Thirteen Songs That Prove Lou Reed Was a Literary Master

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Intriguing both bibliophiles and music geeks in one gesture, the New York Public Library recently established a Lou Reed archive that makes accessible hundreds of hours of the man’s labyrinthine audio and video recordings, many photographs taken of and by Reed himself, press clippings from his notorious concerts, artwork, and selections from his personal papers. For those (like me) who insist on giving the best of rock lyrics the same respect as literature, seeing Reed’s personal archive get the same rollout that acclaimed writers such as John Updike or Toni Morrison might receive is pretty exciting. And there’s no better place than the NYPL to give a proud New Yorker like Reed—who made a long career out of writing about the city’s strange, eccentric, and marginalized—this kind of attention. The bleary, blurry image emblazoned on the limited-edition library cards are taken from Mick Rock’s iconic cover shot for Transformer, arguably Reed’s most popular solo record. It’s a creative way of bridging the gap between the bookshelves and the streets, which is a natural space for Reed’s work to live.

What made Reed’s songs special went beyond his notorious obsession with decadence, his caustic dry wit, and his sneaky romantic vulnerability. He was also one of the most literate of musicians and wasn’t shy about making his literary influences known. As a college kid, he was mentored by the brilliantly mad poet and critic Delmore Schwartz and took inspiration from the likes of Raymond Chandler, William S. Burroughs, James Joyce, Shakespeare, and Poe. Lulu, his odd later-period collaboration with Metallica, is perhaps best passed over—but basing a metal record on a 19th-century Austrian play is something very few writers would have even imagined, let alone attempted. Reed brought an informed, sophisticated writer’s eye to the kinds of underworlds he inhabited and observed, and his sense of language was as keen as a journalist’s. Reed made sure all the who, where, what, how, why bases got covered, using his own laconic, inimitable language.

Below is a mixtape-style selection of a few of his most literate and literarily engaging songs. As the man himself put it, between thought and expression lies a lifetime. Here’s a sample of what went into that lifetime.

1. “I’m Waiting for the Man
Never has an anecdote about heading uptown to cop some dope been this Hemingway-esque. It’s all in the extremely sparse but very detailed language, incorporating the random snippets of street talk (“hey white boy, what you doin’ uptown?”) and the time-honored truisms of the drug game (“he’s never early, he’s always late/first thing you learn is that you always gotta wait”). The way the half-spoke, half-sung lyrics change the article in the title—“waiting for MY man” rather than just “THE” man—adds a bit of a homoerotic overtone, which make the song even more narratively complex for the mid ‘60s.

2. “Heroin
Probably The Velvet Underground’s single greatest song, and one that Reed would revisit at various points in his career. Everything that made the band revolutionary comes together, lyrically and musically. From the forlorn thesis statement in the opening—“I don’t know just where I’m going/ But I’m/ Gonna try for the kingdom if I can”—about escaping the ugly realities of urban life “where a man cannot be free/ of all of the evils of his town/ and of himself and those around” to the dreamlike fantasies that intoxication brings: “I wish that/ I’d sailed the darkened seas/on a great big clipper ship.” The song’s hypnotic melody and propulsive rhythm immerse the listener in an experience that has rarely been produced in pop music, then or now.

3. “The Gift
What other band would set an entire short story to music? This darkly funny little anecdote of long-distance romance gone awry is one of the hidden gems of White Light/White Heat, the band’s pitch-black second record. It’s a short story Reed wrote as a creative writing student in college. Lovelorn Waldo Jeffers longs for Marsha, his sort-of girlfriend during a break from school. Tortured by his visions of her falling for someone else, Waldo takes unexpectedly drastic measures to surprise her. John Cale reads the story in his lovely Welsh voice in one stereo channel while the band grooves away in the other. And lucky for us: we now have clearer recordings to help make this mash-up work.

4. “Candy Says
One of Reed’s unique skills as a songwriter was being able to create a fully-fleshed character within mere minutes. This opening track to the band’s third record is one of his most poignant. Inspired by one of Warhol’s superstars—also referenced by name in “Walk On the Wild Side” as the one who hails from “the islands” and doesn’t lose her head even when…you know the rest—it’s a song about the emotional quandary Candy finds herself in as a trans person in a world that won’t see or hear her on her own terms: as she explains by way of introduction: “I’ve come to hate my body/ And all that it requires from this world.” Velvet Underground member Doug Yule sings it with a touching innocence. Reed once generously described Candy’s state of mind in terms of the universal experience of not liking what one sees in the mirror: “I don’t know a person alive who doesn’t feel that way.” Here, he takes that emotion and applies it to someone whose whole life hangs in the balance.

5. “Pale Blue Eyes
This is what I was talking about when I mentioned romantic vulnerability before. Reed always had attitude to burn, and he was infamous for being as surly and unforthcoming as possible in interviews. It’s fair to say that Reed kept his guard up as often as possible in public, though in his music it was sometimes a very different story. In terms of putting your still-beating heart out on a slab for all to see, this song is about as naked and vulnerable as it gets: “It was good what we did yesterday/ And I’d do it once again/ The fact that you are married/ Only proves you’re my best friend/ But it’s truly, truly a sin/ Linger on/ Your pale blue eyes.”

6. “Perfect Day
Of course, pretty much everyone already knows this one. But instead of that being a reason for exclusion, I think it shows how universally relatable Reed’s writing could be. It was sung by a series of prominent musicians after Reed died and remains one of his most emotionally affecting songs. The beauty is in the simplicity: a walk in the park, a trip to the zoo, taking in a flick, and then heading home. Nothing terribly dramatic about any of it on the surface but “it’s such fun.” It’s a lovely reminder of the luminous beauty of everyday experiences, with a little extra touch of Biblical wisdom (“You’re going to reap just what you sow”) added for good measure.

7. “Berlin
When making a list like this, you just can’t not add something from Berlin. This is the romantic prologue to one of Reed’s bleakest records, which, given his discography, is saying something. While he hadn’t actually been to Berlin before writing and recording the record, Reed was compelled by the idea of a divided, war-torn city and he used it as an ambient backdrop for some of his most gut-wrenching material. A drug dealer and a woman in distress emotionally slug it out over a series of songs—while the premise is anything but romantic, there’s something poetic amid all the darkness. The title track is all hushed but evocative minimalism, delivered in a breathless whisper as if a harsh word would shatter the illusion of peace: “In Berlin/ By the wall/ You were five feet ten inches tall/ We were in/ A small café/ You could hear the guitars play/ It was very nice/ Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice/ It was very nice/ Oh honey it was paradise.”

8. “Street Hassle
One of the overlooked masterpieces of Reed’s solo career, this song is maybe better understood as a trilogy of three different songs in one. It begins with a random hookup—“Ooh baby, you know that I’m on fire and you know that I admire your body, why don’t we slip away?”—that turns into something else entirely: “he made love to her gently/ It was like she’d never, ever come.” The surging cello lines underline the poignance of this tough-minded narrative as fleeting bliss turns morbid. The story unfolds via overheard dialogue: another person’s sketchy response to the woman’s fate throwing some gritty shade on the surprise romance. And none other than Bruce Springsteen appears in the midst of the story as a kind of Greek chorus, reciting some lines that play off of the title of one of his best-known songs. Reed once said that his ambition for this song was “to write a song that had a great monologue set to rock. Something that could have been written by William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, John Rechy, Tennessee Williams, Nelson Algren, maybe a little Raymond Chandler.” By the end of the song, you might think that he just might have pulled it off.

9. “Busload of Faith
Anything from 1989’s New York could make this list—there’s a reason why it’s considered one of Reed’s greatest solo efforts. As a concept album, it was intended to be listened to in one sitting, the way a novella or a movie might be consumed—all the better to give Reed’s jaundiced tales of Gotham’s high and low life their due. This song offers an almost journalistic immersion into life on the mean streets, which at the time were still ravaged with urban decay: “You can depend on the worst always happening/ You need a busload of faith to get by.”

10. “The Trouble with Classicists
Not many singer/songwriters could boast of having been close with one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Andy Warhol was a patron for the Velvets and encouraged the young Reed to “leave all the dirty words in.” Years after their acrimonious split, Reed and Cale reunited to record Songs for Drella their tribute to the pioneer of pop art. Drella was their nickname for Warhol, combining Cinderella and Dracula. Snippets from Warhol’s notebooks and journals inspired the lyrics, including an excerpt from Warhol’s papers, which is recited by Cale and becomes something like a posthumous monologue. This song offers a look into Warhol’s—and by extension, Reed’s and Cale’s—contentious relationship to the mainstream: “The trouble with a classicist he looks at a tree/ That’s all he sees, he paints a tree…I like the druggy downtown kids who spray paint walls and trains/ I like their lack of training, their primitive technique/ I think sometimes it hurts you when you stay too long in school.”

11. “Magic and Loss
After two of Reed’s close friends—the legendary songwriter Doc Pomus (who gave Reed his start as a songwriter-for-hire) and a not-so-legendary person known as “Rita,” who was most likely Rotten Rita, a former member of the Warhol crowd—suddenly died, Reed responded with this album-length song cycle. How perfectly Reed-like to be equally wounded by the loss of an American musical legend and a marginal figure in the New York art underworld. The songs consist of mournful and hauntingly simple explorations of death and the survivor’s emotional aftermath. The whole record is a moving and somber meditation on life’s transience, finished with some hard-won wisdom that comes out of the other side of heartbreak. The concluding track from Reed’s arguably most vulnerable period sums it all up as well as any song can: “There’s a little magic in everything/ And some loss to even things out.”

12. “Set the Twilight Reeling
In the mid ’90s, Reed was something of an elder statesman of rock. He’d been in the game for decades, inspired countless important bands, gotten extremely high in the ’70s and yet by this point had managed to maintain a lengthy sobriety. He was newly in love with Laurie Anderson, who was to be his companion up until the very end of his life. The title track from this mature record talks frankly about how age hasn’t softened or flummoxed him and instead how he has grown to “accept the new man/ and set the twilight reeling.” The live clip here is especially life-affirming in its intensity.

13. “The Raven
It takes some serious guts to rethink the works of Edgar Allan Poe, especially his most famous poem of all. And it’s kind of awesome that a remake of the poem should include a phrase like “arrogant dickless liar.” As Reed explained in an interview with Greil Marcus, the goal wasn’t necessarily to rewrite Poe but to be inspired by his writing and see what kind of songs could be written and performed using his morbid obsessions as a starting point. The record is often overlooked in Reed’s discography, contains some airballs, and takes a little getting used to but contains some powerful moments. Famous friends like David Bowie, Ornette Coleman, and Willem Dafoe also add their distinct voices into the mix of Poe’s obsessive topics: guilt, paranoia, and the voluptuousness of doom.

Image credit: Unsplash/Andrey Konstantinov.

Bird Lives: On Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning

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From roughly the end of World War II to the publication of On The Road, there was no more emulated musician in the world of jazz than Charlie “Bird” Parker. His ability to live on the edge of utter disaster while dishing up exhilaratingly lyrical, fantastically complex solos night after night became the stuff of legend. The undisputed master of Bebop, which was at one time the hippest, fastest, most complex version of jazz one could hear. There’s a reason why jazz is often regarded as one of the most challenging musical genres around. Playing it well means that one must invite and then master a certain kind of aesthetic risk.

A jazz musician is, in a sense, a kind of acrobat. We listen, whether we realize it or not, for how well they can handle themselves as they maneuver high up on the thinnest of wires, balancing order with chaos, with the whole band cooking behind them and the crowd watching as they try to claim a freedom both emotional and aesthetic that exists for, maybe, a few minutes at a time, night after night, until they drop. For an impressively long stretch of time, Parker was the finest — and most precarious — acrobat in town.

Everybody, it seems, wanted to either play with him or play like him. The young Miles Davis, barely out of his teens and never one to run with the herd, dropped out of his first year at Julliard to be his sideman, making a brilliant series of recordings as a full-fledged member of his band. Writers and artists from Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin to the Beats to Julio Cortázar to Jean-Michel Basquiat have paid homage to the manic brilliance of Parker’s art and life. Usually it‘s wise to try to separate an artist‘s personal peccadilloes from the meaning of their aesthetic achievement. The story of Charlie Parker, however, is pretty much always going to be entwined with the legend and for good reason.

