If proof is ever needed that some of our most talented creative geniuses keep a low profile, we only need to look to Richard Hell, an experimental poet, ex-punk star, novelist and now memoirist, who lives a humble but glorious life around downtown New York City and graces us with a new book every few years. He is one of my favorite living writers, a marvelously inventive and truthful observer of humanity and critic of life. His new book is a bratty and colorful autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.
Born somewhere in the United States of America to a Jewish psychologist father and a southern Methodist mother, Hell quickly booked out of there and headed for New York City, where he made a living working in bookstores and cinemaphile collector shops and eventually played bass guitar, wrote and sang for three seminal punk rock bands, Television, the Heartbreakers (with Johnny Thunders, not Tom Petty), and finally his own outfit, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He had a signature hit with the Voidoids, "Blank Generation", but found that he was not cut out for the rock star life -- not even with all the heroin and crystal meth he applied to heal the pain.
He retired from rock in the early 80s to become a full-time writer, even though this meant he'd be scraping for a living until his dying day (as far as I know, has never attempted a lame "comeback" as a musician, though many old Voidoids fans like myself would surely like him to). He proved himself as a serious novelist in 1997 with Go Now, a tale of twisted love, and again in 2005 with Godlike, a modern-day retelling of the literary legend of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. I could not resist quoting this author liberally when I reviewed Godlike on this blog in 2005, because his shimmering nuggets of prose are simply so beautiful that I enjoy typing them in. After reading I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, I feel an urge to honor this excellent book by sharing quotes again.
Religious faith is not something one can rationalize, or shove into a semantic corner, or elaborate in words. It's about the mystery of existence, our place in the cosmos, the nature of life, the inevitability of physical death. Are there any subjects more all-consuming than these? Even atheists ponder these subjects with, yes, near-religious fervor. Much of this seems like common sense, but common sense often balks when it encounters the first inklings of religious zealotry. Even people who consider themselves religious (whatever exactly that means) turn into eye-rolling cynics when evident "wackos" of different faiths appear, and those who regularly blame religion for humanity’s myriad ills are always ready with the I-told-you-so’s.
This is the sort of throat-clearing one needs to do when talking about, say, Scientology. Two new books shed some light into the dark corners where this church, founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1950, resides.
(Actually, 1950 was the year Hubbard’s groundbreaking book Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health (English) was published; the Church of Scientology was officially opened for business in 1952).
One book is a firsthand tell-all expose of the excesses of the organization by a former insider. Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige-Hill. What gives this book a little more oomph than previous exposes of Scientology—and there are countless testimonials to corroborate the revelations herein floating around the Internet, too many, in fact, for even Scientology to snuff out—is that the author is the niece of the current head of the church, David Miscavige. This church leader is, by most accounts, an unaccountable tyrant who tolerates no dissension in the ranks. In short, he is like the head of all religious organizations, from Mullah Omar and the Ayatollah to the Pope and Jim Jones and Sri Rajneesh. Cross them at your peril.
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 some helpful information that suggests the name referred to a water-gate at the nearby historic canal.)
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.
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.
(Rock star memoirs are a hot book trend these days. But many readers may not realize that the rock memoir format has deep, twisted roots. Rock musicians have been writing memoirs for decades, often without receiving the publicity that new books by the likes of Keith Richards and Neil Young have recently received. These include many worthy or surprising works published by small presses that are out of print or nearly forgotten today. I've recently launched a new series on Litkicks, "The Great Lost Rock Memoir", which will mine the rich archives of neglected rock memoirs. Today, let's look at the revealing confessions of Mr. Douglas Colvin of Forest Hills, Queens, better known as Dee Dee Ramone.)
Dee Dee Ramone was an unhappy child. He often watched his drunken father beat up his mother, and after she left him to raise Dee Dee alone he quickly adopted patterns of severe substance abuse and found himself wanting to beat his mother up himself. These scenes appear in the early chapters in Poison Heart: Surviving the Ramones, which was edited by Veronica Kofman and published by a small outfit called Fire Fly in England in 1997, five years before Dee Dee died.
