Chris Cornell’s talents transcend the grunge genre he helped create

Chris Cornell, who committed suicide after a concert yesterday, was at the heart of the change in rock in the 1990s

Earlier this year Chris Cornell released a new solo single, “The Promise,” which doubles as the theme song to the new Christian Bale movie of the same name. Although orchestras curl up around the song’s main acoustic guitar melody, Cornell’s singing takes center stage. His voice, weathered like aged leather but not raspy or faltering, defies categorization: Cornell exhibits the confidence of a pop balladeer, the vulnerability of a folk singer and the weariness of a rock ‘n’ roll icon who’s seen it all.

“The Promise” marked the latest sonic iteration for Cornell, who committed suicide after Soundgarden’s Wednesday night show in Detroit. But this soundtrack song was hardly a surprising departure. Cornell lived what felt like a million musical lifetimes in his 30-plus-year career because he possessed the kind of versatile voice that gave him musical options outside hard rock.

“My history of singing has always probably been closer to a David Bowie approach than, for example, an AC/DC approach,” Cornell told Spin in 2014. “I never thought of myself as being the singer that wanted to create an identity and then stick to that. As a child, I was this record collector/listener that would sit in a room and listen to the entire Beatles catalog alone, over and over and over again.”

He added, “I think that affected my vocal approach because there were four singers in that band, and I never knew who was singing what. I was a little kid; I didn’t really care. I thought that’s what rock music was and I thought that’s what making an album was: You sang in the style and with the feel that the song was asking for.”

Still, Cornell was one of the few hard-rock singers who didn’t need a Plan B. As the frontman of Soundgarden, he steered the band’s dense amalgamations of classic rock, heavy metal and psychedelic rock with fearless gravitas. He’d slide from feral yowls to somber intonations, often in the same song, capturing the band’s roiling disquiet. Soundgarden was lumped into the grunge movement almost by default, but the band transcended this niche in large part because Cornell pushed it into more classic territory.

If anything, Cornell felt like the glue that held together Soundgarden’s disparate sonic textures and personalities together. That was one of his strengths as a band frontman — a fact that became clear when he moved on to front Audioslave, a group comprised of Rage Against the Machine’s instrumentalists. Cornell corralled Audioslave’s towering hard rock into something both fresh and timeless, by being a typically expressive vocalist: passionate and wary, cathartic and subdued.

Unlike many of his peers who had to work around unique or unorthodox voices, Cornell was a naturally charismatic singer with acrobatic range. Although open about his influences — namely, he was an avowed acolyte of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin — Cornell absorbed what he learned from these greats and spun this into his own strengths. It’s difficult to call someone so popular underrated or underappreciated, but Cornell’s presence was easy to take for granted, since he was such an ingrained part of rock ‘n’ roll culture.

Yet Cornell’s studious, malleable approach to music also made him a natural for moving beyond pure hard rock and into movie soundtrack work. He showed off a stunning, blues-influenced delivery — a torch singer’s croon, really — on “Misery Chain,” a duet with Joy Williams on the “12 Years a Slave” soundtrack. Cornell brought a rugged touch to “You Know My Name,” the theme of the 2006 James Bond movie, “Casino Royale,” and turned in a dusky, haunted vocal performance on the Golden Globe-nominated “The Keeper.”

Best of all, however, is “Sunshower,” a lost classic on 1998’s “Great Expectations” soundtrack. The psychedelic-tinged acoustic pop song boasts one of Cornell’s most commanding and naked vocal performances:  “When you’re all in pain/ And you feel the rain come down,” he sings, his voice cracking with anguish. “Oh, it’s all right/ When you find your way/ Then you see it disappear/ Oh, it’s all right.” “Sunshower” is both comforting and despairing; Cornell gives into emotional pain, while also reminding himself that these feelings are temporary.

As this song underscores, Cornell’s solo work was rewarding for listeners in entirely different ways — bare and vulnerable and often so intimate that it felt like an intrusion to listen. (His 1999 solo album, “Euphoria Mourning,” is a particularly underrated collection.) But Cornell flourished with this approach, especially when performing live. Like another one of his idols, Elvis Costello, he embarked on marathon solo shows, where he could cover favorite songs (John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”), tell stories and dip into different corners of his catalog. For some artists, acoustic shows are a necessary evil; Cornell, however, was comfortable being alone.

About the only solo departure that didn’t work was “Scream,” a widely derided, electro-leaning 2009 album produced by Timbaland. The lukewarm reception had less to do with Cornell’s performances, however, and more to do with biases against rockers going pop. And this didn’t hurt his career: All told, Cornell dominated mainstream rock radio throughout the ’90s and well into the 2000s, making him as much the patriarch of modern heavy and hard rock as Eddie Vedder, and the late Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley.

In fact, as Salon’s Gabriel Bell pointed out, “Cornell’s death marks the passing of yet another voice and face familiar to those who grew up witnessing the profound changes rock music underwent in the early 1990s.” It’s shocking and jarring that another one of these familiar icons is gone, especially in the midst of what appeared to be a successful Soundgarden tour. The band was due to headline Friday night during the sold-out Rock on the Range festival in Columbus, Ohio.

On my Facebook page, no two people were posting the same Cornell-associated song, another testament to the breadth and depth of his career. Yet whether performing snarling hard rock or plaintive acoustic folk, Cornell exuded melancholy, anxiety and desolation via his voice. Even early on in Soundgarden’s career, when his fondness for Robert Plant was most evident, Cornell sounded like an old soul, his angst coming from a deep, unknown place. He was a great singer because of his empathy — an innate characteristic that can’t be taught, but something he possessed in spades.

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.
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Elegy for a Year of Death in America

CULTURE
If Nietzsche was right about “what does not kill me,” we’re stronger now. Facing the darkness is the way forward.

Photo Credit: By The original uploader was Nagelfar at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Peace, peace!” wrote Percy Shelley in the climactic stanza of his great poem about the death of his friend and rival, John Keats. But Shelley’s poem, “Adonaïs,” is not about peace — rather the opposite. If anything, it’s about the strife and anguish from which human life is never free.

He is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awaken’d from the dream of life;
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

This is a form of consolation common to poetry and religion, one much in demand over the past 12 months as we have lost David Bowie, Muhammad AliPrince,Leonard Cohen, Alan Rickman, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (just off the top of my head) and have suffered the not-entirely-metaphorical death of our democracy, which has been sick far longer than any of those people. If you grew up amid Anglo-American pop culture of the 1970s and ’80s, and if you once held a burnished view of American tradition and American possibility — that describes, I think, a large number of people — this has been a tough year. I can’t promise I can make any of it better, but I can assure you that all the emotions we now feel have been felt before. Maybe that counts for something.

