Unstuck In Time With Kurt Vonnegut and Glenn Gould

It was 10th grade and I was trying to find something…something that would take me to the next intellectual level. I was a guitarist. Music was my “passion”, I suppose. But hammer-ons, power chords, and prog rock only goes so far. There were parts of my head and heart that were hungry for those sorts of things that open your eyes to the bigger world. I’d already discovered early Woody Allen by then, and was pretty heavy into horror movies. Those opened my head to new things, but I hadn’t found an eloquence in words. A writer that would shape my outlook on life and humanity in a world filled with so much inhumanity. By 15 I’d dug through quite a bit of Stephen King and Peter Straub, and was a fan of Gary Larson’s surreal and absurdist worldview in his Far Side comics, but I was ready to fill my skull with the real stuff. I wanted to shape my brain in some kind of social/political way, besides what I heard my dad complaining about after reading the paper in the evening.

One day my sophomore year of high school during Geometry this kid named Andy Grossnickle told me I should read Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast Of Champions. Now to be clear, Andy and I were NOT in the same friend circle. He had friend circles, and I had friend patches. Friend semi-circles. Just a handful of friends. Andy was a soccer player and hung out with the sports cliques. If he were an album, you’d file him under: Popular. But Andy was also into punk rock, skating, and apparently Kurt Vonnegut. He crossed party lines and was pretty friendly with anyone he thought was alright. I guess he thought I was alright. I said “Cool. I’ll check it out.” Maybe we’d talked about music before, or maybe it was that I would talk to the girl in front of me, Karrie Hall, about Slayer and Pink Floyd, and he figured maybe I wasn’t just some man-size dweeb that would occasionally wear black leather boots with silver metal tips on the ends of them. Maybe Andy saw that this kid with the weird rock boots and Body Equipment hoodie(couldn’t afford the B.U.M. Equipment gear) was ready to expand his mind.

So I dove into Breakfast Of Champions. My dad got it from my grandma who worked at the Nappanee Public Library. She checked it out for me and gave it to my dad at his weekly visit with her. I burnt through it in less than a week. It wasn’t like anything I’d read before, and Vonnegut’s subtle humor was like a language I’d known my whole life but was hearing someone else speak for the first time. That Midwest humor. The stuff that prompted me to stay up every Friday night for Late Night with David Letterman, or drew me to comedians like Jonathan Winters and Bob Newhart. Kurt Vonnegut had that, but he also had a genuine kindness in his acerbic humor, and a need to share with the reader that despite all the ugly in the world there was beauty and we must make it our goal in life to find it.

I found my guy.

From that point on I had grandma check out everything they had at her library. I read Breakfast of Champions, Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens Of Titan, and of course Slaughterhouse Five. These were my gateways into higher thinking. Kurt Vonnegut was my guy, and he was a fellow Hoosier. Yes, Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis, IN, not more than 2 1/2 hours south of me. This only added to my love for the creator of Billy Pilgrim, Kilgore Trout, and Eliot Rosewater.

Now there have been a handful of film adaptations of Vonnegut’s books. His books are perplexing to the filmmaker, as the books of Kurt Vonnegut deal with macro worlds and micro situations. They’re science fiction with wild things happening, but are also very personal, funny, tragic, and thoughtful. Combining all of those things can be difficult, as it’s hard to land on the right tone. I won’t mention the worst because I don’t want you to be tempted to watch them, but the two best were Keith Gordon’s Mother Night and George Roy Hill’s Slaughterhouse Five. Check them both out if you haven’t. They get the tone of both books quite well.

I remember seeing Mother Night in the mid to late 90s when it went straight to video(it wasn’t that it was bad, it just didn’t get much distribution power.) George Roy Hill’s Slaughterhouse Five, which came out in 1972, is another thing.

I can’t remember the first time I saw it, but I think it was in the early 90s when I worked at Video World. I had access to hundreds of old Betamax tapes as the store had stopped renting them by then, so the owner told me I could help myself to them if I wanted. I believe I found a copy of the movie then, and was shocked to see it as I had no idea it existed(well before internet searches…these were the days of analog discovery.) The movie resonated with me, as it seemed to lock into the tone of Vonnegut’s story. I was also a big fan of George Roy Hill’s The World According To Garp, as it too locked into John Irving’s novel, while also deviating and shortening the breadth of time in which the story took place. The “tone” of the novel was there, and that’s what mattered.

The tone of Slaughterhouse Five was there; from the insipidness of Billy Pilgrim, to the horrors of his experiences in WW II, to the sci fi elements of Billy being unstuck in time, and his interactions with everyone involved, it all felt right to me. There was never any intention to make the story either more funny or more serious, much like Vonnegut’s way of delivering both humor and horror in a single line and placing that definitive “So it goes” at the end of it. That’s life; funny, sad, horrifying, absurd,…that’s what we live in daily.

One scene in the film in-particular always got me. It was when Billy stepped away from a party they were hosting at home and walked into the backyard at night. As he looked up at the sky a white light appears and becomes bigger and bigger. As this plays out Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ plays over the proceedings. There was something very regal, melancholy, and proper about it that elevated the whole scene. It moved me. Of course, this was when Billy was taken by the Tralfamadorians to the dome Bioshphere on Tralfamadore where he could be observed with the actress Montana Wildhack.

So it goes.

That scene and the music in Slaughterhouse Five stayed with me. I found a cheap DVD copy of the movie 20 years ago at an On Cue and bought it for $5, along with a copy of Evil Dead 2 that was sold in a cool tin. The music continued to mesmerize me for years. Recently I did some research(typed something into Google) and discovered that the soundtrack for Slaughterhouse Five was Canadian classical pianist Glenn Gould. It was essentially Glenn Gould playing Bach pieces. The music worked, as I felt it elevated Hill’s film adaptation and locked into the subtle humor and tragedy of Vonnegut’s story.

I recently found a copy of the score for $6 on Discogs in pretty great shape. It even has a pretty incredible album cover. Putting that album on it took me back to that first viewing of Slaughterhouse Five. Not necessarily the first time reading the book, as the music that reminds me of staying up till 2am on spring break my 10th grade year reading Vonnegut’s masterpiece was Stuart Hamm’s Radio Free Albemuth. In-particular his rendition Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. The reading experience of the book and that song are permanently embedded in my brain 35 years on. Glenn Gould has the film version locked for me.

Started re-reading Slaughterhouse Five recently, which is what took me down that path to looking up the score for the movie. One begat the other, which begat the other, which begat that. Funny how life works, and sometimes it works itself into something beautiful, doesn’t it? Sometimes I fall into these reminiscing moments and get overcome with nostalgia, which sometimes turns melancholy. These things seem to have happened just yesterday, or just a minute ago. It’s like being unstuck in time, I suppose. Like Billy Pilgrim. All these long gone people, like my grandma, Karrie Hall, and Andy Grossnickle, seem to appear again and we’re all in full conversation. It’s as if I’m still at home waiting patiently for the next Kurt Vonnegut installment from the Nappanee Public Library. Or I’m in Geometry not getting those postulates and theoreums, but totally engaged in a conversation about Tom Araya or Kilgore Trout.

So it goes.

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