JUST KIDS (ECCO, 2010) is the transcendently written, award-winning (2010 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR NONFICTION) debut memoir by the legendary PUNK ROCK writer/singer/poet PATTI SMITH. more importantly it is a touching coda to special relationship between SMITH and transgressive photographer and collaborator ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE. this book is very much a celebration of his life and legacy and the bond that saw both push forward with their respective transformative and epoch-defining creative output.
i have already written at length in a previous piece about my affection for her past and present work, so i invite readers to check such out as i will not go into such here but wanted to acknowledge such. in essence, like BOB DYLAN or LOU REED, she is one of those select few artists whose creative choices influenced what was possible for future artists to date. but upon her arrival in NYC in the 1960s after leaving a troubled past in central NEW JERSEY, she was just another insecure, sensitive, literate soul seeking connection in the big city. it really is amazing how resilient she was given her strict, isolating upbringing as a JEHOVAH'S WITNESS and having to deal with real-life issues like having an abortion in the context of such a conservative time with draconian ideals of femininity. to me she is the artist that showed the way that women could compete with men on their own terms. period.
in MAPPLETHORPE she found a fellow bohemian street urchin with an artist's visual eye. his work is both transgressive and beautiful as it depicts the underrepresented JOHN RECHY-like world of unbridled and proud homosexuality in a world that didn't recognize or appreciate such. his work is a beacon to both freedom and expression. when you consider that many of his photographs were created during the birth and later height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, you really get a sense of its courageousness and strident individuality.
their bond, both romantic and later artistic was a true collaboration. both created work that was direct and piercing and completely transgressed notions of gender and sexuality. to learn of their early struggles is both bittersweet and unflinchingly romantic in a nontraditional sense. their work was their children and his ultimate demise after succumbing to the effects of AIDS in the late 80s is truly tragic.
but what a beautifully written expression of their bond for posterity. lovingly crafted as only a poet can, this is likely the most superbly written memoir i have read to date.
i encourage anyone and everyone to seek it.
when most think of GONZO journalist and famed american writer HUNTER S. THOMPSON, my guess is that usually some mental image appears of an indulgent eccentric that did everything in excess: women, drugs and firearms. this largely self-perpetuated caricature (even literally a character in the DOONSEBURY comic strip) as a crackpot by some belied a public image that never quite did his intellect justice.
it is my argument that added to the above list should be two further things he did in excess: freedom and empathy. it were these two indulgences that helped inform his ability to become a singular writer in the vein of era-defining authors like JACK KEROUAC and F. SCOTT FITZGERALD.
he cared deeply as only an author could for the words of the united states constitution, which he held sacrosanct, and chose to pursue those freedoms allotted to us as AMERICAN citizens. THOMPSON can almost be seen as a high priest of the constitution and for him running for public office, shooting his firearms and even the act of writing were all part of his adoration at the altar of the ENLIGHTENMENT and specifically THOMAS JEFFERSON, ALEXANDER HAMILTON and JOHN LOCKE-ian liberal political philosophy. what i am trying to express is that THOMPSON was a deeply moral thinker who cared very much about those very freedoms he pursued to excess.
this is why his suicide was so truly upsetting due to the fact that he likely felt the constitution he so held in high esteem was being trampled upon by charlatans like GEORGE W. BUSH and his cronies in DONALD RUMSFELD, DICK CHENEY, ALBERTO GONZALEZ and KARL ROVE among others. its hard to imagine how he would have felt about the current TRUMP ADMINISTRATION which makes BUSH and his ilk feel like the JV team of nefarious corruption. it is truly shocking how defiled and divided our national name has become in the last few years.
had he survived my hop is that THOMPSON would have continued to use his pen in the tradition of JONATHAN SWIFT or THOMAS PAINE. his absence is still deafening nearly 15 years after his death. can't think of anyone who has taken on the challenge which is depressing. almost as depressing as the thought of how few AMERICANS actually read, instead glued to their cable news bubbles or worse, social networks.
