Friday, May 29, 2009
A: There is no parachute. They just push you out of the plane. You might have a backpack that looks something like a parachute, but just trying pulling on the ripcord. What ripcord? you might ask. Exactly.
And so you plummet toward the ground below you, thinking happy thoughts about the days when skydiving was a fun and inspirational activity.
I can already write the 2010 edition of this book. Here's the complete text:
Good God, if you have a job, hang on to it. Of course, this is beyond your control, so just hope for the best. Tens of millions of people have been laid off. Just hope you're not one of them. And if you have been laid off, figure out some way to pass the time. You'll have a lot of time to pass. Some people figure that it's a good time to go back to school. You might as well, because you won't be working. If you already have four degrees, oh well. Perhaps you need to be retrained. Alternately, you could stay at home and blog. There is good money to be made in blogging. Best of luck to you. You're gonna need it.
And as proof that spelling is very hard indeed, here is a photo from the National Spelling Bee, showing the misspelled state name of one of the contestants.
It is somewhat mind-boggling to me that I once spent months preparing to compete in a spelling bee. But I did. My father dutifully drilled me night after night, carefully checking my spelling against the Official Spelling Bee Speller. Whatever other issues he had, and he had some, I have to give him props. The man spent hundreds of hours preparing his kid for a spelling bee. Greater love than this few people have.
Last night was the intense final in Washington, D.C. The best spellers in the world congregated in the nation's capital (def: a city serving as a seat of government; not capitol) to watch spelling bee veteran Kavya Shivashankar, appearing in her fourth national competition, prevail thanks to a combination of steely nerves, long hours of practice, and an incredible mind for minutiae and ephemera.
Did I watch? Are you kidding? Lebron and the Cavs were fighting for their playoff lives, and I still hold out the slim hope that the beleaguered, championship-starved city of Cleveland will soon have much to celebrate. Sorry, Kavya. But I was pleased to note that Kavya's winning word was "laocidean," meaning "lukewarm" or "indifferent." Bible scholars the world over rejoice. My daughter tells me that the National Spelling Bee is the occasion for drinking games on every college campus in the country. I wouldn't know. But I take a bit of rueful pride in the fact that millions of people now watch these kids compete. Cheers.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
We all know how this country's forefathers founded a Christian nation that guaranteed freedom and equality for white males. And now we can read about the unexplored parallels between the Word of God and American history in a handy parallel commentary that explains God's approval of Manifest Destiny right alongside the blessed Word. Did you know, for example, that a biblical prophecy ("I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth" -- Zechariah 9:10) was fulfilled in the person of one Christopher Columbus, who was predestined by God to bring the gospel to an unreached people group (i.e., the Native Americans who, Lord bless 'em, had to put up with a little raping, pillaging, murder and enslavement as part of the good news of salvation). Praise God.
This thing will probably fly off the shelves faster than a new shipment of ammo in a neighborhood in racial transition. Kudos to Thomas Nelson Publishers for having the virile, sanctified American balls to finally publish the Truth. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if some rival so-called "Christian" publisher comes out with just the opposite, maybe a Pacifist's/Commie's Study Bible (Jesus' words in yellow, social justice passages in Bolshevik Red), or something like that. I'd like to see the cage match between those two once the bookstore closes. My prediction is that the American Patriot's Bible would beat the shit out of the cover of the PC Study Bible, and the PC Study Bible would turn its front cover to its back cover, which would then be bitch-slapped by the American Patriot's Bible.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
A problem? Not really, particularly when that somewhat derivative music is presented this winsomely. The Receiver's 2006 debut Decades revealed a band in love with heady if sometimes insular chamber rock. Musical and lyrical motifs reappeared from song to song, and if the lack of narrative structure suggested that "concept album" was too strong a term, it was still clear that the brothers Cooper were up to something a little more thoughtful and substantive than the usual three-minute mopery. It was an impressive start. The followup, the recently released Length of Arms, is better in every way, and reveals not only the expected Radiohead influences, but a beefed-up synth attack and, God help me, a love of hoary '70s prog rock that only contemporary bands like Arcade Fire and The Decemberists can pull off well. Add The Receiver to that rarefied list.
