Today’s Elliot Spitzer scandal sent me back to the New Yorker archives, to revisit Nick Paumgarten’s excellent profile, from December 10. This time around, I was struck less by the “what you see is what you get” thesis of some Spitzer intimates, than by this proposition, from an unnamed source: “Spitzer lunges. He seems not to be a person of strategy. He slipped on a banana peel, or six, and once down has thrashed around.” It remains to be seen if, amid the thrashing, his newfound talent for “extracting oneself from an intractable position” holds up.
Rock-and-roll memoirs are among the most persistently disappointing of literary subgenres. Like athletes, rock musicians are rarely articulate about their craft. Both groups have easy recourse to common bodies of stale jargon—athletes give glory to God and say they “just went out and gave 110%”; rockers are all about the music, are glad to be clean, and didn’t really mean to suggest in their last interview that they were ambivalent about success. Genius that relies on fleeting inspiration, gut feeling, and unthinking improvisation is ill suited to the slow, reflective process of writing. It takes an outsider to get inside. Observers like John McPhee, John Updike, and Gay Talese have done this with sports. But rock music has eluded even serious writers. When Rolling Stone sent Truman Capote on tour with the Rolling Stones in 1972, he complained that there was simply nothing to write about, and never filed.
Capote’s work ethic had certainly eroded by then, but even the canonical body of book-length rock writing, by the likes of Greil Marcus, Stanley Booth, and Nick Tosches, never feels like more than the musings of very smart devotees about frequently inane artists. Nothing essential is transmitted. Read Updike’s Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, and you understand baseball. Read Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, and you have a headache. If something essential about rock music eludes capture by writers as fine as the ones I’ve listed, it positively dissipates when the musicians themselves try to explain it.
Into the long and prosaic line of rock star autobiographies comes Life, by Keith Richards (co-written by James Fox), which will be released on October 26th and which is excerpted in the most recent issue Rolling Stone. I’ve had high hopes for Keith’s autobiography, and not only because I’m a Stones fan. Rock autobiographies that aren’t Bob Dylan’s Chronicles fall into two equally hollow categories:
1.) The sentimental redemption tale, in which our hero discovers the blues in his small town in rural England or northern Minnesota, finds success, finds that this success comes too early and too fast, uses a lot of drugs and alienates a lot of people, finally cleans up, and unconvincingly assures us that he now knows what satisfaction is. Eric Clapton’s recent autobiography and the popular film adaptations of the lives of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash fall into this category.
2.) The raunchy, no-apologies tell-all, in which the rock star has a lot of sex, takes a lot of drugs, and refuses to repent doing either. Gene Simmons’s Kiss and Make-Up is the benchmark here, though elements of the tell-all are essential to any mainstream rock autobiography.
Keith’s life presents a chance to avoid the dual-track stagnation. For one thing, Keith Richards doesn’t deal in redemption; survival is his game. He’s cleaned up but still seems like an outlaw. This isn’t because he refuses to apologize, but because, by force of personality, he’s kept beyond the cultural discourse wherein fans simultaneously crave tales of backstage debauchery and demand apologies for them. Only Dylan has been so successful at staying above the public’s wildly oscillating morals. And while we’re speaking of debauchery, Keith’s addictions could be legitimate points of interest. The needles-and-groupies portions of most rock books tend to devolve into numbly pornographic lists. But Keith’s sustained cocaine and heroin usage has become so legendary that it might be interesting to know how he didn’t die.
As it turns out, the answer makes Keith sound like Warren Buffett telling you how he made his money. Richards and Fox write:
It’s not only the high quality of drugs I had that I attribute my survival to. I was very meticulous about how much I took. I’d never put more in to get a little higher. That’s where most people fuck up on drugs. It’s the greed involved that never really affected me…Maybe that’s a measure of control, and maybe I’m rare in that respect. Maybe there I have an advantage.
That’s it. Keith Richards survived because he had a sense of moderation, and because he could afford the really good stuff.
