Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Face We Give, the Face We Long For

"Hey, it's me again."

According to published reports, this was the way that Mark Anthony Conditt, the Austin bomber, began his final taped confession shortly before blowing himself up on Wednesday, March 21, 2018, as SWAT teams cornered him.

Conditt, police say, was the man responsible for killing two people and severely wounded four others in a series of bombings that terrorized the Texas capital for weeks.

Police say the motive for the bombings might never be fully understood, which makes the story instantly familiar. Media speculation variously blamed Conditt's homeschooling and Christianity, while others claimed he was a white supremacist, given the victims of his explosions. Austin Police Chief Brian Manley originally referred to Conditt as a "troubled young man," but later called him a domestic terrorist after controversy over his original remarks. Would the chief have been more quick to call him a terrorist if he hadn't been a young white man? critics asked.

Manley's original comments were in regard to Conditt's video confession, where police said he described in detail the bombs he built: “He does not at all mention anything about terrorism…but instead it is the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point."

"Hey, it's me again." 

Conditt's acts, as described by police, seem to fit a distressing pattern in recent American violence - the motiveless massacre. In a New Yorker piece written by Ben Wallace-Wells, Conditt's acts are linked to other grotesque public killing spectacles within the last year where meaning is sought, seemingly in vain:


"Among the mass killings of the past six months, motives have been elusive. There has been no compelling official account of why Stephen Paddock killed fifty-eight people in Las Vegas, and there has been only slightly more clarity about why Nikolas Cruz went to his old high school on Valentine’s Day and killed seventeen. In both of those cases, what was first examined as a political act came to be understood as more private and inscrutable, and it seems that the shooters had inhabited a familiar political form of violence because it was familiar, not because it was political."

In Paddock's case, for example, police have surveillance footage showing how, over the course of several days last September, he made trips into the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino with luggage containing weapons and ammunition. By the end of a week of hopscotching between the hotel and his nearby home, Paddock would methodically open fire on the music festival across the street from his suite. When he wasn't preparing for his massacre, presumably, he was on the casino floor, trying his luck at a video poker machine. The image from cameras is striking - a man with only hours left to live, risking money in a game of chance. What does he hope to win? Why is he even there? 

Following these and other mass shootings, debates have erupted about how to prevent them: more money for mental health, giving law enforcement more ability to identify potential mass shooters, anti-bullying campaigns in schools, stricter gun laws. These debates eventually devolve into ideological battles, both in media and social media, between warring factions of right and left. This leads to each side putting forth its preferred cause for why seemingly normal people, and troubled people, go home to stockpiles of weapons and seemingly wait for the inevitable moment when they will be moved to create carnage. 

One solution proposed - do not identify the perpetrators. The idea behind this is to deny the shooter, bomber, etc., a measure of celebrity. I was reminded of this reading Umberto Eco's last book of essays, "Chronicles of a Liquid Society." In "God is my witness that I'm a fool..." Eco recounts a theory by the Spanish writer Javier Marias, that what is happening is the inevitable consequence of "the death of God" in society. 

At one time, Eco said, people were "persuaded that everything that they did had at least one Spectator, who knew their every thought and deed, who could sympathize with them or, if necessary, condemn them. They could be outcasts, good-for-nothings, losers scorned by their fellow men. They were people who would be forgotten as soon as they were dead, but who nourished the belief that there was at least One who knew all about them."

Eco goes on to recount how people would use this in conversation. "God knows I'm innocent," would say the criminal, or "God at least knows how much I've suffered," would be the cry of the one who felt abandoned by friends and family. In the place of God now is the eye of society, usually translated into the media presence. "Even bad press is good press," goes the wisdom, because at least someone is paying attention to you. That means that a person who makes it onto television stripping to his underwear for a cheap laugh has "made it." You hear millennials talk about people who are "Internet famous," which can encompass Snapchat users who are sought after as influence marketers, or the people who show up in Vine compilations, their faces recognizable for less than 10 seconds. 

Human beings have always sought recognition, through beauty, clothes, education, achievement, monuments, creation. And destruction. 

One is inevitably reminded of Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold, the Columbine shooters, who, according to Time Magazine, speculated on video about how their lives would be remembered after their deaths:

"They wanted movies made of their story, which they had carefully laced with "a lot of foreshadowing and dramatic irony," as Harris put it. There was that poem he wrote, imagining himself as a bullet. "Directors will be fighting over this story," Klebold said--and the boys chewed over which could be trusted with the script: Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino."

There's also the story of Vester Lee Flanagan II, also known as Bryce Williams, who shot his former TV colleagues Alison Parker and Adam Ward on live television on Aug. 26, 2015 in Roanoke, Va. Flanagan went to the trouble of recording the moment of the shooting and sharing it on Facebook and Twitter. One clearly sees the barrel of his 9mm Glock in the foreground of the picture, as Parker and Ward are totally engaged in an interview, and how Flanagan hesitates before pulling the trigger. He wanted the moment of the killing recorded live on his former television station, and indeed, Ward's falling camera caught the image of Flanagan right after the shots were fired. 

Flanagan left his own manifesto, a 23-page fax which says that he, a gay African-American, took inspiration from Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot nine black worshippers at a Charleston, S.C. church two months before. And from Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. And from Harris and Klebold. And so it goes. 

Society has a taste for this kind of story. FX recently concluded nine weeks of "The Assassination of Gianni Versace," a mini-series which spent more time on Versace's assassin, the spree-killer Andrew Cunanan, whose motives are still a mystery 20 years later. 

"They wanted to be famous," said FBI agent Mark Holstlaw of Harris and Klebold. "And they are. They're infamous."


Not everyone aspires to this category of notoriety, but our culture encourages the idea of finding your 15 minutes of fame. Eco's piece fleshes out the problems with performing for the eye of society. If you appear on television, you are recognized for your face - not the depth of ideas, the strength of character, the quality of virtue. And as the face changes, the level of acceptance changes. We get to watch ourselves on television, on our phones, on our screens, but what then? How far will we be willing to go to be remembered? And how long does that memory last? What constitutes a lasting memory? Even in the catalogue of murderers I just gave you, how many of you had to be reminded of the killers' names, and what they did, and when it happened? Even the carnage tends to blur over time.

The eye of society, like the eye of a camera, can be wounding. Where God promises not only recognition as one of His children, He also promises love. And that is love in spite of a very sure knowledge of every one of our imperfections, even the ones we are long oblivious to. 

The seductive idea that the creator of all reality can be simultaneously offering a personal relationship with all seven billion of His children at the same time strains the mind, but a being unable to do so wouldn't be worthy of worship.

In another piece, Eco asks what the point of Twitter is, as it is made of myriad warring perspectives, wisdom and idiocy shared at exactly the same volume. Perhaps it is to feel important, he writes. Not to be important, but to feel that way, at least to someone, at least for an instant. 

Perhaps the most compelling proof of the truth of Christianity is its Founder identifying the need the faith satisfies. "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) The listener is given a task, to come, and a focusing destination, to Him. For the listener to react, he has to believe that he can find something in the Speaker's presence that is satisfying. With these words, Jesus summons all those who share a common feeling about humanity - the accumulating weight of existence, the futility of toil, the numbing quality of existence. He then promises rest. Mental, physical, spiritual. The most basic need other than sustenance, and the most elusive.

It would be impossible for someone, over two millennia, to make credible such an exhortation, unless He could deliver. And only someone watching would know that you needed it. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express: The Plot within the Plot



Spoiler warning: If you haven’t read Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” or seen the 1974 movie, you might not want to read further.

Kenneth Branagh directs and stars in the latest version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” due out later this year. In a recent article in “Entertainment Weekly,” Branagh is described as “cagey” when discussing how much this latest version of the story sticks to the plot of the novel, and “shrugs off” concerns that those familiar with it will be able to anticipate the story’s twists and turns.

A traditional murder mystery conforms to a pattern – we are introduced to a cast of characters and a person who is tasked with solving the mystery. The detective, more or less, stands in for the reader. The murder occurs, and we are given a few basic facts about how it was committed. Not all of this information may be correct, but it will allow us to form one or more theories of the case. Then we get to know the cast of characters and hear their explanations. Our theories rise and fall on what they tell us. We know our detective will probably solve the mystery, but we will get a thrill by perhaps guessing first who the murderer is from the information we receive. Again, not all that we hear and see may be reliable. We know some of the characters will lie, but we assume the author will leave clues, sometimes within other clues, that allow us to see afterward how the solution was always there, even if it was impenetrable.

