More Human than Human or, Do Atheists Dream of Electric Sheep?


 i. “I am the business.”

Rick Deckard: is he, or isn’t he, that is the question. Human or android? Blade Runner or replicant?

Inexorably, fans’ perspective on this matter will radically inform their interpretation of the film. To an interesting degree, it may also offer insight into their philosophy regarding morality, and even existence.

It should be acknowledged that while Blade Runner, naturally, owes a considerable debt to the novel it’s based on—Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—the two have significant differences and should be considered as separate entities, at least for the purposes of this discussion.

The central disparity between novel and film is that in Dick’s version, Deckard is unquestionably a human being. In the film, of course, the matter is decidedly more ambiguous; indeed, the concern of how one construes his “true” identity provides the film’s enigmatic tension, and its enduring resonance.

Complicating things further was the decision—at the studio’s insistence, after tepid audience reaction during initial screenings—to have Harrison Ford add hackneyed narration throughout the film, ostensibly to clarify important plot elements (read: to tell less discerning viewers what to think). This unfortunate concession effectively ensured that Deckard was, in fact, to be viewed as a human protagonist.

The movie didn’t do especially well upon its release in 1982 and, with hindsight, seemed almost predetermined to become not merely a cult classic, but an archetype of sorts even within that refined category. Its ostensible flaws as commercial fare remain a credit to its intelligence and ambiguity—two attributes that don’t typically portend box office success. More, what begins as a standard action/detective story gradually expands to become a thoughtful meditation on morality, a tour de force of existentialism.

The 1992 Director’s Cut (which, aside from the insertion of one brief but crucial scene, is actually the unfettered original version) makes a compelling, even incontrovertible case that Deckard’s a replicant after all. Harrison hated the narration and, in fact, hoped by delivering it in a fashion somnolent even for him, it would be discarded. He should have known never to underestimate the judgment and intelligence of studio bosses. Ridley, on the other hand, has remarked that while he too loathed the narration, he felt it was sufficiently obvious Deckard was a replicant. (His sardonic, if refreshing take on the matter: “If you don’t know you are a moron.”)

The pertinent issue, then, is not so much whether Deckard is human; it’s how this cognizance clouds—or clarifies—the sublime climax of the film, where Deckard’s prime target, the replicant Roy Batty, after overpowering (and outsmarting) him, saves his life—then allows him to live. And, while overt comparisons between Batty and Christ might seem banal on a superficial level, it’s his actions and not his character that accords Blade Runner an ethical gravity not found (or necessarily intended) in the novel.

ii. “Wake up! Time to die!”

Of the many questions this film poses, the ones that loom largest involve Deckard’s identity. If, for instance, Deckard’s not a human being, how does this complicate his actions and reactions (and, an implicit question for the audience: how does our knowledge of his true identity color our impression of his actions—and the reactions of others, human and otherwise)? Also, assuming Deckard is a replicant, does it not mitigate the import of Roy Batty’s ultimate decision to liberate him? (Answer: no.)

Batty discerns he’s about to die (or, expire), and harbors no illusions he’s human and that—for him, anyway—there’s an afterlife. He has been made to acknowledge, with certainty, nothing but nothingness awaits him; that existence is not merely arbitrary (a fundamental human dilemma) but, for him, fabricated. Nevertheless, he saves the life of a police officer paid to “retire” him. This act abundantly, if ironically fulfills Batty’s purpose of being “more human than human”. His decision, in this light, to act unselfishly despite recognizing there will be no reward, should be viewed as heroic, and not a little inspiring.

“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave,” Batty says, resignedly, to Deckard. As we’ve seen, these replicants have been created solely to serve the pleasure of the men (gods?) who created them. Earlier models, it’s explained, were indeed used for slave labor; these Nexus 6 prototypes, led by Batty, are endowed with advanced physical and mental abilities. As such, they come to realize—despite being implanted with human memories—that their lives are predetermined, and very brief.

