James Franco Changes his Career
March 2, 2012
Dear James Franco:
I just spent four days at the AWP conference in Chicago. I’ll tell you about it another time. Instead, I’d like to give you an update on my “Meteorite James” story.
If you haven’t read the first blog (please do), I intend to write a story in which I re-imagine the last two years of my life as a graduate student. I want to portray a heightened sense of atmospheric conflict—a kind that has been, until recently, lacking. In my story, you’ll be the source of tension. You’ll be a student in the Creative Writing program at the University of Cincinnati. We’ll be colleagues, equal but not exactly equal.
I haven’t started the story, and I won’t until the conclusion of UC’s winter quarter. Currently, I’m channeling all of my creative energy into a seminar paper about one of your friend’s books. The book is called Tree of Codes. So far, I’ve got about twenty-pages of scholarly criticism written, and another twenty of my own experimental academic-style criticism. I plan on cutting the total length in half. If you run into Amy Hempel or Gordon Lish, could you put in a good word for me? I might need their help.
Also, if you see Jonathan Safran Foer around, tell him that Don likes his book—particularly all the white parts. Tell him I’m not a Foer-hater, either. I admire the way he fucks with shit.
In addition to my work-load, I’ve also been hesitant to start this story because I can’t conceive of a reasonably satisfying ending. I might have found one, though. I want to run it by you, first.
Here’s how this one possible ending came to me. While I was at AWP—specifically, after I’d taken my 36 mg Concerta pill (which is a legal form of amphetamines for people with severe ADD)—I was walking quickly from the Wyndham Hotel to the conference location. I wasn’t walking fast because of the pill; rather, the cold wind came from every direction in rolling swoops and swirls. My hat kept getting blown off, revealing my balding patters. I shoved the hat down on my head as far as it would go, forever altering its shape. We’ll talk about my balding sooner or later. Anyway, I look long strides down Michigan Avenue, with may face tilted down to avoid the gale. A car drove by blasting Miles Davis. Alas, I’d made a connection, and tthere was my ending. I formed the whole thing in my head before I even got to the conference hall’s revolving door. I’m going to spill the beans, right now. Here’s a synopsis of the story’s last section. Tell me what you think.
You’ve been in the Creative Writing program for a year and nine months. One February night, you slam shut the book you’ve been reading for Rd. Roth’s Contemporary American Literature. The novel is called Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. You say “Screw this. I need a night on the town!”
I don’t mean to imply that you find the book unfulfilling, though I do believe that my portrayal of your gesture is accurate. You’ve read this novel six times? Seven? Ten? Gary is your pal; you even directed the book trailer.
You call Janice on your cell phone. She’s part of your harem of undergraduate admirers from the Theater department.
You say, “I’ve been here a year and nine months, and I haven’t done anything fun yet. Let’s go out.”
Your limo arrives. You and five other girls go to the Blue Wisp Jazz Club.
While watching the band play, you think, “Something’s wrong.” Your sensations are heightened: you become aware of all the muscles in your body that you’ve neglected to acknowledge, forever. They’ve been there, you realize, since birth; the ones half-way up your fingers, the tiny twists of cartilage behind your collar bones.
Halfway through the second set, you have an epiphany. You realize that your hypersensitivity is an involuntary, biological response to the bass guitar’s sound. When the bassist plucks his strings, your body seems to vibrate one oscillation short of a tantric orgasm. This has never happened to you before, and it feels fucking great. But let’s not characterize you as hedonist. You’re a critical thinker, and by nature, you must interrogate the mechanics driving this strange, visceral bliss. You conclude that the phenomenon is related to the aging process. You’re getting older, decomposing, and therefore, the gaps between your cells have widened. Your body no longer interacts with—and obstructs—sound the way it once did. You’ve decayed to a point in which your structural pliability, coupled with your overall cellular density, now share resonant frequencies with the bass guitar’s tone. This doesn’t make you sad. It’s difficult to indulge in morbid thoughts when your balls are stimulated. You interpret the whole scenario as a sign.
“Holy fuck!” you think. “I was made for bass guitar.”
Right then and there, you devote your life to the study of jazz bass. You tell the undergraduates—whose genitals are stimulated too, but for different reasons—that they should quit fucking around with older men, and go do their damned homework. Then, you rush out of the club.
You send a text message to UC’s Director of Graduate Studies.
Dr. Jon Donne:
I hereby withdraw from the program.
