- Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, prompting a massive spike in acoustic guitar and harmonica sales at Sam Ash Music stores around the world as writers rush to recast themselves as musicians, tearing their elbow patches off and discarding their tweed sport coats, smashing their typewriters and casting whole drawers of freshly sharpened Ticonderoga pencils into the street, as it finally dawns on them that they’re working in an outmoded medium facing dwindling interest from the culture at large, with not even the promise of prestige or elite status to sustain them. Don DeLillo is seeking a twelve-album contract with Columbia Records. Haruki Murakami is tripling the line breaks in all his novels and reissuing them as “Collected Lyrics.” Philip Roth sits cross-legged in silk pajamas, trying to play a major scale on the harmonica for about five minutes—he gives up, masturbates. Milan Kundera promises to go electric at next year’s Newport Folk Festival.
Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me turns fifty.
I am gazing, as I write, at a black-and-white photograph of Richard Fariña with his wife, Mimi (née Baez) Fariña, taken backstage at the Newport Folk Festival nine months before his death—fifty years ago this week—at the age of twenty-nine. To call the photo romantic would be an understatement. Mimi, her face a dark flower offered to an invisible sun, appears to be literally bursting out of her flip-flops as she executes some twirling, Isadora Duncan-y ballet step; while Richard, swarthy and black-haired, his eyes fondly delta’d (the Ray-Bans in his hand having apparently proven useless against all this brightness), looks like he can’t quite believe his luck, to have aligned his future with this lovely, exuberant sprite, a princess in folk’s royal family. He’s having a pretty good run of it for a guy who plays the dulcimer. And technically he doesn’t even play it that well. Read More
In the early sixties, Don Wilen had just one tax client—Mrs. Sheftel, who ran the candy store on his corner. When Paul Krassner, radical prankster and editor of the satirical journal The Realist, printed an interview with George Lincoln Rockwell, the American Nazi Party founder, Wilen wrote in to complain.
“I said,” Wilen recently recalled, “ ‘I’m a Jewish accountant, and respect your right to free speech, but hate—’ ”
Krassner rang him up. “An accountant! I need an accountant.” Now Wilen had two clients.
One day Wilen’s mother, babysitting, picked up the phone. “Some friend of yours, making believe he’s the famous poet Allen Ginsberg.” Wilen now had three. Read More
- Today in comedies of errors: William Empson began work on The Face of the Buddha in 1932, but the book is only now being published. What took so long? Well, for starters, Empson gave the manuscript to a dangerous guy: “The man of letters John Davenport had left it in a taxi when very, very drunk, circa 1947 … Davenport was so embarrassed by his bungle that he did not confess to Empson until 1952. But his apology was far from accurate. Thanks to an inspired curator at the British Library (let his name be honored: Jamie Andrews), we now know the full story. What actually happened is that Davenport, still three sheets to the wind, handed the manuscript and its photographic illustrations over to that most colorful figure of 1940s literary bohemia, the Tamil poet and editor of Poetry London, Tambimuttu. Shortly afterwards, Tambimuttu quit London and returned to his native Ceylon, leaving The Face of the Buddha in the hands of his coeditor, Edward Marsh. And shortly after the handover, Marsh took ill and died. His papers remained unexamined until they were bought by the British Library in 2003. Andrews discovered Empson’s material two years later.”
- While we’re on the joys of rediscovery, let’s bring Bob Dylan into the mix: “There have long been rumors that Mr. Dylan had stashed away an extensive archive. It is now revealed that he did keep a private trove of his work, dating back to his earliest days as an artist, including lyrics, correspondence, recordings, films and photographs. That archive of 6,000 pieces has recently been acquired by a group of institutions in Oklahoma for an estimated $15 million to $20 million, and is set to become a resource for academic study … With voluminous drafts from every phase of Mr. Dylan’s career, the collection offers a comprehensive look at the working process of a legendarily secretive artist … Seeing the archive may conjure a familiar feeling of astonishment at just how deep the well of Dylanology goes. There is always far more beneath the surface than anyone could guess.”
