Friday, May 4, 2012

Zombies -- "Time of the Season" (1968)

What's your name?
Who's your daddy?
Is he rich like me?
Has he taken any time
To show you what you need to live?

Jennifer Egan describes her 2010 book, A Visit From the Goon Squad -- which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction -- as a concept album.

At a recent reading by Egan that I attended, she mentioned the Who's Tommy and Quadrophenia, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, and David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust as examples of the sixties-era concept albums that inspired the unusual structure of her book.  

Concept albums have a unified theme or tell a story, but the songs on a concept album are usually quite varied in style and content, and the connection between the individual songs may be quite tenuous.

That description fits A Visit From the Goon Squad, which has been characterized as a novel by some, but as a collection of linked short stories by others.  (I lean toward calling it a novel, so I describe the book's 13 sections as "chapters" rather than "stories.")

Author Jennifer Egan
Each of the chapters takes place at a different time (the time period covered by the book goes from 1973 or so until 2025 -- the book jumps back and forth in time rather than proceeding chronologically) and has a different protagonist or narrator (each of whom is directly related to some but not all of the other major characters).  Individual chapters are written in first person or third person, and in present tense or past tense.  

Chapter 12 of Egan's book -- the last chapter she wrote -- is a tour de force in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.  The creator of the PowerPoint is Alison, a teenaged girl whose mother, Sasha, is one of the most important characters in the book.

Jennifer Egan as a teenager
 A Visit From the Goon Squad opens with a chapter set a few years ago in New York City that features Sasha as a 35-year-old single woman who is struggling with a compulsion to steal small items (pens, soaps, screwdrivers) from friends and casual acquaintances.  In a subsequent chapter, we travel back in time and see her as a 19-year-old runaway living in Naples in 1991 or so.  

In the PowerPoint chapter, Sasha is a fifty-something wife and mother of two, living in the California desert in about 2025.  Her son, Lincoln (Alison's brother) seems to have Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that is characterized by an obsessive interest in a random topic.  

Lincoln's obsession is popular songs that feature moments of silence.  Some of these pauses make you think the song is over, while others simply use a brief silence as a means of punctuation or emphasis.  (Instead of continuing to play through an unaccented fourth beat in the last measure of a phrase, for example, a band may suddenly stop playing at all for a beat, then pick up the song on the first beat of the next measure.) 

One of the songs with a pause that Lincoln has discovered is the Four Tops' "Bernadette."  At about 2:34 of the song, the singers hold a note as the volume fades until there is only silence.  It doesn't really sound like the song is over, but the pause last long enough for you to begin to wonder -- then Levi Stubbs suddenly shouts out "Bernadette" and the music continues.

The Zombies' 1968 hit, "Time of the Season," doesn't have a false ending like "Bernadette," but rather has regularly-spaced pauses at the end of each verse.  The first one is about 40 seconds into the song, just after the vocalists sing "It's the time of the season for loving" a cappella, with an unusual chord change on "lov-ing."  The same thing happens 40 seconds later, at the end of the second verse, which leads into an organ solo that ends with the same chord change and brief silence before the third verse is sung. 

The Goon Squad PowerPoint chapter mentions 13 songs with pauses.  (The book has 13 chapters, for what it's worth.)  Lincoln notes the length of each pause, the length of each song, and the year each song was released, and also rates the power of each pause and the overall excellence of each song.  The chapter ends with several slides presenting his findings in graphical form, which look like something out of a presentation by a scientist at an academic conference.

Like many kids with Asperger's syndrome, Lincoln lacks social and communication skills.  Rather than interacting with his peers, he only wants to listen to music and analyze the pauses.

A slide from chapter 12 of "Goon Squad"
Any parent can understand how sad and frustrating it is for Lincoln's father, a surgeon named Drew, to realize that his son is not "normal" and that he is powerless to make him normal.  Lincoln's mother and sister are more accepting of him, but is their acceptance what is best for Lincoln in the long run?  

Imagine if Lincoln were seriously overweight, and his family never pushed him to lose weight, but accepted or even indulged his overeating?  Would that be good for him?  Or would it result in his being condemned to living a severely limited and isolated (not to mention unhealthy) existence?

Drew wants to "fix" Lincoln -- or he wants Lincoln to fix himself -- although as a health professional and a scientist, he must realize that his son's condition is not something that Lincoln can overcome just by wanting to do so.

The different attitudes that Lincoln's father and mother have regarding him is the cause of considerable tension between them.

"Should we be encouraging this?" Drew asks Sasha one evening after dinner as Lincoln is expostulating on his latest song-with-a-pause discovery. 

"Of course we should," she answers.

"How is this helping him connect to other kids?" he asks.

"It connects him to the world," Sasha answers.

Drew is unconvinced by his wife's responses, and eventually runs out of patience with Lincoln's single-minded chatter.  He yells "Stop!" at him, which causes his son to burst into tears and run from the room.  Sasha follows him, furious that Drew has upset Lincoln.

But Drew's sense of powerlessness in the face of Lincoln's obsessive, abnormal behavior is not the only thing that contributes to his losing his temper that night.  

One of Alison's PowerPoint slides is titled "Signs That Dad Isn't Happy," and one of the signs she lists is "He's on his second gin and tonic" -- which no doubt has something to do with his blowing up at Lincoln.  

But why is Drew on his second gin and tonic?  The day before, he had operated on a girl with a serious heart problem -- a girl who was even younger than Alison.  After the ugly scene with Lincoln, Drew takes a walk with Alison and tells her that "The girl from yesterday . . . with the sick heart . . . she died this morning."  

"I've got to do better with Lincoln," Drew tells his daughter during their walk -- he's speaking to himself as much as he is speaking to Alison -- but it's clear he has no idea how to make it up to his son.  Alison suggests that he help Lincoln create the graphs for the slides that appear at the end of the chapter.  "I'm terrible at graphing," Alison tells her dad.  Maybe she is -- or maybe she is just exceptionally wise for her age.

Click here to go to Jennifer Egan's website and view chapter 12 as a actual slide show (complete with music).

In the next 2 or 3 lines, we'll feature another one of Lincoln's songs and explore A Visit From the Goon Squad further.

Here's "Time of the Season," which was on the Zombies' Odyssey and Oracle album.  (The band broke up months before the album was released -- and about a year before "Time of the Season" made it to #3 on the Billboard "Hot 100.")

Click here if you'd like to buy the song from Amazon:

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