Rooted in the history and traditions of the Pacific Northwest, Jonathan Evison’s West of Here rethinks the epic American novel for the 21st century. Dan Coxon talks to the author about the difficulties of selling his American vision overseas. Portrait by Keith Brofsky
For a New York Times bestselling author, Jonathan Evison has remained remarkably true to his origins. Those who are familiar with the literary scene in the Pacific Northwest – and particularly in Seattle and nearby Bainbridge Island, where Evison has made his home – will undoubtedly have crossed paths with him at some point. At times he seems to be the connective tissue that holds Seattle’s growing literary culture together, and it’s not unusual for Evison to appear unannounced at readings and events around the city. Speak to any author in the region, and you’ll almost certainly find that they know ‘Johnny’.
When it came to selling his novel West of Here overseas, however, Evison has encountered more resistance. The market for a sweeping, widescreen novel about the Pacific Northwest wasn’t immediately apparent, and publishers repeatedly shied away from committing to such a locally-rooted epic. Luckily Evison’s bold, energetic style of storytelling was enough to win them over, and West of Here is now – finally – heading east across the Atlantic.
You’ve just had a pretty incredible year, including the release of West of Here in the US and your first appearance on the New York Times bestseller lists. Has this brought any major changes with it, or is life pretty much the same as before?
This year was a dream come true. Life is the same but even better. In spite of all the touring and other public stuff, I’m dealing with less financial anxiety, so I have more time and energy to focus on my art, which is bliss. Also more time to chase my boy around. And a cabin in the mountains to inspire me.
But really, I’ve been living the dream all along. I’m simply grateful to have the work, the focus, the sense of purpose writing provides me. As odd as it sounds, I get a little wistful when I think of all those late nights in Kinko’s collating stories and packing them in envelopes, and sending them off like little packages of hope – even though they invariably came back as form rejections. I was perfectly happy living off pot pies and cheap beer. I just like being in the game, you know? Not that I wouldn’t be stoked to be so rich that I could finally buy that thirty foot inflatable duck in sunglasses I’ve always wanted. That would look badass in my yard.
You’ve been in a variety of ‘games’ over the years… radio host, comedian, punk rocker. Do you consider these to all be part of the same progression? Or is your career as a novelist totally different to what came before?
I’ll be honest, all the other stuff, besides the punk bands, was just stuff I did because nobody was publishing my novels. All I ever wanted to do was write novels. I wrote my first novel when I was 18 years old. Nobody published me until I was 40. And I’m still considered a “young” writer – ha! I learned a lot writing screenplays, writing comedy, doing talk radio – stuff that has informed and instructed my writing in various ways, but it was all vaguely dissatisfying. If it weren’t for my career in radio, I’d probably have a couple more unpublished novels sitting around.
West of Here has been a huge success in the US, but it’s taken a while for it to be accepted overseas. Why do you think this is? Did you always intend to write such a region-specific novel?
I’m perversely proud of the fact that every single non-English speaking European country dismissed West of Here as “too big and too American.” After all, I did set out to write a big American novel. If I would have written a big Chinese novel, I doubt this would be the case. America literature just isn’t considered as relevant as it used to be. Fine. Whatever. Neither is Bordeaux wine or German engineering. Or clogs. That said, the themes in West of Here are universal – personal destiny, national identity, reinvention. I’m a believer that if the themes are universal and the characters live and breathe, nationality shouldn’t get in the way.
Do you think American literature will have to change to remain relevant? Or is this, in fact, the time to turn back to the classics?
America is in the throes of a massive re-invention, and I think it will make for fascinating literature, and if the rest of the world is smart, they’ll pay attention. What is our national identity now that we’re no longer the world’s producer, that we’re no longer at the head of the world order? What is our new idealism? How will we adjust to a new standard of living? Politically, how will we restructure and reform from within? These are huge questions!
Whitman and Emerson used to talk about the “American Experiment” – and guess what? It’s still a big experiment! I think American Literature is poised for a big comeback, and I think the west, particularly the northwest, is going to be the nerve center. Between myself and Patrick DeWitt and Vanessa Veselka and Benjamin Percy and Jess Walter and Jim Lynch and Joshua Mohr and Jenny Shank, etc, etc, I think over the next decade the world is going to see an incredibly rich and dynamic body of work coming from the American west.
Did you purposefully set out to write a big Pacific Northwestern novel with West of Here? What was the original inspiration?
Oh yeah, I totally set out to write a northwest epic. The Olympic peninsula is a fascinating and rugged place. I wanted to write a story about how the land shaped the people, and how the people shaped the land. My goal was to write a sprawling egalitarian novel which would subvert many of our accepted notions about history, and to frustrate readers expectations about what we expect from “historical” fiction. I didn’t want to write historical fiction – I wanted to write a story about history and how it works.
And do you feel that you succeeded in achieving that? I know that I loved the book, and it dealt with many of those ideas – but I also know that the writing process is a complex one, and the end result isn’t always what you originally set out to achieve.
To be honest, I feel like I accomplished more than I set out achieve. That said, not everybody gets it – including some critics. Readers who lose sight of the big picture run the risk of getting lost in this novel. The first 175 pages might feel like one character introduction after another. But if you keep your eye on the big picture, you’ll begin to see all these characters and story lines converge and coalesce. In order to create the effect I was going for, I had to have 70 characters and 40-odd points-of-view – that was the whole point! History is not some linear progression peopled by a few great men, history is the sum of all the small vividly realized moments in each of our lives, and how they interact and relate to one another. History is connections and convergences and shared themes.
Can you talk us through your writing routine? Where do you write, when, how many drafts… and has this changed much as you’ve progressed and changed as a writer?
For me, discipline is the key. I approach writing like an athlete. Some mornings I don’t feel up to the task, but I strap on my trainers nonetheless and do my workout rain or shine. My optimum writing day begins at about 5am., that quiet hour when most of the world is still asleep and I don’t have any distractions. I’ll write until about noon. That time literally seems to pass in an instant. If I can write a page a day I’m feeling pretty good. I like to spend an hour in the evening going over the day’s work with a red pen – making notes in the margins and whatnot. I begin the next day by addressing these notes. That way I’m never stuck, I always have a starting point. I’m an obsessive revisionist. I must write 20 drafts of stuff. It’s never finished. At some point somebody just has to pry the manuscript out of my hands.
I know you’ve been working on edits of your next novel over the past few weeks. Has that process changed for you at all, now that you’re with a bigger publisher? Have you found that your approach towards edits and rewrites has changed over the years?
Nah, my approach is pretty much the same as always. I’ve been lucky to work with amazing editors, and also with an agent who gives great editorial. The key is to work with people who want to help you make the book that you want to write the best book it can be. I’ve heard horror stories from writers whose editors try to make the novel their own. I was fortunate enough with West of Here and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving to work with the editor of my choice, Chuck Adams. When I was entertaining offers, I talked with each of the editors at great length about WoH, and Chuck was the guy who best understood my vision for the novel and how to make it better.
You’ve used the places you’ve lived in as the settings for your two novels to date: the Pacific Northwest (West of Here) and California (All About Lulu). How important do you think it is for authors to draw upon the environments that have influenced them? Do you think you’ll stick with these settings, or do you have plans to write further afield?
I’m going to Alaska for research on my next novel, but part of the novel will still be set here in Washington. I’ve got a bunch of notes for a novel that takes place in Montana, too. I also want to write a novel that takes place in Baja. Mostly because I want to live down there for a year and get fat on fish and tequila.
Is it too early to ask about The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving? What was the inspiration for it, and when can we expect to see it on shelves?
Galleys for The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving are going to print any day, and the novel will be released in October 2012 in the States – not sure about UK. It’s a very different book than West of Here. While West of Here represented a huge technical challenge for me, TRFoCG was a huge emotional challenge. It’s a coming-of-middle-age about a male nurse in crisis. Without talking too much about the subject matter, I’ll just say that the novel really took a lot out of me emotionally. In the end, it’s probably my funniest book because it had to be. I’m really excited to get the novel in people’s hands because I feel like it’s one of those novels that’s going to be cathartic for a lot of readers.
Not that you asked, but I’m almost finished with another novel now called The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales, which is another departure in that it actually employs something of a thriller apparatus to frame 16 different limited points of view. I’m really excited about this one, too. I thrive on pushing myself into new and uncomfortable places as a artist.
Do you think it’s necessary for a writer (or any artist) to keep pushing the boundaries of their craft in that way? Or is that more of a personal decision to keep things fresh and interesting?
I don’t think it’s fair to make it some kind of general edict, but as an artist, that’s certainly what I’m after. I want to be developing tools as I go along, surprising myself, frustrating my own intentions, learning, facing new problems all the time. Otherwise I feel like I’m just going through the motions. Sometimes this can make novel-writing an excruciating exercise that leaves me totally exhausted, but I feel like it’s always worth the effort in the end. Especially for the reader. They say hard writing makes for easy reading and I believe that on every level. I do think there is a danger of alienating your readership at times, or at least those readers who have certain expectations for a specific artist. But I can’t worry about that. I just need to keep pushing myself.
I know that you’re constantly reading new writers, and you’re noticeably active in the writing community. Whose books have you particularly enjoyed over the last year?
I read two Ron Rash books this year which really impressed me: Serena, and the forthcoming The Cove. I also read two by Stewart O’Nan this year: Emily Alone, and the forthcoming The Odds. These two guys are among the best American novelists working in my mind. I’m also a big fan of Dan Chaon, along with Adam Ross.
And finally… you’ve interviewed a lot of authors yourself over the years, so what’s your favorite question to ask? And what would be your own answer?
Hmmm. I guess I don’t have a favorite question. I suppose if there was one question I’d ask every writer it would be: Why do you do it? Why do you endure all the heartache and frustration and financial duress and existential discomfort that comprises devoting your life to writing novels (which people may or may not ever read)? And I guess my answer would be that it makes me a bigger person – a more expansive person, a more understanding, thoughtful, empathetic person. A better problem solver, a better husband, a better dad, a better son, and a better friend.
Jacob Knowles-Smith sits down for a TV dinner with Tom Wolfe
Thankfully BBC Four hasn’t been demolished just yet. If it had been, we wouldn’t have had chance to enjoy its recent ‘All American’ season. They say that BBC 2 would absorb the channel’s role, but doubtless this would come with – if not dumbing-down – half as many documentaries as they currently produce. And, indeed, they’ve produced a near-dazzling array of films for this latest season focusing on US culture – but this is no paean to American hegemony, and the more I tried to absorb the schedule, the more I wondered if perhaps Tom Wolfe hadn’t been given some role at the Beeb. The subjects covered over the last couple of weeks have been like a cross-section of that writer’s brain; there’s been high culture, low culture, kitsch culture, surf culture, diners, journalism, nomads, hookers and civil rights. Any fan of Wolfe will no doubt be able to pluck a volume up and thumb through almost all of those subjects in one of his collections, but then I began to wonder, how would Tom Wolfe write a TV review? Well, for starters he probably wouldn’t title it anything nearly as banal as the above, but he might call it something along the lines of…
The Electric Blu-Ray Acid Mind-Bath: America is Over There!
‘Why’s all this paint here?’ You can see Andrew’s mind ticking over and his puppy-dog eyes begin to twinkle with his excitement – Yes! Pollock painted here! And they’ve preserved it, an encrusted monument to that great man’s drips. Great man? You can make up your own mind. Andrew Graham-Dixon has made his up in the Art of America and, as the BBC’s finest regular documentary maker – now that Attenborough stays out of frame, we can cut him a little slack. He deftly traces – with his infectious enthusiasm and never-patronising dulcets – the history of American art from pilgrims to present. All American art is here: Rockwell, Hopper, Warhol, The Simpsons?… and all of it, it seems, is about the loneliness of being one among many in a great big country full of people. After all, can’t Manhattan at rush hour be the loneliest place in the world?
Hopper’s popping up all over the place, and his most famous work – ‘Nighthawks’ – gives us a lead into the next show and the lonely fat-clogged heart of America in Stephen Smith’s America on a Plate: The Story of the Diner. This is where we sit down at that democratic counter and look across into America’s short-order soul… French fries pancakes sausages coffee doughnuts shakes steaks turkey clubs plastic seats – top you off? – cheeseburgers blueberries coffee onion rings eggs over easy – warm you up? – French toast roast beef meatloaf coffee gum chewing waitresses truck stop bacon coffee. What more can you say? What more can anyone ask for!?
Now this cat’s crazy, he’s touched the hem of death after all – or, at least, skirted around the edges – and who wouldn’t be a little spooky kooky cuckoo? James Ellroy’s Feast of Death (BBC 2) – with some strong language! – delves into the murder-centric mind of the author and we meet the embodiment of obsession. Kim Bassinger? She’s alright. But forget the movies – what the fuck good are we to him? Who are we to ask anything of this guy? This modern Beethoven! (Just ask him… why listen to anyone else?) Did the bitch overcook the steak again, James? Nah – It’s sexual power. That’s murder. Right there. If you don’t believe him, then why else do we care about serial killers? Men think about sex more than women, so they kill more. Ellroy is clearly obsessed by his mother’s murder; perhaps he sees himself as a failure – a not-quite-Beethoven – because he couldn’t protect her, but, if that’s not it, then he still has every right to be obsessed because, he says it, closure is bullshit. What’s a dyke bounty?
Now we’re with shutterbug Rankin in America in Pictures: The Story of Life Magazine. He’s indulging himself in a bit of hero worship – mutual snapshotting of these wily old coots that chronicled America. And, sure, maybe these guys aren’t exactly the man – but they were working for a Luce publication! Think Fortune, think Time. Think middlebrow America. But that’s, perhaps, not entirely fair, Life was, as Rankin’s film describes, a great unifier of the people – all of America could ooooooohhh and aaaaaaahhh at the pretty violent shocking beautiful celebrities/dead soldiers/famine victims but – look over here, America! – you could be looking at those photos next to this fridge, in this new kitchen or on this new lawnmower (in your fourth floor apartment) and, boy, now here’s Rita Hayworth. Call me an elitist or a cynical bum, but Life always seemed pretty cheap.
So, that’s all American, and, if that’s not enough for you, some of the most delightful chocolate chips to be found in this rich cookie came in Old Jews Telling Jokes. It’s pointless to tell the one about the rabbi or the gentile here, but these rascals have their own website and you have a few minutes to spare.
In the first instalment of a new column on TV programmes, Jacob Knowles-Smith reviews Entourage
As anyone who has ever read Casanova’s memoirs knows, even the Great Seducer was knocked back once or twice. But it took seven seasons of Entourage and a drug problem for Vincent Chase, arguably a modern-day equivalent, to get himself turned down by a woman. The comparison falters a bit when remembering that Vince (Adrian Grenier) is, of course, fiction and Casanova wasn’t; though it could just be that reality isn’t what it once was and in that in the 21st century and the culture of mutual usage a man of Casanova’s ability let loose in LA could indeed make up those notches on his bedposts. This doesn’t say much for feminism but then neither did Sex and the City.
When one thinks of the great HBO dramas, Entourage doesn’t immediately come to mind and, even keeping in mind that it’s billed as a comedy-drama, perhaps this is because it took all those seasons to ever offer much more than a hint of the underbelly of Hollywood. This is not to say that all television drama must necessarily be dark, but Hollywood is a gift horse – and it has rotten teeth. Only now are we seeing the binges taking their toll, actions and words having not just consequences but ending in legal trouble and rehab; the latter of which Vince emerges at the start of the eighth (and final) season seemingly free of previous troubles. Troubles that might cause the hardened nose candy veteran of Hollywood to slightly disturb the mountain of coke before them with a snicker before they planted their face into it for breakfast. It remains to be seen if Vince can stick at the clean living – but enough talk about him. Lovely as he is, he’s always been least interesting character. The clue, after all, is in the title.
Whilst Vince is busy pitching a clanger of a film for himself, perhaps to ward off feeling sorry for himself, the rest of the crew have problems of their own. Eric, Turtle and Ari are all having difficulties with girls and the incomparable Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) is on the cusp of animated glory. Without going into too much detail, the girl trouble is much the same in Hollywood as it is the world over: how to keep the women in their lives happy whilst dealing with the ass that is the spokesman for every man’s ego and, again almost universally, the solution seems to lie in getting drunk and getting angry. Such foibles make an otherwise despicable character like Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) the kind of person you’d like to go for a drink with, or at least have as your agent. On the other hand, Drama’s ego allows him to be so self-satisfied with his status as a lady killer that he is free to pursue his professional activities (though he wouldn’t even have them if he hadn’t, for once, shown some contrition at the end of the last season). The biggest threat to the success of Drama’s new ape-themed cartoon comedy seems to be the complications that may be provided by his co-star – the ghastly ‘Diceman’ whom some may still remember from his comedy-free comedy in the late-eighties/early-nineties. Entourage has always kept up the fine tradition started by The Larry Sander’s Show of celebrities appearing as loathsome caricatures of themselves. Perhaps not always caricatures – Seth Green might be a prick. Either way, ‘Diceman’ is just one less vowel away from having a more appropriate title.
This is, as mentioned, the final season of Entourage and the small screen will certainly suffer for the loss of the show’s piquant camaraderie that bestows the greatest gift of all on the viewer: feeling like one of the boys. Whether or not the big screen – a movie is planned to crown the series – will allow the show to be as clever as it is in its present incarnation, is a matter for internet forum debaters to tackle for the subsequent decades. As for the rest of the diehards, we’ll keep the show alive in box set heaven until our own difficult other-halves suggest better uses for the space taken up by our DVDs.
If fast cars and rehab isn’t your scene, you may’ve caught My Life as a Turkey on BBC2. This Natural World special was the charming and curious tale of biologist Joe Hutto and his family of wild turkeys. The premise is surreal enough to have been a subplot in Northern Exposure but, guided by Hutto’s dulcets, we move through the story of how one man became mother to a whole clutch of turkeys and become fascinated by his dedication to both the birds themselves and the pursuit of science. Only the greatest philistines and cynics of the age could fail to experience joy at the sight of the birds being driven to utter distraction by a turtle, or even a pang of regret imagining how much understanding of our own world we’ve lost compared to so unworldly-looking bird as a turkey.
Read Jacob Knowles-Smith’s reviews of Lead Balloon and Curb Your Enthusiasmhere and on Damages and Breaking Badhere
Alex Von Tunzelmann serves up a thrilling take on the Cold War. Reviewed by Vikki Littlemore
Notwithstanding the racy title, it’s possible for Alex Von Tunzelmann’s Red Heat, a substantially detailed account of politics in the Caribbean, to appear intimidatingly opaque, or Everest-like, to the non-expert reader. Halfway down the first page, however, the fear is put aside. Von Tunzelmann writes with such excitement and energy that the grey and factual expositions become an adventure. Instead of relating dates and figures with dispassion, creating educational but lifeless non-fiction, Red Heat is invigorating, and becomes a page-turner instantly. Harnessing the energy and romanticism of Che Guevara and The Motorcycle Diaries, Von Tunzelmann uses the rich drama and revolution of that period to create spell-binding reading, without losing facts. Red Heat somehow manages to combine the intricate and vital details, with a compelling and fantastical story, making it a valuable resource on many levels.
The prologue, called ‘The Secret War’, immediately introduces the reader to Alex Von Tunzelmann’s unique talent for merging historical illustration with wit and the finesse of a good, contemporary fiction writer. She begins with a trick. “The plot was aimed at New York” are the first words of the book, and they begin a paragraph which appears to depict the terrorist attacks of September 2001; “The plot was aimed at New York: the most famous city in the richest nation on earth, and the most sought-after prize for any anti-American terrorist”. However, after lulling the reader into the assumption that the paragraph is talking about 9/11, the record is set straight; “The date was 17 November 1962″. In this self-aware, socially connected way, Red Heat, guides the reader along what is undoubtedly a journey; from the youthful strivings of Fidel Castro, through Spanish wars of 19th-century Haiti, and slave trades, to the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis. Every historical event is related with pure clarity, cool needle-sharp precision in dates and facts, and most importantly, an exuberance that compels the reader to carry on.
The detail in every episode suggests an incredible amount of research and in-depth expertise from Von Tunzelmann. Not a single word is wasted, every sentence holds a vital, precious seed of information. There is no fluff, or vamping, because there is no need to find fillers and incidental pulp. Von Tunzelmann expresses encyclopaedic and unfailing erudition, while never being academic or lofty. Each sentence is filled with fact, but simultaneously breath-holding with thrills and drama, living up to its title; ‘Heat’ is exactly what it has. This is something very unique in a writer; the exhilarating suspense and story-telling of a top-notch whodunit, combined with the flawless factual knowledge of a valuable reference resource. It makes the material accessible to readers coming from any approach, for any purpose. One can read Red Heat as part of academic research, or as a revolution fan on the back of The Motorcycle Diaries.
Von Tunzelmann moves seamlessly from high-office political chess manoeuvres and the intricacies of men in suits in Washington or Santiago, to the sweat on the backs of unwashed and exhausted guerrilla forces following Fidel and Che through mango groves, carrying ammunition for their next terrorist strike. There are despotic villains manifested in international dictators; Trujillo, Batista, and sweaty, idealistic heroes to make women swoon. The book is exciting, and brings together far-reaching worlds; wars on tropical islands; (“The question that must be asked about 1962 is not whether it is feasible that the government of the United States might have resorted to such techniques- evidently, it might–but what could have been going on among the palm trees on a couple of islands in the Caribbean to provoke a superpower to such extreme action”), the uprising and revolution of oppressed people all over the continent, and the Kennedys, the Cold Wars, and politics, and Missile Crises that involved and frightened the entire world, not just its leaders. Red Heat incorporates them all, and submerges you, totally, in the action. The narrative voice, because that’s what it is, even though this is non-fiction, is not only passionate and erudite, but casual, so much so that the book feels like a conversation with a clever friend. Von Tunzelmann is always affable, and filled with rapt joy in her subject.
Red Heat is enriching, whether you’re a student, romantic, or just enjoy literature. This is one of the first books to absolutely capture my attention, so fully that I lost awareness of my surroundings, which is surprising given that this is a non-fiction book in an area that I’m interested in, but by no means well-educated in, the extent of my knowledge being that Che Guevara was from Argentina. One feels captivated, and educated, all at once.
Robert O’Connor revisits the Minneapolis label, home to 60s psych-trash novelty hits ‘Surfin’ Bird’ and ‘Liar, Liar’
“Everybody’s heard about the bird,” the song begins. Peter from Family Guy heard the song and it became his new favorite thing in the world. He annoys everyone by singing and dancing along with the song until Stewie and Brian steal the record and smash it Office Space-style. The song was in Pink Flamingos and Full Metal Jacket. There was even an attempt to make it the number one Christmas single last year in the UK.
That song is, of course, ‘Surfin’ Bird‘ by The Trashmen. But who were The Trashmen and who recorded that acid-flashback of a song?
The band was formed in, of all places, Minneapolis. And a local label, Soma Records, recorded and distributed the song. It was not the first nor the last hit that Soma would produce in its ten years of existence.
It began at the Garrick Theatre, which used to sit at 2541 Nicollett Avenue. In 1955, Bruce Sweidin was the operator of the Schmitt Music company’s recording facility. That year, he bought their equipment and moved it into the theatre, converting the abandoned movie palace into a recording studio.
In 1957, Sweidin went to work for RCA and sold the studio to Vernon C. Bank and brothers Amos and Daniel Heilicher, who sold jukeboxes wholesale. Sweidin would later win Grammies for being the recording engineer on all of the Michael Jackson albums produced by Quincy Jones.
Bank renamed the studio after his wife and it became Kay Bank Studios. That same year, The Heilicher’s started their own record label, Soma Records, with the name coming from Amos spelled backwards. Kay Bank offered a deal to local bands: for $495, they would get three hours in the studio, a thousand copies of their single with 50 promo copies sent to radio DJs around the Midwest.
