Thanks to this whole sick crew for the sing along.
This one tore me up.
Thanks to this whole sick crew for the sing along.
This one tore me up.
So I just finished auditing Drag City’s audiobook version of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1984 novel Slow Fade. I finished on yet-another-walk-around-the-block, this time for the express reason of ending it. The novel is read by Will Oldham with actor D.V. DeVincentis (who perhaps unfairly got left out of the headline—but no offense to DeVincentis, he has not been a hero of mine since I was like fourteen).
I read it because one of my heroes Thomas Pynchon blurbed it (do you sense a terrible propensity toward hero worship in me?). A bit of googling-it-up revealed that one of Wurlitzer’s later novels Slow Fade was reprinted by Drag City back in 2011, along with an audiobook version recorded by the singer/songwriter/actor/guy Will Oldham. This kind of shocked me—I’ve been a fan of Will Oldham and Drag City since 1994, when I and three other dudes pooled our money to order CDs, LPs, and 7″s from the fledgling label and tape the music for each other. (I got the Hey Drag City comp. I guess it must’ve been sophomore year of high school. I ended up using a line from “For the Mekons et. al.” by Will Oldham’s band Palace Brothers as my senior quote. (The quote was “If you can forget how to ride a book you have had a good teacher,” which I thought was like, super zen, but the yearbook staff fucked it up and rendered it as “If you can forget how to ride a book you have had a teacher.” My parents bought the yearbook declaring I would love to pore over it; I threw it away maybe 18 years ago and should’ve thrown it away years before that.))
Man! I’ve really gotten far without discussing the novel. Good for me. I started with the headline instead of the content, which seems a terrible thing to do to the reader. (Look, I’ve been drinking, which is not a good idea.)
Every one in Slow Fade is drinking (and drugging and fucking, and trying to get rock’n’rolling—but mostly they are despairing, grieving, blowing up what’s left of their lives.) The novel centers around a megalomaniac film director, Wesley Hardin, a kind of totemic holdover of Old Hollywood-into-New-Hollywood, a maker of rough Westerns likened to John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Sam Peckinpah. (Wurlitzer wrote the script for Peckinpah’s 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Everything meaningful in this riff is probably parenthetical at this point.)
I marked the audiobook to quote from it but in the spirit of Wurlitzer’s novel and Our Uncertain Times I’m on my third tequila drink and I really can’t be bothered. He can turn a phrase or two or three, but there are some crutches in there, some clunkers. (And maybe some zappers: Okay—in the spirit of the parentheses doing the real work: Wurlitzer gives us the image of “a thin slice of moon that hung up in the sky like a whore’s earring,” a simile that is simultaneously terrible and great.)
Ah! But what is it about? you ask.
In the words of Hardin’s (much younger) wife Eveyln—
“It’s about a man and his wife looking for the man’s sister who has disappeared in India. So far they haven’t found her.
Well—okay—that’s actually Evelyn’s description of the screenplay that Wesley Hardin’s son Walker Hardin is writing with the opportunistic roadie/keyboardist/hustler AD Ballou (Assistant Director Balloo?), who gets shot in the eye with an arrow when he rides a stolen horse into Wesley Hardin’s current film at the beginning of Slow Fade. (Wesley and Walker both go on to blow up their lives after this moment, while AD saves his.)
In the meantime, opportunistic folk opportune around Wesley, who flames out in spectacular, globetrotting fashion. The novel plays out as a series of bad decisions, oedipal impulses, and drug-addled romps. Wesley’s treacherous cameraman Sidney tries to make his own film about the aging auteur’s implosion, leading to a postmodern film-within-a-film-within-a-film-script-within-a-novel structure that is hardly as cute as I might’ve just posited. There are heroes and villains, but mostly villains.
(Slow Fade mostly made me think of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and HBO’s Succession. My mental eye couldn’t decide if Wesley was Brian Cox or John Huston.)
Will Oldham’s narration is fantastic—honest and raw, unaffected but also acted with the achieved naturalism of a narrator who understands the novel and doesn’t need to ham it up. D.V. DeVincentis reads the sections of the novel that take the form of the film script that AD and Walker are writing, a production device that adds dynamism to the auditing experience.
