[stares and remains silent]: Lou Reed Was the Meanest/ Funniest Interview subject Ever


Excerpts from his 2010 Spin interview:

You’re so closely associated with New York. But you haven’t written explicitly about the city since — 
I wrote a song for Cartier that you can download from my website. Have you heard that?

Yeah. “Power of the Heart.”
I did two songs for [2007’s] Nanking documentary: “Gravity” and “Safety Zone.” Have you heard those?

Not “Safety Zone.”
Research, research, research. It means everything. [Sighs] You were saying?

..You know, it’s funny. It’s making me think, like, if you were talking to Bill Burroughs, would you have said, “Now, Bill, they put together the new version of Naked Lunch. What do you think? Do you still feel the same way, Bill?” Can you imagine being put in a position where you’re trying to justify Naked Lunch? How are we supposed to answer that? You gotta be kidding me.

…Berlin has got this rap that it’s depressing. Are you joking me? You can’t handle it? You ever read Hamlet? Who are you talking to that’s so stupid? Are you joking? You’re kidding me.

Singing about gay life on albums like [1972’s] Transformer was definitely transgressive at the time. But now, playing with sexuality and gender is part of the mainstream. Do you feel like the center has come to you?
That’s truly a critic’s kind of question. I have absolutely no idea about anything.

Is that really true, though? Do you think your music has been something of a guide for people to learn about behavior they might not otherwise encounter?
[Reed stares and remains silent]

It’s easy to think of New York as this great incubator of bands. But that wasn’t the case for the Velvet Underground, was it?
Is this going to be all about the Velvet Underground now?

…This has nothing to do with music, so I don’t know why you’re asking, but fine.

What other younger bands do you like?
I’m not gonna list bands for you….

…Everything affects the way I make music. I don’t understand what you want to know. I could say “yes.” Would that be better?

From what I understand, tai chi has a spiritual component as well as a physical one. Has that spiritual component found its way into your music?
It’s a really profound study. I couldn’t possibly sum it up for you. The problem is that I don’t think you know what you’re asking about. When you say tai chi, you’re just saying a generic thing like yoga. If you want to ask a question, you should know what you’re asking about, don’t you think?

…It’s hard to find a story about you that doesn’t mention your reputation as a difficult interview. Does that perception bother you?
You could judge for yourself, can’t you? You want me to comment about other critics as though they matter. You save this question for last? I don’t know why you brought it up, seeing as we got along fine. Unless I’m mistaken. What answer do you want?

I want to know how you feel about the way you might be perceived.
You’re talking about critics and journalists. Listen, you’re not talking about music. I don’t want to get into this stupid subject with you. You brought it up. You shouldn’t have. We had a good conversation, and now we’re done. You feel better now? Did you find your angle? Do you think you did a good job?

The question wasn’t a trick.
I didn’t think you were trying to trick anybody. This is the kind of shit you wanted all along, and you saved it for last. What should I say?

I’m not looking for any particular answer.
You could’ve talked music, but this is what you wanted.

Haven’t I been asking about music this whole time?
You’re not interested in music. We’re done talking.

But tell us what you REALLY thought of it, Michiko Kakutani

Wow.  Feels like a moment of self-revelation here: “Readers given to writing comments in their books are likely to find themselves repeatedly scrawling words like “narcissistic,” “ridiculous,” “irritating” and “pretentious” in the margins.”

The premise of this tiresome new novel by the critically acclaimed author Norman Rush sounds as if it had been lifted straight from “The Big Chill”… The result not only lacks that movie’s humor and groovy soundtrack but is also an eye-rollingly awful read.

The novel’s preening, self-absorbed characters natter on endlessly about themselves in exchanges that sound more like outtakes from a dolorous group therapy session than like real conversations among longtime friends. Its title, “Subtle Bodies” — which refers to people’s “true interior selves,” whatever that means — is a perfect predictor of the novel’s solipsistic tone. Readers given to writing comments in their books are likely to find themselves repeatedly scrawling words like “narcissistic,” “ridiculous,” “irritating” and “pretentious” in the margins…

Douglas (who seems to have driven a lawn mower too close to the edge of a ravine) was the leader of the pack. Reminiscent of the charismatic genius figures in Iris Murdoch novels, he was an intellectual guru for the others, though it’s baffling why anyone would look up to such a pompous jerk….

There’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo about Douglas’s philosophy …and more portentous gibberish about his current mysterious work… The other members of this novel’s cast are either as insufferable as Douglas or as flimsy as paper-doll mannequins….

