Say Goodbye by Lewis Shiner

Twenty years before his magnum opus on life and music and bands and fame, Lewis Shiner published Say Goodbye a shorter novel on the same themes, set in the mid-1990s rather than the 1960s. The books share more than just themes: Laurie Moss, the central character of Say Goodbye is the daughter of Mike Moss, a singer in a high-school band that appears early in Outside the Gates of Eden. She gets her guitar from him, and much more.

Say Goodbye by Lewis Shiner

Shiner initially approaches Laurie’s story sideways, with an unnamed first-person narrator who’s a freelance music journalist in an unhappy marriage. The reporter interviews people who knew Laurie Moss when she was new in Los Angeles, yet another person drawn into the bright California sunshine for their chance at the even brighter lights of fame and fortune. There’s the guy from a music store who sold her her first four-track recorder and wound up getting her on stage for the first time in LA. “She was quiet sitting around the table, but onstage she had this, like eagerness. Like at the end of each song she couldn’t wait to get to the next one. It was some very contagious shit. … You could really see the energy happening [onstage] between Summer and Laurie. It’s like…it was enough for me to have done that, to have introduced them. I’m happy just being around the buzz, I don’t have to be the buzz, if you know what I mean. Not Laurie, though. She had that bone-deep hunger. I liked her from the first, but that hunger made me scared for her too.” (pp. 3–4)

There’s Bobbi, who owns the restaurant where Laurie worked for a while part-time. Bobbi had come out to LA in the mid-1960s, starstruck and sure that “Destiny had her hand on the telephone, about to dial my number. I was something then, you wouldn’t believe it to look at me now. Smart, good-looking, ambitious. I stuck it out for two years. All I ever got were walk-ons, which I took, and propositions, which I didn’t.” (pp. 4–5) Destiny never called.

Everybody in the world—my various agents, my roommates, producers, casting directors, strangers on the bus—all of them had reasons why I wasn’t famous. Maybe I had no talent. Maybe I had too much. Maybe I needed bigger breasts. Smaller breasts. A different agent. To stop changing agents. The one thing nobody could accept–least of all me—was that it might not be anybody’s fault at all. …
If it’s nobody’s fault, then everything is random. It’s out of control. It means being a star doesn’t really prove you’re a good actor, or beautiful, or, God help us all, lovable.
I told all of this to Gladys—to Laurie, I mean. Not because I thought it would change her mind, but so that when it happened to her she would maybe feel a little less alone. (p. 5)

Shiner could also be writing about the fiction business, fifteen years after the publication of his first book, with great reviews and at least one major award to his name. He isn’t a household name, even within his native genre of science fiction, although early in his career he was often mentioned in the same breath as Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, and is close enough to George R.R. Martin that the apartment where Laurie lives in Los Angeles is where Martin lived when he was there (p. 227). All Shiner does is write terrific books that far more people would love if they knew about them.

The narrator talks to a neighbor who knew Laurie when she lived in the fictional version of GRRM’s apartment. She gives him the background about Laurie and her father’s guitar.

One Saturday when Laurie was in sixth grade, her father came in from raking leaves, got the guitar out of the closet, and started to play. Until that afternoon she had never known what was in that odd-shaped tweed suitcase; when the guitar came out, Catherine [the neighbor] said, “it was like the sun coming up in the middle of the night.”
The guitar transformed her father into a creature of glamour and mystery and Laurie wanted that change for herself. She begged and pleaded until her father showed her a couple of chords. Years of piano lessons had never spoken to her as persuasively as her first five minutes of guitar, and “she would have kept playing all afternoon except her mother came in and gave her father a look. She said it was the kind of look you would give your car as it was slowly rolling over a cliff.”
It was apparently a defining moment for her father as well. He moved to Dallas and filed for divorce shortly thereafter.
“You know that’s her father’s guitar she plays on the record?” Catherine asks. “She talked him out of it on her way to LA. He didn’t want to give it up, even though he never played it. But he had to have seen how determined she was, how bad she needed it.” (p. 8)

Before long, the narrator connects with the men who would eventually form Laurie’s band. Gabriel Wong (who is Black, and adopted) was the bassist for the main act Laurie was opening for. He’s a comfortable session player, out of her league financially but she asks him to play on her demo tape anyway. He says he’ll listen to her second set and see what he thinks.

