Well yesterday was incredibly special… waking to a low grey sky, was the perfect start to a day that would only get better. It was the perfect weather for listening to Willy Vlautin.
Willy has been a big influence on me as an artist in the last decade. For me, the spareness of his writing, resonates in that space between the heart and the pit of the stomach. That space where darkness and light meet, to create an ache that just keeps itching at you, driving you to look deeper inside yourself, your world and the people in it. So with that big grey sky threatening to burst, we pulled on our jackets and headed in to Avid Reader to hear Willy read from his latest novel, Lean On Pete.
As part of the afternoon Salon, there were three other readers programmed from local university creative writing courses. Willy sat in the front row, sipping from his coffee watching intently the three writers who came before him, leaning in to their stories. And when it was his turn to take the mic, he thanked the authors and talked about his love for the independent bookstore. This wasn’t the prerequisite, ‘thank you for having me…’ this was straight from the heart, honest thanks. This humbling sense of honesty, was one of the outstanding features of Vlautin’s reading. There was no rock star ego, just a man and the sweet desperation of his words… words that he has obviously worked and lived hard for.
Vlautin lights up when he is reading and talking about his novels. His love for writing stories is clearly a driving force in his life. When asked the difference between writing stories and songs, Willy smiled and said, if you see me walking down the street smiling, then I’m probably writing stories, if you see me hungover, missing a tooth, then I’m probably writing songs. Vlautin admits to being a ‘bit of a sad sack’, and while there is a darkness in the characters (such as young Charley Thompson in Lean On Pete) he so skillfully brings to life, there is an intrinsic hope in his narratives, and it is this hope that lies in wait for the reader/listener willing to take the journey with Vlautin and his band of misfits.
At the end of the session, Willy signs books and is eager to engage in conversation with everyone in the queue. He doesn’t quite look comfortable behind the table and is on his feet to shake hands often and thank people for coming along to the reading. I get my books signed and talk to Willy about characters such as Walter from his Postcard Series on Richmond Fontaine’s 2003 album Post to Wire and Allison Johnson from his second novel Northline. We talk about these characters like they are old friends and Willy talks of their futures with clarity, he knows clearly what has happened to all these folk. We walk out into an evening that has cleared, our heads full of hope, ready to see Willy shift gears into singer/songwriter mode alongside Richmond Fontaine bandmate, Dan Eccles.
The Troubadour is nicely crowded tonight for a bill which also features local youngsters The Honey Month and Brisbane stalwarts Gentle Ben and His Sensitive Side.
Willy is again in the crowd for both bands and is clearly a big fan of Gentle Ben. Australian music has been a big influence on Vlautin, as it was the Paul Kelly song So Much Water So Close To Home (based on a Raymond Carver story of the same name) that inspired Vlautin to start writing prose.
When it is Willy and Dan’s turn to take the stage, they open with Welhorn Yards from The Fitzgerald. Like so many of Vlautin’s songs, it leaves you at the point of crisis to ponder the fates of his characters:
I saw the yobs and D.O.A but I couldn’t go home
So I went down to the yards and I sat by the concrete wall
And the wind picked up and I fell asleep on the dirt and gravel
At the Welhorn Yards
Harry shook me awake as the wind howled above us and
it nearly scared me to death
From a distant street light I saw the cut on his face and his
blood soaked shirt
“Everything went wrong,” he cried. “I lost the money and I think
J.P is gone. He was just laying on the floor when I ran for the door.”
At the Welhorn Yards, that night at the Welhorn Yards
Harry smoked cigarettes as the wind flurried above us
I gave him all the money i had and i gave him my ID and coat and
watched him disappear down the road
I sat back down and fell into the uneasiest of sleeps
the worst nightmares of sleeps
Where a madman came after me
His hair was on fire and his eyes were bleeding
and he said he was going to kill me
From there on in, the setlist is any Richmond Fontaine fans dream, featuring songs from their back catalogue such as:
Whiteline Fever (from Safety, 1997)
Out of State & Western Skyline (from Winnemucca, 2002)
Barely Losing, Two Broken Hearts, Post to Wire & Always on the Ride (from Post to Wire, 2003)
Incident at Conklin Creek (from The Fitzgerald, 2005)
$87 and a Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse the Longer I Go, I Fell Into Painting Houses in Phoenix Arizona, Moving Back Home, Lost in this World & Capsized (from Thirteen Cities);
and a swag of songs off the new album We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River including, The Boyfriends, Maybe We Were Both Born Blue, 43, Two Alone & Lonnie, which features one of my favourite ever song lines:
I ain’t going to worry about you anymore
You can keep living that hard if you want to
but the only point that you got now is dying
I saw your aunt in the store, she couldnt keep from saying
horrible things about you, but the thing is they’re all true
Vlautin and Eccles are the perfect pairing on stage. They look at ease with each other and at all times are in sync, Eccles’ guitar flourishes rounding out Willy’s well strummed rhythms.
One of the real highlights for me was their performance of three of the postcards from Post to Wire (here’s a link to one of them). The tail-between-legs, apologetic ramblings of Walter to his good friend Pete showcase Vlautin as one of the most innovative musical storytellers of this or any other generation.
At the end of the night the room is smiling, one of my friends looks at me and says he has written three new poems in his head, and we are all then out into a night filled with stars, Vlautin’s words illuminated in all of us, lucky enough to have been in the room with a truly gifted artist.
For those who couldn’t make it along, you can listen to an interview with Willy live from the Sydney Writers Festival here.