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Ploughshares: The Literary Journal at Emerson College

Gideon C. Kennedy

While this is a noble endeavor and one that makes for a wonderful eclecticism from one issue to the next, it also means occasionally taking the bad eggs with the good.

Guest Editor: Jorie Graham

Editor: Don Lee

Emerson College

Vol. 27, No. 4. Winter 2001-02, 215 pages, $9.95

The Pros and Cons of Seasonal Farming

Most literary magazines, even the renowned ones, can be like the jar of pickled eggs depicted in Richard Baker's painting "Jar" that covers the Winter 2001-02 issue of Ploughshares. It can be hard to tell from the outset who packed it and whether its contents are going to be fresh or spoiled.

For over the past 30 years, however, Ploughshares has sidestepped this problem to some extent by opening its editorial circle to an acclaimed guest editor with each new issue, giving readers a better idea of who is packing the jar.

By bringing in prominent writers to cull the published works from both solicited and unsolicited manuscripts, in what usually amounts to a 50/50 split, Ploughshares is, as the policy states, "designed to introduce readers to different literary circles and tastes, and to offer a fuller representation of the range and diversity of contemporary letters than would be possible with a single editorship."

While this is a noble endeavor and one that makes for a wonderful eclecticism from one issue to the next, it also means occasionally taking the bad eggs with the good. In the first line of her introduction, "Something of a Moment," Jorie Graham, this winter's migrant editor, freely admits that she primarily concerned herself with the selection of the 61 poems by the 27 poets in the issue, leaving the seven works of prose, "except for a few instances," to be selected by the regular editorial staff.

The discrepancy is clear.

On the whole, the quality of the prose tends to be higher than that of the poetry, which seems to be consistent only its unified reflection of Graham's own postmodernist leanings.

As a poet, Jorie Graham is not short on acclaim. She has written nine books of poetry, received countless awards including the Pulitzer Prize, and has just recently left the Iowa Writers' Workshop faculty to become Harvard University's Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. While this is not to say that these accolades are undeserved, Graham's career does serve as proof that those in the school of postmodern thought have become the Literary Establishment. And, as is the case with any establishment, many sub-par works can pass as long as they subscribe to the dominant school of thought.

Such seems to be the case with much of Graham's selections as an editor. At times, like with the poems of Laura Mullen and Cal Bedient, Graham's only criteria seems to have been that the poem ends with an unclosed parenthesis. With other selections, the guiding principle seems to have been that the poem contain the word "word" (11 of the 27 poets make this inclusion).

Possibly the worst example of these postmodern selections can be found in James McCorkle's poem "Iron Path [Eisen-Steig]" which ends with its own endnotes provided by the author. The notion of suggesting further reading by citing sources seems not only to be an unreasonable demand on the reader but also antithetical to the communicative purpose of poetry.

None of this is to say that no salvageable image, concept, or even whole poem exists within this volume. David Kirby's "The Ha-Ha, Part II: I Cry My Heart, Antonio" makes a wonderful analogy, among all its echoes, between the masking of thoughts with anecdotes in conversation and 18th-century English landscaping. Poems invoking poems, however, as this piece later does, are about as effective as songs about songs. A couple of the more consistently structured poems come towards the end of the issue, alphabetically arranged by author's last name. Both Sam White and Dean Young, with their poems "Snake Hunting at Night" and "Side Effects" respectively, make amazing turns with their imagery. Like a finger tracing the lines of a map, the reader's mind is drawn through the emotional experiences of these poets.

Some of the other more complete poetry selections found within the Winter Ploughshares include Dan Chiasson's "Anonymous Bust of a Man, c. 100 A.D. (Cyprus)," Matthea Harvey's "The Crowds Cheered as Gloom Galloped Away," Mark Levine's "Then," and Tessa Rumsey's "Headset." But regardless of Graham and her generally spotty choices this time around, Ploughshares has garnered its share of notoriety over the years for both its poetry and its short fiction. In all likelihood, it will continue to do so, especially in the case of the latter.

Over the past decade, more selections from Ploughshares have appeared in The Best American Short Stories collections than any other literary journal. Last year alone, a record number of four stories were chosen from their publication. And since works later selected for those guest edited anthologies of greatest hits are regularly reaped from Ploughshares' crop, to see a change in Ploughshares is to witness a turn of the trends.

One such refreshing sign is what seems to be a return to a more equal balance in the range of points of view represented. Four of the seven short stories use the third person point of view, not simply limiting what is considered a good story to those that stick to the subjective first person.

Of the third person stories, Diane Ackerman's "Hummingbirds" and Thomas H. McNeely's "Tickle Torture" rank as the top two. Ackerman's story plucks at the tender contempt involved in an illicit affair between a younger (though not young) woman and a married man. With such lines as, "There was nothing more irritating than trying to show one's esoteric cultural knowledge only to be sucker-punched by someone with better trivia," Ackerman pushes her cleverness to its maximum, but never overdoses the reader past caring about the characters or their story. McNeely's "Tickle Torture," on the other hand, places the story of a boy and his mother's aimless vacation in a stark relief suitable to its Texas setting while still maintaining the shadowy element of the child protagonist's knowledge.

However, by far the best of the whole bunch is Chelsey Johnson's "Pinhead, Moonhead," a first person account of one self-conscious adolescent girl's afternoon with her friends. Not only does Johnson maintain a believably naive yet insightful narrator, but the integrity of the other characters is not jeopardized by this consistency. And despite the simplicity of the events that transpire, the climax can still twist a wrench in the reader's guts.

Ultimately, to fault Ploughshares on this issue, or even on the whole as a literary magazine, for Graham's selections would be wrong, as the magazine's express interest is to provide glimpses into the tastes of different prominent authors, whatever their agenda. But hopefully next season's offerings will be more fresh. It won't be long now, anyway. Spring is all but here.

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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