I GIVE MYSELF UP TO THE ROAD…THE ROAD GIVES BACK

Last week I made the four-hour drive to Monroeville, Alabama (home town of Harper Lee and Truman Capote) to meet my sister and her boyfriend for a holiday reading of Capote’s short story “A Christmas Memory,” (which I didn’t mind telling the folks, including the actress who One-Woman-Showed the story so beautifully, was the subject of the essay that won me the Freshman English Award for 1979 at Chipola Junior College, which sits a little less than half-way between me and Monroeville). It was a lovely experience in itself–the reading takes place every year in the courthouse where Lee’s father practiced law, which was meticulously copied for the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. A good time was had by all.

But, for me, the arrival is mostly an excuse for the journey. For whatever reason, I never feel any music has proved itself fully until it proves itself on the road.

Here’s what proved itself last week:

Aftermath (UK Version) The Rolling Stones (1966)

I’ve always loved the American version of Aftermath, always thought it was the peak of the Brian Jones years and the first time Mick had his act together for an entire album. Imagine my disappointment a decade or so back, when I managed to score all the Stones’ original UK albums at Best Buy for bargain prices (if you want to know how fast the world moves, try and imagine anything like that happening at Best Buy, or any other box store now–such experiences have gone the way of searching the 45 and cutout bins at Woolworth’s and in less than half the time) and discovered that the UK version of my favorite from the Stone’s early period was missing “Paint It Black” not to mention the perfect running order of the US version, climaxing with the eleven minutes of “Going Home” one of the all time LP closers. Plus, the great, disorienting American cover–so in tune with the album’s sound–had been re-replaced by the much more generic cover it had replaced in the first place.

Aftermath (US Version) The Rolling Stones (1966)

I listened through dutifully, of course. Then I dismissed it to the shelves, where it had remained ever since. If I wanted to hear Aftermath, I got out my old US version on vinyl.

But a funny thing happened a few years ago. My replacement CD player–in every respect but one superior to the really old one that died–was supposed to be a stop-gap until I could afford a good one. Still waiting for that day (the cheap ones that are still readily available. in places like Best Buy, don’t have a cable hookup compatible with my head-phones…which are not cheap). In the meantime, I discovered the one respect in which my newer (still not very new) player was at a disadvantage compared to my old one.

Won’t play my Rolling Stones’ CDs before Sticky Fingers. (NOTE: From Sticky Fingers on, I have everything through Emotional Rescue, but issued on the Stones’ own label, rather than ABKCO and hence playable–what this means, in practice, is that I’ve been listening to a lot of 70s Stones, about which, perhaps more later. I also have one of their later albums. Talk about things that don’t get played.)

It also won’t play my Kinks’ albums and a few others (like ABKCO’s fine Animals’ comp). Annoying. I really need to find a solution.

Meanwhile, the one place I can hear those albums (other than my computer, which I’m not fond of using as a listening station–I have enough trouble concentrating as it is!) is in my car.

And I usually listen on long trips. Which I don’t take much anymore. You know, due to being broke.

But when I do take trips, I choose the music pretty carefully. Quite often, I take things I think might deserve some sort of second chance or closer attention than I’ve been willing or able to give them previously.

This time…Aftermath.

And Between the Buttons, which I’ve never really been able to get into–and which ABKCO re-released in its American version anyway.

But first…Aftermath.

In its UK version.

Which, I learned on the back roads of southwest Georgia and southeast Alabama, is great!

I’m still not sure I can ever make the leap and completely give myself over to an Aftermath which sticks “Goin’ Home” in the middle and denies the listener “Paint it Black,” but what’s there definitely makes its own statement…and makes me want to get that good CD player real soon!

After that, I was excited for Between the Buttons. And, just like always, I stayed excited through what used to be the first side.

Between the Buttons The Rolling Stones (1967)

After that, my attention gradually wandered. Just like always. I’m still not sure why. Is it because that’s about the time Brian Jones transitioned from inspiration to “problem?” Is it merely coincidence that I’ve still never heard the followup, Their Satanic Majesties Request (their last with Jones fully on board) in its entirety? I’ll want to correct that oversight some day, but you can see where it’s not a priority when it’s unlikely I can listen to it anywhere but the car.

Meanwhile…man was Aftermath a revelation!

Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player Elton John (1973)

And I will admit that Between the Buttons was still more engaging than Elton John’s Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, which seemed too cute by half, starting with the almost great title. Has any piano player working a joint where he was likely to be shot at ever said “only” instead of “just?” Just asking.

Otherwise, Elton’s usual mixed bag. It did yield “Elderberry Wine” and “Midnight Creeper” which were new to me and hardly nothing. But south Alabama does not offer a lot of distractions. It’s not hard to concentrate on the music when it’s giving something back and, except for those two, and the inevitable radio classics (“Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock,” which I confess, though still fine, are not the most inevitable) I found it hard not to let my mind wander off through the pines.

