Summer Of Love
I saw Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors who died today, at a poetry show with Michael McClure at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York City a few years ago. I was awestruck by both legends on that stage: McClure for being a Beat Generation poet and Ray Manzarek for being the most exciting keyboard player in the history of rock, the architect of the "Light My Fire" sound, a key literary/avant-garde scenester of the hippie and post-hippie era, and the enabler of Jim Morrison.
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.
(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.
The first time that I saw Andy Clausen read poetry was in the summer of 1980, at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Andy was scheduled to read one night as part of a three-person bill, along with Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen. I had expected that the youngest of the three poets, then 36 years old, would be the opening act, but Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen let Andy close the show, symbolically passing along a poetry torch. With his deep oratorical voice, and poetry filled with extraordinary energy, insight, humor, and imagination Andy gave a reading that night which left a lasting impression. The poem that I remember most from that evening was his long poem, “An Open Letter to the Russian People,” with its explorations of the historic hypocrisies and exploitations, sometimes fatal, of both the American and Soviet governments, and its visionary insistence that artists and working people of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could one day figure out how to put an end to the physically and psychically damaging Cold War: “No more guilt American O Russian / The Freedom to choose Peace—/ Jesus! How badly our governments behave! / Brothers & Sisters / THE GENERAL STRIKE! / NOW!”
Andy Clausen was born in a Belgium bomb shelter in 1943, and moved to Oakland, California at age three, at the end of the Second World War. After graduating from high school, he became a Golden Gloves boxer and, for a brief time, joined the Marines, which he left in 1966 after watching Allen Ginsberg on TV read his anti-Vietnam War poem, "Wichita Vortex Sutra". The line from Allen's poem that caught Andy’s attention and changed the direction of his life was the simple but poignant, humanizing question: "Has anyone looked in the eyes of the dead?"
(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.
Dave Van Ronk, a quintessential 1960s Greenwich Village folksinger, never became a superstar. But he was always a part of the folk-rock fabric, and the superstars listened to him. Bob Dylan swiped his interpretation of the traditional "House of the Rising Sun" from Van Ronk, and later the Allman Brothers picked up Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" from one of his records. The gravelly-voiced strummer/shouter died in 2002. I was lucky enough to hear him perform once, at a beatnik poetry tribute at St. Marks Church, in the late 1990s.
I've just heard some great news: the Coen Brothers' new movie Inside Llewyn David is loosely based on Van Ronk's posthumously published memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street. If the Coen Brother handle the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene as beautifully as they handled the 1930 Delta blues scene in O Brother Where Art Thou, then we're all in for something very special. Here's an early glance at the movie's trailer.
If there is such a thing as a typical volume of letters, The John Lennon Letters edited by Beatles expert Hunter Davies is certainly not it. John Lennon didn't write the kinds of letters that Henry James or Vladimir Nabokov did.
Though he wrote many hundreds of songs, John Lennon was not a prolific letter-writer. He tended to keep it short, and his impatient, impulsive epistolatory style, packed with half-puns and gutteral utterances, indicates some proto-form of A.D.D. But Lennon had a strongly visual and artistic mind, and he always took the time to illustrate his chaotic notes and scribblings with cartoons and diagrams. He also wrote in a cheerful, loopy hand, and this is why editor Hunter Davies made a smart decision to create the complete volume of John Lennon's letters (the first serious volume of collected letters, as far as I know, of any rock musician) as a facsimile collection, with high-quality photographic reproductions printed on thick, good paper.
I once had a chance to play a sitar for a few minutes. To a guitar player, a sitar feels like a crazy contraption, a transformed beast. There are strings and frets, but the frets are curved, arching up high from the neck so that the strings can be bent not up or down, as with a guitar, but in and out, leading to a warped, spacy effect. Then there is a second set of strings under the raised strings, which are never touched at all. These are the sympathetic strings, which drone in sympathy with the melody. There is no such thing on a guitar. No wonder sitar masters like Ravi Shankar inspired so much awe when they entered the popular music scene in the 1960s.
Ravi Shankar has died at the age of 92. During one peak of his amazing long career, he collaborated on several projects and concerts with George Harrison of the Beatles, who saw in the subtle, spidery complexity of the sitar's sound a new way to advance the art of pop/rock lead guitar. Promoted to sudden celebrity status by Harrison and others, Ravi Shankar used his fame in the west to serve as as a cultural ambassador for India, for Bengali culture, and for Hindu traditions. He was invited to perform at the most epic rock concerts of his age, including Monterey Pop in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. In 1971, Shankar and Harrison created together the Concert for Bangladesh, the first large-scale charity rock concert, which featured Leon Russell, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. Here's his opening number from that concert (as always, when playing for western audiences, Shankar would have to begin by explaining that the sounds the band just played had not been the first song; it is customary for classical Indian musicians to tune up onstage, often producing a hypnotic cacaphony that sounds like strange music).
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.
It seems everything we know about the 1960s is wrong. Facts about the both celebrated and maligned decade are one thing—hey, we’re up to our paisley headbands in the facts!—but the truth is far more elusive. Michel Choquette, a former contributor to the National Lampoon and longtime Montreal-based writer, has waited more than 40 years to lay some truth on us about the 1960s, via a massive, exhaustive and utterly idiosyncratic project called The Someday Funnies. Choquette began this project—an attempt to re-create the look, feel and truthiness of the 1960s through the talents of hundreds of the world’s hippest cartoonists, seers and writers—in 1971.
Originally the impulsive idea of Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, who wanted to run some strips assembled by Choquette as a special supplement to his magazine, it grew into book length. And had Choquette’s prodigious energy not eventually petered out, it probably would have grown to encyclopedic length. Ultimately, Wenner backed out of both the supplement and the book, a pattern that was to repeat itself over the next decade which saw Choquette thwarted by false promises of publishers, artists who never delivered work, investors who backed out, and the sheer expense of publishing large format color illustrations. For some reason, Choquette hung on to the pipedream and even continued to solicit work far and wide, and The Someday Funnies entered into that mythical realm of things that could-have-been.
Indeed, as Jeet Heer notes in the introduction to the recently (and finally!) published edition of The Someday Funnies, the project was “more rumor than reality—an urban legend of sorts,” like a volume in the imaginary library conjured by Borges. It had always sounded, as Heer put it, “like something out of a fairy tale”, something too good to be true: a tabloid-sized collection of comics from all over the world, the sort of thing about which comic fan-boys and fan-girls would just shrug and say, “I’ll believe it when I hold a copy in my hands.”