Film

Hughes Oughta Know

The British Library bought Ted Hughes' literary archive, further inspiring film and literary speculation into his life with Sylvia Plath.


The Bell Jar

Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 9780061148514
Author: Sylvia Plath
Price: $16.95
Length: 288
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2006-10
Amazon

Birthday Letters

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Subtitle: Poems
Author: Ted Hughes
Price: $14.00
Length: 208
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780374525811
US publication date: 1999-03
Amazon

Wintering

Publisher: St. Martins Press
Length: 292
Subtitle: A Novel of Sylvia Plath
Price: $23.95 (US)
US publication date: 2003-03
Amazon

The British Library recently bought Ted Hughes' literary archive, which includes his letters, diaries, and drafts of poems. The £500,000 purchase was called “critical to the study of 20th century poetry” by Jamie Andrews, head of modern manuscripts at the library.

His diaries and letters will no doubt offer enquiring minds more insight into his relationship with his famous wife, Sylvia Plath. Plath and Hughes' story is no secret among the literary as well as mainstream population. On some level it has, unfortunately, become more significant than the talent of either poet.

So many love a tragic love affair and Hughes and Plath offered just that. Ted had an affair with his mistress Assia Wevill while Sylvia battled crippling depression, eventually ending her life by gassing herself in her oven.

Plath has since become a poetry as well as pop culture icon. Her sad story is of interest to many, particularly moody teenage girls. I was one of those girls, holding The Bell Jar close and highlighting passages I thought were especially poignant.

Plath’s most autobiographical novel traces college student Esther Greenwood’s battle with depression and eventual nervous breakdown in the early '50s. It begins with the brilliant first line so characteristic of Plath’s dark, smart prose: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.”

After Esther wins a magazine contest that gives her an internship in New York for a month, she realizes that she should be having the time of her life, but feels empty instead. Esther is a blend of skepticism, drollness, and courage. She is cynical about the expectations of women in her generation, which included getting married and having children -- something she rejects.

When she returns home from her internship, she likens her depression to being trapped beneath a bell jar. After several suicide attempts, one quite serious and unforgettable that involves Esther crawling under the house after taking close to 50 sleeping pills, she is hospitalized and receives electroshock therapy.

Initially, The Bell Jar flew under the radar because Plath withheld her name from the book, choosing instead to use the pseudonym, “Victoria Lucas”. Plath committed suicide after its first publication in 1963. The novel didn’t bear her name until 1966, after which it took on literary recognition.

The book does not get into her relationship with Hughes. That comes later in biographies like The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath and Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, a Marriage. Hughes refused to talk about his marriage to Plath, but during the year of his death published Birthday Letters -- a poetry collection which addresses their mythological relationship and Plath’s suicide.

Hughes and Plath met and were married in 1956. The two lived and worked in Northhampton and Boston Massachusetts before moving to Hughes' native England. While living in London, Plath gave birth to the couple’s two children, Nicholas and Frieda. Soon after, Hughes began having an affair with Wevill. Plath and Hughes separated in 1962, but Plath ended her life before the two ever divorced.

While living abroad, Plath published her first poetry collection, The Colossus. Since then, several books of her poetry have been published including Ariel and The Collected Poems, which earned her a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982. In addition to her poetry, her journals and letters have been published. The Bell Jar is her only published novel.

Despite her literary feats, Plath’s rocky relationship with Hughes has long been of interest to the public, sometimes eclipsing her writing. The Bell Jar was made into a 1979 film by Larry Peerce, and a remake is said to be in production now, starring Julia Stiles as Plath. The most comprehensive film made about Plath, her work, and her failed marriage, however, is the 2003 Sylvia.

Written by John Brownlow and directed by Christine Jeffs, Sylvia recounts the relationship between Hughes (Daniel Craig) and Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) beginning with their meeting at Cambridge and ending with her suicide.

Plath and Hughes' daughter, Frieda, was unhappy about the making of the film and withheld the rights to poetry that the film-makers requested. She charged them with making money off of her mother’s death, and said she was pestered by producers to help with the film. She told the Sunday Times:

“I wrote a letter to them saying 'No I don't want to collaborate', and they kept coming back. Why would I want to be involved in moments of my childhood which I never want to return to? I want nothing to do with this film. I will never, never in a million years, go to see it."

She even wrote about her displeasure in a poem of her own called “My Mother”, in which she writes:

They think I should give them my mother's words

To fill the mouth of their monster

Their Sylvia Suicide Doll

The film doesn’t capture who Sylvia Plath really was. We don’t get to see much of what Sylvia wrote in her journals -- the happiness she experienced and the love she felt for her children. But it is a beautifully shot, earnest attempt to depict a played-down look at Plath. Gwyneth Paltrow is excellent in the role. She not only looks like Plath, she gives an emotional and intense performance as the poet.

Because of the confessional nature of her poetry, Plath’s life and work were entangled, so it’s warranted that Plath’s depression is prevalent in her biopic. But that doesn’t mean she walks around with a black cloud above her head throughout all of the film. In fact, Plath’s sometimes upbeat exterior works in the film’s favor because when she does eventually fall victim to her demons toward the end of the film, it makes the impact of her suicide that much deeper.

Sylvia doesn’t go into depth about Hughes' affair with Wevill. Many Plath fans think of Hughes as Plath’s proverbial murderer, that she ended her life because he had left her for another woman. Could it be that Plath suffered from depression long before meeting Hughes as referred to in The Bell Jar? And what would it be like to live with a woman who suffered such a terrible mood disorder?

Hughes' silence concerning his famous deceased wife can be seen as dignified. Besides Birthday Letters we have little else to go on concerning how he felt about her life and death. As the executor of Plath’s literary estate, Hughes claims to have destroyed the last volume of Plath’s famous journals, which chronicled their last months together.

But if Birthday Letters was Hughes' way of coming to terms with his famous wife and closing the door on their relationship, their story is long from over. Since his death, there’s been a slew of interest on the subject including Sylvia , Wintering -- a fictional account of the last days of Plath by Kate Moses, and the upcoming remake of The Bell Jar.

Now with the British Library’s latest acquisition, Hughes' life, which will forever be tied to Plath’s in the public eye, will surely inspire further speculation and interest in the couple. Despite being upheld as one of the greatest poets of his generation, Hughes will forever be known as Sylvia’s Plath’s husband.

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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