On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash outside of Mason City, Iowa. They were supposed to play a gig at the Armory in Moorhead, Minnesota that evening. The local radio station sent out an urgent call for a replacement band, and a 16-year-old named Bobby Vee showed up with his band of five buddies from high school. In the liner notes of his 1963 album A Tribute to Buddy Holly, Vee said he had been a fan of Holly and had organized the band the week before. They had been rehearsing with Holly’s music in mind. When they showed up at the Armory, they didn’t even have a name, so they made up The Shadows on the spot.
On June 1, the group went to Minneapolis and recorded a song Bobby had written in tribute to Buddy Holly, ’Suzie Baby’. It was popular on the local stations and the major labels wanted to sign the band. Vee eventually signed with Liberty Records. Some time during the month (the dates are unknown) Bobby Zimmerman played piano with the band, calling himself Elston Gunn. He was let go because he could only play in one key and Bobby Vee thought he had no future as a musician. He later changed his name to Bob Dylan.
In a 1998 article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Amos Heilicher said he kicked Bobby Zimmerman out of his house for banging on the piano in his home. He also said that his daughter Elissa had met Bobby at Camp Herzl, a Jewish camp in Wisconsin the two attended as kids.
At first, Soma put out a lot of country and rockabilly songs, since that’s what most of the bands that came to them played. One group that gave them a big early success were The Fendermen, made up of two guys, Jim Sundquist and Phil Humphrey, who met as students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their hit ’Mule Skinner Blues’ was recorded at Cuca Records in Sauk City, Wisconsin, just outside of Madison. It was picked up by Soma and distributed nationally, hitting #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. All of the group’s future songs would be recorded at Kay Bank and released by Soma.
In 1962, a group called The Messengers from Winona, Minnesota released a single through Soma, ‘My Baby’. Soon afterward, their lead guitarist went off to college and their guitarist, Greg Jeresek moved the band to Milwaukee. They recorded a cover of Wilson Pickett’s ’In the Midnight Hour’ in their living room studio and managed to get it released nationally in 1965. That same year they became the first white group signed to Motown Records.
Hitting its stride
Soma hit its stride in 1963 with the release of ‘Surfin’ Bird’. The Trashmen had recorded it at the suggestion of Bill Diehl, a DJ on WDGY and a music writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He was at the gig where they first played the song. The band before them, The Sorenson Brothers played ’The Bird is the Word’, which had recently been recorded by The Rivingtons. The Trashmen hadn’t heard that song and decided to play it along with ‘Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow’, also a Rivingtons hit. Drummer Steve Wahrer improvised the middle section.
When he heard the recording, Vern Bank sent a note to Amos Heilicher saying “‘The Bird’ is the worst I’ve ever heard. Must be a hit. Call me if you’re interested. Vern”.
The song was a hit locally and was nationally distributed by Liberty Records. The song eventually reached #4 on the Hot 100 chart. However, lawyers for the Rivingtons added the band’s name to the credits due to it being their two songs.
That same year, Dave Dudley recorded his biggest hit ‘Six Days on the Road’ at Kay Bank. The song was distributed by Soma until Mercury Records bought the rights.
In October 1964, a group out of Mankato named The Gestures had a Soma-released hit with ‘Run, Run, Run’ which hit #44 on the Hot 100 chart. It’s B-side was ‘It Seems to Me’. The band sounds like The Zombies in the latter, who had a hit in August of that year with ‘She’s Not There’. Soma’s last single for the band was ‘Don’t Mess Around’ in 1965 The song was the B-side to ‘I’m Not Mad’, a Beatles-esque single with two lead vocals and a harmonica. But the official release put ‘Don’t Mess Around’ on the front with ‘Candlelight’ on the back. The band broke up in 1965 and their lead singer, Gus Dewey, eventually became the lead singer for City Mouse. He died in 2003 at the age of 57.
In December 1964, Soma had another local hit with The Chancellors’ cover of one of The Righteous Brothers’ first songs, ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu’. The Chancellors were from the western suburb of St. Louis Park. ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu’ was a B-side that did better than the a-side, ‘Yo Yo’, written by rhythm guitarist Mike Judge. They would later put out ‘Surf Beat’ and ‘I’m a Man’.
The band was the first artist signed to the talent agency Path Musical Productions, founded by Ira Heilicher (son of Amos) and Dick Shapiro. They would eventually sign bands like The Castaways and The Gestures, who would have singles released by Soma. When the agency dissolved, Shapiro and Bill Diehl (and later Owen Husney) formed the Central Booking Agency, which promoted many of the same bands.
The Chancellor’s lead guitarist was David Rivkin. Also known as David Z., Rivkin helped record the set of demos with Prince in 1976 that got him a deal with Warner Brothers. He was also a session guitarist with Lipps Inc at the peak of their success, though he didn’t play the guitar riff on their #1 single ‘Funkytown’.
In 1965, Soma’s next big hit came with ‘Liar, Liar’ by The Castaways. That one went hit #12 on the Hot 100 chart and the band played it in ‘It’s a Bikini World’, one of the last beach party movies made by American International Pictures. The single’s B-side is ‘Sam’.
Their next single came out that fall, ‘Goodbye Babe’ and ‘A Man’s Gotta Be a Man’. The latter was written by guitarist Robert Folschow, who sang the falsetto vocals on ‘Liar, Liar’, which was written by keyboardist James Donna and drummer Dennis Craswell. Just as ‘Liar, Liar’ had a scream before the bridge, ‘Goodbye Babe’ has a gruff laugh at the beginning.
That same year, the band The Boys Next Door from Indianapolis recorded a single with Soma, ‘Why Be Proud’ / ‘Suddenly She was Gone’. The All Music Guide dismisses the band as derivative of The Beach Boys, saying “not every unearthed batch of sounds from the mid-1960s has to be worth hearing”.
Another Indiana band, Sir Winston and the Commons had a song with Soma that year ‘We’re Gonna Love’. The B-side was ‘Come Back Again’.
The High Spirits had a hit with ‘Tossin and Turnin’, the B-side to a cover of ‘(Turn on your) Love Light’. The record was #1 in Kansas City and Dallas in the fall of 1965. It’s lead guitarist was Owen Husney, a relative of the Heilicher family, who would later be Prince’s first manager. They recorded another single with them in early 1966, ‘I Believe’ / ‘Bright Lights, Big City’, the latter being a cover of the Jimmy Reed song. David Rivkin left The Chancellors in 1965 and sang back-up vocals on ‘Love Light’.
Most of the bands that went to Soma around this time were garage bands. One exception was the Duluth band The Titans, an instrumental surf rock group, who recorded two singles for Soma in 1963 (’Summer Place’) and early 1964 (’Reveille Rock’). Another were The Gamins, who had an instrumental single ‘Freeway’ in 1965.
At some point, The Guess Who, from Winnipeg, made recordings at Kay Bank Studios. One of the songs recorded there, ‘His Girl’ hit the singles charts in the UK.
Another song put out by Soma was ‘UFO’ by Dudley and the Doo Rytes, which has a similar sound to The Animals. The Del Counts were one of the last bands Soma recorded, with ‘Bird Dog’ (which quotes ‘Surfin’ Bird’) and ‘Let the Good Times Roll’.
In 1964, Amos and Dan Heilicher purchased the Musicland chain of record stores from founders Terry Evenson and Grover Sayre. In 1968 Musicland merged with Pickwick International, a label and distributor.
Soma records was merged into Pickwick Records, with Amos as the head of its retail and wholesale operations. At its peak, Pickwick accounted for 10% of all recordings sold in the US and half of all recordings put out by independent labels. A 1970 feature in Esquire called Amos Heilicher one of the music industry’s most powerful figures alongside the likes of Mick Jagger and Berry Gordy, the head of Motown.
In 1976, Amos sold his stake in the company. Musicland had 230 stores across the country when it was bought in 1977 by American Can for $102 million. It was sold again to Best Buy in 2000 for $865 million.
Amos and Dan left the music industry and threw their efforts in to the real estate business, helping to expand the St. Anthony Main shopping complex and the now-gone Circus Pizza chain.
Ira Heilicher eventually owned a chain of record stores, Great American Music/Wax Museum, which had 17 stores nationwide by the time in closed in 1986.
Kay Bank Studios passed through a couple of names after Soma ended, but Twin/Tone Records had their offices where it stood beginning in 1977. Among the artists they released were The Replacements, Babes in Toyland, Curtiss A and the Suburbs, among many others.
Two of Kay Bank’s former employees, Tom Jung and Herb Pilhofer founded Sound 80 in 1969. Its most famous recordings were Prince’s demos with David Rivkin in 1977 and in 1974 when Bob Dylan rerecorded half of Blood on the Tracks there with a group of local musicians – specifically the tracks ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, ‘Idiot Wind’, ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ and ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’. In 1978, using a primitive digital tape recorder from 3M, Sound 80 recorded some of the first commercially released digital recordings.
There were a lot of independent record companies making rock music in the 50s and 60s, but the only ones that live on are the ones that made notable hits. Sun Records’ name lives on as the place that gave the world Elvis Presley. Soma Records gave the world ‘Surfin’ Bird’.
Fresh off their tour with The Boxer Rebellion, Russell Mardell interviewed Billy McCarthy from Brooklyn’s We Are Augustines in the wake of their album Rise Ye Sunken Ships
Brooklyn based trio We Are Augustines bring their album Rise Ye Sunken Ships to the world this June, and for singer/guitarist Billy McCarthy and bassist Eric Sanderson, it is the culmination of an extraordinary labour of love; a journey that has seen both suffer a collision of professional hardship and personal tragedy and yet come through strong enough the other side, to create a record that has started receiving the sort of buzz many long standing bands could only imagine.
As one half of the now disbanded indie rock band Pela, they had more than their fair share of music industry bullshit to deal with; label and management problems helping bring about the end of a band that looked to be really hitting their stride after 2007’s marvellous Anytown Graffiti. As the band broke, the personal tragedies hit; events dealt with in such raw emotion on the album, and the pair were forced to revaluate and question their calling. After much soul searching, McCarthy and Sanderson decided to continue, that they had come too far and given too much of themselves to turn their backs on it. The songs themselves had now been invested with an even greater meaning and depth, and perhaps, in the end, there could only be one choice for them. Reluctant to step back in to an industry machine that had kicked them in the teeth so many times, yet armed with songs they believed in so passionately, McCarthy and Sanderson slowly started aligning themselves with similar creative minds, people who shared their passion, and decided to navigate their own course to their public. Alongside producer Dave Newfeld they set to work crafting an album that would do justice to the belief, friendship and songs that had kept them together.
Anyone who has heard the songs already released on their website or been lucky enough to see their high energy, huge heart live performances know that with We Are Augustines nothing is left on the sidelines, every drop of blood, sweat and tears are there to see, that collective heart pumping emotion and immediacy through great musical story telling all brought to life in McCarthy’s astonishing vocals; a voice that could seep in to the soul as easily as it could break you to pieces. Now, with the permanent addition of drummer Rob Allen to their line up, and a growing wave of anticipation in front of them, We Are Augustines are finally ready to launch.
I’m constantly amazed by how many great bands seem to be coming out of Brooklyn at the moment. Is there as much of ‘scene’ there as that would suggest or is it just the massive diversity there that naturally attracts artists?
I’m not sure really. It’s a pretty large city and a large borough at that. I know there are multiple genres going on, and it’s hard to define a ‘scene’. Just when I think I’m aware of a lot of it, I find out about some underground cabaret movement or something… so yeah lots of music going on in BK most likely due to the impossibly high rents of Manhattan.
You travelled Europe busking many years ago, including time in London. Did we look after you?!
Yes you did! Me and my dear friend just up and left our miserable existence in our small towns and bought the cheapest one way red eye flights to anywhere we could. London was a starting and often ending point to our adventures. The tube was an incredible testing ground for our material at the time. We were routinely harassed by police and drunk kids, but we only sang our guts out more. My best friend made $300 one New Year’s Eve there, which of course bought another ticket to another music adventure.
How did your love affair with music start? Who were you listening to growing up?
I can’t figure out if all people have this or it is just creative minds, but I can remember music quite vividly back to the age of four or five years old. It’s one of the ways in which I can identify the period or year my memories are coming from, namely the 80s. My sister listened to Prince a lot. The radio was really playing the hits… The Police, Cyndi Lauper, Howard Jones etc. There were summer anthems and winter melodies that got in my bones. Those years were so big on choruses, a very hook driven time in music. Reggae was pouring out of car windows in my small coastal town, and surfers were blaring Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys as they waxed their boards in their front yards. It was a very rich musical upbringing. I was aware of the edgy aspect of counter culture music from a pretty young age. I was impressed at the time punk rockers took to paint band logos on their leather jackets. I could tell music was really important to people’s identities from an early age.
You clearly invest a huge amount in your lyrics; were you writing growing up, even before music came along? Any desire to do a Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen and write in other fields?
Yes I was writing pretty early. I was really big on drawing and illustrating my own little comics. The themes were basically making fun of authority figures and casting them in various bizarre scenarios. For example, making a math teacher a bull rider and the headmaster of the school the bull he was riding… stuff like that. I was very into making recordings with friends into a cassette recorder, doing impressions, making fake talk shows. I was also into breakdancing and making up songs. I do have plans for a couple of books; I’ve been talking to a writer friend in NYC about how to put them out properly.
Are you naturally attracted to great lyricists yourself in the artists you listen to?
I have always been interested in lyrics. One of the great things about having hippie parents that my generation enjoyed was a vast record collection in the house. I really fell in love with blues music. The lyrics were profound to me; drunkards, Jesus, cheating, praying, shit that made my generation’s music pallet look shallow! I stayed with those recordings forever. I then heard the greats from there, Johnny Cash, Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, etc. But my first record was actually from England, it was Never Mind The Bollocks I bought it myself when I was 12 because it was bright pink and looked very important up there on the shelf. I was like “‘God Save the Queen’… hmm I don’t know who this guy is singing about but he’s pretty serious!”
You are a band that really wears it’s heart on its sleeve, with Rise Ye Sunken Ships clearly being a deeply personal album for you, do you find that kind of openness cathartic?
It’s always just about reaching down as far as it takes to be honest, and working the music until you can stand behind it and be proud. So yes a catharsis takes place, but I always tell my friends that ask about how it feels to perform, that singing in a rock band feels like running down the street screaming your diary at the top of your lungs for an hour.
As part of Pela you had your fair share of crap to deal with from the music industry, and it’s been a real labour of love to get to this point, was there ever a doubt for you that you’d continue in another band?
Yes much doubt. Quite a lot. I think after spending summer after summer in a rehearsal space and always being too poor to travel or enjoy life consistently, one starts asking if it is a foolish endeavor or a true calling, like some kind of destiny. I don’t wish those questions on anyone. I agonized over them.
What can people expect from Rise Ye Sunken Ships? Do you feel any pressure to have any carry over from the Pela days or is it healthy for you to have a clean break?
I think you can expect us pushing ourselves past our limits creatively. That’s a mistake young bands make, they don’t take proper time with the second record. I feel we did. We grew a lot and there is a lot of passion and meaning in this record for us.
You’ve toured the UK recently with The Boxer Rebellion and you seem to have gone down a storm, what were your experiences of UK crowds?
Just lovely, lovely people. Hearty, hilarious and proud people. There’s tons of character, dimension and texture in the UK. I am so proud to have been able to sing over there with my band. I think I was acutely aware that we needed to go past the well-mannered obligatory claps for an opening band and have it out, give our hearts and sing from our gut. When I opened my eyes at the end of the shows they were clapping and showing their support every night. That meant a lot to me because so many of my heroes come from the United Kingdom.
Finally… I’m someone who loves a good bit of headwear but just can’t carry it off without looking a fool, what advice would you give someone on the best way to work a hat?!
The hat compliments the stuff on the insides baby… put that hat on and smile. Life is to be lived, and you are rocking it down the street in your own special way.
Russell Mardell is a playwright, scriptwriter and filmmaker based in the South West of England. Having trained in film production, he went on to write and direct the low-budget films Burn and Cool Blokes: Decent Suits. His theatre work has included the recent plays The Seventeenth Valentine and Freestate, both of which premiered in London. Silent Bombs Falling On Green Grass is his first collection of short fiction. He is currently at work on his first novel, has two stage plays ready for production and is in pre-production on his next film.
About Silent Bombs Falling On Green Grass: “Welcome to Mewlish Lull – the sort of town you pass through on your way to somewhere else without even noticing it exists. This debut collection of short fiction presents a bizarre portrait of a world just to the left of reality. In 12 stories and with a cast of oddball characters, through the most absurd of comedies, the darkest of nightmares and those quiet moments of madness that live within us all, Silent Bombs Falling On Green Grass takes us to a strange town where anything could happen… If only you could fit in. But sometimes being an outsider is the only way to be…”
Across the span of 85+ interviews and within the wisdom of 100,000+ words, a cast of characters across all strata of the music industry reveals an astonishing diversity of paths and purposes in It All Begins with the Music: Developing Artists and Careers for the New Music Business. Spike asked the author Dan Kimpel for his bullet-point plan
“To survive in our business, it is necessary to be fluid, to understand trends and timing, while never losing sight of the big picture,” my co-author Don Grierson observes in his introduction. Clearly, those who thrive in our volatile world are those who heed that message. To these ends, here are some choice quotes from a cross-section of sources that serve as a barometer of how the music business is evolving.
“Prince left Warner Bros. over what he thought were restrictions. He wanted to release music when he finished it. He didn’t want to wait for a release cycle, he wanted it to be out there. Fresh. You need to exploit that connection. There has never been a better time for innovative music and musicians.” – Ted Cohen: TAG Strategic
“I don’t think there’s a music business monster.com that’s going to say, ‘Wow! We’re thrilled with your experience and education’. People have a need to help promote music and artists like crazy. As long as there’s a need, that means you have a job.” – Jim Guerinot, manager: No Doubt, Gwen Sefani, Nine Inch Nails, Social Distortion
“The best artists know who they are and are really comfortable creating something from nothing. They are confident melodists and lyricists and have something to say. A song is a short story. I love a writer who can say something profound or poignant in a simple way. Language and message is everything in an artist.” – Rick Nowels, songwriter/producer: Madonna, John Legend, Dido, Keith Urban
“People ask, ‘What does a great bio look like? What kind of picture do I need? Don’t hear my stuff, it’s not mastered, we have another guitar part to add’. But none of this will create a hit song for you. If it were an amazing song, it could have nothing more than an acoustic guitar.” – Michael Laskow, president: TAXI
“Write a hundred songs a year for a few years. You will eventually write songs that people understand.” – Toby Gad, songwriter: ‘If I Were a Boy’ (Beyonce), ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ (Fergie)
“The best defense against wasting your time is making music you love and believe in. Make a record you want to listen to in 20 years, even if it doesn’t sell.” – Steve Greenberg, president: S-Curve Records (Joss Stone)
“A lot of it is the ‘X-Factor’ and if something moves me as a fan of music. If it doesn’t move me, how is it supposed to move anyone else? Many times your heart sinks because it’s just not there. I can never judge or pre-judge where an artist or a songwriter comes from, small town or big town, but a guy with a guitar case, a legal pad, and pencil can change my life, and it can change their lives. I’m always open to that.” – Doug Howard: Disney Music Publishing Nashville
“Get rid of the drunks and drug addicts in your band because they will suck the life out of you. Look at every opportunity and educate yourself. Fire your mother if she’s a drug addict. Don’t get married before your career starts. Every girl has ‘Yoko Ono disease’. Nothing and no one should stop you. Everyone you think is important will try to stop you and demand your time. Give yourself all the time and attention because no one else will pay your salary or your rent.” – Gene Simmons: KISS
Author/educator/music journalist and networking guru Dan Kimpel contributes to a dizzying variety of print and electronic mediums. His recent interview subjects include Patti Smith, Ray LaMontagne and John Legend. If you fly Delta Airlines, you can hear Dan’s interviews with recording artists and songwriters on the airline’s in-flight audio programming. Dan’s bestselling music industry books including Networking Strategies for the New Music Business, Electrify My Soul: Songwriters and the Spiritual Source, How They Made It: True Stories of How Music’s Biggest Stars Went From Start to Stardom, Networking in the Music Business and It All Begins with the Music: Developing Successful Artists & Careers for the New Music Business, co-authored with legendary A&R executive, Don Grierson.
As Dylan turns 70, Robert O’Connor travels back up Highway 61 to untangle the myths and legends
“Where did you come from, Cotton-eye Joe?”
That’s the first question Studs Terkel asked Bob Dylan on his legendary radio show in 1963. Bob didn’t really answer then, and he hasn’t really answered since. He’s given hints, and ever since Toby Thompson’s attempt in 1971, biographers have tried to find out where Bob Dylan came from. They know where Bobby Zimmerman came from, but Bob Dylan is a bit more elusive.
Bobby Zimmerman was a motorcycle riding rock-n-roll playing greaser when he arrived in Minneapolis in 1959 as a student at the University of Minnesota. By the next year, he had become Bob Dylan, the folksinger, the would-be troubador who idolized Odetta and Woody Guthrie.
It’s not clear when Bobby started using the name Bob Dylan – stories range from October of 1959, when he began playing at the Ten O’Clock Scholar, a coffee shop in Dinkytown where the local musicians hung out. Others say he started using it when he was still at Hibbing High School. The most common story is that he adopted it after the poet Dylan Thomas, while others claim it was in tribute to Matt Dillon, the main character on Gunsmoke, which he was a big fan of.
Legend runs through Bob Dylan’s life story, and the many biographies of him are all very different because of these stories – some of them made up by Bob himself. Right when I was finishing up this piece, Bob had a rare post on his website explaining his recent trip to China, saying at the end that there were a gazillion books on him and encouraged anybody who knew him to write their own.
“Dylan is a genius, that’s all. He is irksome and irritating, very much the Chekhov genius. He is not more complex than most people; he is simpler.
I knew when I met him that he was very talented… He walked around like a young Shelley”
– Harry Weber, who shared an apartment with Bobby Zimmerman and “Spider” John Koerner
When Bobby Zimmerman started to become Bob Dylan, he was a high school greaser with slicked hair, a leather jacket and he loved riding through Hibbing on his motorcycle, usually with his girlfriend, Echo Helstrom, riding behind him. He had dreams of being a rock star like his hero Little Richard. In his high school yearbook, he says he dreamed of joining Little Richard’s band. He started visiting Minneapolis and the Ten O’Clock Scholar regularly in the fall of 1958. He visited so often that Echo broke up with him around the same time.
At the beginning of 1959, Zimmerman was in a band called the Rockets with Monte Edwardson. He may have also been in a band called The Satin Tones. He saw Buddy Holly live at the Armory in Duluth on January 31 – four days before Holly’s death in a plane crash.
In June of 1959, according to Bobby Vee, Bobby Zimmerman was working as a busboy at the Red Apple Cafe in Fargo when he joined Vee’s band The Shadows as a pianist. He insisted on being called Elston Gunn. He left after Vee decided he didn’t need a pianist, though other accounts claim Vee kicked him out because he could only play in one key.
“If you try to figure out anyone like Bob you will only discover that there is more and more that you simply can’t figure out”
– Hugh Brown, a friend of Bob Dylan and a regular at the Scholar
That September, Zimmerman moved to Minneapolis. Thanks to a cousin of his, he was able to move into the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity house, at the time not far from where University Avenue crosses 35W. Back then 35 was Highway 61, The Blues Highway, which extended from Duluth all the way to New Orleans. Bobby took a few classes in the liberal arts program at the U of M, but his real education would be in his neighborhood, Dinkytown, which is just off campus.
He started playing at the Scholar, which used to sit on the corner of 14th Avenue and 3rd Street, in October along with “Spider” John Koerner, the first guy he met there. He’d asked Jim Lee, the owner, if he could play and that he wanted to be a folk singer. Lee asked him his name and he replied “Bob Dylan”. The usual method of payment at the Scholar was five dollars or a meal. Bob would play there regularly until May 1960, when he asked for a raise. After that, he would play at the Purple Onion Pizza Parlor and the Bastille.
The Purple Onion was in St. Paul, at the corner of Snelling and University. The Bastille was an old house near the corner of Oak and Washington in Minneapolis, fixed up by its owners Harvey Abrams and Bob Brull as a folk club.
Bob Spitz writes in his biography of Bob that to make it as a rock star in those days, you needed original material, a face and a band. But as a folk singer, you didn’t need any of those things.
Bobby stayed in Minneapolis over the Christmas vacation pining for Judy Rubin, a girl he first met at Camp Herzl, a Jewish camp in Wisconsin that he attended as a kid. She told him she wanted to stay friends, but refused his advances. Bobby returned to Hibbing and told his friend John Bucklen that he was a folk singer now, and went on and on about the folk singer Odetta. When he heard her voice in a record shop, he had traded his electric guitar for an acoustic.
When he returned to Minneapolis in January, he left Sigma Alpha Mu and stopped using the name Zimmerman entirely. He moved into an artist loft ($30/month rent) above Gray’s Drugstore, on the corner of 14th Avenue and 4th Street (where the Loring Pasta Bar now sits – see image below).
Around this time, he started hanging out with Gretel Hoffman, who continued his education in folk music. According to Spitz, Hoffman had just dropped out of Bennington College, a women’s college in Vermont (it’s now a co-ed liberal arts college). She had grown up with well-off parents who were communist sympathizers who sent her to an alternative high school. She listened to jazz, read eastern philosophy and was in to left-wing politics.
That March, the two of them attended a party in St. Paul where they met Dave Whitaker, who was an equally eccentric sort. He had tried joining the Merchant Marines in Paris and would later go to San Francisco and join the bohemian subculture there. Dylan and Whitaker became fast friends.
Bobby had been an avid reader in Hibbing (much of it detailed in his autobiography Chronicles), but he didn’t read much in Minneapolis. Whitaker was dismayed by this and gave him a copy of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound for Glory. Bob devoured its contents, and was soon carrying it everywhere he went, stopping people on the street and reading passages from it to them.
In May of 1960, Bob made his first recording at the home of friend Karen Wallace in St. Paul. He played traditional songs, a few by Woody Guthrie and some country songs.
Late that month, Bob got word that Gretel and Dave had married on May 20. He was devastated. He had secretly been in love with Gretel and Dave was his best friend. He passed by Gretel on the street and he couldn’t look at her. “When you get a divorce, let me know,” he shouted back.
Bob then hitchhiked to Denver to make his start as a folk singer. He knew a girl whose floor he could sleep on. Robert Shelton in his book No Direction Home (which puts Bob going to Denver in 1959) says he heard from Monte Edwardson that Denver had a lively folk scene.
Bob had been told to look up Walt Conley if he ever went to Denver by an ex-girlfriend of his. Conley owned a club called The Satire, and was the opening act at the Exodus, where the folk crowd hung out. The star of the Exodus was a 20-year old classical pianist named Judy Collins, who had recently picked up a guitar and begun singing.
Bob Dylan arrived at the Satire Club and asked if he could play a few songs. He ended up being the opening act for the Smothers Brothers, playing their first gig in Denver. Neither the brothers nor the audience liked Dylan’s performance. Tommy Smothers especially didn’t like Bob’s unkempt appearance or his raspy voice. Bob also played obscure songs when the crowd was expecting well-known traditional songs that they could sing along to.
Conley found him a gig playing piano at The Gilded Garter, a strip joint out in the gold-rush town of Central City. Collins had been playing there and the manager, Sophia St. John, wanted another folk singer.
The Gilded Garter was probably the worst place to be a folk singer. The crowd was loud and not at all interested in listening to music. Bob said in an interview that it was the worst place he ever played. Bob lasted a week before he returned to Denver. St. John called Conley telling him that Bob, her purse and $20 were missing. She was ready to call the cops, but Conley talked her out of it.
Conley wouldn’t let Bob stay at his house, though he was allowed at Conley’s house parties. Bob got a room at a Salvation Army hotel next to the Exodus. He made regular visits there and heard Leon Bibb, Judy Collins, Dave Hamil, Kevin Krown and blues guitarist Jesse Fuller. Bob was fascinated by Fuller and how he played both the guitar and harmonica at once, with a steel harmonica rack around his neck.
Bob left Denver after Conley and Hamil discovered some of Conley’s records were stolen. They confronted Bob at his hotel. With tears in his eyes, he pleaded he was innocent, but they found the records under his mattress. A similar incident would happen later with Jon Pankake, the editor of the Minneapolis folk ‘zine The Little Sandy Review. Conley asked him to leave, and Bob’s parents drove him back to Minneapolis, thinking that college would dispel his musical ambitions.
No Direction Home
Bob Dylan returned to Minneapolis in September, still intent on being a folk singer. He began playing the harmonica more and more in his shows, using a steel rack like Jesse Fuller had done. He met Ellen Baker, whose father Mike was the head of the Minneapolis Folk Society. He owned an extensive collection of records and other materials related to folk music. He owned many records from the Folkways label (now owned by the Smithsonian). Bob writes in Chronicles that he envisioned himself playing for Folkways and peppers references to it and its artists throughout the book. On one of those records was ‘These Brown Eyes’ by Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston, which Bob would play over and over again at his gigs. For the rest of his time in Minneapolis, Bob would regularly visit the Bakers.
Later that month, Bonnie Beecher recorded Bob, in a recording that’s been called the Minneapolis Party Tape. It was recorded at the home of Cleve Petterson, who donated it to the Minnesota Historical Society in 2005. Also on the recording are Cynthia Fincher, who played banjo at a few of Bob’s gigs at the Purple Onion, Bill Globus and Bonnie Beecher. Beecher would later record the Minnesota Hotel Tape when Bob returned to Minnesota briefly in 1961 and she is a possible inspiration (another candidate is Echo Helstrom) for ‘The Girl from North Country’.
In an interview with Playboy, Bob said he was turned on to folk music by listening to Odetta. In the fall of 1960, according to Clinton Heydlin, he met her and she convinced him he had real potential as a folk singer. In mid-December, he returned to Hibbing and told his parents he was going to New York.
His first stop along the way was Chicago, where he looked up Kevin Krown, who he had met back in Denver. He stayed a few weeks there, playing in coffee houses and student parties.
And at last, he arrived in New York on January 24, 1961. And the rest is pop music history.
Considering the space Yellowjackets’ fill in the jazz continuum, one would expect them to be more of a household name than they actually are – meaning ‘outside the realm of people with rudimentary knowledge of the genre’. Loping, slick as hell, and often gorgeous, what these guys do isn’t quite fusion and not quite WeatherScan background either. It’s highly evolved stuff that eschews the sometimes-too-quirky knuckleballs of Weather Report in favor of post-bop reverence and blow-doors melody – as in the root riff of this album’s title track, which, in a different, less populated musical world, could become as much a staple of pop culture as Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’, if you’ll allow me an excited moment. Just a peach, this record. The baseball-card stuff: it’s their 21st album, celebrating 30 years, and longtime drummer Will Kennedy is back.
Robert O’Connor reports from the Minneapolis Dinkytown and West Bank scene where Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan
The University of Minnesota’s main campus is divided into two campuses – one in St. Paul, the other in Minneapolis. The one in Minneapolis is divided in two again, straddling the east and west sides of the Mississippi River. On both sides are neighborhoods where musicians, artists and writers hang out. Both of these neighborhoods have their own music, their own character and their own legends – some of them have gone away and become more well known like Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt.
Dinkytown on the east and the West Bank on the west are the names of these two places. Dinkytown’s business district is two blocks long on 4th Street, between 13th and 15th Avenue. It got its unusual name because of the trolleys that ran between the two U campuses – called Dinky’s – used to be housed nearby.
The center of Dinkytown is the corner of 14th Avenue and 4th Street, where the Loring Pasta Bar sits. For the last 10 years it’s sat in the place where Gray’s drugstore used to be. Bob Dylan and his then-girlfriend Ellen Baker would sip sodas there while he had a room upstairs with a rent of $30/month.
When Bob Dylan came to Dinkytown in the fall of 1959, he was still Bobby Zimmerman. He had played a few gigs with Bobby Vee in North Dakota under the name Elston Gunn that summer and he arrived in Minneapolis to go to the U of M. He stayed in the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity while taking a few classes in the U’s liberal arts program.
He started playing at the 10 O’Clock Scholar, which used to be on the corner of 5th Street and 15th Avenue. He would play for a few hours in exchange for a meal or a percentage of the sales. While at the Scholar, Bob played with Spider John Koerner – the first guy he met there – and Tony Glover, both of whom he talks about in his book Chronicles. When he asked for a raise, he was kicked out and started playing at the Bastille and the Purple Onion Pizza Parlor in St. Paul. There’s a Purple Onion on University just next to Dinkytown, but the name is apparently a coincidence.
Bob only played covers then, most of them traditional or Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Rogers or Johnny Cash songs. He spent the summer of 1960 in Denver, where he met a young Judy Collins. When he came back he had his harmonica.
His friend Dave Whitaker gave Bob a copy of No Direction Home, Woody Guthrie’s autobiography. Bob devoured it and adopted the name Bob Dylan, after the poet Dylan Thomas. He changed his dream of being a rock star to being a traveling troubadour. He left Minneapolis in December 1960 for Chicago, landing in New York on January 24, 1961. And the rest is history.
John Koerner came to the U of M as an engineering student in the late ‘50s. He was given a guitar and some blues records and became “Spider John”. He was a regular at the Scholar, playing with Bob and Dave Ray. Koerner, Ray and another bluesman Tony Glover started playing together at the Triangle Bar on the West Bank. They would play off an on until Ray’s death in 2002.
In 1968, Glover had an overnight radio show on KDWB-AM where he’d interview musicians, including Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, who were passing through town. He also started writing about the blues for the Little Sandy Review – one of the first publications to write about Bob Dylan. The LSR’s co-founder Paul Nelson later became an A&R man at Mercury Records and signed The New York Dolls to their first label. The LSR was also edited for a time by Barry Hanssen aka “Dr. Demento”. Glover’s since written for Rolling Stone, Creem, Sing Out and Circus! (where he had one of the earliest reviews of the Allman Brothers)
Koerner went to New York in 1966, but was sent back to form a band by Electra Records. With pianist Willie Murphy he recorded the album Running, Jumping, Standing Still.
Ray was the producer and engineer on Bonnie Raitt’s self-titled debut album, where she played Koerner’s song ‘I Ain’t Blue’. Willie Murphy also produced the album and played on it along with members of his band The Bees. Raitt’s brother Steve along with Ray ran a studio Sweet Jane Ltd. in Cushing, Minnesota where The Bees debut album was recorded.
Murphy had a show on KFAI when the station began in the Walker Community Church in south Minneapolis in 1978. The following year Murphy helped get a show for Lazy Bill Lucas.
Lazy Bill Lucas got his name from Little Walter Jacobs. On his radio show he’d bring in blues musicians when they stopped in town. Joel Johnson took over the show after Lucas died in 1982 and continued it until his own death in 2003. Harold Tremblay’s show House Party continues the spirit of Lucas and Johnson’s shows on KFAI. He plays a Lazy Bill Lucas track on every show.
Prairie Home Companion
Garrison Keillor moved to the West Bank in 1964. He was a student at the U and the editor of its literary magazine Ivory Tower. He’d hung out at the Scholar, which he describes in Homegrown Democrat and wrote about his stay in the West Bank in the introduction to Cyn Collins’ book West Bank Boogie.
In 1969, he found a job as a morning show radio host on KSJR in Collegeville, Minnesota, not far from St. Cloud. He played a wide selection of music and eventually had his own house band, The Powdermilk Buscuit Band, made up of friends of his, naming the show A Prairie Home Companion.
The players were local musicians like Bill Hinkley on the fiddle, Judy Larson who sang. When Bill Hinkley left, Mary Dushane replaced him on fiddle. Butch Thompson was the house pianist on the show until 1986, though he still frequently performs there. The show moved to St. Paul in 1974 and it’s been there ever since.
Hinkley and Larson also played in an Australian bush band with Maury Bernstein. Bernstein played folk songs at the Scholar and helped bring musicians there. He taught ethnomusicology at the U for a few years.
Pop Wagner organized the June Apple Musician’s Co-op with Bob Bovee. Mary Dushane and Jerry Rau were members of the collective. It had been inspired by Utah Philips’ Wildflowers Co-op in Saratoga Springs. He also started a label, Train on the Island, for musicians to put out their records. Dakota Dave Hull and Sean Blackburn’s album Here’s Sean Again was the first they put out. Hull currently has a show on KFAI.
Dakota Dave Hull has a show on KFAI every Thursday morning, where he plays folk and roots music with either local musicians like Andy Cohen or Tim Eriksen or the ones who pass through town.
Jerry Rau continues to play his own songs around the University campus and downtown Minneapolis.
The West Bank is a mix of the older folks – the people who made it the Haight-Ashbury of the Midwest a generation earlier, and immigrants from Somalia.
Dinkytown still swarms with students and independent shops, though a few brand stores like McDonalds and Potbelly Sandwiches have gotten in. The Scholar closed down and went through a bunch of changes before becoming a video rental store for a while. When that closed, the building was torn down.
The Loring Pasta Bar and the Varsity Theater are the places to find local music in Dinkytown, while Nomad’s bar, the Cedar Cultural Center and Palmers bar are the places to find the legends, new folks and those passing through town. The Acadia Cafe on the corner of Cedar and Riverside has a growing stable of younger artists who work for a meal or a small amount of change, just like Bob.
The folks you’ll find at these shows are the kinds of people Garrison Keillor saw living in the West Bank when he moved there almost half a century ago: “They had jumped off the career bus and were living for what they loved – the true American Dream, to buck the trend and go your own way, guided by your heart”.
An authentic literary sensibility in pop music is rare but according to Ben Granger The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy has more than enough to share
Pop music and literature are two separate miracles, the silent shout and the screamed secret, two wonders working to their own, different and divided rules. Each has seductive thrills of its own. Pop music has no need to attain the form of literature to achieve greatness. A great many of its practitioners have thought otherwise however, and there have been countless pretenders of one form to the other. Whether its Iron Maiden raiding Coleridge or The Eurythmics mugging 1984, the straightforward homage, sad to say, usually rings false. Frank Zappa’s denunciation of rock music writing was “like dancing about architecture” and the ‘category error’ is just as stark the other way. The essence of one does not easily translate into the other. That doesn’t mean it is not possible however, that the breadth, sway, richness and ambiguity of literature cannot be captured in song. A true – successful – literary sensibility in pop music is a rare thing indeed, but it can happen. It doesn’t come from showboating references but a much deeper understanding of the texture of literature. Colin Meloy is firmly and defiantly in this tradition.
Meloy’s Oregon band The Decemberists have shone out in the past decade like a lighthouse through the murk of mediocrity, conveyor pop shite and landfill indie alike. Unfashionable dedication to virtuoso musicianship has played its part in this, and it’s certainly a special band which is capable of single-handedly rehabilitating the accordion as a musical instrument. But it’s the lyrics which make The Decemberists unique. Meloy uses words very rarely found in pop songs. Words like ‘frigidaire’, ‘ravine’, ‘parapet’, “odalisque” and “cardamom”. He rhymes ‘flue’ with ‘1842’ and ‘mirage’ with ‘shiraz’ and then ‘applause’. He sings “I was wedded and it whetted my thirst”. No other songwriter would write the couplet
And I say your uncle was crooked French Canadian
And he was gut-shot running gin,
and how his guts were all suspended in his fingers
And how he held them, How he held them, held them in.
Sometimes they are self-consciously archaic, especially when the scene being captured is explicitly rooted in the past (i.e. “and what irascible blackguard is the father?” from the Hazards of Love epic). More often than not though they are not so much archaic as parochial and particular, evoking an immediate time, place and essence. They are certainly unafraid to seem florid. Pop music, even in ‘sophisticated’ pose, usually sticks to a convention that verbosity strangles vitality and immediacy. Orwell wrote that Yeats was the exception to the rule that poets tend to avoid self-consciously ‘poetic’ language. Meloy is the exception to the rule that self-consciously literary language has no place in pop. When he sings that “Pretty hands do pretty things when pretty times arise / Seraphim in seaweed swim where stick-limbed Myla lies”, you could wince at a grandiosity that is ‘out of place’ in pop. Or you could delight at what is, quite simply, a gorgeous lyric.
Beyond phraseology, further proof that Meloy’s is a truly literary style is his single-handed one man revival of the Narrative – capitalise that N! – in pop songs. Storytelling is more common in both the folk and country musical genres that The Decemberists also straddle, but Meloy is rare in bringing this back to the indie-rock sound which remains their base.
And such Narratives. Laudanum-drugged French Legionnaires dreaming of home, the un-resting ghosts of poverty-stricken barrow-boys and stillborn babies, runaway 10th-century female harem slaves and 20th-century male prostitutes, vengeful sea-crew and psychopathic Ulster Protestant terrorist splinter groups, lovelorn honeytrap victims of rogue security service agents. From first album, Castaways and Cutouts, until the fourth, The Crane Wife, The Decemberists proved themselves the masters of capturing the skewed short story in song. Most pop lyrics are a bastardised cousin of verse poetry, but this was a truer poetry finding its form in novel or short story prose – to emphasise the fact, the lyrics in the liner notes to Castaways are written out in prose paragraphs rather than verse style. Stories in the true sense (though usually not true stories), these were vignettes which didn’t just carve out their scenes with precision, but also gave an inner life to the characters within.
The narratives do not always follow the traditional linear form, and to employ literary labels Meloy is open to the modernist as well as the realist style.
‘Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect’ employs a drugged, dreamlike drift in the narrator’s identity across different nations and ages. ‘Red Right Ankle’ takes the blood vessels and sinews of its eponymous appendage as the narrator of its first verse. Disjointed, displaced in time and space, they are narratives nonetheless. A broadly realist short story style predominates however, and this aspect reached the perfect peak in this form in 2005’s Picaresque, which, as its title suggested, captured the perfect form of tarnished anti-heroes battling through a colourfully grimy, chaotically uncaring world.
Picaresque showed also however that the Meloy’s sense of the literary goes beyond the Narrative. Its poppiest moment – ‘Sixteen Military Wives’ – is a sardonic satire on the Iraq invasion, sneakily taking the back-door route of mocking its media coverage: skewering the TV commentators, from distinguished academy chairs, to pontificating celebrities with “Wretched chequered lives” and “pristeen moderate liberal minds”. The unreal, disjointed disconnection between the fatuous media circus and the bereaved tragedy of the military wives is presented without a hint of either mawkishness or heavy didacticism, making its point all the more poignant, and wrapping it in a euphoric chorus. This isn’t a narrative as such, there is no beginning or end, nothing “happens”. But it has still evoked characters, and illuminated themes in a startlingly original way, shedding light into corners previously dimmed by dull cliché and repetition. Another song without a narrative is ‘Angels and Angles’, a brief, slight gorgeous meditation on the “angles” of a loved ones features as she fills in a crossword. A finely carved sculpture of a song, fragile in its material but immortal in its robust finish, a miniature marvel to behold. This is why Meloy is a literary songwriter, and not just a yarn-spinner.
Meloy perhaps reached his zenith on the same album with ‘The Engine Driver’. Against an impossibly gorgeous, languid, sonorous backing, he takes on a variety of brief two-line personas with their own brief, terse narrative – an engine driver “on a long run, so will be my grandson”, a money lender who has “fortunes” but is “ever tortured” – but whose chorus whittles these away to reveal that each one of these personas, these forays into fiction, are just the sad standbys, the necessary imaginary retreats of an author “writing pages upon pages trying to rid you from my bones”. A strange, post-modernist self-commentary (is the writer of fiction himself still a character? Or is it, finally, Meloy himself?) is injected with the vitality of raw, pulsing emotion to create a song which nourishes the mind as surely as it grabs at the heart. It also allows it the true status of the literary song.
And yet literate pop is not literature, it still needs a voice, not the authorial tone but a flesh and blood trachea that makes a noise. Meloy has self-deprecatingly dubbed his singing voice “my famous donkey bray”. “Mannered” would be a polite criticism, “whiny” a less polite one, and when one considers this voice is at times singing interpretations of folk tales from medieval Irish mythology, it is easy to see how some may think at first, second and even third listens that here is the nadir of clever-clever self regarding “college rock”, to coin a hideous phrase. And yet, ultimately, it is the raw, naked tremulousness of this voice which gives the final spark of life to these songs. What at first sounds mannered quickly shows itself as an instrument whose every stray inflection counts, not a syllable goes astray. When the word ‘tramp’ in ‘We Both Go Down Together’ extends one syllable into four, the effect is startling, and an anguished truth carries along its contours.
Some of the tales Meloy tells are so far out and fanciful they would be easy to dismiss as arch or pastiche. Sometimes, undoubtedly, the melodrama is played for laughs, as with ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’, a bloody, syphilis-ridden tale told from within the belly of a whale. Often there is an air of whimsy. But even in his most playfully outlandish narrative realms, Meloy’s red-raw voice, backed by the pitch-perfect instrumentation, manages to give the characters a hauntingly real emotional resonance – yes, even from inside a sperm whale’s stomach. With fifth album The Hazards of Love, the band moved from the short story to the novel, from the song in a single to a full-blown album length rock opera. In theory this should be the very height of overblown prog-rock pretension, especially when you consider that the plot concerns the star-crossed love between a young maiden and a fawn which shape-shifts into a man under the jealous tutelage of the Queen of the Forest… And yet, what could so easily seem risible, instead becomes magical, an emotional odyssey which sweeps you along with the characters, and showing that the narrative is a runic metaphor for the travails of the heart as well as a baffling medieval oddity. It is that too though, and the idiosyncrasy only in increases its lunatic appeal. Its centrepiece, ‘The Rake’s Song’, is an amazing piece of work which shows in the starkest relief the tension between the emotional honesty of Meloy’s delivery and the outlandish nature of the subject matter. We are once again into Meloy’s most melodramatic territory, a ‘rake’ who after his wife’s death following “her womb spilling out babies” seeks to “divest his burden” so he can live the bachelor life once more – by murdering each one of his children. This character is so monstrous as to be Tex Avery cartoonish and, on one level, it is certainly black humour. And yet once more that voice gives it a terrifying edge of sincerity. As the cod-Dickensian argot of the rake’s chorus “Alright! Alright! Alright!” ritually repeats itself the effect is certainly funny on one level, but genuinely sinister and shocking on another. This is the success of duality, the marriage of tragedy and comedy which the greatest works of literature attain.
Written while in pastoral retreat in the remote Oregon countryside for a year, with 2011’s The King is Dead, Meloy has swung the pendulum altogether away from the narrative epic of Hazards of Love – some would say one extreme to another. These are short, straightforward songs with neither extended nor individual story-telling narratives between them. At first listen The Decemberists aficionado may feel short-changed. With these relatively amorphous, impressionistic outings, where is the intellectual grandiosity which makes them the weird wonders they are? This however, is to forget the other more subliminal elements in The Decemberists’ make up being brought to the fore here, the sense of place (the rural West) more subtly hewn, itself bringing out a deeper edge to the contours of nerve-scratchingly raw emotion in its examinations of lost childhood and lost children, of joyous working solidarity and defiant class struggle, and most of all of the infinite sublimities of nature to be found in the year’s seasonal turnings. This is clearly Meloy at his most personal, not cloaked amid his ever-myriad personae. The paintings created are from a more subdued but no less beautiful pallet. Perhaps this is the album where the music and that beautiful voice are left to do the heavy lifting, but still there is time for a comedic dream about Armageddon, where apocalyptic Andalusian tribes lay waste to the world as our hero is exiled to a new civilisation below ground “and I’ll be crowned the Community Kick-It-Around”. Understated-ness, it seems, can only go so far in Meloy’s world. Long may that remain so.
