Overweening Generalist

Thursday, April 23, 2015

World Book Day/Night 2015: "Dangerous Books"

Happy birthday 451st (probably?), Billy Shakes!

23 April is World Book Night.

I'm on record here as not only defending oddball and "dangerous" books and literature, but I've also been a champion of the idea that books indeed do have the potential for "danger" in all its forms...or as much as we can wring from the term vis a vis books. Of course, it's the yoga (orig. Sanskrit derivation of the woid) involved: no book, residing on some shelf somewhere, can do any damage. (Unless someone has hallowed it out and placed a ticking time bomb inside it...has that ever actually been done?) It takes the book PLUS the reader PLUS action to do any damage. Methinks the human(s) has/have the lion's share of the blame here, but still: what was it about that book that led to that building being blown up? We have the First Amendment in Unistat. And: ideas can have consequences. This seems to me at the core of one of the hottest ideas we have. We want a dynamic culture, and this set of ideas is a powerful engine.

                                          money shot of some of my shelves

Of course, most books, having been read and cogitated upon, chewed, swallowed and digested, will not lead to bloodshed or death. It seems safe to say that most well-read books will change their readers' interiors. You know how that book you read last month affected you; your friends might not notice any changes in your behavior. But according to neuroscience, your experience with that book literally changed neural circuitry in your brain, at least a little bit. And so, in this way, books are like very powerful drugs. This may be an unconscious reason why some people are scared of some books. They don't want anything to change. Like the moronic idea that white heterosexual Christian status is "the best."

Aye: other books scare some people who haven't even read them. Possibly they've "heard" about what's in the book and they don't like what they've heard, so they must take action. These idiot souls are working with lousy brain software programs, but they - the idiots - will always be with us. Oh, but they are priestly types, these idiots: it's not enough for them to be scared of what they've found in a book (some ideas they don't like). They will not have that book in their household. Their children will not read it. But that's not enough for them: these priestly idiots take it upon themselves to try to stop those scary ideas from getting into your brain. How? They harass librarians and booksellers. They burn books. They steal them from the public libraries.

Here's an idea that scares the hell out of me: sometimes they succeed. (Because they know better than us, know what's good for us, do it from Brotherly Love, etc?)

The American Library Association recently reported that "Young Adult" books and graphic novels by people of color and writers who are comfortable with sex have been under siege by the idiot priestly types in all areas of Unistat. I took a look at that list and, as always, was forced to make a decision: which of these do I read first? Hey, it's not out of spite (well, maybe there is a little of that), but from something I learned in my early teens: if some book is being banned (or some idiots are trying to get it banned), I want to read it. It usually pays off. I find it fascinating to read and learn about ideas that scare other people. I tend to find "controversial" books fascinating, because I get to read on another "meta" level: I read and interpret the text using my strategies AND all the while I'm also reading and thinking, "Here's what riles up some of the more fearful and ignorant of us." There's the ideas in them (some of which are very olde news to me); then there's the idea that others are so intolerant and mentally impoverished they think these ideas are going to do "harm" to society, or to the "good" people in their own imagined society. "Know thy enemy"? Here's one solid way.

Of those Top 10 from the ALA, I'd already read Morrison, Alexie, Satrapi and Hosseini. So I've put on hold in my public library The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Chbosky and Telgemeier's Drama. Nothing human is alien to me. Also: apparently YA fiction is still not alien to me, even though I'm technically old enough to be a grandpa-pa.

Alice Dreger's Recent Book
Titled Galileo's Middle Finger, it's ostensibly a plea for free scholarly inquiry and evidence-based science as one of the healthiest aspects of a democratic society. And I couldn't put the book down. Dreger's an academic with activism in her blood. She takes Galileo as her heroic source and gets into some ultra-nasty squabbles with ideologues (close cousins of the priestly idiots in every state who want to burn Harry Potter books for the "satanism" they think those books promote) who don't want questions about their picture of how the way things ought to be. The issues Dreger gets involved with go from how we treat "intersex" children, and lead her to other areas of academia, most notably sociobiology and Napoleon Chagnon, "humanist" anthropology and Margaret Mead, and the great debunker of "recovered memory," Elizabeth Loftus. Scientists Thornhill and Palmer's book A Natural History of Rape were not read very closely (if at all) by their very very vocal detractors. There's a lot of interesting ideas about sex and identity in Dreger's book, and Dreger changes with each of her encounters. She's always learning, always questioning herself, standing up for marginalized groups against the State and official establishments, and quite the peripatetic one.

