(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.
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.
1. Here's a newly-found old video of Beat Generation/Summer of Love poet Michael McClure reading poetry to caged lions. The last section of the poem consists of McClure yelling "roar" repeatedly. The video might strike some as precious -- Steve Silberman called it "beat kitsch" in a recent tweet -- but it gets cool around the time the lions start roaring back in harmony with McClure. If you can get a bunch of lions to respond to your poetry, you must be doing something right.
2. Suzuki Beane! I heard long ago that YA-novelist Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy is her most famous book, though I liked The Long Secret even better) began her writing career with an illustrated book, Suzuki Beane, a parody of Hilary Knight's Eloise starring a punky kid with beatnik parents. But I'd never been able to find a copy of the book until I saw a link to this digital version in a Boing-Boing article that also links to a surprising TV show pilot version of the book (the show never got made, which is too bad, because it looks pretty cute). Serious fans of Harriet M. Welsch, Sport and Beth-Ellen will find many echoes of their favorite Fitzhugh books in Suzuki Beane, particularly in the affectionate depictions of the tortuous relationships that sometimes exist between eccentric, artistic parents and their stubborn kids.
Jay-Z puts out one major release every year, most often in November. Usually it's a record, another installment in the lyrical autobiography that has made up his life's work. This year it's a book, Decoded, and Jay showed up at the New York Public Library last night to talk about it.
Decoded rocks a golden Andy Warhol Rorschach image on its front cover, hinting at the psychological self-exploration that has always been Jay-Z's specialty. The book's heft, dramatic packaging and thematic chapter structure indicate a serious work, and a highly deliberate encounter with the literary form. I was hoping to hear Jay talk about his writing process and his literary inspirations at the NYPL, but the onstage interview with Paul Holdengraber and Cornel West was such a high-energy affair that, after an hour and three quarters of intense conversation, we never even got around to that topic.
I spent some time in a bookstore yesterday deciding whether or not to buy The Bridge, the first major biography of Barack Obama, written by David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker. I'm eager to learn about Obama's background, but a cruise through the pages failed to motivate me towards the checkout counter.
I adore a good exploratory biography, one that meanders through its subject's past to tap into the richness of a solitary human life tinged with destiny. I like and respect David Remnick, but I quickly gathered that The Bridge takes a Bob Woodward-esque approach, chronicling not the private but the public aspects of Obama's life, primarily through an immense series of interviews. In today's New York Times Book Review, critic Garry Wills refers to The Bridge as an "exhaustively researched" life of Obama, and by this he means that David Remnick probably exhausted himself talking to Obama's peers and old friends, gaining every possible vantage point from which to see him. But I prefer biographies that aim, more riskily, to get inside their subject's minds (like, for instance, this one, which I recently praised). The Bridge appears to lack the novelistic blush that enlivens a great work of biography. It seems rather to be a work of professional journalism, a 656-page magazine piece, more topical than existential.
Strange currents in the hometown rag today.
When I saw a book called The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter on the cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review I figured it was a new McSweeney's book or some photoblog tie-in. It turns out to be a serious 500-page study, not of white people per se but of the concept of "whiteness" as it has rippled through history. The author is an African-American professor (and also, it turns out, a good artist), which gives the title some edge. The author of this article is Linda Gordon, also a professor and, based on the "Up Front" sketch of her face, a white person. So Nell Painter is talking about Linda Gordon's people here, and Linda Gordon also seems to have a lot to say about white people. Sounds like an okay book, though unfortunately a photoblog tie-in would probably sell better.
Apparently the reputations of our acclaimed magazines have recently sunk to the depths of ignobility. William Vollmann, reviewing Ted Conover's The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today in the current New York Times Book Review, complains that Conover "occasionally seasons his prose with the flavor of a National Geographic article". A few pages later, Ben Ratliff whines that Tony Fletcher's All Hopped Up And Ready To Go: Music From the Streets of New York 1927-1977 "reads like a 400-page article for Mojo magazine". I didn't realize this anti-magazine backlash was in effect. But what are we going to do about the fact that many of the articles in today's publication read like reviews in the New York Times Book Review?
