By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Music critic Paul Nelson didn't just interview some of the greatest rock musicians of the boomer era, he became their friends. He opened up to them. Some counseled him, a few loaned him money. When the wife of singer-songwriter Warren Zevon saw her husband needed an intervention to face his addictions, she paid for Nelson to fly from New York to Los Angeles — not to report it, to be there as a close friend.
Some of the most striking moments in Kevin Avery's Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics, $29.99, 584 pages) are taken from Nelson's tapes of these personal, conversational interviews. In most instances, the interviewer-interviewee role is reversed. Nelson wrote for Rolling Stone and other music magazines, but also wrote about literature and film. In his last round of chats with actor Clint Eastwood, Nelson opens up about writing to a woman who'd sent him a fan letter (about one of his Zevon articles) and that he was hoping it might turn into a relationship.
"Jeez, I'm pretty lonesome," Nelson admits. "I mean, maybe this will be something."
"Sure," Eastwood responds.
Everything Is an Afterthought is as much a eulogy for the life and work of this influential critic and writer as it is a reflection of how otherworldly the entertainment industry of the 1960s and '70s appears from a contemporary perspective of online bloggers and digital music.
"I think it's hard to imagine today the power of the critics and the way the music business took them seriously," Elliott Murphy, one of the musicians Nelson championed fiercely in his writing, tells Avery. "Because it was really still the time where the music was leading the industry, not the industry leading the music like it is today. These were mysterious people to the music business."
Nelson was a mystery, indeed. Not so much in the second half of this book — a meaty collection of his direct reviews and colorful articles about Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, his pal Rod Stewart and his beloved New York Dolls, among others — but definitely in the first half, Avery's thorough but disjointed biography.
A passionate critic, "a writer as brilliant as he was forgotten," Nelson rubbed shoulders with generational icons — and then just quit.
Born in Minnesota, he knew Dylan before he was Dylan; the Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott records Dylan first heard were Nelson's. He published his own folk zine, The Little Sandy Review, and was managing editor at Sing Out! magazine before following Dylan into rock and roll and landing at Rolling Stone. (Like Dylan, Nelson quickly soured on topical folk songs, saying they were "like sticking a slogan on the Mona Lisa's forehead.")
Nelson's personal relationship with many artists didn't prevent him from being critical of them in his writing. Nelson didn't see the future of rock in Springsteen the way critic Jon Landau did, but he favorably compared "The River" to the Clash's "London Calling"; "Nebraska," however, left Nelson "shocked and dismayed." He was friends with Stewart but still noted that in the '70s the singer had "suddenly metamorphosed into Jayne Mansfield."
Eventually, though, Nelson became utterly disillusioned with pop music. During a 1979 interview with Zevon, Nelson said, "If rock once stood for some sort of a rebellion against whatever you had, like Brando said, really it now stands for complete conformity, it seems to me — outside of 10, 12 artists: Jackson, Bruce, Clash, you, Neil Young." By the mid-'80s, he was out, taking a faceless clerk job at a New York City video store and retreating privately with his other two loves: movies and crime novels.
Avery's narrative is bookended by a morbid fascination with Nelson's lonely end, living poorly and finally dying in his apartment in 2006 at age 70.
But the dual nature of his book is fantastic, because after reading about Nelson's life we desire and deserve to read his work. Nelson understood Dylan better than most, he held his ground against the "narcissism" of Patti Smith (amen, brother!), and his pieces championing the New York Dolls ooze an infectious enthusiasm for rock and roll's power to hit you where it counts. For Nelson, this wasn't entertainment. It was personal.
"There was no calculation — Paul was totally idealistic about rock and roll," said Rolling Stone colleague Peter Herbst. "He believed in its transformative power, I think because he was transformed himself."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Elvis Costello and the Attractions made the "Imperial Bedroom" album, their seventh, at the dawn of the 1980s. The band's heroic status in post-punk had begun to cement, they'd toyed with soul and country, and it was already time for a return to form. The tempos are mostly up (save the blues lounge ballad "Almost Blue"), the arrangements are big, the sound is fairly lush and dense. It's more complex than it sounds, and the songs click through a first listen before you really tune into the bitterness and fear lurking in the lyrics.
The same could be said of Bret Easton Ellis' Imperial Bedrooms (Knopf, $25, 192 pages) — that it glides along with deceptive urgency and false cheer, with serpents coiled in the shadows — at least at first. It's a return to characters, if not completely to form.
This is, for whatever reason, a sequel to Less Than Zero (another Costello title), the debut novel that put Ellis on the literary map back in 1985. In that smart, zeitgeisty tour de force, chief narrator Clay revisits his Los Angeles home during Christmas break, floats through the remnants of a decadent, druggy, emotionally vacant existence and finally bails, heading to back to an East Coast prep school. The final impression: He at least recognizes a way out of the sense of doom gripping his friends and former girlfriend, and he might actually take it.
Imperial Bedrooms spoils that into-the-sunset idea.
Clay is back in L.A., after splitting time in New York. He's a screenwriter, mildly successful. He's still drinking, taking drugs, floating through ritzy la-la-land without any moral center or, it seems, reason to live. As he moves through the city, sites remind him of the past couple of decades — the movie deal in that restaurant, the drug-fueled night at that club, the young girl he had sex with in that hotel. He's still a ghost observing it all behind a veil, a soulless Christopher Isherwood training the objective camera on his own life. He still seems to recognize, deep down, just how soulless it all is, or at least that he should be somewhere else. Early on, describing another vapid party, Clay says it's "a mosaic of youth, a place you don't really belong to anymore."
Readers may have the same sinking feeling trudging through this unnecessary continuation of Clay's hopeless drama. Those who felt a kinship with the "Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation" may look upon this new novel the same way they probably look at MTV today: with a bit of slithering terror. All that new music, all that new pop culture — it's a beast, always moving and growing, it'll devour you, you'll never catch up, better just to steer clear of it and switch back to VH1 Classic.
Which really gets to the heart of Ellis as a writer. Enough talk about his literary genius, let's call him what he rally is: a terrific horror writer. Imperial Bedrooms is an absolute creepfest, at best, as unsettling as any single current of a Stephen King novel (like Cell). His previous novel, Lunar Park, was more widely labeled this way, but the vast majority of his novels are fueled by graphic gore (the serial killer in American Psycho, 1991) and sheer, white-knuckle, hyperventilating tension (the fashion model terrorists in Glamorama, 1998).
Bedrooms is a festival of panting paranoia. Something ain't right about this new girlfriend of Clay's. There's a blue jeep following him around. He's receiving mystery texts from someone who's clearly spying on him. Plus, L.A. is buzzing with gossip about the vicious murder of some Hollywood moguls. Clay even suspects his ol' compadres Rip and Julian are somehow connected to it. He tries to avoid them. He fails.
