Saturday, September 29, 2012

With Apologies to Mod, Hip Hop, Punk, Post-Punk, etc.

Sometime in the mid-1980s a few buddies and I went to see a midnight screening of Quadrophenia at the campus of University of Maryland, where I was a student. I hesitantly self-identified as a "Mod" back then, in the sense that I loved the source-brew of 1960s rhythm and blues and rock and roll that bands like the Who, the Kinks, the Small Faces, and the Creation drew from, and at the time I worshipfully listened to Secret Affair and the Jam (and the Style Council) and bought up as many Neo Mod 45s and compilations as I could find. I was sartorially challenged, however, my poorly pegged jeans, thrift shop suits and skinny ties mildly compensating for my lack of more genuine (and expensive) Mod gear like a parka and Ben Sherman shirts, let alone a Vespa. When my older brother returned from London one summer and presented me with a sky-blue-and-white polka-dot dress shirt that he bought at a trendy Carnaby Street boutique, I wore it with pride, enjoying at Poseurs the envy of Neal Augustine, the singer of D.C.-area Mod revival band Modest Proposal. In high school I wore Secret Affair and target buttons and put duct tape arrows on the back of my jean jacket. That was about the extent of my Mod style.

During the scene in Quadrophenia when we see Ace Face, played by Sting, stumbling around in his  job as a bellboy at a posh hotel, several in the theater crowd around me began yelling, "Sell out! Sell out!" I mumbled along with them, but felt stupid, adopting a pose in which I didn't believe; I didn't care if the Face needed to get a real job, to act like a grown-up. The pressure I felt to align myself with the crowd reminded me of when I was a kid and shouted a racial epithet at an Asian family on the street. I dared myself to keep up with M, who was older and cooler. The curse felt hollow in my chest and I felt like an idiot, an imposter, to what I couldn't name. I was red-faced and regretful.


These memories came to mind as I was listening to Green Day's new album, ¡Uno!, which I like, which I think is rocking and fun and a great weekend record played LOUD. Among the online commentary in response to the album have been the predictable, and wholly dated, accusations that the band has sold out, is nothing close to the snotty anti-establishment punk group they used to be. (Hey, take a time travel trip back to Billie Joe's record collection in the late-80s.) Anyway, I say to myself, who cares? Green Day's playing rock and roll. For me, social and cultural identification stops there. I've written here about seeing harDCore shows in the 80s, and here of finding little connection to Hüsker Dü. My lukewarm embrace of Mod fashion aside, I've never been particularly interested in if a band stays within a circle of style and ethos. What rock and roll gives us at its most passionate and powerful is a lift that transcends category, that blows apart the tyranny of scenesters. The Fleshtones' garage rock, Public Enemy's hip hop, Fugazi's post-hardcore? Categories collapse in two-minute epochs: my racing heart says rock and roll to all of it. I expect some pushback here: "rock and roll" is a white term, a racist term, a sexist term. Tribal identifications are crucial ways of drawing lines. I don't mean to ignore genres and the often vibrant and urgent historical contexts in which they were by necessity forged—that's impossible even if I wanted to. What I mean is this: don't name it, groove it.

As I often do, I'll let William Hazlitt, this time from “On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth," have the last word, while I go put in earplugs and head to the club:
As infants smile and sleep, we are rocked in the cradle of our wayward fancies, and lulled into security by the roar of the universe around us—we quaff the cup of life with eager haste without draining it, instead of which it only overflows the more—objects press around us, filling the mind with their magnitude and with the throng of desires that wait upon them, so that we have no room for the thoughts of death.
And I might add, thoughts of cliques and categories.

Quadrophenia screen caps via Pyxurz.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Conversations With Greil Marcus

Conversations With Greil Marcus is out this Monday, October 1, with University Press of Mississippi's "Literary Conversations Series." For more than four decades, Marcus has explored the connections among figures, sounds, and events in culture, relating unrelated points of departure, mapping alternate histories and surprising correspondences. He is a unique and influential voice in American letters. Renowned for his ongoing "Real Life Top Ten" column, Marcus has been a writer for a number of magazines and websites, and is the author and editor of over fifteen books. His critique is egalitarian: no figure, object, or event is too high, low, celebrated, or obscure for an inquiry into the ways in which our lives can open outward, often unexpectedly.

