music friday: liz phair and gina arnold, exile in guyville

I just finished Gina Arnold’s fine book on Exile in Guyville, another entry in the 33 1/3 series. I spent the 90s reading Arnold’s “Fools Rush In” column ... she seemed to inspire a lot of vitriol, not just from people whose missives appeared in Letters to the Editor segments, but from people who wore “KILL GINA ARNOLD” t-shirts. Often, what I loved about Arnold’s columns was the very things that irritated her detractors. She regularly inserted her personal life into her writing. Here she is in a 2001 interview:

I have always felt that one of the flaws in a lot of rock criticism (besides the boring prose style) was that it tried to be objective–which is impossible, with something like music. The best you can hope to be is descriptive: you know: this is who I am, this is what happened to me, this is why it means something to me, if you agree you might like it too. And if you don’t, well then, ignore it.

Katy St. Clair once wrote of Arnold’s decade of writing for the East Bay Express:

A typical week for Gina would involve receiving a gift certificate for the services of Jack Kevorkian from a bunch of slighted Rolling Stones fans (yep, it really happened) or one or two letters making fun of her affinity for you-know-who. Everyone had different reasons for disliking her -- either she didnt get her facts right, or she didnt support the local scene, or she talked about herself too much, or she was too jaded and stuck in 1990.

In the same article, Arnold offers an on-point comment on the criticism she often received:

People would say to me, ... Why do I want to hear about your life every week? And I would say, You think I write about my life? Okay, what do you actually know about my life? And they wouldnt have an answer. I write about music and how it relates to things in my life, but very few people actually know me.

Is it any wonder I loved her? I’ve often argued that rock criticism learned a lot from Pauline Kael’s approach, and you can’t find a better example than this.

Her Exile in Guyville book is unlike her columns, but in a way I think makes sense. There is an academic feel to much of the book, and indeed, since the 90s, Arnold has gotten a Ph.D. from Stanfurd. Her writing now reflects this, and why not? She’s just continuing her personal touch.

She spends a part of the introduction informing us that she wrote much of the book in Seoul. I can already hear those haters from the past ... who cares where she was when she wrote? But one of her primary arguments in the book is that Exile in Guyville is informed by a community, “Guyville”, and what better way to remind us of this than by describing the community where she is writing, and how it helps her both gain the necessary distance from her subject, and also to see similarities between then and now.

The first two sections are the best, as she places Exile within the cultural context of its time. For me, the section where she compares Phair’s songs, one by one, to the corresponding tracks on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., is the book’s least successful. I know that Phair encourages the comparisons, but after such excellent cultural criticism, it’s a bit disappointing to read compare-and-contrast lyric analysis. Arnold does her best with the idea, but I got antsy. She recovers in her brief final section, which brings us full circle to Seoul.

Of course, now I’m going to do precisely what I’m complaining about. Here is Phair’s “Never Said”, chosen as much as anything because there’s an official video:

Arnold writes:

“Never Said” is about keeping secrets, probably the secret of who is sleeping with whom. Liz, alas, was unable to keep whom she was sleeping with secret and suffered the tortures of the dammed when her record came out. People guessed this and that and accused her of “sleeping her way” to the top ... People know who Mick Jagger sleeps with too ... but somehow it never seemed to have the same repercussions as Liz’s peccadilloes.

The very act of making an album that seems to take on the canonical favorite Exile on Main St. is irritating enough to those who make canons that they will find reasons to dismiss Phair from the start.

The Stones’ counterpart, using the track-for-track comparisons, is “Tumbling Dice”, where “The women, alas, are always trying to drag him down, with their bitchin’ and itchin’, but the men – i.e. the proverbial ‘tumblin dice’ of the title – can’t be tied down.... Great riff. Nice metaphor. Internal meaning not so pleasant, but that’s the Stones all over.”

I wonder what Arnold made of Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Tumbling Dice”:

The obvious question arises: what do I think of Exile in Guyville? I loved it at the time, and I think it holds up well. We saw her on her solo tour in 1995, playing songs from Guyville and Whipsmart, and she was admittedly unassuming, but that didn’t change my feelings towards the album. Here’s a very low-fi song from a different show on that tour:

I often think of Phair and PJ Harvey at the same time. In fact, back in 2010, I had an entire blog post about this:

Harvey, on the other hand, has never had to worry about being taken seriously. She didn’t turn into Avril Lavigne … she added theatricality, but in the context of indie rock blues that kept her sound rooted in the “authentic.” She followed up Rid of Me with arguably the best album of her career, To Bring You My Love. Her weirdness always seemed to call on primitive urges, where Phair wasn’t really that weird at all, in the end. Harvey remains uncompromising, remarkably so, really. And I’ve come to realize over the years that yes, PJ Harvey is a “better” artist than Liz Phair. But it still feels like Phair loses because her idea of uncompromising is seen as mainstream, even as she releases new material on her website instead of through a label … if you think Liz Phair is mainstream, you haven’t been listening to the stream for some time now.

I don’t know if I still think PJ is “better”. But I do know that to this day I play Exile on Guyville more than I play any PJ Harvey album. Having said that, I’m always looking for an excuse to post videos of Harvey performing “Rid of Me”, which I love more than any individual song of Phair’s.


music friday: ramones

jagger destroy

Nicholas Rombes was my editor for the anthology New Punk Cinema, which came out in 2005. The book included one of my better essays ... I began by quoting the great song by The Adverts, “One Chord Wonders”, and somehow ended up talking about Run Lola Run. In the contributors bios, we find that Rombes had a forthcoming book on the Ramones’ first album, part of the 33 1/3 series. Well, I finally got around to reading the book, and it’s a good one.

I’ve only read a couple of the 33 1/3 books. There was Michaelangelo Matos on Sign ‘O’ the Times, and an ever better one by Douglas Wolk on James Brown Live at the Apollo. In Ramones, Rombes does a good job of showing how the band’s primitive art didn’t just fall from the sky, and they didn’t play seemingly simple songs because they couldn’t play their instruments (unlike, say, The Adverts at the time of their first single), but consciously chose to make the records they intended. It’s perhaps an obvious point, except my recollections of the mid-70s is that many people assumed the band members were dumb. He explains that one reason they were able to produce their debut album for the legendary $6,400 was that they were prepared ... these were songs they had played regularly in concert. It took only a week, but “the Ramones approached the recording process with a high degree of preparedness and professionalism and a fiercely self-contained, unified sound.” Again, perhaps in retrospect this is obvious, but I admit I hadn’t thought much about the making of the album outside of that $6,400.

(Earlier today, I was watching a film of a Rolling Stones concert from 1978. This was the Some Girls tour, and the band had clearly been affected by the music trends of the day ... disco and punk in particular. Near the end, Jagger takes off his jacket to reveal a punkish-looking t-shirt that says “DESTROY” on it. A few songs later, he removes even the t-shirt, running around bare-chested. This is a relief, because the t-shirt had a swastika underneath “DESTROY”, which the network on which I was watching covered up electronically.)

His breakdown of the individual tracks is also interesting ... the writing is strong here. Rombes’ book made me want to listen to the album, and thus, Music Friday: Ramones.

Here is the expanded version of the album, which includes several tracks not on the original:

And if you only want one song, here’s “Blitzkrieg Bop” from one of the great live rock albums, “It’s Alive”:


doug henwood, my turn: hillary clinton targets the presidency

I’ll start with the cover. There’s no way not to start with the cover ... Henwood even added “An Author’s Note About This Book’s Cover” to the book’s forward. (The turnaround time for My Turn was extremely fast. Henwood states at one point that he was finishing the writing in October, and it was released in December.) In his author’s note, he says “As this book was entering production, we circulated the cover to get people talking about it. We never imagined how successful that strategy would be.” His discussion of the subsequent criticism touches on the larger issues he addresses in the book as a whole, and is deserving of some examination here.

Some people found the cover gross or disgusting ... more importantly, “Tweets and think-pieces about the cover quickly became a subgenre of a larger argument that tries to portray tough criticism of Hillary as sexist – inevitably so, given its incorporation into a dominant patriarchal discourse, regardless of the author’s intent.” That larger argument, which wants to discredit any criticism of Hillary Clinton, is what Henwood is up against when he writes this book. The criticism must be made, but it is attacked just as if he were coming from a right-wing perspective. He writes:

[I]f you’re looking for a more peaceful, more egalitarian society you’d have to overlook a lot about Hillary’s history to develop any enthusiasm for her. The side of feminism I’ve studied and admired for decades has been about moving towards that ideal, and not merely placing women into high places while leaving the overall hierarchy of power largely unchanged. It’s distressing to see feminism pressed into service to promote the career of a thoroughly orthodox politician – and the charge of sexism used to deflect critiques of her.

The seven chapters tell Clinton’s story “From Park Ridge to Little Rock” onwards “Toward November 2016”, with stops at “First Lady”, “Senator”, her first try at the presidency, “Diplomat”, and philanthropy. Almost a third of the book consists of footnotes. He mentions that the original article on which the book is based, which ran 6000 words, elicited a 9000-word refutation from just one person. Thus assuming that his book will be closely scrutinized, “I’ve provided plenty of footnotes ... to work with.”

If I had to pick a central point to Henwood’s argument, it is that concrete actions are worth far more than symbolic gestures. He returns again and again to Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, which Hillary strongly supported:

Later, as senator, she supported George W. Bush’s proposal to expand the work requirement for recipients of the surviving welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) – one of the few Democrats to do so. Advocates for the poor were shocked ...

A 2014 analysis ... found the following about ... [TANF]: fewer families were drawing benefits despite increased need; the value of those benefits have eroded to the point where beneficiaries can’t meet their basic needs; it does far less to reduce poverty than its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which welfare reform abolished; and almost all of the early employment gains for single mothers have been reversed.

The symbolic importance of a woman president can’t be denied. But if that woman’s actions (not her symbolic presence) result in declines for women, the symbol is unimportant.

This matters because so much of the pro-Hillary stance is that as a woman, she is inherently feminist, and her actions are inherently good for women. This is only true on the symbolic level.

There are other objections to Hillary Clinton that Henwood analyzes in detail. On more than one occasion, he quotes her statement from an October Democratic debate: “I represented Wall Street, as a senator from New York.” She seems unashamed of that representation, and it can be assumed that if she becomes president, she will remain loyal to the rich institutions that have donated so much to her campaign. She is also quite hawkish. Henwood notes of her review of a book by Henry Kissinger,

[S]he praised his “breadth and acuity” and described him as “a friend,” on whose “counsel” she relied while Secretary of State. Her appreciation of her predecessor seems apt. There’s something reminiscent of Kissinger about Hillary – the ruthlessness, the admiration of toughness and force, the penchant for deception and secrecy, the view of diplomacy as war continued by other means.

