I can't write a Philosophy Weekend blog post this weekend. I've been working too hard on some tech changes to the site that will finally launch on Tuesday or Wednesday ... and I'm also too broken up about the final show of the final season of my favorite TV show, "The Office".
So, instead of a thoughtful existential blog post, here's one of my old favorite scenes from that show, the Nobody But Me lib dub that opened season 7.
Two excellent new books remind me of the vortex of interests that's always coursed beneath the surface here at Litkicks -- a vortex, in fact, that is central to the literary/artistic sensibility that has fascinated and informed me through my whole life. These interests roughly include music and literature and art and poetry and comedy and New York City, and the two excellent new books are Text and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture by Simon Warner and The Best of Punk Magazine by John Holmstrom.
I can't actually review either of these books, because they're too close to me (in two separate ways). Text and Drugs and Rock and Roll is a thick and extensive study of various connections between popular literary and musical underground scenes of the past several decades, including both essays and interviews by Simon Warner, a Beat Generation scholar who teaches music courses at the University of Leeds in England. This is a subject I have explored in depth here on Litkicks, and Simon was kind enough to include an interview with me in this book. I'm particularly proud to be in this book now that I see what a handsome volume it is, and I'm glad that I got to spout off a bit on why "Tangled Up in Blue" is a great example of Bob Dylan writing Beat, and why Jay-Z reminds me of Jack Kerouac. The book also includes interviews with Jonah Raskin, David Amram, Michael McClure, Michael Horovitz, Ronald Nameth, Jim Sampas, Pete Brown, Steven Taylor, Kevin Ring and the late Larry Keenan, as well as in-depth sections on Jim Carroll, Peter Orlovsky, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, David Meltzer, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, Richard Hell, Genesis P-Orridge, Pete Molinari, Ben Gibbard and Tuli Kupferburg.
Watergate is not a very distinctive title for a novel about the 1972-74 USA presidential scandal by Thomas Mallon. It was, however, a great name for the scandal.
The term "Watergate" originally referred to the office-hotel complex in downtown Washington DC where, on a quiet day in June 1972, a gang of hapless spies with indirect connections to the Nixon White House were caught in a botched bugging operation. The name "Watergate" always felt right for the scandal, even though it's a made-up word, the invention of a real estate corporation. The "water" refers to the Potomac River and Rock Creek, which merge at the complex's northwestern edge, and the "gate" does not seem to refer to any specific thing at all. (UPDATE: see comments below for a variety of interesting explanations for this name.) But the Watergate complex was a cool, exciting new locale in 1972, a swirling, innovative work of postmodern architecture that belongs to the same era of urban design as New York City's World Trade Center. The image of water crashing through a barrier seems to evoke something meaningful about the entire scandal that was born there.
It's not clear what Thomas Mallon was aiming for when he gave his imaginative novel the flat title Watergate. There are already many books called Watergate, and this one is different because it's a sensitive, smart literary historical novel, a work of creative invention. Fortunately, the title is the only thing about this clever, humane book that doesn't work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it helped me think about the years of Nixon's fall in a few new ways.
(Since literature and music are two of my biggest passions, I am naturally fascinated by rock memoirs. I find much significance within these books, and in the shadows that surround them. The Great Lost Rock Memoir is a new Literary Kicks series devoted to the art and psychology of the rock memoir, with a special emphasis on older books that may now be out of print. Today, we're examining the memoir of one of the most brilliant, innovative and courageous singer-songwriters of all time: Mr. Chuck Berry of St. Louis, Missouri.)
It's fitting that the guy who singlehandedly invented rock and roll when he recorded a song called "Mabellene" at Chess studios in Chicago on May 21, 1955 would later become an early innovator in the rock memoir field. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography was published in 1987, when the author was sixty years old. He wrote the book without a ghostwriter, and says so in the opening sentence:
This book is entirely written, phrase by phrase, by yours truly, Chuck Berry.
The prickly pride revealed in this declaration is familiar to anybody who follows Chuck Berry, who is famously irascible, contrary and unpredictable. His genius for spontaneous creativity mixed with interpersonal dysfunctionality is best shown by his typical refusal to rehearse with the backup bands hired to play behind him in concert. I've enjoyed a couple of Chuck Berry concerts, and I've seen how the edgy uncertainty of an unrehearsed band playing a headline show with a legend always adds some electricity to the room. The unpredictable liveliness of his shows is one reason that 86-year-old Chuck Berry still packs houses today (see him while you can).
He also writes an electrifying memoir, and not the superficial memoir one might expect. As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is rarely introspective or analytical. He's more of a humorist with a guitar, specializing in clever, naughty rhymes. His lyrics also reveal a warm emotional sensitivity, a breezy way with descriptive detail, and a big taste for delicious words in harmonious meters.
Caryn and I watched an old movie on cable TV recently that left us traumatized for days. Ironically, the movie was trying to be a light-hearted and whimsical children's musical. It was written by Dr. Seuss in 1953. The movie left us traumatized because it was so very, very bad.
I'm talking about the legendary but little-watched 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, a live action film about a boy who hates his piano teacher. This was the only movie Dr. Seuss ever tried to make, and it went over so badly with audiences in 1953 that he never tried again, and the movie nearly disappeared from view. It was almost crazy and psychedelic enough to gain a second life as a midnight cult flick, but it's too excruciatingly boring for the midnight circuit. It's hard to watch without wincing ... often.
5000 Fingers doesn't start out too badly: a sweet kid is suffering through a piano lesson in an antique parlor (this setting must recall Theodor Seuss Geisel's own childhood in Springfield, Massachusetts). The boy falls asleep and has a bad dream in which he's persecuted by his nasty piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker, who is also scheming to marry the kid's widowed mother. In this dream, the kid wears a glove on the top of his beanie, is chased by weird chubby thugs in brightly colored suits who resemble proto-Oompa-Loompas, dodges a pair of roller-skating old men sharing a common beard, and is forced to participate in a 500-kid piano performance on a swirling 5000 key piano.
I assure you that I just made the movie sound better than it is.
It's well known that hipster Brooklyn authors -- well, all authors, but especially hipster Brooklyn authors -- sometimes go too far in blurbing each other's novels. Recently the acclaimed comic novelist Gary Shtynegart, author of Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story was detected in the repeated act of excessive blurbing -- extreme blurbing, even -- and became the subject of a mocking Tumblr called The Collected Blurbs of Gary Shtynegart. He has now also become the subject a unique 15-minute documentary film, Schtynegart Blurbs, narrated by Jonathan Ames and directed and conceived by my friend Edward Champion.
The film amounts to a cinematic intervention, and a fascinating real-time case study of a literary habit gone off the rails. It's also fascinating for me because I show up in the film (around the five-minute mark) along with many other New York based literary brats including Joanna Smith Rakoff, A. M. Homes, Alan Shephard, Jeopardy champ Jacob Silverman, Ron Charles, Tobias Carroll, Michele Filgate, Joshua Henkin, Rachel Shukert, Sarah Weinman, Edmund White, John Wray, A.J. Jacobs, Alexander Nazaryan, Hari Kunzru, and even Molly Ringwald. In the end, blurb-crazed Gary Shtynegart makes an appearance and tries to explain himself. Check this movie out ...
A Midsummer Night's Dream is probably the funnest play William Shakespeare ever wrote. It winds down, after several twisted noctural love stories resolve themselves, with a usually hilarious (if performed well) play within a play, staged by several "rude mechanicals" from the local forest who've been enlisted to enact the legendary story of Pyramus and Thisbe before the court of Athens. A charming video has just emerged of the Beatles in 1964 performing this segment of A Midsummer Nights Dream for a British television show -- and handling their Shakespeare surprisingly well.
The video may look like pure chaos if you're not familiar with the play, but in fact this section of Midsummer Night's Dream is meant to be a moment of theatrical anarchy, as the rude mechanicals break character, mumble their lines and stumble over each other just as the Fab Four do here. Paul McCartney has the most lines to speak as Pyramus, the male lead (he also utters the words "Now I am dead", echoing later conspiracy theories). John Lennon wears a gown and gets in touch with his feminine side as Thisbe, the female lead (the role is typically played by a man). Ringo is deft as the Lion, managing a very subtle roar, and even the quiet George Harrison grows into his role as Moonshine. Based on this evidence, all four of the Beatles could have been Shakespearean actors if they'd wanted to be.
Here's something unusual: a 1955 appearance by science-fiction author Ray Bradbury on Groucho Marx's famous TV game show "You Bet Your Life".
Stocky and hearty, the 35-year-old author is at this time already a successful writer, but not yet a famous one. He cites his accomplishments to Groucho: stories in the New Yorker, the screenplay to the recent film version of Moby Dick, a novel called Fahrenheit 451. Groucho Marx fails to come up with a great moment of improvisational banter with Ray Bradbury, settling for a weak bit about "rider" vs "writer". Clearly, the show couldn't be brilliant every night.
It's the latest trend for Presidents and presidential candidates to go around having dinner with randomly selected donors. Given my general lack of social skills, it's probably good that I haven't been selected to have dinner with Barack Obama. Here's how I imagine it going if I did:
ME: Dude, I was born the same year as you.
SECRET SERVICE AGENT: Excuse me. Mr. Asher, this is President Barack Obama. Welcome to dinner with the President.
It seems everything we know about the 1960s is wrong. Facts about the both celebrated and maligned decade are one thing—hey, we’re up to our paisley headbands in the facts!—but the truth is far more elusive. Michel Choquette, a former contributor to the National Lampoon and longtime Montreal-based writer, has waited more than 40 years to lay some truth on us about the 1960s, via a massive, exhaustive and utterly idiosyncratic project called The Someday Funnies. Choquette began this project—an attempt to re-create the look, feel and truthiness of the 1960s through the talents of hundreds of the world’s hippest cartoonists, seers and writers—in 1971.
Originally the impulsive idea of Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, who wanted to run some strips assembled by Choquette as a special supplement to his magazine, it grew into book length. And had Choquette’s prodigious energy not eventually petered out, it probably would have grown to encyclopedic length. Ultimately, Wenner backed out of both the supplement and the book, a pattern that was to repeat itself over the next decade which saw Choquette thwarted by false promises of publishers, artists who never delivered work, investors who backed out, and the sheer expense of publishing large format color illustrations. For some reason, Choquette hung on to the pipedream and even continued to solicit work far and wide, and The Someday Funnies entered into that mythical realm of things that could-have-been.
Indeed, as Jeet Heer notes in the introduction to the recently (and finally!) published edition of The Someday Funnies, the project was “more rumor than reality—an urban legend of sorts,” like a volume in the imaginary library conjured by Borges. It had always sounded, as Heer put it, “like something out of a fairy tale”, something too good to be true: a tabloid-sized collection of comics from all over the world, the sort of thing about which comic fan-boys and fan-girls would just shrug and say, “I’ll believe it when I hold a copy in my hands.”