by Weston Cutter
Now that it’s five seconds from the new year there are, as always, suddenly these books I meant to cover yet which went uncovered. It happens every year; my surprise is as constant as there being no need for it. Anyway, for the next couple weeks: catch-up on books that should’ve been covered here, books that were read and relished but for whatever reason got missed.
1. You should purchase and read these books. Maybe. I’m not sure.
2. I have a harder and harder time with music books, at least those trying to be fairly direct. The Wallace we’ll get to further below. Also a harder and harder time with books that are ultimately trying to cartograph a fairly known person.
3. Here’s the thing: what do you want to know about Neil Young or the Boss? Or equally: why do you want to know about Young/Boss? I’m not remotely the first person to ask these questions; maybe everyone asks, and I’m just getting to it. But for real: would reading anything make “Helpless” or “Rosalita” or whatever different?
4. I love Paul Westerberg and the Replacements, love Big Star, love the Roots, love Stan Getz. I’m trying to think who else. Love Wilco’s first four, hugely. Love Gillian Welch. I’m just trying to list stuff here. You’ve got your own list, certainly.
5. But here’s the thing: The more I’ve read about any of those bands and people, the less I end up feeling. I’d like to unread most of what I know about folks who make art I like. There are exceptions—Lyle Lovett getting his leg busted seems important to have known. If I didn’t know Westerberg was from Minnesota, I’d want to know that. But otherwise I’m more and more aware that the music either is or isn’t, and that’s it. Is this what happens when one enters his or her mid-30s? I mean that honestly: if you have an answer, please leave a comment.
6. (Wallace said something along these lines in his intro to Best American Essays, about how he wished he knew less about celebrities than he already does. Smart and astute, but I think he meant in an exhausted, I-can’t-escape-celebrity-culture way, which isn’t this).
7. Take your favorite song. Here’s mine: “I Am the Cosmos” by Chris Bell. Read more about it wherever (JJSullivan wrote a cool essay on Bell awhile back, which I regret not asking him about, but whatever). Here’s how much I like that song: I know he had it mixed be Geoff Emerick, the guy who engineered the Beatles’ stuff. I know it was released as a 45 on some vanishingly small run by Car Records, and I know that, rarely, copies of the 45 hit ebay, and some of us pay for them (I bought mine for 1/7 the cheapest price I’ve seen recently, which data I include here only to make myself feel better). I know lots about all of this—that Chris Bell’s brother put together what ended up being Bell’s lone full-length (titled I Am the Cosmos, released by Ryko in the 90′s), that Bell killed himself/died in a car crash in 78, that he found heroin and Jesus, that he’s in It Came from Memphis. I know that his keening, pleading voice at the song’s very end, when he sings “Really want to see you again” puts a fucking knife in my throat almost every time I hear it, and that the song was covered by the Posies/Big Star on the Live at Columbia disc from ’94, etc. etc. etc. This isn’t me proving bona-fides or something: I’m trying to say that I’ve dug into the song pretty thoroughly (I’m sparing all sorts of less important shit that can’t possibly be interesting to more than maybe four dozen folks).
8. Here’s the thing: all of that above about Bell doesn’t change a lick of “Cosmos,” and when you hear the song it will either melt you as it should or it won’t. No amount of data can change that, no matter the sort of data.
9. All of which is to say: Bruce and Waging Heavy Peace are fine for what they are, but if you, like me, find yourself in a place in which you’d rather just listen to the damn song, whatever the song is, than read about every last aspect of it, these books might drag. I love Neil Young, and I looooooooooooooove Springsteen, and I now know more about how Young bought his place in northern California, and the sort of vehicle he drives there, and I now know that Springsteen’s been on antidepressants for awhile, and that he was a sort of colossal jackass to an old girlfriend way back. I know these things. Okay.
10. It’s complicated. I don’t think there’s an answer. I’d buy these two books, honestly. I would. I’ve read so many fucking books on music it’s not even funny—that great thick Willie Nelson one from ’08, all G Marcus’s stuff, the bulk of the Dylan tomes (including the ones about specific albums, specific songs), all sorts. Just endless. I can’t help it. When someone writes the story of any band that’s helped build my insides, I can’t help it. I have, upstairs at present, a book which literally details what the Beatles did every day from their start to the day they broke up. No joke. I used to have certain dates memorized, for reasons eclipsing imagination or recollection. Music books are shocking draws. Fucking Our Band Could Be Your Life—need I say more?