Which brought me a little past the half-way point of the outward journey and this…

The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs (1988)

There was no problem with attention spans here. It’s quiet as death, first story to last. I’ve had the vinyl version for years but just recently acquired the CD. Been waiting for a chance to be alone with it. South Alabama seemed as good a place as any. The last hour of a drive to the birthplace of the author of In Cold Blood seemed as good a time.

It was almost too much. Taking in twenty of Tom T. Hall’s stories at once on a lonely stretch of southern highway with ghosts all around is like submitting yourself to three straight productions of Chekov–interspersed with a unique style of absurdist comedy, most of it of the quiet chuckle and shake the head variety, until all the moods merge in his scariest song, a tale of mass murder and the death penalty that creates a black hole even the Rolling Stones could never approach. To think he ever sang it on television is more surreal than L’Age d’Or.

it was probably just as well the outward journey came to an end just about the time “Before Jessie Died” closed things down.

As often happens, I was able to separate the journey from the arrival and thoroughly enjoy myself. But when I headed home a day-and-a-half later, I was glad I had brought something to continue the mood. Hated to leave all those ghosts just hanging about out there.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Anthology Warren Zevon (1996)

I think I probably just grabbed this one out of instinct. I’ve had it a while. I play it a lot. It goes a little slack in the middle of the second disc.

But something must have been nudging me, saying “you’ll need this.”

After Tom T. Hall and (speaking of Chekovian moods) “A Christmas Memory,” I needed it. It delivered, too, eased me right back into my Dr. Sardonicus mode, very handy for living and driving.

And then, right in the middle of that second disc that goes slack here and there (not so bad on the road, really–sometimes you can use a break from anything), Zevon started merging with Barry Seal. I started asking myself things like: Did Warren Zevon just decide at some point he was only going to write songs about Barry Seal…or did Barry Seal decide he wanted to live his life like a Warren Zevon song? it’s a legit question because, really, it could have happened either way. And once the connection was made, I couldn’t break it. The question rose, track after track: Could this be Barry? And the answer came back every time: You bet. And not always in obvious ways.

It was spooky. I’m not sure I can convey how spooky, even as it made me laugh like a loong. It’s possible I can never listen to this again. At least not without watching the movie too (whether before or after is something I’ll have to work on).

Well, you can imagine what kind of mood that left me in. The choice for the home leg was John Mellencamp or bootleg Dylan.

Bob Dylan Live 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (Officially Released 1998)

Choice?

Come on. Barry Seal and Warren Zevon had just merged in my head. What choice?

And this is something I’ve been wanting to give a real chance, since it’s never really reached me. I never heard the famous bootleg that circulated for years, but I heard plenty about it, so being a big Dylan fan, and having been assured-to-the-point-of-annoyance by all in the know that I hadn’t really heard Dylan until I heard this, I snapped it up the minute it became available in 1998. After it did not survive the Great CD Selloff of 2002, I didn’t make a high priority of reacquiring it, but it wasn’t something I could safely leave alone, so I picked it up again a few years ago.

And had the same reaction I had the first time around, which was: Meh.

It happens sometimes. An album acquires so much mythic weight that, by the time you finally get to hear it, probably nothing could live up to the expectations generated by the intervening years.

Certainly not this….One CD of Dylan alone, breathing (as Greil Marcus would have it) ver-y-y-y-y softly. One CD of him and the band (the Hawks, soon to be the Band) assaulting their amps–and the crowd–with white noise. Plus English people shouting stuff you can’t make out without an interpreter.

But, being fair, I had never road-tested it.

And?

Sure enough, it kinda’ sorta’ revealed itself. Mostly by reversing itself.

Dylan’s real assault on his audience–the one in the hall (which, yes, we know, wasn’t the Royal Albert Hall that had been advertised all those bootleg years), and, by extension, the one beyond the hall, the one that had cheered his every move before dividing over his move to Rock and Roll–came in the “quiet” early part of the show.

That’s the part where he refuses to give anything at all. The singing is flat, even for his oh-so-sincere, folkie voice. There are no jokes, no repartee, no pronouncements, no attempt to be liked or disliked. Nothing. One song, breathed softly. Then another, breathed even more softly.

Let me tell you, divested of Dylan-being-Dylan, they mean less than you think, at least on the back roads of Alabama.

But the one thing about having the CDs queued up in the car is there’s no pause to switch the discs.

And it was only in that context that the white noise finally made sense.

Turns out, sucking all the life out of “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” was prelude, a perfect setup. One can hear why people were shocked-to-the-bone by the juxtaposition (there must have been some sense in the hall, even if only subconscious, that Dylan’s sermon-straight reading of his most sacred texts had been a form of mockery….although I grant you a really determined folkie can miss a lot).