I submit that the kind of place Parker holds within jazz tradition is a little like what you would get if you mixed Beethoven with Jimi Hendrix. He was a game changer. After him, the deluge. This might sound a bit hyperbolic, but there were few musicians at the time who could match the mercurial exuberance of his playing with the intricate technical understanding he brought to the saxophone every time he raised it to his lips. It should go without saying that Charlie Parker played the blues as few have before or since. In his autobiography, Miles Davis told how he and his bandmates spent the better part of a week preparing for a major concert, meticulously figuring out the set list and what key to play each song in, anxiety building over just where exactly Bird was and whether or not he’d make it to the show on time. Finally somebody found him, cleaned him up, and shoved him out into the performance without anything much in the way of a rehearsal. He played every single song in the proper key, of course, while adding a few of his own, piling chords and harmonic interventions with improvisational flights of fancy, utterly stunning everyone who tried to follow along. The really scary part is that this wasn’t an isolated incident — this kind of thing seemed to happen all the time. Small wonder that Parker’s music led to such an obsession with his enigmatic life.

In some ways, Stanley Crouch is the perfect candidate to write Bird’s biography. He’s been one of the boys on the beat of American culture for quite some time, with a Macarthur grant, several provocative essay collections, and a fine novel to his credit. Even better, Crouch has been one of the precious few public intellectuals to valorize jazz and insist and demonstrate how jazz can be seen as not only one of the pure products of America gone crazy but also its historic pulse, its backbeat, a trope that swings. One of the themes Crouch emphasizes is reflected in a quote from the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch: “the civilization of an epoch is its myth in action.” This insight is useful not only in giving a background for Parker’s eventual triumph and decline but also in showing how his music promised a certain kind of freedom one might have felt at a certain time and place, if you were willing to let it take you over. It’s the kind of democratic promise implicit in what they used to call American classical music, with collective improvisation and individual expression put in constant interplay, an offspring of the blues that reckoned with classical structures, music made for and by people who, with some notable exceptions, never found satisfaction anywhere else.

It’s for the best that Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker is the first volume of two. Some reviewers have complained about the novelistic, occasionally montage-like approach Crouch takes in telling the story of Parker‘s youth and adolescence. It’s been suggested that Crouch is padding his material or being self-indulgent. I see the point, but I would argue that this stylistic choice isn’t even Crouch’s fault. He’s definitely done his homework; his research began when he interviewed Parker’s first wife and some of his first musical collaborators back in the early ’80s. Depending on the accessibility of the subject, any biographer is going to be limited in some ways by the availability of the material and sometimes there just isn’t much information on hand to properly fill in the gaps. Crouch’s biography ends when Parker is barely out of his teens, and he was not born into particularly noteworthy circumstances, so it’s understandable that biographical detail would be a bit sketchy.

Instead of describing young Charlie’s endless hours in the woodshed (as if that were even possible), up to 15 hours a day, practicing over and over till he was fluent in every key, Crouch elaborates on things like Jack Johnson’s heroic stature within the black community, the effect of the Great Depression on urban life, and the freewheeling atmosphere of Kansas City in the late ’30s, brimming to the top with open corruption and all-night dancing. Even as a jazz fan, I didn’t really have much background on the music and lore of Kansas City before reading Crouch’s bio and it’s a treat to have had the scene come alive. No true record of American music would be complete without it.

And quite a world it is — Kansas City jazz at the time, still essentially based in blues and swing, shines through as intensely competitive and made up largely on the fly, hashed out in cutting contests while serenading the revelry of amoral politicians, gangsters, and anybody who had the requisite scratch and wanted to live his own particular version of the high life. In this case, the political machine of “Boss Tom“ Pendergast (who was also the original political patron of a mild-mannered war hero named Harry Truman) provided most of the social cover and performance spaces. Crouch helps the reader get to know musicians like the flamboyant and tenacious bandleader Billy Eckstine, as well as Erroll Garner and Chu Berry, each of who deserve a rediscovery in their own right and whose contributions to American music are deeply underrated, aside from specialists. Their mentorship also helped define and hone Parker’s incipient style; aside from his relentless practicing, he learned most of his skill on the bandstand, in the thick of it all.

We hear of the musicians on hand providing a soundtrack to after-hours glimpses of American decadence, where “men in dresses were seen performing oral sex on each other…Women had sex with other women. Some puffed cigars with their vaginas; some had sex with animals.” The point being that for a young jazzman on the make to see firsthand “the difference between what went on in the conventional world and what happened when people chose to reject the laws of polite society.” Jazz has always been a subversive, carnal music, viscerally at odds with the mainstream by being, for one thing, the house music of choice for American bohemia and the well-heeled alike for decades. It offered refuge and an open chance to strut your stuff for anyone who was willing to shed the inhibitions of the segregated, hostile, and haughtily dismissive world outside the club and the touring circuit.

The appeal of Kansas City Lightning is not so much that Crouch has unearthed shocking revelations about the mind and soul of Charlie Parker, but that he vividly brings to life Charlie Parker’s world as much as his music or his personality. We know that his father, Charles Parker Sr., was a charismatic Pullman car porter with a knack for the nimble work who eventually succumbed to alcoholism without apparently trying to fight it very hard. His mother, Addie, was a strong and fiercely independent woman with some Native American blood who, it’s generally agreed, deeply spoiled her only son and tolerated his well-known remoteness and emotional isolation. It’s interesting to read of Parker’s upbringing in light of his eventual hedonistic free-for-all once he hit the big time in New York. Impulse control wasn’t exactly his thing, to put it mildly. Crouch is hauntingly dead-on when he says of Parker that “the saxophone was the only thing that gave him exactly what he wanted and he gave in return.” This hits hardest when one reads about the teenage courtship of his first wife, Rebecca, who couldn’t help falling for the gifted mimic and cocky mama’s boy and who bore him a son of his own when they were both in their mid-teens.

After playing stimulant-filled, all-night jam sessions, honing his skills and getting his first experience of the nightlife, another form of self-indulgence, everyday struggles might have seemed intolerably unsatisfying to someone as ambitious and self-centered as Parker was. What it can’t quite justify, however, is his almost complete indifference when it came to being any kind of father or husband. Crouch’s novelistic approach builds subtle drama out of telling the story from Rebecca Parker’s confused and rightfully suspicious mindset when it came to matters concerning her husband. There are hints of young Parker coming and going, never explaining himself, out all night doing god-knows-what with god-knows-who. The excuses pile up, bills go unpaid, months of dread pass by. We feel for her; we know how this particular story is going to end.

There’s something telling about the way Parker seems to come most alive in escape, always one step ahead, one beat faster, a blur of motion at the edge of the narrative frame. Parker was a gifted mimic since childhood and, Crouch explains, when he went to the movies he could do a medley of imitations of the actors, mannerisms and all, to the delight of his friends. As a boy, Parker would wait in front of the local library for his mother and read books about religion and science fiction, stories of exotic places in the imagination. Everything he did seems tinged with a kind of manic energy as a means for some kind of escape. He’s always dashing off to practice for hours in the woodshed or make a quick buck at a gig with a good-times crowd or score the morphine he’d started injecting for the broken ribs he’d suffered in a car accident that had also killed his best friend. It’s not a pretty picture, by any means, once we get the full story of ducked responsibilities, selfishness, and growing addiction. And at this point, the future musical genius isn’t even out of his teens but he and we know full well that as far as he’s concerned, his real life will begin elsewhere.

The narrative leaves off at the point before Parker makes it big in New York, on the cusp of realizing his artistic breakthrough. Crouch illustrates vividly how difficult it was for someone with Parker’s background and slim prospects to even try to make the journey. We learn the tricks of the hobo trade, as any black musician heading north to find gigs pays dues amid circumstances that would make Tom Joad break into a cold sweat. We hear of how to keep box car doors from slamming shut, in order to keep from suffocating or freezing to death, and how to slake your thirst with the morning dew collected from the back of a leaf. Once Parker made it to the Big Apple, there was only more struggle ahead. We read of Parker walking endlessly through the freezing streets trying to keep warm with his paper-thin suit fraying at the edges, his shoes almost flapping, on the hunt for a pot of chili and a place to crash for the night.

Sometimes I worry that jazz has been ruined for the 21st century by caricatures of zoot suits and hirsute beatniks snapping away over black coffee, or has been relegated to the pathetic limbo of aural wallpaper at cocktail parties. It’s a shame that jazz doesn’t get the same kind of attention and mainstream buzz it used to. Telling the stories of the people who shaped it would be as good a way as any to bring a new audience. One of the benefits of Crouch’s novelistic style is that, by the end of the book, the reader wants more. After meeting his family and getting the nitty gritty details of his apprenticeship, we want the rising action of Charlie Parker’s story, once he conquers New York and starts jamming with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk. and the aforementioned Miles and changes American music forever. In Crouch’s hands, the phrase that used to be ubiquitous around New York rings true: Bird lives. I hope I’m not the only one out there who is waiting with bated breath for Crouch’s next volume to see this Bird take flight.

Lou Reed, Sonic Contrarian

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The first time I ever heard “Walk on the Wild Side” it freaked me out. It was on one of those dark cold New England winter mornings that makes the universe come to a standstill. I must have been about twelve or thirteen. I remember frost chalked across the windows. I was up before sunrise for some odd reason, and the routine blare of the classic rock on my radio had ominously stopped for a few moments and there was this silence in the air. I was already sitting up in my bed before Herbie Flowers’s immortal bass melody suddenly dropped, cooler than cool, and out of nowhere came a voice that held my complete attention without apparently being bothered to try.

Lou’s nonchalant, matter-of-fact vocals, in that melodic mumble he’d always managed to pull off when he wasn‘t shouting or trying to croon, emerged over the guitar and suddenly there was an emcee in the room, drawing back the curtain onto a hidden, seemingly black and white noir world of hustlers, hitchhiking transvestites, the A-poll-o with the go-go-go and someone named Holly in the back room giving head but keeping hers…The really peculiar part of this, at least for me, was that none of it was offered with any kind of comment or explanation. What would be sensationalistic or pushed into the realm of the surreal in other songwriter’s hands was offered without comment, explanation or big conclusion. Here‘s the wild side, kid, the poker face of the voice and the music seemed to say, take or leave it.

It wasn’t until high school that I heard about the Velvet Underground and this mysterious fellow who wore black sunglasses all the time and hung out with Andy Warhol. I remember asking about this apparently infamous band at my local independent record store and having the clerk explain that I really couldn’t just get one record by these guys, you really had to get them all. I ended up buying the box set for about twenty bucks in one of those ridiculous Columbia House deals they used to have and took it home, unwrapping it like a lost scroll.

It might have been “Heroin” that hooked me. Or it could have been the part where they drag the chair across the floor and drop a clattering stack of dinner plates in the middle of “European Son” or the neon-lights-under-glass vibe of “Femme Fatale” that won my heart, I couldn’t decide either then or now.  And that’s before I delved into White Light/ White Heat or the spiritual anguish and throbbing eroticism of the eponymous third record, or the sparkling charisma of “Loaded,” which would have gone platinum were there any justice in the world. I remember realizing that I was probably the only person in my small town who had spent his entire afternoon listening to “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Before I knew it, I was the proud owner of the t-shirt – black, of course – with the first record’s cover emblazoned on the front. Mercifully, it was a long time until I found out that people called me banana boy.

There’s just no question that the Velvets, and Lou’s decades of solo work, changed the game for anybody who met them even halfway on their own terms. It wasn’t just an aesthetic choice, either. Most of the personal tributes I’ve seen don’t just talk about how great a musician Lou Reed was but how his fine, fine music literally changed their lives. It’s not only because he stayed true to his vision, no question about that, but because, well, between thought and expression lies a lifetime. His tastes were varied enough to incorporate pretty much everything – literature, film, garage rock, the classical avant-garde, doo-wop, love, drugs, sex, death, and wearing sunglasses at night while sporting a rather undeniable mullet. Somehow, in the way that only truly great artists can manage, Lou Reed managed to tell the world exactly how and where to go fuck itself while assimilating as many aspects of it as he possibly could.

