Monday, September 22, 2008

David Foster Wallace

I found this cheerily infuriating.

The Best Mind of His Generation

This was written by the sometimes Roeper aislemate and NYT film critic, A. O. Scott. I guess it's written from the perspective of gen-Xer writing to about and at the wicked boomers who took all the good jobs, lived the good life and got everything the slacker generation never could. Boomer privilege and entitlement is old hat, but if Tony Scott thinks there are no vacancies at this point in history for great men of literature, I recommend he check in and see how someone born in 1980 or 1990 feels about our prospects. In all honestly, perhaps what is meant by literature itself--that stodgily stuffy edifice and its leather patchwork of hierarchical brows (sub-simian to brainiac)--has outworn its usefulness as a cultural form. It certainly has faded as a worthwhile distinction--this I know from experience.

I studied Creative Writing where David Foster Wallace got his MFA.

In the institution's hallowed halls, Wallace was revered, if sometimes begrudgingly so (I'll get to that). The reverence was grad-student driven, but it did reach the top. Wallace was one of them/us, or had been, and seemed like the prototype of someone who made good of this wickedness.

The first time I heard his name, I was young and impressionable and eager to believe that there was good writing out there, but not seeing it anywhere around. I'd submitted a fantastically mediocre poem to a poetry workshop headed by an energetic young grad student called Julian with frosty hair and Buddy Holly spectacles. On reflection, there was a quiet mentoring going on there, the closest that I would ever get, artistically. He good poet, and seemed to have his life together. It was hard not to see him as the image of what I might wind up being, and I think he respected my clumsy cynicism and earnestness. He didn't really help me out anywhere specifically (Lord knows I could have used it), but he told me I was good and he let me get away with trying to remain as anonymous as possible while giggling my way through the semester.

Julian did his best with what week to week proved to be a lousy group of writers (myself included). A few times, he would bring in friends and local writers to our little section during critiques to give us some sense of occasion. One time, he brought in this really smug and serious writer with a small ponytail, the kind of guy who spends a set amount of each day mugging for a dust jacket photo, trying to capture just the right supercilious turn of the nose. This guy read everyone's poems and at the end of the week he chose a few people for critique. I was among those selected, and when he called my name I answered sheepishly, having heard him tear people to pieces. When he got to me, he only asked me, "Have you read David Foster Wallace?" I hadn't and said so. "You might want to." And that was it.

It sounded like it was intended as a compliment, it was enough to set me off through Wallace's oeuvre--penance for escaping without the nicely worded verbal abuse everyone else got. I read everything I could get my hands on, and despite the circumstances of our introduction, and as testament to Wallace's skills, I enjoyed most everything. It was immediately accessible and familiar and miles ahead of anything I might ever hope to do.

Later, I got to see him read. It was one of the more sensible and dazzling moments in my university career. Wallace's reading was blank, he read very straightly and simply.

The evening's power was entirely in the text, which somehow had been written by the imposing figure at the front of the room. The auditorium was filled with enthusiastic admirers, clutching copies of his books, which I had to that point only checked out of libraries. I approached him afterwards and merely told him that I liked his work and thanked him for coming. He was quickly distracted by a more exuberant fan, but seemed to acknowledge it. By this point a queue was forming for autographs, but I stood by and watched him interact with people. He was shy but gracious as people lavished praise.

The next day, I was trapped in an insipid fiction workshop taught by a dinosaur who thirty years earlier had written a book about going blind, imaginatively titled Going Blind. He was an unpleasant and demanding man with cruel hair and wrinkles that told me he only smiled through sheer force of will. Worse, he graded harshly. He clearly detested undergraduates, and to explain his arcane view of literature, he would frequently trot out another of his mouldy scribblings: a piece on the importance of the distinction between literary and popular fiction. Popular fiction, he explained, was about outsides. Literary fiction had the singular gift of being able to give us insides. To prove his point, he then had a series of strawman examples drawn from the 1970s when it was written: Jaws versus The Old Man and The Sea; Clan of the Cave Bear versus The Inheritors, etc. He also detested the cinema (which he said could only show outsides), women and anything else that might be considered fun.

(When he got into it, I usually distracted myself with the thought of one day getting inside one of my fellow classmates.)

About half-way through class, someone asked him what he thought of Wallace's lecture. He paused, measuring how his words would be received--as if endorsing Wallace's playful genius would open the floodgates to hollow imitations, as if his words could carry such weight with a room that feared and hated him--then he said, "Oh, I liked it." This was followed by a string of qualifying buts that amounted to nothing all. He basically said that Wallace was really good at what he did, and we were and could not. Fortunately, I was distracted by the fact that the girl sitting across from me appeared to have forgotten to, or wasn't wearing underwear.

I've never had a teacher who tried impose his point of view on me as strongly as this blowhard. Still worse, he used grades for leverage. He only gave out one A-, and only because he'd misread one girl's story to have depth beyond her design. I worked my ass off to get a B, and by the time I did, I was less sure of myself and less capable of putting my ideas into words than I had been when I'd started out writing as a teenager. The material suffered. I forgot how to be playful and clever and it stopped being fun. I stopped being fun. I stopped giggling on the page. I walked away from the whole experience never really writing seriously again. (Well... one time, but that launched the biggest fiasco of the personal underwear-based kind.)

He had not talked about Wallace with admiration. He merely condoned that what had been read was indeed literary (he failed to explain how, suggesting we re-read his essay). This is the nature of the praise that is available in this dark coven of self-important twits in creative writing. And Tony Scott is playing right into this dinosaur's hands! By essentially writing David Foster Wallace off as a casualty of some post-boomer world, in which there's no room for him in the pantheon of literary genius and the only aspect of the human condition left unexamined is that of pitiable exile, Scott makes Wallace's life and death seem all the more hollow.

I don't quite buy it. It doesn't seem right to evaluate Wallace along any grand continuum, even if that is where he saw himself. It distorts Wallace's significance and short-changes his generation. The fact was that he was able to remain relevant and hip to his peers and people who came after him, becoming the index of what good writing at this moment in history would look like, while still begrudgingly gaining acceptance from elite. That's what he was to me anyway. It's no small feat. It seems clear that Wallace's suicide was a tragedy of circumstance and the unfortunate treatment of mental illness. Scott's dim epitaph almost makes me want to not read the few remaining things that I do, on account of the company that it puts me in.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Standing on the jetty as the steamer moves away: Frankie Laine = my Sex Pistols

I've never really understood how or why tastes change with the fashions. More often than not, I love the same things forever. Chalk it up to pigheadedness or nostalgia, but this persistence has served me well enough. There are very few records I've been embarrassed to have bought, namely the Cocktail soundtrack and a NKOTB Xmas cassette from the school store at my elementary school (both were misguided, youthful attempts to impress a girl; needless to say, neither worked musically or romantically).

As with most romantic delusions and other mental infirmities, this might be genetic. When my mother was a young and impressionable girl living on the East End of Montreal, a much older first generation Elvis fanatic noted all the signs of a preteen crush on Elvis Presley and decided to give all of her old albums to the little-girl-who-would-grow-up-to-be-my-mum. Over thirty LPs. All from the late 1950s, early 1960s. These were mostly film soundtracks and compilations, but they were bright and colourful and definitely left the impression on a young me that this Elvis was probably an important guy--if only to my mum.

Sometimes, I would splay them out in the living room and pour over their covers, trying to figure out what made them my mother's only luxury. I didn't know what I was holding, but I knew they were special. Sideburned or jumpsuited, Elvis always looked friendly enough. He liked Hawaii, apparently.

Elvis was a lot to process as a kid, but my mum's records taught me two paradoxical things about fan culture and music. First, that music was something you passed down, something that could be passed around from one person to the next, something that should be passed on. And second, that it was always deeply personal, so personal, that you might not quite understand why one person may love it, where another may not.

There are only couple of times in my life, that I've found something similar for myself. Something I thought no one else in the world would have. Certainly, something that no one else would cherish in the way that I did. One unlikely such item was Frankie Laine's 1956 Command Performance LP. I got the record in a whole collection of records some older person in Arizona gave me (I inherited a lot music that way--lounge music, Henry Mancini, records with JFK's portrait on the cover, the Moon landing, etc.) and I was immediately drawn to the cover:

Beneath the titles--an arrestingly blocky arrangement of image and text--the jacket showed Laine smirking, half-genuflecting as he shook hands with... the Queen--Queen Elisabeth II.

(A wider cropped version of image shows that Laine was standing next to Bob Hope.)

Used to seeing the QE2's face on Canadian money, her expression here--bemused, demure but slightly condescending--was uncharacteristically human to me. For one, I didn't dare fold or part with it. More imprtantly, the play of facial expressions between the bespectacled Western pop singer and young monarch locked in a fleeting clasp and awkward glance was an image that I would unwittingly restage in my many halting and hilarious misadventures with the opposite sex.

More importantly, this image was like my own personal Sex Pistols. Looking at the cover, it was clear to me that whatever the hell this was, the people around me who filled their ears and wardrobe with echoes of Garth Brooks, grunge and gansta rap wouldn't like it, and that little iota of rebellion appealed to me in a way rock'n'roll never could at that moment in history. It was rebellion on my terms--wryly, dryly, and above all, squarely.

I couldn't wait to actually hear the record. I wouldn't be disappointed. A compilation of Laine's early fifties full-throated hits, three songs stand apart from the rest: HIGH NOON, JEALOUSIE, and ROSE ROSE I LOVE YOU. The first two were vaguely familiar (I believe JEALOUSIE was Hollywood's go-to tango song), but I'd never heard anything like ROSE ROSE I LOVE YOU.

Quite simply, I love this record. Like the best punk music, it is deliciously politically incorrect. The song's questionable racial and gender politics have a sailor tell of a Malaysian girl he has fallen in love with that he has to leave her standing on the jetty because "East is East and West is West our world's are far apart, I must leave you but I leave my heart." Its "romance" depends on the impossibility of the love it depicts, which is predicated on the incommensurability of the two lover's cultures. If you listen closer, it's a melodrama of racial difference, but here it tells of something far coarser, far more nakedly exploitative: sex was great, but we're kinda different, gotta run, but the sex was great. This would be kosher--if provocative--for contemporary audiences if it wasn't the same sexist schlock at the core of Ricky Nelson's Traveling Man or any number of the blues or folk songs about Rambling. But to me, ROSE seems deeper than its parts.

The song's imagery is rich and redolent of travel and of having traveled. The melody and texture seems to possess a qualitative difference from the other songs I mentioned. It's foreign, if only slightly--like glancing over a foreign language newspaper--the images and conventions of the layout are familiar, but something is off. Better still, the chords and time signature are slightly unusual for Western pop.

So, it shouldn't have surprised me to learn that it was actually a rewrite of a Mandarin folk song that an Australian disc jockey picked up in Hong Kong in the 1930s. I won't try to unpack the multicultural feedback loops and cross-pollination involved here, but its paths across the various channels of global cultural exchange certainly left their mark on the song.

The original song, MEI KUEI, was popular hit in China for singer Yao Lee. Her version in Chinese was released in the US after Frankie Laine's version was a hit. The original subject matter is unknown to me, but MEI KUEI is Mandarin for "Rose," and in a crude Anglicization, ROSE ROSE I LOVE makes a lot of the phrase "Make way."

I carried the song around with me for sometime, when soon after learning of its origins, I happened upon a Chinese girlfriend. Then soon thereafter, I found the song among the few English language songs at a karaoke booth with my girlfriend's family, who were shocked and pleased that I seemed to anything in Chinese.

Laine's version dated to 1951. He re-recorded it a number of times, to lesser effect. I've spent years tracking down other incarnations, but none approach the version stuck in the grooves of my personal command performance.

(I even paid a small fortune ($8) for the sheet music on Ebay, it is reproduced below.)



Rose, Rose I Love You
Frankie Laine and the Norman Luboff Choir, with Paul Weston and his orchestra, 1951

Mei Kuei
Yao Lee, 1940

Time magazine story about MEI KUEI/ROSE ROSE I LOVE YOU, c.1951,9171,935240,00.html


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Every which way but loose, you turn me.

And for starters we come right to the central question: is the title song from the film Every Which Way but Loose about Clint Eastwood and his chimpanzee? Maybe just a little? Somehow the "thinking/drinking" country crossover sincerity of the lyrics and Eddie Rabbitt's delivery says no. But the question still lingers? Turning ME every which way but loose. (Whatever the hell that means?)

My brother and burst into laughter--the kind of laughter that propels one's interest in watching Clint Eastwood/chimpanzee movies--the moment we heard Rabbitt's sacchrinely sweetly timbre float across the first line of the song. From there, a meandering verse bleeds into a truly perplexing and overly complicated chorus.

Every which way but loose, you turn me.
Perhaps its a tad obtuse?

But therein lie EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE's charms, and Rabbitt's signature. Rabbitt wrote one of my favourite Elvis songs, the glorious "Kentucky Rain," which features a beautifully perplexing verse filled with obsessive compulsive attention detail:

Showed your photograph
To some old gray bearded man
Sitting on a bench
Outside a general store
They said yes, she's been here
But their memory wasn't clear
Was it yesterday,
No, wait... the day before.

Rabbitt didn't write "Every Which Way But Loose," but you can see how a man who would write "was it yesterday, no wait... the day before" into a song wouldn't mind a chorus filled with rhymes turning on -uses.

So naturally when I saw this item amongst many other 1970s and 1980s hits in a close-out bin at Italiamelodie in Montreal, last year, I bought it, with cash money, from a cashier with an earing who paused looking over the gorgeously painted poster of Clint and chimp on the cover.

I've never been the kind of man who doesn't believe in strings. Long term obligations are necessary things. Hence sheet music, lots of it, and it's time to share this with the world (follow the links below).


Rabbitt performs the song on a variety programme:


Monday, September 15, 2008

Impressive New Product

Livery Wurst: the Kentucky Derby Paté

Liverwurst, long known as Kentucky Paté, has been a popular old-timey sounding treat for generations; but the cold cut days of the porc-liver sausage's meat market domination are nearing an end. Livery Wurst offers an exciting alternative, and with renewed interest in racing, this exciting horse-meat treat may find audience at the table or stable of any racing gourmet.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Twin Midsummer night Horrors

Walking home yesterday evening, I was blithely swaying to Freddie & the Dreamers' You Were Made for Me* when just as I was approaching the staircase to my apartment, I found myself staring down the wrong end of a SKUNK!

I shouted YEAARRGH and stumbled backwards in my stalkiest Don Knotts impersonation. The skunk raised its tail, trembling like a loaded, smelly gun.

There was a man walking down the street on his cellphone. I asked if he'd seen it. "Skunk bro," he said. I strained to see where my skunk brother had gone, and could not.

Seconds later, another much older man was walking up the street past me. I warned him that there had been a skunk right there. He jumped back and said, "It's like the summer of the skunk."

"I know, I know," I said, but I didn't know what he was talking about.

"Where do you live?" he asked.

"Right here," I said. I explained I was afraid to go home and had visions of the skunk waiting to get me. (Even though I've been told that anthropomorphizing animals is about the cruelest thing you can do to them.)

He told me that I should be alright. He thought I could probably outrun a skunk, especially one that we could no longer see. So I bid the stranger good night, darted up the stairs and unlocked my front door. But my terror was not to end there. In fact, it was just beginning.

The door to my neighbour's apartment was wide open, as it is whenever he is home in the summer. This is the same neighbour who likes to chant, complain about noise from my apartment and tell me personal details about his unpleasant divorce in order to get me to do something about the noise coming from my apartment. In effort to be more neighbourly, I thought I'd reach in, knock and warn him that there was a skunk just down the stairs.

I turned around the corner, raised my arm to a good knocking position, when suddenly without warning there was my neighbour with his back to me, squaring himself in front of his television, and unmistakeably pantless. His right arm was unmistakably bobbing in rhythmic admiration of whatever was on the screen.

All of this suggested that he probably wanted to be alone, fully able to brave the skunk on his own. That's fine for him.

I--on the other hand needed--a Valium and a good cry.

* see here, or here

On Hullabaloo introduced by Trini Lopez?

On Shindig followed by Chad and Jeremy and the Yardbirds.

Friday, May 23, 2008

feeling unwanted

As I was standing towards the front of the bus today, I felt the unwelcoming stare of an woman who looked just like Noam Chomsky while Wilson Phillips "You're in Love" wafted from the bus driver's radio. I should have walked.

"Hi it's me, and we've gone on tour for a couple of months..."

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

hightlight/hero of the week

The hobo who told me my fly was down on Ste Catherine by le Faubourg.

He approached my brother and I asking for a cigarette. I don't smoke or carry cigarettes, so I wasn't much help. He told me that my fly was down. It was, down; and then, so was I, spiritually. We started walking, and he told me that if I wanted to I could come work for him anytime I wanted.

I'm weighing the option. The trouble is I always thought hoboes got to be their own boss. I don't like the idea of tramping on assignment. It sounds like a heartless Journal de Montréal exposé.