Quiet as a mouse, moment after moment for an hour. Then this…

And then on like that for most of another hour.

At least on the back roads of Alabama, nothing could live up to that first shock wave, not even the cataclysmic version of “Like a Rolling Stone” that closes the show.

But I finally got what all the excitement was/is about.

Whether I’ll ever want to listen to that first disc again, just so I can find out if the jolt at the top of the second transcends first experience, is a question I’ll have to leave for another day.

That’s what the road is for.

Happy Thanksgiving!

ALABAMA GOODBYE (Harper Lee, R.I.P.)

Harper Lee...Author of To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee, in her father's law office while visting her home town. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

In one of the few interviews she gave for public consumption before she ducked down the rabbit hole for good, the chain-smoking, Scotch-swilling, Methodist church lady, Nelle Harper Lee said what she really wanted to be was the Jane Austen of Southern Alabama. Austen being Austen and Alabama being Alabama, she was probably therefore doomed to be misunderstood, misinterpreted, misconstrued, misrepresented and misappropriated.

Nelle being Nelle, she was also bound to let it lie.

Her one great novel was immediately hijacked by the same style of do-goodism which had long since suffocated Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to within an inch of their respective lives. What those flawed masterpieces had done for slavery–provide balm for White America’s troubled soul–To Kill a Mockingbird would do for Jim Crow. It thus entered the small library of prickly pear texts that must have all their thorns pulled by journalistic-cum-academic discourse so they can serve a higher good.

The movie, fine as it was, didn’t help. The shaded, human-scale Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird disappeared immediately under Gregory Peck’s ruggedly handsome mien, never to return, which was most of why the not-entirely-detached version of him (Atticus, not Greg) who appeared last year in Lee’s prequel/sequel) caused such an odd mixture of consternation, dismissal and “say it ain’t so.”

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The small town lawyer shouldering a necessary, not particularly welcome, burden on the page, became a hero in a western, with a lonely courtroom replacing a dusty street. Watching the movie by itself, detached from the understanding of the source which has eluded the book’s admirers as frequently as its detractors, it’s actually hard to understand what the big deal with racism is. All the good white people in the movie are on Atticus’s side, after all–the Sheriff, the Judge, Miss Maudie (turned from a salty old broad familiar to every southern childhood into a cupcake familiar to no one outside of a movie set). From Hollywood’s version, you’d think Maycomb County was run by white trash, against whom lawyers and judges and sheriffs and such stood all but helpless.

And, of course, it is that vision which has stood–so much so that lots of people who have read the book over and over still write as though they can only see the movie in their head while those who have never read the book at all insist they don’t have to because the movie and the crit-illuminati have already told them everything they need to know. In the American imagination, the black people rising in the balcony for Atticus’s “stand up MIss Jean Louise. You’re father’s passin’.” moment are forever doing so over an empty courtroom, paying an homage unseen by anyone but his children.

It made for a great visual.

In the novel, Atticus leaves first, while the white people are still there.

All of them.

So it’s undeniably an homage, yes, but also an act of defiance, one Lee was far too skilled to draw a line under.

For those who ever get around to reading what’s there, instead of what they expect to find, the whole novel is like that: quiet, skilled, defiant. Like it was written by a sharp-minded lawyer’s girl, grown to womanhood, remembering.

It was meant to take the noise out of your head, draw a circle around a particular time and place, one which Lee herself felt deserved to be remembered.

She feared it wouldn’t be and not without reason.

It was vanishing as she spoke, in the sixties, though it could still be glimpsed when I moved to North Florida (a hundred and fifty miles from Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, with a state line between, and one county over, minus the state line, from where her father grew up). Within a decade of my arrival, the old black man who drove his mule-cart through town weekdays and the old white men who sat around in overalls and spat tobacco in the shade above the tiered-stone sidewalks in front of the drugstore nobody called a pharmacy would be gone from everything but memory.

For better and worse, that small town south, with it’s old men and soda fountains and lynching trees, has its own place in the American imagination. It’s a place that would not be nearly as well defined–for better or worse–if the Jane Austen of Southern Alabama had not captured it so well.

Believe me. I’m from here. My being born on Florida’s rocket-launching Space Coast was a fluke. Before that, my small-town southern roots went back a long way on both sides (on my father’s side, to the founding, of Tennessee anyway), and, once I was brought back, at thirteen, I never left. The world imagined by our famous Goths–Faulkner, O’Connor, Williams, McCullers–is hardly untrue. But it isn’t all there is. If anybody not from here wants to feel what it was once like–for better and worse–to actually live here, it’s Harper Lee’s novel that will tell you quicker than anything I know.

That might not be much of an achievement next to driving a spike in Jim Crow’s temple, which she also did. But it was what she set out to do, and, if she happened to become part of some grander design along the way, I’m no less grateful for small favors.

