Turning the novel in to my publisher freed up a lot of time. Starting the next book has been a positive distraction, and I can once again play the drums every day. I’ve also been reading a lot, because the last few months of obsessive revising meant all my reading time needed to be rereading time, so I could back and forth across the same 100,000 words.

After drifting back a few decades to visit with authors I love, but have not read everything by (Wallace Stegner and William Maxwell), I went to some new releases that sounded interesting. The last two I finished—Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney, and Intimacies, by Katie Kitamura—are both free of quotation marks. I’ve done a little digging around for writers talking about why they do this, and can appreciate some of the reasons. If the writer does their job, say the anti-markers, the reader should know which words are dialogue and who is speaking. Furthermore, they continue, the pages look cleaner without these extra symbols cluttering them, and the visual look of the words has an influence on how they are received, whether the reader is aware of this or not.

I have lots of things to say about the novels, but I’m just here to ramble about the pros and cons of quotation marks. In both cases I adjusted to the style, perhaps trained by reading Cormac McCarthy and José Saramago; with Kitamura, the bigger challenge was getting into the rhythm of her occasional run-ons. Both books felt chilly to me, though, and what I can’t tell is whether that’s the effect that particular visual look has on this particular reader, or whether both writers have an approach to their work that just feels cold to me, with or without the marks.

I was talking this over with a smart friend on our morning walk, and I’m taking her suggestion: why not take the quotation marks off some of my own damn pages, and see what it looks like. I just finished deleting them from the first few pages of a chapter from The Weight of Sound, which means I cannot yet summarize what, if anything, I have learned. I can pretend to be an over-excited announcer, though, announcing in a booming voice, that I am happy to present, now for the first and perhaps the only time, McDade without those annoying quotation marks!

Listen Again

No one listens to drummers when they’re not behind a kit. Paul has known this since he was twelve years old and playing in his first band, but it still pisses him off. It’s happening again as he sits in the cramped control room of Cheap Sh*t Studios, sharing the worn-out loveseat with Danny: it’s one in the morning, and for over an hour no one’s taken anything he’s said seriously.

Paul, Danny, and Spider have spent more time talking about “Pay Me Now” than playing it. All of them agree the track isn’t working; even Stanley Gaines, the anemic engineer included in the studio fees, knows it isn’t working. What no one can agree on is why.

I just think it sounds . . . stiff. Spider has been repeating this message for over an hour.

Stanley nods slowly, like he’s just heard something new and insightful. Stiff, he repeats. Yeah. I see where you’re coming from. Thing is, it sounds just fine when you’re in there playing. He points a black Sharpie through the glass window to the studio where Monkeyhole’s gear is set up.

At first Paul found Stanley’s faux Zen insights illuminating, but now he’s convinced that the man never actually saysanything. He repeats his own suggestion. Why don’t we just try a take without the click? They’re tracking the songs to a click track, to keep the tempo consistent, but on songs with lots of drum fills it’s harder to make that sound natural.

No click? Stanley nods some more. I see where you’re coming from.

Danny shakes his head. He’s been a pain the ass all night, as far as Paul is concerned. I don’t think the click’s the problem. Even when he talks, he doesn’t look up from the Rolling Stone he’s been holding since they came in from their last take. The cover photo of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney only gets more annoying, the more Paul has to look at it.

Danny’s right, Spider says. The tempo’s fine. All the parts are fine. It’s just sounding, you know. Stiff.

Well, that’s why we should loosen it up a bit, says Paul. Being exhausted doesn’t help a circular argument like this straighten itself out. They all come straight to the studio after a day at their various dead-end jobs to take advantage of the studio’s reduced night rate. Even with this cheaper shit time, as Spider calls it, they only have enough money for six recording sessions to track and mix the five songs planned for their first EP. The pressure of such limited time is increasing the tension. “Pay Me Now” is one Spider keeps calling extra important, because he imagines it most likely to get some radio play. With each take, Paul can feel the pressure growing. Now everyone’s too worried about fucking up to relax and just play the song.

We’ve tracked everything else with a click, Spider says. So that’s not the problem.

No, but time works differently in this one. The groove needs to drive a little harder in the chorus, but, then, like, the bridge is a little more . . . floating. Paul hates fighting with words, and wishes he could explain things to everyone else as clearly as he can to himself. If we don’t speed up and slow down just a little bit at some points, like, breathe, then it’s not gonna sound natural.

Time works differently. Speed up and slow down to sound natural. Spider shakes his head, as if in disbelief. Yeah, maybe. Or maybe we just haven’t played it right yet.

Paul leans back as far as he can. Fine. I mean, what the fuck, I’m only the drummer.

Oh, please. Spider rolls his eyes. I said ‘we’ hadn’t played it right—not just ‘you.’

An awkward silence follows. The only sound is Stanley tapping his Sharpie against the mixing console, softly mumbling, Stiff, stiff. Paul is just about to suggest they call it a night when Stanley asks, What do you call a guy that hangs around musicians? He’s already laughing at the punchline.

What? Danny asks from behind his magazine.

A drummer, Stanley says.

Paul groans. Stanley only has one way of dealing with studio tension—a collection of drummer and bass player jokes—but Paul has to admit it usually works. He decides to see if the night can still be salvaged. How do you know it’s a drummer at your door?

Stanley, still laughing, asks, How?

The knocking speeds up and slows down.

That one gets Danny to put down Rolling Stone, and even makes Spider smile. He spins his chair and stares down at the sixteen-track recording console, wearing the fully engaged look he has onstage. Stanley, Stanley, he says, tapping the side of the console. What do you say we listen to this motherfucker again?

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