Books Acquired: Hubner, John and Lindsey Gruson, Monkey on a Stick
Progress Made: Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman Stefan Zweig, Messages from a Lost World
Books Finished: Hubner, John and Lindsey Gruson, Monkey on a Stick
I was on the road a lot this month, and when traveling it’s important to have something to read that’s absorbing without being too intellectually demanding. In this case that role was filled by Monkey on a Stick, which I picked up from a free library box in… Alameda, I think it was?
In my spin through the obituaries this week I came across one that began like this:
Irma Capece Minutolo, a Neapolitan beauty queen and opera singer whose relationship with the exiled Egyptian king and world-renowned hedonist Farouk I became fodder for gossip columnists around the world, died on June 7 at her home in Rome. She was 87.
This brought me up short because quite frankly it had never occurred to me that there was a world class of hedonism to aspire to. I’ve been a hedonist all my life, but I doubt I’ve ever risen above the local, or at best regional, level.
What does it take, I wonder, to achieve world-renowned hedonism? Surely a shit-ton of money helps. Beyond that, one must of course have the desire to indulge oneself to the highest degree, as well as the physical stamina to do so.
Sadly, I think that I will never reach planetary status because at 55, my capacity for hedonism is no longer what it was. Even were I to acquire great wealth — and to be honest these days I am already in a position to indulge most of my whims, which are trifling things by and large — the necessary appetite is simply not there.
This is probably a good thing. Scrolling down, one sees that Farouk “died of a heart attack at 45 in 1965, during a midnight meal at a French restaurant in Rome.” Which is not how you want to go out, unless maybe it is? Maybe he was eating an ortolan while getting a blowjob, and died a happy man who never suffered the indignity of decline. We’ll never know.
But on balance I guess I’m happy with my provincial hedonism. Most likely I will never be, like Farouk, the primary character in someone else’s obituary. Such is life.
In the year 2000, having been disappointed in hours… (I find myself liking it more now), I wasn’t paying much attention to what David Bowie was doing. Had I been, or were I a BowieNet user, I might have known that he was working on an album of self-covers that he said was “not so much a Pin Ups II as an Up Date I,” but which never saw the light of day.
In was only after Heathen came along and rekindled my interest that I learned of the existence of Toy. For many years after that it was a tantalizing mystery — a few of the songs were released as B-sides or bonus tracks, and while none of them were that great, many of us held out hope that Toy was the Great Lost Bowie album.
Which it wasn’t. When the full album was finally leaked online, sometime in the 2010s, it became clear that not releasing it had been the right decision. It has some good moments — the two new compositions that start the album, “Uncle Floyd” and “Afraid,” are keepers and would be repurposed for Heathen — but on the whole it’s a snoozefest. All the remade songs are squeezed through the same mid-tempo, AOR-slick filter, stripping them of whatever ramshackle charm they may have had in the first place.
I’ve got the summertime blues pretty bad right now, as Arcata remains cloaked in gray drear for what seems like the 37th straight day. Which is perfectly normal and predictable weather for this time of year in this part of the world, and a person of stronger character would not be bothered by it at all. But I am weak and need the occasional bit of sun to function properly.
At times like these, one remedy that I reach for is Stephen Malkmus’s song “Loud Cloud Crowd”:
“From eternal gray,” Steve sings, “fantastic times await.” This too shall pass; we all know it, but sometimes you have to hear it said out loud.
The rest of the lyrics are classically Malkmusian in their opacity, but the overall sense is of adversity overcome, of demons banished. I feel better after it than before it, and surely that’s what we have music for in the first place.
Following on the heels of “New Angels of Promise,” “Brilliant Adventure” is another callback to “Heroes” — specifically “Moss Garden,” one of the instrumentals on the B side.
Both use the Japanese instrument the koto, but whereas “Moss” is a fully realized piece (if not a “song,” exactly), “Brilliant” is more of a sketch — a little palate cleanser for the album closer, “The Dreamers.”
This is a perplexing choice for a finale. It doesn’t sound like a climax, whereas “If I’m Dreaming My Life” did — swapping their places in the running order (or leaving “The Dreamers” out entirely, while promoting “If I’m Dreaming” to last place) would have made a lot more sense, if you ask me.
But David felt differently. He must have thought a lot of “The Dreamers” to put it at the end, but I find it a hard song to warm up to. It starts promisingly, with a shuffling electronic rhythm and series of booming three-note sequences that promise more than the song is going to deliver. But a little more than 30 seconds in, it settles into a sludgy mid-tempo groove that quickly becomes monotonous. By the time its five-plus minutes are up, you’re ready for the album to be over.
True, some spirits are invoked along the way. The use of the word “dreamer” in a rock’n’roll song cannot help but recall Lennon… but here the dreamer is finally, at the end of it all, the only one.
“So it goes” is Vonnegut, telling us that someone has died. So it goes.
“Shallow man” invokes David’s own song “Shadow Man,” a very early song that he never officially released but would revisit on his next album, Toy (also never officially released). That’s where this thread is heading next.