"I'm looking to see if there's a guy who looks like Lew Welch in this audience," says poet Gary Snyder at a San Francisco tribute to Welch, the complex Beat poet who was represented as the soulful, restless Dave Wain in Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur.
It's a cutting thought, because Gary Snyder was among the last to see Lew Welch alive before the troubled poet wandered into the forest surrounding Gary Snyder's home to kill himself. Welch left a suicide note, but his body was never found.
City Lights has recently published Ring of Bone, the most comprehensive collection of Welch's life's work (we recently reviewed the book, and you can read more about it at HTMLGiant). Many notable old friends of Welch gathered last month to celebrate the book. Videos of short tributes by Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, Peter Coyote and others can be found at the City Lights blog.
I dug into Neil Young's memoir Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream with a lot of anticipation, because he is one of my very favorite singer-songwriters, and because I've followed Neil's work long enough to know that a long session of candid and honest soul-searching with this brilliant and enigmatic rocker/hippie is a rare thing.
I'm also excited to read Pete Townshend's brand new memoir, but it's not the same thing. Pete Townshend has already told us his life story many times in interviews and public statements, and in his directly confessional songs. Neil Young is built of slipperier stuff, so slippery that I could barely imagine him writing a memoir at all. Now that I've read Waging Heavy Peace, which I loved and which kept me in its grip laughing and nodding in constant agreement, I know that he hasn't. This book is not a memoir. It's something else, though, and maybe this is just as good.
Why would we ever expect Neil Young to deliver anything straight? When this artist sees an expectation, he must defy it. His best songs are highly sincere but never direct, and he likes to get in his own way. Neil Young suffered from an overdose of fame and popularity in the Woodstock/Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young era, and then spent the 70s caroming from country-rock to proto garage/punk to bleary psychedelic experimentation. He tends to push his supple artistry just to the brink of comic annoyance, like in the guitar solo on "Down By The River" that consists of a single thudding flat note repeated 20 times ... followed by another 20, and another. Many readers won't like Waging Heavy Peace because his prose often aims for a similar thud-like effect as this famous guitar solo. And the effect works better in a minor-key blues ballad than it does in an autobiography.
I don't always love Moby Dick tie-ins, and it was only with some amount of weary skepticism that I opened Dive Deeper, a book of essays about Herman Melville's great novel, composed by a history professor from California named George Cotkin. I was in for a pleasant surprise.
Cotkin has a big taste for fresh angles, and his freewheeling book delivers one suprising connection after another. After all that has been said about Melville's novel, it's amazing how much in this book has not been said before. One of Moby Dick's early land-bound scenes takes Ishmael wandering into an African-American church in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he spies a hell-breathing preacher holding an entire parish spellbound. Is it possible, George Cotkin wonders, that this preacher would have been Frederick Douglass, who had in fact had orated to enthusiastic crowds in New Bedford during the years that Herman Melville had passed through this town on his own whaling journey?
Nicholson Baker, one of my very favorite contemporary writers, has taken to singing the protest blues. Why not? This Slate article links to his new songs about Bradley Manning, Afghanistan and the ruinous construction of a new military base in Jeju Island, South Korea. Here's a short explanation of the project in the New Yorker.
Baker is not quite as good a songwriter or singer as he is a writer, but his pastoral and arboreal musical atmospherics are pleasant to listen to, and at their best his songs may show some Peter Gabriel or John Cale influence, or possibly John Denver. Keep singing it out, Nicholson Baker.
Check out the new video of Joey Ramone's song "New York City", directed by Greg Jardin. The jackhammer-fast camerawork produces Ramones-like visual effects, and the streets and faces are familiar -- that's Ramone brother Mickey Leigh opening and closing the video (we interviewed Mickey Leigh last year).
Cal Godot asked a good question in response to last weekend's post. When I use the terms "will" and "desire" in the context of ethical philosophy, am I using the terms interchangeably?
Yes, in a strict logical sense, I am using the terms interchangeably. Both "will" and "desire" point to the same thing, the same mysterious and omnipresent phenomenon of human (and animal) life. Yet there is a world of difference between will and desire.
The difference is not in the thing the words points to, but in the connotations captured along the way. The term "will" calls to mind three provocative philosophical texts that have become classics of the modern Western tradition: Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Presentation, Friedrich Nietzsche's The Will to Power and William James's essay collection The Will to Believe. Thus, "will" connotes European romanticism, existentialism and American Pragmatism. It carries a muscular, vigorous, dramatic and conflict-ridden sense. It feels Napoleonic and Apollonian.