- Tim Murphy reminds us not just that Valley of the Dolls is fifty years old now but that talk shows used to be a lot more combative, and all the better for it: “Jacqueline Susann, with thickly rimmed eyes, signature lacquered black hair and in a print mini-dress, went on the David Frost talk show. There, the notoriously scabrous critic John Simon eviscerated her before a live audience. What was Valley of the Dolls, he asked her, but ‘a piece of trash on which you can get famous, rich, known quick, and make money?’ Smiling gamely and (literally) leaning in, Susann, then fifty, asked him if his name was Goebbels, Göring, or Simon, ‘because you sound like a stormtrooper.’ She then told him Valley of the Dolls was ‘too sophisticated a story for you to understand, because it’s dirty!’ ”
- Movie premieres used to be better, too, even when they were for art-house films by Samuel Beckett starring Buster Keaton: “Film premiered on September 4, 1965 … Rex Reed, in the New York Times, described the scene: ‘several hundred bikini-clad starlets’ surrounding the likes of Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jean-Luc Godard, and then Keaton, looking ‘for all the world like the kind of man dogs kick,’ with ‘his pants a little baggy’ and ‘his hat a bit crushed.’ Keaton said it was the first time he’d ever been invited to a film festival. Critics mostly panned the movie—but then Keaton hadn’t given them much to go on. ‘Heck, I’d be the last one in the world to comment,’ he told Reed, ‘because I didn’t know what those guys were doing half the time.’ ”
- The “shot reverse shot” is a fundamental filmmaking technique: you turn the camera on one character, then you turn another camera on whatever that character is looking at, and boom, you’re making movies. But the Coen brothers take the technique in another direction, according to Tony Zhou: their filmography “is full of shot reverse shots that feel both ‘kind of uncomfortable, and kind of funny,’ a visual evocation of the Coen brothers’ frequent use of isolated characters trapped in ‘situations they really have no control over’—and because of the choice of lens and placement of the camera, ‘you’re trapped with them.’ And that setup gives them a host of options when they want to emphasize or even exaggerate certain qualities of the characters talking or the situation the story has put them in.”
Click to enlarge individual panels.
George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, forty years later.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on the French revolutionary Madame Roland, here.
On August 21, 1971, George Jackson pulled a pistol on his wardens at San Quentin, the notoriously racist maximum-security prison to which he’d recently been relocated. When the news broke that he’d freed several of his fellow inmates, presided over the slashing of eight prison officials’ throats (six guards and two trustees), and then died under heavy gunfire while sprinting to freedom, it provoked a strange mixture of shock, anger, revulsion, and grief. Gregory Armstrong, Jackson’s editor at Bantam, would later confess to a reporter how relieved he was that he hadn’t followed through on his offer to help the younger man escape. Bob Dylan wrote a protest song in Jackson’s praise. (“He wouldn’t take shit from no one / He wouldn’t bow down or kneel / Authorities they hated him / Because he was just too real.”) Jackson’s attorney, Stephen Bingham, under suspicion of having smuggled in the escape weapon, fled the country for thirteen years. Huey Newton gave Jackson a long, effusive eulogy (“he lived the life that we must praise”). A group of Black Panthers imprisoned in Folsom advised his parents to “take pride in the fact that you have a large strong family of budding warriors.”
Since the 1970 publication of Soledad Brother, his ferocious, disquieting collection of letters from prison, Jackson had been an international celebrity. In his introduction to the book’s first printing, Jean Genet insisted that the collection “must be read as a manifesto, as a tract, as a call to rebellion, since it is that first of all.” Abdellatif Laâbi read the letters admiringly during his own imprisonment; they let “one follow,” he told his wife in 1975, “the transformation of a man who challenges a new kind of slavery, strips its mechanisms down, and keeps his dignity intact throughout the worst kind of ordeal.” The day before Jackson’s death in 1971, Derrida wrote Genet a long letter worrying that the introduction hadn’t done justice to the dire situation Jackson’s writing was meant to expose. “With the best intentions in the world,” he cautioned, “with the most sincere moral indignation in the face of what, in effect, remains unbearable and inadmissible, one could then lock up again that which one says one wants to liberate.” Read More