In my summer reading post, I mentioned I was reading a biography of Ralph Ellison and would be writing a review of the book for the Main Street Journal. This is the extended version of the review (a shorter version will appear in the June issue of the magazine). One day I may go back and tighten the language a bit.
In 1945, providing his agent with a rough sketch of his then nascent novel, Ralph Ellison said of its protagonist, “He is something very rare, a true Negro individualist.” Like his unnamed protagonist, Ellison was an individualist. Staunchly opposed to racial divisions, he endorsed integration, setting himself at odds with other black writers and leaders who championed separatism. He was proud of his race and heritage but unwilling to define himself primarily by it. Rather, he sought to affirm himself as an individual through his artistry—a formidable task given many whites’ refusal to acknowledge that blacks shared in their humanity. He hoped, though, to craft a novel of such force and scope that the white literary elite could not dismissively praise it as merely fine “Negro literature” but would acknowledge it as one equal to the most celebrated of the American canon. In 1952, with his first (and only finished) novel, the surrealist masterpiece Invisible Man, he did just that.
In his compelling and copiously researched biography, Ralph Ellison (Knopf 672), Arnold Rampersad reveals the complexities of Ellison’s mercurial character as he examines the author’s early influences, his development as a writer, his triumph with Invisible Man, and his vexation at his failure to complete a second novel.
Ellison was born on March 1, 1913, in
After a failed move to
In 1932, at the insistence of his friend Malcolm Whitby, Ellison applied to Tuskegee Institute, where he hoped to join the orchestra (he had been training on the trumpet). Rejected once, he applied again and was accepted.
Ellison had hoped to impress the orchestra leader, W.L. Dawson, who he’d idolized since he conducted the
In 1936, following his junior year, Ellison decided to travel to New York in the summer in order to earn money in order to return to Tuskegee in the fall as well as to practice sculpture. On his second day in the city, Ellison met Langston Hughes. Impressed with Ellison, Hughes introduced him to prominent communist Harlem-based writers. It wasn’t until he befriended Richard Wright, in 1938, though, that Ellison pursued a career in writing. Wright, considered the most promising young black writer at the time (his most acclaimed works Native Son and Black Boy were published in 1940 and 1945 respectively), secured Ellison a spot with the New York Writers’ Project and encouraged him to try his hand at fiction. Wright, who eventually distanced himself from Ellison once he perceived him as a rival, would be Ellison’s biggest influence over the next few years.
By 1945, Ellison had published several short stories (some which come from an attempted novel Slick) as well as numerous critical pieces, and he had served as editor of the ill-faded Negro Quarterly. However, he was reluctant to accept an offer from a young publishing company, Reynal and Hitchcock, to write a novel, but eventually accepted the offer. As Rampersad observes, “He knew how late he had come to writing fiction, how much he had to labor to create stories, and how weak had been his grasp of literary technique.” Still, Ellison pressed on.
And on. It took Ellison nearly seven years to complete Invisible
When the novel was published in 1952, it met mostly with strong critical acclaim. In the New York Times Book Review, Wright Morris went as far to say, “The geography of hell is still in the progress of being mapped and [Invisible Man] belongs on the shelf with the classical efforts man has made to chart the river Lethe from its mouth to its source.” More impressively, Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953, besting Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
In the decades the followed, Ellison continued to reap the success of the novel. Wooed by elite universities, literary institutions, and even presidential councils, he became a prized speaker and teacher and established himself among
Ellison often suggested that the fire that destroyed his home in
Rampersad’s claim seems a bit tenuous. Certainly, Ellison had a host of white friends in the literary community, including Richard Wilbur, John Cheever, Kenneth Burke, Stanley Edward Hyman, and Saul Bellow (at times), but he also maintained relationships with black intellectuals such as Albert Murray and Nathan Scott. Ellison had long preferred the company of those who shared his interests, and many black leaders and writers of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, vehemently promoting Black Power and separatism, ridiculed him for his relative conservatism and privileged lifestyle. (Rampersad includes an anecdote that a librarian in the Black Studies program in the late 60’s at Southern Illinois University said the library didn’t carry Invisible Man “because Ralph Ellison is not a black writer. While Ellison’s optimism for integration may have been a bit naïve in those chaotic times, one could infer that Rampersad begrudges him for not abandoning his ideals. Furthermore, Rampersad seeks to bolster his assertion by detailing Ellison’s coldness towards a number of young black writers. It’s possible his coldness stemmed from concentrate on his own work and likely an anxiety that given his extended dry spell, they’d supplant him. Rampersad doesn’t establish cogent support that would demonstrate Ellison consistently showed any favor for young white writers either, though he does make a strong case that Ellison cared little for women writers of the time.
