With Jim Booth by Sam Smith October 15, 2002
I've known Jim Booth since August of 1975, when I walked into
my freshman English class at Ledford High School and ran headlong
into a teacher one of my friends had advised me to avoid (that's
the problem with being 14 - you don't yet know that your friends
are idiots). Booth was different - aggressively different - from
any teacher I had ever had, seen, heard about, or even imagined.
He was in his early 20s at the time, greatly admired the masters
of the British canon, and also played in a rock band (and a darned
good band, too, it turned out). And we read stuff that I actually
liked - Sherlock Holmes, for instance. I had never enjoyed an
English class before. This was all pretty edgy stuff for Ledford.
I've gotten to know Jim pretty
well through the years (at one point we were even roommates),
and was ecstatic to learn recently that these two novels he's
been sitting on for years, Morte d'Eden and The New
Southern Gentleman, had been accepted, finally, for publication.
I asked Jim if he could find the time to answer 22 questions
from the Pit, and he graciously complied.
1: Morte d'Eden has been
"finished" since the early '80s, but during that period
it has also undergone some major revision. Can you talk about
the process of taking what was originally a book of tightly related
short stories and evolving it into a more coherent novel?
JB: Like most writers, I didn't know I could write
novels until I got started. Most of us who begin writing fiction
think we might have enough for a short story, but almost none
of us go out of the gate thinking we have a novel coming out.
So I wrote a story, "The
Four Ladies," then another story, "Velma," then
another, and another, and pretty soon I had about 110 pages of
stories. I sent that off to a publisher way back then (in NYC,
no less) and they expressed interest if I could pull the stories
together (they all featured the same characters) and try to find
a theme or themes that ran through the stories. Oh, and they
needed another 80-90 pages or so of stories to make a manuscript
long enough to justify the cost of publishing.
I started writing and revising
and trying to tie together and I got there. I have to give some
credit to that original NY editor. He had lots of good ideas
and we had some rapport. It became a matter of looking at three
things (at least for me) - chronology, thematic significance,
symbolism. Luckily, I had high school in the South in the late
'60s, coming of age, and the Smith and Dan Rivers. So working
out the ties was pretty easy. I also had Winesburg, Ohio, In
Our Time, and This Side of Paradise, as well as Catcher in the
Rye. So I had some pretty spiffy models.
In a way, I guess I'd paraphrase
Dorothy Parker: "There is no new writing, only new rewriting."
Anyway I sent in the revised
manuscript and it went through readings and passed and it went
through editorial and passed and it got to marketing and it failed.
That period happened to be
the period of the shift to women writers writing about women
coming of age and a man writing about men coming of age was so
last decade - or so said marketing. We were also, then, on the
cusp of the takeover of publishing decisions by marketing departments,
which paralleled the takeover of publishers by media conglomerates
- and that means the "if it has some literary merit it won't
sell" mentality had arrived.
So there I was. I got to "final
vote" with Morte D'Eden four (4!) times. Each time it was
a marketing department that shot the book down.
Needless to say, I was a bit
So I kept plugging away, teaching,
writing, teaching writing, writing for magazines, etc., revising
and rewriting New Southern Gentleman (which only reached final
vote once - this had more to do with editors becoming trained
to spot "mid-list" [read "literary"] fiction
and reject it before going through the humiliation of having
their heads handed to them on plates in marketing meetings.
This is how we get books by
Barbara Bush's dog, Bill Clinton's cat, Ellen DeGeneres, Jerry
Seinfeld, and so forth.
So then the Internet arrived
and it became possible to find "little" publishers
and independent booksellers and so here I am, two books coming
out in about a six-month period. Except for the sales figures,
I feel like Stephen King.
2: The South is famous for
its post-bellum era fiction, but the new South you write about
is very different from the South of Faulkner, Welty, Wolfe and
O'Connor. What do you see as the dominant themes and "big
stories" of the new South in which your novels are set?
Jim Booth: Dominant themes?
