Over lunch in one of the University of California Santa Cruz’s dining halls last Wednesday, the topic of Jonathan Franzen was broached and my friend Leigh and I began a passionate defense of the man’s essay “Farther Away” in the face of an imagined host of detractors. We cited the honesty of the piece; we beat our breasts and stomped the table groaning at its misinterpretation; we rained scorn down upon the man’s declaimers (absent) and supporters (also absent) alike. We wept, bemoaning the poverty of our culture’s literary curiosity, so obsessed with Jonathan Franzen, our horizon and circumference.
At approximately 2:40 that afternoon, I was in the Media Center in the basement of UC Santa Cruz’s McHenry Library checking out Repo Man when I noticed one of the millions of male North American humans who look like Jonathan Franzen approaching the circulation desk. Upon further inspection — glasses, stubble, a palpable, dismissive intelligence — I realized that this was, in fact, the Jonathan Franzen.
I sat down at the nearest computer and a quick Google image search verified my suspicion. It was then that the 2001 National Book Award winner began a fraudulent attempt to rent films from the library’s audio visual department and perhaps defraud the state of California. The conversation, as best as I can recall, went exactly like this:
Franzen: Hi, I was wondering if I could take out a few films?
UCSC undergrad: Sure. Are you a professor?
Franzen: Ahh, no, I’m a . . . graduate student . . .
UCSC undergrad: Oh, well then I can let you watch them here in the Media Center. Do you have your ID?
Franzen: Oh, hmm, no. I’ll just come back later.
Somewhat mystified by the exchange, I followed the Pulitzer Prize finalist who had just attempted to fleece a young desk attendant at a remove. But I think he tried to ditch me because when I reached the landing of the library’s main level, I spotted Franzen creeping onto the stairs from the floor below, where I assume he had hidden, knowing I had spied him like a circling hawk. Playing it cool, I walked back to the computer lab where Leigh was working, gave her the heads up, and triangulated our observation in order to achieve maximum facial recognition. The time was 2:45; the culprit was Jonathan Franzen.
Further research indicates that the author of four novels and three volumes of nonfiction does indeed keep a pied-à-terre in Santa Cruz and that the university has furnished him with an office somewhere on campus. Franzen has described the forested grounds of the UC as foggy:
UCSC is a great place to write fiction, especially in the summer months, when the campus is very quiet and the days often start out very foggy . . . I can go from the fog of sleep and up the foggy drives to a dark office, put in a good morning in the dream state of fiction-writing, and then emerge to a beautiful blue sky in the early afternoon.
Though we are not ruling out the possibility of a mist induced fugue state, several troubling questions related to the sighting remain unanswered:
- Does Jonathan Franzen have a UCSC ID? If so, where is it? Does he want to use mine?
- Why would Jonathan Franzen, modern master of the social novel, attempt to use his abilities to manipulate a child desk attendant?
- Why could said social novelist not weave a better tale than “I’ll just come back later”?
- What “films” was Jonathan Franzen after? What percent of them were directed by women?
- In his memoir The Discomfort Zone, Franzen admits to a fleeting (perhaps pathological?) obsession with the Grateful Dead, encouraged by his friend “Tom.” UCSC’s McHenry Library, the site of the crime described above, is also home to Dead Central, a permanent exhibit space for the Grateful Dead Archive. Is it possible that Franzen was after a relic from the collection? Was the Media Center fiasco just a smokescreen? Does this mysterious “Tom” have the answers to our questions? Elif Batuman has outed Franzen as a fan of the devil’s own herb, Cannabis sativa, which would seem to support this theory.
Speculation, as they say, is cheap. We at Full Stop want answers (and also speculation in the comment section). If you are Jonathan Franzen, you know Jonathan Franzen, or you represent Jonathan Franzen in any capacity, please consider the following proposition:
The Editors generously offer Jonathan Franzen the opportunity to clear his name on a redemptive birdwatching trek through the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains, led by Full Stop’s resident ornithologist, Peter Nowogrodzki. Deep in the backcountry, amid the lowering sun’s crepuscular rays, intermittent glimpses of lanky scrub-jays, and the mellifluous clicks of whatever solitary hermit warblers descend from the redwood canopy, nature will grant Franzen an audience. Our guide’s path is true, and if the author walks it with contrition, perhaps Franzen’s path will bend toward absolution. Also, if he could be cool about it and get back to me ASAP (Phone: 859-302-1154 or Email: email@example.com), I could start making sandwiches and GORP.