Perhaps Mr. Rush means all this to read as black comedy, but it’s not remotely funny or compelling. In fact, it’s impossible to work up any interest in hearing what these absurdly self-important and poorly drawn characters might have to say as they drone on about themselves…

At one point, Ned says to Nina, “Why are we even talking about this?” It’s a question the reader might well ask about this claustrophobic and totally annoying novel.

I can definitely appreciate an enthusiastic critical pan, but sometimes I wonder if the NYT needs to assign MK a new beat, if only to lower her blood pressure.  Maybe something in the Verlyn Klinkenborg line, appreciating sunsets and birds in the backyard or some such?

Can Pop Culture be Toxic? Call of Duty, the Geto Boys, etc.

Interesting piece in the NYT by three forensic psychiatrists, “Does Media Violence Lead to Real Violence?” making the case that recent research suggests that yes, in fact it very likely sometimes does.

There is now consensus that exposure to media violence is linked to actual violent behavior — a link found by many scholars to be on par with the correlation of exposure to secondhand smoke and the risk of lung cancer. In a meta-analysis of 217 studies published between 1957 and 1990, the psychologists George Comstock and Haejung Paik found that the short-term effect of exposure to media violence on actual physical violence against a person was moderate to large in strength.

This makes sense to me.  I’ve long felt that progressives and First Amendment champions can get themselves into a corner on this issue.  Whenever there is a mass shooting, conservatives reflexively start looking for a link to media violence.  Since lack of effective gun regulation is so clearly the more immediate condition for most such acts, and since the turn to blame “the media” so obviously seems to serve as a distraction technique deployed by gun-freedom absolutists, the liberal-progressive instinct is to insist that violent video games and other media must have absolutely no relationship to actual violence (and/or other social dysfunction).  It’s as if the only choice is all or nothing: violent video games and movies cause and are to blame for dysfunction, or are irrelevant to it. But while of course unregulated gun ownership is the overwhelmingly more significant problem, this does not mean that it is not a problem when emotionally damaged/ depressed/ angry young men spend years in basements in effect massacre-training on games like Call of Duty.  After all, as Buddha is sometimes said to have said (though maybe did not actually), “what you think, you become.” Consider Anders Behring Breivik, gunman in the July 2011 Norway massacre, who “played video games such as World of Warcraft to relax, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for “training-simulation”. He further told a court in April 2012 that he trained for shooting using a holographic device while playing Call of Duty. He claimed it helped him gain target acquisition.”  Or Adam Lanza, who, similarly, obsessively played Call of Duty. Does this mean Call of Duty “caused” the shootings?  No. But it does suggest that a hyper-violent video game could, in some contexts/ for some individuals, become toxic in extended exposure.

I thought about these issues when reading a fascinating interview in the magazine Sang Bleu with Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys, one of the founders of the “horror-core” genre of hip-hop incorporating imagery and lyrical content from slasher and horror films.  The Geto Boys produced the wonderfully laid-back, and oddly melancholy, classic “Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangster” (which Office Space turned into a kind of anthem for white suburban wanna-be’s) but also songs like “Assassins.”  Sample lyric (decided just to keep it to one line): “She screamed, I sliced her up until her guts were like spaghetti.”

The “conservative” position on horrorcore, or on other similarly extreme forms of pop culture (e.g. “torture porn” horror films — although of course there’s a race angle w/ the Geto Boys that isn’t usually a factor in those), is that it’s degenerate, probably dangerous, and should be banned or heavily restricted.  The usual liberal/”progressive” position is that while the lyrics/images may be disturbing, this is free artistic expression, and that if we try to ban or restrict it in any way, we’re behaving as bourgeois audiences always have in response to challenging, boundary-pushing art.

The interview with Bushwick Bill suggests that both positions might offer one necessary but incomplete piece of the full picture. To the typical (especially white) middle-class listener in 1990, a song like “Assassins” was unnerving, more unnerving than a slasher film, because it felt less mediated, more purely the self-expression of an anti-social, violent, and misogynistic point of view.  But Bushwick Bill in fact comes across as a thoughtful, surprisingly well-read guy who saw the Geto Boys’ music as not that different from what someone like Stephen King was doing in fiction or Alfred Hitchcock or Wes Craven in film — like them, exploring the potential of horror as a genre.

I was trying to be like Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe on that “Chuckie” song, and “Mind of a Lunatic” was my version of Psycho…. I always thought it was creative how they [horror film-makers] captured a mood in a moment—like a fear of the unknown. I grew up watching The Outer Limits, where people were afraid of what they didn’t know. I compared that to being an artist with a group from Texas. We were the unknown, and we had to give them intriguing or questionable stuff so they’d say, “Man what’s wrong with these guys? Why they saying that?” In order to be noticed in the South, we had to be shocking…. On the first Geto Boys album called Making Trouble, they had a song on there called “Assassins,” and that was really my introduction to horror core rap. That was my first time hearing rap like that. I started comparing it to movies. That’s what a New Yorker’s mind is like, you see a movie, you compare it to the things you see in the hood. That’s just how New Yorkers are, we compare it to things we know, things that we are familiar with, just like our graffiti names come from TV and comic books.