Lou loomed large, he contained multitudes. His songs could be as expansive and lyrically obscure as they were blunt and almost minimalist. He was a legendarily hostile interview subject who had the sincerity to name one of his less-remembered solo records “Growing Up in Public,” a lover of free jazz and Dion and the Belmonts, a connoisseur of epic orgiastic rave-ups who could also remix an entire set of already painfully naked and honest songs down to the point where his vocals dominated the mix and still sounded like a quivering whisper coming from a locked room. The same guy wrote “I’m Waiting For the Man” and “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Sweet Jane” and “Perfect Day“ and “Walk On the Wild Side.” By his own admission, he did Lou Reed better than anybody. It might be the New York thing coming out, but I’ve always noticed that everybody, fans and enemies alike, always called him Lou. Of how many other certifiable rock stars could this be said?

He had a knack for finding mentors, too. As an undergraduate at Syracuse, he became one of the student acolytes of Delmore Schwartz, a now-overlooked poet whose appetite for conversation and booze was matched only by his obsessive passion for the life of the mind. He wrote the introductory short story for the Partisan Review in 1937, at the ripe old age of twenty-three, an absolute line-by-line masterpiece entitled “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Read it today and see exactly how every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Saul Bellow wrote his Pulitzer-winning “Humbolt’s Gift” about him and his maniacal mentorship and called him “a Mozart of conversation.” John Berryman lamented the loss of the days when they would walk through Harvard “warm with gossip” and dedicated poems to his “sacred memory.”

As legend has it, if you spent any time at all with Schwartz, you would hear him give spellbinding readings of Joyce and Yeats and Shakespeare and whatever else struck his fancy until he burned himself out, as he eventually did. Lou was understandably quite devoted to him and would refer to him years after he died as “the first great man I ever met.” One thing Schwartz told Lou was that whatever he did, he needed to write truly and honestly and never betray himself. If he didn’t, he would haunt him from beyond the grave. And haunt him he did, if the tender “My House” from 1982’s deeply confessional The Blue Mask is any indication.

And then there’s Andy Warhol, who evidently asked for little else out of life but to listen and watch. Lou himself also said that Delmore Schwartz was the smartest man he’d ever met, until he met Andy. They called him Drella, a mix of Cinderella and Dracula, the monosyllabic son of Pittsburgh and Tiffany’s who made soup cans and atomic bombs and Elizabeth Taylor equally glamorous. Andy saw them as a nothing bar band in the Village and realized he needed a house band for his factory of beautiful freaks. This was beyond spectacle. Don’t forget that the people mentioned in those songs, the Chelsea girls and smack heads and lonely debutants, were based on real people. Think about it, how many other groups essentially started playing as the rhythm section of an entire improvisational art project, literally providing the soundtrack to the glowing, pulsating film above their heads? Then you’ve got the whip dancers and Nico the singing Teutonic goth statue and the strobe lights and the cellophane balloons and speed. And why not flip it around and imagine if, say, Jackson Pollock had a house band? They made a point of touring in places where they were hated. Seriously, who does that?

Conflict of all kinds – internal and external, alone in the dark night of the soul and in the bright lights of NYC, as cosmopolitan a place as you could ask for and whose avatar he was for a time – wasn’t just his theme, it was his muse. It takes a certain kind of genius to make a classic like “Transformer,” revive a sluggish solo career in the process, bask in the glow of due appreciation from the likes of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and then unleash forty five minutes of incomprehensible noise entitled Metal Machine Music and admit that, yes, no sentient being has actually been able to listen to it all the way through (much less its maker) while closing his label-demanded liner notes with the boast that “my week beats your year.” He was probably right, too. Less than a year later, he shape-shifted into a 50s radio deejay of the mind playing at the prom and makes Coney Island Baby, as accessible and sentimental a record as he ever made.

Only he could have brought out the burnished despair in the almost melodramatically desolate Berlin and turned off more or less his entire fan base while he was at it, only to revive it thirty years later in a triumphant live show and concert film and see it listed among the greatest records of its time. For my money, his greatest solo accomplishment is the eleven minute 1978 epic “Street Hassle” precisely because it does so many things at once and yet remains sui generis, a Lou Reed joint if there ever was one. Surging cellos accompany a three movement structure that fuses pretty much everything between ecstasy and agony while maintaining some indefinable, yearning balance between hopefulness and fatalism, degradation and exaltation, bad luck and Bruce Springsteen.

For better or worse, Lou made a career out of being a sonic contrarian. He challenged you as a listener because he challenged himself as a performer. If you got it, you got it, and if you let it get under your skin it stayed for a lifetime. Andy Warhol told him that however many songs he did, he needed to write more, because the most important thing in life was work. Some of his best records, in different phases of his career, were with the great John Cale and apparently each man repeatedly swore they’d never deal with the bastard ever again. Warhol himself once called him a “rat.” Lester Bangs did some of his best interviews while insistently provoking and antagonizing him, and wrote some of the most gloriously obsessive music criticism of all time about what his music did to his imagination. As Thurston Moore put it, Lou Reed’s music provided you access to fantasies you never even knew existed. And not just the dirty ones, either. I strongly doubt that Jonathan Richman had so much as smoked a cigarette when he listened to “Sister Ray” and found his life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.

And if sexual fluidity was your bag, then Lou was your, er, man. He wrote openly about sadomasochism and gender bending before anybody else in rock ‘n’ roll had the nerve to, and did indeed seem to practice what he preached. It has been suggested that Lou either coined or at least popularized the term “coming out of the closet” in Transformer’s bouncy little ditty “Make Up.” He was perfectly happy to squire his transperson companion Rachel around for several years. At the end of Coney Island Baby he dedicates one of his most poignant and romantic songs to her, in a voice that gets me every single time. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the fact that he married different women and lived happily ever after with Laurie Anderson invalidates or undermines this at all. The disturbing fact that he underwent electroshock treatment for “homosexual inclinations” as a teenager and wrote the harrowing “Kill Your Sons” about the experience is proof enough that the rock ‘n’ roll animal was no dilettante or poseur when it came to what used to be called alternative lifestyles.

I met him once. I understand it’s a little presumptuous (not to mention name-droppy) to use this term given the nature of the interaction we had, but there it is. I think I was a sophomore in college, which would make it late 2000. He gave a reading at a Barnes & Noble in Union Square because, as we all know, you never know what you’re gonna find there. Pretty big crowd, mostly middle aged suburban guys. I came late and missed the reading but I lined up with everyone else to get the new edition of his collected lyrics signed. I came prepared – I had a copy of his book and a copy of Delmore Schwartz’s selected poems for him to sign. I had some ridiculous idea that this would impress him or something. One was for me, the other was for my best friend. The booksellers handed out large post-it notes so you could write what you wanted your dedication to be. They stuck out of the side of the book, under the cover. I saw one older guy ahead of me with a sticky note that said “Hey Bob! Take a walk on the wild side!” I looked away and tried not to kill myself.

As I approached the great man’s table, he was in the process of calmly flipping someone off. His back was turned and he was smirking bemusedly at someone on the staff who’d made some kind of comment or dropped something. I plunked the books down in front of him with an idiotic flourish and asked him if he’d do a dedication. He noticed the books, changed his smirk to a scowl, and fumbled through them, as his scowl turned into a scrawl. For the collected lyrics, he flipped to the title page and wrote above the title in big black letters HELLO and, beneath it, LU. I have always treasured the compliment. After the crowd thinned out I went into the corner and tore out the two pages he’d signed, stuffed them in my pocket and put the books back on the shelf. To this day I’m not exactly sure if I was channeling Tony Soprano or Dead Poet’s Society but I throw myself to the tender mercies of booksellers everywhere when I say that it was my walk on the wild side, and it was all right.

Bonus Lou Reed YouTube Playlist:

I’m Waiting for the Man
All Tomorrow’s Parties
The Gift
Candy Says
Pale Blue Eyes
Stephanie Says
New Age
Rock n Roll
Satellite of Love
Make Up
Caroline Says II
Coney Island Baby
My House
Street Hassle
Dirty Boulevard
Magic and Loss
Set the Twilight Reeling
Sweet Jane” (Live)

The Life that Develops In-Between: On Elizabeth Graver’s The End of the Point

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The End of the Point, the new novel by Elizabeth Graver, is one of those rare books that accomplishes a great deal without seeming to call attention to itself. The novel has recently been longlisted for the National Book Award and comes from a long line of distinguished work from Elizabeth Graver, who has been writing acclaimed novels and stories for several decades. The End of the Point feels vital and real because Graver takes an eloquent, balanced look at the power of place and time and the evolution of a family of flawed but relatable characters, building a subtle symphony that unfolds over decades.

It all starts with the Porter family’s summer house in Ashaunt Point, a fictional place located in the quite real Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts, “barely two miles long, half a mile wide, hardly an appendage, more a stub, a neck without a head.” Before the narrative officially begins, the novel opens with a lovely kind of prose overture, evoking not only the landscape but the ancient historical presences embedded within it. We read, in a kind of free-flowing third person, about the treaty signed for the land itself hundreds of years earlier, a bargain for William Bradford and John Standish at “thirty yards of cloth, eight moose skins, fifteen axes, fifteen hoes.” Graver’s prose is imbued with a tangible feeling for the way the past haunts the present:

The place breeds [nostalgia] — for this old house, this old couch, this old tribe, one-speed bicycles, driftwood naturally distressed. At one time, a salt works stood at the foot of the Point. At another, a bootlegging outfit. Table salt hardens here. Books mildew. Diaries flip open…Sometimes arrowheads or bits of pottery and china show up in the churned soil of the few fields still farmed. How fine they would look set in the antique printing box above the bed made up with white Wamasutta sheets, to the left of the nightstand where the clock has stopped again.

Nostalgia is an interesting word. Massachusetts has been on complex terms with its own history pretty much from the start. John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” mutating into witch trials and hysteria a couple generations later, for one example. For what it’s worth, the Commonwealth can get a bit too hung up on a hub-of-the-universe reputation that tends to appear closer in rearview than it really is. Nostalgia and anger are “kissing cousins,” as the novel’s first pages aphoristically suggest. Sometimes it seems like nostalgia’s another one of those things in life that isn’t about what you do, so much as the way that you do it. As a longtime Bostonian with a little less than 300 years of New England blood in my veins, I’m all set on Pilgrims and Cabots and Kennedys for the time being and am more than happy to give arrowheads and beach wood a fresh look.

Stepping onto this landscape, we meet the well-to-do Porter family in the war-torn year of 1942, in the midst of the summer that will set in motion so much of the rest of their lives. There’s the imperious yet fiercely ambitious mother (deferentially referred to as “Mrs. Porter”), her spunky daughters, the prodigious and rebellious Helen (“the hellion“) and Dossy, and the youngest daughter, Janie, whose ill luck that summer will haunt her and the family for years to come. And then there’s Bea, their loyal nanny. Still nursing wounds from her emigration from Scotland and her mother’s death, she takes an interest in “Smitty,” an American soldier, and proceeds to start one of the most heartbreakingly awkward courtships I’ve read in a long time. Her desire and apprehension mixed with her sense of duty to the Porters and her general self-consciousness is as cringe-worthy as it is familiar. As a reader, I wanted her to be more poised than she was, though reading her scenes made it clear why it isn’t quite so simple — it never is.

Helen, in the way of brainy hellions everywhere, eventually hotfoots it to Switzerland to breathe the pure serene of Old Europe. Her diaries and letters home make up the entirety of chapter three. Graver modulates Helen’s change from impulsive and hyperbolic to intellectually probing with subtlety and skill. Part of what’s interesting about Helen is that even though she’s perfectly equipped to rise to the top of her chosen field, the reader gradually gets a deepening, sickening sense of her societal limitations. Whether or not Helen is willing to accept it, as a woman in the ’50s, even in ostensibly progressive Europe, the social structure she lives in stays entrenched. Even if she diligently studies languages and architecture to the very best of her ability, her efforts don‘t get her as far as they rightfully should. Seeing this from Helen’s perspective through her own eyes adds ironic, tragic distance between who she is and the person she would like to be.

