Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It just can't be.

I've never really listened to Janis Joplin before.

My parents never, ever, ever, ever listened to music when I was a kid. Everyone else watched their parents rock out to the Stones or the Doors or Skynyrd or whatever, thought it was hoky, got older, realized it was pretty good, and next thing you know, you're telling Spin how you grew up surrounded by all this great music and it really influenced you, man, and yeah, Ke$sha, "Tik Tok" clearly has the lyrical depth and poignancy of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

Instead of rock or blues or whatever, we had Armed Forces Radio Network. AFN is a throwback to the days of yore when you could only get news of the sunny shore of the homeland from the radio, before Al gifted us with the most excellent Internet. At the top of the hour, AFN blasted a portentous, drum-heavy burst of bumper music, which was a signal to shut up so Mom could listen to the news. The rest of the time, it played country, and not even good country, but crap like Tim McGraw, which was enough to make me wish for spontaneous eardrum combustion. Yeah hey not bad enough that we've been here since the 1940s, NOW YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS SHIT.

The ironic thing was, American rock was huge in Germany at the time, along with Levis, which you bought on the black market because of the obscene cotton tariff, or charmed a GI into buying you from the PX. Everyone was walking around in acid wash like it was the eighties, but the eighties had been over for a while, and thank you very much for all that liberation, but the Amis were sticking around like the worst houseguest, and suddenly everyone hated us again, which has continued relatively unabated since then. (Actually you do get used to that after a while.)

Recently, my mom confessed to a secret liking for Jimmy Hendrix (and a consequent hatred of Lenny Kravitz, that pretender to the throne). But I never heard her play him, or anyone else, and my parents didn't own any CDs other than a few shabby classical music compilations that no one ever listened to, and some tapes of Christian family bands, the type where everyone is wearing a matching hand-sewn denim dress or shirt and there are like eight interchangeable kids. Sometime before I came around, my parents converted to a particularly virulent strain of Baptism, which eschews anything enjoyable and/or popular except for hairspray and backcombed bangs.

As a result, classic rock was out, but nothing else was in except for talk radio like NPR (soon to be ditched as too liberal).

My parents also owned a lot of badly printed books produced by church presses about the Evils of Rock Music/Wiccanism/New Ageism/Environmentalism/Roman Catholicism/Television/Much of everything else. These were really just pamphlets, with crooked typesetting and luridly illustrated covers that showed imaginative sketches of Satan and, variously, Catholics, hippies, Wiccans, folks in suits meant to illustrate the perils of the modern world, and rebellious teenagers (you could tell they were rebellious, see, by the rips in their jeans! and that HAIR!) bowing down to him. Satan was also usually pictured as lurking behind a priest, a television set, or a vinyl record, which led me to feel like, for much of my early life, he was always RIGHT THERE and might leap out behind a door at any moment, thereby illustrating the dangers of Modern Carpentry and other Foolishness.

Anyway, one of these pamphlets was produced by a preacher who also founded a home for wayward boys called Boys' Town, which, appropriately enough, is also the name of a rock band and a district in Mexico famed for legal homosexual prostitution. The preacher, whose name I have forgotten, besuited, bejowled, with the short, side-parted hair favored by Republican Congressmen, glares out from the back cover. This is SRS BZNSS.

So, it was from this pamphlet that I learned about the evils of Rock Music, which, oddly enough, included not only such crappy and forgettable acts like Stryper and Cinderella, but also Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen (also, Bowie, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Iron Butterfly, and oddly enough, Boy George, apparently for his penchant for eyeliner and snazzy fedoras, but, also, not Robert Smith, who perhaps got a pass for his Britishness).

The book totally ignored acts like 2Live Crew and NGA, and really, every single hip-hop artist and rapper popular at the time, but castigated Blondie, the Stones, and the Doors. Oh, and KISS. (Did you know that stands for Knights in Satan's Service?! Now you do! Apparently Satan's Army's uniform consists of black spandex, white greasepaint, and an imperviousness to embarrassment!)

So, without any sort of musical background or preference whatsoever, really a sort of tabula rasa without peer, my encounters with classic rock, blues, jazz, etc., are all fresh encounters, which has actually been sort of beneficial.

So. I read Alice Echols' biography of Janis Joplin, Scars of Sweet Paradise without, really, any knowledge of her or her music, so I started listening to it, and I love it (which is not surprising, as I love the blues and a lot of the artists that Janis herself loved), and besides all that, Echols' biography is pretty excellent.

Constructed from hundreds of interviews with Joplins' former boyfriends, girlfriends, bandmates, and friends, Echols does an excellent job of reconstructing a frustrating and complicated woman, but also gives a lot of historical background, which given my almost complete ignorance of the music of the sixties, and, really, anything that happened in American post 1945, was pretty great.

Writing about Joplin is like trying to reconcile a lot of contradictions, which, fortunately, Echols doesn't really feel compelled to do. Instead, she lets the messiness of Joplin speak for itself, for her paradoxical combination of balls-to-the-wallsiness, in-your-face stage presence, and shattering insecurity. Echols, wisely, spends a lot of time reconstructing the suffocating environment of Port Arthur, Joplins' hometown, and explaining how someone who had such a raw, undeniable talent, could at the same time be convinced of her own inadequacy.

There's also a plaintive note that runs through the biography, which could essentially be expressed thusly: You were great. Why did you leave us?

And now, having spent some time listening to Joplin, I understand that feeling - even, in fact, get kind of angry when I hear her sing. Of course, no one is obligated to stick around, but still. Still. Like it's unfair to deprive the world of that voice. And, of course, the irony that a woman with one of the strongest voices in musical history could be so fragile. If Janis had stuck around, though, what would she be doing now? It seems like everyone else in the book who made it out alive ended up a computer programmer in Silicon Valley or working as an administrative assistant in the desolation of post-70s California.

My parents finally loosened up a little. My dad now listens to Yanni and some pretty epically bad New Age-y (SATAN!) pianist lady. Man, you know, it's like a gateway drug - first some Boney James, then you're full on DIO.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Devil(s) You Know

In one of those happy accidents, I read Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth right after I finished Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Tartt owes a lot to Wharton (of course, who doesn't?), indeed, as The Times review of History says, Tartt's novel "owes more to the nineteenth century than the twentieth."

History has that close, dense, tightly knitted prose that makes postmodern readers, so used to sprawling patches of white space in their text, despair. In fact, it's sometimes a little jarring to remember that History is taking place on a bacchanalian campus instead of a restrained drawing room (and, although I also went to a small liberal arts college, I don't remember it being nearly as wild and drug-sodden as the grounds of upstate Hampden University - perhaps I was in the wrong dorm).

Californian Richard Papen, a product of tract homes and one-dimensional middle class life, escapes to the verdant hills of Vermont and promptly gifts himself with a new past, complete with prep school and oil money. Gifted in Greek, Papen tries to join a tiny and exclusive group of students who study with the university's only Greek professor, Julian, whose idiosyncratic methods are tolerated by the faculty for mysterious reasons. Initially rebuffed, Papen becomes fascinated with Julian's students, some of whom have money, but all of whom have an insouciant charm born of the utter confidence in their patrician backgrounds.

Papen is allowed to enter the group and eventually becomes friends, of a sort, with the other students, joining in their slavish devotion to the charming Julian and the exhaustive study of Greek classics, to the exclusion of everything else. But something holds Papen apart from the students - his invented past, his lack of breeding, his dearth of confidence? His fellow students - wealthy, gay Francis, beautiful twins Charles and Camilla (did Tartt intend that pun?), wealthy, disturbingly intelligent Henry, and boastful Edmund, form a tight circle devoted to their professor, Greek, and living an anachronistic life amongst the other college students, complete with moldering country house, outdated card games, and antiquated liquor.

Tartt is an undeniably gifted writer, but History employs a gambit that I've never really understood. Does murder really make you lose your mind from guilt - especially the murder of someone who really, genuinely, seems to be asking for it? I find it rather unbelievable that, instead of heaving a big sigh of relief and moving on with their lives after the murder of one particularly noxious character, everyone decides to run around losing their marbles instead, with fatal consequences.

And Papen is something of a cipher. His fascination with the sophisticated and intelligence Greek students is understandable- their monied, blue-blooded past is what he dreams of - but Edmund (nicknamed Bunny) is harder to place. Obnoxious and not particularly intelligence, he sticks out amongst the other students, and his eventual expulsion from their little sanctum isn't surprising - what he was doing there in the first place is.

The Devil of Nanking, by Mo Hayder, is also about devil in man. The narrator, a young Englishwoman who calls herself Grey, is fresh out of an institution for some terrible but unspecified crime. Obsessed with the Japanese invasion of Nanking since finding a book about it among her parents' carefully sanitized library, she moves to Japan in pursuit of a Chinese man who allegedly possesses a videotape of a particularly spectacular atrocity. Grey runs into a slimy and callow American expat, who lives in a moldering dump of a Japanese mansion, and gets a job hostessing at what may be the Weirdest Nightclub in Japan (and that's saying something).

