I've been peeved, and I've said so, about the high percentage of John Updike memorial articles citing his Rabbit novels (1960's Rabbit Run, 1971's Rabbit Redux, 1981's Rabbit is Rich, 1990's Rabbit at Rest) as his masterpiece.

I would never deny other readers the right to crow about their favorites, and I do think these books have some value. But I object to the idea that they are his masterpiece because I'm worried people who've never read Updike will pick up Rabbit Run and give up on him forever after reading twenty pages of that chewy, stale narrative. In fact, I believe Updike adopted a deliberately dull voice when writing as Rabbit Angstrom. Updike's gracefully high-minded intellect was his single greatest gift as a writer, but he was deliberately subverting his intellect in these books, and that's too great a loss.

Updike was famous for his "impersonation" novels -- the Bech books, Brazil, Terrorist -- and I insist (though I seem to be alone in this opinion) that the Rabbit books were among his impersonation novels. Rabbit Angstrom is a small town basketball former-hotshot, people-smart but not book-smart, with no aspirations that can't be satisfied in a kitchen or a bedroom. His political views and opinions are earthy, humorous in the same way that Archie Bunker's were, but ultimately there is always the sense that Updike is studying this Suburban Man, this Joe the Plumber, as a social prototype.

The greatest problem, though, is the absence of Updike's soaring voice. Updike's prose will follow his character's thought patterns in any book, of course, and Rabbit's thoughts are stubby, ungrammatical, tepid. Updike's voice flies in other books -- when Piet Hanema watches a woman walk by a church, when Richard Maple stares up at a falling Boston skyscraper. But Rabbit is a ground-sniffer. So is John Updike in these four books, and the experiment produces interesting results, but no masterpiece.

If you want to discover John Updike and haven't yet, I suggest you read Couples first, and then Too Far To Go, followed by any of those bricks of collected criticism, Odd Jobs or Hugging the Shore or any other, it doesn't matter which, that you can pick up in a used bookstore cheap. For some early Updike, read Of The Farm and a few short stories; for later Updike, try Gertrude and Claudius, and at some point take a break with Nicholson Baker's U and I. At this point, you're ready for Rabbit. But the novels should never be the entry point for Updike's career.

With that said: I got a lot of feedback the last time I wrote something like this, and more than one Updike fan said I shouldn't judge the Rabbit foursome on the basis of the first two, but must read the third volume, Rabbit is Rich. I've now read it and completely agree that this is the best one so far, much better than Rabbit Run or the confused Rabbit Redux. I now understand some of the enthusiasm many feel for the Rabbit series, and I am also starting to see how enjoyable it is to follow a single set of characters -- a family, an ever-shifting gang of friends, a very funny son who keeps crashing cars into things -- over the course of several decades. This is probably the best thing about the Rabbit books. (However, Too Far To Go does the same thing, though not to the same length.)

As for Rabbit is Rich itself, the voice here has mellowed as the character has matured. Middle-age suits Rabbit well, as it suited Updike well. I loved the scenes with the gold and the silver, and I was amused near the end to discover that the book's final sequence is a return to Updike's most classic literary motif -- the "swapping party" -- the same motif that animated Couples, Marry Me and so many other Updike books, that Rick Moody parodied brilliantly in The Ice Storm, that eventually led to a mediocre TV series called "Swingtown". That screwy Rabbit, after all these years ...

I guess I'll even read Rabbit At Rest ... what the hell, I've come this far. These are good books. They're just not John Updike's masterpiece.
view /UpdikeAndHisRabbit
Thursday, March 12, 2009 09:32 pm
Levi Asher

John Updike, a beacon of literary sensibility in a hectic age, has died today at age 76.

When I was younger, I saw John Updike as the smirking epitome of the American literary establishment and claimed to dislike him, though somehow I kept reading him and liking him more and more with each novel I read. Eventually I realized he was among my very favorite living writers. Couples, a study of the psychology of adultery masked as a sex-filled popular bestseller, may have been his masterpiece. Other works of his I've loved best include Too Far To Go, Marry Me, Gertrude and Claudius and his great volumes of generous, gorgeously composed literary criticism, such as Picked-Up Pieces, Hugging the Shore, Odd Jobs, More Matter and the recent Due Considerations. His short stories provide unending pleasure, his slim autobiography Self-Consciousness is also wonderful, and nobody who intends to enjoy the Updike oeuvre should miss Nicholson Baker's crazily affectionate tribute to his own favorite writer, U and I.

Unlike other bloggers, I never really feel sad when a great writer dies. A life lived as art deserves a meaningful ending, and my greatest wish for a literary giant like John Updike is that he achieve a final chapter that would satisfy him. I wish John Updike's last novel wasn't The Widows of Eastwick, but Updike's career was always characterized by a wide scope, and perhaps this ending will eventually explain itself. I am happy that I got a chance to ask him a question two and a half years ago, and I was thrilled at the time that he seemed to like my question. I feel honored to have briefly shared his literary space.

Other LitKicks posts concerning John Updike are here (by Jamelah), here, here, here (in which I contrast him with Philip Roth), here (in which I get pissed off at him), here, here and here (in which I compare him to Henry James).
view /JohnUpdike
Tuesday, January 27, 2009 05:31 pm
Levi Asher
No time for a real post today, but I'd like to say farewell to a LitKicks favorite, the bitter absurdist Harold Pinter, who has died at the age of 78. Here are a couple of previous pieces about Harold Pinter:

Harold Pinter's Bed and Breakfast

See This Fist?

view /HaroldPinter
Thursday, December 25, 2008 02:23 pm
Levi Asher
1. It won't make the evening news, but this was a rough day of historic proportions in the book biz. Random House, Simon and Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Thomas Nelson all announced layoffs, top-level firings or, in the case of Random House/Doubleday/Alfred A. Knopf/Dial/Bantam Dell/Crown/Nan Talese/Broadway, major consolidations that will affect the future of book publishing in America.

In the midst of this mayhem, it's interesting to read in GalleyCat that a paperback trend is sweeping publishing. We've only been yelling for this sweep for years, but despite GalleyCat's optimism, there is evidence of an opposing trend: book prices are getting higher. Like malnourished children whose bellies grow, new hardcover prices are swelling -- $40, $45 -- even as retail spending drops. Affordable (paperback, small) book publishing is the right answer, yes -- but I am not as confident as GalleyCat is that publishers are moving towards this trend anywhere near as quickly as they should be.

2. The great folksinger Odetta has died. I've seen her in concert twice, once at a Gerde's Folk City reunion where she was stunning, and once at a strange Greenwich Village event called the Microtonal Festival which celebrated experimental musicians and vocalists who used tones between the twelve notes of the scale. It might surprise those who think of Odetta as a traditional folksinger to know that she was considered by experts in the field to have a rare way with microtones, and that she delivered the best performance of this night, belting out a few old spirituals and showing us all how much room there really was between a C and a C#. I don't know if that show was recorded, but here's Odetta singing "Rock Island Line" and here's her "Water Boy".

3. Natasha Wimmer, translator of Roberto Bolano, will be appearing with Francisco Goldman at a very special Words Without Borders event Thursday night, December 4, at Idlewild Books in Manhattan.

4. Also at Idlewild, apparently a new hot spot: Ben Greenman celebrating Correspondences on Friday, December 5.

5. And then comes the big Literary Trivia Smackdown 2.0 this Sunday at 4 pm, and you better believe I'm studying up on my American Lit. Our opponents at PEN America have been announced: David Haglund, Meghan Kyle-Miller, Larry Siems and Lilly Sullivan. They sound smart, so please come to the Small Press Indie Book Fair and cheer your favorite lit bloggers on! For real.

6. New Nixon tapes! Choice bits:

"Never forget: The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy."

All your base are belong to us, Nixon.

It's a happy Christmas for Watergate buffs like me, what with the new tapes and the release of the film version of the play Frost/Nixon. Haven't had this much fun since Mark Felt turned up.

7. Christopher Hitchens points out that the widespread decision to use the city name "Mumbai" rather than "Bombay" actually carries an implicit political message, and possibly a fraudulent one. I was not aware of this, though I remember hearing similar things at a panel discussion regarding the recent attempt to replace "Burma" with "Myanmar". Since many of us are in the dark about this, it seems that major news organizations like the New York Times (Clark Hoyt, are you out there?) ought to address the significance of these name changes directly.

8. Dewey, a litblogger, dies.

9. Frank Wilson remembers the once-popular novel Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac's affectionate tribute to the fashionable Buddhism of the Beatnik era, on its fiftieth birthday. This is one of my favorite Kerouac novels.