The interviewer asks, “You mentioned morals… You went to a biblical school, you were about to go on a mission in India, so how do you go from that to making these dark rap songs? Did you ever feel guilty about it?” Bushwick Bill replies:

It was never an issue. To me it was just being creative. I never in my wildest imagination ever believed that anyone would think I had done anything like that or was capable. To me, it was just being creative…. I applaud any musician that can be creative enough to make people feel like they are watching Wes Craven, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg or Steven King. It’s no different than Orson Wells reading the War of the Worlds. What the difference? It’s supposed to be entertainment. That was the sole purpose: to entertain.

(Not quite explicitly articulated in what he says about why the Geto Boys were viewed differently from Wes Craven is what could be called the Trayvon Martin effect, that is, how scary young black men appear to many Americans.) BUT — it gets more complicated as B.B. talks about how he felt it subsequently affected him to keep working in this style.  He started getting into drugs, and he now says that he lost his way in part because he was so entirely immersed in the Geto Boys’ violent, misanthropic material.

I was rapping about horrific situations and psychotic mentalities everyday. It started becoming a habit…. There wasn’t a balance, we were always talking about death and killing all day long, that’s it. Could you imagine that being your only food for thought?

To me, this points to certain limitations to the absolutist First-Amendment “progressive” position on media violence. Certainly horror and the horrific can produce valuable art and of course need to be protected by First Amendment principles.  And violent video games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto can have a lot to offer beyond their more obviously sensationalist content, e.g. clever and imaginative game design, the construction of virtual spaces and geographies, etc.

But “you become what you think,” the culture we consume does become our food for thought, and Bushwick Bill’s comments suggest that at least for some of their consumers and producers, the most extreme, violent, and misanthropic forms of culture can in fact, as the conservatives always insist, become toxic. And I don’t think it does the progressive position any favors to pretend that is never the case.

Taylor Mead’s Ass!


I love New York Times obituaries.

In September 1963, Mr. Mead accompanied Warhol on a cross-country trip to Los Angeles. The entourage filmed scenes for what would become, in 1964, Mr. Mead’s first film for Warhol, “Tarzan and Jane Regained … Sort Of.”

Mr. Mead played Tarzan, edited the film and handled the sound. On screen, his sarong kept falling off while climbing trees, prompting a critic to say that he really did not want to see any more two-hour films of Mr. Mead’s derrière.

Warhol wrote a letter to The Village Voice saying that after searching “the vast Warhol archives,” he could find no two-hour film of Mr. Mead’s behind. “We are rectifying this undersight,” he said, and soon made what would become a little-seen cult classic, the title describing in three words precisely what the critic did not want to see (though the coarser Anglo-Saxon term was used instead of the French).

I kind of like the way the NYT has maintained a regime of prudery and delicacy that requires this kind of work-around.  The Times music listings for the band [Pissed Jeans] they call “****** Jeans” are always amusing: “His band, from Philadelphia, has a name that lies just on the other side of what’s printable here; it describes a basic bladder-related humiliation, something that happens to the drunk or scared or infantile.”  OK, that’s actually just kind of silly.

Check out the piece on the man J. Hoberman called “the first underground movie star.” Also, here is the IMDb listing for Warhol’s 1965 film, and its more-detailed Wikipedia entry.

Rachel Aviv on compromised or despised people

I’m a fan of the New Yorker Out Loud podcast– that and Slate’s Culture Gabfest have recently moved past Fresh Air as my go-to podcasts for this kind of thing.  I listened to a conversation with author Rachel Aviv about her new piece about the medicalization of pedophilia and child pornography, The Science of Sex Abuse,” as well as “other articles she has written on socially marginalized, compromised, or despised people.”  Her topic in the new piece — organized around the arrest and legal odyssey of a man charged under the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act — is the ambiguous legal status of pedophilia, which is sometimes treated as something of a “thought crime”, such that what is criminalized are certain desires as opposed to actually committed acts.  Her tentative conclusion, articulated more explicitly in the podcast interview than in the piece, is that pedophilia may in fact not be a medical condition at all, but simply a crime like any other.  (I actually was not entirely sure I understood why we should not judge sexual desire for children to be a medical disorder.  It seems somewhat inevitable that such desires are going to be understood either as “evil” or as a medical condition, and the latter seems more palatable and manageable for any practical purposes.)

