Books

She and I: A Fugue

Self Portrait (partial) by Francis Bacon

Slapping the word 'Fiction' on the cover of a book is not a "get out of jail free" card or, more accurately, a license to kill – just because memoirs have to be true, it doesn’t follow that novels should be allowed to be false.

Truth

Literature holds some passages that as a result of over-exposure are immortal but mundane, in the same sense that the Mona Lisa is both of these things: If we peer very, very intently, we can discern the original glimmer of beauty or truth that destined it for agelessness, but otherwise, it's just a thing on the wall.

John Keats' most famous lines of poetry -- " 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'", and the poem in which the lines are found, "Ode on a Grecian Urn", address this very notion but ironically have, themselves, long ago faded into the wallpaper. Nonetheless, the lines came back to me for the first time since Freshman English, and with a renewed force, as I struggled to understand why I rather liked an oddly written new memoir called She and I: A Fugue and why I so loathed another book, somewhat better-written and vastly better-selling, that I coincidentally happened to be reading at the same time.

Let us begin with the object of my abhorrence. I'm a fan of crime fiction and mysteries, which I tend to read in parallel with the books -- lately, mostly memoirs -- that I review. I've worked my way through most of Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, A.C. Doyle, and Dashiell Hammett, and have recently become a fan of Richard Price, Ruth Rendell, Michael Connelly, Lawrence Block, and Peter Hoeg, among others. All of course are very different from one another, but none, whether they lean more toward the "crime" side or the "mystery" side of the spectrum, can be accused of shying away from the turbid depths of the human spirit. So when I opened a debut mystery novel called Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn, the chief TV critic at Entertainment Weekly, I wasn't expecting a walk on the mild side.

Nor was I surprised that the protagonist was a deeply disturbed human being who is "dogged by her own demons", as the publicity material puts it, and carves words like "wicked" and "babydoll" and "icebox" into the hidden parts of her flesh with a blade. After all, the days when the hero of a crime or mystery novel was merely a puttering eccentric like Miss Marple or Poirot or Nero Wolfe are far in the past, and it has become virtually de rigueur, and probably not all that inaccurate, for contemporary investigators to be former drug addicts, or imperfectly reformed alcoholics or, in one way or another, deeply miserable human beings who have to struggle to make it through the day. (I have to admit, however, that the "icebox" was an anachronistic head-scratcher; why doesn’t she slash "Victrola" or "velocipede" into her inner thighs while she's at it?)

But Flynn takes this relatively recent stereotype and plows it into the muck. It isn't so much that her "heroine", a Chicago newspaper reporter named Camille Preaker who returns to her home town of Wind Gap, Missouri to investigate some vicious (needless to say) child murders, is a cutter; that subculture has invaded even our junior high schools these days. No, the issue is that Preaker has figuratively slashed her eyes and her soul as well as her flesh, causing her -- and thus, the unfortunate reader -- to see all of the human beings she encounters as if they've been painted by those masters of disgust, Francis Bacon and Ivan Albright, and then drizzled with rancid grease for good measure.

And that's all of the characters, not just the ones who murder little girls.

Here are a few of Preaker's portraits of the non-murdering residents of the small town in Missouri where she was raised:

"I turned to see one of my mother's friends, Jackie O'Neele (nee O'Keefe) who'd clearly just had a facelift. Here eyes were still puffy and her face was moist and red and stretched, as if she was an angry baby squeezing out of the womb."

"Angie Papermaker (nee Knightley) looked like she was still battling the bulimia that'd whittled her down in high school -- her neck was as thin and ropy as an old woman's."

"Jackie purred. She had a melon of a head, covered with overbleached hair, and a leering smile."

"She smiled leeringly again and clicked her round brown eyes open and shut. She reminded me of a ventriloquist dummy come alive. With hard skin and broken capillaries."

"I was hoping Betsy Nash would disappear. Literally. She was so insubstantial, I could imagine her slowly evaporating, leaving only a sticky spot at the edge of the sofa."

"The piggy middle child, who now waddled dazedly into the room, was destined for needy sex and snack-cake bingeing."

"The boy next to me, introduced only as Nolan, nodded and wiped sweat off his upper lip. Skinny arms with scabs and a face full of acne. Meth. Missouri is the second-most addicted state in the Union." (One of a dozen or so slams at Missouri in this book, by the way; can a state sue for libel?)

Worse even than these physical descriptions is the selfish, cowardly, and apathetic way in which the characters (at least as they are seen through Preaker's blood-rimmed eyes) react to the murders of the little girls, who suffered, among other horrors, the forcible extraction of all of their teeth. Even those girls, after all their suffering, don't get a break, as if we readers are expected to shrug, too, at their demise; one of the victims had "killed a neighbor's pet bird with a stick. She'd sharpened it herself with one of her daddy's hunting knifes." The other victim? One of the characters says, "Hell, her family moved here two years ago because she stabbed one of her classmates in the eye with a pair of scissors."

This is, trust me, only a small sampling of what awaits the reader of this book; I gave up on page 91, so overwhelmed was I by the contempt for the characters and the milieu, and so fearful of what horrors lay ahead, as if an exhibition of Francis Bacon's paintings were to have, in a hidden room in the back, actual flayed and eviscerated lumps of living human flesh on display, rather than merely their two-dimensional representations.

Let me anticipate two objections. Stephen King, for one, writes of far-worse horrors. (And, indeed, he's one of this book's enthusiastic blurbers.) But King is a writer of fantasy, not of putatively realistic fiction and, more important, is possessed of genuine humanity and insight into the human condition.

The second possibility is simply that Gillian Flynn has conceived of a hateful character and is employing dramatic irony to depict that character's sickness. This is undoubtedly true, but also close to being irrelevant, because the point is not that Gillian Flynn is herself a hateful person who sees only ugliness. In fact, Flynn's author's portrait on the back cover depicts a very attractive and pleasant-looking woman, and in her author's acknowledgments she offers "...much love and appreciation to my massive Missouri family -- who I'm happy to say were absolutely no inspiration for the characters in this book." (I suppose this was a nice thing to say, but it reminds me a bit of an Air Force general sending a private warning to a few favored residents of a city before firebombing it.)

So who was, in fact, the "inspiration", if that is the right word, for this book? My guess? No one who exists or has ever existed on this planet, an intuition that was reinforced by a glimpse into Flynn's new book, Dark Places, when after gingerly flipping through its pages (I felt like I needed a pair of latex gloves to do so), I almost immediately encountered the same pervasive contempt for humanity.

This second book, which concerns a woman who is the lone survivor of a family massacre, features a different protagonist, so that takes care of the argument that Flynn is merely giving us a glimpse of the world, in Sharp Objects, that one deeply disturbed character might see. Rather, the issue would appear to be that Flynn has a predilection for engaging not with the reality of the world as it is -- where most people are complex admixtures of beauty and ugliness -- but rather with a melodramatic and decadent version of a crime-novel cliché. Put another way, a novelist is not her characters, but when enough characters are of a certain type, they do begin to define the novelist.

So, part one of Keats’ equation tells me this: When an artist, for reasons of commerce or convention, or because of a lack of inclination or skill, is unable to engage with the truth, and whether she prettifies reality like some mass-market romance novelist or, as in this case, dumps Missouri mud and blood all over it, the result is ugliness all the same.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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