Under the Influence: The Story of My Life, Cont’d

SM 7-15

Q: What did Holden Caulfield do when he grew up?

A: He got a job.

That is the elevator pitch of my novel Not To Mention a Nice Life, reduced to two lines, a simple question and answer.

(Here is an excerpt that expands on the narrator Byron’s dilemma:

Something was wrong with me. I applied to the appropriate colleges and one of them accepted me. I applied to the appropriate graduate schools and one of them accepted me. I decided not to apply to any PhD programs (it didn’t seem appropriate) and so none of them accepted me. The unreal world of academia beckoned; the unreasonable world of reality awaited. Neither seemed particularly appealing and I found myself paralyzed: options aplenty, none of them especially enticing. And so I decided it was time to go underground for a while. I found myself serving the people who had the sorts of jobs I regarded with the ugly envy of the underclass. I made less money than I might have liked but I got more free drinks than I could ever have imagined. One way to see the glass being half-full is to ensure that it is always half-full. While I worked on emptying those glasses I came to the conclusion that money is wasted on the wealthy and retirement is wasted on the elderly.

Something was wrong with me. I drank myself sober and couldn’t commit myself to more serious indiscretions. I did the unthinkable: I started thinking about that unreasonable world again. I found myself skulking around the library, picking up magazines and thinking about that itch I could never quite scratch. I read an article about this world wide web. How ridiculous it all seemed. So this is what people do during the day? A million possible futures unfurled in unreal time, right in front of my not so open mind, none of them remotely appealing. There it was, I thought: it’s already over; I’m out of options. And then a funny thing happened. I got a job.)

Of course, I’m taking some presumptive liberties and the question would not be possible without the heavy lifting J.D. Salinger did to create Holden Caulfield in the first place.

My novel does not mention The Catcher in the Rye, does not in any conscious way imitate it and the invocation of Caulfield is only a conceit.

citr

 

In fact, and for full disclosure, I’ve weighed in on Salinger’s novel (inspired to do so shortly after his death, in 2010). I concluded that I was perhaps a tad too old or insufficiently impressionable when I first encountered it, though I did –and do– love the short story “For Esme–with Love and Squalor”. Here’s a taste:

The narrator of this story is reeling from actual experience in the real world, so it resonates to a young reader about to enter it, and certainly a more mature reader who has seen and felt some of those proverbial slings and arrows. It is, for me, difficult to recall a more quietly coruscating image in literature than the narrator lifting Esme’s (KIA) father’s wristwatch, which has shattered in transit, out of the care package. The question, as the story ends, is: does that broken glass represent the narrator’s spirit, or will he rally to once more become part of the world?

Q_ What did Holden Caulfield do when he

Speaking of becoming part of the so-called real world, one of the reasons the instant classic film Office Space is so beloved is because it’s so real; it resonates with just about anyone who has spent a single day in the unreal world of corporate America. More, it retains a nostalgic vibe for its irreverent and accurate deconstruction of the dot.com error, I mean era.

To be certain, Office Space, and any work of art that attempts to take the piss out of our increasingly mechanized, complicated and incomprehensible modern world, owes a tremendous debt to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Anyone who understands Heller’s masterpiece as the ultimate insider’s sardonic assessment of the insanity/inanity driving so much of military muscle is at once accurate, but selling it short. Heller is going after America, as a corporation, and his writing, while prescient, is also distressingly relevant, well into the 21st Century. In many regards, he understood the way middle management and their underlings would be used as proverbial cannon fodder (foxholes becoming stock-boosting rounds of layoffs), while increasingly isolated and aloof higher-ups would divide the spoils and conquer their 401-ks. Yossarian is our guide through this surreal hall of one-way mirrors, but it’s not the commanding officers, but the evil star of the supporting cast, Milo Minderbinder, who epitomizes what our country has become, and who has engineered the shift. It’s not by accident that the average employee wages have stagnated for decades while the riches of the executive officers have multiplied by factors that would be hilarious if they weren’t so horrifying. Making Monopoly money a real thing via stocks and shares and seeing profits increase as production craters has long been the American Way. For all the success stories from the dot.com era, we now have systematized a formula where the game is rigged to imperfection: CEOs are brought in like exterminators to kill a company from the inside-out, and then they parachute away with millions of dollars (and shareholder approval) for their efforts.

Suffice it to say, Catch-22 has informed my sensibility as a writer (and thinker) and has more than slightly inspired some of my writing. The corporate shenanigans in Not To Mention a Nice Life owe a debt of respect and gratitude to Mr. Heller.

And I think all of us, dot.com veterans or not, owe some measure of approbation to the iconic Steve Jobs, one of the few citizens who we can actually claim changed the entire world.

Certainly, the dot.com era and the online reality of the Internet would be very different (if it happened at all) without his input and influence. Here is some of what I said on the occasion of his passing in 2011:

While I’m congenitally disinclined to join the choruses of hagiographers anointing this outstanding marketer, salesman and genius as some type of saint, I’ll certainly throw my hat in the very crowded ring and concede that our world would be much different (and not for the better) without his influence. As trite as it may sound, Jobs did in many ways help transform fantasty into reality. For that alone, he is a monumental figure in American history and should be celebrated as such.

For now, it seems right –and human– to celebrate the life and accomplishments of a man who undeniably left his mark, and provided a past, and future that would be radically different (and not for the better) had he not made his mark. Equal parts iconoclast, counter-cultural guru and corporate crusader, he made a complicated motto (Think different) and turned it into a postmodern religion of sorts. We could have done much worse. Whatever else he did, Jobs thought differently and in the process, took much of the world with him.

HarveyPekar

It’s easy enough to admire (and envy) the abilities and lifestyles of the great artists, especially the ones talented (and/or fortunate) enough to actually make a living out of making art.

For me, I take a special inspiration (and kinship and solidarity) from the folks who never had it easy, who struggled to make art and/or a living. The ones who plugged away, with little assurance of pay-off, artistically or otherwise. They did it, ultimately, for the same reasons anyone tilts at the creative windmills: they don’t really have a choice. As such, Harvey Pekar remains someone that anyone with artistic aspirations can appreciate. In the excellent film about his life, American Splendor, he wakes up from a nightmare, and then remembers he still has his job. He actually stops to appreciate that he can pay his bills and understands how much worse things could be. In that one scene he provides proper perspective for all the naval-gazing narcissists who feel the world owes them a living, and lament that the world is so full of imbeciles who can’t appreciate their genius.

Here’s some of what I wrote in tribute to Pekar, when he passed, in 2010:

And while Pekar was groundbreaking in a way for making the primary source of his subject material his own life, his life story is more remarkable than anything written by or about him. To go from a genuinely obscure misanthrope living in squalor to becoming the mostly obscure misanthrope living mostly in squalor…that’s America. It’s definitely the American Dream, through a broken glass darkly.

It’s almost impossible to envision now, with everyone’s daily trials, tribulations and ablutions the focus of a billion blog posts, or the solipsistic Greek chorus of the Twittering class, but what Pekar did, then, by pulling the soda-stained cover off his personal life in the service of art was a revelation. Certainly, the subject of our immortal Self goes back to cave drawings and Don Quixote, and only official autobiographies are truly fictional. But when it came to the more postmodern type of tilting at windmills, Harvey Pekar was the patron saint of the unshaven, recalcitrant crank (actually crank is too harsh by half; he was more misanthrope who looked at life the way a chronically ambivalent dieter regards that piece of cake: he knows better but he just can’t help himself).

To become a meaningful artist one must be intolerant of cliche. To become a meaningful human being one must be intolerant of untruth. Although it came at a considerable cost, Harvey Pekar was incapable of cruising along the soul-crushing streets of quiet desperation. In becoming the poet laureate of disinclined endurance he helped remind America that there is a splendor in our shared obsolescence.

PTa

Finally, I pay tribute to the force in my life that rivals the solace and inspiration I take from books and friends and family: music.

I could say more (and likely will), but I put my love affair in writing for my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone (2013). While the book describes my relationship with my mother, whom we lost to cancer just after her 59th birthday, the memoir is also the story of my life, and the things that have helped motivate, galvanize and shape me. The chapter is entitled “Bright Moments”, and an excerpt is below (the inspiration for that title is written about in detail, here.):

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

You hear plenty about the suffering artist syndrome, the suicides, the drinking and the desolation, because these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music.

I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

To be continued, of course.

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Staring Over The Shoulders Of Giants: Overture

First off, super-sized kudos to Anthony Tommasini, the classical music critic for The New York Times. To even have the interest, much less the ability, to grapple with an ultimate ranking of the greatest classical composers, is laudable. He should be appreciated for pulling it off calmly yet convincingly, and in the process he stimulated minds and (inevitably) stoked the ire of fanatics whose favorite names were (inevitably) left off his list. See what you think, here. The comments section alone is a goldmine of sorts, with knowledgeable folks chiming in with their opinions and, in many cases, taking umbrage at Tommasini’s audacity for omitting (insert name of composer here).

As a lifelong lover of classical music but by no means an expert (unlike jazz, rock, reggae and blues, I am not quite as insatiable and my appetite for new works is often satisfied by returning to the hundreds of discs I’ve already amassed, largely represented by the heavy hitters of the various genres). Put another way, I know more about –and worship– classical music than most people I know, but I am quite aware of, and dutifully humbled by the folks who know a lot more than me. I recognize that unlike, say, rock or reggae where there is one definitive version (often the one recorded in the studio though of course live versions can compete and sometimes surpass the originals), when it comes to classical music a real aficionado can spend serious time (and money) comparing multiple (in some cases, dozens) of versions of a particular piece, and make a considerable production out of measuring the ways they hold up against each other. For most people, there seems to be an implicit consensus that the integrity of a piece lies in direct proportion to capturing the best, if not actual, intentions of the composer. For that reason, I’ve never been a fan of Alfred Brendel, whose idiosyncratic (or solipsistic) tweaking always seems sacrilegious if not (with the works of Beethoven especially) insufferable. Ditto for any performer who thinks it is appropriate or permissible to inject even a bit of themselves into the work; the mature and confident players seem to innately grasp that their unique imprint will be manifest no matter what they do; by making an effort to leave even the slightest fingerprint on the sonic canvass betrays a very human sin of pride.

I also appreciate –and enjoy– the reality that mileage varies and accomplishment is always in the ears of the behearer. As such, a person whose taste I may respect immensely will find Brendel’s interpretation of Beethoven’s sonatas superlative and consider my ardent preference for Barenboim unbelievable. I think some of this has to do with a phenomenon that has long fascinated me: the notion that the first rendition of a particular piece becomes not only the basis for all future performances, but is copied onto the individual’s hard-drive as the immutable version.

So…you see where this is heading, right? My plan is not to offer an alternative list, in part because if forced to choose, my list would not be too different from what Tommasini came up with. But there are a couple of personal heroes he left off that I will pay tribute to. And I’ll have a few things to say about the giants most humans will agree belong at the very top of the list. To be cont’d…

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Beethoven, Barenboim, Bliss

Beethoven again.

It seems impossible to believe that Daniel Barenboim is only 68 years old. It feels like he has been around forever. Possibly it’s because the music he plays–the music he’s spent most of his life playing to the extent that it seems inextricable from the man himself-seems to exist outside of time. Revered for completing a recorded cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas while still in his 20?s, he then tackled Beethoven’s piano concertos, and then the piano sonatas and concertos of Mozart. For good measure he also handled the piano concertos of Brahms and Bartok. Barenboim cemented his legacy as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from the early ’90s through 2006. Want more? He was married to the famous, and beautiful, cellist Jacqueline du Pre (pictured above) until her premature death.

All of which is to say: he’s the only thing cooler than a rock star; he’s a classical music star. You want to hang with Mick and Keith? I’ll hang with Wolfgang Amadeus and Ludwig Van. I’d rather spend a half hour listening to Barenboim discuss his experiences than a free week pass on tour with any rock band on the planet. But I’m weird like that. Then again, check this out:

“Rubinstein read Cervantes in Spanish, Dostoyevsky in Russian, Voltaire in French,” Mr. Barenboim said. “Music has become specialized today. There used to be a different notion of musical culture. I believe that Furtwängler genuinely felt — maybe he was naïve, but he felt that he personally could save German culture from the Nazis. He wrote about the introduction to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony in relation to the Greek idea of chaos and catharsis. How many musicians think that way today?”

Any questions?

Barenboim shows no signs of slowing down, and this the profile of him in The New York Times here (from which the above quote is taken) reveals a man who is always looking for a new challenge. You think Ozzy Osbourne is controversial? Barenboim broke the half-century taboo of performing Wagner in Israel (in 2001) and has used his influence, and the profoundly positive influence of the music he conducts, to promote dialogue and understanding amongst nations. To put it simply, his work with Palestinian intellectual Edward Said arguably did more to advance relations between Israel and Palestine than 90% of our world’s politicians.