Class and economic privilege, women's roles, power, rock and
roll (with its minions sex and drugs), male-female relations,
consumerism/McDonaldization, and something a friend once called
What aren't themes of this
novel? The themes of the writers you mentioned above - race,
religion, family, and The South (except as a myth that these
characters do lip service to but don't really, to quote Rhett
Butler, "give a damn" about).
Scarlett wouldn't recognize
it. Well, maybe she would in the psycho-socio-sexual behavior
of characters like Dan Deal, Alex Radford, Evelyn Daiches, and
Alicia Pauls from New Southern Gentleman.
Could I elaborate? Why, certainly.
This novel, as you know, is
satirical (I wonder if satire or romance are all one can write
about the South).
Dan and Alex act like "gentlemen,"
but they're not above one night stands, lying to get sex, and
all the other behaviors we'd associate with Boomer males (and
females, for that matter) no matter what region of America they
hail from. Role models/prototypes for these guys would more likely
be Mick Jagger or Sam Malone/Diane Chambers from Cheers rather
than Robert E. Lee or Andy Taylor/Helen Crump from The Andy Griffith
We've all heard social critics,
pundits, and gurus rail about the homogenization of American
culture by corporate forces like McDonald's, The Gap, etc. The
New Southern Gentleman takes place during the 1970's in the American
South. At one point in the novel Dan meets Evelyn at a party
and The Doobies are playing in the background. Later, when he's
trying to seduce his cousin Ramona, he puts Joni Mitchell on
the stereo. If the scenes were taking place anywhere else in
America rather than Winston-Salem, NC and Charlottesville, VA,
the music would have been the same. Rock and roll does as much
to homogenize as any other corporate or social force. Our lives
have sound tracks. That's how it is. Place is irrelevant. The
only reason Dan refers to the South is for social advantage -
as in his run-ins with the Yankee Jason Manetti.
Dan goes to church - he's an
Episcopalian (preferred church of Virginia gentry) - but his
religiosity (he regularly attends services, the novel tells us)
doesn't really affect his life - in one scene he skips the Christmas
Eve midnight service so that he can sit and brood over Evelyn.
Religion is about social image for Dan - if it has any relevance
to his life at all.
Race isn't an issue in this
novel because race is irrelevant to this group. It's the 1970's.
The sweeping social immigration from the Pacific Rim and Hispanic
America hasn't occurred yet. These are privileged, insulated
white people ripening in well funded hot houses of Southern white
privilege. Look at the schools characters attend - Wake Forest,
Duke, UVA, UNC - all schools where the paltry numbers of black
students (at least in this time period) are present to make up
the athletic teams.
Dan systematically and mercilessly
uses family when it brings him what he wants - whether that is
to get a great law clerking job or to be rid of a woman he's
lost interest in. He certainly is part of a Southern family -
with all those attendant horrors - but he's all about Dan. Evelyn
Daiches, of course, is even worse about her family.
The South as most people think
of it in America - and in the "most people" category
I put many Southerners - hasn't existed for nearly 30 years.
People still buy those shopworn images (that word again) of the
South because most Southerner writers are so elegiac by nature
and because myths are more entertaining than realities. This
book tour will spend more time at Barnes & Nobles and Borders
than in Susie May's Book Shop or Loretta's Southern Reader. And
it won't matter if it's Ames, Iowa or Macon, Georgia - B&N
and Borders will be the same. That's the South - that's America.
3: Eden, NC, your hometown
and the setting for Morte d'Eden, is only a few miles away from
Reidsville, which served as the basis for T.R. Pearson's wonderful
A Short History of a Small Place. Two great books, but two very
different books. Would you do a little compare and contrast between
what you and Pearson derived from that particular neck of the
JB: Tom Pearson's book is about capturing the past
- a la recherche du temps perdue, as Proust would say - and,
as you know, the book is digressive as hell (wonderfully so,
let me say), and the main character spends a lot of time listening
to Southern women (and men) spin stories about relatives, friends,
and neighbors. All kinds of funny, silly, eccentric stuff gets
revealed - but it's all the past - the South as it was. It's
a history, for heaven's sake. Family, religion, race relations,
the place - all that good Southern turf of Faulkner, Welty, Wolfe,
O'Connor, et al. - are central to that history. That elegiac
strain I've talked about. (I'm just getting ready to begin his
latest book The Gospel Hour - I'll let you know what I think
Morte d'Eden, on the other
hand, is subtitled "Tom Sawyer Meets The Rolling Stones."
