New York City
Legendary book editor and publisher Andre Schiffrin died last weekend at the age of 78. Years ago, I read his memoir/broadside The Business of Books. Here's Schiffrin describing the scene at Random House in the early 1960s, after Random House acquired Pantheon Books, a literary publisher his father had helped to build:
It wasn't long after I became enraptured by the uncommon fiction of Roxana Robinson that I learned she was a direct descendant of the famous, controversial 19th century preacher Henry Ward Beecher and a relative of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe. I was intrigued but somehow not surprised; it was easy to find threads of this weighty influence in Robinson's fascinating and intense novels, which include This is My Daughter, Cost and the recent Sparta. A few weeks ago I got the chance to ask Roxana about her family history. In this first half of the interview, we talk mostly about Henry Ward Beecher. In the second half, we'll focus on Harriet Beecher Stowe.
LEVI: How old were you when you found out you were a Beecher? How was the family heritage explained to you?
ROXANA: I must have known very early that I was a Beecher: Roxana is a Beecher name, so as soon as I knew my name I knew I was a Beecher.
Roxana was Lyman Beecher’s wife and the mother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, my great-great-great-aunt, and Henry Ward Beecher, my great-great-grandfather. I narrowly missed being named “Roxana Beecher Barry.” I’m one of five children, and most of us received names that identified us with certain parts of our family. Mine identified me as a Beecher; no-one else in my family had a Beecher name.
This made me feel, irrationally, that I had a closer and more direct link to them than any of my siblings had. My mother encouraged this, giving each of us things that strengthened this bond, so that we each felt the responsibility for carrying on a certain part of family tradition. She gave me a silk patchwork quilt, made by the ladies of the parish in Brooklyn, and presented to Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher; she gave me Roxana Foote Beecher’s beautiful silk pincushion and embroidery hook. I still have this, tucked away in my bureau, in a box in which the contents are identified in her small elegant curving handwriting. It was clear that family heritage implied some kind of responsibility.
It's Sunday morning, exactly one week since Lou Reed died. I've been touched by many tributes since then, and as I publish the final part in my three-part reminiscence of my 32 years of Lou Reed concerts, it occurs to me that my first two installments have been soundly negative about Lou Reed's musical career from 1979 to 1989 (roughly, his Chuck Hammer period and his Robert Quine period). I suppose I'm wallowing in the disappointment of his mediocre 1980s as a literary device, to set up the happy surprise of his return to form in that decade's last year. His work improved suddenly, almost magically, in 1989, and stayed good (even occasionally great) from that point on.
Lou Reed's career began with a 12-year run of amazing, anarchic, uneven, impossibly brilliant and beautiful work -- from the first Velvet Underground album in 1967 to Take No Prisoners in 1978. This 12-year run forms the core of Lou Reed's classic body of work. In 1979 he radically changed his style, suddenly establishing a mood of sobriety and rigid control in concert and in the recording studio. He seemed intent on subverting the anarchy and spontaneity of his earlier works. Some people love his tightly controlled, emotionally searing 1980s albums, from The Blue Mask to Mistrial. I find them suffocating and depressing, but that doesn't mean I begrudge Lou Reed the right to have created the work he wanted to create at this time.
In fact, he was probably saving his own life, because his ten-year period of artistic sobriety corresponded to a more personal form of sobriety. Several of his songs from the 1980s tell a stark tale of recovery from alcoholism ("Underneath the Bottle", "The Power of Positive Drinking", "Bottoming Out"). Though I critique the music Lou Reed produced during the 1980s, I would never critique his personal sobriety, and I'm simply thankful that Lou Reed did what was necessary to get his act together during these years. His successful and apparently permanent recovery from various substance addictions must be inspiring to many others who suffer through the same bleak trials.
I guess it was good news that Lou Reed had cleaned up his lifestyle and gotten sober sometime in early 1979, just before I went to my first Lou Reed concert. But something about his demeanor onstage had also radically changed. Through the 1970s, he'd been legendary for wildly unpredictable concerts, manic and petulant behavior, deviant transformations. Now, he was subdued and professional. From the late 1970s on, Lou's mask was off. The psycho show was over.
Lou would eventually release a song called "Average Guy", which perfectly describes Lou's onstage persona after 1979. Through the course of the long career that followed, he would remain bland and remote in front of audiences. Not only was the psycho show over -- it was over for good.