10. Jay-Z gets typographical.
view /BlackWednesdayInPublishingLand
Wednesday, December 3, 2008 09:52 pm
Levi Asher
It's a new day. The weather's nice, Barack Obama is going to be President of the United States, and Jonathan Lethem has written a superb article about Roberto Bolano's 2666 on the front cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review.

Steering clear of his dreaded coy side, Lethem constructs a frame of reference to help explain Bolano's dissembled philosophical narrative, and since everybody seems to be talking about Roberto Bolano these days, I sincerely appreciate Lethem's step-by-step walkthrough of this 898-page epic. Will I read this book myself? Sure, I'll give it a try, but like Sarah Weinman I feel some skepticism about this current Bolano craze. The Savage Detectives didn't pull me in, but I'll try again.

Lethem is rapturous, of course, about 2666, whereas Akash Kapur's The White Tiger gets treated rather rudely in this issue by Aravind Adiga. I've read several bloggers who do not think The White Tiger deserved to win the Man Booker Prize, and I guess I'll have to see what I think of this book too. I've got a lot of reading to do.

Robert Kagan praises Carlo D'Este's Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, making no reference to the stunning case against the heroic reputation of Winston Churchill contained in Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, which was easily the most influential and widely-discussed history book published in the last year. For Kagan to pretend Baker's book didn't pop some pinholes in Churchill's legend is disingenuous. He approaches D'Este's book reverently, despite the fact that it appears to be a rather redundant biography (aren't there already about 40 in print?) designed to be bought for Dads and Grand-dads this Christmas. Since September 11, 2001 Winston Churchill has become just as big a cottage industry as Elvis Presley or Jack Kerouac, but Robert Kagan's review fails to provide critical insight on this point. Instead, he falls right for the gimmick.

This issue contains two decent poetry pieces, neither as good as William Logan would have written. Peter Stevenson likes Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry by Donald Hall. August Kleinzahler likes James Merrill Selected Poems, and reminds us that James Merrill was of the "Merrill Lynch" Merrills (this fact takes on special resonance now that Merrill Lynch, an anchor of American finance, has just collapsed).

The endpaper delivers some serious shredded wheat for your Sunday morning, and in fact I appreciate the chewy heft very much. Richard Parker writes about an influential book about the economy, The Modern Corporation and Private Property written by Adolf Augustus Berle in 1932. I learned much I didn't know. I also learned a few things I didn't know from a full-page ad for the Sinclair Institute's "Lifetime of Better Sex" video series ("Explicit and Uncensored! Real People Demonstrating Real Sexual Techniques!"). Well, if ads like this pay for articles by serious writers like Richard Parker, that's good enough for me. This was an excellent New York Times Book Review for an excellent weekend.

Finally, farewell to John Leonard, esteemed culture critic who was the editor-in-chief of the New York Times Book Review back in the early 1970s. I hope to see new editions of John Leonard's collected writings, and I'm proud to have briefly had a chance to meet him at BookExpo in New York City last year. On that day I found him wiry, growly and certainly highly alert -- I imagined at the time that he had many more decades of good writing left to do.

view /NYTBR20081109
Monday, November 10, 2008 01:57 am
Levi Asher
I occasionally grazed a David Foster Wallace book, but I never finished one. The New York Times writes in a brief death notice today that Infinite Jest was "roughly, about addiction and how the need for pleasure and entertainment can interfere with human connection". I didn't know that, probably because I only got through the first 50 pages of the 1079-page book. As far as I could tell, the book was about footnotes.

The brief death notice above is better than the Times obituary by Michiko Kakutani, which must have been written very quickly. That's the only possible excuse for Kakutani's extravagant and boring prose in this long piece. Kakutani's style guide clearly allows cliched phrases ("laugh-out-loud funny"), tired imagery ("Mobius strip-like digressions") and sonorous language ("a dark threnody of sadness"), as these sentences show:

But while his own fiction often showcased his mastery of postmodern pyrotechnics -- a cold but glittering arsenal of irony, self-consciousness and clever narrative high jinks -- he was also capable of creating profoundly human flesh-and-blood characters with three-dimensional emotional lives.


The reader could not help but feel that Mr. Wallace had inhaled the muchness of contemporary America -- a place besieged by too much data, too many video images, too many high-decibel sales pitches and disingenuous political ads -- and had so many contradictory thoughts about it that he could only expel them in fat, prolix narratives filled with Mobius strip-like digressions, copious footnotes and looping philosophical asides.


Although his books can be uproariously, laugh-out-loud funny, a dark threnody of sadness and despair also runs through Mr. Wallace’s work.

Even some of the worst writers at the New York Times Book Review could have written a better piece. It's no surprise that the blogosphere has more moving essays on this weekend's sad news. Here are Ed Champion, Amy King, Garth Risk Hallberg, Jeff Bryant, Ben Casnocha, Mark Hemingway, Tom Nissley.

For me, this doesn't feel like Kurt Cobain's suicide. Cobain's songs were so emotionally naked that nobody had to ask why; at least six songs on In Utero explained why. One of my favorite writers, Richard Brautigan, killed himself, but Brautigan's best novel In Watermelon Sugar worked just fine as a suicide note. The poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton did too. As for Yukio Mishima, his most famous short story "Patriotism" was about suicide, and Mishima's entire literary/political career pointed to his chosen "heroic" ending.

But I never saw suicide in a David Foster Wallace book or article. Undoubtedly I will read his work differently now. One point that several of the blog writers above suggest that Michiko Kakutani completely fails to grapple with is that Wallace's suicide immediately changes the way we read and understand his work.

When a famous artist commits suicide, this suicide is their final statement. Kurt Cobain, Richard Brautigan, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Yukio Mishima, Anne Sexton, Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace all must have understood -- and may or may not have regretted -- the way they were inevitably punctuating their careers. It's changed the way we thought of the earlier artists named above, but how will it change the way we think of David Foster Wallace?

I'm not an expert enough to answer this, but I look forward to reading more illuminating pieces about this sad death of a writer in the prime of his career on blogs and elsewhere. And I'd love to hear what you have to say about DFW, and about how this news affects your understanding of his work.

* * * * *

Out of respect for the loss of one of our most popular and influential postmodern authors, we'll skip reviewing this weekend's New York Times Book Review, which features a cover article on The Forever War by Dexter Filkins by Robert Stone, whose best paragraph is not in this review but in the accompanying "Editor's Note":

As for the 2008 presidential election, Stone had this to say: "If, in this campaign, illusion triumphs over what we must believe is reality, we will fail as a nation. There is, after all, a point of no return. If McCain wins, history is here big time, scythe, sackcloth and all four horsemen."

I wonder what David Foster Wallace, whose most recently published book was a journalistic study of John McCain, would have said about that. But apparently Wallace was dealing with a private apocalypse all his own.
view /NYTBR20080914
Sunday, September 14, 2008 08:46 pm
Levi Asher
As long as we wake up every morning under a peaceful sun, we have to lead an everyday life. There is a disaster, however, which has already been under way for quite some time. I am referring to the calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness.

To such consciousness, man is the touchstone in judging and evaluating everything on earth. Imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one's life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President's performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.

It would be retrogression to attach oneself today to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Social dogmatism leaves us completely helpless in front of the trials of our times.

Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man's life and society's activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.

This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but -- upward.
-- Alexander Solzhenitsyn at Harvard University, 1978

Russian author, historian and political philosopher Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died at the age of 89. As the full text of the Harvard address above demonstrates, he despised Russian communism, and despised the glib commercialized freedom of Western Europe and America no less. In the tradition of Fyodor Dostoevsky, he believed above all in human salvation through religious transcendence, though at times (as in this ill-received Harvard address) he seemed to relish the notion of an agonizing worldwide transformation more than any possibility of self-realization and peace that might follow such a change.

In this sense, he also resembles Dostoevsky (whose greatest work, like Solzhenitsyn's, followed a long period of painful imprisonment for crimes against the Russian state). Solzhenitsyn was best known for two works -- the simple and spare A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and the more ambitious Gulag Archipelago, which introduced a tone of bitter satire (the Soviet prison bureaucracy is described mechanically as a "human sewage system") into the dissident's voice. Both books were so widely celebrated by anti-Soviet political thinkers that it's hard now to evaluate the author on strictly artistic grounds. He does not seem to measure up to Dostoevsky's psychological brilliance, nor to Chekhov's poignant sense of humanity. But his courageous devotion to truth and his confident authority as a political gadfly give him some standing alongside Russia's earlier literary greats.

It's interesting to look back at a 1974 New York Times review of the just-published Gulag Archipelago by Stephen F. Cohen:

"The Gulag Archipelago" is a non-fictional account from and about the other great holocaust of our century -- the imprisonment, brutalization and very often murder of tens of millions of innocent Soviet citizens by their own Government, mostly during Stalin's rule from 1929 to 1953.