(Rock star memoirs are a hot book trend these days. But many readers may not realize that the rock memoir format has a deep history, including many excellent and unusual autobiographies that are now out of print. I'm launching a new Litkicks series called "The Great Lost Rock Memoir" designed to occasionally unearth these rare treasures. We start with a personal favorite of mine -- hah, as if they aren't all my favorites ... -- Levi)
It's a stunning loss to USA culture that we don't know anything about the Small Faces, a British "Mod" band of the 1960s. Well, I know about them, and a few of my music freak friends do, but through some accident of history this band was super-popular in Britain but never managed to cross the ocean.
There were four Small Faces: the theatrical Steve Marriot on guitar and vocals, pensive Ronnie Lane on bass and vocals, snappy drummer Kenney Jones, and artistic keyboardist Ian McLagan, who in 2000 wrote a wonderful memoir of his long music career, All the Rage: A Riotous Romp Through Rock & Roll History. It's a revealing sideman's view of the hilariously warped hippie-era rock scene and lifestyle.
Where is experimental literature in the 21st Century? And where is it supposed to be?
Most generations probably fail to recognize their experimental geniuses in real time. However, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were recognized in their lifetimes, so it's fair to ask who might be carrying that torch on the literary scene today. Only a few of the usual nominees seem very satisfying. Thomas Pynchon? Don DeLillo? Paul Auster? William Vollman? The late David Foster Wallace? The late W. G. Sebald? Jennifer Egan? Blake Butler? (Please don't bring up Jonathan Lethem in this context).
Some of these writers are doing good work (personally, I'll buy into Auster and Sebald as powerful experimentalists) -- and all of them are certainly knocking themselves out trying to be as experimental as all hell. But that's the problem -- the mainstream American/English hyper-meta-hystero-pomo-X scene is so self-conscious and steroid-driven that the books are just flat out wearying. The experimental scene I'm familiar with is also too solitary. It lacks the sense of unity and community power that a good experimental literary scene needs in order to thrive.
For Americans like me, a look to Europe can help. A movement called Oulipo (Ouvroir de literature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature) has been growing for half a century, and it is still alive. It was born in Paris in 1960 with the express intention of shaking up the experimental scene. The original principals were Raymond Queneau, Francois Le Lionnais, Jacques Bens and Marcel Duchamp, and later members or quasi-members included Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubaud, Herve Le Tellier, Jacques Jouet, Daniel Levin Becker, Jean Queval, Michele Audin, Henry Mathews and Tom McCarthy.
First, we are transported to the Oregon Coast:
Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range ... come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River ...
The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting ... forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creek, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce -- and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir -- the actual river falls 500 feet ... and look: opens out upon the fields."
Then, we notice that a human arm is dangling over the river:
Twisting and stopping and slowly untwisting in the gusting rain, eight or ten feet above the flood’s current, a human arm, tied at the wrist (just the arm; look) disappearing downward at the frayed shoulder where an invisible dancer performs twisting pirouettes for an enthralled audience (just the arm, turning there, above the water)…” [The human arm is also flipping the bird to the enraged union men on the other shore].
And from the very beginning of Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey's second novel and eagerly-awaited follow-up to his acclaimed One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, we are hooked.
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.
(This book review is the Litkicks debut of Tara Olmsted, who runs BookSexy Review, a blog with a special focus on international and translated literature.)
Attending college in New York City in the mid-1990’s left me with some distinct memories of the city. De La Vega chalk tags on the sidewalks of Broadway next to graffiti stencils that read “Free Mumbia”; the booksellers whose tables used to line St. Marks Place before they were kicked out; boys from Columbia going on (and on) about Ayn Rand and their counterparts from New York University in Che Guevara t-shirts.
Those t-shirts with their iconic image were my only connection to Guevara. Which is kinda’ sad. The man has been made into a symbol and used to market non-conformity, anti-establishment and revolution to a mostly compliant public. His silk-screened face has become one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous commercial images in the world.
So, unsurprisingly, images are what drew me to Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara, Aleida March’s memoir of her marriage to Ernesto Che Guevara. The book contains dozens of personal photographs, many published for the first time -- candid pictures of a charismatic and amazingly photogenic couple.
It’s not hard to understand how Che Guevera became the poster child for Latin American revolution. There’s an energy -- a directness -- in his eyes that’s hard to look away from. Even in his later years, when he frequently travelled in disguise and under aliases, that gaze is unmistakable. These photos will be the main draw for all but the hardcore Guevara fan. They, along with the couple’s personal correspondence, provide a definite sense of the man as his family and friends knew him.