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Posts Tagged ‘the sixties’

On Paul Metcalf’s Genoa

July 29, 2015 | by

Metcalf’s “poeticized collage” reckons with his great-grandfather, Herman Melville.

Paul Metcalf

It is extremely rare, these days, to encounter something that feels completely new. That is, most literary artifacts are pretty easy to slot into one format or the other.What a gift then, what a rare, beautiful turn of events when you stumble on a book that seems to come from some spot entirely its own. What a gift, the moment in which you must summon all your readerly resources to grasp the enormity of what you are encountering, to see the pages as they are. I can count these reading experiences on one hand, and in each case I was somehow improved,made better as a reader (Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes; Sanitorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, by Bruno Schulz; The Recognitions, by William Gaddis; The Rings of Saturn, by W. G. Sebald; The Beetle Leg, by John Hawkes). Often the reason we read is in the hope of having these experiences of the truly, unmistakably original.

Paul Metcalf is one of these original writers. A writer who had to follow his own path, at significant cost to himself, over many decades, without a large following. A writer who took the forms that were at hand and shook them up, recast them, repurposed them, so that a traditional approach, after beholding his model, seems almost ludicrously simplistic. A writer of the new, the surprising, the arresting. Read More »

California Street

July 24, 2015 | by

Learning to surf in the sixties.

Grajagan, Java, 1979. Courtesy of Mark Cordesius

For my eleventh birthday, my father took me to the Dave Sweet Surfboards shop on Olympic Boulevard, in Santa Monica. From the rack of used boards, I chose a solid, sunbrowned 9'0" with blue-green paneled rails and a fin built with at least eight different types of wood. It cost seventy dollars. I was five feet tall, weighed eighty pounds, and could not reach my arm around it. I carried it to the street on my head, feeling self-conscious and scared of dropping the board, but as happy as I had ever been.

It wasn’t an easy winter, trying to learn to surf. Even though the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” (“Let’s go surfin’ now / everybody’s learning how”) was on the radio, I was the only kid at my backwater school who had a board. We spent most weekends in Ventura, so I got in the water regularly, but California Street was rocky and the water was painfully cold. I got a wet suit, but it had short legs and no sleeves, and neoprene technology was still in its infancy. At best, the little wet suit took some of the sharpest chill off the afternoon wind. My father liked to tell a story about a day when I got discouraged. From the warmth of the car, he had been watching me flounder—I imagine him smoking his pipe, wearing a big fluffy fisherman’s sweater. I came in, my feet and knees bleeding, stumbling across the rocks, dropping my board, humiliated and exhausted. He told me to go back out and catch three more waves. I refused. He insisted. I could ride them on my knees if necessary, he said. I was furious. But I went back out and caught the waves, and in his version of the story, that was when I became a surfer. If he hadn’t made me go back out that day, I would have quit. He was sure of that. Read More »

They’re Fucking Skulls

June 3, 2015 | by

Leon Golub’s haunting “Riot” and the aloof politics of the art world.

Leon Golub, Napalm I, 1969, acrylic on linen, 117 1/4" x 213".

Wounded Warrior, 1968, acrylic on linen, 76 1/4" x 111 1/4".

In a discussion at Hauser & Wirth, Hans-Ulrich Obrist told of the time he and Leon Golub were discussing a book of the artist’s collected writings; they discovered afterward that Clement Greenberg had died during the conversation.

It’s a morbid art-world joke—but so are Golub’s canvases, which hang, as he referred to them, like “flayed skins” around the gallery. They complicate the sweet bedtime story of American postwar art, passed down for generations, in which power is an inner force wielded by artists, and art self-consciously demanded attention for its physical materials: paint and the square of the canvas. Written with Greenberg’s theory, this tale established art as an alternate reality, without mimetic or social context.

Golub, who died in 2004, was a staunch and consistent critic of Abstract Expressionism, calling it “bad for the artist. These painters were essentially turning away from the world in their work,” he said, “giving up on the idea that an artist might have a social role.” As Pollock’s last drips dried on his studio floor, the country was pounding the pavement and bodies were hitting the ground. For the artists of that era, as of this one, the realities beyond canvas were merciless. Friends were being shipped off to shoot guns in Vietnam, police batons and dogs brutalized black protesters in bright, American daylight, and the dark of black-and-white newscasts too often signified blood. Read More »

HAL, Mother, and Father

January 9, 2015 | by

Watching the sixties and seventies through 2001 and Alien.

starchild

From 2001: A Space Odyssey

It was April 1968 and my father was sitting in a theater in Times Square watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, certain that what he was seeing wasn’t just a movie but the future. When it ended, he got up and walked out into Times Square, with its peep-show glitz and sleazy, flashing advertisements; he found the uptown subway beneath the yellow marquees for dirty movies like The Filthy 5; and through all of it, he thought that when humanity hurls itself into the depths of the cosmos, this is how we will do it. In the film’s iconic final shot, the space baby looks down at the planet to which it is no longer bound. Freedom, this shot says, is imminent.

My father was twenty-four then, and perhaps at his most world-historical: he was becoming an expert in computers. He’d worked for IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York, a corporate labyrinth of beige cubicles and epochal breakthroughs; a world of punch cards and reel-to-reel magnetic tape, where at least some of the employees were deadly serious about making sure to wear the company tie clip and then, once they were off duty, to switch to their own personal tie clips.

When 2001 premiered, he was working at Columbia University’s Computer Center, in the academic computing branch. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the movie summed up everything my father was in April 1968. It became something of a talisman for him, a semisacred object invested with all the crazy hopefulness of his youth. For as long as I can remember, my father had talked about 2001. He told me often of HAL, of the monolith of evolution, of how glorious the future would be. Of course, when I finally saw the movie, well after the actual year 2001, it bored me out of my mind. Too slow, too bizarre. Ah, my father told me, that’s because evolution is slow, evolution is bizarre. It wasn’t until much later that I started to understand the movie—and, maybe, to understand my father. Read More »

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Enlarge and Linger

November 14, 2014 | by

On William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.

gass

William Gass teaching at Washington University, 1974. Photo: Washington University Magazine

In the heart of the heart of William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, deep inside the title story, the narrator contemplates his cat, Mr. Tick: “You are a cat—you cannot understand—you are a cat so easily.” The confident Mr. Tick, unlike the narrator, does not worry over his mortality or think about the burden of self-consciousness. He does not care that the past is past. He does not fear possibility or imagine himself as anything other than the cat he is. Mr. Tick spends his time murdering birds and walking across rooftops. Content just to be alive, he moves elegantly, “his long tail rhyming with his paws,” leaving our forlorn narrator to fend off loneliness on his own, with the only weapon he has at his disposal: words.

Words are free, there for the taking, and William Gass makes sure we are aware of their infinite potential. Words can be used to command, to describe, to denigrate. They can be strung into sentences and bellowed in a song “in such a way that from a distance it will seem a harmony, a Strindberg play, a friendship ring.” We understand nuance and learn how to prepare for consequence with the help of words. We can make beautiful things with words. Those inclined can dare to treat the medium of language as an inexhaustible source of art.

Art is the business of serious writers, Gass insists. A brilliant essayist as well as one of this nation’s most important novelists, he argues in his essay “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” that the task for a serious writer is twofold: “He must show or exhibit his world, and to do this he must actually make something, not merely describe something that might be made.” In his emphasis on making, Gass, who turned ninety this year, is proposing that the meaning generated by a work of fiction goes beyond its mimetic familiarity. The purpose of an imaginative narrative isn’t to confirm what we think we already know about reality; rather, it offers “a record of the choices, inadvertent or deliberate, the author has made from all the possibilities of language.” A fictional cat may reflect qualities of a real cat, but it is better appreciated as a product of the author’s agile mind. Read More »

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Fania at Fifty

October 9, 2014 | by

The rise of a salsa empire and the decline of boogaloo.

Cover-Fania-All-Stars-p18vd4gs46164gi1st57163b13gg-e1408117380344

Photo: Courtesy of Codigo Group

Fania Records, the legendary Latin music label, has been celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with a series of events in New York and Los Angeles, its opening salvo a Central Park show last June spotlighting salsero Roberto Roena. It felt, indeed, like a party. Hundreds of dancers flooded the area in front of the stage. Those present merely to spectate were forced backward. Scattered around the perimeter were those less enthused: numerous youths lolled against concession tents and information booths, occupied with handheld devices, presumably corralled into coming by parents either filled with missionary zeal or simply unable to get a babysitter. The sharp contours of the audience underscored the relationship between the label’s haloed status and the historical circumstances that enabled its ascent.

In its sixties and seventies heyday, Fania was the most powerful force in the Latin music industry, and salsa was the most powerful force in Latin music. The depth of the connection between label and genre is pronounced. Ask die-hard fans to list their favorite figures from salsa’s golden age, and nine out of ten answers will be artists whose résumés include Fania for at least a record or two (Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente), if not for significant stretches of their careers (Celia Cruz, Willie Colón). It is commonplace to liken Fania to Motown. The parallel fits, almost. Imagine if Motown, after a few years of competing with Atlantic and Stax/Volt, had decided to buy them out. That’s what Fania did, more or less, when it acquired its main rivals, Alegre and Tico.

Fania was an unprecedented financial engine, exporting Boricua and Nuyorican culture all over the world. The label held what musician and ethnomusicographer Christopher Washburne calls a “monopoly on all aspects of the salsa industry,” controlling “recording contracts, concert promotion, and radio airplay.” Labelmates from different bands performed and recorded as the Fania All-Stars. This was synergy before synergy, when it was still called monopoly, and it created salsa audiences in Colombia, Nigeria, Russia, Japan, et cetera.

But the familiar narrative of Fania as salsa, salsa as Fania—the narrative on display this June—is only half complete, eliding as it does another genre, the buried foundation on which Fania was built: Latin boogaloo. Read More »

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