Monthly Archives: November 2012

Does Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD Still Hold Up?

On the Road

 

Not long ago, I decided to read Jack Kerouac’s groundbreaking novel, On the Road.  While I feel too much of a cynic to believe that I would have been swept away with its charm and sense of adventure, there was a time of my life where I was swayed by Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael.  I wanted to try to read it without cynicism or preconceived notions: this was difficult, of course, because the novel has been heralded by critics and audiences alike.  I’m not sure that I would say that I hate the book, now that I’m done with it, but I really don’t like it.

Modern Library (an affiliate of Random House) listed the novel in its top 100 novels of the 20th century.  On the Road is listed as #55 on the list.  Accordingly, On the Road is greater than Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange or Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye or Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms or any number of books that didn’t quite reach the top 100.   Kerouac’s book is also included on Time’s list of 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923.  What is it that I’m missing here?

On the Road follows Sal Paradise as he meets up with a near-legendary figure, Dean Moriarty.  Moriarty is a free-spirit type who doesn’t want to be tied down by conventions like social contracts, civic duties, or families – especially families – children, what a bummer!  The two meet up a few times over the course of a few years, and together, they cross miles and miles of America.  That’s about it in terms of the plot of the book.

Kerouac’s novel was revolutionary at its time – for the straight-laced 1950’s, it’s spirit of adventure and freewheeling carelessness had to be both exciting and dangerous.  In today’s time, the characters come across as selfish, foolish, and irresponsible.  The novel helped usher in a new era of art: the Beat period.  Along with Ginsburg’s “Howl,” On the Road defined a way of living, and for that, the novel is absolutely noteworthy.  The novel is a great piece of history – a snapshot of a time, or a glimpse at the way things were.  The novel is not, however, great literature.

The protagonist and narrator, Sal Paradise, isn’t even the main character in his own story.  Through reading On the Road, I felt sorrow, more than anything.  I don’t see how this could come across as anything less than condescending, but I felt bad for Paradise, who wasn’t even the lead character in his own life.  He is uninteresting, he is overly suggestible, and he is a man of complete inaction.  Almost every moment of the novel consists of either Paradise wondering where his friend Dean is, following Dean around, or drooling over Dean’s easygoing, manic lifestyle.  When Dean decided to leave his bummer of a second-wife, who was always crying/screaming because Moriarty wouldn’t take into consideration their daughter?  When Dean breaks his thumb trying to beat his ex-girlfriend?  When Dean decided to leave behind his sick friends in Mexico?  This feels hardly like a man who has been taken with the spirit of life and more like a selfish piece of trash.  The half-baked philosophies of Paradise and Moriarty – the musings about life, the universe, and what it’s all about – don’t even come across as insight as much as just baseless confusion.

Sal Paradise is hard to begrudge in On the Road – he’s mostly harmless as the passenger to Moriarty.  Dean Moriarty, on the other hand, is pretty despicable.  He’s a man with no sense of foresight, empathy, or will.  Life has devolved to a hedonistic adventure for him, and he has to frequently run around town looking for “kicks” to entertain himself. These “kicks” usually involve using people, spending their money, drinking alcohol, or all three at once.  What makes On the Road unbearable is that the narrator is Moriarty’s number one fan: if readers hate Moriarty, they must spend 300 pages with someone madly in love with him.

A quarter of the way through the novel, I was hoping that the ending would involve Paradise turning his back on Moriarty, through some realization of how absolutely expendable everyone is to Moriarty.  This ending never came though, and in fact, no ending came at all.  On the Road features almost no character development.  Even though it spans the length of years, no one actually changes – we find the same characters doing the same things and falling into the same patterns of behavior.  There was no catharsis, no pivotal moments, no epiphanies, no deep insights, no realizations, no nothing.

