Friday, April 27, 2012

Beatles Girls, Where Have You Gone?

"A photograph is a secret about a secret...

 ...The more it tells you the less you know." Diane Arbus

I'm not sure that "haunted" is the right word to describe what these two girls have done to me since I first saw them sometime in the mid 1970s. The images are from The Beatles: An Illustrated Record, a coffee-table book written and compiled by U.K. journalists Roy Carr and Tony Tyler, a glossy must-have for Beatles fans who were listening to Wings and wondering what the hell's happened to John Lennon. (The book came out in 1975; this was the era of fake Beatles reunion concerts.) These girls are emblems of pop passion and joy, the top girl photographed at a Beatles concert sometime in late 1964 or early 1965 (note the copy of Beatles For Sale in corner), the bottom girl at a Beatles show in Philadelphia in August of 1966. In the absurd speed of the decade the girls are separated by months yet stand at opposite ends of an immense cultural front, a wide gulf with "Beatlemania" at one end, Revolver at the other.  But the countenances speak the same desperate language.

"Human faces are such a world!" said Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of the candid photograph. The world of stories these girls spun for me. I'd love to know who, and where, they are now, but part of me is skeptical of that impulse, secretly happy, if a bit embarrassed, to let them live in my imagination, where they're less teenage girls in perpetuity—that kind of embalming doesn't interest me—than humans possessed beyond language, resorting, or elevating, to tears and mouths agape. Photos are, of course, liars, or more accurately con artists, seducing us into believing that a moment is eternal, that we can dwell in a fraction of time and believe that that instant has currency and value in the future. ("Cameras that capture the moment are giving us the impression to own it." Vittorio Canta.) After the 40-minute show, these girls dried their eyes and underarms, went home with their ears ringing, singing, wrote in their diaries, exclaimed to their girlfriends on the phone or in school the next day, the Beatles grew mustaches. But here they are eternally stilled. The first girl's expression is easily translated. The bottom girl's is complicated, and in its blend of joy and anguish, release and burden always scared me a little, faced as I was with an inability to easily file the image away in a Category. As always with adolescent epiphanies, knowledge and language took years to catch up with sensation. I couldn't shake it. She's having fun, right? She's not unhappy, right? I saw the photo before I understood that overwhelming joy and surprising release can, in a way, terrify, that teenage girls live between drama and melodrama, so this Beatles Girl will always live in my imagination as a melancholy source of unease and dissonance. The grainy black-and-white secures her in a past beyond my reach, so I can't ask her, Why do you look this way? Look at your friend.

I wonder what stories these photos tell the girls themselves now, what truths they reveal or obscure. What do the girls remember of the concerts? And did they know that they were being photographed? As I sat with The Beatles: An Illustrated Record in my basement, these two girls were living out for me a story that they have no say in, complicating my naive understanding of girlish expressions around me at St. Andrew the Apostle—confounding me when, at night, I thought I'd figured out what J. or W. meant by her look in the hallway—teasing my hormones, scoring an emotional response to music and sex that the Beatles songs only hinted at. Where'd you go, girls? Come back and explain what happened to me when I looked.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Between Event and Story

An indelible memory from the early 1980s: my friend Bucky holding, and holding forth about, a copy of the Jam's "Beat Surrender" EP, informing me and a friend that the great English band had just broken up. Except, and hold the presses, a few years ago Bucky told me this: "I never owned that record. I did borrow it, but from someone who went to Rockville High School. I can't think of a reason why I'd bring it into school." Except, of course, that he did bring it to school, as I've retold the story to myself. The fallibility of memory gets a lot of play among writers of nonfiction; it's a trope of conversation that many feel is played out. I can't join that group. Virtually every day I'm amazed at my capacity to shape memories, floored anew by the implications this has for autobiographical writing, and for living. Everything matters at that seam between event and its story. I didn't see Bucky again for nearly thirty years, and I'd carried that relatively insignificant image of him holding the Jam EP all the while. That memory created a certain Bucky in my imagination, a version that impacted how I thought about him, when I did, and how I'd treat him when I saw him next. The fact of whether he did or did not do what I remembered is entirely irrelevant to the story of him that I'd told myself. Learning that he likely didn't own that record didn't affect his capacity and influence as a character ("Bucky"): if we learned that The Scream was painted not by Edvard Munch but by an unknown artist whose work Munch stole and called his own, would that affect our visceral psychological and emotional responses to the painting? Perhaps on an intellectual level, on the level of taxonomy or scholarship, but our dreams, nightmares, and memories of that painting and of its wake, its residue, would be untempered. The ripples spread wide, beyond personal essaying: any biographer, any journalist, any writer charged with turning away from the autobiographical "I" toward a verifiable fact-based account of an event or another's life must reckon with the stubborn, beautiful truth that memories shape the very nature of an incident the moment that incident occurs, and infinitely. Once an event happens, it's sung differently by its witnesses every time, usually in the same key, sometimes not, sometimes faithfully, respectful to its first version, sometimes wildly extemporized, holding on to a root but stretching, bursting its seams. Never will we hear it the same way twice. I might have created my memory of Bucky, and if that's so that says more about me than it does about verifiable reality. This stuff matters.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Surprise, Surprise