Considering that Ellison had composed over 2000 pages of the unfinished novel by the time of his death, an inability to shape and direct the work, not a dearth of ideas, would appear to be the main reason for his failure. One can only speculate as to why he failed to form the text into a coherent whole. Stanley Hyman, who had helped Ellison revise and hone Invisible Man as Ellison toiled with the novel, died in 1970. In 1982, Ellison said that the swiftness of cultural changes had stymied him. “Part of what’s taken so long is that so many things have changed so fast in our culture that as soon as I thought I had a draft that brought all of these things together, there would be another shift, and I’d have to go back and revise all over again.”
Toward the end of the biography, Rampersad explores Ellison’s legacy. The assessment of his career by contemporary black literary figures ranges from praise to rebuke. Rampersad writes of Charles Johnson’s acceptance of the1990 National Book Award, “his acceptance speech seemed to be one long tribute to Ralph.” Cultural critic Shelby Steele believes Ellison will prevail over his detractors: “. . . the hostility of many blacks toward Ellison is unexceptional in itself; and if history is any indication, the future will likely belong more to Ellison than to his accusers.” Ten years after his death, Toni Morrison, one of the writers to whom Ellison was aloof, said that his career had spawned a “spectacular novel; elegant essays; international respect” but went on to say, “The contemporary world of late twentieth-century African Americans was largely inaccessible, or simply uninteresting to him as a creator of fiction. For him, in essence, the eye, the gaze of the beholder remained white.”
Although some continue to question Ellison’s allegiances and ambitions, few contest the brilliance and perspicacity of his artistry. Even with the specter of an unfinished novel looming over his career (a pared down version of the unfinished manuscript was published in 2000 as Juneteenth), Ellison’s place in 20th century American literature is secure.
In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.
I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.
But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which
The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.
I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash
And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark
And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,
It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.
Full of tales of love fulfilled or unrequited, Who You Are, Brothers' full-length debut, shows hints of the songwriter's promise as an artist - particularly a knack for crafting catchy alt-pop on the album's livelier tracks - but becomes mired in mawkish, somnolent balladry. Propelled by syncopated percussion, the Pete Yorn-esque "Who You Are" provides plenty of pep as the first single, while the 80's-imbued "The Last One" boasts a riff that recalls The Cure's Porl Thompson. "Ride" matches Brothers' light but resonate vocal delivery with lush guitar arrangement as the song builds to a dynamic coda. Brothers has an unquestionable flair for penning poignant ditties for those oh-so-gripping moments in television and film, but the problem with Who You Are is that there aren't enough engaging songs to compensate for his ballad-happiness.
Brothers could certainly stand to curb his effusiveness. With the exception of "Jealousy," which begins with a subdued verse and then crashes into an impassioned, soaring chorus, the rest of the slower numbers swell with schmaltz and contrivance, with tinkling piano lines, delicate string arrangements, and Brothers' pathos-heavy vocal delivery. Lyrics that sound as if Brothers culled them from a junior high love letter only exacerbate the problem: "This is a glass parade/ A fragile state/ And I am trying not to break/ The stars are shining/ The moon is right/ And I would kill to be with you tonight" ("Glass Parade").
The breezy, acoustic-driven "Think Awhile" breathes a little life into the second half of the album, but both the pretty but plodding "All the Rage" and "Precious Lie" prove to be a cure for insomnia. Two empty tracks before the real bonus track, "Blue Eyes," give even more time for a siesta. Rearranging the track order or substituting one of the ballads with a more energetic song like "Waiting for Your Letter" (from the EP of the same name) would have helped to mitigate some of the monotony and combat - albeit slightly - the onslaught of smarm.
