Wednesday, June 21, 2017

*RXTT Flashback Review* The Story of a Sonic Youth Fanatic and her Adventures in Skronk



NO SETLIST: Pieces of a Sonic Life - Jenn Benningfield (2009)

(Today on RXTT's Intellectual Journey, we go back to a book review from several years ago, that I published on a different blog, -FUPPETS- , which is now-defunct.  The review has been edited slightly. - RXTT)

Long-time Sonic Youth fanatic and all around bad-ass, Jenn Benningfield, has documented her obsession with live Sonic Youth concerts, as well as the life that develops around such an obsession, in her book NO SET LIST: Pieces Of A Sonic Life.  I have absorbed the book, and what a book it is. While the omnipresent Sonic Youth are integral to the book, it is Sonic Youth's peripheral universe that is the real star here. 

The lines of uber-fans showing up hours early, the crowds of people that frequent the shows, the travel required to attend 40+ shows and the inevitable highs and lows of that travel, the camaraderie between people who are total strangers except for the fact that they love skronk rock, and most of all, the joy of the fleeting moments shared with one's musical idols, these are the main pillars of NO SET LIST. 

The bits that truly hook the reader though, are the relationships that Jenn builds with her fellow fanatics, whether at shows or through meeting those people she has corresponded with on Sonic Youth's infamous Fan Gossip Forum, including one who would become her partner-in-crime for much of NO SET LIST's duration. Her travels begin close to home but soon take her throughout the Midwest, California, Oregon, and as far as Britain in search of that sonic eargasm that only Sonic Youth can provide. Planes, trains, and automobiles are all endured, travails are overcome, and health issues are faced, all with humor and biting wit, and with the help of Snoopy's all-consuming love. What could easily become rote, (the endless bus/train stations, the countless opening acts, the obsession with Sonic Youth), never does and this is a testament to the quality of the writing within, not to mention the quality of the mind making the observations which we are absorbing. 

Sonic Youth is not an "easy" band to like. They go out of their way to test and expand their audience's ears. They are a group that seeks to make art, and that seek to push the envelope as to what can constitute great musical art. Jenn captures all of this, as well as the blinding white skronk joy that Sonic Youth give to those that are patient and keep their ears open. NO SET LIST opens this world and exposes it to the light. What we find inside is comforting, exhausting, exhilarating, and downright beautiful. I wish Jenn was put on retainer by Sonic Youth so as to document their every appearance! That way, I would have a mainline to the world's greatest band, and there is nothing better. I would like to thank Jenn Benningfield for writing NO SET LIST, and for having the balls to put herself and her writing out into the world.

(This book is currently out of print)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Grant Morrison ran out of steam before finishing the Invisibles





The Invisibles Omnibus – Grant Morrison (1994-2000)