Grey zeroes in on an ancient Japanese geezer, rumored to have some sort of special medicine that prolongs his life, and promises to find it and deliver it to the Chinese professor in exchange for the videotape. Of course, the geezer WOULD be yakuza, and protected by a particularly sadistic bodyguard, his Nurse (nee the Beast of Seitama, and the suspect in the mutilation of a couple of erring henchmen).

Hayder knows her history, and Grey's search for Mr. Fuyuki's mysterious elixir is interspersed with narratives from Nanking, as the Chinese professor and his wife try to flee the murderous Japanese soldiers.

Oddly though, for a narrative that builds up as much steam as this one does, the big reveal falls kind of flat, which may be because it's hard to deliver something so awful, so atrocious, that the reader is actually going to squirm (especially in an age where you see stuff like this baby cannibal on the news). The Devil left me wondering if that was really it?

Which I'm pretty sure means I'm actually a terrible person.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Food snobbery.

This article in today's New York Times is about having a relationship with someone who eats a different diet than you do.

While an article like this would normally have me wishing I could reach through the monitor and smack people, I started thinking about it and realized that I would have a really hard time dating someone who didn't have a sweet tooth, my devotion to baked goods being similar in zeal and passion to that of a suicide bomber.

Also, props to the word "vegangelical."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Good-bye, Frank.

I'd like to think you're in the Great Jungle in the sky, surrounded by fleshy bikini girls and jaguars, with a science-fiction sunset behind you.

Monday, May 10, 2010

My Sweet Heaven.

Image credit Getty Images, from The New York Times

The Invisible Molehill.

Carolina De Robertis' The Invisible Mountain opens with a Marquez-esque moment of magical realism: the reappearance of a vanished infant, unharmed, in the upper branches of a ceibo tree on New Year's Day. Signs and portents, folks.

I wonder if Latin American writers get tired of being compared to Marquez. Like, God forbid you be from Latin America and have anything even remotely magical happen in your novel. OH MY GOD YOU'RE JUST LIKE THAT GUY, WHAT'S HIS NAME, MARQUEZ. Still, he casts a long shadow, and De Robertis' has emphasized his influence on her work, so it's hard not to mention him, although De Robertis' moment of magical realism rings false in what is otherwise a tightly crafted book. It feels more like De Robertis is getting it out of the way (magical realism? Check! Reappearing infant!) before moving on.

The Invisible Mountain is more about the things you lose - love you thought was assured, a child you couldn't hold onto, money, dignity, even who you think you are, and the torturous sacrifices and slow bleed of compromises you make to stay alive.

Pajarita, the miraculous infant from the Uruguayan countryside, grows up to marry an alcoholic Italian gondola-maker and becomes enmeshed in a life of domestic misery in Montevideo. Her daughter, Eva, flees her miserable home and predatory employer for life in Buenos Aires with her childhood friend, returning in exile under Peron's dictatorship with her wealthy husband. After her marriage unravels, Eva raises her two children alone, only to watch her daughter, Salome, be arrested and imprisoned after joining a group of young Communists and staging a fatal bank assault.

Mountain is quite beautifully written, especially in its attention to little details - the oily circles left on bakery paper by a box of guava tarts; the flies circling the meat in a butcher's shop; the stench of the young Communists' underground hideout.

Although De Robertis' aim is to show the thread of steel that links the three generations of women, her female and male characters are less individuals than archetypes. The men are, at their best, deserters, and at their worst, abusive or pedophilic, and the women are strong, self-possessed, and preternaturally wise (just for once, could the woman be the one chucking whiskey bottles?). Eva's love affair with her childhood friend, a male-to-female transsexual turned hairdresser, is weirdly problematic. De Robertis' isoolates Eva's love interest in a high-rise apartment, untouched by the tumult of revolution, and keeps their affair sequestered from the rest of the narrative, which feels more like an act of cowardice than one of compassion (despite the free haircuts). Although the teenage Salome is a revolutionary, this book is more concerned with domestic regimes and revolt than national ones - wait long enough, and even the worst regime will pass away, De Robertis seems to suggest.

Still, De Robertis' has an undeniable knack for prose and a sharp eye for details, and although Salome is released from jail following a regime change, De Robertis' resists the temptation to cheat the reader with a pat ending.