Confronting the mortality of famous people is always a way of confronting our own, I suppose, just as the tales of their marriages and divorces and affairs seem to echo and deepen our own histories of relationship success or failure. If you belong to the micro-generation that assumed that most of the people on that list would always be part of our lives, as I do, then 2016 has offered an especially pungent reminder that there is no such thing as “always,” and that our day is coming sooner than we would like. If your year was also not easy for other, more personal reasons (as mine certainly was), that seems to go with the territory.

As a child, I rushed out to the driveway for the newspaper on the morning after Ali’s big Madison Square Garden fight with Joe Frazier, and was crushed to learn that the mighty hero had fallen. A few years after that, Bowie’s late ’70s records offered me my first glimpse into a realm of bohemian adventure that actually existed, in real life and on the same continent where I lived, and not just in books about the 1920s or the 19th century. Add a few more years, and Prince emerged as the perfect distillation of white and black pop, a symbol of racial and cultural liberation sent to free us from the Reagan years. I didn’t learn to appreciate Cohen’s music until adulthood, when (again, along with many other people) I realized that he was not some folk-rock phenomenon constrained by the ’60s but something closer to a modern-day prophet.

Each of them, like the other people on that list, had a long and complicated life with many conflicting currents, and I won’t even try to do justice to that complexity here. But it did not occur to me that I would live to see them all dead, or that those deaths would all occur in a year that had so many other ways to make us mourn for lost time and lost opportunities, so many ways of reminding us that time is fleeting, and to gather our rosebuds while we may.

I didn’t have the same personal relationships with other people on that list, or with others I haven’t mentioned (Edward Albee or Elie Wiesel or George Martin or Gloria Naylor or Maurice White or Mose Allison — we could go on). But you may, and people each of us knows almost certainly do. Someone close to me was really broken up over Alan Rickman, who was one of the greatest screen and stage actors of our time, and I don’t begrudge anyone, gay or otherwise, for perceiving George Michael as a sui generis figure — a Keatsian figure, if ever there was one — who broke new ground in pop music. (“Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1” is simply a great record, so great it seemed to have defeated its creator in some ways.)

I don’t want to dwell too much on the perhaps-terminal decline of American democracy, which this publication and everyone else in the media has been worrying over for the last year and a half, like a dog with an old mutton bone. It’s not as if people who supported the incoming president are incapable of grief and sorrow (although I suspect they are underrepresented in the Bowie and Prince fanbases). But for many of us the inexplicable political events of 2016, which remain difficult to believe, even now that they have happened, are at once the atmosphere, the subtext and the inner meaning of all this death. I was not an especially avid supporter of Hillary Clinton, but for many American women (and men) the perverse tale of how she was denied the presidency yet again in her final campaign is another of this year’s great losses. The vision of a woman president came so close to reality, but remains a dream deferred.

We have a way, as human beings, of staring into the darkness and seeing light. We’re going to need that now. In some ways, what Shelley has to tell us in “Adonaïs” is highly conventional: Whatever you believe awaits us on the other side — something or nothing, heaven or hell — at least the struggles of this life are over. Mourning is essentially a form of self-indulgence; it is we who suffer, not the dead. Shelley wrote that poem, of course, while still amid the mad trance of life, locked in unprofitable strife with phantoms: He had one eye on his dead friend and the other on posterity, and was clearly trying to go head to head with John Milton’s “Lycidas,” written nearly two centuries earlier, the first really famous pastoral elegy for a dead friend in the English tradition.

Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor;
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high
Through the dear might of him that walk’d the waves …

Milton refers us back to Christian redemption as the reason not to feel depressed about death and loss, or at least he thinks he does. (I’m inclined to argue that he invented Romanticism without meaning to, and was constantly at war with his own faith.) But the idea at work here, that light must come out of darkness and hope can be found amid deep personal despair — the belief in literal or allegorical transcendence — is such a cultural constant across literary and religious traditions that it has to mean something. Admittedly, that “something” might just be that biology drives us onward, and those of us who find ourselves still living while others die make up reasons to keep going, because our brains are over-evolved and we can’t help thinking about these things. Cats and beetles, so far as we can tell, don’t ask themselves these questions.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous maxim that “what does not kill me makes me stronger” has been repurposed so much by football coaches and military strategists that its original ambiguity has gotten lost. Like most of the mad German’s pronouncements, that one is double-edged and purposefully unclear. Nietzsche knew from experience, for example, that physical illness does not make you stronger in any ordinary sense. (That passage, in fact, comes from “Twilight of the Idols,” his next-to-last major work.) I take his statement to mean that confronting death and mortality directly, as we draw nearer to our own deaths, fortifies us to better use the hours and days we have left.

Nearly everyone I know is coming out of 2016 beset by deep feelings of grief and loss. If we have been made stronger in that sense, we will be more than strong enough for whatever lies ahead: death or transformation, political or cultural or personal. Walt Whitman was thinking of something like this, in a more optimistic key, in perhaps the greatest of his poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” He imagines making friends with death, holding hands with death, and even arriving at “a sacred knowledge of death,” as a way of dealing with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (named in the poem only as “him I loved”), a grievous loss that did not quite kill America and may, for a while, have made it stronger.

And the streets how their throbbings throbb’d, and the cities pent — lo, then and there,
Falling upon them all and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail,
And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.

 

How David Bowie Helped Save Dolphins

ENVIRONMENT

The late rock star is a hero to activists fighting the dolphin slaughter in Japan.

Photo Credit: 360b/Shutterstock

David Bowie is being remembered as a musical genius, a gifted artist, and a fashion icon. But to whale and dolphin activists, he was nothing short of a hero.

Bowie’s hauntingly moving song “Heroes,” the title track of his 1977 album, has become a rallying cry for people around the world working to end the killing and capture of whales and dolphins at the cove in Taiji, Japan.

The song, which includes the lyrics “I, I wish you could swim / Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim,” accompanies the closing credits of the 2009 documentary The Cove, which brought global attention to the annual slaughter in Taiji.

Most people don’t know that Bowie, a quiet but generous supporter of animal welfare causes who died on Sunday at 69, personally intervened to make sure the song could be licensed for a minimal fee.

Cove director Louie Psihoyos said the movie’s producer, Fisher Stevens, knew Bowie’s wife, Iman. “That’s how we got through to him,” he said. “If we’d had to go through record-company channels, it never would’ve happened.”

