Thursday, October 28, 2010

Philip Roth's "On the Air"

In the current Esquire's profile of Philip Roth the author revisits his old turf in Newark. It's an interesting read because the usually thorny Roth is uncharacteristically, almost bizarrely, benevolent. It's not a stretch to say the reporter, Scott Raab, was probably relieved by Roth's good mood. He'd even come to the interview armed with a gift to soften up the old writer—a rare copy of New American Review #10 (1970), the home of Roth's notorious, and never-collected, "On the Air." Roth's happy to get the little quarterly, but he admits to Raab, "I hate that story." Raab confesses he isn't so crazy about it himself—in fact, he says, it's probably the worst thing Roth's ever written.

While "On the Air" doesn't have quite the mystique of, say, Salinger's also-uncollected "Hapworth 16, 1924," it is nearly impossible to find and, moreover, was published in what was a vintage time for Roth, so it does have a certain luster. When asked why he had never included it in any of his books, Roth said it was "too gross"—an impressive distinction coming from a writer who felt the scene in which Alex Portnoy sexually violates a piece of meat meant for the family dinner isn't. Roth went on to explain that the story was an extension of the id-informed, ferociously uncompromising comedy he had created in Portnoy—only that in the later story, rather than blossoming further, the style had grown a little rancid.

Back in the '80s, I found a copy of New American Review #10 in a used bookstore in Austin, and I can confirm that "On the Air" is not very good. To a certain extent this doesn't matter. The story is rare, its author is canonical, the thing demands attention. (The same is true of the elusive Salinger story, which might, by the way, be his worst.)

I hate reviewers who feel they have to synopsize every plot, but in the case of this unobtainable story—the reading of which almost amounts to a "sighting"—I guess I have no choice. So all right, then: Shoe salesman, and part-time manager of "mostly colored" showbiz acts, Milton Lippman fires off several letters to Albert Einstein pitching a quiz show idea in which contestants would try to stump the great genius. Certainly Einstein could do a better job than that goy on the radio, that "schmuck from Fort Wayne," the Answer Man. Lippman gets no response, so he throws his wife and son in the car and drives up to Princeton. "How can you annoy him, one letter after another," his wife asks him, "and then because he doesn't so much as give a single reply—drop in! On Einstein!"

The Lippmans never make it to Princeton. They pull over for ice cream, and inside this tavern, this saloon, the family is confronted with the goyim of their worst dreams: it's all whiskey and sawdust, the heads of dead animals hanging on the walls, Kate Smith singing "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain." The soda jerk, who has an ice-cream-scoop prosthetic hand, asks which kind of cone the Lippmans' son would like, and one of the choices is wool. A woolen ice cream cone. These are rugged people!

I find most of this funny enough; and honestly, the story's opening pages, which at turns resemble both Portnoy and the Nixon satires that Roth collected in Our Gang, aren't bad. Roth satirizes the way Jews fear Christians, the way Christians fear Jews, and, if not necessarily great art, the piece is vigorous and pretty smart. After awhile, though, this highly stylized story goes from broadness to all-out phantasmagoria, as surreal and menacing as Bloom's trip to Nighttown, and Roth loses his grip on it. The problem is not simply that the story is "gross" (at one point Jew and Gentile strip down and weigh their testicles on a kitchen scale, while the finale offers that old standby, a bleeding rectum, and the threat of coprophagy). And it's not just that the rampant postmodern streak takes over (e.g., the story is "interrupted" by a news bulletins and contest announcements—tropes that not only date the story but which aren't funny to begin with). The problem is that the story becomes incoherent and, for all its manic action, quite dull. Roth was in a fury of emancipation in those days, ready to take down every ruler and servant in his path—and more power to him, I say—but "On the Air" is just too raw, as unprocessed as a dream.

I find myself kind of reluctant to leave good old New American Review #10, which I've been carrying around with me all week. There are poems about Kennedy and Sinatra, another about soup. There's a report on a visit paid by Jorge Luis Borges (still alive in 1970) to Columbia University. There's a story by Russell Banks, who was still a nobody at the time. Everything is still very New York-centric. And earnest: this issue includes a "symposium," in which people like Allen Ginsberg, Wilfrid Sheed, Robert Creeley are asked all kinds of serious questions (why do you write? should politics should be kept apart from art? have we entered a "post-modern era"?), and an open letter from editor Ted Solotaroff pleading for subscribers (one year: five bucks). Nearly everyone in the magazine is Jewish or lives in New York, or both; and nearly everyone is dead now. 1970 was a long, long time ago.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hey everybody, meet my new friend--Decy

Email I received earlier today...

SUBJECT: Your new friend

Hello Dear,
I am Miss Decy Jopel. I wish to contact you through this medium so that we can get to know each other better for a serious and stable relationship. I appreciate people who can express their emotions in sincere way because i have important things to share with you, hence would appreciated your quick response [link] to enable us to communicate better. Looking forward to your quick response .Decy

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Another electric lunch in central Virginia

Restaurant I was in today had the radio tuned to WWWV Classic Rock. Some highlights:

—This is Sherry with the Electric Lunch on 3WV, and who am I talking to?
—This is Dwayne.
—Hey, Dwayne. What are you doing today?
—I'm just at work.
—Sounds good. So what do you do?
—Eh, it's kind of hard to explain. I work at this shirt place, and I stand at the bottom of this thing and wait for them to drop the shirts down, and then I stack them, like, whether they're extra-large or large or whatever.
—Oh, OK, I get it. So it's like a chute!
—Yeah, kind of.
—Cool. So what do you want to hear for lunch today, Dwayne?
—Could you play some Nirvana?
(Cue "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

—This is Sherry with the Electric Lunch on 3WV, and who am I talking to?
—Hey, Eric. What can I do for you today?
—Hey. I was wondering if you could play a little Ted Nugent.
—I think I can do that. What's going on out there, Eric?
—Oh. Well, we're just trying to get rid of this groundhog that's living under this guy's garage.
—Wow! So, when you get the groundhog what are you going to do with him?
—We're gonna get rid of him.
—I know, but what does that mean exactly?
—We're going to dispatch him.
—So, Eric, does "dispatch him" mean that you're going to knock his head in?
—Pretty much, yeah.
—I'm kind of sorry I asked.
(Cue "Free For All")

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How Can I Be Sure Of You

Harry Nilsson just might win the pure-talent sweepstakes, and there's evidence that this would-be Sunday child was even a hard worker (at sixteen he was already writing songs and supporting himself with a bank job). His catalog offers a trove of impeccably crafted works; but, perhaps due to a restlessness that was manifested most famously by a weakness for months-long binges with depressed ex-Beatles, he only achieved a sustained perfection once in his career—on his lone great album, Nilsson Schmilsson. One of the finest records of the '70s, it's tougher than Nilsson's earlier, occasionally somewhat twee, albums, but it has a drive and a sense of fun that his later albums mostly lacked (issued, as they were, during his long and sorrily inevitable decline). I'm not trying to write an all-encompassing Nilsson piece here, so you'll have to go elsewhere to read about his childhood or the Lost Weekend or his cursed London apartment. I'm just going to write about one song.

Nilsson's label, RCA, was not always supportive of him while he was alive, but they've been nicer about him since he's been dead. When they got around to reissuing Schmilsson in 2004, they unforgivably relocated the photograph of the inside of Harry's refrigerator—possibly the best back-cover-art in the history of pop records—to the inner booklet, but otherwise they got it right: the new edition of Schmilsson, in addition to improved sound and some good notes, has valuable bonus material, including an unused track from the Schmilsson sessions that I've become a little obsessed with: "How Can I Be Sure of You." I feel that it's a top-shelf, vintage Nilsson ballad (go ahead, listen to it), and yet, somehow, I'm the only person in the world who knows about it—a situation I kind of enjoy but feel I must correct.

While it has crossed my mind that the song is addressed to Dylan, who in 1971 was in the middle of a creative free-fall that was almost as traumatic for the rock masses as the Beatles' recent breakup—and, after all, it was Bob who broke the news about the sun not being yellow ("it's chicken")—I suspect the lyric isn't so much a veiled message as simply a bit sketchy, which may be why such a gorgeous song failed to make the album. Another reason the song went onto the scrap heap may simply be that it uses a C/Cadd9 intro and Nilsson had already deployed those chords in the opening to "The Moonbeam Song." The intro to his cover of "Without You" uses a similar device (albeit in the key of E rather than C). So "How Can I Be Sure" might have been deemed one song too many with a "major chord plus its add9" introduction for one album.

As the keeper of this excellent Nilsson site pointed out to me, Harry eventually returned to the song, reworking it into "Good for God," which appeared on his 1975 album Duit on Mon Dei. Take a listen and you'll see that the earlier lyric's verses have been turned into a god-is-dead dialogue, and the "always changing" chorus has been completely jettisoned in favor of a rather stock singalong section. The performance is rushed and ragged, and, despite the delirious atmosphere, not particularly fun. What I'm saying here is, he ruined the song. These things happen. It's not the first time I was excited by a great early draft, only to be deflated by the final product.

When I said I'm the only guy in the world who even knows "How Can I Be Sure of You," I was of course exaggerating: Nilsson fans are utter diehards, and I'm sure they all turned this particular stone over long ago. But my impression of its being undiscovered isn't based on just nothing. If you Google it, information on the song is almost nonexistent; and while you'll naturally find its lyric in a few places, there isn't a single set of tabs, chords, what-have-you for the song to be had, anywhere. I have now corrected this.

The transcription below is for guitar, although this is really more of a piano number, but the chords are correct, the pianists out there can easily adapt, and this is the only place on the entire Internet where you can learn this thing. Get it now, before RCA—or Saruman the Gray or Steamboat Willie or whoever owns the rights to Nilsson's songs these days—comes after me with a cease and desist order.

