Charlie Bertsch begins the illuminating introduction to his new book Listening for the Future by posing a question: “What do we ask of popular music? The book, which collects music reviews he has written for The Battleground, attempts to answer that question.
I hope you read my review, and then read Charlie's book, not necessarily in that order. Meanwhile, here is the bio I provided:
Steven Rubio has lived in Berkeley, California for almost 45 years. He has family roots in Andalucía, and he spends as much time as possible there. He recently saw Patti Smith at the Royal Albert Hall, which made for an interesting cultural juxtaposition. But he is also looking forward unironically to an upcoming Billie Eilish concert.
When John le Carré died last month at the age of 89, I thought to read one of his novels. I remembered seeing the film of The Constant Gardener many years ago, and decided that would be a good choice to read. Thus, when I say I am "revisiting" The Constant Gardener, I'm referring to the movie, not to the book, which I read for the first time.
Robin likes to tease me because I always lose track of the plot in spy thriller type movies. She, of course, prefers the complicated plots, the more the merrier far as she is concerned (and she reads a lot of books in the genre as well). So there's always a point in the middle of one of these movies where I put it on pause and ask her "do you understand what the hell is going on?" and she looks at me like I'm a moron and says "duh." She didn't watch The Constant Gardener with me, though, so when I got to the part where I finally had to admit to myself that I didn't know what was going on, I had no one to talk about it with.
But, looking back, I think I did understand what was going on ... I just kept expecting some cheesy Hollywood crap and when it didn't come, I was confused. All of the characters are shaded in gray ... some are closer to "good" than others, but their motivations and actions are not always obvious the way they would be in a crappier movie. Same thing with the plot ... while much of the mystery, such as it is, is easy to understand and pretty clear from the beginning (at least the international intrigue parts), I kept waiting for silly plot twists, even when they never came.
What I'm trying to say is that The Constant Gardener is a very good movie that works in subtle ways, that I think I picked up on those subtleties, but I lack confidence in my ability to "read" thrillers so I convinced myself I wasn't getting it when I was.
This time around, my wife did watch with me, so I could have asked her what was going on. But I had just read the book, so I didn't need her help. In other words, one of the things that stood out the most for me in my earlier viewing (what's going on) was irrelevant in this revisit.
It took a while for the primary character to become clear in the book ... le Carré switches points of view, and it is only gradually that we realize Justin is the one. In the movie, you know right away, because Justin is played by Ralph Fiennes, who is the star of the cast. The film was just as impressive the second time around. Rachel Weisz won a Supporting Actress Oscar, beating out Amy Adams (Junebug), Catherine Keener (Capote), Frances McDormand (North Country), and Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain). She is indeed wonderful, but I'd note that Ralph Fiennes is also excellent (Philip Seymour Hoffman won Best Actor that year for Capote). I first watched The Constant Gardener about a year before I saw City of God for the first time. The latter movie was also directed by Fernando Meirelles (along with Kátia Lund) ... a friend had bugged me for years about how great it was, and when I finally got around to it, my friend was right ... I ended up putting it at #20 on that 50 Fave Films list I made ten years ago. The Constant Gardener was the first movie Meirelles directed after City of God.
I'm always reading one or two books, but I never write about them. So here are a few words about the last five books I've read, starting with the one I just finished.
Simon Wells, She's a Rainbow: The Extraordinary Life of Anita Pallenberg: The Black Queen. It's probably impossible to write a boring book about Anita Pallenberg, and in fact, I stuck with She's a Rainbow for no other reason than to see what Anita was up to next. I feel like Wells overstates her importance, but I did buy this book, released this year, so obviously I find her interesting. Of course I wanted to read about Performance, and it's there, although Wells doesn't offer much new. It's nice to have her whole story in one place, but I wish the book were better. Wells is an idiosyncratic writer who sometimes seems to be unaware of how to structure a sentence, although I finally realized it's just one quirk, repeated endlessly. A sentence will suffice for evidence: "Draped over her old friend, musician Richard Lloyd, at Xenon’s, one opportunist snapper, Ron Galella, captured a truly derelict Anita as she vainly attempted to avoid the camera’s lens." No, Simon, Ron Galella was not draped over Richard Lloyd.
Anne Helen Petersen, Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. I've long been a fan of Petersen, who has a PhD in media studies and who studied the history of the gossip industry. In an interview, Petersen said, "After I turned in my dissertation, I was hungry to write in a non-academic way ... [I] began writing pieces on the intersection of celebrity, feminism, and contemporary media for other places as well—all while working as a full-time academic. The academic job market is rough—and when the visiting professorship I had ended, I couldn’t find another job. But I had been subconsciously building a 'life raft' of sorts away from academia for years with my writing." Her Facebook page, "Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style", is a must-read, as is her newsletter, "Culture Study". Can't Even does an excellent job of identifying burnout, but I wasn't always convinced that millennials are notably different re: burnout than the rest of us.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. Even with things I read only recently, I tend to forget rather quickly exactly why I chose a particular book to read. Such is the case with Everybody Lies. Stephens-Davidowitz calls himself an "internet data expert", and in this book, he explains why he thinks "Big Data" (i.e. all the stuff Google knows about us and everything else) is crucial to understanding our world today. In the Internet/Google era, there are no small sample sizes. Everybody Lies is a first step ... the data is so immense, and there are so many questions to be asked. As for the "Everybody Lies" part? Stephens-Davidowitz stakes his claim from the start: "The power in Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else."
Nick Hornby, Just Like You: A Novel. I rarely read fiction, but I almost always read Hornby, who hooked me with his first book (Fever Pitch, which happened to be non-fiction). Hornby was the first writer to be tagged within the genre "Lad Lit", and to be honest, it fits. To my eye, he has gotten better with his female characters, and he's certainly not afraid to move outside of what he might immediately know. Just Like You is the story of a romance between a 42-year-old white woman and a 22-year-old Black man. Like a lot of Hornby's fiction, the characters are believable, but the story feels a bit slight. That could just be me.
Kim Gordon, Girl in a Band: A Memoir. Makes an interesting pair with the Anita Pallenberg biography, in that Pallenberg's influence in the music world was based mostly on her relationships with musicians, while Gordon's place in music history comes from her membership in Sonic Youth. I've never been the biggest Sonic Youth fan, but I enjoyed reading about the life of a "girl in a band" from the girl's perspective. And Gordon's book revolves less around gossip than does the Pallenberg bio. The lesson, it appears, is that if you want it told right, tell your own story.
This book is one where the subtitle tells you a lot: "Pop Music at the Movies and on TV". Phil covers a lot of ground, from the first three chapters on Mad Men to the last chapter on Donovan (yes, that Donovan), inspired by the appearance of "Hurdy Gurdy Man" in Zodiac, a movie he loves. Phil Dellio is the right person for this book, because he has lived the movies and the television and the music for a long time, and he worked as a teacher so he knows how to get our attention and then sneak a little learning in with the enjoyment.
Funny thing is, as much as I love Phil's writing, he starts off with something that I've always disliked. He's trying to decide how Mad Men will end, which a lot of us were, to be sure, myself included. But then Scott Woods emails Phil with an idea, and "as soon as I read it, I realized [it] may even be more important to me than what happens to Don: what song does Mad Men go out on?" I once had an essay published about the show House, where I complained that the series was not top notch because it always fell back on what at our house we called "The Song", something to emphasize what we had seen, something I inevitably found unnecessary and even insulting (what, we don't get it without help?). It's no coincidence that my all-time favorite show, The Wire, relied almost exclusively on diegetic music with the exception of an end-of-season montage.
But, as I knew would be the case, none of this matters when reading the book. Because Phil has things to say about the music and the films or series, and those things are interesting, and the ways he connects the music to those films and series is enlightening, regularly showing me a new way to think about the music, the visuals, or both. Sometimes the connections are startling, like when he finds that Diana Vreeland reminds him of Pauline Kael. Vreeland is a good example for another reason ... I have no interest in her, didn't know the movie he was talking about, but have been thinking obsessively about the Vreeland/Kael comparison since I read it.