And then there’s her son Charles, a promising lad who simultaneously gets both a little more and a little less out of the ’70s than he bargained for. Charles’s story and perspective takes up the majority of the remainder of the narrative. Similar to his mother, though in a different social context, his abilities and his ambitions are not necessarily in perfect sync. The pressure he feels to perform, to achieve, and to live up to his family’s expectations manifest themselves in some rather unexpected and harrowing ways. Graver has said in interviews that one of her thematic interests is how parents and children relate to one another, the love and the misunderstandings that develop over time, and this particular kind of tension runs through each character like a tripwire.

It wouldn’t do for me to give away too much of the plot, since part of the pleasure in reading The End of the Point is in seeing how the Porters grow tenaciously as individuals over time. Graver is a master at showing how beautifully ordinary people survive the twists and turns of everyday life. There is a botanical theme running through the novel from the epigraph through the chapter headings, and this contributes to a sense of character development as an organic process. The Porters don’t move upward toward some kind of transcendent epiphany. Graver doesn’t preach to the reader or suggest some kind of tidy resolution is right around the bend. Instead, she shows how the Porter family holds fiercely to their own, finding ways to try and keep the sanctuary of Ashaunt real to them, despite the inevitable exhaustion of time and the warp of history.

It’s a unique and refreshing narrative choice on her part, since it seems to me that the tendency with a multigenerational family saga is to make each character a kind of talking vessel for the author’s abstract ideals or concepts. As in her excellent earlier novel The Honey Thief, Graver doesn’t give in to the temptation to romanticize or allegorize her characters to death. This is a big help, especially when you‘re talking about a family saga. Unless you’re kicking it with the Compsons or Buendías, say, it usually takes a little bit of readerly patience to get through a multigenerational family story. One has to be on one’s game, in terms of care and attention. Nobody wants to spend several hundred pages with a bunch of allegorical figures sitting around the dinner table and passing each other the salt.

Graver’s novel has the impact that an ambitious novel can have without the uninviting heft or pomposity. Her characters aren’t heroic so much as human, not larger than life but humble with actuality, and the choices they make feel entirely their own. Graver respects the integrity of her characters and it shows. After a major traumatic episode, Charlie seeks peace and shelter by holing up in Ashaunt, and after a psychiatrist sensibly reminds him that “You can’t fix yourself by going somewhere else” Charlie responds, in all honestly, that “Ashaunt isn’t someplace else.” By the time you’ve spent a few chapters with the Porters, one appreciates how this remark is more poignant than even Charlie himself realizes.

Graver also possesses the rare gift of writing with evocative, poetic ambience and manages to convey the sense of time passing without making this overly explicit or gimmicky for the reader. I happened to be reading To the Lighthouse alongside Graver’s novel and the similarities begin but by no means end here. Graver, like Woolf, is as interested in the minutiae of human (especially family) interaction as she is in describing the ineffable in palpably lyrical language.  It’s no mean feat to find a balance between the two, but Graver gracefully transitions from one mode to the other at several points. In this, as in much of the novel, her sense of literary proportion is exquisite.

One of the aspects of Graver’s achievement is her ability to strike a distinct authorial balance between sympathy and judgment. It’s easy to feel kindly towards devoted, reserved Bea or for anguished, confused Charles, but at same time they are written in a way that transcends easy sentimentality. It’s not just that the reader roots for them (and it’s hard not to), it’s more that the characters feel like people you know, with all the complexities that follow. The fact that Graver doesn’t pathologize the Porters or hammer down moral condemnation over the choices they make means that she leaves space for each of them to let their humanity emerge in all its awkward, modest glory.

Samuel Butler once wrote that “Life is like learning to play the violin and trying to give concerts at the same time.” The Porters keep being interesting because the reader doesn’t feel like their fates are sealed from the start. Every member of the Porter family, like human beings everywhere, is fording their way through constantly evolving and unexpected situations. There’s the life you imagine, the life you live, and the life that develops in-between. In this sense, one way to read this novel is as a series of solo concerts done in close proximity, whose voices weave in and out of each other over decades, changing tone and mood and key. They may not always hit the proper notes, or have perfect pitch, but still they keep singing.

Nevermind Nostalgia: Twenty Years After Nirvana

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Nostalgia is a funny thing. The idea of sentimentality attaching meaning to objects, places, and people is as natural as anything human can be, but ultimately the form it takes depends largely on context. Michael Chabon once poignantly suggested that, for teenagers, imagination is about all you have to work with, and that during his own adolescence “my imagination, the kingdom inside my skull, was my sole source of refuge, my fortress of solitude, at times my prison.” True indeed. After all the lunch table ressentiment, the zits, the homework, harried teachers, haranguing parents, and the general gauntlet of puberty as it is and was and always shall be, one can usually find escape and release in the secret world of your bedroom. The limits to this world are physically confined to the walls, bed, and window but, as Emily Dickinson insisted, the brain is wider than the sky.

When I was too young to take refuge anywhere else, my room was indeed my castle, which consisted of what alt-rock albums I knew best and could get my hands on — Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M., and Nirvana were definitely in the retinue. I wore R.E.M shirts and parted my hair like Billy Corgan. One of the really unfortunate facts of adolescence is that at the precise time when one’s passion and cultural curiosity are at their highest, when everything is so new and fascinating, the range of available options are limited to the reach of allowance money, the radio, and word of mouth. Don’t get me wrong — those were, and are, great records. It just took me some time to appreciate that there was a world apart from alternative radio programming and to discover the work of people like Lou Reed, Son House, and Thelonious Monk. I didn’t look back for years. I still don’t. But when grunge and alt-rock were what I knew, oh how I listened! I remember sitting hunched over my black Sony boom box, listening to Alice In Chains, staring out the window at a bright spring day, and feeling like the birds in the trees just didn‘t get it. I wrote my favorite lyrics in notebooks, across the white borders of my walls, and in the snow on the backs of cars on my way home from school. Hearing that Nirvana’s Nevermind was 20 years old was kind of like seeing an old drinking buddy turn to Jesus in his autumn years. I was happy for him and everything, but I missed the old days when we shared the fortress of solitude.

It’s past the point of cliché now to call Nirvana’s Nevermind a Watershed Moment In Rock History, the Voice of the Disaffected Youth, A Generational Moment, ad nauseam, oh well, whatever, nevermind. Whoever initially decided that Kurt Cobain was the voice of a generation has probably disappeared by now into tastemaker obscurity, paying the bills with commentary on a VH1 special or in the arts section at Newsweek.  Nevermind, as a cultural artifact, enjoys the same status that, say, Bringing It All Back Home, Kind Of Blue, and Sgt. Pepper’s have maintained for years. You might not ever listen to it, but you probably worshipped it at some point, and now you pretty much have to have a copy hanging around somewhere if you want to call yourself a respectable human being. The baby on the cover, a lad by the name of Spencer Elden, was quoted a propos the anniversary that “Quite a few people in the world have seen my penis, so that’s kinda cool. I‘m just a normal kid living it up and doing the best I can while I‘m here.” Somewhere, the afro’d tyke on the cover of Ready To Die is laughing.

What’s strange, for me, is that I’m not entirely convinced that Nevermind wasn’t the voice of my generation, and yet when it was released in autumn of 1991 I was all of 10 years old. This makes my personal attachment to Generation X pretty tenuous, and I’m decidedly too old to be a millennial. I’m a member of what Doree Shafrir, writing in Slate, half-jokingly named “Generation Catalano.” I never watched My So-Called Life in its one-season heyday, but pretty much everyone else around me did. (I take umbrage at the name, too — I still get compared to Brian Krakow, but that’s neither here nor there). Nevertheless, I knew exactly what she meant when she referred to being “too young to claim Singles and Reality Bites and Slacker as our own (though that didn’t stop me from buying the soundtracks).” I also remember life without the Internet, as much as I remember innocently downloading songs from Napster, harvesting a handful of Nick Drake songs by the time the sun came up. My youngest sibling, 10 years my junior, says he remembers a time before the Internet but I still think he’s referring to dial-up.

Being a sentimentalist at heart, I decided to investigate the contours of my Nirvana nostalgia. Where was that teen spirit, which once seemed to signify so much? Was it still around? Where did it go? Did it even matter? It became clear that the only proper way to do this was to go old school and resist the temptation to sit and download away and let my computer do all the work. I’m more sedentary now than I was back in the day, anyway, and after all I’ve always believed a good test of any music is whether or not you can take a walk with it. I went down to my local alternative record store (it’s still open, somehow) and picked up the newly released 20th Anniversary Edition, two discs packed with demos, live cuts, and rare tracks. I went next door for a shiny, metallic gray Discman — $30 at a CVS, the only one on the shelf — and some batteries. I clicked the lid shut, fired it up, adjusted the headphones, felt again the old excitement of the disc whirring to life in the palm of my hand, and began to cut a swath through my major urban metropolis.

Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be … About two-thirds of the way through the first disc I was wobbly, electric, ecstatic. I’d forgotten the sheer monolithic power that Nirvana’s verse-chorus-verse, loud-quiet-loud format really had. There’s fire, propulsion, and enough atavistic punk under the clarity of the mix (which Cobain always hated) to keep the nervous energy bubbling without drowning the hooks, the solos, and the unbearably tight rhythm section. Dave Grohl really was Nirvana’s secret weapon, and his drumming is Bonhamesque in its power and dexterity. I was churning, head down, at a steady clip, turning corners, on a plain, feeling stupid and contagious. I dodged a telephone pole or two. One lady I passed suddenly looked at me and began gesturing angrily at her coffee. I looked back at her, genuinely puzzled, shrugged it off, and turned around. I don’t wanna destroy passersby, but no one ever said rock was about sidewalk etiquette.

The opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still buttonhole you, look wildly into your eyes, and burst into flames. The song is equal parts indignation and charisma (“It’s fun to lose/And to pretend … Here we are now/ENTERTAIN US!”), and yet melodically elegant, as more than one cover version has demonstrated. It’s just as immediate, anthemic, and vibrant as it ever was. The burbling, aquatic “Come As You Are” still mesmerizes. Cobain’s raggedly perfect pitch beckons the listener in, even as the chorus’ emphatic “When I swear that/I don’t have a gun” seems eerily less random in hindsight. The white noise of “Territorial Pissings” still pummels and wails Krist Novoselic’s sarcastic quotation of The Youngbloods’ “Get Together” is as funny as it was the first time. As for outtakes, both early demos and boom box rehearsal recordings are included, which give the set a multifaceted, complex, remix-friendly feel. You can enjoy their nifty cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now,” as well as the harrowing “D-7” from a pre-Nevermind John Peel session.

“In Bloom” is, lyrically, one of Cobain’s finest efforts. The near-haiku of “Bruises on the fruit/tender age in bloom” registers even more compellingly when intoned between the rolling, raucous choruses. Assuming pop lyrics have an intuitive logic can be a path to madness, but there’s a sarcastic familiarity with which Cobain sings “he’s the one/who likes/all our pretty songs” that always made me wonder if he might be sizing up a certain kind of face in the crowd, the bubba who’s just there to slug brew and get his rocks off, waiting to yell for “Free Bird” during intermission. Cobain did, after all, grow up as the artsy kid in a logging town, which might have contributed a bit to his well-known aversion to fame. It must have been frustrating, to say the least, to have to write in your own liner notes that if any of their fans were in any way racist, sexist, or homophobic “please…leave us the fuck alone! Don’t buy our records and don’t come to our shows!” The grimly sympathetic “Polly” — a first-person rendering of a brutal crime and a gutsy imaginative leap for an avowedly feminist and pacifistic songwriter — became a grotesque illustration of the authorial fallacy. This fact is mentioned at the outraged end of the very same liner notes, which makes it a bit easier to see why Cobain’s professed alienation from his audience was more than just a pose.

