The sea wall. My home state. Skateboarders and ocean. Recovery almost complete from the two months of insanity that were March and April.
The sea wall. My home state. Skateboarders and ocean. Recovery almost complete from the two months of insanity that were March and April.
Over on Facebook, there’s been a public mourning over the death of Geek Love author Katherine Dunn as intense as the passing of Prince. It’s not as huge a population, but it’s as devoted. My friend Mitchell said, “I see Olympia everywhere.” I do too. The characters stalk your dreams. People who have read it say they are “haunted” by it. Because Katherine Dunn didn’t write too many novels, and the novels she did write came almost 20 years apart, there’s even more of a mystique around her. Geek Love exploded like a bomb in 1989. And then … silence. Of course she WASN’T silent. She wrote about boxing, she was a sports journalist for various newspapers, she traveled around covering boxing matches. This is not the “norm” for a writer who writes a book like Geek Love. And that made it almost better. Geek Love was not a book like any other book, and so it was perfect that the author would not be like other authors. When Dunn died, I did a Search on my site to see what I had already written about her over the years, and came across this fragment of hilarity: snippets of conversation between me and Michael, an old flame, who came and stayed with me for a week in 2006. And this is (some of) what we talked about. I didn’t even remember this post, and I read some of that and laughed out loud. I sent it to Michael and he was roaring too. The Fuck buddy moment? Libertarian Magicians?? What the hell. It’s a great snapshot of our friendship. But anyway, back then we discussed Katherine Dunn, which is why that forgotten post came up in Search, and the substance of that conversation is something I’ve talked about with other friends who loved Geek Love. Geek Love (at least my copy, and it was the first paperback copy) had no author photo. You couldn’t “attach” anything to her. It was just her voice and the characters she created. Katherine Dunn was a complete and utter mystery at the time, and you couldn’t Google her. It was perfect that I had no idea what she looked like. And because the characters in Geek Love are “freaks” and “geeks” on the sideshow circuit, and because it’s a first-person narration, it made you wonder … Of course, it’s even better that all of the characters came from her imagination, but still: we all talked about Katherine Dunn, and who we imagined her to be all the time.
With the advent of the Internet, it was easier to keep track of Katherine Dunn. And whenever you heard anything about her, it was always fascinating, and unexpected. Yes, of course, it would have been great if she had written more novels … or maybe it wouldn’t have been. I always missed her. I always wished I had heard more from her. Hers was one of the most essential and unique voices to come along in a long LONG time. Sorry, but Geek Love blows away anything that any of the Big Kahuna Men – like DeLillo or Jonathan Franzen or whoever – have ever attempted, or even dreamt of.
Yesterday, I was Googling around finding interviews with Dunn (there aren’t many, at least not recently), and came across a wonderful 2010 interview she gave to the Paris Review. There is so much great stuff. A couple of things I love, emblematic of why I love her, and why I find her so inspirational:
Twenty years is a long time for something to gel, what has happened?
I don’t want to be glib here, but twenty years worth of life and work happened. Some might say I’m right on schedule by my lights.
Is being a woman advantageous or disadvantageous for ringside reporting?
Thirty years ago it was an advantage because at most fights the lines to the women’s restroom were short.
Do you box?
No, I’ve never competed. I did, however, train in a boxing gym with a good coach beginning in 1993… Last November a young woman tried to snatch my purse on the street. I punched her out until the cavalry arrived. Most fun I’ve had in years.
“I have been a believer in the magic of language since, at a very early age, I discovered that some words got me into trouble and others got me out.”
In 2009, a news story emerged from the Pacific Northwest that author Katherine Dunn, known mainly for her 1989 novel Geek Love, had fought off a mugging attempt by slapping the thief in the face, and kicking the thief in the shins. Katherine Dunn was 64 at the time, and the mugger was mid-20s. The image was so pleasing. Any time I heard news of “Katherine Dunn”, I felt a surge of adrenaline and excitement, and this story made me think: “Of course. Of course she would make the news for something like that.”
The fact that she fought back was not a surprise, since Katherine Dunn spent the majority of her life covering boxing as a sports journalist. She also trained as a boxer. She had been a bartender, a waitress, a stripper, and she spent most of her time around boxers and tough guys. So, you know, she was not going to just let some asshole take her purse without a fight.
I got the news yesterday that Katherine Dunn died, at the age of 70.
I’ve been staring at the computer screen trying to think of what to say next. Katherine Dunn is so meaningful to me, and Geek Love was so important that any words I say will just sound melodramatic or like an exaggeration, or … empty? I don’t know. Katherine Dunn blasted me into wordlessness with Geek Love, and after that, for all time, all I could do was say to people, “Read it. Just read it. Trust me. Just read it.” Because what else is there to say? The book says it all. (Of course it’s on my Recommended Fiction list.) I have written about Geek Love over the years, as it turns out, here on my site (a quick Search showed me that), but most of it is inarticulate, and most of it just describes my reaction after I came to the last sentence. Because of that reaction, Geek Love is my #1 most MEMORABLE reading experience, that’s for sure. Books have made me cry before. For sure. But not like THAT. A bursting STORM the second I read the final sentence, that undid me for the rest of the day. My boyfriend had to take care of me as though I had experienced a deep personal loss. Which I had. It was the loss experienced when one takes off one’s blinders, it was the loss of Illusion and the belief in said Illusions. None of which I could put into words at the time.
Incidentally, it was Geek Love that started the process of me “waking up,” of me realizing I was living the wrong life. I was obediently following a path that was not MINE. The path I was on looked like the path of everyone around me (you date, you live together, you make plans together, you get married, you find jobs) … and so I couldn’t say what was wrong with it, and I felt myself that I was being ungrateful or weird in feeling SUCH a strong REJECTION of that path. Yes, I suppose you could say: “Well, Sheila, you were just dating the wrong person. Maybe it would have felt right with another man.” I think the life I’ve lived ever since then shows that as a lie. It’s the comforting lie that the “normals” tell the “weirdos.” Now, yes, of course, blah blah, we are all special, everyone is different, everyone has their problems, even people in white-picket-fence houses have their quirks. Sure. Yup. But there’s “different” and then there’s DIFFERENT. You see, the mainstream is so strong that the culture has absorbed it by osmosis. But it’s The Truman Show if you feel like none of that is “for you.” The norm is not the “norm” for all of us. What is freeing to you is a prison to me. But this is a difficult truth, an unwelcome truth to some (although that has always seemed strange to me: why does me “opting out” make YOU feel defensive?), and terrifying if you’re 22 years old and you don’t know what’s on the other side of that abyss. What will life look like if you don’t have the job/spouse/kids? All I know is is that I was young (21, 22), and I had such a strong sense of rejection inside of me that it made my relationship a torment (especially because I couldn’t verbalize what was wrong), and it made my life Hell. Granted, I had some other issues that I was unaware of at the time. But the fact remains. I was, in actuality, holding the brass ring of the culture, especially for young women. I had it. And I hated it. (I just reviewed The Lobster, coincidentally, which lampoons all of this.)
Geek Love was a wake-up call and I say that with no exaggeration. All along I had felt that something was wrong with ME, like why did I so vehemently not want the supposed awesomeness of what I HAD, which was: a relationship with a nice handsome responsible boyfriend, vacations and camping trips, long-term plans, even a sweet marriage proposal (which I said “No” to … I still don’t know where I found the balls to refuse. AND we were on a “romantic” vacation when I refused. Go, Sheila.) Geek Love said: “Not only CAN you say No to this whole version of life, you HAVE to say No to this.” (None of this was clear at the time. But the extreme reaction I had to the book was eloquent and in retrospect it is so obvious what was going on.)
Now, outside all of this personal stuff: Geek Love is a novel, not a self-help book, it’s not a cross-stitch sermon on the wall, and its truths are not cozy or easy to swallow. There is a price to pay for being a “geek.” You will pay it. But for the characters in the book, there is no other way. They are a circus sideshow family. They all have physical deformities which have turned them into a sensation on the sideshow circuit. The book would never pass the Tumblr test of how we are supposed to speak of physical challenges. Screw Tumblr. I have only read Geek Love once, that one time was enough, but the passages were burned into my cornea for all time. It would be impossible to make into a film (although Mitchell said, after he read it back in the day, that he could see it done as a cartoon, which I think is a brilliant idea). If you can make it past the grisly and gruesome opening sections, when you learn about the family (it’s not gruesome because of their deformities: the gruesome-ness goes way WAY beyond that – it actually turned my stomach and I thought I might have to put the book down) you will be rewarded riches beyond number. It is redemptive, in its way, but it is devastating in other ways. It is a book about withstanding loss. White-knuckling it. It is about love. It is about memories so terrible that life shatters, and forevermore there will only be pieces, fragments, nobody can be put back together again. And the lie – and it is a lie, and a very sinister lie – is that pieces so scattered can ever be put back together again. That lie (and it’s everywhere, from Oprah to life coaches to New-Age-woo-speak self-help books) is what makes people feel like “freaks”, or “geeks.” That lie is part of what drives people to suicide, addiction, anti-social behavior: the pressure to conform, the pressure to “put yourself together,” that putting yourself together is possible in any way, shape or form. Maybe its possible for SOME people but it is NOT possible for others. There will always be those who are on the “inside,” and those on the “outside.” Katherine Dunn’s book acknowledges that. And while such a harrowing experience could not really be called a “celebration,” it does, in the end, become a celebration. There is a price that must be paid. Nothing is free. Many people are unable to pay such a price. That’s the breaks. Katherine Dunn de-stabilizes the entire concept of “mainstream.”
Geek Love had a powerful impact – not just personally, but on a generation of writers. It was a “sui generis” book and Katherine Dunn was a sui generis writer, especially when you consider the fact that she didn’t move into the literary mainstream in any way whatsoever. She didn’t play the game like other people played it. She didn’t follow up Geek Love a couple years later with another novel, and then another novel, and then writing conferences, and short story collections, and personal essays, and a memoir, and you know the drill. That wasn’t her. She wrote it and then she vanished from the contemporary mainstream literary scene. She was a sports journalist and she covered boxing. There are a couple of collections of her boxing writing: One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing, and, in collaboration with photographer Jim Lommasson, Shadow Boxers: Sweat, Sacrifice & the Will to Survive in American Boxing Gyms, which won the 2004 Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize. There were other novels too: Attic, Truck. Plus the fascinating Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective’s Scrapbook.
In a conformist society, Katherine Dunn was an outlaw and a renegade. She followed her own star. You don’t realize how out of the ordinary it is until someone comes along and actually does it. There is no “set” path to being a writer, of course. However, in today’s world of MFA writing programs, and writers’ workshops which churn out young writers who all seem to write alike (a huge issue with such programs), having this woman emerge from (seemingly) out of nowhere and write a book that makes everything being published around it seem shallow and facile … is a moment of triumph for our culture. Sometimes things do work out. Sometimes the real cream actually does rise to the top. Sometimes something is SO good, and SO strongly itself, that 1. it cannot be compared to anything else and 2. its impact cannot be denied or explained away or ignored. A book like that feels inevitable once it arrives, but of course nothing is inevitable. Katherine Dunn had to dream it up. She had to sit down and write it.
I look at that picture of her above and I think: “She had Geek Love in her? WHERE did that book come from?”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, although her stories of why she wrote it are fascinating, as well as important for writers to take a look at and try to absorb. Where do ideas come from? That is the question. What really matters is that Geek Love is here now, and it is ours. It will impact anyone who discovers it for generations to come. Once you’ve read the book, life immediately becomes unimaginable without it. I can count such books on one hand.
Rest in peace, Katherine Dunn.
From Geek Love:
Then there are those who feel their own strangeness and are terrified by it. They struggle toward normalcy. They suffer to exactly that degree that they are unable to appear normal to others, or to convince themselves that their aberration does not exist. These are true freaks, who appear, almost always, conventional and dull.
I loved this cynical bitter film, by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (making his English-language film debut). I was afraid it would cop out at the end. It doesn’t. And as someone who “identifies” as a cultural outlaw, a renegade, an opt-out-er, a spinster (spinsters get shit DONE, never forget) … (and who the hell cares if I “identify” when society itself has already identified me as such), I found it extremely validating, which is hilarious, considering how sinister the entire situation is as presented the film. That’s the thing about being an outlaw. You can identify with the darkest shit that the rest of society doesn’t want to admit or look at because you LIVE it. Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, John C. Reilly and a host of great character actors are all on the same page in terms of TONE, the most difficult thing, I imagine, in a film like this: finding the right tone. It’s ruthless and relentless. HIGHLY recommended.
Edward Lear (the “father of nonsense”) was born on this day in 1812 in London.
I could recite from memory a lot of his stuff when I was pretty close to the age I was in the “candid” photo above. The Big Golden Book Of Poetry was so read in our family that the cover faded completely, the binding fell apart, and I can still see all of the illustrations, and where they were placed on the page. (My mother still has the book.)
When I read those poems now, I hear in my father’s gravelly voice.
“The Owl and the Pussy-cat” is still a favorite. The verse rocks and sings.
The Owl and the Pussy-cat
by Edward Lear
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’
Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
Michael Schmidt, in his book Lives of the Poets writes that Lear, and Lewis Carroll (Lear’s younger peer) wrote “nonsense verse” which
“strays into the musical zones that Longfellow mapped with his self-propelling meters.”
Was Edward Lear the inventor of the term “snail mail” in this whimsical letter to Evelyn Baring? The letter itself reads, along the twists of the snail shell:
Feb. 19. 1864 Dear Baring Please give the enclosed noat to Sir Henry – (which I had just written:-& say that I shall have great pleasure in coming on Sunday. I have sent your 2 vols of Hood to Wade Brown. Many thanks for lending them to me – which they have delighted me eggstreamly Yours sincerely
“Don’t tell me of a man’s being able to talk sense; every one can talk sense. Can he talk nonsense?”
In regard to his verses, Lear asserted that “nonsense, pure and absolute,” was his aim throughout; and remarked, further, that to have been the means of administering innocent mirth to thousands was surely a just excuse for satisfaction. He pursued his aim with scrupulous consistency, and his absurd conceits are fantastic and ridiculous, but never cheaply or vulgarly funny.
