Reviews

The Tent by Margaret Atwood

Tim O'Neil

Would it be out of line to call Margaret Atwood a cranky old broad?"


The Tent

Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Length: 176
Price: $18.00
Author: Margaret Atwood
US publication date: 2006-01
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Would it be out of line to call Margaret Atwood a cranky old broad? It might not be PC, but it is essentially correct; and what's more, I have a feeling it's the kind of vulgar epithet she might wryly embrace given her current state of mind. As anyone who reads The Tent can see, her state of mind is fairly black.

Which is not to say that this is merely an exercise in nihilism. No, Atwood seems to be indulging in the age-old right of tribal elders to condescend to their unthinking juniors. Which is not to imply that what she's saying is in any way redundant or unnecessary, merely that it won't -- it can't -- be properly appreciated. Atwood is after something much bigger than merely telling off the endless parade of whippersnappers swarming around her feet. The type of wisdom on display here is the type that seems at once self-evident and elusive. She's trying to point out that the very existence of wisdom is a prerogative of age and experience, fundamentally separate from knowledge and intelligence. You don't really gain an appreciation for anything until you've got fewer days ahead of you than behind you: this is the kind of truism that borders on cliché -- or at least it's a cliché when the young and virile book reviewer says it. The idea carries a different and far more substantial weight when it flows from Atwood's pen.

The Tent is less a collection of essays than a loose conglomeration of prose poems (and a handful of actual poems) dedicated to the same subjects of mortality and historical inevitability. Sometimes it comes out in a burst of absurdist meter, sometimes a mythical allusion, sometimes an arch literary reference. This being Atwood, every allusion -- be it a white-trash Helen of Troy in "It's Not Easy Being Half-Divine" or Salome as a stripper in "Salome Was a Dancer" -- carries with it the full weight of history as an active force, not just a clever implication. Just as in The Handmaid's Tale or The Blind Assassin (to name just two of hers that work upon similar thematic framework), the idea of history as a seamless continuity -- with the requisite acknowledgment that tragedy recurs throughout ignorance and is, therefore, repetitive, gratuitous and banal -- weighs heavily on the reader. To be a writer, to reflect history (as Atwood has done consistently) as more than merely a blank mirror, but as a lucid interpreter, a fictional commentator, is to be stuck playing the role of an eternal Cassandra.

And really, what does it buy in the end? In "Voice" Atwood speaks of her voice -- the essence of her writerly presence -- not as a part of her but as a burden, an externally grafted attribute that obscures her individuality:

I was given a voice. That's what people said about me. I cultivated my voice, because it would be a shame to waste such a gift . . . The voice bloomed. People said I had grown into my voice. Soon I was sought after, or rather my voice was. We went everywhere together. What people saw was me, what I saw was my voice, ballooning out in front of me like the translucent greenish membrane of a frog in full trill.

Even without the requisite Faust metaphor in the earlier piece "Bottle", it's hard not to see that Atwood feels as if she has lost something vital in having dedicated her life to art; the image of her voice as "an invisible vampire", attached to her throat and drawing in her life's blood, cannot be avoided. It is probably the most vivid metaphor in the volume.

It comes as no surprise to me that every advance review I've seen for the book has focused on these passages, the most overt references to her writerly career and her personal opinions thereon. But it should come as no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention. Atwood has always taken great care in her work to differentiate between the act of telling stories -- the voice we use to tell them -- and the stories themselves. How many of her books end with the stories being forgotten, lost, discarded at the whims of capricious fate or an unreliable interpreter? The voice that tells a story is duplicitous and unreliable, always obscuring and obfuscating extremely simple concepts and ideas. As Atwood looks back over her career, what she sees is less the authority of her own voice than the quiet dignity of stories. The stories -- any stories -- would be great, she seems to say, if it weren't for these damned humans always getting in the way of things and mucking about.

And ultimately, that's why Atwood despairs, and also why she is compelled to continue forward despite every negative portent. Humans keep mucking about, keep ruining the planet and killing each other and getting into misunderstandings of all shapes and sizes. But she's not going to be here forever, she doesn't have to save our feelings, and the only responsibility she has is to go forward:

Why do you think this writing of yours, this graphomania in a flimsy cave, this scribbling back and forth and up and down over the walls of what is beginning to seem like a prison, is capable of protecting anyone at all? Yourself included. It's an illusion, the belief that your doodling is a kind of armor, a kind of charm, because no one knows better than you do how fragile your tent really is. Already there's a clomping of leather-covered feet, there's a scratching, there's a scrabbling, there's a sound of rasping breath. Wind comes in, your candle tips over and flares up and a loose tent-flap catches fire, and through the widening black-edged gap you can see the eyes of the howlers, red and shining in the light from your burning paper shelter, but you keep on writing anyway because what else can you do?

Exercising her skill with extreme precision, utilizing clipped, brutally clear and concise language, Atwood marks the map that circumscribes the nightmares of modernity, of helplessness and futility, of mortality and the inevitable. If it weren't for the dry, mordant humor with which she leavens the volume throughout, it would be almost unbearable.

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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