perhaps we as a nation have lost the power to think for ourselves. perhaps the language of the spectacle is the only thing that unites us. the idea of the communal event around the hearth of the tv. as a former english teacher myself, i question regularly the importance of the written word in an era where communication is devalued. perhaps it is better that THOMPSON didn't live long enough to witness the rise of the EMOJI and GIF and the TWEET. perhaps he is a different era.
the more i think about it the more depressed it makes me. so i'll stop now.
i remember in SEPTEMBER 2001 moving to SACRAMENTO from KUWAIT in the horrible aftermath of 9/11. it was my second move in two years and my third high school overall. i just remember feeling disconnected from my family and being in a hick town surrounded by cartoonishly jingoistic young republican youth didn't help matters.
my english teacher had some term paper we were supposed to write based on a list of prescribed authors. this dude TOM ROBBINS had an asterisk that said i had to get parental permission to read it so obviously my choice was predetermined. i read ANOTHER ROADSIDE ATTRACTION (DOUBLEDAY 1971) in short order and ROBBINS remains a favorite to this day. probably the only thing i gained during my time out there, apart from my contemporaneous exploration ofGUSTAV MAHLER and the pre-WWII AUSTRIAN SECESSIONIST ART movement (think GUSTAV KLIMT, EGON SCHIELE and OSKAR KOKOSCHKA).
what i love about ROBBINS style is his love for the diatribe, the side road, the long overly-descriptive detour from the main plot that he seemingly indulged in multiple times a chapter. after reading HERMAN MELVILLE years later i can see some context for this style, but i was taken aback at the time that you could do that. when you read a ROBBINS novel, you very much have to submit to his will and let him be your guide, as he will get into excruciating detail into seeming red herrings that don't necessarily contribute to the narrative arc of the story, some might, some don't. it keeps you on your toes and his preternatural ability for sumptuous, indulgent description makes these odd-road ventures wholly worthwhile. its very much a style about the trip and not the destination. the plot itself is almost an excuse for the language, which is beyond unique.
all of his novels are well-worth reading. i recommend his work enthusiastically and have done so with former students over the years. he is definitely on my shortlist.
you ruined my childhood.
that's what i loved hearing from my high school students after having them read ANGELA CARTER's genius feminist reinterpretation of classic fairy tales from her 1979 short story collection THE BLOODY CHAMBER (PENGUIN, 1979).
i always loved the idea of a palimpsest, which is an artwork that has layers created over time. think of a wall in NYC that has graffiti, flyers and "post no bills" scribbled and glued on top of one another. there are layers of meaning literally stacked on each other.
same with FAIRY TALES, most were written in FRANCE in the 1700s as a way of controlling young women. many of the stories are exceedingly misogynist and artifacts of their era. many got reinterpreted in GERMANY in the 1800s and then again in 1900s in the UNITED STATES, most predominantly by WALT DISNEY. in many ways the DISNEY films are relaying a similar message about what is expected of young women, namely to seek marriage and motherhood as validation in a male-dominated society. it is super interesting and most don't even give it a second thought.
that is why CARTER and her reinterpretations are so shocking to kids. if you know the basic narrative and its variations, then if you are thrown a new interpretation these new alterations become cogniscent choices and oftentimes criticisms of earlier texts. for CARTER it feels almost as though she is correcting the narrative and releasing it from its chauvinistic worldview. the fact that such is jarring really showcases the level to which our basic identity in western society is built upon such gender power imbalances.
needless to say, my students had a hard time with DISNEY films thereafter. but my hope was that they gained a critical eye towards the relatioship between a coded message and its intended audience.
ah, critical thinking. too bad they can't put that in a scantron test. american education system is screwed. good luck.
it's funny. there's a lot about writer ERNEST HEMINGWAY that i don't like or identify with; his killing of animals for sport, macho sense of white privilege, womanizing, etc. that being said he was of his time for better or worse.