            The Invisibles Omnibus collects all the issues released of the Invisibles series which ran from 1994 to 2000.  Compiling comic books like this can be an issue as many are created to be open-ended, allowing the story to continue with new writers and artists indefinitely.  In the early 90’s a wave of comic book writers started to break away from the corporate comic book structure, in which anything created is the sole property and responsibility of the parent company.  They wanted to control, to “own” the content they were creating, without having to resort to the comparatively limited publishing and distribution capabilities of small presses and underground publishers.  This allowed some of the industry’s top people to set up deals with the big publishers, where they would hold the rights to the material and essentially have free rein as to what stories they wished to craft, and where the stories would lead to and ultimately end.  Neil Gaiman took this and ran with it in the Sandman series.  Alan Moore did so as well with a sequence of amazing titles.  One of their contemporaries was Grant Morrison, the British writer that penned the entire run of the Invisibles for the Vertigo imprint.
            Both Moore and Morrison are fringe thinkers, interested in the esoteric, occult, and mysterious in the world we exist in.  Both draw from the mass of occult literature and their own personal studies into the weird to write their stories.  Whereas Alan Moore’s work has a serious, intellectual feel to it, as if you are being told a preposterous story by the world’s wisest man, Grant Morrison’s work is like spending a month with a LSD-addled speed-freak who wants to share everything they have heard/seen/read/experienced regarding the Occult and esoteric, and whose narrative cannot be fully trusted due to the disjointed, haphazard nature of his mind.  It is an odd difference, and one which has divided the two writers.
            The Invisibles is an exciting book, for the most part.  It is an interesting tale, for the most part.  It is clever and witty, for the most part.  Perhaps it would have benefitted me to read just one issue’s worth of it every month like comic book fans have to do.  Since I do not have that luxury of time, I had to read it over the course of a month.  The story, like so many others, builds and builds as we meet new characters, explore their lives, both past, present, and future, and discover countless conspiracies, secrets and horrors, until it comes at you like an onrushing tsunami, unstoppable and violent.  It really does “fry your brain” at times with the vast amount of freaky conspiracy and magic, all with double and triple meanings and outcomes. This tempo and intensity are not sustainable in a work of literature of this length.  The book drags heavily around the ¾ mark, and the ending is nowhere near as inspired as the earlier parts of the book.  Perhaps, having aged many years since he began the work, Grant Morrison’s anarchic sensibility was tempered by time and wisdom.  Who knows?  All I can say is that for all the wild information contained within, I do not see how anyone who was not already deeply familiar with the weirdness presented in this book would enjoy the story, which is the standard “secret society exists to fight another secret society, both of which are mortal enemies of each other, or ARE THEY?”  Boring.
            The Invisibles is one of those works where the creator decided to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the page and see what sticks.  While I was entertained mostly, and informed very slightly (I already knew about nearly every aspect of weird that Morrison details in this book), I was left with an empty feeling.  There is no real substance behind this book.  I do not think it will hold up well as the years go by.  It in fact becomes a tedious read toward the latter parts.  Part of this is due to the inability of Morrison to craft an ending as satisfactory and weird as his beginning and middle, and part of it is due to the lack of cohesive focus in the way the story is presented.
            The very best work is crafted by either an individual or by equal partners who see things through from beginning to end.  The Invisibles did not use the same artist for the run of the comic.  In fact, many issues have 4-6 different illustrators drawing the story, which to me distracts from the tale being told.  Art and the decisions made in the process of making Art require purpose, actual purpose.  Neil Gaiman’s Sandman epic did not use the same artist for every tale, but it did use the same artist for all the cover art, and the same artist for each complete “chapter” of the stories.  This adds a cohesion that is absent in the Invisibles.  The book suffers from this greatly.  Comic books are the ultimate combination of Art and Words.  The very best of the genre is created by dedicated teams.  The Dark Knight Returns was a masterpiece, and it was only helped by the fact that the same writer (Frank Miller), artists (Frank Miller, Klaus Jansen), and colorist (Lynn Varley) handled every panel of every page of every issue.  Alan Moore’s The Watchmen also benefitted greatly from the partnership of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.  Having the artist and the writer share in the design, layout, and creation of any comic greatly improves it. 
            While there are many cool things in this comic, it never captured me, and I never felt any affinity to any of the characters involved.   Much of it seemed overly complex, and disjointed, for no discernible reason.  Every two pages the story flips from one sub-plot to another, creating a very shitty reading rhythm. It’s like Grant Morrison tried to create magic through a comic book and did so purely by regurgitating every single occult and conspiratorial idea he had ever run into, but without the humor and intelligence of The Illuminatus Trilogy for example, or the deep exploration of history found in Alan Moore’s From Hell, a far more disturbing and beautiful book.  Oh well.  Live and learn.  On to the next book.

