IT’s Good to Be KING: Stephen King at 70

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FACT: STEPHEN KING, the most successful author of our time, arguably toils more diligently than any other writer. For this alone he deserves recognition and respect.

To the haters: Yes, it’s unlikely any of his works will ever be dissected in graduate seminars. But ask any writer, in whatever genre, about their ultimate goal and the honest, simple answer is to be read. On this score, King has achieved what few authors, of any time, will. For this, too, recognition and respect—however grudging—is warranted.

To the savvy social media hipsters: How many likes did you get on that pithy post? You have how many Twitter followers? Keep channeling that energy into tweets, cultivate your online presence to evanescent perfection. King just wrote another novel while you refreshed your screen.

Here’s the Thing about King: he is so incredibly, so preposterously productive it’s not unreasonable to imagine the thousands (millions?) of trees that would still be standing if he’d at any time decided to take his foot off the throttle. Then again, how can we do anything but admire an artist for shutting out the very distractions we love to lament? How much reality TV time do you think King is racking up? How many hours is he wasting on Facebook? Sure, he’s afforded himself the luxury of not needing to pay the bills, so he gets up every day and punches a different kind of clock, and his time seems regulated not by machines but the engine inside him. This drive—it can’t be for money, it’s unlikely he craves more fame—keeps him engaged and, if it gives him no rest in the superficial sense, it’s provided him peace.

If he won’t be accused of being a craftsman, he should be celebrated for putting on his boots every day, without exception or excuse, and killing more trees. Stephen King is the Paul Bunyan of fiction, America’s literary lumberjack.

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It’s actually not that difficult to imagine some of King’s novels getting the grad school treatment; at the very least they may be ripe for undergraduate-level exegesis: “English 301: Stephen King and the Pop-Culture Apotheosis”. Here, let’s give it a shot.

Salem’s Lot can be interpreted as an extended metaphor about the increasing cycle of parasitic capitalism, forcing blue collar folks to feed off the blood of the upper classes, until egalitarianism is achieved, at last, through eternal predation. (But no, it’s just a book about vampires rampaging through a small New England town.)

Cujo was written, so the author claims, while he was putting more blow up his nose than Tony Montana in Scarface. Perhaps we can reconsider the mucus-coated muzzle of the St. Bernard as an extended allegory regarding the danger and disempowering potential of hard drugs. Or greed, or power, or any vice. (But no, it’s just a book about a big rabid dog rampaging through a small New England town.)

Christine: a car possessed by the soul of its original owner, or a car that possessed the soul of its original owner, who now possesses the car that possesses the soul of its new owner: a Borgesian labyrinth deconstructing the self-abnegation and reincarnation inherent in the act of creation? (No, it’s just a book about a car rampaging through a small New England town.)

Is it exhausting reading this? It’s exhausting just writing it. Plus, the uninitiated could simply watch the movies. Though, in fairness, even the better movies are worse than the most mediocre books (yes, for my money that includes the overly saccharine and sentimental crowd favorites Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption). Again, one thinks of the recurring theme of carnage and the inestimable tonnage of trees…

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Stephen King has been a bit more defiant in recent years, and he’s earned the right to be a tad truculent about his influence. Selling more than 350 million books and making multiple generations of readers into fanatics is undoubtedly gratifying and something a fraction of writers will ever experience. And he can boast penning at least three novels that anticipated colossal cultural trends: he made vampires cool again (a few decades ahead of schedule), he conjured up a delusional sociopath jump-starting a nuclear apocalypse before Reagan took office, and envisioned a devastating pandemic before AIDS became front-page news (‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and The Stand, respectively). This trifecta alone earns him street cred that should extend beyond literary circles. Yet clearly, the critical backlash accumulated over the years sticks in King’s craw. As an éminence grise who, it might also be pointed out, paid his dues for many years before his “overnight” success, he is aware he’ll always be a tough sell for the lit-crit crowd.

In his recent, extended interview in Rolling Stone, King is candid, calm, and not above throwing a few haymakers at some usual—and a couple of unusual—suspects. He gets his licks in on the insufferable Harold Bloom (who went out of his way to savage King when the latter won the National Book Award in 2003), whom he describes as taking “(his) ignorance about popular culture as a badge of intellectual prowess”. Fair enough. If King’s ghastliest work injures the eyes, it doesn’t quite deaden the senses the way Bloom’s sacred cow shenanigans often do. As such, King’s bitter tea tastes pretty sweet on the page, and he is justified for calling out people who dismiss him out of hand.

King correctly connects the dots between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jim Thompson; he rightly invokes Twain and delivers some welcome insights on the ways we are conditioned to receive and respond to different mediums. And his commentary begs necessary—or at least worthwhile—questions regarding labels and poles, high-brow and third-rate, and whether the twain shall meet (they always do, of course, as Mark Twain himself proves). His observations, for instance, on Jaws—and how movies are capable of attaining a credibility seldom afforded to popular fiction—offer a refreshing alternative analysis regarding what his work is, who it serves, where it appeals, and why it will endure, in its way.

And then, with a chip on his shoulder as Big as the Ritz, he takes a curious swipe at Fitzgerald, who probably spent more time polishing a paragraph than King takes to write a rough draft. He also sets his sights on Hemingway, and his remarks underscore how simultaneously disarming and exasperating King can be. “Hemingway sucks, basically. If people like that, terrific,” he shrugs, gauntlet thrown.

These comments are not as sacrilegious as they may seem, at first. It’s difficult to deny that Hemingway—and much of what he epitomized—continues to age poorly, and some of his novels are as overrated as some of King’s are unfairly maligned. On the other hand, The Sun Also Rises establishes sufficient evidence of Hemingway’s brilliance, and many of his short stories are more indispensable than anything King has written (particularly his own short stories). For all the hype and possibly deleterious influence of Papa’s minimalism, it does serve as an aesthetic antidote for King, a writer who edits his tomes the way weeds regulate their growth.

King asserts that he has elevated the horror genre, and few would disagree, even if some might say: “So?” He compares himself to Raymond Chandler whom he credits with elevating the detective genre. It’s clear that what King covets is more respect. His disdain for the Literary Industrial Complex is understandable, but—unfortunately for him—the people he loves to loathe are typically the arbiters of these matters. On one hand, he can point to his sales stats and declare victory (that’s what Hemingway might do; it’s also what Tom Clancy—whom King hopes to distance himself from—did). On the other hand, all the clever arguments and eyebrow-raising one-liners can’t accomplish what his work must do on its own accord. If sales and celebrity are what distinguish hacks from legends, in the end it’s always the writing itself that must outlast or endure the hype.

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Let me tell you a story.

Stephen King has been very good to me. If I haven’t read anything he’s written since the late ‘80s, I sure as shit read everything up to that point. I first encountered him in grade school: I saw ‘Salem’s Lot, then I read it. Ditto Carrie. From then on, he was always there for me, a new book every time I needed one. By the time I caught up with the back catalog, he was on his early-to-mid decade roll, cranking out Cujo, Christine, Different Seasons, etc. It was also around this time that every King effort was made into a movie, so in many regards it was all King all the time for a while there.

It was the Ulysses of my adolescence; that novel contained the universe (known, unknown) to me, circa 1987. And if it transfixed me, then, I can still admire the adrenaline and drive, the ambition and sheer endurance it takes to attempt—much less pull off—such a project. When we found out, in 1985, that he was also pumping out product as Richard Bachman the scope of his capabilities became apparent. He was Beethoven: inhuman, unreal, too prolific to adequately measure in logical terms, teenager-wise.

It was my Holy Grail; even as a sixteen year old I suspected nothing could ever be the same, I stoically anticipated the inexorable comedown: How can he follow this? How can I? Coincidentally or not, soon thereafter I went to college, girls became more than a yearning concept (where they had heretofore been mostly unimaginable, even dangerous, if not quite able to start fires with their minds able to confound and incinerate my own illusions). An undergraduate no longer requires whimsical nightmares via fiction; he is too busy instigating them in real life. Above all, I read authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time. Hemingway, too, of whom it can succinctly be stated: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” conceivably has more heft than the best 100 pages King’s ever typed. In sum, I grew up. That’s not to suggest King is more suited for children, it’s to relate that the more widely I read, the more acutely I realized ten lifetimes would scarcely present an opportunity to cover the menu I was compiling.

And yet. King made me want to write. He made me want to be a writer. He was the one who consistently made the magic happen. He cracked the furtive code of storytelling: creating memorable, occasionally indelible characters, and, through the use of words and imagination, making our world more vital, more real. (And, importantly, he has never taken himself too seriously.)

Stephen King remains as relevant as ever, as a concept if nothing else. While we behold the ongoing implosion of the traditional (and often dysfunctional, elitist, undemocratic) book publishing industry, we should commend a multi-millionaire who is still, somehow, an underdog. King is an unacknowledged legislator of sorts, the man of the people most politicians pretend to be. Accuse him of anything, but no one can say King does not care—about his characters, his readers, his craft. Quick: how many artists of any kind, regardless of rank or reputation, roll out of bed and get busy every day, including weekends?

Even if the quality is forever debatable, King’s picture could hang on any aspiring writer’s desk. Not enticed by (more) money or accolades, King goes about his business without distraction or depletion: he puts pen to paper and does the work. That King is still driven by those demons and finds his faith (in writing, in himself) intact after all this time makes him a hero of sorts. Toward the end of the Rolling Stone interview he describes his vocation as only the luckiest and most blessed amongst us ever will: “It fulfills me,” he says. “There are two things I like about it: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.” There is a peace there, something that combines Zen and the certainty of a difficult job, dutifully done. It is, in the final analysis, good to be The King.

*This essay originally appeared at The Weeklings on 3/31/2015.

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Why Taxi Driver Still Endures

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Besides being a masterpiece, Taxi Driver endures in part because the conditions that inspired it endure.

Not many critics would name it as the best American movie, and it probably would rank as few fans’ favorite films. Is Taxi Driver, nevertheless, the most important American film? It is, in the sense that we need our best art to endure; to speak past trends and time, to tell us about ourselves while asking more questions than are answered (otherwise it’s philosophy or worse, literary theory).

Shakespeare’s oft-quoted notion of stories holding a mirror up to Nature has become a crutch if not cliché for describing what art does. As history continues to confirm that we’ve evolved less than we might hope or imagine in the intervening centuries since Hamlet soliloquized, the more relevant issue might be why art matters. As such, it’s probably Oscar Wilde who got it right when he declared “It’s the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

Taxi Driver might not even be Scorsese’s best movie, but it’s definitely in the Top One. Okay, Raging Bull could fairly be considered his ultimate achievement (although substantial credit must be given to the ready-made script and tag-team for the ages from De Niro and Pesci). Mean Streets may, for aficionados, be his most consistently watchable (aside from The Departed, but in terms of aesthetic heft, that comparison would be like an all-star game vs. what the Miracle Mets pulled off in ’69—de rigueur brilliance vs. once-in-a-lifetime lightning caught in a bottle of straw-covered Chianti). Goodfellas, of course, is Goodfellas.

Aside from Taxi Driver, is there a film that continues to address—both directly and indirectly—so much of what makes America simmer and sometimes explode? Network turned out to be so prescient it’s practically a documentary (and would this make Paddy Chayefsky cackle or cry?). Taxi Driver seems to provide both a macro and micro analysis of our combustible American experiment: violence, sex, repression, isolation, exploitation, poverty (for starters) and the ways these phenomenon push and pull on practically everyone, occasionally proving toxic for the least-equipped amongst us.

Two words: Bernard Herrman. Three words: Best Soundtrack Ever.

In the crowded field of contenders, a handful of geniuses easily distance themselves from the competition: Piero Umiliani is Bach, Nino Rota is Mozart, John Barry is Wagner, (John Williams is Stephen King), and Bernard Herrmann is Beethoven. (Ennio Morricone is God.)

There’s also Beethoven-level pathos in the fact that not only was this Herrmann’s final score, but he died literally hours after completing it. Added bonus: as Scorsese was largely unknown during pre-production, the notoriously cantankerous Herrmann was unmoved by the director’s desire to have him score the film. “I don’t write music for car movies,” he allegedly said. Only when he saw the scene where Travis pours peach brandy over his breakfast was he convinced.

Fact: during the immortal “You talkin’ to me?” scene, the screenplay simply read “Travis looks in the mirror.” (A reminder that not only was De Niro once an actor, during his prime there were few better.)

Apparently Scorsese first approached Dustin Hoffman to play Travis Bickle. It’s best to not even imagine how different this movie would have been.

Many other actors were considered for (even offered) the part, ranging from the intriguing (Jeff Bridges) to the preposterous (Burt Reynolds?!).

The fact that Paul Schrader spent some time sleeping in a car before writing the screenplay helps offer insight into the myriad ways everything about Taxi Driver feels so real.

In an interview, Albert Brooks relates the conversation (equal parts amusing and disturbing) where, after filming, Schrader thanked him for helping him “understand” Tom, the one character he didn’t understand.

The stories of method actors being method actors can be hilarious and embarrassing, but at times, instructive. It may seem obvious or facile, but the time De Niro took actually driving a cab around NYC enriches his performance. Just the way he stretches his sore neck after another endless evening is a deft, if subtle touch. It’s also a natural reaction from someone who has pulled some 15 hour shifts.

We rightly mock the onanism of thespians who believe staying in character throughout a shoot confers authenticity. How many actors, today, fresh off an Academy Award—as De Niro was in ’74—would actually spend any (much less substantial) time physically driving a cab?

Also noteworthy is the way De Niro, the ultimate New Yorker, is able to convincingly seem out of his element (on all levels) in The Big Apple. He supposedly studied the speech patterns of some soldiers from the Midwest (while on the set of Bertolucci’s 1900).

The issue of Bickle’s “complicated” views on racial relations is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) theme that recurs. In the original screenplay, the pimp (Harvey Keitel) and both the Mafioso and bodyguard/bouncer were all black. Consider that, and appreciate the credit Scorsese deserves for his better judgment—creative and cultural—in spite of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s objections.

No matter how controversial his treatment of race, in this or any movie, it’s impossible to pretend Scorsese is not rendering real people, however backward or repellant. Contrast this with another director who courts derisive scandal, Quentin Tarantino, whose characters’ bigotry always seems too gleeful by half. Where Scorsese, at his most incendiary, can credibly claim he’s interrogating certain experiences and observations of an adult with the filth of a city under his fingernails, Tarantino repeatedly comes off like a developmentally arrested video clerk who has lived his life watching movies.

According to legend, the actor intended to play the role of Bickle’s psychotic passenger (George Memmoli, memorable as Joey from Mean Streets) was injured and couldn’t make the shoot. Scorsese gamely stepped in and gave it a shot. Suffice it to say, the results are terrifying, and astonishing. The entire film holds a camera up to NYC’s shadiest back-alleys, and this scene depicts the rotten core inside these hearts of darkness as much as any of the more celebrated ones.

It’s fascinating to hear Scorsese (in interviews and the making-of feature) describing the way De Niro directed him during their scene together.

While so many other scenes continue to be discussed and celebrated, with good reason, De Niro nevertheless gives a clinic even as the camera mostly focuses on Scorsese. His economy of words and movement in this scene are extraordinary: for almost four whole minutes, the only thing Bickle says is “Yeah,” twice.

The best soundtrack scores contain music that can exist entirely outside the films they appear in (or were written for), yet are—for all the right reasons—inseparable from the movies themselves.

Perhaps more than any film, Taxi Driver portrays New York City as it used to be (for better and worse). Adding to an already claustrophobic script, the shoot occurred during a garbage strike over the course of an unusually sweltering summer. One can certainly see, and practically smell the mid-decade grime.

For visual evidence of how much the city has actually changed, this site does some wonderful work.

No matter how many times you’ve seen it—and you know it’s coming—the slow pan-up revealing Bickle’s Mohawk remains one of the more arresting, and disturbing visuals in all cinema.

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The aforementioned improvisation before the mirror is venerated as one of De Niro’s finest moments. For this writer, the unbearable moments that occur as Travis follows Betsy out of the porn movie might best illuminate De Niro’s mastery of craft. Even as his date (and we) cringe that he’s naïve enough to even consider a “dirty movie” (in Betsy’s words) appropriate, the fact that in this scene—and for large chunks of the movie—we feel empathy for Travis, a character we might understandably feel nothing but disgust for, is one of the primary reasons the movie resonates after repeated viewings.

A great many things occur throughout the course of the film, but few of them happen quickly. The languid pace of the action, obviously, reflects the tensions simmering below the surface. It’s possible that Scorsese’s directorial instincts were never quite as impeccable as they are in Taxi Driver. For instance, this: a scene so pitiful even the camera looks away.

Or this. The implication that Travis is rehearsing his own soliloquy (Hamlet meets the narrator from Dosteyevsky’s Notes from Underground), editing and perfecting it, in his mind.

Okay, one more. If I were forced to submit the single scene (in any movie) that best illustrates both loneliness and alienation, and the ironic disparity between what gets sold on TV (as normal, as achievable, as happiness) and what so many people actually experience, it would be difficult not to choose this one.

A lot of actresses auditioned for the role of Iris. Like dozens. Jodie Foster allegedly was not the first choice, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else doing the role similar justice.

Some serious heavyweights auditioned for the role of Betsy. Cybill Shepherd was far from the most talented of the lot, but she did exude the combination of beauty and banality the part required.

It’s a minor role, but it can’t be overstated how crucial Albert Brooks is for providing humor and fleeting relief from the near-suffocating intensity of the screenplay.

Even when it’s well-intended, we have an inclination to mythologize artists, particularly actors. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if the work warrants our adoration. That said, shrewd preparation is seldom sexy as improvised magic, but it’s often crucial for a convincing performance. Case in point, Harvey Keitel spending time with an actual pimp (and play-acting as a prostitute to really get a sense of the power dynamics at play) unquestionably provided heft and credibility to his uncanny turn as Sport.

Paul Schrader, naturally—and with Scorsese’s full blessing—scoured the streets to find a prostitute he could talk to. The young lady he eventually met not only informed the final script, she appears (as Jodie Foster’s friend) in the film.

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In terms of bang for buck, is there a character actor from this era who ended up in more epic films than Joe Spinell? In addition to a brief role in Taxi Driver, he also found his way into both Godfather movies, the first two Rocky movies, as well as Cruising, Nighthawks and Night Shift. He should be buried, with a plaque, beneath the Empire State Building.