UPDATE: Jonathan Franzen has denied these accusations to NPR, stating that “The dialogue the author reproduces is totally inaccurate. I never represented that I was a student. And I do have a valid UCSC library card, because I’m a fellow of Cowell College. But it’s true that I was there in the media center last week.”
This, as Franzen is surely aware, raises more questions than it attempts to answer.
- Franzen admits that he was in the media center last week. Does he also claim to have successfully checked out “films”?
- Is NPR, with its well known liberal bias, soft on awkwardness?
- Why has NPR not released the entire statement from Franzen?
- Is this a cover-up?
- Why else would NPR attempt to assassinate the character of Jesse Montgomery by misrepresenting him as a woman, just as he was becoming comfortable with his body?
Full Stop is now attempting to reach the UCSC desk attendant for comment — unless of course, she has already been silenced. Nevertheless, our invitation to go birding stands . . . for now. Will Jonathan Franzen walk the path of avian judgment, or will he continue down the path of the earthly and wicked?
During its centuries-long continuum of racist violence, the society that now finds Trayvon Martin’s killer guilty of nothing at all has occasionally been pressed to wonder: What if? Here, specifically, what if Trayvon were white? What if George were black?
The question is inevitably the starting point (and often also the ending point) of race & crime focused discussions. The question is simple, and interesting because it’s often asked by both racists and those they oppose, each side seeking to demonstrate race-based treatment (as if any other kind of treatment were currently possible). If Martin were white? If Zimmerman were black? The question is such a marker of the obvious that it doesn’t need to be asked. It goes without saying that things would have gone differently.
But that’s not just because the jury might have seen a black George or white Trayvon differently (although, certainly, they would have). It’s because our laws and the modes of being they produce and reinforce are part of a rigid, racist hierarchy. But racism is a symptom of this order, not its reason for being.
When Christianity ruled the West in the Middle Ages, it was awesome to be part of the clergy. And, under feudalism, it was awesome to control land. The worst things people could be — the “other” thing needed to counter and uphold the righteous and the landowning — were the heathens and peasants. From the late 15th to 18th century, when the landed gentry formed the ruling elite in the New World, the worst thing you could be was an “Indian” or a “negro.” Now, under the rule of the imperialist orders of the white western bourgeoisie, the worst thing you can be is still black and poor.
Many are using the specifics of the case — the supposed lack of evidence, the specifics of Florida’s laws, the need for self-defense, or not — as a way of justifying or at least processing the obvious and pristine injustice of the verdict. But this is not about the specifics of the case. Laws are always designed to uphold and reinforce the social orders that create them, and so, as George Jackson understood, writing from prison in the early 70s, “Anglo-Saxon bourgeois law is tied firmly into economics. It protects property relations and not social relationships.”
Cases like this help make clear to many that the laws of this society don’t serve them, that they are set up for failure, funneled from crumbling neighborhoods into decrepit schools and then into prisons, or, if lucky, allowed into the workforce where their labor can be exploited. Their voices are clear, righteous, easy to understand.
But we need to understand those rallying behind Zimmerman, too.
As our social order becomes more openly authoritarian, the level of surveillance total, our police state more overt and visible, more people have reason to feel as if they’re being squeezed closer to the bottom of the hierarchy. Supporting Zimmerman — and the other figures like him who are sure to emerge, now with a legal precedent justifying their actions in advance — may be one way for those people to remind themselves, as they begin to feel their own acute loss of freedom, that they haven’t reached rock bottom yet.
Joan Didion’s After Henry, published in 1992, is an overlooked collection. Its obscurity is a shame, if only because its first essay, “In the Realm of the Fisher King,” is so pleasurably perceptive. The essay, an abridged version of which first appeared in 1989 in the New York Review of Books under the title “Life at Court,” gives the Reagan administration the full treatment. More than twenty years hence, the piece remains a trenchant account of the political-economic shift to dedicated neoliberalism in the halls of government. Didion drives home just how complete and intentional that transformation was, and how Reagan’s peculiar combination of disengagement and charm formed the conditions for the flourishing of a new American economic doctrine.
Didion’s characterizations of Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s preoccupations and bewilderments are as wry and acerbic as we’ve come to expect. There was the First Lady, who by Didion’s account had the misfortune of being both a committed socialite and terribly socially awkward. She was, in Didion’s vision, an anxious, self-doubting, high-strung, prudish and fragile woman. The behavior of others was frequently “inappropriate” and “uncalled for,” and she was plagued by a “little girl’s fear of being left out, of not having the best friends and not going to the parties in the biggest houses.” She was fancy without being elegant, the latter demanding a sort of intuition that she apparently lacked.
Didion’s opinion of the President himself is best exemplified in an anecdote she recounts in which the Reagans, while traveling during the 1980 campaign, attended a rural church service. Their pew-side experience up to this point had mostly been at places like Bel Air Presbyterian, where during communion congregants treated themselves to individual circular wafers and drank wine out of small cups passed around on a tray. When communion began at the small Virginia church, Nancy Reagan was scandalized that people were all drinking from the same cup. Her aide, registering her panic, assured her that she could just dip the bread in the wine; frazzled, she dropped it in. Ronald Reagan — on autopilot, as if he were reading from a teleprompter — followed suit by confidently plopping his bread into the chalice, never comprehending his mistake, his face radiating piety as his wife and aide looked on mortified. After the final hymn he stood outside the chapel shaking hands and nodding with interest. Here was the President, “insufficiently briefed (or, as they say in the White House, ‘badly served’) on the wafer issue but moving ahead, stepping ‘into the sunlight,’ satisfied with his own and everyone else’s performance, apparently oblivious to (or inured to, or indifferent to) the crises being managed in his presence.”
“In the Realm of the Fisher King” acts as a sort of follow-up to Didion’s 1977 essay “Many Mansions” about the Reagans’ architectural exploits in California. She wrote there of the bland semi-suburban structure the Reagans built to replace the august downtown-Sacramento estate that had previously housed governors: “It is simply and rather astonishingly an enlarged version of a very common kind of California tract house, a monument not to colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego… mediocre and ‘open’ and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn.” Her persistent observation of Reagan’s vacuousness is what differentiates Didion’s insight from the dominant strain of Reagan-administration critique. To vilify Reagan is to credit him perhaps too generously with engineering the policies of his administration, or engineering much of anything at all besides his own celebrity. By contrast, Didion’s Reagan is a key historical figure only insofar as he is a smokescreen, a diversion, a false protagonist. His primary purpose is to obscure the complex machinations that drive the plot, of which he is apprised but for which he is not intellectually responsible, operating as he does in a perpetual personal blank zone.
Didion has occasionally been accused of wanton cruelty, of insulting her subjects in ways that are, shall we say, “uncalled for.” In this case, as elsewhere, her evisceration of Reagan is not superfluously mean-spirited — instead it lays the groundwork for a nuanced understanding of his administrative tenure. Reagan-as-void is a necessary first step in the project of understanding what precisely occurred in the White House during those years (e.g. the emergence of privatization as a government cure-all, among other game-changers). When people were fixated on what they experienced as either Reagan’s reliable charm or his abject phoniness, White House staffers were concentrated on implementing a new political-economic structure, largely obscured from and uninteresting to the general public.
Didion suggests that the real character and legacy of the Reagan White House “had to do less with the absence at the center” — Reagan’s politically effective but ideologically hollow pageantry — “than with the amount of centrifugal energy this absence left spinning free at the edges.” Reagan was the Trojan horse in which a regiment of eager strategists hid, peering through its eye-holes as they wheeled it surreptitiously into the White House. The people at helm had their sights set on a total overhaul of the relationship between state, government and capital. They were activists, people with a vision, steeped in emergent neoliberal economic theory and intent on revising the agenda. Meanwhile media technologies proliferated and the news cameras multiplied exponentially with each passing year, preoccupying Reagan with public relations, a job for which he was eerily well suited. Consequently “ardor, of a kind that only rarely survives a fully occupied Oval Office, flourished unchecked” in the halls of the Reagan White House.
The new White House “was one of considerable febrility.” Its staffers were self-styled mavericks, distinctly Western in their dress and demeanor, frontierist in their sense of possibility. They talked in loose code, adopting what Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan called the “clipped, laconic style of John Ford characters,” the likes of which Reagan had played onscreen. They were coarse, spirited, and driven. They worked around the clock and called a fight a “dustup” and refused to wear seatbelts on Air Force One. Didion understandably delights in these details.
Furthermore they were ideologues, “the children of an expanded middle class determined to tear down an established order and what they saw as its repressive liberal orthodoxies.” To be a moderate was to be a “squish” or a “weenie.” To gain admission the inner circle of the Reagan White House one had to prove one’s mettle. Specifically one had to demonstrate that one was a true apostle of the free market, not a passive civil servant but a vigorous advocate for the role of government in, above all else, fostering the conditions for the maximum accumulation of capital. (This included an active investment in conservative family values, the Western nuclear family emerging post-war as the most economically productive and effectively governable demographic unit in history.) Didion writes, aggregating Noonan’s observations:
Everyone could quote Richard John Neuhaus on what was called the collapse of the dogmas of the secular enlightenment. Everyone could quote Michael Novak on what was called the collapse of the assumption that education is or should be ‘value-free.’ Everyone could quote George Gilder on what was called the humane nature of the free market. Everyone could quote Jean-Francois Revel on how democracies perish, and everyone could quote Jeane Kirkpatrick on authoritarian versus totalitarian governments, and everyone spoke of ‘the movement’ as in ‘he’s movement from way back’ or ‘she’s good, she’s hardcore.’
“In the Realm of the Fisher King” is worth reading today for the way in which its characterization of the Reagan White House imagines the shift to neoliberalism (Didion never uses this word, but it’s clear this is the clandestine doctrine at hand) as something incontestably engineered. It was the intentional implementation of a plan that was conceived a few decades prior, its origins roughly traceable to the Chicago School in the U.S. and the Mont Pelerin Society in Europe, both of which emerged directly after World War II. The thinkers who formed these groups, chief among them Friedrich Hayek, rejected the “invisible hand” principle that defined classical liberalism from the Enlightenment through Fordism. The new intellectuals were advocates not of uniformly restrained government, but of selective government intervention — neoliberalism prefers a state that gets out of the way of the market when business is booming and pitches in to assist it (usually at the expense of the public sector) whenever an obstacle presents itself. Suddenly free market economists wanted to see an animated and energetic government, so long as that energy was ultimately harnessed in the interest of unconstrained economic growth. And so the capitalist economists, the young readers of Hayek who graduated college in the fifties and sixties and read Milton Friedman’s Newsweek columns throughout the seventies, set their sights on the White House.
Reagan’s “weird absence of ego” is precisely that which, according to Didion, allowed such robust activism to occur in the halls of government. Didion’s title refers to an Arthurian legend that tells of a king who is injured and cannot move, and so with his knights effectively running the kingdom, he idly sits near the lake by his castle and fishes. What makes him king, in the absence of his effective rule, is that he is the keeper of the Holy Grail — in this case, perhaps, a nameplate in the Oval Office. Reagan was an effective executive because he was generic, mechanical, his eyes eternally trained on the teleprompter. The general public emerged from the spectacular trance of the Reagan years to find that its government had undergone a total theoretical and practical renovation. It rationalized the change as a natural evolution in political-economic dynamics when really it had been a movement, a coup, an ingenious Trojan horse trick.
“All Americans come from Ohio, if only briefly.”
Happy 4th of July (weekend), everyone! This is the time for fireworks and barbecues, pool parties and reunions. But for those of you who think America is pretty cool, yet hate going outside to prove it, I recommend celebrating the final edits of the Declaration of Independence with The Amerikans, an ongoing series of short collaborative documentaries about the passions of ordinary Ohioans. Each episode, which is made with input from its subject and styled to fit its content, is three to five minutes long, and subjects include a funeral director who collects ties, an electrician who moonlights as a bee sting therapist, and a visual artist who is obsessed with cats.
This episode features Oberlin resident Danilo Vujacic, a young boy who dreams of flight in the birthplace of Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, and the Wright brothers. (Full disclosure: Danilo once shot me with a Star Wars blaster.)
For those of you who did manage to get some celebrating in, but now need to sober up for some awful reason, I also recommend crossing the Ohio River into my home state for Hollow (Google Chrome browser required). A beautiful interactive documentary in the vein of Welcome to Pine Point, Kickstarter funded Hollow examines a dying West Virginia community through the eyes of its residents. As the nation’s leading producer of coal, McDowell County, WV, exploded to a population of nearly 100,000 in the 50s. Mechanization and competition from non-union mines and foreign steel, however, caused that number to dwindle to around 20,000 over the following decades, leaving the once booming county decimated by poverty and drugs. Sober yet?
If you don’t have Google Chrome, download it now. And while it installs, watch this preview:
Photo: Chris Rice
Today is the first day of summer, which means a whole host of wonderful things: boozy rooftop get-togethers with sloshy drinks and Instagram sunsets, meandering downtown with your shirt clinging to your salty lower back, sweaty dance parties, and syrupy canned pop music on the radio. Summer is the season of sticky things: sticky skin, sticky drinks, sticky melodies.
This summer, I’m thinking of one melody in particular. Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” It’s impossible to avoid if you’re in radio range. Twelve years after the release of Discovery, and “Get Lucky” could be a track off that CD. It’s got the same boppy slinkiness as “Digital Love,” the same sweetness as “One More Time.” Is it regressive? No, I wouldn’t say so. It’s catchy, it’s slick, it’s a summer jam. It sticks to itself in an electro loop, and if you put it on repeat you wouldn’t know when it stopped and started.
My first summer back home from college, the summer of 2011, I remember being enthralled by the music that poured out of my brother’s stereo as we rolled around town, windows down. I was at home under lockdown in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, miles from any frat house or indie basement. There was no making out with strangers to be had here. But the songs that rushed through the speakers and out the windows, the heavy bass that left puddles on the asphalt and the car floor, carried a unique and already bitter sweetness, lingering reminders of the less academic endeavors of my previous academic year.
“Wait, I like this one,” I told my brother, as he moved to change stations.
“Why?” he asked. It was “Hello” by Martin Solveig: clubby, with a thumping, European beat and an emphasis on the anti-hookup.
“It reminds me of dancing at dumb parties,” I said. You’re all right but I’m here, darling, to enjoy the party. I turned my face towards the window and felt the hot breeze blow through my hair. It was almost like being in my favorite dank party basement again. With a flick of the switch, the radio could bring back the genre I only knew half shitfaced, and all those marvelous, murky memories. If Proust had his madeleine, well, I have my summer top 40s.
It seems like every song has a drop now, or at least, every auto-tuned, drum machined, beautifully engineered hit. What’s the drop do? What’s it for? In the worst cases, it comes out of nowhere, and you’re left thinking: this track was really better off without. But in the best of times, the drop is the inevitable result of a tension created by a bass line, drum line, or other steady, insistent beat — and when it finally comes, it feels like a release. Everything breaking down — every body breaking down. Like an orgasm, tense and then loose again.
Summer is for lovers, or maybe it’s not for lovers. Say what you will of summer flings: sometimes, coming back to your hometown is hard. It can be lonely. It can be winsome. Pop music becomes the perfect solution — memories of parties past, coupled with the throbbing, sticky heat of the present. Only during high summer and dirty dance parties is it permissible to sweat through the sheer clothes you’ve donned for propriety’s sake alone. And if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself fit for some summer lovin’ — thanks to the omnipresence of top 40s, you’ve also found yourself the soundtrack for your seasonal romance.
The drop is perhaps a poor substitute for orgasm, though. Witness the silliness of the misnamed Harlem Shake, already a flash in the pan. The beat drops; everyone goes wild. But no one really dances like that (no one should really dance like that!). And if the orgasm is the mind and body plunging into bliss, it doesn’t seem right to dance harder afterward, does it? In the end, the drop is the dissolution of the tab on your tongue. The marshmallow reward your four-year-old Stanford experiment brain has been waiting for. The ice cream after it’s finally gone soft and melty, pure sugar, sticky, a gloppy, glitchy beat.
Pop is the thing that happens after the drop. Also the thing that comes before it. But pure pop, the thing that makes your hips twitch — is the sneaky release of everything you thought you wanted. More accurately, it’s everything you have, in the previous minute, been instructed to want. I read recently that scientists engineer our chips to the perfect crunch point, the point of crunchiness that makes our brains happiest. I wonder if producers engineer drops at the perfect dance point to make our butts joyous, too.
Don’t ask me where it comes from, but we all crave tension and release. There’s a science to the sugar and there’s a name for it, too: earworm. Pop, however shitty, is constructed to make us dance. We need it that way. It’s not about the craft so much as the experience, the atmosphere it creates and the things you do in it, the things you remember and the things it stirs in you. Pop is infinitely recursive. Every shimmy, every sway, every drink, every roof, every summer. Sticky.
I first heard “Get Lucky” at a backyard barbecue in New Haven, Connecticut, and it followed me all the way to Portland, where I hear it at least once a day on the radio. And I’m certain it will follow me back, when I return to school in the fall. It’ll come with me to dance parties, to study sessions, to flashmobs and god knows what else. I haven’t made those memories yet. But I know for sure that next summer it’ll be replaced by something similar — like, but not exactly — and that sticky new melody will bring all these memories back.
Slayer’s “God Hates Us All” is the most important album in my life. It’s not the album I would pick if I was trying to sum up my self-image—for the right mixture of metronomic, pedantic, and awkward that would be something like Bad Religion’s “Suffer,” though god knows I wish it was something cooler—but for better or worse, I have listened to “God Hates Us All” at least once a day for over a year.
I don’t listen to it all the time because I think it is the best album in the world. I listen to it all the time because, like many people have done with many forms of art, I have instrumentalized music. (Instrumentalization = it is used as a means to an end, not that it is performed with instruments). Most of the time I don’t listen to music to listen to music. I put it in my earholes to 1) drown out my coworkers because I work in an open office and need to concentrate or 2) get pumped up in the gym. “God Hates Us All” is the perfect album for what I want music to do. It is loud, angry, and constant.
So, after listening to “God Hates Us All” about five hundred times, I’ve started to notice some of the goofier lyrics. They’ve weathered through like dinosaur bones peering out of a Dakota cliff face. Two songs in particular, “Threshold” and “Exile,” stand out.
“Can’t control the violence that’s spewing from me.” - Threshold
This line gets me pretty pumped and I love it. What makes it funny is that the song is performing exactly the kind of sublimation the lyric disavows. He is controlling the violence and turning it into a song about that experience, which is exactly how Wordsworth defines poetry: a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility.
“Can’t you understand
Everything I do doesn’t stem from you
It doesn’t have a fucking thing to do with you” - Threshold
The first of a few lines that verge from “fuck you” to “fuck you, Dad.” If you listen to the song you’ll hear there is a break after “fucking thing” which underscores the feeling that this began as a diary entry and was later fitted imperfectly to the vocal melody.
“Even though some things are better left unsaid
There’s a few things I need to get off my chest
I need to vent – let me tell you why” - Exile
Look, I was very clear when I said two percent milk. One percent is not the same. I mean sure I’ll drink it, I’m not going to throw it away, but I just wanted you to know.
“Give me a reason not to rip your fucking face off” - Exile
I love this lyric because it captures so much of the Slayer worldview: ripping someone’s face off is the default. NOT doing so requires a reason.
“Just tell me fucking why everything becomes an issue” - Exile
Two things: first, the placement of “fucking” is exactly where I would put it if I was speaking this line in conversation, but not where any self-conscious wordsmith would put it. Second, it’s adorable that Araya complains about something being an “issue,” especially on an album where 80% of the wordspace is used to swear brutal physical violence on everyone around him.
“I will never become your fucking scapegoat” - Payback
That’s not really in your control, is it? Being a scapegoat means someone else has falsely imputed blame to you. It’s nothing to be ashamed of; if anything, the shame belongs to the person who would make you a scapegoat. And in fact, heavy metal already DID become a scapegoat for youth violence in the U.S.. It’s not your fault, dude. Well, actually it is your fault because you wrote a bunch of songs about Nazis and torture, but you know what I mean.
There might be something preferable in memorializing someone six months after his death. One hopes that eulogies will be more clear-eyed and composed with more reflection, if not necessarily more critical. I’m not sure if that was why Birkbeck College, University of London decided to hold a memorial service yesterday for Eric Hobsbawm, the great historian and former Birkbeck professor and president who died last October. But the memorial service, held in the academic heart of London, was tear-free.
Over the course of two hours, friends, colleagues, comrades and former students paraded across the small stage painting in their eulogies a portrait of a man who will clearly be missed by many. Hobsbawm was famous as a historian and widely popular around the world with people of all political persuasions, the rare Marxist who receives a complimentary obituary from The Economist. He came to communism as a Jew living in Vienna in the 1930s. He’s best known for his trilogy on the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism, but he was a prolific, versartile writer. He contributed op-eds to The Guardian, essays to the London Review of Books and, for a while, served as jazz critic for The New Statesman. His history books, and his essays, are easy and enjoyable reading.
Italian President Girogio Napolitano sent in a pre-recorded video. Neal Ascherson, a Scottish journalist and former Hobsbawm pupil, recounted lessons in morals as well as history. As a young student at Cambridge and recent veteran of the Royal Marines, the professor told Ascherson to be ashamed of wearing a medal he received for his service in putting down an anti-colonial uprising in Malayasia. “He made me think about what I’d been doing and for that I’ll be eternally grateful,” Ascherson said. Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today, delivered a political biography, tracing Hobsbawm’s politics from the time of Hitler to the time of Thatcher.
But what I found most interesting in the portrait of Hobsbawm that emerged was not that he was a great teacher (unsurprising), or a great writer (obvious to anyone who has read him), or a committed Marxist (well known), but that he resembled an archetypal bourgeois public intellectual. From the photographs of him in a cardigan and oversized glasses, to the hobbies of birdwatching and jazz, Hobsbawm was something of a stereotype, though not a malevolent one. He was a wide reader and deep thinker. He kept friendships mostly with writers and other intellectuals. He enjoyed the trappings of a comfortable middle class lifestyle. The art historian Simon Schama peppered his eulogy with references to French restaurants and fancy hotels, allusions lost on me, if not most of the crowd. Schama recounted a dinner party at which the “historian from below” found himself seated between Benazir Bhutto and David Frost.
The writer Claire Tomalin, who was tasked with discussing Hobsbawm “as a friend,” talked about these apparent contradictions the most lucidly. Tomalin recounted going to visit Hobsbawm for the first time at his home in Hampstead, a picturesque, leafy North London neighborhood with some of the city’s most expensive real estate. “I asked Eric how being a communist fit with this,” Tomalin recalled. “He said, ‘If you’re in a ship that’s going down, you might as well travel first class.’”
Dear Current and Future Employers,
The authors of this post have never done drugs. Even though marijuana has the reputation of being “lightweight,” “nonaddictive,” “natural,” and “fun,” we wouldn’t want to jeopardize our careers in media and the arts by doing something as reckless as smoking ganja. We realize how dangerous it is to joke about something as serious as narcotics, especially with the youths of America on the Internet, and the War on Terror, and the recession, and Obama’s betrayal. But we feel that if we can’t laugh at the handful of Beatniks smoking funny cigarettes in their parents basement, then are we really free? The authors of this post believe not.
With this in mind, we took the liberty of reading a site that we feel the NSA should immediately shut down: erowid.com. Referencing their testimonials section, we studied the habits and behaviors of “weed smokers” and pretended that they were us or we were them: hanging out in an apartment in Brooklyn, just getting high and listening to music. Here are the music recommendations we came up with, selected from the assumed vantage point of non-violent criminals. You should read and listen while you’re drunk, it’s seriously like twice as great!
You can listen to a Spotify playlist that features these songs here.
