throw it back

"When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn't have one. I didn't care. I finished the drink and went to bed."

-- Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye. Chandler died on this date in 1959.


going into the broad city

The city in the title of Robert Christgau's new memoir, Going Into the City, is New York. The television series Broad City, which just ended its second season, is also New York to its core. There is nothing else to connect the two works in any obvious fashion ... in one, a man in his 70s looks back on his life, in the other, two women in their 20s create versions of themselves in something resembling the present. In both cases, though, the presence of New York City goes beyond merely adding local color. Christgau grew up in Queens, and so has greater New York in his bones, but the title refers to his move to Manhattan.  Abbi Jacobson, one of the two creators of Broad City, spent her formative years in Pennsylvania, but met up with Ilana Glazer when both were members of New York's Upright Citizen's Brigade (Glazer's background is a little harder to pin down, but she seems pure New York). What matters, in all cases, is that New York City is a crucial component of the people. I can't really call Christgau a "character" ... while he constructs a "Robert Christgau" for his memoir, the construction is "really" him, while Jacobson and Glazer are based-on-themselves "real" characters in Broad City, as Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler.

Christgau admits from the beginning that his memoir might seem different than the norm, partly because other than being a rock critic, his life isn't all that unusual. "Only a teensy bit famous no matter how much of my small pond I hog ... I've had my share of adventures, but nothing all that spine-chilling or at all epic.... As writers go, I'm a fairly normal guy." He quickly adds, "Some might hold that if my life has been interesting enough to write about, it cannot have been normal. As a democrat in all things, I say that's snobbish baloney. All lives are interesting -- how interesting depends on the telling."

Christgau is a fine writer, with a lot to tell, and an audience that is already interested. He doesn't exactly ignore his audience's desires ... he just tells his story in the manner that suits him, and it is largely interesting for the reasons he notes: it depends on the telling, and he's good at it.

I don't know what others expected of the book. Speaking for myself, I was ready for anything, because it was Christgau, which meant I assumed I'd like it. Which I do. There is some name-dropping, but less than you might think. He spends time talking about working at the Village Voice, but as he states, "I didn't want people to think it was about the Voice. That's a book worth writing, but I don't know by who ...." He talks about the members of the first (and to some extent subsequent) wave of rock critics, but I don't think Going Into the City would be the primary text for an historian of the era. We learn which of those critics were his close friends, and get a hint of some of their approaches, but it's a memoir, not an evaluation. What Christgau pulls off is a memoir that might be written by a "regular" person, where the primacy of his experiences is more important than what celebrity he knows.

And the primacy of his experiences includes his intense devotion to the two most important women in his life, his first great love, Ellen Willis, and his eventual wife and life-partner, Carola Dibbell. In his introduction, he discusses this:

The main way marriage impacted my vocation, however, was intellectually. That's why I feel deprived when, for example, Christopher Hitchens or Ed Sanders or Richard Hell -- all of whose recommended memoirs share ground with mine, and all of whom have their reasons -- fail to indicate how their wives changed their lives and I bet their work. My '60s partnership with Ellen Willis ... set me on the path I've followed ever since.... my chief guide has been my legally wedded wife of four decades, Carola Dibbell, who's also a fine rock critic ... No banal bow to discretion or cool could tempt me to minimize the place of these relationships in my life, or to mince words about them either.... Till death do us part, my marriage is my most satisfying achievement.

This is the kind of thing usually dismissed in a brief note about how "I couldn't have written this without the love of my partner". But Christgau wants us to know from the start that his memoir will integrate his important relationships into his discussion of his work as a critic. There is almost no need for an acknowledgements page for Willis or Dibbell ... the entire book acknowledges them.

It also gets to the core of my own relationship to memoirs, especially since, if I ever had the ambition to write a book of my own, it would fall into that category. The motto of this thirteen-years-and-counting blog is the Pauline Kael quote, "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have." To know my take on movies and TV and music is to know me, as well. Christgau goes beyond this, though. His approach is almost the opposite: to know his take on music, it is crucial that you know about his experiences, particularly with the important women in his life.