(This book can be purchased here:  https://www.amazon.com/Invisibles-Various/dp/1401234593 )

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Alfred Bester writes a novel for the ages





The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester (1956)

            After having heard the name Alfred Bester knocked around in the various science fiction worlds I frequent, I dug up and read Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, which was awesome.  Once I find a writer I like, especially in science fiction, I try to dig up anything else from them that I can read.  By using the inter-library loan department at the University of Houston’s M.D. Anderson Library, I picked up the Hugo Award-winning novel, The Stars My Destination.  It is even better than I could have imagined. 
            The frenetic pace of the plot, the twisted and amoral motivations of the characters, the deep exploration of what, at the time, was purely speculative science, and the morality inherent in the story all stand as predecessors to the dark cyberpunk novels of the late 1970’s and 1980’s.  It is amazing to me that this novel was written in 1956.  The top sci-fi/fantasy writers of the last 40 years all claim it as a primal source, as one of the best science fiction novels ever written.   It is as good as promised and deserves to be read more widely.
            The story concerns a man in the 25th century named Gully Foyle, who has been left for dead on a decrepit spaceship drifting through our Solar System.  He survives for 6 months, until he sees a ship named VORGA, which sees his calls for help but does not stop to rescue him.  His desire for vengeance against the VORGA, its crew, and the people who made the decision to not respond to his mayday overshadows everything else in his life.  I do not want to describe too much because at every turn this book upends my expectations and proceeds to gain momentum, depth, and wonderment.  It explores so much, from the strata of such a futuristic society to the machinations of the powerful against the powerless, to the possibilities, both good and bad, inherent in the human colonization of the Solar System.  I do not want to ruin any of that for a future reader of The Stars My Destination.
            Alfred Bester was a visionary genius right up there with the likes of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jules Verne when it came to extrapolating the possibilities scientific progress can bring.  He was also a genius in the vein of Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson, able to show the human need to use technology and to own it, oftentimes to our very own detriment.  I hope more people read Bester’s work, and keep it alive for future generations.  Stories like these are what made me love the genre of science fiction.  They keep me hopeful that originality and beauty and intelligence can be found in old writing as well as in new writing.  This is an awesome thing indeed.

(This awesome book is available for download as a PDF file here: http://americandigest.org/Bester,%20Alfred%20-%20The%20Stars%20My%20Destination.pdf )

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Paul Mooney shares his life and his friendship with Richard Pryor





Black is the New White: A Memoir – Paul Mooney (2009)



            I love Paul Mooney.  Ever since my wife Elizabeth introduced me to the man’s genius, I have been a devoted fan.  I have heard his comedy records, and have seen his stand-up specials.  My wife and I were lucky enough to catch Paul Mooney live at the Houston Improv about 5 years ago.  It was the best comedy act I have ever seen.  As a fan of transgressive humor, there is no one finer when it comes to dealing with the topic of race in American life than Paul Mooney.  Having absorbed as much of his work as possible I went ahead and dug up his 2009 memoir, Black is the New White. 

            This memoir is as much the story of Paul’s life as it is the story of his relationship with the comic genius Richard Pryor.  It is the most important relationship in his life, perhaps second only to the love given him by the grandma that raised him, who he called “Mama.”  He credits her with filling him up with so much love that he never needed to seek out the acceptance of anyone else.  This made him immune to the sickness that befalls many entertainers, which is their desire for love and acceptance at any cost, which usually ends up ruining careers.  This is also the reason that Paul Mooney has never sought validation from the Hollywood “community.”  I think this stability is one of the reasons that Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney became so close. 

            Mr. Mooney knew from the start that the inner core of the genius Pryor was a needy, lonely, and desperate little boy who just wants to be loved.  He sought out that love in drugs, drinking and women.  He routinely would drive himself to near-exhaustion with drug binges, women binges, alcohol binges, etc.  Add this to the already immense career pressure that Richard Pryor experienced once he became a house-hold name, and one can see how the calmness, the wisdom, the blackness, and the humor of Paul Mooney was a tonic for Richard.  Their relationship is a great example of acceptance between friends, even though the knowledge of imminent self-destruction is ever-present.  There was no way to turn his best friend from the path he had chosen.