How quaint! There was a time in 1974 -- with our new friend Chairman Mao's genocidal crimes still largely unrecognized, with the citizens of Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina still innocent of their futures -- when we thought the 20th Century would only rack up two holocausts.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn may or may not have had all the answers, but the celebrated former prisoner did seem to know the most important questions.
view /AlexanderSolzhenitsyn
Monday, August 4, 2008 02:54 pm
Levi Asher
Language was George Carlin's playpen. Here he is on the difference between baseball and football:

I enjoy comparing baseball and football.

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game. Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.

Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park.The baseball park! Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.

Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall, when everything's dying.

In football you wear a helmet. In baseball you wear a cap.

Football is concerned with downs - what down is it? Baseball is concerned with ups - who's up?

In football you receive a penalty. In baseball you make an error.

In football the specialist comes in to kick. In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness. Baseball has the sacrifice.

Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog... In baseball, if it rains, we don't go out to play.

Baseball has the seventh inning stretch. Football has the two minute warning.

Baseball has no time limit: we don't know when it's gonna end - might have extra innings. Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we've got to go to sudden death.

In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there's kind of a picnic feeling; emotions may run high or low, but there's not too much unpleasantness. In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least twenty-seven times you're capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.

And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! - I hope I'll be safe at home!

However, it's a hell of a lot funnier when he tells it:

Farewell to one of our comic greats, certainly safe at home.
view /GeorgeCarlin
Monday, June 23, 2008 12:56 pm
Levi Asher
"I walk 47 miles of barbed wire"

I first went to see Bo Diddley at a great New York nightclub called Limelight, a converted gothic church between the West Village and Chelsea, on July 26, 1987. This was a big comeback show for Bo Diddley, who had recently made his face familiar on MTV playing the pool player with the box-shaped guitar in George Thorogood's video for "Bad to the Bone". Curious about the swaggering guy in the Thorogood video, and vaguely aware of his music, I went and bought a Bo Diddley album and found a treasure chest of primal, hard-driving, joyful, funny three-minute blues-rock songs I could listen to over and over. I jumped at the chance to see him in concert, and managed to squeeze into the fifth row of the packed nightclub to gaze up at his thick hands laying that pulsing tremolo over those Bo Diddley chords on that beautiful box-shaped guitar. Bo Diddley was pretty old in 1987, but he wasn't too old to snarl his lyrics, or to enjoy himself. It was 75 minutes of the Bo Diddley beat, leavened by the Bo Diddley sense of humor. I don't know which I enjoyed more, the beat or the humor.

The Bo Diddley beat is such a good beat (and by the way, of course he didn't invent the beat, he just figured out how to do it on an electric guitar) that listeners may mistake this for his only credit and neglect what a good writer Bo Diddley was. Like his friend and partner-in-crime Chuck Berry, Ellis "Bo Diddley" McDaniels lived to tell stories and create characters. His songs are what made him famous, even more than his beat. His words were as simple as his guitar playing, and just as strong. Many blues fans don't even know that Bo Diddley wrote this song, which became a blues staple and a Muddy Waters classic:

Now when I was a little boy,
At the age of five,
I had somethin' in my pocket,
Keep a lot of folks alive.
Now I'm a man,
Made twenty-one,
You know baby,
We can have a lot of fun.
I'm a man,
I spell M-A-N ... man

Bo Diddley's greasy hambone style was always rooted in humor. Influenced by earlier raunchy vaudeville acts like Butterbeans and Susie, Diddley often worked comedy routines into songs, most successfully with his maracas player Jerome Green as comic foil. He had a couple of hit singles with Say Man and Say Man, Back Again:

Bo: Say man
Jerome: Yeah, what's that?
Bo: Speaking of your old lady, I seen that new girl you got.
Jerome: Yeah, ain't she nice?
Bo: Yeah, she's got everything a man could want.
Jerome: Sure has!
Bo: Hair on her chest, a mustache, everything a man could want ...

