BOOK OF CHANGES
Author: Kristine McKenna
February 2001, 264 pages, $14.95
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The Unblinking I
In my secret identity as a teacher of rhetoric and composition, one of the cardinal rules I try to impress upon my students is “Keep yourself out of the essay”—that is, if you want to persuade or inform, present your argument as a fact of which your reader is simply as yet unaware. It’s not, for example, that you believe there should be campaign finance reform or that you think children should not be allowed to watch South Park, but rather there must be reform or parental intervention, for such-and-such following reasons. Your direct presence only undermines the argument, turning it into your personal axe to grind.
Pop journalism, on the other hand, is a different critter altogether. As Almost Famous showed us, it takes a special kind of reporter to bridge the gap that separates celebrities from the rest of us, an intrepid and ballsy sort with the fortitude to plunge headlong into the Bizarro world of stardom, with its eccentric characters and arcane initiations, and come away with some copy in time to meet a deadline. If the greatest fear of the majority of us is to stand up in front of other people, then performing and the active pursuit of fame are aberrant behaviors—is it really that surprising that Michael Jackson and Madonna and Prince, not to mention Elvis, are so fucked up? It follows that only a personality that, if not just as skewed, is at ease in the funhouse can confront celebrities and draw them out. No wonder pop journalists tend to live celebrity lives themselves and tend to make themselves part of the stories they file, whether it’s the I’m-with-the-band ramblings of Lisa Robinson and Kurt Loder, Lester Bangs’ speed-freak manifestos, or Hunter S. Thompson’s field reports from his own personal unhinged universe. Thus pop journalism tends to be largely metanarrative in nature, of equal parts about celebrities, about knowing celebrities, about writing about knowing celebrities, and about being celebrities themselves, albeit by osmosis.
Beat Punks, by Victor Bockris, is that sort of book. Ostensibly it centers around Bockris’ thesis that in the Seventies the survivors of the Beat Generation owed their resurgence to the vitality of punk, which had been, in turn, inspired by the Beats. The problem here is that all of the support for Bockris’ premise is engineered by Bockris himself. As a reporter for High Times and collaborator on books by Andy Warhol, William S. Burroughs, and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, Bockris was fond of setting up summit meetings between his various interview subjects and recording the results. Some of these summits are largely successful, such as a wonderful conversation between Burroughs and Christopher Isherwood so cosmically appropriate it’s hard to imagine they had never met before. Others are just awful, such as a dinner party with Burroughs, Warhol, and Mick Jagger (who filled in for a recently arrested Keith Richards and only so he could ask Bockris not to publish the transcript) in which everyone contrives to be intellectual despite having nothing to say to each other. Still others are simply baffling—Susan Sontag and Richard Hell have a lively discussion about literature and politics, but why did Bockris feel it vital to show us Burroughs and Harry discussing answering machines and why the French suck?
Because they’re William Burroughs and Debbie Harry, and because they’re both casual pals of Victor Bockris, that’s why. Beat Punks appears to be largely an abbreviation for Beats and Punks Who Gave Me Their Phone Numbers, and the summit meetings appear to be less for the reader’s benefit as they are for Bockris’ friends to be impressed by Bockris’ other friends. Bockris is a relentless name-dropper, and it is a wonder to see how he can work the name of “Bill Burroughs” into any discussion.
This is not to say that the book is without merit. Fine moments abound here—Burroughs/Isherwood, Sontag/Hell, terrific interviews with Keith Richards and Allen Ginsberg, and nice articles on Berlin in the Seventies and the writing of Andy Warhol. Furthermore and surprisingly, Bockris includes well-chosen material by other writers, especially Richard Hell’s insightful 1998 elegy to Burroughs, and a truly moving account of the passing of Ginsberg by Rosebud Feliu-Pettet. There is a generous helping of photographs here (enough to exclude stills from Rock’n'Roll High School), and some of the pictures don’t even have Victor Bockris in them. It’s an apt visual metaphor for Beat Punks as a whole, a lovely portrait of the Manhattan underground scene of the Seventies and Eighties if you can ignore the photographer’s everpresent thumb.
