Saturday, August 9, 2008

J.T. Dutton's "Freaked"

Ezra Pound famously wrote that poetry should be as well-written as prose. Judging from the evidence, American novelists appear to believe that prose, at the same time, should aspire toward the poetic—or at the very least discuss poetry. If you keep a lookout, in fact, you'll find that few "literary" novels in the twentieth century fail to incorporate or mention poetry at some point along the way. Sometimes those references are obvious—the way that Leslie Marmon Silko weaves poems into the text of her novel Ceremony—and others are fleeting. In "Slaughterhouse Five," Vonnegut quotes from Roethke's "The Waking" and mentions William Blake. Saul Bellow's Herzog reads Blake, Dryden and Pope. When a tramp commits suicide by throwing himself into a thresher in Willa Cather's "My Antonia," he is found to have been carrying a pen knife, a wishbone, and a poem "cut out of a newspaper and nearly worn out." Heck, in Dashiell Hammett's "Maltese Falcon," Sam Spade calls Effie "the sister of the boy who stood on the burning deck"—a direct reference to the often-taught and often-memorized 1826 Felicia Hemans poem “Casabianca.”

Given the regularity with which American novels address or incorporate poetry, one such as yours truly could be easily forgiven if he argued that this tendency is more than just a tendency. Could it in fact be a constitutive discourse of the U.S. novel as a genre?

I recently showcased a poetry-related excerpt from Cheeni Rao's forthcoming memoir/novel "In Hanuman's Hands," and here—in an ongoing effort to track how novelists are dealing with the other genre—I want to introduce a section of J.T. Dutton's young adult novel "Freaked" which is due out in stores from HarperCollins imprint HarperTeen on March 17, 2009. "Freaked" is the story of a 15 year-old boarding school student named Scotty Douglas Loveletter. In addition to being the son of America's most famous sex self-help therapist, Scotty jams on drugs and the Grateful Dead. In "Freaked," he needs to get to Freedom to see Jerry, and the lack of a ticket, a ride, or money in his pocket isn't going to keep him from the promised land.

Note, as you read the following account of the show, the unattributed reference to Keats. Some gossip about the Dead, its lyrics, and permissions issues in "Freaked" will follow, so keep reading!

Here is Dutton:

The music was the only thing saving us. The notes were golden threads that wove themselves into the wild tapestry of images, smells, and the floor wobbling under my feet. The acoustic ran as as it always does, higher and lighter than the backup guitar; Jerry's voice danced another couple notes above that. I could hear him coming through the music. People in the crowd chose the line they were going to move to. There were girls fluttering through the backdrop of light, taking wing almost, and guys hunkering low to the ground, swinging their arms and stomping. The whirling-helicopter girl whipped past. I was just a step above an open riser overlooking the stage, and her hair and arms and skirt blew a breeze across my face. She made all kids of gestures with her hands, wrapping them around and under each other like snakes on Erasmus's pole as she talked to me in signs. She repeated every note just as Jerry played it and transformed it into a movement of her body. Everything about her was beautiful: the way the light moved in her ebony braids, the way her shadow reduced the glare from the spots on the ceiling, the way she became the moon eclipsing the sun, the symbol of yin and yang. She was love, all right. Pure, uncut, pay-with-your soul, put you in the hospital love.

"Truth, beauty—" I said into the microphone in an effort to catch the moment before it slipped.

By the time I had finished reporting, she was gone. All around me, the crowd surged, an ocean that rose and reared before dashing itself against a rocky shore of ecstasy. We were stirred by the girl's appearance and the music rippling from Jerry's harp unstrung. No music the Dead plays has quite the same intensity as Jerry's music—not Bobby's booze ballads or blues. I liked "One More Saturday Night" but I worshiped all of Jerry's songs, and the ones that really made me fall on my knees were the ones with women's names: "Bertha," "Althea," Scarlet Begonias," "Dear Prudence." My mother was just like Sugar Magnolia: "She can dance a Cajun rhythm / Jump like a Willys in four wheel drive." She wanted to be thrown to the wind, left to drift on the currents that moved her.

I got up and danced myself crazy in search of the whirling-helicopter girl, my pack flying out to the left and right of me, my tie and the tails of my jacket sucking up the air and making me fly. At first it was strange being on my feet again. I couldn't stand up, but I wasn't exactly falling down, either. I smacked some guy with the microphone of my tape recorder.

"Look out douche bag," he said.

"Sorry," I said into the tape, for posterity.


In her original manuscript, Dutton had opened every chapter with a quotation from a Dead song, titling each chapter with the title of the song being quoted from. When it came time to publish, though, Ice 9 Publishing—which somehow owns the rights to all of the Dead's songs—wouldn't grant permission to Dutton to use all of the lyrics she wanted to use. Ultimately, Dutton was allowed to quote from "Dire Wolf" and was given leave to use brief phrasings from the songs here and there within the text (as with "She can dance a Cajun rhythm..." in the preceding passage).

So in short, because of the exigencies of copyright law and the concerns of Ice 9, the "Freaked" that you'll see at the store is not the "Freaked" that Dutton had in mind. But never fear! Yours truly has managed to acquire what is now believed to be the list of quotations Dutton wanted to use as chapter epigraphs in the original book but was not allowed to use in the final version. Here they are. And remember, you heard it first here:

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung . . .
—Robert Hunter, "Ripple"

But I’ll still sing you love songs
Written in the letters of your name.
And brave the storm to come,
For it surely looks like rain.
—John Perry Barlow, "Looks Like Rain"

A box of rain will ease the pain
And love will see you through.
—Robert Hunter, "Box of Rain"

… the heart has its beaches,
Its homeland, and thoughts of its own.
—Robert Hunter, "Eyes of the World"

Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart.
You just gotta poke around.
—Robert Hunter, "Shakedown Street"

Trouble with you is
The trouble with me.
Got two good eyes
But we still don’t see.
—Robert Hunter, "Casey Jones"

You must really consider the circus
‘Cause it might be your kind of zoo.
I can’t think of a place that’s more perfect
For a person as perfect as you.
—John Perry Barlow, "Hell in a Bucket"

When I awoke, the Dire Wolf
Six hundred pounds of sin
Was grinnin at my window
All I said was “come on in.”
—Robert Hunter, "Dire Wolf"

There’s a dragon with matches loose on the town.
Take a whole pail of water just to cool him down.
—Robert Hunter, "Fire on the Mountain"

Given the vagaries of quoting with and without impunity from the Dead lyrics, you might like to know one final note on "Freaked." Dutton originally titled the book "Ripple," but her editor lobbied for "Dark Star" instead (both titles of Dead songs). Although the publisher is legally allowed to use the song title in this way, Ice 9 expressed its objection by withholding permission for the epigraphs quoted above. Shortly after the change to "Dark Star" and the conflict with Ice 9, Harper's marketing department decided that "Dark Star" sounded too much like a sci-fi novel title and wouldn't work for Dutton's book. Hence the change to "Freaked," which has no official connection to the Dead. One wonders if Harper had in fact gone forward with a title like "Freaked" from the beginning, whether Ice 9 wouldn't have gone into such a tizzy, whether it wouldn't have withheld permission for the epigraphs, and whether Dutton's book would have been published in a form much closer to the one she initially wanted. But hey, who ever said publishing is actually about the author and the work?


Susan said...

Thanks. I had a grad student who did a project on John Keats in popular culture--including lots of YouTube skis.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting post.
What a fine blog!

Mark said...

It's also interesting to invoke copyright on songs that are adaptations on existing folk songs and part of the public domain. Even a cursory survey of early 20th century folk songs will show many parallels in lyrics between the various songs. While the work that Hunter, Garcis, et. al. shouldn't be minimized, they (or most likely their heirs and business ventures) have really forgotten about their roots.

Sad, really

SteveG said...

My guess is that there is a "rest of the story" here. My own personal experience was the exact opposite.

I edited "The Grateful Dead and Philosophy," which came out just last year and I found the folks at Ice-9 to be the most helpful, cooperative, and timely (not a trait well-known amongst Deadheads) that I've ever dealt with concerning copyright issues in any project. Sony was a bear to deal with (one of my writers wanted to quote four lines of an Alman Brothers song), but Ice-9 was an absolute joy.

I went in expecting the sort of corporate nonsense, but found all of my contacts with anyone connected at all with the Dead in any way to be supportive beyond belief. After becoming a cynical old bastard, it restored my faith, frankly.

Mike Chasar said...

No matter how amenable Ice 9 has been, though - either with you or with Dutton - it doesn't change the fact that Dutton was forced to compromise her original vision for the book, and that Ice 9 leveraged its ownership of the lyrics in getting her to do so. Just because there wasn't a dramatic legal saga doesn't mean that copyright economics didn't trump the art.

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