Toward an underground Nashville literature
by David M. Carew
Lately, everyone who loves Nashville and cherishes the vibrancy, edginess, and reach of its underground music scene is rejoicing. Finally, incredibly gifted rock, Americana, jazz, and other “underground” music artists—long held back by the predominant music mainstream in Nashville—are fighting back, gaining recognition, and—and in some instances—getting record and publishing deals and changing the face of the entire world’s musical landscape.
But something is missing in this artistic revolution: an underground Nashville literature and arts movement to complement the surge of underground music.
In every other instance in which an American city’s genius fostered an underground music explosion—be it San Francisco, L.A., Portland, New York, or Seattle—there has been a concomitant explosion in the visual and literary arts inspired specifically by that city’s underground. As San Francisco gave us the Haight-Ashbury scene and myriad underground bands, it also gave us poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. As Portland gave us singer/songwriter genius Elliott Smith, it also gave us then-underground filmmaker Gus Van Sant. As L.A. gave us The Flying Burrito Brothers and other underground 1960s bands that would herald a new matrix of country and rock, it also gave us literary artists such as “skid row novelist” Charles Bukowski.
Ever since moving to Nashville twenty-five years ago, I have met people whose lives do not remotely reflect the caricature of what many outside our city presume to be “a Nashvillian.” Many people I meet here live in a ghost-world of sterile strip malls; dead-end, degrading jobs; profound loneliness; addiction and dysfunction; and a seemingly endless search for love, affirmation, and meaning.
Yes—some of their stories are told within the country music created in Nashville every day, which is then famously delivered to the world. But where are the novels and other contemporary works of art specifically informed—mystically, materially, spiritually, aesthetically—by the “underground world” thousands of Nashvillians inhabit every day? Where are the poets, the novelists, the painters, the playwrights, who will immerse themselves in the specific underground fabric, underground narrative, of this great city—and create something as beautiful, compelling, and transformative as our underground rock musicians are creating every day?
David M. (Dave) Carew is editor of “Underground Nashville” and the author of the novels “Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville” and “Voice from the Gutter.”
Film review by Vince Gaetano
Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) has lived his entire life as a dog, subservient to his seven sisters, all of whom treat him as an object, not a human being. Not even close. To treat someone like a human being, you have to empathize with him on some level. Barry’s sisters see him as a walking punch-line. An extremely unfunny one.
“Do you remember when we used to call you gay and you’d get all mad?” they ask him, all laughing. Except Barry. He isn’t laughing. He’s doing his best to not look annoyed, embarrassed, or violently angry.
“I don’t really remember that,” he replies through gritted teeth. They all see it. None of them care. And it’s not that they’re mean people, it’s that Barry is, in most ways, their pet. What’s worse, Barry knows exactly how he fits in with his family. He has already extinguished all hope of ever moving up in that world. All he can manage to do is grit his teeth. It’s enough to drive someone crazy. Which, in Barry’s case, it already has.
Make no mistake: Barry Egan has lost his grip on reality. Most of his behaviors scream “crazy!”, or at the very least, “social disorder!”, and his inability to function in a social setting often leads to violent outbursts. He smashes windows, beats the hell out of restrooms, and sometimes settles for a few good air punches. On top of that, he has a hard time looking people in the eye, he cannot communicate well with anyone, he often cries for no reason, and he is physically frightened of a broken harmonium. And the list goes on. Barry is clearly not right in the head. It’s all his sisters’ fault, really. Because of them, Barry has grown to fear women. But he also craves their approval. So much so, in fact, that at one point he calls a phone sex hotline just to talk to a woman who is guaranteed not to berate him. And when he finally does meet an actual, real-live female who seems genuinely interested in him, his mind shuts down. He babbles incessantly and acts crazier than he likes to let on. But nothing as trivial as a psychosis can stop true love. At least, that’s what the movie would have us believe.
If all of this seems fairly standard, it’s only because it is. There have been countless movies made about people with social disorders. Too many to count, really. It’s a very fertile topic, and, played correctly, a big hit at the Oscar’s. What makes Punch-Drunk Love stand out is its obstinate refusal to be about Barry’s disorder. It pushes aside the crazy, intent on being a love story. And it succeeds.
At its core, it’s a very simple, sweet movie. There just happens to be a lot of cursing and violence. But it’s all within context, and all serves a purpose. It’s not gratuitous, which, over the years, has become exceedingly hard to find.
Punch-Drunk Love might not be a “breath of fresh air”, as they say, but it is very much a few short puffs from an oxygen tank. And if you understand that analogy, you’ve probably seen the movie.
Vincent Gaetano is an aspiring screenwriter and director who graduated with honors from SUNY Oneonta with a major in video production. He currently resides in Rochester, NY.