After Pete Seeger died last week, I remembered that the last glimpse I'd had of the great folksinger was a video of his Broadway march in support of Occupy Wall Street in October 2011, with his friends Arlo Guthrie and David Amram in tow. Here's what that looked like:
Dave Van Ronk's The Mayor of MacDougal Street is a constructed autobiography, pieced together by the singer's friend and admirer Elijah Wald after Van Ronk died of cancer in 2002. Elijah Wald is a roots-music scholar who has also written books like How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Eleven years later, the book he produced from interview recordings and memoir fragments would have given Van Ronk the pleasure of seeing his name pop up in lights as a primary source for the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis.
Dave Van Ronk would have relished the irony, because his failed flirtations with fame became legendary by the time he died. Flirtation with fame provides the primary plotline for Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie I got excited about when I first heard of its Dave Van Ronk connection, and enjoyed very much when I finally got to see it.
I don't always love a Coen Brothers movie (especially, for instance, when it's a Coen Brothers movie of a Cormac McCarthy novel), but I do always love the music in a Coen Brothers movie. Inside Llewyn Davis is a bonanza of great folk tunes, and the soundtrack is especially rewarding for displaying the wide variety of musical styles of the early 1960s folk boom: Irish brother groups, sea shanty singers, "early music" experts, Appalachian authentics, Beat poets, corny comedians, harmony crewcut groups. Despite the great music, Inside LLewyn Davis isn't quite as spectacular a snapshot of 1960s Greenwich Village culture as their previous O Brother Where Art Thou? was of 1930s Mississippi Delta blues and bluegrass culture. It's a sadder and smaller movie than O Brother, but the film's connection to Van Ronk's Mayor of MacDougal Street amounts to a surprising honor for this little-known but important musician.
1922 was a special year for modernist literature. On February 2, James Joyce was the shy guest of honor at a small publication party for Ulysses in Paris. Sylvia Beach showed Joyce the book for the first time that day, thus establishing 2/2/22 as its Joycily pleasing official publication date.
Ulysses is one of two pillars of 20th century modernist literature, and the other is The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, a long and strange poem that arrived to the wastrel world eight months later on October 16, 1922, neatly printed within the debut edition of The Criterion.
Both Ulysses and Waste Land were mash-ups of ancient heroic literature, regurgitated through a pained awareness of the plight of Europe in the age of industrialized war, revolution, capitalism and fast society. The milieu of European urban high culture that produced Ulysses and The Waste-Land in 1922 -- a vast set of personalities that includes Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Andre Breton, W. B. Yeats, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence, E. E. Cummings, Wassily Kandinsky, Virginia Woolf, George Gurdjieff, and of course Gertrude Stein -- is the subject of Kevin Jackson's ingeniously simple Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One.
The book is ingeniously simple because it is written as an annotated calendar, moving forward in brisk anecdotes from January to December, constructing a found story along the way. Some entire days are skipped, while other days present enjoyable juxtapositions, like June 30, on which Franz Kafka retired from his job, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter and young Eric Arthur Blair applied to the India Office for a position that would take him to Burma, one of many eventual stops towards his future as George Orwell.
It must mean something that Marcel Proust died on November 18, 1922, one month after Waste Land came out (though it is not known whether or not Proust read Eliot's poem). This was the same month that Howard Carter discovered and plundered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, the same month that Crown Prince Hirohito became the new emperor of Japan.
There are two great cinematic jokes in the new film Kill Your Darlings, two sly references to the dilemma of self-consciousness that this movie about the Beat Generation struggles to overcome. First, it must overcome the suffocating celebrity of Daniel Radcliffe, who plays the poet Allen Ginsberg, and the movie smartly tackles the "hey, there's Harry Potter" problem right away. The movie opens with teenage Allen cleaning up his parents' house, jamming to a song on the Victrola, and dancing merrily with a broom.
Kill Your Darlings toys with its literary legacy as well. As several people pitch in to help a mischievous and manipulative Columbia University student named Lucien Carr write a paper about the historian Oswald Spengler, we see a typewriter tapping out immortal words that remind us of another recent Hollywood film: "On … the …". But then instead of "On The Road", the words turn out to be "On the Decline of the West".
