Jamming Econo: ‘Our Band Could Be Your Life’

Our Band Could Be Your Life

How to create a successful indie rock band in 10 simple steps:

1. Consume music and other art omnivorously, absorbing influences anywhere and everywhere.

2. Buy an instrument, secondhand if need be. Learn to play it competently (or not — whatevs).

3. Find a couple of other guys (bonus points if you can find a girl) who think and play on your level. Start your search at the local college campus or skate park.

4. Form a band with a cool name that sounds vaguely ominous and/or bookish, such as “Tycho Magnetic Anomaly 1.”

5. Write some songs. Musically, they should synthesize existing genres while putting a new spin on them. The lyrics should focus on political injustice, the pathos of suburban life or teenage aimlessness and self-destructiveness. Failing that, make up some impenetrable nonsense that sounds deep and cerebral. (See: Bon Iver.)

6. Start booking your band at hip local clubs (e.g., the Empty Bottle or Hideout if you’re here in Chicago), then slowly branch out to other cities as your network of contacts expands. Play several shows straightforward, but also have at least a few where you smash up your instruments/wear weird costumes/start fistfights with fans/cover Seals & Croft songs, just to keep things unpredictable.

7. Immerse yourself in the scene by attending the right parties and meeting other tastemakers (such as other musicians, journalists, photographers, DJs, artists and fashion designers).

8. Record an album over a couple of days. Get it pressed on a label like Sub Pop, 4AD, or Yep Roc. If it’s self-released, distribute it to record stores and music media yourself. Expect to be ignored by half of the people you send it to.

9. Get reviewed on Pitchfork. Shoot for a 7.0 or above, or a 3.0 or below. Anything between that is irrelevant.

10. Repeat steps 5-9 until you’re famous. (But not FAMOUS famous, just indie famous.)

This is the formula laid out in Our Band Could Be Your Life, which chronicles the time between the birth of the scene in the late 1970s and its apotheosis in the early 1990s when Nirvana hit the big time. In this book, rock journalist Michael Azerrad provides an account of the careers of 13 very different bands that, through their unique views of the nature of collective art and the way the music business ought to be run, helped shape the indie movement. Little about that movement has changed between when it got underway more than three decades ago and now, except that today much of the networking is done online and the career-making music reviews are published on Pitchfork instead of in abstruse fanzines like Maximumrocknroll.

(Re-reading the above, I realize that I might be coming off as snide and dismissive toward these groups and the indies in general. That’s not my intention. I came away from this book with a genuine admiration of their values and work ethic. And reading about them makes you realize just how deep and wide their influence really runs — into the songwriting, attitude and style of all kinds of contemporary musicians, from Green Day to The White Stripes, from Vampire Weekend to Lady Gaga.)

So what were they all about? According to Azerrad, the indies were motivated by two fundamental principles: think for yourself, and do it yourself. And to hell with what the industry, other musicians and even the fans want. They applied that philosophy to how they played, performed, recorded, promoted and distributed music. But that’s where the similarities end, for the most part. (And it’s why bands such as Bad Brains and REM don’t count as “indie,” even though they’re closely related to it.)

Musically, the common theme among the earliest indie bands was to take existing rock formulas, strip them down, then speed them up. However, most of these groups — along with ones who would come in later on — went in experimental, genre-defying directions during their careers. And their influences were all over the place, extending from Creedence and Dylan to the Stooges and Ramones.

They were even more diverse in their personas, ranging from the arthouse sensibilities of Sonic Youth to the shocking, sophomoric stoner antics of the Butthole Surfers. And they were geographically distributed too, popping up in unlikely places like Southern California’s Orange County and Washington, D.C. The fact that these scenes managed to connect with each other without the Internet and very little in the way of resources is nothing short of amazing.

Although the mainstream media would later focus on the scene in Seattle, the indie/post-punk/alternative movement that spawned bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains had been a national underground network for years. Azerrad seems to have written this book in order to give that network — comprised of certain bands, rock clubs, labels, zines, and college radio stations — its due.

