Norman Mailer, R.I.P.

mailer-on-life.jpgTwo writers obsessed me in my youth, and inspired me to want to write:  William Faulkner, who was long dead by the time I first heard his name, and Norman Mailer, who died today at 84. 

I admit I felt a little queasy when my wife announced this to me, as shocked as one can be when an elderly hero dies.  I was sure he would roll on for another decade.  His latest book, a novelized treatment of Adolph Hitler’s early life, was supposed to be the first in a trilogy.  To announce a trilogy is a kind of vow.  Maybe Mailer thought making this vow would buy him a little more time.  

Mailer was a guilty pleasure, in several ways.  First, his sentences were literally delicious.  Other writers might have had a more powerful style — Faulkner for example — but few seemed to take such joy at constructing great sentences.  His ideas might even be absurd, but his sentences kept you on board.  He wrote like a combination of Muhammad Ali and Gene Kelly.  Strength, style, grace and a wily humor. Reading Mailer at his best was almost too much fun, especially for an English major who was expected to get through The Faerie Queen or Henry James. 

At the time I started reading him, he was widely reviled, especially in Berkeley, as a “male chauvinist pig” — an epithet that feminist author Kate Millet invented initially just to describe him.  I don’t think Mailer is sexist.  I think he is, or was, a provocateur battling the future, a “left conservative” whose problem with the prevailing feminist ideology was not its call for justice, but its claim to remake society abruptly, based only on a handful of observations and principles.  For Mailer, at one time a Marxist, feminism simply did not explain enough, and had not wrestled with its contradictions in the way, he might argue, socialism had.  

Mailer was, as I recall, a fan of Edmund Burke, and no Burkian could tolerate a revolution based on what was then a new movement that left so many questions unanswered.  In Mailer’s mind, revolutions of that kind end up dehumanizing everyone. His most scorned essay The Prisoner of Sex was, as I recall it, less an assertion of male privilege than of creative freedom, the right of an artist to draw upon his (or her) individualism, including their sexual identity, as a source of ideas, without fear of censorship or official opprobrium.  Looking back, it was the first cry against political correctness.  Even though it had its fair share of stupid statements, I loved it. But I kept quiet about my enthusiasm.

Mailer wrote so much about his aspirations as a novelist.  To him, to be a novelist was not just a craft, it was an entire worldview, a powerful combination of intellectual and artistic gifts that he used to understand anything and everything.  Early in his career, he claimed he might outdo Melville, Twain and Hemingway, and saw his own career as a battle with his novel-writing contemporaries, most of whom he snidely dismissed.  Ironically, at the outset of his greatest period of non-fiction writing, Mailer wrote this:

“If I have one ambition above all others, it is to write a novel which Dostoevsky and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendahl, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner, and even old moldering Hemingway might come to read, for it would carry what they had to tell another part of the way.”

But I didn’t really like his novels, and that was another source of guilt.  If I’d ever met him, I’d have to admit I mostly couldn’t finish them. For all his gifts, I think he had a difficult time inventing believable characters who weren’t him.  Dialogue was another weak spot, because that involved more than one character, and they couldn’t both be him.  And, as was the case with many novelists of his generation, his imagination didn’t measure up to the true stories of his lifetime, the real events he covered so well in his non-fiction writing.  Think of the people he wrote about:  John F. Kennedy.  Ali.  Marilyn Monroe. Gary Gilmore, the murderer who was the subject of his greatest book, The Executioner’s Song. Lee Harvey Oswald. Adolph Hitler. Jesus Christ.

What Mailer offered during his most fertile period is the opportunity to engage with the real world of our own imaginations–the fantastical and rapidly changing world we mostly absorbed through the media–processed by a fascinating, sometimes perverse dreamer/intellectual/participant/bullshitter; one who constantly delivered the most surprising and elegant sentences to encapsulate his ever-evolving thoughts and perceptions. 

I started to believe I had outgrown him at some point in the 80s, so I must confess I don’t know much of his work past The Executioner’s Song. He seemed to have decided that if he was going to be America’s greatest novelist, he’d better devote his precious time to novels; but from the perspective of a Mailer non-fiction fan, it was kind of like he’d retired.  Some day, I’ll have to catch up on the novels he wrote during the past 25 years to see if he even came close to what envisioned himself capable of.   Here’s a “no” vote, FWIW.

To get into the Mailer who thrilled me, read Advertisements for Myself, The Presidential Papers, Cannibals and Christians, The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of A Fire on the Moon, Marilyn, The Fight and The Executioner’s Song.  He has a pretty good book on the craft of writing, The Spooky Art, which came much later.  That’s the book I’m going to pull off my shelf today in his honor. 

If you’ve got time for only one book, that would have to be The Armies of the Night, a memoir of his involvement in a famous protest against the Vietnam War.  It is the book where everything he’s got comes together.  His plays his massive ego for laughs. The grandeur of his speculations  is matched by the apocalyptic moment he describes.  He captures the political furies unleashed by that war as well as anyone, simultaneously deflating the pomposity of the phalanx of intellectuals who, like himself, could not escape the accusation of posturing from a safe distance about a bloody battle far away.

If you want to read about Mailer the WWII novelist, Mailer the drunken wife-stabber, Mailer writing for the money, Mailer biting off part of actor Rip Torn’s ear, more about Mailer battling feminists, or Mailer the advocate for the release of a killer who then killed again, it’s all here in the New York Times obituary.  I found the obit’s final grafs affecting:

Interviewed at his house in Provincetown, Mass., shortly before (his final) book’s publication, Mr. Mailer, frail but cheerful, said he hoped his failing eyesight would hold out long enough for him to complete a sequel. His knees were shot, he added, holding up the two canes he walked with, and he had begun doing daily crossword puzzles to refresh his word hoard.

On the other hand, he said, writing was now easier for him in at least one respect.

“The waste is less,” he said. “The elements of mania and depression are diminished. Writing is a serious and sober activity for me now compared to when I was younger. The question of how good are you is one that really good novelists obsess about more than poor ones. Good novelists are always terribly affected by the fear that they’re not as good as they thought and why are they doing it, what are they up to?

“It’s such an odd notion, particularly in this technological society, of whether your life is justified by being a novelist,” he continued. “And the nice thing about getting older is that I no longer worry about that. I’ve come to the simple recognition that would have saved me much woe 30 or 40 or 50 years ago — that one’s eventual reputation has very little to do with one’s talent. History determines it, not the order of your words.”

Shaking his head, he added: “In two years I will have been a published novelist for 60 years. That’s not true for very many of us.” And he recalled something he had said at the National Book Award ceremony in 2005, when he was given a lifetime achievement award: that he felt like an old coachmaker who looks with horror at the turn of the 20th century, watching automobiles roar by with their fumes.

“I think the novel is on the way out,” he said. “I also believe, because it’s natural to take one’s own occupation more seriously than others, that the world may be the less for that.”

Mailer died in New York City’s Mt. Sinai Hospital of acute renal failure, just a few weeks after he had surgery to remove scar tissue from his lung. He was previously hospitalized in September for asthma, checking himself out to attend his youngest daughter’s wedding.  He had heart bypass surgery in 2005.  


Hal Fishman, R.I.P.

hal-fishman.jpgHal Fishman, the anchor for KTLA’s News at 10 for decades, died today, just a few days after a collapse sent him to the hospital, and to a diagnosis of colon and liver cancer.

With his passing, another news voice with whom Los Angeles grew up vanishes. If you’re my age, you might remember he was the “sidekick” to George Putnam–the bombastic right-wing model for Ted Baxter–during Putnam’s two stints at KTLA. Next to Putnam’s theatrics, Fishman was the sober junior professor who seemed to share Putnam’s black-and-white view of the world, but was willing to let the facts speak, dryly, for themselves.

After Putnam left KTLA for good, Fishman stayed on and honed his straightforward, no-nonsense style. Putnam had a feature called “One Reporter’s Opinion,” and Fishman continued the tradition of commentaries that were, as I recall, right-leaning but lacking in the demagoguery of his former boss.

The Channel 5 broadcast reflected Fishman’s stodgy insistence on delivering news in a plain, brown wrapper. Fishman was a record-breaking pilot, and he treated the news like a pilot treats reports to air-traffic controllers: Matter-of-fact, but life-or-death. His co-anchors — Larry McCormick, Jann Carl, Marta Waller, Ed Arnold, Stu Nahan, to name but a few — adopted the same style: Eyes riveted to the camera, no detectable facial expression or vocal inflection, no glamour, no humor, just straight news reading. It was as if KTLA and Fishman had internalized former Vice President Spiro Agnew’s criticism of media bias, and were determined, at least on this one broadcast, to eradicate any trace of it, not even a raised eyebrow. Amid all the happy-talk sangria of its rivals, Fishman and his colleagues poured it straight and knocked it back.