(Keep in mind, she’s talking about a war criminal, here.)

Daniel Davies does a better job than I can of demonstrating why My Turn is an important book:

My main impression on reading the book is that this is something that all Hillary supporters ought to be buying – it sets out all of the credible criticisms, without mixing them with a load of right wing dreck. One of the strongest points Doug makes is that a detailed look at her history and actions is much more relevant than any amount of wonky analysis of her policies, because the history tells you that you can’t expect the policy promises to turn out. ...

Hillary’s time on the board of Wal-Mart ... gets pretty detailed scrutiny, as do various accounts of how things went so terribly wrong with healthcare reform under the Bill administration. And there is chapter and verse (backed up with a somewhat hair-raising selection of quotes at the back) on support for wars of all sizes and the elimination of welfare payments.

So these are the arguments that supporters need to know about; they’re largely credible criticisms of Hillary as being a selfish, arrogant politician with consistently poor judgement on important questions. These are the points which supporters need to deal with. But I get the strong feeling that most of them are not going to realise that they need to buy this book.

And I suppose I should post a picture of the cover. The artist is Sarah Sole:

my turn

[Obligatory disclaimer: I’ve known Doug for 20+ years.]


childhood's end

When I was a kid, around the ages of 10-16, I read quite a bit of science-fiction. I wasn’t as big a fan as many people are. Philip K. Dick was far and away my favorite, but I feel like I came to him late, in the early 70s. Mostly in the 60s I read the same hippie material as everyone else, most notably Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. But another of my favorites was Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. While the book is known for its philosophical bent, the thing that really made an impression on me was the ships of the Overlords, most specifically, their size. Clarke referred to them as “huge and silent shadows” of “overwhelming majesty”. My imagination, fueled by Clarke, got the best of me. In my mind, the Overlords’ ship were so immense they covered the sky. In fact, my imagination was too puny to fully comprehend what Clarke had written ... I simply couldn’t imagine what such ships would look like if they appeared in my own sky.

I didn’t return to the book, at least not until recently, and I forgot most of the plot. But I never forgot the image of those enormous ships. And I hoped that some day Childhood’s End would be made into a movie, so I could see the ships visualized.

Clarke published Childhood’s End in 1953, the year I was born. There were several attempts over the years to bring it to the screen; all of them failed. In a forward to a 2000 edition of the novel, Clarke (writing when the book still hadn’t been filmed) noted that the times had caught up with his book, so much so that if a movie of Childhood’s End was ever produced, people would think it ripped off Independence Day, the 1996 film that featured what Clarke accurately described as “a very impressive version of the opening” of the book.

And it is true ... when Independence Day came out, I remember thinking “this is what I wanted to see of Childhood’s End”. Not the plot ... just the image of that enormous space ship. The quality here is pretty awful, but you get the idea:

Independence Day had a budget of $75 million (1996 dollars, I should add). It’s hard to find budget figures for Childhood’s End ... apparently it got more money than the usual SyFY product. So it may have been a creative decision rather than a budgetary one that gave us Overlord ships that were big but not overwhelming. This took some getting used to for someone like me, who has long hoped to see the ships as big as possible.

Giving the creators three parts and six hours (minus commercials) to tell the story should have allowed room for lots of the book, and I don’t think they missed much. The acting was ok, if nothing more, although it was fun seeing Charles Dance in his makeup (no matter how much demon-face they gave him, his eyes told you it was still him). Workmanlike, that’s what it was. The special effects were good enough, but not awe-inspiring. The story was good enough, but not awe-inspiring. The final section, which reveals the Overlords’ big plan, is OK, but here is where I think the series fell short. In the book, Clarke allows us to understand the evolution of humanity in such a way that it doesn’t seem like the end of people as much as a transformation. (That a book written during the Cold War posits a future of collective thought without making that future completely dystopian would seem to have been startling in its day.) I don’t know what the TV series wants to say at the end. We get the “end of people” aspect, but what happens to the children is largely a mystery, which I think made it seem more negative than Clarke might have intended.

I wanted Childhood’s End to be as awe-inspiring as I found those ships when I first read the book. I always preferred Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Star Wars because for all its excitement, Star Wars seemed prosaic next to the religious fervor of Close Encounters. The TV version of Childhood’s End had dollops of philosophy, a plot interesting enough to get us through three nights, and the great moment when we first see what an Overlord looks like. But it didn’t have awe. B+.


music friday: dean martin

I finally read the highly regarded biography by Nick Tosches, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. I’ll try to write more about this book later ... for now, here are two quotes that hint at the existential void that was Dean Martin:

He was a wise man. Wisdom had blessed him with a disregard for the worth of his own racket. Where others sought nobility in acting or art in song, he had known things for what they were, and that knowledge had set him apart. Wisdom too had blessed him with an understanding of human nature, and that understanding had set him apart as well. It had never been his own compulsion for lontananza or his own abhorrence of communication that had been a problem. The problem had been the pressure from others to change, to become more like them – to share, to relate, to confront, to lend the lie of meaning to all those meaningless verbs and more. To him, the problem was theirs: they who could never accept what they were nor live alone with it. Wisdom had given him the strength to do both. And wisdom, in its way, was leading him now to withdraw from the world in fact as well as in spirit. He no longer cared. He never really had.... When he returned to the Riviera in October, he seemed “as if he were someone impersonating Dean Martin.”

