Sects in the Afternoon

Caught but not certain. Laid low and silenced by the voices within, he withdrew from the room seriously, like he had a better reason than even a phone call to take. As though he would be relieved to be relieved of his colleague’s wife and his colleague for a moment, even of his own wife. She looked at her guests to see their reaction follow the silence created by the ringing but there came no obvious offense to the one face they seemed to share, looking in across the table. Green peas, everyone had green peas still on their plates, that’s what she noticed more. Maybe they had been no good, no good at all, and perhaps she wished that had been the reason her husband had left the room with a weak excuse. Perhaps.
All she knew now was that their conversation which had been so lively moments before had ceased, as if awaiting his return before it could more properly resume. This unnerved her. Was she so incapable of conversing that her guests needed him? Needed him more? Had she not attended _______ with him, earned better grades and knew more people, giver her own thoughts about a master’s in archeology a childish look back after it was decided, somehow fucking decided, that he would attend medical school as if in her stead, and indeed in the stead of many things? She had admired his boyish streak then, encouraged him and had witnessed how, in subscribing to some manly beliefs that would provide dark difficulties for the boy, he was seeding the luxury of a future utility. And thus was performed a type of acrobatics that made sense, even with gravity, even in medical school with her remembering school in all the same fall when they had been anything but slaves to the future and even their own commitment had more to do with love than anything beyond it. Another fall had rolled around, and she had grown painfully accustomed to waiting on him, now over cold peas and two frosty guests that she’d considered liking during the cold banana appetizer.
She could hear him talking in the next room and wondered why he had chosen a phone so close to where the guests waited, perhaps to let them overhear the muffled sound of his voice and further convey the seriousness his attention warranted. But she knew there was more, as he had stopped subscribing so closely to concerns of what others thought of him months before; it was reminiscent of giving up exercising for an injury. He nursed his injury, and let his wife answer the door, bake the ham and light the candles. He just breezed in looking fresh and nibbled, made excuses to leave whenever his hard-fought trappings became too much of themselves. Themselves in a painless light of caricature by which his accomplishments more resembled responsibilities. She hoped he might come back and say he had to leave, the phone call, ‘you know, they need me,’ he would say. She would then feel no further obligation in humoring the seriousness of her guests, no requirement to answer their questions about the old house or the painting in the hall like some multiple choice questions on a master’s exam she never took. She had her own calls to make.
But he didn’t. He returned and claimed his seat next to the wife of his colleague before his cold peas and across from his own sexy wife he hadn’t seen in years. He made a small joke about the presence of seamen at which his wife laughed out loud at exactly the wrong time so that she laughed alone and the other three just stared at her, and he could not even finish his joke then because all of a sudden, he was unsure what was so funny. He knew something was eating him alive, he even saw the teeth marks, but without the courage to stop it, so he could only blame her and claim as his evidence those times when she laughed out of place and embarrassed him. The colleague and his wife sat as one, unsure in movement and embarrassed themselves. But not as part of the fray; they refused to see what they could easily identify as a war on the cold pea horizon and were intent on remaining frozen, afraid even to look at the opposing forces. Silver clanged to china because now everyone, except the wife – who saw many things – everyone saw only one thing as the last recourse and the only thing to do until there was another opening like a beautiful phone call to be taken: eat the peas.
“Would anyone like more wine?” she watched him say with genuine curiosity in his voice. He rose at his place at the table as the colleague and his wife agreed certainly and without doubt that yes, they would love some more wine. “What about you, honey?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I think I want Scotch. Does anybody want Scotch?” she asked with a different curiosity. The husband began to sink where he stood, almost reaching his chair again. He had been stabbed by her once again, he thought. The guests watched them and looked at her with the assurance that they definitely did not care for, could not more fervently beg against – it was only Tuesday night – the very idea of Scotch. Their eyes squared with hers, emboldened by the clarity they had yet ever met; squinting, they tried to remember her but after a few seconds all they could do was look back at the husband, who had now reseated himself. “Okay, I guess wine sounds good.”
“Great!” he said and sprang from his seat again, making her smile somewhat in the old way, before medical school; perhaps she even let out a slight peep of a giggle. She had no course for intimidating him or turning their marriage into a true success or an actual failure, neither of which it could be classified at that moment. Things just happened. And as easily as both of them were bothered by his life and her especially of being the same small island off of it she had been when he had decided, it often passed as easily as the cork through the bottle’s top and not the needle’s eye, which it more properly resembled. He congratulated himself on what he considered small victories such as these, but his vision often failed him such that he was unable to see that she had only made a decision to call it off for a while. He proceeded to unconsciously gloat in his conversations about the hospital and the boy who would surely have died if not for the technique he had executed perfectly just that morning, which he recalled from an obscure journal article he had read and which had surrendered to his magnetic memory. Things that did not, could not, involve her, and these made up the blurred and windswept roadside she had been seeing all along. More he gloated, pushing his colleague into silence he mistook for respect and permission to continue the never-ending story of his worth. His duty was unclear, he thought and said in the same instant, and played tricks with his mind during the long days he spent at the hospital, at the humble service of a generic man. The wife sipped her wine and listened. Not to him, but to the voice inside her own thoughts, which she garnered without the need to verbalize immediately. She looked down on herself in the dining room among the three other people and imagined the scene just as it was, even with her husband talking. Except this time he was saying things which kept her interest and even flattered her; the colleague and his wife kept looking at her in amused adoration mixed with sensual envy as the husband shared brief tales not especially extraordinary except for the smile of believability through which he slipped them the words. She felt in love, not because she thought about it or was reminded of the fact by something he said to their guests, but simply in adjusting her eyes to where he sat. It aroused her, where he sat, the way he sat, and she knew the days and nights and places and unplaces where they had made love and loved each other almost as much as they did, sitting feet apart among two guests they had been obliged to entertain and nothing more. He made her feel the way only women at 24 or 28 know sex, just by the movements of his crossed leg, ever so perceptibly, back and forth. She could not wait, then, for the guests to complete their visit and bid an unacquainted farewell so she could take him by the trousers wherever she wanted as soon as the door slammed shut. It never took him long, she thought.
“Well, this has been wonderful,” the colleague began, interrupting more than he knew of the evening’s progress, of its host of events left incomplete, of its untold manners, of its ability to distract even itself. Things just happen, she considered as she re-entered the room consciously, slowly, reluctantly, with a pain immobile unless he would only, finally, press her into service.

© 2018 Alan Flurry

Into metaphors and back again

Most English speakers are familiar with the saying, “a rotten apple.” Employed as a sort of lame excuse for the bad behavior of some, it’s the end of the saying that makes it so much worse, “spoils the bunch.”
Do we develop metaphors to describe things/phenomena/feelings/people that otherwise elude description? It seems so. But do we then turn the metaphors back onto actual situations again? Less clear, but promising.

His only adaptation of a book from his favorite writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Akira Kurasawa’s “The Idiot” turns the film into a larger metaphor for Postwar Japan, a nation traumatized, ashamed, destroyed and suffering a severe identity crisis. It also has a what-could-have been awfulness: the director originally intended the film to be nearly five hours long, and in two parts, but his backers, Shochiku, cut it to shreds, ending up a little shy of three hours.

No other work has been a better companion to Dostoyevsky’s unrelenting view of humanity than Akira Kurosawa’s much-maligned 1951 film Hakuchi. The original cut stood at 265 minutes, trimmed to 166 minutes by studio executives at Shochiku against the director’s wishes. “In that case, better to have it cut lengthwise,” he is said to have responded. Nobody knows what was left on the cutting room floor as Kurosawa was unable to locate the lost footage, leaving it impossible for audiences to follow the narrative of the film. Hakuchi was critically derided upon its initial release, finding only a handful of fans in Russia – among them Andrei Tarkovsky.

Hakuchi must have been a very special project to Kurosawa. It is one of his most important early works, and he refused to stray from a wholly faithful adaptation to the book unlike later on with his liberal interpretations of Shakespeare in Throne of Blood and Ran. And despite its obvious failings in narrative flow, no other Kurosawa film tells us more about Japan at the time or conveys as much intense emotional power as Hakuchi. His decision to transport the novel’s events from the glittering St Petersburg to wintry Sapporo on the northernmost island in Japan, is not a purely aesthetic one.

Perhaps a more obvious choice would have been Tokyo or Osaka, cities which are closer similar in spirit to St Petersburg. But then we would have been denied that remarkable scene at the beginning of the film. The thuggish merchant Akama (Rogozhin in the book, played by Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifune) and Kameda (Masayuki Mori as Myshkin) stop before a portrait of the woman they will both destroy each other for, her gaze lit up by the blizzard. All around them, peasants struggle by with their carts and goods in the bitter cold. The darkness, both literal and metaphorical, is almost complete save for the faint falling snow, which makes the men’s faces flicker in the shop window. How difficult it is, Kurosawa seems to be saying, to bring light to a place where it is perpetually night.

