Pete Townshend of the Who has been writing his autobiography for his entire career, starting with the band's first single "I Can't Explain". His rock opera "Tommy" was the symbolic autobiography of a shy and sensitive teenager who becomes a rock star ... transformed into a tall tale about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who uncovers an unnatural skill at pinball (Townshend's electric guitar, of course, was Tommy's pinball machine). The pinball wizard then becomes a famous religious leader until his shallow followers get bored and overthrow him. Tommy is a witty, self-mocking tale about childish wonder and spiritual overreach, and Pete Townshend would go on to reenact a real life version of the same story -- the ascent to fame, the inevitable cruel betrayal of the fans -- over and over again throughout his life.
The same storyline recurs at least four times during Pete Townshend's fascinating new memoir Who I Am. This new book is a worthy summation of a prodigal career, and a satisfyingly revealing (if occasionally compulsive and over-protective) autobiography.
We seem to be living in the age of rock star autobiographies, of course, and Pete Townshend's book appeared on bookshelves at the same time as that of of a fellow introspective searcher, Neil Young, whose Waging Heavy Peace is an uplifting, rambunctious self-portrait but fails as a memoir, because a memoir must dig deep into the dark regions of self-analysis and painful honesty, and Neil Young didn't seem to want to go there. Pete Townshend in Who I Am, on the other hand, is happy to go there.
I'm psyched to be included in an impressive series of interviews about the Beat Generation conducted by Michael Limnios at Blues @ Greece, a Greek web publication devoted to underground music and culture.
While we're watching counterculture moments on television from the 1960s,here's something else I just stumbled across: the joyful jazz composer, performer and beatnik David Amram on the kid's show Wonderama. He demonstrates his favorite instruments, and naturally leads a jam session with the kids, who are way into it.
Amram turns 82 years old this weekend, which means the promising new film David Amram: The First 80 Years must be nearing its second birthday ... and I haven't seen it yet! I hope this documentary film will reach more theaters, and will get a much-deserved spot on public television or some other music channel. One thing's for sure: audiences will love it, because Amram never fails to win an audience over. Here's the trailer for the film:
Efrat Ben Zur, a talented young Israeli singer with a forceful style that reminds me of a lot of Natalie Merchant and just a little bit of Sinead O'Connor, has released an entire album of songs based on Emily Dickinson poems. Here's her spin on "I'm Nobody", a short, fascinating enigma from Dickinson's found works, rendered here into powerful rhythm and melody:
The album can be downloaded here.
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.
The new movie called On The Road begins in an outdoor Manhattan parking lot. Sweaty rushed Dean Moriarty is seen in close-up, screeching big blocky cars into tight spots as customers grimace in disapproval. Dean's new friend Sal Paradise stands by, watching with admiration. Like Dean Moriarty himself, Jack Kerouac's On The Road, which Kerouac always wished to see on the silver screen, has finally arrived in New York City.
I attended a preview screening of the long-awaited film (it won't open in general release until just before Christmas) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend, and sat there nearly wrenched with anticipation, because On The Road is one of my very favorite books in the world. I also had high hopes for the team behind the film: the monumental Francis Ford Coppola, who knows a bit about both epic cinema and transgressive literature, the screenwriter/director pair Jose Rivera and Walter Salles, who'd done solid work on a serious film about Che Guevara called Motorcycle Diaries. But I found it hard to imagine how any film based on Kerouac's wide, rambling, intentionally shapeless stream of consciousness novel could work.
In order to give my inevitably overflowing critical reaction to the film some structure, I decided in advance that I would review the film by posing and answering three questions. Do I love the film? Do I think people who haven't read On The Road will love the film? Finally, do I think Jack Kerouac would love the film? Here are my answers to these questions.
"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.