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Stations of the Cross: A Musical Novel of Obsession

Stations of the Cross: A Musical Novel of Obsession

by Robert Dunn

Paperback

$14.00

Overview

Legendary singer-songwriter and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Dyson Burnette has been living in New York City for the last 10 years waiting for inspiration. One spring day, he decides to travel back to Los Parques, the Mexican town where he found his true self 40 years earlier at age 18, and immediately becomes infatuated with lovely young school teacher Serena Rodriguez. This “Flower of Los Parques,” who reminds him of a great love he once had, inspires him to resume working on an epic lost song he started 40 years ago, “Stations of the Cross.” Burnette realizes that finishing this song is the key to recapturing his audience and saving his career, but only if he can control his growing obsession for his new-found muse. Exploring such themes as passion, obsession, creativity, and artistic creation, this novel reveals how sometimes one must revisit the past to arrive at the future.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781935512219
Publisher: Coral Press
Publication date: 06/01/2013
Pages: 236
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Robert Dunn is a writer, teacher, and a musician. He is the author of Cutting Time, Look at Flower, Meet the Annas, and Pink Cadillac, and has been published in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Omni, Redbook, and the New York Times. He is a teacher of fiction writing at the New School in New York City. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Chasing Smoke

DYSON BURNETTE, NÉ Daniel McDermott, esteemed songwriter, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, a clarion voice of his generation — indeed, following Dylan, Young, Simon, Townshend, one of the models for the serious artist working in wop-bop-a-loo-bop rock 'n' roll — and yet a famously private man, having lost all faith in his life's work, decided one brisk March day not long ago in New York City that he had to get away.

The sensation, unexpected but not unpleasant, was like a soft wind, lifting him gently.

Yes ... get away. But not a vacation. Burnette prided himself on being morally incapable of taking a vacation; I mean, he would tell himself, what do I do but write and sing songs — and not much of that these days anyway? Who could need a vacation from mumbling around the apartment, watching bad TV, then diving hungrily into too many deep thinkers (Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, Borges) who spiked him with his own innocence and ignorance (at age fifty-eight!), then watching a whole lot more bad TV to make up for his guilt and confusion? Years back he would occasionally jet out to a famous friend's sun-drenched pad in the Caribbean or the South of France, but he'd lost interest in that. And then there were the tours. Even those weren't much like work, what with the fancy bus (almost as nice as his apartment in NYC!), the support staff, the crackerjack musicians his manager, Tim Grayson, always put together behind him — but he hadn't been on tour in a decade. Still, it wasn't a bad life, really, and this sudden urge to get away ... get away from what exactly?

As he sat alone over the breakfast his housekeeper, Maggie, had set before him and looked out the window at his overtangled, shadowy Lower Manhattan garden, he tried out but didn't give in to the notion that what he needed was to get away from himself. Not only self-pity but true danger lay there. But Burnette was honest enough to not simply shrug off his sense of pressing uncertainty to "the business" or "the fans" or "writer's block" or "feeling worn out" or any of a dozen other potential excuses; nonetheless the truth, elegant in its simplicity, remained: There, thrumming through his deepest sense of himself, was a desperate call simply to be somewhere other than where he was.

No, not another idle famous-guy island vacation, wondering if Mick or Eric would still take him in, or going to London or Paris and worrying about being recognized (even in New York City, Dyson still had to go out in at least a half-assed disguise); nor on the sort of trip his girlfriend, Renata, would push for — that would be fraught with all kinds of where's-our-relationship-going-next questions. The inclination creeping over Dyson as he spooned up his flax cereal and blueberry yogurt was to head out alone, a solitary journey to a place he didn't know (and, he could hope, didn't know him), where he could walk in the salving sunshine and have no clue what would happen one minute to the next — in a phrase, where he might surprise himself all over again. Dyson wouldn't go so far as to believe that this getting away might return to him the quickening urge actually to write; but he did hope his sojourn might lift the gray impacted impossibility any thought of creative work cast up around him.

He was already, spoon lifted to his mouth, yogurt glistening, grain flakes crisp little blades in the softness, on to the next question: Where? Not an easy one to answer. The last time Dyson Burnette could blithely go anywhere in the world unnoticed or unwritten about was half a lifetime ago, before his music helped change the world.

They called his tunes electric smoke dreams, nod to psychedelia though his personal forebears were 19th-century bards like William Blake and Walt Whitman; and yet for the first few years, following the paths of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, his meaty songs turned up topping the pop charts. As the DJs loved to say: "That was the Archies' Sugar Sugar, closing in fast on the Number One song, Dyson Burnette's two-weeks-in-the-top-spot hit, This Veil of Tears."

Who could say how much of his success was timing: Dyson's helter-skelter song-dreams not competing against the likes of Pat Boone's Moody River or Percy Faith's Theme from a Summer Place, or years later trying to crash the fancy-dress disco ball, but hitting the world at just that time kids were used to having word flurries blast from the car radio. Still, it was hard to discount Dyson Burnette's genius. His preeminent critic, Spears Munson, had used the word first in the rock rag Tail Dragger almost forty years back.