With a rich, ranging voice and an ear for pleasing melodies, Brothers is definitely talented, but Who You Are is the sound of a guy trying way too hard to show that he is. Before he pursued a career in music, Brothers worked in film production, and he certainly aims to create a captivating, cinematic dimension of sorts in his music. Unfortunately the overly earnest tone that pervades the bulk of the album is the musical equivalent of a lugubrious teen drama.
Some thoughts on graduation (not limited to Harding's ceremony):
- "Pomp and Circumstance" is quite possibly the worst instrumental piece in the history of Western civilization. The New York Philhamonic could play the song and I'd still hate it. I'm not a march connoisseur by any means, but I can't imagine one more plodding than "P&C." As I suffered through a six-minute rendition of the song last night, I started wondering who in the world deemed it the "official" graduation song. Well, after I conducted a little research today, I found we have Edward Elgar and Samuel Sanford to thank for their excrutiating contribution to commencement tradition. "P&C" is actually called "March No.1" and is one of five marches (I can't begin to imagine how boring the other four have to be) in Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches. In 1905, Sanford, who was a music professor at Yale, enlisted a slew of musicians, including the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, to play the song during the graduation recession. He chose the song to honor his buddy Elgar, who was on hand to receive an honorary Doctorate of Music. Apparently the song then became the popular choice for graduations across the country. You'd think that in the past 102 years, someone could've written a song to replace it!
- Even when played by a small high school band, Copland's "Variations on a Shaker Melody" from Appalachian Spring is stirring.
- It would be fun to replace caps and gowns with sombreros and sarapes.
- Commencement addresses are superfluous. If someone polled 1,000 people about whether they could remember anything their high school commencement speaker said (and that includes graduates from this year), how many people would have even the faintest idea what their speaker said? Three? Maybe.
It doesn't matter whether a commencement speaker's address is one of the most moving speeches in the history of the English language or a cliche-ridden snoozefest. Why? Because no one goes to a graduation to hear someone talk. As someone who teaches seniors, I know that some of them struggle to pay to attention to anything starting the first week of school, so they certainly aren't going to focus on a long-winded speech when they're on the cusp of graduating. The only thing graduates want to hear is the principal calling their name so they can go on stage to receive their diploma; family and friends of graduates only care about seeing their graduate receive his or her diploma and taking pictures.
I remember who spoke at my graduation--Kris Osborn from Channel One--but I have absolutely no idea what he said. I was too busy trying to inconspicuously open my bag of confetti.
Our speaker last night delivered a solid message replete with some bits of humor, but he spoke for thirty minutes! (Somewhere around the ten-minute mark is when I started imagining how fun sombreros and sarapes would be.)
It's unlikely someone will ever ask me to give a commencement address, but just in case they do, I've composed the following speech: "Seniors, life passes quickly, so I'm not going to take any more of your time. Congratulations on finishing high school. God bless." That's worthy of a standing ovation, right?
- There needs to be a designated place (preferably a spacious one) for people to offer their congratulations to graduates after the ceremony. I had hoped to speak with some of my students last night, but after wading through a sea of humanity in the lobby for five minutes and not finding a single graduate, I headed for my car. (I learned today that all the seniors exit to the library following the ceremony--I wish I'd known that last night.)
- I'm glad I don't teach at a large school.
- I taught a good group of students this year. They weren't always the most studious bunch, but they were funny, respectful, and kind. I'll miss them next year.
So, I begin the series with the closing passage from Cormac McCarthy's The Road*:
"Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."
* I commented on the novel a few posts ago.
Tom's parting words to Ma in Chapter 28 echo both themes:
"Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry n’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there. See?"
And they also remind me of Christ's description of the "sheep" in Matthew 28:34-40:
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?
The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'"
In the weeks leading up to the Beale Street Music Festival, whenever Janet and I would express our excitement about attending the last day of the festival, the very mention of the event elicited harrowing cautions from nearly everyone we spoke to. Judging by their responses, we'd face a daunting struggle for survival in a rain-soaked, riotous, post-apocalyptic land, where we'd have to defend ourselves from hoards of inebriated savages and trudge through a quagmire of mud, spilled beer, and vomit. Or something to that effect. But we weren't about to be deterred by our well-meaning prophets of doom. I mean, what's a little filth, bodily harm, and destruction when Guster and Barenaked Ladies are playing back-to-back on the same stage?
As I had expected, our cautioners' horror stories were rather exaggerated. Besides getting slightly soaked in a mid-afternoon deluge and catching an occasional whiff of reefer or the trash bins when the wind picked up, we had nothing but an enjoyable experience. Now, I realize what I consider minor inconveniences would be enough to keep some people from going, but you can't expect a festival to be an ideal concert venue. And, compared to the 109 degree heat and Dust Bowl-like cloud of dirt we faced at ACL (Austin City Limits Music Festival) two years ago, Music Fest was a picnic.
We arrived shortly after the gates opened and made our way through the park to claim a spot at the front of the Cellular South Stage (there were three main stages). Guster wouldn't be playing for another three hours, but we didn't want to have to fight our way to the front later.
Local rockabilly legend, Billy Lee Riley opened Sunday's music. Riley was an artist on Sun Records during the label's heyday, but despite his talents as a singer and songwriter, he never achieved the popularity of Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis. Nonetheless, he remains a Memphis icon and at age 73 still performs with some of Sun Records' finest musicians. He played for about an hour, covering some classics like "That's All Right Mama" and mixing in some songs from his own material including his biggest hit, "Red Hot." It was cool to see such an energetic performance from someone his age, but after a while every song sounded a lot like the one that came before it. That's just the nature of rockabilly, I guess. It's better for dancing than concentrated listening.
The rains tried to take center stage when the jam band Umphrey's McGee took the stage after Riley. The downpour drenched the crowd and the stage, sending roadies to frantically cover the equipment with plastic. The weather didn't really faze the band, though, and their loyal contingency of fans danced and cheered in the deluge.
Like Riley, UM was new to me. I did a little research on them when I got home and found that in 2004, Rolling Stone said they were in line to be the next Phish. Their style struck me as a melange of Phish, Yes, and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, with a bit of reggae and Van Halen finger-tapping thrown in for good measure. If that sounds a bit weird, it was. I appreciated their musicianship--they were gifted instrumentalists--but it didn't take long for me to tire of their extended jams. From what I could tell, they only played about five songs the entire hour.
With the rain subsided and ten-minute musical interludes behind us, Janet and I were fired up for Guster--though not as fired up as the girl to my left who was celebrating her 21st birthday and screamed things like "Will you marry me, Adam!" and "You're all I wanted for my birthday!" after every song they played. Needless to say, she had probably spent more than a little time at the Budweiser tent.
Guster kicked off their set with the galloping "The Captain" from their latest album, Ganging Up on the Sun, and then rolled right on into "Barrel of a Gun," a classic from Lost and Gone Forever. The set included three more songs from GUOTS, some favorites from older albums like "Demons" and "Happier," a cover of Geoff Muldaur's "Brazil," and a new song (actually an outtake from GUOTS) called "G Major." Their combination of catchy songs, impeccable musicianship (Brian Rosenworcel's astonishing hand percussion work is reason enough to see them live), and a little humorous interplay with the crowd made for a memorable show. So, not surprisingly, just like when I saw them in 2000 at the Erwin Center, they proved the perfect lead-in to Barenaked Ladies.
As much as I enjoy listening to BNL's albums, nothing beats seeing them in concert.*
They burst into their set with "One Week," "Old Apartment," and "Sound of Your Voice" before jumping into the first of two improvs. For an hour and fifteen minutes, with Steve breaking out his full repertoire of crazy kicks, jumps, and dances, the band stirred up the crowd with high-energy favorites like "It's All Been Done," "Alcohol," and "Brian Wilson." The highlight of the show for me was "Break Your Heart." There are power ballads in the sense of cheesy, hackneyed hair metal love songs, and then there are power ballads in the dynamic, build-to-a-musical-catharsis sense. "Break Your Heart" is the latter. That song alone makes a good case for Steven Page having the most powerful voice in rock/pop music.
