(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.
An old Litkicks friend, Clay "Lightning Rod" January of Texas, died of cancer this week. If you hung around this website during our message board years, there's no doubt that you remember Clay. He was one of the best writers on the website, the owner of a sly and subversive voice.
I interacted often with Clay, especially on the Action Poetry boards, where I would often yell at him to stop posting too often, but he had such a good sense of humor about it that I could never be mad at him long. We met in person several times for poetry readings in Virginia, Washington DC, Maryland and New York, and he was awesome and fun to hang out with. He was an old and very skinny man with long graying hair, and it was clear from his poems that he had done some hard travelling in his years, and had carried a few monkeys on his back.
He liked to call himself Lightning Rod (as a poet and a musician) but insisted to me that Clay January was his real name. I never believed him, but I always believed the truths behind the tall tales he told. He carried himself with a youthful, pixie-ish energy, he never let go of his wide smile, and he gathered friends easily wherever he went. I'm happy to have been one of the friends he gathered.
(Please welcome a new Litkicks author. John Kemmerly grew up in South Louisiana, worked in bars and restaurants, sold real estate, worked on a tugboat, and in the 90s, owned a bookstore in Galveston, Texas. After selling his business, he spent two years working at a no-kill dog shelter and now lives and writes near Port Aransas, Texas. His work has been published in newspapers, literary journals, and a national magazine. -- Levi)
The library book sale took place on a small island off the coast of Texas in a town called Port Aransas. A line of people waiting to enter the sale looped around the tarpon statue, across the lawn, and out into the sunny parking lot. When the doors opened, the Community Center quickly filled with people bumping into each other, looking over shoulders, reaching for books.
I hurried past old VHS tapes and started scanning a table of quality paperbacks. Reaching in front of the lady standing beside me, I picked up a copy of Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver. “Hey,” the lady said, “I was just about to take that one.” Well, I doubt it. Where I’m Calling From is not a book most people have heard of, and anyway, she'd had her chance.
“You’re too late and too slow,” I told her, and then went back to work scanning for more gems. After twelve years, it felt good to be back in the game.
Sometimes I lay off the heavy reading and dig into a rock and roll biography like Every Night's a Saturday Night by Bobby Keys.
Bobby's most well-known for his work over several decades with the Rolling Stones, but he's also recorded with Elvis Presley, toured as part of Delaney and Bonnie and Friends and Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishman, played sax on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and laid down the slammin' intro to John Lennon's hit single "Whatever Gets You Through The Night". The book doesn't waste much time on introspection or soul-searching; when the author of a memoir mentions "my wife at the time" in the middle of a story, and this story is not preceded by an earlier story in which he meets or marries this wife, you realize that this isn't going to be one of those intense and deeply personal memoirs. And that's okay. Sometimes you just want to read about a saxophone player and his saxophone. (We never find out his first wife's name, but his saxophone's name is Elmer).
The Outlaw Album just might be the most eagerly anticipated book release in years that doesn’t involve insufferably prude emo-glampires or awkward tween warlocks. After all, this is the first book we’ve seen from Daniel Woodrell since his masterful ’06 novel, Winter's Bone. Forget the disappointing irony that it took a film (the 2010 adaptation of Bone) to get a writer critics spent years calling American literature’s best-kept-secret the readership he deserved. He has it now. The question is: what’s he going to do with it? Anyone who’s followed Woodrell’s career can easily answer that question – Woodrell always delivers.
Many of our country’s greatest literary lights suffer from quality inconstancy. Hence, John Updike caps a career as one America’s most esteemed modern novelists with a paint-by-numbers embarrassment like Terrorist and the maladroit fumble that was The Widows of Eastwick. Philip Roth gets it right with Exit Ghost then follows it up with the thoroughly humbling The Humbling. Fortunately, Woodrell doesn’t share this hit-or-miss quality. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but it’s an admirable trait for a writer to aspire to and one Woodrell can rightfully claim.
Woodrell hearkens back to an older age of story-telling. It would be hard to draw a more obvious literary progression than from William Faulkner to Flannery O’Connor to Daniel Woodrell. Woodrell’s novels have always seemed like a middle ground between these predecessors – but The Outlaw Album (perhaps because it’s strictly short stories) seems fully in the camp of the latter. It’s as if he’s found Flannery O’Connor’s secret formula for short story perfection and boiled it down to its essence. Instead of the longer, more character-driven pieces she wrote, Woodrell starts the story just an hour or two before the violent, often shocking, climax we know to expect at the end of an O’Connor story – then slows things down enough to fill us in on what came before.
