Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Let's Talk About Books, Baby

I was cleaning out some files today and I came across something I posted a few years back on a message board. I thought it deserved exhuming.

Wearing a punk rock t-shirt (I’m obsessed with the sociology of concert shirts) to high school in Murfreesboro, TN in the year 1985 was a mark of incipient coolness that all of the Journey t-shirt wearers could only hope to understand. It's commonly thought that youth are more open to new ideas, but this is not really accurate. Teenagers may be outwardly showing rebellion, but there's a narrowness of thought even in this. I'd try to play a punk tape on the bus in '83 and everybody would scream at the driver to take it out of the player. Along with the music came an interest in books, which was a guarantor of outcast status back then and probably still is today. This post is about those books that helped shape me and the connection with my rock and roll rebellion against the mainstream. This first book actually tells the story of a group that was considered a teeny bopper band so how rebellious was I being? I did go against my own tastes to even read it so it accomplished more open thinking on my part, but most important it paved the way for much of what followed in my life. I can't completely hold No One Here Gets Out Alive by Danny Sugarman responsible for my twenties spent playing in rock and roll bands, but it undoubtedly bears some culpability. The Doors are still big business and much of the credit should be given to Sugarman's book. When the book came out, the Doors had yet to achieve the full icon status they have today, but a groundswell of Jim Morrison adulation was building. At the time I began the book I hated the Doors. Every time I heard Manzarek's organ I turned the radio dial. One day in my graphic arts class, where I spent most of my time playing hangman, one of the juvenile delinquents who barely ever spoke to me slid No One Here Gets Out Alive across the desk to me. "You like to read and you like rock and roll, so I thought you'd like to read this book my sister got," he said. I glanced at the cover and saw that it was Doors related so I turned him down. "Come on, man! It's a great book. I don't usually like to read, but I liked this one." I didn't want to fight with him about it (and there was always the chance that a fight could break out in graphic arts) so I took it from him and told him I'd give it a chance. I read the thing in one night and in a few weeks; my notebook covers saw The Doors added to the front roll call of rock bands that adorned each one. I also was listening to the Doors first album as often as possible as I let Manzarek's organ sound grow on me. Morrison's story had touched me in a big way. I didn't care if it had been embellished or if the Doors had been primarily considered a teenybopper band in their heyday. I've had others who also found the Doors in their sophomore year of high school so maybe the teenybopper tag is still appropriate. I still enjoy the Doors music today, but not like I did back then. The Doors are like a gateway drug. I was soon led to stranger bands, most notably Velvet Underground. So the book got me into the Doors? Big deal, some might say. That was the least of the book's influence, for it was a brief section in the first few pages of the book that had the biggest impact. It was a list of the books that Morrison read. I would draw from this list in my high school days and beyond and get pulled into the world of existentialism, the beat generation, Greek philosophy, and more.

The first stop was Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I remember mispronouncing Kerouac's name at the time. I remember my mother going into the hospital for an operation the night I began the book. I'm a fast reader. I can also read and sing along to whatever is on the stereo and remember what I've read. But On The Road went slowly. I'd never encountered such freewheeling language in a book. The long and exuberant sentences were a wonder to my youthful mind. By the time I got to the Mexican trip toward the end of the novel, I was transfixed. I found out that it was a "hippie bible" but even then I didn't understand this. I recognized the elements of freedom and a rather sedate rebellion, but I focused more on the relationship of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. I guess Sal shared some characteristics with the hippies because he always had a place to freeload in his aunt's house, but I dug him because he seemed to stand apart from everything around him, which was much the way I felt as an adolescent. I refused to take Nabokov's advice and I identified with characters I read about. As an only child I could find in Moriarty the brother figure I never had in reality. It did save me from imitating Moriarty's laugh, which is what Sugarman reported Morrison as doing. In due time, I learned that On The Road was disguised autobiography, a small piece of what Kerouac was to have dubbed the "Dulouz Legend", the story of his life. Later I saw movie footage of both Kerouac and Neal Cassaday, the real life Moriarty. Even before I knew these things, I regarded the book as one of longing. A longing for a disappearing America, the longing for youth fast fading, the longing for a true friend seemed to be the crux of it. By this point in time, I was trading mix tapes of independent bands with some friends.