Literature is sometimes held to be an elitist form. In strict literal terms it is, if by elitist we mean staying true to individual vision and not allowing itself to pander to crowd pleasing, quasi-democratic mediocrity. The Decemberists are the very definition of the ‘cult’ band, one whose followers have a fevered adoration to their idols and a snobbish view of the outsiders who will never “get it”. And yet this proud secret of their bookish acolytes are now finally breaking into the mainstream, with The King Is Dead topping the US charts, something beyond anyone’s most fevered imaginings even a year back. Already you can hear the whispers of “sell-out”. Yet this would be as unfair as it is untrue. There is no need for Meloy to water down his literary sensibility as wider popularity beckons, and nor has he. And nor, I strongly suspect, will he. One last literary parallel: what is at first denounced as a perverse irrelevance, of interest to only a cliquish minority, often comes to be accepted as genius by a much wider audience a few years down the line. We shall see. In “I was meant for the stage” Meloy claims his destiny is for applause and derision alike. There will never be any shortage of the latter from those who think that the literate has no place in pop. But a growing number are applauding, and this applause is sweet music itself.
Vanessa Liberad Garcia reports on Company of Angels, the Los Angeles theatre group committed to connecting with the community
When one of my best friends, Baby Dewds (aka talented theatre actress Dani O’Terry), invited me to watch a play in Downtown Los Angeles called Civil Rites, I was excited. She and I are both staunch liberals who love to debate politics for extraneous hours in a series of relentless discourses we call “Saving The World One Conversation At A Time”. These last from 9pm until we exhaustedly pass out mid-sentence at 4am. I didn’t ask many details about the play since her sensibilities always steer me towards stimulating entertainment that provides a priceless opportunity for both growth and fun… or a hilarious and complete waste of time. We scarfed down the last of our re-heated Thai food, paused R. Kelly’s YouTube musical Trapped in the Closet, and were off!
Upon hearing the name Civil Rites, I immediately assumed we were going to see a left-leaning play with loud unapologetic opinions about our troublesome political climate, written and performed by struggling actors from LA’s abundantly talented underground theatre scene. Contrary to popular belief, there’s – thankfully – much caliber theatre in LA. However, Civil Rites proved to be a series of piercing monologues unlike anything I’d experienced before. Theatre made by the people for the people. It featured personal stories by non-actors and burgeoning artists – disenfranchised residents of Downtown Los Angeles, which is gentrifying at exponential rates. The non-profit theatre group Company of Angels that nurtured this ensemble show summarises the play’s backdrop best in their program statement:
“After decades of public and private disinvestment in Boyle Heights and Downtown Los Angles, the populations in these historically low-income neighborhoods lack sufficient access to arts programs that both heal and build leadership skills in these residents. Recent redevelopment efforts in these neighborhoods have completely ignored the current residents and only exacerbated the issues that plague these low-income communities. Increased rents have reduced the amount of affordable housing and police enforcement efforts further criminalize both homeless residents and street vendors. The only way these issues will be addressed is if community residents learn to make themselves heard on these and other issues affecting their lives. Through META, CoA is currently working with the above-mentioned communities to use theater skills to depict their concerns and develop the skills necessary to advocate for the resources they need to thrive in their communities.”
Each performer shined in their unique ability to convey nuanced truths with captivating and colorful rawness. Carmen Vega, Victoria Gallardo, Vincent B. Clark, and Virgil Wilson especially moved me. They explored topics like unregulated toxins in tap water, drug addiction within the senior community, fear-based complacency, and the “invisible” homeless. Their impacting pieces personalized the politicized by painting an intricate human face on societal problems. Civil Rites evoked an effortless empathy within me that has permanently bridged their life stories to mine. Please read more about Company of Angels and donate to their Civil Rites program by visiting their website: www.companyofangels.org
Real-life drug-busting narc Sonny Grosso was the inspiration for The French Connection, advised Coppola on The Godfather and cruised gay bars with Pacino. Story by Tina Bexson
A dozen or so shiny, black suits and their flashy women were enjoying the exotic floor show of Manhattan’s Copacabana nightclub, whilst the slick-haired man at the head of the table splashed the cash around. It was a sight that would change the lives of the two off-duty NYPD narcotics agents quietly sipping their drinks and surveying the scene from the terrace above.
The man with the dough was Pasquele “Patsy” Fuega, a major player in a Mafia-linked New York drugs ring. “I recognised a lot of the others as being dope pushers up in Harlem,” Detective Sonny Grosso recalls. “I told Egan and he wanted to put a tail of the Patsy at the end of the night.”
So Grosoo and partner Eddie Egan tailed Patsy and his bouffant blonde as they drove off on a stop-start tour of the Lower East Side, before heading across the East River and drawing up in front of a Brooklyn diner at 5am. Suspicion was aroused and they set up round-the-clock surveillance and wiretaps. That was just the beginning. During the next four months they uncovered an operation that had 50kg of heroin being smuggled from France to New York every six weeks for a quarter of a century.
The investigation culminated in one of the biggest drug hauls in American history, worth a mega ¢32m, all thanks to a chance encounter in a nightclub in 1961.
Shoot forward ten years, and chance changes Sonny Grosso’s life again. Up-and-coming filmmaker Phil D’Antoni and maverick director William Friedkin decide to turn the case into a film, The French Connection, based on Robin Moore’s factual book of the same name, and starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as Egan and Grosso (renamed Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo). Once released it became a worldwide box-office hit, winning five Oscars and beating A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show for best film. It had it all: realistic locations, spontaneous camerawork, an unromantic portrayal of policing, and unbeatably pacey action. All of which proved ot be a major catalyst in the revival of the cop genre in the ‘70s, evident in movies such as Serpico and Dirty Harry.
The French Connection’s authenticity was down to advice from the experts. Friedkin immediately hired Egan (who died of cancer in 1995) and Grosso. Not only were they the film’s inspiration – both played small roles – but proved unbeatable technical advisors and location scouts. In fact, they were cinema’s first cop consultants, earning $150 each for working every day of the 60-day shoot as well as continuing 12-hour nightly shifts with the NYPD.
It wa the weeks in pre-production that helped dictate the raw undertones of Friedkin’s feature. Not only did Grosso and Egan grow up in East Harlem, it was also their beat, they knew the score. And in the weeks leading up to the shoot, Hackman, Scheider and Friedkin were taken on a journey they would never forget.
Grosso: “We let them run through the whole gambit with us: the investigations, arrests, even the paperwork and court appearances so they could see us testify. In the beginning they were all shocked by what they saw.
“The first time we hit a shooting gallery it was on 110th Street and 5th Avenue, that’s Harlem. There were about 20 people shooting p. One was a massive woman, about 260 pounds, with a tube around her arm and the needle still jabbed in a vein.
“They came with us when we hit the bars and interrogated people. No one knew they were actors and we let them question the dealers and addicts so they got to feel comfortable dealing with them as though they were policemen. That’s why the movie stands up so well, they’d done it for real.”
In one of two Harlem bar scenes, the extras were all cops posing as drug addicts and pushers. In the other, they were all off the street. “They were people Eddie and I had busted at one time or another. We went to see them at some centre where they were trying to re-habilitate themselves and when we asked if they wanted to be in the movie, they all jumped at the chance. It was that which gave it a real wild smell.”
There were a couple of gun-running scenes, so Grosso and Egan taught them exactly how to hold and fire the weapons during sessions at the police firing range. “They both used our guns in the film, too. Scheider also wore my watch and ring so he felt really comfortable. He wanted my shorts, but I wouldn’t let him have those.”
Scheider was, of course, an excellent choice to play Grosso – same build and colouration; and he hit the right note as the careful detective known for seeing the dark side to situations, hence the nickname “Cloudy” (given to him by Egan). Grosso was the perfect antidote to the flamboyant, risk-taking Egan who mastered disguises such as a hot dog vendor, a deaf mute and a priest. He was nicknamed “Popeye” for his constant “popeying” around Manhattan’s drinking holes. As Grosso says: “He was a real character, way out there, and a great cop.”
Egan’s idiosyncrasies are marked out early in the film. His bizarre method of confusing suspects during interrogation by asking them whether they “picked their feet in Poughkeepsie” is used in the scene when Hackman, dressed as Father Christmas, questions a young guy he and Scheider had chased through the streets. Grosso, having witnessed this so often during the ten years they worked together, hoped Friedkin wouldn’t use it. But he did. “Friedkin loved it. So did Hollywood. They lapped it up, so did the public,” he groans.
Hackman didn’t lap it up, however. Grosso: “Hackman got all disturbed the first time he saw us arrest and lock up a guy. He kept saying, ‘I’m not a copy, I shouldn’t be involved in this.’ Then, when we took the guy to court, he couldn’t wait to get him a hot dog when he was hungry, but Eddie was having none of it. I tried to explain that we had to arrest and bring to court 30 people a month, and bring in another 130 for questioning. If we bought everyone a hot dog, we’d be broke. About three weeks later, he saw the same guy in another shooting gallery. Then he started to get the idea.”
Hackman was far from ecstatic about portraying such an unconventional and sometimes prejudiced cop, and became increasingly irritated by Egan’s Irish “charm”, recalls Grosso: “Eddie was always teasing and chastising Gene. I think Gene had a bit of a problem with the character at the beginning. But as time went on I think he found that there were many similarities between them. When I saw the final cut I was amazed how much Hackman had become Eddie. It gives you the respect you have to have for actors who, with the proper research and direction, actually become the people they play, such as De Niro in Raging Bull.”
It was a great true-life story for the big screen, but the mechanics of filmmaking meant artistic licence was employed to ensure optimum visual effect. The famous scene where Hackman chases an L train was based on an actual chase in which Egan and Grosso tried ot keep ahead of a subway train between Penn Station and Grand Central so they could catch the drug-dealing Frenchman as he got off. To make it more visual, D’Antoni and Friedkin got Hackman to chase an L train which ran above ground along an elevated railway line. A kamikaze stuntman drove the car, driving flat out whilst weaving through the traffic to keep up with the train. The inspired filmic version of this event makes a great action sequence and culminates with Hackman shooting the unarmed Frenchman in the back. Then there’s the ominous and frenzied climactic shoot-out, giving a suitably ambiguous ending to the complicated tale.
Grosso’s new vocation as technical advisor didn’t end here. While Friedkin was completing the final shoot of The French Connection on Wards Island, Francis Ford Coppola was preparing to shoot the interior scenes for The Godfather nearby. Friedkin took Grosso over to meet Coppola. “Friedkin told Coppola that he couldn’t make a movie in New York without ‘Grosso and his gorillas’, so I was hired on the spot. I found locations, showed them how to search, hammered the crowds, drove cars and provided 75 cops as extras as well as members of my family for the wedding scene.”
Grosso made two small appearances in The Godfather as Phil, one of Captain McClusky’s (Sterling Hayden) cops. The first was outside the hospital when McCluskey orders him to lock up Michael (Pacino) and he says: “Give him a break Captain, he’s a war hero. He’s not mixed up with the mob.” They had to do about 18 takes. “I wanted to kill myself,” laughs Grosso. “Because I was acting with Pacino and Hayden, my voice went up in the air like a woman being chased in a dark alley. I learned how difficult it is to be an actor.”
“Phil” was also one of the four guys who shot Sonny Corleone (James Caan) in his car by the tollbooth out on Long Island. “I said to Coppola, ‘If four buys are shooting at him with machine guns each holding 45 slugs, not only would you not find Jimmy Caan, you wouldn’t find the car. They’d all be completely blown away.’
“The next day Coppola called me over, he was such a gentleman, and said: ‘I thought about what you said Sonny, but Jimmy Caan is bigger than life in this movie and we’ve got to kill him bigger than life.’ I still thought he was making a tremendous mistake, but I was dealing with reality and he was dealing with movies. Not only did I learn that he was right, but I also learned that that scene ended up being one of the most memorable in movie history.”
It was on Cruising (1980) that Grosso really came into his own as a technical expert. Reunited with Friedkin, he worked with Al Pacino tracing an undercover cop’s troubled journey into Manhattan’s S&M gay underworld to fish out a crazed killer. Grosso had spent over five years working undercover on all kinds of cases, including a community of deaf mutes (for which he had to learn sign language) and homosexual rings. “We took Pacino out to the gay clubs in Greenwich Village to show him how to operate in that world, so he could observe and get a feeling for how people act.”
But just as Hackman and Scheider would never know what it was really like to work as a narcotics agent, to live immersed in the overlapping worlds of the cop and the mobster, Pacino would never experience the reality of undercover work. He would never know what it took to actually get results, nor would he ever have to master the psychological tactics, or experience the fear.
“Apart from mastering your cover story, the biggest thing is to know how to get information without anyone realising; also, to know how to remember faces, times, locations so you can go back and complete a report. You’ve got to remember to adopt all the characteristics, too. It’s stupid, but I was once trying to buy marijuana in East Harlem. I wasn’t smoking because I don’t smoke, and a guy came over and asked if I wanted a cigarette… I almost said ‘no’.”
Then there’s the decision on whether to take protection. “You’re often afraid to wear a wire or carry a gun into the bars because women will pat you down or touch you in all different places when they hug you – they’re told to do that to check if you’re carrying. So you need to be really creative about where you’re gonna carry a pistol.
“I was once searched when I was carrying a gun in my crotch, they never pulled my pants down, but it got pretty hairy. I don’t konw what they would have done if they’d found it. Same goes with a wire. I’d wear it in a real strategic spot running down the lining in the back of my jacket. They won’t always pursue a search if you have a good line of crap, but you’ve got to have the bravado to call their bluff. I don’t want to make out this is 007, but it’s a dangerous job.”
Grosso went on to advise on many other movies as well as being story consultant on numerous television projects, including Kojak, The Rockford Files and Baretta. He formed his own production company, Grosso-Jacobson Communications Corp, in 1980. They’ve produced some of the most successful TV movies and action series sold worldwide, starring big names such as Martin Sheen and Paul Sorvino.
Still, doesn’t he miss the danger of being a cop and the thrill of the chase? At least that dry sense of humour is still evident in his reply: “What I do is I go once a month to a precinct and the cops let me slam the cell door a few times. Every cop says you get an orgasm when you hear it close.”
This article originally appeared in Hotdog magazine. Many thanks to Tina Bexson for permission to republish.
Like many of his generation Peter Weissman recalls the ‘60s as a halcyon period of his life and, like his peers, came of age during this revolutionary era marked by social, cultural and political change, relayed in the memoir, I Think, Therefore Who Am I? Dolly Delightly investigates
Peter Weissman was involved in both the political scene and the hippie drug subculture, was arrested demonstrating against the Vietnam war and lived in New York’s East Village, trying to find himself whilst experimenting with drugs. During the 30-odd years it took him to complete I Think, Therefore Who Am I? he lived close to the people and locales of that past, documenting the odyssey of discovery and confusion, catalysed by psychedelic drugs.
Weissman went to Boston University for a graduate degree in journalism but left as soon as he could. He later completed his thesis, entitled ‘Trends Toward A New Age’, in 1971. He lived for a time in Berkeley, with its transplanted hippies and former political activists, and for the past 20 years in Woodstock, New York, the town associated with the festival. He has earned a living as an educational researcher, teacher, marketing clerk, postman, reporter, press secretary for a politician, gardener and as a freelance copyeditor for major publishers, which he now does from his country home.
I Think, Therefore Who Am I? (published in 2006) is the first book in a triumvirate, and has recently been translated and published in Italy under the title Penso, dunque chi sono? The second, Digging Deeper, was published 2010 and begins where the author’s psychedelic memoir ends, as he re-enters a world he once took for granted. From there, Weissman takes the reader on a coast-to-coast trip, sardonically observing himself as he presents a slice of the ‘60s generation negotiating the ‘70s in discrete, short stories. Weissman is currently working on the third and last book in the series.
You document your interest in writing in I Think, Therefore Who Am I? but what do you think was the first impulse that set you on the course to being a writer?
I wrote a poem in fifth grade which was published in a mimeographed school magazine. I remember feeling quite proud, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer then. I didn’t keep a diary or a journal at home, I didn’t read books (nor was I read to). In fact, I was always behind in English at school. Not surprisingly, in retrospect. A more formative writing experience occurred a few years later when I was in the seventh grade. A teacher by the name of Mr Lipmann showed an interest in my writing bringing to light the possibility that maybe it was something I could be good at.
Why did you feel compelled to record your experiences by writing a memoir?
I’ve been writing so long you’d think I’d know the answer to that. But I don’t, other than to say that I’m an expressive type, primarily a verbal person, as oppose to, say, a visual or an auditory one. As for recording my own experiences, it seems I have a need to explain myself. Also after giving up writing for a while I came to the conclusion that I needed to write because if I didn’t I went a little bit crazy.
Interestingly enough, some psychologists have claimed that the creative urge is a kind of neurosis. Would you agree?
I’ve heard that, usually in connection to a psychological exercise to determine whether or not the alleviation of neurosis interferes with the tension necessary to create. I myself conducted an experiment of sorts one winter, about 10 years ago, to test the claim that writers are compelled to write and found it to be true as without it I felt I lacked self-actualisation.
Your memoir records a time when you were heavily into drugs. How did you get into them and do you recall the first time?
A friend who read it told me that although I was in that world, I was never actually of it. I’m still thinking about that. I began, I guess, like many others of the ‘60s generation, smoking pot on weekends while in college. At the time, it was a daring thing to do and those who did it considered themselves as outsiders… It loosened me up. In fact, a few years later I was eager to try psychedelics, to see what all the fuss was about. And it was great, for a while. You’ll never hear me apologise for it.
When’s the last time you smoked a really good joint?
A long time ago. I don’t do it anymore. Among other reasons, it left me fatigued and sluggish, and as a result I couldn’t accomplish much. And when you get older – or at least as I’ve gotten older – accomplishing things becomes more important than getting high.
So what do you do for kicks nowadays?
Kicks? Too exciting a term for what turns me on nowadays. Between professional freelance book editing, which I enjoy immensely, and my writing schedule, I spend most of my time on the seat of my pants. Other than splitting wood, I’m still trying to come up with something challenging to do over the winter, which lasts about five months here in upstate New York. In the other seven months – spring, summer and fall – I like to bicycle. Now that I think on it, it was something Henry Miller also enjoyed in his later years. He once said his best friend was his bicycle, a bohemian-made track bike he bought from a six-day racer at Madison Square Garden.
Going back to your experience of drugs, do you think the artistic vision is enhanced or distorted by hallucinogens?
I don’t think it helps you be a better writer. For one thing, you have to know your craft, or vocation, to do it well. For another, whatever “creativity” consists of, it is, you might say, a drug in its own right, and mixing drugs is never a good idea. But it can be helpful in terms of perspective, and in moving from one place, or angle, to another, since that itself can catalyse new perceptions, ideas and thoughts. But so can travel or any number of things such as abruptly waking up at three in the morning and finding yourself in a sudden crisis.
What other things have then catalysed new way of seeing and thereby influenced your writing?
Good question. It makes me go back and catalogue what would be the most important influences in my life. Certainly, the psychedelic drug experience, and the bleak aftermath, which compelled me to begin anew, in many ways, some documented in the follow-up to I Think, Therefore Who Am I? called Digging Deeper. What I considered my “spiritual studies” had an effect, but also getting married which led to all sorts of realities, good and bad. The overall conclusion I arrived at can be boiled down to a quote by Michel de Montaigne who said: “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself”.
Are all the characters in I Think, Therefore Who Am I? based on real people? Have you had any feedback from any of them?
Yes, they’re all real people: in both I Think, Therefore Who Am I? and Digging Deeper. I did meet some people from I Think, Therefore Who Am I? years later, but no, I haven’t had any feedback, except from one character who was of the opinion that everything we experienced back then was make-believe, worthless, and there was no reason to dwell on it. The epigraph to my memoir is a quote by Jiddu Krishnamurti who said: “The one true vocation for many is to find out what is real”. So you can imagine my incompatibility with my former acquaintance. In fact, I’m short on patience with people who insist on leading the unexamined life. So I didn’t try to reconnect with him again.
You recorded the time and milieu of late 60s New York with acute perception. I know you grew up in Queens, could you tell me a little bit about that, and how/if the city inspired you at all?
Where I grew up – one of the “outer boroughs” as they’re called – I could have been a hundred miles from what people think of as New York City, which is Manhattan Island. So I can’t say I was inspired by the city; I only knew it as my own uninspiring middle class neighbourhood. I was not entirely foreign to Manhattan, because I commuted to high school there from Queens for three years – an hour and a half each way – which made me familiar with the details and indignities of a more congested urban environment. And, like a tourist, I’d visited a few landmarks and gone to a few off-Broadway shows.
But finding myself on that Island after college, for the first time in my own apartment – in the East Village, a wonderful, motley neighbourhood of small bookstores and coffeehouses – was a wonder. I loved walking the streets, coming upon hidden nooks, the sense of a more adventurous life, even when I wasn’t participating in it except as an observer. But that alone, in contrast to my previous life, was a windfall to creativity, and in that sense the city did indeed inspire me.
Your memoir is set entirely in the realms of the city and among real people, yet the line between fiction and reality sometimes seems blurred. Is it something you set out to achieve?
No. In fact, my initial conception of the book was to tell my story as directly as possible, including the drug scenes, though the line between reality and fiction was difficult to discern at times. This was a challenge I attempted to meet with realistic description, dialogue, and a somewhat removed narrator who was, among other things, more ironic than his younger self. I wanted to capture a particular state of mind through my characterisations of others, as well as places and scenes. As George Orwell pointed out, truth is not absolute but a writer should strive to report what he thinks it is. In trying to capture the hyperawareness brought on by psychedelic drugs, however, I did couch my perceptions in mythic interpretation, which is not exactly real. My characters are themselves, but their qualities are redolent of gods and goddesses. As I noted at the end of one chapter: “The gods on Olympus had not been perfect. They were human, after all”.
You have clearly been influenced by various things, but do you credit any one writer with an influence on your literary tastes?
I guess I’d have to say Miller, for his anecdotal style. Louis-Ferdinand Céline for his stream of consciousness prose. I also like Orwell. Raymond Chandler and Ring Lardner taught me it was okay to be funny. For a while, I was taken with Albert Camus and to a somewhat lesser degree by Sartre, which encouraged me to be the existential writer I am, but with a dollop of irony that is entirely my own.
I did write to Miller once, when I was trying to get someone to take me seriously. I did that with several writers I admired, but he was the only one to respond. He did it in longhand on his own stationery, which had an inscription about the eels in the Sargasso Sea. I have it somewhere in my filing cabinet, and one of these days I’ll probably find it.
Miller always wrote about what he knew, do you think an artist’s “experience” has any weight on the quality of his work? Can one write good books about a subject he has no feeling for?
I suppose what you learn influences what you write, and I think you have to get “into” it to convey what you believe. But I don’t think our actual experiences have anything to do with whether we write well. Anyone can see more or less deeply into their own lives, whatever the content of those lives may be.
What is your concept of the creative process per se? Would you agree with Leo Tolstoy’s suggestion that writing is “the transmission of a feeling which the artist has experienced”?
I agree with that, but then I don’t write what would be considered fantasy. Although I do enter a trance of sorts while writing or at least the preliminary stage of it feels like that. The second stage, in my own process, consists of editing – finding more satisfying words or phrases to what was written in the trancelike, cathartic stage. Adding and / or subtracting sentences, paragraphs and ideas is all part of the writing process but I guess you probably know that.
by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve
“…what others call form I experience as force” – Roland Barthes
LAYER 1: SUSPENSION
Begin with iridescence and force. A force without form or home or convention, almost more like “a diagram without a will” (1) – suspended and hung. Send it at a line, ask it to organize a sport, watch it seek out – discover – form. And then you might begin to discover the medium Matthew Barney works from. Another word for potential, force is, after all, measured in its effect. Mutability is the hidden elixir here. Ever, ongoing, endless, metamorphosing mutability. If force is the substance of transformation; mutability is the secret of its success. Think of a squeeze; flesh responsive to the pressure. Think of a pass; player beholden to the ball. Think of a hydraulic jack pumped to its maximum pressure, held against vaseline-encrusted skin: danger, potential, eros, lyric. Think of a straight-jacketed Houdini suspended miles above, hanging from a moving plane. Think of the fall into the Isle of Man after a series of rituals and extended gracings of the floor. Tap. Friction. Hole. It is the restraint and tension that alters. Shape is only the end result of contact and suspension.