but for my money for a 30 period from the 1920s through to the 1950s he was one of the most adventurous both in terms of his wanderlust and his editing. yes i said it. when i think of what i like about HEMINGWAY, its his ability to showcase complex psychology using concise declarative sentences with minimal superfluous decorations like fancy adjectives and obscure references. in essence, the opposite of my writing style.
i am aware that this style came about from his time as a journalist both stateside and abroad as a war correspondent for the KANSAS CITY STAR during the spanish civil war of the 1930s. he is a case study in economy. to say the most with the least. its not minimal in the sense of a WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS poem where he is playing with the form itself, for HEMINGWAY i believe he was more interested in the conveying a thought like a straight line to the heart. in a way its kind of a similar ethos to punk rock, three chords and the truth except with him its a subject, verb, object and a typewriter.
i've read and taught HERMAN MELVILLE's MOBY DICK (1851) in my prior life as a secondary english teacher. what's intellectually stimulating about it is its breadth of knowledge about nearly every aspect of whaling in northeast america in the late 18th century. it's encyclopedic. the exercise in reading that book, beside its volume, is trying to surmise which religious, cultural, economic, political allusion to attach to a given part of the narrative. several times the actual plot works on several of these levels simultaneously, which gives the book depth. so basically MOBY DICK is both massive in terms of its breadth and depth.
HEMINGWAY isn't interested in that with THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1952). to me the plot is more of a rorschach test where you can enjoy it for whatever you want it to be. the biblical story of job, sure. a treatise on the hardships related to aging, absolutely. an expression of HEMINGWAY'S depleted vitality and interest in life, maybe. to me HEMINGWAY presents something to project onto, as apart to MELVILLE where it feels more like an endurance test, like a marathon. love them both, but i feel the superior trick is to view the reader as an equal partner in the creation of meaning through the written word.
this was HEMINGWAY's calling card and gift as a writer. respecting his reader.
during my undergraduate years at RUTGERS i wrote a senior thesis on film noir and a key feature of those films is a corrosive depiction of women as corrupters. often male protagonists impotently speak via voice-overs, attempting to frame a narrative that inevitably they were never able to control.
musician/artist/producer/fashion designer/actress/writer/badass KIM GORDON of SONIC YOUTH fame in her memoir GIRL IN A BAND (HarperCollins, 2015) in a similar fashion attempts to make sense and contextualize the trauma of her recent divorce. in an inversion of the film noir cliche i outlined above, her painful retelling of their doomed relationship if anything doesn't reduce her ex-partner and ex-bandmate THURSTON MOORE to that of a lazy literary trope. it is my understanding that her presenting this information was meant to accurately describe the insight gained from such a painful ordeal that ultimately deprived her a partner and collaborator and place it within the proper context of her upbringing and fraught relationships with her brother and father. unlike those noir films, her compassionate insights into these men ultimately humanizes them, especially MOORE.
what i really appreciated this book was her honesty. no doubt knowing her public image as an icon for female empowerment, the vulnerability she displayed in explaining why she found herself in the familiar trap of suppressing her ego for the men in her life is a daring move. you really get the sense of struggle throughout her entire music/art career. you also get a well-rounded, first-hand look at the early 80s concurrent NO WAVE music scene and burgeoning NYC art scene surrounding street art. she comes across a someone curious and relentlessly fearless in taking advantage of what opportunities came her way. she doesnt not come across as an opportunist, rather as a passionate curator constantly searing for new ideas and inspirations.
i feel a kinship with that as someone who grew up around unfamiliar people in unfamiliar countries. her upbringing in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA by way of brief stints in HONG KONG and HAWAI'I gave her something of a THIRD CULTURE KID vibe. they say THIRD CULTURE KIDS (children that grow up in a country not their own) are qualitatively better able to navigate life's upheavals, having dealt with such stress during their impressionable formative years. if anything, her curiosity for art, music, design, and love only get stronger as the narrative evolves, almost in contrast to the arc of her personal life.
i'm a fan of her work, both in and out of SONIC YOUTH and recommend this book highly for anyone interested in her career as well as anyone interested in the NYC art and indie music scenes of 80s and 90s by a big player in both. well worth it.
one of my all-time favorite writers. and not just because he writes about the part of brooklyn my family is from.
in the united states there is this force-fed optimism shoved down our throats since birth through our education systems and mass media that basically propagates the narrative that if you work hard enough, good things will happen. reading any HUBERT SELBY JR novel essentially an exercise in looking the AMERICAN DREAM straight in the face and laughing at it. and not one of those belly laughs were you see the folly, but one of those nervous ones were you realize how much of your identity is swallowed up in this hollow fantasy.
the three novels of his i am familiar with are LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN (1964), THE DEMON (1976) and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (1978). two obviously have been made into excellent film adaptations by ULI EDEL and DARREN ARANOFSKY, respectively. love them both but such will be the topic for another post. what unites them all is a sense of competing drives, not necessarily good vs bad, but constructive vs destructive tendencies brought on by ambition. the central question of his novels is "what is it that we want?" and "what is the price of attaining it to your psyche?"
his characters tend to have what SIGMUND FREUD would recognize as a very strong will to self-destruct, or as he termed it, a "death-drive." all of his protagonists (incidentally all share the name "Harry" in his novels) seek validation through community, money, vice, or otherwise and in each case they get into trouble. its almost like he chooses each novel as a way of elucidating different facets of how the AMERICAN DREAM is a hoax and a quixotic fallacy on par with any other human construction (family, religion, community) used to motivate a sense of identity. in terms of narrative the protagonist's character arc is inverted, as you undoubtedly encounter them initially at their highest point, the peak of their powers and sanity. from here on out its a downward spiral, with any solace in brief periods of calm merely red herrings making the free-fall to come that much more brutal and inhumane.
it is a dark, bleak and ultimately realistic portrayal of reality. when i read his work i am often thinking about my own motivations, goals and what the actual cost of such are. yes in america there is opportunity, but what is the price of the success we seek? what are you giving up to achieve it and fundamentally who are you at the end of that process? what has that process done to your sense of self? that is the gift of his work in my opinion. they are almost bitterly self-reflective in nature in a way few others are.
as a former english teacher i really appreciate the fact that his characters are so singular and well-constructed that HUBERT SELBY JR imposed a very unique writing style where he would not use quotes and never specifies what characters say what at the end of sentence. characters speak in all caps and by context you know who said what without being told. it is a really neat trick that just further showcases the depth of his writing.
other side note: THE SMITHS' THE QUEEN IS DEAD album is named after a chapter in LAST EXIT TO BROOKYLN. just saying.
art by nacrowe
essentially this is the book on punk.
ENGLAND'S DREAMING (1991, St. Martin's Press) by JON SAVAGE goes into the cultural and socio-political morass that was 1970s england, which birthed the whole scene in tandem with their american counterparts.
central to the whole story is the singular figure of enfant terrible MALCOLM MCLAREN who was essentially the precursor to what we would now deem an internet troll. his whole cause célèbre was coming up with interesting attention-grabbing press events to both stick it to the uppercrust of the british establishment and promote his businesses, including a boutique store called SEX that he sold garments and wares designed in consultation with his partner VIVIEN WESTWOOD.
so essentially the SEX PISTOLS were assembled to promote a business, which is a fact i love. they are as manufactured with intent to exploit a dormant market as the BACKSTREET BOYS, N'SYNC and NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK were decades later. its just a fact, i still love them and appreciate their artistic contributions to modern music. its just an interesting fact given the later 1980s HARDCORE and INDIE ROCK scenes that channeled this scene into their own local scenes with a heavy DO IT YOURSELF ethic. this scene was anything buy DIY given that most of the major players on both sides of the pond were on major labels, including THE CLASH (CBS), THE RAMONES (SIRE), PATTI SMITH (ARISTA), TELEVISION (ELEKTRA) and of course THE SEX PISTOLS (EMI, WARNER BROS, VIRGIN).
you can also see punk as a return to basic rock formula's of the 1950s as most of these bands initially started out retreading then 20+ year old CHUCK BERRY riffs, despite their claims to the contrary and supposed revolutionary posturing.
i think the reason later musicians, most notably KURT COBAIN who later sought out SAVAGE for interviews in the british press specifically because of this book, respect this book is due to its empathy for the subject matter without romanticization or worse, hagiography. SAVAGE largely comes off level-headed in his analysis of the movement, at times letting his subjects speak for themselves and complicating a very messy period with a very messy influence on modern music.
bottom line: this book is a must read for anyone interested in punk rock. read this first and then everything else.
a few weeks i came across a worn 1967 first draft copy of ROBERT K. MASSIE's historical recounting of the fall of tsarist russia, NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA (ATHENEUM).
this is a must-read for anyone interested in russian. there was a period years ago where i learned that i was accepted into the peace corps but was waiting to be alerted as to my destination. what a time! knowing you're life was gonna dramatically change but not knowing WHERE to prepare for. at the time i was almost certain i was gonna get UKRAINE only to later learn it was ALBANIA.
during that period i read everything i could about russian history. what makes this book compelling is that it takes the point of view of the monarchy as they tried to figure out how to hold the country together as well as save their young son ALEXEI who was suffering from hemophilia. essentially due to a lack of platelets in his blood he would bleed profusely and sometimes lose consciousness. this caused the family to seek out unconventional methods. MASSIE knew about this since his own child had the same affliction, giving his proes an added air of empathy for his subject.
enter RASPUTIN. as a mystic from the eastern URAL mountains this soothsayer made his way into the inner workings of the royal family when he was able to calm the young prince and allay his suffering. its a fascinating story that dives deep into the psychology of both desperation and parasitism. the idea that a royal family with all the means of state and industry could be so easily manipulated by an unscrupulous leech just goes to prove how powerful emotions like hope can be. it trumps reason. MASSIE makes clear that this near-fetishistic idolatrous swooning over the royal family by the russian masses was mirrored with the family's regard from RASPUTIN. to them he was russia. just fascinating.
for obvious reasons this novel is all the more prescient now with our current political climate. highly recommended read. will not disappoint.
related material: MASTODON'S "CRACK THE SKYE" LP
artwork by nacrowe
sometimes there is art that cuts so deep that they inevitably remold your worldview. i count MARTIN SCORSESE's 1988 film THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST on that list. it makes me question the root of any belief i hold. it compels me to examine the nature of doubt each time i watch it.
based on the NIKOS KAZANTZAKIS 1955 novel, this film like its source material explores the dual nature of christ: the idea of him being fully human and divine at the same time. the film really gets at the heart of the origins of faith and the struggle that comes with the weight of power and responsibility, as jesus would've felt when learning of his fate that he had to be sacrificed for the benefit of all humanity. its that struggle that continually draws me back to the story, not so much the religious overtones. but if you are of the religious persuasion, as KAZANTZAKIS (greek orthodox) and SCORSESE (catholic) most definitely are, the film is a helpful dissection of the root of belief since the film asks what happens if jesus had chosen NOT to die on the cross, but fulfill his human desires of connection by finding love and raising a family. if anything the film explores and answers that "why."
now i don't want to give the film away, more just to say most emphatically that if you haven't seen it you must. it is expertly acted by WILLEM DAFOE as jesus christ and HARVEY KEITEL as judas iscariot. DAVID BOWIE even makes a masterful appearance as pontius pilate. the dialogue was masterfully written in the modern vernacular of the time, which gives the film a raw edge that allows the themes to cut deeper as opposed to using king james english as other films by CECIL B. DEMILLE and others had done before (think THE TEN COMMANDMENTS), which is equally a construction. there is no doubt that during that period a common carpenter would've spoken a common pedestrain form of aramaic, so the dialogue choice is beyond apt.
the film also has one of the most evocative scores ever courtesy of PETER GABRIEL which i would put up their with anything ENNIO MORRICONE or BERNARD HERRMANN ever produced. the score infuses vocals and instrumentation from the region into a lush evocative soundscape that instantaneously draws you into the world of the film. PASSION: MUSIC FOR THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is required listening.
months ago the DEER GOD team had the pleasure of attending a joint exhibition at LAST RITES GALLERY in manhattan put on by METAL BLADE RECORDS for polish painter SYLWIA MAKRIS and sculptor TOMASZ GOORNICKI and the artwork they produced for polish metal band BEHEMOTH's recent I LOVED YOU AT YOUR DARKEST record.
i had the pleasure of speaking with GOORNICKI about his sculpture (pictured below) depicting an uncrucified christ and no doubt, he was quick to state it was influenced by both the KAZANTZAKIS novel and SCORSESE film. he felt in poland that faith unfortunately was a matter of national identity and that inherent in true belief is a sense of doubt. his sculpture was an attempt to draw people into examining the dual nature of christ and the significance of his sacrifice by invoking doubt (no cross, no stigmata = no sacrifice). some would call that heresy, as the sculpture could not be exhibited in poland apparently due to fear of retribution, but i would say that his work requires self-examination and thoughtfulness for it to bear fruit, which is the sign of any good art. at least in my opinion.
check out the film and if this topic sparks an interest, you must read the novel.
photo by lj avalos
art by nacrowe
i look at female musicians these days and i feel terrible.
its cliche to say that musicians that function in today's media structure have mastered the art of marketing and social media, which largely feels like a race to the bottom. condense anything thoughtful and intelligent into a 5 second video clip or picture that likely will only be glanced at in passing to other more immediately stimulating (and more-than-likely intellectually stultifying ) content.
to me PATTI SMITH represents unimpeachable, uninhibited, undiluted artistic authenticity on par with any of her heroes such as WILLIAM BLAKE, PAUL VERLAINE, ARTHUR RIMBAUD or CHARLES BAUDELAIRE. her first memoir JUST KIDS is required reading as it parses through in detail her troubles and insecurities that she ultimately transcended through her work and indomitable spirit to survive, quite literally. dealing with issues surrounding abortion, poverty, growing up a jehovah's witness, abuse, self-worth and losing friends to HIV/AIDS, it is really quite captivating both her ambition and the depth of her lyrical content.
her inspiring biography aside, she challenged men head on. now that may reveal something about me, given that i am a privileged white male, but from my vantage point her artistry was her selling point. she wasn't presenting herself as palatable to the male gaze. if anything it was her gaze that mattered.
it is problematic to compare her to different eras of female artists, but kind of inevitable. there is a part of me that really appreciates it when artists challenge their audience. when i hear past and present artists like BILLIE EILISH, PJ HARVEY, ADELE, FKA TWIGS, BJORK or transgender artists like ANOHNI and LAURA JANE GRACE, or even male artists like PERRY FARRELL, PRINCE, DAVID BOWIE, LITTLE RICHARD and LOU REED challenge normative prescriptions of beauty it makes me smile. it makes me think there is hope from all these anemic, hollowed-out contorted space alien disfigured bodies that many of these celebrities inevitably become as time paces ever slowly forward.
just accept your humanity. even if your audience doesn't. that to me is what PATTI SMITH represents as a cultural figure.
artwork by nicholas crowe
as a former english teacher, i could wax poetic indefinitely about the genius of BRAVE NEW WORLD by 20th century british writer ALDOUS HUXLEY. that narrative in particular effectively presents a future scenario where all modes of shared experience and connection (familial, religious, sexual, etc) have been rooted away through technology. especially now in the age of social media i find myself always reaching back to it, as its implications become ever more relevant.
but in my mind his later years are more compelling since he explored eastern concepts (specifically hinduism) and very much made an attempt to present them effectively to the west. along with ALAN WATTS' work presenting zen buddhism, he is one of the earliest to bridge this divide.
check out this interview he did back in 1962. of particular interest are his observations of the metaphysical and psychological richness encapsulated in the image of shiva dancing (starts around 15:10 mark).