That should be warning enough. It's a book about rock and roll
more than about The South - although the South is important -
it's a book about self more than family - although family is
important. Religion? Forget it. We're talking teenagers here.
Race? Kids on both sides act pretty stupid - but again, they're
teenagers. Boomer youth culture trying to manifest itself in
a little Southern town in the late 60s. The subtitle does the
But where I'd say Pearson and
I diverge most is that SHoaSP is about childhood and soaking
up what the elders say - you're a Southerner, Sam, you know what
I'm talking about - and MdE is about adolescence, specifically
late 1960s adolescence, when rock music and peer relationships
had become more of a communal force in the lives of kids than
anything the church, the school, their families, or the place
they lived said to them.
Kids listen to elders - teenagers
don't. SHOASP vs. MdE in six words.
4: Who do you see winning
the ACC this year?
JB: Duke, with challenges from Wake Forest and NC
State. If the Dukies are just too young (and they'll be very
young), I'll go with Wake. They've got talent and, finally, a
coach who's willing to let the horses run.
5: In many respects you
clearly are Jay Breeze, the central character in the (one assumes)
forthcoming Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of
Jay Breeze, Rock Star, and you perhaps have an even greater affection
for Charlie Beagle and Teddy Hatter, the stars of Morte d'Eden.
However, there's a lot less to like about Dan Deal and Alex Radford,
the well-off law students around whom you build The New Southern
Gentleman. Can you talk about the differences in writing a novel
featuring characters you're emotionally invested in as opposed
to one where there's a certain undercurrent of loathing toward
JB: You assume rightly. Jay Breeze should appear
in late 2003-early 2004. Probably the same publisher as MdE.
Yes, I love old Jay (and Teddy,
Mick, and Sid) and yes I love Charlie and Teddy even more. (You'll
grow to love Mick - he's in part based on you, Samuel.) [Ed.
Note: Coulda been worse - coulda been the drummer.]
Yes, they're like me, but none
of them is me. Remember, I got my undergraduate degree in English
at one of the old bastions of "New" Criticism, UNC-Greensboro.
I've forgotten more about the "intentional fallacy"
than most people will ever know.
I tend to think like Trollope.
Characters come to me like friends - no, more like family members;
you can pick friends, but you're stuck with family members -
and I just go along with them as recording secretary/biographer
as they live out their fictional lives. Maybe we have a sort
of Johnson/Boswell relationship.
Anyway, one of the things I
learned early (and that all writers must learn early if they're
to make anything worth reading) is that I ain't the character.
As Trollope once observed to someone who asked him why he "made"
one of his characters behave a certain way, "Madam, he did
just as Plantagenet Palliser would do. I merely noted it."
(Not a perfect quote, but close, and no I'm not looking it up,
it's my interview.) So, the character has to act as he/she is
going to, not as I want him/her to. Or the story won't work at
One last note before I actually
answer the real question within the question. You used the word
"stars" to refer to Charlie and Teddy in MdE. Good
analogy. Characters are like stars - you take them as they come,
easy or difficult to work with, and you try to get their best
stuff. Enough said.
Now, to Dan and Alex. Here
we get into the mistakes a writer can make when he thinks too
much. My premise, when I began NSG, was "What would The
Great Gatsby be like if told by Gatsby himself instead of Nick?"
Okay, maybe it's a crazy idea, but it's an interesting crazy
idea. That's all any writer is looking for.
So I wrote a 185-page manuscript. In first person. From Dan's
point of view.
I knew it didn't work. My profs at Albany knew it didn't work.
Dan knew it didn't work. I finally realized I didn't want to
romanticize Gatsby, I wanted to satirize him. That was a breakthrough
of sorts. That helped me realize that I needed some distance
from the character(s).
I resisted changing POV for a couple of years. I mean a rewrite
of 185 pages to change POV for the entire novel? Ouch. Then I
read somewhere that Tolstoy rewrote Anna Karenina nine (yes nine)
times. He even burned the first five drafts. As I mentioned earlier,
I dig Tolstoy.
So, I got to work and rewrote about 50 pages with Alex as observer-narrator.
An unreliable narrator - like in Ford Maddox Ford's The Good
Soldier or Cynthia Rich's (Adrienne's sister) story "My
Sort of worked. But I had a disk drive die (this was back in
the old KayPro word processor days, when stuff like that happened
way too frequently). So I lost the entire 50 pages. Poof. Gone.
I did nothing but mope for almost a year.
Through all this time, I wrote to several people. My old prof
at Albany, Gene Mirabelli. The late Walker Percy. The late Tom
Walters. JD Salinger (really, I did). Santa. They all (except
Salinger, who doesn't exist) wrote back and said the same thing
- "can't be 1st person."
Well, I knew that.
Then, as I was teaching an American lit class and we were doing
Hawthorne, it hit me. For the satire I wanted, and the distance
to let the reader see a dislikeable so and so like Dan Deal,
3rd person omniscient was the only way to go.
So I rewrote the whole damned thing again. In 3rd person omniscient,
although with some shifting viewpoints (did I mention I also
love Katherine Anne Porter?) for key scenes.
And it worked. People can see Dan for the jerk he is, and they
don't see Dan as me - extraordinarily important for the right
reader reaction. That loathing you speak of gets aimed at Dan,
not me. And, because I'm distanced, I can suggest that loathing
is okay without compromising the character, narration, or the
What a question! Like my doctoral orals. BTW, did I pass?
6: Dan and Alex are descendants of a proud heritage - both of
them come from prominent old Southern families, although both
families have fallen into decline. As you noted, though, their
"gentleman" act is little more than that - an act.
Having attended Wake Forest, where these characters are pursuing
their law degrees, and having further had the privilege of living
next door to the "Old South" fraternity for three years,
I know precisely where you're coming from. But what I wonder
is this: is it fair to romanticize that "pure" Southern
heritage (which is unavoidable when we begin writing about those
who taint it) when in fact even the virtues of the Old South
(courtliness, respect for women, noblesse oblige) were founded
upon racial, gender, and class inequity? This looks like a trap,
and I'm wondering how you go about dealing with not just the
realities of the fallen gentleman, but the social truth about
JB: Fair or not, the nation's (indeed, the world's) romanticization
of the South and the concept of "Southern Honor" is,
like the War of Northern Aggression, 1861-65, past arguing. Those
who don't think the South is Mayberry think it's Tara. What you're
asking for here seems to me to imply that it's my responsibility
to engage in revisionist history and I know you better than to
believe that's what you meant. A phrase like "social truth
about his ancestors" strikes me as PC rot.
This novel is satire, pure and simple. Dan is an object of scorn
to readers. My response to those who scorn him? "Good read."
I'm reminded of "Janeites," the groups of women who
for years misread (still do, in England, especially) Jane Austen
thinking she was writing "Regency Romances" when she
was writing biting novels of manners about the social suffocation
women of her class (that she indeed chose rather than marry without
love) faced if they didn't get husbands - or got anyway if they
got the wrong husbands.
Anyone who thinks that son-of-a-bitch Dan Deal is a romanticization
or compliment of any kind to the "Old South" is giving
NSG a petulant knee-jerk social-critical school reading (think
Marxist, those of you without the PhDs in Humanities fields).
I think I do a pretty good job of debunking the "myth"
of "Southern Honor" (thank you Bertram Wyatt-Brown,
William Robert Taylor, Rollin Osterweiss, Wilbur J. Cash, et
al) in the first chapter of the novel. Therefore, I don't see
myself as "romanticizing" anyone's heritage. That heritage
stuff is all pretty dubious, methinks. And Dan's (and Alex's,
to a lesser extent) behavior is anything but gentlemanly, given
the definition you yourself offer in the question.
7: Most of us have musical guilty pleasures, things we like but
aren't necessarily proud of. Is there anything in your CD collection
that you hope people won't notice when they come over?
JB: As a British Invasion fan, I have a couple of things - one
is The Hollies Greatest Hits, pretty chirpy stuff for most folks
past the age of 15, but I still love it. I still listen pretty
regularly to The Dave Clark Five, The Searchers, or Billy Jay
Kramer and the Dakotas whenever they come on oldies radio. All
pretty fizzy stuff from the BI period.
In a similar vein, I regularly listen to Greatest Hits of the
Loving Spoonful. [Ed. Note: Ptooi!] I also listen to the Buckinghams,
another of the American groups from the period.
Oh. I love Stephen Bishop. I don't know why. I'm getting help.
Other than that, with the exception that I buy (and listen to)
about everything Macca (Sir Paul) puts out, good, bad, indifferent,
I'm pretty clean.
8: You spent several (frequently hellish) years of your life
teaching at a small Southern school for girls, and a lot happened
to you during those years. Looking back, what advice would you
give to somebody getting ready to take the same kind of job you
once had at Salem College? And should we be expecting a novel
someday that draws from that experience?
JB: Okay, you spent some years there, too. What advice would
you give? [Ed. Note: Run like hell.]
Run...no that's not far enough, no, run farther than that, no
farther than that...I think your readers can see a trend developing
The novel is in notes - look for it in about 2-3 years. The title
will be The Salem Witch Trials. I think that explains my position
(I would only add that I have some former students who are dear
friends from those days, and to them I say, "When the novel
comes out - duck!")
9: What are the last three CDs you bought? Thumbs up or thumbs
JB: Last three? Hmm...in no particular order, they are as follows:
1. Bigger-Than-You - Trash, Goat Boy Records, 2002. Okay, so
this is my label and I didn't have to pay for it. And yes, both
my sons play in this band. But, and I say this as someone who
knows the business, it's a good record. They'll learn more and
make great records. Then I can drive their limo, like the dad
in "Cover of the Rolling Stone."
2. Spirit - Greatest Hits - Late 60s California band that I really
dug that didn't become as popular as the Airplane or Doors or
Dead. Really, really cool. Lead guitar player was a guy named
Randy California who played with Hendrix's group when he was
16. Hendrix gave him the "California" moniker. Maybe
readers know "Nature's Way" or "Got a Line on
You." But there's much more to the band. Check them out.
Especially a tune called "Dark-Eyed Woman" that my
own band used to cover back in the misty days of rock.
3. George Harrison - Best Of - I bought this off a rack in a
drug store in those numb days in December when I was trying to
come to terms with the reality that two of my big brothers were
now gone. It hasn't left my CD player yet. I just love those
Fabs. I'm trying to find one of the limited edition releases
of All Things Must Pass, but haven't yet. When I do, this'll
get a rest.
Thumbs up on all three.
10: You've had these two novels in stage of completion for years
- in the case of Morte d'Eden, it's literally been over 20 years.
And now all of a sudden, they both get published at once. A lot
of people would have given up. What kept you going?
JB: Stupidity. Determination. Belief in self and talent. Crankiness.
My kids. Occasionally booze, chicks, and rock and roll. Occasional
kind words from friends (BTW, thanks, man). Southern stubbornness.
11: Let's talk for a second about Charlie Beagle and Teddy Hatter.
They're the central figures in MdE, as well as the Jay Breeze
book you're currently working on. Unless I miss my guess, we'll
probably hear from them again, huh?
JB: Yeah, well, they're great characters. Charlie's my alter
ego, Teddy's modeled on one of my best friends, Ralph Dodge on
another, Mick Norris and Sid Vegas (from Jay Breeze) on still
others. The message here, dear readers, is, if you long to be
turned into a literary character, make friends with The Jim.
