Friday, October 20, 2017

Book Review: Grown Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 by Daniel Wolff

In a stirring work of history, Daniel Wolff connects various flash points from the past, tracing the roots of righteous anger in America. On Christmas Eve 1913, 73 miners and their children perished in Calumet, Michigan after a false fire alarm either orchestrated by the mining company or their henchmen. A panic ensued and people trampled over each other for safety.  The fire exit door was locked.  Woody Guthrie wrote a song in entitled "1913 Massacre" that retold the tragic events, the final verse ending with "See what your greed for money has done.

In 2013 there were no remembrances for the lives lost, no specials on a major TV network that would remind Americans to reflect on labor struggles. As Wolff emphasizes, that doesn't mean it never happened. There's an anger, you just have to search for it. For the book draws a straight line from Calumet - Guthrie's song - and Dylan's recording of "Like A Rolling Stone" in 1965.

In the first chapter, Wolff writes that revolution suggested in "Like A Rolling Stone" never materialized: 

Like this new century was born from a struggle it barely knows about. As if forces have long been working underground, and we walk the landscape they've produced like innocents, unaware. (18)

Grown Up Anger tells three parallel stories: the historical roots of the Calumet Massacre, Woody Guthrie's political awakening, and how it all connects to Dylan. It's bigger than that even; it's the history of the 20th century and its epic tragedies. The 21st Century, as Wolff points out, has witnessed strides in terms of group rights, yet the wealth gap has skyrocketed. Union membership is at its lowest level since 1913. Even Michigan, a state put its fate in the hands of Trump, was at one time was the heart and soul of American labor, passed Right-To-Work laws. Wages are falling for everyone, except the top 5%.

The parallel journeys of Guthrie and Dylan are instructive, in their own ways tales of exuberance followed by cynicism and the echo of hope. On "Like a Rolling Stone" Dylan's anger seems to grow with each verse, but resolves itself with the promise of starting over and living to fight another day.

Wolff's cinematic approach to history is written with journalistic precision. Perhaps the approach warranted a more experimental writing style; maybe would've made for a cooler book. But now is not the time for abstractions; the time cries for truth and clarity. On that note, I would highly recommend Grown Up Anger.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Book Review: A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff

If there were a Godfather of modern popular culture, Harlan Ellison would be the guy. Mr. Ellison published his first story as a teenager and never looked back. A cult hero since the 1960s, he seems to have been everywhere and met everybody.  Biographer Nat Segaloff was given unprecedented access to Ellison's archives and granted several interviews with his subject. A Lit Fuse works as a reliable introduction for those new to Harlan Elison, while providing a complete picture for those familiar with his work.

In all honesty, Ellison's been his own biographer for decades, sharing details of his life in his writings and speaking engagements.  Reportedly, Ellison spent several years on a memoir entitled Working Without a Net, but recent health problems compelled him to pass the project on to his friend Segaloff. Many stories recounted in the book are reprints of interviews Ellison's provided over the years; the book puts them all into a cohesive narrative.

So, who is Harlan Ellison? He's written in all genres of fiction including TV and film, comic books and graphic novels, and media criticism. In addition Harlan's a voice actor, lecturer, comics collector, and one of the last great raconteurs. As a public personality he's been called the most contentious man on the planet; fearless in his confrontations with anyone, anywhere. Ellison can be a loyal friend or bitter enemy (he revels in getting revenge towards those who wronged him). He gained a reputation for being litigious, but won most of his cases (most famous case being the 1984 film The Terminator).  

Segaloff recounts Ellison's chaotic boyhood in Painesville, Ohio, a place he came to despise for its backward ways. He was bullied repeatedly for being Jewish and fought back just as hard. His childhood tormentors have often appeared in his stories, same names and all. He ran away many times, driving his parents up the wall.  After getting expelled from Ohio State (Harlan punched out a professor who told him he would never make it as a writer) he established himself in the pulp magazines, served in the army for a few years, and continued writing at a rapid pace. Then he moved to Los Angeles and broke into the television industry.

Ellison's had a tumultuous relationship with television, forever denouncing producers who changed his scripts.  The most infamous case is the Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever." Despite winning the WGA (Writers Guild of America) award for the script he remained angry over the changes made to his original vision. In 1970, he wrote The Glass Teat, a groundbreaking book on how television failed the public on every level. Ellison worked on the 1980s reboot of The Twilight Zone series, but walked off when CBS refused to film one of his scripts (a satire on Christmas and consumerism).

