Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2013
- Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes—Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
- The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever—Alan Sepinwall
- Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece—Ashley Kahn
- Binocular Vision—Edith Pearlman
- The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright—Jean Nathan
- Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times—Tom Nolan
- Alys, Always—Harriet Lane
- Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever—Will Hermes
- Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times—Tom Nolan
- Alys, Always—Harriet Lane
- The Interrogative Mood—Padgett Powell
INT. BEDROOM. NIGHT.
A man—handsome, mid-fifties, balding, or even bald, if Bruce Willis is the only actor available—lies in bed reading a biography of Artie Shaw. His probably young and probably pneumatic wife is lying next to him, bored and a little petulant, because he is so gripped by the book that he’s paying her no attention. (This guy has no kids, by the way. That’s how he gets so much reading done. And also he has this incredible bedroom, with buttons that make lights dim and music come on and cinema screens drop from the ceiling and all sorts.) This is really weird, like something out of a science-fiction film, because Artie Shaw was a bandleader and a clarinettist, and this guy, the Bruce Willis guy, doesn’t really like jazz, as far as we know. So immediately the audience is gripped and all like, WTF?
FLASHBACK—EXT. HOTEL POOL. MARRAKECH. DAY.
The same guy (Willis? Depp? Pitt?) is lying by a swimming pool in the North African sun. He’s reading Will Hermes’s book about New York music in the mid-’70s, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. The mystery deepens. How has the Hermes book led to the Shaw biography? In just a few short weeks? Hold on to your hats! It’s going to be a bumpy ride!
Maybe I have overplayed the extraordinary cultural journey that I have made since the last time I wrote in these pages; maybe the story of me sitting by a pool and/or in bed, reading and/or listening to my iPod, would not, after all, make for an entertaining but intelligent multiplex cinematic experience. I’m just trying to convey excitement, so shoot me.
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire was my holiday reading over a short winter break. (In Marrakech! I wasn’t even changing locale to make it more cinematic!) Hermes’s book is a prime example of the sub-genre that has probably emerged as my favorite over the last few years: readable, rich, and intelligent nonfiction about the roots of creativity. The subtitle is Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, and the cover illustration is one of those crowded black-and-white cartoons featuring a bunch of caricatures. And as I could make out all the key players—Jerry Harrison, David Johansen of the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Joey Ramone—straightaway, I pretty much knew what these years meant. I was nineteen in 1976, and I bought all the relevant records pretty much the day they came out. So I was pretty sure I knew what I was getting, and I was prepared to abandon Love Goes to Buildings on Fire quickly if the stories seemed too familiar, or if the book was poorly written or lazy.
I didn’t know what I was getting into. Hermes set himself the task of writing about all the music that was being made in NYC between 1973 and 1977: the CBGB’s crowd, yes, but also the salsa of Eddie Palmieri and the Fania All-Stars, the loft jazz of David Murray and Don Cherry, Steve Reich’s “Music for Eighteen Musicians,” the birth of the twelve-inch single, and the very beginnings of hip-hop. Hermes’s diligence and enthusiasm are reminiscent of the work Mark Harris did for his phenomenal book about the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967, Pictures at a Revolution: there’s that same sense of almost intimidating scholarship which somehow never manages to overwhelm the narrative. Movies are made independently of each other, however; music, especially music being made in the same crowded (and crumbling) city at the same time, leaks everywhere. Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen played together at the Bottom Line, and were working next door to each other in the Record Plant, hence “Because the Night.” Philip Glass invited the Talking Heads to Einstein on the Beach after he’d seen them play at the Kitchen. The disco DJs started picking up on the new salsa records that were being made. Of course, you ache to be there, hearing it fresh, but unless you are a frankly dislikable show-off who knows everything about everything already, a lot of the music described so thrillingly in this book will be fresh to you anyway. I ended up buying a half dozen salsa compilations, some unfamiliar disco tracks, (yet another) Television live album, and then… well, things got a little out of hand. By the pool in Marrakech I wanted to listen to something that sounded messed-up, like New York City in the mid-’70s; I had some Television on my iPod, and Tom Verlaine’s lyrical, jagged guitar playing scratched the itch for a little while, but everything else sounded too orderly. When I got home I bought one of David Murray’s free-jazz albums, but for someone who’d pretty much only ever listened to music in 4/4 time it was a little too scary. I dug out the little jazz I had—Miles Davis and John Coltrane, because I am a walking cliché—and listened to that for a while; but Hermes had somehow, and without even intending to, persuaded me to listen to pretty much every jazz record made between 1950 and 1965. So I’ve heard Mingus and Lee Morgan, Art Blakey and Hank Mobley, Coltrane and Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper and Harold Land, Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra and Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver and Clifford Brown. I haven’t listened to anything else for six weeks. I don’t love them all, but I’m giving everything a shot, in the same way that you might give every film at a festival a shot.
Can literature change your life? Yes, I know it can, because this is the second time it’s happened to me. The first time came when I wrote my first book; this resulted in a job as an author, a profound change, considering I had been hitherto unemployable. And then, twenty years later, along came Will Hermes, who cost me (and arguably owes me) several hundred pounds on iTunes and ruptured my relationship with guitars. So, you know. Kudos to the power of books.
I’d love you to read Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, but it might not be for everyone, even though it transcends its subject: Hermes has, with enormous patience and Stakhanovite research, portrayed an enormous chunk of the cultural life of an entire city at a crucial time in its history. I can’t, however, pretend that those entirely uninterested in Grand Wizard Theodore’s revolutionary needle-drop cuing technique will get a lot out of it. Hermes’s appetite for the details of how and why cool stuff gets done, though, is what makes this an exemplary and gripping work of social history. We at the Believer have long argued that there’s a whole lot more to say about works of art than whether they’re good or bad. Doing what Will Hermes has done takes real thought and real work, however, so you can see why most people don’t bother.