While reading On the Road, I couldn’t help but constantly wonder about why the prose felt so uneven.  There was just something about it that didn’t flow well with me.  I love Cormac McCarthy’s minimalist writing, and I love David Foster Wallace’s maximalist takes – what was it about Kerouac’s writing that felt so vague and weird?  Many readers seem to talk about the flow of On the Road as being jazzy, and this to some extent, is accurate: some of the staccato words and abrupt transitions work well to give it the feeling of jazz music, but on the whole, it simply doesn’t work.

After finishing the book, I realized that it was written over the course of a matter of weeks, and originally, it was just one long paragraph, typed out on a 120 foot scroll of paper.  On the Road is stream-of-conscious, but then again it’s not.  The book doesn’t mimic patterns of thought, like Wolfe, Joyce, or Faulkner, but instead, it feels more like the writing of someone hurriedly writing, trying to capture everything before they forget it all.  The issue is that it feels rushed, but it’s presented as a standard novel.  Had the story unfolded as it was typed (in one long paragraph), I think the flow would have worked for the better, but as it stands now, it feels broken.

After hearing about how this novel was (and still is) a life-changing moment for people in their early 20’s, and I have to wonder, who are these people?  I wouldn’t want to meet them to harass them for being taken with On the Road – I would want them to help me understand what it is about this book that is so transformative.  I’ve got to be missing something, right?

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Track Review: Sera Cahoone’s “One to Blame”

Sera Cahoone’s brand of indie/country/low-fi music has a certain feel to it — it feels like being under a warm blanket almost.  There’s a certain warmth that comes through her songs so that, no matter what the subject matter is, you’ll know everything is going to be alright.  The singer/songwriter’s third full length album, Deer Creek Canyon, may very well be her best, and while she almost seamlessly transitions between moods and tones, there’s a security to her music that never diminishes.  Deer Creek Canyon is a nice mix of songs, some upbeat kickers (“Nervous Wreck,” “Deer Creek Canyon”), some slow melancholy ballads (“And Still We Move,” “Worry All Your Life”), and some indie-centric, melody heavy songs (“Naked,” “Shakin’ Hands”).  All of these sensibilities converge though in the middle of her album on “One to Blame.”

“One to Blame” is right square in the middle of the album: track #7.  The song isn’t uptempo; it’s not a drag either; it’s somewhere right in the middle.  This song, in both vocal and instrumentation, isn’t dripping with sadness, and it’s not wallowing in its own despair.  Like many of the country artists that Cahoone finds inspiration from, there’s an emotional distance to “One to Blame.”  Instead of Cahoone sounding like she is experiencing the song as it plays, it feels like she has written all of this down, driven to a bar, and sang it for the 100th time.  This lack of immediacy isn’t a bad thing at all though: it works beautifully for the song.  The fallen relationship that Cahoone sings about in “One to Blame” is completely over by the time the song makes its way to the listener in spite of its use of present tense.  These lyrics feel like a well worn path that she has visited over and over again, reliving this memory, trying to understand what went wrong.

What’s most striking about “One to Blame” is Cahoone’s delivery.  What made Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, et al., Bobby Womack et al. such wonderful vocalists wasn’t their willingness to jump into a verse, and it wasn’t their bombastic delivery — it was their lack thereof.  These singers knew that the key wasn’t choosing what notes to wail on — it was choosing the notes to withhold and recede from.  Sometimes, the absence of any kind of delivery can speak louder than any kind of scream, wail, or croon could.  Cahoone finds this here and absolutely nails it.  During the chorus, she sings two lines, and she doesn’t come in again for a few bars.  Because choruses traditionally serve as the lynchpin of a song, vocalists will crowd it — Cahoone gives the chorus room to breathe, and after she sings “Finally found you on the street / I’ve been all over town,” listeners can’t wait for the next line.  It feels like it should be right there following the her, but it isn’t.

Cahoone’s amazing vocal delivery on this song mirrors the mood and lyrics of the song as well.  By the time (and it is late in the song when it happens) she sings “I need you with me / baby let’s just try,” she sounds defeated — she knows the answer here.  The hesitation of her vocal delivery matches this perfectly, because she (or the narrator) knows what the response to the suggestion will be, there’s a brief pause before uttering it.  There’s no mistake that this is the final phrase Cahoone sings of the song; “One to Blame” plays on a few more minutes before seemingly realizing that it’s over, just like the relationship chronicled within it.

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Competition as Motivation: the Curious Cases of Lou Reed, Paul McCartney, and Frank Black

Lou Reed is a notorious pain in the ass. In the late 1960’s, he fronted The Velvet Underground and wrote four albums with the band before leaving due to internal tension within the band. He would go on to release a solo album to critical and commercial apathy. His second solo album TRANSFORMER, produced by David Bowie, would be a creative success however, Reed would never be able to match these early heights. It’s a pattern that is all too uncommon in the music industry (and in several other media): artists peak early only to have their careers stall creatively. What’s missing? In many cases, creative tension within bands bring out the best, whether it being an internal or external form of competition.

Look at the Beatles.  Paul McCartney and John Lennon was two of the best songwriters of any generation — you put them together, and they create brilliant works of pop music.  Outside of the Beatles, the two never really reached the same creative highlights as they once did together in a band.  This trend isn’t exclusive to the Lennon/McCartney pairing though: we’ve seen it with Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground, the Pixies, Soundgarden, Guns ‘N Roses, Stone Temple Pilots, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc…  It happens all the time.  Usually the argument reverts to a simple explanation: these songwriters are good, but once they are combined with their bandmates, they have a certain chemistry that makes them greater than the sum of their parts.  Seems reasonable enough: put two good people together and you get a great product.  Instead of the effect being additive, it seems more like an exponential increase in quality.  What I’ve always wonder is: why?  Why does this happen?

There can be two kinds of competitions in regards to bands/artists making music: outward competition and inward competition.  Outward competition, as it sounds, involves the members of the band trying to gain fans, money, a record label, success, or some combination of the above.  This form of competition serves as motivation for bands in as much as once the goal is achieved, motivation is lost.  It’s no mistake that breakthrough albums are often the best for bands: it’s probably the album that the band tried hardest on.

The other kind of competition, inward competition, is what I attribute the failure of solo projects outside of band’s normal groups.  Frank Black wrote almost all of the Pixies music, but once the band dissolved and he went off on his own, that spark that his songwriting used to carry was (very often) missing.  The only thing that changed was the group of people he wrote the music around — not his fame, success, etc.  Frank Black was notorious for his aggressive (some would say tyrranical) leadership over the band.  For Black, the Pixies was a competition — it was a way for him to assert dominance over others.  What would be the best way for Black to assert his dominance? By writing the best songs.  Sound petty, oversweeping, or too simple?

In the instance of Lennon and McCartney, the two wrote music together in the first half of the Beatles’ career, and it wasn’t until later that the two starting writing separately.  Songs began becoming “more John” or “more Paul.”  When the Beatles really hit their stride (starting with Rubber Soul and following through to Abbey Road) they were writing mostly apart from one another, only to have the other half come in after the songwriting was done to add a few details.  If these two were becoming independent songwriters, why did their talent seem to take a hit once they went solo?  Probably to the surprise of no one, the band broke up because of creative differences — Lennon and McCartney would often try to one-up the other, and sometimes, it led to disastrous results.  Abbey Road was the last album the band recorded, and its second half features an amazing medley that feels as if the two are trying to outdo the other.  It works for the music, but it didn’t work for the band, and polarizing songs (like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) proved to be their undoing.

Coming back to Lou Reed, the frontman for the heavily influential Velvet Underground, he’s an artist that released an album that actually could stand up to his previous band’s work.  His second album, Transformer, was a commercial and critical hit, succeeding his much maligned debut solo release.  Here’s the interesting thing though: after John Cale left Velvet Underground after White Light/White Heat, Reed was the sole songwriter for the band.  Without Cale, VU would go on to record to masterpiece albums: Velvet Underground and Loaded.  John Cale and Lou Reed didn’t always see eye to eye, and the result was a brand of music that was at odds with itself — Reed’s simple pop melodies would stand just at the forefront, while Cale’s psychedelic experimentation lurked just beneath.  Together, the two were able to create two of the greatest and most influential albums of all time, but it came at a price.  Cale left the band because of the turmoil between the two, so it would seem that the internal competition within the band would have dissipated.  It didn’t.  Without Cale, the Velvet Underground released two more albums that were (almost) as good as the first pair, and Reed was the only songwriter penning the tracks.

Much like Frank Black of the Pixies, Reed was an aggressive leader: he exerted his control over the band’s music with an iron fist.  After Loaded, he released his seltitled solo record, mostly with songs that were to be Velvet Underground tunes — the album passed by most consumers and critics without much fuss.  Even with ridiculously (and maybe even overqualified) session players from Yes, the album failed to make a splash.  It wasn’t until his second solo record, Transformer, that things started to really pick up.  Reed brought in David Bowie and (fellow Spider from Mars) Mick Ronson to handle production of his second solo album.  Bowie and Reed would later go on to have their own feuds and fights, but in 1972, they were able to create a career-defining album for Reed.  Transformer had what Lou Reed didn’t and what all the other Velvet Underground records had: musicians to compete with.  Against Bowie and Ronson, Reed was pushed to write “Walk on the Wild Side,” and “Satellite of Love,” two commercial hits that solidified Reed’s status as a solo artist.  Before this time, it was no secret that Bowie was competitive: he and Marc Bolan of T. Rex had friendship that exemplified this kind of competitive nature, so it may come as no surprise that Bowie and Reed would develop similar tendencies.  Reed would go on to develop a similarly competitive relationship while writing his third solo album, Berlin, with Bob Ezrin.  After that?  Reed wanted to produce himself, and the world was “gifted” with such albums as the limp Sally Can’t Dance and insane Metal Machine Music.

It seems that with most bands, there’s some sort of internal frustration — some sort of friction — that goes on.  In Oasis, Noel Gallagher’s songwriting was a way of controlling his brother; whatever Noel wrote, Liam had to (in theory) sing.  In Metallica, it was a way for James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich to vent their frustrations at one another (and seemingly everyone else in the world).  When Billy Corrigan tried to democratize the songwriting process in Zwan, it came up with mixed results, and when he went solo, it was near-disastrous.

Internal competition need not only be for antagonistic relationships.  An example from recent memory of friendly competition lies in the Raconteurs and Divine Fits.  Both of these bands are “supergroups” of two or more songwriters.  The Raconteurs featured Jack White and Brendan Benson taking turns one-upping the other in the studio.  The band’s two albums are both good — the competitive spirit the band takes into the studio pays off and both songwriters are better because of it.  Divine Fits, who have only released one album to date, consists of the songwriters of Spoon (Brit Daniel) and Wolf Parade (Dan Boeckner).  Similar to the Raconteurs, the band features dueling singer/songwriters, and the result of the competition is that both members’ turn in better performances than their “main” band’s latest offering.  Internal competition as motivation isn’t a bad thing — it’s just something that has to be managed and reined for the forces of good.

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Track Review: Japandroids’ “Continuous Thunder”

Fans of Japandroids probably know the story all too well — in fact, it seems like their story might even be more widely circulated than their music.  The Canadian duo, after years of performing at small venues, decided to give up on their dreams.  They decided that, after all of the blood/sweat/tears, enough was enough.  The two created their first full-length album, Post-Nothing, and launched a farewell tour of sorts — one last hoorah before calling it quits.  It was no doubt because of this urgency, this go-for-broke energy, that the album turned out to be a hit (at least as far as indie-music goes).  The album gave the band the attention and the success that it needed to continue.  In 2012, the band released their follow-up, Celebration Rock, but it was unclear how the band would try to follow up their one-time farewell-note.

Celebration Rock is one of the most apt titles ever for an album.  The record is 8 tracks of joy, energy, and nostalgia — it’s a remembrance and celebration of youth well spent and misspent.  Staying up until 3AM talking with friends, driving semi-buzzed down lonely highways, these are the images that Japandroids conjure in their music and lyrics.  The album starts off with the sound of fireworks popping in the distance, and after its running time, the album concludes in the same fashion.  This final song, “Continuous Thunder,” is different though, in tone, style, and timbre: the percussion isn’t going off the rails, the guitar (while fuzzy and distorted) is more concern with creating texture than it is chugging out riffs, and vocalist Brian King is singing is heartfelt, but it’s not as urgent as the previous 7 tracks.  All of the ingredients are there, but they add up to something completely different.

“Continuous Thunder” is just as nostalgic as anything else on the album, but there’s a sense that the song isn’t just about a love gone past — it’s about two people, in love, remembering their past together.  The lyrics, within the first verse, summarize not only the song, but the entire album.

heart’s terrain is never a prairie
but you weren’t wary
you took my hand
through the cold, pissing rain
dressed to the nines
arm in arm with me tonight
singing out loud
yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah….

The two people here have planned a night together, and though the plans don’t necessarily go well, they make the best of it.  It’s not unlike the kids that were forced out of the bar in earlier songs.  This couple doesn’t care that it’s raining — they’re just happy to be together.  This song has all the same love-of-life imagery that Celebration Rock carves out, and it further expands the idea by showing that all that you really need in life is your other half.   But does that make this song purely romantic?  Not necessarily.  King goes on to wonder how things would be if he had all the answers and his partner had the body she wanted — would their love burn brighter?  Here again, King is acknowledging the imperfection of youth, and through the entire album, this is never taken as a strike against the fact.  The imperfection is what drives it: what makes it beautiful.

The album ends the same as it begins: with the popping of fireworks in the distance.  Only this time, the imagery is transformed and recontextualized — instead of kids partying and setting off fireworks, the celebration is for the beginning of two people, the beginning of a couple, and a turning point for both of their lives.  As the sound of percussion gives way to this sound, it’s hard not to imagine two lovers standing beneath the explosions in the sky.  While it’s easy for nostalgia to be an easy acknowledgment of things we once loved, it also gives us the opportunity to look back and fall in love all over again now that we’ve come as far as we have.

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What THE FALL Has to Say About Storytelling

Tarsem Singh’s The Fall had a lot of buzz among movie critics when it was first released; while it never really caught the mainstream market’s attention, it seemed to be a bit harder to ignore for critics.  The movie is a long spectacle that tries to be everything and seems to be nothing all at once.  There was no true consensus among film critics, with some writing it off as pretentious or overwrought, and most praising it for its sheer ambition.  Roger Ebert went on to say: “You might want to see for no other reason than because it exists. There will never be another like it.”  Other critics, less enamored with The Fall criticized the movie for its sheer ambition, with quotes like this from the LA Times’ Mark Olsen: “There is never a sense that The Fall exists for any reason besides simply being something nice to look at.”  Maybe it was the lavish set-pieces and stunning spectacle that director Tarsem Singh brings to the movie that distracts viewers from it, but it seems that this movie’s themes have gone grossly overlooked.  Yes, this movie has an extraordinarily shiny wrapper, but the candy inside isn’t just empty calories.

The Fall exists within a framed narrative — the movie takes place in a 1920’s hospital in Hollywood, California.  A young girl (Alexandria) with a broken arm meets a hospitalized (and newly disabled) actor named Roy Walker.  The two start a friendship of sorts: Roy tells Alexandria stories, and she provides him company.  After a few encounters, Roy tries to use Alexandria to steal morphine, first through trickery and then through the story he tells her.  The Fall takes place between these two realms: the hospital and the imagined story.  As Roy tells his story, the movie shows the story being played out through Alexandria’s imagination.  One of the biggest criticisms of The Fall is that this story-within-a-story serves primarily as a vehicle for action set pieces, wild costumes, and exotic locales; this is only half true.  On the face of it, this story is pretty shallow: five adventurers seek revenge for an evil governor (all for different reasons), and together they cross deserts, oceans, and cities to see to it that the governor pays for his crimes.