Vollmann's piece isn't the worst offender; Conover's anthropological study of the world's roads is a good assignment for the globally curious Vollmann, who engages with the book in a surprisingly (for Vollmann) calm and coherent manner. Ratliff, on the other hand, wastes his review of Fletcher's study of various music club scenes in New York objecting to the fact that the book treats rock and punk bands as if they were equal to Ratliff's own favorites:
Why spend so much energy describing the history of the Velvet Underground -- a band little known in its time but painfully over-analyzed since -- when you could be writing about the evolution of New York salsa?
Somebody wake Ratliff up if that book ever gets written. Then there are three fiction reviews in which the reviewers each pretend to halfway like the books they're reviewing in the first few paragraphs, then conclude that the books are failures. Jennifer Egan tries Eight Crazy Nights -- I mean Eight White Nights -- by Andre Aciman and finds that the author "deprives himself of a perspective from which to cast [the characters'] shallowness and self-important gravitas as features of youth in a particular culture at a particular time". I hope Aciman is more careful with that in the future. Caryn James gives The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn a spin but finds that the fictionalization "misses Dickinson's fireworks". Joshua Hammer suffers through The Room and the Chair by Lorraine Adams even though it leaves him "confused and disappointed, out in the cold". Jeez. I may have to pick up a copy of National Geographic or Mojo if I want something good to read.
One fiction author does survive today's quiet carnage. William Giraldi's appreciative review of Thomas Lynch's death-obsessed Apparition and Late Fictions provides the most vivid writing in today's Book Review. Back on the dull and predictable side, Brooklyn hipster/music journalist Toure contributes an endpaper essay about literary racial crossovers that seems really out of place in a nation whose president is Barack Obama. The opening is awful:
This may come as a shock to you, especially if you loook at whiteness as a boon and blackness as a burden, but I have never once wished to be white.
Nobody would except otherwise from Toure, he of the Buckwheat hairdo and the MTV hiphop interviews, since he's obviously found a niche for himself writing about being black. It's hard to believe that he's encountered much racism in the various Starbucks locations between Fort Greene and Flatbush anyway. The whole article is on thin ice, but the author really takes it too far when he refers to Jesus of Nazareth as "another black man who became white". Back off, Toure -- now you're talking about my people.
1. Welcome to Literary Kicks's new look. This latest redesign (the previous version is above, just for old times sake) takes advantage of some cool Drupal capabilities -- real-time tracking of popular and highly commented articles, a custom-built taxonomy-based "Explore Related" box on every article page -- and also includes improvements I've been jonesing for like share boxes and a liquid layout (finally!) that takes advantage of the full browser page size. I also tweaked the design specs a bit (I'm using a custom variant of the Fervens theme), and created a new version of the Paul Verlaine logo (just for fun).
Website redesigns often trigger the "Wow Effect", named after the word people say when a favorite website suddenly changes. This is often followed by the depressing realization that it's the same old website with different colors and fonts. Personally, I like to avoid the whole "Wow Effect" ordeal by releasing changes gradually, and you may have noticed some of the changes leading up to this redesign going up in the past few weeks. I'm still far from done, and will also be experimenting with Semantic Web features as well as some custom database algorithms I've been dreaming up for the various "featured article" lists.
I'm also going to completely reinvent the Action Poetry pages, but that'll take another month. Please bear with me as this proceeds, and please email me or post a comment if the pages do not display correctly on your browser or device -- thanks.