An old stereotype valorises the purity of the “traditional way of life” in Japan, outside of the moral corruption of the big cities. This is epitomised in many classic novels including Yasunari Kawabata’s ‘The Old Capital’ from 1962. But Kurosawa situates the showy greed and lust of The Idiot in the heart of Japan’s rural outposts, turning this assumption on its head. There is no foreign malice come to take away the innocence of the people; they have nobody to blame but themselves. Fittingly, although the film is set in post-war Japan, the endless snow negates all reference to the time period. The struggle to do good in the world and to eke out a redemptive humanity requires no specific cultural context.

I have a deep reverence for The Idiot (as well as Poor Folk), and its rendering into a different medium brings up some good questions about the utility of metaphors themselves. Refracted cultural explanations of real life that slap back onto actual things; this is [one of the reasons] why, as soon as I heard about it, I couldn’t wait for Postmodernism to be over.

Best New Problem in the Role of a Solution

We are certainly and historically renown for this in every realm, which now to the massive surprise of absolutely nobody positively includes I Would Like to Thank the Academy:

Over the past several years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body that votes on the Oscars, has made tremendous strides in diversifying its membership. In 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported that 91 percent of AMPAS’s 6,000-plus members were white and 76 percent were male, a barely perceptible change from the figures the LAT first reported in 2012. But that year, the academy invited a record new 683 members, a record it went on to break in 2017, and again in 2018, increasing AMPAS’s overall membership by nearly half in a three-year span and doubling the percentage of members who are people of color.

This has represented a tremendous effort to bring sweeping change to one of the world’s most prominent cultural arbiters. And, Wednesday, in one fell swoop, the academy undid it all.

The announcement that the Oscars would be adding an as-yet-unnamed category for “achievement in popular film” was met with near-universal derision, and for good reason.

Hmmm… because we certainly can’t have that ‘Moonlight’ thing happening again, Nosiree. The Oscars of course are just a self-promotional artifact for the movie industry, but come on. They might reserve a little, teeny tiny bit of artistic pretension. What is all the marketing preening video mantage for anyway? Wait, don’t answer that.

Modes for toads

Nice DE-veining of ‘design thinking’ in the CHE:

Despite his enthusiasm, Miller struggles to define design thinking. “It’s an approach to problem-solving based on a few easy-to-grasp principles that sound obvious: ‘Show Don’t Tell,’ ‘Focus on Human Values,’ ‘Craft Clarity,’ ‘Embrace Experimentation,’ ‘Mindful of Process,’ ‘Bias Toward Action,’ and ‘Radical Collaboration.’” He explains further that these seven points can be reduced to what are known as the five “modes”: “Empathize,” “Define,” “Ideate,” “Prototype,” and “Test.” He seems particularly impressed with “Empathize”: “Human-centered design redescribes the classical aim of education as the care and tending of the soul.”
Beautiful. Compelling. But what does it mean? According to the d.school’s An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE, “The Empathize Mode is the work you do to understand people, within the context of your design challenge.” We can dress things up with language about the “soul,” but this is Business 101: Listen to your client and find out what he or she wants.

Miller calls the Empathize Mode “ethnography,” which is uncharitable  to cultural anthropologists who spend their entire lives learning how to observe other people. Few anthropologists would sign on to the idea that amateurs at a d.school boot camp strolling around Stanford and gawking at strangers constitutes “ethnography.” The Empathize Mode of design thinking is roughly as ethnographic as a marketing focus group or a crew of consultants trying to suss out their clients’ desires.

Design thinking, in other words, is just a fancy way of talking about consulting. What Miller, Kelly, and Hennessy are asking us to imagine is that design consulting is a model for retooling all of education. They believe that we should use design thinking to reform education by treating students as clients. And they assert that design thinking should be a central part of what students learn, a lens through which graduates come to approach social reality. In other words, we should view all of society as if we are in the design-consulting business.

Okay maybe not so nice. But still, the designification of arts and any other kind of education is a wagon train that should stopped, frisked, emptied of its contents, its wheels broken and used for firewood and little shacks built from the wagon bodies to shield the shysters pioneers from the winter cold because THAT’s empathy and we’re not barbarians. The business-minded think everywhere they look is a frontier – that’s where all this consulting jargon comes from – when most of it is just the old world, with a deep culture you can share and learn something from, and even use for helpful, positive purposes that, yes, might even earn you a living. But no. Instead, it’s space travel. Deep tunnels. The hyperloop. Self-driving cars. Personal pods, juicer-toasters or whatever. And now some of the design thinkers want to change higher ed so their ‘IDEAS, man!’ make more sense. Just stop.

The eve and the morrow

The great Colm Tóibín assembles and unfurls several aspects of Conrad in a review of a new book about the writer, sharing earlier appraisals by V.S. Naipaul and Chinua Achebe. How’s this for precision:

In his essay, Naipaul invokes Conrad as “a writer who is missing a society…. Conrad’s experience was too scattered; he knew many societies by their externals, but he knew none in depth.” And then he laments:

The great societies that produced the great novels of the past have cracked…. The novel as a form no longer carries conviction…. The novelist, like the painter, no longer recognizes his interpretative function; he seeks to go beyond it; and his audience diminishes. And so the world we inhabit, which is always new, goes by unexamined, made ordinary by the camera, unmeditated on.

And

Since Naipaul cannot detach himself as a writer from “the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made,” he finds “that Conrad—sixty years before, in a time of a great peace—had been everywhere before me.” In rereading The Secret Agent, he discovers characters and phrases that strike him as “real” in a way they had not before. He notes a phrase—the “exasperated vanity of ignorance”—about one of the terrorists in the book who “took the part of an insolent and venomous evoker of sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance.”

As Naipaul grows to appreciate that phrase he sees something essential in Conrad: nouns that seemed muted or throttled by their adjectives, as though the impulse were merely to make a fine-sounding phrase or add impressively to the mystery, can, in fact, if studied carefully or read in a certain light, stand apart, become precise. He observes that Conrad, despite all his concern with ineffability, often meant business. “Words which at one time we disregard,” Naipaul wrote, “at another moment glitter.” Even though his “reservations about Conrad as a novelist remain,” still he cannot dismiss him: “Conrad’s value to me is that he is someone who sixty to seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognize today. I feel this about no other writer of the century.”

Just go read it all. It’s Friday – what else are you doing? Plus you’ll be relieved of thinking about vulgarians for a while better for it.

Image: Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz.

Eco Hustle, You’ll Tide edition

My Christmas column, originally published in Flagpole magazine in December 2008. Painfully, mostly still relevant.

In December 1843, Charles Dickens did a hell of a thing. The son of a debtor, Dickens found himself drowning in debt as well and penned a Victorian morality tale in a desperate attempt to ease his financial burdens. The story we have come to know as A Christmas Carol was written in the span of six weeks. No publisher would touch it and so Dickens published it himself. The book was ready just before the holiday that it celebrated and all 6,000 copies sold out in the span of a week. It became a holiday institution immediately, its popularity serving to “redefine the importance of Christmas and the major sentiments associated with the holiday,” according to wikipedia.

Dickens’ hero, Ebenezer Scrooge, had lost all use for the human endowments of charity, community, friendship and love. In fact, he demonstrated contempt for anything but money – a pose that has been greatly admired in our own culture until rec… well, we have at least sought comfort in epithets like conspicuous consumption and luxury tax. The analogy brings up some uncomfortable comparisons to go with our holiday cheer.

With our ability to supply basic necessities at a zenith, we strain for meaning and stimulation, indebting ourselves to buy things for a holiday we swear is not about material objects. We accept gross inadequacies in national and local healthcare, energy use and environmental degradation; the plight of those beyond our borders reduced to fables. If the ghost of Jacob Marley returned tonight, what bleak landscape would he threaten us with as an eternal post-mortem walking tour? Wait. Don’t answer that just yet. Viewing the world through the lens of consumption, we interpret events in the language of commodities. We’re perfectly at home with these unimportant distinctions between consumers and citizens (neighbors?) yet the only thing that preoccupies us more at this time of year than Christmas are the moments of consternation at how crass and commercial it has become.

Instead of ghosts, perhaps our dreamscapes are inhabited with the representative elements that first appeared as improvements to daily life, only to become seeds for greed and short-sightedness as they gave rise to our modern society. Christmas Past might feature a child waking sweetly on a long drive with her parents to Grandma’s house. She might peer over the big backseat of a large automobile and ask, “Papa, are we there yet?’ and he might answer, “Yes, Angel. Thanks to the new Interstate road system we’ll be there in another few minutes!”