I liked Slow Fade a lot more than Wurlitzer’s first novel Nog, which oozed with the abject excess of the sixties, always gazing inward. Slow Fade isn’t without its problems—the women have agency but are underwritten, and the sex scenes are at best plot points and at worst embarrassing. The novel seems a companion pieces to Pynchon’s Vineland, a riff on the failure of the Western Sixties. And also like Nog, Slow Fade reads like an encomium for the American Dream of the West. Here though, the Western dream of space, expansion, and destiny manifesting itself into the Hollywood dream seeks an Eastern outlet, a metaphysical escape hatch into India, Nepal, exotic enlightenment. But that’s all on the characters. Wurlitzer’s ultimate viewpoint sings far more cynical. Slow Fade depicts a world of opportunists trying to drape dreams over any dupe that steps in their general direction. The results are tragic, ugly, and cynical. Recommended.
How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by John Fahey. Third edition paperback from Drag City (DC 124). No designer credited.
I first read Fahey’s collection in 2000 or 2001, when it first came out—a good friend lent it to me and I returned it. Later, he loaned it to another friend who did not return it. I bought the book last summer while visiting the first friend (he took me to the Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop in Brooklyn). Fahey’s book is sorta memoir, sorta fiction (at times), all weird and good. There’s a wonderful chapter about Fahey’s work on Michaelangelo Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point that culminates in Fahey and Antonioni getting into a fistfight.
Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy by Will Oldham and Alan Licht. First edition trade paperback from W.W. Norton. Cover design by Faber using a painting (of Oldham) by Becky Blair.
The friend who lent me the Fahey book insisted for months that I pick up Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy; when I kept neglecting to find it, he eventually just sent it to me. The book is basically the edited transcripts of discussions between Oldham and Licht. While there’s a heavy focus on Oldham’s music (and his acting career), the book is ultimately about creation and the artistic process. It is one of the better books about music that I’ve ever read. (A “Cosmological Timeline” at the end of the book begins in 1778 with Captain James Cook’s discovery of the “the Hawaiian tradition of surfing” and ends in 2011 with Jennifer Herrema changing RTX into Black Bananas).
Sign ‘O’ the Times by Michaelangelo Matos. A 33 1/3 book from Continuum, 2004. No designer credited.
I bought this at a Friends of the Library sale maybe 10 years ago. Matos’s take on Prince’s 1987 double album weaves music history and music criticism into personal memoir. The book ends with Prince seeing Matos seeing Prince at an Ohio Players’ show in 1997.
The controlling idea, I think, is not supposed to be about the performer, but the listener. The performer is always going to dominate and control the whole experience, but as much as you drain expression out of the performance, it’s still going to be completely dominated by the performer. You can get people to sand off those portions of the performance that maybe allow the individual more access and the listening experience to have more to it. If it’s all about the performer’s idiosyncrasies and emotions, then there is no room for the audience. Some audience members might like that kind of music, but take something hyper-emotive, like Janis Joplin, and I’ll think, Ok, Janis, there is no room for me in these songs, so I’ll just turn this off and listen to something else.
And Oldham’s latest video, which I would probably totally hate if I didn’t love it so goddamn much:
It would just be dumb not to include this. I have been once accused of being irreverent above all, and I am in danger of proving that here when I say that I find most Malick 2.0 movies to be ridiculous. I do like To the Wonder because it’s pulpy. When I heard that Malick was making The Thin Red Line, I checked James Jones’s book out of the library and sat in my attic sublet poring over it in anticipation of what was to come, and when it came . . . gee whiz but what an overblown lint ball of homoerotic bluster and worthlessness. And: there’s nothing wrong with Badlands. Beautiful, great music, magical pace, great, great acting. An ultimate movie, so good that it’s understandable how the momentum from Badlands alone can propel boatloads of people to believe that The New World has content. Springsteen appropriated Badlands, using its power to artificially light his Nebraska. Tarantino and Tony Scott used it to make the best screwball romantic comedy of modern times, True Romance. Badlands is as close to a perfect movie as I can think of (though I don’t hold perfection as the most desirable of qualities in anything), one that holds something to draw in almost any audience. Even the brutality that might otherwise repel is balanced enough with gentleness and charisma that I wouldn’t squirm watching the movie with a grandparent. Well: children probably shouldn’t see it. Maybe probably.
Will Oldham put Terrence Malick’s film Badlands at number #3 on his Criterion Collection Top Fifteen list.