The next day, your agent informs you that Victor Wooten has agreed to give you a crash-course on bass guitar. Victor asks for $1,000 per hour. You agree. Go Victor!
You return to New York. It’s freezing cold there, unlike Ohio, where, at the end of March, the days become hot and muggy. Wooten’s on his way up from a Caribbean island. You call your agent and say, “When Mr. Wooten arrives, get him a winter jacket and ear muffs.”
A private jet delivers Victor Wooten. Two armed security guards escort him out onto the runway. His wrists are shackled. This is your agent’s fault. She’d misheard your instructions. Instead of asking the travel agency to supply ear muffs, she said, “He will need hand cuffs.” When she said “jacket,” the travel agent mistook the word for “jihadist.”
After Homeland Security detains Victor for nine hours, you apologize profusely. Victor’s a nice guy. He says, “I’m just glad that they didn’t electrocute my nipples.”
You bring him home, and employ him around the clock. You let him sleep in the mop closet, temporarily, until you clean out the guestroom. It’s floor-to-ceiling with books. All first editions, too. You like to be as close to the source as possible.
After three months studying with Victor Wooten, you apply to Julliard, the Berklee School of Music, and the University of North Texas in Denton. You get accepted in each program. You attend all three schools, simultaneously. After two months, you’ve earned three MFAs in Jazz Performance. You publically announce that you are now a jazz musician, and an hour later, you’ve got a record deal with Sony.
Although you’re happy, there’s a sad side to this story. In Lansing, Michigan, there was a bass guitar prodigy named Harvey Harper. A while back, he formed the Harper Brothers Quartet. They worked unrelentingly to build a reputation. They toured out of an old mini-van, with a dented U-Hall trailer hitched to its back. They ate beans and anything labeled “Manager’s Special.” They never had enough money to stay in motels. Sometimes, they slept on people’s floors, but more often than not, they’d huddle in the van, shivering. But they had high hopes, and soon, Sony expressed an interest in the band. An A & R rep, Brenda, said, “Let’s have a chat.” The Harper Brothers Quartet drove to New York. Ten minutes before they signed a contract, Brenda received a phone call. The person on the other line said, “I’m representing James Franco. It’d be in your best financial interest to give the man a record deal.”
After the call, Brenda went back to the lounge, where Harvey and his pals were waiting nervously. Brenda was not holding a contract. “Sorry guys,” she said. “We’ve decided to channel our resources into a more culturally prominent client. We’re going to have to pass on you.”
That night, Harvey Harper quit jazz. He gave his bass to some random Hipster kids who’d walked by with his head down.
Harvey considered a career in literature, but then laughed at the idea. He thought, “I just don’t have the time, energy, money, or connections to work my way up from the bottom again.”
I have no clue what Harvey’s doing right now. I’ve lost touch with my characters.
You’re not to blame, so don’t feel impelled to pout over Harvey’s misfortune. Lord knows how many people I’ve displaced unintentionally. It happens.
Anyway, Sony tries to put together the James Franco Band. They contact their best jazz musicians and say, “We’ve got a gig for you. You want to be in James Franco’s new band?”
The legendary New Orleans’s pianist, Moose Booker, says, “Fuck no.”
East Village scene drummer, Neville Clark , laughs. He says, “This a joke, right? Like when Hemingway wrote poetry?”
Chicago saxophonist Budd Jones says, “James Franco’s looking for a band? You sure this isn’t about scooping up some blackies for Planet of the Apes Part Two? I mean, I’ll do that, but I’m not playing music with that boy.”
Pianist, Cab Lewis, says, “That sounds like a job for Wynton, not me.”
Wynton answers his private line. He says, “You tryin’ to tell me that the son of the Green Goblin is playing jazz now? What, he get tired of being little boy Kerouac? What’s next? Olympic swimmer? Point-guard for the Knicks? The Pope? See, this is what happens whenever my white phone rings. Black phone rings, we talk business. White phone rings, we talk stupid shit. I’ll tell you what. I’ll play in his band under one condition. He’s gotta do a year in the trenches. If Snow White really wants me, then he’s gonna have to prove himself by getting a twelve-month long job directing a high school marching band, and high school jazz band. And not at one them artsy, private, lakefront schools for high net-worth children. And certainly not one of them schools in an ‘up and coming’ neighborhood, either, because that just means the blacks are going down and out. I’m talking about the crack ghetto. If your boy can do a year in the hood, then you don’t even have to pay me to jam with him. I’ll do it out of the kindness of my heart.”
