LitMonkey – February 2014
LitMonkey is a monthly series where I discuss the books I’ve read over the past month in a highly personal way. It is in no way an exact clone of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” This is the fifteenth installment. Enjoy!
Books I Read:
- “The Killer Inside Me”, “Pop. 1280”, and “Savage Night”, Jim Thompson
- “Autobiography” (UK Edition), Morrissey
- “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever”, Will Hermes
- “The Velvet Underground & Nico” (33-1/3 Series), Joe Harvard
- “How Soon Is Never?”, Marc Spitz
- “When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It!: Inspiration and Wisdom from One of Baseball’s Greatest Heroes”, Yogi Berra & Dave Kaplan
- “The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication”, Margaret Shepherd
- “The Art of the LP: Classic Album Covers 1955-1995”, Johnny Morgan & Ben Wardle
Books I Purchased:
- “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman”, Richard P. Feynman
- “Brave New World”, Aldous Huxley
- “Half Empty”, David Rakoff
Books I Borrowed from the Library:
- “Pop. 1280” (e-book)
- “Savage Night” (e-book)
- “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire”
This month, before diving headfirst back into music literature, I took a detour into the past and a genre of writing that I’ve never considered before – pulp fiction. I don’t know what exactly led me to Jim Thompson – The Killer Inside Me grabbed me as I browsed the Strand, and good ratings by people I trust put me over the top – but having read three of his more highly regarded novels I am officially a fan. That is, I’m not necessarily a fan of crime or pulp fiction. I don’t see myself picking up either a modern day crime story or the classic They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? any time soon. I am simply a fan of the twisted mind of Jim Thompson. In fact, I’d say that I enjoyed the books despite the genre, not because of it. Thompson’s lead characters, particularly the similar lawmen deputy sheriff Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me) and sheriff Nick Corey (Pop. 1280) are expertly written, each appearing to be harmless fools when in fact they are clever and ruthless sociopaths. They remind me of another literary character of the era that readers may be more familiar with, Psycho‘s Norman Bates. Thompson’s best work is in the psychology of his thriller, rather than the crime caper itself. (For this reason I less enjoyed Savage Night, the more traditional crime story.) Ford often describes his urges as “the sickness”, a keen insight by Thompson given the early date of publication of this novel (1952). For whatever reason (and I’m not the only person who has noted this) there is something about Thompson’s novels that once you start reading them, you can’t stop until you’ve gone through a few. They make you feel sick, but in that way that feels good. Perhaps not to everybody, but to some people – and you know who you are – Thompson’s novels are the ideal way to get your hands dirty without committing the crime itself. I want to wash my hands just thinking about it. (And read another one.)
Speaking of twisted minds, there is so much I could say about Morrissey’s Autobiography, but what would be the point? A die-hard fan of Moz should read nothing else before sitting down and consuming 400+ pages of prose, seemingly unedited (at least in the UK version that I read), from possibly the greatest lyricist of all time. If you love how he writes his lyrics, you will love how he writes his story. Others should feel free to skip it. Because this isn’t so much a fascinating tale, and the great reveals (there aren’t many) have already been revealed. Who else besides die-hards need to know about the childhood conditions that shaped Morrissey’s artistic bent or his feelings about his former bandmates, managers and assorted music industry types? Oh but how delightful it is for a fan to receive that somewhat mundane information in a tone that is distinctly Morrissey.
In an effort to provide my readers with something amusing that they probably won’t learn elsewhere I offer this story, which I found to be hilarious, tucked over 350 pages into the book. Morrissey is well into his period of absolute fame; this story takes place sometime around 2001:
I am back in the same studio some weeks later to watch a taping of Friends, having been invited by Reprise Records. Friends has become the most popular TV show in the world, showing life as it is commonly lived in America’s carefully preserved unreality. The cast is friendly, and I am immediately taken aside by the scriptwriters and asked if I’d jump in on a newly jumbled plot-line where I appear with the character Phoebe in the Central Perk diner, where I am requested to sing ‘in a really depressing voice’. Within seconds of the proposal, I wind down the fire-escape like a serpent, and it’s goodbye to Hollywood yet again.
Morrissey could have appeared on Friends at the height of its popularity! As Chandler Bing might say, “Could there be any stranger bedfellows?” There is no way to know for sure, but the role that Morrissey was asked to “jump in on” may have been the one given to fellow crooner Chris Isaak. Morrissey may have been thisclose to singing “Smelly Cat”! It would make sense, since this is the kind of episode to which a celebrity would be invited – it was the one hour special that aired after the Super Bowl. The thought of this makes me laugh out loud, and the fact that it didn’t happen makes me cry a little bit inside.
Morrissey wrote a fair amount about his love of the New York Dolls, a band that I don’t know nearly as much about as I feel I ought to. So it was with that incentive that I picked up a book that had been on my to-read list for a fairly long while, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, Will Hermes’ account of the music scene in New York City from 1973-77. The Dolls’ eponymous debut album was released in 1973, a precursor to the local artists that would debut over the next five years – Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Television, Talking Heads, the Ramones.
As you might expect, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire was a book that held so much promise for me. And sure enough, I learned a hell of a lot about David Johansen, Johnny Thunders, Atrhur Kane, Jerry Nolan and Sylvain Sylvain in just the first 40 pages. When it comes to punk, Hermes knows his stuff. Ultimately though the book was mostly a letdown, reminiscent of another music book I read in the past year – Entertain Us: The Rise and Fall of Alternative Rock in the Nineties. Of Love Goes one Goodreads reviewer comments: “[Will Hermes] simply gathers a bunch of information and strings it all together in a sanitary and boring manner that entirely misses the incredible story that the subject matter suggests.” As Nick Corey might say, “I ain’t sayin’ you’re wrong, but I ain’t saying you’re right either.” By way of comparison, here’s some of what I wrote about Entertain Us:
The “story” of alternative rock is told by Schuftan chronologically, jumping from artist to artist, each after just a few pages and without any segue as the discussion moves from Nirvana to Blur to Riot Grrrl to Urge Overkill. There are probably dozens of books that could be spun off from individual chapters in Entertain Us (and, in fact, there are of course books just about the Seattle scene, or Lollapalooza, or Riot Girrl, etc.). Schuftan has struck gold, but he doesn’t do a very good job of mining it. For example, he writes a chapter about how different sensibilities of irony – American vs. British primarily – shaped the music of bands like Pearl Jam and Blur. Developed properly, this could have been an entire book, or at least a major section of one comparing music from the different sides of the Atlantic. […] But before we can delve too far into this we are into the story of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the music world’s reaction to that. And so on. You can tell that the author is extremely bright. It’s almost as if he has too much to say. Unfortunately, by telling us everything he risks saying nothing.
Replace the nouns and pronouns relating to early ‘90s alternative music with those relating to the mid-‘70s New York City music scene and you could write a very similar paragraph about Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. Hermes does a better job that Schuftan of describing an era, but it is still a description, not a portrait, of the time and place. Considering the material he had to work with I expected so much more.
One other complaint worth noting is that I expected the book to be mostly about the downtown punk scene, those artists I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, but alas that was only about one-third of the story. Yes I learned a lot about Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine, but the rest (disco, jazz, and Latin) I could do without. Since the book was told completely chronologically, jumping from genre to genre in page after page, I found it overall to be a tough read. Perhaps I have myself to blame for that false expectation, but honestly, look at that cover! Unfortunately my expectation level was probably so high that this book was never going to meet it. To be fair, maybe if I had gone into the book differently I would have had closer to the experience with it that Nick Hornby did. Apparently, the book literally changed his life with the way that it introduced him to those other genres of music. Am I too closed-minded? Am I being too hard on Hermes? There was, after all, a lot to like about Love Goes. Mr. Hornby, I ain’t sayin’ you’re wrong, but I ain’t saying you’re right either.
Already halfway down the rabbit hole opened by Morrissey and then dug by Hermes, I burrowed my way further into the musical and spiritual world that begins with those artists. At the bottom of that hole you find, of course, the Velvet Underground. As Morrissey was influenced by the Dolls, so were so many of the mid-‘70s New York City punk artists influenced by the Velvets, and so I picked up Joe Harvard’s entry in the 33-1/3 series, The Velvet Underground & Nico. This is the fourth book I’ve read in the series, but the first that didn’t center around a late-‘80s college rock album. One similarity between the Velvets debut album and those others is that all are classics that were not appreciated in their time. The difference is that each of those three albums owe a debt of gratitude to the Velvet Underground, who paved the way for music that sounded different than the mainstream. In a way, The Velvet Underground & Nico is really the first album that can lay claim to being called “alternative.”
Harvard does an excellent job of documenting how the album came to be, what gave the band the courage and power to be as creative and different as they wanted to be, the true influence of Andy Warhol, the key roles that each member of the band played, and the impact of all the other people surrounding the band. All in all that makes for a very solid if unspectacular entry in the 33-1/3 canon. Harvard gives a detailed and comprehensive “making of” the album in a short but rich 145 pages. However, despite the fact that he admittedly finds it to be one of the greatest albums ever made, one which stands the test of time, he approaches the material unemotionally. The book is devoid of the passion you’d expect from a music lover. The lone exception is when he discusses his favorite song on the album, “Heroin”. Here, Harvard lets his guard down and goes on for a few more pages than usual about a single song (each is given 3-4 pages; Heroin gets about 7). For a moment Harvard sounds more like a fan – albeit a knowledgeable one – than a critic. It makes the reader/listener appreciate Heroin (the song!) so much more. I generally appreciate his objectivity and his reporter-like way of writing, but overall (and I realize that I may in be in the minority) I’d like to see a little less respect for the band and a little more pure joy and love for the music. Nevertheless, I’m glad I read the book and I appreciate each member of the Velvets more for having read it.
Meanwhile, the topic given the most stage time in Autobiography is the lawsuit by Smiths’ drummer Mike Joyce against Morrissey and Johnny Marr over back royalties. Morrissey’s hatred of Joyce – and antipathy towards Marr and bassist Andy Rourke – emanating from this lawsuit ensures that never ever will the Smiths reunite. It is a shame that the drummer – rightfully only 10% of what made up the band – could be the reason that two all-time greats like Morrissey and Marr will never share a stage, even as they shared the same side of the aisle in Joyce’s suit. This fact led to me picking up yet another book that had been sitting on my to-read pile, Marc Spitz’ semi-autobiographical novel How Soon Is Never? about a music journalist who makes it his mission to reunite the Smiths.
You may remember Spitz from a previous LitMonkey, where I wrote about his memoir Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the ’90s . If you do – and especially if you read Poseur – you might find the similarities between Spitz and his Joe Greene character in How Soon Is Never? to be uncomfortably similar. Both grew up on Long Island before eventually moving to New York City in adulthood. Both went to Bennington College in an attempt to emulate literary heroes, only to accomplish nothing except to do copious amounts of illegal drugs. Both cleaned up and took jobs as writers for music magazines (Spitz wrote for Spin, Greene for the fictional Headphones), both even took short-term jobs at the Greenwich Village book store Shakespeare & Co. Write what you know, I guess. The only real difference between Spitz and Greene seems to be a shift in time – had Spitz been born ten years sooner than he actually was, this book could be identical to Poseur. It’s almost as if he wrote the autobiography of the life he would have lived if only he’d been born a decade earlier.
Moreover, the book isn’t really about trying to reunite the Smiths – which, again, will never ever happen – but about the life of a man growing up in suburban New York City and then moving to Manhattan, a story many more of us can relate to and is strangely far more interesting. How Soon Is Never? is effectively two close-to-home novels in one. The first is a coming of age story for a music-obsessed geek who struggles to make friends and find his place among the popular kids in a private school on Long Island. The second is the story of a man nearing age 30 struggling with the fact that … well … he’s turning 30. The two stories are bridged by a not-so-brief drug-induced memory lapse, where the author spends no more than a chapter blitzing through his 20s. Add in the fact that he “interviews” Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, and that the paperback edition includes a real interview of Morrissey conducted by Spitz in 2004 (in which even Morrissey notes the autobiographical nature of the story) and what you have is a book that is perfect in its imperfectness. Or maybe it’s just me. Because while I recognize all of the flaws in Spitz’ novel I still absolutely loved it, from the moment I read the quote that appears on the first page:
To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.
That quote is from Oscar Wilde, taken from possibly my favorite novel of all time, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde, of course, is famously a favorite of Morrissey’s. And that quote is one of the very few I have linked to on my Goodreads profile, and the only one I have from the wickedly funny Wilde. How Soon Is Never? might be the autobiography of the life Spitz would have lived if only he’d been born a decade earlier, but it very well could be the autobiography of the life I sometimes feel like I could have lived as well.
Some straggling thoughts as I close out the cold month of January …
Yogi Berra writes a book of life anecdotes disguised as Yogi-isms. It’s all clichéd advice offered up through banal storytelling. Yogi gets to write books for no other reason than he was a Yankee. A lifelong, legendary, beloved member of the New York Yankees. Robinson Cano should have thought about that before he signed with the Seattle Mariners. As a consolation prize, Cano will always have this.
The funniest book that I read this month, by far, was The Art of the Handwritten Note. Seriously, laugh out loud funny, which is what I was hoping for. On the unintentional comedy scale this book rates near 100. The tips for writing a handwritten note are actually good – if you’re a serious note-writer, I can’t imagine that there’s a better, more thoughtful, more comprehensive guide out there – but in the end the whole thing reads like a 140 page Saturday Night Live skit. An excellent example: The section titled “Materials: Your Pen,” which warns readers of the dangers of writing on an airplane. We all know that turbulence could cause your hand to shake and handwriting to be sloppy. But did you know that falling barometric pressure could cause a partially filled pen to leak? Neither did I.
Finally, last month I wrote about Album Cover Album, saying, “Looking for a good coffee table book about album covers? This isn’t it” and adding, “I think you’re better off with one of the many imitators or follow-ups.” The Art of the LP may be an imitator, but it is a far far better book. The pages are rich in color and contain only one album per page, which is critical for this type of book. (Album Cover Album has as many as 16 in some places.) The details about each album are interesting, and the chapter arrangements are logical. There is also enough differentiation between the choices of album – from jazz to punk and everything in between – to keep all kinds of readers entertained. I genuinely enjoyed looking through this book over several hours, and even learned something which led me to purchase my first Peter Gabriel record. I think that’s a win.
Until next month … adventures in physics!
 I previously read Doolittle (Pixies 1989) by Ben Sisario, You’re Living All Over Me (Dinosaur Jr. 1987) by Nick Attfield, and Daydream Nation (Sonic Youth 1988) by Matthew Stearns.