In the book I've collected fourteen interviews with Marcus from 1981 to 2010. From my introduction:
Keith Richards has said that rock and roll is music for the neck down; Marcus has spent the better part of his career expanding that definition. Though he’s considered by most people a music critic—"Most of the time music is where I start," he concedes to David Weich. "Something musical makes a breach, opens up questions that I wind up pursuing"—these interviews illuminate Marcus’s considerable breadth of interests and knowledge.
You can order from Amazon here or directly from University Press of Mississippi here.


Select comments from Marcus's interviews:
"I watch movies, I listen to political speeches, I read the newspaper, I listen to records, I go to shows, I read books, and I’m always hoping that something will trouble me—it might be in a way that’s truly pleasurable, it might be in a way that’s scary, but it will move me an inch or a mile away from where I began."

"I think Lester [Bangs] has had an enormous influence in terms of keeping people honest. He worked very hard not to lie, either by commission or omission. He worked very hard to say what he meant, to find out what that was, and then to find a way to express that as strongly and as plainly as he could. He continues to have a huge influence on people in that way."

“Some of us always used to say that rock and roll isn’t music. They’d say what is it? We’d say ‘life itself'.”

“Echoing through all of rock and roll is the simple demand for peace of mind and a good time. While the demand is easy to make, nothing is more complex than to try to make it real and live it out."

“I can’t write about music in a purely aesthetic manner. It doesn’t intrigue me.”

"I try not to walk through the world with preconceptions and rules, that something is good if it fits certain categories in certain ways. I just don’t understand that stance. It’s just so sterile...."

“The last thing I want to do is lead someone not to enjoy something they in fact already do enjoy.”

“My role as a critic is to intensify the experience other people might have with a given incident or object."

"I don’t see criticism as playing any kind of gate-keeping role, or any kind of moral guardian role, or guarding the public health. Criticism is written by people who have to write. Writers write: that’s what they do. It’s not a choice. It’s a way of being in the world."

"There is an infinite amount of meaning about anything, and I free associate."

"I try and write as if the distinctions that are always being thrown in our faces between high culture and popular culture, fine art and pop art, are meaningless, because I don't hear them, I don't see them."

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Abandoned, Ctd.

Warehouse. DeKalb, Illinois. 

An Origin Story

The nuns said, He could be a politician, he talks so much! Just around the bend of puberty, an early Ritalin candidate, bursting with chatter, I glad handed all the kids in fourth grade in a kind of ether, aloft, waiting, without realizing, to be betrayed by the body and its chemical factory of disillusionment and weirdness, waiting, without realizing, to be betrayed by the rising tide of self-consciousness, but aloft now, and hyper, and glad, moving about the classroom and playground at Saint Andrew's as an inflatable ball, soon chattering to the point of distraction, begetting worried frowns from the teachers, invisible conversations with my parents, and the announcement on Hot Lunch Wednesday that I would raise my hand for white milk, not for chocolate, that too much sugar was the problem, the cause of my interruptions, my Must Improve Classroom Behavior check on each quarter's report card, and so I and doughy, unpopular Catherine C. were the only kids who would drink white milk, something commencing that day, a curtain lifting slowly in the back of my head, a drama that blended self-pity with self-knowledge, an unhappy and irritating play in endless acts, and I the duped actor, now sitting—the result of the newest attempt to quell me—alone in a group of four desks, three empty seats facing me as the clamor and talk and giggle noise lifted in the classroom. Who could I interrupt now, a melodramatic politician of the Party of Solitude?

Monday, September 17, 2012

In Defense of "Bad Boy"

Among the germinal rock & roll moments for me as a kid was listening to the Beatles' "Bad Boy" in the basement of the house I grew up in in suburban Washington D.C.. Featured on the U.S.-only Beatles VI, Larry Williams's "Bad Boy" was a longtime favorite of John Lennon's (he also recorded Williams's "Bony Maronie" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" in his career). The song's history in the U.K. was a curious one, cut as it was at the request of the American Capital Records label to satisfy the need for more Beatles Product in the U.S.. "Bad Boy" wasn't released in England until December of 1966 on a now-rare best-of compilation, A Collection of Beatles Oldies, the title of which is a pretty good barometer of how antiquated "Bad Boy" must've felt to the moustache-wearing, acid-tripping Beatles on the cusp of making Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Now junior, behave yourself...
I always loved the track, one of Lennon's last great pure (read, traditional) rock & roll vocals in the Beatles, before drugs, politics, and irony changed his outlook. Two music critics who I admire essentially ignore "Bad Boy." Tim Riley in Tell Me Why calls the vocal "rip-snorting" but devotes no space to the recording, and Ian MacDonald in his inestimable Revolution in the Head dismisses the song as "pressured hack-work." I beg to differ. Though certainly rushed—the song, along with "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," was cut on Monday, June 10, 1965 during the hectic middle of filming the movie Help! with the album only half-completed and industry and personal pressures rising—"Bad Boy" to my ears bears no traces of hastiness or inattention. The band is tight, the arrangement is precise but not at all fussy, the guys are having fun, and Lennon is in fantastic form.

