newcritics

On The Road With America

by Tom Watson
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The RoadIn honor of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer, here’s a repost of a piece I wrote back in October, when The Road seemed like a metaphor for our national trajectory. Not much has changed:

A portion of my evening reading has been keeping me up deep into the night, placing me in the uncomfortable territory between sleep and thought, between the world of dreams and productive consciousness. It’s not Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, a real reporter’s book by Thomas Ricks, which painstakingly lays out the claim for utter incompetence in Iraq. Nor is it Plan of Attack, by the former reporter Bob Woodward, an insider who flips on his Administration sources and gets them to turn viciously on each other. Both books are chilling – horrific tales of a failed Presidency and an immoral foreign policy. But with those, I can take a sip, switch off the light, and slip into what Bob Dylan calls "a temporary death."

Not so with The Road.

Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant portrait of humanity’s winter is a short read, but a very, very long digestion.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Greatest Generation

by Tom Watson
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Kurt VonnegutKurt Vonnegut proposed an alternative version of World War II glory, a writhing and brutal portrait of internal turmoil and loss and madness that manifested its horror in a seemingly charming and picaresque line: foot-soldier Billy Pilgrim had become “unstuck in time.”

Slaughterhouse-Five belongs to the rarified antiwar prose of the post-war writing generation that includes Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer, the brand of story-telling that went beyond the “war is hell – but damn, it’s a great story” method of pulp fiction and John Wayne. He wrote about inner damage in the guise of science fiction and fantasy; Vonnegut created a terrifying alternative universe created on the ruins of still-living souls who had witnessed first-hand the worst men can do to other men.

But damn, if it wasn’t accessible to a 14-year-old. The combination of humour, and sex, and sci-fi, and words put Slaughterhouse-Five on every adolescent reading list my generation; it didn’t have to be assigned – it was sought out.

When news Vonnegut’s death broke early this morning, I immediately remembered that period of discovery – of revelation – that reading Slaughterhouse-Five and the canon of Vonnegut novels brought on. Those precious, quiet moments alone with the words and the realization that freedom of thought was entirely real, and that some people explored that freedom to the fullest.

In Search of Harry Potter

by Tom Watson
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I’ve never read a Harry Potter. But JK Rowling is among my favorite living authors. I owe her a deep and simple debt – the love of reading, and literature, and story-telling that all of my children have embraced. Rowling didn’t do it all, of course; there was Seuss and Stevenson, Tolkien and Margaret Wise Brown. But she did cast an enduring spell – thousands of pages worth.

And now my youngest is on the second-to-last Potter, racing the clock till Rowling’s much-anticipated final volume is out. Like his brother and sister, he sometimes dons Harry’s glasses, slips into a Hogwarts robe, and waves a facsmilie wand. (And when he Googles Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, his mother and I know it’s time to install a search-filter). Such is the hold of Harry Potter on our book-filled household

So when I returned from the UK this weekend after a blogging/business trip to Oxford, the kids were waiting with their questions: “So Dad, was it just like Harry Potter?”

Green Beer and English: The Actors and Poets of St. Patrick

by Tom Watson
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LeprechaunThe recent news that the Irish and the English come from the same ancient genetic stock, by and large, should be no shock to anyone who contemplates the greatest contribution of the cultural Irish diaspora: the language of their sometime enemies across the narrow Irish Sea. Now that the mitochondrial mystery has been solved at Oxford, we may as well be honest about the great irony of the grand old land.

English and its artistic advancement is the great cultural achievement of the Irish.

It all makes sense that today we’ll swill German beer with a green food dye additive in franchise “Irish” pubs licensed to Italians and Greeks, while paying tribute to a Roman born in Britain. And we’ll grow teary-eyed at brief passages of Joyce and Yeats, while gobbling soda bread around the big flat screen as John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara cavort in John Ford’s mythic Ireland of our dreams. All in English, of course – wonderful English, blissfully enunciated, emotional, profane, onomatopoetic English. Yes, English, the great gift of the Irish.

`A beautiful, pure, sweet, mellow English tenor,’ said Aunt Kate in Joyce’s sublime The Dead, arguably the greatest short-form prose employment of modern English. Written, of course, by an exile who gave to the world his gift beautiful, pure, sweet, mellow English.

Rock’s Greatest Covers II: Bob Dylan’s Progeny

by Tom Watson
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DylanA few years ago, the Rolling Stones covered the greatest song in the history of rock n’ roll. No, this list isn’t about that. It’s about the guy they covered – probably the most covered song-writer in the last 45 years: Bob Dylan, of course, our national poet. And if the Stones didn’t get the irony of covering Like a Rolling Stone (they probably thought the song was about them, didn’t they, didn’t they?) they certainly knew they were joining a long, long list of musicians who’ve found musical inspiration and lyrics worth repeating Dylan.

