Sunday, April 22, 2007

# 73 The Day of the Locust – Nathanael West

I’ll wait here
You're crazy
Those vicious streets are filled with strays
You should've never gone to Hollywood

The composer of these lyrics,
Daron Malakian, the guitarist and sometime singer of one of the most popular rock bands in the world, System of a Down, was born and raised in Hollywood. An only child, he and his parents “lived in a one-bedroom apartment in one of [its] ‘ghetto neighborhoods,’” according to an interview with PlayLouder. When Malakian was 13 the family moved 15 minutes away to a house in Glendale. He now lives on a nearby hill, where he was visited by The Explosion, the newspaper of his alma mater, Glendale High School.

Malakian had “dark times” growing up and was a “bad student.” He himself was a “stray” for a time on the “vicious streets” he sings about: “I had friends that were gang members, so it made me open my eyes. I've had enough knives and crowbars pulled on me, but I try to avoid stuff like that now.”

They find you

Two-time you
Say you're the best they've ever seen
You should've never trusted Hollywood

System of a Down was “found” and
signed by American Recordings President (and possible reincarnation of Rasputin) Rick Rubin, who saw the group at L.A.’s Viper Room. Having produced artists including LL Cool J (his first production credit), Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as Shakira, Mick Jagger, Tom Petty, Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash, Rubin has been one of the foremost tastemakers in American culture for more than a generation.

The centathlete has discussed the role of a music producer with a friend who is a musician and a producer. It’s amorphous. Some producers “turn knobs,” practicing their expertise with studio consoles, some make strong artistic decisions and leave the engineering to others, some mainly sit and chat with their wives and girlfriends about dinner plans.

Malakian described Rubin, who does not turn knobs, as “like a doctor you really trust.” Here’s what he
told Connect about the song containing the lyrics cited above and below:
“I gotta admit when I brought in "Lost in Hollywood" I was like 'Wow - this is the greatest song.' And he's like 'It's alright' and I was like 'alright??!?!'.... I was so pissed that I went home... I had to prove to him and myself. It's just when you got that extra push and when someone second-guesses you like that when you already think you're badass... and you think 'Maybe I'm not so badass.' You go back home and you kick your ass a little over it. And you come up with something better... It's about the song. So that's what Rick brings to the table - that second-guessing. And sometimes I don't understand but it always makes the song better [It's the] simple ideas that make big differences.”
Somber and cautionary, “Lost in Hollywood” concludes
Mezmerize, the first of two albums System of a Down released in 2006.

I wrote you

And told you
You were the biggest fish out here
You should've never gone to Hollywood

Although Malakian was proud of the song (and the centathlete likes it fine), at least one
reviewer found the lyrics “clichéd” because the song addresses “very familiar subject matter about how tough Hollywood is because a lot of people who come out to realize their dreams get used up and spit out.”

This subject was not a cliché in the late 1930’s, when
Nathanael West wrote The Day of the Locust. Born Nathan Weinstein, West was an indifferent student like Malakian—he even used another student’s transcript to transfer from Tufts to Brown University.

After college West
lived in Paris in the mid-1920’s among writers and painters. He returned to New York City, where he worked as the night clerk at The Kenmore Hotel and The Sutton Club Hotel, providing free or steeply discounted rooms to his friends such as the writers Dashiell Hammett, James Farrell, Erskine Caldwell (all Top 100 authors), S.J. Perelman and Edmund Wilson.

In 1935, after publishing three commercially unsuccessful novels, he moved to Hollywood and worked as a screenwriter. His hotel experience surfaced in one character from The Day of the Locust, a former hotel bookkeeper named Homer Simpson.

To come across that name in a book that is nearly 70 years old is startling to anyone acquainted with The Simpsons, which became the
longest running primetime sitcom in 2005 after surpassing The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. In two more years it will have outlasted Gunsmoke, the longest running primetime drama.

Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, named his Homer Simpson after his father, Homer, and chose the last name whimsically—he dreamt up the animated series in 15 minutes at the Hollywood office of James L. Brooks, a screenwriter turned producer (is Brooks a “knob-turner”?—the centathlete presumes the role of a TV producer is as variable as that of a music producer). Several web sites state that The Day of the Locust is one of Groening’s favorite books but a substantiating quote is not immediately available. In any case, Groening, who is from Portland, moved to Los Angeles as did West and West’s Homer Simpson; his lovably gluttonous Homer stays put in Springfield.

