Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, ed. Jeff Burger

I first saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform in 1985 at Soldier Field in Chicago (I had won the tickets from a radio call-in contest), the second year (second year!) of the Born in the U.S.A. tour. The stage was in the football field's end zone, and in my memory, my friend from high school Jim and I were standing on about the 20-yard line at the stage-end of the field, although now I can't believe we actually managed to get anywhere near that close. Wherever we were standing (standing, for three-plus hours), I could see things pretty well, given my height and the presence of huge video screens. Even though by that point the band was playing ten of the new album's twelve songs, eschewing some older classics (where oh where was "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)"?), it was still an amazing, life-enriching show for me, and for the probably 60,000 other people in attendance.

1985. 60,000 people.

Here's Springsteen in an unpublished interview from 1974, eleven years prior:
Usually we won't play anyplace over three thousand [people]--that's the highest we want to do. We don't want to get any bigger. And that's even too big....
P[aul] W[illiams]: But then there's The Who. They announce they're playing Madison Square Garden and it sells out in an hour. So I guess they'd have to book a week, a whole week.
BS: You gotta do that. And if you get that big, you gotta realize that some people who wanna see you ain't gonna see you. I'm not in that position and I don't know if I'll ever be in that position. All I know is those big coliseums ain't where it's supposed to be. There's always something else going on all over the room....
PW: I guess people go for the event.
BS: What happens is you go to those places and it turns into something else that it ain't. It becomes an event. It's hard to play. That's where everybody is playing, though, I don't know how they do it. I don't know what people expect you to do in a place like that. Especially our band--it would be impossible to reach out there the way we try to do. Forget it! (pages 34-35)
But Bruce and the band not only fairly soon managed "the impossible"; they became the undisputed, three-hour-plus masters of it, and have remained there for close to four decades.

In Springsteen on Springsteen, editor Jeff Burger allows us to see how Bruce was able to develop from a pretty inarticulate but hungry young artist into one of rock's elder statesmen and most eloquent spokespersons. Burger has gathered interviews, speeches, and more, ranging from a profile from 1973 to Springsteen's keynote address to the South by Southwest Music Festival in 2012. (The book is also peppered with "Bruce Bits," snippets of other interviews that touch on ideas not covered in the full-length pieces.) I've read several books about Springsteen in the past couple of years (most recently Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin), and each have their strengths, but this one does a wonderful job of demonstrating Springsteen's ever-evolving sense of himself as an artist.

His early interviews reveal an incredibly prodigious songwriter who was nevertheless very cautious--even guarded--when it came to how much of his music he presented his music to the public. Later in life, though, he began opening his vaults, beginning with the four-disc set Tracks (1998). There was evidence of this shift in perspective a few years before that, though, such as in this Guitar World interview with Neil Strauss in 1995:
Certainly, I go back and realize that there are many outtakes that should have been released at different times. I still wish I'd put more records out, and maybe I could have. But I made records very purposefully, with very specific ideas of them being about  and representing certain things. That probably caused me to be overly cautious about what I released and what I didn't. I certainly feel a lot more freedom now. (page 200)
It becomes clear when reading the earlier pieces that the feeling of freedom he felt in the 90s came for him only after consciously and meticulously shaping his early career along specific thematic lines.

And for a performer who's now known for his political activism, appearing on behalf of politicians like John Kerry and Barack Obama, he was for a long time reticent to espouse any overtly political rhetoric, although his populist sympathies generally weren't hard to spot in his lyrics. Even in the 1990s, an invitation from then-President Bill Clinton wasn't enough to tempt him, as David Corn inquired in a Mother Jones interview (1996):
DC: The White House wanted you to drop by today, but you chose not to.
BS: What ears this man has! [Laughs.] I don't know what to say. In my opinion, the artist has to keep his distance. (page 217)
Springsteen seems to have avoided many sorts of temptation. Unlike just about every other rock or pop musician you can think of, he never fell prey to the dangers of chemical addiction. Indeed, several early reviews make a point to mention his tea-totaling ways. By the 1990s, though, interviewers occasionally set the set the scene for their pieces with tales of Springsteen offering to share some beer or Jack Daniels, drinks which the performer then barely touches (if at all) for the duration of the interview. Gavin Martin, from the New Musical Express, brought up the subject of drugs in 1996, and Springsteen replied:
I've had a funny experience in that I didn't so any drugs; I've never done any drugs. It's not about having any moral point of view about drugs whatsoever--I know nothing about them.... I didn't trust myself into putting myself that far out of control. I had a fear of my own internal life....
 I was 'round very many people who did many drugs and I can't particularly say I liked any of them when they were stoned or high, for the most part. Either they were being a pain in the ass or incomprehensible. That's my experience--so it didn't interest me.
Also, at a very young age, I became very focused on music and experienced a certain sort of ecstasy, actually, through playing. It was just something I loved doing. (page 225)
One of the strengths of this book is that editor Burger didn't just collect old interviews; he also contacted the interviewers and asked for any background stories or years-later comments they might have. One good example is the introduction to Springsteen's Advocate interview with editor-in-chief Judy Weider (1996). In comments to Burger, Weider placed Bruce's rhetoric in a specific political and personal context:
"Probably the most significant contribution made by Bruce in the interview (aside from revealing his own struggle with how he'd really feel if one of his own children turned out to be gay) came when e discussed marriage for LGBTs. It is important to remember that this was 1996; I had the heads of our own gay organizations cautioning me not to push for marriage. 'Civil unions are enough for now. People are not ready.' It drove me nuts. But Bruce not only understood that was an equal-rights issue, he pushed for gays and lesbians not to settle for less in this interview. His clarity and passion gave me extra backbone for my own ongoing fight over the years: '[Marriage] makes you a part of the social fabric. You get your license; you do all of the rituals.... [It's] a part of your place in society and in some way part of society's acceptance of you.'
"No one has said it better in my view," Wieder concluded. "The world is catching up to Bruce even now." (pages 234-235)
Again, these later pieces demonstrate a sense eloquence that simply wasn't there in the early days. I recall reading a Rolling Stone interview back in 1984 or 1985 (not included in this book) and wondering more than once how someone who could write lyrics with such directness, power, and beauty could so often speak so hesitantly. How could the man whose poetry I admired be so, well, inarticulate so often? This was before I began doing some writing and public speaking myself, before I learned that my own best self came not through extemporaneous speech but through carefully considered and crafted prose. Revision is the key to good writing, and Springsteen has always been a notorious reviser of his lyrics.

As we see over the course of this collection, Springsteen took revision in all forms seriously, and eventually got to the place where he spoke to reporters not hesitantly but thoughtfully and reflectively, with all of the care and craft his lyrics exhibited. Nick Hornby introduced his Observer Music Monthly interview in 2005 in part by noting:
[Springsteen's] answers came in unbroken yet carefully considered streams. He is one of the few artists I've met who is able to talk cogently about what he does without sounding either arrogant or defensively self-deprecating. (page 313)
In an interview with the actor Ed Norton in 2010, Springsteen channels a filmmaker to give one of the best examples I've read of a description of an artist: "Martin Scorsese said the artist's job is you're trying to get the audience to care about your obsessions" (page 354). And later that year on Australian television with interviewer Ian "Molly" Meldrum, he positioned himself as a particular kind of artist: a storyteller.
If you look at the role of storytellers in communities going back to the beginning of time, they played a very functional role in assisting the community and making sense of experience, of the world around them, charting parts of their lives, getting through parts of their lives. I was interested in the eternal role of storyteller and songwriter and how I was gonna perform that function best. (page 369)
The Bruce Springsteen of 1974, at least the public speaker, never mentioned ideas like this. But did he think things like this? The Springsteen of 2010 says he did. Can we gainsay him that? For an artist whose first two albums especially delighted in the play and sound of words, his interviews--his honest, raw declarations "for the record"--took quite a long time to catch up and become lyrical in and of themselves. Perhaps he needed to hone not just his song-craft but his larger word-craft over time. The young Springsteen's speech strikes us as a bit crude and unfinished; the elder man speaks in sharp-edged, purely forged prose.

Springsteen on Springsteen not only traces the career of a songwriter; it chronicles the development of a thinker. As the imagery in his songs became more direct, more focused on the real world than on flights of verbal fancy and epics of escape, Springsteen's inner life blossomed to the point that his everyday speech could speak of hopes and dreams, of aspirations and heartache, with a beauty and a power and a poetry all its own.  In assembling these interviews spanning nearly four decades, Jeff Burger helps us to build a complex, evolving portrait of a performer, of a human being who grew into being the boss of his own mind.

Springsteen on Springsteen:
Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters
ed. Jeff Burger
Chicago Review Press, 2013
ISBN-10: 161374434X
ISBN-13: 978-1613744345
428 pages, $27.95

Monday, May 27, 2013

Review: Bluebird, by Bob Staake

Bluebird, the new wordless picturebook by Bob Staake, is, quite simply, gorgeous. It tells the relatively simple story of a lonely New York City boy who meets and has his life changed by a bluebird. It's a tale of sadness, friendship, loss, and renewal, presented in comics-style, multi-panel pages colored primarily in blues, greys, and white.

Staake's geometric style ("rendered," as the indicia informs us, "in Adobe Photoshop") seems at first glance as if it might be cold; but, as anyone familiar with his other books or his illustration work for The New Yorker and elsewhere already knows, his spheres and boxes and cones are capable of conveying and creating deeply emotional scenes, from the little boy's downcast eyes and defeated posture in the book's beginning; to the wonder of the city's architecture, both grand and mundane; to the threatening moments in the woods of the park; to the freedom and exhilaration of the skies. Rarely have such simple shapes seemed so full of life.

Wordless (or "silent") books of course rarely have no words at all; while these pages don't offer narration or dialogue, we can still see words on signs or on classroom blackboards. And Staake's backgrounds are always worth exploring. Young eyes will have a lot to take in once they've devoured the main plot. I particularly liked the poster on the classroom wall which hearkens back to Staake's dedication in the front of the book.

The publication design here is elegant. Picturebooks often provide immersive book experiences like this for their young readers, and Bluebird is no different: The story actually begins on the front cover, where we meet the bluebird and then follow its flight across the city over the course of the front endpapers and then the indicia and title pages.

At turns melancholic and joyous, but always lyrical, Bob Staake's Bluebird belongs on the bookshelf of every child who's ever felt alone in or confused by the world around them--which is to say, of course, all children, current and former.

by Bob Staake
Schwartz & Wade, 2013
ISBN-10: 0375870377
ISBN-13: 978-0375870378
40 pages, $17.99

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Review: Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed, by Robert Sellers

A complicated book about complicated people.

In Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed, author Robert Sellers gives us the lives of four of the UK's greatest actors and wildest partiers of the twentieth century. Not their complete biographies, of course (the book is far too brief to encompass four lives completely). After brief childhood histories, Sellers dives into the meat of his book: Stories of drinking, carousing, and general craziness, fueled nearly entirely by alcohol (and occasionally controlled substances). The tales do cover each man's entire career, so we can say that you get at least their mini-biographies along the way, though seen through alcohol-tinted lenses.

The stories are by turns hilarious, outrageous, and, ultimately, more than a bit sad. One by one, the tales can incite peals of laughter or exclamations of "How could anyone possibly do that?" Stories of drinking binges that last not just for nights but for days; lives lived without keys, leading to being stopped by the police for breaking into one's own home through the window; interviews with journalists that are, in point-of-fact, imbibing contests. Just flipping through the photograph section leads to amazement:
[Richard] Burton was crippled by ill health later in life. In fact, during one operation surgeons were astonished to discover that Burton's entire spinal column was coated with crystallised alcohol.
[beneath a photo of Oliver Reed balancing horizontally on a bar, supported only by his hands] Reed celebrates knocking back 126 pints of beer in just 24 hours--about 12 minutes per pint.
[Richard] Harris often had no recollection of his hellraising. One morning, he was bemused to find stitches in his face, totally unaware that he'd wrecked a restaurant the night before.
In Paris shooting What's New Pussycat?, [Peter] O'Toole saw two policemen attacking a prostitute and later took revenge by duffing up a totally innocent gendarme.
However, after 280 pages of this behavior--actually, well before then--the novelty and shock value wear off, and one begins to weary of wasted potential. Undoubtedly, each actor gave some momentous, never-to-be-equaled performances on stage and screen; but just as often, if not moreso their performances were marred by impairments, sometimes disgracefully so. And pity the women who married them (except, perhaps, Elizabeth Taylor, who seems to have been at least Burton's equal in temperament and impairment, if not his better) and their children, who so often lived learning more about their fathers from the news than from their daily influence.

The book contains hundreds of tales of outrageous behavior, both public and private. I only thought to track down one of them: Peter O'Toole's infamous appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, in which he comes on stage riding a camel. It's on Youtube for your viewing pleasure:

Sellers' version follows the same general shape of the actual event, but it also contains (as Huckleberry Finn would call them) some "stretchers," with certain elements elaborated on and others invented for more dramatic effect. I'm not sure if the changes are due to faulty memory on Sellers' part or a desire to make the event even more outrageous than it already was; but if this single fact-check can turn up errors, it leads me to wonder how much of the other material in the book has also been "enhanced." Don't get me wrong: Even if only 50% of the stories in the book happened as actually depicted, the book's title would be more than fully justified. It is just disappointing to realize that a "non-fiction" book exhibits a loose grasp of its own contents.

Ultimately, one takes away from Hellraisers a renewed appreciation for what these four actors managed to accomplish on and off the screen, as well as regret for what might also have been if only their behavior hadn't been quite so hellacious. Or did the greatness of their art necessarily depend on habitual insanity? And if so, was the chaos that behavior caused to their relationships worth it in order for the rest of us to experience their art? These questions, unfortunately, are not ones that Hellraisers is equipped to answer.

(PS: The author's prose suffers from perhaps the worst case of "British comma aversion" I have ever encountered. Note to authors and their editors: Commas are necessary for direct address and the appositive, but their misuse can lead to run-on sentences verging on parody.)

Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of
Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed
by Robert Sellers
Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Press, 2009
ISBN: 9780312553999
286 pp, $25.99

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review: Henry & Glenn Forever, by Igloo Tornado

What is Henry & Glenn Forever? If, like me, you've been living under a rock since 2010, you might need an introduction. The one from the book itself ought to do:

Henry [Rollins] and Glenn [Danzig] are very good "friends."
They are also "room mates."
Daryl [Hall] and John [Oates] live next door.
They are satanists.

That's all you need to know.

Sounds like the set-up for an in-your-face, sure-to-offend exercise in excess, right? Well, think again, because the best adjective I can come up with for H+G=4EVA (apart from "hilarious") is "charming." In casting these hard rock/metal icons as gay lovers, the cartoonists of Igloo Tornado (a collective consisting of Tom Neely, Gin Stevens, Scot Nobles, and Levon Jihania) chose--wisely--to focus not on stereotypical "gay" tropes but, instead, to focus on the idea of "lovers." Thus, for example, we get several pages from Glenn's diary filled with his feelings of insecurity about his relationship with Henry:
i yelled at Henry the other day because he never does the dishes and i always end up being the one who cleans up after him. i wanna help him because he's so busy getting ready for his tour, but i'm so overwhelmed...
It's not all sadness and regret, however. The book is comprised of one-page comics and drawings, from diary entries and postcards, to single-panel gag cartoons, to repetitive headshots of the couple, with Henry saying something enigmatic and Glenn always--always--agreeing with him. My favorite comic, perhaps, consists of a conversation about painting the bathroom black: Glenn is brushing his teeth, and Henry's taking a bubble bath. Sheer domesticity. There are also running gags about Glenn's fixation with werewolves, and about the couple's missing dog that Seussian satanists Daryl & John may or may not know something about.

Silly, simple and a bit surreal, but never really exploitative, Henry & Glenn Forever nevertheless manages to convey more genuine emotion than many other "serious" graphic novels I've read. But it also includes a scene with all four main characters jamming to "Kiss On My List." Sublime, meet ridiculous.

Henry & Glenn Forever
by Igloo Tornado
Cantankerous Titles, 2010
ISBN-10: 1934620939
ISBN-13: 978-1934620939
64 pages, $6.00

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text, by Alan Bartram

A visual feast, Alan Bartram's Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text gathers examples of early 20th-century poetic experiments in typography and layout/design. Bartram provides introductory essays for each chapter: "French Precursors: Liberating the Poetic Form"; "Marinetti and Friends: Recreating Everything Anew"; "Artist-Poets in Russia: Illustration + Words"; "Dada: Illogic and Chance, Perhaps"; "Lacerba: A Tumultuous Assembly"; "L'Italia Futurista: Experiences of War, and Birdsong"; and "The Revolutionaries." I love typography, but my literary training was in British and American literature, so most of these movements and texts were new to me. All were revelatory.

The original texts are primarily in Italian, French, Flemish, German, and Russian, so it's not possible for a primarily monolingual reader like me (I have only a smattering of French and German) to pick up on all of the subtleties of presentation and meaning-making on display here, but Bartram does a good job of glossing each example and pointing out many of the elements at play ("play" often being literally accurate). From poems to playscripts to "advertisements," the examples here cover a wide range of topics and styles.

A quick Google image search for "futurist typography" will give you some idea of the range of texts contained in this book, and the freedom from constraint they embody. It's interesting to note that when these tests were created, in the pre-computer era, often the typesetters themselves were--by practical necessity--making aesthetic choices on behalf of those artist-poets who did not typeset their own works. There is "intent" (always a difficult concept) and there is "execution": Somewhere beyond lies poetry.

Although the link isn't made explicitly here, it seems to me that the spiritual descendents of these Imagist and Dadaist texts are to be found in the Punk/DIY/zine cultures of the 1970s to roughly the 1990s (and of course, beyond). Now I'm curious to read up on those movements to see if anyone was specifically drawing inspiration from the earlier examples represented in Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text.

Futurist Typography and the Liberated Text
by Alan Bartram
Yale University Press, 2005
ISBN-10: 030011432X
ISBN-13: 978-0300114324
160 pages, $55.00