To follow up on the weekend’s excellent thread of greatest rock covers, I thought I’d drill down here on the man whose works were mentioned the most by newcritics readers.

OK, so most people would say All Along the Watchtower is the greatest Dylan cover. The Hendrix version rearranges the Dylan original, famously adding the cigarette-lighter slide licks and some screaming wah-wah solo work. It was the only Top 40 song of Hendrix’s living career. Heavy virtuosity aside, the song remains essential Dylan – the joker and the thief, the evocative chapters and the overall set piece. And that’s true of all the Dylan covers.

Rock’s Greatest Covers: Patti Tops the List

by Tom Watson
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HorsesJesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine…

When Van Morrison wrote the classic Gloria as the B-side to Them’s 1964 hit Baby Please Don’t Go, he couldn’t have suspected what a kid from New Jersey would do with his song a decade later. But I suspect he was thrilled. After all, Patti Smith’s cover of Gloria on her incredible 1975 debut album Horses stands as the greatest rock cover performance (studio release) of all time.

At least, that’s my choice. You may cue up something else. But consider the guidelines: we’re talking post-Beatles, singer-songwriter era. And we’re talking interpretation, ownership, stye. And Patti’s Gloria leaps to the top. Even now, 30 years after I first heard it, the song can bring chills – that opening, the free-form poetry, the anger and sexual tension, the drive of the band, as it swings in and around Smith’s lyrical riffs. Christ, it is rock. No matter that Patti didn’t write the song – she wrote the track.

The Replacements Come to Monday Nights

by Tom Watson
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Black DonnellysI’m writing here about a television series I have never seen, but intend to, as my schedule allows. It’s a replacement series – your garden variety mid-season fare – except that two critics I respect had completely opposite initial reactions. And that suddenly got me interested in a network series I might otherwise have ignored (and still may).

The show is The Black Donnellys and the critics are Lance Mannion and Jason Chervokas – or, ahem, newcritics is more accurate. Lance only gave it 15 minutes and flicked his remote control to visit other lands; he didn’t like it much. Jason led his post with one word: “Wow!” Why all the fuss?

Pete Townshend: Who, He? (and Us)

by Tom Watson
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Pete TownshendPete Townshend is writing his memoirs. Or rather, he’s blogging them.

This differs from a decade ago, when Townshend signed with Little Brown to write his autobiography. Work commenced, but the book wasn’t finished. So now, Pete’s blogging his memoirs – on one of two blogs he’s launched in the last week or so to replace his online diaries. He can explain:

The backbone is complete, all the research is in place. And yet, because my creative and professional life is still so active, I feel I will never catch up with the present unless I retire simply to write. To retire, simply to write, when I am already a writer, presents a contradiction. So rather than endlessly write, I am going to publish.

I think this is brave and interesting, continued evidence of Townshend’s rare open mind, even as he cranks out another whopper of a Who tour at age 62. It’s a performance artist’s call.

A Bad TV Show About Good Movies

by Tom Watson
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David Niven and friendToday we focus on movies by way of a glitzy, Vegas-style revue show that has almost nothing to do with brilliant film-making. It’s Hoillywood celebrating Hollywood with schmaltz, and it’s evolved from a rather subdued black tie dinner at Sid Grauman’s theater to a megcast shown around the world and widely reviled for its length, its lack of pacing, and its tacky showbiz numbers. Through the years, there have been a number of “Oscar moments” by way of the television product – the streaker behind David Niven and Marlon Brando’s non-acceptance leap to mind. We’re celebrating the Academy Awards here on newcritics in words and commentary, but I thought we could use some video – at least as a preview of tonight’s madness. So I did some YouTube research and – after the jump – found some Oscar gold through the years. Enoy the preview!

Walking the Red Carpet: When Stars Were Stars

by Tom Watson
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Bogart's OscarWhen I was young, the Academy Awards still retained an unmistakeable aura of glamor and remove. There in one big room for one long evening, we all watched American royalty – the truly big names. The real stars. Cary Grant. Katherine Hepburn. Jimmy Stewart. John Wayne. Bette Davis. Lauren Bacall. Henry Fonda. Burt Lancaster. Bing Crosby. Bob Hope. Ingrid Bergman. Elizabeth Taylor. Laurence Olivier.