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 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.

another 15 minutes of fame

Later this month, Talking About Pauline Kael will be released. Edited by Wayne Stengel, it features “critics, filmmakers, and scholars remember(ing) an icon.” I have an essay in the book, “Kael’s Influence: Expansive Subjectivity”, which Stengel said in his introduction is “one of the most charming essays in the collection”.

I’m in some pretty heady company, including Allen Barra, a sports columnist who also wrote a book about Wyatt Earp; Roy Blount, Jr., known to fans of Wait, Wait ... Don’t Tell Me; Will Brantley, who edited the excellent Conversations with Pauline Kael; David Denby of the New Yorker; Polly Frost, who has done a little of everything; Brian Kellow, author of a great biography of Kael; Ray Sawhill (see Polly Frost); Paul Schrader, who wrote many films including Taxi Driver and directed many more; Joan Tewksbury, who wrote the script for Nashville; and me, a retired ex-steelworker who, as my bio in the book explains, “once lived half a block from the building where Pauline Kael had run the Berkeley Cinema Guild.”

This is one of my better essays. Hopefully I did a good job of explaining what I meant by “expansive subjectivity” (as opposed to what Kael called “saphead objectivity”). It’s been awhile since I turned up in an academic book ... perhaps the context helps my writing, because some of my finest work has been for such books (thinking of my essay on punk cinema, and another about Picasso and Bugs Bunny). But I have to admit, the $80 list price is a bit of a shock. You can always check out the things I wrote for Smart Pop Books ... I’m in six of them, and you could probably buy them all for $80. (If you only get one, choose the Battlestar Galactica book.)

talking about pauline kael

catching up on books

Here are two books I’ve read recently that have nothing in common.

From Jeff Guinn, there’s Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, from 2013. The classic book on Manson is Helter Skelter, I suppose. It’s been forever since I read it. My memory is that I preferred Ed Sanders’ book, The Family. I probably thought I knew all that I needed to know about Manson, but Guinn proves me wrong. His book is detailed and heavily researched. You learn about his childhood, you learn about his various stays in penal institutions, and most importantly, you find that he drew quite a bit from Dale Carnegie and from Scientology. With the former, Manson learned techniques for influencing people (he wasn’t as interested in making friends). From the latter, he learned about how cults worked (he didn’t care about the religious angle). He then set out to find people who could give him something. Guinn notes that Charlie couldn’t have found a better place to begin his big project than San Francisco in 1967. Guinn doesn’t blame hippies or alternate lifestyles ... he just points out that people were pretty tolerant of oddball behavior (and Manson had a lot of that). He begins building his family there, but the story soon moves to Los Angeles, where Manson hopes to launch a music career. Again, I thought I knew the basics of the relationship between Manson and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, but Guinn breaks it down, clarifies things. By the time the murders take place, you can believe The Family would kill for Manson (fear was a big part of their actions).

In a timely sidenote, Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast, You Must Remember This, has been focusing on “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” for several weeks. It’s a great pairing with Guinn’s book.

The second book is Molly Knight’s tome on the recent history of the Los Angeles Dodgers, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse, which came out a few weeks ago. It was a bit odd for this lifelong Giants fan to read an entire book about the Dodgers, but as I said on Twitter, I liked the ending (the Giants win the World Series, again, while the Dodgers don’t win the World Series, again). Knight doesn’t break new ground with this book, but she doesn’t have to, because she does such a solid, thorough job. She brings a lot to the table: a Dodger fan who, as she says, “grew up in the Top Deck at Dodger Stadium”; an efficient and clear writer; a worthy journalist; an honored stat head. She’s got all the angles covered, and the book benefits from her approach. We get to know Clayton Kershaw, take a peek inside Yasiel Puig, and most importantly, learn what a shitload of money can (and can’t) do for a major league baseball franchise. I got a greater appreciation for Don Mattingly, who maneuvers precariously between rich, antsy owners and temperamental superstars. (Knight doesn’t shy away from the whole story ... more than once, she notes that Mattingly is not known as a great strategist.)

Does Knight make me want to root for the Dodgers? Give me a break. If the Dodgers played a World Series against a team managed by Satan, I’d be cheering on the devil. Perhaps that’s a sign of how good Knight’s book is. Even a hardcore Giants fan will like it.

bruce bochy, a book of walks

While the title may sound like a look at one aspect of baseball from an honored manager, in fact “walks” refers to the basic act of walking. Each short chapter describes a different walk, from walking the dog, to Milwaukee and Arizona and Ohio and Central Park and Chicago, and around San Francisco, to Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The writing is conversational. No ghostwriter is listed ... Steve Kettmann writes the intro, I suppose he might have had a hand in things. It’s entirely possible Bochy wrote it all, and whatever the process, you get the feeling of a real person, “Bruce Bochy”, on the pages, and this adds to the pleasure the book brings.

