Books

Novella Carpenter's 'Gone Feral' Departs Radically from Her Prior Books

Now a parent herself, Carpenter asks how her father, such a gifted man, became so ruined.


Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 213 pages
Author: Novella Carpenter
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-06
Amazon

Novella Carpenter is best known for her 2009 memoir, Farm City, wherein she details her decision to squat farm the empty lot beside her rental. That this land is located in one of Oakland, California’s worst neighborhoods only adds to the madcap quality of Carpenter’s choice.

Make no mistake, however, she is utterly serious about life off the grid in one of the country’s grittiest cities. Farm City won Carpenter a lot of readers with her humor, honesty, and earthy refusal of consumerist values.

Farm City was followed in 2011 by The Essential Urban Farmer. Written with Willow Rosenthal, it addresses the burgeoning urban farm movement, outlining it in a thick manual. Less personal but highly instructional, the book takes the nascent farmer from dry ground to lush vegetation and, if one wishes, to raising animals.

Gone Feral, Carpenter's latest release, departs radically from these cheerful books. When Carpenter stood before a packed house at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, California, she spoke of the need to make amends with her father, George Carpenter, an intermittent presence in her life. Suddenly, well into her 30s, she found herself wanting children.

Having raised goats, rabbits, and pigs, Carpenter was well-versed in genetic inheritance patterns, and hers is a source of concern. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her father, an idealistic child of the '60s, lived in rural Idaho, scratching out a living logging and making guitars. He never held down a “real” job. “I just never really knew him,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter was in occasional email contact with her father, but they were never close. Now, the urge to become a parent sends her on a quest to find her father and, she hopes, have a heart-swelling reconciliation á la A River Runs Through It.

Novella Carpenter is now 42 years old. Public recognition has not changed her. She wears jeans, a button-down shirt, and work boots for this reading. Her face is bare of cosmetics. Her hair is just beginning to thread with gray. In this, she resembles the rest of the crowd: unpretentious, with an emphasis on comfort rather than glamour.

The surprise came with her voice: a thick, smooth honey that wouldn’t be misplaced on the FM radio of old. She holds an overcrowded, overheated, noisy room transfixed as she speaks of her often-difficult journey.

In the hopes of reconnecting with her father, Carpenter drove to Idaho with her longtime partner, Bill, but the reconciliation she’d hoped for didn’t transpire. Her father, now 74 years old, doesn’t lead a frontiersman’s dream life in an inspiring, hand-hewn cabin. Rather, he lives in a filthy, barely habitable structure without water or electricity. One room is a nest of plastic bags. The kitchen is littered with pill bottles. Critters have overtaken the upper level. Worse, his mind is unmoored. He has moments of paranoia and rage. He is forgetful and confused.

Gone Feral is filled with family photographs, including ones of Novella’s parents, young, beautiful, deeply in love, with the gorgeous Idaho landscape as a backdrop. Yet like so many idealistic '60s hippies, the reality proved too difficult; their divorce was acrimonious. Neither one remarried afterwards.

George Carpenter still lives in Idaho. He is no longer in the squalid cabin; dementia has forced him into a hotel in town. He doesn’t always remember his granddaughter, Franny. Carpenter tells the audience he doesn’t remember she wrote a book about him. She plans to stop in Idaho during the book tour to give him a copy. She hopes he’ll be less confused that way.

Now a parent herself, Carpenter asks how such a gifted man, and once so at ease with nature, became so ruined. Closer to home, she recognizes a great deal of her father in herself—his temper, his aversion to social mores. “I am my father,” she says, “and he is me.”

Gone Feral is many things: another dispatch from the front of middle-aged children dealing with frail, aging parents, another dispatch from the failed experiments of '60s back-to-the-land movements, another dispatch, more intimately, of a fractured family and the ties that still bind.

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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