Kristine McKenna knows William Burroughs too. And Pauline Kael and Bo Diddley and Artie Shaw and Werner Herzog and Nick Cave and Robert Crumb. Where Bockris maintains a tight shot of Manhattan in his book, McKenna’s Book of Changes is a panorama view of relentless coolness, a collection of 38 interviews with a broad spectrum of influential artists thematically centered around discussions about change in themselves and in the world.
Like Bockris, McKenna covered the late Seventies punk scene, but in Los Angeles, originally for Wet magazine. Her portfolio grew to include pieces for Artforum and Rolling Stone, and so the breadth of her access to such a diverse group of creative individuals is almost unsurprising. What’s more, in several instances (the ubiquitous Burroughs, for example—jeez, now I’m doing it) McKenna was apparently able to charm initially intractable subjects into second and third interviews. These serve her well as she illustrates life changes in action in these people’s lives. An ongoing conversation with David Lynch, for example, shows us the quirky filmmaker at the height of his powers, upon the release of Blue Velvet, and again later in a more philosophical frame of mind following the double crash-and-burn of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway. Four interview segments with Brian Eno, from 1980 to 1997, detail a slow evolution and refinement of the musician’s worldview that will engender respect for his mind even if one finds his music self-indulgent.
McKenna has a genuine affection for her subjects, but it is the affection of a fan rather than an inveterate insider. She had the misfortune of interviewing Werner Herzog after he was accused at the New York Film Festival of causing the deaths of several extras during the filming of Fitzcarraldo, and Herzog’s raw hostility apparently drove her to tears. She writes of her relief after Van Morrison complimented her on her questions. And in her introduction, McKenna apologizes for the effusive gushing in the prefaces to the individual interviews. She needn’t apologize, as it’s her enthusiasm for her subjects that drives the book and leads her to the refreshing decision to omit her questions in several of the pieces, allowing the words of the interviewees to stand alone (in the case of the ever-sermonizing Howard Finster, this is definitely for the best).
The unfortunate flipside of said enthusiasm is McKenna’s frequent tendency to lob softballs at her subjects. McKenna states up front, “I think it’s possible to put an intimate conversation into print without violating confidences or hurting anyone,” but while that’s a lovely show of respect, it also undermines the unique power of the interview format, to chisel away at the subject’s public persona and reveal the artist’s true motivators. When Nina Simone says in 1999 that she’s afraid she’ll be killed if she returns to America, or when Nico calls Charles Manson “a prodigal son who went wrong, and that’s what life is all about,” they should be challenged. To do any less is to be complicit in rank persiflage, to aid and abet dishonesty.
Still, there are so many nice moments in Book of Changes that it is worth the read, not the least of which are the illustrations. The book is published by Fantagraphics Books, better known as the publishers of such comics as Love and Rockets and Hate, and 28 cartoonists under Fantagraphics’ aegis provide portraits of each of the interview subjects. Particularly good are Crumb’s portraits of James Brown, Bo Diddley, and Artie Shaw, Eric Reynolds’ rendering of photographer William Eggleston, Bill (Zippy the Pinhead) Griffith’s Mel Torme, and David Lasky’s Peter Weir. But hands down my favorite rendering is Peter (Hate) Bagge’s Pete Townshend, if only because it never dawned on me before how much Townshend looks like a Peter Bagge drawing in real life—trust me on this.
Or don’t, because I’ve been doing that thing I tell my students never to do, putting myself into the essay. I can’t help it—I’m a pop journalist too, perpetrating metanarrative cubed: writing about celebrities writing about knowing celebrities and writing about them. Or something like that. I’m not terribly worried about it, though. If any of them read this, I’ll just remind them that language is, after all, a virus. Bill Burroughs said that, you know.