George Orwell, “Funny But Not Vulgar”:
However, there are subtler methods of debunking than throwing custard pies. There is also the humour of pure fantasy, which assaults man’s notion of himself as not only a dignified but a rational being. Lewis Carroll’s humour consists essentially in making fun of logic, and Edward Lear’s in a sort of poltergeist interference with common sense. When the Red Queen remarks, “I’ve seen hills compared with which you’d call that one a valley”, she is in her way attacking the bases of society as violently as Swift or Voltaire. Comic verse, as in Lear’s poem “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo”, often depends on building up a fantastic universe which is just similar enough to the real universe to rob it of its dignity. But more often it depends on anticlimax — that is, on starting out with a high-flown language and then suddenly coming down with a bump.
From Michael Sala, Lear’s Nonsense:
Edward Lear, a skillful illustrator of science books (botany, zoology), started his literary career by chance. As a matter of fact, “most of Lear’s limericks were not written with publication in mind, but rather as gifts for specific children” (Rieder 1998: 50). He was persuaded toward their publication by the enthusiastic reaction of his young audience.
There was an old person of Rimini
Who said, “Gracious! Goodness! O Gimini!
When they said, “Please be still!” she ran down a hill
And was never once heard of at Rimini.
There was an old person of Sestri
Who sat himself down in the vestry,
When they said “You are wrong!” – he merely said “Bong!”
That repulsive old person of Sestri.
This is a typical example of Lear’s limericks, and a perfect example of what is intended by nonsense, that is to say, “language lifted out of context, language turning on itself [a] language made hermetic, opaque” (Stewars 1979: 3), language that “resists contextualization, so that it refers to ‘nothing’ instead of to the word’s commonsense designation [and] refusing to work as conventional communication ” (Rieder 1998: 49). In other words, what happened to the old person of Rimini? What is wrong with the person of Sestri? It is impossible to answer, because, despite the perfectly grammatical use of the words, they don’t tell much. They are just bizarrely arranged so as to sound appealing. If there is a shadow of a story, usually it is nothing more than that: only a shadow of a story (without causes or consequences). In Lear’s limericks, words introduce “a number of possibilities, including dangerous and violent ones, and at the same time disconnect those possibilities from the real world, that is, from what goes on after the game is over” (Rieder 1996: 49).
Edward Lear, in a letter to a little girl he knew:
My dear child, I’m sure we shall be allowed to laugh in Heaven!
In the limericks [. . .] to an extent difficult for us now to imagine, Lear offered children the liberation of unaffected high spirits [. . .]. Here are grown-ups doing silly things, the kind of things grown-ups never do [. . .]. for all their incongruity, there is in the limericks a truth which is lacking in the improving literature of the time. In an age when children were loaded with shame, Lear attempted to free them from it.
Susan Chitty on Lear’s ballads:
Like the limericks, they celebrate the outsider. Their principal characters are socially unacceptable.
Sir Edward Strachey:
Mr. Lear was delighted when I showed to him that this couple [the Owl and the Pussy-cat] were reviving the old law of Solon, that the Athenian bride and bridegroom eat a quince together at their wedding.
More information on Edward Lear here.
That’s what it’s been like in New York in the film and moviegoer community over the last week or so. French New Wave actress (and one-time wife of Jean-Luc Godard – at one point they were the hippest coolest couple in the world) Anna Karina has been in New York, “promoting” the re-release into theaters of Godard’s “crime caper” 1964 film Band of Outsiders, now restored.
Here’s the trailer for the 2016 re-release of Band of Outsiders:
Anna Karina’s visit has caused a frenzy, not unlike the frenzy she caused in the 60s. It’s been like Dolly Levi returning, coming down the stairs at the Harmonia Gardens. Anna Karina is now 75 years old, and she’s still causing ripples – tidal waves – of excitement.
Great American critic Molly Haskell did a QA with Anna Karina on May 4 at the Museum of the Moving Image, which was screening Pierrot le Fou, another Karina-Godard collaboration, and the event sold out very quickly. I am sorry I wasn’t there.
Band of Outsiders is playing at the Film Forum as part of their fantastic “Anna and Jean-Luc” series, showing all of the movies that those two made together.
Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina
The Criterion Collection released Band of Outsiders in 2013, and there are a couple of worthwhile special features.
1. The video essay:
2. The essay “Band of Outsiders: Madison-sur-Seine” by Joshua Clover. Clover writes:
For all of this, for all the sense of assemblage and borrowing, for all the silliness and set pieces, Band of Outsiders is a movie with a main motion—not that of a noir or a policier but of a love story. Like so many Godard films, it’s a love story with a bullet in it. And like the most fiercely involved romances, it’s a map of difficult frontiers: between big city and still rustic suburbs, prewar particularity and the masses of mass culture, natural light and the color of money. Characters meet, the director has noted, “at the crossroads of the unusual and the ordinary.” An encyclopedic litterateur, Godard recalls the sublime phrase of proto-surrealist Raymond Roussel, envisioning the art of the new century as “the marriage of the beautiful and the trivial.”
Anna Karina also showed up last week at the TCM Fest in Los Angeles (and I will get there some day!), where Band of Outsiders was screening.
Anne Thompson interviewed Anna Karina about Band of Outsiders and Godard during TCM Fest. There’s an article at the link there, but also a clip of the interview.
Richard Brody, at The New Yorker writes, in his article The Special Presence of Anna Karina:
Working with Godard, Karina identified not with characters but with herself, perhaps even more fully on camera than in private life—to create an enduring idea of herself. Karina didn’t become the characters she played; they became her. In this regard, her work with Godard (like that of other actors in his films) is close to the achievement of Joan Crawford, John Wayne, or other Hollywood icons whose limitations and artistry are inseparable.
Criterion does this great series called Closet Picks where directors and actors stop by their offices (I’ve been there numerous times and it’s like I’m Augustus Gloop visiting Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. It’s too much, I want to devour the entire place!), and are filmed in the “closet”, pulling out copies of their own films, and talking about them. While Anna Karina was in New York she visited the Criterion office, and when the video clip went live, Film Twitter went NUTS.
My pal Glenn Kenny interviewed Anna Karina over the phone for The New York Times:
Ms. Karina seems to regard her work with Mr. Godard with pride and affection. “It’s very touching, wherever I go, to see very young people come to the films, whether in Japan or South Korea or the United States or France,” she said. “The films feel like they are not old, or old fashioned; they still feel fresh and touch people. It’s a fantastic gift he gave to me.”
And to us.
It’s rained for 5 days straight. My marathon month and a half is now over. I’m taking a trip tomorrow to my home state for some much-needed R&R. I don’t even know how to relax anymore. Here’s the music on Ye Olde Shuffle from this rainy rainy week. It’s a good one.
“For Those About to Rock” – AC/DC. Well, this shuffle has started off very nicely indeed.
“Tell Me Something Good” – Matthew Morrison (from Glee). Rufus/Chaka Khan would be like: “What the hell is this.” But it’s entertaining.
“I Am a River” – The Foo Fighters. This is from their Sonic Highways project: even just the concept of it I love, let alone the music – which is innovative, beautiful. I am sure the Foo Fighters has their detractors, but I love their energy, positivity, as well as their sound. Plus the connection to Nirvana, which is what got me into them in the first place. Nirvana was dark. The Foo Fighters are light. I think Nirvana is the better band, and Kurt Cobain a superior songwriter … but at this point it’s apples/oranges. I love the Foo Fighters and have from Day One. I’m “in,” what can I say.
