Books

Peter Ackroyd's 32nd Book, 'Venice', Brims with Insight and Anecdote

Tim Rutten
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Los Angeles, Venice is one of those great cities that does not exist because it is situated alongside a great natural harbor or sits astride important trade routes; Venice was willed into being and wrested the advantages of all those things from its industry.


Venice: Pure City

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 416 pages
Author: Peter Ackroyd
Price: $37.50
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-11
Amazon

The works of man are many and wondrous, but if I had to pick one that most completely embodies the concept of the sublime, it probably would be the autumnal view from the terrace of Venice's Gritti Palace, across the Grand Canal, to the great church of Santa Maria della Salute — though I'm not sure I ever could satisfactorily explain precisely why.

In the long years of its decline and decay, Venice always has managed to evoke both the rhapsodic and the mysterious.

Thus Evelyn Waugh has his Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisted, glimpsing it for the first time, muse: "This was my introduction to the baroque."

Sent there on assignment, the American writer Alexander Woollcott is supposed to have cabled his editors: "Venice interesting. Story prospects uncertain. Streets inexplicably filled with water."

In Venice: Pure City, Peter Ackroyd — the marvelously erudite and staggeringly industrious English writer — is the latest of his countrymen to appraise the experience of what remains of La Serenissima. John Ruskin doubtless would be the most famous of his predecessors, since his three-volume Stones of Venice changed not only the course of 19th century criticism, but also that of art and architecture in the English-speaking world.

Ackroyd's interpretation is at once less prescriptive and more grounded in Venice as it actually is — and has been. Readers familiar with his previous "biographies" of London and the River Thames will recognize the method here, which is to compile an encyclopedic amount of general and arcane factual information and then to arrange it less chronologically than thematically — much as one might encounter it in the course of a long walk over fascinating terrain in the company of a knowledgeable but never pedantic companion. It's an experience rendered all the more agreeable by independent turn of Ackroyd's critical imagination and lapidary quality of his prose. If this volume — the 32nd Ackroyd has produced — sometimes lacks the physical specificity that gave his earlier books a special illumination, Venice: Pure City more than makes up for it in range and realism where the temptation to romanticize is almost achingly palpable.

The subtitle draws on Ackroyd's insight into Venice's origins as Europe's first willed city, a place brought into being by the marsh dwellers who bartered salt for the wherewithal to pound an urban space into the lagoons and islets of an Adriatic marshland. Like Los Angeles, in other words, Venice is one of those great cities that does not exist because it sits at the confluence of great rivers, is situated alongside a great natural harbor or sits astride important trade routes; Venice was willed into being and wrested the advantages of all those things from its industry.

Ackroyd is particularly good — and particularly enlightening — on Venetian origins. The city really began to take shape as exiles from the barbarian invasions coincident with the fall of Rome settled on the lagoon's islands and set themselves up as traders and go-betweens for goods brought in from the sea. It was a commercial city from the start and its people instinctual merchants — with all that entailed. The sea would remain so important in the city's psyche that its ruler, the Dodge, would symbolically marry the ocean each year on the feast of the Ascension.

The distinctiveness of Venice's identity would determine much of its subsequent history and Ackroyd shrewdly draws attention to the fact that Venice actually traded for a patron saint — Mark — rather than retaining the one assigned it by tradition, the far less illustrious St. Theodore. Venetian merchants lent a sympathetic ear to Egyptian Copts anxious about the fate of the relics of their founding father, Mark the Evangelist, after their country fell into Muslim hands. The canny Venetians offered to carry the saint to safety and eluded "Saracen" customs officials by putting his corpse under pork and cabbage. Back in Venice, the relics were given into the care of the Dodge rather than the local bishop as custom dictated. This produced two things that would benefit the Serene Republic for centuries to come — a spiritual seal approval for temporal power and a counter balance to Rome's claims of primacy in all things, since while the Vatican had the Apostle Peter, Venice had the Evangelist Mark. Checkmate.

Venice: Pure City brims with this sort of insight and anecdote, particularly with regard to the city's long and fruitful interchange with Byzantium, a relationship that would cast a unique and decisive influence over both aesthetics and culture. Given the book's reach, it seems like quibble to harp on small errors, but Igor Stravinsky died in New York and the Eastern Emperor Alexius Comnenus (Alexio Komenos) surely was gone by the Fourth Crusade. When it comes to the visual arts, Ackroyd's assessments can be a trifle quirky. He finds the Venetian portrait tradition, for example, curiously lacking any "personal character." In fact, as just one of many contrary examples that come to mind, Catena's great portrait of Andrea Gritti, the Dodge who built that palace, depicts a face that is the apotheosis of calculation.

On the other hand, Ackroyd's evocation of Venetian light — and of the role distinctive building materials, like terrazzo and Isturian limestone play in refracting it through both memory and art — fits lovingly and convincingly into the rhapsodic tradition.

As Ruskin at his most lucid put it in volume two of The Stones of Venice: "The world is full of vulgar Purists, who bring discredit on all selection by the silliness of their choice; and this the more, because the very becoming a Purist is commonly indicative of some slight degree of weakness, readiness to be offended, or narrowness of understanding of the ends of things."

Venice, as Ackroyd so vividly portrays it, is the still-living rebuttal to vulgar purism.

8

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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