As Tosches puts it more succinctly early in the book, “Deep down, that, as much as anything, was what he was, a menefreghista – one who simply did not give a fuck.”

Some of his hits:

That’s Amore

Memories Are Made of This

Everybody Loves Somebody

His only music video, from 1983, “Since I Met You Baby”:

And this medley, from the great Rio Bravo ... with Dino, Ricky Nelson, and Walter Brennan ... “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” and “Cindy”:


kliph nesteroff, the comedians: drunks, thieves, scoundrels and the history of american comedy

Many of us have been looking forward to this book for a long time. Kliph Nesteroff has an encyclopedic knowledge of American comedy, which he has shared through numerous interviews posted to his Classic Television Showbiz website. Here is a partial list of the interviewees:

Buck Henry, Paul Krassner, Franklyn Ajaye, Dick Cavett, Peter Marshall, Orson Bean, Ed Asner, Professor Irwin Corey, Norm Crosby, Bob Einstein, Rose Marie, Steve Martin, Paul Mazursky, Marilyn Michaels, Gary Owens, Betsy Palmer, Tom Smothers, Larry Storch, Rusty Warren, Mason Williams, Alan Young, Marty Allen, Shelley Berman, Pat Carroll, Jack Carter, Bill Dana, Shecky Greene, Marty Ingels, Will Jordan, Rich Little, Steve Rossi, Connie Sawyer.

You may not recognize all of those names, but Nesteroff is such a great interviewer that every segment is interesting. And virtually every interview has a moment when Nesteroff, who is decades younger than the people he is interviewing, asks about some obscure date at some obscure club fifty years ago, and the comedian says, “how the hell do you know this stuff?” Here’s a sample from his interview with Shecky Greene:

Kliph Nesteroff: I watched a segment from The Hollywood Palace in which he [pianist Herbie Dell] was onstage with you.

Shecky Greene: Yes, which one was that? The Perry Como thing?

Kliph Nesteroff: It wasn't the Perry Como one. It was the one hosted by Donald O'Connor.

Shecky Greene: Donald? No. I had one hosted by Groucho Marx.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right, there is a Groucho Marx one, a Perry Como Christmas one, and one hosted by Donald O'Connor.

Shecky Greene: Where the hell did you get all of those things?

Kliph Nesteroff: The internet.

The Comedians puts the stories in one place, and offers a narrative of American comedy, as suggested by the various chapter headings: from vaudeville to radio, to nightclubs and television, late-night TV, comedy clubs, and so on. In one sense, nothing changes ... the comics put themselves on the line night after night, failure is always a weak joke away, great success often goes to your head. But Nesteroff also shows how the Marx Brothers were different from Eddie Cantor, who was different from Milton Berle, who was different from Lenny Bruce, and on and on, with important segments on people like Richard Pryor. Along the way, you’ll read stories about people like Rodney Dangerfield that are quite illuminating, if, like me, you think he appeared full-grown in the persona we all know him as.

The interviews are what got me interested in reading this book, but it stands on its own. I’m not sure I can recommend it to everybody ... I know not everyone shares my interest in the subject at hand. And it seems almost complete ... it’s hard to think of who was left out, although I wish the Firesign Theatre got more than one page. But if you enjoy detailed stories of popular artists from the past, you will like this book. And, if you’ve never heard it, you’ll even learn one of my favorite stories, about a radio comedian who went by the name Parkyakarkas, the legendary Bob Einstein (known for everyone from Officer Judy to Super Dave Osborne to Marty Funkhouser), and the filmmaker and comedian Albert Brooks. Nesteroff even added something new to the story, at least new to me, about the man who wrote a biography of Willie Mays.

And, just to indulge myself, here is one of my favorite Albert Brooks bits, from very early in his career:


carrie brownstein, hunger makes me a modern girl: a memoir

The day before Carrie Brownstein’s memoir arrived on my Kindle, I finally got a copy of Nick Tosches’ biography of Dean Martin. The book is endlessly praised, and I’d been meaning to read it since it came out 20+ years ago. I started right in, and realized instantly that it was as good as everyone said. That night, though, I wondered to my wife what I would do when Carrie’s book was finally released. Which book would I read? Would I go back and forth between the two?

The memoir hit my Kindle just before midnight. I looked at the pictures in the back and went to bed. When I woke up the next day, I started reading the memoir. There were a few things that sidetracked me ... I do have a life, no matter how much it seems I am drowning in idleness. A friend was visiting from SoCal, and we had dinner at a Louisiana-food restaurant. And the World Series was playing in the background when I was home.

I finished Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl about 9:00 PM that night. It took 21 hours from when I got it to when I was done reading it. Now I can get back to Dino.

Early in his book, Tosches describes Martin using an Italian colloquialism. From everything I’ve heard, and from everything I’ve read so far, this one sentence summarizes the life of Dean Martin: “Deep down, that, as much as anything, was what he was, a menefreghista – one who simply did not give a fuck.”

