The Folk Singer Dreams of Time Machines

by Matt Bell Read author interview June 15, 2008

When he writes music he most often does it like this: By playing live, alone, bereft of his band. He sings words left over from the night before, from things that are dreams and things that only seem like they are. Sometimes he sees the ideas floating near his head, captured in tinctures of light, little blobs of meaning drifting through the air. In public he tries to ignore them, waiting until he’s alone in his room to pluck them from their orbits and swallow them whole. He thinks that he’s going crazy. He plays every show like it’s the last one he’ll ever play, and he always tells himself that maybe this time it is.

The coffee shop is packed full of people, such a small space that there’s still only maybe twenty people there. A baby cries somewhere, a little girl, but he can’t see her. He dreams of a certain girl quite often, and he wonders if the baby is her, finally coming around again. A phrase slides across his brain and he coaxes it down into his vocal cords, into his mouth, then out into the air in front of him. He strums the guitar, writing another new tune live, wondering if he’ll remember it or if it will only exist for this one performance.

His friends are all here, guys in his band who want to hear the songs they’ll be playing alongside him in six months, plus guys who play in other bands around town. There are some girls with intriguing haircuts. Everyone the folk singer knows is in a band or makes art or writes poems or stories. Sometimes he doesn’t think he knows any normal people with normal people jobs, normal people problems. He doesn’t know if this is something he should be worried about, but he does think that it’s unlikely that anyone would have more than one friend who can play the zanzithophone, and yet he has at least two.

The folk singer is not inexperienced in relationships and yet when he writes songs about sex they are really about not having sex or else about having it in childish, impossible ways. He writes about the body like it’s a foreign land he’s never seen. Sometimes he sees his veins as radio wires or his blood as hot white light flowing first as a wave and then as a particle and finally as pure burning love. He sees his own body as a metaphor and everyone else’s as occupied territory. When he closes his eyes at night, everything he sees is dynamite and mustard gas and time machines he wants to build for saving little girls lost in foreign wars. He wants to write music to gather these people up and keep them safe. Songs like bomb shelters, like air raid drills, like preparations for tragedies. He wants to hug all of his friends and tell them that he’s loved them forever and somehow make them understand that when he says forever he doesn’t mean since kindergarten. He is so fucking awkward sometimes he can’t stand it. When he doesn’t know what to say he sings louder. When he doesn’t know how to feel he finds someone to love better than he’s ever loved anyone else and then he vows to never tell them how he feels.

He is so tired. He looks out at the crowd and says, “This is the last song I’m going to play.” People clap their hands, mock-booing him for quitting the stage. The room is full of smiles, well-wishes, individuals who have been moved by his music. This is the family he always wanted, better than he could have imagined, and yet somehow it is not enough. An idea floats by his ear, and he doesn’t resist. He reaches out and catches it, stuffs it into his mouth. It tastes like pennyroyal, pepper, honey. He looks down at his hands, moving now on their own, already pressing the frets and plucking the strings, creating music that heralds words he doesn’t yet know. In a clear voice, he begins to sing. The best songs are the ones he forgets over and over. The best songs are the ones that he can never forget well enough.

About the Author:

Matt Bell is the author of the novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award and the winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award. His next novel, Scrapper, will be published in Fall 2015. He teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.

About the Artist:

Robinson Accola creates artwork for SmokeLong Quarterly as needed.