11. But what’s weird, at least for me, is that, ultimately, all I want to do is just listen to the music. I’ve never read a word that’s made one note of “Born to Run” or “Here Comes a Regular” or anything better. Do I care that Springsteen worked on “Born to Run” as long and hard as he did? Sure. Does knowing his background—how he grew up in New Jersey, his relationship to his dad—do anything to the music? Not really. Good to know? Hard to say. What I’m trying to say is: sure, read the books, but nothing’s gonna make “Old Man” or “Tunnel of Love” suddenly sound even better.
Obvious q: what could possibly do that anyway?
A. Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not is, sure, of course, worth having. Some of us have this stuff already, downloaded it back when it was available on Howling Fantods, and some of us have been passing to friends, for years, old .doc files of “The Nature of the Fun” or “Fictional Futures” or whatever, but it’s nice to finally have these things in book form.
A. And of course it’s a sort of b-sides/outtakes LP, this book. None of these save the Federer piece seem like things Wallace would’ve used in a next collection of essays (aside from the Federer one, unless I’m mistaken, all these pieces are old enough that Wallace in fact chose against including them in either Lobster or Fun). The pieces here feel alternately like watching a slugger take BP, or like watching a VHS tape of some phenom’s junior-high years. If you’re like me, you’ll eat this shit up—again, I’ve had most of these (including, yes, the “Twenty-Four Word Notes”) for a good while.
A. But the impulse behind the book, akin to the impulse behind the Springsteen and Young books, has something to do with an imagined equation balancing Total Knowing or Exposure with Getting Genius. Or something like that. Look, we listen to every single last Beatles (or Radiohead, or Indigo Girls, or whoever: pick your music) outtake because we believe something’s there. Either 1) the outtakes by the best bands are better than the perfectly polished takes by everybody else (sometimes true), or 2) we want to more fully understand the steps that got the band/artist to the moments we fell for. If you believe the first statement, then stuff like this Wallace book are fine—and the writing is good, even the toss-off stuff (that piece that ran in Might about AIDS seems to hold up least well). If you believe the second thing, there’s trouble.
A. To whit: on the old VHS of the Beatles visiting Ed Sullivan, there’s a moment in which John, in their hotel room, plays a mouth piano thing, and he plays the intro to “Strawberry Fields Forever.” You see it and you just….get sort of undone in time. If you like cultural things, books/music/movies, your life’s parceled by them in ways, delineated: there’s life before you listened to Pet Sounds, and there’s life after. And there’s of course this fascination for those of us whose lives have been changed by experiencing these things, a fascination about where this thing came from. Almost like there’s a faith that if we could understand the ingredients that led to the thing that gave us this experience, we’d…I don’t know. Feel it more? Believe it more?
A. Here’s the thing: that’s sort of bullshit. Nothing will get us, those who experience the art, to the process by which the art was made—or, better, we can get there, but it’s fucking dull, and the art is what ultimately obtains and lasts. This Wallace is fine (this is being written by a guy who literally has every published thing, all the books of the last few years, the Considerations and Interviews and etc.). I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. It sucks that Wallace is dead. It sucks that there’s not gonna be more writing from him. It’s fascinating that he’s now this thing folks can sit around and attempt to decode and decide about. I can say this: in all of what I’ve read since his death, not one thing’s changed how I felt originally reading “Good Old Neon,” the echoey blast that thing had on my a night in like October of ’02, ot how the thing still hits. Nothing’s gonna change how it felt to walk around, winter of 2000, reading my crappily printed-off (from the Dalkey site) copy of the big Larry McCaffery interview, saying to myself again and again, just to feel it on my tongue, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” If you want to be a completist: get the book. If you believe there’s more of Wallace to ‘discover,’ or that knowing more about him’s gonna do anything for how his genius work actually hits you, find a different book.