“She had something. She’s one of those people that seems too weird or intense until you see them on stage. Then it all clicks. Good songs, you know, where everything dovetails. Good with the audience. She got them to where they really liked her and were pulling for her. And that was Dick O’Brien’s crowd, total animals, not the kind of house you’d want to show fear in front of.” (p. 12)

The recording session a few days later starts out weird, Laurie’s nervousness proving contagious, but Gabe is a pro, and he lays it down.

“When it was done I handed her the headphones and she listened to the song … All I know is she looks like her dog just died. Then she turns off the machine and jumps up and goes into the kitchen. So there I am, standing in the kitchen doorway going, ‘Listen, if it’s that bad, I won’t take your money.’ She’s actually crying into a dishtowel. I start to apologize again and she looks up and says, ‘No, it’s perfect, I love it.’
“I said, ‘Has anyone ever told you you’re a little weird?’
“‘Actually no,’ she says. ‘I’ve done a pretty good job of hiding it until now. …
“She said another thing that really touched me. She said, ‘Listening to that tape just now was the first time, ever, that I believed something might happen with my songs. That somebody might actually want to buy an album to listen to them.’ And she said it was me that made that happen, which is ridiculous, but it was still a really nice thing for her to say.” (p. 13)

Gabe is musically smitten and says there’s some people he thinks she should meet. There’s Jim Pearson, keyboard player and record producer. There’s Dennis, the drummer, whose last name I don’t think ever gets mentioned in the book. It’s part of a running gag about drummers not being the brightest bulbs in a band. And then there’s the fourth member of the garage band.

Jim pauses, then says, “Obviously Gabe was not that sanguine [about the whole setup], or he never would have brought Laurie in. I remember when he told me he’d invited somebody, I nearly had a seizure. It was a bit like telling your wife you’d invited a movie starlet to sleep over. We didn’t do things like that.”
“So you didn’t like the idea.”
“No, actually, I thought it was great. So maybe I wasn’t that sanguine either. But there were those among us who were definitely not going to like the idea. One of us. There was one of us. Gabe said, ‘I don’t care. We need this.’ And I said, ‘Fine, but you’re telling him, not me.'”
“‘Him’ being the legendary Skip Shaw.”
Jim nods and fills his glass. (p. 18)

Skip Shaw was a rocker from the ’60s and early ’70s. Laurie’s dad loved his songs. He was a bit more than almost famous, and he stumbled over all of the predictable hurdles: drugs, alcohol, pride, an epic falling-out with the record company, mismanaged money, and now twenty years later bitterness and self-pity. He’s still whip-smart and a guitar monster. It’s a dangerous combination, as everybody in the garage can see.

[Laurie’s] face relaxed into quiet pleasure. After half a minute Jim saw her glance at Skip, but he was no longer watching her. His eyes were closed and his head leaned forward as if he’d fallen asleep on his feet except that his left hand moved silently up and down the neck of his guitar, feeling its way toward something. Suddenly it slid high up to squeeze out a single prolonged, piercing note.
Laurie walked over to a vocal mike in the middle of the room, stopped playing long enough to switch it on, opened her mouth, and sang.
It came together that fast, and everyone in the room knew it. Jim looked at Gabe and got a nod and a slow smile in return. The air was sweet with the smells of hot electronics, camphor from the drums, the crème rinse in Laurie’s sweat-damp hair, the ancient musky odor of the garage. The pressure of the sound waves caressed their skins and vibrated all the way through them.
At some point Skip stopped long enough to say, “How about we roll a little tape on this?” And much, much later, after Laurie did a final vocal take, standing alone in the center of the garage in headphones while Gabe and Skip sat on the couch and Dennis lay on his back on the floor, she looked at her watch and said, “Oh my god. I have to be at work in five hours.”
Everyone left at the same time. Nobody said anything about doing it again. “But really,” Jim says, “I think everything after that first look that passed between Skip and Laurie was inevitable. Everyone in the room knew the two of them were going to end up in bed together, and every one of us, for our own individual reasons, tried to talk ourselves into believing we were wrong.” (pp. 20–21)

After Shiner’s description of that intense night, he’s ready for his narrator to connect more directly with Laurie. But not too directly. “She hates phones, and she thinks letters are too much work. But I still get email from her a couple of times a week. If you’ve got an address [the story is set in 1997], I’ll pass it along to her. No promises, but it’s worth a try.” (p. 21) And not immediately. The narrator sees a few more people, including the legendary Skip Shaw, before he emails Laurie.

