Though I’ve heard great things about Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari was the first by him that I’ve read – well, listened to actually. Thanks to our current location in Chicago and the locations of our respective families, the holidays involve a lot of driving for Mrs. Millions and me – 36 hours worth this year if my math is correct. One of the best ways to pass the time is with audiobooks and even though Mrs. Millions got me XM Radio this year, Dark Star Safari was so engaging that we spent a lot of our trip listening to it. It’s a shame that the audio version appears to be unavailable (we got ours from the library) because it was very well done. Norman Deitz, as narrator, is very much in character as Theroux, and he gamely contorts his voice when relating the dialog of the many men and women of various nationalities that Theroux meets on his way from Cairo to Capetown. Though Africa is the centerpiece of this book, Theroux shares top billing. As he explains, this trip, very much a solo journey, was a return to the continent where he lived 40 years ago as a young Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. He soon finds that a lot of Africa has changed and not for the better. Much of the book is devoted to finding out why. We learn a lot about Africa’s history and geography and we meet dozens of fascinating people along the way from Nobel Laureates to prostitutes. But Theroux, writing in his 60s and having earned the right to hold forth on such things, dwells most upon his likes and dislikes. He does not like most of the aid workers in Africa and he explains, rather convincingly, why the aid system is broken. He does not like proselytizing missionaries, with whom he gleefully argues theology. He does not like Africa’s sprawling, destitute, dangerous cities. Theroux, however, likes the “bush,” the great trackless stretches of Africa where people still live simply, uncorrupted by foreign aid and oppressive governments. Of the people he meets, Theroux likes the straight-talkers, the honest people who care about Africa and aren’t trying to get something from him. Though Theroux spends a lot of time analyzing the current state of Africa in his own engaging, non-technical way, the enormity of his journey was what made the book so enjoyable for me. He travels by every method imaginable in a meandering path from Egypt to South Africa. Along the way he is shot at by bandits, harassed by border guards and harangued by Africa’s urban predators. Theroux acknowledges the similarities of his travels with those of many Westerners before him, but he does not slip into romanticism or despair. He loves Africa for its chaos.
Finding the entrance points to New York’s musical undergrounds has never been quite as simple as decoding MTA maps, though that’s usually the first step. Two excellent new books chart a decade-and-a-half worth of street-level detail, illuminating not only entrance points, but how they were willed into existence. Ed Sanders’ Fug You: An Informal History of the PEACE EYE BOOKSTORE, the FUCK YOU PRESS, the FUGS, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side handles 1962-1970, while Will Hermes’ astonishing Love Goes To Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever takes care of 1973-1977. The City’s secret connecting forces, the subway and otherwise, rumble evocatively beneath each, both New York classics in their ways.
Besides Allen Ginsberg, there was perhaps no bigger mover, shaker, or self-promoter in the mid-’60s East Village than Ed Sanders. Born in Kansas City in 1939, he founded The Fugs with the poet Tuli Kupferberg, immortalized in Howl!, who “jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alley ways & firetrucks.” As a singer, bookstore owner, and poetry zine publisher Sanders found national notoriety, including a February 1967 cover of Life, and helped network the New York counterculture to a larger national platform. Like Neal Cassady in the west, Sanders provided a link, as well, between the Beats and the hippies, and — in Sanders’ case — soon the Yippies. “We’re on the EAST SIDE,” The Fugs sang proudly on “We’re The Fugs,” a sloppy and joyous theme song that came two years pre-Monkees, and giggled in the face of congenial West Village guitar strummers. “Dope, peace, magic Gods in the tree trunks, and GROUP GROPE,” Sanders declared on “Group Grope.” They never quite made it big — they didn’t quite crack the top 50 on the Cashbox chart — but it was enough.
There is glee in Sanders’ vivid telling, playing straight man to an absurd world, despite being the one making the pornographic avant-garde films and selling Allen Ginsberg’s pubic hair and “well-scooped cold cream jar” through a rare books catalog he operated from his bookstore, where he spat out publications on a mimeograph. He is fond of asides that call lightly on deeper traditions he locates himself in, often the Egyptian hieroglyphics he taught himself to read at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Allen and Peter Orlovsky located a three-room pad at 704 East Fifth Street, near Avenue C, on the sixth floor. It was just $35 a month — Hail to Thee, O Rent Control!” For Sanders, the glory of the City is as a staging ground for what he has called “the forces of peace,” a thread he traced in his nine-volume America: A History in Verse, published between 2000 and 2008, which reads like an upbeat Howard Zinn and (besides The Fugs’ first recordings) is arguably Sanders’ most essential work.
