I’m not certain if it says more about J.D. Salinger, Jethro Tull or me, that when I think of the ultimate coming-of-age treatise from the trenches, it’s not a novel but a trio of albums.
She nodded. "Make it extraordinarily squalid and moving," she suggested. "Are you at all acquainted with squalor?"
I said not exactly but that I was getting better acquainted with it, in one form or another, all the time... -- J.D. Salinger, "For Esme -- with Love and Squalor" (1950)
Spin me back down the years and the days of my youth, as the song says. April, 1988.
Everyone talks about how reading The Catcher in the Ryeis one of those seminal rites of passage. Now that J.D. Salinger has gone to that big field of rye in the sky, everyone is talking about it all at once. I would be a phony, I figure, not to include myself (and all). For starters, what do you call a rite of passage involving a lot of middle-aged (or older) folks talking about the passing of an author who wrote one of the ultimate rite of passage novels? Indulgent? Inevitable? Ironic? All of the above?
By the time I got around to Holden Caulfield, I was already a senior in high school. Too young? Too old?Just right? For better or worse, I was either too old, or not alienated enough, to feel the full force of Salinger's operetta of adolescent angst. Of course, I'm selling it short (or am I?), but I've heard very few adults whose opinions I admire mention falling under this novel's spell while revisiting it as an adult. Myself, I couldn't tell if it was too obvious this book was the result of a grown man trying (diligently, and in that overly mannered, oft-imitated style) to sound like a disaffected but acutely sensitive 16-year-old, or if it's because he succeeded so thoroughly that, even as a 17-year-old, I wasn't especially simpatico with his anguished, if solipsistic observations. Which is not to say that his plight did not move me, or that his situation is not, at times, rendered with profound artistry by Salinger.
Perhaps it would be a bit unfair, if mostly accurate to conclude that The Catcher in the Rye is the archetypal novel of adolescent alienation for teenagers/young adults who don't read a great deal of fiction. Just as there are certain types of movies and music that, through a perfect storm of critical consensus and a groundswell of contagious public approbation, get anointed as authentic touchstones of a particular moment in time (I would say "tapping into the zeitgeist" but I try to avoid using the dreaded z-word if at all possible).
Regarding the almost half-century of silence that followed his initial burst of creativity, Norman Mailer decreed Salinger "the greatest mind to ever stay in prep school." That's harsh, but it is also -- based on the available evidence -- pretty indisputable. On the other hand, when people hold up The Catcher in the Rye (or even Franny and Zooey) as the zenith of Salinger's oeuvre, they are overlooking (or more likely, have never read) "For Esme --With Love and Squalor", in my estimation one of the five best American short stories of the 20th Century.
Indeed, what Salinger accomplishes in those 20-odd pages arguably exceeds the sum total of Mailer's voluminous, if mostly perishable output. Everything that Salinger didn't do, or didn't do convincingly, or didn't do well enough to reward subsequent readings by a more mature audience in his canonized novel, he does in spades with this short story. It's a compact, devastating illumination of the cruel machinery we, for lack of a better or more appropriate word, call adulthood. How fittingly ironic, then, that a writer celebrated (and minimized) for being the consummate chronicler of what Pete Townshend later called "teenage wasteland" actually wrote a shattering treatise from the trenches (literally and figuratively) that endures well into a new millennium. Of which, more later.
As it happens, when I first experienced The Catcher in the Rye I was in the early (but intense) stages of what became a lifelong love of Jethro Tull. Which naturally coincided with my burgeoning obsession with all-things progressive rock, which happened to coincide with the release of so many classic recordings on that new-fangled technical revelation called compact discs. It would be near impossible for anyone who didn't live through those days to imagine a world when you waited for anything: i-Pods and online access have made everything that has ever happened available, immediately.
Back then, waiting for certain Rush, Yes, King Crimson and especially Jethro Tull albums to get their digital reincarnation was like patiently awaiting Moses to deliver a new sonic commandment every other week. The upside of this, of course, was that it was still a time when you had time (you had no choice) to savor and spend time with a new purchase, and by the time you'd (temporarily) exhausted your enthusiasm, you had ample funds to get the next installment.
This was also, as many will remember, a time before information itself was a free 24/7 proposition. As such, each trip to the record store was loaded with possibility: you never knew what might have been released, including albums by bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd, that you never even knew existed. It should go without saying that the prospect of upgrading scratchy vinyl (or tape-recorded) copies of Beatles, Stones, Doors, Zeppelin and Hendrix albums was generated a feeling only slightly beyond orgasmic.
Anyway, it was during the winter and spring of 1988 that the back catalog of Jethro Tull was being released, a couple at a time, on compact disc. It was around this time, having already devoured Thick as a Brick and still patiently awaiting the arrival of A Passion Play, that I had my first sustained go-round with Tull's third album, 1970's Benefit. In April 1988 it was the right album at the right time. Remarkably, it still is. And I’m not certain if it says more about J.D. Salinger, Jethro Tull, or me that when I think of the ultimate coming-of-age treatise, it’s not a novel but a trio of albums.
Before you can fully appreciate what Tull achieves on Benefit, one has to consider (and understand) the brilliant album that preceded it, 1969's Stand Up. In addition to the handful of gems that still get radio play ("Nothing Is Easy, “Bouree", "A New Day Yesterday" and "Fat Man"), there were a couple of standard coming-of-age type middle finger salutes to the establishment: "Back to the Family”, which features a blistering guitar coda from Martin Barre and album-closer "For a Thousand Mothers", where Ian Anderson not only spits on, but laughs at the naysayers. This song is notable for perfecting a sort of "garage flute rock": once you hear that joyously spiteful noise, this might not sound like such an oxymoron, but the one that stands out (or stands up, as the case may be) from the rest is the you-can’t-go-home-again anthem "We Used to Know." Check it out:
How many 21-year-olds write songs like that? The world weariness of those vocals (not to mention the lyrics) and the subtlety of Martin Barre's embellishment through the first half make the song ache with longing and arid resignation. After the flute solo bleeds into the guitar solo, the song explodes into the clear-eyed appraisal of a man who has fully taken stock of the world, and the reigns of his destiny. As we know now, he never looked back. (A few quick words about that guitar solo: more than a few folks, including Ian Anderson, have noticed that the Eagles' much more famous "Hotel California" seems to have borrowed more than a little from "We Used to Know".
Barre, on the other hand, is a vintage Jaguar -- pronounced Jag.U.R. -- that may have neither the flash or immediacy of newer, more colorful models, but discerning eyes can assess its value and class with little difficulty. In hindsight, listening to him in song after song after song, it becomes increasingly clear that even some of the most accomplished -- and celebrated -- guitarists of the '70s were using crayons while Barre had already figured out how to use water colors.