Morte d'Eden is about Charlie and Teddy coming of age. Readers
will be able to see that Teddy's going to become a musician,
Charlie a writer, Ralph a pilot/astronaut. Here you get to see
them as kids. (In another book I'm working on, you actually get
to see some of the characters from MdE as little kids).
I guess I get it from Faulkner - or Wolfe. I have this cast of
characters, they have their world, and I like writing about them
and it because it lets me talk about stuff I want to talk about
in terms of a small world - which is what most of us, like it
or not, live in. It's the old microcosm/macrocosm thing.
I think a lot of the time the reason many readers react violently
to Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon is that they're trying for the
epic in what is really a small world. I don't think we think
in epic terms anymore - except perhaps in science fiction.
One last thing - Charlie and Teddy will also appear in The Salem
Witch Trials. They're friends with the main character, a professor
named Wentworth Carroll, who's also from Eden.
Maybe it makes sense this way: we all came "out of Eden"
in one way or another, so it makes sense that we'd harken back
to it even if, as Wolfe observed we can't go home again.
12: In order, what are the five best barbecue restaurants in
JB: In no particular order (you're not the boss of me):
· Lexington BBQ Center #1 - Lexington, NC
· Southern BBQ - Lexington, NC
· Fuzzy's BBQ - Madison, NC
· Short Sugar's BBQ - Reidsville, NC
· Pig Pickin's - Winston-Salem, NC
· Stamey's BBQ - Greensboro, NC
· Wilber's BBQ - Goldsboro, NC
Honorable mention and not from the Carolinas - the BBQ beef and
chicken at the Wyoming Conference on English picnics - hope they
still have them.
Yes, there are more than five. Sue me.
13: What non-writers have most influenced your writing?
JB: Again, no particular order:
· John Lennon - (well, actually he is a writer)
· Francois Truffaut - film director
· Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - composer
· Winslow Homer - painter
· Jay Ward - cartoonist, creator of Bullwinkle
14: What do you think is the greatest make-out album ever recorded?
JB: Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon.
15: You've had some lean years as a college and university instructor,
and you're not alone. What has caused you to stay in the academy
when so many others have walked away in favor of the corporate
sector and financial solvency?
JB: I assume this is a multiple choice question. Since you forgot
to give me the choices, I'll offer them for your readers' viewing
A) I'm above that money crap
B) My bulb burns at a brightness somewhere between Sponge Bob
Square Pants and Patrick Star
C) I don't know how to do anything else
D) I'm going to keep doing this until I get it right
E) To piss off ex-wives
F) All of the above
G) None of the above
16: What was the first concert you ever saw? What are the three
best concerts you ever saw?
JB: First Concert - Rolling Stones, 1966, Greensboro, NC.
1. The Who - 1976, Greensboro, NC
2. Paul Simon - 1990, Chapel Hill, NC [Ed. Note: I was at this
show. It was good, but not that good. Remember the damned self-indulgent
12-minute sax jack-off solo we were subjected to? That alone
is worth a full letter grade deduction. Ahem, sorry, this is
3. Jimi Hendrix - 1969, Charlotte, NC (Chicago opened)
4. The Monkees - 1967, Greensboro, NC (Hendrix opened)
BTW, I'm going to see Macca on Mon, Oct. 7, 2002. I've never
seen a Beatle before.
Yes, there are 4. Sue me some more.
17: If they were to make a TV mini-series based on your life,
who would you want to play you?
JB: Brad Pitt or Steve Buscemi. Flip a coin.
18: What five writers have exerted the most impact on your life
JB: Lovely question. You know the drill - Hemingway, Fitzgerald,
Salinger, Jane Austen (yes, that's right!), Twain.
Poets, too? Oh, you want poets, too? Well, all righty, then -
Yeats, Thomas, Frost, Donne, and The Big Guy who ain't Milton.
These are terribly unreliable answers because I have a long-running
appreciation of Sterne and Tolstoy and of French symbolist poets
like Mallarme, Verlaine, and Baudelaire.