“Stray Heart” – Green Day. I guess after the one-two punch of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown, they wanted to get back to the basics, love songs, personal songs, and maybe not … quite so angry. This is from Dos, one of my favorite tracks. Memorable tune, great bass … I mean, it won’t sweep the world, but still: when it comes on, I get excited.
“I Like Your Style” – Jim Dale and Glenn Close, from the Broadway soundtrack for Barnum. I saw this production when I was in high school, with Tony Orlando as Barnum, and Glenn Close was still in the role. My siblings and I can recite the lyrics of the entire show beginning to end. We drive other people out of rooms when we get going.
“Mr. Bojangles” – Nina Simone. Have you all read my friend Odie’s angry take-down of the Nina movie? What a train-wreck. There was a big Buzzfeed piece about how the whole debacle happened, and now everyone’s suing each other, and blaming each other, and trying to absolve themselves. It sounds like a mess and they deserve all of the scorn heaped down on their heads. I haven’t even seen it. I want to – but I am obeying my friend Odie’s command to not pay to see it. I’ll find another way.
“C’Mon Everybody” – Elvis Presley from Viva Las Vegas. This is the number done in the school auditorium, with Ann-Margret dancing along beside him. It’s a thrilling performance number, with dancers down on the floor (see if you can spot Teri Garr), and Elvis up on the stage. The thing about the pairing between Elvis and Ann-Margret is that she gave him a run for his money, and he loved performing with someone AS vital as he was. They are like twins onscreen. Watch how Elvis moves. I mean: it’s sexy … I guess … because he’s sexy in general … but it’s more hilarious than anything else.
“The Man That Got Away” – Judy Garland. Untouchable.
“You’re the Boss” – Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret. Together again! They only recorded 4 or 5 songs together for Viva Las Vegas and we get (almost) two in a row? It’s a good omen. This smokin’-hot duet (listen to how she coos, “Daddy”) was deemed too hot for the movie. Also, the Colonel was increasingly upset that there was just too damn much of Ann-Margret in the movie in the first place. Regardless: we are lucky that we have the recording. If I recall correctly, the two of them were in the studio together, recording the song, so what we have is a record of that interaction. You feel like you’re in the room with them, every coo, every chuckle, the fade outs, the little improvised moments between them … You hear this song, and it makes total sense that Elvis would think, We’re gonna need a bigger bed for this.
“Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica”: I. Allegro Con Brio” – Beethoven. The London Symphony Orchestra. I love it when it gets BIG.
“I’ll Never Let You Go” – Elvis Presley. Recorded at Sun. This was extremely early on. I’d have to look at the book of his recording history to get the timeline exactly straight. After “That’s All Right” hit so huge, with “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, there came a time of experimentation. A month or so, two months, as the guys (Elvis, Scotty, Bill, Sam Phillips) cast around for new songs, and how to capitalize on the “new sound” they had stumbled upon. There were some hits and misses. This is kind of a miss – and they all felt that way too. They worked it to DEATH, trying to capture what they all heard in their heads. The first half of the song is country-crooning, very slow, with just a guitar, no rhythm going on … and then … with a swoop, it speeds up, Elvis going, “WEELLLLLLL” … So it was “conceptual” (let’s start with the old and then bring in the new), and you can feel that concept (and so could they). These weren’t conceptual guys, so the song doesn’t really fit.
“Let’s Go Away For Awhile” – The Beach Boys. From Pet Sounds. You listen to this and you can honestly see why the Beach Boys heard what Brian Wilson had been working on and were like, “This is supposed to be a Beach Boys song? What the HELL.” Nobody even sings on it! It’s orchestral. Jazz-influenced. Beautiful, with that happy-sad thing they usually had going on in their melodies.
“The Galway Races” – The Dubliners. I basically had listened to so much Irish music by the time I was 8 years old that it would fill multiple lifetimes. It was the soundtrack of my childhood. Yet I still listen.
“The Fly” – U2. Speaking of Ireland. From Achtung Baby. Love that opening guitar. Crank it UP.
“Angel” – Elvis Presley. A ballad from Follow That Dream. This is the “vocal dubs” version (they went through so many takes of this damn song, and I have them all. Elvis eventually stops this one, calling out, “Bill?” I love hearing him in process.) I love Millie Kirkham’s swoopy soprano in the background (you will recall her huge contribution to “Blue Christmas.”)
“Regret” – St. Vincent. I just love her. Great songs, too.
“I’m Leavin’ You” – Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. Giants.
“All Together Now” – The Beatles. From Yellow Submarine. So British.
“Can’t Buy Me Love” – The Beatles. Classic. From Hard Day’s Night. The performance of this song in the 1964 movie is one of the most thrilling in the movie – and one of the best “music videos” ever.
“Carolina, No” – The Beach Boys. Another one from Pet Sounds. How exciting! I think everyone would come out of Love & Mercy and want to give The Beach Boys another look (if they hadn’t ever given them a second thought, that is). That may be one of the most special parts of that gorgeous film. So innovative, the song ends with dogs barking and a train roaring by.
“I’m a Pilgrim Traveler” – the great Wynona Carr. She’s mostly unknown now, or at least let’s say she died in obscurity, and she should be much better known. She’s got one of those thick voices, from gospel/church. She, like Sam Cooke (and she shows up in a cameo in Peter Guralnick’s biography of Sam Cooke), started out on the gospel circuit, and, like Cooke, switched to pop/secular. I love it all. I was so excited that ’42, the Jackie Robinson biopic, had her “Life is a Baseball Game” playing over the closing credits.
“Every Tear Disappears” – St. Vincent. I am extremely pleased with this Shuffle so far.
“Fly” – Nick Drake. A million years ago, I had a brief dalliance with a woman, and I never use the word dalliance. It was more a flirtation than anything else. We listened to Nick Drake constantly. So I always think of that time when his songs come up. I hope I don’t offend anyone when I say that eventually we both said, and it was practically simultaneously: “I’m sorry. I prefer men and their hairy bodies and movable parts. This isn’t working for me. No hard feelings?” There were no hard feelings (literally. Sorry). But we were falling in love, in a way. We’re still great friends.
“Reconsider Baby” – Elvis. One of his sexiest bluesiest tracks. Boots Randolph on saxophone takes OVER the bridge, and you can hear Elvis saying stuff like, “Yeah” in the background, and making grunting noises. It’s unbelievably hot.
“If I Were a Carpenter” – Johnny and June Cash. Classic.
“Fuck Buddy Song” – Pat McCurdy. He’s a friend. The song is hilarious because it’s an angry fuck buddy who feels aggrieved and pressured. “You can’t just call and expect me to drop everything. Oh yes you can.” (You can tell how much Pat loves Gilbert & Sullivan in this track, and many others.)
“Rockin Chair Daddy” – Harmonica Frank. Recorded at Sun Records. Greil Marcus has an interesting section about Harmonica Frank in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music and his importance to the development of rock ‘n’ roll, how he’s starting to open up that space.
“Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” – Elvis Presley. I love mature 1970s Elvis. Everyone covered this song. It’s obvious why. It’s beautiful. The wandering guitar is also beautiful and I don’t know who that is. James Burton? I suppose I could find out. Good work, whoever you are.