Anyway, this was a rearing-of-the-author-function case in which I suddenly realized that several of Aviv’s pieces had made a big impression on me without my realizing that they were by the same author.  Most recently, “Netherland: Homeless in New York, a young gay woman learns to survive” (Dec. 10 2012), a haunting portrayal of homeless gay teenagers in NYC; and also “God Knows Where I Am: What should happen when patients reject their diagnosis?” (May 30 2011), an investigation into a bipolar, psychotic woman’s death brought on by her own refusal of treatment.

Aviv is great — a mesmerizing narrative storyteller whose pieces always probe deeply into difficult questions about those our society marginalizes or who marginalize themselves.  She’s a 2004 Brown graduate and has also written for N+1, which the New Yorker seems to be treating as their development league lately.

Sounds like she’s working on a book — I’m sure it will make a splash.  Here’s her website with links to articles.

Bringing Up Hush Puppy: Free-range Child-Rearing in *Beasts of the Southern Wild*

As I watched the in-many-ways great Beasts of the Southern Wild I kept thinking about recent debates and publications I’ve read about child-rearing, specifically those that discuss the tension between “helicopter” or over-protective vs. “free-range” parenting and related issues.  I recommend therapist Madeline Levine’s new book Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, [link to NYT review] which covers a lot, but perhaps offers as its biggest take-away the lesson that parents who believe they can control every facet of their children’s experiences are both kidding themselves and damaging their kids by denying them the potential to achieve autonomy/ become their own people.  I also thought about the much-discussed recent Elizabeth Kolbert New Yorker piece “Spoiled Rotten: Why Do Kids Rule the Roost?” which compared American middle/upper-middle class child-reading methods with those of the Peruvian Amazonian tribe the Matsigenka, in which six-year old children uncomplainingly clean, do household chores, and fish for, clean, boil, and serve to others crustaceans from the river.  (Whereas the typical elite American kid apparently is too busy nurturing his special, college-admissions-bait talents to do anything as mundane as household chores.)  Bringing up Bebe, which everyone seemed to be discussing his summer (even if they, like me, had just read reviews of it — although I did glance through it at one point), is also part of this conversation, in its advocacy of French-style parenting that expects children to behave in more responsible/ autonomous ways.

The New Yorker published an interesting letter in response to Kolbert’s article from an anthropologist named Nicholas Emlen who wrote,

During my recent nineteen months of anthropological fieldwork in Matsigenka communities, I, too, was impressed by the self-reliance and maturity expected of children. But Matsigenka hands-off parenting also has its disadvantages. I met several young children who had suffered serious, permanent injuries while cooking and hunting without adult supervision. Additionally, Matsigenka parents generally do not encourage their children to pursue education beyond primary school—although in recent years, many Matsigenka parents have begun to think of education as essential. To this end, these parents are trying to be more supportive of their children’s intellectual development, allowing them to spend afternoons doing homework, rather than collecting firewood, for instance. While Kolbert hopes that her sons will pitch in and “become a little more Matsigenka,” many Matsigenka parents are modifying their parenting strategies so that their children may one day become a little more like Kolbert’s sons.

So anyway, I was thinking about these sorts of questions while watching the movie.  Beasts of the Southern Wild stars a rather incredible child actress, Quvenzhané Wallis (who was in fact six during the movie’s filming!), playing the six-year-old Hush Puppy who lives with her single father Wink in “the Bathtub,” a fictitious bayou community in Louisiana.  And, like the children of the same age in the Matsigenka, she catches and cleans her own crustaceans; there’s a memorable scene in which all the adults chant for her to “beast” a crab, which means to snap it in half and suck out the meat. (We went to the movie with a vegetarian friend who found the Man vs. Beast dynamics a bit much throughout.)

The events of the movie, which reminded me a little of Zola Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, occur before, during, and after a massive Katrina-like storm that floods the Bathtub and leaves Hush Puppy, Wink and their friends stranded and floating in a house turned house-boat. Hush Puppy is an almost absolutely “free-range” child– or we could use the word neglected, or even abused.  Her mother has vanished and she does not even live with her father, who has his own shack next door.  She eats canned cat foot, and (this was a pretty hilarious moment, actually) starts a semi-functional gas stove by donning a helmet-face mask and lighting the gas with a flame thrower.  (This does not turn out well.)  Wink cares for and seems to love his daughter, but often ignores her and sometimes hits her.  Before the storm, she wanders around completely unsupervised.  In many ways, not just shellfish cleaning, her experience seems more like that of a Matsigenka child than a contemporary middle-class American.

