Politics

‘Reading Jackie’: When Literary Choices Become Biography

Despite her love of books, Jackie Kennedy Onassis spent a lifetime trying to prevent people from writing about her, sometimes with the accompanying threat of legal action. Her entire life was led with one arm thrust outward, eyes cast downward, keeping the world at bay.

“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,” British poet laureate Robert Southey declaimed in a letter to schoolteacher and aspiring poet and novelist Charlotte Bronte in 1836.

Eleven years later, in October 1847, Bronte refuted Southey’s proclamation when the British publishing firm of Smith, Elder, and Co. brought her Gothic romance Jane Eyre to the Victorian reading public; the novel, produced under the pseudonym Currer Bell, was an immediate critical and commercial success (1847 was a banner year for the Bronte sisters of Haworth, UK: Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey found a publisher, as did Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights).

Today, more than 150 years after Charlotte’s death at a mere three weeks shy of her 39th birthday, her dark and masterfully plotted novel about the ardor between the title character, a strong-willed governess, and her employer, the enigmatic and brooding Edward Fairfax Rochester, not only continues to be widely-read in several languages, but has been translated into feature films and television movies more than 25 times, and is universally regarded as one of the most influential literary works ever composed, spawning a popular 1966 prequel by Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea.

Book: Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books

Author: William Kuhn

Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

Publication date: 2010-12

Length: 350 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $27.95

ISBN: 978-0-385-53099-6

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/j/jacobs-readingjackie-cvr.jpgWide Sargasso Sea, providing back story for Bertha Mason, Rochester’s insane wife confined to the attic of his estate, was a favorite read of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as noted in a quaint anecdote by historian William Kuhn in Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books, a unique and original account that explores the woman behind the icon.

Regarding the library of Jackie Kennedy Onassis (dubbed Jackie O by the press and public), writes Kuhn, “her personal selection of books she decided to keep, to read, to commission [in her role as editor at Viking and Doubleday], was not just a row of books standing on the shelf. It was her self-portrait.” As novelist Nancy Mitford wrote: “The books of somebody who reads are an infallible guide to the author’s mentality.”

Reading Jackie is a conspicuous labor of love and deep respect, “a revealing biography of the former First Lady and her career in publishing”, edited by her former colleague Nan Talese (whose past editorial relationships include Ian McEwan and Margret Atwood) and published by Doubleday, Jackie’s longtime editorial home. Kuhn writes early in the work that Jackie “went from being a figure caught in the blare of flashbulbs every time she walked on the street to being a woman who helped put enduring statements of why art matters into print.”

Why Art Matters: this is where the task assigned to the cultural essayist becomes an onerous one. The near-existential question I have been grappling with since reading Kuhn’s meticulously researched book is how to address the relevance of a work like Reading Jackie – a biography culled from the detritus of a well-bred woman’s affection for art and literature – to a culture wherein literary reading has declined significantly in direct proportion to rising Internet use (PopMatters readers notwithstanding, Alexa demographics report that you’re a well-read crowd).

A November 2007 report by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) finds that negative trends in American reading habits “have demonstrable social, cultural, and civic implications.” The current generation is simply too hardwired into the world of mass media (television, computers, video games, cell phones, social media) and the more facile fragments of pop culture – think Justin Bieber or the exploits of Charlie Sheen – to cultivate a taste for reading and cultural activities, the NEA frets in a separate report.

In other words, personalities like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, celebrities with an intellectual bent, are few and far between in modern times.

“What of the current generation?” I asked the author of Reading Jackie in a recent email dialogue. “How will we ‘read’ them in the future? By their Netflix choices? Their Twitter and Facebook histories?” “When I taught history at Carthage,” Kuhn replied, “(young students) were certainly better at picking up visual details from movie clips I showed in class – often things I missed – than at reading texts, which they invariably regarded as very hard work.”

Kuhn went on to say that when he sits down to read a newspaper (the real thing manufactured of pulp and ink) he pays “much more attention to it than when I glance at the news headlines online. I guess I conclude from that that long forms of fiction and non-fiction may die out, although short stories and short essays may revive.”

That’s bad news for Moby Dick and Don Quixote. In point of fact, the two literary works that most closely parallel Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ personal biography are Melville’s metaphor-laden whaling adventure and Miguel De Cervantes’ immortal satire of chivalric code featuring the deluded errant knight Don Quixote de La Mancha, a broken-down former soldier who, in the opening chapters of the epic novel, is literally driven mad by his preoccupation with adventure novels, “the solace of my soul and the entertainment of my life.” Cervantes also illustrates through Don Quixote that nobility (or a personal sense of nobility) can be a form of madness.

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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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