“Baby” – Tenacious D. SO STUPID. It’s a compliment. If you don’t find them hilarious, that’s fine. But this hits my sweet spot of humor. “Mow-ma’s been searchin’ for baby …” “Mow-ma”, Jack? Why? I don’t need to know why. It is so stupid and so funny.
“My Baby” – James Cotton. Boy, you can pick that Sun Records sound out of a lineup, can’t you? It’s as distinct as Muscle Shoals. Or Motown. We have lost that today, with tracks recorded all over the place and then put together somewhere else. But a good studio has its own sound. Is it magic? Was it Sam Phillips? Or the acoustics of that shitty little room? Who knows. RCA drove themselves crazy trying to re-create that sound for Elvis when he came over to them. They failed.
“Scoff” – Nirvana. From Bleach. Find this one thrilling, terrifying. It’s incredible, listening to this, that THIS BAND would find its way to the Top 40. It still blows the mind. It very well could have just stayed an indie underground scene. But the tension in the culture could not hold. It had to snap and something else had to come pouring through. I love this because this song is so MACHO. I never understood the sneering epithet of “whiny” thrown at Cobain back in the day. Whiny? So … “whiny” means … vulnerability? Expressing emotions? Admitting to pain? Calling all of that “whiny” is one of the many many cultural reasons that people commit suicide. So fuck all of you who called him whiny. Besides: this ain’t whining. This is loud, aggressive, rough, rage.
“Mean Woman Blues” – Elvis. From Loving You. Tom Petty said once that when he first heard this song (he was a kid), the line “She kissed so hard she bruised my lips” it filled his mind with such images as he had never even considered before. Like: So … it’s possible to … kiss so hard … you get bruises … on your Lips?? WHAT??
“In the Mood” – Bette Midler. Back when we were kids, my cousins Nancy and Susan and I worked for hours trying to do the harmonies on this and “Boogie Woogie Boy.” . It was Thanksgiving or Easter, and the family was hanging out downstairs, and we were holed up in Susan’s room, working our asses off. I love my family.
“Another Set of Issues” – Ok Go. I love them. I love some songs more than others, but the songs I do love, I go back to again and again. I hope they keep going. I’ve been “in” since their earliest days.
“Dark Horse” – Katy Perry (featuring Juicy J). I love her, although I think sometimes she’s been over-managed within an inch of her life. Listen: If I didn’t already love her, this would have put me right over the edge. Perry’s behavior during that duet, where she puts her focus, how she dials herself down in order to be there for someone else, look at Katy Perry’s body language … It makes tears well up every time.
“Jack’s Descent” – By Maria McKee and Jim Akin, part of the soundtrack to their gorgeous film After the Triumph of Your Birth.
“Last of the American Girls” – Green Day. J’adore j’adore.
“Hello Mary Lou” – Queen, performing Ricky Nelson’s song. This is from their Wembley Stadium album. Incredible to hear Freddie Mercury live, because you realize that his voice really was that stupendous: he didn’t need a studio to sound that way. I also love that Queen is performing Ricky Nelson. I mean, of course, why wouldn’t you. The guy rocked.
“What U See (Is What U Get)” – Britney Spears. Brit-Brit, don’t worry about what other people say about you. You do you.
“Never Been to Spain” – Elvis, live at Madison Square Garden (recently re-issued and re-mastered and cleaned up in Prince From Another Planet – the phrase used for Elvis in one of the reviews of those concerts). I LOVE his performances of “Never Been to Spain.” He GOES THERE. When he goes up the octave? Goosebumps. And the women literally go batshit insane in the audience.
“Don’t Deceive Me” – Little Richard. He is … literally? who cares … the BEST. I can’t imagine my life – the 20th century – the whole world – without him in it.
“Crater Lake” – Liz Phair. One of the most important voices of my generation. That may sound silly. But if you were a Gen-X person, coming of age in the 90s, hitting your 20s in the mid-late 90s, Liz Phair was the kind of voice that “we” had not had in mainstream 1980s life, dominated by Madonna (no disrespect). There was Chrissy Hynde, also very important to us in high school. Joan Jett. The tough iconoclastic outsider-women. Not corporatized or packaged. Joan Jett and Chrissy Hynde were older than we were though. Liz Phair was us, our age. I also was in Chicago when Liz Phair was there, and we ran in similar circles. The bar scene, the dingy music club scene, the arts scene. Exile in Guyville was a warning shot into a dude-heavy atmosphere. Even the album cover was alarming, a threat. And the album title was radical. Maybe you had to be there. Maybe you had to be a 20-something woman, single-ready-to-mingle, hanging out in a particular demographic with a certain kind of guy at that particular moment in time, to really groove on what Liz Phair meant. She didn’t show me the way, she wasn’t a role model, she didn’t provide me with an example to follow. No. She just spoke out what I was already going through, and I was like, “Wow. This is our dirty laundry. This is totally what’s going on with all of us right now.” I’ve written this before, but I listened to songs from Exile in Guyville, like the opening track “6’1″” – like “Johnny Sunshine”, like “Mesmerizing”, like “Stratford on Guy” or – okay, too late for TMI at this point, and besides: this is Liz Phair we’re talking about. TMI is out the window – like “Flower”, like “Fuck and Run” and – on a later album, “HWC” – the song with the title deemed too graphic for ANYONE to be subjected to and so it was turned into an acronym, and I thought: “Liz, please stop reading my diaries.” It was uncanny, how much she tapped into such a specific “scene.” A short-lived scene, sadly. And she didn’t “present” as a sex-pot. She wore flannel, and little skirts and boots or sneakers. She wasn’t “liberated” because she rolled around on the floor wearing stripper heels, which is now seemingly the only measure of liberation, and if you aren’t “cool” with all of that you’re a “prude” or “repressed”. No, she was liberated because she was honest, she had sex, good sex and bad sex, and she wrote about all of it. On her second album comes the line, “You fuck like a volcano and you’re everything to me” and it is such a romantic love song, one of my favorites of hers. Because isn’t that part of what love feels like, and IS like? BOTH things not only CAN be true at the same time but ARE true, and – in my experience – that combination IS love. Forget the WORD “love.” I don’t see what’s so complicated about it or what is so hard to understand. People still have such a problem with women liking sex or being that enthusiastic about it. Her songs aren’t all about happy-sex-times, and relationships are messy and this is Gen-X-era, so do we even … date? anymore? (There’s that stark section in “Fuck and Run” – “Whatever happened to a boyfriend? The kind of guy who tries to win you over? Whatever happened to a boyfriend? I want a boyfriend. I want all that stupid old shit, like letters or sodas.”) So sometimes you sleep with someone and you slink out of their apartment in the cold dawn, and think, “Holy shit, THAT was a mistake.” Being free to make a mistake like that IS liberation. This is a woman who knows how to say Yes. Our culture worry-warts women to death on how to say No. And knowing how to say No – not just the word, but saying it effectively – is important too. But Yes is true liberation. We still haven’t caught up with Liz Phair. If anything, we’ve regressed.
“She’s Electric” – Oasis. I never got into Oasis. I think he’s got a great rock-anthem voice, but the songs just weren’t good enough for me. This one though? I LOVE this one. It’s very British.