Grooving down in the rec room and basement with my brothers, I loved Lennon's vocal on this song immoderately. It's still one of my favorite Lennon vocals, and the song encompasses everything I love about mid-1960s rock & roll: the group makes the already-dated song swing and danceable; the hooks are sharp; Lennon howls in the guitar solos and leaps into falsetto at irresistible moments ("spinnin' in a hooola hoop"); the words tackle juvee behavior in a playful, funny way. And best of all it's over in two minutes and twenty seconds. The "beat group" dynamic is here in all of its excitement, an aesthetic soon to be challenged by the experimental, skeptical band: a month after recording "Bad Boy" the band cut "I've Just Seen A Face," "Yesterday," and "I'm Down," the first two songs pointing the way toward new sound landscapes, the latter a look backward (MacDonald adroitly pegs "I'm Down" as a "genre prank"). In the middle of Lennon's self-described "fat Elvis years," at a time when their sound was threatening to become rote to them, mere generated product that would take a back seat to experimentation in sound and lyrics, the group, a half decade removed from gritty Hamburg, cut this rock and roll burner.

John Lennon allegedly never like the sound of his voice. If anyone ever begged to disagree with him, I hope their argument led with "Bad Boy."

The Beatles', and Larry Williams's horn-driven original from 1959. Turn it up:

Friday, September 14, 2012

Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke

Top Ten Dictators Go Girl Crazy! Moments in History:

1) 1894: Coca-Cola is sold in bottles for the first time on March 12.

2) 1921: White Castle Restaurants are founded in Wichita, Kansas.

3) 1926: Henry Ford shuts down his automotive factories for all of Saturday and Sunday, inaugurating the popular concept of “the weekend.”

4) 1948: major television networks begin broadcasting professional wrestling.

5) 1953: the first issue of TV Guide is published on April 3.

6) 1964: “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “Please Please Me” occupy the top five spots simultaneously on the Billboard Hot 100 during the week of April 4.

7) 1967: The Stooges play their first show, on Halloween.

8) Late 1960s/Early 1970s: Sopors, a brand of Methaqualone—aka, Quaaludes—are manufactured.

9) 1971: Adny Shernoff publishes the first issue of Teenage Wasteland Gazette fanzine at State University of New York New Paltz.

10) 1973: Hilly Kristal opens CBGB on the Bowery in New York City.


The Dictators released their debut album The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! on Epic Records in March of 1975. An unpacking of that sentence reveals several incongruities: that a band outrageously named the Dictators releases an album; that the album is issued on a major label that’s home to the likes of mainstream artists REO Speedwagon, Charlie Daniels Band, and Johnny “I Can See Clearly Now” Nash; and that the major label releases the album in 1975, a year inhospitable to anti-authoritarian, satiric, fast-food-eating, homework-in-the-bar-doing, downer-dropping, trash-culture-celebrating, nose-thumbing rock made by juvenile delinquents. Thus begins the story of an album that four decades after its release is heralded as among most influential punk rock records in music history. Too late for 1960s Garage Rock, and too early for 1970s Punk, the Dictators are one of the great in-between bands in rock and roll: Steven Van Zandt describes them as “the connective tissue between the eras of the MC5, Stooges, New York Dolls, and the punk explosion of the mid- to late-1970s.”