It’s a slight book by design. You learn about one side of Bruce Bochy, and you get some nice little travelogues of neighborhoods he walks. It may just be me placing people into boxes, but it’s not the kind of book I’d expect from a baseball manager. But then, Bochy isn’t just any manager.

The last paragraph of the book encapsulates its charms. The final chapter is devoted to his “Everest”, a long walk from AT&T Park to the Golden Gate Bridge. It concludes:

That’s a walk I recommend to everyone. If you need to move along at a pretty deliberate pace and stop often to rest, so what. Take the whole day! Make an adventure out of it. Whether you’re a visitor to our city, or you’ve lived here your whole life, that’s a walk that will make you feel good. It will make you feel alive. It will make you feel more like yourself. After that, every time you see a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge or you see it in a movie or out the window of the flight taking you somewhere else, you can kind of smile and remember what it felt l like walking those last steps and being there at the foot of the bridge. I had a feeling I just wanted to walk to the Golden Gate. I thought it would be pretty cool. You know what? It was. It was very, very cool.

live at the apollo

The title of this post refers to the classic James Brown album from 1962. It also refers to a book in the 33 1/3 series, this one written by Douglas Wolk, about that album.

Wolk weaves a detailed analysis of Brown and the album with a narrative describing world events at the time the album was recorded. The concert occurred during the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis. Wolk works at tying Brown's combustible live show with the potential for fireworks happening out the walls of the Apollo, just two days after Kennedy had given a speech to the nation about the crisis:

"It's getting a little cold outside," he declares, and there's a rustling of assent. (It was: the weather on the night of October 24 was nasty, in the mid-to-upper 30s Fahrenheit in Harlem. Brown's staff had gone out and handed complimentary cups of coffee to people waiting in the long line outside the Apollo, making sure they were in a good mood when they got inside.) But then he adds: "I wonder do you know what I'm talkin' about? I said it's gettin' a little cold outside." That's a nudge. He's not talking about the weather. He's talking about the chill everyone in the room has been feeling for the last two days. But that's outside; this is inside the temple of Apollo, where the famous flames burn.

It's an interesting approach, and I do remember my ten-year-old self, aware that something was going on, looking at every plane that flew by wondering if it was from Russia. So sure, missiles were on everyone's minds. But for the most part, I found these sections of the book mostly digressions, and I would get antsy for Wolk to return directly to the album.

Which is where rewards are to be found, for Wolk does a terrific job. He has clearly listened to Live at the Apollo many times, and more carefully than most of us, I suspect.

Turning up "I Love You Yes I Do" as loud as it can go is also a good way to admire the amazing recording quality of Live at the Apollo. You can make out the cries in the crowd, and bits of the Famous Flames' off-mic backing vocals; you can also hear a little squeak right before each beat. Perhaps the drum kit had a squeaky hi-hat, or the organ had a squeaky speaker?

The majority of the book, as with the album, is "Lost Someone". It is to Wolk's credit that reading his writing on "Lost Someone", you want to immediately put the song on. (OK, I pretty much always want to put that song on.)

I can't quote the whole book ... you really need to read it, listening to Brown all the while. But I can't resist a bit more:

[W]hen he recorded LATA, he knew he was being recorded, and he held back, so he wouldn't overload the microphone and get distortion all over the recording, because theyn Syd Nathan would never let him put it out. Live at the Apollo, my friends -- Live at the Apollo is the sound of James Brown holding back. ...

James Brown has been singing "Lost Someone" for almost eleven minutes. Time has bent and suspended under the week's incredible gravity.

Wolk makes a point ... maybe it's one everybody already knew, but it hadn't occurred to me before. Live at the Apollo is one of the greatest albums ever made, a crucial part of the history of James Brown. Yet it comes before the period when Brown changed music, when he had his biggest impact. I might play "Lost Someone" once a day until I die, but in the end, it's just a stunning performance. But with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" as a marker, funk becomes king. There are hints of that future in Live at the Apollo, but only hints.

There are thousands of records that bear James Brown's influence, and a lot of them even namedrop him, but almost all of them take off from his 1965-1974 funk period. You can scarcely hear the echoes of the massively popular Apollo in the music of anyone other than James Brown himself.