Our Band Could Be Your Life is not without its flaws. For one thing, I thought Azerrad’s repeated references to the oppressive environment of the “Reagan ‘80s” — even in write-ups of bands that weren’t really political — were a bit forced. I’m not a parishioner of the Church of St. Ronnie, but this aspect of the book seemed overdone. And contrary to the title, there were a few bands whose lives I could not have imagined as my own. Also, a couple of the groups included seemed only nominally connected to the indie ethos.

That aside, this is a great book. And the greatest group from the book is, in my opinion, the one whose song lyric is referenced in its title: The Minutemen, smart but fairly regular dudes from working-class San Pedro, California — “corndogs,” in the words of guitarist D. Boon — who formed a band because … well, why not? They weren’t necessarily the most talented musicians, and they certainly weren’t the most famous (though I’m pretty sure you’ve heard at least one of their songs).

The Minutemen were great because they were exemplars of the best of indie: They were incredibly enthusiastic and sincere in their approach, and churned out music that was uncompromising, clever and innovative.

Incidentally, I got Our Band Could Be Your Life as a birthday present from my uncle Toby, a musician himself, and his wife Stacey. Toby, to me, embodies that same indie spirit: His influences are wide-ranging, he is continually experimenting and broadening his musical horizons, and he’s a generous collaborator. Thanks again for this book, m’man.

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Old Money, New Money, Green Money, Blue Money: ‘The Great Gatsby’

The Great Gatsby

OK, let’s get something straight right off the bat: There’s really nothing new to say about ‘The Great Gatsby.’ There’s probably an entire library’s worth of criticism, counter-criticism and counter-counter-criticism about the book. In fact, just by writing about it, I’m probably inadvertently duplicating work done by someone else, somewhere else, at some other point in time. And of course, many others have analyzed it more intelligently than I possibly could.

So, why write about it here? Well, it was kind of inspired by this other blog post I recently came across. If I can turn someone else on to this work who’s put off by its capital “L” Literature standing, I’ll be happy. Plus, I read a while back that a Gatsby movie, starring Leo di Caprio in the eponymous role, is in the works despite the fact that a perfectly serviceable film already exists. If Hollywood can offer yet another take on this flogged nag, then so can I.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s turn our attention to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic. This book has been called the quintessential Great American Novel, because it vividly captures a snapshot of a specific era in our country’s history: the Roaring Twenties.

Just a few years before the time in which Gatsby takes place, the U.S. had gone through the tail end of the Great War and the Spanish Influenza, which together killed tens of millions of people in Europe and North America. After helping win the First World War, the United States — despite its status as the richest and most powerful nation in the world — had largely withdrawn from the international scene in a period of deliberate political and diplomatic isolationism. The sale of alcohol had been outlawed, bringing into being a massive black market economy to supply Americans with booze. And trends in fashion and entertainment, in an apparent effort to sweep away the tragedies and turbulence of the previous decade, pushed aside former boundaries of decorum in search of mindless diversion.

This is the world that Fitzgerald details via memorable characters such as the perpetually bemused and out-of-his-element narrator Nick Carraway, surly rich guy Tom Buchanan, spoiled socialite (and Tom’s wife) Daisy Buchanan, and — of course — the enigmatic Jay Gatsby.

The book starts out with Nick moving into a cottage on Gatsby’s property. He hears strange stories about his mysterious landlord, such as the fact that he holds lavish parties that he doesn’t actually attend and that his money comes from some not quite on-the-level business endeavors. When he finally meets Gatsby, he must square these odd rumors with the actual person, an ostensibly self-made millionaire who seems very generous and friendly.

