Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Harold Lloyd: the graceful ghost

Like so many things, this piece has a history.

God knows how many years ago it was - could have been 15, could have been 20 or more. It was on the radio, so I didn't know who was playing the piano. It was one of those scenarios where I was stopped dead in my tracks. The armload of books I was carrying slid onto the floor, and my knees unlocked.

This first performance of a piece that I didn't even know the name of was something that grabbed my gutstrings and never quite let go. It was a long, long time until I heard it again and could put a name to it. I just sat there in a strange altered state, wondering how mere chords could stir emotion from the very bottom of the glass.

I never heard the piece played that way again. That first version was played smokily, stealthily, the chords impossibly elongated, with mists rising from it, a black cat sneaking along a midnight fence, or some melancholy gent in an expensive, rumpled suit walking home alone from empty revelry in a nightclub.  

Yes, and years and years and years blew by, as years always do.

When I found it again and found the title and the composer (Graceful Ghost Rag by William Bolcom), I was unsatisfied with every version I heard. Everyone played it too fast, too jauntily, almost player-piano-style, when the original was (I thought) meant to be interpreted with indigo sadness. At one point I found a YouTube version with a kid playing it, and it was bloody good, if lacking polish. For a while, it was my touchstone. Then I found this one, beautifully rendered by Barron Ryan. Not quite like the first, smoky midnight version, but lovingly approached with a tender melancholy that evokes a certain familiar presence.

When I began to write The Glass Character, my lovesick paean to Harold Lloyd, this piece became its theme song.  It somehow perfectly captured Muriel Ashford's hopelessly-fated passion for a man she could never have, a genius who did not portray so much as embody his character and evolve, quicksilverish,  from "knockabout" comedian to superb tragicomic actor. While Muriel watches in blissful, agonizing erotic thrall.

I like to say I loved writing this novel, and that's true. But it was also anguish. The writing took 18 months - and just about every day, I couldn't wait to get to the computer. But that, as they say, was the easy part. Getting any attention for it at all took three years. Three years of being told it was too melodramatic, too boring, too irrelevant. I've heard many a comment about my work and have learned to roll with it all, but the fact nobody wanted Harold was a misery to me. Why had I been lifted so high, only to be dropped with such a sickening thud?

The truth is, at some point I had become Muriel. The more I watched those incredible movies, the more enthralled I became. There is a surrealism in some of his earlier films in which he becomes a sort of cartoon cat-figure, impossibly agile and fast. Then as time goes on, his plots become infinitely more complex, deeper. Those who criticize his work for being too surface or "mechanical" haven't seen him weep in Girl Shy or The Freshman, haven't seen his tender yearning as a male Cinderella in The Kid Brother, haven't even seen his clock-climbing epic, Safety Last!, in which he does everything for love.

And he does. Everything. For love. He singlehandedly invented the genre of romantic comedy, and indeed, there is something romantic about him, the tightly-wound, impossibly agile body, the thick black head of hair, the eyes a little bedroomy behind the glasses with no glass in them. This is why Muriel's heart gets torn apart, and why she keeps coming back for more. There was an eleven-month period during the three years that it took me to get a contract that I just stopped. I quit Harold altogether. I stopped watching my favorite YouTube videos and perusing Google images for choice photos and even watching those DVDs I had become so addicted to.

I just stopped. I couldn't stand it any more - I was dying inside. Perhaps part of me hadn't quite given up, but I was trying to. I knew the novel was good. Why would I waste my time (or theirs) if it wasn't? But even when The Artist won Best Picture, editors were telling me things like, "The public isn't interested in silent movies."


I have a contract now, I'm with Thistledown and I will publish in spring 2014. I wanted to do it the traditional way, because to be honest I don't have a clue how to self-publish and hate taking "writer's courses" (when I could probably teach most of them, so there). I'm too old to go back to square one, and besides, I still believe in the process. So I told myself, "Just get the book out there. Then we'll see what happens." Would Harold back me up on this?

I have written before about Lloyd synchronicity, the eerie way in which the name Lloyd would come up four or five times in a day (and I devoted a whole post, which I might re-post along with some of my other Harold pieces, about "the church at the corner of Gloria and Lloyd", a huge brick tabernacle standing in the middle of nowhere). There is much more, of course, but I have been hesitant to put it out there, some of it is so odd and unbelievable. Throughout my life I've known mediums and spiritualist healers, and while I do not quite ascribe to all of it, I don't throw it all away either. 

So if any of it is true, I have been in touch with a ghost who is graceful indeed, and his music still plays in  my head on a continuous loop that might just last forever.

Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!