Journalism/Criticism/Literature Bucket List Check-Off

My first published review was of Tom Robbins’s debut novel, Another Roadside Attraction. I am proud to say I got it pretty much right, claimed the guy would become wildly popular and have a flashy career.

So when I read that Robbins stated he found his voice when he wrote a 1967 review of a Doors concert for the alternative paper in Seattle, I had to track it down and read it. I mean, a favorite part of my career was spent doing the exact same sort of piece for the exact same sort of outlet!

So this afternoon there it was, in Wild Ducks Flying Backward: The Short Writings of Tom Robbins.

Yes, that would be doors. But, my God, what doors are these? Imagine jewel glass panels, knobs that resemble spitting phalluses, mail slots that glow like jack-o’-lantern lips — and not a welcome mat in sight. Enter if you dare, my children, exit if you can.

The Doors. Their style is early cunnilingual, late patricidal, lunchtime in the Everglades, Black Forest blood sausage on electrified bread, Jean Genet up a totem pole, artists at the barricades, Edgar Allen Poe drowning in his birdbath, Massacre of the Innocents, tarantella of the satyrs, bacchanalian, Dionysian, LA pagans drawing down the moon.

That’s that voice, alrighty.

I like to dream that, had I been Music Editor at the Helix in ’67, I would have had the insight to run that as is — evocative, funny, worthy of Jimbo and the Boys.

Guardian Music Critic’s Insights

A decent enough farewell piece (I was directed to it by a tweet from London Lee). But I think one of the five points is particularly bad and one particularly relevant and telling.

The first point is the clanger. “It’s a myth that critics could make someone popular.” WHAT!?! — If this is a major insight to you, you don’t understand what criticism does. The “make popular” tripe is just another duff variant on the canard that “critics tell people what to like.” Good criticism deepens your appreciation and understanding of what you listen to — and if an ace critic can’t turn you on to something fresh that you love, your tastes are too narrow to need criticism, anyway.

Although I’m not certain I know what’s going on with the second half of the first point — what are these “stories” exactly? — it seems to say: “serious criticism is out, backstory and profiles are in.” Nothing new about that — been Rolling Stone‘s basic agenda for 40 years.

The fifth point is the winner. I agree with every word about the dire narrowing of styles and experiences. I have spent my entire career trying to avoid situations where I would have to write about a performer for the fifth time — who cares if I had anything new to say — because everybody else is doing it and their latest release has really hot sales right now. I think it’s inevitable that fewer and fewer people will become passionately engage with music — there’s no adventure, no jolts, it’s boring.

Expert Witness Comment for the Week

On the exact same beam with Merritt/Magnetic box (which I have quite a history with already — still sorry it didn’t work out, Joe). With an ace full band and more variety in vocals, it would be a masterpiece for the ages. But terrific as it is. I enjoy the parade of musical styles, which catches you up more with each listen. The unexpected wowser is Merritt’s unconventional Boho childhood, which he reacted to by (thank Yod) not becoming a reactionary but by becoming a complex crank. And the song about the stepfather snapped my head around hard the second time I heard it. First time, I thought he was swatting away a particularly persistent asshole he worked for. Second time, with a flash it was plain this was, wow, about his Dad (or a stepdad).

I’ll settle on the excessive packaging of the five CDs because I think it’s among the graphic treats of the year. (That microscopic print, though …)

And after this latest re-listen, there’s no more doubt I need to go to the show both nights.

R.I.P.: Robert B. Silvers

The New York Review of Books and the Village Voice were the bookends of my literary fantasies about New York and the East Coast in general, back when I had never been out here. Brainy/wild — lively/civilized … they could make you feel less lonely out in the thickets and ranges. One aspect I most admired about NY Review is that it was thorough.

Hey, a Jackson Pollock I Actually Like!

Finished the Sebastian Smee book The Art of Rivalry (highly recommended) and one payoff of reading top-notch art books is that you are almost certain to find a work that you did not know that matters a bunch.

Now, with Francis Bacon (another subject in the book, paired with Lucian Freud) I’ve had an interesting evolution. He was dissed in John Berger’s The Art of Seeing in part because Berger claimed Bacon painted the way he did because his limited drawing skills left him no choice. When I read Berger 40 years ago I thought he maybe had a point — I had seen only reproductions of Bacon’s paintings. But about 20 years later I saw an actual Bacon retrospective and Berger was fried. The Irishman’s[*] paintings are shattering, harrowing, stupefying and intoxicating to look at. I agree with Berger it would be tough to have one in your dining room, but not because they are insincere, grotesque cartoons. It matters not a whit that Bacon “had” to paint the way he did.

It does make a difference that Jackson Pollock, even more technically challenged than Bacon, finally found an outlet all his own despite his limitations. I can’t get past the surface of almost all of his stuff I’ve seen — not because it’s “decorative” or whatever, but because it’s simply a chronicle of skittering mental chaos. This is not as dismissive as it might seem — every painting is a portrait of the artist’s mental state. But there’s no way into Pollock for me. Doesn’t help that Smee confirms how obnoxious, hateful, violent and deranged he was too much of the time. I’ve never bought the argument that you have to be a wild person to make wild art. (I do accept the weird rituals and routines of the ’30s-’50s art world in New York that Smee describes.)

But behold — suddenly in the midst of this, I am directed to a Pollock that is just a flicker before his breakthrough into his fame-gaining style. And I can read it emotionally. This work — not in his most famous action-drip mode — conveys torment and confusion with one’s own mind that moves me. It’s called “Stenographic Figure”:

pollock

There’s actually two figures, of course, but their postures, distortions, and above all the racket of forms scattered in front and behind and everywhere on the canvass feels exactly right to me. In this one, Jackson Pollock made you sense what he had to deal with every day, and even merge with it.

  • Reading more about Bacon I smacked my forehead as I reminded myself that, while he was born in Dublin, both his parents were English.