Book Review: The Show That Never Ends by David Weigel

All right, I owned or own six Emerson Lake and Palmer LPs, six Yes LPs, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, three (yes, three!!) Rick Wakeman solo albums and a handful of other progressive rock albums. There’s probably a half dozen or more such albums on my iPod right now. Caught up in the midst of the prog rock movement, I also admit I’m one of those who bailed when, by the end of the 1970s, it was derided and ridiculed.

Where prog rock came from, its decline and what it left behind are the subject of David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. As Weigel notes, The Rock Snob’s Dictionary describes prog rock as “the single most deplored genre of postwar pop.” And it was only 1984 when This is Spinal Tap, a peerless send-up of “prog rock” and some of the metal bands it influenced, was released. Te book, the title of which comes from a 1973 Emerson Lake and Palmer album, is a thoroughly researched and entertaining look at the genre. Yet the nature and history of prog rock is such as to create difficulty for any writer and, as a result, The Show That Never Ends stumbles with a couple unavoidable hurdles.

One confounding factor is the seemingly continuous changes in band personnel. Take drummer Bill Bruford, for example. In addition to forming two bands of his own, he was with Yes for its first five albums (1968-72) and part of a reconstituted Yes in 1991-92, part of two different incarnations of King Crimson (1972-74, 1981-84), the drummer for Genesis on its 1976 tour, and part of a band with three other original members of Yes in 1989. Or consider King Crimson. While its 1969 In the Court of the Crimson King is generally viewed as one of prog rock’s best albums, it came and went for decades with 21 different musicians in its various formations.

Despite that, Weigel, a national political correspondence for The Washington Post, seems at his best in delving into the origins and early development of prog rock, following a handful of its preeminent artists and showing the music it spawned. It also reflects the heavily British source of the musicians.

The biggest challenge in examining prog rock is the music itself. The musicians not only aimed at creating complex music with unusual time signatures they sought new sounds, largely through the use of synthesizers and polyphonic keyboards. Yes even bought Slinkys, put microphones on them and threw them down stairs. “If you put a lot of reverb on it, it sounds great,” said Yes guitarist Steve Howe. Moreover, Weigel notes, many lyrics “had as much or as little meaning as the listener wanted from them.”

Even with a straightforward and traditional approach to any genre, there’s the adage that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Add in the unusual and unconventional sounds in prog rock and the level of difficulty is even greater. As a result, The Show That Never Ends has passages like this one, describing the last track on the Yes album Fragile:

It started with a rumble, a 6/8 bass line from [Chris] Squire and a drumroll from Bruford. Then came [Rick] Wakeman, with a horror-film keyboard melody in 3/4. Back to the ascending riff, joined by Howe’s guitar. The melody suddenly changed, to a 4/4 beat, with the original riff being phased in slowly by the mix. Then a dropout, to a melody that Anderson had written on his acoustic guitar. The themes repeated, announced at various intervals on keyboards, by what the band came to call “Rick-recapitulation.”

Weigel’s efforts to translate this music into words are admirable but there’s a few too many times when they muddle rather than enlighten. Readers could greatly enhance their enjoyment of the book using streaming music services as a supplement.

Naturally, the most well-known bands, such as Yes, King Crimson and ELP, get plenty of attention. The book also examines the role of many lesser known artists in prog rock’s development and its legacy. Oddly, despite its success, Pink Floyd is discussed far less, although that is perhaps because entire books have been written about the band and by its members.

The reasons for the precipitous decline of prog rock are harder to define than the factors that gave rise to it. Declining record sales and Changes in the music industry led to labels dumping progressive rock bands. Yet listeners also abandoned the genre in droves, perhaps in response to the music’s complexity. Or perhaps it is just as simple as the fact the bands and the music tended toward bombast, pretension and self-indulgence. I know that was what pushed me away. Still, Weigel makes a good case for prog rock’s role in shaping rock music and what would come.

They took the music far, far away from the basics so that some later groups of jerks could take it “back to the basics” and be praised for their genius.

David Weigel, The Show That Never Ends

Weekend Edition: 6-17

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Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

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Optimism sounds exhausting.

Wally, Dilbert, August 16, 2014

Weekend Edition: 6-10

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • How Did ‘Witch Hunt’ Become the Complaint of the Powerful? (“The central paradox of modern witch hunts is that those who claim to be the victims, like Nixon, are often the ones most enthusiastic about carrying them out.”)
  • Make America, America again (“A loose translation of ‘America first’ now means all others shall be ignored or denied or bombed out of existence, if necessary, to achieve our own power and profits, our own goals and good.”)

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…the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world

George Orwell, “Looking Back On The Spanish War” (1943)

Book Review: True Crime Addict by James Renner

Want to know what new media has meant to the true crime genre? Well this weekend brings the first “immersive, weekend-long celebration of all things true crime.” In addition to authors and television personalities, nearly three dozen separate podcasts will be represented. It might even be said that the internet and new media have created a new generation of true crime addicts.

