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33 1/3: Swordfishtrombones

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

There was a brief mad moment when I was deep into writing my book about Swordfishtrombones when it seemed like the only sensible response to the record was to rewrite Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds with Tom Waits as the main character. Or possibly several of the characters. I allude to this in the introduction to my book, and from my tone you might think I was joking. But for at least two days that's exactly what I was doing: rewriting At Swim-Two-Birds.

You might think I'm mentioning this as a cautionary tale of a writer driven temporarily mad by his task or to exemplify the wrong turns that writers often take while trying to finish a book. But it wasn't a wrong turn at all. It was exactly what I needed to do.

As a writing exercise, I often take a passage from a writer I admire (Stanley Elkin, Nathanael West, Flannery O'Connor, I. B. Singer) and treat it like a giant Mad-Lib. My favorite warm-up is probably John Kennedy Toole's first description of Ignatius Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces, an absolute masterpiece of comic portraiture.

What I'd then do is copy the same structure of that paragraph using each part of speech in the same order, but using different words to create a different scene. If the sentence went: article noun active verb adverb prepositional phrase, then that's the structure that I'd copy. For me, it's like touring another writer's brain as they solve the particular problems of a sceneFor me, it's like touring another writer's brain as they solve the particular problems of a scene. It's also a great way to feel out a written rhythm.

Mind, these were just exercises for me; none of my finished work starts by stealing somebody else's skeleton. As an exercise it's not that different from art students copying masterpieces in the Louvre. But when I plugged Tom Waits into Flann O'Brien's syntax the effect was electric; it seemed like the perfect literary vessel for Swordfishtrombones.

Perhaps you're unfamiliar with At Swim-Two-Birds. The main thing you need to know about it is that it is the greatest comic novel ever written in English. So if you haven't read it don't worry that you're depriving yourself of the most fun you can have while reading. That's fine. If you don't like fun and genius isn't to your taste, then you probably don't need to read it. (Incidentally, my wife disagrees with me on this matter, and argues that G.K. Chesteron's The Man Who Was Thursday is the most fun you can have while reading. Frankly, this is the best kind of disagreement to have in a marriage.)

You might be wondering why I was spending so much time re-reading favorite novelists when I was writing a music book. The short answer is that I had already co-edited and written two music books with Kim Cooper: Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth and Lost In the Grooves: Scram's Capricious Guide To the Music You Missed. And with an entire book to fill about Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones, I desperately wanted to get away from standard music writing tropes. It's very easy to spew out a bucket of adjectives trying to describe the music.It's very easy to spew out a bucket of adjectives trying to describe the music. It's even more tempting to resort to the kind of comparison algebra that leads you to describe R.E.M.'s Murmur as "The Byrds covering the Velvet Underground's songbook with Bob Dylan's younger gay brother on lead mumble."

I was less than rigorous in toeing that line. But it's just fun writing things like "Swordfishtrombones sounds like a fistfight broke out in an orchestra pit between Nino Rota and Kurt Weill and Howlin' Wolf announced the bout." Sometimes you have to indulge yourself. And then you go back and take out all the adverbs. Death to shameless, whore-mongering adverbs!

I went through a lot of other novels before I got to At Swim-Two-Birds. Taking a cue from the song "Shore Leave" I thought Tom Waits' fascination with sailors might find a sympathetic literary resonance with one of the many American novels of the sixties that featured sailors as their protagonist. Have you noticed that? So many sailors. Benny Profane in V., Randall McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. There's a bunch. The novel I focused on was the oft overlooked masterpiece, John Hawkes' Second Skin.

Second Skin shares a lot with Tom's vision on Swordfishtrombones. I thought particularly of the early scene where the main character, Skipper, is tattooed with his daughter's name. There's a comic play in Hawkes' language that's far more grounded and earthier in Second Skin than in his other novels. Hawkes and Waits also share a fascination with the grotesque.Hawkes and Waits also share a fascination with the grotesque. Ultimately, though, Second Skin was too dark to be a writing guide into Tom Waits. It was darker even than Tom at his darkest (which would be Bone Machine).

Another problem was simply that Tom Waits had a sentimental element in his songwriting that had no ready parallel in the blackly comic fiction of the sixties. I struggled with this until I realized that sentimentality wasn't a damning critique of Tom's work, but just an element within it. It helped to find parallels with other artists I admired who had that sentimental streak: Fellini, Chaplin, Capra and Dickens. (I wound up using Mary Gaitskill's brilliant introduction to Bleak House in my book.)

So when I fell upon At Swim-Two-Birds as my literary familiar I gave myself over to the conceit. I went with it. And then I limited myself to one little snippet in the introduction, an acknowledgment of how I'd turned to its structural daring and it's lyricism and grubbiness and it's melancholy and above all, it's playfulness when writing my book. Which didn't turn out to be a rewrite at all.

So as a DVD extra here's an excised scene in this mode, where I take an exchange between the unnamed protagonist of At Swim-Two-Birds and his uncle, and transmogrify it into one of Tom Waits' typically wry and cranky exchanges with an interviewer. I strayed a little from the original source text here, but this isn't the kind of exercise where you get extra points for treating it like a puzzle.

If you want to see the original scene, I recommend you read At Swim-Two-Birds. Unless you hate fun. Then don't bother.Unless you hate fun. Then don't bother.

÷ ÷ ÷

"Do you read much," the interviewer asked.

Tom glared down the question, causing the young man to pause with his biteful of Caeser salad suspended in the air, tantalizingly short of his mouth. With a brash assurance masking his insecurity, the interviewer (hereinafter, "Bob") pushed the Romaine into his mouth and chewed vigorously to indicate he awaited a reply.

"I do," Tom replied.

Description of Bob: Blotchy, bug-eyed, paunchy. Bony around the shoulders with thin spindle forearms. Stubble cultivated in a poorly conceived attempt to create the illusion of cheekbones. A working freelancer but little respected among his peers.

Bob put down his fork with undue clatter, and nodded his head thoughtfully though the only actual thought in his head was how to suck an errant bit of lettuce from between his teeth. He sucked at it while he began to make notes, then realized that the sum of his notes was: "Reads."

"Oh, what do you read?" he asked, looking up.

"Well, Bob, I try to keep up with the latest developments in funeral cosmetics, dog racing and waste managementI try to keep up with the latest developments in funeral cosmetics, dog racing and waste management. Just the essentials, really. I just finished a book titled Footbinding for Fun and Profit."

"Oh, there's a book for that?" Bob asked, only half listening and still sucking at the lettuce.

"No, Bob, there isn't."

÷ ÷ ÷

Powell's customers strike me as a bunch of good-deed-doers. Can I take a second to pimp a worthy good deed? My friend Liese and her husband travel to various Native American reservations to teach kids how to play and record music. Kind of a non-profit School of Rock on the Rez. If that sounds like something you'd get behind, check them out at Hope in Transit. They're supported by a Christian charity so you're going see that kind of rhetoric, but I assure you they're not there to proselytize. They're in it for the power chords, and to help some Navajo and Apache teenagers find their own music.

÷ ÷ ÷

Author of the 33 1/3 volume Swordfishtrombones, David Smay was born in Corvallis, Oregon, and bounced from Adair Air Force Base (now defunct, then near Corvallis) to Goosebay AFB (Labrador, Canada) to Homestead AFB (South Florida, obliterated by Hurricane Andrew) until his career as a military brat ended. He grew up in South Florida, attended Kenyon College, and now lives in San Francisco with his wife Jacqueline and his children Emmett and Matilda. He has co-edited two books with Kim Cooper, Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth and Lost In the Grooves: Scram's Capricious Guide To the Music You Missed. He's most recently contributed to Oxford American.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Tom Waits: Swordfishtrombones (33...
    New Trade Paper $14.95
  2. Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  3. Lost in the Grooves: Scram's... Used Trade Paper $7.95
  4. At Swim-Two-Birds New Mass Market $15.50
  5. A Confederacy of Dunces
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  6. The Man Who Was Thursday: A... Used Trade Paper $6.00
  7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest...
    Used Trade Paper $10.50
  8. Second Skin Used Trade Paper $3.50

David Smay is the author of Tom Waits: Swordfishtrombones (33 1/3 Series)

4 Responses to "33 1/3: Swordfishtrombones"

    Sunil November 28th, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    I had been looking for some new books to read! I will have to look into the most fun I can have while reading.

    Raq November 29th, 2007 at 6:05 am

    You're right, there were an awful lot of sailor protagonists in the 60s. Huh.

    Thanks for the insight into a new-to-me way to past a writing block. I'll have to give that a try!

    Tim Lucas November 29th, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    A pint of Waits is your only man.

    Jason Cadwell October 13th, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    This is a fun insight on how to get past writers block, I've also been looking for more books to read, thanks man!

    -Jason Cadwell

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