In the end, a question repeated throughout the novel — "What's the worst thing you've ever done?" or, alternatingly, "What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you?" — is answered, gruesomely. Clay has spent two novels now (three if you count his cameo in The Rules of Attraction) trying to figure out where he is and how that defines him. The "Disappear Here" sign from Less Than Zero is still up, and Clay sees it again here. When he tries to kiss his new girlfriend in public, she turns away. "'Not here,' she says, but as if 'not here' is a promise of somewhere better." Clay clearly stopped believing in a better place long ago, and it's definitely not in any Imperial Bedrooms.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
FOR ALL THE TEA IN CHINA: HOW ENGLAND STOLE THE WORLD'S FAVORITE DRINK AND CHANGED HISTORY
By Sarah Rose
Viking, 252 pages, $25.95
CHA DAO: THE WAY OF TEA, TEA AS A WAY OF LIFE
By Solala Towler
Singing Dragon, 176 pages, $16.95
By all means, do what comes naturally: Pour yourself a cup of tea as you curl up with a favorite book (and your favorite Books section, ahem). Watch the steam rise from your cup and smell the invigorating, earthy fragrance. Then pause to reflect that the tea you are enjoying is totally hot — as in, stolen! Nabbed! Ripped off! Nothing more than the subject of international corporate espionage!
This is the tale told throughout For All the Tea in China, the story of Robert Fortune, an ambitious Scottish botanist who was sent in 1848 to the interior of China to, no bones about it, steal tea. At the time, China had all the world's tea — and was tightly sealed off from foreigners. The British East India Company had just lost its monopoly on trading the carefully controlled output of Chinese tea and stood to lose a fortune, unless they could grab some tea plants and grow their own.
This was the basis for Fortune's daunting assignment. Not only was he charged with the mission of sneaking into a large, poverty-stricken country, in disguise, to steal several hundred young tea plants, he had to deliver them safely back to India in conditions and vessels not exactly hospitable to delicate shrubbery. He also had to convince some Chinese tea specialists to defect and come back with him, because he also had to steal the knowledge of tea. As author Sarah Rose explains, "Although the concept of tea is simple — dry leaf infused in hot water — the manufacture of it is not intuitive at all. Tea is a highly processed product."
Given this setup, we might expect For All the Tea in China to be a much more swashbuckling or at least daring narrative than it is. The Indiana Jones potential of this story never quite plays out, which likely owes more to the lack of detail in the historical record than anything else. What Rose provides, however, is a mostly engaging tale connecting the dots from the world's first cultivation of tea in China to its mass production and distribution by the British, once they "acquired" it via Fortune's clandestine journeys. Rose ably sets up the empire's great thirst for the tea bush, both economically ("Tea taxes funded railways roads and civil service salaries") and psychologically ("tea rapidly became a favorite way among the upper classes to signify civility and taste in the chilly, wet climate of Britain"), which fueled the quest for China's prized possession.
The whole story winds up framed in a way that makes it easy to understand in modern times; Rose explains that "the global imperial project of plant transfer ... was essentially the transfer of technology." Stealing tea and the blueprints for its production was akin to, in today's world, another government infiltrating the Apple campus and then producing their own iPads.
A considerably more peaceful story of tea is found in Solala Towler's Cha Dao: The Way of Tea, Tea as a Way of Life. Long before modern Britons developed their criminal thirst for tea, ancient Chinese not only enjoyed the beverage, they infused the experience of drinking it into their Taoist philosophy. (Oddly, in this book, Tao and Taoism are written phonetically as Dao and Daoism.) It's a valuable but slippery concept, this "tea mind," which Towler describes as "a way of being in the world, a way of living a life of grace and gratitude, of being able to see the sacred in the seemingly mundane." This is the heart of Taoism, and also — if everyone is in the right frame of mind — the experience produced by a cup of tea.
Towler see-saws between basic histories and anecdotes of tea and the Tao, comparing and contrasting, fortunately stopping short of turning the simple cup of tea into some kind of religious experience even while acknowledging that the Chinese tea ceremony developed into a ritual that "took the simple art of drinking tea to a sacred level."
Cha Dao is essentially a cozy primer for Taoism, using tea as a familiar experience through which the reader can begin extrapolating the philosophy. The connections are clearly drawn and easily understood, even the challenging idea of wu wei — the concept of "doing nothing" (which is not the same as apathy, nor is it the opposite of ambition). Towler writes, in describing a tea ceremony: "'Daoists follow nature,' said the [tea] master, 'and so Daoists like tea because it comes from nature. Tea is the flavor of the Dao.'"
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
ON MONSTERS: AN UNNATURAL HISTORY OF OUR WORST FEARS
By Stephen T. Asma
Oxford University Press, 368 pages, $27.95
Quiz time! A monster is:
(a) A psycho killer.
(b) A seven-headed hydra.
(c) Under the bed.
(d) All of the above.
Stephen Asma is a Distinguished Scholar at Chicago's Columbia College, teaching philosophy and history of science, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that he'd ask such a question on one of his exams. Particularly now that his new book about monsters is available.
Asma — who has previously explored the topics of Buddhism (The Gods Drink Whiskey) and natural history museums (Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads) — would give you an A if your answer was (d). In his new spelunking adventure through the caverns of world history, culture and thought, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, Asma explores not only what frightens us and why, but also how our individual and group minds have learned to deal with scary new concepts by labeling them monstrous, from Alexander's "enormous beast" and the Bible's Behemoth and Leviathan ("God's lackeys," Asma describes them) all the way to terrorists, zombies and Cylons.
But it's more than beasts and behemoths. "Monster is a flexible, multi-use concept," Asma writes. "The concept of the monster has evolved to become a moral term."
Q. Why now? Is there something about this moment in history that makes an examination of the monster concept worth pursuing?
A. Well, we're seeing every day now the kind of demonization happening in the political sphere. We're led to believe there's this clash of wild-eyed jihad monsters vs. the civilized West. That's how the "war on terror" has been cashed out. The more paranoid part of our culture has been dredging up this monster archetype. But it's not just a one-way depiction. Some corners of Muslim culture demonize us, as well. One of the goals of this book was to provide examples of how we've done this many times in the past and how it relates to what's still going on.
Q. And the uptick in horror movies lately must be an indication of something.
A. You always see more monster movies when the culture is feeling stressed. Film scholars show a huge explosion of horror [movies] in the wake of the Vietnam war, from "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" to David Cronenberg's stuff, etc. There's a similar correlation between post-9/11 and the new hunger for paranoid, frightening films. This stuff really taps into universal human fears.
The guy who made the "Hostel" films, Eli Roth — I talk about this in the book, about these "torture porn" films and how they can actually take something away from your humanity. But Roth defends them this way: He says he gets e-mail from soldiers, and they love this stuff in Iraq. You might not think that an incredibly scary, violent movie would be great relaxing, popcorn stuff for soldiers, but after they've spent all day repressing fears and anxieties in order to do their jobs, it's a big relief for them to let it all out in the safe moment of a movie like this. That doesn't really defend them for me, but it makes some sense of why we love these movies. They're little holidays from our worst fears.
Q. Is it as simple as that — a catharsis, a release valve?
A. Yes and no. It's slightly more psychologically complex. We enjoy monster stories because they allow us to imagine what it's like to meet our enemies. It's a rehearsal. "How would I react if ...?" That's why people sometimes can't help but yell at the screen: "Don't open the door!" So a monster movie, or even to a degree the depiction of another person or another culture as "monstrous," allows us a fictitious buffer zone to practice and maybe even work through our fear response.