The author of over 1500 short stories, many of which are considered classics of the form. Just a few memorable titles are "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream and "Jetty is Five" are all staples of modern fiction. Ellison's mostly written short stories, a form he believes is superior to the novel (also admits he lacks the focus to write a long book). 

Despite Ellison's abrasive personality he's fostered many friendships over the years: karate training with Bruce Lee, motorcycling with Steve McQueen, and a moving friendship with the late Robin Williams. His encounters with Frank Sinatra, L. Ron Hubbard, and irate fans are all legendary. As a teacher he championed young writers by running work shops, serving as a mentor to many.  Always the activist, he marched with Martin Luther King at Selma (wrote a compelling account) and delivered hundreds of speeches to support the Equal Rights Amendment (Governor Reagan put Ellison on a watch list and had his phone tapped). 

Ellison's crowning achievement remains his editing and supervision of the speculative fiction anthology Dangerous Visions in 1967, one of the Rosetta Stones of modern genre fiction. I was hoping the book would shed light on his collaboration with Thomas Pynchon, no dice.

Segaloff divided the book into thematic chapters, avoiding the awkwardness of a straight line narrative. Details are learned about Ellison's personal life: his five marriages, acrimonious relationship with his family, and the residual pain from his childhood. 

In 2014, a massive stroke sidelined Ellison. It was sad to read about how his health problems in recent years have prevented him from writing.

Ellison often agonizes if his work will endure after he's gone. I think it will. Few of his writings have been adapted into film so the possibilities are endless.  Segaloff makes a strong case for Ellison's legacy; admiring, but never worshipful.

(Many of Ellison's interviews are available on youtube. Begin with his interviews with Tom Snyder)

Monday, September 4, 2017

Book Review: Old Records Never Die by Eric Spitznagel

Old Records Never Die tells the story of a man's quest to reunite with all of his old records (this is a non-fiction book). And that's just it - the actual records he sold off years before. Now married with a young son and approaching middle age, Spitznagel's quest appears to be a futile attempt to recapture his youth, a mid-life crisis cliche. He would be the first to admit that. Over the course of a few years he haunts old record stores and even tracks down a few dealers who might possess his precious talismans from youth. Despite Spitznagel's occasional music snobbery and indulgence in nostalgia, he brings an emotional resonance to a story that culminates into a moving conclusion. I guess even the most vociferous cynic can turn out to be a sentimentalist at heart. There are also several hilarious and surreal moments with the various characters he encounters along the way. Highly recommended for the rock music obsessive, quietly, but defiantly, living the ethos of Gen X.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Concert Review: Phish at the Nutter Center 7-18-2017

The eclectic rock band Phish put their musicianship on full display at the Nutter Center in Dayton, Ohio last night. I went into the concert being mostly unfamiliar with their music and history.  I was aware they have a fervent following akin to The Grateful Dead.  Fans follow them around on tour and create a festive atmosphere at the venue. One of the most heralded American Jam Bands, known for extended improvisational music, Phish draws upon a wide range of musical influences.

Fronted by lead guitarist and vocalist Trey Anastasio, Phish played two full sets, each about 90 minutes long. Anastasio was supported by Mike Gordon on bass, Jon Fishman on percussion, and Page McConnell on keyboards.  They opened the show with some rockers like "Tuesday" and "Peaches En Regalia," and "Free." These songs are more rooted in the classic rock tradition of The Rolling Stones. Other songs displayed a funk influence with bass driven extended jams. "Crazy Sometimes," clearly a crowd pleaser.  They closed the first set with "Runaway Jim," a song that reminded me of The Grateful Dead in their heyday.

The second set was dominated by improvisational jams.  The opener "Down With Disease" clocked in at 23 minutes.  There's a definite Frank Zappa quality to Phish as well, showing off their quirky side with "Wombat." The band hold their own with any arena rock band from the 1970s, with hints of Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers. At times, Anastasio sounds identical to Jerry Garcia, at other times a Zappa delivery, but he can also be soulful and melodic. All four musicians are excellent showmen, each putting their distinct personality into the performance.  While phones were visible everywhere in the arena, the crowd seemed to be genuinely into the music.

Before saying farewell, Phish are off to Madison Square Garden where they will perform a "baker's dozen" worth of shows, they closed the concert with "The Squirming Coil," a meditative song from their 1990 album Lawn Boy.