As to why she never wrote another book, I recommend Charles Sheilds’ fine biography, Mockingbird, which will likely remain definitive, for this and other insights. I’ll also state that I tend to disagree with his well-researched and delicately nuanced conclusions (which involve the usual sound reasons: an aversion to fame, a loss of confidence, deaths in her publishing team etc.).

One of the other things that happened when I moved to North Florida is that my father became a home missionary, responsible, among other things, for ministering to prisons, jails, reform schools and mental homes throughout the panhandle, which, in Florida, is where the state tends to build such things.

I did not go into a lot of “yards” with him. Just enough to know what the air in prison is like.

Let’s just say I do not consider it entirely coincidental that Nelle and her even more sensitive childhood friend, Truman Capote, were, even before TKAM was published, already collaborating on In Cold Blood.

He’d take credit for that….and, at least sometimes, To Kill a Mockingbird, too.

Most likely it was closer to being the other way around (Shields is very convincing on this score).

Either way, neither wrote anything of note again.

I don’t find that surprising.

Breathe prison air for more than five minutes and you learn one thing.

It isn’t only murderers who leave their souls on death row.

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Wherever she is now, enjoying her earned peace, I hope she’s found what she lost.

And that they have a better class of critics there.

MEET THE NEW ATTICUS, ALMOST THE SAME AS THE OLD ATTICUS…UNLESS IT’S THE OTHER WAY AROUND (WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS BUT WILL NEVER GET, DUTIFULLY UPDATED)

WATCHMAN1

The initial cycle of anticipation-publication-reaction to Harper Lee’s long lost first novel Go Set a Watchman now being effectively completed, we can safely take stock of what we know about the three nagging questions surrounding its release.

The first is whether Lee, now in her late eighties, more or less inaccessible to the public for half a century, long ensconced in an assisted living facility and, for the first time in her career, without the oversight of her longtime literary executor and recently deceased older sister, was in any position to properly approve the book’s release.

The answer to that one is likely to remain elusive, in part because the other two questions–is the book worth reading and is it any good (given the unique circumstances, these two questions are, for once, not the same)–don’t have clear answers either.

Despite the awkward patches one would expect from an unedited draft by a young, first-time novelist with no previous publishing history (having now read the book, I don’t find any reason to question the public story of its provenance, though mysteries will likely remain about the separate legal and ethical questions surrounding its sudden “rediscovery”), it is also what one would expect from Harper Lee, even as she seems, more than ever, to exist separate and apart from Atticus and Scout Finch.

And what should we expect?

Well, a skilled, though yet unpolished, popular novelist, who had rejected modernism but was quite aware she couldn’t write like her pre-modern heroes (Austen, Twain and Hawthorne, whose “Young Goodman Brown” Lee likely plumbed for Watchman‘s structure and overall tone, though how consciously we’ll never know) and expect to be published in the 1950s.

To wit (and purely at open-to-a-page-and-point random):

Alexandra’s voice cut through her ruminations: “Jean Louise, did you come down on the train Like That?”

Caught offside, it took a moment for her to ascertain what her aunt meant by Like That.

Bang, bang. Crisp as you please. Maybe not so original now, when we have seven thousand young-woman-goes-home-and-deals-with-the-changes-in-herself-and-others novels and scripts floating around. But not bad for the fifties.

And, besides, that’s four sentences and two jokes in Twain, a full paragraph in Austen and half-a-page in Hawthorne, with a strong likelihood that nothing would be as nicely judged as that “offside” for a girl brought up in the region where football is a religion.

It’s also everything you need to know about Aunt Alexandra and her relationship to Jean Louise Finch.

There’s plenty of that throughout the book. Certainly enough to keep the pages nicely turning if the pleasures of literary economy are on your smile list.

Not surprisingly, there are also a fair share of passages that are nowhere near as succinct or as good, especially toward the end, when the homilies Lee would later be criticized for in TKAM itself, fall thick and heavy, more like bludgeons than To Kill a Mockingbird‘s gentle life lessons.

That said, there’s nothing standing between this and a really first rate novel that a good editor couldn’t have fixed.

Even as it stands, it’s perfectly respectable.

It’s as good or better than, for instance, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Watch and Ward or This Side of Paradise, to name the first published novels of three men, Twain, Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, rightly considered masters of English prose, all of whom presumably had the benefit of an editor (and all of whom, like Lee herself, lest we forget, went on to much greater things).

I haven’t read Hawthorne’s first novel, Fanshawe, but since he later made a serious effort to have every existing copy burned (he missed one, which is why we still have it), it’s probably safe to assume it wasn’t a masterwork either.

There are also plenty of first novels that are better than Watchman, some considerably better. But, on the whole, taken even as a rough draft, it falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Which leads to the one question I’ve found really interesting in all this.