Standing by the boat one night I watched the lake go
absolutely flat. Smaller than raindrops, and only
Here and there, the feeding rings of fish were visible a hundred
yards away -- and the Blue Gill caught that afternoon
Lifted from its northern lake like a tropical! Jewel at its ear
Belly gold so bright you'd swear he had a
Light in there. His color faded with his life. A small
green fish ...
Lew Welch was one of the very best Beat Generation poets, though he never quite got famous for it. He caught the tail end of the Beat movement, reaching his creative peak in the 1960s along with Michael McClure, Diane Di Prima and Lenore Kandel. Lew Welch worked as an ad man in Chicago before leaving the commercial world to become a full-time poet/dharma bum, and in this capacity he was part of the creative team that came up with the slogan "Raid Kills Bugs Dead". Welch was highly regarded by other Beat poets, but despite his savvy in the advertising business he never found a secure foothold in the fast-changing 1960s hipster/poetry scene, and seems to have considered himself a lost cause. Welch killed himself in 1971.
A new collection of Lew Welch's poetry has just been published by City Lights. Ring of Bone: Collected Poems covers his entire career, from his early attempts to write jazz poetry inspired by William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein to his increasingly self-directed, sardonic later verses, which encircle his creative frustration. Some titles: "Sausalito Trash Prayer", "Song of the Turkey Buzzard", "A Round of English", "Not Yet 40 But My Beard is Already White". This book now stands as the authoritative edition of Lew Welch's work, and includes a foreword by his close friend Gary Snyder.
Two interesting facts about poet Lew Welch: first, his stepson was the San Francisco 1980's blues-pop singer Huey Lewis (who must have taken the last name "Lewis" in tribute to his stepfather, even though in the 1980s it was hip to be square).
Paul Nelson was the most important rock critic you’ve probably never heard of. As a writer, he -- along with Paul “Crawdaddy” Williams and Greg “Who Put The Bomp” Shaw and a few other trailblazers -- helped turn rock ‘n’ roll fan-chatter into modern rock criticism by combining a deep intelligence and historic knowledge with a passion for the music itself. Nelson’s name had an added aura to it, though, because he came out of the pure, undiluted folk tradition and saw rock ‘n’ roll as a logical step in musical evolution. His name is attached to seminal folk publications like Big Sandy Review (which he co-founded) and Sing Out! (the venerable magazine that lured Nelson to New York from Minnesota), as well as the Village Voice, Circus and Rolling Stone.
Coming of age with fellow Minnesotan Robert Zimmerman, Nelson was an early supporter and friend of the man who would become Bob Dylan. Nelson did not flinch at all when Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, to the chagrin of the folk purists. Nelson was, in fact, at the Newport festival cheering Dylan on. Nelson’s perspective was wider than most. Indeed, from his earliest folkie days to the end of his life, he devoted his energies to one simple idea that may or may not be true: pop culture -- music, books, print culture, film -- can change the world.
It might, however, be as a human being where Nelson made his biggest mark, at least from the evidence presented with sensitivity and intelligence by Kevin Avery in his new book, Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson. In a different time, Avery’s book would be considered “essential reading” for anyone hip. But that time is long gone and Nelson himself disappeared before his reputation could accrue the venerable status accorded Lester Bangs, Hunter S. Thompson and Greil Marcus.
Among the extraordinary things we learn about Nelson in Everything Is An Afterthought is that he was one of the only major rock critics who went on to work for a major record company when he joined Mercury (Bud Scoppa is the only other critic/company man who comes to mind). Nelson worked in Mercury as an A & R (artists & repertoire) man, not as a hack or flack. Inside the record company beast, he operated the way a mole tries to subvert the intelligence operation of a foreign enemy. That is, he nurtured and befriended the artists he admired, like the New York Dolls, Rod Stewart, Elliott Murphy, Graham Parker, David Bowie, Mike Seeger and Warren Zevon, and simply ignored those he didn’t.
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.
1. The classic science-fiction author Ray Bradbury has died. I never really kept up with his work, but when I was a kid I thought Illustrated Man had the coolest book cover in the universe. "The Veldt" was my favorite story from that collection. Here's more on Ray from Boing Boing, io9, Neil Gaiman and Ed Champion.
And while I've gotcha here:
2. Beautiful visualizations can occur when great authors pick up the brush.