LAYER 2: SECRET
Reductive – not to mention unfashionable – as such a comparison is, biology can be likened to art. Biology and art take as their medium the manipulation and development of form; both depend upon the revelation and production of secrets as their modus operandi. Fiddling about in the sticky fascia separating and connecting the familiar and unfamiliar, biology and art, share the affinity for tackling what is most uncanny in life. Think of the genesis of species crafted out of nature’s own highly stylized and bizarre laws to produce visionary beings no one could predict; species transformations which tax the mind. In this sense, “nature” is just another way to name the sheer madness of biological generation.
But where science is hell-bent on denuding and taxonomizing precisely what is most strange and inexplicable in nature, one saving grace of art, I hope, is its desire to thrash and journey into the corridors of as yet unperceived realms. So imagine when the artist becomes biologist, unlocking the secrets of DNA sequences of which s/he is the very progenitor. Matthew Barney’s meticulously crafted bio-aesthetic projects are accreted from just such an impulse.
Like the pearl. Try to shave off a slice and put it under a microscope. You’ll only find layers formed in earlier pieces; genetic mutations from piece to piece. Narrative is biology here – physical transformation. Watch as a wrestling mat becomes a piece of flesh; a field dressing shifts from bandage to vaseline-field plugging orifices, to ubiquitous Barney icon (2) or watch as athletic equipment is turned into a seeping, dripping creature – denuded of function – reborn as suggestive organism.
LAYER 3: SECRETION
A nacreous concretion formed within the shell of various bivalve mollusks around some foreign body (e.g. a grain of sand) composed of filmy layers of carbonate of lime interstratified with animal membrane; it is of a hard smooth texture, of globular, pear-shaped, oval, or irregular form, and of various colors, unsually white or bluish grey; often having a beautiful lustre, and hence highly prized as a gem; formerly also used in medicine. (3)
Sometime after my first viewing of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 4, I dreamt I was born inside a pearl held in the fingertips of one of the Loughton Candidate’s whimsical, caring, yellow-taffeta’d Faeries. It was a dream of sensation not plot. There I was, squeezed into some dream condensation of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who spliced with – I only realized while writing this article – a 1991 Artforum cover featuring Barney’s work. But the focus of the dream was the textured substance of the pearl’s skin separating me from the world. Although I was made from the friction of a piece of sand housing inside a perfect form – tiny, at the whim of a Faerie, in danger of being dropped, last seen drifting off a yellow exercise mat, perhaps, into the sea – it was the material of the pearl’s wall that I remembered. As well as the feeling that the “I” in the dream was in the process of gestating into something-elsehood formed by the bio-aesthetic laws of the guiding Faerie’s – not conventional biology’s – rules.
LAYER 4: A PEARL DROPS, RISES, SUSPENDS – THE SECRET OF THE CREMASTER
The mollusk’s defensive formation around a foreign body, a pearl – like a secret – is a secretion of vulnerable, interior form hardened, layer by layer, over time. Once upon a time the secret was a fragile but potent cultural entity. Think of its formative presence in the nineteenth century in everything from psychoanalysis, detective fiction, archeology to Houdini. To uncover a secret – Tutankhamen’s tomb, the hysteric’s repressed conflict, Dupin’s purloined letter – suggested that one had found a key to unlock labyrinthine histories, confusions, lost cultures, narrative mysteries. The secret was sought after, courted, cherished, precisely because it was an agent of magic and revelation. Today the secret is chipped and tarnished, lacking in intelligence and vitality, reduced from pearl of wisdom to tabloid-encrusted excretion.
… Until Matthew Barney showed up in 1991 presenting an installation of video-taped memories of his secret trek across a gallery space (Mile High Threshold: Flight with the Anal Sadistic Warrior) or his two-hour loop for The Jim Otto Suite (1992). A gallery space heaving with the residue of effort. A ghost space – a world of creatures and objects and forms hunting, haunting. These are pieces not just about physical, sexual, and material force but which, in their video-taped state, include the shuddering suspense of witnessing secret rituals. Removed from public performance (which would make them just acts of spectacle and bravado), shelled instead inside the video-view, they are strenuous, touching, luminous choreographies of private acts of danger, eros, thrill, epistemophilic exploration, and sheer lyrical strain.
To revive the charged thrill of the secret as sensuous, public display – what Barney’s work shares with his mentor Houdini – in these times in which we live, is no mean feat. I mean, would Houdini have caused such a stir today? Imagine:
In Chicago Houdini escaped from a huge sealed envelope without breaking the paper. He released himself from the interior of a giant football laced with metal links and fastened with padlocks in Philadelphia. In Boston he penetrated the chained carcass of an embalmed “sea-monster” and left no clue to his method. (4)
Maybe, but I sense he’d need something else: the metabolizing secret – secretion – suspension into which Matthew Barney’s world asks us to escape.
Matthew Barney in conversation, March 1995.
Like the hydraulic jack, or Loughton Ram of Cremaster 4 with descending and ascending horns, his interest in such forms is the simultaneity of open and closed / descending and ascending fields.
Definition of “pearl”, Oxford English Dictionary.
Christopher Milbourne, Houdini: The Untold Story (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1969), p.4.
This essay originally appeared in Parkett 45 (1996). Many thanks to Thyrza Nichols Goodeve for permission to republish.
Vanessa Zainzinger follows the breadcrumbs to tomorrow’s tracking trends
Chances are high that you have already used Google today. As you typed in what you were looking for, scanned through the results and clicked on the link you needed, you provided Google with plenty of valuable information. To an extent, you have influenced which links are to show up further up or down on the page the next time someone has a similar query as you. This is a big part of how one of the biggest web companies of its time works: through learning from you.
It is true that your data is everywhere. With every website you visit, every article you read, every Twitter update you write, every click you do on the web, you leave behind a trace of information. Remember the Grimm tale of Hansel and Gretel? Well, you are like Hansel, laying a trail of pebbles as you walk, able to track every step you took. Just that we don’t call it pebbles, we call it exhaust data. This is the sheer unfathomable amount of data left behind as a matter of course by on- and offline activities. The value of this information is yet to be understood, but we know that it is one of the great concepts that will influence our future in unimaginable ways. What can it tell us? If we use it the right way, most anything. As Google’s chief economist Hal Varian told The Economist recently, “Data are widely available, what is scarce is the ability to extract wisdom from them.”.
Data big enough that one has to think about how to store it, let alone how to make use of it, lends enormous advantages to those who can make sense of it. Just as Google has understood how to turn what they’re learning from users into a system which became the key component of their success, a sophisticated usage of exhaust data will help other industries evolve beyond their current capacities.
As digital devices soar and prices plummet, sharing information is becoming more accessible, improvements in algorithms are driving apps forward and the processing power and capacity of storage devices is constantly improving, it is safe to say that the business of data exhaust is about to explode.
Quick to pick it up was, as usual, the advertising industry, which has been bombarding users with targeted ads chosen through passively collected information for years. Whether you approve of this system or not, the industry is growing. Radium One, an organisation that uses social analytics and data to create targeted ad campaigns, has raised $21million in Series B financing only a few weeks ago. They have become immensely popular through their trademark ShareGraph technology, which analyses how users communicate with their closest connections. The business of information management, the collecting and processing of data for commercial purposes, is in fact growing twice as fast as the software business as a whole: at an impressive 10% per year. The industry is estimated to be worth over $100 billion. If you are looking for a change of careers: data scientists are highly needed.
This is the monetizing side of the coin, the one that creates a we-know-your-secrets mood. It tends to make us uncomfortable, the idea that we are being followed by a system and having databases created about us. Who are they to stalk me with an ad for lingerie just because I looked at underwear on Amazon? For marketers, this is like a massive all-you-can-eat buffet with gourmet food. For us, it’s a bit irritating. Wanting to protect their privacy is natural for people, as is worrying about it being intruded. But before going into the controversy about the dangers of handling data overload, it is worth focusing on something that’s much more interesting than the business aspect. That is, the individual. What’s in it for us?
We leave behind little bits and pieces of ourselves and let it go to waste, while there are plenty of ways to turn them into something valuable. We are facing the possibility of learning more about ourselves than we can imagine. The immense proliferation of the information age is turning social sciences upside down by making the analysis of human behaviour on a population level a task involving completely new and more complex methods of communication. In the thousands of possibilities of interpreting the data available to us, there lies a path to deeper self-understanding. Let’s step away from the digital for a moment to emphasise this. There are many mysteries about ourselves that we could solve with the help of a map of our behaviour we create through… everyday living. Given that we document it. Max Winter Osterhaus has been doing exactly this, since he started creating charts and tables about his consumption behaviour (see below). Max, a product developer based in Wisconsin, USA, has been documenting literally every purchase he has made over the past five years down to the different kinds of fruit or bread. By tracking this with a meticulous attention to detail, he has recorded an incredible amount of data about himself – manually. Max spoke to Spike about the value he feels to be gaining from this, and described his goals as “visualising disparate components of a complex existence” and as “coming to terms with the realities of our needs, desires and propensities”.
This is an exceptional example of consumption tracking and the knowledge that can be built upon it. How much does each of us effectively know about their consumption behaviour? More importantly, about what it means? This doesn’t have to be about finding out that 5% of your savings last year went into buying cheddar cheese. It could be about where your high cholesterol level is coming from. Health care is a big part of the data exhaust concept, seeing as this (uncollected) information about ourselves has the invaluable potential to help predict the onset of diseases before the symptoms emerge, of identifying the most effective treatments for you and your individual needs and to spot unwanted drug interactions. Creating software to help us develop an accessible and interpretable dataset of our everyday behaviour might just be the next big step in health care. We are already close to reasonable ways of collecting this information. Think about online and mobile phone payments, a principle which could soon lead to scanning our purchases automatically and sending the information to a third base. This is indeed a very realistic concept and on the doorstep to entering our lives.
Much anticipated health instrumentation service Green Goose takes a slightly different approach in connecting health issues and the ‘Internet of Things’ (what we call the networked interconnection of everyday objects). The company has developed a game-like system to stimulate healthier behaviour. The product is a set of tiny sensors and accelerometers on stickers and credit cards, designed to track certain behavioural patterns. The stickers would be placed on, for example, your toothbrush and recognise the movement of the object when you brush your teeth. This information is sent to the Green Goose base station, which you will have placed somewhere in your home, and added to your online record of activities. The same stickers could be put onto your running shoes, bike, water bottle, pill box and literally hundreds of other objects related to the part of your life style you would like to improve. The system basically documents your everyday behaviour automatically, with the goal to encourage a healthier lifestyle and to help you keep track of it. It makes sense – chances are you will find yourself surprised at how little water you drink or how rarely you ride your bike to work, as these things aren’t something we tend to notice. It is left up to you how to interpret this information, which is still the most difficult task. More sophisticated programs could do exactly that for you and potentially connect to your doctor’s database.
And there is much more we can do with exhaust data. How about a resumé made from passively collected data, as a less manipulable insight into our lives than the little narratives we create ourselves today? Way ahead of you. Technical forum StackOverflow is doing exactly this for its users since the launch of its Careers 2.0 service in February. Users’ contribution to the site through technical answers and questions they have submitted can be turned into valuable information for potential employers, giving a genuine insight into the users’ expertise. Undoubtedly, this system is perfectly applicable to all kinds of business areas. In the near future, we may expect a platform for employers and applicants where part of the application consists of data collected from the potential employee’s online activities, be it social media, blog posts or even the online articles he/she reads. With ever more information available after all, why should employers keep relying merely on what the CV – consequently the applicant – tells them?
These are just few examples of ways to create value from exhaust data. It comes down to an often made point: devices to gather and contain the information are available; how to make sense of it is the true art. It is worth keeping an eye on the hardware, which doesn’t yet offer enough storage space to capture and process the full quantity of information available. The quantity of data grows much faster than the ability of the network to carry it, although the processing power and storage capacity of computer chips is doubling every 18 months, according to Moore’s law. And yet, music website Last.fm knows what we listen to, Kindle technology Whispersync knows what we read, and brilliant iPad app Zite collects our information to give us individualised magazines with articles we like. Our data is everywhere and it is being stored.
It raises questions of privacy and security, like all upcoming concepts involving personal information do. As deep an insight as it gives us into human behaviour, the desire to protect the captured data is a priority that has to be considered when handling it. The so-called Locker Project, brainchild of open-source guru Jeremie Miller, is an exciting idea that focusses on storing data while protecting it from third parties. Any user is encouraged to download a data capture and storage code to run it on their own server, or alternatively to sign up for a hosted service. After this, the Locker Project will pull in and start to archive all data accessible on- and offline: pictures, videos, click-stream, check-ins, twitter updates, data from real-world sensors like heart monitors, health records and transaction histories. The data extracted will be stored in your personal, private ‘locker’. Everything seems to be done right here: permissions, privacy, storage. Having access to such an extensive dataset about yourself is interesting as it is, but the room for contexts to view it in is even more immense. The team behind the Locker Project is aiming at cross-references with other sets of data, in order to make patterns in it visible which would otherwise be missed. This could reach from food recommendations back to the pre-diagnosis of medical conditions.
Until the Locker Project is launched, you can always do what Max Winter Osterhaus did and have a closer look at your life without the help of digital means. “The record keeping is less important than the analysis and I definitely believe that everyone should do this.”, he tells me about his life-map. “Not everyone wants to come face to face with the truths of their life, but I see it as an essential stepping stone to deeper understanding.”
In the age of information explosion, we are just teaching ourselves how to make action from what we are learning. And everyday we are finding out more.
A presentation by Max Winter Osterhaus on his personal consumption tracking maps and methods:
Nu-jazz, purportedly Asian influenced owing to multi-instrumentalist Kono’s (Japanese, I believe) heritage, however my immediate overall impression was of a fairly straightforward Western blend. ‘Castles and Daffodils’ opens the record to rambling effect; originally a paean to a downcast Stanley Kunitz poem, the originally effect was scrapped and re-engineered as an upbeat, light bit of proggy puttering with Zawinul influences all over it. This arguably obligato achievement accomplished, we move to the goods, traditional bop sax on ‘Common Ground’; Weather Channel background cooking on ‘Rice’. Lots of Mingus threatening as with any new-schooler, but it never rushes the gates; infinitely inspiring coffee-time stuff here. Unless I’m nuts, I’m starting to see the names of these New York session guys more and more on jewel cases, for instance Pete McCann, whose John McLaughlin depth complements Henry Hey’s keyboards, in particularly the – you should know by now I’m a sucker for the sound – Fender Rhodes.
More depleted pop soil for the grind from the latest entry in the endless procession of SoCal mall-punk bands, a resource more abundant in nature than carbon emissions from cow farts. I don’t spend a lot of time smoking joints in the back seat of mom’s Toyota these days, but I’m sure this generation of near-dropouts has many guys who can actually tell this band from Hoobastank and All Time Low, maybe through the identification of a subtle nuance like juuust a little more compression on the guitar, making it sound like something out of an old Barney Dinosaur skit, or maybe the singer is a little more like Green Day, you know, the ‘real’ stuff. For me, there’s only one thing separating these guys from the rest of the pack: they had the self-destructive impulse to rip off The Outfield and Toto – Toto – in opening song ‘So Obvious’. This not only jacks irony to new levels, it points to a defect in man’s evolutionary process, in which one would prefer hearing a baboon bonking a stick on a rock for hours on end over this.
Drawing on an improvisational heritage that includes Ornette Coleman, Fat Kid Wednesdays have been playing together for almost 20 years. Robert O’Connor listens in
Fat Kid Wednesdays: ‘Skylark':
For 12 years, until its management dramatically changed hands earlier this year, Fat Kid Wednesdays held a jazz night every Monday at the Clown Lounge, underneath the Turf Club. The Turf Club has been at the corner of University and Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota for almost 70 years and has always been a hangout for local and independent musicians.
The Clown Lounge, in the club’s basement, hasn’t been around as long, but Fat Kid Wednesdays helped it grow into a popular hangout for free jazz, putting it alongside the Artist Quarter in St. Paul and the Dakota in Minneapolis as a place to find great jazz in the Twin Cities (The trio plays regularly at both of these places).
Fat Kid Wednesdays has three main players: Adam Linz on bass, Michael Lewis on Sax and JT Bates drums. They’ve been playing together since their days at Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park. Being friends, and being friends for that long helps in improvising, says Linz, who is also the jazz director at the MacPhail School of Music. “I try to be a little more melodic in what I do, and try to not just be a bass player.” Linz told Pamela Espeland, who writes about jazz for MinnPost, that they would regularly visit Cheapo in Uptown, Minneapolis and a guy named John Morgan would show them improv records by the likes of Evan Parker.
The trio’s songs are inspired by the music they listen to – which can range from traditional jazz to folk to rock to classical. Linz told me he goes to the movies a lot, so a lot of his songs are inspired by that. Some times they’re inspired by moments on the road – feelings they have that they don’t want to forget, or a good experience somewhere that they remember. When they play they try and recapture moments. At the same time, they want to share this with the audience – they want the audience to have a good time and to feel it with them.
Free jazz has a lineage like most art movements. Adam takes inspiration from free jazz players like Evan Parker and Ornette Coleman who let loose, but also had some sense of structure. Both of them fly, yes, but they’re still anchored on to something.
Coleman’s biggest influence on him was Charlie Parker, who would take the chord changes of standards, put his own melodies over them and make the song his own, even create a new standard with it. ‘Ornithology’ is really ‘How High the Moon’ with a new melody. Evan Parker’s biggest influence was John Coltrane whose improvisations were driven by his experiments in chord stacking and modes.
“Improvisation is kinda like riding a bike for the first time,” Linz told Espeland. “Someone is there holding your hand. You’re nervous and you don’t know what is going to happen. As you let go of those feelings, you enjoy it… it defines you, and you shape it to fit your life. It changes with time and, pretty soon, it’s just like breathing.”
Fat Kids Wednesdays have their own songs, which Linz says are inspired by anything. “I listen to all kinds of stuff, not just jazz.” They’ll bring in new pieces that are usually complete, though sometimes they’re not. And they go from there – changes are usually made to the final piece.
Linz says its important for the audience to have a good time and not walk away confused. If a player improvises, they shouldn’t be incomprehensible. “I’ve seen that attitude among some people, ‘I know what I’m doing and it’s too bad that they don’t,’ and that’s something we try not to do.”
Research at John Hopkins has shown that the old saying “music is the universal language” might have some scientific basis. Dr. Charles Limb described the experiment and the findings at a recent TED talk. He would have a piece of music that musicians would memorize and play and then he would have them improvise over it, with their brains being monitored by an MRI.
What he found was that when the musicians were playing the prepared piece, the motor areas of the brain were active, but when they improvised, the language areas were active.
The arrogance of players who play without that grounding is analogous to someone speaking in a language only they understand.
But with Fat Kid Wednesdays, they try to speak in a language everyone likes. As Linz put it: “We’re just friends having a good time, and we hope the audience has a good time.”
TED Talk, Dr. Charles Limb, ‘Your Brain on Improv’:
“Guernica is an award-winning magazine of art and ideas. In its short time online, it has grown from one of the web’s best-kept secrets to one of its most acclaimed new magazines.”
01 Guernica: Launched in 2004 by New York-based writers Joel Whitney and Michael Archer, Guernica is an online journal of original creative and non-fiction work. Material is published on a fortnightly basis with a weighting towards the journalistic side. Many interviews discuss loosely political themes with novelists, as well as poets, filmmakers and others, whilst features generally investigate a wider pool of opinions and ideas. Guernica also publishes new poetry, short stories and slideshows of art (mainly photography). Their blog features a range of more politically focused commentators.
02 A magazine of art and politics: As the allusion to Picasso’s iconic painting implies, Guernica’s stated aim is to explore “the crossroads between art and politics”. This is an interesting fault line, which the site more or less traces. Sometimes this is explicit: Jamal Mahjoub’s recent interview with Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, for example, spoke of January’s uprising and Poulomi Basu’s photographs follow India’s first women soldiers. Often, though, the crossover is implicit, connecting liberal politics with an artistic sensibility.
03 Features and style: Long-form journalism is complemented by much briefer poems and short stories (including a recent experiment with flash fiction). American writing is frequently punctuated with new pieces from around the world and sporadic translations. Although opinions are drawn from across the United States, there is a hardcore Brooklyn writers and, although Guernica has an international perspective, it remains something of a New York project. Likewise, many contributors share a background in MFAs and teaching creative writing, giving the site a unique voice. The visual material is generally more global.
04 Behind the scenes: Something of Guernica’s philosophy carries over into its masthead. Having been incorporated as a no-for-profit two years ago, it is a collective effort relying on the goodwill of smart and engaged contributors. The 30-plus editors, broadly journalists and teachers, are all involved with a large collection of other publications and projects. Former Spike contributor Nancy Rawlinson is a contributing editor.
05 Features and interviews: The site has interviewed an impressive roster over its six year existence, including John Updike, Don DeLillo, Juot Díaz, and Arundhati Roy. The schedule usually includes two new features and two new interviews every fortnight. Recent highlights have been David Morris’ article ‘Public Disinterest’ and Meaghan Winter’s interview with Dean Spade. The former is a history of how vital channels of public information (the US postal service and broadcast airwaves) have been hijacked and the implications for the future of the internet, whilst the latter profiles America’s first openly transgendered law professor on an eye-opening range of issues.
06 Creative content: Whilst Guernica’s poetry, short stories and visual arts each get, on average, only one post each per fortnight, they have garnered a numbered of awards. 2009 was a particularly good year with E.C. Osondu’s story ‘Waiting’ winning the Caine Prize and Matthew Derby’s ‘January in December’ got a Dzanc Books Best of the Web award. Both were published in 2008. Recent highlights have included Melissa Ann Chadburn’s ‘Loose Morals’, with it immortal opening line “Did you know that more people jack off than pick their nose while driving?” and Albert Abonado’s poem ‘Snake Story’. Birthe Pionek’s photographs of life in Canada’s Yukon (‘The Idea of North’) have a View-Master depth and tone, the portraits look away from the lens, lost in thought.
07 Support: The not-for-profit philosophy of Guernica is reflected in its calls for support. The homepage is bordered with large advertising placeholders, suggesting different ways for readers to join the community. In addition to donations and subscriptions, there is a rather hopeful shop offering t-shirts, stickers, mugs and magnets. Guernica also offers a tiered membership scheme ranging from a $25pa Friend to a $1000pa Sustainer. The latter receives a quarterly newsletter, a messenger bag, various tickets to Guernica events, and a name on the website. The organisation frequently advertises for interns to help develop the platform.
08 Blog and opinions: Guernica’s blog offers near-daily material, often co-hosted on other blogs. More overtly political, these posts can offer a leftist defence of American liberal values, as demonstrated by Robert Reich’s writing on domestic policies. Reich served under Clinton and is now a Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley and much of his Guernica material focuses on the economy. The blog also has a global dimension, exemplified by Robin Yassin-Kassab’s posts on the Middle East. But there is also room for arts coverage on the blog, a recent highlight being Erica Wright’s promotion of the term ‘dude-lit’: “It speaks to a debate I’ve simply had one too many times about great novels in which Thomas Hardy and James Joyce win out over Brontë and Virginia Woolf every time. And by ‘win out’, I mean the dude I’m talking to speaks louder and more forcibly”.
Writing In Public is a website dedicated to the art of the essay. Chris Wood interviews its editor about the thought behind the word
“I look for writing that is well written, where the writer has a love of language and this love shows in the sentences and paragraphs and overall movement of the essay.”
James Polchin teaches writing at New York University and is the editor and driving force behind Writing In Public, a website dedicated to the art of the essay. It features a disparate variety of work, linked by the fact that each explores the essay form. “I’m looking for good writing, for new voices, for intriguing ideas. And I’m looking for a diversity of insights and experiences from places around the world. It is, I believe, the first such site to focus on independent publications in a global context. I also hope to promote the extraordinary work of editors and writers who make such publications possible in an age when big media companies dominate the conversation.”