“Future Lovers” – Madonna, from Confessions on the Dance Floor. I stopped really paying attention to Madonna after Ray of Light (to this day, my favorite album of hers.) But this is a good album too. I’ll always at least check out what Madonna is up to.
“Long, Long, Long” – The Beatles. From The White Album. Eerie. They sound like they’re about to slip off this mortal coil.
“Memorial Day” – Pat McCurdy. One of his crowd pleasers. It’s so silly. But it gets everyone singing.
“I’m Okay” – Pat McCurdy. Okay, it’s time for you to go now, Pat!
“Are You Afraid to Die” – The Louvin Brothers. You know what, guys? I wasn’t. But after listening to this song, I am! Mission accomplished!
“What a Woman Wants” – Billy Porter and others from Cyndi Lauper’s awesome musical Kinky Boots. My favorite song in the whole thing. Thrilling.
“Underture” – The Who. From Tommy, of course. 10 minutes. You have to be in the mood.
“Long Tall Sally” – Little Richard. When he roughs up his voice? It still sounds dangerous. Like something is about to explode, something is about to shift, crack apart, forever.
“Love Is a Stranger” – The Eurythmics. Part of the soundtrack of college. Other parts of the college-soundtrack: Yaz. Squeeze. Split Enz. Prince. Joan Armatrading. Michael Jackson.
“I Better Be Quiet Now” – Elliott Smith. Listening to him makes me too sad. I can barely get through it.
“Proud Mary” – the Glee cast. Nope. Nope. Nope.
“End Over End” – The Foo Fighters. I love it when he screams. On tune. Thrilling.
“No Surrender” – Mark Salling, from Glee, in the episode “Quarterback,” in memory of Cory Monteith. Salling does an excellent job. I have no idea how these kids could get through recording these songs. Devastating.
“Thousand Times Why” – Pat McCurdy. He always did have a way of taking over. I mean that with love.
“Why Don’t You Do Right?” – Sinéad O’Connor. Fantastic. Love this album and love this big-band-sex sound. It suits her.
“Molly’s Lips” – Nirvana covering The Vaselines. From their Live at Pine Street Theatre album. You actually feel like you’re in that club, the vibe is present in the track. I so wish I had seen them live. I thought I would have more time.
“Disconnected” – Pat McCurdy. Getting pissed now, Pat.
“Everything’s Cool” – Lit. I don’t remember where I found this. It was probably on a soundtrack. Blast from the Past, maybe? I love it.
“My Poor Brain” – Foo Fighters. Off Colour and the Shape, an album that so took over my life that there was a good YEAR where I had to listen to at least one track a day. I couldn’t get enough. The Enimen Show, a couple years later, had the same effect. Thankfully, for whatever reason, I still want to listen to these albums. I didn’t wear them out. “My Poor Brain” is great. Play it LOUD. “Sometimes I feel like getting stuck – between the handshake and the FUUUUUCK”. I hear ya, boys.
“Gort to Texas to Honolulu” – Reeltime. Some Irish pipe-type thing. I don’t know. You could definitely step-dance off to Dublin with this one.
“Let It Die” – Foo Fighters. I so associate this song with the Big Bad Crackup of 2009, so bad that it amazes me that 1. I wasn’t hospitalized (I should have been) and 2. I made it through (I don’t know how). I white-knuckled that storm. I wrote half of my script that summer. It amazes me – I mean, I was there, but my memory of that summer is truly hallucinatory – how could I have had any clarity of thought to get any creative work done. But I clearly did. This song – along with Everclear’s music – were the only things I could listen to. This song spoke to me so deeply that it seemed to me that I had actually written it. Especially the vicious and great line: “Do you ever think of me? You’re so considerate.” I’ve said before that at times I have wanted to go back to June and July of 2009 on this site and take down every post because it all sounds so crazy and fragmented. But cooler heads (my own) have prevailed. Leave that shit up because thats’s me too. Here’s the Foo Fighters performing “Let It Die.” I still love this song.
“The Lamb’s Book of Life” – Sinéad O’Connor. I love it when she is a furious Irish truth-teller, like here.
“Pick a Little Talk a Little” – Hermione Gingold, Robert Preston, the Buffalo Bills, from The Music Man. (My family says “BALLLLLLLLLLLZAC” all the time. Part of the family lexicon.)
“Mamma Mia” – Meryl Streep, from Mamma Mia. I thought this movie was a ball, I don’t know what the hell is wrong with something being silly and entertaining. Critics scoffed at it. Lighten up, nerds. What were you EXPECTING from Mamma Mia? Gravitas?
“Summertime Blues” – Joan Jett covering Eddie Cochran. Heaven.
“Trouble/Guitar Man” – Elvis – the opening to his blazing and still-radical 1968 television special (the “comeback special”). It opens with an enormous closeup of Elvis, sneering, “You lookin’ for trouble?” It’s BOLD.
“She’s No Lady” – Lyle Lovett. My first boyfriend and I were so into him. We went to see him open for Rickie Lee Jones.
“My Desert Serenade (take 7)” – Elvis Presley, singing this ridiculous song from the equally ridiculous movie Harum Scarum. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Imagine seeing Harum Scarum at a drive-in, with your high school sweetheart, sitting in your dad’s car, and you can see why the movie was a hit. Most of these movies make sense ONLY in a drive-in format. They need to be understood in that context instead of just written off. These films STILL play like gang-busters at drive-ins. (This take ends with Elvis goofing off. At least he kept things fun for himself. He had a gift for that.)
“I’m Looking Through You” – The Beatles. Listen to these lyrics. This song is pretty scary.
“Crimson and Clover” – Joan Jett. High school. Joan Jett was everywhere. Thank God. We still need her. “I’m not such a sweet thing. I want to do everything. What a beautiful feeling.”
“Tiger Man” – Elvis, jamming out in 1975 at RCA in Hollywood. Everyone’s just messing around but boy, it sounds awesome.
“Rabbit Run” – Eminem. Eminem name-checking a book by John Updike? What?
“Diamonds and Pearls” – Prince. Sigh. I’ve always loved this one. Romantic. With a beautiful chorus, beautiful harmonies. I HATE THIS.
“The Wall” – Johnny Cash, at Folsom Prison. It’s amazing that he even got away with this. Singing this song in a prison to hardened criminals? The audience flips out.
“Circus” – Britney Spears. I love her and I love this one.
“Salve Regina” – The Monks of Glenstall Abbey. If you’re into eerie echoing old hymns sung in Latin, these are your boys. I have a lot of their stuff and I’m not always in the mood, especially when they come up on Shuffle, but it’s a good exercise to just stop, empty my mind (a hard thing), and listen. Just take that 2 minutes or so. It’s a deep quiet space that opens up.
“Under Pressure” – Queen, live at Wembley Stadium. Thrilling. That bass-line is one of the best hooks ever. People start screaming before anything else happens.
“Parting Gift” – Fiona Apple. I love her although I’ve not really kept up with her. My father loved her, and that thought touches me so much.
“I Got Stung (take 8)” – Elvis Presley. This RCA session lasted only a couple of days and what RICHES were the result. Elvis is on fire. Recorded while he was on leave from basic training. He would be off to Germany in a matter of months. His mother would be dead in a matter of months. I love the songs that came out of this particular session: each one special, jangly, joyous, with that innocent humor/verve that Elvis had so much of in those early days.