Request denied for “logistical reasons.”
You wait for days as Sony goes through their A-list of musicians, their B-list, their C-list, and finally, the D-list, which consists of an 85 year old arthritic saxophonists, a drummer who can’t play for more than three minutes at a time because it upsets his overactive bowels (prior to his complications, he went by the name Kenny Wild-Sticks Wilson. Now, unofficially, it’s Kenny Shits-On-Stage Wilson), and a racist trumpet player who has a history of abducting old Jewish women and throwing them into random, suburban backyard pools (His belief is that the World-Controlling Zionists have infiltrated the media and prevented the jazz-consciousness revolution) . Yet, even these leftovers and misfits couldn’t be persuaded to join your band.
Upset that nobody is talking you seriously, you create an E-list consisting of New School students. Seventy white boys and girls show up for auditions. You whittle in down to three.
Your band manager, Chip Jackson, organizes a tour. He wants you to warm up to the jazz scene, rather than jumping right in, so he bills the James Franco Quartet as an opening act for the Sammy “Shook” Williams Band.
You discover that jazz musicians are wholly unlike the self-conscious, aspiring writers in MFA programs. They refuse to act indifferently toward you. Whereas many aspiring writers, when broached by the topic of James Franco, will sigh or growl (then walk away stiffly), jazz musicians display no such emotional control. The disparity becomes apparent when you finally get to meet Shook Williams. You’d been looking forward to this moment since professor Gullet played Shook’s “Groove Stick” jam in Appreciating Modern Meta-Jazz class. Backstage, you say to Shook, “Man, I’ve had your Ellington Gone Whiskey cut stored in my iPod for over a year. You don’t know what a pleasure it is to meet you!”
Shook tilts his head. “You that Planet-of-the-Apes mother fucker?”
“Thought so. I heard your studio sessions. Ya’ll sound like an office full of people banging on old typewriters. You come back to me when you’ve found the bounce. Until then, this is my side of the stage.”
You walk away in shame. “What’s the bounce?” you wonder.
He says one last thing: “And keep your hands off the girls, too. They’re mine.”
During the first three shows, you get booed off the stage. Footage goes all over Youtube.
On the forth night, after your sound check, the famous drummer Weatherman Rivers and a much younger, unidentified man approach you at the bar.
“Weatherman!” you say.
He snarls. “And whether or not you continue this tour is what you and I are going to talk about. See here—” Weatherman puts his arm around the younger man’s shoulders, “This is Bobby Jamel. He’s been playing bass since he was smaller than your pecker. And if you and he were playing on stage together, everyone watching will think, ‘Jamel’s got a much, much, bigger pecker.’ He’s been on the circuit for ten years, with the Lester Haynes Band. And last month, they scored a gig sharing the bill with Shook’s boys. Biggest breakthrough in their lives. But two days before packing the gear, he gets a call. Tour manager says, ‘You’re out, Franco’s in.’ Now how you going to look my boy in the eye and tell him that you deserve his dream?”
Here’s where I’ve set myself up. I don’t know how you’d respond.
Does James Franco tell Bobby Jamel, “It’s a dog eat dog world,” or does show compassion and humility? Does he cry? Does he rush backstage and tell backup band of white hipsters that the tour’s over? Or does he become determined to prove himself, to find that “bounce”—whatever the hell it is—that Shook mentioned?
All I know is this: someone—maybe you—cancels the tour. You’re not throwing in the towel, though. If I know one thing about you, it’s that James Franco never backs down. Sony, quick to respond to the disgrace, calls a Hollywood studio and says, “We have to save James’s reputation! Quick, we need a film about jazz!”
A few days later, you sign an agreement to play the role of Miles Davis in a film called Miles. Your makeup artists, and everyone else involved, will insist on painting you black. You’ll have some problems with that.
I don’t have it in my heart to end this story with you wearing blackface. That’s taking this much too far. A more finely wrapped ending would show you resuming your literary career.
Here’s a question that might haunt you for the rest of your life, unless I intervene: “What did Shook mean by ‘the bounce,’ and how do I obtain it?”
Bounce is a particular rhythmic feel. It takes years, maybe even decades, to develop. The notes bounce. Not just swing, but bounce.
I have some good news for you, though. You’d found the bounce a long time ago, when you played Ginsberg in the film Howl. Listen to yourself when you recite the poem. Listen to your rhythm. It bounces. It swings.
It’s jazz. Just listen to it.