I accept that it is a stretch to connect all of this to Broad City. But New York is a major character in Christgau's book ... it's a titular character, no less. Part of what sets Broad City apart, though, is that Abbi and Ilana are already in New York ... there is no "going". It's less that New York is a character, and more that Abbi and Ilana have New York inside of them. New Yorkers often assume that outsiders like myself don't "get" the city, that you have to live there, experience it on a daily basis. And I'm sure I miss many nods to locals in Broad City. It is very specific about its New York-ness. But Abbi and Ilana feel universal, despite their specifics as young New York Jewish women in their 20s. I'm much closer in age to Robert Christgau than I am to Jacobson and Glazer ... my kids are a decade older than those two. A typical day for me usually involves doing something with my wife of 40+ years, and while we have memories of the stuff we did when we were young, in honesty, memories are mostly what they are at this point. I don't get high all the time anymore the way Abbi and (especially) Ilana do. I don't have the energy to pursue anything that crosses my mind (Ilana is irrepressible in this regard). But the spirit with which they engage in their world is inspiring, not because I know what it's like to be a young woman in New York, but because that spirit is contagious.

Which is something they share with Christgau. As you read his memoir, you understand better the things that drive him. It no longer seems odd that he listens to music a billion hours a day. He loves to engage with music, loves to keep learning about music, and, of course, he's a master as a critic of writing about these things in ways that engage the reader, and, yes, inspire us in some way.


philip k. dick, the man in the high castle

I thought to reread this book after watching the pilot episode for an upcoming TV series based on the book. If you've read The Man in the High Castle, you know how important a part the I Ching plays. Not only do many characters in the novel consult the oracle, Dick himself used it when writing:

I used it in The Man in the High Castle because a number of characters used it. In each case when they asked a question, I threw the coins and wrote the hexagram lines they got. That governed the direction of the book. Like in the end when Juliana Frink is deciding whether or not to tell Hawthorne Abensen that he is the target of assassins, the answer indicated that she should. Now if it had said not to tell him, I would have had her not go there. But I would not do that in any other book.

It occurred to me that I might fruitfully use the I Ching for this blog post, as a sort of “Play Along with Phil” game. In the book, which is an alternate history where the Allies lost WWII, an author, Hawthorne Abensen, writes a book that tells of an alternate history where the Axis lost the war. Abensen consults the I Ching when writing his book. How much more Dickian could I get, than to replicate that here.

I asked, “What can the oracle tell me that might illuminate The Man in the High Castle?” I got Li, The Clinging, Fire, with a changing nine at the top which leads to F’eng, Abundance/Fullness. (Explaining the I Ching would require a separate post ... what matters is whether I can turn this reading from the oracle into something illuminating about Dick’s novel.)

Here is what Li looks like:

iching30

You’ll notice that the top three lines and the bottom three lines are matches: fire on top of fire. The “Judgement”: “The Clinging. Perseverance furthers. It brings success. Care of the cow brings good fortune.” (You can see how the I Ching works ... it never gives a clear reply, which thus allows the reader to basically invent meanings.) Luckily, each Judgement has a “Commentary”. Here, it reads in part, “Human life on earth is conditioned and unfree, and when man recognizes this limitation and makes himself dependent upon the harmonious and beneficent forces of the cosmos, he achieves success. The cow is the symbol of extreme docility. By cultivating in himself an attitude of compliance and voluntary dependence, man acquires clarity without sharpness and finds his place in the world.” Jeff Pike has noted of the novel that “The characters are largely listless and accepting of the world as it is”. Combining this with “The Clinging”, we get characters who find their place through compliance and voluntary dependence. The inner monologues of the characters in the book let us understand that none of these people have actually accepted their place. They are all struggling to get beyond wherever they find themselves. But outwardly, they often feign compliance, because to do otherwise is to risk everything. While this hexagram might offer insight into the characters when we first meet them, it doesn't explain why so many of them take actions to change their situations.

The “Image” here shows “That which is bright rises twice: The image of Fire. Thus the great man, by perpetuating this brightness, illumines the four quarters of the world.” The commentary: “The great man continues the work of nature in the human world. Through the clarity of his nature he causes the light to spread farther and farther and to penetrate the nature of man ever more deeply.” Perhaps Hawthorne Abensen is trying to spread the light in his alternate history; perhaps Philip K. Dick is doing the same with his alternate history.

