The Highway Is for Gamblers: Joyce Carol Oates, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen Take a One-way Trip

Treat Williams and Laura Dern in Smooth Talk (1985)

How Joyce Carol Oates, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen traveled out of a small town towards the great unknown.

Smooth Talk

Director: Joyce Chopra
Cast: Treat Williams, Laura Dern, Mary Kay Place
Year: 1985


Publisher: Ecco (reprint)
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publication date: 2209-09

We Were the Mulvaneys

Publisher: Plume
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publication date: 1997-09

Director Joyce Chopra’s 1985 film Smooth Talk could have been a perfect adaptation of the difficult 1966 Joyce Carol Oates short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Certainly casting Laura Dern as Connie was ideal. As written, Connie is a nervous, gawking 15-year-old girl who “…had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.” Her sister Connie, (Elizabeth Berridge), 24 and still living at home, is the submissive good girl. She’s suppressed and repressed her own desires in order to sit in judgment of Connie. Their parents (Mary Kay Place and Levon Helm) are calm and willing to give Connie space to explore boundaries, but frustration eventually boils over.

The film is mainly faithful to the story, such as it was on paper. Connie is a restless teen shy with her parents, curious about life with boys, and ready to become an adult woman, whatever that means. She doesn’t want to stay home and help with her family’s summer house renovation. She just wants to wander through the mall, see movies, and eventually just flirt coquettishly with the much too old Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), a mysterious greaser who seems to have wandered anachronistically into this small town. Arnold’s web is set for Connie, and in their final extended confrontation he’s parked in the family driveway, calling for her to come out and take a ride.

It’s in this final ride Connie takes, and whether or not she returns, that “Smooth Talk” takes a sharp turn from its source material. For Joyce Carol Oates, Connie is doomed from the moment she enters Arnold’s web. The difficulty in adapting this as a film rests in having to eliminate much of Oates’ narrative voice, and it’s a heavy burden for Dern to carry all this longing through facial expressions and general awkwardness. Certainly the now cliché '80s montage scenes in the mall are more padding than essential elements to this film. This story of female identity blossoming over the course of a summer unfolds like a fever dream. It’s deceptively calm, yet beneath the surface for Connie and all the teen girls of her time, the boys are lurking in the background, ready to pounce:

“…all the boys fell back and dissolved into a single face that was not even a face but an idea, a feeling, mixed with the urgent insistent pounding of the music and the humid night air of July.”

Oates was three years into her prolific writing career when "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" was published in 1966 and she was carefully building a reputation as a fatalist, a naturalist, a writer whose characters existed primarily to fit her dark themes. Had there been no Edgar Allan Poe, Frank Norris, or even Theodore Dreiser, Oates might have remained a respectable Literature Professor who regularly published yet never exploded into the mainstream.

Aside from this short story, the novel Blonde (about Marilyn Monroe), and the Oprah Winfrey-endorsed We Were the Mulvaneys Joyce Carol Oates has primarily been a writer of high literature (however we choose to interpret that label.) As Oates ends her story, Connie is about to enter the vast unknown with the dark Arnold Friend. Was she about to be devoured? Would she return in one piece? She definitely returns by the end of the 1985 film, but the doom Oates creates at the end of the original source material is conclusive: Connie dared to play with fire, so now she was going to be punished.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is difficult not in content so much as context. Is Connie being punished for taking a bite from the forbidden fruit? Moreover, why did Oates dedicate it to Dylan? The urgency and danger of pop music permeates her pages much more so than in the movie. The most “dangerous” song on the “Smooth Talk” soundtrack is James Taylor’s 1977 cover of “Handy Man”. If the producers had been able to access Dylan’s catalog, the results might have been too incendiary. In an appreciation of Dylan, Oates published on the occasion of the latter’s 60th birthday, she seems cagey and defensive about dedicating this story to that man:

A one-sided admiration, clearly! The story was in fact suggested by a real-life incident involving a young teenaged girl and a “charismatic” serial killer in Tucson, Arizona, and not by Dylan’s song [“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”] Yet [its] haunting melody… beautifully approximate[d] the atmosphere of my story...

Oates would live to regret dedicating the story to Dylan. “… [T]oo many people have asked me ‘why?’ Who knows why?” It remains a trite dismissal on Oates’s part to not pin down the meaning of this dedication. At the time of its publication in Epoch Magazine in the fall of 1966, Dylan had almost slipped this mortal coil after an August motorcycle crash. The Dylan song in question had been in the ether for 18 months and seemed to serve as a final kiss-off to his old folk purist life. “You must go now take what you you need think will last,” he sings. Part defiant farewell to an old life and absolute focus on a new one, there seems nothing here about luring a young innocent out of her safe cocoon into a world from which she’ll never return unscathed. Nevertheless, by the time he reaches the fourth verse this ode to freedom and moving forward does take on a lethal tone:

Forget the dead you’ve left/ they will not follow you. The vagabond who’s rapping at your door/ is standing in the clothes that you once wore.

The moves Arnold Friend makes on Connie stay strictly within the confines of a seductive monologue: “The hell with this house!” he says. “…Be nice to me, be sweet like you can because what else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?” Would Arnold Friend really be able to capture the heart of a gawky teenaged girl with evocative images and a haunting melody? It’s not likely. More convincing is the possibility that the voice Dylan assumes would sweep in under the cover of night and take any random desperate poor girl out of town. What both voices definitely shared was a determination to leave town at all costs.

If Oates was moved in 1966 to dedicate a story to Dylan, she might have done the same nine years later after hearing Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”. The studio version was all bombast and triumph, a sweet harmonica solo starting this urgent tale of a girl (Mary) dancing on her home’s front porch, swaying to a random Roy Orbison song. It starts softly, acoustically, harmonica and guitar with piano. When the singer tells us that he’s learned to make his guitar talk, he proves it. By the end of the song, after the declaration “It’s a town full of losers/ I’m pullin’ out of here to win”, the extended saxophone solo puts a triumphant stamp on the song’s story.

The acoustic version is more mournful, more heartbreaking. Like Arnold Friend, the unnamed singer here wants to lure the girl off her porch, out of her house, and towards salvation a ride down the road might provide: “All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood”. The song sounds like it could come from a resigned, somber Arnold remembering what once was and would never be again. It’s the highway that might have been for gamblers in the Dylan song, and a town full of losers in the Springsteen song, but the singers of both are convinced they can save a little girl from an aimless life.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” might not speak as clearly to today’s youth as it did in 1966. Oates has never been a comfortable writer, and her work is too often unremittingly bleak. Dedicating it to Dylan seems in retrospect an attempt to unjustifiably link it with somebody topical, somebody demonstrably threatening and dangerous. Oates has spent her career traveling down the same highways, drawing on the same themes of death, murder, obsession, and sexual politics. But no story of hers has had the staying power of this one.

Some have argued that Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, recorded in March 1965, was the apotheosis of his career, in that amazing 18 months of 1965-1966 when he went in search for and found what he called his “wild, thin mercury sound.” By 1975, two years into his recording career, Springsteen found a voice that captured the desperate feeling of being stuck in a small town, just waiting for the moment to slam down on the gas pedal and never look back as he barrels down the lonesome endless highway. They’ve all left in their wake characters who’ve taken ecstatic joy rides, long aimless and casual scenic drives, or, like Connie and Arnold, rides where the deadly ending is never in doubt.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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