When I'm feeling stressed out, I head for nature. I found myself driving to Old Rag Mountain in Virginia's Shenandoah range this weekend.
I've done a few amazing hikes in this region: Mary's Rock, Catoctin, Hawksbill, Big Schloss, sometimes with others and sometimes alone. The challenging eight-mile Old Rag hike has been calling out to me for a while. I'm planning to leave Virginia this summer and head north (whether to Washington DC or New York City is still unknown), so I decided the time had come for me to meet Old Rag, an Appalachian mountain famous for "the scramble", a popular and slightly dangerous trail over giant rocks, into tunnels, across crevices, under ponderous overhangs. The scramble leads directly to a set of peaks marked by improbable boulders that you can stand on to get a 360 degree view.
New York City has "the ramble" -- the most beautiful section of Central Park, joining Bethesda Fountain to Strawberry Fields. But Virginia has "the scramble", and I suppose one reason I needed to climb Old Rag before leaving this state is that I couldn't bear to not complete the rhyme.
A nature walk is always a literary experience, if you just allow it to be. "There Is a Mountain" by Donovan happened to come on my shuffle mode as I drove towards the beginning of the trail, and that felt like a good omen. This upbeat 1960s song finds Donovan at his most Zen:
First there is a mountain,
Then there is no mountain
Then there is.
Indeed, yes -- story of my life, in fact. This 3-minute tune from the height of the 1960s hippie era had a second life in 1971: the Allman Brothers loved it so much that they transformed it into "Mountain Jam", a 34-minute Duane Allman/Dickey Betts masterpiece in which they never bothered to sing the words at all. Now that's Zen.
The scramble was as exciting as I had hoped, and much of the excitement came from the spirit of community that necessarily occurs as hikers saunter up together to each new obstacle or wedge or overhang or tunnel, sometimes comparing different ideas about the best way to traverse, helping each other by holding backpacks, swapping camera phones for selfies. Many of the passages between and under rocks offered brilliant contrasts of shade and light. This tunnel made me think of Plato's cave, and of a Leonard Cohen song:
There is a crack in everything
It's how the light gets in.
"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit," Edward Abbey once said. Hell yeah, though this is a necessity that many human beings probably get very little of at all. This is one of the narrow passages leading to the peak:
I wasn't sure what to expect from Old Rag, but nobody had told me I would see a giant overhanging rock that looms like Moby Dick, gliding through the ocean:
Ralph Waldo Emerson, striking a chord also found in the Tao Te Ching, once wrote: "Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience." He also once said this: "I found when I had finished my new lecture that it was a very good house, only the architect had unfortunately omitted the stairs.” Rock-hewn staircases tend to suddenly appear on the Old Rag trail at the points where they are most needed.
Nature is often hurtful. At one point I encountered a young woman on the ground worrying over a sprained ankle, surrounded by a large group of friends trying to figure out what the hell to do. I had a feeling she was going to walk it off, and if she couldn't walk it off she had enough friends to handle the situation, so I knew it'd be okay for me to walk on.
There's hazard in the hills, and there is melancholy too. Here's Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods, an enjoyable Appalachian Trail travelogue:
And thus I was to be found, in the first week of June, standing on the banks of the Shenandoah again, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, blinking at a grey sky and trying to pretend with all my heart that this was where I wanted to be.
My favorite mountain novel is probably Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, a romantic Civil War tale in which the North Carolina Smokies blooms with the fresh joyful abundance that echoes the miraculous love between the story's two heroes. The main traveller in Cold Mountain is a fugitive from the Confederate Army. He spends a lot of time hiding out and running from trouble, and doesn't have the luxury to sit and enjoy peak vistas like this one:
Old Rag is more exciting than dangerous, really, and I saw many teenagers and families with small kids on the trail. This family enjoyed a picnic on the peak. That's the way to do it.
So "Mountain Jam" is my favorite mountain song and Cold Mountain is my favorite mountain novel. My favorite single mountain quotation comes from Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums. The narrator is following his expert climber friend Japhy Ryder up a forbidding Sierra Nevada trail. When they reach the main peak, the exhausted narrator only wants to bask in pleasure and relief, but is disconcerted to discover that there are now peaks upon the peaks, and that to truly reach the very, very top of this mountain requires the most treacherous final short climb of all.
The narrator of Dharma Bums is exhausted and decides to refrain from the final difficult scramble to the very peak. He watches Japhy Ryder go up without him, and then has an epiphany when Japhy Ryder returns:
Then suddenly everything was just like jazz: it happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it’s impossible to fall off mountains you fool and with a yodel of my own I suddenly got up and began running down the mountain after him doing exactly the same huge leaps, the same fantastic runs and jumps, and in the space of about five minutes I’d guess Japhy Ryder and I (in my sneakers, driving the heels of my sneakers right into sand, rock, boulders, I didn’t care any more I was so anxious to get down out of there) came leaping and yelling like mountain goats … It was great. I took off my sneakers and poured out a couple of buckets of lava dust and said “Ah Japhy you taught me the final lesson of them all, you can’t fall off a mountain.”
The slightly ironic corollary to this great scene is that in fact you can fall off a mountain. But, well, you probably won't. I think that's what Jack Keroauc was trying to say.
You reach Old Rag's peak early in the circular hike, and then follow the blazes onward for a long and relaxing downward jaunt.
I learned about blazes when I was a kid and joined my father and stepmother and siblings on Appalachian Trail hikes. These blazes constitute their own language, but the funny thing is that even though I like looking at them, I never bothered to learn what the different variations of stripes mean. Sometimes there are two blazes together, which signifies something. Sometimes there's a blaze in the shape of an arrow, or a blaze that isn't blue.
I could easily look up this language's rules, but I never do. I find it more exciting to hike dumbly along, knowing that the meaning of every blaze on every trail is really something more primal and immediate: "You are on a path. You are following something. You are not nowhere".
As I figure out where I'm going next, this is all the direction I want, and all the direction I need.
A literary visit to Old Rag in the Shenandoah Mountains.
How is it possible that a fairly obscure literary metaphor would inspire so many different songs? What makes the idea of a ship of fools so relevant to modern songwriters, and how do each of their songs imagine the idea? I will examine each song in detail below in search of an answer.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the notion of a ship of fools can describe several different specific situations. In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the people on the ship are fools because they have no seamanship skills, and yet are far out at sea in a boat they do not know how to operate. This metaphor corresponds to the situation in several of the songs below.
In Sebastian Brant's 1494 popular satire Ship of Fools, the fools are disreputable and untrustworthy characters, depicted literally as jesters or clowns who represent various influential clerics, judges and rulers of the era. The idea of a ship of fools that symbolizes a debased and corrupt world also corresponds to several of the songs below.
In Katherine Anne Porter's 1962 novel Ship of Fools and the 1965 movie that followed, various characters are unintentionally foolish. They do not take over the ship as in Plato's Republic, nor do they rudely debase the ship as in Brant's satire. Instead, they try their hardest to make good decisions. They are fools in the most existential sense: they try to navigate their lives with intelligence and wisdom, but cannot seem to sail in a straight line. That situation is also captured several of the songs below.
After originally discovering that I owned six songs called "Ship of Fools" by the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant, I began searching iTunes for more songs with the same title, and was blown away by the variety I found. I ended up spending ten bucks buying ten more songs, thus creating a playlist that I listened to for several weeks. Remarkably, this playlist sounded great. Indeed, the musical and thematic consistency between the 16 different songs I found called "Ship of Fools" almost indicates some kind of nearly supernatural synchronicity across the deep blue sea of lyrical and musical creativity.
Here are a few notes on each of the sixteen songs. They are listed here in rough order from my least to most favorite. Videos are included for my top five.