The changing nine at the top means, “The king used him to march forth and chastise. Then it is best to kill the leaders and take captive the followers. No blame.” Commentary: “Evil must be cured at its roots. To eradicate evil in political life, it is best to kill the ringleaders and spare the followers. In educating oneself it is best to root out bad habits and tolerate those that are harmless.” Note the difference between “political life”, where evil ringleaders must be killed, and personal life, where “it is best to root out bad habits”.

The changed hexagram is F’eng, Abundance. “Abundance has success. The king attains abundance. Be not sad. Be like the sun at midday.”

I can’t say this little experiment did much for me. I can't see anything clearly that takes me places within the novel that I hadn't been before. In my reading of the result of my question, we as individuals are encouraged to find our place via compliance, while looking inwards to root out bad habits. But as a society, we are to eradicate evil by killing the ringleaders. I don’t see how these can co-exist, nor do I see that they have a clear connection to The Man in the High Castle.

[I Ching quotations, from the Richard Wilhelm translation that was the most-used back in my hippie days, are gathered from the website ichingfortune.com.]


carta a una señorita en parís

When I was in grad school, I took two upper-division survey courses in Spanish-American literature to cover the language requirement for my English Ph.D. I was lucky to have two excellent professors, the amazing Francine Masiello, and the wonderful Julio Ramos. I used all of my Spanish classes at Cal to further my understanding of the language, and I have said at times that the one concrete thing I got out of my college education was a reasonable fluency in the language of my grandparents.

For this reason, I was driven to read as much of the literature as possible in the original Spanish. Oh, I’d make sure to have an English translation nearby … reading those diaries from the ships of Columbus wasn’t any easier than reading 15th-century English. But I’d always make the effort.

I remember reading many stories by Julio Cortázar, who qualifies for Throwback Thursday because he died 31 years ago today. One in particular has stayed with me for many years. It was called “Carta a una señorita en París” (“Letter to a Young Lady in Paris”). The story/letter begins with the writer explaining that he didn’t want to come live in the recipient’s apartment, because he didn’t want to “intrude on a compact order”:

[M]e duele ingresar en un orden cerrado, construido ya hasta en las más finas mallas del aire, esas que en su casa preservan la música de la lavanda, el aletear de un cisne con polvos, el juego del violín y la viola en el cuarteto de Rará.

It was slow going, as it always was for me when reading Spanish. Just before the above-quoted segment, the letter read, “No tanto por los conejitos” … I read this as “Not just because of the bunnies”. Didn’t make any sense to me, but I never really trusted my Spanish enough to think I was getting it right, and this odd reference wasn’t enough for me to go running to an English translation.

The rest of the opening paragraph continued further to explain how the writer felt uncomfortable changing the “compact order”. In the second paragraph, we learn what has brought him to stay in the apartment nonetheless: she is in Paris, and he is staying in her apartment until her return. Near the end of the paragraph comes another mention of the bunnies: “esta carta se la envío a causa de los conejitos”. OK, that’s two mentions of bunnies in two paragraphs. I know that “conejito” means “bunny” … it’s just the context that has me inching closer to the English translation at my side.

But in the third paragraph, as he describes moving into the apartment, he explains, “De cuando en cuando me ocurre vomitar un conejito.” I think I’ve got this translated … “From time to time I vomit a bunny.” Much of this paragraph, in fact, is about bunnies and vomiting. At least, that what I think it says. I’m starting to wish I had a better handle on magic realism, but mostly, I’m thinking, man, does my Spanish stink. When I read this, I think it’s about a man who vomits bunnies. That can’t be it … just how bad is my translation?

So I break down and start reading the story in an English translation. And, guess what? The man is indeed claiming to vomit bunnies.

Understand, I know so little about the real world that despite the word “conejito” (bunny), I’m thinking “conejo” (rabbit). That is, I’m imagining full-grown rabbits coming out of the writer’s mouth. And that seems a bit much, even for magic realism (if, in fact, that’s what this is). It was almost a relief when my wife later explained that new-born bunnies were indeed very, very small.

To this day, when I think of Cortázar, I think of the man who vomited rabbits.


katy perry

Katy Perry performed the halftime show at yesterday’s Super Bowl. From what I’ve seen online, she was fairly well-received for the grand flamboyance of the show. At the Super Bowl party I was a part of, though, the general feeling was that the halftime show wasn’t going to be worth watching. Not everyone felt that way, but I’d gauge that more than half of the folks planned to use halftime to check out the food situation and maybe grab a smoke. (Notably, once her show began, people began watching.)