Those were the heady glory days when onstage, then off, Dyson Burnette was this glowing, scowling, supernally focused musical force, blowing out far more watts than the Fender Showman amps of the time allowed. A force so great that like a Pied Piperish tornado he could light down in your town and sweep up high school geometry students feeling smart but out of it, and the art girls wanting surreal visions in their own heads; the geeks born too soon for computers (but not for drugs), and the prom queens falling in their secret hearts for Emily Dickinson; older sis Susie off to college and letting her hair grow long and straight (and taking the Pill every day), and older brother Johnnie finding out that quoting Dyson Burnette could get him laid — all these languid, undirected kids feeling storm clouds gathering and wanting to know where the winds were coming from ... well, from the cool, poetic music on the radio, those days from Dyson Burnette, the thunder and the spark.

Back then Dyson never considered getting away. His every adolescent dream was coming true, every early artistic ambition being fulfilled. He was Buddy Holly and T.S. Eliot, Elvis and Lord Byron all at once. And back then his words came fast as quicksilver, spouting onto the white sheet curled in his typewriter. What would he write about? All the world, and more. His songs at bottom chased visions: A striking word image, a mellifluous riff, would lead to another and another, all fired together by a white-hot furnace of intuitive personal meaning. If Dyson wasn't the only songwriter working like this, he was still wholly original to himself — whatever that meant.

The joke was that Dyson himself didn't know what he meant more than half the time, just felt it was right; and the irony was that while he was lionized for his potent street morality, he always felt a bit guilty how little he had to labor at what he created. His early songs were all flash and confidence, but both were so great that when it was time for a new record, he would have his producer book the studio and sign up the musicians, and Dyson would show up at 1 a.m., carrying tattered note pages scattered with word sketches and musical noodlings; and in front of the yawning high-priced session boys he would spritz together brilliant song after brilliant song in a heady rush, wrapping the whole new record up in a clutch of days.

Ah, youth! Now deep into middle age — where did all those lines in his face come from; he looked to himself like a caked-mud road outside of Greenwood, Miss. — when Dyson Burnette dared to try to remember the diamond-quick ease of how he wrote back then, the memory came as distant as the perfume of an old lover — you will yourself to remember, but your nose chases nothing.

Though Dyson kept working, even after the famous pullback (attributed officially to tour exhaustion; by the less charitable, to ego and arrogance ... or worse) and his subsequent "Garboesque period," in truth he was just enjoying being married to Ana, a Sotheby's specialist he had met at an art gallery, and playing Dad to his two kids. Then there was the quiet return, the album in the age of punk and power pop that started slow (Dyson Burnette? Wait, I used to really dig him!) then took off wildly, leading Dyson to his biggest tour yet. Then the years of regular work, albums, if not astonishing, still solid. There was also the Trouble, as his wife called it, and then their own troubles, leading to the messy divorce and losing his two boys. Finally, there was the growing legend all those Susies and Johnnies, now culture editors for magazines and literature department heads, created of their hero Dyson Burnette; and the thirtyish, then fortyish, now late-fiftyish man trying to live up to it.

For a long time Dyson kept writing, even though great songs were no longer the air he breathed but startling surprises like a train out of nowhere hurtling past he had to run exhaustingly to keep up with: that first inner tightening and stirring of a plangent idea, the quick ring of words, the musical shapes they expanded into, the rush of the chorus and finally the verse ... if he could catch up with it, he could make all the parts toll together just as they used to. Every now and then he hit a song he could be proud of, and some of these were even grudgingly appreciated by his still large following who nonetheless judged every note against the past. But there were also songs built solely on smoke and mirrors, full of halfdesperate metaphors as garbled as those in this paragraph, stomping all over each other.

And that was before the critics jumped all over him, especially good ol' Spears Munson, who even though he'd first uttered the genius word, had turned into a bloodsucker who'd dug into Dyson's flesh back in the early days and rode the master to his own career. Spears had an uncanny ability to call out Dyson's work when it really wasn't good; and even when Dyson knew the song was strong, Munson would call it embarrassing. The critic, to Dyson's lights, got almost everything else wrong, too.

"Blood Oath is not a Dyson Burnette song," Spears had written. (It was, of course; Dyson kept the handwritten lyrics on the corner of his desk — for those moments when his doubts about himself crested that high.) "It sounds like something dreamed up by a Swede with gold chains around his neck."

What?

But the critics' words hurt, and the doubts ... yes, as the years of crap reviews went on, Dyson had doubts — more than doubts. Would the next song be good enough — truly Bur-nettian? Would he even know? Not that over the last decade many songs were kicking down the doors of his shed anyway. (Oh, these metaphors! Out of control!) Had he really lost it? Maybe Hemingway was right: We only have so much creative capital in the bank, and when it's spent, whfft, it's gone. And, Lord, hadn't Dyson already done plenty? Weren't his sixteen albums, the hundreds of songs, weren't they enough? What more did the world want from him? (Everything.) What had the bloody songs ever given him but heartache and grief? (The truth, though he no longer saw it, was exactly that: everything.) And what good was one more song anyway, it wasn't like it saved anyone's life or put food on their table or made their kids grow up strong and confident? Songs? Little confections of language and tone. Records? Hey, throw in a beat. How serious could Dyson's work have been anyway, he had had Number One Top 40 hits! Just like Bobby Vee, like Archie Bell and the Drells, like KC and the Sunshine Gang, like Britney Spears, like Ke$ha. And those who still called him a great poet, they'd probably never even read a truly great poet like Wordsworth or Keats. If anything, Dyson Burnette had come to see himself as little more than a retired parlor magician, once able to perform nifty tricks to make people hum and tap their toes.

So he stopped writing. What was the point? Back when he gave concerts, didn't everyone mostly cry out for the old stuff anyway? He was filling his days up just fine. It wasn't all just mumbling around his apartment. There were his kids to check up on, investments to keep on top of (Dyson Burnette, one more ex-hippie millionaire), and old friends who still couldn't understand why he didn't just take up golf. There were letters and offers and even an occasional script (these days the part was: washed-up rock 'n' roller; though forty years back casting directors were panting after him to play everyone from Jesse James to Chopin). And, of course, Renata, and her parties; Dyson's own stack of intimidating books, and all that mindless TV; and, best of all, his daily walks (disguise on) around the city.

Be honest, Dyson, be honest. Did any of this perfectly pleasant life give the kick, coupled with the soul satisfaction, of actually writing a new song? Any of it let him greet the evening with inner fires damped down, satisfaction of a sort (if not happiness) inside him? Any of it rise up in that calm, inner voice that never bullshitted him: Today I did not waste my time on earth.

A long sigh. That's what his life felt like these days: wasting his fuckin' time on earth. He thought of that long-ago Beatles song, his old pal/rival John singing the song I'm Only Sleeping. Yep, Lennon might've been sleeping — he loved to hang out in bed; Dyson remembered trying to wake him up one afternoon to play him a new song and failing, Yoko tsk-tsking him out of the apartment — but good ol' John turned sloth into genius. Dyson ... Dyson didn't even sleep well these days, just fretted and worried and browbeat himself and....

Saw sudden salvation simply in slipping away.

His cereal spoon hung suspended. Dyson kept nodding to himself, silently but firmly. He had to go somewhere, anywhere — and right the fuck now.

Whoa, where did that come from? The fifty-eight-year-old man wasn't used to such founts of passion. So he checked himself, as he did with everything these days. Quiet for a moment, calm, listening, sensing ... yet that spritz of inner force was really there. Even better, it felt just like a song aborning, the furious old vibe that cried, Just go with it, man, let it all — Wait, what was that? Oh, the usual hiccup: Are you sure? Who do you think you are you, old man? What's the friggin' point?

But — deep breath — this time self-doubt didn't catch. What he felt was genuine. No pause or hesitation.

Through the window the sunlight was getting yellower, glazing over a wind-whipped late-March sky. He stared into it for the longest time. Light ... he needed light. And though the day was ripe with hints of spring, Dyson intuitively knew that spring in New York City would not be enough. He craved being flooded with luminance, surrounded by it, lifted, bedazzled — get himself someplace so abundantly sunny and dizzy with light that he could feel replete just lying back and soaking it in....

Or so he hoped.

* * *

It took Dyson another week before he actually got moving. Three days of pleasantly — no, joyously — looking over maps, then putting on his newsboy cap and wool scarf and thick black sunglasses that, at least in New York, he needed as disguise, and heading up to the Barnes & Noble on Union Square, where he thumbed guidebooks just like anyone else suddenly seized with a crushing need to blow out of town and not knowing where.

There was a group of backpackers also hitting the books, and one of them kept giving him a long eye. She was early twenties, with raven-black hair, an oversized CLASH T-shirt drooping off one shoulder, and carefully shredded black leggings. She was with a couple guys, both tall, pale string beans, and she seemed to be stealing glances at Dyson. He looked back because she reminded him a little of his daughter Rachel, bartending out in Portland, but then went back to his own books. The next time he looked over, the girl was gone, though her two buddies were still there.

So where to go? Dyson considered Spain, then Portugal, where he'd never been, then Northern Africa; thinking that might not be far enough, what about farther down the African coast? He'd bet that he wouldn't be recognized there. He did recall talking with Macca after he cut his Band on the Run album in Nigeria, the endless heat, swarms of exotic faces, the feeling that they were treating you as a rock star not because you were one but just because you were white and wealthy. Hmmnnn, maybe not this time.

He'd been hearing great things about Asia. He hadn't been there since a tour of Japan eighteen years before, but some of the younger guys in his last backup band raved about R&R in Thailand — long white beaches, easy drugs and women — but the more he thought about that, it sounded like nothing but a kids' scene, and Dyson didn't want to go anywhere that would make him feel any older than he did now.

The girl in the CLASH T-shirt was back, right in front of him.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Stations of the Cross"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Robert Dunn.
Excerpted by permission of Coral Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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