Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Lifeless Lou Reed

Anthony DeCurtis' Lou Reed: A Life is perhaps the worst nonfiction rock-and-roll book I've read, and I've read Marianne Faithfull's (though much more likely, David Dalton's) Faithfull: An Autobiography. Despite being a longtime reader and subscriber in high school and college, I've never really been much of a fan of the Rolling Stone school of rock journalism. Lou Reed disappoints in all the familiar ways.

Instead of ever getting close enough or real enough with its subject, DeCurtis frustratingly sticks to Lou Reed the image. So much of the writing deals only with the image that the person, the artist, comes across as one dimensional, lifeless, and not very interesting at all. Not so much “a life,” as the subtitle boasts, after all.

One chapter on childhood, which is never a good sign, that is little more than listing the schools he attended and the friends he spent time with. Another chapter on college. Then the predictable and boring organization of one chapter per album, per project. And in these chapters, so much of the writing concerns the laziest deployment of hermeneutics and the least interesting literature reviews, in which he cites other (mostly Rolling Stone) critics.

One would imagine that someone with a PhD in literature could do more than conflate every reference to a father in Reed’s lyrics to Reed’s specific father as if Reed would or could ever simply transcribe his family history in order to make an album. After making such uncritical claims, DeCurtis then goes on to assert that “Reed’s poetic license” affords him the ability to use and define words as he sees fit. This weird, naive back and forth when it comes to interpreting song lyrics drove me fucking crazy, particularly since so little of it offered any real insight into Reed's actual writing process.

Another of DeCurtis' hermeneutic hangups is his spending so much space on surface analysis of album covers. None of this ever gets at anything behind the surly attitude and ambivalent image of  Lou Reed.

And these criticisms aren't even about the book's greatest flaw, which is the chapter titled "This Gender Business"—the most transphobic, and by extension, homophobic and transmisogynistic writing in what purports to be serious journalism by a serious press I've ever read. I get that language and acceptance of transgenderism has dramatically changed since the 1970s, and that the horrible quotes from the press (including Rolling Stone, of course) might be necessary in order to properly contextualize Reed and Rachel's relationship, but DeCurtis was still referring to that relationship as “the sexual underworld” in 2017. (He refers to Reed's subsequent relationship with a cisgender woman as a “new heteronormative love.") Interviewing others (Erin Clermont, who comes across as a total cunt, for example) to speculate about the details of Reed and Rachel's sex life is tacky at best. Though I suspect that I'll be pissed off about this book for years to come, I haven't yet mentioned its most damning failing: Rachel is referred to as a "transsexual [sic] male [sic]." It seems that the publisher Little Brown does not employ editors or basic fact checkers even though several were specifically named in the Acknowledgments. For fuck's sake!

The best biographies get close to the people they're about, so much so that you can begin to see the world through their eyes. This book never goes beyond how the image of Lou Reed appeared to the writer himself. Fans of Lou Reed the person: don't waste your time. It reads as if written by a narc.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

You can read my Eulogy for Lou Reed here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Lucky's Speech

It was years—decades even—from the time I first read Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot before seeing a production of it. In that time, and really since the beginning, I was fascinated with Lucky's speech, which still seems to me to be the climax of Act One. If you remove all the repetition from the play, then all that remains would be Lucky's speech and Pozzo's downfall.

In every production I have seen, Lucky’s speech, which Beckett calls a tirade, comes across as just that. It’s a wordy outburst that unfortunately loses much of its connotative meaning when delivered onstage, no matter who the actor is. Seeing productions of Godot, then, will always disappoint when compared to reading the script.


Lost is much of the bodily humor (the double caca of “Acacacacademy,” scholarly citations by “Fartov and Belcher”) as well as the philosophical content, which includes allusions to Descartes’ res extensa, the defective Latin “Essy-in-Possy” misquoted from Kant (esse-in-posse, or existence as a possibility or having the potential to exist), and the direct reference to Bishop (and philosopher George) Berkeley.

Certain lines from the tirade (“… what is more much more grave that in the light of the labors lost of Steinweg and Peterman it appears what is more much more grave that in the light the light the light of the labors lost of Steinweg and Peterman …”) easily resonates with Pozzo’s gloomy lines at the end of his scene in Act Two: “They give birth [read: “labors”] astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” It is as if Lucky can either see the future or has the ability to correctly discern the present.

If I were to direct a production of Waiting for Godot, I think I would have Lucky speak more slowly. Other than the word "tirade," there is nothing in Beckett's stage directions that mandates how quickly the lines are delivered. And "tirade" can just as easily be much more methodical. Imagine if Lucky were presenting his findings at an academic conference. Or imagine Lucky as Hitler espousing not racist ideology but existential truths. What if Lucky were simply rallying all of humanity to his cause? How would that scene play differently? Would the speech's content finally be allowed to come through?

And spare me that bullshit "insight" that because it's "postmodern" it's not supposed to have any inherent meaning. That's fucking bullshit, and we all know it. If anything, theories of postmodernity show that the speech's meaning is located specifically within its dislocated meanings. The quaquaquaqua has meaning as both Heideggerian Als-Struktur and the quacking of a duck. What better way to honor Beckett and his "misnamed" Lucky, who, according to the play, is both capable of thinking even while remaining dumb?

Saturday, March 23, 2019

End of the Rainbow

"Between you and me is not only a rocket trajectory, but also a life."

