The story itself of Andrew Rae’s Moonhead and the Music Machine is pretty straightforward: a boy with his head in the clouds feels like he doesn’t fit in, and by being confident, he does become a little popular, but then realizes his art and friendships are more important than trying to fit in.
The conflicts, as well as the characters, could be much more nuanced. There is even a moment that feels right out of Donnie Darko with a young overweight girl that looks like Cherita dancing between two swans, and then a boy shouting “You suck!” Joey’s friend Sockets looks like a cross between Tina Belcher and Daria, but acts out the role of the girl best friend who gets left behind when Joey makes another friend. And of course there are the popular bullies dating the stereotypically hot blondes.
Joey gets in trouble at school for being absent-minded. The truth of the situation, of course, is that Joey’s parents are just as absent-minded and spacey, and that has made them poor parents. His father is preoccupied with science experiments, and his mother is preoccupied on the phone. They, being the only family of moon-headed people in the community, are just trying to fit in and play out the story that is expected of them.
And perhaps the familiarity of this story is the point. Because of these archetypal characters and familiar setting, Joey Moonhead sticks out even more as an oddity that cannot fit in.
In looking through his parents’ old records, in seeing who they used to be before they gave into conformity, he is inspired to make his own music. These vinyl sleeves are one of the highlights of this book. They make homage to classic records, but all the art is some sort of strange creature: a tree with sunglasses and a mustache, a woman with a fruit basket for a head standing in for Carmen Miranda, and an octopus with a tiny top hat are just a few of the strange musicians that give Joey Moonhead inspiration.
Joey, emulating the part of his father that fancies himself an inventor, decides to build his very own musical instrument, an amalgam of a guitar, bass, keyboard, drum, and trumpet. But, like many high school kids, Joey is being taught that he must act and sound like everyone else, so if he is practicing something and not yet that good at it, what he is doing must be wrong. Everywhere he goes, people tell him to be quiet.
Even despite some positive feedback (very little) from his father and the ambivalence of the shop teacher, Joey is not confident he is on the right path until he meets Ghost Boy, who is seemingly a boy with a white sheet over his head. Joey is craving art that looks the way he feels: different. Great art approaches the same tired tropes in ad infinitum, but the artist makes these universal stories feel fresh and new.
The striking visuals are truly what makes this story seem fresh and exciting. The background details, such as the wall behind the teacher as he talks to Joey’s parents is covered in framed pictures of the teacher shaking hands with person after person, always with the teacher in the same pose. A girl opening her locket to pet a contraband cat. The scrap heap, full of forgotten appliances and instruments. Ghost Boy dancing in a school hallway while Joey jams in a closet full of uniform boxes. Every character and setting, no matter how minor, is fully realized and alive with beautiful creative energy.
Now, having said all that, there are two things I am gushing to talk about: 1) Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot and 2) the moment when Doug the bully plays Joey’s instrument.
Bertrand Russell’s idea of the celestial teapot boils down (*cough*) to the idea that the burden of proof rests with those that say something that cannot be easily proven. He supposed that one could say there is a very tiny tea kettle between Earth and Mars, but that it should be accepted that people will laugh at you in disbelief. This question of faith in the unseen has been surreally warped in Moonhead and the Music Machine as Joey’s teacher prays during a school assembly, “Oh celestial teapot orbiting the sun, hallowed be thy name” and then says, “Now everyone turn to page 169 and let us sing: ‘Oh Magestic Teapot of the Heavens.” The very argument for skepticism toward faith has been misinterpreted as something to be worshipped.
I myself attended a very small private religious school with a graduating class of three people (I was the only one not named Sarah Elizabeth, and the Sarahs were not related) and a pet goat tethered to the monkey bars. Our English classes were fueled by the idea that literature was not to be taught unless there was a strong connection to Christianity. We had a picture of John Steinbeck stapled to the wall as part of a collage of “Great American Writers,” but when I brought my copy of The Grapes of Wrath to school, I was told to take home my socialist literature. We were only allowed to read Native American poetry with the caveat that their “Great Spirit” was really the Christian God. To entertain the literature of anyone who was not Christian was to entertain demonic ideas. I often “accidentally” forgot to burn the Barenaked Ladies CD I had (although my father found it and threw it in the trash because it hurt his spirit) and trade it for something called Jars of Clay.
So here is Bertrand Russell’s own argument rebranded to be deemed acceptable.
The point is, part of being a kid is being weird: we are wired to consume and make strange, pointy, jutting, awkward art. And eventually, if we let them, other people will shame us into stopping.
Which brings me to the scene where the stereotypical bully Doug rips Joey’s instrument out of his hands and attempts to play for his music producer father. Yes, Joey and Doug have both been inspired by their fathers and the music which has come before, but Joey realizes we must ultimately create our own voice and not be afraid if we hurt a few ears. Doug, in attempting to make music his father will enjoy, provokes Joey’s music machine into spewing green sludge that consumes him, turning him into a monster. It may seem cliché to come right out and say it without Andrew Rae’s unique illustrations, but the message here is that to be an artist, we need something to say, and we have to say it in our own voice.
Moonhead and the Music Machine, by Andrew Rae. Nobrow Press. 176 pages. $24.95, hardcover.
David Rawson’s short stories, poems, and reviews published in various journals such as The Monarch Review, Monkeybicycle, Prick of the Spindle, and Spork. His journalism has appeared in the Johnston City Herald and the Carterville Courier in southern Illinois. David is also the author of Fuckhead, available from Punctum Books, and A Jellyfish for Every Name, from ELJ Publications.