Like its predecessor, Strength in Numbers is best appreciated in its entirety. That's not to say that individual songs don't stand out. They do. First single "Visitor" features the kind of propulsive dream pop that Blonde Redhead has mastered, and closer "Amazing Thing" recalls some of the more wistful, melancholy, late-summer-turning-to-autumn sounds of Surf's Up-era Beach Boys. If it's not exactly sunny music, it's at least only partly cloudy. But several short instrumental passages ("Hide," "Shimmer," "Dislocation") connect the more substantial songs, and the ever-shifting melodies suggest a musical zeitgeist that used to result, back in the day, in album titles such as Tales from Topographic Oceans and song titles such as "The Revealing Science of God -- Dance of the Dawn."
It's not as dire as it sounds, and there's no need to break out the capes. Yes, the intro to "Little Monster" reveals the classical-music-on-steroids approach that bands like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and Yes worked, and frequently overworked, to distraction, and "Dislocation" features a mighty pipe organ solo that would have fit in perfectly on The Arcade Fire's "Intervention." But there is a distinct, organic warmth to these tracks, and a focus on song as song, two traits that could never be pinned on the ancient musical wizards. That warmth is most evident in Jesse's insistent drumming (listen to him slam on "Skin and Bone"), and in Casey's introspective, confessional lyrics and surprisingly soulful, soaring vocals. If Thom Yorke is an Ice Prince, then Casey Cooper is the ruler of a realm where spring is just around the corner.
In short, this is a very, very fine album. Call it Kid B if you must. I like to think of it as Hail to the Thieves. They've borrowed the best from the best, and made something entirely their own.
Monday, May 18, 2009
But here's a fact: the world does not need, and you do not need, 95% of the music released in 2009. Some of it is horrible. But more often than not, it is neither wondrous nor hideous. It is mediocre. Furthermore, the mediocrity crosses all genres and sub-genres. Sure, I have my own likes and dislikes, and some genres approach the 100% mediocre-to-hideous threshold for me. Are you listening, American Idol fans? But even my most beloved genres -- good, old-fashioned power pop, Americana, blues, jazz, folkie singer/songwriters with raspy voices -- offer their share of utterly disposable swill. I love Americana, but I never, ever want to hear another songwriter in a beat-up John Deere cap rhyme "pickup truck" and "out of luck." Get unstuck. Discover new rhymes. Even my heroes are not immune. Bob Dylan, who has written more great songs than any other three great songwriters who have ever lived, offers up this gem on his latest album:
I cross the old schoolyard
Admitting life is hard
What? This is such a headscratcher that I'm not sure I even want to know the connection between Bob's elementary school memories and his creeping depression and ennui. And since the connection is never explored in the song, it seems fair to conclude that Bob was just looking for a lazy rhyme. Apparently "spikenard" and "lifeguard" were already taken. Both would have made as much sense, which is to say that they would have made no sense at all.
Mediocre, mediocre, mediocre. It's everywhere I turn. So why, let me ask you, must album reviews insist on inflating the worth of every album? Take a look at metacritic.com. Scroll down through those album rankings of several hundred albums released this year. Notice anything? How about the fact that lowest rated album released this year has an overall score of 51 out of 100. If you'd like it spelled out differently, that's 2.5 stars out of 5. For the worst album of the year?
I don't believe it. To me, a score of 50 out of 100 means that half the albums released have been worse than the album under consideration, and half the albums released have been better. But clearly, when 51 represents the bottom of the barrel, the results mean something different. There is something amiss when well over half the albums reviewed have received a score of 70 (three-and-a-half stars) or better. Surely there must be a way to say, in polite but firm tones, that this album really isn't worth anyone's time. Right? Life is short. And reviewers do a disservice to their readers if they insist on ranking everything from "pretty good" to "great." "Take a pass" is still a perfectly valid response some of the time. Perhaps even most of the time.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Now there's a recession on, and talking heads debate the meaning of it all, and spout theories, and quote economic indicators. But the best and worst economic indicator I know says that you can take your 20 years of schooling, and nowadays they don't even put you on the dayshift. There is no dayshift. And people who love what they do, and do it very well, are in danger of having nothing to do at all.