Carrie Brownstein gives a fuck. But, like Dean Martin and like most public figures, there’s the face she shows us, and what is actually going on inside. During her years in Sleater-Kinney 1.0, we got occasional hints that Carrie wasn’t just the perfect focus of our fantasies, most clearly on their last album prior to The Hiatus, with “Entertain”. Carrie always sang it with not a little venom, and the first lines show how confusing things were:

So you want to be entertained?

Please look away

Don’t look away

We’re not here cause we want to entertain

You can go away

Don’t go away

There was also “Jumpers” from that same album, which Carrie had written about people who committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. She wasn’t describing herself in that song ... on the other hand, she was admittedly depressed when she wrote it.

The thing is ... and we’re talking before Portlandia turned her into a semi-household name ... Carrie Brownstein’s stage persona was so liberating in its ferocity that I rarely if ever thought that persona might have grown out of someone who didn’t necessarily feel either liberated or ferocious when she was off stage. There is something about the indie ethic that assumes the musicians on the stage are “real”. This was never more clear than when the band would set up their own gear, or work their own merch tables. It’s not that I never fantasized about what Carrie and Corin and Janet were like off stage ... it’s that I assumed I knew what they were like, because of course they had to be the same off stage or on ... they were Real. (I could carry this to silly extremes. I once interviewed Corin and her other band, Cadallaca, and even though the three women all dressed up with big wigs and big makeup, and even though they adopted stage names ... Corin’s was “Kissy” ... my biggest memory of that interview was eating burgers backstage before the show. Corin Tucker eats burgers, just like real people, because she’s real, wigs or no wigs.)

What Carrie’s memoir tells us is that I had it wrong. She has always been articulate about the difference between being a performer and being a fan. Here, she delves deep into that difference. Much of the book is about her search for an identity. Her mom was anorexic, and in his 50s, her father came out to her. She writes:

We want our parents to be the norm from which we deviate. So when my dad came out, my instinct was that I needed to husband-up and get married. As if my family wasn’t freaky enough. Me: adrift. My sister: unmarried. My mom: ? And now my dad. Who would fly the flag of normality? ... I immediately felt like I should be popping out kids within a few years of my dad realizing he was gay. Let our parents be anorexic and gay! That shit is for teenagers. My sister and I would be the adults. We would be conventional, conservative even. Guns, God, country, and my contrarian, reactionary self. (This phase lasted about ten minutes.)

The book is broken into three parts, Youth, Sleater-Kinney, and Aftermath. The middle section is the longest by far, but the first part is fascinating, and it is there that she shows what a fine writer she is. I wanted to quote passages every other page. At one point, she answers a classified ad from a band looking for a guitar player. The band turned out to be 7 Year Bitch. She went for an audition, but it didn’t work out. She responded with a letter to band member Elizabeth Davis, promoting her guitar skills, but then going on to tell her life story:

I wanted so badly to be taken to some special place, to be asked into a secret club that would transform my life. I felt like music was that club. And to see inside for a moment and then be asked to leave was devastating.

As time went on, they would cross paths on occasion:

Later, when I knew what it felt like to carry the weight of your fans’ aspirations, I would remember the way Elizabeth looked at me after I’d sent the letter: a look of pity, distrust, and weariness. There is a gulf of misunderstanding between musicians and their fans, and often so much desperation that the musician can't possibly assuage, rectify, or heal. You feel helpless and you feel guilty. With Sleater-Kinney fans I tried to be generous, but I soon grew uneasy. For a long while I could share nothing more than the music itself. I think I was too scared to be open with the fans because I knew how bottomless their need could be. How could I help if I was just like them? I was afraid I might not be able to lessen their pain or live up to their ideals; I would be revealed as a fraud, unworthy and insubstantial. The disconnect between who I was on- and offstage would be so pronounced as to be jarring. Me, so small, so unqualified.

The first section also covers the “pre-SK” years. I was interested to find that Carrie first hooked up with Corin because she loved Corin’s band, Heavens to Betsy. I guess I thought of the two of them just popping up together one day, but of course, they didn’t come from nowhere. As you might imagine, Corin floored Carrie:

It was a combination of Corin Tucker’s voice and the lyrics. The beautiful parts were edged in disgrace and disgust; it bordered right on ugly the whole time. The singing was louder than it needed to be – did she even need a mic? ... The voice asked to be listened to but it did not beg or plead, it dared and challenged, it confronted but needed no reply from the listener. Any sadness was also defiant: it was not the wail of mourning but of murder. And there was so much I wanted to destroy.

The Sleater-Kinney part reminded me of a long-forgotten book by Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople, Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star. You learn what it’s like on the road, what it’s like to make records, what it’s like to be in a band. Much of it brought back good memories, but what seemed romantic for us (the lack of a road crew, the fact that they traveled in a van) was just drudgery to them. On tour, they lived for the time on stage. In the studio, they took pride in the ways they changed and the ways they never delivered a bad album.

I feel like I don’t want to spoil the whole book, so I’ll just say that it got really bad for Carrie by the time of The Woods tour. I remember sometime after the hiatus began, hearing bits and pieces about Carrie in the hospital while on the road, but here, you get the details. Throughout the book, she is extremely honest, which means she doesn’t always come across as the nicest person in the room. But she does come across as ... what’s the word ... real.

