Frank Kogan (koganbot) wrote,
Frank Kogan

  • Music:

The Prose Of Fear

Going to write quick or I won't get to it: John O'Hara's best decade was the 1960s, actually — a lot of it in The New Yorker; and why can't somebody who turns 60 in the middle of a decade be legitimately as much a part of its experience as someone who turns 25? But obviously when people think of "the Sixties" they're not thinking of John O'Hara and of his actresses and businessmen making fleeting connections and blabbing their life away. But The New Yorker was a big part of my 1960s because it came into our house once a week via my parents' subscription. We also read the Saturday Review courtesy of a neighbor's subscription. So there were two rock critics I read consistently, Ellen Willis in The New Yorker and Ellen Sander in the Saturday Review, both women and both Ellen!

But anyway, my friend Mark Sinker wrote a complicated post on his Patreon in which in a minor subclause he claimed that The New Yorker has printed many excellent music critics, "beginning with the great Ellen Willis." I have no current opinion of jazz critic Whitney Balliett, but my guess is if I revisit him he'll rate as an excellent music critic employed by The New Yorker prior to Ellen Willis. And Ring Lardner was better than either of them while capturing the flippant and desperate early '30s as The New Yorker's "radio critic," overwhelmingly writing about music, his words closer in style to the music he was writing about than Ellen Willis's ever could be, and closer in style as well to what fierce and rocking and fiercely analytic rock critics Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs would sound like forty years later. Lardner's subjects were the Kerns and Astaires and Boswell Sisters but also the noise and ra-ra and promo bullshit they were embedded in. ("The 'Little Street' enjoyed a long radio life, a fact that ought to silence those pessimists who argue that a song can't last unless it's got something.")

While excavating old Lardner pieces I discovered another pop critic contemporary of his writing in The New Yorker under the name "Pop." So, for sure excellent music writing in The New Yorker decades before Ellen Willis and she was not the rag's first pop critic, though it's not surprising that modern MusicWrite thinks she is, this attitude a holdover from the Sixties g-g-generation thinking that nothing really novel happened until they themselves did it — but Willis is someone I also need to revisit and she was probably better being Ellen Willis than she would have been trying to embody her times.

Mark's bigger point — his post wasn't about Willis or The New Yorker's music writers — was that the 1960s New Yorker fumbled the culture it was living in, just wasn't adequate to it. He cites Tom Wolfe and Wolfe's own apparently fumbling Sixties attempt to take down The New Yorker, a piece called the "Tiny Mummies!" which I haven't read but I'm sure Tom Wolfe's right to go for a takedown. The New Yorker was much too careful to try and generate rock 'n' roll in its prose. But anyway, this post is basically my response to Mark, tweaked and expanded slightly in the hope of making it at least one-tenth accessible to people who haven't been privy to Mark and me digging thoughts out of each other for the last thirty years. Mark seems to have mainly read the reactionary pwning-the-libs and pwning-the-art-farts Tom Wolfe, all the essays I've intuitively avoided. My wish is that Mark would visit the great struggle in Wolfe's early prose, attitudes you just can't call "conservative," Wolfe's knowing that what he's trying to channel from stock car racers and rock 'n' roll and scandal mags — all this huge unreported life in plain sight that's somehow not quite capital-C Culture and not the mass TV culture either — is bigger than his own words and he'll have to distort style and punctuation to communicate it. Tom Wolfe is certainly more of a factor in creating my prose than Pauline Kael or Ellen Willis ever were. Though I don't know: maybe Kael and Willis were present in the opinionated or expository style-before-I-was-conscious-of-style that I wrote in up to age 15 without my putting thought into how I could be writing, but then Wolfe is there for me when I'm changing myself into a big-W "Writer," changing from being someone who previously and unreflectively just used words as tools in the way I was taught. So perhaps I'd internalized Kael and Willis without my knowing it and maybe my tools were already wider and wilder than I realized when I began trying consciously to make them such. But anyway, see my mind-scrawl The What Thing, when I was barely 17; Wolfe is all over it.

Btw, though I don't have the mid-'70s piece in which she did it, Willis once called The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test the best book from the Sixties. But back in 1969 in The New York Review of Books she was saying "Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test asked the pertinent questions — Is it possible to reinterpret and salvage the American trip by painting the bus with Day-glo? Is there an underground exit from the maze? — at a time when most of us were not yet especially concerned."

I've avoided Wolfe's "Radical Chic" and "The Painted Word" and "From Bauhaus To Our House" which I'm sure have some value but I fear they're mostly just poking holes in things. He always had modernism in his gunsights — he was challenging modernism's claim to speak for the modern world. But he had something to challenge modernism with: the custom car shows and demolition derbies and acid tests and secret teen drag races were an implicit and sometimes explicit rebuke to Form Follows Function — more like form spews in all directions for the hell of it. But The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test also ends up really sad, the Merry Pranksters fall apart, the project disintegrates, the colored bus won't go further, life as art can't sustain itself, We blew it (says the What Thing), and this failure is what touched Willis as profound.

But of course I hate The New Yorker, in the Sixties and ever since. I know it did great things, O'Hara, Baldwin, overrated-but-vibrant-and-sloppy-and-complaining Kael, staid-but-thoughtful Willis. And I'm sure the mag is a lot worse now and still necessary — a couple of friends of mine get published in it — and maybe there's no good magazine now. The New Yorker's demographic shattered in the Sixties. There was no way it could contain my parents and at the same time contain me. It watched the Sixties, it didn't try to live the Sixties. Its prose was the prose of fear. I merely felt fear, sometimes almost all the time, but I didn't want to write fear.

This entry was originally posted at Comments still welcome here, there, and anywhere.
Tags: tom wolfe
  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic