Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Killer Turns 75

In honor of Jerry Lee Lewis' 75th birthday today, here's a clip from 1964.  Lewis appeared on March 19 in Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, broadcast on Granada television in the U.K., one of the great rock & roll TV programs of the era, and the first of a three-leg stomp across England and Germany.  This Granada program was the first gig of the tour, and was born from Jerry Lee’s live reputation.  The whole amazing performance is worth watching, but here's the closer, an astonishing "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On":

A few weeks later, Lewis arrived at the Star-Club in Hamburg, West Germany.  If you don't know what happened that night, you can read about it here.


Here's a very recent cut, the title track of his new album, a cool version of Kris Kristofferson's "Mean Old Man":

Cheers, Killer!

Friday, September 24, 2010

On (Not) Covering Literature

I've often wondered why writers don't cover literature the way musicians cover songs.  A band, a singer-songwriter gets up on stage and covers a song by a well-known artist or an obscure one, sometimes slavishly respectfully, sometimes making it their own.  Bands and musicians release entire albums devoted to covering other artists' material — there's a cottage industry of cover albums.  We think nothing of a singer turning another's song inside-out, paying respect to influence and history.  Some cover songs are jokes, some are overly-earnest.  (Forget tribute bands for now.)

Occasionally a writer will read another writer's work — at his own reading, or at a benefit or tribute to another writer.  But that's not covering the work as a musician does.  We don't think of a band playing another's song as much as we think of the band interpreting  the song.  Where is this tradition in literature?  Where's the poet who covers Wallace Stevens?  The fiction writer who covers David Means?  The essayist who covers William Hazlitt?  What's missing in this equation — propriety?  Sensibility? Personality?  Perhaps there's a performance aspect lacking on the printed page that discourages interpretation.  I'm not sure.  I'm not thinking of a self-conscious homage, or an imitation written out of an exercise, writer's block, or respect.

I'll ask myself: can I go in front of a crowd (or a mic) and cover a David Lazar or Ander Monson essay?  Or, more interestingly, a James Baldwin or Joan Didion or Virginia Woolf essay?  I can read the piece — but where would my interpretation come in?  How would I filter the essay's style and content and place in history through my own?  I can mimic it, cop a certain voice or tic of style, but could I really deconstruct, rebuild, and newly (and wholly) inhabit the piece the way, say, Tommy Keene does with Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons," the way the Beatles do with Little Richard, the way the Ramones do with Chris Montez?  Etc.  (Insert your own favorite cover versions here.)  Or for that matter, the way Roy Lichenstein and Andy Warhol co opted popular mass imagery and made it their own?  Perhaps if I collaged three or more essays by different writers a la Richard Hamilton?  An interesting mess, maybe.

There's a wall between artist and artist that seems unbridgeable — or at least more difficult to circumvent, or cross — in a work of literature, than in a song.  Is literature more personal — and, so, less easy to inhabit — than popular music?  That seems unlikely.  Of course, there are musicians whose work is so self-identified that it feels pointless to cover, but in the scheme of things those songs are probably the exceptions.

I'm asking too many questions now.  Help me out here.

"Books In a Stack (A Stack of Books)" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


The "I" is the great compass pull. It attracts me to the page/screen, corroborates me, defends me, embarrasses me, renews me. The tension (hopefully interesting and not indulgent) occurs when I go somewhere else, toward the third-person, or the second-person. It's easy and healthy enough for a personal essay to look outward — through research, curiosity, the desire to see the larger historical or cultural or regional or whatever context. What interests me is where the "I" and "You" might overlap. That matrix point must be important in autobiographical writing; it's a kind of magic trick and it's also where a renewable source of energy is found, what makes the essay a perpetual motion machine. Is the job of a personal essay to move from I to You to He/She? It seems to me, yes.

It's not a question of where I am in You (or Her). Do you have to "relate" to an essay's subject? God forbid. I'm always most interested in those essays or autobiographies that show me the world in unexpected ways, that allow me in to an emotional, gender-specific, culture-specific place (though It's best when those hyphens collapse under their own weight, thanks). Virginia Woolf: "A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out."

Where "I" resides in "You" has much to do with where (and whether) you reside in "Him/Her." That is, I matter if you matter and if you believe that he matters. And he does, of course.

"Reflective Perspective" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons. "Lame Intersecting Circles" courtesy of me.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Books, Music, and Stuff

Geoffray Barbier's feature-length documentary on the Fleshtones, Pardon Us For Living But The Graveyard's Full, is now available to view online. I and many others (including Peter Buck, Dave Faulkner, M. Henry Jones, Miriam Linna, Steve Wynn, Handsome Dick Manitoba, and Andy Shernoff) hold forth. You can watch it here.


And in advance of my reading from AC/DC's Highway to Hell (along with Pitchfork's Scott Plagenhoef and Mark Richardson) at Quimby's in Chicago this Friday, the AV Club asked me to choose which song from Highway to Hell would fit on a mix-tape with a song each from Belle and Sebastian and the Flaming Lips. Yeah. Here's my answer (along with Scott's and Mark's).

