Cover Band, a chapbook by Michael Tramell published by New Black Mountain Press, is deceptively simple in design and content. The cover is made out of brown cardstock and is adorned only with a simple record graphic. The pages are gray. The stitch is a sort of modified loop stitch, bound with one simple knot. I was completely drawn in by this design. At times, it is perhaps better to allow a book to be basic, unadorned—sometimes that is the most beautiful type of book. Certainly that is the case here. Additionally, the design matches up well with the content, which is direct and conversational.
In the first story, “Cool,” Trammell describes a night playing in a cover band at a dive bar, including the patrons, “cement stains on their jean’s knees.” This struck me as such an amazing detail. With basic prose, Trammell creates an entire world which unfolds from a wonderfully rendered phrase. Towards the end of the story, the characters’ places of employment are listed—“Subs-D-lux, Hale Carpet, Tex Roofing.” He needs not emote about the importance of this one escape for these men. We understand that this is their passion, not the jobs listed. Trammell again gives the reader a sense of the characters with one apt detail.
The first and last stories both end with a late night/very early morning breakfast at Denny’s. This is exactly what these stories feel like—late night conversations. They retain a sense of craft, however, that I doubt is a usual feature of such conversations. Trammell never falls into clichés, though his topic (the potential for escape or reinvention through music or art more generally) has certainly been covered. He provides new eyes.
Personally, I think the standout story is “Ballet in the Band,” in which the narrator’s brother, a ballet dancer, joins the band and becomes an embodiment of that most fundamental element of rock—lust. After he plays his Strat, he performs “a perfect arabesque” and falls “into the glassy-eyed nymphs who catch and clutch all they can.” The women in this poem are so enamored by the dancer/rocker, who is the perfect sort of David Bowie (or even early Mick Jagger) androgynous sex icon. He is swaggeringly graceful, brutally gorgeous.
In “Maple Leaf Rag,” the narrator describes playing a piano loud enough to drown out his father’s clapping in time. He plays “until the claps are gone.” The relationship between father and son becomes so important here. Though we know little to nothing about this relationship, there is an identifiable tension in that line. Something fundamental and recognizable is at work in all of these poems.
I highly recommend this chapbook. The design works in tandem with the prose to create a finely crafted object, a wonderful reading experience, and a memorable book. Trammell has harnessed the striving of the weekend rock star perfectly. He encapsulates the raw sexuality of the musician as well as the 3:30 A.M. still-up-drunk -over-waffles humanity of him.