Magic Trip, a new film by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, tells the story of novelist Ken Kesey's 1964 road trip across America in a painted bus with a troupe of fanciful hippies and legendary beatnik Neal Cassady at the wheel.
This bus trip was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's 1968 bestseller Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is also currently in production as a Gus Van Sant film (this will presumably come out near the same time as the long-awaited film of On The Road, which means two major Hollywood films featuring Neal Cassady's driving skills will hit the screens at the same time). Magic Trip, a modest and straightforward documentary, has at least one claim to authenticity over the eventual Van Sant work: it presents the actual film footage produced by the camera-wielding hippies as they drove across the country in 1964.
Ahh, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg! They must be the best hiphop duo of all time (or, at least, they're tied with these guys), although both rappers refuse to call themselves a duo and insist that A Tribe Called Quest has always been four people: Q-Tip the Abstract, Phife Diggy, mixmaster Ali Shaheed Muhammamed, and not-quite-into-it but real-good-buddy Jarobi, who may or may not be in the group at any time (nobody ever seems to know for sure).
The Tribe circle has also included De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Jungle Brothers, Afrika Bambataa, Charlie Brown and Busta Rhymes (who was introduced to the world on "Scenario", from Tribe's second album). It was a social movement for sure, with clear political and spiritual intent. "That's why they call it a tribe", somebody says in a superb new movie about A Tribe Called Quest, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, which I recently caught in a New York City theater.
I was concerned, when I first heard about this film, that it might focus on dull music-industry hype or downward-spiral drama, instead of simply celebrating the sense of sheer fun and artistic freedom that this Queens hiphop outfit represented during the old-school days. I needn't have worried: director Jonathan Rapaport gets the Tribe, and gets why they called it a tribe.
Stone Arabia is a new novel by Dana Spiotta, a writer from California. It's about a sister and brother, fast approaching middle age, both grappling with the failures of their once-bright artistic dreams. They are mutually supportive opposites. She's an earthbound, discouraged office worker (who narrates this story in a series of sardonic fits and starts), while he carries on a bizarre habit that provides the koan at the center of this strange book. Having failed as a rock star during the late 1970s, he began a lifelong construction of a fantasy career as a rock star, complete with homemade CDs, extensive bootlegs, memorabilia, fan mail, good and bad reviews. This is his life's work, even if nobody but his sister, his niece and a few assorted ex-girlfriends ever see it. As he nears his fiftieth birthday, impoverished and nearly friendless, he begins to face the fact that this made-up world has gone as far as it can go.
I'm still on vacation. But here are some links:
1. The image above is from a teaser promo for a new movie based on Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. I don't know what to think. You be the judge.
3. Words Without Borders' July issue is about The Arab Spring.
Since I began publishing e-books three months ago, I've discovered that the most annoying part of the process, hands down, is marketing and publicity. The most fun part? Easy: cover artwork. I love designing covers, and I love working with artists like Vince Larue and Goodloe Byron (who's working on a cover for a new book I'm particularly excited about, which is coming out in August). For my latest book Chiaroscuro: Assorted Literary Essays I went digging into my own archives, and I thought I'd share with you what I found. You see, when I was a teenager I spent a whole lot of time doing pen and pencil sketches of my favorite rock stars.
1. I'm just curious: is this subway ad trying to imply that subscribers to the New York Times online payment plan will get some kind of special access to Jay-Z? If so, I'd really like them to substantiate this. If not, why is he on this poster?
2. I still love the New York Times, even though I hate their payment plan. This weekend's New York Times Book Review includes a satisfying knockdown by Christopher Hitchens of a dumb new book by David Mamet.
3. Also in the New York Times: the inspiring story of 26-year-old Amanda Hocking, who shook off years of rejections and invented herself as a very successful writer.
4. "A direct line to the planet of fear and the imp of the perverse ... the desire to do that which we know is wrong". Lou Reed is channelling Edgar Allan Poe again, this time in a book with illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti.