In analyzing The Simpsons, Dan Korte
referred to Groening’s “subversive comic sensibility.” The Day of the Locust displays similarly black humor (ex. when the naïve Homer, in asserting that he knows what a “fairy” is, misreads Tod Hackett’s lips and says “Momo” instead of “Homo”). Moreover, its overall brevity, truncated chapters, and multiplicity of grotesque characters—all set against an awareness of pop culture and glamour—will remind readers of the TV show. Korte cited another writer, Ed Bishop, who considers The Simpsons revolutionary entertainment:
“But the appeal of The Simpsons goes beyond its humor. There's an angst, a kind of doom, in The Simpsons that's unlike anything else on television. The Simpsons are a family of losers and they know it…Yet, though there's angst and even self-pity in these characters, they are not defeated.”
This appraisal could easily apply to The Day of the Locust, but on Bishop’s last point the book goes blacker: its characters are routed.

They take you
And make you
They look at you in disgusting ways
You should've never trusted Hollywood

Early on, The Day of the Locust recounts the protagonist Tod Hackett’s first meeting with Abe Kusich outside a prostitute’s room in a seedy hotel. West himself lived in similar quarters—The Pa-Va-Sed Hotel (the centathlete thought of “perverse”)—among “stuntmen, extras, and midgets,”
according to Richard Simon.

Kusich is a combative dwarf; his prominence recalled for the centathlete David Lynch’s movies, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, in which a dwarf represents a
master spirit, and Mulholland Drive, in which the studio chief was played by a little person who wore a prosthetic “normal-size” body.

A dreamy, violent, grotesque exploration of Hollywood, Mulholland Drive reminded one reviewer, Joan Dupont, of a certain novel, prompting the following
exchange with Lynch:
“When you tell him that his film has the mood of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, he says ‘Bless your heart,’ in warm tones straight from the heartland. ‘I love that book, I love the ‘30s and Sunset Boulevard.’”
Lynch expounded partly on the appeal of the actual Mulholland Drive: "It’s the wilds, in many places it’s desert, and you could run into a coyote, or who knows what? It’s easy to imagine almost anything happening.”

The desert outside L.A. is the setting for strange doings between Hackett, Earl Shoop, Faye Greener and The Mexican in The Day of the Locust.

Originally from Missoula, Lynch went to school in Philadelphia and Boston, where he
roomed with Peter Wolf, the future singer of The J. Geils Band. In 1971 he moved to Los Angeles and currently resides in the Hollywood Hills.

Lynch’s fondness for music appears as stagey, transgender lip-syncing and cabaret in Blue Velvet. The Day of the Locust includes a performance at a club featuring female impersonators.

From his own hilltop close by, Malakian referenced the lechery of Hollywood, which also intrigued West. The novelist’s recipient and exploiter of numerous “disgusting” looks, Faye Greener, the 17-year-old wannabe starlet, could easily be the dedicatee of “Lost in Hollywood.”

When Hackett visits a party at an upscale Hollywood brothel, the madam, Audrey Jenning, readily evokes
Heidi Fleiss. Greener opts to work for Jenning to pay for her father’s funeral; the centathlete thought of Lynn Bracken, the fetching prostitute played by Kim Basinger in 1997’s L.A. Confidential. That movie updated the genre of film noir, created in part by West’s friend and boarder, Dashiell Hammett, through books like The Maltese Falcon. Certainly West drew on and contributed to literary noir.

The disgusting ways on parade in The Day of the Locust are not restricted to adults. Adore Loomis, an aspiring child star accompanied by his stage mother, entertains Hackett and Simpson with a rendition of “Mama Doan Wan’ No Peas.” The little boy embellishes the traditional blues song with “extremely suggestive” gestures and “sexual pain.”

The centathlete and another
blogger thought of the prepubescent Britney Spears on Star Search, swiveling her shoulders and kicking out her heels, singing “I Don’t Care” like a spurned, defiant woman.

I was standing on the wall

Feeling ten feet tall
All you maggots
Smoking fags on Santa Monica Blvd

This is my front page

This is my new age
All you bitches put your hands in the air
And wave them like you just don't care

Malakian’s lyrics now address the same mob that West portrays: the star-obsessed poseurs and sheep. The musician’s use of “maggots” and “bitches” is sneering (not misogynistic), in keeping with the edgy, confrontational style of his previous compositions. At a System of a Down concert we can imagine the audience obeying the condescending exhortation, waving their hands, and thereby complicating the boundaries of mob behavior.

The writer has more room for sustained treatment of this motif, as in the relatively lengthy (13 pages), final chapter of the riot. This conflagration occurs outside a movie premiere hours before the celebrities have arrived. West was perhaps the first novelist to focus on the mob and the wannabes rather than the stars—there are no established actors or producers in The Day of the Locust, although the book is very much about Hollywood. The only character who has “made it” in the industry is Claude Estee, the “successful screen writer,” but he is shown to be a debauched poseur himself.

West’s unorthodox perspective, ingenuity, reflexiveness and humor reminded the centathlete of the screenwriter
Charlie Kaufman. Late in the novel, when Hackett is processing Homer Simpson’s incoherent outburst, the following passage jumps out:
“He hit on a key that helped when he realized that a lot of it wasn’t jumbled so much as timeless. The words went behind each other instead of after. What he had taken for long strings were really one thick word and not a sentence. In the same way several sentences were simultaneous and not a paragraph. Using this key, he was able to arrange a part of what he had heard so that it made the usual kind of sense.”
This conception of a non-sequential story, told within a sequential story, anticipates the surreal blending of narrative with meta-narrative that Kaufman employed in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. The “usual kind of sense” that follows an initially absurd situation applies to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. For the centathlete, West’s skill is on par with Kaufman’s; both writers provoke and engross, yet their craftsmanship is less ambitious than their ideas. Their respective works are self-consciously constrained—every chapter or scene has a “hit or miss” quality. That said, the centathlete has enjoyed every Kaufman movie, and he will always wait with relish for the next one.

Although The Day of the Locust was largely ignored when it was published, one reader “was impressed by the pathological crowd.” This was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who for a time lived next-door to West in Hollywood, working at screenwriting like his neighbor and friend. Fitzgerald
attended a party at West’s only a week before he died in 1940. West was vacationing in Mexico with his new wife when he learned of the death; the two were killed in a car accident in El Centro, CA as they drove to attend Fitzgerald’s funeral. Ironically, in his novel, West described and complicated a paltry funeral, attended by vacuous, somewhat sinister celebrity-hounds.

Look at all of them beg to stay

Phony people come to pray

West revels in the evangelical quackery of Los Angeles—he lists many upstart sects and quirky sermon topics such as “The Crusade Against the Salt” and “Brain-Breathing, the Secret of the Aztecs.” The mob’s longing for meaning seems desperate and ridiculous—this same longing leads it to pray to idols on Earth, the stars of Hollywood, to which Malakian apparently refers. West employs a very similar turn of phrase to the one above: his characters “come to California to die.”

You should've never trusted Hollywood

You should've never gone to Hollywood

These final words warn against the same dangers that West dramatized. Of course Malakian himself didn’t “go” to Hollywood; he never left. But he knows better, we can assume, and he doesn’t play the empty, untrustworthy game of “Old School Hollywood,” the title of the song that precedes “Lost in Hollywood.”

In his introduction to The Day of the Locust, Alfred Kazin set out to emphasize that times were different when the novel was written, beginning with, “Hollywood in the 1980’s is not the glamour capital and dream factory that once excited millions of Americans as the most magical but improbable place on earth.” If that were in fact true then, it isn’t now. Who can deny Hollywood’s primacy in the current American psyche—and in the global zeitgeist? The praying, longing and relocation/tourism remain robust; the red carpet is more crowded, surrounded, and watched via TV and the Internet every season.

Kazin also observed that West insightfully argued that the mob, rather than adulate, “really wants to kill its idols.” Nowadays we see that wish enacted by stalkers and, by proxy, by encroaching paparazzi, articulated on numerous “death pool”
web sites, translated on the pages of the tabloids, and tacitly affirmed in the much-watched coverage of the deceased such as Anna Nicole Smith. In short, the motifs of The Day of the Locust are all too recognizable today, and the sensibility lives on with “outsiders” such as Groening and Kaufman, who moved to L.A. to write films, just like Nathanael West and so many others.

And there are outsiders like David Lynch who wouldn’t add their voices to Malakian’s—they wouldn’t tell Faye Greener or you to stay away. Ever the cryptic dream weaver, Lynch said, “I like Los Angeles. There’s smog, and there’s gangs and trouble, but, at the same time, there’s an optimistic sort of feeling.”

Friday, April 06, 2007

# 71 A High Wind in Jamaica – Richard Hughes

Yah mon, when children, Jamaica and England are linked together, many of us think of Musical Youth, the adolescent reggae act known for the 1982 hit, “Pass the Dutchie.”

In 1979 Frederick Waite, a Jamaican musician who had moved to Birmingham, England, founded Musical Youth as a vehicle for himself and his talented two sons, who were joined by three fellow students, one of whom replaced the father as lead vocalist.

“Pass the Dutchie” was a cover of “Pass the Kouchie” by the Jamaican trio,
The Mighty Diamonds, who tour internationally to this day. The original’s lyrics reflect a pro-ganja perspective evident in many other songs in reggae, hip-hop and rock—“kouchie” or “kutchie” is slang for a smoking pipe or chalice.

Seeking a broader, less druggy appeal in accordance with their ages, Musical Youth changed “kouchie” to “dutchie,” a term for a cooking pot, as well as other lyrics so that their theme concerned hunger and poverty. For example, “How does it feel when you’ve got no herb?”
became “How does it feel when you’ve got no food?” The switcheroo succeeded to the tune of more than 4 million records sold worldwide.

Yah mon, some old cats remember when MTV played videos, and, uh, thanks mon…yah, and “Pass the Dutchie,” in very heavy rotation for months and months, was a pleasant pre-Nickelodeon curiosity—due especially to the chubby-cheeked li’l dudes, Kelvin and Michael Grant, who “toasted” (a Jamaican form of rapping in patois) and played guitar and keyboards. Viewing the
video again, we find the band lip-syncing in London across the Thames from Parliament, with cuts to a trial in which the boys are wrongly prosecuted for injuring an overly restrictive policeman—a priggish, bearded, toy fascist.

Ultimately justice prevails and Musical Youth is declared innocent, free to dance and sing before the judge and jury as the song closes. The policeman is humiliated and he bows his head—a better fate than that which befalls his doppelganger in a video for yet another 1982 hit by yet another act from Birmingham.

In “
You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” by Judas Priest, we see an engineer-functionary, with a Chaplinesque mustache and bowler (Charlie Chaplin played the first toy fascist in the 1940 movie, The Great Dictator), serving as the antagonist. He traverses elevated bridgework in front of an energy ministry, just as the policeman crossed the bridge from Parliament, the seat of power, to confront Musical Youth. This prig frowns at the intense radioactivity—one of the properties of actual heavy metal—of Judas Priest, a heavy metal band par excellence, in full headbanging lip-sync mode. Rob Halford, Judas Priest’s singer, waves his arms and emits a pulse of energy that causes the functionary’s head to explode; authority is not just humiliated, it is destroyed.

Unlike Judas Priest, Musical Youth emphasized playfulness over violence, yet we still acknowledge their video’s imagery of governmental/societal persecution and joyous rebellion supporting the song’s initial declaration, “This generation rules the nation.”

A courtroom scene appears in another artwork linking children, Jamaica and England—the 1929 novel, A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes. The child protagonists rule the events of what seems to be a Caribbean pirate fable; their prospects for eventually ruling the nation are, to a cynical reader, better than Musical Youth’s.

When the 10-year-old heroine Emily’s testimony regarding an alleged murder is required, she is coached by a slick attorney and watched anxiously by her parents, who are unsure about her recollection and interpretation of the events. The scene predates by more than two decades Arthur Miller’s dramatization of the Salem witch trials in The Crucible, in which children formally but dubiously corroborate misconduct. Indeed, the competency and credibility of
child testimony has continually bedeviled the American judicial system.

Emily, it turns out, is less than truthful on the stand, and the defendants, a pirate captain and his crew, are condemned to death. Had the captain been a musician, he might have voiced the sentiments found in the 1993 reggae/dancehall hit “Informer” by
Snow, a young man who rapped nimbly and autobiographically in patois about his trial for murder based on false testimony. Snow was acquitted, and he proclaimed the retribution he wanted to exact against the prosecution witness: “A licky boom-boom down” probably signifies revenge by gunfire.

Notions of a more Christian, turn-the-other-cheek type of justice are expressed in A High Wind in Jamaica by a wrongly accused man. The “negro cook,” one of the novel’s minor black characters, responds publicly to the conviction, stoically addressing the inevitability of death and the comfort of his innocence. Why did the Times, the paper of record in England, according to Hughes’s narrator, report that this man alone of the pirates was noble when faced with the gallows, was most comfortable and articulate when subserviently coming to terms with abusive power?

Snow’s beef is not with power—it’s personal. In his
video the antagonist is a slick, mustachioed informer who drinks champagne in a steam room with a group of attractive ladies. He presumably informed on Snow for money to attain or continue a pimp’s lifestyle.

“Informer” passed over the theme of racial injustice; A High Wind in Jamaica prefers the subjects of morality and child psychology. The seeds of evil are on display in all of us early on, the book argues. Environment and circumstance, such as captivity on a pirate ship, enable the worst to occur. Moreover, children inherently possess and rapidly develop the means to shame a victim—most notably the traumatized Margaret—and conceal the truth.