KTLA got good ratings but eventually Fishman’s style must have struck someone as dated. KTLA’s Morning Show was meta-happy-talk, the news with a comic beat, with the anchors’ and reporters’ charm as the point of the show. A little bit of that feeling crept into the nightly broadcast over which Fishman continued to preside. And he did fine! He loosened up, smiling frequently, enjoying the teasing from his younger co-anchors. The underlying ethic was not changed significantly; his show was still the most serious and straightforward of all LA’s local news shows. He added just enough spice.

Fishman never seemed to age. Obviously, he was very sick at the end, but apparently didn’t know it and certainly didn’t show it. So I’m shocked at losing him, even though he was 75 and has been broadcasting continually since 1960. You could say he was the last of his breed, but it’s hard to think of anyone else who was so good at being unexciting.

McCarthyism and the Kennedy Assassination

Did the 1963 murder of John F. Kennedy validate the all-consuming paranoia about Communism that swept the U.S. a decade earlier?  Having lived through that period, I never would have thought so.  

However, according to conservative historian James Piereson, liberalism began to disintegrate as a governing force in this country as a result of JFK’s assassination.   Why?  Because Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist.  This fact was so unacceptable, it sent liberally-inclined Americans in a search for more abstract root causes, which in turn imbued the once-idealistic liberal movement with a pessimistic, conspiratorial view of America and Americans.  Habits of mind, Piereson says in a new book, liberals still can’t shake. 

Here’s his theory, explained in an interview on National Review Online:

(Interviewer) JOHN J. MILLER: You write of JFK’s assassination that “no other event in the postwar era, not even the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has cast such a long shadow over our national life.” How did JFK’s murder change American politics and culture?

JAMES PIERESON: Kennedy’s assassination, happening the way it did, compromised the central assumptions of American liberalism that had been the governing philosophy of the nation since the time of the New Deal. It did this in two decisive ways: first, by compromising the faith of liberals in the future; second, by undermining their confidence in the nation. Kennedy’s assassination suggested that history is not in fact a benign process of progress and advancement, but perhaps something quite different. The thought that the nation itself was responsible for Kennedy’s death suggested that the United States, far from being a “city on a hill” and an example for mankind, as Kennedy had described it (quoting John Winthrop), was in fact something darker and more sinister in its deepest nature.

MILLER: How did this play out politically in the 1960s and beyond?

PIERESON: The conspiracy theories that developed afterwards reflected this thought. The Camelot legend further suggested that that the Kennedy years represented something unique that was now forever lost. Liberalism was thereafter overtaken by a sense of pessimism about the future, cynicism about the United States, and nostalgia for the Kennedy years. This was something entirely new in the United States. It was evident in the culture during the 1960s. George Wallace tried to confront it in the electoral arena in 1968, as did Richard Nixon — though it was somewhat difficult to do so because neither Lyndon Johnson nor Hubert Humphrey represented this new orientation. It was not until this mood of pessimism was brought into the government during the Carter administration that it could be directly confronted in the political arena, which is what Ronald Reagan in fact did.


MILLER: Would liberalism have unraveled even if JFK had lived?

PIERESON: It is hard to say what would have happened if Kennedy had lived. He may have lost his popularity in a second term. He may have avoided the dead end in Vietnam. It’s hard to say. Kennedy was in the process of renewing liberalism when he was killed, expanding it into cultural areas beyond issues of economic security and national security. I am certain that liberalism would not have unraveled when it did and in the way that it did if Kennedy had lived. The assassination shattered its core assumptions.

MILLER: Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist. Have liberals been reluctant to accept this fact? And is their reluctance at the heart of all the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination?

PIERESON: Liberals who were rational and realistic accepted the fact that Oswald killed JFK but at the same time they were unable to ascribe a motive for his actions. They tended to look for sociological explanations for the event and found one in the idea that JFK was brought down by a “climate of hate” that had overtaken the nation. Thus they placed Kennedy’s assassination within a context of violence against civil rights activists. They had great difficulty accepting the fact that Kennedy’s death was linked to the Cold War, not to civil rights. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in his 1,000-page history of the Kennedy administration, published in 1965, could not bring himself to mention Oswald’s name in connection with Kennedy’s death, though he spent several paragraphs describing the hate-filled atmosphere of Dallas at the time — suggesting thereby that Kennedy was a victim of the far right. The inability to come to grips with the facts of Kennedy’s death pointed to a deeper fault in American liberalism which was connected to its decline.

What’s ironic is that JFK was a “Cold War liberal,” which at the time meant he was more of an anti-Communist than he was an anti-anti-Communist.  With Joe McCarthy’s disgrace and death, combined with the revelations of Soviet espionage and betrayal after Stalin’s death in the mid-50s, many liberals became more willing to acknowledge that Soviet expansionism and the Communist ideology posed a threat. JFK was a leader of that group. 

Kennedy’s “ask not…” inaugural speech has a less-quoted passage of Cold War vigilance:

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it.

Piereson would argue that Kennedy was a martyr to this responsibility.  But surviving liberals’ unwillingness to identify properly the cause for which he was martyred has continuing repercussions today.

A Little Less Dangerous Music

Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of the greatest album cover of all time. 


According to “The Internet Beatles Album,” the cover to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band started out like this:

The post, which is about five years old, has all kinds of data, particularly about the odd different versions of the album that were released in censorious countries like Malaysia, which didn’t like the drug references:

Also, you can see three parodies of the cover — by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the Rutles and the Simpsons, which did it twice. 

In this day of celebration, I’m not reading too many mentions of this version:

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Not even Steve Martin could stay away from such a horrible project?  Although Martin’s “completely unhinged” performance, along with Billy Preston’s and Aerosmith’s were judged by the New York Times’ Janet Maslin as the highlights of the film.  

As for me:  I liked Sgt. Pepper better than any other Beatle album up to that point, although I that’s not saying anything, because I much preferred the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and, yes, even the Monkees, to the Beatles — when I was 10.  I only begrudgingly admitted enjoying songs like “Day Tripper” and “Paperback Writer.”  I was a young contrarian.  I read news stories about the Beatles’ imminent decline hungrily.

All those stories came out before Sgt. Pepper, however.  Time magazine did a big story about the new Beatles’ album announcing the maturity of rock as an art form on the same level as classical symphonies.  This got my father’s attention, so he brought the album home.  It absolutely blew my mind. I listened to it over and over again, staring at the cover.

Now I’m a Beatles fan who knows all their albums by heart.  My favorite shifts, but it’s seldom Sgt. Pepper.  I love Revolver, which was more pathbreaking both musically and socially.  I love the funkiness and mood swings of the White Album.  The second half of Abbey Road might be the most sustained minutes of brilliance in the band’s entire repertoire.

Sometimes I think Help! is the most perfect Beatles album. How can you argue with a record that introduced “Ticket to Ride,” “Yesterday,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and their last and best cover version of an old-school rocker, “Dizzy Miss Lizzie?”  I love hearing the Beatles play together as a four-piece rock band.  From the artistic heights of their last several albums, it’s often forgotten how great a little combo they were; but I keep going back to their early albums and singles to hear that in-the-pocket groove they could get into, especially when they covered the 50’s rock n’roll, rockabilly and R&B they all loved (“Matchbox,” “Twist and Shout,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Money {That’s What I Want},” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Bad Boys,” “Long Tall Sally.”)

You certainly don’t hear the Beatles playing as a band on Sgt. Pepper.  And that’s what really so amazing about it.  They had four tracks to work with.  Four.  The layering of overdubbed instruments and sound effects must have been complicated as hell.  The result is, however, shimmeringly beautiful and amazingly light on its feet. It’s a real turn-up-the-volume kind of album, music that fills the air with a rich busyness behind its sing-a-long melodies.   It’s not an encouragement to take psychedelic drugs, as some believed back in the 60’s; it’s an approximation of the experience, one that works even for those who abstain.  The music opens inside your head like a multi-colored field of flowers.  

And, 40 years ago, starting on this day and for months thereafter, a global audience shared that experience. 

Far. Out.  ∞♥∞♥∞♥∞♥∞♥

“Kennedy and Heidi,” and Chris-ta-fah, R.I.P.

Last night’s “Sopranos” episode cinches it for me.  The baby-boom generation has finally produced its Great American Novel, and this is it. 

