Mineshaft, my brief radio career, and disillusionment

Later this spring, Mineshaft #40 will appear on the streets of Durham, NC, and in your mailbox; as the cover above attests, you’ll find friends new and old, including more than a few veterans of the old humor and comix magazine circuits. It’s a coterie publication, perhaps, but it’s a coterie that includes the likes of R. Crumb, Drew Friedman, Bill Griffiths, Mary Fleener, and others of a unique generation of American artists. More information about the issue here, including ordering information. Get it while it’s hot!

Speaking of old humor and comix magazines, I’ve been spending the past few months paging nostalgically through old issues (well, anthologies, anyway) of the magazines and publications I enjoyed when I was a kid, in those long-ago days of the 1970s. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been viewing them through rose-colored glasses; rather gray they are, but certainly much more dark than light.

When I was 14 years old I went to high school in Hazleton, PA (pop. 28,000 or so in 1976), and at the time the local AM radio station hosted a “High School Hour” once a week, inviting teens from the local schools to host their own radio show, read some school news and play some popular music. I loved radio back then — I still do — so I was among the first to sign up for my school’s Radio Club. There weren’t many of us, but together we put the hour together, and I was responsible for writing up the school news, submitting it to the vice-principal for approval, then reading it on the air to the enraptured listening audience.

About three or four months into the year, I decided to mix it up a little. So instead of writing up news about debate club competitions and the math team, I wrote parody news items about teachers, classes, clubs, and sports competitions. That Friday afternoon during Club Hour in the typing classroom, I giggled, I confess, at my weak digs at favorite and not-so-favorite teachers, at the sports teams, and whatever else might have sparked my fancy. I have no doubt that few of these passed the smell or, for that matter, the humor test, but they were innocent enough; and what the hell, I had fun writing them up. And, as usual, I passed my script along to the vice-principal a few days before without warning him that this month’s news would be a little … well, different.

It wasn’t long before I was summoned to the vice principal’s office. I took my seat in front of him as he looked down at my script, shaking his head. “I don’t know what this is supposed to be,” he said.

“I just thought it would be nice to tell a few jokes and make the show a little different this time,” I responded.

He tsk-tsked, looking at one typed page, then another. “This is just inappropriate, George,” Mr. Rudewick said. “It’s inappropriate, it’s …” and here he searched for the right word, eventually finding it: “It’s uncalled-for.” He put me on notice that I’d have to re-write the news items, and write them straight-up, unless I wanted to be an ex-Radio Club member. So a few nights later I sat in the WAZL-AM radio booth, 1490 on your dial, enlightening Hazletonians with properly humorless renditions of recent accomplishments by the MMI Debate Club, the MMI Math Team, and the MMI basketball team (then, I believe, enjoying a 0-14 season).

None dare call it censorship, I guess — I don’t know why I expected to get away with it, especially with the pre-approval process in place, and though I suppose I could have slipped my original parodies in there at air time, I was far too cowardly for that. Rebelliousness was not in my nature, then or now, though I admit I’ve never forgotten that “It’s uncalled-for,” which sets the hair on my neck on end even now. But I do know precisely what to blame for my uncalled-for-ness.

The mid-1970s were halcyon years for American satire magazines and American satire generally. When I was in my teens, I subscribed to both MAD Magazine (which I’d started reading when I was eight) and National Lampoon, eagerly digesting each issue as they arrived in my mailbox; once in a while I’d even pick up the MAD ripoffs Cracked and Sick at my local newsstand, which also carried the occasional NatLamp specials like the high school yearbook and Sunday newspaper parodies. MAD and National Lampoon were enjoying their highest circulation then, and in the mid 1970s Saturday Night Live debuted and Monty Python’s Flying Circus appeared on American television for the first time. On my own, I was discovering Lenny Bruce’s Carnegie Hall and Curran Theater concerts, then being issued on LP, along with Richard Pryor’s early albums. A few years later, too, there was Weirdo.