2. J. D. Salinger. Hmm. By any rational calculation, I'd be very drawn to J. D. Salinger, a brainy New York Jew who emerged in the 1950s, became a superstar, became a Buddhist, and retreated from the world. I admire Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and most of the short stories, though I never understood the gigantic appeal of Catcher in the Rye. On the other hand, my two daughters both like the book very much, and Elizabeth even wrote about him for LitKicks when she was 15.
Still, his work never fully grabbed me. What I can't relate to about J. D. Salinger is that joylessness, that dread of life. I can't relate to that at all. His Buddhism is clearly very different from mine.
As far as classic writers from the 1950s and 1960s go, I'll take the ecstatic Jack Kerouac over the morbid J. D. Salinger any day. Still, I salute an American original who certainly, if nothing else, stuck to his principles. I'll pay some attention if unpublished manuscripts come out. Till then, the New Yorker has a nice tribute display of several of his short stories originally published in that magazine. The Onion, meanwhile, must have had this ready in advance.
3. Somebody went to an art museum and fell into a Picasso. And not one of those late period Picasso lithograph cartoons that you see all over the place -- this was a serious Picasso, from the "Rose Period" just before Cubism. I always wanted to go to an art museum and do something like that.
4. Words Without Borders, which also has a new look, is highlighting Georges Perec.
5. Bookslut's Michael Schaub on the new Patti Smith memoir, about her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
7. Sure, I got some Beat Generation links. The movie Howl is coming out soon. This is a big deal and I wish the filmmakers would let me see a preview already. Then: Ginsberg's photographs, Gary Snyder communing with hardware, Jack Kerouac in Detroit, Ginger Eades's blog. Okay.
8. What the Los Angeles Lakers are reading. Nice to see 60s classics Edward Abbey and Eldridge Cleaver on this list!
10. Is somebody making money off of slush piles? Why shouldn't they?
11. Okay, I had something cool planned for today's redesign launch: an interview with Up In The Air novelist Walter Kirn. We talk about technology, careers, literature and how it feels to become a George Clooney movie. I decided to devote the day to Bananafish instead, so I'll be presenting this exciting interview (really) on Monday. Friday is hiphop day again.
1. Okay, so I flip-flopped on the Kindle. I still dislike the high price, the DRM policy and the secrecy about sales numbers, but on the other hand Amazon appears to be showing conviction, focus and flexibility in the way they are evolving the product. Also, a few months ago I wrote that I've never seen anyone reading a Kindle on a train, but I have recently seen two people doing so. This says a lot. I remain mixed in my feelings about the product, but it's clear that the Kindle is here to stay, and this is probably a good thing.
Following the lead of several other literary bloggers, I've now made this website available for Kindle subscription. I don't own a Kindle myself, so I can't even check out how it works, but if any Kindle owners out there can check it out, please tell me what you see!
2. More technological developments: here's Slate on the semantically-charged new knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha, supposedly a challenger to Google: "If only it worked ..."
3. There are a lot of intense debates revolving around the triple satellites of e-books, blogs and Twitter, all of it possibly leading to same grand conflagration (or, more likely, not) during next weekend's Book Expo 2009 in New York City. Till we all meet there, Kassia Krozser is tracking various debates involving electronic publishing.
4. Allison Glock flaunts her silly prejudices in a Poetry Foundation article about blogs. Based on her piece, I'm betting she's never actually seen a blog.
Instead of fostering actual connection, blogs inevitably activate our baser human instincts—narcissism, vanity, schadenfreude. They offer the petty, cheap thrill of perceived superiority or released vitriol. How easy it is to tap tap tap your indignation and post, post, post into the universe, where it will velcro to the indignation of others, all fusing into a smug, sticky mess and not much else in the end. You know those dinners at chain restaurants, where they pile the plate with three kinds of pasta and five sauces and endless breadsticks and shrimp and steak and bacon bits all topped in fresh grated cheese? Blogs are like that: loads of crap that fill you up. With crap.
5. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is one of my favorite plays. It's now running in New Haven with an African-American cast, featuring Charles S. Dutton as Willy Loman.
