Greil Marcus has been writing intelligently about rock and roll for the past 40 years. Covering everything from Bob Dylan’s basement tapes to Van Morrison to the Doors, Marcus has labored to elevate his musical subjects by placing them within a greater cultural and historical context. In The History of Rock ’N’ Roll in Ten Songs, the song becomes a sonic vessel for the revolutionary message of rock and roll: “divine all truths, reveal all mysteries and escape all restrictions.” Marcus shows us how songs change meaning as different performers interpret the same words differently, as when the Beatles transform the Motown hit “Money (That’s What I Want).” Barrett Strong’s cool drawl becomes an archetypal Lennon scream—“I want to be free!” Just as the Beatles covered early rock and soul songs, artists from The Flaming Lips and Miley Cyrus to John Denver have transformed Beatles songs with their own voices and contexts. Hunter Davies’s The Beatles Lyrics: The Stories Behind the Music, Including the Handwritten Drafts of More Than 100 Classic Beatles Songs puts the reader in the room with the Fab Four as they pen some of their most famous tunes. Handwritten lines scrawled on random envelopes and hotel stationery, additions, cross-outs and missing words all add exciting color to the Beatles story and bring their songs to life in a brand-new way. Country stars, like everyone else in pop music, have recorded notable versions of Beatles songs. (We’re partial to Rosanne Cash doing the B-side gem “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party.”) But Nashville has its own grand songwriting tradition—and plenty of juicy stories to go along with it. Music biographer Jake Brown’s new book Nashville Songwriter: The Inside Stories Behind Country Music’s Greatest Hits features exclusive commentary and interviews with many of contemporary country’s biggest stars, from Willie Nelson to Lady Antebellum, from Brad Paisley to Kenny Chesney. Jerry Lee Lewis: maker of gold records in both rock and country; member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame; and rock and roll’s first true wild man. Lewis’s music was born of crosscurrents, interbreeding and, of course, “Great Balls of Fire.” While we all know the story of the six marriages that followed the first infamous one to his 13-year-old cousin, the disgrace and failure, the talent that could have eclipsed even Elvis’s—we have never heard it told in Jerry’s own voice. Over a period of two years, veteran southern writer Rick Bragg coaxed the full story out of Lewis. “For Jerry Lee,” writes Bragg, “fame was a thing that sometimes flogged him and sometimes let him be; he was capable, in the dark times, of losing all sight of the good in his music, of believing it was evil, until suddenly things would be just clear and he’d see it all so much better.” Ludwig van Beethoven never lost his sight, but he began losing his hearing when he was around 26 years old. Award-winning composer and author Jan Swafford’s new biography Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph humanizes the legendary composer who believed in music’s ability to deepen the world’s beauty, tragedy and comedy. Ten years in the making, Swafford’s book fleshes out non-technical studies of Beethoven’s greatest works with rich details about life and culture in Enlightenment-era Bonn and Vienna—all against the backdrop of Beethoven’s encroaching deafness: “For Beethoven, this was a decay from within: a slow death, the mind watching it, helpless before the grinding of fate. Fate would become an abiding theme for him, its import always hostile.” James Levine, Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, names celebrated opera singer Jessye Norman’s performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the Salzburg Festival as one of the most memorable of her career. Norman was raised in Jim Crow–era Georgia and went on to become one of the world’s most treasured singers. As she writes in her memoir Stand Up Straight and Sing!, she owes her success to her own determination and confidence and to the loving support of her family and others. Like Beethoven, Greil Marcus and Jerry Lee, Norman finds power within music—a way to connect us all with the spiritual, essential and alive.
I’ve been watching NBC’s The Voice for a couple of years, but even if I weren’t already a fan, I’d be one now because two of my junior high crushes, Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale, are on it this season. I don’t generally care about TV talent shows, but The Voice has a great premise. Four superstar coaches hear the singers for the first time without being able to see them; they sit in big red thrones with their backs to the performers. Only if they like a singer’s voice do they push their magic buttons to swivel the thrones around. Part of the fun is that performers often look very different from what their voices sound like; sometimes they have stage presence, and other times they’re a mess. In the beginning, at least, it really is all about the voice. This season, the show’s seventh, features Adam Levine, Gwen Stefani, Pharrell Williams and Blake Shelton in the red thrones. Past coaches have included Christina Aguilera, CeeLo Green, Shakira and Usher (Shelton and Levine, pictured above, are mainstays). If more than one coach turns around, the power is in the hands of the performer, who gets to choose his or her mentor. The final round of the show depends on viewers’ votes, so after the blind auditions are over, the coaches really are coaches. Once they’ve assembled their teams, coaches pit singer against singer in the battle and knockout rounds, when advisors like Rossdale, Alicia Keys, Little Big Town and Stevie Nicks swoop in to help out. If and when a coach dismisses a singer, the other coaches can grab him or her for their own teams. The competition is so fierce and the performances so impressive that viewers understand why some singers deserve a second (and sometimes third) chance. All this time, the audience has watched them grow as people and improve as artists—and here’s where my admiration for the show really kicks in. I love The Voice because it showcases great singing but also because it dramatizes the importance of coaching. In my daily life as a writing professor, I work intensively, one-on-one, with my students to help them become better writers and thinkers. Sometimes I see improvement right away, but other times it’s hard to tell if I’m helping. Real life, of course, is a lot messier than a professionally edited TV show, but what I see on The Voice proves that, with the guiding hand of a good teacher, people can get better at what they do. In other words, The Voice convinces me that teaching does make a difference. It reminds me there is beauty and value in the teacher-student relationship, and it makes me feel as though, even if I can’t always see it, my students may be learning something real after all. And did I mention Gavin Rossdale is on it? Photo courtesy of Everett
In Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle’s first novel, the protagonist, Sean, creates a game called Trace Italian. Here’s how it works: A player receives, by mail, a scenario set in a post-apocalyptic America. It ends with the question “What do you do?” The player must choose among such options as “Hide near the overpass,” “Head north to Nebraska” or “Start digging,” and mail it back. Then, Sean sends the description of what happens next on whatever path the player has chosen. Sean is obsessed with paths, mazes, routes, alternatives, and the book is structured around his central question, “How did I get here?” But if the game’s mechanism is multiple choice, Darnielle has answered E., All of the above. For those who haven’t encountered John Darnielle, Wolf’s flap copy helpfully notes that he’s “widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation.” An A. Composer and B. Guitarist, Darnielle is probably most famous for being C. Vocalist for the Mountain Goats. And, while it may seem like being the singer-songwriter of a successful indie rock band with a fanatical following for more than 20 years is a straightforward explanation for how Darnielle came to be D. Novelist, as you read the book you’ll begin to question all linear pathways. Wolf in White Van is not a rock star’s book; it doesn’t read like a story written by someone with license to do whatever he wants, someone whose fans chant his lyrics and fall pin-drop silent during his between-song banter. Two days after the novel was published, it was longlisted for the National Book Award—not exactly trashing the proverbial hotel room. While Wolf in White Van isn’t perfect (it reads like a first book in numerous ways), it’s remarkably well crafted. I felt I was not in the callused hands of a guitarist but rather the gentle grip of one who has intently studied the novel, and cares deeply for its form. As a prolific songwriter, Darnielle has generated wonderfully strange metaphors (e.g., “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania”). Wolf is clearly the product of that same fecund imagination. Darnielle skillfully limits Sean’s physical world, keeping the setting rich with detail and creating the claustrophobia of a constant search for answers. Wolf in White Van doesn’t unfold in a linear fashion, but rather at the pace of rumination, memory and revelation. By the end, as the catalytic event in Sean’s life is revealed, the reader discovers not only that A doesn’t lead merely to B, but that something much more mysterious has been happening all along. Photo courtesy of Everett
The story of Alan Turing deserves a major motion picture, if not several. Widely considered the father of the computer, Turing was also indispensable to the allied victory in World War II, when he cracked Germany’s theoretically unbreakable Enigma Code. But what makes Turing’s life truly film-worthy is the juxtaposition of the career and the man—his struggle to win the war, and his struggle to understand and inhabit the enigma of himself. For now, there is but one film about Turing to consider: The Imitation Game, which opens today. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum brings his crisp and engaging style to the project, as he did for his excellent 2011 thriller Headhunters , which became Norway’s highest grossing film ever. To portray a man so brilliant and also so odd, there could scarcely be a better choice than Benedict Cumberbatch, who, after turns as both Sherlock Holmes and Julian Assange, is all but typecast as characters who are exceptional but socially ungraceful. Cumberbatch excels at this partly because, despite being dashingly handsome, he does not look like a normal person. His portrayal of the arrogant and desperately lonely Turing is the primary reason to see The Imitation Game. As one would expect from a prestige film with Oscar aspirations, the supporting cast is also incredibly strong, including the marvelously austere Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones), Matthew Goode (A Single Man), Rory Kinnear (Skyfall), a personal favorite of mine Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Allen Leech (Downton Abbey) and Keira Knightley as one of Turing’s mathematical associates and closest confidant. But after Cumberbatch’s, the film’s standout performance belongs to extremely promising newcomer Alex Lawther, who is utterly convincing as a younger version of Cumberbatch’s Turing. Pasty and shy, he quakes under the assault of British boarding-school bullies, alternately flashing his haunting stare—painfully sensitive and crackling with intelligence—at the school chum he’s fallen in love with. The film addresses Turing’s homosexuality mostly in flashbacks, and then entirely as heart-aching puppy love. Turing’s adult sexuality surfaces only in a sanitary way; we don’t see him being gay, we just listen as it’s discussed. I can appreciate the filmmakers’ choice to keep this aspect of the story in a cerebral realm, but Turing’s sexuality, and the tragic and entirely unjust consequences of it, are so important to his story that I can’t help wishing there was more of it here. The film also suffers from conventional, crowd-pleasing tropes—moments like when Turing’s team of codebreakers, from whom he’s systematically alienated because of his essentially autistic awkwardness, one by one rise from their desks and promise to quit if Turing is fired. I can’t help craving subtler and more nuanced fare, but I realize this film is trying to appeal to a broad audience and that such moments are emotionally stirring, if trite. The film’s loftiest aim is to paint the portrait of a man alone. Scarred by a love forbidden by society, Turing is also isolated by the power of his own mind. At its essence, the film is an expression of this paradox. Adapted from mathematician and gay activist Andrew Hodges’s book Alan Turing: The Enigma and renamed for one of Turing’s papers, The Imitation Game speaks to the nature of human identity. Turing speculated that a machine could think like a person, and in all likelihood someday pass for one. (On a sci-fi sidenote, he also predicted with certainty that machines will someday take control.) And he famously designed the Turing test, a series of questions to determine whether you are communicating with a man or a machine. In the film, his efforts to build an intelligent computer become an almost Frankensteinian quest for reclaiming lost love and lost self. As his machine strives to imitate a man, so does the damaged Turing. These pensive themes are the heart of the film, but they are enclosed in an exciting wartime story of espionage. Tyldum’s tight direction and much of the dialogue merge the personal with the larger plot quite well, especially considering the complexity of the themes. And yet the merger isn’t complete: The ghost of Turing is inside but not completely one with the machine of the film. Though The Imitation Game is well worth seeing, my fingers are crossed for more movies about this extraordinary man. Photo courtesy of Everett