I suppose I was in a way a perfect audience for all of it. What all of these cultural artifacts aimed at — from MAD parodies to Lenny Bruce’s sex and race talk — was disillusionment. All of them encouraged skepticism about the ideals peddled by teachers, parents, religion, authority, and especially the media, in advertising and drama and news, rendering blind obedience absurd. They even rendered blind obedience to their own perspectives absurd; instead, the message was that each individual had to think for themselves. It was not hard for me to get the message. In my junior high school social studies class in the spring of 1973, I and my classmates were taught about the three branches of government, the Constitution, and democracy (learning about how politics was supposed to work); that same spring and summer, I sat transfixed in front of the televised Watergate hearings (learning about how politics really worked). I’d been raised on The Brady Bunch, The Waltons, and The Partridge Family as examples of domestic life; my own parents separated acrimoniously when I was eight, after an acrimonious marriage. So every month, when these magazines arrived, they confirmed what experience had already taught me. To come across the below at the age of eight or nine, from “The MAD Primer” in the September 1958 issue (and reprinted in MAD anthologies in the 1970s, when I read it), generated a frisson in me that was very hard to shake:

I can’t say really that I knew what a “klepto,” a “bookie,” or an “auditor” was back when I was 10 or so, but I think I got the picture.

And, as a result, these artifacts, these magazines and comedy routines, told me that I wasn’t alone. I’m sure that I’m far from the only member of my generation who had this experience (as the circulation numbers I mentioned above attest, the magazines sold quite well even without me). What me and my peers shared was laughter: laughter at our predicament, laughter at our own tendency to buy in to the corruptions of culture, but especially, though parody, laughter at these corruptions themselves. What’s more, these magazines insisted that they, too, were corrupt, like all human endeavors and for that matter all human beings. Art Spiegelman said of MAD: “The message Mad had in general is, ‘The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.’ It was basically … ‘Think for yourselves, kids.'” As MAD publisher William M. Gaines insisted, “We must never stop reminding the reader what little value they get for their money!” And finally, as Eric Stratton cheerfully told his fellow Delta House fraternity brother Flounder in National Lampoon’s Animal House, “You fucked up! You trusted us!”

This insistence that individuals had to think for themselves echoed in other satiric magazines of the period as well. In 1958, in the first issue of his magazine The Realist, Paul Krassner wrote: “I am neither for conformity nor for non-conformity. I am for individuality. If one’s individuality is in effect non-conformity, then so be it. But basically, one’s individuality consists of conformity — to oneself.”

That such pretenses to individuality could be, in some situations, uncalled-for remains true, even though it’s been years since MAD or the National Lampoon appeared on newsstands. For that matter, newsstands themselves are becoming rare sights. But a larger question may be: What happens after disillusionment? What happens after all of this trust in media, institutions, and the human capacity for the amelioration of human ills is broken?

Well, for most of us, it’s re-illusionment. As we pass from the hallowed halls of this kind of often-sophomoric satire (“Any good humor is sophomoric. ‘Sophomoric’ is the liberal word for ‘funny,'” Michael O’Donoghue once said), we grow up, we get jobs, and we begin to believe and trust again. Especially today, when thanks to the internet all of us are members of the media, our tendency is to believe in our own press releases, web sites, and Facebook feeds. After MAD‘s parodies of superheroes more than sixty years ago — which insisted that sometimes strength was weakness, good was evil, and patriotic ideals meshugginah — Marvel Comics is now one of the most successful and influential media companies on the face of the earth. Moronic celebrity we still have with us, more than ever, thanks to that same internet. And Donald Trump made Richard Nixon look like Lincoln.

But re-illusionment wasn’t the result for all of us. In some cases that disillusionment, and the uncalled-for urge to express that disillusionment in humor and satire, stuck with us. (Somehow I never got around to writing satire or parody myself; I don’t know why; perhaps I was never in the right place at the right time, or knew the right people, a lifelong trait of mine; perhaps it was that same cowardice I demonstrated in the WAZL-AM radio booth. Perhaps I was distracted. Perhaps I can still aim at it; I may be no longer young, but I’m still disillusioned. A matter for my therapist, I suppose.) So, after disillusionment, there’s also solitude. But not entirely. There are remnants of that commitment to individuality in small communities of what used to be called free thinkers, even in the print media. Mineshaft (not a humor magazine, but certainly for individual free-thinkers) is one of those communities, and there are others, here and there. And so long as society is careless enough to permit people like myself to raise children, I can pass it along to the next generation. In the meantime, I page through those old issues of MAD, National Lampoon, The Realist, Weirdo, and Mineshaft … biding my time.

A few small gifts from New York Review Books

“‘Merry Christmas!’ the man threatened.” — William Gaddis, The Recognitions

A few months ago, the publicity department at New York Review Books (NYRB Classics) was kind enough to send me review copies of their new editions of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions (1955) and J R (1975), the first with an introduction by Tom McCarthy and the second with an introduction by Joy Williams. Handsome and necessarily sturdy the new editions of these lengthy novels are, too; what’s more, this is the first time either book has been corrected and re-set in decades, following careful readings by Gaddis experts. I had been hoping to have the time to re-read both of these, but time presses more now, even when time has seemed to become more abstract than usual. I do have a few moments, though, to welcome these new editions, perhaps the seminal satiric novels of post-war America.

Their accomplishments as satire have been overshadowed by their reputations as proto-postmodern novels, leading to a general conclusion that the books are just very hard to read because of their formal and stylistic innovations. Gaddis himself demurred about this characterization, considering himself the heir to Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and T.S. Eliot, if anyone. And the style itself, exemplified by just the first few pages of The Recognitions, is redolent more of a dry, distanced wit and humor, more down Evelyn Waugh’s alley than William Burroughs’. An example from page 10 of the new NYRB edition:

Nevertheless, they boarded the Purdue Victory and sailed out of Boston harbor, provided for against all inclemencies but these they were leaving behind, and those disasters of such scope and fortuitous originality which Christian courts of law and insurance companies, humbly arguing ad hominem, define as acts of God.

On All Saints’ Day, seven days out and half the journey accomplished, God boarded the Purdue Victory and acted: Camilla was stricken with acute appendicitis.

The ship’s surgeon was a spotty unshaven little man whose clothes, arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, were held about him by an extensive network of knotted string. The buttons down the front of those duck trousers had originally been made, with all of false economy’s ingenious drear deception, of coated cardboard. After many launderings they persisted as a row of gray stumps posted along the gaping portals of his fly. Though a boutonnière sometimes appeared through some vacancy in his shirt-front, its petals, too, proved to be of paper, and he looked like the kind of man who scrapes foam from the top of a glass of beer with the spine of a dirty pocket comb, and cleans his nails at table with the tines of his salad fork, which things, indeed, he did. He diagnosed Camilla’s difficulty as indigestion, and locked himself in his cabin. …

A self-portrait by William Gaddis

There, now that didn’t hurt much, did it? What’s more, the three paragraphs alone introduce almost all of the major themes of the book, which is a catalogue of spiritual, social, and aesthetic fakery, falsity, and fraudulence in post-war American culture (not to mention fate: “the unswerving punctuality of chance,” a phrase that appears in all five of Gaddis’ novels) — an admirable economy. And there’s a body count: the “ship’s surgeon” is in reality a counterfeiter who botches the surgery and ends Camilla’s life, setting the entire action of the 933-page book in motion.

One day I hope to get to writing some more about Gaddis; in the meantime I celebrate these timely holiday offerings from NYRB Classics. To read more about these reissues, I point you toward Scott Bradfield in the Los Angeles Times (“Read The Recognitions and J R as great, funny, tightly constructed, vastly populated, deliriously inventive and happy books. Because that’s what they are”), Craig Hubert in the Observer (“It may be that after 65 years, the world has finally, for better or worse, caught up to Gaddis’s vision in The Recognitions“), and perhaps best of all, Dustin Illingham in the Point:

The immense pessimism of his fictions grows out of [a] sense of rootlessness. Gaddis’s America is cut off from the redemptive potential of continuity, be it in God, or art, or a shared sense of tradition. He is an heir to Eliot, whose quests, imposters and enervated landscapes haunt his novels, as well as the great Russians — Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev — with whom he shared the hope of civilizing a benighted nation. That such an undertaking was doomed to failure lends his work its paradoxical idealism. His novels refute utopian imagination, but always with a sense of frustrated longing. This longing — contemporary in its contradiction — is the skeleton key to his fictions. Where so many postmodernist writers envisaged a range of possible futures, Gaddis dreamt of an unbroken past that would render his satire unnecessary.

