It is important to say something positive about the world in which we live so that we become more rounded individuals. To that end, I thought I would write a little this time about what I enjoy about America. I write two semi regular series of articles. The one, ‘And Another Thing...’ is usually me on auto-rant. The other, ‘Best Things Ever’, sees me picking something I have a particular passion for (tea, Shakespeare, ‘In the Loop’), and eulogising it. If my 1st epistle belongs to the former series, think of the 2nd as very much of the later.
Of course, a country is an arbitrary boundary and a nation but a random collection of individuals. I am sure that America is a beautiful land, it looks it, but I confess that I only been once so far and that was to New York, which people tell me isn’t like the rest of America (I’m sure no part of America is). Yet I am and always have been heavily influenced by American culture and it to this that I turn my attention this time.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love the blues, that pure American sound. I love John Lee Hooker, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters. On first hearing Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (following a recommendation by Van Morrison) I wanted to jump up and down in the street. ‘Down by the Riverside’ blew me away. And then there is Chuck Berry: ‘Too Much Monkey Business’, ‘Never Can Tell’, ‘Nadine’, they’re like totems along the highway of my life. They say if Chuck Berry had been white, he’d have been bigger than Elvis.
I love listening to the Eagles’ song, ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’, at the end of drunken night, because it reminds me of my late father. I love the Raconteurs ‘Carolina Dream’, because it reminds me of an obscure Dylan song on unfashionable album. I love Ani DiFranco when she sings ‘Self-Evident’ and ‘Serpentine’ and Rage Against the Machine when they perform Alan Ginsberg’s ‘Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox’. Their version of Springsteen’s ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ is also shit hot.
Anyone who knows me knows of my obsession with Bill Hicks and Bob Dylan, I quote them more than anyone except possibly Shakespeare, so I will skip over them briefly. The late Bill Hicks was to my mind the greatest comedian ever to walk to earth. Comedy was an art form in his hands, his timing honed to within the millisecond. Dylan is the everyman, through his lyrics he shows you what man is. Not what man should be, what he aspires to be, but what he actually is. A flawed genius to be sure, but what other kind of genius is there?
Of all the sounds in all the universe, it is Nina Simone’s voice that sounds the most exquisite to my ears. When she sings ‘For All We Know’, ‘Mr Bojangles’, ‘Just Like a Woman’, it’s like retuning to the womb. And when she plays those first strains of ‘Good Bait’, the first chords of ‘Mood Indigo’, OMG, a well played piano is the most powerful narcotic you can subject my brain to. Must be why I love Tori Amos (other than her being a redheaded goddess and all). In the right mood, that woman can induce a state of almost transdimesional relaxation, an overwhelming feeling of being at one with the multiverse.
I love Wilson Pickett and Otis Reading and Jackie Wilson singing ‘(You’re Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’. Statues should be erected to Louis Armstrong, if only for ‘What a Wonderful World’ and ‘We Have All the Time in the World’. I have a predilection for Joe Satriani albums and Alice in Chains got me through some difficult times. I understand from my brother that with their new singer, William DuVall, they are the best band he has ever seen live.
And then there is the music of George Gershwin, which shows multiculturalism at its most creative, throwing up new forms like tectonic plates colliding. ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and ‘An American in Paris’ are joyous compositions, as are ‘Summertime’ and ‘I Loves You Porgy’. Again, if you want your heart breaking, listen to Nina’s version of the latter.
I love NASA, despite my socialism and ambivalent feelings on how their budget could be better put to use. Yet astronomy has always fascinated me, I watched the first Space Shuttle missions with wonder as a child and still have the Space Shuttle manual bought to celebrate the maiden launch of Columbia. Edwin Hubble is a hero and the telescope which bears his name is one of the wonders of the engineering world. The first time I saw that image of the pillars of life in the Eagle Nebula, it brought tears to my eyes. I feel sorry for people who deny that the Moon landings took place because faced with a historical event which I can ultimately neither prove nor disprove, I prefer the optimistic course. Neil and Buzz deserve their place in history.
I am a huge Science Fiction fan and in this regard America has obviously had an enormous effect. I was 5 in 1978, the year ‘Star Wars’ came to Britain. I can remember walking home from the cinema, looking up to the sky and thinking, I wonder if there is anyone out there. It’s always seemed a pretty profound thing for a 5 year old to think and was certainly the first step on a journey which led me to become an Astrophysics undergraduate, as did the popular science authors I read. In George Greenstein’s now out of print, ‘Frozen Star’, I learnt about neutron stars and pulsars and black holes and quasars. Michio Kaku opened my eyes to higher dimensional space, as well as to an appreciation of Picasso. And Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan taught me about DNA and natural history in ‘Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors’.
Of course, Star Trek had an enormous effect. ‘Deep Space Nine’ is second in my list of best ever TV shows, with Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ not far behind, both shows daring to display the shades of grey which overshadow war. With Battlestar it’s like they took the DS9 episode ‘By the Pale Moonlight’ and built a whole franchise ‘round it.