One of those friends provided me the next great book of my youth, Frank Herbert's Dune, which happens to be another hippie manual. And it's also a great teenage read. Dune is another slow read. It could be read fast, but like a final cigarette of the day, you want it to last. It's sci-fi on a grand scale that just torched my young mind. Who could have read this novel without lusting for a taste of the spice, mélange? Or wished that their mother was secretly a Bene Gesserit? Dune is another perfect book for a young high school kid. High school is bewildering and strange and it often feels like you're lost in a desert. If you don't endup in the right clique you could end up socially dead and adulthood and college seem too far away to even contemplate. Of course there were sequels galore until now Frank Herbert's son even writes Dune books today, but the original was enough for me.

Another book I found through the list of Jim Morrison's reading habits was Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell. I wasn't Irish and I didn't live in Chicago, but I empathized with the protagonist Studs when he was youthful and still possessed promise. The scene in the beginning where he's smoking a cigarette and feeling so full of confidence because he would soon be blowing the dump of a school he attended still surfaces in my memories almost as if I had been the one to live through such an event. Instead I was late for my high school graduation just because I didn't own a tie and had to find one by going door to door in the neighborhood trying to get one. At least I had some Black Flag cranked up in the stereo as I sped through town hoping I'd still get to walk across the stage. When I got to the auditorium another late student took the parking place I was trying to get. Still, I managed to breathlessly make it to the line I was supposed to walk out with right before the teacher counting heads got to my spot. I walked across the stage and a week or so later I began reading a book I'd been curious about throughout high school.

That book was Catcher In The Rye. There was a sorority at my high school
and every girl that joined must have been assigned Salinger's work about the adventures of Holden Caulfield. It was during the time that the paperback had the blood red cover and the sorority sisters were always carrying the thing around. I wasn't the frat type plus I figured it was a “girls” book, I never asked these girls about the book even though I had a crush on one of them. Then one day I saw I used copy and I decided to see why all of these girls were reading it. I read the first chapter in the store and then I bought and took it home. There's a rock and roll connection as well, but a well known and evil one. Most everybody is aware that John Lennon's killer was hyped up on this novel and in some perverse way saw himself as the catcher keeping the children safe from the ex-Beatle's music My pleasure of Catcher In The Rye then was the sweetness and naivety of Holden and even though I find his character more lazy and more to blame for his own problems now, it's still a great short novel and reading it is a rite of passage.

Time has naturally gone by and the small, insular world of high school has enlarged to include multitudes. One of the most bizarre events in a young person’s life has to be that first time after high school ends when you find yourself running into someday from then that wouldn’t give you the time of day and suddenly they want to talk to you. Identities begin to shift and change, ideas are shared or discarded, and old mysteries are solved. I quickly found out that even though it seemed like just a few kids liked to read books in my high school, when that few is multiplied all over the country and the world it adds up to millions fast. Books that seemed strange, exotic, and underground were actually mainstream best sellers in their day. Even with that knowledge that others have got your back, my taste in books and rock and roll still lets me feel like an outcast 20 years later and no amount of Journey t-shirt wearing squares can change that.

This was also posted at blogcritics and its actually generating some neat comments from some folks that actually saw The Doors play live.

1 comment:

egturpin said...

That makes me think about high school on the other side of town from you. First of all, I was smoking way too much pot back and hanging around talking with my boy friends all the time to bother with reading. I had already read more than most people by the time I hit 9th grade. I do, however, remember buying The Scarlet Letter over at Readmore in Mercury Plaza. We had to read it in 11th grade English class. This was a class I suffered through after leaving private school where we read from college level anthologies. I would sit in that miserable collection of jocks and a handful of dorks ... and me with my studded belt that I wore backwards to have the silver out front, my black penny loafers with radioactive tape over the penny hole, my hair dyed purple only on the last three inches and my black fingernails. My pride and joy back then was the black patent leather old lady purse with the snap clasp and a stray cats sticker on one side. Because it was not dissimilar to a lunch box, I had to set it on the floor beside my desk. One day some jackass, upon returning to his desk no doubt with a D- on his vocabulary test, kicked it down the aisle. Snickers ensued. I spent the rest of the year fantasizing about toting a machine gun into that room and just who would I spare? Good lord, hope I don't alert the internet police after typing that one out loud. Anyway, we had to read The Scarlet Letter. I felt pressure to hate the novel -- but I still count it among my favorite and most influential books. It was about that same time I read The Abortion by Richard Brautigan and re-read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter for about the third time. By the way, it sucks to be a girl. Just ask Kerouac and Moriarty.