“All Along the Watchtower” – Jimi Hendrix. Resistance is futile.
“Ghost of Stephen Foster” – Squirrel Nut Zippers. Lord, remember them? I was into them for a hot second, when the swing-dance craze returned for a brief season. I used to curl my hair and go to swing clubs and do the lindy-hop with random people. It was so fun because dancing with someone in those environments doesn’t mean “OMG do you like me?” It means “Let’s do this dance we’ve learned!” I am sure there are still swing-dance clubs and I actually have been meaning to look into it. Or maybe take some classes.
“True Love” – Pink. I was actually wondering where she was! Great voice, one of my favorites of all the current pop divas. I love her honesty. “Sometimes I want to slap you in your whole face.”
“’39” – Queen. One of my favorite Queen songs.
“Party Girl” – U2. I admit I find Bono a bit of a bore now. Sometimes. I still love U2. My sister told me that when she lived in Dublin everyone had their “obligatory Bono sighting.” It was a ritual. You weren’t a real Dubliner until you had had it. When I was there once, I had an “obligatory Colin Farrell sighting.” He was walking in the rain, smoking, and he looked like death warmed over. It was charming. This was right after Alexander. Speaking of Colin Farrell: Will be reviewing The Lobster for Rogerebert.com. Look for it. I LOVE where Colin Farrell’s career has been going.
“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” – Prince. Okay, so this SONG, right? Purple Rain hit when I was in high school, and that – along with Thriller and Madonna – were THE things happening. I was so into Prince that I went back and bought 1999. This song, in particular, blew my MIND. And it still does. First of all: The title. THE TITLE. And then the lyrics! It’s so explicit that it’s basically multiple orgasms throughout. “Let’s ball” – with that double-triple hitch in his voice, one of the dirtiest come-ons I’ve ever heard. And he can go all night, and he can go for the next seven years … But the TITLE is what really strikes me now. Brilliant. I HATE THIS.
“How Great Thou Art” – Elvis, with The Stamps, a staple of his live show, a highlight. Talk about Prince, mixing the sacred and the profane. Not even mixing them. Showing that they were two sides of the same coin. Still too radical for our time.
“Hey Hey Hey” – Stevie Wonder. His music is a natural mood-stabilizer.
“Blue Moon” – Elvis Presley. At Sun. Dave Marsh calls it “an eerie masterpiece.” It is that. Nothing else like it in his entire 20-year repertoire. And he was, what, 19, 20, when he recorded this? Nobody told him to sing it this way. This is all him. WHERE DID IT COME FROM?
“Domino” – Roy Orbison. What is that clicking that happens? Whatever it is, I like it. And that guitar-line. Sexxxxxxxxxxy.
“The One” – Tracy Bonham, from her first album, and really the only album that got any radio play. It’s a terrific album: The Burdens of Being Upright. I’m still a fan, although nothing she’s done has quite topped that album.
“Bad Seed” – Brimstone Howl. Love their punk rock sound, and their blues guitars. Great mix. You definitely want to throw yourself into a mosh pit when you hear this, and take your chances.
“Hells Bells” – AC/DC. Epic.
“Running to Stand Still” – U2, live from Paris. This is beautiful.
“Blue Bayou” – Roy Orbison. I love how low it starts, and how high it gets. He loved the range of his voice, one of his ongoing arguments with Sam Phillips. Phillips wasn’t crazy about the ballads. Orbison was like, “Dude, I’ve got this voice, Imma use it.” I’m glad for that. Phillips wasn’t perfect. He had his blind spots. Really really recommend Peter Guralnick’s Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll.
“Rock ‘n’ Me” – Steve Miller Band. I literally never think about them until they show up on Shuffle. What was their deal? Who are these people? It’s all slightly silly but I like the couple of songs I have.
“Lawdy Miss Clawdy (takes 11, 12)” – Elvis Presley. (From the great box set about Elvis in 1956: Young Man With the Big Beat.) One of the great things about hearing all the different takes is that these are all live: with the band in the same room as Elvis. So what that means is that through the takes you can hear the songs come together, the guitar solo develops, the drums figure out what they want to do, and Elvis figuring out his part. Usually Elvis was far ahead of the band, in terms of performance, and so he had to just “keep it up” for the band to catch up. It’s fascinating because it’s a glimpse of him in process. It shows just how good he was, how consistent, how efficient, how professional.
“Seasons of Love B” – Rent. That was the last show that was a Broadway “event” that was somewhere in the same hemisphere as what is happening with Hamilton right now, but Hamilton is even more of a game-changer. I love Rent, have seen it many times, but my cranky response is along the lines of: “Guys, paying rent does not equal Oppression. It means you’re an adult. Grow up.”
“Hot for Teacher” – Mark Salling performing the insane Van Halen song on Glee. It’s hilarious. Whoever is playing that guitar is no Eddie Van Halen, granted, but it’s still pretty awesome.
“Imagine” – Dolly Parton. She always means every word she says. I like hers better than John Lennon’s. Sometimes a cover elevates the original. Not a huge “Imagine” fan to begin with, for many reasons. But her vocalizations, and how she develops the song, how she keeps adding to it, sounds and trills, and harmonies … it’s extremely moving.
“Science Fiction” – Everclear. They got me through some really rough times. I don’t know why, what I sensed in their songs. Maybe it was hope.
“I Cant Stop Loving You” – Elvis, in one of his 1972 Madison Square Gardens. It’s ferocious. Fun and boozy and burlesque too.
“The Prince” – Metallica, off Garage Inc. Kirk Hammett’s guitar is insane.
“Da Vinci” – Weezer. I forgot about these guys! Hello!
“Hungry Heart” – Bruce Springsteen. Good old epic Bruce. I get so scared now, thinking of these 70-year-old rock stars running around willy-nilly. Celebrate them while they’re still here, folks.
“Clambake” – Elvis Presley. Elvis was the ultimate professional, but Clambake nearly sunk him, emotionally. You can SEE his despair in the performance. That almost never happens. The songs are terrible. It was the mid-60s. The studios were collapsing. No one knew what to do, which end was up. I love the Elvis formula pics (Girl Happy, Blue Hawaii, Girls Girls Girls), but then the formula got old – as it does – and Clambake and Paradise Hawaiian Style are the death throes. The late 60s brought some fresh-ness to the formula, since the whole world was cracking apart and that reflected in the films. Things loosening up.
“Get Back” – The Beatles. Beatle-mania swept my grade school. My friend Betsy and I would huddle over the turntable at recess. I remember my favorites. I learned how to sing harmony from 1. my musical family and 2. The Beatles. There were some songs I was first introduced to at this time that I could sense were … beyond my understanding. Grown-up songs. This was one of them. It oozes adulthood. It was intimidating. The other one was “Eleanor Rigby” which – quite literally – haunted me.
“Fool” – Elvis Presley. Sad sad sad Elvis. One of the saddest songs he ever recorded. This was late in the game. But a track like this shows the lie that Elvis was in an unstoppable downward spiral in the 70s. That’s not how it went. Listen to this track. It’s perfect and his performance is great: personal, deep, tremendously sad, but the VOICE. The voice is not only intact, but powerful: it still does whatever he wants it to do.