In many ways, this was a part of what the “grunge” or “alternative” culture was all about. Alternative culture rejected the celebrity industry and preferred keeping the personalities of popular musicians away from theatricality. The lyrics were predominantly personal, symbolic, and seemed to come from a private world of dreams, in-jokes, and memories. There was a politics, certainly, but not much in the way of overt social critique. Quadrophenia and The Wall offered sociology (“Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone!“) along with their angst. Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, not so much. Of course, there was that perennial adolescent theme of adenoidal meathead vs. sensitive bohemian going on at the same time. Mötley Crüe put out two volumes of Music To Crash Your Car To, while Soundgarden brooded about black hole suns and Chris Cornell implored the spoonman to save him.

I never quite bought into the ‘I-hate-being-famous’ credo, being far from the only music-addicted youngster to put on marathon air guitar concerts for the benefit of his wallpaper. It seemed too dour, too tragically hip, too affected when I heard it from people I would have given anything to see live and never did. When I eventually read Tennessee Williams’ essay “The Catastrophe of Success“ it began to make more sense. After the personal and professional triumph of The Glass Menagerie, Williams describes years of penury and creative frustration suddenly giving way to nightly room service, sycophantic fans, and alienated disaffection: “I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last … I found myself becoming indifferent to people. A well of cynicism rose in me … I got so sick of hearing people say, ‘I loved your play!’ that I could not say thank you any more.”

This is precisely what Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan had been saying, and fighting against, for a long time. It might be a reason why virtually every American performer who gets to the top either begins to lose their grip (Elvis, Marilyn) or become a monster (Michael Jackson, O.J.). The 1990’s media generation was always hyper-aware of the duplicity of pop stardom. One couldn’t open a magazine without seeing mannequin-blank anorexic models in pre-ripped jeans and vintage Clash shirts topped off with scarves that cost a month’s rent. The irony of commodification and the solipsistic pressures of mass consumption were enough to drive anyone to the brink. Don’t forget that “Fake Plastic Trees” came out in 1995. For Tennessee Williams, the means of survival lay in getting back to the art itself, cutting out from the glitz and glamour and finding a solitude in which to create: “It is only in his work that an artist can find reality and satisfaction, for the actual world is less intense than the world of his invention and consequently his life, without recourse to violent disorder, does not seem very substantial.” Using art as a survival technique is as old as the act of creation itself. It can inspire artists to transform themselves and make some of the greatest, most redemptive work of their professional lives. The downside is, of course, that some just don’t survive the transition.

For me, then as now, some of the most effective moments on Nevermind are the ones with few pyrotechnics; the songs that don’t kick and thrash around but instead slowly unfurl a spookily effective, surreal, totally unique sonic landscape. Apparently Kurt Cobain was a bit of an amateur installation artist. Friends of his would recall arriving at his apartment to find skeins of dark cloth, furniture akimbo, and various found objects (stuffed animals, plastic figurines, characters from a nativity scene) arranged like miniature sculpture. He‘d destroy them the next day. Some of his best work was like that. “Something in the Way,” recorded live in one studio take, with the phones unplugged and air conditioners silenced, was a devastating choice to close the record. It’s all in the vocal murmurs, the muddy acoustics, the narrator describing living beneath a dripping bridge, surviving on grass, and trapping animals for pets. The chorus has that devastatingly understated cello line, tolling like a church bell as the mournful backing vocals weave in and out of the melody like a winding sheet.

I think the mood Nirvana creates has to do with an almost Beckettian concern for the empty, the absurd, the gleaming light above a void, which still resonates many years later. For all the hand-wringing hullabaloo in the 90’s about negativity in popular music totally bumming out our youth, I think the issue is more that Nirvana’s music reflected something dire about the human condition which other music didn’t quite grasp.  I’ve never forgotten the glimmering unreality of the Unplugged concert, the stage set (at Cobain’s suggestion) with stargazer lilies and funereal chandeliers, the way the odd covers and band repertoire are in total synch, and the look in Cobain’s eyes as he sings the last line of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” — he’s already gone. At that moment, whether he knew it or not, he had less than six months to live.

Recently, a beloved friend from my high school years and I got back in touch. One day, he called and suggested we go see The Smashing Pumpkins. I didn’t really listen to them any more, not since roughly 1999, when Billy Corgan shaved his head like Pink from The Wall and started looking and acting like an evil robot. I’d read little else of his poetry book but the title alone — Blinking With Fists — made me feel like responding in kind. I’d still never actually seen them live and it sounded like a fine idea. There I stood amid hundreds of bodies, stage lights flashing over us, a teenage dream fulfilled. There was that extra buzz of approval a crowd acquires when it likes what it’s hearing and wants more. Billy played everything electric that night, nothing acoustic, and I found myself doing something the teenage me would have never done. I sang along, word for word, to songs whose titles I hadn’t heard in years and couldn’t for the life of me remember.

It was in the middle of “Silverfuck” where the music stops, the bass throbs like a heartbeat, and Billy’s modulated voice sings “bang, bang you’re dead/hole in your head” repeatedly, with variations. At first the voice is quiet, tentative, then matter of fact, spelling out the syllables one by one and eventually rising on the third word to rest, at last, on the percussive thud of the last syllable. The entire audience (an older bunch, unsurprisingly) followed his melody to the letter, soaring and sinking along with him, until the bomb drop of the guitars came in and the whole crowd was on its feet, shouting and flailing along in unison with the frenzy of the coda and the thunderclap of each chord, up to and including Billy’s concluding upward swipe at the strings. As the sound faded I noticed the smirk on his face hadn’t left since the show began. Leaning back, he made guns with his hands and darted them back and forth. I wasn’t too keen on the gesture, but that was ok — I wasn’t thinking about the words by then, anyway.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Mythology, Men, and Coonskin Caps: On Michael Wallis’s David Crockett

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“Biographies are but clothes and buttons of the man — the biography of the man himself cannot be written” — Mark Twain

Born on the mountaintop in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree
Kil’t him a b’ar when he was only three
Day-Ve, Day-Ve Crockett! King of the Wild Frontier!…

I know this song, and you probably do to, and yet I can’t quite say why or how. I think for some reason it started at least a couple decades ago in my grandparents’ house, probably some Disney family movie night, or maybe I heard it by chance out in the ether somewhere and it just settled into my auditory cortex, like a disc in a jukebox waiting for the drop of memory’s coin.

What’s strange (to me, at least) is that even though I know this ditty decently enough, I couldn’t really tell you much about the eponymous character it unabashedly celebrates. If pressed, I could probably make something up on the spot based on the hyperbolic verses, but what good is that? And why can’t I get it out of my head now that it’s on my mind? It might be that Disney’s myth machine was more effective than I’d previously suspected. Apparently the song was dashed off in about 20 minutes, because Boss Disney needed something to get the kids’ heads bobbing along as the opening credits rolled. Or, even more disturbing, it could be that Tennessee Ernie Ford is as much a crackerjack Americana propagandist as Woody Guthrie, Stephen Foster, or Francis Scott Key.

I’m grateful to Michael Wallis, author of the new biography David Crockett: Lion of the West, for giving me a bit of my childhood back. He was inspired to write his book by a similar experience, albeit from a perspective a little more specific and closer to the source:

“My first exposure to this inimitable American icon came, and I can vividly recall the date, on the frosty night of December 15, 1954 … The ABC television network had just aired “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter”, the first of three episodes produced by Walt Disney for his studio’s then new series, which had premiered two months earlier … I was a goner … I headed straight to my room, where I pored over the World Book Encyclopedia entry for David Crockett, dreaming of the swashbuckler with a proclivity for dangerous behavior, a most commendable quality for any red-blooded American kid.”

I’d like to say that Wallis’s biography dispels the mythology which surrounds David Crockett once and for all, separating fact from fiction, the legend from the man, but that wouldn’t be quite right. Wallis is a diligent, scrupulous historian; he’s got his facts straight, he knows true from false, he’s done his homework. He demonstrates a real love and understanding of the backwoods through which David Crockett roamed and rambled. This is all to the good, of course.

It is also significant, however, that Wallis doesn’t seem to restrain his lyrical impulses when setting up his subject as early as the opening chapter: “David Crockett believed in the wind and in the stars. This son of Tennessee could read the sun, the shadows, and the wild clouds full of thunder.” He continues in this vein, describing how Crockett knew the names of plants, trees, constellations, and treated the forests of Tennessee as both a cathedral and refuge. I don’t mean to be crude or dismissive, but the voice I hear is more akin to the wizened, dreamy-eyed cowboy in The Big Lebowski than what I’d expect from a historian. Wallis isn’t telling tall tales, but his history comes across as a sort of amiable yarn with footnotes and period illustrations. Romanticizing the subject at hand is a consistently close call. I’m still not sure, given the subject, how much it matters.

Wallis points out early on that Crockett was most definitely not “born on a mountain top” and only started wearing his iconic coonskin cap when he needed to boost his public visibility and stay politically relevant. Literally turn the page, and next thing we know our hero is describing mortal combat with a giant angry black bear, alone, at 39 years of age, soaked to the bone and nearly freezing to death on a January night near Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee:

“’Imade a lounge (sic) with my long knife, and fortunately stuck him right through the heart’, he later explained … Exhausted from the struggle, he calmed his pack of panting hounds and managed to pull the bear from the crevice in the frozen ground where they had fought. After butchering the animal, he tried to kindle a fire but could find nothing dry enough to burn. His moccasins, buckskin breeches, and hunting shirt were frozen to his numb body and he knew that unless he kept moving he would die. ‘So I got up, and hollered awhile, and then I would jump up and down with all my might and throw myself into all sorts of motions … But all this wouldn’t do; for my blood was now getting cold, and the chills coming all over me. I was so tired, too, that I could hardly walk; but I thought I would do the best I could to save my life, and then, if I died, nobody would be to blame.’”

Wallis adds a qualifying footnote suggesting that this story might be one of Crockett’s much-beloved, enduringly exaggerated tales of derring-do, which were at least half of the reason the good-natured, generous Crockett seemed so well-liked. It needn’t trouble us very much if this particular tale is exaggerated. Crockett was unquestionably a master hunter of all manner of wildlife for sport and survival. If the above story is untrue, it could fairly stand in for any number of actual pretty dangerous encounters which might have gone unmentioned, if for no other reason than sheer repetition. Such battles to the death were rather common and necessary for a woodsman like himself. There’s not much reason to start interrogating him on the bear killing issue, either. Crockett soberly mused that he’d killed at least a hundred bears in one year’s professional hunting, including 47 in one month. This would be annoying coming from someone who hadn’t actually kept his fledgling family alive for much longer than he preferred by hunting and killing wild bears for food, clothing, insulation, and so on. His raw courage warrants a bit of blarney, if blarney there must be. I shudder to think what I would have eaten, if anything, had I been born in 1786.

And that’s why it seems that David Crockett has become a mythological figure in American history. He was a survivor. I hate to pile mythology on mythology here, but there’s some Huckleberry Finn at play in his story. Crockett, like Huck, gets his start at the economic and emotional mercy of a drunken, hapless pap who can’t get his act together long enough to offer his resourceful, loyal son any leg up in the world besides learning independence and self-sufficiency pretty darn quick. It could also be that this theme contributes to quite a bit of other American mythology. As a culture, we do tend to venerate the innocence that overcomes initial squalor. This theme has its place in early colonial literature and persists in the work and legend of Whitman, Thoreau, Frost, and the Beat Generation on into the political sphere. Anybody who remembers the seemingly guileless genialities of Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush can see how electable a myth it is. It might just be that we as Americans take our own optimism as anesthetic for the wound of what Richard Slotkin, in a long study of the American West that Wallis refers to, called — and used as the title of his book — Regeneration Through Violence.

And violence there is in the story of David Crockett — not just of the grizzly kind, either. The world Crockett inhabited was, in many ways, fiercely up for grabs. As a young man, he set out to fight in The Creek Indian War, which broke out in 1813 after news of the killing and scalping of more than five hundred people at Fort Mims, a stockade then in southern Mississippi. He went off to battle with the words “remember Fort Mims!” ringing in his ears, leaving his wife and children behind to join in the fight for what may well have looked like survival itself: “When I heard of the mischief which was done at the fort, I instantly felt like going, and I had none of the dread of dying that I expected to feel” (italics mine). Once he’d seen and experienced enough of the fighting, which had begun over land, Creek civil wars and the prophetic outrage of Tecumseh (“Burn their dwellings! War now! War always! War to the living! War to the dead!”), he’d remember the gory ruin and devastation it caused years later when he served several terms in Congress as a representative of Tennessee.