The aspect of academic postmodernism that says science is merely one of many narrative-truths gets shredded by Dreger. Why? Because human lives are at stake. The postmodern idea about science - that it's a potent set of narratives, but only one of many - seems to me to have its earned place in epistemology, but it fails miserably in ethics. Similarly, a variety of academic feminism gets skewered (roughly the same variety that Robert Anton Wilson had troubles with), and the academic community of Anthropologists receives some sunlight. The American Anthropological Association just looks embarrassing.

But early in the book, Dreger - a meticulous researcher, academic detective, activist, ethicist and engaging writer for the educated lay public - hints that perhaps the deepest problem we have is not only ideology, but a taboo against knowing who we are.

I highly recommend Dreger's book if only for the way she addresses this question. Capital enn Nature throws all sorts of things at us. We forgot we have reified comparatively narrow categories of the way things should be, naturally. And the human fallout is heartbreaking. A stunning point in the book is that right now, another possible DES or Thalidomide-like story may be taking place. Dreger tried her best to stop it, but it's SNAFU. Yep: this one's a winner. And in keeping with the motif of "dangerous books" the book is chock-full of books that set others off, sometimes toward making death-threats to authors.

                                           photographer unknown (anyone know?)
                                           lady unknown to me (cryin' shame!)

Hot, Controversial Books That For Some Reason Go Out-of-Print
Often, they almost disappear or become very expensive and difficult to hunt down. Some books just never find an audience, or their publisher didn't push the book hard enough, or maybe it's just not a very well-written tome. But I've always been fascinated and alarmed by missing books that don't fit any of those examples.

In leafing through Robert Anton Wilson's encyclopedia of conspiracy theories, Everything Is Under Control I noted two places where he notes that a good, vital writer or book is now unfindable. In the entry under "Federal Reserve Bank" we see this:

"Critics of banking rant so often against the Rothschilds and David Rockefeller because the Rothschilds Bank of London and Chase Manhattan (Rockefeller's own) are said, we know not on what authority, to own most of the Fed. Matthew Josephson, a conspiriologist of the 1930s-1950s, whose books are currently unfindable, insisted the real power was held by the Warburg Bank of Amsterdam and was part of the 'Orange' take-over of England and America, after the mildly illegal installation of the Dutchman William of Orange as King of England." Josephson had a best-seller in his day called The Robber Barons, about vast inequality in the 1890s. It's the only book I've read by Josephson; I had been working in a library and noticed the title on the shelf and found Josephson a wonderful Marxist-ish conspiriologist.

Now: Wilson published his book in 1998, just on the cusp of the ascendancy of Amazon and eBay and other digitized bibliographies and online vending outposts. Anyone can find most of Josephson now, and The Robber Barons can be bought used for a price in which you'd pay more for postage than for the book itself. Other books must be accessed via large public libraries or university libraries. (Try Interlibrary Loan! Ask your librarian!)

Again: in the entry under "Mary Pinchot Meyer" RAW writes the last paragraph:

"In 1979, Deborah Davis published Katherine the Great, a book about the Washington Post, which included some details on Mary Pinchot Meyer. The publisher printed 25,000 copies, but within a few days withdrew them from the bookstores and pulped them."

And...it later was re-published by smaller presses and I just now saw I can get a used copy from half.com for $1.33. Hardcover. Again, the postage would cost more. (Questions for Deborah Davis about her book on Katherine Graham.)

But: There are still some who are keeping track of this and trying to bring controversial books back into print...or as e-books, at least. One is Mark Crispin Miller. Of all those, I've only read Christopher Simpson's Blowback (fantastic!) and Bertram Gross's Friendly Fascism (prescient?). I want to read them all, but I wish Soft Skull Press or Feral House or another of those cool publishing houses would being them back as dead-tree books. I will probably end up finding most of those in university libraries.

For those interested in Miller's brought-back dangerous books (gee...dangerous to who?), see HERE, and this 7 minute interview with Thom Hartmann. And: here Miller talks about five books the Establishment doesn't want us to read, with the comely Abby Martin.

                                           the Severn Bay reference library

Eric Schlosser's Plays
His Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness and Command and Control  triumvirate constitute a counter-narrative to much of Unistatian history and feel like throwbacks to the Progressive Era muckrakers's books (like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle), but I recently found out he'd written a play titled America, in 1985. It was about US imperialism and Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley at the 1901 Pan American Exposition because of Unistat's colonial war in the Philippines. Czolgosz, usually written off as yet another nutty violent anarchist - as if they all are - saw himself as a patriot who wanted to warn his countrymen about imperial wars. It turns out Leon offed McKinley at the advent of Unistat imperialism, which hasn't stopped since. Leon: you tried, man. In 1985 Schlosser has Czolgosz saying:

"You are going to be punished for what your government is doing right now, and your children will pay for your outrageous vanity. And when this great nation of ours goes down in flames, when our cities are in ruins...don't say nobody warned you. When it comes, you deserve it, and I told you so."
(I'm quoting from the introduction to a chapter on Schlosser from Robert Boynton's book The New New Journalists.)

The Wikipedia page for Schlosser mentions that the play/book is unavailable in Unistat.  However, it was put on in London in 2003, to good reviews. If I want to obtain a copy from a library, the nearest one is University of Calgary Library, 969 miles from my city. There's a copy at Harvard, 2600 miles away. And then, it's Lancashire County Council Library, UK: 5100 miles away. But, BUT!: Say what we will about the drawbacks of Amazon: I just now looked, and it appears I can score a used copy for about $4. Still: why do I have to buy a Schlosser book? You'd think after his deep delvings into the drug war, migrant farm workers, and the insane missile defense system he'd have so many admirers some publisher would bring Americans (which contains America and another play, We The People) into accessible print. What am I missing here?

(Schlosser's 2003 plea to Londoners about to see his play, America: "Not All American Are Evil." Especially see the last paragraph.)

                             Alex Jordan, Jr's House on the Rock library in Wisconsin, Unistat

Opium For the Masses, Hit Man and The Anarchist Cookbook
These are just three books that feed into the Walter Mitty aspects of my bibliomania.

Jim Hogshire, one of my favorite authors in the so-called "marginals milieu" - a term I believe was coined by his nemesis in the milieu, Bob Black - wrote a book on how to go to the local nursery, buy the right kind of poppy seeds, and eventually make your own opiate concotions. It came out as Opium For the Masses. Read about what happened to him HERE. As far as I can see, the economic censorship has put Hogshire off to the book writing biz, and it's a big loss to weirdo Mitty readers like myself. Hogshire also wrote humorously and no-holds-barred about what you're facing when you go to prison. I also love his book Pills A Go-Go, a compendium of writing he and his pill-loving f(r)iends originally wrote on the early Internet. Let us not forget Hogshire's wonderful expose of tabloid culture, Grossed Out Surgeon Vomits Inside Patient, which should be read by anyone who saw Ken Burns's brother's documentary on Generoso Pope, Jr and his father. The doc is well-made but completely glosses over what I see as infotainment that plays into fascism. In Ric Burns's Enquiring Minds Pope's pop's Mafia ties are addressed, but a vague mention of Junior's work with the CIA in Italy in 1947 seems criminally overlooked, especially when we find out what the CIA did there, their first big covert operation to interfere with elections in other countries. And Hogshire writes no more, apparently.

("Author of Poppy Cultivation Cleared of Drug Charge")

Hit Man, ostensibly a how-to book on how to be a contract killer, was written under the name "Rex Feral" but was germinated as a crime novel by a Florida housewife. I get the feeling she was writing about her fantasy life, much as E.L. James did when she ended up with Fifty Shades of Grey. Anyway, for whatever she could imagine about being a hired killer, some actual killer offed three people, and said the book helped him out. The small Paladin Press was sued, lost and wanted to take the case to a higher court. (Wouldn't you?) But Paladin's insurers settled out of court, saying another case would cost too much. Paladin Press insisted on its First Amendment rights, but they lost out due to money. (Compare and contrast Hogshire with Paladin here. I know I found out about both Hit Man and Opium For the Masses from the wonderful old, now-defunct Loompanics Catalog.)

("FBI Releases Files on Controversial Booksellers Paladin and Loompanics")

So, yea: we have the First Amendment but Johnny Law's dough can trump that, sorry to see.

Here's a weird story about an author who wanted his own book banned: When I first saw The Anarchist Cookbook (get a load of the "From the Author" bit on Amazon here!) on a bookstore shelf I smelled a rat. "How to turn a shotgun into a grenade launcher"? "How to make TNT"? I perused the thing, didn't buy it. In more ways than one. I'm not interested in making bombs. I object to the idea that that's what anarchists do. I'm an anarchist like Noam Chomsky is an anarchist. Most of us don't want to hurt anyone. And besides, a lot of that stuff in William Powell's book looked made up, but who knew? I think if I had the money I'd have bought it anyway, for my Mitty purposes. (I have a few shelves of crazy stuff like this...just 'cuz. My own Mitty-mind!) Then, Mormon bomber Mark Hoffman was found to own a copy...but it stayed in print! (Paladin got reamed!) Then, after a Colorado high school shooting, Powell once again pleaded for the book to go quietly out of print. But the book has taken on a life of its own.

I've always thought this is a terrific example of a very good title selling books. An ironic example too.

Very good article on the life of Anarchist Cookbook and the mayhem that has ensued, by Gabriel Thompson at Harper's.

By the way: The Official C.I.A. Manual on Trickery and Deception fell into the hands of decent people; I wish I had a copy on my Walter Mitty shelf, but so far: no dice.

Well...I see I can write on this topic all day, but this is another one too long in the tooth, prolix, and trying, so I thank you for reading and till next time!

                                         artwork by the trippy Bobby Campbell

Sunday, April 19, 2015

After Reading Joe Satriani's Musical Autobiography

I've just finished reading Joe Satriani's "musical memoir" Strange Beautiful Music, and found it far too  larded with specialist info about what microphones were used on which pieces...and I'm a guitarist and long-time admirer of Satch. How did he meet Rubina, his wife? We don't know. But the instrumental tune and melody "Rubina" off Satch's first record is gorgeous. Why is his kid named "ZZ"? We don't know, but there's a moment about three-quarters of the way through, where Satch suddenly gets on how great Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top is. He doesn't elaborate.


We hear from Steve Vai how anyone who knew anything about rock guitar knew Satch was as good as anyone in the world, practically while still in high school. We do not hear about that which is always most mysterious and fascinating to me: the years of rapid development and practice. Then again, this element is given short shrift or glossed over entirely in most books by and about musicians. Why? Lots of reasons: it's thought to be boring, or worse: the de-mystifying of a god. The thing is: lots of musicians read these books. We want to hear a tad bit more than the old bits about how at some point I just quit going to school so I could practice all day long. And then I had my 80 students and the band at night. Satch does go into his "pitch axis theory" of using multiple modes at once, which was thrilling to me, but I wanted more.

On the first piece on Satch's first record, Not Of This Earth, "The Enigmatic," Satch is clearly composing around the Enigmatic scale, a bizarre little thing that makes you sound not of this earth. (For the axe wielders: it's root, flatted 2nd, 3rd, #4, #5, no 6th, flatted 7th and natural 7th.) But where did Satch learn it? From Slonimsky's famous Thesaurus? His cool high school theory teacher? Some book about avant-garde composers? He doesn't say. No mention of Klose. He loved Hendrix since he could remember. He mentions zero music theory or method books. He's obviously influenced by science fiction, but doesn't elaborate.

Satch does seem intent on conveying his constantly "on" prolific musical mind. He tries to talk about creativity, but he doesn't have a lot of insight about it. He remembers feelings and sees images and these drive him to convey something musical. (Well, think about it: what can one say about these things?)

