January 3, 2013 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Ten years ago I was on the highway from Tennessee to Kentucky—can’t even remember the reason for the trip—but I kept the car radio on the AM band, set to “Scan,” because I’d noticed, over several years’ driving around this part of the world, how almost every small town you pass has at least one little church that’s broadcasting a low-wattage radio show, and you often hear fascinatingly crazy preaching on those transmissions and, less frequently, fine singing. That particular Sunday in January it was raining, and I was somewhere north of Memphis, passing depressing roadside storage buildings, when a remarkable live signal came across. The sound at first was like that of a giant wet towel rhythmically slapping on somebody’s back. After a minute I realized it came from hundreds of rain-soaked shoes stomping in unison on a concrete floor. I tried to imagine the inside of the church. It must have been cavernous. Or maybe—more likely—it was a warehouse, where this Pentecostal group had been forced to convene. Slap … slap … midtempo, it filled the car, as the people chanted a single line, “If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo … If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo,” a three-note melody, simple to the point of crudity, but with a strange elegance. Folks got up and started testifying. A woman thanked God because on Christmas Eve she’d gone to the welfare office to get food stamps, and there’d been something wrong with her forms—a paper she hadn’t known was expired—“but the man give it to me anyway,” she said. “God softened his heart.”
August 31, 2012 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
This week, our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, stepped in to address your queries.
Dear Paris Review,
I live in the deep south and was raised in a religious cult.
Still with me?
Okay. I’m attempting to throw off the shackles of my religious upbringing and become an intelligent well-informed adult. My primary source of rebellion thus far has been movies. I would watch a Fellini movie and then feel suddenly superior to my friends and family because they only watched movies in their native tongue (trust me I know how pathetic this is). My main question involves my reading selections. Obviously, I have stumbled upon your publication and am aware of its status as the primary literary periodical in English. Also, I have a brand-new subscription to the New York Review of Books, since it is apparently the intellectual center of the English-speaking universe. I am not in an M.F.A. program or living in Brooklyn working on the Great American Kindle Single, I’m just a working-class guy trying to take part in the conversation that all the smart people are having. This brings me to my question: What books should I read? There are so many books out there worth reading, that I literally don’t know where to start. To give you some background info: I was not raised as a reader and was not taught any literature in the Christian high school that I attended. What kinds of books do I like? My answer to that would be movies. I’m desperate to start some kind of grand reading plan that will educate me about the world but don’t know where to start. The classics? Which ones? Modern stuff? Should I alternate one classic with one recent book? How much should I read fiction? How much should I read nonfiction? I went to college but it was for nursing, so I have never been taught anything about reading by anybody.
I realize this stuff may be outside of your comfort zone, as most of the advice questions seem to be from aspiring writers or college-educated people. Please believe me when I say that I am out of touch with the modern world because of a very specific religious cult. I want to be an educated, well-read, cultured, critically thinking person but need some stuff to read. Before I end this letter, I’ll provide an example of just how out of touch I am: you know how "Ms." is the non-sexist way to refer to a woman, and that "Mrs." is sexist? Yeah, I just found out about that. I’m twenty-five.
December 30, 2011 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
In the current issue of The Paris Review our Southern Editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, writes about the discovery of an elaborate prehistoric cave-art tradition in, of all places, Middle Tennessee, and about the archaeologist Jan Simek, the onetime Neanderthal expert who leads the research on these remarkable Native American sites. By a stroke of good timing, this month also marks the U.S. premiere of the German director Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a spellbinding 3-D documentary about La Grotte Chauvet, a cave in the south of France—discovered only in the mid-nineties—that contains exquisite animal paintings more than thirty thousand years old (the famous images at Lascaux go back a mere seventeen or eighteen thousand years, by comparison; Chauvet is another Lascaux back from Lascaux). In the following Q & A, Sullivan talks cave art with two of the more interesting underground explorers of our time.
JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN
Mr. Herzog, you mention in the new film that you were limited to very few days and hours of shooting in the Chauvet cave, because of the possible ill effects (mold and so forth) that too much human traffic could have on the fragile environment. Also you had very little crew, and were forced to keep the equipment light. How might the movie have been different, if you’d been given unlimited access?
Constraints—which in this case were massive—are never really completely productive. However, I had to focus to the very essentials, and probably, with two or three times as much schedule available for me, the film wouldn’t have been much different. It has never, in my life as a filmmaker, made much difference how the constraints were. Technical constraints, schedules, you name it—they always have forced me to be quick and intelligent.
One small thing, maybe, which keeps nagging me, is a sort of a scratched painting, the outlines of an owl. It’s very strange and mysterious, and unique, because you do not have depictions of birds in the Paleolithic caves—with one exception that comes to mind: Lascaux, where there is a bison apparently hit by spears. His entrails are coming out of his belly, and there’s a dead man on the ground, face up, and there’s a stick, and a bird on it, as if the soul of the man were departing him. A beautiful and touching image, but of course, a different cave, and something like 18,000 years later.
The problem with the owl in Chauvet is that you can only film it properly with light coming from profile. And as we could not step beyond the confinements of a metal walkway that runs through the cave, protecting the floor, it would have been very difficult to move a light. Perhaps on some sticks we could have held something, and with quite some time and tricky arrangements, I could have made it visible. But I take it as it is.
December 1, 2011 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Last year the writer Denis Johnson came to Wilmington, North Carolina, where I live, for a conference. Ben George, who edits the magazine Ecotone and was hosting him, graciously asked me to tag along. There were memorable days. Granted, I would file a trip to Food Lion with Denis Johnson under fairly interesting life events. Even so ...
It emerged that Johnson had been fascinated by Venus flytraps since childhood, and Wilmington happens to be the one place in the world where those strange carnivorous creatures grow wild (or at least where they’re truly native: the nutrient-starved coastal soil made them turn to insects for food). We took him to an actual flytrap preserve, behind an elementary school, where you walked on narrow paths through bright green clusters of the plant. You could bend down with a pencil and touch their little hairs, causing them to snap shut. The speed of it made us jump back. We touched only a couple, though, because once an individual trap has clamped down, it can never open again.
The point is, after this excursion, we went to a barbeque joint downtown called Parchies. In the Cape Fear country, and throughout the piedmont of the state, we have this unusual kind of barbeque, which uses a light vinegar sauce instead of the red stuff and tastes totally different than what you expect if you grew up west of here. Strangest of all, it’s served with the coleslaw on the sandwich, right on top of the barbeque. Sounds vile, but when you eat it with a side of finger-shaped hush puppies, you feel that the coronary episode this meal will trigger at some unknown moment down the road makes for an even trade.
Johnson grew visibly excited, waiting for the food. He told us that he had some roots in Carolina and that once, when he was very young, his grandparents had taken him to a barbeque place somewhere in the country and bought him a sandwich. He’d never gotten over the memory of this sandwich. It was perfect. In his mind it had become the ur sandwich. Every barbecue sandwich after it, even the good ones, had been on some level a mockery.
“Hey,” Ben said, “what if this is the one? What if you've been remembering this piedmont-style all these years, and now you're about to reexperience it? Is that a good thing?”
Enter expectation, pressure.
The sandwiches came.
He lifted his and bit into it. Read More »
May 20, 2011 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
A time comes when it’s healthful to put aside obscurantism and turn to bedrock, if only briefly. And while I flatter myself in thinking you know me as a man not prone to get overly excited about digital-remastering projects, nevertheless there are instances in which the beauty of the original song lay precisely in a primary attempt to expose its elements, and in these cases the additional stripping away of hiss and other shit can be revelatory, or in this instance (Best Ever: Buddy Holly, Techniche 2009), transformative.
That plane crash was a Hindenburg of pop. It’s taken me into my midthirties to mentally recover the true damage of it from Don McLean’s rhymes. Ever really listen to “La Bamba”? You’ve probably unconsciously sold yourself on the idea that the Los Lobos version is slightly superior. Not so! It's not the guitar, either, but the voice. When angels sing rock for fun they sound like Ritchie Valens. Did you know it’s Carol Kaye playing rhythm guitar there? Did you know Valens was seventeen when he died, that “La Bamba” hadn’t even been released yet? Snowy field in northern Iowa, flames.