Nick, who is not wealthy, is granted entrée into the rarefied world of the rich because of his filial relationship with Daisy, who was courted by Gatsby years before, when he was poor (or at least not in the same class as she was). Because of his lowly station, Daisy rebuffed him and married Tom Buchanan, who, like her, came from a well-to-do family. But Daisy apparently maintains real feelings for Gatsby, which resurface when Nick invites her to one of his famous soirees. Gatsby and Daisy have an affair, which sparks jealousy and rage in Tom (who himself is having an affair with the low-class Myrtle Wilson). One gets the sense that this can’t end well, and it doesn’t.

It’s not really worthwhile to go into more detail on the plot, which is already quite well known and has been rehashed many times elsewhere. The symbolism of the book is worth further examination, though. It’s been said that Gatsby represents the American Dream and Daisy represents money. (Gatsby even says that Daisy’s voice is “full of money.”) I think that’s close, but it’s not quite right.

Daisy and Tom represent something besides just money. They represent old money — that is, prestigious families in which great wealth has been handed down through multiple generations. To be part of one of these families (such as the Rockefellers, Astors, Vanderbilts, etc.) in this country is to be de facto American royalty. It’s about more than mere wealth: It has to do with institutional prestige and power that come with being wealthy and influential for that long. This can be determined by things such as what foundation boards you sit on or what museums or libraries bear your family name in addition to the size of your estates or how much you have in the bank (or even whether you own the bank).

And what the character Gatsby represents, to me, is that specifically American trait of doing just about anything — good or bad, without shame or second guessing — to get ahead. Instead of merely accepting his position on the social ladder, as a European might have, Gatsby goes out and does whatever it takes to accumulate the wealth he thinks is necessary to make himself suitable for Daisy. But there’s a sense that despite his amassed fortune and their feelings for each other, he’ll never fit into her world. He is still, as Tom puts it, a “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.”

So what the book represents is how, in Fitzgerald’s time, the nouveau riche, many of who had recently made piles of money in the booming stock market of the 1920s, were not really considered part of the elite. The members of the old-money families saw them as “trespassers” who did not belong among the brahmins. This may seem harsh to the 21st century reader, but events would soon … well, not vindicate this view, but show it wasn’t entirely wrong. Of course, I refer to the Great Depression, which wiped out the wealth and status of many of these social strivers (along with a few of the more established moneyed class).

Fitzgerald might be happy to know that the divide between old and new money that was so severe in his time doesn’t matter nearly as much today. If he could only see how far we’ve come!

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‘The Great Derangement’: Laugh ‘Til You Cry

The Great Derangement

Loony lefty conspiracy movements. Christian megachurches. The Florida GOP. Capitol Hill. In the middle of the last decade, Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi waded neck-deep through all of these fever swamps and came out of the other side with The Great Derangement, which reads like a Bosch painting.

In this book, Taibbi demonstrates how political demagoguery and post-9/11 paranoia pushed Americans into various bubbles of ideological isolation, where they could have their opinions, biases, and prejudices constantly reinforced without having to worry too much about encountering opposing views. He accomplishes this by personally infiltrating several of these bubbles — and then holds a magnifying glass up to the systemically corrupt U.S. power structure to show how they all miss the mark in their criticism.

Interestingly, Taibbi calls himself out as the “villain” of the book, possibly because as the author, he acts as a kind of ringmaster who gathers all of these distinctively American freak shows together for the reader’s amusement. But by doing this, he also provides a valuable (and horrifying, and hysterical) snapshot of the country prior to the economic collapse of 2007-2008.

The funniest chapter in a book full of funny ones is titled “The Longest Three Days of My Life,” and it details Taibbi’s experiences at an “Encounter Weekend” retreat run by eschatological pastor John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church. Posing as a parishioner, he and some other members of Hagee’s San Antonio-based congregation — which numbers in the tens of thousands — travel out to Texas Hill Country to find Jaaaaysus.

The event kicks off shortly after the group arrives at the “ranch,” with a speech delivered by a comical, overly macho church leader, who loudly and proudly talks up his exploits in high school athletics and the military. (Anyone who grew up in the South knows the type.)

