Saturday, October 26, 2013

Autobiography by Morrissey

The first hundred or so pages of "Autobiography" by Morrissey are stunning. A rich, evocative retelling of life in Manchester in the sixties and seventies. (Morrissey was born in 1959.) Several times he calls it a resolutely Victorian city, but the abandoned buildings, slums are bomb sites are unblemished memories of the post-war decline. The urban working class - often large Irish families cramped into small terrace houses in unforgiving urban squares - live an unexamined life. Yet, Coronation Street and "A Taste of Honey" have immortalised these slums - and the sense of community that exists even as outsiders are grimly bullied,  is at the heart of Morrissey's literary vision. The characters of songs like "The Headmaster Ritual" and "Rusholme Ruffians" are brought to life in this extended piece of memory. Yet Morrissey writes more like an 18th century Defoe, a first person ingenue, a male Moll Flanders, always at the heart of the action but somewhat distant from it.
The oft-mythologised youth of this self-proclaimed outsider is not quite so unbearable as you might imagine. At the heart is his large Irish family, full of vivid older sisters. The tragedy is not just their poverty, but the poverty of imagination that faces any sensitive kid during that time - particularly one dumped into the sadistic nothingness of the Secondary Modern, where even the usual sanctuary of the art teacher's class offers no  respite from the greyness. Left to his own devices as Manchester's Victorian slums get crushed and emptied and replaced with the dreadful crescents and tower blocks of the late 60s, these memories are wonderfully rich. I wasn't born here, but I know these streets, and I know these half-stories, of old traditions slow to die, and a Manchester that is only slowly peeping into the modern world.

Yet there is not hopelessness for the young Morrissey. There are other outsiders - particularly in the peculiarly working class subculture of 70s glam - where hefty male bricklayers wear platform heels and glitter. For Morrissey, like so many of his generation, it is not prog rock or the solo Beatles that are his soundtrack but Bolan, Bowie and Mott the Hoople. The sixties took along time to make it to the working class inner city suburbs of Manchester, but by his teens, Morrissey could see glamour through the soot and it was outsider artists like the androgynous New York Dolls and Patti Smith who offered a way out. As his Desert Island Discs from a few years showed, its the classic alternative rock acts of the 70s that were his formation.

In 70s Manchester punk rock gave a voice to the voiceless and like-minded individuals ended up at those early punk gigs like Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols and the Fall. Morrissey's lifetime friend Linder Sterling was going out with Howard Devoto, then of Buzzcocks, later of Magazine, but she was a notably rare female presence in the male-dominated Manchester punk scene. (Still thriving in its gender homogeneity to this day!) 18 year old Morrissey, singing at home, was nowhere near ready enough to become the rock and roll star that he so wanted to become; and in retrospect its obvious that his great vocal talents wouldn't have lasted too well in the harshness of seventies punk and new wave. Finally singing with a band that are erroneously (thanks Paul Morley) known as the Nosebleeds, it leads onto an introduction to a young Johnny Marr. Abruptly the book changes. The leisurely ennui of that unachieved life takes a different turn as Marr pulls in Rourke and Joyce and suddenly the outsider from Kings Road becomes Morrissey, lead singer in the Smiths. Those hoping for a detailed breakdown of that time will be disappointed. Morrissey goes through those years at breakneck speed, their success instant, but also immediately soured by his complaints and grumbles about Rough Trade records. I remember when the Smiths appeared, with a single "Hand in Glove" and a remarkable Peel session - the effect was almost instant - but it was those early gigs that were legendary as well - and despite Morrissey's complaints about being ignored by radio; they were almost unprecedently filmed for a BBC live broadcast at Derby Assembly Rooms before they'd recorded their second single.

A disappointing (to Morrissey) first album lead to the alternate version, the Peel sessions plus "Hatfull of Holllow"; yet we didn't really complain. "The Smiths" and its associated singles were played to death, more so, than the follow up "Meat is Murder". Unheard of for indie or guitar bands, the Smiths had top twenty singles and albums that went in at one or two in the charts. In Morrissey's telling he was constantly asking why Rough Trade wasn't doing more - the complaints that were written in song on their last album in "Paint a Vulgar Picture." From a fan's point of view; it wasn't like that at the time - that "How Soon is Now" was a b-side didn't really matter; we just flipped the 12" and played that instead of the briefer-than-anything "William, it was Really Nothing."

Its a shame that Morrissey puts less of the Smiths period into the book - perhaps its an attempt to even things out - his solo career has lasted so much longer  - yet there's surely more to be said on the creation of that wonderful run of songs, where every b-side was a wonder. It did happen so quick and by 1988, for reasons Morrissey still isn't sure about, the Smiths had broken up. Whether Marr really wanted to replace Morrissey with Bryan Ferry or just be a sideman, who knows? It seems that Morrissey was both lucky and unlucky in his collaborators - lucky musically as they offered such as foil, but unlucky personally as they were just there for the ride, as another rock and roll band; not realising what a pearl Morrissey was. Those things the fans adored: the gladioli, the arch interviews, the political songs, the vegetarianism; weren't shared by his bandmates - almost unaware of how much Morrissey's mythos was vital to them being more than just another band.

After the band broke, Morrissey, forever without a wise old head to advise him on legal matters, quickly recorded a solo album with Smiths' engineer Stephen Street. Unless I missed it, Vini Reilly, the Mancunian legend whose guitar playing was such a wonderful addition to "Viva Hate" doesn't even get a mention - which is a shame. Morrissey rarely talks about the music; though he acknowledges the disappointment of the session musicians on the poor "Kill Uncle" and talks with wonder of Alain Whyte's songwriting on later albums like "Ringleader of the Tormentors" and his last (to date) album "Years of Refusal."  Moving almost permanently to London, the five years of the Smiths is skipped by much too quickly. There's little about how feverish the fans were at that time or how vital the Smiths were to British music during those years - did Morrissey really not realise? Or is he still just wondering why a song like "Shoplifters of the world Unite" wasn't in the top 5? The top 5 hits came (though never, ever a number one), but this was the solo Morrissey - signed to EMI before the Smiths had broke. There's a lot to be said about those early solo years: Morrissey certainly had to prove himself, and after "Kill Uncle" he pulled together a workmanlike but reliably anonymous rockabilly band that has been his mainstay ever since (occasional components changing over time.) Reaching some kind of American success with the excellent "Your Arsenal" the manufactured controversy of the NME's "is Morrissey racist?" campaign is one of several bugbears that take up far too many pages of what is otherwise an excellent book.

Perhaps aware that the last twenty years aren't quite as interesting a story as the early years, Morrissey peppers his prose with incident: seeing a ghost boy on Saddleworth moor; occasional rescuing of wounded animals; overlong mini-essays on his favourite poetry and films. Its an odd book in that sense; yet though that first wonderful hundred pages isn't matched in the rest of the memoir, its not without its pleasures - as the narrative bops along reasonably sardonically. Morrissey in his self-telling is always the awkward man in the room; making jokes that no-one gets, sadly unaware when friends blank him; winningly sensitive when he's writing about friends and colleagues who have died. Heartbreaking in remembering Kirsty Maccoll for instance, who he sang with a number of times, and advised to holiday in Cancun, where she was so awfully killed by an errant speedboat. Whether we need a full chapter on his solo video work - an erstwhile tribute to the videomaker Tim Broad, who also died young - is another matter.

Despite the success of his albums "Your Arsenal" and "Vauxhall and I" there was a sense of diminishing returns with the 2 albums that followed; and having moved to Los Angeles to live, Morrissey seemed to have disappeared from the British pop scene in the late 90s; seen more as an anachronism than an elder statesman in an age of Britpop, grunge and big beat. The dancefloor hardly gets a mention in the book - but the dominance of house music in the UK and the club scene, meant that for a decade or more Morrissey was very unfashionable; even as his back catalogue sold and reissued compilations kept the Smiths in the memory.

The defining episode of the post-Smiths life for Morrissey was Mike Joyce's winning of the court case against Morrissey for "earnings" from the Smiths. Told here in a detail that I frankly skipped through,  it was obviously an important incident for Morrissey - and means that the Smiths are the one band who will certainly never reform.

When Morrissey did reappear in the early 2000s he had a second life and his absence had turned him into a legend. Audiences were not just the old fans, but younger fans, especially in Europe, America and amazingly Mexico. Somehow Morrissey and the Smiths had remained the band of choice for the dispossessed. Its fascinating reading about his mid 90s American tours, where "Your Arsenal" briefly turned him into a major American star - though he's scathing of the uselessness of his record label. Yet could Morrissey ever have become as compliant as the megastars? It seems unlikely. Peppered throughout the biography, we realise that the "sexless" Morrissey of the Smiths days wasn't a pose. "Never loved no one ever" couldn't last of course - and there's a reasonable amount of candour of several relationships, with men and women, that seem to last intensely, and privately for two or three years before coming to an end. Lifelong friendships with Linder and other old friends and business acquaintances tell of a different kind of loyalty. Like a successful businessman at a university reunion, you get the feeling Morrissey struggles to remember why those few years as a Smith are so important - apart from the music, of course, which, thankfully, amazingly, his new band started to resurrect during the 21st century. The renaissance that came with signing to Sanctuary records (on the Atttack! imprint, relaunched at Morrissey's request), with "You are the Quarry" and the albums that followed, gave him the biggest records of his career and more than that led to a near-non-stop touring schedule.

For more than anything, Morrissey became the star that he'd always wanted to be - and yet this "Autobiography" still seems genuinely surprised by this, whilst at the same time wondering about the level of fame. There's still something of the disappointed Morrissey even as he marvels at being chauffeured to Old Trafford Cricket Ground for a sold out concert through streets he'd once cycled as an ignored teenager. Is it this level of fame he really wants? He visits old heroes like Charles Hawtrey and is almost always disappointed; he helps the New York Dolls reform and is once more a fan but touring with them in Tel Aviv is frustrated by their unprofessionalism. Its a long way from Moss Side and Stretford to London, Rome and Los Angeles, and the last chapters (there are no chapters by the way - its one long narrative!) - tell of Morrissey's life on the road, as if this in itself is a valediction of what's gone before. The world seems to want to see Morrissey, and his fans are manic, obsessive, loyal - exactly as he'd have wanted. Yet he's acute on the contradictions of fame.

Its a fascinating book and I wonder of the precedents. Dylan's "Chronicles" was far more detailed on the writing and working life, yet was heavily selective. Keith Richards, Neil Young and Ray Davis wrote books that were about putting the record straight. Morrissey seems less interested in such a task. The best bit of the book is the first hundred pages:  a childhood memoir which seems of genuine literary merit, made more poignant and vital because we know the songs that these memories feed into. Morrissey the fan was a great believer in the mystique of rock and roll and still seems intrigued by that. His own life is a mix of candour and calculation - it would be hard to turn this memoir into a day-by-day timeline; it seems a series of impressions, some that work remarkably well, some to even scores or tell his side of the story, some digressive without being necessarily vital.

Where does Morrissey go now? The late career renaissance ended with those 3 impressive albums, and he's still touring on the back of it, almost as a heritage act, but again, never quite going along with expectations.  A worldwide fan base would appear to mean that he can always perform to large crowds, but he's recently hinted at stopping touring, as the economics don't add up - and health problems - only vaguely touched on - have led to the cancellation of  a number of concerts. The book doesn't seem an end of career statement - more a piece of desk clearing before he moves onto whatever the next phase of his life and careers. Worth reading for the concentration on the sixties and seventies Manchester which was always at the heart of his lyrical vision, its still remarkable that those songs of urban blight, with their downbeat lyrics and wry humour have travelled so widely. Those tropes for which he's so well known, his committed vegetarianism for instance, are ever constants. There's some self-serving parts of the book, but though Morrissey is, in his own words, never at fault, he's intelligent and honest enough to be unsurprised by a world that doesn't always see his way.

Monday, October 14, 2013

4AD Top Ten

I'm reading 4AD history "Facing the Wrong Way" (more of which when I've finished, but of course its sent me back to the wonderful records.

1. Treasure - Cocteau Twins

Everything they did was wonderful but this was the coming together of everything I loved about them. Their 3rd album was less caustic than their debut and the dark echoey trappings of "Head Over Heels" had been replaced with a remarkably full sound as Robin Guthrie turned up the reverb. The songs are all wonderful, and the one word titles give the sense of it being an art piece. Later albums are lusher but this remains my favourite. The single "Pearly Dewdrops' Drops" was contemporaneous and remains my all time favourite song by anyone.

2. Surfer Rosa / Come on Pilgrim - Pixies

I bought the original CD of "Surfer Rosa" when it came out which included their first mini album so for me this is one record - raw, exciting, unhinged at times, but also beautiful at times. That it was on 4AD seemed an anomaly really - but of course so had been the Birthday Party and Bauhaus.

3. Clan of Xymox - Clan of Xymox

Where did this come from? Holland apparently. When Peel played these North Europeans I was blown away - it was like the music that New Order were aiming for but couldn't quite reach. That debut album is by far their finest hour, its a pop record but without a pop sensibility if that makes sense. They lost the "Clan of" became more of a new wave synth pop band and broke America; none of those were bad things, but this was something else.

4. The Bad Seed / Mutiny - The Birthday Party

I prefer these two EPs (one on 4AD and one on Mute, but eventually collated as an "album") than their albums as they bridge the gap between the brutal beauty of that band and Nick Cave's more symphonic and epic work that would follow.

5. It'll end in Tears - This Mortal Coil

Ivo's 4AD supergroup were probably better in some ways on the subsequent "Filigree and Shadow" but its the daring of this debut that still surprises - a mix of electronica, ambience, and classic songs, sung by wonderful vocalists. Highlight is of course "Song to the Siren" with Elizabeth Fraser but the whole album still has a beauty all of its own.

6. Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares - Various

This album of a capella Bulgarian folk songs was a revelation - only the 4AD name and cover could have made indie kids like me pick up something this unusual. It was the last record I listened to at university in the early hours of the morning as I packed up following my graduation. Cannot begin to explain how emotional it made me feel at the time.

7. In the Flat Field - Bauhaus

Still my favourite Bauhaus album at least in the extended CD version with contemporaneous singles on it. Bauhaus were never liked by the music press - ironic how later 4AD would be so lauded - but this is stunning in every way. Raw, exciting and, yes, gothic.

8. Fetisch - Xmal Deutschland

4AD's other great gothic discovery - a German art rock band that sung in their native tongue. Soundtrack to my sixth form. Never saw them live, sadly, but this record still resonates.

9. Burning Blue Soul - Matt Johnson

Bought this when it was reissued after "Soul Mining" - this solo LP is more like a Cherry Red record, with a naive psychedelia and a beautiful feel that was pretty out of time when it was released.

10. Pod - the Breeders

Pixies spin off with Kim Deal writing short sharp scrappy songs and making an album that should be all rights have been forgettable but still sounds fresh, punchy and exciting especially the unexpected Beatles cover "Happiness is a Warm Gun."

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Inspiring A.L. Kennedy and other Tales from Sale

Yesterday, as part of Manchester Literature Festival, was the Northern Lights Writer Conference (#nlwconf on twitter) which took place at the Waterside in Sale. It looked like around 100 writers had paid £25 for a full day conference (not, thankfully, an "unconference") about getting into publishing. An initial panel, ably chaired by Kate Feld, had an agent, an editor and a small publisher (respectively from Blake Friedman, Weidenfeld and Nicholson and Salt Publishing) in a "state of the industry" discussion. Obviously not everything was news to me, but there were some interesting observations.  The panic over e-books seems to have resided a bit. The "paradigm shift" has happened and it turned out to be 20%-30% of the book market, no more, and that's now stabilising. Publishers are now investing in books again for those who want the physical product. Interesting to hear that the difference between major and smaller publishers isn't that great - the same jobs need doing, and in the majors, small teams act very like they would in an independent. Agents are still out there, still talking to publishers, still representing authors. (A few years ago you could still approach a publisher without an agent, that's apparently even more difficult these days.)

After this initial discussion our keynote was A. L. Kennedy, a writer I've long admired. She talked to us as potential writers, and spoke inspiringly of the vocation - using self-deprecation, wit and and lessons hard learnt to describe the professional life of the writer. An antidote to the sunniness of the professionals on the panel, she described how many of the ways for writers to earn money (journalism, teaching etc.) had reduced massively over the last ten years, but that the job - the real job - remained the same. The craft and graft of writing a story or a novel that is worth reading remains the same. I sometimes wonder with the plethora of writing courses etc. how all these people keep going; after all, though there are few pleasures like writing, it is always hard. Kennedy spoke of the work, and how the making it better is what our job is. Despite - or because - of her slightly mordant commentary ("bad back, bad eyes, bad wrists") she was utterly inspiring.

In the afternoon we had two panels - the Literary Agents one, where local editor-agent-writer-academic Nicholas Royle joined the panel, was full, and returned to some of the morning's themes. Seems that agents are far more approachable than a decade or so ago, with twitter accounts and individual agent bios and detailed submission guidelines on their website. Its been a long time since I've had anything to approach an agent with, so that was quite interesting for me, and made me feel a bit more optimistic that there might be a possible route into the industry if I write a novel again. It was a sunny side story that I'm not sure every writer I've spoke to over the last few years would agree with, but Juliet Pickering came across as a wonderfully reassuring professional. ("No fantasy" though.) And avoid sending anything during London or Frankfurt book fair! (April and October).

The last session I didn't really learn a lot new from - after all, it was on DIY publishing, a longstanding interest of mine - but I was still fascinated to hear from a great panel with 3 very different small presses. Emma Press has only published 2 beautiful little poetry books to date ("I want to get them in gift shops") whilst Scarborough's Valley Press (who will have published 50 books in 5 years) has turned a hobby into a high quality micro enterprise; and Dead Ink are investigating new ways of reaching the market with e-books and online.

Organised by Creative Industries Trafford it was a fascinating and stimulating day. I only knew a few in the audience - and some of these were on the panels - but met a few new people and more importantly got a good overview of an industry that I've always a little arms length relationship with. The role of small presses in poetry and short stories is more important than ever and the professional quality of these books is increasingly obvious - distributed via readings and events. The fetishism of the e-book and online is returning to its rightful place, I think, in the "marketing mix"; and there genuinely seems to be more opportunities than ever for good new writing - whether you'll be able to make a living as a writer is another issue of course!

A.L. Kennedy's talk was one of those that wrapped around you, so you didn't take notes or find it easy to extract from it - but she began with the importance of a single word. I'd never known it, but the word "genocide" was coined by Raphael Lemkin, for to name something you can then define it. Words, she said, can mean lives - and that's why what we do is so important. Literature has to continually make its case here in the land of Shakespeare and Dickens in a way that isn't the case in many countries. Interesting, provocative and political. 

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Now, October

2013 - did I have plans for it?

I can hardly remember. Years seem less important these days - they go so fast. Life goes in phases. I prefer a shorter window: this week, next week, last week.


Over in Liverpool for this year's ANDFestival at FACT in Liverpool on Thursday night and Friday. I've always loved the city, though its years since I've had such a night out there. It seems more intimate than Manchester somehow. Manchester's always had good pubs, but Liverpool seems to have better places sometimes.


I got there in time for a brilliant piece by Michelle Ellsworth, "Three optimal solutions." Sat with headphones on (is this part of the piece or just to keep out extraneous noise?) we eavesdrop on her preparation. She's a deliberately nervous performer, but the performance is also nerveless. In the version of the talk I saw, (and it was a talk, a ten minute improv with Powerpoint visuals), she talked about PRISM and the way that the US government is eavesdropping on us all. She has come up with a solution - and that is to make her own internet; and she shows us it. A crazy melange of a personalised set of web pages, some films which she is the only participant, Cindy Sherman style decked out in different wigs, different roles; web pages that are fake fetishisms - (Hamburger sex anyone? Not as grimey as it sounds - animations of hamburgers having sex with other hamburgers.) There are films of her in a homemade box where she is using green screen techniques to change the environment. One of my gripes about a certain kind of media artist over the last few years is there "built it and they will come" approach to alternate worlds and realities. It has always seemed a handing over of responsibility - especially as the technology is now well known. In Ellsworth piece she makes so many media artists immediately redundant or irrelevant through the complexity and the fun of her work. Described as a "series of performable websites" its a short performance full of wit, and with a breathtaking complexity of detail.

Inevitably, the more static exhibits in FACT felt, well, static in the aftermath. I enjoyed The Pirate Bay's cut up of peer to peer downloading even if the constantly shifting narrative of random downloaded films and audio seems hardly shocking or aurally confusing, more simply "how we live now."  The brilliant SEFT-1 project didn't really come alive in its presentation here - a short film and the space age rail-car itself being present throughout the festival. Yet the idea is impressive - heres a vehicle built to traverse abandoned railway lines in out of the way parts of the world - and I imagine that any small (or not so small) boys who came across the SF-like vehicle outside of FACT would have gone away smiling.

Opening at the exhibition and on for the next few weeks was a major set of works from American video artist/documentary film maker Mark Boulos. A symposia on Friday morning accompanied the exhibition. His work didn't feel too unfamiliar to regulars at FACT with its multiple screen narratives. After all, this is one of FACT's artist reasons-for-being. Yet Boulos's older work is more in the filmic than digital tradition. Working as a lone cameraman documenting renegade/terrorist/freedom fighters far from the usual reach of Western media, this self proclaimed "Marxist" film maker, may appear at first to be making some overly-obvious political points. We stand between two screens one of which is showing oil futures traders in Chicago, the other, soldiers from a revolutionary group fighting in the Niger Delta. We are caught between two contrasting versions of the same narrative - or not? The piece is on the one hand an easy polemic; typical of a globalised sense of appropriated conflict, but on the other hand there is no obvious beginning or end. I asked Boulos whether he felt narrative closure was important to the works - we can move in and out at any point - and he said not; that he felt the difference between video art and documentary film was more like the difference between poetry and prose. The former can be a series of impressions.

The new commission from Boulos was less problematic in terms of meaning, but perhaps more confusing in terms of intent. "Echo" (reflecting the myth of Echo and Narcissus) sees a spotlight on which we stand and are then transported into a piece of film. Here we are the trigger and the film - a road junction in a busy city (Bank, in London) - begins to happen around us. We are inert though - even though the illusion of us being transported (mirrored, echoed) into them is a compelling one. Boulos is working here - as in his other pieces - to add us to the narrative; but I'm confused as what the narrative is here. The scene may as well be abstract even though its familiar. Like participants on the Fourth Plinth in Gormley's "One and Other" we are not really capable of shaping the narrative. The work seems tentative in some way, not quite finished. Yet there's also something quietly compelling about it. The often complex stratagems of participatory video art are simplified by Boulos's method. In the symposia he talks at length about the technical challenges, and the decisions that were made around the work. Working with a neuroscientist there's a desire to create an optical illusion of self - an out of body experience, perhaps; yet without some of the cumbersome tech of Google glasses or immersive 3D environments. It felt to me to be a failed experiment in some ways, but only in that there's a banality about the piece - as there was with "One and Other" - that reminds me of the current neurotic realism we find in novels like Lee Rourke's "The Canal" and Tom McCarthy's "Remainder" and Nicola Barker's "Clear." In the morning's debate, Mike Stubbs, director of FACT tries to push the artist into a question that seems to have been an obsession around digital art curation for several years: what is the participants role in the art?Boulos wasn't sure - but could see a way in which the participant became more involved in future works. Yet Boulos' work seems only accidentally participatory to me, or rather, it is participatory in the same way that a Caravaggio is - we are the audience, and become, for a moment transported to the time and place of the work. Its how this kind of hyper-realism has to work I think.  If I preferred Ellsworth's absorbtion in a virtuality, its perhaps a concern at where art-film-performance now interlock. Unlike Daniel Rozin's mesmerising "Snow Mirror" where we are anonymised in the static field of the art work, this "transference" of our physical self seems a slight misplacement. At its best - the three screen narrative of "No Permanent Address", where we are placed, as Boulos was, in the midst of another terror conflict - this is a political artist manipulating or at least trying to engage our assumptions; "Echo" is only a relative failure I think; it feels technically impressive; yet more of a staging post onto his next work.
Go see and see what you think.


Time and trains wait for no man and I had to get back to Manchester, missing so much else that was taking place at the ANDFestival. An Olympic legacy project this year was a scaled back, but still intensely satisfying programme of compelling anti-narratives.


More prosaically I went to see "Rush" the new Ron Howard film about James Hunt, Niki Lauda and especially the intense rivalry of the 1976 season. As ever Howard is brilliant at rediscovering half forgotten historical stories and making the most of the resonances. Seventies formula one had a glamour all of its own. The madness of a sport where of the 25 drivers each year, two might not last the season - a "20% risk" that Lauda, scarred for life after an horrendous crash on an unsafe German circuit - is brought into focus by the cavaliers and adrenaline junkies who race F1 cars. Before the film there's an advert for Grand Theft Auto, and I'm struck by how much film and video games now want to be each other. In this context "media art" and "digital culture" have their work cut out. "Rush" works best when its on the racetrack but though you know the outcomes, Howard does a great job in accelerating the tensions. I was too young to remember the racing - but I do remember James Hunt. Its hard to comprehend just how famous he was in the UK in the late 70s. I doubt they'll be making a film about Vettel and Hamilton anytime soon.

Though I missed their intimate gig at the Castle, I picked up the blinding white vinyl of the band Pins debut LP, "Girls Like Us."  Losing none of the freneticism of their live gigs, my only worry is that the last white vinyl album I got was by Coventry's unlamented Birdland! 

This coming week sees the start of the Manchester Literature festival, and the Manchester Weekender, the lovely idea where all Manchester's cultural institutions have the equivalent of a "bring your own" party. My week's cultural highlight is undoubtedly the Northern Lights writers conference on Saturday at Waterside in Sale, with A.L. Kennedy as headliner. On the evening, the 3rd of Peter Barlow's Cigarette, a new firm favourite on the poetry night scene, is taking place with a great line up. 

Friday, October 04, 2013

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno

The literature fan approaches biographies with a mix of caution and interest. On the one hand, it is the work that has driven our interest; on the other - and particular when you are a writer yourself - there is something fascinating about the life. This is not necessarily about whether the fiction mirrors the life or to what extent; the writer knows this is a complex business.

And if literary biography can be either a triumph for understanding or prurient intrusion, in the case of J.D. Salinger this balance is trickier than ever. For during the last half century of his long life, Salinger was mute; not just the life but the writing. Its not just that he didn't publish another story after his final Glass story, "Hapworth 16, 1924" in the New Yorker in 1965,(itself six years after his previous new story), but that he didn't publish a word of anything. Yet, famous or not, people don't just disappear; and Salinger, royalties coming in abundantly from "Catcher in the Rye" in particular, existed in plain sight in Cornish, a small town a long drive from both New York and Boston. He married (three times - but twice after the silence); had two children; had other affairs; visited his editor and other friends; wrote many letters to old army friends and to new (usually young and female) "penpals" he'd come across somehow; watched television (he watched a lot of television); chopped wood; went out to the shops; spoke with the locals; meditated (he was a devotee of Vedanta Hinduism); and - most intrigueing of all - wrote fiction that has to this date never seen the light of day.

Of Salinger the public man there is very little since the early sixties; but there wasn't so much before. He let the work speak for itself, as all writers do, as all readers must listen to; yet because his style was so seductive, and immediately spoke to its audience, those early readers of his stories in the New Yorker or "Catcher in the Rye" also felt they "knew" Salinger. In "Salinger", a new biography by David Shields and the filmmaker Shane Salerno, Shields in particular thinks he "knows" Salinger; but a different figure than the young boy on the cusp of adulthood, letting go of innocence and fearful of experience; Shields' Salinger is a manipulator of (young) women, a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and an adherent of an obscure religion. These, in Shields' reading, are the "real" Salinger and knowing these "facts" means that we understand Holden and Seymour and Franny and Zooey et al in a different way.

The book itself is an oddity even amongst literary biographies in that it reads more like a film script. We get a collage of voices from interviews, from written sources, from Salinger's books themselves. (When Ian Hamilton tried to quote from both his works and unpublished letters he wasn't allowed to do so - a legal ruling that saw one of Salinger's very few public utterances around.) Holden Caulfield famously wasn't sure whether he'd end up the hero of his own life or not - and Salinger both is and isn't the hero of his. Firstly he is a genuine hero. One of the American's landing on D-Day, he not only survived that; but some of the bloodiest conflicts of those last days fo the war. With liberation in Europe secured he was then one of the first to see the atrocities of the concentration camps. No wonder, a month after the war, he had had a collapse - and in his recovery, madly, confusingly, married a German woman who may well have been linked to the Gestapo. An odd kind of survivor's guilt perhaps - particularly for half-Jewish Salinger.

Back in New York, the story that had been held over before the war by the New Yorker finally got published and was the start of him becoming a "New Yorker" writer. Up to and including "Catcher in the Rye" this was where he made his reputation, new stories being talked about as events. After "Catcher" and its near unprecedented success, rejecting a Salinger story would have been very hard, even as they grew longer and longer - and less like his old work, which could be categorised as being subtle comedies of the contemporary malaise, to a newer kind of story that was part fable, part sitcom, part treatise. Never a prolific writer, his short published work (one novel, one book of short stories, four novellas over a further two books, a handful of unanthologised work) not only seemed to leap forward with each piece, but also leapt backwards filling in the backstory of the family Glass. The first Glass story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is near perfection; yet it asks as many questions as it answers - future stories tried to tell the answer.

For Shields the answer is certain. Salinger was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. End of story. His whole life a response to what he'd seen in Europe during the war; his work a fragile world which could remake his reality in fiction. Yet this doesn't seem to ring entirely true. For a start, unlike Mailer or Heller or Vonnegut, the material that Salinger used after the war was distanced from it. If "Catcher" and the Glass stories are "war novels" that is perhaps incidental. Besides, "Catcher" and Holden were with Salinger before he went to Normandy. That Seymour Glass is a survivor of the war is hardly the work of someone in denial about the war; and if Salinger is increasingly looking to find an innocence that was lost, then this seems an even more urgent task in the years after D-Day - maybe his creating of a new fiction may have been possible without the war, but probably wouldn't have had the same urgency.

"Catcher" as well is set in its time - the late forties - so there's a transplanting of the teenage Salinger via Holden - he's a time traveller; coming out the war on the other side. Again, I think there's a remarkable written control in all of this that is not the work of someone who is only traumatised.

The life is a different thing of course: but Salinger - determined from the earliest of ages to be a writer - becomes one, but also becomes a celebrity. His first major girlfriend ends up marrying Charlie Chaplin. He's circling in rarified circles - the least likely thing was that his first novel would be so remarkably successful. If there is PTSD might the trauma be "success" as much as the concentration camps? Shields presumes mightily.

In some ways, the determinedly private Salinger remains lucky in his biographers. Hamilton and his publishers really do come across as thuggish villains, at least in Shield's retelling - ploughing on with a book that Salinger, a living author at the time, didn't ever want to see. Why would a writer's writer like Hamilton be so intrigued by the man behind the sensitive Holden that he wouldn't recognise that sensitivity once he breached it? Other villains abound. Not Joyce Maynard or his daughter, who both wrote memoirs of life with Salinger - they surely had the right to tell their story. Salinger's friends were often dropped for the singlest of reasons (an accidental retitling of an early story for instance) so the "omerta" that they then operated under shows, surely, this was a man who people loved, cared for, and wanted to remain within his circle. But plenty of journalists and photographers hounded Salinger whilst alive, and Shields is doing a good hounding now he's dead. What's interesting is how often Shields own interventions in the text come to conclusions that are in no way inevitable. When Andrew Biswell wrote his life of Anthony Burgess he would weigh up several versions of a story (Burgess's own, other facts as they appeared) and let the reader hear each of them; rarely, where the evidence didn't agree, coming to a conclusion. Shields' whose "Reality Hunger" bemoaned fiction for not being as real as the factual, wants somehow to have a Salinger that is divorced from the fictions; that someone reduces those to little more than therapy. A cursory read of Salinger's output would show how wrong that is. Besides, lets assume Salinger was merging with his characters - the unanthologised "Hapworth" certainly feels like a wall has broken down between fiction and reality - what did he do to recognise this problem? He stopped publishing.