In Fug You, those Forces wander local bars and underground newspaper headquarters, weather obscenity busts and CIA tails, and engage in pornographic avant-garde cinema and the still-thriving poetry scene. Sanders spews a dense and heady stew of facts, dates, and addresses with a mostly compelling lightness, cutting it every now and again with some groovy beauty. Here he is on The Fugs’ entrance to a 1968 gig in Los Angeles:
The club had rented a searchlight the night of our rite, which beamed white tunnels of psychedelic allure up towards Aquarius. There was an anarcho-bacchic Goof Strut parade into the parking lot of the club behind a mint-condition ’38 Dodge (similar to a Kienholz work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
But Sanders’ details can grow mechanical (or, worse, self-aggrandizing) as they accumulate. He enthusiastically catalogs group gropes and the varieties of drug use, but rarely gives much of his own experiences. There is almost none of his midwestern upbringing, and precious little on the brilliant and vivacious Tuli Kupferberg. Sanders himself has been a slightly-too-enthusiastic ’60s memoirist since at least 1975, when he published the first volume of his Tales of Beatnik Glory novels, and it’s possible he’s just out-biographied himself, which might account for Fug You’s occasional cold formality, despite its title. Though there is an element of archetypal ’60s solipsism to Fug You, and much of Sanders work, Sanders was there and kept his bearings.
For all that, though, Will Hermes’ Love Goes To Buildings on Fire comes across as more personal than Fug You. A Queens teen in the mid-’70s, Hermes himself shows up throughout, offering surprisingly tender evocations of his music-loving youth. “I’d been mugged on trains a few times, twice at knifepoint, coming home from Manhattan shows alone at night,” he writes, segueing from a Village Voice cover story about the atrocious state of the subway.
But the worst was in May , when I was stuck on a broken-down E train for an hour en route to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to meet a girl I was cross-eyed crushed-out on. She had tickets to see the Grateful Dead five hours north that night, at Cornell University’s Barton Hall. When I finally arrived, the girl and the bus — the last Ithaca run of the day — were gone. …Fucking subway.
Though drugs and the Dead turn up enough times to communicate that Hermes is writing from his continued position as a serious music head, Love Goes To Buildings on Fire is hardly a memoir in a literal sense. Instead, he picks up not long after where Sanders left off, the East Side counterculture almost in ruins at the outset. Though plenty of books have covered similar subjects — notably Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me, Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, and Tony Fletcher’s All Hopped Up and Ready to Go — Hermes finds fresh details everywhere, a dizzying succession that piles luminously atop another in a bright layering of punk, hip-hop, disco, Latin, avant-garde, and jazz history.
In a typical passage, he writes, “As it turned out, Einstein [on the Beach]’s most indelible music involved the incantations of ‘One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight,’ which were being rehearsed on Spring Street just as the Ramones, down at CBGB, counted off every song “One-two-three-four!” He specializes in sudden juxtapositions, jumping from Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorcese’s favorite post-work Chinese-run Latin joint (La Tacita de Oro on 99th and Broadway) while shooting Taxi Driver, to Rubèn Blades’ favorite post-work Chinese-Cuban place (La Caridad on 78th and Broadway) not far away, near the Beacon Theater.
Two of the genres whose births Hermes recounts — hip-hop and disco — arguably evolved into the two most global pop genres of the 21st century, both in forms directly traceable to New York in the mid-’70s. Other developments in punk and minimalism forever changed the conversation, sound, and infrastructures of rock and roll and classical music. Though the ceaseless crashing of names might prove overwhelming to non-music obsessives, quick trips to YouTube are an easy fix. At its most basic, the book is a rich and invaluable crash course in the roots of contemporary music.
As much as it belongs on that of any serious music fan, Love Goes To Buildings on Fire especially, belongs on a long NYC-centric bookshelf that begins with Russell Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World. Read as an oddly upbeat and unintentional sequel to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, the heroes of Love Goes To Buildings on Fire are themselves pivot points in New York’s history between “Ford To City: Drop Dead” and the MARCH squads dispatched by the Rudolph Giuliani/Michael Bloomberg-era NYPD to crack down on illegal artist lofts. Mark Alan Stamaty’s Buildings on Fire cover illustration depicts the teeming City perfectly, musicians’ caricatures sprouting like towering fauna from the cement. It was a City growing denser. In 1960, just before Ed Sanders arrived in New York, there were roughly 336 artists, writers, and musicians per 100,000 American citizens, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. By 1980, just after the end of Hermes’s period, that number was up to around 565 per 100,000, and likely even greater in Manhattan, where the general population had shrunk to its lowest level in a half-century, a City about to transform into something beyond its own oddest dreams.
The sounds and ideas of disco and hip-hop and punk and salsa and minimalism and free jazz made their way across rivers and around the world on the backs of ever-cheaper technologies. Everywhere, they mushed into advertising and bland pop mutations, but also freethinking new turns, where the blueprints for counterculture remain deep inside the music, ready for deployment against lame government, bureaucracy, or blandness. And though those people making wondrous new things in their bedrooms or garages might not identify themselves as the Forces of Peace as much as Sanders and his Pentagon-levitating brethren may like, there is little else they could possibly be.
Sitting down to reflect on Blood Kin, Ceridwen Dovey’s debut novel, I realized that there are many ways to approach a book, and a review, and that in this particular case, circumstances have handed me one. Dovey was a classmate of mine in college and when I saw that she’d published a book, I went out to get it with a combination of curiosity and jealousy, excited that a peer had written a novel and interested to see what provocations, over something of a shared span of time, had moved her to write.The book is set in an anonymous country, in the immediate aftermath of a military coup, through which the President and his closest associates have been taken captive in the presidential summer retreat by a man known only as the Commander, a strutting cryptic figure who has usurped their power. In design, Blood Kin recalls Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, the two sharing a cloistered, claustrophobic setting which frees the characters temporarily from the violence that prompted their situation, and yet which threatens, inevitably, to destroy it. There is also a common attention to the ancillary trades which attend power. Bel Canto spun around the sublime talent of soprano Roxanne Coss. Blood Kin directs its attention to more mundane, but no less potent roles, the President’s barber, his portraitist, and his chef, the three of whom trade off first-person control of the narrative.It’s a promising set-up, which makes it all the more disappointing that over the course of 180 pages, it does not really go anywhere. The premise, and the small points of action which occur in turn, are used mainly as jumping off points from which the characters recall moments from the past, their own idiosyncrasies, former lovers, and remaindered sensations of childhood. Early in the book the barber escapes for a late night tryst with the Commander’s wife, an episode that might be filled with tension and sensuality, but which deflates under the weight of the barber’s long recollection of how he came into the trade and came to serve the president. A scant portion of the chapter is devoted to the actual present-tense unrolling of events, which makes what action there is feel almost beside the point.The problem is not that the digressions are poorly written or awkwardly conceived. In fact, they are often quite imaginative and authentic, standing solidly on their own as the peculiar ways in which a life might have been lived. When the portraitist recalls a scene from his youth, of a child building sand animals on the beach using an empty dishwashing detergent bottle, it rings true as one of those unexplainable things which stick in memory after so much else has been forgotten. And Dovey’s digressions about each tradesman at work are knowing and confident. She describes the thick patina of paint which has accrued on the portraitist’s palette, the glancing touch by which the barber infuses physical pleasure into his haircuts, and the experienced way the chef stalks prone abalones, sneaking up on them with a rolling pin so as to kill them by surprise, before they can stiffen in fright.One challenge of the first novel, I imagine, is getting free from all the thoughts, images, and experiences you as a writer have collected prior to beginning to write. Blood Kin never begins to feel autobiographical, but it does at times feel like a repository of the many little set-pieces and conceits that must have occurred to Dovey throughout her life, prior to the specific conception of this story. While the component parts are good, they don’t build together, so that by the end of the book, our understanding of the characters compares with the advancement of the plot; they both lie more or less in the same place we began.