In the still used for the movie poster, above, Hush Puppy is running with her hands full of fireworks.  Having recently supervised my kids as they used sparklers, I winced at the sight of her holding what seem to be much higher-power firecrackers in a setting where all of the adults are falling-off-their-chairs drunk.  On the other hand, she is certainly having a blast.

The movie continually prompted me to spiral through a series of reactions along those lines.  First, something like “oh no!” — judging her father to be criminally neglectful —  and then a counter-reaction of recognizing that Hush Puppy gets to experience things and sensations that the film represents as intensely meaningful and valuable.  Yes, her father and his friends are always drunk and Hush Puppy appears to be in grave danger of injury throughout the movie, but we see her immersed in a vivid world in which she interacts with the natural world and animals and nature, learns quickly how to take care of herself, and develops a fierce loyalty to her community and friends.

The movie could definitely be accused of romanticizing the Bathtub’s primitive world, and there are whiffs of pretty familiar strains of nostalgic, even slightly noble-savage-type valorizing of that world as a refreshing antidote to the sterile, heartless bureaucracy that is contemporary middle-class life — represented by the professional-class administrators who try to keep Wink and Hush Puppy in a disaster-relief tent city after they’ve been forcibly evacuated.  (The review in Salon took this approach, even suggesting that is offers a “dangerous political message.”)

To my mind, though, although I can certainly see the reviewer’s point, the movie is best approached as a non-realist (and often rapturously beautiful) fairy tale that, notwithstanding inescapable Katrina parallels, is certainly not trying to offer any sociologically accurate view of rural Louisiana or anything like that.  (I thought it was telling that it’s based on a stage play.)  Sarah commented that the whole Bathtub community reminded her a bit of the Popeye comics’ world.  Or maybe the fictionalized Okefenokee Swamp of the Pogo comics?  A wildly fantastical vision of a little girl’s dangerous idyll among the cat-fish, dogs, and wild boars of her imagination-infused surroundings, and a somewhat wishful (and yes, romantic) fantasy of how a child could live in a state of continual risky wildness.

Memo to self: demand that the kids procure and prepare fresh crab dinner for us this weekend.  Beast it!

Ann Arbor man punched during literary argument

Too awesome!

Ann Arbor man punched during literary argument

Posted: Mon, Mar 19, 2012 : 3:24 p.m.

A 34-year-old Ann Arbor man was sent to the hospital with a head injury after another man punched him on Saturday during a literary argument, according to police.

Ann Arbor police Lt. Renee Bush said the man went to a party at a home in the 100 block of North Ingalls Street at about 2 p.m. on Saturday. Bush said the man was sitting on the porch with some people he had just met, talking about books and authors.

The 34-year-old man was then approached by another party guest, who started speaking to him in a condescending manner. An argument ensued and the man was suddenly struck in the side of the head, suffering a cut to his left ear, Bush said.

The man’s glasses went flying off of his head and fell to the ground, with one of the lenses popping out of the frames, Bush said.

Police were notified of the incident at 10 a.m. Sunday when they responded to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital Ann Arbor in the 500 block of North Maple Road. The man was being treated for his injuries there, she said.

The incident occurred at about 9 p.m. and the men had been drinking for several hours, Bush said.

The incident still is under investigation.

Kyle Feldscher covers cops and courts for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at kylefeldscher@annarbor.com or you can follow him on Twitter.

As a friend commented, “literary criticism ain’t beanbag”!  And never forget the awesome power in this sport of “a condescending manner.”

I’d love to know more about what precisely they were arguing about.  First work of detective fiction, Edgar Allan Poe or Wilkie Collins?  Sentimentality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin a political strategy?  Emily Dickinson’s work necessarily to be read in its original manuscript/fascicle form?  Twilight vs. Hunger Games?

p.s.  To clarify, I do not think it is awesome that this poor soul went to the hospital with a head injury…

Really, New York Times Magazine?

Every week I read through the “One Page Magazine” in the NYT Sunday Magazine and have the same reaction.  Really?  It’s come to this?

The Meh List
By Greg Veis

Not Hot, Not Not, Just Meh.

1. Rob Schneider (except in “The Waterboy”)
2. “Best of” albums
3. Chocolate-covered cherries
4. Having a Gmail photo
5. “Ladies drink free”
6. Newt, post-candidacy
7. “The Firm”

Additional reporting by Samantha Henig

This piece required “additional reporting”?

