On Journalism and the Writer

First of all, I cannot believe that I have never read Kevin Young’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness!  My specialty as a historian is race and popular culture, specifically music, so this book is totally my jam.  I just ordered it on Amazon and plan to devour it quickly once it arrives.

 

Sometimes I read reviews of books before I read the book, not because it matters to me whether a reviewer likes it or not but because I want to see how they read it.  We each have a worldview that results from personal, professional, and academic experiences, and it inevitably colors our critiques of works of literature, music, film, and other artistic expressions.  I often look at things from a historian’s perspective, but just as often I look at them from an artist’s point of view.  If the subject is music, I am also adding a fan’s point of view.

 

From the section we read of Young’s book, I can see how expertly he weaves together so many facets of popular music and Black America with his personal experience of mix tapes and loaning his father his vinyl copy of “The Message” to test his stereo.  I am in love with the connections he makes between different genres of music, how delicious he makes all of it sound, always keeping in mind his point about Black America.

 

The way I write about music post-grad school is very different from how I approached it before.  I was always a fan and student of music, so the social and political and historical contexts of rock and roll, blues, and jazz were always part of my consciousness.  But once I started really delving into the serious work of writing about it as an academic my perspective deepened.  I became far more analytical, but not to the point that I could no longer enjoy the music as a fan—I am, before anything else, a fan of music.  I did a project during my second-to-last semester of grad school about blues lyrics during the Great Depression, and it really opened my eyes.  I’d been listening to the blues since I was a young teenager, but the songs I wrote about were unfamiliar to me.  It was difficult to find reliable information about the origins of some of those songs, and looking for the lyrics themselves could be tricky.  Young mentions the criticism received by The Anthology of Rap for its incorrect transcription of lyrics, and I can vouch for how difficult accuracy can sometimes be in these matters.

 

I have been reading Matt Taibbi for years, and have always admired the snark he adds to his work.  I love this summary of his style by reviewer Felix Salmon:

 

“Matt Taibbi is, by some margin, the best polemical journalist in America. His dispatches for Rolling Stone—long, carefully reported, deeply angry, and chock-full of information and vitriol—throw complex policy debates into stark relief and are loud and powerful enough to compete with the sex and celebrity filling up the rest of the magazine….Many journalists—most journalists, actually—consider this kind of material to lie somewhere between unappetizing, disgusting, and unethical. It’s certainly not the kind of thing you learn in J-school. But if muck is going to be raked, you want Taibbi to be doing the raking: He’s never fair, exactly, but he always afflicts the comfortable, and in no uncertain terms. I have no particular desire to see a slew of copycats come along. But having one Matt Taibbi is vastly preferable to having none.”

Exactly.  Journalism is not what it used to be, and I mean that in good and bad ways.  Norman Mailer and his colleagues in the New Journalism movement put themselves into many of the stories they reported, an idea that scared and offended many people.  These days, in our meta-obsessed culture, I’m not sure people know where the line is between objectivity and subjectivity—and I’m not sure how many actually care.  Taibbi’s excellent piece about Goldman Sachs is not only great reporting but is necessarily infused with overt disgust about a topic difficult to fully grasp but impossible to not be angry about.

 

“The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

 

“The bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth — pure profit for rich individuals.”

 

“The bank might be taking all these hideous, completely irresponsible mortgages from beneath-gangster-status firms like Countrywide and selling them off to municipalities and pensioners — old people, for God’s sake — pretending the whole time that it wasn’t grade D horseshit.”

 

For me, there is no other way to report this story.

 

Siddhartha Deb’s “Gatsby in New Delhi” presents an interesting dilemma aside from how he inserts himself into the story of meeting with Arindam Chaudhuri, an Indian businessman who reminds me of a slightly less ridiculous Donald Trump.  Chaudhuri was upset about Deb’s portrayal of him as a man who runs a school that rarely results in graduates getting jobs (cough—Trump “University”), a film producer, and owner of various other companies.  He filed a lawsuit that caused the publisher of Deb’s book, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, to remove the offending chapter in the Indian version, and several websites took down their posts of the essay.

 

Chaudhuri’s lawsuit claimed that Deb caused “grave harassment and injury,” and that his claims were “baseless, false, malicious and per se defamatory is clearly apparent from the language, letter and tone of the impugned article.”  What Deb’s piece really does is use Chaudhuri as one of the symbols of what the “new India” has become, and yes, it’s not all positive.  But does that mean he doesn’t have the right to say it?  n + 1, which had temporarily removed the article, reposted it with an explanation and wonderful defense of a writer’s right to write:

 

“He is merely wondering what such a business as Chaudhuri’s consists of, and what its success means—both for the people involved, and for contemporary India and its love affair with capitalist success. Far from a hatchet job, the article is a meditation on money, hope, ambition, and appearances. It is vital and necessary that Deb and others have the right to write this way; to think aloud about these subjects and share them with a wider audience. And yet this right, the right to write this way, is not obvious, and it must be defended.”