More than any novel or movie I can think of, “The Sopranos” is an honest, faithful reflection of the heart of American culture.  It’s about everything we’ve learned and lost growing up with the H-bomb, the Cold War, the assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, the Iranian hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan, Woodstock, drugs, TV, classic rock, yuppie consumer culture, New Age, Prozac, the dot-com bubble, Bill Clinton, global trade, 9/11 — all of that and probably more. “The Sopranos” has no detectable political agenda, but it speaks eloquently to the corruption that has seeped into all our relationships, our business dealings, our culture, our consciousness. 

The brilliant irony of how Christopher Moltisanti met his maker!  Sure, Tony delivered the coup de grâce, strangling him by pinching his nose after the accident.  But the accident was caused by two seemingly nice, decent girls driving a late model car, who preferred to let the unknown victims of a horrible accident die than risk what would have been a minor sanction against their driving privileges.  We have grown to loathe and fear the moral relativism of Tony and his crew as they justify dozens of murders and ruined lives. But what Chase is saying here is that, under the right circumstances, Tony’s ethics are everyone’s, including our children’s.

Like our country’s greatest writer, William Faulkner (whose stories seldom left a small fictional region of Mississippi called Yoknapatawpha County) David Chase and his writing crew display America through the eyes of a geographic sub-culture, New Jersey Italian-American criminals. “The Sopranos” gets a lot of its comedy from putting our culture’s evasive buzzwords in the mouths of these thugs.  Like this exchange from Season 5:

Tony Blundetto: It’s hard to believe. My cousin in the old man’s seat.
Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri: It’s like “Sun-Tuh-Zoo” says: a good leader is benevolent and unconcerned with fame.
Tony Blundetto: What?
Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri: “Sun-Tuh-Zoo”. He’s Chinese Prince Matchabelli.
Silvio Dante: “Zoo”! “Zoo”! “Sun-Zoo”, you fucking ass-kiss!

It helps if you’re old enough to remember that Prince Matchabelli was the name of a perfume company that advertised on TV a lot in the 1960s.  Paulie was not the first to mix that name up with Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”  But what really makes it funny is the idea of mobsters elevating themselves by citing Sun-Tzu, a chic cite for all enlightened corporate executives. 

Again and again, Chase has rubbed our faces in the sheer evil and vulgarity of Tony Soprano and his associates, through some of the most violent and ugly scenes ever depicted.  Then he shows just how well Tony fits into the upper-class milieu –worrying about his kids, enjoying sushi, engaging in comforting nostalgia about his ethnic roots and, of course, medicating himself under a psychiatrist’s direction.  He’s just another executive who made it to the top of his chosen profession.  He has what so many Americans have, and what most Americans want.  Was his rise to the top that much dirtier than others who are lauded by our culture? 

It’s a horrible question, an insulting question.  But that’s what Chase has been asking through 83 episodes of “The Sopranos,” never more starkly than last night.  For all our ideals and pretensions–and our hallucinations of enlightenment–are we baby boomers so sure we haven’t passed the ethics of sheer expediency onto our children?  

David Halberstam, R.I.P.*

Two of David Halberstam’s books made a huge impact on me: The Best and the Brightest, and The Powers that Be. I don’t think a writer has captured the way bad governmental decisions can metastasize from good intentions into political manipulation better than Halberstam did in Best…. The Powers That Be, an intertwined narrative history of four big news organizations (CBS, Time, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times), contains a superb introductory history of Los Angeles.

Then, Halberstam started to mix books about sports into his public affairs writing career, focusing on particular moments in sports that allowed him to talk about social change in America, without departing too far from the drama of the games and personalities. I particularly recommend October 1964, which happens to be about the first World Series I was really able to follow, pitting the “establishment” New York Yankees against a St. Louis Cardinal team that was dominated by three of the greatest black players of that era: Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and Lou Brock. The morality play isn’t always so neat and tidy, but it gives him a theme to ride as he tells stories about so many baseball legends and follows the Series’ intensely competitive course.

Sadly, David Halberstam was killed an automobile accident Monday morning in Menlo Park, south of San Francisco. He was being driven to an interview with another sports hero, former New York Giant quarterback Y.A. Tittle, a participant in the NFL’s “greatest game,” the Giants’ 1958 championship game against the Baltimore Colts. Halberstam was the only person who died from the accident — he was dead at the scene. A UC Berkeley graduate student in journalism was driving the car, which was broadsided while making a left turn.

Halberstam was a more traditional reporter than some of his 1960s-era counterparts like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, but he had just as big an impact on the era’s journalism. He was critical of the leaders whose misrule resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of American soldiers in Vietnam, but he built his case not with invective, but with thorough reporting and engrossing storytelling. His passing should prompt interest in his entire catalogue, which will only make him more of an inspiration to non-fiction writers of any era.

*UPDATE, 4/24/07:  Sheesh. Shouldn’t Slate’s Jack Shafer wait til Halberstam’s grave is dug before throwing dirt on him? 

Yeah, okay, he wasn’t a great stylist.  But his sports books were good, less prey to his windy tendencies.  It was interesting to look at a list of Halberstam’s works.  I was under the misimpression that all his books after about 1985 were sports-related.  Just all his best books, I guess.  The sports books, his NY Times Vietnam war reporting and especially The Best and The Brightest will be his legacy.   

**UPDATE, 4/25/07:  This is better.  The Washington Post‘s Henry Allen writes affectionally about Halberstam’s unique style, notes that he had detractors, but shows how the style was a reflection of the man, his values and, yes, his ego:

He started working in the mid-’50s, before journalism was hip. He covered big stories: civil rights in the South, war in Africa, and Vietnam when John Kennedy was getting us into it with the help of “The Best and the Brightest,” as Halberstam called the elite and arrogant aides whose folly brought on our failure there.

He was not cool. He spewed sentences whose dependent clauses piled up into midden heaps of outrage or joy.

As part of an interview at lunch in 1979, he gave me this reaction to a bad review of his 1979 media book, “The Powers That Be.”

“Naturally, you want a book to live and be liked, it’s like children, but there’s a law of averages — you want the book to live. Some people aren’t going to like the book. Some people aren’t going to like you. Some are not going to like the success which — your anticipated success. And, after all, I’m not Tolstoy. It’s a very unusual book, unusual in its conception, unusual in its execution, unusual in its organization.”

All of this erupted from a fierce scrim of incantatory facial gestures, eyebrows divebombing his big nose, his lower lip jutting to show lower teeth but never upper ones while he oraculated to a reporter.

This was in The Summerhouse, a discreetly upscale restaurant just down the street from his townhouse on the Upper East Side. (“This is a wonderful neighborhood, I love living here, a truly remarkable place, one of the last strongholds of the middle class in Manhattan.” I wondered: Middle class? On 91st between Park and Madison?)

His schoolboy earnestness seemed preposterous in a man this famous, sophisticated and well connected, but it was the preposterousness that made him likable rather than insufferable. It even made him lovable unless you were on his enemies list, which was not short.

How he could roar on, gaining sincerity with every word. The New Republic satirized the same book: “David Halberstam. Halberstam, that was what everybody called him (after all, it was his name). They always said that what Halberstam needed was a good editor, his sentences ran on and on, he piled phrase upon phrase and clause upon clause, he used commas the way other men used periods.”

He was only following the writing teacher’s advice by writing the way he talked. He talked that way enough that his friends called him Rolling Thunder, Jehovah and Ahab.

It’s hard to stop quoting.  Just read the whole thing.

Vote for Mono

Besides their nominations for 2007 Grammy awards, what do Mary J. Blige, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, the Flaming Lips, the San Francisco Symphony and Lynn Marie and the Boxhounds have in common? 

Answer:  Without a doubt, all their Grammy-nominated recordings were made in stereo — stereophonic sound, which, according to Wikipedia

is the reproduction of sound, using two or more independent audio channels, through a symmetrical configuration of loudspeakers, in such a way as to create a pleasant and natural impression of sound heard from various directions, as in natural hearing. 

Note the loaded language in this definition:  Stereo is superior — “pleasant,” and “natural.”  Anything else is presumably unpleasant and unnatural.

To achieve this “natural” effect,

Stereophonic sound attempts to create an illusion of location for various instruments within the original recording. The recording engineer’s goal is usually to create a stereo “image” with localization information. When a stereophonic recording is heard through loudspeaker systems rather than headphones, each ear of course hears sound from both speakers. The audio engineer may and often does use more than two microphones, sometimes many more, and may mix them down to two tracks in ways that exaggerate the separation of the instruments to compensate for the mixture that occurs when listening via speakers.