Lucking out/ real bitter? James Wolcott’s memoir

As a kind of followup to the Kael bio, I also read the James Wolcott memoir,  Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York.  I somehow did not realize that Wolcott (whom I associate with Vanity Fair) began his career and was generally known for years not only as a Village Voice writer but as a sometime rock critic.  (“Somehow” because I was a devoted reader of the Voice, especially its music section, in the early & mid 1980s, not long after his time writing for it.) Walcott dropped out of Frostberg State U. in Maryland as a sophomore after he sent a piece of his to Norman Mailer, who promised to put a word in for him to a Voice editor once Wolcott graduated.  Wolcott proceeded to quit school on the spot and move to NYC and eventually, through persistence/ refusing to go away, parlayed that recommendation into a job answering phones, from where he began to do some writing.  Pretty soon, at age 19-20, he was covering the nascent punk rock scene — he published one of the first raves about Patti Smith, well before the release of Horses — and covered television as a regular beat (not to mention the band Television, along with Talking Heads and other CBGBs bands). He soon became a protege/buddy of Pauline Kael’s (he became somewhat notorious for a later Vanity Fair take-down of her followers “the Paulettes,” which was taken as apostasy and an act of betrayal –one of her other rival proteges labels him a “self-promoting asshole” or some such in her biography; he does not discuss this in the book but it came up in the Fresh Air interview); became obsessed with the New York City Ballet; and he also dedicates a section of the book to Times Square pornography in the 1970s.  He doesn’t push this too strongly but there’s an implicit thread in the book in which Wolcott charts his own experience as a fan, critic, and consumer of these different parallel art forms and media (punk rock, movies, ballet, porn), within all of which in this period the representation and expression of bodies, sexuality, physicality, gender transformed.  Wolcott is very much a critic and an observer; he refers in passing to his own sex life, for example, but greater emphasis is placed on the represented bodies and lives he wrote about.  As “semi-dirty” in the title hints, Wolcott portrays himself as a watcher, a bit prudish and reserved even in the grimiest occasions in Times Square or the Bowery or otherwhere in a NYC that was close to falling apart entirely:

It wasn’t just the criminality that kept you laser-alert, the muggings and subway-car shakedowns, it was the crazy paroxyms that punctuated the city, the sense that much of the social contract had suffered a psychotic break.  That strip of upper Broadway [where Wolcott lived] was the open-air stage for acting-out episodes from unstable patients dumped from mental health facilities, as I discovered when I had to dodge a fully-loaded garbage can flung in my direction by a middle-aged man who still had a hospital bracelet on one of his throwing arms.

By and large he managed to side-step the garbage and keep himself more or less clean (not a drinker or much of a drug user).  Wolcott is an aesthete and a literary stylist — you have to have patience for his kind of elaborate sentences to enjoy the book — and you get the sense of this style as something he developed, in part, as a protection against the threatening urban scene.  (He talks about giving up on punk rock in the late 70s when it became too much about bad politics, skinheads, vomit, and spit– you can feel a visceral distaste.)

I was just checking out the customer reviews of the book on Amazon.  One person comments:

For anyone even mildly curious about New York, movies, punk, journalism, writing, ballet, or the Times Square of the “Taxi Driver” era, this book should not be missed. Think of it as Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” only with real intellectuals as opposed to fake ones.

Another less appreciative reader observes,

Just can’t imagine many general readers caring about office politics at the Village Voice, fringe critic Lester Bangs, punk rock at CBGSs, why ballet makes him woozy, the seamy 70s porn scene, Wolcott[‘s] relationship with movie critic Pauline Kael…

Ha!  I guess I was a perfect reader for this, as just about all of those topics interest me to some degree.  (This reader does not mention Wolcott’s discussions of Ellen Willis and Robert Christgau, a power couple in counter-cultural journalism in the early 70s; especially indelible is an account of Christgau walking around his and Willis’s tiny downtown apartment in tight red speedos.)  As an occasional writer for the Voice’s music section in the 1990s, I was fascinated by the account of earlier days at the paper, and I thought Wolcott evocatively captured the special feeling of the Voice in the days before email, when all copy had to be dropped off on paper in a physical file.  Human presence, embodied personalities, were so much more central to the operations of publishing, criticism and writing, all of which, Wolcott suggests, have now become much more “lonely.”  When I was first doing freelance writing circa 1991, this was just beginning to change and I too remember dropping by the Spin offices to leave my copy (offering opportunities for schmoozing/ gossiping) or sitting down with Voice music editor Joe Levy to line-edit my reviews (of American Music Club and the Go-Betweens — those are the first two I remember); I recall those sessions as an intensive education in journalistic writing that I expect is difficult to come by today.  (I never did meet Robert Christgau, although he was around.)  Wolcott’s example shows that counter-cultural/arts journalism in the 1970s was a place where an (exceptionally) smart lower-middle-class kid without even a college degree could get an apprenticeship and eventually transform himself into a well-known writer and intellectual.  This is no longer true — that arts weekly journalism institutional space no longer exists.  Blogs to some degree have replaced it, but serious/rigorous arts criticism as such offers much less of a career opportunity these days (to understate it).

