Most of the new crop of musician autobiographies is weak and one-dimensional: John Fogerty is still mad, with good reason; so is Kim Gordon; so is John Lydon. Two of the guys from Joy Division are still mad, without good reason; Neil Young misses some of his dogs; Patti Smith is tired from all that remembering. The most distinctive of the ones I’ve read recently is Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. As in her best Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag songs, Brownstein wrote a memoir that simultaneously shares what something feels like in real time and considers how it’s different now that she’s had a while to let those emotions cook. Anyone who regularly comes up with sentences like
“I offered to be in a band with a cute and hip-looking woman whom I admired for her ability to pull off overalls, but she wasn’t interested”
“We were like Fleetwood Mac without the sex or drugs or hair or songs”
“My attitude may have been a factor”
has a sense of humor and sense of self that serve her book well. In its way, this tough, sweet memoir is as loud and ambiguously satisfying as the best of Dig Me Out, The Hot Rock, or All Hands on the Bad One.
The good news: The Detroit News has published 16 pieces about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The bad news: Only one of them is mostly about Gordon Lightfoot.
I am often at my happiest when I am at my most ridiculous. I don’t act on that self-knowledge often enough, but I did today when I spoke before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight in favor of “Roadrunner” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers becoming the official state rock song. An official rock song? Isn’t the whole purpose of rock’n’roll to upend that sort of thing? Maybe, but politics is the art of the possible and not the perfect. So is rock’n’roll, if you think about it. Regardless of the rock’n’rollness of the setting, “Roadrunner” is as close to a perfect rock’n’roll song as you’ll find. If we’re going to have an official rock song in this weird state, this is surely it. And I got to deliver my testimony as part of a hilarious lineup of a hearing that including two bills regarding clam chowder (one as official state appetizer, another as official state dish) and acts designating, among other events, Sleep Deprivation Awareness Week, Aviation Awareness Week, and Narcolepsy Awareness Day.
Here’s my testimony:
I am here as a longtime citizen of the Commonwealth to register my support for “Roadrunner” as our official rock song. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers said all that needs to be said on the matter in four minutes and six seconds, so I promise I’ll come in way under that.
“Roadrunner” is profound and it’s profound in the way it celebrates the mundane. It makes art out of driving to a Stop and Shop, out of driving around your state late at night, listening to the radio, trying to make yourself feel better. Is there anything more American than that?
Or, to consider it another way, is there anything more American than wasting gas? “Roadrunner” was recorded in 1972, a year before the OPEC oil embargo, back when the stuff was cheap, $3 a barrel, and seemed to go on forever. Is Richman wasting gas? Or is he investing in gas? You can’t put a price on the feeling you can only get driving late at night listening to the radio.
That’s only one of an infinite number of mysteries in “Roadrunner.” I’ve got plenty more of ‘em, including one involving the Natick Mall, but I’ll just share a few reasons why “Roadrunner” is the only possible choice for official rock song.
It’s educational. Most songs only count off to 4, this counts off to 6. That’s 50% more math than most rock songs. At a time when communities are convulsing over math test scores, we should accept “Roadrunner” as a gift to the children of the Commonwealth. And, in lines like “going faster miles an hour,” it creates a whole new brand of English syntax — born in Massachusetts.
It’s for everyone. With only two chords and the occasional hint of a third, it’s a song almost anyone can learn to play. It’s been celebrated as one of about 1,000 songs that invented punk rock, but its influence goes way beyond that. It’s the only song that the jam band Phish, the electronic artist M.I.A., and punk stalwarts The Sex Pistols have all covered. If you’ve come up with something that Phish fans, M.I.A. fans, and Sex Pistols fans can agree on, you have truly captured the universal.
And it’s about triumph. You try shouting “radio on!” over and over out an open car window and not feel victorious. A little embarrassed, maybe, but victorious. Not that I would know from personal experience.
I admit it: There may be better bands from Massachusetts. There may have been better songs written and recorded in Massachusetts. But there’s no other song that so simply captures the complex delights of living in this beautiful, strange Commonwealth. It comes out and screams what no other song in the history of rock’n’roll ever has: “I’m in love with Massachusetts.”
Thank you very much.
Thank you to Joyce Linehan for making all this happen and to my friends for pointing out ways I could improve my testimony.
“In that open letter I wrote to Pope Francis on the Huffington Post …”
I read a lot of books as an impressionable teenager, but there were three autobiographies I devoured, all in the same semester, that inspired/fascinated/disgusted me with what I felt was their smart, savvy, sometimes brutal depictions and opinions of what “real life” was like: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, and Iceberg Slim’s Pimp. One was assigned for school; two I picked up at a used bookstore in Greenwich Village when my friend Mike and I were supposed to be in school. All contributed to my education.
Over time, I learned that much of what was in those books, while emotionally riveting and mostly true, was factually dubious. Freshman year in college I read Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life and learned that Guthrie was both savvier and more mundane a personality than he wanted us to believe. Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention showed how Malcolm’s Autobiography was a brilliant, controlled, selective performance. And now Justin Gifford’s Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim tells a more complicated and less self-aggrandizing (though still pretty damn disturbing) tale than the official take.
Few of the revelations in those books (Marable’s were the most controversial when they were first published) diminish the story or the storyteller. Many of the deviations from fact in Autobiography of Malcolm X, Bound for Glory, and Pimp were made to improve and focus the story, but it turns out that messiness makes for a more complicated and even more engaging story than a slightly too-well-rounded version.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That’s the key line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and, in some ways, that’s the moral of the film and the three high school books I’m remembering. Sometimes, though, dumping the legend in favor of the fact can better serve the subject and the story.
Sometimes a small, specific unexpected detail can pull you into a piece. Here are the first few sentences of a piece by Steve Coll in this week’s New Yorker about the deal recently reached between Iran and various world powers.
In the late nineteen-eighties, in Switzerland, Iranian officials met with collaborators of A. Q. Khan, the scientist who fathered Pakistan’s nuclear-bomb program. The parties may also have met in Dubai, where Khan maintained a secret office above a children’s store called Mummy & Me. In 1987, the Iranians received a one-page document that included the offer of a disassembled centrifuge, along with diagrams of the machine. They reportedly ended up paying as much as ten million dollars for information and materials that helped Iran advance its nuclear program during the nineteen-nineties.
I’ve boldfaced the part that made it impossible for me not to read the whole article. Illicit nuclear negotiations atop a children’s store! With a great name! Who wouldn’t want to see where this article goes?
(While writing the following for work, I realized that a few moments in the accompanying video are NSFW in most workplaces, so I figured I’d post it here instead.)
I was just sharing with a colleague an example of a useful, entertaining brief animated video and thought I’d share it here, too.
This three-minute-long clip, in which musician and comedian Carrie Brownstein searches for a mythical good afterparty, has all the elements you want in a brief animation: a taut, compelling story (complete with surprises and reversals), images that reinforce and comment upon what’s being said (often with humor), and a design that fits well with the topic. It also features my favorite song from her White Flag project. Enjoy!