How many movies have been as flawlessly cast, from the leads to the most minor characters (think Melio in the convenience store, or even the man attempting to rob him, or the Secret Service agent Travis attempts to impress, and not least, Peter Boyle (!) as Wizard).

As reliable and perceptive as Roger Ebert usually was, his speculation that the post-shootout epilogue is a dream sequence has always seemed remarkably undiscerning. Never mind that Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro all are on record as stating the opposite. Never mind that if Travis, from whose point of view we’ve seen all the action unfold, is dead but still “seeing” it undermines the narrative logic. The carnage, horrific as it is, is still only the second most grotesque aspect of the film. The most appalling incongruity is that Bickle’s viewed as a hero. The movie would already be an unqualified success, but with Travis (who, no sentient viewer should forget, was seconds away from attempting to assassinate a presidential candidate) being lionized by the media, Schrader et al. offer some of the darkest irony in cinema history. More, they anticipated an American media that’s only become more culpable for sanitizing or altogether misreading sensational acts because, naturally, sensationalism sells.

Even the ending isn’t really the end. Courtesy of the extremely ambivalent final shot of Travis seeing (or hearing, or sensing) something, and only catching his own eyes in the rear view mirror, the last image the viewer is left with is that Travis remains tightly wound. As the credits roll, one is left wondering if he might be in the news again, inevitably.

Eternal props to Tom Scott.

Apparently De Niro was on board for a sequel. Thank God for the rain that helped wash that garbage from our screens before it ever got made.

 

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 9/19/16.

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Nat Hentoff: Great American Hero

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Spiderman, I suppose, came first. Six or seven, comic book in hand, convinced there was no one cooler, no one more righteous, no one else I’d rather be.

After a while, kids figure out there’s no such thing as superheroes, but fortunately, there are sports. Who, circa 1978, inspired the combination of envy and aspiration? Yaz was already too old, Fisk too rough around the edges. Maybe Freddy Lynn; after all, what nine year old doesn’t want to play center field in Fenway Park?

A few years later, most adolescents have come to the painful and permanent realization that there’s absolutely no chance they’ll ever be professional athletes. What else can a precocious six grader do but lick his wounds and start reading Stephen King? Yes, by high school there were a few things of which I was certain: Larry Bird was even more of a badass than Spiderman, the Red Sox were never going to win a World Series in my lifetime, and I wanted nothing more than to be Stephen King when I grew up (A lot more on that HERE).

Flash forward several years and the combination of encouragement and rejection that forms the necessary cauldron any young writer must marinate in to emerge, many years after that, at best a mediocre, but still potential author. In short order, any lingering illusion is obliterated and the novice recognizes the prospects of Stephen King-level sales are even more remote than shooting webs out of his wrist. Still, this is what we have heroes for: to serve as guides or at least paradigms for our potential self-perfection. Or something

By the time you graduate college, you have put away childish things such as superheroes, and both sports and politics are mostly forms of entertainment, capable of instigating short-lived excitement, but the thrills are short-lived and seldom enough to sustain the occasionally crushing tedium of everyday existence.

Some seek solace in money, some succumb to cynicism, and the ostensibly fortunate folks thread the tightrope between awareness and oblivion—doing what life seems to require and not asking too many questions. And then there are the hopeless saps whose capacity for exhilaration cannot be quenched by drink or drug or job title.

What else is there? Jazz, of course.

Fortunately, I endured and explored long enough to figure out there are heroes, after all. They don’t wear capes, they don’t have the superhuman powers we typically associate with cartoon characters, and unlike Santa Claus, they are not something you grow out of; they are the opposite: entities you need to meet on their own terms, and invest the time and effort necessary to understand (and appreciate) the gifts they bestow. They don’t dress in costumes or uniforms, and no movie franchises have been created in their honor. All they do is save your life.

In my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, I attempt to describe what music has meant to me, throughout my life, and what it continues to mean:

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

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All of which brings us, circuitously, to a grateful acknowledgment of the spectacular life of Nat Hentoff, who has passed away, aged 91. As the various obituaries testify, Hentoff was a writer sufficiently productive and peripatetic to make Stephen King seem almost…indolent. Hentoff was a writer’s writer, as well as a reader’s writer. In addition, he was a musician’s writer. He was, in short, a hero. He was of the old school (in all the good ways) and so exceedingly erudite that there’s nothing he wrote that’s not worth checking out. And he wrote a lot.

I discovered Hentoff’s writing as I busied myself devouring as many jazz albums as I could afford, in those lean and hungry years, post-graduate school and pre-rest of my life. He became steadily familiar as the James Boswell of jazz, having written liner notes for seemingly every other immortal album that dropped in the mid-to-late 20th Century; a time, it should be remembered, when immortal albums were dropping all the time: during this brief period when jazz was as popular as it ever would be; America was Eden and these albums were apples, gifts full of wisdom, vitality and revelation. Naturally, many folks ignored them (then, now).

Equal parts interpreter and ambassador, Hentoff helped navigate these sounds, steering the novice toward key passages or to find otherwise elusive phrases for what this music is doing. (Of course, as always, it’s enough to simply affirm that it’s affirming, but part of being a hopeless sap is needing ways to articulate what and how and especially why.)

Understand, it’s all but impossible to describe an era before social media (where the artist can speak directly to the audience), or the Internet; before computers, before cable TV, before color TV. The role of the critic, particularly for an art form that is at times accessible and others, oblique—even for musicians—was not merely instructive, it was often obligatory.

Here he is, having the opportunity—and honor—to pen the liner notes for John Coltrane’s globe-shattering masterpiece, Giant Steps, the calling card announcing, effective immediately, there was a new Heavyweight Champion on the scene (and more, while Coltrane had already provided abundant proof he was allergic to stasis as both player and composer, Hentoff is prescient in perceiving that, perhaps, advanced as Trane now was, he would dig deeper and go further; within a decade it’s possible he took his gifts and, propelled by his compulsive questing, took them as far as any musician ever has):

What makes Coltrane one of the most interesting jazz players is that he’s not apt to ever stop looking for ways to perfect what he’s already developed and also to go beyond what he knows he can do. He is thoroughly involved with plunging as far into himself and the expressive possibilities of his horn as he can. (Full liner notes, and recommended further reading, here)

One thing about superstars is that they need not brag, and don’t need others to boast on their behalf. In Hentoff’s case, a cursory list of titans for whom he wrote liner notes starts to put his import into proper perspective: Andrew Hill, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus (that he wrote well over a dozen for Mingus speaks volumes, both about the ever-irascible bassist’s approbation and Hentoff’s powers of perception to “get” the challenging genius and make a ceaseless case for his significance), Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. Understand: this is a partial sampling of the veritable encyclopedia of liner notes Hentoff composed, which comprise a living history of the great American art form as it unfolded, in real time.

Perhaps the most personally meaningful of his myriad contributions (at once inadequate and yet entirely appropriate, in tiny print inside CD inserts) is the notes he wrote for Booker Little’s masterpiece, Out Front (an album he also produced). Little only lived to be 23, making him—for me, anyway—the apotheosis of premature artist deaths, in any genre. He recorded enough to leave ample evidence of his brilliance, but what he may likely have achieved renders one speechless. I wrote about Little in a piece called “Victory and Sorrow”, a meditation on jazz, life and death. Here’s an excerpt:

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating—and realizing—some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

Here is Hentoff, using his full powers of perception and insight to succinctly capture the almost otherworldly anguish and terribly beautiful profundity of Little’s trumpet:

I find Booker’s playing here—with its resemblance to a Spanish flamenco singer or a Jewish Cantor—exceptionally moving.

Check it out: “Moods in Free Time” flies from the starting block, bursting with ebullience that can scarcely contain itself; and then, after some portentous tympani from Max Roach, it slows and becomes almost elegiac. This is indeed exceptionally, almost unbearably moving expression. I’m not sure I can think of a better (if sadder) instance where a musical instrument has mirrored the bliss and torment of its creator.

Here is Hentoff, from the liner notes, discussing a piece written in his honor.

 “Man of Words” is, I’m told by Booker, dedicated to this writer…actually, it is Booker’s description of the writing process. One begins with an appallingly blank sheet of paper and a few ideas. The writer is seldom positive about how the piece will develop…eventually, a high (or a crisis) point is reached when the writer knows he he’s solved the problem and the piece will work out. The rest is embellishment, resolution, or exhortation. Although there has been a considerable amount of fiction writing about music…(this) is one of the rare examples of a musician describing writers in musical terms. Booker’s performance is an impressive display of sustained invention—and sustained clarity of line and feelings.

Here’s the thing about heroes: we all need them, even (and especially when) we no longer find ourselves able to believe. Fake ones are easy to find, and that much easier to forget. The real ones are out there, although it seems we’re not producing them nearly as often as we once did. So many of his words, offered in the service of his (and my) heroes, are not readily compatible with our increasingly all-digital habits of musical consumption. Put another way, it’s difficult to preserve the record if no one retains their records. Men like Nat Hentoff reaffirm my intense gratitude for being alive in a slower and more soulful time. If I’m sad to see him go, I’m appreciative of the work he did—the life’s work he respected and consistently refined.

In my modest and hopeful way, I’ll continue my own work, using his example (as a writer, as a human being) to seek out worthy subjects and celebrate them, accordingly.

A modest sampling of Hentoff's handiwork

A modest sampling of Hentoff’s handiwork, from my personal collection.