“Murder on the Orient Express” presents us with a murder victim, Mr. Ratchett. He is introduced as a thoroughly unpleasant man, and even the great detective Hercule Poirot says that he does not like Ratchett’s face. When he dies, his murder presents a puzzle to be solved, not so much a wrong that must be righted. Why? Because he is soon revealed, by Poirot, to be Cassetti, a figure from the criminal underworld responsible for an infamous kidnapping. 

 Looking at the story, as a story, Agatha Christie’s twist is to present us with a cast of characters who are gradually all revealed to be guilty. But what would motivate a dozen people to assemble in one place to murder one person? Writing in the 1930s, Christie took as her inspiration the Lindbergh kidnapping, a case that still fascinates the public decades later, which H.L. Mencken called “the biggest story since the Resurrection.” She presents us with a scenario where Cassetti abducts Daisy Armstrong, a three-year-old girl, from her home in America. She is connected to figures spanning the globe. Her father, Col. Armstrong, is a famous British aviator. Her mother Sonia is the daughter of the greatest tragic actress of the day, Linda Arden. The household staff is comprised of people from various countries who have gravitated to the Armstrongs out of friendship and loyalty. When Daisy is found dead after a ransom is paid, Sonia Armstrong dies in childbirth, Col. Armstrong kills himself, and a maid in the house commits suicide when she is falsely accused of complicity in the kidnapping. Cassetti is captured, but eludes prosecution and flees America.

I have always thought a really good story would be to see everything that we don’t see in “Murder on the Orient Express.” It is “The Plot.” One can almost imagine its opening, with the conspirators standing over the freshly dug grave of Col. Armstrong, his suicide following Cassetti’s unsuccessful prosecution. All of the principals have gathered for the funeral. Linda Arden announces to them that they must have revenge. Mary Debenham, the family secretary, and Hector McQueen, the son of the district attorney who unsuccessfully prosecuted Ratchett, conceive the plot. Hardman, a former policeman in love with the dead maid, tracks down Cassetti. McQueen and Masterman, Armstrong’s former butler, get into Cassetti’s employ. Working with Pierre, father of the dead maid, they arrange for Cassetti to board the Orient Express at a time of year when few people travel. They invent a passenger, “Mr. Harris,” in order to ensure no one else will be on the coach. Then they all arrange to be on the train at the same time in order to kill Cassetti. They are their own jury.

One of the best, most subtle moments in the 1974 Sidney Lumet film of the book occurs when Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is added at the last moment to the Calais coach of the Orient Express by the director of the line, Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam). Bianchi introduces Poirot to the conductor, Pierre (Jean-Pierre Cassel). Pierre immediately grasps, to his horror, the situation – a great detective will be in the middle of their plot, which can’t be called off now. Once the murder takes place, a further complication comes when the train is immobilized by a snowdrift, which gives Poirot time to discover what has happened.

Poirot: If all these people are not implicated in the crime, then why have they all told me, under interrogation, stupid and often unnecessary lies? Why? Why? Why? Why?
Dr. Constantine: Doubtless, Monsieur Poirot, because they did not expect you to be on the train. They had no time to concert their cover story.
Poirot: I was hoping someone other than myself would say that.

What kind of conversations took place once Poirot was on board? How was the plan altered? Perhaps the conspirators resolved to leave enough clues to implicate each of them, but meant only to muddle the issue. Perhaps one of them said, “All we have to do is confuse him until we get to the next stop on the line.” So they assigned roles to each member, with contradictory stories in order to keep Poirot guessing. Arden, in her “role” as Mrs. Hubbard, a female version of the Babbitized American, says a man entered her compartment, which is adjacent to Ratchett’s.

The only evidence of what the conspirators decided on is the evidence that was left in Ratchett’s compartment – the “too many clues” Poirot alludes to in the film. The theory created by them is that a figure, perhaps from the Mafia, entered the train at Vinkovci dressed in a conductor’s uniform – a man with a female sounding voice – and gained access to Ratchett’s compartment, but was seen by Mrs. Hubbard. There may even have been two murderers, since Ratchett’s stab wounds came from a knife wielded by a right hand and a left. The killer may have smoked a pipe, as a pipe cleaner is discovered. The shadowy figure was then seen leaving in a woman’s kimono, but dropped a ladies’ handkerchief with the initial H.