But, you see, this tough guy has a tragic past — his father didn’t attend his ball games while he was growing up. (Seriously.) And this terrible trauma created a “wound” in his life, one that had to be healed by his heavenly father. And everyone else is there because of a similar wound in their own lives, and their mission for the weekend is to find that wound and discuss it in various breakout groups while sitting on metal folding chairs in large rooms lit by phosphorus tubes. Oh, and to cast out demons by speaking in tongues. (Again, seriously.)

This sort of pop-psychology-with-an-old-time-religion-veneer stuff would be mostly harmless if not for the fact that the retreat seems to offer very little to people in attendance who have experienced real mental and emotional distress (or “wounds,” if you like). Instead, it’s apparently designed to assuage the ennui of relatively normal folks. I’m no theologian, but it seems to me that a big part of Christianity is lifting up the lowest and most downtrodden among us, not trying to help some guy from Lubbock overcome the crushing despair of getting passed over for the manager job at the Bass Pro Shop.

There are other problems with Hagee’s church: It repeatedly pushes specific political positions onto a Christian flock that is much more interested in personal fulfillment and salvation. (Hagee is especially keen on keeping Israel strong so that country can fulfill its supposed destiny of being destroyed in an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil during the End Times.) Most of the worshippers tacitly support the church’s Washington agenda, Taibbi reports, but are generally more concerned with how Christianity can change their lives for the better.

Taibbi goes through other situations that somehow manage to be as surreal and prosaic as the Cornerstone Church retreat, such as when he spends time figuring out how Congress operates and uncovers the banality and venality of the legislative process. He finds that lawmakers pass pointless resolutions in nearly empty sessions during the day, but in the dead of night, important Congressional committees hammer out bills that provide legal cover for and giveaways to an assortment of powerful interest groups. (Why so late? Because few professional journalists are willing to cover a meeting at 2 a.m. — committee members like to keep the really important and dirty stuff under wraps.)

He also encounters some of the key figures of the 9/11 Truth movement, a group that believes the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were an inside job. Taibbi seems to get more frustrated with these people than anyone else in the book, perhaps because they have the most stubborn resistance to reason and facts. They cherry-pick and fabricate “evidence” that supports their theories of the government’s role in those attacks, and then just ignore anyone who points out the gaping holes in their arguments.

I’m guessing this defiance of logic is only part of why Taibbi, who is a progressive, gets so pissed at them. The other would probably be the fact that the “Truthers” took up so much of the countercultural left’s time and attention with their silly conspiracies that there was little energy remaining to deal with the really important issues, such as America’s imperial overreach, unprecedented public and private debt, and a looming financial crisis. The craven Democratic Party establishment certainly wasn’t going to step up.

All of these experiences lead Taibbi to this conclusion:

“The People aren’t always victims in the historical narrative. Sometimes the People are preening, chest-puffing, ignorant assholes, too … Maybe this is just how Americans like to roll. You can cut them out of the political deal, lie to them, exile them to some barren cultural landscape of shopping and TV and perpetual powerlessness, sell them a cheap dog-and-pony show for an election, and their way of fighting back will be to parade around like strippers in some amateur lunatic forum …”

Sigh. The more things change …

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No Death? No Dice: ‘The Postmortal’

The Postmortal

Drew Magary is one of the funniest writers on the whole damn Internet. NO ONE DENIES THIS. I’ve been reading his stuff on Deadspin for awhile, and when it comes to humor, the guy always delivers. I particularly enjoy the “anecdotes” from Fake Robert Evans, Magary’s exaggerated caricature of the infamous real-life Hollywood producer.

So when I heard he wrote a novel (his first), I had to give it a look. And as it turns out, The Postmortal is pretty good, though it’s a departure from Magary’s familiar comical voice. It lays out a dystopian future where scientists have discovered a cure for human aging and death of natural causes. However, the Four Horsemen remain in play: People can still die of violent carnage of all sorts. And do they ever.

Magary puts in some funny bits, but when the book is serious, which is often, it’s deadly serious. (Sorry, no more puns. I promise.) I can say, without revealing too much, that the story does not end well for the denizens of this fictional future world.