“Imagine you have a friend name Rob,” says our instructor at the University of North Florida Writer’s Conference. “If you want to ask your friend a question, you might begin by saying, ‘So, Rob...’ and that is how to pronounce my first name.”
Sohrab Homi Fracis (“Fray-sis”) is the first Asian writer to win the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award. He received it in 2001 for his collection of short stories, Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America. He resisted advice from publishers to combine the thematically related stories into a single novel, which they thought would be easier to sell. Fracis believed passionately that the stories stood strong and worked best as they were.
“And I was proven correct,” he says.
India Magazine calls the book, “Stunning in its breadth and scope of language and description ... a fresh voice in South Asian fiction,” and adds, “One can grow tired of Rushdie wannabes, mother-in-law stereotypes, and village parodies. Fracis's writing is brutally honest, exposing sinew and nerves and getting at the heart of the matter.”
I had a chance to check out Washington DC's new Martin Luther King memorial earlier this week. A big opening ceremony featuring President Barack Obama and other significant guests scheduled for this weekend has been postponed for an approaching hurricane, but the memorial is open to visitors, and I found a large and enthusiastic crowd on the day I dropped by.
I was surprised -- maybe I shouldn't have been? -- that nearly everybody besides me who came out to see the memorial was African-American. This points to a disappointing fact I've observed before: even though Martin Luther King has now been enshrined in American history as a legend, a hero and a cliche, his great universal message of activism through nonviolent resistance remains largely neglected and misunderstood in America and around the world. The King approach to solving problems feels every bit as startlingly innovative and unique today as it did in the 1960s. The miraculous fact that King's patient, compromise-based approach can actually succeed in solving "unsolvable" conflicts remains widely ignored, even though the problems we face today are as severe as the problems King faced so brilliantly and successfully in his time. Most people would rather gripe, whine and fight each other than take a risk on loving their neighbors and trying to truly understand and cope with variant points of view.
Martin Luther King never had an easy time getting his peaceful message across. It's well known today that he and his fellow activists had to endure vicious taunts and provocations by their opponents, but King also took a hard beating, often for different reasons, in the allegedly liberal mainstream media, and another hard beating from many of his fellow African-American activists. Like any leader who tries to compromise and rise above the pettiness of simple hatred, he took it from the left and the right, from black and white, from north and south. An early John Updike short story called "Marching Through Boston", published in the New Yorker in January 1966, delivers a refreshingly direct look at how Martin Luther King was seen in his own time.
Novelist Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove, Books: A Memoir, Terms of Endearment, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers) and Faye Kesey, widow of the late Ken Kesey, surprised a few folks in the literary world when they got married in April. I just saw a few beautiful photos from the Texas wedding, courtesy of Zane Kesey, who said it'd be okay for me to share them here.
Awww, right?! Looks like a really sweet scene ... and here's a shot of the bride and groom, in what I imagine must be Larry's own bookstore.
Taking advantage of a Hollywood vacation my wife won at her office Christmas party this past December, I decided to visit a few West Coast indie bookstores with copies of my novel, Tamper. This was our first time in California and we loved everything about it. In between sightseeing and dining, I dropped in on four bookstores I had chosen from a list provided by L.A. resident Wanda Shapiro, author of Sometimes That Happens With Chicken, whom I recently befriended on Facebook.
First, I have to say, the printed book is far from dead. On the flight from Jacksonville, Florida and throughout our stay in the Los Angeles area, I lost count of the number of people I saw reading books (not ebooks) at the airport, on the plane, in the hotel lobby, in coffee shops, and on the beach. Once, on my flight back to Jacksonville, I saw no less than three people in a row, all reading books at the same time. I managed to sneak a snapshot of them with my iPhone before the flight attendant reminded me to shut the gadget down while we were in the air.
2. It's very weird that attempted Times Square terrorist Faisal Shahzad left a DVD of the anomie-striven movie Up In The Air to be found in his home. Novelist Walter Kirn, who we recently interviewed about the film of his book, wrote this on Twitter: "times sq. bomber leaving behind copy of 'up in the air' reminds me of chapman, lennon's killer, and catcher in the rye. icky feeling now."