In “Curtain,“ Poirot’s final case, he tells one of his associates:

“For a murderer, my friend, is more conceited than any creature on this earth. A murderer is always more clever than anyone else – no one will ever suspect him or her – the police will be utterly baffled, et cetera. Therefore he (or she) goes ahead just the same, and all you can have is the satisfaction of hanging them afterwards.”

What must it have been like for the conspirators? What kind of solace could they have offered each other, as the plot spins beyond their careful control? Cassetti was a murderer – he was used to living life on the edge. When he approached Poirot about serving as his bodyguard, Ratchett allowed us to see a man who knows the trap is closing around him. But how about those who killed him? They are not used to the suspicions, the anguish, the constant inner questioning. They must hang together, having come this far, but how much anguish was there? Which of them was ready to crack at the first accusation? The only hint we get is a whispered confidence from Mary Debenham to Col. Arbuthnot: “Not now. When it’s all over, when it’s behind us.” Hear the tension in the words – begging for release. 

Poirot begins to question each. In the novel, he needs more than one session from some of the conspirators to zero in on his suspicions. It becomes obvious that they are panicking and begin to offer up more information, which is their undoing. In the 1974 movie, this is made clear by the discovery of the conductor’s uniform and the kimono, and Poirot’s laughter. In the 2010 version starring David Suchet, there is much more interaction between the conspirators than in the Lumet version, or indeed, the novel. Humor is decidedly absent. There is also an underlying tone of Christian disdain for the murder plot, from Poirot and from the group’s supposed conscience, the missionary Greta Ohlsson. In Suchet’s version, there is more of a feeling that even though Cassetti was a monster, it was up to God, not human beings, to exact punishment on him.

A word should be said here about the Ohlsson character. In Christie’s novel, she is barely present. Her character was greatly expanded for the 1974 version, to accommodate the actress Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar for her portrayal. In it, Ohlsson was once Daisy Armstrong’s nurse. After the child’s death, she “sought refuge in a vision of Jesus” and became a missionary teacher in India. Bergman gives the missionary several colors of personality – grief, regret, subterfuge and a kind of humble peace. In the 2010 version, Marie-Josee Croze’s Ohlsson takes this a step further. She advocates that the conspirators stand in the place of God, allowed by their righteousness to exact revenge on the murderer. No one wanted murder, but the circumstances cried out for it. 


The 1974 version never quite strays from its old-style ambience – Poirot figures out fairly early that this case is extraordinary, but he keeps his own counsel on whodunit as Dr. Constantine and Bianchi declare each passenger guilty as soon as the individual’s questioning is over. This allows for humor and the thrill of the chase. There are no moral judgments here. This is an entertainment. A repulsive murderer has himself been repulsively and perhaps deservedly murdered. When the conspirators clink their glasses at the end, they are celebrating a successful revenge. Something seems to have been healed.

But if we were to go forward with the plot, how would taking part in the murder affect each of our conspirators? Would Ohlsson be seized with regret and remorse? Would Hardman, as a policeman, begin to pursue his own vision of justice in other cases? Would keeping the secret spoil the marriage of the Count and Countess Andrenyi, or the romance of Col. Arbuthnot and Miss Debenham? What if some new evidence should implicate someone else in the killing of the Armstrong child? Might the group be moved to another plot in another part of the globe? We don’t worry so much about Poirot – there is always another case in some other exotic spot for him.

There’s no way of knowing now how the story will be told by Branagh, especially since Ratchett/Cassetti will be played by Johnny Depp. But perhaps one day, with the pen of a Balzac, someone will tell the story of this extraordinary revenge from the other side, and what mysteries might it further reveal? 


Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Day in the Life at 50: Magnificent Desolation



Paul McCartney had it right. At the recording session to dub the orchestral portions of “A Day in the Life,” the closing song for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” he attempted to calm down a nervous session member.


“I think that, at first, people are a bit suspicious,” he says on the session tape, “like, what are you up to?”


“A Day in the Life” has been compared to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and the comparison is absolutely valid. The song brings an end to “Pepper,” which is turning 50 this month. To celebrate, a brand new stereo mix of the album arrives in stores along with studio outtakes to show how the Beatles arrived at the sound of their most famous album.


The new mix, which sounds a lot like the old mono mix, is well done. Some songs, like “Good Morning Good Morning” benefit from the new listen. Numbers like “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” offer new revelations, since much of “Pepper” is stuffed with sound effects, strange licks and the “clues” that used to drive the Beatle fanbase into drug-induced dot connecting.