James Renner admits he’s a true crime addict. But his fixation doesn’t stem from media proliferation; it started with his first crush. Renner says he fell in love with Amy Mihaljevic when he saw her missing poster on a utility pole when he was 11 years old. Amy was 10 when she was kidnapped and murdered in a Cleveland suburb in late October 1989. The crime remains unsolved (and a popular podcast subject). After becoming a staff writer for Cleveland Scene magazine, Renner spent two years investigating it in the mid-2000s, something he recounted in his first book in 2006.

Renner takes a similar tack, albeit with a different path, in True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray, now out in a trade paper edition. Here, though, Renner isn’t looking around his backyard. He’s looking at a disappearance that occurred hundreds of miles from his home.

Like many, Renner first heard of Maura Murray on the internet (like Amy Mihaljevic, the case is also a podcast staple). On February 9, 2004, Murray left the University of Massachusetts flagship campus in Amherst, where she was a nursing student. Around 7:30 p.m., she was seen standing by her car, abutting a snowbank and facing the wrong direction on a remote New Hampshire highway. She told a passing bus driver she’d called AAA (although there was no cell phone service in that area) so he needn’t call the police. He did anyway but when authorities arrived a short time later she was gone, never to be seen again. True Crime Addict details Renner’s personal investigation into a curious, if not occasionally convoluted, backstory strewn with rabbit holes. Yet the book differs from more traditional true crime books in two ways.

Renner employed the tools used by virtually all true crime authors, researching the most pertinent individuals, tracking down and even going door to door to interview persons with knowledge, and obtaining and reviewing relevant documents. But he also took an unusual approach that also reflects the role of new media. Renner advocates what he calls an “open-sourced form of reporting,” where journalists open up their research to anyone interested. He created a blog where he uploaded documents, notes and related material that kept people up to dare and also allowed them to make suggestions and comments and provide information.

The book isn’t clear on the extent to which open-sourcing fostered or burdened Renner’s efforts. It does, however, suggest that it produced at least one previously unknown but potentially significant notion. Whether Renner’s concept is or will become a new journalism tool remains to be seen. It should perhaps be noted, though, that at least one reviewer calls this approach “madness” that produces “a complicated morass of uncontrolled speculation.”

True Crime Addict also differs from traditional true crime books because Renner also some of his own demons, including why he is so drawn to true crime. What is it about a person who looks forward to confronting someone who may be a murderer? Why will a person persistently contact crime victims’ family members and friends when those people have made clear they have no desire to discuss the subject? Is someone like Renner driven by a desire to help or their own curious fixation? Are their actions simply a magnified version of the common compulsion to stare at the accident scene we pass on the highway?

Just as True Crime Addict doesn’t solve the mystery of Maura Murray’s disappearance, Renner’s self-assessment doesn’t — and can’t — answer these questions. In fact, those of us who still trust and rely upon old media (the printed word) may disagree over whether this approach adds a revelatory perspective to true crime cases like Maura Murray’s or is merely self-examination of personal baggage. To the extent the book reflects and is aimed at a culture that increasingly discerns the world through social and new media, my guess is Renner’s personal story, not Maura Murray’s, is the unexplored story.

…there’s a freedom in blind rage once you give yourself over to it that is as welcoming as any drug.

James Renner, True Crime Addict

Weekend Edition: 6-3

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • Elitism Is Liberalism’s Biggest Problem (“…elite liberals need to recognize a fundamental truth: All of these people in middle America, even the actual liberals, have very different sensibilities than elite liberals who live on the coasts.”)

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I still believe that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird

Book Review: The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

Most people probably don’t start pondering the power of art after seeing the classic German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But then author James Morrow isn’t your average person. After all, he spent the 1990s “killing God” in The Godhead Trilogy. A self-described “scientific humanist,” Morrow’s last several novels explored the scientific worldview through the perspectives of the struggle between science and superstition in the early 17th century, genetic engineering and ethics, and evolutionary theory.

With his new book, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, Morrow unmistakably moves from science to the humanities aspect of the definition of humanist. Morrow, who made 8mm and 16mm films in high school and college, uses the 1920 German silent horror film as inspiration and a foundation for the book. The movie is about a sideshow hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, who uses a somnambulist (Cesare) to commit murder and kidnap the narrator’s fiancee. When the narrator later follows Dr. Caligari, the hypnotist appears to be the director of an insane asylum. While some consider The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari the first true horror film, it’s best known for its visual style, one which has led many to proclaim it the quintessential cinematic example of German Expressionism.