What does Watchman tell us about the career Lee might have had, if Mockingbird‘s other-worldly success hadn’t set off a chain reaction so fierce it finally burned off her previously considerable ambition?

It’s all speculation, but I think we can make some logical assumptions:

Assume TKAM had been a strong but not iconic bestseller.

Assume that a movie was made but managed to cut no deeper than the perfectly fine version of All the King’s Men based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel (which won an Oscar for Broderick Crawford as Mockingbird did for Gregory Peck but otherwise left no mark).

Assume that Harper Lee’s spirit survived the visits to Death Row at the Kansas State Penitentiary. (That’s my own best, entirely unproveable theory for why both Lee and Truman Capote shut down for good. If you think it’s far-fetched, try imagining Jane Austen, just after she wrote Sense and Sensibility, deciding to spend long hours in gaol, confronting the perpetrators of a shocking, grisly murder. Then ask yourself if we’d have all those other fine novels had she done so? Food for thought, perhaps. Especially if, like me, you spent a few minutes here and there in the politest part of some prison yards with your missionary father and so know just a tiny bit about what the air is like in there.)

Assume Harper Lee could then have gone on writing and publishing, having some sort of normal career.

Then what?

I think it’s likely she would have fallen in with the Sane Southerners (Eudora Welty, her friend Horton Foote, perhaps the Agrarians) and been at literary, if not personal, odds with the Crazies (Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Capote himself, with whom she did eventaully fall out ….If you’re wondering about Faulkner, he straddled both camps, which is one of the reasons he’s Faulkner).

Given that Lee’s wit was as sharp and caustic as any of the rest, we’d have certainly had more gossip and an additional literary feud or two.

We probably would have had a series of well-written novels that gave us some nice insight into the life and times of Southern Alabama mid-century and later.

We would also have been certainly quite a different country, one that didn’t need To Kill a Mockingbird quite the way we do.

Since we’re the country we are, as opposed to the one most sane people wish we were, I’m just as glad things worked out the way they did.

The one thing that would have been missing from Go Set a Watchman if it had been published in its own time in anything like its present form, is a sense of why Jean Louise Finch, so cruelly betrayed here, felt as strongly about her past and her home–not just Atticus–as she did.

When Harper Lee’s editor suggested she explore Jean Louise’s autobiographical childhood flashbacks, I suspect that was really the question she was after answering.

If it wasn’t her question, it pretty obviously became Lee’s by some other means during the writing of TKAM.

Because for all the scant attention paid it in the current sturm und drang, the salient fact is that Watchman was written first.

To Kill a Mockingbird was an attempt to reconcile the Atticus and the Maycomb that Scout Finch/Harper Lee remembered from  her childhood with the air of fear and loathing that dominated the 1950s. Not the other way around.

I’m sure at least some reviewers have made this point. I’ve only read twenty or so and that’s a drop in the bucket. But I think I’ve read enough to say it hasn’t exactly been a common theme. Even those who insist, fairly enough, that the Atticus of Watchman is a logical extension of the Atticus of Mockingbird, don’t seem to quite grasp that the Atticus of Watchman is the one Harper Lee wrote about first.

For the shock Jean Louise feels at being Young Goodman Brown-ed in her own Alabama town to really register, you have to know that other, earlier Atticus.

Whatever its literary merits or lack thereof, Watchman is valuable at least this far: It clarifies that Atticus was/is a man of conscience. Not a saint or a Christ figure.

That, oddly enough, was the kind of English Major symbolism Lee left to the Crazies who are now beloved by the people they set out to please.

Yes, the Atticus Finch of Watchman is a segregationist. The scenes where Jean Louise actually confronts him on this aren’t handled particularly well, either as to placement in the plot (too late in the action) or exposition (way too talky and, dare I say, legalistic, even for a lawyer and his daughter). But, as the foundation, not extension, of Atticus Finch’s character, they’re neither contradictory, as some have claimed, nor perfectly consistent, as the usual suspects among the Sub-Texters insist.

As drama, the scenes don’t work very well. As exposition, they’re overwrought.

As an insight into how polite white southern families attempted to deal with the issue of the century among themselves and the impact such attempts were likely to have in the communities they were trying to preserve at all costs, they’re right enough.

There is nothing about the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird that says he would have let go of his world easily. Whatever else Harper Lee made of that fictional character based on her father, and the town where he raised both her fictional stand-in and herself, she didn’t play them false.

And, despite a hundred crit-illuminati claims to the contrary, she didn’t take the easy way out.

If Watchman does nothing else, it at least makes what should have been obvious all along, clearer still.

Not that I expect everyone to finally get it.

Too much of a leap after all. Atticus Finch has been an Official Liberal Hero for half a century. Gregory Peck played him in a movie for God’s Sake.