The sudden introduction of The Cure — not the English New Wave band, but a drug that “freezes” people in their current physical age — sends the masses to dizzying heights of folly in no time at all. Their behavior ranges from silly (such as trips to Vegas where patients are administered The Cure in over-the-top, baptism-like rituals) to horrifying (like when a woman gives her 18-month-old daughter the drug, halting her at that age) to Twilight Zone bizarre (at one point John Farrell, the main character, physically appears to be the same age as his son).

The biggest beef I had with this book was the fact that every time Farrell (a selfish and guarded man) resolves to lead a better life and trust his feelings of love for another person, something terrible happens. It seemed a bit contrived in that respect.

But really, what happens to the characters is incidental. (Even the protagonist’s name seems generic and inconsequential.) The novel is at its best when it examines how the absence of aging could conceivably affect human institutions and morals. This is frequently spelled out in “news articles” that Farrell archives for personal reasons, which steer much of the narrative.

In the scenario Magary dreams up, The Cure impacts everything. A humanistic religion called the Church of Man forms and converts millions. Millions more join a sadistic countercultural movement that resists The Cure and fetishizes death. But most folks simply follow their basest desires with reckless abandon. Even though these people have all the time of the world, so many of them just live for the moment, with little thought of the consequences their actions might bring about tomorrow.

This near-absence of aging has geopolitical implications as well. The government of already-crowded China bans the drug, locks down its citizenry, and takes some extreme population-control measures. The Russians build up an army that’s so massive it strains to hold together. And in the years immediately following the introduction of The Cure, the United States devolves into hedonism and excess.

One other interesting aspect of this story is that although it spans several decades, very little innovation takes place. With the exception of Cure-related breakthroughs, technology and commerce essentially remain in stasis. It seems that when you take away aging, there’s really no incentive to move civilization forward.

I finished this book around the same time Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs died, and I remember seeing in more than a few eulogies this excerpt of a commencement address he gave a few years ago at Stanford University:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.”

The Postmortal reveals what humanity looks like when people defy that critical change agent. And after reading the book, I can say I’m happier to inhabit a reality in which, as author Adam Hochschild put it, “Work is hard. Distractions are plentiful. And time is short.”

Posted in Action/Thriller, Sci-Fi/Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Great Gonzo: ‘Let It Blurt’

Let It Blurt

If you saw the semi-autobiographical film “Almost Famous,” chances are you recall Philip Seymour Hoffman playing music critic Lester Bangs. There are a few reasons why you would remember it. For one, Hoffman is a recognizable actor in a movie filled with unrecognizable ones. For another, Bangs (along with the protagonist’s mom) is the film’s great contrarian, telling young William Miller that rock is dead and gone, and that he’s wasting his time trying to cover it or find any deeper meaning in it. And of course, he has all the best lines in the movie (e.g., “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”).

One striking thing about the portrayal of Bangs in the movie is how much time he gives to the central character, an aspiring young journalist who shows up at a radio show appearance to talk with him. He spends hours with him, alternately giving advice and ranting about the state of popular music. This might stretch the viewer’s credulity a bit: Surely a nationally renowned writer wouldn’t spend so much time with some nobody, right? (Even if the “nobody” in question would grow up to be a famous movie director and an accomplished music writer in his own right.)

Well, as it turns out, Bangs did give personal time and attention to readers and aspiring writers. A lot. In Let It Blurt, a biography written by Chicago music commentator Jim DeRogatis (who, like Cameron Crowe, personally benefited from Bangs’ generous giving of himself), the author recounts several instances of this. For me, the most memorable were the stories of how people who wrote him letters asking for writing tips would receive random, late-night phone calls from him while he was tripping on cough syrup. Bangs would then chew their ear for an hour or two about journalism, music, and whatever else was on his mind. In other words, he was a “social” celebrity before it was cool (or even “kewl”), and not just in the shallow way we throw that term around today.