How many hundreds of times have I heard Chuck Berry songs? At home, in the car, at parties, in the bars, on TV, on the radio, in my head, in any number of a thousand songs that rip off him and his band's 1950s high water cuts. Berry is so monolithic, so legendary, such the prime mover that he barely exists as a flesh and blood man (his low-profile adds to the mystique). His songs aren't really songs anymore, they're blueprints in an archaeological museum; less words, melody, and performance on analog tape than Platonic models. Sheer repetition coupled with mythology have rendered Charles Edward Anderson Berry inhuman, his songs rumors of a man who once existed, or was invented, it's unclear.

How great when a song can still surprise. Tonight Ame and I were driving, listening to a roots show on local public radio, when "Johnny B. Goode" came on. Because I hadn't been looking for it on my Chess box, because I wasn't already bored by its oft-told stories before it played, because my mind was elsewhere (as it turns out, still enjoying the close of the Rolling Stones' "Country Honk," which preceded Berry in the set), because I wasn't burdened with solemn appreciation for the Father, because I didn't start with the reference books, because this wasn't a Sweatin' To The Oldies infomercial at 3 am after last call, because with all great rock and roll we catch up to it a moment after it begins, led first by the rush of blood, then the heart, then recognition in the form of a Yes! and a smile and a shared glance with a friend or a stranger, then a lurch to turn UP the song—none of which we can articulate in language, with sentences, until another moment or two passes—because of this I heard "Johnny B. Goode" for the first time today. Then it was over. Actually, it was over before Chuck got to his first solo, the recognizable notes and style already descending into formula, routine, ancient black and white, archetype, cliché, Happy Days. But for that minute, a bell never sounded so sweetly rung by human hands.

Monday, April 16, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About 2012

One of the difficulties on Mad Men, or on any period show, is locating the right pitch between public event and personal response. The show has been a bit heavy-handed this season in the ways it dramatizes its characters reacting to cultural events in media res: the yawning Generation Gap (Rolling Stones); the perceived escalation of random violence unto a peaceful idyll (Richard Speck, Charles Whitman); the Vietnam War. This got me thinking: how do we talk about stuff when we talk? I'd like to think that I refrain from regurgitating newspaper headlines as so many stiff period characters sound as if they're doing. The tensions among exposition, historical context, and character development require a delicate touch: Mad Men writers were smart not to mention Speck by name in the "Mystery Date" episode, as that might've imported characters into a more informed future when everyone knows Speck's name, infamy, and fate. In the summer of '66 we hadn't gotten there yet. The writers acknowledge this again in the episode "Signal 30," when Don Draper corrects another character's misstating of Whitman's last name; they weren't familiar enough with his surname yet. That was a nice touch, as there is always more unfolding to come. I think of Flannery O'Connor's comment about the worth of a short story: "A story really isn't any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind.” This is how memory works, too: a thing happens, a thing expands. We're usually too close to events to gauge their impact on us personally, let alone on culture at large. 

Did you hear...?
But here's the thing: of course people complained in their rec rooms about Elvis's swiveling hips, about the Beatles' long hair, about streaking, about Disco, about Gen X. How did they sound when they complained? I tell my students who incorporate dialogue into their essays that the great myth of effortless-sounding, realistic conversation—and I always point them to Raymond Carver, one of the masters—is that it is simply conversation transcribed. In fact: our actual conversations are full of um's and er's and pregnant pauses and half-developed thoughts and trailing off and.... Not to mention body language. Let's face it: most of our conversations are on the dull side, which is why great dialogue writers like novelists Lorrie Moore or Michael Chabon make it look easy while shaping their characters' conversations as detailed set-pieces.

Here's actor Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Mad Men's Pete Campbell, on public and personal histories: "The times are a-changing and in the first few episodes we've seen it make its way into Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce."
Times have been changing for the last few years. There's been riots and integration and things have been changing but it hasn't affected the lives of these people as profoundly as we maybe the history books would want you to believe. Let's take something huge, like the war in Iraq. It's huge and in 30 years we'll look back and think that everybody's life was inundated with this war but for most of the people I know, including myself, it had very little effect on us. It has an effect, but we can't quite see it yet. It's the same with the 1960s, and we look back and say: "Oh, there were these great changes, everyone must've felt it." It takes a while for these things to take effect in the exclusive, upper- and middle-class office buildings. We're just starting to see it now. It's '66 and it's starting to hit home.
How do we talk when we talk? I wonder, what did I say—precisely—when I heard that the Challenger exploded? When I learned about that guy who blow up the building in Nebraska—no, it was Oklahoma—before I knew McVeigh's name? How did I react to the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in real time? To Kurt Cobain's suicide?

Over morning coffee recently Amy and I talked about Facebook, its appeal, its dilemmas, its irritations, its future. Etc.. Forty years from now if two actors were playing us, how would their screenwriters shape the conversation? Would the characters name Mark Zuckerburg the way Amy and I didn't? Would they make Big Pronouncements About Culture the way Amy and I didn't, eventually bungling our way through caffeine and hesitancy and reflection and the give-and-take of talking toward a decent, thoughtful conversation? Will they avoid our Well, you know what I mean's? How will we talk about 2012 in 2052?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Lakeside Lounge, 1996-2012

I learned this morning that the venerable Lakeside Lounge is closing at the end of this month; co-owners James Marshall and Eric Ambel have sold the bar/venue. The Lakeside was my very favorite bar in New York, and I made certain to drop in every time I visited. I will miss the place very much. What was great about the bar was the way it effortlessly transcended its kitchy origins: Marshall and Ambel wanted to import a Midwestern cottage-on-the-lake vibe into grimy Alphabet City, and did so with requisite touches, aqua-blue and sunny-yellow peeling paint job, lake decor, corny landscape paintings, an old-school photo booth. But the place always felt lived-in, not ironic. This was in part due to the natural light streaming in through the large front windows, the utterly guile-free bartenders, the unassuming concrete floor and walls, and the fabulous jukebox stocked with obscure R&R and R&B singles from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. When I wrote Sweat I lived in New York for a month-at-a-time for several years, and always celebrated a good day's work at the Lakeside Happy Hour, which generously lasted until 8 pm. I remember fondly sitting with my first can of cold beer and a shot of bourbon as the Strangeloves' "Cara-Lin" kicked in—soon Dave Dudley's "Six Days On The Road" and Johnny Thunder's "I'm Alive" were stirring the place, and I was happy in the late-afternoon sunlight, people-watching along Avenue B. Marshall and Ambel were generous with the bands that played in the side room—there was always live music—and though the bar created cliques and endured the kind of drama endemic to running a drinking/live music establishment in a major city, the overall vibe of the joint was friendly and welcoming, the jukebox scoring a musical history as folks drank and laughed while darkness set. Lakeside Lounge was a wonderful bar. I'll miss it. I always wanted to do a reading there, and Marshall was amenable, but I could never swing it. Whenever I daydream about listening to rock and roll in a bar, I place myself at Lakeside; soon that will remain only a daydream. We'll be in town next month; I only wish I could be there for the last last call.