16. "Ship of Fools" by Van Der Graaf Generator
"Ship of Fools" by the 1970s prog-rock outfit Van Der Graaf Generator is an instrumental, so it's hard to divine any themes. The tone and tenor of the song morphs from moody to bright to murky, which may describe an experience on a journey with a ship of fools. But it's hard to tell exactly what the title is supposed to indicate, if anything at all.
15. "Ship of Fools" by the Scorpions
The ship of fools
Keeps on rollin' through a deadly storm
It won't take long 'till we collide
The Scorpions of 1980s hair-metal fame are from Germany, so it's too bad they didn't find a way to properly channel the spirit of their countryman Sebastian Brant. I like the Scorpions best songs (like "Rock You Like a Hurricane", which would be an uncomfortable weather situation for a hapless boat). But their "Ship of Fools" comes off a bit limp. The lyrics are trite and unremarkable, and even the band's patented screaming twin-guitar attack fails to save the song.
14. "Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum
Ship of fools, drunken hearts
Making yet another new start
Ain't it hard to play that part
When you've got a drunken heart
"Ship of Fools" by Soul Asylum adds an interesting twist to the question above: are the fools on our ship stupid, or crazy, or corrupt? In Soul Asylum's song, they are simply drunk, which is actually another reasonable interpretation of the phrase "ship of fools". The proverbial vessel in this song might be a frat bus or a party limo. The passengers claim to be looking for love -- "fool's gold" -- but are unlikely to find it. The lyrical equation is intriguing, but the track's power-punk rhythm could be better, and as one of only two punk songs on this list, Soul Asylum's "Ship of Fools" suffers badly in comparison to the track by Fucked Up (see below).
13. "Ship of Fools" by Sarah Brightman
Sarah Brightman's "Ship of Fools" is about a bittersweet love affair. I don't really go for her brand of sleekly produced pop vocal, but I do appreciate the sincerity in her voice as she yearns:
I'll do anything to get to you
Because we're riding on a ship of fools.
12. "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen
I'm not really sure what to think of "Ship of Fools" by Echo and the Bunnymen, which is entirely concerned with a woman who treats the narrator badly as herald angels beckon in the background with dark foreboding:
All aboard! Ship of fools ...
It's interesting that the narrator of this song, unlike those of most on this list, is not already on a ship of fools, but only hears angels calling him to come aboard. It's unclear what will happen if he does or does not answer their call. Overall, there is something here, but I wish Echo and the Bunnymen had developed the nautical theme more completely. This is a prototypical 80s song (like the superior Erasure track below), but it delivers an unexceptional journey.
11. "Ship of Fools" by Ron Sexsmith
I've never heard of Rox Sexsmith before, though I am pleased to find that he sounds a bit like Ray Davies of the Kinks. It's not clear if his "Ship of Fools" represents a love affair or the whole damned world, but it is clear that he sees no exit ramp on this unsteady vessel:
We are all on the same boat, darling
On the same rough sea
We are all on the same boat, darling
The ship of fools at sea
10. "Ship of Fools" by Harry Manx and Kevin Breit
Harry Manx is apparently the inventor of his own musical instrument, which adds resonating sympathetic strings like those of a sitar to an acoustic guitar. The effect is only subtly audible in this unique folky number, but it does give the musical setting a pleasing kick, and I also like it that this song goes meta with its theme, informing us that the narrator is only singing about a ship of fools because he heard a song on the radio.
Heard a song on the radio, growing dark
About the hard times coming down today
On a Ship of Fools ...
We must wonder, which "Ship of Fools" did he hear on the radio? And does he have a "Ship of Fools" playlist too?
9. "Ship of Fools" by Erasure
"Ship of Fools" by Erasure is the most painful love song on this list, and the best example of the dark synthesizer-driven 1980s musical genre that was once called "mope rock". In this song's tragic story, the fact that we are all stuck on a boat filled with idiots turns out to be the only shred of commonality that two lonely and isolated souls can connect about:
Ooooh, do we not sail on a ship of fools?
Oooooh, why is life so fragile and so cruel?
8. "Ship of Fools" by the Doors
The Doors deliver an apocalyptic "Ship of Fools" in late 1969, following the summer of Woodstock, the Manson murders and Apollo 11. Given Jim Morrison's bent for Jungian symbology, it's not surprising that the Doors were the first rock band (as far as I can find) to record a song called "Ship of Fools". But it is surprising that Morrison equates he proverbial ship with the USA space program, which had just succeeded in its greatest journey before the band recorded the song:
Evil walks on the moon ...
Is the Apollo 11 moonshot the ship of fools? I'm not sure if that's what this song is saying or not. I have huge respect for Jim Morrison and the Doors, and the main reason I don't fully love their "Ship of Fools" is that I sense it as a wasted opportunity. They could have opened it up into a ten-minute epic like "The End" or "When The Music's Over", and this would have given Morrison time to fully explore the literary potential of this song's title. Maybe this would have also allowed the usually brilliant Ray Manzarek and Robby Kreiger to perk up their riffs.
7. "Ship of Fools" by Fucked Up
Fucked Up delivers "Ship of Fools" as a straight punk rave-up, and blow Soul Asylum's besotted "Ship of Fools" out of the water with their Clash/Ramones-driven energy. The lyrics are enigmatic and fascinating, though the actual story about the boat gets lost in all the Rimbaud-esque symbolism:
The speaker and the spoke
The axle and the wheel
The teller and the tale
The flower and the bee
The sword and the steel
The beast and the yoke
The fish and the sea
he prisoner and the jail
Sinking on the ship of fools
6. "Ship of Fools" by Flyleaf
I was not aware of the "Christian band" Flyleaf, but Kristen May's sweet soprano voice is even more pleasing (to my untrained ears) than that of the grand Sarah Brightman. I'm also pleased by the lyrics, which fully develop the nautical theme and don't shy away from biblical connotations:
See them sailing away, singing on a ship of fools
When they tried to build a heaven, they always use the devil’s tools
Adam and Eve, now they’re putting on their clothes
Because they can’t undress the secret to make another garden grow
The following are my five favorite songs called "Ship of Fools".
5. "Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead
"Ship of Fools" by the Grateful Dead is a sublime slow ballad, and the lyrics tell a story of anger and defiance. This narrator intends to sink the ship of fools, though he rides on it while plotting his mutiny. I don't know how the song's story ends, but I hope the narrator wins. This is lyricist Robert Hunter at his very best:
Went to see the captain, strangest I could find,
Laid my proposition down, laid it on the line.
I won't slave for beggar's pay, likewise gold and jewels,
But I would slave to learn the way to sink your ship of fools.
I'm a huge Deadhead, though strangely this has never been my very favorite gentle-toned highly lyrical Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter ballad (that would be "Black Peter" or "China Doll"). But this is a well-loved song, and for good reason. The Dead's "Ship of Fools" has been notably recorded by Elvis Costello.
4. "Ship of Fools" by Robert Plant
Like a werewolf who finds himself infected, Robert Plant doesn't know how he wound up on his "Ship of Fools", but he knows he's on the ship and feels very little hope of finding a way to get off.
I built this ship, it is my making
And furthermore my self-control I can't rely on anymore.
This song recalls the original passage in Plato's Republic: the ship is desire, and the storm is the turbulence inside the human mind. Plant calls out meekly to "turn this boat around", but there doesn't seem to be anybody at the captain's wheel.
3. "Ship of Fools" by John Cale
"Ship of Fools" from John Cale's 1974 album Fear is one of the most haunting and beautiful songs on my playlist. I've raved before on Litkicks about John Cale's stunning work with Lou Reed, and "Ship of Fools" brings out the same qualities I've raved about before: that lilting, elegant voice, those chiming clockwork rhythms, the mysterious and complex musical undercurrents.
Cale narrates this song in the voice of a rustic, a dumb provincial traveler. In this song, "fool" refers not to madness or stupidity but just to a lack of brightness, an emptiness of the spirit. All the passengers on this gloomy boat seem to be in dire need of some kind of spiritual awakening. The places and names in the song hint at some kind of spaghetti Western locale, but Dracula shows up in Memphis, and the overalltone of the song appears medieval, as if inspired directly by Sebastian Brant's 1494 book of verse.
2. "Ship of Fools" by World Party
"Ship of Fools" by World Party was a big hit on MTV and FM radio in 1987. I liked the song then and I like it now. The catchy lyrics always struck me as a protest against the prevailing conservatism of President Ronald Reagan's America and Margaret Thatcher's Great Britain -- a howl of rage against policies that were pitting wealthy against poor and increasing the powers of corporations against the rights of individuals:
Avarice and greed are gonna
drive you over the endless sea
They will leave you drifting in the shallows
or drowning in the oceans of history
Traveling the world
you're in search of no good
but I'm sure you'll build your Sodom
like you knew you would
Using all the good people
for your galley slaves
as you're little boat struggles
through the warning waves
Unlike John Cale's meek journeyman, who only leaves his gloomy ship to stumble ashore and find something to eat, the narrator of World Party's "Ship of Fools" hates being stuck on an infernal vessel bound for oblivion, and begs to be released. "Save me!" the singer yells. World Party's "Ship of Fools" seems most likely to have been inspired by the Heironymous Bosch painting on the top of this page.
1. "Ship of Fools" by Bob Seger
After listening for several weeks to 16 different songs called "Ship of Fools", it came time to choose my favorite song on the list. The decision I arrived at surprised me, because I've never been a huge Bob Seger fan. But I can't deny that this was the song that gave me the most pleasure whenever it came on.
Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is a deceptively simple guitar-strummin' ballad that appeared on Seger's breakthrough 1976 album "Night Moves". It features an achingly gorgeous vocal line sung by Seger with suave sensitivity and real conviction, especially as the story ends:
I alone ... survived the sinking.
This calls to mind Ishmael at the end of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which is not a bad connotation for a song called "Ship of Fools". It's interesting that Bob Seger's "Ship of Fools" is one of very few on this playlist in which the ship of fools actually goes down. (Another is the Grateful Dead's, and in several songs it's not clear what the hell is happening to the ship. Interestingly, the Ship of Fools does not sink in the books by Sebastian Brant or Katharine Anne Porter.)
Despite the Melville shout-out, Bob Seger clearly seems to have based his "Ship of Fools" on the 1965 movie. He indicates this with his opening line:
Tell me quick, said old McFee
What's this all have to do with me?
But i's funny that he hands this line to a person named McFee, since the character who speaks the words in the movie is Carl Glocken. It's a well-chosen line, though, since Glocken stands as a representative narrator -- an eternal passenger, ironic and philosophical -- for every possible idea of a ship of fools.
Glocken in Katharine Anne Porter's novel Ship of Fools is a small person with no wife or children or career, apparently supported by a wealthy family somewhere on dry land. He spends his lonely life going back and forth over the Atlantic ocean on cruise ships. It's how he finds an endless stream of new superficial friends with which to strike up fascinating conversations. Glocken has developed a tough skin and a keen sense of sarcasm after many voyages.
Glocken is often insulted for being small, and is always banished to the "misfits" table in the cruise ship dining room. In one of the movie's climactic scenes, a dignified German Jew finds himself banished from the Captain's table to the "misfits" table after a Nazi bigwig complains. All the misfits at this table eventually become friends with Glocken, who observes all their dramas and is the conscience of the film.
Michael Dunn was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Glocken, the character who inspired Bob Seger's song. This seems suitable, since Glocken's ironic and dread-filled attitude deftly ties Katherine Anne Porter's "Ship of Fools" back to Sebastian Brant's "Ship of Fools", and Plato's, especially when he faces the camera to speak to all of us. "What's this all got to do with me?" Glocken asks.
Indeed, what? Well, don't you know ... we're all stuck together on this ship of fools.
The image of the "Ship of Fools" has appeared in several books, a movie, and sixteen songs by artists like the Doors, Grateful Dead, John Cale, Robert Plant, Soul Asylum, Sarah Brightman, Bob Seger, the Scorpions, Echo and the Bunnymen ...
Daevid Allen, a brilliant songwriter and archetypal hippie prog-rocker who co-founded Soft Machine in 1966 before reaching his peak as the mad visionary genius of Gong, has announced that he is dying of cancer and has six months to live.
I am not interested in endless surgical operations and in fact it has come as a relief to know that the end is in sight.
I am a great believer in "The Will of the Way Things Are" and I also believe that the time has come to stop resisting and denying and to surrender to the way it is.
I can only hope that during this journey, I have somehow contributed to the happiness in the lives of a few other fellow humans.
Many people have never heard of Daevid Allen, who wears a bright blue shirt and gazes skyward in the photo above. But those in-the-know prog fans who do know the music of Gong tend to be rapturous at the mention of his name. It was Daevid Allen who inspired the British band Soft Machine to name themselves after a William S. Burroughs novel, after which he drifted to Paris and teamed up with his muse and lover Gilli Smyth to create the musical collective known variously over the years as Gong or Planet Gong, or New York Gong (the punk-flavored variation that flared up in the late 1970s) or Mother Gong (the branch Gilli Smyth maintained on her own).
The lack of a hard core behind the band's fluid identity expresses not only the band's existential philosophy but also its musical approach, which was relentlessly experimental and international but always sweet, funny, approachable and optimistic.
Gong existed on a dynamic musical fault line: the lyrics were goofy and the cosmic imagery delightfully faux-naif, but the music was solid kick-ass jazz rock, tinged with theatrical flourishes reflecting influences from Ornette Coleman to Brecht and Weill to Edith Piaf. The remarkable sonic stew reached its peak in three great mid-1970s concept albums known as the Radio Gnome Trilogy. The very best of these three albums, in my opinion, is the delicious Angel's Egg, a little-known masterpiece that occupies a sonic ground somewhere between Zappa/Beefheart's Bongo Fury, Pink Floyd's Ummugumma and Preservation by the Kinks. A great video of the song "I Never Glid Before" from this album captures both the innocent sparkle and dramatic musical sophistication of Gong.
I never fully understood the fantasy/sci-fi plotline of the Radio Gnome rock opera, which deals with pointy-headed space aliens, Octave Doctors, a hero named Zero, a prostitute with a cat (memorably voiced by the fearless Gilli Symth) and a bunch of creatures known as Pothead Pixies, whose name is abbreviated as PHP on the comic illustrations that graced the covers of their 1970s albums. (I never found proof of this, but I always guessed that Rasmus Lerdorf, creator of the programming language PHP, must have been a Gong fan.)
I might never have heard of Daevid Allen or Gong, just as many people who think they know a lot about 1970s classic rock have barely any idea that this long-running creative collective exists. I only know about Gong because I long ago happened to briefly befriend a small community of obsessive young prog-rock fiends in a small Hudson Valley New York town who lived in a musical bubble and introduced me to the deep discography of serious experimental music from Brian Eno to early Genesis to Todd Rundgren to Gong, which made the biggest impression on me of all of these names. (I fell out of touch with this crazy group of friends, but later discovered that one of the ringleaders had morphed into the prog-rocker Phideaux Xavier, whose unique ongoing work continues to remind me of the genius of Daevid Allen.)
Indeed, Gong will probably live on through its influence on other artists, and if Daevid Allen dies in approximately six months as he expects to do, there will only be a gentle ripple of recognition around the world. The influence will be felt in large but subtle vibrations, like those of the ancient Asian instrument the band is named after.
Look up in the air
The Octave Doctor's there!
And when he strokes his gong
Your middle eye comes on
In a moving interview at Blues.Gr just a year ago, Daevid Allen hearkened back to his early Beat inspiration to provide his own perspective on it all.
William Burroughs gave me excellent advice. He said: "Keep your bags packed and ready to go at all times".