Someone I know posted on Facebook that their partner had asked, “Who is Katy Perry?” I admit to reading between the lines, both at that question and at some of the subsequent comments, but my sense was that not knowing who Katy Perry is was something to be proud of. And I wondered, first, how likely it was that someone wouldn't know who Katy Perry is.

I went to everyone’s favorite research site, Wikipedia, where I found the following information about Perry, some of which I knew, some of which I was aware of in a general sense, and a lot of specifics that were new to me:

Her 2010 album Teenage Dream “became the first by a female artist to produce five number-one Billboard Hot 100 songs”.

“[I]n songs such as ‘Firework’ and ‘Roar’ she stresses themes of self-empowerment and self-esteem.”

“Perry has received many awards, including three Guinness World Records, and been included in the Forbes list of "Top-Earning Women In Music" for 2011, 2012, and 2013. … She ranked fifth on their 2014 list with $40 million. … Throughout her career, she has sold 11 million albums and 81 million singles worldwide, making her one of the best-selling artists of all time.”

“Throughout her career, Perry has won five American Music Awards, five MTV Video Music Awards, fourteen People's Choice Awards, and three Guinness World Records.In September 2012, Billboard dubbed her the ‘Woman of the Year’.From May 2010 to September 2011, she spent a record-breaking total of 69 consecutive weeks in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100…Perry was declared the Top Global Female Recording Artist of 2013 by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).She has accumulated a total of nine number-one singles on the Hot 100, her most recent being ‘Dark Horse’. According to Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Perry is the best-selling digital singles artist in the United States, with certified sales of 72 million digital singles including on-demand streaming.”

I admit that I don’t know a lot about Katy Perry. I like a couple of her songs, and enjoy the “Roar” video. I am also aware that, as is true for many/most top pop stars, there is substantial interest in Perry from culture critics. I don’t think she has reached the level of someone like Madonna, who inspired what was only half-jokingly called “Madonna Studies” as an academic discipline. But it is interesting to think about the level of Perry’s fame, and what that might say about today’s cultural milieu.

My job here isn’t to elaborate on the place of Katy Perry in the world of cultural criticism … I read some of it, I know it’s out there, but in 2015, there is always too much to read and see and experience … we are all, all of us, behind.

Nor am I here to cast aspersions on people who don’t know who Katy Perry is. As I say, it’s 2015 … no one can keep up with everything. Many of us become specialists … when it comes to female pop stars, I’m partial to Pink … I go to her concerts and buy her albums … I know a lot about Pink, and it’s not that she’s a stand-in for all the other female pop stars, but I devote the majority of my pop-star energy to her. There are also people, plenty of us, who throw our hands up and admit we just can’t follow everything. We don’t have a favorite female pop star, because we can’t know about everything. Not knowing of Katy Perry signifies nothing, other than that you have other things on your mind. The number of things I don’t know is pretty immense … I know little about opera, or ice hockey, or reality TV shows. I’m not immune to covering up my lack of knowledge with childish humor … whenever I hear opera, I start singing in ludicrously high and low voices, making fun of the very real talent of the singers because I don’t “get it”. And I definitely indulged in this kind of thinking a lot more when I was younger: if I didn’t know something, it wasn’t worth knowing. In my old age, I’ve hopefully come to realize that you can’t dismiss something until you have a modicum of understanding of that thing.

In general, Katy Perry is not highly regarded by pop critics. Rich Juzwiak’s review of her Super Bowl appearance, “Katy Perry: What Is She Good For?”, was an example of damning with faint praise:

Not that much could be expected of Perry. She is the most underwhelming person to occupy the space of Massively Popular, No-Brainer Hitmaking Pop Diva since Paula Abdul, and at least Paula Abdul could dance. There is no there there with Katy Perry. I don't know if a pop star has ever had less there, in fact. She is superlative at nothing. … If you believe the credits on her songs, she can write a catchy hook. She can carry a tune, sometimes with force. And she can show up to places and do her job without falling on her face or making some sort of career-negating blunder.

But these critics do appreciate that her enormous popularity makes Perry an important subject for examination, if nothing else. And I’m glad for their work, since, as I have noted, I don’t pay much attention to Katy Perry and am glad to have the opportunity to think about her through the eyes of more astute and knowledgeable critics.