I also like Norman Maclean and my son Joshua's writing a lot,
And these days, given the world's situation and the fact I have
two sons - one 18, one nearly 20 - I'm reading Wilfred Owen,
Siegfried Sassoon, and Henry Reed. I just wish Dubya would. Or
19: What is the smartest thing you've ever done in your life,
and the dumbest?
JB: Smartest: Continuing to try to get my work published.
A)Trying to ski a black diamond snow bowl at Big Mountain, MT
on what I knew was a malfunctioning binding
B) Continuing to try to get my work published
20: The thing that struck me about the life of Jay Breeze was
the whole psychology of stardom - he was bigger than life, he
was okay with that, and he lives in a world where everybody else
is okay with it, too. But we now live in an age of the anti-star,
where even the biggest stars in rock are often very suspicious
of the whole concept of celebrity. In fact, a lot of people (including
the musicians themselves) are offended by the kind of swagger
we see in Breeze. What do yo make of this shift, and what would
you say to readers who may be put off by what they see as arrogance
on the part of your central character?
JB: "Back in the day," as my sons would say, being
a rock star meant something. It meant something to be a Beatle,
a Rolling Stone, even a Monkee (in the latter case not anything
flattering, but something). Now, in a media-drenched world where
Warhol's words seem to get truer by the nanosecond, it doesn't
mean much to be a rock star (as it doesn't mean much to be a
"star" of any kind).
Remember, all this applies to the "classic" period
of rock (roughly 1965 - about the time of Rubber Soul - until
some time in 1977 - depending on whether you want to date this
from Never Mind the Bollocks or My Aim Is True). Remember, too,
that The Lost Generation, the band Jay Breeze belongs to, came
to fame late in this period. Post-Ziggy but pre-Ramones. Jay
carries the biases of that period with him.
Let's wax intellectual for a moment or two.
Fredric Jameson calls the Rolling Stones and Beatles "high
modernist" because, he argues, they represent the modernist
model of the alienated figure in revolt against society, a model
developed in the Romantic period and, while lionized then, marginalized
during the 20th century. Now, if we look at the Fabs and Stones
as Postmodern in that they obliterate (artificially created,
admittedly) distinctions between "high" and "low"
art but Modernist if we look at their behavior by itself (alienation,
yadda yadda), okay, I buy it. Of course he doesn't say this,
so he's got it wrong. If he were talking about Wallace Stevens,
I'd grant his point. But he isn't. He's talking about the Stones
and the Beatles, who have the imprimatur of "stardom"
and the power of mass media and who use it to send "messages,"
raise "issues," explore "themes," and posit
"ideas" - the same thing "serious" artists
would do - via the work that made them stars - music, a form
of art, but pop music, a "low" form of art. Except
that the reaction of critics "high" and "low"
is the "duck" reaction. If it looks, flies, swims,
and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck, right? Well, right.
And if "high" and "low" critics are treating
the music of the Mick and Keith and John and Paul the same way,
then where the hell are we?
[Ed. Note: Jameson was so completely wrong on this whole issue
that his comments are embarrassing to read. Even if I grant the
way he frames the pre-Modern, High Modern and Posmodern for the
sake of his argument, he's wrong. The Fabs and Stones would have
been pre-Modern in his model, even though they're clearly Postmodern
in real life, which he'd realize if he actually studied popular
music a little instead of sneering down upon it from on high.
This is why self-indulgent jackasses should stick to subjects
they know at least a little about. But again, it's not my interview,
so I'll shut up now.]
Well, we have two forces at work. Media, which grants celebrity
and makes for "popular" or "low" adulation,
and criticism, which grants "authenticity" and makes
for "serious" or "high" adulation. And the
Beatles and Stones, among others, garner both.
Thus, to become a rock star in this period means both a) you're
going to be a media-created celebrity, and, b) you're going to
be taken seriously as an artist (whether you should be or not).
With this kind of power given to you at, say, age 21-23, is it
any wonder that one would see oneself as a giant striding the
It's only post-Grunge that we see the model created by the Beatles
and Stones (and carried to its wickedest excess by Led Zeppelin)
successfully rejected for the punky populism of Kurt Cobain,
Eddie Vedder, Beck, et al, ad nauseum. In pace requiescat.
