For this story, the music came first. As I explained in “Weirdsville: A Playlist for Revenge,” the story came to me while listening to a playlist I put together. The music told me a story, and I wrote it down.
The story actually owes a debt to Peter Gabriel and his story that’s included in The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a story that recounts the events of the music. In a larger sense, my story might be part of the tradition of so many progressive rock concept albums—although in my case, I didn’t write the music, and it’s not all progressive rock. Still, if you know many concept albums, you’ll probably understand what I’m talking about.
The plain text is presented below, but for the best experience, view the PDF, which includes links to all the music (on YouTube or Spotify) as well as the artwork for the playlist itself. Either way, I hope you’ll enjoy the musical, lyrical, and story symmetry.
As he woke in the late afternoon, Johnny was thinking of Barcelona, although it was a place he’d never been—except, perhaps, in dreams. He knew its colorful architecture, spires with crosses from the old world and skyscrapers of the new. The songs and celebration began, and there was joy enough to shake the foundations from the sky. Weaving through it all, her voice: that perfect, lovely soprano. The Barcelona girl, like a jewel in the sun. He didn’t know who she was, but if God is willing, he thought, they would meet again—for the first time.
Back home, in a place that might be England, Johnny began his nightly pub crawl, hoping to find her—if not in person, or in a dream, then at the bottom of a glass. He traveled alone, his first stop a seedy dive with a small stage where Rattlin Willie sold his fiddle so fine, screeching notes nowhere near as pure as the sweet soprano voice. But the timing beat well with Johnny’s heart, so he ordered another pint of wine.
Second stop found Johnny at a hopping jazz club, where he felt he should have worn some bigger pants to fit in with the zooty crowd. The combo of Lee & Larry played a six hour improvisation on the theme to “The Flintsones” that had the joint dancing, then finished off the night with a chorus of “Danke Schoen.” Johnny stumbled out into the night, feeling like a zombie, this head thick with drink.
Next thing he knew, Johnny woke at dawn on a dewy hillside. He had fading tendrils of a dream of children dancing around giant standing stones, which the children towered over. Johnny had joined in the paradox and danced with devils beneath the haunted moon. As the sun peaked over the distant horizon, he saw towering standing stones here: Stonehenge. And druids coming to greet the day.
They weren’t druids, but shepherdesses, Johnny saw, as they came closer. Sweet young girls from a nearby village in peasant dress, bearing shepherd’s staffs and tending their sheep. They picked up Johnny and led him to their home. Any one of them would have fallen instantly in love with him with but the slightest encouragement, but Johnny’s heart beat only for the Barcelona girl. They each tried in turn to entice him, and he wondered if he should give in and stay with them.
When he saw the poster to enlist for the Peninsular War, however, he said, “Now is my chance to find her, the one, the dream,” and so off he went to fight in Spain. The Bantry girls mourned when he left, and again when they heard he’d been killed on the field of battle, but they knew it was their lot always to be left behind to plow the fields all day and tend the sheep.
Meanwhile, lying dead in Spain, Johnny still couldn’t give up his dream to find the Barcelona girl. Not even death, he thought, as unexpected as it was, could remove his iron longing. In a death-dream, he knew he could abandon himself to noble rot, but instead he yearned for the girl. As someone sang a requiem for the dead, he strained to rise, but the weight of his dead body was too much. The effort brought tears to his eyes—iron tears. He cried out the musket bullets that had pierced him. One after another they fell out of his eyes, rolled down his cheeks, and dropped in the mud.
And he wondered: Why was he in a war with musket balls? He remembered being a twentieth-century man, with video, computer screens, wires connecting everything, but no space for love. Now he was dead, so even if he had a heart attack from the stress of it, he couldn’t die.
His heart wasn’t beating. That’s how he knew he was dead. But he imagined its steady pulse. He dreamed its beat. And then he walked out beneath a stone arbor, gray clouds blowing easterly above. He was dead, but he was back in the world. He was Zombie Johnny.
Unlife as a zombie was an adjustment. Broken bones made it hard for him to stand or walk. He felt like a rolling blob of rotting flesh. But he still had his mission to find the Barcelona girl. If only he could stop sliding and splotching all over the walls and floor and scaring everyone he met.