Last summer, in an effort to escape the crush of the city and get some writing done, I took a teaching job in Santa Cruz, California. Much like the Donner Party, I knew that my fortunes lay in the West. But on the writing front it ended up being a spectacularly unproductive period, and I spent my afternoons reading Raymond Carver stories on the beach and contemplating the troublingly elaborate hole-digging operations that children were carrying out.
However, a fortuitous thing occurred that is relevant to our purposes here. A few nights before heading to Big Sur I got into a conversation with someone at a bar called Ye Olde Watering Hole. Like most people in the area he showed a provincial pride in the coastal landscape, but he went further in giving me a crude classification of locations I should or should not visit. The Esalen Institute at 1:00 a.m.: “very Irie.” Arroyo Seco: “extremely Irie (though theft is on the rise there and he’d had some “not very Irie experiences recently.”) Drinks on the back porch of the Post Ranch Inn: “Irie,” though the prices: “not Irie, so just get one.” It’s an infectious way of viewing the world, and I began to suspect that “decidedly un-Irie” was the best way to describe the busy work attached to the teaching job.
In this spirit I have conscripted the help of writer Leigh Gallagher to provide you with a 100% Irie playlist of the finest reggae – our small gesture to correct the excesses of my Big Sur travel guide. Trust us, this is the good stuff. —Michael Schapira
We come in the spirit of peace. We’re waving a white flag. We just want everyone to calm down and breathe. Because in your own ways, you’re all right.
Some of you say that the Jerry’s best playing happened in the heady days of the late ’60s — when his psychedelic ramblings sounded fresh and primordial at the same time. Sunshine poured out of the cracks in the cosmic egg. The exuberance of youth.
Some of you say that his playing only matured after being filtered through the dusty twang of the Workingman / Beauty roots revival. Then, Jerry achieved something profound and rare — something that hadn’t happened before and hasn’t happened since — a synthesis of the Be-In and the barroom. In the early ’70s, the case could be made that the Grateful Dead were the best bar band in the world.
And I know that some of you take issue with that. Some of you say, “Sure, Jerry’s a naturally gifted guitar player. But it wasn’t until he started getting into modalities, until he really took the time to make himself a better player in the mid-’70s that he fully blossomed as a musician.” And even those who make this claim have their factions, some preferring the sprawling jams of ’74, and some who swear by the wonderfully executed complexity of his “aluminum guitar” shows. And you know what: you’re both right. You’re all right.
You’re right if your heartstrings are tugged by the hard-won wisdom that comes through in his ’80s shows, especially on “Sugaree.” You can hear the darkness that was always there, even in the early days, come creeping in stronger. Sure, the hope, the beauty — they’re still there — but in the late ’70s and early ’80s Jerry was playing complicated stuff, influenced by parts of the world (and parts of himself) that he hadn’t investigated before. And, hell, you’re even right if you’re a fan of Rosebud and Lightning Bolt, Jerry’s last and, some say, most tonally rich guitars. By the ’90s his playing had gotten both more abstract and tender in equal measure — he was like an aging gunfighter in a spaghetti western. Yes, he would nod off from time-to-time, but when he was on it was like Miles Davis’ E.S.P.
But we’re here to tell you: you don’t have to make a choice. You can enjoy each of Jerry’s incarnations for wildly different reasons. And if you’re at a loss as to where you should begin, no worries. Mellow slow with these choice cuts featuring some of Jerry’s most iconic guitars, each representing a different phase of his life and career. And for goodness sake, keep your love light on and quit fighting.
The Les Pauls: “The Eleven,” 10/12/68, San Francisco, CA
Alligator: “China Cat/Rider,” 9/21/72. The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA
Wolf: “Weather Report Suite/Let it Grow/That’s It For the Other One,” 6/18/74. Freedom Hall, Louisville, KY
The Aluminum Guitars: “Help / Slipknot / Franklin’s Tower,” 6/9/77. The Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, CA
Tiger: “Sugaree,” 10/17/80. Olympic Arena, Lake Placid, NY
Rosebud: “Scarlet Begonias / Fire on the Mountain,” 3/22/90. Copps Coliseum, Hamilton, Ontario.