Which is one way of saying that it doesn't always matter if you aren't familiar with a particular text, because Phil will get you thinking about it anyway. I knew most of the music, and especially with songs that have been overplayed over the years, it's a pleasure just to read someone putting those songs into a different context. The chapter about Donovan is one of my favorites, because I was a fan back in the 60s, and have long felt that he was underrated due to his spacey-hippie image. Phil jumps on this, calling it a "misguided caricature" that hippie music "was all sunshine and light", followed by a discussion of Donovan. The obvious starting point for me is "Season of the Witch", one of the truly frightening songs of that era. But Phil talks about "Mellow Yellow" and "Sunshine Superman" and "Hurdy Gurdy Man". "Season of the Witch" only sneaks in when Phil quotes Greil Marcus, who shares my feelings about that song. What this does is send me back to other Donovan songs ... I'm still certain "Season of the Witch" is his masterpiece, but now I'm listening to Donovan's entire catalog with a different ear, all thanks to Phil Dellio and Zodiac.
To top it off, Phil and Scott Woods are building a "clipography" on YouTube. You can find it here. It's just two long-time, opinionated friends talking about music and movies. It's quite casual, and you might not want to binge-watch all the videos at once. But it's fun to watch. Here's their talk about Almost Famous:
And here, for the zillionth time, I post the clip they refer to:
I realize I've never written about Almost Famous. Not sure why ... I certainly think about it a lot. My feelings intellectually about the movie are in line with what Phil says about Greil Marcus in their Clipography: Cameron Crowe, god love him, was an example of what went wrong at Rolling Stone. And the way Crowe works Lester Bangs into the story ... well, I suspect Philip Seymour Hoffman got him right, and for all I know, Bangs and Crowe were good buddies, but Lester Bangs was not about the Rolling Stone of the post-Crowe era. I love Almost Famous because I love Hoffman as Lester ... I am irritated by Almost Famous because of what it does to the Lester I admire.
Meanwhile, if I did a book like Phil's, then sure, 'Tiny Dancer" would have to be there. I'd have to watch movies for a specific reason if I was going to create a long list, though ... what would I include? Mick Jagger as Turner singing Robert Johnson in Performance? Virtually the entire movie Mean Streets? Fred and Ginger dancing cheek to cheek in Top Hat? My brain hurts just trying to come up with examples, which shows just what a remarkable feat Phil Dellio has pulled off in his book.
When a war breaks out, people say: “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves. In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.
This wasn’t the first time I revisited Jim Bouton’s book about the 1969 Seattle Pilots baseball team. He seems to come out with a new edition every decade or so, and I generally re-read it then. This time around, my birthday came up, I saw there was a Kindle version, I put it on my wish list, and my baseball-loving sister got it for me (thanks!).
Ball Four is of interest, even to a non-fan of baseball, because of its historical importance as one of the first sports books to reveal what the game was “really” like. It wasn’t the first … not sure what is, although Jim Brosnan wrote two similar books in the early 60s, The Long Season and Pennant Race, that have long been favorites of mine. Nowadays, it might seem quaint to realize there was a time (the early 70s) when the baseball establishment could be in an uproar because Bouton (and his co-writer, Leonard Shecter) talked about players cussing and taking amphetamines and getting drunk on their off-days (and sometimes their on-days). Brosnan went through the same thing, although as I recall (not having re-read his books for a few years … perhaps it’s time) his books didn’t have quite as much a feel of exposé as Bouton’s did.
But most of the interest for the non-fan comes from that historical impact. The diary aspects, with its chronicling of the drudgery of a six-month season, are great for baseball aficionados, but I don’t suppose others would care. Having said that, Ball Four ultimately works because it is a book filled with characters, and the fact that they are real people makes it even better. Apparently Joe Schultz, manager of the Pilots, was angered by his portrayal in the book. Which is sad, because Schultz comes across as a great character, someone placed in an impossible situation (managing a poor, expansion ball team that lasted only one season before moving to Milwaukee) who used an idiosyncratic use of language to cajole his team into whatever heights they might possibly reach.
