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A Woman of Heart and Mind

Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell by Katherine Novak (Greystone, $21.00, 298 pages)

Joni Mitchell, a self-described woman of heart and mind, never shows up within the pages of Joni.   There are a couple of reasons for this.   First, Katherine Monk never had the opportunity to interact with Ms. Mitchell, leaving her unable to shed light on the human being.   Second, Monk sought to create a quasi-academic treatise on the subject of Philosophy and Religion and the Music of Joni Mitchell.   Frankly, it’s simply not that interesting even if one was (like this reader) a Philosophy and Religion major in college.

No, this is not another fan’s tribute to Joni; instead, it’s a somewhat overwrought collection of essays that seeks to find the meaning of Mitchell’s music via the words of Nietzsche and other philosophers.   This is painful enough, but just when one hopes that she won’t throw religious figures into the analytical mix, she proceeds to discuss St. Augustine and revisit the biblical Story of Job.   In the end – in the words of Bob Dylan, nothing is revealed.

Mitchell herself once said that writing about music is like trying to dance to architecture.   Picking up a copy of Joni’s Blue or For the Roses album is much preferable to attempting this strange dance.   Very much preferable.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Take It As It Comes

The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $21.99, 210 pages)

“There were thick-headed, battering horns all over the album…  they didn’t make the music better…”   Greil Marcus on The Soft Parade by The Doors

This collection of short essays by Greil Marcus might have been subtitled, The Random Things I Think About While Listening to The Doors.   It is not a band biography, nor a definitive account of their music, so it won’t be of much use to those just discovering the songs and albums of this group; nor will it interest Doors fanatics, as there’s virtually nothing new included here.

With Marcus, it seems to always be hit and miss…  He earlier produced a great collection of essays about Van Morrison which seemed to capture the essential nature of the musician, but when he attempted to do the same with Bob Dylan, it was pretty much a complete failure.   The Van Morrison book was a grand slam – the one on Dylan was a quick strike-out.

Before going further, I need to put my cards on the table about The Doors.   I felt they were one of the most over-rated bands of their time, and the critics have remained strangely kind to them through the years.   (A late-November 2011 article in The Wall Street Journal wondered aloud why the group’s music is still popular.)   Except for some clever placements on movie soundtracks, I don’t see – or rather, don’t hear – their music as having aged well.   That is, it does not adapt well to current times perhaps because when it was originally recorded it seemed to provide a sense – or rather, a preview – of music’s future.   But the promise of The Doors’ first two albums (neither of which hit number 1 on the U.S. music charts) never materialized in what was to follow.   They produced two essentially tedious albums – Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade – that included singles so bad (Hello, I Love You; Touch Me) that Jim Morrison usually refused to sing them on stage.   It’s true that they had a sense of redemption before the end, with the decent Morrison Hotel and close-to-excellent L. A. Woman albums, but they nevertheless ended up as a slight version of the music revolutionaries they once threatened to be.

One of the issues with Greil’s approach is that he – being a Berkeley resident – lumps them in with the San Francisco bands of the time in terms of their somewhat psychedelic approach to their music and their lives.   Yes, Marcus is fully aware that they were a Los Angeles band (Morrison being a UCLA graduate) but he never seems able to capture the relationship between their place and their music.   He does try, in an essay about the L. A. Woman album, one which is interesting reading but empty on the actual mental nutritional calories it offers.

In discussing the band and southern California, Marcus also falls into the trap of seeing some kind of connection between their songs (Break On Through, The End, Riders On The Storm) and the violence of the Manson Family.   Which is nonsense, as Charles Manson made clear that he was irrationally influenced by the music of The Beatles on the White Album (specifically Helter Skelter) but never by The Doors.   It’s an interesting straw man argument that Marcus sets up, but it is essentially such a weak one that there’s no need to do more than set it aside.

Well, then, should one read Greil Marcus because he does such a valiant job of retaining the spirit of Gonzo rock journalism?   In other words, should you read him because he writes now as if he were writing for Rolling Stone, Creem, New West, Ramparts and other publications of the dear-departed 60s and 70s?   You might elect to, but I would suggest a couple of alternatives if this is your thing (or your bag, as it would have been called back in the day).