Now, the story as we see it is created from two dynamic forces: Roy and Alexandria.  Roy tells the story, and he inserts parts of his own experiences into the the tale: the evil governor has stolen away the main character’s lover, and for this reason, he must kill him.  As Alexandria listens to the story, the story shapes itself around her own experiences.  Many of the characters that we see in reality appear again in the story: a hospital orderly doubles as Darwin; the man who delivers the ice in an early scene doubles as ex-slave Otta Benga; and after a while, Roy becomes a character as well — the red bandit.  On the face of it, this is a cute storytelling trick, but it actually says a lot about the true nature of storytelling.   Roy tells this story exclusively — he is making it up as he goes for the most part, and even so, he isn’t the only one actually creating the story.  All Roy can do is put the story out there, but it is the listener (or viewer, or audience) that must play along.  Alexandria (without making a conscious effort to do it) integrates her own experiences into the story, and the story changes because of it.  Storytelling is a two-way street; a cooperative effort.

Roy eventually uses the story as a lure to trick Alexandria to do his bidding for him.  There are moments where he stops narrating until Alexandria completes a task for him.  While this happens, Alexandria becomes a character in the story.  At this point, not only is she able to influence the story by imagining it, she now has personal stake in it by becoming a character in it.  She is literally transported to these places with these adventurers, and she relates to them, feels with them, and struggles with them.

As Roy realizes that he has selfishly endangered a little girl for (arguably) petty reasons, he refuses to continue the story.  After Alexandria, lying on a table wrapped in gauze, begs him to continue, Roy gives in and continues.  As he does, he begins to kill off the characters — it first starts with Darwin, and soon, other characters meet their demise.    The next point between Roy and Alexandria summarizes The Fall perfectly: the masked bandit drags Alexandria’s character to their final encounter, where they will both surely die.  Alexandria “why are you killing everybody?  Why are you making everybody die?” Roy cries “it’s my story!” and Alexandria shouts “it’s mine too!”   In the final battle between the masked bandit and governor Odious, the protagonist gives up and allows himself to be drowned.  After Alexandria begs Roy not to die, Roy changes the story to a happier ending.  This ending is important because it says something about storytellers:  not only is the act of telling a story a cooperative event, but the storyteller holds some responsibility to the audience.  Roy is self-destructive, and while he doesn’t want to cause others pain, by destroying himself (and his character in the story), he causes pain to his audience.

There’s an additional element to The Fall that concerns the nature of storytelling.  Most of the interactions between Roy and Alexandria are improvised.  On the set, the actress playing Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) didn’t know that Roy Walker (played by Lee Pace) was actually able-bodied.  Much of the dialog and interplay between them are not scripted in any way.  Why is that important?  It’s set that way so that the story is as unbiased as possible.  Similar to the movie’s themes, if the director were to force a script on the actors, there’s so much baggage that comes with personal experience to these things that the portrayal between the two characters would cease to be as genuinely affectionate as it is.  Roy and Alexandria are so believable because there’s no forced narrative.

The Fall is a masterpiece.  It’s a movie with living, breathing characters, memorable imagery, and themes that speak to universal truths of cinema.  Most critics seemed to be too captivated with the imagery to look beneath the colorful exterior where the true heart of the story lies.  Much like Christopher Nolan’s Inception, it’s a movie that is so beautiful to look at that people seem to let the subtext go unnoticed; it’s not just a movie about making movies — it’s a movie about storytelling of all forms.   Tarsem Singh would go on to make more accessible movies for mainstream audiences (Immortals and Mirror Mirror), and it seems unlikely that he would be able to gather a budget to fund a passion project like this again.  Roger Ebert was spot on — there will never be another movie like The Fall again.

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