If you're on the east coast of the USA these days, you might catch a painted bus called Furthur running up and down the seaboard. This colorful vehicle is named after the original Furthur that took novelist Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Ken Babbs and the rest of the Merry Pranksters across the country on a famous road trip 50 years ago. I caught up with Zane Kesey and the giant rolling metaphor he designed for his father when they finally rolled into Brooklyn, New York last month.
Sometimes shuffle mode on my iPhone really comes through for me. I was having a pretty bad day yesterday, and it found a song that cheered me up.
I was having a bad day for a few different reasons. The biggest is something that's been going on for a while now. An older member of my family -- a person who I really care about and have always had a great relationship with -- has been stricken with a cruel health problem, and is suffering a lot.
This kind of ordeal puts other problems in a certain perspective, but not necessarily a perspective that's helpful. For instance, I've been looking forward to celebrating the 20th anniversary of this website on July 23rd, but I've also been feeling very frustrated about my progress as a writer. During those poisonous moments in which everything on Earth seems pointless, I can only see this blog as a symptom of my chronic need to be idiosyncratic at any cost, and thus as a bizarre monument to my own lifelong failure.
Well, okay. Failure's been in the air, and not just for me: failure to communicate, failure to reach, failure to deliver. Failure seems to have been trending lately, at least in my corner of the universe. An insane incident occurred yesterday involving one of my favorite people in the literary world, a person who must have been soaking in his own psychological poisons during the same moments that I was too. Everything turned out okay, but for a few moments the incident got frightening, and after it was over it all seemed like a sign of a sort of general despair among many of my writer friends, all of whom have moments in which we feel desperately starved for connection and validation. Another friend who was caught in this whirlwind summarized her takeaway from yesterday's public drama with this accurate tweet:
Exactly 150 years today, the most grueling and relentless eight days of the Civil War in the United States of America began. These are the opening days of the Overland Campaign, in which two armies rampaged south through north-central Virginia in their final race towards Richmond, capital city of the Confederacy. They stopped frequently along the way to try to kill each other.
The Overland Campaign was recently featured in the TV series House of Cards. The crooked politician played by Kevin Spacey visits a newly dedicated (and fictional) battlefield park dedicated to the Overland Campaign, and meets a reenactor costumed as his own doomed Rebel ancestor. In real life, the park is known as the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield, and despite the House of Cards fabrication, it's not dedicated just to the Overland Campaign: there were so many fights in this region that Wilderness and Spotsylvania have to share space with Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where major battles were fought in 1862 and 1963.
Those were also critical and immense conflagrations, but Civil War experts know the Overland Campaign was the greatest match of them all, because it was in these battles -- Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Yellow Tavern, Cold Harbor -- that General Ulysses S. Grant faced General Robert E. Lee directly for the first time. This was the big one, the championship between the two top teams. This was the Finals, and it was a hell of a fight.
"The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it."
-- Igor Stravinsky
I'm sure it's a hipster affectation of mine: I try to listen to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring every year when the Spring Equinox comes around. It's a hipster affectation because I don't really know much about classical music, and I can't deny that what thrills me most about this music is not the work itself but the knowledge that it caused a riot in Paris on May 29, 1913 when it was first performed. A riot in an theatre -- that's my idea of a rite of Spring.
The music sounds primal today, though it's hard to imagine how it could have caused a riot. In fact, it was not the music as much as the ballet, daringly choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, that caused the sensation. Le Sacre du Printemps was a Russian debut in France, and as such a symbolic meeting between two nations that would one year later go to war together against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.
While I've heard the music often, I've never seen the work performed, and I've only just become aware of a Joffrey Ballet video that presents Stravinsky's music and Nijinsky's ballet in context -- Pictures of Pagan Russia is the subtitle -- so that we can get a better idea of what the whole sensation was about. Here's the first of three parts; you can click through from this one to the next two.
It's because I respect musicians who bravely venture into the dark literary territory of autobiography that I am so fascinated by musical memoirs. It's also why I'm sometimes critical of them. I have high standards regarding what a good memoir should be.
My standards are high but simple. An autobiography of a musician or any other artist must be written in a voice that feels distinct and artistic. It must tell a coherent story in chronological form. Most importantly, a good memoir must tell the truth.
On these terms, I criticized Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace for lacking story coherence, and for substituting undercooked present-tense for thoughtful past-tense. I knocked Steve Tyler's Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? for an inconsistent voice: the first few chapters about Steve's childhood and teenage years were very well written, but once Steve grew up and got famous the book shifted in tone to something like a People magazine interview about his rock star lifestyle. That ain't memoir.
Today I'm going to tell you about a memoir that I bet you never heard of, even though there's a good chance you dearly love the legendary rock band the author of this autobiography played drums for.
He was the oldest of the major Beat Generation writers. That's why William S. Burroughs is today the first Beat writer to celebrate a centennial.
Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914. He arrived on this planet the same year as the First World War.
Some people don't call Burroughs a Beat writer, because they prefer to think of him as a postmodern experimentalist, or a psychic investigator, or a political activist. He was those things too, but of course he was a Beat writer.
A video that's been making the rounds about a clueless super-wealthy plutocrat who compares America's treatment of the rich to the Holocaust and brags about his wristwatch that's worth "a six-pack of Rolexes" has got me to thinking. The most revealing thing about this video is the boyish excitement this 80-year-old former investor seems to feel about his expensive watch. He, like some others who argue for pro-wealth policies, seems to think that liberals and progressives who want to tackle the problem of income inequality are suffering from Rolex envy.
I wonder what it would feel like to wish for an expensive watch. I don't know how much a Rolex costs, but I've never remotely yearned for one, and if I owned a Rolex I wouldn't want to wear it. I don't wear a wristwatch at all, and really don't understand why anyone does. An expensive watch doesn't strike me as an attractive object the way that, say, an agate or a piece of ocean glass is. Gold and silver are not my favorite colors. And when I want to know what time it is, I just look at my phone.
And yet I've heard from economic conservatives that economic progressives like me must envy the rich. I really don't think most of us do. The lifestyle of luxury is not always attractive, even when it is curious. At most, most of us envy the freedom that would come with a moderate amount of wealth, and that's as far as the envy goes.
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:
I noticed something strange when I read folksinger Dave Van Ronk's awesome autobiography a few weeks ago. The gruff ethnomusicologist remembered most of his old friends with sarcasm and bittersweet wit ... but he had nothing but full-throated words of love for Pete Seeger, his elder journeyman who has just died at the age of 94. Van Ronk honors him in this book by reprinting in full a column he wrote in 1958 in the early folk music zine Caravan.
Van Ronk's article must be understood in the context of the small, fervent community of working Greenwich Village folksingers in the late 1950s, just before Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan would arrive to blow up the scene. Among these earnest young artists, the music of an established and (already then) older folksinger like Pete Seeger might seem corny. Seeger's strong left-wing opinions might also seem oppressively rigid or tradition-bound to a younger crowd. This critical attitude is the attitude Van Ronk is countering here, in what amounts to a contrarian thinkpiece from 1958.
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.