Francine Prose’s introduction to the novel alludes to frequent comparisons with William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, which also explores the outbreak of corruption and violence among youngsters in an exotic island setting. In fact, the last paragraph of A High Wind in Jamaica reminded the centathlete of a different Top 100 book.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita concludes with the image of the tragic heroine, as imagined by Humbert Humbert, permanently exiled from childhood:
“What I heard then was the melody of children at play and nothing but that, and I knew that the hopeless thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that chorus.”
A High Wind in Jamaica ends similarly with a zoom-out from Emily at play as she is, in contrast to Lolita, able to blend in again with her schoolmates back in England—not even the narrator can tell her apart from the others. Emily can overlook, perhaps even forget, her transgressions and tribulations, and society will accept her. In this respect, the novel anticipates by more than 30 years Hannah Arendt’s controversial concept of “
the banality of evil.”

For Hughes, innocence is a false construct. Violence—in the animal kingdom (the family cat is shredded by other wild cats), the climate (the hurricane) and the land itself (the earthquake)—is part of Existence in which humans are willing or unwilling participants. Emily and her siblings thoughtlessly kill and torture animals in the very first chapter, but in so doing they’re seen to be only playing games.

One such game involves the elaborate capture of a bird by its feet. The description concludes,
“…decide by ‘Eena, deena, dina, do,’ or some such rigmarole, whether to twist its neck or let it go free—thus the excitement and suspense, both for child and bird, can be prolonged beyond the moment of capture.”
Then comes a chillingly abrupt, provocative segue. The next paragraph begins, “It was only natural that Emily should have great ideas of improving the negroes.” Animal cruelty and racial progress are equally practiced by the adorable little Englishwoman; degrees of mindlessness and earnestness toward both behaviors are devastatingly called into question.

Emily finally rejoins the ruling class. Others would find assimilation more difficult. One reggae artist, Eddy Grant (born in
Guyana, not Jamaica, and then relocated to England), sang about the troubles endemic to the predominantly non-white neighborhoods outside London in his 1983 hit, “Electric Avenue,” an actual area of Brixton.

In reviewing the
video, we see images of Grant jogging on a Caribbean beach, dreadlocks bouncing, juxtaposed with close-ups of a faceless outlaw revving a motorcycle. The lyrics begin with “Down in the street there is violence,” as Grant lip-syncs on a couch in a living room, watching TV. The established context is of injustice/uprising and awareness/indifference.

The biker is joined by an anonymous twin and they roll (as a reduced incarnation of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) through “Electric Avenue,” a scruffy urban neighborhood, at night—the dangerous time. “Can’t afford a thing on TV,” Grant sings, affirming poverty and exclusion from Society.

He steps onto the carpet and falls in a pool before the TV, and he also staggers and drops on the sand—injustice wounds the dreadlocked man in the city (England) and on the beach (the former colonies). The bikers magically revive and transport him to a classroom with children.

The lead student is an adorable, spectacled girl similar in age to Emily. She leaves the classroom to join the crowd that is now following the bikers, who are fomenting a protest or rebellion, interpreted in the chorus as, “We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue/And then we’ll take it higher.”

The presentation of the girl, who smiles as she descends to the street, lightens the song’s tone of protest and mitigates the ominous appearance of the bikers and murky cinematography. Originally scowling, Grant himself lip-syncs somewhat impishly once the girl has joined the movement. His exhortation for immediate progress is thus “positive” and more commercially appealing.

The contemporary power structure, however, might have been alarmed that the message is depicted as dangerously seductive to its children—how would Musical Youth’s and Judas Priest’s toy fascist have reacted as the girl left the classroom?

Whereas Eddy Grant referred to socioeconomic discrimination as the cause for Electric Avenue’s state as “the dark side of the town,” Richard Hughes dramatically argued that the dark side lives in every heart and throughout nature.

His blandly named novel (the “high wind” does not seem to refer to pungent breezes from the camps referenced by The Mighty Diamonds) offers no apparent cure. The book seems simply to warn against Pollyanna-ish ignorance toward and coddling of children.

The generically named Musical Youth advocate in “Pass the Dutchie” that consciousness, celebrated in dance and song, will alleviate hunger and carry the day. Unfortunately, the future was
not as rosy as it once appeared to the boys. Patrick Waite, while awaiting a drug-related trial, died at age 24 of heart illness. Junior Waite suffered a nervous breakdown. Kelvin Grant suffers from psychological problems and lives reclusively.

Michael Grant and Dennis Seaton, however, soldier on as musicians and adult caretakers of their legacy as child stars. “We be the Youth till we die,” Seaton
said. In his case, the child is publicly and unusually father to the man. In Emily’s case, the child is metaphorically and unusually mother to the woman, and the rest of us. Yah mon.