One can understand why they rebel. The revelation that they’re fanciful and expensive experiments is capable of making even nihilism seem quaint, beyond the ken of even the most smugly despondent post-structuralist. Or else a case study of detached deconstruction, taken to extremes that might make even Derrida blush: always-already aware that your reality—and utility—was carefully planned long before you ever assumed consciousness.

This comprehension, with good reason, generates dismay amongst the Nexus 6 replicants, and should arouse empathy from the viewer. How interesting (peculiar, even) that these same parameters, adjusted for aesthetics, are precisely what oblige the faithful to find value and consequence in their lives. Or, put another way, one can imagine even the most reflexively staunch believer appalled by the notion that there is a God, but life nevertheless ceases at death. Cynics can—and do—point out that a totalitarian dynamic based in fear is the very nature of organized religion. If we are, by decree, slaves compliant to our creator here on earth, we’ll be redeemed forever, in Heaven. This is the tacit covenant that makes belief agreeable, if bearable.

It’s inevitable to surmise, with the contextual evidence on offer (via the Director’s Cut), anyone still insisting Deckard’s a human is not unlike one who asserts—often with the self-righteous assurance of the zealot—that without the concept of God (and eternity) there is no grace; no reason for benevolence. This, of course, is merely cowardice disguised as faith: the need to believe says much about the individual and little about the ethos.

As such, we can conclude that because Batty’s act is witnessed and, more, received, it has meaning beyond the gesture: affirming life, and saving a life while one’s own life is ending. Batty’s deed is not an act of rescue so much as one of redemption. It underscores the hopes and fears of every sentient—or at least sensitive—being: What was I? What do I leave behind? What will I become? By living, Deckard keeps Batty alive; by remembering, he ensures Batty’s sacrifice has significance aside from the act itself. Of course, it would have meaning, in the metaphysical sense, even if it was unrecorded.

iii. “All those moments will be lost in time…”

The notion of doing good for good’s sake is an ideal articulated in the writings of difficult artists ranging from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to Melville and Poe. In the 20th Century, after the events that preceded and accompanied World War II, it’s remarkable that poetry, prose, music and movies continue to reinforce a defiance of despair as opposed to a begrudging—or lethargic—acknowledgment of life’s meaninglessness. Put more plainly, ample evidence supporting altruism exists that’s not contingent upon religious faith; indeed, much of it actively eschews dogma.

As humans we create meaning, even if we ultimately resolve that life is meaningless. Our outlook is still the result of deliberation, however dejected. It is, in fact, those insisting only God can imbue meaning (since He created everything) who argue that the absence of God obviates meaning. This position, inculcated by rote, isn’t merely flawed intellectually; it’s defective, morally. The correlation between religious fanaticism and the violence it can inspire—and provide cover for—is well-documented. Disturbingly, the thin line between faith and desolation is reason enough to be grateful many would-be sociopaths are compelled by their belief, or suspension of belief, to determine there’s actual value (or, again, meaning) in their own existence; there’s motivation to choose amity over annihilation.

It is, then, with Batty, that the film turns typical theology upside down.  The redeeming (and, redeemed) character is, in a sense, dying for the sins of others, but will receive neither reward nor restoration. Not for nothing does Tyrell, after confirming Batty’s worst fears, declare him to be “the prodigal son.” Certainly, one could make a career out of the religious imagery invoked throughout the narrative (the nails in the palms, the brutal beating he suffers, the futile entreaty to his creator, etc.).

On a purely practical level, if one reckons that the ends justify the means, the notion of using Christ as a model is commendable, particularly when it results in the pursuit of reconciliation over aggression. Indeed, the idea that organized religion was designed as a self-perpetuating (and quite effective) system to organize and supervise the masses is unoriginal enough to be dismissed as cliché. And yet, considering the ultimate objective of Christian fellowship is to inspire conduct sufficient to earn everlasting life, it’s difficult to argue which is more disingenuous: the self-serving ecclesiastics or those who see through it, yet utilize it for personal gain or to consolidate control.