“If we only knew then what we know now,” we might say. But what would we do differently? If we could revisit critical junctures, would we choose to begin down a more sustainable path?

Christmas Future would surely take place in that green, green landscape of the BP and IBM commercials, where birds chirp and squirrels chase deer and all sorts of other nonsensical pastimes envelope us in open meadows while we pull on rainbow cigars. The future would have to be particularly incoherent and disorienting in order to be sufficiently post-whatever we’ll be over by then. To pull this off, the virtual reality rendering might crash into a smoky apocalypse to really get our attention. The idea that what we find would tug at our innocence enough to invoke a specter of regret is both the genius of the Dickensian cliché and wishful thinking. Scrooge was savvy for his day, but we have fourth graders who would have him for lunch.

It’s Christmas present that is the problem. How do we see ourselves at this particular juncture? More attention is being paid the loss and destruction of water, minerals, oil, trees, fish, soil and air than ever before. Yet the prices for most raw materials are near historical lows and continue to fall. Supplies are cheap and appear to be abundant as technology continues to stay just ahead of depletion. Richer on a more grand scale than ever before, the resources upon which civilization depends to create economic progress are declining at a rate proportional to the gains in material well-being. We are thriving and yet the quality of our finest moments seems diminished.

Do we admit the disjuncture about the way we live and all it takes to support it? How about the one that really makes a mockery of Wall Street, that the earth is a closed system? Would we be startled by a solution waiting just outside our reach, ready for us to take charge if we might dare?

A Christmas Carol is not known as irreligious text but note the lack of religion in Dickens’ tale. We get all exercised about presents but exchanging gifts was the birthright of the pagan holiday, Sol Invictus. Let’s give it back – or better yet, announce where it came from. Notwithstanding the nefarious ploys of being drawn away by the foolish errors of heathendom, do these not both attempt to consecrate the One and True Light?

Ah, the sun. Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun god, had already made December 25 a holiday; the early Christians were chastised for being unobservant until they begged and borrowed and made the post-solstice feast their own. The Romans were just the next in a long line of people trying to remain in good stead with our main star. Perhaps we would do well to take our place in that procession. The moral hymn of our day is waiting to be written or perhaps we just need to re-read an older one to be reminded that we, too, need to change our ways. Dawn we now?

Genet… Away


A young* man in dark slacks, white shoes, a blue button down shirt and vest walked up the steps of a library. A grand edifice equal to its holdings, the building featured a trio of main entrances and the man entered, knowingly, the one on the right with an automatic door. Past security to the bank of elevators, he waited only momentarily for the doors to open, close and transport him quickly up to the third floor. He found the PQ’s and three rows in walked all the way down the aisle, almost to the very end. He arrived at the section and began reading titles.

After a minute so poised, reading the spines as if making a selection beyond a single book he had come for, he pulled out one book, opened it, perused, but then replaced it. He took out another and put it back without opening. Then spying another on a higher shelf, he took down the book, opened it to the verso and just before letting out a startling loud sneeze, lofted the book high in one hand to avoid splattering it with the involuntary spray.

Involuntary, but not invisible. Because when quiet down the row resealed itself and he looked around and saw no one, the man spied the bit of phlegm he had caught in the other hand that covered his mouth, just as involuntarily. Now quite deliberately attempting to safeguard the books from the one soiled hand, he continued his quest for a few more minutes. When he had finally decided on a selection, the man took the book back down the long aisle. Before turning into the bank of stairs as though he studiously and by habit avoided the elevator on the way down, he turned into the men’s room just opposite the first shelf of PR’s.

Inside the empty lavatory, he shifted the book to hold it under the armpit of the left, soiled hand, while he turned on the cold water with his right. The handle was easy to turn, perhaps, easier than expected, and just as the water fired against the basin, the book came loose from the pit, as he leaned over the sink to clean his hand. Into the full spray and quickly filling basin it fell, splayed open at page 139.

He grabbed the book quickly, though damage had been done. He finished cleaning the hand and went downstairs to circulation.

“Can I help you?” the kind young woman asked.

“I….” and he proceeded to explain what had happened. She frowned, but not in the way he might have expected.

“What book is it?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s a novel by Jean Genet. It might actually have been a play…” he was saying but she shook her head.

