Monday, July 18, 2011

The ghost at the piano

Picture this.

It's sometime in the afternoon back in the God-knows-when, the fall or something, and I have a stack of files or books in my arms, and something comes on the radio and even though I am barely paying any attention to anything other than the rabid stress of the moment, suddenly - all the books slide out of my arms and onto the floor.

I am stunned.

Stunned in my tracks, because someone is playing something on the piano. Something sinuous, noir-ish, midnight-y, redolent of back alleys and cats on fences, of men in top hats kicking cans and regretting, of call girls lurking in shadowy corners, of. . .

I heard this thing, then got distracted I guess, because in an act of total idiocy I didn't listen for what the piece was called, or who wrote it.

It only took around twenty years for me to hear it again - it was called The Graceful Ghost, by William Bolcom - only this time it was played Wrong.

Wrong, as in jaunty, raggy, almost upbeat, probably the way it was intended to be played by the composer.

The version I had heard, sinuous, mysterious, smoky, almost stoned, had slipped away from me. And I still haven't found it.

I've bought several recordings of it, and always end up groaning because it's played in the same choppy, soulless way. Then I heard this YouTube version by this kid, this Grant Carvalho. The comments reflect people's absolute ignorance of what actually constitutes good music: no one seemed to appreciate it at all. They said it was nice, they said it was good, but that his technique was lacking and he needed to keep working at it.

It isn't "my" version, because no one, except that phantom pianist from 20 years ago, could ever reproduce it. But there's something awfully good going on here. Graceful it is, but tinged with melancholy. There's a care for the music, even a love. He's in tune with it. The dynamics are superb (in fact, it's the only version I have heard that has any). And this is a kid! A kid who, if he sticks to this, will be getting right inside music to a degree that very few can ever attain.

Why does this piece haunt me now? Three guesses. Harold Lloyd, Harold Lloyd, Harold Lloyd.

I can't talk about this or I'll jinx it, but because it's never going to happen anyway and I can no longer keep my grief to myself, I'll explain it. All through the writing of The Glass Character, my novel based on the life and loves of silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd, this music kept playing in my head. Not the jaunty version, mind you - and Lloyd could be plenty jaunty, part of the smokescreen he put up to hide his sensitive interior.

I mean that dark and sinuous, elongated, midnight tomcat version, like something out of a saloon in a Warner Brothers movie starring Bogart and Bacall.  It played and played and played in an endless circle in my ear, the way ragtime does.

Writers can't help it, they see their works in print, and they see them as movies. It's because of these fat successes that come along once in a while and just grab every trophy. We won't even go into J. K. Rowling, who started off writing penny-ante fiction and ended up as the Oprah of kids' literature. Probably forever. Not that we get jealous, oh no. I just want a piece of what they have. I don't want the successes to succeed any less; I just want me to succeed more. Surely there must be enough to go around?

But apparently there isn't, and that's part of the reason many of the publishers I have approached have shut the door (not slammed, of course) before they have even looked at one paragraph of my work. They're full-up and no longer receptive.  I remember the godawful rubber stamp, that "list is full", not even written by hand, and not even on a form letter but stamped on MY letter and returned in my dutiful self-addressed envelope. They didn't even have to pay the postage! I paid to have this thing tossed back at me without a single word of acknowledgement from a human being.

Then there are the rejections that arrive on Christmas Eve. I actually objected to one of them last time, sent off a protest letter, even though you are never, never, ever allowed to argue with a rejection, not even with the time it is delivered. Then in checking with some friends, I found that several of them had also received rejections on Christmas Eve, likely due to editors' habit of cleaning out their desks before flying off to Puerta Vaillarta for the holidays.

Why should we object? What's wrong with us? Don't we want to know what their decision is? Isn't it better to know before the holidays, so we can begin to plan a more effective strategy while everyone else is drinking eggnog and kissing under the mistletoe?

I didn't expect to go off on this tangent. I wanted to write about Harold Lloyd. If I can't stand the heat, I should just keep my mouth shut and pretend I'm happy with the way things have been going. I have something here, I know I do. It may rot in the bud, and there will be nothing in the world I can do about it. Am I unlucky? What's lucky? Whatever I'm not, I guess.

Even Harold's luck ran out eventually, in spite of all his elaborate superstitious rituals. But I'd like to have some luck, just a little, so I can have it run out on me, so I can say, I had my moment, and even though it passed, it gave Harold just a little more time in the sun.