If you can help, now would be a good time.
The Campaign to Save Paste
Dear Paste readers,
We write this letter with great appreciation for all you’ve done for Paste, as well as sorrow that we need to come to you and ask for further support. The economy has taken its toll on Paste, and we need your help to continue.
As the global recession has continued, many of you have written us (especially as ad pages shrunk) to say, “If you ever need help, let us know.” That day has come.
Today, we are launching the “Campaign to Save Paste" to raise money to keep Paste coming to your mailboxes and computer screens. If you are in a position to give even a little, please consider donating. As thanks for your generosity, over 70 amazing artists (including The Decemberists, Neko Case, Bob Mould, Cowboy Junkies, Indigo Girls, The Jayhawks, Brandi Carlile, John Roderick of The Long Winters, Patterson Hood, The Avett Brothers and Josh Ritter—with more to come) have gathered and donated rare & exclusive MP3s for all who join us in the campaign. Here's what artists are saying about why Paste should be saved.
As a completely independent company, Paste has struggled for the past nine months as advertisers have decided to wait out the recession. As most of you realize, magazines are heavily subsidized by advertising. Industry experts estimate that an average subscription for a monthly publication would cost $60-$80 per year without advertising support.
But last month was brutal. Cash received unexpectedly reached an all-time low, and turned a tough situation into a short-term crisis.
Long-term, Paste will emerge in good shape. Even with the fall-off at the end of the year, 2008 was our best year yet—print subscribers, print ads, online readers and online advertising were all at record levels. Readers (print and online) remain strong. And new advertisers have come on board even in the recession, with more ready when their advertising budgets come back.
In the meantime, we’ve adjusted our business to weather this storm. We’ve cut costs, and we developed a robust online business that’s among the best in the industry. Fundamentally, we’re in good shape and won’t need another appeal down the road. But it’s taken us until this point to get there—leaving us critically low on cash, without some large corporation behind us to bridge the gap.
We’ll make it through this short-term economic crisis—but it’s only with your help. Our fate is (and has been and always will be) in your hands. Big-time investors are not “in the game” right now—but readers can rise up and “invest” in Paste’s future. Will you be a part?
We appreciate all of your support so far—everyone who’s subscribed, given a gift, or even read a story online or opened a newsletter. It’s all enabled us to make it this far. Now, we humbly ask you to consider giving a little more.
It doesn’t take much. Every little bit helps and you can be a part of continuing our efforts to help you find signs of life in music, film and culture. If $1 (yes, one dollar) came in from everyone on our e-mail lists (or $10 from 10% or $100 from 1%), we’ll reach our goal and emerge from this recession as a stronger magazine and website. While we’re not a non-profit (this isn’t a tax-deductible gift), know that every dollar you give goes into keeping Paste alive and, ultimately, making it even better.
While you’re at it, also let us know what more you’d like to see from Paste. What should we do (or do better) online to help you discover new music, film and more? As advertising comes back and the magazine thickens, what would you like to see in print?
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With our sincerest thanks,
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PS. As thanks for your help, a number of our favorite musicians and labels have donated free rare & exclusive MP3s (from artists including She & Him, Arrested Development, Shawn Mullins, Samantha Crain, State Radio, Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3, Rogue Wave, Passion Pit, Over the Rhine, The Minus 5 and more) for everyone who donates. And as more artists contribute, you'll have access to those songs as well. We also have a number of goodies (such as signed R.E.M. posters, an ocean-view cabin on next year's Cayamo cruise, and more) to give to donors in random drawings. And, anyone giving $350 or more will receive a lifetime subscription to Paste as a thank you.
Blackberry Smoke are four righteous southern rockers who wear the uniform with panache; hair down to the middle of their backs, beards down to the middle of their chests, bandannas firmly in place. They've been genetically programmed to carry on the proud good ol' boy tradition and fast-frozen since 1976. Recently thawed, they've unleashed their second album Little Piece of Dixie upon an unsuspecting public that has forgotten the dubious appeal of pickup trucks, coon dogs, rednecks and longnecks, and the sweet charms of the little missus.
This is admittedly not my favorite genre of music, and I hope you'll excuse me if I fail to hearken back to the glory days of the Confederate flag. That said, these guys do it up just the way Ronnie and the Skynyrd boys used to do it, with sturdy southern rock riffs buttressing Charlie Starr's (is that a southern rock god name, or what?) soulful, deep-fried vocals. "Shake your magnolia," one songs proclaims, and the flower of southern womanhood quivers in anticipation. My favorite is the song where the work-weary narrator begs his woman to hold off on the tales of unpaid bills, the woes of the kids, and the news of politics, religion, and war until he can finish his beer. "I'll get to the bottom of that right after I get to the bottom of this," he tells her. Priorities are priorities. If bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, .38 Special, and Molly Hatchet bring a nostalgic tear to the eye, then Blackberry Smoke will delight you. Just watch what you put on the back of the pickup truck.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Aside from that, I find that "re-training" is one of those words that everyone uses, but no one can define in even the slightest meaningful way. "What do you have in mind?" I ask them. They hem and haw. "Oh, maybe going back to college," they suggest. Ah. Perhaps, after studying Creative Writing, Theology, Education, and Business Administration, the fifth degree will be the charm. I want to tell them that I can already write a sonnet on economic recessions, ponder the soteriological implications of bringing nothing to God (easier today than ever before), teach young, unsuspecting college graduates about the pitfalls of the State of Ohio Unemployment Compensation website, and calculate the return on investment (ROI) ratio on an income of $0.00. I can even quote song lyrics. "Nothin' from nothin' leaves nothin'," Billy Preston once sang. That's all the business acumen you need these days.
America, in the fall of 1929, was like a cicada. It had come to an end and a beginning. On October 24th, in New York, in a marble-fronted building down on Wall Street, there was a sudden crash that was heard throughout the land. The dead and outworn husk of the America that had been cracked and split right down the back, and the living, changing, suffering thing within -- the real America, the America that had always been, the America that was yet to be -- began now slowly to emerge. It came forth into the light of day, stunned, cramped, crippled by the bonds of its imprisonment, and for a long time it remained in a state of suspended animation, full of latent vitality, waiting, waiting patiently, for the next stage of its metamorphosis.
The leaders of the nation had fixed their gaze so long upon the illusions of a false prosperity that they had forgotten what America looked like. Now they saw it -- saw its newness, its raw crudeness, and its strength -- and turned their shuddering eyes away. "Give us back our well-worn husk," they said, "where we were so smug and comfortable." And then they tried word-magic. "Conditions are fundamentally sound," they said -- by which they meant to reassure themselves that nothing now was really changed, that things were as they always had been, and as they always would be, forever and ever, amen.
But they were wrong. They did not know that you can't go home again.
-- Thomas Wolfe, from You Can't Go Home Again, 1938
Monday, May 11, 2009
"Okay," I thought to myself. "I'd like to meet this guy sometime." We exchanged emails from time to time, but I didn't have the chance to meet him until the recently concluded Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College. Dave was there presenting a paper on rock bands influenced by Flannery O'Connor and southern gothic culture. I was there to play American Idol-like judge in a new bands contest. And we finally met at Calvin and had a wonderful dinnertime conversation over Chinese food, and Dave promised to send off his new album as soon as it was mixed. It arrived today.
Have you ever experienced the sonic equivalent of being slammed against a wall? That's this album Pistol City Holiness. These are the most impolite blues ever performed by a Christian, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Well, maybe Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Willie Johnson are in this rude choir as well, but that's pretty great company. Dave shreds on the guitar and wails like a banshee, and the superb band (Reece Wynans, Richard Price, T.J. Klay, Mel Watts, Ashley Cleveland) absolutely rips it up behind him. This is primal stuff, it rocks like crazy, and it's the unfiltered deal, both sonically and lyrically, featuring tales of knife fights, long gone sweethearts, the Holy Ghost, cherryfish and chicken, tent revivals, unemployment, and mercies that are new every morning. It also features the stellar lines "She's a hell of a woman when she's all dressed up for church," "I would hang with the Baptists if they could get that girl for me" and "I coulda been a preacher man but there's a hellhound on my trail." Amen, brother. You and me and Robert Johnson make three. I don't really qualify, at least on the blues front, but I know I'm in damn good company.
Patrick Watson -- Wooden Arms
Tom Waits trashcan percussion, Thom Yorke moans, and ever-evolving Andrew Bird melodies. No whistling. Darn. But a very fine, atmospheric, and lovely album. Watson's 2006 album Close to Paradise raised some eyebrows by beating out Feist and Arcade Fire for a Polaris Award, Canada's equivalent of the Mercury Prize. This one is better. Watson has lost the Chris Martin/Coldplay affectations, and if he retains the Bird and Radiohead influences, it's hard to fault him for that.
Pine Leaf Boys -- Homage au Passe
Beausoleil gets all the Cajun love, and rightly so. But Pine Leaf Boys are considerably younger and rowdier, albeit equally steeped in the tradition, and the fiddles and accordions jump throughout. If you're still of the opinion that the accordion can't rock, you really need to hear this. There's a bit of rockabilly here, a bit of Hank Williams high lonesome country, and a whole lot of Cajun rocking and reeling. Great stuff.
Patterson Hood -- Murdering Oscar (and other Love Songs)
Sure, there are plenty of echoes of Drive-By Truckers here (how could there not be?), and the DBT folks are out in force, but Hood also enlists his old man David on bass (merely one of the best ever), and Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel mastermind Will Johnson on various stringed instruments and vocals. Most of these songs were written 15 years ago, before the Truckers got it in gear, and a few of them sound tentative. But musically, this is the best smoldering Crazy Horse album since, well, Weld. Do you remember how to do this, Neil?
Friday, May 08, 2009
Thanks in no small part to Bruce Springsteen, the place has always had a romantic appeal for me. Bruce immortalized the dingy bars and seedy arcades on albums such as Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. I never took part in the life on and under the boardwalk, but I did, for a while, date a barefoot Jersey girl who drank warm beer while sitting on the hood of a Dodge, and I've been inside the Stone Pony, where Bruce got his start, so I've always claimed honorary residency. It's a mythic place, at least in song. The reality is probably somewhat different. As far as I know, Lucent Technologies, formerly AT&T Bell Labs, has laid off most of its staff, so there couldn't be that many corporate beachcombers strolling the boardwalk these days. It was all a long time ago.
But it comes back when I listen to Tom Waits' great song "Jersey Girl." Unfortunately, there's no good YouTube version of Tom singing his song, but Bruce Springsteen isn't a bad consolation prize. Here's Bruce conducting a choir of 20,000.
Down the shore everything's alright.
You're with your baby on a Saturday night.
I just found out that the job opportunity I'd pinned my hopes on -- the one I've been holding out for, hoping and praying that it might become a reality -- has been eliminated due to budget cuts. So I could use a strong dose of good, old-fashioned romantic hope today. Sha la la la la la sha la la la.
Thursday, May 07, 2009
So there's Paul, on the cover of his second album Passione, which I'm going to take a wild guess is Italian for "passion," looking broodingly out over Venice's Grand Canal. If you had translated Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" into Italian, and actually had the audacity to call it "La Prima Volta," you might brood, too. Here's the deal: Italian is cool, and makes people feel all sensitive and sophisticated and brooding. You will be able to listen to this album and instantly feel, like, urbane and cosmopolitan. Even with Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Paul doesn't do much to vary the formula that made his debut album such an international hit: mix in a couple operatic arias, a couple pop staples, and a soupcon of Broadway (okay, sorry, wrong language), slather on the bombastic string arrangements, and belt the hell out of all of them. In Italian. And so we have the aforementioned "La Prima Volta," Nino Rota's "Un Giorno Per Noi" (Italian for "A Time For Us"), Procol Harum's immortal recitatif "Senza Luce" (Italian for "A Whiter Shade of Pale"), and something called "Mamma" (Italian for "mamma"). It will probably sell a zillion copies, and all the PBS listeners will bask in their sophistication and in their support for the underdog. And cornpone is still la cornpone, even when you translate it.
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
Here's what the press release has to say:
The Present return with an album that delves ever deeper into the human psyche. Like an audio equivalent of Apocalypse Now, ‘The Way We Are’ is by turns terrifying, enchanting, hallucinatory and sharply focused. Like a psychedelic power trio from a mythical dimension, The Present create a music that seems somehow familiar. Like they’ve already seen your dreams and your nightmares.
In order to define the music you’re about to hear it might help to list some of the things it is not: it is not a pop album, neither is it a classical or jazz album. It’s not an ambient album or a rock album either but there are elements of all of these within its dense musical structure.
Touchstones include the music of La Monte Young, Dmitri Shostakovich, Wolfgang Voigt, Cluster, Black Dice, Claude Debussy, Aphex Twin, Can, Arthur Russell, Boredoms and Brian Eno and yet it sounds like none of these.
What it is: a kaleidoscopic trip influenced by New York City, The Ocean, Mountains, The Sun and the Trees, Andy Warhol, Yukio Mishima, David Lynch, Friedrich Nietzsche, Buddhist Mantra, Mass Transit, Cats, Birds and Life. Life in all its myriad complexity and confusions, in all it’s transcendent beauty and it’s horrendous brutality.
Oh my. This is some scary stuff, particularly the references to cats and Friedrich Nietzsche (banjo in the University of Basel Bluegrass Band, as I recall) in a musical context. There are passages that remind me of Gyorgi Ligeti's creepy monolith music on the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack. Others remind me of Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd at their trippiest, with a little Japanese folk song mixed in for good measure. One track is 33 minutes long. You have been warned.
That said, I like it. The Present is primarily the brainchild of one Rusty Santos, who has collaborated with Panda Bear and Animal Collective. This is a strange, eerie, dissonant, and occasionally lovely album.
Monday, May 04, 2009
I'm a lot like you were
-- Neil Young, "Old Man," 1971
Comes a time when the hippies start looking old, and for Neil that moment has come. It's okay. He's certainly not going out peacefully or quietly. His latest album, Fork in the Road, reminds me of why I love him. He's cantankerous, ornery, and he plays a great guitar.
There's a bailout comin' but it's not for you/It's for all those creeps hiding what they do," he sings on one song. On another one he asks, "Where did all the money go/Where did all the cash flow?" Let me know if you figure it out, Neil. These rhymes are not going to win him any poetry laurels. But they sure do strike a nerve. I'm going to be reviewing the new one for Paste. Neil hasn't done a thing to impress me in well over ten years, but this one is decent, raw, unpoetic, and pissed off. I'll take that.
I'm also going to be reviewing the long-awaited Archives release. Neil's (reportedly) kept a bunch of goodies in the vault for decades. I look forward to hearing these songs, some of which are legendary.
Friday, May 01, 2009
-- Thomas Wolfe, from Look Homeward, Angel
Almost a year and a half ago, on a raw January day, I strolled from midtown Manhattan down to Greenwich Village. Subways are great, and no doubt part of the full NYC experience, but for me there is no substitute for walking, for absorbing the sights and sounds, the aromas and the stink, the honking horns, the soft pretzel vendors hawking their wares on every street corner, the army of the corporate drones marching to work, iPod earbuds firmly in place.
One of the places I passed was the Hotel Chelsea. There may be more famous hotels on the planet, but I'm not aware of them. This one has certainly seen better days. It's seedy, tawdry, and full of history, both good and bad. It's housed Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, William S. Burroughs, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, and Thomas Wolfe. Stanley Kubrick, Milos Forman, Dennis Hopper, Uma Thurman, and Jane Fonda once called it home. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, and The Ramones wrote songs here. Sid Vicious murdered his girlfriend here, and caught the place on fire. The Last Outpost of Bohemia, some have called it. Given its subsequent history in my life, The Last Outpost of Romanticism might be more accurate.
If there are ghosts, surely the Hotel Chelsea must have its share. I admire many of them; loathe a few more. But of those many spectral bohemians who have impacted my life, and who have once called the Hotel Chelsea home, it is Thomas Wolfe who haunts me. Because I walked by that old hotel, thought about the one former resident whose words still burn in my soul, and set off on a quest to discover if the old magic was still there.
The way it happened was this: I was sixteen years old. My goals were modest. I wanted to write the Great American Novel, dazzle college-educated audiences as a talking head on various PBS specials, and eventually appear as the question to an answer on Jeopardy. I asked my creative writing teacher a sensible question: who is the greatest American novelist? If you're going to be the best, you might as well understand your competition, right? "Thomas Wolfe," he unhesitatingly told me. "Read a book called Look Homeward, Angel. If you want to be a great writer, you can't do any better than to learn from Thomas Wolfe."
So I did. I read Look Homeward, Angel. Then I read the massive, two-volume Of Time and the River. Then I read the posthumous novels The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again. And let it be known that there is no more perfect, or no more dangerous, writer than Thomas Wolfe for rhapsodically delirious sixteen-year-old kids. Wolfe's hyperventilating, floridly poetic, impossibly romantic prose was pitched perfectly for hormonal adolescents, particularly the kind who are convinced of their impending greatness and heightened emotional sensitivity. And by the time I was eighteen, I had learned, and I had emulated. Thomas Wolfe was, to quote a phrase that didn't come into vogue for a few decades afterwards, da bomb. His words detonated in my heart. I couldn't imagine a more perfect writer.
There is a famous, or perhaps infamous, story of Thomas Wolfe emerging from his cramped room in the Hotel Chelsea at 3:00 a.m., prowling the streets of lower Manhattan, manuscript in hand, and shouting at the top of his lungs, "I wrote ten thousand words today! I wrote ten thousand words today!" For those who need to translate, ten thousand words is about twenty pages, single spaced, typed. It's a lot of writing. And it is typical of the life of Thomas Wolfe. Thomas Wolfe didn't write. He spewed. Like the big, outsized man he was, Wolfe did everything to excess. He ate a lot, drank a lot, poured forth reams of words in staggering binges. He was the ultimate romantic, and he embodied the stereotype that to produce great art one must suffer. It was all about the pain.
Re-reading his words over the past year and a half, prompted by that revelatory stroll past the Hotel Chelsea, I still understand the fuss. Wolfe's writing is largely discredited these days. He never met an adjective or twenty he didn't like. He was sexist and anti-Semitic. He was, by all accounts, something of an asshole in his personal life. He was most certainly an alcoholic. None of these things speak in his favor. But he was an undeniably powerful writer, capable of spewing forth words of breathtaking beauty, of unmatched pain. There are passages in Look Homeward, Angel that still move me to tears.
But my 53-year-old self now views my 16-year-old self with a bit of mistrust and smirking pity, and the same reaction transfers over to my view of Thomas Wolfe. Sometimes -- many times, actually -- life isn't hypercharged. It's just life. Much of it is merely okay, and even when it's not -- when the days seem particularly glorious or particularly tragic -- it still strikes me that other people go through the same shitty, majestic, mediocre deal, and that the best course might be finding common ground with them instead of searching for evidence of one's heightened, passionate superiority. I'm through with the kind of romanticism Thomas Wolfe embodied. It's the kind of philosophy that can leave you with the DTs, and dead just shy of 38. Such was the fate of one of my idols. I still love him. And I pity him.
For what it's worth, I thought about turning into the Hotel Chelsea, exploring those ghost-haunted rooms. I didn't. I walked past.