“OH. Don’t worry about. No one reads that book,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of ruined. But really, no one is going to miss it. So don’t worry about it.”

“I came here for it, to get it,” he said, as though he stood for legions.

“It’s not even in English,” she assured, of which there was no need.

“No, Genet was… it’s in French.”

“Exactly.”

“How does that matter?” he asked but exasperation began to appear on the woman’s pleasant face. She seemed so understanding. Too understanding, such that her understanding seemed worth nothing at all.

“Look at the last time it was checked out,” she instructed, with a kind of obviousness the man felt he had little encountered. “1972?”

“What difference does that make? It was about to be,” he said and looked at the women checking out a book with the next clerk down, “tied for 1st as the most recent book checked out of this library.”

“Do you want me to ask my supervisor?”

“Ask her what?”

“it’s a him,” she pointed out and now the young man began to appear exasperated.

“Okay. Ask him if you can dry off the book and lend it out to me.”

“it’s pretty wet.”

“Indeed. Tell him I’m very sorry.”

“He won’t care. He’ll just say to take it out of circulation.”

“It’s the only copy you have.”

“Was,” she corrected him. The man sighed, handed over the book and felt a sneeze coming on.

By Alan Flurry
________________________
*Relatively

Plenty

Even when

Louise Bourgeois: Self Portrait, 2007
there’s plenty wrong, there’s still plenty of the other, too. It just gets crowded out, like blue sky by rain. No need to blow sunshine, just a little pushback – like this digression on the graphic sensibility of Louise Bourgeois:

Born in Paris in 1911, Bourgeois suffered more than the usual number of grievous blows to the psyche, and her inner life stayed tightly wrapped around their memory. War, illness, sexual jealousy, mental instability were all things she witnessed in her first decade, and she never forgot—or forgave—any of them. As a teenager she learned that the attractive young Englishwoman who lived with the family as a tutor was also her father’s mistress, and this betrayal in particular was something she never got over. In addition, or perhaps in response, her mother was fragile and often ill, and young Louise became her companion at various spas and treatment centers; she was released from her caretaker role by her mother’s death when she was twenty-one.
After the loss of her mother, and encouraged by her charming and tyrannical father, Bourgeois started a small business selling works on paper, prints, and illustrated books out of a corner of the family’s tapestry workshop on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. To acquire her stock, she scoured the auction houses and book dealers, and she seems to have absorbed, almost overnight, the dominant graphic styles of the day. She had a particular affinity for Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as other artists who used the illustrated book form, which was then in vogue. Something about these livres d’artiste, as they were known—the way they combined text and pictures, and the way the image was printed from engraving or etching plates, the whole satisfying feel in the hand of beautifully made paper embossed with rectangles of finely drawn tones of gray—formed the template for how Bourgeois would think about her own art, on and off, for the rest of her life.

Have a template for how you think what matters most to you. Seems like all the advice anyone might need.

Image: Louise Borgeois: Self Portrait, 2007. MOMA

“I’m in love with that song.”


Finally caught the awesome Big Star documentary the other night, even though I was and remain a Replacements fan and have loved their song “Alex Chilton” for many moons; know some of the people involved with the Big Star reunions; and have been being yelled at by friends to watch the documentary for years. Sometimes I’m slow. It’s okay.
But it’s so good – most everything about Chilton and Memphis, but also the stuff about guitarist Chris Bell is just so weird.

By the mid-1960s, Memphis was teeming with teenage musicians captivated by their hometown’s role in birthing rock and roll, then the most dominant cultural expression of the era. Chilton had acquired no small amount of musical sophistication and talent just by virtue of parental osmosis. Well, that and he had a somewhat gimmicky ability to sing like soul-singers much darker and older than an upper-middle class white kid had any right to do. After a high school talent competition, Chilton was asked to join a local group of older musicians that eventually came to be called The Box Tops. Like Big Star, that name doesn’t mean much beyond music obsessives, but the band’s first single sold a few million copies and remains one of the most recognizable hits of the sixties. When “The Letter” hit number one, Chilton was just 16 years old.

The Box Tops churned out a number of minor hits after that, and Chilton, who had dropped out of school, went on tour with the band and partook in the usual rock and roll carousing. He partied with The Doors, and with The Box Tops’ brief career winding down, he even moved out to California to live with Brian and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. (It was there that he once crashed on the same couch with Charles Manson.) With The Box Tops breaking up, he largely abandoned the pursuit of fame. He taught himself to play guitar, worked on writing his own songs, and moved to New York where he became a fixture on the Greenwich Village folk scene. Along the way he got married, had a child, and divorced not long after. After briefly connecting with Chris Bell, a visionary musician from his teenage days in Memphis, Chilton moved back home to join his band. Big Star recorded and released their first album, the ironically titled #1 Record.

All this happened by the time he was 21. At an age when most of us were still trying to decide what we were going to do with our lives, Chilton had lit the fuse on a bomb that’s still sending shockwaves through pop music. But by the time we get to Chilton’s involvement with Big Star, well, here’s where George-Warren’s book, with its exhaustive details and an impressive authorial command, departs from the traditional rock and roll narrative. (And I do mean exhaustive—the book’s opening chapter traces the Chilton family history back to 11th century Normandy. If you want to know which houseguest Chilton’s mother showed how to make homemade mayonnaise, well, it’s all in here.)

Here’s a heavily abbreviated version of what happened: After a too brief and brilliant career, Big Star simply collapsed. Despite some positive critical notices, they remained largely unknown for a decade afterwards. Big Star’s music was so undeniably good that, over time, critical consensus simply reached critical mass. The resurrection of Big Star in the 1980s was a heartening and surprising event that’s almost unique in rock history.

Anyway… Here’s to tangents, slowness, weird great music, friends.

“Men of sighs” and “of tears”

Since everything seems to be All Russia, All the Time, I’ve been thinking about Konstantin Levin, the most interesting character from Anna Karenina, and relatedly D.H. Lawrence, who did not care much for what Tolstoy was saying with Levin. But for some other probably suspicious reason was led back to Turgenev and Knock Knock Knock:

Two incidents that marked the first steps in his career did a great
deal to strengthen his “fatal” reputation. On the very first day after
receiving his commission–about the middle of March–he was walking
with other newly promoted officers in full dress uniform along the
embankment. The spring had come early that year, the Neva was melting;
the bigger blocks of ice had gone but the whole river was choked up
with a dense mass of thawing icicles. The young men were talking and
laughing … suddenly one of them stopped: he saw a little dog some
twenty paces from the bank on the slowly moving surface of the river.
Perched on a projecting piece of ice it was whining and trembling all
over. “It will be drowned,” said the officer through his teeth. The
dog was slowly being carried past one of the sloping gangways that led
down to the river. All at once Tyeglev without saying a word ran down
this gangway and over the thin ice, sinking in and leaping out again,
reached the dog, seized it by the scruff of the neck and getting
safely back to the bank, put it down on the pavement. The danger to
which Tyeglev had exposed himself was so great, his action was so
unexpected, that his companions were dumbfoundered–and only spoke all
at once, when he had called a cab to drive home: his uniform was wet
all over. In response to their exclamations, Tyeglev replied coolly
that there was no escaping one’s destiny–and told the cabman to drive
on.

“You might at least take the dog with you as a souvenir,” cried one of
the officers. But Tyeglev merely waved his hand, and his comrades
looked at each other in silent amazement.

The second incident occurred a few days later, at a card party at the
battery commander’s. Tyeglev sat in the corner and took no part in the
play. “Oh, if only I had a grandmother to tell me beforehand what
cards will win, as in Pushkin’s _Queen of Spades_,” cried a
lieutenant whose losses had nearly reached three thousand. Tyeglev
approached the table in silence, took up a pack, cut it, and saying
“the six of diamonds,” turned the pack up: the six of diamonds was the
bottom card. “The ace of clubs!” he said and cut again: the bottom
card turned out to be the ace of clubs. “The king of diamonds!” he
said for the third time in an angry whisper through his clenched
teeth–and he was right the third time, too … and he suddenly turned
crimson. He probably had not expected it himself. “A capital trick! Do
it again,” observed the commanding officer of the battery. “I don’t go
in for tricks,” Tyeglev answered drily and walked into the other room.
How it happened that he guessed the card right, I can’t pretend to
explain: but I saw it with my own eyes. Many of the players present
tried to do the same–and not one of them succeeded: one or two did
guess _one_ card but never two in succession. And Tyeglev had
guessed three! This incident strengthened still further his reputation
as a mysterious, fatal character. It has often occurred to me since
that if he had not succeeded in the trick with the cards, there is no
knowing what turn it would have taken and how he would have looked at
himself; but this unexpected success clinched the matter.

Honi soit, as Lev wrote.