If you listen to the live versions of "La Bamba," Valens played it basically like a sped-up Mexican folk song. Only in the studio did the ecstatic thing happen--at the point of intersection. I read somewhere that Valens didn't even like it.
On “Not Fade Away,” Jerry Allison plays a cardboard box (he’d ripped the idea from Buddy Knox’s lyrically creepy “Party Doll”). The beat is cartoonishly African. If you want to hear where it came from, listen to the song I hope to keep if the people in charge of the survival pod say you can keep only one, Charles Barnett’s “Run to My Jesus for Refuge.” Barnett was a Georgia man in his nineties. Alan Lomax met him at the end of a sand lane near the Sea Islands, right around the time Buddy Holly was making his song. Lomak asked, “Know Any Tunes?”. Barnett flipped a washtub over and started beating on it with two sticks, playing some of the most tenth-dimensional counterpoint you’ve ever heard, with galloping runs that suddenly freeze into cosmic pauses. “Mary, she wore a golden chain, / Every link was Jesus’ name. / I’m gonna run to my Jesus for refuge.” Supposedly Barnett could still jump into the air and click his heels together, at ninety-he-didn’t-even-know-what.
October 18, 2010 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Five years ago GQ assigned me to write about Axl Rose, who was mounting a “final comeback” with his Chinese Democracy, release of which had already been postponed by more than a decade. The album title was meant as a punch line. Q: When will Guns N’ Roses come out with something new? A: When there’s democracy in China. That stage in the singer’s career turned out to be neither a comeback (few people liked the record, and nobody played it much) nor final—a minute ago I ran his name through Google News and found he’s hard at work being Axl, showing up hours late to shows, getting pelted with bottles, making bizarre requests on tour riders (black napkins, Grolsch beer, honey in “bear-shaped tubes”).
The story was, by turns, fun and frustrating to report. I followed the band around Europe for a while, feeding cigarettes to the band members’ model girlfriends and failing to secure face time with “Ax.” His manager back then was a real specimen. Before one show, in Spain, I sat at a coffee table with this person, struggling to explain how it might help justify the seven thousand words we were about to expend on the band if the front man would speak to me for a few seconds. I think at one point I actually said, “Give me thirty seconds.” Axl had by then become, as he remains, sealed off from the press to an almost Michael Jackson level. The manager kept pausing to answer cellphone calls from Elton John. “Well, that’s because they don't know Tea for the Tillerman,” he said into the phone at one point, referring to the classic Cat Stevens record. What were he and Sir Elton talking about? I still wonder sometimes. He told me that, if we would agree to put Axl on the cover, “maybe we could talk about an interview.” I couldn't figure out how to say, in any non-offensive way, that GQ covers are typically reserved for extremely conventionally good-looking people in the midst of a career peak, such as Axl once was but hadn't been in a very long time. I let it drop. Axl broke with the manager soon thereafter, passive-aggressively blaming him in an “Open Letter to Fans” for the failure of Chinese Democracy. Thinking back, I feel sympathy with the manager. What I read as superciliousness was probably professional trauma. He was the devil’s own PR man.
The most memorable trip I made in connection with Axl was to Lafayette, Indiana, where he grew up. I drove there hoping to track down his oldest childhood friend, a man named Dana, who’d never been interviewed. Dana turned out not surprisingly to be a very reclusive person, and although he did eventually meet with me, it took several days to coax him out. I spent them inventing little research projects. I visited the public library and found old yearbook pictures of Axl. I photographed the church where he sang in the choir. And lastly, on the morning of the day when Dana finally called me back, I went to the local police station. Did they have any records on Axl? No, they didn’t think so. Really? That seemed impossible. Would they mind checking under his many Indiana names? William Bruce Rose Jr.? William Bruce Bailey? Bill Bailey? W. Rose? A friendly lady officer agreed to help me out. Read More »