Only one hundred and ten years later, he was still dead, but he’d gained some control over his limbs. He’d had some time to wonder why he still roamed. His best idea was that he must be in love. He could see her face when he closed his eyes—or so he told himself; it was hard to say, since he’d never met her, whose face it was he imagined. She was a dream, a perfect dream. And he would continue until he found her.
The briars and brambles tore his skin. Sometimes he left little chunks of himself behind. That’s how they got onto him. Johnny knew he was in trouble when they sent the corpse tracking dogs after him, the night-dark beasts created for this one purpose. He climbed over fences, dashed across yards, beneath the moon in the cold night air because the moon was bright and would slow the dogs. He never knew he could run so fast! The dogs stayed on his trail. He dashed through an icy stream, knowing it would slow him down but might get them off his scent. The stars came out and hid him, and he kept running. All the while, he had a song in his unbeating heart, sung in a sweet soprano, leading him on into the night and further away from the dangerous dogs.
He didn’t feel safe, but he saw light ahead and thought of shelter. A small schoolhouse glowed under the moon, and Johnny heard the sound of the alphabet being recited within. He knew this place! He was back in his boyhood hometown of Kalamazoo. There was a freckle-faced girl he used to court, carrying her books home from this very schoolhouse. Her father was a miller who lived in the glen. He’d heard she was the schoolmarm now.
He went to the door. While the children, for unknown reasons attending night school, went screaming out the windows at the sight of Zombie Johnny, the freckle-faced girl, now a woman, crossed her arms and glared. “So you’ve finally come home. Swine! It’s too late. I’d say I wished you were dead, but . . .”
It was so long since anyone had talked to him. But she was right: His heart wasn’t beating, and he lived only to find the Barcelona girl, not her.
She approached him down the aisle of the school room. “There’s only one thing I can do for you,” she said.” She pulled out her penknife.
He thought she meant to stab him, but instead she carved into his chest: a riddle. Over his unbeating heart, his dead flesh parted for the words “One Song Glory.”
“You have all you need. Now go.”
Back out into the night Johnny ran. He couldn’t believe he’d become such a freak. Now that he thought about it, he realized he was starting to smell, his rotting flesh like spoiled milk mixed with manure. “I’m a freak boy!” he wailed as he ran, trying to outrun his odor. The stench overwhelmed him in a kaleidoscopic miasma. He drifted in clouds like cotton candy fog. Around him floated unexplainable things: ducks, pianos, boxing gloves, penguins, bowling balls, cannons.
And then the insanity passed, as if with a giant explosion. Thereafter, Zombie Johnny determined to be a better man. Or zombie. He roamed the land doing good works. He went up and down Europe, preaching and bringing liars and thieves back into the fold. He would at times work with other friars or nuns, but most of the time he spent alone.
He didn’t forget the girl, the soprano from Barcelona, but after so much time, her song had faded in his memory so that he felt truly alone. He had no one, no song, to comfort or guide him. Not even a horse to call Patsy. He had worked long and hard, but now he hung his head in despair.
When he did, he saw again the message scrawled on his chest: One Song Glory. He had for uncounted time searched for the Barcelona girl, following her song. But he was losing the song; it was burning out of him like a virus, like a sunset. He didn’t think he could ever find it again.
That’s when he decided he needed his own song: a song for the girl. He would find the song of his heart and sing to the girl. That was how he would find her. And that was what he did. He looked in his heart for the eternal flame of love, and he spun out the song in all its glory. He sang the song into the universe, and as he did, he cast off his rotted flesh and became a new man.
But he heard no response.
He was exhausted. He sat in a yard somewhere; he’d lost all sense of place and time. His gaze rested on a rusty watering can and an ant making its way along the edge. From there, his vision widened. “Good gracious, would you look at all the animals!” he thought. They were all just like him: looking for that perfect love. From elephants and kangaroos to penguins and pussy cats. And even tiny ants: they all had a song to sing.
Johnny jumped up and sang his song again, filling it with the new joy he’d found, filling it with his soul, his self. And did he hear a response?
Yip yip de hootie! She couldn’t say no! Yip yip de hootie, yip yip de hootie! She said yes, she said yes, she said yes . . .
His heart beat in a steady rhythm when he woke, like someone keeping metronomic time with piano keys. She said yes, he remembered. Why, then, this melancholy?
He watched the sun collapse into the horizon, shadows springing up like a stark diorama to swallow the light. And he wondered: Did he find something in the waking world or in this perfect dream?
As the cold crept in to his new flesh, he tried not to shiver.