“Call Off the Dogs” – Mike Viola and the Candy Butchers. I’m so grateful I was introduced to the music of Mike Viola, primarily by my sister Siobhan (who opened for him once), but my brother loves them too, my cousins … He is SUCH a good songwriter. And prolific although he seems to be in hiding right now. Or at least retreated. He’ll be back.
“I’m In It” – Kanye West. “Damn your lips very soft. As I turn my blackberry off. As I turn your bathwater on. As you turn off your iPhone.” Sounds like such a romantic evening, Kanye!
“Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” – Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn. Harmonies to die for.
“Go Your Own Way” – Fleetwood Mac. I remember seeing the Rumours album cover at a friend’s house, who had an older sister. I was 10 years old or something. And there they all were in bed. And I was amazed and confused and I didn’t know what I was looking at and I thought, “This is for grown-ups.” I remember so well so many moments like this in my life. Of course, by the time I was in high school, college, I knew the whole story of Fleetwood Mac, and the soap opera that went on in that band that then resulted in what I consider a perfect album.
We had to read Robert Browning’s poem “Meeting at Night” in 11th grade, and I think it was the first Browning I read. This was the era when I started getting into poetry, stuff I was discovering on my own, not just the Irish stuff I always heard at home. This was the year I discovered Sylvia Plath, Robinson Jeffers, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eliot, and I started “getting it.” I was figuring out how to read a poem, how to focus my attention on it, hone in … not always an easy thing to do, especially for a 16-year-old wondering why the Band President doesn’t ask her out.
Robert Browning’s “Meeting at Night” transported me. I remember that it was something about the adjectives in the first four lines. They’re perfect but also unexpected, if you look closer. The “startled” waves (so great), and “fiery ringlets”, the “yellow half-moon”, the “long black land” … I could see it all. I grew up in the Ocean State and knew all about the moodiness of the sea. Browning’s language here fed my soul. It pleased me. Maybe that’s a weird word to use, but it’s true.
The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.
Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!
“I love best the poets who hurt me. When in reading a poem I come across some line that thrusts itself into my heart — then is my soul knit unto the soul of that poet forevermore. Browning hurts me worse than any poet I have ever read — so I love him most.” – L.M. Montgomery
“Tennyson and Browning did not immediately hit it off, though a few years later at the publisher Edward Morton’s dinner table (three months before Browning’s elopement with Elizabeth Barrett( they became friends, and though not intimate they remained friends – meeting in France, Italy and England – for the rest of their lives. Tennyson had not relished Browning’s consonantal cacophony since he read Sordello in 1840. But both men swallowed hard and spoke well of one another’s verse, dedicating poems to each other. Browning liked Tennyson’s verse better than Tennyson liked Browning’s.” — Michael Schmidt, “Lives of the Poets“
“The obscurity, to which he must in large degree plead guilty, was, curiously enough, the result rather of the gay artist in him than the deep thinker. It is patience in the Browning students; in Browning it was only impatience.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Victorian Age in Literature“
“If it will satisfy you that I should know you, love you, love you – why then indeed … You should have my soul to stand on if it could make you stand higher.” — Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning, 1846
“There are as many versions of him as there are solutions to his murder story. Was he a sublimated anal-erotic, an ordinary entertaining chap, a deep thinker, a charlatan? Such variety illustrates his view that individual imaginations deal individually with a given reality. This individuality and human diversity he explored, so some contend. Or were his dramatic monologues simply a trying on of a succession of insubstantial masks? In either case, Browning declares: ‘Art remains the one way possible / Of speaking truth, to mouths like mine at least.’ It is a point of departure: What was that mouth like? What truths does it tell?” — Michael Schmidt
“Browning is a man with a moderate gift passionately desiring movement and fullness, and obtaining but a confused multitudinousness.” — Matthew Arnold
by Walter Savage Landor
There is delight in singing, though none hear
Beside the singer; and there is delight
In praising, though the praiser sit alone
And see the praised far off him, far above.
Shakespeare is not our poet, but the world’s,
Therefore on him no speech! and brief for thee,
Browning! Since Chaucer was alive and hale,
No man hath walked along our roads with step
So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse. But warmer climes
Give brighter plumage, stronger wing; the breeze
Of Alpine heights thou playest with, borne on
Beyond Sorrento and Amalfi, where
The Siren waits thee, singing song for song.
“Like Donne, whom he admired, Browning plucks at our sleeve with a startling phrase, plunges us in medias res, ignites our curiosity time and again. He satisfies our curiosity. His syntax can be effectively mimetic, scurrying in breathless clauses to a climax, or pacing with dignity, or deliberating ponderously, as the action, rather than the character, requires.” — Michael Schmidt
“I swear it is a tragedy that MUST be played; and must be played, moreover, by Macready. There are some things I would have changed if I could (they are very slight, mostly broken lines); and I assuredly would have the old servant [Gerard] begin his tale upon the scene [II, i]; and be taken by the throat, or drawn upon, by his master, in its commencement. But the tragedy I never shall forget, or less vividly remember than I do now. And if you tell Browning that I have seen it [ms.], tell him that I believe from my soul there is no man living (and not many dead) who could produce such a work.” — Charles Dickens, after reading the manuscript of Browning’s “A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon”, 1842
“Well, I hope they understand one another – nobody else would.” — Wordsworth, 1846 – musing on the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning
“The simple truth is that she was the poet, and I the clever person by comparison.” — Robert Browning on his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1871
January 10th, 1845
New Cross, Hatcham, Surrey
I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, — and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write, –whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me — for in the first flush of delight I though I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration — perhaps even, as a loyal fellow-craftsman should, try and find fault and do you some little good to be proud of herafter! — but nothing comes of it
all — so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew … oh, how different that is from lying to be dried and pressed flat and prized highly and put in a book with a proper account at bottom, and shut up and put away … and the book called a ‘Flora’, besides! After all, I need not give up the thought of doing that, too, in time; because even now, talking with whoever is worthy, I can give reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought — but in this addressing myself to you, your
own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogher. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart — and I love you too: do you know I was once seeing you? Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning “would you like to see Miss Barrett?” — then he went to announce me, — then he returned … you were too unwell — and now it is years ago — and I feel as at some untorward passage in my travels — as if I had been close, so close, to some world’s-wonder in chapel
on crypt, … only a screen to push and I might have entered — but there was some slight … so it now seems … slight and just-sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be!
Well, these Poems were to be — and this true thankful joy and pride with which I feel myself.
Yours ever faithfully
Let me take this moment to recommend Jacques Audiard’s 2012 film Rust and Bone, starring Marion Cotillard and Mathias Schoenaerts, a film that was … not ignored, but kind of dismissed at the time, and there was some criticism of it (the fade-outs – really?) that I found totally baffling. I keep meaning to write about that film. For me, it was one of the best movies of 2012. Audiard is an extremely interesting film-maker, taking on exciting topics, the latest of which is Dheepan. Lots of great stuff here, plus two wonderful performances from the two leads. The ending makes you go …”Wait … what movie am I watching again?” – but it’s worth seeing regardless. And see Audiard’s other stuff, mainly Rust and Bone. Don’t listen to the negative critics. It’s a powerhouse film, primal and immediate.