A Week in Culture: John Swansburg, Editor


The Culture Diaries

The author radios an Erie Canal bridge operator to request passage for his vessel, Hulberton, NY.


Uh, oh. My plan was for this culture diary to culminate six days hence in a cheeky dispatch from Charlie Sheen’s “My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat Is Not an Option” tour. I am a ticket holder to his planned stop at the Toyota Presents the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, Connecticut. (Syntactically, at least, the event and the venue deserve one another.) But this morning I read A. O. Scott’s devastating report from Sheen’s opening performance, at Detroit’s Fox Theater, and I’m troubled. I’d signed on to see Sheen at the suggestion of two Connecticut-based friends who I don’t see nearly as often as I’d like to. (The three of us have a tradition of dreaming up foolhardy adventures as an excuse to spend time together: A couple of years ago we sailed the Erie Canal from Rochester to Medina, New York, in a vessel with a top speed of six knots per hour, which is about the rate at which an old man jogs. Another recent trip involved us trucking up to Hartford to see what’s left of the Grateful Dead, which is not much.) Of course, I also bought the Sheen ticket because I wanted to see the wreckage up close. Scott’s essay forces me to confront the fact that there’s no way to take in the spectacle without being implicated in its tawdriness:

We [in the audience] profess dismay at Mr. Sheen’s long history of drug abuse and violence against women, but we have also enabled and indulged this behavior, and lately encouraged his delusional belief that he could beat the toxic fame machine at its own game. The price of a ticket to one of his shows represents a wager that it is impossible to lose. The audience that walked out of the Fox could feel righteously ripped off and thus morally superior to the man they had paid to see, who seemed to feel the same about them. Win-win!

What have I gotten myself into?

Thankfully, I’m soon distracted from my looming date with the self-proclaimed warlock by a series of meetings and deadlines that need to be met. After work, I walk over to Film Forum to catch Bill Cunningham New York, which I’ve been dying to see since reading the lovely review my Slate colleague Nathan Heller wrote last week. The theater is packed, and with a nattier crowd than one is accustomed to finding at the art house. (I gather that the trio of women sitting in front of me are staffers at Women’s Wear Daily.) The movie is as charming as its subject, no small feat. Though Cunningham spends his every waking hour either on the streets of New York, shooting street fashion, or in the city’s toniest function halls, shooting the rich and philanthropic, the photographer himself turns out to be an ascetic. He barely has two changes of clothes (when shooting on the street he wears a blue smock favored by French street sweepers) and can’t bear to spend more than three dollars on lunch. These ironies inspire in me competing desires: I leave the movie vowing to cut a smarter figure on the streets of New York—I need a new blazer!—but also to aspire to Cunningham’s thrift—I want one of those blue smocks!


I learn this morning that David Grann’s article “The Mark of a Masterpiece” has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. This is good news on two fronts: I’m a huge fan of Grann’s work, so I’m pleased to see it recognized. The nomination also provides further occasion for a piece I’m planning to publish later this week. Slate’s pop critic Jonah Weiner is writing an appreciation of Grann’s craft, pegged to his latest New Yorker essay, on a strange murder in Guatemala. Knowing that Jonah will likely have to spoil the endings of the articles he discusses in his essay, I pick up one of the last Grann specials I haven’t read. “Mysterious Circumstances” tells the tale of Richard Lancelyn Green, an Arthur Conan Doyle scholar whose untimely death has all the trappings of a case that might have shown up at 221B Baker Street: Green was found dead in his flat, which was locked from the inside; he’d been garroted by a shoelace. The article offers a gripping whodunit but also a portrait of the strange, surprisingly fractious world of Sherlock Holmes obsessives. It’s vintage Grann—can’t believe I’d missed this one.

My fiancée, a painter and illustrator, is planning to be up late tonight working on a book about brisket (Texas and Jewish) that she’s designing. In solidarity, I burn a little midnight oil and make some progress on Roger Crowley’s Empires of the Sea, a history of the sixteenth-century fight between Christendom and the Ottoman Empire for control of the Mediterranean. One of the bloodiest battlegrounds is the island of Malta, which I’ll be visiting in a couple of weeks. I’m writing a travel series on the island for Slate, so I’m trying to bone up on its history, a surprisingly daunting task. The small island has thousands of years of history packed densely into its 122 square miles. Because of its strategic location in the Mediterranean (roughly between Sicily and Tripoli), it’s been invaded by just about every power that has attempted to control the sea, from the Phoenicians to the Nazis. (More recently, it’s been overrun by the cast and crew of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which is being filmed on the island.) Crowley’s storytelling is brisk and engaging. Though I know the outcome—the Knights Hospitaller, tasked with defending the island, repulse the Ottoman attack—he manages to make the story suspenseful. Between Grann and Crowley, I’ve spent much of the day on the edge of my seat. Time for bed.


I hit a wall on an edit around 6:30 P.M. and hop on a train uptown. I’ve got a ticket to see Explosions in the Sky at Radio City Music Hall. I confess that I’m something of an old fart when it comes to live music: I hate standing around waiting for acts to go on stage, don’t relish jockeying for position with my fellow fans (who I tend to resent without cause), and have started to worry about loud shows degrading my hearing. Like I said, old fart. But I love Explosions in the Sky, who play mournful electric guitar instrumentals, and I love Radio City Music Hall. Explosions wrote the score for Friday Night Lights—the movie and the excellent television series—and I’ve heard that they put on a superb live performance. And I know that at Radio City I’ll be able to sit in a comfortable plush chair far enough from a speaker that I’ll still have a shot at hearing my grandchildren say their first words.

Before the show, I have dinner at Má Pêche, the latest addition to the David Chang empire. I sit at the bar and order a half dozen oysters and the steak tartare—hey, it’s Wednesday, got to treat myself for making it halfway through the week! Though it used to make me slightly embarrassed, I’ve come to enjoy eating out by myself. I pull out Stoner, the novel by John Williams that I’ve been reading. It reminds me a bit of Pnin, in that its eponymous protagonist is a sad-sack rural academic, though it lacks the humor of Nabokov’s novel. I’ve been enjoying the book, but it doesn’t stand a chance of holding my attention at the moment. I’m an incorrigible eavesdropper, and the folks next to me at the bar are one of those couples whose relationship is irresistibly ambiguous: They could be lovers, though if so the spark has long since gone out of the relationship; they could be old friends, of the type that can communicate a lot in few words; they could be colleagues, commiserating over Moscow Mules after an enervating day at the office. I make glacial progress on Stoner as I keep an ear cocked for that telltale detail that will solve the mystery of how these people know each other. No such clue is forthcoming. I leave the restaurant with my appetite but not my curiosity sated.

I took my time at Má Pêche hoping to arrive at Radio City just in time to see Explosions in the Sky take the stage, but to my chagrin the first of two opening acts is still playing when I arrive. My seats are in the first balcony, and I retire to the mezzanine area and read Justin Davidson’s great essay on the history of the New York City apartment in New York. When I finish, I do a bit of people watching. I see a young man in a Charlotte Hornets hat, and, soon thereafter, another young fellow in a Utah Jazz hat, one with the old quarter-note logo. The sightings confirm for me that NBA hats of a style popular in the early nineties are enjoying a comeback. Note to self: have Mom send all those NBA hats in the upstairs closet to New York—I’ll make a killing at the Brooklyn Flea!

I head back to my seat when Explosions comes on. They’re clearly excited to be playing at this storied venue and put on a terrific show, barely pausing between songs if at all. Though their songs start out slow and melancholy—they send me into a nostalgic reverie, for a time when I was the age of the kids on Friday Night Lights—they build to cathartic crescendos. As exhilarating as those crescendos are in your ear buds, they are much more so in person: watching six guys play their instruments that hard for that long and with that much heart, you can’t help but smile, even if your thoughts are still dwelling on faded athletic glory, your own mortality, or the way the West Texas wind blows through Taylor Kitsch’s hair.

John Swansburg is the culture editor of Slate. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of his culture diary.