The movie’s sets and objects deliberately and bizarrely distort perspective, scale and proportion. Sharp-pointed forms, such as grass that looks like knives, and oblique and curving lines dominate. Streets are narrow and spiraling while buildings and landscapes lean and twist in unusual angles. Some of the landscape is painted on canvas and shadows and streaks of light also are painted directly onto the sets, imbuing the film with a two dimensional aspect. While Dr. Caligari is central to Morrow’s book, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is built around and focused on the extensive expressionist art motifs in the film. In fact, art is both a centerpiece and the vehicle of the book’s antiwar theme.

The story is told from the perspective of American artist Francis Wyndham, whose first name is also that of the film’s narrator. Through him, Morrow introduces art from the outset. Wyndham attends what is known as the Armory Show, a 1913 modern art exhibition in midtown Manhattan that introduced the American public to European avant-garde paintings and sculpture. Wyndham is so enthralled with what he sees there, he ends up setting out for France shortly before the outbreak of World War I. He dreams of being an apprentice to Pablo Picasso, who promptly throws him and his portfolio down a flight of stairs. Wyndham refers to his encounter as “Rube Descending a Staircase,” a takeoff on Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” displayed at the Armory Show. Undeterred, Wyndham seeks out other cubist artists, such as Duchamp, Georges Braque and André Derain.

When Wyndham meets Derain, the artist is being mobilized into the French military. He asks Wyndham to undertake Derain’s new position as art therapist at Träumenchen, an insane asylum. Located in the neutral fictional country of Weizenstaat abutting Luxembourg and the German Empire, Träumenchen is run by Dr. Alessandro Caligari. Echoing the film, Caligari is a former sideshow hypnotist and now an alienist who considers Freud a charlatan. Caligari believes hypnosis is the future of psychiatry and all treatment at Träumenchen on is based on the theory of heteropathy, in which a patient’s mental condition is treated by inducing an opposite disorder. (Cesare also resides at the asylum but in Morrow’s tale he is a black cat. Caligari’s sideshow somnambulist here is Conrad Röhrig, now his private secretary.)

Caligari also dabbles in painting, completing his magnum opus the night Wyndham arrives. Called “Ecstatic Wisdom” based on a chance remark by Friedrich Nietzsche when he was a patient at Träumenchen, the work is some 30 feet long and 15 feet high. Looking forward to the war’s “aesthetic intensity” and believing it “transcendentally meaningless,” Caligari created the painting with alchemical pigments. The alchemy enables “Ecstatic Wisdom” to brainwash men into kreigslust (“war lust”).

Here, the book shares a common analysis of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Dr. Caligari represented the militarist German government during World War I and Cesare symbolized how, upon becoming a soldier, the common man is conditioned to kill. Seeing the painting as financial security for his asylum, Caligari charges each warring nation as they send a constant procession of troop trains to Träumenchen. The soldiers march by the painting and afterwards “radiated a boundless desire to find a battle, any battle, and hurl themselves into the maw.” This artistic war machine doesn’t just create the fodder. Within a month, the asylum is full of soldiers suffering from shell shock,

Throughout, Wyndham is teaching art therapy to a paranoid, a former chess grandmaster constantly narrating classic matches, a man who says he’s traveled the solar system in his private spaceship, and Ilona Wessels, who hails from Holstenwall, the fictional town that is the setting of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. She believes she is the Spider Queen of Ogygia, the island in Homer’s Odyssey, and she and Wyndham are immediately attracted to each other. Caligari encourages them to live together to provide Wessels “la cura amore” treatment. Knowing of Caligari’s painting and its effect, they form a cabal with other patients and employees to sabotage the scheme.

Morrow uses language consistent with a story being told by someone living in that period (‘batwinged incarnations of melancholia, catatonia, paranoia, and dementia praecox swirled all about me”), helping set the book’s narrative tone. A variety of Latin, French and German phrases dot the text so an online translator will aid readers. Likewise, due to the numerous art references, a reader is well-advised to have handy access to art history sources (or even Wikipedia). Surprisingly, though, Morrow’s pursuit of verisimilitude is undercut by either “artistic license” or an error in the first chapter. It has Wyndham meeting artist Henri Rousseau in Paris in the summer of 1914. Rousseau, though, died in September 1910.

That aside, the book is generally well-paced through Caligari’s discovery of the cabal, except for the space allotted to depicting the sexual adventures of Wyndham and Wessels. The last third of the book, however, feels a bit rushed and underdeveloped considering the cabal ends up on the Western Front and Wyndham, for example, doesn’t return for a month. The hurried feel is bolstered by the fact the run-up to and the ultimate denouement feel chimerical and even more fantastic than Caligari and his creation.

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is an inventive homage to and extrapolation of concepts in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. At less than 200 pages, it’s also a pithy commentary on the power of art and the folly and hysteria of war. Ultimately, though, despite being a thoughtful read, the book does not wholly realize its aims.

Man does not live by bread alone, but it’s a good idea to start with the bread.

James Morrow, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari