Category Archives: NYRM Literary Society

NYRM Literary Society: Vonnegut and Joe Stummer (and the Mescaleros)

Kurt Vonnegut Joe Strummer

I can’t do either of these men justice in this little column.  That’s why they have to go together.  I finished Slaughterhouse Five nearly two months ago, have read multiple books since then, and have still been stuck on the proper song with which to match Vonnegut.  I usually have a few vague ideas for these posts after finishing a book, and when they don’t work it’s almost always because I don’t feel that the tone of the music matches that of the novel.  For Vonnegut, on the other hand, the problem was that no one was cool enough.

I’d escaped high school and college without reading any of his work (I think the title of Slaughterhouse somehow always kept me from reading it- I was imagining some sort of cautionary meatpacking tale, a la The Jungle).  I wasn’t surprised to find that the novel was truly incredible (when he passed away in 2007 I remember being impressed by how universally loved he was), but wasn’t expecting its humor, the brief phrasing of Vonnegut’s writing, or his fascination with science fiction.  What a book!  What a writer!  What a personality!  Billy Pilgrim is such a pathetic, wonderful 20th century hero- completely neurotic, demasculinized, caring.  An apolitical figure in a very political book.  Kilgore Trout is a fabulous allegory, metaphor, recurring character.  I can think of few books, movies, songs, anything that tackle the weighty topic of war with such humor and humanity.  I’m pretty sure the days of men like Billy Pilgrim are behind us, but I’m glad that Vonnegut has allowed him to exist in these pages.  So it goes, right?

I’m no book critic, but I think you get the picture.  I thought it was real good.  Still, no songs I knew seemed economical enough, funny enough, or classic enough to qualify for Slaughterhouse Five.  Yesterday I was hanging around my apartment and needed to quickly throw on some music.  I scrolled from the top of my iTunes until I reached the first suitable band.  I ended up in The C’s.  The Clash.  I immediately felt like an idiot for taking so long to make the connection.  Joe Strummer is the perfect artist to match with Vonnegut.  A cult of personality, unquestionable importance in 20th century popular cultural discourse, the blending of genres (reggae and punk, science fiction and war stories), brief phrases made all the more powerful by their brevity, personal hero to many.  If Joe Strummer was a punk, one not impressed by the music’s fashion but instead with its potential to affect change and change minds, then Kurt Vonnegut is a punk, too.  Vonnegut may be the original punk.  I think of all the pairs I’ve written about so far, these two are the most likely to get along.  Besides all the aspects of their writing they have in common, both men seemed to have a tremendous sense of humor, and I can imagine them finding quite a lot to talk about.

Instead of the Clash, though, I was most reminded of Joe Strummer’s final album, Streetcore, with the Mescaleros.  This is where the tone part comes in.  The Clash do make a nice fit with Slaughterhouse, but this posthumous album seemed to have more in common with the book.  I purchased Streetcore in high school, not really having any idea who Joe Strummer was (even more embarrassing fact: I didn’t realize Redemption Song, the 6th song on the album, was a cover until college), and listened to the album a lot.  I just read the very mediocre Pitchfork review of the album from 2003 (also never heard of Pitchfork until college) and fully undertand that it isn’t necessarily a good album, but I loved it.  This is the first time I’ve thought about Streetcore in a long, long time, so I thought maybe you’d like to know about it, too.

As Strummer’s last recorded work, it deals a lot with fitting in everything he wanted to do in life and a lot about death (though he was only 50 when he died in 2002).  If Billy Pilgrim could experience time in a non-linear way, traveling around from section to section of his life, then a Mescaleros album is an interesting choice to represent Strummer.  Not necessarily his best work, but his last, from what surely was an interesting time in his career: not over, but in all likelihood past its prime.  Those are some of the most tragic, revealing parts of Pilgrim’s life, lying in his bed trying to let the magic fingers lull him to sleep.  Not that that’s what Strummer did at all, but it’s an interesting time of life, especially for an aging punk rock star.  As if Strummer survived the war of fame and the 70s instead of WWII, and was dealing with the consequences.  So many of his comrades didn’t make it out alive.  I’ve singled out “Burning Streets,” if only for the similarity in theme: the bombing of Dresden, the image of London in flames.

Vonnegut and Strummer are two men who definitely belong in the unquestionably cool club.  You can criticize them, but there’s no doubt that their best contributions are some of the most genius works of art of the last 50 years.  I wonder if the two ever met?  I’m sure they were both aware of each other in their lifetimes.  I can’t imagine the conversation they would have if they were able to speak today, but I do know that it would be cooler than anything I’ll ever be able to say about them.

MP3: “Burning Streets (London Is Burning)” – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros

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NYRM Literary Society: Joyce and The XX

Drawing By Louise Zergaeng Pomeroy

I did not enjoy Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  It was tedious.  There were a lot of dark thoughts about humanity.  There was a lot of Catholicism.  There was a lot of Irish history.  There was a lot, a lot of manhood.  And unless I can get in a time machine and go back to college and take that modernist literature class that will explain otherwise to me, there wasn’t actually a whole lot of discourse about becoming an artist that I understood as such.  So what song to pair with this novel?  I don’t make a habit of listening to music that I don’t like, and it felt wrong to pair a song that I loved with a book that I’ve essentially come to loathe.

That’s when I thought of The XX.  They’re the perfect partners for Joyce.  In a similar vein to the way Portrait is wrapped up in its Irish-ness, The XX are somehow essentially British.  There’s a foreign mopiness to both that my personality can’t seem to access. There’s something esoterically melancholy they tap into across the pond, which cuts across the centuries.  Maybe it’s the weather.  Perhaps Morrissey or Joy Division would also be good choices in that sense.

Joyce and The XX share qualities as writers, too.  Portrait is structurally fascinating, as is The XX’s sparse electronic rock.  Portrait is no doubt a novel of extreme literary merit, but Joyce’s best work was yet to come.  One will probably be able to say the same for these British teenagers.  Moreover, both works have similar tones.  The XX are obsessed with sex and probably a little self-flagellating.  Is Stephen Daedalus, also?  Check.  An oppressive humorlessness?  Check.  The moods of the band and the novel seem to match, and I think that’s why I find both ultimately unappealing: they take themselves SO seriously.  The only part of this comparison that doesn’t fit is The XX’s female perspective.  In an ideal Joyce-band matchup, the musicians would be all male to the point of one-sided absurdity.

In the end, I have to admit that there’s probably a deeper reason why I see these two as a pair in my dislike.  I came to Portrait too late in the game.  Without a class to help me analyze its passages, quite a lot of the meaning I’m sure went over my head.  I found it boring because I didn’t fully understand it.  I say I don’t like The XX because they became so popular before I had a chance to fully digest their unique sound.  Both Portrait of the Artist and The XX’s music are smart and innovative and, however you can manage to qualify this, artistically “worthwhile,” (what would Daedalus have to say on this, I wonder?).  I look forward to reading Ulysses in the near future, just as I look forward to making a renewed pact not to dismiss music because it is popular.

MP3: “Crystalised” – The XX

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NYRM Literary Society: Cash and Capote

How could you pair In Cold Blood with anything but “Folsom Prison Blues?”  Capote’s prose is astonishing, much in the same way Cash’s voice is singularly recognizable.  Both quickly get to the point, mercilessly straightforward, but somehow lush with description and depth.  Both have deep voices that  cut to the quick of what it means to be human.  Though “Folsom Prison Blues” may be too obvious of a choice, it makes sense in that way.  In Cold Blood is one of the single most popular and critically regarded books I can think of, much like Cash.  I was, in fact, shocked the other day to hear a friend admit they didn’t much care for the singer.  I’ve never heard anyone say they didn’t like In Cold Blood. I can’t believe I’d never read it before, and as my friends and family saw me going through it, nearly everyone commented on how much they loved the book.  If “Folsom Prison Blues” is an obivous choice, I can only say that it’s an obvious book- one I fell absolutely head over heels for.

Besides, can’t you just see Perry strumming on his guitar in Mexico, ironically humming the tune?  The lyrics just as easily could be “I slit a Clutter’s throat in Kansas, just to watch him bleed to death.”  I guess that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it though, huh?

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NYRM Literary Society: Huxley and Dirty Projectors

Somehow I missed out on Brave New World in high school English class.  In some ways, I’m very glad that I did.  Having a college history degree behind me really helped to see how astounding it is that this book was published in 1932.  Though I can’t imagine what Huxley would have made of the Internet, many of his visions of the future are unsettlingly perceptive.  I’m not saying that we’re anywhere near the communistic, soma-guzzling society portrayed in the classic novel, but the class structures, sexual roles, and religious capitalism seem to be far too prescient to have been written even before World War II.  On the other hand, maybe it’s only indicative of the fact that human nature doesn’t really change.