The figure of Christ is enduringly appealing, as a literary figure, for His acts of kindness and care. But concerning the biblical moments of transcendence, the miracles distance Him from us; whereas Batty’s final gesture is made with the understanding that he’ll gain no favors, here or elsewhere. As such, it would cheapen his sacrifice to give Christianity unearned credit and declare this an act of Christ-like mercy; rather, it’s an enduring gesture of human grace. As such, it remains a persuasive and provocative advertisement for what we’re capable of when we’re most fully human or more, when we transcend our inherent (see: selfish) human limitations. Blade Runner remains the ultimate paradox: a movie about the impermanence—even the construction—of humanity, yet it makes one of the greatest cases for compassion and charity.


Roky Erickson: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Genius (Revisited)


(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)


You’re Gonna Miss Me is an instant classic and will likely be regarded as essential years from now. Two critical things it has going for it: one, its subject, Roky Erickson, is a filmmaker’s fantasy—the type of character who could never be adequately fictionalized because the story outstrips imagination, and two, instead of being overwhelmed by the material or trying to either sensationalize or sterilize it, director Keven McAlester, by simply standing in the right places at the right times, captures success, insanity, disintegration and redemption. It’s almost impossible to imagine the viewer coming away from this documentary without a better understanding of popular music, mental illness, frailty and faith. It’s likely viewers will something about themselves, as well. What else could one ask for?

I. Pictures (Leave Your Body Behind)
There are a handful of artistic archetypes we know and love—or loathe—in cinema, literature, and music, especially rock ‘n’ roll music. To take just a sampling of some of the more obvious ones, there is the cautionary tale (see Keith Moon); the tragic hero case study (see Jimi Hendrix); the unrecognized master (see Shuggie Otis); the posthumously recognized master (see Nick Drake); the redemption song (see Brian Wilson), et cetera . And yet, has there ever been an individual who encompasses several of the above, creating an entirely unique category? Yes: Roky Erickson. Who? Exactly. Roky Erickson is indeed many things, all at once. The greatest singer not many people have ever heard. The saddest could-have-been-a-contender parable in the annals of rock. An authentic icon who, while written off even by those who at one time followed him, attracted artists such as R.E.M., ZZ Top, Julian Cope and The Jesus and Mary Chain to take part in the excellent 1990 tribute album Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye .
So, who was Roky Erickson? Envision a psychedelic era band that combined the darker energy of Love and The Doors with the bluesy kitchen sink vocal assault of Janis Joplin, alongside the musical proficiency of The Yardbirds or The Mothers of Invention. That amalgamation begins to approximate what the 13th Floor Elevators, from Austin Texas, sounded like before the Summer of Love. When they eventually (inevitably) headed up the coast toward the burgeoning Bay Area scene in 1966, they blew the minds, so to speak, of many of the groups who were still cultivating a more mellow, folk-based sound. The Elevators were heavier, edgier and more exotic, drawing on an electric blues foundation that at once assimilated the aggression of The Who and the more cerebral introspection of Dylan. It was anything but a simple, hit-seeking sound, yet their first album yielded a song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”—featuring the full range of Erickson’s vocals and the trademark electric jug playing of Tommy Hall—that caused some excitement, reaching #55 on the charts.
Much like seemingly everyone else on the accelerating edge of the rock scene, Erickson found stimulation, solace and eventually (inevitably) distraction via the LSD he ingested like lemon drops. Along with his better-known acid casualty compatriots Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, Erickson fell to earth. Chronic behavioral and legal issues ensued. Unlike Wilson, who headed for the relative security of his sandbox, and Barrett, who — after turning on and tuning in — dropped out entirely and disengaged from the outside world, Erickson returned to Austin and found himself the target of an overly enthusiastic police department anxious to make an example out of him. Popped for possession of marijuana joint and facing the possibility of serious jail time, Erickson’s lawyer proposed the dubious stratagem of pleading insanity, which led to an eventual confinement in Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He remained there for three years.

II. Roller Coaster
You’re Gonna Miss Me traces the early adventures that led Roky to Rusk, and fills in the following decades, which have mostly been a tragic void for all but the most dedicated fans. Erickson may have been gone, but he was far from forgotten, as evidenced by the commentary provided by an impressively disparate array of musicians, including Billy Gibbons (of Texas legends ZZ Top), Patti Smith, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers). It is a documentary that unfolds like a mystery story, each anecdote and interview revealing another layer that helps explain who he was, who he became, and who he is now.

III. Slip Inside This House
Seminal scene number one: Roky Erickson, now under the exclusive care of his mother back in Texas (circa 1999), enters his modest and messy apartment. He turns on the radio. Then he turns on a second radio. Then he turns on a television, and another. Then he turns on an electric Casio piano. Eventually he has plugged in or turned on a beehive of competing sounds; the room is a cacophony of random stimulation. He puts on a pair of sunglasses and announces in a soft voice (barely audible above the chaos) “Okay, I’m gonna lay down now.” His mother, who had presumably seen it all before, remarks matter-of-factly: “He falls asleep with all that stuff on…it’s when I turn it off that he wakes up.”

IV. If You Have Ghosts
A few things that the assembled evidence seems to render indisputable: Roky Erickson was, and remains, a sensitive and sweet human being; he was blessed with an extraordinary voice and had an intense interest in music very early on; his upbringing was complicated, even when measured against the understood assumption that some dysfunctional families are more dysfunctional than others.

V. Earthquake
Seminal scene number two: The camera pans down a long, empty hallway with white walls. A voice speaks; it is Roky, taped in a 1975 interview: “I felt like a male Jane Eyre in that place…all I had to look forward to was (being told) ‘You’re still insane.’” Back-story: June ’68, Roky abruptly returns home from San Francisco. He is filthy, scab-ridden and incoherent. Alarmed, his mother takes him to a doctor, who promptly, if blithely, declares him an incurable schizophrenic. He is subsequently “rescued” by one of his band mates and they hitchhike back to the Bay Area, where Roky eschews LSD for heroin. He begins hearing voices. Upon contracting serum hepatitis from a dirty needle, he returns to Austin, and that fateful marijuana bust. In a matter of months Roky has gone from the center of a psychedelic summertime to bunking up amongst the profoundly disturbed, and violent, residents of Rusk Hospital.

VI. Fire Engine
The similarities between Roky Erickson and Syd Barrett, while obvious, are nevertheless extraordinary. Barrett was more popular, his story more often told, and he was more missed once he was gone. But once Syd was gone, he stayed gone: after 1975, when he shocked his old mates by showing up at the studio as they were putting the finishing touches on the Barrett-inspired Wish You Were Here, he retreated to the care of his mother and abandoned all interest in music. Erickson, despite a similar appetite for acid (not to mention the heroin abuse) and regular shock treatments at Rusk, never stopped thinking about music. Unlike Syd, the fire of creating and making music never died inside Roky and was, ultimately, inextinguishable.

VII. Unforced Peace
Seminal scene number three: Bob Priest, Rusk’s resident psychologist, recalls how Roky played in a makeshift band that included a rapist, and two murderers. “Most of the time he’d have a yellow legal pad, sitting in the hallway writing music…he was a real nice little guy, he didn’t have a whole lot to say; he wanted to write his music, he wanted to play his music — and that’s all.”

VIII. I Walked With A Zombie
It’s 1972: finally released from Rusk, Rocky begins making music, but is plagued by paranoia and the aftereffects of what was, to say the least, his not exactly salubrious recent environment. Increasingly, he is convinced that he’s an alien and conniving humans are “zapping” his mind. His attorney takes him to the dime store several times to buy toy laser guns so he can zap them back. It does not work. Finally, she hits upon the idea of preparing a document declaring that Roky is, in fact, an alien, with the hope that whoever is sending telepathic shocks to his head will stop. It works.

IX. Starry Eyes
Seminal scene number four: A man out of time, he looks like it’s 1969, he sounds like it’s 1969, but it’s actually 1983. The same year synth-heavy pop was lip-synched around the clock on MTV, the man who may have invented psychedelic rock is in his mother’s house, being videotaped as he strums a song he wrote for her. He is disheveled and most of his teeth are now gone. It is poignant, but also more than a little painful to watch. And yet. That voice, those eyes, the honesty. As Melville wrote “You cannot hide the soul.”

X. She Lives in a Time of Her Own
At this point you are thinking: his mother is a saint. She took him in when no one else would, and every indication suggests that she accepts him and genuinely loves him, without reservation. If her rigid distrust of doctors and medication is unfortunate, it is also understandable, considering how she has seen her eldest son suffer. Certainly, she is eccentric; she could easily be the focus of a captivating documentary herself, recalling how Robert Crumb’s brothers occasionally, if chillingly, stole the spotlight in Terry Zwigoff’s justly celebrated film (speaking of controversial, odd artists). When Roky is interviewed at one point he confesses, sounding not only vulnerable and guileless, but childlike, “I wish I could be somewhere else.” The door of domestic unease creaks open and one wonders: how much of a good thing is this arrangement, after all?

XI. Don’t Slander Me
While the documentary keeps the focus firmly on Roky, the broiling undercurrent of familial tension (past and present) moves to the forefront when Erickson’s younger brother, Sumner (who plays tuba with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) asserts that years of therapy have helped him understand how domineering their mother has always been. While at first his sentiments seem more driven by an obsession to exorcise painful childhood demons, Sumner’s intentions to assist Roky are made touchingly clear when he offers to let his brother come live with him.
Eventually, it is up to a judge to determine who is best able to help Roky: his mother correctly claims to have helped him out when nobody else was able or interested; his brother insists that Roky now deserves the opportunity to help himself. The judge ultimately concurs with Sumner’s assessment that his mother, by refusing to let Roky take any medication, is effectively suppressing any possibility of improvement and, intentionally or not, keeping him in a state of dependence. The documentary, at this point, has portrayed enough candid incidents and interviews that the viewer will likely endorse the judge’s decision, but it is still an uneasy resolution.

XII. I Have Always Been Here Before
Seminal scene number five: After the court rules that Sumner can take his brother back with him to Pittsburgh, their mother silently leaves the courthouse. She stops by Roky’s apartment and, one by one, turns off the machines he’d left on when he left home, leaving her behind.

XIII. Splash I (Now I’m Home)
One year later, Roky is preparing to return home to visit his mother for the first time. Sumner, who seems wary whenever her name is mentioned, acknowledges that she probably did the best that she could to provide for her son. Nevertheless, Sumner’s influence has been profound, and positive: Roky’s teeth are fixed, he has been prescribed (and is taking) modern meds, and he is seeing a therapist, who encourages him to play songs. He seems happy and healthy, sitting outside on a balcony, playing his guitar again. The voice is still not of this earth, but there can no longer be any doubt, if there ever was any, that Roky Erickson is indeed an earthling. The greatest ending of all is that the story has not ended.

Special mention must be made of the extra features, which are generous bordering on mind-boggling. In an era where, unfortunately, one almost expects to get less for more (if there is material for two albums, try and stretch it into three; if there are any leftovers, package them up and push it for the “deluxe” edition), the bonus footage could comprise another full documentary—one of equal value and interest.
Huge kudos to McAlester and company for doing the right thing for the fans, and for Erickson: newcomers who see this footage will almost certainly be inclined to check out some vintage 13th Floor Elevators, as well as the unconscionably overlooked post-Elevators music Erickson made. In addition to an incredible collection of vintage performances from over the years (mostly solo acoustic), there are deleted scenes and readings of original material by Roky and his mother.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, at least one more amazing chapter is presented here: the documentary wrapped in 2002, but Roky’s astonishing recovery saw him performing live for the first time in almost 20 years at the 2005 Austin City Limits Festival. To watch the reception he gets, to hear how great he sounds, and to behold how fulfilled he appears, it is not possible to be unmoved. “It’s a cold night for alligators,” he sings. Damn right it is.

— 9 August 2007


The Whiteness of the Whale (or, It Was 40 Years Ago Today…)

Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.

–Melville, Moby Dick (Chapter 42 – The Whiteness of The Whale)

Well, the album’s not not white. It is so appropriate for it to be a blank slate–figuratively speaking–because perhaps more than any other Beatles album, it has served as an ideal canvas upon which fans can project their opinions, insights and arguments. It is, to belabor the Melville metaphor, kind of the white whale of the greatest rock band’s canon, with fans so many Ahabs, trying to capture it, or understand it, or truncate it, or elevate it, or diminish it. Or all of those things, and more.

It was, after all, the album that signalled the end of The Beatles–every moment after its release a slo-mo implosion, those fractured pieces of ego and ambition the Flotsam and Jetsam that became Let It Be and Abbey Road, and later, the solo albums. Or was it? Was it, perhaps, merely a collection of uneven, ultimately amazing songs from a band at the apex of their superhuman powers? Probably, it’s something right around the middle of those extremes. It was what it was: the album the Beatles released, 40 years ago this fall. And while many fans (and/or critics–but who cares what they think?) would concede it’s not their best album, most people acknowledge that it might just be better than Sgt. Pepper (let me stand up and be counted here).

In terms of an engaged critical appraisal, arguably the only true way to grapple with this behemoth is to submit to a detailed, song-by-song analysis. What holds up? What doesn’t? Which songs, often easy to dismiss, still manage to surprise? (“Piggies”, “Rocky Raccoon”); which ones have never ceased to astonish–even after a thousand listens? (“Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Long Long Long”). The songs themselves: 30 songs that constitute a sum far greater than their parts? (Does that even make sense, though? It’s the songs themselves that add up to the whole, and each song contributes to the overall effect, that ultimate achievement.) Perhaps it is actually the messy superfluity (an embarrassment of riches that is both, at times, embarrassing as well as rich) that somehow squares the circle. While fans have obssessed from day one about how much better it would have been as a single album (of which, more shortly), a compelling case can still be made that the ostensibly expendable songs, taken along with the master strokes, make a dovetail joint out of the assembled bits.

That last, debatable assertion, is worth expanding upon. In the contemporary climate of iPods and songs on sale for a buck apiece (or else snatched online, for free), it is difficult to imagine the suddenly old fashioned world of compact discs. It is harder still to imagine a seemingly black-and-white movie world where people purchased–and listened to–actual LPs for the simple reason that this was their only choice. Without waxing rhapsodic about wax, it’s probably safe to recall with some conviction those pretty-good days when a new album was an experience and it was experienced. Start to finish. (This is not to imply that people don’t eagerly immerse themselves in new releases today but, again, back then there was no other option.) In those days, unless you were going to jump up, run over, and move the stylus yourself (imagine actually getting up to change the channel on the TV…), you were in for the duration once the needle dropped. All of a sudden seemingly stolid things like flow and symmetry enter the equation. Suddenly the exhaust of the airplane ending “Back in the U.S.S.R.” segueing limpidly into the earthbound chords of “Dear Prudence” gives a subtle extra significance to both moments. The flamenco guitar flourish (actually a canned recording from the then-cutting edge Mellotron) functions as both a perfectly surreal coda to the cacophonous “Wild Honey Pie” but also as a perfect (and perfectly bizarre) introduction to Lennon’s wonderfully acerbic “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. Ditto for the saloon piano at the end of “Rocky Raccoon”–or is that supposed to be the beginning of “Don’t Pass Me By”?

Is it just habit (or worse, sentimentality) informing the observation that Side 2 would suffer if it began with, say, “Blackbird” instead of “Martha My Dear”? Or that Side 1 has to end with “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? Or, that, of course, Side 3 has to end with “Long Long Long” knowing that the slow, smothered coda will be resucitated with the studio chatter and false start of “Revolution 1” opening Side 4, the effect like a light switch being flipped on? Could the one-two punch of McCartney’s “I Will” and Lennon’s “Julia” possibly do anything other than close Side 2, a calming comedown after the narcotic maelstrom that preceded it?

I could put together a perfect two-sided version of this white whale. So could you. But I’d be willing to bet that like snowflakes, no two fans would have the same songs in the same running order. More, even though it would arguably sound better to cut some of the fat and flab, would “Cry Baby Cry” sound quite the same not knowing (dreading?) “Revolution 9” was about to follow? Would “Cry Baby Cry” even make the cut? Speaking for myself, if I had to pare down this beast, I am pretty sure I could safely lose “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, but I can’t imagine a single song that could reliably kick off the proceedings as well. Likewise, “Julia” could be an ideal closer on any other album, but not the white album. It is perfectly placed right in the middle, the marrow of this very gnarled and fibrous bone.
Trying to cut this album down to size (something George Martin fought for, and something each member probably advocated at some point, in ’68 or after) is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down; it can’t be done. Impossible, like trying to make sense out of “Revolution 9” (forwards or backwards, and back in the day, we tried it many times). And that is the point of this album: it really is just an album a band that happened to be growing apart made in between ’67 and ’69. Not working together as closely, or productively, as they once had, does the end product suffer? Perhaps. But even with the odds and sods (even with Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da for God’s sake), the bottom line is that The Beatles couldn’t help but be brilliant. They were as close to the sun as they’d ever get at this point in their careers, and this work endures as a sort of field recording that touches on almost all the music made in the modern era, while anticipating (and to a large degree commencing) the post ’60s era (one might even say that by recognizing the ’60s were effectively over, The Beatles effectively ended the ’60s). Could it have been edited to make a more concise, aesthetically satisfactory result? Maybe. But would it be as satisfying? Fortunately, that is the question that cannot, and need not, ever be answered.


American Chowder

Moby Dick: American Chowder
[1 September 2006]

“Reduced to more practical terms, if Jazz music is gumbo — and it is — the archetypal American novel, with Moby Dick as its progenitor and arguably its apotheosis, is a chowder.” Sean Murphy takes a new look at an old classic.

by Sean Murphy

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave around them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!
Moby Dick, Chapter 26

When it comes to the state of the American novel, there is nothing — or at least, not very much — new under the sun. And this is not entirely a bad thing. Not when most avid lovers of literature reluctantly acknowledge that the prospect of reading all, or most of the great works of fiction in one lifetime is an unattainable ambition. Sad, but true, and because of this incontrovertible actuality, a well-intentioned or would-be aficionado must aim to separate the proverbial goats from the sheep, and ensure that the books that really matter stand at the top of the list.

For instance, when’s the last time you feel in love with an author and went out and spent a month, or a summer, or a decade devoting your attention to their oeuvre? Even when, like in love, you are lucky enough to find that soul mate of an author, how often do you get the chance to indulge yourself? And then there are the authors you should want to absorb. Have you read all of Dostoyevsky? (Shame on you). All of Shakespeare? (No? Then get thee to a video store). All of Faulkner? (Don’t worry, no one else has either).

The point is, as Tennyson proclaimed, art is long and time is fleeting. And it would seem that because of unexceptional high school and college teachers, the prospect of actually reading a novel is accorded roughly the same anticipatory anxiety as a root canal. This is unfortunate, and the authors of these great books should not be punished simply because most professors are unable to convey the joy that can, and should, accompany the act of reading for pleasure.