Q. Have you read Pride and Prejudice With Zombies?
A. [Laughs] No, but isn't that funny? I have read Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide. That's something really interesting, culturally speaking. It tells you in plain terms how to handle a zombie attack. It's serious, but it's funny. It's that same rehearsal idea.
Q. How does "monsterization" differ when we apply it to just one person, like the perpetrator of a heinous crime?
A. We now understand that serial killers and the like are not actually that different from us. We all have aggression, but they have more. We have empathy, they lack it. Twenty or 30 years ago, we never would have thought that if you pick on someone as a child, you could trigger monstrous events. If you take a kid, submit him to all this abuse and disconnect him from family and other support, the violence is not predictable but there is a pattern. In the medieval era, they'd say you were possessed. The devil did it. Now we understand that your immediate social circle can make you a monster. That's a new way of thinking about monsters, as products of social processes.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
By David Byrne
Viking, 303 pages, $25.95
On the Talking Heads' 1979 album, "Fear of Music," the disembodied, hesitant voice of singer David Byrne runs down the virtues and disadvantages of the world's metropolises in the song "Cities." "I'm checking them out," he says of various spots, from London to El Paso. "I got it figured out / There's good points and bad points / But it all works out."
Such might be the epigram for this innovative musician's latest foray into publishing. Bicycle Diaries is a spruced-up bundle of Byrne's personal journals, focusing exclusively on his observations on a variety of subjects inspired by his travels. The chapter titles — "London," "Berlin," "Istanbul," "Baltimore, Detroit, Sweetwater, Columbus, New Orleans, Pittsburgh," etc. — are evidence of a man who gets around. Their content shows a keen, nonjudgmental intellect with occasionally intriguing insight into modern life and the things we construct to live it in.
For about 30 years, Byrne has been riding bicycles as his primary means of transportation. He two-wheels it around New York City (a brave man) and packs folding bicycles when he travels around the world to perform concerts or curate art exhibits or speak at various cultural events. He keeps a renaissance man's schedule, and by cycling from the hotel to the museum or the venue, he experiences cities up-close and sees their architecture in great detail and gains a feeling for the character of the pedestrians that's more savory and, sometimes literally, in-your-face than that experienced behind the windows of a car, bus or train. "In a car," he writes from Detroit, "one would have sought out a freeway, one of the notorious concrete arteries, and would never have seen any of this stuff."
However, other than infrequent mentions of odd bicycle lanes or public policy related to cyclists, Bicycle Diaries is not about cycling at all. It's about the stuff. It's not a series of diaries about bicycling; it's about the places where Byrne happened to be pedaling and the things along the way that turned his head. But it's not even really a travelogue, either, though he does provide a general sense of place for each city he discusses. His observations of the urban environment are usually little more than occasional mentions of how difficult or easy it is to bike there, or superfluous-but-colorful notations like this: "Sydney. Hooley freaking dooley, what a weird and gorgeous city!" He only brings up "the cycling meme" as a means of explaining, usually offhand, why he's seeing the things he's seeing.
Instead, this is a cheerfully rambling stream of sentience about such wide-ranging topics as censorship, self-censorship, the uses of music, art (a lot of art, complete with many intriguing photos), "the morbidity of beauty," post-9/11 angst, gentrification, the fauna of Australia, suburban sprawl, PowerPoint and other miscellany. Like his music, the prose is easygoing, fluid, a quick read. There's no central thesis, but it's a nice ride with interesting scenery.
Byrne, famous as a pop singer, drifts naturally in and out of his subjects and only occasionally discusses music. Again, the concerts he's in town for are his raison d'etre for taking a bike ride and ending up in a seven-page discussion of, for instance, Imelda Marcos. Often his musical observations are not his at all, but he claims them by repeating them, such as this astute point of view from an acquaintance in Buenos Aries: "Nito said that rock and roll is now viewed as the music of the big companies, as it emanates from the large, usually northern, wealthy countries, and therefore is no loner considered to be the voice of the people — not even the people where it comes from." (In a later chapter, he opines a bit on hip-hop, calling it "corporate rebellion," and noting that Chicago hip-hopper R. Kelly's " 'Trapped in the Closet' is one of the wackiest and most creative video pieces I've seen in years.")
In many of these chapters, Byrne seems intrigued and slightly fascinated by the foreigner's clearer — and always wiser — perspective on our own American culture. But in his account of Buenos Aries, that tide turns when he discovers that the natives hardly listen to their native music and are surprised when Byrne's own band begins playing salsa-flavored melodies and samba rhythms in concert.
These are simply the diaries of an insightful fellow with his eyes open, moving a bit more slowly through your town. A more fitting epigram, in this case, might be a line from a song by Chicago band Poi Dog Pondering. In "The Ancient Egyptians," Poi Dog singer Frank Orrall describes the many human civilizations that expanded and thrived despite the lack of automobiles. When friends insist on jumping into a cab or car, he sings, "But I say no, no, no / and didn't you know / you get to know things better when they go by slow."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When You Are Engulfed in Flames
By David Sedaris
Little, Brown, 336 pages, $25.99
Last year, a Vanity Fair article alleged that Augusten Burroughs had fabricated major chunks of his bestselling memoir, Running With Scissors. There was even a lawsuit based on this claim, which Burroughs settled in August, all the while defending his work as "entirely accurate." And when his new real-life musings, A Wolf at the Table, were published earlier this year, many critics scratched their heads and asked whether anyone could truthfully (a) remember this many vivid, minute details about their childhood and (b) have a family that could possibly be this otherworldly, violent and bizarre. (At which point the reader chuckles, "You haven't met my Aunt Agnes ...")
Burroughs' peer in this field — the flourishing category of kinda-gay, family-centric, literary stand-up comedy memoir — is David Sedaris, who prefers to call himself a "humorist." Sedaris recently came to the defense of James Frey, whose own exaggerations (yeah, lies) in a memoir brought shame even to Oprah. Sedaris himself has confessed to exaggeration in the name of humor.
Though not enough of it this time out.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue of playing fast and loose with the truth, you may emerge from Sedaris' latest collection of essays wishing he'd played it a little faster and looser — 'cause it ain't very funny.
When You Are Engulfed in Flames, a roundup of 22 essays, all but two of which have been previously published in The New Yorker and other magazines, never quite gets off the couch. Like Hunter S. Thompson attempting to practice gonzo journalism by watching CNN and sending faxes in his 1995 downturn Better Than Sex, Sedaris here seems to pen most of the ruminations from the cozy comfort of his new home in rural France — about the cozy comfort of his new home in rural France. He seems perfectly content, strolling the lanes in Normandy and watching his partner Hugh putter around the house. Who wouldn't be? But contentment has rarely bred art of any universal interest, and Sedaris here is sometimes so passive he ignores opportunities for engaging narrative.