“A Day in the Life” brings the curtain down on the album – sometimes referred to as the first concept album. Except by John Lennon:


“Sgt. Pepper” is called the first concept album, but it doesn’t go anywhere. ... All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with the idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band, but it works ’cause we said it worked, and that’s how the album appeared. But it was not as put together as it sounds, except for Sgt. Pepper introducing Billy Shears and the so-called reprise. Every other song could have been on any other album.”

I think there may not be an absolute concept to “Pepper,” but there are certain themes that recur – and they all get an airing in “A Day in the Life.”


Lennon sat down at his piano with a copy of The Daily Mail of Jan. 7, 1967, looking for inspiration. John and Paul had just finished several weeks of recording both sides of their next single – “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane.” Both songs dealt with their childhoods in Liverpool. Perhaps mortality was on his mind.


Lennon was beginning to struggle with what he perceived as the stultifying nature of his married life as a father. He was experimenting with LSD and moving into the middle part of his twenties. He was beginning to brood on the idea that he needed escape, rescue. The song that came out of those forebodings touches on age, mortality and the terrifying banality of modern life, gleaned from the pages of a newspaper.


According to John, he was starved for a song to present in the studio and stumbled in the pages upon the news of 21-year-old Guinness heir Tara Browne’s death in a December 1966 car crash.

Browne was a friend. He had been driving his Lotus with his fashion model girlfriend at speeds above 100 mph when he failed to see a traffic signal. He died of the resulting crash a day later. (It should be mentioned that when McCartney recounts this, he says he was thinking of a politician taking drugs in a car stopped at a signal. I think Lennon’s memory is probably the more sure one.)


The story of a friend of roughly the same age in this kind of misadventure had to be sobering. Yet the voice – acoustic and narrative – that Lennon employs is detached. As producer George Martin later said, even in the first take of the song, Lennon’s voice sends shivers up the spine. There is a dreamy quality to it, nightmarish even. When he counts in the first studio take, he does it with the words, “sugarplum fairy, sugarplum fairy.” In the Nutcracker, this fairy is “the universal signifier of everything sweet and delectable and lovely.”


The song's DNA is the news of the day – what at times seems a parade of car crashes, murders, fires, rapes, robberies and scandals that are world-ending tragedies for those involved, and the backdrop for the rest of humanity. At least, the ones who hear about them.


John’s imagination, and Paul’s inspiration, transforms this into a tableau of modern life – A man, possibly on drugs, has a fatal accident because he doesn’t notice a traffic light. But the sight of it causes the singer to laugh. In the modern world, even the tragic is funny, detached from humanity.  A crowd forms for the inevitable cleanup. They feel they should know the victim. “Say, isn’t that…?” But life goes on, a subject the Beatles would revisit again in a more whimsical way.


When I later heard a 1968 speech by Robert F. Kennedy, saying the nation’s $800 billion gross national product also included “ambulances to clear our highways of carnage,” I was reminded of “A Day In the Life.” In the modern world, tragedies are as ubiquitous as the pebbles of broken glass on a roadway that one crushes on the way to somewhere else, or, on the way to another accident that may await you. Better hurry…


The song then shifts to a war film on television – the horrific as entertainment. Others might turn away, but the singer watches. He knows the story.


John Lennon had just finished filming “How I Won the War” the previous fall, his sole big screen acting gig apart from The Beatles. His performance as Private Gripweed in this sort of British Catch-22 might have been on his mind. However, several songs on “Pepper” might be counted as Empire Nostalgia – from the Pepper uniforms themselves to the lyrics of “Mr. Kite!” stolen from a Victorian poster. Rule Britannia has given way to Cool Britannia, but the forms of the past are still present. There’s always a war somewhere.


The music up to this point has been John’s acoustic guitar, accompanied by Paul on piano and bass. The piano rings with something approaching grandeur, while the bass lopes along with a bit of menace in the background. This is the dark side of “Fanfare for the Common Man,” where the sinister heartbeat of the city is looking for another victim. Don’t look back.


What follows is the song’s most distinctive sound -a slowly escalating cacophony of noise – an orchestra rises for 24-bars from nothing to “the end of the world.” “A crazy big swing storm,” as McCartney termed it. 