UPDATE: photos of the Quimby's reading here and here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Coming Of Age With Josh Alan Friedman

Josh Alan Friedman’s Black Cracker, an “autobiographical novel,” is a very funny and closely observed book about growing up as an outsider — in Friedman’s case as the only white kid in an all-black school in Glen Cove, New York in the mid-1960s. Against the background of civil rights and the shifting mores of the decade Friedman dramatizes with cinematic relish not only his unique childhood but a cast of local characters (in all senses of the word) that has lived inside of him for decades. I first came across Friedman years ago via Tales Of Times Square, a fantastic collection of articles about long-gone, seedy Times Square that he wrote while on the smut-mag beat in Manhattan in the mid-1980s. He’s also the author of Tell The Truth Until They Bleed: Coming Clean In The Dirty World Of Blues And Rock 'n' Roll, among other books, and he’s released CDs of his music as well. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

I'm interested in your term "autobiographical novel." It's of course oxymoronic, and begs the question of where in Black Cracker you shaded toward fiction, and where you shaded toward pure autobiography. Could you talk a bit about how you conceive of that term, and why you decided to write in that hybrid-genre?
I know "autobiographical novel" is a ludicrous phrase. But when my agent began shopping this book, he was adamant about calling it a "memoir." As was the whole book industry, since novels have gotten short-changed ever since All the President's Men. Non-fiction rules. But our memories get recycled through dreams and take on a mythological life of their own. We can't recite dialog from 45 years ago, we have to recreate the gist of it. Even Frank McCourt finally admitted that Angela's Ashes was more novel than memoir. And then you have the "scandals" on Oprah, at least two memoirs exposed as false, with books being recalled.
So what is a memoir? In my case, I'd say 90% of Black Cracker is true-to-life. I took some liberties and didn't feel comfortable calling it a memoir. My agent said he couldn't sell it as a novel, but there would be great interest in it as a memoir. In any case, I partnered up with Wyatt Doyle as publisher on this one. Calling it an "autobiographical novel" is an attempt, probably futile, at some kind of compromise.

Part of writing a memoir is shaping the events into a narrative. Did the story arc of Black Cracker come easily to you? Was it something you had in your head for a while? What decisions did you find yourself having to make when it came to shaping the narrative?
Nothing comes easy. It took 35 years to write this book. It began in 12th grade as a short story, which eventually appeared in Penthouse in Sept. 1978. Over the years, I spent thousands of hours staring at the typewriter, only able to remember bits and pieces. Until I revisited Glen Cove around 10 years ago. I already wrote everything I remembered from the kid world, but suddenly discovered what was going on in the adult world. I went through the microfilm of the Glen Cove Record from late '50s through mid-'60s, and was astounded. The NAACP was trying all along to close the school, led by the Mr. Anthony character (who I also learned was a great connoisseur of cognac, and later gave pompous interviews in liquor publications). The Glen Cove Police Dept. let me go through their dusty attic, dredging up the nightly front-desk blotters from that era. This filled out my memories. And then my daughter Chloe (now ten), triggered memories of childhood. And viola, miraculously I was able to finish.

Would you care to elaborate on the 10% that’s not “true-to-life”? And why you felt the need to fictionalize? Was it strictly to fill in the gaps or was their a different strategy at work?
Can't say why, other than there might be something called the myth of your childhood. Setting things straight in your mind, presenting it all from your very own perspective, maybe shifting a few events to the way you want them to have been. . . .
And I refer to Mr. Anthony (whose name is partially changed here, like everyone else) as a "character" in the book. I mostly learned about him through old microfilm.

That's interesting. Patricia Hampl talks about writing a memoir and in the process getting what was denied you. Your access to the details of your childhood is extraordinary. You seemed to have (still have?) an affinity with movie monsters when you were growing up. You write about it a bit in Black Cracker, and can you elaborate on why you identified with them? Were they part of the myth? Do you see kids now identifying to them in a similar way?
My childhood movie monsters were Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman. I still think they're fantastic films, and feel a quick rush of that childhood magic when I see a 1930's Universal horror film. Simply put, I related to the outcast/freak factor (don't millions of other folks?). But no, I don't actively identify with them now. . . .
I didn't artificially write in anything I was denied of in Black Cracker. Maybe just the point of view. I now take for granted what would now be considered abuse, as well as being denied certain kinds of friendship, acceptance. It was later, during the teenage/hippie years (a whole 'nother subject) when I truly felt adolescence denied. And if we can sell some Crackers — outside my immediate circle of peeps within Facebook, etc. — then I hope to get the chance to do that book. So far, the mainstream media won't touch Black Cracker.

Why do you think that is?
The race issue is too close to the bone for them. Most newspaper and magazine editors — and few run book reviews anymore — are so afraid of losing their jobs, they run for the hills when the subject of race is dealt with this strongly. And therein, I believe, lies the monolithic American race problem, which persists time immemorial, Black prez not withstanding. Blacks and whites are different, culturally and physiologically, but the same in many other ways, especially as Americans. There are still millions of whites terrified of Blacks, and millions of Blacks bent out of shape about whites. Until these differences are acknowledged, agreed upon and celebrated, the country still remains fucked up about race. I thought Chappelle's Show was one excellent remedy, or anybody who confronts the whole race issue head on.

You were obviously in the center of much of Tales of Times Square as an observer. Did you edit your "persona" at all in that collection? I assume, maybe wrongly, that some Josh ended on the cutting-room floor? Can you talk a bit about your relationship/attitude toward the subject matter of that book?
Well, Tales is not about me, it's about Times Square — which I thought of as an almost human character in itself. Another "bad" neighborhood, which I seem to always come back to. I was more comfortable documenting the old dukes who inhabited the Melody Burlesk. For the reprint editions, Feral House used my picture on the cover. And the movie poster (Paul Stone's movie remains unfinished).
But for some of the pieces in When Sex Was Dirty, I enter the picture. Rather than shine the light on myself, which may have been even lonelier and more pathetic than the old men. What was I doing there all those years throughout my twenties? Times Square helped keep me alive, I guess.

Visit Josh Alan Friedman at Black Cracker Online, and check out some tunes at his YouTube channel.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Distant Replay

Recently, the woman cutting my hair described a childhood memory. She was at an amusement park with her family where she accidentally stepped on a large bug, squashing it under her sneaker. She was, of course, "totally grossed out." It ruined the day, she told me, because all she could think about was that huge disgusting bug that covered half of the bottom of her shoe!

"The weird thing is was that when I went back home last week and looked at the video, it turns out that the bug was only, like, a centimeter long! It wasn't that big at all, but I completely remember it is as being so much bigger," she said, clips and comb in hand.

I was taken aback, I'll admit. I wasn't expecting her to reference video in her attempt to corroborate or make sense of her memory. I'm not sure why. Maybe because my family didn't take video when I was growing up. The woman cutting my hair is likely two decades younger than me; she grew up in the era of camcorders, of the documented childhood, from vacations to birthday parties to backyard hanging-out. This isn't a new phenomenon, of course; in fact this woman is from, at least, the second or third generation of family video recorders. The neighbors down the street from me in the early/mid-70s had a clunky video camera — the first one I'd ever seen — but they seemed wealthier than my family, at least they always seemed to have "stuff." On last night's Dick Van Dyke Show episode Rob and Laurie filmed the Redcoats (aka, Chad and Jeremy) in their New Rochelle living room with a heavy-duty, glare-light-burdened fossil of a video recorder. That was 1965, and the Petries were probably pretty cutting edge.

The implications of the Videotaped Childhood. The gap between the woman's memory of the bug as grotesquely large and the (less interesting) video proof (a dubious word) that it wasn't. Which is the truth? The pixels or the post script? The frames-per-second or the flashback? The image file or the recollection? Autobiographers have been asking these questions for a long time, and they are no less crucial. Does one bug overrule the other?

I wonder if this memory-data gap will narrow or widen over time, as more and more minutes of one's once-misty childhood and adolescence are recorded for posterity, a kind of fact-checking against nostalgia. Will the imagination (not simply "a picture making mechanism," as Willa Cather put it) atrophy? Of course not, but the demands put on it by memory and desire might change. Maybe the imagination will go the other way, creating ever more fantastical memory deceits and expansions of remembered reality, rebelling against the tyrannical hold of the empiricist video camera, iPhone HD, the Flip, etc., creating a dangerously (sexily) widening gap between truth-as-remembered and truth-as-proven. Or I'm wrong, and the balance between what's recalled and what's documented will remain strong and steady, tethered between the strong subjective complications at both ends of the string.


Tess Gallagher wrote in 1979, "The poem is always the enemy of the photograph." I didn't quite understand that when I first read it. Now it seems prescient, even as Gallagher was looking back at a century's worth of picture-taking, of embalming the past:
Even the stopped moment of a photograph paradoxically releases its figures by holding them because the actual change, the movement away from the stilled moment, has already taken place, outside the frame of the photograph, and the moment we see ourselves stilled, we know we have also moved on. This is the sadness of the photograph: knowing, even as you look, it is not like this, though it was. You stand in the "was" of the present moment and you die a little with the photograph.
I don't think that the smooth flow of last summer's downloaded (and increasingly uploaded) videos are much different from the fading photographs in the basement. Though we see ourselves in action, there on the bright screen, moving, alone or with people, creating the third-person community of was, we are still here in our first-person, present skepticism, insisting that it wasn't like that, that it was.

"Vintage Picture Of A Cute Young Boy Looking At His Reflection In The Mirror" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons