along a river humming with idling industry and the great under-throb of the city at 3:00 a.m., the sprawl of shifting shadows, the litter and the moonlight and the longing and the great hibernating holdout behind and beneath every heartbreak; the silence violated in myriad and mysterious ways and the compromised twentieth-century darkness; the way light launches little sneak attacks and cameo appearances, all the creeping, sleepless things, and still that doomed saxophone rising somewhere in the night that you can never entirely banish from your bogged brain, that saxophone rising like a prayer, or, at the very least, a wish, a promise, an apology, a stirring, disjointed monologue to the Great Maybe Whatever, a beautiful loose thing made of hope and traveling like a breathing kite from a small puddle of light cradling a park bench or a forlorn mattress.
Used by permission from Till the Wheels Fall Off (Coffee House Press, 2022). Copyright © 2022 by Brad Zellar.