The new stereo mix gives this sound a much more chaotic force, and one can pick out the swirling notes between trumpets and strings, as well as the clacking undergirding from the piano. Listening even now, one gets the feeling of acceleration, (like in a car crash?) as though time is speeding up to the direction of a murderous force, life spinning out of control until we arrive at…


A ringing clock. One of the happy miracles of the song was that the Beatles, when recording, weren’t sure how to fill that space. So they had roadie Mal Evans count off the bars, his voice in heavy echo. When it was time for the song to recommence, an alarm clock was triggered. The alarm is appropriate - It’s time to get up.


Paul’s voice appears, not with the sliding detachment of Lennon but with the sleepy sound of a casual commuter who wakes up late and must get to work. He runs for the bus, but even in the middle of meeting his obligations to work and the grind, he “went into a dream.” We might ask what was said to inspire the dream, but it probably doesn’t matter. As Lennon said in an earlier song, “I’ve got nothing to say, but it’s OK.”


McCartney said his lyrical contribution here was just a fragment, but the grafting works, bookended by the orchestral sections. The juxtaposition of a man dying a careless death in a racecar with a man watching a war movie, then with a man working in an office, is intentional. Much of the menace of modern life isn’t the car crashes. It’s the terror of the routine – seen in “a heap of broken images” : the sobering, drowsy ride to work, the eyes of your fellow toilers, the quick puff of a cigarette to deal with it all, the slow and steady knowledge that time is passing and your closest held dreams remain unfulfilled. This is existential detachment, the same as the narrator of "The Stranger." When you retreat into imagination, it is escape from the inevitable, the inexorable.


The orchestra resumes, only this time it soars into comment: There is something grand and glorious about all of this, a feeling that people are dimly conscious of, in the course of a single day, the music that runs out of our lives and into eternity. 


But that returns us to John’s detached narrator, who is back to reading the news. There are 4,000 holes in the roads of a particular stretch of highway. How ridiculous, one might think, that someone had to go and count all of them, and how typical. And to what end? Or is this another comment on life? What’s the point of counting the holes, or counting the days?


That is our problem – the holes. They swallow us. They consume us. There is a hole inside of us that we are unable to fill. We consume. We choke. The hole swallows our dreams, our time, our hopes.

Here we are, whipsawing between two extremes – the grand and the banal.


One can look at the moment of “Pepper” as the beginning of the Summer of Love. People make much of the bright tone of many of the songs, but ignore the menace within. "Getting Better," for instance, tells the story of a man who seems to teeter on the edge, who admits physically and emotionally abusing his woman but resolves to change his "scene." But it is one year before the chaos of 1968. It’s the time when that wonderfully political euphemism “unrest” was used to catalog the social upheavals of the era. The idea of barriers being crossed excited some, terrified others. Even a decade after the Beats, the best minds of the generation were seeking destruction, or in Bob Dylan's case, desolation. Two years later, Buzz Aldrin would be the second human being to step onto the lunar surface with the words, "Magnificent desolation." In every avenue, the world would never be the same again.

In fact, McCartney alluded to this in recounting his fear of trying LSD in 1967, the fear that the drug would change him so he could “never get back home.”

The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract

Both of John’s sections end with the phrase that begins the orchestral sections – “I’d love to turn you on.” I was surprised to learn this was Paul’s creation, which John was only too happy to credit. It also sounds menacing, even though that may be simply because of that voice Lennon uses.


It’s an obvious drug reference, but what is being said? What is being turned on? What are we being turned onto? John’s narrator may be saying that each day of our lives has moments of wonder, if we can but comprehend them. Perhaps he is saying, “Let me show you the true nature of things. Behold your life, in an instant! Does it amount to anything?” Whether that’s under a psychedelic drug haze or higher consciousness is up to the beholder.


There is plenty of wonder in the song, right up to the final build-up, and the final chord. But that wonder can come in moments we might otherwise look away from – sudden death, war, the trip to work, or even the traffic on our roads. That’s an idea that predates the sixties, all the way back to the beginnings of humanity. Finding the beauty in waste, squalor, even evil, “a handful of dust” – it’s well to ask what it makes us. Do we detach ourselves, or is there something in us that forces detachment? If we care too much, does it all consume us?


Whatever may happen, a splendid time is guaranteed for all. 


Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.