When asked about my thoughts regarding Gravity's Rainbow, I responded that it easily has become one of my favorite books. Not my favorite, but certainly one of them. I mentioned that one of the things I liked most about the novel was that, like Moby-Dick, it created an entire universe, a world that could be recreated just from the science, technology, and mythology it contained. I liked how every detail, every character, every image responded to and activated that universe. Its rhizomic narrative structure is nearly perfect.

It's funny that Pynchon has been so little on my radar. I read The Crying of Lot 49 in graduate school, and I thought it was schlock lit. I had no interest in reading anything else by him.

Another aspect of Gravity's Rainbow that appealed to me was Pynchon's dialog with translation. There are a lot of languages used in the novel. And Pynchon does this interesting thing where he'll use a foreign word or phrase and then half-translate it a page or two later without ever calling attention to the fact that that's what he's doing. I say "half-translate" because his translation often employs an almost hyper-foreignized root that he leaves intact.

One example, when he directly cites Rilke: "These tall, these star-blotting Moslem angels ... O, wie spurlos zerträte ein Engel den Trostmarkt. . . ." And a paragraph and a half later: "coming to trample spoorless the white marketplace of his own exile. . . ." This was probably the first time I noticed what he was doing, and this example comes near the middle of the book. Spoorless jumps out because it's so weird. In German, it means trackless or without a trace. But Pynchon half-translates it as spoorless, which barely amounts to translation at all. This is not a common word in English. And the word is typically translated as completely in English translations of the Rilke. There are lots more examples.

Pynchon's manifesto of language can perhaps be summed up with this line: "Words are only an eye-twitch away from the things they stand for." Or perhaps more forcefully: "The knife cuts through the apple like a knife cutting an apple."

Pynchon's love affair with Rilke was beautiful and on display from early on. Rilke's name is mentioned seven times. The Duino Elegies, once. I would've liked to have translated The Duino Elegies to commemorate having finished Gravity's Rainbow. Or perhaps even Rilke's thematically related “How surely gravity’s law.” But because there are only so few hours in a day, I stuck with the shorter "Gravity." Here is Rilke's poem and my Pynchonian translation below.

Schwerkraft
by Rainer Maria Rilke


Mitte, wie du aus allen
dich ziehst, auch noch aus Fliegenden dich
wiedergewinnst, Mitte, du Stärkste.

Stehender: wie ein Trank den Durst
durchstürzt ihn die Schwerkraft.

Doch aus dem Schlafenden fällt,
wie aus lagernder Wolke,
reichlicher Regen der Schwere.

Gravity
by Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Frank Garrett

Middle, how from all of us
you pull yourself, even from those flying off you
regain yourself, middle, you most strong.

Standing: like a drink the thirst
plunges him down by gravity.

But from the sleeper falls,
As from a stored-up cloud,
a generous rain of what’s grave.

See also: Half a Rainbow

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Insolubility of Milk

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org 

I learned about this collection of short stories by Simon Fruelund from his translator K.E. Semmel on Twitter. It's a short 110-page book published in a gorgeous volume by Santa Fe Writers Project. But don't let its thickness fool us. These stories plumb the full depth of human experience in an astonishing paucity of words.

Take, for example, the title track. An unintended whistle during a puff of a cigarette leads to a defiant walk in the rain that results in a spontaneous tiff with a brother about the meaning of existence over an overturned tanker truck on the freeway. All this in little more than four pages.

Fruelund captures the frigidity of familial relationships, jilted lovers, and spurned mentors. He hangs these reticent characters against a barren ice-desert where haunting flames still flare up in the infinitesimal gaps as they pull apart from each other and their comfortable surroundings. The default tone is one of mourning after it's become a habit.

Milk and Other Stories is a fist ready to punch you in the throat. You reel from the impact even though the hand has long ago unclenched and disappeared into the night.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Culture Hole in the Sky


On a rain-splattered Saturday about sixty people made their way to an evening of avant-garde sound and performance art in Exposition Park, Dallas, in order to hear, among other things, an almost 100-year-old dada sound poem. The event was produced by Culture Hole, in collaboration with MentalDrift and Mutarrancho, upstairs in the third-floor space of the Power Station.

At about nine o'clock the first act began: a concert entitled Magical SyNaps and Other Marriage-Saving Experiments. It consisted of high-energy live looped trumpet-heavy songs by Swirve, a collaboration between poet/vocalist Tamitha Curiel and her jazz trumpeter husband Chris. Swirve is a perfect blend of the B-52s/Fred Schneider and more classic jazz work by Miles Davis and Don Cherry. You can find some of their irresistible work on Bandcamp.


Next up was Starting At Language, a text-based electronic collaboration between Massachusetts-based cellist Vic Rawlings and Dallas-based vocalist Liz Tonne. This piece, which seeks a dialogue with Susan Howe’s poem Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, often verged on the operatic in its whispered intensity.

Tonne's mostly minimalist vocalizations were heavily treated and processed through Rawlings' knob-turning. The glitchy exposed/de-boxed speakers contributes to the improvisational/chance nature of the work as well as adds a visual element to an otherwise austere spectacle of two seated performers. It was the perfect transition into the headliner.


Rounding out the evening was Dutch improvisational vocalist Jaap Blonk performing Kurt Schwitter's dada sound poem Ursonate. Blonk, who has been in this line of work since the late 1970s, easily captivated the audience with his outstanding interpretation.

Putting into question the nature of language and pushing the limits of language's capacity to convey meaning were chief concerns of dada. Culture Hole's event celebrated that history as well as signaled some possible future trajectories.