What was my impression of Phish as a newcomer? They employed an impressive range of styles, much rooted in rock of the 1970s and 1980s, with some free form jazz and classical thrown into the mix.  When they want to - they can rock with the best of them. Much depends on your tolerance for extended jam music. It can test your patience if you are not accustomed to it.  Phish is known for making each concert a unique event with vastly different set lists from show to show, and they accomplished just that - an experience.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Review: Radio On by Sarah Vowell

Recent I picked up Radio On by Sarah Vowell, NPR impresario and hipster historian. In 1995 Vowell decided to keep a journal on her radio listening habits and record her observations, offering reflections on one of the least written about mediums.  Radio On offers a nervy trip back to 1995, replete with foreshadowing of what was to come.

Vowell listened to a wide range of what is now called terrestrial radio: FM Rock, AM Talk Radio, and tons of NPR. Many figures from 1995 appear; some are gone, and some are still around.  The death of Kurt Cobain was still raw in that year and his ghost looms heavily over the book.  Vowell wrote of Cobain as the conscious of the early 1990s:

It was a relief to know someone like him that was on the radio, part of American public life. . . To some of the people who grieve him, Kurt Cobain was a great artist, to others he was the medicine man of the rock and roll tribe, but, finally, he was simply a friend (5-6).

Vowell relates much on what she admires and detests about America. For 1995 saw a resurgence of the right (many more to come), in 1994 the GOP won both houses of congress back after 50 years out of power.  Once in power they gleefully acted as the wrecking crew to Bill Clinton's liberal agenda. Newt Gingrich gets much of Vowell's vitriol, along with crony Rush Limbaugh who dominated the air waves. Rhetoric from the right in 1995 has many echoes for today, fanaticism over gun rights topping the list.  The Oklahoma City bombing revealed how much some on the right despised their society, the Unabomber (extreme left) also entered the cultural parlance.

It's always fun to hear the young go after a sacred cow and few do it better that Vowell. Deadheads are almost as annoying as Rush's legion of dittoheads, chastising her peers for being trapped in the amber of counterculture nostalgia. She prefers P.J. Harvey to Alanis Morisette, ambivalent towards Courtney Love. She writes of her exhaustion with male voices dominating the discourse on music, most of pop  culture for that matter:

I seem to have spent my whole life listening to boys talk about music. And sometimes, no matter how smart or untrivial or meaningful the boy might be, the sheer aesthetic presence of a masculine voice engaged in record talk can get on my nerves (168).

The rise of the internet looms as well, still more of a novelty in 1995.  At one point Vowell ponders the possibilities, in the future everyone can be their own radio station, predicting the rise of podcasts.  The absence of social media makes itself known: in order to communicate people still had to call each other or write notes.  Seems much longer than 20 years.

Perhaps its the mid 90s milieu and all the talk of REM, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana it got me thinking of David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest would be published the next year (probably because the film The End of the Tour takes place at roughly the same time.)  I imagine Wallace and Vowell running into each other and she being annoyed with his writing style and obsessions with tennis and the pursuit of happiness. But Wallace did listen to Nirvana while writing so maybe they would talk about Cobain. Past is prologue, and the 90s were a prologue decade.

But back to radio, Vowell is fairly critical of NPR for being too middle of the road, in other words out of touch. Well someone listened at NPR, Vowell herself became a fixture of This American Life. Since the 90s radio hasn't changed much, mostly zombie radio these days. Satellite radio does excellent work, but with a price. And consumers can access music in myriads of different ways - that's a good thing.

Vowell's at her best when writing about patriotism in a time when conservatives act like they own it, she relates her patriotism more in the spirit of Neil Young (nothing like a Canadian to be the exemplar of good citizenry). Not without surprise, religion and national identity would preoccupy her future writing. 

Vowell channels the spirit of a perceptive road novel - from a specific time and place.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: Buckley and Mailer: The DIfficult Friendship That Shaped The Sixties

The 2015 book Buckley and Mailer by Kevin Schultz examines the friendship/rivalry between novelist Norman Mailer and Conservative writer William F. Buckley.  Both were consummate critics of the prevailing liberalism of the decade, Mailer critiqued from the Left and Buckley from the Right. On September 22, 1962 they held a debate in New York City and became friends afterwards, corresponding throughout the decade.  As their cultural influence waned the deep fissures within American they tried to transcend became ever more apparent.

With privileged backgrounds and Ivy League Educations, both spoke with a suave self-assurance.  Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead, based on his own experiences in the Philippines during the Second World War, established him as new voice in America literature.  His 1959 book Advertisements For Myself helped launched New Journalism, a style that made the writer a part of their own story.

Buckley also came to a prominence through a book, God and Man At Yale , a satiric look at the modern university.  In 1955 he founded National Review, which became the bible of the Conservative Movement.  Like Mailer, Buckley felt stagnated by the Eisenhower years and worried about the direction of the country.