Daevid Allen, your friends around the world thank you for brightening our lives. We pray that your passage will be peaceful.
Daevid Allen, the brilliant jazz-rock mastermind of Soft Machine, Gong, New York Gong and Planet Gong, releases a public statement about his fatal cancer.
A strange kind of anxiety can occur when attending a concert by an artist like Bob Dylan. I was struck by a sense of this anxiety as I stepped into Constitution Hall in Washington DC last night. I began to worry that it would impact my enjoyment of the show.
This can happen. A few years ago I attended an amazing Ralph Stanley show in a smoky nightclub in Virginia. All night long, I felt so overwhelmed by the fact that I was sitting there staring at one of the very inventors of modern bluegrass style, the small craggy old man calmly shredding his banjo strings in front of my eyes, that I forgot to tap my feet.
I think of this sensation as a form of anxiety because it's a self-disturbance, an unwanted reaction. When I have the privilege to hear a musical genius in person, I want to simply sit there and enjoy the music. I want my brain to be quiet while the sound waves soak in. Instead, I sit there pondering the significance to musical history. This happened to me in an especially bad way in 2006 where I luckily found myself at the famous Jay-Z concert in New Jersey where Nas came out to end his beef with Jay, and to share the mic with him on "Dead Presidents".
I was already very pumped at this point in the show, especially since Jadakiss, Sheek Louch, P Diddy, T.I., Freeway, Young Jeezy and Kanye had already been on stage -- so when Nas showed up, what did I do? I pulled out my phone and texted Caryn, and since this was 2006 and I wasn’t very handy with texting yet, this ended up taking a while, which distracted me from living in the moment itself. (Caryn later told me that she never saw the text anyway, as she had already gone to sleep).
I knew it was unlikely that Bob Dylan would say anything spontaneous this evening, as his onstage demeanor tends to be opaque. He does not engage with audiences, and he does not strive to put on a crowd-pleasing show. As we all entered the hall -- people of all ages, and many parents with children -- I had a strong sense that this crowd would be expecting a sermon, or maybe a rendition of "The Death of Emmett Till".
Well, that's not how Bob Dylan runs his show, and I have seen him enough times now now that I always set my expectations at "whatever" before I walk in the door. Happily, he put on a wonderful show in Washington DC last night, exceeding expectations for both Caryn and myself.
He had selected a bunch of songs with a narrative thread vaguely about sweet love, tragic heartbreak and eventual peaceful reconciliation: "Things Have Changed", "She Belongs To Me", "Waiting For You", "Pay In Blood", "Love Sick", "High Water", "Spirit In The Water", "Scarlet Town". He changed the words to "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate". He closed the show with a beautiful and melodic performance of a Frank Sinatra song, "Stay With Me", that seemed to hush the crowd with the same power as "Forever Young" or "To Make You Feel My Love".
Dylan plays with a crackerjack blues/country band including a standup bass, a pedal steel guitar, and a lot of hollow-body six-strings. His voice is in fine sandpaper-y form, and he even seemed to be attempting to dance at some points during the evening's second set.
The show was more rehearsed than the looser sets of recent years, which can be both good and bad. He's moved away from the jamband concept of rotating setlists, but in exchange is providing a coherent and meaningful arrangement of songs that actually tells a story.
"Workingman's Blues" and "Early Roman Kings" provided some of the heavy messages for the night, and a pre-closer encore of "Blowin' In The Wind" was the closest thing we had at Constitution Hall for the Ferguson, Missouri moment of recognition many of us in the audience frankly felt we needed. I'm glad Bob Dylan played that song.
This was my fifteenth Bob Dylan concert, and easily one of the very best. I do recommend his shows to others, even though I am cautious about this after having heard from many people (including several close friends and family members) who saw Bob Dylan in concert and absolutely hated it. You have to show up for a Bob Dylan concert with an open mind, and it helps if you can sit and simply enjoy some hard-hitting country jamming and blues shoutin', because that's the main thing a Bob Dylan concert delivers.
Bob Dylan has matured very well, and in his later years he seems to be affecting a gentle, Hank Williams-like affability on stage, even as his bitter lyrics to songs like "High Water" and "Scarlet Town" undercut the sincere smile. The more he manages to escape the anxiety of influence, the prison of expectation, the better a performer Bob Dylan seems to become.
Why do we come to Bob Dylan concerts so overladen with expectation, only to allow it to interfere with our enjoyment? Well, I think it’s because Dylan’s historical significance really is that impressive that we can’t help but be disappointed when he shows up as a mere human. We don’t want to be this close to genius. If any of us were to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we’d be happy to look at an exhibit of Bob Dylan’s boots inside a glass case. But when you go to a Bob Dylan concert in 2014, you are standing there looking at Bob Dylan’s boots, and Bob Dylan is in them. Sometimes that’s too much Bob Dylan.
I used to read short stories all the time. At one point, I was more into short stories than novels.
Well, why not? This was back when Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Tama Janowitz, Lorrie Moore, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro and William Trevor were all putting out stuff on a regular basis. It sure did seem like a golden age.
I never put much stock in golden ages, though. I'm sure there are just as many good short story writers out there today as there were in the Breakfast Club years. But I'm not always sure who these short story writers are. So, I made it a point to read three recent volumes by three acclaimed short story writers recently. I must have chosen well, because I struck gold of some sort with all three.
I almost had a bad experience with Flings by Justin Taylor. This is probably because I didn't begin on the first page, but instead skipped ahead to the one story named after a Phish song. This turned out to be one of the only stories in the book I didn't like.
Justin Taylor is the kind of hip young over-educated brooklyn writer I might never have noticed if he didn't have one quirk that caught my attention: his substantial knowledge of the Grateful Dead and Phish. Stereotypes about batik-wearing aisle dancers aside (and really, these stereotypes have become extremely stale), there is a lot of fresh energy and intellectual depth in our long-running jamband subcultures, and it's about time a hip young over-educated brooklyn writer decided to turn these subcultures and their fringe members into material for fiction.
I thought Justin Taylor really nailed the aching sweetness of modern-day hippiedom with his clever novel The Gospel of Anarchy, which is about a houseful of collegiate Florida neo-Situationists who conjure up a new religion from the filth of their communal kitchen. I remembered this book for its warm characters, but I was left cold by the selfish and thick-headed Dad who takes his gloomy children to a Phish concert in "Mike's Song", the first story I read in Flings. Perhaps I came to this story with unfair expectations, but I can't help hoping that a story about a Phish concert will capture some of the joyousness of the actual event. I didn't get the point of this story, and I couldn't help wishing Taylor had written with the mood of the story's setting instead of against it.
I then had a rough time with the opening story of Flings, which is also the title story of the collection. I found myself wearied by the endless stream of jumbled hapless college graduates who work for non-profits and try heroin and gossip about each other. Finishing the story, I had no idea what I was supposed to feel. I later read the acknowledgements at the end of the book:
"Flings" is, among other things, in loose homage to Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves'
To which I thought: thanks a lot, Justin, but you could have at least told me about the required reading in advance. All would be forgiven, of course, if the story worked on its own, but I don't think it does.
Fortunately, Flings immediately got better for me once I proceeded to the next story, Sungold, a playful romp that takes place in a college-town vegan pizza chain store, featuring a few of the wan anarchists and naive idealists Taylor draws so well. Then I loved Poets, maybe the best story in this book, which follows two egotistical young creative writing program junkies from their sophomoric beginnings to the eventual ravages of middle age, literary obscurity and romantic disconnection.
Even if it doesn't manage to find joy at a Phish concert, Justin Taylor's Flings is a delightful postmodernist grab bag, an accessible series of experiments in irony and attitude. The collection's title describes the book well: some of these flings don't fly, but that's the nature of a fling.