Directed by John Krokidas and written by Austin Bunn, Kill Your Darlings is a clever, knowing film about the early exploits of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. It's lively in the same way that Baz Lurhmann's Great Gatsby was (though, of course, it's nowhere near as bombastic), and it whips up a cinematic frenzy of literary inspiration that goes even deeper than Walter Salles's On The Road or James Franco's Howl into the ecstatic and Dionsyian mission of the early Beats. The movie has frustrating flaws, but perhaps succeeds mainly through the dedication of the excellent cast, which includes Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg's schizophrenic mother, Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr and Ben Foster as William S. Burroughs. Daniel Radcliffe's Allen Ginsberg also works very well, which goes to show that Daniel Radcliffe is good at playing divinely inspired fervent innocents.
Jack Kerouac's poetry has just been enshrined in the prestigious Library of America series, which would have made him proud. No sooner is the book published, though, than comes the reaction. Bruce Bawer trashes Kerouac mercilessly in The New Criterion, with raw insults that go way over the top:
Grimly reconciled though one may be to the annual flood of books by and about the Beat Generation, it’s particularly depressing to see Jack Kerouac’s poetry, of all things, enshrined in the Library of America, that magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature. To read through these seven hundred–odd pages of Kerouac’s staggeringly slapdash effusions set in elegant Galliard, outfitted with the usual meticulous editorial apparatus, and bound—like Twain’s novels and Lincoln’s speeches—in a beautiful Library of America volume is enough to trigger a serious attack of cognitive dissonance.
Well. I must admit that I too prefer Kerouac's wonderful prose to his vexing poetry. However, I can prove that Jack Kerouac is an important poet, because he has written at least one short poem that seems to mean many things to many people. It goes like this:
This is Willets Point, a sprawling center for automobile salvage located just west of Flushing Meadows Park in New York City, a place of amazing squalid beauty. CitiField, where the Mets play baseball, is visible just beyond the scrap yards. Willets Point, one of the last remaining vestiges of the Great Gatsby's Valley of Ashes, that glorious Danteesque wasteland, is about to disappear forever. It will be replaced by a gleaming mixed-use development project encompassing "retail and entertainment amenities, a hotel and convention center, mixed-income housing, public open space, and community uses".
Willets Point was not the whole of the gigantic Valley of Ashes, which is now covered by the main area of Flushing Meadows Park (still and always my favorite park in New York City). CitiField, the US Open Tennis Center and the bygone Shea Stadium and Worlds Fair grounds were built directly on top of the original burning trashworks. And, once Willets Point is replaced by shiny new buildings, we will still keep some remainders of the desolate vision that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald, because the asphalt and gravel factories on the east bank of Flushing Creek will continue to operate under the shadow of the Van Wyck Expressway overpass. Maybe the Valley of Ashes will never completely disappear.
The art directors for the Baz Luhrmann Great Gatsby film that premiered earlier this year must have scouted out the Queens location carefully, because they did a great job of capturing the ambience, as seen in film stills like this one. The similarity to my photo at the top of the page seems quite remarkable:
I used to buy records in a Chicago shop called the Jazz Record Mart on Grand Avenue. It was run by a guy named Bob Koester, a jazz and blues fanatic. He also had his own record company, Delmark Records, where he recorded a lot of blues artists who'd been passed over by Chess Records. The record shop was incredible. It was piled floor to ceiling with jazz and blues records. Bruce Iglauer, who went on to start Alligator Records, worked behind the counter. On any given day you might spot a well-known blues musician flipping through the stacks or talking to Koester.
The first time I went down to the Jazz Record Mart with a friend, Alex, I stocked up on Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf records. Alex bought a single album: Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells. It was recorded by Bob Koester on his Delmark label. We rushed back to Alex’s house and put the record on. The album cover was an atmospheric black and white shot of Junior Wells playing in some after-hours blues dive, cigarette smoke surrounding him in a thick cloud, his harmonica in one hand. The music on the album was just as atmospheric. Most of the blues albums on Chess were really just compendiums of greatest hits, with maybe some filler thrown in, but Hoodoo Man Blues was a real album, with continuity, songs leading into other songs, all sounding like they were recorded live at, say, Theresa’s, a blues club on the South Side where Junior Wells often played. The guitar player, who very subtly supported Junior’s singing and harp playing, but also showed some occasional flash, was credited as “Friendly Chap”. We asked Koester about this and he told us that “Friendly Chap” was in reality the guitarist Buddy Guy. Buddy was under contract to the Chess brothers, so to avoid legal hassles Koester listed him under a fictitious name.
With all this acting experience behind me, Shelton thought I was ready for a crack at the movies. Not Hollywood, just Astoria, Long Island. He got me a part out there playing mob scenes in a picture with Paul Robeson. From that I got a real part in a short featuring Duke Ellington. It was a musical, with a little story to it, and it gave me a chance to sing a song -- a real weird and pretty blues number. That was the good thing about the part.
The rough part, of course, was that I had to play a chippie. Opposite me there was a comedian who'll kill me because I can't remember his name. He played my pimp or sweetheart. He was supposed to knock me around.
He knocked me down about twenty times the first day of shooting. Each time I took a fall I landed on the hard old floor painted to look like sidewalk. And there was nothing to break my falls except the flesh on my bones. The second morning when I showed up at the studio I was so sore I couldn't even think about breaking my falls. I must have hit that hard painted pavement about fifty times before the man hollered "Cut."
I saw a little bit of this epic one time at the studio, but that was all. Mom, of course, thought I was going to be a big movie star and she told everyone to watch for the picture. I don't know if anybody else saw it, but we never did. It was just a short subject, something they filled in with when they couldn't get Mickey Mouse. We'd have had to hire a private detective to find out where the hell it was playing.
What a voice. Rich, dark, sassy, slangy and street-smart. Funny, bitter, bristling with innocent joy. I'm talking about Billie Holiday's voice, but I'm not talking about her singing voice. I'm talking about her memoir, Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday with William Dufty, published in 1956:
The odds didn't look good for the new film version of The Great Gatsby this weekend, I thought, as I donned my plastic 3-D glasses and entered the dark theater. I wasn't expecting to like the movie much at all.
I don't love glitzy Hollywood spectacle, though I was willing to give the much-hyped new version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great novel a chance because it was directed by Baz Lurhmann, a commanding figure in popular experimental cinema with an almost Warholian taste for edgy spectacle. I'd loved his Moulin Rouge, a wicked send-up of chic Paris in the era of Toulouse-Lautrec and absinthe.
If any big director was going to ruin Great Gatsby, I thought, it might as well be Luhrmann, who had apparently hired Jay-Z, Beyonce, Q-Tip, Lana Del Rey and Will.i.am for an anachronistic soundtrack (Moulin Rouge, similarly, gave us Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 19th Century France, and made it work.)
But my hopes weren't very high as I entered the theater and put my Gatsby Glasses on. The idea of a 3-D version of a literary love story seemed ridiculous. I was also unhappy with the casting of the histrionic Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. I'd watched this overrated actor bluster through several promising literary movies already: Basketball Diaries, Total Eclipse, Gangs of New York, Revolutionary Road. I knew he only had six facial expressions, and I was sick of them all. I was ready to start hating the movie, as the lights in the theater went out.
If you're trying to analyze F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age novel The Great Gatsby and you're not thinking about Dante's Inferno, you're missing an obvious connection.
The connection is easy to spot and hard to dispute, though it rarely comes up in discussion of the book. I haven't heard it mentioned at all during the big media buildup to the bombastic new Baz Luhrmann/Leonardo DiCaprio Great Gatsby movie that's opening this weekend, though I have read a few clueless movie-tie-in articles that strain to explain the enduring cultural significance of Fitzgerald's novel. These articles usually miss the point by describing The Great Gatsby as a novel about the American dream of wealth and success, or something pedestrian like that.
Explanations of Gatsby as a Randian epic about a businessman don't illuminate the book very well, and neither do theories that Nick Carraway was gay or that Jay Gatsby was African-American. I tend to stick with the standard approach: The Great Gatsby is a chic and tawdry tale of love and romantic illusion. It's written in lush but light poetic prose in a heated tone that evokes a dramatic sense of spiritual hazard. The spiritual hazard is where Dante comes in.
As a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald liked to paint modern society in starkly religious or biblical terms. He does not appear to have been very religious, but he was raised Catholic, viewed Christian ideals warmly, and seems to have been especially fascinated with concepts of Satanic guilt and damnation. This is most clear in his titles: his first novel was called This Side of Paradise, his second The Beautiful and Damned. His short stories include: Babylon Revisited, Jacob's Ladder, Absolution.
But The Great Gatsby, the novel he intended as the pinnacle of his mature literary achievement, is also his most ambitious spiritual work, as it apppears to be loosely grounded upon Dante's Inferno, the first and most famous part of the Italian poet's epic The Divine Comedy, in which a traveler is escorted on a colorful guided tour of Hell.