Andy Shernoff (b. 1951) was a student in the Music Department at SUNY New Paltz when a corny joke forever consigned him to music infamy—he was asked to spell his name at the registration office and answered snottily, “A-d-n-y”. Meanwhile, Shernoff was busy mimeographing and distributing copies of his self-published rock and roll and pop culture fanzine Teenage Wasteland Gazette, one of this first of its kind. Mostly making fun of fellow students and/or pompous Rock Acts, Shernoff used the Gazette as an outlet for his semi-serious desire to become a music journalist, and for his native sarcasm and love of mid-1960s rock and roll culture and its spirit of energy and fun. “It was all very tongue in cheek,” Shernoff remembers of the Gazette, “with articles about fake bands, concerts that never happened, drinking and general mayhem. The closest comparison today would be The Onion.”

Raised in Queens, New York (he went to high school with Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls, Peter Zaremba of the Fleshtones, and future members of Joan Jett’s band), Shernoff had endured the late-60s and early-70s rising pretensions in rock and roll, of virtuosity and epic guitar solos, smoke machines and album-length conceptual suites. The Stooges, the MC5, and the New York Dolls were continuing to fight the good fight, their axes handed to them by the likes of the Sonics and early Who and Kinks, but simple, raw rock and roll was vanishing in a haze of pot and solipsistic self-expression. Influenced by the writing and philosophy in maverick Creem magazine out of Detroit, Shernoff wanted in the Gazette to lampoon Rock Royalty while celebrating the lowbrow (truth be told, he mostly wanted free records). “I was basically satirizing the anemic rock scene of the time,” he says. “I had a few cool people writing for me like Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs. They would send me the stuff that was rejected by the mainstream rock press because it was too outrageous. They were the first writers with real punk attitude before punk attitude in the media became commonplace and generic. I used to get free records, get free tickets for shows and parties. It was all a scam, a rock and roll swindle.”

After dropping in and out of a few bands up in New Paltz, Shernoff began jamming with Ross Funicello (b. 1954) and Scott Kempner (b. 1954), two New York City borough transplants like him with like-minded approaches to music and turmoil. The three moved into a large house in the country, throwing parties and damaging their livers and brain cells, while making noise (Shernoff on bass, and Funicello and Kempner on guitars). After a name change or two—“The Fabulous Moolah” and “Beat The Meetles” are consigned to the dustbin of history—the trio added drummer Stu King and christened themselves the Dictators, the funniest name that they could come up with. Following “Adny”’s lead, Funicello become “Ross The Boss Friedman,” Kempner “Top Ten,” and King the relatively subdued “Stu Boy King.”

Meanwhile, via industry connections made while editing Teenage Wasteland Gazette, Shernoff had arranged for music critic Richard Meltzer to visit SUNY New Paltz and give a lecture. In 1970, Meltzer had published The Aesthetics of Rock, an infamous, sprawling, unclassifiable book of rock criticism and cultural philosophy that stemmed from Meltzer’s writing as an undergraduate and graduate student at SUNY Stony Brook and Yale University, respectively. Greil Marcus has written that The Aesthetics of Rock is about, among many other things, “breaking down and recombining the totality of rock ‘n’ roll, or the totality of life as it is or could be lived”—the book is not, Marcus assures us, “a joke,” before adding, “It was received as a joke, I think.” Shernoff understood this tension between earnestness and a gag, loving Meltzer’s subversive take on the possibilities of rock and roll and the dissident power of the ironic humor that it always courted. Shernoff loved Meltzer’s writing in Crawdaddy magazine, and was happy to publish him in Teenage Wasteland Gazette. Meltzer’s visit to SUNY New Paltz strengthened a simpatico between the critic and Shernoff and his new band, who Meltzer subsequently took under his wing as a mentor-with-attitude.

One of Meltzer’s classmates and spiritual cohorts in college was Sandy Pearlman, with whom Meltzer booked bands in Long Island and who would go on to co-manage Blue Öyster Cult with Murray Krugman. In the summer of 1973, Meltzer introduced Shernoff to Pearlman and Krugman, and the Dictators recorded a rough demo. To suggest that the Dictators were not proficient at their instruments at this time would be coy: they could barely play, and Shernoff had written only a handful of songs. Emboldened by rock star dreams and Meltzer’s encouragement, the guys banged out a set list as Shernoff began conceptualizing their ethos and attitude. “We formed the Dictators mostly because we had no other choice," Shernoff said. "We were all friends before we formed the band, but, the band was formed mainly because we didn't seem to fit in anywhere else.”

He added, “Music was the only place we all felt comfortable. I, personally, didn't know what else to do with my life.”


So, Shernoff started scribbling. “Writing those songs was natural—it was the life I was living," he says. "I always felt rock and roll was more than just notes on a page or music on vinyl; it was a lifestyle, and I just tried to capture that. I think that was the real innovation of the Dictators.” Gritty reality, life in the boroughs in the mid-1970s, downer punk fantasies of a “California Sun” and an alternate reality where rock and roll and Joe Franklin reigned: Shernoff’s milieu was teenagedom in an era of diminishing returns. Here’s Shernoff’s “Next Big Thing,” a statement-of-purpose and one of the first songs he wrote:
I used to shiver in the wings / But then I was young / I used to shiver in the wings / ‘Till I found my own tongue // I sock 'em everywhere that I sing / ‘Cause you know baby / I'm the Next Big Thing // I knocked 'em dead in Dallas / And I didn't pay my dues / Yeah, I knocked 'em dead in Dallas / They didn't know we were Jews // I'm a fuel-injected legend / I don't wanna be a bore / I just wanna live a rich life / And I wanna die poor // But I won't be happy / ‘Till I'm known far and wide / With my face on the cover of the TV Guide
Life for these Teengenerates? Drinking Coca-Cola for breakfast, ignoring “edumacational” television, cutting school and getting drunk, eating at McDonald's for lunch, Sopors for the weekend, pro wrestling, cars, girls, surfing, beer, sleeping all night, sleeping all day, taking Vitamin C, playing sports, dreading the country rock that’s on the way. They ain’t no boys, but they ain’t men. The only goals in life? The fastest car and a movie star. Shernoff’s songs were funny, risky, ironic, and completely out of step with the mainstream music. As a Jew, Shernoff was well aware of the knife-edge of his band’s name and the controversy of titling his songs “Master Race Rock” and “Back to Africa,” yet this was instrumental to his punk ethos, which was about courting danger and defusing it with humor, tongue firmly in cheek.


A key, combustible ingredient in the Dictators was a troublemaker from the Bronx and friend of the band, Richard Blum—aka, Handsome Dick Manitoba, his name a reference to bad-guy Handsome Jimmy Valiant of the 1970s wrestling tag team “The Valiant Brothers.” Blum (b. 1954) inaugurated his stormy career with the Dictators as the band’s cook and roadie, but with his outsized, pro wrestling-style personality, Herculean drug and alcohol intake, and propensity for detonating center-of-attention mania he soon found himself onstage with his friends, billed as the band’s “Secret Weapon.” Invited by Shernoff one night to end a show by “singing” along to a crunching version of “Wild Thing,” Blum proved a hit to chaos-seeking crowds who vibed off of his dangerous mania; soon he was ending shows by sauntering onstage in a bathrobe, pro wrestling-style, rocking a giant Afro and no musical skills whatsoever. The Dictators played their first show in November of 1973, supporting Iggy and the Stooges and Blue Öyster Cult in Maryland at Prince Georges’ County Community College, and soon after that their first New York show, at Portchester Theater. Pearlman and Krugman were there, and wanted to sign the Dictators after witnessing the energy and humor of the live show—provided that Blum become an official member of the band. Dumbfounded, the group acquiesced. Handsome Dick Manitoba, “the handsomest man in rock and roll,” was born.

A record deal? You talkin’ to me? Shernoff couldn’t believe it, until Pearlman and Krugman, who worked marketing for CBS, helped bang together a contract with Epic Records, who signed the Dictators without hearing any of their songs. Epic’s A&R men were convinced by Blue Öyster Cult’s management that the droll but edgy band could deliver a commercial-sounding record, and things escalated quickly. By 1974, the band had relocated to New York City and were regularly playing the Coventry, a storied rock club in Queens, writing songs and rehearsing. Armed with a handful of Shernoff originals and sardonic covers of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and the Rivieras’ “California Sun,” the Dictators recorded their debut album, with Krugman and Pearlman producing, at CBS Studios in Manhattan in August and September of 1974. (As the Dictators were recording their debut, a band of fellow Queens misfits with the surnames “Ramone” were playing their first shows at a derelict bar on the Bowery.) The album in the can, the Dictators played out in New York with greater frequency—they were headlining at the Coventry by now—looking forward to their album release. At a Halloween show, Handsome Dick gobbled White Castle hamburgers onstage and threw french fries at the audience. Everything mattered: they were The Next Big Thing.


The real world was brutally indifferent. Two weeks after the celebratory Halloween gig, the Dictators supported Nazareth (Hair of the Dog) at Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary. The headline band’s audience—let alone the booking agents—didn’t knew who the Dictators were, and didn’t care. Their slot on the tour was summarily ended, and after one night the Dictators returned chastened to New York. Over the next few months, they played several gigs with Blue Öyster Cult. Finally, in March of 1975 Epic released The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!, featuring Manitoba on the front in full wrestling regalia, the guys on the back posed half-naked in their bedrooms, and a group shot inside of the band lounging in leather jackets at a counter at White Castle. The slim audience who were on the lookout embraced the album. In New York City, Legs McNeil and John Holmstrom founded the legendary PUNK magazine in part to hang out with the cool guys in the Dictators, so impressed were they with their spirit, image, and philosophy.

In 1975 there was nothing on the charts that sounded, looked, or smelled like The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! If the fellas had turned on a radio while they were recording, they would’ve likely heard Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot, America, Elton John, Carole King, and Tony Orlando and Dawn maneuvering for ascendance in the Top 40. When The Dictators Go Girl Crazy! was released, Billboard was not commercially encouraging: Paul Anka, the Carpenters, Barry Manilow, and Herbie Mann all scored monster hits that month, leaving behind the Dictators in their sonic boom. America yawned: The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!, brilliantly and ineptly played, poorly promoted and critically savaged, ahead of its time, died a mercifully brief death on the charts. The Dictators were released from the contract with Epic after two months.

Two long years would pass before the band released its follow-up, Manifest Destiny, on a new label (Asylum) and with an altered lineup (Stu King was out, replaced by Richie Teeter; Shernoff moved to keyboards as Mark “Animal” Mendoza joined on bass). By then, the Ramones had released their first three seminal albums, the Sex Pistols and the Clash their epochal debuts, and fellow CBGB artist Blondie was on the verge of commercial success. The Punk and New Wave landscape was permanently altered—but the funny, original, prescient Dictators were there first. Represented in the “Punk Wing” of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Dictators’ legacy is assured due in no small part to the groundbreaking music and attitude in the grooves and imagery of The Dictators Go Girl Crazy!

Publicity photo (third) via Zombies En El Ghetto.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Stories and Why We Tell Them

In Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, I make much of an accidental intersection: the afternoon of the day day Lewis performed at the Star-Club, the Beatles were running around—chased around, more accurately—London streets and alleys filming the iconic opening scenes to A Hard Day's Night. One collective constellation rocketing upward, another solo star retreating with considerably fewer witnesses. I'm keen on such happy accidents that history provides, but as a writer I'm skeptical of them, resisting the urge to read more into randomness than there might be. As an autobiographical writer, this temptation to hear conversations among disparate moments has to be especially warded off, guarded against as wishful thinking.

This is on my mind today, the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, when social media is flooded with remembrances. I will never forget. We must not forget. How could I forget. The majority of these noble, sincere statements are being made by those who observed the catastrophe in Manhattan, western Pennsylvania, and northern Virginia from afar, on TV and in magazines. Many, of course, are made by those who suffered much closer to Ground Zeroes, but the majority, statistics insist, are not. What are we remembering? The nightmare, or ourselves? I had a cousin, David, who was in a Tower and escaped before it fell. That's not my story, it's his. Though I find myself telling it. The day of the attack I was scheduled to teach Flannery O'Connor and Crimes and Misdemeanors in my literature and film classes, respectively, and I decided not to—too violent. That story doesn't matter, but I tell it.

The stories that really matter—the memories that we must listen to and not forget—aren't those who witnessed awful spectacle from afar, although those matter, too, as much as those of the nearly 3,000 who perished, and the encircled stories of their families and loved ones. Exponentially, the stories matter less as that circle widens. And yet we can't help but tell them, looking for intersections between ourselves afar and those who suffered, who vanished, in the center.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