According to Psihoyos, the cost of licensing a rock song for commercial films starts at about $25,000 and can reach six figures. After hearing about the film, Bowie insisted that RCA Records make “Heroes” available for $3,000.

“They had to charge something so they weren’t giving it away,” Psihoyos said. “It was hardly worth the time for the record label to write up the contract.”

A licensing employee for Sony Music Entertainment, which owns RCA Records, confirmed that the fee was reduced but said the amount paid “is confidential.”

The song, reportedly about an East German and West German couple who meet at the Berlin Wall—“I, I can remember (I remember) / Standing, by the wall (by the wall) / And the guns, shot above our heads (over our heads)”—became a powerful anthem for the anti-whaling movement.

“I didn’t know at the time about his support for animal rights,” Psihoyos said of Bowie. “But it turns out he had a huge heart.”

Ric O’Barry, star of The Cove and founder of Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, said that during the film’s closing credits, “people jump out of their seats and want to do something. That song reenergizes people and helps keep the issue alive. Sometimes I meet people, and when they recognize me, they start singing ‘Heroes.’ ”

“There is nothing to galvanize a community around a movement like a movie, and with every social movement, you always needed songs,” Psihoyos said. “This was a song for that moment.”

The moment lives on. This Saturday in London, thousands of people are expected to march to the Japanese Embassy to protest the dolphin drives, which run every September to March.

Bowie and his hit single will be featured prominently during the day.

“We’re going to make it a massive tribute to Bowie,” said protest organizer Nicole Venter, founder of MEOKO, a platform for electronic music.

Venter said some protesters will be wearing Bowie masks and brandishing banners bearing his image. Meanwhile, a vintage car will lead the march, blasting sounds of dolphins being killed at the cove—and, of course, “Heroes.”

“We will probably play it several times, and people will sing along,” Venter said. “Still, this won’t become a circus. We’re there for the dolphins, but we also want to pay tribute to Bowie.”

The singer, who later sported a dolphin tattoo, was working to save dolphins and whales as early as 1972, when Bowie and the Spiders From Mars headlined the Friends of the Earth Save the Whale Benefit Concert in London.

O’Barry will not be at the protest. He leaves Sunday for Taiji, where police briefly detained him last August. On Tuesday, his Dolphin Project said 35 to 40 striped dolphins were killed at the cove.

“I think London is one of the keys of stopping the slaughter,” O’Barry said.

“ ‘Heroes’ is our theme song, and they’re going to play it loud,” he added. “The Japanese government will have a very difficult time dealing with that PR nightmare. Thank you, David Bowie.”

 

 

This article originally appeared on TakePart.com. Reprinted with permission.

 

http://www.alternet.org/environment/how-david-bowie-helped-save-dolphins?akid=13886.265072.QDzFVg&rd=1&src=newsletter1048995&t=14

DAVID BOWIE RIP

I was shocked last night when I turned on the news before retiring to learn that David Bowie had died. Bowie was such a powerful influence on my life. He was the quintessential 20th century artist: innovative, paradigm busting, creating culture both musically and visually. Recently he’s been a kind of Greta Garbo of rock. He seemed to disappear for a few years, and then…the amazing new album “Blackstar” and his totally unexpected death. My mind is replaying all the Bowie songs that left such an indelible imprint on my soul. I leave you with the moving “Lazarus” song from his last album:

Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now

[Verse 2]
Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me?

[Bridge]
By the time I got to New York
I was living like a king
Then I used up all my money
I was looking for your ass

[Verse 3]
This way or no way
You know I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now, ain’t that just like me?

[Outro]
Oh, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Oh, I’ll be free
Ain’t that just like me?

“Montage of Heck” captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain — and the America that shaped him

Smells like doomed genius: 

Yes, it’s Courtney-approved, but this documentary is a moving and powerful portrait of Kurt Cobain’s America

Smells like doomed genius: "Montage of Heck" captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain -- and the America that shaped him

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (Credit: Sundance Institute)

I remember coming to work on the morning Kurt Cobain was found dead, and feeling puzzled that a younger writer at our San Francisco alternative weekly – who would go on to become a prominent newspaper and magazine editor in New York – was so upset that she sat at her desk all day crying. I could psychoanalyze myself at Cobain-like depth, but the reasons I didn’t get it were basically stupid and defensive. Of course I knew Cobain’s music, and I understood that his death was a big story. But I was also deeply committed to my own disillusionment, to never being taken by surprise. I had already been through the first wave of punk rock, the worst years of AIDS, the deaths of a lot of people less famous than him. I would have rejected Cobain’s status as generational icon even more forcefully than he did – which, in retrospect, looks a lot like deep yearning, thinly wrapped in snobbery. His combination of suburban angst, drug addiction and mental-health issues was an old story, wasn’t it? Just another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song David Bowie wrote in 1972. Nothing to cry about.

Fourteen years later, I was with my kids at a beachfront amusement park when my friend Laura Miller, Salon’s book critic, called to tell me that David Foster Wallace was dead. I got out of the roller coaster line to talk to her – Laura knew Wallace, but I didn’t – and one of the first things to swim into my brain, addled as it was by sunshine and a friend’s grief, was Kurt Cobain. At the time, I understood the connection as a personal commandment to have this experience, complete with all the Cobain-like and Wallace-like ironic introspection it might require; I took it as an edict not to insulate myself against the shared emotion, and potential shared meaning, of this moment of collective mourning. It took longer to see that the linkages between Cobain and Wallace go much deeper than that, and that many other people registered the connection in approximately the same way.

For many viewers of Brett Morgen’s extraordinary HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the most fascinating and powerful elements of the film will be found in the intimate home videos shot by Cobain and Courtney Love in the early ‘90s, before and after their daughter Frances was born. (Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer of the film, and both its remarkable depth and its limitations derive from the fact that it’s an authorized biography, made with the cooperation of Love, Cobain’s parents and various former friends and bandmates.) That footage is absolutely heartbreaking in its depiction of a loving, flawed, high-spirited and essentially normal young family, a long way from the drug-crazed rock-star fiends favored by the tabloids of that not-so-distant era. Yes, rock fans, you do get to see Courtney naked. Impressive as that is, it’s not half as much fun as hearing her ventriloquize baby Frances complaining that her dad’s band are self-indulgent whiners who aren’t as good as Guns N’ Roses. (Footnote for scholars: Cobain’s obsession with GnR frontman Axl Rose is fascinating, but ultimately aren’t they more alike than different?)

But I watched that amazing material with a sense that by that time the die had already been cast. Love and Cobain were famous and their baby, allegedly born addicted to heroin, was famous too. What they were “really like,” as human beings, was irrelevant. As long as they lived they were going to be famous rock ‘n’ roll fuckups, damaged symbols of a damaged generation. For someone with Cobain’s particular set of neuroses, ailments and vulnerabilities, not to mention his philosophical and aesthetic predilections, that might literally be a fate worse than death. I’m not saying that other outcomes, not involving a shotgun blast to the head, were not possible. But there was no easy or painless exit from the prison-house of celebrity available to Kurt Cobain, and he didn’t much like living in it.

Morgen’s title refers both to an extended audio collage Cobain once recorded on cassette tape – just one example of his explosive, unstoppable cultural output – and to the method of the film itself, which assembles an immense trove of public and private material to illustrate a life spent first in obscurity and then in the unbearable spotlight. He has Cobain’s famous notebooks full of lyrics, journal entries, cartoons and momentary observations, of course, but also home movies of his 3rd birthday party, a collection of family snapshots, recordings of early radio interviews and footage of the first Nirvana shows in Aberdeen or Olympia, with a few dozen people in attendance.

He interviews Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s overly loquacious mother, Don Cobain, his monosyllabic father, and Tracy Marander, who was Cobain’s first serious girlfriend and the first woman he lived with. (He was a total deadbeat, from the sound of things, but Marander doesn’t seem to regret working for a living while he played guitar and watched TV. Here she is in a movie, all these years later.) Oh, and there’s music – a lot of it, the famous tracks and a bunch of lesser-known ones. You will indeed hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in a number of versions and a variety of contexts – and when we finally get the actual Nirvana recording over the closing credits, well, I’m not saying I cried in grief and joy and anger but I’m not saying I didn’t.

Rather than trying to describe all these people who have lived on and gotten older, and who now find themselves sitting on their couches struggling to describe or explain a guy they used to know who became very famous and then died, I would say that “Montage of Heck” paints a bitter but compassionate portrait of the downscale white America that shaped Kurt Cobain. He was born in 1967, which surely felt more like 1957 in Aberdeen, Washington, than it did in the tumultuous climate of big cities and college towns. O’Connor says she remembers Aberdeen as a wonderful place to raise a family, and that her kids had a happy childhood. Not much later in the film we hear Cobain describe Aberdeen, in a recorded conversation with an old friend, as an “isolated hellhole” dominated by moralistic Reaganite conformity. You don’t get the feeling that teenage Kurt was an easy kid to live with, or someone who naturally made the best out of difficult circumstances. But his inarticulate sense that the society around him was fundamentally inauthentic, and his yearning to transform it or destroy it, molded one of the last and greatest voices of what Casey Kasem used to call the “rock era.”

Teenage alienation and rebellion is of course not a new phenomenon, and is not unique to the depressed lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest (although I imagine that lent it a particular coloration). In the animations Morgen’s team has created to illustrate Cobain’s audio montages, we witness the highly familiar quality of Cobain’s childhood and teen years: His parents were unhappy and got divorced, he smoked a lot of pot and had frustrating sexual experiences, he was an intelligent and creative kid who found school to be soul-deadening and found some release in loud music. There may be no comprehensible answer to the question of why he responded so keenly to these stimuli, which were applied with equal force to millions of other kids of the downward-trending ‘70s and ‘80s. From an early age, Kurt Cobain yearned to make memorable art, escape his surroundings and become famous, and from an early age he contemplated ending his life, with the kind of obsessive, repeated “jokes” that are impossible to gauge from the outside.

If Cobain and Wallace worked in different mediums and different registers, and emerged from different sectors of middle-class white suburbia – indeed, you can only call Cobain’s background “middle class” under the postwar convention that all white Americans who have jobs and cars belong to that class by definition – there is no mistaking the kinship of their unnaturally keen responses. They were 1960s babies who grew up amid Vietnam and Watergate and the gas crisis and Whip Inflation Now and Jimmy Carter in his cardigan talking about our “national malaise,” and who were teenagers and young adults as that malaise and turmoil turned to amnesia and denial and the suicidal, delusional counterrevolution of the Reagan years. America has not recovered from the cultural and political whiplash of those years and probably never will.

All of us who lived through that period bear the scars, and we have all tried to react to it and push forward as best we can. Of course Wallace is not the only important writer of their generation, nor is Cobain the only memorable singer-songwriter. But they are joined by the intensity of their response – “Nevermind” and “Infinite Jest” are highly singular works in totally different traditions, but I think they represent the same scale of achievement and possess a similar cultural resonance – and by the way they touched a deep well of passion, hunger and unease that transcended demographic or generational clichés. It’s by no means irrelevant that they were both white heterosexual men who were deeply aware of the problematic nature of the Great Man archetype, and committed to addressing that issue in their work and their private lives. And it’s certainly not irrelevant that they became overwhelmed by the vicious contradictions of fame in our era — or, to put it more simply, that they could not escape the private demons of mental illness and drug addiction and ended by killing themselves.

As I noted earlier, “Montage of Heck” was made with the cooperation of Courtney Love and several other relatives or intimate friends of Kurt Cobain. (The most prominent omission is Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.) Among other things, that means the movie does not traffic in any of the pathological conspiracy theories around Cobain’s death, or indeed depict his death in any way. It may whitewash some details of Love and Cobain’s relationship – I wouldn’t know, and don’t especially care – and it certainly depicts the reporters who raked up dirt on the couple, especially Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair, as unscrupulous vultures.

I would agree that the media’s vampirical obsession with the Kurt-and-Courtney story was not journalism’s finest hour, and that it reflected profound anxiety about the youth-culture moment they were seen to represent. But that’s too large a problem to unpack here; I think it’s best to take the Courtney-centric area of the film with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions. Those are minor issues in a masterful and often deeply moving portrait of a volatile American genius, a portrait that goes far beyond one man, one family and one rain-sodden small town. It depicts the society that nurtured and fed that genius, and that made his unlikely creative explosion possible, as being the same environment that poisoned him — and suggests that the rise and fall were inextricably connected. Kurt Cobain was a canary in the coalmine, as was David Foster Wallace. You and I are still in it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” opens this week in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and then premieres May 4 on HBO.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/04/23/smells_like_doomed_genius_montage_of_heck_captures_the_contradictions_of_kurt_cobain_and_the_america_that_shaped_him/?source=newsletter

Sonic Youth founder talks legacy, why artists can’t expect to get rich, Brooklyn — and his great new solo album

Thurston Moore: Sonic Youth “wasn’t really surprising anymore”

Thurston Moore: Sonic Youth "wasn't really surprising anymore"
Thurston Moore (Credit: Matador/Phil Sharp)

The centerpiece of Thurston Moore’s fourth solo album, “The Best Day,” is an 11-minute pagan guitar jam featuring some of the boldest lyrics the man has ever written: “You draw a circle around the holy fortress,” he sings. “Animals they sing and adore you.” With its tensely churning guitars and occultic imagery, “Forevermore” summons Tolkein and Crowley and even Hammer Horror icon Christopher Lee to show the weird and world-conjuring power of romantic desire. In other words, it’s a love song—or at least Moore’s version of a love song. Any treacle or schmaltz or heart-on-sleeve professions of devotions are elbowed aside by noisy guitars and an engagement with weird corners of pop history from Zeppelin to “The Wicker Man.”