Andrew Jackson, once a political mentor to Crockett and eventually an enemy, infamously demanded Indian removal essentially by any means — and trails — necessary. Crockett didn’t back down from the ire of Old Hickory. He stubbornly voted against the punitive relocation measures of the vindictive and paternalistic Jackson, defying his party and alienating much of his voting base in the process. He was convinced that Indian Removal was not only a tyrannical move for Jackson but also fundamentally immoral: “They said this was a favorite measure of the president, and I ought to go for it. I told them I believed it was a wicked, unjust measure, and that I should go against it … I would sooner be honestly and politically d—nd, than hypocritically immortalized.”  There is, to extend the comparison little bit, a touch of Huck’s stirring “alright then, I’ll GO to hell” on a different, though equally historically relevant, issue of race. Wallis notes that some historians consider his stance more in the light of his anti-Jackson position, but it’s as much of a matter of principle either way. It’s encouraging to see that a figure so steeped in rosy Americana really could be as morally adventurous as he was by practice and disposition.

Crockett’s death at the battle of the Alamo is alternately charming and surreal. He’d lost his seat in Congress by then, frustrated with all the snobbery and hypocrisy of Washington, and he’d always been “itchy-footed” anyway. Wallis cites the accounts of star-struck fellow soldiers who’d probably grown up reading the comics and stories already wildly fictionalized from his life: “It was said that Crockett and a Scotsman named John McGregor, who brought his bagpipes to the fight, amused the garrison, and perhaps even the surrounding Mexican troops, with their musical interludes in between skirmishes and repulsed assaults.” No one knows precisely how Davy Crockett died, but the image of him, a merry old man by then, playing a fiddle to perk up his comrades as Santa Ana’s troops routed the place is too strange and vibrant to ignore.

Wallis knows full well that the icon is not the man in full, nor should it be. The issue with a biography like this is that the legend is so much of the story that debunking myths means the subject loses some of what makes him unique. David Crockett was romanticized in the same way that classic film stars, athletes, and politicians are, and for a similar reason — the legend is inextricably entwined with the actual human being. Not only is there no urgency to demystify, there’s almost no reason to. Sometimes the legend and the person are inextricable for perfectly good reasons. Late in his life, Crockett attended a loosely-based dramatization of his own exploits, where his stand-in character went by the swashbuckling name of Nimrod Wildfire. The actor playing him, decked out in fringe and a Wild West headpiece, ran to the front of the stage and made an elaborate bow to the guest of honor. The audience, initially shocked, stood up to applaud when Crockett himself rose from his seat and responded in kind. Life is sometimes larger than itself because people can be more than they appear.

Wallis’s biography gracefully walks the line between acknowledging this dynamic contrast and letting the yarn of Crockett’s life unwind in dynamic and fascinating ways on its own merit. This applies to the name on the cover, as well. It’s “David” Crockett, thanks, not the chummily informal “Davy” that pop culture taught us to say generations ago. In fact, the man himself never used the diminutive. His people — friends, family, voting constituents — were the ones more apt to do so. It was more about the warmth of familiarity than the preference of the man in question. In the cozy distance of posterity, however, our friendly condescension might resemble affection enough for us to ignore the difference. Fair or not, the image seems to preside over the reality even for those, like Crockett, who happened to be the genuine article.

Image: Wikipedia

The Canon Guard: Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence

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Harold Bloom is getting old. The venerable and untiring critic has reached the age of 81, the age Dante thought would allow one to reach the perfection of mind and spirit. Bloom would be the first (and he repeats himself in this, as in all things) to admit that he falls pretty solidly short of this luminosity. The nickname he chose for himself is “Brontosaurus Bardolator Bloom” – an amiable enough monster, as he wryly remarks. He once rather charmingly referred to Leopold Bloom, the wonderfully curious and unpretentious leading man of Ulysses as his “namesake.” In this new volume of criticism, proclaimed to be his last, he rejects the idea of grandly associative names except, of course, for the fortunate few who’ve earned them: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Whitman, Wordsworth, and Joyce among them, as well he might. He’s spent most of his life absorbed in their imaginations. The Anatomy of Influence: Literature As A Way Of Life is simultaneously a swan song, mash note, and fever dream.

It’s interesting to see how Bloom frets and struts his hour upon the page. To my mind, Harold Bloom is not so much the judicious patriarch or brazen egomaniac or even a vogon (as one detractor had it) as he is a grandmother – endlessly harried, fiercely loving, and relentlessly worried about the future of his brood. One could say that the bombastic Brontosaurus is really no more than the mother hen of his corner of literary history. He has been known to address his interviewers as “my child,” “my dearies,” and “my little bear.” Every photo of him I’ve ever seen displays the hollow-eyed gaze of a sort of maternal weariness, an insomnia of wondering if the lights are going out and if the house will still be standing when he finally shuffles off the mortal coil.

As for his method and his taste, it might be summed up in a bit of his critical mythology. For Bloom, especially when starting from his breakthrough 1973 essay “The Anxiety of Influence,” the issue at hand has always been the nature of literary influence. The idea is that a poet wants to begin to create though at first he feels threatened and anxious that a stronger, precursor poet has already said what he wanted to say before he had the chance to say it himself. The influence of the precursor is overwhelming in its inspiration and the poet begins to copy the voice or style or philosophy of the precursor poet, causing an anxiety over the poet’s struggle for identity, for individuality.

The agon, a word rooted in the competition between Greek tragedians, is when the poet is struggling to overthrow this contaminating power. The way this is accomplished is through a Lucretian clinamen, or unpredictable swerve from the precursors’ dominance. The result is sublimity; the rapture of a distinct, powerful, and utterly strange new voice which appears. The readers discover themselves, always themselves, as an inscrutable interiority always deepening and widening, as they read through the panoply of what Bloom unabashedly calls genius. He is fond of citing Emerson on this: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

The contention would seem to be on what authority, of course, Bloom would be able to decide that one writer has sufficiently influenced or superseded another, and on what grounds. There does not seem to be an objective answer to this, given that interpreting interpretations is a tricky business at best. It doesn’t matter as much as it might, though – criticism can falter when it decides on its own that it contains the last word on any text. History is a long record on the folly of this. A plethora of meanings, an opening up of new avenues of discovery, a startling juxtaposition is plenty to grow on. Bloom, to his credit, is aware of this: “opponents accuse me of espousing an ‘aesthetic ideology,’ but I follow Kant in believing that the aesthetic demands deep subjectivity and is beyond the reach of ideology.” Subjectivity never ends.

Bloom’s position does not, and should not, mean you discriminate between superior and inferior cultural productions. History can’t – and shouldn’t – be avoided in criticism, and Bloom errs in his cantankerous avoidance of historicism, but if societies do in fact write books, the minds who craft them certainly do not come to us mass produced. In his Genius: A Mosaic of A Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (sort of a choice anthology of favorite poets, novelists, and playwrights), he remarks that “there were many neurotic spinsters in 19th Century Amherst, but there was only one Emily Dickinson.” It may be best for politics and cultural production as such to be considered an ingredient of the soup and not the sum total of the soup itself.

What sets him off, as he rather irritatingly tends to repeat here and elsewhere, is what he calls “The School of Resentment” – the Marxist, Feminist, Post-Colonial, Deconstructionist methods of approaching a text. His use of a Nietzschean concept is telling, both for what he accuses and how he accuses it. For Bloom, this culture theory approach trivializes the power of imagination, absurdly reducing it to circumstances of gender or class stature or ethnicity. It’s interesting how this kind of gripe has been heard before, usually from some self-righteous idiot who bemoans the lowering of America’s mental and spiritual standards while preening on Fox News or scribbling another paranoid, myopic screed for some Moral Majority book club, the better to pay off his gambling debts and mistresses. Bloom’s not a conservative, at least as far as politics go, and the distinction is worth remembering. If the new frontier for political affiliation is cultural and taste-based vindictiveness (Starbucks vs. Wal-Mart, Fox vs. CNN, The Noble Canon vs. Gangsta Rap), and it is well-argued that it was the right wing who created the mess in the first place, then it pays to see a believer in the canon remind us that despite “the war for America’s soul,” good little boys and girls are not going to be saved by reading their Bible and their Emerson to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and merrily stride towards a Manifest Destiny:
It is scary to reread the final volume of Gibbon these days because the fate of the Roman Empire seems an outline…Dark influences from the American past congregate among us still. If we are a democracy, what are we to make of the palpable elements of plutocracy, oligarchy, and mounting theocracy that rule our state? How do we address the self-inflicted catastrophes that devastate our natural environment? So large is our malaise that no single writer can encompass it. We have no Emerson or Whitman among us…I did not consciously realize this then, but my meditation upon poetic influence now seems to me also an attempt to forge a weapon against the gathering storm of ideology that soon would sweep away many of my students.
It’s very penetratingly said that Bloom’s canon is sometimes low on non-Western voices. Bloom is pretty bombastic in what he loves and why he loves it, and he can’t go at least a page or two without pumping out another reference to Shakespeare and how the Bard’s omnivorous consciousness almost overshadows the book he’s analyzing. Bloom likes to mingle his views with those of the lords of language, and good for him. Proximity, however, is not approximation. I don’t think a writer can decide for themselves who their authentic precursor is; there’s way too much bubbling around in the stew of the creative mind to locate such an inspiration.

If an interested reader takes inventory of Bloom’s school for the ages, there are indeed plenty of Dead White Men (and Women) to be found, but there are also more than a few interestingly subversive texts to be found. I discovered Ishmael Reed’s searing Mumbo Jumbo on this recommendation and I doubt very much that it was chosen as an encroachment of European cultural hegemony. Same goes for Bloom’s “20th Century Sublime,” which includes The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, the concluding ten minutes of which is hard to see as anything but hilariously anarchic satire on whatever is patriotic and pious in western history. The same could be said of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, for that matter. The list also includes Charlie Parker’s Parker’s Mood, Bud Powell’s Un Poco Loco, and the “Byron The Light Bulb” sequence from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I mention these not to engage in academic tit-for-tat, but to emphasize the inherently idiosyncratic nature of all criticism. His indignation is incandescent. Bloom celebrates what he is moved by, what outrages and delights him, what “ravishes his heart away.”

Bardolatry, “the least religious of all religions,” is Bloom’s great love. The first half of the book is taken up with the idea of “Shakespeare the founder.” Shakespeare is the omnivorous, omniscient one: his creative capacity is boundless and subsumes everything which comes before or after it. In a previous work, Bloom even makes the provocative if dubious claim that he “invented the human.” He hasn’t changed his mind. Bloom sketches the various places where the Bard is to be found in all manner of literature, and in Bloom he is never out of sight. He often quotes Giambattista Vico’s saying that “we know only what we ourselves have made” but in the end, Shakespeare has made everything for us. Shakespeare the person is unable to be found within his created works, so thoroughly has he subsumed himself into his personalities: Iago, Lear, Othello, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Ariel, just to name a few.

Bloom is obsessed with one character above all: the Prince of Denmark. Hamlet is the wildest, “supremely outrageous,” most coruscating intelligence to be found anywhere in the work. His special book length study on the topic is entitled Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, and it’s not unlimited for nothing. Hamlet is a character who destroys everything in his path, composing cognitive splendors of almost nihilistic intensity, he is mad but “mad north-northwest.” Bloom can’t get enough of him – he links him with Paradise Lost’s Lucifer, for one, and wonders what it would be like if he had Edmund or Iago to contend with onstage. The Dane’s instantaneous cognition and meta-cognition is enough to send Bloom awhirl. The Lucifer comparison is apt in many ways, though one gets the feeling that his Oedipal theory of poetic influence is based on such prodigious and intimidating reading (he’s said to be able to read several hundred pages an hour) that it’s exhausting to keep up. He once mentioned that his only attempt at therapy resulted in his therapist explaining that he was being paid by the hour to listen to lectures on the proper way to read Freud. If that isn’t the mark of a true literary man, I don’t know what is.