Marshall and Ambel remember their bar for The New York Times.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Curious Kind Of Knowledge: A Conversation with Judith Kitchen

Judith Kitchen has in her long career published award-winning books of poems and essays (Only the Dance, Distance and Direction), co-edited several heralded collections of short nonfiction (In Short, In Brief), reviewed poetry for The Georgia Review, and taught, most recently at Pacific Lutheran University where she serves on the faculty and co-directs the Rainier Writing Workshop Low-Residency MFA. Now, Kitchen has turned her attention to a subject and form new to her: family photographs and the mysteries that they reveal and obscure. In Half in Shade, Kitchen collects fifty-one essays, mostly brief, a few lengthy, and seventy photographs, mostly of her extended family, a few framing unknown people. Her attempt to make some sense of these black-and-white photographs, to translate and relay their stories, fragmented or otherwise, originated in surprise and survival: the photos albums fell to her to possess and archive, many of them rescued from floods that had ravaged Kitchen's parents' home. Kitchen admits to being a novice at both taking photos (she does not own a camera) and theorizing them; thus, Half in Shade is the work—diligent and curious—of an innocent of sorts, a daughter, mother, and grandmother mapping family stories and myths using grainy images as her guide.

Half in Shade tells two stories, really, Kitchen's family's and Kitchen's battle with breast cancer, with which she struggled in real-time while composing her essays. Her mortality brought stubbornly to her nose, she reckons with urgency her own family's ghostly past. At the heart of Half in Shade is Kitchen's fraught relationship with her mother, a woman she knows that she doesn't fully know and of whom photos hide more than they share. In "Trueheart," a brilliant extended essay in the middle of the book, Kitchen explores a long trip to Europe that her mother took when her mother was young and unmarried: romance; self-expression; adventure; looming fate, Kitchen wrestles with all of these dynamics as she attempts to understand her mother's circumspect temperament and her hesitancy to disclose. (Kitchen quotes liberally from her mother's travel journal as well as scribbled notes on the back of photographs.) Throughout Half in Shade, Kitchen wonders on our tendency to fill in the blanks in photos, or to wander beyond the frame, aware that the answers we seek—about family members, about ourselves, about conflicting memories—are rarely found where we look. Photos, even of loved ones, can speak in foreign language, and a translation often yields less than we might hope for, or need.

Literal and imagined absences in photos required of Kitchen a necessary dance between truth and invention. "I did not and do not have any theories about photography," she told me, "but have a whole lot of opinions about writing.  I'm in the nonfiction camp that wants nonfiction to be as accurate as possible, and yet I was looking at artifacts about which I could not be accurate.  The whole project was a nonfiction project—looking at photographs of real things taken in a real time—and yet sometimes I needed to come real close to fiction to open up that nonfiction project.  That interested me.  I was probably always more interested in the devices I could use to probe than in the thing itself. I hate to admit that, but there it is."

Recently I virtually sat down with Kitchen and asked her about photography and Half in Shade.


You claim to never have owned a camera, having, as you write in the intro, "relied on memory to call up [your] personal images of the past." Can you talk a bit about how your lack of experience with cameras and photographing affected your attitude toward or understanding of your family photographs? You're writing, in a sense, as an innocent?

Well, a disappointed innocent. Forty years ago, I was living in Brazil, and I decided to learn photography. I borrowed a camera and went about Rio shooting the most amazing things—sunlight splayed through palms, old men lounging in doorways full of shadow, and I could almost taste what it would be like when I got to the darkroom and could determine at what stage of development each shot would be at its best. But when I got there, it turned out the film had not been winding, and I had nothing. Nothing except the image in my mind—and I decided that I should not let the camera come between me and what I was experiencing. I’ve never looked back. So when I found these photographs—snapshots, really, for the most part, and therefore informal, rough around the edges—I really just looked for details that interested me. Sometimes the most fascinating things were in the places where the snapshot seems to depart from art, where it becomes simply a recording. I just wanted to know more, and I wanted more about something that was, because of the passage of time, unavailable. This, in turn, made me think about photography from my one limited experience—just who was taking that picture, and why?

Judith Kitchen
Michael André Bernstein writes, and warns, about "retroactive foreshadowing," knowledge that we have of a subject's future that the subject, of course, lacks. Were you aware of "retroactive foreshadowing" when you wrote? Did you guard against it? That tension seems to be in play in the long essay about your mother's trip to Europe.