To prove their skills in this area, recording engineers used to do tricks, like having a guitar solo start in the left speaker than swing over to the right and back again.  Who doesn’t love that?   Dig the condescension in this anecdote from an audiophile blog entry about Bob Dylan:

Dylan, it seems, has never really gotten over the juke box age. When he recorded a live album with the Grateful Dead in the late 1980s, members of the band were astonished that he made the final track selection on the basis of a playback of the material not on state-of-the-art studio quality speakers but on a 30 dollar cassette player. Their conclusion was that he stills listens to music with the ears of the teenage boy who discovered the glory of rock’n’roll in mono in the L&B Café back in Hibbing, Minnesota in the mid-1950s.

Ah, mono — monaural sound.  What does Wikipedia say about that?  Not much:

Typically there is only one microphone, one loudspeaker, or, in the case of headphones or multiple loudspeakers, they are fed from a common signal path, and in the case of multiple microphones, mixed into a single signal path at some stage.

Monaural sound has been replaced by stereo sound in most entertainment applications.

Horrors!  How did we ever live that way?  Well, most of us didn’t.  The first stereo records started coming out in 1958 (the technology was already 20 years old by then, but was not commercially available).  For about a decade after that, the two modes were incompatible; your record changer could play stereo or mono, not both.  To those of us who grew up during the 60s, stereo vs. mono was like color vs. black-and-white TV.  Stereo was clearly better, just as color was clearly better.  If you were stuck with a black-and-white TV and a mono hi-fi, you were missing out.  It was like being partly blind and deaf.

However, Bob Dylan isn’t the only music legend who in the past 50 years avoided jumping onto the stereo bandwagon.  The Beatles issued mono versions of all their records until Sgt. Pepper, and John Lennon at least believed the mono mixes were superior.  Phil Spector’s 1991 remastering of his run of great hits like ” Be My Baby” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” was titled “Back to Mono,” in honor of the recording format that allowed him to build his amazing Wall of Sound

I can’t find the exact quote, but Spector once said he didn’t like stereo because a stereo recording gave too much power to the listener.  In mono, the particular mix of sounds was up to him.  By sticking to mono, he wasn’t looking backward.  Spector was probably the greatest sonic innovator in pop music.  Accounts of his recording techniques — his unusual orchestrations, his use of echo, his compelling percussion sounds, the way he fed sounds from a recording studio full of musicians into an empty one for another set of microphones to pick up — are almost as astonishing as the results.

Brian Wilson was another musical genius who preferred mono.  One might retort that Wilson’s whole world is in mono — the Beach Boys resident genius is deaf in one ear.  My response would be that, at least in his case, his one functioning ear could find more beautiful sounds in a recording studio than almost anyone else could find with two.  Stereo and mono mixes exist of his masterpiece, “Pet Sounds,” and if you ask me, the astoninshing blend of instruments is not helped by stereo.    

For years, I’ve read that the Zombies’ “Odessey and Oracle” is a lost 60’s classic, a British heir to “Pet Sounds,” so I finally picked it up the other day.  It’s pretty great, and I agree it’s amazing that of the album’s 12 tasty songs, only the hit “Time of the Season” is familiar.  The version I got has both stereo and mono mixes, and to my ears, even listening on earphones, the mono mixes sound better. 

Classical and jazz remasters from the 1940s and 50s recover the pristine origins of these old recordings, but present them in mono, because monaural masters are what they have to work with.  If you want to hear Charlie Parker or Artur Rubenstein, or the original cast recordings of shows like Oklahoma! or Kiss Me Kate, you have to settle for mono, but if that’s the music you want to hear, you won’t feel at all deprived. 

Frank Sinatra worked with the greatest pop orchestral arrangers in the world through the 1950s when he was on the Capitol label, and produced some of pop’s best recordings.  He worked with many of the same arrangers in the 1960s, and I think most Sinatra fans would agree, the results were inferior.  The “natural” separation of instruments that stereo allows sometimes calls more attention to the recording techniques and distracts from the music.   

To be sure, there are beautiful stereo recordings out there.  I’m not advocating that recording artists all reverse course.  But just as some movie-watchers apparently avoid great movies solely because they are in black and white, I hope music fans aren’t avoiding older recordings strictly because they’re in mono.  Mono is not inferior to stereo.  It’s not “unpleasant” or “unnatural” — it’s just different.  And it must mean something that so many of music’s legends seemed to prefer mono. There’s nothing stopping today’s studio whizzes from trying it again.