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

Roky-Erickson-13th-floor-elevators-Texas-Psychedelic-Rock-Music-Photo-9a

(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!)

Preface

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.

(Postscript)
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

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Murphy’s Law, Vol. One: A Primer

M LAW cover

In this collection of essays, reviews and ruminations, best-selling author Sean Murphy attempts to tackle the world in writing, one topic at a time. Selecting a sampling of his most popular pieces as well as some personal favorites, Murphy ranges from music to movies, literature to politics, sports to tributes for the departed. At his blog, Murphy’s Law, and as a columnist for PopMatters and contributing editor for The Weeklings, Murphy has combined enthusiasm and proficiency in the service of short and extended analyses. Throughout this compilation he shifts seamlessly between culture, the arts and an ongoing interrogation of American society.

Why is Robert Johnson the most influential American musician of the 20th Century? How—and why—did Dennis Miller go from being one of the better comedians in the world to a humorless hack? Why are even the most gifted novelists unable to write convincing sex scenes in their fiction? Was the first round of Hagler vs. Hearns in 1985 the most exciting three minutes in sporting history? Is it reasonable to suggest that Chinatown is the only perfect American film ever made? What does it mean to declare Stephen King the Paul Bunyan of letters? Is it possible we don’t adequately celebrate either Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby? Why should everyone consider cancelling their subscription to The Washington Post? Does nostalgia play a defensible, even necessary role in one’s art or life?

Equal parts reporter and raconteur, Murphy brings an informed acumen to essays mercifully free from academic jargon and pretension. His subjects cover so-called high and lowbrow and just about anything in between, and it’s obvious throughout that his only agenda is to celebrate, or castigate, or cross-examine his own impulses and predispositions. By turns studious, confrontational, hilarious and philosophical, Murphy’s Law, Vol. One will leave readers better informed, provoked and, hopefully, inspired to discover the work of some geniuses who’ve fallen outside the lower frequencies.

***AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK AND KINDLE FRIDAY, APRIL 29***

MORE INFO, AS ALWAYS, HERE!

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Musings from Martha’s Vineyard: Introductory Notes

np

I’ve allowed myself a week to settle in and readjust to life outside a cube, outside the beltway, outside any previous experience.

It’s surreal, but it’s real. It’s happening. I’m here, and I plan to suck the marrow out of each moment.

I have so much I hope to accomplish, my only concern at this point is feeling overwhelmed by my wish list and that internal editor who arbitrates a great deal of writing before it ever gets written.

As such, I’ve long been aware that sometimes the most important part of creation is what you do when you’re not actively creating.

I would say I’m pacing myself, but the truth is I wouldn’t trust a straight-out-of-the-gate burst of adrenaline; it’s as much a marathon as it’s ever been. Only more so.

As such, and in truth, I have some paper shuffling and organizing to do before I can immerse myself in the next “big” project (of which more soon, I hope).

I have done, I think, my final inspection of the e-files that will, soon enough, become Murphy’s Law, Vol. One.

In order to get some additional ducks in a row, I’ve wanted to lay out the contents for the next two volumes. It looks like one will focus entirely on music and the other will, like the first volume, split chapters between film, music, literature, sports, politics, ruminations in real time and, inexorably, more music.

(I already have visions for what the next two book covers will look like, and that makes me very happy. More soon, for sure.)

It’s nice to have the occasional opportunity to reassess previous efforts and conclude that, by any reasonable measure, it’s been a tremendously productive decade.

mla

Believe it or not, the picture above is the end result of a full morning’s labor. The most boring, but necessary part: putting the prospective pieces in place before moving on to organize, edit and prepare them for publication.

What else?

I’ll be displeased with myself if I’m unable to revisit, edit and give my blessing (after fifteen-ish years) to the first novel. As (and good friends and early readers are aware) it’s loosely structured as a tribute of sorts to Moby Dick, the combination of summer and Martha’s Vineyard would seem the ideal time and place to complete this task.

And I need to make final edits on a collection of short stories–some of which were published in 2015.

I’d also like to finish a dozen (or more!) poems that are in various states of readiness. I’m cautiously exuberant about being able to complete about 20 poems all focused on a central theme (of which more soon, I hope).

Then, on to the next novel or memoir. We’ll see.

We’ll see which one of these boxes speaks to me first, or most loudly.

bb

To be cont’d…

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A Week of Americana. Part One: Moby Dick

usa

As our nation prepares to celebrate another birthday this week, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit some posts that celebrate art, American style. The first one, fittingly, is my tribute to the great American novel (and yes, it is the great American novel), Moby Dick.