6. Jamelah tells me: "Paste Magazine is a really really good publication and it would be sad if it went under".
7. The New York Public Library is facing deep budget cuts and asking for a show of support. Let's keep those lions well-fed.
8. A Michigan high school bans Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon.
9. Flannery O'Connor in Atlantic Monthly.
10. Arthur Conan Doyle and spiritualism. And here's what Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law are doing with Sherlock Holmes.
11. A glance at a surprisingly healthy publishing industry in India.
12. I didn't realize Britian's legendary publishing firm Faber and Faber was only 80 years old.
13. John O'Hara's wonderful novel Appointment in Samarra gets some appreciation from Lydia Kiesling at The Millions.
14. Another form of Action Poetry: Yoko Ono is arranging Twitter haiku.
Toure reviews Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor on the cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review, and most of the article has to do with racial identity. I'm a little disappointed in this tepid and tired subject. I read and liked Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt and I once had a nice chat with him at some Litblog Co-op or Soft Skull party, but it never even occurred to me to register what race he was. I'm not sure if it's Toure or Colson Whitehead, but somebody needs to get over being African-American here. (Meanwhile, I'm trying to get over being Jewish-American).
Ethnic obsessions aside, Toure does come up with one nice line about Whitehead's main character:
Benji lives in a world not unlike Charlie Brown’s, where adults are mostly offstage.
Bruce Handy reviews two books about the New York Mets, The Complete Game: Reflections on Baseball, Pitching, and Life on the Mound by Ron Darling with Daniel Paisner and Straw: Finding My Way by Darryl Strawberry with John Strausbaugh. Handy claims to be a Mets fan, and his work looks good at first when he goes off on a rant about Alex Rodriguez's steroid abuse and the New York Mets's new stadium:
[Baseball] breaks your heart in crass, grubby, depressing ways. As when the star third baseman of your 10-year-old son's favorite team grudgingly confesses to having used steroids. Or when your own favorite team knocks down its stadium and puts up a pretty taxpayer-supported park named for a taxpayer-financed bank and with 15,000 fewer seats than the old pile, so that when you try to buy tickets to individual games for your family, the only seats available to the general public start at $270 a pop. True, you can find cheaper seats for resale on StubHub, but why, in depression or boom, does such a thing as a $270 baseball ticket even exist? Too often, the taste baseball leaves behind is less bittersweet than just plain bitter.
However, Handy blows the outing here on two inexplicable bad moves. First, it's a flat-out lie that all or even most tickets at CitiField cost $270. I just bought tickets for $23 each for a Friday night game in June against the Devil Rays. Anybody can go to NYMets.com or MLB.com and do the same.
The only way Handy's statement makes sense is if you define "seats" to mean "great seats". Which shows him to be a seating snob as well as an irresponsible journalist. Considering that the New York Mets organization is made up of human beings, isn't it seriously wrong for the New York Times to publish an insulting fact about the Mets' new stadium in a widely read publication when the insulting fact is patently false?
And shouldn't a fact-checker have caught this?
Anyway ... Handy should relax about where he sits, and just sneak up to the good seats after the sixth inning like I and my kids do.
Also finally, what the hell is a Met fan's son doing with a Yankee third-baseman as his hero? The fact that Handy wasn't dressing his kid in orange and blue and properly training him from day one (as I did with all of mine) proves what I suspected about Bruce Handy from the beginning: he is not a Mets fan.
Okay, enough about this, though Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt should check this case out. Back at the Book Review, I'll give John Pipkin's Woodsburner, a fictionalization of the life of Thoreau, a chance based on Brenda Wineapple's measured praise.
I've had enough of all William F. Buckley's damn relatives in the New York Times Book Review to last two lifetimes.
And Clive James's review of John Updike's final book of poetry Endpoint is beautifully done, though rather obviously a gift (I bet even in the future, John Updike will never be remembered for poetry).