One reads this book with interest because it takes you back to the stories. Salinger is a remarkably modern writer yet he was a teenager in the 1930s - "Catcher" was published in 1951, Salinger was 32, Elvis Presley and rock and roll, Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and the beatnik odyssey are a few years away yet. The timing of the writing and publishing of the work is therefore quite important, and Shields and Salerno are diligent in telling this early publishing history. There's a remarkable young Salinger in these pages, serious and committed in a way that lesser writers rarely are. He knows what he's doing, but that's not to say he isn't able to take advice. Once he becomes successful, his certainty about what he is writing is absolute, but that's not to say it comes easy. The long novellas are intense pieces of work, by a writer at the top of his game, at the height of his energy.

Yet because so much of Salinger's life is shrouded in mystery - or at least, is without the normal incidents of a writer's life, publications and prizes etc. - this biography, which accompanies a documentary film, has little control over itself. There are long sections from the Hamilton trial, and from Joyce Maynard as these texts are available in a way that so much isn't. Similarly, there are attempts to fill out the latter chapters with speculation around his devotion to Vedanta philosophy (the book's chapters even follow the different stages of a person's life from that creed), and less relevantly the spate of murders, including Mark Chapman's killing of John Lennon, that have been associated with the book. Grasping for material for their film, we almost get more of the diabolical Chapman's own words, than Salinger's, surely a massive misjudgement on the authors' part. For if there is a connection between a number of killers who cited "Catcher" and the book, then its surely nothing implicit in Holden's world view, but a result of the 60 million copies of the book in circulation.  As the book comes to an end, with Salinger's death being reported in the newspapers, Shields goes into even wilder speculation on his already suspect thesis. Like a particular inept lawyer he brings forward stories as evidence; and life choices as the proof.

Salinger wouldn't be the first and won't be the last sensitive artist to seek solace in religion - and if there is something unnerving about his apparently consistent seducing of young women of similar age and looks, in such a long life, that he was married three times isn't so unusual. He was married to his second wife, Clare, for 12 years, having two children with her, and his third wife Colleen, he married in 1988 and lived with till his death. Shields talks of Salinger removing himself from the world from the eighties onwards - but couldn't it also mean he had found contentment at last?

In the final chapter we are given some scoop about the manuscripts that Salinger had arranged to have published after his death, not just relating to completing the Glass and Caulfield stories, but relating to his war experience and his Vedanta devotion. The writings of all these years remain the mystery of course; but Salinger's widow and son appear as protective of his wishes and legacy as he was himself. Is it really possible that Salinger never showed his work to anyone? Were the long letters to various penpal/girlfriends the most public of his writing?

Salinger remains as mysterious and elusive at the end of Shields and Salherno's book as at the beginning yet there are some positives in putting so much of the early life, the war years and those years writing for the New Yorker into context. Where the story is left to itself the book manages to evoke a fascinating time in American letters, a little before our modern world, but informing it. Salinger comes across, through the few glimpses we get of the man, as more normal than one would expect; a strange kind of recluse who was rarely alone. The book has other saving graces as well; there are photographs every few pages, and it therefore serves as a useful visual documentary of Salinger's life - including old newspaper cuttings and paparazzi shots.

The book has been pretty critically panned, for many of the reasons I've said above, but its not without merit. Its hard to illustrate how badly David Shields writes, but one example might suffice. Writing about Oona O'Neill, the early girlfriend who would go on to marry Chaplin, Shields surmises "his lifelong obsession with late adolescent girlhood was at least in part an attempt to regain pre-Fall Oona. She formatted him forever."
How absurd for a biographer to making such a judgement call and on such scant evidence - yet the book is full of them.

The Salinger story is clearly not over yet - for if there are other manuscripts to be released then they will surely reveal far more than this "cut" and "paste" version of a life. That its still worth reading it, I think, is - oddly enough - because of its fragmented nature. All lives are collages, and this book makes a virtue of that uncertainty. Its links to the film biography, and its over reliance on several episodes from the 1970s and 1980s to make sense of the "hidden" Salinger, as well as the misjudged philosophising and the irrelevant pchapter on Chapman and other "assassins" (Shields' word), these parts are easily skipped over. What remains sends you back to the four small but perfectly formed books that have kept Salinger's reputation alive since the day they were published. It seems we can expect those four books to be added to, though it wouldn't surprise me if that too wasn't part of the legend, part of the myth.