The second half of the book deals with the pervading influence of Emerson as the mind of America, and Walt Whitman as its poet. Whitman’s influence is with us as deeply as Emerson’s was with him. Who hasn’t been touched by his rhetoric? It might be fair to say that for American poetry Whitman’s own debt to Emerson is appropriate: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering, Emerson brought me to boil.” Bloom tracks his vision through several of the most celebrated poets of the past 50 years, some struggling to throw off Whitman’s influence and coming into their own, some being transformed in digesting it – D.H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, John Ashbery, A.R. Ammons, Charles Wright, and – especially – Hart Crane. Crane has been with Bloom since he encountered his work in the Bronx Public Library, at ten years old, and has stayed with him ever since. He claims to have memorized “nearly all” of Crane’s poetry and insists upon memorizing in general as much as one can so as to possess the poems yourself. When he writes about the words which have left him in awe for seventy years, the resonance is palpable – “Perhaps his truest vista is comprised by the final four stanzas of the ‘Proem’”:
O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry-

Again, the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path- condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year…

O sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
Poor Harold has been fighting and fretting over the fate of the canon for nearly a century. I don’t think it’s quite so dire. I’ve yet to meet a passionate reader who doesn’t love any or all of his Western Canon: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Blake, Dickens, Austen, Wilde, Whitman, Proust, Joyce, and Beckett – to name merely a few – are all doing pretty well, thank you. He needn’t despair. We are still eating and drinking well of what Bloom passionately recommends. A little political correctness doesn’t stop the fact that aesthetic splendor, cognitive power, and imaginative daring still matter. If anything, it might change the way that it matters in the larger social sphere. There is always a Whitman or an Emerson yet to emerge, even in what he grimly terms “our evening land.” Any fan of his can thank him for suggesting language and stories newer and fresher and duly more strange than a lifetime of reading could grasp. Bloom reads Wallace Stevens writing of Whitman “walking along a ruddy shore./ He is singing and chanting the things that are a part of him,/ the worlds that are and will be,/ death and day./ Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end./ His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.” If that can be enough for him (and he seems to think it might be) then may he contentedly sink into our common plot for a long, well-deserved rest. There will always be plenty of anxiety to go around.

Ecstatic Truth: Werner Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

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Werner Herzog, the director of the new 3D documentary The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, has spent a long career carving out a niche entirely his own. His imagination is unmistakable in both fiction and non-fiction films, though his peculiar vision often suggests a perpetual blurring of the lines between categories. In his latest feature documentary he sets his sights on newly accessible prehistoric cave paintings in a valley in southern France, The Cave of Chauvet Pont-D‘Arc. In some ways, Herzog is just the man to explore such a landscape.

His fictional work over the years marks him as one of the most eccentrically provocative visionaries of the past half-century. Part of his eccentricity has to do with something classically cinematic: the suspension of disbelief. You don’t have to question Herzog’s honesty in watching his films, though you might start to question his sanity. During the filming of the enigmatic, annihilating 1972 masterpiece Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, Herzog and his mercurial leading man Klaus Kinski (equal parts collaborator, muse, and mortal enemy) were occasionally known to hold each other at gunpoint. 1982’s Fitzcarraldo isn’t just a film about a wild-eyed rubber baron building an opera house within a giant imported steamship in the mountains of the jungles of Peru, it’s about how the titular character’s inspiration and mad fixity echoes the filmmaker’s own. CGI need not apply: Herzog and his crew actually hauled the entire ship across the mountain themselves. Of course, a documentary was made, and the film Burden Of Dreams is the fascinating (and occasionally hilarious) result.

Not content to make dramatic fiction his only pursuit, Herzog has consistently and rewardingly made feature-length documentary films about the world’s marginalized, poetic, and just plain odd phenomena. Whether the subject is Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas for Wheel Of Time, exploring the minutia of Antarctica in the Oscar-nominated Encounters At The End Of The World, or tracking Timothy Treadwell’s fatal obsession with wild bears in Grizzly Man, he has made a distinctive, unique mark on documentary style, as well. There is also his personal film school, a seminar really, which promises not to offer anything technical about the aspects of filmmaking unless you include instruction on picking locks, forging shooting permits in foreign countries, neutralizing bureaucracy, and “self reliance”. The reading list includes Virgil’s Eclogues, Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber,” and, of course, The Warren Commission.

One of his recent statements (from the book Herzog on Herzog) has been on virtual reality’s seductive power in today’s world and how “all these tools now at our disposal, these things which are part of this explosive evolution of the means of communication, mean we are now heading for an era of solitude. Along with this rapid growth of forms of communication at our disposal – be it fax, phone, email, internet or whatever – human solitude will increase in direct proportion.” For Herzog, it is the filmmaker’s (and, by extension, the artist’s) responsibility to try to break through the blare of the virtual and to instead attempt to create or document something which is truer, rawer, more alive, and duly more strange.

Luckily, the French Ministry of Culture gave Herzog the opportunity to film inside the Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc with unprecedented if limited access. There probably couldn’t be a better opportunity to shrug off the babble of modernity than to spelunk among ancient traces of prehistoric imagination, and Herzog does this with sympathy, gravitas, and an eye for the absurd.

The cave was discovered in 1994 and within two years a twelve-person team of researchers was nominated to document and analyze the fossils, artwork, and human traces left behind. The team can only work at half capacity, for two weeks at a time, due to the fragility of the cave’s internal equilibrium. Herzog was limited to shooting by himself, with only a couple of cameramen, using heat-reduced lighting. His crew was limited to a two-foot-wide walkway, wearing special suits and shoes. Shooting was restricted to only a few days for several hours at a time due to the near-toxicity of the environment. It adds to the precariousness of the experience as a viewer – one gets the teetering feeling of witnessing something very precious and very delicate, as the camera eye glides across the surfaces.

The effect is evocative, to say the least. Lambent lights flicker across the etchings, looming ochre walls blur and focus, until you start to realize you’re looking at dozens of ancient painted handprints. Some are smaller, suggesting a woman or an adolescent, others are larger, varying in digit size and solidity. There are streaks of black chalk-thick outlines of horses, lions, and bison. In one panel, two rhinoceroses are butting heads across a wall. What’s amazing is that the researchers can surmise how the forms were scrawled into life. In some cases the artists used the texture of the wall itself, etching with wood charcoal and rubbing fingertips covered in clay across the outline. All of this takes place at eye and helmet level with the filmmakers and scientists themselves, amazedly peering into the glowing darkness along with us. At one point the soundtrack is stopped and we listen to the silence of a lost place.

Herzog’s voiceover narration, often a delightfully strange component of whatever he films, is the guide. His crisp articulation and Germanic depth adds gravitas to the wonder. At one point, Herzog suggests that certain pictures of animals sequenced in different stages of motion might even be a prefigured form of cinema, especially when seen by torchlight. It’s kind of a Herzogian thing to suggest, but it’s not entirely far-fetched. Spreading across a stalactite we see what appears to be a composite outline of a bison and the pubic radius of a woman. Some things never change.

Of course, a film like this wouldn’t be complete without some face time with the researchers and enthusiasts themselves. They’re a pretty interesting bunch. One of them, an affable French scientist who used to be a circus performer, disarmingly remarks that after first seeing the etchings of lions he dreamed about real ones for days afterward. He further explains that he found the presence of all the drawings so overwhelming he had to remove himself from the research for a while to take it all in as a human being. We come across a strange perfumer who attempts to sniff out the scent emanating from the cracks of lost caves. There is also a prehistoric enthusiast fully decked out in wolf hide who dances a merry jig while playing The Star Spangled Banner on a carved bone flute. The short, editorialized coda at the end of the film is noteworthy but disturbingly odd, as only a meditation on civilization involving mutant albino crocodiles could be.

Herzog has written repeatedly about the desire to capture what he calls “ecstatic truth.” The example he is fond of using, as he did for a recent appearance on The Colbert Report, is that of the Manhattan phone book.  Sure, anyone can grab one and read off all the exact names, numbers, and addresses of all the residents listed inside, but what you can’t know is if Mr. Jonathan Smith of 125 East St. cries alone on his pillow at night. Or why, for that matter. Facts alone won’t do the trick. What Cave Of Forgotten Dreams offers is the ability to experience a kind of ecstatic truth, ironically found in the facts of the Chauvet cave as we learn them, unveiled from within the subterranean scenery of the cave itself. Witnessing on celluloid (and, if you’re lucky, 3D glasses) the etchings of early human beings, scrawled for whatever reason thousands of years ago, is to observe something ancient and mysterious with your very own eyes. Art, even documentary art, can’t surpass the immediacy of reality; I can’t tell from merely attending a movie what it feels like to be in the cave, or to duck under looming stalactites with bison shapes running down their sides. Nor do I truly know what they mean. But I can say I’ve seen them. That truth alone is ecstatic enough.

Eye of the Beholder: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

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“The drop is a small ocean.”

“When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés.  That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them.  As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public.”
-Terrence Malick

Describing, let alone reviewing, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is almost forbiddingly daunting.  Probably for this reason, critical reaction has been decidedly garrulous.  A vast majority of reviewers have invoked some kind of “higher” culture to signify the elusive mood or feeling it evokes.  Just skimming down the list, one picks up earnest references to Emily Dickinson, Tristram Shandy, Picasso, 2001: A Space Odyssey, W.B. Yeats, The Passion Of The Christ, the Sistine Chapel, and The Museum of Natural History.  It’s been referred to as “beautiful“, “baffling“, “magisterial”, “unbearably pretentious” and putting the viewer at risk of emerging from the theatre “with a pretzel for a brain.”  All of this is fair game, I think.  Oscar Wilde‘s droll dismissal of controversy wraps it all up nicely and points the way forward: “When the critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.”

In some postmodern milieux it’s common to judge a work of art sight unseen and only by the reactions of others (you’ve done it before, admit it).  The Tree of Life lends itself to this vulnerability, for sure.  It was alternately booed and cheered by the discriminating cineastes of Cannes, ultimately winning the historic Palme d’Or.  Robert De Niro, the head of the prize panel, explained in a very Robert DeNiro way that the film had “the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize.”  Roger Ebert wrote a lovely and moving piece about it, the first sentence of which calls it “a form of prayer.”  This would be pretty decent praise from anyone but considering Ebert himself has been struggling with his own mortality for several years now, and doing so with grace and dignity, the accolade is especially poignant.

I don’t usually mind getting spoilers before I see a movie for the first time, which probably has more to do with my tendency to be easily confused than a need for surprise. Not to worry – it’s almost impossible to give anything away.  Part of the wonder of this film is that the visual style and narrative undulation (the term “arc” just doesn’t do it justice) not only allow for but encourage emotional and intellectual responses which are ultimately the viewer’s own.  Certain moments in the film were vivid enough to sting me with recognition and tears came to my eyes.  It felt like moments of my childhood reappeared, unbidden, and not the most obvious ones. Apparently, I’m not alone in this.  Several people I know well admitted to a similar reaction.  There is comfort in that.  One of the things which is often asked of art, if not cinema itself, is that it move us, give us grandeur, something of the ineffable.  This can be done with either massive, panoramic vistas or with detailed, minute shifts of insight.  The Tree Of Life, to Malick’s abiding credit, offers us both.

The narrative centers around a small lower middle class family in east Texas.  There are three brothers, one of whom is revealed to have died in unexplained circumstances.  Brad Pitt sinks so deeply into his role as the stern, frustrated, ultimately helpless father that you can see what Freud termed “the family romance” flickering behind his thick glasses and masculine scowl.  Jessica Chastain’s mother is ethereal, loving, one of nature’s forgiving creatures.  This dialectical conflict is subtly set up early on: one side of the parental wall is earthly, ambitious, occasionally brutal in word or gesture, brittle and seething with balked ambition.  The other floats in midair in her children’s daydreams, enveloping all the struggle of life with a luminous, beneficent glow.   Blessings are all, she suggests, by her mere presence.  The boys are boys, pointy of ear and baby fat faces, reflecting the confusion and energy that comes with the humid rush of pre-adolescence.  Sean Penn isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the middle aged son mourning his long deceased brother amid the modern-day glaze of skyscrapers in New York but he makes something happen nevertheless.  The rest is, well, the rest is the world – a glimpse at the totality of creation itself.  The editing is timed to the rhythm of memory – moments simply occur, evolve, glimmer, fade, and disappear.  Trying to describe this film’s visual range is like describing a waterfall or a rainbow or the sparkling light cast for a moment on the wall: it can be done, but why not see it for yourself, and on the big screen while you’re at it?

Terrence Malick has often been considered a spiritual director.  This is not say he has a particular creed, or even necessarily a belief system, at least none that comes readily to mind.  He has a degree in Philosophy from Harvard, taught it at M.I.T, and translated the notoriously dense and mystical Heidegger before going into film.  The influence must have stuck with him.  There really is something Heideggerian going on in his work.  One could sum up the two major themes of his films with just the title of Heidegger’s magnum opus: Being and Time.  Malick’s characters inhabit a landscape more than a frame. Their presences register over the looming, incandescent indifference of the world they inhabit.  They build, they dwell, they think, in Heideggerian vocabulary.  Language is a scattered thing in his films, a groping towards meaning.  This aesthetic comes out memorably in Days of Heaven and Badlands, his still- astonishing debut.  Accounts of the making of these films reveal years of the director’s prosaic research as well as on-set instructions to spontaneously just drop everything and follow a stream of rippling birds suddenly taking flight.

There’s something mysterious about having been a filmmaker for over thirty years with only a handful of films to your name.  Actors beg to be involved and sign up by the dozen for ever-expanding bit parts.  Producers are sometimes driven crazy by his relentless perfectionism and visionary drive.  His movies can be an experience unto themselves.  You walk out with that strange, sober buzz a good film gives you, and inhabit the world of the film’s perception for a little while.  Light is more like light, the earth below more compact, and the sky above the buildings is vaster than you ever quite noticed.  Every reader is bound to come to any work of art with her own set of tastes, prejudices, and unconscious assumptions.  Naturally, she leaves with them as well.  Hopefully something has happened in between which causes (at least) a subtle, insistent, almost insubstantial change in the consciousness of the audience.  All movies are in some way about seeing, of course, but no one making them or attending them ever sees them in quite the same way.  It’s very rare that anything is seen in the way Terrence Malick sees it, which says more about Malick than it does about anyone else.

In the end, watching “The Tree of Life” is best done in a spirit of generosity, curiosity, care, and a healthy dose of plain reverence and awe.  Not a bad way to go through life.

Panache to Burn: Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch-22

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The word is out – Christopher Eric Hitchens, 61, lifelong litterateur, pamphleteer, bon-vivant, journalist, polemicist, iconoclast, “anti-theist,” author of over a dozen celebrated, debated, loathed and admired works of non-fiction, including a freshly published memoir, is dying.  The news has traveled pretty widely and quickly, which is perhaps a sign of something encouraging: we are often told that literary culture is eroding from indifference.  Indifference, thankfully, isn’t something to worry about when Hitchens is concerned.  I am struck by how many of the reviewers of his memoir begin by “declaring an interest” – sort of a “before we get started, here’s my tale of the Hitch” type thing – and, as a devoted fan, it’s very heartening to find that they are often stories which are gracious and agreeable.  It takes a certain kind of person who can be interviewed about his chemotherapy, looking about as good as could be expected, and still have his colleague and interviewer describe the hours spent together as “delightful.”

Hitchens is and has always been the kind of writer who, when considered, seems to demand that one take sides – pro, con, either way works fine, provided there’s no squeamishness or side-shuffling, moral or otherwise.  This could be just as fairly said for any polemicist from the sublime (say, Cornel West) to the squalid (Glenn Beck), were it not for the fact that even his enemies would admit that at least he knows whereof he speaks.  And then there’s the fact that this love it, hate it, dialectical standard (the Hitch-22 of the title) has pretty much been his modus operandi for a little over sixty years. Hitch himself has written about being annoyed with the boredom and anomie of his demise – you’ve got to admire that kind of stoic panache.

Well, for one thing, Hitch has certainly always had panache to burn.  Delving into his memoir as a fan and admirer many things are apparent, not the least of which the fact that the man has done some living.  Even a cursory glance registers a life about as examined as it gets: the traveling (several dozen countries and not a few war zones), the friends (Amis, Rushdie, MacEwan, and that’s just the inner circle), the output (two biographies, pamphlets, several large collections of decades of material).  If anyone has the right to consider his time not wasted, it’s Hitch.  What of his memoirs, then, his own recollections and ruminations on his years of travel, disputation, omnivorous reading and relentless writing?  As a devoted fan, I have to say that the usual standard of writing is there, as is the wit and the incisive participation within the roil of history, but I regret to say that some of what might make his memoir truly outstanding is somehow obscured.

I come to praise Hitchens and not to bury him, so I’ll start with the strong points.  First of all, Hitchens is an annotated man.  Naturally, none of us are without our orbiting texts, especially in a postmodern world, endlessly obsessed with referents and signs and coded histories.  Hitchens, however, has the unique ability to accomplish what some philosopher claim is the greatest accomplishment of all: to make one’s life, by living, into a work of art.  His annotations come alive.  At certain points, Hitchens denies any real talent for fiction writing.  He’s too modest – the portraits he draws of his stern, repressed father and his vivacious yet gradually desperate mother are done in loving, honest, moving detail.  And as he begins to take you through the various episodes of his life, his introduction to Orwellian thought-crime in English boarding schools, watching and participating in glorious, sordid hackery in the pubs of Fleet Street, first seeing America through the eyes of a coast-to-coast bus trip, literally standing side by side with Salman Rushdie through the ordeal of the fatwa, you begin to feel like you are in the grasp of a fine novel.  There is more than a little resemblance to Bellow’s Augie March, for whose 50th anniversary edition he provided an introduction and who remained a favorite writer

Hitchens’ Bellovian ability to not only remember the many people he meets but to give them back stories and tasteful daubs of prosaic color are intriguing, even when one isn’t necessarily up on his 20th Century labor history.  A friend of mine has been reading it on his iPad, with automatic Wikipedia at his fingertips for every proper noun, the better to get instant précis on the large and detailed ensemble cast.  The footnotes are rich with anecdotes with a snap and shine all their own.  In one chapter on his time in Argentina he not only describes the horror and sheer brutality of its fascist regime but also sees fit to include a lovely, illuminating account of a visit paid to none other than Jorge Luis Borges himself, the master of the Aleph.   What a novelist he might have made!

One thing which is unavoidable when talking about Hitch is the fact that for him, the political is personal.  Not in the way people generally mean it – in fact, Hitch pours scorn on the kind of thinking which leads people to say “Speaking as a _____, I feel that…” and assume this is a kind of argument, or moral position, since it is after all merely a recitation of external properties: skin pigmentation, ethnic heritage, sexual identity, whatever.  It might sound a bit grizzled or cranky to make the counter sally about how it’s not what you think, but how you think that matters.  For Hitchens, what he does on the world stage, the causes he supports and the principles he holds, are a part of not only participating in the perpetual movement of history but also of being fully engaged in the world – honestly, critically, challengingly.  It’s his way of taking things to task. After he attends to the burial of his mother, in Greece, during a coup against the U.S. backed government, he throws himself into covering the chaos and miasma for his newspaper.  After he buries her, he makes sure to put flowers on the grave of George Seferis, the poet and national hero of independent Greece.  One personal tragedy is a small parallel to a larger, national loss.  For all his bravura and outspokenness, his opinions are not made of idle boasting.

A very pointed and revelatory moment in Hitch-22 is when he remembers what thrill it was, as a Socialist of a very specific kind (with a term for it all its own – the noble name of soixante-huitard, or 68’er) to see that the newspaper he reads along with everyone else is revealing what his own dialectical education and critique has been arguing all along: revolutions in Europe, the miasma of Vietnam, assassinations, civil rights, Cuba, torture by an ostensibly Labor government, yes, the times, they sure are a’changin’.  It seems almost quaint these days, when we no longer seem to believe in grand narratives or in revolutionary change, but Hitch is very comfortable in laying down the line:

I began, along with many, many of my contemporaries, to experience a furious disillusionment with “conventional” politics.  A bit young to be so cynical and so superior, you may think.  My reply is that you should fucking well have been there and seen it for yourself.  Had the study of life and literature and history merely domesticated me to waste and betray my youth, and to gape at a spectacle of undisguised atrocity and aggression as if it should be calmly received?  I hope never to lose the access to outrage that I felt then.

He never has.

Many reviewers seem to have given a bit of the game away by offering too much of his- and the book’s- biographical heft.  I’d rather not do so, if you’ll excuse me – it’s well worth referring you straight to the source.  Hitchens is quoted often enough in the world of politics and letters but it’s usually he who is best suited to telling his own story – surprisingly not always the standard for writers.  He was born into a somewhat frustrated lower-middle-class British military family, left to deal with the remnants of an England which had suffered and survived the Second World War with honor and fortitude, only to find that there wasn’t much to celebrate within the rubble.  As an American, I was heartened to see how the country he discovered, traveling through it as a young man in the 60’s and 70’s, still seems, after the syrupy nostalgia of a boomer generation’s endless and self-congratulatory revisiting of it, exciting and fresh and endlessly innovative.

Ironically, what Hitch-22 lacks is what one would think a memoir might really consist of: what Carl Jung referred to as “memories, dreams, reflections.”  So much of his writing is of world-historical importance; everything political he’s done because it was something he knew he could not keep silent about.  I find this admirable in many ways. The problem for a long time reader is that Hitch-22 re-evaluates the issues (Iraq, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, the Vietnam War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall) which have engaged him (and us) for a long time.  But when the issue at hand is still pretty fresh, as in the war on terror, it becomes a little redundant.  I sort of understand why he had to explain- again – how he made such a dramatic turn in leaving his decades-long post at The Nation, to find new allies to more fully give his support to the Iraq War.  As a person who happened to oppose the war and is also an abiding Hitchens fan, I salute and respect his gutsy moral fervor.  What I didn’t need from his memoirs is yet another explanation of his relationship with the likes of Ahmed Chalabi and Paul Wolfowitz.  The case could easily be made that to hear his memoir is to hear the story of his intellectual development, thus, all the pages about the war are just as important as everything else.  Fair enough.  But it stands to reason that any interested reader might be fully capable of pursuing Hitchens’ voluminous writings on the matter (The Long Short War, roughly a third of the collection Love, Poverty and War, innumerable pieces in Slate as well as many other places) pretty easily.  A reader of a memoir might be more inclined to want to know a bit more about what makes the man himself tick.  I don’t want to sound like the over-bearing, ugly American in insisting on this but it’s a lot of pages on something which is, in Hitch’s moral universe, very much a covered topic.

What we don’t get too much of is some of the more universal human events: very little on his children, for example, or the experience of falling in love.  He’s been married twice, both times in very long and apparently complex relationships.  It’s not a craving for gossip which makes one feel a bit let down that we can’t have Hitchens writing with his usual scholastic aplomb about these kinds of moments.  We do get some very enjoyable tales of word games with his friends: having Martin Amis and Rushdie coming up with dirty limericks or substituting words in song titles for playfully obscene lingo is great and all, but there have to have been more interesting conversations to recount than just that.  One gets the feeling that Hitch is holding back a bit too much.  When we are privy to some of his private reflections, the effect is devastating.  A section of the Iraq chapter, previously published in Vanity Fair, contains a very true and profoundly tragic story of a soldier who was inspired to go to Baghdad in part because of reading Hitchens.  He attends the burial at the invitation of the family and reads Shakespeare over the grave.  This is Hitchens at his best – politics is never just an abstract concept or a trend, it is a way of life and – sadly all too often, of death.  If there were any doubts about his commitment to the former in the face of the latter, this book can dispel them.  It’s very much to be hoped that he can continue to keep his, however much of it he has left.  We need more of him.  Here’s hoping that he can manage to stick around long enough to continue to give as much as he can.