At first, I tried to choose a song for the book that seemed futuristic.  I lingered on Excepter and Black Dice for their disorienting futuristic sounds.  The new Flaming Lips album would have worked, too, had I not just chosen a Flips song for White Noise. But none of those seemed quite right.  Even though Brave New World is about future times, it’s just as much about the present day.  Then I thought of Dirty Projectors.  The female vocals on the newer tracks seem to fit right into the novel.  Gorgeous, alluring, but strangely alien and mildly frightening.  Nowhere are these vocals more appropriate to the novel than on the Stillness Is the Move B-Side, “Wave the Bloody Shirt,” whose title made me think of the whipping and hanging at the end.  Perhaps Dirty Projectors are a bit of an obvious choice, but I thought maybe not that many people had heard this B-side.  The electronic glitches are far more plastic than much of the Dirty Projectors we’re used to, and the vocals give it a human quality.  Still, the entire track comes off a bit empty, just as the lives of the “civilized” citizens of London do in the novel.  Plus, both Brave New World and Dave Longstreth are pretty strange entities.  I like how these two work together.  The track, plus the real obvious choice for this book, below.  I’ll have my SXSW Top Ten up tomorrow!

MP3: “Wave The Bloody Shirt” – Dirty Projectors

MP3: “Soma” – The Strokes

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NYRM Literary Society: DeLillo and The Flaming Lips

I would very much like to be at a dinner where Don DeLillo, author of White Noise, and Wayne Coyne, wacko frontman of The Flaming Lips, meet each other.  I think that they would turn out to be two of those people who seem wildly different from each other, but wouldn’t get along because of how similar they actually are.  DeLillo’s point of view is a tad too depressing and pretentious for my point of view, so I’d have to root for Coyne.  But I can just hear the arguments that they’d have.  On the topic of death, DeLillo would pontificate about the value of everyday lives in relation to death, and Coyne would insist that all we need focus on is loving each other right now.  Both would actually agree perfectly with each other, but would have such different terms for saying it that they’d never realize.  Besides, DeLillo could never stomach the absolute strangeness of Coyne, and Coyne would never tolerate the academic stuffiness of DeLillo long enough to take him seriously.

Or at least, this is what I imagine having just read White Noise and being a nearly life-long fan of the Lips.  Both White Noise and “Do You Realize” probe the obvious but philosophical aspects of life.  The song speaks in obvious platitudes, like, “Do you realize that everyone you know one day will die,” while the book operates in a similarly themed but more complicated way.  It investigates death through Jack’s complicated feelings, thoughts, and troubling relationship to Dylar.  What they both have in common is art’s ability to take the most basic things in life, in this case death, and equalize them into something completely human and beautiful.  The similarities with their obsession with technology are also strikingly similar, especially since they represent times over ten years apart.  Something about the dense particles of the cloud remind me of the electronic elements on the album, noise particles spreading out over space like paint from an aerosol can.

This was one of the most obvious pairings that’s ever come to mind while reading a novel.  There are a few ways, though, in which I don’t believe they fit.  DeLillo’s writing style is minutely claustrophobic, tight and stilted.  There’s something unnatural and cold in the way he has his characters think (I don’t think I would like any of them very much should I meet them in person).  The Lips, on the other hand, tend towards to the grand, the wide open, reaching their aural tentacles out as far as they can into the “white noise” that precedes their music.  Something quieter and less ostentatious also would have fit DeLillo, but I do like to think how the two are similar enough in intent to question exactly what the other is doing.  That’s a dinner party I definitely want to attend.

MP3: “Do You Realize??” – The Flaming Lips

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NYRM Literary Society: Richard Hell and Lethem

I’ve never read a book before that wasn’t explicitly about music that is so very much about music.  If I had to say what Fortress of Solitude is about, I’d say gentrification, friendship, abandonment, Brooklyn, growing up, and navigating racial identity through music.  Because the novel is so centered around Dylan Ebdus’ life through race through music, it’s difficult to choose a fitting song.  From Barrett Rude Jr.’s career as a soul singer to Dylan’s struggles with “Play That Funky Music,” to his discovery of punk, and to his eventual career as a music critic, this is the first thing I have ever read that properly articulates the importance of music and music culture to my life.  Easily one of my top five favorite books because of this.  One particular passage, at the very end, I particularly related to, and I think it’s worth it to type out the whole thing again here:

Earlier, the first years of high school, when the Clash and Ramones were first thrilling me and Gabriel Stern and Timothy Vandertooth, I’d bring a record home and play it for Abraham and ask him, “Do you hear it?  How great it is?  There’s never been music like this!”

“Sure,” he’d say.  “It’s wonderful.”

“But do you really hear what I’m hearing?  Can you hear the same song I do?”

“Of course,” he’d say, leaving me perfectly unsatisfied, leaving the mystery unplumbed: Could my father hear my music?  By my college years, though, I’d never have asked, even if we weren’t on that dour voyage home.  Those lines of inquiry were shut down, so I barely troubled to speculate what Another Green World might mean to Abraham, whether he felt it shaping our pummel through the snow.  Eno sang, You’d be surprised at my degree of uncertainty

I considered now that what I once loved in this record, and certain other- Remain in Light, “O Superman,” Horses– was the middle space they conjured and dwelled in, a bohemian demimonde, a hippie dream.  And that same space, that unlikely proposition, was what I’d eventually come to hate and be embarrassed by, what I’d had to refuse in favor of soul, in favor of Barrett Rude Junior and his defiant, unsubtle pain.  I’d needed music that would tell it like it is, like I’d learned it to be, in the inner city.  Another Green World was like Abraham’s film: too fragile, too yokeable- I wanted a tougher song than that.  I knew stuff B. Eno and A. Ebdus didn’t, and I couldn’t afford to carry them or their naivete, and more than Mingus could afford to carry me or mine.

There’s a lot going on here, and I don’t want to get all English-majory, but I love explaining music through that hope that other people in your life will understand how you relate to music, and then failing miserably to find that person in the people you already love.  The idea of much of the music we listen to as a “middle space” is also particularly apt.  I think some reasons different people and media outlets frequently vilify Williamsburg and the Brooklyn music scene is because it attempts desperately to live in this middle space.  I don’t think Lethem’s criticizing that, but rather pointing out that he isn’t sure if you can actually reside there full-time.

So why Richard Hell?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to choose a black artist- an old soul song or even some new hip-hop?  Probably.  But Dylan falls in love with punk, and I don’t think he can ever escape that.  The scene after CBGB where Dylan tries to score drugs on the LES and is robbed by Robert Wolfolk is an incredibly potent blending of two worlds.  It was an incredibly jarring scene, and there’s a reason CBGB directly preceded it.  Punk has bravado with a dark side, the same sense of white guilt that Lethem uses the genre to carry throughout the novel.  “Blank Generation” fits the book rather well, then, especially when you think about what is perhaps the cleverest part of the novel, the magical ring.  Dylan can never really fly with it, but he can certainly be invisible.  The desire to become blank, to become an observer in a world where everyone is acting on you, to become blank.  Hell opens with, “I was saying let me out of here before I was even born.”  There’s that same sense of destiny and inevitability that a white kid growing up on the block would feel.  In some ways, he’s talking about the Solver girls.  Lethem names a lot of unnameable things about growing up in his novel, and I think Hell also does that particularly well.  Fortress of Solitude is obviously much, much more complicated than “Blank Generation,” but they both his the same unsettling, endlessly appealing chord.

MP3: “Blank Generation” – Richard Hell & The Voidoids

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NYRM Literary Society: Woolf and Beach House

I just finished Mrs. Dalloway on an airplane ride to Indiana (this trip was why I was sadly absent from blogging over the weekend).  I decided to read it simply because I never had before, and I knew it was supposed to be very good.  I wasn’t nearly as blown away by it as I thought I would- some beautiful images, good musings on life, and inventive prose to be sure, but still just a tiny bit less than I was expecting.  I think that’s the only way that Virginia Woolf and Beach House don’t line up in my eyes.  Beach House isn’t even the tiniest bit overrated (though who knows what with the hype for the new album right now), but I thought of their music immediately as I was reading Mrs. Dalloway.  It’s very beautiful, but somehow alien and difficult to decipher at times.  Dreamy, filmed through gauze, so everything is prettier, but questionably real.  That’s exactly how I feel about Woolf’s beautiful prose, and can think of nothing even remotely as good to pair this novel with.  I went with D.A.R.L.I.N.G. for its quiet optimism, but nearly any Beach House song would do.

MP3: “D.A.R.L.I.N.G.” – Beach House

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