Let’s just all hope that the rumored third manuscript doesn’t contain the scenes where Atticus, who, in Watchman, holds the exact position on segregation in the mid-fifties that Lyndon Johnson did, explains to Scout why he’s changed his mind ten years later.

You know.

Like that too cussedly inconsistent and imperfect for fiction character Lyndon Johnson actually did.

Damn Southerners.

You can’t tell what they’ll do.

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STIRRING THE POT ONE LAST TIME (WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS…BUT WILL NEVER GET)

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(Mary Badham and Harper Lee on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird)

I’ve been reading To Kill A Mockingbird for forty years and tracking lit-crit theory on it for thirty. I’ve read volumes of praise and damnation in about equal measure. I’ve read what is likely to be Lee’s definitive biography (by Charles Shields and quite good). I’ve seen the movie ten or twelve times, most recently a couple of weeks back in Birmingham’s restored movie palace, the Alabama Theater, with an enthusiastic full house on Father’s Day.

I’ve read reams of speculation about Lee’s personal life, numerous theories on why the book is so popular and its author so reticent, seen the relevant documentaries about book, film and Lee herself.

I’ve read an awful lot about why she never published again (until this week, of course), including her own theories, which were mostly what you’d expect (pressure of expectations, nowhere to go but down, etc.) and mostly interesting because, even coming from her, they were clearly never more than theories.

One thing I’ve never read is anything remotely intelligent about the book itself.

That lack of intelligence–the willingness to let emotion rule every single mindset, for or against, over half a century, bridging every conceivable cultural or political divide–is par for the course when an enormously popular, era-defining book touches the Race Nerve.

If you can’t explain it, put gauze on it. Kick the can down the road. That’s the American way.

It happened with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (better to fight one of history’s bloodiest wars than get at the root of the problem). It happened with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which was finally bound to be turned into a tract for Good-Liberals-Who-Love-Them-Some-Negroes-and-Rednecks, no matter how many times Huck sold Jim down the river). It happened with Gone With the Wind (an insider’s thorough damnation of Confederate folly which naturally became the lasting touchstone for Lost Cause nostalgia).

And it happened, most intensely of all, with To Kill a Mockingbird, a warning shot across the bow of the then-ascending Civil Rights movement. That movement crested with a series of legal victories that had begun with Brown vs. Board of Education, several years before Lee took an editor’s advice/command to heart and started revising the book now being released (Go Set a Watchman), and would end with Lyndon Johnson signing a Voting Rights Act and a Civil Rights Act which, between them, amounted to the Federal Government’s century-in-coming solemn promise to finally start enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment.

It’s a measure of both our collective reading comprehension and how little we expect of ourselves that Atticus Finch came to be regarded (by worshippers and skeptics alike) as “saintly.” Evidently, the mere presence of a conscience is enough to give a man such qualities, because the Atticus of the book certainly possesses no others that could be called extraordinary and, despite some previous reservations, after having finally seen the movie the way it was meant to be seen, I have to say, neither does Gregory Peck’s film Atticus.

It’s true that Peck’s Atticus is loftier than Lee’s original conception. He’s Gregory Peck. How could he not be? But the nuance he brought to the role is a lot more evident when his face is writ larger than life. Make him thirty feet tall and the human element emerges. The movie is, in every respect then, excellent. There’s a reason I’ve watched it a lot. A reason I was willing to drive five hours to finally see it the right way.

But the movie still misses the book’s essence. Narratively, it doesn’t change anything vital, but, in pursuing a necessarily streamlined narrative, it does leave something else out.

What it leaves out was defined in another context before the sixties were done.

What it leaves out are hearts and minds.

It’s hard to change the law, Harper Lee essentially said, over and over, as she gave matchless dimension to the small town Alabama she meant, in her own words, “to be the Jane Austen of.”

It’s a lot harder to change people.

That message went missing from fifty years of snark and praise.

It’s still missing.

Fifty million people read her “children’s book.” A few hundred literati took occasion, year by year, to sneer at it for its “obviousness” and simple-mindedness.

But I keep wondering.

If it was all so obvious and all so simple, how was it we failed so thoroughly to look under its New Testament message and heed its Old Testament warning?

I have no idea whether an aging, infirm Harper Lee knew what she was about when she approved the release of Go Set a Watchman (with what all the folks who misread the first novel for half a century are assuring us is a very different Atticus). I ordered the book today so I’ll find out soon enough whether it’s worth writing about.

But whatever its worth is, it won’t change the long-misidentified import of Mockingbird itself.

Fifty years ago, Harper Lee had a better handle on the future than any of her celebrated southern colleagues who have Library of America volumes dedicated to them.