That’s what is most enjoyable about revisiting Ball Four, reading once again about Bouton and Schultz and the rest. The response of the time is historically interesting, but in the end, what I like best is Joe Schultz telling the guys, “Boys, bunting is like jacking off. Once you learn how you never forget.”
For an interesting, positive contemporaneous review of the book from a perhaps surprising source, check out Robert “Dean of American Rock Critics” Christgau’s piece, “Bouton Baseball”:
Bouton is the kind of iconoclast who is so insecure in his chosen isolation that he seems to delight in making other men look foolish. To an extent, this may be salutory. Even the most skeptical fan forgets that those names in the newspapers and figures on the screen are as frail as you or me, and this oversight is compounded by the daily dope from journalists whose living depends on acquiring more dope tomorrow. But it's hard to say how essential such an illusion may be to the continued power of the game. The baseball men who complain most bitterly about this book never claim it is untrue, only unfair--because it examines baseball's errants so steadfastly--and injudicious--because it reveals what the kids are better off not knowing. Unfair it isn't: Bouton obviously loves baseball and despite his snittiness he describes his fellows with generous appreciation. But injudicious? I don't know. Theoretically, a player is judged by what he can do on the field--the game itself is the thing. But even more than other sports baseball requires not just technical esteem but an investment of emotion, and emotion is best invested in people, however faultily perceived. I don't think the glowering visage of Sal Maglie will ever fill me with awe again.
Earlier, I wrote about Mike Nichols' 1970 film adaptation of Joseph Heller's Catch-22. I re-read the novel as I watched the new, six-part mini-series of the book.
Heller's novel, like the Nichols movie, holds up well (and, as was true at the time, the book is better than the movie). Heller combines the horrors of war with tongue-twisting word play designed to demonstrate the circular illogic of the military. Heller's Catch-22 is absurd, violent, and hilarious, often at the same time. While The Military is the ultimate villain, two characters in particular stand out for their essentially evil nature. Aarfy is a privileged social climber who doesn't care about anyone who can't help him get higher up the ladder. He commits the novel's most repugnant action (and gets away with it). Milo is a schemer who turns a job as mess officer into a huge capitalist enterprise. Milo bombs his own base, trades with the enemy, and acts in an amoral way while claiming he is just following the philosophy of capital.
In the mini-series, Milo does the same things that occur in the book, but somehow he comes across more as an innocent savant than a representative of capitalism run amok. Jon Voight's interpretation in the 1970 movie is better ... by the film's end, Milo is as much fascist as capitalist. As for Aarfy, he is creepy, but not really important enough to stand as the worst that men can do.
Women are treated with more respect in the mini-series than in either the novel or the earlier film. The sexism of Heller's book is fairly ordinary for its time, but it's hard to take now, when we should know better. The mini-series mostly solves this problem by making the marginal women characters of the novel even less important. There is less overt sexism, but the women aren't really given anything useful in its place.
Christopher Abbott is a fine Yossarian, but the better-known actors are a mixed bag. Giancarlo Giannini is OK as a jaded survivor, but George Clooney overplays his role and Hugh Laurie is barely there. Kyle Chandler comes off the best ... other than Abbott, he gives the best performance in the show.
Catch-22 is an acknowledged classic novel. If you have never read it, you should. If you read it long ago and liked it, a re-reading will be rewarding, although ultimately I'm not sure it is THE major novel of its era. Meanwhile, the mini-series is more good than bad, but it lacks the lunacy of the novel.
I once wrote an essay for a book titled What Would Sipowicz Do? Race, Rights and Redemption in NYPD Blue. A couple of days ago, the publisher sent a group email to all of the authors, letting us know that the book, which came out in 2004, will be going out of print. As I often do when I get included in an anthology, I check out my fellow contributors, looking for names I recognize. This doesn't always make me happy ... Alan Dershowitz turned up in one of those books ... but it's fun, especially in retrospect, to see the company I once hung out with. In the case of the NYPD Blue book, there was Joyce Millman, one of the founders of Salon, and David Gerrold, writer of numerous books and perhaps best-known for his association with Star Trek (he wrote the Tribbles episode, among others).
