A toast to … earworms

Cafe Katja.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve written a few sentences about The Book of Weirdo, a new history of the magazine by Jon B. Cooke; flogged an upcoming concert from my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken and an upcoming appearance at the Jalopy Tavern by the East River String Band; and enjoyed the first few pages of Gilbert Seldes’ The Stammering Century. I should probably also note that on Monday night Cooke’s history will be honored at a Columbia University discussion and reception. I’ll be there — the event is sold out, but I understand it’s being recorded and will be made available at a later date.

I’ve been listening to a few old 78rpm records these days and came across the below recordings of “Give Yourself a Pat on the Back,” performed by Jack Payne and his BBC Dance Orchestra on an old Columbia disk in 1929 or 1930. When I was ten years old I came across a stash of old records at my grandmother’s house — this was one of them, and swear to God I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I first heard it. I imagine this is a fairly obscure recording, but oddly enough, I came across a second version as well — a cover version done up as a novelty comedy song. To be honest, I don’t know whether the non-comedy or the comedy version was the original. The first version below is the version I remember from my youth; you can hear the Spike-Jonesy version in the player below that one. I can’t vouch for the quality of either the song or the performance, but it sure has endured, at least in my memory. I’ll be toasting to the song this afternoon during my Friday sojourn to Cafe Katja. Give yourself a pat on the back, and have a good day today.

A toast to … Mineshaft

In many ways, I’m still an analog boy in a digital world, and when it comes to leisure material for reading, watching, and listening, I prefer the hand-made sort of entertainment, whether it’s mid-budget comedy movies from the 1930s or what’s generally become known as roots music. Books and magazines that suit my temperament are harder to come by these days, though.

Fortunately there’s still Mineshaft magazine, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Inspired by underground magazines and comics of the past, Mineshaft is a modest and resolutely hand-crafted periodical that’s issued about three times a year, published by Everett Rand and Gioia Palmieri in Durham, NC, far from the media meccas of New York and Los Angeles. Produced through the increasingly quaint offset printing method, the magazine’s prose, poems, and comics are resolutely free of cant and pretension. The Spring 2019 issue (No. 37) features recent work from veteran cartoonists and illustrators Drew Friedman (front cover), R. Crumb (back cover), Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, and Mary Fleener; poems and paintings by Billy Childish; and work by a number of artists who are unknown to me, such as Nicolas C. Grey, David Collier, and Noah Van Sciver. What they all share is a rootedness in the physical, not the digital, world; like the magazine, the work has a distinctively handmade quality, and the comics especially share a meditative and contemplative marriage of laconic prose and atmospheric inkwork pioneered by, among others, Harvey Pekar in the 1970s. There’s a melancholy that hangs over the whole, a feeling that the analog world it depicts is being lost, if it hasn’t been lost already. That the work has a particularly satiric quality, then, doesn’t come as much of a surprise, especially when it refers to the digital realm, and it’s not much of a shock to find, tipped in with this contemporary work, a reproduction of a detail from a painting by William Hogarth.

Both single issues of No. 37 and back issues are still available from the Mineshaft web site, and you can pony up for a subscription there as well. Obviously the magazine, itself a beautifully, lovingly produced object, will be an acquired taste for those who have drunk deep from the well of the internet culture; it’s not for everybody. But it is, in many ways, for me, so I’ll lift my glass to Mr. Rand, Ms. Palmieri, and their quixotic Mineshaft project when I drop in for my weekly session at Cafe Katja this afternoon.

A toast to … two American artists

This week I considered my responses to a recent visit to the home of Mark Twain and looked forward to an October event celebrating Weirdo, the 1980s comics magazine founded by R. Crumb.

I raise my glass to these two gentlemen today, and in closing the week observe that the work of both of these artists has been reviled and censored in the past — Huckleberry Finn since the time of its publication in 1884/5, R. Crumb’s comics rather more recently. I don’t here want to equate the differing achievements of these two individuals, but offer up a few recent defenses of their work.

Toni Morrison, who left us only recently, examined Huckleberry Finn for the Oxford Mark Twain edition edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin in 1996. “In the early eighties I read Huckleberry Finn again, provoked, I believe, by demands to remove the novel from the libraries and required reading lists of public schools,” she wrote. “These efforts were based, it seemed to me, on a narrow notion of how to handle the offense Mark Twain’s use of the term ‘nigger’ would occasion for black students and the corrosive effect it would have on white ones. It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution.”

Along with T.S. Eliot’s essay about the book, Morrison’s essay is one of the most sensitive readings of Huck Finn since the novel’s publication; you can read the entire essay here. It concludes:

The source of my unease reading this amazing, troubling book now seems clear: an imperfect coming to terms with three matters Twain addresses — Huck Finn’s estrangement, soleness and morbidity as an outcast child; the disproportionate sadness at the center of Jim’s and his relationship; and the secrecy in which Huck’s engagement with (rather than escape from) a racist society is necessarily conducted. It is also clear that the rewards of my effort to come to terms have been abundant. My alarm, aroused by Twain’s precise rendering of childhood’s fear of death and abandonment, remains — as it should. It has been extremely worthwhile slogging through Jim’s shame and humiliation to recognize the sadness, the tragic implications at the center of his relationship with Huck. My fury at the maze of deceit, the risk of personal harm that a white child is forced to negotiate in a race-inflected society, is dissipated by the exquisite uses to which Twain puts that maze, that risk.

Yet the larger question, the danger that sifts from the novel’s last page, is whether Huck, minus Jim, will be able to stay those three monsters as he enters the “territory.” Will that undefined space, so falsely imagined as “open,” be free of social chaos, personal morbidity, and further moral complications embedded in adulthood and citizenship? Will it be free not only of nightmare fathers but of dream fathers too? …

For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed. It is classic literature, which is to say it heaves, manifests and lasts.

The jury of course is still out on the endurance of Crumb’s art, but a few months ago Brian Doherty described and discussed in Reason magazine the increasing controversy in the alternative comics community around Crumb. To nobody’s surprise, his work has given rise to accusations of racism (like Twain’s) and sexism (also like Twain’s, but rather less vociferously). Doherty writes:

One of the many reasons humans have art is to understand, play with, portray, question, and explore the human condition. Which, as Crumb firmly believes, includes a lot of awful, unacceptable thoughts and behavior. …

Many people understand that art is for expressing and exploring the human mind and soul — and the human mind and soul contain darkness, sexual mania, racism, hostility, and any number of awful truths. To force those things out of the conversation is to unreasonably limit the whole project, they say. Art is a treasured aspect of the healthy human condition, even if what the art says is unhealthy on various dimensions. Many others consider that tradeoff worth it in the name of protecting the status and feelings of previously excluded or oppressed groups.

Crumb’s attempt to open comics to a vast range of human expression was victorious: Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, those working in the field today are his descendants. Like all children and grandchildren, they can choose whether or not to understand their patriarch, whether to emulate him or tell him to fuck off. Their choices may not always be kind or wise, but such is human freedom.

A toast to … the county fair

Though it’s an honor just to be nominated.

This week I bid a fond farewell to Paul Krassner, quoted his response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and scanned my bookshelves for a syllabus for Philadelphia 101.

But today I travel northward, not southward, to the Greene County Youth Fair in Cairo, NY, celebrating its 65th anniversary this year. (You can read a little about its history here.) Set in the midst of upstate New York’s rolling hills and mountains, the county fair is one of those events unique to the United States, and a grand time it is for midsummer: 4-H club members bring their animals — pigs, chickens, rabbits, you name it — for the solemn deliberation of highly regarded, stern, expert judges; you can eat some of their kin (the animals’, not the judges), enjoying excellent pork barbeques, sausages, chicken sandwiches, and fresh ears of corn; and there’s always live roots music from local bands to accompany your meal. It’s a place where screens, celebrities, politics, and religion don’t exist: just good feeling and good eating. So this week I raise my glass — or, rather, my paper cup filled with fresh lemonade — to the county fair, a rare pleasure in these anxious times. I’ll save you some funnel cake.

A toast to … Marilyn Nonken

Last week saw the official publication of Identity and Diversity in New Music: The New Complexities, a new book from Routledge by my lovely wife, Marilyn Nonken. The title is pretty self-explanatory (except for that punning reference to one particular stream of contemporary music), but more to the point the book comes from an insider. Marilyn has been an important pianist on the new music scene since her 1993 debut recital; more recently, and while continuing to pursue a busy performance schedule, she’s been the Director of Piano Studies at NYU’s Steinhardt School, where she’s Associate Professor of Music. Her book is a concise and thoughtful but honest and critical look at the roles of identity and diversity in creating new audiences and performers, based upon a survey of important twentieth and twenty-first century musical organizations from both aesthetic and organizational (as well as uniquely personal) perspectives. So a toast to her later today at Cafe Katja.

I’ve already read Marilyn’s book (twice, I think), so I myself am moving on to other books on my bedside table. Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), which won the Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction, is the first among a series of books exploring the failure of critical thinking in this country — and so explaining the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and his supporters. I suppose it’s hopelessly idealistic of me to think so, but perhaps one day a survey course called “American Stupidity 101” will be added to some university’s freshman curriculum, and as a required course. The reading list selects itself: apart from Hofstadter’s book, there’s also Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Neil Postman, 1985), The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies (Susan Jacoby, 2008, updated to include an analysis of Trump’s victory in 2018), and Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (Charles B. Pierce, 2009). The most recent entries are The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Tom Nichols, 2017) and The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, 2018). Hofstadter’s book has stood the test of time; indeed, it enters the pantheon next May when it will be published in the Library of America, the American version of the French Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Hofstadter’s definition of intellectualism did not conceive of intellectuals as either pointy-headed pedagogues or nattering nabobs of negativism to be found in ivory towers; no, as Nicholas Lemann pointed out in 2014, it was a habit of mind. Lemann cites Hofstadter himself:

It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise. It shuns ultimate showdowns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.

The last thing you could say, I think, about Trump and his supporters. Lemann adds, “It is a distinctive habit of mind and thought that actually forbids the kind of complete self-assurance that we often associate with very smart or committed people. You can see how the all-out quality of fundamentalist religion, or of salesmanship, or of ideologically driven politics, would have been anathema to Hofstadter.”

These books are grimly amusing, if you’re in the right mind. The same can be said of Nathanael West’s novels Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, which lies next to the Hofstadter book on my bedside table. West’s books are satire that transcends satire; both are set in milieux of popular culture (journalism in the case of the first, Hollywood in the second) and bitterly detail the trivialization of personal experience in American urban life. (West also took on a fascistic Trump-like figure in his more explicitly political A Cool Million, a parody of Horatio Alger’s self-help books.) Miss Lonelyhearts is sui generis; The Day of the Locust is one of my two favorite novels about Hollywood (the second being Terry Southern’s scurrilous and under-rated Blue Movie).

So I’ve got my weekend reading planned. If I don’t see you at Cafe Katja this afternoon, I’ll see you next week.