Despite the disappointment she later expressed over the failure of the Civil Rights era to finally do much more than put yet another band aid on America’s festering wound, (a failure some of her friends have speculated was perhaps another reason for her writer’s block), she wasn’t really Atticus, looking up from his paper for a moment and wondering aloud if maybe some day we’d get it right, if maybe the trial he’d lost was a small stepping stone in the right direction.

She knew better.

She knew Atticus hadn’t changed a thing.

Then, of course, she had an advantage. Believe it or not, the writer always does.

She already knew the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, a fact that seems to have been lost in the “what’s-this-now!” hornet’s nest the book’s fifty-something-years-in-coming release has now stirred up as we sit and watch some more cities burn.

And which kind of hornet’s nest might that be?

Oh, you know.

The kind the chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, church-going Methodist lady from Monroeville always did such a fine job of avoiding herself.

What else are you gonna do, when you’re surrounded by the very fools who set the world on fire just so they could watch it burn?

HARPERLEE1

…Okay, I better quit now. Before I get all emotional.

“FOR US, RECORDING WAS CHURCH” (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #49)

It’s been a week straight from the hot place so I apologize for the slow posting. Kidney stone, car’s AC went out (Florida, June, most fun you can have, etc.), behind at work…life’s usual rewards.

Short version of the weekend: The trip to Birmingham was long and tiresome but well worth it. I’ll have plenty to say about Love and Mercy (which I got to see a second time, this time in a theater which took me an hour and half to find but, unlike the one back here at home, did have a working sound system) and To Kill a Mockingbird (which I had seen a dozen or more times on VHS and DVD over the years and, as it turned out, never really seen at all) at some point or other.

One thing that happened on the way back was I had a chance to listen to the Beach Boys’ old box set from the nineties straight through and was struck, even more forcefully than usual, by how much R&B there was in their sound from beginning to end, and how good they were at incorporating it into a lot of other things and coming out with something uniquely their own.

I was also struck, during my wanderings on the internet of late in pursuit of whatever’s being said about Brian’s lovely biopic, just how little this gets mentioned.

So I was especially glad to come across this eighties’ era interview with Carl Wilson, where, despite a less than ideal setting or interviewer, he had a lot of intriguing things to say, including a great deal about just how much 50’s R&B in particular impacted the Wilson boys when they were growing up. It’s by far the longest, most in-depth interview I’ve ever seen with him..

And in case you want to hear how easily he incorporated all that, here’s the first important lead vocal he recorded on the way to becoming the finest singer any harmony group was ever blessed to call its own.

There’s always going to be a piece of me that will never accept him being gone:

 

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Short Take: Love and Mercy)

I don’t have time right now to write about the new Brian Wilson biopic at length. On the basis of several raves on the internet from people I trust, I had made up my mind to see it in a theater and that decision tipped me into a weekend trip to Birmingham (where I knew it was playing) tomorrow and Sunday.

Of course, since I went ahead and planned the trip (don’t worry, there’s a screening of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Alabama Theater just ahead of Harper Lee’s upcoming “prequel” which already had me leaning that direction…I don’t go off entirely half-cocked) Love and Mercy showed up in Tallahassee today.

I went to see it in order to save myself the trouble of searching out the theater in Birmingham.

Let’s just say I’m going to be searching out that theater anyway.

I’ll also be writing about the movie–and my history with the Beach Boys–at length. Maybe some time next week, when I can get my head at least partially around the experience I already had and the one I hope to repeat tomorrow evening.

One thing I can say off the cuff, though.

I’ve held a theory for about thirty years that a certain song was Brian’s version of “Hellhound on My Trail,” and I’m happy to report that I now have the best new movie I’ve seen in a theater in I don’t even know how long to back me up.

Nice to know, even if, in the context of the movie itself, it’s just part of a much, much larger narrative. So, meanwhile, for laughs…sort of:

 

MIDDLEBROW AT HIGH TIDE (Quarterly Book Report: July–September 2014)

To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee–1960; Audio by Sissy Spacek–2006)

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I’ll save any complicated thoughts I have about Lee’s much misunderstood novel (so often perceived by both its admirers and detractors as a rather simple celebration when in fact it was a stark warning) for its own post some day. For now, I’ll just mention that Spacek’s much-admired reading, which I’ve been meaning to get hold of for years, deserves every bit of the lavish praise it has received. A perfect match of narrator and material.