 

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Taxi Driver: 40 Thoughts for 40 Years

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Not many critics would name it as the best American movie, and it probably would rank as few fans’ favorite films. Is Taxi Driver, nevertheless, the most important American film? It is, in the sense that we need our best art to endure; to speak past trends and time, to tell us about ourselves while asking more questions than are answered (otherwise it’s philosophy or worse, literary theory).

Shakespeare’s oft-quoted notion of stories holding a mirror up to Nature has become a crutch if not cliché for describing what art does. As history continues to confirm that we’ve evolved less than we might hope or imagine in the intervening centuries since Hamlet soliloquized, the more relevant issue might be why art matters. As such, it’s probably Oscar Wilde who got it right when he declared “It’s the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

Taxi Driver might not even be Scorsese’s best movie, but it’s definitely in the Top One. Okay, Raging Bull could fairly be considered his ultimate achievement (although substantial credit must be given to the ready-made script and tag-team for the ages from De Niro and Pesci). Mean Streets may, for aficionados, be his most consistently watchable (aside from The Departed, but in terms of aesthetic heft, that comparison would be like an all-star game vs. what the Miracle Mets pulled off in ’69—de rigueur brilliance vs. once-in-a-lifetime lightning caught in a bottle of straw-covered Chianti). Goodfellas, of course, is Goodfellas.

Aside from Taxi Driver, is there a film that continues to address—both directly and indirectly—so much of what makes America simmer and sometimes explode? Network turned out to be so prescient it’s practically a documentary (and would this make Paddy Chayefsky cackle or cry?). Taxi Driver seems to provide both a macro and micro analysis of our combustible American experiment: violence, sex, repression, isolation, exploitation, poverty (for starters) and the ways these phenomenon push and pull on practically everyone, occasionally proving toxic for the least-equipped amongst us.

Two words: Bernard Herrman. Three words: Best Soundtrack Ever.

In the crowded field of contenders, a handful of geniuses easily distance themselves from the competition: Piero Umiliani is Bach, Nino Rota is Mozart, John Barry is Wagner, (John Williams is Stephen King), and Bernard Herrmann is Beethoven. (Ennio Morricone is God.)

There’s also Beethoven-level pathos in the fact that not only was this Herrmann’s final score, but he died literally hours after completing it. Added bonus: as Scorsese was largely unknown during pre-production, the notoriously cantankerous Herrmann was unmoved by the director’s desire to have him score the film. “I don’t write music for car movies,” he allegedly said. Only when he saw the scene where Travis pours peach brandy over his breakfast was he convinced.

Fact: during the immortal “You talkin’ to me?” scene, the screenplay simply read “Travis looks in the mirror.” (A reminder that not only was De Niro once an actor, during his prime there were few better.)

Apparently Scorsese first approached Dustin Hoffman to play Travis Bickle. It’s best to not even imagine how different this movie would have been.

Many other actors were considered for (even offered) the part, ranging from the intriguing (Jeff Bridges) to the preposterous (Burt Reynolds?!).

The fact that Paul Schrader spent some time sleeping in a car before writing the screenplay helps offer insight into the myriad ways everything about Taxi Driver feels so real.

In an interview, Albert Brooks relates the conversation (equal parts amusing and disturbing) where, after filming, Schrader thanked him for helping him “understand” Tom, the one character he didn’t understand.

The stories of method actors being method actors can be hilarious and embarrassing, but at times, instructive. It may seem obvious or facile, but the time De Niro took actually driving a cab around NYC enriches his performance. Just the way he stretches his sore neck after another endless evening is a deft, if subtle touch. It’s also a natural reaction from someone who has pulled some 15 hour shifts.

We rightly mock the onanism of thespians who believe staying in character throughout a shoot confers authenticity. How many actors, today, fresh off an Academy Award—as De Niro was in ’74—would actually spend any (much less substantial) time physically driving a cab?

Also noteworthy is the way De Niro, the ultimate New Yorker, is able to convincingly seem out of his element (on all levels) in The Big Apple. He supposedly studied the speech patterns of some soldiers from the Midwest (while on the set of Bertolucci’s 1900).

The issue of Bickle’s “complicated” views on racial relations is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) theme that recurs. In the original screenplay, the pimp (Harvey Keitel) and both the Mafioso and bodyguard/bouncer were all black. Consider that, and appreciate the credit Scorsese deserves for his better judgment—creative and cultural—in spite of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s objections.

No matter how controversial his treatment of race, in this or any movie, it’s impossible to pretend Scorsese is not rendering real people, however backward or repellant. Contrast this with another director who courts derisive scandal, Quentin Tarantino, whose characters’ bigotry always seems too gleeful by half. Where Scorsese, at his most incendiary, can credibly claim he’s interrogating certain experiences and observations of an adult with the filth of a city under his fingernails, Tarantino repeatedly comes off like a developmentally arrested video clerk who has lived his life watching movies.

According to legend, the actor intended to play the role of Bickle’s psychotic passenger (George Memmoli, memorable as Joey from Mean Streets) was injured and couldn’t make the shoot. Scorsese gamely stepped in and gave it a shot. Suffice it to say, the results are terrifying, and astonishing. The entire film holds a camera up to NYC’s shadiest back-alleys, and this scene depicts the rotten core inside these hearts of darkness as much as any of the more celebrated ones.

It’s fascinating to hear Scorsese (in interviews and the making-of feature) describing the way De Niro directed him during their scene together.

While so many other scenes continue to be discussed and celebrated, with good reason, De Niro nevertheless gives a clinic even as the camera mostly focuses on Scorsese. His economy of words and movement in this scene are extraordinary: for almost four whole minutes, the only thing Bickle says is “Yeah,” twice.

The best soundtrack scores contain music that can exist entirely outside the films they appear in (or were written for), yet are—for all the right reasons—inseparable from the movies themselves.

Perhaps more than any film, Taxi Driver portrays New York City as it used to be (for better and worse). Adding to an already claustrophobic script, the shoot occurred during a garbage strike over the course of an unusually sweltering summer. One can certainly see, and practically smell the mid-decade grime.

For visual evidence of how much the city has actually changed, this site does some wonderful work.

No matter how many times you’ve seen it—and you know it’s coming—the slow pan-up revealing Bickle’s Mohawk remains one of the more arresting, and disturbing visuals in all cinema.

travis-mohawk

The aforementioned improvisation before the mirror is venerated as one of De Niro’s finest moments. For this writer, the unbearable moments that occur as Travis follows Betsy out of the porn movie might best illuminate De Niro’s mastery of craft. Even as his date (and we) cringe that he’s naïve enough to even consider a “dirty movie” (in Betsy’s words) appropriate, the fact that in this scene—and for large chunks of the movie—we feel empathy for Travis, a character we might understandably feel nothing but disgust for, is one of the primary reasons the movie resonates after repeated viewings.

A great many things occur throughout the course of the film, but few of them happen quickly. The languid pace of the action, obviously, reflects the tensions simmering below the surface. It’s possible that Scorsese’s directorial instincts were never quite as impeccable as they are in Taxi Driver. For instance, this: a scene so pitiful even the camera looks away.

Or this. The implication that Travis is rehearsing his own soliloquy (Hamlet meets the narrator from Dosteyevsky’s Notes from Underground), editing and perfecting it, in his mind.

Okay, one more. If I were forced to submit the single scene (in any movie) that best illustrates both loneliness and alienation, and the ironic disparity between what gets sold on TV (as normal, as achievable, as happiness) and what so many people actually experience, it would be difficult not to choose this one.

A lot of actresses auditioned for the role of Iris. Like dozens. Jodie Foster allegedly was not the first choice, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else doing the role similar justice.

Some serious heavyweights auditioned for the role of Betsy. Cybill Shepherd was far from the most talented of the lot, but she did exude the combination of beauty and banality the part required.

It’s a minor role, but it can’t be overstated how crucial Albert Brooks is for providing humor and fleeting relief from the near-suffocating intensity of the screenplay.

Even when it’s well-intended, we have an inclination to mythologize artists, particularly actors. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if the work warrants our adoration. That said, shrewd preparation is seldom sexy as improvised magic, but it’s often crucial for a convincing performance. Case in point, Harvey Keitel spending time with an actual pimp (and play-acting as a prostitute to really get a sense of the power dynamics at play) unquestionably provided heft and credibility to his uncanny turn as Sport.

Paul Schrader, naturally—and with Scorsese’s full blessing—scoured the streets to find a prostitute he could talk to. The young lady he eventually met not only informed the final script, she appears (as Jodie Foster’s friend) in the film.

taxi-driver-1976-11-g

In terms of bang for buck, is there a character actor from this era who ended up in more epic films than Joe Spinell? In addition to a brief role in Taxi Driver, he also found his way into both Godfather movies, the first two Rocky movies, as well as Cruising, Nighthawks and Night Shift. He should be buried, with a plaque, beneath the Empire State Building.

How many movies have been as flawlessly cast, from the leads to the most minor characters (think Melio in the convenience store, or even the man attempting to rob him, or the Secret Service agent Travis attempts to impress, and not least, Peter Boyle (!) as Wizard).

As reliable and perceptive as Roger Ebert usually was, his speculation that the post-shootout epilogue is a dream sequence has always seemed remarkably undiscerning. Never mind that Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro all are on record as stating the opposite. Never mind that if Travis, from whose point of view we’ve seen all the action unfold, is dead but still “seeing” it undermines the narrative logic. The carnage, horrific as it is, is still only the second most grotesque aspect of the film. The most appalling incongruity is that Bickle’s viewed as a hero. The movie would already be an unqualified success, but with Travis (who, no sentient viewer should forget, was seconds away from attempting to assassinate a presidential candidate) being lionized by the media, Schrader et al. offer some of the darkest irony in cinema history. More, they anticipated an American media that’s only become more culpable for sanitizing or altogether misreading sensational acts because, naturally, sensationalism sells.

Even the ending isn’t really the end. Courtesy of the extremely ambivalent final shot of Travis seeing (or hearing, or sensing) something, and only catching his own eyes in the rear view mirror, the last image the viewer is left with is that Travis remains tightly wound. As the credits roll, one is left wondering if he might be in the news again, inevitably.

Eternal props to Tom Scott.

Apparently De Niro was on board for a sequel. Thank God for the rain that helped wash that garbage from our screens before it ever got made.

Forty years. Wow.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 9/19/16.

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In Defense of Stephen King (Revisited)

Stephen_King_we_never_sleep-256x400

(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!)

FACT: STEPHEN KING, the most successful author of our time, arguably toils more diligently than any other writer. For this alone he deserves recognition and respect.

To the haters: Yes, it’s unlikely any of his works will ever be dissected in graduate seminars. But ask any writer, in whatever genre, about their ultimate goal and the honest, simple answer is to be read. On this score, King has achieved what few authors, of any time, will. For this, too, recognition and respect—however grudging—is warranted.

To the savvy social media hipsters: How many likes did you get on that pithy post? You have how many Twitter followers? Keep channeling that energy into tweets, cultivate your online presence to evanescent perfection. King just wrote another novel while you refreshed your screen.

Here’s the Thing about King: he is so incredibly, so preposterously productive it’s not unreasonable to imagine the thousands (millions?) of trees that would still be standing if he’d at any time decided to take his foot off the throttle. Then again, how can we do anything but admire an artist for shutting out the very distractions we love to lament? How much reality TV time do you think King is racking up? How many hours is he wasting on Facebook? Sure, he’s afforded himself the luxury of not needing to pay the bills, so he gets up every day and punches a different kind of clock, and his time seems regulated not by machines but the engine inside him. This drive—it can’t be for money, it’s unlikely he craves more fame—keeps him engaged and, if it gives him no rest in the superficial sense, it’s provided him peace.

If he won’t be accused of being a craftsman, he should be celebrated for putting on his boots every day, without exception or excuse, and killing more trees. Stephen King is the Paul Bunyan of fiction, America’s literary lumberjack.

~

It’s actually not that difficult to imagine some of King’s novels getting the grad school treatment; at the very least they may be ripe for undergraduate-level exegesis: “English 301: Stephen King and the Pop-Culture Apotheosis”. Here, let’s give it a shot.

Salem’s Lot can be interpreted as an extended metaphor about the increasing cycle of parasitic capitalism, forcing blue collar folks to feed off the blood of the upper classes, until egalitarianism is achieved, at last, through eternal predation. (But no, it’s just a book about vampires rampaging through a small New England town.)

Cujo was written, so the author claims, while he was putting more blow up his nose than Tony Montana in Scarface. Perhaps we can reconsider the mucus-coated muzzle of the St. Bernard as an extended allegory regarding the danger and disempowering potential of hard drugs. Or greed, or power, or any vice. (But no, it’s just a book about a big rabid dog rampaging through a small New England town.)

Christine: a car possessed by the soul of its original owner, or a car that possessed the soul of its original owner, who now possesses the car that possesses the soul of its new owner: a Borgesian labyrinth deconstructing the self-abnegation and reincarnation inherent in the act of creation? (No, it’s just a book about a car rampaging through a small New England town.)

Is it exhausting reading this? It’s exhausting just writing it. Plus, the uninitiated could simply watch the movies. Though, in fairness, even the better movies are worse than the most mediocre books (yes, for my money that includes the overly saccharine and sentimental crowd favorites Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption). Again, one thinks of the recurring theme of carnage and the inestimable tonnage of trees…

~

Stephen King has been a bit more defiant in recent years, and he’s earned the right to be a tad truculent about his influence. Selling more than 350 million books and making multiple generations of readers into fanatics is undoubtedly gratifying and something a fraction of writers will ever experience. And he can boast penning at least three novels that anticipated colossal cultural trends: he made vampires cool again (a few decades ahead of schedule), he conjured up a delusional sociopath jump-starting a nuclear apocalypse before Reagan took office, and envisioned a devastating pandemic before AIDS became front-page news (‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and The Stand, respectively). This trifecta alone earns him street cred that should extend beyond literary circles. Yet clearly, the critical backlash accumulated over the years sticks in King’s craw. As an éminence grise who, it might also be pointed out, paid his dues for many years before his “overnight” success, he is aware he’ll always be a tough sell for the lit-crit crowd.

In his recent, extended interview in Rolling Stone, King is candid, calm, and not above throwing a few haymakers at some usual—and a couple of unusual—suspects. He gets his licks in on the insufferable Harold Bloom (who went out of his way to savage King when the latter won the National Book Award in 2003), whom he describes as taking “(his) ignorance about popular culture as a badge of intellectual prowess”. Fair enough. If King’s ghastliest work injures the eyes, it doesn’t quite deaden the senses the way Bloom’s sacred cow shenanigans often do. As such, King’s bitter tea tastes pretty sweet on the page, and he is justified for calling out people who dismiss him out of hand.

King correctly connects the dots between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jim Thompson; he rightly invokes Twain and delivers some welcome insights on the ways we are conditioned to receive and respond to different mediums. And his commentary begs necessary—or at least worthwhile—questions regarding labels and poles, high-brow and third-rate, and whether the twain shall meet (they always do, of course, as Mark Twain himself proves). His observations, for instance, on Jaws—and how movies are capable of attaining a credibility seldom afforded to popular fiction—offer a refreshing alternative analysis regarding what his work is, who it serves, where it appeals, and why it will endure, in its way.

And then, with a chip on his shoulder as Big as the Ritz, he takes a curious swipe at Fitzgerald, who probably spent more time polishing a paragraph than King takes to write a rough draft. He also sets his sights on Hemingway, and his remarks underscore how simultaneously disarming and exasperating King can be. “Hemingway sucks, basically. If people like that, terrific,” he shrugs, gauntlet thrown.

These comments are not as sacrilegious as they may seem, at first. It’s difficult to deny that Hemingway—and much of what he epitomized—continues to age poorly, and some of his novels are as overrated as some of King’s are unfairly maligned. On the other hand, The Sun Also Rises establishes sufficient evidence of Hemingway’s brilliance, and many of his short stories are more indispensable than anything King has written (particularly his own short stories). For all the hype and possibly deleterious influence of Papa’s minimalism, it does serve as an aesthetic antidote for King, a writer who edits his tomes the way weeds regulate their growth.

King asserts that he has elevated the horror genre, and few would disagree, even if some might say: “So?” He compares himself to Raymond Chandler whom he credits with elevating the detective genre. It’s clear that what King covets is more respect. His disdain for the Literary Industrial Complex is understandable, but—unfortunately for him—the people he loves to loathe are typically the arbiters of these matters. On one hand, he can point to his sales stats and declare victory (that’s what Hemingway might do; it’s also what Tom Clancy—whom King hopes to distance himself from—did). On the other hand, all the clever arguments and eyebrow-raising one-liners can’t accomplish what his work must do on its own accord. If sales and celebrity are what distinguish hacks from legends, in the end it’s always the writing itself that must outlast or endure the hype.

~

Let me tell you a story.

Stephen King has been very good to me. If I haven’t read anything he’s written since the late ‘80s, I sure as shit read everything up to that point. I first encountered him in grade school: I saw ‘Salem’s Lot, then I read it. Ditto Carrie. From then on, he was always there for me, a new book every time I needed one. By the time I caught up with the back catalog, he was on his early-to-mid decade roll, cranking out Cujo, Christine, Different Seasons, etc. It was also around this time that every King effort was made into a movie, so in many regards it was all King all the time for a while there.

It was the Ulysses of my adolescence; that novel contained the universe (known, unknown) to me, circa 1987. And if it transfixed me, then, I can still admire the adrenaline and drive, the ambition and sheer endurance it takes to attempt—much less pull off—such a project. When we found out, in 1985, that he was also pumping out product as Richard Bachman the scope of his capabilities became apparent. He was Beethoven: inhuman, unreal, too prolific to adequately measure in logical terms, teenager-wise.

It was my Holy Grail; even as a sixteen year old I suspected nothing could ever be the same, I stoically anticipated the inexorable comedown: How can he follow this? How can I? Coincidentally or not, soon thereafter I went to college, girls became more than a yearning concept (where they had heretofore been mostly unimaginable, even dangerous, if not quite able to start fires with their minds able to confound and incinerate my own illusions). An undergraduate no longer requires whimsical nightmares via fiction; he is too busy instigating them in real life. Above all, I read authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time. Hemingway, too, of whom it can succinctly be stated: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” conceivably has more heft than the best 100 pages King’s ever typed. In sum, I grew up. That’s not to suggest King is more suited for children, it’s to relate that the more widely I read, the more acutely I realized ten lifetimes would scarcely present an opportunity to cover the menu I was compiling.

And yet. King made me want to write. He made me want to be a writer. He was the one who consistently made the magic happen. He cracked the furtive code of storytelling: creating memorable, occasionally indelible characters, and, through the use of words and imagination, making our world more vital, more real. (And, importantly, he has never taken himself too seriously.)

Stephen King remains as relevant as ever, as a concept if nothing else. While we behold the ongoing implosion of the traditional (and often dysfunctional, elitist, undemocratic) book publishing industry, we should commend a multi-millionaire who is still, somehow, an underdog. King is an unacknowledged legislator of sorts, the man of the people most politicians pretend to be. Accuse him of anything, but no one can say King does not care—about his characters, his readers, his craft. Quick: how many artists of any kind, regardless of rank or reputation, roll out of bed and get busy every day, including weekends?

Even if the quality is forever debatable, King’s picture could hang on any aspiring writer’s desk. Not enticed by (more) money or accolades, King goes about his business without distraction or depletion: he puts pen to paper and does the work. That King is still driven by those demons and finds his faith (in writing, in himself) intact after all this time makes him a hero of sorts. Toward the end of the Rolling Stone interview he describes his vocation as only the luckiest and most blessed amongst us ever will: “It fulfills me,” he says. “There are two things I like about it: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.” There is a peace there, something that combines Zen and the certainty of a difficult job, dutifully done. It is, in the final analysis, good to be The King.

*This essay originally appeared at The Weeklings on 3/31/2015.

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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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In Defense of Stephen King

Stephen_King_we_never_sleep-256x400

FACT: STEPHEN KING, the most successful author of our time, arguably toils more diligently than any other writer. For this alone he deserves recognition and respect.

To the haters: Yes, it’s unlikely any of his works will ever be dissected in graduate seminars. But ask any writer, in whatever genre, about their ultimate goal and the honest, simple answer is to be read. On this score, King has achieved what few authors, of any time, will. For this, too, recognition and respect—however grudging—is warranted.

To the savvy social media hipsters: How many likes did you get on that pithy post? You have how many Twitter followers? Keep channeling that energy into tweets, cultivate your online presence to evanescent perfection. King just wrote another novel while you refreshed your screen.

Here’s the Thing about King: he is so incredibly, so preposterously productive it’s not unreasonable to imagine the thousands (millions?) of trees that would still be standing if he’d at any time decided to take his foot off the throttle. Then again, how can we do anything but admire an artist for shutting out the very distractions we love to lament? How much reality TV time do you think King is racking up? How many hours is he wasting on Facebook? Sure, he’s afforded himself the luxury of not needing to pay the bills, so he gets up every day and punches a different kind of clock, and his time seems regulated not by machines but the engine inside him. This drive—it can’t be for money, it’s unlikely he craves more fame—keeps him engaged and, if it gives him no rest in the superficial sense, it’s provided him peace.

If he won’t be accused of being a craftsman, he should be celebrated for putting on his boots every day, without exception or excuse, and killing more trees. Stephen King is the Paul Bunyan of fiction, America’s literary lumberjack.

~

It’s actually not that difficult to imagine some of King’s novels getting the grad school treatment; at the very least they may be ripe for undergraduate-level exegesis: “English 301: Stephen King and the Pop-Culture Apotheosis”. Here, let’s give it a shot.

Salem’s Lot can be interpreted as an extended metaphor about the increasing cycle of parasitic capitalism, forcing blue collar folks to feed off the blood of the upper classes, until egalitarianism is achieved, at last, through eternal predation. (But no, it’s just a book about vampires rampaging through a small New England town.)

Cujo was written, so the author claims, while he was putting more blow up his nose than Tony Montana in Scarface. Perhaps we can reconsider the mucus-coated muzzle of the St. Bernard as an extended allegory regarding the danger and disempowering potential of hard drugs. Or greed, or power, or any vice. (But no, it’s just a book about a big rabid dog rampaging through a small New England town.)

Christine: a car possessed by the soul of its original owner, or a car that possessed the soul of its original owner, who now possesses the car that possesses the soul of its new owner: a Borgesian labyrinth deconstructing the self-abnegation and reincarnation inherent in the act of creation? (No, it’s just a book about a car rampaging through a small New England town.)

Is it exhausting reading this? It’s exhausting just writing it. Plus, the uninitiated could simply watch the movies. Though, in fairness, even the better movies are worse than the most mediocre books (yes, for my money that includes the overly saccharine and sentimental crowd favorites Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption). Again, one thinks of the recurring theme of carnage and the inestimable tonnage of trees…

~

Stephen King has been a bit more defiant in recent years, and he’s earned the right to be a tad truculent about his influence. Selling more than 350 million books and making multiple generations of readers into fanatics is undoubtedly gratifying and something a fraction of writers will ever experience. And he can boast penning at least three novels that anticipated colossal cultural trends: he made vampires cool again (a few decades ahead of schedule), he conjured up a delusional sociopath jump-starting a nuclear apocalypse before Reagan took office, and envisioned a devastating pandemic before AIDS became front-page news (‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and The Stand, respectively). This trifecta alone earns him street cred that should extend beyond literary circles. Yet clearly, the critical backlash accumulated over the years sticks in King’s craw. As an éminence grise who, it might also be pointed out, paid his dues for many years before his “overnight” success, he is aware he’ll always be a tough sell for the lit-crit crowd.

In his recent, extended interview in Rolling Stone, King is candid, calm, and not above throwing a few haymakers at some usual—and a couple of unusual—suspects. He gets his licks in on the insufferable Harold Bloom (who went out of his way to savage King when the latter won the National Book Award in 2003), whom he describes as taking “(his) ignorance about popular culture as a badge of intellectual prowess”. Fair enough. If King’s ghastliest work injures the eyes, it doesn’t quite deaden the senses the way Bloom’s sacred cow shenanigans often do. As such, King’s bitter tea tastes pretty sweet on the page, and he is justified for calling out people who dismiss him out of hand.

King correctly connects the dots between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jim Thompson; he rightly invokes Twain and delivers some welcome insights on the ways we are conditioned to receive and respond to different mediums. And his commentary begs necessary—or at least worthwhile—questions regarding labels and poles, high-brow and third-rate, and whether the twain shall meet (they always do, of course, as Mark Twain himself proves). His observations, for instance, on Jaws—and how movies are capable of attaining a credibility seldom afforded to popular fiction—offer a refreshing alternative analysis regarding what his work is, who it serves, where it appeals, and why it will endure, in its way.

And then, with a chip on his shoulder as Big as the Ritz, he takes a curious swipe at Fitzgerald, who probably spent more time polishing a paragraph than King takes to write a rough draft. He also sets his sights on Hemingway, and his remarks underscore how simultaneously disarming and exasperating King can be. “Hemingway sucks, basically. If people like that, terrific,” he shrugs, gauntlet thrown.

These comments are not as sacrilegious as they may seem, at first. It’s difficult to deny that Hemingway—and much of what he epitomized—continues to age poorly, and some of his novels are as overrated as some of King’s are unfairly maligned. On the other hand, The Sun Also Rises establishes sufficient evidence of Hemingway’s brilliance, and many of his short stories are more indispensable than anything King has written (particularly his own short stories). For all the hype and possibly deleterious influence of Papa’s minimalism, it does serve as an aesthetic antidote for King, a writer who edits his tomes the way weeds regulate their growth.

King asserts that he has elevated the horror genre, and few would disagree, even if some might say: “So?” He compares himself to Raymond Chandler whom he credits with elevating the detective genre. It’s clear that what King covets is more respect. His disdain for the Literary Industrial Complex is understandable, but—unfortunately for him—the people he loves to loathe are typically the arbiters of these matters. On one hand, he can point to his sales stats and declare victory (that’s what Hemingway might do; it’s also what Tom Clancy—whom King hopes to distance himself from—did). On the other hand, all the clever arguments and eyebrow-raising one-liners can’t accomplish what his work must do on its own accord. If sales and celebrity are what distinguish hacks from legends, in the end it’s always the writing itself that must outlast or endure the hype.

~

Let me tell you a story.

Stephen King has been very good to me. If I haven’t read anything he’s written since the late ‘80s, I sure as shit read everything up to that point. I first encountered him in grade school: I saw ‘Salem’s Lot, then I read it. Ditto Carrie. From then on, he was always there for me, a new book every time I needed one. By the time I caught up with the back catalog, he was on his early-to-mid decade roll, cranking out Cujo, Christine, Different Seasons, etc. It was also around this time that every King effort was made into a movie, so in many regards it was all King all the time for a while there.

It was the Ulysses of my adolescence; that novel contained the universe (known, unknown) to me, circa 1987. And if it transfixed me, then, I can still admire the adrenaline and drive, the ambition and sheer endurance it takes to attempt—much less pull off—such a project. When we found out, in 1985, that he was also pumping out product as Richard Bachman the scope of his capabilities became apparent. He was Beethoven: inhuman, unreal, too prolific to adequately measure in logical terms, teenager-wise.

It was my Holy Grail; even as a sixteen year old I suspected nothing could ever be the same, I stoically anticipated the inexorable comedown: How can he follow this? How can I? Coincidentally or not, soon thereafter I went to college, girls became more than a yearning concept (where they had heretofore been mostly unimaginable, even dangerous, if not quite able to start fires with their minds able to confound and incinerate my own illusions). An undergraduate no longer requires whimsical nightmares via fiction; he is too busy instigating them in real life. Above all, I read authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time. Hemingway, too, of whom it can succinctly be stated: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” conceivably has more heft than the best 100 pages King’s ever typed. In sum, I grew up. That’s not to suggest King is more suited for children, it’s to relate that the more widely I read, the more acutely I realized ten lifetimes would scarcely present an opportunity to cover the menu I was compiling.