 

Subjects do not have the right to control how a writer portrays them.  This is Trumpian logic, which means it is illogical, childish, and ego-based.  It is difficult to prove libel, because one must prove intent to harm.  Deb’s portrait of Chaudhuri is painted in words he deemed fair and accurate based on his experience with the man and those around him, and I had a clear idea of what he looked and sounded like.  That is why this essay was so effective for the reader—and so offensive to Chaudhuri.

 

The truth hurts.

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Purple Mourning

I couldn’t imagine writing about anything else this week, and the packet of experimental poetry we read made me feel like this was appropriate.   Much love and respect to The Purple One for my found poetry.

Click Purple Mourning to read my poem.

 

 

Purple Rain, Prince — What I Like Is Sounds

This was one of the most fun blogs I have written! It originally had clips of Prince videos, but he had pretty much all traces of his videos removed from the internet over the past few years. Those of us who grew up with him will remember the details as I’ve described them. Those who didn’t grow up with him should wish they did. They’ll never understand. #RIPPrince

This was one of the most fun blogs I have written! It originally had clips of Prince videos, but he had pretty much all traces of his videos removed from the internet over the past few years. Those of us who grew up with him will remember the details as I’ve described them. Those who didn’t grow up with him should wish they did. They’ll never understand.‪#‎RIPPrince‬

 

Originally posted on What I Like Is Sounds: My original scratched and static-filled “Purple Rain” LP The first thing I think of when Prince comes to mind is asking my 6th grade music teacher if we could sing “Darling Nikki” in class. She was taking suggestions for contemporary pop songs to include in an upcoming…

via Purple Rain, Prince — What I Like Is Sounds

Giving Good Oral

As much of a misanthrope as I usually am, I do find people interesting.  Biographies and memoirs of celebrities and historical figures have always been some of my favorites, but I also love reading about ordinary people’s lives.

 

The first oral history I read was Jean Stein’s Edie: An American Biography, a fascinating book about one of the fascinating characters of the Warhol Factory, Edie Sedgwick.  I’m not sure how I discovered the book at the library when I was a junior high schooler.  I knew Warhol, of course, but at that time only as the guy with the white hair who painted soup cans and Marilyn Monroe.  Warhol died when I was in 8th grade, so perhaps I read Edie’s name somewhere in all the stories I read about him and decided to figure out who she was.

Edie Sedgwick book

I was reading a lot of biographies of old movie stars back then, but none of them were like EdieThe New York Times captures it perfectly in their 1982 review:

 

“If the montagelike approach makes for a certain fragmentation—no omniscient narrator attempts to moralize or give coherence to the senseless events in Edie’s life—the disparate voices of the witnesses succeed nonetheless in telling a story that has all the social drama of a novel. As for Edie herself, the book illuminates her in a kind of strobe light; it reveals her in a series of sharp-edged glimpses, without ever really pausing to define her character – an appropriate portrait, really, given Edie’s own instant celebrity and invention of a self.”

 

Legs book

In my twenties I read Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil (who is still going strong) and Gillian McCain.  What a fucking prize this book is!  Lester Bangs.  Richard Hell.  Arturo Vega.  Dee Dee Ramone. Sylvain Sylvain.  Patti Smith.  Whatever you want to know about punk music from the people who were there is in this book, in their own unflinchingly honest words.  This was my Bible at the time, probably the first book specifically about punk that I absorbed so completely.

 

When I was a kid I carried my tape recorder around with me to capture random moments at family gatherings and to conduct interviews with various relatives who were pretending to be celebrities.  I watched David Letterman and Johnny Carson religiously.  I knew I was meant to talk to people, to ask them about their lives, and to share mine with anyone who would listen.    And more importantly, I was meant to record anything and everything we said so we would never be forgotten.

 

In my mid-thirties I started freelancing for Cool Cleveland, first writing food reviews and then conducting long interviews with cool people: I did the first interview with Matt Fish before he opened Melt Bar & Grilled in 2006; I had a long conversation with my friend and local film director Johnny Wu; I got to spend a lovely and sober afternoon talking election politics with a drag queen I had only previously known in my days as a fabulously drunken fag hag.  Most of my interviews were written as straight-up conversations, but there were a few I put together as feature stories or reviews, depending on what the angle was.

 

A few years later I conducted a series of interviews as part of my MA thesis in history.  I was super excited to talk to people about race relations in Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s in the context of rock and roll and the Second Great Migration.  But how would I find interviewees?  I really had to start from scratch.  So I wrote a short description of the project and the criteria subjects would have to meet—they needed to have lived in Cleveland at some point between 1952 and 1971 and they needed to love rock and roll—and posted it in every free online classified section I could find.  I blasted it all over Facebook.  I contacted radio stations and community organizations.  It didn’t take long to start getting a few emails and phone calls.

I put together a list of basic questions, knowing that the interviews would have to flow naturally to get the subjects to spill.  I learned that to earn their trust, you have to put them at ease with basic questions and openly value their experiences.  I’m Chatty Cathy so it was difficult for me to not have full-on conversations with everyone, but hearing their words prompted me to ask additional questions and avoid some that were on my list.  Since I was asking a lot of questions about racism and riots and other topics that make people uncomfortable, I knew not to push anyone too hard to answer when they gave me signals that they couldn’t respond.  One interview was only about 30 minutes—most were at least 90 minutes—because the interviewee was clearly not willing to talk about what she remembered of the Hough riots and racist comments she may have heard from her family.

Screenshot (10)

All of my subjects gave me something to think and write about.  One in particular also led me to three other subjects, all of whom proved to be invaluable resources for my project.  They were really happy that somebody was interested in their stories, so I had carte blanche to question them.  I was also very lucky that Cleveland State University’s Center for Public History & Digital Humanities helped me record the interviews and later preserved them in their online archives for other researchers to use.

 

Listening to people tell their stories is always going to be interesting to me, whether it’s for an academic purpose, a creative piece, or just sitting around bullshitting.  Your tales are always worth telling.

 

“I’d read an oral history of almost anything.”

Bill Simmons

A Pile of Anne Carson

I had never read Anne Carson, so I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down with “Kinds of Water.”  What I noticed right away was the beautiful way she puts words together.  Evocative.  Clever.  Perfection.  Her work is an inspiration to all writers and other artists.

I have collected the most profound parts of this piece and annotated them with my brief impressions.

Air cracks apart like a green fruit.

Seriously beautiful description.

 

Morning sparkles on us.

Doesn’t it, though?

 

A pool of thoughts tilts this way and that in me.

I am going to steal this regularly.

 

What is it that keeps us from drowning in moments that rise and cover the heart?

Sigh.  This is a question that will always inspire me to keep searching for an answer.

 

It is already late when you wake up inside a question.

I guess that is true.

 

Are there two ways of knowing the world? a submissive and a devouring way. They end up roughly the same place.

Another excellent question, and one that I think is at the heart of all great writing.

 

He grows heavier and heavier like a piece of bread soaking, or a fish that floats dreamily out of my fingers down deeper and deeper in the tank, turning round now and then to make dim motions at me with its fins, as if in recognition, but in fact it does not recognize me—gold shadows flash over it, out of reach, gone.

I can see every particle of what she’s describing.

 

Afraid I don’t love you enough to do this.

This one really makes me wonder about all the things I have done for people I have loved, and what it means to give everything for love.  Do we break the law or reject our own moral code or abandon those closest to us for love?  Is that really what it means?

 

I am telling you this because a conversation is a journey, and what gives it value is fear. You come to understand travel because you have had conversations, not vice versa. What is the fear inside language? No accident of the body can make it stop burning.

I have no idea what this means, but it is striking nonetheless.

 

Yet she kisses his mouth and the eyes of his face, she kisses his hands, his truth, his marrow.

Incredible passion, the desire to fully absorb another human being—these are some frightening words for many.  This is the only way I know how to love, to consume and be consumed by the other person.  Why go through with it if it’s not going to be like this?  Some of us don’t have a choice but to taste everything.  And often, those we taste are filled with bitterness from the past.

 

As the nail is parted from the flesh, I awoke and I was alone.

So vivid and gorgeous and disturbing, and one of the most startling images I have encountered.

 

Very ordinary behavior can be striking when it plays in the shapes of things like a sage, or a child biting into a pear.

Spectacular.

 

Castrogeriz is a pile of history.

This is such an exciting way to describe a place, and so accurate.

 

His loves are deep, sudden services.

I understand exactly what she means, yet I am hesitant to attempt an explanation.

 

There is a loneliness that opens up between two people sitting in a bar, not in love with one another, not even certain they like the way they are entangled with one another, one taps a glass with a spoon, stops.

I see this movie image in my head.  I see my past in this sentence.  I see broken people all over the world.  It’s a really simple description, actually, but instantly brings a picture into focus.

 

A baking hot morning.

Beautiful and powerful.

 

How I did waste and exhaust my heart.

Poetry.

 

On the edge of the world is a black row of trees, shaking. Moon like a piece of skin above.

Dramatic and lovely.  Who has described the moon as being like a piece of skin?  Such a strange way to say it, yet it feels right.

 

We do not like to be surrounded by meaningless grotesquerie, we are animals who take it upon us to find form in the misshapen.

We are always looking for answers, reasons.  Nothing is only what it seems.  There must be more to it.

 

Morning is cutting open its blue eyes.

An almost shocking illustration, one that changes our perception of the new day.

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