New Hope (Ernest Haycox–1998)

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A collection of Haycox’s stories from the 1930s, threaded together by some common themes and characters, concluding with his “New Hope” stories, which are a pulp version of Winesburg, Ohio. The stories are romantic but the tone is spare and unsentimental. The best Western pulp writers have received nowhere near the acclaim that the Crime pulps have and that’s a bit unfair. If there’s no one quite at the level of Hammett/Chandler/MacDonald in the genre there is still quite a bit of fine writing and here “The Hour of Fury”–written in the same era as Hammett’s end and Chandler’s beginning by a man who was admired by Faulkner and Hemingway, among others–is easily as good as their short fiction. At three hundred published stories in less than twenty years, I don’t doubt that he wrote too much (and some of that deadline strain shows here and there in this collection) but if three or four dozen were on a level with “Hour” and “Stage to Lordsburg” (the superb source story for John Ford’s monumental Stagecoach, which is available in the Criterion release of that film), then he, like Dorothy Johnson and a few others from the genre, is probably worthy of a look from the Library of America.

Rogue Moon (Algis Budrys–1960)

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Hardcore sci-fi from the golden age, meaning it’s a novel of ideas. In this case, the idea is an interesting and rather prescient one. Something is peeking in from another dimension and using the dark side of the moon for a base. The U.S. security state (yes it was already in full swing) has come across the thing and assigned scientists to study it. They keep transporting men (in the manner that would become familiar on Star Trek a few years later) and having them returned in various states of madness because their “other” bodies have experienced death.

So the lead scientist decides that they need a man who courts death–an early Evel Knievel type say.

Good thinking. Especially since the head of personnel has a perfect example in mind and he’s anxious to get the man out of the way so he can have a run at his gorgeous girlfriend.

See, I told you it was a novel of ideas!

In all seriousness, though–given pulp limitations–Budrys does a good enough job of keeping the balance between the human story and the somewhat abstract (he doesn’t over-explain, which is a place where sci-fi so often tends to fail) extra-dimensional elements. I can’t say it was a page-turner, but the pace was lively enough and the ending was both a genuine surprise and–given how little I thought I had invested in the two not-very-likable main characters–oddly touching.

LITERATURE FROM THE GOOD OLD TWENTIETH CENTURY

[In the further interest of acquainting my loyal readers with my general frame of artistic reference–and just for fun–here are a few notes on “My Favorite English Language novels of the 20th century that I actually read in the 20th century” (and actually compiled at the end of it because, hey, that’s my idea of fun!)…Among books I’ve read for the first time since, I would add Nabakov’s Bend Sinister and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man. Among books I’ve re-read since, I would add Charles Portis’ True Grit and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I’ve come to realize is at least as conveniently misunderstood and widely abused by the Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate as Gone With the Wind is by the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve. But I’ll stick with the ten I picked at the time. It’s not like anything that’s happened since has made me think any less of them!…These are in no particular order.]

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway 1926)

The book that not only made Hemingway’s reputation but placed in on such a firm foundation that it was able to more or less survive everything that happened after 1939. Which is saying something.

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner, 1929)

This sort of made Faulkner’s reputation and certainly justified it. It also put Joycean invention at the service of compelling narrative, the very thing Joyce himself took such pains to avoid. Afterward, Faulkner took considerable pains to avoid such things himself, but once, at least, he was the equal of the old masters.

Old New York (Edith Wharton, 1924)

I felt like I had been there. And that Ms. Wharton was the only person who could ever make me want to go back.

A Mouse Is Born (Anita Loos, 1951)

Is it mere coincidence that the best, funniest and most effectively absurdist novel I’ve read about Hollywood is also among the most ignored? Somehow, I never think so when I’m reading it.

The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler, 1953)

A man solves a murder (in a Hollywoodland not so far removed from Ms. Loos’) using little more than the very same attitude that will refuse to let him pretend the solution–or any solution–ever had the slightest chance of changing anything that might have been worth changing.

Judgment on Deltchev (Eric Ambler, 1952)

The greatest of the world’s seeming endless supply of spy novelists, defining the Twentieth Century, thusly: To participate was to lose.

The Man In the High Castle (Phillip K. Dick, 1962)

When I first read this, I was still young, and I thought Dick’s vision was a touch hyperbolic (though still genuinely unsettling). My subsequent running engagement with reality has long since brought me around to his way of thinking.

Burr (Gore Vidal, 1973)

Most of the reasons America was bound to come up a bit short, winding their dry, anecdotal way through what is likely the best historical novel written by an American.

A High Wind In Jamaica (Richard Hughes, 1924)

Tragicomedy about children and pirates. Its original American publisher insisted on calling it “The Innocent Voyage.” For as long as it stood, that represented the least accurate title in the publishing industry’s long, ignominious history of mislabeling things.

Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 1936)

The Old South taken apart more thoroughly and savagely than Faulkner, General Sherman or James Baldwin ever could–meaning by a more or less sympathetic insider. Interesting–and subversive–that Scarlett O’Hara, every genteel southerner’s living nightmare, has come to represent their “way of life” in the public imagination so thoroughly. As the century’s most famous English-language literary character by a wide margin (and the only American literary character of any era who is both fully three-dimensional and undeniably iconic), she will probably do so forever. Believe me, they deserved less.