How Can I Be Sure Of You
(H. Nilsson)

Intro: C / Cadd9 / C / Cadd9 / C / Cadd9

The other day a friend of mine said
He said, the sun's not really yellow
He said the sun is really red

I said, My friend what do you mean?
You read that in some magazine
Next thing you'll say the earth's not green

e -----------------
b ----------------
g ----------------
d ----------0-1--
a -- 0-2-3------
e 3--------------

[notes above]----------E-------E7
How can I be sure of you any more
In a world that's always changing
Re - arranging
Always changing, changing

e 3-1-0----
b ------3-1
g ----------
d ----------
a ----------
e ----------
[landing on intro's C chord]

I said, My friend how do you do
And what you're saying isn't true
Next thing you'll say the earth is blue

He said, My friend you're in a dream
And things are never what they seem
No, things are never what they seem

Repeat chorus (How can I be...)


Tuesday, May 11, 2010


I don't know what you think, but the Phoenix Suns' dismissal this week of the San Antonio Spurs from the NBA playoffs—via a crystal-clear four-game sweep—feels pretty writing-on-the-wall to me. And how about that, it's inspiring me to write only my second-ever sports post. (Or my third, if you count this.)

There was a time when teams could contend year in and year out (did the term "rebuilding" even exist pre-1990?). But nowadays, once your key pieces hit the downside of their careers, you know what you're in for. Decline is inevitable; you cannot sustain top-tier success. Where do you go if you want a shot at fairly consistent excellence? College sports, maybe. In that environment, a strong coach and a smart program really can make that big of a difference: any year might be your year. Only I have a hard time rooting for 19-year-olds for more than a couple weeks at a time. Eventually the battles between 30-year-olds might strike me as equally inconsequential, but that day hasn't come yet, fortunately, so pro sports are still safe for me. (This is something worth thinking about. I've crossed that threshold where the hotter movie stars and all the pro athletes are younger than me. Among high-achievement populations, the only ones I have left to catch up with, age-wise, are CEOs and Supreme Court judges.)

Before this spectacular run, we Spurs fans were not long-suffering. Even without a championship, San Antonio had many great teams over the years. They were rarely losers. They were often contenders. Nonetheless the string of championships that Tim Duncan reeled off took us into a universe that we not only had never inhabited but whose most basic properties were foreign to us. And whereas anyone might get on a roll and win it all (consider these guys), the Spurs went out-of-their-minds bonkers, establishing themsleves as the most visionary organization in sports and capturing four titles. Best coach in the game. . .team of the decade. . .greatest power forward of all time. . .the winning-est franchise (since 1997) in all professional sports. . . In other words, the Spurs weren't just good; they were historically, dynastically, dominatingly great. When I watched Manu Ginobili take a game over, I couldn't believe he was on our team: he's the kind of guy who's always on the other team, the guy who always beats us, the guy I wish we had a guy like. And yet, he was ours. And when people talked about Duncan, they didn't just number him among the best half-dozen guys in the league. They compared him to Russell, to Bird, to Magic.

This was a different kind of success, a kind of success we'd never been around. San Antonio, the home of the biggest dynasty in sports? This was the same town Dennis Rodman had (rightfully) left in disgust, because it just didn't possess the "big time" gene. Our hick smallness extended into everything: when I was a kid, SA became the heavy-metal capital of the world because we could never convince anyone bigger than Judas Priest to do a concert here. So when the tide turned, I could barely believe our good fortune; I was giddy with it, I was beside myself. We all were.

But now it is 2010, and we're approaching the end. If that last big free-agent acquisition had worked—if Richard Jefferson, still a youngish player, had relocated his 2006 self—they just might have found another championship or two in them. But he didn't, and they aren't. Duncan's greatness is of such an Odyssean quality that the team he pilots might well be a tough out for true title contenders for another year or two, but we are firmly, irrefutably on our way to a different place than the one we've been in since 1997.

How Spurs fans react, after this rather glorious decade-plus ride, to a life in the middle of the pack, or even at the back of the pack, will be fascinating to see. The town has quit on the Spurs before: during the last playoff drought (second half of the '80s), attendance went down and there was talk of the city losing the team. But I think that a foundation has been set. The fans, not just the team, may have reached the big time.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Extreme makeover

View from my back deck. First photo was taken in spring'08. Second one taken this past weekend (i.e., since we've officially become a tundra).

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Old men on teenage girls (the subject of)

Just discovered this late-50s TV interview with Vladimir Nabokov during his Lolita-era celebrity. Lionel Trilling somehow keeps a single cigarette going for two full video clips. People really knew how to smoke in those days. Notice how Nabokov at first tries to read from notecards but finally has to give it up and actually engage.

Pretty amusing how all three participants--Nabokov, Trilling, and the interviewer--all get up from the couch at one point without any apparent cue and move, en masse, to another set of chairs at the other end of the set, as if a waiter just told them their table was ready. They don't miss a beat as they relocate.