In an epilogue, she talks briefly about the return of Sleater-Kinney, and how their first rehearsal felt:

What I didn’t remember was how it feels to stand in a room while Corin Tucker sings. How her voice is the answer to so many of my questions, a validation, as if she knows the map of my veins. And I had forgotten the beastly avalanche that is Janet Weiss behind the kit, when our guitars are propelled by the cascading force of her. We ran through “Jumpers,” and this time it was not about death, it was about being alive.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl does a superb job of letting us inside Carrie Brownstein, via great writing and a smart sense of what makes a memoir work. In passages like the one above, Brownstein also perfectly describes why Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss are such special artists. If this book lacks anything, it’s just an outsider’s look at Carrie herself. That defeats the purpose of a memoir, to some extent. But those of us who read this book, who have followed Sleater-Kinney for all of these years, know that Carrie Brownstein is a special artist. She can’t come right out and say that ... it’s up to us to say it for her.


disgruntled, by asali solomon

If I were still teaching, I would love to assign Disgruntled, which is high praise coming from me. It is the best kind of coming-of-age story, an enticing blend of the specific and the universal, so that I often saw myself in the main character, Kenya, who we follow from first grade through twelfth. I saw myself, but I also entered a different world, that of a young black girl in Pennsylvania, whose life, happy and sad alike, is revealed by Asali Solomon in a you-are-there mode that gives us not only the externals of Kenya’s neighborhoods, but also the internals of Kenya’s thoughts and emotions. Kenya is a finely-drawn, believable character, a strong center to a novel that covers a decent amount of time.

While Kenya is the core of the story, Solomon also offers an extended family of characters in support that are just as intriguing. Kenya’s mother and father, and then her step-father, and later a communal family with her father, two women, and three kids, all are distinct personalities. And each living situation that presents itself to Kenya offers different challenges, some of which are easier for her than others.

Kenya is herself different from other kids (but then, what heroine of a coming-of-age novel is ever ordinary?). What we learn over time is that, while she may be invested in her difference, that difference is compounded by her outside world. When she is young in West Philly, she isn’t quite like the other kids ... her family celebrates Kwanzaa, not Christmas, as an example. When she transfers to a mostly-white private school, the differences are more obvious (and class is also more clearly a divider), and she is gradually understanding that some of her feelings of difference come from the way the people around her make assumptions about who she is on the outside. Perhaps most dramatically, when she moves in with her father on his communal farm, she experiences a life that is in many ways farther from her earlier upbringing than was the private school.

When Kenya returns to her mother at the end of the novel, we know how far she has come, and there is a hopefulness that even as she returns to her past, she has learned enough from her experiences to create a new life down the road. She “comes of age” just in time to begin again.

Solomon’s writing flows effortlessly. Each character has their own manner of speaking ... you never get that feeling where each character is just another mouthpiece for the author. Kenya feels auto-biographical, but Disgruntled is not a memoir. Solomon uses the raw materials of her life to create a world all its own.


anthologies and me

With the publication of Talking About Pauline Kael: Critics, Filmmakers, and Scholars Remember an Icon, I have returned to the world of anthologies. I was once asked why I had never written a book, and my reply was truthful, if also a bit smart-ass: I’m too lazy and unambitious to write a book. Now, to take just one example, the combined posts on film this blog has featured over the past 12+ years would fill a couple of books. It’s not the writing that drags me down. But doing anything with that writing beyond posting it here ... I’d just as soon give it away for free.

I’ve answered a few calls-for-papers ... that’s how I ended up in the Kael book. But I’ve also been handed some assignments without my even looking. If I remember correctly, I had two such opportunities in 2005. I could be wrong (insert obligatory comment about the varying reliability of memories), but I think Nick Rombes contacted me first about participating in a book on punk cinema, having seen something or other I’d written. That ended up being one of my favorite essays, “Making It Real”, which started off quoting The Adverts and ended with Sid and Nancy. My author’s bio for that one read, “Steven Rubio is a former steelworker who left the factory and picked up a doctorate in English from the University of California, Berkeley. A film major in his long-ago youth, he saw the last Sex Pistols concert to include Sid Vicious, and has waited ever since for someone to ask him to write about punk and movies in the same essay.” (The key, I suppose, is the part where I was waiting to be asked ... no wonder I never wrote a book.)

Also in 2005, I got an email from the folks at BenBella Books, who were publishing an anthology on NYPD Blue and had read something I’d written on that topic. That led to a fruitful period when I wrote six pieces for them in three years, covering NYPD Blue, King Kong, James Bond, Battlestar Galactica, House, and 24. Some were better than others ... I particularly liked the one on BSG, and both the Kong and Bond essays took on their subjects through the side door (for the King Kong book, I wrote about the mid-70s remake, and for the 007 book, my topic was the best Bond villain and I chose Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Largo in the “non-canonical” Never Say Never Again).

I was also proud to be in The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies, edited by the great Michael Bérubé. That was arguably the best academic-style essay I ever wrote, covering Bugs Bunny, Picasso, The Proms, and more.

