is the author of nine previous books, including Lipstick Traces
, Mystery Train
, and The Dustbin of History
. He lives in Berkeley, California.
÷ ÷ ÷
Describe your latest project.
The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice: Through the moral and political rhetoric of John Winthrop, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, America explained itself to itself as a field of promises so vast they could only be betrayed. The attempt to keep the promises ? of community, liberty, justice, and equality, for all, because once let loose the genie could never be put back in the bottle ? in the face of their betrayal became the engine of American history and the template for our national story.
Once this was the stuff of political speech; today, the real story is pursued in art: as I tell my part of the story, in the work of Philip Roth, Allen Ginsberg, David Lynch, in the faces and gestures of the actors Bill Pullman and Sheryl Lee, in the music of Corin Tucker's band Heavens to Betsy and of David Thomas, for more than thirty years the face of the band Pere Ubu. It's not a story where anyone ends up where he or she started out.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
In 1975, Francis Coppola, then the new owner of the now long defunct San Francisco magazine City, demanded that as the TV columnist I review every movie on television every week: his friends wanted a guide, he said. This being pre-cable, it was doable, barely. I equipped myself with reference books on westerns, science fiction, spy movies, detective and crime movies, and spent one night a week deliriously writing about between 40 and 70 movies I hadn't seen ? plus a few I actually had. It was fun. It was a riot of self-referentiality. The game was to discover hidden patterns in the glut of everything from the 1930s B and C pictures the local minor channels had bought up for peanuts to classics to weird 1950s relationship dramas ? one week there might be a run on uncle-killings, either of or by. Two weeks later might find the same actor over the course of two decades lining out a passable autobiography ? not of himself, but of a composite character imprisoned in type-casting, yearning to breathe free.
The column was printed in the smallest possible type; I was sure no one was reading it; I've never encountered evidence to the contrary. I was writing in public and in secret at the same time. I could say anything ? and of course there was a chance that someday, someone, might notice, and... I have no idea. It might be the best writing I've ever done.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I'm a great believer in ambient research. Once I was talking with a woman who was writing a book on the Lindbergh kidnapping. I asked her if she'd been to the house where it took place ? or, supposing the house might have been torn down, to the place where it had been. No, why? she asked. Because there might be something there that would open doors for you that no one else would ever think to mention, I said. That's what I learned when I went to Zurich in 1983 to visit the site of the Cabaret Voltaire, where dada was proclaimed? invented? discovered? in 1916. It was on a strikingly twisted old-town street. Nearby was a plaque indicating the house where Lenin had lived before returning to Russia on the sealed train. The building that had housed the Cabaret Voltaire had a plaque too, with graffiti I tried to convince myself was interesting. But no one had thought to mention that a nightclub where the 20th century first announced itself was now the Teen and Twenty Disco.
Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Writers have been known to drink too much. Salman Rushdie was once accompanied by men with concealed weapons. But authors are not wild on tour. They are tired. Rock bands are not wild on tour either. They've just read Bataille's "The Notion of Expenditure" and want to try it out.
Name the best television series of all time.
The Twilight Zone. Today, if you catch re-re-reruns of the original series, the clouds of smoke emanating from creator and host Rod Serling seem more bizarre than anything that follows ? for a moment. Despite shows set in the future, or science-fiction or fantasy premises ? despite the shaggy-dog aesthetic of the series from first to last ? what the show was about was how the slightest alteration in ordinary life can call everything into question. We may be more attuned to this than ever before: now, when a computer fails to respond, it's not like a light failing to go on (bulb burnt out, fuse blown, power failure). Now we know that the possibilities for failure are infinite ? and that we may never find out what happened or why. In the twilight zone, you pulled a thread on your sweater ? and reversed the laws of time and space. Guy wakes up, goes about his business, nobody recognizes him, no one knows who he is. He's going mad, until finally everything falls back into place. And then he wakes up with a wife who greets him lovingly, and who he's never seen before. The whole series could have been called "No Way Back."
Do you read blogs? What are some of your favorites?
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
Nearly thirty years ago a reader wrote me a long letter about a column I'd written on the band New Order; it was the best music writing and the most daring, allusive, fast-moving critical writing of any kind I'd seen in ages. I asked the writer, Howard Hampton, why he was wasting his time writing to me when he could be publishing, and never knowing if anyone read him or not. He went at it; it was fascinating, worrying, and then thrilling to follow how long it took for him to trust himself and the page so that the freedom in his letters found its way into print. We've spoken on the phone a few times, met once, and corresponded ? through success and failure, illness and death, terrors and furies, three rotten presidents and one good one ? all that time.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old legend that died? That it changed your life, changed music history, hated the Beatles?"
?Neva Chonin on the second Sex Pistols reunion tour, San Francisco Chronicle, 5 September 2003
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Books Where Critics Discover America
(or make it up) (which amounts to the same thing):
I Lost It at the Movies by Pauline Kael
The Omni-Americans by Albert Murray
American Humor by Constance Rourke
Love Is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield
Suspects by David Thomson