In the early 1990s, I heard a curious audiocassette that was shared among my musician friends in San Francisco. It contained recordings of a man called Dion (rhymes with lyin’) McGregor, who talked vociferously in his sleep. The 10 dream recordings were not the yelps of someone waking in fear, though those sounds existed, too. The dreams spun out bizarre stories that entered my brain as music, with their repetition, rhythm, and Tourette-like utterances.
From a dream called “Our Town”: “Oh yes, tongues wag in this town. They wag, yes! From the highest banker right down to the lowliest sweeper in the tradesman store. Tongues wag. Yes they do. And they’ve got a lot to wag about. Hmmmph! Well, take old Mrs. Smith-Rhonson . . . [her son] has hands, and elbows, and arms, and no wrists!” Experiencing McGregor’s dreams in real time, as if I were crouched next to his slumbering form, was like being cuffed to the crazy guy on the bus—exhilarating and creepy.
The tape had been copied from a 1964 LP called The Dream World of Dion McGregor (He Talks in His Sleep). When I first heard the recordings, I didn’t know McGregor’s background—that he was a lyricist who had lived in New York in the 1960s; that he was a savvy couch-surfer, bon vivant, and cinema fanatic; that Michael Barr, his roommate and song collaborator, had recorded McGregor’s dreams on a reel-to-reel as potential lyrics—I just felt uncomfortable, eavesdropping on someone’s nightmares, yet wanting to know more.
I recently gleaned some answers from a book version of The Dream World, which was published the same year that the Decca LP came out. The book contains 70 dream transcriptions, with a cover by Edward Gorey, and the contents are charming—if you think a lonely tale of perching on a chimney in a cityscape of other peopled chimneys has charm.
Sleeptalking occurs in a half-awake state, much like that of sleepwalking, writes Valentine Wolf Zetlin in the book’s introduction. He notes how unusual it is to sleep-talk at length, as McGregor did, and with such narrative coherence.
In the book’s preface, McGregor does not psychoanalyze himself, preferring to offer the dreams as artifacts. He plays sly, writing, “You may not believe this, but I’m one of those people who really values his privacy.” He explains that he knew he was a sleeptalker but hadn’t heard his dreams until one particular morning.
The night before, he had fallen asleep, frustrated by songwriting, and had woken up screaming. Barr ran into the living room where McGregor slept and was “beside himself with joy.” He forced McGregor into the kitchen to listen to the tape of his “ravings” before McGregor could finish his cup of coffee. Barr continued taping the dreams, playing the recordings for New York friends in the publishing and music scenes. Eventually, friends of friends turned the spoken dreams into the LP and the book.
The book’s chapters seem to be narrated by someone other than McGregor, by all accounts a charming guy. In “Cottage for Sale,” McGregor brags about the home’s ample closet space: “Well, my God, you’ve never seen such big closets. Each one with its noose hanging in there . . . yes . . . ’case you have noisy neighbors. Or . . . well, overnight guests . . . see that they swing properly. Yes, on their meathooks. Gorgeous meathooks.” It ends with a twist as McGregor seems to switch places with the unlucky visitors and says, “dreep . . . hublub . . . blubablubabluba lululululu . . . ap . . . aaaahhhh . . . eh.”
McGregor habitually spoke in his sleep, usually before dawn. Barr would wake and turn on the tape recorder, not worrying about ambient street noise seeping into the stories, although he kept a pillow handy to stifle his laughter. From around 1960 to 1967, Barr recorded more than 500 of McGregor’s dreams, always planning to turn them into a movie, a musical, or some other creative venture.
Toward the end of the book I found a dream grimmer than most. In “The Tenses—Part I,” McGregor says: “Let’s go to Futureland! Oh, that’s terrible; oh, that’s terrible. That would be my house in Futureland? Well, what’s that woman doing there sitting in that room? . . . She’s threading a needle. She’s putting little beads on a needle. Each bead is an hour of my life? Well, I can’t stand it—she’s only got one trunkful. . . . Oh, she’s putting my days on the threadddd! . . . Drop the beads! Drop the beeeeeeeeeeeedddssssss!” Gorey’s illustrations, though they have a light touch, echo this bleakness.
McGregor’s underworld, and Gorey’s interpretations of it, remind me of my young son’s private monologues. One night my son narrated his toys’ actions in the bath in a dreamlike, lyrical state: “Every day skeletons come up. Every night skeletons come up. The high tide is going onto the shore and leading the skulls out to sea.” I wrote down his words, amused: Whether we are awake or asleep, I thought, adult or child, we mull through death scenarios. But I wasn’t as amused when I read McGregor’s dream “The Tenses—Part II.” The frightening lady appears again: “She just sits there in the shadows . . . it’s almost like she’s sewing, isn’t it? Oh she’s stringing, stringing my life on a string. . . . You’d think there’d be separate colors for separate moments. They’re all the same: chocolate moments.” To which I would answer, if I could, with another quote from my son: “We live. We die. That’s all.” And in between, we dream.
Alex Behr is a writer in Portland, Oregon, whose work has appeared in Oregon Humanities, Lumina, and The Rumpus. Excerpted from Tin House (Summer 2011), a wildly delightful literary journal that showcases a roster of writers both emerging and established.www.tinhouse.com/magazine