Their debate was promoted as the “forceful philosopher of THE NEW CONSERVATISM . . . AGAINST . . . America’s angry young man and Leading Radical” (17).  The debate proved a jocular affair with both men finding common ground in their fears about technology threatening the individual. Buckley’s conservatism looked to the past for wisdom and guidance on how to move forward – read the “Great Books” and champion Judeo-Christian values as the path to Enlightenment.  Mailer evangelized for a new individuality that would reward creativity and advocated for a new value system to unlock the shackles of the past.

Both took the controversies of the decade head on. Mailer covered the 1964 GOP convention in San Francisco that nominated Barry Goldwater and detected a whiff of Fascism.  Johnson’s landslide win over Goldwater failed to produce a consensus.  The left and right were drifting further apart. LBJ’s escalation of the war in Vietnam would fuel the New Left – and energize Mailer.

Schultz credits Buckley with driving out the wacko right wing groups such as the John Birch Society and the KKK.  His long running talk show Firing Line looks more like a placid cocktail party than the predictable rage at Fox News. As time went on Buckley’s aristocratic view of politics alienated him from the forces that would  shape modern conservatism – white working class resentment.

As well educated white men there views on race and gender betrayed their privilege.   Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro” expressed his admiration for black culture, specifically the sexual openness that terrified middle class whites. James Baldwin, a friend of Mailer’s, called out the racism of the article because of its simplistic view of black culture.  Buckley opposed the Civil Rights Movement and his statements on race are now outmoded, sometimes painfully racist.  In 1965 Baldwin humiliated Buckley at the Oxford Union debate they held.

Mailer’s reputation as a male chauvinist also put him in opposition to Women’s Liberation. In 1971 Mailer debated a group of feminists including Susan Sontag and Germaine Greer and came off as clownish. In a later essay, Greer dismissed Mailer as aging and no longer relevant – echoing the Boomer animus towards Mailer.

Mailer continued to write in the 1960s, writing an experimental novel An American Dream, and two works of non-fiction about protests he participated in Armies of the Night and Miami and The Siege of Chicago.  Realizing film was poised to displace literature Mailer made several experimental movies. In 1968 he ran for mayor of New York City with Jimmy Breslin in a splendidly Quixotic campaign that pledged to make NYC the 51st state.

Today literature lacks anyone approaching the panache of Mailer, while conservatism reduced itself to angry bloggers, talk radio rants, and Fox News (with a few exceptions – National Review soldiers on more weary than ever in the Trump era). Our fragmented culture tends to separate people into something resembling tribes, a development that would appall both Mailer and Buckley.

Reading the book, one can understand their flaws and yet appreciate their willingness to jump into the maelstrom of ideas.  Schultz paints a panoramic portrait of the 1960s that deeply resonates for the current moment.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Sgt Pepper: Utopian Visions

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.  Most commentators have written on whether it was the "greatest" Beatle album and then smugly tell you it's the most overrated music ever made. Let's not even go there.

To quote Peter Fonda from The Limey (1999):

Did you ever dream about a place you never really recall being to before? A place that maybe only exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew your way around. *That* was the sixties. (Pause)

No. It wasn't that either. It was just '66 and early '67. That's all there was.

By that logic, and a fine logic it is, the release of Pepper marked the end of the 1960s, prophecy of some new age.  Certainly not the age that followed, nor the one we are in now, but someday maybe.

German philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote of how systems destroy radical ideas by making them banal.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it's happened.  The Beatles, those mop top rascals who sent shockwaves of fear into nascent red America, are now about as offensive as a Friends rerun.

But Pepper survives as a Utopian vision, as Ian MacDonald's brilliant study of the Beatles Revolution in the Head pointed out, the album created a civilizational "contact high." 

So listen to Sgt. Pepper. Step into the time machine. Enjoy the philosophical interplay between John and Paul on "Getting Better" or George's jaunty guitar on "Fixing a Hole." Picture the imaginative characters Mr. Kite, Lovely Rita, Billy Shears, or Lucy in the Sky. "Within You, Without You" stands alongside anything in the New Testament. 

The first twelve tracks are mere rehearsal for the magisterial conclusion of "A Day in the Life." MacDonald wrote of the song:

The message is that life is a dream and we have the power, as dreamers, to make it beautiful (230).

Listening to Sgt. Pepper in 2017 cannot be experienced the way it was in 1967, yet the magic remains.  As the Beatles themselves said on the opening track, "they've going in and out of style, but they're guaranteed to raise a smile."