And, a BNL show wouldn't be complete without some hilarity. The funniest moments were Ed's improv about his almost fruitless quest to find a BBQ joint open on a Sunday and the guy's talking to people watching the show from their patio across the street. They joked that one of the guys on the patio looked apt to moon the crowd. He did.
Although BNL were the high point of the day for me, Counting Crows were the closing act. In high school and early in college, few bands moved me the way Counting Crows did. I think melancholy songs about unrequited love provide a fitting soundtrack for that phase of life. But I wasn't drawn just to Adam Duritz's lugubrious lyrics; their music was great. With This Desert Life, though, the quality of their songs began to wane. Oh, it's not a bad album by any means and neither is Hard Candy. But if you think either of those albums comes close to August and Everything After or Recovering the Satellites, then you must be a relative of someone in the band. (And if you like their cover of "Big Yellow Taxi," there are people that can help you kick drugs.)
By the time Counting Crows started playing, we'd been standing in basically the same spot for almost seven hours. I felt like someone had beaten me in the legs and back, and Janet felt worse. We stuck around for four songs before we headed out to grab a late dinner with Chris and Andrew (I failed to mention they arrived at the tail end of Guster's set.) Counting Crows opened strong with "Recovering the Satellites," "Hard Candy," "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby," and "Mr. Jones." The band was sharp, but I got annoyed by Adam Duritz's tendency to fall into "spoken word" renderings of parts of verses rather than sticking to the melody--You wrote a melody for the song. You're a singer. Sing! As we were leaving, we got to hear the band's slow version of "The Rain King." Fast or slow, that song is awesome. And he sang the whole time!
No attacks by drunken marauders. No sinking knee-deep in mud. No contact with spilled beer or vomit. Just Guster, BNL, and a little Counting Crows. That's a great day at the Beale Street Music Festival in my book.
*Even if you're convinced you don't like BNL, see them in concert. You'll like them. If not, well, then you wouldn't know a good time if it smacked you in the face.
There are a lot of things in life you can get away with putting off doing--unpacking your suitcase after a tiring trip, organizing your closet, filling out superfluous paperwork at work, getting out of bed in the morning to pee before you're ready to get up (I don't recommend putting that off too long). But I learned today it's not a good idea to put off having your brakes checked when they start showing signs of wear and tear.
My brakes had been squeaky for a while. I'd like to say that means they started squeaking a few weeks ago, but it was more like ten months ago. Until the past month, the noise didn't amount to much. By then the sound grew loud enough that I could hear it even with my radio blaring. Still, I had better things to do besides take the car to Value Brakes. That is, until two days ago when the squeaking was accompanied by a grinding, I-think-may-wheel-may-fall-off noise.
So today I broke down and took Clifton (yes, I named my car) in for repairs. The front left brake was metal on metal, the rotor needed resurfacing, and both front brakes needed new calipers and brake pads. And all for the price of just $402! Of course, I had no room to complain about the cost. I'd expected the repairs to be expensive.
And so the wait began. Every repair shop is basically the same. There's a water cooler, a TV with terrible reception, and a stack of six-month-old magazines. And all you can do to pass the time is thumb through the magazines and think about any number of things you'd rather be doing or how much money you're about to spend. A repair shop isn't as bad as a doctor's office, though. After waiting in the lobby, the mechanic doesn't lead you into the garage where you wait longer. And, better yet, nobody examines your nether regions. Still, with two hours needed for repairs, I wasn't about to sit around the whole time.
Strolling around in search of a place to buy a snack, I spotted Sheridan's Custard. With a menu the length of a phone book, a shaded patio, and oldies playing over the speakers, it proved the perfect place to enjoy a frosty treat on a hot day. (Ah, the delight of mocha almond custard.) I found out this evening that Sheridan's has locations in ten states: http://www.sheridansfrozencustard.com/
When I returned to Value Brakes, I was surprised to find they actually had a few intriguing magazines, including a Smithsonian with an article on Shakespeare. (Yes, I teach English.)
Taking a stroll on a sunny afternoon, enjoying some mocha custard, and reading a good magazine. That's not a bad way to spend an afternoon. Well, as long as I leave out the part about the $400.