Philip K Dick is another influence, ‘The Man in the High Castle’ and ‘A Scanner Darkly’ are rightly regarded as classics. While Dick has been the victim of too many dubious film adaptations, I regard ‘Blade Runner’, loosely based on ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, as my favourite film, combining as it does the three classic ingredients, sci-fi, hard-boiled detective drama and film noir.
On the absurdist side of sci-fi there is Kurt Vonnegut. To describe him as the American Douglas Adams is the finest tribute I can pay the man. ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ is a revelation and remains one of the few contemporary accounts of the horror of Dresden, where the allies firebombed a German city of little, if any, military significance for three days during World War II, killing an estimated 25,000 civilians. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in the city at the time. Talking of war, the absurdity and horror thereof, check out Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’ and Dalton Trombo’s ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ as the finest examples of each subgenre.
Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’ is second only to the monolithic ‘Ulysses’ in terms of my favourite novel. The Bogart adaptation is third after ‘Blade Runner’ and the Godfather trilogy as my favourite film: All are emblematic tales in the emerging American mythology. Philip Marlowe is a greater detective even than Holmes and Chandler the only author who can match Joseph Heller for wordplay. Marlowe’s prose rolls off the page like a wave, like honey drizzling from a spoon. I love to while away an afternoon in the company of Marlowe.
In terms of classic authors, I am a great fan of Mark Twain, holding similar views on golf, and I unconditionally love everything of his I have read so far. Thanks go to the American historian Howard Zinn for introducing me to Jack London’s seminal work, ‘The Iron Heel’, a futuristic retelling of how fascism came to conquer the Earth. ‘The People of the Abyss’, London’s frank description of the condition of the working poor in the city which bears his name, inspired George Orwell to write ‘Down and Out in Paris and London' and ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, classic texts of the British left. Yet American literature for me is defined by the early 20th century. F. Scot Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Arthur Miller, these are the voices which spoke to me when I was first venturing into reading more challenging fiction. ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘A Farewell to Arms’, ‘Death of a Salesman’, these are the foundations on which American literature is built. I have recently come to realise that ‘Moby Dick’ is a masterpiece and special dispensation should be given to Tom Paine and ‘Common Sense’, for though he was born in Norfolk, he perhaps more than any other author shaped the independence movement in the colonial United States.
Yet of all American authors, it is John Steinbeck that I admire most of all. Before even the mighty Russians (Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsym), Steinbeck is the high priest of narrative storytelling. ‘In Dubious Battle’ is so good I sat up from 10.30 to 5am finishing it. He does this every time, draws me in, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘East of Eden’, ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’, even ‘Once There Was a War’, with Steinbeck’s prose I find myself compelled to keep reading, I want to know how it ends, because I know it’s going to be dynamite. John Steinbeck should be compulsory reading in American schools, for he offers some much needed perspective on the realities of the American Dream. Steinbeck should have his own national holiday.
The latest addition to this American Classic Collection is ‘The Wire’, a TV series which could hardly be more Russian if it were set in St Petersburg rather than West Baltimore. The British intelligentsia worship ‘The Wire’ as the greatest TV show ever made, but it is hard not to eulogise it, it is simply is that good, a show that starts small, grows, evolves, shows the drugs war from both sides, the police and the dealers, taking in increasingly large sweeps of the city, before, finally, embracing all. I know many people that have watched it, but few that have a bad word to say about it.
What else do I love about American culture? I love Heather Graham and Julianne Moore and Henry Miller and Alice Walker and Maya Anjou and Walt Whitman and Noam Chomsky and Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley and Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson and Scott Joplin and The Blues Brothers and Jaws and Indiana Jones and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Dr Strangelove and Family Guy and Scrubs and The Big Lebowski and My Name is Earl and Batman and Talking Heads and The Onion and James Joyce Quarterly and Fight Club and Pulp Fiction and The Sopranos and the Galileo probe and Dilbert and Dita Von Tesse and Looking for Richard and Robot Chicken and Ren and Stimpy and Jimi Hendrix and Serena Williams and Gillian Anderson and Angelina and, grudgingly, Brangelina and The Black Crowes and Chinatown and A Confederacy of Dunces.
I love America for its delusional self image, because it’s optimistic attitude looks to be the biggest, the best, the boldest. The problem is that in order to achieve those lofty goals one needs more than to merely brag about your greatness. It takes determination, hard work and unity to truly be the best, yet you are one of the most disunited countries on the face of the planet. American culture is rich enough to guide the way. I have not even begun to exhaust my list of cultural icons, but I think you will agree, oh Foxnewsians, that the previous couple of thousand words are a testament to the extent that your country folk have inspired me. And don’t go saying, look viewers, he’s admits it, America is greatest country on Earth. How’s that work? How do the 280 million best people in the world in a population of 6 billion ordinary people, how do they all come to conglomerate, randomly, within the same arbitrary boundary? Now don’t go making me write a ten part mini-series on everything great that isn’t American, ‘cause you know I’ll do it!
You shall here from me anon.
PS: How did you get on with the homework from last time? The answer was: Fascism. On a dichotomous, two dimensional political scale, the opposite of socialism is fascism. Half a point if you said Dick Cheney.