Earlier this month, my good friend sent me Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, a book-length interview between Oldham and musician Alan Licht. In the book, Oldham parses his identity from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the character he’s been performing (in different versions) for over a decade now. The book is fascinating stuff and strangely personal/weird for me—reading his oral history is bizarre, I guess, because I remember it all happening. Like, I remember buying the 7″s he talks about making; I remember puzzling over the early Palace LPs, trying to glean meaning from the covers, the personnel. Palace—Oldham—B”P”B—soundtracked so much of my high school and college days that I inevitably had a falling out with him/them/it—or maybe that’s not the right word…what is the term for the emotional intensity we feel toward certain albums, certain records imprinted in the back of our souls? (I used a line from “For the Mekons et al” for my Senior yearbook quote but the fucking yearbook staff fucked it up. But fuck a yearbook anyway). Ease Down the Road was the last Oldham record that I let get to me; intellectually, I realize that the stuff he did after is somehow superior—tighter, richer even—but it couldn’t sink in, I wouldn’t let it sink in, too many too-good memories already there, I don’t know. I saw him on the Superwolf tour; he deepthroated the mic during an R. Kelly cover, and after the show my wife remarked that he would never be welcome as a guest in our home. I thought that seemed harsh. I tried—years later, reading this book—to explain that it was just a character. No dice.
There’s a scene in Adaptation (dir. Spike Jonze, 2002), where “real life” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nick Cage) delivers a railing lament that he can’t create the film he wants to–a film like “real life,” a film where people don’t face huge crises, where people don’t change, where nothing much happens. Adaptation unravels into a farce on Hollywood as Charlie’s twin brother Donald takes over the movie, clumsily forcing sex, drugs, and violence into a story frame that wasn’t meant to bear such themes. Perhaps last year’s Old Joy is the movie Charlie Kaufman would have wanted to make, if he could have.
I picked up Old Joy for two simple reasons: 1) the AV Club seemed to love it and 2) Will Oldham is one of the two leads (digression: a few years ago my wife and I saw Oldham perform on the tour supporting the Superwolf record. Oldham was drunk and somewhat lascivious, prompting my wife to announce that he would “never be allowed in our house.” That cracks me up to this day for some reason).
I didn’t expect to like Old Joy nearly as much as I did. The story is very simple: two aging hipsters go on a weekend camping trip in the Oregon Cascades in search of an isolated hot spring. They get a little lost the first night, camp near the road, and get back on track the next day, finding the springs without incident. Then they go home. No crises, no conflict, no life-changing events, right? Well, not necessarily. This movie is subtle. Crisis and conflict are never stated or overt, but there is definitely tension between these two old friends.
Aspects of Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham) remind me of both myself and just about all of my friends. Mark’s wife is very pregnant; faced with imminent fatherhood, he is more conventionally “responsible” than Kurt, who apparently doesn’t have a permanent job or residence. Kurt gets the pair lost the first day of the trip, and while Mark pores over a map looking for some directions, Kurt carelessly rolls and smokes a joint. The tension between the two is largely implicit, and the only time the movie’s crisis–are these two still friends?–rears its head is over a campfire scene, when, after many several beers, Kurt breaks down and admits that there’s “something” between the two of them, and that their relationship has somehow changed. Mark swears that everything is fine and the issue is more or less dropped, at least in dialog. However, that conversation lingers wistfully over the rest of the film and perhaps remains unresolved.
But dialog is not what this film is about. The real star of this film is director Kelly Reichardt’s lush footage of the verdant forests and streams of the Cascade Mountains. Paired with the more mundane shots of the countryside-as-seen-from-a-moving-car, these “nature shots” standout in their dreamy beauty. Reichardt’s pacing is lovely; he allows the camera to rest on still moments of tranquility, producing a soothing tone and mood that contrasts uneasily with the unspoken tensions between Mark and Kurt. Reichardt allows the forest’s own soundtrack of running water and singing birds to do much of the talking in this film, using Yo La Tengo’s beautiful soundtrack sparingly but to great effect. And at just 76 minutes, the film is a perfect length–the shots are profound at times, but never ponderous.
The overall experience of Old Joy is a mix of ineffable loss and stunning but calming beauty, perhaps best expressed in a line from Kurt. “Sorrow is just worn out joy,” he tells Mark, relating a dream he recently had. And it’s that kind of paradox that informs the film–that merging of beauty and loss and beginnings and endings. In the end, we don’t get answers, and if the characters change, those changes are understated and incremental. In Charlie Kaufman’s terms, this is a film about “real life,” and no doubt many viewers will see aspects of themselves haunting the screen.