From Frank Conroy's Stop-Time (1967):
Although Ligget's beating is a part of my life (past, present, and future coexist in unconscious, says Freud) and although I've worried about it off and on for years, all I can say about it is that brutality happens easily. I learned almost nothing from beating up Ligget.
This anti-epiphany is a beaut, one of the more affecting attempts at rewriting, or ignoring, the past. A recap: Frank's a kid at a boarding school, getting off on eluding authority at every turn, but burdened (as much of the great Stop-Time is) with a kind of pre-sentiment that disillusionment and disappointment lurk around every corner. One day an awful event occurs: the boys gang up on a heavy kid named Ligget who may or may not have said something transgressive. After a "trial" the boys—Frank in step—line up and, one after the other, punch Ligget as hard as each can. Ligget ends up in the infirmary with broken bones. The essay, self-incriminatingly titled "Savages," ends with Conroy's weak Mea culpa, above. His big lie. Surely the knowledge accrued in essaying this terrible day, in circling the events and their motivations, however vague, is real knowledge, the kind that borders self-discovery. And what of the line, "All I can say about it is that brutality happens easily"? Isn't that an enormous lesson? (And Freud? Perhaps he has the last word.) That nameless, unjust fury can erupt, create scapegoats, create a community at the other end of the arm that's pointing at the unfairly accused? Sounds like Frank learned something.

A similar anti-epiphany occurs in Phylis Barber's "Oh Day Can You See," the fantastic opening chapter in How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir (1992). Barber writes a fragmented mosaic of growing up near the Hoover Dam during the Cold War. Her father was off fighting in the Second War, and her memories of the hole his departure created mingle with remembrances of extended family visits, the Dam being constructed, dreams, ordinary domestic, adolescent days. And of a strange, foreboding cloud that rises ominously to the surface of the essay before Barber narratively shoos it away each time:
More than anything I remember the dam and that story about Grandma. But there was an atom bomb test too—a rip in the sky, a gash that showed the sky's insides for a minute. I remember thinking about my Band-Aid box. I never could have unwrapped enough Band-Aids even if I had pulled the red string exactly down the side crease without tearing into the flat side of the paper where the red letters are printed. After that minute passed, the sky's blood and the earth's dust made a big cloud, a busy one. It drifts over my mind sometimes.
Later, remembering joyfully, innocently, rolling down Administration Hill with her father and sisters:
Rolling. Me rolling, repeating my face to the green grass. The cloud rolling, repeating itself to the open sky. And deep inside the busy cloud topped by the North Wind puffing in the wrong direction, a fire burned.... The cloud burned, scarring its belly, melting its insides with red and yellow while it rolled over and over in the same place.
Still later:
After it mushroomed, the cloud started to break apart and dot the sky, and I thought of the time I climbed a leafless tree. Instead of watching where I was going, I talked to Rocky, my dog, who jumped and yelped at the bottom. Someone else had broken the twig that raked my cheek, that beaded the slash with red. A necklace of red pearls, almost. Dot dash dot. A design that stared at me in the mirror until it got better and faded away just like the cloud did.
Finally, at the essay's end, Barber shifts to the present tense after recalling having witnessed the atom bomb test with her family, her proud father beaming ("Nobody can get us now," he says to his family, to his country.) "I don't think about it much," Barber lies writes:
but sometimes when I punch my pillow for more fluff, ready to settle into sleep, the cloud mists into long red airy fingers over everything, reaching across the stark blue.
Look at the way that dreadful cloud keeps insisting on its present-tense place in the essay, the memory: a rip in the sky—no, my Band-Aid box—; The cloud rolling, repeating itself—no, rolling down the hill with my family—break apart and dot the sky—no, my random injury in the tree—long red airy fingers—no, no, fluffing my pillow....

"I drifts over my mind sometimes."
"I don't think about it much."


A memoirist cannot resort to invention, and so must locate her antagonists, rising action, climaxes, and denouements in the ordinary mess of everyday living. What matters? Why? How often we ignore our epiphanies, secure in an assumed posture that it didn't matter, really. But such anti-epiphanies make their way to the surf"ace of our thinking, anyway. (I learned almost nothing from beating up Ligget—note the begrudging "almost; I don't think about it much—the essay you wrote begs to differ.) An autobiographical essayist needs to be open to such moments, when our version of the past and its claim on our present is at odds with evidence. Usually, the narrative arc of a memoir, of a personal essay, can only conform to the conventional arc if we make it so. This isn't news; artists have been rightly skeptical of Freytag's arc for generations. Autobiographies chart themselves organically against supposed endings that messily begin other things, against climaxes losing their intensity and value over time, against discoveries that stubbornly fail to materialize. The shapes of Conroy's and Barber's thinking betrayed the authors. What interests me are the question marks lurking behind the insistence that something didn't (doesn't) matter when it certainly does, the deeper, as-yet-unheard urge to the page telling the real story, as it always does.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A memoir's insides, an essay's seams