“I liked the story you wrote in Pulse,” [Laurie’s reply] says. “Jim assures me you are very sweet, and Gabe, apparently, thinks so too. They want me to tell you everything. Should I?”
There is only one reasonable answer. “Yes, please,” I reply. (p. 33)

And she does. “Everything” is most of the rest of Say Goodbye, which is named after one of Laurie’s songs. How they had most of an album put together before they ever played a public gig. How sparks flew between Laurie and Skip and the various brush fires that set off. How they chased record labels until the magic moment when labels chased them. What happened when the magic wore off. The highs of touring, the lows of touring. All of that and more.

Shiner writes about how many brilliant artists never make it big, and how they might yet, and what that does to them. Here’s his reporter writing about his career, where the line between musicians, writer, and perhaps Shiner himself blurs considerably.

Then there was the book proposal I’d had going around for a couple of years. It was called Struggling, and it was about musicians who’d had minor hits over the years without ever getting beyond cult status, people like Gary Myrick and Dwight Tilley and Marti Jones, who’d been from label to label doing brilliant, deeply personal work, and were still playing the same clubs they’d always played, when they could afford to tour at all.
I tried to explain to one editor how the second half of most rock books was deadly dull. “It’s like Tolstoy said in Anna Karenina—all successful bands are the same. The drugs, the writer’s blocks, the concert riders for no brown M&Ms, the inevitable breakup.”
“Tolstoy said that?”
“This, on the other hand, is just the good parts. The first guitar, the first gig, the first single on the radio.”
“You’re not getting it,” he told me. “The bigger the act, the more books you sell. These people, they got no coattails your book can ride on.” (p. 150)

Shiner gives no further commentary on the editor. Say Goodbye needs no coattails for its brilliance, and it’s all about the good parts. Here, for example, is a moment from Laurie’s Christmas break back in Texas after she has met the band but before things really clicked.

Around seven o’clock, Laurie answered the phone and heard her father say, “Merry Christmas. Did you get your present?”
“I mailed it last week. Better ask your mother.”
She covered the mouthpiece and asked, and her mother did in fact come up with an envelope that looked suspiciously like it held a check, moving Laurie to equal parts hope and guilt. Inside, she found words and music to a song called “Last to Know.”
She picked up the phone again. “I found it.”
“Shhh. I’m reading.”
It was a story song, her favorite sort, with a natural voice and unforced rhymes, about a boy whose girlfriend was going to leave him rather than let him find out she was pregnant. When he does find out, though he’s the last to know, he makes her stay and marry him because he loves her and wants the baby. At the same time he has figured out what she knew all along, that it’s going to change everything, that it already has, and once again he’s the last to know.
Though it was a story she’d never heard before, she was not so naive as to believe he’d made it up. She was touched by the lyrics at the same time that she felt disoriented and a little hurt that the singer—she made herself think of him as the singer—had entered into the marriage with so many reservations.
“Sing it to me,” she said.
“I wrote the music out…”
“I want to hear you sing it.”
“Besides which, I don’t even have a guitar, thanks to you.”
Eventually, hesitantly, he began to sing. It was good enough, she thought, that if he’d ever recorded it, he would at the very least have made it to where-are-they-now status.
“Daddy, it’s wonderful”
“It’s the only song I ever kept, out of all the ones I wrote. I thought it was pretty good, except by the time I wrote it I didn’t have a band anymore and I didn’t know what to do with it.”
“I do. That’s what this is, isn’t it? For me to sing?”
“If you want it.”
“I want it.”
When she got off the phone, she read through the song twice more to fix it in her memory. Then, since no one was looking, she held it tightly against her chest. (pp. 43–44)

Just the good parts. And the ending that opens everything back up again. For Laurie, for the narrator. For writers, for musicians.

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  1. […] name of Skip Spence. He is rather obviously the model for “the legendary Skip Shaw” in Say Goodbye, where Shaw is Laurie Moss’ love interest and one of her principal antagonists. (The other […]

  2. […] title and author pair that my kids insisted on turning into a single phrase: Say Goodbye, Lewis Shiner. Best bits of French surrealism: The Man Who Walked Through Walls, Marcel Aymé. Best […]

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