Not only is this passage laughably anticlimactic, it just doesn’t sound like Keith. This is not to fault James Fox; his task was nigh impossible. Richards is one of the better interviews in rock and roll. His memories change a lot from interview to interview, but he is amusing and tries to be honest. His appeal, however, depends on his gravelly voice and his erratic deportment. Abstracted to the page and filtered through a co-author, things Keith would say tend to sound silly: “The travelling physician we’ll call Dr. Bill, to give it a Burroughsian ring.” Just as often, the excerpts don’t sound like Keith at all, as when he suddenly morphs into a frat boy: “No wonder I’m famous for partying! The ultimate party, if it’s any good, you can’t remember it.”
As that last quote suggests, Life does not refrain from the obligatory relation of prurient details. There is indeed a lot of sex in the Rolling Stone excerpts. Even the sex that might have been interesting is degraded. Of his relationship with Anita Pallenberg, whom he stole from soon-to-be-deceased bandmate Brian Jones, Keith says, “I still remember the smell of the orange trees in Valencia. When you get laid with Anita Pallenberg for the first time, you remember things.” Spoken like someone who doesn’t remember; everyone knows Valencia smells like oranges. Of another sexual encounter with Pallenberg, Keith says, “Phew.”
The excerpts do offer insight into another of Keith’s tortured and talked-about relationships: the one he’s maintained for forty years with Mick Jagger. The Glimmer Twins’ dynamic tends to be inscrutable, and Keith offers a bit of directness. Jagger, he muses, was jealous of Keith’s friendships with other men. He felt like he owned Keith. “…I love the man dearly; I’m still his mate,” Richards says. “But he makes it very difficult to be his friend.” Now we’re getting somewhere.
Or are we? As interesting as all this is, anyone who’s read even a few interviews with Jagger or Richards knows that there is no easy way to describe their friendship; the pair is always saying, “Yes, but…” Every blanket statement that makes for a nice block quote comes with a qualifier that does not. This is true of any subject, from Keith Richards to George Washington. Good biographers use nuance to approximate a life; they bring us closer to how a person lived. And a serious autobiographer can draw us even nearer to understanding, for no barriers of consciousness need surmounting; the author is already inside. But rock stars are subject to a specific set of demands, and by the nature of their work, they’re disposed to give us what we want. And as long as we desire accountings of every grain of cocaine and tallies of every groupie, we will remain in the audience, watching.
As others have noted, the current issue of The New York Review of Books features a long Deborah Eisenberg essay on the Hungarian novelist Péter Nádas (now available online courtesy of Powell’s Bookstore). I’ve been interested in Nádas for some time (though the sheer size of A Book of Memories requires putting it off until next year) and in Eisenberg for longer, and so it may come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I found her essay completely beguiling.Unlike certain other NYRB contributors – one can barely turn around these days without running into John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, you know, appreciating this or reconsidering that – Eisenberg’s critical corpus has so far been small. Possibly nonexistent. You won’t find her penning introductions and encomiums and toasts; they’d probably run to 15,000 words and take her a year to write. All I knew of her literary taste, prior to reading “The Genius of Peter Nádas,” was that it overlapped with mine (Robert Walser, Humberto Constantini).As it turns out, Eisenberg brings to nonfiction the same philosophical and perceptual rigor, the same psychological acuity, and the same metaphorical daring that animate her stories. “After finishing [A Book of Memories], I, for one, felt irreversibly altered, as if the author had adjusted, with a set of tiny wrenches, molecular components of my brain,” she writes, before going on to cover totalitarianism, war, literary style, and the situation of the American writer. It is almost enough to make one wish for more Eisenberg essays. Alas, time being finite, that might deprive us of Eisenberg fiction.