In an NPR story "Can We Learn To Forget Our Memories," corespondent Alix Spiegel reports on the recent work of Malcolm MacLeod, a memory researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. MacLeod and his co-researcher Saima Noreen devised a study where volunteers were asked to associate memories with 24 various words such as "barbecue," "theater," "occasion," and "rapid." When the subjects returned a week later they each sat in front of computer where the words appeared on the screen; if a word appeared in green, the subject was to repeat the associated memory aloud; if the word appeared in red she was to actively not think about the memory. "At the end of this process," Speigel writes,
the subjects were tested to see if there was a change in what they recalled. And there was—in the memories that had been repeatedly blocked.

"There was a significant forgetting effect, about a 12 percent drop in the level of details recalled," MacLeod says. "That's a large effect."

What's interesting, though, is which part of the memories were forgotten.
To understand, consider the following transcript that was given to me by Noreen, which is based on one of the actual memories in the study. It involves a girl getting a new pair of very short pants from her mother.
The cause of the event was me wearing a new pair of trousers that my mom had bought for me for secondary school when I first started. The consequence of the event was that at lunch time when I went to the bathroom an older girl started making fun of me for having short trousers. It was the first time I felt uncomfortable with what I was wearing. It made me feel very self conscious and I hated that.
That was the original memory, but after blocking this memory again and again, certain details began to fall away. It's not that she forgot what happened, Noreen says, instead, she began to lose the personal meaning associated with that memory.

"The fact that she said, 'It was the first time I felt uncomfortable with what I was wearing,' and also she forgot that she said that it made her feel very self-conscious and she hated that," Noreen says.

Essentially the blocking caused her to lose the fact that it was emotionally painful, which, Noreen says, is what they consistently found. In general, people didn't forget the facts; they forgot how those facts made them feel — the meaning of the facts.

This, Noreen says, is probably because what a memory means is usually derived after the event takes place. And though when you tell someone your memory it seems like it's part of the memory itself, personal meaning often changes.

"Obviously, if something negative happened but you're in a happy place now, then you might interpret that negative event as being not positive but ... potentially leading to where you are now, so you can see positive in that event," Noreen says. "You're always deriving different meanings from the same event."

And because that part of our memory shifts, it's less secure and easier to forget. At least that's their theory. But they don't yet know how long this forgetting effect will last, if it might evaporate over time.
The implications of this are, of course, are enormous. One can perhaps train oneself to actively, and successfully, "forget" the emotional scarring of a trauma or an injury, perhaps as a complement to therapy. The flip side is that one may learn how to forget the shame and guilt felt as one who inflicts pain and injury, and thus be more likely to cause additional suffering. Memory as a hall of mirrors with curtains over them.


I'm more interested in the implications of this kind of forgetting for autobiography. The more I read memoirs and essays, and the more I write autobiographically, the more I recognize that any piece of memory-driven personal writing that does not actively and consciously call attention to its own making lacks an essential integrity. Because the "meaning of facts" changes over time—given the vagaries of emotional distance, wisdom, immaturity, forgetfulness—than no fact of one's far, perhaps even near, past can ever be presented as certain. A memoir or autobiographical essay must at some point flip itself over, exposing its guts, revealing its seams and the fingerprints of its speculative author

The problem, of course, is art. (That sentence should probably be the subtitle to this blog.) Writers—excluding most militant post-modern and Language experimenters—want to fashion a text that is shapely and pleasurable to the reader, that dramatizes something essential beyond private, at times indulgent, cognition. There's a narrative in there somewhere, isn't there? (Am I getting conservative?) And if the story renders a kind of Montaignean wrestling with the "meaning of facts"—and, again, what autobiography doesn't?—than that story of shifting-attitudes toward the past must be shaped beyond "I felt this way, now this," some connective tissue that reminds us that the root of the word art is ar-, to shape, to mold.

I think more than ever that John Barth's "The Funhouse" and Robert Coover's "The Babysitter" are the most realistic stories of the last half century. Or at least, in terms of art, the most ethical, with their insistence on instability, shifting POVs, and the continually-morphing "meaning" of facts, memory, and desire. What must memoirists and personal essayists do when fiction writers reflect and translate reality so effectively? What beckons?

"Forgetting" by Alex Falco via Toonpool.