If Justin Taylor's collection feels like a grab bag, Paula Bomer's Inside Madeleine feels like a tunnel, and it takes only a few words before we realize how fully we have entered it. Here's the first paragraph of her first story, "Eye Socket Girls":
I don't want to jump out any window. I just want to breathe something that makes me feel like living. They pump the air in here out of machines. It stinks like Play-Doh. Open a window, please -- I won't jump -- I'm not a suicide patient. I just don't eat.
This eye-socket girl is hospitalized for anorexia bulimia, and her crisp, efficient narrative leaves us with the chilling realization that she has no intention at all of allowing herself to be cured.
An odd and Poe-esque physical or sexual dread is a lurking note in many of Paula Bomer's carefully composed short stories, which tend to cohere to a single structural backbone: we meet a person whose inner thoughts drive her crazy, and we follow these thoughts towards their inevitable collisions.
Like a recurring bad dream, this pattern was also evident in Paula Bomer's first story collection Baby, in which the protagonist tended to be a financially comfortable New York City socialite in a very troubled marriage. Inside Madeleine mostly takes us back to the growing-up years, as if a prequel to Baby. The intensity of Bomer's steady voice remains; in simple words and sentences, devoid of pop-culture distractions or historical events or grand intentions, Paula Bomer takes us into a dark interior space and asks us to look around.
What demons, exactly, do we find? Every reader may project his or her own concerns into these Rorschach diagrams, but when I analyze these confused characters I see a looming self-hatred. In "Outsiders", a college student with plenty to be proud of can only fixate on the superficial and trivial flaws that alienate her from her peers. In "Cleveland Circle House", a psychology student gets a job in a halfway house packed with rowdy mentally ill drifters, and then begins battling her secret sense that she is one of them.
In "Reading to the Blind Girl", yet another college student is so overpowered by the domineering personalities that bluster around her that she ends up guiltily avoiding the blind girl she has been reading lessons to, banking on the fact that the blind girl cannot see her walk by. But this is a Paula Bomer story, which means that even this blind girl somehow seems to catch the guilty act.
I'm not going to lie; I didn't enjoy a couple of the stories in Hilary Mantel's new volume at all.
There's a story called "Comma" about a kid who goes to grandma's and sees a lady whose baby has birth defects and is wrapped up like a comma:
Now the dark flowers on her frock had blown their petals and bled out into the night. She ran the few steps toward the wheeled chair, paused for a split second, her hand fluttering over the comma's head; then she flicked her head back to the house and bawled, her voice harsh, "Fetch a torch!" That harshness shocked me, from a throat I had thought would coo like a dove, like a pigeon; but then she turned again, and the last thing I saw before we ran was how she bent over the comma, and wrapped the shawl, so tender, about the lamenting skull.
I don't know. I guess this is the kind of writing that wins awards, but it comes across a bit plummy to me, and I certainly wouldn't want to read an entire book in this Joycean voice (okay, if the book is called Dubliners I would, but it's not my favorite kind of voice).
There are a few stories in this volume that I didn't think amounted to time well spent, but then there were a few that scored, like the opening piece "Sorry To Disturb". In this story, which appears to be autobiographical, the wife of a Canadian engineer who is stationed in Saudi Arabia tries to make friends with another foreigner, a Pakistani.
This dignified housewife's effort is not a success, and it's clear that Hilary Mantel is a writer who likes to see fault lines move, who likes the crash of cataclysmic change. I really loved the title story of this collection, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher", which offers an alternate reality in which the rigidly Conservative British Prime Minister is targeted by an assassin. We see it all close up, very close, though the occasion is entirely accidental.
Hilary Mantel's voice is cool and elegant here, and with this comic material her command of the art of fast fiction can be clearly seen. Even when her stories don't move me -- and about half of them don't -- I am impressed by the authority and intellectual confidence behind her literary voice.
In the same way, I'm impressed by Paula Bomer's control and consistency, and by Justin Taylor's puckish agility. Maybe this is still a golden age for short stories after all.
New short story collections by Justin Taylor, Paula Bomer and Hilary Mantel
As his cancer worsened, D. G. Myers also expressed his feelings in occasional bursts on his beautiful Twitter account. Always a writer first, his tweets were unfailingly elegant, measured and dignified. Even when he could only manage bitter humor and wry regret for his family's shared suffering as he tweeted his way through chemotherapy during his last weeks on Earth:
D. G. Myers accomplished many impressive things during his literary life: he was a celebrated professor, wrote a book about the history of creative writing programs called The Elephants Teach, was a columnist for Commentary magazine until he got ceremoniously fired for supporting gay marriage. But his online writings and tweets should be numbered among his works. I've extracted just a few samples from his final month to pay tribute to D. G. Myers.
In his last month, Myers knew that he was about to die, and shared this fact with us. He expressed himself often with a bitter sense of humor about the terrible injustice he felt at his own fate: a vigorous man in his early sixties, a father of a close family with young children, a man with so many more books he wanted to read before he died. Myers never raged, because he was too proud a critic to lose his temper, but he also did not go gentle.
He interacted often with other tweeters (including myself), and had a natural, easygoing online voice. Occasionally, he'd offer a raw opinion:
He'd tweet about his struggles to collect his writings before he died, and about the indignities that faced a literary writer who had lost all commercial potential:
He'd tweet about baseball, or writing, or his wife and children, or Israel, or any combination thereof:
Or he'd paint a picture:
Sometimes (especially when the physical pain seemed to be getting to him) he seemed to be tweeting koans:
D. G. Myers's religiosity made him unique as a cancer memoirist. He was a devout Jew, and his unabashed enthusiasm for religion clearly gave him strength. He spoke up often on behalf of conservative positions, most of which I disagreed with him about, but I always sensed that he favored conservativism because he favored traditional religion.
Judaism appeared to be one of his major areas of knowledge, and his Biblical and Talmudic inspirations enriched his writing. It certainly also helped him cope with his disease, bestowing upon him a placid and philosophical attitude that was probably alien to his argumentative nature. At least, he must have understood, he didn't have it as bad as Job.
A Jewish son makes a father very proud right here. These might be his best tweets ever:
Or this one might be. It's the one I'll remember the most:
* * * * *
I had a few wonderful interactions with D. G. Myers via our blogs or Twitter. Philip Roth was his favorite novelist, and in 2010 I wrote a smart-ass consideration of Philip Roth. I was very surprised when D. G. Myers called it "a spectacular read". I was actually hoping he wouldn't read it, because I didn't think it would meet his standards. I've rarely felt more honored than by this tweet.
Later, D. G. Myers and I discovered that we had an obscure favorite in common: Richard P. Brickner, who had been my writing workshop teacher at the New School. Myers believed that Brickners's 1981 novel Tickets was an unheralded masterpiece of the 1980s, and I agreed. I've never met anyone else who's even heard of this book.
Thank you for the photo at the top of the page to Gil Roth of Chimera Obscura, who had the honor of taking the picture that Myers chose for his last Twitter profile. You can listen to the Chimera Obscura/Virtual Memories podcast with D. G. Myers here.
Celebrated professor, literary critic and blogger D. G. Myers kept in touch with his readers on Twitter as he died of cancer in September 2014.
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.
If the idea of a bus trip in 2014 to honor a bus trip in 1964 sounds strange, we should recall that Kesey's original bus trip was itself an homage to Jack Kerouac's On The Road (which it enacted in reverse, California to New York) as well as a forward-looking and freewheeling hippie Dada experiment. We can't know for sure what sociological and countercultural expectations Kesey had when his first journey began, but it's obvious that the author was aiming to create a spontaneous living novel, even though the debris of the journey overtook its chief and he never transformed the journey into a book of his own. It fell to visiting journalist Tom Wolfe to write the definitive book about the bus trip, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
I had all these literary themes on my mind as I strolled over to a bar called Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg at dusk on a Friday night and found the bus placidly parked on the corner in front of the bar. A happy gang of tie-dye-wearing hippies, clowns, musicians, dusty travelers and eager tourists milled around.
The bus had generated a lively and talkative sidewalk scene, though I had trouble finding anyone who could fill me in on the concrete details of how the cross-country journey had been going, whether expectations were being satisfied, and where I could find out more of the dirt and the details than were being posted on Facebook. I eventually found a friendly guy who seemed to be a member of the core traveling group, and he let me step onto the empty bus to take a selfie (posted above).
However, when I tried to ask him serious questions I quickly learned that he was coping with the crowd of interested tourists (a group which, unfortunately, he thought I was a part of) by delivering only oblique answers in the form of ciphers and koans. Recognizing this technique as Prankster-speak, I didn't push too hard for answers to my questions, and instead wandered inside the bar where a Grateful Dead band called Half Step was tuning up for their first set. I found Zane Kesey working a table stacked with t-shirts, keychains, bumper stickers and other Kesey-related paraphernalia (the one thing that was missing, I'm sorry to say, was books).
I was eager to chat with Zane, but I quickly realized that the conversation would go nowhere, because the room was too noisy, and because he was busily working the t-shirts-n-stuff table all by himself. I had a few questions for him about his father's legacy -- I was particularly interested in asking about the play Twister, a postmodern parody of The Wizard of Oz that had been one of Ken Kesey's later works, and which I'd always been curious to learn more about. Zane brightened up when I asked this question, but there was clearly no opportunity for a serious conversation as the band began to play across the room. I hope I'll get another chance to chat with Zane about his father's legacy some day.
I was not at all disappointed that I couldn't engage in a serious literary discussion of Ken Kesey's works with his son or with anybody else at this gathering, since no Prankster would ever answer a question seriously anyway, which meant the inhabitants of the bus were doing it right. I decided to switch gears and enjoy the music, and had a great time dancing with a happy half-Brooklyn half-Prankster crowd to the wonderful tones of Half Step.
The band struck the right chords for the night, and they cooked.
As they began their first song, I thought to myself that if they really knew about all the Ken Kesey/Neal Cassady/Grateful Dead connections, they would prove it by doing 'Cassidy' or 'The Other One'. They did both.
My encounter with Furthur only lasted one night. But Beat scholar Brian Hassett had a longer encounter with the 50th anniversary Furthur crew in Bethel and Woodstock earlier in August, and he has more stories to tell.
An updated Further arrives in Brooklyn, New York to mark the 50th anniversary of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' famous bus ride.
Don Carpenter was a writer’s writer. Born in Berkeley, California in 1931, he grew up there and in Portland, Oregon, served in the Air Force during the Korean War, and returned to earn a B.S. from Portland State and an M.A. in creative writing from San Francisco State. In 1966 his first novel Hard Rain Falling was published to critical acclaim, and for the rest of his life he was a professional writer. He lived in Mill Valley, California and was part of a group of writers—Evan Connell, Curt Gentry, Leonard Gardner, Gina Berriault and others—who met regularly at the Book Depot there, and at the no name bar in Sausalito.
Carpenter was never as successful or celebrated as his good friend Richard Brautigan. His novels and short story collections were praised by critics and fellow writers but did not sell well. He found work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, most notably for an unproduced screenplay of Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, and for Payday, starring Rip Torn as a country music singer. His novel about show business, A Couple of Comedians, was praised by Norman Mailer as “the best novel I’ve ever read about contemporary show biz.” Anne Lamott dedicated her 1994 book Bird by Bird to Carpenter, and praised his then work in progress Fridays at Enrico’s as a masterpiece in the making.
After Carpenter’s suicide death in 1995, his daughter, Bonnie Carpenter Howard, became executor of his literary estate, coping with an unwieldy mass of manuscripts, letters, clippings and photographs, the detritus of a writer’s life. She eventually placed his archive in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.
By the early 2000’s, Carpenter’s books were out of print but not out of reach. I remember reading a few of his novels simply by borrowing them from Sonoma and Mendocino County public libraries, and easily and inexpensively obtaining others at used book stores. More recently a couple of younger writers, George Pelecanos and Jonathan Lethem, have championed his work. In 2009 Hard Rain Falling, was reissued by New York Review of Books with a new introduction by George Pelecanos, and this year Fridays at Enrico's, “finished” and with an new afterword by Jonathan Lethem, was published by Counterpoint Press. Counterpoint has also announced a 2015 publication of his “Hollywood Trilogy”: A Couple of Comedians, The True Story of Jody McKeegan, and Turnaround.
Hard Rain Falling has been praised as a great hard-boiled novel, a novel of juvenile delinquency and an inside look at prison life. I’m not exactly on the bandwagon here. I’m glad I read it. I particularly like the opening section and some of the poolroom scenes, but I think it drags in places, spends too much time inside the head of the protagonist and, like a lot of first novels, tries to do too much. It’s not a fast-paced pulp novel, and it's not quite literary fiction. It falls in between and is hard to categorize, an ongoing problem for Carpenter in his quest for commercial success.
Fridays at Enrico’s is a different kettle of fish. It’s a writers’ book from the word go, the story of two aspiring novelists named Charlie Monel and Jaime Froward. Initially I was charmed by this book’s evocation of San Francisco in 1959. There are plenty of authentic details of the place and time: Figone Hardware on Grant, the Hot Dog Palace on Columbus, McDonald’s Used Books on Turk Street (“where most books are priced at 50 cents”), the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, the Place, the Coffee Gallery, Tosca Café, and Charlie’s $45/month North Beach apartment. Some of the scenes bring to mind Jerry Kamstra’s The Frisco Kid, set in North Beach during this same era.
I was also curious that the novel’s Library of Congress description starts with: "Beat Generation-Fiction". Yes, there are some scenes in North Beach, but the only prominent writer in evidence is old Walter Van Tilburg Clark at San Francisco State. It’s not until the book’s second section, set in Portland two years later, that the Beat connection becomes explicit. New characters are introduced, including Linda McNeil, who used to live in S. F. and knew “Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso.” Still, it’s misleading to characterize this as novel of the Beat Generation. Linda never becomes a central character, and prominent writers, except for Clark and two brief appearances by Brautigan, are not used as characters. The book’s title is also somewhat misleading. Enrico’s was a North Beach bar/restaurant where Carpenter and many other writers used to hang out, drink and talk about life and writing. This novel is about life and writing, hence the title. But scenes at Enrico’s are at a minimum.
With that said, I love this book and its characters. Carpenter does not deal in types but creates real people the reader cares about and wants to spend time with. And he does not seem to work at verisimilitude, but simply lays things out the way they really were. The action covers a period of 15 years and moves from San Francisco to Portland, back to the Bay Area, to San Quentin Prison and to Los Angeles.
The section called “C Block” is mostly about Stan Winger, an aspiring writer and petty criminal whom Charlie and Jaime befriend in Portland. I was thinking I wouldn’t like this part of the book, that it would be an ironic and moralizing comparison of prison life with free society. But I was wrong. It is mostly about writing and writers. While incarcerated at San Quentin, Stan decides to use Dashiell Hammett as a model and figure out how to write hard-boiled stories. He plots out a novel, Felony Fuzz:
He knew if he was to sell it to Fawcett it had to be like the other Gold Medals, fast action, clear straight language, no bullshit ... pulp fiction, none of that silly sentimentality.
This section reads easily, with short, clipped sentences echoing its subject matter. Stan gets out of prison and finds success as a writer of fast-paced novels and as a Hollywood screenwriter, where being an ex-con is no handicap, but gives him more clout with directors and producers. He eventually reunites with Charlie and Jaime. Some of their interactions are reminiscent of scenes in Larry McMurtry’s Terms of Endearment and All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers.
There are plenty of surprising turns of event as Charlie, Jamie, Stan and their colleagues cope with the vicissitudes of the writing life. I enjoyed each of the novel’s 85 chapters, which could almost have headings like: The Sweet San Francisco Air, Brand New 1961 Volkswagen, The Honorable Book Scout, and so on.
Of course questions loom about what shape this manuscript was in before Jonathan Lethem worked on it. His afterword states that he did some cutting and rearranging but did not add a great deal: “There might be five or eight pages of my writing.” Whatever he did, it was unobtrusive and seamless. This is Don Carpenter’s book, and it’s one that all the writers I know will want to read.
While the current Carpenter revival may not raise his reputation to the level of Brautigan’s or Connell’s, it’s heartening to know that the work of a very good writer has not been lost or forgotten.
"It was a lust for political power." - Bob Woodward
"There is no simple answer." - John Dean
President Richard Nixon, caught in a big lie, resigned in disgrace forty years ago. As we commemorate our shared memories of this astounding political scandal today, we are unwittingly basking in a new layer of delusion and willful untruth.
Yes, we conceal the truth today about Watergate, especially when we talk about the original motive for the crime, and when we try to analyze the lessons learned. I've enjoyed watching a couple of new television shows that interview the principals in the affair, but I can't help cringing at the level of voluntary obfuscation, of creative contextualizing. The gauze of popular self-delusion about Watergate does not serve a sinister political purpose but rather serves our need for comfortable conclusions, for meaningful metaphor (which may be meaningful even when it does not reveal a truth), for the dubious entertainment of banal psychobiography. It's easier to demonize Nixon than it is to realize that the disease that brought this President down is widely shared by others.
Bob Woodward sums up the popular understanding of the motive with a critique of Nixon's overreach: "It was a lust for political power". Well, Bob Woodward is a great journalistic hero, but he's evidently lost his sharpness over the last forty years, because this is a limp cliche. At the time of the Watergate break-in, Richard Nixon had already gathered immense political power. The opposition Democratic party had lost its ability to unite behind a single leader and win national elections because it had become hopelessly split between old guard and new radicals (similar to the way the Republican party is split and cannot unite to win a national election today). The Nixon-Agnew ticket was absolutely secure in the upcoming 1972 election, and this election would indeed produce a historic landslide.
Yet there was great anxiety in 1972 within the Nixon administration, and this anxiety had nothing to do with electoral politics. It had to do with the war that the United States of America was badly losing to the little Communist nation of North Vietnam, and it had to do with the massive protest movement in this country against the Vietnam War. Since so many Nixon administration principals have shared their stories, and since so many recordings of actual White House conversations can be heard, we know exactly what Nixon and his staffers were worried about in 1972.
They were worried about internal agents for foreign enemies, Communist spies, homegrown traitors or saboteurs who had nestled into the government apparatus. After his election in 1968, President Nixon tried to run the White House and the State Department and the Pentagon as a tight ship, closely controlled from the top. But he and his top staff found the large government bureaucracy impossible to control. Nixon had total loyalty within his staff, but he could not trust anyone at the State Department or the National Security Council (not even Henry Kissinger!), nor at the Pentagon.
This problem suddenly escalated dramatically when a military staff analyst named Daniel Ellsberg infiltrated national security in 1971 to release the Pentagon Papers, a set of secret internal documents about the Vietnam War. I have written about the strong connection between the Ellsberg case and the Watergate scandal before and I consider this point so important that I am now writing about it again: the release of the Pentagon Papers provides the entire explanation for everything that happened in the Watergate affair. The White House reaction to the release of the Pentagon Papers is the key. Once you put the Watergate pieces together with Daniel Ellsberg as the first piece in the puzzle, everything else falls logically and simply into place. It's commonplace to say that Watergate is a mystery today, but in fact the mystery has been thoroughly solved.
All we have to do is look at what happened, not in 1972 when election season began but in 1971 after the Pentagon Papers were released. Startled by the devastating realization that a "Communist spy" (in fact Ellsberg was not a Communist spy, but to Nixon's staff he was damn close enough) could infiltrate the Pentagon, the Nixon administration became terrified that they were losing the espionage war against their sneaky global enemies. The stunned reaction at the Presidential level can be clearly seen in the recorded White House conversations that took place at the time, and in many memoirs of the Nixon administration that would follow. They weren't talking about how to win the 1972 election; they had that sewn up. They were worried that they'd be blindsided by the next Daniel Ellsberg, and they were deeply, desperately worried about this.
Nixon and his top staff felt helpless and weak against this invisible foreign and domestic opposition. They were now convinced that they were weaker on espionage and dirty tricks than their enemies. These enemies did not include the Democratic party (which was weak and internally divided) but rather the nation's enemies: Russia and China and Cuba and Vietnam. It also included various unknown disloyal American protest leaders and hippies and Ivy Leaguers and New York Times journalists who sympathized with Russia and China and Cuba and Vietnam, several of whom seemed to have collaborated in the illegal release of the Pentagon Papers. Nixon and his top aides were sincerely frightened.
So, these top aides responded to the release of the Pentagon Papers by making the original mistake that would eventually lead to the Watergate scandal. A unit that nicknamed itself "The Plumbers" was formed in the summer of 1971 to develop a capacity to carry out secret illegal operations on behalf of the White House. The group was led by two highly self-important but foolish gung-ho pro-Americans with espionage experience: E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy.
Here is the vital point to understand: this secret team was specifically designed to operate illegally. They didn't break the law to achieve particular goals; rather, demonstrating the ability to break the law without getting caught was the entire goal. The reasoning of Nixon's top staff went like this: "we are besieged by spies who are breaking the law, and we don't know how to fight back. We have to match strength with strength and learn how to play the same game our enemies are playing."
Some may wonder how the White House could have trusted two shady blowhards like E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, and empowered them to act on the administration's behalf. But it was exactly because they were shady blowhards that Hunt and Liddy were hired. They were tough guys who could brag about actual spy operations they had carried out. They looked impressively sneaky and scary. They knew how to handle microphones and suitcases and cameras and copying machines. They even styled their names like J. Edgar Hoover.
If Hunt and Liddy could carry out a few not-quite-legal operations on the White House's behalf, then Nixon and his top aides could rest comfortably with the knowledge that they had a secret espionage team that could equal the espionage team they were sure their enemies already had. This is the kind of logic that only starts to make sense in time of war, and only starts to make a lot of sense when the war is going badly. Therefore, the primary motivation for the Watergate scandal can be found not in Richard Nixon's personality but in the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.
So the hapless Plumbers showed up to work at the White House after the release of the Pentagon Papers, but they had one big problem. They couldn't think of any actual useful mission to carry out. Hilariously, unbelievably, the best idea they came up with was to break into the private office of Daniel Ellsberg's pyschiatrist in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles to see what embarrassing information they could find.
E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy pulled off this operation successfully in September 1971, though they found no information they could use against Ellsberg. Hunt and Liddy then used the same burglary team and the same weird techniques in the summer of 1972 to burglarize the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Office Building. The Watergate burglary had no clearer purpose than the earlier burglary of the psychiatrist's office. Both operations were practice drills, proofs of concept. The Plumbers had to do something to prove their usefulness, and that's why Watergate happened.
"There is no simple answer" says John Dean in 2014 in one of several enjoyable TV specials commemorating the anniversary of Nixon's resignation. Why would a smart guy like John Dean satisfy himself with this trite and incorrect formulation? There is a simple answer: the motivation for the Watergate break-in was the Nixon administration's fear that it could not compete with the espionage capabilities of its enemies. The cover-up that followed was also seen by Nixon as a battle against hidden enemies within the media establishment, and thus the cover-up was also motivated by fear.
We're up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They're using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? - Richard Nixon
There's your smoking gun. The rationale for Watergate wasn't lust for power. It wasn't greed. It wasn't Richard Nixon's unique psychology. It was fear for national security, fear of fatal weakness, stoked by a terrible war that was going badly.
As I mentioned above, I've laid out my theory of Watergate on this blog before, and I am repeating my theory today because I think it amounts to a solid and sensible interpretation of the historical facts that are there for anyone to see. I'm frustrated that so many accounts of the Watergate scandal don't even mention Daniel Ellsberg or the Pentagon Papers, even though it's a plain simple fact that everything that happened in 1972 was a direct consequence of what happened in 1971. I'm disappointed our national memory of the Watergate affair so often trivializes it into a morality tale, or a psychological biography, or a mystery novel, or a slapstick comedy.
In fact, our taste for metaphor and pop psychology has clouded our understanding of the basic facts about the Watergate break-in. Sure, everything that happened from June 1972 to August 1974 was incredible and meaningful and fascinating in many different ways, and there's no reason we shouldn't indulge in a creative contextualization of history to explore possible interpretations. But sometimes our contextualized interpretations overwhelm our basic view of what actually happened, and I think this tendency has led to a systematic historical misunderstanding of Watergate. Mostly, we like to marvel at the quirky and clumsy persona of Richard Nixon himself, and this is where most popular analysis of the Watergate scandal begins and ends.
That's unfortunate, because there was a wider significance to Nixon's fall, and a broader moral to the fable. As much as we enjoy demonizing or laughing at (or, sometimes, sympathizing with) Richard Nixon for his awkward personality and his five o'clock shadow and his square 1950s mindest, the terribly bungled Watergate break-in really wasn't the product of Richard Nixon himself. It was the work of many individuals (Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Egil Krogh, Fred LaRue, Maurice Stans, John Mitchell, Jeb Magruder, Charles Colson) with diverse personalities and motivations and backgrounds.
Strangely, they all thought it was logical to form a group called the Plumbers who would develop a White House capacity to carry out covert operations. No member of Nixon's team objected as this group proceeded to burglarize Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office and then the DNC headquarters. It seemed to make sense to all of them.
This seems to point to the existence in 1972 of a kind of delusion that was shared between many individuals, and certainly did not exist only in the mind of Richard Nixon. In fact, the need for the White House to develop a capacity to carry out illegal espionage operations was so easy to understand that many of Nixon's supporters responded to the Watergate arrests by urging Nixon to simply confess that his administration had ordered the operation and apologize. After all, they said, President Lyndon Johnson had done the same kinds of dirty tricks, and had also planted microphones (and indeed this was true). Many Americans believed that an apology from President Nixon for the Watergate break-in would have sufficed, and it probably would have.
But Nixon didn't apologize in 1972, and his popular presidency was utterly destroyed. And forty years later today the Vietnam War is over, and Nixon is gone, long gone, forever gone, dead.
It seems, though, that our human capacity for shared delusion remains very much alive.
We love to psychoanalyze Richard Nixon, but Watergate wasn't really about one man's delusions. It was about the shared delusion of a nation that was losing a war in Vietnam.
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:
Even before all this went down, the main thing that had me upset yesterday was my day job, which makes me very happy most of the time. I am the tech lead on a Drupal project for a cool new government-funded healthcare-related website that will launch later this year. Well, every web developer knows that it's dangerous to feel too excited about any project with a high profile and a large team. As software developers, we are in the most vulnerable spot in a tech organization chart: caught right in the middle between the impossible expectations of what people think we should be able to do easily and the punishing truth that even simple technical tasks often devolve into colossal cascading misunderstandings. When these collisions occur we become angry, paranoid, defensive.
Mostly we become angry at ourselves, because it was our own mistakes that led us astray. These paroxysms of self-criticism often occur at moments when the pressure to deliver is highest, and for a software developer delivering means thinking, focusing. It is hard to think and focus when gripped by negative personal emotions. It doesn't help that the demands to deliver are often accompanied by complete incomprehension as to how something that ought to be simple could possibly be so hard. There's also often a complete incomprehension that we need a break, and this can be especially frustrating when we already feel that we're putting in more than our fair share of effort with little recognition or appreciation.
All of these different feelings were swirling in my mind yesterday afternoon as I sat in my home office, trying to force my fingers to keep tapping, even though my brain had long since checked out ... feeling angry and bewildered and sick of everything, wondering when the hell I was going to have time to churn out another Litkicks blog post too.
Then a song I hadn't heard in a while suddenly popped up on my shuffle mode and penetrated my terrible mood.
This was "The Nickel Song" by Melanie, a minor hit single from 1971. The song amounts to a delightfully self-indulgent complaint, and it seems to indicate that people demand the same kind of impossible enthusiasm from bright-eyed hippie folksingers that they do from writers and web developers.
Well, you know that I'm not a gambler
but I'm being gambled on
They put in a nickel
and I sing a little song
Da da da, da da da, da da da da da
Da da da da da
They put in a nickel
and they want a dollar song
I paused to listen, grabbed as much by the bouncy rhythm and sly phrasing as by the words. It's really just a casual folk ditty, or at least it seems to be when it starts, but I don't think the song is actually about being an underpaid folksinger at all. On closer look, "The Nickel Song" actually seems to be about a love relationship that's gone bad.
"They put in a nickel, and they want a dollar song." Yeah, that's about something more than singing. But then halfway through the song the tone shifts again, and at this point I don't think it's about a love affair anymore either. It's about the entire world, about peace and war and poverty and injustice and all that stuff that singers used to sing about back in the late 1960s and early 1970s (I wish they would sing about it as often today).
Well, I don't know so many things
but I know what's been going on
We're only putting in a little
to get rid of a lot that's wrong
These words sure hit me -- perhaps because of the innocent hope for change that the words betray. This helped me remember why I myself try so hard to express my thoughts and ideas on this blog, why I wrote long weird screeds about Ludwig Wittgenstein and pacifism and The Pushcart War. And I guess it's why I work so hard at my day job to build websites that I think will be great, even though I always get blindsided by decisions made by committees that I don't agree with and have little power to influence.
Maybe I related so much to this song because I'm familiar with Melanie's body of work from my childhood, and I know that her deceptively cheerful Woodstock-era demeanor masked a body of personally expressive and exploratory work that often led, like the poet Robert Frost's, to surprisingly sarcastic and dark places. The fact that Melanie's howl of misery called "Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma" became a commercial for Ramada Inn ("Look What They've Done to Ramada") is too ironic for words.
Melanie was roughly the same kind of highly original narrative songwriter as Joni Mitchell, though she was never as successful or as critically acclaimed as Joni Mitchell. This may be because she admittedly fell short of Joni Mitchell's immense level of pure musical talent, not to mention Joni's level of steady, focused ambition. However, as a lyricist I think she was Joni's equal, and her words had even more bite. As she sings in "Cyclone":
Sweat on my brow, blood on my lips
That pretty much captures her "all-in" performance style. My favorite version of "The Nickel Song" is the loose-limbed full-band rendition on her great 1979 live album Ballroom Streets, but I wasn't able to find a video of that. I was able to find a good live performance of the original solo acoustic arrangement of "The Nickel Song" from the year it was recorded:
And I'm putting up this video today as a placeholder, because I'm going to take a short blogging break here for a week or two. Then I promise I'll come back in full force, ready to keep giving it all I've got.
But I really need this little reprieve for the next several days, so I hope nobody minds if there's no Philosophy Weekend for a weekend or two. I plan to spend some refreshing days out in a calm and relaxing spot next week, and I also plan to focus on getting my other work done so I can stop feeling so rushed and aggravated all the time. Because, really, sometimes it's just hard to keep up the pace without starting to feel resentful about the effort I always put in.
Sometimes I just get sick of it all -- sick of writing, sick of coding, sick of caring. And sometimes I just can't help feeling like a lot of people around me have been putting in a lot of nickels. You know I'll be back soon, because I always am. But right now, I guess I'm just all out of dollar songs.
In which Melanie Safka's "The Nickel Song" is a soothing song for a tough day.