It is certainly true that the large media corporations control discourse as far across the board as possible, having little interest in artistry or purity of form. Questions like, ‘How can the essay form help us to think?’ aren’t covered by News International. Polchin considers matters such as how the essay shapes the subject. I ask him how the style of writing can add to the basic information: “I just recently read the fascinating book How to Live; Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. It’s partly a biography of Michel Montaigne and partly a reflection on the vast number of essays he composed in the 16th century, after having retired from public life in Bordeaux, France. Bakewell’s book will make you want to read all of Montaigne’s essays. Montaigne began writing his essays (“essayer” means “to try” in French), at a time of great war and social unrest in France. The Calvinists were attacking the Catholics, the Catholics were attacking the Calvinists, and the monarchy in Paris was trying to quell these unrests with harsh and bloody reprisals. I find it fascinating that it was within this historical context that the essay form was born, or at least the reflective, meditative, personal essay that Montaigne wrote and that anchors the genre.
“The essay holds in it an intriguing mix of personal voice, experience, and universal concerns. It is not simply solipsistic, nor is it an academic argument on the problems of the world, but rather, the more interesting essays explore experiences in the world through a reflective mind. The essay can engage with politics, with contemporary issues. I don’t think of it as only about personal experiences. Writers like James Baldwin or Joan Didion or Jamaica Kincaid or Edwidge Danticat have delved into social conflicts and concerns, but always with an emphasis on their individual, reflective thinking. And this is what the essay gives us that no other form can: the mind of a writer, that meanders in thought, that considers the complexities of experience and offers reflective thinking that is hard to find today. The essay, in my mind, counters an increasing focus simply on one’s opinions and arguments, constructed in short bits of information, presented in reductive ways. The essay holds in it an intriguing mix of personal voice, experience, and universal concerns. It is not simply solipsistic, nor is it an academic argument on the problems of the world, but rather, the more interesting essays explore experiences in the world through a reflective mind. The essay can engage with politics, with contemporary issues.”
In Polchin’s teaching, he maintains an approach to the form that encourages his students to apply themselves to a more organic and flexible approach to the form of the essay itself. “I find that most students come with a very limited notion of an essay. Often they think that an essay is only that horrible five-paragraph thing that they are taught and tested on in school. I’m not sure where the five-paragraph form came from, but as I tell my students, that kind of essay makes it quite easy for the instructor to grade but teaches you very little about the history and complexity of the genre.”
The application of his theories is evidently integral to his instruction in the craft he so clearly adores. “I want them to think like an essayist, which means to develop a mind that questions and considers and draws connections that others might not see. And seeing is a good metaphor for the essay for it often helps us see in new ways.” The question of perception brings us to truth and accuracy of content. Polchin maintains that fact and fiction meet in the form of the essay, and that the two mix well: “Essays will often tell a story, or use techniques we now label as fiction. Some literary journals I look at don’t actually make distinctions between essays and short stories. But I’m not a believer in the notion that the distinction between fiction and non-fiction doesn’t matter much. Fiction asks something different from readers, and from writers. The journalist and essayist Lawrence Weschler has written that he couldn’t imagine writing fiction for the task of the essayist is to explore all the ‘knots’ and interrelationships that intrigue the writer, whereas the fiction writer’s task is to craft an empty space in the world and fill it with characters and hopes, furniture and psychologies — to recreate the world. The essayist takes the world as it is and tries to reflect on it, through their lived experiences, shaping insights beyond the commonplace ways of thinking. Narrative is every writer’s tool from fiction to essay to journalistic reportage.”
Polchin’s meticulous selection of material is clearly evident from the content of his site. Human curation was an early feature of the internet, when sites carefully chose the best material. Polchin is adamant that sites like Writing In Public have many advantages over the indifference of an algorithm. “It is difficult for an algorithm to find quality writing. It would in all likelihood go searching for a pattern of sentences or topics without any concern for the writer’s sensitivity to language. The pleasures of curating Writing in Public each week is that I consider each essay for its own merits and within the larger goals and mission of the site. I strive to open up a space on the internet where personal, reflective, intelligent essays can thrive and find new readers. I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say that it is kind of an art, but there is something creative about the process of selecting and organizing each week’s selections. There is more than content that I’m after, and more than just one kind of essay”.
With the rise of easy access to a platform and the volume of opinion pieces spilling out of its pores, some would argue the internet has damaged public debate. “I’m not so convinced that the internet is destroying our writing or thinking. I think that’s an easy critique. Writing can still be rich and interesting online if we allow it. I took a class in graduate school many years ago with a poet who won the Pulitzer Prize a few years earlier. He was exacting and demanding. I remember he would often critique the proper formatting of our essays. He once said, “The computer is a tool, like a hammer. We can’t let it determine our writing.” I think that is true with the internet as well — we can’t let it determine our essays. There are places for good writing and thoughtful, long meditative essays if we just allow for it.”
Every writer is unique and the cadences of their thoughts, and codifying of these, are necessarily idiosyncratic. How does expression and content blend to create a greater meaning than either content or style would separately? “I recently heard the Chinese-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston read from her new book, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, which is a memoir in poems. She’s been writing for three decades almost, and has moved between novels and essays and poetry. If you pick up something she has written you know immediately it is her voice, her approach to the writing. She could write about a dirty taxi cab and it would have a lyrical quality. This is what a writer can do. But then, this is not to say that content isn’t important. It is, but I actually don’t know how to talk of content in the abstract. Content is what the writer of an essay makes, and often for essays content could be those quite simply moments of experience, moments that most people would forget almost as soon as the experience ends. But this is why we come to an essay, to see how the mind of the writer has shaped something in the world into content for an essay. Good essays make content where you hadn’t thought there was content. So in this sense, I guess I can’t really speak to the distinction between content and style, for in an essay, insights emerge from what the essayist chooses as content worthy, and how the essayist turns this content into a moment of reflective thinking.”
A Theme Park; Consciousness; and the Reasonable Pessimism of the Frankfurt School
What certainly a consensus in social scientific circles has isolated and denominated as “capitalism” and “neoliberal democracy” has triumphed on the world stage. Many people seem to take this triumph as much for granted as they take the god, Jesus Christ, for granted, a god who, in contrast to the historically and textually understood Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, approves wholeheartedly of private property or even the limitless accumulation of personal wealth, and signs off on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; His televangelist representatives advocate the sniper assassination of foreign leaders. (1) If, generally speaking, we believe our polls and demographics statisticians, there are a great many such non-pacifist Christian capitalists today in America. It seems likely even that a large majority of all Americans – and big percentages, if not large majorities, of Europeans, perhaps, also – believe not necessarily what the American Christian right believes but certainly would admit to believing that the “West is best” – that History and the evolution of civilization is on the side of Europe and America for good and sound reasons: “free enterprise” and a “free” or “democratic” society in which opportunity for wealth and happiness is within reach, in theory, to anyone.
If one is not of that group or demographic it may be necessary to conclude either that something has happened to our general consciousness that permits pretty farfetched or extreme inconsistencies or internal contradictions or that some kind of general cognitive remove has occurred by which consciousness is about to collapse as an attribute that distinguishes us from beasts. It certainly no longer seems safe to assume that “consciousness” is a word or concept that continues to have a straightforward meaning with positive implications. Things are crazy, and even the middle classes are getting hit so hard they are beginning to think that things just do not add up for them any longer. Just maybe, anyway.
What doesn’t add up?: contradictions so stark that what social critics of all stripe have referred to as “the system” – the status quo – seems actually to be in jeopardy. In the Middle East, governments are falling or have fallen in countries long supporting the pax americana, for example, Egypt. In the U.S., public services are being cut so much that police departments are laying off half their cops. The “greatest health care system in the world” still is one only the richest people can afford. But the thick veil of patriotism in America, the jingoism that has always touted the “free market,” still drapes over Lloyd Blankfein’s Wall Street. Republicans won the 2010 mid-term elections. Consciousness still is a vicious battlefield. The stakes apparently are extremely high. The business profits of the undoubtedly Christian-staffed Fox News (2) – still staggeringly great – are testimony that what certain thinkers, including followers of Marx, and, in general, adherents to what is called continental philosophy (some names here you may or may not recognize: Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Sartre, Heidegger) would call “bad-faith consciousness,” is still rampantly at large. (Now, consciousness, bad or not, is one thing. What seems worse is the imminent badfate of our civilization and, from the standpoint of an ecology that humans prefer, of the planet, itself. (3) Hmm… Bad faith, bad fate: it almost rhymes… )
These lefties decrying “bad faith consciousness” condemn and bemoan this. Others wonder how anyone, Marxist or not, can speak of “Late Capitalism” – as Marxists do – as if capitalism were ending or as if there was an end in sight to it.
That there is a problem, it seems that it is a problem, therefore, that has to do with “consciousness”: what people think and believe to be true, or to be right … what they see as reality or what should be reality. Many Americans, probably many Brits and other Europeans, even those only very mildly left-thinking in their politics, for some time now have been muttering sadly and angrily about ignorance or a lack of awareness. A new and greater awareness and understanding is lacking, they say, and if such an expansion of consciousness miraculously were to come about, everything would be a hell of a lot better. It might even be possible that the world wouldn’t end so soon. (4) Speaking just for myself, though I suspect it may be true of others, as well, this is particularly of interest because of a sense in my normal waking life of beleaguerment, frustration with contradiction, and oppression, both material and ideological.
Quite interestingly, what until recently, and for what still is the case for fans of Fox News, has been the rosy picture of Western, “Judaeo-Christian” civilization, certainly from the Enlightenment on, is identified – square in the headlights – as problematic by what was semi-panned by an otherwise sympathetic philosopher named Paul Ricoeur, as “the school of suspicion.” This goes back to the playful fire of the eminences grises of philosophy many decades ago, speaking about, among others, a small group of intellectuals known as the Frankfurt School of Critical Sociology.
These writers, whose frail existence flickered to life in pre-World War Two Germany, and who, improbably, despite their paler fire, ghostly fire, one might say, critiquing the much vaunted and completely taken-for-granted achievements of Western civilization, the received wisdom of the Enlightenment, itself, for example, survived (mostly) the Holocaust (most were Jews), survived the war, survived neglect by their brethren social thinkers, and now find themselves, posthumously (except for one, Jurgen Habermas), absolutely suitable for revisitation in 2011 for the insights their work has for us and our seemingly quite broken consciousness/es. (Informed readers of Spike undoubtedly will write in that they know all about the Frankfurt School, and always did: God bless these readers! I am only suggesting that the wider public – everybody! – should study these Prophets Ahead of Their Time – the Marxist thinkers of the Frankfurt School, about whom this present effort is concerned to expound.)
I am a Yankee. A gringo. So I can only speak for Americans.
If the problem is consciousness – or the lack of it – or it is “bad faith consciousness” vs good or “authentic” consciousness, consciousnesses struggling to become aware in order to act in better faith in these problematical times – this does seem to be particularly the problem in America, today, as Americans of different political stripe albeit for different reasons will assert. Accordingly, I suggest it would, indeed, be salutary to recall the works of social theory and critique produced by the Frankfurt School, a.k.a., the Frankfurt School of Social Research (here abbreviated “FS”), that was active from the 1930’s on, first at the University of Frankfurt, in Germany and, later, in diaspora, from various points around the globe. For consciousness, a knotty subject considered in many different arenas and aspects of life, is what the FS fundamentally addressed.
So what was the FS, and who were its charter members, these chartered thinkers?
By those who know a bit of the story already, the FS particularly is remembered – gone but not forgotten? – for a number of trenchant and highly original treatises of social and cultural theory and critique. (That they have been relegated to the past as anachronisms, even by the sensitive and sensibly engaged intelligentsia, is hammered home by the fact that a contributor to the famously reasonable, usually somewhat left-leaning, New York Review of Books, described recently in kindly if dismissive terms arguably the most important work by FS thinkers, Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, as “that neo-Marxist cult classic…” (5) Cult or no, as the degree of importance of the topic rises, so does the difficulty of explication – the “unpacking” – increase. Accordingly, I am faced with the problem of how to reach or speak meaningfully to those for whom Marx, historical process, the dialectic, the materialist conception of history, and the book called, Capital, in general, continue to be not merely unpalatable in a fast-food world but entirely removed from the general consciousness out there now that is in significant fashion constructed and fed by the likes of Rupert Murdoch.
Who were they? Self-identified as Marxists one of the motivating factors for their work, collectively, was to ensure the survival of the work of Karl Marx. And one reason for the neglect of the FS’s thinkers and theorists was their allegiance to Marx. Remember McCarthyism? Even if you do, you may not be sufficiently susceptible to remembering that great gray ozone haze of the Cold War, when there was a nuclear arms race, and if “communists” were mentioned at all, it was commonly with incredulous dismissal, if not the most frightened abhorrence. For half a century in America, the great enemy, “communism,” largely defined the general consciousness. This was the case after the end of the Second World War, and it lasted at least through to the fall of the Berlin Wall, after which said Momentous Event every hitherto timorous official and born-again right-winger transformed himself into a strutting neocon who made the grand, wise, seigniorial assessment about the historically inevitable ascension of the United States to “sole superpower” and clear (revisionist) historical status as Nation Number One of the Twentieth Century, and, well, of All Time. (Cue Dick Cheney and his think-tanker acolytes and senior advisors at Halliburton.) Fox News fans – I keep referring to Fox News and those whom Fox News “reports to” so these viewers can “decide,” because, for me, Fox News is easy short hand for a bunch of stuff – for this reason – that the FS-ers were unmentionably both Marxists and articulate victims of Hitler – undoubtedly have never heard of the FS. If the perfectly coifed, high-skirted “news”-women of Fox, the pomaded Fox News-men, by some miracle (or an airplane intellectual digest of Marxism) and therefore might have heard something about Horkheimer, or Marcuse, it would be only as little shadowy insects under the rocks Roger Ailes would pick up and throw at.
I keep mentioning Fox News here because, as well, Fox News does represent a big slice of the consciousness of Americans today. It certainly isn’t because I like to mention Fox News. If I have to spend more than a second of my conscious waking life thinking about Sean Hannity, or Bill O’Reilly (who, I believe, does, indeed, have a master’s degree from Harvard – summer school, anyway, in their hotel management school), I develop a severe headache preliminary to Tourette’s Syndrome behavior. It’s just that Fox News is very big and has been in America almost since it first appeared on the scene.
In the years between the two world wars, not a great deal of attention was paid to the thinkers and writers of the FS, even though they were preparing masterpieces of iconoclastic scholarship. They did get sufficient attention after Hitler came to power to target them as enemies of the National Socialist state, and, in a particular, quite tragically ironic case, to cause one of them to commit suicide. After Hitler had laid waste to the world and died – perhaps, fittingly, for the FS, himself as a suicide, with Maria Braun, in a bunker in Berlin in 1945 – they carried on, some of them from exile in the United States, but, again, the Cold War literally froze them out of what was then the intellectual status quo. This loose-to-tight assemblage of thinkers consisted of Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Henryk Grossman, Jurgen Habermas (described as representing a “second generation” of the FS), Max Horkheimer, Leo Löwenthal, Herbert Marcuse, and Friedrich Pollock, with Walter Benjamin and Siegfreid Kracauer less directly or formally associated. All were Jews except Habermas and Pollock. “Frankfurt School” and “Frankfurt School of Critical Sociology” were terms later given to this group of like-thinkers, because of their common formal and less-than-formal association with the Frankfurt School for Social Research, an adjunct entity of the University of Frankfurt. All with the exception of Grossman, who was born in Cracow, were German-born – Habermas in Düsseldorf in 1929, Horkheimer in Stuttgart in 1895, Adorno, in 1903, Fromm and Löwenthal in Frankfurt in 1900, Pollock in Freiburg in 1894, Benjamin in 1892, and Marcuse in 1898, in Berlin. The span of years of their births, thus, was from 1895 to 1929. Their published works spanned the years from the time Horkheimer became director of the School for Social Research, in 1930, through to the works of Habermas, from the 1960’s on. Their friends included the Marxist historian, Ernst Bloch, and Gershom Scholem, scholar of the Kabbalah. Antonio Gramsci was a contemporary. Several of them focused in their doctoral work and then their habilitations, or post-doctoral teaching qualification writings, on Kant and Hegel; all wrote in opposition to the idealism of Fichte, Hegel, Schelling and their successors. The Institute functioned until its members fled Germany with the advent of Hitler as Chancellor and the one-party National Socialist state. Accordingly, many of the writings of the members of the FS were written from outside Germany, and the Institute, itself, was reconstituted only in 1949, when Adorno reunited with Horkheimer in Frankfurt; Adorno speaks of himself as one of the “damaged” (Minima Moralia) of his generation of exiles from fascism.
Before going into the matter more deeply, why are these men important? A digression here. Hopefully, you will enjoy it.
The principle focus of the work of the FS was consciousness.
Consciousness, as suggested or implied, has many different senses. Most attempts at formal definitions are deficient, in my view, even as there are many different approaches to its formal consideration, these several approaches each grappling with saying precisely what it is and simultaneously in completely different ways. (6) In this essay, I do not have in mind formulations or propositions about consciousness that derive from neurobiology. Not do I have in mind attempts to understand it and explain it by thinkers who come from a tradition in British and American philosophy called analytical philosophy. Neither of these approaches, the neurobiological or the analytical (often termed, “linguistic”), has dealt with issues in which a discussion of consciousness was central, issues that were, and are, of particular noteworthiness to Marx, and to the FS, and which, as I intimated at the beginning of this essay, are of great, central, and terrible importance to us now. (7) This is with respect to the sense of political, social, and historical consciousness, a very real panoply, practically speaking; “very real panoply” struggles to be less approximative in its sense; but it is what Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, would “bracket” as a “natural standpoint” of consciousness. Husserl’s radically empirical phenomenology incorporated a “transcendental ego,” ostensibly free – after phenomenological reduction – of “the natural standpoint,” with its unexamined presuppositions; the existentialist, Sartre, and the post-existentialist, Heidegger, particularly, denied the possibility of Husserl’s transcendental ego. Many people would assert not only that political, social, and historical consciousness are considerations with a great deal to say that is quite relevant, if not “truer” as a context of consideration than any other. (Marxists would agree.) More about the philosophical consideration of consciousness in a bit.
A Theme Park
But first, a digression from this digression that may seem to you yet further removed from the announced subject of this article. I assure you it does speak to the subject of the FS.
In another sense of the word – noting here the “bad faith consciousness” just mentioned – given that the expansion of “capitalist democracy” – read, increasing hegemonic monopolistic aggrandizement of the planet by multinational corporations – such is the businessification of every human transaction, financial, psychological, social, intellectual, and so forth, any entity or undertaking, even a Spike essay such as this, these days must have a “business plan.” (One can envisage this in the waylaid consciousness of today: “first the essay, then the movie,” as literally everything is transformed for the sake of capital. Karl Polanyi called this turn in consciousness “the great transformation.”)
So: the business plan. For it occurs to me there is a way that takes into account reflexively the assigned subject: a theme park.
Now, to the corporate magistri of the theme park industry!, (8) those controlling the images and profit margins of Mickey Mouse, Universal Pictures, Dolly Parton, and so forth: Do not fear! I am not seeking financing yet, so you do not have to worry about a player added to the competitive field. But it is tempting…
I see in my mind’s eye a great dream house, an enormous structure like William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon – a main building in the theme park – containing within it hundreds of rooms, several with amalgamations of Victorian armchair boudoirs. In addition, there are basements with Steampunkt factory-like apparatus, great pipes and so forth. Upper floors are given over to clothing factories with women workers crowding to the windows to jump to their deaths because the factories are on fire. Mysterious tunnels lead from the main house to out-buildings where physicists split the atom into tinier and tinier particles; both Marx and modern physics look at matter, and it may be they work on roughly similar problems. We certainly have seen how Marx’s experiments to split the atom of history have produced enormous energies, that is, of revolution.
In this wonderful, now ghostly mansion, escorted or ferried around by actors in various disguise (from sans culottes to berets to uniforms with the Red Star on it), one can see what is revealed to be, from strolling around, an enormous, oddly misshapen, but principally absolutely utilitarian – proletarian – architecture. Adjacent to Marx’s study are lecture halls for Horkheimer and Adorno and others; one can imagine Benjamin creeping in from time to time after long bouts of excitement, drink and confession with Bertolt Brecht, Marxist poet and playwright of The Threepenny Opera and founder of “epic theater” (his apartment, with theater props, lights, dimmers, masks, standing everywhere, is nearby, as well). There are two kitchens, one bare of most appliances, indeed, having only a propane stove, with shelves of cans of the soup shown in the illustration, another with all of the appliances and pantries of delicacies for the nomenklatura. Apartments are given over, in varying proximity to or distance from Marx’s great overstuffed armchair, to the constituent parts of Marx’s heritage and legacy, for example, formal, modern, all steel rooms for the structural Marxists – Althusser, Godelier (decorated with African masks) and Meillasoux. A series of apartments shaped like an ice pick is reserved for “Trotskyism.”
We see outside, through the window, a scarecrow looking like Levi-Strauss glaring at someone, a little man with a much taller woman; we are tempted to console him though we don’t know for what. (9) Nearby, Gramsci sits in a prison cell, chewing on the stub of his pencil. Other, smaller mansions are clustered near the main house. The Bolsheviks occupy the ground floor of one, their young, intense, sad countenances drawn with the exaggerated pen of Stalin – an obsessive doodler and talented caricaturist; they each have a bullet hole in their foreheads. Mao, a talented poet, occupies another; in beautiful calligraphy, sheets of his poems are stuck onto the bamboo screen walls; numerous young, beautiful and scantily robed Chinese women come and go, each holding a pot of tea. An ominous, cold-black, star-shaped structure is still under construction in a field of stubble; sounds of Stukas diving, machine guns, and explosions are heard from somewhere inside. A gift shop sells postcards of abandoned, skeletal children struggling with too-heavy oversize suitcases on the Cote d’Azur… As with other semiotics of the theme park, we use the pen and camera of W. G. Sebald for whom color was of great importance because the alienation of the elements one from the other allows for, or dictates as fact of a new physics, color as so unassimilable yet so eye-catching and impossible to do without (with a kind of imaginary poignance) that its deployment in the schemata of the theme park strikes us with both the pain of untreatable cancer and the anodyne of addiction: forgetting, the nagging pain remnant within the merciful death otherwise of memory.
It strikes me that the best design for the contemplated theme park would be to place the entire many square kilometers of it against the backdrop of a giant slightly concave mirror. This is because a crucial pattern in Marx’s thought has to do with a doubling of things, not only his theories of value and of labor but his comment famously revising Hegel, for example: that all important facts of history are repeated, with the second one farce. The concavity of the giant mirror reflects back a distorted whole: without the reflexive, all wholes are false or inauthentic … even with the reflexive that can be the case, a hall of mirrors or infinite bouncing back and forth of the reflection, in pursuit of the synthesis. While I expound on this a little later, suffice to say that one of the greatest illustrations of the principle of the double, or the instant or automatic doubleness of the human Being, that is, as subject or “for-itself” – which is also to say of human consciousness – is the series of woodcuts created by an early contemporary of the FS, the German expressionist painter and founder of Die Brücke, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; Kirchner may be the Episteme for the first half of the twentieth century, the last decades of the Modern. The series, “Peter Shlemihl and his Shadow,” iconically represents the impossibility of wholeness. About this idea, by the way – intriguing testimony to the continuing deep power and relevance of FS thought – in his Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno observed how the Fragment shows more than the original Whole: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.” A seeming, great conundrum: the greater – emergent – substance is that of the shadow or the double – the antagonist – when placed next to the original or agonist. The notion, again is Hegelian: the thesis always holds within itself the seed of its destruction, which is the antithesis, which, in turn, holds within it the further, unifying step of the two, the synthesis. For the FS, renowned for their “pessimism,” the synthesis is an existential impossibility. The curious, somehow deeply disturbing sense of being second-hand is the overriding experience of collapsed modernity. This is hugely, hugely important to grasp if you wish truly to understand modern-to-postmodern consciousness and history, that is, epistemically. Big word, very key, these days. But perhaps best put off for another article.
We can keep on walking through the theme park, but we’re likely getting tired and could use some sustenance, or a couple of cold ones, maybe. As we leave it for now, I suggest the theme park dedicated to the Great and Terrible Man does have much to be said for it. For one thing, there are so many fun and funny ways to collect the admission fee. The transaction serves, in and of itself, as a reminder – reiterated by the situating of the theme park away from everything else, not a tree, other building, not even a locust for a new John the Baptist, nothing, to suggest a context of “civilization” into which it and its subject matter are integrated (an abandoned combine farm – its farmers long-since bought out and downsized – could be purchased in the vast plains of America’s midlands) – that the medium still is the message, that transactions based on capital wipe out everything else, (10) that digests of experience and life are prized, not merely required, by the New Man, Consumer-Man, who – if we are to believe those wistfully hopeful that “Late Capitalism” is soon to be “The Late Capitalism,” as in the deceased capitalism – is already becoming passe. (I hate to point out to these good folks that capitalism seems to create its own worlds.) Another benefit of our theme park of Marxism is that it anticipates the farcical second appearance of the lebenswelt, the “lifeworld,” “lived experience,” (11) one of the hallmark notions of continental philosophy, as elaborated in modern times early on by Husserl and then much later again by Habermas – in that it makes the lifeworld a consumable, with a price on it. As pre-digested experience is what the palate of the Right greatly prefers, I might be able to make some money for our stockholders out of the contemplated theme park, and isolate this most extreme duplicity for study by (inevitably leftist) social scientists who appropriately have been determined to come mainly from disenfranchised or marginalized peoples, Jews, for example. (End of digression. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you’re still chugging away with me.)
The Entirely Reasonable Pessimism of the Frankfurt School of Critical Sociology
That Marx was so important in the opinions of the members of the FS should not be taken for granted nor their individual contributions diminished in whatever way because of the secondary or commentator character of much of their work. Rather, it seems the truer and more responsible assessment to make of the School that its members understood Marx better than his other interpreters, followers, and critics – because they were able to take Marxism and go forward with it in new and concrete ways, and, in so doing, they recovered for us or reoriented us to evaluate, once again, the usefulness and relevance Marx’s writings and ideas continue to have, or not to have, for us.
The FS came into being in the years between the two world wars – notable peaks of human slaughter in a century that witnessed 365 million lost due to wars – and at the beginning of the worldwide Great Depression. Hence, the undue “pessimism” they have been accused of is the more remarkable for its having been overcome at least as forecast. If recognizing a fault in us of morality (fairness, justice, amelioration of human suffering) is insufficient to change our ways – which the FS critiques and studies can help us to do by showing us how we think wrongly about matters social, economic, political, and aesthetic – then the vital threats to our physical survival should at least require us to take another prolonged and serious look at the extraordinary inequalities of Western society internally and by comparison with the rest of the world, inequalities that threaten human existence; the productions of the FS-ers provide conceptual tools to help us understand our situation and, hopefully, if not solve our problems, point us in a better direction – toward a more just social model. How do they accomplish this?
As consciousness is a key topic for Marx, and more particularly for the FS, some more elaboration here is called for. If Husserl erred with regard to the transcendental ego, and there is, indeed, no such thing as “pure consciousness” (it is a great credit to him that he emphasized the “intentionality” of consciousness, which made clear that one cannot be conscious unless there is some thing that one is conscious of – consciousness is always and only intentional, as he put it, in the Cartesian Meditations), it was not not only completely justified for Marx and the FS to stress particular consciousness, for example, a consciousness in which the Western Enlightenment has been prominent if not dominant. It needed to be critiqued.
The Frankfurt School theorists took a tack with what otherwise is one of the big problems with critical theory – and romantic, or continental, philosophy (the philosophy that sprang from Descartes and passed through the German idealists – more on this a bit later), and that manifested as a common, early misinterpretation of Marx – the positivist assumption that man, and human consciousness, are privileged or special emergents, that can or must be considered untouched by physical (e.g., biological) or material constraints or frames of interpretation. Without proper attention to the issue we must ask not what makes human consciousness unique or special but is human consciousness unique or special? Even if we resort to the cogito (see below), we are assuming human consciousness is privileged, and that it stands apart from any consideration other than its own consideration of itself – bracketingall considerations from a “natural standpoint.” This is the phenomenological and existential approach, and it would seem, then, to be one reason why romantic philosophy, as it ultimately manifested in Marxism, inevitably leads to activism. In Reason and Revolution Marcuse wrote: “Hegel’s system … brought philosophy to the threshold of its negation and thus constituted the sole link between the old and the new form of critical theory, between philosophy and social theory.” Such a statement refers to the biased, worldly or “actual” involvement of the thinker/philosopher in society and history, which is precisely what Marx implies in the Preface to the First German Edition (of Capital), (12) and what he affirms, outright, in the Theses on Feuerbach: philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.
More to the specific point here, to truly understand the content of the thought of the FS, as suggested earlier – and while many hints and ideas already have been given – one needs to grapple with the term and concept, consciousness. This is because so much of what they wrote about, extrapolating from Marx, in order, they believed, properly to strengthen and protect the great edifice of the Master, was also because consciousness was where the relevance, with renewed and even greater significance, lay, that is, to consciousnesses, plural.
As articulated in perhaps the key contribution of the FS, Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, “domination” was the enemy of authentic consciousness. How does this reverberate within Marxist thought which, otherwise, has seemed to stress historical cause located on the substructural, material, level?
One of the most important, if not the most important, issues in and ramifications of later Marxist thought falls under the heading, critical theory – ironically a rather uncritically examined notion that includes both sociological concerns (e.g., consciousness as part of the work of authentic social – socialist – action, as well as aesthetic, e.g., “post-modern,” literary theory); here I mean the term with respect to one particular denotation, the turn – or the reflexive – in consciousness by which one becomes aware of oneself and the constitutive (Husserl again) nature of consciousness. An immediate insight follows: that positivism is an insupportable metaphysic because it springs from a non-transparent, non self-aware, consciousness. (You can understand how “critical,” then, also means “careful” scrutiny but not merely that: careful scrutiny with one arbiter or standard – concrete historical process, that is, dialectical process.)
In our theme park, by the way, one of the first busts we encounter of Great Men predecessory to Marx is Descartes. This great splitter between the scientifically rational and the irrational also was the enunciator of a momentous discovery, that of the reflexive or the critical, which we have encountered several times already in our theme park of Marx. The cogito, as it is often referred to in philosophical tracts – taken from the statement, cogito ergo sum – was an a priori and self-evident insight, simultaneously instantly, transparently clear and extremely penetrating or deep, as it led to the secondary, necessarily implied, conclusions of the existential. These ramifications and permutations, thereafter, were explored by Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Husserl (very explicitly in the Cartesian Meditations), Heidegger, and others, such as Gadamer and Ricoeur, writing, for example, about the hermeneutic. Contra sophist nitpickers and the analytic philosophers, in general, there is a straight, intuitive line one can trace through all of these thinkers from the self-given, a priori insight of the cogito, as each, in turn and with a particular field or discipline or body of thought, amplified and elaborated on it. Contra same, there is no negating this line of thought because it is completely and self-evidently logical and true, and exclusively so with regard to the radices of philosophy, which is to say: if a consciousness is going to study either the formal philosophical categories of ontology and epistemology, he finds he is doing to do so only in combination, that is, both ontologically and epistemologically. Again, making the commitment to do so must always begin with the cogito, for it is the only self-evident proposition in the universe of assertions and assumptions of what must be considered the most fundamental intellectual undertaking of all, philosophy … well, most fundamental short of social revolution. Although their emphases were not purely philosophical but, rather, sociological, historical, and aesthetic, the members of the FS wrote entirely within this tradition and this trajectory.
Not to belabor the point, the fundamental insight to grasp is that every beginning in pure thought must spring from the cogito – even, as I say, as it leads ultimately to action (cf. the last lines of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness). The concrete things of the universe are made concrete by the so-called subject – by consciousness, and, accordingly, there is a double action entailed of man-in-the-world, which, as Heidegger, pointed out, is the only way we humans are. This double action consists of the world, first, and then the world observed and constituted – discovered and created simultaneously, which appears to be an impossible contradiction but in truth is not so – it is only contradictory because of the existential condition of the for-itself.
The fact that in his later years Heidegger chose to devote his time to thinking about poetry – using Hölderlin as the particular subject for his speculations – is understandable; it is particularly with language that he believed is the clue needed to untie the Gordian Knot of the hermeneutic. This is because language, and, particularly exemplary, the language of certain great poets, expresses the emergent – the shadow, the double, the antagonist. In so doing is revealed how the antagonist is bigger and more substantial than the agonist. This is to say that the antithesis will always be larger and more substantial, in existential reality, than the thesis. There is no negative symmetry. The fact that completely occupying the meaning of the thesis sows the seeds of its destruction does not mean they are equal; they are unequal. Sartre’s dichotomy of thetic and non-thetic also makes this clear; the non-thetic corresponds with “lived experience.” (As much as Heidegger was fascinated with poetic language, I very much regret that the FS writers did not respond to German expressionist painting and, specifically – a personal wish – to Kirchner’s “Peter Shlemihl,” which I suggest is perhaps the most lucid and touchstone-living work of art that illustrates these tensions.)
All of those associated with the FS were linked by commonly held concerns about the distortion, and vitiation, of Marx’s thought and work. Subsequent interpretations and/or quite different formulations after Marx’s death were based either closely or not so closely on Marx – the first utterances by Marx and Engels – the “primary sources” – are said to be “classical Marxism.” Greatly simplifying and noting only the most prominent individuals and schools of thought, in the immediate period after Marx’s death in 1883, the spotlight shifted to newcomers on the stage, for example, to most of the revolutionary groups in Czarist Russia and, later, in post World War One Germany, to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Already, formally denoted “socialist” groups and movements, responding to the contradictions and emiseration of capitalism and neo-liberalism, had sprung up, for example, the Fabianists in England.
In more theoretical terms, in addition to arguments about what Marx meant, the debates were about how to proceed (e.g., Lenin’s What Are We To Do?, composed between 1901 and 1902); there was an urgency about Marx and his thinking because finding a way structurally to alleviate human suffering, as an outcome, particularly, of industrialization, was a central motivation – a motivation both instinctive or reflexive and mentioned as a matter of course by Marx, himself. Accordingly, early post-Marx debate revolved around such matters as permanent revolution or revolution-in-one-country (Russia) and about peasant vs proletariat revolution. Debate focused, also, on epistemological and other more purely philosophical matters. In addition to the nature of consciousness, the idea of the “dialectic” and Hegel’s formulations with regard to historical process, the struggle between the “classes” (proletariat vs bourgeois), the nature of history, materialism vs idealism, history vs process, and so on, all received more or less their due attention and moments, singularly and recurring, on the stage.
The members of the FS were concerned with what Marx meant. They were as tightly knit or as loosely bound as these intellects, mostly quite in sympathy with one other, were permitted, found, or required by the arguments and intellectual advances themselves – they were internally consistent and logical as much as they derived naturally or organically from Marx. They chose as their focus the novel, but now assumed fundamental, corrections to and reapplications of a Marxism that not only had, with Stalin, gone majorly bad but, in addition, more generally, been diverted or distracted by the theoretical interpretations of dogmatic, reductionist, supposed orthodoxy (at the time what we now would see as unreconstructed opportunist or ad hoc “communist” revolutions in single countries – the Soviet Union – contra Trotsky’s world revolution). In addition, the FS-ers sought to remedy the faults or grave missteps of positivism, materialism, and determinism that were threatening to derail the relevance of Marx and Marxism. It is probably important to keep in mind that of these three sins, positivism has been the most insidious, ironically, in its theoretical malefactions and still the most useful to deconstruct, for example, for the sake of the hermeneutic, but, fundamentally, because positivism has proven to be the hardest nut to crack, with Anglo-American analytic philosophy, such as logical positivism, and its successors, having many adherents dismissive of the reflexive impulse and insight because they simply do not seem to understand it.
And, as far as we can tell – without the full hindsight yet of a history extending into a post-capitalist age – the truly enormous transformations of human society and humankind wrought by the technological revolution or the developments of the information age, as well the planet-wide degradations of the environment, and human overpopulation – given all of these wholesale transformations of human life on Planet Earth, it is a wonder that this relatively modest, soberly pessimistic body of commentary and analysis, by contrast not seeking great attention to itself within the context of the vast rightwing-conspiring post-Reagan epoch we now live in, has survived at least to the extent that its ideas, again, seem so sufficiently intriguing as more than a little appropriate and applicable still – and particularly now, when the epistemic consciousness is so ransacked and set against itself.
Some of the Main Works and Useful Theses for Today’s Hopeful and Otherwise Lost in a World of (Other) Theme Parks … and a Soapbox Rant, or Two
Just as I urge, in this walk-through of the rooms devoted to the FS in the theme park of Marx, renewed or new attention to particular FS-ers, I want to underscore that each of them contributed important theses reinterpreting their Master but also going beyond where he had time or energy to look as they also analyzed social forms unexperienced by Marx – totalitarian societies (National Socialist, inspired by Pollock’s habilitation, and Stalinist, as dissected by Marcuse) as well as the Western consumer societies, for example.
Arguably, the most influential has been Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). In addition to an affirmation that a focus on consciousness is an essential component of Marx’s contributions, the principal insight of this work was that hoary Western intellectual advances, primarily the Enlightenment, were partly formed by and considerably contributed to precisely the negation of the kinds of values explicitly proposed; this insight represented a reflexive or self-aware distancing from enormous, blanket, unexamined presuppositions (cf. Husserl). One recent reviewer wrote of the “continuing relevance” of the work, which describes “…modernity as a world of restricted thought and suppressed alternatives…” and, therefore, as needing to be overthrown, noting the Dialectic’s emphases on “…the all-pervasiveness of commoditizing social relations, the totalizing presence of cultural production, and the domination of the critical faculties of rational thought” (ibid.) The fundamental point of the book is the critical or reflexive stance of its authors apart or outside of the Enlightenment “myth”; the truly reflexive or critical which was only forecast or foreshadowed by Marx (working as he did, however, directly within the romantic tradition, in his case, of Kant and Hegel), described by Horkheimer and Adorno within but apart from Enlightenment “rationality” (as much as self-awareness permits), then, is a key contribution made many decades ago and that has special relevance now, when the domination of capitalism even in mass consciousness seems so complete and unchallengeable that its puppeteers seem not to fear the image of absurdity – as cut-and-paste disconnected pieces of consciousness (cf. Benjamin’s “Arcades”) in hilarious juxtaposition. (Clicks of the tv remote through the hundreds of channels available now provide the most extreme contrasts of content and affect, the only glue holding them together, a glue that is also a mindless soporific, the selling of things.)
Adorno on his own produced the Minima Moralia. Written during World War Two but not published until 1951, this was composed as “aphorisms,” or short definitions of common words and phrases that served, for Adorno, as inspirations for what might be described as blues or jazz riffs of usually melancholy mood on the sorry state of things in modernity – a “damaged” and treacherously hypocritical and unreflective consciousness and existence.
In this way, Adorno echoes another FS-er, Walter Benjamin. His “arcades project” is only partially published, rescued from National Socialism and Benjamin’s suicide which occurred when he had escaped the Gestapo by slipping into Catalonia but was informed, mistakenly, that he would have to return to Vichy France. The arcades are the stalls, in 19th century Paris, where, Benjamin posits, for the first time the modern age of capital was transforming, overwhelming, consciousness by diverting it into the disjointed stream of the commodity. Projected onto the modern consciousness in the arcades – stalls where advertisements appeared and where things could be bought, things the individual never knew existed, and certainly never knew it, or he, or she, “wanted.” This “freedom” fragmented not only consciousness but identity. The only common factor belonging to the things for sale in the stalls was that they were for sale. There was no other organically connected ideology than commodity and profit. The Paris arcades were the kernel, Benjamin wrote, for “the mechanical reproduction” of consciousness, the effect being the passing of the self into the limbo of things, down endless alleyways and sidetracks. The commodified consciousness has come to define modernity, collapsed modernity, and post-modernity. As capital has continued to transform the world, now, with advanced capitalism, consciousness has been digitized on the internet where “virtually” (remember “lived experience”?), in ever more exact fashion, with bots tracking our buying impulses, capital not only finds “what we want”but constructs and instructs our identities by the things we are made to want to buy for the sake of more capital.
Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man makes the observation, so relevant today, that consumerism represents a profound form of alienation in capitalist societies; Eros and Civilization argued that Freud and psychoanalysis represented “critical social theory.” Marcuse’s first work, and one of the earliest book publications of the FS, was Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (1941), which argued that Marx and the line of critical thought he promulgated was the correct and natural consequence of Hegel.
Habermas – a “second generation” FS-er, and student in the 1950’s of Horkheimer and Adorno at Frankfurt (in the reconstituted School for Social Research) – is the Grand Old Man today of German philosophy. Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), his first comprehensive statement about critical social theory, was descriptive or “anthropological” in that he discerned three types of “knowledge-constitutive interests,” the elucidation of which permits the third of these, “emancipatory interest” to “[overcome] dogmatism, compulsion, and domination” (cf this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry). Theory of Communicative Action (1981) remains his major work. As second generation but still formally of the FS in affiliation and training, Habermas seems to depart from Marx’s prescriptions of the dialectics of class conflict, stressing, for example, that rationality as realized in communication between individuals and groups, can defeat or circumvent the negatives of modernity and postmodernity, even as his propositions remain socially grounded and meaningful rather than what social scientists have long since dismissed as “methodologically individualist.” (“Economic Man” is an artificial creation; if we are going to atomize humanity, far closer to reality, or the reality those of us who consider that we like and value human beings, and life, itself, would prefer, I might suggest to you, is “Social Man.”)
In our theme park, of course, are countless soap boxes. I am now standing on one of these, as I call out to you on my bullhorn:
These are but some of the major contributions of the FS. I urge Spike readers to explore these and other works that I have just touched on here or not had the space to mention. All are of precious value, historically. But, much more importantly, vitally importantly, taken together, the books and essays of the FS offer great spurs to a fully dialectical “enlightenment.” With their guidance, we can understand how too many of us have been deconstructed and constructed for the sake of capital. The commercials on television, in general, and now on the internet – teaching us in the First World that self-fulfillment comes from buying with our credit cards stuff that ultimately is destroying the world, as consumerism eats up the planet, teaching the Third World the same thing as we in the West hopefully learn to reject the name, consumer, and reject the process of consumerism, and, simultaneously, continuing without discrimination to emiserate all and anyone for the sake of the Blankfeins of Wall Street, and the Murdochs of the media and “news” world, and the Koch brothers of toilet paper, and energy, and whatever else it is these funders of the Tea Party movement, make and sell us … well, we can learn to turn these off. We can learn to resist as one, enlightened mass: the People…
Okay. Not yelling anymore.
But these are the kinds of activism the FS permits us to understand and consider. The FS also, again, points us back to Marx for fundamental and critical analysis of historical – dialectical – social process.
Placed again in formal context, a true assessment of the FS as a whole, its impact and heritage today, allows us to understand where both continental philosophy and Marx went before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Marx, particularly, was an exponent of great social action, but so it seems have been the masses in Tunisia and Egypt just these past few months.
The point I wish to make is that whatever you may think you think about Marx and Marxists it is still the case that your consciousness does not have to be fractured, or fragmented, or bought and sold. More people tan one might suspect believe that things have reached a critical stage. If you feel the stirrings, the same beleaguerment and frustration that I feel, just maybe like the revolutionaries in Egypt these past few months, you can help start to make something happen. Incidentally, with this encouragement I am entirely true to the continental philosophy this article I am sure made clear I adhere to: the thought, as I say, straight from Descartes, forerunner of the Great Enlightenment, the thesis of which the FS showed us sowed the seeds of its own destruction, through to today.
Conclusions: Leaving the Park
There are various doors out of the theme park. The type of exit depends on how well the visitor to the park scores on a little quiz given by smiling docents. Obviously you need to acknowledge the outstanding likelihood of discovering insights of extraordinary relevance not only to understanding but also hopefully helping to resolve some of the almost unspeakably horrendous and terrible contradictions in society and consciousness today. A passing grade, by the way, opens a door leading to an invitation to join a commune of attractive, passionate, men, women, and children, each possessing a unique talent – each of them absolutely fascinating and commendable (musician, physicist, chess player, athlete, plumber, agronomist, poet, truck driver, etc.), each not merely accepting of but welcoming the dictum, “To each according to need, from each according to ability”; in the background, an orchestra plays the Internationale. A failing grade, however, opens a door shunting one down a crude concrete tunnel into a sty full of starving pigs.
We have seen the monsters that “communism” can produce. By now, surely we know well the monsters that “capitalism” produces and which, contrary to bourgeois faith, appear to be far worse. Is it really necessary to continue to point out that the cheers of the capitalist brokers and cynical so-called ideologues on the right are hypocritical, red herring, lies and cant, that, for example, “communism” is bad because of the likes of Stalin or Mao, or, incredibly more stupidly, because of the supposed slippery slope of “big government,” and that “capitalism” – synonymous with democracy (not!) is best because (a Hobbesian) “human nature” unchangeably is what it is? If these hypocritical repeat-dissemblers and disinformers, cunningly misinform, in order to mislead, those led also by these patriots to not think, to not question – the “Christian,” NRA- and NASCAR-devoted, “pro-life,” Obama-doesn’t-have-a-US-birth certificate types – one wonders how it must still be necessary to point out that what Marxists with justification (read the history!, I suggest to you) call the “capitalist-imperialist wars” of the last century killed ten times as many human beings than one can lay at the feet of Stalin and Mao combined. By saying this by no means am I suggesting that Mao and Stalin were in any universe to be considered good guys; no, how they used their power made them into great monsters. But one wonders how it must still be necessary to point out, as those writers and thinkers of the Frankfurt School of Critical Sociology, despite their general pessimism – or, perhaps, dialectically because of it! – have been implying: that Socialist Man is possible. From the worst can come the best. The human species continues to evolve: evolutionary biology affirms this. The seemingly revolutionary uprisings in the Arab world going on today may begin to confirm this. We must wait to see if these revolutions are only more the wannabe turmoils of Consumer Man, that is, waylaid and sabotaged and distorted against themselves by capital and what Habermas and others of the FS term, simply, The System.
The FS’s members were in fundamental agreement that Marxism largely had fallen to narrow parroting in defense of orthodox Communist parties and regimes. Epistemologically, they were concerned that positivist assumptions still prevailed. And they were motivated, as well, by the fact that “traditional” Marxist theory could not adequately explain the turbulent and unexpected development of capitalist societies in the twentieth century – “traditional,” meaning, in this case, extrapolations from and interpretations that did not necessarily follow or agree with what Marx, himself would think or might have thought. It is important, therefore, to emphasize that as much as Marx and his theories continued then and continue now seem to have extraordinary relevance and to provide invaluable insight into historical and social process, the FS has formed what must be considered an essential part of the efforts, through time and space, of humans to build a better, more just and equitable, society. Of course, utopia inevitably becomes dystopia, and any huge shift in consciousness is not likely to alter Trotsky’s opinion of the tailless apes. But one must believe that only from such realistic pessimism, again, one of the keynotes of the FS, might we as a social species advance. The “critical” means self-aware – therefore, hopefully, continual checks on how we are doing. That the greatest culmination to date of the romantic impulse in Western thought was the work of a onetime Nazi, Heidegger, both confirms the pessimism of the FS and gives us hope that out of the black hole can come the long-awaited advance. Lashed by the legacies of world war horror, by death squads and genocides in Central America and Central Europe, in Africa and Asia, ridiculous hypocrisies of advertising and marketing as foretold by Benjamin’s “arcades” for contemporary consciousness, the fragmented consciousness of consumerism, will all this be overcome? In the worst are the seeds of the best? And if we can speak hopefully but realistically – despite the current prospects – what would or will the New World look like? The fine-tuned sensibilities and insights of the Frankfurt School of Critical Sociology may represent the type of consciousness that prevails, sooner or later.
The “Reverend” Pat Robertson advocating, during one of his television sermons, employing a sniper to “take care” of Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela.
Is there anyone who would suggest differently about the religious affiliation of Fox News employees?
István Mészáros, who, in Socialism or Barbarism (1995) does extend the prophesied downfall of capitalism, brought about by the “internal contradictions” of same, to the ruination, ecologically, of the world.
Having said this, some convergences are curious. The doomsday eschatology of the “Christian” right and the despairing left converge, although, for the latter, without the chiliasm: fire and brimstone for moral failings conflate with a now seemingly unavoidable world-wide environmental calamity. Another point in curious agreement: lack of awareness or understanding – proper consciousness – of the real or true situation is what has gotten us into such dire trouble.On the one hand, if more people believed in Jesus we would win our wars, powerful bad enemies of Christian America like Hugo Chavez would die – in his case leaving us his Venezuelan oil – and the American way (including multinational corporations) would be able to keep on the march certainly into all those places around the globe that fall within the sphere of “American interest,” which is pretty much the whole world. Everything would be just hunky-dory. Or almost so. Social security and Obamacare socialism still would have to be eradicated so that “taxpayer money” would no longer be used to prop up, artificially, those who otherwise are less “fit.” The invisible hand would take care of them – that is, by not taking care of them.
Mark Lilla, “Slouching Toward Athens,” The New York Review of Books, June 23, 2005.
This inquiry has been pursued notably by philosophers such as David Chalmers and David Dennett, but also by mathematicians such as Roger Penrose, working with anesthesiologists – in the latter case, postulating that “quantum action,” such as “tunneling,” “entanglement” or “superposition,” occurs in neuroanatomical “microtubules.” In other words, consciousness is considered as something in and of itself, that is, without contingency – they call understanding it the “hard problem” – by which “subjective” awareness, in the abstract, happens: How, why, or in what way does the experience of seeing the color red differ from the “fact” of red as a wavelength of light? In an unreconstructed or analytical philosophical manner, this often is called “reflexive,”meaning simply, more or less, “self-aware.”
Sartre’s famous, “consciousness is what it is not and it is not what it is” is more a characterization than a definition; it contains a clue about how the dialectic of the “for-itself” and the “in-itself” operates and, hence, how the constitution of the world does not mean that the world is not already “there.” For, it is both – a seeming impossible contradiction until one realizes the dialectic precisely doesnot fix but moves back and forth as from two poles; the hermeneutical circle dilemma applies here, which nis not a dilemma, at all once one realizes the operations of consciousness in-the-world.
I scratch my head at the daffiness of capitalism today. Check this out: http://themeparks.about.com/ for more on the subject of theme parks. But is it so daffy? Maybe crazy like a fox? Can theme parks be consonant with Evil? My intuition says, yes.
The famous feud between Sartre and Levi-Strauss – basically as to whether consciousness effectively or completely is constructed or not – was a feud fought at the wrong place at the wrong time. The ultimate, and seemingly irreducibly impossible contradiction of the true whole of Being remains: that between the absolute concreteness, the “radically empirical,” to cite Husserl, on the one hand, and the constitution (Husserl, again) or construction by consciousness of What Is. Heidegger tortuously wrote about this. Marx – and his estimable followers, the apostles of the Frankfurt School – emphasized the dialectic precisely for this reason. And, to give Sartre his due, the existential does lead ineluctably to the “mystery of action,” as he noted at the end of Being and Nothingness.
I keep reminding myself to research how Karl Polanyi deals with Marx… Someone, please, write in to Spike about this.
“Lived experience”: one of those fascinating, seemingly impenetrable, or ridiculous, turns-of-phrase from later – existentialist – continental philosophy that can only be parsed by those who understand the implications of the original insight of Descartes, the cogito.
“The social statistics of Germany and the rest of Continental Western Europe are, in comparison with those of England, wretchedly compiled. But they raise the veil just enough to let us catch a glimpse of the Medusa head behind it. We should be appalled … if … commissions of inquiry into economic conditions … were … to get at the truth … the exploitation of women and children … housing and food…” (1867 [Capital 1977:9]). The Communist Manifesto (1848) also, of course, makes no bones about promoting revolutionary action.
Darren Aronofsky’s new film has been celebrated as a powerful psychological thriller revolving around lust and ambition. It was chosen to open the 67th Venice Film Festival and has been nominated for a staggering 166 awards, including 5 Oscars.
The story is centred around a ballet company in New York, and how an ingenue dancer takes over from an established star. The fading lead dancer is a striking, possessive and self destructive presence. Her exit is not graceful but gratingly ugly, nothing less than dedication bordering on psychosis.
This is the path that the new prima ballerina finds herself walking. Nina (Portman) is an innocent, disciplined and naïve young woman, the ideal choice to play the chaste White Swan, a graceful and pure creature.
It is the challenge of playing the opposite role – the seductive and powerful Black Swan – that sees her floundering. As the ballerina struggles to find previously untapped carnality, temptations and challenges threaten her sanity.
There is an almost confrontational, sensual moment towards the end of the film. The lead character, Nina juts her face toward the camera. There is a snarl of sexual danger on her face, eyes animalistic with jagged passion.
It is a scene of startling power, where a character seems to reach forward out of the screen and challenge the audience. What makes it more surprising is that the actress pulling off this rare feat is Natalie Portman.
Portman is not a star that people associate with sexuality, or good acting. After her shining turn (aged just 12) as Mathilda in Leon, she struggled to find the roles that would allow her to blossom.
Here she finds an ideal showcase. Her character has the awkward insecurity of a shy but determined talent, which suits Portman to a tee. Her aura of confused innocence and struggling dedication is pitch perfect.
As the delirium of the role takes hold, we see a series of stunning transformations. Most notably it is the boiling lust that sizzles out of her which surprises.
Portman shares two scenes with co-star Mila Kunis that are strikingly fierce. The first is sexual, a narcotic laced night of rebellious passion. This scene is delivered perfectly – the more worldly and sensual Lily (Kunis) tempting and delighting the fragile, repressed Nina.
The second is a furious cat fight. Nina’s hallucinations become more prominent and overtake her grasp on reality. Sure that Lily is sabotaging her, a wild scene of violence erupts. Its fury is memorable and shocking, a good counterpoint to their former passion.
A central ingredient to Portman’s fine performance is Aronofsky’s direction, which is geared around her strengths. Some critics have claimed he tailors the film to her needs, thus explaining why her part works so well.
While Portman certainly delivers, it is true that the fine support is arranged to balance the star’s weaknesses. Aronofsky’s excellent judgement means that none of his leading lady’s trademark flaws – flat, emotionally unresponsive acting – are visible. If she does win an Oscar, it will be as much down to his direction as her performance.
One of the film’s most erotic moments comes from Vincent Cassel. Finding his star dancer a little too innocent and virginal, he plants a strong kiss on her lips, his hand swiftly rubbing her crotch. He then falls back into passionless criticism, illustrating to his star the need to turn her sexuality on and off.
There can be no better actor for this than Cassel, who embodies an almost proud sleaze in his part. Between him and Mila Kunis, they provide the simmering eroticism the film needs. It works beautifully, and due to this fine balance, Natalie Portman shines.
Chris Wood is the author of Sherlock Holmes and the Flying Zombie Death Monkeys, available from Amazon.
Reviled at the time of its release, and now considered a cinema classic, Blade Runner still attracts attention. Tina Bexson has an audience with the androids
“I’ve seen things that you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near Tanhauser Gate. All those… moments will be lost… in time. Like… tears… in rain. Time… to die”.
It’s the climactic speech of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, where Roy Batty, the dying replicant leader played by Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, enlightens ‘blade runner’ Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) of the more enriched lives, and physical and emotional superiority, of Nexus 6 replicants. And it’s proceeded by an act that eloquently depicts the ambiguous nature of what it is to be human and not human with Hauer’s ebbing replicant saving the life of his killer by pulling Deckard to safety. Most of all, the scene perfectly sums up the whole point of what has to be the most famous sci-fi film ever made.
Set in a decrepit 2019 Los Angeles, and based on Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner traces the attempts of cop Deckard to ‘retire’ four genetically-engineered androids who have escaped from an off-world colony to track down their creator and persuade him to expand their pre-determined four-year life span. Its cult status is of course legendary, for it’s a film that had it all, making its longevity quite unique. There’s the exceptional and eclectic mix of sets and special effects creating a Metropolis-style futuristic cityscape that includes the Trumbull-designed Tyrell building, a Mayan pyramid with Art Deco detail; Deckard’s spinner, a quasi-helicopter; and the existing 19th-century Bradbury building in LA where Deckard finally comes face to face with Batty. The visuals are accompanied by a suitably eerie score by Greek composer Vangelis to take us further into Scott’s ‘other world’.
Then there are the offerings of what defines us as human using not extra-terrestrials, but a set of man-made aliens, replicants, played by an unconventional cast. And, as both Hauer and Daryl Hannah (who plays Pris, the ‘pleasure model’ android and Batty’s lover) told me, Blade Runner offers something enigmatic, indecipherable, that makes it intriguing rather than unnecessarily confusing.
“When I read the script it was so great, so different from anything I had ever read before, and still it,” reveals Hannah who still maintains it is her favourite film. “It was almost hard to understand, it was almost like another language because it was so ahead of its time. Before Blade Runner, all futuristic films were quite stark and modern, you know what 50s idea of the future. This was really different, quite complex.”
“Movies where a man fights a robot have been around for many years”, observes Hauer. “Blade Runner’s special irony is that a man fights a robot which is more human than human.”
Hauer’s bleached blonde hair and Nordic looks, gave him an image of ‘perfection’ swiftly grabbing the attention of Scott and producer Michael Deeley, who said that, apart from The Italian Job, it was the best casting experience he has ever had on a picture. “It was wonderful because we had a completely blank page and we went for people who were not comic figures, but who were original looking.” K. Dick was also suitably enchanted: “Seeing Rutger Hauer as Batty just scared me to death because it was exactly as I had pictured Batty, but more so.”
Unsurprisingly Hauer is amongst those calling for a re-release: “The global publicity around Blade Runner has been going on for 20 years. I’m convinced a re-release would make perfect sense now. It would be lucrative. Thinking has changed.”
Thinking has indeed changed since 1982 when it failed quite dramatically at the box office taking only $17million though it cost $28million to make. This initial release (which is the second of Scott’s sci-fi trilogy commencing with Alien and culminating with Legend) included a pathetic voice over and taped on happy ending inserted after the screen tests proved disappointing with audiences baffled by the story line. The Director’s Cut 10 years later brought the film back to what Scott had originally envisioned and got rid of the voice over and silly ending enabling it to receive the critical success it deserved.
Hauer thinks its commercial failure was to do with it being “cold in sentiment and high in intelligence. Blade Runner raises intelligent questions. Some people don’t like questions”, he adds, when prompted to explain why the American public were so outraged by the film’s depiction of their beloved LA. But those who do like questions continue to take great pleasure in the searching for answers amongst its many layers of meaning. Especially those associated with who is an is not human.
Philip K. Dick, whose work incidentally is increasingly being filmed, what with his short stories Minority Report and Impostor made into feature films [and now The Adjustment Bureau], got the idea of the replicants by reading the diary of an SS officer who said that “the screams of children keep me awake at night”. Scott’s film though depicts replicants as being rather more human than SS officers are. It plays around with their differences and similarities resulting in the ultimate debate relentlessly fuelled by die hard fans on whether Deckard himself is a replicant, used to catch other replicants, and part of the original team of Nexus 6s having had his memories altered after capture. In hindsight and to the increasingly sophisticated cinemagoers, the answer seems pretty obvious. The ‘signs’ are there, they’ll hit you at sometime and in one way or another be it subliminally or smack in the face. The most obvious sign being found in the origami tin foil unicorn left by Gaff at Deckard’s apartment, though it meant nothing until The Director’s Cut when Scott edited in Deckard’s daydream or reverie of a unicorn (using footage from the rushes of Legend) in an earlier scene when Deckard is drunkenly striking keys on his piano. The fact that Gaff makes and leaves the origami unicorn means he must know about Deckard’s ‘daydreams’ and how else could he know unless those ‘dreams’ are memory implants? Perhaps he also wants Deckard to know his life is limited so he will attempt to join Rachel (played by a very restrained Sean Young) on the run. All the other characters, human or not, seem to know he is too – Bryant, Tyrell, and of course Rachel, who cryptically asks Deckard in his apartment: “have you ever taken that test yourself?” referring of course to the Voight-Kampff test which uncovers the emotional and empathic distinctions between replicant and human.
Scott finally settled the issue and confirmed Deckard was a replicant in a 2000 documentary, On the Edge of Blade Runner. It seems he meant it to be that way all along, though the intention could have come about by accident. One of the screenwriter’s (David Peoples) original ending had Deckard meditating on the meaning of humanity in a voice over, but his words were misinterpreted by Scott to mean Deckard was a replicant. Peoples: “The script read: ‘In my own modest way, I was a combat model. Roy Batty was my later brother.’ He was supposed to be realising that, on a human level, they weren’t so different. I think Ridley misinterpreted me, because he started announcing: ‘Deckard’s a replicant! What brilliance!’” Although Hauer said in the documentary that he didn’t perceive Deckard as a replicant, that the question of whether he was, was “kind of a joke”, he told me that he thinks Deckard was a bit of both. “What I understand and think I understand it very well is that Deckard is a human replicant. A man who’s lost his soul to some ‘killerbizz’ and who can easily be manipulated and blackmailed. A man who’s lost mind and matter of what makes him human and a real man.
“Ridley likes playing games with your head. Blade Runner raises questions but doesn’t answer them. I like it too. I think the whole piece is an intelligent mind-fuck.”
Understandably, Hauer quickly related to Ridley’s vision of the future. “Ridley’s vision, I got it, vacuum fit.” That vision is also especially known for its bleakness; it offered an image of dehumanised society as the consequence to technological progress, but Hauer, unlike those many Americans during its first run, seemed to find something almost visionary amongst the negativity.
“Dark is just a word for the black in black and white. To me darkness is what gives us light, and vice versa of course. I find Blade Runner’s visual and musical tones quite exotic, even romantic in a few ways as well as a kind of Miles Davis’ Blue… What I found genius is that by depicting the future as being in decay Ridley gives the future a past, and, therefore, a deeper sense of history and reality.”
It’s not surprising he is so thoughtful and fond of a film that clearly became a turning point in his career and made him the unexpected star over the more bankable Harrison Ford. Ford wasn’t a happy man and frequently fell out with the director and other cast members, most notably Sean Young, both on and off the set. But it seems everyone was falling out with each other. Scott in particular was in the firing line (quite literally at one point), and was constantly battling against an overworked crew and cast with Ford being the most vocal, accusing the director of worrying too much about the special effects rather than the actors’ performances. The moneymen were Scott’s biggest headache, with one of the funding companies jumping straight down his neck the moment he went over budget. The increased stresses and strains made Scott a ‘screamer’, a term he gave himself in hindsight.
Still, Hauer is sanguine, somehow managing to maintain a positive if slightly over-romantic take on the troubles that surrounded him at the time. “Tension, problems, they all helped create what ended up as my screen work. The distance between what is real and not, is very clear to me.”
In fact, he got on very well with Scott, as did Daryl Hannah whose suggestions Scott readily took on board. “Blade Runner and Dancing at the Blue Iguana are sandwich ends for me, because they are two films that I feel satisfied me as to what I always wanted to do as an actress”, she explains. “They are the only two roles that I got to use myself in the way I wanted to, the only ones where I got to disappear in to a role and be creatively involved. Blade Runner wasn’t an improvised film, but I really got to be involved in the creation of Pris.”
Naturally lithe and athletic, Hannah decided she could add something extra to Pris’ physical attributes. “The fight scene with Deckard originally took place in a gymnasium. Basically it was just me bashing around with weights and hanging from rings, kicking him and stuff, and dragging him into exercise machines. The idea of the cartwheels wasn’t in the script but I said to Ridley ‘I can do lot of gymnastics’, and then I did some in the office for him during my audition and I did it again for him during my screen test. He then took out the gymnasium but kept the gymnastics.
“And Pris was a wonderful character to play because I could get really lost in her, even just on the most superficial level. I’d go to work everyday and no one would even say hello to me because no-one would recognise me. Then I’d get into the costume and every one would go ‘good morning Daryl’ because I had transformed into someone else. And I loved that. That’s what I worked for. The fact that she wasn’t even a human being, it was really cool to play with that.”
Hauer’s input was of course slightly more cerebral. Shortly after Pris’ dramatic and horrific ‘death’ at the hands of Deckard, Batty returns to Sebastian’s apartment to be confronted by her dead body, tongue protruding from her mouth. Batty kisses the corpse and gently teases her tongue back into her mouth with his own. “By pushing Pris’ tongue into her mouth, Batty buries her,” explains Hauer who instigated the idea. “It’s a way to make her presentable. He waxes Pris up. Makes her look decent again.”
The subsequent fight scene between Batty and Deckard was storyboarded to a kind of Bruce Lee showdown. Hauer insisted that he wasn’t built like a martial artist and suggested they perform more of a chase, a bizarre dance that reflected the replicant’s final physical and mental state, but one that was over in a flash. “After having had four Nexus 6 replicants die in various big stunty ways of greatness, and it being the end of the film, I felt it better to go back to the truth of death. With batteries running out of steam, the ending would be short and simple.” But Hauer had a further and much more memorable input, and for this we need to go back to Batty’s famous last lines spoken on the rooftops of the Bradbury building. These were unexpectedly ad-libbed by Hauer on the day of shooting.
“The speech – as written – for the ‘end’ was thick and very high-tech. I kept the expressions that still had some space around them and added ‘All those moments…’
“I tend to digest the ‘character’, as far as that goes, and chew the lines, tasting them like some sort of food, see how they feel. In the process I drop unnecessary words. With fewer words they all become slightly more pregnant with possible meaning. But they travel the airwaves in good speed, just like special moments. They are not created. They pass through by accident. But it all depends on the director’s willingness to go there.”
Umm. It could be interesting to see whether actor and director ever work together again during their current lifetimes.
Early drafts of the script were called Android, Mechanismo and Dangerous Days. The name Blade Runner came from a William Burroughs book, to which Scott bought the title rights for $5,000.
Another early draft ended with Deckard taking Rachel to safety out of the city – and then shooting her!
Dustin Hoffman at one stage wanted the role of Deckard.
The original budget was $5.5million – it ended up costing over five times that.
To make the industrial cityscape at the beginning of the film, metal cutouts of oil refineries were lit with seven miles of fibre-optics.
The Warner Bros New York street backlot, redressed for the exterior scenes, was nicknamed ‘Ridleyville’.
A UK newspaper interview with Scott, where he unfavourably compared American crews with British ones, did the rounds on the set, prompting the US crew to wear t-shirts saying ‘Yes guv’nor… MY ASS!’
Scott was actually fired at one point for going over-budget, but was still able to complete the film because nobody else was capable of doing it.
When he was told he had to record a voiceover for the original cut, Harrison Ford deliberately put no inflection into it, thinking this would make it unusable. He was wrong…
The tagged-on ending of the original cut came from Stanley Kubrick’s personal collection of outtakes from The Shining.
This article originally appeared in Hotdog magazine in July 2002. Many thanks to Tina Bexson for permission to republish.
Superman is an ideal. Superman is perfect – there’s nothing that he can’t do; he will always overcome any challenge (he even managed to come back from the dead in the 1990s) and this is why people love him. But it’s also why writers have struggled to create new ‘interesting’ stories about the character over the years; how do you write an engaging story about a character that can literally achieve anything? This is the difficulty that faces J Michael Straczynski in trying to present a different take on a Superman story for a new generation of readers.
In his introduction to Superman: Earth One, JMS shares his feelings on what the Superman symbol has come to represent. For him, the iconic ‘S’ means that all things are possible, and he is right – the Superman symbol stands for inspiration. Superman should motivate, be an ideal to which we should all aim towards and create a sense of hope and wonder. And not just because he is faster than a speeding bullet or able to leap a building in a single bound, but because he knows what the right thing is to do and always overcomes. People should like Superman, because there simply shouldn’t be anything unlikeable about him. Superman isn’t like the rest of us – the clue is in the name – he is a Super Man.
And yet, despite all the incredible things Superman can do that we can’t, he doesn’t remain distant or unknowable, but remains a character we warm to. This alien visitor from Krypton is arguably the most human super-hero there is. He is not fighting the good fight because his parents were gunned down in front of him when he was a child, or is on a single-minded mission of justice; he is being a hero because he can and because of the caring, loving virtues installed in him by his adoptive parents. Superman has never been ‘alone’ à la Bruce Wayne; he had an ideal family environment surrounded by friends and family; a perfectly ‘normal’ upbringing that most readers can relate to. We all want to be Superman’s ‘pal’.
Unfortunately, in trying to find a new modern take on the Superman mythos, JMS has removed all that makes Superman so unique in the first place. This young Superman is full of doubt and insecurities, and comes across as not a little selfish and petty, just like us mere mortals. There he is, on the cover of the graphic novel, looking all mean and moody, eyes glowing an angry red beneath his hoodie (his hoodie for god’s sake…) not reassuring us, but carrying on like a sulky Kevin the Teenager type who just happens to have the ability to fly and the power to level mountains – could there be anything more terrifying??
In his effort to make this current day Superman relevant, JMS has forgotten what makes Superman super in the first place and decided instead to make him grim and gritty. If I want this then I’ll read a Batman comic. We even have Clark Kent brooding over his father’s grave at one point and are later told that Clark’s mission on Earth is to “avenge the murder of his homeworld”. Seriously? Superman’s task is to avenge the destruction of Krypton? So he isn’t being Superman because he knows this is the right thing to do, he’s only being Superman out of vengeance? This alone was enough to make me want to put this book down and never look at it again.
I essentially spent the whole time reading this graphic novel simply waiting for Superman to behave like Superman and not like a tortured emo brat who sees his powers as a curse. This is not the reason why this character has been so enduring for almost 80 years!
I understand the need to make a character with a long, convoluted history accessible to new readers and to have a stand-alone story that anyone can read, but not at the expense of what made the character so popular in the first place.
Marvel Comics successfully modernised a lot of their heroes ten years ago, with their Ultimate line, starting with Spider-Man. Yes, a lot of the Spider-Man story was brought up to date, but the basic building blocks of the character were kept in place. They didn’t need to change what made this character already great, they just needed to start again without the clutter of a convoluted history that would put off the casual reader.
And this is what makes Superman: Earth One feels like such a missed opportunity; to show new readers what made Superman so awe-inspiring in the first place, to give new readers that sense of excitement that JMS talks about when see the Superman symbol. After reading this graphic novel I just can’t imagine any kid being inspired to throw a bed sheet around his shoulders and leap about pretending to be Superman which is a real shame.
A final word about the art – this is a graphic novel after all. Shane Davis’s pencil work is serviceable, if not a little dull. Metropolis itself looks quite striking, although there are times at night it resembles more of a dangerous Gotham (“it gets kinda dicey around here some nights”… sigh…), and I wish we got to see more of Davis’s take on Krypton which looked suitably impressive. The real problem lies with the lack of energy and motion in the action scenes – everything looks too static and pedestrian. When I had finished reading this I couldn’t remember a single stand-out splash-page, or an iconic Superman image. And is too much to ask to see Superman smile, just the once?
With monthly comic sales in decline I sincerely welcome any attempt to draw new readers towards the medium. The fact that this graphic novel has been a best-seller will hopefully mean that more people will go into comic shops. But for accessible, told-in-one stories then please consider Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns or the astonishing All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison, both of which retain the joy and wonder of Superman without resorting to angst-ridden clichés and an uninspiring, un-super Superman.