With the advent of social media, it’s become popular for celebrities and other notable public figures to communicate directly with the public via these platforms. This is, presumably, because social networks like Twitter make it easy to interact with fans without actually getting too close to them. But these fleeting virtual exchanges shouldn’t be mistaken for any kind of authentic, important relationship. To use a personal example, I’m connected with MLB pitcher Curt Schilling on LinkedIn. While I suppose it’s neat to have some kind of association with the ace that led your team to its first World Series Championship since World War I, it’s also essentially meaningless. I mean, it’s not like Schilling is going to call me at 1 a.m. someday to talk at length about how to throw a split-finger changeup. (But, Curt, if you did, I would totally take that call.)

Wait, where were we?

Oh, yes. In addition to getting close to fans, Bangs got close to his subjects. Sometimes uncomfortably so. A theme throughout his life, which is captured well in DeRogatis’ book, is his fixation on Lou Reed. Bangs was obsessed with Reed’s work — even Metal Machine Music — and persona. But Bangs wasn’t a sycophantic fan. He saw Reed as a kind of nemesis as well, and on the occasions they were together, the two of them would engage in mutual disparagement.

Reed’s needling likely stemmed from the fact that he wanted to be perceived as a brilliant, enigmatic artist, and as such, felt the need to put the lowly music critic in his place. But the iconoclastic Bangs viewed Reed’s self-constructed image as a shiny red balloon, and saw himself as a 10-year-old kid with a sewing needle. Like other great gonzo writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O’Rourke and Matt Taibbi, he relished any opportunity to deflate pomposity and pretension. And, he just flat-out enjoyed fucking with people.

If that were all there was to Bangs, he wouldn’t have been much more than an entertaining provocateur/eccentric. But there was quite a bit more substance to the man. For one thing, he could write like hell. He would stay up late, drink some Darvon, chase it with some booze, and spill these long, stream-of-consciousness, bombastic tirades out of his crazy mind. And they were brilliant, dammit! So many writers rack their brains for the best possible turn of phrase, for just the right way to say something, but Lester, well, blurted it out on paper.

Along with his writing proficiency, he had a knack for seeing where music was headed — which was often nowhere — before it actually got there. For example, Bangs traveled to Jamaica in the late 1970s. While hanging out in the dancehalls and record shops in that country, he noted the fact that DJs were playing around with the dials and knobs as they alternated between parts of different records. He didn’t call it hip hop, a term that wouldn’t come until a couple of years later, but he seemed to recognize the origins of a new style of musical performance that would soon be exported to the Boogie Down Bronx. He might have been the most important cultural figure to find out about it up to that point, as punk rock impresario Malcolm McLaren didn’t “discover” hip hop until the early 1980s.

DeRogatis’ great book covers all this and more, including Bangs’ unconventional childhood (he was raised by his mother, who was a devout member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses) and early death in 1982. This was probably caused by overdose but, as the author points out, that was never determined conclusively.

Whatever the cause, he passed on at the young age of 33, a true tragedy. Presuming he wouldn’t have gone insane later in life (probably not a safe assumption, really), it would have been fascinating to read what he thought about, say, grunge. My guess is that he would have liked some of the music, but still railed against the pathos of guys like Kurt Cobain (a fan of Bangs’) and Eddie Vedder as being antithetical to the purpose of rock — that is, stupid fun. I suspect he might have been more sympathetic to the indies, even though he probably would have viewed much of their work as innocuous fluff.

Hell, he might have even started Pitchfork, or something like it. Or maybe he would have become a TV pitchman. The guy was unpredictable that way.

Posted in Biography, Music, Non-Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Meaning of Life and Other Concerns: ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

With a title like The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, you have to wonder what the book’s about. As it turns out, the real question is: What isn’t it about? Author David Mitchell’s work features a love triangle, a naval battle, a strange and sinister cult, East-meets-West culture shocks, institutional corruption, prostitution, mercantilism, and the martial arts.