Those who wish to dig deeper are directed towards Joseph Tabbi’s biography of the novelist, this collection of Gaddis’ letters (a bit pricey at the moment), Steven Moore’s seminal monograph on the writer, and this anthology of recent essays about Gaddis’ work. And below you can watch a rare interview with the novelist, conducted in 1986 by Malcolm Bradbury.

Tonight: Some perfect truths

Tonight at 8:00 Eastern time, Jeffrey Swann and my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken will team up for “Perfect Truths,” a concert that is part of the NYU Steinhardt Beethoven the Contemporary festival. Jeffrey will sit down in the university’s Black Box Theater to perform Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 106 (the “Hammerklavier”); then he’ll abandon the bench to make room for Marilyn’s performance of the landmark American sonata by Charles Ives, the Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860.” Beethoven’s 1818 sonata is considered one of the most technically demanding of the composer’s solo piano compositions, and Ives’ 1915 composition (published in a revised version in 1947), a veritable though highly idiosyncratic catalogue of American musical forms, is no less complex; so complex, in fact, that Ives himself “introduced” the work with the book-length Essays Before a Sonata in 1920.

The concert will be available beginning at 8:00 p.m. at this page and will be available for re-streaming following its debut. It’s free.

A toast to … cynical pessimistic dads

I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that several of the writers and artists I admire, angry and cynical misanthropes nearly all of them (and there’s plenty to be angry and cynical about, especially these days), are nonetheless parents — an odd choice, adding more people to the world they hate. Joe Heller, R. Crumb, William Gaddis, you name ’em; they’ve got spawn running around even as we speak. Even W.C. Fields had children. I’m here to tell you, it ain’t easy, bearing these two contradictory experiences in mind. And kids themselves, being human, ain’t necessarily so innocent and pure either.

I’m not sure you can say that parenting inspires hope, or vice versa. It could be just a way for us to say, “Hey, at least we’re trying.” Some days it’s easier than others — and all too often we get caught up in the contradictions inherent in the situation. I think Crumb put it best, catching a bit of the self-pity involved when laughter fails us, below: and its ambivalent final panel is possibly all that can be said.

See you at Cafe Katja later today.

 

Goin’ down to the river some day

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, if only because there hasn’t been much to report. We are careening into the new year with light at the end of the tunnel but, if the virus experts are right, with the tunnel buckling just as we’re getting to the exit. We’re somewhere near the bottom tier of those expected to get the vaccine over the next six months, so the winter will be … well, whatever the common cliché is. It has rendered me even more taciturn than usual; my three regular readers have been patient, so thank you.

On the other hand, there are ways to get through the night. As a part of my readers’ reward for their patience, I note that the latest issue (#39) of Mineshaft magazine was released earlier this fall, and I suggest you get a copy now. I also know that a few Mineshaft contributors may wish to join me in revisiting the fine Hoagy Carmichael song “Washboard Blues,” originally recorded by RCA Victor in 1927 with Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra,  Carmichael soloing on vocals and piano. Carmichael was then 28 and at the start of a long career (perhaps he is best known as “Cricket” in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not), during which Carmichael contributed several songs to the American popular music pantheon, not least “Stardust” (which Carmichael recorded just before “Washboard Blues”), “Georgia on My Mind,” “Rocking Chair” (a personal favorite), “Two Sleepy People,” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”

“Washboard Blues” is a characteristic Carmichael composition: eccentric and vernacular. An anonymous Wikipedian wrote, “Though the verse, chorus, and bridge pattern is present, the effect of the song is of one long, cohesive melodic line with a dramatic shifting of tempo. The cohesiveness of the long melody perfectly matches the lyrical description of the crushing fatigue resulting from the repetitious work of washing clothes under primitive conditions.” One must, at this late date, overlook the dialect in which the lyrics were written by Fred B. Callaghan, but catch the midwestern air of Carmichael’s half-mumbled half-wailing high-baritone-almost-tenor lament. The below is not the Whiteman recording, but a solo recording released some years later, and more haunting for all that. If you haven’t heard it before, you’re in for a treat. Enjoy this; and I’ll hope to be back soon.