Friday, November 22, 2002
On a dark and chilly November 22 in1993 the world lost a giant of a man: Anthony Burgess. At least, dark and chilly here, if not in Malta or whichever Mediterranean paradise he selected as his final resting place:
“I shall die somewhere in the Mediterranean lands, with an inaccurate obituary in the Nice-Matin, unmourned, soon forgotten.”
Tony was the kind of writer mercilessly satirized by Neal Pollack—a man of ferocious intelligence, scathing wit, broad appetites and lavish language. I love what Pollack does, but I have a soft spot for writers like Burgess. Tony had a large, shiny ego, but it was spotted with little stains of self-loathing. He doubted the value of his contribution to art and was possessed of an irresistible drive to produce work that might find some favour.
The little self-portrait reproduced here swings wildly between ‘look how clever I am’ and ‘look at what an ugly spectacle I am becoming’. This pit of insecurity and self-loathing is familiar to many writers—the forge of their craft. They take their shame and pain and wrap it in bitter humour. In this way, the shit of human existence becomes palatable to the masses. The little scraps of love from those masses keeps the wheel turning.
Bitter humour represents the consistent element of Burgess’ writings. He often described himself as a ‘comic novelist’—he was very funny and charming. His favourite movie was ‘Life of Brian’, which he wished he had written himself.
I first read Earthly Powers when I was eighteen years old. I have read it at least three times since. A sweeping review of the 20th Century cast as the fictional autobiography of an exiled homosexual British author—possible witness to a miracle and friend of a canonized pope—Earthly Powers is one of the greatest novels of the past two decades. Burgess uses this grand and hugely entertaining story to mediate on the nature of fiction and autobiography. Just go and read this damn book—all of you—now.
Done? Good. Now we have common ground in our memorial worship of Anthony Burgess. This was a man who should not be remembered as ‘that guy who wrote Clockwork Orange’—he deserves a grander legacy than that.
Anthony Burgess wrote something like fifty books. In his thirties he was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. In an attempt to provide for his future widow, Tony completed five books that year…then didn’t die. He lived into his seventies and a second wife. He left behind a mountain of books, articles, reviews, movie and television scripts, symphonies and other musical compositions—more than a single life’s worth of art, beauty and laughter.
HALF close your eyelids, loosen your hair,
And dream about the great and their pride;
They have spoken against you everywhere,
But weigh this song with the great and their pride;
I made it out of a mouthful of air,
Their children’s children shall say they have lied.
Anthony Burgess was a writer’s writer.
Wednesday, November 20, 2002
I’ve been thinking lately about the nature of fame. Why do we connect so completely with people outside of our scope of experience—with rock and movie stars, newscasters, politicians? It’s easy to dismiss crushes on famous people as simple projection: we fill in imaginary details to round out what we know about a personality.
But why do we connect with some famous people despite what we know about them? Famous people who are clearly reprehensible can captivate us. There is a human impulse to find even figures like Sammy “the bull” Gravano charming, despite reality.
Beyond that, there are figures that lurk at the edge of our media consciousness, like distant quirky cousins at the “singles” table at a wedding. People who you know of, and on some gut-level, like, but who only register in your consciousness sporadically.
Michael des Barres is one of these people for me. I first became aware of Mr. des Barres on an episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati"—playing a Sex Pistols-style punk rocker that dressed in suits off-stage. Hilarity, of course, ensuing. He later filled-in for Robert Palmer when the short-lived Powerstation went on tour. He has since appeared in a number of dubious films.
I have been aware of Michael des Barres—even liked him for no substantial reason I can think of—for years. A few nights ago, he broke my heart. Michael is currently a bit player on the cloying and goofy My Guide to becoming a Rock Star—another stellar MTV offering. He plays the father of the proto-rock icon in question. (His mother is played by Shannon Tweed…I shit you not.) In the episode I saw, the young rocker asks his aging former rock star father if fame can just go away. Michael—wearing a pink bunny-suit, in a bizarre furry reference—says: “It did for me”. Heartrending.
We let people like Michael des Barres into our lives just enough to get them hooked on the possibility of our adoration, then our minute attention spans wander. Michael has been left to roam the hinterland of popular culture. Why do we worship some and cast others aside?
I know one thing will always be true:
My love for Kim—a Street Cents girl.
Monday, November 18, 2002
Greetings from the belly of the machine! I am writing to you today from the frontlines of the nameless war on creativity and intellectual stimulation—from the gray halls of Korporate Kulture—from my day job.
A week into my new job and I’m already wishing I could take a day off. The work itself is fine. I can do my job well. I have already received many pats and much ear scratching. I have been tossed small bones. “Then what’s the fucking problem?” —you might ask—“Were you not whining recently about needing a job?” You would be right to ask this. I may have even whined…I don’t recall.
The problem is: these people are too nice. There is camaraderie here and it frightens me. It might be pure paranoia. It might be years spent in evil corporations where ladder-climbing may or may not have involved actual backstabbing…with weapons. It might be that a number of negative experiences have beaten me down. Maybe I can no longer trust.
But just maybe, these people have been replaced by replicant androids—clever clockwork machines that are programmed to be perky. In my first week I received a card, signed by the entire company, welcoming me on-board. This is not normal workplace behaviour. Normal workplace behaviour is born out of a stew of indifference, hostility, ambition, sexual tension, apathy and greed. My coworkers smile and back-slap. There is pizza. But before you write me off as a completely paranoid malcontent, listen:
There is hushed talk of…team-building exercises…
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