My constant companion during the Jazz Age has been the magnificent Penguin Guide to Jazz, and it was while browsing through the early pages (it works chronologically) that I came across a reference to Artie Shaw’s “extraordinary life.” A few days later, a quick search for “best jazz biographies” on the internet threw up a recommendation for Tom Nolan’s book, and the one-two punch resulted in a one-click. It was a serendipitous buy: Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet describes the life of a man who seemed to let the twentieth-century entertainment industry flow through him. Born in 1910, he was a professional musician by 1925; he was old enough to see Bix Beiderbecke play, and he employed Billie Holiday. He married, among others, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, and Kathleen Winsor, the woman who wrote Forever Amber; he married Turner in the middle of the night in Las Vegas, after a first date that also somehow managed to find room for Shaw’s friend Phil Silvers. The date only took place because Shaw’s lover, Betty Grable, was out of town and he was bored; conveniently, Turner was free because she’d just had a fight with her fiancé. (Oh, and by marrying her, Shaw also managed to break Judy Garland’s heart.) He hung out with Jack Kerouac, and bailed Arnold Schoenberg out of a financial crisis. He appeared on a chat show with Richard Burton and Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother. He bought the film rights to The Man Who Fell to Earth and, appalled that Americans weren’t able to see it, turned distributor for the British thriller Séance on a Wet Afternoon—the lead actor, Kim Stanley, ended up with an Academy Award nomination. If the book sounds nuts, it’s because Shaw’s life was nuts.
He quit music, apparently bored and intellectually frustrated, when he was in his mid-forties, and he spent the rest of his long life trying to write and becoming embroiled in increasingly unlikely lawsuits: the unfortunate director of a 1985 Oscar-winning documentary about him found herself in litigation for many years, with Shaw claiming that the film was “collaborative” and demanding half a million dollars for the co-labor. But for a quarter of a century Shaw was a brilliant, and enormously popular, bandleader, earning tens of thousands of dollars a week in the 1930s, playing six shows a day to frenzied jitterbugging teenagers. Nolan’s book is a riveting picture of a world that you can hardly believe ever existed, and I would never have found it if it hadn’t been for Will Hermes’s mighty shove.
I cannot give him any credit, I think, for the two works of fiction I’ve read recently. Harriet Lane’s first novel, Alys, Always, was a recommendation from a friend, and it was a good one: Lane’s book, reminiscent of Zoë Heller’s equally gripping Notes on a Scandal, is a disquieting, brilliantly observed, and admirably patient psychological…Well, it’s not a thriller in the conventional sense. There’s an accidental death, in the first chapter, but there are no guns, and there are no crimes, and it’s set in the world of literary London, so there are only so many thrills that even a writer as good as Lane can wring out. One of her real achievements, in fact, is to exert a grip without ever bending out of shape what can be, let’s face it, a pretty sleepy world. (And before American readers start feeling smug, I’ve spent some time in literary New York and literary San Francisco, too, and there aren’t nearly as many uzis and orgies as you’d assume in those milieus, either.) (Unless I haven’t been invited to the right parties, which is, I grant you, always a possibility.) Lane’s narrator is an apparently harmless assistant on the books pages of a national newspaper who is given the chance to worm her way into the family of a famous writer, a chance she takes with a quease-inducing sangfroid; Alys, Always is about ambition and class and the sort of amour propre that is very particular to a certain kind of famous author, and Lane really nails it all.
I didn’t know how to read my other novel, Padgett Powell’s extraordinary The Interrogative Mood. I finished it, and loved it, but I have absolutely no idea if I did it right. There are, it seems to me, two ways of getting through it. There’s the conventional, read-a-few-pages-in-the-bath-and-at-bedtime way; it’s not long, and you’d be done in a few days. And then there’s the other way, the way that it probably deserves: you think about the questions, the ones that are asking to be thought about, anyway, in which case this may well be the last novel you ever read.
The Interrogative Mood consists of nothing but questions, literally—paragraph after paragraph after paragraph of them. It is a novel, though, and not some kind of self-help questionnaire, because a character emerges from the relentless probing, and even a narrative, of sorts. Sometimes the questioner, Powell’s fictional creation, lets slip a personal detail, through his personal interests, and the idiosyncratic phrasing of his queries. Some of them are cranky: “Is good amateur theatre oxymoronic?” “Wasn’t the world better when the word ‘haberdasher’ was current?” Some of them make you laugh: “Do you credit that a man seriously advanced ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ with a straight face?” “Would you rather play a board game with a child all day or go over Niagara Falls in a barrel?” Some of them make you feel dumb and incompetent: “Do you know how gyroscopes function aeronautically?” “Can you take apart a clothes dryer and get it going right?” And some of them send you off into a reverie from which, were it not for jobs and children and the need to watch TV, you might never come back: “What period of history most interests you?” “Do you know the names of your first three lovers?” “Whom do you regard as a bona fide intellectual, and have you known anyone personally that you regard as a bona fide intellectual?” “What is the loudest noise you have ever heard?” “Would any particular failing on your part today be more painful than all other failings?” “Are you aware of a more likable kind of person than yourself that you would like to be like?” It’s distracting, isn’t it? It’s just as well most literature doesn’t make you think like that, over and over again, three or four times a page, or we’d never get anything read. I’m similarly grateful that most literature doesn’t change your life, otherwise you’d be spun round like a sock in a tumble-dryer every time you sat on a bus or a toilet or wherever you do your reading. Does anyone know whether Lee Morgan made another decent album after The Sidewinder?