The Mystery In The Music Of "Jesus' Son"
Thoughts on the short story collection and The Velvet Underground after the passing of Denis Johnson.
I’m curious to understand the relationship writers have with music. For me writing prose is itself musical. In hindsight, I was a pretty musical kid. I took piano lessons, attended church choir, played percussion in high school marching band, and took up the acoustic guitar during one desperate year of self-exploration after college — playing "Drive" by Incubus for days on end until my fingertips calloused over and peeled off. Today I no longer play instruments regularly, but the joy of creation I once experienced playing jazz at the piano bench is now something I find at my desk writing fiction. Cadence has become the dominant engine driving my work. I write and rewrite, and rewrite, sentences and paragraphs until I’ve found the perfect groove, until each word lives — like a good drummer — in the pocket.
Immediately I thought of music when I read reports last week that Denis Johnson had passed away. It was a sad story to read during a week of sad news. Like many other aspiring writers, I have read his short story collection Jesus' Son many times. And I suspect also like many writers, after reading the collection I spent months trying to write prose like Johnson’s before sobering up and realizing this was not my voice, no matter how much I wanted it to be.
Jesus’ Son is a book that feels like a bender.
Jesus’ Son is a book that feels like a bender. It possesses you so completely that you will feel, as you read the final page and close the back cover, like you’ve just sobered up after days spent spun out; and while you’ve gained all these incredible new experiences, you can’t shake the feeling you’ve lost something important during the ordeal — like your keys, or your virginity, or something — and if only you weren’t quite so fucked up on the book you could probably remember what exactly that thing was.
For years Jesus’ Son has been my go-to recommendation for friends who (mistakenly, I fear) believe I have good taste in books because I admit to writing fiction in my free time. The collection is such a writer’s read because the building blocks of good fiction — character, plot, dialogue, diction and syntax and tone — are so evident in Johnson’s prose that anyone reading will realize the immense possibility in these humble raw materials. My hope in recommending the collection is that it affects in others a pupil-dilating moment of recognition with regard to the latent power of the written word.
Johnson named his short story collection after lyrics in the track "Heroin" by The Velvet Underground. This is the sort of factoid you learn after finishing a book or a movie and Wikipedia-ing it to obsess over the details, like where the writer went to school or what they had accomplished by age twenty-five. It was strange, then, that I knew the origins of the collection’s title before I’d read the first page. The English professor who put Jesus’ Son into my hands happened to be college roommates with Sterling Morrison (Morrison who played guitar for the Velvet Underground, and who also worked as a tugboat captain and completed a PhD in medieval studies). He played "Heroin" in class on the day he assigned the book, and later, at home, I listened to the song over and over again while reading.
When I put a spike into my vein
And I'll tell ya, things aren't quite the same
When I'm rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus' son
And I guess that I just don't know
And I guess that I just don't know
- ‘Heroin,’ The Velvet Underground
Back then it felt to me like The Velvet Underground had taken the experience of reading Jesus’ Son and condensed it — using some sort of enormous pneumatic press — into seven minutes of music. This is, of course, impossible as the song predates the book by 30 years. And yet today, still, I view the two as complements, as two things not just connected but entwined. They are such embodiments of one another it’s hard to understand how two works in different mediums created decades apart can leave you feeling so the same. If a double homage were possible, this duo would be one.
It’s ridiculous to suggest that Jesus’ Son is derivative of "Heroin," and yet it did come second and capture addiction in provocative detail. Critics explain that The Velvet Underground for "Heroin" borrowed “sound experiments of [a] minimalist composer... to create an aural landscape that told the listener what it felt like to be on heroin — claustrophobic, suicidal, ecstatic, obsessive, all in the same song."
Listening to only the one, reading only the other, is half of a more complete experience — like watching a movie with dialogue but no score.
If you’ve read Jesus’ Son, you’re probably thinking: This quote seems familiar! Minimalism! Ecstasy! Suicide! Johnson accomplished this exact same thing but literarily! The sameness goes deeper still. John Cale, who co-founded The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed, said the band wanted “to provide drugs for everyone” with their music. I think Johnson must have set out to do something similar with Jesus’ Son. On the purpose of fiction, he once quoted Joseph Conrad: “by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.” Both "Heroin" and Jesus’ Son accomplish this using the same techniques, each adapted for their discipline. Listening to only the one, reading only the other, is half of a more complete experience — like watching a movie with dialogue but no score. I don’t mean to suggest either work depends on the other. But Johnson, by naming his collection after a song, invites us to experience them together, and I must believe he had purpose in that.
What is the stuff ideas are made of? When I close my eyes and evoke that place, the one I’m trying to pull from the ether and pound into my story one word at a time, music is often there. Not in focus but around, not complete tunes but odd tones and snatches of melody. This informs my creative process. Another way to put this is to say that when I write a story I’m often, subconsciously or consciously, keeping a list of songs I would put on the soundtrack if the story became a major motion picture. And a few times, a song has filled me with such feeling that I’ve written entire scenes designed to pass on that feeling to others.
Susan Sontag authored one of my favorite quotes on music. Writing in her diary, she said, “Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts — it is the most abstract, the most perfect, the most pure — and the most sensual. I listen with my body and it is my body that aches in response to the passion and pathos embodied in this music.”
And so I wonder how Johnson and The Velvet Underground came to live together in Jesus’ Son. Did Johnson enjoy the song for years before writing his collection? Did he listen to it as an addict? Did he listen to it as he wrote? Dare I wonder — did he do heroin while listening to "Heroin?" Did he long plan to pay his respects to the song through fiction? Or did he write the collection first? Was he debating the title with his editor when he heard the song for the first time on the radio, unexpectedly, while driving to the store for milk and think, that’ll do!
God, I wish I could get an answer. Surely someone knows? Johnson’s passing only makes my desire more desperate, and impossible. My curiosity must be because the book is so gripping while its origins and author are so mysterious. Johnson was famously elusive. He granted few interviews. In Jesus’ Son you wonder what is real and what is fiction when you know he was an addict, and spent a decade living among addicts. The scenes of the book are so visceral and haunting. They can’t possibly be fabricated — can they?
The true relationship between the song and the short story collection — however rich or flimsy — was lost, I fear, with Johnson.
I’ve heard it secondhand, from someone who had it firsthand, from someone with a PhD, who knew Johnson at the Writer’s Workshop, that the book is entirely true. It’s a nonfiction account re-imagined as an esoteric web of stories. Another professor of mine told me, privately, in office hours, that Johnson wrote Jesus’ Son fast. Like in two weeks fast — sitting down and blasting it out in one long, poetic bender. Another story says Johnson found the draft half-finished in a drawer somewhere, scribblings from his former life, never intended for publication. Perhaps none of these stories are true. Perhaps they’re all true. Perhaps MFA students will whisper them in the hallways of empty lit departments for the rest of time. No amount of searching on my part has revealed a definitive answer to the question. Meanwhile, the story surrounding the connection between "Heroin" and Jesus’ Son is even more elusive. The true relationship between the song and the short story collection — however rich or flimsy — was lost, I fear, with Johnson.
It’s writer lore that Hunter S. Thompson, upon his death, left precise instructions to fire his ashes out of a cannon perched atop a giant, 153-foot-tall fist clutching a peyote button while Bob Dylan’s "Mr. Tambourine Man" played (and yes, this really actually happened, in 2005, at a private ceremony in Colorado — and Johnny Depp paid for it).
I don’t know what songs they will play at Denis Johnson’s funeral, if they will play any at all. But for all of us who enjoyed his fiction I would recommend listening to this one track in elegy. I’m listening to it now. To quote Johnson, “it [feels] wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”