And yet. King made me want to write. He made me want to be a writer. He was the one who consistently made the magic happen. He cracked the furtive code of storytelling: creating memorable, occasionally indelible characters, and, through the use of words and imagination, making our world more vital, more real. (And, importantly, he has never taken himself too seriously.)

Stephen King remains as relevant as ever, as a concept if nothing else. While we behold the ongoing implosion of the traditional (and often dysfunctional, elitist, undemocratic) book publishing industry, we should commend a multi-millionaire who is still, somehow, an underdog. King is an unacknowledged legislator of sorts, the man of the people most politicians pretend to be. Accuse him of anything, but no one can say King does not care—about his characters, his readers, his craft. Quick: how many artists of any kind, regardless of rank or reputation, roll out of bed and get busy every day, including weekends?

Even if the quality is forever debatable, King’s picture could hang on any aspiring writer’s desk. Not enticed by (more) money or accolades, King goes about his business without distraction or depletion: he puts pen to paper and does the work. That King is still driven by those demons and finds his faith (in writing, in himself) intact after all this time makes him a hero of sorts. Toward the end of the Rolling Stone interview he describes his vocation as only the luckiest and most blessed amongst us ever will: “It fulfills me,” he says. “There are two things I like about it: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.” There is a peace there, something that combines Zen and the certainty of a difficult job, dutifully done. It is, in the final analysis, good to be The King.

*This essay originally appeared at The Weeklings on 3/31/2015.

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From The Annals of Inscrutability…Robert Plant! (Revisited)

RP

After praising The Marshall Tucker Band I reckon it’s time to break out the big guns.

Everyone can list a handful –or more– songs that have presented lyrical challenges. I can list dozens, and there are more than a few that I still am not certain about. And if I were to isolate the one band whose lyrics have been pound for pound most incomprehensible it would without question be Led Zeppelin. When I consider that they are one of my all-time favorite bands, and other than possibly The Beatles the band whose output I’ve logged more hours listening to, it’s curious, bordering on bizzare. This, of course, is not my fault; it’s on the singer. And the fact that we’re talking about one of the great vocalists ever, it is bizarre, bordering on unbelievable. This is the Golden God himself, but just because he has the best pipes doesn’t necessarily translate linguistically: it’s an enigmatic equation when snyntax meets delivery and the only thing that matters is intention: does it work; does it rock? Of course it does. And despite how impossible he often was to understand on every album after Houses of the Holy, it’s never been an issue. In fact, for all the years I struggled in vain (and without the Internets) to decipher what he was singing on songs like “Achilles Last Stand” or “In The Evening or especially (the ever-underrated) “Carouselambra”, it never hampered my experience. In fact, it just might have augmented it. And now that I can easily figure these riddles out, I’m not particuarly inclined to. Not knowings keeps that silly air of mystery alive and, frankly, after three decades and change of singing (and/or lip-synching) the wrong lines, it would at this point be like learning a new language.

I have more to say on this (in particular) and the mighty Zeppelin (in general) another time. In fact, I’m long overdue for some sustained analysis of Led Zep; after having –or taking– the opportunity to write about some of my BFFs the past several years (including The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, The Beatles, The Who and Black Sabbath), I’ve not made it a priority to pontificate on the only quartet that can challenge the Fab Four for title of “best band ever”. So, more on that, to be certain (and that is certain to occupy some real estate in the work-in-progress on all-things-prog-rock).

For now, I want to single out (and celebrate) what might be the song that has caused me the most confusion and joy over the years: “Burning Down One Side”. It’s been almost thirty years since I first heard it, and I still reckon I could guess half the lyrics, if I’m lucky. Let’s go to the back of the rack, from 1982 (!!), and revisit the first song from Robert Plant’s first solo album (!!!) Pictures At Eleven.

Okay, let’s catch our breath and review a few key points.

One: seriously, does anyone have any idea of what he’s saying, other than the times it’s obvious what he’s saying?

Two: how great is this song? Considering the wounds from John Bonham’s death were still raw in ’82 (they are still raw today, thank you very much), it’s remarkable bordering on heroic that Plant was able, much less willing, to make music so soon. (Quick sidenote: for all the people who want to slag off Zeppelin for the myriad reasons people feel obliged to slag off Zeppelin, let’s get one thing on the table: they were the only band to hang it up and keep it hung up. This would have been a no-brainer if Page or Plant had died, but considering it was “only” the drummer, not that many people would have protested if they had made a go of it into the ’80s with new blood. Not Zeppelin: all for one and one for all; they could not imagine being a band without John “Bonzo” Bonham, so they bloody well were not a band after John “Bonzo” Bonham. And they were absolutely correct: their legacy remains unsoiled in ways that we wish The Stones, The Who and at least a dozen other middleweight contenders could claim. They were Jim Brown walking away from the NFL while he was still, by far, the best player in the league, and possibly the best running back ever. They get eternal street cred and props for this, even if none of them ever made music nearly as good again.) Plant, to his credit, tried, and even though his solo career seemed a bit…superfluous by the early ’90s, who can fault the dude for wanting to do what he does?

Three: How magnificent is that guitar? Robbie Blunt should have become much more known and beloved than he happened to be, but he positively shines throughout Plant’s debut. If you slept on this release, it’s worth it not only for “Burning Down One Side” but also “Pledge Pin” (complete with sexy sax solo!), the rocking “Slow Dancer” and especially the sublime “Moonlight In Samosa”.

Four: that is Phil Collins pounding the skins. Yes, Phil Collins. A few things for youngsters and hipsters to be aware of: Phil Collins, in another lifetime, was not only a very worthwhile musician, he was also an outstanding drummer. (To quote Alec Baldwin as Blake from Glengary Glen Ross: “You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.”) Even the late ’70s and early ’80s Genesis had some game, and then, you know, Phil found the keys to the AOR Kingdom, and more power to him. More on that (and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, another band that will occupy serious screen space in the work-in-progress) soon.

Five: Isn’t it endlessly invigorating the way music (in general) and specific songs (in particular) can bring you right back to exactly where you were at a certain time in the past? I listen to “Burning Down One Side” and I can tell you precisely where I was, what I was doing, and what I was all about in January, 1983. I can tell you that I was reading Carrie by Stephen King (and missing Sissy Spacek’s unsettling but still-sexy shower scene from the movie version) while patiently waiting for Cujo to become available at the local library (and, having not read it yet, having no clue how awful the subsequent movie would be). I was in 7th grade and the two key achievements of that winter were the first games of spin the bottle and working on the wooden wall clock in shop class –the clock that still hangs at my old man’s house (for anyone reading this who went to Langston Hughes, can I get a shout out for Mr. Goss?). I was “going steady” with “G” but still hung up on “T” and probably already getting nostalgic about that first kiss with “S”. Above all, I listened to music in my room on a clock radio.

Six: I can’t figure out the words of this song, just like I can’t recapture those feelings and fears and discoveries from 28 years ago. Perhaps that is the primary reason I can’t –and won’t– look up the lyrics online: because it’s more important to feel it than to know it. Wasn’t that true of everything from your childhood? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that was still true, today?

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From The Annals of Inscrutability…Robert Plant! (Revisited)

3/2/2011:

After praising The Marshall Tucker Band I reckon it’s time to break out the big guns.

Everyone can list a handful –or more– songs that have presented lyrical challenges. I can list dozens, and there are more than a few that I still am not certain about. And if I were to isolate the one band whose lyrics have been pound for pound most incomprehensible it would without question be Led Zeppelin. When I consider that they are one of my all-time favorite bands, and other than possibly The Beatles the band whose output I’ve logged more hours listening to, it’s curious, bordering on bizzare. This, of course, is not my fault; it’s on the singer. And the fact that we’re talking about one of the great vocalists ever, it is bizarre, bordering on unbelievable. This is the Golden God himself, but just because he has the best pipes doesn’t necessarily translate linguistically: it’s an enigmatic equation when snyntax meets delivery and the only thing that matters is intention: does it work; does it rock? Of course it does. And despite how impossible he often was to understand on every album after Houses of the Holy, it’s never been an issue. In fact, for all the years I struggled in vain (and without the Internets) to decipher what he was singing on songs like “Achilles Last Stand” or “In The Evening or especially (the ever-underrated) “Carouselambra”, it never hampered my experience. In fact, it just might have augmented it. And now that I can easily figure these riddles out, I’m not particuarly inclined to. Not knowings keeps that silly air of mystery alive and, frankly, after three decades and change of singing (and/or lip-synching) the wrong lines, it would at this point be like learning a new language.

I have more to say on this (in particular) and the mighty Zeppelin (in general) another time. In fact, I’m long overdue for some sustained analysis of Led Zep; after having –or taking– the opportunity to write about some of my BFFs the past several years (including The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, The Beatles, The Who and Black Sabbath), I’ve not made it a priority to pontificate on the only quartet that can challenge the Fab Four for title of “best band ever”. So, more on that, to be certain (and that is certain to occupy some real estate in the work-in-progress on all-things-prog-rock).

For now, I want to single out (and celebrate) what might be the song that has caused me the most confusion and joy over the years: “Burning Down One Side”. It’s been almost thirty years since I first heard it, and I still reckon I could guess half the lyrics, if I’m lucky. Let’s go to the back of the rack, from 1982 (!!), and revisit the first song from Robert Plant’s first solo album (!!!) Pictures At Eleven.

Okay, let’s catch our breath and review a few key points.

One: seriously, does anyone have any idea of what he’s saying, other than the times it’s obvious what he’s saying?

Two: how great is this song? Considering the wounds from John Bonham’s death were still raw in ’82 (they are still raw today, thank you very much), it’s remarkable bordering on heroic that Plant was able, much less willing, to make music so soon. (Quick sidenote: for all the people who want to slag off Zeppelin for the myriad reasons people feel obliged to slag off Zeppelin, let’s get one thing on the table: they were the only band to hang it up and keep it hung up. This would have been a no-brainer if Page or Plant had died, but considering it was “only” the drummer, not that many people would have protested if they had made a go of it into the ’80s with new blood. Not Zeppelin: all for one and one for all; they could not imagine being a band without John “Bonzo” Bonham, so they bloody well were not a band after John “Bonzo” Bonham. And they were absolutely correct: their legacy remains unsoiled in ways that we wish The Stones, The Who and at least a dozen other middleweight contenders could claim. They were Jim Brown walking away from the NFL while he was still, by far, the best player in the league, and possibly the best running back ever. They get eternal street cred and props for this, even if none of them ever made music nearly as good again.) Plant, to his credit, tried, and even though his solo career seemed a bit…superfluous by the early ’90s, who can fault the dude for wanting to do what he does?

Three: How magnificent is that guitar? Robbie Blunt should have become much more known and beloved than he happened to be, but he positively shines throughout Plant’s debut. If you slept on this release, it’s worth it not only for “Burning Down One Side” but also “Pledge Pin” (complete with sexy sax solo!), the rocking “Slow Dancer” and especially the sublime “Moonlight In Samosa”.

Four: that is Phil Collins pounding the skins. Yes, Phil Collins. A few things for youngsters and hipsters to be aware of: Phil Collins, in another lifetime, was not only a very worthwhile musician, he was also an outstanding drummer. (To quote Alec Baldwin as Blake from Glengary Glen Ross: “You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.”) Even the late ’70s and early ’80s Genesis had some game, and then, you know, Phil found the keys to the AOR Kingdom, and more power to him. More on that (and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, another band that will occupy serious screen space in the work-in-progress) soon.

Five: Isn’t it endlessly invigorating the way music (in general) and specific songs (in particular) can bring you right back to exactly where you were at a certain time in the past? I listen to “Burning Down One Side” and I can tell you precisely where I was, what I was doing, and what I was all about in January, 1983. I can tell you that I was reading Carrie by Stephen King (and missing Sissy Spacek’s unsettling but still-sexy shower scene from the movie version) while patiently waiting for Cujo to become available at the local library (and, having not read it yet, having no clue how awful the subsequent movie would be). I was in 7th grade and the two key achievements of that winter were the first games of spin the bottle and working on the wooden wall clock in shop class –the clock that still hangs at my old man’s house (for anyone reading this who went to Langston Hughes, can I get a shout out for Mr. Goss?). I was “going steady” with “G” but still hung up on “T” and probably already getting nostalgic about that first kiss with “S”. Above all, I listened to music in my room on a clock radio.

Six: I can’t figure out the words of this song, just like I can’t recapture those feelings and fears and discoveries from 28 years ago. Perhaps that is the primary reason I can’t –and won’t– look up the lyrics online: because it’s more important to feel it than to know it. Wasn’t that true of everything from your childhood? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that was still true, today?

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From The Annals of Inscrutability…Robert Plant!

After praising The Marshall Tucker Band I reckon it’s time to break out the big guns.

Everyone can list a handful –or more– songs that have presented lyrical challenges. I can list dozens, and there are more than a few that I still am not certain about. And if I were to isolate the one band whose lyrics have been pound for pound most incomprehensible it would without question be Led Zeppelin. When I consider that they are one of my all-time favorite bands, and other than possibly The Beatles the band whose output I’ve logged more hours listening to, it’s curious, bordering on bizzare. This, of course, is not my fault; it’s on the singer. And the fact that we’re talking about one of the great vocalists ever, it is bizarre, bordering on unbelievable. This is the Golden God himself, but just because he has the best pipes doesn’t necessarily translate linguistically: it’s an enigmatic equation when snyntax meets delivery and the only thing that matters is intention: does it work; does it rock? Of course it does. And despite how impossible he often was to understand on every album after Houses of the Holy, it’s never been an issue. In fact, for all the years I struggled in vain (and without the Internets) to decipher what he was singing on songs like “Achilles Last Stand” or “In The Evening or especially (the ever-underrated) “Carouselambra”, it never hampered my experience. In fact, it just might have augmented it. And now that I can easily figure these riddles out, I’m not particuarly inclined to. Not knowings keeps that silly air of mystery alive and, frankly, after three decades and change of singing (and/or lip-synching) the wrong lines, it would at this point be like learning a new language.

I have more to say on this (in particular) and the mighty Zeppelin (in general) another time. In fact, I’m long overdue for some sustained analysis of Led Zep; after having –or taking– the opportunity to write about some of my BFFs the past several years (including The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, The Beatles, The Who and Black Sabbath), I’ve not made it a priority to pontificate on the only quartet that can challenge the Fab Four for title of “best band ever”. So, more on that, to be certain (and that is certain to occupy some real estate in the work-in-progress on all-things-prog-rock).

For now, I want to single out (and celebrate) what might be the song that has caused me the most confusion and joy over the years: “Burning Down One Side”. It’s been almost thirty years since I first heard it, and I still reckon I could guess half the lyrics, if I’m lucky. Let’s go to the back of the rack, from 1982 (!!), and revisit the first song from Robert Plant’s first solo album (!!!) Pictures At Eleven.

Okay, let’s catch our breath and review a few key points.

One: seriously, does anyone have any idea of what he’s saying, other than the times it’s obvious what he’s saying?

Two: how great is this song? Considering the wounds from John Bonham’s death were still raw in ’82 (they are still raw today, thank you very much), it’s remarkable bordering on heroic that Plant was able, much less willing, to make music so soon. (Quick sidenote: for all the people who want to slag off Zeppelin for the myriad reasons people feel obliged to slag off Zeppelin, let’s get one thing on the table: they were the only band to hang it up and keep it hung up. This would have been a no-brainer if Page or Plant had died, but considering it was “only” the drummer, not that many people would have protested if they had made a go of it into the ’80s with new blood. Not Zeppelin: all for one and one for all; they could not imagine being a band without John “Bonzo” Bonham, so they bloody well were not a band after John “Bonzo” Bonham. And they were absolutely correct: their legacy remains unsoiled in ways that we wish The Stones, The Who and at least a dozen other middleweight contenders could claim. They were Jim Brown walking away from the NFL while he was still, by far, the best player in the league, and possibly the best running back ever. They get eternal street cred and props for this, even if none of them ever made music nearly as good again.) Plant, to his credit, tried, and even though his solo career seemed a bit…superfluous by the early ’90s, who can fault the dude for wanting to do what he does?

Three: How magnificent is that guitar? Robbie Blunt should have become much more known and beloved than he happened to be, but he positively shines throughout Plant’s debut. If you slept on this release, it’s worth it not only for “Burning Down One Side” but also “Pledge Pin” (complete with sexy sax solo!), the rocking “Slow Dancer” and especially the sublime “Moonlight In Samosa”.

Four: that is Phil Collins pounding the skins. Yes, Phil Collins. A few things for youngsters and hipsters to be aware of: Phil Collins, in another lifetime, was not only a very worthwhile musician, he was also an outstanding drummer. (To quote Alec Baldwin as Blake from Glengary Glen Ross: “You think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.”) Even the late ’70s and early ’80s Genesis had some game, and then, you know, Phil found the keys to the AOR Kingdom, and more power to him. More on that (and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, another band that will occupy serious screen space in the work-in-progress) soon.

Five: Isn’t it endlessly invigorating the way music (in general) and specific songs (in particular) can bring you right back to exactly where you were at a certain time in the past? I listen to “Burning Down One Side” and I can tell you precisely where I was, what I was doing, and what I was all about in January, 1983. I can tell you that I was reading Carrie by Stephen King (and missing Sissy Spacek’s unsettling but still-sexy shower scene from the movie version) while patiently waiting for Cujo to become available at the local library (and, having not read it yet, having no clue how awful the subsequent movie would be). I was in 7th grade and the two key achievements of that winter were the first games of spin the bottle and working on the wooden wall clock in shop class –the clock that still hangs at my old man’s house (for anyone reading this who went to Langston Hughes, can I get a shout out for Mr. Goss?). I was “going steady” with “G” but still hung up on “T” and probably already getting nostalgic about that first kiss with “S”. Above all, I listened to music in my room on a clock radio.

Six: I can’t figure out the words of this song, just like I can’t recapture those feelings and fears and discoveries from 28 years ago. Perhaps that is the primary reason I can’t –and won’t– look up the lyrics online: because it’s more important to feel it than to know it. Wasn’t that true of everything from your childhood? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that was still true, today?

Share