I had never heard that term—but I think I was playing to it, or off it, pulling in my knowledge of the subject’s future whenever I could. I was positioning myself (as writer) as the one with whatever knowledge I had, and whatever questions occurred. I was clearly writing from the future that the subject didn’t know, and with knowledge of the near-future of the photograph, so I saw no reason not to have a kind of triangulation: photograph’s time, writer’s time, history and its inevitable forces at play in all our lives. In the long essay, I might have played off that same kind of knowledge, but in fact I really didn’t have as much knowledge of the future so much as of the sensibility I knew as my mother.  I started lightly, giving her an almost-fictional twist, giving her a posthumous romance that I’m pretty sure she never had. But I kept going, kept finding artifacts and learning more about that trip and pretty soon I got serious, tried hard to follow up on what was forever lost to me. The tension of that piece is the tension of a mother-daughter relationship: my judgment of her youthful innocence, my finger pointed at myself (though some reviewers haven’t sensed that and have called this a “punitive” essay).

Is it possible after essaying family photographs to feel as if one knows less about one's family than before? The idea that there is so much occurring outside of the frame that is irretrievable, creating more questions than answers.

I suppose that is the case, and yet in lots of ways I feel as though I know more—but it’s a curious, more abstract kind of knowledge. I see the family tree stretching backward and sense the patterns of immigration, the various individual hardships that add up to my own fairly easy American life. I see larger patterns of history, and the way my family did—and didn’t—participate in some of the shaping events of the last century. I see a tendency toward perverse individualism that, I now suspect, can be encouraged in a family like ours. And of course some photographs opened questions, hinted at, not secrets so much, but other lives that had their own fascinating trajectories. Most of all, I found lots of photographs that revealed humor—the sheer good spirits in which they were snapped. That honestly surprised me. 

Can you comment on this observation by Sontag: "Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality and of realism."

I probably could, and I read a lot of Sontag at one time, but in the end I kept mentally disagreeing with her about so many things. It felt as though, given the same phenomena to think about, she and I kept coming to different conclusions.  I feel that way about how she responded to her breast cancer (something we also share). We just think differently, react differently. I end up with such a divergent perspective.  Maybe it’s because I don’t have a camera, but it still seems to me that “the norm for the way things appear” is how they appear—to the eye. Where there is no frame. When I write I am looking for the frame, using the negative space, stopping time, briefly. But it’s a shifting frame, not defined by the limits of photography. In other words, instead of squinting into the lens, I use words to frame the moment, and since I’m wedded to a nonfiction that keeps “reality” in mind however much I play with words, I think I am trying to capture the elusive nature of reality and, at the same time, examine its layered complexity.

Kitchen's mother Lillian Randels, blossoming
How do you respond to the intense proliferation of the photographed image in the last decade or so? In the era of camera phones, laptop cameras, and Facebook/Flickr, millions of images of people are uploaded daily. What does this bode for a future Judith Kitchen, charged with essaying her family's past, who has access to perhaps thousands of images of kin?

I know what you mean. It seems as though we look, but we don’t penetrate. See, but don’t think. I suspect it will change the way the brain actually works. Probably already has. But actually I had thousands of images tucked in those boxes, most of them as fleeting and formless as anything on Facebook. I sorted and waited for something to call out to me, something that seemed to offer up its mystery for further examination. Like a girl with a chicken on her head. Or a couple who seemed to be negative images of each other, locked in a stance that keeps them forever apart. So my guess is that anyone could use this method as a model for producing a family portrait. But I didn’t just write about the photographs. I used them as an active part of the text. I let them stand in for the thousand words they were worth. I wrote around, and to, and from, and within, and without. I experimented with placement, wondering how long I could withhold, or how I could digress, or where supposition might take me. I was in search of something larger than family; I was testing the forces of history. Testing the way we, too, could be caught innocently crossing a bridge the way the guards at Auschwitz were dancing that day. The way we, too, could be judged at some later date. Who drew that sketch of my Aunt Margaret in Paris in 1938? What side was Rosa on? How did she fare? And all those peripheral lives, the people for whom I did not know their “living names”—yet, look, so solidly there. Alive.