Good music and good literature have always seemed to intimidate, or bewilder otherwise open-minded individuals. This is doubtless at least in part due to teachers and critics seeking to justify their own intellectual enterprise by conferring upon art an ivory halo that renders it unreachable by average, simple-minded citizens. Rather than regarding, say, Jazz music or a 19th Century novel as sacred relics conceived by sullen saints, perhaps it would be beneficial to acknowledge, even endorse the actuality that most of these works were produced by individuals whose lives were as conventional as their creative minds were exceptional. Or, reduced to more practical terms, if Jazz music is gumbo — and it is — the archetypal American novel, with Moby Dick as its progenitor and arguably its apotheosis, is a chowder.


Listen: so many novels are meat, or potatoes, or broth, or milk (often watery milk that becomes increasingly rank and repellent as it stands on the counter, or in the bookshelf as the case may be), or a smattering of vegetables. It is the rare and precious novel that is able to (indeed, one that even seeks to) satisfy on multiple levels, aesthetic as well as technical, a work that amuses as well as inspires, a book that informs as well invigorates — a novel that augments or reaffirms one’s belief in what the novel, that most indefatigable form of artistic expression, can do.

Can novels do this? Yes.

What type of novel? Moby Dick.

It is exceedingly ironic that in an age where cantankerous crusaders of classic literature are defending that increasingly endangered species, the not-so-great white male author, there is a text that actually exists which can satisfy both the hegemony-in-a-haystack-hunting Derrida disciples and the pugnacious proponents of tradition: Moby Dick.

The book’s author, Herman Melville — despite getting the unfair (and unjustifiable) tag of boring old white guy, author of the quintessential boring old white guy book about a boring old white whale, not to mention a handful of equally impenetrable short stories (while most high school students are instructed to read Bartleby The Scrivener, most of them — at least partly due to the unfortunate baggage associated with its author — would prefer not to) — is, in fact, quite accessible. Really.

But accessibility is often the enemy of integrity. Why not then celebrate the all-too-infrequent instance that proves to be the exception to the very rules it rewrites? Like any truly lasting piece of expression, the writings of Melville not only have stood the intractable test of time, they incredibly — miraculously — are as viable and valuable to today’s dissolute and desperate, but not altogether dissimilar world. Perhaps resulting from the ever-mercurial moods of the left-leaning academic aristocracy, it has become ironically admissible to dismiss Moby Dick as it once was to venerate it. This would be an unexceptionable development but for the fact that for all the right reasons, this classic American text is also pioneering in its puissant, often sardonic assaults on institutions ranging from the patriarchal status quo, to slavery, to the Puritanical thought-police who cast a long, lamentable shadow on early U.S. history. This book celebrates our itinerant American roots and the notion of positive, peaceful diversity not as an apologetic ideology, but as an empowering, imperative axiom. Melville empathized with the underdog and more important, he understood them — he was one — and his real life experiences help inform the poetic prose that allows these otherwise unrenowned heroes to sing the songs of themselves, proceeding Walt Whitman’s masterpiece by a half-decade.

So: a novel that fulfills on almost every conceivable level, a meditation on our individual essence as well as the push and pull of our similitude as human beings adrift in a turbulent universe that not a little resembles the untamed sea.

If the current, confessional model — a facile forgery not even attempting to entertain, or engage in the possibilities the novel provides — is a bouillon cube: add water (or, the easily-invoked tears of an undiscerning reader) than we might recognize the depth and substance of the real novel. No short cuts, all ingredients carefully chosen, cleaned, cleaved, and combined, simmered slowly over the steady flame of inspiration, seasoned with erudition and integrity, stirred with the passion of purpose (a purpose opposite of navel gazing), and served with the unwavering arm of a confident and direct desire to communicate. It’s that simple, that impossible.

And yet, even the richest, most savory bowl of chowder can sustain one for a limited time, one meal per person. This is why art is sustenance for the soul, a benevolent gift that keeps giving. Find a novel and you’ve found a friend for life, a companion that should lend support and inspiration for any earthly endeavors.