But all of this is just backstory (amazing and life-affirming though it is). Before I knew anything about Barenboim’s politics or his iconoclastic journey, I knew him through Beethoven. Or vice versa. My first exposure to Beethoven’s piano sonatas was courtesy of Barenboim’s initial take on the works (from ’67; he revisited the cycle many years later). It was that time in my life (age 17), it was that era in general (1987, one of the very first compact discs I owned) but mostly it was the music. Indelible and unforgettable. Then, and now. Bottom line: this is my favorite music in the world, and if there was one set of works I had to take with me to that cliched desert island, it would be Barenboim’s set of Beethoven sonatas. If the person sending me to this imaginary island was particularly sadistic and insisted it could only be one disc, it would be this one:

I’ve heard –and tend to believe– that a person falls forever in love with the version of a particular classical piece he or she hears first. I know that to be true of virtually all the classical music I’ve become infatuated with over the last few decades. Still, there are the more famous pieces (think Beethoven, Mozart and Bach) of which even non-fanatic followers may inevitably own more than one version. Having heard (intentionally, insatiably) and owned multiple copies of Mozart’s last two symphonies (4o & 41) I only have ears for John Eliot Gardiner’s work with the English Baroque Soloists (from ’92). Regarding the Beethoven sonatas, no one comes close to Barenboim, for me. (And I do enjoy most of the versions I’ve heard, and I have about eight different versions of certain Beethoven sonatas, but I’m weird like that.)

Here is Barenboim in concert, tackling the rapturous 18th Sonata. If it gets any better than this, I’m unaware of it.

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

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Song of the Day: Daniel Barenboim (Sonata No. 14, 3rd Movement)

Daniel Barenboim: The Prodigy at age 13

Daniel Barenboim: The Prodigy at age 13

Beethoven again.

It seems impossible to believe that Daniel Barenboim is only 66 years old. It feels like he has been around forever. Possibly it’s because the music he plays–the music he’s spent most of his life playing to the extent that it seems inextricable from the man himself-seems to exist outside of time. Revered for completing a recorded cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas while still in his 20’s, he then tackled Beethoven’s piano concertos, and then the piano sonatas and concertos of Mozart. For good measure he also handled the piano concertos of Brahms and Bartok. Barenboim cemented his legacy as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from the early ’90s through 2006. Want more? He was married to the famous, and beautiful, cellist Jacqueline du Pre until her premature death.

All of which is to say: he’s the only thing cooler than a rock star; he’s a classical music star. You want to hang with Mick and Keith? I’ll hang with Wolfgang Amadeus and Ludwig Van. I’d rather spend a half hour listening to Barenboim discuss his experiences than a free week pass on tour with any rock band on the planet. But I’m weird like that. Then again, check this out:

“Rubinstein read Cervantes in Spanish, Dostoyevsky in Russian, Voltaire in French,” Mr. Barenboim said. “Music has become specialized today. There used to be a different notion of musical culture. I believe that Furtwängler genuinely felt — maybe he was naïve, but he felt that he personally could save German culture from the Nazis. He wrote about the introduction to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony in relation to the Greek idea of chaos and catharsis. How many musicians think that way today?”

Barenboim shows no signs of slowing down, and the profile of him in todays New York Times here (from which the above quote is taken) reveals a man who is always looking for a new challenge. You think Ozzy Osbourne is controversial? Barenboim broke the half-century taboo of performing Wagner in Israel (in 2001) and has used his influence, and the profoundly positive influence of the music he conducts, to promote dialogue and understanding amongst nations. To put it simply, his work with Palestinian intellectual Edward Said arguably did more to advance relations between Israel and Palestine than 90% of our world’s politicians.

But all of this is just backstory (amazing and life-affirming though it is). Before I knew anything about Barenboim’s politics or his iconoclastic journey, I knew him through Beethoven. Or vice versa. My first exposure to Beethoven’s piano sonatas was courtesy of Barenboim’s initial take on the works (from ’67; he revisited the cycle many years later). It was that time in my life (age 17), it was that era in general (1987, one of the very first compact discs I owned) but mostly it was the music. Indelible and unforgettable. Then, and now. Bottom line: this is my favorite music in the world, and if there was one set of works I had to take with me to that cliched desert island, it would be Barenboim’s set of Beethoven sonatas. If the person sending me to this imaginary island was particularly sadistic and insisted it could only be one disc, it would be this one:

 

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