One of the writers in that book responded to the email, copying all of us, thanking the publisher for letting us know. I thought that was a nice gesture, and looked him up online, just to see what else he had done. His name was Robert A. Leonard, and the piece he wrote for the book was "Forensic Linguistics in NYPD Blue". Leonard himself is a distinguished linguist ... among other things, he is the director of the graduate program in Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra.
Looking at his Wikipedia page and elsewhere, I found that I actually had an experience with Leonard many years ago, June of 1970 to be exact. I had just turned 17, and a friend and I went to Fillmore West. The opening acts were Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, and Pacific Gas & Electric, who had a decent-sized hit that year with "Are You Ready?"
My friend and I had never heard of the headliners. They had made their mark, though, in a movie which had been released a couple of months earlier that we hadn't yet seen: Woodstock. The band was Sha Na Na:
When we saw them, they were fun and energetic and very entertaining. Later I would learn that the original members of the band were students at Columbia.
I can still remember one song they played that night. Here it is a few months after we saw them, this time at Fillmore East:
The singer was "Rob" Leonard. According to Wikipedia, "Leonard spent two years with the band, until he stopped at the age of twenty-one. He left the band because he was offered a fellowship at Columbia Graduate School and wanted to further his education in linguistics."
Yes, my fellow author in the NYPD Blue anthology was the same man I saw sing "Teen Angel" at Fillmore West in 1970.
Recovering files from my old computer and transferring them to the new one, I came across my dissertation. Here is the abstract:
Substituting action for the logical deduction that had become standard for the detective genre in the wake of Edgar Allan Poe, hard-boiled fiction offered a world where heroes acted with a fury that mirrored the chaos they were opposing. Early works validated the usefulness of individual chaotic fury in opposing social chaos, but Dashiell Hammett attempted to use the genre to critique notions of chaotic heroism, while Raymond Chandler steps back from the more radical claims of Hammett’s work, which implicates the detective as well as society as a whole. Chandler’s heroes are always disillusioned not by something as grand as “society” but rather by something quite specific: women, who are desired as damsels in distress but who are eventually exposed as representatives of chaos. In the post-war era, the massively popular Mickey Spillane reduces the art of his forebears to a stripped-down, violent neo-fascism that largely ignores Chandler’s romanticism and completely overturns Hammett’s critique in a celebration of the chaotic fury which Hammett condemned. Even more than in Chandler’s work, Spillane places women at the center of society’s corruptions; unlike Hammett, Spillane allows his hero mostly unqualified success. Robert B. Parker gives his hero a regular and significant love interest, refuses to accept the demonization of women, and attempts to recognize women as partners, if not full-fledged heroines, in his adventures. The novels of Sara Paretsky extend these changes in the genre’s attitudes towards women, merging a feminist vision of women in the late twentieth century, working communally towards common goals, with a vision of the individual on whom society calls when chaos threatens. Rather than rejecting the entire tradition out of hand, Paretsky synthesizes the notion of empowered women in a community, with the individualist notions of the heroes in the genre’s past, attempting to extract the power that comes to those who harness chaos without losing sight of the needs of the oppressed.
I never write about books anymore. Only two posts in all of 2018 were tagged "Books", and only one of those was really a post about a book ("perhaps i need to go out tonight", about Heather Havrilesky's What If This Were Enough?) I read books all the time, I'm usually in the middle of one or more. Open right now: Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger by Rebecca Traister. Unopened right now, meaning I have them but haven't started them: a memoir by Jorma Kaukonen, a biography of Francis Marion, and Joan Didion's White Album, which I have read before.
But here are some of the ones I've read since Havrilesky's book, all of them deserving of a post of their own:
The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy
Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 by Gary Giddins
I Might Regret This: Essays, Drawings, Vulnerabilities, and Other Stuff by Abbi Jacobson
Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017 by Robert Christgau
Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood by Karina Longworth
Just a Shot Away: Peace. Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont by Saul Austerlitz
Perhaps I need to write about these in the aftermath of the reading, where they are still fresh in my mind. Because right now, Traister's book is the only fresh one. In my mind.
So I'll write about it when I finish it. According to my Kindle, I'm 59% of my way through it.