[btw, Wolcott comes up several times as well in Will Hermes’s new book, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, which I’ve so far only skimmed a bit.]

There’s a funny/poignant moment when Wolcott speculates about what might have been if he had specialized and chosen a stronger focus, as a critic, on literature, rather than covering such a wide range of topics.  “I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had found true fruition in book reviewing and taken up literary criticism as my sole vocation, putting aside childish things” (he means here primarily writing about t.v.).  Next line: “I bet I’d be real bitter now.”

Slight ambiguity there: does he mean “real bitter” as opposed to just slightly bitter?  The title of the book underlines Wolcott’s sense that he was very lucky in his lucked-into career, but does he feel lucky now?  There’s an elegiac feeling to his story of, among other things, the decline of the Voice and of arts journalism and reviewing generally (film critic J. Hoberman was apparently just laid off from the Voice as I write this, by the way, eliminating one of the last remaining great arts critics there).  I’m not sure how secure Wolcott’s present position is (he is among other things a blogger for Vanity Fair), but he obviously feels something has been lost both personally and for the intellectual scene more generally.

Of course, there are other explanations for an elegiac sense to the book, such as Wolcott’s references of the coming onslaught of AIDS in the early 1980s, at the end of his narrative.  On a more personal note, his friendship with Kael also has a bittersweet feel, at least for a reader coming to his book from the Kael biography, which explains how she cut him off following his publication of the “Paulettes” piece in Vanity Fair.  I was a bit surprised he does not address this falling out, perhaps because it is still too painful?  or possibly simply because it occurred outside the 70s time-frame of the book, although Kael is such a major mentor figure here that it feels odd not to mention it.

Vampire Weekend, Lil Jon, the Dalai Lama, & the Oxford Comma: a fuller consideration

You have probably by now heard all about this week’s dust-up, kerfuffle, brouhaha, call it what you will, about the Oxford Comma:

By Associated Press, Published: June 30

LONDON — A report that Oxford University had changed its comma rule left some punctuation obsessives alarmed, annoyed, and distraught. Passions subsided as the university said the news was imprecise, incomplete and misleading.Catch the difference between the two previous sentences? An “Oxford comma” was used before “and” in the first sentence, but is absent in the second, in accordance with the style used by The Associated Press.
Guides to correct style differ and the issue became heated on Twitter after reports of the Oxford comma’s demise.
But have no fear, comma-philes: the Oxford comma lives.
Oxford University Press, birthplace of the Oxford comma, said Thursday that there has been no change in its century-old style, and jumped into the Twittersphere to confirm that it still follows the standard set out in “New Hart’s Rules.”…
The kerfuffle at least answered the musical question posed by indie band Vampire Weekend: “Who gives a —- about an Oxford comma?”

This must have been one of those occasions where a million people at once (myself among them) thought it would be at least mildly clever and apt to reference the Vampire Weekend song (“Oxford Comma”).  I wonder if it shot to the top of the iTunes download charts this week.

I had never paid close attention to the lyrics to the song.  First of all, although by some standards I could probably count as a “punctuation obsessive,” as this A.P. piece rudely puts it (I prefer “comma-phile”), I’ll admit didn’t precisely know the definition of an Oxford comma.  But I took the concept to stand for snobby/fussy/elite punctiliousness among the educated/preppy classes… a perfect objective correlative for Vampire Weekend, as they style themselves as auto-ethnographers of that world.

Here are the full lyrics:

Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?/ I’ve seen those English dramas too/ They’re cruel/ So if there’s any other way/ To spell the word/ It’s fine with me, with me

Why would you speak to me that way/ Especially when I always said that I/ Haven’t got the words for you/ All your diction dripping with disdain/ Through the pain/ I always tell the truth

Who gives a fuck about an Oxford climber?/ I climbed to Dharamsala too/ I met the highest lama/ His accent sounded fine/ To me, to me

Check your handbook/It’s no trick/ Take the chapstick/ Put it on your lips/ Crack a smile/ Adjust my tie/ Know your boyfriend, unlike other guys

Why would you lie about how much coal you have?/ Why would you lie about something dumb like that?/ Why would you lie about anything at all?/ First the window, then it’s to the wall/ Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth

First the window, then it’s through the wall/ Why would you tape my conversations?/ Show your paintings/ At the United Nations/ Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth

“Oxford comma” turns into “Oxford climber;” punctiliousness about obscure grammar rules associated with social climbing and Anglophile snobbishness.

Wiki tells us that:

on January 28, 2008, Michael Hogan of Vanity Fair interviewed Ezra Koenig regarding the title of the song and its relevance to the song’s meaning. Koenig said he first encountered the Oxford comma (an optional comma before conjunctions at the end of a list) after learning of a Columbia University Facebook group called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. The idea for the song came several months later while Koenig was sitting at a piano in his parents’ house. He began “writing the song and the first thing that came out was ‘Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?'” He stated that the song “is more about not giving a fuck than about Oxford commas.”

Someone here explicates the line “Why would you lie about how much coal you have?:

Lying about how much coal you have can easily be done through the omission of an oxford comma.

An oxford comma is the comma right before the and in a series.

I have 100 pounds of iron, 50 pounds of steel, and coal.
I have 100 pounds of iron, 50 pounds of steel and coal.

In the first example, the amount of coal is not specified, while in the second example there are clearly 50 pounds of coal. By omitting the oxford comma, you can let people think that you have 50 pounds of coal, even if you do not, as the oxford comma is often viewed as optional.

But why would you lie about how much coal you have? why would you lie about something dumb like that?

What worries me a bit about this analysis, however, is that when I Googled “Oxford comma, steel, coal” in a few variants, I kept getting references to Vampire Weekend and none to the steel/coal sentence as a classic one used to explain the grammar rule in Britain.  Perhaps I needed to go further down the Google pages, though.

Reading through old comments on the song’s entry on songmeanings.net, one oft-debated crux relates to the references to “Lil Jon” (the rapper) — or is it the former Australian Prime Minister?

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, was know as both Honest John and Little John. He very vocally supported Bush’s War On Terror, even going so far as to make a speech at the United Nations.

Possibly there could be an allusion there, but probably not, because “First the window, then it’s to the wall/ Lil Jon, he always tells the truth” is a citation of these Lil Jon lyrics from his huge (but crude, NSFW, sorry) hit, “Get Low:”

Get low, Get low, Get Low, Get Low
To the window, to the wall,
To the sweat drip down my balls

To all skeet skeet skeet skeet goddamn
To all skeet skeet skeet skeet goddamn [? or something]

So as someone commented (sorry I’ve lost this reference already), the line “To the window, to the wall, to the sweat drip down my balls” does not need an Oxford comma because “Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth,” that is, unpretentious, crude American speech conveys its meaning very effectively.  It doesn’t really matter whether or not there is a comma after “to the walls” (although I actually am not sure what “meaning” that line conveys, but perhaps that’s the point, that meaning per se often matters less than rhythm, rhyme, and feeling).

Another crux relates to “I climbed to Dharamsala too/I met the highest lama/ His accent sounded fine/ To me, to me.”  Liddiloop explains that “Dharamsala is a village in Northern India which has been, since the early 1960s, the capital-in-exile for Tibetan refugees fleeing persecution in Chinese-occupied Tibet, and yes, the Dalai Lama lives there, and is the ‘highest Lama’ referred to in the song. He is known for his idiosyncratic english which is far from fluent, but loved by many – so i reckon the singer is pointing out that you don’t need to be word perfect in order to get meaning across…”

So the speaker links Dalai Lama and Lil Jon as speakers of improper, non-standard “weird English” that is preferable to the fussily grammar-obsessed language of the snotty interlocutor, presumably the singer’s English (or maybe Anglophile, just back from a year abroad?) girlfriend whose “diction drip[s] with disdain.”

Other cruxes: the “coal” — is this simply a reference to the sentence about steel and coal commonly used to illustrate the Oxford comma, or (also) a figure for wealth, possibly diamonds?  The chapstick: suggesting that the girlfriend is almost OCD in her fussy obsessiveness and concern with appearances?

Thinking about this has given me a fuller appreciation for the wit, density, and allusiveness of Vampire Weekend’s lyrics, and of the complexity and cleverness of their self-positioning in reference to prestige codes.  Also codes and implications of nationality and foreign travel, e.g. Oxbridge vs. Nepal vs the United Nations, different kinds of cosmopolitanism and the knowledge or wisdom it can but will not necessarily bring.  (One subtext: Vampire Weekend are often criticized or mocked for being too Ivy League, too “white,” pretentiously cosmopolitan in the way they draw on Afropop, etc.  So you can see why they might want to ally themselves with Lil Jon here — but as ever, they are smart and self-aware about that desire to achieve authenticity, too.)

Skeet skeet skeet goddamn! (Or is that skeet, skeet, skeet goddamn?)