Sometimes Jerome is straight man, and other times Bo gets stuck with the role:

Jerome: Say, look here
Bo: What's that
Jerome: I can do what you're doing
Bo: Then how come you not doing anything?
Jerome: I got you doing it

The humor frequently reflects the tradition of aggressive boasting that also characterizes today's gangsta rap:

500%, mo' man
A livin' dream
Bo Diddley, baby
Mo' man than you ever seen
Strong and handsome
And a teasin' tan
Bo Diddley, baby
A nat'ral born man

I'm drivin' a '48 Cadillac
With Thunderbird wings
Tellin' you baby, that's a runnin' thing
I got wings that'll open
And get her in the air
I think I can take it away from here

Other times his leery, suspicious barbs recall Groucho Marx, as when he sends up the children's song "Mockingbird":

Bo Diddley buy his babe a diamond ring
If the diamond ring don't shine
He gonna take it to a private eye ...

Bo Diddley died yesterday at his home in Archer, Florida. Some obituaries I've read call him an ornery man, referring to his bitterness over the greater fame of several of his early-rock pioneer peers. I don't know if he was ornery or not, but he seemed quite happy with life at the Limelight concert on July 26, 1987. The concert was such a big success that immediately afterwards a second Bo Diddley concert was announced, this time to be recorded for a live album featuring Rolling Stone lead guitarist Ron Wood and an impressive lineup of musicians. I got tickets for the show at the Ritz on November 25, 1987, but found it disappointing compared to Limelight four months earlier. I blame the overly professional band. Like Chuck Berry in concert, Bo Diddley just needs a spirited and sloppy trio to thrash in the background, and can be easily overpowered by slick backup musicians. There was also no need for Ron Wood to join Bo Diddley on guitar, as everybody in the audience knew: when Bo Diddley's on stage, you don't need another guitar.

The live album was released but quickly forgotten, because it wasn't a great show. But I remember a moment towards the end that you won't catch on the album. Diddley, perhaps sensing that the band wasn't hitting it hard enough, started shouting at them. "Come on!" Then he started pogoing. Up and down. The whole bulk of him. "Come on, man!" he shouted at Ron Wood, who presumably had never seen such behavior from Keith Richards.

Ornery? The guy was 58 years old and at least 250 pounds, and he was pogoing onstage at the Ritz. That's not any kind of ornery I know.

I walk 47 miles of barbed wire,
Got a cobra-snake for a necktie,
I got a brand new house on the roadside,
Made from rattlesnake hide,
I got a brand new chimney made on top,
Made out of a human skull,
Now come on take a walk with me, Arlene,
And tell me, who do you love?
Who do you love?
Tombstone hand and a graveyard mind
Just 22 and I don't mind dying.
Who do you love?

The New York Times has put up some very good articles about Bo Diddley, and here's a note posted at NewCritics.
view /BoDiddley
Wednesday, June 4, 2008 12:52 am
Levi Asher

1. Fiction writer Oakley Hall (inspiration, obviously, of the band Oakley Hall) has died. I did not know this author's work well, but once when I was a kid a long time ago I heard him read a wonderful short story called "What Walt Disney Knew" on the radio. I've been trying to find a copy of the story, or any proof that the story exists, ever since. The story begins (if I remember correctly) when a lone traveler picks up a stranger hitchhiker who tells him about an alien race of humanoids who once inhabited our planet. They were superior to us in most ways and life was like paradise, but through some ironic twist (which I can't remember) they died off, and very few people know the secret that they were once here. But Walt Disney knew. And he left us a clue about them: they had only four fingers.

As I retell this story now, I wonder how much of it I have made up. I wonder if it was even Oakley Hall who wrote it, because I've never found it in one of his books. If anybody knows where I can find this story, please let me know. And if anybody knows what Walt Disney knew, let us know too.

Good timing department: Jonathan Zeitlin of the Mezzanine Owls happens to mention Oakley Hall in a recent Book Notes at largeheartedboy.

2. Forget what Walt Disney knew. What did Walt Dizzy know? If that rings a bell, you probably know that classic-era Mad cartoonist Will Elder, also known as Bill Elder, has died. I can't say enough about Elder's brilliant work with Harvey Kurtzman, which can be found in books like The Mad Reader. Elder was responsible for "Starchie", "Mickey Rodent", "Sherlock Shomes" and so very much more. "Little Annie Fanny" was a disappointing sequel, but the Mad Magazine work will live forever. The New York Times obituary is particularly good on the influence of Elder's signature "margin work". There's some good video at Tom Richmond's Mad Blog.

3. Deconstructed album cover art (via Gawker).

4. Leora Skolkin-Smith on Leon Wieseltier and A. B. Yehoshua.

5. Bat Segundo interviews Cynthia Ozick.
view /WhatWaltDisneyKnew
Monday, May 19, 2008 10:55 pm
Levi Asher