Which takes me back to that Facebook exchange. Everything I’m saying falls apart if my “between the lines” reading is off-target, but that reading is based on past experiences. I once taught a course at UC Berkeley on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer … a common reaction was “that’s not worthy of a course at Cal” (when pressed, they would often admit that they had never actually seen the show). Something that has stuck in my mind for many years was an afternoon when I attended a WNBA game. The giveaway that day was a poster of … well, it was a long time ago and my memory is shot, but I think it was *NSYNC, although it might have been The Backstreet Boys. Anyway, most of the people I was with gave their posters away to kids who might have more interest, which was a generous move. But the gifts were punctuated with prideful statements that “I couldn’t name a single one of their songs”. I knew why they didn’t want the posters, understood that they might not know *NSYNC since they weren’t the target market for the band, but I didn’t get why their lack of knowledge was connected to feelings of pride.

And so, the Facebook post (yes, I’m off on lots of tangents). One of my favorite comments, because of its self-aware sense of humor, read “I miss when the half time shows were semi retired musicians from the 70s.” And I couldn't keep my mouth shut, so I posted the following: “Pop music may be the only place where otherwise intelligent people brag about not knowing something.”

The original poster replied, “I'm pretty sure popular TV falls in the same category. Like me, how many episodes of, say. Friends, have you ever watched?” And that got me inspired. I wrote:

The point isn't how many episodes of Friends you have seen, or whether you know who Katy Perry is. The point is that it's odd when people take pride in not knowing. I can't pass judgment on Friends because I haven't seen it. I can and do recognize it is important; I know what Friends is. I don't often connect with modern sitcoms, which is on me, not on the people who made Friends. But there is a difference between my not having seen an episode of Friends, and someone not knowing who Katy Perry is, just as there is a difference between saying Katy Perry isn't my cup of tea and saying I don't know who Katy Perry is, with a tone that suggests she isn't worth knowing. I'm not saying that everyone should like Katy Perry. I'm saying it's odd to brag about not knowing who she is. It's the pop culture equivalent of saying I don't know who Toni Morrison is, and it doesn't matter anyway.

The reply to that was, “If you're going to compare Toni Morrison to Katy Perry, I'm going to bed. Winking smile“ (Emoticon approximation.)

That was a good line, and I was asking for it, to be sure. But it wasn't just a good line, as I indicated in my reply: “That statement makes my point better than any more blathering of my own.”

And indeed, the comments ended there. But, being a blather junkie, I came to my blog to jabber some more.

Many of the people in the discussion are or were teachers, myself included. We have all had to deal with students who state (with some pride, it must be added) that they never read books. Maybe they read the occasional book, but only current best-sellers. If we assign, say, The Great Gatsby (or, more appropriately here, Beloved), we will always have students who state with confidence that there is nothing in those books that could possibly matter to them. I’ve done the same thing as a student … with a degree in American Studies, looking for a doctorate in English that focused on American Literature, I regularly complained about the requirement that I take a course in Shakespeare or the 18th-century English novel. What could I possibly learn from Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded?

How is this different from saying, “I don’t know who Katy Perry is, and how could she possibly matter?” There is no shame in not knowing. There is no reason why we should seek out every piece of information in the world, even if that was possible, which it is not. It is sufficient to say, “I don’t know anything about The Real Housewives of Orange County”, just as it’s fine when a student says, “I don’t know anything about Toni Morrison”. That student has an entire semester to learn about the author. They’ve only failed if they dismiss Morrison before they have read her. It’s fine if you don’t know who Katy Perry is, interesting if you do know who she is but don’t like her. And there is every reason, in this age of information glut, to admit that you don’t have time to examine Katy Perry, so you’ll be moving on to something you like. You’ve only failed if you dismiss Katy Perry before you know her.

 


catching up: books

Not sure why I don’t write more about books here. Perhaps it’s that my training is to treat books as something worthy of long-form writing, I don’t know. Whatever, a friend posted a photo of his summer reading, using the usual method of stacking the books in a pile. I realized that I can’t do that kind of picture anymore, because the vast majority of books I read are e-books.

The main book I’m reading right now is A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng. Enke was a top German goalkeeper who suffered from depression and committed suicide at the age of 32. It benefits from Reng having known Enke … it’s startling at times when a conversation appears between the two, you’ve been reading along like any other biography and you forget the author was there at times. The pressures of being a goalkeeper are made evident, but what is hitting home for me is the manifestations of Enke’s depression, which are scarily real to me.

Keeping in the pre-World Cup soccer genre, I just finished George Vecsey’s Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer. While Vecsey is known primarily for his sports writing, he also co-wrote Coal Miner’s Daughter with Loretta Lynn. Eight World Cups is an ideal book for Americans new to the sport (there are fewer of them every year) who would like some history in advance of Brazil 2014. While Vecsey has been at this awhile, he was once, like many Americans, an outsider to the world of soccer, which makes his story relatable. He tells stories of the great individuals of the era, gives a full picture of each Cup, and if he spends less time on the “Dark Side” than the title suggests, the Beauty comes through loud and clear.

Rounding out some of the recent sports books I’ve read, there’s The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption by John Rosengren. What Rosengren does well is establish a context for that event, by leading us through the life of a Latino and an African-American in baseball of the 1950s and 1960s. Also, Craig Wright’s Pages from Baseball’s Past, a compilation of pieces from his website of the same name. Wright is a pioneer in sabermetrics who knows how to tell a good story (the first chapter tells us about Babe Ruth’s “mascot”, and fans will look forward to pieces like “The Walk-Off Triple Steal”. Finally, Jonah Keri makes sure you know what his book is about with his subtitle: Up, Up and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos.

I wrote recently about John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman. And a few months ago, I had a few words about Latinos at the Golden Gate by my friend Tomás Summers Sandoval … yes, it’s true, I actually read a book that wasn’t about sports or entertainment. There was The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style by Nelson George. An old favorite, pilot Patrick Smith, offers Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections. I first discovered Smith when he wrote a regular column for Salon … I admit I was delighted to exchange a few emails with him about our shared love for Hüsker Dü. Bill Brown’s Words and Guitar: A History of Lou Reed’s Music was unmemorable, while Winning Fantasy Baseball: Secret Strategies of a Nine-Time National Champion by Larry Schechter was very useful for me back in February when I bought it. The Sabermetric Revolution: Assessing the Growth of Analytics in Baseball by Benjamin Baumer and Andrew Zimbalist must have been good … I don’t have any bad memories … but to be honest, I barely remember the book at all, even as a fan of Zimbalist’s work.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jennifer Garlen’s second book on movies, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching. When I read her, I often wish I’d written what I am reading.

I just got the latest edition of David Thomson’s mammoth The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, previous editions of which are always stored on my phone for quick revisits. On tap: Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living, an examination of the philosophy of Albert Camus.


john wayne: the life and legend, by scott eyman

Scott Eyman begins his lengthy, well-researched biography of John Wayne with the following famous quote: “That guy you see on the screen isn’t really me. I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”

That quote effectively describes what Eyman is up to with his biography. There are the basic facts. There are the movies, with even the least of them getting a little attention. There is the pop psychology surrounding Wayne’s relationship to John Ford. But mostly, Eyman is telling the story of Duke Morrison, knowing all along that if the name John Wayne wasn’t in the title, no one would read his book.

Opinion about the quality of Wayne’s acting has risen and fallen and risen with the passage of time. Eyman quotes James Baldwin, who wrote about movie stars, “One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be.” Wayne was a movie star, and his popularity was not because of his acting skills (although he had plenty of them). It was because of his ability to be John Wayne. At the end of his career, that wasn’t enough. But he was on top for longer than most movie stars, and he remains an iconic figure, decades after his death.

Because of the seeming narrowness of his political views, because of the specific range in which he performed, some people assumed Wayne must have been anti-intellectual at best and a little dumb at worst. Eyman shows how untrue this is. Wayne could quote Shakespeare and Milton from memory … he was president of the Latin Society in high school … he was a masterful chess player. He was not dumb or anti-intellectual.

But I’m talking about John Wayne as if he was a real person. It was Duke Morrison who knew Milton and Latin and chess. And it was Duke Morrison who, gradually, over time, created “John Wayne”.  It helped that directors like John Ford knew what to do with “John Wayne”, but there were no Svengalis in this story. In an odd, artificial way, “John Wayne” was a self-made man, only the self who made him was Duke Morrison.

