The Good Guys
In the back of my mind I've been writing this article for about 15 years. God, how can it be that long? But today I'm listening to a CD I got for Xmas - all of my Xmas prezzies were either money or CDs - and listening to this particular album has brought all these thoughts close to the surface. In some ways, this is a review of that album.
In 1974 I was sitting in Ron Bounds' living room waiting for something or other having to do with getting ready to hold the World Science Fiction Convention, Discon II, and I picked up a book of short stories and started reading. I think I borrowed the book from Ron so I could finish it. I knew I recognized the name of the editor and got a good vibe from it, having read one or two others of his collections, but at that stage I hadn't quite gotten who he was. But when I finished reading Fellowship of the Stars, I knew that Terry Carr was one of the good guys, and maybe a particularly special one. It was the first time I'd fallen in love with an editor.
In 1976 other people arranged for us to meet up at Oakland Airport because one of us had something to deliver to the other on behalf of someone else, and we were both flying out to Kansas City for the Worldcon that day. I completely forgot to get my seat check and was still in conversation with Terry when we stepped onto the plane, and the flight attendant, realizing we were friends, decided it would be okay if I sat in the empty seat next to him in first class even though I was only booked for steerage. So we spent the flight out talking, and the next year we spent a lot of time hanging out together at the Miami Worldcon, and like just about every woman who got to know Terry Carr, I fell in love with the rest of him, too.
I remember at dinner one of those nights in Miami I was talking about something having to do with sex and men and women (what else?) and he asked if I'd read "Meathouse Man" by George R.R. Martin. Of course I had - it had been in Terry's Best of the Year collection. "Yes," I said. "Where do you men get your crazy ideas?"
Of course, I was just making a sour joke from the perennial question sf writers get sick of hearing, but then I did something stupid: When Terry started to say, "Well, I'll tell you -" I said, "Never mind, I know." I've never forgiven myself for that; now I'll never know what he was going to say.
I'd just read Edgar Pangborn's A Mirror for Observers and was enthusing to Terry about it and he said something then about how Pangborn's work had an especially astute sense of humanity. And I recall thinking at the time that it was precisely that very thing that had made me fall in love with him as an editor; I always felt that was what he looked for in the stories he chose. God, I miss him.
Back in 1977, when I asked him what he'd been up to, he said he'd just finished his first novel. (In fact, it was the only novel he ever put his name to, but not really his first.) "Oh, what's it about?" "Well, it sounds stupid if I describe it." "Try me." He did, and I said, "You're right, it sounds stupid." But he sent me a copy for my birthday when it came out, and it's not stupid at all; it's a magnificent piece of work.
For years, Joseph Heller was one of those writers who had only written one book, but it was a book so good he never needed to write another to have justified being called a great writer. He later wrote others, and each had something special about it, but not like Catch-22. Whenever anyone suggested that there was some sort of failure in his never having written anything as good since then, the answer was obvious: Neither had anyone else.
To Kill A Mockingbird is that kind of book; it doesn't matter to me that Harper Lee never did another, because it's all in there, everything that any one person ever needs to say.
I don't rate Cirque quite as highly as I do Catch-22 and To Kill A Mockingbird, because both use humor to an extent that Cirque does not, and I think humor has to be there to get right to the top. Catch-22 is so funny that some people miss the horror of it, but everybody gets the heart. People who've only seen the movie don't know how funny To Kill A Mockingbird is, but even the movie was pretty damn good. But if I was only going to write one book in my life, I know I could have been pretty proud of Cirque. I'm bloody proud to have been close to the man who wrote it.
Terry Pratchett has written a whole hell of a lot more than just one book, but that sensibility is there, along with the jokes. He's definitely got the heart, and there always seems to be yet another book to cheer me up when I'm feeling bummed out. It doesn't matter to me whether they are marketed for adults or kids, they are just great fun to read and make me feel a lot better about people - even the bad bits - when I've been getting into one of them.
Most of the songs I've written came out of heartbreak, but I have some pieces that weren't. One is a tune that I've written several sets of lyrics to and never been satisfied with the words, and I'm not sure exactly where it came from - the tune was just there - but it feels to me like something spiritual. Another is more explicitly so, words and music having come at once in one of those perfect, fluid moments where the composition just seems to happen, just after I finished reading Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave. When I started writing it, I'd thought I'd have only one verse about Merlin and the others would be about Jesus and ...oh, someone else, but somehow I had three versus about Merlin, although in some ways it's as much about Jesus' moment of doubt as anything. And I've written some songs about other things that hurt. That's what it is about making music, for the most part - you're working out your pain, your horror, your anger, your faith, your fear, your loneliness, your confusion, whatever - and sometimes, if you're lucky, you're expressing your joy. I always assumed that everyone knows this.
So it came as something of a shock to me to hear people complaining that Bruce Springsteen was doing something exploitative by making The Rising so explicitly about 9/11. My god, he's one of the most important songwriters of our time (and a major east coast kinda guy), and people think he could not be moved enough by the shattering of the New York skyline to make it central to his next album? How?
On the 12th of September last year, Claire Fox of Institute of Ideas phoned me to ask if I was okay and still wanted to meet for our scheduled lunch that day. I did, very much - I wanted to be with people. Of course, what we talked about was altered by events, but it was good to be with people who understood how I felt. But I remember how surreal everything felt, watching everything be, well, normal. People were on the tubes, going to lunch, laughing in the streets, going back to work, as if nothing had happened. But I knew something had, and so did everyone else. When I went to the local Tesco, one of the (Indian) cashiers asked me how I was, and I said, "Freaked out," and she said, "Me, too." At the pub, a black English woman I bumped into on the way back from the loo - a total stranger - heard my accent and asked me if I was all right, and made clear how much she felt for me, for my country, for my people. It was like that. But it was normal, too. The day to day reality went on, people going to work, people coming home, lovers fighting, people having their hearts broken, or hoping for new relationships to grow. And behind it all, the anger, the fear, the questions.
Bruce Springsteen has put those things together beautifully - and with heart. There are songs on this album that, someday, people will hear and think they are only love songs or party songs, but they are impossible to listen to now without feeling their resonance with the events of that terrible day. You're missing, when I shut out the lights.... And even in the songs that are more directly about 9/11, the private, individual, human reality of it all is never left out - is, in fact, the central issue. I hold my breath and close my eyes and I wait for paradise.
Most importantly, The Rising is not an angry fist shaken at the enemy, but a heart longing to understand, to mend and love again. A little revenge and this too shall pass, but There's a lot of walls need tearing down. They send chills up my spine, but they aren't the words of a man who is beyond groping to understand and find a new peace. These are love songs to humanity.
This is what's good about us. We love, we care, we mourn, we go on, we rebuild our fractured lives - we even learn to forgive, if we're good enough.
These are the finest gifts, that remind us of how good we can be.