Two philosophical entertainments for a pleasant summer weekend:
1. I'm intrigued by a new novel called The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, originally published in 1989 and translated into several languages, but only now available in English in a new edition translated by Krystyna Anna Steiger and published by Twisted Spoon Press of Praque.
I'm only a few pages in, but am already impressed to find in this book a rich, obsessive look at the whole meaning of Russian literature. The endpaper copy explains:
... As two tenants engage in an extended debate over the nature of evil, the take it upon themselves to solve the mystery and nail the culprit, and it becomes clear that the entire tableaux is a reprise of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Displaying a sharp with and a Gogolian sense of the absurd, Pyetsukh visits anew the age-old debate over the relationship between life and art, arguing that in Russia life imitating literature is as true as literature reflecting life.
Rock biographies and memoirs don't have a lot of literary cachet, though I seem to keep reading them. If I believed there was anything for me to feel guilty about (I don't), I'd call this my guilty pleasure. It's more accurate to say that, as with any literary format, books like Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?: A Rock 'n' Roll Memoir by Steven Tyler and Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock by Sammy Hagar bring pleasure to the degree that they are authentic, surprising and truthful.
The fact that both of these memoirists are well-known for loud, brash personalities and stadium-level exuberance (Steven Tyler refers winningly in his book to an affliction of the ego known as "Lead Singer Disease") should not disqualify their books from thoughtful literary consideration at all. Steven Tyler and Sammy Hagar may feel comfortable juicing up gigantic, cheering crowds, but they must each overcome the same creative anxieties and moral doubt as any other writer when they stare at themselves in the mirror and try to describe what they see. Sure, celebrity memoirists have ghostwriters (David Dalton for Tyler, Joel Selvin for Hagar), but that may not help as much as we think. It's worth analyzing how both Steven Tyler and Sammy Hagar measure up to the memoirist's moral challenge with these books.
My Infamous Life, the new memoir by classic rapper Prodigy of Mobb Deep, kicks off with a surprise: Albert "Prodigy" Johnson carries an amazing musical legacy in his genes. His grandfather Budd Johnson was a bebop saxophonist who worked with Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Ruth Brown, Gil Evans, Count Basie and Quincy Jones. His grandmother Bernice Johnson created an influential dance school in Jamaica, Queens and hung out with Lena Horne, Ben Vereen and Diana Ross. Prodigy's mother Frances Collins was a replacement member of the 60s girl group the Crystals. This gangsta rapper has some major musical roots.
But he struggled as a kid with sickle-cell anemia, a painful condition that helped him develop a stoic sense of life and a fervent, straight-edged drive. He and his high school buddy Havoc were still teenagers in 1993 when they put out the first Mobb Deep album. They were unknowingly at the vanguard of hiphop's greatest age, born in Queensbridge and the Lefrak projects, where Prodigy crossed paths with A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, the Large Professor, Onyx, Cormega and Capone-N-Noriega. The new gangsta sound spread through New York City, where the Queens rappers were joined by Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls, Lil Kim, Busta Rhymes and M.O.P. from Brooklyn, Mase, Big L and Cam'ron from Manhattan, Big Pun and Fat Joe from the Bronx, DMX and the L.O.X. from Yonkers. Mobb Deep fans, all of them.
When life gets dreary, there's always Gilbert and Sullivan. This British duo's creative track record is almost as impressive as that of the Beatles, who took over the world in similar fashion three-quarters of a century later. They left us three masterpieces: HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, and a giant body of lesser-known excellent work that somehow never drops too low in quality (though it does drop, sometimes, in accessibility).
Accessibility is often an issue with Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas, which were written wholly with contemporary interests and sensibilities in mind. As with Shakespeare or James Joyce (also from the British isles, interestingly), when you enjoy a Gilbert and Sullivan work you can't ever feel confident that you're getting more than half the jokes. Both Gilbert's lyrics and Sullivan's melodies contain intricate layers of ironic reference to the hot topics of their day. Even though you can appreciate Pirates or Mikado just for the bouncy tunes and funny plots, you can appreciate them a lot more if you put some effort into decoding their cultural context.