The story is too complex to sum up satisfactorily in just a few hundred words. Suffice to say, the plot, which is ambitiously epic, revolves around Jacob de Zoet (pronounced “day zoot”) and Orito Aibagawa, a Japanese midwife he meets (and is captivated by) after he travels from his native Holland to Dejima — a Dutch trade outpost in Nagasaki — in search of wealth and status.

What makes Dejima unique is that it’s the only Western presence in the Japanese empire during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Because of the extremely xenophobic outlook of Japan prior to the arrival in 1854 of American Commodore Matthew Perry (not to be confused with this guy), the country’s leaders limited its single Western trading partner to one settlement — a small, artificial island in Nagasaki Bay. (It was artificial because the Japanese didn’t want the gaijin setting foot on their soil.)

Obviously, a romance between Jacob and Orito is going to be difficult in that environment. And in fact, the two are unable to interact with each other throughout most of the story. But he remains obsessed with her, and makes the most of his extremely limited power to help her from his (figuratively and literally) isolated position.

One interesting thing about this book is that minor characters often provide the most thought-provoking, profound commentary. For instance, there’s this passage in which a Japanese scholar tells students at a Nagasaki academy how conviction stirs action:

“The present is a battleground … where rival what-ifs compete to become the future ‘what is.’ How does one what-if prevail over its adversaries? … The answer is ‘belief.’ Beliefs that are ignoble or idealistic; democratic or Confucian; Occidental or Oriental; timid or bold; clear-sighted or delusional. Power is informed by belief that this path, and not another, must be followed.”

Another example comes from a slave who is known to the Dutch of Dejima as “Weh,” named for his island of origin. The short chapter featuring this ancillary character is a kind of mid-book interlude. He isn’t actually speaking out loud, but rather runs an internal dialogue in which he considers which parts of himself he actually “owns.” He more or less concludes that he’s sovereign in his own mind, but that’s cold comfort given the brutal physical reality he has to deal with most of the time.

So with the novel’s assortment of philosophical jags and subplots, is there an overall point to be taken from it? I believe it’s in there, but readers won’t find it until they get to the last couple of pages. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Jacob eventually goes back in Holland, where he lives out the rest of his life. As he reflects on it all at the end, it seems his final, unremarkable years have slipped away like water through his fingers, and that they pale in comparison to that time when the world offered new discoveries and challenges, and he was trying to follow his heart.

Posted in Drama, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

‘The Boys of October’: The Best of Times in the Worst of Times

The Boys of October

The mid-1970s was not a great time for America. The country, which had just gone through Watergate, Vietnam, and the dissolution of the original Bretton-Woods system, faced widespread gas shortages, high inflation, rising unemployment, and geopolitical turbulence. There was a sense that we were falling behind and the Soviet Union was ascendant. (Of course, 10 years later that would be completely reversed, but few Americans could have predicted the turnaround that would unfold over the next decade.)

There were a few bright spots amid the gloom of those days, though. For instance, if you were a baseball fan in 1975 — or even if you weren’t — you probably caught a few games of what was arguably the best World Series of all time.

That’s according to author and lifelong Boston Red Sox fan Doug Hornig, and after reading his book The Boys of October, it’s tough to disagree. He breaks this emotional event down in a way that’s characteristic to baseball — with stats. To make a definitive case, he goes through a process of elimination with all the World Series up to the point his book was written. It was published 2003, which makes you wonder if he revised his opinion following the Sox’ championships of 2004 and 2007.

Probably not. (And the fact that he rates the Series in which his team lost as the best ever should tell you something about Red Sox fandom.) According to Hornig, the qualities that make for the greatest World Series are as follows:

▪ The maximum possible number of games played (7).

▪ Games decided by a single run, especially the final contest.

▪ Frequent lead changes.

▪ A high number of comebacks and late-inning rallies.

▪ Memorable plays. (Incidentally, this series featured what’s probably the most famous play in the history of televised sports.)