The book is good on the details of Wayne’s classic films, and Eyman has many of the participants in those films to offer their stories. Almost every actor who worked with Wayne admired his professionalism and found him a good work companion (the ladies in particular found him delightful, it would seem, with Maureen O’Hara at the top of that list). Because he came up through the ranks, and because he was Duke Morrison, Wayne was always respectful of the crew members (if they did their job well). Eyman hasn’t whitewashed Wayne’s story … the Wayne of the book is far from perfect. But he places Wayne’s movie career in a narrative arc that makes sense, and this leads to a bittersweet final few chapters, as Red River and Rio Bravo turn into McQ and Brannigan. Morrison did such a good job of creating John Wayne that he ultimately couldn’t escape his creation. For the most part, Wayne sidesteps self-pity, but the reader understands the difficulties in living up to a fictional character.


latinos at the golden gate

I had the pleasure of attending a talk yesterday given by my friend Tomás Summers Sandoval about his book, Latinos at the Golden Gate. As is often the case, the subtitle focuses the topic: “Creating Community and Identity in San Francisco”. There is some irony in the fact that it took a SoCal Dodger fan to write a vital history of Latinos in San Francisco, but good historians do this. (It’s one of the many reasons I went to grad school in English rather than History … I was far too lazy to devote myself to the hard work of researching historical themes. Whatever I might say about my status as a literary scholar, I would have made a terrible historian.)

The book goes back to the Gold Rush, examining the influx of Latinos from Mexico, Chile, and other countries. It’s a useful starting point, in that it helps our understanding of Latinos in The City today when we know something about how we got to where we are now. As someone who has lived 59 of my 60 years in the greater Bay Area, I was interested in seeing how little I knew about this history. In particular, while I think there is a tendency to see “Latinos” in California as people with roots in Mexico, Tomás details how people from many countries came here. The need to bond together against racism meant that all Latinos worked together in a spirit of latinidad, which helps explain why the title of the book is not Chicanos at the Golden Gate.

Still, it was an important sign that the Catholic church that served as the social and cultural center of the community was named Nuestra Señora De Guadalupe. While the church (located in North Beach, which is one of those tidbits that fascinate those of us who think we know San Francisco) was a crucial place for Spanish-speaking San Franciscans, and while that common language was a crucial aspect of latinidad, the church was named after the person who is a symbol for Mexican Catholics.

Sandoval insists on the notion of “creating community and identity”, reminding us that while Spanish tied the peoples of various countries together, the community didn’t just appear. It had to be created, within the context of the times (both past and present). The community he describes isn’t static … it is always being re-created.

As Tomás knows (I’ve talked with him about it before, and brought it up again before the talk began), my personal interest is fueled in part by the arrival in San Francisco of my paternal grandparents in the late-1910s. They came from Spain (via Hawaii), but for myriad reasons, they (and subsequent generations like myself, half-Spanish) occupy a tangential position relative to latinidad. There’s the association with Europe … Spain were conquerors, not indigenous to the area … and there is what I believe the most important item, that many Spaniards only came to the U.S. after living in other countries. (I think my grandmother had a sister in Brazil and another in Cuba.) If you came from Spain to the United States via a long stay in Mexico, for instance, you would likely identify yourself more as Mexican-American than as Spanish-American. Whatever the reason, there aren’t many Spanish-Americans, and as I’ve written here more than once, I’m never certain if I’m “hispanic” or “latino” or just some suburban baby-boomer white boy (which is how I was raised).

I recommend Latinos at the Golden Gate. The approach is necessarily academic, but the prose works beyond those confines. And I definitely enjoyed yesterday’s talk … I even got to finally meet Tomás’ wife, Melinda. Unsurprisingly, she was delightful, but then, I expected no less. Tomás is one of the best people I know, and he has great love for his family. They seem like a good team. (My wife wanted to know if I met any of the little Summers Sandovals, but that wasn’t to be … Tomás and Melinda took advantage of this weekend in the Bay Area to spend their first time alone without the kids for eight years. I think they enjoyed themselves … at the least, Tomás posted a picture on Facebook that he took of the Chinese New Year’s parade.)


carolyn cassady, 1923-2013

Back in 2008, on the 40th anniversary of the death of Neal Cassady, I wrote an email to Carolyn Cassady, which ended:

As I think back on your Neal today, and remember that he was a mythological character to us but a husband and father to you ... I know that the ongoing inspiration comes not only from the myths of the past, but also from the people who live in the here and now. As we continue on our life's path, we draw inspiration from many sources, the myths and the people behind the myths. Thank you for allowing your life to be a part of our myth. Thank you for showing us the life behind the myth.

She replied to that email, thanking me for “a very kind and generous sentiment”. I assure you, her reply is something I will always treasure.

Here is what may be her last interview:

Carolyn Cassady died last Friday.


jeff pike, the death of rock 'n' roll

I recently picked up what I suppose could be called an artifact. The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll is a book, written by friend-of-this-blog Jeff Pike, that was published in 1993. The lengthy subtitle suggests where the book is headed: “Untimely Demises, Morbid Preoccupations, and Premature Forecasts of Doom in Pop Music”.

The date of publication is important, because the book marks a specific point in time, and reflects one writer’s sense of what rock ‘n’ roll meant then. (In this, it is similar to Greil Marcus’ anthology, Stranded, which gave a chance for some of the top critics of 1979 to choose a desert island album. Stranded is a fun book, but those writers who are still living would likely write about something entirely different in 2013, and the choice of writers would be different as well.) While much of The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll addresses past history, the perspective is always 1993, and this is interesting, a version of original source material … he’s not writing about 1993 with the knowledge of the past twenty years, he’s writing in the 1993 present.

I confess, I never quite understood the overarching theme of Death. There was/is a good essay about the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll and its eventual passing, and such an essay could be constructed from parts of this book. But for the most part, Death just seemed like an excuse to write about rock ‘n’ roll.

Whatever inspired the book, I’m just happy with the result. Pike is a terrific and insightful writer, and throughout I found myself reconsidering old chestnuts. The book’s structure includes short essays on various topics, from “Hellhound on His Trail” to “I Wanna Destroy”, usually accompanied by a series of paragraphs telling the stories of artists related to the chapter’s topic who had died. So, for instance, after a standalone chapter on “The Big Elvis”, we get a chapter titled “Little Elvis Deaths” that goes directly from a brief opener to a set of paragraphs on Bill Black, Roy Brown, “Big Boy” Crudup, Ral Donner, Wynonie Harris, Mario Lanza, Little Junior Parker, Jay B. Perkins, Webb Pierce, Doc Pomus, Gladys Presley, Vernon Presley, and “Big Mama” Thornton. You can learn a lot about Elvis and his influences just by staring at that list, and Pike’s comments are enlightening and fun to read:

Mario Lanza, died October 7, 1959, age 38

Opera singer, born Alfred Arnold Cocozza; from Philadelphia. Lanza, an opera singer, scored a series of pop hits in the early fifties (with titles like “Be My Love” and “Vesti la Giubba”) that evidently caught the ear of a youthful Elvis, or perhaps it was Colonel Tom Parker. In any event, in 1960, following his discharge from the army and with the determination to win favor as an adult entertainer, Elvis tackled the Lanza-like milestone “It’s Now or Never” – adapted from am 1899 Italian opera song “O Sole Mio.” It was overpuffed if enjoyable tripe (pure Elvis, after a fashion). It worked, for the most part. The song went to number 1 for five weeks and the teens he’d won earlier stayed with him as adults. By then, Lanza had died in Rome of a heart attack, blamed partly on his penchant (reminiscent of Elvis) for rapidly gaining and losing weight.

It’s a book worthy of at least one cover-to-cover read, but it’s also the kind of book you’ll pick up at random and jump back and forth, grabbing at this or that morsel. (If I’d bought this book in 1993, it would probably be marking its 20th anniversary as a book that rests in the bathroom, which is the highest possible compliment … after all, I usually have two or three Kael books in that same place in the house.) You never quite know what you’ll find … his comment on Flipper, in a paragraph about Will Shatter (“How anyone ever left their shows alive is not known”) is amusing to me, who did indeed see Flipper and lived to tell the tale, but my wife might have a different take, having also seen Flipper but wishing she’d been dead while the band was on stage.

The finest praise I can give for The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll is that I wished there was an updated version. I wanted to read about all the rock-n-rollers who have died over the past twenty years, I wanted to see what Pike might change from the original text … basically, I wanted to read more from this author. This being 2013, there is a substitute of sorts, to be found on his blog, “Can’t Explain”. Meanwhile, if you ever come across a used copy of The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll, grab it.