He was brought up a Catholic, but apparently jettisoned that before moving from New York to Berkeley, CA. He doesn't really go into it. There's a lot about how certain studios and producers feel. One thing that comes out in bold relief - something I've tried to explain to non-musicians - is how outrageously the means of production of music has changed since his first album, in 1986. The urgency of "I have to make a record of my own weirdo music even though I have no money and maybe no one cares about this weirdness" from 1985 (when he received a credit card in the mail and immediately maxed it out trying to book all the studio time he needed), to today's gadgets like Pro Tools (you buy Pro Tools and a few other relatively cheap digital gizmos and voila!: you have a massive "studio" in your house, forever, to use anytime you want. No booking the cheapest studio time 10PM to 5AM, only to have the next acts booked pounding on the windows at 5AM sharp telling you to GET OUT! while you frantically try to splice two pieces of tape together, frazzled by lousy studio coffee).

You will thank me for I will not expound on marketing and record labels in the age of iTunes.

Joe Satriani has always seemed a total musical being, yet a balanced personality, unlike at least half of my other guitar gods. He doesn't have a bad thing to say about anyone, and...just what did I want from this book? I guess I wanted it more like that ultimate musician's book: Really The Blues, by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe. As much as I dig the theory stuff, I want to hear about other players' odd personalities (not a word about the freakishly great players he and Vai have asked to accompany them on the G3 tours: Robert Fripp, Paul Gilbert, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci, Uli Jon Roth, Steve Morse, and Steve Lukather), drugs, sex, encounters with weirdos, and the phenomenology of woodshedding. I wanted to read more about his teaching. He drops a line in the book, something like, guys would want to know about what Randy Rhoads or Van Halen or Michael Schenker were doing and we'd break that down. (I would have read an entire book on just this.)

I wanted some meaty musician-geek gossip. Joe don't play that. Perhaps there's too much truth to the line "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."(?) Satriani likes his private life, and who can blame him? He also refuses to dish the slightest on other living figures in the music biz, which seems smart. But it just makes the book too studio-gear-production problems-geeky for me. Again: what did I expect?

Which reminds me: get a load of this daisy chain: At one point Joe took lessons from the uncanny blind bop-unto-free jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, who sounded like a real taskmaster. (Satch's students said the same thing about him.) Tristano, in developing his ear and technique, had been heavily influenced by Art Tatum. Satch later taught Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Charlie Hunter, Larry LaLonde of Primus, Andy Timmons and a bunch of other amazing players. (Of this last group, Timmons and Vai really stand out to me. Click on the Timmons link if you haven't already, and dig how he makes his Stat sound like a sitar in the Beatle's "Within You, Without You"... to me, this is just insanely great rock guitar playing.) If you've taken lessons from any of these guys, you're in a long line that goes back at least to Tristano; I can find no evidence Tristano actually studied with Tatum. He merely played along with Tatum records. (!)

One little thing I found striking in the book, and this may seem very trivial to the Reader, but Satch obviously loved the Berkeley scene when he moved here from New York. He loved all the freak flags flying high, the scene was nurturing of his pop band. He had tons of students. One of them was Alex Skolnick, later of Testament, and possibly the best of all the early "thrash" metal players. Skolnick is, to me, a thrilling player, even if I never liked Testament all that much. But less than a year ago I read Skolnick's autobio, Geek To Guitar Hero. Skolnick was brought up in Berkeley and has almost nothing good to say about it; he's a tormented soul (who at one point tried out Scientology), had a difficult time with his Yale PhD parents and his drug-addled older brother. Skolnick is driven to be great, and I was reminded of the type of student of the young drummer in last year's intense film Whiplash. One gets the feeling Berkeley's permissiveness - the overall social scene, the schools, etc - militated against Skolnick's inborn drive to be a great musician. As he's matured he seems to have come to peace with his background and his status as a musician, of which we smile at such a felicitous thing, no?

Hey, I guess the grass is always greener in someone else's hometown or family.

                              Here's Skolnick talking about thrash, Satch, and jazz

Below: Satch playing "Always With Me, Always With You" live in 2010