I believe that Half in Shade would simply be “essaying my family’s past” were it not for the three essays that punctuate the book: essays on illness. When I added them, I knew I had discovered how we are all half in shade, how every person in the photograph is living in a kind of similar limbo, unaware of what will happen next, how fate will deal its cards. It’s the fragility of the photograph, in the end, that I’m left with. Its solid substance holding all that’s left of what Wallace Stevens said was “what we felt / at what we saw.”  I guess I just wanted to feel about what I saw and leave some kind of thoughtful record of it.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The French like their books heavy

The Fleshtones: Histoire d'un Groupe de Garage Américain, translated from English by Janique Jouin De Laurens, is out now with Camion Blanc. The French translation of Sweat comes in at a whopping 678 pages, with lots of new photos, several of which I'd never seen, plus an updated discography.

I couldn't comprehend the book's length until I got a copy in my hands. Some heavy reading, indeed:


Friday, April 6, 2012

Evil Knievel Jumps Over 1,000 Britney Spears Dolls!

When I read essays written by my students in which they explore episodes from their childhood and adolescence, I often find myself imagining them as kids during the era when I was a kid, archetypes helplessly bounding across the decades, meeting shyly on playgrounds and back yards. This is an unconscious transformation of their past into mine, and perhaps it's irresponsible—but it simply happens, one era's transparency laid on top of another era's. We're all kids. Then, a glaringly of-the-period reference pops up—a television show, a popular toy, a Top 40 song—that reminds me that this person was 12 only a decade ago. Occasionally a student will embed in the essay a jpg of a parent or childhood friend, and there's that cognitive dissonance again: Eighties, and increasingly Nineties, hair and fashion in all of their glory, as overwhelmingly nostalgic or cringe-worthy for my student as my era's images are for me.

This isn't news, but still I'm interested in why I import into the further past a dramatizing or reflection of a moment from, say, 2000, or 1998. Lazy reading? I hope note. This must have something to so with the way narrative art connects personal moments across time in a chain of collective remembering. My students, essaying themselves and versions of themselves against their (relatively) far past, become silhouettes, pushing back against nostalgia and scepticism and wordlessness as any human has done across centuries. Just yesterday in workshop a student wrote about visiting woods that had been precious to her when she was a child, and the present-tense grief she felt upon discovering that the wide creek she'd labored to heroically leap over as a girl is but a narrow trickle she can easily step over now. The creek didn't change shape; she did. In making this melancholy discovery, she no longer was a woman remembering a girl ten or so years ago, but a human momentarily transcending her origins in time and place. I have no idea if this student's draft will become better, or bigger, but the impulse behind it already places my student in a long tradition of remembering versus writing—regardless of what 2000's TV show's tweener star might have been lovingly emblazoned on a backpack she clutched fearfully as she jumped the creek, or failed to.

If I teach long enough I'll encounter drafts with references to the writers owning cell phones at age five and growing up having documented the world—and been documented—via social networking and  24/7 video phones. How will this affect their writing, their ability to transcend their time and place through language and imagination? Do essays move forward fueled by period details, or are they weighed down by them? If, after Wallace Stevens, an ordinary object slightly turned becomes a metaphor of that object, then certainly a slightly turned Cabbage Patch Kid or Furby has the same potential for talismanic transport as a lava lamp or a Major Matt Mason. So the problem can't be in decade-specific details, but in the way they stubbornly fail to lift out of their context into the ether where we live and read unburdened by birth dates.

The burden rests, as they all do, on the essayist, not on the world. Chatty Cathy, meet Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtle. What do you have to talk about?

Edited image of Evil Knievel Super Jet Cycle via Yesterville.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Hoodoo Gurus @ One Week // One Band

I recently guest-blogged about Hoodoo Gurus at Hendrik Jasnoch's tumblr One Week // One Band. Text, videos, and pics:
Monday: “(Let’s All) Turn On”
Tuesday: “Winners Never Quit Waiting For That Hit"
Wednesday: “MTV, Go Down On Me”
Thursday: “Qou Vadis, Daddy-O?”
Friday: “Nothing’s Changing My Life"

Too much fun here.

Gurus, 1985

Gurus, 2012