Dan Grandbois of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club

January 25, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

April 2008

About a month or so ago, during a conversation over beer and queso at a Mexican restaurant on The Hill, Daniel Grandbois told me that he once broke down in tears during an Elvis Presley concert.  He was just a kid at the time, and Elvis was his hero.  In fact, Grandbois’ loyalty to the Memphis superstar was so great that he refused to even listen to other musicians.  His friends tried to introduce him to The Beatles and The Beach Boys, but Grandbois scoffed at them.  There was only one King of Rock ’n’ Roll. When Elvis finally arrived in Colorado on a comeback tour, Grandbois’ parents took him to the show, and he got so excited during the performance that he started to weep right there in public.  His mother asked him what was wrong, but he couldn’t explain it.  He still can’t.

It takes a certain type of boy to become a devoted Elvis fan.  You have to be whimsical enough to appreciate a dude dressed in a sequined jumpsuit, but it’s essential that you also understand the playful melancholy inherent in the music.  Elvis’s songs are often deceptively happy on the surface (especially the early ones), but the lyrics usually describe a tragic scenario.  Like all great entertainers, Elvis was a storyteller at heart, and his unique blend of upbeat rhythms and lonely narratives set a precedent in pop music that persists to this day.

It will probably come as no surprise to learn that Grandbois eventually became a professional musician and a writer of bizarre, poignant tales.  He currently plays bass in popular local bands such as Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Tarantella and Munly, all of which have been integral in shaping “The Denver Sound.”

I met with Grandbois to discuss his book, Unlucky Lucky Days, a dainty little tome that contains no fewer than 72 stories in no more than 119 pages.  I call them “stories,” but I’m not sure that’s an accurate description.  While every piece features characters of some kind who engage in conflict, the events do not follow a traditional literary format.  The writing is too surreal to be classified as flash fiction, but it’s not structured or conceived as poetry.  In fact, it might be more accurate to call them “narrative poems,” although I’m not sure such a designation exists, since I just made it up.  Here’s an example from a piece called “The Tunnel”:

A man and a woman stepped into a tunnel. It was lighter inside than they had expected. In fact, the deeper they went, the lighter it became until the light was so bright that it blinded them both.

That’s the entire piece.  Three sentences.  But what’s sort of amazing is how much Grandbois achieves in three sentences.  There are two characters who take action to accomplish a specific goal.  There is an obstacle in their way.  The characters overcome the obstacle, but they suffer in the process.

Do I know what it means?  No.  But I do get a definite feeling from the piece and a vivid mental picture — a sense of adventure and obsession that ultimately fades to loss.  Grandbois is not exactly sure how to categorize his writing, either, and like any good artist, he’s reluctant to push his own interpretations on the reader.  They’re experimental ideas, he says.  They’re pieces of a puzzle.

But it’s a critic’s job to define the indefinable; therefore, in a desperate attempt to look like they know what they’re talking about, book reviewers have compared Grandbois’ style to Borges and Kipling and even Dr. Seuss.  Of course, this is mostly bullshit.  Grandbois’ writing isn’t subversive enough to be true satire, and it’s too sophisticated to be classified as children’s literature.  If Unlucky Lucky Days ever makes it into The New Yorker, I’m certain the term “magical realism” will be bandied about with the appropriate level of intellectual snootiness, but I don’t buy that moniker, either.  While there’s definitely some Kafka action going on here, it’s mostly conceptual and only partially stylistic.  Kafka’s sense of humor was much, much darker than Grandbois’, possibly because the Czechs are just a morose group of bastards in general and possibly because Kafka was dying of tuberculosis while he was doing most of his writing.

In any case, it’s my opinion that Grandbois has tapped into something more obvious and elemental than the intellectual garage sale he’s been associated with.  Like Les Claypool (another bass player turned writer), Grandbois is finding ways to bring pop culture into the literary sphere.  Ultimately, when I read this book, I think of a man standing alone on a stage dressed in a long, white cape.  This man is old, but he wants to be young.  He has long sideburns and a beautiful pompadour of jet-black hair.  In the audience, there is a young boy, sensitive and full of imagination.  The man sings about blue suede shoes and women who ain’t nothin’ but hound dogs and letters that are marked “return to sender,” and the boy cries.  But he doesn’t know why.

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