My musical interests had expanded beyond Lou Reed by the summer of 1979. This was my last summer before going upstate to college, and whenever I could scrape enough pocket change together I would catch the Long Island Railroad in to New York City to browse at St. Marks Bookshop or Gotham Book Mart during the day, eat a dollar knish at Washington Square for dinner, then see a band like the Mumps or the Fleshtones or Dead Boys or Richard Hell and the Voidoids at CBGBs or Max's Kansas City or Irving Plaza. This was my idea of a perfect day.
In the past 34 years I've seen Lou Reed in concert nine times. The last show was in 2011. The first was on July 10, 1979 at a nightclub called My Father's Place in Roslyn, Long Island. I was 17 years old.
Why did I spend 34 years of my life going to Lou Reed concerts? I suppose I was searching for Lou -- not as a father figure (who would want Lou Reed as a father?) nor as a guru (he really didn't seem to have his shit together at times). I was searching for him as a magus, a creator of Dionysian musical experiences, a demonic master of ceremonies. His concerts were legendarily wild and unpredictable, and his reputation for onstage insanity was at a peak by the late 1970s.
Supposedly a crazed drug addict in real life, Lou was known to act out intense psychodramas on stage. Sometimes he wore kabuki makeup. Sometimes his hair was bright blond and he pretended to shoot up on stage. Sometimes he harangued his audience with hilarious monologues (one of these nights was immortalized in the great 1978 live album Take No Prisoners). Sometimes he didn't say a word and just played.
(This remarkable article by Lance Loud was originally published as 'The Velvet Underground: A Skin-Deep View' in Hit Parader magazine, June 1975, five years after the Velvets broke up. See below for the story of the article's publication on Litkicks today.)
Right from the start, Lou's first band was labeled a "non-stop horror show", a "three ring psychosis" and a "sadomasochistic frenzy". They were rebels, their cause was the musical documentation of the 60s American Pop era. Their style and method of getting this message across knocked the wind out of a lot of people. "Not singe the Titanic ran into that iceberg", quivered a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, "has there been such a collision". All of this was an attempt to describe the three men and a girl that Lou had formed to play his songs. They were named after a tawdry porno book. The Velvet Underground.
Most people believe that the Velvet Underground was some creation of Andy Warhol. It is true that the Velvets DID become famous during their stint, in the mid sixties, with Andy's traveling disco/happening/pop art circus: The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, but the music that the Velvets played, like 'Heroin' (the smackers national anthem) 'Venus in Furs' (fetishistic S&M sex) or 'I'm Waiting For My Man' (pusher oh pusher, wherefore art thou?) was all a creation of Lou Reed and his Velvet band long before Andy caught up with them. They were the natural house band for the American Amphetamine A Go Go scene. Lou liked to say that both he and Andy were very much alike in purpose but Andy dealt with Art while Lou made his statements with music.
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.
The fact that I don't love Thomas Pynchon is statistically nearly impossible.
Any literary heat map of my favorite writers would find Pynchon near the center, hovering somewhere between Brautigan, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, Thompson, Acker, Coetzee, Auster. And yet I can't stand his thick, impenetrably clever prose. I find his hysterical habit of packing multiple cosmic curlicues, pop-culture puns and obscure historical references into every sentence simply obnoxious. I don't like a writer who keeps trying to distract my attention when I'm trying to read.
But, well, here's the thing. All my friends and literary comrades and people I respect love Thomas Pynchon. I guess they find his convoluted style fun and challenging. Who knows? My friends have Pynchon tattoos, have named their bands or websites after Pynchon, have even written adoring Litkicks articles about Pynchon. I don't understand why all these smart people love him so much and I don't, and I feel very isolated in this position.
Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City is the first novel I've ever read that harmed itself with an epigraph. Yes, I considered the little italicized quotation that adorns the page before the first page of this novel so poorly chosen that it immediately depressed the excitement with which I had opened the book, and ended up presaging my overall dislike.
First, about that excitement: I had two good reasons to believe I would love this novel. First, Choire Sicha is one of the editorial voices identified with the golden age of Gawker, one of the most sarcastic and cuttingly relevant websites around. I would be happy to read an entire novel written in the Gawker voice (many of my friends hate Gawker, but I don't, as is evident in the number of times I've linked to the site here on Litkicks). I also respect The Awl, a lit/culture magazine that Sicha founded after leaving Gawker.
Second, I was hopeful because Very Recent History is about young urban professionals in New York City in 2009. They go to parties, check each other out on Facebook, work banal day jobs at venal corporations (which happen to be convulsing in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 Wall Street crash). This is a world I know well, and lived through myself in 2009.
So I opened this novel expecting a treat, and really all Choire Sicha had to do was mail in a good story with some believable characters and smarmy roman a clef moments, and I would be giving the book a thumbs-up on Litkicks right now.