It was in the BenBella period that I experienced a variety of editors. One, Leah Wilson, was among the finest editors I have ever worked with. But on a couple of occasions, they used “star” editors. So Say We All: Collected Thoughts and Opinions on Battlestar Galactica was “edited” by actor Richard Hatch. The oddest one, though, was Jack Bauer for President: Terrorism and Politics in 24. The general idea was that we should avoid being too polarizing in our essays ... you might recall that in its day, 24 elicited a lot of heat, both pro and con. My piece was called “Can a Leftist Love 24?” Late in the project it was announced that the guest editor would be Richard Miniter, whose most recent books included Shadow War: The Untold Story of How America is Winning the War on Terror and Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror. I joked to one of the actual BenBella editors, “This project has come a long way, from not wanting to be polarizing, to signing up Richard Miniter!” I had been told that he was “extremely enthusiastic about the project”, and now I was informed that “he really seemed to like your essay”. Hearing that, I just asked that no one told my friends in Berkeley. (My author’s bio for that one began, “Steven Rubio has never been cornered by a mountain lion.”)

If I made an anthology of my writing, a “Best of Steven” if you will, I imagine there would be a connected feel to it, primarily because “I” is an important part of all my writing. What is interesting about being in an anthology, though, is that you aren’t connected to yourself, you are connected to others through a common topic. In the spirit of this realization, I decided to read Talking About Pauline Kael from start to finish, hoping among other things to see how I “fit”. (Until the book arrived, I had no idea who the other writers were.) My essay comes late in the book (the 20th essay of 22), so I figured by the time I got around to re-reading what I’d written, I’d have a sense of the context into which I’d been inserted.

The first two sections of the book, “Friends, Neighbors, Confidantes” and “Knowing Pauline: At Home and at the Movies,” are written by people who had a personal connection to Kael. Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill were introduced to each other by Pauline (they later married). Frost’s essay is the first in the book, and it begins, “Pauline Kael liked to dial up her friends at all hours, engaging in long conversations.” I like that the book starts with a personal anecdote, because even those of us who didn’t know Kael felt that we “knew” her, and the inspired subjectivity of her writing encouraged that kind of relationship. Frost’s thesis, echoed in the title of her essay (“Performing Pauline”), reminds us, from the perspective of someone who really knew her, that “Pauline Kael” was not the same as Pauline Kael (a point I make in my own essay). “I suspect that one of the reasons Ray and I, and a few others, became as close to Pauline as we did was that, even during her peak years, we understood that there was a distinction between the public and private Pauline Kael.... She’d created one of the great characters of our age and had given one of the era’s great performances”. Frost finishes her essay with this sentence: “Pauline taught me that in the end it’s all in how you play yourself.”

Ray Sawhill reiterates this in his piece, the longest in the book. “She trusted us, and a few others ... I think this was mainly because we let her be herself – not the “Pauline Kael” of legend, but the quirky person who’d created and put over that larger-than-life character.” (Sandwiched between the Frost and Sawhill essays is a reprinted column by Roy Blount Jr. which seems placed there because he was Kael’s neighbor.)

The next essays follow up on the “we knew her” theme, as witnessed by the titles: “Conversations, 1968-2001”, “Knowing Pauline”, and “Encounters with Kael, 1975”. And the following section, “Objects of Her Affection: Critics, Journalists, and Movie Makers”, continues this from a different angle. David Denby (a “Paulette”), writer/director “Paul Schrader” (whose essay is called “My Family Drama: Pauline Kael, 1919-2001”), writer Joan Tewksbury (who tells an anecdote about Kael on the set of Thieves Like Us), all accompanied by a couple of “What I Learned from Pauline Even Though I Never Met Her” pieces. This section also includes a reprint of Sanford Schwartz’s introduction to the Library of America anthology of Kael’s work, and it is here that we get the first evaluation of her writing that comes from a place other than the personal.

Finally, halfway through the book, we come to “Stop Making Sense: Academics Consider Pauline Kael”. I say “finally” because my impression, from the Call for Papers to my interactions with editor Wayne Stengel (a professor at the University of Central Arkansas, and a pleasure to work with) to the way I approached my essay (which isn’t quite filled with academese, but I did include notes), was that this would be an “academic” book (I was thinking of the potential audience, but I suppose another way to separate “academic” from “non-academic” writing is that I didn’t get paid for this book, unlike, say, my work for BenBella). I’d say it’s the best kind of book, a blend of the academic and the ... I don’t really have a word for the opposite. Nonetheless, this section, featuring two professors, two graduate students, and Stengel himself, is pretty clearly marked off from what has come before. It is in many ways the most interesting section of the book, for Kael was well-known for her anti-academic stance (note that this was not the same as anti-intellectual ... she was never the latter, despite being accused of it on more than one occasion).

Steve Vineberg actually talks about her writing (I call him a professor, but his essay is a reprint from 1992 ... he might not have been teaching yet). Susie Linfield compares Kael to Siegfried Kracauer, which is fascinating in part because of the oddness of the subject. (She starts, “To discuss Pauline Kael and Siegfried Kracauer in the same essay seems, at first glance, exceedingly odd. And not just first glance.”) In “The Ghost of Pauline Kael,” Amanda Shubert asks for a moratorium of sorts on a certain kind of critique of Kael: “Pauline Kael lingers in a half-life in the cultural imaginary, unjustly pigeonholed and damned by derision and faint praise. It would be a grace finally to allow her to die. How else can we give her work a rebirth?” (Shubert also states, “My own frequent conversations with Pauline Kael have taken place solely in my head. There’s a good reason for that. I was only thirteen years old when she died in 2001.” Those “conversations in my head”, which resonate with people like me, remind me of the relationship between Six and Baltar in Battlestar Galactica.) Jason Kelly Roberts, like Linfield, takes on a topic that has been curiously ignored, Kael’s early essay “Movies on Television”. This piece benefits greatly from the focus Roberts can place on a single text. Finally, Wayne Stengel discusses “Performance Art and the Siren Songs of Pauline Kael”, where he claims that Kael “cultivated the most distinctive, jarring, and sexualized performance voice of any culture critic America has produced.” We’ve come full circle from Frost’s notion that Kael created “Kael” to Stengel’s recognition that Kael gave us a performance.