Last year Moore moved to London—specifically, to a small village on the city’s outskirts called Stoke Newington—after more than 30 years in New York, where he served as an avatar of the city’s boho sensibilities. Whether that move was motivated by the need for a change of scenery or by the dissolution of his marriage to Sonic Youth bassist/singer Kim Gordon is largely beside point. What matters is that the transatlantic relocation has given Moore a whole new underground to explore. He’s part expat, part anthropologist.

Just as “Low” was David Bowie’s Berlin album, “The Best Day” is Moore’s Stoke Newington album, a collection of songs defined by the particulars of locale. The music is steeped in British history and culture—in its folk, pop and even metal scenes. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley is the only other Yank in Moore’s band, which features guitarist James Sedwards (of Nought, The Devil and Zodiac Youth) and bassist Deb Googe (of My Bloody Valentine). Several tunes feature lyrics penned by a local poet named Radiuex Radio.

“The Best Day” is not a dramatic reinvention by any means; in fact, Moore admits it sounds in some ways like a Sonic Youth album, but adds that such similarities are inescapable. Instead, the album reveals once again Moore’s motivating restlessness and curiosity, showcasing an artist forever twisting expectations. From his new home across the Atlantic, he spoke to Salon about… well, pretty much everything: the gentrification of New York City, the revolutionary act of cutting your hair, the radical activism of the 1970s, the differences between writing a poem and writing a song, even the DIY punk scene in Bloomington, Indiana.

How do you like London so far?



What everyone says about living in England, specifically the weather is so shitty, is actually mistaken. It can be gray and rainy here for period, but we don’t have ice storms here like we did in New York. And it’s not like Vietnam in the summer. I dig it. It’s consistently nice here, but you have to live here to know that. When I used to visit, it would be incredibly rainy and gray and horrible, and I could never understand why anybody would want to live here. I guess you have to plant your feet here for a while to see that. But I’m not really here that much. I travel and tour quite a bit, which is okay but can be annoying because I feel like just when I’m getting into being here and discovering all there is to discover about this city, I get uprooted.

There’s obviously a lot of music to discover in London, although I think most of your fans associate you with New York that it feels a little like we lost a landmark or something.

There’s always been a pretty direct relationship between New York and London in my time. I moved to New York City in 1977. I’d been going there since 1976 and most of the information in New York was coming via London—more so, I think, than the rest of America. That didn’t really happen until later, when more regional and suburban activity started happening in the hardcore and underground scenes in the early ’80s. All of a sudden, those American scenes were more interesting than what was happening in England and Europe. But for me London seemed so exciting and glamorous to fantasize about, even while I was living in New York. I had this idea that I would fly to London and live there as a 19-year-old. It’s a good thing I didn’t. New York is three miles wide and twelve miles long—or something like that. And London is the size of Rhode Island. It’s huge.

Has the city been welcoming?

I don’t feel transplanted. I don’t feel like I’m trying to infiltrate England or anything. I found it incredibly welcoming. There’s a very active music underground here, and people get really interested in and excited by anybody who’s doing anything. Of course, it has the shelf life of about a day, but if you have some kind of vision, they’ll let you exist. I have a lot of history, so when I came here, people seemed happy about it. I got out and see bands and go to venues. I do things here. It reminds me a little more of what New York was like in the ’80s. It’s a little less sold out, although it’s still expensive to live here. It’s gritty, and there’s a street culture. It’s a very different kind of culture because everything shuts down at midnight. So it’s interesting in that respect. Plus, people read here. There are bookstores everywhere, which I like a lot. I dig it. But I still love New York City. It’s my home. When I go there, I feel like I’m going home. I know every little corner and aspect of it, even if I’m removed from it in a way because there’s a new generation there. It’s a more moneyed generation.

New York definitely seems like a different place than it was even 10 years ago.

For sure. Manhattan is still really bewitching in a way. There are certain areas that are off the commerce grid, way down in the tip of the island, that you can get lost in. It used to be that the whole area below 16th Street was our apocalyptic playground, but that doesn’t exist at all anymore. And there’s Brooklyn, which is its own entity. It’s great how Brooklyn has had this amazing resurgence of people coming in there and starting businesses and making it this fun capital. But that’s not my scene. It’s a younger person’s scene. It’s also a high-rent scene, so I don’t find it too attractive in that sense.

Brooklyn certainly prices you out if you’re trying to start something up. You’re almost better off going to Detroit.

The whole Detroit thing is great. To actually take that leap, go to Detroit, and do something on a big plot—that’s pretty radical. But it’s too cold for me. New York is cold, too, but Detroit is really cold. I’m in my mid 50s. I grew up in cold weather, but now I can see why old people go south. I can see why Iggy Pop lives in Miami Shores or wherever he lives. I get it. It’s time to worship the sun for a while. Where are you? Are you in New York?

I’m in Bloomington, Indiana, actually.

Cool. I have a bit of a connection to Bloomington, because there was this scene going on there in the mid ’70s, a bit of an art-rock scene coming out of the university. So, when I was 16 years old, I was pen-palling with these guys in Bloomington. There was a fanzine called Gulcher, and the first time I ever got published was a photo-booth photo of me looking tough and smoking a cigarette and talking about punk bands that I saw at Max’s Kansas City. I was writing back and forth with Eddie Flowers, who had a band called the Gizmos. I actually wrote to him in ’76 and said, Maybe I’ll come out to Bloomington and join you guys. And he said, No! Don’t do that. We have enough people in the band. I think MX-80 Sound came out of Bloomington, too. They were a really weirdo art-rock hippie punk band at a time when nobody knew how to cut their hair yet.