As emdashes recently pointed out, last week’s New Yorker cover was the second Bush/Cheney “gay joke” in recent memory. I gave a chuckle when I saw it, but, honestly, I expect New Yorker covers to be a little more, I don’t know, subtle than that. So I was sad to see what had been originally slated for last week’s cover – before Dick Cheney shot somebody – an elegy for New Orleans as Mardi Gras approaches. (via Jenny)
At first I couldn’t tell if Janet Maslin’s review of James Frey’s novel Bright and Shiny Morning was a joke or not. I guess she liked the book, but her homage to Frey’s style is so terrible, the start-stop prose so laughably bad, that I assumed she was making fun of the poor guy:He wrote a big book. He wrote about a city. Los Angeles. He made up a lot of characters, high low rich poor lucky not, every kind, the book threw them together. It was random but smart. Every now and then he would pause the story, switch to the present tense and throw in an urban fact.David L. Ulin at the Los Angeles Times had a different reaction to the novel, calling it, “one of the worst I’ve ever read.” Ouch.At the Vroman’s blog, Patrick has an exclusive interview with the author himself. Frey discusses, among other things, his future as a memoirist, the city of Los Angeles, and, of course, his new novel:Ultimately, though, I tried to write a book that was unlike anything that has preceded it, that is devoid of any real influence, and that’s singular in its composition and voice, but also immediately recognizable as my work. I have tried to do this with each of my books. I want to tell stories in new, fresh ways. I want my writing to reflect the age in which we live, which is fast, contains vast amounts of information, and uses new ways to present the information. I always read while I write, but for pleasure, not inspiration or influence.I wonder if this is really possible. Frank Conroy reportedly once said, “Voice is the amalgamation of books read,” and I tend to agree. But I suppose Mr. Frey lives by Ezra Pound’s famous dictum: “Make it new.” It’ll be interesting to see how readers react to Frey’s latest endeavor. Will they agree with Maslin or Ulin, or somewhere in between?
A quote from Steven Erlanger, the cultural editor of the New York Times on the changes afoot at the Book Review: “To be honest, there’s so much s—. Most of the things we praise aren’t very good.” This, I suppose, is a rather blunt way of saying that things are changing at one of the most influential and widely used repositories of book reviews in the world. (Imagine that: people using book reviews. More on that later.) The charge leveled against the Book Review by its new keeper is that it has become formulaic in its style and perhaps a bit arcane in choosing which books to review. First to go will be the lengthy reviews of literary fiction, which will be replaced by an increased focus on non-fiction and popular, or mass-market, fiction. Furthermore, a concerted effort will be made to publish reviews that are more controversial with hopes, ultimately, of injecting enough hurly-burly into the Book Review that people will flock to see the literary wars waged on its pages. This practice of intentionally soliciting vicious, opinionated reviews in order to draw publicity and readership to a publication is probably almost as old as the book review itself, but recently, as the reviews have become more outrageous, the backlash has become louder. Early in 2003 the people behind McSweeney’s rolled out The Believer, a magazine more or less dedicated, as outlined in Heidi Julavits opening piece in the first issue, to combating the pointlessly mean review. The results have been mixed, but they continue to fight the good fight, even maintaining a “Snarkwatch” on their website. Yet the “snarkiness” has continued unabated. Last spring all of literary Britain was up in arms over Tibor Fischer’s unceremonious dressing down of Yellow Dog, a new novel by one of Britain’s favorite sons, Martin Amis. The review, which appeared in the Telegraph, was entitled “Someone needs to have a word with Amis” and included the line “I won’t tell you anything about the contents of Yellow Dog, but what I will tell you is that it’s terrible.” (LINK) Then, last summer a truly offensive review of Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs was penned by a gentleman named Mark Ames for a publication called NYPress. This review included the line, “I cannot ever recall reading a book as toxic, disingenuous and stupid as Klosterman’s new collection of essays.” (LINK) Ultimately, the review served its purpose, and, as it made the rounds via email and blogs, Ames and the NYPress put their names on the map. And now the New York Times Book Review is joining the fray, straddling that blurry line between entertainment and information; strange bedfellows indeed. There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to engage your readers nor is there anything wrong with entertaining them or titillating them so long as it is done within the framework of advising the reader on the merits or deficiencies of a particular book while at the same time taking on the responsibility of being the first word on a book whose ultimate importance has yet to be determined. The New York Times Book Review is a household name, but, until I worked in the bookstore, I had no idea how many people use the Book Review, really use it. They walk into the store clutching clipped reviews like life preservers in a sea of books, trusting that those reviews will not let them drown. If book reviews don’t serve that purpose first, what purpose could they possibly serve. For more on the topic, check out this column at Poynter Online.