And then, at last, we come to the section that includes me, “Unraveling Pauline: Origins and Influences”. Maureen Karagueuzian offers an analysis of the now-legendary Berkeley Cinema Guild (in my bio for this book, I wrote that I “once lived half a block from the building where Pauline Kael had run the Berkeley Cinema Guild”), and Lisa Levy notes the importance of R.P. Blackmur on Kael’s approach to criticism. Which leads to my piece ... I’ve gotten to that point where I know what has come before, and can apply context to what I wrote for the book.

I’m trying to explain myself to myself.

My essay is called “Kael’s Influence: Expansive Subjectivity”. I don’t remember who came up with the title, but Wayne Stengel was quite taken with my concept of “expansive subjectivity”, so I suppose it was bound to be in the title somewhere. That phrase may turn out to be the one thing that lasts from my piece ... if you ever see anyone using that term, I did it first (at least, to the best of my knowledge). I used it as a counterpart to what Kael called “saphead objectivity”. The subjective part is obvious ... it’s also the easiest to emulate. Any writer who wants to attach themselves to whatever prestige comes with the Kael name can cite her whenever they offer a completely subjective response to a work. (I’m of the opinion that all criticism is subjective, but it’s kind of like fiction writers who want to write like Kerouac, or rock critics who want to write like Lester Bangs ... they copy the easy stuff, don’t understand the complicated stuff, and end up producing writing that borrows the worst from their idols.) It is crucial, I think, to understand how Kael’s subjectivity was expansive:

Kael demonstrated the freedom a critic could have to be subjective, but to this quality she added her understanding of the humanities in general. ... Kael didn’t confine her review [of The Bostonians] to the film adaptation; she also discussed in detail James’s novel and James’s life, and considered the effectiveness of the movie as a vision of the writer. Yes, her approach was subjective, but it was expansively subjective. For Kael, the movies did not exist solely for her opinions about them; she was no solipsist.

The way I honor her influence on me (and I hope I do more than emulate) shows itself in multiple ways. My first paragraph is about the Kael section at the Rockcritics.com website, as a way of showing how her influence reached beyond film. I talked about the “progressive passing along of influence”. I wrote about this many years ago, after Kael and another personal influence, political science professor Michael Rogin, died.

Cultural critics like Pauline Kael and Michael Rogin are rare, but their influence is long lasting. We miss them when they are gone, but one can state with assurance (and without resorting to New Age mysticism) that in important ways, they aren't really gone at all. Their work lives on, and by "their work," I don't mean only the words they published. I mean that one day, a young scholar named Greil Marcus took a course from a professor named Rogin, he read a book by a critic named Pauline Kael, and the next thing you know, he was writing books of his own. I mean that one day, a young factory worker named Steven Rubio read one of those books Greil Marcus wrote, and with sudden (and unusual) clarity, knew the direction his life would necessarily take, and down the road, he was writing and teaching himself.

I argue that the whole notion of “Paulettes” who followed Kael in lockstep was nonsense. “For the critic who truly wanted to follow in Kael’s footsteps, subjectivity would necessarily be crucial, and that subjectivity would ensure that the critic wasn’t merely parroting Kael.”

I addressed the idea that she was anti-intellectual by separating it from her very real rejection of “respectable tradition”. “[S]he never tried to hide her intelligence nor her range of reference in making connections between high culture and bastard, hybrid, but equally valid artistic impulses. She loved the pedigreed and the cur with equal ardor.” (That last sentence is a sign that my essay was carefully edited. It wasn’t in my original, and I don’t know that it “sounds” like me. But when I read it, I wished I’d written it.)

I finish with my oft-told anecdote about publically claiming that Kael was the most influential woman in my life. As always, there’s some hyperbole involved ... as I note, the real person for that role is my wife. But I was offering “some existential intention”. Perhaps it was this conclusion that led Stengel to call my essay “charming” in his introduction.

The final section of the book contains pieces by Kael’s biographer, and the editor of a book of Kael interviews.

So, where do I fit? I didn’t sense any great drop off when my essay came up. If the writing overall isn’t as idiosyncratic as my usual, well, that often happens to me in anthologies. The idea of giving your work over to someone else for improvements is perhaps essential to anthologies, and in general over the years, I’ve been happy with the results. It’s not as if I submitted a book of my own writings and it was accepted without edits ... every published book involves an editor (or it should ... I guess with the easy access to vanity-press self-publishing in the Internet age, more unedited material is out there, starting with blogs like this.)

What makes me happiest is that I am finally part of a group of statements about Pauline Kael. It’s good company ... can’t go wrong with the likes of Joan Tewksbury. But it remains odd to see my thoughts contextualized by the thoughts of others. It’s the furthest thing possible from a blog post. But now, when someone asks what I think of Kael, I have a place I can point them to.