That was the whole thing, trying to figure out how to cut your hair and whether to wear straight-leg pants or not. It was a big deal. When I first started going to New York, even the Ramones had long hair. Lenny Kaye had this great long hair in the Patti Smith Group. There are early pics of Blondie where everybody has long hair. That didn’t last too long. I think it’s when people first see Television onstage with Richard Hell. That was really shocking. I remember that the audacity of anybody getting onstage to play rock music was just insane.

Now it seems odd that anyone would get upset about a musician’s haircut.

The identity of youth culture was all about hair. Hence the Broadway play. Hair was the flag. For somebody to cut it off and make this radical music early on, they had better have something to stand on. And there was. There was this whole attitude of change. It wasn’t just Television. It was people like Jonathan Richman—this idea of being a math nerd onstage was really wild. Alienated geeks could respond to people who were smart and looking for intellectual kicks. They knew they couldn’t look like Robert Plant, but they could look like Jonathan Richman. It was a necessary change.

Tell me about the artwork for “The Best Day.” That’s a very striking image on the cover.

The dog’s name was Brownie, and the woman is my mother. Her name is Eleanor. The picture was taken by my father when they were courting in the 1940s. It was down in Florida, around Miami. I found that photo among her photos earlier this year. When I saw it, I thought of different titles for the photo and the record, and I came up with “The Best Day.” I thought there must be a thousand other albums called “The Best Day,” or at least a thousand songs called “The Best Day.” I did a little research and could find only one song, a Country and Western song from years back. I didn’t listen to it. I was afraid to. But I had this other song I wrote, an instrumental, and having an album title already, it allowed me to write lyrics to the title song of the record. I felt good about having a title that’s about goodness instead of anger.

It certainly puts these songs in an almost literally sunnier context.

And my mother is still alive. The dog is no longer with us. My father’s no longer around either. In that respect you just think about how we all have these amazing days in our lives, but we have so much else—a lot of difficulty, a lot of stress. To me, it was like I was acknowledging that those times do exist and celebrating them. So there it is, on the cover. But you know, there’s always this underlying wistfulness in these things. We’re all wistful creatures.

The best day ends at midnight and then an okay day starts. Or a bad day. That push and pull between contentment and melancholy can make for a dynamic album.

We all have bad times in our lives. That’s a commonality among everybody, so to contemplate it is good, especially if you’re doing it as an artist. It’s an emotional expression, whether you’re doing it in music or visual art or literature. For me it feels like there’s a bit of self-medication to it, for want of a better word.

I would imagine that it would make them easier to live with for the next several months, when you’ll be playing them every night.

Sometimes I see bands whose whole oeuvre is based on anger and their own pissed-offed-ness. Every song is, I’m fucking losing it! Any kind of hard punk/metal thing is all about anger and negative vibes. Man, you have to express that anger all the time when you’re on tour. I find I don’t want to do that. There’s a lot I could scream about, but I’d rather transmute it in a way and try to turn it around. Put some light onto it, make it humorous, and see what happens. Maybe not talk about the bad, but talk about the good.

Yoko Ono said to me once, Let’s not talk about these people who are doing such bad things on the earth, be it Putin or whoever. When you talk about them, you name them, and when you name them, you give them this energy and this power. So don’t talk about them. Talk about the people who are doing good things. Let’s name them and give them the power. There’s something very ancient and Buddhist-centric about that kind of thinking, obviously, but I find it to be a very good rule of thumb in writing and presenting yourself as a public figure. That did have an effect on me.

Is that where “Detonation” comes from? Some people might look at the subject matter—political activism in the UK during the late 1960s and early 1970s—and see something very negative. But that song actually celebrates that kind of radicalism?

Those activists were university students, poets, and artists who wanted to make a point without harming anyone. They wanted to create some damage in the face of this imbalance of power in the cities. It was young men and women together—very gender-balanced. They were thrown in jail for being rabble-rousers and anarchists, and most of them continued their radical lives when they got out of jail. Some of them even lost their lives. That kind of devotion is really intense. They just couldn’t walk away from the cause, and that impresses me. I live in a little village called Stoke Newington, and there was a group here called the Angry Brigade, who were imprisoned for putting explosives in different places that were identified with the war machine. They made sure nobody got hurt; it was complete theater. Still, they were caught and thrown in the pokey.

That song looks at their creative lives. I didn’t write the lyrics. It was written by this transgender poet friend of mine who lives here named Radiuex Radio. She wrote three lyrics on the record—that song, a song called “Vocabularies” and another called “Tape.” I did do a little editing, which I’ve never done. In Sonic Youth we would trade lyrics. Someone would write a song for Kim [Gordon] to sing, and I would take some lines from her and use them in a song I would sing. So this kind of collaboration is nothing new.  “Detonation” was one of the first songs from this record that was composed, and there’s another song called “Speak to the Wild” that warns against falling in line with authority. I always thought “question authority” was the great badge of my era of ’70s, ’80s, ’90s punk. I always thought it made sense.

This whole album seems to be concerned with your relationship to authority.

I’ve always had a problem with being told what to do. I don’t know why. I think it’s because of my family unit. My parents weren’t especially authoritative. My dad was a typical father coming out of the Eisenhower era. He would spank you as a kid if you were acting up, but he was certainly not a mean guy. He was actually a very nice guy. But he passed away when I was a teenager. My mother was very liberal and open to me having experiences. She wouldn’t lay down the law. She would just worry. So I think what happens when I come into contact with some kind of expectation of authority, I kind of bristle. I feel like I want to create some kind of independence in reaction to it. I think that’s why I was really into hardcore music, because it was rebellious and it wore its rebellion and its emotions on its sleeve. Steve Shelley [Sonic Youth’s drummer] was in a band called the Crucifucks. They were a Midwestern hardcore band that I thought were fabulous, and they had these songs like “Democracy Spawns Bad Taste” and “Who Are All These Men in Blue Pushing Us Around?” My favorite, actually, is “Hinckley Had a Vision.”

Is there a point for you when the rebellion becomes the authority? Do the codes of rebellion become so ingrained that they become the thing to rebel against?

You do have to be careful. Rebellion becomes pretty chic and everybody falls in line with it. I think I’m more interested in unique independence. My favorite musicians were always the outliers, the ones who are beyond category: people like Sun Ra and Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, these itinerant people who had a singular voice as opposed to a groupthink mentality. On the other hand, I really like the groupthink of the initial punk movement. I like the idea of community, when a certain music sounds the same or has the same laws of composition, like reggae or Country and Western or different genres of jazz. When people say all reggae sounds the same, I’m like yeah, because this is a really unified idea. And I like that idea of unity, but the people who really attract me are the ones doing something singular. Obviously that’s what I wanted Sonic Youth to be. That’s who we wanted to be, and I guess that’s who we were.

Any band with a catalog as large and a legacy as long as Sonic Youth’s will necessarily meet certain expectations from fans and critics. Do you feel a need to rebel against those expectations of what the band was or could be?

Always. I feel like I don’t want to be decoded. The type of songwriting that was going on in Sonic Youth I think at some point was fairly well figured out. When we used to tour, the audience always had this kind of question mark over its head, but that kind of disappeared later on because they figured us out. People could dig the music, but it wasn’t really surprising anymore. The very few reviews I’ve read of “The Best Day” say that it sounds like a Sonic Youth record. Well, there are reasons for that. I do extend myself into other places where I play completely improvised music  or get involved with genre bands like Twilight, but for what I do as a songwriter, sitting alone with my guitar writing a song, it’s going to come out a certain way and sound a certain way. And I’m not going to try to change that just so it’s not recognizable.

In a way it should be recognizable, but it’s certainly not new. You’re only new once with what you’re doing, but that’s a great thing about being in a band—that initial impact that you have. Oh, this is a new sound. By your third or fourth record, it’s been decoded. I think it took a little while longer with Sonic Youth because we learned how to play as we existed. We learned to play in our own way, and we would settle into motifs for a few record. Those would progress and develop as years went by, but there would never be any radical changes. It wasn’t like, let’s go out and all play pianos. I don’t know what would have happened if we had done that. We would have lost our management and our booking agents.

When we did the record “Washing Machine,” it was in my mind to not have our name on the record, and just have the name of the band be Washing Machine. We were supposed to tour with R.E.M. when that record came out, and I asked if we could be listed as Washing Machine. No way. Nobody would go for it. So I had to settle for saying to people that we were called Washing Machine and the name of the album is “Sonic Youth.” But that didn’t fly either. I didn’t push it. I do side with reason. I’m not a complete nut.

It seems like you address some of those impulses with side projects and collaborations, like the “Caught on Tape” album with John Moloney and the chapbook with Tim Kinsella.

I do, and I allow all of those things to inform each other as well. The most separate thing is definitely working with writing. I teach writing courses in the summer at Naropa University, in the poetry workshop there that Allen Ginsburg and Anne Waldman founded in ’74. The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, they call it. That vocation is separate from the music activity, although I think there’s a wish that I’ll bring my guitar and play a little bit. But I don’t do it, because I want to be here teaching writing as a writer. I know I’ll never be looked upon as a writer, because I already have this history as a musician. I’ve learned how to deal with that. I like the idea of people being able to do whatever they want to do as artists. There’s always this dictum that says you shouldn’t spread yourself too thin across different disciplines. I disagree with that. I think you should be able to do what you want to do. That’s what John Cage was all about. You do whatever you do in an expressive medium to the best of your abilities, regardless of what medium it is. He called it interdisciplinary art.

So writing a poem doesn’t come from the same creative impulse as writing a song.

They can be different impulses. I’ll work on writing poems for the sake of writing poems, because they have a certain discipline—the way the line breaks, or the meter of the line, or just the visual nature of the poem on the page. I’m not writing with any intention for it to be a lyric in a song, but a lot of times when I’m writing songs, I’ll go back to a poem and try to sing the poem without having to modify or adjust it. Nine times out of ten I’ll have to modify or adjust it to fit the song. Sometimes I’ll take lines from different poems and create a third kind of piece that will become the lyrics to a song. I’ll ransack notebooks. When I write lyrics that are primarily for a song, it’s all about rhyme schemes. Rhyme schemes don’t really exist for me when I’m working with poetry. Rhyming in poetry is mostly outdated, but you can still utilize it to some degree. But you don’t want to do moon-june-spoon in poetry.

People generally think of writing as a solitary pursuit, yet you’ve managed to make it a collaborative endeavor. In fact, almost all of the art you create seems to be created socially.

To some degree. Sonic Youth worked best as a really democratic model. I always thought we worked best when nobody was coming in with song ideas. We would just get together and play, and we would hear things happening that we would focus on and create a song out of. That’s where the most interesting and magical stuff happened. But a lot of times one of us would come in with song ideas. I spent a lot of time writing songs and thinking, What am I going to do with these? So I would bring them in to Sonic Youth rehearsals and everybody would write their own parts and it would become a Sonic Youth song. But with the solo stuff, I show people what I’m doing and I don’t really allow much invention with it. It’s not, do whatever you want to do. It’s more like, I’d like you to play in unison with me here. Or I’d like you to do this on bass. It’s a different relationship than I had with Sonic Youth, because that band started with people who wanted to make something together. The band on “The Best Day” formed with me making phone calls to three people and asking if they would play this music I’m writing.

I always want to collaborate with people that I’m really interested in. When I started playing Lydia Lunch, I was so aware of what she was in the early ’80s, so it was incredibly startling to have this invitation to work with her. And then I had this whole history of working with Patti Smith and Merce Cunningham and Cecil Taylor. These people are giants to me, and all of a sudden I was partnering with them. It still happens today whenever I connect with someone who’s significant to me. I’ve always been a huge enthusiast of other people’s works, and I hold it in high regard. Those are teaching materials for me.

I think about people who lead ascetic lifestyles where they get into this state of no belongings and they just have this loss of self. In a way I have a lot of problems with that. I’m intrigued by that kind of life—you can have loss of self, but you’re always going to be imprisoned in your own consciousness. You have to deal with that. I find that the documents are my communications with the real world. I feel like I have plenty of connection with the metaphysical/spiritual world, too. I don’t feel a need to get rid of my belongings just so I can have this unattached lifestyle. I like the attachments. I find them to be friendly and interesting and exciting. I’m thinking of a whole new Buddhism where you surround yourself with mountains of paper.

Is that harder to do when music and culture are becoming less physical and more ephemeral?

Just by the fact that something is digital, it’s automatically insubstantial. I have no feeling for it. For me it’s there for a service and an immediacy of interaction, but it doesn’t turn me on. I don’t think it’s a threat to the more vibratory materials, like books and records and things you can actually touch. Because your senses are not involved in the digital. Even your hearing is negated because you’re just hearing digital output, which is numerical. Your brain doesn’t have much fun with it. It just processes it as information. I don’t get turned on by information. I get turned on by the mystery. But I don’t think these things are disappearing. There’s a lot of replacement going on, but there’s still plenty to deal with. It doesn’t disturb me.

It is a little harder to make a buck. It definitely puts a crimp in a lot of people’s lifestyles, people who made good money being in bands. There’s a certain humbling that I think is significant. Why should being in a band make you more money than any other job? Just because you have a guitar and you’re onstage doesn’t mean you have the privilege of being a millionaire. I never had that privilege, but it’s happened to a lot of people. Would I have accepted it? Certainly. Anybody could use the coin. But I always thought it was a distorted situation where people in the arts should have that ambition of great wealth. It would be nice, but it’s completely unnecessary to the craft.

I try not to have that define me or my pursuits at all. I say that, but at the same time, I’m very clear on how I tour and what is sustainable and what makes more sense financially. You can make more money playing this festival than playing this cool underground club. What are you going to do? I’m going to play the festival. I have to pay the rent just like anybody else.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/18/thurston_moore_sonic_youth_wasnt_really_surprising_anymore/

 

Joan Didion Answers the Proust Questionnaire

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“Misery is feeling estranged from people I love. Misery is also not working. The two seem to go together.”

In the 1880s, long before he claimed his status as one of the greatest authors of all time, teenage Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922) filled out an English-language questionnaire given to him by his friend Antoinette, the daughter of France’s then-president, as part of her “confession album” — a Victorian version of today’s popular personality tests, designed to reveal the answerer’s tastes, aspirations, and sensibility in a series of simple questions. Proust’s original manuscript, titled “by Marcel Proust himself,” wasn’t discovered until 1924, two years after his death. Decades later, the French television host Bernard Pivot, whose work inspired James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, saw in the questionnaire an excellent lubricant for his interviews and began administering it to his guests in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1993, Vanity Fair resurrected the tradition and started publishing various public figures’ answers to the Proust Questionnaire on the last page of each issue.

In 2009, the magazine released Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life (public library) — a compendium of answers by such cultural icons as Jane Goodall, David Bowie, Allen Ginsberg, Hedy Lamarr, Gore Vidal, and Julia Child.

Unsurprisingly, some of the most wonderful answers come from 69-year-old Joan Didion — a woman who has endured more personal tragedy than most and has written about it with great dignity and grace, extracting from her experience wisdom on such subtle and monumental aspects of existence as grief, self-respect, keeping a notebook.

Portrait of Joan Didion by Robert Risko for Vanity Fair

Didion’s answers are particularly poignant for their timing — she answered The Proust Questionnaire in October of 2003, several weeks before her husband died of a heart attack while her only daughter lay comatose in the ICU; though Didion’s daughter did recover from the coma, acute pancreatitis took her life eighteen months later.

What is your greatest fear?

I have an irrational fear of snakes. When my husband and I moved to a part of Los Angeles County with many rattlesnakes, I tried to desensitize myself by driving every day to a place called Hermosa Reptile Import-Export and forcing myself to watch the anacondas. This seemed to work, but a few yeas later, when we were living in Malibu and I had a Corvette, a king snake (a “good” snake, not poisonous, by no means anaconda-like) dropped from a garage rafter into my car. My daughter, then four, brought it to show me. I am ashamed to say I ran away. I still think about what would have happened had I driven to the market and noticed my passenger, the snake, on the Pacific Coast Highway.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I find “speaking one’s mind” pretty overrated, in that it usually turns out to be a way of aggrandizing the speaker at the expense of the helpless listener.

What is your favorite journey?

A long time ago, before they showed movies on airplanes and decided to make you close the blinds, I used to love flying west and watching the country open up, the checkerboarded farms of the Midwest giving way to the vast stretches of nothing. I also loved flying over the Pole from Europe to Los Angeles during the day, when you could see ice floes and islands s in the sea change almost imperceptibly to lakes in the land. This shift in perception was very thrilling to me.

On what occasion do you lie?

I probably lie constantly, if the definition of lying includes white lies, social lies, lies to ease a situation or make someone feel better. My mother was incapable of lying. I remember her driving into a blinding storm to vote for an acquaintance in an S.P.C.A. election. “I told Dorothy I would,” she said when I tried to dissuade her. “How will Dorothy know?” I asked. “That’s not the point,” my mother said. I’m sorry to report that this was amazing to me.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?

For a while there I disliked being short, but I got used to it. Which is not to say I wouldn’t have preferred to be five-ten and get sent clothes by designers.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Most people who write find themselves overusing certain words or constructions (if they worked once, they get hardwired), so much so that a real part of the exercise is getting those repetitions out.

When and where were you happiest?

Once, in a novel, Democracy, I had the main character, Inez Victor, consider this very question, which was hard for her. She drinks her coffee, she smokes a cigarette, she thinks it over, she comes to a conclusion: “In retrospect she seemed to have been most happy in borrowed houses, and at lunch. She recalled being extremely happy eating lunch by herself in a hotel room in Chicago, once when snow was drifting on the window ledges. There was a lunch in Paris that she remembered in detail: a late lunch with Harry and the twins at Pré Catelan in the rain.” These lunches and borrowed houses didn’t come from nowhere.

What talent would you most like to have?

I long to be fluent in languages other than English. I am resigned to the fact that this will not happen. A lot of things get in the way, not least a stubborn fear of losing my only real asset since childhood, the ability to put English sentences together.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I’m afraid that “one thing” would just lead to another thing, making this a question only the truly greedy would try to answer.

What is your most treasured possession?

I treasure things my daughter has given me, for example (I think of this because it is always on my desk), a picture book called Baby Animals and Their Mothers.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Misery is feeling estranged from people I love. Misery is also not working. The two seem to go together.

Where would you like to live?

I want to live somewhere else every month or so. Right now I would like to be living on Kailua Beach, on the windward side of Oahu. Around November, I’m quite sure I will want to be living in Paris, preferably in the Hotel Bristol. I like hotels a lot. When we were living in houses in Los Angeles I used to make charts showing how we could save money by living in a bungalow in Bel-Air, but my husband never bought it.

What is your favorite occupation?

I like making gumbo. I like gardening. I like writing, at least when it’s going well, maybe because it seems to be exactly as tactile a thing to do as making gumbo or gardening.

What is your most marked characteristic?

If I listened to other people, I would think my most marked characteristic was being thin. What strikes me about myself, however, is no t my thinness but a certain remoteness. I tune out a lot.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

Axel Heyst in Joseph Conrad’s Victory has always attracted me as a character. Standing out on that dock in, I think (I may be wrong, because I have no memory), Sumatra. His great venture, the Tropical Belt Coal Company, gone to ruin behind him. And then he does something so impossibly brave that he can only be doing it because he has passed entirely beyond concern for himself.

 

http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/02/joan-didion-proust-questionnaire/