This is an especially opportune time, since so many people are headed to the beach, or on vacation, or looking for a suitable summer book. Well let me tell you: Moby Dick is the ultimate summer book. And it’s also the great American novel (so, for that matter, is The Great Gatsby, as well as Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This country is big and awesome enough to have more than one epic novel to claim the number one title, at least the way I look at things).

Subsequent posts will look at some movies and music; for today let’s get after it. I consider it a personal victory and a triumph for writing (in general) and Melville (in particular, and I hope he is resting in peace and I truly hope he is, somehow, some way, aware that the book that won him little attention in his time is now considered a masterpiece) anytime I can encourage someone that not only is this book approachable and edifying, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

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.

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.
***

(Speaking of Americana, if you’ve never heard of the amazing Blind Tom Wiggins, check it out, below, and here. One of the most fortunate musical finds for me this past decade, courtesy of the indispensable Oxford American magazine, was Blind Tom. Which in turn led me to John Davis, who has done heroic work to spread the word and resurrect the legend of this largely unsung and unknown hero. More on that here. Picking up a copy of Moby Dick and procuring John Davis Plays Blind Tom –which you can and should do: MP3 download is ony $7.99 at amazon.com– might be the most satisfying thing you do all summer. More on Davis, and Blind Tom, here.)

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A Week of Americana. Part One: Moby Dick

As our nation prepares to celebrate another birthday this week, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit some posts that celebrate art, American style. The first one, fittingly, is my tribute to the great American novel (and yes, it is the great American novel), Moby Dick.

This is an especially opportune time, since so many people are headed to the beach, or on vacation, or looking for a suitable summer book. Well let me tell you: Moby Dick is the ultimate summer book. And it’s also the great American novel (so, for that matter, is The Great Gatsby, as well as Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This country is big and awesome enough to have more than one epic novel to claim the number one title, at least the way I look at things).

Subsequent posts will look at some movies and music; for today let’s get after it. I consider it a personal victory and a triumph for writing (in general) and Melville (in particular, and I hope he is resting in peace and I truly hope he is, somehow, some way, aware that the book that won him little attention in his time is now considered a masterpiece) anytime I can encourage someone that not only is this book approachable and edifying, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

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.

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.
***

(Speaking of Americana, if you’ve never heard of the amazing Blind Tom Wiggins, check it out, below, and here. One of the most fortunate musical finds for me this past decade, courtesy of the indispensable Oxford American magazine, was Blind Tom. Which in turn led me to John Davis, who has done heroic work to spread the word and resurrect the legend of this largely unsung and unknown hero. More on that here. Picking up a copy of Moby Dick and procuring John Davis Plays Blind Tom –which you can and should do: MP3 download is ony $7.99 at amazon.com– might be the most satisfying thing you do all summer.)

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A Week of Americana. Part One: Moby Dick

As our nation prepares to celebrate another birthday this week, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit some posts that celebrate art, American style. The first one, fittingly, is my tribute to the great American novel (and yes, it is the great American novel), Moby Dick.

This is an especially opportune time, since so many people are headed to the beach, or on vacation, or looking for a suitable summer book. Well let me tell you: Moby Dick is the ultimate summer book. And it’s also the great American novel (so, for that matter, is The Great Gatsby, as well as Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This country is big and awesome enough to have more than one epic novel to claim the number one title, at least the way I look at things).

Subsequent posts will look at some movies and music; for today let’s get after it. I consider it a personal victory and a triumph for writing (in general) and Melville (in particular, and I hope he is resting in peace and I truly hope he is, somehow, some way, aware that the book that won him little attention in his time is now considered a masterpiece) anytime I can encourage someone that not only is this book approachable and edifying, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

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.

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.
 
***

(Speaking of Americana, if you’ve never heard of the amazing Blind Tom Wiggins, check it out, below, and here. One of the most fortunate musical finds for me this past decade, courtesy of the indispensable Oxford American magazine, was Blind Tom. Which in turn led me to John Davis, who has done heroic work to spread the word and resurrect the legend of this largely unsung and unknown hero. More on that here. Picking up a copy of Moby Dick and procuring John Davis Plays Blind Tom –which you can and should do: MP3 download is ony $7.99 at amazon.com– might be the most satisfying thing you do all summer.)

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OK, now I’m scared…

Bad new abounds.

Financial companies? Publishing houses? Newspapers? Magazines? Consumer electronics corporations? Manufacturers? Detroit automotive? Et cetera…

Whatever.

But when you read something like this, it catches your attention.

Starbucks to close 300 more stores, lay off 6,700 workers

It’s time to embrace the inevitable: the Dark Ages are here.

(Of course, Ian Anderson saw this coming 30 years ago, when Starbuck was just a character in Moby Dick.)
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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.

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.

Share