            Paul’s career, while not as stratospheric as Richard’s, has carried him through decades of Hollywood turmoil, racism, and idiocy.  He includes many of his stage jokes in the book, and it is awesome to hear his voice in my head, as if it was speaking directly to me.  He has always supported the comics around him, from giving John Witherspoon, Sandra Bernhardt and Robin Williams their first TV gigs, to opening for Eddie Murphy’s RAW tour, to helping Dave Chappelle craft the funniest comedy show of the last 15 years.  Paul Mooney has never quieted down.  He has never dumbed down his act.  He continues to rail against the stupidity of racism and racist white people.  As he states often in the book, his audience consists of “black people and brave white people.”  That is a funny throwaway line, but it speaks a deep truth.  Only the brave are willing to be ridiculed, understanding the jokes and the truth underneath the jokes.  Bravery is critical to enjoy Paul Mooney’s comedy.  The fearful get up and run away in the middle of Paul’s sets.  He has done this since his start in the comedy clubs in LA.  He knows that if some people walk out, it only reinforces the truths he is describing. 
            While I wish that there was more about Paul’s personal thoughts and inner monologue in this book, I can understand the inclusion of so much regarding Richard Pryor.  Not only was he Paul’s best friend but he was his hero as well, and no one in Hollywood will give you the unvarnished truth about Richard Pryor like Paul Mooney does.  It is a funny, unforgiving, caustic, and honest book. 

(This book can be purchased here:  https://www.amazon.com/Black-New-White-Paul-Mooney/dp/1416587969 )

Friday, April 21, 2017

Art & Science Make the World Go Round





Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet – Stephen Jay Gould, Rosamond Wolff Purcell (2000)

            Art and Science, my two most favorite subjects of human intellectual experience, are always conflated in my brain.  Art IS science to me and science IS art, in that the exploration of idea in Art mirrors the exploration of fact in science, and in how the creative impulse of the human brain is equally critical to the scientific method as it is to artistic creation.  These are not two separate worlds, and Stephen Jay Gould makes sure to repeat this refrain.  In choosing to write essays based upon the intricate and scientifically-informed photographs of Rosamond Wolff Purcell, Mr. Gould lets his mind roam, drawing from both his experience in the sciences and his love of the arts, creating connections which are otherwise unnoticed.
            I love books like this.  Some of my favorite photographers work in the manner of Wolff Purcell.  She searches the sometimes-forgotten archives of museums and institutes for items to add to her imagery, creating beautiful photographs which function as a work of modern art while also drawing the critical intellect to explore the subject matter empirically, as a scientist would.  Mr. Gould uses the images chosen, one or two per essay, and then riffs upon what the artwork makes him think of.  Sometimes it is an exploration of the affinity humans have for bilateral figures over radially symmetrical figures, and at other times he describes the deluded and self-righteous work of the person whose collection is being photographed.  It is whatever comes to his fertile mind.  Many of these images contain fossils, and as a paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould has an instant affinity with them.
            In one essay, following an image of a painting in mid-restoration showing a “correction” once made to reduce the painting’s lewdness but now removed to show the original offense, he describes the concept of “layering.”  This concept is evident in medicine, where most of the disease and infirmity occurs invisibly, under the skin.  So many medical breakthroughs have been solely methods by which to look under the skin, such as the X-Ray, CAT scans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, etc.  In an essay following a photo of an old disused fish fossil, Mr. Gould describes the concept of an “overlay.”  This is the idea that a thing (1) must be older than another thing (2) if the first thing overlies or modifies the second thing in a manner implying the original presence of thing (1) alone.  For example, you have a photo of yourself.  You spill some ketchup on it and it dries, then a while later, part of it gets torn right where the ketchup was, then even later, someone puts a piece of tape over it all to keep it from tearing further.  Someone presented with the final object could safely deduce that the tape was younger than the tear, which was younger than the ketchup, which was younger than the photograph.  Geology works very much in this manner to differentiate between sedimentary layers.
            This is actually the third such book in this series.  I am going to have to request the other ones through the Inter-Library Loan system here at the University of Houston’s M.D. Anderson Library.  They will make for some very thought-inducing reading!  Bad ass.