One fine choice is Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz.   Willis began writing rock criticism for The New Yorker in 1968 and almost created the genre of rock criticism tied to cultural and political events.   And then there was the master, the late Lester Bangs of San Diego, California.   There are two compilations of Bang’s work – Main Lines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader and Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock’N’Roll.   There’s also an essential biography from 2000, Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim Derogatis.

Trust me, reading or re-reading Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis will take you to some places that you won’t find in The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years.   And I wonder if that subtitle was actually meant to refer to Five Lean Years.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note:  If you’re still wondering about whether you should read Marcus’ account of The Doors, keep in mind that he loves their live recordings (sigh) and the dreadful (“excoriated”) 1991 film The Doors by Oliver Stone – something which is truly hard to believe.

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Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs; $29.95; 481 pages)

“You have to pay to get out of going through these things twice.”   Bob Dylan

In 1985, rock critic Greil Marcus was asked to review the book A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan by Wilfred Meller, and his review began with these words:  “This is a confused and confusing book about a confused and confusing figure: Bob Dylan, born 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, as Robert Alan Zimmerman.”   Well, back at you, Greil, as those would be the perfect words to describe this $30 collection of essays, previously published and unpublished.   They all deal in some way – and some barely – with the subject of Bob Dylan.   It might be said that Marcus’ essays on the man are dazed and confused.

It’s a bit shocking that Marcus does not come even close to enlightening the reader about Dylan the musician or the man.   That’s shocking because just last year, he released a brilliant tome about Van Morrison (reviewed on this site on August 26, 2010), When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison.   There, Marcus seemed to capture both Van’s heart and his soul, and it made the reader want to run to play his or her Morrison CDs.   He was spot on there; here, no way.

Marcus seems confused because there are four Bob Dylans:  the genius songwriter (“Like A Rolling Stone,” “Visions of Johanna”); the oh-so-casual writer of throw-away songs (“Watching the River Flow,” “Rainy Day Women No.s 12 & 35 [Everybody Must Get Stoned]”);  the overly serious, angry and controlling musician (where there are similarities to Morrison); and the Joker, whose every action and comment is a complete put-on.   Because Marcus cannot reconcile these four personalities in one person, he appears continually lost as to what’s going on with Mr. Hughes in his Dylan shoes.   Sometimes he loves Dylan, sometimes he’s disappointed by him, sometimes he blasts him, but mostly he’s watching the parade go by and  wondering about the meaning of it all.

As an example, he prints a section of the interview that Dylan gave to Playboy magazine back in 1966.   The entire interview is a big joke – although it was lost to the magazine’s editors – and none of it is real.   But Marcus has no comment on it.

One problem is that to properly understand and analyze Dylan, one must have a breadth of background as big and wide as Dylan’s.   Such is not the case in this compilation…  At one point Marcus does note that Dylan has relied on religious writings as the inspiration for many of his songs (the same is true of philosophers, not just prophets), but he does not supply any actual references.   It’s a shame and one has to wonder if Marcus cribbed that point from another writer.

The writing is dull and flat and lacks the excitement of, say, a Lester Bangs or a John Mendelsohn.   And yet when Van Morrison appears on the scene, as when Marcus writes of The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, the writing is suddenly sparkling – until Morrison leaves the stage, and it returns to being flat.   So it seems that Marcus simply gets Morrison in a way that will never apply to Dylan.

“Along with a lot of other things, becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer.   I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant.”

As you can see from this quotation, you’re not going to get much from Greil Marcus that’s going to help you understand Bob Dylan’s songs…  Except…  Except that he includes an almost-perfect review of Dylan’s singular 10-song masterpiece Blood on the Tracks.   Which, as the Chuck Berry song says, goes to show you never can tell.

Marcus was quite tough in that ’85 review of Wilfred Meller’s book:  “Meller’s language collapses along with his conceptual apparatus.”   That sounds very harsh and professorial, does it not?   Getting back to Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, I’ll just say that there’s far less here than one would expect from a writer who wrote the liner notes to one of Bob Dylan’s major albums.   Making your way through all of this is like going on an Easter egg hunt where no one finds any of the eggs.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Connection

What the Dog Saw and other adventures by Malcolm Gladwell (Back Bay Books; $16.99; 410 pages)

Learning is so much fun when Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers) is the instructor.   Gladwell’s calm but engaging style is the common thread in this anthology composed of nineteen essays previously published in the New Yorker magazine.   There is just enough cohesion among the essays to  make for smooth transitions.   Yes, Gladwell cites some facts and studies used by other authors; however, his use of the material takes on a new look when seen through his question and answer format.

This reviewer was fascinated by the piece titled, “The Ketchup Conundrum.”   The reader is presented with the statements, “Mustard now comes in dozens of varieties.   Why has ketchup stayed the same?”   This is a condiment that dominates most others, whether it’s in a booth at a burger joint or on a family’s kitchen table.   One brand in particular rises above the rest in taste tests, and that’s Heinz.   Gladwell provides a charming history of ketchup along with the various challenges that have been made to the Heinz dominance of the field.   After reading the essay, I felt compelled to buy a bottle of Heinz for my own taste test.   Mind you, our household is rarely the scene of actual cooking so I had to be creative in using my purchase.   Happily, the flavor of Heinz blends perfectly with cottage cheese resulting in a pseudo-macaroni and cheese flavor without the carbs.

The preceding example is indicative of the connections that can be made to the everyday life of the reader.   This anthology is by no means a heavy-duty literary work; rather, it prompts conversations with family and friends.   Isn’t that what knowledge does?

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the book was purchased for her.

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When I Paint My Masterpiece

When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, $22.95, 208 pages)

“Music can take us beyond literate sequence and consequence.”   Wilfred Mellers

“If you didn’t hear from him, that just means he didn’t call.”   Van Morrison

Sometimes a complete portrait of a person, or an artist, requires that one explain and explore both their positives and their negatives.   Although rock-critic-writer Greil Marcus is clearly infatuated with Van Morrison and his music, he decided to write this profile – in a sense, a collection of essays about the subject – in an honest fashion.   On the one hand, we see Morrison as a musical genius who can sing songs without a musical arrangement, leading and requiring his backing musicians to follow him.   He’s been a musician who can recruit a record producer by simply singing a new song to him one-on-one, like an actor seducing a director by reading from a promising script.

Then there’s the difficult Morrison, the singer who often avoids looking at his audience; a performer who can storm off of the stage when he’s angry; a singer who sometimes hates being bothered by the joyful participation of those in his audience.   As noted in this account, one night Van was performing for a San Francisco audience when he got tired of their clapping and yelling.   He yelled out, “Just shut up.   Just shut up!   We do the work here on stage, not you.”

And so we see that Van Morrison is a musician-artist of both sequence and consequence.   As Marcus writes, “What defines great singing in the rock and soul era is some underlying tension in the space between singer and song.”

Van Morrison did not start out great.   With the band known as Them he released the notable single “Gloria” (first released as a 45 in a rather weak 2 minute and 35 second cover version by Shadows of Knight of Seattle) and also “Here Comes the Night,” and the much lesser known “Mystic Eyes.”   But the band members did not click as a group, and the newly-freed artist went on to write and record what is today his most played song, “Brown Eyed Girl.”   Yet, there was something about his rock and soul voice that was not totally distinct; he tended to be confused in people’s minds with Eric Burdon of The Animals (it didn’t help that both Morrison and Burdon covered Sam Cooke’s classic “Bring It On Home to Me.”)

Morrison’s solo career went on to be a steadily successful one, but Marcus elects to place the focus here on Van’s masterpiece, Astral Weeks.   Greil, who owns thousands of recordings, confesses to us that, “I’ve played Astral Weeks more than I’ve played any other record I own.”   The tale of how the album came to be created is worth the price of admission, for this was not a tightly structured creation.   Instead, it was the product of near-magical jazz-like improvisation.   The record’s producer, Lewis Merenstein of Chicago (who didn’t know who Morrison was before the recording began) was to say:  “I don’t want to sound existential, but there was Van and that was it; there was no band, there were no arrangements.   The direction was him singing and playing – that was where I followed.   That’s why it came out the way it did…  There obviously was a direction from somewhere in the sky.”

Marcus makes clear in Rough God that Morrison himself does not know the intended meanings of many of the songs he writes, one such song being “Madame George.”   That’s alright, such is the nature of genius.   Vincent Van Gogh would likely not be able to produce a scholarly treatise on each of his paintings.   But Morrison – like his female counterpart Joni Mitchell, is one of those artists who has demonstrated for us lesser mortals that, “There’s more to life than you thought.   Life can be lived more deeply.”

Thank you, both Van and Greil.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Greil Marcus is also the author of Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (Public Affairs, 304 pages, 2006).

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Time Goes By

In the Fullness of Time: 32 Women on Life After 50 will be released by Atria on April 27, 2010 in trade paperback form ($16.00).   This collection of essays, poems, photographs and drawings was edited by Emily W. Upham and Linda Gravenson.   The following is an excerpt from one of the essays included in the compilation.

“My Narrow Escape” – Abigail Thomas

I like living alone.   I like not having to make male conversation.   I like that I can take as many naps as I feel like taking and nobody knows.   I like that if I’m painting trees and the telephone receiver gets sticky with hunter green and there’s a long drool of blue sky running down the front of the dishwasher, nobody complains.  

I’m seldom lonely.   I have three dogs, twelve grandchildren and four grown kids.   I have a good friend who now and then drives down with his dog.   We’ve known each other so long that we don’t have to talk and when we do we don’t have to say anything.   When he asks me if I’d like to take a trip around the world, I can say yes, knowing that I’ll never have to go.

Inertia is a driving force in both our lives.  

Sometimes I feel sorry for my friends who are looking around for a mate.   I don’t want one, and I don’t want to want one.   It has taken me the better part of 60 years to enjoy the inside of my own head and I do that best when I’m by myself.

I am smug.   I am probably insufferable.

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Looking back

The real message of The Catcher in the Rye – A Teacher’s Perspective

Like all of us who read The Catcher in the Rye, and like many of us who teach the novel, I was saddened by the death of J.D. Salinger.   But I also have been saddened by the eulogies about this most well-known unknown author.

What’s especially sad – from this teacher’s perspective – is that most folks seem to have missed the point of the novel.   Of course Catcher is about a troubled teen trying to work his way through adolescence in a world peopled by phonies.   And, yes, the broader context of Holden Caulfield’s story – the isolated, elite world of private schools in Cold War America – is important.

But all of that is landscape, and none of it helps us to understand the story’s central question:  Why is he so messed up?   And in the same way that nearly everyone around Holden reacts to the manifestations of his troubles – the smoking, drinking and swearing – and not the reason he behaves as he does, for years my students have fixated on his bad habits.   And then I ask them:  Why is this kid who has money, two parents, a successful older brother and a sister who adores him in such a bad place?   Eventually we get to Allie, Holden’s younger brother, who died of leukemia.

Throughout the story, Holden tells us it’s all about Allie, how the grief he had for his beloved sibling led to his broken hand, how he carries Allie’s mitt for comfort and how he prays to Allie to save him.   For me, that is the thread that links all of Holden’s good and bad choices together, that is the layer we must reach to really understand this story, and that is what we adults can look to in order to really recognize the weight and beauty of Salinger’s book.

Holden is meaningful today because, even though he is white and privileged, like too many children he is hurting and invisible.   His absent parents send him off to boarding school, his older brother is away pursuing his career, his teachers sort of try to help the poor guy, and his peers are too screwed up themselves to save their pal.   Only his sister Phoebe understands Holden and, to borrow the cliché of my students, is “there for him.”   Holden tells her of his plan to run away, and unlike everyone else, who advise him to consider the consequences of his actions (so teacher-like), Phoebe’s response is to pack her suitcase and go with him.

She knows what no one else knows – that to rescue someone, you don’t hand them a pamphlet, you take their hand.  

In the movies “Precious” and “The Blind Side,” we see perfect examples of how this works:  Suffering young people are saved when those with Phoebe-like sensibilities intervene.   It’s the only way.

So here’s this teacher’s take-home message:  We all need to be Phoebe and look out for those around us, our friends and family and especially all the children everywhere.   We all need to be that “catcher in the rye.”

I hope I got that right, Mr. Salinger.

This essay was written by Gene Kahane, an English teacher at Encinal High School in Alameda (in northern California).   Reprinted with his permission.

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