The interesting characters are the ones caught between the two
movements - Tom Petty, Sting, Bono, Michael Stipe, Costello,
Joe Jackson. Guys not sure whether they are "Giants in the
Earth" or shams of some sort trying to make something good
out of something inherently false. Because much of the eighties
is about debunking the very premises that were used to measure
the Beatles and Stones. Look at how embracing the "classic"
model paid off for Petty, Sting, Bono, and Stipe and rejecting
it led to problems for Elvis, Jackson, Graham Parker, et. al.
It's the whole Cultural Studies critical phenomenon that purports
to "raise" popular culture to the level of "high"
culture (according to these "scholars") and only muddies
the water unmercifully. By reducing what the Beatles and Stones
do to anthropological artifacts to be measured according to "production
in use" and "fan behavior" criteria, everything
becomes an economic/socio-political issue, which suits these
folks fine because they're only interested in positing Marxist
political hypotheses about all this anyway.
Remember, it's Simon Frith who points out that Peter Townshend's
tragedy is that he could never reconcile his rock star celebrity
with his artist's ethos.
That's the same dilemma Jay feels. It's what makes him (in the
book - it's more a pastiche than a novel [how Postmodern!]) reject
his stardom and go back to school to finish his BA in English
and start to work on his MFA in writing.
But, of course, it's very hard to do that when you're recognized
and fawned over (there's a great little song by Stephen Bishop,
my guilty pleasure, on this very topic) everywhere you go for
the work you're trying to reject. Look at Townshend's struggles
with this very thing.
If readers accept that Jay is a "dinosaur" - something
he rails about at different points in the book - then they should
be able to understand and accept his behavior. Look at how Pearl
Jam fawned over Neil Young or that everyone fawns over Sir Paul
these days. Oppose that to Elvis Costello's "debunking"
of Paul during their work together in the '80s. Look at all the
encomia recordings made by various artists of work by everyone
from Led Zeppelin to the Eagles to the Kingsmen. (Remember that
"Louie, Louie" tribute album?) Or the heartfelt tributes
to Freddie Mercury by everyone from Axl Rose to George Michael.
In other words, once a star, always a star, what I say (to paraphrase
Finally, there's the iconography thing. Jay and company, like
their rock star brethren (women are almost unknown in classic
rock) are images - throughout the book, Jay makes reference to
how he and the other guys are dressed as a way of differentiating
them from their social situation. That was a distinguishing characteristic
of classic rock - whether it was the Beatle haircut, Bowie's
makeup, or Elton's outfits, there's an image thing that becomes
iconographic - and whether it gets sliced and diced by Cultural
Studies critics or sliced and diced by Madison Avenue, the iconography
is still there. That haircut is a Beatle haircut to any generation,
Jay's an "Old School" rock star. That's all. I think
readers can handle that.
21: I love "The Balcony Scene," the Jay Breeze story
that was recently published in storySouth. Can you tell us where
that idea came from, and maybe comment more generally about how
you generate characters and events for your stories?
First, thanks for the plug for both my story and for storySouth,
an excellent journal. My story is currently avavilable in The
storySouth Reader which can be accessed at www.storysouth.com.
(Okay, end of shameless promotion).
"The Balcony Scene" came from two places. First, it
came from time I have spent in New Orleans in 1968 and 1992 under
very different sets of circumstances. Second, it came from my
own experience on tour with my band Backyard Tea in the early
'70s. Okay, so we have New Orleans, rock stars on tour, plenty
of booze, college girls. What could happen?
22: If you had a magic wand, would you trade places with Jay
Well, he's dead and Charlie Beagle has tried to put together
things he's written. That's the premise of the book. So, no,
I don't want to be dead.
Now, as for the rock star part, I'd swap in a New York minute.
For me rock and roll is where it's at.
This article has been reprinted with the kind permission of its
© The Lullaby Pit. All text, images, & concepts copyright
2002 by Samuel R. Smith except where indicated. All rights reserved.