In the middle of "The Smoking Section" — the only bulk of new material published here, about the author's attempt to kick the habit — he mentions one way he plans to deal with his struggle: "I hated leaving a hole in the smoking world, and so I recruited someone to take my place." Hopes are raised, here comes a hilarious tale of corrupting a minor! Nope. He blows right by it, preferring to avoid actions with consequences and simply continue whining. One sentence later — "After crossing 'replacement' off my list ..." — he goes back to his very long-winded (is that irony?) gripe session. Most of us never knew someone who was an elf at Macy's, but we've all known someone who quit smoking and, well, you know just how much fun those rants are to listen to, much less read.
There are pleasant moments in the dull lull, like dozing on a train and occasionally snapping awake. "Keeping Up" is one of Sedaris' subtle stabs at the softer parts of human nature. A few light touches keep this admission of social helplessness (if not agoraphobia) from sinking completely into a weak whimper for help. Instead, it stays afloat as a sweet confession of the purely practical reasons he can't live without Hugh, a cover for the emotional ones.
The only eye-opening achievement here is an absurdist trifle called "What I Learned." It's remarkable mainly because it reads like nothing else here, and uses actual fiction to enliven a skewering of academic existence. "If you passed, you got to live, and if you failed you were burned alive on a pyre that's now the Transgender Studies Building," recalls a refreshing un-Dave narrator of his Princeton years back in ancient times, when he majored in "patricide." Now there's some exaggeration worth reading.
But, alas, it's a jewel in the otherwise boring rough. Perhaps Sedaris is the more truthful and honest of the humorous memoirists. Real life, after all, isn't always funny, narratively structured or even interesting. The book version, though — exaggeration or no — should be, right?
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Storms: My Life WIth Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac
By Carol Ann Harris
Chicago Review Press,
400 pages, $24.95
So maybe you've heard that the members of Fleetwood Mac did a little cocaine in their heyday? Well, make no mistake, they did a lot of cocaine. Unbelievable amounts. All the time. Everywhere.
Carol Ann Harris — girlfriend of Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham from the 1977 release of the band's megahit album "Rumours" through Buckingham's second solo album in the early '80s — recalls how each band member took a powder before, during and after nearly every concert. In her new memoir, Storms: My Life With Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac, she recalls the first night of the "Rumours" tour, when the road manager "J.C." ordered Buckingham, singer Stevie Nicks and the rest of the band to line up backstage a few minutes before show time.
"They seemed to know what came next," she writes. "Like obedient schoolchildren, the band formed their line, holding out their fists. J.C. poured a small pile of cocaine onto each wrist. 'Two minutes! Let's toot and get those roses in your cheeks, Stevie!' "
The artificial stimulants continued throughout the concerts, too, with roadies supplying bottlecaps full of blow to tables in the wings. "During the show, the band would fade back to the speakers at every opportunity and give themselves a bottlecap pick-me-up," Harris writes. "On Christine and John's [McVie] side of the stage, vodka tonics were replenished as needed, and on Lindsey's side ... his roadie always kept a joint going."
In this book, that's supposed to be the fun part. Then the domestic violence begins — sudden bursts of fury from Buckingham that would vanish as quickly as they appeared but leave behind physical and mental wounds — and what first seemed to Harris like a fairy-tale romance in swingin' '70s Los Angeles turned into a downward spiral of monstrous abuse and fear. Now, 30 years after it all began, Harris is finally publishing her candid account — and a rare glimpse — of life inside the band.
Q. So why write this book now?
A. I actually started writing in 1990. Everyone assumes I just sat down and wrote it this year. It originally started as some writing for myself. I decided to start writing about what I went through, going through all my journals and tapes. By 1991, I had about a thousand-page manuscript. A friend helped me organize it, and we started paring it down. The fact that I was a battered woman really kept driving me, but that's such a small part of the book. It's mainly just a story of what it's like to be with the band. I've been asked a million times, "What was it like?" So I tried my best to give an eyewitness account.
Q. How aware was the band that you were working on this, and what have the reactions been?
A. Sarah Fleetwood [wife of drummer Mick] and I remained best friends for years, so she knew from the very beginning, from the first page. I'm friends with John Courage, too ["J.C."], and made sure the band knew. They've known for years. I don't know how they feel about the finished book, but I hope they like a lot of it.
Q. You haven't heard anything from them?
A. No reactions. It's been very silent. I fully expected feedback — these are not people who stand by quietly for anything.
Q. OK, so the cocaine. Wow. That was a lot of blow.
A. People are shocked by this. I thought everyone already knew that. It was funny at the time, though it was a sheer miracle we weren't busted. It was everywhere. The band never tried to hide it.
Q. Why do you think the drugs were such an integral part of this particular group — or was it like this with every other band, too, and Mac just gets the press about it?
A. I didn't tour with other bands, but you know, members of the Eagles have spoken publicly about drug use. From my experience, it's so exhausting and just such pressure [to be a touring musician]. These people going out on the road singing the same song night after night, doing three cities in three days, and doing it all for a year at a time — it's exhausting. The cocaine kept them going. And four members were in relationships that crumbled, so having to perform night after night with someone you'd like to never see again, and singing songs about that very fact, well, it drives you to crazy things.
Q. Do you think the music would have been different without the drugs?
A. There's a new article in Classic Rock [magazine], an interview with [Fleetwood Mac producers] Ken Calliat and Richard Dashut talking about that. The band was so high on blow that they made music that was edgier and more powerful. But then, who knows how great it could've been without the cocaine?
Q. This is a cliched question of abused women, I fear, but I think the tension in this narrative begs it: Why did you suffer abuse for so long before leaving Lindsey Buckingham?
A. It was not like you've probably heard or seen domestic abuse portrayed. I never got the apology the next day, the bouquet of flowers and the "Sorry, I'll never do that again." I got up the next day and he refused to speak about it, like it never happened. It never seemed to happen for a concrete reason. It's not that I was out too late or had done something or was being punished. It would happen out of the blue. It didn't make sense, so I thought it was my fault. I'm not a good enough girlfriend, I'm not relieving his pressure. I blamed it on the pressure of the music, this album or that album, being on the road.
Q. What finally led you to leave him?
A. That episode at the end of the book, when he'd really hurt me and I went to Century City Hospital so badly injured. And I had to say it out loud: This was done, I was injured. That doctor — what I wrote was verbatim, I never forgot what he said — saying, "You have to leave him." It was a huge wakeup call.
Q. Lindsey and Stevie broke up before you two were together, but their romantic tension endures to this day, at least in the view of the public. Why is that?
A. Because their relationship is trapped in those great songs that are still played over and over, and which mean something to so many people still. It's interesting to me that when most people break up, people cease to see you as a couple. For Christine and John, and especially for Stevie and Lindsey, they'll always be a couple. The public will always see them as Romeo and Juliet because they still perform together and sing those songs.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
LOVE IS A MIX TAPE: LIFE AND LOSS, ONE SONG AT A TIME
By Rob Sheffield
Crown, 224 pages, $22.95
The shoeboxes used to be chin-high in my closet — every one of them packed with scuffed cassette boxes and a few loose, unwound tapes. Mixes, made by me and given to me: "This & That," the heavy magnetic tape from Sondra with all the U2; "Savage Indictment of Bourgeois Society," the not-so-savage tape from Chris; Liz made "Tom's Diner," of course, with that awful song by some screechy act called Shelleyan Orphan that, truth be told, was the beginning of our end.
These were not just crafty trinkets, they were solemn discourse — letters cobbled together using someone else's words. Because we were young, without enough words of our own yet, we simply passed on the songs that spoke for us, saying in effect, "Here, listen to Morrissey, but know it's really me saying that."
Rob Sheffield, in his moving memoir Love Is a Mix Tape, seems to understand this undercurrent of Generation X as well as any author since Nick Hornby — and possibly better, or at least more intensely, than Hornby did in his mix-tape magnum opus, the novel (and later Chicago-made movie) High Fidelity. Whereas Hornby got to the root of a music geek's angst — discovering in the end that it's possible, and probably preferable, to love someone whose music tastes are different from yours — Sheffield digs up that root, skins it, cleans it, cooks it and serves it up, all with a tremendous poignancy and, thank Elvis, not an ounce of self-pity.
Music, when appropriated and directed at someone for a particular purpose, does "the same thing music always does," Sheffield writes in this romantic memoir, "which is allow emotionally warped people to communicate by bombarding each other with pitiful cultural artifacts that in a saner world would be forgotten before they even happened."
Sheffield circles his central point carefully, discovering that the reason bookish guys like him made all these mixes for girls like Renee, his star-crossed love interest here, is to prove through some kind of aesthetic science that opposites can come together in harmony. That fact is a cliche, of course, but who among us hasn't found themselves attracted to a person diametrically opposed to our Top 10 Attractive Qualities List and not still marveled at it anew?
The variety of music on each of my own mix tapes, for instance, is maddening and magical. Chris coupled the serrated edge of the sample-crazed band Negativland with the soothing coo of Harry Nilsson. Liz followed Sade with the Sundays — British soul for British soul. On one I made for (OK, about) Sondra, the Stones' "Street Fighting Man" follows Verdi's "Summer" from "The Four Seasons."
In Love Is a Mixed Tape, Rob, a good, shy Irish Catholic boy, struggles to make sense of a similar culture clash: his desire for Renee, a brazen, confident Southern Baptist wild child. Renee is the kind of girl who throws a Billie Joe party, as in the song "Ode to Billie Joe." "I had it on the third of June," she says. "You know, the day the song takes place. I served all the food they eat in the song: black-eyed peas, biscuits, apple pie." Their formula doesn't work on paper, but the real-life harmony between them can't be denied.
Early on, Sheffield deduces this about mix-making: "I guess that's why we trade mix tapes. We music fans love our classic albums, our seamless masterpieces, our 'Blonde on Blondes' and 'Talking Books.' But we love to pluck songs off those albums and mix them up with other songs, plunging them back into the rest of the manic slipstream of rock and roll. I'd rather hear the Beatles' 'Getting Better' on a mix tape than 'Sgt. Pepper' any day. I'd rather hear a Frank Sinatra song between Run-DMC and Bananarama than between two other Frank Sinatra songs. When you stick a song on a tape, you set it free."
One is never quite sure where the songs end and Sheffield begins in this narrative, which only adds to its alluring cadence and rhythm. Sheffield's prose is tight, lean and full of all the details about young love you wish you'd had the brains to write down when it was still beguiling. He throws in musical and cultural references liberally but without alienating us too much (though it helps to have heard Big Star's "Thirteen" to understand how adorable it is that Rob and Renee danced to it at their wedding), putting him in league with Hornby and another crafty name-dropping novelist, Bret Easton Ellis.
Sheffield's euolgy — he reveals early on that Renee died suddenly five years into their marriage — comes equipped with a gimmick: Each chapter starts with a picture of the cassette cover of a particular mix tape. It's supposed to set the scene for each episode, though often the Side A/Side B track listings have little or nothing to do with the action that follows. It's the kind of cutesy gimmick that might ward off curious readers; don't let it — it's harmless.
Love Is a Mix Tape celebrates love and music, and what happens when the line between them is crossed, either way. After their first night together at Renee's place, Sheffield writes, "We eventually stopped getting up to flip the tape, and just listened to dead air." The music may have gotten them together, but ultimately they had to fill the silence themselves. Fortunately, despite all the musical reference and reverence, that's the heart of Sheffield's story — and what makes it so sincere and rewarding.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
AND THEY ALL SANG: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey
By Studs Terkel
New Press, 336 pages, $16.95
GIANTS OF JAZZ
By Studs Terkel
New Press, 224 pages, $14.95
Let's — just this once — not refer to Studs Terkel as an oral historian. It's a title even he probably finds a bit dubious and, for the purposes of this article at least, it doesn't work. Oral historians sit and talk to one person for 12 hours, the reel-to-reel whirring all the while, and it all gets typed up for a dissertation shelved in a university library. Sure, Terkel wound up making a helluva career by popularizing something along these lines, but he started out as a disc jockey. He chatted with guests for hardly more than an hour. He probed their creative process and apparently applied some of it to his own published work. That is, he found the common threads — the melody — in American life, and like a true folk musician he used his talents to remind us that we're all part of something bigger than ourselves.
This seems to have been his goal, conscious or not, right out of the gate, as illustrated in two new paperbacks hearkening back to the chattier, tuneful dawn of Studs. And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey is last year's round-up of conversations Terkel conducted with musicians on his Chicago-based radio show, largely from the '50s and '60s; and Giants of Jazz is yet another reprint of Terkel's first book, comprised of 13 concise and compelling biographies of the pioneers of American jazz.
"Your jazz is something more than just something invented," he tells singer Betty Carter in a 1989 interview from And They All Sang. "It's part of a continuity." This is the overall Terkel Thesis, and it formed here among these early considerations of music. His life's work has been looking at individuals and how they relate to the whole messy mass of society, and American popular music is expertly adept at reflecting that very relationship. (These books focus on jazz and classical music, mostly, which were, believe it or not, once the popular music of the country.)
And They All Sang gets opera singers, composers and even a young, already-evasive Bob Dylan discussing who they are by means of who inspired them. Giants of Jazz, though, is expertly structured to illustrate this. For example, the chapter on Louis Armstrong is sandwiched between the one about King Oliver (who mentored young Louis) and Bessie Smith (who was affected by the sound of Louis' horn); Smith's bio mentions the moment Bix Beiderbecke heard her sing, a moment that left him in awe — and which figures into his own chapter, the next one. These links build a chain throughout the book — mashing up with full force when Count Basie and Charlie Parker hit Kansas City, and then when Dizzy Gillespie meets Bird — and they leave the impression that, yes, each individual was a formidable talent but, no, the opportunity for that talent to succeed did not present itself in a vacuum. These musicians were a part of something greater than themselves, and their own personalities amplified the human race as a whole. It's all part of a continuity.
That idea succeeds in these texts not only because of the way Terkel assembles and sequences the Jazz bios, but also by virtue of the space he allows his subjects — both in the spotlight he gives them in Jazz and in the airtime he allowed them on radio. Then again, throughout the interviews in And They All Sang, Terkel's subjects speak freely not only because they have some time to talk but because their interviewer clearly is a musical autodidact. He's not just well-informed but wide open to all forms of music, asking questions of Janis Joplin (they talk about primitive inspirations vs. new technologies) and Keith Jarrett (they discuss his piano technique) that are as thoughtful and insightful as those he lobs at Sol Jurok (the impresario discusses singer Feodor Chaliapin) and Leonard Bernstein (the two share a moment of discovery about Terkel's performance as Editor Daily in "The Cradle Will Rock").
In other words, Terkel's not just a fan with a chat show. He listens, in every sense of the word. And that's the rare talent that made his own career worthy of countless media interviews.
But again, this is not oral history. This, at least in the case of And They All Sang, is transcribed radio where conversations, driven by time constraints, often are incomplete. And sometimes they make a difficult read. Sitar player Ravi Shankar, for instance, discusses Indian music this way: "Based on this scale, this raga has its own ascending, descending movements. I'll just give you a little example. [He plays] This is equivalent to the major scale, for instance. [He plays] On each of these scales, we have got hundreds of ragas. [He plays] What I'm playing actually are the skeletons of the ragas, known as the ascending and descending movements." Bet those brackets sounded great on the air, but they're hardly enlightening on the page.
Jazz, however, is deceptively alluring, presenting itself as dry facts but carefully crafted so as to suck you into the intoxicating brew of history — and its meanings. Sitting down with this book and an iTunes account makes for an exciting survey course in jazz music, which continues to evolve. But Terkel, who wrote the book in 1957 and updated it in 1975, explains at the end, in the final chapter "Jazz Is the Music of Many," why he chose these 13 players and singers: "In a number of cases the lives and careers of these men [and women] intertwined. In all cases their music did. For the story of jazz cannot be confined to one era or to one style. It is a story of continuous growth. . . . Jazz is one long chain. The lives and the music of these 13 artists are among its major links."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Woody Guthrie: ART WORKS
Edited by Steven Brower and Nora guthrie
Rizzoli. 300 pages. $45.
In her management of the Woody Guthrie Archives, Nora Guthrie has seemed determined to make a Renaissance man out of her famous folksinger father. On paper, the projects that have come out of the archives during the last decade are often head-scratchers (Woody Guthrie's klezmer music?). But each one has proven not merely illuminating but also wholly inspiring in subtle, powerful ways. By lighting the shadowy corners of her dad's life, she not only broadens his legacy — she widens the scope of human possibility. Woody, it seems, could and did do anything, not because he had inherent skills but because he was possessed with an unshakable "Why not?" kind of confidence. Such examples fill us ordinary folks with hope and that, more than anything he ever specifically sang about, was Woody's persistent goal.
The best thing to emerge from the archives is the handsome Woody Guthrie: Art Works (Rizzoli, $45). It's an exploration of Guthrie's visual art, most of which has been unpublished and unseen for decades. In light of his status as a musical icon ("This Land Is Your Land," etc.) and the fountainhead of Bob Dylan, this thorough visual examination is worthwhile because of the startling fact on which it's founded: Woody almost didn't become a songwriter at all.
"Contrary to popular mythology, it was with paintbrushes in hand, not a guitar, that Woody Guthrie hit the road for California," Nora Guthrie writes in her introduction. She then recounts an episode from that first westward journey from Oklahoma that, she argues, decided exactly which legacy he would leave.
Woody was hitchhiking with several other young men when the car ran out of gas. Woody headed into town to drum up food and gas money by painting signs, as he'd done for years in Pampa, Texas. He was successful, but when he went back to the car to retrieve his supplies — the guys, the car and his brushes were gone. That week, he discovered he could feed himself much better by playing old folk tunes for misty-eyed migrants.
"Had fortune and destiny worked a slight shift of the hand," Nora writes, "it's very possible that Woody Guthrie might have become a visual artist. And this book might just as easily have been an episode uncovering the unknown songs of Woody Guthrie, rather than his unknown art."
As such, this dignified romp through Woody's sketches, cartoons, paintings and illustrations (alas, the signs throughout the Southwest are long gone) is interesting to Guthrie acolytes and tone-deaf art lovers alike. Steven Brower's insightful — and, thankfully, concise — analysis of the works provides both historical and biographical context for each phase of Woody's expression, from the early line drawings (most of which are infinitely more inventive than, say, John Lennon's) to later abstract swaths and dabs (often smeared right over typed lyrics).
Brower even notes the slight importance of Woody's visit to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1944 as contributing to his knowledge of art history. The day after that visit, Woody wrote home to his wife of the whirlwind experience and how it reminded him of his first passion (in a letter from my own research at the archives, not from the book): "We saw the original of the Guitar Player [by Picasso] you liked so well. ... It was in the same room as Van Gogh, Cezanne, and some others. I always feel like a painter when I come out of a gallery. When I'm inside one, I feel like a sniffing dog."
Aside from the esthetic of its subject, the book itself is beautiful. The reproductions are excellent — worthy of note, given that most of these "works" are doodles from daily calendar books and personal journals (one of Woody's pocket notebooks is cleverly re-created, actual size, in the back pages) — and the design is clever.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Ed Goggin is a fairly typical James Joyce fan. All it takes is the slightest prodding and he gushes forth with thoughts, theories and wonders about the late writer's confounding, captivating prose.
"I remember my first reading of Ulysses," the Tulsa singer said in an interview last week, "or my first attempt, anyway, because no one gets it on the first try. I was touring Australia, and my bass player nicked it from the Melbourne library. This would have been 1988. I started getting through it, and I was just mouthing the words as I went, completely humiliated that I could not make sense of it. I thought, 'This is like reading a foreign language written in my own.' "
But, like many brave souls who've tackled the tome, Goggin pressed on, finding something in the words that, despite their sometimes baffling complexity, egged him on instead of shutting him out. "It was such a blow to my ego that it became a kind of holy quest to get through it and understand it," he said. "I hear people say all the time that it's the book everybody knows and no one has read, but people who have read it are almost religious about it. In some ways, it's a kind of secular bible. I mean, it covers the whole breadth of human experience in a single day."
Indeed, Ulysses - all 642 pages of it, in my paperback edition - spans a single day, June 16, 1904, making this Wednesday a centennial of sorts. It's a book that has angered, astonished and thrilled its readers, sometimes within a single page.
Irish censors bristled over its publication in 1922 (the same year Americans first met Mickey Mouse), objecting to its frank descriptions of, er, certain basic bodily functions. Critics continue placing it among lists of civilization's best novels.
The poet William Butler Yeats marveled that it was "an entirely new thing," and writer Martin Amis recently claimed that it "defines the modern novel." Virginia Woolf's reaction, however, was dismissive ("Never did I read such tosh!"), and Tennessee Williams didn't advance its cause much by titling his school term paper "Why Ulysses Is Boring."
Few, however, are ambivalent about it, which is why this Wednesday's centennial is somewhat of a marvel. June 16 has, for decades, been celebrated as Bloomsday, named for the novel's central character, Leopold Bloom, a 38-year-old Jewish advertising salesman in Dublin. This week's celebration in that city will draw thousands - including a few Tulsans - to discuss, debate, natter and nitpick every line of Ulysses.
Why are we still buzzing about this book?
"Because Bloom is an epic hero, and he's just like you and me," Goggin said.
"Because it's so high-brow and so low-brow, at the same time. It's like Jon Stewart (on Comedy Central's 'The Daily Show') - it's really intelligent, but with a poop joke."
A democratizing book
Goggin, who named two of his '90s Tulsa pop bands with allusions to Ulysses (Stephen Hero and Mollys Yes, both disbanded), is onto something with that first part. It's the idea of epic hero as everyman that makes Ulysses a compelling and timeless tale.
"Bloom comes to embody the heroism of the everyman," said Sean Lathan, assistant professor of English at the University of Tulsa. He's also the editor of the James Joyce Quarterly, which has published from TU for 41 years.
"As we follow Bloom around Dublin, his everyday experiences become ripe for heroism," Latham said. "Because of the novel's mythic overlay, Bloom's ordinary actions become heroic. It's not Odysseus setting sail, it's Bloom on the toilet."
Ulysses essentially tracks Bloom and a colorful cast on that fateful Thursday as they wander the Irish capital, basically going about their business. Bloom sells an ad, buys some "sweet lemony soap" and has a pint at Davy Byrne's pub, which still exists on Duke Street in Dublin.
It's the interior monologue, though, where the real action of the novel takes place — the stream-of-consciousness struggle of Bloom suspecting his wife of having an affair (all the while scoping chicks on the beach himself), searching for a son who doesn't exist and wrestling not only his own ego but that of his entire nation. The novel is bookended with its other two major characters: Stephen Dedalus in the beginning, the same protagonist from Joyce's previous novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a self-proclaimed writer who hasn't yet written much; and Bloom's wife, Molly, whose famous soliloquy ends the novel with a ringing affirmation.
Just plain folk — Irish ones, as it turns out.
In one sense, particularly in the book's theme of feeling adrift and longing for homecoming, they're not unlike the Dust Bowl refugees chronicled in the songs by Oklahoma's own Woody Guthrie. In the decade after Ulysses was published, Guthrie was rebelling against Tin Pan Alley's sunny, manufactured representations of Americans by writing "real" people into his popular songs. Joyce, similarly, sought to glorify the common man by telling such a tale within the framework of the great epics. The title's namesake, after all, was the hero of Homer's "Odyssey."
"Most basically and pricelessly, he included the common man, his common actions," Amis said of Joyce in a recent interview at Powells.com. "Bloom on the toilet is an incredible breakthrough for the novel, to be written about so beautifully and delicately. That's why Virginia Woolf said it's the sort of novel you'd expect a costermonger to write. It's hilarious to see the snobbish objection to it, but it is a great democratizing book."
The "snobbish objection" to which Amis refers is a natural defense against Joyce's dense symbolism and complex network of literary allusions. In an oft-repeated quip, Joyce once said he constructed Ulysses with the intention of keeping the professors guessing for decades. He succeeded; Latham is one among many professors who will further the speculation at this week's 19th annual Inter national James Joyce Symposium in Dublin.
But it's not just academics who continue facing Joyce's prose. Most of the fanatics retracing Bloom's route through Dublin this week are people such as Goggin who picked up a copy, gave it a shot and were goaded into Joyce's game.
In fact, it's exactly a connection between highfalutin literary snobs and common folk that Joyce was after.
"Ulysses is both deeply snobbish and critical of snobbery," Latham said.
Latham is one who doesn't use the word "snob," or any of its derivations, lightly. He's written extensively on the subject, including his book Am I a Snob? Modernism and the Novel (Cornell Univ., 2003).
"Snobbery is a willful display of cultural capital, the spending of one's own cultural capital in a public way," he said. "It's Stephen in the library at the beginning of the book, performing his theory of Shakespeare, showing off a certain membership in a particular understanding."
Once a reader solves some of Ulysses' puzzles, it's easy to feel admitted into a select — snobbish — membership. Expressing that exclusivitiy means chuckling at oblique comic references with others or, if you're an artist yourself, alluding to the book in your own work. Such allusions which further the snobbery of Ulysses itself.
These allusions to Ulysses are in-jokes — not critical to the understanding of the new work itself but a self-conscious display of some cultural capital. It's Mel Brooks, for instance, naming one of the main characters in "The Producers" Leo Bloom, a hapless fellow who finds enormous success in an impossible piece of literature, or the Bloom family in Tim Burton's film "Big Fish," a family confused by the reliability of the father's stories. It's art-rocker Kate Bush singing a song based on Molly's soliloquy (her 1989 hit "The Sensual World"), or Goggin naming his band Mollys Yes.
"Things like that testify to the celebrity of the text," Latham said. "It's a kind of empty allusion, but it signifies the book's snobbish appeal.
"Joyce was a ruthless parasite," Latham said. "He borrows from Homer all the way up to his contemporaries, including (Oscar) Wilde. It's the pastiche that makes his writing so resonant.
"But part of the reason you don't see even more reworking of Joyce is that Ulysses is still under copyright, which is defended by a tight-fisted estate. That may be why some of the allusions to the novel are so empty, because to have more you really need to quote directly from the text. . . . The irony is that now artists are trying to do exactly what Joyce did, and the estate won't allow it."
Doing our partGoggin continues his minor tributes to his hero and his epic novel. No longer singing full-time (though Mollys Yes is rehearsing for a reunion performance at a benefit in August), he now produces a television show, "Doc Geiger's Outdoor Adventures," which sometimes, according to the credits, is directed by Buck Mulligan.
Mulligan is the first character we meet in the opening of Ulysses.
"I slip those in all the time," Goggin said. "I think no one will get it, but sometimes they do."
Goggin hadn't thought about making Bloomsday plans until we called.
"I'll do my part," he assured. "I'll have a Guinness mustache."
Latham, meanwhile, will be in Dublin for Bloomsday 100. He will be joined by several TU students.
"I'm a little dubious about going now that I've looked at some of the material," he said. "There's a breakfast scheduled to accommodate 10,000 people."
Reading 'Ulysses'? Get help!
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Thinking of trying to read James Joyce’s Ulysses? It could be the ultimate summer project. And that’s just it — make it a project. Ulysses is a mind-boggling, challenging and immensely rewarding read, but I confess: I never would have made it through the crazy thing myself if I didn’t have some help.
My own assistance came in the form of a class, in which Joyce scholar Michael Seidel began our discussion of Ulysses with this wisdom: “Puzzlement should not stop you. It’s built in for a reason.”
But there are several good companion books and Web sites to help navigate the stream of consciousness, as well as the puns, the symbolism, the allusions, the chronology, the ...:
Ulysses Annotated by Don Gifford (Univ. of Calif., 1989) — The ultimate companion to Ulysses, and significantly larger than most volumes of the novel itself, Gifford’s guide offers line-by-line explanations of the subtext as well as basic explanations of historical and literary references.'
James Joyce’s Dublin: A Topographical Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses by Ian Gunn, Clive Hart and Harald Beck (Thames & Hudson, $45) — A new book published this month offers superb maps and analyses to complement the adventure through Dublin. Understanding the layout of the city really helps.
The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses by Harry Blamires (Routledge, 1996) — A sharp running commentary on the plot, a hip and handy companion to the adventure. This is written expressly with the first-timer in mind.
How to Read Ulysses and Why by Jefferson Hunter (Peter Lang, 2002) — A brief but helpful primer to the novel, Hunter’s book offers a plain and simple explanation of Ulysses' relevance.
Reading Joyce’s Ulysses by Daniel R. Schwarz (St. Martin’s, 1987) — A thorough, albeit conservative, analysis of Ulysses with a comprehensive episode-by-episode reader’s guide.
The Brazen Head: A James Joyce Public House (www.themodernword.com/joycehttp://www.themodernword.com/joyce) — A cheery Web site full of interesting articles and links related to Joyce and Ulysses. Read a Joyce biography, see a list of Joyceinspired films, look at some photographs of the crafty author. Join the Joyce email list to touch base with other Joyceans.
The Internet “Ulysses” (robotwisdom.com/jaj/ulysses ) — Everything you need handy for a thorough reading of Ulysses — notes of different editions, a chapter-by-chapter synopsis with maps, Joyce’s own schema used in structuring the novel, plus a discussion area and thousands of links.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
The fact that Ron Padgett's latest book was published recently is, well, a nice bonus. When he was writing it, however, Padgett wasn't at all worried about whether or not anyone would get to read it.
That's what they all say, surely, but this non-fiction manuscript by the Tulsa-native poet clearly was a labor of love — real love, familial love, the kind that reminds a man that blood is thicker than ink. Oklahoma Tough is, as its subtitle explains, the intricate story of My Father, King of the Tulsa Bootleggers.
It's also about murder, suicide, betrayal and hard drink, but the core of this book is the story of a son getting to know his father, Wayne Padgett, a good ol' boy who hung out with shady types at Admiral Place and Peoria Avenue and who ran liquor during the dry days in order to feed his family.
It's also about myths, mystique and this unromantic, sometimes hard fact that flies in the face of countless American narratives: Criminals are usually just plain folks.
What Ron Padgett tried to do here was bring his dad down to earth, if for no one's benefit but his own.
"The first draft I finished was 580 pages, and when I finished it, I sat back and looked at it and thought, 'Well, maybe this is publishable, and maybe it isn't,' " Padgett said during a recent interview from his Manhattan apartment. "If editors said 'Nah!' and it never saw the light of day, I was already happy. I'd done what I set out to do, which was to write a book about my father — not to publish one. Having it published, even in the slimmer form, is just icing on the cake."
That doesn't mean, of course, that Oklahoma Tough is a mere vanity project. Instead, it's a probing investigation of a local giant, a hero to some, who — because of laws, not deeds — often went misunderstood.
To unearth the real man underneath the mystique, Ron Padgett — noted poet and translator of French literature — became a journalist for this particular project. Through dozens of interviews with ex-bootleggers, family members, police officers and a few old enemies, plus numerous documents (Wayne's FBI files run to 1,300 pages), he uncovers the sometimes harsh, sometimes hilarious details of his father's life — as well as the distinct mid-20th century Midwestern milieu that made Wayne Padgett's life story possible.
The tale features colorful descriptions of Tulsa life in the '40s and '50s, including some amusing recollections of the Saturday night dances at Cain's Academy, now the Cain's Ballroom, downtown. Family friend Howard Donahue recalled, "Back in the men's room, they had shoeshine boys. We even paid 'em to polish the bottoms, so we could dance a little better, ha ha!"
But the story of the Padgetts also is infused with a darker undercurrent. While the family lived a remarkably normal suburban existence, at least on the surface, the clandestine liquor business kept everyone on edge, to some degree. The lines between right and wrong, good and evil, were not so clear here — in this family, sure, but in the city, the era. Early on, young Ron Padgett was part of the family business, his mother recalling a funny story about the day some cops raided the house, whereupon a grade-school-aged Ron jumped on top of the cases of gin, shouting, "You can't have my daddy's hooch!"
"We never used the word outlaw, you know," Padgett said. "Dad was a bootlegger. Our family didn't think anything was wrong with that from a moral point of view. We knew it was illegal, of course, but since our customers included ministers, policemen and public officials, how bad could it be?"
Padgett's family connections gave him access to information and interviews that another biographer might not have been able to illuminate. Again, this project started as a personal one, not necessarily intended for public consumption.
But getting to know your dad — especially after his death and particularly considering he was an outlaw — was a dicey proposition. Puncturing the veil of secrecy about many of Wayne's exploits was difficult and daunting. Padgett faltered.
"I kept going, though," he said. "My initial reason (for writing the book) was something like I felt when he died, that something incredible had left the earth. I didn't want that to disappear entirely. Later, as I wrote, I began to feel that what I was doing was telling the world that my father was not only the king of the Tulsa bootleggers, but he was a real person. I felt like I'd turned into an elementary school version of myself trying to explain to my classmates that my daddy wasn't really a bad guy. I began as biographer and ended up as child."
The Wayne Padgett described in the book is hardly a mythical outlaw. He's a working stiff; his work was simply outside the law, selling illegal liquor in an era of prohibition. He worked a few jobs above board, mostly selling cars, but he was a restless sort, part Woody Guthrie, part Willie Loman.
Above all, he took care of his family. But that dark side pervaded even this most basic function.
"I say in the book that Wayne made us all feel protected, but that actually had a dark side to it. If you have to feel protected, that means there is a menace, something to be protected from," Padgett said. "We were aware unconsciously of the threats out in the world."
Ron Padgett is himself a character in his own book: Wayne's young son who heads off to Columbia University in the '60s and becomes a respected poet. With Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard and Dick Gallup, they were sometimes referred to as the Tulsa School of Poetry. Wayne was proud, chuckling midway through the book, "Imagine. I have a son who lives in New York and is a poet!"
By the end of the book, Ron Padgett discovered what could have been the ultimate link between father and son. After Wayne's own father died, Wayne himself — the rough-and-tumble bootlegger — wrote a poem.
"But it's embarrassing! It's a terrible poem," Padgett said. "But that's just the crappy editor in my head, making literary value judgments, which is a preposterous thing to do in this case. It's commendable that he felt so strongly, but I thought it so odd that he resorted to doing that. I know of no other instances of him expressing himself like that."
It was, though, a minor revelation for Padgett — one of many in the process of chronicling the life of his own father. Each such eureka brought him closer to the man.
It's an experience Padgett hopes everyone will attempt — publishing be damned.
"The one thing about this book — I hoped that not only would it be interesting and entertaining for someone to read but would start them thinking about their own parents and inspire them to go talk to them. Go to them and talk, sit down and ask them questions about their childhoods and where they grew up. It's amazing the number of people who say to me, 'How did you find out all this stuff?' Well, I did some research and what-not, but mainly I sat down and asked questions or my mother and grandmother and other relatives, all of whom told me all kinds of amazing things simply because I asked."
Meet the Author
What Ron Padgett is a scheduled participant at Nimrod International Journal’s annual Hardman Awards dinner and writing conference. The conference theme is “How We Make and Are Made by History.” Padgett will join award-winning writers and poets at the Saturday workshops, reading from his work and participating in a masterclass on “Making History through Poetry.”
When Oct. 25
Where University of Tulsa
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.