▪ The Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks aren’t involved. (This is, perhaps, the most indisputable point of the bunch.)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Put all of the above aside, and let’s examine other aspects of the series — like rosters, for example. This series featured players such as Carl “Yaz” Yastrzemski, Carlton “Pudge” Fisk, Dwight Evans, and Freddie Lynn. And that was just on the losing side! (Note: The great Jim Rice was unable to play for the Sox due to injury.)

It’s hard to believe the ’75 Sox were considered to be a somewhat unpolished group. That is, until you look at the other team. Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” was absolutely stacked. Joe Morgan. Pete Rose. Johnny Bench (whom I interviewed once — nice guy). Davy Concepción. Ken Griffey Sr. And, of course, the great Sparky Anderson at manager.

That’s a ton of talent on both sides, obviously. But we haven’t even gotten to the book’s true “stars” yet. The first is pitcher Luis Tiant, the Cuban-born “master of deception” on the mound. Tiant had a truly distinctive delivery: He would turn his back to the batter, do a little twitchy dance, then spin around in a flash and send some unpredictable pitch toward home plate. (I know if I tried to throw like that, the ball would end up in the dugout.) Tiant is clearly Hornig’s favorite player for his actions on and off the field, and I think it would be very hard to finish this book without becoming a fan of El Tiante, too.

That said, the other most prominent figure is my favorite baseball player: lefty Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Why was he called “Spaceman” (a nickname he actually didn’t care for)? This nugget could probably tell you all you need to know: When Lee was once asked if he preferred natural or artificial grass, he replied, “I dunno. I never smoked the fake stuff.”

But Lee wasn’t some dumb stoner. Quite the opposite: He was outspoken on the issues of the day. Also, he offered what might be the best description of being “in the zone” that I’ve ever come across. Via Hornig:

“When your arm, mind and body are in sync, you are able to work at peak performance level, while your brain remains relaxed. It’s Zen-like when you’re going good. You are the ball and the ball is you. It can do you no harm.”

In addition to the colorful characters, there’s a sense that the game was just better back then. For one thing, this was a few years before crack and steroids started becoming commonplace in clubhouses. Also, the games didn’t drag on: Hornig writes that when batters went up to the plate, they stayed there until they struck out, got walked, got beaned, or got a hit. They didn’t step back after every pitch and adjust their batting gloves, knock dirt out of their cleats, spit, and otherwise waste several seconds like you see today. As a result, the games moved along much faster.

Plus, it seems like going to a pro baseball game was an unfussy, inexpensive affair in those days, something that anybody could partake of and enjoy. For example, Hornig, who was barely scratching out a living at the time, was able to get a pair of tickets to Game 1 of the World Series at Fenway Park. This wasn’t because he was buddies with a Senator or had an uncle who was a Fortune 500 CEO or anything like that. He simply entered a lottery by submitting an application and a check for the amount of the tickets, and happened to be one of the lucky ones chosen.

There’s one other thing about the 1975 World Series that was striking: how much it mattered to people. In Boston, it united a city that had been torn apart just one year earlier by busing riots. It helped Hornig get through the ass end of a failed marriage. And practically the entire country stayed up late to watch Pudge Fisk “wave” his home run shot to right fair in the 12th inning of Game 6.

I’m not sure that any sporting event could generate that kind of passion and unity in America today. Anything involving baseball definitely would not. Case in point: We just had perhaps the most down-to-the-wire regular season, and one of the best World Series, of my entire life. (I turn 32 next month.) But only 10 percent, 20 tops, of all the people I know were even remotely interested.

As many other people have noted before, we live in a much more culturally balkanized society today, and I’m not sure I could identify a single experience that would bring people together like that. The Super Bowl, Oscars, Summer Olympics, U.S. Presidential elections, and Kardashian weddings may approach it, but I still know plenty of people who don’t watch, participate in, or care about at least one of those things.

And that’s too bad. We could really use that kind of coalescence and inspiration right now. Where have you gone, Pudge Fisk? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

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